A couple of weeks ago we returned from Holy Land cruise (September 3, 2011 - September 15, 2011). We booked this cruise 3 weeks before sailing through Online Vacation Center and this included cruise, flights, 2 days pre-cruise hotel in Rome, some OBC and all transfers. While the booking process was easy and painless we ran into some issues afterwords. I specifically asked about the location of the hotel since my husband had some mobility issues and we needed a place where we could go out, walk a little bit and get back to the hotel without having to deal with taxi or any kind of transportation. The agent assured that the location of the hotel would be "central". However, when we received the package we found that we were staying at the hotel way far away from the center. Online Vacation Center tried "to sell" this hotel explaining that Rome has a very good public transportation system. After a few phone calls and emails they straightened this out and we stayed at Forum hotel which is really in the center of Rome and a walking distance almost to everything. The hotel was very nice with a friendly and helpful staff and complementary breakfast: very basic (juices, tea, coffee, pastries - very good pastries), but good.
The transfer from the hotel to the port was something we didn't expect. The bus driver had to pick up 8 more people besides us and all of us were staying at different hotels all over Rome and leaving on different ships. My understanding was if the transfer is included it means the transfer from the hotel door to the pier. However, the transfer mini-van dropped all of us with our luggage in the middle of the port and we had to drag the suitcases to the bus shuttle stop.
Not sure if we arrived at the bad time or good time, but seems like the long lines were everywhere: to get and to sign the "Health Form" and to check in. Check in lines moved much faster though because they categorized them by the Captain Club membership and stateroom categories. However, they merged all these lines into one long line for Italian and Israeli immigration check. Bottom line: it was the most disorganized and noisy embarkation in my experience.
The ship is absolutely beautiful! Since our booking was done at the last minute we had a GTY veranda and got a wheelchair accessible room. The room, the bathroom and balcony were huge and very well designed. We had plenty of room for storage and enjoy our space a lot! I personally think it's not fair to judge and to rate a brand-new ship. Of course, it will be clean and nice and comfortable and shiny and loaded with all new IT or design features.
The staff was excellent: very helpful and friendly. However, the MDR staff I think was a little bit overwhelmed. Our waiter was nice but constantly rushing. He was running from person to person with the questions "How is your fish? How is your steak? How is your chicken?" without even listening to our comments! Appetizers, soup and salad were served promptly, but we had to sit and wait for the entree for 45-50 minutes.
It was very good during breakfast at the Oceanvew Cafe and even excellent at Aqua Spa Cafe. Lunch was good as well - lots of choices and quality of food was very good. However, food at MDR during dinners was not just hit-and-miss, but in most cases it was very disappointing. Very rarely we enjoyed our meal, and very often the whole menu was very disappointing. Lobster was horrible, frog legs tested like KFC, steak was from the cow that died at the age of 87. The biggest disappointment was dinner at a specialty restaurant Qzine. They use iPods for their menu to impress the guests, but they should work on the food quality instead. Food was either blah or salty. Steak was tough. Even cheese cake didn't taste like cheese cake. We wanted to order wine which I liked and it was on the menu. But it happened so that they were out of it. Then I asked for another wine which wasn't on Wine Menu in Qzine, but I knew it was on Wine List in the MDR. 10 minutes later the sommelier informed us that they were out of this wine as well. Then they tried to push some wine I didn't even want to drink (leave alone paying for it). But the "Sea Day Brunch" was the best I ever had on a cruise! The food choices, the presentation and the quality of food were just great! Even the service was outstanding considering the number of hungry people trying to get food at the same time.
Unfortunately, we haven't seen a single evening show. The cruise was so port intense and busy and we were so tired at the end of every day. So I can't comment on this one.
Rome: For one full day we booked a private tour with RomeInLimo. And it was the best decision on our side. They were very prompt in correspondence and the service was fantastic!!! Our driver/guide for the day was Stephan. He was very knowledgeable and helpful. In one day we managed to see what we wouldn't be able to see in 5 days on our own. He took us to the sights that were not even included into the itinerary. When we were visiting churches or museums and the parking wasn't allowed near by Stephan was giving us his backup cell phone in order to notify him when we were done with the tour and in 3 minutes the car was near the church or museum to pick us up. We had a problem with lost luggage on the firs day of our trip and had to spend a few extra hours at the airport. As a result we missed pre-booked and prepaid tour at the Coliseum. Stephen was able to arrange a tour for us without additional pay on that evening!!! When we mentioned that we needed to get a few cases of water for our cruise he offered to buy it for us while we were on a tour at the Coliseum and to deliver it to our hotel! What a service!!!! I will absolutely use the service of this company again if we are back to Rome!
Israel: We booked tours with Moti Bar Tuv company for all 4 days in Israel. I can say only wonderful things about Moti and his business. He was very prompt and flexible. All tours were well organized. I wanted to include or to modify some tours based on our interests and desires and Moti was very understanding and tried to accommodate all our requests. Our guides Tal and Daphna were amazing! We managed to see and to learn a lot. I even had to add some shopping detour. We stayed 2 days in Haifa and 2 days in Ashdod. On the first day in Haifa we visited Caesarea, Jaffa and Tel-Aviv. On the second day we saw Nazareth, Capernaum, the Galilee, the Jordan River and the Mount of Beatitudes. From Ashdod we had a tour to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. And on the second day we visited Masada and the Dead sea. Our plan was very ambitious and aggressive, but still we enjoyed all 4 days, were very satisfied and our experience was wonderful!
Turkey - Kusadasi. We booked a completely private tour just for 2 of us with www.ephesus-turkey.com. I would like to point at a few things that were promised in the offer, paid for but never provided. We booked a full day tour that included: the visit of Ephesus with Terrace Houses , Temple of Artemis, House of Virgin Mary, Church of St. John and some shopping facilities (such as jewelry, clothes...). All the entrance fees, an exclusively private air-conditioned VIP van providing cold water for your party, Turkish village style lunch (4 different daily vegetable starter plates, salad, grilled beef meatballs
and chicken served with Turkish rice and daily fruits),cold water and exclusively private English speaking lecturer guidance for your party are included in the above rate.
The first negative thing: the tour guide was late! We had to wait for 30 minutes at the port entrance for her hoping that she would show up and would make up this time at the end. As a matter of fact there was another couple from the ship who booked a private tour with the same company and their guide was late as well. I guess it's just the way they run their business. Our guide was a certified archeologists and she knew a lot about Ephesus and its excavations. We really enjoyed the tour, but the visit of Terrace Houses was skipped! It was clearly stated in the contract that our tour should be 6 hours. However, it ended up in 3 hours after a stop at the leather factory. We were not planning on buying anything - it was just a pure curiosity and explained clearly on our side. Obviously, the visit of any shopping facilities in Turkey means you have to buy something. To make this long story short it got very tense and uncomfortable in our car after we left the leather factory. It got to the point that we had to cancel our lunch, dismiss the guide and turn our 6-hour tour into 3-hour excursion.
Greece - Mykonos. We didn't book any tours and decided to explore the place on our own. Mykonos is so beautiful! We took the first shuttle bus to the town ($7 per person round trip) and wondered around the town while it wasn't crowed yet. Plenty of opportunities for pictures! The place has its Greek character, so clean and has lots of beautiful views!
Naples: We booked a private tour for 6 people with www.tourofitaly.com (Giovanni & Giancarlo (son) Giovanni.
Honestly, it was the worst tour I've ever had! EVER! They promised a lot but in reality the whole tour was a big failure and there was nothing positive about it. The tour didn't have that "personal" touch they were talking about. Our guide Giancarlo was just a driver, very mute, with zero communication skills and he was constantly isolating himself from the group, avoiding conversations and being very brief in his answers. We were promised plenty of opportunities to stop at the most beautiful sights to take pictures, but during the ride along Amalfi Coast (which IS really beautiful) the driver slowed down twice for 2 seconds and only person sitting up-front was able to take pictures. We received no information about the history and the culture of the region. The first and the last sentence we heard from our guide was "Welcome to Naples!". Pompeii tour is a whole new story. They offered us a tour with a trained historian for 2 hours in Pompeii. The cost was 100 EURO for the whole group + the cost of tickets. Based on 2 hours of the tour our guide Antonio looked like knowledgeable guide. However, he was constantly timing us and himself. He was on the clock and there was nothing personal and private about this tour. Seven years ago I took Pompeii tour with Costa Fortuna cruise ship. I saw and learned more with a group of 50 people than on September 14 with a group of 6. The guide was circling around the same area and we saw only 1/3 of what I saw 7 year ago. I expressed my opinion to the group so they were aware of what they paid for and what they missed. The ride up to Mount Vesuvio was included into our tour - the guide forgot about it!!! One more and a very disappointing stop of our tour was visit a Farm where they make Mozzarella cheese and Olive oil and to have an organic lunch there. While the lunch was overpriced and the location wasn't private (there were 3 other big groups having a tour and a lunch there), we ran into one more issue: a charge for a tour we didn't expect. So it added more to the cost of this very cripple tour. We all were looking forward to that last day of our cruise as the most beautiful ending of the voyage. It turned out to be a complete disappointment for all of us. We could hire a taxi and get better service from a stranger than from a company being in business for so many years. I just want to make sure other potential guests are aware of the service and business they provide.
Disembarkation: We were out in 4 minutes. We had a transportation arranged through Online Vacation Center and this time it worked just fine.
In general the cruise was fantastic! We didn't experience any problems with misbehaved kids and didn't see any issues round the pool as it was reported in the reviews dated in August. Celebrity was and still is my favorite cruise line. Will we sail with Celebrity again? Absolutely!