We have cruised many times on Celebrity and chose this itinerary because it had a combination of ports that we wanted to see again, ports in the Black Sea that were totally new to us, and because the cruise sailed round trip from Istanbul, which we had always wanted to visit. We were joined by 3 couples we met cruising the Adriatic last year. I call it a cruise of two halves because the first few days can only be described as perfect, perfect weather, perfect ports, perfect excursions, and the second half of the cruise was, well, less than perfect with unexpectedly unseasonably cold weather, rough sailing conditions, a change in the order of ports, a missed port and a spot of norovirus thrown in for good measure. To quote Dickens, "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times...”
We flew out to Istanbul via Munich on United a few days before our trip. We had paid to upgrade to Economy Plus when we first booked our flights and had seats in row 17, but when I came to check in 24 hours ahead we were for some reason in middle seats in row 39, aka Economy Minus. It took a while to get that sorted, and while we didn’t get our original seats back, we did at least get seats in Economy Plus. A word of advice if you have a booking with United, check regularly that your seat assignment hasn’t changed, as our seats disappeared on the way back too. We had a tight connection in Munich, but our flight arrived 30 minutes early so we had no problems making our onward flight to Istanbul. Arrival in Istanbul was relatively painless. We had purchased the Turkey visa online and the immigration officer just gave it a cursory glance. For those who didn’t buy the visa ahead of time, the line at the airport was short and the visa looked a lot nicer than my printed out barcode!
We stayed for 2 nights at the Hotel Sultania in Istanbul and can highly recommend it. It’s in the Sirkeci area, about 10 minutes walk from the Blue Mosque and the same to the Galata Bridge in the other direction. We did the obligatory full day walking tour around all the main sights of Istanbul, but with the jetlag it was pretty much a blur! We then took a 2 day side trip to Cappadocia, booked through Turkish Heritage Travel which was amazing as was the Sultan Cave Suites Hotel that we stayed in. The landscape in Cappadocia is truly unique and we visited ancient churches hidden in the rocks, underground cities, and saw really amazing rock formations. If you get chance, do the balloon ride, (ours was with Butterfly Balloons), everyone except me, (with my fear of heights), loved it.
Back to Istanbul for 2 more lovely nights at the Sultania Hotel and more sightseeing. We took the long day cruise up the Bosphorus for the bargain price of 25TL (about US$13) per person, had a super seafood lunch at the last stop and then caught the ferry back, passing Constellation which had just docked. There is no better sight than seeing your ship has arrived safely, except perhaps seeing all your bags on the luggage carousel at your destination airport!
We booked a car from our hotel to the port for Euro 25 and were among the few passengers whose driver was able to get into the port and actually drop them at the baggage area. I think money changed hands! Other cars stopped outside the port and passengers had to drag their own bags in. FYI I think we were among the last cars allowed into the port as our hotel was unable to send a car to meet us at the end of the cruise.
Boarding at Istanbul can only be described as chaotic. Security staff were more interested in yelling at each other than in directing the passengers. We had checked in online so had a choice of the Aqua line or the Elite line in the terminal. We picked Elite as it was empty, and check in was pretty easy. We had to wait a long time to pass through immigration, and then had quite a hike to the ship. Photographers were really disorganised and for the first time ever we didn’t get a boarding photo. Once on board we were given a glass of fizz and then sent to a mystery line, or rather mystery crowd of people where eventually we were asked to surrender our passports.
We tried to go to either Bistro on Five or Cafe Al Bacio to chill, but the crew member in charge of the elevator said they were closed and wouldn’t let us out before deck 10. They were open. Grrrr. We had just had breakfast and weren’t really interested in the buffet lunch, so went and checked on our spa reservation and christened our drinks packages with a perrier each!
We were in 9114 an Aqua 2 cabin. It was located under the entrance to the buffet and was in the open area between two overhangs, so had the standard sized balcony roof. The cabin was quiet. Our steward, Joao, did an excellent job in keeping the cabin clean and dealing with my requests, extra towels and no feathers or flowers in the cabin. I had spoken to Captains Club before our trip to mention the feather and flower situation in the hope that they would notify the ship ahead of time so I wouldn’t have to get the steward to redo the cabin. Unfortunately they didn’t and he did.
We were in Aqua Class so were assigned Blu dining. Despite this being my second time in Blu, I must confess that I still can’t get the hang of it or it’s menu. I typically eat clean and light at home, lots of salads, lots of veggies, fish, chicken, not many carbs, very little red meat, and hardly any cheese or dairy. On the first night the waiter said their food was a fusion of Mediterranean and California cuisine, that they use milk instead of cream and serve jus instead of sauces. Fair enough.
The menu typically lists 3 appetisers, 2 soups (one hot, one cold), 2 salads, one main course salad and 5 mains (pasta, fish, poultry/game, red meat, vegetarian). Often the waiters would recommend against the poultry/game (too small and fiddly to eat), and fish (too bland), which really left only the red meat or the cheesy pastas and vegetarian dishes to choose from. As for vegetables, they were so few and far between that "spot the veggie on the plate” became something of a game. The menu descriptions were often unappealing, with off-putting ingredients in the description that didn’t materialise in the dish itself, but put me off ordering them.
So I didn’t starve, but I didn’t think the food was that fantastic either. There were some standout dishes, the frogs legs appetiser, the smoked trout, the thai style coconut soup, the filet mignon, the available everyday roast chicken breast which came with great veggies, and the pot of coffee creme dessert. The shrimp cocktail and the onion soup from the San Marco everyday menu, and soups from the San Marco vegetarian menu were also very good. The lobster was bland and disappointing. Last time I remember it being outstanding.
I feel I should also mention the wine service. One sommelier and occasionally a bar waitress could not possibly provide good beverage and wine service to the whole of Blu, especially when the sommelier had to go out of Blu to fetch wine for people ordering by the bottle. We had the premium drink package and were never able to get more than one glass of wine with our meal. It was often quicker and easier to go to Cellar Masters between courses, but you really shouldn’t need to do that.
Breakfast service in Blu was very quiet and relaxing. Much nicer than the main dining room or buffet.
We ate at the buffet on 2 occasions in the evening, when the menu in Blu just didn’t have anything we fancied. The curries in the buffet were an excellent alternative. The stir fry too was very good.
I had 2 lunches here, one a shrimp salad and the other a tuna salad. Both were cooked to order and excellent.
Cafe Al Bacio
They had some great croissants and pastries here in the morning that were fresher than those from room service. In the afternoon they offered cakes, but the lunchtime sandwiches and snacks that they used to serve have been discontinued, which is a shame, because they made a nice light lunch.
Room service breakfast was very hit and miss with either wrong items being delivered or things missing. Delivery was always punctual. Other things we liked were the excellent chicken noodle soup and club sandwich. There was often a significant wait of 30-45 minutes for food during the day.
The in-cabin hors d’oeuvres were a great improvement over the bits of bread with squirty toppings we had last time. Every day there were chips and some sort of dip like hummus or tzatziki, peanuts, olives and either eggs, breadsticks, salmon or shrimp.
Entertainment wise we are pretty much self sufficient, preferring to read or write rather than going to organised activities, but we do enjoy live music. I am not a show person so never saw any of the production shows in the theatre. I did however enjoy the different musicians playing in the bars and lounges. There was no acapella group this time (yay!!!), but we had a string trio, a guitarist/singer, a classical guitarist who occasionally sang, and a couple of guys, the TNT Dynamic Duo, who typically performed pre and post dinner dance music in the Rendez-vous lounge, but who occasionally performed Britpop and alternative acoustic sets, that were excellent.
Other activities seemed really few and far between. There were lectures on the regions we were visiting, but I was never quite sure whether they would morph into "what to buy and which shops to buy it from ashore” type talks. Trivia popped up occasionally, but Name That Tune has now been replaced by the ghastly "Billboard Multiple Choice Trivia”, and I don’t care what the quizmaster says, Billboard is predominantly americentric, and as for multiple choice, ugh. Art Auctions are also back on the ship, apparently "by popular demand”. Our cruise director was Alejandro.
We had a couples massage that was very nice, although instead of the usual plinky plonky new age music, we had jazz and latin music with a bit of blues thrown in. It was really quite bizarre. We enjoyed the thalassotherapy pool and the hot tubs in the aquaspa. A couple of afternoons they did open this adults only area to families with children, but as I only ever saw 2 small boys on the ship, it really wasn’t a problem.
Captains Club Elite
We have been Elite for quite a while so don’t really bother with the Captains Club functions any more. Been there, done that, as they say. Elites do get an evening drinks party and a private buffet breakfast, but with breakfast in Blu and having opted for the free drink package in the 1-2-3- Go promotion, we didn’t feel the need to go to either. We did however appreciate the coupons for free and discounted laundry and internet.
We travelled with 3 other couple that we met on the Silhouette Adriatic cruise last year, and did a combination of ships tours and private tours together.
We toured Athens with "George The Famous Athens Taxi Driver.” He offered a full day tour, but having done that before, and knowing how tiring it was, we modified it so we could see fewer places, but spend longer at them. We started with the Acropolis and the Parthenon, went on to the Roman Forum and the Ancient Agora and the Library of Hadrian. We had a nice lunch in the Plaka and then went to the scenic overlook for a panoramic view of Athens. George was a great tour guide, full of knowledge and eager to improve his english and to learn from his guests. We would highly recommend him.
We had always wanted to go to Delos, but last time we docked in Mykonos they weren’t offering Delos tours. This time they were and we decided it would be easiest to go with the ship tour. The ferry docked beside our ship and took us straight to Delos and returned us to the town centre in Mykonos. Previously we had heard mixed reviews of Delos, but we loved it. We had an excellent guide who did a wonderful job bringing the ruins to life. Once back in Mykonos we wandered the streets, saw the windmills and had lunch in a waterfront restaurant in Little Venice before taking the shuttle bus back to the ship.
"If it’s Ephesus it must be my birthday”. 21 again and what a fantastic birthday present, being the first group of people into Ephesus and having it all to ourselves. Amazing! Having been there once before in the crowds and heat of July, this was like night and day. The ruins were fabulous and I highly recommend paying the extra to see the Terraced Houses. I booked this tour privately with Ekol Travel and we got a heavily discounted rate if we prepaid, which we did. There was an offer to visit a carpet factory or handicraft centre which we declined. Glad there was no hard sell.
Cruising The Bosphorus
OK so another way to describe a sea day, but a great one, sailing into Istanbul and then up the Bosphorus, in the sunshine, seeing the palaces, marvelling as the ship squeezed under the bridges. Then it got a bit breezy, and then rather chilly as we entered the black sea. "Ominous” I thought. A couple of hours later it was rather cold and windy and the boat was lurching around and I thought that the next days tendering in Yalta wouldn’t be much fun. Sick bags started appearing in the stairwells. At 7pm the Captain announced that there was a massive storm ahead of us, and that for the comfort and safety of the passengers, and to enable us to visit all our ports in the best weather conditions, they had decided to turn the ship around and change the order of the ports and do Odessa, Odessa, Sevastopol,Yalta, instead of Yalta, Sevastopol, Odessa, Odessa. They said that anyone with ship tours would receive a revised tour schedule and anyone with private tours would be able to make free phone calls to reorganise those. All our Ukraine tours were booked privately with Crimea Consulting and fortunately they were able to rearrange them for us.
Odessa, Ukraine Day 1
We had a private Catacombs and Odessa walking tour booked for 9am, but there were problems getting the ship cleared by the Ukranian authorities. We finally got off around 11am and found our guide. We had an abbreviated tour because of our late arrival and went first to the catacombs as our guide thought it would warm up in the afternoon. It didn’t. It was unseasonably cold, wet and windy. We saw the main sights, including the outside of the opera house and then headed back to the ship. I’m sure in better weather it would have been much nicer.
Odessa, Ukraine Day 2
Even colder today. People were layering and had picked the ships shops bare of sweatshirts and jackets. We wandered around some of the sights we saw yesterday and then head back to the ship to warm up. We decided that perhaps October is a bit late in the season for the Black Sea.
Another private tour, Sevastopol and Crimean Khanate, and another absolutely freezing day. Our first stop was at the roman ruins. I’ve only ever seen ruins in the hot sun. This was a new experience. We ended up being the only tour group brave (or crazy) enough to go down to the ruins by the sea! Next we went to a Palace, and then witnessed a spectacular disagreement between our guide and driver as to where we should eat a traditional Tartar lunch, the decision being made based on the toilets. The big problem was that traditional Tartar restaurants have outdoor seating, or rooms with no windows, ideal for summer, but we were freezing. In the restaurant we finally ended up in, we had the best soup ever, a choice between Lagman and Shurpa. Both were delicious. The toilets were not so good and were described by the ukranians as "Turkish”. I didn’t need to go quite that badly and crossed legs sufficed for the rest of the tour. We visited a cave church and then headed back. Our guide said she would also be our guide tomorrow but that our tour had been pushed back an hour to 10:30, perhaps, maybe, which struck us as odd.
Seas were pretty rough but tendering started. Tender 1 went ashore. Tender 2 was loaded but never left and then the Captain announced around 9am that tendering would be suspended for a short time due to high winds. By 10am it was still suspended, and by 10:30, the time our tour was due to start, it was still suspended and we made an executive decision not to bother. The guides "perhaps, maybe” from yesterday, now implying that maybe they never thought we’d be able to tender in in the first place. At 11am they announced that we would not be tendering to Yalta and that they were focussing on getting people who had tendered ashore, back. Yikes. A hasty entertainment program was cobbled together, bedraggled looking performers were dragged out of bed and the dining room opened for lunch. There were some very disappointed passengers who had really wanted to visit Yalta, but in the end we all made the best of a bad deal.
The sun came out and we did the Nessebar Highlights ship tour. The tour was well organised and we had a good tour guide but there really wasn’t a lot to see. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of it’s houses, which were quaint, but to me it looked more like a seaside resort.
We arrived after lunch in Istanbul and had the afternoon to sightsee before disembarkation the following morning. We walked up to Taksim Square, along the main shopping drag, by the Galata Tower and back to the ship.
I feel I should mention norovirus as it reared it’s ugly head on this sailing. The first sign that something might not quite be right, was when the menus disappeared from the tables in Cafe Al Bacio. Someone else said they got sachets of salt and pepper in Blu for breakfast. It wasn’t until the evening that the Captain announced that a small number of passengers had become ill with a gastrointestinal bug and that the best way not to catch it was by washing your hands frequently. Hand sanitiser was everywhere. Everything was served to you in the buffet which really slowed things down, tables were sanitised between customers and everything was either being sprayed or wiped down constantly by crew members.
Fortunately none of our party contracted any illness, but our cruise was still impacted, because staff were having to do more with service (pouring milk, squeezing condiments, serving bread), which slowed things down. We seemed to have fewer waitstaff in Blu, whether that was due to their being sick, or reassigned, I don’t know, but the ones we did have were run off their feet.
We had selected to leave around 8:30 and were planning to get a taxi to the hotel. We had a last breakfast in Blu, then went to wait in the conference room for disembarkation. Other friends had either arranged rides to the airport or to their hotel. We had steeled ourselves for a very long wait for a taxi, but were pleasantly surprised to get one straight away, and were in our hotel room just after 9am. It seems that everyone else have major problems finding their drivers, so perhaps in Istanbul, getting a taxi is the way to go.
We had 3 more days in Istanbul, and revisited sites we had seen when we first arrived, this time without jetlag, and also went to the Chora to see the mosaics and the city walls. We also visited the Spice Market.
Our flights back to the USA were with Lufthansa and United, but we checked in online with Lufthansa. Once again our seats had changed, but when I printed out my boarding pass, it had the original seat numbers on it. Go figure. Interesting that even though the long haul segment was with United, Lufthansa didn’t charge me for the extra bag, so I felt vindicated, and had finally got one up on United for all the irritation they had caused!
We had a fabulous time despite the weather and despite the presence of Noro. With hindsight the Black Sea is probably better visited in Summer.
We noticed that despite the promotion of the beverage packages, there seems to have been a major cutback in the number of bar staff. Lounges don’t seem to be open for bar service as long as they used to be. A lot of activities and tastings are now available for a fee. Much as they promote anytime dining and Blu and Alternative restaurants, the entertainment schedule is still geared to the early and late seatings. If you want to eat at at 8pm and have a pre-dinner cocktail at 7:15 good luck finding a lounge with live music to enjoy it in. The only entertainment at that time is typically the show. A lot of the lounges in the evening were dark and unappealing. When I say dark, I mean dark enough to need the flashlight on your iphone to read the drinks menu! Perhaps they are saving energy to power the Martini Bar, which was always bright, but never had live music, always taped.
Those of us who have been cruising Celebrity a long time can see the cutbacks. They appear to be staffing at the bare minimum at the moment, which they get away with under normal circumstances, but when something unusual like norovirus happens, staffing really is inadequate. I remember when Celebrity used to tout their high staff to passenger ratio. I would love to see what it is now, and while I will continue to sail Celebrity, I can’t help thinking how wonderful the crossing I did on Cunard this past summer was, and how now, more than ever, I might be tempted to try them again.