The Evolution of Perfection: A Mediterranean Cruise

Posted on April 5, 2023


I had to chuckle a bit at a glossy insert into one of my newspapers a few weeks ago. “Mediterranean Perfections, Oceania Cruises, Your World, Your Way.” The company Life Ultimate was advertising “2 for 1 Cruise Fares, FREE Roundtrip Airfare, FREE Airport Transfer” and other goodies. I think I would have liked “Cinematic Mediterranean, Venice to Barcelona,” from only “$4,799” per person, penthouses a bit more expensive, “$12,198” and up.

And to think I got most of my traveling in the Mediterranean for FREE! I missed FREE Internet, Specialty Restaurant, 24-hour Room Service FREE, Fitness Classes FREE, Still & Sparkling Water FREE and more. The color images accompanying this cornucopia of pleasure were just as stunning and appealing. The Mediterranean for FREE, with about $10,000 liberated from your bank account, or more, to cruise around on Oceana Cruises’ splendid Love Boat.

In August 1964 I got a FREE trip to the Mediterranean from the lovely airport of McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. We even got FREE drinks (soft) and snacks as we shot across the Atlantic on our magnificent airliner rented from Pan Am if I remember correctly and landed at the historic airport of Rota, Spain. It was the beginning of my Mediterranean adventure, all for FREE! And I even got paid! I think it was about $240.00 bi monthly.

As I write this I keep flipping through the pages of Mediterranean Oceana Cruises. The image of a magnificent shrimp really caught my attention. “Inspired by legendary Master Chef Jaques Pépin, the cuisine of Oceania Cruises is renowned as the finest at sea and rivals Michelin-starred restaurants ashore….” and on and on. The last sentence was so filled with promise, “enjoy dinner for two or a gathering with newfound friends knowing that the experience is certain to be extraordinary.” And mine, indeed, was!

From Rota we took a FREE ride on some jet piloted by the superb pilots of the U. S. Force to Naples, Italy, a port of wonders for sure. We transferred on a FREE bus to another jet and aimed down the runway. On board was a coffin those of us stared at from our FREE bucket seats arrayed along the interior of the aircraft. And we rolled down the runway, we suddenly came to a screeching halt and watched dumfounded as a couple of crew members ran past us with fire extinguishers and jumped out of our plane.

“No problem guys, just a little fire in the engine,” as they climbed back aboard our FREE ride to Valetta Harbor on the island of Malta just south of Sicily. We landed at Valetta about three or four in the morning, and a British sergeant picked me up and gave me a FREE ride through the Malta dawn to a boat tied up in the harbor. I threw my seabag into the boat and we roared off on our FREE transfer to my ship, the USS Donner (LSD 20) a veteran of the Second World War. As I boarded my new magnificent oceanic cruise ship provided for me by the United States Navy, I knew this Mediterranean adventure was going to be absolutely dazzling, just like the ad said, “each day aboard our ships is a spectacle and adventure to experience, from world-class music, high-energy production shows and dazzling cabarets to rousing deck games, spirited wine-tastings and evenings at our atmospheric casino.”

As I disembarked carefully from my FREE boat ride to the accommodation ladder hanging from the side of the Donner, I heard a splash, then another one, plunk into the water. I saluted the flag and then the Officer of the Deck, Jack Allen, and requested permission “to board the ship.”

“Hi Clayton, welcome aboard, uh, and wait a second, I have one other coin to flip and see if can hit one of those fish.”

I looked and the OD (Officer of the Deck) was carefully flinging coins into the water in the quiet, early dawn of a Malta morning. He finished, returned my salute, and I had joined my FREE ride in the Mediterranean Sea.

Jack and I later liberated a Gondola in Venice for a quick FREE ride while the owner hollered at us from some doorway or window, no doubt demonstrating some new Italian phrases we should probably learn, all for FREE.

I returned to the flyer and continued reading, “FREE airport transfers, FREE shuttles, FREE specialty restaurants, FREE shore excursions, FREE this and that” and thought to myself, nothing to compare with my FREE ride on the USS Donner for the next two years. Image below of USS Donner (LSD 20) underway with helicopter ops.

Finally, I returned to the section called “Taste,” a bit different from the standard fare prepared for us eating in the ship’s Wardroom, all for FREE of course cooked by authentic Navy cooks and served to us by happy Filipino Stewards. Under taste I found “half the ship’s staff and crew is dedicated to the culinary experience…our superb gourmet restaurants serve exquisite dishes created a la minute…from Continental cuisine to authentic Italian to classic steakhouse fare.”

My Mediterranean journey took me to Malta, Venice, some Spanish ports where we helicoptered in to pick up our mail, FREE of course, and I got off eventually in Naples, finally FREE of the Navy.

I had of course a standard six year term of service, but I came in through Duke NROTC and only had to do two years of active duty. The rest was reserve time.

As I was wistfully taking leave of two wonderful FREE cruises in the Mediterranean and a couple to boot in the Caribbean, the officer taking care of finishing my two years active duty and being separated from my ship asked if, “well, Mr. Clayton, you have small boat experience serving here in the Amphibs, how would you like a big bonus and your own ship for a couple of years?”

Sigh, even at the relatively young age of twenty-four, I knew there was no thing as a free lunch.

“That wouldn’t be in the Mekong Delta, would it?” I asked with a smile.

“Yep,” he said.

“The River Fleet, right?” I continued. He nodded. All for FREE in the face of the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong.

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

He signed my DD 214, and I was off to find the nearest train heading with my Eurail pass for Rome, Florence, and points north. My FREE experience was over, but the learning stayed with me the rest of my life.

Published in the Northport Gazette Wednesday April 12 2023