We just returned from the trip of a lifetime: aboard the Norwegian Jewel, Sept. 26-Oct. 8, Athens to Istanbul.
We're a very active couple who enjoy independent travel, and chose this for its fabulous itinerary, which included Alexandria, with enough time for the Giza pyramids.
This is our second cruise, so some of our comparisons are to the Celebrity Summit, which we took to Alaska.
We stayed in Athens three days in front and Istanbul one day after; that was about right unless we wanted to stretch further outside the cities.
The Hotel Ava in Athens was superb; we got upgraded to an executive apartment with a balcony bookended by the Acropolis and Hadrian's Arch. The Sari Konak in Istanbul was European tight with no counter space at all but was in a great location with a fabulous rooftop view of the Blue Mosque. We also stayed at the Meridian Pyramids in Cairo, which was spectacular with a balcony view of the pyramids and the pool.
Overall, we didn't think the Jewel was of the same quality as the Celebrity Summit in its staff, food, services or communication. The room was better designed, with terrific spaces and cabins. We wondered if the automatic daily gratuity spread among all the staff was actually a disincentive.
Thanks much to cruising colleagues here and elsewhere who have shared so much useful information. I've compiled what I call important details for folks like myself who overly research to relieve our anxieties. (I've posted under Eastern Mediterranean as well.)
IMPORTANT DETAIL TIPS
1. VISAS: o The ship takes your passports except when you go into a foreign country, at which point you pick them up with the appropriate stamp already in your passport. You also get a blank "landing pass" as you disembark, which looks kind of official but which no one ever checked. You hand it back when you return. o For Turkey, you get a visa stamp good for three months, and you're automatically charged $20 each for US citizens. No fuss, no muss.
2. FREE-STYLE DINING: o This means you can use the buffet and main dining rooms at any time, though there can be waits and lines. They attempt to help you with color-coded signs about wait times. The main dining room had a more limited menu than Celebrity had, with its fixed dining schedule. o There are 2 other restaurants you can dine at at no additional charge, but you need to make reservations. The line opens at 7 a.m. and will take reservations for two days out, so make a note to do so (which means you have to decide when you plan to eat two days out), otherwise you won't get in readily. The Italian restaurant, Mama's, was excellent. The Mexican restaurant, Tango's, was dreadful. o They had five or six other restaurants, all with a surcharge. We dined at Le Bistro, which was nice but not so amazing that we returned. The others were more pricey than we thought worthwhile—why would you have a surcharge for a Chinese restaurant? And the surcharge for the Teppanyaki restaurant was nearly what you would pay full price onshore. o There was a coffee bar in the reception area that had delicious looking desserts. I was told those were only for guests who purchased specialty coffees! What a disappointment; on the Celebrity, there was a wonderful pastry bar that was included. o The buffet was OK; for sanitary reasons, they're requiring handlers to dish out food rather than guests taking their own. This slows down the buffet considerably—just consider trying to make up a salad and having to point to each item. In addition, the waitstaff often seemed inattentive and distracted, chatting with each other even as you're standing there. o On the last day, the restaurants had a very limited menu so we opted for the buffet—it was a zoo. So, stick to the restaurant. o Because there is a guarantee tip charged automatically ($10 per guest for day), we felt it defused the level of service—because you're dining in different places, there seems to be little incentive for the waitstaff to go the extra mile. o We got a soda card, and felt a consistent sense of lower service due to the card (waitstaff presumes tips with alcohol each time). In fact over 12 days, only once did a waiter ask if we wanted to refill the soda—all other times, we had to practically plea for more.
3. ROOM SERVICE: o This was the best, most consistent service we found. You order coffee, juice, rolls, yogurt or fruit and they very punctually deliver it with a call about 5 minutes ahead of time. It's a more limited menu than we had on Celebrity, but it's great to get steaming coffee at the door.
4. DISEMBARKMENT: o They don't always go by the scheduled time listed. And, if you're eager to get off, you should go down at or before the scheduled time instead of patiently waiting for them to announce, by which time mobs will already be in line. o We were often earlier into port than scheduled. o They make a lot of money on excursions and independent travelers can get shortchanged. We nearly had a riot in Santorini, where we needed to tender ashore (that is, get into a smaller boat to be taken to port). Although the ship was in early, the water was very choppy, and they could not do duo tenders, so there were mobs waiting in a crowded space. They soon announced that "since the excursions had a schedule to keep," independent travelers should return to their rooms and wait to be called later. That didn't go over well with us; we didn't budge, and, eventually, they said we'll be on the next tender after the next excursion group. Fortunately, they did get another tender to dock and we all rushed aboard. ? As luck would have it, we were so delayed behind the excursions that when we got off at Santorini, there were no lines at the cable car to go up! o On the departure day, you're either assigned or pick a time when you are to get off, in about 15 minute increments. For independent travelers, they provide a stack of luggage tags color coded for different disembark times—you simply pick up your preferences unless they run out of your preferred time. HOWEVER, this is purely a trafficking system for the ship to keep the flow smooth. Your bags are not awaiting your departure time; they've long been ready for you overnight in the port, grouped by colors.
5. LOCATION: o Starboard was great for most ports and views. For Santorini and Istanbul, need to be on the port side. o We had an aft cabin previously, and this near aft one seemed a little more stable.
6. MISC SHIP: o Upon embarking, our neighbors were waiting and waiting for one of their bags. They finally learned that it had been detained and placed in a holding room awaiting them to reclaim it—because it had some bottled water in it. o You can get internet on your laptop in your stateroom for a relatively reasonable price. Just bring an Ethernet cable. o The fitness center was mediocre. The elliptical machines did not have heart monitors, which meant most of the programs couldn't be used. On Celebrity, there were several workers who came around to chat with guests, help answer questions. Here, I never saw anyone who acted like a host or knew anything about the equipment. The women's shower stall had no hooks anywhere near it for your towels or clothes! There were only a few classes to take; I went to two pilates, which were pretty good. o Beware that different countries deal with "lines" in different ways; there were many aggressive cruisers who went to the head of the line without any concerns; we kept our sense of humor mostly as time was usually on our side. But sometimes...
7. DRESS: o On the boat: Best thing about free-style is no need to dress up. Some people did but most didn't. They just require slacks for dinner (except for the buffet). Need light jackets for evening winds. o In ports: all manner of dress, including entertaining cruise chic. o In the religious buildings, they have cover-ups for those they deem need it. Basically you need your shoulders and knees covered. My travel mate was given a cover wrap and I wasn't even though we both were wearing light tops with sleeves. o At Istanbul's blue mosque, many women came prepared with scarves to cover their heads, but they waved me in without any covering. At a sultan's tomb, they had a box of scarves to be used by guests. o In Egypt and Turkey, natives do not wear shorts.
8. MONEY: o Greece is all Euros. o Egypt was Egyptian pounds, with many bills worth nearly nothing, plus US dollars. o Turkey is mostly Turkish Liras with some Euros. o Beware: the word Lira and Euro can sound slurred and similar. We had a taxi driver claim he quoted us Euros when we heard Liras; the same confusion occurred at customs upon return to the U.S. o You'll need some small change in Egypt and Turkey for restrooms; you can use Euros if you don't have local money.
9. PORTS TO TOWNS: (Huh; this is already getting fuzzy!) o Katakolon has about 4 blocks of tourist shops within easy walking. o Corfu is a good 20-30 minute hike and confusing to find unless you walk all the way around the port by the water. o Alexandria: you're just outside very busy city streets. o Iraklion: 20 minutes or so to town. Ship offers a shuttle bus. o Santorini: you have to tender, then take the cable car, donkeys or 600 steps. Then you're right in the heart of beautiful Fira. o Mykonos: Ship offers a shuttle bus, which goes right into the town. o Izmir: this is a gigantic city. Easy 10 minutes to major parts of town. o Istanbul: Where we were supposed to dock would have been a nice 20-minute stroll into the city. Another ship was there so we "parked" further away. You have to take a cab ($10E for four, I heard) or the tram ($1.40 lira each).
10. CAR RENTALS: o All were cheaper on site than they were via advance reservations. We paid $30-45E, which includes insurance and whatever gas is in the car. You just need to return it with some gas. (There is no self service so just wait for someone to fill your tank with however many Euros worth you want.) o Beware: the roads are very poorly marked, and, of course, in foreign languages! o You can't find any car rental agencies online for Katakolon, which is the gateway to Olympia. But right past the port is a nice car rental shop. This is so simple and easy and reasonable compared to hiring a cab. o At Corfu, we were told to leave the car at the port (making it easier for us), and just leave the car unlocked and the keys under the rug! o At Crete, we had to wait for the car rental person to find us at the port, which was a bit of a pain due to miscommunication. We were about to leave the car (unlocked, etc.) when we finally hooked up in the only "emergency" use of our cell phone during our trip. o We just drove around but hiring a cab may be worthwhile for Corfu or Crete to show you the "best views." o Digression to driving in Egypt. HOLY COW. These guys are nuts. There are no traffic rules; lights and lanes are meaningless; cars, vans, buses, pickups, wagons, donkeys, bikes and people all boldly march forth in the same space, creating lanes as they go. An ambulance siren was completely ignored as it inched along; police cars were just part of the circus. Terrifying.
11. BUSES: o They collect money and give out tickets aboard usually. o Beware the schedule may not be real. o We had a great bus ride from Athens out to Sounion to see the Poseidon Temple; it runs along the coast to the southernmost tip and took about 1 hour and 45 minutes each way. o We were more than a half hour off schedule in a jam packed bus back from Ia to Fira at around 1 p.m.
12. TOURS: o We heard mixed reports about the ship's excursions, from raving about a guide to mostly not enjoying the mobs. o We used Nile Blue for Egypt and Ekol for Turkey; they provide small group attention at lower rates than the ship. ? Nile Blue had a bad start with us. We got off bright-eyed, ready to go, met with them...then had to wait nearly an hour to get out of the port, while watching bus after bus rev away. They said they usually gather a few tour groups and leave in a caravan (which they did not tell us ahead of time). This time, security allegedly required them to wait for their entire party to leave. (We noticed some money exchanging hands with the guards when we finally left). We did not get an English speaking guide until we reached Cairo, so we had no background conversation coming or going. The delay meant we missed out on a lunch that was included in the tour; instead, they let us do quick snack shopping at a shop. • Aside from that, Nile Blue was GREAT. They took good care of us; gave good information, especially at the chaotic Egyptian museum; brought us to a couple of very nice buffets, including a dinner cruise that seemed filled with natives, not tourists; got us terrific accommodations at the Meridian Pyramids. • They wanted to take us to the papyrus factory, which is basically a shopping network, but we declined. • We had enough time to visit the Alexandria library on day two but it was closed, so they drove us through Alexandria markets and it was fascinating. ? Ekol was very good; Inan very punctual and professional. We went to Mary's house first and just beat hoards of busloads. One complaint: Ekols snuck in a visit to a carpet "coop" (actually a demonstration sales house), which they had not told us about. It was a good visit but annoying since it was not on our plans and they were supposed to be on our dime. • Our travel mates also used Ekol for Istanbul and were very complimentary.
13. SANTORINI HIKE: o Going from Fira to Ia is really a two-part hike of six miles or so. The first is gorgeous spectacular churches, hotels, villas, swimming pools. The second is more geologically interesting, with pumice, ash, layers of volcano all about, and was the steepest part of the hike. (So, it should be easier the other way!) o It wasn't intuitive to find the trail. We had found a very nice description ([url]www.cycladen.be/fira-calderaeng.htm[/url]) but even it was somewhat confusing. Basically, going this direction, you want the water on your left; if you pass the Nomikos Conference Center, which looks like an important building, you're in good shape. o It took us about 2 1/2 hours with many stops for pictures and a snack break. o There was really not a good place to eat after Imerovigli (which is spectacular), so either do it there or wait till Ia.
14. TRAM AT ISTANBUL: o This is a wonderful, easy transport that runs along the port area. You need to follow the tracks to find a "station," which has a ticket counter and turnstyles for putting in your tokens and for departing (even though you can get on and off the platform in other ways!)
15. TURKISH BATH: o I'm a Gene Juarez gal and I should have passed on the hammam. It was coarse and sloppy, with well-intentioned, weathered, saggy women slathering and mopping and tossing scoops of water on you.
16. SECURITY BETWEEN FLIGHTS: o If you are changing flights and changing countries (i.e. US to Paris to Athens), you will have to go through security again—meaning you can't take liquids on board. So don't waste money buying water thinking you'll have it for the long long flights home. They'll make you throw it away. o The customs line in Amsterdam was dreadfully disorganized. Then we were surprised that there were no customs check upon arrival in Athens. (Don't recall the same reaction traveling via Copenhagen.) o The security line in Paris was shockingly bad—we wondered if there had been recent incidents and/or new hires because we were checked numerous times, then went through remedial security—as if they've never done this before—including physical checks of each person. They took away our water, soda and a plastic knife. ? Don't forget at CDG in Paris you have take connecting buses to get to your planes, and buses to get to terminals as well. It's time consuming.