Monday, November 29, 2010

Cruise Port Review: Ravenna

Princess provided a free shuttle into town (about a 20 minute ride) and I had been really looking forward to seeing the mosaics that the town was famous for. Here is the information I provided our tour group:


Known as the mosaic city because of the stunning 5th-6th century mosaics that adorn the walls of its churches and monuments and because it is still one of Italy's top producers of mosaics.

Basilica of San Vitale: This is THE place to visit to see the beautiful Byzantine mosaics. It takes a bit to orient yourself to the various buildings because the basilica is connected to the National Museum. It is through the National Museum that you gain entrance to the basilica by passing back outside through a pretty enclosed loggia.

Right next door is Tomb of Galla Placidia. It is known for its ancient and breathtaking mosaics. The small brick structure dates from around 430 AD, making it one of the oldest monuments in Ravenna.

Consider Enoteca Ca’ de’ Vén
on Via C. Ricci

Dante’s Tomb and The Church of San Francisco: Conveniently located just behind the restaurant, these are not major tourist stops. But the church of San Francisco has a strange lower church visible through narrow windows under the main altar that is completely covered in several inches of water – and there are gold fish swimming about!

A full day can be spent in this city seeing more mosaics such as:

The octagonal Neonian Bapistery, the oldest mosiacs, is supposedly a converted Roman bathhouse and contains further superb mosaics. You can get close to some of the mosaics giving a greater insight into the adept work of the artisans. A huge baptismal font big enough to swim in sits to one side.

With more a feeling of a traditional rectangular church with stylish columns, the Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, contains two long walls of mosaics. One side shows a procession of martyrs and the other shows a procession of virgins led by the Three Wise Men carrying their gifts.

Map of Ravenna Town Center….Mosaics are at #2 and Dante’s Tomb is #14

Well, this stop didn't turn out anything like I thought it would. It started with me getting turned around when getting off the shuttle bus and walking away from town instead of toward the city center. That was easily corrected with the help of the compass that my husband always has in his pocket when we travel.

We made it to San Vitale where the fee was 7,50 Euros and included entrance into the Basilica, the museum and the Tomb of Galla Placidia, all on the same grounds, plus a couple of other places. We went into the Basilica and it was DARK inside. We could not take any photos, which didn't really matter as I could not find these wonderful mosaics that the city is so famous for. No where did we see the glorious colors I had expected, based upon photos I have seen. So where were they? A visit to the gift shop afterwards, and looking in a guide book, we noted that a good portion of them are within the roped off area of the alter. (If seeing specific mosaics is important to you, I strongly suggest getting a guide book showing exactly where to look.)

We next went into the Tomb and the mosaics in there were great and we were able to take pictures. Those were worth seeing. We then headed towards the city center, wandering through some narrow and quaint streets.

The main thoroughfare in Ravenna is loaded with one upscale shop after another. It is definitely not a place for bargain shopping. We even had trouble finding tourist-oriented shops.

We did find the restaurant, CA'de VEN. The restaurant is old and well worth a peak inside. It is very photogenic and we decided to have lunch there. We had a helpful and honest waiter who told us that a bottle of house wine would cost the same as the three glasses we had ordered so he delivered a bottle to the table. Most of us had some form of pasta. It was a pleasant break in what had been, so far, a not-what-I-had-expected day.

And adding to that was an attempt to visit the Church of San Francisco. Located on the street right next to the restaurant was Dante's tomb, which we went into, and the church. And the church was closed!

Time to head back to the shuttle bus and back to the ship. Where there is NOTHING except for the ship. Don't expect to shop by the port in Ravenna.

Last Minute Travel: Australia

The LastMinute travel brand recently redid the Australian LastMinute travel website. I understand it is a significant improvement over the old site which was hard to navigate and wasn’t the most attractive looking site either. I just took a look at the new site and it is bright, clean and looks very easy to navigate.

Traveling around Australia and need a last minute accommodation? Or need a last minute flight on Qantas, Singapore Airlines or Jetstar? All are available though the new LastMinute travel Australian website with its easy to use search engine.

Whether you are traveling to, from or within Australia, the Australia site for LastMinute travel is definitely a site worthy of checking out.

Cruise Port Review: Dubrovnik, Croatia

Rain! But that didn't stop us. At least not totally.

Here is the port information I provided for our group:

Dubrovnik is an easy port to do on one’s own. The old, walled city is a delight to wander through. However, if you are interested in history or some specific sights, you might want to consider a ship’s tour.

One of the highlights here is to ‘walk the wall’. This is not easy as there are lots of steps. However, if you think you can do even part of it, enter at Pile and walk counterclockwise, to the scenic seaside portion. You can either return to the Pile entrance to exit or can continue and exit near the Maritime Museum. Along this portion of the wall there are a couple of places/cafes to stop, sit and rest.

I read that it is suggested to get a small amount of the local currency if you’ll be doing any shopping or stopping into any restaurants. The merchants really prefer that.

There may be a Princess shuttle providing transportation to town. There will also be plenty of taxis. The taxi drivers will accept Euros for the trip to the old town. Average price to Pile gate is 10 Euros. Be prepared to negotiate. If driver won’t drop his price, move onto the next taxi. Once at the old city, don’t take a taxi through it/around it. There are lots of one way streets and the old city is small.

For a history of the local culture from the early days, a recommended museum is the Rupe Museum.

As you walk along the Stradun (main promenade) you might be tempted to stop and buy from the vendors. Don’t. Get off the main street and into the little side streets. You’ll find some very nice local shops (the kind the locals buy from), good gelato, and, if you are looking, wonderful art galleries.

No, there was no Princess shuttle. Yes, there were taxis and the rate was 10 Euros per taxi. Our group of 14 was down to 12 for this port so we split into 3 taxis. Worked out perfectly.

The walled city of Dubrovnik is a lot smaller than I thought it would be. We were early and between that and the rain, the streets were pretty empty. We walked the main Stadun in no time at all. Actually, I was surprised at how fast we exited through the gate at the other end.

We canceled our plan to walk the wall because of the rain and we were concerned the steps and slopes would be slippery. We found the synagogue but it and the museum didn't open until 10 a.m. In the meantime we strolled the streets, stopping in at a local supermarket, viewing the local produce market and shopping in tourist and jewelry stores as they opened.

Silver is a very big item here. I wasn't going to buy anything until I came across a gorgeous necklace with a typical Croatian designed ball-shaped pendant. It truly was beautiful but too much for what I was willing to spend. So I 'settled' (VGB) for earrings with the same type of design.

The old walled city is built at the base of a mountain. Toward the mountain, the city streets are narrow and steep stairs. Towards the waterfront, the city streets are narrow and flat. The city was spotless and our short stay was too short, made more difficult by a downpour we just managed to find shelter from. Perhaps we'll return another day and be able to walk the wall and stroll more streets.

So we found a taxi for our 10 Euro ride back to the port. For those interested, there is some shopping at the port... some of it a bit upscale art and some the typical kiosks with tourist related items.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Recommended Restaurant in Alexandria, Egypt: Samakmak

As part of our tour with Egypt and Beyond Travel (not to be confused with just Egypt and Beyond) we had a wonderful lunch at Samakmak, 42 Qasr Ras at-Tin, 03 481 1560.

Excellent pita with typical Middle Eastern appetizers, fried calamari, grilled shrimp and grilled fish. Doesn't look like much from the outside. Don't let that stop you from going inside.

Upon returning I found the following reviews. I agree totally.

Lonely Planet review of Samakmak:

Owned by Zizi Salem, the retired queen of the Alexandrian belly-dancing scene, Samakmak is definitely one step up from the other fish eateries in the neighbourhood. The fish is as fresh as elsewhere, but customers flock to this place for its specials, including crayfish, marvellous crab tagen (stew cooked in a deep clay pot) and a great spaghetti with clams.

Fodor's review:

This seafood restaurant is located in a suitably rundown area near the port where the fishing boats dock, and it is so close to the landing stage you could throw the fish straight from the dock to the restaurant grill. Inside, the place has a slightly more formal atmosphere than most and serves exquisitely fresh seafood that benefits from the short walk from boat to plate. The staff is friendly and helpful.

Cruise Port Review: Alexandria, Egypt

Our tour of Alexandria, with Egypt and Beyond Travel, was another whirlwind, made even longer by our Egyptologist adding in a few thing not on our list but that she thought would interest us.

The drive to Alexandria from Cairo took about 3 1/2 hours, including a stop at a rest area, where our group of shoppers managed to actually find time to shop and buy! The drive itself was not very interesting and it gave most of us a chance to relax, what with our late finish to the previous night (10 p.m.) and our early start this morning (breakfast at 6:15 a.m.).

The difference between Alexandria and Cairo is like day and night. Alexandria is a newer city and a lot cleaner. It hugs the waterfront which makes for some beautiful views. It has many wide boulevards although it does have its share of

small streets as we discovered when our bus made its way downtown through the main shopping area. It was a very crowded shopping day and I think if we had an extra day, our shoppers would have been off the bus in a heartbeat, wandering through the downtown stores.

Most of the sightseeing in Alexandria that we did was strictly from the outside. We stopped at Pompeii's Pillar, The Montazah Palace and Gardens, Pharoah's Lighthouse and the Abo El Abbas Mosque (where we could not go inside).

And it is obvious Alexandria is still a working fishing port.

Having more time today, we stopped for a relaxing and excellent lunch, with our final stop being the library. I have to admit this stop turned out to be a bit disappointing. We had to wait for a tour in English, and then were escorted into the main library. We were in a glassed off area overlooking the main floor and not a good place for photos. To step to an area for good photos meant not hearing the guide.

After an explanation on the history and parts of the library, she then took the group over to a computer with Internet access to show how the library could be accessed through a home computer. This was going on and on and we really didn't come there to learn how to access the library through a computer....we wanted to see more of the physical library.

Actually, I would have loved to be able to just wander around the lower floor. But we couldn't. And the group voted to leave. I have to admit I was disappointed. I would have loved to have more time in the library. But it would have required much more time than our tour had allotted.

To the ship where we had a choice of being dropped off at the pier entrance, for shopping, or being taken directly to the ship. The group split up here, with most staying to shop. We discovered that Princess was running a free shuttle from the ship to downtown to the port shopping area. We didn't know this because we had not been on board the previous night. So some of us wandered the shops, some of us sat and watched (DHs) and we then caught the shuttle back to the ship, ready to recuperate on our upcoming two days at sea.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Cruise Port Review: Cairo, Egypt, Part 2

(Be sure check out Part 1).

Lunch. Well, sort of. We had a very full agenda for our day in Cairo and we didn't want to take time out for lunch. So, based upon our wishes, Egypt and Beyond Travel sent one of their staff members to a takeout falafel place. The bus swung by and she boarded with bags of falafel sandwiches, water and bananas. We ate on the bus, ready for our next stop....

The Ben Ezra Synagogue. This is the oldest existing synagogue in Cairo. We had to walk a way to get to it. It is located in the old Coptic section of Cairo. On the way we also stopped at an old Coptic church which had actually been underwater before restoration. I found it fascinating that something could be under water in a desert.

Last on our daytime agenda was the Egyptian Museum. No photos here as cameras are not even allowed into the museum. Our goal was to see the King Tut exhibit. I could have sworn that I had read this was the 'new' Egyptian museum but you couldn't prove it by me. Inside it smelled old and musty. The museum itself could have been a museum IMHO.

The King Tut exhibit was crowded. Very crowded. We had a limited amount of time in there with lines around the display cases. The craftsmanship of what I did see was, of course, exquisite. Amazing amount of gold and number of relics found in the tomb. The small room with the display of his burial mask, two of the coffins and several cases of smaller pieces was just part of what was on display. Outside that room there were displays of his beds, throne and additional coffins (he was buried in multiple coffins, one inside the other). Of course all the gold amazed us but we learned that gold was not, at that time, the precious metal it is today. Actually, silver was more valuable then.

We were supposed to go shopping. On our agenda was the Khan el-Khalili Arab market. But we couldn't do it. Even our group of consummate shoppers were done in. So off to the Cairo Hilton for a chance to freshen up and change before heading out AGAIN for our Nile dinner cruise.

Thanks to Ellen we all had Nile view rooms. With sliding glass doors that opened onto a small balcony, we were able to view the Nile and listen to the noises of Cairo as the city began to get dark. We were being picked up at 7 p.m. The Nile dinner cruise included a buffet dinner with entertainment. And we had a real surprise in store for us!

There was a wedding celebration on board! A beautiful glowing bride, the groom, mother and mother-in-law, brothers of the bride and some friends. It was a real treat interacting with them.

Dinner was a selection of Egyptian food. There was something for everyone: fish, chicken, vegetables. A table was set up with salads and another table with desserts. Certainly plenty to eat and I thought it was delicious. Entertainment was a very good belly dancer and a whirling dervish, an exhibition I had never seen before. (He never stops...not until the performance is over!)

At 10 p.m. our guide and bus were waiting to take us back to the Hilton. Breakfast at 6:15 a.m. tomorrow and on the road to Alexandria by 7 a.m.

Cruise Port Review: Cairo, Egypt, Part 1

Our day in Cairo was an incredibly wonderful experience. Private tour arrangements were made by Ellen with Egypt and Beyond Travel. (DO NOT confuse with another company called Egypt and Beyond!)

The first thing that caught my attention was our tour guide right on the pier waiting for us. Of all the tour guides, he was the only one that came to meet us by the ship. Our beautiful, clean, comfortable bus was first in line for the convoy into Cairo. We had a full sized Mercedes bus, a driver, Egyptologist, guide AND a gentleman to handle security, with no question that he was packing.

We knew we'd be leaving Port Said in a security caravan. Port Said itself is not very interesting. The streets were dirty and the ride between the port and Cairo had a lot of nothing. But our Egyptologist helped the time go quickly by telling us about her country and answering our questions.

Our first stop was the Pyramids of Giza. I had read that the Pyramids were located right outside of the city of Giza. And, yes, that is exactly where they are. As we turned a corner, the top of the Great Pyramid appeared above the city buildings and THAT was something to see. It really gave me a feeling for how large it really is.

We had time to walk to the Great Pyramid and even to climb up about 3 courses. No one is allowed to climb higher than the opening and there is a charge to go inside. It was very crowded, very noisy and not the cleanest of places. Still, it was most impressive.

Our next stop was an overlook. Crowded with tourists, vendors and camel drivers, it was still a worthwhile stop with a beautiful view of the three pyramids: Great Pyramid for the pharaoh Cheops, his wife and his mother. A warning here to be careful of the camel drivers. (DO NOT allow them to put you on a camel unless this is something you really want to do and have negotiated a price BEFORE getting on. One couple told us how they were, literally, steered onto a camel and then the driver wanted $100 to let them off.)

Our final stop on Giza was the Sphinx. I was looking to the left, outside of the bus, and when I turned my head to the right, THERE IT WAS! WOW! The road goes literally along the length of the Sphinx and we were dropped off at an area that allowed us a view of the Sphinx with the pyramids in the background. Not good enough for my husband and myself, we crossed an area of sand, weaved our way through an ancient temple, and made our way up a ramp that runs along the side of the Sphinx. Much more up close and personal and we are glad we did it.

(Click here for Part 2)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Does Amtrak Auto Train Have Internet Service?

I've seen this question come up quite often so I thought I'd do a post about it.

Briefly, the answer is No.

That said, we had excellent Internet access during our last Auto Train trip using Verizon's USB Modem.

If you already have a smart phone, check with your telephone provider regarding wireless Internet service. Friends of ours have Verizon and use their phones for Internet access when they are traveling.

Cruise Port Guide: St Martin St Maarten

I was just looking at some new posts on the Cruise Critic forum and one that caught my eye had to do with St Martin St Maarten. I have to admit this is not my favorite island. Yes, the shopping can be great but, in general, I find the island boring and traffic congested. And this from a beach/water lover.

Anyway, the question had to do with taking a taxi from Philipsburg to Marigot. The solution suggested by several members of the forum was to simply take a local bus. Walk from Front St, the street by the water, to Back St, one block over. Wait at a bus stop or wave down a bus with a sign for Marigot in its window. Fare was just recently $2 pp. To return back, wave down a bus with Philipsburg in the window.

And if you don't want to go too far for a beach on St. Martin, I have read that the beach right in Philipsburg is nice, without dealing with the traffic hassles often found on the island. Not as pristine as some of the outlying beaches but for a few hours of sun and water it was more than adequate.

P.S. My TA subscribes to this blog....and she just sent me an email with the following information:

We were just there in July (2010). You CAN walk from the ship, regardless of which dock you are parked at, and it’s a beautiful beach with shopping all around.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

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Does a cruise passenger need to, independently, get their own Egyptian visa?

I participate in several cruise forums and one topic that seems to consistently come up is whether or not cruise ship passengers stopping in Egypt need to independently obtain their Egyptian visa.

From personal experience, on the Pacific Princess, I can tell you our answer is 'No.' Princess asked for passports upon passengers return to the ship in Ashdod, Israel, our last stop before Port Said. We needed to pick them up the next morning before disembarking. All passports were stamped with the necessary visa.

It didn't matter if anyone was on a ship excursion, an independent excursion (as we were), or just getting off the ship to wander around the city. And based upon what I have read on forums, this is true for any ship.

Another item I read on the forum is not to simply check with your TA. Unfortunately, some TAs were less than truthful because they would handle getting the visa and got a commission for it. If your TA says, yes, that you need one, double check by calling your cruise line directly and ask to speak with a supervisor. Not all front line employees know the correct information.

Want to check further? Register for the great forum at Cruise Critic and post your question there.

Kudos to my HIGHLY recommended travel agent

I've often mentioned my TA, Ellen, in my posts. Her full name is Ellen Posard and she is the owner of Sea4Sail.

Don't let the name of her company fool you. Yes, she specializes in cruises but she also handles land tours. With over 20 years in the business, and as a respected member of a major travel consortium, she has developed many excellent contacts throughout the travel industry. And her contacts and experience came to play, directly, on our Holy Land Trip.

Ellen arranged our land tours in Turkey, Israel and Egypt. As previously mentioned, when our tour guide for our first day in Israel did not meet her standards, she was livid. Immediately on the telephone, and then later in emails, she handled the situation in an extremely calm and professional manner. Me? I would have been screaming at someone. But Ellen is the consummate professional and before dinner was over that evening (she brought her laptop to the dinner table to stay on top of her emails), she received a very sincere apology, was assured that we would have a new guide for Jerusalem and that she and her clients would be extremely pleased.

And, yes, we had a lovely, very knowledgeable young lady who made sure we saw everything on our agenda, even if it meant we were back to the ship an hour later than originally contracted for.

Kudos to Ellen!

Cruise Port Review: Haifa, Acre (Acco)

This was to be the second day of the custom tours arranged by our travel agent, Ellen, who was one of our group of 14. Our tour for Kusadasi was wonderful and we had great expectations for our days in Israel. Unfortunately, day 1 was not up to Ellen's standards nor what our group had come to expect.

It started with our guide being late. The tour bus was not where it was supposed be to meet us and we lost time with that being straightened out. Our guide was severely lacking in local knowledge as in having to stop at the Bahai Garden gate to see when it opened. At one stop he had the bus letting us off on what was the wrong side of a very busy street. Our protests persuaded him to ask the driver to make a U-turn so we could disembark the bus without crossing heavy traffic. His commentary was worthless. He answered questions with everything from "I don't know" to making things up. And Ellen was beyond livid! (More on this later.)

Our agenda included the Bahai temple and gardens (and the spectacular view of Haifa), a Druze village, the Crusader Citadel at Acco, the Turkish Baths and the Beit Shearim Catacombs. We got to see them all and enjoyed them all but we were sure our experience would have been better with a more knowledgeable guide.

That said, the Crusader Citadel and Turkish Baths in Acco is definitely worth a visit. At the Turkish Baths we had headsets that allowed us to listen to the explanations and it was an interesting experience. I wish we had more time in the city. Based upon the little we saw, it looked like a wonderful old city to wander in.

Our last stop was at the national park that contains the Beit Shearim Catacombs. Originally I didn't want to include this but Ellen persuaded me otherwise and I'm glad she did. It was a fascinating and not at all what I had expected. From one who has claustrophobia, I expected small enclosed spaces. Instead we found large open tunnels, with beautifully decorated sarcophagi and, of all things, a menorah carved into one of the tunnel walls.

Lastly, we asked our tour guide about shopping in Haifa. We wanted a place where tourists shopped, like the stalls we saw in Acco. Actually, when it was time to leave Acco, we specifically asked him if there was shopping like that in Haifa and he said 'yes.' So where did he have the bus driver take us? To the shopping area where the local shop: shoes, clothes, hardware, etc. NOTHING like we wanted. Cancel that and take us back to the ship. As next reported, Ellen was, big time, ready to take care of this problem.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Cruise Port Review: Ephesus, Kusadasi and Sirince, Turkey

Disembarking was right on time at 8 a.m. And our tour guide from Vanguard Travel Services was waiting for us right outside the port terminal doors. We had a very comfortable minivan and quickly set off for Ephesus.

The ride from the port was about 45 minutes. Shopping was available just outside the site but we didn't take time for it. A quick stop at the private facilities and we headed to the entrance.

Several of our group had been to Ephesus, approximately 10 years ago. They couldn't believe how much had changed. Over the 10 years there had been significant new digging, including the restoration of the Terrace Houses, now available for public viewing for an extra fee.

I found the history of the city fascinating. (Our tour guide was excellent!) Originally on a harbor, the build up of silt resulted in a land locked city. When the Romans built it, they planned for gutters, aqueducts to bring in fresh water and drainage pipes to handle the sewage. The toilet house was built with continually running water under the seats. The Terrace Houses show, by the location of clay pipes, that the homes were heated and had hot and cold running water.

I was familiar with pictures of the fantastic library but the facade was even more spectacular when seen 'in person.' Funny story we heard about a tunnel being discovered from inside the library to the brothel across the street. And at the end of our tour was the absolutely huge city amphitheater. Visiting this city was a definite highlight.

As expected, there were shops at the end, by the bus pickup. We didn't stay long as we had more on our agenda: a visit to Sirince.

Sirince is a hill town in a region known for its wines. We have a beautiful ride up into the mountains with great views every way we looked. Lunch was at the Artemis Restaurant and was fabulous. It included two beverages (I had a glass of white and a glass of red wine), appetizers of olives, tzidiki and hummus, salad, skewers of beef with rice, roasted sweet pepper and onion, and dessert of baklava with ice cream. Fantastic!

We had an opportunity to tour the village but it meant walking down a steep hill that we would have to climb back up again. With the average age of our group in the high 60's, the vote was to skip the tour and head back to Kusadasi for the bazaar where we were dropped off right by the port.

The bazaar area outside the port is HUGE. And the shopping experience wasn't very pleasant. We were practically dragged into stores with "end of season - special pricing." One of the women I was with literally had to force her way out of a store. We wandered the streets which had mostly shops for shoes, clothing, leather jackets and jewelry. Very few tourist souvenir shops and what shops there were all sold the same thing.

After walking just to walk and get some more exercise, we made our way back through the port towards the ship. And there were some very nice shops right at the port that you wouldn't see on the way out. We had no time to stop and shop so I can't really report on them but they looked, at first glance, kind of upscale.

Cruise Port Review: Patmos, Greece

Here is the Patmos section of the Ports of Call document I prepared for ourselves and our fellow travelers:

Patmos, Greece, the Jerusalem of the Aegean (9 AM to 6 PM)

Patmos, a small island of the Dodecanese, is a popular destination due to its religious significance. Patmos is the place where Saint John wrote his Apocalypse. The world-heritage listed monastery of Saint John and the holy cave of the Apocalypse are open to the public. Patmos is also an ideal destination for those that love unspoiled sandy white beaches.

It is easy to visit the monastery by taxi. Built high on a hill, a visit affords beautiful vistas of the island and surrounding sea. For those who are more beach inclined, Meloi beach is a short taxi ride from the pier. I will be heading to the beach and all who want are welcome to join me.

The reality? While most of the ladies opted for the beach, it didn't work out that way. We could not find a taxi driver who would take us to the beach and pick us up in a few hours. (Later we figured out why.)

So with that news, most of the ladies headed off to shop. My husband and our very good friend Stu opted for a taxi to the Grotto and Monastery to take pictures. Cost: 35 Euros

That left me and Marla, our cruise friend from Carson City, NV, to try and make our way to Meloi beach. We never made it. It would have meant walking on the roadway up and over a BIG hill. Instead we walked along the shoreline and found a sign pointing to the local acropolis. We started to climb, first past houses and then on a rocky path. We came to the old ruins and a beautiful view of the ship in the harbor.

In a way we did make it to the beach. There is some beachfront right near town, heading off to the right after leaving the tender dock. We spread our towels under a tree, and enjoyed just relaxing and watching the water. And where we were soon found by my husband and Stu.

So why couldn't we get a taxi to the beach? The drivers have their tour routes down to a science. They take pax to the Grotto, drop them off for 1/2 hour, pick them up, drop them off at the Monastery for an hour, etc. etc. In between they are running additional pax to these spots. It would really mess things up if they had to go in the other direction to the beach. Oh well. Live and learn.

The shopping/restaurant part of town is very close to the tender landing. The ship warned pax that some people had become ill after eating and drinking in Patmos. That didn't stop Marla and me from heading into a bakery to try a few things Patmos is known for: cheese pie (like a soufflé) and poughi (wallet) which is dough wrapped around nuts, spices, honey, etc. And, of course, baklava. I liked the cheese pie and loved the baklava. Didn't care for the poughi but Marla loved it.

We also did some shopping. Pretty much the same stuff we saw in Athens but a chance to pick up something we might have missed. And we were back on board in time to grab something to eat at the buffet.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ship Review: Pacific Princess

We boarded the Pacific Princess on October 30, 2010 for a 12 night Holy Land Cruise. With a capacity of 680 passengers I was sure we would love her. And we did.

The ship is easy to get around. The staff was excellent. My husband brought some of our trip DVDs to show any member of our group who might be interested in seeing them. He asked at the front desk if it was possible to get a DVD player in the cabin. And it didn't take long for a member of the maintenance staff to arrive and install a brand new DVD player.

Compliments of our TA, Ellen, we had dinner at The Sterling Grill, one of the specialty restaurants. I had the rib eye, my husband had the filet and it was an excellent meal.

The library on this ship was the most beautiful one I have seen on any ship. Lots of seating on the pool and promenade decks. I would love for an opportunity to sail on this ship again.

Cruise Port Guide: Piraeus, Greece

This post is going to be very short.

Stay on the ship!

There was absolutely nothing worth looking at within walking distance of our ship.

Recommended Souvenir Shop, Plaka, Athens, Greece

I am a shopper. I like to buy local items. And I like to do it for as little money as possible. And one thing I have never done on this blog before is recommend a souvenir shop. First time for everything.

On our first night in Athens, I had stopped at The Greek Shop, 120 (?) Adrianou, Plaka. You really can't miss it. It is a large (like double wide), brightly lit shop, selling olive oil, ouzo, candy and olive oil skin products.

As we walked around Athens, I popped into many souvenir shops, comparing items and prices, and looking for new items to buy. And I didn't buy anything until I went back to The Greek Shop.

I had decided I wanted to exchange some of the smaller bottles of olive oil I had bought for larger ones. No problem. Their selection and prices were as good and even better than other shops I had stopped in. (I found only one item where they were more expensive). There was no pressure to buy, unlike the other stores which had more expensive prices and then they would give me a 'deal' by dropping the price .... to what it was marked in The Greek Shop.

The staff was soft-spoken and thoroughly answered questions I had. Unless asked, the staff stood by the counter simply watching and waiting. It was a pleasure to shop there.

Athens: Central Market, Greek Agora, Flea Market

Friday morning we awoke to another chilly, cloudy day in what I had thought would be warm, sunny Greece. Today we were going to wander through Athens.

Our first stop was the Central Market to see the meat and fish vendors. We were not disappointed with the spectacle. It was just as reported: loud, busy, hectic. I took a lot of video, trying to capture it. We saw lots of fresh meat being cut specifically to customers' orders and different types of seafood, many we did not recognize.

Across the street we found the fruit and vegetable market. Here were the olives I had heard so much about. I was looking for olives similar to what I buy at our local supermarket. Finding some that looked close, I was invited to taste one before buying. I bought a 1/2 kilo and we munched olives as we continued to walk about the city.

We found the new Holocaust Memorial and I left a stone. Not surprisingly, since they are all over Athens, there were ruins being excavated right next to the memorial. (We learned that if ruins were found on private property the government took possession of it with no compensation to the owner.)

Our next stop was the Greek agora (marketplace). We used our Acropolis ticket for entrance. This site was pretty neat because of the restored stoa, the shop area. Plus the temple on top of the hill was still in great shape and wasn't covered with scaffolding, cranes or crowds.

Then through the flea market which had very few shops geared towards tourists. It was here I checked prices against the store I found in the Plaka. But most of the stores were selling shoes, pants, jackets, etc. We did stop at a bakery and bought something that looked like pizza with feta cheese, tomato and olives which we shared and was delicious. And then we shared a chocolate filled donut.

Refreshed with our blood sugar level on the rise, we headed towards the Tower of the Winds and the Roman agora. Because of construction the entrance wasn't where we expected it to be and it would have meant going out of our way to enter. It was getting late and we were tired, so we didn't make it into this site.

Recommended Athens Guide Book

I used Athens Top 10 by DK Eyewitness. The book was great, giving us just the detail we needed about each site.

The maps were excellent and I used it thoroughly to help plan our visit and then during our stay in Athens.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Peloponnese Peninsula Tour: Ancient Corinth, Canal, Mycenae, Nafplion, The Theater of Epidaurus

We had prebooked this tour with Paul and his son, Nicky, picked us up right on the dot at 8 a.m. Not having a good feeling for the history or sights of the Peninsula, I left the choice of itinerary up to Paul. We had a very full day and saw some great sites.

Our first stop was the Corinthian Canal. I have to admit it was much narrower than I expected and it is obvious that the majority of today's commercial vessels no longer use it. The walls are tall and steep and photo ops are easy from two bridges that cross it.

Onto Ancient Corinth. No admittance fees to any of the archeological sites this day as it was a national holiday. Nicky loaned us his book with the map of the site but it really wasn't necessary as there was good signage. We strolled the small museum and the larger ruins. While our weather was a bit damp, it was nice to walk around ruins without the mob of people we had at the Acropolis the day before and no scaffolding.

We learned that every city had an acropolis but it was only in Athens that it was actually called the Acropolis. In Corinth, it was the Acrocorinth and we could see the temples from the ruins of the city. It is possible to visit the Acrocorinth after a very long and steep hike. Definitely not for us.

Our drive took us past vineyards and olive groves. Our next stop was Mycenae. It was at this place that people began to realize that there was fact behind some of the Greek legends. The palace of Agamemnon was unearthed here. The walls surrounding the palace were called the Cyclops Walls because the blocks of stone were so huge, legend had it that only a cyclops could lift them.

We hiked up steep walks and stairways to the top. It was extremely windy and we were glad the rain held off. From the top we had views of the beautiful countryside.

And it was also here that we found an olive tree that had ripe olives within reach. We had been warned by a friend how awful green olives, right off the tree, taste. We wondered if ripe olives would be the same. We each took a small bite. Yup...the same. Our advice? Wait until the olives are cured before eating them.

Onto Nafplio for lunch. We had a choice of a seafood restaurant or gyros. We went for the gyros. Small cafe on the main street with gyros made the way the Greeks make them: meat, tomatoes, tzidiki sauce and french fries all rolled in a homemade pita. (Yes, french fries!)

The highlight of our day was the Theater at Epidaurus. It was built in the 4th century B.C. and it is wonderfully preserved with excellent acoustics. Plays are still held here with no microphones or any kind of sound assistance. First I climbed about half way up and DH stood in the middle of the stage and spoke. Then we traded places. Took a bit to realize we did have to project our voices but once we did, we each found it easy to hear what the other was saying from center stage.

We spent quite a bit of time here, watching others having fun doing the same thing. One tourist recited poetry. It was incredible knowing that I was sitting in seats that people had sat on over 2300 years ago. With no crowds, no scaffolding except for some lights, and mostly original seats, it was a wonderful end to our day.

The Acropolis, Athens, Greece

What a disappointment. At least for me.

As previously reported, our entrance to the site was later than we had planned. Now we had to deal with the heat of the day and tons of people lined up around the ticket plaza to get their admission tickets. And once inside, crowds of people everywhere.

But what was most disappointing to me was all of the reconstruction. When I had visited Athens 44 years ago (was a baby LOL), I was actually able to walk within the Parthenon columns. Now, everything is roped off and there is scaffolding and cranes all over the place. Pieces of marble are lined up on the ground, stacked one above the other, as the buildings are taken apart and put back together again. Plus, so many of the great original pieces, like the Caryatids, are in the Acropolis Museum. I had to keep reminding myself that a lot of what I was seeing was built over 2500 years ago.

My husband's reaction had some similarities. He too found his experience dampened by the fact we had to climb the steps to the gate twice and the horrible crowds. But he feels that to finally see something he has heard and read about for so long was totally awesome.

Final note: Hang onto your Acropolis ticket as it allows entrance to some other sites around the city such as the Greek agora, the Roman agora, Hadrian's Arch and the Temple of Zeus.

The Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece

Our first full day in Athens and it didn't start out as planned.

We knew the gates to the Acropolis opened at 8 a.m. and we planned to be there at that time. Total exhaustion caused us to oversleep and we didn't get up the steps to the gate until about 9:30 a.m. Where we discovered oversleeping was good because we couldn't get into the Acropolis until noon....the ticket booth and gate workers were on strike until then!

So down the stairs and back down Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, a very wide, very nice pedestrian street to the Acropolis Museum which, fortunately was open. The museum is new, open only about a year. Many pieces from the Acropolis have been moved here to protect them from further deterioration from air pollution.

The museum is designed very well with visitors directed up staircases (elevators available) and escalators in a clockwise direction. NO photography is allowed in the museum but, once reaching the third floor with great views of the Acropolis, taking photographs is allowed as long as your camera is pointed out, through the window. Also on the third floor there is an excellent video worth sitting through. In retrospect, it was better going to the museum before the Acropolis. So that worked out well for us.

For me, there are two highlights to the museum. The first was the entryway where you can see continuing excavations. The actual entryway is covered with glass but off to the side, there were open excavations. I would have loved to have gone down the steps and wandered the ancient streets for a little while.

The other highlight was the Caryatids from the south porch of the Erechtheion. They were magnificent and I really would have loved to have taken loads and loads of photos. It is hard to comprehend that the beautiful soft folds of their dresses are really hard marble. The museum site photo really does not do them justice.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

International Lost Luggage

Final post on our lost luggage saga.

I'm VERY pleased to report that our final bag arrived at our local airport last night. We picked it up today (yes they would have delivered it) and we were very happy to discover that it was still locked and the bottle of grappa packed inside was still in one piece.

For our next cruise? My husband has agreed to wear his sport jacket on the plane and we will travel with only carry ons. We've done it before and I'm sure we can do it again.

Restaurants in the Plaka area, Athens, Greece

Most of the tourist section in the Plaka area are pedestrian only streets. The area is clean and well lit. Actually, our first night, when we went to find a place for dinner, my husband left his SLR in our hotel room. After dinner we returned to our hotel so he could retrieve his camera and we walked back to the Plaka for pictures. Not only does this demonstrate how safe the area is, but also makes a point about the great location of our hotel making this back-track quick and easy.

TO XANI: Adrianou 138 - Excellent meal of Greek salad (which we shared), pork gyro for DH and grilled lamb chops for me. Total cost: 35 Euros

PLAKA Restaurant at the corner of Kydatheneon and Geronta Streets. I went for one of the specials: roast pork with vegetables. My husband had 'chicken with pasta'.....the pasta was orzo. Again we shared a Greek salad and had a bottle of water. Total cost: 30 Euros

Vyzantino Taverna on Kydatheneon St. We had most of our group with us by now. DH had roasted pork with potatoes. I had 'lamb with oregano sauce'...lamb shank cooked in sauce over potatoes. Again, a delicious meal. The group shared water and two servings of hummus. Cost: 30 Euros

For our 4th night we returned to the PLAKA Restaurant. Most of us had grilled lamb chops which were excellent. Now there were 12 of us. We got free wine (we asked for it, since other restaurants were offering it to get us into their restaurant) and, for the group, bowls of Greek salad, tzidiki (sp???), yogurt, garlic, bread and water. Our most expensive meal at 40 Euros but we had lamb which is relatively expensive and a lot of food.

Acropolis and Strikes in Athens

I had been reading about off and on strikes in Athens but I wasn't prepared for a strike that was only 4 hours long.

My husband and I planned on being at the Acropolis at 8 a.m. when it opened. Due to jet lag and total exhaustion, we overslept. And it didn't make one bit of difference because, as we dragged ourselves up the steps to the gate (the EASY way), we found the gate and ticket booth closed because the staff was on strike until noon.

Time for Plan B. We headed down the stairs, then down the street to the Acropolis Museum. Fortunately that was open and things actually turned out for the better. After looking at the displays at the museum, and watching the excellent video on the 3rd floor, I think we had a better appreciation for the Acropolis when we did get to see we again climbed the stairs to the gate and the HUGE crowd now waiting to get in.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Review: Hotel Hermes, Athens, Greece

After a LOT of Internet research, I decided on the Hotel Hermes for our stay in Athens. The Internet rate was 135 Euros per night which included all taxes and hot buffet breakfast.

I have to admit, when the taxi pulled into this very small dark side street I began to have second thoughts. But that didn't last long. The hotel lobby was clean and well lit. The young lady behind the desk was friendly, spoke excellent English and had all of our arrangements ready. She even gave us the message that 'our friends' had inquired if we had checked in yet.

Five couples out of the 14 people in our group would be joining us at Hotel Hermes. All had booked based upon my booking there and I was holding my breath that the hotel would be satisfactory to all. (It was...phew!)

We made our way to our room on the 6th floor in a VERY tiny tiny that, as light as we travel, we had to make two trips because of the luggage.

We then opened the door to our spotlessly clean room. The room had two twin beds pushed together. Each side had a nightstand. One side was the nightstand width from the closet but the other side had open floor space to the window, a small desk attached to the wall and a desk chair. Having no problem living out of our suitcase for a few days, we simply laid one on the luggage rack and laid the other on the floor, leaving plenty of room to maneuver in that area.

The bathroom was small, as expected. One strange thing was a shower with walls on two sides, glass on a third and nothing on the fourth. After taking a shower and thoroughly soaking the bathroom, I figured out how to use the hand held shower head and managed to, later, keep most of the water inside the shower.

As is typical of non-US hotel rooms, we had to put a key card in a slot by the door to activate the electricity. Control for the A/C was a remote and it took us a while to figure that out. Once set, our room was quiet and comfortable.

Buffet breakfast included eggs, beans, bacon, pastries, cold cereals, yogurt, bread and rolls, jams, cheeses and meats. I loved the machine that let me make my own cappuccino. And my husband said it made great hot chocolate.

I do need to mention that while the photos of the hotel lobby on the website are very accurate, our room was smaller than those shown in the website images. That said, I would not hesitate to recommend this hotel.

The location turned out to be excellent, within easy walking distance of the Plaka pedestrian streets and all of the major sights, including a splendid view of the Acropolis at night. The hotel was always clean and appeared to be very well maintained.

Review: Iberia Airlines

We flew from Chicago to Madrid and then Madrid to Athens on Iberia Airlines, an airline I will try to avoid in the future because of their very strict carry on requirements.

With the allowance of only 8" deep for a rolling carry on, it makes for a very small bag. I know a couple who actually went out and bought two new bags to fit the requirement. Fortunately I had one that worked. We also had two backpacks and a tote. No problem with any of them.

Our flight from Chicago to Madrid was comfortable with a nice dinner of chicken and rice. However, our Madrid to Athens flight was cramped, and for lunch we were served something I can only describe as mystery meat.

That said, we and our luggage all arrived safely and on time.

Madrid Airport HJK Terminal

Our flight to Athens had us changing planes in Madrid, where we had to go through immigration. Our boarding pass for our Athens' flight said 'Gate HJK'. Turns out HJK is a terminal and we had to take the underground shuttle train to get there.

Which meant we had to go through security again. And our walking/hiking sticks, which go right through US security, were examined more closely. Security agent actually called over a supervisor who, fortunately, just waved us through. The plan from now on was to actually be using our walking sticks, instead of having them attached to our carry on.

I was hoping to use an ATM in the Madrid airport to get Euros. Turns out, in the HUGE HJK terminal there is only ONE ATM and it was Out-of-Service! I learned there were ATMs outside of security but I wasn't going to go there again.

It didn't take us long to figure out we should just take a seat anywhere. The gates for a flight were not posted on the departure board until 1-1/2 hours before flight time. We lucked out and our gate for the Athens' flight was only 3 gates away from where we had settled ourselves. After flying from ROC to ORD, 2.5 layover there, then Madrid with a 4 hr layover, we were looking forward to getting to our hotel in Athens.

Make sure your passport is signed!

"I can't accept this" said the TSA security agent as he looked at our passports. My husband and I nearly keeled over as we were just starting out on our long awaited trip to Athens, Venice and cruise to the Holy Land. What could possibly be wrong?? We had used these very same passports on our March trip to Holland and Belgium.

Then he said "They are not signed."

Who would have known this could cause an issue. He asked if we had our driver's licenses, which we did, and those were used to get us through security. Where, while putting on our shoes, I pulled out a pen and we signed our passports.

I know that a government issued photo ID is required for air travel but I didn't know it had to be a 'signed' ID.......or does it really????

Recommended Local Driver for Athens, Greece: Paul Kalomiris, Athens by Taxi

We decided to hire a local driver for transfer from the airport, a day tour out of Athens and a transfer for our group to the port.

I did a bunch of research and decided to contact Paraskevas Kalomiris, at, whose website is Paul lived in New Jersey for many years and speaks perfect English. His emails were clear, detailed and he typically responded within 24 hours of my email to him.

Paul works with his two sons, Nicky and Dimitri. I made arrangements for our pickup and Nicky was waiting for us right outside of Customs. Nicky was also our driver for our day tour to Ancient Corinth, Canal, Mycenae, Nafplion and the Theater of Epidaurus. Nicky is not a licensed guide so he could not go into the sites with us. However, he was very knowledgeable and would tell us about what we would be seeing before we entered. Also, all of the places we stopped had signs with information in English.

Dimitri picked us up on Saturday morning for our trip to the port. Arrangements were made for pickup at 3 different hotels, for 14 people and their luggage. The 16 passenger minibus had a large luggage holder attached to the back of the bus. Dimitri arrived right on time, got all of the luggage loaded and we were at the port within 30 minutes of picking up the last of the group.

All the vehicles were spotlessly clean. Several of our group also arranged airport pickup with Paul. One couple had flight delays and there was some confusion about their pickup but a phone call immediately took care of the problem.

His fees were as follows:

1) prearranged transfer from Athens airport to hotel: 55 Euros for 2 passengers

2) pickup from hotel at 8:00 AM, full day tour to Ancient Corinth, Canal, Mycenae, Nafplion, The Theater of Epidaurus: 280 Euros for 2 passengers. Entrance fees would have been extra but we happened to be touring on a national holiday and entrance to all archaeological sites were free. Otherwise, we figured the entrance fees would have been about another 40 Euros. Lunch was not included but we stopped for simple, inexpensive gyros in Nafplion.

3) private prearranged transfer from three hotels to Piraeus port: 120 Euros for 14 passengers

All of our arrangements worked out perfectly and we highly recommend Paul and his family.

Princess Holy Land Cruise - Pacific Princess

We started with a few days in Athens, boarded our ship for a 12 night cruise that took us to Kusadasi, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Dubrovnik and, finally, Venice where we spent some additional nights.

We had 4 nights in Athens. Original plan was for 5 nights but Iberia, which we flew to Madrid,changed their schedule and did not fly out of Chicago on Sunday. So we ended up with 4 nights which really gave us only 3 days since we arrived late afternoon Tuesday and would be leaving Saturday morning to board our ship, the Pacific Princess.

In general, 3 days would be enough to get a feel for Athens. But I really wanted a day tour out of the city so that left us with just 2 days within the city. With recovering from jet lag and the traveling, we were tired and my original plan with an additional day would have worked better for us. That said, we definitely made the most of the time we had there.

Little by little our travel companions made their way into Athens. I had arranged a group transfer to the ship for Saturday morning (another post on this). We were able to board about an hour after we arrived at the pier and our cabins were ready for us.

Thanks to Ellen, we had an upgrade to a mini-suite (8001) and it was gorgeous and HUGE! Large balcony, bathtub in the bathroom, tons of closet space and plenty of room to move around. I was sorry we had only 3 days at sea because I would have loved to have made more use of the wonderful cabin.

Our cruise finished way too soon but then we had 5 nights in Venice. That worked out perfectly for us, giving us a chance to really appreciate the city, wandering the streets and getting lost in those dead ends.

Now home for not even 48 hours. I'll be doing some detailed posts on our trip over the next few days. Hope my readers find them interesting. (Click the Holy Land Trip label below or on the right sidebar to read more posts about our trip.)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

International Lost Luggage - Part II

Follow-up on previous post.

Spoke with Jet Blue shortly after 8 a.m. and was put on hold for a LONG time while they figured out what to do. I suspect this was all beyond the person I was first speaking with.

Jet Blue got in touch with our local Jet Blue Customer Service office and said the local office would call me

My next receiving call was from Barbara at Heathrow following up....very nice of her. I brought her up to date. BTW, I asked her if she was with AA or BA. She said AA as BA wouldn't do what she is doing. Why am I not surprised?

Latest call was from Barb (yup) at Jet Blue. One of our bags came in on AA late last night. I suspect it came in our original flight plan which was LHR to Chicago to ROC. Barb (Jet Blue) got it from AA, we matched up the tag number (right one) and DH is going to pick it up. (Yes, they will deliver but DH wants to get it now).

Gave Barb the tracing information I had received from Barbara and Barb is heading back to AA to give them the info to get the second bag released from Heathrow. If it does the same LHR to ORD to ROC route, I suspect it will come in late Friday night and we'll see it on Saturday.

At least all of the bags are accounted for.

What to do when your luggage is lost on international travel

When you make your claim for lost luggage, be sure the carrier you make your claim with is a member of World Tracer.

Never heard of World Tracer? Neither had I until this morning.

7 a.m. and I got woken with a call from London Heathrow. Lovely lady named Barbara has one of our bags. She wanted to know if we had made a lost luggage claim.

We had but with Jet Blue. Jet Blue is not a member of World Tracer, the claim is not in World Tracer and therefore our bag cannot simply be forwarded to Rochester. The claim must be put into World Tracer and I have to call Jet Blue to get them to do it or have them contact American to do it.

Although she did not have our second bag, it was in the system with a reference number which she gave me. So, as she put it, someone must have it.

Now I have to wait for Jet Blue luggage claim to open (8 a.m.? 9 a.m?) and start making phone calls. If necessary, of course, we'll just go to the airport and talk to someone.

Stay tuned.......

Wonder where I've been?

Traveling, of course.

Just returned from several days in Athens, a Princess Holy Land cruise on the Pacific Princess and, finally, a few days in Venice. Over the next couple of days I'll be reviewing my notes and posting about our trip.

We traveled with a group of 14 that included our travel agent (who we have used for over 15 years and is now also a very good friend), Ellen from Sea4Sail and her husband, two good friends from our home town (Carol and Stu), Stu's sister and husband, who we have traveled with before, Carol's brother and wife who we had met previously, three travelers we had met on previous cruises with Ellen and one new person. It was a group that enjoyed its time together and yet made up of people who were not hesitant to go their own way if they so chose.

The formal photo is compliments of Ellen. My husband and I are all the way to the left.