It did not start well with the cab driver advising us that LHR was closed due to an emergency landing. Thankfully no one was hurt and our plane to Athens was one of the few that were not cancelled or severely delayed that day. On landing we took a cab to the Athens Marriott. A good hotel, but a bit isolated out of town on the main road between Athens and Piraeus. We could see the Acropolis from the nice rooftop pool area, but that was as close as we got, and we ate at dinner a nearby Italian restaurant which was the only restaurant we could find in the area. After breakfast in the club floor lounge we caught a cab down to the port.
Having sailed from Athens before we knew it was usually a speedy efficient boarding process. There were 2 lines, one for suites and one for everyone else, so no recognition for LCV members here. We were on board by 11:30. Time to see the changes! As others have said, they are pretty understated, or even underwhelming. DH didn't even notice any of them, but that is men for you. The carpet in discoveries was not as garish as I had expected, the painting is horrid, ( he has just read this review and said "what painting"...) but I did get used to the spikey lampshade!! The balcony table is too big, rounded edges would have helped manoeuvre around it. I think there are new bedroom doors and new room number signs (someone will no doubt correct me if there aren't), but why have they not done something about those tacky laminated "make up my room " signs....I'm sure they could so something funky with magnetic signs instead.
Food was very good as usual, Aqualina far exceeding Prime C, and Windows proving a very varied selection especially the Fish buffet on the first night that provided more prawns and mussels and calamari than I have seen before. I wonder why don't they set the outside tables with placemats and those nice coloured water glasses any more though?
Entertainment many have said is quite poor on board, but on this cruise they had a very good lady magician called Mandy Muden, the first lady to be in the Magic Circle. Her act did suffer a bit because of the very diverse nationalities on board, with Japanese, Scandinavians, ( as well as Australians, and of course Brits and Americans), And the Swedish gentleman plucked from the audience did not do as expected. Or did he....? There was a singer who sang like Nat King Cole, the singers and dancers performed a very Glee-like show with funky animated backdrop. And of course there was Eric! He had a fabulous voice well suited to the show tunes he performed.
We also appreciated the daily banter between him and Captain Johannes. And his grandfather tales.....
Mosaic Cafe had lost all atmosphere with the demise of Jim Badger and sadly we never went there.
But this cruise was always going to be about the itinerary. A trip to the Black Sea to visit countries that would have been impossible to visit just a few years ago. The demographic on board therefore made it very much about 'travellers' and not about 'cruisers'.
Our first stop was Mykonos, an island we have visited before, an efficient tender service meant no waiting ( unlike waiting for 45 mins to tender into Villefranche with RCI a few weeks before ). A pleasant day walking the picturesque alleys. Wifi was freely available in every restaurant cafe and bar. Pleased to say Petros made an appearance too.
Through the Dardanelles and the Bospherous into the Black Sea where we spotted dolphins. We tendered into Nessebar, Bulgaria. A very pretty town, with cobbled streets, old churches and timber framed houses reminiscent of a Harry Potter set! It was also full of shops selling tourist tat and copy designer items which did detract a little from the charm but nevertheless, it was a pleasant little town to spend a few hours in and have a cold beer.
Next there was Constanta Romania. When researching this port I did find a comment that said it would be best to bomb the place which I thought was a bit harsh, by the end my assumption was that is exactly what they had done! The shuttle bus with the cracked windscreen built in the 1960s gave us a clue as to what is ahead..... There was little to see or do. On the plus side there were no tacky tourist shops....primarily because there were no shops at all!!. We did discover a new marina area, where there were cafes and bars (free wifi) which was a pleasant destruction from the depression of the city.
As Eric reminded us that night...." You love where we take you...!!!" There was free wifi in the cruise terminal which was the only redeeming feature. Others who took the excursion into Bucharest said it was well worth it though.
Odessa....what a beautiful city ! We docked right by the Potemkin steps, which led up to elegant tree lined boulevards, wonderful architecture and colourful gardens. In many ways it reminded us of St Petersburg but with the difference that there was a real cafe society. One of the joys of Azamara of course, is the late nights in port, this means you get to experience the city by day and by night, and Odessa had a great buzz in the early evening sunshine. We ate in town at a restaurant called Jardin, very pretty and good service. Waiter spoke good English, not something that was common in many other places we stopped at in the Ukraine, thus adding to the feeling of truly being in a foreign county, and 'travelling'.
It was the signature White nights party that night on board with a crew member doing a very energetic performance of Gangnam Style!
The atmosphere on board generally was more lively than on our previous 2 Azamara cruises, and I can only put this down to the free booze!!
However, they really were pushing the drinks packages available on board, and one passenger we spoke with on around day 4 didn't even realise there was the semi inclusive element outside of the wine!! The complimentary selection of drinks is on the last page of the drinks menu whereas the packages were being advertised on the first page. Crafty. Even the welcome letter in the cabin only mentioned the boutique wines with lunch and dinner so this had not been updated. The wine selection and quality was excellent and the measures of G&T were huge. Consequently our account was the smallest it had ever been, on any cruise, with only a few Baileys on the rocks being bought ay $5.50 each. We asked why no 'bubbles' and the reply was because they wanted to keep that for occasions such as the Captains evening. Oh well, back to the G&T....
So, with a slight hangover we reached Sevastopol, and the first part of our two day tour with Sergey Sorokin. This is young Sergey and not the historian Sergey and he was great! We went to the site of the Charge of the Light Brigade, a church built into the limestone in the 8th century, the Balaclava submarine base ( very James Bond and eerie) and the Panorama museum which was incredible, unlike anywhere we has ever seen before. Google it!
Day 2 we were in Yalta which is only 80km away - the ship sailed very very slowly that night. We went to the Massandra Palace (built for Russian tsar Alexander III who only had one lunch there), the Livadia Palace where the Yalta's Conference of 1945 was held, we had lunch overlooking the Swallow's Nest Castle , then on to Vorontsov Palace in Alupka which is an amazing palace in English-Scotish styles built in 1848 and on the way back we took a short look on Chekhov house in Yalta.
Lunch was an interesting introduction to Ukranian cusine. We had meat soup and then meat dumplings, and sampled 3 types of Ukranian wines – the red was dry and the whites were very sweet to our western tastes. The white had 3% sugar….Sergey said his wife likes white wine with 18% sugar.
We paid $170pp for the 2 day tour and cannot recommend him highly enough.
The night we were in Sevastopol was the Azamazing evening. I hold my hand up to being sceptical about these when first announced, but it was excellent. Coaches took the ship (minus the 40 who didn't go..) to the Mikhailovskaya Battery Museum for drinks and then an energetic performance by the Black Sea Navy Ensemble. There was a large buffet selection of local food to enjoy as well, including caviar and vodka and local wines, which went down well. It was very efficiently run and enjoyable in the atmospheric surrounding of the old castle. On our return there even was a gift of pin from the Sevastopol tourism board.
We did not change time zones during the cruise.
A day at sea and then into Istanbul, where we had to disembark. At this time there were troubles and rioting going on in the city but we saw no evidence of this. We had pre-purchased our visa online for $20pp as the UK office had advised the cost could be up to $50pp, but as it happened on board the cost was also $20pp.
We caught the tram that runs along the road directly in front of the port to our hotel (TRL3pp per trip) the Barcelo for a one night stay. Trams are efficient, clean, air conditioned and incredibly frequent - they really are the only way to get around this bustling city. We had drinks at the Cosy Bar which has outstanding views of the Blue Mosque from its rooftop bar, (look for it opposite MacDonalds)
and dinner in a little side street in the same area. On the tram on the way back to the hotel after dinner, there were 2 young men proudly draped in the Turkish flag, who could have been returning from the rioting...but they still stood up, and gave their seat to a lady...so they were well brought up rioters!! Watching CNN that night it was hard to believe we were in the same city.
In summary we had a wonderful cruise, the staff on board are efficient and fabulous, the ship was spotlessly maintained, and it was good to see Ernesto, who was previously on our 2 Quest trips again. And he remembered us by name two years later. How do they do that?! We met some great people who we hope will be forever friends, and we will return to the friendliest little ships on the deep blue sea soon.