If there is one travel industry catchphrase that best describes European itineraries, it’s "port-intensive." This means that the ratio of shore days to sea days is high, and that the primary motivation for selecting those itineraries is touring and exploring the history, sights and culture of the cities and countries visited. A larger percentage of people choose cruising Europe to see Europe, as opposed to, say, the Caribbean, where for many, the ship is the destination, and the specific islands are secondary.
Carnival Freedom's Mediterranean itinerary certainly qualifies as port-intensive on all counts. One byproduct of an itinerary with only three sea days out of 12 (which actually is more generous than some ... Disney Magic's Mediterranean cruises offer just two) is that it's not only port-intensive, it’s intense. By getting off the ship nearly every day and spending most of the day touring -- either independently or on ship's tours -- things can begin to feel rushed and hectic. That's why we all look forward to sea days like this.
The day dawned in idyllic fashion. We were cruising southward in the Dardanelles, the 40-mile-long narrow strait connecting the Marmara Sea to the Aegean (and the pathway from Turkey to Greece). The surroundings were scenic, one of those maritime regions where you feel you can almost touch the shore on either side of the ship. The sea was flat calm and mirror-like. There was no wind, and the heat that had been dogging us for days made its presence known on Lido Deck as we made slow progress (at about 10 knots) through the narrow confines of the strait. We had become aware that the heat we were experiencing was more than the capriciousness of day-to-day temperature fluctuations. CNN informed us that the Eastern Mediterranean was in the grips of a heat wave of historic proportions. Yesterday, Athens -- our next port of call -- had logged a record-setting temperature of 42 degrees Celsius. (That's 107.6 degrees for you Fahrenheit fans).
Like most narrowing waterways, the Dardanelles funnel the waterborne and water inhabiting into much more concentrated patterns, so I was not surprised to see that we were in a traffic pattern of ships coming and going in both directions, ahead, behind and to the sides of us, much like one would see approaching the Panama Canal or the Straits of Gibraltar. Nor was I surprised to spy several pods of dolphin during our four-hour transit, no doubt pursuing baitfish that were likewise falling into concentrated patterns in the narrowing passage.
The Dardanelles have played a strategic role throughout history, beginning with the attack on the Greeks by the Persians in 480 B.C. under Xerxes I, who built a bridge of boats across the straits. In World War I Gallipoli, at the Aegean end of the strait, was the scene of a decisive battle, and, at that end of the Dardanelles, monuments to those lost in battle can clearly be seen.
As I've mentioned earlier, there is no shortage of organized activities on Freedom, even on port days, though I haven't reported on a lot of them, as I have either been off the ship, or activities were in conflict with mealtimes, making it impossible for me to participate. I've noticed that many activities on port days seem to be scheduled with a preference given to first seating guests. I know that, for example, yesterday's activity schedule called for five activities -- a "game show," two rounds of bingo, and two other competitions -- of which three occurred during second seating. Only the two bingo games -- which rumor has might earn a buck or two for the cruise line -- were scheduled so that all guests would be able to participate.
On sea days, however, there is no lack of 'round-the-clock activities. I was curious to see how many guests would be participating today, as we had just come off three intense port days in a row. I found that, like previous days, the vast majority of organized activities were devoted to pursuits of the mind rather than physical prowess, with the one exception being the "Pool Olympics." (Now that we've had "Hairy Chest" and "Pool Olympics," with only one sea day remaining, can “Knobby Knees” be far behind?)
By contrast, there were seven trivia games and quizzes, one "game show," a slot tournament and one session of bingo.
I decided to have lunch in the Posh Restaurant, which serves open seating lunch on sea days, and offered a decent Caesar salad. On most ships, I feel that the Lido Deck lunch offerings are good choices for convenience and informality, but that better-prepared and more interesting lunch offerings can be found in the dining rooms.
After lunch I went down to the Habana Bar for a game of General Knowledge Trivia. There are always at least a dozen or so participants, which seemed to me to be a decent turnout for such a port-intensive itinerary, though the same faces seemed to be showing up most of the time. I've been on ships where one other person and I were the only ones to show up for such activities. I suppose, however, that when you have 3,000 passengers, it's almost a slam dunk that you'll always have enough participants to carry on. Those of us who are trivia junkies were competing to see who could collect the largest number of awards, notably Carnival's ubiquitous, "ship on a stick" trophies, i.e. a gold plastic model in the shape of a Carnival ship on a black plastic pedestal. I had only acquired one so far; the leader of the pack was up to seven. Eight by the time this game was over.
I did, however, manage to win one at "Name That Tune" in the Lobby Bar a half-hour later. Must have been the effect of the evil eye charm again (yeah, right).
Then, in the afternoon, I managed to win $200 at Bingo. So, maybe ...
Tonight I returned to the Sun King for another alternative dinner, this time ordering the veal chop as opposed to the New York strip steak I'd enjoyed on my first visit.
Then, after that, I caught the tail end of the cruise's second production show, "Jump, Jive & Wail," a tribute to the era of Swing. (I only saw half the show as the two hours I spent at dinner in the Sun King bridged the performances for both early and late seatings.)
I stopped by the Piano Bar for a nightcap, then to bed.
Tomorrow we call at Piraeus (Athens), Greece.