Me and my father had participated in a Holland America cruise with MsPrinsendam from 2 to 14 October this year at Black Sea. It was a round-trip, we sailed from Piraeus and disembarked there after visiting the following ports and places: Volos-Pelion in Greece, Sinop in Turkey after cruising the Dardanelles and Bosporus, Sochi in Russia, Sevastopol in Ukraine, Constanta in Romania, Burgas (though initially Nessebar was out port of call) in Bulgaria, Istanbul (Constantinople) in Turkey and Mykonos in Greece.
I would like to make a few comments on the destinations, before I go on with our experience on the ship. I come from Greece and three ports were actually in Greece, but I’ll try not to let this color my review.
• I am sure Athens was a top destination for many travelers who flew from other continents, as Americans, Canadians, Philipinos and Australians.
• Volos and especially Pelion with its unique architecture and autumn colors was a marvel even for us who have visited before.
* Cruising Dardanelles and Bosporus, this area so heavy from memories and history, where different continents and cultures meet, was a special opportunity for lovers of history and for photographers as well – watching Constantinople from every angle as the ship sailed through Bosporus was spectacular!
• Sinop was the first port where many of us wandered: “why did we really stop here???” It’s a small provincial town with almost nothing to show in terms of natural or urban environment, apart from the Walls, some Mosques and a few old Greek style houses. Though for Greeks (7 out of 750 passengers) Sinop might have some sentimental value (we visited an interesting Archaeological Museum with Ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine relics), I am wandering how much money Holland America has saved by wasting one day here and not at some other important port as Samsun, Giresun, Ordu or Trabzon. Nevertheless people at Sinop were very hospitable and warm and they offered tasty pies and the traditional tea in their shops.
• Sochi in Russia was a good example of how a communist city transits to black economy “development”. This usually means: ugly expensive hotels, casinos and malls, where all the upstarts –God knows how- come to show their culture or the lack of it. This could be a gate to Paradise, built across the coast of Black Sea and at the roots of Caucasus with all its beauty and botanical diversity. Anyway, we didn’t see much of it, since we needed Visa, and our travel agent had given us the wrong impression that the ticket to the off-shore excursion to the Nature Reverse would be the ticket, for a few hours, to the land of the (still) highly suspicious Russians.
• Sevastopol is a city which we will have nice memories of: built on hills and small peninsulas entering Black Sea, gave me the impression of a city of Ancient Glory, as we were entering the harbor at sunset and its simple but imposing buildings were turning into gold. It’s a very clean city, very friendly to pedestrians, with a lot of open public spaces and trees. However, there is something always and everywhere present, in a rather disturbing and loud way: the Russian Army and the monuments for its participation to the great wars. Russian Army and Navy still uses this place as its basis, so there are numerous buildings with the Russian Flag on the top and people in uniforms coming and going in and out of them. We didn’t follow any excursion, it’s a waste of money anyway, and we took an old small bus (marshrutka) from their bus station and went to Bakchisaray, an old village with the Khan’s Palace, once the capital of the Crimean Tatar Khanate, where Khans had ruled for 400 years before Russians came to impose their dominance. On the way, the Cave monastery is a very interesting place, with monk cells caved in the rock, but unfortunately there was no time to make a stop. I would come back and explore the whole Chersonessos of Crimea. It’s a very cheap destination anyway!
• Constanta takes the “Decadence Award”! One a charming and vibrant city is now full of deserted buildings and houses one step before collapse and it’s a shame. When we visited, the municipality was undertaking restoration and reconstruction work on streets and public areas and hopefully they will save some of the city’s previous glory. As for saving their culture, I do not think there are many hopes for that! Along with the poverty everywhere you would turn your eyes, you see the signs of a lustful consumerism: on cars, on west-style malls and on people’s behavior: aggressiveness and indifference, especially of their drivers. Constanta has left a rather depressive feeling in most of the travelers…
• Next day we couldn’t dock at Nessebar so we went to Burgas, which was a pleasant turn of events. In spite of the obvious poverty and cultural confusion due the fast development of Bulgaria (some get rich but a lot of others stay in the dark), Burgas is a clean city with very interesting architecture. However, we still wanted to visit Nessebar, since we had heard a lot for this World Culture Heritage Monument. We used public transportation to get there. Today, it is solely a “tourists’ exploitation” destination: all its numerous 12th century churches, wonderfully restored, have a fee and they are surrounded with taverns and shops with souvenirs. Still, it is a picturesque place with cute wooden houses, but its lack of connection with today’s life has created a “fake” feeling in me. Like Sinop, I do not think this should be a destination by itself. Burgas or Varna, with the option of an excursion here, could be better . The company’s interests once again…
• And then Istanbul which I visited for the second time – what can I say! It is the City of Cities – we should have spent 2-3 days here, but they are never enough. It’s a place you have to visit many times in your lifetime. Words are poor…
• Mykonos at last is always a disappointing destination for me: picturesque but so exploited and so badly used. Lesvos or Chios would be a much more interesting destination. To end with, from all the ports we visited I would only choose Sevastopol and Constantinople: the first will stay in my mind, the second in my heart.
As it is obvious above, only a few destinations in the cruise itinerary were worthwhile. In general, the cruise was unjustifiably expensive for what it offered. The whole ship is old and needs either to be removed or renovated, especially the cabins/staterooms. Though the bathroom was OK, the furniture in the room and other amenities are not even close to the “luxurious” ship we were told about. The air condition was horrible in many rooms and we spent two of the coldest days in rough sea …with cold air, so we had to cover our sea-sick heads with a duvet and a blanket. Then they supposedly fixed it and we spent the rest of the journey in a tropical envrionment with super-warm air. At the same time, the toilet blocked, but at least that was fixed after a few hours. Noisy room, near the machines of the ship.
The food was mediocre. The choices were not as many as one would expect from a “luxurious ship”, so we had chicken, beef and salmon over and over again. In two occasions, fruits were one step before rotting and the slices of bread had signs of mold. In general, it was OK and the choices helped you maintain a healthy diet. I will remember one night we had Indonesian food served by staff dressed with traditional clothes. The food tasted more authentically, perhaps because it was closer to their hearts…
We found entertainment awful, and this was how most non-Americans felt. Despite the talent of some of the performers, there were very few “canned” choices that were mostly directed to elderly Americans. The only performance I would distinguish was that of Mr. Cristian and Mr. Valentin on violin and on piano respectively. They performed with real passion diverse peaces from different parts of the world which created a very romantic and nostalgic atmosphere. These two gentlemen, who are also very kind and interesting people, have literally saved me during this cruise.
Another issue that was inconvenient and unpleasant for us and many other passengers was the amount that was withheld from each passenger (60 dollars per person per day) and the tips that were mandatory. I do not know which policies apply to other cruise lines, but to find out that a couple needs more than 1300 dollars to be disposable, even if they do not intend to spend it them on the ship, is still incomprehensible for me. A cruise is not for everyone something they do whenever they wish. For my father and me it was a “once in a lifetime” thing and personally I didn’t have 700 dollars extra. “Tips’ policy” is another issue. I do not disagree that this is a way to honor those really hard-working people, and I do that wherever I go. But it is me who judges who deserves it and I make sure that she/he gets and not the owner of the company/store etc. I am almost 100% that the tips do not go to these poor people’s pockets and that they rather make up the minimal salaries of hunger they are paid for 16-18 hours of work each day.
And this leads me naturally to the service from the lower staff in the rooms, restaurants/bars and machines of the ship – all those people we never really see and to whom our journey relies on: it was excellent, human, warm and thoughtful. It was overwhelming for me to watch these low-paid tired people smiling even though their feet hurt and needed sleep. Someone would say that they are treated better than in their homelands (mostly Philippines and Indonesia) and that they have the chance to see the world and make a budget to build the house or the shop of their dreams in their hometown when they return. But they deserve much more: better salaries, better work conditions. And this is something Holland-America should have in mind: these people never complain but many passengers know what happens.
The shore excursions then: “canned” just like the entertainment aboard. Much money for less time and fewer places. Do not follow. Use the local transport: you’ll get a deeper look in everyday life than when you’re lead by others stacked in a bus in a predetermined root. Should this option intimidate you, book a local guide before your journey. And of course, read before you travel.
Before I conclude, I feel that I should mention the cruise director of Ms Prinsendam which me and many other passengers found arrogant, rude and disrespectful of other people’s cultures and status. A lady from Turkey was insulted in a multiply racist way when she dared to complain about certain incindents on the ship: her origins, her experience from the rest of the world and her ability to speak and understand foreign languages were questioned. Holland-America should consider her replacement.
Of course, I could have made all these complaints to the company directly but you know what? Although, they asked us to feel in a form with our e-mails, nor me nor the lady from Turkey have ever received their survey to complete it… Am I suspicious?...
I am from Greece so I didn't visit the highlights (Acropolis, Plaka, Monastiraki, Theseion). My advice: don't follow an excursion, unless there are health reasons for that. Just take a cab, go to Metro Station at Piraeus and then just follow the line. Get off at Theseion and walk to Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum on foot taking one of the most wonderful pedestrian streets in the world, called Dionysiou Areopagitou.
I couldn't say too much because Istanbul is immense and has so many beuatiful places that you can get lost! All I can say is that the 1-2 days cruises offer are not enough. However, if you have to choose: cross the Galata bridge, find the Egyptian Spice Market and let your nose rejoice! Then, after a short walking distance to the left of the market, visit Agia Sofia, the Blue Mosque and Cisterna. If you have stamina, take a cab or a bus and go to Capali Charsi, the Grand Bazaar an then go bask to the ship to refresh. In the afternoon you can explore the "european side": You can Walk to Galata Tower and take a cab or walk to Istiklal a boulevard with shops of all kind that will lead to you to Taksim. In the little passages at the sides of Istiklal you can find many cafes and restaurants that are lively every time of day and night. If you have a second day in Istanbul, take a bus or cab and visit Chora Monastery and admire the unique byzantine mosaics. You can walk from there to Fanari, a once greek area, really picturesque, and then take a bus to Dolma-Bakche Palace and Okoy. There is a Mosque there and a very picturesque spot.
Insanbul (Constantinople) is a fairytale!..
It is the celebrities and "the wanna have fun and try everything" for youngsters during the summer. At the time we visited, it was windy, but still crowded. For me, it is not worth staying at the capital. It is not authentic anymore. Ask about other villages and get a cab or a bus to go there. If you are interested in archaelogy, take a ferry to Delos.