Private excursions for the Eastern Mediterannean: Pacific Princess Cruise Review by xke68
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Private excursions for the Eastern Mediterannean
Destination: Europe - Eastern Mediterranean
Embarkation: Athens (Piraeus)
May 27 Trip Notes
May 25 and 26
Flight (747) departed SeaTac on Saturday evening. British Airways crew were very professional and pleasant. We had a nice dinner and then reclined our seats into a really great bed. I slept for six hours and awoke refreshed. After a light breakfast we deplaned in London.
It took about 30 minutes to clear customs.
We went to the taxi stand where we found a driver named Pete who was excited about driving us around London. We decided to do three things:
(1) Visit King Henry VIII castle, (2) Have lunch at a Pub, and (3) Visit Windsor Palace. The weather was delightful -- 70 degrees and sunny. Five hours later we were back at the airport where we are waiting for our flight to Athens.
Our flight to Athens departed on time at 9:30 PM. It was a three hour flight with a two hour time zone change. We landed in Athens at 3 AM Monday morning. Clearing More customs was a breeze. Our three pieces of luggage were number 2, 3, and 4 coming onto the carousel. No waiting at all. We walked across the street, maybe 50 yards, and were at our hotel. We stayed at the Athens Airport Sofitel Hotel. It couldn't have been easier. We got up at 9:45 AM, showered, had room service breakfast, and met our driver at 11:00 AM.
Our driver was Dionisis (Dennis) Kokkotos -- www.athenslimo.com. Dionisis was the perfect guide. He had a stretch Mercedes limo that fit the four of us just fine. He took us on a four hour tour of Athens. Athens is a large city with seven hills and five million residents. We started with the Acropolis where we spent 90 minutes viewing the remains of the Acropolis. After that we did a driving tour of Athens. We say the old Olympic Stadium, the palace, museums galore, and the changing of the guard. We stopped for gelato at his favorite bakery and then took a short drive to the cruise terminal.
We arrived at the terminal at 3PM. All of the lines were gone so we waltzed right through and were on board in no time at all.
The Pacific Princess is one of the smaller cruise ships in the Pacific fleet.
It is about one-third the size of the other Princess ships we have been on.
Our cabin is 7072. We are on the port side of the ship with a nice balcony.
We had dinner at 6:00 PM as the ship cruised out of the Athen's harbor.
Morning found us at anchor off the Greek island of Patmos. Patmos is about 13 square miles in size and hosts about 3,000 residents. The Greek Parliament declared Patmos a sacred island because of its connection with St. John and the Book of Revelation. In 1088 Abbot John Christodoulos of Bithynia founded a monastery.
We took a boat from the ship to the city of Skala. We found a taxi stand at the end of the pier offering tours for 40 euros. (Note: if you want to save money, do this. Hire a cab to take you to the Cave. Then hire a cab to take you to the Monastery. Then hire a cab to take you back to this ship.. The total distance is only a few miles.)
At the end of the pier we hired a taxi to take us to the Cave of the Apokalypsis and to the Monastery of St. John. The monastery is at the top of the hill with lots of steps. Its location helped it to fight off pirates.
Then it was back to the ship for lunch and a leisurely afternoon.
We awoke to 45 mph winds and seven foot swells. No big deal on a ship this large except that we could not get on the boats (tenders) to take us to shore. The Captain woke everybody up with an announcement that we would have to skip our visit to Santorini.
About the Pacific Princess:
Length 592 feet
Gross tons 30,200
Decks 10 stories
The ship has one swimming pool, two hot tubs, one large buffet, and three restaurants. The ship also has a gym, spa/salon, running track, casino, library, shops, and espresso stands.
The winds and waves calmed down by noon, but the weather was hazy all day.
The Pacific Princess arrived at the dock in Kusadasi (coochadasee), Turkey promptly at 8:00 AM. Today there was no wind and the seas were calm. We walked off the dock through the strip mall of tourist shops and found our guide, Fulya Tamer, of Ekol Travel (www.ekoltravel.com). I was impressed by the cleanliness -- streets were clean and well maintained. Fulya was very personable and, equally important, very knowledgable. We had a ten person van for only the four of us. It was very nice.
We started the tour with a 30 minute drive to the House of the Virgin Mary. This is a small house at the top of a hill in the Solmissos Mountains which, according to the guide books, is "widely recognized" as the place where Mary spent the last few years of her life. The house had two small rooms. Very plain and simple.
Then we drove a short distance to Ephesus for an incredible experience. Ephesus was an Ancient Greek City and later the Eastern Capitol of the Roman Empire. Over 200,000 people lived there. Archeologists have been unearthing the ruins of Ephesus for the last 100 years. The ruins are magnificent. The the top of the hill is a small area of a couple of square blocks where the ruins start. I thought that was the extent of the ruins. Boy was I wrong. The ruins extended for another half mile down a wide marble walkway that at one time had shops on either side. We passed a Roman Bath, the Temple of Hadrian, a small colosseum, and more shops. At the end of the marble walkway was a two story library, the Library of Celsus, which had been one of the three largest libraries in the world. A short distance from the library was the large colosseum which could hold 25,0000 people. Elton John performed there a few years ago -- really.
I found Ephesus to be absolutely breathtaking. And to think that parts of it were over two thousand years old. Truly amazing.
From Ephesus we drove a few miles to the Basilica of St. John which was built by Justinian in the 6th Century AD. It was impressive but paled in comparison to Ephesus.
Our guide took us to a quiet open air restaurant where we had a five course meal for lunch. All that food made us ready to shop, so we did. We visited a carpet showroom where we learned how to spin silk and saw carpets being hand made. The ten foot by twelve foot carpets can take four or five years to complete. We did not buy a carpet. We next visited a leather store where we were greeted by a fashion show. Jeff and I participated in the fashion show. The lovely models had to have us on the runway. But I don't know why. Connie and I did find leather coats that we absolutely had to have. So we bought them after some haggling over the price. I love to haggle
All in all it was a great day.
At sea all day. A very low keyed day with nothing on the agenda. We did a respectable job of consuming three meals with some visiting on the side. We are getting really excited about visiting Israel tomorrow.
The Pacific Princess docked promptly at 6:30 AM in Haifa, Israel. The day was warm and a bit foggy. We got in line with our passport to clear Israeli customs. A half hour later we were on the dock to meet our tour guide.
Haifa is an old port city dating to at least the first century, BC. It is located at the northwest end of Israel, due west of the Sea of Galilee.
Our tour guide was Ehud Peretz from guidedtoursisrael.com. He was superb and we highly recommend him.
Today is Saturday, the Sabbath. There was little traffic as we drove around. Ehud warned us that traffic would be much heavier on Sunday.
We started our tour with a visit to the Baha'i Temple in Haifa. It extended halfway up a very large hill in Haifa and included many terraces, fountains, and gardens. Members of the faith tithe 19% each year! This temple is the world headquarters of the Bahais.
We proceeded to Nazareth where we saw the Church of the Annunciation and the Church of St. Joseph. Both were beautiful examples of different architectural styles. I was surprised to find that there was a Church dedicated to St. Joseph -- he seems to be the forgotten person in the story of Jesus.
Nazareth had two sections: Arab and Jewish. The Arab section was mostly one or two story buildings in the lower part of the valley. The Jewish section was apartments near the top of the hill.
From there we went to the Church at the Mount of Beatitudes which is built on the spot where Jesus preached the sermon about the beatitudes.
It is near the top of a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee. I was quite surprised to learn that the Sea of Galilee is a fresh water lake that is a little smaller than Lake Washington. It lies in a valley below the Golan Heights made famous, or infamous, in the 1967 war.
We visited the Church of St. Peter in Capharnaum located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We dipped our hands into the water beside the Church as jet skis roared by. Quite a contrast!
We ate lunch in a restaurant located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
After that we drove to the RiverJordan where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. We dipped our hands into the River while some people put on white baptismal smocks and submerged themselves in the river. The Sea of Galilee feeds the Jordan River which runs to the Dead Sea.
We toured a kibbutzim that was established by Russian immigrants in 1912. I was surprised again to learn that the 70 or so kibbutzims in Israel are all self contained small villages that produce crops, plastics, electronics, furniture, and other products.
We returned to the Pacific Princess worn out.
The reader should note that I am more than a little skeptical about the historical accuracy of the things we saw. Our guide showed us the place where Jesus stepped ashore after walking on the waters of the Sea of Galilee. It reminded me of Mark Twain's statement that he has seen enough small pieces of wood from the "one true cross" in European churches to build many crosses. And that statement was made 150 years ago.
The Pacific Princess was scheduled to dock at 7:00 AM exactly, which it did. We were in the first group to leave the ship to meet our driver at7:05 in the Port of Ashdod, Israel.
Ashdod was settled by the Philistines in 1200 BC -- 3200 years ago! It is one of the three largest ports in Israel. Ashdod is located about 30 miles due West of Jerusalem.
Today is Sunday which is the first day of the work week. The weekend in Israel is Friday and Saturday. Traffic was fairly light as we drove into Jerusalem.
We visited most of the major attractions of Jerusalem. These included the Wailing Wall (Western Wall), the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, David's Tower, the walled temple, and vistas that gave us a wonderful view of Mount Zion, the Mount of Olives, and the divided City of Jerusalem.
Many of the Churches were controlled by three or more religions who had trouble agreeing on anything. For example, we saw a ladder that was leaning against a second story window. There was as ongoing thirty year argument over who was going to move the ladder.
Jerusalem is a clean and modern city, until you come to the wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. The wall is big, ugly, and surrounded by litter.
Our guide took us to the entrance to Bethlehem which is controlled by the Palestinians. Our guide could not enter Bethlehem with us. He arranged for another guide to greet us and show us the Church of the Nativity (which is also controlled by three different religions). The Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest churches in the Holy Land. In the Church we saw the spot where Christ was born the place where He was placed in the manger. Maybe yes, maybe no. Who knows?
I was disappointed to see that Bethlehem was a poor village in a poor country. The cleanliness of Bethlehem left much to be desired.
We did find rush hour traffic as we returned to the ship. Tomorrow is Egypt.
June 3 & 4
Alexandria, Egypt & Cairo, Egypt
Our trip originally had Port Said, Egypt as a stop. But Princess Cruises was concerned about our safety in Port Said, so we bypassed the Port. Princess did not provide any information regarding their safety concerns.
Instead of docking at Port Said on June 3 and then moving to Alexandria on June 4 we went directly to Alexandria. Because it was a longer journey, we docked at noon on June 3 in Alexandria instead of at 7:00 AM in Port Said.
We have booked a two day overnight stay with Ramasside Private Tours so they met us in Alexandria when we arrived.
Alexandria is named after Alexander the Great. At its peak Alexandria was the second most important city in the Roman Empire as a center of learning for its library and as a shipping hub. Today it is famous for its library -- the second largest in the world after the Library of Congress.
Our tour guide was Karim Serry (Le_roi_karim@hotmail.com) from Ramses Tours (www.ramsestours.com). He was an incredible guide and we highly recommend him and Ramses Tours.
Our van was a twelve person Hyundai van that was very comfortable for the four of us.
We started with a tour of Alexandria. What follows is my attempt to be descriptive and nonjudgmental. The city was teeming with people, cars, and garbage. Our guide told us that it was common for people who lived in Alexandria (and Cairo) to throw any and all garbage into the street where it piled up. There were few working traffic lights. Most streets were very narrow and barely wide enough for two small cars to pass. Traffic in the city probably moved at an average of 3 mph or less. Cars, motorcycles, motorbikes, horse-drawn carts, and pedestrians all darted in and out trying to share the same space. I can not imagine living in such squalor and crowded streets. Most of the City had a run down look to it.
Our first stop was at some catacombs that were discovered 108 years ago. We went down 100 steps to where the mummified bodies had been laid to rest. The entire structure had been carved out of bedrock. From the dead we went to the living. We visited the stunning new Library of Alexandria which was only a few years old. It has over eight million volumes. We we searched going in and going out to make sure we were not smuggling anything in or taking any books out. After the library we visited a huge mosque. We were welcome inside as long as we removed out shoes. Connie and Cindee had to use a separate entrance to gain admission.
Around 3:30 PM we left Alexandria for a 130 mile trip to Cairo. We we on the major highway between these cities. At times is was two lanes in each direction and at times it was three lanes. Every so often there were major speed bumps that you had to crawl over. These speed bumps allowed pedestrians to dart across the road. It took us four long hours to make the trip to Giza and Cairo.
We arrived at our hotel hot, tired, and hungry. We had a quick dinner and retired.
Cairo June 5
When I looked out the window the next morning, I saw that we were across the street from the great pyramid and some smaller pyramids. What a treat!
We had a quick breakfast and then headed on a 45 minute drive to see the step pyramids. We were the first ones in line and were able to view this site without any crowds. The step pyramids were in the desert. The ground was covered with very fine sand that got into everything.
At every site we were bombarded by people hawking post cards, papyrus documents (that were fakes), camel rides, donkey rides, horse drawn carriage rides, guide books, bottled water, and trinkets. The vendors were very aggressive, but we were good at saying no. One of the schemes was to offer to take your group's picture with your own camera and then charge you for the picture. Another scheme was to invite you to take a picture of a man sitting on his camel and then charge you for it. A third scheme was to give you something, like a shirt, or postcards, or a necklace, as a "present" and then demand money for it. The vendors were only a very minor irritant.
From the step pyramid we drove to the Nile where we had a 30 minute ride in a sailboat called a felluca. The Nile was about a half mile wide in Cairo. The ride was incredibly peaceful after the turmoil of the City.
We left the Nile and fought the traffic battle again as we went to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. We spent most of our time in the King Tutankhamen exhibits.
After the Museum we headed back to Giza to view the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the middle pyramids of Chephren, the little pyramid of Mykerinos plus the Sphinx. After the pyramids we grabbed a fast food Egyptian lunch and headed back to the van for a three hour trip back to the ship.
I am so glad that I saw all of these sights in Egypt after having heard about them for my entire life.
June 5 and 6
June 5 and 6 we were cruising from Cairo, Egypt to Sorrento, Italy. The distance was about 1,000 miles. We were out in the middle of the Mediterranean with only occasional passing ships to see.
I got up at 5:00 AM to watch the ship approach Sorrento, Italy. We docked exactly at 6:00 AM. We left the ship at 7:45 to meet our driver at 8:00 AM.
Our driver was JeanLuca Biancho (www.amalfidriverservice.com). He was superb. He was a smooth driver, had a nice Mercedes van, and spoke great English.
We started with a short driving tour of Sorrento and then headed for the Amalfi Coast. The road along the coast was carved out of the cliffs 250 years ago when the Spanish controlled this part of Italy. The road twists and turns with a continuous incredible view of the coast line. Our first stop was Positano. We walked through the small town and out on the beach. When we looked up, we saw the town towering over us. Everything is carved out of the side of the hill. We went on to Amalfi for lunch. This town was carved out of the hill, too. This is definitely a high end resort area with ocean view rooms going for over $500.00 a night.
We returned to Sorrento where we spent an hour or so sight seeing and then headed back to the ship.
We really enjoyed the day.
The ship docked at Civitavecchia (near Rome, Italy) before sunrise. The was lots of activity unloading everyone's luggage which had been collected from our rooms the night before. We bid a fond farewell to the Pacific Princess as we disembarked. Our driver was Antonio Cagnoli (www.transferitalyrome) (firstname.lastname@example.org). He was good company as he whisked us to the Rome Airport. British Air had sent us a note to be sure to get to the airport really early because it wold be crowded. We did get there early. It was not crowded. And BA did not open their ticket counter until an hour after we arrived. The flight to London was delayed an hour but we still had plenty of time to make our connection to Seattle Matthew met us at the airport. A great trip. Less
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