by Ed Schlenk
June 16, 2004
BACKGROUND: I am in my late fifties, semi-retired (from health care work), and with my wife have been on approximately fifteen previous cruises on six different cruise lines. What follows is a highly personalized review, with travel suggestions for the budget-minded cruiser. Since this review is quite lengthy, I have highlighted paragraphs with a key phrase so that the reader can skip down to any topic of particular interest.
Please remember that prices and itineraries change, and some of the following information may not be accurate at the time of your cruise. Most prices quoted are rounded and are in Euros, even though the US dollar is used for pricing onboard, with automatic conversion to other currencies on shipboard accounts if the passenger desires it. (During our cruise the international banking exchange rate was 1.22 US dollars per Euro). Euros are the currency in each port of call (except Croatia, which accepts Euros, and Turkey, which was skipped on this cruise for security reasons). Use your ATM card to obtain the best (international banking) exchange rates on arrival in Rome and during the cruise.
LAST THINGS FIRST: In summary, this is a very enjoyable 11 night cruise on a handsome and well-run mid-sized ship, cruising round trip from Rome/Civitavecchia and calling at out-of-the-ordinary but easy-to-enjoy ports in the Eastern Mediterranean. This cruise should appeal to the cruiser who has two weeks to spare and who is tired of the standard Caribbean and European ports. European cruises tend to be expensive by Caribbean cruise standards, but the price we found for this cruise was quite reasonable (100 US dollars per person per day including port fees and taxes), especially considering the devalued US dollar and the high standard of service and cuisine offered by Celebrity. Most of the cruise ports are user-friendly and can be thoroughly explored for a few dollars per person (see port sightseeing suggestions below). Although only one port was tendered, the ports may still be a challenge for the mobility-impaired, since European cities and towns tend to make few concessions when it comes to stairs and public transport. Special-needs cabins are available, and the crew is always helpful when assistance is needed.
When to go on this itinerary is a matter of personal preference. The guidebooks always emphasize that sunny Mediterranean islands and coastal towns are over-run by tourists in the hot July-August peak season, becoming gridlock by mid-day (we always like to leave the ship as soon as it clears the port authority – that first early morning hour in each port is blessedly quiet and enjoyable). In June the weather is perfect (sunny and 70's) and the water is a bit chilly but enjoyable (and warmer than the ship's outdoor pools).
ITINERARY: This cruise was to have called at Istanbul and Kusadasi in Turkey, but because of recent anti-tourist bombings in Istanbul, Celebrity chose instead to call in Dubrovnik (Croatia) and Taormina (Sicily). During the cruise the itinerary was changed again, substituting the city of Messina for the more attractive town of Taormina. Everyone onboard seemed disappointed about not seeing Turkey. However, Celebrity is responsible for passenger safety and they really had no choice but to change the itinerary. (Their published 2005 itinerary for this cruise once again includes Turkey.) On our cruise we embarked from Rome/Civitavecchia, had a full day in Naples, a day at sea, a late day on Rhodes, a full day on Santorini, a full day on Mykonos, a full day in Piraeus/Athens, a day at sea, an early day in Dubrovnik, a late day in Messina, a day at sea, and disembarked at Rome/Civitavecchia.
PRE-CRUISE: Once you have booked a cruise, the two most important things you can do (besides making sure your passport is up-to-date) are to pack light and to buy (or copy from your library) maps and guidebook information about the ports of call.
PACKING LIGHT is easy. My wife and I each travel around the world with only a regulation airline carry-on bag with wheels, even when cruising. This allows maximum flexibility, which at times can be a life-saver (as when we had to walk 20 minutes from Civitavecchia town to the ship with our bags). If you wear microfiber clothes (three outfits -- one casual, one informal, one formal, plus a pair of shorts, two T-shirts, swimwear, and a wind /rain jacket), you can hand wash items in the evening, towel-wring them, and hang them in your room at night -- they will be dry in the morning. Leave your blue jeans at home (you're not that young and they're not that practical), and don't worry about impressing any fashionistas onboard (they are more interested in what they look like than what you look like). Take a pair of black shoes, tennis/walking shoes, and beach sandals (I substitute a single pair of Tevas for the latter two). Leave all that match-your-outfit footwear to Imelda Marcos and her friends.
A GOOD GUIDEBOOK (I recommend Rick Steves guides for simplifying European cities and Lonely Planet guides for great maps and details about every corner of the world) makes all of the difference when traveling, even on a cruise. I am always impressed by how little cruisers know about their ports of call, even though (in most cases) they knew where they would be going months in advance. Not having a guidebook makes a cruiser dependent on package tours, which are usually high quality (and relatively expensive), but may not cater to the cruiser's personal interests. Photocopy the guidebook chapters about your ports of call so that you can carry just a few pages ashore and discard the copies after you have used them. Pre-cruise reading is the best investment you can make in getting the most out of your vacation.
GETTING TO ROME: Perhaps the greatest drawback (for North Americans) about European cruises is the very high price of airfare to the ports of embarkation during the summer high season. Remember that you can book airline award travel 11 months in advance, so this is the ideal opportunity to obtain an early-booking cruise discount and use airline award miles at the same time. As with any cruise, plan to arrive at least a day before embarkation. Rome is such a delightful city that a few extra days sightseeing before the cruise is a pleasure. The Rome airport (Fiumicino, FCO) is a 30 minute, 10 Euro train ride from the city center (Termini Station). When visiting Rome we like to book a hotel within walking distance (with light baggage) of Termini Station – there are quite a few budget (in Rome that means 100 Euro or less for a double with private bath) hotels in that area. Use your guidebook or the internet to find one, and definitely reserve a room well in advance.
GETTING TO THE PORT (CIVITAVECCHIA): From Rome's Termini Station, there are hourly trains to the port town of Civitavecchia (70 minutes, 4 Euros). The cruise line operates bus service directly from the airport to the port, but I believe that is available only on the day of embarkation unless one buys a Celebrity pre-cruise hotel package. From the train station, it is a reasonable walk or short taxi ride to the port itself. Surprisingly, Celebrity does not provide a greeter or shuttle at the train station (we rode with the Cunard shuttle from the station to the port entry). From the port entry to the ship there may be a Celebrity shuttle, but be aware that it may have no Celebrity or Galaxy logo (we saw none and ended up walking the 15 minutes from the port entry to the ship). This may sound grueling, but be aware that if you do not buy Celebrity tour packages, you will be walking similar distances (or taking taxi rides) from the ship to public transportation in Naples, Piraeus, and Messina. Celebrity provides appropriate port shuttles elsewhere. In any case, take a pair of jogging or good walking shoes, since you will need them every day on the cruise.
Celebrity deserves credit for providing maps and sightseeing (not just shopping) information for each port of call. Unfortunately, they do not provide the same information for their ports of embarkation. Your travel documents will have no useful information about making your way to the ship at the start of your cruise.
EMBARKATION was a bit of a mess on this cruise. For some reason (health regulations?), the local authorities required the ship's plumbing system to be bleach-flushed between cruises (a job usually done in dry-dock, I am told), so the entire crew had to flush each and every drain in each and every cabin and public area before passengers could board. As a result, boarding was delayed several hours and passengers had to wait in the boarding lounge on the pier. Cruisers tend to be an impatient and demanding lot (the Princess-and-the-Pea syndrome), perhaps to impress others with their importance. Keep in mind that on a cruise if you are delayed or inconvenienced, the crew is probably doubly so. Relax, you are on vacation.
Embarkation brought up several security issues which I will not detail here. As usual, white-gloved Celebrity crew were waiting at the ship's entry to escort passengers to their cabins, a thoughtful service.
FELLOW PASSENGERS on this itinerary seemed to be predominantly American (English is the onboard lingua franca, even among the polyglot crew), with a significant minority of UK/Commonwealth, German, and Spanish passengers. Safety announcements are multilingual, but entertainment and most other activities are conducted in English.
Most passengers are in their 50's and 60's, with some younger and quite a few older. There were about 2 dozen children aboard, all well-behaved and well-cared-for by the onboard youth program. Everyone is cordial, but pool-pigs (who hold empty lounge chairs with towels and personal debris) abound, just as on every other cruise. People are well-dressed in the evening (although there are more suits than tuxedos on formal night, which is fine), but are very casual (shorts and T-shirts) onboard during the day. One of our favorite activities on formal nights is to sit near the photo sessions and watch the portraits being taken, then see the results on display the next day.
THE SHIP: Much has been written about the Galaxy in other reviews, so I will not go into much detail here. The ship is in Celebrity's mid-sized Century class (about 77,000 tons and 1,800 passengers) and was built in the mid-1990's in Germany. It does not offer some of the amenities of the larger Millennium class ships (fewer balconies, no specialty/surcharge restaurants, no large therapy pool, etc.), but it does offer everything one could want in a cruise ship, and the staff is as friendly and the service is as superb as on any of Celebrity's ships. Perhaps it is the German manufacture, but to me the Galaxy seems as elegant as a fine German automobile, with timeless design and excellent "fit and finish".
The Galaxy was the first ship that my wife and I cruised on, and we have enjoyed it in the Caribbean, Alaska, and Europe. The larger number of inside cabins means that Galaxy's prices are lower than those of the Millennium class ships. An inside cabin on the Galaxy is a comfortable and efficient size – we felt that we missed nothing by choosing one on this itinerary. The bathrooms are snug but well-designed, and the shower is great, with fire-hose water pressure. There is a generous amount of closet space (about 8 feet). The mini-bar can be converted toa mini-fridge for personal items.
The room safe is hidden behind the vanity mirror – make certain that you use it to store all valuables, especially your passport. We heard of no security problems on this cruise but on a previous Galaxy cruise my wife lost her bag and I lost a cashmere sweater which were left on a deck chair while we jogged after dark (we were alone on the track except for cleaning crew). On a previous Constellation cruise, one acquaintance lost her passport from a cabin shelf and another lost his wallet from a bedside table. Security onboard has been improved since then, and we even saw a uniformed security guard poolside one morning on this cruise.
DÉCOR: I personally think that the Galaxy interiors are the most handsome of any of the ships we have cruised on. The decor is a subdued, modernized version of art deco that seems timeless. The art collection is a delight, and the furnishings are both attractive and comfortable. The absence of the "HEY, LOOK AT ME" décor seen on some cruise lines is a pleasure.
PUBLIC AREAS: The ship is large enough to have a good theater, a comfortable cinema/lecture hall, a sometimes-overcrowded outdoor pool area (the indoor pool is attractive on chilly days but inadequate in size – there is a less-crowded thalassotherapy pool for a surcharge), a small gym, a small (poorly stocked but wonderfully staffed by a joyful librarian, Erin Frith) library, and quite a variety of cocktail lounges and other public areas for relaxing or celebrating.
Our favorite area on the ship, especially when we book an inside cabin, is the rear deck patio on deck 11, near the Oasis buffet. That is where we like to have breakfast, lunch, and pre-dinner cocktails on sunny days (and they were all sunny on our cruise).
PROGRAMS: New on this cruise is an excellent, well-staffed computer/internet program, with a dozen terminals in the former card room, and a dozen more for use outside of the classroom. There is a special place in Dante's inferno for usurers and for over-charging ISP's. At 75 cents (US) per minute (!) of internet use, Celebrity definitely belongs there. This is partially offset by the facts that the response time is quick for standard e-mails, and off-line use is free (the staff can show you how to prepare a document off-line and paste it into and e-mail message, which saves on-line time). There are quite a few computer classes, including useful sessions on how to make the most of your digital photos. Some of the classes are free and some have a 20USD surcharge.
Also new on this cruise is an "enrichment" lecture series, predominantly on sea days, featuring a variety of speakers on a wide variety of topics from art, to gardens, to religion, to history, to alternative medicine, to reminiscences by a retired US television star. This lecture series is a welcome relief from the no-brainer social activities and party games of some cruise lines. It is not as high-brow as on Cunard (just as the library is not nearly as extensive), but it is enjoyable and Celebrity deserves credit for offering it.
Also new on this cruise are daily religious services.
The traditional shipboard activities (food demonstrations, galley tours, backstage tours, etc.) are still available, but some are now by invitation only to Captain's Club members (membership is a free and highly recommended option for repeat cruisers, see below). Photography services are quite good and non-intrusive, but expensive as usual. The casino seemed popular, but (along with alcohol) can easily double the cost of your cruise.
MEDICAL SERVICES: As on most ships, medical care is at US standards and US prices. My wife had itchy eyes (conjunctivitis after our long flight to Rome. She thought it might be an allergy and consulted the ship's doctor as soon as we boarded. The medical visit and cortisone/antibiotic eyedrops cost 110 US dollars in total. The itchy eyes ended up being the beginning of a cold anyway.
ENTERTAINMENT: To be honest, we always prefer the late (8:45pm) dinner seating to maximize our time ashore. This allows us to relax with a drink (and hors d'oeuvres from the sushi or pizza bar) and watch the sunset from the rear deck Oasis dining area before going to dinner. On most nights the entertainment (production numbers, comedians, magicians, vocalists, et al.) begins around 11:00pm, by which time we are sound asleep and dreaming of an early start the next morning, so I am not the one to ask about the entertainment offerings. From what we heard, it was the usual good quality Celebrity entertainment.
Before dinner there is a wide variety of music on offer – a pianist in the Martini lounge, a duo in the Rendezvous lounge for crowded dancing, a band in the Savoy nightclub for less-crowded dancing, and a DJ in the Stratosphere lounge for least-crowded dancing. All are enjoyable, but all are over-amplified. This is common on all cruise lines. They must think that just because passengers are elderly, they must be deaf. If they weren't before the cruise, they would be after the cruise due to the mega-amp music.
CELEBRITY CAPTAIN'S CLUB: After your first Celebrity cruise, you are offered the option of joining their Captain's Club. Membership is now free (initially it was surcharged) and is worthwhile. In addition to onboard amenities (hosted cocktail parties, special tours, etc.), there are special mailing throughout the year which generally offer $100-200 US discounts or cabin upgrades on specific future cruises. These discounts are generally in addition to any promotions or low prices you can find on the internet or though your cruise agent. Elite members (multiple previous cruises) also get a discount coupon book at embarkation, but most of the coupons are for discounts off already-expensive services in the spa or casino (there is a useful first-10-minutes-for-free internet coupon, although another cruise line has offered elite members free unlimited internet use for the entire cruise). Joining Captain's Club is certainly worthwhile, and application information is available onboard.
CUISINE: This is the reason that many people choose Celebrity over other cruise lines. Celebrity emphasizes the elegance of its dining room and the sophistication of its menus. The wait-staff is the best you will find on land or sea, and the quality of the food and the beauty of its presentation are always the highlights of our onboard activities. The only fault I could find with the formal dining is that the menu is somewhat static – it rarely changes from cruise to cruise (but when it is so good, that is a minor fault).
In addition to the main dining room, there is an enjoyable buffet service and there is a wide variety of between-meal dining options, including ice cream fountain, poolside grill, pizza, traditional afternoon tea/pastry service, etc. Watching the over-indulgence of the passengers in this culinary heaven is entertaining, but seeing the wastage of food and the obesity of some diners can be distressing.
SMOKING: There is no getting around the fact that Europeans smoke more than Americans, but fortunately smoking is limited to cabins and the port side of some public areas. No smoking is allowed in the formal dining room, which is a godsend for non-smokers. Cabins are on a positive-pressure ventilation system, which means that odors are blown out into the hall rather than the reverse. This means that the halls may reek of smoke outside some cabins, but these smoke odors will not be drawn into your cabin.
PORTS OF CALL determine which cruises we take, and the ports on this particular cruise are a delight. As I mentioned above, the wise passenger prepares in advance by reading about each port (there is a wealth of travel guides and internet information available). By making our own travel plans for onshore activities, my wife and I not only save money for our next cruise, we are able to tailor the limited shore time to our own preferences. Although far from young, we try to be flexible and active during onshore activities.
The following information is based on what we learned before and during our shore visits. Feel free to copy it for your own use, but remember that prices, hours, and availability change, so be ready to change your plans too. A port-by-port guide follows, but first a few words about security when ashore.
SECURITY ASHORE: Remember to take a money belt so that valuables are under your clothes, and take only essentials (your key card for re-boarding, cash for the day, and perhaps a credit card for shopaholics) when going ashore. Beware of Romas (gypsies) and their children in the cities, and beware of pickpockets everywhere (although theft is not as pervasive on the islands as in the cities) A friend was even pickpocketed and lost a camera in the Rome airport several years ago, although airport security has certainly improved since then). Do not bother to take valuable jewelry or watches on the cruise – no one will be impressed and the risk of loss is not worth it.
Now for the ports of call, the reason we chose this cruise. Celebrity deserves a special award for supplying useful (not just shopping) port information and maps with the daily activity and dining program, which is left in your cabin each evening. For years I have been harping that cruise lines do not serve the independent sightseer and are just interested in selling package tours, but on this cruise Celebrity is (happily) proving me wrong. I hope this will be true of all of our future Celebrity cruises.
NAPLES (NAPOLI): is a large, gritty, and focally very poor city (like many American cities). The waterfront is not particularly attractive, but it is safe during the day. The one recommended in-town activity is the famous National Archeological Museum, which is a 20 minute walk from the port, but unfortunately is closed on Tuesdays (our day in that port).
From Naples there is easy and cheap access by the Circumvesuviana train (a small commuter line which runs along the Bay of Naples, with its own station about 20 minutes by foot or a short taxi ride from the port). The trains leave about twice hourly for Ercolano/Herculaneum (20 minutes, 2 Euros), Pompeii (40 minutes, 2 Euros), and Sorrento (60 minutes, 3 Euros). Herculaneum is a 10 minute walk downhill from its station, Pompeii is adjacent to its station, and Sorrento (and the nearby Amalfi coast) is the end of the line.
I highly recommend leaving early for any of these sites – the first hour in the morning you will have the places to yourself, before the tour bus hoards descend. Nothing compares with a walk through quiet, empty, and evocative ruins (I personally prefer Herculaneum since the reconstruction is smaller but more complete, with impressive mosaics and a few artifacts still in situ). Audioguides are available at each site (5 Euros). Entry to either site is 10 Euros and a combined entry is 18 Euros.
Sorrento is a delightful but touristy coastal town. From the train station, walk a short distance downhill then turn left along the main shopping street. When you get to the square with the halo'd saint statue, venture a few blocks downhill for the views (and possibly a snack) at the "Foreigners' Club" (ask a local for directions). It has a beautiful patio with the best views in town, and the food is reportedly reasonably priced and reasonably good. From the same square mentioned above, you can continue straight ahead (following the curve of the bay away from the station) along a delightful, narrow pedestrian street which runs parallel to the main road but is one block nearer the water. At the end of this street you can rejoin the main road, walking gently uphill for 15 minutes to the Bristol hotel for a view back to the town and across the bay. This is where the horse carriages turn around and you should too, unless you are a fast hiker and want to continue to the end of the cape by road and foot trail (there are good maps at the Foreigners Club information booth).
When you get back to Naples (4 Euros, 60 minutes), your train ticket will also be valid in the Naples subway. Get off at the main station (Garibaldi) and transfer to the metro one stop to Piazza Cavour. This is just across a small park from the pink-colored National Museum. If it is not Tuesday and not too late in the day, you can see all of the treasures from Herculaneum and Pompeii which were removed to this museum (a perfect closure to your visit). From the museum you can walk 20 minutes downhill to the port and ship along a busy and safe shopping street, but watch out for traffic (including kamikaze scooters) when crossing streets.
RHODES (RODOS): This is a late (mid-day) arrival, which will limit your options somewhat. The old town is a beautiful city built by the Crusaders (Knights Templar). The arrival in port gives wonderful views of the town and its walls. Be certain you are on deck with your camera in hand. If you are adventuresome, consider a bus ride to the famous seaside town of Lindos – it will be your introduction to the prototypical white-washed Greek hillside village with a nice beach below. There will be more of these on your cruise, so if you are not feeling energetic, you can simply walk in Rhodes old town and then swim at one of the hotel beaches in nearby new town (just north, you will see the beaches from the ship).
Buses for Lindos (4 Euros, 60 minutes) leave from the small bus station just outside the north wall of the old town, near the entry to the sound and light theater. Departure times (changeable) are 1:00, 2:30, and 3:00pm to Lindos, and 4:30 and 6:00pm back. There is a convenient (free and clean) public toilet next to the garden wall just west of the Rhodes bus station, and there is public toilet in the Lindos town square. The drive to Lindos is beautiful, with villages and olive orchards giving way to dry rocky terrain. The bus leaves you on the highway above Lindos town, but it is a short walk (or free shuttle) from the bus stop to the town center.
If you are a beach bum and do not want to go all the way to Lindos, the town of Faliraki is known for its beaches, and it is a 20 minute ride (changeable departure at 1:30 pm) from the same Rhodes bus station (we have not been there, but the ship's beach tour goes there).
In any case, save an hour or two before or after your bus trip to enjoy the old streets of Rhodes – they are a United Nations World Heritage Site, and deservedly so. Early before the ship's tours and later just before embarkation (or both) are ideal times to avoid the worst tour group crowds.
SANTORINI (THIRA): For sheer beauty, few places on earth can match Santorini. This island is the crescent-shaped remnant of a volcano rim, the crater of which is filled by the sea. White-washed Greek villages cling to the slope on cliffs high above the sea, waiting for the perfect sunset to end each perfect day – certainly you have seen its image on travel posters.
Because there is no natural harbor, the ship anchors in the caldera below Fira town and independent passengers are tendered to shore (Skala) for a steep walk, vertiginous donkey ride, or efficient cable car ride (3 Euros) to the village above. Tour passengers are off-loaded first and are tendered to buses at a small port south of town. General tenders are available about 30 minutes after clearing port. Again, disembarking early will be amply rewarded by fewer crowds.
From the cable car (or donkey ride) station, walk south through town to the new (and worthwhile) archeology museum (3 Euros, closes mid-afternoon). The local bus station is just a block below (inland) from the museum.
As on Rhodes and Mykonos, the Santorini island buses are a wonderfully modern, comfortable, and cheap resource. For 1-2 Euros you can travel almost anywhere on the island – south to the free archeological dig at Akrothiri (whose artifacts fill the museum), east to the black sand beaches, or north to the delightful town of Oia (Ia). We chose to start with Akrotiri (1 Euro, 20 minutes), visited the museum (3 Euros) between buses, and then went to Oia (2 Euros, 30 minutes).
From Oia there is a well-built trail back south along the volcano rim, reaching Fira gain after about 3 hours of leisurely (but somewhat hilly) walking. This has to be one of the great scenic walks in all the world, and if you have the time and energy will be the high point of your cruise.
From Fira it is easy (but a bit slippery) to walk the donkey trail back down to the tender port. One can also take a donkey or cable car (3 Euros) down.
Since the ship anchors in the caldera till midnight, some passengers choose to watch the sunset from dinner in town. To be candid, I think the view of the town in the evening light looking back (eastward) from the ship is far more beautiful – especially as the town becomes a necklace of lights as darkness falls. The view is enchanting.
MYKONOS: This island has a reputation for being party central, especially for gays, nudists, and hedonists in general. Early in the season we found it quite tame and very beautiful. The town itself is very picturesque, with a maze of narrow white-washed (and flower-bedecked) alleys, great views of the waterfront (colorful boats and tame pelicans), windmills (near little Venice, overlooking the town), and more jewelry and designer shops than one can shake a credit card at.
Beaches are the famous reason for visiting Mykonos. To avoid crowds, go in the morning and take a bus to the communally owned Kalifatos beach on the southeast side of the island (Paradise and Super-paradise beaches are more popular but much more crowded). Again, the bus service is excellent and cheap. The north bus station is around the corner and slightly up the hill from the parking area where the ship's shuttle drops one off (the ship is docked about 10 minutes ride plus 5 minutes walk from the town center). The Kalifatos beach bus (2 Euros, 20 minutes) leaves around 10:00am and returns around 1:30pm. If you miss it, the Elias beach bus leaves from the same stop around 10:30am, but there is no natural shade on that beach (beach chairs and umbrellas, about 7 Euros together, can be rented on all beaches). There were only a dozen people on the Kalifatos beach when we were there, but it must get very crowded in high season (although less so than more famous beaches) because there were more than a hundred windsurfers and several hundred beach chairs waiting to be rented).
After a morning at the beach and a rest on the ship, take an evening walk along the waterfront before dinner on the ship. The view back to town from the windmills is especially beautiful in the evening light.
ATHENS (PIRAEUS): Preparations for the Olympics are everywhere, and this includes the street from the ship's dock to the excellent and cheap Piraeus-Athens subway system. From the ship, walk counterclockwise along the harbor for about 20 minutes to the northeast corner of the harbor. The subway line is actually in a railway station building – ask locals for directions or use the port map provided by Celebrity. If gates are open, one can avoid traffic by staying on the waterfront itself.
A 24 hour unlimited use (metro and bus) pass for Piraeus/Athens costs 3 Euros and is a godsend -- just remember to ask for a metro map when you buy the ticket and take along a copy of an Athens map (did you do your homework?) which includes metro station locations. The metro is by far the best way to get around this traffic-clogged city.
The high point, literally and figuratively, of Athens is the Acropolis, which is best seen early or late in the day. To get to the Akropoli metro station from Piraeus you will have to go to Omonia, change metro lines, and double back a few stations. From the Akropoli station there is a pedestrian street which circles the Acropolis and will take you to the now gentrified Thissio district (if the Thissio station is open, this is an alternate approach to the Acropolis), the Monastiraki area, and back through the Plaka area.
The second must-see in Athens is the National Museum, which was has been closed for the last few years and should re-open in time for the Olympics. This is where you will see art collected from around the nation, including frescoes, ceramics, and gold treasures. The Victoria metro station, which is several blocks from the museum, was also closed for renovation when we were there.
An alternative to the National Museum is the Benaki Museum, a private collection (6 Euros) covering Greek art, culture, and costumes from the stone age through the last century. The Benaki museum is located several blocks behind the parliament building (Syntagma Square metro) at the northeast corner of the central park (which is a nice respite from the city in its own right). If you exit the museum about 10 minutes before the hour, you can walk behind the Greek soldiers (in white pleated skirts, tights, and tasseled clogs) who march along the sidewalk north of the park on their way to the changing of the guard (at the top of each hour) at Syntagma Square. The army makes sure that soldiers who wear that outfit are the tallest, least feminine, and most photogenic of their troops (while on guard between ceremonies they are happy to pose for photos with tourists, although they cannot move).
If you are curious, you can take the metro to the Olympic site (Irini metro station) north of the city. The station and site were still a construction zone during our visit, but public access should be available after the games. There is and interesting view of the stadiums from the metro platform, but that is as close as you will get for the moment.
A nice way to finish the day is to return to the Acropolis area and revisit it without crowds (access to the site and its small but interesting subterranean museum was free on the Sunday we were there). Restrooms, by the way, are located just outside the site entrance and also just outside the museum. Better yet, walk part way up the hill south of the Acropolis for a magnificent view back onto the site. Paved and gravel trails leave from the small park near the restaurant and taxi stand. Just meander upward (15-20 minutes) and turn around when you reach a clearing. Allow at least an hour (metro and Piraeus harbor walk) to get back to the ship.
DUBROVNIK: This was a substitution for Istanbul and it turned out to be a real sleeper. The old walled city is a World Heritage Site and deservedly so. Be on deck for the arrival if you can -- this is a beautiful coastline.
The highlight of your half day here is simply to walk the top of the walls around the city (4 Euros), preferably in the early morning when the light on the rooftops and sea is best. Access to the walls is available near the Pile (west) gate just steps from where the cruise shuttle bus drops you of, or near the northeast gate or southeast maritime museum. Surprisingly, there are convenient restrooms and even a few snack bars on the walls.
The city itself is great for strolling, with no traffic and no advertising to mar the views. A handy tourist information office is on the main street. If you want to wander farther afield, there are ferries leaving every half hour from the small harbor at the east end of the town, to Lokrum Island, which is visible a few hundred yards off shore. We did not try this (the town is too nice) but instead took a swim at the very pleasant (but shadeless) beach just a few blocks east of the old town (visible from the walls). There is a convenient public restroom at the taxi stand on the way to the beach, and a stylish café with lounges and umbrellas at the beach is currently being completed. Swimming out will give you a great view back to the town.
In addition, there is a small doorway in the south city wall between the two cathedrals, which gives access to rocks and a staircase down to the water for an even more impressive close-up swimmer's view of the walls.
MESSINA (access to TAORMINA): This was a last minute (after cruise documents were issued) substitution for tendering at Taormina. The ship's library had a guidebook which had nothing good to say about the city, but viewed from the ship it is quite attractive as it extends up the hillside from the harbor. To reach Taormina, walk 20 minutes south along the harborfront and then a few blocks inland (ask locals for the stazione). The Catania train leaves Messina at 1:10pm and stops at Taormina Gardini (lower town) station about 60 minutes later (4 Euros). From the Gardini station, blue buses leave for the upper town several times per hour (1 Euro) along a cliff-side road with awe-inspiring views. A reurn train leaves at 4:30pm. The 6:30pm train might be too late for the ship's departure – trains may run late.
Alternately, a blue intercity bus (4 Euros, about 60 minutes) leaves Messina from the far corner of the train station plaza (from the blue building) at 12:30pm and leaves Taormina again at 5:15pm. The advantage of the bus is that it goes all the way to the upper town and obviates the need for a shuttle.
Taormina is another beautiful cliff-side town sited high above the sea. It has a well-preserved Roman amphitheater with sweeping views of the town and sea (5 Euros), but the views are free and just as good from the Piazza Aprile near the west gate of the town.
For energetic walkers, take the steps upward next door to 111 Corso Umberto (the main street). They will zig-zag until finally they become the vertiginous approach to the castle and belvedere above the town. One need only go part way up for a great view back to the town and the famous amphitheater. Then follow these same steps down through the town to the Giardini Communale (communal gardens) for additional views and a quiet place to enjoy them. Below the gardens (follow a map) is a nice belvedere (which you have already passed on the intercity or shuttle bus) overlooking the beaches and island (Isola Bella). Unfortunately, your half day here will not allow time for a swim.
ROME: The eternal city is jammed with tourists in the summer. The line for the Vatican Museum was almost a kilometer long when we were there. Even during the lunchtime lull, the wait was almost an hour (entry, security screening, and ticket purchase all had lines). Inside the crowds are so thick that only the ceilings are unobstructed. As a more enjoyable alternative, make reservations by phone or internet for the small but spectacular Galleria Borghese collection in the Villa Borghese park. This museum admits a limited number of people for two hours at a time – spend half on the paintings upstairs and half on the sculpture downstairs, using the audioguide to increase your pleasure.
PORT SIGHTSEEING AFTERTHOUGHT: Again, Celebrity deserves the thanks of all independent travelers for the maps and shore information they provide. Be certain to include thanks for this (and for the ports where free shuttle buses to public transport are provided) in your cruise evaluation. Hopefully in the future they will then add shuttle buses in ports like Naples and Piraeus.
TIPPING: Celebrity offers an automatic charge to your shipboard account (for EU citizens) or the traditional tip envelopes (for Americans) with guidelines on how much to tip. Believe me, the staff who worked so hard to make your cruise a success deserve every dollar they receive in tips. We generally add a dollar a day per person to each of the ship's guidelines (except housekeeper and maitre d'). It adds up but is still trivial compared to what most cruisers spend on drinks, tours, and junk. The superb Celebrity service contributes far more to the pleasure of this cruise than any of the other items on your account statement, and the staff relies on your generosity for their livelihood.
DISEMBARKATION: Celebrity was wise to make Naples the first rather than last port on the itinerary, so that those who miss the ship can easily catch up in Naples. Similarly, the penultimate day is at sea, which provides a good opportunity to gather one's energy (and souvenir debris) before disembarking.
Disembarkation was smooth and quiet. One is given the usual color codes for baggage and is informed when and where to wait on the morning of disembarkation. Gone are the overhead pages and announcements. Since many passengers have international flights home, breakfast begins at 4:30 am and disembarkation is finished early.
Once again, we found no shuttle to the Civitavecchia train station, so we walked there in about 25 minutes and caught a train to Rome for a few more days of crowded sightseeing before returning home.
TRAVEL AGENT: We tend to follow cruise prices on the internet, using e-mail newsletters and various search engines. Once we have found an attractive price for the cruise we want, we book through one of two excellent travel agents, which one depending on the cruise line. Shelby Steudle, at Pavlus Travel, booked this cruise for us. Pavlus usually matches anything we can find on the net, and with their on-line booking engine offers an extra discount. Any later discounts or coupons offered by the cruise line are discounted further from the cruise price. As I mentioned, this cruise came to 100 US dollars per person per day for a comfortable mid-ship inside cabin, including port fees and taxes, which is a great value for a European cruise.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Don't worry, be happy, and have a wonderful time on your cruise!