A real buzz amid the Pyramids
Take 300 middle and secondary school kids, add 236 mature cruising enthusiasts, put them on a ship and sail them out to north Africa. It sounds like a combustible scenario, yet it's one that seems to work.
Each year, Voyages of Discovery, a travel company based in Sussex, holds four school cruises, three around Easter, and one during the autumn half-term. The journeys vary, but the cruises typically take in a couple of Greek islands and sites in Egypt, Turkey, and Syria, Jordan or Cyprus. Last October, I joined the Eastern Gems tour with an all state-school contingent from Northampton, Cumbria, Monmouthshire and Shropshire. We sailed on the Ocean Majesty from the port of Piraeus near Athens to Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Rhodes and Crete.
A cruise is an expensive school trip but the money doesn't go on dance troupes, bingo and aerobics at dawn. With this tour company, it is more about the places you visit rather than the on-board entertainment.
"For cruises with high-kicking dancing girls, companies like Pamp;O and Airtours do it brilliantly and we're not competing with them," says David A Baskott, the ship's headmaster.
Apart from one full day at sea, which unfortunately coincided with our one experience of rough weather, there was an excursion every day. Typically, we would sail overnight, wake up in a new port and be off the ship by 8am.
Back onboard, there were afternoon lectures, which were open to all.
Individual school parties had scheduled "lessons" in one of the ship's lounges.
Mo Holland, the ship's deputy head, says it's a busy schedule that can take a day or two to adjust to. "I think for first time party leaders, nothing prepares them for the speed at which some of it appears to happen. If you talk to a new party leader after the first 24 hours, they do look a bit stunned with it all. But after that they really do develop this buzz."
The first stop after landing in a balmy Athens was the Acropolis. This set the tone for subsequent excursions, with independent cruisers and the school groups travelling on separate buses with their own tour guides.
The trip to Kusadasi in Turkey on day two was one of the highlights. A few hours amid the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus complemented an afternoon of shopping and sunbathing in this seaside town.
The 36-hours in Egypt was a whirlwind: we had an over-ambitious itinerary that took in Port Said, the Mohammed Ali Mosque in Cairo and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, which houses the loot of Tutankamun. Then there were day and night-time visits to the Great Pyramids at Giza, a cruise on the Nile, the amazing outdoor museum at Memphis, the step pyramid of Saqqara and the new library in Alexandria. This tough itinerary didn't seem to faze the kids. A few scheduling glitches aside, Egypt was the highlight of the week. But it it was a relief to wind down with more gentle excursions in Rhodes and Crete.
Gerald Richardson, deputy head of Newman School in Carlisle, had few complaints about the pace. "This is my third cruise and I know there was a very short time at places but you've got to be really focused to get as much as you can from the time you have."
There was still plenty of free time: students could use the (very small) pool, laze on the decks or, more often than not, congregate on the stairs.
There was no danger of them missing meals, lectures or lessons as tannoy announcements made sure everyone knew where they had to be and when.
Evening, quizzes, films, and fancy-dress, made up the bulk of the organised entertainment. The main drawback was uninspiring lectures which were really light travelogues: presenters talked at us for a full 45 minutes. Many students complained of boredom.
But were they good? "Most adult passengers have complimented students on their behaviour," said Pam Gooch, head of careers at Notre Dame school, Norwich.
There's no denying that a school cruise is expensive but it does have many practical advantages. On the ship you have a secure environment, there is time during the day for lessons, evening activities are organised and the excursions are planned for you.
Then there are the social experiences. Not only did the students learn more about Islam, the Crusades, Greek mythology, Minoans and the Egyptians, they visited four different countries, talked to locals, handled three different currencies and learned to mix with other schools.
All the students I spoke to had an amazing time and many had ambitions to re-visit favourite sites as adults. Beth Johns, 14, from Mereway upper school in Northampton, spoke for many when she said: "I have never been anywhere like this before and it was just amazing going to see all these different cultures."
Louis Wind-Lowie, 14, of Newman school, Carlisle, said: "The most interesting thing was seeing how different people live and how poverty-stricken that area is. We've covered it in geography but I was still surprised."
As for the teachers, they seemed to have their sanity intact as they boarded the plane to go home.
* The Voyages of Discovery, Lynnem House, 1 Victoria Way, Burgess Hill, West Sussex RH15 9NF. Tel: 01444 462 150; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.voyagesofdiscovery.com
AROUND THE AEGEAN AND THE MED
Saturday Fly to Athens and visit the Acropolis. Board at Piraeus Port near Athens and sail to Kusadasi, Turkey overnight
Sunday Half day at Ephesus and half day shopping in Kusadasi
Monday All-day sailing to Syria
Tuesday Dock in Tartous, Syria and have half-day excursion to the Crac des Chevaliers Crusader castle
Wednesday Arrive at Port Said in Egypt before bussing out to Cairo
Thursday Half day in Memphis and Saqqara, return to ship in Alexandria
Friday Spend a day in Rhodes
Saturday Half day in Heraklion Crete. Fly home
CHECK IT OUT: INSPECTION TOURS
The cruise with all excursions included comes to about pound;1,000 a head.
Preparation usually takes two years and Voyages staff can give presentations to schools and provide advice for party leaders on all issues relating to trip planning and the cruise itself. Tracy Braham of Aberdour School in Surrey says an inspection tour is a must for any group leader.
"I would defintely go on an inspection trip and try out all the overnight trips to check if it is worthy of your children doing it." Inspection tours are available for group leaders who have already booked a holiday and those who are thinking about it.