This was our first Eastern Mediterranean Cruise, having done the Western Itinerary in 1999 (two weeks from Amsterdam, Holland to Genoa, Italy and seven ports in between). This itinerary was probably the most "port intensive" of all of our cruises (five ports in seven days!) You have it from us, sailing throughout the Greek Isles can be both delightful and dramatic. The trip included a close up of Stromboli, the active Italian volcano that juts straight up out of the Tyrrhenean Sea and sports fumaroles and red lava flows at the top with tiny villages at the base: How can people live so calmly on a rumbling volcano? Passing through the Strait of Messina brought to mind the Odyssey of Ulysses and his adventure in this tempestuous sea, with the threatening monsters Shylla and Charybdis, facing each other across this strait. But, for us, the sea was calm and the view of Calabria and Sicily marvelous. Nevertheless, with a little imagination just sailing through this historical sea is impressive.
The next most significant memory is sailing through the caldera of Santorini, which demarcates the original boundaries of this remnant of an island (What was once a near perfect circle of an island is now a mere crescent). We were lucky that our cruise week coincided with a full moon on the Aegean Sea. What a sight, just spectacular! If you haven't done this itinerary yet, book it now, because it is all you could possibly dream it would be.
EMBARKATIONJune 20th we flew Alitalia Airlines from Miami to Milan to Rome; unfortunately the plane change in Milan was a difficult one, which made us long for the direct Miami to Rome flights of old! We did not use the cruise package, but instead we rented a car (Avis), which we picked up at the airport and spent ten days in the Samnium Mountains (South Central Italy) before returning the car just a few blocks from the pier at Civitavecchia, the morning of embarkation. As the Grandeur of the Seas was berthed directly behind the new terminal, embarkation was easy. A crew member was prompt in taking Vincent's wheelchair aboard where the documents were processed within minutes. The new RCI ticket packet is simplified and handy.
We met Hotel Director Tony O'Prey at check-in. He makes passengers feel at home immediately and continues to do so until debarkation. What a courteous person he is -- Thank you, Tony for all your kindnesses! We were in our spacious stateroom in less than ten minutes (approximately noon). We went straight to the Welcome Aboard Buffet, where a crew member carried our trays and assisted us through. The food was good and the dessert table excellent. We were happy to return to the Grandeur after four years and were full of anticipation for this exciting trip.
THE SHIPThe Grandeur of the Seas was built at Kvaerner Masa Shipyards, Finland and launched on Nov. 2, 1996, as the dedication placard in the Viking Crown Lounge reads. It looks just like the Vision of the Seas: it's white with aqua/green glass on the top decks, characteristic of all RCI ships, and has the sleek shape of an oversized yacht. The major difference between this and other RCI Vision-class ships is in the interior decor and artworks. RCI has made extensive use of wood and other fine appointments on the Grandeur which makes it worthy of its name.
The two deck high Gatsby Dining Room is a good place to start: The 20's era flapper statue in the middle of the grand staircase evokes images of Zelda Fitzgerald with its swaying fringed outfit. The far wall has a two deck high water fall and the other three walls are hung with paintings depicting "Roaring Twenties" party life. This dining room has the most comfortable chairs, with armrests and lumbar support.
The Centrum is both a handy reference point and a place that is in constant movement with dancing, singing and even cooking demonstrations. The ship's decor is pleasant and subdued, with unique pieces of art almost everywhere. The style is consistent throughout the ship, with more traditional artwork (no abstract or futuristic motifs), indeed appropriate for this itinerary. There are several pieces of sculpture that merit mentioning:
Other artwork worth mentioning are the large murals in the stairways representing Spanish scenes of matadors and senoritas, and a collage with a ballroom scene near the theater.
We were in Superior Ocean View Stateroom #7102 port side, wheelchair accessible. It was furnished with a queen size bed; a sitting area with sofa bed, upholstered chair and a large coffee table; mirrored vanity/desk area, a huge bathroom with additional railings and a 4'x4' shower. This cabin has tons of storage in closets and drawers, more than adequate for four people on a two week cruise. The far wall is glassed with a sliding door to the verandah with two chaises, two chairs and a table. The color scheme was similar to the Vision, with muted tones of gray, blue, lavender and pink.
The Grandeur is scheduled for dry dock this fall and in several areas refurbishing is needed-- upholstery etc. But, all in all, she is a beautiful ship.
Food is available round the clock-- The Windjammer and the Gatsby Dining Room have fixed schedules and the Solarium has pizza (not very good) but they serve excellent hot dogs, burgers and fries which are available most of the day and evening (the European cruisers all wanted to make sure that the beef was U.S.; they are still living with mad cow fear). Snacks are served in all of the bars, lounges and the Casino from 11:30 pm to 12:30 am and the bars are open from 9:00 am to 2:00 am the next morning. Room service is 24 hrs. per day.
Usually we ate breakfast in our cabin and it was punctual, hot and abundant (omelets were fine, bacon crisp, coffee hot and rolls and croissants fresh). Unfortunately, we did not personally meet the Executive Chef, Martin Grabenhofer (Austria), but read of his extensive culinary background. RCI has the best meats afloat and we also had succulent salmon and the salads were innovative (Boston Mimosa, Waldorf and especially Ensalada del Chef with orange segments and mixed greens). At lunch we had the Philadelphia Cheese Steak and the Tuna Melt Sub served on great, crispy French bread. The International menus were nicely varied but we particularly liked some Greek fare: Santorini fruit salad with Ouzo, Spanakopita (spinach and feta cheese pie) Beef Souvlaki skewers, Mousaka and Yiaourtini (yogurt cake with orange liquor). There were terrific ices, sherbets and ice creams; memorable chocolate cakes and delicious cookies. However, even though the Chef had trained in Venice, the pastas were not up to those we had enjoyed for the past ten days while in Italy, prior to embarkation. We are finding it harder and harder to order pastas on board RCI ships, since al dente is rarely achieved and the sauces just don't taste Italian. Even a simple dish like spaghetti Carbonara was ruined by adding a cream sauce, that's a no-no! The spaghetti were neither Carbonara nor Alfredo, but somewhere in between. However, we have to admit most non-Italians didn't notice a difference.
The gala meals are always the best and this cruise was no exception: We dined with Staff Captain George Paraskevopoulos (born in Australia of Greek parents and a graduate of the Mercantile Academy of Greece). He was delightfully candid about life at sea and hosted a dinner with escargots, soupe á l'oignon, Caesar salad, Surf and Turf (lobster tail and filet mignon), blackened salmon and velvet chocolate cake. He toasted his guests with water to emphasize SAFETY at sea, but ordered fine wines for the rest of the table (more later). Great food, gracious company, and all under the watchful eye of Maitre d' Massimo (see service).
The tone and ambiance is set by the Captain and his crew follows his lead: Captain Carlos Pedercini (Argentina) is RCI's youngest captain, receiving his Master's license at age 28 and at 36 he is a serious Master of the Grandeur; he wears his honors well. Staff Captain George emphasized the strict protocol and attention paid to safety by RCI with its Tricolor Alert System (Red, Yellow and Green) requiring specific staff duties at all times. Sleep easy cruisers, the Bridge is in capable, cautious hands!
Tony O'Prey, Hotel Director, is an affable capable man with one mission: He makes sure everything is done with flair and that the passengers are pleased. We were happy to see that there is a Chief Purser aboard, Julie Hansen, who was caring and totally efficient and responsive to cruiser's concerns which she followed up personally. Fortunately RCI has not attempted to run other ships as it did the Radiance of the Seas, where an experiment assigning ship hotel management to independent administrators, breaking the chain of command from the Captain on down. Initially this experiment resulted in failure. We have not followed the situation on the Radiance, but we feel that common sense will prevail at the top of RCI management and the tried-and-true system with the Captain, as the sole master of the ship, with the well established chain of officers and crew, will remain as the one and only valid system in the whole fleet.
In the Gatsby Dining Room we found the service outstanding under the direction of Maitre d' Massimo Barbiero (Italy). We could trust his honest assessment of the menu and were happy with his specific suggestions: Fine food, fine service, and a delightful atmosphere (in part due to the trio of musicians who played there nightly). We had a table for two at the top of the Grand Staircase overlooking the Salon and the Captain's table. Our Waiter Ajini Khalil (Tunisia) was attentive, but not hovering, just perfect. Asst. Waiter Rodrigo Estay (Chile) was smiling and friendly and Head Waiter Jayaraman Iyer (India/france) was also a knowledgeable sommelier.
Lunch in the dining room was always interesting with Waiter Vincenzo Caraglia (Italy); he sought out Vincent to discuss Italian soccer, Formula I Auto Racing, etc.-- friendly and prompt service.
We felt right at home on our second cruise aboard the Grandeur. The Repeaters Captain's Cocktail Party had an excellent Canapé Buffet, free drinks and friendly faces. We met many nice cruisers and staff. Social Hostess Chez van Straaten (S. Africa) was both bright and gracious. Her parents were on board for a 28th wedding anniversary and a second honeymoon to revisit Athens. We know where Chez got her charm.
Cruise Director Kyle Dodson (Texas, USA) heads up an active group which runs everything from daily Bingo to dance lessons and games. This cruise had several evening shows worth mentioning: Los Pampas Gauchos gave a literally hair raising routine (you've got to see it to believe it!) Judy Kolba gave a combination Singing/Comedy routine that we heard was hilarious (sorry, we did not catch her). Day Three's RCI production of "Starstruck" with its tribute to the silver screen and dazzling combination of live performance and film projection with the RCI dancers deftly jumping in and out of the giant screen was breathtaking. The dancers' timing was perfect to achieve this wonderful special effect.
Dominic Allen was the ultimate entertainer with both his vocal and instrumental expertise. The audience loved him.
As usual, RCI's Entertainment is worth seeing and hearing.
PORTS OF CALLThe main reason for this cruise was the itinerary and we are happy to say that our expectations were met, but the less than one day taste of Athens left us longing for more. Next time . . . and there will be a next time (God willing!), we will approach this cruise differently. We'll fly first to Athens for a three day stay and take a cruise back to Venice, Italy. Sounds good to us. We are now at a point in our lives that whenever we check off a vacation destination, we must add another one in order to keep that list going.
Civitavecchia, Italy:This is an engaging home port for Italy, where ferries to Sardinia (a trendy vacation spot) leave daily. We took a ride up into the mountains as far as the beginning of the Tuscan Hills. If you are interested in Etruscan Necropoles and Museums visit nearby Cerveteri and Tarquinia; Civitavecchia is a an excellent starting point. Of course Rome is a short one hour bus trip. Definitely extend your cruise vacation either before or after or you will regret it.
Katakolon, Greece:Greece comprises over 1400 isles of which only 169 are inhabited. This small town on the western coast of the Peloponnese (Greece's largest peninsula) has as its main attraction the famous archeological site of Ancient Olympia, where the Pisans first held their Olympic Games about 1,000 B.C. The contests reached their heights in 6th century B.C., but were banned in 394 A.D. The modern revival was in 1896 and Greeks are enthusiastically building and planning to host the games in 2004 in Athens.
Ioanna, the tour guide through Olympia was knowledgeable, humorous and made history come to life. The Doric architecture was massive in the Palaestra (wrestling school), the Prytaneum (where winners were honored) and the Temple of Zeus (not one of its original 25 columns still standing, this was the site of the gold and ivory statue of Zeus listed as one of the seven ancient wonders of the world). The Temple of Hera (which is better preserved) once held the statue of Hermes by Praxiteles (circa 350 B.C.) which is now across the road at the Olympia Archeological Museum. The first olympic stadium which set the distance for races and gave its name to all stadiums to follow was truly awesome. The start and finish lines still exist and are white marble and its sloping grassy sides held 30,000 spectators. The ruins of Olympia reveal a well organized sports center of gigantic proportions in ancient Greece. We gamely started out to tour these ruins, but soon realized it was hard with a wheelchair on unpaved ground. Sean, a fellow cruiser courteously took over and pushed Vincent through the entire site -- An Olympian Effort! Efcharistò(Thank you).
This tour is a must. Although the ship's 11:00 am arrival makes this tour in the summer uncomfortable from the heat of a high noon sun and we barely made it back to the last tender at 5:30 pm, it was an afternoon to remember. After this visit, we will never view the modern Olympics again in the same old way: The spirit of the old Olympians is with us.
Santorini, Greece:Aaah! This is the Greek Isle of postcards and travel guides, of white-washed buildings on cliffs with blue cupolas. This volcanic island erupted in 1450 B.C. and there remains only a crescent shape with the island of Nea Kameni in the center of the caldera. Very impressive and evocative of Geology 101. Sailing through a caldera! The ship anchors off Skala and the blue/white town of Firà can be accessed by climbing the over 600 steps of the Serpentine Path (we don't think so), riding a stubborn donkey (no way) or our choice "the cable car."
Firà was destroyed by an earthquake in 1956 and rebuilt maintaining its former charm of houses built into the mountainside. The narrow streets are uneven cobblestone and no cars. We visited the Archeological Museum, but the tour of the day was Ancient Akrotiri and Santorini which we did not take due to the wheelchair. Akrotiri is famous for its wall paintings (not frescoes since they are painted on dry walls) but fortunately for us the best of these we saw in Athens at the National Museum, including "The Fleet", "Boxing Children", "The Fisherman" and "The Spring Fresco" (misnomer).
Kusadasi (Ephesus), Turkey:Here we were steered wrongly by the ship's Shore Excursion desk. Because of Vincent's wheelchair we were told to catch a cab - to the tune of $100. The driver knew little English, and refused to leave us at the top of Ephesus and pick us up in the bottom, as promised. We suggest cruisers, even those with wheelchairs, take the ship excursion: Ephesus Ruins and house of the Virgin Mary. We found out later that a lady in a wheelchair had no problem with this tour and loved it. Next time we'll know better.
Piraeus (Athens), Greece:Athens is seven miles from the Port of Piraeus. Best tour here is the ship's PRA1 the Acropolis and Athens sightseeing. We opted for PRB1 the National Museum and sightseeing which meant viewing the shopping district. Next time we would like to see more of Athens which may mean staying over either at the beginning or end of our cruise.
Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy:
Rome was the final city on this itinerary and this is such a monumental city that it requires an extended stay. It's our favorite city since Vincent is a graduate of University of Rome and knows it well. Fond memories of our family stay there for a year in 1980 - '81, during Vincent's sabbatical appointment at the Catholic University, give it a special place in our hearts. We do Rome by ourselves, but we suggest that cruisers use the ship's excursions since the "Eternal City" is one newcomers may need a guide to tour.
DEBARKATIONDebarkation as usual was simple; Vincent's wheelchair was escorted all the way to the luggage area and out of the terminal. It was the end of a Grand cruising experience.
SUGGESTIONSIt is very hard to improve on a great cruise, but we are making the following suggestions in an attempt to make a great cruise greater:
1. If the itinerary could be arranged so that the arrival times for Katakolon and Santorini would be early morning as were the times for the other ports, cruisers would not be starting out on excursions at high noon, the hottest part of the day. Some of the ruins are unbearably hot at that time. At present, arrival at these two ports is 11:00 am. In our opinion they should be changed if possible to 8:00 am.
2. Once again RCI should hire a chef with expertise in Italian cuisine who would improve the sauces and pasta dishes thus attracting more lovers of true Italian cooking.
PHOTOS courtesy of Sharon Jackson & Royal Caribbean International.
For lots more SeaLetter photos and information on Grandeur of the Seas, click HERE.
Vincent & Mary Finelli have written many reviews for the SeaLetter and may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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