Holy Land in November
We returned to the Pacific Princess seven weeks after our Black Sea cruise. Our original intention had been to book the same itinerary on Azamara, but they cancelled the trip that suited our dates, so we switched back to Princess.
The cruise started on a Thursday and this time we decided to use Princess flights - never again. The flight out was from Gatwick and the flight back was to Heathrow. We are lucky as we live in central London and either suits, but there were several unhappy British couples who lived in the Midlands and the West Country. If Princess is selling a premium brand they need to sort this out with British Airways or use other airlines. That aside, the meet and greet at the airport was excellent, as was the short tour in Athens on the way to the airport at the end. Princess does appear to have the boarding and embarkation side well sorted.
We had booked another balcony state room on the 7th floor - this time on the Port side so we could see Venice as we left. Again our room stewardess was fine -and she found us a decent hair drier to supplement the rather basic one in the bathroom.
The dining room has fixed seating but luckily we had a table for four - then our first night companions decided that second sitting was too late for them, so we were on our own from then on - perfect. The food was very good, as before, and the menu continued to reflect some of the countries we were going though. The waiters were great and the Maitre D (Carlos) was superb, ably assisted by his head waiters - perhaps you get better treatment on a table for two!
Some Americans we met on the previous cruise had recommended that we try the evening at the chef's table (75$ a head) and it was well worth it. You have a tour of the kitchen from the Maitre D and the Head Chef, champagne and snacks while you are there, and then a superb meal in one of the specialty restaurants complete with quality wine, photos and a cookery book. The Chef and Maitre D are on hand all the time and it made a splendid evening. We will certainly do it again next time we are on Princess.
We weren't impressed by the entertainment last time but perhaps we have mellowed. The dancers, who appear to be mostly Aussies, gave it their all, but the feature performers repeated their acts exactly as before. Princess also used the dancers as quiz masters in the trivia - a problem since some of them could hardly understand the questions and seemed very surprised when the groups knew the answers. The sea day programmes were still uninspired and the music between 5:00 and 7:00pm limited - as usual.
The Casino remained empty most of the time and the shops were very average - but people were buying - don't they have shops at home?
The cruise had apparently been marketed in the USA as a special 'art lover's cruise and Princess, who run the art auctions on their ships (they are apparently not subcontracted out) had secured three artists to come on the cruise and talk about their work and give painting demonstrations to a select group of 'art lovers' - but ordinary passengers could attend as well. The special group had various private functions, and sat in one particular area in the dining room, but, other than the vast number of paintings stored in the main lobby and the consequent trip hazard, it was quite good fun - there was some serious bidding at the art auctions.
Since our last trip the captain has changed. The new one was again Italian but his English was not as good and he was less proactive with the passengers - though you have to admit that his duet with the cruise director (in Italian) was special. There were comprehensive port lectures - the lecturer was good on information for the more independently minded guest, but, again, there was no 'enrichment' programme - this was another itinerary that cried out for in depth talks on the Holy Land and Egypt - I know the guides covered the basics on the trips but it would have been good to have a wider view in advance.
The overall itinerary is excellent but why don't Princess allow a day at sea for recovery between the two days in Israel and Egypt - we are on holiday, it's not an assault course. Some of the older passengers looked pretty worn out after two days in Israel and another two in Egypt almost finished them!
Ravenna was the first stop and was a very pleasant surprise (perhaps we should have done more homework) - there was a free shuttle into what turned out to be delightful Italian town. The mosaics and churches were great and there was a chocolate festival on at the same time - the perfect cruise stop.
Dubrovnik is always worth a visit if only to walk around the wall. The shuttle here was 14 dollars, which struck the American passengers as a bit on the high side, but it would have been a long walk and the taxis were no cheaper. Had a great lunch and enjoyed the views.
Next was Patmos. Again easy to do on your own - the local taxi drivers have a very good deal (35 Euros) which takes you to the main sites and leaves you long enough there to enjoy them before picking you up (on time) and going back to the ship.
We took a ship's tour in Haifa up to the River Jordan and the Sea of Galilee - it was fine though the guide let too many people shop too long. We did the same in Ashdod for Jerusalem and Bethlehem - Jerusalem was excellent but Bethlehem was debatable - the church is very crowded and you cannot see the actual tomb - and the stop for obligatory souvenir shopping on the way back (very expensive) combined with the problems of getting in and out through the gates was probably not worth the hastle.
The one thing you remember of Israel though is not the sites, great as they are, it's the litter everywhere - paper plastic bottles etc etc - no one seems to do refuse collection.
Next was Egypt - we have been to Cairo and the Pyramids before so stayed on the ship and took a horse drawn buggy around Port Said - not much to see. Alexandria was far more interesting and the ship's tour went to the main points - the new library being the best. The ship also organised a good folkloric show on the ship just before we left - complete with belly dancer and whirling dervish.
Kusadasi was the last stop - again we have been before so we just walked round the town but friends who went to Ephesus enjoyed it.
Our flight to Athens was early afternoon so princess provided a short tour of Athens with time to see one or two sites - a good way to pass the time rather than sitting at the airport.
Overall a great cruise. An excellent itinerary, but another sea day would have made it even better, and excellent service from a friendly crew.