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39 Princess Pacific Princess Europe - Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Reviews

My wife and I have over 20 cruises with with Princess so, as we are running out of options with their large ships,we decided to try one of the small ships. We are both early 60's, still working and from the 'it pays to ... Read More
My wife and I have over 20 cruises with with Princess so, as we are running out of options with their large ships,we decided to try one of the small ships. We are both early 60's, still working and from the 'it pays to patronise' school so we stick with Princess as they have everything we are looking for in a cruise and they look after us. We embarked in Rome which always goes smoothly with Princess transfer, despite being tired after the overnite flight from North America. The Pacific Princess has only 650 psg compared with 1900 and up on their other ships. No big atrium here with all the activity that goes with it.Most of the activity seems to revolve around the dining areas. Shops, casino and photo gallery all there but way less busy and much smaller presence. Still has specialty restaurants (steak or Italian)but they are on alternate nites. Tried them both as we always do and they were both up there with the best we have ever had. The dining areas are way more traditional with lots of wood and lower ceilings making them way more cosy. We always enjoy Princess food but on this ship it seemed just that little bit better. Maybe serving 600 instead 0f 2000+ makes it easier to serve different things? This cruise was pretty port intensive so not much time to relax if you want to get out and explore. The ports were great but watch out for store closures for large part of the afternoon in Italy.(they know how to live)Montenegro/Croatia and Malta were huge pleasant surprises. To sum up we really enjoyed our trip and the Pacific Princess and are booked on this ship for its 'surprise' trip into the Caribbean in Jan.as it's dry dock was cancelled.We saw a few Blue cards (first trip with Princess)on the ship but would recommend you try the larger Princess ships first to really enjoy what Princess has to offer. Read Less
Sail Date October 2012
We chose this sailing to fulfill a dream of cruising the Holy Land. It was a packed itinerary and physically exhausting to see so much in 12 days. I'm sure there's a method to Princess Cruise Lines madness of putting 2 days of ... Read More
We chose this sailing to fulfill a dream of cruising the Holy Land. It was a packed itinerary and physically exhausting to see so much in 12 days. I'm sure there's a method to Princess Cruise Lines madness of putting 2 days of Israel and 2 days of Egypt back to back but it would have been nice to have a sea day in between. That would be my only complaint about the itinerary. We flew into Venice the day before embarkation and stayed at Hotel Arlecchino. This hotel fit our needs very nicely and we were able to catch a cheap bus from the airport to Piazzale Roma and walk to our hotel. We were also able to walk to the cruise port with a little help from Venice's people mover. Once off of it, Princess had a bus to take us on into the port area. Very easy to do. Embarkation was extremely quick with no lines while we were there. My husband and I have cruised 5 times, twice taking our kids and the other 3 alone. My youngest was concerned about this being a smaller ship and not having all the activities of the larger ships. It was not an issue on this port intensive itinerary. The Pacific Princess library is wonderful. A lovely room with so many books to borrow while on board. We also enjoyed the available board games as a family. We enjoyed the on board trivia a few times. One daughter enjoyed the spin classes in the exercise area and another enjoyed line dancing activities. I also attended the chef's demonstration and the kitchen tour. It was really nice to see how clean everything was! This was our first small ship experience and it did not feel "small" at all. It has a large ship feel and the only time I noticed how small it was, was in the buffet! The lines were never too long nor was the clamoring for food as unorganized as it sometimes gets on the big ships. Also, I was concerned about motion sickness being worse on the small ship but I noticed no difference. My usual triple threat against it worked: Meclizine, ginger, & pressure point wrist bands added during extra motion times. We tried to eat in the main dining room most evenings. We chose the late seating, 8:15, due to accommodate our tours and port times. I don't usually like eating late but it really worked out well on this trip. We found the menu selections to be a wide variety although there were some strange combinations in my opinion. Of course I'm just a country, home cook and many of the menu items had things not even available in my area! It was fun though, to try new foods and my 14 year old picky eater ate things I never thought she'd try! We found most of the food to be delicious and beautifully prepared. We did not use luggage space for formal wear so did not plan to participate in formal nights. Princess highly suggests on formal nights to participate or eat elsewhere so we did not go to the main dining room the first formal night. Our waiter, Lucio, was very disappointed and encouraged us to attend the 2nd one even though we had no formal clothing. We did and were certainly under dressed and in the minority but not the only ones. Lucio was happy to see us though and that's all that mattered to me! He and his helper Alesander were excellent. We ate in the buffet restaurant numerous times as well. The food area was clean and there was always a very good variety of food. We especially enjoyed the wonderful salad bar area with the vast array of very nice selection of fresh fruit. A nice extra on the last sea day was the chip, salsa and guacamole bar set out by the pool area. It was delicious. We are not alcohol drinkers so I can't say anything about the drinks. We did by a coffee card for cappuccinos and lattes. It was $29.00 for 20 drinks. We did not purchase a soda card although probably should have because several family members had one or two a day. We did not go to any specialty dining rooms. We had room 7055 & 7043 both inside cabins. We are very happy with insides because we all sleep better in dark rooms. The staterooms were very roomy with nice storage in the room and bath room for toiletries. Jose and Arnold, the stateroom stewards, both provided excellent service. I really applaud cruise ship employees, especially the waiters and stateroom stewards. They work endless hours for months at a time and have to keep a smile on their face. We are always happy to give them a little extra at the end of the cruise. We enjoyed the television channels that were available in English and a few of the movies they would show. Also, Port Lecturer Joe May was very helpful, both at his desk on the 4th deck to answer questions, and on his television shows that were shown about the ports on the day before docking at each one. The ship overall was beautiful and tasteful traditional style. It looked to be in very good condition. I've seen expressed in other reviews that it was time for a refurbishing but I liked it and did not think it was run down at all. The pool deck was ample for the ship's size but on sea days it was crowded at times. My family enjoyed sunning on deck chairs some but I don't think anyone ever got in the pool. It is a smaller pool and not set up with slides, etc...for kids although they could certainly swim in it. This was not important to us. We usually enjoy the on board entertainment every night on cruises but with our late dinner seating, we were too exhausted on most nights to attend a show at 10:15. My husband did enjoy listening to Kathy Phippard occasionally. We also enjoyed a couple of shows featuring The Pacific Princess Singers and Dancers. I'm sorry I can't remember the names of the male and female lead singers but they were very good. We also heard Christopher Riggins second show on the ship. Wow! He is excellent as well. I can't end the ship portion of my review without commenting on the laundry room! As a mom of multiple kids, I know laundry! With new airline restrictions, we limited each to one suitcase each for the 16 days we were gone. All I can say is thank you Princess for having a self serve laundry! It was a madhouse on sea days so I suggest everyone try to work around those days! With our cabins being just down the hall it was very convenient for me to do laundry when I needed and to avoid the crowds. It takes about 30 minutes to wash and 45 to dry and was $2.00 for each. The machines take American quarters only which are easily available on the 4th floor reception area. (The workers there are also very helpful and polite.) They sell soap and other items but I found the convenient Purex Complete 3-in-1 laundry sheets purchased online before cruising to be extremely effective for travel with no mess involved. Our first two ports were Ravenna and Dubrovnik. My husband and I had already been to both so we did not join any tours here. We walked around Ravenna and toured the mosaic churches and enjoyed a nice lunch at a sidewalk cafe. Princess had a free shuttle from the port to the town of Ravenna. This was the only time it was free. In Dubrovnik, a few of our family walked the wall while the others walk through the old town. We then took the cable car up Mt. Srt where the views are amazing. In Patmos we got off the ship and hired a taxi just a few steps away to take the 5 of us to the Cave of the Apocalypse then to John's church. He dropped us off at each, gave us a pick up time and left. He came back and took us to the next place, returning us to the port. We then ate at a cafe with wi-fi and walked around and shopped a little. The next 4 port days were intensive! The first was Haifa and then Ashdod in Israel. With a family of 5 we just did not want to spend the extra money on ship's excursions. I'm very well aware of the benefits of them, mainly not getting left if you don't make it back before the ship sails, however most tour guides are very well aware of this and make it their goal to get you back on time. We hired Dina Horn as our tour guide. Due to my error, Dina was unable to pick us up on the first day but had her friend and guide Shraga Rosensaft escort us on that day through the Galilee area. His knowledge and pride in the history of the area was extremely good. He took us to a nice place on the Sea of Galilee to have a lunch featuring St. Peter's fish and a wonderful array of fresh salads with pita bread. We enjoyed our day with Shraga. Dina met us at the port just as Shraga dropped us off to check that we enjoyed our tour. She picked us up in Ashdod the next day and took us to Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. After lunch, we chose to go into Bethlehem over going to the museum. It was slightly intimidating going through all the security. Once past that and the small crowd inside the gate, we were swiftly escorted into cars by our guide. It is set up that the guide takes you on the tour and then you go back through Johnny's Souvenier shop to spend your money. We knew all of this ahead of time to help us make our decision to take the tour. We could have hired another private guide and avoided this but we were only there a couple of hours so I didn't think it was necessary. Let me say now that the sales people are extremely pushy in both Egypt and Israel; both in the stores and private vendors. We knew going into Johnny's that we would purchase something because the store supports some of the Christians remaining in Bethlehem. We purchase more than we intended but they did come off the , price around 30%. (Also, it is important to know that most private guides get something off of anything you purchase from the places they take you.) I can't remember our guides name in Bethlehem but he was very nice and informative and did make it possible for us to avoid the hour long line at the church of the nativity. I would have like to have had another day in Israel and highly recommend Dina Horn and Shraga Rosensaft. Next was Port Said and Alexandria Egypt. We hired Ramses tours and had Mohamed Khamis as our guide. Both he and our driver, also Mohammed were excellent. The entire ship population going on excursions that day proceeded away from the port in a convoy that seemed more like a parade. Quite impressive actually however, once in heavy traffic everyone got separated. We chose to stay overnight at the pyramids at the Mena House Oberoi. It was excellent. The traffic in Cairo was unbelievable but our driver expertly weaved his way where he needed to go. The pyramids and the Egyptian museum were all greatly enjoyed by our family. I will add that our 2nd day in Egypt we had an armed escort in our van. I'm not sure if it was because we were on our own or because we were American. I have heard it is the latter reason. I highly recommend Ramses Tours. In Kusadasi, we hire Ertunga Ecir as our guide for the day. He was excellent as well and we enjoyed our day in Ephesus. Our last port was Athens where we hired Paul's taxi service to take us to the many sites. Paul's son Dimitri was an excellent guide. While they are not licensed guides they are very knowledgeable and get great reviews online. They drop you off to see the sites on your own. We stayed an extra day and had Dimitri take us to Corinth. Early the next morning they also picked us up from our hotel, the Hotel Amalia, and took us to the airport. I would recommend any of the above guides and services and would not hesitate to use any of them again. All of the vehicles were nice and air-conditioned and non-smoking although not advertised as non-smoking. I didn't even think to recommend this but am glad it worked out. Our family loved this trip; both the ship and the itinerary. Disembarking was a breeze with no problems. I was a little nervous, with the political climate, about visiting some of these ports but all was well. Happy Cruising Everyone! Read Less
Sail Date July 2012
ABOUT US John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our early sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and ... Read More
ABOUT US John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our early sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times. Our preferred souvenir is a small regional or national flag. On this itinerary, I would be looking for flags from Malta and Montenegro. We enjoy both cruises and land tours; many of our trips combine the two. Many of our cruises have been in the Caribbean but we have also cruised to Alaska, the Panama Canal, the Mediterranean/Greek Isles, Scandinavia/Russia, Hawaii, French Polynesia, South America/Antarctic Peninsula, the Far East, the North Atlantic (Greenland/Iceland), parts of the British Isles, the Norwegian Fjords, the Galapagos Islands and the Holy Land/Egypt. We have taken land tours to the Netherlands, Canadian Rockies, Mexico (Cozumel), London, France (several wine regions and Paris), China, Argentina (Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls, Mendoza wine region), Chile (Santiago, several wine regions) and to many parts of the continental USA. On our trips, we prefer nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving, or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view. We are Elite members of Princess' Captain's Circle loyalty program, but have also sailed with Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Costa, Celebrity and Commodore. ABOUT THE REVIEW Other reviews give extensive information on the ship, cabins, food, etc. Our reviews are not like that; they are primarily a journal of what we did in the various ports, including links to tourist sites and maps. We combined this cruise with the Pacific Princess' May 12 "Holy Land" cruise; I have written a separate review for that cruise. SUGGESTED RESOURCES "Mediterranean Cruise Ports," by Rick Steves (available on travelstore.ricksteves.com or www.amazon.com) "Europe 101," by Rick Steves (available on travelstore.ricksteves.com or www.amazon.com) "Toms Port Guides," by Tom Sheridan (www.tomsportguides.com) "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling," by Ross King (available on www.amazon.com) "The Agony and the Ecstasy" (www.imdb.com/title/tt0058886/), staring Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison TOUR GUIDE CONTACT INFORMATION Sorrento, Italy: Unique Costiera, www.uniquecostiera.com Messina, Italy: Coop. Sicily Life, www.sicilylife.com REVIEW OF THE CRUISE 24 MAY (THU) ROME (CIVITAVECCHIA), ITALY (ARRIVE 5:00AM DEPART 6:00PM) This was the turnaround day between our two cruises. We had previously visited Rome for two days in 2008. During that visit, we had toured most of the sights of Imperial Rome as well as St. Peter's Basilica. While some people were disembarking in Rome and a new set of passengers embarking, we took the train from Civitavecchia into Rome and visited the Vatican Necropolis and the Vatican Museums. We were able to leave the ship just before 7:00 a.m. We had to wait a bit for the shuttle bus to start its rounds, but we were at the port gates by about 7:15 a.m. That gave us plenty of time to buy train tickets, walk to the train station (about 10 minutes), validate our tickets, and catch the 7:36 a.m. train into Rome. Several people who were disembarking also were able to catch this train, but it took them considerably longer to walk to the station pulling their luggage. We bought BIRG tickets (9 euros pp) at the kiosk that is just to the right of the exit from the port gates. It is easier to buy the ticket here or at one of the other newsstands that sell them rather than to wait in line at the train station. This ticket allows unlimited travel on all regional trains as well as buses, trams, and the subway/metro in Rome (but not transport to the FCO airport). Be sure to validate the ticket at one of the yellow boxes in the Civitavecchia train station. On the train into Rome, stations were announced in both Italian and English. We got off at the Roma S. Pietro station; note that the previous stop is Aurelia, so start getting ready to exit after that station. We exited the S. Pietro station and turned left on Via Innocenzo III; the dome of St.Peter's Basilica is easily visible as a guide. Turn right on Via Nicolo III and continue to Via della Stazione di San Pietro. Turn left and then almost immediately turn right onto Via Alcide de Gasperi, which ends at a pedestrian underpass that takes you safely underneath Via di Porta Cavalleggeri. The underpass leads directly to a crosswalk to the southern colonnade around St. Peter's Square. This walk took about 10 minutes. Because we were not sure which train we would be able to catch into Rome, we were flexible about the first part of the morning. There were only a few people in line for St. Peter's Basilica, so we decided to re-visit it. We were able to take many pictures with no people in them. However, many sections of the Basilica were blocked off and not opened until later, after the crowds built up. We decided to visit some other areas of St. Peter's that we had not previously visited. We had already climbed the dome on our previous visit, so we thought we could visit the Grottos; however, they were closed that day. Instead, we toured the Treasury (7 euros pp, 3 euros for an audio guide). We only got one audio guide to share, which turned out to be a good decision because the explanations were so long and detailed that we were only interested in the first couple of minutes. The Treasury includes ostentatious liturgical vessels (chalices, monstrances, etc.) and vestments, along with the models used to create some of the statues in the Basilica, a Roman column used as the model for the ones in Bernini's bronze canopy over the main altar, and a number of works of modern art. There is also a small, ornate chapel. Now it was time for our 10:45 a.m. tour of the Vatican Necropolis, which is a pagan cemetery that lies under the Grottos where the popes are buried. As we left the Basilica, a bride was entering; then as we were crossing the square, we were stopped so that her wedding entourage could enter the square. Finally, we made it to the Swiss Guard post outside the entrance to the Vatican offices, near the southern colonnade. After showing our tour voucher, the guard sent us through a security screening and then directed us to the Ufficio Scavi (Excavations Office), where we could exchange the voucher for our tour tickets. There was another couple there ahead of us trying unsuccessfully to get tickets for the tour, but that must be done online months in advance as only 150 people a day are admitted (www.vatican.va/roman_curia/institutions_connected/uffscavi/documents/rc_ic_uffscavi_doc_gen-information_20090216_en.html). Our guide arrived at 10:50 a.m. and led us to a side entrance to the Grottos. The couple that did not get tickets tried to sneak in along with the 11 people in the tour group, but they were kicked out when the guide realized that they did not have tickets. The tour began with a brief explanation of how the Emperor Constantine decided to build a church over the traditional burial place of St. Peter; there is a nice model of that church. Vatican Hill was leveled to provide a platform for the church, which involved removing the roofs of the 1st and 2nd century tombs that were already there and filling them with dirt. The tombs were not discovered until Pope Pius XI died and his will directed that his tomb in the Grottos be located as close as possible to the area where Peter was thought to have been buried. The necropolis was excavated in secret during WWII; the dirt removed was hidden in the Vatican Gardens. Only a few of the tombs could be excavated; otherwise, the foundations of St. Peter's would be undermined. This is a fascinating tour, but not for anyone with claustrophobia as the passageway through the tombs is quite narrow. The tour is reminiscent of a tour of Pompeii, with well-preserved wall paintings and mosaics. There are also funerary vases and sarcophagi. Some of the tombs are quite large --- one had space for 100 burials. The highlight of the tour is a view of the 1st century walls built above St. Peter's grave and the monument Constantine built above that. In this area, a box was found that contained bones from one person, a robust man about 65-70 years old. We could glimpse a clear box with the bones inside as well as the "graffiti wall," where inscriptions were discovered that convinced Pope Paul VI to authenticate the bones as belonging to St. Peter. No pictures are allowed during the tour, but there is a video tour at: www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/necropoli/scavi_english.html. The tour ended in the Vatican Grottos, but the usual exit was blocked. Thus the guide had to take us through the Grottos, past the tombs of Popes Pius XII, Paul VI, and John Paul I, to the Grottos exit on the north side of the basilica. Not only did we get a partial tour of the Grottos but we also had a shorter walk to the Vatican Museums entrance! The necropolis tour ended at 11:55 a.m. and it took 15 minutes to reach the museum entrance. We had made reservations for 12:30 p.m. in case there was a long line. Even though we were 20 minutes early, we were immediately admitted to the museum, which was packed with visitors (but oddly had no line outside). We tried to see some of the most important sculptures, such as the "Laocoon," "Apollo Belvedere" and the "Belvedere Torso," which greatly influenced Renaissance artists. Then we flowed with the tide of bodies on the long march through a series of lavishly decorated halls and part of the modern art holdings to the Rafael Stanzas. This set of rooms boasts such masterpieces as "The School of Athens" and other huge frescoes by Rafael. As stupendous as the Rafael Rooms are, they are just a warm-up for the Sistine Chapel. Despite the vast crowd and the futile efforts of the guards to enforce quiet, Michelangelo's ceiling is overwhelming. Photographs simply cannot convey the glorious colors and vitality of the figures. Some of the architectural elements are so convincingly three-dimensional that is almost impossible to believe that they are painted on a two-dimensional surface. The frescoes on the walls, which would be the stars of any other museum, seem flat and artificial in comparison. No less impressive is Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" on the altar wall. Our binoculars were handy to view the ceiling far over our heads. After the Sistine Chapel, the hoards seemed to diminish somewhat as we trekked back through another long series of ornate halls, past the Vatican Library, towards the museum entrance. With our remaining time, we visited some of the rooms in the Pinoteca. We concentrated on some of our favorites, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Rafael. Although we had barely sampled the immense number of items on exhibit, we finally had to admit defeat and vow to return to the museum someday for a more extended visit. It took us about 20 minutes to walk back to the train station in time for the 2:36 p.m. regional express train back to Civitavecchia. This train skips several of the stations close to Rome, so it is about 10 minutes faster than the regular regional trains. The train was already full when it reached S. Pietro, so we had to stand most of the way. This time the stations were not announced at all, so be aware that S. Marinella is the station immediately before Civitavecchia. After the short walk and wait for the shuttle bus ride, we were back on the ship by about 4:00 p.m. While we were off in Rome, our belongings were moved from the category BD balcony cabin that we had enjoyed on the Holy Land cruise to a category D outside cabin. Both of these cabins were upgrades from the category F outside cabin that we had originally booked. When we got back to the ship, there was a letter in the cabin saying that our scheduled port call in Nice was canceled and that we would call at Cannes instead. After redistributing our belongings, I managed to make contact with the roll call members who would be on the Sorrento and Messina private tours with us, friends from a previous cruise BobTroll (Bob & Elaine) and our long-time friends Robert & Mary, who were joining us on this cruise. This was only Robert & Mary's second cruise and the first time they would be cruising with us and Princess. At late-seating dinner, we had arranged a 4-top for Robert, Mary and us with the same excellent wait team (Joel & Jeffery) and Headwaiter (Rui, from Portugal) that we had on the previous Holy Land cruise. We celebrated the fact that we were all together on the ship by sharing a bottle of sparkling wine. We had not been sure that Robert & Mary would make it because of the 12-hour flight delay (US Airways) they experienced on the way to Rome. Once they finally arrived in Rome, it was dark and raining heavily. Their van driver (booked through Viator) deposited them nowhere near their hotel; it took quite a bit of wandering around and several stops to ask for directions before they managed to make it there. At least they had two full days in Rome and got to see many of the main sights. We all decided to skip the "Welcome Aboard Showtime." 25 MAY (FRI) PORTOFINO, ITALY (ARRIVE 7:00AM DEPART 8:00PM) TENDER This was the first visit to Portofino for all four of us. John had mapped out a walk in town and an ambitious hike in the surrounding national park. We were joined on our trek by Elaine (BobTroll's better half), who must be part mountain goat. As we tendered into the harbor, we saw many dolphins. Robert was not feeling well, so Mary tendered ashore later in the morning and explored a bit on her own. We started off with a walk to the lighthouse at the end of the small peninsula on the north side of Portofino. To do this walk, take the stairs just to the right of the tender dock, turn left at the top and keep following the signs to the "Faro." The out-and-back path offers excellent views of Portofino and the coastline plus the bonus of a lighthouse. The round-trip took about an hour. John originally planned for us to walk Portofino - San Fruttuoso - Pietre Strette - Santa Margherita Ligure -- Portofino (www.portofinotrek.com/trek/da-portofino/41-portofino-san-fruttuoso.html). When we returned to the top of the stairs to the marina, we did not descend but continued on the same path into town. Turning left at the police station, we found the Portofino National Park (www.parcoportofino.it/pageLingua.aspx?lang=en&codice=0000000006) welcome sign and the trailhead for the path to San Fruttuoso. All of the trails were well-marked with various blazes and there were new-looking signs at every trail intersection that clearly showed the direction and approximate time to the next destination. As they say in the southern USA, "Horses sweat, men perspire, and ladies glow." The first part of the hike was up a steep set of steps and, with the hot sun, John was soon perspiring heavily and Elaine and I were glowing brightly. However, we persevered and the trail eventually became more moderate and tree-shaded. We saw many beautiful wildflowers blooming along the way; one (perhaps some variety of jasmine) emitted a heady fragrance. As we got higher, we enjoyed some cooling breezes and spectacular views of the coast. Our first destination was "Base Zero," scant remains of an abandoned military installation. Although we did not feel like we were making good time, we did this section in slightly less that the signposted time. Continuing on, we reached an intersection of two trails: one down to San Fruttuoso and the other up to Pietre Strette and from there to Santa Margherita Ligure. We headed down to San Fruttuoso for a view of the Benedictine Abbey and the Torre Andrea Doria. Now we faced a choice: should we continue on to Santa Margherita (two hours hiking), return to Portofino the way we had come (two hours hiking), or catch the convenient 11:30 a.m. ferry to Santa Margherita (one hour sitting down). The ferry (9.5 euros pp) won. As we left the dock, we saw many jellyfish in the beautiful, clear water. The ride to Santa Margherita was pleasant and we had great views of the shoreline. When we arrived at Santa Margherita, we strolled around the waterfront a bit before taking the trail (6 km) along the coast back to Portofino. This was a nice level walk, except for one short section that did not have any pedestrian path. As we got closer to Portofino, the path moved away from the shore and we had lovely views of some of the small coves. Back in Portofino, we walked around for a short while before tendering back to the ship. This was Italian night in the restaurant and the headwaiters made a special spicy pasta dish, Penne Arrabiata. I also had one of my favorite appetizers, the Eggplant Parmigiana. After dinner, Mary and I went to the first of the five production shows, "Cinematastic." 26 MAY (SAT) CANNES, FRANCE (ARRIVE 7:00AM DEPART 6:00PM) The original itinerary said that this port stop would be Nice, but Cannes was substituted; none of the four of us had visited either Nice or Cannes before. John had mapped out a walking tour of Nice and planned a visit to Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat using the local bus. We considered sticking with our original plans and taking a train or bus to Nice. However, not only was the Cannes Film Festival going on in Cannes, but the Grand Prix was also taking place in Monaco. The port lecturer (Joe May) warned us that many people attending those events would be lodging in less-expensive Nice and local transportation would be extremely crowded. We later learned that a train strike also occurred today. Fortunately, we decided to punt and take a 1/2-day ship's excursion to St. Paul de Vence. Robert & Mary opted for the ship's excursion to Nice. St. Paul de Vence is a charming walled village on a hill; most of the buildings date from the 16th and 17th centuries. The village has long been popular with artists and still houses many studios and art galleries, as well as many boutiques. After tendering and a one-hour bus ride, we arrived in St. Paul around 9:30 a.m. Our tour guide first explained the meeting time and place (Place de Gaulle), then took us to the small cemetery (where Marc Chagall is buried) and along the main street of the village, stopping to point out some historic sites. This brief guided tour ended at one of the ramparts, which had a panoramic view of the area all the way back to the coast. We now had about 1-1/2 hours of free time to explore the town on our own. John and I wandered back to the Tourist Office, which had opened at 10:00 a.m., to pick up a tourist map. We meandered around finding all the sights and probably walking each street 2 or 3 times. We only entered two sites (both free): the church and the Musee de Saint-Paul (above the Tourist Office). The other museums did not open until 11:00 a.m. and we had to meet the guide at 11:30 a.m.; half an hour did not seem like enough time to devote to any of them. After we returned to Cannes, we walked east along the waterfront promenade, admiring the yachts in the marina. The area was packed with people in attire ranging from shorts and tank tops to evening dresses and tuxes. We passed a number of venues associated with the Film Festival, such as the red-carpeted staircase, but did not spot any celebrities. We walked down as far as the Grand Hotel and then turned inland until we reached Rue d'Antibes, a major shopping street. We headed west along Rue d'Antibes, which eventually became Rue Felix Faure. We passed the Marche aux Fleurs, which has tables selling not only flowers and plants, but also paintings, antiques and other items. Finally, we reached Rue du Mont Chevalier, which is a ramp that zigzags up the hillside to the Musee de la Castre, an art museum. There are several places where stairs lead up to the next level of the ramp, providing some shortcuts. When we reached the top, both the museum and the church (Notre Dame de l'Esperance) were closed for siesta. However, we were mainly interested in the excellent panoramic view of Cannes. After enjoying the views, we returned to the marina and tendered back to the ship. Tonight was the French/Continental Dinner. I had my usual choices of noodles with lobster sauce, escargot, French onion soup and frogs' legs; John had the same starters but the turbot cordon bleu as his entree. After dinner, Robert, Mary and I went to hear the singer (Christopher Riggins); he called his style "popera." Although he has a fine voice, I am not a big fan of vocal tricks like vibrato and falsetto. 27 MAY (SUN) AT SEA Finally a sea day so we could sleep in! The main order of business was the Cruise Critic "Meet & Greet," which was held from 10-11:00 a.m. in the Sterling Steakhouse. Some of the roll call (12 out of 29) came, but no officers or staff attended. We also picked up 3 people who had heard about the M&G from roll call members or from the listing in the Princess Patter. We had a good time putting faces to screen names and discussing our favorite cruises. Although two people thought this was where they were supposed to go to complain about problems with the cruise, they stayed when I explained the real nature of Cruise Critic and they contributed to the discussion. Anyone who has read my other reviews knows that we greatly enjoy Princess' osso buco and that it is only served in the main dining room at lunch, usually on port days. Our excellent Headwaiter (Rui) knew we liked this dish and had alerted us last night that it would be served at lunch today! We greatly enjoyed the osso buco with saffron risotto and wish it would be served at dinner (perhaps on Italian Night). This was the only time we ate lunch in the main dining room. This was the first of two formal nights and, as Elite Captain's Circle members, we received complimentary appetizers delivered to our cabin. We had ordered chocolate-covered strawberries and took them to Robert & Mary's cabin to enjoy with the bottle of prosecco they brought from Rome. A toast to good friends and good times! Soon it was time to get ready for dinner and the Captain's Welcome Aboard Party. Although yesterday was our actual 39th wedding anniversary, we decided to celebrate it tonight together with Robert & Mary, whose 40th anniversary would occur in June. After dinner, we all attended the production show "Stardust," another energetic and enjoyable performance by the Pacific Princess Singers and Dancers. 28 MAY (MON) SORRENTO, ITALY (ARRIVE 7:00AM DEPART 5:00PM) TENDER We had visited Sorrento in 1998 as part of a ship's shore excursion that also included Capri and Pompeii. This time, we hired a driver to take us along the Amalfi coast to Positano, Ravello and Amalfi. We had used the same company (Unique Costiera, www.uniquecostiera.com/toursShoreExcursions.html) in 2008 for a tour from Naples to Herculaneum and Mount Vesuvius. In addition to Robert & Mary, we were joined on this tour by Sue & Bill (agelessgram) and Danielle & Michael (Medicruiser). The Pacific Princess had been chronically late tendering, starting at least 1/2 hour after the scheduled arrival time. Given the ship's early departure time and the notorious traffic problems along the Amalfi coast, I was anxious to be on our way as early as possible. We were scheduled to meet our driver at 7:30 a.m. Because only John and I are Elite and have priority tender service, I asked the Captain's Circle Host, Sandy Gunder, whether I could have priority tender tickets for the rest of the group so that we could all go ashore on the first tender. Mind you, this is the first time in 32 cruises with Princess that I have ever asked for special consideration when tendering. Sandy hemmed and hawed and complained that six was such a large group that it would inconvenience other Elite and Suite passengers plus unspecified VIPs who were aboard. Eventually she agreed to consult with the Shore Excursion Office and the Passenger Services Desk to see whether we might be granted this exceptional favor. She promised that she would either deliver the tickets to my cabin or call to tell me that they were not available. However, she neither provided tickets nor called me. This morning, our group met at 7:00 a.m. in the Casino Bar, so we were among the first people to get tender tickets. Even so, we were not ashore until 8:00 a.m. Our driver, Francesco, was waiting for us at the dock and quickly led us to a van. We were a little cramped in the van and two individuals had to sit in the front with the driver, but this was not a real issue. Our driver was just that -- a driver -- not a guide. However, he did provide some commentary along the way and had suggestions when we got to our stops. He was fairly inexperienced and tended to speak only to the person sitting next to him. That person would then repeat the comments to the rest of the van. A sound system would have been appreciated! We drove across the Sorrentine peninsula to its southern side, the Amalfi coast (www.frommers.com/destinations/amalficoast/). The scenery is gorgeous: rugged cliffs dropping to the sea, punctuated by wooded ravines and colorful, picturesque villages and towns clinging to the cliffs. We had good views of Li Galli (The Roosters), also known as the Sirenuse Islands, where Odysseus encountered the Sirens. Our first stop was in Positano (www.frommers.com/destinations/positano/0758010029.html). Francesco dropped us off at a parking area on Via Cristoforo Colombo, across from the Le Sirenuse Hotel. He pointed us towards the main square and told us to be back at the parking area in an hour. Robert, Mary, John and I started out together while the others went their own ways. First we visited Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta (free, www.summerinitaly.com/guide/church-of-santa-maria-assunta-in-positano), with its colorful tiled dome. The most famous work of art in the church is the Madonna Negro (Black Madonna), a wooden Byzantine icon above the main altar. Another treasure of the church is a 15th century silver bust that contains the relics of St. Vito, the protector of Positano. This bust is noted for its lifelike portrayal of the saint and is reputedly one of the most valuable works of art on the Amalfi coast. Next we walked to the marina, where we had great views of the town clinging to the mountainside. We continued to walk west along the water past the helipad; there we found and scaled a rough set of stairs up to the cliff side pedestrian promenade. Apparently this is not an approved route because the low gate at the top was cemented shut; however, we climbed over it easily enough. We continued west on the promenade, past the Torre Trasita, to a nice overlook of Fornillo beach. We then turned around and followed the promenade back to Positano. We spent the rest of our time strolling along the steep, narrow streets before returning to the pickup point to head to our next stop, Ravello. Along the way, we bypassed Amalfi and saw three ancient Roman watchtowers along the coast. Unlike Positano and Amalfi, which are on the seashore, Ravello (www.frommers.com/destinations/ravello/0760010029.html) is up in the mountains at the head of the Dragone Valley. Francesco parked in a large public lot and led us up some stairs to the Piazza Duomo. There were gorgeous views across the valley to villas on the hillside. The 11th century Romanesque Cathedral (free, www.summerinitaly.com/guide/the-Cathedral-of-san-pantaleone) is dedicated to San Pantaleone, the patron saint of Ravello. The central nave features the Ambone dell'Epistola (lectern for reading from the Epistles), which is decorated with precious mosaics illustrating the story of Jonah, and the richly carved and decorated Pergamo (pulpit). To the left of the main altar is the Cappella di San Pantaleone. A reliquary above the altar contains a flask of the saint's blood, which liquefies each year on the anniversary of his death (July 27). Above the reliquary is a large painting of the saint's martyrdom. Ravello boasts numerous villas; two (Villa Cimbrone, Villa Rufolo) have gorgeous gardens that are open to the public. We walked past the villas, but did not have enough time to visit them. The town has attracted many composers and writers, some of whom are honored with plaques on the buildings where they lived or visited; a famous music festival is held here every summer. Ravello was everyone's favorite and we all wished we had more time to spend there. Unfortunately, we were now getting some light rain. Now we returned to Amalfi (www.frommers.com/destinations/amalfi/0759010029.html) for our final stop; the rain continued on and off while we were here. Francesco dropped us off at the Porta Della Marina and we had about 1-1/2 hours to explore the town. First we headed to the Piazza Duomo. St. Andrew is the patron saint of Amalfi; there is a there is a statue of the saint atop a fountain in the square and many images of him throughout the town. The Cathedral's (www.sacred-destinations.com/italy/amalfi-Cathedral) Moorish-influenced fa'ade features an arched portico across its width; the gable is decorated with a gold mosaic of Jesus. Naturally, the Cathedral is dedicated to St. Andrew and there is a gold mosaic of the saint over the massive bronze doors at the main entrance. The bell tower has an elaborate top and is decorated with green and yellow tiles. The Cathedral is reached by 62 broad stairs up to the portico. On the left side of the portico is the entrance to the Cathedral complex (3 euros pp): the Cloister of Paradise, the Basilica of the Crucifix, the Crypt of St. Andrew and the Cathedral itself. The Cloister of Paradise consists of white marble arcades of interlaced arches over double columns; this was once the cemetery for the wealthy merchants of Amalfi. The cloister leads into the Basilica of the Crucifix, the original Cathedral of Amalfi, which houses the Cathedral's museum and treasury. Stairs near the east end descend into the Crypt of St. Andrew, where the saint's relics are kept in the central altar; above the altar is a large bronze statue of St. Andrew. The interior of the Cathedral is sumptuously Baroque; the paintings on the walls and ceilings depict the life and miracles of St. Andrew. To the right of the altar area is the Chapel of the Relics, which contains dozens of reliquaries. Niches in the right aisle display a large reliquary bust of St. Andrew and the Coffin of the Dead Christ, which is carried in procession through Amalfi on Good Friday. Amalfi is located at the mouth of a river valley and its mills produced paper for much of Europe during the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance. John and I visited Musea de la Carta (www.museodellacarta.it/Default.asp?l=2, guided tour 3.5 euros pp), inside one of the abandoned paper mills. This museum has a great collection of original tools and machines for making paper and there is a hands-on demonstration of how paper was made from pulverized cotton fabric. It was still raining, so we took refuge in Al Corso Gelateria e Yogurteria, where a friendly young man named Fabio gave us tastes of several varieties of his artisan gelato. John finally decided on lemon cream and lemoncello; I picked chocolate and hazelnut. Finally it was time to return to Sorrento. The traffic was tied up in places where the large tour buses had difficulty negotiating the tight turns; at one point we got stuck behind a large, slow-moving truck. Despite the rain, the scenery is stunning and it is far better to have someone else drive so that we could all enjoy the precipitous drop-offs instead of worrying about them. There was one issue that should be mentioned. We had been quoted a price of 290 euros (total for up to 8 passengers) in January and told that the quote was valid until April 20. However, when we tried to reserve in March, we were told that the price had gone up to 380 euros due to taxes and increased fuel charges. The new price was still competitive with other companies, but nevertheless this was a little distressing. On the other hand, the company did not require payment in advance, but it did require a credit card number to hold the reservation. And, despite horrible traffic, we made it back to the dock on time! I believe the owner was in constant contact with our driver to keep track of our progress. Tonight the show was a magician (Bobby Borgia). I like magic shows, but John hates being picked to participate; there is just something about John that draws magicians and jugglers to him. The act was billed as "An Interactive Magic Show Where the Magic Happens to You!!!" Still, I managed to get John to go; we just sat in the back where we were safe. The show was entertaining, but we have seen much better magic shows on other ships.29 MAY (TUE) MESSINA, ITALY (ARRIVE 8:00AM DEPART 6:00PM) The same three couples as yesterday joined us for a shore excursion from Messina with Sicily Life (www.sicilylife.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&id=3:port-of-messina&layout=blog&Itemid=52&layout=default). As in Sorrento, the cost was per van (390 euros for 7/8 persons), not per person; our driver/guide (Antonio) could provide commentary and sightseeing suggestions but not guide us inside venues. We all had an astonishingly good time, especially considering that via a misunderstanding, they gave us the wrong tour! We had reserved their "Etna Experience Tour & Highlights of Taormina" but somehow we got the "Unknown Sicily around Etna & the Highlights of Taormina" tour instead. When Antonio outlined our itinerary at the beginning of the tour, we tuned in to the word Etna and didn't realize that we were not going to the Silvestri Crater on Etna but to small towns on the slopes of Etna. This only became apparent much later when we asked how much further it was to the crater. Antonio then showed us the itinerary he had been given for us: the "Unknown Sicily" tour. By this time, it was too late to go with the original plan and we were having such a good time that we really didn't care. We headed out of Messina along the coastal highway, with Mount Etna looming ahead in the distance. Antonio was amazingly knowledgeable and affable. He used a sound system so even people in the back on the somewhat cramped van could hear his comments as he drove along. Heading south, he pointed out Savoca and Forza d'Agr', high on the hillsides, where scenes from the "Godfather" movies were filmed. As we passed Taormina, Antonio pointed out Isola Bella, a small island just offshore. The island was once owned by Lady Florence Trevelyan, who was asked to leave England after becoming a bit too friendly with her cousin, the future Edward VII. The island is now owned by the state and has been turned into a nature preserve. From here, we proceeded to Giardini Naxos and headed up the Alcantara Valley towards Francavilla di Sicilia. An ancient 40-mile long lava flow blocked the Alcantara River; as the river cut through the lava, it formed dramatic gorges and ravines. Our first stop was the Gole Alcantara Parco Botanico e Geologico (www.terralcantara.it/en), which is popular for walks, hikes and river trekking. We did not actually go into the park but there is an overlook with a great view of the Alcantara Gorge. There is also a Mercato del Contadina (Farmer's Market) where you can taste local products for free. Antonio got the market to open early for us so we could taste olive oil, bread, cheese, tapenades, wines, liquors, marmalades, and probably some other things! I think we all ended up making purchases there. Then we proceeded on our way to Castiglione di Sicilia. We stopped just outside of Castiglione to visit Chiesa di Santa Domenica (la Cuba), a Byzantine chapel built in the late 8th century. Although this is a national monument, the chapel is not open to the public. We walked from the chapel, past vineyards, to the Piccole Gole dell'Alcantara (Small Alcantara Gorge) in the Alcantara River Park (www.parks.it/parco.alcantara/Eindex.php). This is a very picturesque spot where the river forms cascades and there are lots of lava boulders to climb around on. Now we drove up to Castiglione, where Antonio took us for a walk through this pretty town, with wrought iron balconies, many filled with flowers. We passed the Chiesa di Sant' Antonio, one of the oldest churches in Castiglione, with its interesting concave facade. Antonio had hoped to take us up to the Fortezza Greca (750 BC) for some great views, but it was closed. We walked past the Basilica della Madonna Catena and around the hill, which is topped by the Il Castello di Lauria, the castle for which the town is named. The path up to the castle was overgrown with weeds, so it was obviously closed to the public. Nevertheless, this part of town had panoramic views over the Alcantara Valley, the lemon, orange and olive groves and the Etna grapevines; we could even see la Cuba. We also had good views of the Cannizzu tower, an outpost of the fortress and a symbol of Castiglione. As we left the town, we passed a Norman-era church, Chiesa Madonna di Lourdes. We now passed through the village of Linguagloss before heading higher on the slopes of Mount Etna to the Azienda Agricola Gambino (www.vinigambino.it/ws/?page_id=64&lang=en-en). The tasting room has a lovely view of the vineyards. The tasting (15 euros pp) included five good Sicilian wines plus "brunch." Our group received two large platters of olives, mushrooms, and tomatoes; two large platters of cheeses and salami and baskets of delicious crusty bread. A sufficient variety and quantity of foods was included that our lunch box was checked and everyone was quite satisfied. Several of us bought wine to enjoy later. Just as we were leaving the winery, the owner appeared and we had our pictures taken with him. We had asked for a photo stop at Castelmola before proceeding to Taormina. This turned into a quick walking tour of the town led by Antonio (he lived there). Castelmola is on the top of Mount Tauro and has outstanding panoramic views of the Sicilian coast and of Taormina, on a rocky plateau below. We had good views of the Greek Theater in Taormina, our final stop. Probably because of the time spent tasting at the Mercato and the Gambino Winery, we had less time than we would have liked in Taormina. If any of us had been wondering where all the tourists were, we found them here; Taormina was unpleasantly crowded. Antonio dropped us off at the Porta Messina and gave us an hour to tour on our own. We took off down Corso Umberto I to Via Teatro Greco. We arrived at the Greek Theater barely ahead of some large tour groups, quickly bought our tickets (8 euros pp), and scurried inside. The theater is Taormina's not-to-be-missed sight and we spent most of our limited time here. Carved into the slopes of Mount Tauros, the theater enjoys spectacular views of the seacoast and sometimes Mount Etna (unfortunately clouded over by now). The theater was a major location in Woody Allen's movie, "Mighty Aphrodite." We tore ourselves away from the theater with just enough time to run to the Parco Duca di Cesaro for a quick visit to this lovely garden (which was once the private garden of Lady Trevelyan). Although there are many more points of interest in Taormina, we had to return to Messina. The tour we were given was outstanding and we'll just have to go back to see the crater and maybe go to the top of Mount Etna. It may seem strange to give a high rating to a company that gave us the wrong tour. However, Sicily Life was very prompt in responding to emails, needed no payment ahead of time, was at the dock as soon as we got off the ship, provided an outstanding guide and was quite flexible in taking care of any request. If we go back to Sicily, we will certainly use them but we'll confirm our itinerary in detail! Tonight was another production show, "Shake, Rattle & Roll." We had attended this show on the previous cruise, but went again with Robert & Mary. 30 MAY (WED) VALLETTA, MALTA (ARRIVE 8:00AM DEPART 5:00PM) John and I originally planned to take a ship's tour to the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum (visitmalta.com/hal-saflieni-hypogeum-map). John researched doing this on our own, but the number of people who can visit the site each day is very limited; we were afraid that Princess would have all the spots locked up. However, about a month before our cruise, Princess canceled the tour. John immediately tried to book tickets online, but only one was left for the day we would be in port. For Plan B, we decided to use the local bus system to reach the Blue Grotto, take the boat tour there, continue on the bus to the prehistoric megalithic temples near Qrendi, then return to Valletta to see the sights there. Robert & Mary took the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus (www.visitmalta.com/doubledecker_bus) and spent part of their day exploring Mdina. Amazingly, the ship arrived early for a change. Fortunately, we were ready to go and were the first people off the ship at 7:30 a.m. Although John had printed some maps of Valletta, we stopped briefly at the Tourist Office kiosk on the dock to get a map and a pamphlet about the major sights in Valletta. We headed off to the bus station, picked up a route map, and tried to buy a day pass (2.6 euros pp) in the ticket machine. Our credit card would not work, possibly because it lacks the chip that most European credit cards contain. We ended up using euro coins, but the ticket machine would also take bills and it would give change. It took about 25 minutes to get from the ship to the bus station. Because it was so early in the morning, the direct bus (#71) to the Blue Grotto was not yet running; we had to take an express bus to the airport and transfer to one that stopped at the Blue Grotto (#201). We caught the 8:05 a.m. #X5 bus and arrived at the airport right on time at 8:30 a.m.; unfortunately, the #201 would not arrive until 9:05 a.m. John suggested that there might be a Maltese flag in the airport at one of the gift shops. Although there were no flags, the airport was an air-conditioned place to wait; it also has clean restrooms. We caught the #201 bus and arrived at the Blue Grotto stop at 9:18 a.m. We walked down the hill to the marina, following the signs for the Blue Grotto (www.bluegrottomalta.com.mt) ticket office. The small boats hold 8 people and leave when they have a full load. After a short wait, we had enough people and were off on our 20-minute tour (7 euros pp). This attraction is a series of natural sea caves cut into the limestone cliffs. The Blue Grotto itself is the largest cave, with an impressive sea arch near its entrance. The small boats enter each cave so that you can see the light shining through the water, making it sparkle like sapphires. It is best to tour the caves early in the morning, when the light conditions are optimal to bring out the colors and there are fewer tourists. We were lucky to arrive during a gap in a steady stream of tour buses. Despite our love of hiking, we decided to take the bus instead of walking up the steep highway to the temples at Qrendi. On the way to the bus stop, John spotted a gift shop that had Maltese flags! While waiting for the bus, we could view the islet of Filfla (a nature reserve) and an offshore oil rig. By now, the #71 bus was running, so we caught that at 10:18 a.m. and arrived at the temples 5 minutes later. Our first stop was the visitors' center, where we bought a combo ticket (9 euros pp) that includes both temple sites. There is a nice slide presentation that shows all of the archeological sites on Malta. There are also models of the two sites and displays of artifacts and reproductions from the Museum of Archaeology. Over the 5000 years since they were built, these temples had become buried; now that they are being excavated, they have been covered with huge canopies to protect them from further deterioration. There are walkways and boardwalks at both sites to allow visitors better to appreciate them. Except for reinforcing and replacing a few stones, little restoration work has been performed on the temples. The first site, Hagar Qim (www.sacred-destinations.com/malta/hagar-qim-temple), is the best-preserved of the ancient temples of Malta and, unlike the others, is a single temple rather than a temple complex. A short distance downhill is the Mnajdra Temple Complex (www.sacred-destinations.com/malta/mnajdra-temples), which consists of three temples built between 3600 and 2000 BC. The lower temple is astronomically aligned with the solstices and equinoxes. It is impressive that these sites are 1000 years older than the oldest pyramid in Egypt (Pharaoh Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara). Our final activity at the temples was to take a nature trail to the Tal-Hamrija Tower, a watchtower constructed in 1659 by the Knights of Malta; there is also a nice view of a sea arch. We thought we might be able to catch the 11:37 a.m. #201 bus, but it must have been off schedule. This forced us to ignore the aggressive taxi drivers who insisted the next bus would not be along for quite a while. We finally caught the #71 bus at 12:06 p.m. and returned to the bus station in Valletta at about 1 p.m. If you decide to follow in our footsteps, it will take you about 6 hours RT from your ship. The bus drivers were helpful and will announce your stop if you ask them to do so when you get on the bus. We spent the next couple of hours touring Valletta (www.choosemalta.com/en/tours/audio-tour-valletta.html). First we visited the Upper Barrakka Gardens, then the Lower Barrakka Gardens; both have excellent panoramic views of the Grand Harbour and the three cities on the other side of the harbor. From here, we walked to the remains of Fort Elmo, which fell during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565; the fort now houses the Police Academy and the National War Museum. We headed back into town on Republic Street, one of the main shopping streets. Although our port lecturer had said that the Grand Master's Palace and Armoury were closed for an official function, we were allowed to enter and take pictures in the courtyard. Today the palace is the seat of the President and Parliament of the Republic of Malta. Across from the palace is St George's Square, formerly a parking lot and now a pedestrianised square. Eventually we reached Great Siege Square and the entrance to St. John's Co-Cathedral and Museum (www.stjohnscoCathedral.com/visitor-information.html); the entrance fee (4.60 euros pp for seniors) includes an audio guide. The Co-Cathedral, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, is a Baroque extravaganza of gilded ornamentation. The chapels dedicated to the eight langues of the Order of the Knights of St. John, which line both sides of the nave, are equally ornate. The ceiling is lavishly painted with scenes from the life of St. John. It is the floor however, that makes the Co-Cathedral unique: it consists of the knights' tombstones inlaid with different colors of marble forming symbols and heraldic devices. No pictures are allowed in the adjacent Oratory, which houses two works by Caravaggio: the huge altarpiece, the "Beheading of St John," and a smaller painting of "St. Jerome Writing". No photos are allowed in the various rooms of the Museum either. One room holds silk church vestments embroidered in silver and gold thread. Another room houses a collection of Flemish tapestries. Do not miss the room containing the Choral Books, which are gorgeously illuminated. A special treasure is the gilded bronze monstrance that was created as a reliquary for St. John's forearm. Suffering from Baroque overload, we exited into St. John Square, where we could view the church's rather austere facade. Finally, we returned to the ship for the dramatic, not-to-be-missed sail away past the walled fortresses on either side of the Grand Harbour. Tonight the show was a comedian, Tony Daro. We had seen his show on the previous cruise and decided not to go again. 31 MAY (THU) AT SEA After three straight port days, it was great to sleep in. Later in the morning, we attended the culinary demonstration and toured the galley. While we were waiting on the aft deck outside the Horizon Court before lunch, we saw dolphins frolicking in the wake of the ship. Lunch was the "Italian Extravaganza Luncheon Buffet." In addition to the buffet dishes (delicious pesto lasagna), there was a wonderful assortment of Italian cheeses and cold cuts. As usual, it was the dessert corner that thrilled John, but I succumbed to the temptation to indulge in some sweets as well. The pub lunch was also held today. After lunch, there was time to read and relax on the Promenade Deck until the Princess Grapevine wine tasting, which is complimentary for Elite Captain's Circle members. We tasted five wines: 2 white, 2 red, and 1 dessert. Each person attending the wine tasting receives a souvenir shot glass with various Princess logo designs; we gave ours to Robert & Mary to help them start their collection. This was the second formal night and again we shared our chocolate-covered strawberries with Robert & Mary; we accompanied the strawberries with a bottle of Maltese wine, which was a gift from one of the couples who participated in the Sorrento and Malta private tours. Tonight was also the Captain's Circle Cocktail Party. Based on the number of days for the third most-traveled passenger (only two more than we had), we must have been the fourth most traveled. This is the closest we have ever been to the top three! There were many more Elite members than on the Holy Land cruise, over 60. Tonight was also the production show "Do You Wanna Dance." 01 JUNE (FRI) CORFU, GREECE (ARRIVE 8:00AM DEPART 5:00PM) John and I had been to Corfu once before in 2008 and found it easy to walk to all the sights in the Old City on our own (mappery.com/map-of/Corfu-Town-Map, www.corfu-kerkyra.eu/html/english/corfu.htm, www.frommers.com/destinations/corfu/1675010008.html). On our last visit, we obtained a "Municipality of Corfu Tour Guide" from the tourist office at the New Port. This fold-out brochure has several useful area maps and is an excellent resource; unfortunately, it is not yet available on the Municipality of Corfu web site (www.corfu.gr/web/guest/travelguide-corfu) This time, Robert & Mary enjoyed the Old City while John and I did a walking tour of the archaeological and cultural sites in Paleopolis (Ancient Corfu/Corcyra/Kerkyra) around Mon Repos, just south of town on the Kanoni Peninsula. John and I started out by heading along the waterfront towards the Old City. Near the Ferry Terminal, we took the major street (Avramiou/I. Theotoki) that angles off to the right; this street passes between Avrami Hill and the back of the New Fortress. After about ½ mile, you come to a square; take the main street (Alexandras) on the opposite side all the way to Garitsa Bay. The distance from the New Port to Garitsa Bay by this route is about 1.2 miles. Just before you reach the waterfront, you may spot a small brown sign with yellow (Greek) and white (English) lettering that points you to the Funeral Monument of Menecrates; there is another sign at the waterfront if you miss that one. The same kind of sign marks all the places in the Paleopolis Archeological Site (www.yppo.gr/1/e1540.jsp?obj_id=51). Whichever way you go, the monument is about a block away in a residential area. This small circular stone monument is dedicated to Menecrates, a consul from mainland Greece who drowned in 600 BC; he is not actually buried here because his body was lost at sea. Although the monument itself is not very impressive, the 10-line epigraph on top is considered to be one of the most ancient inscriptions in Greece. We continued walking on Dimokratias Street along Garitsa Bay until it made a Y with another large street (Nafsikas). We continued left on Nafsikas Street to the church of Ayios Athanassios at Anemomylos. This is site #5 on the five-site "Archaeological Tour of Byzantine Monuments of Palaiopolis" (www.antivouniotissamuseum.gr/index.php?option=com_flippingbook&view=book&id=4&lang=en); there is a large sign here explaining the site and a map showing all five sites on the tour. This 15th century church was built on the remains of a tower of the ancient (4th century BC) city walls; ruins of the tower are visible on the southeast wall of the church. One block further on Iasonos and Sosipatrou Street is the church of Ayii Iason and Sosipater, site #4 on the Byzantine tour. This 11th century church is the most important Middle Byzantine monument on the island. The lower part of the external walls consists of stone blocks from the ruins of the ancient city and the marble columns inside were also salvaged from earlier buildings. The church was open, so we could view the remains of the original frescoes, painted between the 11th and 14th centuries, and the 18th century Baroque chancel screen. Returning to Nafsikas Street, we found the Alkinoos Harbor Installations, part of the Paleopolis Archeological Site. The port of Alkinoos (the current Bay of Garitsa) was initially used for military purposes and excavations have revealed remains of the ancient naval base. The meager ruins at this site are the remains of 5th century BC ship sheds, which were designed to house and protect the fleet of Corfu. Now we turned left on Nafsikas/E. Theotoki and continued to the entrance of the Mon Repos estate. Opposite the entrance is the most impressive ruin of the Paleopolis Archeological Site, the Early Christian Basilica of Saint Kerkyra; this is also site #3 on the Byzantine tour. The 5th century AD church was once one of the largest basilicas in Greece. Building materials and decorative elements were taken from surrounding buildings and temples, including marble from a Roman odeon. There are wooden walkways throughout the site, which is also strewn with scant remains from the Roman agora, but it is currently closed to the public. Across the street from the Basilica are the remains of the Roman baths, which were built around 200 AD. This site is also closed to the public, but can be viewed through the wire fence. We waited to view this site until later. This point in the hike was approximately 2 miles from the New Port. To reach the Monastery of Ayios Theodoros, site #2 on the Byzantine tour, continue up the main road towards Kanoni (watch out for traffic!) and turn right on a side road at the sign for "Stratia;" continue on to the monastery. This is working monastery and open to visitors, but we did not tour inside. Just to the east of monastery is another ruin in the Paleopolis Archeological Site, the Temple of Artemis. Almost all that remains of the 6th century BC temple is a rectangular altar and some scattered stones. The site is important because the island's most treasured archaeological find was discovered here: the Gorgon Pediment that is now kept in the Archaeological Museum. There are wooden walkways, but the site is closed to the public. Further up the road near the cemetery is site # 1 on the Byzantine tour, Panayia Neradziha (also called the Tower of Nerantziha). This is the only part of the ancient wall of Corfu Town that is still present and is also the area of the ancient aqueduct. The tower is 6 meters high and dates from the 4th century BC. It only survived because it was built into the Byzantine Chapel of the Virgin Mary. There is a small shrine on one side of the wall. At this point, we had seen everything on our tour except Mon Repos and it was still very early in the day. We decided to continue along the one-way circular road to the end of the Kanoni Peninsula (about 2.5 miles RT from the Mon Repos gate) in hopes of seeing more of the Paleopolis Archeological Site. We hiked the road in the counterclockwise direction; in retrospect, we should have walked in the other direction, against traffic. We chose to walk with traffic because we expected to find the remains of ceramics workshops and residences. However, we never saw any indication of where those ruins might be. Finally, we reached the viewpoint at the tip of the Kanoni Peninsula. From here, we had great views of the Vlaherna Monastery (on a small island connected to the mainland by a cement dock) and Pontikonissi (Mouse Island), home to the Monastery of Pantocrator. According to local legend, Mouse Island is Odysseus' ship that was turned into rock by Poseidon; according to another legend, it is the rock on which Odysseus' ship crashed during a storm. On the way back to Mon Repos, we decided to take a side road to the hamlet of Analypsi. The Ancient Acropolis of Corfu, with its temples and public buildings, is thought to have been situated on the nearby hill of Ayia Marina. When we reached the tiny roundabout in Analypsi, we were debating which way to go; a friendly local indicated we should go left. We found a parking lot overlooking the sea with great views of Corfu Town and the Old Fortress. We hoped to find a trail down to the Spring of Kardaki/Venetian Well. Popular legend says that a foreigner who drinks from this well forgets his native land and remains in Corfu forever. Not finding the trail, we returned to the roundabout and took the road to Ayia Marina. There is supposed to be a great view from the terrace of the church and possibly another trail to the spring. Unfortunately, the entire area around the church was fenced and padlocked. Heading back down the hill, we took the road that runs along the boundary of Mon Repos instead of returning to the main road. This road has almost no traffic and is shaded; it took us right to the gate of the estate. We were also back at the ruins of the Roman baths and took this opportunity to view them before entering the estate. Admission to the Mon Repos park is free but there is a charge (2 euros pp) to visit the Mon Repos Villa. The shady park was once home to the botanical gardens of the Ionian Academy. The evergreen gardens reportedly contain more than 2000 different kinds of plants, flowers and trees; most were donated by various royal families of Europe. Walking along the main path from the entrance gate, we saw the Agias Efimia Monastery on the left and a sign for the small open air theater. We came to the neo-classical Mon Repos Villa, which was formerly the summer house for the Greek royal family (Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was born there). Today it is the Paleopolis Archaeological Museum, but we did not go in because we planned to visit the Archaeological Museum of Corfu (which unfortunately was closed) later to see the Gorgon pediment from the Temple of Artemis. However, there are good views from the terraces surrounding the villa. The first ruins we encountered were those of the Temple of Hera Akraia or the Heraeum (7th -- 4th century BC). Although little can be seen, this was once the largest and most important temple of the ancient city. Close to the sanctuary of Hera are the ruins of a small open-air shrine dedicated to Apollo the Corcyraean, the founder god of Corcyra (Corfu). These were followed by several other sites currently under excavation. Finally we reached the best preserved ancient temple in Corfu, the Temple of Kardaki. This temple, thought to be dedicated either to Poseidon, Apollo or Asclepius, was built around 500 BC. The remains include foundations, an internal altar and a few Doric columns; the front of the temple has fallen into the sea. The Kardaki Spring is supposed to be on the hillside below the temple next to the sea, but once again we could find no trace of a trail. We decided to head back towards the villa and try another trail that went down to the Kardaki Beach. Before we reached the turnoff, we encountered Bob & Elaine (BobTroll) on their way to the Kardaki Temple. They had taken the public bus from the New Port to the viewpoint at the tip of the Kanoni Peninsula and from there to Mon Repos. They had toured the villa and told us the exhibits were quite interesting. We continued on to the beach, where there is a jetty. Walking out on the jetty, we could see the Old Fort and, along the shoreline in the opposite direction, the ruins marking the Kardaki Spring. It did not appear possible to reach the spring by walking along the seashore; as we left the beach, we saw a trail leading off to the left and followed that, but it circled back to the main path. At least we got to see where the spring is and it was fun searching for it. As we exited the Mon Repos estate, we turned right and followed the coastline to the Anemomilos pier. "Anemomilos" means windmill and there is a reconstructed windmill by the pier. We walked out to the end of the pier for fine views of Garitsa Bay and the Old Fortress. After that, we enjoyed a walk along the bay to the Archeological Museum of Corfu, home to the famous Gorgon Pediment and other finds from Paleopolis. To our disappointment, the museum had closed the previous month for renovations and will not reopen until 2015. We continued on, turning inland at the Splanada. We walked about halfway down the Splanada before turning left in the direction of the New Fortress; from there we headed back to the New Port. I estimate that we walked close to 10 miles, most of it fairly level. The sail away from Corfu offered good views of both fortresses and the Old City. The show tonight was a different performance by Christopher Riggins (the "popera" guy); John went with me this time and we were rewarded with a very good show.02 JUNE (SAT) KOTOR, MONTENEGRO (ARRIVE 8:00AM DEPART 5:00PM) Kotor (www.kotor.travel) is at the end of a 17-mile waterway through the Montenegrin mountains. Although some people refer to this as Europe's southernmost fjord, it was not caused by glacial activity; it is actually a submerged river valley. Nevertheless, the effect is fjord-like, with mountains rising dramatically on both sides of a long, thin bay that leads to the medieval walled city of Kotor. None of the four of us had ever visited Kotor. John & I planned to climb the city walls to the Fortress of Kotor (AKA Fortress of St. Ivan/St. John) early in the morning and then take a self-guided walking tour of the Old City. Robert & Mary decided to start later and explore the Old City first before climbing partway up the walls. The ship docked just down the street from the main gate to the Old City, the West Gate (Sea Gate). There is a Tourist Information Office right outside the Sea Gate, where we picked up a free map. The helpful young lady on duty marked the route to the fortress on it; it is easier to hike up starting from the northern entrance to the walls. We went through the Sea Gate into Kotor's main square, Trg od Oruzja (Arms Square), and turned left. Taking the first alley on the right, we continued to the back of the town to the North Gate (River Gate). We went out through the River Gate and across the arched bridge over the Skurda River to get some nice photos of the city walls and the fortress on the mountainside above us. We crossed back into the Old City and looked for the sign (skydrive.live.com/?cid=1E98E90214E77BF9&id=1E98E90214E77BF9!1805&sc=photos) indicating the main entrance to the walls. Above the entrance, there is an interesting old (1760) arch between Grubonja Palace and another building; it carries a medallion with the winged lion of St. Mark and the Latin inscription: "Regia munitae rupis via" (The main road to the fortress on the hill). The ticket seller is further along the stairs to the fortress. Some people are surprised that there is a fee to climb the walls and think that the ticket seller is running a scam. However, there actually is a 3 euro pp charge and you should receive a ticket (kupon) with a drawing of the Old City and the fortress as they looked in 1598; the ticket doubles as a post card. The ticket seller can also give you a free map of the walls; we had to ask for it. The hike up to the fortress (260 meters or 853 feet above sea level) involves climbing approximately 1350 steep, uneven steps. As already mentioned, the trail from the main (north) entrance is in better shape than the one from the south entrance. For much of the hike, there is a ramp next to the steps which is often easier to climb than the steps themselves. Beware of loose stones and don't attempt the climb when the steps are wet and slippery; hiking boats are not essential but wear sturdy shoes that protect your feet and have good traction. Although the map shows several alternative routes to the top and some side trails, most of those are roped off or so overgrown that there is no doubt about which is the main trail. You also know you are on the right path when you spot one of the hot-pink garbage bags set out as trash receptacles. As you climb, the views of the Old City and the "fjord" just keep getting better and better. The wildflower display was also gorgeous. After about 20 minutes, we reached the Crkva Gaspe od Zdravlja (Church of Our Lady of Remedy), built in 1572 by the survivors of a plague. There is a semi-circular stone seat in front of the chapel where you can rest and take in the spectacular vistas. The chapel is approximately halfway to the top and many people turn around here. After the chapel, the trail becomes more rugged. Eventually, we came to a series of fortifications and had fun clambering around every place we could find a trail or stairway. At one point, there is a hole in the rampart through which we could see the Ladder of Cattaro, an ancient caravan trail that zigzags up the mountain. If you like, you can climb through the hole and down to a small ruined chapel; we did not do that. Finally, we reached the fortress itself. There is a rickety metal bridge at the entrance; we held onto the handrails and walked across on the central girder. We then passed through a two-story section (the upper floor looked totally unsafe) to emerge at the top of the fortress. The views from the top were breathtaking! It took us about an hour to go from the entrance to the walls to the flag at the top, even with all the sidetracking. As we started down, we encountered several other CC roll call members coming up: Bob & Elaine (BobTroll), Sue & Bill (agelessgram) and Randy & Janet (RockNRoller). Again, the map shows several other ways to descend but they are roped off or overgrown. When we reached the intersection with the trail from the south entrance, we went that way. This path is in worse condition as the one from the northern starting point; the steps are more irregular and steep. We also encountered a snake, which was fortunately more afraid of us than we were of him and it slithered away quickly. We continued well past the side trail to the south entrance, hoping to reach some of the other bastions and fortifications. However, the trail became more and more overgrown and (remembering the snake) we decided to leave the walls and explore the Old City. The southern entrance leads to Trg od Salate (Salad Square). We exited the square by the street on the left (Craftsmen Street); which has a number of souvenirs shops; I found a small Montenegrin flag along there. We continued to the city's South Gate (Gurdic Gate), which is the oldest remaining gate, and walked out on the drawbridge across the Gurdic Spring for more good photos of the walls. After passing back through the gate, we found some stairs up to the Gurdic Bastion; the top of the bastion was strung with clotheslines festooned with drying laundry. We followed Craftsmen Street across town towards the River Gate, to Trg od Drva (Timber Square). This square is home to St Mary's Church (Sveta Marija Koledjate), which has a bronze door depicting the story of Kotor's patron saint, the Blessed Ozana. The next square west is St. Luke's Square, dominated by the Orthodox Church of St Nicholas (Sveti Nikola); the much smaller Basilica of St. Luke (Sveti Luka) is on the opposite corner. At one time Sveti Luka was shared by the Catholic and Orthodox communities, with each having its own altar, until the first half of the 19th century; the Catholic altar is no longer there. From here we proceeded to Museum Square, passing a small courtyard that contains the Karampana, Kotor's only public well; this wrought iron contraption looks a bit like a small oil rig. Museum Square is the location of the Maritime Museum (housed in the Grgurina Palace), which showcases Kotor's rich maritime history. Finally, we reached St Tryphon's Square, site of the old Town Hall, the Town Archives, Drago Palace, the Bishop's Palace and Kotor's most famous attraction, St. Tryphon Basilica-Cathedral (Sveti Tripuna). The entrance fee to the Cathedral and its museum is 2 euros pp. There is an ornate marble canopy, supported by red marble columns and topped with a gold-winged angel, over the main altar. The silver and gold altarpiece depicts many saints, including St. Tryphon who is holding the city of Kotor. Next to the altar are the partial remains of an early fresco of the Crucifixion. Four side-altars contain such treasures as a Venetian painting of the Virgin Mary encased in silver. The museum upstairs displays many relics of St. Tryphon and other saints, illuminated manuscripts and sacramental paraphernalia. The two sections of the museum are connected by a loggia between the Cathedral's two towers, which gives fine views of the square. As we left the Cathedral, we encountered a marching band; the members appeared to be wearing naval white-dress uniforms. It paraded all through the town playing such Montenegrin favorites as "When the Saints Go Marching In." We walked down the street by the Town Hall to Trg od Brashna (Flour Square), where you can see the Pima Palace and several other former palaces of Kotor's most powerful families. We headed back to the Maritime Museum with thoughts of visiting it. However, a large tour group had just entered and we didn't want to join the crowd. Instead, we headed back to the Square of Arms, where the marching band was now playing. We also took some time to look at the buildings surrounding the square, which we had rushed though earlier. In addition to a few more palaces, it is home to the Clock Tower, the City Theatre and a Venetian Arsenal (with the lion of St. Mark on the side). After we watched the marching band squeeze through an alley only wide enough for two people side-by-side, we exited through the Sea Gate and returned to the ship to relax before the sail away. Although we had gotten up early to see the dramatic sail in through the mountains bordering the Bay of Kotor, it was a bit foggy that morning. By the time we sailed out in the afternoon, it was clearer and we could get much better views and photos of this gorgeous scenery. As we sailed through the bay, we passed several picturesque villages. Finally we reached the mouth of the inner bay, near the town of Perast, where there are two small islands. The green island is Gospa od Shkrpjela (Our Lady of the Rock), an artificial island built by fishermen from Perast on the spot where an icon of the Virgin Mary was found after a shipwreck. When they returned from each successful voyage, they tossed a rock into the bay and gradually an island formed. The other island is St. George, home to a Benedictine monastery. After reaching these islands, the ship made a 90-degree turn into the narrow Verige Strait and passed into a wider, outer section of the bay. From there we sailed into the Adriatic Sea, headed for Venice. Tonight Robert & Mary joined us for dinner at Sabatini's, the Italian extra-charge restaurant (www.princess.com/learn/onboard/food_dining/specialty_restaurants/sabatinis/index.html); dinner here is always special. I had two appetizers (seared tuna, soft shell crab), a small serving of the Chef's Nightly Specialty pasta, a main course (lobster three ways), and dessert. The show tonight was "Magical Showtime" by Bobby Borgia. John and I had seen his performance earlier in the cruise and decided we did not need to see him again. 03 JUNE (SUN) KORCULA, CROATIA (ARRIVE 7:00AM DEPART 2:00PM) TENDER Korcula was another port that was new to all four of us. I had considered booking an independent wine tour here, but they were prohibitively expensive. Instead, we opted for the ship's tour, "Peljesac Wines & Vineyards." Several friends who had intended to join us on the tour canceled because the ship's departure time was changed from 4:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m.; they felt they would not have enough time to visit the Old Town after the tour. Robert & Mary were among those who opted to explore the medieval walled city on their own. Our tour left the ship at 7:45 a.m. and tendered to shore, where we boarded a boat to Orebic on the Peljesac Peninsula (www.find-croatia.com/peljesac/peljesac-map.htm). From Orebic, we traveled by bus to the seaside village of Trstenik. Our first stop was at the Vinarija Grgic (www.vinskiputidnz.com/grgic.html), which was established in 1996 by Mike Grgich of Grgich Hills Estate in the Napa Valley, California. Here we tasted wines made from the two local grapes, Posip (white) and Plavac mali (red). These wines are made to appeal to Croatian tastes and most of the production (about 5,000 cases per year) is sold domestically. The winery also sells wines from Grgich Hills Estate. The products of both wineries tend to be priced at the premium level in their respective countries. Our next stop was in Prizdrina at the Vinarija Bartulovic (www.vinarijabartulovic.hr/index.php?lang=en), a much smaller and older (480 years) operation. Like Grgic, Bartuvolic produces red and white wines from the local grapes. After a short lecture on the wines, we adjourned to the family's taverna, located in the old wine cellar. There we enjoyed a light lunch of sliced tomatoes with marinated fresh anchovies, lentil soup, homemade bread, cheese and black olives, served with glasses of their white and red wines. Those who wanted could return to the modern winery to taste the winery's rose and single-vineyard red. Several other people wanted to taste the rose, but we were the only ones interested in tasting the single-vineyard red. However, we decided that the blended-vineyard red was more to our taste, so we bought a bottle of that as a souvenir. Although our tour was scheduled to end at 1:00 p.m., we actually returned to Korcula at 12:25 p.m. This gave us just over an hour to explore the Old Town (mappery.com/Korcula-Tourist-Map-2, www.apartments-vela-luka.com/korcula.asp, www.korculainfo.com/places/korcula) before catching the last tender back to the ship. We took the staircase up to the Tower of the Sea Gate and continued up to Cathedral Square. From there, we went around the corner to view the Marco Polo house. Although the house is being renovated as a museum, the tower is open and reportedly gives great views over the city. However, the admission fee can only be paid in kunas (Croatia will convert to the euro in 2019), so we did not go in. We returned to the Cathedral of St. Mark and toured that (free). Having visited the two main sights, we walked around the town, viewing the other gates and towers and visiting several more churches. There were only a few passengers on the last tender and we were all aboard by 1:30 p.m. We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and reading on the Promenade Deck until the "Most Travelled Passengers" event for the 40 people with the most days sailing on Princess. Usually, this event is a luncheon held in Sabatini's. This time the event was a cocktail party with heavy hors d'oeuvres in the Library. Although the party was nice, it really didn't compare with the luncheon we had on the last cruise. Considering the number of other events that the Food Services Department is able to produce with aplomb, it seems surprising that a luncheon for 40 people cannot be organized on every cruise. Tonight we enjoyed the final production show, "Motor City." I have heard that this show is being retired after this year. 04 JUNE (MON) VENICE, ITALY (ARRIVE 9:00AM) After arriving in so many ports late, the Pacific Princess docked in Venice much earlier than scheduled. We planned to be out on deck by 8:00 a.m. for the sail-in, but when we awoke at 7:00 a.m., we could see St. Mark's Square drifting past our window. We hurriedly dressed and were able to enjoy part of the sail-in. John and I have been to Venice twice before, but this would be the first visit for Robert & Mary. We would be flying home tomorrow after an overnight on the ship, while they would be spending two extra nights in Venice. When John and I visited here in 1998, we were able to do most of the walking tours at this site: www.en.tuttivolivenezia.it/venice-itineraries.html. On our second visit in 2008, we revisited some of our favorite sights and some of the ones that were closed on our first visit. If you are thinking of doing these walking tours, get a good map of Venice before you leave home and mark off the routes in different colors. On this visit, I wanted to tour some of the islands in the lagoon (Murano, Burano and Torcello) by vaporetto (water bus); Robert & Mary decided to join us because they would have another two days to explore the rest of Venice on their own. Princess runs a water shuttle back and forth from the cruise terminal to the Victor Emmanuel II monument near Piazza San Marco; it does not travel on the Grand Canal. The ticket is automatically delivered to your cabin and charged to your onboard account. If you want ride up and down the Grand Canal or visit other islands in the lagoon, the vaporettos are much more flexible. Detailed information on riding the vaporettos can be found here: europeforvisitors.com/venice/articles/venice-vaporetto-water-buses.htm. If you decide to use the vaporetto system instead of the Princess water shuttle be sure to (1) return the shuttle ticket to the Tour Desk for a refund, (2) print out a map of the vaporetto routes (www.actv.it/pdf/navigazione/Mappa_linee_2nov.pdf) before you leave home and (3) remember to validate your pass/ticket EVERY time you board a vaporetto. We had to collect our passports before leaving the ship and present them to the Italian authorities on the dock. There is supposedly a shuttle bus from the dock to the Venice People Mover (europeforvisitors.com/venice/articles/venice-people-mover.htm), which is just outside the port entrance. However, we never saw a bus until after we had walked to the People Mover; this was the only time we ever saw a shuttle bus at the port. It is easy to use the ticket machines for the People Mover (1 euro pp) and a very short ride to Piazzale Roma. We bought our 12-hour vaporetto passes (18 euros pp) at the ACTV/ATVO ticket office and headed for the vaporetto stop, near the pedestrian bridge to the train station. For our tour of the Venetian lagoon, I was using the suggested itinerary from this web site: europeforvisitors.com/venice/articles/venice-islands-tour. We started by taking the 9:20 a.m. ACTV line #3 "Diretto Murano" boat, which runs every 1/2 hour; the ride to the "Murano Colonna" stop takes 21 minutes. Just before reaching Murano, we passed S. Michele Island on the right. This is Venice's cemetery island and many famous artists are interred here. Murano is known as the glass-making island. The industry had its beginnings on Torcello in the 7th or 8th century; production later shifted to Venice, where it remained concentrated until the fornaci or furnaces were moved to the island of Murano as a fire-prevention measure in 1291. As we exited the vaporetto stop, we turned left and walked along the water until we saw the Calle S. Cipriano street sign. Just ahead was the Vetreria Murano Arte factory (www.vma-murano.it/html_en/home.asp), which offers a free glassmaking demonstration about every 20 minutes. Of course, you exit through the showroom where you can admire the beautiful and expensive glassware. There are many other factories that offer free demonstrations. After the demonstration, we returned to the vaporetto stop and turned left on Fondamenta dei Vetrai. This street is lined with shops selling glass in a wide range of prices and quality. Much of the cheap glass sold here is made in China; if you want authentic Murano glass, look for the "Vetro Murano Artistico" trademark. Although Murano boasts a glass museum, the Museo Del Vetro, we enjoyed simply admiring the pieces in the windows of the more upscale galleries and the large works of public art made from glass. We continue walking until we came to the Church of St. Peter Martyr (free). This church has work by such artists as Bellini, Tintoretto and Veronese. Many of this art came from other churches that were closed or demolished. When we reached the Murano Grand Canal, we turned left along the canal to the Palazzo da Mula, formerly a summer retreat for a Venetian family. Land was at less of a premium on Murano, so a palazzo like this one could include large gardens, which were otherwise rare in Venice. A glimpse of the gardens can be had from a side street. Now we returned to the bridge over the Grand Canal, the Vivarini Bridge also called the "Long Bridge." Turning right along the waterfront, we passed the Glass Museum and proceeded to San Donato Square. The church here is Murano's cathedral, Santa Maria and Donato Church (free). A unique feature of the church is the exterior of its apse, which is built in two levels of columns connected by arches; the top level is a gallery. Inside the church is a beautiful polychrome mosaic floor. The high altar contains the remains of St. Donatus. He supposedly slew a dragon by spitting at it; four of its bones hang behind the altar. We walked around a bit more before ending up at the "Murano Faro" stop to board the 11:19 a.m. ACTV Line #12 boat to Burano. This boat runs every 1/2 hour; the ride to the Burano stop takes 33 minutes. Although it passes a number of other islands on the way, the boat only stops at Mazzorbo before reaching Burano; the two islands are also linked by a footbridge, which is close to the Burano stop. Burano's canals are lined with the brightly colored homes of the local fisherman. While waiting for their husbands to return from sea, the wives of fishermen developed a method of making lace by stitching through a design drawn on paper. It takes seven women, each specializing in a particular stitch, to produce one piece of lace. This is very time-consuming and tedious work; a large piece can take years to complete and is very expensive. Although the local government attempts to keep its centuries-old lace legacy alive, there is little interest among young people in learning the craft. As its current practitioners age, more and more lace is being made by machine using the traditional designs. As we left the Burano stop, we headed left, enjoying the colorful houses and looking for a way to cross the canal. Once across the canal, we continued heading left to Piazza Galuppi. On the left of the square is the Lace Museum, the Museo del Merletto, which was closed on Monday. Fortunately, a few of the lace shops were offering free demonstrations; the woman we saw stitching was said to be the youngest remaining lacemaker and she is 60 years old. In addition to the showroom, the shop we visited (Dalla Olga Merletti d'Arte, www.olgalace.com) had its own museum: two floors displaying an impressive collection of new and antique lace designs. We had planned to visit two other buildings on the square: the Oratory of Santa Barbara and the Church of San Martino Vescovo, but these were closed for siesta and would not reopen for two hours. However, we enjoyed browsing the shops, strolling along the streets and savoring gelato so much that we spent an extra half-hour here before returning to the Burano stop to catch the next vaporetto to Torcello. We still had a few minutes before it was due to leave, so we walked across the wooden footbridge to Mazzorbo for a brief glimpse of that island. We returned to the Burano stop to board the 1:05 p.m. ACTV Line #9 boat to Torcello. This boat runs back and forth to Torcello every 1/2 hour; the ride takes 5 minutes. All of the sights on Torcello are on the opposite side of the island from the vaporetto stop, so you must allow at least a full hour for your visit. Torcello was the first of the lagoon islands to be inhabited and was once the largest and most important settlement in the Venetian Lagoon; today only a few dozen innkeepers, farmers, and other hardy souls live on the largely abandoned island. As we walked toward the main attraction, the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, we passed the Devil's Bridge, Ponte del Diavolo. This bridge is one of the few remaining in Venice that has no railings. Eventually we reached Torcello's unpaved main square. A white marble seat, popularly known as Attila's Throne, was more likely once used by Torcello's bishop. Bordering the square are the Council Palace and the Archives' Palace, which together constitute the Archaeological Museum (closed Monday). On the right side of Torcello square is the first building in Torcello's church complex, the Santa Fosca Church, which dates from the 11th century. The remains of St. Fosca are on display in an illuminated case under the altar; on the exterior of the church is an early 15th century bas-relief of "St. Fosca Being Worshipped by Her Confreres." The next building is the 7th century Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, the Cathedral of Torcello. The ruined circular building in front was a baptistery, part of the original building. To enter the basilica, you must buy a ticket (5 euros pp) at the gift shop on the right of the entrance; the ticket is a sheet of paper that you present at the ticket office. The cathedral is famous for its outstanding 11th- to 12-century Byzantine mosaics, which cover the floor, walls and ceiling. The Bell Tower is reputed to have great panoramic views but it is closed due to instability and covered in scaffolding; actually, it looks like it could fall down any minute. We searched for the oratory to St Mark which is supposed to be near the church, but weren't sure whether we found it (no signage). On the way back to the vaporetto stop, the rain that had been threatening all day finally started. However, there is a covered area where we waited for the 2:10 p.m. boat back to Burano. From there we caught the 2:26 p.m. ACTV Line #12 boat to Fondamenta Nove. This boat runs every 1/2 hour; the ride takes 42 minutes. From Fondamenta Nove, we walked over to the Rialto Bridge and then checked out Robert & Mary's hotel (www.hotelbecher.com), which is very well located near the Piazza San Marco. Although the hotel has its own water taxi stop, I had suggested that using the Alilaguna service (www.alilaguna.com/en/linea-blu) and walking to its stop might be a more cost-effective way to get to the hotel (and later the airport) for Robert & Mary. To determine whether this was feasible, we next walked to the nearby San Marco Alilaguna stop (just west of Piazza San Marco); this turned out to be a good alternative for them. Next we walked over to Piazza San Marco to find the spot mentioned in Budget Travel (www.budgettravel.com/slideshow/photos-5-beautiful-reasons-to-love-venice,7930/#pic=1), where five bridges (including the famous Bridge of Sighs) can be photographed at once. The directions are "walk north from Piazza San Marco and then east on the Calle Larga di San Marco to the other side of the Ponte dell'Anzolo Bridge." After a little more strolling, we took the ACTV Line #2 boat from the "S. Marco -- S. Zaccaria" stop along the Grand Canal towards the cruise terminal. Although it was still raining, we got seats on the back of the vaporetto and had some great views of the bridges and palazzos as we motored along. Instead of getting off at the "Piazzale Roma" stop and taking the People Mover back to the cruise terminal area, we decided to get off at the next stop "Mercato," which is on Tronchetto. At first we thought we had made a big mistake; we were the only people who exited at this stop and there were chain link fences everywhere. However, we could see the street a short distance away and walked over to it. On our right was a bridge (with sidewalks) that took us over a small canal and deposited us right across the street from the People Mover shuttle bus stop (no bus). From there, we still had to walk back to the ship. I think we ended up walking the same total distance as if we had taken the People Mover, but we did not have to wait or pay for the People Mover. We had to show our passports in order to reboard the ship. Back onboard, we had the sad duty of packing up our belongings for our flight home tomorrow. At diner, our Headwaiter (Rui) surprised all four of us with escargot; he had noticed how much we enjoyed them on French Night and had already brought us (unasked) some on another night. Among many other services, Rui had been particularly helpful in having my lost wine card replaced and making a special Caesar Salad for us. He was the most exceptional Headwaiter we have had in a long time and more than deserving of an extra tip from us. 05 JUNE (TUE) VENICE, ITALY (DISEMBARKATION) Today was a beautiful sunny day. We all arranged to disembark the ship with the last group of independent passengers. After a leisurely breakfast and cappuccino, we went to the Cabaret Lounge and waited awhile there before disembarking. We collected our luggage and walked to the main terminal building. Robert & Mary headed to the Alilaguna ticket booth, while John and I continued on to the People Mover; again there was no sign of a shuttle bus. Once at the Piazzale Roma, we bought our ticket for the ATVO Airport Bus (5 euros pp) at the ACTV/ATVO ticket office and headed for the bus stop, in the middle of the Piazzale Roma. Note that there is a luggage compartment under the bus, but the driver does not help you to stow your bags. We caught the 10:50 a.m. bus and were at Marco Polo (FCO) Airport about 20 minutes later. Do not head directly into the terminal; the entrance to the escalator/elevator going up to the departure area is near the middle of the terminal building. We checked in quickly, went through security and settled in to wait for our 1:10 p.m. flight. One problem with this airport is that you cannot hear the boarding announcements unless you are seated very close to the desk at the gate; only final departure announcements are made loud enough to hear elsewhere. There are signs at the gate that say when a flight is boarding, but not which group is boarding; the gate agent was just holding up fingers to indicate the group. When our flight started boarding, most of the passengers jumped up and got in line. Apparently the gate agents were boarding by group, because people were being turned away and made to wait to board. We finally gave in and got in line; by the time we reached the gate, our group was boarding. The flight to JFK was uneventful, but immigration at JFK was a zoo. The rope maze had not been set up properly and two long lines of people (coming from opposite directions) were being funneled into the same line. Tempers flared when a rope was placed in front of our long line and we were all told to go to the end of the other long line. This was not the only place at JFK where we encountered poor crowd management. Eventually we made it through immigration and customs, rechecked our bags and found the gate for our flight home. The flight to RDU was delayed by over an hour, but we still had time left on our 30-day Delta Skyclub pass. The lounge was a nice place to catch up on e-mail and to have some snacks and a couple of drinks. Despite the delay, we arrived at RDU only a little later than originally scheduled. Now would begin the long process of getting back to our normal lives, organizing photos, writing reviews and planning our next wonderful cruise with Princess. Read Less
Sail Date May 2012
ABOUT US John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our early sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and ... Read More
ABOUT US John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our early sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times. Our preferred souvenir is a small regional or national flag. On this itinerary, I would be looking for flags from Israel and Egypt. We enjoy both cruises and land tours; many of our trips combine the two. Many of our cruises have been in the Caribbean but we have also cruised to Alaska, the Panama Canal, the Mediterranean/Greek Isles, Scandinavia/Russia, Hawaii, French Polynesia, South America/Antarctic Peninsula, the Far East, the North Atlantic (Greenland/Iceland), parts of the British Isles, the Norwegian Fjords, and the Galapagos Islands. We have taken land tours to the Netherlands, Canadian Rockies, Mexico (Cozumel), London, France (several wine regions and Paris), China, Argentina (Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls, Mendoza wine region), Chile (Santiago, several wine regions) and to many parts of the continental USA. On our trips, we prefer nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving, or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves, or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles, and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view. We are Elite members of Princess' Captain's Circle loyalty program, but have also sailed with Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Costa, Celebrity, and Commodore. ABOUT THE REVIEW Other reviews give extensive information on the ship, cabins, food, etc. Our reviews are not like that; they are primarily a journal of what we did in the various ports, including links to tourist sites and maps. We combined this cruise with the Pacific Princess' May 24 "Mediterranean Collection" cruise; I have written a separate review for that cruise. SUGGESTED RESOURCES "Mediterranean Cruise Ports," by Rick Steves (available on travelstore.ricksteves.com or www.amazon.com) "Athens and the Peloponnese," by Rick Steves (available on travelstore.ricksteves.com or www.amazon.com) "Europe 101," by Rick Steves (available on travelstore.ricksteves.com or www.amazon.com) Any book about Greek mythology. TOUR GUIDE CONTACT INFORMATION Athens, Greece: Fotis Kolliris, www.athensprivatetours.gr Kusadasi, Turkey: Tugrul Somen, www.kusadasitours.com Haifa/Ashdod, Israel: Guided Tours Israel (part of the Top Day Tours Group Ltd), www.GuidedToursIsrael.com Port Said/Alexandria, Egypt: Ramses Tours (Ramasside Private Tours), www.ramsestours.com REVIEW OF THE CRUISE 09 MAY (WED) IN TRANSIT TO ATHENS We flew to Athens three days before the cruise. Checking my e-mail prior to departing for RDU, I got an unwelcome jolt of adrenaline when someone from another CruiseCritic.com Holy Land roll call posted on our roll call that we would need pre-approval from Princess to depart the ship in Port Said and return in Alexandria for our private overnight tour in Egypt. In all my research about private overnight tours in Egypt, I had never read that a specific form needed to be filed with Princess prior to the cruise; every post/review I had read merely mentioned notifying the passenger Services Desk once onboard. Fortunately, the necessary "Route Deviation Form" could be filled out over the telephone. Unfortunately, one couple in our group was already in Greece and another was departing for Athens on the same day as us. I sent an urgent e-mail to everyone in the group telling them to call Princess ASAP and fill out the form. Because the Princess call center is only open from 6 a.m. - 9 p.m. Pacific Time, I could not call Princess until we reached JFK. The Princess rep said the process for approving a route deviation took 3-5 business days and she was doubtful that I could be approved for the overnight so close to sailing. Despite her negativity, I received an e-mail approval before we even left JFK; the others in the group received similarly prompt approvals. Once on the ship, we found out that registering a contact telephone number and hotel information with the Passenger Services Desk after boarding would have been sufficient to overnight away from the ship. Because we would have a long layover at JFK, we purchased a 30-day pass in RDU to the Delta lounges to have a more comfortable place to wait, internet access, light snacks and drinks. After the ordeal with the Princess rep, I needed a couple of glasses of wine to calm down! 10 MAY (THURS) PRECRUISE IN ATHENS Although we left JFK over an hour late, we arrived on time in Athens. There was a long line at immigration, so the luggage was already coming out by the time we reached baggage claim. Fotis Kolliris (www.athensprivatetours.gr) was waiting for us with a sign just outside the baggage claim area and whisked us off to our hotel. On the way, he provided a running commentary on what we should expect while in Greece and discussed our touring plans with us. He also gifted us with books about Athens and Greece (and loaned us one about Delphi) to enhance our enjoyment of our time there. We spent two nights at the Athens Gate Hotel (www.athensgate.gr/index-eng.htm), which we booked with AAdvantage miles. This hotel is very conveniently located right across the street from Hadrian's Gate and the Olympeion (Temple of Olympian Zeus) and very near the new Acropolis Museum and the Acropolis itself. A good breakfast buffet with fried/scrambled eggs, bacon/sausage, cereal, bread/pastries, fruit, yoghurt, cold meats/cheese, coffee/tea/juice is served in the top-floor restaurant, which has outstanding views of the Acropolis and the Temple of Zeus. Our bedroom was on the traffic side of the hotel, with a view of the Temple of Zeus. John was slightly bothered by the traffic noise and needed ear plugs to sleep, but the noise did not disturb me. The room itself was modern and clean, with all the usual toilet items; there were cloth slippers but no robes. After settling in at the hotel, we headed out to tour some of the sights of Athens. We find getting out in the sun and walking around a city really helps us to adjust to the jet lag. Our first stop was Hadrian's Gate (free), which is a park with good views of the Temple of Zeus. However, we planned to get an Acropolis combo ticket (odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh355.jsp?obj_id=2384), which is valid for 4 days and includes admission to the Acropolis and a number of other smaller sites. The combo ticket (12 euros pp, cash only) can be purchased at any of the sites; it has one section that is good for the Acropolis and 6 sections that are good at any of the remaining sites. We bought our combo tickets at the Temple of Zeus, where there was no line. Although we could have viewed it from outside, it was nice to walk all around the temple and see it up close. After touring the Temple of Zeus, we walked down the pedestrian street (Dionysiou Areopagitou) that passes the Acropolis Museum on the way to the Acropolis. Fotis had warned us that some of the smaller sites would be closing at 3:00 p.m. or earlier due to under-staffing. Normally, more people are hired after May 1 to accommodate the summer crowds of tourists. However, Greece had not been able to form a government after the recent elections and these temporary positions would not be filled until that was accomplished. With this in mind, we decide to save the Acropolis and the museum for last because they would be staying open later. When we reached the road that passes between the Acropolis and the Ancient Agora, we detoured for a hike up Philopappos Hill (free), named in honor of a popular Roman Consul. This hill was the location of the Venetian mortars that bombarded the Acropolis in 1687, causing major damage to the Parthenon (then being used as a Turkish armory). Today, the hill is a public park with many trails to the top; just keep heading uphill. At the top are the Philopappos Monument and fine views of the Acropolis and the rest of Athens. As we walked down Philopappos Hill, we passed the "Prison of Socrates," where the philosopher was supposedly held prior to his execution. This is a series of small caves that are gated to keep people out. At the bottom of the hill, we continued around the base of the Acropolis to Mars Hill (free). This hill is a large rock outcrop and was formerly used as a platform for speakers (such as St. Paul) to address the crowds. Now it is generally crowded with tourists taking pictures of the Acropolis. Fortunately, hardly anyone was there on this day. There are stone steps carved into the side of Mars Hill, but we chose the safer metal staircase. Even on a dry day and wearing hiking boots, we found the rocks here and on the Acropolis treacherous --- be careful! Descending Mars Hill, we continued along the Panathenaic Way that links the Ancient Agora (combo ticket) with the Acropolis. Instead of continuing around to the main entrance of the Agora, we walked through a public park (free) to a side entrance; the park also contains many remains of the ancient marketplace. Rick Steves' Athens/Peloponnese book has a map and self-guided tour of the Agora; his website also offers a free audio tour. We had listened to the audio tour before leaving home, but found it awkward to use once we were actually at the site; we decided to stick with our printed copy of the map and tour. We walked up to the main entrance for an overview of the site and then visited the small museum in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, which displays important finds from the site. After that, we wandered through the ruins and followed the path up to the Temple of Hephaestus. This is the small temple that can be seen from the Acropolis and it is quite well-preserved for something that was built in the 5th century BC. After viewing all the highlights of the Ancient Agora, we headed to the nearby Roman Agora of Athens (combo ticket). This is a much smaller site and the main attractions are the entrance gate and the Tower of the Winds. The tower is octagonal and each face has a carving of its corresponding wind god. In ancient times, the tower was topped with a weathervane and had spikes that allowed it to serve as a sundial. It was probably used for other astronomical and meteorological purposes, but those are unknown. At this site we also saw archaeologists working to restore part of the ruins. Exiting the ruins, we walked back to one of the entrances to the Acropolis. This entrance had electronic turnstiles, so we had to go to the ticket office and exchange the combo ticket section for a bar-coded ticket that would open the turnstile. On the way up to the top of the Acropolis, we decided to view the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. This was not a good idea because tourists normally exit that way and there was confusion at the gate when we headed back up. However, we showed the bar-coded ticket and were allowed to continue up without a problem. Finally atop the Acropolis, we enjoyed the scenic views and the main sights: the Proplyaea, the Parthenon and the Erectheion. Even though we have seen them twice already, they are well-worth repeated visits. There seemed to be slightly less scaffolding around the Parthenon than on previous visits. In addition, there were far fewer tourists than we have encountered later in the summer. A pleasant breeze added to the enjoyment of these amazing sights. Both of the Rick Steves' books listed in the references have maps and self-guided tours of the Acropolis and there is an audio tour on his website; again, we decided to use simply the printed map and tour. Descending from the Acropolis, we again took the path past the Odeon to the southern slope of the Acropolis. Although the southern slope is a site included in the combo ticket, we were never asked to surrender a ticket section to enter it. The path down also passes the Theater of Dionysius and we were able to view the ruins from both the top and the bottom. We wanted to exit through this site because we would end up right across the street from the Acropolis Museum. We thought we would have to back-track to another exit because the theater was closing at 3:00 p.m. and the gate was already closed at 2:30 p.m. However, the gate was not yet locked and the friendly attendants pulled it back to allow us to exit. The Acropolis combo ticket does not include admission to the new Acropolis Museum (www.theacropolismuseum.gr/?pname=Home&la=2), which is 5 euros pp. The entrance ramp to the museum is transparent so that the excavated ruins below can be seen. The first two floors of the museum offer a chronological display of finds from the Acropolis area. However, the highlight of the visit is the top floor, which is a life-sized reproduction of the Parthenon friezes and metopes. Some of these artifacts are the originals from the Parthenon, while others are reproductions made from casts of the originals found in museums around the world. Now that Athens has such an excellent facility for displaying and preserving these treasures, Greece is hoping that some of them (especially the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum) will eventually be returned to their home city. We spent about 1-1/2 hours at this outstanding museum, which deserves much more time. However, we were starting to suffer the effects of jet lag and decided to return to the hotel for some rest. Once we had recuperated somewhat, we headed for the Plaka in search of a light supper. We found a place that looked promising and ordered an entree with wine, followed by dessert. John had chicken souvlaki and I had squid stuffed with rice and tomatoes; we both had baklava for dessert. For such a touristy area, the food was OK and not too badly overpriced. We took a short stroll in the Plaka, returning to the hotel after picking up some bottled water for tomorrow's visit to Delphi. Back in our room, we managed to stay up until 9:30 p.m. before succumbing to the call of Morpheus. 11 MAY (FRI) PRECRUISE IN DELPHI After a good night's sleep, hot showers and hearty breakfast, Fotis picked us up at 7:30 a.m. for a taxi tour of Delphi (www.athensprivatetours.gr/private-tours-in-greece/delphi-tours.htm), which included transportation and commentary along the way, but not actual guiding, admission fees or lunch. However, we again had a map and self-guided walking tour of the site from Steves' Athens/Peloponnese book. Fotis had suggested that we leave early and this was a good call as we missed most of the Athens traffic. Even so, it is about a 2-hour drive to Delphi through the Greek countryside and into the mountains. As we passed through the ski resort village of Arachova, we imagined what the traffic jams would be like on the narrow, but 2-way, streets when the large tour buses began to converge on Delphi later in the day. Our first stop was the Delphi archaeological site. The combo ticket (12 euros pp, cash only) includes admission to both the archaeological site (odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh351.jsp?obj_id=2507) and the Archaeological Museum of Delphi. Fotis told us to take all the time we wanted at the site and museum; he would wait for us near the exit from the museum. When we reached the site, it was relatively uncrowded: a group of Canadians, a group of French students and a few other independent tourists. Delphi is a dramatic site built on the slopes of Mount Parnassus with steep cliffs behind and a gorgeous view of the valley and mountains on the other side. The principal sites are the Temple of Apollo, the theater and the stadium. We noticed that some groups did not climb all the way to the stadium or even to the top of the theater, to their loss. The Greeks considered Delphi to be the navel of the world and there is a small cone-shaped monument (reproduction) marking the spot. We also saw the oracle stone featured in the movie "My Life in Ruins," which claims the oracle prophesied through the hole in it. Actually, the oracle sat on a tripod and breathed the intoxicating fumes that came up through the hole and inspired her prophecies. We spent about an hour admiring the ruins before heading over to the museum. By now the buses were starting to arrive in earnest. There is a paved path from the site to the museum so that you do not have to walk along the street. The excellent museum is nicely laid out to showcase artifacts excavated at the site, including the original navel. There are some good diagrams showing how some of the larger monuments would have looked before they collapsed. After about an hour at the museum, we emerged to find Fotis looking for us, ready to be off to the next stop. We were not very hungry, so we decided that a full lunch was not necessary. Fotis dropped us off at the top of Delphi Town so we could briefly check out the shops as we walked downhill and pick up a snack (ice cream --- mocha for John and pistachio for me) along the way. Fotis met us at the bottom of town and, after finishing the ice cream, we were off to see the final sites in Delphi. By now, tour buses were everywhere. Part way down the mountain is the Castalian Spring (free), where Apollo vanquished the Python. While we were here, we briefly chatted with a Canadian couple who had had just come from Olympia and had the unexpected treat of witnessing the lighting of the Olympic Torch for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Fotis explained that we could cross the street after viewing the spring and climb down some stairs to the Gymnasium (free). We could then walk through the Gymnasium site to the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia (free) and climb the steps from there back to the taxi. Unfortunately, the gate to the Gymnasium was locked, although we could get some decent views as we walked down the road to the Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is a small but attractive site that is mostly in ruins; the main buildings are the Tholos and two temples dedicated to Athena. When we arrived, we were the only people there. Like the other sites we visited on this cruise, wildflowers were blooming abundantly. We took a different route back to Athens on some of the back roads. About halfway back to Athens, we stopped at the Osios Loukas monastery (6 euros pp, odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh3530.jsp?obj_id=8081). Set in the folds of Mount Helikon, it is situated on the top of a hill overlooking a beautiful valley. This Byzantine monastery dates to the 10th century AD and the church is richly decorated with gilded mosaics. Fotis gave us the background on this interesting place and also told us not to miss the frescos in the crypt. As we talked with Fotis on the drive back to Athens, he became aware that we were interested in waterfalls. He took us on a slight detour to Levadia, a small town with a beautiful series of cascades in a little park. That's the kind of excellent, flexible service that he provided! A 3-way intersection in this town is the legendary site where Oedipus met and unknowingly killed his father. Fotis provided an excellent recommendation for a restaurant (Elaia) in the Plaka and even drove us by the place so that we could find it later when we walked there from the hotel. Fotis recommended the lamb stew baked in a clay pot; I had that and John had lamb stuffed with cheese. Fotis also advised us to only order the house wine since Greeks are very particular about their wine and the house wine is always a great buy. He was definitely correct and the food was also outstanding. We sat in the rooftop dining area, which had a good view of the Acropolis. After dinner, we strolled through the Plaka before returning to the hotel. 12 MAY (SAT) ATHENS (PIRAEUS), GREECE (DEPART 7:00PM) On Saturday morning, we slept in a bit. After breakfast, we walked to the Parliament Building for the hourly changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The honor guards wear traditional Greek uniforms and use a stylized marching step. The entire ceremony takes only a few minutes, so try to arrive about 5 minutes ahead. Later in the day, the crowds gathered to see the ceremony can be quite large, but when we went (9:00 a.m.), there were only about a dozen people. After the changing of the guard, we strolled through the National Botanical Gardens for about a half hour on our way to the Panathenaic Stadium. We had stopped at the stadium for a photo op on a previous city tour, but this time we decided to tour the stadium (3 euros pp, includes audio guide). The audio tour takes you around the central track, explaining the history of the stadium and pointing out significant features. About halfway around the track, you can walk up (and back down) the tunnel through which both ancient and modern athletes entered the stadium. At the end of the tunnel is a small exhibition room with torches used in previous Olympic opening ceremonies. Back at the track, you continue around to row 21, where you can climb up to the top of the stadium for a great view of the Acropolis. There is also a view of the hill next to the stadium, which was the site of the Temple of Fortuna and where ancient athletes could offer sacrifices to seek good luck in their events. Although I was initially a bit skeptical, this turned out to be an interesting and enjoyable sight to visit. Walking back to the hotel past the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian's Gate, we heard the sirens of about 20 two-man police motorcycles. As we approached the hotel, we saw flashing lights and ambulances. From our room's balcony, we could see two people being taken away in the ambulances. It turned out that they were motorcycle policemen whose motorcycle had been hit by an automobile. The accident occurred at a major intersection, so there was a huge traffic tie-up while the damaged motorcycle was cleared away and sand was spread in the street to soak up leaking oil and gas. After that, we checked out of the hotel and Fotis arrived just before noon to take us to the National Archaeological Museum (7 euros pp, www.namuseum.gr/wellcome-en.html). There was a special exhibition showcasing finds from a shipwreck that occurred off Antikythera in 60-50 BC and was excavated in 1900-1901. In addition to works normally housed in different parts of the museum, it had pieces of the ship and the remains of "The Mechanism" --- thought to be the earliest preserved portable astronomical calculator. This was a busy day for Fotis since he was picking up passengers from cruises and providing tours and transfers. This was never an issue since he also has two nephews who work closely with him. After two hours at the museum, Fotis' nephew, Chris, picked us up and drove us to Pireaus to board the Pacific Princess. The total cost for Fotis' services was 320 euros: airport transfer (55 euros), Delphi tour (230 euros), port transfer (35 euros). His service and knowledge made this well worth the expense. He also provides the added benefit of promptly responding to emails. Because of the small number of sea days on this cruise, we decided to book the lowest-priced, unobstructed outside cabin (Category L), which has only portholes, rather than our usual balcony cabin. However, we were fortunate to be upgraded to a BD balcony cabin on the port side aft. There were no check-in lines when we arrived at the dock; Princess collected our passports and we were given passport receipts. We were soon aboard the ship and settling into our cabin to relax awhile before our late seating (8:15 p. m.) dinner. Although we had requested a table for two, we were seated at an 8-top. However, only one other couple was seated at the table with us. They had also requested a table for two because they were celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary on this cruise. There are always far more requests for 2-tops than can be accommodated, but after the chaos of the first night, table assignments were rearranged. They got their 2-top while we kept the 8-top to ourselves --- making everyone happy. We noticed that a number of parties of two were seated alone at 4-, 6- and 8-tops, which shows how much less popular late seating is compared to early. 13 MAY (SUN) KUSADASI, TURKEY (ARRIVE 8:00AM DEPART 5:00PM) John and I had already visited Kusadasi twice. In 1998, we took the ship's shore excursion to Ephesus, the Virgin Mary House, and St. John's Basilica. In 2008, we toured with Ekol Tours (www.ekoltravel.com/Shore-Excursions/Gateway-Kusadasi-Port-Private-Ephesus-Tours-from-55-USD/View-details.html); we added the Terrace Houses to the standard tour of Ephesus and the Temple of Artemis. For those who have never been to Kusadasi, we highly recommend a tour of Ephesus and the Terrace Houses. The Temple of Artemis is only a few bits of columns, but still it was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; most other people would not feel they had missed anything by skipping it. For this visit, we wanted to do something different, so we took a shared tour to the ruins of Priene, Miletos, and Didyma (www.kusadasitours.com/priene.html). Two members of the roll call had also booked this tour and it turned out that they were the only other people on the tour. We met our tour guide, Tugrul Sokmen, at 8:30 a.m. just outside the cruise terminal. As we walked to his van, Tugrul pointed out several of the sights of Kusadasi, such as the caravansary and the old city walls. Then we headed south to visit the ruins. Our first stop was at Priene, which was formerly a port city with walls that reached around the town and up to its acropolis; it is notable for being the first city laid out in a grid pattern. The site is now surrounded by vast fields of cotton growing on land formed by the silting of the Meander River. The modern entrance is a fairly steep ramp that leads to stairs near the east gate that climb up to the ruins. This is a fairly large site, but only a few parts remain standing or have been partially restored. The main sights are the Senate House, the Temple of Athena and the theater. We also saw the road that led up from the former port to the west gate, the Temple of Zeus, and the Temple of Dionysius, which had been converted into a Byzantine church at one time.Then we headed further south to Miletus, where our first stop was a short visit to the new museum that displays finds from both Miletus and Priene. Although small, the museum is impressive, with well-planned exhibits and good signage in English. Miletus was also a port city doomed by the silting of the Meander River and there is a nice series of diagrams that illustrates the changes in the landscape over time as well as a large aerial photograph of the current landscape that puts the site into perspective. Of special interest are a statue of Poseidon from the Baths of Faustina and sphinxes that once lined the 20 km Royal Road from Miletus to Didyma (our final stop). Exiting the museum, we stopped at a mosque complex that is currently being restored. A noteworthy feature is the sayings from the Koran, which are carved in stone, rather than being painted on banners. The mosque also features an early use of a central dome. Continuing on, we visited the ruins of the baths and then climbed up to the theater. Before entering the theater, Tugrul pointed out other ruined buildings and monuments that now lie in a marshy area, which makes them difficult to access. It was much easier to visualize the former city after having seen the photo in the museum. Above the theater are the remains of a Byzantine fort, but there was not enough time to climb up to it. Instead, we proceeded to the theater, which is in a remarkable state of preservation. The theater is on three levels; we entered by the ramp to the second level and then walked around to the other side through covered passageways. On that side was a ramp leading up to the third level; John and I climbed up for a great view of the entire area. We exited the theater through the stage area, giving us more great views of this impressive structure. Finally, we headed to our last stop, ancient Didyma inside the modern city of Didim. We stopped for a light lunch at a restaurant overlooking the Temple of Apollo. There was a nice selection of marinated and stuffed vegetables for appetizers, followed by excellent grilled gilthead sea bream and fresh sliced strawberries for dessert. Lunch was included in the tour, but not beverages; John and I tried the local beer Efes (3 euros/bottle). On the way back to the ship, we would pass through the fishing village of Akkoy, where the fish had been caught that morning. The Temple of Apollo is really all that remains of the ancient city; the rest is buried under the modern city. However, the ruins of the unfinished temple, which was twice the size of the Parthenon, are well worth a visit. A number of the columns are still standing and the site contains a huge number of fallen column drums. Also standing are many of the interior walls, which are no longer present in other Greek temples we have visited. Another great aspect of this site is that you can not only walk around the temple but you also can enter it and see where the oracle delivered her prophecies. There are many interesting carvings on the bases of the pillars and the sides of the temple. In many places there are protrusions in the stone bearing the marks of the stone carvers. Tugrul explained that those protrusions would have been chiseled off once the carvers were paid; their presence indicates that the carvers were not paid. There are also many carvings of Medusa's head, which adorned the upper part of the temple. This was a very full day and we arrived back at the port with only about 15 minutes to spare before "all aboard time." In retrospect, it would have been better to have started the tour at 8:00 a.m. to allow a more time in case of traffic difficulties. Tugrul was excellent guide --- very interesting and informative --- and he speaks very clear English. His van was quite comfortable for our group of four, but the air conditioning was a little anemic. Also, although the tour price increased after I had booked, Tugrul not only honored the original price but also generously extended that price to the other two members of the roll call who booked much later. We paid $65 pp (including all admission fees and lunch); the new price is $75 pp. 14 MAY (MON) SANTORINI, GREECE (ARRIVE 7:00AM DEPART 6:00PM) TENDER We had visited Santorini on a Greek Isles cruise on the Emerald Princess in 2008. On that cruise, we tendered to Skala (Old Port of Fira) and rode the donkeys up to Fira at the top of the caldera. After a short exploration of Fira, we caught a local bus to Oia. Oia is the picture-postcard town on Santorini, with white houses spilling down the slopes of the crater and many blue-domed churches. After enjoying the sights there, we found a nice restaurant with amazing views of the crater and spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying wine and pizza. Finally, we returned to Fira on the bus and rode the cable car down to the waiting tenders. This time it was very difficult to decide what to do --- take a tasting tour of Santorini wineries, visit the newly-reopened archaeological site at Akrotiri, or hike along the caldera rim to Skaros rock (recommended by Cruise Critic friend, coo359a2). Ultimately, we decided to follow the advice of another Cruise Critic friend (BobTroll) and take a boat tour of the islands in the caldera. There are several versions of the boat tour, which can easily be booked in the Old Port after you disembark your tender. One version visits only the volcano (15 euros pp), the second version adds a visit to the hot springs (20 euros pp) and the third version also visits Thirasia (28 euros pp). In addition to the tour price, there is a 2 euros pp entrance fee to the volcano. We chose the longest tour, which lasts from 10:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. We started out in a traditional sailing boat (calique), which already was carrying many passengers who had boarded in Oia. Unfortunately, the boat used its motors, not its sails, to proceed to the youngest island in the caldera, Nea Kameni, which only began forming 425 years ago. Once at the Nea Kameni volcano, we started the nominally 20-minute hike to the top. The hike is made in several stages, with periodic stops to allow the stragglers to catch up. The trail is fairly steep and the path surface ranges from fine gravel to egg-sized and larger stones. Our guide, "Momma Joy," set off at a brisk pace that was a struggle for many in the group. However, everyone managed to make it to the top (even a gentleman using a cane). There we could see the twin craters from the most recent eruption (1950); feel the heat, see the steam and smell the sulphur odor from the vents; and observe the lava flows from the 1950 eruption. We had about 20 minutes of free time at the top to climb to the highest point and enjoy the spectacular views. On the way back down, John and I took an alternate path just for the variety and to be away from the crowd. Back at the dock, the passengers who had boarded in Fira continued on in another boat, the Captain Yanni, to Palea Kameni. There we had the opportunity to swim in the "hot springs" for about 20 minutes. The boat anchored about 100 yards from the hot springs; only seven of us decided to make the swim to the springs, which lie behind a small church. The sea water was rather cold, but I warmed up quickly with the effort of swimming. As we got closer to the springs, we encountered pockets and fingers of warmer water; there tended to be a warmer layer at the surface. Even when we reached the spot where we could see streams of bubbles as gases emerged from the sea floor, the water was never more than tepid. The minerals in the water are supposed to have healing properties. My skin did seem somewhat smoother after my swim. Who needs those expensive treatments at the Lotus Spa? Our third stop was on the only inhabited island in the caldera, Thirasia. Most of the group stayed at the shore and followed Momma Joy to Captain John's for lunch. Naturally, John and I did not follow the crowd; we headed up the donkey path to the island's largest town, Manolas. After a 20-minute climb, we were greeted by the owner of the Panorama Restaurant, which has a deck that projects out over the caldera. We told him we would be back and went off to explore the town. Thirasia is like the rest of Santorini was before it was discovered by tourists. We enjoyed walking the street along the caldera rim to the edge of town and then back along a different road. Manolas has the typical whitewashed buildings and blue-domed churches of Oia, but it is not yet gentrified. Back at the Panorama, we enjoyed beer (Fix Hellas), a couple of fried ripe tomato slices, and the glorious views of the caldera. A few other people from the boat also made it up to the Panorama, some by foot and others by donkey. Soon it was time to hike back down to re-board the Captain Yanni. Our last stop was at Ammoudi, the port for Oia, where people who were staying on Santorini could leave the boat, watch the sunset in Oia and return to Fira on their own by bus or taxi. Alas, we needed to tender back to the Pacific Princess by 5:30 p.m., so we stayed aboard as the Captain Yanni sailed back to Fira, enjoying close-up views of the crater walls and Skaros Rock along the way. We returned to Fira earlier than expected, a little after 4:00 p.m., and shortly after that tendered back to the ship. Once back aboard, we checked the dinner menu and decided this might be a good night to try Sabatini's Trattoria. This is an extra-price ($20 pp) specialty restaurant. We each enjoyed a soft-shelled crab appetizer and a small serving of the Chef's special pasta (with a red seafood sauce). John also had a seared tuna appetizer and I had an artichoke souffle. The entrees were a veal chop with Marsala sauce for John and duck with fava beans for me. We had a small cheese plate for dessert and John also had a chocolate creme brulee. We finished up with cappuccino --- a very satisfying meal! 15 MAY (TUE) PATMOS, GREECE (ARRIVE 7:00AM DEPART 6:00PM) TENDER This was John's port to research; he planned a hike to the Cave of the Apocalypse and from there to St. John's Monastery, returning by another trail. These are the two sites he used: www.everytrail.com/view_trip.php?trip_id=1254912 and www.foxysislandwalks.com/Patmos-Walks.html. The ship tenders passengers into the Port of Skala. With our backs to the harbor, we turned right and walked to the main square. From there, we walked along the right side of the square into the town, passing a church. We kept going until the road curved to the left and eventually intersected the main road to Chora. Across the road, we could see the wide cobblestone path leading up and a sign posted on a tree with an arrow and the word "Chora;" if there were other signs before this, we did not see them. DO NOT try to walk up from town along the main road to Chora; there is heavy traffic and no sidewalks. After climbing awhile on the cobblestone path, we came to the turnoff to the Cave of the Apocalypse. The turnoff is marked by a wooden sign bearing a stick-figure hiker and an estimate of the remaining distance (0.2 km) and time (5'). The Cave of the Apocalypse (2 euros pp) is actually a group of small churches built over a recess where John slept and wrote; there is also a crack in the ceiling reputedly caused by the Voice of God and a silver outline of the place where John rested his head while receiving the revelations. As at all the Christian religious sites we visited, both men and women must be modestly dressed (no bare knees or shoulders) and hats must be removed. Instead of backtracking, we took a shortcut back to the trail by walking past the open-air theater to the stairs beside the Ecclesiastical School. We continued up the path to St. John's Monastery (4 euros pp). There is a church and several chapels inside the monastery, all richly decorated with interesting murals and frescoes. However, the most impressive section of the monastery is the museum. Among many other valuable works, it contains a Gospel of St. Mark on parchment (dating to the end of the 5th century or start of the 6th century) and the homilies of St. Gregory of Naziarzus (dating from 941). The museum also exhibits many liturgical vestments, sacramental objects, relics and icons. There are good views from the outside of the monastery. After touring the monastery, we continued along the road in the direction of the three windmills. Within a short distance, there was a footpath sign on the left. We walked back to Skala along this trail, which was very overgrown but passable. The path ends in town at the Captain's House Hotel. A nearby tree had two wooden trail signs indicating that the name of the trail we had just descended was the "2 Aporthianos Path" and that the trail we had ascended earlier was the "1 Apocalypsi Path." We never found a tourist information office or any place where we might have obtained trail maps or descriptions. At the waterfront, we saw a sign to the "Ancient Acropolis" that pointed to the left. We continued along the waterfront, past the Chris Hotel and a parking lot. On the next corner, we saw another sign for the acropolis, pointing uphill. From here, we started to see wooden signs for "3 Kasteli;" this trail was also marked by a white "3" painted on a red circle. Although the sign indicated that it was only 0.80 km and 20 minutes to the acropolis, it took us quite a bit longer to reach the top of the hill. The trail was non-existent in places, but we used "Greenland Rules" and made our own trail. Occasionally we would spot a trail maker. Eventually we reached a small church (Agios Constantinos); the ruins of the acropolis, including the remains of a Hellenistic wall, are above that. After clambering about on the ruins and enjoying the excellent views, we walked down to town and tendered back to the ship. Tonight the show (a comedian, Tony Daro) was held before dinner for the late seating, so we attended. The comedian had some good jokes and some groaners. Overall, it was a fun way to pass the time. This was Italian night in the restaurant and the waiters all wore striped shirts and neck kerchiefs. The headwaiters made a special spicy pasta dish, Penne Arrabiata, and a special Caesar Salad, both of which we sampled. We also each had a mixed seafood appetizer, but as an entree John enjoyed the Brasato (pot roast) and I had Shrimp Fra Diavlo. Dessert was zabaglione gelato for John and apple crepe with vanilla ice cream for me. MAY (WED) AT SEA Finally a sea day so we could sleep in! The main order of business was the Cruise Critic "Meet & Greet," which was held from 10-11:00 a.m. in the Sterling Steakhouse. Most of the roll call (22 out of 32) came, but no officers or staff attended. The M&G was originally scheduled for Sabatini's but the Princess rep forgot that the suite breakfast was still going on in there. To make up for the change in venue, Princess provided pastries and coffee/tea/juice for the group. 17 MAY (THU) HAIFA, ISRAEL (ARRIVE 7:00AM DEPART 8:00PM) The morning we arrived in Haifa, we picked up our passports in the Cabaret Lounge at 7:45 a.m. An Israeli Landing Card was already inside the passport; we took the passport and card to the Israeli Immigration officials in the lounge and had the landing card stamped. We then had to show the passport and landing card at the bottom of the gangway. We did not have our bags inspected, but some did (mostly younger passengers). Today we joined a group of 14 for our tour with Guided Tours Israel, which had been organized by roll call member shadowyagyu. Our guide (Micha Margalit) and driver (Sumi) were waiting for us to begin our Christian Northern Israel tour. We first drove from the port to the top of Mount Carmel for a panoramic view over Haifa Bay and the beautifully manicured Baha'i Gardens with their gold-domed Shrine of the Bab. Mount Carmel is actually not one mountain, but a mountain range, which forms a ridge along the southwest side of the Jezreel Valley (AKA the plains of Armageddon). As we drove through the valley to Nazareth, Micha pointed out sights and told us stories about the area, including the contest between the Prophet Elijah and 450 priests of Baal to determine whether Yahweh or Baal was top god in Israel (spoiler alert: Yahweh won). Our first stop in Nazareth was the Basilica of the Annunciation, where Christian tradition holds that that the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary and asked her to submit to becoming the Mother of God. According to Orthodox tradition, however, Gabriel visited Mary not at her home, but at the town well; we passed that site later as we left Nazareth. The Basilica of the Annunciation is a huge modern (1966) structure with a cupola that allows the interior to be illuminated with natural light. The facade features carvings of Gabriel, Mary, the Four Evangelists and related quotes (in Latin) from the New Testament. The bronze doors depict scenes from the life of Jesus. This was one place where growing up as a pre-Vatican II Catholic and two years of studying Latin paid off; I amazed myself by being able to translate the inscriptions. The Grotto of the Annunciation is in the crypt of the church and, like all the holy sites we visited, is crowded; you get in line and shuffle past the traditional site of Mary's house. Upstairs, the walls of the Basilica are covered with murals of the Madonna created by artists from countries all around the world. In many murals, Mary is depicted as belonging to the nationality of the donor country. For example, the mural from Japan portrays her and Jesus as Japanese and her blouse is made up of seed pearls. The USA mural is aggressively modern; Mary's gown and veil look like crumpled aluminum foil to me. There are many more murals of the walls of the courtyard surrounding the Basilica. There are also areas in the courtyard where you can see some excavations of ancient Nazareth. Next we visited the nearby Church of Saint Joseph, considered to be the site of Joseph's carpentry shop. In the lower levels of this church, you can see an ancient water cistern and a mosaic floor dating from the Byzantine period. Next, we traveled through Cana (site of Jesus' first miracle of turning water into wine) and Tiberias. As we passed Tiberias, Micha pointed out the site of Karnei Hittim, where Saladin defeated the Crusader army; this battle eventually led to the defeat of the Crusaders who controlled Jerusalem. He recommended that we watch the movie "Kingdom of Heaven," which provides a reasonably accurate presentation of the events. Fortunately, we had already seen and enjoyed this movie. From Tiberias, we drove to a sea-level overlook of the southern end of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret). On the other side of the lake, we could see the Golan Heights. We continued south along the lakeshore to the Jordan River and the Yardenit Baptismal Site. This is probably not the actual place where St. John baptized Jesus, but it still does a booming business in baptisms and re-baptisms. Two of our group wanted to go through a re-baptism ceremony, which was performed by a minister who apparently was dunking some people from his own church. Beware that the white rental robes become transparent when wet, so wear a swim suit underneath to preserve your modesty. We saw many large catfish in the river along with a nutria. As in Louisiana, nutria were introduced to the area for their fur, escaped to the wild and are now a pest. As at all attractions, you exit through the gift shop; I was able to obtain an Israeli flag there plus a few shekels as change. Returning north along the lake, we had views to the west of Mount Tabor, the traditional site of the Transfiguration, where Jesus appeared in glory to his disciples and spoke with Moses and Elijah. Of course, John always wants to know how the disciples could recognize Moses and Elijah, but that's part of the miracle. We drove back through Tiberias and Magdala (hometown of St. Mary Magdalene) to Ginosar. Along the way, we stopped for lunch. John and I do not usually eat much for lunch and apparently we were the only ones in the group who had read the suggestion from GIT about bringing our own snack. We had thought there would be a park or someplace besides the restaurant where we could eat our sandwich. We were embarrassed to be taking up seats in the restaurant when we did not buy our food there. However, we did take the opportunity to try the local beer, Maccabee (20 shekels or $5/bottle). Despite our faux pas, the restaurant owner very generously provided a plate of pickles to go with our sandwich and a cup of coffee accompanied by dates; he refused to allow me to pay for any of that. After lunch, we visited the Kibbuttz Ginosar. As we strolled through the compound, Micha explained kibbutz life. Originally, a kibbutz was an agricultural collective where all property was held in common and each member was compensated equally for his/her labor. This communal life even extended to child rearing; children were cared for and slept in a group home, not in their parent's apartment. As the standard of living in Israel rose and demand increased for the "good life" portrayed on TV, it became harder for people to adhere to this idealistic lifestyle. Many kibbutzim now follow a more capitalist model, with private ownership of property and members earning an individual income. Kibbuttz Ginosar supports itself through tourism as well as agriculture. There is a hotel and restaurant as well as the Ancient Boat Museum ($5 pp), which houses a restored boat that dates from around the time of Christ. Popularly called the "Jesus Boat," it is merely similar to the type of boat that the fishermen-apostles used. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see the boat and watch the short movie about how it was found, raised from the lake bed and restored. Next, we drove to Tabgha and tried to visit the Benedictine monastery and the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. This site has ruins of an ancient synagogue with a celebrated mosaic floor. Unfortunately, the monastery had just closed for the day and Micha was not able to sweet-talk the gatekeeper into letting us in for a quick visit. As an alternative, we visited a small Franciscan chapel, the Church of the Primacy of Peter. It commemorates an event that takes place after Jesus' resurrection: the disciples have been fishing all night with no luck, a man on the shore tells them to cast their net on the right side of the boat, they do so and can hardly pull in the net because it is so full of fish, they put into shore and find Jesus cooking a fish breakfast for them. Tradition holds that Jesus laid the cooked fish on a rock, which is now incorporated into the chapel. After eating breakfast, Jesus reaffirmed his desire that Peter become the leader of the Church. Our next top was at Capernaum, a prosperous lakeside town where Jesus preached and his disciples, Peter and Andrew, lived. The town was abandoned around 700 AD; a carving in the ruins depicts the Ark of the Covenant. There are impressive remains of the "White Synagogue" (3rd or 4th century AD), was built of imported white limestone rather than native black basalt. This is the site of an even earlier synagogue, contemporaneous with Jesus and one perhaps where he prayed or preached. Under a nearby church are the ruins of a house reputed to be that of St. Peter's mother-in-law. Our final stop was at the Mount of the Beatitudes, where we arrived 15 minutes before closing time. Although the church was already locked up, there are windows all around it that you can look inside. The real highlight is the excellent views of the Sea of Galilee and its surroundings. While there is little to determine which hill near Tabgha is the true location where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, it is still a lovely and peaceful place. Like the Magi returning to their own country by another route, we returned to Haifa on a different highway to avoid road repairs taking place on our earlier route. Micha was still pointing out historic and biblical sites as we drove along. One of these was Mt. Arbel National Park, known for its vertical rock faces. During the reign of Herod the Great, many Jews who opposed him hid in caves on its sheer cliffs. Herod let his men down in baskets and fished them from the caves, forcing them off the cliff to their destruction below. The total for this excellent excursion was $99 pp plus $1 pp for the Mount of the Beatitudes admission, which Micha paid for us in shekels. This did not include lunch or the admission to the Ancient Boat Museum. We had to show our passport and landing card when we returned to the ship in Haifa. For the four nights the ship was in Israel and Egypt, dinner was open seating. 18 MAY (FRI) ASHDOD, ISRAEL (ARRIVE 7:00AM DEPART 8:00PM) Micha and Sumi had driven overnight from Haifa to Ashdod to meet our group for our tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. We were now down to 8 people because some of our previous group wanted to visit the Dead Sea instead of Bethlehem. We again had to show our passport and landing card to disembark the ship. As we approached Jerusalem, we stopped at the Gerald Halbert Observation Park for a panoramic view of Jerusalem and the Judean desert. We descended the slopes of the Mount of Olives, passing the Mosque (and Chapel) of the Ascension (where Jesus ascended to heaven) and the Church of the Pater Noster (where Jesus taught the Lord's Prayer to his disciples). We stopped at the Rehavam Viewpoint, which was crowded with tourists, vendors, tour buses, and men offering camel rides. Nevertheless, it provides a dramatic overlook of the ancient Jewish cemetery, the Kidron Valley, the walls of the Old City, and the Golden Dome atop the Temple Mount (Mount Moriah). There are several other churches clustered on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives. At this point we were able to appreciate one of the benefits of traveling in a van rather than a large tour bus. Sumi was able to negotiate a narrow, walled road that bypassed much of the traffic to deposit us near the entrance to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus often went to pray with his disciples. As expected, the Garden of Gethsemane is full of ancient-looking olive trees. Next to the garden is the Basilica of the Agony (Church of All Nations), which we visited. In front of the altar is a large stone where tradition holds Jesus prayed and sweated blood prior to his betrayal and arrest. There are several mosaics depicting the events of that night and some of the mosaic floor from the first basilica (Byzantine) built on the spot. On the church's facade is a gold mosaic showing God the Father looking down from heaven over Jesus. We went back out through the Garden of Gethsemane to view another church, the Tomb of the Virgin, which reputedly houses the tombs of Mary and Joseph. Next we drove to the Dung Gate in the Jewish Quarter, near the Temple Mount. Micha told us that downhill from here was the original prehistoric settlement of Jerusalem and of the ancient City of David as it existed around 1000 BC. This area and Mount Zion were inadvertently left outside the city walls when they were rebuilt in 1538 by Suleiman the Magnificent (the errant architects were beheaded). We walked through the Dung Gate, past the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, to the entrance of the Western Wall Plaza. This section of wall is the only remnant of the original Herodian retaining wall that encloses and still supports the Temple Mount. Men and women must go through separate security lines; once inside, there are separate prayer sections of the wall marked off for men and women. The "Wailing Wall" is the holiest of Jewish sites, where God is deemed to be especially present; prayers placed in a crack of the wall are thought to receive extra consideration. The men in the party were able to enter a passage where they could see how the levels of the walls changed over time as buildings were erected and destroyed.The Western Wall was the site of a very upsetting event for me and another woman in the group, not to mention our husbands. Both of us misunderstood Micha's instructions about where to meet after visiting the wall; we thought he had said to meet outside, in the shade. When no one else had joined us by the appointed time, I realized that we had made a mistake. However, when I tried to re-enter the Plaza, no one was being allowed through that gate and I was directed to go off to the left and apparently through the city to another entrance. Since I had no idea where we would end up if we went that way, we decided to stay put instead of getting even more lost. Finally, Micha called Sumi to go looking for us and he spotted us right away. I was mortified for having been so inattentive and causing everyone to lose a half hour of touring time. After that debacle, we regrouped and drove to the section of the Old City on Mount Zion, just outside the Zion Gate. The first site we visited in this area was a 12th century Crusader structure. The upper level is the traditional location of the Room of the Last Supper (Coenaculum), where Jesus celebrated the Passover Seder with his disciples before his trial and crucifixion. Some also believe that this is the site of the room where the Holy Spirit descended upon Mary and the apostles on Pentecost. The lower level holds an empty sarcophagus marking the traditional location of the tomb of King David. Although this place is venerated as the site of David's burial, the tradition can only be traced back to early medieval times; many believe that David's tomb is actually located somewhere in the ancient City of David, south of the present Old City. Outside the tomb, there is a controversial statue of King David holding a harp; ultra-orthodox Jews consider it a graven image and want it removed. Near the Coenaculum and King David's Tomb, we visited the Dormition Abbey. According to tradition, this is the place where Mary fell asleep for the last time, just before she died and was assumed into Heaven. A statue of the sleeping Mary lies under a marble canopy; the inside of the canopy is decorated with mosaics of Jesus and famous Biblical women. There is a golden mosaic of the Madonna and Child over the main altar and six gold-decorated side chapels donated by various countries. The mosaic floor depicts the signs of the zodiac. Next, we drove to the Jaffa Gate, which is across the street from the Citadel of Jerusalem and the entrance to the Christian Quarter. The Citadel tower is called the Tower of David, although it was built 800 years after David died. Today, the Citadel is a museum. From here, we took a walk through the suq (bazaar), a warren of shops selling anything and everything. Finally, we walked over to the area around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This area is a hodgepodge of abutting and overlapping churches and chapels of numerous Christian denominations and religious orders. We followed part of the Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross), starting between the 7th (Jesus falls the second time) and 8th (Jesus consoles the women of Jerusalem) Stations of the Cross. We arrived at the courtyard in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but did not enter immediately. We circumnavigated the church, passing the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer and finally ending up at Station 9 (Jesus falls the third time). This Station is just outside the entrance to St. Jacob's Coptic Orthodox Church and by a sign pointing to St. Helen Coptic Church. Nearby is a Roman pillar and an arch across the street; the arch has a neon light outline of Jesus falling beneath the cross. At this point, we climbed a few steps to the roof of the Chapel of St. Helena (Constantine's mother). This was the crypt of Constantine's church and is the oldest complete section of the current Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The roof is the location of the Coptic Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which includes 5 churches. We saw the entrance to one of the churches, Queen Helen Coptic Orthodox Church, which houses a stairway leading to a vast underground cistern. The roof is also home to an Ethiopian Orthodox monastery. We then passed through the Ethiopian Orthodox Chapel of St. Anthony (interesting painting of the Queen of Sheba presenting elephant tusks to King Solomon), through the Coptic Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel and out into the main courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/jerusalem-church-of-holy-sepulchre-plan) is believed to encompass the site of both Jesus' crucifixion and his tomb, making it the most revered Christian site in the world. The Roman Emperor Hadrian built a Temple of Venus over the site in 135 AD, perhaps in an attempt to discourage Christian veneration of the site. After his conversion to Christianity in 312 AD, Emperor Constantine tore down the pagan temple and built the first of many churches that he commissioned throughout the Holy Land. Constantine's builders dug away the hillside to leave the rock-hewn tomb of Christ isolated so that the church could be built around it. Constantine's church was burned in 614, restored, destroyed again 1009 and partially rebuilt. The current church is the work of the Crusaders, who completed the reconstruction in 1149. The Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic (Latin) and Armenian Apostolic churches share ownership and use of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre under a decree (called the Status Quo) originally laid down by a Turkish sultan in 1757. That decree covers several other religious sites in Jerusalem plus the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In the 19th century, three minor Orthodox communities (Coptic, Syrian and Ethiopian) were given the right to use certain areas of the church. Each sect aggressively guards its rights, sometimes leading to altercations among the clergy. Their inability to compromise has prevented desperately-needed repairs and renovations from being carried out. Interestingly, under these decrees, two Muslim families share responsibility for the keys to the church. Now it was time to jostle our way through the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. To the right of the entrance is a disused stair that leads to the Chapel of the Franks, site of Station 10 (Jesus is stripped of his garments). The inside of the church was packed with tourists and pilgrims, making it nearly impossible for Micha to give us any explanations. There isn't any signage to help interpret the sites either. First we encountered the large rectangular Stone of Unction that commemorates the spot where Jesus' body was anointed before burial. The stone receives a lot of devotion, but it only dates from 1810. There is a large mural on the wall behind the stone that depicts Jesus being taken down from the cross and his body being anointed and taken to the tomb. Next we were herded onto Calvary (Golgotha), the site of the Crucifixion; it is controlled by the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic factions. The Roman Catholic altar marks Station 11 (Jesus is nailed to the cross); behind the altar is a large mosaic of the event. The Greek Orthodox altar marks Station 12 (Jesus dies on the cross); this has an elaborate gold and silver altarpiece depicting the Crucifixion. Perhaps when the mob is smaller, you can see the rock of Golgotha beneath the altar and the hole where the Cross stood. Carried along by the throng, it is difficult to see or appreciate the significance of these sites. Station 13 (Jesus is taken down from the cross and given to Mary) is placed between these two chapels; I'm not even sure I noticed the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows that marks the spot. The final Station (#14) in the Way of the Cross commemorates the burial of Jesus. The Tomb of Christ lies under the dome in the rotunda of the church. The actual sepulcher is enclosed in a marble edicule ("little house"), which is held together by girders and metal bands. The crowds were not being allowed to go inside to see the marble slab where Jesus' body lay or the stone that blocked the entrance to the tomb. Instead, Micha guided us into the nearby Syrian Orthodox Chapel of Saints Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, with its rather dilapidated altar. On the far side of the chapel is the low entrance to two complete 1st-century Jewish tombs; traditionally Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were buried here. The presence of these tombs gives weight to the argument that the events surrounding Christ's death and resurrection took place in this general vicinity. We walked around the rotunda clockwise, heading for the exit. We came to a stairwell that leads down into the Chapel of St. Helena (we were previously on the roof of this chapel). This chapel is owned by the Armenians, who have re-named it to honor their national patron, St. Gregory the Illuminator. There is a gorgeous original mosaic floor in front of the main altar and many hanging lamps and crystal chandeliers. To the right of the altar is another staircase that leads to Chapel of the Finding of the Cross, where St. Helena discovered the True Cross and other instruments of the Passion and Crucifixion (we did not visit this chapel). Ascending the staircase back to the main church, Micha pointed out the many small crosses carved by medieval pilgrims into the wall. Continuing on our way out, we passed a large glass case that allows a glimpse of the natural rock of Calvary. Finally, we came to the small Chapel of Adam, which is directly beneath the Greek Orthodox Chapel of Calvary upstairs. According to tradition, Jesus was crucified over the place where Adam's skull was buried. Here the rock of Calvary, with a fissure in it, can be seen through a window on the altar wall. Some believe the fissure was caused by the earthquake reported in the Gospels to have occurred at the time Christ died. The bedrock of Calvary can also be seen through glass panels in the floor to the right and left of the altar. As we exited the church, Micha called our attention to an enduring symbol of the friction among the various sects in charge of the church: the Immovable Ladder. Someone placed a wooden ladder against a window ledge above the main entrance around 1850; it may have been used to supply food to Armenian monks locked in the church by the Turks. The ladder remains where it is because no one can agree on who is responsible for putting it away. Leaving Jerusalem, we headed to Bethlehem, which is in the Occupied Territories. We could see miles and miles of the Israeli security fence that is intended to protect Israeli settlements from Palestinian terrorists. We thought that we would have to produce documentation at the security checkpoint, but we were not even required to stop. However, Israeli citizen tour guides are not allowed to enter areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority, so Micha had to remain behind and we picked up a new guide, Sami. The first order of business was lunch at the Oriental Restaurant. A sandwich on pita bread with choice of soft drink was $8 for falafel and $9 for chicken shawarma; we got one of each to share. It was interesting to see "Coke Zero" and "Bon Appetit!" written in Arabic. Now fueled up, we headed to the main attractions of Bethlehem: Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. Manger Square is surrounded by the Church of the Nativity and Church of St. Catherine complex, the Mosque of Omar and the Palestinian Peace Center. Although there were many tour groups in the square, this was not a problem until it was time to muscle our way through the tiny Door of Humility into the church; the outlines of previous, larger doors can be seen above the current entrance. The Church of the Nativity (www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/bethlehem-church-of-the-nativity) is another of the churches commissioned by the Emperor Constantine after his conversion to Christianity. Built on a site previously dedicated to the pagan worship of Adonis, only parts of the original structure remain. The Emperor Justinian razed much of the church in 530 in order to build the much larger church that remains today. It is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world and in dire need of repairs and renovation. However, the three groups that own the Church of the Nativity under the Status Quo cannot agree on what should be done to preserve the church. The door is tiny and requires people of even normal height to stoop quite low in order to enter. Once inside the church, we added to the throng in the huge nave. Some of the original mosaics from Constantine's church can be seen in the middle of the nave under wooden trapdoors. There is no transparent covering to protect the mosaics or keep people from falling into the depressions, so be careful! Many of the columns are also from Constantine's church. Fragments of mosaics dating from the Crusader era decorate the upper walls of the nave. The main altar at the east end of the nave includes an Orthodox iconostasis, which is crowned with gilded angels, icons, gilded chandeliers and lamps. The stairs down to the Grotto of the Nativity are on the right side of the main altar; the line of people waiting to enter the grotto extended from there to Door of Humility. Sami said that if we got in the line, it would take us 2-3 hours to reach the grotto. This was where the real advantage of having a small group and a local guide came in: Sami had friends who let us in through the sanctuary and ahead of the huge line. Just before going down the stairs, we passed the Altar of Circumcision. The entrance to the Grotto of the Nativity is by a narrow door; we had to struggle to keep our group together. The grotto itself is a rectangular cavern; a silver star in the floor marks the very spot where Christ is believed to have been born. The star (placed there by the Roman Catholics) was allegedly stolen by Orthodox monks in 1847. This theft exacerbated the competition between Russia and France for control of Christian sites in the Holy Land that ultimately led to the Crimean War. There is a silver and gold icon of the Madonna and Child on the wall above the star. The Greek Orthodox Church controls the Grotto of the Nativity, except for the tiny Chapel of the Manger, which is owned by the Roman Catholics. Ascending a staircase from the grotto, we returned to the main church. We saw the Altar of the Virgin and the Altar of the Three Kings, who tied up their horses nearby. Then we went through a door leading to the Catholic Church of St. Catherine. The Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria is where Midnight Mass is now held on Christmas Eve. Leaving the Church, there is a cloister with a statue of St. Hieronymus (St. Jerome) in the middle. The cloister was built above the remains of the walls of St. Jerome's monastery, where he translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. There is mosaic on the wall that shows the location of the major Christian sites in Bethlehem. Our final stop in Bethlehem was an obligatory shopping stop at a cooperative store run by Christian Arabs living in Bethlehem. The shop featured all kinds of religious items, with a special emphasis on nativity sets and Christmas items. I found some olivewood animals to add to the nativity set I bought at the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans. After the shopping stop, Sami left us and we picked up Micha again. As we left the Occupied Territories, we again did not undergo any security screening. We thought that our tour was over after Bethlehem, but Micha surprised us by stopping at the Emmaus-Nikopolis Antiquity Site (www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/emmaus.htm). The ruins are those of a 4th or 5th century Byzantine basilica that was substantially rebuilt by the Crusaders. Although traditionally identified with the "road to Emmaus," where Jesus appeared to two disciples after his Resurrection, this site is too far from Jerusalem to be the same town. Micha surprised us again by bringing out loaves of challah, with olive oil for dipping, and a bottle of Yarden Mount Hermon (2011) wine for us to taste. Near the Emmaus site is the Trappist Latrun Monastery (named for the good thief crucified with Jesus). When we returned to the ship in Ashdod, we again had to show the passport and the landing cards were collected. Princess collected our passports so that they could be stamped by Egyptian authorities before our arrival in Port Said. The total for this excellent excursion was $115 pp; this did not include lunch. We highly recommend Guided Tours Israel for your shore excursions in Israel. Tonight was one of my favorite menus: the French/Continental Dinner. I had my usual choices of noodles with lobster sauce, escargot, French onion soup and frogs' legs. 19 MAY (SAT) PORT SAID, EGYPT (ARRIVE 6:00AM DEPART 8:00PM) In Egypt, we arranged a customized overnight tour with Ramses; it was modeled on this one: www.ramsestours.com/egypt-shore-excursions/port-said-shore-excursions/portsaid-overnight-1/. The base price was $250 pp for 2-4 people, $220 pp for 5-8, and $210 pp for 9-15. The customization included a visit to an additional pyramid site (Dahshur; $20 pp extra), the Solar Boat Museum at Giza ($10 pp extra), a felluca ride ($15 pp extra, but complimentary for our group). Some of the group also added a 5-star dinner cruise on the Nile ($55 pp extra) and others took a 15-minute camel ride ($15 pp extra). Payment was in cash (USD) at the end of the tour. We were somewhat concerned about meeting our guide at 6:00 a.m. (as scheduled) because Princess said that independent passengers would not be able to pick up their passports until 6:30 a.m. However, our group of 4 couples met at 6:00 a.m. in the Club Bar and immediately got in line outside the Cabaret Lounge. Princess opened the lounge and began to distribute the passports at about 6:10 a.m. We went through quickly and headed down the gangway, where we had to show the passport page with the Egyptian stamp. In the cruise terminal, our bags were scanned and we passed through a metal detector. We walked down the quay to the port gates, where our guide (Karim Serry) was waiting for us with a sign. He got us into the nice Toyota van that had extra seats for the 8 of us to spread out and introduced us to our driver (Mohammed). Each person was provided with a bottle of water; I suggest bringing another bottle or two from the ship. Then our van moved into position for the security convoy to Cairo. Karim said we would be second in line for the first convoy, which would be the independent tour vans; the buses for the ship's excursions would be in the second convoy. The first convoy was ready to leave at 7:30 a.m. and we were off on our Egyptian adventure! As we sped down the highway to Cairo, we could see the levees of the Suez Canal and ships transiting the canal. The convoy reminded me of wedding cortege, with police blocking the intersections. Nevertheless, local traffic was still occasionally able to become interspersed among the convoy vehicles. It takes about 2-1/2 hours to reach Cairo. Factoring in the wait for the convoy to depart, this was too long for some of the group. Fortunately, Karim knew a gas station with relatively clean toilets that was about halfway to Cairo, so we left the convoy and stopped there. Speaking of gasoline, I was surprised to find out that gas (which costs approximately $1 per gallon) is in short supply in Egypt. We saw long lines at many stations and others were obviously out of gas. Our foresighted guide and driver had filled up the van the previous evening in Port Said, so we did not need to waste time sitting in a gas line. After the pit stop, there was no sign of either of the convoys. No problem though, we continued on to Cairo without incident. Along the way, Karim gave us a continuous commentary about Egypt's history and the sights we would be seeing. He pointed out that Saturday is a holiday, while Sunday would be the first day of the work week; thus, the traffic in downtown Cairo would be somewhat lighter today. Also, we would be entering Cairo from the west side of the Nile, where the downtown attractions are, and the pyramid sites are on the east side (towards Alexandria) and away from downtown. For these reasons, Karim wisely suggested that we see the sites planned for the second day today and save the pyramid sites for tomorrow. Karim also taught us the two most important words in Egyptian, "Laa shukran" (No, thanks!), and advised us how to deal with all the vendors we would encounter. He also told us that the toilets at tourist locations were supposed to be free but that the attendants would be more or less aggressive about requesting/demanding "baksheesh" (tips). We found that this behavior ranged from simply jingling coins to remind us that a tip was expected to shoving towels at us with the exclamation "Money!" followed by loud complaints (in Egyptian) when we did not comply. John found the male attendants to be particularly demanding and he felt compelled to part with some small coins (0.10 euro) in order to escape. Our first stop was at the Mohammed Ali Alabaster Mosque, which is inside the Citadel of Saladin. To enter the mosque, both men and women must have shoulders and knees covered. You must also remove your shoes or rent shoe covers ($1 pp). The mosque is similar in style to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, but not as highly decorated inside. Outside of the mosque is an overlook with a panoramic view of Cairo and the Nile; it was even clear enough to see the pyramids! There were a good number of vendors around the mosque and they seemed pretty good-natured when we declined their wares. I was able to obtain my Egyptian flag for $1. It probably disappointed the vendor that I did not bargain, but I did not have any local coins to offer a lower price and I did not want more than one flag. After the mosque, we drove to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. The traffic was quite heavy and it was hard to imagine how much worse it could be on a weekday. In additions to cars, we saw donkeys and even a camel being ridden against the flow of traffic. Along the way, we saw some demonstrators protesting in front of an embassy (Syria?). When we passed Tahrir Square, we saw a burned-out 12-story government building and a burned-out TV station. Karim said that the government building was going to be left as it is to be a monument to the revolution. There were no demonstrators in the square and we didn't see any others as we drove in the downtown area. The museum is huge and deserves much more time than the 1-1/2 hours that we had to visit it; in retrospect, we should have asked to spend some of our free time there. I had read that the museum is often packed with people, making it difficult to see the exhibits, but it was not very crowded today. Karim rented headsets so that none of us would have any difficulty hearing his explanations of the most significant exhibits. The second floor houses the treasures of the child King Tutankhamen, including his gold mask and much jewelry. We did not pay the extra fee to see the royal mummies, but there are plenty of other mummies on display. Karim suggested that we take a motorboat from the museum to the lunch restaurant instead of sailing on a felluca. The motorboats can travel further on the river because they can go under bridges that are too low for the fellucas. This also allowed us to bypass a lot of traffic. During the ride, John and two of the other men had the opportunity to pilot the motorboat. It was fun to see the city from the river and we also saw the riverboat where we would later go for the dinner show and cruise. The Happy Dolphin Restaurant was located right on the waterfront where the Nile Lily riverboat docks. It had free WiFi, so some of our group were able to get online. The meal started with various salads, such as coleslaw, hummus, baba ghanoush and chunks of marinated eggplant. The main course was grilled meat, either chicken, beef, or mixed; this was served with cinnamon rice, French fries and a chunk of grilled tomato on lettuce. The dessert was two types of baked sweets similar to baklava. The only local beer served at the restaurant was a non-alcoholic kind (Birell), so we tried that. Like non-alcoholic beers available in the US, it was much too sweet but still interesting to try; the cost was $4/bottle. After lunch we had some free time. The ladies caucused and decided to do some shopping now so that we would be able to devote all of our time tomorrow to seeing the pyramid sites. One couple was interested in buying some cartouche jewelry, so Karim took them to a jewelry store that was next to a papyrus shop (the Merit Center). He helped that couple place their order while the rest of us enjoyed a demonstration of papyrus-making and admired the various papyrus articles for sale. This turned out to be a popular stop; I think everyone bought some of the papyrus art for themselves or to give as gifts. The prices were reasonable; for example, we bought a 13"x16" (approx.) painting of a solar boat for about $25. Bookmarks were $2 and a name could be added in hieroglyphics for another $2. If you bought other art, one or more bookmarks were included for free, but you still had to pay to have the name added. If you want to pay with a credit card that does not have a foreign transaction fee or a currency exchange fee (e.g., Capital One), it is worth insisting that the store place the charge in Egyptian pounds instead of converting to US dollars; you will receive a much more favorable exchange rate. By the time we finished our purchases, the cartouche bracelet was ready; it was quite lovely and undoubtedly less expensive than the ones available aboard the Pacific Princess. Following the papyrus store, we went to a perfume factory, where we were served hibiscus tea while learning about Egyptian perfumes. The factory sells pure essences (rose, orange blossom, etc.), knock-offs of famous perfume brands (such as Chanel #5 and Poison) and some uniquely Egyptian fragrance combinations. All of these can be mixed with alcohol to make perfume, cologne or aftershave lotion, or with water to scent hair or linens. In addition, the store sells blown glass perfume bottles and diffusers. We were anointed with several fragrances, including one called "Arabian Nights," which is supposed to make men irresistible. That fragrance became the source of a running joke for days after our visit to the perfume factory. After everyone had their fill of shopping, we set off for our hotel, Le Meridien Pyramids. This hotel was the same one being used by the Princess overnight shore excursions. It is in an excellent location, with fine views of the Giza pyramids. Karim helped us check in and called each couple after we had gone up to the rooms to make sure everything was in order. He had also given us his card and cell phone number in case we had any problems. The hotel in Cairo made copies of both of our passports, but we retained possession of the passports. The room was very clean and had a large bathroom equipped with huge bath towels plus Egyptian cotton robes to use during our stay. The king bed was actually two twins pushed together with no bridge to fill the gap; however, it was comfortable for a one-night stay. After about an hour to freshen up and relax, Karim collected three couples for the Nile dinner cruise and show aboard the Nile Crystal. Earlier in the day, I had been surprised to learn that we were going on this boat because I had thought we were going on the Nile Maxim. Both Karim and Mr. Ahmed (from Ramses) assured me that both cruises were of equal quality, but that the Nile Crystal was closer to the hotel and farther from an area where demonstrators were camping out. Also, it was the boat used for the Princess shore excursion luncheon cruise. Although I had only researched the Nile Maxim, we ended up being quite happy with the Nile Crystal. The dinner cruise lasts two hours (8:00-10:00 p.m.) and features a buffet with salads, hot dishes, breads and desserts. The food was quite good, especially the vegetables stuffed with seasoned rice. Beverages are not included and were much more expensive than at the other restaurants. I tried a Stella and John tried a Saqqara for a total of $18 for two beers. We wanted to charge the beers to get a better exchange rate (about $15), but the waiter said that our card was rejected. Actually, when I checked our account online later, the charge went through but then was reversed. At least we got to taste the local alcoholic beers; as Mr. Ahmed had told me, the Stella was better. The buffet line opened just as the boat started sailing and the first hour of entertainment was a duo performing Egyptian and international songs. After we finished eating, we went out on the open deck to enjoy the city lights and the other boats on the river, which were brightly illuminated. The second hour featured a belly dancer, a whirling dervish and some other traditional dances. At the end of each act, the performer went through the audience posing for pictures (later offered for sale at $8 each). After the final act, members of the audience were invited/abducted to dance with the performers. Several members of our group ended up dancing, including me. Fortunately, I still had some muscle-memory of moves I learned in a belly dancing class 35 years ago; at least I'd like to think that I did not look completely foolish. In any case, a good time was had by all. Upon our return to the hotel, the lobby was filled with singing and dancing people. This turned out to be a wedding celebration. We were only able to watch the festivities for a short time before exhaustion forced us to retire for the night. Needless to say, we slept very soundly. 20 MAY (SUN) ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT (ARRIVE 10:00AM DEPART 6:00PM) The next morning, we were not hungry, so we skipped the included breakfast. Others in the group said the breakfast buffet was good and included the typical egg dishes, bacon/sausage, cereals, fruit and coffee/tea/juice. The plan was to meet in the lobby at 6:45 a.m. so we could be on our way by 7:00 a.m. and arrive at the Dahshur pyramid site by the time it opened at 8:00 a.m. We would then work our way back north to Memphis and Saqqara, have lunch, visit the Giza pyramids and then head to Alexandria for a brief tour and to be back aboard the Pacific Princess with plenty of time to spare. After we boarded the van, Karim surprised us by gifting us with Arab headdresses to wear in photos throughout the day. We also each received another bottle of water. As we traveled south to Dahshur, we passed villages where many people live a traditional lifestyle: farming vegetables and raising livestock. Water is still hand-pumped and donkeys are used for transportation and plowing. In addition to herds of sheep and goats, we saw herds of camels and several water buffalo. In the larger towns, we saw vegetable markets, bakeries with huge stacks of pita bread, and coffee shops with people smoking hookahs. We also passed vast plantations of date palms. At one point we could see the pyramids at Abusir in the distance. We arrived at Dahshur just after 8:00 a.m., but the ticket seller was not there. Karim consulted with the Tourist Police and it was agreed that we would visit the site and pay on the way out. We proceeded through the desert to the Red Pyramid (named for the reddish cast of its stones). This pyramid can be entered and most of the group made the effort to climb the 99 steps to the entrance. Although the ticket seller was not at the main entrance to the site, there was an attendant at the entrance of the pyramid to check for cameras (no photos allowed inside) and to hit you up for a tip when you exit. This is definitely not an activity for anyone with claustrophobia! If you enter this pyramid, a flashlight is helpful for the first section; after that there are some electric lights. Also, it is easier to descend the low-ceilinged ramp backwards. There is a strong ammonia odor that increases as you descend; this is attributed to bats that formerly lived there. At the bottom of the ramp is the first of two large, empty rooms with sloping walls. There is a short, low tunnel connecting the two rooms. The second room contains a wooden staircase that leads to a balcony overlooking a ventilation chamber. Despite the fact that there is not a lot to see, it was exciting to actually be inside a pyramid. There are several other pyramids at this site that are closed to entry, but can be seen from the road. One is the Black Pyramid that was left unfinished due to the untimely death of the pharaoh it was built for. Another is the Bent Pyramid; the slope of the faces changes part-way up. I thought we would only view the Bent Pyramid from the road, but Mohammed took off on a trail through the sands so that we could have a closer look. Karim also took some photos of us in our headdresses and some trick photos (e.g., holding a pyramid in your palm). During the entire time at Dahshur, we were the only tourists and there were no vendors either. After about an hour at Dahshur, we headed off to Memphis. There is not much left of the ancient capital. A small museum contains a huge statue of Ramses II, which is horizontal so that you can see its details. There are a few other bits and pieces from the site inside the museum. Outside in the open area is the other main attraction, the Alabaster Sphinx, the second largest sphinx in Egypt. There are also more statues of Ramses II, statues of gods and goddesses, false doors and sarcophagi from tombs, column bases, and other odds and ends. Although there are not a lot of artifacts at this site, it has great historic importance. The vendors here were fairly restrained. Next we went to Sakkara, the necropolis of Memphis. This is a huge funerary complex built for King Djoser. It was originally surrounded by a tall wall, part of which has been restored. We first visited a set of tombs that are usually bypassed by larger bus tours. These tombs were built for various queens and have amazing wall decorations showing the queens receiving food and other offerings. The amount of color remaining in the paintings after nearly 5,000 years is truly astounding. No photos are allowed in the tombs, so we succumbed to a vendor selling sets of postcards (10 for $1), some of which included pictures of the decorations. The centerpiece of the complex is the Step Pyramid, King Djoser's tomb, built by the master architect, Imhotep. The pyramid is surrounded by scaffolding and is not open to the public. Karim also explained other important features of the site, including the temples and colonnade. The vendors here were more aggressive and less ready to take "NO/LAA" for an answer. After Sakkara, we returned Giza and ate lunch at the Caviar Restaurant near our hotel; it has a good view of the Giza pyramids. Again, we had salads to start, a choice of grilled chicken or mixed grill with white rice and potatoes as a main course and ice cream for dessert. John and I had given up on beer and drank Coke Zero instead ($4/can). The restaurant had a nice toilet and no one looking to be tipped. Before visiting the Giza Pyramids, Karim gave us very explicit instructions about how to behave during our visit. He emphasized that absolutely NOTHING is free at the site and that we should not touch anything, let anyone touch us, give anyone our camera to take pictures of us or even allow ourselves be drawn into a conversation. Although it is difficult and unpleasant to have to charge ahead, ignoring people and constantly saying, "Laa, shukran!" over and over, this is the only way to survive Giza with your wallet intact. The fact that tourism is down in Egypt made each of us even more of a target. Anyway, our first stop was the Great Pyramid of Khufu/Cheops, where we had free time to take pictures, climb partway up (entering requires paying an extra fee) and be hassled by vendors wanting to take our pictures, adjust our headdress or sell us something. Escaping back to the van, we drove past the pyramids of Khafre/Chephren and Menkaure/Mykerinos to the Valley Temple area. This area provides a panoramic view of the entire site and was where the rest of the group took their camel rides into the desert. While waiting for them to come back, John and I walked around taking pictures. Despite our best intentions, we ended up giving $1 baksheesh to one of the Tourist Police after he hassled us. Next we visited the Solar Boat Museum, which houses a boat that was built, disassembled and buried near the Great Pyramid; the boat was intended to help the pharaoh sail to the sun. Two boat pits were discovered in 1950; the boat on display was excavated in 1954 and reassembled in 1968. The second pit was finally excavated in 2011 and that boat will also be reassembled for display in the museum. We had seen a short note in National Geographic about this more recent excavation, but did not realize how large and impressive these boats are. The museum allows you to view the boat from several levels and is well worth the visit. Our final sight on the Giza Plateau was the Sphinx. Although I have read that some people are disappointed by its size, it seemed plenty big to us. We walked through the Sphinx Temple and saw the statue from various angles. By now it was getting late (around 2:30 p.m.), so we headed over to the KFC, where Mohammed was waiting to drive us to Alexandria. The highway to Alexandria crosses the desert and there is not much along the way; it's a good thing no one needed a pit stop. At one point, we encountered a traffic accident. This did not stop Mohammed, who simply took the van around the tie-up by driving through the desert. As we approached the downtown, Karim pointed out the hall where his wedding would be held in a few months; his fiancee is also a tour guide. Later, we passed the building where his new apartment is located; it has a side-sea view, so he must be doing well as a guide. Our first photo stop was on the Corniche, across from the new library in Alexandria. This is a dramatic modern structure built on the site of the famous Ptolemaic Library of Alexandria. Our next stop was across from the lovely Mosque of Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi, Alexandria's largest. From here, we also had views of the Qaitbey Citadel, the site of legendary Lighthouse of Alexandria. After this short tour, we entered the port and were dropped off just outside the cruise terminal. Thanks to Karim's excellent guide service and Mohammed's excellent driving, we had a fantastic two days in Egypt. We highly recommend Ramses Tours! Princess collected our passports when we returned to the ship in Alexandria. 21 MAY (MON) AT SEA After four straight port days, it was great to sleep in until 8 o'clock. Later in the morning, we went to Joe May's usual excellent port lecture on Sorrento and Civitavecchia. Afterwards, we went back to enjoy reading and relaxing on our balcony. The day was somewhat overcast, but we had periods of sun and the temperature was very pleasant. John brought some pizza back to the cabin for lunch and said the Mexican lunch buffet looked quite elaborate. The pub lunch was also held today. The Princess Grapevine wine tasting was held in the afternoon; this event is complimentary for Elite Captain's Circle members. We tasted five wines: 2 white, 2 red, and 1 dessert. Each person attending the wine tasting receives a souvenir shot glass with various Princess designs; it looked like only the ship's wheel and ship's bow (both of which we already have) were available. We received ship's bow, so we gave ours to some roll call friends to help them build their collection. Tonight was the second formal night and the Captain's Circle Cocktail Party. At dinner, we had lobster and king prawns. 22 MAY (TUE) AT SEA Today was the "Most Traveled Passengers" luncheon for the 40 people with the most days sailing on Princess. On this cruise there were only 17 Elite members aboard; we were seated with the Chief Engineer. The lunch was held in Sabatini's and, as usual, was delicious. The appetizer course consisted of three small appetizers: New Potatoes with Sour Cream and Caviar, Homemade Japanese Style Beef Goza, and Peppery Lobster Bloody Mary. We both chose the "King Neptune Symphony" (Chilean sea bass, lobster tail, and colossal shrimp) as the entree. Dessert was the "Pacific Temptation" --- a real delight for chocolate lovers. During lunch, the Chief Engineer mentioned that the sea conditions were not favorable for tendering into Sorrento tomorrow. Unfortunately, he was correct about the sea conditions and later in the afternoon the Captain announced that we would be visiting Naples instead of Sorrento. All of the ship's excursions would proceed, but with altered starting times. John had planned a nice hike on the Sorrentine Peninsula, so we would have to revise our plans. 23 MAY (WED) NAPLES, ITALY (ARRIVE 7:00AM DEPART 5:00PM) We had visited Naples twice before. In 1998, we took a ship's excursion to Capri, Sorrento, and Pompeii. In 2008, we engaged a driver to take us to Herculaneum and Mount Vesuvius. This time, we decided to see the art that was removed from Pompeii and Herculaneum and is displayed in the National Archaeological Museum. The ship docked at the Stazione Maritima. From there it took us 25 minutes to walk past the Piazza Municipio to Via Toledo, then up Via Toledo to the Piazza Museo. The rose-colored National Archaeological Museum (6.5 euros pp) has two full floors of exhibits, plus a mezzanine floor and a small lower floor. Unfortunately, large sections of each floor were closed, perhaps due to austerity measures. Some of these sections would be opening later in the afternoon (too late for us to wait), but most of the sections we wanted to see were open. Frommer's recommends renting the audio guide (5 euros pp); I had to surrender an official ID (my NC driver's license) to rent them. I thought the audio guides were helpful because many of the exhibits are not labeled in English. The sound was good although we had to turn it to maximum in order to hear the explanations above the commotion caused by the tides of students that ebbed and flowed throughout the museum. We started in the Farnese collection of statues, which includes such famous pieces as the Doriforo (Spear Bearer) from Pompeii and the Ercole Farnese from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. It also includes a large sculpture group, the Toro Farnese, from the 2nd century BC. This sculpture depicts the queen of Beotia being tied to a bull and has been augmented and restored many times over the ages (Michelangelo wanted to turn it into a fountain). After touring about half of this large collection, we decided to skip to the main (for us) attraction --- the wall paintings and mosaics from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Our next stop was the suite of rooms displaying wall paintings, mosaics, bronzes and other art from Herculaneum's Villa of the Papyri. Many papyrus scrolls were found in the villa; some were displayed and there was an illustration of the device invented to unroll the scrolls without destroying them. Other rooms displayed more mosaics, wall paintings and paintings on marble from several Roman towns and villas destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The details and colors in these paintings are astounding! Among the many works of art here is huge mosaic depicting Alexander the Great defeating Darius of Persia. We stumbled upon the Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Room), which houses Roman erotica. The sign said we needed a reservation, but the person at the information desk said that was not necessary and just wrote a time on a slip of paper. The guard at the door did not even look at the slip, perhaps because not many people were touring the rooms. The mosaics, paintings and statues on display are not especially shocking to modern eyes. Although some of the paintings may have been brothel menus or advertisements, many of the phallic images were intended to represent fertility and success or good fortune. After a bit more wandering in the museum, we took a stroll through parts of the interesting old city. From there, we walked to the Galleria Umberto I, a huge glass-roofed shopping center, where we found a Tourist Office and a gelateria. Sadly, it was now time to return to the ship and prepare our belongings for their move to our new cabin for the "Mediterranean Collection" cruise. Passports were returned to all of us after we sailed from Naples. 24 MAY (THU) ROME (CIVITAVECCHIA), ITALY (ARRIVE 5:00AM DEPART 6:00PM) Our plans here were to take the train from Civitavecchia into Rome, tour the pagan necropolis under St. Peter's and visit the Vatican Museums. My description of this excursion is given in my review of our May 24-June 5 "Mediterranean Collection" cruise. Read Less
Sail Date May 2012
Renaissance Cruises operated eight little ships with unglamorous names (R1 to R8). Renaissance went bankrupt approximately ten years ago, when the former P&O Princess Group purchased R3 and R4. These ships became "Pacific ... Read More
Renaissance Cruises operated eight little ships with unglamorous names (R1 to R8). Renaissance went bankrupt approximately ten years ago, when the former P&O Princess Group purchased R3 and R4. These ships became "Pacific Princess" and "Tahitian Princess" (now renamed "Ocean Princess"). The Group also acquired R8, which sailed from the UK as "Minerva II". R8 subsequently joined Princess Cruises as "Royal Princess", and has now returned to the P&O fleet as "Adonia". At this stage, I must admit to bias. I love the R-class vessels, having enjoyed cruises on Pacific Princess (R3), Tahitian / Ocean Princess (R4), Azamara Journey (R6), Azamara Quest (R7) and Royal Princess / P&O Adonia (R8). These little ships can enter smaller ports and are ideal for "special" or "exotic" itineraries. Because they carry no more than 700 passengers, they offer a more intimate cruising experience. However, they cannot provide the same range of facilities as the latest "mega-liners". Quality is more important than size and I am happy to enjoy low-key entertainment in a cabaret lounge, as opposed to lavish shows in a glitzy theatre. I do not mind that the ships have only one main restaurant with fixed sittings (plus a self-service buffet and two speciality restaurants) -â€" and the bathrooms are rather small. The cruise itinerary, service and value for money are more important aspects. My wife and I had to choose between two similar cruises to the Holy Land and Egypt -â€" on Pacific Princess or Azamara Quest. However, Azamara had cancelled all visits to Egyptian ports, so we opted for a twelve-night voyage on Pacific Princess. We flew to Rome on October 6th and stayed four nights at the Hotel delle Muse, before boarding Pacific Princess. The hotel is ideal for a reasonably priced city break. Please see my review at www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g187791-d205063-r120533599-Hotel_delle_Muse-Rome_Lazio.html#REVIEWS. It is very easy to travel in and around Rome. However, you cannot purchase tickets on buses or trams. You should purchase your tickets from a newsagent, tobacconist or vending machine before you board the bus or tram. Then, you must insert your ticket in the yellow validation machine on the bus or tram. Ticket options include: B.I.T €1. Standard one-way ticket - valid for one Metro ride or 75 minutes on all buses and trams within Rome. B.I.G. €4. Daily ticket, valid until midnight for unlimited Metro, bus, tram and train travel within Rome B.T.I. €11. Three-day tourist ticket, valid for everything listed above. C.I.S. €16. Weekly ticket You can also purchase regional versions of these tickets, for travel within and outside the city. For instance, a B.I.R.G. one-day regional ticket for Zones A & B is excellent value at €6 and will take you from Rome to places such as Frascati, Grottaferrata, Albano Laziale, and Tivoli. We had explored many of the historical sites during previous visits to Rome. This time, we wanted to see some of the surrounding towns and villages. I have penned the following summary of our visit to Rome and the subsequent cruise. October 7th. We travelled by bus and train from Rome to Ostia Antica to see the archaeological site, which is noted for the excellent preservation of ancient buildings, magnificent frescoes and mosaics. It was well worth a visit -â€" and the layout reminded us of Pompeii. EEC Citizens, aged 65+ are entitled to free admission upon production of their passports. October 8th. We went by bus and train to Frascati, a hill town known for its white wine. We visited the cathedral, explored narrow streets and admired magnificent views towards the City of Rome. Then we travelled by bus via Grottaferrata, Marino and Albano Laziale to Castel Gandolfo, where we saw the exterior of the Pope's summer residence. The countryside is beautiful and Lake Albano, which is located in the flooded crater of an extinct volcano, was the base for the canoeing and rowing events of the 1960 Summer Olympic Games. We returned to Rome by train. October 9th. We travelled by bus to Tivoli and visited Villa Gregoriana. The ruins of the ancient villa aren't spectacular. However, the landscaped gardens on the hillside were constructed 200 years ago by Pope Gregory XVI and are blessed with wonderful scenery and beautiful waterfalls. Visitors from the UK are entitled to free admission, upon production of National Trust membership cards. Later in the day, we visited the palace and the incredible gardens at Villa d'Este. Both villas are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites. October 10th. We travelled by train to Civitavecchia and boarded Pacific Princess. Our cruise departed at 6 pm. October 11th. Sorrento (a tender port) Having visited Naples and Sorrento on previous cruises, we did not want to travel to Pompeii or the island of Capri. This time, we decided to explore the Amalfi Coast, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, famous for its scenery and little villages, clinging to the cliffs and hillsides. We travelled along the coast by local bus via Massa Lubrense - and explored Amalfi town. Our next stop was Positano, before we returned on the bus to Sorrento. We planned this trip in advance, using timetables provided by the very helpful tourist information office at Sorrento. A one-day bus ticket costs € 7.20. Although the roads are very narrow and twisty, we experienced no problems. However, I would not recommend independent travellers to attempt this tour during the summer months, because traffic congestion can cause serious delays. October 12th - At sea. A beautiful sunny day. October 13th (afternoon) - Patmos, Greece This is a small island in the Dodecanese. It has no airport, and is more suited to island hopping than mainstream tourism. We shared a taxi and went to the hill-top monastery of Hagios Ioannis Theologos (Saint John the Theologian) and its museum, followed by a visit to the Cave of the Apocalypse, where St. John is reputed to have written the Book of Revelations. The monastery and cave are UNESCO World Heritage sites. October 14th - Kusadasi, Turkey Having visited Kusadasi, Ephesus and other archaeological sites on previous cruises, we spent a leisurely morning in town -â€" avoiding shops that advertised "genuine fake watches" etc. However, I did purchase a pair of cheap plastic beach shoes, to protect my feet during our subsequent visit to the Dead Sea (see below). October 15th - At sea. Another warm and sunny day October 16th - Haifa, Israel PacificPrincess should have called at Haifa on October 16th and Ashdod on the following day. However, Princess Cruises became concerned about safety issues at Ashdod, so the Captain decided to remain in Haifa for two days on October 16th and 17th. We went ashore with friends, Merlyn and Roger, who had booked private shore excursions through "Guided Tours Israel" (based upon good reviews on Trip Advisor - www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g293983-d1946663-Reviews-Guided_Tours_Israel_Day_Tours-Jerusalem.html). The tour company was very efficient and agreed at very short notice to re-schedule our excursions, to reflect changes to the ship's itinerary. On our first day in Israel, we travelled to Jerusalem by minibus -â€" with visits to major Jewish and Christian sites (Western Wall, Via Dolorosa, Church of Holy Sepulchre, etc), followed by panoramic views from Mount Zion/Olives. Our visit coincided with the Jewish Holiday of Sukkot, so the old city of Jerusalem (listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site) was very crowded. Our knowledgeable tour guide, "Moshe" was truly excellent with a great sense of humour. In the afternoon, we travelled to the Dead Sea, which is the lowest point on earth. I nearly lost my plastic beach shoes, which became stuck in the muddy shoreline. Floating in the warm and murky waters was a memorable experience, but not one I want to repeat. October 17th - Haifa, Israel Once again, our guide was Moshe. We toured Northern Israel with visits to Nazareth, Capernaum, Tabgha, the Sea of Galilee, the Mount of Beatitudes and Yardenit, the baptismal site on the Jordan River. Upon our return, we had insufficient time to explore the City of Haifa, because the ship's revised schedule required an early departure from Haifa. However, we did pay a brief visit to the impressive Bah''í Gardens, yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. TIP. There is a duty free shop in Haifa Cruise Terminal. Liquor prices were very attractive -â€" and much cheaper than the duty shops at Kusadasi, Santorini and Athens Airport. October 18th - Port Said, Egypt We usually prefer private shore excursions. However, we felt it would be safer to book a ship's tour to the Pyramids at Giza and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. The authorities delayed our departure. Then, the convoy of coaches travelled to Giza with an armed escort. At the Pyramids and the Sphinx, we were attacked by hordes of souvenir vendors who were so aggressive that we were glad to escape. After an adequate buffet lunch at Le Méridien Pyramids Hotel, we saw evidence of recent conflicts, including the burnt-out National Democratic Party building, next to the Egyptian Museum. Our visit to the museum was far too short -â€" and curtailed, because the ship's tour also included a compulsory visit to a souvenir shop. Yet another reason to avoid expensive ship's excursions! However, we saw Treasures of Tutankhamen and other exhibits. The Museum provided headphones but unfortunately, our guide seemed incapable of using the microphone properly, so most of her commentary was inaudible. Driving standards in Egypt were appalling. Vehicles travelled nose to tail in dense traffic at breakneck speeds, swerving without warning from lane to lane. We saw two serious collisions - and I am amazed there weren't more. October 19th - Alexandria, Egypt Having booked a car and English-speaking driver for the day, we visited the main sights of Alexandria - including Fort Qait Bey, Pompey's Pillar, The Catacombs / Kom al-Shoqafa, Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque, a drive along the Corniche to Montazah Palace Gardens, the Library of Alexandria and the Roman Amphitheatre. We had a thoroughly enjoyable day! However, Port Said, Cairo and Alexandria were absolutely filthy - and garbage had not been collected for many months. Consequently, there were piles of refuse everywhere. Vendors were far too aggressive and even the Tourist Police demanded baksheesh. Egypt is certainly not our favourite country for a vacation! TIP. It is virtually impossible to avoid paying baksheesh. Upon arrival, obtain a small supply of Egyptian one-pound coins or notes -â€" which are worth approximately 17 cents (US) or 11 pence (UK) and much cheaper than tipping with dollar bills. Keep your Egyptian currency separately - and don't let anyone see that you also have foreign currency. Carry a supply of antiseptic hand cleanser and/or baby wipes -â€" for use after touching anything. October 20th - At sea. We attended a superb luncheon for the "most travelled passengers" - and were invited to sit at the Captain's table. October 21st - Santorini, Greece (a tender port) We had arranged a round trip tour of the Caldera by traditional wooden boat. We booked the excursion through Pelican Travel Services (www.mysantorini.com/Santorini-caldera-round-trip.html). The cost was very reasonable at €28 - plus a €2 admission fee to the volcano. I recommend this excursion as an option, for anyone who has visited the main island previously. However, Santorini becomes very busy in summer, when the crowds become unbearable, if four or five large cruise ships have anchored in the Caldera. (You can check cruise schedules at www.cruisetimetables.com/cruises-to-santorini-greece.html.) Fortunately, Pacific Princess and the Wind Surf sailing ship were the only arrivals on October 21st, so we had less than 20 passengers on our tour. I doubt whether it would have been so enjoyable in the summer heat, if we had needed to share the excursion with 100 other passengers. Our guided tour visited the dormant volcano on Nea Kameni, where we climbed to the rim of the crater. The crater was inactive, except for warm rocks and a few jets of sulphurous steam. However, stout shoes are essential and you must be reasonably fit. Then, we had an opportunity to jump into the sea and swim to the hot springs (33°C / 91°F) at the adjacent island of Palia Kameni. Next, the boat sailed to the little harbour at Ormos Korfu on the island of Thirasia - a sleepy village with a beach and a few tavernas. After a two-hour break for lunch (not included in the price), the boat stopped briefly at Oia, before returning along the coast to the old harbour at Fira. October 22nd - Athens We disembarked at Athens and transferred to the airport for our flight to the UK. The transfer was provided by Princess Cruises and included a short, guided tour of Athens with views of the Parthenon etc. As a result of ongoing civil unrest in Athens, we saw piles of refuse in parts of the city. Not as bad as Egypt but this was probably not the best time for a vacation in Greece! However, the city tour was an unexpected and welcome bonus. Our Cabin Facilities in our cabin (#6046) included adequate hanging space, plenty of drawers, a refrigerator, a flat screen television and a small, en-suite shower room. The range and quality of the toiletries was impressive and our cabin steward was excellent. We are on the Elite tier of the Princess Captain's Circle, so our refrigerator was stocked with a selection of complimentary drinks. Laundry facilities were also complimentary and we had Wi-Fi access to the Internet, with a free allowance of Internet time. TIP. Cabins 6030 to 6046 and 6033 to 6049 on "R class" ships have "obstructed views". The view from some of these cabins is so restricted that there seems little point in paying a premium for an outside cabin. However, cabins 6036, 6039, 6046 and 6049 offer reasonable views -â€" whilst cabins 6030 & 6033 are virtually unobstructed. Entertainment The itinerary included only three sea days, so daytime entertainment was limited. Pacific Princess provided the usual mix of competitions, quizzes and other fun and games. The ship offered entertainment every evening. However, our cruise itinerary included some long and very tiring shore excursions so after dinner, I did not attend many performances. Entertainment in the Cabaret Lounge featured: ' The Pacific Princess Singers and Dancers and the Pacific Princess Showband, who provided standard cruise ship fare. Five production shows were "Bonsoir Paris", "Shake Rattle & Roll", "Words & Music", "Tribute" and "Dance". ' Christopher Riggins, a vocalist who described himself as a "Pop operatic" tenor. No match for Pavarotti and far too loud (although that might be a problem with the sound system in the Cabaret Lounge). His performances would have been more enjoyable, if the sound engineer had turned down the volume. ' John Ware, a comedian. ' Dain Cordean, comedy magic. ' An Egyptian folkloric show (local performers from Alexandria) ' Port Lecturer, Richard Detrich ' Evening or Late Night Movies -â€" "Unknown"; "The Fighter"; "The Conspirator"; "Source Code" and Pirates of the Caribbean - on Stranger Tides. The Casino Lounge and the Pacific Lounge included: ' Dancing (various) ' Musical sounds of the Cruisetones ' Music through the night with David Crathorne ' 50s & 60s Sock Hop ' Country and Western Hoe Down Party ' Latin Night ' Champagne Waterfall Party Shore excursions Cruise line shore excursions tend to be over-priced -â€" and we prefer to explore alone or in small groups. Consequently, we only booked one of the ship's excursions. The Princess Port Guides were well written and unlike port guides on some other cruise lines, they provided a lot of useful information (not merely lists of shops that had paid for inclusion). Food and Drink Cuisine is an important aspect of any cruise. My wife must adhere to a gluten-free diet and avoids anything that contains wheat, rye or barley. For breakfast, gluten-free toast was available upon request. The headwaiter in the Club Restaurant presented lunch and dinner menus in advance, so my wife was able to order modified options for the following day. Our head waiter ensured that all her meals were gluten-free and she also received a freshly baked roll with dinner every evening. Our waiters in were brilliant and we really enjoyed our meals, which were always attractively presented. The size of the portions was "just right" and the choice and quality were truly excellent (with the possible exception of the duck a l'orange, which tends to be disappointing on Princess ships). However, I wish Princess would improve the quality of their standard coffee, which is made from liquid concentrate and is disgusting. Fortunately, passengers can purchase cappuccino, espresso and other specialty coffees as an alternative. TIP. If you prefer real coffee, save money with a coffee card, which you can purchase from your waiter or from any of the bars. The Panorama buffet restaurant was very good -â€" and far better than the Conservatory buffet restaurant on P&O Adonia (a sister ship to Pacific Princess). The Panorama offered an extensive selection of hot and cold items for breakfast and lunch -â€" and attractive salads at lunchtime. Breakfast options included freshly made omelettes. Lunch menus always included a hot carvery option. It was so difficult to choose and the displays of fresh fruit were simply amazing. At Haifa, the buffet also offered filled sandwiches and bread rolls for passengers who wanted a snack for the long day ashore. Princess ships cater primarily for the American market so for breakfast, the Panorama restaurant serves American crispy bacon. However, the breakfast display also included ham steaks and English bacon, for passengers who might prefer their bacon less "well done". Orange and apple juices were available at breakfast -â€" and passengers can enjoy iced tea or delicious cold lemonade at other times. Coffees and a selection of different teas were always available. The Panorama restaurant remained open until 11 pm every evening for a buffet dinner and/or bistro/pizzeria. However, we opted for waiter service in the Club Restaurant. We did not try either of the specialty restaurants. Service So what were the best -â€" and "not so good" aspects of Pacific Princess? Most aspects of our cruise were exceptionally good. Food in the buffet and main restaurants was outstanding -â€" and much better than our recent cruise on the P&O ship, Adonia. Loyalty benefits of the Platinum and Elite tier of the Captain's Circle are superior to the equivalent tiers on P&O Cruises. And the complimentary laundry service provides a massive incentive to sail with Princess, in preference to any other cruise line. Princess was as good as or better than P&O in most areas -â€" so the following aspects are little "niggles". Many passengers have complained repeatedly that ordinary coffee on Princess ships is dreadful. I wish Princess would follow the lead of its sister company in the UK (P&O Cruises) and install coffee machines that consume real ground coffee. However, Princess Cruises have ignored that criticism for many years, so I am not hopeful that the coffee will improve. Another annoyance was the absence of hot (or cold plates) in the buffet restaurant. Sometimes, the plates were so cold that hot food had cooled, by the time you reached your table. Princess Cruises should follow the lead of P&O Cruises, and install electrically heated carts to dispense hot plates. At other times, every plate was hot -â€" even if you wanted a salad or cold dessert. P&O and some other cruise lines have installed tea / coffee making facilities in passengers' cabins (similar to hotels on both sides of the Atlantic). That would be a very welcome addition on Princess ships. Fox News and BBC World were the only television news channels on Pacific Princess. There were no domestic TV channels from the UK -â€" not even the European edition of CNN. (Contrary to popular belief, BBC World is an international channel, which provides very little British news.) We were delighted to be able to watch Sky News on Azamara Quest in November 2010, on Azamara Journey in January 2011 (cruising from San Diego) and P&O Adonia in August 2011. Princess sell cruises to many British passengers, so it would be helpful if they could add Sky News to the range of TV channels (subject to availability of satellite reception). Most cruise lines, including P&O Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises, deliver a daily newssheet to passengers' cabins. Editions from Headland Media include "Britain Today", "The Canadian" and "USA Times". The Passenger Relations desk on Pacific Princess told me that Princess Cruises have discontinued this service. That is a retrograde step, particularly as the range of television news channels is so limited. Pacific Princess played canned music around the swimming pool and sometimes, in the buffet restaurant. The music was intrusive and I would have preferred no background music in any of the public areas. Tastes vary and you cannot please everybody all of the time. That is why the cruise director on Azamara Quest responded to passenger feedback in November 2010 by banishing the music. He commented that passengers who like music around the pool should use an iPod or personal stereo. Princess Cruises in the UK arranged our British Airways flight from Athens to London. Princess added every passenger to a group reservation, which prevented anyone from selecting their seats, ordering special diets, or checking-in on-line. The problem could have been avoided very easily, if Princess Cruises had applied a different airline locator reference to each surname. Four cruise lines, Princess Cruises, P&O Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises and Oceania Cruises operate former Renaissance ships, which are virtually identical. I haven't sailed with Oceania, so I cannot comment on their ships. However, passengers would enjoy a really superb experience, if cruise lines could combine the best aspects of P&O, Princess Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises. In the meantime, Pacific Princess scores at least nine out of ten. Consequently, I would happily book another cruise on either of the Princess "small ships" -â€" provided the price and itinerary are right. Read Less
Sail Date October 2011
We boarded the Pacific Princess in Athens,Greece for our Black Sea Cruise. We made our own air and hotel arrangements, arriving in Athens a couple days early. We always like to have a buffer in case of airline delays. Fortunately, all ... Read More
We boarded the Pacific Princess in Athens,Greece for our Black Sea Cruise. We made our own air and hotel arrangements, arriving in Athens a couple days early. We always like to have a buffer in case of airline delays. Fortunately, all flights and connections were on time giving us two days to revisit the Acropolis, Plaka, and other sites in Athens. It was very easy to take a taxi from central Athens to the port in Piraeus. It ran about €20 and dropped us right at the embarkation area. This was our first experience on a Princess' small ship. I have to say that we now prefer it over those that are much larger. None of the areas on the ship ever seemed crowded, it was quick and easy to get around, getting on and off the ship was a breeze, plus we never had to tender. On the small ship there is only traditional dining which worked out great as that is our preference. The food in the dining room was always terrific and on par with every other Princess cruise we had taken. However, the buffet was exceptional. We ate most of our breakfast and lunch meals there. On several occasions we had planned to go to the dining room but after a check of the buffet, decided to eat there instead. In addition to the Asian and Mexican 'theme' lunches, the buffet always included many Mediterranean dishes that reflected local cuisines. I especially liked the pasta of the day that was prepared fresh while you waited. The Pizzeria had really good thin-crust pizza and the BBQ Grill had tasty and reasonably sized burgers. Both provided excellent alternatives for lunch. The only guest speaker provided information on each port. The historical details were interesting but his practical information was lacking and generally inaccurate (e.g. Local transportation, prices, distances, etc.). He tended to encourage taking the overpriced ships tours over just exploring each port by implying a level of danger that just didn't exist. We found these 'scare' tactics over the top. We never felt unsafe in any of the ports. There were a few other things on the Pacific Princess that were far better than on larger ships: •The library was large, well stocked, comfortable and quiet. It was great place to sit and read. •Internet connectivity was very good. We always travel with our own PC notebook and never had any problems logging on. The speed was really good compared to past cruises - but having 500 free minutes does make a big difference. •The casino never seemed smoky. Since you had to walk through it to get to the Cabaret Lounge that was very nice. •Excellent Laundry facilities with 8 pairs of washers & dryers. We never had to wait for either. •Buffet seating was plentiful with a really nice outdoor area off the stern. The entertainment was OK. It seemed like we skipped it most nights. When we did go, we wondered why. The best entertainment was definitely the individuals or groups that played in the bars or by the pool. Sometimes we wonder why cruises feel the need for production shows as they are always just fair. Our first port was Volos,Greece. We took only one ship tour and it was to climb up to two of the Meteora Monasteries (Varlam and Rousanou). It was a 2-hour bus ride each way and included a really good Greek buffet lunch. Our guide was excellent and we felt the tour was well worth the price given the time, distance, and uniqueness of the area. The monasteries are built on rock pinnacles and are quite spectacular. The 180 or so steps up to both monasteries were strenuous because of the warm temperatures - but the views from the top were amazing. We also had really good views of the other 3 monasteries that we did not visit. We then headed through the Dardanelles and Bosporus strait toward 4 ports on the Black Sea: •Varna,Bulgaria: There was a free shuttle bus to downtown that dropped us off across the street from the Cathedral. We wandered around the town and found it was an easy walk back to the ship along the beach. Varna is 'beach resort' but is not really touristy. There was some pretty architecture with the Opera house, pedestrian mall, and Clock tower. •Constanta,Romania: There was an expensive local shuttle at $8 per person each way. We took the shuttle to New town in but again, it was an easy walk back to Old town and along the Black Sea to the ship. Constanta is not touristy. It's a bit run down with lots of buildings that had seen better days. The old town area was interesting with a nice church, mosque, museum building roman ruins, and an ornate abandoned casino on the seaside. Most of the tours involved a 3-hour drive to Bucharest and those we spoke to said it was not worth the drive. One thing we did find was really good wine. We brought a bottle of red & white back to the ship and both were VERY good. Who knew? •Odessa, Ukraine: The ship docked right at the foot of the Potemkin Steps with led to the beautiful Opera House. However, you can't go in unless it's for a performance and the ship happens to be there on a Wednesday or Saturday when there is a matinee. This seemed like a missed opportunity for the city. I'm sure they could do tours like at the Vienna Opera house and generate plenty of revenue. Odessa is a pretty place to walk around with lots of parks, big ornate buildings, and statues. It still doesn't seem like its set up for tourists as you can't read the street signs and hardly anyone spoke English. However, since we were there on a Friday there were DOZENS of wedding couples. With all their friends waiting outside, they go in a government type building, get married, everyone cheers, and then have the weekend to party. This was very entertaining. •Yalta,Ukraine: This was by far the best port on the Black Sea. There is lots of history from both the Czars and the WWII conferences. We organized a private tour with a young guy name Sergey Sorokin. He was very knowledgeable about the area and its history. We covered a lot of territory in our day tour starting at the Massandra Palace (Russian Tsar Alexander III's Hunting Lodge). From there we went to Livadia Palace - Yalta's Conference site of 1945 (with Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill) and summer residence of Russian Tsar Nicolas II. It was as historically interesting as it was beautiful. From there we went to a new church with beautiful gold onion domes, St. Mikhail in Oreanda. It's built in an extremely picturesque site overlooking the Black sea. It so new that they are still in the process of painting the frescos on the inside. Next came a traditional Ukrainian lunch and local wine tasting at a very nice restaurant overlooking Swallow's Nest Castle - the symbol of Crimea and Yalta. Last but not least, we went Alupka Palace (also known as Vorontsov Castle) - an unbelievable place with unique architecture, extensive gardens and phenomenal views. This is the place where Churchill stayed during the Yalta Conference. On the way back we stopped at a city overlook and by Chekhov's house for a few pictures. Sergey dropped us off at the far end of the harbor so we could walk back down the waterfront and past the Lenin monument to the ship. On this private tour we saw LOTS more for the same price as the ships tour. If you are going to be in Yalta we HIGHLY recommend Sergey. His website is www.yalta-sevastopol-private-tour-guide.com From the Black Sea we headed back down the Bosporus mid-morning for an overnight in Istanbul,Turkey. There were 4 ships docked at the Cruise terminal and we were right in the middle. That made for a fairly long walk to either port entrance. Istanbul has an excellent tram system that will get you anywhere along the route for €2 - significantly cheaper than a taxi. The port exit you choose will determine if which tram stop you take. The tram stops near all the major sites in the Old City and is really easy to use. Since we had been to Istanbul before and already visited the big 3 sights (Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and the Topkapi Palace) we took the opportunity to go to the Basilica Cistern. It's a very interesting place. The nice thing about having an overnight is the ability to go out to dinner in town and then walk around in the evening - and we did both. We spent our 2nd day at the Grand Bazaar, Spice Market, Golden Horn waterfront, and going up the Galata Tower. Istanbul is very European and we could easily see going back and spending several days staying in town. Our last port was Koper,Slovenia and the ship docked right in town. It was an easy walk to the main square. This part of Slovenia is really close to Italy and it's really shows in the architecture and food. While the ship had a 4 hour tour to Piran for $75 per person, we took the local bus for €3.10 per person each way. It took about 35 minutes and we had plenty of time to wander around the narrow streets, walk along the waterfront, climb the campanile, and have lunch before returning to Koper. We docked in Venice, Italy early the next morning where the cruise ended. We took the people mover (€1) from the port and then walked over to the Santa Lucia Train Station. From there we headed to Florence and the Cinque Terre for a week before flying home. A cruise to the Black Sea certainly has a unique itinerary. The overnight in Istanbul, visit to Meteora, and day in Yalta were definitely the highlights. Overall, this was a really enjoyable and memorable cruise. Read Less
Sail Date September 2011
We like cruising on smaller ships,having already cruised on the Royal Princess twice, and were really attracted by this itinerary. Our Princess arranged flight to Venice(BA)was on time and Princess reps met us & the transfer to the ... Read More
We like cruising on smaller ships,having already cruised on the Royal Princess twice, and were really attracted by this itinerary. Our Princess arranged flight to Venice(BA)was on time and Princess reps met us & the transfer to the ship was quick,as was embarkation. For a charge of 15$ each there was an unlimited ship's shuttle to St Mark's Square. This was very convenient as we had an overnight in Venice. The ship was what we had expected--our stateroom very comfortable,I like the sofa ,the flat screen TV & ample storage. The balcony to me is invaluable & this was quite private. The ship has a wonderful library with games,jig saws etc as well as a large number of non fiction & fiction books. The food in the Dining Room was very good & the Maitre D',Bruno, excellent. Upstairs the food was really good,the breakfast buffets especially so,& nothing was too much trouble for the crew there. There were always plenty of tables available both inside & on deck. We took 4 Princess excursions-Malta,to Taormina & MtEtna in Sicily (a wonderful trip),to Capri and to Monaco/Monte Carlo.All were good to excellent & the included lunches in Capri & on Etna were excellent. Overall this was a great cruise--the crew on this ship are so friendly in a respectful way. The itinerary exceptional-the call at Kotor-is very special. The only downside to this holiday was the number of children,that can't really be catered for on a smaller ship like the Pacific Princess. Embarkation was very smooth as was our airport transfer. Read Less
Sail Date July 2011
BACKGROUND...This was our 26th cruise. We did three 12-day cruise's back-to-back. STATEROOM...Outside window, average size cabin with plenty of storage, clean new carpet in room, bathroom looked almost new. SHIP INFO...Small ... Read More
BACKGROUND...This was our 26th cruise. We did three 12-day cruise's back-to-back. STATEROOM...Outside window, average size cabin with plenty of storage, clean new carpet in room, bathroom looked almost new. SHIP INFO...Small intimate ship where some of the crew even learn your name. Ship stability was not a factor even-though it was small. Excellent crew who really want to please you. No lines anywhere, no need to save a deck chair. DINING...Better food in the dining room than bigger ships. ACTIVITIES...Plenty of activities available although not as many as on bigger ships. SERVICE...Best service I have seen in 26 cruises, simply outstanding! ENTERTAINMENT...The five production shows were EXCELLENT, presented in a theater in the round type setting. The other entertainers were average. SHORE EXCURSIONS...Typical shore excursions but with only 675 passengers on-board you did not get the cattle-call feeling you often get on the big ships. Two of our tours only had 12-15 people. DISEMBARKATION...Smooth and well done. SUMMARY...Really enjoyed our first small ship experience. In the future we plan to do many more. Read Less
Sail Date July 2011
We wrote this review as events happened, almost like a blog. We are Christians, but we are not going to the Holyland for a pilgrimage. We took this trip to see the "old" world: Athens, Rome, Jerusalem and the Pyramids. By and ... Read More
We wrote this review as events happened, almost like a blog. We are Christians, but we are not going to the Holyland for a pilgrimage. We took this trip to see the "old" world: Athens, Rome, Jerusalem and the Pyramids. By and large, mission accomplished, and we had a great time. Everything else were bonuses. Athens Arrived at Athens and stayed at the Classic Baby Grand Hotel, part of the SLH group (Small Luxury Hotel of the world) The hotel is as advertised ... unique. Front desk is made from a pair of cut up Austin Minis, and the walls, well, it is different. You either liked it or hated it. You really have to see it in person (or you can look at their web page pictures). All the rooms are nicely decorated with "art" painted on the wall. You have to put the key card in a slot before the lights will work. You pull the card out, all the powers are off. Good energy saving feature. On the drive from airport to hotel, saw a lot of solar panels on roof tops. Gasoline is 1.50 Euro a litre, which is like $10 a gallon. The reception/lobby/front desk is on the second level. The staffs are friendly and speak some English! The elevator is tiny. Barely enough to hold 4 people and only if you are really skinny. We crowded 4 people in it and the door won't close as my back pack is in the way. It said the weight limit is 450 Kg which is only 900 pounds. After checking in, we walked to Plaka, passing the city market, the various squares, the flea market etc. Stopped in a few old churches along the way and at the square by Plaka, saw the Acropolis up top. We are going to Delphi tomorrow. I think it is 2 hours bus ride there. We joined a tour and will be picked up at and returned to the hotel. Food is expensive. 18 euros for breakfast at the hotel. Food is very good. 2 euros for coffee (no refills) Plan to spend 50 euros per person per day on 3 meals. Great choices of cheaper restaurants along Adrianou. Portions larger and prices more reasonable. Lots of tourists and local. Loved the traditional Greek coffee. Kept me and DW up all day, making it easier to adjust to time zone difference. Tomorrow, Acropolis, city tour and embarkation. Delphi /Arachova Took about 3 hours to get to Delphi from Athens. It was bumper to bumper traffic in Athens, almost an hour just to get out of town. Drivers are suicidal. I'm glad I am not driving. Saw a lot of white boxes with cross on top, looks like mini churches or shrines, along the side of the highway. Tour guide said they are shrines for people who were killed in accidents. Stopped and looked at some of them, very interesting. The Apollo's Oracle is not what I have expected. Guide is knowledgeable and talked about both history and mythology at the site. Place not busy at all with only a handful of groups. View at the valley below is spectacular. I can see why the ancient Greeks look at the place as the center of their universe. Made an unscheduled stop at Arachova, a ski village along the way. Interesting place built on the side of the mountain. They are selling snowboards and the weather is 25C (82F?). The streets are very narrow. There are some carpet stores. Unfortunately, carpets not made in Greece. Acropolis The place is jammed pack with people and we were told that this is actually a slow day. On the way up the hill, it is wall to wall people. Reminded me of Boxing Day in a mall. Can't imagine what it would be like if it is any busier. The view is breath taking. You can see for miles. The new museum opened last year and it is very interesting. They ran out of certain English souvenir books already and they won't sell me the beat up worn out tattered demo copy. The restoration is on-going. It is much more impressive than Delphi. My recommendation, if you are press for time, skips Delphi. There are a whole lot more interesting things to do in Athens. We would have loved to spend more time in Plaka and the surrounding areas. We stopped by the temple of Zeus. The Hadrian's Arch is right there as well. The national Garden and the Parliament are along the way. We missed the changing of the guard at the Parliament. We also stopped at the original Olympics stadium; nothing to see there except a big empty stadium. The academy of learning and all the old buildings are impressive. The guide said lots of things have been looted in the past and a lot of them are taken to Rome and other places. Pireas The port is in Pireas and with only 680 passengers, checking in were easy with practically zero line up. We walked up, they took the luggage at curb side, we walked inside, get the cruise card, go through security, that's it. They kept your passport and give you a passport receipt. Make sure you made photocopies of your passport before you go and keep the copy some place safe just in case. It is not necessary but just in case. We made a photocopy of our passport, laminated it and kept in our wallet. Our first impression of the ship? We have mixed feelings as this is our first "small ship" cruise. DW was disappointed at first. This is an old Renaissance ship converted by Princess so it is missing a few of the Princess features that we have come to expect. I love the ship's library and the piano bar. I can spend hours there. The artwork that adorned the Pacific Princess was disappointing; the Princess mega ships' artwork collections are much more impressive. The Pacific Princess actually had mirrors instead of art work on the back staircase. If you keep comparing it to the mega ships, you will definitely be disappointed. DW also commented that the ship reminded her of the old Queen Mary with the old style dEcor. She missed those big atriums of the mega ships. The stair cases, they are narrow. One thing that we really missed: anytime dining. It is not available at all. The cabin decor is fine with a flat panel TV and a few modern features. There are 4 plug-ins with 2 for 110 and 2 for 220. All the things you needed are there. The closet is smaller than what we are used to. There is still plenty of space, just not as roomy. We travelled light with 1 suitcase each. For those who travels with 2 or more pieces each. You may run out of space. Empty suitcases can fit under the bed. We have never needed to do that on the other Princess ships but have to do it here to make room. Although the decor in general is "old style", it is not "old". For a twenty year old ship, it looked great! Almost like a vintage car at a vintage car show. It is shiny, it looks new, but you knew it is not new. It grows on you. We ended up enjoying it more than we will ever admit. We can get from point A to point B real quick. Forgot to bring a camera? No problem! It took no time at all to get back to the cabin and retrieve it; on a mega ship, it will take a while. Since we are not gamblers so we are not disappointed at the very small Casino, there were never more than 20 people in there. We love to explorer the ship when we first get onboard. It didn't take long this time. DW didn't even get lost once and we found all the places and we walked everywhere. Our cabin is on Deck 7. The pool, the buffet, spa, fitness center and the usual stuff are on deck 9. Library, internet cafe and Sabatini are on deck 10. The cabaret, the dining room, casinos, shops are on Deck 5. Speaking of internet, the satellite system they have is older and the connection speed is much slower than the other Princess ships. Took a long time just to send a couple emails. My connection to the office doesn't work at all. Good excuse for me to not checking in on work stuff. The ship is supposed to get new internet equipment in a month's time. Spoke to the manager of the internet cafe; it is interesting that he had his training on a Carnival ship. This is his first contract with Princess but he had his "test run" on a Carnival ship that do weekend cruises. Santorini Everything is great except for the light rain in the early afternoon which we don't mind at all. We were tendered ashore on a three mast sailing boat. No, they didn't run up the sail. This is the most impressive tender that I have been on. The tender took us to Athinos and the bus took us to Pyrgos, the first stop. The way up is interesting and the road zigzags along the cliff. Some sections of guard rails are missing. Guide joked with the driver commenting that there must the place the driver missed the turn last time and took a tumble. The tour took us all over including the black sand (and gravel?) beach at Kamari, which is on the other side of the island. Water is very warm and this is October. There are tiny churches all over. There is a small village with a population of 250 and they have 42 churches! Oia (pronounced as (ee-ah) is interesting, located at the tip of the island. Last stop was Thira, the capital. There are 3 ways to go to Skala, where the tender will take you back to the ship. You can walk down the 800 steps (20 minutes) or take the donkey ride. We walked down the path for about a minute for the view and headed back up. We also decided against the donkey ride and took the third option down, which is the cable car. As a rained a bit earlier on, the pathway was wet and slippery and brown. The brown stuff is from the donkeys as donkeys in general are not toilet trained. The brown stuff got mushy after the animal and people stepped on it. Some people had walked up the steps from Skala. Definitely not recommended for people not in good physical shape. People in Santorini were very friendly. Most shop would have someone who spoke some English. The pre-historic museum was closed due to staff strike. Patmos Patmos' claim to fame is St. John and the cave where he received the visions that resulted in the book of Revelations. Most tours would stop at the St. John Grotto and the Monastery of St. John the Theologian. If you are deeply religious, the sights are inspiring. In the Monastery, the Christodoulous chapel holds a lot of artefacts and wall paintings. They are also very strict about no photography, and not even polite about it. The same goes for the treasury, which is now a museum. I guess one can say that they want to protect the treasures from deterioration from the light (camera flash), or they just want to sell you the books and the DVDs. We have also visited a 300 year old house in Hora. The owner of the house is 9th generation on the island and is very gracious in showing her home. We have always heard story about poor plumbing that you are not allowed to throw toilet paper in the toilet. You wipe and then you put the toilet paper in a basket next to the you know what. Well, I have experienced it first-hand. I was impressed as it is less messy than I thought, but smelly just the same. We saw some people lined up to use the facilities, read the sign, and decided against going. The market around the tender dock is quite clean and safe. We walked around for quite a bit and DW finally found a genuine Kourbella, which made her very happy. She had been looking for one since Santorini. The weather was okay but it was very windy. We were warmed by several staff at the ship that the sea would be rough on the way to Kusadasi. We felt a bit of side to side motion, but overall, it wasn't bad. We have been in much rougher water than this and no one warned us. I wonder if it is because it is on a smaller ship. Kusadasi We decided on the last minute to cancel the tour to St. John's Basilica and Virgin Mary Shrine. We opted for the Terrace Houses instead. We have been told all kinds of things about the Terrace Houses and there are lots of rumors about the costs, limiting the number of people visiting etc.; none of them were true. The cost of entrance is 15 TL, which is about $10. They give you a 2 part ticket. One for you and one for your guide. The Terrace Houses is actually located inside the ruins of Ephesus, and you have to pay admission to Ephesus to get to the Terrace Houses. We met some people who were in Turkey earlier in the year and they were refused entry to the Terrace Houses without a guide. They have restored only a handful of houses but what we saw were impressive, even by today's standard. Imagine a house built around 5th century with central heating, running water, functioning toilets, (with separate toilet for women), mosaic floors and wall paintings, marbled walls, you really have to see it to believe it. We made the right choice to go see the Terrace Houses instead of Virgin Mary Shrine. We thought Ephesus is better preserved than Delphi. The Amphitheatre can sit 25,000. The city itself is huge and although less than 10% has been excavated, it looks massive. The library features an underground tunnel to the brothel, or at least that's what the guide said. It is certainly a worthwhile stop. It is disappointing that the ship's excursion doesn't offer a package that takes you to St. John's Basilica, the Virgin Mary Shrine, and ancient Ephesus including the Terrace Houses. You can see them all in about 6 hours if rushed, and 8 hours if you like a slower pace. Maybe they wanted to leave some time for you to shop at the carpet stores. Booking your own qualified and accredited guide and go outside of the ship's excursion is the way to go if you want to see them all. The ship's excursion is far too short and you are rushed from site to site. The flea market outside ancient Ephesus is interesting as well. There is a stall that sells "genuine fake watches". You know what you are buying ... the real fake, not a phony fake. You really have to bargain hard. The price they asked for is ridiculous. A store by the harbor wanted 25 Euros for a nice cotton sweater. I thought I did well by getting the price down to 18 Euros but no further. We decided to walk away. 4 or 5 blocks later, the same merchandise, DW had the price down to 15 Euros, and the final price was 3 for 40 Euros. The handmade carpets are gorgeous. Do not go inside any carpet store for a carpet making demonstration. I repeat. Do not enter! The sales pitch is soft but the pressure to buy is there. At least they are not as bad as those selling time-shares in Florida. Complimentary beverages and pastries were offered, and of course, the price for the free beverages is to sit through their sales pitch. If you have never experienced it, by all means, go see it. The silk carpets are really nice. We decided to try local food and beverages and headed to a local open air cafe. If you enjoy a strong coffee, make sure you ask for a Turkish coffee. DW ordered an Apple Tea. Both are famous local beverages. Sea Days The entertainment on a small ship is very limiting. They don't have a theatre and the shows are done at the Cabaret. The seating arrangement is not bad, but if you are short, you better sit at the first few rows or you won't see much as the floor is not slanted. The comedian magician is forgettable. I was never big on them anyway. One show featured a vocalist, Kaitlyn Carr, from Scotland. I thought she was passable and DW said she was off key a few times. She also played the traditional flute. Maybe it was her rendition of the Lord of the dance that did it. At the end of the show, Kaitlyn received a standing ovation from the crowd. The staged shows are similar to what we have seen at other Princess ships. Since we were on another Princess ship recently, we have seen the "Dance-Dance-Dance" before. The music was familiar with a twist. First off, without the stage, there were only 2 singers and 6 dancers instead of the full compliments of 4 singers and 12 dancers of their mega ship. The stage sets were missing and the costumes were also less elaborate. Sections disappeared and were replaced (the Indian dance was missing). The singers and the dancers performed well enough and they performed all the crowd pleasers. We noticed that at least 2 of the dancers are also assistant cruise directors. So the question is: are they dancers training to be cruise directors? Or are they cruise directors learning to be dancers? We have also noticed that there are quite a few people on their first contract. The young fellow who was selling the shore excursions is on his first contract. He is extremely knowledgeable on the shore excursions being offered. He said that part of his training was that he had to go to all the shore excursions and experienced them first-hand. What a tough job! It does appear that this small ship is being used as a training ground. This could be both good and bad. The good is that they are all trying very hard, going the extra mile. The bad is if you are on the ship while they just completed a crew rotation, you may get stuck with some freshly trained newbies. The ship's roaming photographer definitely falls under the later category. Although this is his first contract, it could be his last (I certainly hope so). He lacks customer service skills and was rather rude when passengers turned down his offer to take pictures in the dining room. This is only day 4 and so far, the food quality is impressive, much better than the other Princess ships we have experienced, except for Ruby's maiden voyage in 2008. Not that the food on the other Princess ships were bad. As it turns out, there is a reason for it. The Princess corporate executive chef Alfredo Marzi who holds the title of "Master Chef Commendatore" is on board. He travels from ship to ship for inspection and training (here is that word again!) purposes to ensure things are up to snuff. We knew about him because we attended his cooking demonstration and special dinner at the Ruby's maiden voyage. If you like your special coffees like espresso and latte, buy the "coffee card". It is $24 now but you get 15 premium coffees. Since we have a 2 for one coupon, for $24, we get 2 cards, good for 30 drinks - a very good deal and much cheaper than Starbucks. More on Food and Entertainment The show called "Shake Rattle and Roll" is new, featuring songs from the 50s and 60s, including Buddy Holly, Elvis, Monkee, Beatles, Sonny & Cher etc. The Sonny and Cher skit was funny. Since this is the "light" version for a smaller ship, I am looking forward to see the full version on the Mega ships. "Tribute" is also new. Featuring music from Beatles, Beach Boys and the Rat pack. With only 2 singers, the 2 fill-ins are a bit weak. The second female singer just didn't have the voice needed. The female lead is good. Again, I am looking forward to the full version. Went to Sabatini, one of the two extra charge restaurants available. The portions are big. We were stuffed long before main entrEe arrives. DW ordered lobster tail and 2 full tails showed up on the plate. My veal chop was almost 2 inches thick. Asked for doggy bag and waiter was miffed by the request. Guess he didn't have a dog at home. Alfredo Marzi did a cooking demonstration. It was a very similar show from 2 years ago and the same pitch for his cook book. He preached to the audience not to waste any food, there are hungry people in the world etc. etc. Of course you don't want to waste any food. It is called money and their profit margin. He was funny at times. He took off his chef hat to show us that there is no "rat" under his hat when he was preparing the ratatouille. The internet service is getting worst. Skype was working a couple of days ago and now it doesn't work at all. It worked on the other ships. Maybe the problem was not the equipment but they tried to lock it down so tight that it became unusable. I really don't care what works and what doesn't as long as it is consistent across the board so that I can plan for it. Haifa Funny how information flows quite freely on the ship. The cruise director mentioned that 90 passengers had booked the Israel overnight tour and a total of 580 passengers had booked the excursions, leaving only a handful who booked tours on their own. We were given passport receipts when we boarded the ship in Pireas. We will have to go through "immigration" and redeem our passports and the "landing cards" before you can go ashore. A couple of passengers were not allowed to go ashore. I guess it must have happened before as no one seemed surprised by it. The port itself is in an industrial area. There were no duty free shops or anything like that. Once you got your passport and landing card, you disembark and go straight to the bus, or the waiting car and leave the dock. The Pacific Princess was docked next to a freighter. The security is really not as tight as I thought it would be. No one is carrying assault rifles standing at the gangway (like in Mexico) or anything like that. But, there were many check points to go through. The IDF had asked the tour guide for her cell phone number ... maybe for emergency contact? On our return to the ship, the bus stopped at the check point, a security person come on board and asked a series of silly questions. Are you carrying things on board for people? Did you see them package your purchases? Are you carrying guns? We reached the ship's gangway finally, cold towel from the ship and passport inspection once more before boarding. Despite being October, and supposed to be cool, it didn't feel that way. The temperature approached 90F and it was humid. From Haifa, we travelled to the Sea of Galilee, which is a big lake. I didn't know it is below sea level, and it supplies the majority of the water to the whole country. We were at the shore and the water is brownish and looks dirty. People are bottling it and drinking it as if it is holy water. We also stopped at Mount of Beatitudes. Nothing really too exciting there. The Church of Multiplication and Tabgha is next. Again, nothing exciting there either. This is the place where Jesus supposedly performed his miracle of multiplication with the fish and the bread. Everyone is taking picture of the rock where he supposed had sat on while performing the miracle. Up next is the River Jordon, Capernaum and Nazareth. This is the Holyland tour so you are supposed to see and know your religious stuff. If you are not religious or don't know the bible stories, you will be bored. The Yardenit site is not the place where Jesus was baptised. Apparently the real place is too close to the border so they built this place (shrine?) with a big souvenir shop selling, you guessed it, water jugs ($5 each) to fill your own water from the River Jordon to take home. There is a place where you can go and "touch" the water. If you want the full "experience", you must buy a white gown ($25), go change and then you can soak in the river. When you came out, it is like a wet t-shirt contest so one should try to be modest and bring towel or wear bathing suit beneath. There were many embarrassing moments for the soakers. The Yardenit gift shop carries dates and honey among other things, including mud pack for moisturising. Of course they have books and maps and religious artefacts. Other than the honey and mud pack, you can buy the rest of the stuff elsewhere. (okay, not the water jugs and water) We kept running into a Korean church youth group. They were singing hymns and chanting while we were inside the churches. It really added to the atmosphere. Some people were downright emotional to the point that they cried. By the way, toilets (WC) are not free and typically they will charge ½ Euro or $1 to use the facilities. Make sure you have loose change as they do not give any change back. One more thing: no bare shoulders and bare knees on any Holy Sites. Show some respect and dress appropriately. Ashdod/Jerusalem Ashdod is another industrial port. Both Ashdod and Haifa claimed to be Israel's largest port. Again, there is nothing nearby. The temperature is cooler, but not by much, still mid-80s. Since we kept the passport, we just meet the tour bus and headed out. The cheapest souvenir shopping is inside the old city of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. But, you may not want to go to Bethlehem after reading what I have to say. We thought Acropolis was crowded. Well, we were wrong. The "attractions" (or Holy sites) were jammed pack with wall to wall people. Drivers and people in general are aggressive. Drivers lean on the horn to voice their displeasure when the tour bus is loading or unloading passengers, blocking their way or slowing them down. Patience is not in their vocabulary. First stop at Mount Olive with a great view of the old city, Next stop was Garden of Gethsemane. Some nuns were hand picking the olives from the tree. I thought shaking the tree and let the olives drop would be more efficient but that is not the way. You may do that on the field but not here. The Garden's claim to fame is this is the place where Judas betrayed Jesus. A church was built there and the inside, of course, was packed. We entered the old city through the Dung Gate, so named because there used to piles of dung there in the olden days. Huh? I was very surprised by the gender segregation. Men went through security on the left and women on the right. They check your bags and you walk through a metal detector before you enter into the open space (or square) in front of the Western Wall. There were armed soldiers patrolling with big guns. When approaching the western Walls, again, men to the left, ladies to the right. There is a prayer hall on the men's side but you must cover your head to go in. Obviously, no females allowed although the hall was donated by a female. Go figure. If you need to go to bathroom, here is the place, by the Western Wall. It's free and it's clean. Next up was the walk along the "Via Dolorosa", following the path that Jesus took on his way to the crucifixion. We walked through the alley ways of the old city, stopping at all the stops and ended at the Church of Holy Sepulcher. We have never been with so many people in the same place all at once. Let's just say that you don't have to walk anywhere within the Church of Holy Sepulcher. You get pushed. You are allowed to take pictures but it is almost impossible as everyone else was trying to do the same. They would be in front of you, next to you, behind you. All you see is a sea of people. The last few stops for Via Dolorosa are inside the Church of Holy Sepulcher and were considered the most Holy of Holy sites. They (priests?) would hurry you along or would tell you that you cannot take pictures of certain things, or that you are not properly dressed and boot you out. Here is a reminder again: no bare shoulders and bare knees on any Holy Sites. I didn't know the Armenians hold the majority of the space inside the Church of All Nations. Trivia question for you. Which faith (or factions) holds the key to the place? The answer is none of them. It is held by a Muslim as they own the place. At least that's what the guide told us. Bethlehem is most interesting. Jewish guide get off the bus. Driver took us down to check point (border?) After we drove past the checkpoint, Palestine guide joined the group. We saw the "security barrier" first hand. Just look at the old pictures of the Berlin wall and you will get the idea. It goes for miles. We knew that time allotted to visit churches and souvenir market is dictated by the guide, who will make his money from the purchases. First stop at BSC (Bethlehem Souvenir Company) was supposed to be half hour but ended up much longer. Some people decided to spend more time shopping and the guide, of course, won't rush them. Price is okay but the best deal is outside the stores by the street vendors. Bags are 4 for $10. Scarfs are between 3 to 5 for $10 depending on your bargaining skills. Quality is cheap too but as souvenirs for give away, you can't beat the price. The Church of Nativity is the only Holy site stop. Even more crowded than Church of All Nations. People are pushing each other to go down the stairs to see the "manger". It was noisy and it is inside the church. A priest used the microphone to shh everyone. Noise gone for about a minute and it started again. The crowd were 50 deep or more trying to go down the staircase that maybe only 2 wide. Needless to say, many disappointed and upset people as they came all the way to Bethlehem and didn't even get to see the manger. Close, but no cigars. I heard the group that went to the site of the last supper fared better. On the way back, more check points and more check points after leaving Palestine. Port Said/Cairo Egyptian Museum Port Said is the northern gateway to the Suez Canal. It is about 200 Kms away from Cairo. We have been told to expect a three hour journey, two on the highway and an hour in the city. The Pyramid of Giza is an extra half hour away with the ring road. There is one thing that I should mention now about the road trip from Port Said to Cairo. There were NO pit stops. None. Zero. Zilch. If you got to go, well, you can't. You've got to be able to hold it, or wear diapers for your relief, as simple as that. The ship docked early. Went through immigration with no issues. Next thing you know, we were at the dock, walking among venders and their stalls inside the controlled area. Many stalls were not even open yet. We proceed to the meeting point where all the buses, vans, were parked and ready to go. We boarded our bus early but we can't leave until all the vehicles were filled and ready to go. So we sat in our bus for 20 minutes, waiting for the last bus to finish loading. The people in the private tours did not fare any better. They have to wait too. The convoy must leave together, as a single unit. At least the buses were running on cheap gasoline, only $2 a gallon. It was an impressive convoy, police cars and a police motorcycle at the front of the convoy, and a police truck at the back. We sped through Port Said at a great pace, seeing policemen at all the major intersections, stopping traffic to let us go straight through. Police cars were also blocking on ramps so that no one can merge into the highway and cut in. I was impressed. Maybe the police escort was a way to get us out of the city quick, beating morning traffic and has nothing to do with security and safety. I was only partially right. The police escort stayed with us all the way through 3 checkpoints, the police escorts were probably changed along the way as when the last police escort waved us ahead, and it wasn't the same vehicle that led us out of the port. We were going fast, it was only an hour and a half and we were less than 50 Kms from Cairo, half an hour at highway speed. Without the police escort, the convoy disintegrated and it was every bus for itself. It was a race, buses passing each other, cutting each other off, three buses were side by side on a two lane highway with a forth one trying to pass on the non-existing shoulder. It appeared that they were all trying to get ahead of each other in a mad race to the finish line: the Cairo Museum. It really doesn't matter as 15 minutes later, we ran straight into traffic and the pace quickly came to a crawl. The bus driver skilfully manoeuvred the bus as if it is a subcompact, weaving in and out of traffic. We are now in city traffic. Vehicles everywhere: 4 cars, sometimes 5, side by side on a 3 lane road, all jockeying for position. The guide said if you can drive in Cairo, you can drive anywhere, and she was right. Many times we thought there would be fender benders but nothing happened. Pedestrian ran across the streets dodging cars like a real life game of Frogger. We also notice the absence of traffic lights. The convoy left Port Said around 7:15 a.m. We should have arrived at the Egyptian Museum by 10:15 a.m. At 10:30 a.m., the museum was not even in sight. Good thing the bus was equipped with an emergency washroom as DW can't hold it any longer. No one on the bus knew it was there (by the back exit, below the seats) as it was well hidden. After DW used it, the line up to use it began to form. The guide said it is for emergency only so please don't use it unless you have to as it will stink up the bus on the way home (and she probably had to clean it). No one was listening or care. The choice is a smelly toilet or wetting yourself and the floor. At 11 a.m., the guide was on the cell phone trying to figure out what's going on. The bus was moving ever so slowly and we were getting nowhere. Finally at 11:30 a.m., 4 hours and 15 minutes later, we arrived, more than an hour behind schedule. We stopped at a back alley across from the museum. We jumped out from the slow moving bus and ran across the street to the line-up to get in. The line-up was to go through the first security check point outside the main gate through the guard house. The line-up was 3 to 4 people wide and almost all the way around the block. We finally got to the guard house. It was set up like an airport security. We had to go through a metal detector and put the bags through the x-ray machine. The problem was that there was only 1 detector and 1 machine. We finally get inside the compound. After the last of our group got in (people were cutting in line, jumping over fences and pushing people away) we go through the second check point which is the gate outside the building collect admission tickets. We have been told not to bring any cameras as it is not allowed in the museum so we left our cameras in the bus. Even if we can sneak the camera in, you can't take pictures with it anyway unless you want to take pictures of the crowds as it was wall to wall people. Once we went through the ticket turnstile, we walked up the main steps and into the building. Here, another line formed and there was another line for a bag check, this time for cameras. By now, it is getting close to 12 noon and we were told that the museum will close in an hour. What!? What do you mean it will close at 1 p.m.? Yes. The museum will indeed close at 1 p.m., only on Wednesday. On any other day, it will close at 7 p.m. So, that why it is so crowded. Everyone in town wants to visit the museum. There were 5 cruise ships in port, some were mega ships, add on other tour groups and you will have 10,000 to 15,000 shoehorned into a small building with no air conditioning. Did I mention that the building was built more than 100 years ago and there is no air conditioning? That explained the bottle of water given to us by the driver when we left the bus. The guide started leading the group through the building and straight to the second floor where the "good stuff" were located. We had to hurry; no time to waste. Sorry, no time for wash room break. Besides, the washrooms were lined up all the way outside the door anyway. We were told the line to use the facilities is about half an hour. The guide kept talking and walking and we followed like sheep. She would have better luck herding cats. We had the head set on which was a good thing. We can't see her but we can hear her so at least we knew where she was heading. Finally caught up to her and we decided not to let her out of our sight. It proved to be difficult. It was wall to wall people. You have to push through. You have to physically push people away from you to get through. The guide was pushing people away from her to get through. If we wanted to follow her, we will have to push too. Those failed to push through were left behind. There was no politeness about all this. You pushed, you moved on. No one got knock down. No one got upset. It's a fact of life here in a crowded city. People were shoulder to shoulder. There was no personal space. We North Americans are so spoiled. The guide was determined to go through her routine. She did. She finished the 2 hour tour in 45 minutes. Those who failed to keep up to her saw nothing. At least they heard about it. Short people saw other people's heads. She said if we stop at every item in the museum for 1 minute, it will take 9 months to see everything. We were given 15 minutes of free time to explore on our own before the museum close. We were to meet back outside of the building by the main fountain and wait for the bus. DW seeks out the "temple of relief", aka the washrooms. The line was still there but thinning. There were signs outside the washrooms in 3 languages that said "no tipping please". The washrooms were staffed by people in uniform. They were handing out sheets of toilet papers at the door and had their hands out. I said "no change" and the man said "I give change". Paid the guy, use the facilities and washed my hands. Walked towards the door and he handed me toilet paper to dry hands. I took the paper, and he asked for money again. I told him no money and walked away. I thought I heard some faint swearing on the background. The toilets were overflowing, dirty and smelly. DW fared a bit better. She told me that a lady in front of her gave the staff a coin and she was directed towards a line to the right. DW gave the staff a dollar and was directed to the left where there was an empty cubicle waiting. DW was in and out at no time. We made our way back outside the fountain. It was still wall to wall people. There was even more people than in Jerusalem. Everyone was trying to leave the museum and go to the next stop. There was no line up to get in now but only half a gate was open to let people out. Groups were formed around their tour guides waiting for the battle to get out of the place. Men were in the front, with their women immediately behind. The weak and the meek were left behind. Groups were pushing through other groups to get out. It was an ugly scene. The guide assembled us by the gate, to the side and in the shade. She battled her way out the gate to look for our bus. She ordered us to stay as a group and inside the gate. Don't come out yet until the bus is in front. Groups pushed past us towards the gate. It was utterly chaos. In all my years of travel, I have never witness anything like this. Not even the Shanghai Expo in China where the crowd were aggressive and pushed through and broke the plated glass doors to get inside the Italian pavilion come close. The bus arrived. Someone yelled "I saw it!" Before the guide could say anything, we charged as a group towards the crowd and through the gate. Damn the traffic and crossed the street, reaching our safe refuge inside the bus. We did a head count. Someone new had joined our group. We nick named him "AK" and he sat at the front of the bus behind the driver by himself. Nobody knew who he was. The outside temperature was 90 degrees. He wore a brown suit with a shirt and tie. Next stop was lunch. We went to the Mena House Oberoi Hotel by the Pyramid. This hotel was originally built as a palace for Napoleons' wife's visit to Cairo. We were told it is the most exclusive hotel in Cairo. The bus went through a guard house controlled and gated entrance. We were dropped off in front and we walked through a metal detector and security guards as we entered the building. They must think we (the cheap tourists) were terrorists. The temple of relief at the hotel was clean, and no lines. There were attendants in uniform. No tip bowls, no hands were out and no requests for money. It was a refreshing change. I gave the man a dollar and he bowed and thanked me. I felt good paying to use the toilet this time instead of disgust. I paid because I wanted to and not because I had to. So far, in three days, we must have spent at least $20 in donations worshiping at the various temples of relief. When you are old, you got to go more often. Giza Pyramids It was a surprise for us to see the Pyramids so close to the city. We could see the Pyramids very close to us from the hotel. Although we took the bus, we could probably walk to the Pyramid. It was that close. When we took pictures of the Pyramids, the city skyline is behind them. The pyramids are now being encroached on both sides by the expanding city. The government had wisely stopped issuing development permits around the Pyramids. Although there were lots of buses and people, because of the open space, it did not feel crowded. The guide had taught us a few short phrases ("no thank you") in Egyptian and warned us about the local merchants. Camel rides are $3. Taking a picture with it is $1. Beware of venders who charge you $1 to get on the camel, and then another $1 before they will let you get off. Don't make eye contacts with the venders. Don't touch anything that you do not intend to buy. Don't let people put things on your head. Don't take free gifts. Don't let them take pictures for you as they will ransom your camera. In another word, totally avoid the vendors or anyone approaches you for anything. AK, the nice fellow in the brown suit who joined us earlier, must be cooking under the hot sun, but he was determined to hang out with us. Before he left the bus, we noticed that he took the safety off the semi-automatic that he was carrying under his jacket. He stayed close but was never intrusive. He even smiled and offered to take pictures for us. He was a very gracious host. The Sphinx is right where we thought it would be except it is a lot smaller than I thought it would be. Blame it on the media and the promotional shots. The sun was over head and it was very hot! The temperature must be well over 90. The trip back to the port was less eventful. Darkness fell quickly and most were asleep, including AK and the guide. Did I mention that they don't like to drive with their head lights on even when it is pitch dark outside? After we went through the toll booth (or was that a check point?), we were pulled over by a half ton with some armed men. Since it was pitch dark, we didn't know if they were policemen or bandits. The bus driver got off and walked towards the darkness. AK, who realised that the bus had stopped, woke up, and decided to investigate. He got off and disappeared in the darkness as well. The guide also woke up by this time and she too left the bus without saying anything. Some passengers were very nervous, what's going on? I joked that it was coffee break. No one was laughing. Shortly after, a bus pulled up and stopped behind us. A few more minutes had passed and a bus sped by us. But soon it signalled and pulled off to the side of the road and stopped a short distance ahead of us. In about 10 minutes, a convoy was formed, everyone was back on the bus and we went on our merry way. We were back at the dock by 7:30 p.m. The ship was supposed to leave at that time. DW and I lost track of time and decided to bargain with the natives over some t-shirts. The vendors offered $4 each, good Egyptian cotton. We picked out 2. The vendors said 2 for $10. I told him his math was wrong. He must have meant 3 for $10. He shoved a bunch of things into a bag and said $20. We said no. He shoved a whole bunch more stuff in and said $30. By now, we have no clue what's in the bag. We moved on. We arrived at the security check point. We heard the ship's fog horn sounded. A Princess employee was at the other end of the hall waving at us. The Egyptian security guards took a casual look at our bags and let us through, without going through the metal detector. We slowly walked towards to the Princess employee. She said "hurry". We ran. The terrorists must be behind us. We ran towards the gangway. She was right behind us and I heard her said "that's the last two" over her radio. We were still on the gangway when I saw the staff unhooking everything, including the safety net below us. What happens if I slip? 5 minutes later, we were safe (but tired) at our cabin. We felt movement and the ship departed. Later on, we found out that a bus was missing on the way back from Cairo. It had followed the wrong convoy and ended up at another dock. To say the least, it has been a most entertaining day. Alexandria Comparing to the ordeal and excitement in Cairo, Alexandria was downright boring. It was hot and humid when we left and it got worse by the hour. We visited the Roman catacombs of Kom El Shugafa, took the 83 spiral steps down 115 feet into the wet burial chambers. Next we stopped at the ruins of Serapis, also known as Pompey's Pillar, or Alexandria's Acropolis. After that, we moved on to the new Alexandria museum. The museum tour was interesting. DW picked this tour. I would have preferred Fort Qait Bey and the Library. Cameras are not allowed into the catacombs and the museum. You have to go through security check points to enter any of the sites. Policemen were sitting behind metal plates with semi-automatic weapons on the ready. We saw them all over the place. As usual, the buses formed a convoy before leaving the dock. It stayed as a convoy for the entire day with police escorts at both ends and a motorcycle cop who raced back and forth. The buses departed as a group from point to point. We also had someone wearing a suit in the sweltering heat stayed with us, sitting alone at the front of the bus, and accompanied us everywhere. He was very serious looking and never cracked a smile. We never got to know him like we did with AK. The port building at Alexandria is absolutely beautiful and cavernous but it was full of totally empty store fronts. There was a row of flea market style stalls just outside the building selling the usual stuff. Obviously, no one is willing to pay the big bucks and move their business inside. Bargaining is part of the process. We paid $1 for a $5 key chain and $6 for a $12 mug. You have to determine what you are willing to pay for the item and be prepared to walk away. DW fell in love with a beautiful Egyptian cotton blouse. She tried on several sizes, style and colors before she decided on one. I had zero bargaining power. At least the vendor took pity and was reasonable with the asking price. I knew I had over paid. In all likelihood, we won't be returning to Egypt on a "normal" cruise. We may consider flying into Aswan for a Nile River cruise through Luxor etc. The existing Cairo Egyptian museum will be converted to an art museum for 2012 and the replacement museum will be located at Giza, very close to the Pyramid. It will be bigger and more modern, and hopefully, air conditioned. With it so close to the Pyramid, I don't know if the congestion would be better. As an aside, we heard that Acropolis in Athens was closed earlier in the week due to riots. It's a good thing that we've been there already. This is truly uncertain times. Sorrento It was a rough ride on the tender towards Sorrento. Some passengers decided to get off the tender and stayed on board instead. We travelled to Pompeii's ruin, which is not too far away. After seeing Delphi, Acropolis, Ephesus, Israel and Egypt, there is no expectation and we were pleasantly surprised. It was large, clean and quite well restored. We could have spent several days there if we wanted to explore the place in detail. This place dated back to 1st century BC and the guide told us that the Forum in Pompeii is better preserved and older than the one in Rome. I guess we will have to find out for ourselves. We were impressed with Apollo's temple, the forum and the central square. I could just imagine what it would have looked like more than 2000 years ago with the multi-story buildings, the tall marbled pillars and statues. The busiest building with a long line-up to go inside to view was the brothel. It was very well preserved and is one of their top attractions inside the Pompeii ruins. I was wondering how they knew that was the brothel. After going inside the building, there is no doubt that they are right. The Karma Sutra type wall paintings were well preserved, quite graphic and it told the story. People of all ages were inside of the building looking at everything, which I find most interesting. I can't help but keep comparing the Pompeii's ruins to Ephesus. The Terrace houses in Ephesus are more impressive and better "restored" but the Pompeii's Forum and the amphitheatre is better preserved. After a quick tour of the ruin, we returned to Sorrento. With our luck, it was Sunday and quite a few shops were closed despite 3 ships in port. We walked around town a bit but didn't find anything interesting. It was nice weather for walking around and the streets were not too crowded. This is a shopping stop if you wanted to buy Cameo. Instead of taking the shuttle bus back to the tender pier, we walked down the stairs and along the winding road. It was an easy walk, took about 5 minutes and is well worth it. I wouldn't walk up those stairs though. The tender ride back to the ship was much nicer as the sea had calmed down. The view from the ship on the shoreline was absolutely gorgeous. A few words about passport: They took our passport when we board the ship in Athens and we were given receipts. We have to claim our passport with the landing cards from Israel immigration/security before going ashore in Israel. We kept our passports with us for the 2 days in Israel. They took the landing cards away when we returned to the ship. We were not told that we have to return our passports to the purser's desk but you have to return them prior to arrival in Egypt. Best time to do it is right after you finish your excursions in Israel. The line-up at the purser's desk is shorter. The Egyptian official will come on board and stamp the passports. You pick up the passport from the ship's staff when you gather for the excursions. When you disembark for shore excursions, the Egyptian official will look for the "stamp" so it will be easier if you keep your passport open to that page. It'll make the process faster. After your Egyptian excursions, you have to return your passport to the purser's desk again and you pick it up the night before disembarking for good. Civitavecchia/Rome There is not much to say except that we had a great time in Rome. There are so much to see and so much to do that we quickly ran out of time. Everything is as everyone had told us. In Rome, anything 400 years old is new. We could spend weeks there. We learned that Michelangelo had a great sense of humor. If you have visited the Vatican museum and the Sistine Chapel, you will understand. We visited a lot of places in a very short time, unfortunately, we didn't stayed too long on some so I guess we will have to get back there again. With a proper tour map, you can do a self-guided tour either by walking, or travel by cab. Cabs were readily available and the cost was reasonable. We did take some guided tour though. You will definitely need one for the Vatican museum and one for the Coliseum and Forum. We were lucky to have found a couple of great tour companies. Dark Rome Tours for the Vatican was one of them. We had the front of the line tickets and we were there at 8 a.m. The private guide was very knowledgeable. She kept us ahead of the general crowd all day, as well as taking us to some areas where the general public won't know about. We were amazed by the amount of modern art in the Vatican museum. The cost however, is quite expensive if you wanted a small group private tour, but I think it's worth it. We stayed at the Hotel Quirinale Rome and what a beautiful hotel it was. It is centrally located and walking distance to a lot of attractions. Trevi fountain was only 5 blocks from the hotel. The Coliseum maybe about 10 blocks, half an hour to 45 minutes' walk. There are plenty of restaurants and shops within a few blocks, plus only a block from the Metro. Spanish steps and all those shops were 2 stops away on the Metro, or about 35 to 45 minutes' walk. The Food and beverage service at the hotel was first class but pricy, and our room, was nicely decorated. We will definitely consider returning to this hotel if we go back to Rome. The Final Words This was our first trip on a small ship. In this beginning, DW and I were worried that there is not enough amenities on board. As it turned out, all the necessities of day to day luxury were there. The spa, the shows, the afternoon tea, the sports activities, the piano bar, there were enough activities to keep us busy on the sea days. With the smaller ship, we can get from point A to point B really quick, DW did not get lost even once. The setting is more intimate. We also noticed the average age of the passengers on this cruise was much older than what we have seen on the other Princess cruises. The service was wonderful. The food was excellent, probably due to the fact that there are less passengers and it is easier to produce quality food. Being on a small ship, we kept running into the same people that we have met on board. It was cozy. It was intimate. We felt a connection to the staff and fellow passengers, more so than the mega ships. I was on a first name basis with the music director. He was assigned as an escort on our Haifa tour and we chatted on the bus. With all that said, we missed some of the things that we enjoyed most on the Princess Mega ships. We knew they were not offered due to space considerations. We really missed any time dining. We missed the international cafe. Our favourite past time on sea day was sitting at the atrium, sipping a coffee and listen to the piano player, trios or quartets throughout the day. We missed the Princess theatre. The shows were there, but the seating in the Cabaret Lounge is just not suitable. We also missed the guest lecturer. Princess has a naturalist on board Alaskan cruise and guest speakers on most of the other cruises we were on, with topics like the Construction of the Canal, pirates of the Caribbean, volcanoes, earth quakes and tsunami. A guest lecturer talking about the culture, mythology and history on ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptians would greatly add to the experience. People cruises mainly for two reasons. Enjoying the itinerary (and ports of call); or the amenities offered by the ship. For those seeking adventures on exotic places, this is a good compromise; with long days ashore, and just enough activities at night and on sea days. For those who seek adventure on board, where they would enjoy the ship more than the destinations, they will be sorely disappointed. Read Less
Sail Date October 2010
We are an English couple in our late 50s. This is our 34th cruise and our 7th on Princess. We booked the cruise for the itinerary and the small ship. The cruise started on Sunday but we flew to Athens on Friday and stayed two days at the ... Read More
We are an English couple in our late 50s. This is our 34th cruise and our 7th on Princess. We booked the cruise for the itinerary and the small ship. The cruise started on Sunday but we flew to Athens on Friday and stayed two days at the Hotel Astor - very central and with great views of the Acropolis from the top floor restaurant used for breakfast. No problems with the Greek industrial action, everyone very friendly, went around on the hop-on hop-off bus and had some great meals in the Plaka. On Sunday afternoon took a taxi to the port and walked straight on at 3pm. There were more Princess staff than cruisers! We had booked a balcony state room on the 7th level which was fine - it had a decent couch and was better than some we have had on larger ships. Our room steward was good, he found us a decent hair drier as the one in the bathroom got very hot and looked set to explode - he did everything that was required. Food - it was fixed seating on this ship, which we have not had for a while, but it was OK as our table companions were very pleasant. Food was good with some effort made by the chef to reflect the countries we were going though/past. Waiters very good though service could sometimes have been quicker. Excellent Maitre D (Carlos) who we saw dealing with some tricky situations - he was unflappable. Entertainment - hmmm! We thought the cruise director and his team were lack lustre and unenthusiastic. We enjoy trivia and quizzes and were disappointed not to have much variety (eg only one name that tune) and the staff members doing them were not very enthusiastic. The sea day programmes were really uninspired. The dancing shows were OK and the smaller theatre a change. The comedian was fair (and we thought funny), he certainly worked at it - but I'm not sure how popular he was, and that was the same for the other acts, an OK singer and a magician - both not our cup of tea. The best entertainment was the music duo in the Pacific lounge, Jumari and Gabrielle who played 60s ands 70s stuff for dancing - unfortunately not many people seemed to venture up there. Our usual cruise complaint is that there is never enough going on between 5:00 and 7:00pm and the Pacific Princess was no different. The Casino was empty most of the time and the shops were poor (we tried to buy alcohol gel/wipes and they did not have any) - I thought art auctions had finally disappeared (they have on some other lines) - and they fill a space that might have been used as a sitting area. There was also a lot of wasted space around the reception area on the fourth level. Tours -they are always expensive but the two we did, the Volos Monasteries and Sevastopol were good value -interesting sites, informative guides, but with quite long bus rides and both included a reasonable lunch. Odessa was very pleasant - we walked up and down the famous steps and over the 'mother-in-law' bridge, and did much the same in Varna and Constantia though the places themselves were not that interesting. Istanbul, as ever was great - we did our own thing on the hop on/hop off bus - and sailing through the Bosphorus in the late afternoon earlier in the cruise was a great bonus. The captain was very personable and you saw him out and about - he also came on the PA to tell us about ships/islands we were passing. There were port lectures but no 'enrichment' programme - this was an itinerary that cried out for in depth talks on the Greek myths and the Crimea - not just basic histories. Overall a good cruise - we really liked the small ship, the staff were very good, but it needs a more proactive entertainment programme. Read Less
Sail Date September 2010
This was our fourth cruise, though the first aboard a smaller ship (680 ish passengers vs 2,500+ on the first 3 cruises with Costa and Celebrity). We are a family of 3, parents in the mid-40s with a six year old daughter. We embarked out ... Read More
This was our fourth cruise, though the first aboard a smaller ship (680 ish passengers vs 2,500+ on the first 3 cruises with Costa and Celebrity). We are a family of 3, parents in the mid-40s with a six year old daughter. We embarked out of Athens (Piraeus) flying in the night before. Having been to Athens previously, that removed the need to visit Athens prior to embarking. This enabled us to enjoy a nice dinner with a friend on Friday night and the hotel services (with a rooftop view of the Acropolis) as well (Athens Imperial - Eur 99 for a triple which we thought was a good deal. Embarking - We had heard that the embarkation process on a smaller ship would be quite easy. We even arrived during the recommended time (after 2pm). However, the "check-in" and security lines were longer than expected and we did not receive the expedited service treatment we received from other lines for having a younger child. Then the power shorted out while in line to board the ship resulting in an additional wait while that was sorted out. Other than that.... Passengers - Being a longer cruise (12 nights) visiting a non-standard area (Black Sea), the passenger make up was a bit more mature than we were used to (as the comedian joked, it gave 70s night at the lounge a whole new meaning). Median age was probably 65 or so, reduced by a large contingent from the Dominican Republic. Crew - Overall very friendly. Helped by the small size of the ship plus what I assume is Princess's policy of allowing the crew to mingle with passengers, we got to know a few of them pretty well. Our waitstaff was quite attentive making our daughter feel like the center of attention (thanks Ronald and Jeffrey). Our cabin steward (Nat) was also quite helpful keeping track of our varied schedules. Food - Overall, we were somewhat disappointed as the food quality was mixed. Sometimes quite good, other times quite bland. While not a huge pepper fan, I would ask for a lot to be sprinkled on to add some flavor to certain dishes. Would have liked to see more themed meals tied to our port as well, though the Mexican themed lunch was quite good. Kids Club - As a word of warning, this ship (as well as probably other smaller ships at least in the Princess line) only has Kids Club when there are more than 20 kids on board. A number that was not reached until about our month prior to sailing (adding a bit of stress). The Kids Club also did not operate while we were in port. So she was disappointed to learn that she needed to accompany us for all port excursions definitely impacted the tours we signed up for to keep flexibility). Otherwise, our daughter loved it and cried when we left the ship because she was going to miss it so much. Entertainment - One positive about a small ship is that the shows are a lot more intimate for the audience, a definite plus. However, we also noticed that the quality of the shows themselves were definitely mixed. The comedian and magician were pretty good, but we found ourselves leaving a couple of the other shows early. Also, alternative entertainment besides Sammy, the piano player, was either non-existent or non-attended (bearing in mind the mature nature of the passengers). Besides at times the slot machines, the casino was a very sparsely utilized area. Activities - We were impressed with the number of activities on "At Sea" days as there always seemed like there was something to do, should one choose to do so (from bingo, port lectures, pool volleyball, dance lessons, etc.) Other Items - Kudos to Peter the Port/Excursion guide. Very helpful, though his desk hours should be expanded. However, this was more than offset by his volunteering to stay later and did not seem to mind our interrupting multiple meals and one workout of his. He was a wealth of information, willing even to follow up for us and call our stateroom when he found out the answer to a question. One annoyance was the Captain's announcements. On our first At Sea day (while we were planning to sleep in) he provided at least a 20 minute dissertation on the Dardanelles crossing. While I would imagine some folks who were up quite early appreciated it, this information at 8am was not welcome in our cabin. At least on other days, the announcements did not start until after 9am. Was also somewhat disappointed by the Princess Patter. In some cases, the information was quite dated (FX rates, for example). Quality control, in terms of spell check, was also a bit lacking. On other cruises, we have been accustomed to receive daily news updates. While I realize the Pacific Princess is a smaller ship, would think that a standard news page could be generated across the fleet for distribution to passengers. Ports - As these are not listed in the toggle boxes below.... Constanta - One of the reasons we selected this cruise was the opportunity to visit many new countries, including Romania. That said, this has to be the least interesting port of any we have been to. Not tourist friendly. Not much of anything to see in town and was dangerous to get around due to the lack of sidewalks, windy streets and somewhat maniacal drivers. The beach was okay (actually water was nice, but beach itself was hard, wet sand and pretty dirty). "Splurge" for the rickety beach chairs so you do not have to sit directly on it. While we were definitely charged tourist prices, 3 chairs and 2 umbrellas were still only 10 Eur or so. Mamaia (sp?) is supposed to be a much nicer resort beach, but requires a taxi and was wall to wall people (we were told). As for the ship excursions, we did not hear that we missed much. Odessa - Very pretty town. Again, we did this on our own. Very walkable as long as in reasonable shape. Long,tree-lined boulevards, nice architecture and parks. Again, with our 6 year old, went to the "beach" in town (go to Arcadia, not the local beach as nothing to speak of). Otherwise, a very enjoyable day. Yalta - Did Livadia and Alupka palaces on a ship excursion. Livadia is very worthwhile if you are interested in history. As I am, I enjoyed it. My wife, less so and our daughter, not at all. Alupka on the other hand was very worthwhile, with absolutely stunning views (could have spent the whole day here as there is a big park, with walking trails, shopping, and the requisite beach). As this was only a half day tour, I was able to spend a few hours wandering around Yalta, a very enjoyable town with a nice cathedral, lot of shopping and long promenade by the sea with all sorts of vendors, games, food, etc. Disembarkation - Was a breeze. We showed up about 4 minutes late, were informed our group had already left, so were free to go. Walked right off the ship, immediately found our luggage and were on our way. Overall, we enjoyed the cruise. However, we did notice the 1/2 star (vs Costa Concordia/Magica) and 1 star difference (vs Celebrity Equinox) Read Less
Sail Date August 2010
Pacific Princess Performs We have just returned from a 12-day cruise on Pacific Princess, sailing from Athens to Venice, with calls at Volos, Varna, Constanta, Odessa, Yalta and Istanbul, ending in Venice and including 4 sea days. We had ... Read More
Pacific Princess Performs We have just returned from a 12-day cruise on Pacific Princess, sailing from Athens to Venice, with calls at Volos, Varna, Constanta, Odessa, Yalta and Istanbul, ending in Venice and including 4 sea days. We had not sailed with Princess Cruises since February 2008, opting instead for Silversea and Oceania, mainly because we have been fortunate to have sailed pretty much all the itineraries offered by Princess that are of interest. Our last 2 Princess cruises were on large ships and we have decided that these are not for us. This imposes a further restriction on choice when it comes to selecting a cruise, as there are (currently) just 3 'small' ships in the fleet, reducing to 2 next year when Royal Princess follows her former namesake to P&O in the UK. As is our custom, we had stayed for 2 days pre-cruise in our port of embarkation, just in case our luggage had failed to keep up with us, which has happened on 3 occasions, either outbound or on our return. Our choice of hotel was the Holiday Inn Attica Avenue, only around eight miles from the airport, for a couple of reasons. First, many of the Athens hotels are in the Omonia Square district, which research had warned is no longer a good area, a point confirmed by our taxi driver. Secondly, the hotel has a half-hourly interval free airport shuttle. The downside is that there are no restaurants close by, although a suburban railway station is a short walk away, which links into the city centre. The hotel is quite modern and very presentable. Our room had all the standard amenities of a European hotel of this category and was comfortable and quiet. It appears to be primarily a short-stay place for people flying into/out of Athens, who are staying a night or two before onward travel. Breakfast offered a reasonable selection in typical Continental style, whilst the dinner menu was adequate for the occasion, not particularly cheap but the Greek salads were good at the end of a hot day, if not constituting a hearty meal. Meal service was generally not with a smile. We partook of the good-sized swimming pool and sauna in the basement. We would stay here again. Reliant on postings on Cruise Critics, we booked George Kokkotos, originally a New Yorker who returned to Greece after 25 years, to provide "the best taxi service in Athens" for a day trip to Corinth and then a transfer from hotel to pier the following day. Despite efforts personally by George and us, we failed to book in advance a Corinth Canal cruise; the cruise company didn't seem interested in our business. After a drive of about 80 minutes, we arrived at the canal, which provides a maritime connection between the Aegean and Ionian Seas. Its construction involved a deep cut through the landscape and the sheer walls and narrow width make for an unusual sight. Time was then spent wandering through the remains of Ancient Corinth before a tour in our car, driven by Jimmy (whose English was excellent), round modern Corinth. After crossing the canal at the locks at the entrance to the Ionian Sea, Jimmy recommended a restaurant overlooking the sea, which was popular with locals. After walking round the ruins of Ancient Corinth, the iced water was most welcome! On the 7th, Jimmy collected us for the 20 minute run to Piraeus where we boarded Pacific Princess at noon. As usual, the 'preferred guests' line was longer than for first-timers and we were one of the first on board. We had already made 6 trips on one or other of the 8 former Renaissance R Class ships, including Pacific Princess herself in 2006, so it was familiar territory to walk aboard on Deck 4 in Athens. By virtue of travelling with friends, we opted for a Deck 8 mini-suite in order to offer more space for entertaining; previously, we have had standard balcony cabins on these R Class ships. The mini-suite is quite spacious, has plenty of wardrobe and drawer space and a bath/shower. The settee is bigger than in a balcony cabin, 3 chairs that could be used when dining en-suite and four balcony chairs (2 recline a little), together with balcony table and occasional table in the cabin. Overall, we were impressed with our accommodation, though there should be a hair dryer in the room, not just the wall-mounted one in the bathroom, as has been provided by Oceania on its ships. There were no obvious changes to the ship since our last cruise on her in 2006 and the general condition was very high. Having sailed on the equivalent R Class ships now run by Oceania Cruises, the substitution by Princess Cruises of the original teak furniture for meals outside the Panorama buffet, devalues the ambiance. There are also the typical Princess sun loungers (Oceania provides teak loungers with cushion pads, which have white covers that are changed daily, and white towels in-situ). Both these features cheapen the product. The swimming pool is filled with sea water, which is replaced almost daily, much better than fresh water pools that end up full of the sweat and sun cream of inconsiderate passengers who don't bother to shower before entering the water. Service by the crew was as good as we have had on a Princess cruise for a long time. This was especially so in the Panorama buffet, where the "you'll have to go to the dining room for that" was replaced by "I'll go down to the dining room galley and bring it up for you; - shades of Silversea. The ship's executive chef was highly visible during breakfast and lunch here, something we had not seen previously. Dinner was taken in the main dining room. We were told there was a 100-long wait list for second seating, a disadvantage if one takes a late availability deal. We had booked a year ago, so had no problem. We do not as a general rule like fixed seating dining of which you have no option on Princess's three smallest ships, however if you have a "good table" it is a bonus and we were very fortunate to strike lucky and our table companions were delightful and the table gelled in a few days. Waiter service was excellent, though the one morning we took open-seating breakfast here, the service was indifferent, and very slow. With one exception, the food was also approaching the standards of Princess of decades past; it was served hot and even fish dishes were not overcooked. Gone are the threadbare themed menus - French, Italian, International and the two gala dinners - where we could recite the items without reading the menu. Desserts especially have become more appealing, though our waiter made no attempt to serve soufflEs out of the china bowl. The one black mark concerns the cheese course at dinner because the cheese comes straight from the fridge and is consequently far too cold to be enjoyable. Other cruise lines manage to serve cheese at room temperature, so why not Princess? We had to suffer the princess tradition of the Baked Alaska parade. Isn't it time this farrago was dropped, not least because I didn't see our waiter serve any of it to any of his tables. We did not try any of the 3 dining options where a cover charge applies. An innovation to us, however, was the use of the Steak House restaurant on most nights as a cocktail bar for Elite, Suite and Platinum passengers. On days when the facility is offered, there is a cocktail of the day at a reduced price and an appetiser. We only availed ourselves of the facility once, when Sandemans 20-year tawny port was offered for $2.99 (plus 15%), with, appropriately, Stilton cheese as the appetiser. We later saw the port on a dining room menu for $7.25 a glass. Entertainment was the usual mixed bag in terms of both variety and quality. Ironically, one of the best appreciated was provided by J J King, the cruise director, on the last night, when he sang and performed an Elvis impersonation as part of a 30-minute set. This was followed by the cruise staff performing "If I was not upon the sea", a cruise ship classic, sadly rarely seen these days. Regrettably, there were only about 20 in the audience, the lure of an evening in Venice or the imperative of packing being counter-draws. We were surprised to find a much lower percentage of Americans on board than we are used to, though on a Silversea voyage in April round Arabia, there were only 10 USA citizens travelling! In round numbers, of the 681 on Pacific Princess, 360 were American, 160 British, 100 from Dominican Republic (DR), 25 from Spain, 10 Australians and a total of 38 declared nationalities. Those from the DR were not travelling as one party but, when combined with passengers from Mexico and elsewhere, Spanish was to be heard frequently, though this league of nations rubbed along well. The DR contingent seemed to bond as a group and kept the nightclub alive well into the small hours. Otherwise the ship was pretty well dead after the post-dinner show had finished. Low onboard spend per capita on the 3 small ships in the fleet is rumoured to be behind the impending transfer of Royal Princess to P&O and one wonders for how much longer Princess will keep the other two. There was a roughly equal divide amongst the passengers between those who prefer the large modern 'resort at sea' ships and those who prefer a traditional cruise ship environment on a smaller ship that does not entail a half-mile walk to get anywhere. As might be expected, the Captain's Circle lunch, held in Sabatinis, for the top 40 most travelled passengers, was almost exclusively a US/UK affair, with the top three cruisers being from the UK, USA and UK respectively. This lunch is a nice touch, with each table being hosted by an officer (like old times!), with top-notch food and the presentation of the head chef and his galley team. We are very satisfied with the Princess loyalty scheme for past passengers, the free laundry being especially welcomed by my wife! Turning briefly to the ports of call, in Volos we hired a cab for 50 Euros for a round trip to Makrinitsa 17 kms away (half an hour each way), a delightful hillside village, with views of the bay and our ship, though now something of a tourist mecca, especially on a Sunday. Our cab was able to drive to the village, whilst the ship's tour buses had to park some way off because of access issues. The cab waited for our return. We sailed through the Bosphorus in the early evening, with the plethora of ferries taking workers from the European side of Istanbul to suburbs on the eastern side in Asia. A commentary from the port talk lecturer accompanied the transit. Varna (Bulgaria) was a pleasant surprise. We negotiated a 10 Euros taxi ride to the cathedral at the topside of the town, mingling here with some of the ship's tours, who were told they couldn't go inside for no obvious reason. After time spent in the cathedral, we crossed over the pedestrianised area that led eventually along the main shopping street, very wide and with a Parisian feel. After about a mile from the cathedral, we reached McDonalds, always handy for a complimentary 'rest room'. Then it was a right turn and a continuing downhill stroll through the Sea Gardens and back to the ship. We enjoyed this short taste of a Bulgarian city. Constanta (Romania) provided an interesting contrast to Varna; both in two former Communist countries but subtly different. Whereas Varna's shopping area at least had the air and feel of a degree of affluence, neither the size nor architecture of Constanta could rival its Black Sea neighbour. The main street was unprepossessing and the solitary modern shopping mall had at least 25% of its outlets vacant and the remainder offering large discounts. A free ship-to-shore shuttle bus was provided and we caught it part-way back to the ship to the city museum, housed in a lovely, but crumbling building. Continuing downhill in the unbroken searing heat, which lasted throughout this cruise, we visited the St Peter & Paul Cathedral before reaching the waterfront, with a derelict, 1920s-built casino, a reminder of more prosperous times. Whereas Varna had a commercialised beachfront, Constanta did not, but it was good to stroll along the promenade to a modest lighthouse, donated by the Genoese (Italy) in the 19th Century to mark the links between the two places over past centuries. The lighthouse has been moved in recent times and is adjacent to some municipal buildings. Whilst Constanta was far from the most interesting place we have ever visited, it was certainly worth seeing because of the insight it offered on past and current life in Romania, which is why we travel. Of all the four Black Sea ports visited, Odessa was definitely the grandest and retained an air of affluence and grandeur. Ascending the Potemkin Steps (reached via an elevated roadway across the dock rail system and maybe 200 yards from the ship) by the free funicular (unventilated and pungent with less hygienic locals) we walked a block into town to a main thoroughfare, turned left and (with some local direction) left again to reach the Opera House. This, like so many of Odessa's buildings is very attractive. Strolling through gardens parallel to the sea and the boulevard we had first walked along, brought us back to the Potemkin Steps. We had arranged a private tour in Yalta with Sergey Sorokin an ex history professor at Kiev University. None of the ship's tours offered both Sevastopol and the Livadiya Palace in Yalta but we fitted both into a packed day, which also included the battlefield at Balaclava, scene of the charge of the Light Brigade. Sevastopol's Panorama Museum, depicting the Crimean War battlefield in 1853 ranks as one of the best we have seen anywhere. The scene is illustrated in a 360-degree painting, where the aspect is from an elevated position above the town and surrounding hills and sea. Sergey fitted in everything we wanted and was highly informative. Having visited Istanbul previously, we opted first to take a local ferry to the Asian side and saw Hydrapasa railway station, gateway to the east in the last century and Kadiköy. To get to the Karaköy ferry terminal, in the shadow of the Galata Bridge, was about a 15 minutes stroll from the cruise terminal. We returned to the Eminönu ferry terminal on the opposite side of the Golden Horn, being closer to our visit to the subterranean Cistern, reached by a 5 Euro taxi ride from the ferry. The Cistern was built as a reservoir to keep Istanbul supplied with water during a time of siege. From here, the taxis wanted 20 Euros to return us to the ship, so we opted to follow the tram line back towards Eminönu until we reach the first tram stop, from where we caught the tram to right outside the cruise terminal at a fraction of the cost of a taxi. In the port notes provided on board Princess recommend 15-20% tip in each port for good service. This is ludicrous. In the areas visited, 5-10% is the norm for good service and the Princess figure is purely what would be expected in an American port. We have previously visited countries where any tip is regarded as an insult, so Princess needs to be more sensitive to local circumstances before recommending such a high blanket figure everywhere. We sailed into Venice, with superb views of the city, arriving in the cruise terminal at noon on the 18th. A water taxi service runs from here to St Marks Square, with a day ticket costing $15, which Princess Cruises provided. As we opted to stay on the ship, we were credited with the cost of this ticket. Next morning's disembarkation went reasonably smoothly, the only hiccup concerning our pre-booked airport taxi through Limousine Venice. We presented ourselves at the appointed spot outside the cruise terminal at 08.40 for our 08.45 collection. After 5 minutes, we located a guy from the company, who gave us a piece of paper with our name on it and he rang for a vehicle. This finally arrived at 09.05 and the trip to the airport took 20 minutes. With the HAL Nieuw Amsterdam also disembarking at the same location, one can appreciate demand for cabs was high at this peak time. Fortunately, we had built a contingency allowance into our schedule to reach the airport so there was no problem. By virtue of Venice being a popular turn-round port for many cruise companies this year, a contingency of 30 minutes is certainly advisable for private airport transfers. Limousine Venice charged 60 Euros for 4 people, whereas Princess Cruises wanted $54 (say 50 Euros) Per Person for a transfer. Passengers for our flight, who booked a ship's transfer, had to disembark an hour earlier than we did. In summary, this cruise has reinvigorated our flagging loyalty to Princess Cruises. The brand has edged upscale and the standard of service across all departments and dining room food (in particular) was as high as on more luxurious lines. The only issue for us is that Princess is currently far more restrictive in the ports of call when compared to other lines. Read Less
Sail Date August 2010
Being our first cruise on a small ship we weren't sure what to expect. Although it was a smaller ship at times it felt no smaller than the larger ships, apart from the fact that we had less stairs to climb up to the pool deck. With ... Read More
Being our first cruise on a small ship we weren't sure what to expect. Although it was a smaller ship at times it felt no smaller than the larger ships, apart from the fact that we had less stairs to climb up to the pool deck. With only one pool we did find it was overcrowded on sea days, especially with the large amount of children on board. We also had traditional dining, whereas we would usually opt for anytime dining. The dining staff were brilliant we got to know them all from the maitre'd and head waiter down to the drinks waiters. This was definitely an advantage as they got used to what we liked to eat and drink. My dd did miss the icecream parlour, although icecream was served in the buffet at 3pm in the afternoon. We were happy to see that the barbecue advertised was equivalent to the grill on the larger ships. Entertainment was disappointing, whether this was because we were on the Holy Land cruise and 1/3 of passengers were off the ship for 2 nights of the cruise we had 3 entertainers in the cabaret lounge, for the entire voyage. Kaitlyn Carr a Scottish singer & Ricky Jay comedian were brilliant. The rest of the time the Princess dancers and singers were the evening entertainment. Unfortunately, the choreography of the production shows wasn't very good and the content of the shows were disappointing. There was Sammy Goldstein in the casino lounge, pianist & singer who my dd thoroughly enjoyed and a duo also performed here. There was a group in the Pacific lounge. Unfortunately, due to the love of strobe lighting in the Pacific lounge by the staff we were unable to spend much time here. There was a large library with all types of books, puzzles & games for use. You could also swap your paperback books here as well. my other dd missed MUTS which would have been welcomed with the lack of alternative entertainment Due to the lack of childrens facilities I was surprised how many children were on board, some of which unfortunately were unruly. The cabins were decently sized we particularly liked the sofa in the room. Prefer the walk in wardrobes on the larger ships as when the door to the wardrobe was open you couldn't come in the main cabin door or in/out the bathroom. The shower curtain was a pain prefer the door on the larger ships. This ship overall was in good condition with lovely decor. Unfortunately my dd accidentally fell and fractured her wrist in Kusadesi she was taken to hospital for an operation and was unable to finish the cruise. Luckily this was on the last day. Princess aftercare was fantastic and they kept in constant contact with her during her stay in Turkey. The ship medical staff were brilliant keeping us informed of the situation, after making arrangements for her to be taken to the hospital and arranging aid assistance. Princess did a brilliant job. Read Less
Sail Date July 2010
My husband and I are experienced cruisers with 20 plus cruises each. We are Elite on Princess and truly enjoy the perks that go along with being Elite; Internet package and free laundry service particularly. Although this was our 16th ... Read More
My husband and I are experienced cruisers with 20 plus cruises each. We are Elite on Princess and truly enjoy the perks that go along with being Elite; Internet package and free laundry service particularly. Although this was our 16th cruise with Princess it was our first time on this class of ship. It was definitely a different experience. We flew into Rome one day early after what we knew would be a hectic weekend visiting family in Atlanta. We didn't plan to sightsee in Rome this time so we chose the least expensive hotel option for us which was the Marriott Roma Park Hotel. The hotel is really a convention hotel in the "middle of nowhere". There is a hotel shuttle to Rome that is 6 Euros each way and unless you take a cab in and out of the city the shuttle is your only other option as the hotel is not near any train station. As I said we hadn't any intention, this trip, to go into Rome so for us it was a satisfactory option. The hotel has a great pool; rooms were well appointed; but again there are no other restaurant options or even a store to buy provisions or a coffee pot in the room. We had arranged ahead of time to be picked up at the airport by Domenico (Roma Taxi) who was waiting for us upon arrival. Domenico was also going to pick us up on the 25th to take us to Civitavecchia. All of our arrangements worked out great. My first task once onboard the ship was to have our dining switched from main to late seating. We are big fans of anytime dining but if we have to choose set time it would be late seating. I had good luck in that while I was waiting to see the Maitre D, I happened to be seated next to someone who was given late dining; when we had the chance we went to see the Maitre D together and he switched us. I think the whole process would have gone faster had they announced (while many people were waiting), to find someone to switch with. It was amazing to see that there was a seat map of the dining room with cabin #s penciled in next to names. Frankly, there are two changes I would make to the "experience" on this size ship. One would be to have "anytime" or open seating at dinner and not just breakfast and lunch. The other would be to not have "formal" nights. While there were very few tuxedos and dinner jackets on formal nights people seemed to dress for dinner each night. On port intensive itineraries and luggage restrictions these days it seems that "formal" night gala dress is unnecessary. Also, formal dress was not enforced so you saw a little bit of everything! I think this is one of the differences between Princess and other lines like Oceana and Azamara. The other is price point where Princess has the edge. The food seemed to improve as the cruise continued. We do not eat in the buffet but did try the grill on the pool deck one day for lunch and it was excellent. One very pleasant surprise on this voyage was to have a port lecturer that gave excellent information on the ports both for those taking shore excursions as well as independent travelers. Hutch was always at the gangway when we entered ports to help with directions and answer questions. It was refreshing to have him as opposed to the "stop and shop" variety of port lecturers. We arranged for independent shore excursions with other Cruise Critic members from our roll call and everything worked out great. We used Nile Blue Tours in Egypt for an overnight; Avitours in Israel for two separate days of touring; Ekol Tours in Kusadasi and Paul's Taxi in Athens for a trip to Cape Sounion and our airport transfer. All other ports we did on our own. While our service on board was attentive it was not nearly as outstanding as it was on our Star Princess Round the Horn cruise in January. Whether it was because this cruise seemed to be the "end of the contract" period for many or just the nature of their personalities. Our cabin steward needed to be reminded of basic requests several times and the waiter for our table left a great deal to be desired; he really seemed like it was a chore to wait on our table of six. The attempts at production shows were also not up to prior Princess experiences. Perhaps something fresh needs to be designed for the smaller ships. Lounge music was fine and pleasant. Sabatini's was not up to par on this cruise; Sterling Steakhouse was. Having been to the "most traveled passenger" lunch I know that the food can be excellent; it was a wonderful lunch. We had a balcony cabin on deck 7. The balcony was adequate for two but you really could not have guests. We are used to balcony cabins on Caribe deck on the larger ships which are very spacious. On this ship unless you are in a mini-suite, or full suite I think all balconies are the same size. On sea days the pool deck was always crowded; there were many families on the ship so our balcony provided a pleasant retreat. We choose a cruise by the itinerary. As I said earlier this was our very first cruise on this size ship but we have also been on several Windstar cruises which are smaller as well as Celebity's Expedition. I think I would like this size ship experience better if formal nights and set dinner seating were both eliminated. Disembarkation went smoothly; sort of. You could not hear the announcements except in the two designated lounges. If the announcements were broadcast though out the ship it would have been less confusing. Would we sail on this size ship again? Already booked on the Royal June 1,2009; again itinerary made the decision. Read Less
Sail Date June 2008
Pacific Princess Ratings
Category Editor Member
Rates 4.0 4.0

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