A Leap of Faith
My daughter was about to graduate from college. She had done extremely well, and my husband and I were contemplating an appropriate gift. He thought perhaps we could "upgrade" her car so she would be set for her three years of graduate school. I asked a few leading questions and my daughter was clear on one thing -- she wanted to go on a trip . . . a really great one . . . with me! Well, wasn't I happy! So what did she want to see on her trip? The Pyramids of Giza. Thus began a long and aggravating search. Not many cruise lines include Egypt, and we didn't want to do just Egypt. Also, we thought it would be really cool to have our own balcony. Our local AAA found nothing for us fitting those two criteria. I began searching the internet, and found a Greek cruise line with a ship that hadn't even been built. To add to this leap of faith, we were two gals from Ohio who ended up with a travel agent located in Canada who worked for an agency in Maryland! [Editor: An agency who just happens to publish the SeaLetter Cruise Magazine!]
We finalized arrangements in January of 2000 -- the ship was not scheduled to make its maiden voyage until June of 2000. Although we had traveled out of the country before, we had never attempted something as ambitious as three continents in seven days. We were also concerned about the size of the ship. After all, we were first time cruisers and had considered another ship checking in at 109,000 gross tons. At 25,000 gross tons, the Olympic Voyager appeared pretty small in our imaginations. Even though we were looking for an international experience, we did not want to be the only English-speaking passengers on a foreign ship. Our preconceptions of Turkey were not good, and yet we went. There was a lot to leave to the imagination!
We learned a lot about our ports of call and ship during the eight months we had to anxiously anticipate our departure. Expectations were high, and we were definitely not disappointed. Royal Olympic offered optional pre- and post-packages along with add-on air. We took advantage of these arrangements and got our requested airline and one-night stay in a hotel in Athens before our ship's departure. If time had not been limited, a two- or three-night stay would have been so much better to recover from the 7-hour time difference.
Despite the fact that our Delta flight arrived in Athens early, we were met by the very efficient and multilingual Eric who gathered us up to head toward our hotel. He shared useful information with us on our way, such as where to go and what to see, how to buy a phone card at a "kiosk," and to buy cheap bottled water at a local market (as opposed to the hotel). Although we did not request a specific hotel, we loved the Divani Palace Acropolis. It was beautiful and just a two-minute walk to the base of the Acropolis and a five-minute walk to the Plaka (a must-do experience). We toured the rest of the day on our own on foot, buying "worry beads," eating souvlaki, and watching the changing of the guard at the Parliament. We enjoyed a view of the Parthenon from our hotel, and put our jet-lagged bodies to bed early.
Our half-day Athens City tour, which was arranged by Royal Olympic, began early the next day after an included breakfast that was lavish! We were blessed with a cloudy day at the Acropolis, so the usual 90+° heat was lessened somewhat. Our tour guide was a wealth of information as we visited the Acropolis, Parthenon, Olympic Stadium, Parliament, and Temple of Zeus. It was sad to see a large number of thin stray dogs. Then it was back to the hotel for our bus shuttle to the ship. Our heavy, over-packed suitcases were never a concern, as they always appeared where and when they were needed.
Embarkation and Our Suite
We arrived at the Olympic Voyager around 2:00 P.M. and caught our first glimpse of our home for the next 7 days and nights. We were immediately relieved when we saw her -- not at all the small ship we envisioned, and no longer a leap of faith! About a half hour later, after free juice and security checks, we boarded our ship, received our welcome package, and were led to our stateroom, Cabin 7005. Wow! What a room! But more importantly, what a balcony! There were two chaise lounges, a table, two chairs, and a wicker basket for us to enjoy. Not just room to lounge, but room enough for a small party! The balconies were completely private from one another, but open on the front and top. (A small drawback to our particular cabin was that what must have been the gangplank was stored above us -- it was only a concern at docking when it was noisy and then became a "top" over our balcony while we were in port.) We were on the top deck, appropriately named "Helios" (Sun).
After filling out standard registration forms and reading through our welcome packet information, our suitcases were delivered. Sergey came to introduce himself to us as our butler and gave us his beeper number, urging us to call him anytime, 24 hours a day. Our cabin stewardess brought fresh flowers for the room and a rose for the bathroom. We were soon to learn of "Club 7." Our sky suite was one of only 12 cabins on board with a balcony. These 12 rooms were also the only rooms on this top deck. We did indeed feel like the First Class on the Titanic, minus the sinking part! As the trip progressed, we realized not everyone had a refrigerator . . . complimentary food and drinks . . . a bathtub . . . priority disembarking for all land excursions . . . 24-hour room service. We really did live it up for this once in a lifetime trip!
Then it was off to find our "Welcome Aboard Snacks" in the Garden Lounge, which was actually a full buffet. Typically, we suppose for a cruise, a full dinner followed in the dining room two hours later. Having requested an early seating and a table for six, we met our dinner tablemates (there was open seating available for breakfast and lunch). We knew we were not the typical "couple" and wondered who the dining steward would choose for us. Did we luck out! Those four people (a middle-aged couple from South Africa and a newlywed couple from California) would become great companions and fast friends, laughing and sharing stories, getting together for tours and evening shows, exchanging addresses, and hugging good-bye on our final day. It couldn't possibly have turned out any better.
The ship was scheduled to sail at 8:00pm, but did not push away from the pier until after 9:30pm. This would be the only time anything was late.
The Ports and Excursions
Note: If you are considering this cruise, read the optional land excursions brochure. They are all worthwhile, extremely well organized, and have knowledgeable, native guides. Here are our impressions and advice for each port.
We recommend the cable car. (A ticket is included with the tour). The other options are by mule or on foot. Just remember, your feet will be sharing a pathway with the mules . . . not a good thing to do to your shoes at the beginning of a trip. Anyone not booking this optional tour was still able to take a tender to shore and explore on their own. This was a relatively short tour and we had the afternoon to relax and enjoy our balcony. There would be no time to relax for the next two days. That evening we went to the Captain's Reception and Dinner.
The day is just full of wonders -- crossing the Nile; the Mosque of Mohammed Ali; treasures of King Tut; the Pyramids; and the Sphinx. And of course, this is the day that was the reason for my daughter choosing this trip. Early on the tour we were offered the chance to purchase a khartoush (jewelry with your name in hieroglyphics) to be picked up a few hours later. We were very pleased with ours, and they make fabulous souvenirs.
Recommendation: High on our list was the optional camel ride at the Pyramids. But be cautioned -- this is for the physically capable only. Camels are a lot taller than you think! Also, there is not a platform for boarding. The camel will be on its belly when you get on its hump. Now imagine what will happen as it straightens its front legs first (hold on!), then its back. Do not tip your camel leader until you are safely off, or else they will get you twice. Yes, it's terrifying and stinky, but it is so worth it! Make sure to smile for the ship photographers who manage to get a wonderful shot of you on your camel in front of Khufu's Pyramid - one of our favorite souvenirs. (Yes, the photographers came all the way to Cairo to take our picture!)
Beware: you will be overwhelmed by the number and aggressiveness of vendors who approach you from the second you are off your camel until you are back in the bus. Ignore them, avert your eyes, and keep your money close, or else you risk not being able to truly take in the wondrous Pyramids. We were so aggressively pursued that we had to stop and tell ourselves to look at the Pyramids. The vendors can be very friendly. In fact, I was offered 100 camels for my "very beautiful daughter." I took my daughter's picture with the handsome young man as he put a traditional headdress on her. A fun experience, but be prepared and cautious.
By the way, our boat continued sailing while we were touring and picked us up at Port Said (just past the Suez Canal). Cool.
After fifteen hours, we were anxious to get on board the ship, but unlike the staggered arrivals on the other optional tours, in Egypt buses must arrive together. Therefore, all 800 passengers were trying to board through one entrance at the same time, with aggressive vendors lined up all along the way. This is not Royal Olympic's fault -- this is the way the immigration process takes place in Port Said. If you haven't had enough cheap souvenirs and aggressive vendors by then, you never will!
We picked up a pizza at the pizza bar for a very late dinner because in just a few hours, we would wake up in Israel, ready for another long and memorable day.
The day is overwhelming, but in a good way. No matter what your beliefs, you will spend the day knowing that many wondrous things have occurred in this city. Although we are glad we have pictures of our visits, it felt somewhat disrespectful at the time to take them (even though we were told repeatedly that it was okay). In retrospect, we wish we would have just bought postcards and left ourselves to freely experience the holiest places on Earth without the distraction of searching out those "Kodak moments."
We finally got to sleep in on the next day, as our ship did not arrive in Rhodes until afternoon. So we explored the nightlife, meeting up with our tablemates for an after-dinner show in the Alexander Lounge. There was so much to do on this "small" ship and so little time because of the busy itinerary. Checking out the boat photographer's pictures was a nightly not-to-be-missed routine. We were so happy with our camel pictures!
That night on the ship for us was "Greek Night." Buy something Greek to wear! The dining room staff was even more excited than usual to share with us some of their traditional Greek dishes. We are not real adventurous eaters and could not appreciate the octopus (complete with suckers) and other Greek delights, but then we are just two gals from Ohio. The dinner was triumphantly brought to a close when the lights were dimmed and every waiter paraded in with a brightly-flaming Baked Alaska. We appreciated the presentation and effort.
Warning! If you use the bathroom here, ladies, be prepared for the possibility of it being just a "hole." If you get the opportunity, have some apple tea, a Turkish specialty. Sometimes while you shop, if you are seriously shopping, you will be offered a drink. We were pleasantly surprised with the beauty and cleanliness of Istanbul, and the friendliness of its people.
Recommendation: Be sure to have your picture taken sitting on one of the ancient toilets! Your boat photographer will be busy taking many pictures today. Make sure you get in as many as possible -- one is a panorama in front of the Great Theater.
Our bus returned us close to our boat, but in the middle of Kusadasi's shopping district. We greatly enjoyed shopping at a small jewelry shop, conversing with a Romanian sales clerk while sipping hot apple tea. We also went to the Kismet Internet Café, on the third floor with a truly magnificent view of the Aegean Sea, to e-mail home. Hint: The internet cafés are an excellent way to stay in touch with the family back home. For the equivalent of $5, we had 20 minutes on the internet and 2 cokes! Sure beats the cost of calling from the ship! Prepaid phone cards are also a good value.
Recommendation: After getting back on the boat, we recommend that you take a Dramamine. For about four hours of sailing from Kusadasi to Mykonos, we had very rough seas and high winds. We have heard ours wasn't the only sailing to experience that. Our balcony was on the 6th deck and we took on about an inch of water -- and it wasn't raining!
Recommendation: In Mykonos, make sure you get off the boat as soon as possible. We heard some passengers complaining that by the time they got to Mykonos, it was so late that they didn't even get off the bus. We had what seemed plenty of time, but we did make a point to get off the ship soon after stopping.
I hardly feel qualified to critique the food on the ship. But I must say we weren't the only ones to complain a little bit about the lack of choices in the Selene dining room at dinner. I remember one night that seafood was the only appetizer, and I can remember only one chicken dish being offered that week. The food was beautifully presented, and graciously served, but I think the cooks needed a little more time to work out seasoning and cooking such a large quantity of food. The pizza bar served pizzas quickly, but lacked a sauce that could be tasted; the crust was underdone the two times that we ate it. The buffet in the Garden Lounge always offered enough variety, and we enjoyed being able to choose whether to eat indoors or out. Breakfast was fine and we enjoyed the fresh fruit. This is my only cruise, but I was surprised that soft drinks were not included.
We had a short meeting on Thursday to discuss Saturday's disembarkation. They had thought of everything. Our cruise director had been terrific the whole trip. Passengers were leaving for different post-cruise packages and many different flights and hotels. From all we saw, things went smoothly. One thing that I would do differently if I ever have the opportunity is to stay on the ship until the last moment and get a taxi to the airport if I have an afternoon flight. We left the ship at 8:15 A.M. and our flight was not until 1:20 P.M. We could have stayed on the ship until 9:30 and taken a cab. It was such a long day anyway that I would have enjoyed those last minutes aboard.
Some Final Thoughts
The Olympic Voyager is the fastest ship of its class cruising today, achieving 27 knots and capable of more. Whether or not that is the cause of the vibration, I don't know. It was very noticeable our first day and night onboard. After that, we found it soothing and missed it the first night we slept off the boat. Our ship was able to achieve its speed partly because of a sleek monohull design. (Don't ask me what that is.) We found the ship to be beautiful, not only for the choice of woods and fabrics, but also for the unique artwork.
The passengers were a mix from 25 countries, Americans accounting for the most, with Japanese possibly being second. Our crew was international, and spoke an impressive number of languages. The entertainment was short of what a megaship could do, but was just fine for our ship and the small amount of time that the ambitious itinerary allowed. Reading the literature that I received before sailing, I was led to believe that the ship was more formal than it was. I was glad that there was a time and place to wear shorts, and a time and place to dress up. Not having access to a Laundromat was not a problem for the two of us, but if I had been traveling with the whole family, I would have missed that.
Our room was equipped with one 110-volt outlet, and we were able to use our curling iron without an adapter. A hairdryer was in the bathroom. Our ship lacked a full wraparound promenade deck. Personally, I got enough exercise touring, and was happy to lounge on our balcony. Even though this was no megaship, there were many things offered that I never had time to try out. I don't regret at all being on a relatively small ship and would choose this type ship again. I hear that another just like this (Olympic Explorer) will be ready to sail in May of 2001 with an Athens to Venice itinerary. Sounds so good!!
The greatest advantage of this trip was definitely the 3-continent itinerary. The cruise director and tour director and staff did everything to prepare us for these wonderful tours. I still marvel at how well they could take 800 people and get them on buses with guides speaking the right languages and do it so quickly.
Our sky suite was a luxury that may be a once-in-a-lifetime treat for me, but I'll always remember it with such joy. What a way to live -- even if only for 7 days and nights!
Cindy L. Grantz may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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