October 31st through November 4, 2008
We packed up and left the Mystique hotel (Santorini) on Halloween and flew from Santorini to Athens to stay at the Intercontinental hotel. The intercontinental hotel was Seabourn's cruise line's pre-cruise hotel and they had representatives there to answer questions and shepherd us through the sequence of boarding.
We decided that this hotel was too "5 star" to have authentic Greek food. I was dispatched in search of a Gyro. A plate of crackers in the hotel restaurant was on the menu for several hundred dollars - (let's not forget that they will deliver those crackers to your room for a 20% surcharge PLUS tip) Fairly typical for high end hotels.
Seabourn's rep called us that evening to let us know they were taking a bus tour prior to the ship to the Corinth canal and the ancient city of Corinth. At first this sounded like something that might be interesting, however I did a little research and found the Corinth Canal - which I always thought was built by the ancient Corinthians, was constructed by the FRENCH less than a hundred years ago. Therefore, the use of modern explosives to create a canal through solid rock is NOT as impressive as if they had done it by scratching it out with their hands, or banging stone aged instruments into the mountain until it was five hundred feet deep and miles long. We didn't go.
Next morning we got up early. Did a little sightseeing and then promptly at 11:30 am we stood in front of the hotel awaiting transport to the ship. A GINORMOUS (bigger than huge) Bus arrived to take us. There were only 8 of us who hadn't taken the tour to Corinth, therefore this bus was a bit of overkill for our small group. As this bus attempted to leave and maneuver down these small streets, a car was parked and the bus was unable to get through, The driver backed up for two blocks onto a busy highway to extricate us. A true feat of amazing prowess.
Moving between hotels and airplanes is an exhausting task, even if well organized. Seabourn, is unlike any of the other Cruise lines that we've been on and there have been many. There are no long lines to board. You arrive at the side of the ship, a staff member dressed in black waistcoat, and white gloves takes your bag and they lead you into an air-conditioned comfortable lounge aboard the ship. They bring refreshments to you and when they are ready for you they call your name, you walk to the front of the lounge, are greeted cordially (drink in your hand) and photographed for your onboard ID. Once registered you are escorted by another white gloved attendant to your suite.
We got into our suite and our stewardess immediately arrived with a silver tray, two glasses of champagne and hors d'oeuvres. You just want to melt into a comfortable puddle, it feels so good.
You are also given a choice of soaps and shampoos (all very upscale brands) for your suite's bathroom and a selection of pillows (foam, feather, formed etc.).
By the end of the first day every staff member aboard knows your name and greets you by name. THAT is an amazing feat and one which I have never seen on any other cruise line.
The feeling you get once aboard is that you are safe, can relax and someone will take care of everything for you. Kind of like that feeling you have (and don't realize you have it) when living with your parents as a child - before moving out on your own. No worries, someone else will do it or take care of it for you, your sole job is to go out and play.
We went to the top of the ship to enjoy the sail off from Athens harbor. They circulated with beverages for everyone at the rail, a small musical group sang a sophisticated brazilian bossa nova music. It was a beautiful experience.
Formal dinner this evening, with fantastic. Great food, tuxedos evening dresses and most everyone on their best behavior. We were invited to join the table of one of the ship's officers. We met new people, had great conversation and even better food. Upon returning to our cabin we found two glasses of brandi, a rose and strawberries and whipped cream waiting for us.
Seabourn has had a reputation since they were founded that whatever a guest wants, the crew will deliver. As the economy has taken a downturn and everyone is searching for ways to save money and still turn a profit, it has effected this cruise line. One of the staff told me that some of the passengers were making requests that were increasingly difficult to fulfill. "I'd like truffles that were gathered from a Patagonian swamp". They used to go to the Patagonian swam and GET those truffles and have them aboard by the time you arrives.
While the chef was personable and prepared his cuisine superlatively, a lack of proper provisioning (supply) became obvious. As an example; we were traveling through the Greek islands and I wished to have a traditional Greek/Turkish breakfast daily. That consists of a hardboiled egg, some crusty bread with butter and fresh olives. On our second day the normal olives disappeared and I got a dish of olives that were pitted along with some martini olives (complete with pimento). When I asked about it I started an escalating Olive fiasco culminating with a volunteered "olive tasting" organized by the chef. Unfortunately, there appeared not to be a single olive aboard the ship except those used in martinis and black pitted olives (all directly from a can).
One of my favorite dishes aboard a cruise or in an upscale restaurant is an Escargot appetizer. Two weeks aboard and they were unable to produce escargot (none aboard). Towards the end of the cruise my wife ordered cream of wheat for breakfast - they were out and had none. I can understand not having escargot, but cream of wheat is a staple of breakfast like eggs. In fact, I find it interesting that one of the other reviews at this site from the same ship but nearly a year ago made the same comment about lack of proper provisioning. I've been told that Seabourn's management reads these reviews, so hopefully they'll see a trend here and hire more forward thinking chefs who can provision properly for a luxury crowd.
Our visit today was our personal re-entry into Turkey. Fethiye, A seaside yachting town with a population of a few hundred thousand. We walked ashore and after twenty plus years. Some of our Turkish language came back to us. We had lunch at a nice outdoor restaurant, sitting out on the covered outside tables, with Ekmek (bread) and delicious dishes made with vegetables and lamb. It was wonderful. My wife has a three piece "puzzle"ring that we bought when we lived in Ismir. We went into a gold shop and saw one similar but larger on display, heavier and even more beautiful. Buying gold in Turkey is traditional. They don't charge for the craftsmanship, they weigh the piece and you pay for the weight of the gold and it's value.
Much has been said and written about Seabourn's complimentary shore excursion at Ephesus. Very probably the finest shore excursion experience to be found aboard any cruise line at any site in the world. A private, torch-lit evening in the ancient ruins of Ephesus. They close the entire ancient ruin site for Seabourn and it's two hundred guests, who are escorted into the ancient site along the road from the port where Anthony and Cleopatra once walked into Ephesus.
Ephesus, is of course, many miles from any city and therefore is mostly deserted except by tourists visiting the site. The first time we visited Ephesus (I was stationed as a military pilot with NATO nearby at Ismir, Turkey at the time) was to attend the "camel fights" taking place on the hills adjacent. The hills were covered by spectators dressed in a myriad of ways from full arab regalia to western wear - down at the bottom they turned two camels loose on each other and they fought. It was quite a sight. .
In my estimation, this was one of the most memorable experience we've ever had. At 8pm in the evening, everyone boarded buses and were driven to the ruins of Ephesus - 30 minutes from the port city of Kusadasi.
The ruins were lit by floodlights from horizon to horizon were pillars and remnants of ancient buildings many reconstructed to the point where it was easy to imagine walking down the street of this ancient city as a Roman or Ephesian. Without a doubt one of the finest archeological sites in the world.
Most sites of this sort, are so demolished that it is difficult to imagine what it looked like before its destruction. Dominating the scene as we walked into the city on this ancient main road (paved with huge rocks worn flat by thousands of years of traffic, chariot wheels etc.) Was a Roman Amphitheater. The Amphitheater was huge, an oval open on one side, surrounding a stage and rising up from around the stage to roughly 10 stories high. It was bathed in beautiful yellow light. We passed it and continued walking along the darkened main street for about half a mile through pools of light placed every so often to illuminate the road, as well as the buildings on both sides. As we approached a crossroad, "Roman Citizens" appeared standing on either side of the road, dressed in togas and other roman period dress down to the headgear, holding torches to illuminate our way.
Following the torch lit guides stationed on either side of the road; we finally reached the world famous Ephesus library façade. It was like you were Roman Royalty being escorted to the performance. We walked down some gently sloping stairs to about fifty tables each set with hors d'oeuvres and wine glasses. As we walked down the steps to the tables, young women Romans stood on either side with baskets of grapes, tangerines and other fruits offering them to us as we descended.
We took our seats (there was room for two couples at each table); a Gentleman walked out onto the steps of the library in front of us and introduced himself as the Mayor of Ephesus (a role, of course, since Ephesus now has no population). He spoke for several minutes discussing the politics of the Gods, which was essentially a soap opera styled introduction to Greek/Roman mythology. He concluded and a five piece chamber orchestra came out and performed for about an hour playing classical chamber music. It was a beautiful experience.
When the concert finished, we slowly walked the half mile or so back to the bus. There were four large buses waiting for us, each one filled and left as it filled. Well, being the photographer that I am, I was among the last few people returning to the sole remaining bus.
Adjacent to the parking lot where the bus was waiting was a short string of shops. Of course it was late, near 10pm, and all were closed except one. This shop had done a brisk business selling wraps to the unprepared ladies on the way in - the evening was crisply cool.
So as I walked down the final few hundred feet to the bus, I came up to this shop. The owner was standing in the middle of the street entreating people to enter and make one last purchase. He came up to me, entreating me in broken English. I told him in my very poor Turkish, "good evening, thanks for asking but sorry I can't stop the bus is waiting". He looked at me astounded, grabbed me in a big bear hug (he was a foot shorter than me, - a big barrel chested bearded Turkish man) kissed me on the cheek and began dragging me into his store. My wife, meanwhile, was about fifty yards further down and looking at me like "come on the bus is leaving, you idiot".
I couldn't get free without actually WRESTLING this guy to the ground (I'm six foot one and 235 pounds). He was apparently so impressed that ANYONE would actually attempt to speak to him in Turkish that he insisted on giving me a wrap (kind of like a pashmina) for my wife. As he drug me through the door of his shop, he asked me what color my wife's hair was. I said black, and he selected a beautiful wrap pressed it into my hands insisting it was a gift.
I was the last one onto the bus, but what a wonderful feeling.
We returned to the ship arriving at nearly 11pm. The ships crew was waiting on the dock with a giant banner reading "WELCOME HOME" A small musical group was cranking out some loud, very festive music, the crew was dancing around (kind of doing it in place because they were all holding the giant banner. A tuxedoed waiter had a silver platter full of drinks he was handing to each of us as we returned. Not wine but warm apple tea (a turkish specialty).
This would have capped a wonderful evening and experience, but it wasn't over YET.
We boarded to find (few had eaten dinner before we left) a barbeque on deck. Fantastic food, a superb band on stage (they have a stage set up on top of the hot tubs) playing rock and roll music that was incredibly good. People started dancing and eating, it was magnificent. The ONLY thing that could have made this evening better is if we had more family with us to share it. We didn't get to bed until after 1am.
Everyone stopped dancing and eating long enough to watch as we sailed out of Kusadasi to the sight of a castle lit up by flood lights and (not joking) a clear sky and beautiful moon over the vista.
Seabourn has one of these excursions aboard each cruise. It's free and everyone is invited. Frankly, I don't know why we even bother with any other cruise line. A vacation is supposed to allow you not only to relax, but also to provide memorable experiences. Seabourn has it down to a science and there's not a staff member aboard who doesn't make you feel like you are royalty and they have nothing better to do but wait on you hand and foot (and they appear to love doing it).
We arrived at Istanbul and it was the disembarkation point for those who were only aboard for 7 days (we have two back to back). It was a bit sad to see most of the people we'd gotten to know get off. We are now two of only sixty Americans among 200 passengers, roughly about 25%. The majority of the rest of the passengers are now European, French, Dutch, German and South African (which at one time was a Dutch colony in Africa).
Disembarkation: Alexandria, Egypt - our last day aboard the ship. We are supposed to vacate our cabins by 8 am to allow the stewardess to prepare it for the next guests. After two weeks it feels like we're leaving home. I awoke at 5:30 am (nautical twilight) just as the sky was brightening. A look out our window told me we were almost there. I didn't want to miss seeing the sail into this ancient and very famous harbor. What I saw out the window was miles and miles of lights on the horizon. Alexandria is flat and narrowly situated along the ocean with a relatively short depth inland. I also saw about five cruise ships abreast of us sailing in the same direction. the ancient capitol of Cleopatra's Egypt is now fully gone and replaced with ramshackle apartment buildings. It's the end of the tourist season with bad weather descending across Europe and nearly everyone is headed either directly across the Atlantic to the Caribbean or through the Suez Canal to the Orient, Australia, India and Indonesia. Our ship will continue on the later itinerary. We said goodbye to all of our newly acquired friends yesterday, dispensed a few gratuities to particularly worthy staff (Seabourn, by the way, is one of the few cruise lines where gratuities are not part of the equation, i.e, they are neither required or expected - however, they were certainly DESERVED so we violated their policy and rewarded some of the particularly excellent staffers)
Evening prior to departure is always difficult, because all of a sudden you have things you MUST do. We packed our bags had a very nice dinner, a couple of drinks and proceeded up to the night club. The night club is where a tiny, tiny casino is located. We've avoided all gambling while aboard not wishing to spoil our vacation by losing the amount of cash we brought along to buy junk food while ashore. My wife wanted to play the slot machines. She took $20 and disappeared into a small backroom which held all of the slots (about four machines) leaving me standing next to the card tables. There were only two tables - one was blackjack and the other was five-card poker, you play against the dealer and whoever has the best hand wins. Sounds simple, but if the dealer doesn't get at least an ace and a king, then they don't have to pay you your full bet. There was one man sitting dead center of the five chairs facing the dealer, all by himself. He didn't look happy. So I walked up and asked him if he cared which side I sat at, on his left or right. Some people who gamble are superstitious about that. He said he didn't care. Based upon that I seated myself on his left, which effectively caused me to begin receiving the hands that the dealer would have been getting if he continued to play alone. I judged from his sour demeanor that he was losing to the dealer. Turned out to be right. I started winning and in several hands lost only one. My wife came out of the slots after depositing her funds into the chute while listing to banging, whistling and chiming (something hypnotic about that garbage). She'd lost her twenty. I, however, had won a total of $375 while she was feeding her money into the slots. I offered to give her another twenty to take back into the pit but she declined. AND……. she hates standing around watching me gamble and won't even blow on the dice. So, we walked away winners (using the royal "we"). My winnings more than paid all the gratuities and left us in plenty of money for snickers bars. Arriving in Alexandria, I went up to the top deck where the view is the best. A magnificent sunrise, one like I haven't seen in a long time. The sun rose in the east (as usual- I thought we were headed south, but somehow the ship was sailing into the harbor to the north (I still can't figure out how that was possible, but it was). The sun came up a flaming red ball and was obscured so much you could actually look right at it as it rose over the buildings.
We got off the ship and boarded a beautiful 50-passenger bus for transfer to the hotel in Cairo. Leaving a cruise ship is a catharsis. You walk out of an environment where dozens of people are standing around just waiting to rush off and bring you a drink, or a snack and are plunged into the ice water of the real world where you are once again responsible for doing everything yourself. It's a shock.
Once again, everyone (all the other disembarking passengers) had opted to go on some sort of marathon tours and were hustled into little VW buses.
We, however, along with only three other couples had declined and opted for direct transportation to the arranged hotel. We had the entire bus to ourselves and they put a tour guide aboard who spoke English and gave us a running dissertation of everything we saw as we proceeded to the hotel. It was as good as any tour we could have paid for aboard the ship.
The bus dropped us off at the four seasons Cairo, Seabourn's post cruise hotel, which is directly on the Nile River in the center of Cairo. They gave us a beautiful room (this hotel reminds me of Las Vegas, all marble, flowers and well dressed employees everywhere). Our room was near the top of the hotel and overlooked the Cairo zoo and the Pyramids. This is the first time we've utilized Seabourn's pre-cruise and post-cruise hotels and transfers. It couldn't have been better.
In a nutshell, Seabourn is unparalleled in my experience (we do one or two cruises a year and have been doing so since the early nineties). Where other lines have gotten more and more crowded, Seabourn caters to a smaller crowd. Boarding on Holland America as an example entails lines and much waiting (even if you've booked their top suites). Seabourn is like arriving at a private residence where you are the only guest.
While the ships are relatively small, all of the amenities are there. One notable exception is their on board store which is poorly equipped. The only two things I can fault are the lack of provisioning (running out of cream of wheat/no olives or escargot) and that I haven't been able to buy a simple T-shirt that says Seabourn on it on either of our last two cruises. It's impossible to buy a traditional t shirt, but if you want upscale merchandise, it's there (a Ralph Lauren golf shirt or a hermes scarf or a very expensive watch). All of that is a minor distraction among the nearly perfect experience that Seabourn provides.