THE ADVENTURE BEGINS As anyone who's ever been on a cruise knows, once your address and email are in their hands, cruise lines send a steady stream of promotional material with special deals, glossy pictures of paradises and other carrots-on-a-stick. Since our first cruise in the fall of 2010 to Alaska, we were hooked on Celebrity and half-ass monitored the literature for inspiration (or simple bribery).
Being that Kristi picked Alaska, it was determined that I would be the one to pick the next destination. The flyers and catalog books that came in tempted me with photos of tiki huts, sugary-white beaches and azure skies. But our honeymoon in the US Virgin Islands cured us of any desires to see the Caribbean again and the South Pacific itineraries are...well...the market for healthy human kidneys isn't what it once was. Back in Alaska aboard the Millennium, we'd perused the propaganda and I kept coming back around to the Mediterranean. I'm a big geek when it comes to history, art and architecture, so this was a no-brainer in the end. We checked out the itineraries at the end of the season and we found a 10-night eastern Med cruise on the Equinox for half what it would be, normally. We booked a Sky Suite, which is substantially larger than a regular stateroom and -- on the Solstice-class ships -- is on the corner of the stern, so we'd have a view both to the rear and one side. Our AAA agent made our reservation and we were set.
GETTIN' GONE (Wednesday, 11/14 -- Thursday, 11/15 | IAH-IAD-FRA-FCO)
We'd accrued enough miles with Continental...erm...United to fly for free, though not enough for First and we had to put up with some routing shenanigans. One shenanigan we didn't mind was we had to spend an extra few days in Rome on the back end of the cruise, but we managed to swallow our disappointment and decided to make the best of it. United routed us IAH-IAD-FRA-FCO-FRA-IAH. Frankfurt is apparently the Atlanta of Europe, through which all flights are routed, no matter the destination.
On Wednesday morning, we had a cab pick us up, which is a nice combination of cheaper and less of a hassle than airport parking. Kristi needed an extra bag for the kitchen sink, so we had to cough up an extra C-note for the third checked bag. The IAH-IAD leg was uneventful and was fulfilled by a United A319. I'd never been to (or through) IAD and I was not impressed. It's crowded and cramped and in desperate need of updating. The worst part was not the Potbelly sandwiches we scarfed-down between flights, but that a direct flight to FCO was boarding at an adjacent gate while we waited to go several thousand miles out of our way to connect. But it's to be expected when you're a non-revenue passenger. As we finished our sandwiches, boarding began for the IAD-FRA leg aboard legacy UA 777 N773UA. When selecting our seats, Kristi refused to take the middle seat, so that left her with the aisle and me with the middle. Perhaps we'd get lucky and the window seat would be open so we could have more room. But no, the flight was overbooked and I was to spend the next several hours crammed between a snoozing German man and an increasingly-cranky wife. Add to that the bright lavatory light cast directly into my eyes every time a tiny-bladdered or an oldster with a hyperactive colon felt the urge. In other words, I got no sleep and was saved from total boredom by United's very nice AVOD system.
After arrival in FRA, we parked at a remote stand and deplaned in near 40Â°F temperatures. Staggering down the stairs to the accordion buses was brisk, both in comfort and urgency. They really needed an additional bus, as the two or three they used had us packed like sardines. And while I didn't quite have my bearings, I'm fairly certain we drove in circles for 15 minutes til we were dumped at Terminal A. I'm sure it serves a valuable function, but the immigration check seemed to serve no other purpose than to use up a little stamp ink and force us back through security. Oddly, Germany's security confiscated her cross-stitch scissors, which the American TSA said was OK.
Now, anyone who's ever been through FRA in recent years can understand why I wasn't sure if we'd landed at a German airport or an IKEA store. That place is the epitome of clean, sterile German design and seems to share it's habit of being perpetually-under construction. Having nothing better to do with our 3+ hour layover, I amused myself by people watching, plane spotting, wife arguing and nose blowing. Yes, adding another element to my pleasant disposition was the onset of a ridiculously runny nose.
After a tense few hours, we boarded Lufthansa A321 D-AIRP to find we were assigned seats in different rows and on opposite sides of the plane. Probably for the best, given my grouchiness, but I remembered we weren't able to choose our seats when we booked, as this flight was with a different carrier. The scenery was remarkable, as northern Europe was totally socked-in with a thick overcast and it made the view look like we were flying over a sea of giant cotton balls. Somewhere in that time, the attendants handed out some sort of nasty olive salad, which I left unopened. As we neared the Alps, the clouds gave way to sun and I had a magnificent view of Austria and Northern Italy, before the clouds set-in again to obscure the Italian peninsula for the remainder of the flight. Soon, the scenic Italian countryside was rolling beneath us and we were on the ground at FCO.
Finally, our long journey was coming to a close. Or not. Transportation employees across Europe picked this day to strike, and while the system didn't totally shut down, it gave us an additional hour and a half wait for our bags.
We chose to take the train from FCO into Rome and made our way to the airport train station. After the ticket machine decided to keep a couple Euros of our change, we had our tickets and headed for the tracks. A pair of rail employees whose jobs looked to involve holding down their chairs mangled enough English to tell us the train would arrive eventually. Ah, the laid-back Italian work ethic exemplified! Train service to Rome's main station -- the Termini -- is served by the Leonardo Express, which moves along fairly quickly during the 30-minute trip. Riders are treated to panoramic vistas of suburban Roman ghettos and endless graffiti. Arriving at Termini, we did the Great Big Bag Drag through the crowds and managed to find our hotel with minimal effort.
Checking into the Una Hotel Roma was refreshing after our long day. It was 28 hours since our wake-up alarm went off and we weren't in the mood for additional shenanigans. We were quickly processed by friendly desk staff and led to our room by the bellhop. The room was clean, modern and much larger than I'd expected. I remark on the cleanliness and modernization, as well as the friendly and helpful staff, as the research I'd done on Trip Advisor led me to believe this may not be the case. I picked it based on reviews and it's location just a block away from the Termini.
After dropping our bags, we struck out into the neighborhood in search of food. Again picking based on proximity, we chose Tomoko Tudini -- a little place behind our hotel. Restaurants in Rome are plentiful, though we found looks can be deceiving when it comes to food quality. We started with a plate of what was essentially lunch meat (though better quality) and a glob of fresh mozzarella. That was the best part of the meal, however. We each ordered a pizza; Kristi's with five different cheeses (at least one of which tasted like feet to my palate) and mine with the closest thing to American pepperoni, which was some form of salami that also tasted of feet. Oh...and ordering beverages can be a challenge for American tourists who don't know what they're doing. I'd read quite a bit about travelling in Italy and the beverage culture. For one thing, if you don't order wine, they look at you like you're joking. Everyone drinks wine. Well, we don't, and iced tea doesn't exist. So we ordered water. When one orders water in Italy, one has to specify "natural" (fizzy) or "still" (not fizzy). Also, eating dinner before 8 PM is just weird to them, but we were exhausted and not concerned with local custom. After a brief stroll through the neighborhood, it was back to the hotel to shower and crash before 7 PM.
AND WE'RE OFF! (Friday, 11/16 | Rome to Civitatecchia and Celebrity Equinox | 75, partly cloudy)
The Una Hotel Roma has a very nice morning breakfast buffet, which was another selling point we liked. We grazed on fruit, yogurt and croissants before checking out and walking to the Termini. At the Termini, I managed to decipher the schedule board and purchase our tickets from a more cooperative machine. On a side note, ticket offices are called bigeletterias, which amused us, as one of our 13" beagle's nicknames is biglet. Thus, if we needed another one, surely we'd purchase it at a bigletteria. Anyway, track assignments are also arbitrary, apparently, as there was no train at the track indicated on our biglet, but was at an adjacent one. Yet there wasn't any kind of signage to tell us this information. I used my skills as a trained investigator (to wit, I followed other American-looking people with Celebrity bag tags) to determine it was our train. After fighting off a little gypsy shit who wanted a tip for pointing at the bag rack, we settled in for the hour's ride to the port town of Civitatecchia. On the train, we met Bob and Maureen, who run a small hotel in southern Ontario. As luck would have it, their assigned cabin was next door to ours (or so we thought; keep reading). The bag drag from the train station to the port wasn't long, after we got directions from a helpful carabinieri.
Check-in was done in a large, semi-permanent tent on the pier. Anyone who remembers our tale of woe from our check-in at Vancouver before our Alaska cruise knows we had a pretty poor experience. This one was infinitely better, though my heart sank when our cabin keys weren't in the box they were supposed to be in. The clerk conferred with a supervisor-looking person and they scuttled off to another box to retrieve our envelope. Moments later, we were aboard the Celebrity Equinox and ready for the adventure.
We'd booked Cabin 6305, a Sky Suite on the 6th deck on the port corner of the "blunty end" (opposite of the "pointy end," terms given to us aboard the Millennium in Alaska). We found our door, popped my Sea Pass card in the slot and...nothing. Multiple swipes with both my card and Kristi's failed to open the door. I was getting ticked. After two trips to the Guest Relations desk, someone finally realized the issue. We'd been upgraded. Come again? Yup. The Upgrade Fairy waved her magic wand over our reservation and bumped us up to Cabin 1614, a Royal Suite on the 11th deck. One of the GR guys led us up to the room and opened the door. I'm fairly certain I heard a chorus of angels strike a chord as the door swung open to reveal our home for the next 10 nights. This thing was cavernous. We never thought we'd be in a suite with a dining room and a veranda Jacuzzi. The walk-in closet had lots of space for our stuff and what didn't fit in there fit in the coat cabinets in the living room. The bedroom had non-opening floor-to-ceiling windows that looked over the Jacuzzi and the 50" TV was like having a movie screen at the foot of the bed. The main bathroom was huge, with a whirlpool tub and a shower with one of those ceiling-mounted heads and a wand thing to rinse your nether-regions. My only complaint about the shower was that it seemed to have only two temperature settings: "third-degree burn" and "surface of the sun." But I managed. The other bathroom was really just a water closet, but came in handy when one wished not to offend his or her cabin-mate. There was a wet bar and a dining table for four, as well as two couches, a coffee table and a single chair that served as a coat rack. The 50" TV in the living room was hooked to a Bose surround system, but we didn't use it much.
After checking out our digs and relaxing on the veranda for a bit, we wandered the boat to get our bearings. Being a sucker for big boats and design, I was in Heaven. The safety muster was painless, save for the loud oaf sitting behind us, who had to make a comment about every aspect of the presentation, including how different it was from Carnival. Hurray for you, slick. Now STFU. But really, I'm not sure why people bitch about the safety muster. It's painless and takes all of 30 minutes of a 10-night cruise, so I'm not sure why so many people gripe about it.
Our next pleasant surprise came at dinner. We chose the 6 PM seating and requested a private table. Sure enough, we were assigned a 2-top on the lower deck, at the base of the wine tower. Our waiter and assistant waiter came by to introduce themselves. The waiter, Jimmy, was from India and was very good. He remembered that I mentioned my fondness for the escargot and brought me a double order every meal in the MDR (main dining room) after the first night. I can't remember the assistant waiter's name, but he was also very attentive and our glasses were rarely empty long.
For those unfamiliar with Celebrity's dining room menus, they have two sides. The left side is the same each night (I think it was the same two years ago on the Millennium) and features some less-adventurous fare. The right side changes each night and tends to be more exotic. This night, I selected the salmon from the left side, mushroom soup, escargot and crÃ¨me brulee. Kristi had haddock, tangerine and apple soup, shrimp Louis and chocolate cake.
After dinner, we made our way to the theater for a variety show that showcased a little sample of each of the performers on this sailing. Granted, this was our second cruise ever and both were on Celebrity, but I can't imagine there being a better collection of at-sea performers.
By the end, we were bushed, so we stopped by the Oceanview Cafe on the 12th deck for milk and cookies before heading for bed. Oh...and our big luggage finally made it by 10 PM!
WE HAVE SEEN THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN. AND IT WAS GOOD. (Saturday, 11/17 | Sicily - Messina, Taormina and Mt Etna | 75F, partly cloudy w/ showers at Messina & Taormina | 50F, partly cloudy at Etna)
Before she woke me, Kristi gave the Equinox gym a shot and they kicked her butt good. She hobbled with me up to Oceanview for breakfast. We found the selection both for lunch and breakfast more than adequate and we never left hungry. After breakfast, we went outside to watch our approach into the port of Messina. We made our way down to the theater, as we did each day to be separated into our tour groups. We booked all but one excursion through Celebrity, as it was easy and if something went wrong, they'd hold the boat for us. This day's excursion was a motor coach to the scenic seaside village of Taormina and then on to the Silvestri Craters at Mt Etna. Our coach was about the size of an airport parking shuttle and we had an local guide who spoke pretty good English. She told us about the history of Sicily -- how it changed hands depending on who had military control over the region -- and how independent they are. Taormina is one of those idyllic tile-roofed villages, perched on a cliff above an azure sea. Our guide walked us to the Greek theater for a tour before cutting us loose to wander through the town on our own. An hour later, a little rain shower passed through as we gathered at our meeting point to go to lunch. After lunch, we piled back into the coach for the drive to Etna. The weather set in as we drove and I feared the rain and clouds would ruin what was for us the highlight of this stop. But as luck would have it, the clouds broke as we neared the top and we had views from the peak just above us down into the foot of the slope. It was brisk up there (in the low 50's) and we learned the valuable lesson of being prepared for cool temps. We wandered around the Silvestri Craters, did our tourist photos and gathered sand and rocks for our souvenirs. As we departed, the clouds set in again and it rained on us until we reached the coastal highway. The weather delayed our arrival and we got back to the boat right at 6 PM, which meant A) we were late for dinner and B) they pretty much raised the gangplank as we boarded.
At dinner in the MDR, I had a sirloin, Asian consomme, escargot and chocolate lava cake ala mode. Kristi had the sirloin, Ceasar salad, shrimp Louis and the lava cake.
We spent the rest of the evening at the hot glass show on the 15th deck. The what now? The hot glass show. The Corning Museum of Glass has a joint venture with Celebrity, wherein the Solstice-class boats have a hot glass shop built into the top deck. It's amazing to watch. Our sailing had 3 young ladies from the US, who are professional glass artists, and they rotate narrating, creating and assisting.
After stopping for our nightly snack, we were off to bed. Arriving in our room, we found the cabin attendant left us a frog, folded from a towel. This was a nice little touch we were to find each night when we returned from dinner and the evening's activities. Yet another reason we're brand loyalists.
WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE (Sunday, 11/18 | At sea | 65, Cloudy)
Weariness finally caught up with us and we were thankful it waited til an at-sea day to do it. Twelve hours after we went to bed, we were awakened by the sound of our cabin attendant coming in to clean. He realized we were just waking up and excused himself promptly. Not that it really excuses our slothfulness, but there was an overnight time change as we moved into a new time zone after departing Sicily. We were disappointed we missed the galley tour, as we'd enjoyed it on the Millennium and wanted to see the newer set-up on Equinox. We made it up to Oceanview with the horde of hungry passengers for lunch, then wandered the ship to check out the shops and activities. We dropped in on a trivia game and were instrumental in our team's loss. There was a daytime hot glass show, which focused on the science of glass art. Returning to our room, we found an invitation to join the Chief Engineer at the Captain's Table for dinner.
Being an at-sea day, Celebrity scheduled the first of two formal nights, so we were prepared to dress up, anyway, but this was a nice surprise. We met in the Cellar Master's bar, where we were greeted with champagne and the other guests who'd be joining us. The other guests seemed to be established Elite members of the Captain's Club and each told us they'd been on several cruises with the line. Being second-time cruisers, our cabin came with temporary Elite status, which got us the invitation to the evening's dinner. We were informed that the Celebrity Upgrade Fairy doesn't appear often and that we were exceedingly fortunate, especially at the suite level. The Chief Engineer, Andreas Kavouras, was very warm and cordial. He explained he was the youngest CE in the fleet at 36 years old. For dinner, I had the tournedos of beef, escargot, chilled strawberry soup and cherries jubilee. Kristi had the sirloin, Caesar salad, shrimp Louis and cherries jubilee. Now, I'm not a wine drinker, but it was flowing and I was partaking.
We ended the evening by attending the variety show, "Remix," in the theater.
SAW ATHENS. UGH (Monday, 11/19 | Piraeus and Athens | 75, partly cloudy)
We awoke at 06:30 Monday morning to find we were already dockside in the port of Piraeus. We grabbed breakfast at Oceanview before heading to the theater to be assigned to our tour group. We'd booked a tour that included a motor coach to the Acropolis and Plaka shopping area. We boarded a full-size bus and were hosted by our guide, whose name I can't recall. But he was very personable and spoke English with hardly a trace of an accent. The route from Piraeus into Athens twisted through neighborhoods and business districts and took about 20 minutes. The main thing that struck me about Athens was that it was a dump. I wish I could say nice things about it, but "dump" is about as nice as I can manage. In their defense, Greece is in the midst of a crippling financial crisis and they're doing well just to stay solvent. But graffiti covered nearly every wall, construction projects were abandoned and crumbling and vacant storefronts were in abundance. Even important government buildings had protest messages marring large portions of the facades. Another thing I noticed was the number of stray dogs on the streets. I was pleased to learn that Greeks have a tolerance of strays so strong, they vaccinate, neuter and tag dogs and cats instead of picking them up and euthanizing them. We made our way to the Acropolis, where we plugged in our earpieces to listen to our guide's lecture as we walked. For as dumpy as the parts of Athens we saw were, the Acropolis was well-kept and clean. Being the end of the tourist season, the Acropolis was not as crowded as it would've been in the summer months. I couldn't imagine wave after wave of tourists, elbow-to-elbow in 95F heat. The weather was just right for my taste, with just a thin layer of clouds softening the sunlight. Much of the Acropolis was under restoration and repair, with scaffolding and equipment all over the place. While I was glad to see the preservation effort, it was a little disappointing to have my photos cluttered up with construction detritus. Oh well. That's why Photoshop has a cloning tool, right? I got my requisite shots of the Parthenon, et al, and we returned to the bus with the group. I was greatly amused when the bus pulled up to the Plaka, where we were supposed to get off and browse the stores, but no one wanted to get off the bus. I think our fellow passengers were disenchanted with Athens like we were and just wanted to get back to the Equinox.
Back on-board, we had lunch at the burger bar by the pool, took a quick nap and attended a Future Cruises presentation on the Galapagos Islands cruise. This one was high on our list of cruises we wanted to take, but we found the cost was nearly 3 times what we paid for this one and it might be a while before we could afford it. We also took the Captain's Club backstage tour of the theater, which was led by members of the cast.
At dinner in the MDR, I had some sort of fish wrapped in parchment paper with herbs, escargot, Caesar salad and crÃ¨me brulee. Kristi had eggplant parmesan, Caesar salad, rigatoni pasts and chocolate cake. After dinner, we visited the Future Cruises desk to collect some itineraries, then returned to our room to relax and browse the selections.
JOEY, HAVE YOU EVER BEEN IN ATURKISH PRISON? (Tuesday, 11/20 | Kusadasi and Ephesus | 70F, PC/rain)
The alarm woke us at 07:00 and I opened the curtains to a brilliant sunrise over the mountains of Kusadasi. The Equinox was already tied up to the pier and I was pleased to see little evidence of impending rain, as the forecast indicated. After breakfast and our tour assignment, we boarded a motor coach to Ephesus. Neither of us had any education in biblical history, so Ephesus was a mystery. I did enough research when we booked months prior to determine it shouldn't be missed. The bus trip was about 20 minutes to the entrance, where we were greeted by a pack of resident Anatolian shepherd dogs. They were very sweet and it helped us assuage our homesickness for our dogs. Entering the site, I'll admit I was not even remotely prepared for Ephesus. As I said, I know next to nothing about biblical history, which meant I didn't know Ephesus was a major metropolis back in the day. Fascinated by history, I was in awe of the place and was impressed at it's size. Our guide -- while emanating an air of used car salesman -- spoke excellent English and was very knowledgeable about the site and it's history. Our guide explained what we were seeing and it's importance, as well as describing the evidence they've used to arrive at their conclusions. After an amusing walk-through of the toilets, we entered the Terrace Houses, which are a group of upper-class residences that were excavated and covered by a modern roof. The houses still have much of their original painted plaster walls and tile mosaic floors intact. The splendor of the site was diminished a bit by this ridiculous little performance they run on the quarter hour. The show involves actors dressed in robes making a grand entrance to the Olympic theme, then concluding with a dorky gladiator "fight." Leaving the site, we ran the gauntlet of cheap trinket salesmen and ended up buying a couple of photos taken of us during the tour. From Ephesus, the bus took us to St John the Baptist's church in nearby Seluk. Much of the church was in ruins, but the baptismal pool is still there, where St John baptized the faithful. I wish we'd have been able to stay longer, but the rain that had blessedly held off began to make up for lost time and we were in the middle of a right downpour as we scurried back to the bus.
The bus hauled us down the road to a hotel for lunch. We were the first of several buses, which I thought was a good thing, but soon revealed itself as a tragedy. We were stopped at the entrance to the ballroom, where there were racks of colorful robes. This was a Roman-style lunch, you see, and part of the experience was to dress like those obnoxious actors at Ephesus. Everyone on our bus reluctantly donned these goofy robes over our clothes and we all felt ridiculous. As soon as we sat down, the service began. We were brought a nasty salad with a variety of nasty breads. We picked at our salads until the "main course" arrived. It was a selection of food that they claim would've been enjoyed by ancient Romans. I can't even remember what all was on the plate, but little of it was very good. From what I recall, I didn't hear a single positive comment about it. The absolute worst part was a shot glass of rose-flavored sugar water. It was like drinking grandma's perfume and I gagged. With the dishes cleared and no risk of more coming, we all looked around for some sort of cue as to what was next. By now, the staff was busy serving plates of nastiness to several other buses and we were an afterthought. So I took it upon myself to initiate our departure. I stood, started toward the door and the others from our bus followed suit. As I walked, I couldn't help myself and announced that I, Moses, was leading my people home. I got a smattering of chuckles. Perhaps I'd have been a bigger success had the mood not been suppressed by the mediocre fare in front of my audience.
The bus dropped us back in Kusadasi as the rain was ending. Our Rick Steves guidebook warned us that no Kusadasi tour would be complete without a carpet presentation. Now, when I say "would not be complete," I don't mean they're something everyone should see, but more that you cannot end a tour without being funneled into a rug shop to hear a sales pitch thinly disguised as a historical lecture. Yes, they're amazing, but I think the fact we were herded in somewhat against our will made the experience intolerable. We stayed long enough to be polite, then bolted for the door. We spent the next couple of hours browsing the touristy area near the port before heading back to the Equinox.
We had dinner in the MDR again, at which I had pork medallions, escargot (see a pattern?), French onion soup and white chocolate macadamia cake. Kristi had herb-crusted chicken, Caesar salad, fruit and chocolate cheesecake.
Like other nights, we found ourselves at the hot glass show until bed time. Ephesus is a lot of walking, so we were bushed.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO RHODES (Wednesday, 11/21 | Rhodes | 70, PC)
Our faithful alarm sounded at 07:00 and after breakfast we watched the Costa Pacifica pull alongside us. The Pacifica had been scheduled to be in Haifa, Israel, this day, but there was a flare-up of hostility between the Israelis and Palestinians, so they made alternate arrangements and followed us to Rhodes. After morning assembly in the theater, we disembarked to meet our tour guide, George, on the pier for a walking tour of Rhodes for the day's excursion. We entered the walls of the old city right off the pier and began the tour at a very quaint Orthodox church with brilliant paintings on every surface but the floor. We walked the cobblestone streets of the shopping district, past the Mosque of Suleiman The Magnificent and to the Palace of the Grandmasters. The Palace was magnificent and over-the-top, with mosaic floors, sculptures and paintings. Of note during this part of our tour was when we stopped for a break. George, the guide, excused himself to the restroom, but forgot to turn off his mic as he sat to...well...you know. I laughed out loud as the other people in our group made a wide assortment of facial expressions, ranging from disgust to great amusement. From the Palace, we walked the oldest streets in town to the archeological museum, housed in what was once a fortified hospital. There, we browsed ancient artwork and articles for a while until the tour was complete.
One of the couples in our group was a very nice husband and wife from Tucson, whom we'd met before on the tour in Sicily. With hours to kill, they joined us for a walk to an aquarium we'd read about in the Rick Steves guidebook. It was a healthy walk in very pleasant weather. The walk and the company were the best part of that side trip, however, as the aquarium leaves much to be desired. Back at the port, the Tucson couple headed back to the boat while we went back into the shopping district to browse and finish sightseeing.
As I mentioned earlier, we're not oenophiles. I did not grow up in a household with wine and Kristi once tasted a bit too much of the grape to ever want it again. But having been chastised by many for not drinking wine in a region where even newborns take a bottle, we signed up for the wine appreciation event in the MDR. Several sommeliers were on hand to guide us through the process of watching it run down the side of the glass, sniffing it, swirling it and actually tasting it. It was no use. By the end, we couldn't taste anything but sour grape juice and resigned ourselves to be heathens at the dinner table.
Another perk of our temporary Elite status was a sheet of coupons for various services around the boat. By this point in the trip, we were running low on clean clothes and our giant Ziploc bag of dirty clothes was not only about to burst, but was being considered as a Superfund project. So we cashed in a laundry coupon and sent a load out, which returned the next day neatly folded and ready to be soiled again. We did this twice (had two coupons) and decided to make it a part of our budget on future cruises, as Celebrity has no self-serve laundry (as I understand other lines have) and we're not inclined to burn half a day doing it ourselves in the sink.
For dinner, we cashed in another perk our cabin gave us, which was one of two dinners in a specialty restaurant. The Solstice-class has three specialty restaurants, in addition to Blu (for the Aqua Class guests) and the Bistro on Five. On this night, we chose the Tuscan Grill, which was an Italian steakhouse on the stern. If we'd had any daylight left, we'd have had a spectacular view of Rhodes and a distant thunderstorm as we sailed away, but it was very nice, just the same. I had calamari fritti, a fantastic seafood soup, shrimp & scallops and finished with a chocolate-pistachio crÃ¨me brulee that crackled like Pop Rocks candy in the mouth. Kristi had a crab cake, minestrone soup, lobster linguine alfredo and fruit with chocolate fondue. Easily the best meal of the cruise!
We finished the night with a Broadway greatest hits show in the theater.
THE POSTCARD ISLAND (Thursday, 11/22 | Santorini | 70, PC and wind)
Thanksgiving morning found us anchored off Fira at Santorini. We woke at 06:30 so we could eat breakfast and hopefully make it to the tenders before the masses. Santorini has no deepwater port, so passengers are tendered to shore in little boats. Elite members had priority boarding, which was handy, as we'd booked our own tour through a private service not affiliated with Celebrity. I'm sure the Celebrity tours were great, but most involved wine and none included seeing the red and black sand beaches. The tender ride was about 5 minutes and deposits you at the base of soaring bluffs, atop which the town of Fira sits. From the port, there are three ways up. One can walk up the switchback trail, which is shared by another form of transportation: the donkeys. The main peril of walking is -- of course -- that the donkeys do their donkey business on the trail when the inspiration hits them and one has to navigate the mess. I can't even imagine what the trail is like in the summer months. We chose to pay the â‚¬8 for the cable car, which is the third option.
Our guide met us at the cable car station at the top and we were off. This was not a tour that stuck to a schedule. It was more like a car service. We told her where we wanted to go and she drove there, stopping every so often at a point of interest along the way. Our first stop was the red sand beach near Akrotiri. I found this spot while browsing Santorini photos on Flickr and knew it was a must-see on our itinerary. Our guide made the 20 minute drive and waited at the parking area while we did our geology geeking. Unlike the photos I saw, which showed the beach crowded with sunseekers, we had the place to ourselves. We gathered our rocks and sand for souvenirs and marveled at the intense rust-red outcropping. Leaving the beach, our guide stopped at Akrotiri. We'd mentioned not being interested in seeing it, but either she didn't remember or didn't understand. We were really ruined-out by this point, but we paid the admission and made a quick walk-through. The site is covered like the Terrace Houses, but the ruins aren't in nearly as good a shape. I remember it as more piles of rocks than recognizable structures. But the tour buses hadn't made it here yet and we moved through without delay. From there, our guide drove us to the seaside village of Perissa. Again, it being well after tourist season, the place was nearly deserted. Most shops and bars were closed, but we didn't care about that, anyway. We were there for the black sand beach. From Perissa, she drove the length of the main island along it's spine to Oia. Oia (EE-ah) is that iconic Greek island village that appears on nearly every ad, postcard, poster and web search about Greek isles. Whitewashed stucco buildings with brilliant, blue-domed churches every 50 yards, all spilling down the cliff toward the sea. This was MY stop. Of the entire cruise, Oia was the one place I truly wanted to see. Everywhere you turn is another postcard shot and I wore my shutter button out. The clouds gave way enough to bathe the village in brilliant light while we were there and I was sated. Our guide took us back to Fira and we parted ways with a generous tip for her effort. We spent a couple of hours browsing the shops in Fira, looking for gifts to bring back to family and friends. Again, we found about 75% of the shops and restaurants were already closed for the season, but we managed to add to the economy a little before boarding the cable car back to the port.
After we watched the evening sun illuminate the island one last time, we decided it was time for dinner, but Kristi didn't feel like going to the MDR. We went to Oceanview, where they'd prepared a traditional Thanksgiving dinner of herb-infused turkey with sweet potatoes, dressing and other essentials. The turkey was magnificent and I went back for more. Hands-down best turkey I've ever had. I was also amused by the non-American staff, who were bewildered by the spectacle.
Full of turkey, we made our way to the little theater on Deck 4, where they'd managed to find American football to continue the Thanksgiving tradition. The game started at 11:30 back home, but it was 20:30 in our little corner of the Med and it took us til after midnight to watch my beloved Texans eek past the Lions. I really wanted to watch the Redskins wallop the Cowboys, but we had to be up in the morning for Mykonos.
MYKONOS, YOURKONOS, OURKONOS (Friday, 11/23 | Mykonos and Delos | 60, PC and windy)
06:45 is much too early to wake up after staying up late to watch football, but we powered through. After breakfast and the numbered sticker distribution in the theater, we followed the herd down the dock to the ferry, which was berthed just aft of the Equinox. Now, the ferry ride to Delos is about 30 minutes long and we were told that the Greek coast guard will occasionally stop the service due to high wind and rough seas. As I watched the horizon come in and out of sight in the windows, I wondered just what they considered "rough." Nevertheless, my stalwart stomach remained at ease and we soon disembarked at Delos. The wind was really whipping and we were glad to have our jackets. Delos is amazing and our guide, we ascertained through intense interrogation, was a PhD in archaeology. We walked the site with our guide, learning about the history and current projects, then walked through the on-site museum. I'm not sure how it was possible, but the ferry ride back was even rougher than the trip over and I found myself doubting the existence of the Greek coasties, much less their small craft restrictions.
Upon our return, we wandered the streets, popping into shops and clicking away with my camera glued to my face. We stopped for frozen yogurt and I introduced Kristi to baklava, which she admitted was very tasty. At the bus stop (the boat was a mile, or so, from town), we waited a few minutes for a big ferry to get out of the way and for the sun to break through the increasing overcast for a brilliant oblique shot of Equinox.
Back on board, we grabbed a quick nap, then made our way to the MDR, where I had escargot, lobster bisque, chateaubriand and a chocolate mousse bombe that knocked my socks off. My date had fruit, Caesar salad, herb chicken and chocolate cake. Afterward, we found ourselves back at the hot glass show until it was time for bed.
I HAVE MY SHIP AND ALL HER FLAGS ARE A'FLYING (Saturday, 11/24 | At sea | 62, PC)
With nothing on our schedule, we slept in a bit and spent the morning lounging in the room. Yes, cruises are relaxing, but if you choose to do so, you can fill your days with enough activity to run yourself into the ground. Our stops thus far each involved a fair amount of walking, so a little R&R during our R&R was refreshing.
I confess I'm a little addicted to technology. I like to keep up with the latest and greatest mobile devices and find having the internet at my fingers at all times both useful and entertaining. So one of my goals for this cruise was to unplug myself and detox a little. Aside from the dumbphone I carried in case of an emergency back home, my tablet and smartphone were used for nothing more than games or to grab a quick snapshot on the fly. But I was bursting with the need to check email and drop an update on Facebook. So after lunch, Kristi headed for the gym and I cashed-in one of our 90-minute internet coupons at Online Celebrity. Equinox has a little room on Deck 6 with a couple dozen laptops one can use for a fee. I gave my coupon to the attendant and went about logging in. The first thing I noticed was how sluggish the connection was. Understandable, though. We were somewhere between Greece and Italy with no land in sight. I typed out a long update for Facebook with highlights from each stop, then went to paste something and...Blue Screen Of Death. I can't remember what key it was, but it was in the bottom left and if you push it, brush it, disturb the air around it or look at it in a way that displeases it, it crashes the computer instantly. After a couple of reboots I'd tired of the shenanigans and went back to the room.
Being an at-sea day, this was the second formal night of the sailing and we'd scheduled our second complimentary specialty dinner with Murano. Murano is Celebrity's super-lux fine dining restaurant and is either already on, or will soon be on, a majority of Celebrity's fleet. The decor is dark and formal and the service is what you'd expect in the finest restaurants around the world. After going through the "what do you mean you don't want any wine?" rigmarole, I ordered scallops and truffles in a pastry shell, lobster in dijon butter and the chocolate souflee. Kristi had a goat cheese souflee, cape sole and the chocolate souflee. The main courses were prepared tableside and were timed to be finished so they could be tabled at the same time. The food was very good and the service impeccable, but we concurred that we preferred Tuscan Grill in the end.
After dinner, our butler met us near the theater and led us to reserved seats for the big show. This one was, to me, like The Lion King as performed by Cirque du Soleil. It featured acrobats, contortionists, vocalists, drummers and a dazzling aerial display. I thought it was fantastic, though the woman sitting next to Kristi -- who had absolutely no rhythm -- insisted on clopping her hoof off-beat throughout most of the performance. But the spectacle of the show was enough to keep me from being too irritated.
DAMN, VULCAN, WHY YOU GOTTA LIVE WAY UP ON A MOUNTAIN? (Sunday, 11/25 | Naples, Vesuvius and Pompeii | 65, Cloudy)
No sleeping-in today. We were up at 07:00, fed, segregated and out the hatch for the day's excursion: a motor coach tour that would take us to Vesuvius and Pompeii. The bus picked us up on the pier right off the boat and we were off to the mountain. Or so we thought. Like the mandatory carpet hijacking in Kusadasi, the bus made a stop at a cameo factory on the way. Not that it wasn't interesting, but you could tell that the history and artisanship of cameo-making was secondary to parting us with our cash. Fortunately, it was over quickly and we were back on our way. As we approached, much of the mountain was obscured by clouds this day, but they cleared as we got closer. The driver deserved more credit than he got for running that full-size bus up the narrow road to the top, dodging cyclists and kamikaze tourists in rented Fiats. The bus pulled into the small lot at the visitor's center, where we dismounted and began the hike to the top. I'm a none-too-athletic thirtysomething acclimated to sea level, so as the peloton scurried up the trail, I languished behind, huffing and puffing and cursing Vulcan with every step. It was cool (maybe in the 50's), but I shed my jacket early on and found I was drenched in sweat. So I -- along with a couple other members of the Chair-Sitters Union Local 1 -- dragged up the slope and eventually caught up. The crater rim was nearly deserted, except for us, which was another sign and benefit of the end of the tourist season. Our view of the caldera was clear and the clouds broke along the slope for us to see down to Naples and beyond. After we left, the clouds settled back in and even drizzled on us a little.
Our next stop was Pompeii, where our guide walked us through the excavated ruins and explained some of the more interesting highlights. I was greatly amused by the brothel and even more by the carving of a phallus in a cobblestone on the street, pointing the way.
We returned to the port and tried to walk around a little, but much of the surrounding area was under construction and it was difficult to do much sightseeing. Back on-board Equinox, we set about packing and getting ready for disembarkation the next morning. We chose to have dinner in our room and Alex, our butler, handled the arrangements. I had the salmon, escargot, Caesar salad and a berry parfait. Kristi had the New York strip, Caesar salad, fruit and chocolate cake.
After dinner, we went to the Future Cruises desk and signed up for two "open bookings" for as-yet-undetermined cruises. Next one is Kristi's choice and she seems to be leaning toward a British Isles cruise. As for my choice for the one after, I'm leaning toward the Antarctic, Panama Canal or Baltic, though I'd really like to see the western Med and Adriatic.
Before bed, we set our bags outside the door so the baggage fairies could whisk them away for the morning's departure.
ALL GOOD THINGS MUST COME TO AN END (Monday, 11/26 | Civitatecchia and Rome | 65, PC)
We awoke at 07:00 so we'd have enough time to gather our last-minute items and do a sweep of the room for anything we missed. Captain's Club members were given a little departure perk of breakfast at Blu and we each had pancakes and bacon. Disembarking was unremarkable and quick. A shuttle bus deposited us outside the port and we fought through hordes of taxi drivers trying their hardest to turn a fare. We marched like ants down the sidewalk a few blocks back to the train station, where the mob was trying to determine where they needed to go. By now, I was an old pro at the ticket machine and bought an inter-city ticket that made only one stop before the Termini. Seemed like everyone else was trying to make the train just before it, that stopped in every little wide spot in the road. I don't know for sure, but even though our train left 15 minutes later, I think ours arrived in Rome well before the other.
Arriving at the Termini, I quickly checked my maps and determined we needed to grab a taxi. It's not that we were that far from our hotel, but doing the Bag Drag that distance would be a pain. This resulted in a bit of a heated disagreement between my beloved and I and we spent the next half hour with me charging ahead silently, whacking my suitcases on every curb and obstacle without caution. By the time we reached our hotel near Piazza Barberini, I'd soaked through the fresh shirt I'd intended to wear for the rest of the day. The silent treatment lasted through check-in and my shower before friendly relations were reestablished.
For the back end of our trip, I'd selected the Hotel Memphis. With hindsight, I'd have gone back to the Una Hotel Roma, but it was a nice place. The room was updated and modern with plenty of room. The walls were a little thin, as we heard our neighbors come in and get settled after we went to bed that first night. Another oddity was the temperature. We found it a little cool, but there was no thermostat to do anything about it. Checking with the clerk, the temp is set by the hotel staff via a computer at the front desk. He adjusted it and we returned later to find it comfortable.
With our disagreement behind us, we struck out to see as much as we could before sundown. With our trusty Rick Steves guidebook in hand, we did the reverse route of a walking tour laid out within, beginning at the Spanish Steps (where his tour ended). One of the great things about Rome is that nearly everything a tourist would want to see is within walking distance. From the nearly-deserted Spanish Steps, we headed for the Trevi Fountain, stopping for pizza along the way. Trevi was more crowded, but still not as bad as pictures I'd seen during the pre-trip planning. We moved on to the Pantheon, which I thought was magnificent. I've seen numerous programs on History Channel and the like about Roman architecture and knew the Pantheon was a masterpiece of engineering and design. Staying in the neighborhood, we visited a few of the more notable churches (Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius, Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the Eglise Saint-Louis-des-Francais). As the sun dropped below the rooftops, we entered the Piazza Navona, where we checked out the Fountain of the Four Rivers and soaked in the atmosphere. Before heading back toward our hotel, we strolled through the Campo di Fiore, which was a little disappointing. I guess we got there during some sort of transition period, as most carts and shops were closed and a clean-up was in progress. We marched back to the hotel to drop my camera bag before dinner at Terrazza Barberini.
We had the place to ourselves and had to roust the waitstaff from some huge metric football match on TV. I chose a seafood risotto that was fantastic. The scallops, shrimp and calamari tasted like they'd been swimming earlier in the day. Kristi had a gnocci dish she polished off.
HOLY MOTHER! IT'S THE HOLY FATHER! (Tuesday, 11/27 | Rome and Vatican City | 65, Cloudy)
Breakfast at the Hotel Memphis was similar to the set-up at the Una, with an assortment of cereal, fruit, yogurt and such. We walked to the Barberini Metro station down the block, figured out the ticket machine and boarded a Metro train to the Vatican. When we booked the trip, our agent booked a skip-the-lines tour at the Vatican Museum. We met our guide and a few other couples across the street from the museum entrance. I had to check my camera bag, so I grabbed the camera with the 24-105mm lens and stuffed the 8-15mm fisheye in my pocket. The museum is incredible, even to a spiritual agnostic, so I was mesmerized by the history and brilliance of a couple millennia of acquisitions and gifts to the Church. The Sistine Chapel was disappointing and awesome at the same time. I was disappointed by the fact they'd turned off the lights (I know why, but still) and by the number of people just loitering inside. And despite the signs and frequent barking from the guards, several dimwits were still clicking away and a few of those mental midgets even forgot to kill their flash. Some people...jeez. Our tour ended after a short walk through St Peter's, though we were still able to wander around at our leisure. After getting the photos I really wanted inside, we decided to try to make it to the top of the dome. Our guide said the lack of a line was unheard of, so we took it as a sign from above. There are two ways to the top: one involves several hundred steps and the other takes an elevator to the base of the dome, where you'll have to take about 200 fewer steps. We chose the elevator route. When my legs turned to jelly halfway up and I used internal dialogue that would surely have me struck down, I couldn't imagine if we'd chosen the former. The stairs are internal, between the outer and inner domes. They corkscrew upward and are interrupted by occasional spiral stairs that are particularly narrow. But the view from the top is spectacular and offers an unparalleled view of Rome in all directions.
The Metro ride back to Barberini was a little more entertaining. First of all, it was a little after 14:00 hrs and the train was packed. Kristi and I stood, as there were no seats open. Rick Steves cautions strongly about being on-guard at all times in Rome, as pickpockets are rampant. We'd taken precautions beforehand, like backing against a wall when we stop to check maps and maintaining physical control of our backpacks at all times. I kept our passports, credit card and cash in my shirt, which had internal pockets. But we were standing among four nuns and a Carabinieri, so I felt pretty good. Sure enough, a little Gypsy turd about 14 years old boarded at the next stop. He was pretending to look for a place to stand and was pushing against me, Kristi and a couple of ladies next to him. He held his left hand concealed behind a satchel, which I'm sure had a hole cut in the side. I was already wary of him, but figured with Christ's brides on one side and a Carabinieri a few feet away, I was good. I had nothing of value in my pockets -- a couple of tourist maps and used tickets to the Vatican Museum -- but I instinctively grabbed my pockets, anyway. Sure enough, a local standing nearby gave me that look of, "You need to watch him." Kristi was watching him, too, and when he got off at the next stop, everyone around him took inventory of their belongings. Pretty brazen, but ultimately a failed attempt.
Back at Barberini, we walked the half-block to the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, home of the Capuchin friars (monks who wear the brown felt robes with the white rope around the waist; live in poverty). The church is most notable as the site of the ossuary crypt, where the skeletons of thousands of monks have been arranged and displayed in an assortment of decorative displays. They're pretty strict about no photos, so I didn't get any. I gotta admit I wasn't prepared for this. It's not gross or unsettling. It's more of a morbid "WTF?!?" experience. Definitely worth the time if you find yourself in the neighborhood, which you might be if you find yourself in trouble, as the US embassy is right around the corner.
For dinner, we tried a little place around the corner from the hotel. The food was OK, but not great. I had lasagna, a slab of flavorless veal and a fruit salad. Kristi had better luck with her pizza margherita. Most notable was our dinner company. We met a nice couple from Nanaimo, British Columbia. We told them we'd been to Nanaimo on a previous cruise vacation and found they'd been to Houston, as well. They were living in France for the husband's job and took the train to Rome for a little vacation. Very nice people and pleasant company.
IS THIS NOT WHY YOU ARE HERE? ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED? (Wednesday, 11/23 | Rome | 60, T-storms)
Alas, all good things must come to an end. In this case, we still had some sightseeing to do, so it's the decent weather that was actually ending. The forecast called for strong storms, off-and-on, all day. We checked out and made arrangements to stash our bags in the lobby until after our morning tour. We were booked on a skip-the-lines tour of the Colosseum, so we hopped on the Metro (no pickpockets, this time) and rode to the station across the street from it. The rain was starting to roll in and vagrants peddled umbrellas in between mad dashes to escape the polizia. During a lull in the deluge, the sun came out and we went across to the Colosseum. Our tour granted us guided access to the floor level, where we stood on a partial reconstruction so we could get an idea of how it felt to be the spectacle. We were then escorted down to the sub-level to see the tunnels. We wandered through the Forum and Palatine Hill, but much of the impact was lost on me, as I was now soaked to the bone. The rain let up as the tour ended (naturally) and we started another Death March (i.e. "It's not that far, so we don't need a taxi") to the Pantheon, where Kristi found a cool little shop she wanted to visit again. Not even a block away, one of those hop-on-hop-off tour buses dropped a load of tourists, including the Canadian couple we'd met at dinner the previous night. They were headed to the Pantheon, too, but were disoriented, so we invited them to join our Death March. We parted ways at the Pantheon and did our shopping, before we made our way to the hotel to retrieve our bags.
A cab dropped us at the Termini, where I bought tickets for the Leonardo Express (airport train). Months prior, we decided to spend our last night at FCO, so we wouldn't feel so rushed to get there in the morning. After checking in to the Hilton and dropping our bags, we walked and rode the moving sidewalks approximately to Switzerland. Well, it felt like that far to the actual terminals, but at least it was connected. We checked in at the Lufthansa kiosk, chose our seats and printed our boarding passes all the way to IAH. With no better options in the terminal and â‚¬15 burgers back at the Hilton, we chose to slum it and eat dinner at the FCO McDonald's. I can confirm that Vincent and Jules were right...it's a Royale with cheese in Europe. It's also served with mayo, as mustard is not available.
Exhausted from our day, we went back to the hotel to pack, shower and knock out for the night.
HOME, JAMES (Thursday, 11/29 | FCO-FRA-IAH | 55, rain)
As planned, we awoke and made it to the terminal hassle-free. We checked our bags at the Lufthansa counter and went through security before finding a little cafe for breakfast. At the gate, we boarded D-AIRR (I think) and had a slight delay due to storms rolling through FCO. This was going to make our connection tight, as our layover was only scheduled for an hour after we arrived. The flight was uneventful and arrived about 20 minutes late. Kristi was sure we'd miss our connection and I joked that since we arrived in Terminal A, our connection was probably in Z. I shouldn't have said anything, because my joke became reality. Fortunately, Z -- I think -- is just the international departures portion of A. We arrived at the gate as boarding commenced. This flight was aboard United 767-400ER N76062, which I think either took us to or back from HNL in 2003. We had the port-side pair of seats in the 2-4-2 configured cabin, which was nice for the extra room. We departed on-time and I occupied myself with the AVOD system, watching several movies (including Angels & Demons, so I could see all the places we visited) and following our progress on the map. We landed about 20 minutes early, made our way through Customs and grabbed a cab outside.
Arriving home was an ordeal, with three dogs all trying to greet us at once. But it was good to be back, even though we had a fantastic experience. I spent the next month sorting and editing the nearly 3000 photos I took.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading. If you're interested, the photos from the trip can be seen at the following link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/antidisestablishmentotalitarianist/collections/72157632297160359/