Set adrift abroad

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Other than Hawaii, Alaska's Inland Passage and a week in the Caribbean, my experiences as a world traveler were practically nil.

Discounting those island stops at St. Maarten/St. Martin and St. Kitts, several pleasant trips to British Columbia and verdant Victoria Island, and one derring-do drive in a rental car from Tucson across the border to Nogales, Mexico, I had, in fact, never set foot on foreign soil.

Until this spring, that is, when my wife, Margaret, and I finally took the leap.

Leaving town via Horizon Air on the last day of April, we set out on a three-week journey that took us halfway around the globe and back again, which left us inspired on one hand, breathless on the other, and sweetly serene on the whole.

You can imagine our excitement as we plotted and planned. And our trepidation.

Our first-day flights took us from Walla Walla to Seattle to Atlanta, and eventually, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where the adventure really began when we boarded Celebrity Cruises' luxurious Equinox ocean liner. From there we embarked on a 14-day Atlantic Ocean crossing in which we sailed from sultry Port Everglades to the Mediterranean shores of Civitavecchia, Italy, some 60 kilometers south of the ancient city of Rome.

We were then shuttled to the Italian capital where we spent five additional days rounding out our three-week dream vacation.

It would require many hours at the keyboard and rolls of newsprint to narrate all that we did and saw - the adventures and the challenges we experienced. Suffice to say, most of them were jam-packed into the final 12 days after we made landfall for the first time in the Portuguese Archipelago of the Azores, a configuration of nine volcanic islands, located 2,400 miles east of U.S. shores and another 930 miles from Lisbon on Spain's west coast.

After seven consecutive days in open water, Ponta Delgado and the island of Sao Miguel's fertile, rolling hills were a welcome sight to say the least. We took advantage of setting foot on terra firma for the first time in a week by taking a bus excursion to fogged-in Fire Lake high up in the crater of Agua de Pau, a stratovolcano in the island's interior that last erupted in 1564.

After two more days at sea, we slipped through the Strait of Gibraltar (the rock was hidden under a layer of fog as well) and visited the Spanish ports of Cartagena and Barcelona. We also docked in Toulon, France, and Livorno, Italy, before saying goodbye to the Equinox, the 15-deck floating resort that we had called home for two full weeks.

While in Cartagena, we visited nearby Murcia and the Cathedral in Cardenal Belluga Square, the first of many spectacular churches on our itinerary. And high above Barcelona, we lunched near the Santa Maria de Montserrat Benedictine Monastery on the summit of the mountain of Montserrat, where we were afforded striking views of Catalonia, one of Spain's 17 autonomous communities that was spread out below us.

A short drive from Toulon offered the opportunity to walk the streets of the charming French seaside cities of Marseille and Cassis. And from Livorno, we bused to fabulous Florence, where we visited the tombs of Galileo and Michelangelo in the Basilica di Santa Croce, and where we stood next to Michelangelo's massive 17-foot tall statue of David in the Galleria dell‘Accademia.

During our five days in Rome, we did not necessarily do as the Romans do.

We were typical American tourists instead, hitting all of the high spots.

We toured the crumbling Colosseum, inside and out, and were photographed with sword-wielding Roman soldiers; we looked down on the site of Circus Maximus, where the Romans raced their chariots between the hills of Palatine and Aventine before the birth of Christ, with as many as 250,000 in attendance; and we stood beneath the awe-inspiring ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City Museum.

We were also fortunate enough to attend a papal audience with Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter's Square.

Our hotel, as it turned out, was within a few short blocks of the Trevi Fountain where, like Dorothy McGuire and Jean Peters, we tossed some coins for good luck. The Spanish Steps were equal distance in the other direction.

The weather was perfect, and we dined nightly in quaint Italian restaurants that featured outdoor seating and checkered tablecloths. There was even a troubadour or two.

We also got lost a few times exploring shops along the narrow, crowded streets, none of which seemed to run parallel to another. And we marveled at the choreography of buses, cars, motorbikes and pedestrians as they dodged and darted and somehow shared the road with nary a fender-bender nor bruised knee.

As busy as we were during the latter part of our three-week journey, nine of the first 10 days were laid-back and mostly uneventful as the Equinox skidded across the Atlantic at a steady 26 knots, or 30 mph, barely rocking in the 9-to-12-foot seas that accompanied us most of the way.

I will neither recommend nor discourage an Atlantic crossing. For some, that many days in an endless expanse of open water quickly turns to boredom. For others, it's a rewarding respite.

I can only say that I'm glad I did it, and leave it at that.

The greatest excitement occurred on the fourth or fifth day out when the Equinox was diverted south from its eastward course on an heroic rescue mission. A small craft was in distress - low on fuel and short on food - and ours was the nearest ship.

Shortly after dinner, many of us raced to the upper decks for a better view as a white speck on the horizon slowly transformed into a 40-foot catamaran that came alongside the Equinox. It might have appeared a seaworthy craft moored in some safe harbor, but it looked more like a cork in a 50-meter swimming pool as it bobbed in the Atlantic swells.

A sudden squall swept across the deck and drenched us as we watched in the fading light as metal canisters of fuel and packages of food were passed from the huge cruise ship to the tiny catamaran and its five adventuresome (perhaps foolish?) sailors.

And we all cheered as the connecting ropes were dropped and the catamaran fell back in the Equinox's wake.

There wasn't one of us at that moment who wasn't grateful that he or she was safely on board the Equinox and not on that small craft as if drifted out of sight and into the gloom of night.

Later that night, the Equinox captain, a Greek fellow who was somewhat challenged by the King's English, commended us all for our part in "saving lives at sea." And we were all quite proud.

For the most part, we spent tranquil days reading, soaking up sunshine and taking advantage of a variety of entertainment venues our ship had to offer.

There were informational seminars, movies, live music, magicians, a ventriloquist and even a Cirque du Soleil performance that was all-the-more impressive considering the acrobats and aerialists faced the added difficulty of dealing with the ship's movement.

And then, of course, there was all that food that the cruise lines are famous for.

I managed to offset the massive breakfast and lunch buffets and succulent formal dinners by making daily trips to the ship's state-of-the-art physical fitness gymnasium high up on the 14th floor overlooking the foredeck.

Then it was downstairs to the pool bar for a cold beer - or two - and some friendly conversation with a Jamaican bartender named Ian Reid, who related that he had been with the cruise line for more than 20 years and had visited practically every cruise ship port in the world.

I'm sure I'll never come close to matching Reid's travel itinerary. But inroads will be made.

They're already in the planning stage.

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