DH and I cruise about 1-2 times per year and Celebrity is our line of choice. We have been planning this trip for about a year and it exceeded our expectations.
We left 10/23 connecting thru JFK and arriving in Istanbul 10 am 10/24.We were able to get to the visa line ahead of most of crowds. After buying a Turkish visa ($20 USD), we went thru passport control and then collected luggage. We exchanged some money at the airport-the exchange rate was pretty good but there was a 4% commission.
Istanbul Airport Express driver (www.IstanbulAirportExpress.com) waiting for us after exiting customs. (we used this transfer company on arrival in Istanbul ,to get to the port and to get to the airport upon disembarking, and found them to be responsive by email and very reliable).
We were staying at the Doubletree Old Town - Doubletree staff were very friendly and helpful, and room was available. Even in Istanbul they offer good chocolate chip cookies on check-in! Our room was on the 3rd floor in the front. The Tram is directly in front of the hotel. The hotel in actually in a shopping "mall", with a jewelry and clothing store around the lobby. This is a relatively new hotel- has only been open < 1 year and was in great condition.
To try to get our "time" in sync with local time, we decided to stay awake and do some sightseeing. Exchanging currency was better here as the rates were similar to earlier but there was no commission. We walked to Old Town and first went to Topkapi palace.There was an about 30 min wait to purchase palace ticket and then, once inside you are able to purchase harem tickets. We toured that first, using Rick Steve's guide. It is beautiful, with amazing tile work and intricately lain stone paths. The famous Topkapi dagger is gorgeous, and there are multiple huge gems and diamonds in the treasury. After the palace, we went to the Basilica Cistern, an underground water collection system. It was intriguing, and we had never previously seen anything like it.
We did go past the Hippodrome and the Obelisk. Also the Islamic and cultural museum but did not go in there. All in all we walked several miles and got a feel for Sultanhamet. We went back to the hotel and ate in the Terrace restaurant. It is an active street until about 10 or 11 but overall street noise didnt bother us. If you are a light sleeper, you may want ear plugs or try for a room facing away from the main street.
The next morning after eating at the hotel breakfast buffet ( excellent selections), we walked to the Grand Bazaar and did some shopping. It is definitely an experience!
It was check-in day for the ship, and we chose to be driven by Istanbul Airport Express to the port. (Some have suggested taking the tram to the port but we found it to generally be fairly crowded and trying to manage with all the luggage would not have been easy. The tram is great for getting around without luggage).
At the port, we were notified of the outbreak of Noro virus on the prior sailing and that the ship would not be available for boarding until 2 and cabins until 5 so we dropped off our bags and got on the tram and returned to Old town to continue our sightseeing. We were able to see the Aya Sophia, Blue Mosque, Istanbul Archaeological museum and then returned to the ship. We were able to board and had a snack and the cabins were available soon after.
This was our first sailing on the Constellation and we thought the ship was beautiful. The cabin was in excellent condition and we liked the color combinations and decor. The staff were professional and generally very friendly.
The ship remained in IST overnight and the weather on sailing day was rainy and cool so we stayed on board and relaxed in anticipation of a busy port intensive experience.
Food: we had CC stateroom and had room service breakfast most ams. The yogurt parfaits are excellent. Most hot items did arrive hot. There were a few miscues (one morning received omelet instead of pancakes) but overall everything was good.
We chose select dining, as we had enjoyed its flexibility while on Summit earlier in the year, and were not disappointed. We tend to eat earlier rather than later and did not need to make reservations to be able to get the table for 2 we desired in the location preferred.
Due to the enhanced sanitation measures in place, the waitstaff served everything ( even on the buffet) as well as bread, butter, sweetener packs for coffee etc in the main dining room. This increased the demands on the staff and they worked incredibly hard. Not being able to serve ourselves was a minor inconvenience for the passengers, a major one for the waitstaff.
We ate in the San Marco dining room most evenings, and found the food to be very good. DH had fish many nights and lamb once and was pleased. I had beef most nights and found the steaks to be cooked to the temp requested and tender. Desserts were hit and miss but crÃ¨me brulee is on the left hand side menu so you can't go wrong with that!
We ate at Bistro on 5 for lunch one day and had the dining room to ourselves. The food was great and the service attentive. We would definitely do that again next cruise.
We did eat at Tuscan Grille one night and Ocean Liners one night as well. Excellent food and service was amazing.
Aqua spa cafÃ© lunches are lighter and very tasty- they can get overwhelmed easily, though and it was difficult for DH to get his salmon one day.
We did go to happy hour at the Gelateria on 2 occasions ( buy one get one free)- very tasty!
We did not attend any of the shows so cannot comment. Did visit the casino for my obligatory $5 in the slots but it did not appear too busy when we walked thru at other times. We did attend one of the lectures and viewed a few others on the in room TV.
Kusadasi: we chose to tour with Ekol (www.ekoltravel.com)- we were off the ship promptly and met our guide, Betul, and driver. We toured the St John Basilica and Ephesus with the Terrace houses. Ekol was very responsive to emails pre-trip and our guide was excellent. She was able to really explain the history and make it come alive.There is no way we would have gotten as much out of these stops without Betul. We had specified, when making the reservation, that we were not interested in a shopping stop and that was respected. Highly recommend Ekol.
Rhodes: we had been there before so planned on walking around on our own. The ship docks very close to the old town and it is an easy walk. It was a national holiday so the museums were all open without entrance charge.
Ashdod/Haifa: Israel was the main reason we booked this specific cruise and we researched our guide choice extensively. We booked with Moti Bar-Tuv (http://www.travel-israel.info) and could not have been more pleased. He was extremely responsive by email and worked with our "wish list" to create our itinerary. Literally at the last minute (1115pm the night before we were to dock at Ashdod), due to rocket fire, the ship changed the itinerary to 4 days at Haifa. He was aware of the port change from even before we called him and modified our agenda to still be able to accomplish all we wanted to do and see. His fund of knowledge is amazing ( not only the Jewish and Christian history but also about the Muslim and Ba'hai faiths, archaeological and cultural issues ) and he was fun to tour with. We started with Akko and Caesarea the first day, and then spent the next 2 incredible days in Jerusalem, with the final day in Nazareth and Galilee. How do you describe Jerusalem? So much history- being able to actually walk in places that you have read about all your life! As a Christian, it was so powerful to travel in the footsteps of Jesus, stand in the garden of Gethsemane, visit Calvary, and the tomb, as well as to experience the City of David ("where it all began"),overlook the city from the Mount of Olives, walk the streets from Herod's time (as well as the passageways under the streets), be on the Temple Mount, walk along the sea of Galilee, visit Cana and Capernaum, as well as visit the grotto in the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We spent 9-12 hours each day with Moti, between the drives from the port to the sites and back, and the actual touring, and learned so much about the ancient but also the current day Israel. We were able to enjoy traditional foods for lunch, with falafel in Akko, and 3 varieties of hummus as well as Za'atar with olive oil with pita bread in Jerusalem.
We accomplished so much more with Moti than could have been possible in a group. It truly was the experience of a lifetime and exceeded our high expectations. We highly recommend Moti Bar-Tuv.
Athens: we had been to Athens before so took a tour to Ancient Corinth and the canal of Corinth. We do not usually use the cruise ship sponsored tours, but with the economic problems in Greece, we were not sure if the ship would be able to dock so booked this tour as a failsafe. There were about 30 persons on the tour. The ruins of ancient Corinth are not as restored or complete as those in Ephesus but it was an enjoyable trip. The boat "cruise" thru the canal was pleasant and overall would recommend the trip. The guide with our group was very knowledgeable and informative ( we overheard others from different groups relaying the information from our guide to their companions, as one said that their guide was not telling them nearly as much).
In summary, in spite of the challenges due to itinerary changes and Norovirus, Celebrity delivered an excellent product. We thoroughly enjoyed our trip and have already booked our next cruise.