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High style on a small ship to historical places

Balaklava, Ukraine, is part of the city of Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. Balaklava, Ukraine, is part of the city of Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula.
By Deborah Etzel
Globe Correspondent / January 30, 2011

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ISTANBUL — What could be better, we thought, than spending eight days cruising the Black Sea aboard a luxury yacht, touring ancient Greek and Roman ruins dotting the coastline and sites such as Balaklava on the Crimean Peninsula.

As we began our Tauck Tours cruise sailing north on the Bosporus toward the Black Sea at sunset, sipping champagne and watching the Istanbul skyline slide by, we knew we had gotten it right.

Tauck is known for high-class, intimate tours. They arrange for guests to see things out of the ordinary and cater to people who expect an intellectual experience and personal attention along with their sightseeing. As you might expect, this is not a low budget experience, but we were not disappointed. The 90-passenger Le Levant was the perfect vessel for getting an intimate glimpse of the countries along the coast while being spoiled on a well-appointed floating inn.

On our trip, the gathering was even more intimate: just 57 passengers.

The “our’’ on this tour was my mother and I. Traveling for fun with a parent as an adult child can be a risky venture. Their delights are not necessarily yours. But if you find a method of travel and the appropriate destination, the time together can be something to be treasured. We had found just that and experienced a memorable trip.

It began with three days of sightseeing in Istanbul before departure. The captain, who met us each as we boarded, was extremely personable. The staterooms were well designed with beds designed to be split in two if needed, a large closet, and plenty of shelves and drawers. The bathroom was large enough to comfortably dry your hair. The shower with both a fixed shower head and a hand-held was circular in design.

There was a small desk and chair, two armchairs, and a flat screen TV with a DVD player. The ship library had a wide selection of movies. Access to the Internet was available (for a fee). None of the rooms had a balcony, but there was plenty of outside space to catch the sun and the sea breezes.

The bar on the pool deck served tropical drinks during the day and the large cocktail lounge with a grand piano hosted afternoon tea, the nightly cocktail hour, and a nightly DJ after dinner. The ship had two dining facilities: casual for breakfast and lunch and formal for dinner. There was a beauty salon and fitness room. The crew numbered around 50.

All drinks during the cocktail hour were included for Tauck guests as was unlimited house wine with dinner. Dinners were three or four courses with a meat or fish choice, though one night was a barbecue buffet. The first night the waiters wore white gloves and our dinners arrived under silver covers that were removed in unison as they were served. The dining room had 12 tables for eight or 10 set with floor-length white tablecloths and stunning flower arrangements. The waiters quickly learned our names and preferences. From that point on, at lunch and dinner, one of the waitstaff always remembered that Miss Lorraine — as they called Mom — preferred skim milk with her meals.

The Levant’s size enabled us to dock on the shoreline wherever we went. At every stop, a tour bus with plush seats, large windows, air conditioning, and a bathroom was waiting for us a few feet from the ship. In addition to our tour director, Tauck provided two native guides at each stop.

Our first two excursions (Nessebar, Bulgaria, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Constanta, Romania) were sleepy fishing villages nestled among Greek and Roman ruins that become bustling summer beach resorts in season. As well as exploring the historical sections, Tauck had arranged special visits in each country: a mountainside farm in Bulgaria, where two of our fellow passengers were dressed in local folk costumes and we sampled yogurt and pastries, and then lunch at a winery with folk dancers as entertainment; and in Romania, a downtown shopping area and then lunch at a seaside resort.

Odessa was the first of three stops in Ukraine. We saw important sights, the Odessa National Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet, the Potemkin Steps, and the promenade along the seashore. But Tauck took it a step further: We were serenaded by a string duet from the local conservatory in the underground passageway of the Fine Arts Museum while sipping native sparkling wine.

The Crimean Peninsula was the site of our last two stops. The weather in this area is more like the Mediterranean than in the rest of the Black Sea, thanks to the Crimean Mountains blocking the cold north winds. It has long been a coveted vacation spot.

Sevastopol, our first city, is a natural harbor and has been a naval base since the time of Catherine the Great. When it was part of the former Soviet Union, it was closed to outsiders until 1995, particularly because of its nearness to the former super secret submarine base carved into and under a mountain. Walking into the dark and imposing entry of the now historical museum immediately brings up images of old James Bond movies.

Last up was Yalta, famous for the conference where Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt divided Europe as World War II drew to a close. The area had long been used as a favorite vacation retreat of the czars.

Our last day was spent at sea, giving us a chance to reflect on our adventure, exchange contact information, and pack up for our trip home. A farewell dinner followed a champagne cocktail party and was an excellent four-course affair where the silver domes reappeared.

We had explored off the beaten track, piqued our curiosity, and been pampered. A nearly ideal trip.

Deborah Etzel can be reached at TawnyLeather@gmail.com.

If You Go

Tour: Tauck’s Division of Small Ship Cruises (www.taucktours .com) also covers the Mediterranean, the Baltic including St. Petersburg, Iceland, Panama, the Galápagos. The 11-day, 10-night Istanbul and the Black Sea tour runs from $6,500-$8,000 per person without airfare but including 27 meals and all gratuities.
Flights: We flew nonstop on Delta Airlines from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Istanbul. Airfare can be purchased along with the tour package or on your own. We saved $300 each purchasing it on our own.
Visas: Turkey requires a visa, but it is purchased at the airport for $20 before clearing immigration control. US dollars or euros are accepted. Neither visas nor passports were needed when the ship docked in Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine.
Currency: US dollars were accepted and calculators were handy to compute exchange rates.
Dress: Good walking shoes are a requirement as is the ability to walk for prolonged distances. Mosques require that women’s shoulders and knees be covered and a scarf to cover your hair is appreciated. Smart casual dress sufficed, but be sure to have warmer clothing if you want to sit outside at night.
Precautions: As the ship is small, there is more motion than on a river cruise or on a large cruise ship. Knowing your tolerance for motion sickness medication and having it with you is advisable.