“Last year, I much enjoyed a trip with
Maris Freighter Cruises on the

Grande Mediterraneo
from the Mediterranean to North Sea.

March 2009

      It has been said that ‘the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page’. Since retirement in 1989, I have been fortunate to experience many travels, visiting numerous countries on four continents. Some may be fascinated to learn these journeys have largely been by bicycle; accordingly it will come as no surprise that last year I decided on a less frenetic medium of travel, namely a journey by sea on one of the many freighter cruises plying the world’s sea lanes. In my case, this was an Italian car ferry operating between the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. Being a landlubber at heart, such a voyage appealed to me as something different, offering many interesting port calls, but still with reasonably short interludes at sea.
      My voyage commenced at Southampton, England with the first sector to Salerno, Italy being the longest uninterrupted period of sailing (6 days).

      Our passenger list comprised four Britons, one American and myself - an Australian/Canadian. Subsequently, two more Canadians and Brits joined us in the Mediterranean.
      Before delving into the actual journey, I would like to suggest some advice for prospective freighter travelers, the first of which is ‘expect the unexpected’. For example, changes in schedule will often occur due to port congestion, last minute cargo demands, national and religious holidays, harbour pilot availability, and even weather conditions. Thus travelers operating on tight schedules for subsequent travel may need to closely consider their options. However, I personally feel that, time permitting, delays or rescheduling can enhance a voyage by offering a certain unexpected sense of ‘intrigue’ or excitement to a trip.
      Let me highlight a few of the experiences on my particular journey. The first major plus was the prevalence of fine weather. At times in the Mediterranean, the sea was like glass, with fine clear skies and warm sunny days offering excellent deck conditions for passengers. Later, even the North Sea/Skagerrak behaved calmly with mostly light sea breezes; although the air there was cool (mid-October at 58 degrees north) the freshness was invigorating.
      Considering port calls, although there were one or two disappointments (notably shortage of port time in Alexandria, Egypt and Izmir, Turkey) various other stops along the way offered us interesting time ashore. Some of the historic sites visited included the Acropolis/Parthenon in Greece, Jerusalem and Bethlehem in Israel, and other very enjoyable shore outings to Salerno/Savona in Italy plus Cork in Ireland and Bristol in England.

Sailing from Salerno,
with Vezuvius in the background
      Two memorable shipboard ‘encounters’ were the smoking Sicilian volcano Mt. Etna seen from the Strait of Messina and a romantic view of Capri, Naples and Mt Vesuvius (flooded by moonlight) as we sailed north from Salerno. I also recall with some mirth how we were ‘redirected’ – complete with siren, by a small high powered Turkish navy boat when many of their large vessels were sailing by in line off the port of Izmir.

      There were so many other comments which could be made about the trip, particularly the ability to see (albeit briefly) other localized attractions which one might never experience as a ‘package’ on strictly passenger voyages. Even watching the port activities was fascinating - for example the shore workers conveying the huge mobile cranes and containers about the docks, plus the large numbers and types of cars coming and going on our rear entry ramp. Even the raising and lowering of the ramp itself was a treat, especially when it meant shore leave for us passengers!
      So, if you want to experience a voyage with a difference, consider freighter cruising. Of course, not everything may be to your complete satisfaction. For example, do not expect the crew to cater to your every whim. These are working ships, and passengers are largely along for the ride, so to speak, and should be prepared to make their own good entertainment. Meals may not always be to your complete taste, as crew diets come first (thus our good natured nit-picking about the excessive pasta on our trip). If you don’t like lots of reading, card playing, or small passenger contingents, then this may not be for you. Frankly, however, I thoroughly enjoyed this trip, and certainly will consider another freighter voyage in the future.

Portofino, near Savona, Italy

Flexibility is the Key to Cruising on Freighters

November 2007

Reprinted with permission
of the author, Cecil Scaglione,
a San Diego writer
      “Weather had sealed our 51,000-ton roll on-roll off freighter, the Grimaldi Line’s Grande Ellade, in port overnight. We were behind schedule and uncertain what our next stop would be. We were never sure of what, when and how long any stop would be during our 10,000-mile roundtrip voyage out of southern England’s bustling port of Southampton.

      When we boarded the vessel to begin our five-week journey, we learned that our first stop, Rome, was cancelled. We were told the next morning that our first landfall would be Valencia, on Spain’s Costa Blanca. That drove home the primary rule of our freighter trip: Be flexible.
      We spent several hours in each of the 16 cities and towns where temperatures varied from 100° Fahrenheit (38° C) to below freezing.
      Our first test on our second day out. The ship and its cargo of some 4,500 vehicles, a couple of dozen officers and crewman, and eight passengers bounced around the edge of an Atlantic tempest as we crossed the Bay of Biscay. ‘We hit bottom several times’ complained my wife, Bev. ‘I didn’t know there were so many potholes in the sea.’

      The Ellade’s cruising speed of 20 knots/hour got us to Valencia on our fourth day out of England. Several crewmen gave the Spanish city, home to what is believed to be the chalice Jesus and the Apostles used at the Last Supper, their highest praise: ‘Nice City.’
      We split up into two parties. Lou and Jean, my brother and his wife from Toronto, joined us in one cab. Jack and Sally Beaton and Bob and Lynne Blount, all from Canada, took another. We agreed to meet our drivers at a prearranged place and time, a practice we pursued in most ports, to return to the ship. After a quick tour of the sights, smells and sounds around the main plaza dominated by the cathedral’s octagonal bell tower, we relaxed over brunch in a small cafe nestled in a nearby market.

      Our confidence soared at our next stop when we walked from the docks into Salerno, the largest city on the Amalfi coast.
      With a second visit scheduled for this city, once a major Allied stepping stone during the World War II invasion of Europe, and reservations at a seaside restaurant cell-phoned by the ship’s cook, Salvatore Punzo, we made notes over lunch of what we intended to do when we return in 10 days.

      That evening, we sipped espresso on the Ellade’s bridge with the master, Captain Michele Siniscalchi, as we skimmed atop the silky sea into the two-mile wide mouth of the Strait of Messina separating Sicily from Italy’s mainland.
      It took the better part of the next day to slip through the 400 Greek Islands - actually, 100 of them are Turkish - before docking at the Athenian port of Piraeus.

      We walked to a nearby bus stop, got directions to the central agora (marketplace) and clambered aboard a bus headed that way. After our cameras captured some of the local customs and culture, we took a taxi for 3.5 euros - cabs are very inexpensive in Greece - to the Athen’s abutting Microlimano neighborhood. We climbed a small hill for a panoramic view of the Acropolis and Parthenon before picking out a waterfront bistro for lunch.

      Conversation centered on the benefits of this boat trip. The low cost - our fare for five weeks was 1,551 euros each - topped the list. The facilities ranked almost as highly. Fellow passenger, British Columbian Bob, said: ‘This is the biggest cabin we have ever had, and that includes several cruise ships.’ Next was the ease of getting off and on the ship in each port without having to battle passels of other passengers.
      The following day we were in Izmir, near Turkey’s ancient archeological city of Ephesus. We opted to look and loiter around the modern center of the town.

      With only a few hours in Alexandria, we climbed into two taxis for a quick tour of some sites we never got to see because the two drivers extemporized and took us to other sites. The hair-raising drive itself was worth the money for even the most avid carnival-ride junky. The white lines on the roads seem to be for decorative purposes only.
      Our visit to Limasol on the Greek’s south coast of Cyprus was an acute contrast. We hopped a bus for an 80-cent, 15-minute ride into town and had all day to meander around the market, mosque and medieval museum in the Byzantine castle where, according to tradition, Richard the Lionheart married Berengaria of Navarre and crowned her Queen of England in 1191.
      We were awakened the following morning by the rumbling anchor chain and spent the day rolling gently among a dozen or so other ships awaiting the Israeli port of Ashdod to reopen at sundown. We arrived on the Sabbath, when the whole country shuts down. ‘It’s just like Sunday in Italy’, said chief engineer Antonino Esposito.
      It gave us the day to do laundry, trim hair, manicure hands and/or feet, and lounge in the sun on deck chairs. Other shipboard pastimes included writing Christmas cards or knitting afghans while listening to the music from CDs, watching movies or checking the Milky Way and counting the shooting stars. And we raided the kitchen for tidbits and sipped libations purchased from the cook. Wine was served with lunch and dinner. Meals were served at 7:30am, 11am and 6pm. Those hours and the periods in ports became the only important markers as time lost all meaning.

      We arranged, through the Grimaldi agent, for a 10-passenger bus and guide to take all of us for a tour of Jerusalem. It was a bit difficult to feel the spirit in the Holy City because of our haste, the clamor and commercialism, and the packs of pilgrims pushing and prodding their way through the narrow streets and archways.
      A side trip to Bethlehem on a nearby hill was scrapped by the lack of time and the need to change vehicles, guide and driver because our Israeli team was not allowed into the West Bank city that is controlled by Christian Palestinians. Besides, dinner on board, prepared a la Napolitano by Salvatore, sounded just as appealing as any we would have found ashore. Pasta in all its modes, calamary, thinly sliced beef, assorted cheeses, gelato, roast chicken, fresh fish and pizza were only a few of entrees. Steward Milen Slavov capped every meal with a steaming espresso or cappuccino.

      With all day in Salerno the second time, we got to see more of the town, including the cathedral that houses the bones of St. Matthew and the Norman castle straddling a rocky outcropping 900 feet atop the town.
      Amalfi coast offers some of the most beautiful village and ocean views in all of Europe, but the views from the town of Ravello - perched above the gulf of Salerno - feel like a shortcut to paradise.
      We sailed by the candy-like lights of the Amalfi coast that mellow Mediterranean evening before pointing north to Savona. It was late afternoon when we slid into an Italian Riviera town to berth overnight.

      Two days after coasting by the French Riviera, we sailed by the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) and on to Setubal, our last warm-weather stop. We strolled along tailored terrazzo streets in this Portuguese town and picked up some pharmacy needs for Salvatore. Mr. Jack got a haircut. Lou tracked down an automated teller machine for more funds. And we had a beer in a MacDonald’s with third officer Antonio Auceli and cadet Michele Cesaro.

      The next night we squeezed our way through the lock that protects the British port of Bristol from one of the highest tides in the world, second only to the Bay of Fundy. The lock is 18 meters high to seal off the harbor from the 14-meter tide.
      Alan, our cabdriver, said a local activity involves ‘surfing the Severn’. Youngsters head to the nearby Severn River to catch the tidal bore that rolls upriver when the sea surges.
      A little-known historical attraction is a replica of the Matthew, the square-rigged caravel John Cabot sailed to Newfoundland in 1497. There is also a life-size bronze statue downtown of Cary Grant, who was named Archie Leech when he was born here.

      It was a brief overnight trip from Cork in southern Ireland, where Bev remarked ‘The Emerald Isle is really emerald.’ Our driver John Carroll explained it’s because ‘we get rain seven days a week.’
      The Ellade’s foghorn awakened us the next day, which was when we learned the North Sea deserves the bad rap everyone gives it. We bounced around like a chip on its shoulder as force-10 winds, killer waves and freezing temperatures trampled the region. We zigzagged and circled for two days awaiting the storm’s departure and, while we accepted weather as our dictator, time was becoming our nemesis. The delays were pushing some of us critically close to our flight departures.
      The seas softened and temperatures tumbled as we cleared the northern tip of Denmark. The only warmth we ran into in Stenungsund, a 30-minute drive from the port of Wallhamn, was the people’s friendliness.
      We walked into the Danish town of Esbjerg the next morning, where shore leave was from 9am to 1pm, and spent most of it in a computer café rearranging our flights.
      Our next night was a six-hour run through a sci-fi Marscape as we glided through the massive industrial complex surrounding Antwerp. Lighted towers lining both sides of the inlet marched off endlessly in all directions.
      Lou and Jean left us in the morning and took trains to Brussels and then through the Chunnel to London to catch their Toronto flight the following day.
      The rest of us passed on the hour-long trip into town, and another hour back, because our scheduled stay was only a few hours as the Ellade loaded 1,400 cubic meters of fuel before returning to Southampton and starting the five-week tour all over again.
      We opted to pack and prepare for our airport runs and flights home two days away. We wound up spending more than 12 hours tied up because United Nations divers closed the only exit lock to inspect it for security breaches.
      Reminding us to the end: Be flexible."

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