This is my first cruise review ever, on this or any other forum. I am a writer by profession, so I will attempt to offer my opinions and insights clearly and concisely while trying to keep this thing under the size of a Tom Clancy novel. I'll comment on a variety of topics relating to the cruise ship and Cunard specifically, and finish by offering my brief opinions on each port. Note that this was only our second cruise ever, the first being with Princess. That being the case it is only natural to compare the ship and cruise line with Princess (specifically the Crown Princess), because that is my only point of reference. I'll also include information for any excursions or transfers booked outside of the Cunard umbrella. For the sake of interest and perspective, we are Canadians in our early 50s. Please remember that I am offering the opinions of my wife and me, occasionally supplemented by comments said directly to us by others. I don't expect everyone to agree with everything I say but that's the nature of stating an opinion now, isn't it?
Ship: Queen Victoria
Voyage: Ancient Wonders, V018
Stateroom: 7128 (balcony - port side, stern)
Embarkation: 25-September-2010, Civitavecchia
Disembarkation: 07-Oct-2010, Venice
Ports of Call: Napoli, Santorini, Kusadasi, Istanbul, Samos, Piraeus (Athens), Zakynthos, Dubrovnik, Venice.
We arrived in Rome (FCO) the morning of Wednesday, 23-Sep and by the time we cleared customs, collected our luggage, found our transfer, and arrived at the hotel it was about 1100 local time. Our chosen hotel was one of Cunard's affiliates (the Ambasciatori), but we booked it on our own at a substantially lower rate than offered through Cunard. An advantage of this was the Cunard information desk in the lobby that was staffed throughout the day - I'm not sure if the other Cunard affiliates offered the same service, but I'm sure they did. After a couple of days in Rome we took a private transfer to the port at Civitavecchia where we boarded the ship.
We disembarked in Venice on 07-Oct, and eschewed all Cunard transfers and post-cruise services to walk to the train station, where we jumped aboard the train to Rome. We overnighted in Rome, used a private transfer to the airport, and departed the morning of 08-Oct.
The first thing that Cunard did that rubbed me the wrong way was to assign a specific boarding time to use. Even though the ship was scheduled to depart at 2100 hrs local we were told we had to board the ship between the hours of 1300 and 1545. Although I understand Cunard's philosophy behind this, it essentially cut short our final day in Rome in favor of lounging about the ship for six hours before departure. Princess did not assign a specific boarding time, and the boarding process was not much more difficult than Cunard's despite the extra security in the USA.
Our luggage was immediately collected when our driver dropped us off, and we were through the entire check-in and security procedure in roughly ten minutes. Cunard was very good at this, but part of the reason that North Americans will notice the much faster check-in process is the security in the US (and to lesser extent Canada) is much more stringent than the European ports. Our first impression upon entering the ship through the Grand Lobby was favorable, but we were not "blown away" to the extent we were on the Crown Princess. There's a couple of reasons for this - first, we kind of knew what to expect and second, the Piazza of the Crown Princess is simply much more visually impressive than the grand lobby of the Queen Victoria. Not that Vickie wasn't very nice, but it wasn't as impressive as the Crown Princess.
Our arrival in our stateroom was pleasantly enhanced by the presence of an iced bottle of champagne and a couple of nice arrival gifts, which turned out to be insulated travel mugs with the Cunard/QV logo. Our first impression of the stateroom was that it didn't seem as spacious as our stateroom on the Crown Princess, which was located in an almost identical area of the ship. The configuration of the stateroom on the Crown seemed to lend to more living and "moving around" space, and on the QV there seemed to be many times when my wife and I were in each other's way. There was an enormous amount of luggage storage under the beds, and although I hate to admit this I don't actually know if there was luggage storage under the beds on the Crown Princess - we stored everything in the closet. The balcony on the QV was slightly smaller than we remembered the balcony on the Crown Princess to be.
We booked the late seating in the Britannia restaurant. This turned out to be fortunate, because our luggage was not delivered until it was too late to dress for the 6:00 seating; we would have been wearing shorts and t-shirts which would have turned out to be not that big of a deal, but more on that later. I heard anecdotally that Cunard delivers the luggage of those customers booked at the early seating first, but I'm not necessarily convinced of that.
We were underway earlier than scheduled, and in fact we had already cleared the breakwater and were in open water by the time we placed our orders at the late seating in the Britannia.
Disembarkation was quite smooth - much more so than disembarking from the Crown Princess, which was more to do with the different security measures in place in the US as opposed to Italy. Though we were not using any Cunard shuttles we chose to have our luggage collected overnight rather than haul it around the ship - we had three suitcases (one just for formal wear), a large photo backpack, and my wife's supplementary suitcase...err...purse. Following our cruise on the Crown Princess we made a "note to self" that if we were ever to cruise again we would remember to bring along a small carry-on type bag to carry our sundry items the day of disembarkation, because, of course, our luggage would be gone. Well, we forgot. So any first-timers reading this make sure you take a bag big enough for your toiletries and nightgowns or pajamas. We disembarked according to number and color on our luggage tags....we were "Purple #2", and had instructions to gather in the Royal Court theatre before 0900. When "Purple #2" was called at around 0915 we simply made our way to the gangway, gave up our ship I.D. cards and toodled away to get our luggage. The terminal was not busy, so we were out of there in just a few moments. We needed to get to Rome, and were told the water taxis didn't run to the train station (Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia) from the port (which may or may not be B.S. - we still don't know for sure). This entailed a ½ km hike from the terminal to Piazzale Tronchetto where we had to catch the "peoplemover" to Piazzale Roma, just one stop away. Other than the walk, and my wife's repeated insistance that we were completely lost, it was a relatively painless process. Once we got to Piazzale Roma we had to get off the peoplemover and hike to the train station, where we stood in line to get a ticket on the train to Rome. Pre-departure advice led us to believe that it was entirely risk-free to simply show up and buy tickets, and although this turned out to be more-or-less true, purchasing the tickets a couple of days in advance would have assured us a seat in a First Class car on the 11:30 AM train rather than a seat in a Second Class car on the 1:30 PM train. For the record we were in Rome at 5:45 PM.
We never went to the dance club on the QV, but neither did we go to Skywalkers on the Crown Princess. Similarly we did not go to the extra-cost restaurants on either ship. The Grand Lobby on the QV was really nothing more than that - a big, well-appointed lobby. We were disappointed at this, because the Piazza on the Crown Princess was a larger, better appointed common area featuring many more cafes and bars, including the International Cafe that offered free hors d'oeuvres along with much better specialty coffees than I got on the QV. I completely understand that a "feature" of all the Queens in the Cunard fleet is the Queen's Room, but my opinion is that other common areas on the ship have been sacrificed for that one space. If you're a ballroom dancer or an attendee of any one of the several balls on the ship then I guess you appreciate that. We were there to attend the Captain's Greeting, to catch our excursions, and that's it. I'm not going to say it was a waste of space because many people clearly enjoyed using it, but my bet is that the majority of people did not use it.
The Lido buffet was exactly what we expected, and really, nothing much differentiated it from the buffet restaurant on the Crown Princess. A small item of note was that there were several water leaks in the ceiling of the Lido and in the ceiling around the aft elevators, and indeed one day part of the ceiling in the Lido needed to be shored up using timbers.
The Library on the Queen Victoria was in every way superior to the Library on the Crown Princess. The reference section on the QV was spectacular, to say the least.
The two-level Britannia restaurant felt more spacious and "airy" to me than either of the analogous restaurants on the CP. I'm sure this is due mostly to its two-level design and aft location, meaning 3/4 of the dining area is surrounded by windows.
Pool areas on the QV were much more compact than on the CP but they never really were so crowded that we couldn't find spots to sit. That being said, I'd hate to have to try and fight for a spot if the weather had been really hot , The pools themselves were quite small. We commented on several occasions that we wished the QV had been equipped with a rear amidships pool and large decks (including the movie screen!) like the CP. The CP also had a promenade that went all the way to the bow of the ship, which the QV does not have.
The Golden Lion is an English Pub, and had quite a nice comfortable feel to it. I liked it better than the Wheelhouse Bar on the Crown Princess. Any of the other "open air" bars are a wash, but there were more of them on the CP. My absolute favorite space on the QV is the Commodore Club. Very warmly decorated and it offered a spectacular forward view. I also quite enjoyed sipping a coffee and reading while in the Winter Garden, an atrium-type room forward of the Lido on Deck 9.
Laundry rooms on Decks 4 through 8 were clean and all services were free, including the soap and fabric softeners. Thus they were popular areas.
The Royal Court theatre was a very nice venue for seeing a show - as nice as any theatre I've been to on land. Much nicer than the one aboard the Crown Princess, which more closely resembled a soft-seat auditorium.
The one thing that was apparent to us upon boarding the ship was that there had been no effort made to clean any of the exterior glass. Now, I'm not a dummy and I know that cleaning the exterior glass on an ocean-going ship is a self-defeating proposition. That being said, when we boarded the Crown Princess the exterior glass in the buffet restaurant was clean, as were our balcony doors and glass railing in our stateroom. Not so on the QV.
For the record we chose the second seating to give us time to return from whatever excursion or shore-side activity we were engaged in, clean up, have a drink if we chose, and still get to supper in plenty of time. This turned out to be a good decision. We were seated in the upper restaurant (Deck 3) at table 571, a window table. Our table hosts were Pastor and Edwin, and seeing these two gentlemen were always highlights of our day. We sat at a table for four with a couple from Augusta, Georgia. We got to know these two quite well over the course of the cruise and quite enjoyed their company. However, I still prefer the "anytime seating" offered by Princess with the opportunity to meet new people, and to be seated in a variety of locations.
Addressing food is a tricky subject, and it's obvious that what appeals to one palette will not appeal to another. Our opinion is that although the food on the Queen Victoria was at times excellent, at times it was also not to our taste. The best way I can describe this is to say that Cunard offers a very European-type menu featuring lots of sauces, fish, and lamb. What we ordered was excellent, but on several evenings we found ourselves struggling to find enough on the Britannia menu to satisfy us. Call me uncouth or uneducated if you like, but if I look at a menu item and I have no idea what it is, I'm not going to order it. Some people like their salads filled out with goat cheese or snails, I do not. I have no doubt that every one of the entrees on each night appealed to many palettes, and I'm sure the people ordering these menu items found them delicious. For example, the prime rib was the best I've ever had. However, one night the only thing I could see on the menu that appealed to me in the least was the lamb. When I tasted it, it made me gag. We had lobster on the second-to-last night. I cannot figure out why Cunard would take a perfectly good lobster, slice it up, and put it back in its shell on a bed of mushrooms (sorry.... I meant "truffles") and then cover it with cheese sauce. For the sake of culinary art? Yuck. Princess not only served me a nice rock lobster with drawn butter, but on a separate night we had Alaskan king crab as well. I'm here to tell you that on several nights there were more than a few empty tables around us. So again I say, much of what was on the menu was not to our taste, which was a contrast to our experience on the Crown Princess on which not only were there more menu choices every evening, there were always at least two entrees I could have eaten and enjoyed. Again, that being said, there were hundreds of people in the Britannia dining room happily gnoshing away while I turned my nose up, so what do I know?
Breakfasts in the Britannia were a different story. The candied French Toast was to die for and the fresh pastries were fantastic. It was too bad that we were always in a rush to get the day started, and couldn't take the time to properly enjoy it. My wife looks at eating as a necessary evil - if she could go the rest of her life without having another meal she'd be happy. I, on the other hand, can languish over a cup of coffee and croissant for a long, long time. I have one peeve here, and it applies to the Britannia restaurant as well as the Lido. When I have breakfast, I enjoy bacon along with my eggs or French Toast, or pancakes, or whatever. Both restaurants offered "English" bacon (analogous to "Canadian bacon" or back bacon for you Yanks) and "American" ("streaky") bacon. American bacon is what we consider in North America to be "regular" bacon. I completely understand why Cunard would want to ensure the bacon served on the ship is cooked, but is there any reason it has to be incinerated? Surely there must be a middle ground between "cooked but some people like it cooked just a little more" and "nuclear-fire charred to the point of causing damage to the mouth". I'm not exaggerating here. The bacon was so overcooked that it didn't even look like bacon in some cases. You couldn't put a fork in it because it would just explode all over the table.
The food in the Lido was good, but pretty standard buffet fare. Fruits and vegetables were all fresh, except for the pineapple. By day 8 or so there was no more fresh pineapple, just canned. Loved the pizza/pasta bar - very good pizza, and if you wanted a custom-made one you just stood there adding stuff until it was to your liking. One woman had a pizza going that looked like one of Carmen Miranda's hats. The sandwich bar was also good. My only annoyance was the whole "high tea" deal at 4:00 pm-ish. Unfortunately high tea seemed to coincide with several of our mid-afternoon forays to the Lido for lunch and while I get that many non-Brits find the whole concept of high tea to be "quaint" I am not one of them. When I go up for a late lunch, I want a lunch. Do you realize how many cucumber sandwiches I had to eat to fill up? For crying out loud, at least keep the pizza bar going. There were also several times we had a hankering for a burger and fries from the Lido Pool Grill, but we could never figure out when it was open and when it was closed. It seemed to be closed more often than not.
I've already said previously that the specialty coffees weren't fantastic. They were OK, but based on my experiences with Princess I expected better. I was also disappointed that Cunard doesn't offer a specialty coffee punch-card the way other cruise lines do - they only offer this service for soft drinks. Too bad - one of the highlights of our cruise on the Crown Princess was running downstairs for a latte early in the morning and sipping it on our balcony while coming in to port. The selection of bottled and draught beers was superb, as well as their selections of single-malt scotch.
When planning this cruise we tried to get a similar Princess cruise in late September but unfortunately they were booked. Once that was evident our primary goal was to get an itinerary we liked, and pick a cruise line based on that. After a lot of looking it became evident that there was only one itinerary that went to a variety of locations in Greece, didn't start or finish in Barcelona, was at least ten days long at the end of September, and was at least a four-star cruise line... the Cunard cruise was the only one that fit the bill. We were hesitant at first when we learned about the apparent draconian dress code...my wife simply is not a dress-up kind of girl. It's not that she can't. She just doesn't like to. I, on the other hand, wanted to embrace it and hobnob with the snobs, as it were. In the long run she was too tempted by the itinerary, and agreed to it with a certain amount of trepidation. I rented a tux with three changes of accessories, packed more ties than Donald Trump, and generally was excited to have the opportunity to dress in something other than shorts and tee-shirts for a while. Well, I can say without reservation that after this cruise I consider the vaunted Cunard dress code to be more of a suggestion rather than a "code". In fact, as long as you're not around the Queen's Room for one of the "balls" or the Captain's Greeting you can pretty much wear whatever you want short of cut-off jeans and no one will say anything to you. I was aggravated by this. I expected a few really classy evenings surrounded by beautiful people in tuxedos and evening gowns...hell, I even thought that I'd magically acquire Jean-Luc Picard's accent for a few hours on each of these nights. Imagine my dismay when, while ordering a very nice 10 year-old Talisker at the Chart Room bar, a dude walked up beside me in chinos and a golf shirt and ordered a Budweiser. This is where I expected the rather nicely turned-out bartender to counter with a, "Now see here, kind sir. The good Queen Victoria is in a state of formal dress and I am afraid you will have to go straight to your stateroom!" It was not to be. The guy got his beer, and went to sit with a lady whom I presumed to be his wife, who was dressed in shorts and sleeveless top and wearing sandals. I saw the same guy later on in the dining room - he still had on his chinos and golf shirt, but had the good sense to throw on a sports jacket. His wife had exchanged her shorts for pants, but still wore sandals and the sleeveless shirt.
During our day at sea we were having lunch in the Lido, and witnessed a fat guy in bare feet, wet bathing suit, and wet tee-shirt sauntering through the Lido and grazing on this and that, and not one person said a word to him. So for every prospective Cunard cruiser freaked out about the dress code, there you go.
I'm saying this honestly when I say that the level of service on the Queen Victoria was acceptable, but excluding our table hosts Pastor and Edwin, who were superb, the level of service was lower than that we experienced on the Crown Princess. A great example of this was our steward, and the service given to our stateroom. I'm not saying that the service was inadequate, because it wasn't - in fact, it was quite adequate. However, the steward on the Crown Princess not only called us by name every time he saw us, but our kids as well. There were at least two days on the QV on which we did not receive clean towels until well after noon, while on the CP it seemed that we had no sooner used a hand towel and it was replaced. The best way to explain it is to say that on the Queen Victoria we were looked after - on the Crown Princess we were pampered. Room service was the same way - I had a "pail" of beer (really, that's what it was) delivered to my stateroom on the CP, and it seemed it was at my door virtually as soon as I put down the phone. I ordered a bottle of Scotch on the QV, and, once I had managed to explain to the girl on the phone in seven different ways what I actually wanted, it took the better part of two hours to arrive.
I was pleasantly surprised at the price of bar and cafe items on the QV. In fact, they were very nearly what I would pay in a bar or cafe in Canada. This was in sharp contrast to the prices on the Crown Princess, which were extortion to say the least.
Internet service was still expensive though - $48 for 120 minutes, and the Wi-Fi service itself was terrible. I can't compare it to the Crown Princess because I didn't take a laptop on that trip, but I had two choices for Wi-Fi - take my laptop to one of the areas amidships, or sit in the hallway outside my stateroom (and no, I'm not exaggerating). The Wi-Fi signal tended to disconnect randomly as well.
GANGWAYS / TENDERS
There's not much to screw up as far as gangways...only once did we have any kind of a lineup to get off, and that was right after arrival our first day in Istanbul. Tenders ran fairly smoothly as well, but depending how on the ball you are it could take as much as 45 minutes to get into a tender once you receive your tender tickets at the meeting point. For those of you who don't know, every time you arrive at a port that requires the use of tenders to get to shore you must collect a "tender ticket" from a staff member at a table at the specified meeting location. The morning's meeting location is specified in the previous evening's daily program, which also specifies the earliest time tender tickets are available. Those persons on excursions are always given preference, and are usually already gone by the time the "general public" begins to be issued tender tickets. Our experience was that distribution of tender tickets to the general public usually began about 15 minutes before the daily program had specified, and the savvy cruisers knew that. For instance, if the daily program said that tender tickets would be available for general distribution at 0900 hrs you could count on getting them at 0845. If you showed up on time, you were already a couple of boatloads behind. On one occasion we needed to get off the ship to catch a privately-booked charter, and we were accommodated on the first tender. All we had to do was ask.
Santorini was a stand-out because of the availability of private tenders subcontracted by the cruise line. Santorini has been a cruise ship destination long enough to develop a cottage industry for transferring passengers back and forth between the ships and shore. There's no chance of a permanent docking facility to be built there, so tenders are what are used and there are dozens of them running back and forth which makes getting off and on the ship easy. Compare this to the other tender ports in which only the four ship's tenders are used and you can see that some places getting an early tender ticket is key to getting off the ship in good time.
MISCELLANEOUS / INTANGIBLES
Alright, now to try and discuss this next part without sounding like a complete dick. Hopefully people will understand that I'm trying to provide information and advice rather than sound like a hater, because I'm not. The simple fact is this: the demographic that populates a Cunard cruise is not the 21 - 40 age group. The Cunard culture and experience appeals to an older clientele, sometimes a much older clientele, and if you're in the younger age group you may want to take this into consideration. There were not many families on board...at least, not many families in the conventional sense. I saw many couples in their late 40's and early 50's who looked to be traveling with at least one, but sometimes two elderly parents. I saw maybe a dozen kids on the entire cruise. If you are considering Cunard, and want to travel with a young family you may not encounter lot of similarly aged kids on board. There's one big caveat here - we traveled at the end of September - in other words, the school year is well underway around a lot of the world and that undoubtedly had an effect on the ability of families to travel. That was one point I wanted to make. The other point is that a lineup or group of people will only move as fast as the slowest person. There were cases on this cruise where groups of people moved very slowly and the truth was that it was usually because of an older person with a cane, or one who needed assistance. This was the case in many different circumstances - gangways, up and down stairs, getting on and off tenders, or just in line at the Lido for breakfast. Sometimes you need to negotiate around a wheelchair or two, or just wait while a group of five or six older people decided where they wanted to sit. This was never really an issue for me, but if you have a young family and you're impatient to get going you may become frustrated. I'll repeat that it wasn't really an issue for us but it was a sentiment I heard from more than one person.
One of the areas in which Cunard excelled was their organization off the ship. The excursions were well-organized and anywhere shuttle service was required it was always available and easy to locate. They really did a great job here.
One area I was completely dissatisfied with was the HVAC. Our air control was typically always set to its coolest setting, and it was barely acceptable when the outside temperatures were in the low 20's. On the couple of days where it was actually what I would call warm - i.e. high 20's the air conditioning was nothing more than a wish. It was brutal, and on the evening we left Kusadasi we had to sleep with the balcony doors open to get a breeze to cool us. However, the heater worked well...too well, actually. When we steamed out of Dubrovnik the weather was cool, so when my wife went to the stateroom she turned the air control from "cool" to "heat". When I entered the stateroom a few minutes later I immediately smelled something burning. I didn't panic, but called the purser's office to report it. A minute later the smell became stronger, and when I looked up at the light there was definitely smoke swirling around it. I called the purser's office again, stressed the urgency of the situation, and about a minute later a technical person showed up. When he realized I wasn't a nutbar he radioed in, and we had the pleasure of hearing the captain issue a ship-wide call for "assessment team to 7128, repeat, assessment team to 7128!"...followed by a great deal of hustle and bustle that resulted in both a fire team and "snatch team" (I love that term) lurking just out of sight. At one point there were six men standing on our bed with the heating unit dangling by the electrical cord. We got to meet the Chief Purser, Chief Engineer, Chief Electrical Officer, and a few other "Chief Somethings" that I didn't catch. After a great deal of assessment it was determined that a summer-long buildup of grunge and dust on the heating elements in the ceiling caused the smell and the smoke, and we were never in any real danger, and the heater was safe to use as much and as long as we wanted. Yeah, sure. We didn't use the heater again. It was actually quite interesting for me to watch the emergency response and technical assessment because I've been in exactly their position (albeit in a completely different industry) in previous positions I've held.
The health centre was not as large as the one on the Crown Princess but offered a spectacular forward view. We never got to experience the hydrotherapy pool, but it looked interesting.
PORTS OF CALL
We didn't use a Cunard excursion here. The plan was to take the fast hydrofoil over to Capri and spend the day there, but due to sea conditions all hydrofoils and even some of the other ferries were not running. So we went to plan B and took a cab to Pompeii, which cost us $90 Euros. Rip-off I'm sure, but it was somewhat mitigated by the fact that it was the last Sunday in the month and admission was free. If anyone is even considering going to Pompeii make sure you do your research and download some maps ahead of time. Rick Steves offers pre-recorded audio tours on his website which will make a tour much more worthwhile then just wandering around staring at rubble.
Our first tender port, and a beautiful island. This was one of the ones we were looking forward to and it didn't disappoint. We were on shore by about 0900. Once you're there you have three choices: line up for and ride the cable car to the top, which is €4 per person one-way. The line-up can be as much as a half-hour long. You can ride a donkey to the top, which costs €12 each, takes about a half hour, and stinks - you also run the risk of "wall rash" if your chosen donkey tries to wipe you off his back by rubbing up against a wall. Or, you can hike the donkey trail yourself. We did, and it was hot, sweaty, stinky, and by the time we got to the top all I wanted to do was sit, have a beer, and dry off. My opinion is that it's better off to wait for the cable car, pay the dough, and get to the top rested and unstressed. If you hike it you save yourself maybe 5 or 10 minutes. If you want to go anywhere else on the island, do it first before getting caught up in wandering around Fira. Local transportation is cheap, and buses to Oia run every half hour on the half-hour. Just make sure you get there early enough to know exactly what bus you're catching. If you prefer, you can rent scooters, quads, or cars. Give yourself at least three hours in Fira at the end of the day to poke around, and photography in Fira is better later in the afternoon anyway. The last tender to the Vickie left the dock at 1700, so in order to get there in time plan to leave Fira for the dock at 1630 at the latest. You're going to have to line up for the cable car again, and if you think that hiking down rather than up is easier well, you're right, but you still have to avoid the plethora of donkeys, as picking your way through the donkey-offerings on the way down.
I was blown away by this place. Clean, friendly, and interesting. We took our first Cunard tour here, called "Best of Ephesus" which included a visit to the alleged house of Mary, mother of Jesus, the ruins at Ephesus, the tomb of the Apostle John, the Ephesus museum at Selcuk, a nice lunch at a very nice resort, and finally back to the bazaar at Kusadasi where we were treated to a demonstration of carpet-weaving, which was really a cleverly-disguised sales pitch. A very good day for us, and it really left us wanting more, and eager to get to Istanbul to experience more of Turkey.
En route from Kusadasi to Istanbul
Here's a tip: do yourselves a favor and find out when the ship will be traveling through the Dardanelles, and specifically when the ship will be passing by Canakkale at The Narrows. Unfortunately we passed through overnight, but I still got up and marveled at the landscape sliding by. We looked to be so close I felt like I could throw a rock and hit the shore.
The first thing that struck me as we slid into port was just how big Istanbul is. For certain it's the biggest city I've ever been to - it just seems to go on forever on both sides of the Bosporus. If the weather's nice you'll have lots of opportunity to take photos of the Blue Mosque, Topkapi, St. Sophia, and the Mosque of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. Break out that telephoto lens if you've got it. The only excursions planned by Cunard involved some kind of a Bosporus cruise and we weren't into that, so we decided to set off on our own for the Grand Bazaar. Again we had three choices: walk, about a half an hour, take a taxi, or take the metro. We decided to do the latter, because there is a metro stop on the Galata Bridge right next to the port. We only had Euros and the ticket machines take Turkish lira, so we had to go in the underground walkway (NOT the one under the bridge, but the one that goes under the street - the attendant will tell you where you need to go) and buy a couple of tokens to put in the machine. The metro took us right to the Grand Bazaar, which is the Beyazit stop. For those wanting to do the mosques, this same metro line also takes you right to the Blue Mosque, which is the Sultanahmet stop, and St. Sophia and Topkapi are easy walking from there. Getting back to the ship is just as easy - just remember that if you're traveling later in the afternoon the metro will be PACKED, and I mean crammed full. Get ready to get intimate, and try and breath through your mouth because there can be some spectacular body odor.
Our chosen excursion, called "Imperial Istanbul" was the next morning, and it included whirlwind trips to the Blue Mosque, St. Sophia, and Topkapi as well as (another) stop at the Grand Bazaar. All-aboard time was 1630, and we sailed at 1700.
We initially looked at this as a wasted day, and one that could have been spent in Athens instead. That turned out to be a wrong assessment. Samos is a charming, laid back island that is just beginning to come into its own as a cruise ship port. It's a tender port so it takes some time getting off if you're not an early-bird. We chose to rent a car in Vathy (Samos-town) for four hours (€30) and toodled about the island for a bit. We found ourselves at Pythagoria, a charming little marina with an interesting church, some very good shopping and many little ocean-side cafes along the promenade. Following that we took a drive back over the hump and up the coast to the little resort town of Kokkari. The whole day cost us less than half of what it would have cost to take the excursion which turned out to be disappointing to many of those who went on it.
Piraeus (Athens), Greece
We were a little unsure as to whether we should take an excursion here or not, and eventually we decided not to. We done enough pre-trip research that we knew what we wanted to see and decided to strike out on our own. This turned out to be a great decision. Upon getting off the ship we were immediately faced with a transportation dilemma. We knew there was a metro line that ran into the city but that it was a substantial hike from the port gate to the metro. Cunard offered an "Athens on Your Own" that basically gave you a bus ride back and forth to the city, all for about $40 a person. That was a little steep. Then we had to fight our way through the horde of taxi drivers all clamoring for our attention and our money, and some of them made tempting offers. I found it interesting that none of them would give us a ride to the metro station - it was Athens or nothing. So we hoofed it. It was about a 30 minute brisk walk, with stops to check maps and ask for directions, but in the end it turned out to be pretty easy to find. Cost to ride was a euro each. We got off at the Thiseio, and hiked up to the Acropolis. As it was Sunday, it was free to get in (lucky us!) The walk up wasn't particularly grueling, and there was a nice breeze to keep us cool. We spent about an hour up top, saw what we wanted to see, took lots of photos, and were on our way down when we ran into the first Cunard excursions that were just getting there from the ship. Like I said, doing in on our own was a good decision. We went down into the Plaka for a while to poke around, and then made our way through Hadrian's Library, out to explore around the Agora, up to the Temple of Hephaestus, before plunging back into the Plaka again. We finally made our way back to the metro stop and caught the metro back to Piraeus, where we hiked back to the ship. Sore feet, but the whole day only cost us €4.
This is one of the places we booked privately, a speedboat excursion with Levante Speedboat Excursions, Captain Spiros at the helm. We were afraid we were going to miss it because it was a tender port, but we wrangled our way onto the first tender, got a taxi driver who must have been an F1 driver in another life, and got to Tsilivi Harbor in lots of time. Went all the way around to Smuggler's Cove, and then saw the Blue Caves and white cliffs on the way back. Stopped at a little fishing town called St. Nickolas for lunch and some cold beverages before making our way back to Tsilivi. Spiros tried to drop us off right at the ship, but he was told in no uncertain terms to bugger off so he dropped us right at the dock beside the tender drop-off. We were a little surprised that the shops on the island all seemed to close up at 2:30 PM, and since no shopping was to be had so we just went back to the ship.
Our first rainy day. We had intentions of doing the same thing here we did in Samos and renting a car to head to the little resort town of Cavtat, but the weather removed all desire for that. Took the Cunard shuttle into town and basically just toodled about for the day doing the tourist things in Dubrovnik.
Cunard offered everyone on the ship a three-day pass for the vaporetto - $25 per person for the 6th, 7th, and 8th of October for as many trips back and forth between the ship and St. Mark's square as a person wanted. After much discussion the little woman and I decided that purchasing the pass would be a Good Thing. 'Twas not, as it turned out. The $25 pass is only really cost-effective if you make more than two round-trips between the ship and the square. We went out on the 6th, spent the day running around Venice, and went back to the ship around about 8:00, where we stayed until we disembarked. Unless you have plans for dinner in the city and you need to go back to the ship to "freshen up" or unless you're staying on board and have three full days in Venice the Cunard pass is NOT worthwhile.
As far as my impressions of Venice, well I can say that it was pretty much exactly what I expected. Even though Venice is a city unlike any other in the world everything that gives it its charm has been commercialized a dozen times over. It's like the city planners conceived of a half dozen types of shops, and then duplicated as necessary until all spaces were filled. That's an obvious exaggeration, but it certainly seemed to be the way it was.
I hadn't planned on going to the Doge's Palace, but I'm glad we did. It's magnificent.
All in all I tried to stay in a romantic mood in the city but my feet were sore, I was tired of being harassed by under-utilized gondoliers, I was sick of looking in Venetian mask shops, and it was too far between benches. It's something I can cross off my "to-do" list, but I wasn't sorry to leave the city behind.
OUR PRIVATE BOOKINGS
Our first two nights in Roma were at The Ambasciatori, one of the hotels listed by Cunard as a partner hotel. I don't know what anyone else was quoted through the cruise line, but I was just as happy to book on our own for a substantially lower rate. Our final night in Roma after arriving on the train from Venice was spent at the Artemide Hotel.
We booked our private transfers through a company called Romaclick, but upon speaking with our drivers we learned that Romaclick is simply a booking agency and they make their money by subcontracting to private drivers and taking a commission. If we were to do it again we would go straight to the subcontractor, who runs a company called Inlimorome. The website is www.inlimorome.com, and the email address is email@example.com. The owner's name is Adriano, and booking straight through him will save money. The transfers were always right on time, very dependable, and very dependable. Adriano can also help with recommendations for accommodations as well as city tours. I gain nothing by telling you all this - I'm simply saying exactly what I will do the next time I visit Roma.
Our speedboat excursion on Zakynthos was booked privately through Levante Speedboat Excursions. Spiros offers two excursions per day - one to Smuggler's Cove and the Blue Caves, and the other to Turtle Island and the beaches around Laganas. Cost was €40 per person and well worth it when I look at what Cunard was charging for their excursions.
To summarize, we enjoyed this cruise immensely but noticed a few things about Cunard that we thought they could do better, and also a few things that we thought were superior. The truth be told, if we were offered the identical cruise on the Crown Princess and the Queen Victoria I'm not sure what we'd do. We like the Crown Princess and Princess Cruise line slightly better than Cunard, but Cunard did such a superb job off the ship with the organizations of the excursions that I'm not sure I'd want to give that up. We returned satisfied with Cunard, but unsure whether we would book through them again.