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Aurora continues to please
Europe - Eastern Mediterranean
We are just back from a Mediterranean cruise on Aurora that wasn't billed as an "Ancient Civilisations" cruise but could have been, with calls that included La Goulette (Tunis) for Carthage, Heraklion (Crete) for the Palace of Knossos, Izmir (Turkey) for Ephesus, Piraeus for Athens and Katakolon (Greece) for Olympia.
Aurora is an excellent sea boat and inspires confidence, even in the heaviest seas - we've been on her in a Force 11+ storm off Cape Farewell (Greenland) and she handled it magnificently. Despite a change of Captain and Cruise Director since our last cruise, Aurora remains a very friendly ship with a crew who give every appearance of being happy. Cabins are showing some signs of wear and tear but everything still works well. As stated in the Expert Review, Aurora is somewhat dated with unexciting decor, but some of the "dated" features really appeal to me, like the teak promenade deck and the tiered stern that provides an excellent setting for sailaway More
Passengers are almost all British, and service, food and entertainment are arranged to suit this clientele. Food is of a good standard and we never had difficulty in finding something interesting on the menus in the main dining rooms. Bar prices are reasonable and standard gratuities are modest.
The main show every other night is traditional song and dance, performed with enormous energy by the well-drilled Headliners Theatre Company. Other entertainers are very variable. Youth staff do an excellent job of keeping youngsters well occupied to the extent that you're hardly aware there are children aboard apart from happy noises from the pools.
Most passengers appear to like to dress up for both formal and smart evenings. Not an exciting ship, but very comfortable for a relaxed holiday. Less
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Cabin review: IBL113 Balcony Stateroom with Bath/Shower
Our cabin was showing a few signs of wear and tear but was still pleasant and airy and everything worked well. There was a reasonable amount of space in the cabin and the balcony, with plenty of storage and hanging space.
The balconies in this cabin grade on Aurora are slightly enclosed and attract criticism from some reviewers, but we find them all right and it does mean they are less draughty than some. The bathroom has adequate space, but the bath itself is very small and best used for showering and for soaking feet after a tiring day's sightseeing.
The cabin was well-equipped, with television, telephone, safe, fridge, hairdrier, well-lit triple mirrors in cabin and bathroom, tea and coffee making equipment and supplies, biscuits, sweets, flowers and two small bottles of water, the last two items being provided only once at the start of the cruise.
The cabin was well-located for the Orangery self-service restaurant, the Crow's Nest lounge, the Crystal and Riviera pools and the spa and fitness facilities. It is not on a route used by large numbers of passengers, and the occasional passage of a few ship's officers en route to the bridge makes it feel a little special.
We found the cabin and its facilities and location perfectly adequate for our 17-night cruise.
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Port and Shore Excursions
Cruise ships for Athens come in at Piraeus, which is I think about 6 km from the centre of Athens. The cruise terminal is a mile from the centre of Piraeus where the metro trains for central Athens leave from. We had to walk about a quarter of a mile towards the centre of Piraeus before we came across a kiosk where we could buy a bus and metro ticket. There may be others, but we didn't find them. You validate the ticket on the bus and it is then valid on any buses, trams, trolleybuses and metro trains for 90 minutes, which is easily enough time to get to central Athens.
If you take the bus (routes 843 or 859) from near the Cruise Terminal, when you get to the centre of Piraeus look out for the footbridge across the road which is where the bus stop for the metro station is located. Once in Athens, Monastiraki station is a good place to get off the metro train if making for the Acropolis, but make sure you have a good map as the route on foot from there isn't very obvious. The Acropolis is very busy and there can be long queues at the ticket booth and at the entrance, but it is a must-do visit. We felt that it was better to visit it independently rather than on a tour as you can take your time going round the various buildings. Your ticket for the Acropolis also includes entry to the new Acropolis Museum which is supposed to be very good. We skipped it and just went for a walk through the Plaka district to Syntagma Square and back along the shopping street called Ermou to Monastiraki Station for the train back to Piraeus.
Our call in Crete was at Heraklion, a fairly large city with a historic core and great museums. It has a picturesque Old Port, and this and the old part of the city are within walking distance of the New Port where cruise ships dock. The main attraction is the Palace of Knossos, about three miles outside Heraklion. You can get there on ship's tours or the hop-on hop-off bus, but it is very easy and cheap to get there on the local bus (route 2 or 20) which leaves every 20 minutes from just outside the bus station between the New Port and the City Centre. Look for the little ticket office in front of the Megaron Hotel with a big sign saying "Buses for Knossos". Knossos is sometimes criticised for the partial reconstruction carried out by an archaeologist but is still well worth a visit.
The tour began with a coach ride of about an hour to the town of Seluk to visit St John's Basilica, in a scenic location with great views of the surrounding countryside. We were then taken to the House of the Virgin Mary. We understand that the queues to visit the house can be very long and you only get a couple of minutes inside the house before being moved on. We had a few minutes here to grab a light lunch (not included in the tour price) before moving on by coach to Ephesus. There is a huge amount to see at Ephesus, including the magnificent ruins of the Celsus Library and a large theatre. We were fortunate to be dropped at the top of the site so that we walked downhill and were picked up by our coach at the bottom, where there are some tourist shops. Then it took just over an hour to get back to Izmir. This was a good tour with a good guide.
Katakolon is a charming little port, little more than a village, with a bit of a beach and lots of tourist shops and restaurants. There is a train to Olympia but its operation is uncertain and timings difficult to ascertain so cruise passengers are probably better off getting a ship's tour to Olympia. We chose one called "Simply Olympia" which just visited the archaeological site, but others are available which include a visit to the museum. The site is green and peaceful in spite of the tour parties and provided us with the perfect antidote to a frenetic day the day before in Piraeus and Athens.
Lisbon is a fascinating city which could keep a tourist well occupied for a week or two, but we just had a day there. We were probably fortunate in making our first visit on a Monday when most of the museums are closed as we didn't try to do too much but just rode around the city on local public transport to have a general look around. You can get a day ticket for 5.50 Euros which allows you to use buses, trams, lifts (elevators), funicular railways and metro trains for 24 hours. You can find out where to buy these tickets on the city transport website (www.carris.pt), where there are also good maps of the network.
I can't give exact details of how to access the public transport network as ships come in to any of several locations spread over two miles of waterfront. We caught a bus to Belem where there are museums and an impressive Monument to the Discoveries and the Belem Tower. You may well see these from the river on your way in and out of the port but it is still worth seeing them close up from the land.
The must-do ride in Lisbon is supposed to be the number 28 tram, but this gets very crowded so we settled for a shorter circular ride on an antique tram on route 12 which still takes you at crazy angles up and down narrow streets in the old quarter. We then took the metro to Parque Eduardo VII (the station for it is just called Parque) which affords super views down into the city. We found a delightful restaurant in the park that happily provides snacks as well as full meals. We could not believe how little we paid there for baguettes, coffee and the delightful local speciality custard tarts, served either indoors or outside next to a small lake with ducks, geese and white and black swans.
Back in the centre, we took a funicular ride from Restauradores (near Rossio Square) up to the ornate Sao Roque church. Another way up is the spectacular Elevador Santa Justa from the Baixa shopping district.
There are, of course, plenty of tours available, both to the city and to attractive nearby towns like Sintra, Cascais and Obidos, and there are also hop-on hop-off buses and special tourist trams, but we enjoyed our day out on local public transport.
This all-day tour combines visits to Tunis, Carthage and Sid Bou Said, with lunch provided. First we travelled to Tunis, where we were given a guided tour of the medina with some free time. Then we went to a restaurant in Carthage for an excellent four course meal with Tunisian specialities and wine. We then visited two of the main archaeological sites in Carthage and viewed a third from the coach. Our final visit was to the picturesque seaside town of Sidi Bou Said where our guide took us to a traditional villa and then gave us free time for shopping. This was a very well-paced tour with an excellent guide, possibly the best ship's tour we have ever taken.