In shopping for a memorable birthday present for my husband (or hubby), I looked through the maze of late May and early June cruise offerings to Greece, which we had wanted to revisit. Greece has always been one of the most picturesque countries in the world that we never tire of visiting due to its azure skies, tantalizing water views, great food, lilting music and hospitable people.
Of the Aegean itineraries I reviewed, Louis Cruise Lines' 10-day "Mediterranean Jewels" program on the Orient Queen emerged as the best value for the money. Besides Greek ports of call (Piraeus, Patmos, Mykonos, Santorini, Katakolon), the cruise package included French, Italian and Turkish destinations (Marseilles, Genoa, Naples, Messina and Kusadasi). What's more, the two "at sea" days provided prospects of unwinding and experiencing the ship's facilities and amenities. With above factors in mind, we booked the cruise, and below is a review of our experience on the Orient Queen.
We've sailed on two of Louis' ships before and found the modern, stylish public areas of the Orient Queen just as remarkably clean and well-maintained.
The ship has a capacity of 912 guests in 364 cabins. There are 320 crew members and 10 passenger decks. Deck 10 (Panoramic) has the Venus Bar-level 2; Deck 9 (Compass), the Venus Bar-level 1 plus a mini golf course; Deck 8 (Sun), the main swimming pool, fitness center and sauna; Deck 7 (Boat), the Horizon Buffet Restaurant, small pool, beauty salon, massage/spa, hospital and jogging areas; Deck 6 (Merry), the Mermaid Restaurant, Reflections Lounge and Bar, the Stars Show Lounge and Bar, library, video game arcade and business/internet center; Deck 5 (Phoenician), the reception and shore excursions desks, duty-free arcade, photo gallery plus a heliport; Decks 4 (Cedar) and 3 (Fortune), the casino and slot machines.
While both pools and fitness center magnetize the athletic and active at heart, the massage/spa and beauty salon cater to those looking for a special pampering. The library and card room attract both bookworms and socializers. Not to be forgotten is the large duty-free arcade for the shopaholics and the casino for the fortune hunters and speculators.
Our air-conditioned, luminous, spacious, comfortable and tastefully furnished window cabin was a perfect birthday present for my husband. It had an understated contemporary feel about it with matching drapery and bedspreads, chrome bed stands (with a shelf but no drawers), linen upholstered daybed and chair, ample closets, LCD TV, telephone, fridge and complimentary combination safe. The roomy bathroom had marble-like tiled floors, walls and counters, a bathtub with shower plus a hairdryer. In a heartbeat, we'd choose the room again as it was easy to find and convenient to the restaurants and pools.
Marseilles and Genoa are the main embarkation points for Orient Queen's 10-day "Mediterranean Jewels" itinerary. From reports, the cruise we joined had 60% French, 30% combined Austrians, Italians, Germans and Swiss and 10% mix of Turkish, English and us, the only two Americans.
At the check-in points, efficiency and hospitality are standard priorities for the staff in order to get cruisers in the right holiday mood. Whereas cruisers' passports are kept until the end of the cruise for port authority clearances, a cruise card is issued for getting on and off at intermediate stops. Credit cards are registered for on-board purchases. Afternoon briefings on life on board are scheduled for passengers embarking at both ports with the mandatory lifeboat drill held upon departure from Genoa. Disembarkation procedures were just as efficient as those at embarkation.
The soft-spoken, effervescent Greek Capt. Yannis Foudoukas is at the helm of the courteous, friendly, efficient, multicultural staff officers and crew members hailing from Greece, Cuba, Mauritius and the Philippines. Everyone from whom we asked or sought assistance went out of their way to fulfill our needs - from Bulgarian Alina and the Filipino security/cruise card checkers, from the reception desk to the duty free shop representatives, from the barmen and waiters to the television technician.
English and French were the major languages spoken on the ship with pleasant Belgian-born Cruise Director Dominique Jacobs providing the Belgian, Dutch, German and Italian translations.
Accommodating, friendly and hospitable Maitre d'Hotel Alexandru Dan managed the restaurant with utmost professionalism, using as guide his father's management philosophy of being "strict but fair". The impeccable table service reflected his management style, and despite the large number of passengers, with a friendly smile, food was always served piping hot.
Our table waiter, Kostantinos, proved to be perfect: his English was on par for us and our British tablemates. Best of all, he was pleasant, courteous, attentive and quick to deliver our menu choices while they were hot off the stove. He even went out of his way to help one of the British ladies unload an unwanted telephone card she had mistakenly purchased at a local store. Now, that's service indeed worth mentioning.
Our cabin attendants Dyarilis and Marko couldn't do enough to keep our rooms always spanking clean and well-supplied with bathroom necessities. It was a pleasure to see our hand towels changed twice a day and to see each evening chocolate treats on our pillows. From their comments, our British dinner tablemates were just as satisfied with their own cabin attendants.
This is my favorite topic to review and right away -- thanks to the combined talents of the Philippine-born Executive Chef, Ralph Goyena, the Greek Food and Beverage Manager, Dionysios Alysandato (whose first name obviously derives from the god of wine) and the culinary team -- I must say the food on this cruise was superb, but let me begin with comments on breakfast.
Standard breakfast fare for hubby and me at home comprises juice, fruit, bread and cereal. It was overwhelming to see the wide array of breads, cold meats, smoked fish, cheese, bacon, sausages, plain or filled omelets and fried eggs. It took us a day or so to get used to having a gargantuan breakfast, but we started looking forward to the smorgasbord of flavors as the cruise progressed.
The lunch buffet was likewise amazing, almost a daily mini-banquet with the bountiful salads, cold cuts, cheeses, soup, beef, pork, fish courses and carbohydrate selections of rice, potatoes, pasta and pizzas. As though not enough to increase the girth, the variety of cakes, puddings and jellos awaited the sweet-toothed while fresh fruits remained attractive to the diet-conscious.
The Mermaid Restaurant welcomed cruisers preferring a more intimate dining style for lunch. The menu comprised appetizers, soups, entrees and desserts (cakes, strudels, caramel, chocolate mousse and cream brulee). Daily, a country is selected and its special food featured. Among those featured were Greece (bream, gyros, moussaka, yemista), Austria (schnitzel), France (nicoise salad), Italy (spaghetti putanesca, carpaccio), Spain (paella), China (sweet and sour pork), Thailand (chicken curry) and the USA (barbecue ribs, steaks).
The culinary tours de force each day were of course, the dinners for which we enjoyed dressing up. Two dinner seatings were standard. Moreover, dinner evenings ranged from formal to casual and themed. As might be expected, the wine selection was broad and included choices from several countries, including Greece, France, Italy, the US and Australia. From cruisers' comments, the menus were typical of an upscale restaurant.
The "welcome gala" and "farewell formal" evenings were definitely coat and tie affairs generating smart, glamorous diners at the Mermaid. Matching the first occasion were lobster, salmon and lamb. King prawns, duck l'orange and tenderloin steak highlighted the second. Whereas a festival cake capped off the "welcome event", Baked Alaska (the traditional farewell treat in many cruises) served as keystone for the "adieu affair".
With regards to the casual dinner evenings (called as such to mean "wear smart casual clothes"), the restaurant still served "dressy" and epicurean-flavored menus ranging from appetizers to entrees and desserts. The ship's dress code, which is enforced, prohibits wearing shorts to dinner in the Mermaid dining room, although they are allowed at the Horizon's informal buffet.
The Greek and Italian dinner theme nights were served buffet style. While moussaka, dolmades, lamb, zatsiki, feta cheese and other dishes represented Greece, lasagna, spaghetti and pizzas highlighted Italy.
Overall, it could be said that if Ralph and Dionysios had aimed to deliver "divine food" and "food fit for the gods" during the Orient Queen cruise, without doubt, they accomplished their goal of presenting a magnificent culinary repertoire that only an ascetic would have resisted.
Besides the meals served above, late night snacks were brought butler style to the lounges. Further, there were two late evening sweet buffets with crepes and seared bananas that were overshadowed by a grand, lavish and calorific evening called "sweet fever". At the latter event, living and breathing (figuratively speaking) cakes, pies, cookies, fruits, puddings and jellos grabbed cruisers' sweet tooth and camera bugs' attention to the maximum. Overall, the sugary show communicated the kitchen staff's belief that "man can't live on meat and potatoes alone," especially on a cruise.
Reportedly, birthday, graduation and anniversary celebrations can be arranged on board. Therefore, to make hubby's birthday week memorable I ordered a cake, which was delivered to our table with singing waiters from Cuba and the Philippines. Additionally, Maitre d' Alex mentioned the Captain can officiate civil wedding ceremonies on board, and the staff will ensure everything goes right for the occasion. Finally, special wedding/honeymoon packages, including all that a couple could wish for to start their marriage on the right foot, are available.
With the variety of shore excursions offered, along with the line-up of on-board day and evening programs, cruisers had no time to get bored. Hubby and I literally became very time conscious in order not to miss out on any of the activities. We were, after all, celebrating his birthday week.
Day entertainment featured among others sushi-making, cocktail-mixing (one not to be missed), ice, fruit and vegetable carvings, napkin and towel folding, language and dance lessons, quizzes, contests and aperitif games.
Nightly the lounge musicians rocked the boat, encouraging both junior and senior cruisers to take center stage, boogie, cha-cha-cha, jitterbug, line or slow dance. When the Stars Lounge band took a break, dancers moved to catch the Latin and rock tunes in the Reflections Lounge. For the night owls, disco music prevailed through the early morning hours when the musicians had finished performing.
Except for three days when only one show had been scheduled for everyone, the entertainment team rendered early and late performances in the Stars Show Lounge.
Glitz, glitter and glamour filled the "Welcome Show" that was segued by other lively revues as the "International", "Broadway", "Singers Cabaret" and more. Theme nights ranged from the "Sensational '70s" to the "Fiesta Noche Show/Tropical Party" and the "Greek Night."
Programs encouraging passengers' participation were the "Miss and Mister Orient Queen Contest", "Dance Competition" plus "Passenger and Crew Members' Talent Show". For the cruise we were on, marvelous passenger performers included an adhoc French chorus, a balloon sculptor and a belly dancer.
Finally, throughout the cruise no one could miss Cruise Director Dominique Jacobs' infectious laughter and smiles (reminiscent of those by American actress Natalie Portman). Besides her impressive multilingual skills, she can sing, dance, act and be a comedian as well. She also leads the gracious, talented hosts and hostesses (Alina, Lidia, Zlata, Gianni and David among others); delightful crooners (Marina and her colleagues), attractive, energetic dancers (Natalya, Samantha, Jenny with their two handsome male partners), the riveting magician (Kent), the Stars Show Lounge Band, the Reflections Bar Duo and the Disco Bar DJ.
PORTS OF CALL
As the Orient Queen cruised to four countries, for clarity, the review in this section has been done geographically.
Athens' acropolis, Monastiraki, plaka and the posh shopping area near the Greek Parliament Square topped the places we revisited in the city. The city is a 50-minute bus ride from Piraeus. The mini-train near the Parliament Square is something we did not see on our last visit there. We considered taking it, however, opted to explore the streets and capture the city pulse and rhythm on foot. It felt good to experience the hustle and bustle generated by shoppers, gobble a huge pretzel bread, window shop, chat a bit with merchants and answer their questions concerning American lifestyle, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain. After taking some shots of the temples on the acropolis and picking up a few souvenirs, it was time to head back to ship.
Known for its clean beaches, fish restaurants, tavernas and meandering shopping street, this town was our second Greek destination. We tendered towards the village of Chora, and from there, proceeded to the hilltop St. John the Evangelist Monastery, a 10-15-minute bus ride from the town center.
The monastery is where St. John wrote the Biblical book of Revelations with its famous visions of the Apocalypse; hence, it is the reason for Patmos being called the "Jerusalem of the Aegean". The well-preserved Byzantine church plus its architectural details are worth close examination. Unfortunately, photographing was not allowed inside.
Among the art collections in the monastery's museum includes paintings, icons, religious relics and silver or gold embroidered vestments. A lasting memory from the monastery is a tranquil view of the moored Orient Queen against Patmos' scenic coastal views.
Mykonos and Santorini
The ship called on both islands the same day - Mykonos in the morning and Santorini in the afternoon. The quaintness of both islands was just as captivating the second time as when we first visited them. The notable difference is that while Mykonos developed on a plain, Santorini did on the cliffs. A similar sight to both against unforgettable, gorgeous water views are the whitewashed Cycladic cubic-style homes accented by colorful doors and windows along with the blue-domed churches.
As Mykonos limits driving, the ship provided a shuttle bus for the town center of Alefkandra. Oodles of artsy souvenirs greeted everyone navigating the maze of narrow, whitewashed cobblestone streets. Besides the beaches, hotels, restaurants and bars abound on the island. Among Alefkandra's highlights are "Little Venice" (with the waterside balcony homes, bars and eateries), the windmills perched on a hill, the incredible number of churches in the town and Petros, the town's mascot pelican. Hubby and I wished we could have stayed longer to investigate the shops; thus, with a heavy heart, we headed back to the shuttle bus.
We tendered to the captivating island of Santorini, where the view of steep cliffs never fails to mesmerize. We took the cable car (instead of taking the hundreds of stairs or the mule ride) to the town center of Thira, the island's capital. As in Mykonos, the town hosts innumerable boutiques, bars and restaurants huddled against each other. T-shirts, caps, jewelry, ceramics are everywhere.
After exploring the island's narrow and hilly streets, we followed the path to capture Santorini's sunset scene, a "must see" according to locals. From the lookout, where we took our parting shot of the island's coastal views and the caldera, we relished the incredible sight of cliff cubic homes with flora and bougainvilleas that will always be part of our collective memory of Greece.
Subsequent to purchasing hubby's Santorini labeled shirt, we headed back towards our floating hotel, where a "Greek Night" of food and dancing had been scheduled. On the boat, a crew member intimated that once in Santorini, he literally ran into Bruce Willis. In another visit, he spotted Santorini homeowners Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt shopping there. He also commented the prices can be intimidating as the island is popular among world celebrities.
The small port town is modern, clean and easy to get around. For tourists with lots of time in the town, there is a train and bus service that would enable visitors to visit renowned Ancient Olympia, site of the first Olympiad in 776 BC and Zeus' sanctuary. However, due to our limited time there, we opted for a taxi and arrived in Olympia 40 minutes later. Hard bargaining got us a roundtrip fare of €50 for four people, including 1-1/2 hours waiting time for the driver. Because both museum and archaeological area close at 5 p.m., we chose to visit the museum to view the artifacts from the site.
The modern, fantastic Olympia Archaeological Museum houses some of the most significant collections from antiquity: prehistoric terracottas, bronzes and priceless sculptures such as Hermes bearing the infant Dionysus by Praxiteles, the Nike of Paeonius and a large photograph showing Phidias' colossal gold and silver statue of Zeus in his temple in Olympia. The statue was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
In one room is a pediment reconstruction from original pieces of the Treasury of the Megarians. Further, in a large gallery is the crème de le crème for the institution - original sculptural composition pieces of the pediments and metopes from Zeus' temple depicting a contest, a battle scene and Hercules' 12 labors.
To cap our visit, we viewed the archaeological site's model in the lobby. In retrospect, though short, our visit to Olympia was well worth the time for having seen some of the rarest vestiges of ancient Greece.
Upon returning to Katakolon and before heading back to "base", we poked our heads inside a few shops for some souvenirs as the town was the last on our Greek itinerary. We couldn't resist the olive soap said to do wonders for the skin and the ubiquitous "eye" door decor, which Greeks say wards off evil, helps generate fortune to homeowners and perhaps, bring tourists back to Greece. Since our return, we've put the "eye" where it was recommended with hopes of reaping its benefits.
Kusadasi's progressive-looking and impeccable port is awesome. Near the landing is a modern shopping arcade greeting cruisers. Just across the main street from the port is a traditional Turkish bazaar, where merchants tempt with jewelry, carpets, clothes and home accessories. Before shopping, however, we wanted to revisit Ephesus, an ancient Greek and Roman wonder that was our top priority for the day. After a short taxi negotiation on a round trip fare to the site, we were off on a 30-minute ride to Ephesus. For four of us, the roundtrip fare was €48 plus a €2 tip.
History records a Greek prince founded Ephesus; that it was once rebuilt by Constantine, and that it developed into a significant Asia minor capital, metropolis and commercial center under the Romans. The complex is vast but could be visited quickly in an hour. A longer visit, if time allows, affords reflective moments at the place.
Among the highlights include vestiges of the Roman Theater, Hadrian's Temple and the Celsus Library that was built in AD 135 and could house around 12,000 scrolls. Its theater is said to have had a seating capacity for 25,000 spectators. Indelible memories of our visit to the area were the gleaming state of the artifacts along with the cleanliness of the complex' surroundings. For lovers of antiquity, Ephesus is certainly one not to be missed.
Although we skipped it this time, also worth visiting is the House of Mary (Mother of Jesus). After the crucifixion, St. John is believed to have brought Mary to Ephesus, where she lived out the rest of her life.
Back to Kusadasi, we strolled through the bazaar, where we very much enjoyed viewing the offerings. We briefly chatted with friendly merchants who, while waiting for prospective customers, sit on benches in the middle of the tree-lined lane of the bazaar.
Kusadasi's drawing cards are definitely its coastal views, unhurried lifestyle, warm climate and hospitable folks. Hubby and I agreed it's worth revisiting the place someday.
The ship docked about 8 km. from Marseille's old port area, a 15 minute ride away by taxi. Due to the distance of the port from town and the inconvenience of accessing public transportation, an organized sightseeing tour might be a good option to consider.
A truly fascinating place with lots of shops, restaurants, business offices and of course, traffic, Marseille's vieux (old) port hums with fishermen selling their catch for the day as well as vendors plying local or imported arts and crafts stalls along the pier. It is home to several sailboats plus sightseeing boats for around the area. From the area, a mini-train takes visitors up the hill for both a visit to the Church of Notre Dame de la Garde as well as for a magnificent view of the city.
We found the city tourist friendly. The port is convenient to the Brignole train station and the airport via the Volabus from the train station. The fountain just outside the port building pleasantly greets visitors, hence a favorite backdrop for photo shoots.
A topless sightseeing bus with narration in several languages picks up visitors just outside the maritime building. We found the one-hour tour to be a good way to catch an overview of the town. Highlights include the Aquarium, Piazza De Ferrari, Columbus House at Porta Soprana, and the gardens in Piazza Vittoria.
Returning to the Aquarium area, we viewed private yachts alongside the enormous galleon built for the 1986 Roman Polanski movie "Pirates". Foreign imported clothes, costume jewelry and housewares are sold in the piazza's market stalls. As we strolled back to the port, we stopped in some discount clothing shops, mostly run by Orientals.
Genoa's outstanding images are the architecturally attractive palaces(especially the Ducal Palace), collection-rich museums, inviting squares (especially Piazza De Ferraris and PiazzaVittoria) along with the great shopping opportunities in the city center or near the port. We plan to revisit the town soon with hopes of combining it with a visit to Portofino.
The city has too many treasures to visit in a 5-hour stop. Among its globally-known sites are the Naples' National Archaeological Museum, Capodimonte Museum, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Vesuvius and Sorrento.
As in many other cities, the City Sightseeing Bus is a recommended way to experience Naples heritage of which is a blend of Greek, Roman, French and Spanish cultures. The bus tour originates from the side of the New or Angevin Palace, just across the Maritime Station, where the Orient Queen docked. Near the New Palace is Plebiscito Square with some of Naples' major beauties: the Royal Palace, San Francesco di Paola Church, the San Carlo Theater, and the Galleria Umberto that leads to the Via Roma shopping district. A pleasant way to end a visit of Naples is a cappuccino or gelato stop at the handsome Caffe Gambrinus where one can admire the 18th and 19th century buildings as well as the fountain-centered Trieste and Trento Square as traffic and people pass by.
Considered as Sicily's door, Messina boasts wide streets and architecturally interesting buildings. Highlights of the town are the Norman-style cathedral, a bell tower with a mechanized clock generating a fascinating show of moving figures at noon plus a large marble fountain in the heart of the cathedral square.
As Sicily is famous for horse-drawn carriages, we decided to take a ride in one for €20 for three people. Along the way, our friendly coachman Salvatore pointed to some of the town's squares, churches, the Neptune Fountain, unreconstructed buildings that were bombed during the war, the hilltop shrine and the port's Madonna statue,. Unless one understands Italian, a better way to see the town might be through the mini train (from the cathedral square) offering multilingual narrations during the tour. Lastly, had we had a full day in Messina, we'd have taken a cab to revisit lovely Taormina, a well-known resort on the Sicilian island.
Admittedly, it took a couple of days for hubby and me to get back to our normal routines after the cruise. Nevertheless, it was one of the best birthday celebrations my hubby has ever had. We would definitely take the cruise again to relive the fond memories of the Orient Queen, its hospitable staff along with its fantastic and highly recommended Mediterranean route.
In ten days the cruise did four countries (France, Italy, Greece plus Turkey)and called on 10 ports of call (Marseille, Genoa, Naples, Piraeus, Kusadasi, Patmos, Mykonos, Santorini, Katakolon and Messina). In less than two weeks, we revisited or experienced for the first time some of the world's top archaeological sites, a holy island, ancient cities, posh islands and resorts with great shopping venues. If Louis Cruise Lines' 10-day "Mediterranean Gems" itinerary can't be described as "super," then I don't know what that word truly means.