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Mother and daughter take the road less traveled

At just 480 acres, the high-rolling country of Monaco is the second smallest in the world (behind only the 109-acre Vatican) - and arguably the most glamorous. Yet when our ship, the Golden Princess, weighed anchor in Monte Carlo, the only thing Mom and I wanted to gamble on was the quickest route out of town.

It was a tough decision.

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This mecca for the rich and famous is widely considered one of the world's hottest vacation destinations. And we were intrigued by the history of this principality - it's been owned by the Grimaldi family since 1308.

But during our flight to Barcelona, where we began our 12-day Mediterranean cruise, we had decided to sidestep many of the usual day-visit suspects and seek lesser-known towns and regions. We wanted our mother-daughter vacation to be memorable.

That's not to say we were purists. This was Mom's first European vacation and my fifth - so there were some old favorites that required a new or return visit.

Fortunately, the 2,814-nautical mile itinerary, featuring some of the Med's most mesmerizing ports, works for neophytes and veteran cruisers.

We found some traditional tourist jaunts that we could not pass up. We followed the Panathenaic Way to the fabulously preserved Acropolis in Athens, which not only leads to the Temple of Athena Nike but a glorious city view.

We marveled during a stroll through Doges Palace in Venice.

We haggled for knockoff jeans, handbags, and Turkish spices among the 4,000 loud, crowded, smoky shops - and who knows how many people - in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.

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And in Barcelona, we walked Las Ramblas, a wide, tree-lined avenue with trendy shops, cafes, museums, and theaters.

Yet even tromping such familiar grounds in these famous old cities, we often found other places nearby to explore. For example, the ruins of ancient Corinth, the biblical city, are just an hour's bus ride from downtown Athens. And forget what you hear about Athens's smog and traffic: The air was crisp and the ride smooth during our visit this spring.

Old favorites

From the port city of Livorno, Italy, we set off to see Pisa, home to the architectural boo-boo that has become an infamous international landmark, and Florence. Neither the leaning tower nor the city of Pisa is worth more than a short visit. Instead, concentrate all your time on Florence.

Florence is where the Renaissance spirit blossomed. Here, the 15th-century Medicis devoted their wealth to the advancement of art, culture, and science. And here, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Galileo became legends.

We enjoyed a brief visit to the Uffizi Gallery, home to such world-famous paintings as "Baptism of Christ" by Leonardo da Vinci, and Sandro Botticelli's "Birth of Venus." This time, being part of a tour paid off. The line of individual visitors forms early and stays long, as the museum limits the number of visitors inside at one time.

Nearby is the Ponte Vecchio, a 14th-century bridge spanning the Arno River. Goldsmiths and silversmiths long ago built their shops on the bridge and along the road leading to it - a bit of entrepreneurism that isn't lost on the Florentines today. Hawkers still offer up everything from silk scarves to knockoffs of some of Italy's most famous designers. Don't be afraid to bargain - it's half the fun.

While in Turkey, only a short drive from the port city of Kusadasi, are the ancient ruins of Ephesus, the long-ago capital of Asia Minor. Ephesus is one of the most fascinating archaeological sites available to travelers, even though only one-tenth of the city has been restored. This is a work in progress you won't want to miss.

New favorites

Our favorite sights, however, were where we chose the road less traveled, namely St. Paul de Vence outside Monte Carlo and the Amalfi Coast near Naples.

Naples is a bustling metropolis of crowded streets, stately buildings, and famously wild traffic, but you need to search beneath the riotous surface for the unique experience. Our solution: Get out of town.

Beginning shortly after Sorrento and stretching to Salerno, the Amalfi Coast was the biggest surprise and most fabulous find on our trip.

Towns perched precariously on greenery-filled hillsides, gracious homes and hotels around every picture-perfect curve. It was simply one of the most spectacular coastlines either of us had ever seen.

We stopped in hilly medieval Ravello and beachfront Positano, whose roots also go back to the Middle Ages. Both are home to the world's biggest, gnarliest lemons - fruit that has, for some reason locals couldn't explain, been banned from export.

In Positano, we got a pleasant surprise. At the stroke of noon, a medieval battle re-creation began, complete with warriors jousting in period garb.

Back in France, St. Paul de Vence - the antithesis of Monte Carlo - proved the perfect choice for Mom and me. Walking along the narrow, cobblestone streets, we met artist Alain Sultan, whose studio on Place de la Mairie, is filled with paintings awash with Provencal-inspired yellows, purples, and blues.

After introducing himself and his work (which is shown internationally and was, unfortunately, priced well above either of our budgets), the artist resumed painting in his second-floor studio, leaving visitors to browse his simple Riviera-inspired paintings sans interruption. So very civilized.

After a morning of visiting art galleries and shopping for deals on porcelain beneath the bougainvillea, we dined at one of the lovely outdoor cafes that serve the scrumptious local lunch treat - Salade Ni├žoise.

And with glasses filled with iced Perrier, we toasted our decision to follow the road less traveled.

The 12-day 2002 Mediterranean cruise of the Golden Princess has substituted other ports for Istanbul and Kusadasi. For more information, call 800-PRINCESS, or see www.princess .com.