Ancient Sites and Great Cities on My Grand Mediterranean Tour

by Rob Roberts, Manager of Shore Excursions - Europe & Exotics

La Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona
La Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona

Sometimes our lives take the most curious of paths. I’m a farm boy from Iowa, yet in 1992 I found myself working onboard a Princess cruise ship as a master dive instructor, certifying our passengers in scuba diving. Me, teaching scuba diving in the Caribbean? How could life get any better? But it did.

I was promoted to the ship’s tour staff, and spent the next couple of years exploring parts of the world I had only dreamed of visiting. But one thing I never dreamed of was being asked to be part of the team that would take out our then new ship, Grand Princess, which was about to make history as the world’s biggest cruise ship at the time. This ship, with its pioneering design, was going to spend its inaugural season in the Mediterranean. It was the largest ship that had ever sailed in this cruise destination, and we were in charge of working out the logistics of bringing her into these ports; a mission that no cruise line had ever done before.

We understood the challenges before us – to create a well-organized experience that would enable the ship’s 2,600 passengers to have just as good an onshore experience as we’d been providing to those sailing aboard our smaller cruise ships for years.  This meant rediscovering history, and working closely with local experts, designing an extensive range of intriguing options. So, off I went to Europe as part of the advance team. Goodbye coral reefs.

I was aware that a grand tour of Europe and the Mediterranean became a rite of passage for the British in the 18th century, where privileged young men spent the time between their university education and the start of their career with an extended tour of continental Europe. By the late 19th century, the Grand Tour had become an American phenomenon, and young men and women traveled the world visiting the great European cities and the ancient sites of the Mediterranean.

I remember reading Mark Twain’s “The Innocents Abroad” in college, which chronicled his own Grand Tour by steamship in 1867, and became one of his best-selling books of all time. To think that here I was, following in these grand footsteps as I helped to plan a similar experience for thousands of passengers.

As part of our preparations, we visited each Mediterranean cruise port to witness everything passengers would experience, and to make sure we were ready to handle disembarking guests off the ship and to the various sites. After all, we were taking more guests on shore excursions than we had ever brought to that area before.

Over the next few weeks, our team would explore in detail with local experts the treasures of these great cities and ancient sites, trying to see them through the eyes of our guests and drilling down to the finest details to design exciting shore excursion plans.

My grand tour took me to Barcelona where I marveled at the modernist Antoni Gaudi’s famous cathedral, La Sagrada Familia; the Royal Palace in Monte Carlo, the dazzling residence and home to the Grimaldi family of Princess Rainier and the late Princess Grace; and the statue of Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia in Florence, the center of the Renaissance.

Then we travelled toNaples and Pompeii, the Roman resort tragically buried by volcanic ash from the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., which was one of the world’s most magnificently preserved ancient cities. In Venice, we got to see famous canals, bridges and cobblestone streets, and the magnificent Doge’s Palace in St. Mark’s Square.

In Athens, there were the glorious marble structures of The Parthenon, built in honor of Athena, goddess of wisdom. Then I traveled to Istanbul, which has dominated the Straits of the Bosporus for 25 centuries and saw its 17th century Blue Mosque, renowned for its domes and minarets. And from Kusadasi, I experienced Ephesus, a treasure of antiquity and historical legend, where on its ancient streets Mark Antony and Cleopatra rode in procession and St. Paul preached against the goddess Artemis.

It was the grandest of tours. And in the summer, when Grand Princess finally debuted, all of our efforts paid off. The ship’s first Mediterranean cruise season was incredibly successful. The ship was well received and the shore excursion program was  better than we hoped or  expected. Thousands of passengers experienced the collection of tours that our team had so carefully arranged.

I went on to spend five more years in Europe before coming ashore into Princess’ corporate office to oversee the shore excursion program for our 17 ships around the world. Although I will never forget my first glimpses of these iconic destinations, you could say my Grand Tour continues to this day. And the best part of my job is knowing that we create magical “Grand Tour” experiences for newcomers on every Mediterranean cruise, and that they’ll share in the awe of seeing these unforgettable places just as generations of travelers have over the centuries – including me.