We boarded the Pacific Princess in Athens,Greece for our Black Sea Cruise. We made our own air and hotel arrangements, arriving in Athens a couple days early. We always like to have a buffer in case of airline delays. Fortunately, all flights and connections were on time giving us two days to revisit the Acropolis, Plaka, and other sites in Athens.
It was very easy to take a taxi from central Athens to the port in Piraeus. It ran about €20 and dropped us right at the embarkation area. This was our first experience on a Princess' small ship. I have to say that we now prefer it over those that are much larger. None of the areas on the ship ever seemed crowded, it was quick and easy to get around, getting on and off the ship was a breeze, plus we never had to tender.
On the small ship there is only traditional dining which worked out great as that is our preference. The food in the dining room was always terrific and on par with every other Princess cruise we had taken. However, the buffet was exceptional. We ate most of our breakfast and lunch meals there. On several occasions we had planned to go to the dining room but after a check of the buffet, decided to eat there instead. In addition to the Asian and Mexican 'theme' lunches, the buffet always included many Mediterranean dishes that reflected local cuisines. I especially liked the pasta of the day that was prepared fresh while you waited. The Pizzeria had really good thin-crust pizza and the BBQ Grill had tasty and reasonably sized burgers. Both provided excellent alternatives for lunch.
The only guest speaker provided information on each port. The historical details were interesting but his practical information was lacking and generally inaccurate (e.g. Local transportation, prices, distances, etc.). He tended to encourage taking the overpriced ships tours over just exploring each port by implying a level of danger that just didn't exist. We found these 'scare' tactics over the top. We never felt unsafe in any of the ports.
There were a few other things on the Pacific Princess that were far better than on larger ships:
•The library was large, well stocked, comfortable and quiet. It was great place to sit and read.
•Internet connectivity was very good. We always travel with our own PC notebook and never had any problems logging on. The speed was really good compared to past cruises - but having 500 free minutes does make a big difference.
•The casino never seemed smoky. Since you had to walk through it to get to the Cabaret Lounge that was very nice.
•Excellent Laundry facilities with 8 pairs of washers & dryers. We never had to wait for either.
•Buffet seating was plentiful with a really nice outdoor area off the stern.
The entertainment was OK. It seemed like we skipped it most nights. When we did go, we wondered why. The best entertainment was definitely the individuals or groups that played in the bars or by the pool. Sometimes we wonder why cruises feel the need for production shows as they are always just fair.
Our first port was Volos,Greece. We took only one ship tour and it was to climb up to two of the Meteora Monasteries (Varlam and Rousanou). It was a 2-hour bus ride each way and included a really good Greek buffet lunch. Our guide was excellent and we felt the tour was well worth the price given the time, distance, and uniqueness of the area. The monasteries are built on rock pinnacles and are quite spectacular. The 180 or so steps up to both monasteries were strenuous because of the warm temperatures - but the views from the top were amazing. We also had really good views of the other 3 monasteries that we did not visit.
We then headed through the Dardanelles and Bosporus strait toward 4 ports on the Black Sea:
•Varna,Bulgaria: There was a free shuttle bus to downtown that dropped us off across the street from the Cathedral. We wandered around the town and found it was an easy walk back to the ship along the beach. Varna is 'beach resort' but is not really touristy. There was some pretty architecture with the Opera house, pedestrian mall, and Clock tower.
•Constanta,Romania: There was an expensive local shuttle at $8 per person each way. We took the shuttle to New town in but again, it was an easy walk back to Old town and along the Black Sea to the ship. Constanta is not touristy. It's a bit run down with lots of buildings that had seen better days. The old town area was interesting with a nice church, mosque, museum building roman ruins, and an ornate abandoned casino on the seaside. Most of the tours involved a 3-hour drive to Bucharest and those we spoke to said it was not worth the drive. One thing we did find was really good wine. We brought a bottle of red & white back to the ship and both were VERY good. Who knew?
•Odessa, Ukraine: The ship docked right at the foot of the Potemkin Steps with led to the beautiful Opera House. However, you can't go in unless it's for a performance and the ship happens to be there on a Wednesday or Saturday when there is a matinee. This seemed like a missed opportunity for the city. I'm sure they could do tours like at the Vienna Opera house and generate plenty of revenue. Odessa is a pretty place to walk around with lots of parks, big ornate buildings, and statues. It still doesn't seem like its set up for tourists as you can't read the street signs and hardly anyone spoke English. However, since we were there on a Friday there were DOZENS of wedding couples. With all their friends waiting outside, they go in a government type building, get married, everyone cheers, and then have the weekend to party. This was very entertaining.
•Yalta,Ukraine: This was by far the best port on the Black Sea. There is lots of history from both the Czars and the WWII conferences. We organized a private tour with a young guy name Sergey Sorokin. He was very knowledgeable about the area and its history. We covered a lot of territory in our day tour starting at the Massandra Palace (Russian Tsar Alexander III's Hunting Lodge). From there we went to Livadia Palace - Yalta's Conference site of 1945 (with Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill) and summer residence of Russian Tsar Nicolas II. It was as historically interesting as it was beautiful. From there we went to a new church with beautiful gold onion domes, St. Mikhail in Oreanda. It's built in an extremely picturesque site overlooking the Black sea. It so new that they are still in the process of painting the frescos on the inside. Next came a traditional Ukrainian lunch and local wine tasting at a very nice restaurant overlooking Swallow's Nest Castle - the symbol of Crimea and Yalta. Last but not least, we went Alupka Palace (also known as Vorontsov Castle) - an unbelievable place with unique architecture, extensive gardens and phenomenal views. This is the place where Churchill stayed during the Yalta Conference. On the way back we stopped at a city overlook and by Chekhov's house for a few pictures. Sergey dropped us off at the far end of the harbor so we could walk back down the waterfront and past the Lenin monument to the ship. On this private tour we saw LOTS more for the same price as the ships tour. If you are going to be in Yalta we HIGHLY recommend Sergey. His website is www.yalta-sevastopol-private-tour-guide.com
From the Black Sea we headed back down the Bosporus mid-morning for an overnight in Istanbul,Turkey. There were 4 ships docked at the Cruise terminal and we were right in the middle. That made for a fairly long walk to either port entrance. Istanbul has an excellent tram system that will get you anywhere along the route for €2 - significantly cheaper than a taxi. The port exit you choose will determine if which tram stop you take. The tram stops near all the major sites in the Old City and is really easy to use. Since we had been to Istanbul before and already visited the big 3 sights (Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and the Topkapi Palace) we took the opportunity to go to the Basilica Cistern. It's a very interesting place. The nice thing about having an overnight is the ability to go out to dinner in town and then walk around in the evening - and we did both. We spent our 2nd day at the Grand Bazaar, Spice Market, Golden Horn waterfront, and going up the Galata Tower. Istanbul is very European and we could easily see going back and spending several days staying in town.
Our last port was Koper,Slovenia and the ship docked right in town. It was an easy walk to the main square. This part of Slovenia is really close to Italy and it's really shows in the architecture and food. While the ship had a 4 hour tour to Piran for $75 per person, we took the local bus for €3.10 per person each way. It took about 35 minutes and we had plenty of time to wander around the narrow streets, walk along the waterfront, climb the campanile, and have lunch before returning to Koper.
We docked in Venice, Italy early the next morning where the cruise ended. We took the people mover (€1) from the port and then walked over to the Santa Lucia Train Station. From there we headed to Florence and the Cinque Terre for a week before flying home.
A cruise to the Black Sea certainly has a unique itinerary. The overnight in Istanbul, visit to Meteora, and day in Yalta were definitely the highlights. Overall, this was a really enjoyable and memorable cruise.