MV Discovery around the Black Sea

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 60 of the February 2011 issue.

by Lew Toulmin

Ukrainian musician playing at the site of the Yalta Conference. Photos: Toulmin

The Black Sea region is a land of legend and history. Surprisingly, very few cruise ships visit this storied area, so my wife, Susan, and I were fortunate in October 2010 to circumnavigate the Black Sea aboard the MV Discovery as guests of Voyages of Discovery.

From Istanbul, the ship called at Trabzon (Turkey), Sochi (Russia), Yalta, Sevastapol and Odessa (Ukraine) and Nessebur island (Bulgaria) before returning to Istanbul.

We joined the Discovery in Istanbul after Voyages of Discovery Reservations Manager Rhonda Suarez saved our bacon by straightening out a mixup with Turkish Airlines, who thought our tickets had not been issued and were demanding additional last-minute payment. Reacting within minutes late on a Sunday evening, Rhonda made it clear that the e-tickets had been paid for and issued. Impressive!

Aboard the ship, we found our recently refurbished cabin, number 3107 on the Coral Deck, to be attractive. Measuring about eight by 15 feet, with a 6'x4' bathroom en suite with shower, it had blue wall-to-wall carpeting, off-white walls with tan wood trim, British hunting prints, two 13-inch portholes, an AC/heat thermostat, a closet and two single beds which could be pushed together to form a king-sized bed.

Roaming the ship, we found the famous curving stairway in front of Reception, where scenes from “The Love Boat” TV series were filmed after the launch of the ship in 1972. Remarkably, this TV series, which aired from 1977 to 1986, really jump-started the modern cruising industry.

It was quite a thrill to stand where Captain Merrill Stubing (Gavin MacLeod), Cruise Director Julie McCoy (Lauren Tewes) and all the other kooky characters interacted. Discovery, then known as Island Princess, served as a backup film set to the Pacific Princess, which was the main filming location.

Susan and I explored the excellent onboard library and noted the new room devoted entirely to bridge (you can compete twice a day there) as well as the alternate dining venue The Yacht Club (no extra charge), the gym (free, except for a charge of five UK pounds for yoga and Pilates), the cruise shop and the movie theater.

We were impressed with the sound system in the movie theater, which was excellent and had been updated since we sailed on this ship about six years earlier across the South Pacific.

We noticed that even though the 750-passenger ship was completely full for this very popular and rare cruise, it never seemed crowded except once, during a Cossack singing performance in the main show theater.

The voyage began with a dramatic nighttime transit through the winding and narrow Bosporus, which links the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. This vital “choke point” is where the legendary Jason and the Argonauts sailed through to the eastern shores of the Black Sea, questing for the Golden Fleece.

A “lion lady” statue at the summer Massandra palace of Tsar Alexander III — Yalta, Ukraine.

And some archaeologists now think that this is the location of the Biblical Great Flood, with the rising Mediterranean and Marmara seas breaking through to the Black Sea and flooding a large area in just 300 days, around 5600 BC.

Highlights of the voyage were many, but three standouts were Stalin’s dacha, the battleground of the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the site of the Yalta Conference.

Stalin’s dacha (second home) in Sochi, Russia, displayed his paranoid personality. It was painted green so that snipers and dive-bombers couldn’t spot it; it had numerous bedrooms so Stalin could sleep in a different bed each night, and all the furniture was cut down in height to make the diminutive Stalin look bigger!

At Sevastapol we toured the Light Brigade site and other locations of the Crimean War (1854-1856). Fortunately, the site of the charge — one of the most famous actions in military history — is preserved fairly well, being covered by vineyards and with little urban development.

It was amazing to stand on the heights of Sapoune Ridge, where Lord Raglan wrote his fatal, poorly worded order to charge, and see his view of the battleground. From that vantage, the valley below looks flat and one can understand how he blundered into thinking that his cavalry below could see British guns being captured from four redoubts.

It was only when we descended to the valley below that we realized that the low Causeway Heights prevented the cavalry (and us) from seeing the crucial redoubts, so the Light Brigade charged in the wrong direction, into massed Russian guns and Cossack cavalry.

As a result of the blunder, of the 661 mounted troopers in the brigade, 292 men and 362 horses were killed or wounded and the Light Brigade was destroyed as a fighting force.

In Yalta we saw the beautiful Livadia Palace, at one time the second home of the Romanov family and Tzar Nicholas II. It is where Stalin hosted Churchill and FDR at the 1945 Yalta Conference, which shaped the fate of the entire post-war world.

We saw the table where the conferees met, and Discovery passengers danced with local musicians in the garden where the historic photographs of the three main conferees were taken. As my wife said, “This place gives me goose bumps.”

Our fellow passengers were a mix of congenial British, US and Australian nationals, mostly retired, well-traveled couples. According to Assistant Cruise Director Louise Griffiths, “About 40 to 50 percent of our passengers are repeaters,” a high percentage.

I spoke with Food & Beverage Manager Neill Sharer about the challenges of supplying fresh, tasty food in a venue moving all over the world.

Discovery passengers and local musicians dance in the courtyard at the Livadia Palace. The historic final photos of the 1945 Yalta Conference were taken right in front of the fountain.

“We have found that Hamburg is the best place to resupply our ships by sea, truck or air,” he said. “We order our food four to five months in advance, sourced from all over the world, and usually send it by sea in four or five shipping containers or a convoy of trucks. We make all our baked goods from scratch on board and obtain lettuce, cauliflower and other greens locally in reliable ports like Malta.”

Neill continued: “We almost never have a problem with our system, since we’ve been doing this for years, but last year we mistakenly shipped only one pallet of toilet paper to Istanbul, instead of the usual eight, so later, in Yalta, we had to buy up 18,000 rolls of toilet paper from local shops. I think we cleaned out the town!”

I asked Ms. Griffiths about single fares, with which the “single supplement” is often a hefty 100 percent of the individual fare. She said, “Discovery will not impose any single supplement between November and April for the 2011 and 2012 seasons.” This is a remarkable value for single sailors.

Griffiths also noted, “A five or ten percent discount is also given to passengers who book future cruises while on board Discovery.”

She described future plans for the cruise line, saying, “It is probable that in the next two years All Leisure Group, PLC, the parent company of Voyages of Discovery, will purchase another vessel or will bring on line the Alexander von Humboldt, a 500-passenger ship currently on German charter. In any case, by current rules, the Discovery will be forced to retire in seven years.”

So if you want to sail aboard this delightful, historic lady who helped start modern cruising, start planning now. And if you want to circumnavigate the Black Sea, book early.

MV Discovery is sailing around the Black Sea, Oct. 11-26, 2011, on a 15-night cruise similar to the one described above. For a cabin similar to ours, the brochure price is $5,875 per person, double occupancy, or, with early booking, $4,299. Prices include port charges and airfare from certain US East Coast cities.

Other brochure prices (per person, double) for this voyage range from $5,060 for an inside cabin to $9,000 for the Owner’s Suite. Special offers and early-booking discounts up to 27% below brochure prices may be available, depending on time of booking.

Contact Voyages of Discovery (1800 SE 10th Ave., Ste. 205, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33316; 866/623-2689 or 954/761-7878).