Pre-Cruise Tour and Hotels:
This cruise started with an included land stay and tours in Cairo and Luxor before boarding the Aegean Odyssey in Safaga. The hotel used in Cairo was great (Fairmont Nile City); most rooms have beautiful views over the Nile in downtown Cairo and the hotel is new and opulent. The Luxor hotel wasn't quite as stellar (Sonesta St. George) but was fine for the one night we spent there. A full day of touring in Cairo included the pyramids, sphinx, and Egyptian museum; I did not participate having done these several times already. Instead I arranged a private walking tour of al-Muizz li-din Allah street, a newly restored and pedestrianized street near the Khan el-Khalili bazaar with beautiful old Islamic mosques and other sights. I highly recommend it.
We flew to Luxor very early in the morning of the next day and toured Karnak temple, had the afternoon off, then returned to Karnak for the Sound and Light Show that evening. The next morning we visited the Valley of the Kings (3 open tombs plus the tomb of Tutankhamun), then Hatshepsut's Temple and the Colossi of Memnon before checking out of the hotel and boarding buses for a 3-hour drive to Safaga for embarkation. All meals and tours in Cairo and Luxor were included in the price of the cruise.
Embarkation and Cabin:
Embarkation was extremely speedy. We all had to exit the bus and go through a security check at the port entrance, then we reboarded the bus for a quick drive to the pier. Check-in took all of about 5 minutes as we gave our name and handed in our passports (required) then received our room key. We were asked to head to the Information desk sometime that evening to register a credit card for purchases and then we were free to board. My cabin was on Columbus Deck (Deck 4), the same deck used for embarking/disembarking in most ports, so it was just a few steps to my room. Within about 15 minutes, my luggage also arrived. A thorough safety drill was conducted shortly after boarding.
My cabin was a Category M Inside cabin. There were two twin beds, a large dresser between them (with a mirror above), and a stool/ottoman. The closet had plenty of room for hanging items (especially for one person), and another small set of drawers, plus a safe. The closet doors are mirrored also. Lifejackets were stored above the closet and suitcases fit easily under the beds for storage. There is a flat TV on the wall above one bed, and reading lights at both beds. Overall, the lighting in the cabin seemed a bit dim. The air flow is adjusted at the register, which is located on the ceiling. Not a problem for me (at 5'7"), but some shorter passengers had trouble reaching it.
The bathroom was obviously newly fitted and average-to-smallish in size (about the same as I've had on Princess) with a shower and no tub. The blowdryer was new and quite adequate. Toiletries were provided and included shampoo, bath/shower gel, soap, and shower cap. I had no problems in my cabin with plumbing issues or any smells, but I did hear a few others on board were reporting problems with toilets flushing continuously (or not flushing).
The ship's main public rooms (on Floor 6) are generally nicely appointed. The Ambassador Lounge is primarily used for tour briefings and lectures, although it also hosted the Welcome Aboard and Farewell cocktail receptions. It seems fine for this purpose. Whatever A/V issues were noted earlier in the season by cruisers did not seem to be a problem any longer. Generally the sightlines are good with the exception of a few seats near the entrance. If people wouldn't come in late and sit there, they would have no problem seeing the lecturer and presentations. The Charleston Lounge (midship) was probably my favorite place to sit, especially during the day when you could see out the many windows. The decor is light and elegant. At the rear of Floor 6 is the Terrace Cafe where buffet breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served. There appears to be ample seating both indoors and outdoors (where tapas are served in the evening). The Library is tucked in between the Charleston Lounge and the Terrace Cafe and had an excellent amount of books on the destinations of our cruise and the Mediterranean in general, as well as a small assortment of other nonfiction and fiction. The honor system is used for check-in/out and the Library is open 24 hours/day.
I rarely utilized any of the other public areas aboard, except for the Information Reception area (Deck 5), which never seemed crowded, and the Internet room (also on Deck 5). Internet prices are a steal compared to most ships. I purchased 4 hours for $18; service was generally good but as always when at sea it was occasionally quite slow. The Internet area had 6 terminals and only once did I experience a bit of a wait to use one. I never used the salon, spa, or fitness areas, so cannot comment on them. There is one shop on board with a selection of items including jewelry, other items from various Med ports, books, limited sundries, and some apparel. Outside, the loungers were plentiful and comfortable. I preferred to sit aft, rather than around the pool (which has enclosed walls to help cut down on the wind). The often discussed smoke from the stack never seemed to be an issue on this cruise, although I could see evidence on the lounger cushions of problems in the past.
I found the Marco Polo restaurant to have better food than the Terrace Cafe. Overall, I thought the food was no better or worse than what I've been served on other mass market cruiselines. Occasionally dishes were not as hot as they should've been. This was particularly an issue in the buffet line. There were a few "misses" but the waitstaff were anxious to satisfy, and if they ever noticed anyone at our table not finishing an item, they would immediately enquire if everything was okay or if we wanted something different. The wines served with dinner were good Italian table wines (red or white) and were liberally poured. We had a great waitstaff the very first night and we were always able to get seated in their area for the remainder of the cruise.
Breakfasts at the Terrace Cafe were about the same each day. On the plus side, the line never seemed long and seating was always available, even when almost the entire ship was dining at the same time due to early shore excursions. On the minus side, coffee/tea service was often slow and difficult to get a refill.
Drinks prices were about average for a cruise ship; certainly no bargain. The few drinks I purchased were good. Mixed drinks tended to be made with generous pouring of alcohol.
Entertainment is mainly limited on these cruises to lecturers and the occasional music program. The days are jam-packed with touring and at times it seemed difficult to even fit all the lectures in. I found the lecturers (there were 3 on our trip; all British) to be absolutely outstanding. I only missed one lecture and every one I attended was well done. However, I am a huge history nerd. Some did tend to fall asleep at the evening lectures. Then again, some on the cruise were quite a bit older than me! Most of the music on board was provided by a trio called Cafe Concerto Strings who were quite good. I was less fond of the piano player in the Charleston Lounge. Most nights there was dancing in this lounge after dinner. On sea days there were a few other activities scheduled, such as a Trivia Quiz, bridge, and some "Infomercials" by spa/fitness staff.
The ship is not meant for those looking to party late at night. There is no casino (hurrah), and no activities for children.
On our sailing, every shore excursion except for ONE optional tour were included. Unfortunately, the tours were all the "big bus" sort, with 30-40 people per guide/group. The "Quietvox" earpieces ensured that we could all hear the guide easily; however, it is still difficult to have a meaningful interaction with a guide when the group is so large. Some people just could not seem to get the hang of using the whisperers and consistently people in our group would lose either the earpiece or the battery. Guides also seemed unfamiliar with them and were forever asking us to "gather around" them, when the whisperers were supposed to enable us to wander a bit. There was not always a staff member on each tour, so at times the guide was expected to do too much. For example, at Karnak Temple in Egypt, one woman with limited mobility insisted in attempting the tour. She walked partway to the temple, then decided she couldn't go on. The rest of us had to wait while the guide helped her get back to the bus.
Which brings me to this point: the tours and the itinerary of this "Odyssey" were quite strenuous. There were people on the tours that clearly were not in a condition to be able to do them. It was frustrating for those of us who were able to do the tours, and I'm sure it was frustrating for those who attempted a few tours then mostly decided to stay on board ship. I don't know what the answer is, but the cruise line and travel agents perhaps need to push a bit harder the fact that almost EVERY tour involves a lot of walking, steps, precarious footing, etc. These are not panoramic bus tours!
The sites we visited on the cruise were all outstanding, and it's a shame that I can't say the same for the guides, which were of about average quality overall (although our group had a particularly bad one in Syria -- we all took to "tuning in" a different guide on our whisperers as he was so difficult to understand). If I hadn't done my reading and research in advance, I honestly think I would've gotten very little information from some of the guides. I would rate only 2 of the 8 guides we had (including those in Egypt) as above average.
Many of the sites visited were quite a long bus ride away from the port. I was well aware of this in advance, but some people grumbled. I mention it just for future reference. To my mind, the sometimes 2-3 hour ride in the bus was worth it in order to see these off-the-beaten-path sites. Buses were modern and generally comfortable. In most cases there was a toilet on the bus. Free bottled water was provided by the ship: 2 bottles per person for full-day tours and 1 bottle for half-day tours.
I don't want to give an overly negative impression; I very much enjoyed the sites we visited and in most cases the tours were adequate. I think with a little tweaking, though, Voyages to Antiquity could provide a better experience. And let's face it, the sites and tours are the primary reasons most people book with a line such as this one. I'm not sure the current system of organizing the buses by a color coded system is the best. I made several friends aboard ship but never got to tour with them as we were in different color groups -- which meant not seeing much of them on a very port-intensive cruise.
I will not go into a long description on the ports and sites visited as that information is well covered in the Voyages to Antiquity brochures/internet information already. However, I will offer a few notes:
Sharm el-Sheikh: The ship offers a tour to St. Catherine's monastery. It's a long bus ride (about 2.5 to 3 hours each way) but well worth the trip. Just do not expect to find peace and quiet, it's very crowded with visitors.
Ein el-Sokhna: Again, ship offered a tour to St. Antony's monastery (Coptic). Shorter bus ride and quite interesting as one of the monks actually leads your tour. We were offered freshly baked pita bread at the bakery. Less crowded than St. Catherine's. Quite a few people skipped this tour after the long day to St. Catherine's the day before, but I thought it was well worth it.
Beirut: We had an included tour to Baalbek, an ancient (mainly from Roman period) site. The scale of the ruins was definitely monumental. Again, the drive by bus was long; our lunch stop was not reached until quite late in the afternoon. We only glimpsed a little bit of modern Beirut as we drove in and out of the port -- sadly it still looks very much in recovery.
Tartous, Syria: The cruise included an overnight tour to Palmyra, the fabulous ruined desert caravan city from the Roman imperial era. On the way there, we stopped to see Krak des Chevaliers, the "most outstanding and well preserved Crusader castle". It was quite a sight, perched up on a hill that required some tight twists and turns on the part of our buses to reach. After this, we arrived at Palmyra and had an afternoon visit to the site museum. Our hotel was quite close to the site itself, but didn't have much character. Some people did a camel ride that evening but it got very cold in the desert at night. Next morning, we had an extended visit to the Palmyra ruins, including visits to some of the tombs. Shopping in the little modern town was great; however, shopping time was quite limited (fine with me but others had complaints). We returned to Tartous after lunch at the hotel.
Latakia, Syria: One of the few places where some optional tours were offered. I chose the full-day Aleppo tour and it was one of the best of the cruise. We again had a long drive but the countryside was pretty. In Aleppo we saw the Citadel (a Crusader-era castle but built by Arabs), the Omayyid mosque (which required us women to don burka-like coverings), and the souk. Again shopping time was quite limited. A highlight was lunch at the Sissi House restaurant, a very lovely experience in a well-known restaurant and including live music. Other half-day tours were offered and included the Castle of Salah el-Din (Saladin), and Ugarit.
Limassol: Included half-day tour to Kourion, a ruined Greco-Roman site with a beautiful location on the water. Some time was given for wandering and shopping in the old Harbor area; unfortunately it is undergoing a lot of renovation at present. I'm sure it's very charming when not scaffolded! The cruiseline offered a free shuttle to and from town all day, which is a nice touch. In several other ports, shuttles were also offered and there was never a charge for them.
Antalya: The included tour here was a half-day visit to Aspendos and Perge. Although I had done virtually the same tour in September, I went along anyway and enjoyed this one much more (due to the lovely weather in part; in September the temp was close to 100 F!). The one extra-charge tour was offered in the afternoon: a visit to the Antalya museum and walking tour of the old town. I did this as well. The museum deserves more time as we were marched through it very quickly. The old town is lovely, it's definitely a place I want to come back to for a longer visit. Free shuttles were offered here also.
Overall Service and Value:
In general, service in the dining room and from my cabin steward was quite good. The mostly Filipino crew is friendly and professional. The Shore excursions staff/Front desk staff could use some more experience. Several were recent college graduates with great Classics pedigrees but little actual practical experience. At times they appeared a bit short-handed. As a note, the ship was only about 2/3 full on our sailing, and I can imagine they would be seriously short-handed with a full complement of passengers. However, in general most things went off rather well considering the ship was visiting most of these ports for the very first time. Delays occurred in a couple of ports but were minimal, no ports or sightseeing was missed.
Our cruise involved quite a bit of juggling of passports (handing them in, picking them up, turning in again, getting boarding cards, etc) and that was handled quite well. Things seemed organized and lines were never long. Sometimes the port officials would throw the staff a bit of a curve, but they dealt with it. (For example, in Syria the port officials wanted copies of all the passport info -- apparently this was never mentioned in any advance communication. Good thing there were only around 200 passengers.)
We only tendered to one port, and it was not a problem. However, I do agree that the tenders seem to bob about more than most and hopefully the ship can get some newer ones during their overhaul in Piraeus now that the season has ended.
I think the value for the cost of the cruise is quite high. After adding up all the included items (gratuities, wine at dinner, included tours, airfare), I found this cruise cost far less than the similar length Eastern Med cruise I took on HAL in September. Of course, the no or low single supplements really are a huge bonus in this regard.
Overall, I love the premise of this cruise line. I had a wonderful experience and found nearly all of the negative things mentioned earlier this season to have been addressed (if they existed at all....). A bit more tweaking would lead to an even more positive experience, but I'm well satisfied with the value; so much so that I've already booked another cruise with this line next year. Between the great itineraries, lecturers, and included costs -- particularly the single supplement -- I found this line to be a great fit for me. Please just give us smaller tours!!