Day 1: Istanbul Pre-Cruise
We arrived in Istanbul on Wednesday evening, October 12, 2011. We had pre-arranged transportation to our hotel - Yusaf Pasa Konagi in the old city - Sultanahmet. The hotel has a great location and we walked around last night primarily to find an ATM and get the lay of the land. Although we had read that the place to stay in Istanbul was in the Old City, I am not sure I would do it again. Between the calls to prayer five times a day, the heavy traffic and sirens and the rooster outside our hotel room, I think I would prefer the outskirts and commute into town for the sites (unless you love living in New York City or just have a day or two in Istanbul).
The next morning after breakfast in the hotel we went via taxi to the Egyptian Spice Market. All I can say is WOW. This a a must see. You can also get to the spice market via tram if you want to save a little money.
The architecture in the city is quite beautiful and there is so much to see. One of the highlights of the city is the narrow roads and very heavy traffic...and since we live in Southern California we know what heavy traffic is. It is amazing to see how these drivers maneuver through these tiny roads and yet you rarely see a car with a scratch on it much less any accidents. We need some of these drivers in LA.
Prices seem to be very reasonable except for the price of gasoline which is EXORBITANT..but it doesn't seem to keep people from driving. Most of the people are friendly, though be very watchful of the few who are out to take your money ...like the taxi driver who reached into my wallet to get his fare (plus a little more).
Day 2: Istanbul Pre-Cruise
Friday was our full day tour of the Old City - the Sultanahmet. Our tour company - Sea Song Tours - provided us with a fabulous guide who answered all of our questions and much more. Is it possible to see the sites without a tour - yes? But we wanted the inside story and the historical background. We got that and a lot more. We began our tour at the Hippodrome where the largest chariot race grounds in the Byzantine period once stood. Little remains of the actual Hippodrome except a large open area where we found lots of vendors selling umbrellas on this drizzly day. It was just a short walk to the Blue Mosque one of Istanbul's most famous sites (which gets its name from the blue tiles covering the walls).
From there we walked to the Topkapi Palace. The most interesting part of the palace is the Treasury - where you can view some of the most lavish jewelry and jeweled pieces you can possibly imagine. In case you are wondering -the mystery movie with the same name was about a robbery of the jeweled sword from this palace.
Just before lunch we visited the Basilica Cistern - this is where the underground water supply for the Great Palace was built. The Cistern was one of my favorite places and to think it was all done in the 6th century. Today it is not used for fresh water for the city and fishes and coins fill the waters. But the architecture and structure are simply amazing.
Perhaps even more amazing is the architectural marvel: St. Sophia. Also built in the 6th century it possesses a vast open area with no supporting columns. Although originally built as a church it was converted to a mosque in 1453 and now stands as a museum for everyone to visit.
Our final stop was the Grand Bazaar. The number of shops is overwhelming. However, I do have to say that we enjoyed the Egyptian Spice Market even more. We, of course, spent money on the usual tourist stuff as gifts for people back home as well as a couple of presents for us. DO NOT FORGET TO BARGAIN. The opening price has nothing to do with the value or what you should pay. If you don't like to bargain or are not at least willing to, you should buy your gifts at regular fixed price stores -otherwise you will overpay...and big time.
Speaking of overpaying - that night we went to a restaurant nearby our hotel. It was recommended to us by a shopkeeper where we bought something earlier. While my expectation was that the shopkeeper might be getting a "small commission" for bring us to the restaurant, we had no idea how careful (and forceful) you need to be in Turkey. Consider this as a WARNING!!!
The restaurateur who spoke beautiful English and wanted so much to please us had an agenda. Although we told him what we wanted he kept bringing extra dishes - specialties of the house. Now please understand most of them were delicious, but we were not looking for a gourmet 5-course meal - not when we were going onboard the cruise on Saturday. I figured the meal would be slightly more than we wanted to pay, but didn't know how much would be "comped". The answer was NOTHING.
Compared to US standard, the meal was still not expensive (about $70 for 2), but more than double the prices of the meals we wanted. Guessing that I didn't want to make a scene, which I had every right to do, we paid the bill (without a tip) and felt cheated instead of pleased with the meal.
Tomorrow afternoon we board the cruise. We will have all morning to rest, repack and visit anything else we want to see.
Day 3: The Cruise Begins
After a dreary, but restful morning, we began our journey on the Wind Surf Sailing ship. We immediately noticed a friendliness among the staff and passengers that put us at ease. Our cabin (excuse me, suite) was magnificent with two entire bathrooms, separate his and her closets and enough drawer space for a month long cruise or more. We put our things down and toured the ship.
Check-in was done onboard and relatively simple. The usual forms, photograph, and credit card processing took just a few minutes. They do keep your passport on this ship. The ship is easy to navigate, but in several ways is very different from most other cruise ships. The restaurants on most ships are on the bottom decks in the aft section of the ship. Here the restaurants are on the 4th and 6th decks in the forward section of the ship. Dinner seating is open to both of the two primary restaurants. The main dining room changes menus daily while Degrees has the same menu throughout.
The public rooms are more than adequate, but certainly don't compare to the glitz of most of the newer big ships. The food at dinner was outstanding, both in presentation and in taste. We were also very pleased with the variety of choice. We were also pleasantly surprised by the quality of the entertainment in the lounge following dinner. Their band, Top Society, played a great selection of music to dance to while up in the 6th floor lounge there was more entertainment by a group named Rain, which we plan to see later in the cruise.
We also found time to visit the casino. While relatively small we were happy to see a collection of penny slot machines including two poker machines (not just those machines where you have no idea what wins and what loses. Can anyone else relate?)
Having arrived three days earlier, we are experiencing no jet lag. Tomorrow is a sea day and we are looking forward to relaxing and the chef's cooking class.
Day 4 -â€" Day at Sea
We awoke to find the ship passing through the Dardanelles which separates the European and Asian Continents. By the way, Istanbul is the only city in the world that is situated on two continents -â€" Europe and Asia. Sailing was unbelievably smooth throughout the night and thus far in the morning. Now that we saw that we were sailing in a protected area we had a better idea of why things had been so smooth. They did become a little rockier when we hit the open seas, but the stabilizers of the Wind Surf are quite effective as the rocking was not near as much as we had anticipated or experienced on much larger ships.
Breakfast on board is definitely fitting a ship of this high rating. After breakfast, we attended the cooking class with the executive Chef. The class is normally limited to 10, but they did let a couple passengers add-on to make a total of 12. Our recipe for the class was crab cakes. Each of us had our own station. We donned white coats and chef's hats and were taught by the head chef not only how to cook the dish, but how to prepare it, and how to present it. Each of us were offered the opportunity to cook our creation in a heavy (no, very heavy) skillet. We learned that real chefs don't use a spatula to turn the food, but use their wrists and toss it in the air. Easy for him to say, but we had a difficult time with the weight of the pan. Finally, we got to enjoy the fruits of our labor. A table was set just for us and the chef and our meal was complimented by glasses of champagne.
The rest of the day was filled with activities, including a golf putting tournament, a trivia contest, a wine tasting demonstration, several seminars, the captain's cocktail party, and a port talk for the following day. As usual the captain introduced his key staff. But what was not as common was the humorous and entertaining manner in which he introduced them and the true connection he made with us, his passengers. We can definitely see why his crew truly enjoys working on the Wind Surf -â€" no Mr. Roberts on this ship.
We chose the specialty restaurant -â€" Degree - for our dinner on this night. We now can agree with the comments we have read on Cruise Critic. While we enjoyed food and service, it does not equal the meal we had the prior night in the main dining room. That is where we plan to have the rest of our dinners on this voyage.
After dinner we once again went to the main lounge. We first listened to the guest singer -â€" Steve Charles -â€" who was quite excellent and did an entire medley of Tom Jones songs. Afterwards, their lounge band, Top Society, returned and we spent the evening listening, dancing and just enjoying until it was close to midnight. Then off to bed we went as we had an early morning tour the next day.
Day 5 - Kusadasi & Ephesus
We awakened to the sound of a tugboat guiding us into port. We needed no tender as we docked right in the city. Disembarkation was beyond easy. Our cabin is directly one deck above the ramp and there was no line to contend with. Our tour guide was waiting for us with a sign. Based on recommendations from a friend and from comments in Cruise Critic, we had prearranged a private tour through Ephesus Shuttle. We were not disappointed.
The van was extremely comfortable and the guide and driver were responsive to our needs. What does that mean - that we could control the time at each spot and not be herded like cattle on a regimented large tour. We could weave in and out of close quarters and access just about anywhere we wanted to go. Our tour consisted of the city Ephesus and all its historical sights, the Terrace houses, lunch in Sirince Village and ended with a view of the Artemission Temple.
The lunch, which was included in the tour, was much more than just a quick bite. It included a sampling of Turkish specialties all prepared by a local family. Right outside the restaurant was an authentic village filled with open air shops that provided us with another opportunity to purchase gifts for friends at very reasonable prices. There was no pressure to buy, but we actually asked our driver if we could spend a little extra time at the village as we really enjoyed their handiwork. We also got a chance to look for one of the great bargains in all of Turkey -â€" a Genuine Fake Watch. Our guide offered to extend the tour with some additional shopping, but we chose to go back to the ship as we wanted to find an Internet cafÃ© while in port since the wi-fi on the ship was predictably slow.
Day 6 -â€" Rhodes Greece
On this day we were no longer in Turkey, We arrived on the island of Rhodes, in Greece, and docked with no tendering necessary. We were able to stroll into town with our new friends from the ship. We tried to do this on our own and went in the wrong direction, but quickly found an entrance into the walled city. There is a lovely shopping area with much less aggressive shopkeepers than we found in Turkey. In fact, I found a belt that I wanted to buy and couldn't find anyone in the store to sell it to us. After a few minutes someone did show up and we bought the belt at a price lower than we found after intense bargaining in Turkey.
There was a monument in the town for the 1604 members of the Jewish community who were rounded up by the occupying Italians and shipped to Auschwitz. We then asked for directions to the historical Rhodes synagogue. Instead of just telling us, one of the shopkeepers actually led us to the synagogue. We were awed by the well preserved synagogue and the museum that was attached. For anyone interested in the history of the Jewish community in Rhodes, this is a must see.
From there we hired a taxi for an island tour. It was well worth the $130 Euros which we split between two couples. Our tour began at the former site of the Colossus of Rhodes, now marked by two deer, the symbol of Rhodes, guarding the harbor. He then took us to Lindos, which was also where he lived. On the way we stopped at several beautiful vistas, where we took some incredible photographs. We also stopped at a ceramics factory where they showed us how they made the pottery and of course there were lots of locally made Grecian urns to buy. Our last stop was the Acropolis. The two guys climbed to the top as the women shopped. The views from the top were quite spectacular and we were able to get some great photographs. The shops were charming and well-priced and the same low pressure ambiance we found in the city below.
When we returned to the ship, we had little time to rest as there were Greek dancers entertaining us before dinner.
Day 7 -â€" Bodrum
This was our favorite port. There was a certain energy to the town that made it peaceful and appealing. It seemed more like a city then just a shopping stop. We could easily return here and spend more time.
First of all, the ship was able to dock; no tender needed. Just after disembarking we came across a cafÃ© with free wi-fi access. After checking our e-mails, we proceeded to "The Castle". There was lots to see and lots to photograph. There is also an outdoor theater and mausoleum to visit, which we didn't get to because we were sidetracked by a gorgeous restaurant right on the harbor called the Balkan Restaurant. They had these incredible prawns beautifully displayed outside the restaurant that just called to us. We are happy to say they tasted as good they looked.
After spending a lovely morning and lunch in Bodrum, we returned to the ship to partake of the Jacuzzi and for a little nap. In the early afternoon, the ship had Turkish dancers from onshore as their entertainment. One of the passengers whom we had befriended was called up on stage to dance with the entertainers and became well known throughout the ship.
Day 8 -â€" Mykonos
We tendered into Mykonos. The streets were narrow and winding, with shops lining both sides. I was able to find some placemats at a local store, something I try to buy on nearly every trip. We also saw a processional which we guessed might be for a funeral.
We then decided to take a little adventure by boarding a local bus to Paradise Beach, a place well-advertised in travel magazines and on board. What a disappointment! Just overblown hype! Dark, rocky sand, and a small beach area that was not very appealing to someone from Southern California. We would certainly have preferred spending more time in the shops, but we can say we were able to navigate the buses of Mykonos.
We returned back to the ship for lunch and a fabulous bar-b-que dinner. This was our favorite meal on the ship -â€" lobster, spare ribs, a whole suckling pig, all beautifully displayed on the upper decks. The weather was also perfect for eating outside which was not possible for many of the nights earlier on our cruise.
Afterwards we returned to Mykonos for what was billed as the special nightlife. I guess it was just too late in the season as nothing was going on in town. The big attraction was the sunset and that our ship was lit up with the sails flying.
Day 9 -â€" Santorini
As we approached Santorini early on Friday morning, we saw mountains with a white top. At first it looked like snow, but we thought how could it be? The weather, while not as warm as they have in the summer, was certainly not cold enough to sustain snowfall. As we sailed closer we thought it might be white rocks. But when we actually got close enough to see, it became apparent that at the top of these mountains, were dozens of white buildings, both commercial and residential.
Many of the passengers took one of the ship's tours or decided to navigate the terrain on their own. That meant either riding up on a donkey (no way, no how) or waiting in a long line for the tram. We decided to sleep in and take the tram in the afternoon when the lines were much shorter.
So after lunch we took the tender over to Santorini and took the tram up to the top. There we found beautiful views for photos and lots of little stores for shopping. The passengers who took the tours to Iao raved about the views and the tour. So this might be one city you might not want to skip, but for us we needed the rest. The next two days would be early ones for us.
Day 10 -â€" Athens
We docked for the final time in Athens. We had made arrangements for a private tour company to pick us up at the airport, give us a half-day tour, and deliver us to our hotel in Athens. As we disembarked our driver, Spiros, was there waiting for us. Spiros has a great love for his country and gave us much more than we had contracted for. In fact, at the end of the day we actually asked him to take us to our hotel as we were tired and needed to rest. During the tour we visited the Acropolis, the new Acropolis Museum, Hadrian's gate, the Jewish synagogue, the parliament building, and he had more that he wanted to show us. But the best part of the tour was the very special local lunch he arranged for us. Interestingly just as we were pulling up to the restaurant, another couple from the ship was leaving the restaurant. I guess the word is out about this wonderful local restaurant.
We then checked in at our hotel for the night -â€" the Athens Hilton. All I can say is wow! Using my Hilton Honors points, I had arranged for a free night, but we were pleasantly surprised to be upgraded to the concierge floor. This is one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed at. The lobby was huge, the views incredible and the upstairs lounge one of the hottest places in all of Athens.
After Athens, we flew home by way of New York, so my special friend could visit some old friends and show me her roots, the places she where she grew up, played and went to school.