August 12, 2011
We Are Cunard
Posted in: Updates
I recently enjoyed my annual summer holiday. With our daughters off in different parts of the world my wife and I decided to try a cruise in the Eastern Mediterranean. We did not sail with Cunard Line – I have always felt that would not be fair on our ship’s company and neither could I really relax – much as I know we would enjoy the experience. Instead we sailed with one of our sister cruise lines – on the Seabourn Odyssey – and very good it was too. But I thought I would write a blog more about that part of the world and how we found it. Often we hear questions as to whether flying out to join a ship in the Mediterranean is a good experience , will the airport be a hassle , will there be any leg room on the flight, what do we do about luggage , would it be better to sail from Southampton and . …… is the eastern Mediterranean safe?
Well – let me tell you how we found things. First the flights. We ended up booking British Airways – out to Istanbul and back from Dubrovnik. The fares were reasonable as I booked nice and early. It is interesting that airlines today do manage to push their fares up closer to departure and it seems to make sense to book early. I have an advantage in that given how often I travel; I have a BA Gold Card, so that allowed me to choose our seats on the plane. I was able to choose the ‘Emergency Exit’ seats and so had more leg room than you could shake a stick at. We were also allowed to take two pieces of luggage – so no problem with the packing and we actually just took one case each. We flew from Heathrow Terminal 5. Here is a little secret – the Gordon Ramsay Restaurant just after you go through security. I am not brave enough to get into a debate as to whether he is a good chap or not – what I will say is that they offer a very fine bowl of porridge for that time of the morning and for just £3.75. So the whole flight experience out and back was really just fine – I think there is a bit of a myth going round that flying can be tough – if you approach it with a relaxed attitude it gets you there in no time. Well done BA – and OK, having a Gold card helps a little.
Bit of a surprise on arriving in Istanbul – before you go through passport control you have to get in line to pay 20 Euros each as an arrival tax. Now we had long discussions as to whether we should have gone straight to the ship, or spend a couple of nights in Istanbul. We spent the two nights in Istanbul and it was fabulous – more of that in a second. The second debate we had was whether to stay in a big well known hotel or in a nice little ‘boutique’ hotel nestled in the centre of the city. So for days I had explored Google and travel guides to search out one of those special little hotels – close to the sights, in the heart of the city, hustle and bustle and a real sense of the city. Then I went onto the Four Seasons website and booked us a lovely room at their hotel right on the Bospherous. Boy was it good. It may be a 10 minute ride to the city, but it had space, gardens, outstanding service a lovely pool and two outside restaurants. You could have breakfast lunch and dinner overlooking the incredibly busy shipping lanes. I would honestly recommend it as a very fine – if a little expensive – place to stay and worth every penny. (By the way – we also discovered another Four Seasons that is right in the heart of the city, no pool but a nice little oasis from the heat). We found that staying two nights in the city prior to arriving on the ship meant that when we did arrive on the ship we were completely relaxed and ready to enjoy the cruise – I would recommend it.
So how was Istanbul? Well we were a little nervous having not been there before other than for the odd conference. We were very pleasantly surprised. Over the two days we visited the Blue Mosque, Spice Market, Hagia Sophia and the underground cisterns. They were all awesome – it is remarkable to see the changing history of the city. We really enjoyed just walking around, we found the people very helpful and friendly, we were careful where we went and we felt safe. One tip – if you are not interested in buying a carpet – then just avoid any eye contact and you will be fine. We met some people who hired a local guide for a half or full day – they said that also worked very well for them.
So – totally refreshed and relaxed we joined our ship for 12 nights in the Eastern Mediterranean full of intrigue as to how we would find it. I thought you may be interested in some of the destinations that we visited and how the overall experience was. Of course I do have a slight agenda in telling you this – you may know that this summer Queen Victoria is in the Mediterranean and next summer Queen Elizabeth will be there. I will mention some of the ports that they visit – as well as some of the other ports we visited.
History and Culture – when you travel through Turkey and Greece the historic significance and experiences are amazing. On many occasions you can stand close-up to buildings that go back over 2,000 years. There were Byzantine Times, Roman Times, and a wide variety of religious influences – not to mention wars. You can take history or leave it – but we found it fascinating to read up on each destination and then go ashore a get a real sense of what it must have been like all those years ago.
Ephesus – this is really worth a visit. It is only about 30 minutes from the port of Kusadasi. We went in a smaller group of about 12 with a guide and spent about two hours in the ancient city. On arrival we stopped at the top of the old ruins, so the tour itself was all downhill – a useful tip as it is very, very hot and a bottle of water is essential. We found it fascinating. There is not quite the detail of Pompeii, but you can’t help but wonder what life must have been like when it was a very impressive city. It used to have its own port – but now it’s about 30 minutes from the coast. One of the reasons the city became extinct was that as the coast receded it created a large swamp area and there were terrible problems with mosquitoes and malaria. As you approach the centre of the old city with the impressive façade of the Library they have excavated several old terraced houses. They have built an undercover structure of stairways and platforms out of steel and glass so as you can see many of the original rooms and murals. There are many people at work slowly scraping away and revealing more and more of the old city. It was a very worthwhile visit – and we returned that evening for a classical concert right in the heart of the ruins – the sun went down , a couple of cold beers went down and the moon came up – marvelous.
Mykonos – One of the best things about cruising in this part of the world is the relaxed nature of the cruise and the beautiful scenery. You also tend to get anice breeze every day – so although it is very hot it does not feel too bad. Many went off the ship to discover the interesting beaches and cultures around the island. We just went for a walk around the old town. It is a real labyrinth of streets, shops and bars. Another of the great things about cruising is that when you are ashore, hot, a little bothered – you can return to your beautiful air-conditioned ship, have a quick swim and then relax into a lovely lunch.
Santorini – this was a really fun day. First of all the arrival. One of the things I love to do on a ship is get up around 0600 – grab a coffee and then go up to the top deck to watch the ship arrive somewhere. Well arriving into Santorini is a beautiful sight. You pass the newest volcanic eruption and there you are right in what would have been the massive crater following the original eruption. There were a number of options for the day – you could walk up the many steps to the top of the cliffs and see the town, you could go up on a modern chair-lift or you could ride a donkey up. We did none of those, instead we took a boat trip to one of the islands which is just a volcanic outcrop and walked to the top of it. It was very barren – and at the top sulphur and steam leaks out of the rocks over fabulous views of Santorini. We then went for a swim in the sea above some volcanic springs before going back to the ship for yes – another swim and another wonderful lunch.
Athens – Well I can’t tell you much about Athens from this trip. There I was at 0630, with my coffee up on the top deck as we sailed into Piraeus. There were around 8 other cruise ships in the port – it was going to be a busy day. As we approached the berth I thought it a bit strange that I could see no coaches or taxis. I then spotted the taxis – around 100 of them blockading the port gates – they were on strike. Far be it for me to make a comment on the financial or political situation in Greece – other than to say that the taxi drivers might want to target their frustration at people other than those who were waiting to provide them with a lot of business. They were however very peaceful and one has to be somewhat sympathetic to their cause. But it was clear we would not be going anywhere that day and would have to spend it on the ship. No hardship there – more swimming, a trip to the gym, a wonderful lunch and then just after ‘beer-o-clock’ my first cold beer of the day. Actually having spent the previous two days looking round old buildings and churches on the islands of Patmos and Mylos – I have to quietly admit I was rather relieved to have a rest from looking round broken buildings.
Kotor, Montenegro – unfortunately we are not featuring this destination just yet – but I am keen that we do in the future. It is like arriving in the Norwegian Fjords. The ship goes in – the mountains get higher, you twist and turn and then arrive in a beautiful little town called Kotor. I would really recommend a visit here – or to the many developing little ports, towns and beaches of Montenegro. Now here we had a little excitement. We decided to go on a kayak adventure. There were two to a boat and around 8 boats in our group – along with a guide in his boat. On went the life jackets and we set off. Easy-Peasy we thought, the sea was flat calm, the scenery was spectacular and we paddled about three kilometers away from our ship and stopped for a swim. Marvelous, or at least marvelous until we got back in the kayaks to find a rather strong wind had arrived which was creating some rather strong waves. So there we all were pounding through waves as we set about the three kilometers back in the other direction. Actually it was reminder as to how fast the weather can change and how careful we had to be. An hour later we were now just 4 kayaks, with two having disappeared and two having given up on the shore with their paddlers walking back to the ship, Our guide was good – he got out four boats to stop and huddle together on the shore and he went back and helped tow the two remaining boats to catch us up. As they caught us up – a little more drama as one capsized. All ended well , we abandoned the kayaks on the beach and our guide phoned his brother who came an collected us in his boat and took us back to the ship – yes you guessed it for another quick swim and some fresh fish for lunch. We all got back safe and with another tale to tell. There is another option in Kotor – you can climb the 853 steps of the old city wall and experience a wonderful view – next time.
Dubrovnik – We were surprised by Dubrovnik. Many have seen pictures of the old walled city nestled into the coast line. When you go ashore it is larger than you think. It has become a little ‘touristy’ although with the greatest respect to one of our sister lines that could be because just as we arrived two very large Costa ships did their best to double the population of the city. But it is a fascinating place to visit. The people are very friendly, you can if you want walk right round the old city walls and there are numerous small streets, cafés, ships and restaurants to keep you busy – well worth a visit. It is interesting to think how recently Croatia and Montenegro were involved in very difficult times – but you see little evidence of that and good for them in doing so well to recover their tourism so strongly.
So then it was ‘beer-o-clock’ again and our last day and time for one last relaxing dinner .We reflected on just how much we had enjoyed this part of the world. Glorious weather every day – hot but with cool breezes. We had seen so much history – real history over 2,000 years ago. We had seen some beautiful islands. We had exercised a lot in the gym and through our volcano walks and kayaking. We ate – as you would on many cruise lines – some very tasty and healthy food. The service on board – as it is on many cruise lines – was delivered by some wonderful people and was superb and very relaxing. Getting there and back by air was just fine. The beer was cold, the champagne was bubbly and we met some lovely people – from the UK, from Poland, from North America and from Australia.
So I can honestly say that you should indeed consider going on a cruise to the Eastern Mediterranean. We felt safe, we learnt a huge amount about local history, we saw small islands and big cities and most of all we felt relaxed. I do hope that has given you some insight into what a cruise can be like – of course many of our regular bloggers will know that already. And far be it from me to be too persuasive – but just imagine doing all of what I have described – and more – next summer with the fine Queen Elizabeth as your home. She will be based in the Mediterranean from late August to November and we would love you to come and join us……..
That’s all for now. Have a wonderful weekend wherever you are – and when it gets to beer-o-clock on Saturday I will raise a glass to you all……….