ARS Mediterranean Cruise A Memorable Experience

Whether it’s the “wave” of the future or not, the ARS Mediterranean Cruise provided a delightful experience in more ways than one Aug. 15-27

For openers, 352 Armenia’s representing 14 states and a host of countries sailed the Hye seas. Of the lot, 111 emerged from the West Coast and 64 from Canada. They also came from Argentina, Australia, England, Greece, Argentina, Lebanon, Switzerland, Cyprus and Egypt.

The passenger list resembled a “league of nations” with Armenian the predominant language. It was easy recognizing the Armenia’s aboard the cruise ship Celebrity Summit. They were the ones toting their tricolor bags, singing their songs and exercising the language.

“We’re very happy with the turnout,” said organizer Shakeh Basmajian, who was joined in the forefront by Mayda Melkonian and Tamar Der Bedrosian, members of the ARS Central Body.

“People met friends they hadn’t seen in years. Everybody bonded well, regardless of where they came from.”

Basmajian, a Detroit resident, met a high school chum from Lebanon she hadn’t seen in 44 years. She was reunited with Sirvart Boniaboghanian and the two caught up on lost time.

The same could be said for sisters Sona Derovakimian (Michigan) and Angele Panikian (Canada). The two were part of an excursion to St. Asdvazazin Church in Nice, France, where they encountered a cousin they hadn’t seen in 48 years.

Christine Papazian met her two cousins by a khatchkar praying and went into an emotional greeting. Hourig Antabian (San Francisco) met family members from Argentina.

Others like Sarkis and Mary Garibian of Wilbraham, MA, couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. The two have long been stalwarts in the Springfield community.

“When Armenia’s come together in such an arena, it revitalizes our heritage,” says Sarkis. “The friendships we’ve made on this trip will last forever. We commend the ARS for serving its population over these past 98 years and join others in looking forward to the centennial in 2010.”

The junket was actually a precursor to the milestone anniversary in which commemorations will take place throughout the world. Of the 352 Armenian tourists, 150 represented the Armenian Relief Society in their respective countries.

The ARS organized its own itinerary apart from the cruise. Three excursions took place to Armenian churches in Nice and Athens, along with a visit to the Mekhitarist Monastery on the island of San Lazarus in Venice, Italy. There, the group toured the expansive library and admired the luscious landscaping. The Armenian Catholic Fathers were most gracious in their role as hosts and emissaries.

Four dances provided ample entertainment, thanks to Sam Alajajian and his Ararat Ensemble from Detroit. People danced the night away and joined in a concert of revolutionary songs.

An ARS centennial celebration brought forth anniversary couples and resulted in a number of monetary gifts for the organization. A large cake and complimentary champagne marked the proceedings. And the band played on, resulting in a missed dinner in the dining hall. Nobody really cared. What was another meal compared to exercising some Armenian energy?

Canadian folk dancer Lori Najarian regaled the crowd with her fine choreography in full costume.

There were Armenian happy hours and a number of encounters to the hospitality desk to keep Armenia’s abreast of activity.

Inside the dining hall, Armenia’s were seated together, not disbursed, and strangers mingled together at the same table. At ours, we dined with two couples from Massachusetts and another from California.

One might instantly think this might conflict with the Armenian Heritage Cruise which takes place annually aboard the Costa cruise lines. Not so.

“We plan to go every other year and it’s two different destinations,” said Melkonian. “This won’t interfere with the Heritage cruise in any way. Armenia’s love to travel. This gives them another option.”

Many checked off Alaska as their next destination. An itinerary may be formed in 2010 but due to the centennial celebrations throughout, this may be moved up to the following year. Stay tuned.

Flora (Ounanian) Guiragossian of Montreal sat next to Marie (Bedrosian) Najarian of Providence at the dinner table.

“Come to find out, we went to the Sophia Hagopian College in Lebanon together,” said Najarian. “We relived our childhood and shed tears of happiness. We both have families now. This will give me every reason to visit Flora in Montreal.”

Okay, so the weather was incurably hot, the cost expensive but negligible, and the crowds overwhelming at times. But when all was said and done, the cruise offered its own unique ambiance, pampered to the hilt.

For 12 days, we meandered through five countries, traveled some 2,100 nautical miles, digested more meals than a gourmet chef gone berserk, and encountered more spectacles than I could have ever imagined in a lifetime.

For the better part of our journey — as American-born — we exercised our language fluently because that was protocol. Our syllabus was improved 100 percent.

The flip side was Europe at its supreme best. Seven excursions gave us a glimpse of each port, as time would allow.

Our journey began in Barcelona two days before boarding the ocean liner. There, we got to see Gaudi’s art and architecture, his most famous Sacred Family Church, the majestic Montserrat, a 16th Century Renaissance basilica, and walked the Ramblas with its eclectic Gothic Quarter.

That evening found us at a flamenco dance concert where complimentary sangrias were the order of the night. We paid enough for both but you don’t follow a budget on an excursion like this, not unless you wish to grow spastic.

The ship was nothing short of the royal treatment. The length of nearly three football fields, it contained all the amenities including a mammoth-sized indoor Jacuzzi with jet-streamed shower sprouts to cure any fatigue. A basketball game with the ship’s crew kept me revitalized.

The liner set sail for Nice, allowing passengers to catch the panoramic splendor of cities along the French Riviera, including Monaco.

Next on the itinerary was Florence, Italy, with visits to Michelangelo’s “David” and “Pieta,” along with the famed Ponte Vecchio. The ancient capital of Tuscany in the lovely foothills of the Apennines is truly a site to behold.

At Rome, the famous Trevi Fountain saw three coins sail over my shoulder after climbing down the 400 Spanish Steps. At St. Peter’s Basilica, we discovered a statue of St. Gregory the Illuminator, who founded Christianity in Armenia in 301 AD.

The cruise ship moved on from Rome to Naples, Pisa, Capri and Pompeii before continuing to the Greek island of Santorini where we enjoyed a refreshing dip in the Mediterranean on our own and rented a van for a 2-hour tour.

Next came Athens, home of the Panathinion Stadium, Acropolis with its Pantheon and Platka, walking narrow cobblestone streets with old mansions.

On the tour was a stop to Dubrovnik, a truly unsung vista in Croatia, which acquired the nickname “pearl of the Adriatic,” and rightfully so. Only recently have tourists begun to rediscover the quaintness and history of this port city.

Our final stop was Venice and the visit to the monastery, followed by a short stay in San Marco Square.

Heeding the advice of experienced travelers, we declined a gondola ride and opted for a water taxi at a fraction of the cost. One hour touring the canals and crossing the many bridges was just the right course, considering the 95-degree heat.

We kept a distance from the tourist traps and souvenir shops, negated any urge to purchase saleable artwork on ship, and didn’t get hooked at the casino. I did burst with delight at my first taste of lemoncello, an Italian liquor, and sampled baked Alaska for the first time at dinner, all 1,000 calories of it.

One side step. Because we walked 3-4 miles on each of the tours, and often beat the sunrise to the fitness spa when convenient, that trip to the ship’s dining hall (early seating) was richly deserved.

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