An Historical Voyage
First of all, let me begin by telling you that I select my cruises on the basis of itinerary, so I have no loyalty to any one company. Thus, my review will be objective. I have taken more than 30 cruises and this is my second on the 'Nautica'. The appeal of this particular cruise was the ports of call, as 6 would be new to me.
I booked my own flights, on line, and managed to obtain a better deal than the agents were quoting. The ordered taxi was waiting at Istanbul airport, and I would like to say that I was whisked away to the port, but we crawled along in the rush hour traffic, with the consequence that I didn't embark until 6.30 pm. Fortunately, we had an overnight in Istanbul, otherwise I would have flown in the day before. Registration was handled efficiently and I was on board quickly, but my late arrival meant I had missed the 'Singles Get Together', and I never did find the rest of the solo passengers.
This was my third visit to Istanbul, so I had 'done' the mosques and Topkapi Palace and all the other 'must dos'. So, the following day, I decided to take the funicular to Taksim Square and walk back down Iskilal Cadessi, but many of the shops remained closed, as it was Sunday. I went to the top of the Galata Tower again, as I never tire of the view of this wonderful city. Folkloric dancers came on to the ship in the evening, and gave a live performance. I went to a CC meeting at 10 and met my fellow Cruise Critics and together we all watched the ship sail away, under the illuminated Bosphorus Bridge.
The Oceania ships all flow well, and are easy to negotiate. Most of the evening activities are all on Deck 5 and, sooner or later, everyone passes through the piano (martini) bar, and usually stays to hear the pianist, Jerry Blaine, or join in one of his music quizzes. It's a very tastefully decorated ship and the library is one of the best afloat; certainly the only one I've come across that operates an honour system. Happy Hour is held there every afternoon, between 5 and 6 when drinks are sold at '2 for 1'. I think this should be changed to half-price, if they're going to have it at all, as it requires two people to order the same drink, at the same time; not ideal if you're travelling alone and fancy an occasional libation.
There's a well-appointed fitness centre and (overpriced) spa. Pilates and Yoga are charged at $11 (+ 18% service charge) which probably why I saw only one person in the Pilates Class I looked in on. There are ample sun beds - some doubles - and private cabanas for hire, for those who want complete privacy. The standard cabins are fairly compact, but well-appointed. I would like to see the addition of a mirror on the inside of the bathroom door, or cabinet, so that one can see the back of one's head prior to stepping into the lift for a further inspection. I did attend a party in an Owner's Suite and it was spacious, and very luxurious. One thing I love about Oceania is their restricted smoking policy; I wish Crystal would adopt it.
There are multifarious locations for piling on the calories. Apart from Room Service, breakfast is served every morning in the 'Grand' Dining Room (their word, not mine). I intended to try it, but couldn't tear myself away from the Terrace Cafe, with it's huge choice of fresh fruits and berries plus freshly squeezed orange juice. The coffee was a bit hit and miss, depending on the timing and location, so I preferred to make my own pot of tea each morning. The teabags stocked included Twinings English Breakfast - my favourite. Sometimes my teapot turned into a tug-of-war, as the attentive crew are horrified to see passengers lifting a finger.
I tried lunch in the 'Grand' Dining Room once, but it was speedier and more convenient to eat on deck at Terrace Cafe or Waves Grill, both of which carried a good selection of ice creams.
Highlight of the day was afternoon tea. The string quartet played while you chose from a selection of dainty sandwiches, scones and miniature pastries and tartlets. There was also some fruit being flambEed in alcohol each day.
Dinner in the 'Grand' Dining Room was a fairly slow affair and if I particularly wanted to make an activity at 9 I had to be sure to get in early. It is nice, though, to have a drink with some new acquaintances and then toddle along to dinner with them, without the convention of a set time and table. I ate once in the two alternative restaurants, "Toscana" and "Polo Grill" and was disappointed on both occasions. I remember raving about the food on my last Nautica cruise but, since then, they have had a change of chef, and not for the better. There also seems to be a lack of communication between the wait staff and the kitchen, although all requests are written down. Some of the food was still terrific, (the carpaccio in Toscana, for instance) but I had tough calves' liver, duck and ostrich, which I can only think had been overcooked. Some of the vegetables were overcooked as well, in spite of being requested ' al dente'. And the creme brulee had only a passing acquaintance with the blow torch.
Entertainment and Activities
Oceania is not known for entertainment and, quite frankly, most of the people I spoke to were happy to do without the cheesy production shows. The Cruise Director, Dottie Kulasa, worked very hard, but would be well advised to dress in a more relaxed way. Her corporate trouser suits in stiff fabrics made it look as if she was about the attend a board meeting, and put a barrier between her and the passengers. Coincidentally, she was married to the resident comedian, Tom Drake, which no doubt saved on cabins. Tom appeared twice and, after the first appearance he admitted he was told to slow down his delivery, as the British audience couldn't follow his fast New Jersey patter. Consequently, he was better received on the second occasion. There was one appearance from a magician, Harry Maurer, who, while entertaining, did nothing original. Best of the bunch was Vincenzo Martinelli, a virtuoso of the Spanish/Classical guitar, who also appeared twice. His music was over-amplified, but I think this was a deliberate ploy to keep the soporific audience awake after dinner.
Game shows were run by Dottie's sidekick, Ian, (Shane Ritchie on speed), and his deputy Dan. Lucy-Jo and Joanne completed this quartet. They played a silly version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" one evening, where clues were offered to artificially get the contestants to $1 million. This meant that there were only two participants and no suspense. When I've played it in the past, a wrong answer meant that the contestant was out of the game. Dottie was in charge of trivia each afternoon, with some fierce competition. My own team (which comprised eminent lawyers and doctors) erupted into a victory dance, on being told we were the overall winners. The "O" points collected for our efforts are a total waste of time - they might as well tell us it's for fun, not prizes. The minimum required is 30 points for a mouse mat. Who wants a mouse mat these days? They should invest in decent prizes, or abandon it altogether.
Nessebur, Bulgaria: This is a tender port.
Do not bother with a tour here, as you can walk it quite easily yourself. There are an amazing number of churches and remains from the Hellenistic period. It's also interesting to see the wooden houses in the Eastern Rumelian style typical of the Bulgarian coast in the 19th century. It's very close to the resort town of Sunny Beach and you can take a boat or bus in fairly cheaply. Unfortunately, this resort has influenced Nessebur and the overall impression is of a small town full of little shops and stalls, all selling the same tat.
Constanta, Rumania: I had pre-booked a private tour with other CC members with Modes. Our guide, Anneliese, was waiting promptly at 9, as arranged. We walked to the Peter and Pavel Cathedral, then the casino, along the esplanade. We then drove to Ovid Square, the centre of town. We were surprised to meet other passengers there who had come via the Oceania shuttle bus, and had been charged $20 for the privilege. We were escorted into the Archaeological Museum. Anneliese had words with the curator and told us the fee for photography and video would be waived. There were many interesting exhibits here which had been discovered during excavations. We went next door, to a public building which contains the remains of one of the longest mosaic pavements in the world. Again, we were allowed to photograph.
We drove out of the City to the beach resorts of Eforie and Neptun and had a wander around there, laughing at the menu translations - "crap" meat for crabmeat, for instance. We stopped at the Murfatlar Cellar for wine tasting with nibbles, and we were all so impressed that several bottles were purchased (and consumed). We had lunch there (and more wine) at the Crama Neptun, sitting at a long table on the shaded terrace. We drove back to Constanza, arriving at the ship around 3.30.
Odessa, Ukraine: Here again, I had pre-arranged a private "Jewish Heritage" tour with ten other CC members with Intourist. Our lovely young guide, Natasha, was waiting and we drove the five minutes to the top of the Potemkin Steps. We strolled down Primorsky Boulevard, admiring the architecture, to the Opera House, where we reboarded the bus and drove to Shomrei Shabbat synagogue. There was a video conference taking place downstairs, so we were ushered up to the gallery, where a young man explained the history of the synagogue. We were fortunate to have Natasha, who conducted a simultaneous translation. We went on to the Holocaust memorial and then to the Jewish Museum (which was not part of the ship's tour.) We were scheduled to lunch at a kosher restaurant but we asked Natasha to take us to a typical Ukranian restaurant, which she did. We were entertained there by typical Ukranian folk singers and joined in the dancing. Fortunately, Natasha was able to provide translations of the menu, as we were concerned at eating 'Crazy Sheep' or 'Rabbit on the Lawn'. After lunch we walked through the park and shopping area, before returning to the ship at 4.
Sevastapol, Ukraine: Another private tour with Intourist. Our guide, Eugenia, was every bit as good as Natasha, articulate and with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city. We drove to the park and watched a naval exercise taking place in the harbour, then viewed the theatre, one of the few remaining original buildings. From there, we drove to Chersonesus to see the excavations of the ancient city and St. Vladimir Cathedral. We then drove to Balaclava, where we visited the Panarama museum at Malakhov Hill. It's a huge 360 degree re-creaction of the defence of Sevastopol, merging painting and models which draws one into the action. We had lunch on the terrace of the Balaclava restaurant, overlooking the harbour, full of luxury Russian-owned yachts. After lunch we visited a secret underground submarine depot, created by the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, carved out of a mountain and concealed behind huge camouflaged bomb-proof steel doors. Built in 1956 it now accommodates a Cold War museum filled with naval exhibits. It was amazing to discover this had been used until 1991. As we drove back to Sevastopol I read "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and we all felt we had learned more about the Crimean and Second World Wars. When we learned that Eugenia lived in Yalta, we begged her to try and arrange to be our guide there.
The next day was, thankfully, a sea day.
Sochi, Russia: This was the only port at which I booked a ship's tour - and lived to regret it. It was entitled "Sochi Highlights and Stalin's Dacha", but the highlights were few and far between. Although one needs a visa to visit Russia, any reputable tour guide will arrange this for you. We had 34 passengers on our bus and I counted at least 17 buses. We stopped at the Winter Theatre and strolled through a park. We then drove to the Matseta Springs and saw the sulphur springs, but the toilet stop took longer than the viewing. We then drove on the Stalin's Dacha which was, in fact, quite interesting, but very crowded. Returned to the ship at 2 pm, for a late lunch, after a disappointing morning.
Yalta, Ukraine: We left the ship at 8.30 for a pre-arranged full-day tour and were delighted to see that Eugenia was once again our guide. She had asked the agency to switch her assignments as she had so enjoyed our company in Sevastapol. First stop was the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, then on to the Livadia Palace. It was built in 1911 as a summer residence for Czar Nicholas II and Alexandra and their children but, sadly, they were only able to visit on four occasions before they were assassinated. However, it is full of photographs and drawings from their time there. In February 1945 it was used as the site of the Yalta Conference, attended by Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. Roosevelt was, by then, a sick man, and was allowed to stay at the palace. From there we drove to the Vorontsov Palace, where Churchill stayed during the conference. This is a beautiful palace, built in the English style, with wood panelling. The gardens, extending down to the sea, are breathtaking. We continued on to the Swallow's Nest, a spectacular neo-Gothic castle perched high on a cliff overlooking the Black Sea. We stopped at a restaurant there, "Elena", where lunch on the terrace presented a perfect photo opportunity. We arrived back at the port at 3 and paid for all our tours at the office there.
The next day was spent cruising the Bosphorus in the morning and the Dardanelles in the afternoon. The Cruise Director, Dottie, provided a live commentary as we passed sites, such as the Anzac memorial at Gallipolli.
Kusadasi, Turkey: I had visited Ephesus before, so was happy to join others on a private tour from Sisan Tours to two villages in the hills. Our first stop was to Kirazli, where we visited the mosque and private houses, about 150 years old. The village children were attending Koran school and we were allowed to enter and became part of a lesson. The children were delighted to practice their limited English and ask questions about our respective countries. We, in turn, were able to have the opportunity to learn more about their village life, through our interpreter. We stopped for tea/coffee at a typical "Men only" cafe, then drove on to a Locomotive Museum. This was more interesting than I had expected, as it was a train graveyard for all the original 100 year old locomotives (Stephenson and others) all set out in beautifully landscaped gardens. 'Health and Safety' hadn't reached here yet, and we were able to clamber all over these amazing engines, like kids. We continued to Sirince Village, visiting the orthodox church, before enjoying a meze-style lunch, being cooked, while we waited, over an open fire. We also sampled the local yogurt-based drink Ayran, which is an acquired taste. After lunch we browsed in the local market and sampled the local fruit wines. While we drove back to the ship, our lovely young guide serenaded us with Turkish folk songs.
Santorini, Greece: This was a tender port and, unfortunately, there were four ships anchored that day. Who arranges these things? The wait for the cable car took 45 minutes, so I abandoned my plans to take a bus to Oia. The last tender left at 3.30 so I thought it safer to stay in Fira but the attractive little town was packed solid. I met others from the ship and, together, we walked to the next village, Firastefani, which was very pretty and afforded many photo opportunities. The queue for the cable car on our return was just as bad, so we decided to walk down. This was not easy, as one had to concentrate on avoiding the 'presents' the donkeys had left us, as well as the donkeys themselves, while staying upright. The aroma wasn't Chanel, either. We bought some souvenirs and returned to the ship.
The next day we docked in Piraeus. I have visited Athens before, so decided to share a minivan to the airport, immediately upon disembarkation. There were 9 of us and it worked out at only $18 per person. We were the last to leave the ship at 9 am, so it was quick and easy to locate our suitcases. Unfortunately, the British Airways desks were not opening until 11 am, so there was a lot of hanging around. By then, of course, we were all one big jolly family, so it didn't matter too much.
Summary: This was a fascinating itinerary and I would recommend anyone who is interested in European history to try it. Everyone has their favourite lines, and I don't think it would make much difference with whom you chose to travel. I, personally, prefer the small ships as I find them more conducive to forming friendships. Obviously, if you're travelling with a partner or friends, this is less of an issue.