Port and Shore Excursions
We made arrangements by email with Paul Kalomiris (www.greektaxi.gr). We were advised to get off the ship the moment they open the door to meet our guide. We did and that turned out to be EXCELLENT advice. Our private driver, Konstantinos, was waiting outside the cruise terminal with our name on a sign and took us immediately to the Acropolis. It was not crowded and we started snapping pictures right away. Thirty minutes later, the place was a mob scene. The bus tours started arriving. We left the Parthenon about 45-minutes after we arrived and could not believe the giant crowd of people on the steps waiting to get in. Our driver Konstantinos is technically a driver and not a licensed tour guide so he could not accompany us into the sites. He told us about the history and sites before we got out of his car. Honestly, that was fine. His company can arrange for an official guide to escort your into the sites but I really don't think that's necessary for most people. We were rushing around the entire day and really could not have spent more time listening (absorbing) any other details. Our boys enjoyed seeing the changing of the guard outside the Parliament Building. Our driver made this day. He had so much personality and excitement and really seemed to enjoy his job. On top of that, he seemed to appreciate our business. He presented our boys with postcards, bookmarks and a nicely packaged box of baklava at the end of the day. Tip: Konstantinos got us to the Parthenon before the crowds. We were so taken back by the site and took so many pictures that we ate up too much time. Give yourself 30-minutes and then move on to see the other ruins at the Acropolis site.
This was the port where we were totally confused. Thank God for the ship's doctor! We ran into him on the bow of the ship as we sailed into Istanbul. Despite asking for clarification with the on board port guide and the shore excursion desk, it was the ship doctor who really explained "how" the Istanbul port works. Apparently there was a shuttle bus that would take you to the Galata Bridge for a charge. The doctor told us to skip the bus and walk! So glad we did. We had a few notes from a Rick Steve's book and explored. We went back to the ship for dinner. Our boys went to Club HAL and my wife and I went back out to take pictures as the sun started to set. We got some beautiful pictures of mosques lit at night and the Galata Bridge. I didn't understand the fascination with the bridge until we went to see it in person. It's a multi-level bridge... cars and people travel on the top... restaurants are on the lower level. This is a grimy urban bridge but the open air restaurants appeared to be super clean! Many on the ship had chosen a Bosphorus River dinner cruise or dinner and whirling dervish show. I thought the whirling dervish shows were too late in the evening to keep the boys out considering we had a full day of touring Istanbul the next day. Our dinner on the ship turned out to be one of the best (Lobster Thermidor) but I would suggest others consider dinner on the Galata Bridge for the experience.
The next day was a full day tour (www.dailyistanbultours.com). Another family from the ship with children about the same ages as ours, had also booked this tour. Truthfully, our guide was fine, but she lacked the enthusiasm and energy of our driver in Athens. I don't think she took enough cues from both families. She really didn't engage the children and, despite both families telling her that we are not shoppers, she left us alone in the Grand Bazaar for an hour (we all visited a nearby mosque on our own during shopping time).
If you were to ask our kids the highlight of this vacation, they would tell you Kotor. We booked an afternoon the "Monty B (www.montenegro4sail.com)." The Monty B is a private sailboat operated by a British couple. They live on the boat and host travelers to make a living. We were delayed in getting off of the ship--ship-sponsored tours get tender service before "independent" travelers. After leaving the dock, we turned left and walked less than five minutes to a small shore-side park with a stone monument and a small dingy (raft) was waiting for us. We climbed in and were rowed to the Monty B. The couple was delightful. We rode around Kotor Bay for several hours and saw the UNESCO World Heritage site of Perast from the water. Granted, we didn't walk around Perast as I guess the ship-excursion people did. But our boys took a quick dip in the Adriatic Sea, hoisted the sails, turned the sail gears and "drove" the boat. We were provided with a light snack and local cookies. We had about 45-minutes to peek inside the old town and gaze up at the wall of the fort (looks like the Great Wall of China that climbed the mountain) before catching our tender back to our ship. This happened to be the day of our 15th anniversary and we will treasure it.
Our private guide arrived about the same time we got off of the ship and walked out of the terminal (http://www.ephesustours.biz). She was a lovely lady... a former teacher and had a genuine love for people. By the way, the terminal area here is nice and fairly new... a very impressive entry to the country. Our Mercedes Benz van took us to the Virgin Mary's House. Again, we beat the tour buses. From there we spent about three hours in historic Ephesus. This IS IMPRESSIVE. Very quickly, the place became VERY crowded and hot. A delicious lunch was served to us at the nearby at the government sponsored carpet weaving school. After a carpet demonstration, with only slight pressure to buy, we went to see other ruins. It's obvious why everybody wants to visit Ephesus. Tip: Make sure your camera battery is charged... this is THE place to see and photograph ruins.
Our ship-sponsored tour took us to Delos on the afternoon we arrived. We all enjoyed the boat ride over to Delos. There were a lot of ruins on the ground on Delos. According to Greek mythology, this is the place where Apollo was born. During roman times, it was an important trading port. Very little has been reconstructed here. I wish there had been drawings to help visualize what used to be here. With few trees and no shade and difficulty visualizing, our boys got tired of this. Honestly, we were starting to get mentally tired as well. After dinner on the ship, we went to Mykonos and walked over to the windmills and saw the most wonderful sunset! We got some terrific pictures!
: From the descriptions we heard before we arrived, this was the second-most confusing do-it-yourself port. We had no specific plans. The ship shore guide made it sound more complicated and encouraged us to take a ship excursion. We did not and ended up making the right choice. This is a tender port. The tender boats arrive at a small dock at the bottom of a cliff. There are three ways up: 1). Cable car (ski lift type of cabin) 2. Ride a donkey 3. Walk up the steps (you would be nuts to try this). HOWEVER, we did not choose any of those options. It just so happens that at the dock, there was a small boat tour office. For a tiny price (at least compared to the ship shore excursion), we bought tickets on a large wooden pirate-looking boat. It took us around the edge of the island to the northern tip where a bus met us at sea level and gave us a ride to the top where we visited the town of Oia. This is the photographic spot everybody wants to visit for the shots of white buildings and blue-domed churches. After two hours, the bus took us back to the town of Thera where we would have to go back down the cliff to our tender dock. Santorini is a fairly small island, but it's much too large to traverse without some kind of transportation. Back in Thera, we walked around and decided to it was time to head back to the ship. This is the thing that every cruise passenger needs to know: You've got to get down the cliff back to the dock. The cable car line was l-o-n-g. Passengers later told us back on the ship that the line was an hour and a half! While I would have liked to have spent a little more time in Santorini, the fact of the matter was we were all getting tired and really needed to get back to the ship as quickly as we could. Looking at the stairway... it looked like it would take forever to walk down. We chose to ride the donkeys down (five euro each). It was an adventure. They went down the steps much faster than I would have liked... trust me, you have to hold on! Don't even think about taking a picture while riding these donkeys! Tip: The cable cars can only handle a small number of people at one time. The line is slow. Be prepared for the wait, especially if there are several cruise ships in port at the same time. You do not need a "guide" in Santorini, but you do need to think about transportation. Ship excursions will get you around the island, but they all end at the top of the cliff and you have to decide how you want to get back down. Walkers have to use the same staircase as the donkeys (watch your step!).
This can easily be done on your own. We entered the historic town (the walled palace interior was a town) and paid a small amount of money to buy a church pass. This allowed us inside the church, baptismal, bell tower and a small museum. After that we walked around a few minutes and were ready to try something different. We went back to the ship, ate lunch and went back into Split with beach towels. At the end of the dock, turn right, follow the palace walls until they end at the bus station and keep walking and follow the railroad tracks. As long as you follow the tracks you will find City Beach (we didn't and it took us longer). We went under a graffiti covered bridge and were there. This was a neat experience. Once you get past thinking about the urban and dingy entrance way, you realize the water is only waist deep for about the length of three football fields. Young and old were there. Every size and shape of humanity was on display. It should be against the law to sell a bikini to some people! We were amused at the number of people speaking English... every American college student backpacking across Europe must have been there that day.
The best decision of our trip was arriving in Venice a couple of days early and buying a transit pass. The ride from the Marriott to the "bus station (Piazzale Roma)" took about 20-minutes. The bus "station" is not a building. It is basically a huge cul-de-sac. From there visitors have three choices: in one direction is a building that is the entrance to the cruise ship tram/people-mover (One-Euro each way), On the opposite side of the cul-de-sac is a line of boat (vaporetti) stops and a bridge that crosses the water (the start of The Grand Canal) into old Venice. We walked across the bridge and promptly began wandering the streets of Venice. Tip: Transit passes are good for buses and boats (vasporetti). The official site is http://www.veniceconnected.com/node/1454 . The site is in English but it does not do a very good job at explaining "how" everything works. You can save a few dollars by buying a one, two or three day pass on-line before you leave the states. You are provided with a confirmation number that you then enter into an ATM-like machine at the airport (baggage claim area). An important piece of information is that you specify a date for the pass on-line during the purchase process. The on-line calendar is a Monday-Sunday calendar instead of the American Sunday-Saturday calendar. We clicked wrong day and were unable to pick up our pass until Monday.
In the following days, we rode the bus from the Marriott to the bus station, jumped on a city boat (Vaporetti) and explored. Experts will tell you the best thing to do in Venice is to "get lost." We weaved through walkways and over canals. We found great "reasonable" restaurants." The general rule is the further away from St. Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco), the cheaper everything is. Our most enjoyable activity was riding the boats. One night we got on the boat as the sun was setting and got terrific shots of Venice at sunset! Yes, because we have kids, we paid the 80-euros for the family to ride an actual gondola (prices and routes are regulated) but the public boats are all you "need."
On Tuesday we slept late, got dressed, and ate our emergency food of Lance snack crackers because we figured we would have a big lunch on the ship. We checked out and they gave us a code for some free internet time. By email on our iPad, we confirmed our arrangements for Kotor, Montenegro.
With luggage in tow, we, along with other cruisers on several ships, boarded the city bus with our handy transit passes. We hauled our luggage across the cul-de-sac and toward the tram. Machines for the one-euro tram (people-mover) tickets accept credit cards. Cruiser go up an escalator and onto the tram (an elevated train-type ride). There is no way to walk. The tram makes two (2) stops. The cruise ships are typically at the first tram stop. After exiting, we had to go down an escalator, walk to an awaiting bus, load our luggage and then ride to the cruise terminal (about a five minute ride). After unloading our luggage from the bus, we rolled it about 100-feet and gave it to a cruise port attendant (required). We entered the terminal around 12:30 and found no line. After check-in, security screening and the cruise photographer stop, we boarded the ship and went to our cabin (5056). We realized we missed the "Welcome Back Luncheon" in the main dining room and headed to the Lido. Tip: Another option would have been a taxi from the hotel to the cruise terminal. We would have avoided the one-euro tram ride and gotten on the ship about 30-minutes earlier, but we saved roughly $50 by using our transit pass.
Smartest decision we made on board our ship: Getting unlimited laundry. After lunch, we unpacked and sent our formal wear shirts and our clothes from the past few days out to the laundry. There is no need to pre-arrange this. There is a checkbox on the laundry form for "unlimited laundry." The cost was about $8 per day and covered all four of us in the cabin.
After unpacking we got off the ship and did the reverse route to get back to Venice but without the bus ride. Note, depending on where the ship is docked, this can be a LOT of walking just to get to the tram. Once at the bus station, we boarded a boat that took us directly to Saint Mark's Square where we got some better pictures and visited some several churches. We went back to the ship for a late dinner.
The first night of our "cruise" overnighted in Venice. We got up early and used our transit passes again to travel to Murano. We used Rick Steve's book extensively during our time in Venice and Murano and saw many others using it as well. And speaking of Rick Steve's guidebooks, the ship library had several copies of his Mediterranean Cruise Ports book. However, we found the pages had been torn out for the ports we were visiting!
Our "cruise" officially got underway when the ship left Venice mid-afternoon. There is no way to describe the priceless experience of standing on the bow of the ship (the bow was opened several times during our 12-days), listening to Italian music and sailing out of this magical city. Holland America gets major points here... commentary was provided either entering or leaving every port. Often music was matched to the port. The commentary was appreciated, but we found ourselves in a quandary. We so wanted to be on deck, to feel the breeze, to get a full clear view and take pictures. But it was difficult to hear everything and so sometimes we retreated to the Crow's Nest.