Cruise Critic-ers do Sicily!
Europe - Eastern Mediterranean
Background information We travelled on Celebrity Solstice on 26/12/2009 and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We enjoyed it so much that when I saw a good deal on this 25th June Eastern Mediterranean itinerary on the Equinox, sister ship to the Solstice with maiden voyage on the we jumped at the chance. This was a happy coincidence of a ship I knew I would enjoy visiting several destinations on my "must see" list; before I discovered cruising it would have been very hard to see this combination of breathtaking historical sites (including wonders of the ancient world) and idyllic islands. The sunrise approach into the volcanic caldera of Santorini must be seen to be believed.
Travel to Port We booked a taxi for 110 euros to share with two fellow cruise critic users. We arrived at Fiumicino from London and they arrived from Dulles. Unfortunately, there was a general strike in Rome on our day of arrival and both our plans went awry! Many people were affected by the chaos and More
departure was delayed by 45 minutes to allow for this. Our taxi company sent separate cars for us as our flights arrived over seven hours apart. Our car made it to Civitavecchia with about 20 minutes to spare. The port is about 45 minutes drive from Fiumicino airport - we enjoyed the view of the ships in port as we descended into Italy after a stunning flight over the Alps.
Stateroom Initially, we booked a category Z inside room. About a month before sailing we upgraded ourselves to a category X guarantee veranda. This was a great deal - we were allocated a 2C, room 6299. This is one of 7 rooms on the 6th floor with a double depth balcony. Half of it is uncovered and protrudes beyond all the balconies above you, allowing a glorious view up to the top of the ship. The view down is obstructed by two metres of the roof of the restaurant below protruding beyond the end of the balcony but the view out and to aft is completely unobstructed. The bed is close to the veranda and was in superb condition. This is a quiet part of the ship. We only heard noise from our neighbours on the day of disembarkation. I would recommend a room here again, choosing carefully between port and starboard dependent on ports of call in order to get the best view. Our bags were delivered within 30 minutes, we had a shower and headed to the sunset bar to meet our fellow cruise critics! Our ship was on the port side. This meant we faced the Straits of Messina in Sicily, the city of Athens at Piraeus (keep an eye out for the Acropolis in the distance - you can see the ship from the Parthenon!), the south side of the town in Kusadasi, the sea in Mykonos, the port at Rhodes and the city at Naples. The views were good from both sides of the ship.
Dining What a treat! We dined in Tuscan Grille (twice), Murano, Silk Harvest and the Silhouette Dining room on all other nights including both formal nights. The formal nights were on the two sea days, having been moved from the day we called at Sicily. Main Dining Room: We ate at the late sitting. We changed tables after the first night as our original tablemates were pleasant but very quiet. We were reallocated by the Maitre d' without fuss and a card was given to us with our new table number. We were seated very close to the captain's table at a six seater round table with a British and an Australian couple. The food was filling and tasty! Highlights for me were the Caprese salad (beautifully presented with quarters of tomato and mozzarella arranged to make a round in the middle of the plate), the rack of lamb and the crème brulee (very large but perfectly crunchy on the top!). Service from our waiter, Pedro, was prompt, attentive and entertaining; he dealt very well with the number of different faces that ate at our table - whenever one couple went to a speciality restaurant, the other two couples found "substitutes" to fill in! We saw very little of the assistant Maitre d', who seemed rather quiet and as if on autopilot when she came around. Murano What can I say? The venue is delightful, the service personal and the food exquisite. If you enjoy fine dining and will only visit one specialty restaurant whilst on board, make it this one. There is a formal, French ambience to the restaurant. We were lucky enough to have a large table for two with a great view across the room, next to one of the windows. Try and get a table here if you can; they are intimate but well lit. Some tables are tucked away in less spacious corners. There is a tasting menu with paired wine (for a premium) and an a la carte menu. This time we ordered a la carte and were not disappointed. Our waiter, David, recommended three appetisers which would suit my salad and entree as I could not decide between the six on offer; I settled for the escargot fettucini with a parsley and garlic emulsion which was quite unlike anything I have tried before. He told me that this was one of the most popular choices with men whilst women prefer the goats cheese soufflE. I was glad to take the recommendation and enjoyed every mouthful! A pear and roqueforte dish followed and then the signature dish; Dover sole, filleted at the table side. It was meltingly good! I had the "six etoiles" dessert which consists of six small, inventive desserts presented in an overgrown test tube rack. Artistic and delicious! Tuscan Grille The Grille is at the back of the ship with large picture windows looking into the wake - breathtaking sunset views are offered as standard. I enjoyed the steak tartare particularly. The calamari on our second visit were a little tough but still delicious. The fillet mignon was just sublime; cooked rare (as requested), juicy and sweet. If you like tableside preparation, order the Caesar Salad. It was first prepared on the 4th July 1924, our waiter informed us as he made the salad. I won't give you any more details of the story as he tells it so well... pausing only when he realised it was 86 years to the day since it was first invented! Silk Harvest The food was delicious and the service probably the warmest on the ship. We did not think the food was unique or remarkable but we have eaten in a lot of superb Oriental restaurants. That said, the scallop and shrimp entree in particular was perfectly cooked and the sushi was fun. The same sushi is served at the Captain's Club event so you can get a taste of it there!
We organised all our Excursions independent using tour guides recommended on CC or independent routes on public transport. All went without a hitch! Messina, Sicily 26 Cruise Critics got together via the Roll Call and I arranged, via Mario and Ignazio Astone (brothers) for a bus to take us all on a route up to Castelmola, then Taormina, a couple of scenic views including Isola Bella and then into Messina. On the bus with us were Laura (a marine biologist) and Ignazio, who shared the guiding. They were very informative and organised a great day. Castelmola is a beautiful old village perched high above Taormina at approximately 1800ft with views to Etna, down over the town and amphitheatre in Taormina and far over the bay of Giardini Naxos. It has a population of approximately 1000 people and is home to a surprisingly large and imposing Duomo as well as many interesting little streets and shops. Next we descending the windy, narrow road back to sea level in order to take a cable car ride up to Taormina, straight into the centre of town. Ignazio had kept this surprise to himself and we were delighted by the view... and by the fact that our 35 euro per person included the tickets for the cable car, cold drinks on the bus and some authentic Sicilian bakery snacks! I had some delicious antipasti in Taormina followed by Gelateria. We stopped to take pictures of Isola Bella before continuing to the Astronomical Clock in Messina. We were back on the boat by 5:45pm in time for a 7pm sailing. Less
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Port and Shore Excursions
Athens We took the metro to Thissio direct from Piraeus at the grand cost of 3 euros for a day pass. The walk from the port is easy; the Equinox docks at Terminal B, there is a shuttle to Terminal A and you walk around the port until you reach the Metro on the other side of the road. There are many threads describing the route on the Athens boards; these combined with a quick look at Google Maps made for a very easy trip! When we arrived, we were treated to a walk along a wide, pedestrianised street along the forum up to the Acropolis. The Acropolis was very busy indeed by 11:30am. I'd suggest getting there earlier but we enjoyed our lie in immensely! From there we walked to Plaka, stopped for a superb fish platter at Eels restaurant , then continued in a circuit to the Cathedral, the Tower of the Winds, the museum at the Stoa and finally the Temple of Hephaestus. This is the only Ancient Greek temple with the roof still intact and was well worth the effort. It was also very conveniently located a stones throw from where we had started the day at Thissio, so we got back on the Metro for the 20 minute trip back to Piraeus!
Ephesus/Kusadasi Our ten day itinerary took in Athens and Ephesus on consecutive days; so many sights to see in so little time! We docked in Kusadasi at 7:00am. A resort town in it’s own right, this is a bustling town with a huge, privately owned port. There is an ATM at the cruise terminal (along with a Starbucks!) if you want Turkish Lira, although tour guides generally accept USD or euros with no problem. We had arranged a trip to the ancient city of Ephesus, the temple of Artemis at Selcuk (one of the seven wonders of the world) and the House of the Virgin Mary high up on Mt Koressos above Ephesus. Our tour guide (Ali from Ekol travel) was waiting at the port at 7:30am and took the four of us to an air conditioned van where the driver was waiting. Small tour vehicles wait just outside the terminal, a three minute walk through the shopping area as the main car park is filled by the cruise line buses. Ali’s English was perfect and he explained the history of the local area as we made the 30 minute drive to Ephesus, originally a port town but now 19km inland due to silting of the river it was built on. Ephesus holds the largest collection of Roman ruins in the eastern Mediterranean. It was a city of 250,000 people at one point and is thus a vast site to explore. Ali made the whole experience come alive, explaining how the city would have looked, what particular buildings were for, the belief and social systems that underpinned the city as well as pointing out the best places to take photos from and finding viewing spots that escaped the considerable number of tourists, even at that time in the morning! In brief, the main highlights are the Library of Celsus, an enormous 45,000 seater open air theatre and Harbour Street, along which Cleopatra would have walked on her visit to the city (during which she ordered the removal of all the books in the library to Alexandria where they were lost). By 10:45am it was very hot indeed. We were glad to have arrived and be departing the site so early as there is little shade. We drove on to see the remains of the temple of Artemis (a single pillar in a marshy field; but well worth the visit for the view and an explanation from Ali) before heading to the House of the Virgin Mary, where it is believed Saint John took Mary to live until her Assumption. The house was reconstructed in the 1950s and is probably rather larger than the original structure but still revered by Christians and Muslims alike. We returned to the ship without stopping at a carpet factory. Ali offered us the chance but we refused, based on tales we read on Cruise Critic. Friends who travelled with the same tour company took up the opportunity and described a hard sell but enjoyed the tour.
The Islands Each island was stunning in it’s own unique way. No photos can really do justice to the perfect little backstreets of Mykonos town, the azure water lapping the beaches around Rhodes or the majestic experience of sailing into Santorini at sunrise. I’ll stick to what we did and how we did it! Mykonos The Cruise ship docks about a mile north of the town, the other side of a steep hill. Whilst there is a good footpath, you don’t get long on the island if you plan to see the town and hit a beach so the $10 for the bus transfer to town was worth it for us... Celebrity pretty much have a captive market for that one! Tickets are sold as you get off the ship. We walked around the town, enjoyed getting lost and climbed up to the top of the hill to find the windmills. For those who don’t have the energy, there are four more in a row at sea level! Then, after a couple of hours of pleasant exploring we caught a local bus to Paradise beach. The bus station (which is tiny and open air) isn’t brilliantly easy to find without a map (easily obtained) and directions from locals (ditto) but buses go from there to several beaches. We went to Paradise beach, tickets 1.40 euros each way, available from the tobacconist next to the bus station. The bus was hot and crowded but we found a seat. There are plenty of umbrellas and sun loungers at the beach, which was very pretty. The bus drops you about 100m from the beach. It returns every half hour; it is popular so be sure to be there early to make sure you get back on time! We returned to Mykonos town at about 2:30pm for a drink and a little more sightseeing before wandering over to the bus drop off point. The last bus back to the ship was at 4pm. Multiple buses run at once.
Rhodes Again, lots to see! We opted to head to a beach for the morning and head back to Rhodes town in the afternoon which is best explored on foot. We took a taxi to the beach. Taxi fares are fixed on the island, provided you get a member of the Taxi Owners Association of Rhodes. They provide a phone number so you can call from anywhere and know you will pay the fixed price; taxis are very comfortable, brand new Mercedes saloons! If I went again, I might hire a car and explore several beaches as well as going as far as Lindos, as the cost would have been similar. Having done some research before leaving the UK, we opted for Anthony Quinn beach. It’s a pebble beach with multiple, very small, very private little areas which can really only fit three or four couple on for sunbathing. Loungers and umbrellas were available; we were more than comfortable with just our beach towels. There are showers and toilets provided with no charge all along the bay and a restaurant at the top near the car park. In the afternoon we explored the town with the aid of a guide book before sailaway at 6pm... viewed from the sunset bar with fellow cruise critic members, as had become our custom from the first day!
Santorini I have seen nothing quite so stunning as this island! I was on deck with about 100 others to watch the arrival of the Equinox, carefully navigating around the black and pink volcanic islets until the main island came into view. It’s worth being on deck from about 6am for this. If you want to take photos, be warned: the sudden change from the air con in my room to the damp air outside fogged up the filters, lenses and all other flat surfaces of my camera for about 20 minutes! The sun rises behind the island, casting pink and then orange shadows and ray of lights over everything it touches... astonishing! We left the boat at 9am (getting up before 6am was not in my partner’s day plan) by which time an announcement had been made that there was no longer a need for tender tickets. We tendered to the bottom of the cliffs and queued for about 1 minute for the cable car (cost 4 euros per person). There are donkeys to take you up the hundreds of feet of cliffs – have a look at the discussions on the destination boards and decide for yourself if this is humane. Fira affords stunning views of the island but our plan was to head to Oia and enjoy the most photographed village in the Mediterranean (with good reason). After coffee in a cliff top bar in Fira we caught the bus (2 minutes walk from the cable care station, signposted and marked on the map) to Oia, which leaves every thirty minutes. The views of the eastern, flat side of the island from high up the cliffs were very nice... but nothing prepares you for Oia! Home to just over 1000 people, Oia’s houses and churches cling to the cliff like brightly coloured limpets, glinting in the sun. We looked around for an hour or two and then simply sat at a restaurant patio, enjoying lunch and taking in the improbably pretty views in one another’s company. It was the most gloriously romantic day of the holiday and surely something that is very hard to beat! Car hire in Fira was approx 35 euros for a small car for the day. Some friends did this, others explored the island on the bus. We caught the bus back to Fira, walked down the 600 steps to the tender and got back to the ship very happy indeed. The steps: by 4pm, there are very few donkeys coming up (we counted six). Yes, there is quite a bit of donkey-do around but it had dried out completely to dust in the heat of the day and was no different to walking along a dusty footpath. Just breathe in and out through your mouth and don’t be tempted to sniff the air...