Oosterdam Cruise Review by Kirk Whorf
- Sail Date: July 2009
- Destination: Eastern Mediterranean
Another pleasant surprise for me was smoking. I assumed that it would be worse than US-based cruises since this cruise had so many Europeans on board. I found it to be just the opposite. The casino was almost smoke-free (not due to HAL rules).
We did have a serious accident aboard the Oosterdam after we had left Kusadasi. Two crew members were injured, one very seriously so the ship had to divert back to Turkey in the middle of the night. The Captain gave us daily updates and one crew member was able to rejoin the ship during our cruise with the other crew member out of danger (but still in the hospital) by the time the cruise ended. We were very glad they were getting better and fully understood the need to take them back to Turkey.
The disembarkation in Venice was the best I have ever experienced. We did the self-disembarkation. They announced we could leave a few minutes before 7:00 am and we were off, in a taxi and at the airport by 7:20. Unbelievable! I would say there did not appear to be a large number of taxis at the port that morning, maybe ten so someone behind us may have had to wait.
Day one - Venice
We had pulled an overnighter from Philadelphia with US Air and touched down in Venice at around 10:30 a.m. We were supposed to arrive at 9:00 but thunderstorms in Philly had delayed our departure by two hours. Arrival was non-eventful as we gathered our luggage and cleared customs by approximately 11:00. We grabbed a taxi outside (38 euros) and were deposited at the front of the cruise terminal within 20 minutes. HAL had baggage porters out front and we walked all of 20 feet with our bags before they were whisked away by the porters. There was very little in the way of signage as to where to go next but we quickly figured out that we needed to go upstairs in the cruise terminal. HAL was ready for us in a large hall with refreshments and a short wait until check-in opened up. We were on the ship by noon eating a nice lunch in Lido. After lunch we began our tour of Venice by walking to Piazzale Roma. It is not a bad walk, about 20 minutes but is up and down some bridges and crossing a traffic circle until you arrive at a very busy plaza. The walk is not marked so you have to kind of know the general direction to go. Piazzale Roma is full of activity but we were able to locate the ACTV ticket outlet pretty easy, just look for the bright blue signs near the water. The ticket window for the vaporetto is on the outside of the office, bus tickets are inside. We purchased three 36 hour passes (I had brought some euros with us but ATMs were readily available). Passes in hand we walked a few 100 feet to the loading platform for the vaporetto. I had done enough research to know we wanted route 2 (we were headed to Accademia) as it was quicker (less stops) than route 1. I was proud we were able to figure out which platform to get on and within minutes a vaporetto began loading. It took about a minute for me to realize that while we where in fact on the correct route, we were in fact going the wrong way! Not a big deal as we just got off and got on the correct way but pay attention to the little maps they post on the boarding stations, they show which way the route is headed!
Once at Accademia we disembarked and found our way to the front door. It was here we experienced something that we found to be true throughout our visit to Venice, a lack of crowds. Don't get me wrong, St. Mark's Square was not empty but we had been prepared for long lines and there were none. We walked right in to Accademia with no wait at all. Once we were done there we headed over to St. Mark's Square were we got in a line that was about 50 feet long but it only took 5-10 minutes and we were inside. We had already stored our knapsack at Ateneo San Basso around the corner so we got by the fashion police with no problem. It was so non-crowded that when we paid to enter the treasury in the basilica there were only three other people inside! What an awesome experience. By this time jet lag was taking hold (I had slept like a rock on the flight thanks to Ambien but my wife and daughter were starting to look like zombies) so we headed back to Oosterdam and an early dinner and some sleep.
Day 2 - Venice
After a good night sleep and breakfast we were back at it by 9:00. HAL provided a free bus to Piazzale Roma so we rode that over and were back on the vaporetto by 9:15. Our morning goal was Doge's Palace. Again upon arrival at St. Mark's Square we were surprised by the lack of lines for the palace. We bought tickets and got in within a few minutes. All I can say about the palace is wow! It turned out to be our favorite place in Venice. We spent well over two hours touring its rooms, courtyards and prison. By that time we were getting hungry so we headed off in search of a restaurant I had found on the internet called Trattoria da Remigio. We walked and walked through the winding streets of Venice with no luck so we finally turned around, no sooner did we do that than realized we had walked right by the restaurant a few minutes earlier. Turned out they were closed for another 45 minutes so we opted for Trattiria da Giorgio, right around the corner which was very good, nice atmosphere also, right on one of the side canals. After lunch we headed to Ca' Del Sol and Atelier Marega for a Venetian mask for my daughter. Wonderful mask shops if anyone is interested, they are about a 10 minute walk from St. Mark's Square but well worth the diversion. From that point we began a shopper's dream (not mine) of a walk to the Rialto Bridge stopping at what seemed to me, every shop along the way. Once at Rialto, more shops and then a walk to Frari Church. This is a fascinating church, a Franciscan church built around 1250 AD. From there, back to the vaporetto and the Oosterdam.
Day 3 - Venice
I really considered this a sea day as we departed from port at 10:00 am. Not much you can do in Venice that early and still catch the ship. Turns out the ship had to wait due to the Festa de la Redentore festival which was held over the weekend (we wondered if this affected the crowds, maybe everyone went to the festival?). Part of the festival included a pontoon bridge across the Giudecca Canal. This could not be removed before 10:00am.
The sail away from Venice has got to be the most awesome in the world. From the upper decks you get a magnificent view of the city, its buildings and all the canals.
Day 5 - Athens I had arranged for Jordan Ntaioglou (firstname.lastname@example.org) to take us to the sights in Athens. Jordan provides the transportation as well as a lot of insight into the history of Athens and Greece but does not accompany you inside any of the sights. We found Jordan to be a delight; he is very passionate about his work and wants his guests to leave Athens with an understanding of its history. The stops included the Acropolis, the Acropolis Museum (this was fantastic!), Hadrian's Arch, Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Temple of Zeus, The Tower of the Winds, St. George's Church, the President's Palace (including the changing of the guards) and the Panathenaic Stadium. A full day to say the least.
Jordan also took us to a local taverna for lunch, To Oaronoteion; it turned out to be the best meal of our trip. My daughter claims it is the best lunch of her life! For dessert, Jordan went across the street and got us some baklava, awesome! We also spent about one hour in Plaka shopping where a vendor kept trying to sell my daughter a "gift for her future husband". I was afraid to ask what that might be!
Day 6 - Istanbul
We had decided to do Istanbul on our own and no sooner had the ship docked around 4:00 pm than we were off. We had docked further away from the Galata Bridge than I had anticipated and when exiting the ship you had to travel toward New District in order to get out of the secured port, kinda of a pain as it took us 20 minutes just to get to the main street. Once there we were in search of an ATM and Turkish Lira. I had been mildly concerned on this aspect as the tram required lira but found that ATMs are everywhere in Istanbul. In fact, I am not sure you are every out of sight of one. We queued up at the ATM with a few other Oosterdam adventurers and met up with Susan from Cruise Critic. Susan and her lovely daughters Caroline and Ti were schedule to go with us on our private tour in Kusadasi. It became kind of funny as throughout the remainder of the cruise; we seemed to run into Susan everywhere we went. On this occasion we hooked up and figured out how to buy tickets to the tram (there is a little office at each stop that sells them) and rode into the old town on the tram disembarking at Sultanhamet stop. Here is where we got our first lesson in dealing with Turkish vendors. We were all (Susan's group and my group) heading to the Hagia Sophia on the outside chance we could still get in when a friendly man started chatting with us, you know "where are you from, O' I have been there" kind of stuff. He told us we had missed the Hagia Sophia for the day but the Blue Mosque was still open. As we headed to the mosque he stuck right with us, chatting the whole time. He was quite helpful in explaining about the Muslim practices of worship, things like the separation of men and woman in the mosque, the washing of hands and feet etc. He showed us to the door, helped us get bags to store our shoes, all in all very helpful. Well, Susan and I were not dummies, we suspected there would be a catch to all this and with hardly any planning we split our group up with the intent of losing our benefactor in the mosque. After about 15-20 minutes I felt it was safe to go outside as I had not seen "our friend" for some time. Well as soon as we exit, guess who was waiting? As I am putting my shoes back on he begins telling me about his store, a rug shop and that I must see it and we can go there right now, it is right around the corner. Well I was not going and just told him we needed to meet some people and walked off. From that point forward anytime someone tried to engage us in a conversation we just did not respond. The Turkish vendors are pretty aggressive in talking to you but we found ignoring them to work pretty well.
After the mosque we headed over to the Hippodrome and Underground Cistern, a very interesting place, plus it is naturally cool. By this time it was around 6:00 so we decide to get back on the tram and head to the Grand Bazaar (Cemberlitas stop). What a crazy place, vendors selling what appeared to me to be the same as the stall next door. How do they sell anything? They certainly try their hardest but I escaped relatively unharmed. From there it was back on the tram and back to the ship. One item of note, particularly late in the day is that Turkish men have different hygiene practices than Americans. The use of certain products appears to be optional and on the tram ride back it was quite obvious what these differences where. Off the tram at Tophane stop and back to the ship. One item of note is that Susan later told us that if you go one stop beyond Tophane to Findikli it is a much shorter walk. We used it the next day and found it to cut the walk in half.
Day 7 - Istanbul
Up early and back on the tram headed to Topkapi Palace. We got off the tram at the Gulhane stop and hit the side exit of the palace. It was weird as I expected to have a controlled access but in fact it is just a winding road where eventually you find a guard (armed with an Uzi in case you try to get in early) who stopped us until a few minutes before nine. We hit the Harem first and than the rest of the palace. As my daughter would say OMG, what a place. Certainly our favorite in Istanbul. Not only are the various courtyards breathtaking but the artifacts they have on display are unbelievable, Moses' staff, Muhammad's footprints, an 86 carat diamond....
After the palace we needed to eat so we went to Sultanahmet Koftecisi for lunch and to cool off. Lunch was good, a limited menu, meatballs and kebabs plus some salads and appetizers. This is the place that "invented the Turkish meatball". Once we had recharged we decided to head to the Spice Bazaar so back on the tram, off at Eminonu and to the bazaar where of course we ran into Susan and her group (as we did in the waiting line for the palace). After a tour of the Spice Market we decided it was time to head back to the ship.
Day 8 - Mykonos
This was a late arrival, 1:00, so we had already had lunch when we disembarked. This was the only time on the trip I found HAL to be disorganized. We dock about one mile from town so HAL had arranged for buses to carry us into town. The problem was the bus line and the disembarkation lines were all jumbled up so those trying to get off could not until those ahead of them got on the buses. Confusion reigned.
We checked out the Archaeological Museum which was quite interesting. I never get tired of seeing things made several thousand years ago. What a beautiful place, Mykonos, small winding streets, whitewashed houses and shops. We basically just wandered the streets, stopping at shops (too many for me but I am out numbered). Visited "Little Venice" for a drink, found the Church of Panagia Paraportiani, went in the Folk Museum, found the windmills etc. We ate at Kostas where we got a seafood platter appetizer that freaked my daughter out because we ate pickled octopus. We are not late night partiers so headed back before the crowds.
Day 9 - Kusadasi
We had arranged for the services of a tour guide for Ephesus, Levent Solmaz (www.leventsolmaz.com). There were four families on this tour and Levent actually accompanies you through the various stops. Levent did an outstanding job. I would highly recommend him to anyone! We visited the Ephesus ruins, the terrace houses, Mary's shrine, Museum of Ephesus, Basilica of St. John, Hadrian Temple and the Temple of Artemis. The ruins in Ephesus are awesome, the best we saw on the whole trip and Levent did a great job working us around the crowds and the heat (it was 114F). Levent took us to a local restaurant called Selcuk Koftecisi which was great (plus it was air conditioned). After lunch it was off to a rug making shop and leather shop and back to the ship. Did I mention it was hot?
Day 10 - Santorini
I am surprised I am saying this but Santorini was our most disappointing stop. It was not Santorini itself but just the way the stay worked out. I mentioned earlier that two of the ship's crew had a serious accident and the ship had to divert to Turkey so they could receive medical attention. This was understandably necessary. This did impact our arrival in Santorini so instead of arriving at 8:00 am we actually did not arrive until 10:15 am. Then began a laborious tendering event that translated into an over 2 hour wait to actually get to the island. Our original plan had been to rent a car, go to Oia and return later to Fira for shopping but since we did not actually set foot on Santorini until 12:15 that plan went out the window. In addition, the ship did not, could not, would not delay leaving Santorini (we ended up arriving over one hour early in Katakolon the next day) by and hour or two. In fact we were told that the last tender would leave Santorini at 4:30 giving us a whopping 4 hours on the island. Given the tendering nightmare, the logistics of getting back to the tenders from Fira and the time we had been allotted we felt that we had better be in the cable car line by 3:30 at the latest (turned out that was about right as the cable car line wait was at least 30 minutes). This gave us time for lunch and some shopping but nothing like we had planned. I don't know if there were special issues surrounding the tendering but if that is typical of a Santorini stop, I would not care to go back unless the stop is scheduled for at least 12 hours (I have seen some cruises on HAL where Santorini is only allocated 6 hours versus our original 9 hours). It just seems a shame that a place so beautiful and difficult to get to should be rushed. If necessary consider cutting out a port and do an overnighter in Santorini, I bet that would fill up quick.
Day 11 - Katakolon
We had arranged for a private taxi for this port with Andreas Stamos (email@example.com). Andreas is a very nice driver, he is very careful with his driving (his wife just had their first baby so maybe he wants to be sure to make it home!). Andreas did a great job of taking us to Ancient Olympia, the Olympia Museum, the Amphitheater and the Olympic Games Museum. The Olympia ruins are hard to understand what you are looking at as time and the Romans leveled the original buildings. Andreas gave us a very handy book and map that included pictures as the ruins looked today and then an overlay of what they looked like in ancient times plus a write-up on the particular ruin. We found this to be very helpful!
For lunch it was off to another local restaurant (eating is very important to us) called Aegean. It was fabulous. I had a calzone that was huge and very very good!
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