Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Learning to love the concept of cruising

So now I embark, as it were, on my journey into sharing my travel adventures with you. But it makes a bit of sense to start off going backward, i.e., to start with my most recent travel experience. This just happened to be my first experience on a cruise.

Now I feel a bit sheepish starting this way. I told you what my philosophy is about traveling: go to one place, spend a length of time there, get to know it well enough that it gets under your skin. Cruising would seem to be the exact antithesis of this: going to a bunch of places for a day each, with just enough time in each place to see a couple of things or maybe a few things if you rush. Not usually my idea of the way to travel. So I reveal myself to be, just like everybody else, a bit of hypocrit, I suppose.

But I prefer to look at this as me showing some flexibility, being willing to expand my traveling experiences. And also being accommodating, since Therese and I went on this cruise with her mom Eileen, and it was great traveling with her. I left for this trip hoping to be able to apply my usual philosophy to the trip - if we weren't staying more than one day in each city, at least we could do our best to not rush, trusting that seeing a small handful of things fully would still be a rich experience, and whatever we would miss might inspire us to return to one or more of our ports.

And of course the second part of going on a cruise is everything about the boat. Flying somewhere is usually the least pleasant part of the entire trip; but going somewhere by boat sounded like it could be a lot of fun.

So let me give you the details quickly, and then I will discuss a handful of points in some detail. And I will also make some posts of the highlights of the trip in the near future.

The three of us left New York City on Sunday August 14th, arriving in Venice the following late morning, checking in and getting on the boat in the early afternoon. We took the Royal Caribbean Splendour of the Seas on an 11 night Eastern Mediterranean cruise, leaving from Venice and stopping in: Kotor, Montenegro; Piraeus, Greece; Kusadasi, Turkey; Mykonos, Greece; Santorini, Greece; Bodrum, Turkey; and Split, Croatia. Our final destination was back in Venice. Therese and I then tacked on a side trip to Istanbul, Turkey at the end (we stayed there for 4 nights).

So let's talk about the boat, first of all. Splendour of the Seas, when it embarked on it maiden voyage 14 or so years ago, was one of the largest cruise ships. Now, it feels like one of the smaller ones. Its smaller size is ideal for cruises like ours since we passed through some straits and docked at some ports which a larger ship could not have done. Therese and I had an outside cabin on a low deck with a large window and some gorgeous views. We were relatively comfortable. I wish there had been more to do on the ship - the small amount of entertainment they had did not interest me, so I spent the days at sea reading and surfing the internet.

Which brings me to my next point. At this point in the game, you can grade whether something is excellent or not, to me, based on whether there is free internet service readily available. Splendour has wifi only in certain hot spots, AND you have to pay by the minute. There was one whole day, the day we were tendered next to Santorini, that there was no internet service anywhere. So as regards the internet, I would give Splendour a low mark.

The food on Splendour was not bad. And our dining experience was mostly very positive. The first couple nights at dinner, we were at an empty table, in a corner, facing some ugliness on the deck. We asked if we could be moved to sit with some English-speaking passengers, and the table they moved us to was great. Not only did we get to know our dinnermates a bit - 4 Australians and 2 Americans - but the waiter and her assistant, 2 lovely young ladies from Brazil, named Ana and Diva, were wonderful. Ana and Diva made our dining experience memorable.

Now I am allergic to dairy, and I made this known from the beginning, and the dining staff was great about preparing me special meals. Each night before the end of dinner, the head waiter would bring the next night's menu and ask me to pick an appetizer and entree, and they would make it for me with no dairy. The desserts they made special for me too - yummy berry mouses and fruit soups and things.

So overall, I think I would rate the boat experience, on a scale of 1 to 10, about a 6. Cabin, not bad; entertainment, non-existent; dining experience, quite nice.

Moving on, I suppose you would be curious as to what were the cruise's highlights for me? In short, I loved Venice, the Doge's Palace especially. Our excursion from Mykonos to the ruins on the Island of Delos was remarkable. Our trips to other ruins at Corinth and Ephesus were also quite wonderful. Lunch and shopping in Kusadasi was a ton of fun. St. Peter's Castle in Bodrum we all loved. The food pretty much everywhere was very good, and the local wine and beer we drank was also just right.

Istanbul had many highlights: eating iftar dinner with all the Muslims in Sultanahmet Square; visting the Ayasofia and Blue Mosque; visiting the Chora (Kariye) Museum; an evening cruise with music and food on the Bosphorus; and a culinary walking tour of the Beyoglu neighborhood.

I would definitely love to go back to Venice and Istanbul. Therese would go back to Bodrum again, and I could easily visit Delos again (although I can't imagine having a tour guide as good as the one we had!).

So how successful was I in applying my principles, or adjusting my principles, to the cruise? Well, as regards the time on the boat, I would have to say not so much. Yes, I did enjoy chilling with Therese, and with Therese and Eileen. But otherwise, my time on the boat was a dud.

As for the places we visited, I did a little better there. The places where we had structured excursions worked the best, I think. We made sure to pick excursions that did one or two things, and did them really well. For example, we hired a driver at Piraeus to take us to Ancient Corinth and to a Nemea winery. The day was perfectly timed: a stop at the Corinth Canal for some photo ops, a lengthy visit to the Ancient Corinth site, a drive up to the top of the Acrocorinth hill and amazing vistas of the surrounding bays, a great lunch at a local restaurant, and lastly, a nice wine tasting at a well-regarded wine bodega.

Similarly, the excursions we purchased from Royal Caribbean were focused and fruitful. Delos was the best, but Ephesus (from Kusadasi) and Salona/Trogir (from Split) were also quite nice.

Will I take another cruise in the near future? Just for Therese and I, no. But if that gives me the chance to travel with Eileen and again, and perhaps other family members, I would say, yes, absolutely.

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