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A wonderful first time cruise experience!
Europe - Eastern Mediterranean
My husband & I have always been independent travelers - over the last seven years, we've only used a tour company, and even at that, it was a private tour for just a day while in Mexico. The idea of being stuck on a boat with 3500 others terrified me, but for $150/day, there was no way we could come close to matching the value land touring from Rome to Israel. I went in with low expectations; I told my TA that I'd be okay as long as it was like a Motel 6 and Applebees, but was pleasantly surprised with a wee Hampton Inn and restaurant food that was honestly better than a lot of $150 dinners we've had. A very nice surprise.
Dining: 4/5 stars. Disliked the Windjammer for all the reasons I dislike buffets. Food is never hot or fresh enough, even at peak hours. But you can always find something decent. Stopped often at the Cafe Promenade for a sweet treat or a ham & cheese croissant (these were delicious!). We ate every dinner in the main dining room; I felt that More
the food was awesome considering what we were paying. Was every dish perfect? No, but they were apologetic when there was a mishap. I only sent back one plate over 12 days, so I thought they had a good track record. Lee from St Lucia was our head waiter with Danillo from Brazil as our assistant waiter. Both took very good care of us during our time aboard. Skipped the specialty restaurants since we were so happy with the main dining room food. Rather enjoyed having breakfast & lunch in the main dining room when available (though they rotate two lunch menus the entire sailing, the soup of the day, catch of the day, and pasta of the day do change).
Room: 4/5 stars. Paid for an inside guarantee and ended up upgraded to a Promenade Stateroom. It was nice to have the extra few square feet & the look out to the promenade. Some noise when bands were playing, but they all stopped before it got too late. The Mariner must be approaching a renovation (some of the furniture in our room was starting to get more than its fair share of rubs & nicks), but again, for $150/night including food, entertainment & transport, you can't expect perfection. Bathroom was actually larger than I expected. Bed linens were always great, but the bath linens were hit or miss. Our stateroom attendant got to know our schedule within a few days and we rarely saw him since he'd sneak in when he knew we were gone.
Drinks: 4/5 stars. You have to know which bars to go to. I had some not so great drinks in the Lotus Lounge and at the Cafe Promenade, but much better drinks & service at the Pool Bar, Solarium & Champagne Bar (my favorite). Drink pricing seemed a little high (over $10 for a margarita in the book), but they start with higher end spirits (Patron is the std for margaritas in the menu). Ask for lesser spirits (I'm okay with Cuervo) and the price goes to reasonable. They have a nice enough wine list (by the glass or bottle), and if you order a bottle with dinner, they will keep it for you for the next night. We stuck to glasses to get more variety.
Entertainment: 4/5 stars. Some of the nightly shows were really good - I greatly enjoyed the spotlight guest performers. The Royal Caribbean Singers & Dancers ranged from good to bad, but they put on a decent show. Also enjoyed some of the trivia, game shows & karaoke. Plenty of pre and post dinner music, all ranging from good to bad. We learned which groups we detested and avoided those bars. Sometimes I wish that there was "more" entertainment though. Maybe I was expecting too much, but I never felt a bustle of activity on board. But, then again, our ports of call were super action packed so I think most people appreciated the time to rest.
Staff: 5/5 stars. We felt that every RCI employee we came into contact with went above and beyond. Everyone said hi to you in the hallways. Plenty of folks asked us how we were doing, and our wait staff was always checking on our dining experience. Had a chance to chat with the Restaurant Manager in the Main Dining Room more than once and enjoyed hearing how they were tailoring the menus due to customer feedback (we were only the second sailing on the current menus - due to complaints on previous sailings). The Cruise Director (Kieran "John" Buffery) and his staff were outgoing without being annoying (except maybe the Bingo girl...her announcements on the PA could make you nuts). The Captain did his rounds constantly.
Itinerary: 5/5 stars. We picked this specific cruise over a few others due to the ports of call. We originally looked at a Greek Isles cruise, but the opportunity to see Israel was too great to pass up. Several parts can be easily done on our own, and only Ashdod was really impossible to do on your own. Ashdod is a working port; taxis can't go to the ship (only tour group buses) and you aren't allowed to walk on your own from the port entranace. We met more than one person who had chosen to overnight on shore and was met with that surprise at the Ashdod port. Our dinner mates had that issue and waited nearly an hour for a tour bus to agree to bring them to the ship (most refused). I'm not sure what they would have done otherwise. Less
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Port and Shore Excursions
We originally planned to do Athens on our own, catching a taxi to the metro station and then using the Green Line to get to town. Then we realized that the New Acropolis Museum was closed (darn Mondays!), so we opted to join a group that was using Paul & his sons with GreekTaxi to see Athens in the morning with a jaunt to Cape Sounion in the afternoon. Between a large group (two minibuses - I think 27 of us in total) and some bargaining, we only paid 37.5 euros each. Well worth it, as we left the boat as soon as we were docked & cleared and beat all of the crowds to the Acropolis. My husband, the climber that he is, managed to scale up, take plenty of photos sans tourists, and made it halfway down before the first tour bus arrived. Our driver, one of the sons, Demetrius, kept us well entertained with stories of the city & Greek Mythology between stops. While they are not licensed tour guides & can't guide you around the sites, we found his commentary very helpful & used Rick Steves (free!) audio guides to fill in the gaps. Or they can get you a guide as well. We made a quick stop of souvlaki pitas at a beach town outside Athens (one pork, one chicken & one cook for less than 8 euros - plus gelato next door for less than 2) before making our way to the Cape. It was a beautiful drive, aided by glorious weather. We will definitely use them again the next time we are here.
Our ship docked in Souda, about 10 minutes bus ride from Chania (1.5 euros each way on the bus service that the city provides just for the cruise ships). I'm sure our day would have gone better if it wasn't for the fact that we arrived on a Monday when the museums we wished to visit were closed). We enjoyed a quick trip to the port of Chania, browsed through some shops and took a leisurely walk back, and still made it back to the ship in less than 3 hours. Souda is just too far from the main Minoan sites. If we were to come back, we would probably join a ship tour or get a taxi driver to take us to the British cemetery and the monastery. The bus service was cheap & convenient and there was plenty of shopping, if you are a shopper (I managed to pick up a few gifts for far less than what I'd seen similar items in other ports). Not a total loss, but I think the day would have been better if we had more time or had docked in Irkalion instead).
So we decided on this cruise specifically because of the Israel stops, and wouldn't you guess...they weren't the highlight of our cruise! As Christians, we were interested in seeing all of the sites of Northern Israel (the Sea of Galilee, the River Jordan, Capernaum, Nazareth, etc.), and yes we saw them, but it just wasn't the religious experience I had expected. Anyways, it was nice to see (even though the River Jordan is really a creek!) The highlight of the day was learning more about Israel and its people. We used Guided Tours Israel at both stops, and out of Haifa, our guide was Eyal. He was FANTASTIC! Very personable and friendly, and knew Christian history better than most of the people in our group. We felt very safe all day, and luckily, shopping was kept to a minimum (maybe 20-30 minutes total). We would definitely request Eyal as a guide when returning to Israel.
We used Guided Tours Israel again, but our guide this day was Elad. He wasn't quite as personable as Eyal (our guide from the day before out of Haifa), but he was full of information! He had plenty of maps to show us on our drive from Ashdod to Bethlehem. Since our guide wasn't permitted to enter the Palestinian Authority area, he hopped out at a bus stop and we picked up a guide named Esa upon entering the walls. Everyone makes a big deal about going to Palestine, but honestly, I felt just as safe there as I did in Jerusalem. You can do the sites in Bethlehem in about an hour, but if you are guided, you are legally required to stop at the shopping area for nearly 30 minutes (*le sigh*, which is a lot of time on a short trip and involves being hassled by all sorts of vendors hanging outside the building). I think we may have left a little early and managed to grab some shwarma and falafel pitas before heading back to Jerusalem, where we rejoined our guide for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, traffic was horrible and we lost about two hours just awaiting traffic. Our 9-10 hour day turned into 11.5 (felt sorry for the guide) and that involved nearly having to run through the sites within the walls). Ultimately, I think it's really impossible to see everything in a day out of Ashdod and you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you didn't go back! We'd like to go back for 2-3 days to take our time & see some museums.
We hired a private guide for the day, Bulent (Bill) Orkus, owner of Ephesus Expert. A linguist who has been working in the tourism industry for 27 years, he was well recommended on the CC forum and an excellent choice! He picked us up at the dock and walked us to the area where our driver would pick us up (though with 4 ships in this port and 1 in Izmir, traffic was heavy all day around Kusadasi). A private guide also gave us the opportunity to speed up and get to places before the tour groups. Bill took us first to Selcuk to see the Basilica of St John, the mosque, the castle & the archeological museum, all before the tour groups arrived. While crowds are impossible to avoid at Ephesus, Bill was able to guide us around them to the best photo sites and gave us more commentary than we could put our heads around. Ephesus was definitely a highlight of our whole cruise - the excavation is fantastic and I'm sure it'll be even more amazing in a decade (the Austrians are working there 5 days a week). We agreed to a carpet school stop (when in Turkey...) and greatly enjoyed it. The owner guided us, explaining the process, the training & the rugs. While we had no plans to buy a rug that day, we would definitely return to buy a rug from them in the future. The quality was much better than other Turkish rugs I have seen in the States and they shipped for free (courtesy of the Turkish gov't, I am told). We enjoyed a leisurely outdoor lunch of Turkish food in their back courtyard (our guide said that the workers ate the same food inside) - plenty of appetizers and then entrees of curry chicken, a lamb/beef meatball & rice). Water was included and wine/beer/soda were available at reasonable prices. We thought about hitting some shops in Kusadasi on the way back, but thought better of our wallets and headed back to the ship. Bill's prices have gone up a bit due to the large increase in the entrance fees, but are still very reasonable considering the service (website is showing $120pp for a private trip for 2).
We used Naples as a spring point to see Pompeii & the Amalfi coast. We joined a group formed on Cruise Critic - 450 euros for 8 people for pickup at the port, transport to Pompeii, a tour guide at Pompeii to aid us in our visit, and then a drive to Positano for lunch before lingering back through Positano and the coast. Despite the rain, we had a very nice visit. The rain actually kept the tour groups at bay a bit - plus, leaving about an hour before the groups left the ship allowed us to beat the crowds. We enjoyed lunch at La Tagliata (25 euros a person for more appetizers, pasta & dessert one can eat, and wine & water you can drink). Though the best view in the house is from the ladies' room, there's a nice view from just about everywhere. Will have to go back to experience Naples & Capri.
This was the first port that we did all on our own. The ship docks within about a 200-400 meter walk from Old Town Rhodes city, depending on which gate you take. We chose to walk to the furthest gate, walk up the main Avenue of the Knights and hit the Palace of the Grand Master before taking a leisurely walk all the way back to the ship (all downhill at that point). This was about a 2.5 mile day for me. We planned to rent a scooter for the rest of the day and head to Lindos, but our plans were foiled by lack of motorcycle license (the only time I've ever been told it was necessary for a 50cc scooter - even our guide book said it wasn't necessary). I was too tired to figure out the buses to Lindos and worried about the logistics of making it back to the boat in time, so I chose to spend the rest of the day on the boat, getting some sun, eating room service & watching TV. My husband went back out and did another 8 miles that afternoon - walking the entire moat around the walls and up to the Acropolis. His photos are gorgeous but my legs & lungs were too pooped after all of the busy ports of call before it.
We took the train from Rome to the port (4.5 euros each) and a share van from the port to the airport at disembarkation (20 euros each). It's an easy 10 minute walk, all downhill, from the train station to the dock, so very easy to do on your own. If you want a taxi to take you up the hill going to the station, they were running between 5 and 8 euros per person (should really only be a 5 euro ride total, but hey, they can charge what they want with a 3500 person boat in port). We spent a precruise day in Rome at the Hotel Cavour, just two blocks from Termini. Well located for catching buses & trains and very well priced (we paid 75 euros for a double, shared bath). Very small, but was clean and included breakfast).
We found Rome to be a very easy DIY experience. We would take the metro or a bus to a general area and then walk from there. Just wear good walking shoes - we did seven miles from 10 AM to 7 PM. With downloaded free Rick Steves audio guides, we never felt like we were missing anything from a tour guide (plus you can go at your own pace). Go a block or two away from any touristy area and the food prices nearly drop in half, if not more. Managed to get two sandwiches & two bottles of water for about 8 euros for dinner one night - gelato for less than two euros. Compared to 4 euros for a bottle of soda near the Colosseum, I'm willing to walk an extra block or two.