My husband and I are back from our 10 day eastern Med cruise on the Westerdam. We are in our mid-40s and this was our 8th cruise. Our early cruise experiences were with HAL and this was the first time back in 5 years after trying out other lines (Princess, RCCL and German based Aida). We flew from Germany to the small Ciampino Airport which caters to european charters and discount airlines. Transfer per Taxi to our hotel was 55€. They charge 30€ up to the Aurillian Wall and the taxi meter goes on for the rest of the trip. The driving in Rome is nerve racking, they don't stay in lanes! It is just one big high-speed merge along the roads. I was glad to arrive safely!
Pre-Cruise We stayed in Rome 3 days pre-cruise in the Sofitel Hotel, a bit expensive (250€-/night) but in a good location near the Via Veneto with a wonderful quiet room. We did the hop-on hop-off bus to orient ourselves on the first day. We then used the Metro with a day pass (4€/person) for the rest of our sightseeing. We also used a taxi at the end of a long day touring. We found it easiest to hail taxis close to a bus stop. After the bus pulls out the taxi can pull in easily. We didn't see taxi stands any place other than the train station Termini. I wanted to visit at least one museum so DH and I walked up to the Bourghese Gallery. I was at their web-site pre-cruise to verify opening times. We got there later in the day hoping to avoid crowds and got a big surprise. You need reservations to visit the Gallery! They could fit us in on Thursday at 3pm. Unfortunately we would be in Dubrovnic on Thursday. Tip: Make your reservation for the Bourghese Gallery online in advance! Another Tip: The Coliseum is open til sunset, so visit it after 5 pm and have it (practically) to yourselves. (You do not need a reservation here!) Earlier in the day the ticket line was verrrrry long. We had a private transfer to Civitavecchia with Romana Limo for 125€. They weren't the cheapest but were prompt answering my e-mails. Service was excellent, I would use them again.
Embarkation Pre-boarding begins at 11 am. We arrived at the pier at noon and were onboard in the Lido having lunch at 12:15. It was the fastest check-in that we have ever experienced. The captain made an announcement shortly after 1:00 pm that the cabins were ready. We had SS Stateroom 8082 (upgraded from a SZ guarantee). It was a good size with a large balcony. The bed was very comfortable and the linens were ultra soft. We loved the pillow combination (three different kinds to mix and match). The balcony had two lounge chairs with footrests and a table with two chairs large enough for dining. We had breakfast there almost every morning. Simply wonderful!
Sea Day I love a sea day at the beginning of a cruise. We got to know the ship and were able to start touring relaxed. We cruised past Stromboli Volcano while enjoying breakfast on our balcony. What a way to vacation!!!!
Dubrovnic We used the HAL Shuttel (5$/each way) that dropped us off in front of the Pile Gate. Right inside the gate to the left are the stairs to walk the wall. You could pay in euro or dollar (8€ or 10$? I think) and rent a narrative for a few euros/dollars more. The stairs are steep with little or no railing. The views from the wall are impressive. Watch out for your children!!!! There are many spots where the drop is steep with no railing at all! There are a few places along the way where cold drinks are sold. We went half-way around the city wall then went down into the town (the rented Narrative was collected at the foot of the stairs). We visited the aquarium which was small but cool and quiet making it a nice break. From there we wandered through the old town back towards Pile Gate. We had lunch in one of the many restaurants. They accepted euro and dollar almost everywhere but gave us change in local currency.
Corfu We did the ships tour to the Achillion Palace. The palace was nice but very crowded. We left the group and walked through the palace on our own then went out to enjoy the gardens. The gardens are definitely the highlight of the visit. There are shops outside of the palace near the busses with drinks, postcards and souvenirs. The bus brought us into Corfu Town where the group went to visit a church. We wandered throughout the streets, had lunch and enjoyed the atmosphere. We ordered an appetizer plate and a carafe of local wine so we would be able to try the local specialties. We were disappointed to get a mixture of deep fried fish, meats and cheese with a few cucumbers and tomatoes on the side. It was good but not what we were looking for. The wine was nice. We met at the bus at a pre-arranged time to go back to the ship. About half of the group stayed in town. There were lots of taxis to go back to the ship on. We spoke to fellow cruisers that afternoon who did the Villa tour with a garden lunch. They loved the tour and they said that the luncheon was memorable.
Katakolon We did the ships excursion to the ancient Olympia Site with a short visit to the museum. We had a wonderful guide who really made the site and its history come alive. He took us through the site as if we were participants of the games and showed us how a typical “day in the life” was back then. When we arrived back in Katakolon we walked down the (short) street that went along the harbor. There were lots of shops and restaurants to choose from. We ordered an appetizer plate again hoping to get a different combo. Alas, it was the same thing! Lots of deep fried sardines and calamare, a few meats and cheese (deep fried) with cucumber and tomato on the side. The quality was better than in Corfu Town but again it wasn’t what we were looking for. Live and learn…. We have a few more greek ports ahead of us to try the local cuisine!
Santorini I had been looking forward to Santorini. We made an early stop for all bus tours to disembark. The busses had to climb a very steep cliff, switch-backing along the way. I had to close my eyes and pray we would make it safely to the top. Of course every bus made it safely but it is not for the faint of heart. Oia was very nice, probably a lot nicer when the bus tourists are gone. We saw a lot of fellow cruisers getting off the local bus but it was standing room only. There were 3 other cruise ships anchored on that day so the public transportation was much in demand. I was glad that we decided to take the ships tour instead of doing it on our own. The streets in Oia are very narrow and the crowds massive. Our bus took us back to Fira where we were given tickets for the cable car. We walked around the charming streets but were again overwhelmed by the masses of tourists. We went to a local restaurant on a back street to try yet again the local greek cuisine. We ordered Suvlaki and a carafe of the local wine. Lunch was very nice. Our tablemates told us that evening at dinner that they rented a scooter for 15€/day and went to Oia. They told us it would have been better to rent the Quad (four wheel scooter), it cost a little more but would have been safer and more comfortable. Our other tablemates did the hot spring / volcano crater tour and were disappointed. It was very difficult climbing to the crater and to get to the hot springs, they had to jump overboard into deep water and swim to the springs. Consult the shore excursion staff before booking that one.
Athens We were told the evening before that there would be seven ships in port. When the shore excursion guide tells you to expect crowds they are not kidding! We booked the full day tour of Posidons Temple, lunch and the Acropolis. After driving over an hour to get there, Posidons’s Temple was disappointing, just a small ruin site, a few columns. The stop was just over an hour, half of which I spent waiting to use the rest room. We walked up to the temple then back to the shop. We drove another hour back to Athens along the same route and went to a large hotel’s banquet room for lunch. 6 Busses of HAL tourist joined us for a very nice buffet lunch. After lunch, we drove on to the Acropolis. The walk from the bus station to the top of the Acropolis was steep. Our guide took us up a few levels then stopped to narrate. The ruins are impressive, the architecture fascinating. The temples of the Acropolis are a site to see and worth every step of the way! The bus went directly after the Acropolis back to the ship. Looking back, I would not recommend taking the time to visit Posidon’s Temple. The time would probably have been better spent in Athens.
Kasudasi / Ephesus We booked a private tour with Ekol Tours. The private tour for the two of us was less expensive than the ships tour. The guide and driver met us on time where we drove first to the ruins of the Temple of Artemis then on to Ephesus. The ruins of Ephesus were the highlight of the entire cruise! There are not just a few stones piled up but an entire city! We went to the Terrace houses on the site, do not miss going in there!!!! Fascinating! From the public toilets on to the local house of ill repute continuing to the Library and the theater. The tour went downhill after Ephesus. Our guide told us we would stop at his friends place for a snack and refreshment. His friend was a carpet salesman. I told him right away that we were not interested in buying a carpet. We were shown how the carpets are made and given a delicious snack and cold drink. Then two men started rolling out the carpets. They must have rolled out 20 of them while the salesman kept telling us how the poor women in the villages have only these crafts to make their livelihood. Then he went on about what a great investment the carpets are. In a few years you won’t be able to get carpets of this quality……Get me out of here!!!!! We went back to Kasudasi port where we were to leave our guide. We paid ($119 + tip) and thought it was over until the guide brought us over to a jewelry shop to what seemed to be a pre-arranged visit. Two salespersons started fawning over us bringing tea and pulling out jewels for us to look at. We were not interested but they would not listen! The salesman started talking prices and we kept saying no thank-you. He went down in price we still said no thankyou. We finished our tea, thanked them and left. We went on to a leathershop close by. DH just wanted to look and see but that is not possible in the turkish bazaar. We saw many beautiful well priced leather jackets but were not interested in buying. We left that shop and took a few steps and were dragged into another leather shop! He must have seen us leave the first shop without a bag and kept saying that it was now his turn to show us his jackets! Okay, we were on vacation and tried to just go with the flow. We looked at his jackets. Very nice, well-priced (the price dropped 50% while we kept saying no thankyou) and we then tried to leave. The salesperson followed us, his boss accosted us un the stairs asking why we didn’t buy anything, he could make a better price!!! Help, get me out of here!!! We went straight back to the ship. That afternoon and evening we met many fellow cruisers who had the same experiences with carpet salesmen and bazaar harassment. So, if you go to a turkish bazaar be aware that any interest you show in their wares is an invitation to bargain with the shopkeeper. It did not seem possible to just browse. If you are interested in buying you can easily find great leathergoods, jewels, gold and of course, carpets. Know your prices and value of the goods beforehand and bargain away!
Sea day We slept in and relaxed. I was disappointed that HAL did not offer any Edu-tainment courses or lectures. I had taken a Photo-Shop editing course and enjoyed investment info lecture on a Princess cruise and was hoping to find similar things here. We watched a few movies that we had missed in the theaters and had a nice day anyway.
Messina Sicily We did the ships tour of Taormina with the Greco-Roman Theater. The town was nice, it was great to be able to browse in the shops! We had great views of Mount Etna from the town square area.
Disembarkation They began calling colors/numbers a little late but by 7.30 everyone was back on time. We had room service breakfast in the stateroom (the balcony was being prepared for the next cruise) and waited to be called. We had the latest Disembarkation called (9am) but were called at (last call) 8.30am. Our transfer with Romana Limos (125€ port/airport) was waiting for us and we got to the airport with time to spare.
Last notes The Westerdam is a beautiful ship, the layout took us a few days to master but was fine. The new Explorers Café with the internet lounge were very nice. Internet was (as on every ship I have sailed on) very slow. It took 5 minutes to load a secured site, sending or receiving e-mails with attachments took just as long. The food in the dining room was very good. There was always something to tempt me. It was served well. We only used the Lido a few times. The set up with a Deli, Pasta, Pizza, Tacos , Burgers, Chinese or warm meal areas was well done. The food there was okay, I just do not care for buffets. As mentioned above, we had room service for breakfast almost every morning. It arrived early and as ordered most mornings. The shows were okay, the highlight being an australian pianist who was fantastic. We spent a lot of time in our stateroom just relaxing. The Greek Isles are beautiful and worth visiting. Temperatures (early June) were comfortable at around 80-85°F for all of our morning tours. This itinerary was the right combination of sightseeing and relaxation for us. We enjoyed the cruise with HAL and will cruise with them again. Happy cruising everyone!