My husband and I were traveling with my 2 older sisters. We have been on many cruises, but this was the first time that we had sailed with Celebrity and for the most part we were extremely pleased with the experience. The Solstice was a new ship that had only been out a couple of times before our cruise, so it still had the sparkle that a lot of the older ships seem to lose after being in service for a while. We got to Rome a couple of days before we were scheduled to depart and stayed at the Eurostars International Palace in Rome. We were pleased with the hotel. The rooms were pretty good size for a European Hotel and it was central to most of the sites we wanted to see, with convenient transportation to everything else.We checked out of the hotel in the morning and got to Civitavecchia around noon. We were able to check in. The process went very smoothly. There were 10-15 people checking the passengers in, so there was almost no wait time. They said that the rooms would not be ready until 1:30pm so we went to lunch. As you walked into the Lido Buffet, there was a crewmember standing there with hand sanitizer, making sure everyone used it before they went in to eat. (This was consistent through the whole trip at all of their restaurants). We really appreciated this since we were cruising just after the swine flu "epidemic" began. It was the first time that we have been on a cruise that one of us didn't come back with a cold. We did not book any excursions through the Celebrity Solstice. We booked all private tours just for the 4 of us before we left. They were not only cheaper than the ones Celebrity offered, they were more flexible and built the tour according to how much time we wanted to spend at a site. On a couple of the tours, we actually changed parts of the itinerary as we went along. Things we liked about the cruise:The food was really good most of the time. The only time we had issues with it was once or twice at night in the Oceanview Cafe. They didn't have a lot of variety and sometimes it was cold. I think they wanted to encourage you to go to the dining room. The food in the dining room was excellent. We never had a bad meal there. The cabin attendants were awesome. They always seemed to be on duty. I don't know when they slept but they seemed to be available to us 24/7. The waiters were also incredible. They seemed to anticipate your every need. The acupuncturist, Grace was very knowledgeable and was worth every penny I spent. In general the whole staff was very good. The ship itself was beautiful and very clean. It was easy to find your way around on the ship, which says a lot since I tend to get lost easily on cruise ships. If you did get turned around, all of the crew were very knowledgeable and helpful in directing you to the right area. Things we didn't like:The ATM machines ran out of money about 3-4 days before the end of the cruise. That in itself was bad enough but the front desk kept telling people that it was unable to get the signal when they were close to shore. Of course after 2 days when it still didn't work we realized it was more than the signal. One of the front desk crew finally told us that it was out of money and there was no way to fill it until the end of the cruise. Unfortunately the others were still telling people that it was the signal until the day we disembarked. They only had 2 ATM's on board for 3800 people. The meal times - They were 6:15 and 8:45. The first one was too early, the last one too late. We had the later time but switched half way through the cruise. If you had the late dining, the show didn't start until 11pm which was hard if you were going out the early the next day (10pm would have been fine). Their shows were not attended well at all and I think part of it was their weird dinner times. Everyone complained about that. The photographers were not as active as some of the cruises we have been on. In fact we didn't even know that they were taking pictures at the dinner tables until several days in the cruise. Even on formal night, they still didn't take pictures of everyone in the dining room. They just seemed to do one side of the room and then left. We are used to them being much more involved with the guests activities. Even though there were a few minor annoyances, It was a really good cruise, probably one of the best we have been on. We would definitely sail again on the Solstice.
We did a private tour with a company called OTTI Travel. Our tour guide was BANU. It was awesome, probably one of the best tours we have been on. It was a full day tour and we went to Ephesus, Kusadasi, the house of the Virgin Mary, The church of St. John the Baptist, the temple of Artemis and many places in between.
We arrived in Kusadasi Turkey at 0900 and met our guide Banu at the gangway. She was a cute, vivacious young girl in her twenties, who spoke very good English with a Turkish accent. She took us around in a large van even though there were only 4 of us, a driver and Banu. We weren't cramped and we each had a window.
We liked Banu immediately. Banu had a great sense of humor and her knowledge about her country was phenomenal. She guided us to the van and then explained that our first stop was Ephesus. It took about 35 minutes to get to the ruins in Ephesus, and during that time, Banu explained to us all about the history and culture of Kusadasi including why the Muslim women that lived there were more modern and had more freedom than the Muslims in other countries. I think that we now know more about Turkey than we do our own country.
When we got to Ephesus, it was very crowded but BANU was a master at knowing when and where to stop to avoid the crowds. Each time we stopped, she explained that particular part of Ephesus. Ephesus was awesome. We liked it even better than Pompeii. There was an amphitheater completely intact that seated over 25,000 people. As a private tour, we were shown historical sites within Ephesus that tour guide with 40+ people could not do.
Next we went to the House of the Virgin Mary. The history about the house was fascinating. This place is visited and considered holy by not only Christians but also by Muslims All People that believed in the god-like qualities of the Virgin Mary come here and drink the water that they believe to be sacred.
Our next few stops were the church of St. John the Baptist, the Temple of Artemis, a pottery factory and a leather factory. I think the tour would have gone on all night if we hadn't been getting tired.
The nice thing about booking with this company and Having BANU as our guide is that even though we went to all the major attractions, she took us to local sites that we wouldn't have seen with the group tours. We even modified the tour while we were on it. As an example, My husband mentioned that he was looking for a leather jacket, so she took us to a leather factory, where they put on a private fashion show just for us. Their leather jackets were excellent quality at very reasonable prices. She also took us to one of the local places to eat rather than where all the tour buses go. The food was great and the people were very friendly. She really went out of her way to make sure that we saw everything we wanted to. I would definitely recommend seeing Ephesus and everything that goes with it and if you do do a private tour, I would recommend OTTI Travel and ask for Banu as your guide.
Istanbul was another place that was incredible. Once again we just a private tour company rather than go with Celebrity's excursions and we were very glad that we did. This time we used a company called privatetoursinturkey owned by Kagan Kosagan. Our tour guide was Songul. who was an incredible walking history book. From Constantine the great to today’s modern leaders, she knew it all. Besides its history, she also knew the culture and the lifestyle and could answer any question that we asked. There was so much to see that we were on sensory overload just trying to take it all in. Lucky for us, we had 1 and 1/2 days to see things.
The first day we got in at 3pm. Songul met us at the gangway. We went to St. Sophia which had been a mosque and a church at one time. The combination of Christian and Islamic symbols in one place is so unusual that it is really beautiful. When Songul told us about the coronations, I could just picture the ladies sitting upstairs watching everything but not being able to participate. The Basilica Cistern was an underground waterway that is definitely interesting to see. The Grand Bazaar was probably the most intimidating place we went. Our guide was not with us and the store owners were very pushy and didn't take no for an answer. If my husband hadn't been with us three girls, I would have been more concerned because one of the shopkeepers kept insisting my sister buy a purse. He kept following us for several aisles. The only way he stopped was when my husband stepped in and told him "NO'. Songul our guide had offered to come with us but we didn't think we needed her. We should have taken her.
The next day we got an early start and first went to the Spice Market (since the Grand Bazaar was such a disaster, Songul came with us. It was awesome. The shopkeepers were polite and not as pushy. Also, if Songul thought that they were trying to overprice us, she would tell them and then tell us not to buy it at that price. Each time the shopkeeper came down to a lower price. We saved a lot of money because she was with us.
Next we took a drive along the Bosphorus & the Asian side of Istanbul, After taking many pictures we went to the Blue Mosque with it's more than 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles (blue). What a magnificent site. It is so rich in history, there is no way, we could remember everything we were told. It was breathtaking beautiful.
The Topkapi Palace was next on the list and it was probably good that it was the last site because it was huge. We could have been there for a week and still never seen it all. The jewels, swords, art and architecture were all well worth the visit. While you could visit this site without a guide, you would miss so much if you did. Our guide Songul made all of these sites come alive with her historical knowledge. There is so much we would have missed without her. If you decide to do a private tour, I would definitely recommend Kagan Kosagan's company privatetoursinturkey and Songul as your guide. You get so much more with a private tour often for less money than the ship charges.
One of our very favorite tours was in Santorini. Arriving at the top of Santorini in Fira via the tram (we did not choose the donkeys), we began our tour with our very own private tour guide, George, from Pixel Tours. The island was gorgeous and our tour guide was awesome. Everywhere we stopped, he took pictures of all of us with his camera. Then at the end of the tour, he copied the pictures to a CD and gave us the CD. They were some of the best pictures we had on the whole trip.
With George, we saw the island from end to end. It was fascinating. We went from Oia to the beaches to the Churches. Our guide, George told us all about the history, the politics and the lifestyle of not only Santorini but also all the other islands that were close by.
The island has around 13,000 people and many many blue-domed churches and plain churches. I don't think anyone knows how many churches there are on the Island. Whenever I asked people who lived there, they told me anywhere from 300 to 1000.
The interesting thing about the homes in Fira is that what you see in the pictures is just the entrance to the home. Tunneled into the sheer cliffs; some of these homes have a entrance at the very edge of the cave and others have been built partly in the mountain and partly protruding on the outside. They are referred to as Cave homes and even the hotels are built that way.
It was so beautiful and so relaxing, we hated to leave. I would definitely recommend seeing Santorini with a private tour guide like George. He and Pixel Tours were the best.
We had been to Naples before and were not too impressed, so this time we decided to book a private tour guide and see Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast. Our tour guide was Giovanni Maresca, the owner of Johnny's Tours. He showed up in a suit and tie and a very nice van for the 4 of us. Giovanni was phenomenol and went out of his way to make sure that we got everything we wanted. We saw scenery that was indescribable and went on roads that made "The road to Hana" in Hawaii look like little hills.
Our first stop was Sorrento, a picturesque little town, that had awesome shopping. I could have spent the whole day there. Other towns that we saw were Positano, which is one of Italy's most popular resort towns. The views are incredible since it is built into the steep seaside slope. Amalfi, which is the main town of the Amalfi coast. It is made up of alleys and steps and also has unbelievable views. Ravella is another town that is perched above the high cliffs. It is a very small town with a population of maybe 2000. Music plays a big part in Ravello and the Ravello concert society has many outdoor chamber music concerts.
Giovanni took us to so many magnificient views that we couldn't take pictures fast enough. The roads wind around the mountains and are so narrow, that the tour buses can't go that way, so we got to see so much more than we would have on the ship's tour. Giovanni took us to a restaurant at the very top of the mountain in Positano for lunch. The roads were so narrow that if a car was coming the other way, one of you had to back up, so the other one could pass. Luckily there wasn't a lot of traffic.
The restaurant that we went to was called "Trattoria La Tagliata". It was probably one of the best meals that we had on the trip. It is a family owned restaurant. Giovanni told us to order the "family meal" for everyone which we did. They first brought us out trays of chesses and meats and veggies, which we thought was the lunch. We couldn't even finish that. Then they brought out trays of all different kinds of pasta and breads. Finally after we finished the main course, they brought out a tray of many different kinds of desserts. Every one of them just melted in our mouths. We were so full that we didn't eat again until the next day. If you have the opportunity this restaurant is not to be missed. The only problem is I don't know how you would get there without hiring a private tour or be willing to take your life in your hands and drive that road yourself. The best thing we did was hire Giovanni (Johnny's Tours) as our guide. His knowledge of the country and knowing just where to take us really made the trip special.