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Spirits lifted by Thomson Spirit
Europe - Eastern Mediterranean
This was our second cruise following an Ocean Village trip round the Western Med a couple of years ago. We hadn't been too sure about cruising after that but decided that this would be the best way to visit a number of places we had always wanted to see, so signed up at only 6 weeks notice. As a result we had few choices of cabin, but in the end were quite happy with our budget, bottom deck, inside choice. I had read several bad reviews about the Spirit, including reports of a constant vibration, which worried me because I had found it hard to sleep on Ocean Village due to engine vibration, but on Spirit, although I felt it, I had no problems sleeping at all.
We tended to avoid most daytime activities, preferring to find a quiet spot and read. That proved tricky on the day at sea but we did eventually find some free benches beside the sports courts. On all other days we found loungers away from the pool/bar areas with no difficulty. There were a few activities that I More
intended attending - a tour backstage of the theatre and a flambE demonstration - but as it happened I always forgot and missed them! We did see the ice carving demo and it was impressive although all over in less than 5 minutes!
We had the choice of self-service buffet in the Lido or free-seating waiter service in Compass Rose. We found the food in Compass Rose was significantly better than the Lido - which reminded me of a motorway service station standard. However the waiter service was slower so we often took breakfast or lunch in the Lido and kept the waiter service for the main meal. We also ate in Sirocco's one night (our anniversary) for which we paid a £16.50/head supplement. This was not good value because the food was only slightly better (my Scallops were well overcooked, and the smallest I've ever eaten!) and the seating was so close together (our "table for two" was less than a foot from those on either side) that we felt we might as well have been at a table for 6 in the Compass Rose! This was one area where Ocean Village was better with James Martin's Bistro genuinely reflecting a "fine dining" experience)
The entertainment was very good, both in the theatre and in the individual acts. We went to 5 of the 7 shows and all were acceptable although the Lloyd-Webber night stretched the vocalists a little beyond their capabilities in my opinion... The classical duo (Duo Cantabile) from Hungary were exceptionally good, even if a little disorganised - a lot of time rummaging through sheets of music to find the next piece, but they were very open to requests and had a great sense of humour. I was sufficiently impressed that I bought their CD.
Tim in Raffles played competent Jazz piano, and New Dimensions played competent popular classics in the Horizon's bar. There was a daily summary newspaper, "Britain Today" (more accurately "Britain Yesterday"!) and a daily selection of puzzles, crosswords, etc.
Reception was very helpful with various requests, exchanging money and posting post-cards. Destination Services was closed every time we visited and thus of no use whatsoever! (Except they did faultlessly organise the two excursions we went on after we posted the order sheet in their in-box).
Service by the staff was good in almost all cases, if not always as prompt as I would have liked, especially in the Compass Rose where wine ordered at the start of the meal often didn't arrive until well after the main courses had been served.
Overall we enjoyed our Thomson cruise much more than the previous Ocean Village trip. How much this was because we knew what to expect, and how much because we preferred the Thomson approach I don't know, but since OV no longer operate in Europe it's rather a moot point! Less
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Port and Shore Excursions
We did a DIY trip into Athens to visit the Acropolis using the local Metro train from Praeus to Thissio station. This was very easy and fast and very cheap - less than 3 Euro return compared to the 30 Euros of the Thomson DIY trip! The Acropolis is so well known I won't say much about it except that it exceeded my expectations. We didn't have a guide but did have a book, and the ongoing restoration work on the Parthenon was confined mainly to one end so didn't detract too much. The views were outstanding. What was a surprise was the Agora below the Acropolis, as entrance to this large park-like area, with many ruins, is included in the Acropolis ticket (12 Euro). This included a splendid colonnaded museum with many statues/busts on display as well as a much smaller but more complete temple (A Parthenon in miniature). The many trees provided shade and the walk through the park exited right beside Thissio rail station for the journey back to Piraeus. A great day spiced up by the soupçon of adventure that always accompanies a DIY trip!
We didn't see much of Corfu Town because it was actually our embarkation point, but Cruise Critic don't list it in their selection! We have visited Corfu on 3 previous occasions so we know the island and town well so just stayed on board to soak up the sun.
Aghios Nikolaus to be precise, a charming town with the centre focused on a "bottomless lake" - apparently at least 250 feet deep, although they don't know for sure, at least, that's what they said. We took the ships excursion to Knossos which was the inspiration for the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur and centre of the Minoan civilisation from around 2000BCE. The guide was exceptionally clear and informative and kept her group of 50 well organised and on schedule. We also called at a reconstructed "typical Cretan village" with typical houses from various recent historical periods. We were given a buffet of typical Cretan foods which was pleasant but nothing special. Those who went on the Panoramic Tour also said good things about the experience when discussing it over dinner.
The launchpad for ancient Olympia. We had intended going DIY via the local railway but strikes were threatened and we were starting to feel "ruined out" by this stage so we had a relaxing day in the port. There isn't much to it - 3 parallel streets full of tourist tat and a few boutiques. There were also a couple of places doing bus trips to Olympia at 10 Euro - much cheaper than the ship tour, but I've no idea how good they were as we had already decided to opt out. The feedback from several others on the official tour was that the guide was very regimented and full of information but dead boring with it... What was a revelation were the two small museums in Katakolon itself. The first is a museum of ancient musical instruments (and a few assorted other snippets) which includes reconstructions of many different instruments ranging from cymbals through to harps and "lutes" to a water powered organ. Most of these work and you can try several of them yourself or the curator will demonstrate them. Its partner establishment, just over the road was even better with models and reconstructions of Greek technology, including cranes showing how the stones for the temples were raised, a variety of water clocks and novelties, many different types of siege engines and signalling systems. It's amazing what you can achieve by applying the principles of levers, pulleys, vacuum and syphons. For 2 Euros each these were delightful bargains.
We had already visited Ephesus 20 years ago and if a full day tour had been available we might have gone back but the half day tour included a trip to "Mary's House" which we had also seen and would have left virtually no free time in Ephesus to see what had changed. (This was later confirmed by those who did the trip) We considered DIY but in the end spotted another trip to the much less well known Miletus (also visited by St Paul, and famous as a seat of learning in antiquity, especially for geometry and trigonometry) and the Temple of Apollo at Didyma. There were only 12 of us in a very comfortable mini-bus. The guide was awful. He started by trying to give us his email address to buy a property in Kusadasi, he then took us to a café owned by a family friend. At Miletus we got a cursory and not too informative tour (although we were the only tour group there so no pressure) and eventually 10 minutes free time before meeting at a café where he "encouraged" us to have pancakes and coffee. As a result we got an overview but didn't get up close to more than about 10% of the site, which was a shame because what we could see looked very interesting as the guide book I bought, and read later, confirmed. The trip to the Temple of Apollo was slightly better although he appeared to be listening to the guide in front of us and merely repeating what she had said(in German) to us in English! (Maybe they all follow the same official script?) We were then again encouraged to have a coffee at another friend's café. On the way back we got a lecture on Turkish politics and the evils of the Kurdish "International Communist Terrorists" on their border. Finally, we were press ganged into visiting the Fabergé carpet and Jewellery shop where were were presented with carpets well beyond the means of the typical Thomson cruiser (a bargain at £10,000! or a 2x1 foot patch for £250) and fabulous jewellery at equally unrealistic prices (a beautiful diamond and topaz ring at £5000). Thankfully they didn't push when they saw nobody was interested in buying, but it just seemed such a waste of everyone's time! A potentially good trip spoiled by a bad guide!
We didn't go on any excursions here but just wondered the maze of side streets and bought all of our gifts and souvenirs here. We loved the town and its friendly atmosphere and only got lost once. The narrow streets have enough shade to make it pleasant, the locals were friendly and eager to please without being pushy or aggressive. And it is all so picture-postcard quaint that you couldn't help but love the place. I'd go back in a heartbeat. (There were a lot of other ships in port too so it is obviously popular, we had two Costa line ships, one NCL and one MSC and I think another from Celebrity)