Egypt, Israel and Ancient Worlds
I will try to be as complete, candid and unbiased as possible. I will not tell you everything is perfect or that everything is terrible. All cruises have good points and bad points. Hopefully, the good far outweighs the bad.
Pre-cruise, Barcelona: We arrived after a relatively simple two flight legsLAX to Heathrow, Heathrow to More
style="font-family: verdana; color: #000000">Barcelona around 7:45 pm and took the VERY EASY "Aerobus" from the airport to Placa Catalunyasteps from our hotel, the Hotel Continental. A taxi could not have been much simpler or easier and the cost was minimal.
The Hotel Continental is both incredible AND disappointing. The incredible: The location. There could not be a better location in all of Barcelona. We had a Las Ramblas View Balcony Room on the "Third Floor" literally looking straight down on all of the action on Las Ramblas. Right out the front door was a choice of restaurants, shops, bars and more. It was NOT noisy when the doors were shut and the drapes drawn. There were electric shades, operated by a switch near the door, which closed the room off from the outside light. The disappointing: My wife hated the bedthought the mattress was too hard. The room was rather small and the reports were correct about the "plastic furniture". I was fine with it. It's not like we had to live there for more than three nights and, to me, the location was unbeatable. To my wife, she would have preferred a more upscale five-star hotel with a big soft bed.
There was free internet and a public computer down in the main lobby area. The 24 hour buffet was well stocked including free 24 hour beer and wine. Of course, it wasn't exactly Napa Valley Cabernet they were servingbut free is free.
Embarkation: We checked out of the hotel around 11 am and took a taxi right to the ship. Embarkation was well run and easy and we were on the ship in minutes enjoying a nice lunch at the buffet. First, of course, we stopped by Polo and made our reservations for our nights in Polo and Toscana.
The Nautica: This was our second cruise on the Nautica. We were on it in 2006, just after Oceania acquired it and refurbished it. Three years later I can tell you the ship is in great conditionlooks brand new. Hard to believe it is a 10 year old ship. There is not a single instance where I noticed any material wear. Our cabin (#7051midship deck 7, category A1 Concierge level) was exactly as I remembered from last timespacious, well appointed. King sized bed, small love seat type sofa, desk, small table, balcony with two deck chairs. Public areas are limited, but appropriate for this size shipnever felt crowded, always able to find a seat in any venueincluding deck chairs on at-sea days and reasonably located seating for the shows even when arriving barely on time.
Dining: This cruise confirmed for me that this is one of the really strong points for Oceania. The food was consistently excellent, menus were varied and offered many choices. Service was good (We'll get to the few issues later on). We generally ate in the Main Dining Room for all meals except our two nights in Polo and two in Toscana and the two occasions we had room service breakfasts delivered to our cabin. Toscana, in particular, was excellent. Some of our friends found Polo a little disappointingmostly in the quality of the steak. Of course, I ordered lobster both nights so I wouldn't know.
Entertainment: As much as Dining is a strong point, entertainment is Oceania's weak link. Of course, if entertainment doesn't matter much to you, it is no big deal. As there is never more than one show per night (at 9:45) and there could not be more than half the ship there, obviously, over half the passengers really didn't care. There were basically only three "headline" performers on the ship: Comedian Tom Drake, Guitarist Vincenzo Martinelli and Magician Harry Maurer. Being a small ship, I actually had the opportunity to meet, socialize with and have drinks with both Tom and Vincenzo as well as Piano Bar pianist and part-time headliner Jerry Blaineand these are all great guys and wonderful performers. Tom is quite funnyand a perfect match for a cruise shiprelates well to the audience and really seems to love this job. Vincenzo is an amazing guitarist. We have had the opportunity twice now to enjoy Jerry's work and he almost seems like family. So, when I question Oceania's entertainment, it really isn't an aspersion aimed at these guys. They are all quite good. What Oceania lacks is in quantity and variety. On a 14 night cruise, with only three individual headliners to draw from, you end up overexposing all of them. as good as Vincenzo is, hearing flamenco and classical guitar for four shows gets to be a bit much. Some nights, there was no real main showthe time slot was replaced with "Movie Night". Three nights, the show was staged as a singing show spotlighting one of the female assistant cruise directors, Joanne and Lucy and one night by Jerry moving his act to the "big room". If one is accustomed to the entertainment one finds on the big ship cruise lines, this line-up can be quite disappointing. That said, we still enjoyed the showsthough we always felt a little let down to find only "movie night" on the program.
Activities, night life and at-sea days: More noticeable to us than the entertainment deficiencies is the relative lack of activitiesas much a result of ship size and passenger demographic as it is any fault of Oceania's. With a small ship, you simply have limited venues and limited staff. And a majority of passengers seemed to be in bed by 9, so even where activities were scheduled, they were sparsely attended. I am a night person and, I guess, relatively young compared to the overall ship demographics. At night, after the aforementioned show, there was typically only one activity on the agendathe "disco". On a typical night, there were more crew members than passengers in the disco. I guess that's one reason I found myself socializing with as much of the crew and entertainers as I did. There was Karaoke only two nights and very few volunteer performers. I actually found myself singing four times (CCR's "Lodi" and "Looking Out My Back Door", the Beatles' "Back in the USSR" and the Boxtops' "the Letter") and those who know me well know well that I can't carry a tune. Of course, that's what usually makes Karaoke fun. But, on the Nautica, there was hardly anyone there to enjoy it. Again, the passengers' fault, not Oceania's. What was Oceania's fault was the dreadful selection of Karaoke choices. I wanted to do the Kinks' "Lola"and it was on the list, but wouldn't work. Past that, NOTHING by Jimmy Buffett (and this is supposed to be a cruise ship??). They had a few Rod Stewart tunes, but NO "Maggie May"!!!
Trivia: Okay, for me, this is a BIG item. I love triviaand never miss a session on an at-sea day or when returning from port on time. We had a team comprised of members of our CruiseCritic.com Roll Call and won virtually every trivia session, even trouncing the competition, including a team made up of Cruise Director Dottie and the Crew the one day she turned the quiz over to one of our members to host (thus taking a valuable member off of our team). All lots of fun. But, here is the "downer": All cruise long, they were hyping the "Collect 'Big O' points". On other cruise lines, there is "instant gratification" for winning a trivia sessiona key chain, a t-shirt, a water wallet, a hat, a luggage tag, a ball point pen or some other meaningless logo trinket. I do have a drawer at home filled with these itemssouvenirs of a sort from many wonderful cruises. Most sort of worthless, but occasionally a really nice prize like a t-shirt or a tote bag. Now, last time on Nautica, we had this "points" thing and, at the end of the cruise, they put out a table with a variety of items. We were sort of expecting the same this time. I figured I'd walk away with maybe a hat and a t-shirt or something of the sort based on how many Big O points I had collected. Imagine our surprise at the end of the cruise when the ONLY items offered in exchange for all those Big O points (in my case, over a hundred) were Oceania Mouse Pads or plastic screwdriver/penlight combos. Who even uses a mouse pad nowadays?
Here's the thing, Oceania: DROP THE "BIG O" POINT THING. It only infuriates people. If you are not going to give out some sort of meaningful prize, don't tell people to collect "points" for 14 nights. Other cruise lines give out better "prizes" for winning a single trivia game or other activity. You look really cheap giving a mouse pad to someone who's won every activity for 14 nights. Rather than do what you are doing, it would be better to tell everyone in advance that the activities are for the fun of it only and no prizes will be awarded. For me, I'd likely play anyway. I enjoy the "sport" of trivia and other contests and no reward is necessary to gain my participation. The "Big O" points would be fun if they meant somethingbut, in this case, it was more insulting than anything. So, don't publish "Big O Points" multiple times in each day's "Currents" and stop announcing it on the ship.
The funniest part was the night AFTER they had the Big O point redemption, they had the "Game Show" titled "Brain of the Nautica"sort of a 15 person trivia challenge where contestants were knocked out of the running after missing their third random question. I won. My prize??? Three more "Big O points"!!!
The ports: Actually, the biggest attraction on this cruise was the itinerary. The ports were sensational. Of course, some better than others. If I were to tweak this itinerary, I'd actually do it by removing two portsCrete and Cyprusand trading them for more time in Egypt and Israel. In Crete, we visited the Palace at Knossos on a ship's shore excursionand, though an interesting archaeological site, it pales compared to what one finds in Egypt and Israel. My assumption is that by cutting out Crete, you could get into Alexandria sooner than noon, maybe even the night or afternoon before, allowing passengers to do a more complete two days in Cairo and Giza if they so wanted. Cyprus was pleasant, but really little worth seeing compared to the other ports. It would be great to replace it with a second day in Ashdod. Jerusalem was easily a full day's worth of touring and it would have been nice to also visit Masada and the Dead Seabut, not enough timeand we wouldn't have wanted to have given up our day in Northern Israel out of Haifa eitherwe hired a private guide and went to the incredible archaeological sites at Megiddo and Caesaria.
We also really enjoyed Tunisia and Malta and Ephesus is always enchanting. This was our first opportunity to visit the Terrace Houses and I highly recommend them.
Barcelona: We have been here several times, so we didn't really need to see anything but we did tour some of our favorite placespretty much on our own. We visited the Picasso Museum, took the interior tour of the Sagrada Familia, then took the rear elevator up and walked down [Note: For those visiting the Sagrada Familia, there are two elevators. 2.5 euro per person. The one near the front usually has a line with waits up to half an hour or more. The one in the back typically has no line. The front elevator allows for a ride both up and down, the one in the rear, for some odd reason, up onlybut the walk down is pretty cool with great photo ops along the way.], Park Guellwhere we went inside Gaudi's house. We also took in a tapas dinner and Flamenco show at Tablao de Carmen in El Poble Espanyol on Montjuic-pretty good dinner and show.
Tunisia: Arranged for a tour for sixwith fellow CruiseCritic Roll Call membersthrough Chris Sheridan at TouringMalta.com http://www.tourinmed.com/index.htm. Excellent tourcovered several sites including Ancient Carthage, Sidi Bou Said and the Medina.
Malta: Same thing as for Tunesiaa private tour for six arranged with Chris Sheridan. We went to Valletta, Mdina, Hagar Qim and Marasxlokk. Hagar Qim was really incredible. Sort of a several thousand year old Maltese Stonehenge. Best guide of the tripChristine Muscat firstname.lastname@example.org She is the President of the Maltese Tour Guide Unionan Anthropologist by education. Excellent.
Crete: We took an Oceania Shorex to the Palace at Knossosnot our favoriteokay archaeological site. But it's a short day in Crete and not much else to see there.
Alexandria: We took the Oceania Shorex entitled "Roman Influence on Alexandria". It hits the basic three ancient sites really left in this townPompey's Pillar, the Catacombs and the Roman Theater. Another short day as we arrived only at noon. some from the cruise chose to do an overnight in Cairo, but we figured the first days was sort of a waste anyway as we wouldn't have much time to see Cairo that day. The Shorex was fine.
Port Said: We joined a group of six for the private van tour booked through Oceania. Went to Sakkara, Memphis and the Pyramid/Sphinx. Yes, it is a long drive back and forth. But the tour was pretty goodbetter than doing it with 30-40 people in a big bus. When you add the entrance fees and cost of lunch, it doesn't really come out to any more $ than the shorex. Lunch was at Felfelavery good.
Ashdod: We booked a private tour with Joel Berman of jtours.com. Very knowledgable. Retired Israeli army officer born in South Africa. Went to Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum) in the morning, then a pretty exhausting tour of Jerusalem the rest of the day.
Haifa: Joel met us again at the ship in Haifa and took us on a full day tour to Megiddo, Ein Shemer Kibbutz and Caesaria. Megiddo and Caesaria are two incredible archaeological sites. This was a pretty good choice of tours IMHO.
Cyprus: We did another shorex to Paphos and Kourion. Paphos is pretty dull. Not really much there but some old mosaic floors. More of the same at Kourion.
Kusadasi: We did a private tour for four of Ephesus including the Terrace Houses through Ekol Travel. Really good tour with a guide who stayed with us throughout. Terrace Houses should not be missed.
Istanbul: We did a full day tour for four to the Cisterns, Spice Market and other sites along with another couple with Nejat Incedogan. [Note: Nejat does have some physical limitations, so if you want a fast paced tour, he may not be your guy.]. All four of us had been to Istanbul before, so this was really just to see some of the unusual sites we hadn't seen. Went to the Orient House at night for the Dinner/Showalways intriguing.
Another day, we did a tour of the Dolambache Palace and visited the Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaarthen vegged out the rest of the timewe were there four nights total including the overnight on the ship. On the day of the overnight, we just hung out onboardnever left the shippretty quiet though.
Post-cruise: By the end of the cruise, we were really exhausted. So many full days of touringin hot weatherlots of walking and steps and dust and dirt. We were ready to just relax and wind down. Last time on Nautica, we stayed pre-cruise at the modern 5-star Conrad, so, this time, we wanted something completely different. We checked into the small 17-room Sari Konak. Room was very small, but nice. I walked out onto our balcony and realized we had the most incredible, completely unobstructed close-up view of the Blue Mosque. we stayed three additional nights post cruise and toured the Dolambache Palace, the Cisterns, the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar and other sites at a very leisurely pacea really nice wind-down from the cruise. Ate at the Orient House for the Dinner show one night, ate a lunch at the "Pudding Shop"as we had done three years ago (I like the place). Otherwise, ate in small restaurants in the Sultanhamet. One night, we ate with some of our cruisemates at the "Family Restaurant"Great misprint on their business cards says "She does the cook" (sic)!!
Assorted comments re dining:
1) Whenever we asked to sit with other people (We're sort of "social" and like to meet and talk to people), the Maitre d' would tell us it was "slow" and they'd seat us at a table for twoeven when it clearly wasn't "slow". This was a big deal to my wife and at one point she suggested it might keep her from wanting to go back to Oceania in the future.
2) They never ask if you might want some Iced Tea and even when you ask for it, it tends to take a LONG time to get it, then they rarely refill it. I drink LOTS of Iced Tea and this one is a big deal with me.
3) I am "Type 2" Diabetic and should not be eating sugar. So, I go out of my way to order "SUGAR FREE" jam for my toast and "SUGAR FREE" syrup for my pancakes. Somehow, Oceania doesn't quite catch onto the idea. Yes, they stock and deliver the sugar free jams and syrup. BUT, they deliver the pancakes with heaps of POWDERED SUGAR on them. You'd think if someone had ordered "sugar free" pancake syrup that maybe they wouldn't want the sugar loaded right onto the pancake??? One time, my wife made it a point to specifically tell the waiter that the pancakes should NOT come with sugarliterally, pulling him aside and going on about it for 3 or 4 minutes. You guessed it, they were delivered with sugar anyway.
Crew: I used to think that Oceania's top assets were 1) Food, 2) Itinerariesbut, from this cruise, I am thinking maybe the best asset they have is the people. We really had a great opportunity to spend a lot of time with a number of the crew membersspecifically Joanne, Lucy, Terese and Ian from the Cruise Director's staff, entertainers Tom, Vincenzo and Jerry, as I had mentioned before, Rocky from the jewelry shop and others and found them ALL to be genuine, friendly, good peoplemore fun and sociable than some of the passengers. For 14 nights, I felt like part of the familyand that is a tribute to nothing but these individuals. Tom (who, as we all learned, is married to Dottie, the Cruise Director), is much more than an entertainerhe is a "true believer"Oceania should put him to work selling the cruises. And Oceania should consider themselves lucky to have Jerrythe guy puts in first class job night in and night out. Ian and the girls really go out of there way to get to know the passengersat least the ones who take part in games and activities. After two weeks I feel like I've known these kids for years. If there is one thing that will bring me back to Oceania, it's these guys (okay, and maybe the food and itineraries).
Sickness: Though I never got sick on this cruise, we kept hearing from a lot of our fellow passengers that something was going around. There seemed to be a much higher incidence of this on this cruise than any other I've been on. We had tourmates who had to miss multiple ports. I can't really blame Oceania. I know that when so many people are confined to a limited area and there is a lot of personal interaction that, if someone catches something, it tends to spread. And, I am not a medical doctor, so I really know little about the causes of this particular epidemic. I do know that Oceania had a number of disinfectant hand cleaner dispensers around the ship, though I didn't see enough people using them. I don't know what more Oceania could have done, so I will leave that to others to comment on.
Overall: Despite my nitpicks (Don't get the wrong ideaI am not bringing up those negatives to put down the cruise line or the experienceonly to be thorough and honest), the cruise was and overall very positive experience. Oceania is a heck of a good product. There are some things that can be improved upon (as with everything) and there are some things that are merely beyond their reasonable control. But, for the most part, it's pretty goodWell run, clean, high quality, luxurious, elegant. The ship is extremely pleasant, uncrowded, nicely and tastefully decorated and well-maintained. The food is excellent, the itinerary sensational. We really enjoyed our 14 nights onboard and really hated to see them come to an end. We will very likely be back, especially with these tempting itineraries. Less
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