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Home > Virtual Cruises > Exotic Mediterranean on Azamara Quest
Exotic Mediterranean on Azamara Quest
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
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Day 6: Monday, Haifa
HaifaAfter days of docking in huge cargo ports with views of cranes and shipping containers out our cabin windows each morning, we were pleasantly surprised to wake up in Haifa, Israel, with beautiful city views. The port is right in the city center, and as it's built up the slopes of Mt. Carmel, the entire cityscape is laid out before you as you look out from the ship. Haifa is situated on a bay, and on a clear day, you can see straight across to Acre (the Israelis call it Akko, which sounds so much prettier) and, I'm told, as far as Lebanon. Yes, Haifa is about an hour or so from the Lebanese border, but you wouldn't know it to look at Haifa's serene hillside.

After three intense days of sightseeing, Rachel and I could not handle another super-long day filled with volumes of history, but we didn't want to miss out on the sights of the area. Many Azamara passengers were headed off again on tours to Nazareth and the Galilee, but we decided on a private tour of our host city and nearby Akko. If you're tired of tours, this port is actually perfectly suited for independent exploration -- you can walk from the ship into town, the train station (taking you to Akko, the Roman city of Caesarea or even Tel Aviv) is immediately next door, and the subway (actually an underground funicular) that takes you to the top of the hill is just a few blocks away.

We began our day at a museum rarely visited by cruise travelers -- a worthy one that shows a different side of Israel. It's the Clandestine Immigration museum, which tells the story of the ships that tried to smuggle Jewish refugees out of Europe during World War II and into the Land of Israel. These ships -- and the underground fighters who learned to sail them -- later became the foundations of the Israeli navy. (Side note: You don't hear much about the Israeli Navy in comparison to the Army, but they do have a small navy, and it's based in Haifa.) The museum has one of the blockade-running ships and two other military boats, including a submarine, which you can tour. It was a nice change to learn about something modern after three days of ancient history and focus on the current State of Israel, rather than just its Holy Land aspects. This little museum is also a must if you're a boat or maritime history freak.

A drive up the hill brought us to the Stella Maris (Star of the Sea) Church -- a tiny church, beautifully decorated with paintings depicting scenes from the Old Testament. The church claims the cave is where the prophet Elijah (here we go again -- you just can't escape biblical history in this country!) slept before fighting the priests of Baal; however, the Jews revere another cave as his resting place, and in fact, there's no evidence that any particular cave dates back to that time. Across the way is the scenic overlook, donated by sister city San Francisco -- as Rachel is from San Francisco, and I live nearby, a photo stop was a must.

Haifa's signature attraction is the beautiful, multi-terraced Bahai Gardens. Haifa is one of the holiest places for members of the Bahai faith because the Bab -- the herald of the Bahai prophet Baha' Allah -- is buried there. Pilgrims come from around the world to walk up the hill and through the gardens as an act of meditation -- and when you walk up the hill, the garden is landscaped so you can hardly see the surrounding city. Tourists smartly walk down the hill; that is, if they have guides. All private guides are licensed to enter, but if you're exploring independently, you can take tours at designated times or call ahead to arrange a visit. Entrance is free because the Bahai won't accept donations from non-Bahais.

Walking through the impeccably landscaped gardens -- which are the same on either side to reflect the Bahai focus on equality and balance -- you get fabulous views of the city, and it is remarkably peaceful. Even though we descended 700 steps, I felt pretty mellow and calm by the time we reached the bottom -- much different from the frenetic atmosphere at the holy sites in Jerusalem. But, it also worked up my appetite. We peeked in at the shrine of the Bab and then found the car for a different sort of pilgrimage: a quest for the best falafel in Israel.

Yes, Haifa unexpectedly became our foodie day. We'd been told in Jerusalem that Haifa is known for its falafel and that Akko has the best hummus, a Middle Eastern chickpea paste. Plus, I was determined to dine on kosher meat before we left Israel. The first stop on our mission was HaZkenim in the Arab section of downtown Haifa. It's an unassuming shop, featuring a counter (behind which the owner takes your order and makes falafel) and stools in the back with a ledge to lean on. When you walk in, you're handed a falafel, straight out of the oil and dipped in tahini (a sesame seed paste), to whet your appetite. You essentially have two menu choices -- half a pita or a whole pita. It wasn't yet noon, so we each opted for halves, which were filled to the brim with chickpea fritters, tahini sauce and salad (mostly pickles). It's the ultimate fast food, and I'm now a convert to the claims that Haifa serves up the best falafel.

Akko is a 45-minute drive around the coast from Haifa, but as the crow flies, it's straight across the bay. The city was built by the crusaders in the 12th century but was destroyed by the Mamlukes in the 13th century. What they didn't destroy, however, was the underground city that ran the length of the above-ground one, so in the modern period, archaeologically speaking, it was pretty easy to dig out the rocks and discover a very intact city underneath. Visitors can tour two sections of the underground halls -- those of the Hospitalers (the crusaders concerned with hospitality and healing) and the Templars (those more involved with religion and the holy sites). The grand halls are built of stone, have highly arched ceilings and are still in use for concerts and performances today. My favorite part was traipsing through some of the connecting tunnels, including a narrow passageway for escaping in times of trouble -- and we imagined what it had been like to smuggle riches in and out of the city, via a two-way underground thoroughfare.

Above ground, the bazaar caters to Akko's present-day citizens more than tourists. Fish sellers stand next to bakers, and across the way, you can purchase shoes, toys or vegetables. Tucked away in this eclectic shopping area is the famed Humus Said. Here, there's only one thing on the menu -- you get a plate of thick hummus in oil, topped with chickpeas, freshly baked pita bread and salad. The hummus was very thick and warm ("It's like peanut butter," Rachel commented) and was clearly authentic, but I think I prefer a slightly lighter hummus -- especially when I'd eaten my fill of falafel only an hour or two earlier!

Our tour ended in mid-afternoon, so we had our guide drop us at the beach to the south of Haifa's downtown. The beach area has a very pleasant pedestrian boardwalk with cafes and bars lining one side and the beach on the other. The weather was perfect -- warm with a slight breeze -- and it was a joy to actually sit and rest our weary feet by the water for once. It's an unusual cruise since you spend much of your time away from coastline. I highly recommend the Haifa beach for toured-out cruisers who need a relaxing break on a port day.

We still needed to complete our triumvirate of culinary conquests. We took a cab up the hill to El Gaucho, an Argentine kosher meat restaurant. By that time, we were so confused about what port we were in that Rachel thanked the cabbie with a Spanish "gracias," rather than a Hebrew "todah." We shared the restaurant (and its fabulous views) with a very boisterous baby shower party, thrown by a group of religious Jews. Too bad the newborn wouldn't be able to dine on El Gaucho's fabulous grilled meats for at least a few years. Rachel and I ordered the combination plate that featured three different types of grilled steaks, which arrived at the table still sizzling. I'm no judge of meat since I eat it so rarely, but I'm a sucker for anything off the grill, and the meat was juicy and tender. The restaurant also served up yummy bread, also right out of the oven.

To get back home, we took Haifa's tiny, seven-stop subway back to the base of the hill. The subway is technically an underground funicular, and the floors of the subway cars are stepped because of the steep angle of the track. The stations are decorated in rainbow colors that scream 1970's, and the entire trip takes just a few minutes. When the train gets to the bottom, the driver walks back up to the other end of the train to drive it back up the hill. It's truly the most adorable public transportation option I've ever seen.

The walk back to the port wasn't quite so scenic -- the commercial areas were closed for the evening, and the streets were deserted. I guess most travelers take cabs or tour buses straight to the port, rather than hoofing it on their own. However, to complete our fabulous day of food, we found the only open shop -- a candy store! -- and spent the last of our shekels on chocolate and marzipan. And as so often happens on a cruise ship, we were sure to go to bed with our stomachs sated and full.

But, I would be remiss in ending the day there, without mentioning Azamara's clever evening entertainment. Nightlife on Azamara Quest has been practically nonexistent -- long days in port, followed by early tour departures, means that people disappear pretty quickly after dinner. On some nights, I've wished there was more late-night action (perhaps some dancing or a lively bar scene), but I've generally retired to my cabin with no complaints, drained from each day's adventures.

This night, however, the ship staged a deck party, with the various ship bands playing on the pool deck's stage. To kick off the evening, the entertainment staff put on "Dancing with the Stars," a dance competition that paired the ship's officers with guests for a dance off, evaluated by a trio of judges, which was headed up by the Cruise Director. It was fun discovering who was a closet soft-shoer, and we applauded wildly for our favorite pairs. Sadly, the band that followed lost the momentum with a string of bad '70s wedding classics, and we did not dance the night away under the stars.

Images of Bahai Gardens, Akko, hummus snack and the Haifa subway appear courtesy of Erica Silverstein.
Day 5: Jerusalem red arrow Day 7: Limassol, Cyprus

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