When debating what to do for our honeymoon, my wife (DW) and I had different ideas. She wanted to relax and I wanted to see Europe. The original plan was to tour Italy or Europe for 2 weeks traveling from city to city by train. We received a cruise postcard in the mail randomly and began researching a cruise. This piqued our interest and we chose Celebrity Solstice based on its itinerary, amenities, and good reviews on Cruise Critic.
The cruise departed 2 days after our wedding which allowed us to arrive in Rome on the morning of the cruise, take a Celebrity panoramic tour around the city, and arrive at the ship with time to spare. Getting to Civitavecchia can be a hassle or expensive after a long flight. We decided that the panoramic tour was the best value even though we were worn out after the flight. An espresso upon arrival helped to perk us up. Aqua Class and Concierge Class have separate check-in desks at the port which made checking in very easy. We were very impressed at how spacious and pleasant the cabin was. Though we don't have any other cabin experience, the room was new, the veranda was especially spacious for two people, closet and storage space was more than sufficient, and the bathroom was larger than the one in my first studio apartment. I am a fan of the Hansgrohe bath fixtures and the shower in Aqua Class is refreshing with a rainfall showerhead and 6 jets on a shower panel. The water can be sprayed in different combinations and the shower head can also be adjusted for height. After the cruise we stayed at the Rome InterContinental and I immediately missed the shower on the Solstice.
What we liked about the cruise ship:
1. Molecule Bar and its friendly, talented bartenders Liljiana and Daniel. This bar is located on deck 5 in front of the art gallery area. We visted this bar for pre-dinner drinks nightly. They specialize in specialty, balanced, cocktails using freshly squeezed juices and modern techniques. There are 12 cocktails on the menu and I tried every one of them. My favorite was the Tanned Russian and a close second was the Melon Felon. DW enjoyed the Coming up Roses and the Dragonfly (topped with liquid nitrogen for both drama and chilling). This bar was quiet as other passengers seemed either slow to discover it or reluctant to spend $12/drink. Towards the end of the cruise, I switched to Grolsch as one can only handle so much fruitiness. 2. Blu, dining room for Aqua Class passengers only, and our servers Mildred and Myo Ko. Service was exceptionally prompt and more courteous than can be found in most fine restaurants. Simply prepared entrees were much better than when the kitchen attemped adventure. The biggest miss was the lobster with some sort of orange sauce. The lamb and the steak options were always tasty. 3. Eric the Port and Shopping Director. We started watching his presentations on channel 4 and then realized we could view them in person. He was very enthusiastic about the ports and the goods that could be purchased. Eric said that everyone on the cruise would buy a Turkish carpet. I thought this could not be true. We surprised ourselves by buying one at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and 2 in a store in Kusadesi. They really are well made and at prices much better than what could be found in the U.S. I also enjoyed the negotiating game that the rug dealers encourage. 4. The fitness room on deck 12. This room does not seem to get much coverage on any sites, but it is more than sufficient to continue a fitness routine on vacation. There was a good amount of cardio equipment and I never had to wait to use a piece of equipment. The cardio equipment also offers a great view. At the front of the fitness room there is a deck above the of the ship that is barely used. This a great place to be for enjoying the passing scenery and serenity at sea. 5. Our stateroom attendants, Yolanda and Mohammed, were fantastic and always friendly and speedy.
Celebrity does a great job of training its people in hospitality or hiring well-suited people.
What we did not enjoy about the cruise:
1. Fellow passengers who forget or never knew manners. The Oceanview Cafe on deck 14 is a prime location for rudeness and animal-like behavior. Meals in this room should be avoided. A woman pushed me away from the pastry area with a forearm to the mid-back and no mention of the words pardon or excuse me. The food is prepared for thousands of overeaters. I cannot understand why people load up mountains of average-at-best food onto their plates. As a positive, at the back of the dining room there is a nice outside area with table at the aft of the ship. If you can, stay out of there or visit early in the morning for coffee and cereal.
Cabin 1571, just under deck 12 is covered, in the center of the ship, and offers great views. The cabin was spacious for two people to avoide feeling cramped. There was also a good selection of free on demand movies available.
The stop in Santorini was brief compared to others. This is a tender port so it is important to be on one of the first few tenders in order to have enough time to explore the island. We chose to climb the 600-700 steps to the top instead of using a cable car or a donkey. I hate waiting in line and most people opt for the cable car. Riding a donkey is not appealing for me either. The stairs to the top require a decent level of fitness and a bit agility to side step donkeys and their droppings they also use the steps. At the top of the steps we found a grocery store for cokes and a bakery for some fantastic bougatsa. Being on Santorini towards the end of the day at the end of the tourist season means that many shops and restaurants are closed for the season. We walked to the bus station, which was easy to find using the ship provided map, and took a bus to Oia. The guys who run the bus station are not especially friendly or helpful and seem to be tired of answering questions about the bus. They sort of have a too-cool-for-school attitude which might be partially responsible for their occupation. People herd around the bus when it arrives and it is boarded in a chaotic fashion. Rudeness appears again here. Oia was beautiful and we got some great pictures. We were ready to leave earlier than the bus was scheduled to return to Fira town. A nice couple from Texas asked us to share a taxi ride back. This worked out well and the taxi driver was able to negotiate an exorbitant rate from us. We paid 20 Euros, 10 Euros per couple, for a 10 minutes ride. Taxis were rare so we paid the price. Fira has a good selection of restaurants and touristy stores. After dinner, at night, we walked towards the cable car to find 2,000 people lined up for a ride down to the dock. The cable car was not running regularly because of wind and an approaching storm. For a little more adventure we purchased a flashlight (there are no lights on steps) at a grocery store 100 feet from the top of the stairs, and began our trek down the steps on foot. The rain started, lightning and thunder followed, and the wind picked up. Our shoes became soaked and a mixture of donkey feces and rain water cascaded down the hill. The shower panel and shower were especially refreshing that night.
It was hard for us to judge Mykonos because we were there at the end of the season and many restaurants, shops, and hotels were closed. We took lots of great pictures end enjoyed finding our way through the maze of streets. Another honeymooning couple that we met at the airport toured the island with us. The archaelogical museum was interesting and provided many samples of millenia old pottery, DW waited outside the museum on a bench and an equally good time people watching. I wanted to have lunch at N'ammos on the other side of the island and after a taxi ride there we discovered that it was closed. The taxi driver was nice enough to wait for us while we walked towards then restaurant. We ate lunch in front of the town's pier in a crowded restaurant with very good food and some of the hardest working servers I have seen. There are many high end store on the island. We have all of those stores in Washington and I barely shop in them. The best values on the island appear to be jewelry, pillow covers, and t-shirts. The nightlife is highly touted, but the maze of streets and accessibility to water should be a warning to one seeking to become completely smashed.
ISTANBUL Istanbul is huge. On the cruise ship, passengers are strongly encouraged to take a shore excursion. We opted to explore on our own. Doing this requires walking through a crowd of 100 aggressive taxi drivers promoting their services. At the end of them, turn left and walk for 15 minutes where there is a bridge going towards the Grand Bazaar/Blue Mosque area or turn left and cross the street, climb 200 stairs, walk straight turn right after 10 minutes and you'll be heading towards Taksim Square which seemed to be just a busy area. We stopped at a little place on the way for lunch, pide and a gyro. We took a taxi from Taksim Square to the Grand Bazaar. The taxi driver was the taxi driver we have ever had. He offered us coffee of tea in his car. He had a little pot connected to the cigarette lighter in the car for heating water. He also offered us pastry and candy. It is nice to find people who take pride in their profession. Later in Istanbul we had the worst taxi driver who took us on a 30 minute/30 lira ride to nowhere. For dinner we chose the Ciragan Palace at the Hotel Kempinski. The hotel is partly in a renovated Ottoman Palace with great views of the city on the banks of the Bosphorus. It was very opulent. The dining room of the restaurant is in the old palace and serves traditional Ottoman food. Service was good, but not as good as service in Blu. I enjoyed their tasting menu with wine pairings and found Turkish wine appealing. Food is served on plates covered by ornate silver domes. Dinner for two with my wine pairings for me, a glass of champagne, and one other wine by the glass was $300. We arrived before the restaurant had opened and they served a us a glass of Champagne and a vodka tonic. I felt that we were gauged by the price of the glass of Champagne at 72 YTL or close to $50. It was only Moet & Chandon and the glass was not filled and the bottle was not fresh. I complained and paid anyway. The lesson to take from this is not to order Champagne by the glass or any other drink without viewing a menu in an unfamiliar place.
The Grand Bazaar is indeed grand and overwhelming. We bought Turkish delight, some tiles, and some jewelry. The shopkeepers are very aggressive in pursuing business. At first this is a fun, new experience. Eventually it becomes tiring. We purchased a wool/cotton carpet from Simsek Aynacioglu at KEMAL EROL, saynacioglu@gmail. He apparently owns four stores in the grand bazaar and was very nice and courteous in his sales approach. We started in one of his stores that specialized in all silk carpets. We found the prices for those carpets to be more than we wanted to spend ($4,000 to $6,000). Rug merchants are willing to unroll 100 carpets or more in order to find a carpet that a customer will want to buy. The merchants will serve a customer apple tea all day if they feel a sale can be made. On a $6,000 carpet, I offered $500 and that did not stop the carpet unrolling or the apple tea. It was suggested that we visit their other store to accommodate our budget. Once we found a 6' x 8' Ushak carpet with colors that we liked, Simsek negotiated a good price with us for it ($1,500 - $3,000). To get a lower price we agreed to send him a subscription for 1 year of Mac World magazine. He had just purchased a new iPhone and is a big fan of Apple. The next day, he shipped the carpet by DHL to us and e-mailed me the tracking information. His store was not a Celebrity guaranteed store, but I think we were able to get a better deal because of that.
This was the only stop where we booked a shore excursion. I wanted to see House of the Virgin Mary, terrace houses, and Ephesus ruins. Celebrity's shore excursions did not provide a package for all of this. Large groups cannot go through the terrace houses and they are worth seeing. I found Hello Ephesus on Cruise Critic and visited their web site to arrange the tour. For $160 we were able to have a VW van with driver, a tour guide, and a Turkish lunch with wine. Our tour guide, Ahu, was fantastic. She spoke English fluently, was knowledgable about the sites, and was a fun person. The best part was we could move at any pace that we wanted and change up the order of sites to beat the crowds. With several cruise ships visiting the port at one time it is best to arrive as early as possible to Ephesus to beat the rush. Apparently Marc Antony and Cleopatra honeymooned in Ephesus in 32 B.C. so there was some historical context for enjoying our honeymoon there as well.
The House of the Virgin Mary is very calming and spiritual. A quick prayer there cannot hurt. Next to the re-built stone house is a spring where people are able to drink holy water or take some home. I filled an empty water bottle with it and brought some home. Some Catholic friends really enjoyed receiving the water as a gift.
In Kusadasi there are many stores with lots of jewelry, carpets, and junk. It was the end of the season when we visited and store owners were eager to sell. Because of the time of year and their eagerness to deal, I sensed it was possible to get a good deal on more rugs. This time I decided to try for 2 rugs at once and was able to purchase 2 3x4 wool/cotton rugs for $900. They are Angora rugs. We ate dinner at a little restaurant in front of the dock. The food was okay, but not special. We were also able to buy some silver/turquoise jewelry for seemingly good prices. I took it as an opportunity to buy Christmas presents.
Athens shmathens. We opted to do Athens on our own and worked our way through the crowd of eager taxi drivers at the port where we found another couple from the ship willing to share a taxi to the Acropolis. The cost on the sign in the port for this is 12 to 15 Euros. The price we paid for 4 people was 20 Euros. The driver was nice, but did not speak much English. The Parthenon is impressive considering it was built thousands of years ago, but it was under a lot of construction and surrounded by scafolding. We were able to get a fantastic picture though where the construction is hidden. Don't be surprised to find friendly stray dogs on the Acropolis. The view of Athens from the Acropolis is fantastic and gives one an idea on the scale of the city - it is huge and smoggy. From the Acropolis we walked towards the Plaka and Syntagma Square. By this point on the cruise, we were sort of shopped out. We walked all around the Plaka and took the Metro back to Piraeus. There are two sections to the port, A and B, we were docked at B and the metro is it at A. After a bit of a walk we found the shuttle bus stop to take us to B. A most impressive part of this stop was the skill exerted by the captain or pilot of the ship in backing the huge Solstice out of the port. As a lifelong boater, I was impressed.
From what we saw, Naples is awful. It is a dirty and chaotic city with aggressive driving and mish-mashed streets. We had to explore Naples though to find pizza dubbed to be among the world's best. After some research, I chose to try L'antica Pizzeria "da Michele" at Via Cesare Sersale, 1/3 (angolo Via P. Colletta)Tel. 0815539204. The sweet mozzerella on their Margherita pizza is delicious and unique to that region. The crust was perfect as it is crisped in a wood-burning oven. The menu is simple with 2 choice of pizza and 3 choices for beverage. Coke light is not served.
My tip for Naples is to pick 1 surrounding area to explore and give it the attention required.
Before trying pizza, we took a ferry to Capri. Ferries are found right next to where the cruise ship docks and it is easy to board one headed to either Capri or Sorrento. Once in Capri, a ferry to Sorrento can also be boarded. We thought that doing Capri, Sorrento, and Naples in one day was too ambitious. Some friends onboard the ship decided to explore Pompeii on their own and had a great experience.
Capri was beautiful and almost instantly relaxing. We took the funicolare to the top of the hill and explored Capri town on foot. To the right are a few store and restaurants, the bus station, and the taxi stand. We had cappuccino and pastries at a little restaurant for around $25 in the morning and then somehow made our way to the other side of the island. We sat on benches in front of the Hotel Punta Tragara and took pictures of the Faragliani Rocks, we then walked down the path towards the water for more pictures. This created the need for a somewhat strenuous hike back to the top 20 minutes later. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip. The hotel was built by Le Corbusier and was later used by General Eisenhower during World War II as the headquarters for the American command. We did not expect to find this, but I was impressed while reading the plaque on the side of the building.
For lunch we ate at a small restaurant to the left of the funicolare station. Prices were reasonable for pizza, panini, and wine.
By avoiding Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast, and Sorrento we created the need for another trip to Italy. In Rome we threw coins into the Trevi Fountain so I am sure that we will be back at some point in the future. Focusing mostly on Capri was a great choice for us and I strongly encourage it.