Rotterdam VI November 1998 Holy Land Cruise
(Whoops! No Holy Land! Thanks Saddam!) Bill & Monica from New York City (not Washington DC) embarked on another trip of a lifetime: visiting the Holy Land and Eastern Mediterranean ports for 12 days during November. The Rotterdam is beautiful – it is just 1 year old and our cruise occurred the week after it came out of dry dock. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
We departed Friday evening, November 6. A very attentive Holland America representative met us at the baggage area at Rome's Da Vinci Airport. The gentleman helped us with our baggage, and placed us in a Mercedes limousine. Our driver then lived up to the reputation of Italian drivers – extremely fast – but no accidents. The drive took about 40 minutes to our hotel, the Hotel Parco dei Principi, which is on the northeast corner of the Villa Borghese Park. We learned from others that tourists usually stayed on the Via Veneto (which is south of the park), but our hotel was gorgeous, the room sumptuous and the view divine. We were greatly helped during our stay by the Holland America representative located at a desk in the hotel – Maddalane.
Monday morning we boarded the bus with fellow Rotterdam passengers, picked up a few more at another hotel and headed for Civitavecchia to board the ship. It was a long ride, and included a small tour of key spots in Rome, including St. Peter's and the Fontana di Trevi. When we arrived at the pier, our bus stopped only 15 feet from the gangway, and we boarded immediately – no mob scene of people checking in, since Maddalane had taken care of that for us. We were on board the ship in our room by 11:00 am!
Day 1, Rome (Monday)
Plenty of port talks, boat drills and getting to know our table mates at 2nd seating. We sat with a recently retired couple from Illinois, and a retired lady (Carmen), who had been sailing on the Rotterdam for the past 3 months. She lives very well on the ship, even though she is legally blind. A lot of credit goes to the Indonesian crew who help out to make everyone comfy. This cruise was virtually all retired/elderly veteran cruisers, with a fair number of wheelchairs, crutches, canes and motorized carts, all of which this ship handles very well. The hallways are all wide, there are no "thresholds" at the bottom of doorways, and the elevators all have fold-down seats in them.
Day 2, at sea (Tuesday)
Plenty to do! The ship has a beautiful gym, two swimming pools, two hot tubs, several shops, TV in the room (with CNN and movies), and of course, plenty of food. There is the formal La Fontaine Dining Room, the casual Lido Restaurant, and The Odyssey, a new Italian-cuisine restaurant. The Odyssey is reservations-only, but is no additional charge. Its décor is "very Manhattan", with dark gray granite walls, and pinpoint lighting. Unlike the La Fontaine or Lido, The Odyssey has one menu that does not change. We managed to get a reservation and enjoyed it a lot. It caters to couples, but can handle a group of six. We still found we enjoyed the camaraderie of La Fontaine: it is important to our cruise experience.
The evening show featured the Rotterdam cast, all Disney "veterans", and this was their first show together. They were all excellent, and high-energy. The shows were all medley-type shows, featuring well-known songs from Broadway and film, and the costumes were designed by Bob Mackie.
Day 3, Katakolon, Greece (Wednesday)
Katakolon, "the gateway to Olympia" is a very small, repeat small, village in the Peloponnese. We did not take the excursion to Olympia (we were resting up for Israel and Egypt!) but we heard it was very good. This was the only port of call with a tender service, so Bill stayed on board the Rotterdam, and Monica went into the town. People were returning to the ship by 9 am, saying "if you stay 10 minutes, you'll see the town twice". Well, that sure was true! There was nothing there except a couple of souvenir shops and some very sick wild dogs. Wild dogs are common in Greece and Turkey, but the ones on Katakolon were pure breeds, like collies, which leads one to believe that when someone on the island tires of a pet, they just turn them loose.
Because it was the American Veteran's Day, the ship provided special lapel pins to the vets, had a special observance for them in the afternoon, and acknowledged them at night during the evening show.
Day 4, Piraeus, Greece (Thursday)
Piraeus is the port city for Athens. We had been to Athens on prior cruises, so we decided to save our energy for Egypt and Israel! We did get off the ship for a flavor walk. Piraeus was the setting for the movie, "Never On Sunday," when the area was full of commercial shipping and prostitution. However, it has been completely cleaned up, and there are many corporate offices and cafés around, and a lot of work is being done around the pier area to make it more amenable to cruise passengers.
Day 5, At Sea (Friday)
We did very little on the ship this day. One of our main goals for the cruise was to accumulate enough points in our "Passport to Fitness" book to get a tee-shirt. Bill learned that he and Monica could combine stamps in the book, so he had both of us out at all possible exercise events, including daily workouts in the large, state-of-the-art gym on board. We did manage to get four tee-shirts by the end of the cruise. As for working on tans, this was not the cruise for that. It was rainy season in Greece, and for much of the cruise, it was raining or overcast, and cool enough to require a sweater.
Day 6, Alexandria, Egypt (Saturday)
Alexandria! Wow, what an incredible place! It was once the greatest city in the ancient world, and it is now a teeming Arab city. Nearly the entire ship (1,100 passengers) disembarked the ship to make the 3-hour bus ride to the Pyramids. On the pier area, we were met with a red carpet, an Egyptian military band and many army guards with machine guns. Each bus had a driver, a tour guide and a security officer.
Our drive through Alexandria was amazing. Much of the city is run-down and garbage-strewn and mobbed with people, many of whom waved to us. This was surprising, as we were warned by friends back home that tour buses sometimes are shot at in Egypt. Our tour guide gave us a lot of information on the progress Egypt has made in transforming itself: emphasis on higher education and the reclamation of desert lands to make into farmland. Just before we got off the bus at the foot of the great Pyramids, we were alerted to avoid camel rides with unauthorized people, and to hold off buying souvenirs until the right moment. The tour guide advised all to say "No, thank you". Good thing we got those warnings: we were barraged with vendors and camel-ride guys constantly during our 20 minute visit.
The great Pyramids are incredible. They really are one of the "must see" sites in any one's lifetime. How could they have been built? But while you stand and gaze at the Pyramids, or try to take a picture, you can be sure to be approached at least every 10 seconds by the vendors! Monica even took pictures of a camel guy chasing two tourists, no doubt saying "Take my peek-tur!"
We left the great Pyramids, and drove over to see the Sphinx, where the vendors are not as aggressive, but there are more crowds, and you cannot get very near the Sphinx. After a ten minute visit, we boarded the bus and were driven to a souvenir shop, where we could buy custom made, 18-karat gold Kartouches (which we did, and found out later they were a great buy). The customization was done while we were eating an Egyptian lunch in a banquet at a 5-star hotel. We were then taken to the Step Pyramid of Sakkara, the first pyramid built. After a short visit there, our Kartouches were delivered to us on the bus, and we began our 3-hour return drive to the ship. Although we had a 6-hour bus journey, and had to endure the travails of souvenir vendors, we truly enjoyed the journey. We hope one day to return to the area to see other sights we did not have time for.
When all 1,100 of us got back on board the ship, the captain made an announcement that we were not going to sail to Israel as planned. The US State Department had not rescinded its travel advisory against visiting Israel, so the ports were being changed. (This was due to the concern of gas attacks against Israel by Iraq). The next day, the ship would be stopping in Cyprus (originally scheduled for Tuesday), then sail to Rhodes (new to the itinerary) and then to Kusadasi, Turkey (also new). As we had planned on taking the largest excursion of the cruise – the overnight visit to Jerusalem – this change of plans took a lot of the wind out of our sails.
Day 7, Limassol, Cyprus (Sunday)
Cyprus is beautiful. Although there was some rain when the ship arrived, the sun managed to emerge and show off the beauty of the island. Bill was still too depressed to go ashore, but Monica went and tried to do some shopping. Limassol is a shopper's paradise, but because the port visit was changed to a Sunday, nearly all the shops were closed! And to make matters worse, the ship published the wrong exchange rate in the daily newsletter, which led a lot of passengers to believe they were being "ripped off" when they tried to make purchases at the few shops which were open. But Monica still managed to spend several pleasant hours walking around the town, window-shopping.
Day 8, Rhodes, Greece (Monday)
We arrived in Rhodes and it was raining. We both managed to dodge the Monday morning commuters (oh, did we tell you there aren't many traffic lights in the countries we visited?) and visited the fortified, medieval town, which has been remarkably well preserved.
Day 9, Kusadasi, Turkey (Tuesday)
Kusadasi is the "Riviera of Turkey" and the port where nearly all cruise passengers disembark to take the tour of Ephesus, one of the best preserved of the ancient cities. We had taken this tour several years ago, and opted instead for a "flavor walk". Kusadasi is very hilly and very picturesque. If one is aggressive enough, the Grand Bazaar (which is actually quite small) affords good buys on leather coats and rugs, provided you know how to bargain and are in the mood for a good fight.
Day 9, At Sea (Wednesday)
We started to get out of the funk we were suffering from, and starting getting involved in activities again, including golf chipping contests, watching the "Great Sea Trials" (where passengers competed with model boats they had built in their cabins over the past few days) and getting massages.
Day 10, Valletta, Malta (Thursday)
While we did not sign up for any tours, we found we could walk around Malta and get the same tour others had paid for. What a beautiful place! Valletta is a fortified city, golden in color. It has narrow, winding streets and many beautiful shops. One of the grandest structures is St. John's Co-Cathedral, with the most elaborate and beautiful interior of any church imaginable. However, the ship was docked only until 1:30 pm, and we had to rush back.
Day 11, Naples, Italy (Friday)
We signed up for the tour of Pompeii, and were thoroughly awestruck. What an incredible tour! This ancient city is large, two-thirds of it has been excavated, and the buildings are remarkably well preserved. The guide takes you everywhere, taking you inside the houses and explaining how each room was used. Mount Vesuvius is close by and still active, which makes one wonder how Naples will survive if the volcano has a major eruption.
Day 12, Civitavecchia, Italy (Saturday)
Back in Rome, and we had an early flight (10:30 am). Early in the cruise, Bill had taken advantage of a special program for passengers on certain airlines that allowed us to be checked in early and have our luggage sealed, so we avoided some of the disembarkation headaches. However, the airline seemed very disorganized with the batch of cruise passengers who were all on the same flight, but they managed to get everyone on board. We still don't know how it took 7 hours to go to Rome, and 10 hours to get back!
OK, here's what everyone has been waiting for: the ratings on a scale of 1 to 10.
Bill: 8.0. Reason: "No Israel"
We ended up with two substitute ports we were not interested in (an extra day in Egypt would have helped), and the shifting itinerary put us in Cypress on a bad day. The ship itself is fantastic – very roomy and squeaky clean, and the food is very good. The other passengers are well-to-do and well-behaved.
Queen's Lounge Showroom
The entertainment is pretty good – the Rotterdam cast of ex-Disney singers and dancers is fantastic, but the individual performers (for instance, there were two evenings with different comedians, another evening with a pianist, etc.) were a little disappointing. The ship has an excellent library, but there was a poor choice of films, both in cabin and in the theater, but everyone appreciated the freshly popped popcorn. Would I take this cruise again? Definitely, if they could guarantee the Israel stops.
Bill Sanchez has been cruising for fun and relaxation for over 15 years. Bill is the NY Regional Director for Pinnacle Decision Systems, Inc – a specialty consulting firm that uses mainstream software to solve business problems for the Fortune 1000, government agencies and universities. Bill can be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org and you can learn more about Pinnacle at http://www.pinndec.com/.
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