We wrote this review as events happened, almost like a blog. We are Christians, but we are not going to the Holyland for a pilgrimage. We took this trip to see the "old" world: Athens, Rome, Jerusalem and the Pyramids. By and large, mission accomplished, and we had a great time. Everything else were bonuses.
Arrived at Athens and stayed at the Classic Baby Grand Hotel, part of the SLH group (Small Luxury Hotel of the world) The hotel is as advertised ... unique. Front desk is made from a pair of cut up Austin Minis, and the walls, well, it is different. You either liked it or hated it. You really have to see it in person (or you can look at their web page pictures). All the rooms are nicely decorated with "art" painted on the wall.
You have to put the key card in a slot before the lights will work. You pull the card out, all the powers are off. Good energy saving feature. On the drive from airport to hotel, saw a lot of solar panels on roof tops. Gasoline is 1.50 Euro a litre, which is like $10 a gallon.
The reception/lobby/front desk is on the second level. The staffs are friendly and speak some English! The elevator is tiny. Barely enough to hold 4 people and only if you are really skinny. We crowded 4 people in it and the door won't close as my back pack is in the way. It said the weight limit is 450 Kg which is only 900 pounds.
After checking in, we walked to Plaka, passing the city market, the various squares, the flea market etc. Stopped in a few old churches along the way and at the square by Plaka, saw the Acropolis up top. We are going to Delphi tomorrow. I think it is 2 hours bus ride there. We joined a tour and will be picked up at and returned to the hotel.
Food is expensive. 18 euros for breakfast at the hotel. Food is very good. 2 euros for coffee (no refills) Plan to spend 50 euros per person per day on 3 meals. Great choices of cheaper restaurants along Adrianou. Portions larger and prices more reasonable. Lots of tourists and local. Loved the traditional Greek coffee. Kept me and DW up all day, making it easier to adjust to time zone difference. Tomorrow, Acropolis, city tour and embarkation.
Took about 3 hours to get to Delphi from Athens. It was bumper to bumper traffic in Athens, almost an hour just to get out of town. Drivers are suicidal. I'm glad I am not driving. Saw a lot of white boxes with cross on top, looks like mini churches or shrines, along the side of the highway. Tour guide said they are shrines for people who were killed in accidents. Stopped and looked at some of them, very interesting.
The Apollo's Oracle is not what I have expected. Guide is knowledgeable and talked about both history and mythology at the site. Place not busy at all with only a handful of groups. View at the valley below is spectacular. I can see why the ancient Greeks look at the place as the center of their universe.
Made an unscheduled stop at Arachova, a ski village along the way. Interesting place built on the side of the mountain. They are selling snowboards and the weather is 25C (82F?). The streets are very narrow. There are some carpet stores. Unfortunately, carpets not made in Greece.
The place is jammed pack with people and we were told that this is actually a slow day. On the way up the hill, it is wall to wall people. Reminded me of Boxing Day in a mall. Can't imagine what it would be like if it is any busier. The view is breath taking. You can see for miles. The new museum opened last year and it is very interesting. They ran out of certain English souvenir books already and they won't sell me the beat up worn out tattered demo copy.
The restoration is on-going. It is much more impressive than Delphi. My recommendation, if you are press for time, skips Delphi. There are a whole lot more interesting things to do in Athens. We would have loved to spend more time in Plaka and the surrounding areas.
We stopped by the temple of Zeus. The Hadrian's Arch is right there as well. The national Garden and the Parliament are along the way. We missed the changing of the guard at the Parliament. We also stopped at the original Olympics stadium; nothing to see there except a big empty stadium. The academy of learning and all the old buildings are impressive. The guide said lots of things have been looted in the past and a lot of them are taken to Rome and other places.
The port is in Pireas and with only 680 passengers, checking in were easy with practically zero line up. We walked up, they took the luggage at curb side, we walked inside, get the cruise card, go through security, that's it. They kept your passport and give you a passport receipt. Make sure you made photocopies of your passport before you go and keep the copy some place safe just in case. It is not necessary but just in case. We made a photocopy of our passport, laminated it and kept in our wallet.
Our first impression of the ship? We have mixed feelings as this is our first "small ship" cruise. DW was disappointed at first. This is an old Renaissance ship converted by Princess so it is missing a few of the Princess features that we have come to expect. I love the ship's library and the piano bar. I can spend hours there. The artwork that adorned the Pacific Princess was disappointing; the Princess mega ships' artwork collections are much more impressive. The Pacific Princess actually had mirrors instead of art work on the back staircase. If you keep comparing it to the mega ships, you will definitely be disappointed.
DW also commented that the ship reminded her of the old Queen Mary with the old style dEcor. She missed those big atriums of the mega ships. The stair cases, they are narrow. One thing that we really missed: anytime dining. It is not available at all.
The cabin decor is fine with a flat panel TV and a few modern features. There are 4 plug-ins with 2 for 110 and 2 for 220. All the things you needed are there. The closet is smaller than what we are used to. There is still plenty of space, just not as roomy. We travelled light with 1 suitcase each. For those who travels with 2 or more pieces each. You may run out of space. Empty suitcases can fit under the bed. We have never needed to do that on the other Princess ships but have to do it here to make room.
Although the decor in general is "old style", it is not "old". For a twenty year old ship, it looked great! Almost like a vintage car at a vintage car show. It is shiny, it looks new, but you knew it is not new. It grows on you. We ended up enjoying it more than we will ever admit. We can get from point A to point B real quick. Forgot to bring a camera? No problem! It took no time at all to get back to the cabin and retrieve it; on a mega ship, it will take a while. Since we are not gamblers so we are not disappointed at the very small Casino, there were never more than 20 people in there.
We love to explorer the ship when we first get onboard. It didn't take long this time. DW didn't even get lost once and we found all the places and we walked everywhere. Our cabin is on Deck 7. The pool, the buffet, spa, fitness center and the usual stuff are on deck 9. Library, internet cafe and Sabatini are on deck 10. The cabaret, the dining room, casinos, shops are on Deck 5.
Speaking of internet, the satellite system they have is older and the connection speed is much slower than the other Princess ships. Took a long time just to send a couple emails. My connection to the office doesn't work at all. Good excuse for me to not checking in on work stuff. The ship is supposed to get new internet equipment in a month's time. Spoke to the manager of the internet cafe; it is interesting that he had his training on a Carnival ship. This is his first contract with Princess but he had his "test run" on a Carnival ship that do weekend cruises.
Everything is great except for the light rain in the early afternoon which we don't mind at all. We were tendered ashore on a three mast sailing boat. No, they didn't run up the sail. This is the most impressive tender that I have been on. The tender took us to Athinos and the bus took us to Pyrgos, the first stop. The way up is interesting and the road zigzags along the cliff. Some sections of guard rails are missing. Guide joked with the driver commenting that there must the place the driver missed the turn last time and took a tumble. The tour took us all over including the black sand (and gravel?) beach at Kamari, which is on the other side of the island. Water is very warm and this is October. There are tiny churches all over. There is a small village with a population of 250 and they have 42 churches!
Oia (pronounced as (ee-ah) is interesting, located at the tip of the island. Last stop was Thira, the capital. There are 3 ways to go to Skala, where the tender will take you back to the ship. You can walk down the 800 steps (20 minutes) or take the donkey ride. We walked down the path for about a minute for the view and headed back up. We also decided against the donkey ride and took the third option down, which is the cable car. As a rained a bit earlier on, the pathway was wet and slippery and brown. The brown stuff is from the donkeys as donkeys in general are not toilet trained. The brown stuff got mushy after the animal and people stepped on it. Some people had walked up the steps from Skala. Definitely not recommended for people not in good physical shape.
People in Santorini were very friendly. Most shop would have someone who spoke some English. The pre-historic museum was closed due to staff strike.
Patmos' claim to fame is St. John and the cave where he received the visions that resulted in the book of Revelations. Most tours would stop at the St. John Grotto and the Monastery of St. John the Theologian. If you are deeply religious, the sights are inspiring.
In the Monastery, the Christodoulous chapel holds a lot of artefacts and wall paintings. They are also very strict about no photography, and not even polite about it. The same goes for the treasury, which is now a museum. I guess one can say that they want to protect the treasures from deterioration from the light (camera flash), or they just want to sell you the books and the DVDs. We have also visited a 300 year old house in Hora. The owner of the house is 9th generation on the island and is very gracious in showing her home.
We have always heard story about poor plumbing that you are not allowed to throw toilet paper in the toilet. You wipe and then you put the toilet paper in a basket next to the you know what. Well, I have experienced it first-hand. I was impressed as it is less messy than I thought, but smelly just the same. We saw some people lined up to use the facilities, read the sign, and decided against going.
The market around the tender dock is quite clean and safe. We walked around for quite a bit and DW finally found a genuine Kourbella, which made her very happy. She had been looking for one since Santorini.
The weather was okay but it was very windy. We were warmed by several staff at the ship that the sea would be rough on the way to Kusadasi. We felt a bit of side to side motion, but overall, it wasn't bad. We have been in much rougher water than this and no one warned us. I wonder if it is because it is on a smaller ship.
We decided on the last minute to cancel the tour to St. John's Basilica and Virgin Mary Shrine. We opted for the Terrace Houses instead.
We have been told all kinds of things about the Terrace Houses and there are lots of rumors about the costs, limiting the number of people visiting etc.; none of them were true. The cost of entrance is 15 TL, which is about $10. They give you a 2 part ticket. One for you and one for your guide. The Terrace Houses is actually located inside the ruins of Ephesus, and you have to pay admission to Ephesus to get to the Terrace Houses. We met some people who were in Turkey earlier in the year and they were refused entry to the Terrace Houses without a guide.
They have restored only a handful of houses but what we saw were impressive, even by today's standard. Imagine a house built around 5th century with central heating, running water, functioning toilets, (with separate toilet for women), mosaic floors and wall paintings, marbled walls, you really have to see it to believe it. We made the right choice to go see the Terrace Houses instead of Virgin Mary Shrine.
We thought Ephesus is better preserved than Delphi. The Amphitheatre can sit 25,000. The city itself is huge and although less than 10% has been excavated, it looks massive. The library features an underground tunnel to the brothel, or at least that's what the guide said. It is certainly a worthwhile stop.
It is disappointing that the ship's excursion doesn't offer a package that takes you to St. John's Basilica, the Virgin Mary Shrine, and ancient Ephesus including the Terrace Houses. You can see them all in about 6 hours if rushed, and 8 hours if you like a slower pace. Maybe they wanted to leave some time for you to shop at the carpet stores.
Booking your own qualified and accredited guide and go outside of the ship's excursion is the way to go if you want to see them all. The ship's excursion is far too short and you are rushed from site to site.
The flea market outside ancient Ephesus is interesting as well. There is a stall that sells "genuine fake watches". You know what you are buying ... the real fake, not a phony fake.
You really have to bargain hard. The price they asked for is ridiculous. A store by the harbor wanted 25 Euros for a nice cotton sweater. I thought I did well by getting the price down to 18 Euros but no further. We decided to walk away. 4 or 5 blocks later, the same merchandise, DW had the price down to 15 Euros, and the final price was 3 for 40 Euros.
The handmade carpets are gorgeous. Do not go inside any carpet store for a carpet making demonstration. I repeat. Do not enter! The sales pitch is soft but the pressure to buy is there. At least they are not as bad as those selling time-shares in Florida. Complimentary beverages and pastries were offered, and of course, the price for the free beverages is to sit through their sales pitch. If you have never experienced it, by all means, go see it. The silk carpets are really nice.
We decided to try local food and beverages and headed to a local open air cafe. If you enjoy a strong coffee, make sure you ask for a Turkish coffee. DW ordered an Apple Tea. Both are famous local beverages.
The entertainment on a small ship is very limiting. They don't have a theatre and the shows are done at the Cabaret. The seating arrangement is not bad, but if you are short, you better sit at the first few rows or you won't see much as the floor is not slanted.
The comedian magician is forgettable. I was never big on them anyway. One show featured a vocalist, Kaitlyn Carr, from Scotland. I thought she was passable and DW said she was off key a few times. She also played the traditional flute. Maybe it was her rendition of the Lord of the dance that did it. At the end of the show, Kaitlyn received a standing ovation from the crowd.
The staged shows are similar to what we have seen at other Princess ships. Since we were on another Princess ship recently, we have seen the "Dance-Dance-Dance" before. The music was familiar with a twist. First off, without the stage, there were only 2 singers and 6 dancers instead of the full compliments of 4 singers and 12 dancers of their mega ship. The stage sets were missing and the costumes were also less elaborate. Sections disappeared and were replaced (the Indian dance was missing). The singers and the dancers performed well enough and they performed all the crowd pleasers.
We noticed that at least 2 of the dancers are also assistant cruise directors. So the question is: are they dancers training to be cruise directors? Or are they cruise directors learning to be dancers? We have also noticed that there are quite a few people on their first contract. The young fellow who was selling the shore excursions is on his first contract. He is extremely knowledgeable on the shore excursions being offered. He said that part of his training was that he had to go to all the shore excursions and experienced them first-hand. What a tough job!
It does appear that this small ship is being used as a training ground. This could be both good and bad. The good is that they are all trying very hard, going the extra mile. The bad is if you are on the ship while they just completed a crew rotation, you may get stuck with some freshly trained newbies. The ship's roaming photographer definitely falls under the later category. Although this is his first contract, it could be his last (I certainly hope so). He lacks customer service skills and was rather rude when passengers turned down his offer to take pictures in the dining room.
This is only day 4 and so far, the food quality is impressive, much better than the other Princess ships we have experienced, except for Ruby's maiden voyage in 2008. Not that the food on the other Princess ships were bad. As it turns out, there is a reason for it. The Princess corporate executive chef Alfredo Marzi who holds the title of "Master Chef Commendatore" is on board. He travels from ship to ship for inspection and training (here is that word again!) purposes to ensure things are up to snuff. We knew about him because we attended his cooking demonstration and special dinner at the Ruby's maiden voyage.
If you like your special coffees like espresso and latte, buy the "coffee card". It is $24 now but you get 15 premium coffees. Since we have a 2 for one coupon, for $24, we get 2 cards, good for 30 drinks - a very good deal and much cheaper than Starbucks.
More on Food and Entertainment
The show called "Shake Rattle and Roll" is new, featuring songs from the 50s and 60s, including Buddy Holly, Elvis, Monkee, Beatles, Sonny & Cher etc. The Sonny and Cher skit was funny. Since this is the "light" version for a smaller ship, I am looking forward to see the full version on the Mega ships.
"Tribute" is also new. Featuring music from Beatles, Beach Boys and the Rat pack. With only 2 singers, the 2 fill-ins are a bit weak. The second female singer just didn't have the voice needed. The female lead is good. Again, I am looking forward to the full version.
Went to Sabatini, one of the two extra charge restaurants available. The portions are big. We were stuffed long before main entrEe arrives. DW ordered lobster tail and 2 full tails showed up on the plate. My veal chop was almost 2 inches thick. Asked for doggy bag and waiter was miffed by the request. Guess he didn't have a dog at home.
Alfredo Marzi did a cooking demonstration. It was a very similar show from 2 years ago and the same pitch for his cook book. He preached to the audience not to waste any food, there are hungry people in the world etc. etc. Of course you don't want to waste any food. It is called money and their profit margin. He was funny at times. He took off his chef hat to show us that there is no "rat" under his hat when he was preparing the ratatouille.
The internet service is getting worst. Skype was working a couple of days ago and now it doesn't work at all. It worked on the other ships. Maybe the problem was not the equipment but they tried to lock it down so tight that it became unusable. I really don't care what works and what doesn't as long as it is consistent across the board so that I can plan for it.
Funny how information flows quite freely on the ship. The cruise director mentioned that 90 passengers had booked the Israel overnight tour and a total of 580 passengers had booked the excursions, leaving only a handful who booked tours on their own. We were given passport receipts when we boarded the ship in Pireas. We will have to go through "immigration" and redeem our passports and the "landing cards" before you can go ashore.
A couple of passengers were not allowed to go ashore. I guess it must have happened before as no one seemed surprised by it.
The port itself is in an industrial area. There were no duty free shops or anything like that. Once you got your passport and landing card, you disembark and go straight to the bus, or the waiting car and leave the dock. The Pacific Princess was docked next to a freighter.
The security is really not as tight as I thought it would be. No one is carrying assault rifles standing at the gangway (like in Mexico) or anything like that. But, there were many check points to go through. The IDF had asked the tour guide for her cell phone number ... maybe for emergency contact? On our return to the ship, the bus stopped at the check point, a security person come on board and asked a series of silly questions. Are you carrying things on board for people? Did you see them package your purchases? Are you carrying guns? We reached the ship's gangway finally, cold towel from the ship and passport inspection once more before boarding.
Despite being October, and supposed to be cool, it didn't feel that way. The temperature approached 90F and it was humid. From Haifa, we travelled to the Sea of Galilee, which is a big lake. I didn't know it is below sea level, and it supplies the majority of the water to the whole country. We were at the shore and the water is brownish and looks dirty. People are bottling it and drinking it as if it is holy water.
We also stopped at Mount of Beatitudes. Nothing really too exciting there. The Church of Multiplication and Tabgha is next. Again, nothing exciting there either. This is the place where Jesus supposedly performed his miracle of multiplication with the fish and the bread. Everyone is taking picture of the rock where he supposed had sat on while performing the miracle.
Up next is the River Jordon, Capernaum and Nazareth. This is the Holyland tour so you are supposed to see and know your religious stuff. If you are not religious or don't know the bible stories, you will be bored.
The Yardenit site is not the place where Jesus was baptised. Apparently the real place is too close to the border so they built this place (shrine?) with a big souvenir shop selling, you guessed it, water jugs ($5 each) to fill your own water from the River Jordon to take home. There is a place where you can go and "touch" the water. If you want the full "experience", you must buy a white gown ($25), go change and then you can soak in the river. When you came out, it is like a wet t-shirt contest so one should try to be modest and bring towel or wear bathing suit beneath. There were many embarrassing moments for the soakers.
The Yardenit gift shop carries dates and honey among other things, including mud pack for moisturising. Of course they have books and maps and religious artefacts. Other than the honey and mud pack, you can buy the rest of the stuff elsewhere. (okay, not the water jugs and water)
We kept running into a Korean church youth group. They were singing hymns and chanting while we were inside the churches. It really added to the atmosphere. Some people were downright emotional to the point that they cried.
By the way, toilets (WC) are not free and typically they will charge ½ Euro or $1 to use the facilities. Make sure you have loose change as they do not give any change back.
One more thing: no bare shoulders and bare knees on any Holy Sites. Show some respect and dress appropriately.
Ashdod is another industrial port. Both Ashdod and Haifa claimed to be Israel's largest port. Again, there is nothing nearby. The temperature is cooler, but not by much, still mid-80s. Since we kept the passport, we just meet the tour bus and headed out. The cheapest souvenir shopping is inside the old city of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. But, you may not want to go to Bethlehem after reading what I have to say.
We thought Acropolis was crowded. Well, we were wrong. The "attractions" (or Holy sites) were jammed pack with wall to wall people. Drivers and people in general are aggressive. Drivers lean on the horn to voice their displeasure when the tour bus is loading or unloading passengers, blocking their way or slowing them down. Patience is not in their vocabulary.
First stop at Mount Olive with a great view of the old city, Next stop was Garden of Gethsemane. Some nuns were hand picking the olives from the tree. I thought shaking the tree and let the olives drop would be more efficient but that is not the way. You may do that on the field but not here. The Garden's claim to fame is this is the place where Judas betrayed Jesus. A church was built there and the inside, of course, was packed.
We entered the old city through the Dung Gate, so named because there used to piles of dung there in the olden days. Huh?
I was very surprised by the gender segregation. Men went through security on the left and women on the right. They check your bags and you walk through a metal detector before you enter into the open space (or square) in front of the Western Wall. There were armed soldiers patrolling with big guns.
When approaching the western Walls, again, men to the left, ladies to the right. There is a prayer hall on the men's side but you must cover your head to go in. Obviously, no females allowed although the hall was donated by a female. Go figure. If you need to go to bathroom, here is the place, by the Western Wall. It's free and it's clean.
Next up was the walk along the "Via Dolorosa", following the path that Jesus took on his way to the crucifixion. We walked through the alley ways of the old city, stopping at all the stops and ended at the Church of Holy Sepulcher.
We have never been with so many people in the same place all at once. Let's just say that you don't have to walk anywhere within the Church of Holy Sepulcher. You get pushed. You are allowed to take pictures but it is almost impossible as everyone else was trying to do the same. They would be in front of you, next to you, behind you. All you see is a sea of people.
The last few stops for Via Dolorosa are inside the Church of Holy Sepulcher and were considered the most Holy of Holy sites. They (priests?) would hurry you along or would tell you that you cannot take pictures of certain things, or that you are not properly dressed and boot you out. Here is a reminder again: no bare shoulders and bare knees on any Holy Sites.
I didn't know the Armenians hold the majority of the space inside the Church of All Nations. Trivia question for you. Which faith (or factions) holds the key to the place? The answer is none of them. It is held by a Muslim as they own the place. At least that's what the guide told us.
Bethlehem is most interesting. Jewish guide get off the bus. Driver took us down to check point (border?) After we drove past the checkpoint, Palestine guide joined the group.
We saw the "security barrier" first hand. Just look at the old pictures of the Berlin wall and you will get the idea. It goes for miles. We knew that time allotted to visit churches and souvenir market is dictated by the guide, who will make his money from the purchases.
First stop at BSC (Bethlehem Souvenir Company) was supposed to be half hour but ended up much longer. Some people decided to spend more time shopping and the guide, of course, won't rush them.
Price is okay but the best deal is outside the stores by the street vendors. Bags are 4 for $10. Scarfs are between 3 to 5 for $10 depending on your bargaining skills. Quality is cheap too but as souvenirs for give away, you can't beat the price.
The Church of Nativity is the only Holy site stop. Even more crowded than Church of All Nations. People are pushing each other to go down the stairs to see the "manger". It was noisy and it is inside the church. A priest used the microphone to shh everyone. Noise gone for about a minute and it started again. The crowd were 50 deep or more trying to go down the staircase that maybe only 2 wide. Needless to say, many disappointed and upset people as they came all the way to Bethlehem and didn't even get to see the manger. Close, but no cigars. I heard the group that went to the site of the last supper fared better.
On the way back, more check points and more check points after leaving Palestine.
Port Said/Cairo Egyptian Museum
Port Said is the northern gateway to the Suez Canal. It is about 200 Kms away from Cairo. We have been told to expect a three hour journey, two on the highway and an hour in the city. The Pyramid of Giza is an extra half hour away with the ring road.
There is one thing that I should mention now about the road trip from Port Said to Cairo. There were NO pit stops. None. Zero. Zilch. If you got to go, well, you can't. You've got to be able to hold it, or wear diapers for your relief, as simple as that.
The ship docked early. Went through immigration with no issues. Next thing you know, we were at the dock, walking among venders and their stalls inside the controlled area. Many stalls were not even open yet. We proceed to the meeting point where all the buses, vans, were parked and ready to go. We boarded our bus early but we can't leave until all the vehicles were filled and ready to go. So we sat in our bus for 20 minutes, waiting for the last bus to finish loading. The people in the private tours did not fare any better. They have to wait too. The convoy must leave together, as a single unit. At least the buses were running on cheap gasoline, only $2 a gallon.
It was an impressive convoy, police cars and a police motorcycle at the front of the convoy, and a police truck at the back. We sped through Port Said at a great pace, seeing policemen at all the major intersections, stopping traffic to let us go straight through. Police cars were also blocking on ramps so that no one can merge into the highway and cut in. I was impressed. Maybe the police escort was a way to get us out of the city quick, beating morning traffic and has nothing to do with security and safety. I was only partially right.
The police escort stayed with us all the way through 3 checkpoints, the police escorts were probably changed along the way as when the last police escort waved us ahead, and it wasn't the same vehicle that led us out of the port. We were going fast, it was only an hour and a half and we were less than 50 Kms from Cairo, half an hour at highway speed.
Without the police escort, the convoy disintegrated and it was every bus for itself. It was a race, buses passing each other, cutting each other off, three buses were side by side on a two lane highway with a forth one trying to pass on the non-existing shoulder. It appeared that they were all trying to get ahead of each other in a mad race to the finish line: the Cairo Museum.
It really doesn't matter as 15 minutes later, we ran straight into traffic and the pace quickly came to a crawl. The bus driver skilfully manoeuvred the bus as if it is a subcompact, weaving in and out of traffic.
We are now in city traffic. Vehicles everywhere: 4 cars, sometimes 5, side by side on a 3 lane road, all jockeying for position. The guide said if you can drive in Cairo, you can drive anywhere, and she was right. Many times we thought there would be fender benders but nothing happened. Pedestrian ran across the streets dodging cars like a real life game of Frogger. We also notice the absence of traffic lights.
The convoy left Port Said around 7:15 a.m. We should have arrived at the Egyptian Museum by 10:15 a.m. At 10:30 a.m., the museum was not even in sight. Good thing the bus was equipped with an emergency washroom as DW can't hold it any longer. No one on the bus knew it was there (by the back exit, below the seats) as it was well hidden. After DW used it, the line up to use it began to form. The guide said it is for emergency only so please don't use it unless you have to as it will stink up the bus on the way home (and she probably had to clean it). No one was listening or care. The choice is a smelly toilet or wetting yourself and the floor.
At 11 a.m., the guide was on the cell phone trying to figure out what's going on. The bus was moving ever so slowly and we were getting nowhere. Finally at 11:30 a.m., 4 hours and 15 minutes later, we arrived, more than an hour behind schedule. We stopped at a back alley across from the museum. We jumped out from the slow moving bus and ran across the street to the line-up to get in.
The line-up was to go through the first security check point outside the main gate through the guard house. The line-up was 3 to 4 people wide and almost all the way around the block. We finally got to the guard house. It was set up like an airport security. We had to go through a metal detector and put the bags through the x-ray machine. The problem was that there was only 1 detector and 1 machine.
We finally get inside the compound. After the last of our group got in (people were cutting in line, jumping over fences and pushing people away) we go through the second check point which is the gate outside the building collect admission tickets. We have been told not to bring any cameras as it is not allowed in the museum so we left our cameras in the bus. Even if we can sneak the camera in, you can't take pictures with it anyway unless you want to take pictures of the crowds as it was wall to wall people.
Once we went through the ticket turnstile, we walked up the main steps and into the building. Here, another line formed and there was another line for a bag check, this time for cameras. By now, it is getting close to 12 noon and we were told that the museum will close in an hour. What!? What do you mean it will close at 1 p.m.?
Yes. The museum will indeed close at 1 p.m., only on Wednesday. On any other day, it will close at 7 p.m. So, that why it is so crowded. Everyone in town wants to visit the museum. There were 5 cruise ships in port, some were mega ships, add on other tour groups and you will have 10,000 to 15,000 shoehorned into a small building with no air conditioning. Did I mention that the building was built more than 100 years ago and there is no air conditioning? That explained the bottle of water given to us by the driver when we left the bus.
The guide started leading the group through the building and straight to the second floor where the "good stuff" were located. We had to hurry; no time to waste. Sorry, no time for wash room break. Besides, the washrooms were lined up all the way outside the door anyway. We were told the line to use the facilities is about half an hour.
The guide kept talking and walking and we followed like sheep. She would have better luck herding cats. We had the head set on which was a good thing. We can't see her but we can hear her so at least we knew where she was heading. Finally caught up to her and we decided not to let her out of our sight. It proved to be difficult. It was wall to wall people. You have to push through. You have to physically push people away from you to get through. The guide was pushing people away from her to get through. If we wanted to follow her, we will have to push too. Those failed to push through were left behind. There was no politeness about all this. You pushed, you moved on. No one got knock down. No one got upset. It's a fact of life here in a crowded city. People were shoulder to shoulder. There was no personal space. We North Americans are so spoiled.
The guide was determined to go through her routine. She did. She finished the 2 hour tour in 45 minutes. Those who failed to keep up to her saw nothing. At least they heard about it. Short people saw other people's heads. She said if we stop at every item in the museum for 1 minute, it will take 9 months to see everything.
We were given 15 minutes of free time to explore on our own before the museum close. We were to meet back outside of the building by the main fountain and wait for the bus. DW seeks out the "temple of relief", aka the washrooms. The line was still there but thinning. There were signs outside the washrooms in 3 languages that said "no tipping please".
The washrooms were staffed by people in uniform. They were handing out sheets of toilet papers at the door and had their hands out. I said "no change" and the man said "I give change". Paid the guy, use the facilities and washed my hands. Walked towards the door and he handed me toilet paper to dry hands. I took the paper, and he asked for money again. I told him no money and walked away. I thought I heard some faint swearing on the background. The toilets were overflowing, dirty and smelly.
DW fared a bit better. She told me that a lady in front of her gave the staff a coin and she was directed towards a line to the right. DW gave the staff a dollar and was directed to the left where there was an empty cubicle waiting. DW was in and out at no time.
We made our way back outside the fountain. It was still wall to wall people. There was even more people than in Jerusalem. Everyone was trying to leave the museum and go to the next stop. There was no line up to get in now but only half a gate was open to let people out. Groups were formed around their tour guides waiting for the battle to get out of the place. Men were in the front, with their women immediately behind. The weak and the meek were left behind. Groups were pushing through other groups to get out. It was an ugly scene.
The guide assembled us by the gate, to the side and in the shade. She battled her way out the gate to look for our bus. She ordered us to stay as a group and inside the gate. Don't come out yet until the bus is in front. Groups pushed past us towards the gate. It was utterly chaos. In all my years of travel, I have never witness anything like this. Not even the Shanghai Expo in China where the crowd were aggressive and pushed through and broke the plated glass doors to get inside the Italian pavilion come close.
The bus arrived. Someone yelled "I saw it!" Before the guide could say anything, we charged as a group towards the crowd and through the gate. Damn the traffic and crossed the street, reaching our safe refuge inside the bus. We did a head count. Someone new had joined our group. We nick named him "AK" and he sat at the front of the bus behind the driver by himself. Nobody knew who he was. The outside temperature was 90 degrees. He wore a brown suit with a shirt and tie.
Next stop was lunch. We went to the Mena House Oberoi Hotel by the Pyramid. This hotel was originally built as a palace for Napoleons' wife's visit to Cairo. We were told it is the most exclusive hotel in Cairo. The bus went through a guard house controlled and gated entrance. We were dropped off in front and we walked through a metal detector and security guards as we entered the building. They must think we (the cheap tourists) were terrorists.
The temple of relief at the hotel was clean, and no lines. There were attendants in uniform. No tip bowls, no hands were out and no requests for money. It was a refreshing change. I gave the man a dollar and he bowed and thanked me. I felt good paying to use the toilet this time instead of disgust. I paid because I wanted to and not because I had to. So far, in three days, we must have spent at least $20 in donations worshiping at the various temples of relief. When you are old, you got to go more often.
It was a surprise for us to see the Pyramids so close to the city. We could see the Pyramids very close to us from the hotel. Although we took the bus, we could probably walk to the Pyramid. It was that close. When we took pictures of the Pyramids, the city skyline is behind them. The pyramids are now being encroached on both sides by the expanding city. The government had wisely stopped issuing development permits around the Pyramids.
Although there were lots of buses and people, because of the open space, it did not feel crowded. The guide had taught us a few short phrases ("no thank you") in Egyptian and warned us about the local merchants. Camel rides are $3. Taking a picture with it is $1. Beware of venders who charge you $1 to get on the camel, and then another $1 before they will let you get off.
Don't make eye contacts with the venders. Don't touch anything that you do not intend to buy. Don't let people put things on your head. Don't take free gifts. Don't let them take pictures for you as they will ransom your camera. In another word, totally avoid the vendors or anyone approaches you for anything.
AK, the nice fellow in the brown suit who joined us earlier, must be cooking under the hot sun, but he was determined to hang out with us. Before he left the bus, we noticed that he took the safety off the semi-automatic that he was carrying under his jacket. He stayed close but was never intrusive. He even smiled and offered to take pictures for us. He was a very gracious host.
The Sphinx is right where we thought it would be except it is a lot smaller than I thought it would be. Blame it on the media and the promotional shots. The sun was over head and it was very hot! The temperature must be well over 90.
The trip back to the port was less eventful. Darkness fell quickly and most were asleep, including AK and the guide. Did I mention that they don't like to drive with their head lights on even when it is pitch dark outside?
After we went through the toll booth (or was that a check point?), we were pulled over by a half ton with some armed men. Since it was pitch dark, we didn't know if they were policemen or bandits. The bus driver got off and walked towards the darkness. AK, who realised that the bus had stopped, woke up, and decided to investigate. He got off and disappeared in the darkness as well. The guide also woke up by this time and she too left the bus without saying anything. Some passengers were very nervous, what's going on? I joked that it was coffee break. No one was laughing. Shortly after, a bus pulled up and stopped behind us. A few more minutes had passed and a bus sped by us. But soon it signalled and pulled off to the side of the road and stopped a short distance ahead of us. In about 10 minutes, a convoy was formed, everyone was back on the bus and we went on our merry way.
We were back at the dock by 7:30 p.m. The ship was supposed to leave at that time. DW and I lost track of time and decided to bargain with the natives over some t-shirts. The vendors offered $4 each, good Egyptian cotton. We picked out 2. The vendors said 2 for $10. I told him his math was wrong. He must have meant 3 for $10. He shoved a bunch of things into a bag and said $20. We said no. He shoved a whole bunch more stuff in and said $30. By now, we have no clue what's in the bag. We moved on.
We arrived at the security check point. We heard the ship's fog horn sounded. A Princess employee was at the other end of the hall waving at us. The Egyptian security guards took a casual look at our bags and let us through, without going through the metal detector. We slowly walked towards to the Princess employee. She said "hurry". We ran. The terrorists must be behind us. We ran towards the gangway. She was right behind us and I heard her said "that's the last two" over her radio. We were still on the gangway when I saw the staff unhooking everything, including the safety net below us. What happens if I slip? 5 minutes later, we were safe (but tired) at our cabin. We felt movement and the ship departed. Later on, we found out that a bus was missing on the way back from Cairo. It had followed the wrong convoy and ended up at another dock. To say the least, it has been a most entertaining day.
Comparing to the ordeal and excitement in Cairo, Alexandria was downright boring. It was hot and humid when we left and it got worse by the hour. We visited the Roman catacombs of Kom El Shugafa, took the 83 spiral steps down 115 feet into the wet burial chambers. Next we stopped at the ruins of Serapis, also known as Pompey's Pillar, or Alexandria's Acropolis. After that, we moved on to the new Alexandria museum. The museum tour was interesting. DW picked this tour. I would have preferred Fort Qait Bey and the Library. Cameras are not allowed into the catacombs and the museum. You have to go through security check points to enter any of the sites. Policemen were sitting behind metal plates with semi-automatic weapons on the ready. We saw them all over the place.
As usual, the buses formed a convoy before leaving the dock. It stayed as a convoy for the entire day with police escorts at both ends and a motorcycle cop who raced back and forth. The buses departed as a group from point to point. We also had someone wearing a suit in the sweltering heat stayed with us, sitting alone at the front of the bus, and accompanied us everywhere. He was very serious looking and never cracked a smile. We never got to know him like we did with AK.
The port building at Alexandria is absolutely beautiful and cavernous but it was full of totally empty store fronts. There was a row of flea market style stalls just outside the building selling the usual stuff. Obviously, no one is willing to pay the big bucks and move their business inside. Bargaining is part of the process. We paid $1 for a $5 key chain and $6 for a $12 mug. You have to determine what you are willing to pay for the item and be prepared to walk away. DW fell in love with a beautiful Egyptian cotton blouse. She tried on several sizes, style and colors before she decided on one. I had zero bargaining power. At least the vendor took pity and was reasonable with the asking price. I knew I had over paid.
In all likelihood, we won't be returning to Egypt on a "normal" cruise. We may consider flying into Aswan for a Nile River cruise through Luxor etc. The existing Cairo Egyptian museum will be converted to an art museum for 2012 and the replacement museum will be located at Giza, very close to the Pyramid. It will be bigger and more modern, and hopefully, air conditioned. With it so close to the Pyramid, I don't know if the congestion would be better.
As an aside, we heard that Acropolis in Athens was closed earlier in the week due to riots. It's a good thing that we've been there already. This is truly uncertain times.
It was a rough ride on the tender towards Sorrento. Some passengers decided to get off the tender and stayed on board instead. We travelled to Pompeii's ruin, which is not too far away. After seeing Delphi, Acropolis, Ephesus, Israel and Egypt, there is no expectation and we were pleasantly surprised. It was large, clean and quite well restored. We could have spent several days there if we wanted to explore the place in detail. This place dated back to 1st century BC and the guide told us that the Forum in Pompeii is better preserved and older than the one in Rome. I guess we will have to find out for ourselves.
We were impressed with Apollo's temple, the forum and the central square. I could just imagine what it would have looked like more than 2000 years ago with the multi-story buildings, the tall marbled pillars and statues. The busiest building with a long line-up to go inside to view was the brothel. It was very well preserved and is one of their top attractions inside the Pompeii ruins. I was wondering how they knew that was the brothel. After going inside the building, there is no doubt that they are right. The Karma Sutra type wall paintings were well preserved, quite graphic and it told the story. People of all ages were inside of the building looking at everything, which I find most interesting.
I can't help but keep comparing the Pompeii's ruins to Ephesus. The Terrace houses in Ephesus are more impressive and better "restored" but the Pompeii's Forum and the amphitheatre is better preserved.
After a quick tour of the ruin, we returned to Sorrento. With our luck, it was Sunday and quite a few shops were closed despite 3 ships in port. We walked around town a bit but didn't find anything interesting. It was nice weather for walking around and the streets were not too crowded. This is a shopping stop if you wanted to buy Cameo.
Instead of taking the shuttle bus back to the tender pier, we walked down the stairs and along the winding road. It was an easy walk, took about 5 minutes and is well worth it. I wouldn't walk up those stairs though.
The tender ride back to the ship was much nicer as the sea had calmed down. The view from the ship on the shoreline was absolutely gorgeous.
A few words about passport:
They took our passport when we board the ship in Athens and we were given receipts. We have to claim our passport with the landing cards from Israel immigration/security before going ashore in Israel. We kept our passports with us for the 2 days in Israel. They took the landing cards away when we returned to the ship. We were not told that we have to return our passports to the purser's desk but you have to return them prior to arrival in Egypt. Best time to do it is right after you finish your excursions in Israel. The line-up at the purser's desk is shorter. The Egyptian official will come on board and stamp the passports. You pick up the passport from the ship's staff when you gather for the excursions. When you disembark for shore excursions, the Egyptian official will look for the "stamp" so it will be easier if you keep your passport open to that page. It'll make the process faster. After your Egyptian excursions, you have to return your passport to the purser's desk again and you pick it up the night before disembarking for good.
There is not much to say except that we had a great time in Rome. There are so much to see and so much to do that we quickly ran out of time. Everything is as everyone had told us. In Rome, anything 400 years old is new. We could spend weeks there. We learned that Michelangelo had a great sense of humor. If you have visited the Vatican museum and the Sistine Chapel, you will understand. We visited a lot of places in a very short time, unfortunately, we didn't stayed too long on some so I guess we will have to get back there again. With a proper tour map, you can do a self-guided tour either by walking, or travel by cab. Cabs were readily available and the cost was reasonable.
We did take some guided tour though. You will definitely need one for the Vatican museum and one for the Coliseum and Forum. We were lucky to have found a couple of great tour companies. Dark Rome Tours for the Vatican was one of them. We had the front of the line tickets and we were there at 8 a.m. The private guide was very knowledgeable. She kept us ahead of the general crowd all day, as well as taking us to some areas where the general public won't know about. We were amazed by the amount of modern art in the Vatican museum. The cost however, is quite expensive if you wanted a small group private tour, but I think it's worth it.
We stayed at the Hotel Quirinale Rome and what a beautiful hotel it was. It is centrally located and walking distance to a lot of attractions. Trevi fountain was only 5 blocks from the hotel. The Coliseum maybe about 10 blocks, half an hour to 45 minutes' walk. There are plenty of restaurants and shops within a few blocks, plus only a block from the Metro. Spanish steps and all those shops were 2 stops away on the Metro, or about 35 to 45 minutes' walk. The Food and beverage service at the hotel was first class but pricy, and our room, was nicely decorated. We will definitely consider returning to this hotel if we go back to Rome.
The Final Words
This was our first trip on a small ship. In this beginning, DW and I were worried that there is not enough amenities on board. As it turned out, all the necessities of day to day luxury were there. The spa, the shows, the afternoon tea, the sports activities, the piano bar, there were enough activities to keep us busy on the sea days. With the smaller ship, we can get from point A to point B really quick, DW did not get lost even once. The setting is more intimate. We also noticed the average age of the passengers on this cruise was much older than what we have seen on the other Princess cruises.
The service was wonderful. The food was excellent, probably due to the fact that there are less passengers and it is easier to produce quality food. Being on a small ship, we kept running into the same people that we have met on board. It was cozy. It was intimate. We felt a connection to the staff and fellow passengers, more so than the mega ships. I was on a first name basis with the music director. He was assigned as an escort on our Haifa tour and we chatted on the bus.
With all that said, we missed some of the things that we enjoyed most on the Princess Mega ships. We knew they were not offered due to space considerations. We really missed any time dining. We missed the international cafe. Our favourite past time on sea day was sitting at the atrium, sipping a coffee and listen to the piano player, trios or quartets throughout the day.
We missed the Princess theatre. The shows were there, but the seating in the Cabaret Lounge is just not suitable. We also missed the guest lecturer. Princess has a naturalist on board Alaskan cruise and guest speakers on most of the other cruises we were on, with topics like the Construction of the Canal, pirates of the Caribbean, volcanoes, earth quakes and tsunami. A guest lecturer talking about the culture, mythology and history on ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptians would greatly add to the experience.
People cruises mainly for two reasons. Enjoying the itinerary (and ports of call); or the amenities offered by the ship. For those seeking adventures on exotic places, this is a good compromise; with long days ashore, and just enough activities at night and on sea days. For those who seek adventure on board, where they would enjoy the ship more than the destinations, they will be sorely disappointed.