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Archive for the ‘Shore Excursions’


Day 5 – Grand Cayman 0

Posted on March 10, 2013 by TJ

Our best–and worst–port.

I have 66 pictures for this one but won’t flood this board with all of them.

We woke at 6 and opened the window to another beautiful morning as we tendered into Grand Cayman. We had a leisurely room service breakfast and then made our way to the tenders. We’re not sure why, but the front elevators to the 0 floor were disabled and the stairway was blocked. We were about to make our way to the aft gangway when a crewmember said “shhh” and let us downstairs. We must have totally missed the daily announcement while eating breakfast, so I’m not sure if the front deck was supposed to be shore excursions only or something.

The tender ride was uneventful. I got some good looks at the Conquest, Magic and Liberty although I wasn’t able to get all 3 in one shot.

We hadn’t booked an excursion with the ship, so I started looking for a tour operator for Stingray City. One inside the terminal area was asking for $40pp so we kept moving on. Once outside we found one offering the same tour for $40pp and “the baby” for free. That was great because Jack doesn’t swim and doesn’t particularly like being in deep water, even wearing the vest you see in the Montego Bay post above. We waited about 15 minutes while the guide tried to sell other tours before she gave up and just called the driver. A taxi picked us up near the terminal and stopped at a hotel before continuing to the dock. The place seemed almost residential, but I saw vans for other popular tour companies and wasn’t worried. The taxi driver passed us off to the real tour guide. We wound up with Carib Select Watersports (carib select dot com with no spaces). There were a total of 19 people on the boat including the captain, our guide and another American expat who was apparently learning the trade.

I won’t spend a ton of time on the ship vs 3rd party tour, but I will say this: every tour operator goes to the exact same sandbar for their Stingray City tours, and that’s ok. This picture should give you an idea of what the crowds and gorgeous water looked like:

Keep in mind some of the tours had people packed in like the tenders. In fact they looked like tenders. We had 16 or so guests on a decent-sized boat where we never felt cramped.

The SC tour is pretty standard among the companies: you get in and stand on the sandbar while stingrays swim all over and everyone tries not to act scared. The tour operator holds a stingray and each family takes turns holding and kissing it while another tour person takes pictures. Then you take another picture with the stingray “massaging” your back.

They also provided us with squid that I’m told the stingrays would suck right out of your hand. Mine never made it that far because a large, aggressive fish snatched my squid before a stingray could come along. The birds were pretty aggressive too:

After 20-30 minutes at the sandbar, the captain was supposed to take us to one of two snorkeling spots–his choice. Instead we did two. The snorkeling was great at both, but the second had a larger number of fish right near the boat. I took lots of pictures and videos with my new Canon Powershot D20 underwater camera. Here are a few examples:

At the first snorkeling stop, we tried to do it with Jack which turned out to be a bad idea. He was trying to hold on hard enough to penetrate flesh, which made it difficult to move around with him. The water was deep enough that I needed to tread water. It was easier with the fins but still work. Eventually I got him comfortable enough that I could hold him on one arm while I snorkled and took pictures with the other. At one point I was watching an eel under the coral, when it decided to come look at me. I wasn’t in a position to wait and see his intentions, so I took off while keeping Jack above water. It’s kind of amusing so I’ve linked a youtube video here: http://youtu.be/T-n1GRh8G_0

Overall we had a great day. The boat provided cold water and juice and was comfortable enough. We decided to buy the guide’s $60 CD with 17 pictures of us. The phone and email are on the envelope so that you can get a replacement if the disc breaks or doesn’t work when you get home.

After we got back to the terminal, the fun began. For some reason the Conquest’s line snaked all through the terminal while Magic guests were walking right on. We waited in line for about 45 minutes, occasionally sending one parent (ok, always Elle) to buy some snacks and cold drinks. The people around us were friendly and chatted with us from time to time. Every once in a while someone would try to enter the line in the middle, but they usually went to the back when we pointed out we weren’t the end of the line.

As we approached the gate, more and more people tried to cut the line. Several people were quite put out that the line applied to them. I don’t know if Carnival is supposed to offer platinum guests priority boarding, but they weren’t. A few crewmembers approached and asked if they could cut so that they could make their shift on the ship. The people in front of us let them go, and I was ok with that. Also a port security officer escorted a family with a young baby right in front of us. Again, no big deal here.

Then, just as the guard was about to allow our group to walk to the next tender, a large group of mostly employees rushed the gate. I saw Ram the magician among others. There were also regular passengers who decided to take advantage of the confusion and rush the line as well. I know they were regular pax because one group of these bags of d–I mean wonderful humans–wound up right in front of me. I saw their blue S&S cards same as mine. What made it more annoying to me was the way they kept loudly justifying it to themselves and all who could hear. They didn’t feel the least bit bad about cutting us off after our long wait in line. They kept looking back for their friends who were stopped to see if they managed to cut as well. They were also able to cut before we made it to the tender.

I don’t remember this being as much of an issue on other cruises, but we saw a fair amount of rudeness on this trip. We had people walk up when we were clearly waiting for an elevator and step between us and the door as soon as it opened, often not allowing those inside to leave. The next morning in Cozumel an old man cut in front of Elle when we were about 30 people back from the gangplank because she paused 10 seconds to get out her S&S card. We even had an older gentleman far in front of his family step right between Max and Elle as we were boarding the elevator in the parking garage on the way out. Elle said, “are you really going to jump in and break up my family?” The guy had no response.

With the day in the sun and water, the long wait and watching Jersey Shore board the tender, we weren’t in the best of moods when we got back to the ship. We took the elevator up to 9 and passed through the pool area on the way to our room. Elle and Max stopped to talk and I stepped to the side–outside of traffic I thought–and nearly smacked a lady with my backpack. Elle said loudly enough for her to hear “Ted, watch out, you almost ran into that lady.” As I was saying oops or something equally stupid, she felt the need to get in my face and say “You almost hit me with your backpack!” My witty reply was, “maybe you shouldn’t walk behind me then!” I sure showed her!!!

The thing is, I’m a pretty decent guy, and I try to be cognizant of my surroundings so I don’t do what I just did. But everyone was hot and sunburned and tired of the tender experience, so we let our tempers go. I am sorry I almost hit her, but ma’am, if you’re here, please realize I don’t have eyes back there and can’t help it if you walk so close a normal turn on my part almost hits you.

That just about finished me for the day, happy thought gone. I sulked for a bit and decided a Guy’s burger might cheer me up. It was pretty good, but I still didn’t feel like playing nice. As I came out of the restroom next to Guy’s, another man pushed past me through the door instead of waiting 1 second for me to get out. I snapped “don’t let me get in your way” and almost started my second fight of the afternoon. I was so tired and mad that my great day in Grand Cayman was now this, but I didn’t want to go to sleep at 4pm because I’m a big boy and don’t need a nap.

In the end I wound up staying in the pool area while Max went down the waterslide over and over. I got a couple of DotDs to relax a bit, but I was really too tired and cranky for that to work well. I brought my second drink in the hot tub right below the slide, and it was HOT! We own a hot tub at home, so I’m familiar with the US-mandated 104 degrees F tub. This was much hotter than that. As I sat down I could tell with great detail exactly where the sun had eaten through the sunblock.

I was there a few minutes before Elle came to get me. Camp Carnival had closed early before dinner because no kids were there, so she still had Jack with her. We went back to the room to shower and get ready for dinner. I was so whipped I couldn’t stomach the idea of putting on my suit again for elegant night #2. We also made the boys skip Camp Carnival that night. We decided on pizza and root beer floats (root beer from the bar, ice cream from Swirls). That was a nice, relaxing dinner, and Jack was sound asleep in the cabin by 8:15, with Max soon after. In closing, here are some more from gorgeous Grand Cayman.

Day 4 – Montego Bay 0

Posted on March 10, 2013 by TJ

Wherein we act like rookie tourists.

As was our tradition by now, we had room service breakfast on the deck. We kept messing with the arrival time to make sure it got there after everyone woke up but before we were starving. 6-7 usually worked, but the longer we cruised, the later Max stayed up and the later he wanted to sleep. The front blinds are required to be closed from sunset to sunrise to avoid glare on the bridge below. I usually opened them when we were ready to wake up, and that helped Max to stir.

After breakfast, we proceeded to our second tradition, second breakfast. The room service breakfast was pretty good and offered the opportunity to fill up, but it doesn’t have hot food. We usually had croissants with cream cheese and jelly, coffee and hot chocolate, chocolate milk for the boys. Then we’d put on clothes and walk over to the buffet to pick up some bacon and eggs to finish off the meal.

Today I spent a while on the deck watching us follow the Magic into port. After the Magic docked, we turned to park perpendicular to her. This is one of the shots I captured from the deck showing what a gorgeous day we had:

I took a few shots of the Magic as well as we docked.

The weather in Montego Bay was gorgeous as you can see from the pictures. We made our way off the ship and discovered we needed to shuttle over to the main terminal next to the Magic. There were two options right off the Conquest: the “free” shuttle and the purchase for the hop-on, hop-off bus. The HOHO allowed use of the sign and sail card but didn’t have a price displayed. We heard some others saying it was $19 per person, but I never got the price directly so YMMV.

We elected to use the “free” shuttle. I keep putting it in quotes because the driver spent the whole time reminding people to “take care of your drivers.” Like many, I’m tired of the tendency to turn any job into a tipping job. When my tips help cover the salary, such as the cabin steward or a waiter, it’s a lot more palatable. When someone is fully compensated for serving ice cream or driving a bus or whatever, I don’t see why they should put out a tip jar or practically demand a tip, but that’s a discussion for a different day.

We made it to the terminal and joined the crowds from the Magic making their way out. We intended to take a taxi to Doctor’s Cave Beach, spend a few hours, then taxi back for lunch and naps.

As we left the terminal, there were throngs of people being shuttled onto buses. I told several workers we we not on a tour and just wanted to go to Doctor’s Cave Beach. They kept saying no problem and herding us toward the next bus. I seem to remember small taxis at Falmouth 12 years ago, but there were none to be found here. As we were herded close to a bus, I told the driver we wanted to go to Doctor’s Cave Beach and get off. He of course said no problem and continued to pack people into the bus. Because I expected a short trip, I allowed him to direct me to the back while Elle and the boys sat up front.

After stuffing the bus to the limit and closing the door, the driver said, “I’m going to make you a deal. I’ll drive you around all day and show you the best beaches, take you to the best shopping, etc, and it will be just $15 per person. Does that sound good?”

I was hoping Elle would object, but when she didn’t I stupidly stayed silent amid the partyers on the bus saying yes. I figured Doctor’s Cave must be one of the best beaches and we could just duck out there. Naturally I was wrong. I knew we were in trouble when we passed right by DCB and turned away from the coastline. I didn’t want to be a jerk and stop the bus, but in hindsight I should have done just that. Not only is an all-day bus tour not a good option for my 5- and 8-year-old boys, the adults really didn’t want cranky kids hanging around them all day.

I kept expecting him to stop somewhere close where we could just walk back to DCB, but it didn’t happen. Before long we were far away on a highway and I figured it was safer to stick with him than get out on the side of the road. He took us all the way to the White Witch golf course and let us out at the top to take pictures. I went for the nearest golf club employee and set up a taxi to return to DCB. It took long enough that our original driver was ready to go just as we were walking away. He ran up to us and said if we were leaving we could just pay him now. I gave him some $ for the ride and he tried to get us to pay him $15pp. I told him my kids couldn’t do an all-day tour and there was no way I was paying all-day tour prices to strand me somewhere I didn’t want to be. He stopped arguing and left with the $ we’d already given him. The new driver tried to talk us into going somewhere else but backed down when I said we are getting off at DCB and nowhere else. He actually was trying to be helpful, but I was not going to get scammed twice in one morning.

The moral of the story, of course, is something I’ve learned all over the world, from Colombia to Germany to Thailand: don’t get in a taxi until you’ve agreed on the destination and the price. Now, The party people in the bus seemed like they were in for an enjoyable day, but it wasn’t what we needed for enjoyment, and I was stupid to let myself be bullied when I really know better.

After the 45-minute, $30 detour, we arrived at Doctor’s Cave Beach. Admission was $6 pp, but she gave us “the baby” free. By this time the chairs and umbrellas were all rented, so we threw one Carnival towel on the sand and piled our stuff on it.

Doctor’s Cave Beach is nice if all you’re looking for is sand and water. There are no fancy features except a trampoline that pretty much stayed full. It was just what we wanted, and gorgeous:

We saw some lucky AirTran folks getting ready to start a nice vacation:

With just adults, we probably would have stayed longer and eaten at a nearby restaurant, but with the boys a full day in the sun usually isn’t a great idea, as we found out the next day.

The sand there was weirdly coarse. I wound up sitting on the edge with Jack for about 30 minutes while the waves splashed us. He loved that. When I stood up I found a bunch of sand had entered my shorts in the waves and then coalesced. I had two big mounds stuck in the netting inside my drawers! I had to go out in the deeper water. If it wasn’t so crowded and so crystal clear, I would have take off my shorts and washed the sand out. As it was I had to keep shaking the blobs up so the sand would go back into the water.

Also the entrepreneurs didn’t leave us alone even while swimming. There were Jamaicans swimming around trying to get us to buy conch shells. I wasn’t the least bit interested, but another couple was. That was until another cruiser said they are illegal to bring back on the ship. I don’t know about the legality but thought I’d pass the info along.

We walked to the top of the DCB steps where several drivers waited. They wanted $5 pp back to the port which we gladly accepted. The guy asked us to wait awhile so he could fill the bus, but after 10 minutes there were no takers and we left.

Oddly, the driver asked if it was ok to buy gas before talking us back. Elle seemed amenable and I said OK. After all, we were now out of the sun although sweating a lot, and we weren’t in a hurry. We got back to the port in no time and packed into a shuttle for the Conquest side.

Again the driver emphasized the tips he needed to live, but honestly I wasn’t feeling so generous after the morning we had. We passed through the terminal where some but not all bags were checked, then got back on the Conquest.

We made a quick stop by the room to drop off towels, etc then headed to lunch. I had my daily Guy’s burger and the boys and Elle ate off the buffet. Elle tried to eat a taco from the Blue Iguana, but they closed at 2:30 and we got there at 2:40. He offered to make her one anyway, but we try to respect the crew’s working hours, especially when so many other options exist.

After lunch, we napped almost until dinner time and then dropped Jack at CC while Max ate with us. For the first 3 or so nights he asked to join us in the restaurant because he liked it. Later he said he was tired of restaurant manners and wanted to eat at CC.

Shop 'til You Drop 1

Posted on August 02, 2003 by TJ

Today we decided to “do” the Plaka. The Caravel has a free shuttle to Syntagma Square that leaves on the hour, but we were ready to go at 10:15 so we made our own way. A €5 taxi is always an option, but we wanted to see the newly completed Metro.
We turned left out of the hotel and continued past Mikalakopoulou to Vass Sofias, where there’s a sculpture of glass that looks like a man running. We made a left there and walked about 2 blocks to Evangelismos Station. This is one of 3 Metro stations known for their archaeological displays. On the way down into the station we got to see part of a modern-looking, 2500 year-old drainage pipe, a bricklayer’s kiln, and a few other relics. The ticket machines were easy to use. It’s possible to buy a €2.90 all-day ticket that’s valid on busses and trolleys, but we stuck with the €0.70 one-way ticket that is valid for 90 minutes. We boarded the brand new train and rode just one stop to Syntagma Square. Before leaving the station we checked out its impressive archaeological display.
From the Metro station we crossed Amalias street onto Othonos and followed it as it turned into Mitropoleos. At the cathedral we made a left, although we found out later that we could have continued a few blocks if we wanted. We followed the back roads to Adrianou, one of the widest streets of the Plaka. I was originally told that Plaka meant plaza or square, but it’s really a lot of little streets in the old city that are supposed to be pedestrian only. The pedestrian part is loosely enforced, so especially on a wide street such as Adrianou you need to be on the lookout for the constant stream of motos. The Plaka is my wife’s–and probably every woman’s–dream come true. It is a continuous stretch of shops with leather, Greek statues, candles, T-shirts, etc. and etc. and etc. one more time. At the rate we went from store to store, I’m confident we could see the whole Plaka sometime before our grandkids cast their first votes, but part of Adrianou street was all we could manage in a day.
By the time we got to the Plaka, I had already consumed 1.5 liters of water to combat the 90° heat, but the street was shady enough that I wasn’t nearly as hot as I expected. Since I wasn’t sweating it out I needed to find a restroom sooner than I had planned. I wasn’t seeing any WC signs, but Ellen asked at a restaurant, and they let us use theirs. In case you’re in need, it’s on the corner of Adrianou and Thespidos streets across from the Eurobank. Walk inside, turn left, go downstairs and then turn right. It’s kind of a unisex setup with one stall for men, one for women, and shared sinks, so don’t be surprised to see men and women down there together. We wound up eating at the same restaurant about an hour later, and the food was good. They had an €11 menu with a gyro, salad, and beer/wine/coke, but you’d be just as well off with the €6.70 gyros from the menu and a €2 beer/wine/coke. Incidentally, if you’re counting your pennies, it’s a little cheaper to take away than to eat there. We finished up our shopping with a last minute stop on Mitropoleos where Ellen surprised me with an Athena tie-tac she’d been looking at earlier. Thanks!
We retraced our steps back to the Metro and then to the hotel. In case you think you’re saving a lot of time or distance, it seems like by the time you you’ve gone down into the station, walked down to the Red line, walked down again to Blue, taken the Metro 1 stop and then reversed the process to get back to street level you could have walked the whole way on the street. We thought it was worth it to see the archaeological displays and the immaculate stations. About a block away from the hotel, Ted #1 realized that they had left their camera at lunch. The helpful Orient Lines rep called the jewelry store across from the restaurant (where Joelle had bought something) and asked him to check for the camera. The camera was there, which took away a lot of the stress right away. A big “F. Harry’s Toe” (ΕΥΧΑΡΙΣΤΩ) to all involved in the recovery! Ted went the walking route to the restaurant but decided to take the Caravel’s free shuttle back to the hotel. He waited for a while in the rain (a brief sun shower) before deciding that the bus wasn’t coming. He walked the whole way back to us and is now taking a nap to get ready for their 3 am wakeup (ouch!) to fly home tomorrow. The shop where Ellen bought me the tie-tac, Hodjoupolous, recommended a restaurant near the hotel for outside dining. It’s called Krikélas (look for ΚΡΙΚΕΛΑΣ in Greek) and is on the same street as the supermarket (left out of the hotel, 1st left onto Antinoros). The temperature is much more pleasant at night here, and we’re looking for an enjoyable last supper in Greece!

ΕΛΛΑΣ – Back on Dry Land 1

Posted on August 01, 2003 by TJ

I forgot to mention yesterday that the Shore Excursion office never got back to me about the post-cruise excursion. I had to go back during their evening working hour, re-explain what I wanted to do, and re-authorize them to charge us $55 per person for the tour. Looking back, we could have done it differently. We did it the right way because 1) we’re honest and 2) we wanted to guarantee that we’d be with Ted and Joelle. Purely for information purposes I can tell you that we could have put Joelle and Ted’s extra bag tags on our luggage to have it carried to their room at the Divani Caravel and then slipped on to the tour–more on that later.
We got up at 7 so that we could vacate the room before 8. Luckily the standard breakfast was still being served, so we took full advantage of the cereals, fresh fruits, and omelet station. Our bag tag color was called at about 8:30, and then the fun began. We were crammed into a people mover for the short ride to the terminal where we were alternately told to wait, start identifying luggage, and move out because the luggage had already been transferred. #3 turned out out to be correct, so we tried to follow one of the 30 or so Greek tour reps wearing Orient uniforms and waving around clipboards with no identification. Shortly after exiting the terminal we entered the madhouse of a bus parking lot where busses from at least 4 cruise ships were trying to load people for their different tours. I would estimate that there were at least 40 busses in the lot. We quickly lost any hope of following anyone and instead started searching for a ‘Burgundy’ bus (our bag tag color). We had no luck and eventually asked one of the Orient reps what to do. In my favorite “aren’t you an idiot” tone of voice, she told us that we should know that Orange and Burgundy are the same and that we needed to get on an Orange bus. How stupid of us not to realize that those 2 colors were the same, especially after Orient went through the expense to print out different colored tags for us!
I quickly realized that with no Shore Excursion tickets you could walk into that pandemonium and do any tour you wanted–at least on Orient Lines! If you used the bag tag trick from before, all you’d need to do is say you were orange or blue or whatever color matches the hotel you want to end up in. Again, we paid for it, but I almost wish we hadn’t. Big regret of the day: the other orange bus had 4 seats left, but we didn’t go there because we wanted to be sure to sit across from Ted and Joelle. I regret it because we got a tour guide who was monotonous, repetitive, and really didn’t like tourists. She apparently got paid by the word, because she talked non-stop during the entire 1-hour drive to the Acropolis. I would have preferred short bursts of interesting commentary separated by minutes of silence to the never ending stream-of-consciousness drivel we got. We finally got to the Acropolis after a brief drive through the city which included the 1896 Olympic Stadium and some other sights. The tour guide gave us our tickets, and we followed her through to the steps. Incidentally, the tour guide didn’t bother to share with us that the €12 ticket (part of the excursion fee) is good for one week at the Agora, Dionysos Theater, and other ancient sites. The walk up to the Acropolis was surprisingly short given the fact that the 87 steps were highly emphasized. The steps were wide, easy to climb, and separated by inclined landings at regular intervals. The Acropolis is incredible, but we would rather have done it alone than stay with our guide. She stopped in front of the most famous building–the Parthenon–and talked for about 20 minutes with several dog-related interruptions. Yep, there are dogs guarding the Parthenon as well, but unlike Rome and Pompeii these are actually trained guard dogs, not just strays that happen to live there. Apparently there’s a new worker in the restoration area that tourists aren’t supposed to enter, so the dog thinks he’s an intruder and keeps barking at him. We thought it was funny, but one of our fellow cruisers was very unhappy and couldn’t believe that the dog had the nerve to ruin his vacation by barking.
I should point out that the coming Olympic Games has caused the Greek government to spend millions if not billions of euros refurbishing everything in sight. So, instead of seeing just the 2500 year-old Parthenon, you get it covered in scaffolding, which takes something away from the experience. All of the sites are guarded by people with whistles who will blow a foul if you try to enter the roped off areas, walk around with your shirt open, or try to take a sample of the ancient marble, something no one in our party was despicable enough to do. It’s a little like being at the beach when the lifeguard blows his whistle. Everyone–including those not doing anything wrong–stops what they’re doing to see what the whistling is for and to be sure that they aren’t getting in trouble. I’m proud to report that at least 1/2 of the Anderson clan was able to avoid infraction-related whistles during the Acropolis visit.
We spent the rest of the time looking at the ruins on the Acropolis and the view down to the city. Athens is not a pretty looking city by any stretch of the imagination, but it is cool to see the Agora, Jupiter’s temple, and 1896 stadium scattered among the normal buildings.
After the Acropolis, we drove through Athens some more, seeing the monument to Aristotle Onassis’s last wife among many other things. Despite the tour guide’s drone, I was able to get in a 5 minute nap before Ellen woke me up at the hotel.
Since we didn’t book our room through Orient it wasn’t ready at 1300, and when we finally got a room at 1330 it wasn’t a superior double with a view but a 2nd floor 2 twin that looked out over the hotel driveway. The only advantage to being independent is that breakfast was included in our €136 rate (€150 with taxes). The Divani Caravel calls itself 5 star, but for those 5 stars you get one ice machine in the building, no ice buckets in the rooms, and €5 Cokes in the mini bar. We quickly found the local supermarket (left out of the hotel, 1st left, 2 blocks down on the left) and got some supplies. So, in a few short hours we went from the ship’s abundance to PB&J in the hotel room! (That PB&J was good, though!)
One of the great things about the Caravel is the rooftop pool. Don’t forget to check out the fitness room below with underwater views of the pool. We went up to the pool for a swim and then back to the room for a nap before dinner. We met up at 20:30, and Ellen asked the hotel for a recommendation. We left with a dot on the map but not the restaurant’s name, which wound up causing us problems. We made a left out of the hotel and a right on Michalokopoulou (say that 3 times fast!). When we got to the dot, we found a closed restaurant, and in front of us it looked like houses, so we turned back towards the Caravel. When we came across the Holiday Inn, Ted #1 ran in and got directions, the name, and even a phone call to be sure the place was open. Yay Holiday Inn! The restaurant was good, we ate too much, and it was fun! We can’t believe there’s only one day until Ted and Joelle leave for the US! (On the way out of town I tried to copy the restaurant’s name, but we didn’t pass close enough to it. I’d say it’s no more than 4 blocks from the Holiday Inn on the right side going away from the Caravel. It’s the place that obviously converted its porch into part of the air conditioned restaurant.)

Santorini 0

Posted on July 31, 2003 by TJ

After spending the week with Ted and Joelle, we decided it really did matter if we toured Athens with them after the cruise ended. So, we got up at 0700 today to speak to the Shore Excursion reps during their regular working hour. They told me it would cost $55 per person, or $15 more than the same tour would cost people who weren’t disembarking in Piraeus. Presumably it’s $15 more expensive to carry us plus 2 bags to the hotel by the Acropolis than it is to drive us 1 hour back to the ship. I said ok because we really didn’t want to be separated from Ted and Joelle, and the rep told me she’d have more info for me later on.
We went up to breakfast and then met the Pinkards for the tender ride to shore. This time we were on local tenders, but the boat we were on had even less airflow than the Crown’s own tenders, so it was very hot. Before we even left our ship, we saw the zig-zaggy foot/donkey path to the top and decided our €3 would be best spent on the cable car ride. We had a short wait in the sun and then spent our €3 one-way (no return ticket available) to ride up the steep slope to Fira. Fira was more what I expected of a cruise stop, with lots of shops and restaurants for tourists. Maybe it’s because I live in Spain, but to me the Greek shopkeepers seemed very friendly. While the girls immediately started shopping, Ted and I went looking for a moto rental. The price seemed good–only €12 for the day–but the rental agent wanted us to have US motorcycle licenses, which we don’t. In retrospect we probably could have shown our normal driver’s licenses from TX and LA and said they were valid for motos as well, but we didn’t. Instead we walked to the bus stop and got on the bus for Kamari Beach. The bus was hot and way overcrowded, but it got us there fairly quickly. Disregard any instructions your cruise gives you about buying tickets in advance. During the trip an attendant will push his way through the crowds to collect money. The fare is €0.90 one-way, and although you can see what appear to be €1.30 return tickets, he will only let you buy one-way.
We got to Kamari Beach and walked along until we saw some Wave Runners, something Ted and I really wanted to do. We changed our minds when we heard that the prices were €30-50 for *10 minutes* depending on the horsepower of the Wave Runner. We decided that was far too rich for our blood and continued walking. A short way down we stopped at some of the many chairs and umbrellas setup along the beach. Two nice chairs and an umbrella cost us €7, presumably for the day, but we didn’t ask. Something to think about: there is no sand at this beach, only pebbles that are hot and hard to walk on. I highly recommend beach shoes for this beach.
After about 2 hours we dried off and headed back to Fira, this time on a larger and air conditioned bus which again cost €0.90. We ate at one of the many open air restaurants on the main street which turned out not to serve very traditional food.
When we got done eating lunch the girls wanted to keep shopping, so Ted and I went to an internet café over the restaurant that charged us €2.10 for 30 minutes, much better than the $0.75/minute plus $3.95 setup fee on the boat! One of my 145 emails was from the Venice walking tours company asking me to fill out a form and fax it back to them. Apparently they’re starting a new promotion where you can guarantee your tour with a credit card and get a further €2 discount, bringing the price down to €16 per person. You still have to pay in cash on the day of the tour; your card is only charged if you don’t show up. I decided it would cost me more than €4 of trouble to print out the form and fax it to Jonathan at venicedaytours.com, so I guess we’ll pay the €18 per person rate. I almost made some sort of placeholder entry so that anyone following the blog would know I was alive, but by the time email was done I was down to only 4 minutes. Instead I wrote a rapid email to the mothers which ate up my time to the last second. After the net café, Ted and I made our way back to the cable car and on to the ship. We wound up beating the girls by 30 minutes so we hung out near the pool. It’s already time to get ready for the farewell show and our last dinner at sea–I can’t believe this cruise is already over!

The Maltese Terrier 0

Posted on July 29, 2003 by TJ

We didn’t get to see these elusive hounds, but our tour guide told us that 2 or 3 mutts generally hang around the tour route in the old capital.
First, let me say that it was worth it to watch us enter the port of Valletta. We met up with the harbor pilot just before noon and were docked by 12:30 or so. Ellen and I foolishly chose not to eat lunch during the short time before our shore excursion, a decision we later regretted. We did the ship’s $25 Medieval Malta 1/2 day tour. The excursion left right from the dock in a bus with zero air conditioning. Everyone from the locally based tour company assured us that it would cool down when we started moving. Now, I’m no expert on busses or their air conditioning systems, but I’m fairly certain that it’s possible to cool a vehicle that’s not in motion. By the time we made it to the medieval capital Mdina (nope, not missing a letter there) even the tour guide was griping about the heat, so the driver agreed to switch busses while we walked around. I found our short guided tour of Mdina rather interesting, and it seems to me that it would be hard to find a taxi driver who would take you to the places we visited for only $25. One of the highlights of the tour was the cathedral, which brings me to a brief interlude: Despite the clearly spelled out dress code for the trip, the majority of our fellow cruisers showed up in shorts and tank tops, and they seemed confused when they had difficulty getting into churches. Scarves were given to the ladies and some men to cover shoulders and knees, but some were denied entrance because of their clothes. J and E both say it’s just as cool to wear a sleeveless dress and bring a scarf for the church visits as it is to wear shorts. Ted #1 says he would rather have worn shorts and skipped the churches. I’m going to say that if you can tolerate wearing somewhat nicer clothes in the 90-degree heat then it’s worth it to see the churches–otherwise skip them.
Anyhow, after Mdina we were taken to see the Dingli Cliffs, which were impressive enough but not overly so. We next went to see the glass blowing factory, which is the main reason the girls wanted to sign up for the trip. Watching the glass blowers is interesting–they are truly master artisans–but no information was given on the process or what they were doing at the time. We were given plenty of time for the real reason for the vist–shopping for glass–and amazingly E came away empty handed.
Here’s a tip now that we’re back from the trip. If your itinerary includes Venice, don’t buy glass anywhere else unless you find a unique piece you must have. Just a small example: glass candies were €2.50 apiece in Sorrento and about the same in Malta; in Venice they were about €0.80.
Another quick side note: Malta uses the Maltese Lira, which was worth €2.60 on the day we were there, but most stores accepted Euros or credit cards. From the glass factory we went to a silver shop that makes Maltese crosses by hand, and this time E did find a silver bracelet she absolutely needed. Our final stop was the St. John’s Co-cathedral, so named because there’s supposed to be only one cathedral, but the Knights of Jerusalem who founded Valletta insisted on their own. The Co-cathedral was richly decorated, more so because they were preparing for a special ceremony. Of the 2 churches, this one was most worth wearing long pants. Be sure to check out the pictures section of our website once we update it with cruise pictures.
The tour dropped us off at about 5:30, just in time to miss the afternoon tea. This brings me to my biggest complaint about Orient Lines, which is the lack of meals compatible with shore excursions. If you do a non-meal excursion (most don’t include meals) then you generally miss lunch on your tour and then return to no food until 20:30 if you’re in the 2nd seating. I know people talk about we cruisers eating too much, but 12 hours without a meal is a long time. Because of all this, we wound up doing the outdoor BBQ at 1900 instead of going to our normal meal. It was a delightful change of pace, and it turned out to be great timing because our waiter was working outside instead of the main dining room. Tomorrow we’re at sea so I’m predicting a late night tonight.

The dogs of Pompeii 1

Posted on July 28, 2003 by TJ

This story has a very happy ending, but we’ll start with the bad part. Apparently 1/3 of the ship wanted to do the half-day tour of Pompeii (or Pompei as the Italians say–why do we need another i?). So, without telling us anything in advance, Orient Lines split the tour into 3 large groups which were later split into at least 5 groups of about 40 apiece. They did this without any consideration for the fact that people in different cabins who are travelling together might want to go on shore excursions together. We got our tickets after the shore excursion office had closed for the day, so I woke up early to be there right when it opened at 7. I asked if we could switch to be with T&J, and in a voice filled with “aren’t you so stupid” the woman told me that the separations were just for the tender ride and that we could join any tour group we wished on the dock. Naturally this wasn’t the case on the dock, where the workers continued trying to shoo us along as we were attempting to ask about changing groups. Ellen finally got through to someone who thought that saying “uhhh…” and walking away was a valid response, but eventually we got her to speak to us and reluctantly agree to let us wait for Ted and Joelle’s boat. Incidentally in our new group was a woman who tried to do the same thing, and she was denied permission. I didn’t think “shut up and color” was supposed to be part of a cruise vocabulary, but I’ve heard it several times from Orient.
Anyway, enough about them–on to Pompeii. Our tour guide had a hard time making a complete sentence without saying “uh” 10 times (like me in Spanish) but she was very fun nonetheless. She narrated the gorgeous ride along the coast just enough to keep us entertained without being annoying. At a little after 9 we got to Pompeii, where the weather was super hot and the cold water was only €1 a bottle (still $2 from the ship).
Pompeii is amazing, and a 1 1/2 hour tour or even a whole day can’t do it justice, but it was nice to be with a tour group because almost nothing is labeled. If we did it on our own we would have wanted an audio guide, but they were the annoying ones you need to hold to your ear like a phone rather than the easy to wear headphones we had in Monaco.
Let me warn you that if you bring children on your tour, they will hear about and see the famous phalli of Pompeii (which would have made a great title for this entry, or as Dave Barry likes to say, a great name for a band). Apparently brothels in Pompeii were indicated either by a raised phallus carved into the street like an arrow which pointed to the brothel’s door or one just sticking right out of the building. As far as we could tell, all of the tours made a point of ending at a brothel where you can see a picture “menu” of acts that were available. It’s not horribly graphic, but if you’d be offended by drawings of what prostitutes did nearly 2,000 years ago, this is a good time to break off from the tour and explore on your own or head for the exit. Apart from the brothels, which didn’t bother us, we saw a good deal of ancient Pompeii that was so well preserved when it was covered by volcanic ash in 79 A.D. It seemed very well laid out, with chariot streets, sidewalks, and fountains to bring everyone fresh water. Later on the ship we learned that it is quite easy to get to Pompeii by train and spend the whole day there if you like, but it was nice to put someone else in charge for the day after everything we did yesterday in Rome. After the bus ride back from Pompeii, we finished our day walking around Sorrento before riding the shuttle down to the tender dock. Our next stop is a late (~1300) docking into Valletta, Malta, and we’ve been told to watch that one as it’s the most beautiful port on the trip.

Rome if You Want To 1

Posted on July 27, 2003 by TJ

We did it! Rome in 10 hours (soon to be a major bestseller, no doubt) worked just about as planned.
Let me start with the Orient Lines briefing on Rome, which wasn’t very good. It seemed OK yesterday, but we saw today that much of the information given was plain wrong, such as museums being free on Sunday. Not too good considering that the ship must have docked here within the last month.
Anyway we got up early for a passable room service breakfast of dry, tasteless Muesli and excellent fresh fruit. (See how they cancel each other out to end up as passable?)
One of the bad things about being in steerage (never did upgrade from 3033) is that at 7:15 I stepped out of the shower and into the cabin where the taxi drivers, tour guides, and port officials were in prime position to get a good look at my Euro region through the open curtains. I got to the window pretty fast, hopefully fast enough that no one really saw me.
The good thing is that we were able to exit via the 3rd floor gangway 2 doors down from Ted and Joelle’s room instead of getting in line upstairs. This also allowed us to bypass the ship’s photographers a few times when we did not want a photo. We were off the ship at 8:15 and at the train station 5 minutes later. Now, we could have walked, but it would have been a pain, especially in the nicer clothes required to enter any church. I think we may have been in another part of the harbor that was farther away from the station than I’ve read in previous reviews. Anyway, the taxi ride was €15, or €5 a couple because we shared with T&J and another couple.
Here’s a tip for the train: forget the technology. I’m a gadget man, as my friends like to say, and I thought the automated ticket machine would be better than trying to speak “Italenglish” to the attendants–wrong! Luckily the machine wasn’t able to read my card and I was forced to go to the window. By the time I got there, Ted had already purchased a €6.80 return (round-trip) ticket as opposed to the €8 one-way ticket offered by the machine. The €6.80 ticket was also good for the Metro and busses in the city. Plus, the attendant was a very nice woman who spoke excellent English–grazie mille if you ever read this! On a side note, I’m not 100% sure we used the tickets correctly although we did stamp them in the yellow machines in Civitavecchia. If you live in Rome or just really <<know>> how to use these tickets the right way, please leave a comment or send me an email so I can ask you some questions like how do you use this ticket all over when every place wants to stamp it in the same place. Anyway, the nice lady at the station helped us get on the 8:40 train which was nearly 20 minutes late. We arrived at the Rome Termini Station at about 10:00 and immediately went for the B Metro line. We got off 3 stops down at the Circo Massimi stop and started our day at the Circus Maximus (as we generally call it in English, when we’re not calling it “the ditch”). It is not overly amazing, but it is cool to imagine that a 300,000 person stadium used to be there for the chariot races. It was fairly uninhabited there, and Ted #1 bought a €2 water, about the same price as the ship but a lot colder. As we walked a few blocks down the road, we quickly saw two things: the Colosseum and the hoards of people below it.
A brief interlude: did I mention that it was hot? Africa hot? I’ll give part of the ending away now and tell you that I didn’t go in a single church; I really wish I was smart like Ted #1 who wore shorts. No doubt he was cooking too, but not as much as pants boy.
Ok, back to the Colosseum. As we approached, we saw that the crowds weren’t quite so horrible at 11:00 as we had expected. Just before we made it to the entrance line, a native English speaker asked us if we wanted a guided tour for the low, low price of €17.50 including the €10 admission. We said ok, thinking that we’d be in a smallish sized group with this guy from the UK. Not so. He quickly passed us off to an Italian with ok English who took our € and then handed us off to a very young (for a tour guide) girl who led us past the tired, suffering masses and through the group entrance. At each handoff the group got a little larger. As we waited for the guide to pay our admission, the girl was replaced by an Englishman who I had seen talking outside the Colosseum. It was then we realized that we had missed the first half of the show where he explained the history of the Colosseum! After speaking for a short time, he handed our now 30-person group off to another woman who was to do the real tour inside. Unfortunately this woman did not carry a microphone and speaker like the Englishman, so it was very difficult to hear at times. Overall it was very interesting to hear what our guide had to say, but I think we got a little ripped off. I guess that’s part of the tourist experience too. The Colosseum was very impressive, especially considering that it was built about 2,000 years ago. We could have spent more time there if it weren’t so unbearably hot.
Inside the Colosseum I decided to stop worrying so much about getting ripped off and to worry more about not passing out from dehydration, so on the way out I bought a €3 bottle of water (50% increase over the Circus Maximus water) which I finished in about 30 seconds. We bypassed most of the people selling hats, purses, watches, etc., and joined the throngs heading for the Roman Forum. I’ve often seen it described as “just a bunch of rocks,” but it seemed more impressive than that to us. The “bunch of rocks” were at one time the Roman Senate, the marketplace, and an important gathering point for the people. We exited the forum up a long staircase and right away saw one of the many fountains in Rome with cold water that is clean enough to drink. We filled up our bottles and each took a swig right from the ice cold flow before moving on. Right around the corner from the fountain were the Capitoline Museums, something that was going to be free according to the Orient Lines briefing. After entering an apparently unguarded gate we were stopped by a security guard and told to buy tickets. The supposedly free admission turned out to be €8 a piece so we decided to skip the museums. Don’t get me wrong–we’re not cheap and I’m sure the museum is worth the price. We just didn’t have long enough to spend €32 worth of time there. We walked down the large stair at the front and found another fountain where we could fill our water bottles again. As we made our way towards the Pantheon, we saw the National Monument (aka: the Wedding Cake) from the side. We made a left at the end of the street onto Via Plebecito and ran into the Largo di Torre Argentina, a collection of temples dating back over a thousand years. From there we headed north to the Pantheon, passing along the way the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, so named because it was built over a Minervan temple when Rome converted to Christianity. The church was recommended by the Orient Lines guy as having some impressive artwork inside, but it was closed.
Next we “did” the Pantheon, once dedicated to 12 important Roman gods but now a Catholic Chapel. From there we followed the signs and walked a short way to Trevi Fountain, which was worth the trip. The fountain is much bigger and more impressive (have I used that word enough today?) than it is in pictures. After tossing in our coins (but not dipping our feet in the water–at least 3 of us didn’t) we decided to finish our whirlwind tour at the Spanish Steps. By this time we were much too hot and tired for climbing the steps, so we just filled our water again at the fountain in front of them and then hopped on the Metro. This time we took the orange “A” line, and 3 stops later we were back at the Termini Station. I’ll cut to the chase and give you the next tip: if you come in on the Metro, go upstairs to the main entrance where you’ll see the full schedule listing. For example, to take the 15:46 train to Civitavecchia, we actually had to look for the “Torino P.N.” We wasted more than 20 minutes worrying if we were waiting on the right train until some other cruise passengers showed us the schedule.
By the time we figured out which train was ours it was about 5 minutes until departure time, but <sarcasm>lucky for us</sarcasm> the train was showing a 15 minute delay, which later turned into 30. Incidentally, contrary to what I’ve seen on several message boards, trains *do* occasionally show SOPPRESSA, which looks close to the word for surprise but must mean something different. I’ll have to look it up when I get home. (I looked it up on Google and it shows “press,” which doesn’t seem to relate to trains but must somehow.) Our train finally came in, and we boarded with several thousand other people bound for Torino with lots of luggage. We stood for a while until things finally settled enough for us to find some seats. The ride back was hot because the car was notionally air conditioned and therefore the conductor kept closing the windows. After several short catnaps we arrived in Civitavecchia, where the best-spent €10 of the day got us a taxi to the boat. We were quickly greeted with our favorite thing about the cruise ship: the blast of cold air as we entered the gangway. We finished up sweaty, dog-tired, and a little sunburned, but WE DID IT! We’ll call the cruise an unqualified success thanks to today. Now for a shower and some sleep!

Monaco: Not just for breakfast anymore 1

Posted on July 26, 2003 by TJ

Well, we made it through our first port pretty much intact. We started off with a leisurely breakfast at 9, and after breakfast we went to the Starlight Lounge to get a tender ticket. Our number came up at 10, and I got my first surprise of the day when we went to the gangway. Unlike in the Caribbean where tender service is provided by local boats, we rode to shore in the ship’s own lifeboats. Another odd thing was that the boats are rated for 150 passengers as lifeboats when everyone is wearing a life vest, but only 90 people as a tender when we all have normal clothes on. Note to seasick-prone people (luckily I am not): the little tender boats bob up and down a lot when they’re up next to the ship.
Although the ship’s Daily Program said we were going to land on one side of the harbor, we were actually on the other side. This turned out to be good for us because we were much closer to the palace. If you’ve only done Caribbean cruises, you’d be in for another surprise getting off of the tender: no free drinks (although the ship was selling small bottles of Evian at $2 a pop), no one asking to braid your hair, no taxis…in short, nothing. In fact, they dropped us off in an area that was under construction. As we passed out of the construction zone, we saw signs saying “Access Prohibited” and “Wear your hardhat!” There was absolutely nothing which identified it as our boarding area; you just had to know it was ok to enter that area. As we walked down the quay, we passed by Stars and Bars where they were just setting up for the day. We wound up not going in, but I did take a picture of the sign later on.
I think I mentioned early on that Monaco wasn’t #1 on our list of important stops. It’s a beautiful little principality (and yes, J, that is a country even if that rather pretentious woman refused to answer you), but it doesn’t have much draw for me. I can vaguely remember when Monaco was so important to my mother because of Grace Kelly, but not so much since GK died. Enough excuses: we followed the herd (or the hoard, but never that other word) and they led us uphill to the Palace. After some meandering, we decided to buy tickets for the Napoleonic Museum and the Royal Apartment tour. For €8, we got to do both with included audio guides, something that’s usually extra. One gripe about the audio guide is that not too much was said about the Napoleonic Museum, so we spent almost as much time looking for "press #x to hear more" signs as we did looking at the artifacts. It was interesting enough and included at least 2 of Napoleon’s hats and baby clothes from his son who was known as the King of Rome. The Royal Apartment tour was quite interesting, although again they could have recorded more for the guide. In some small rooms they described everything in detail, and then we’d walk into a large, full room and the narration would be something like: "Upontheleftisapictureofsomeguynowgotothenextroomandpressthegreenbuttontocontinue." After the tour we did a little souvenir shopping and then bought some sandwiches so we wouldn’t have to run back to the ship to eat. At €2.80 a piece we thought the sandwiches were a good value, but the €2 cokes were a “little” overpriced.
Here’s a Tourist Trap Tip: DON’T GO TO THE WAX MUSEUM! The €3.80 per person would have been better spent on another sandwich and 1/2 coke or maybe something else like paying someone to poke out your eyes with a fork. It was small, hot, not lifelike, and fairly boring.
After that little adventure we made our way back to the construction zone, along the way fulfilling Ted #?’s wish when we saw topless sunbathers. They technically might not have been 13 yet, but we’re counting them!

Scam! 1

Posted on July 25, 2003 by TJ

Well, last night I thought a free Metro ride was all that, but today it got better! We woke up at 7:00 and decided to get dressed and say hi to Ted and Joelle before their tour. When we got to their room, they told us that the Orient rep was confused that we weren’t going on the tour and told us to just go ahead. We put our bags in the hallway like all of the other Orient passengers, and we saw them get taken out the front door with the rest.
We climbed on board the bus to join a 4 hour tour of Barcelona. It was very basic, but the guide, Nuria, made it enjoyable. The tour ended not at an area to buy lunch as promised, but at the ship where free (well prepaid, at least) lunch awaited us. Boarding was much quicker than our last cruise. We ate lunch and then did a little exploring around the ship. After just 2 hours onboard, I can give you my first impression: I don’t exactly know how to put it nicely, but if the average passenger age is 42 then they must have a roomful of infants hidden somewhere on the ship. I mean, some of these people might have been with Columbus on his first Atlantic cruise, if you get my drift. Anyway, we’ve got Ted and Joelle, and they’re all we really need!



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