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A Black Sea Cruise Picks Up Where the Olympics Leave Off

02/18/2014 06:11 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2014

You can keep your inland towns that rise up over farms or crouch beside a busy river. Give me a city that turns its face to the sea.

I like looking out at urban skylines from the deck of a ship. From here, at penthouse height, and out of the tangle of crowds and avenues, you get an almost map-clear view of how a port is shaped. So when I read about a Crystal cruise that left from Venice, nosed into the Aegean and Black Seas, and ended up in Istanbul, I started imagining myself peering down at ancient capitals of trade like a king atop his sailable throne.

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"Why don't you go?" said my wife. "Or, better yet, why don't we?" Kathy liked the exotic sound of ports such as Constanta, Romania and Odessa and Yalta (both in Ukraine). And sailing on Crystal's Serenity -- often tapped in surveys as a top-of-the-list passenger favorite -- would let us celebrate a round-number anniversary at sea.

A writer of children's books about ships, I'd always been a little suspicious of Crystal's fragile-sounding name. But going aboard the 1,050-passenger, 69,000-ton Serenity you feel its muscular grip: painted steel, wood that has been waxed to a shine, and polished stone create a strong but luxurious cocoon. Cabin décor relies on moldings and marble trim to make you feel like you are floating inside a fine hotel.

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Though the line is Japanese-owned, the first thing we see seems British to its core. It's a portrait of Dame Julie Andrews smiling just slightly, as if she knows some secrets about the days ahead.

"She's our Crystal Serenity godmother," crows a passing crew member.

Your godmother? I say.

"She Christened the ship in 2003!"

A rumble of engines says it's time to sail. A tug named Emilio Panfido guides the Serenity past the arching bridges and tiled squares of Venice. Night has just begun to drape its purple cloth over the canals. Pinpricks of light appear on shore and drip their rippled colors into the lagoon.

We cruise past restaurants on the quay, a shadowy Piazza San Marco, and wedged between two spires, a hint of moon.

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Sea days teach us some things about Serenity. For one, onboard staff seem, eerily, to know passengers' names. Many are genuinely upset if you try to save them a step. Our cabin steward, Megdalene, is crestfallen when we say no to a turndown. When we relent, Megdalene hums and beams while racing around to fluff pillows and drop off fresh sets of bath salts.

Crystal has one of shipboard's more interesting specialty restaurants, the Japanese-inspired, sushi-serving "Silk Road." But Kathy and I are delighted with the regular dining room and its classic, carefully-prepared meals. Led by an Austrian named Franz, an expert at Crepes Suzette, waiters here have that perfect blend of formality and cheer. And according to our tablemate Dr. Marty Rubenstein of Los Altos, Calif., personal requests are a specialty of the house.

"On a previous cruise," Rubenstein explains, "my wife was telling someone about her recipe for lamb with mustard sauce. The head water overheard this and asked her, 'would you like that?' He jotted a few things down, and disappeared to talk to the chef. Out came an excellent lamb with mustard the next evening."

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To try and erase our lunches and dinners, we take to circling the deck. We are not alone. "Direction of the Day," instructs a sign on the rail, pointing passengers in a clockwise sweep. Around and around we go -- like hands on a watch.

Among our early stops is Navplion, Greece, a perfect port for this cruise since the fortified town was Venetian for a time and, at a different point, was part of Turkey. Awash in ochre walls and red-tiled roofs, it feels more Italian than Greek. Fishing boats bob in the gentle Aegean chop and coastal pines bend and turn in the breeze.

With its ghost-like former casino and nearly-empty promenade, Constanta, Romania, makes for a much more mysterious day. Kathy is part Romanian, so we make a point to walk deep into the town. There are still some vestiges of its years as an East Bloc outpost -- concrete high-rises and old Soviet cars -- but street-stands and stores are sprouting up. It's a city that's stretching and rubbing its eyes from sleep.

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Our next port, Odessa, has a checkerboard of ethnic roots. There's a "French Street," a "Greek Street" and a strong Jewish presence even today, after centuries of persecution. The city is as bustling as Amsterdam, as decorative as Prague. Atop the famous Odessa Steps, buildings look like frosted cakes, set out for a celebration. Kathy and I smile at the lemony colors and find ourselves in manicured parks where we admire flowers and waste time watching children play.

Yalta, site of the historic 1945 conference between wartime leaders Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin, is far from the staid resort town we had imagined. From a distance, it looks like a Swiss ski village with its gondola and mountain backdrop. Up close, it's Reno, or Atlantic City -- a vacation spot for locals who pour onto the pebbly beaches, cue up for colorful rides, and drain steins of beer at stands along the waterfront.

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Kathy and I are back on Serenity, watching the mountains shrink as we go back to sea. We are circling the deck again, circling and circling, when suddenly it hits us. We are nearing the end of our cruise.

Starting in Venice -- with its quays and canals -- eased us into the mood of living for more than a week on water. Now we remember land.

Serenity has sailed into the Bosphorus, and we are close. Encircling hills press in. We're in a shadowy stretch of busy, boat-churned strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and Aegean -- between Asia, in a sense, and Europe.

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"Minarets," says Kathy simply, pointing ahead.

I can see them, too, and as we watch, a flash of sun sets evening fire to the curve of a dome. The sounds of streets and an echoing call to worship are suddenly stronger than waves, or wind.

Aya Sofya. Blue Mosque. Galata Tower.

Istanbul.

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Peter Mandel is the author of the read-aloud bestseller Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook) and other books for kids, including Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House) and Bun, Onion, Burger (Simon & Schuster).