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Exotic Mediterranean on Azamara Quest
About the Virtual Cruise
Exotic Mediterranean on Azamara Quest How do you experience the Great Pyramids of Egypt, historic sites of importance to three major religions, the ruins of ancient Roman cities, colorful markets, modern-day shopping and tastes of local wines and produce in two weeks without going crazy? I'll tell you how: You take an exotic Eastern Mediterranean cruise that allows you to visit Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and Italy -- all without the hassles of packing, unpacking, train trips, flights and too much time in transit.

My 15-night exotic Mediterranean cruise is full of long days in marquee ports -- Alexandria, Istanbul and Jerusalem (via Ashdod), among others. But, it also offers a handful of lovely, relaxing sea days aboard my home away from home -- Azamara Club Cruises' Azamara Quest. And while this "exotic" Mediterranean itinerary offers ports that are, for me, unexplored territory, Azamara itself is also mysterious and new.

The line, launched in 2007, is not as familiar to cruise travelers as its sisters, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean. Azamara features boutique-sized, 694-passenger ships and offers some of the trappings of luxury lines without such an enormous price tag. But, what does that really mean? Will I find gourmet meals, impeccable service and a lack of crowding that rival those of the luxury ships I've sailed? Or, will I find mass-market quality in a prettier package? Of course, I'm hoping for the former, but I aim to spend my sea days figuring out what this line is all about.

I'll be reporting daily from the ship, beginning on Monday, May 11, 2009, for 10 business days. So, come with me, from ancient cities to a modern-day cruise ship, as I explore terra incognita ashore and onboard.

--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor

Pictured: Hagia Sofia in Istanbul.
Day 1: Trip Planning, Arrival in Istanbul
Day 2: Kusadasi/Ephesus
Day 3: At Sea
Day 4: Cairo, Egypt
Day 5: Jerusalem
Day 6: Haifa
Day 7: Limassol, Cyprus
Day 8: At Sea
Day 9: Sorrento
Day 10: Debarkation in Rome
Related Links
Azamara Quest ship review
Azamara Quest Member reviews
Mediterranean Cruises
Mediterranean Messages
Azamara Messages
Day 1: Monday, Trip Planning, Arrival in Istanbul
Trip Planning, Arrival in IstanbulHow do you pack for a cruise that's visiting five countries in two weeks, with temperatures forecasted from the low 60's to the mid-90's and activities that range from visiting mosques to swimming in the ship's pool? I wasn't sure, either, and spent the week before my departure buying conservative-yet-cool tops to wear in Egypt, covering my queen-size bed with outfit possibilities and making endless lists of things I must remember to take. Thank goodness Azamara Quest has self-service laundry facilities -- knowing I could do laundry mid-trip probably meant the difference between one suitcase and two!

Another plus: Azamara's resort-casual-all-the-time dress code means no cocktail dresses to pack, which is also a space saver.

Bags packed and ready to go, I set off for SFO and my 16-hour travel day -- 11 hours on Lufthansa to Munich, then another 2.5 to Istanbul. With the swine flu pandemic worrying would-be travelers, I wasn't sure what to expect at the airport. Would we have to wear surgical masks on the flight? Would they take my temperature before letting me board? As it turned out, the San Francisco and Munich airports showed no signs that a pandemic was, perhaps, sweeping the world, and check-in and boarding were a breeze. Turkey was a bit more concerned -- we had to fill out brand-new landing documents, acknowledging a lack of illness or fever, and airport employees were wearing masks.

On arrival in Istanbul, U.S. citizens are required to purchase visas for $20. Although all the guidebooks and the State Department's Web site said I did not need to buy one in advance, I still had fears of getting shut out of Istanbul because I didn't have mine. But, it was all quite simple -- the visa counter was located just to the left of passport control, and they took U.S. dollars. (There's an ATM right there, should you be cashless.)

Once through customs, I had to figure out how to get to my hotel. An airport staff member tried to convince me to take a hotel shuttle for 35 euros, but I had looked up approximate taxi prices on the airport's Web site before my trip and knew I could get a better deal with a cab. The metered yellow cabs wait just outside, and the ride was my introduction to Istanbul -- the driver merged like a madman, tailgating slower drivers and cursing them when they didn't get out of his way quickly enough. It would have been more entertaining if the back seat had any functioning seatbelts! On our way to the Taksim neighborhood, across the Golden Horn from the airport and the old city, we passed under the ancient Roman aqueduct -- my first glimpse of old architecture, integrated within a modern city.

To my surprise, as we approached the Taksim area about 15 minutes before midnight, we hit rush-hour-level traffic. Where was everyone going? Turns out Taksim is the nightclub area ("5,000 discos," muttered my driver), and, as it was Saturday night, young Turks were flooding the clubs and cafes. I had originally intended to stay in Istanbul's old city for two nights, but I booked too late, and the hotels I was considering were sold out. So, I decided to stay the first night in modern Taksim, then switch hotels the second night to an old city locale. My destination that evening, the Marble Hotel, was clearly well-situated for late-night revelry, but I was too tired to consider going out. I paid my fare -- 35 Turkish lira (about $24 -- take that, hotel shuttle!) -- checked in and went right to sleep.

But not for long. Jet lag had me wide awake at 4:30 a.m. -- and the street noise outside my window wasn't helping me re-catch those lost Z's. Then, at 5 a.m., I heard an unusual sound. A voice started calling through a mega-phone, and the tinny vocals sounded strangely melodic. What I had first thought was some sort of sales pitch ("best disco in town, right this way!") was actually the first call to prayer for Muslims. The muezzin chants the call five times a day, with the times varying, based on sunrise and sunset times. In early May, this meant prayers at 5 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., before and after sunset. I'm told that the first prayer includes an extra line, telling the faithful that praying is better than sleeping. As for me, I was hopelessly praying for sleep.



Istanbul Blue Mosque Istanbul is located at the confluence of the Marmara Sea, the Bosphorous and the Golden Horn, so it's no surprise that this strategic location has been coveted by rulers for thousands of years. As the song says, Istanbul was once Constantinople, but before that, it was Byzantium, supposedly founded by Byzas -- a son of the sea god Poseidon and a nymph -- in the 7th century B.C. The land came under control of the Roman empire in 79 A.D. In 330, the emperor Constantine made Byzantium the capital of the Roman Empire, and Constantinople was born. After many ups (Emperor Justinian's expansionist and architectural glory years) and downs (crusaders sack the city), the Ottomans took control in 1453, and the national religion switched from Christianity to Islam.

Did you just skim the last paragraph with all its dates? If you're planning on visiting Istanbul, go back and read it more closely. Istanbul's old city, the Sultanahmet district, is tops on every first-time visitor's must-see list, and without a reasonable grasp of Istanbul's history, it's hard to keep track of what's what and who's who.

As a first-timer myself, I spent my first day exploring the old city. All of the key attractions are within walking distance of each other and are easily accessible by the city's tram system. Most famous are the Blue Mosque -- so named for the beautiful blue-and-white Iznik (the Turkish city where they're made) tiles that cover the interior -- and the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya), a basilica, turned mosque, turned museum. In the Byzantine period, 30 million gold mosaic tiles covered the interior, which was later white-washed when the Ottomans took over. Today, a few of the mosaics have been recovered and restored. (My favorite was one of a benefactress of the church, shown with her second husband. You can see where the name and face of her first husband have been removed -- the Byzantine version of white out!)

Topkapi Palace was home to 25 generations of Ottoman sultans, and today you don't need a royal summons to stroll its tulip-filled grounds. Its multiple pavilions are decorated with more colorful Iznik tiles, and the museum sections display Islamic artifacts, imperial robes and an impressive collection of jewels -- check out the enormous 86-carat diamond. I was taken with the diamond-crusted coffee cups -- imagine drinking your Starbucks out of those every morning!

Istanbul Cistern Fully blinded by all the lavish decorations, I headed to the Basilica Cistern for a change of pace. The Roman cistern was used to store water, brought into the city via the aqueduct. The underground cistern is held up by Roman columns (recycled from the ruins of other buildings) and eerily lit with reddish-orange lights. I was surprised to see very large fish swimming about in the shallow waters, but the fish have been longtime residents -- the cistern was forgotten and then rediscovered in the 16th century, when residents found they could catch fish through holes in their basement floors.

After a full day of sightseeing and a long night of no sleep, I was in no condition to have an adventurous night out. Luckily, I was spending my second night in the conveniently located old-city hotel, Hotel Sultanhan, a block from the tram line. I had a light dinner -- the so-called Sultan's Platter of Turkish appetizers -- at the hotel's rooftop restaurant and turned in.



Istanbul Yali on Bosphorous On day two, I met up with my cruise travel companion, Rachel, for a day-cruise up the Bosphorous. The Bosphorous is the network of straits that separate Europe and Asia and connect the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea. The city's ferry service offers a "Scenic Bosphorous Tour" that cruises most of the distance to the Black Sea, stopping at a handful of locations on the European and the Asian shores. As there's only one or two ferries a day, you have to decide where to get off (no hop-on, hop-off service, sadly), and we decided to cruise the entire length to Andolu Kavagi, a tiny seaside town with a string of seafood restaurants that cater to tourists.

The ferry ride is remarkable for the lavish palaces and summer homes along the shoreline. Bosphorous-front property has been some of the area's prime real estate for centuries. Dolmabahce Palace is Istanbul's answer to Versailles, and the Fortress of Europe, with its stone parapets, rivals the castles of Scotland and Wales. We drooled over the yalis -- elegant summer villas, built between the 17th and 20th centuries -- that are constructed to take maximum advantage of their water's-edge location.

In Andolu Kavagi, we dined on grilled mackerel, then followed the road up the steep hill to the ruined 14th-century Byzantine fortress. I had joked earlier in the day that we should eat in town, as there weren't likely to be cafes among the ruins, but I was wrong -- a few touristy outdoor eateries with fabulous views sat below the fortress. From the top of the hill, we could see north out to the Black Sea and south to the skyline of Istanbul. We sat on the grassy slopes and chatted in the warm sun.

After the tour, Rachel and I split up -- she wanted to see the sights of the Old City, and I hoped to try a Turkish hamam. A hamam is a typical Turkish bath house; it's neither a true sauna nor an actual bath where you're sitting in a tub or pool of water, but a hot room with washing facilities, where you can cleanse yourself or have an attendant give you a good scrubbing and/or a massage. I chose the historic Cagaloglu Baths, which were built by a sultan in the 18th century, for several reasons -- they have a separate section for women, are used to English-speaking tourists who have never experienced a hamam and come highly recommended by numerous guidebooks.

Istanbul Hamam The entrance hall to a hamam is called the camekan and is an internal courtyard, lined with changing cubicles. After swapping my clothes for a cloth wrap (daringly short when you're tall like I am) and a pair of wooden sandals, I tottered into the hararet (hot room). First order of business: sit by one of the basins and "wash, wash, wash." This involves taking a small metal pan, scooping up water and dumping it over yourself. I had opted for the scrub and massage (when in Turkey, right?), which takes place on a raised dais in the center of the room, but you can also opt for self-service and simply wash and shampoo on your own. Afterwards, bathers can relax in the camekan for as long as they want, perhaps ordering a cup of apple or mint tea.

Overall, I enjoyed the experience for the novelty of it and the historic setting of the old hamam, but I'm not sure I would want to bathe this way regularly. I was glad to have spent $50 on the full treatment -- otherwise, the only novelty is taking a bath in a semi-public space (not so different from gym showers). However, a hamam is not recommended for anyone uncomfortable walking around in the nude, even in a same-sex-only setting.

After all that pampering, I had worked up an appetite. Rachel and I were underwhelmed with the cafes that lined the main streets by the tram line, and our guidebooks were also not optimistic about our dinner options in that part of town. But, we found one recommendation that turned out to be spot on -- the Rumeli Cafe, just opposite the Sultanahmet tram stop. It had that cozy, subterranean, wine-cave look and served up scrumptious Turkish dishes. Our hands-down favorite was the dolma plate of stuffed vegetables.



Our final half-day in Istanbul was devoted to shopping at the Spice Market and Grand Bazaar. The experience can be fun or intimidating, depending on your attitude, but after being told in a similar market in Tunisia that I did the haggling "wrong," I came prepared with strategies this time. The key to bargaining is to keep the exchange pleasant. Don't feel threatened by the aggressive vendors, and feel free to take your time looking through the wares and do some comparison shopping. When you're ready to negotiate a price, instead of feigning indignation at the starting price, coyly ask for a discount, all the while remaining friendly and smiley. You can name a counter price, but in Turkey the guidebooks say not to expect the vendor to come below 50 percent of the first price. At the Turkish bazaars, they accept any currency, so if it's easier for you to estimate an object's worth while talking dollars, pounds or euros, you can do so. If you can't get the price low enough, consider switching tactics and ask for them to throw in something extra instead for the same price. (For example, when purchasing a Turkey coffee pot, I asked the vendor to throw in a package of Turkish coffee for free.)

Istanbul Spice Market At the Spice Market, the vendors outdid themselves by calling out funny things to me as I passed by, including "you play too much basketball!" and "hello, Julia Roberts!" My favorite: "You speak English good. Where you from?" If you respond, the vendors will try to lure you into conversation and into their stores -- it's not rude to simply smile and keep walking. At one stall, I tried Turkish Delight, a sugary candy that I didn't find all that delightful. (Ultimately, I'm just a chocolate person, and chewy jellies don't do it for me.) Even if you're not interested in buying food, the Spice Market is worth a visit just to ogle the heaping piles of spices, teas and nuts.

The Grand Bazaar was almost sedate in comparison, but it's probably one hundred times as big. We got lost in its warren of streets and surprised ourselves when we managed to return to a ceramics store we had visited earlier. They sell everything from fine jewelry to T-shirts, and we bought pashminas, ceramics and a print of whirling dervishes. The bazaars are great places to pick up gifts or souvenirs, but we had to keep reminding ourselves that our purchases needed to fit in our luggage for the flights back home. It's also easy to get into the fun of shopping and bargaining, so if you need to stick to a budget, set aside a certain amount of cash to spend, and don't dig into your financial reserves when that money is gone.

Heading back to the ship on Istanbul's fabulous tram system (with stops near both markets, the old-city sites and the cruise port), I reflected on how Istanbul is the perfect blend of the exotic and the familiar. Its peninsular location, hilly streets, tram system, series of bridges and mild spring weather reminded me a lot of San Francisco, and the city was just as easy to navigate as many U.S. urban areas. Yet, the prevalence of women in head scarves, the tall minarets of mosques dotting the skyline and the beautiful Ottoman architecture constantly impress upon the Western tourist that you are, indeed, in a foreign location. It's, perhaps, the best of both worlds -- an exotic destination that is easily accessible to those unfamiliar with this beautiful part of the world.

Images of spice market and Bosphorous yali appear courtesy of Erica Silverstein.
  Day 2: Kusadasi/Ephesus

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