Sid and Jacqueline Street stood on the quay in Venice and watched their cruise ship, the diminutive Stella Maris, sail over the horizon. It was the final blow in a long day of travel horrors.
Their flight from Los Angeles had landed in Milan about sunrise.
"Plenty of time to get to Venice before your ship's departure for Dubrovnik at 3:30," a train official had assured them. "An express train will land you in Venice in two hours." But the express turned out to be a wine run or whatever is Italian for a milk run; it landed them in Venice 30 minutes after the ship's departure.
At the tavern where they repaired for a period of mourning, Sid learned that the Ocean Islander, another cruise ship not much bigger than the Stella Maris, was also about to leave for Dubrovnik.
Sid boarded and looked up the captain. Pointing toward the disappearing Stella Maris, Sid put on his Humphrey Bogart voice and barked something like "Follow that ship." For $120, the Ocean Islander landed the Streets in Dubrovnik two hours behind the Stella Maris.
Try to picture that scenario happening aboard one of the new megacruisers that are threatening to muscle little old vessels like the Stella Maris off the seas.
At 300 feet, the Stella Maris is even shorter and almost as old as my dinky destroyer escort from World War II. Which is precisely why I picked it; a Mediterranean cruise on a velvet-lined destroyer might make me feel like the young mariner I used to be. As befits a greyhound-of-the-sea, it carries only 180 passengers, has only one restaurant and one lounge, plus a video studio made by curtaining off some lounge space. But its swimming pool is definitely bigger than a Jacuzzi.
Still not convinced? Consider another statistic. The Stella Maris carries 110 crew members to serve 180 -- and sometimes fewer -- passengers. Behold the advantage of that ratio: When I left my cabin on the Stella Maris for the first time after leaving Venice, I managed to get lost even on that minuscule vessel. A chambermaid addressed me by name and steered me to my home without asking the cabin number, though I had not been aboard 30 minutes and had never met her. At the first meal in the Poseidon dining room, the maitre d'hotel and waiters already knew my name and halfway through the second course had memorized my dietary prejudices (not milk but apple juice on my breakfast cereal, and keep the Tabasco handy even through dessert).
The real charm of the vessel lies in the tiny but cosmopolitan passenger list. By the middle of the second night's entertainment in the Athenian Lounge, males felt compelled to perform duty dances with eligible females as though we had been invited to the party by the same hostess. Indeed, the bolder females claimed their dances from those better male dancers who were too shy to volunteer.
Issuing an invitation to the dance called for some polyglot gymnastics, because passengers spoke Japanese, Portuguese, French, German, Greek, Farsi, Arabic, Yiddish and even English. The crew spoke Greek, even the Filipino chambermaid. The musicians spoke Polish.
The dominant language on our cruise was Spanish, for a band of Mexican businessmen had capped their visit to the soccer World Cup games in Italy by flying in their families for the cruise. One of them explained why he chose a small ship for his gang. "When I was young, I was a well-known soccer player, a goal-keeper, and everybody greeted me as I walked down the street of Mexico City. I got used to it. Now, I like it when I walk the street in Corfu or Malta and fellow passengers greet me by name. Never would that happen on one of those big whales."
Besides, with only 100 or so going ashore at the tiny ports made possible by the ship's shallow draft, the arrival of the Stella Maris does not overwhelm the scene. At Dubrovnik, hundreds of swifts twittered through the nearly empty medieval streets of the old city, undaunted by our arrival; the narrow ways of the walled old city of Malta seemed as mysteriously deserted and silent after absorbing our entire landing party as it would at midnight; and our gang fit easily into Napoleon's house at Elba without crowding. In contrast, we were reminded at Naples of the mob scenes on megacruiser shore excursions.
Back aboard, I snuggled cozily into the temporary family our small band of passengers had unconsciously formed. I knew, for instance, that the ravishing Mexican teenager would grant me a samba, despite the vast chasm of years between us, because Daddy Fernando had accepted me as her gringo uncle. Besides, the goal-keeper would be on the floor himself with one protective eye on her as he drew all eyes to his own ballroom dash.
Our captain put forward the best case for matching a certain type of traveler with the small cruise ship that can poke into exotic ports. "Anybody who needs video games and a casino on a ship that calls at ports like Portofino, Dubrovnik, Capri and Elba, I don't need aboard my ship."
On the dock at Nice, where our temporary family dissolved, we dissolved in tears. With the Mexicans showing the technique, we parted with abrazos. We exchanged oaths to keep in contact through eternity. Business cards drifted about like snow in a Nebraska blizzard.
And our family was not unique, the captain assured me; all passengers on his little ship form the same instant bond. Maybe it's because all spaces are cut to human scale, like my own destroyer.
Anyhow, I did feel young again. The Stella Maris cruises entirely in the Mediterranean, mostly in the Greek islands; as of last week, the Persian Gulf war had not affected current itineraries. Depending on the accommodations, costs range from about $150 to about $300 per person per day, or from $1,165 to $2,085 per person for an entire cruise. In April, May, September and October, the Stella Maris departs from the Greek port of Piraeus on Fridays for seven-day cruises of the Greek islands and Turkey. In June, July and August, the ship's "Italy and Mediterranean Rivieras" cruises depart on alternating Saturdays from Venice or Nice; calls include Dubrovnik, Corfu, Malta, Messina, Capri, Elba and Portofino. For information, contact a travel agent or Sun Lines, One Rockefeller Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10020, 800-872-6400. Bern Keating is a freelance writer.