August 14, 2006
This was a wonderful cruise. Seasoned, professional, personable crew provided exceptional service while Galaxy brought us to some of the most breathtaking and charming ports we've ever experienced.
If you are looking for a detailed description of every deck of the ship, a blow by blow accounting of the artwork, or a cruise review that is stunning in its brevity, you may want to read someone else's review. This one is long and consists mostly of my impressions …of this magical cruise to ports I had dreamed for years of seeing, and the ship and crew that helped to make that dream come true.
Whether we sailed with Celebrity, Princess, Holland America, RCI or anyone else was simply going to be an outcome of the best itinerary combined with the correct timing.
Galaxy had the necessary combination so we quickly arranged with our travel agent for a Deluxe Verndah Stateroom (triple accommodation) and began the countdown.
We have cruised the east, west, and south Caribbean several times but this was our first cruise outside of that area and I will freely admit was one that I've wanted to undertake for a very long time.
We had performed our usual rounds of the cruise reviews before selecting a cabin and making the booking. Much has been said about Galaxy's famous "vibration" during docking and departures, more noticeable in aft cabins and the dining room. We selected a cabin slightly forward of midship and we were happy with the location.
One small surprise was that a deluxe outside verandah on Galaxy was noticeably smaller than the same classification of stateroom on Westerdam. We learned to live with the smaller space. Perhaps the lack of storage helped to curtail my shopping activities. We did feel that there were some missed opportunities for improved storage (including over the sofabed, a handy location we used on Westerdam for all of my daughter's clothing).
Galaxy was a decade old at the time we sailed and overall I felt the ship was in great condition. Signs of wear and tear, to my eye, were minimal and did not detract from the overall experience onboard this midsize cruiser. The public areas were lovely, never "over the top", and with interesting art throughout the ship. I also enjoyed the understated look of the stateroom which seemed elegant, restful and timeless to me. It was an ambiance entirely in keeping with our journey through a much older world than we had experienced by cruise before.
Even on the "at sea" days there were always lots of places where someone desiring privacy could find a quiet place to sit. I'll admit, however, that my personal favourite was our verandah from which I could watch the sea roll by as I perused a novel or looked at the many photos we were constantly adding to our laptop.
We had read quite a lot about the infamous "vibration" to be felt at the aft of the ship specifically when she is entering or leaving port. My son (a technical sort) explained the issue, having to do the use of stern thrusters, I believe, instead of azipods – but I'll admit much of the technospeak escaped me. We found it rather amusing when the ship was leaving port during our dinner seating to hear wine glasses all through the dining room clinking together. It was like being at a wedding, without a bride and groom, but I can imagine that same vibration when the ship is docking in the morning could be annoying to cabins in the aft where it would be felt and probably heard.
When the ship was underway and not docking or leaving port, the vibration was considerably less and probably wouldn't attract anyone's notice.
The breakfast buffet was "the usual" vast assortment of too much food but we felt it was of a good caliber. However as we have found on some other ships also, it helps to have a "plan of attack" in order to assemble all the necessary bits without sitting down to a cold plate of food. We felt that Galaxy's buffet was laid out somewhat more logically than Westerdam's (on our cruise 8 months earlier) but we have since cruised with Royal Caribbean on Adventure of the Seas and their buffet was the most user-friendly of all.
Lunches, when we ate on board, were better than has been the case with several of our other cruising experiences. Indeed, the food service operation in general on Celebrity got very high marks from us throughout the cruise.
We did find food rather scarce at night, which perhaps was a good thing. Room service is of course always available, but if my teens were hungry at 10 p.m. (which was the case with unsurprising frequency) the choices seemed to consist only of pizza and pasta. The sumptuous late night buffets we have seen on other cruises seemed not to be a feature of this one. Having said that, I've never been much of a participant in late-night dining on any cruise so I wasn't impacted by it. My teens always seemed to find something and when I was lucky they remembered to bring a cup of tea back for Mom at the end of their late food foraging expeditions.
ACTIVITIES ON BOARD
However, teens are a different matter. Just 8 months before our cruise on Galaxy, we cruised on Holland America's Westerdam and one of the highlights of that cruise for my teenage daughter was the teen program which was very well organized and managed by exuberant, fun, personable staff. She had high hopes that the program on Galaxy would be equally good. However, it seemed not very well marketed, because at embarkation there was no mention of it, no "welcome aboard" introduction by the activities staff, no hand-out regarding the first day's activities and meeting places.
My daughter didn't join the program the first day and when she went on the second day, found it difficult to integrate with the others who seemed to have formed into small groups already. Usually this isn't an issue for her; she is a seasoned residential summer camper who has often arrived on the first day at camp knowing nobody, and within an hour is teaching new card games to a hastily assembled group of kids on top of her bunk.
During our cruise it often seemed the teen program was not taking place where it was expected to be and so catching up with it was an issue. My daughter dutifully went to pick up the next day's program (usually only available fairly late in the evening for the next day) but never really became part of the group. After a couple of days, my daughter gave up trying to join in with the teen program and entertained herself reasonably well.
I was disappointed in this feature since it seemed that there were a LOT of teens onboard ship and many of them seemed unruly and not part of any organized activity. On Westerdam (which was a Christmas holiday cruise and also flooded with kids and teens) it seemed a far higher proportion of the kids were engaged with the child and teen programs and my daughter had rave reviews for the caliber of the activities and the staff on both of our Holland America cruises.
We did attend one of the art auctions while at sea and I purchased several pieces for my new home office. Two of these very much reflect the mood and tone and scenery of our unforgettable Mediterranean cruise.
During the at sea days I took advantage of several spa services including a facial, hot stone massage, reflexology and a pedicure and all of these – while rather high priced – were performed very professionally and capably.
Pizza is displayed as large, cookie sheet sized pies. The variety of toppings is amazing. I even saw "prawn and rocket" to remind me of the sandwiches in London. After you make your selection, the piece is cut, weighed, and then put in the oven for a quick heating. You can carry it away or there might be tables where you can enjoy it with a carafe of wine and a salad. Either way - Delicioso!!! We quickly concluded two things. (a) you cannot eat badly in Rome and (b) if you don't get out of Rome quickly enough, your cruise clothing will not fit.
The "treasures" of Rome were on every corner of the area where we stayed. Even the "newer" buildings (100's of years old, not 1000's) have beautiful architectural detailing and the sum of the parts is very attractive indeed. Every corner of the street held a "photo opportunity" and eventually we realized that we had to put the camera down and just start to enjoy what we were seeing without trying to capture all of it.
St. Peter's Basilica was a stunning highlight, as was the Piazza Venezia, Colosseum, and so many others. We spent three very interesting hours in the company of Gabriel, a private driver/guide who showed us "Rome by Night" and told us many interesting (and funny) stories of how some of the architectural elements came to be, with architects competing with each other OR wanting to thumb their nose at the powers that be, or at the Church, or at some politician or other, and capturing this attitude in a piece of statuary or fountain. A very fun evening and we felt that the weekend served well as a brief introduction to Rome but this is a city that needs a lot more time. We'll be back, Rome….
One of the first things we did on Mykonos was find a beautiful outdoor restaurant topped by the largest and most stunning fuschia bougainvillea I've ever seen, trained onto a lattice overhead. A carafe of dry Italian white wine, an authentic greek salad (no lettuce), and much time spent people watching formed my first impression that this is a somewhat ‘soft' island. Streets were incredibly narrow, with beautiful homes and shops and bright tropical flowers blooming everywhere. This was our first glimpse of the classic "white with blue trim" look we all associate with the Greek islands.
We were lured into a rug shop by two incredibly charming Greek gentlemen and a wide array of area rugs was trotted out for our perusal. They were, in fact, lovely and, after the bargaining process was completed, I purchased a 3' x 5' Byzantine patterned rug for my room. In another shop I purchased a beautiful glass dish and in yet another store, a handmade glass necklace with earrings. This jewelry set has drawn about a hundred compliments in the 8 months since I purchased it.
Mykonos is the only port for which we did not purchase an excursion from the ship, feeling it would be more interesting to simply wander the streets on our own, and I'm glad we made that decision. On our first day ashore it was nice to simply wander around and get lost and absorb the sun and the beauty that was at every turn.
The island of Rhodes changed hands many times in history and all of the various occupiers and owners left a significant imprint in the architecture of the city. The old town dates back many centuries BC and the medieval portion of the town is almost perfectly preserved (but, interestingly, is now buried behind a facade of tourist trap shops and fast food cafes). Still, by keeping one's eyes open and looking beyond the T shirts and coffee mugs, you can see that this is truly a town that is many hundreds of years old and still very much lived in, used, occupied by 5,000 residents. Not a museum but a living monument to days gone by.
We had very hot weather overall but the thick stone walls of buildings that are centuries (or millennia) old really serve well to block out the heat. The island was quite windy (I understand this is seasonal) and so with windows open, these massive structures serve very well to provide natural air conditioning.
We saw many treasures, amazing mosaics stolen from other islands and set into a palace restored to serve as a summer home for Mussolini (he never saw it) and beautiful statues dating back 2,000 years. Interestingly, we learned that these statues were originally painted but the paints were natural, not chemical, and did not stand the test of time.
There was a great deal of tourist trap merchandise to be found in Rhodes but we were lucky enough to find a shop carrying locally made glass items (plates, bowls, small trays) and had a wonderful time selecting the perfect piece to bring home as a memory of our visit to this very ancient walled city.
The rock of Santorini (and the other islands) is very stratified in appearance, the many colours, textures and layers giving evidence of the volcanic activity that has provided the geologic history of this area. The volcano remains active and over the past 4 centuries in fact has begun to rise again from the sea to create an ever-growing island in the centre of the caldera. Some day, many thousands of years from now, it is expected that all of the islands will be rejoined, the caldera will disappear, one large island will rise again that encompasses the whole of all the previous parts and perhaps one day another spectacular eruption will take it all down again.
This kind of uncertainty in the future of one's homeland perhaps breeds an intense need for faith and hope and belief in the power of prayer, thus Santorini is blessed with 365 Churches, one for every day of the year. Each Church has a special day when it offers food to the poor and by varying the days, in fact the Churches have insured that on any given day there is always free food to be had somewhere on the island. Where Mykonos impressed me as a "soft" island, Santorini is hard. Riding in the tender from the ship to the port, the waves were intense, it was a hard and bumpy ride. Then, when the tender docks, you look up, WAY UP, and realize that everything and everyone on the island is WAY UP THERE. The rock face is steep, almost sheer, and there are only so many ways up.
We had booked an excursion, a bus tour to Oia with a visit at a winery, and the roads taken by the bus meandered and wound their way up the face of the slope. Not looking down from the windows of the bus, became the order of the day. The drop was steep and it wasn't long before the ship resembled nothing so much as a child's toy bobbling in a bathtub.
The drive to Oia was interesting with beautiful whitewashed homes, villages, and those ubiquitous blue-domed churches Walking in Oia while my teens sat on a low wall sipping soft drinks and resting, I rounded a corner and suddenly there it was - the sea - with the "postcard perfect" blue-domed church right alongside. I think my heart stopped for a moment. Here was the Santorini of a thousand dreams, a picture I have seen so many times, always taken by others. Now it was me standing there holding the camera, holding my breath, realizing that I was a part of the picture postcard.
Later, when I viewed the photos on my laptop in our cabin, the pictures more closely ressembled paintings than photos which only increased my feeling of having been through the looking glass, but not actually there.
From the vantage point of Oia looking at the views of the sea, the memory of the long, difficult ascent to the top of the island rapidly fades. It becomes easy to understand the willingness to cope with some of the harsh realities of life on a mountaintop, indeed on a volcano, in order to enjoy such heart-stopping beauty. Many artists are said to come to Santorini every year for inspiration and to refresh … I can see how this would be so. On the way back from Oia we stopped at a winery. Here the very distinctive style of ‘dry farming' was explained to us. Santorini receives almost no rain in the year. It is measured only in millimeters and cannot be used for irrigation. There is not enough water on the island for residents to drink, let alone to water the crops. They do enjoy night mists and morning dew. This is the sole source of water for anything that grows on this island. So everything is compact and dense. Tiny cherry tomatoes, sweet and intensely flavourful, grow on dwarfed vines that look parched and dead. The grape vines are not trained "upwards" – this would expose them to too much wind and sun and they would quickly dehydrate and die. Instead, they are trained to stay dense and very close to the ground (not on it) where the leaves of the vines act as canopy and shade for the grapes.
We tasted 3 varieties of wine. A dry white that was quite palatable, a second dry white that I personally found too astringent, and a red aperitif wine that my daughter said smelled like nail polish. Not being an aperitif fancier, I have to admit to not appreciating it very much. The first white, however, was delicious (and aptly named "Santorini"). I purchased a bottle to bring home – maybe it will remind me of that beautiful postcard view in Oia.
At the conclusion of our excursion, we were shown the way to the cablecar which goes up and down all day between town and port. A fan of "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" series, my daughter had been hoping to ride one of the donkeys which have been conveying residents of Santorini up and down between port and town for centuries. But to ride the donkeys down the 380 steps would be very frightening indeed as the "donkey road" hovers close to the edge at all times. The drop is quite sheer and the sea is very far below.
So, all 3 of us took the cable car down to the port and then my hot and tired 18 year old son boarded the tender to return to the ship. My daughter and I sent with him all of our excess packages, bottled water, large camera and then we set off to find the donkeys. Please bear in mind that riding the donkey up the face of the rock was an important part of my daughter's "Greek adventure wish" but not mine. One of us owns and routinely rides a horse and one of us does not! Fortunately, I was given a nicely behaved donkey and was able to manage the ride with the small digital camera in hand, occasionally managing to snap a photo of the long line of donkeys making their way up the face of the cliff. It is a very steep climb indeed. Several times I apologized to my donkey for the many gelati's (and slices of delectable pizza) consumed in Rome. At no point did I look down and I know that was a good decision.
Once at the summit, we dismounted, and found our way to a taverna to recuperate under some shade and with a cool drink. This restaurant, like dozens of others, was actually constructed into the face of the cliff, with patios that seem suspended over the water which is many many feet below! I leaned over the low wall to take a photo down to the sea. Even now when I look at that photo on my computer screen I feel disoriented and a sense of vertigo. I would not have wanted to climb those 380 steps any other way than by donkey. The steps were very large and each one slanted steeply. If constructed for people the way we usually build a staircase, I imagine there would be at least 1,000 of them.
It was a huge climb and symbolic, I think, of the entire way of life for an island that has suffered volcanic eruption, severe earthquake, and each time rebuilt and gone forward. The people seemed very down to earth, friendly but not obtrusive, and I would venture to say that the residents must be hardy souls.
The island is invaded by millions of tourists annually, and with all the many rental car facilities I suspect that many Europeans and Brits make an annual trek to Santorini much the way our family travels to Aruba annually. In the shops and restaurants, everyone seemed to speak English and this struck me as an extremely tourist-friendly island.
Tourism is a big part of the Santorini economy in recent years (now that the mining and sale of pumice and other volcanic ash derivatives is forbidden) and they certainly have the climate. With so little rainful and tons of sun, there is much to enjoy on this island once you get to the top of it!!!
The historic town is rigorously protected from new, overwhelming or out of character construction. As Galaxy grew closer to port, the skyline only became more impressive. As we grew close to the pier we could hear the music of a local band, haunting, melodic, exotic. Like us, many passengers were on their balconies and applauding with appreciation at the end of each song. The band, dressed colourfully in red, played a variety of tunes and their conductor acknowledged with a nod the appreciation of passengers on the ship that was slowly sidling up to the dock, towering above the musicians.
Istanbul was the surprise on this itinerary, for me, because I booked this cruise as a way to visit specific ports and Istanbul wasn't that high on my radar or my to do list. Despite this, the bustling, busy city of 15 million people left an enormous impression on me and on my teenagers.
We took a shore excursion that was a panoramic bus drive of Istanbul (both on the European and Asian sides of the city) combined with a shopping expedition. Our guide was fairly young, knowledgeable, funny, had a terrific and colloquial command of English, and kept us all entertained and informed on the drive.
The tour was very enjoyable, we had tea and cookies in Asia (which felt very exotic at the time), and later we were educated about the subject of Turkish rugs. Mind you, it's a bit of a "captive audience" situation, but we managed to not purchase anything. Later we spent about an hour in a famous and very large jewelry store "Storks" where I was oh-so-tempted by the unique and beautiful designs. However, my teenage son was successful in reminding me of my other responsibilities ("college fund … college fund…." was the incantation in my ear) and I didn't purchase anything.
We stepped into a sidewalk restaurant near the Grand Bazaar to escape a ubiquitous perfume seller who was following me everywhere. Dolce & Gabbana's Light Blue, "20 euro … 18 euro …. 15 euro …… 8 eur"o. Fortunately our Maitre d' in the Galaxy dining room had warned me that however authentic the packaging might look, the contents of the bottle would be water.
To my surprise and disappointment, the menu handed to us could have been found in any North American restaurant! When I mentioned to the server that we had hoped for a "more authentic" dining experience, he smiled and suggested a location just a block away. We took his advice, left the restaurant (with the perfume seller gamely falling in behind ….." 6 euro ….. 3 euro …") and had a thoroughly enjoyable dinner elsewhere before bravely tackling The Grand Bazaar.
In hindsight, my advice for the Grand Bazaar is to allow plenty of time. The Grand Bazaar is HUGE, and it would be a fun place to become happily lost. We knew we had only about an hour so we stayed within a very small area to avoid this fate. The vendors can really draw you in but I found the whole experience rather fun.
Istanbul was an overnight port for Galaxy. In booking our excursions online from home, we hadn't the foresight to book one for our second morning in port but I wish we had done so. I seriously underestimated Istanbul. This is a City I hope to visit again.
Our guide (who was excellent) informed us that most of the site has yet to be excavated which more than anything suggested that this is a monumental excavation indeed. It was very impressive, well worth the hours we spent exploring, even though it was a very hot day (over 100oF) and there was little shade to be found. One member of our tour was a gentleman in his 80's and we felt if he could keep up the pace, there was no excuse for us! For me, this archaelogical site was a highlight of our cruise.
When our excursion deposited us back at the port of Kusadasi, my exhausted teenagers wanted onto to board the ship to eat and cool off. However, I spotted an open air restaurant right at the pier and stepped inside to have lunch. The server quickly brought me a chilled bottle of water and an ice cold glass of wine (heaven!).
Despite the English subtitles, I found the menu confusing. The server helpfully suggested instead that accompany him to view through the glass cases the various appetizers and side dishes on offer, as well as the "day's fresh catch" on ice.
The wide selection of items familiar and unknown didn't assuage my confusion. So, I asked him if he could arrange an assorted vegetarian plate for me, a little of everything. I'm not a vegetarian, but there seemed to be a lot of interesting choices and I was curious to try them. Within a few minutes, he brought me a plate filled with such a colourful variety of little bits and bites of all kinds of things, familiar and unfamiliar, mild and spicy, colourful and textured and fascinating.
I sat and watched the fishing boats, the cats sleeping on the sunshine of the dock, taking in the sounds of the people passing by the restaurant and debating how they should spend what remained of their day in port.
As I sipped my chilled wine and nibbled my way through lunch I contemplated the notion that I hadn't even heard of Kusadasi or Ephesus before booking this cruise. It was not one of my "must see' ports, yet I had just spent an incredibly rich day walking through a 2,000 year old archaelogical site, haggling over a pair of handmade leather sandals, and eating "a little of this and that" by the sea before boarding my ship for the next day's adventure. This wasn't a "must see" port for me – until I saw it. No wonder I've become a cruise addict!
Having said that, I was disappointed in the city overall. Unlike Rome, where the beautiful, ancient and historic "treasures" are surrounded by beautifully designed and architecturally detailed buildings (of more recent vintage), the treasures of Athens were surrounded by some of the most mundane, unattractive, uninspired commercial construction I've ever seen in a major city. It almost felt as though I was finding rare and beautiful diamonds buried among the rubble of a rather tacky garage sale.
We took a shore excursion in the morning which brought us to Athens' best-known historic sites. Again we had temperatures of over 100oF and these sites are not noted for shade and seating, so we had to just persevere. We drank every drop of water we brought from the ship! Our guide had a great deal of historic information to impart but her English was very heavily accented and she did not bring much animation or humour to the information. Consequently many people looked bored or distracted during her lengthy talks. Boarding the bus again after about 90 minutes spent on the Acropolis in desperately hot sunshine felt like a relief.
After a tour of the downtown area (with, sadly, no opportunity to take photographs of anything from a bus constantly on the move), we were given the choice of remaining in the "shopping district" or returning to the ship. We chose to stay, and have lunch at a sidewalk restaurant. That was probably a mistake. Although the food was OK, the service was absolutely miserable. We were never offered drink refills, the food took forever to arrive, and the waiter disappeared after he brought it to us. We were one of maybe 4 tables that had patrons, and we waited so long for the waiter to return to ask us about dessert that we lost interest and asked for the bill instead.
After lunch my teens just wanted to return to Galaxy. We found a taxi driver and explained what we wanted but he had a terrible time getting us back to the correct area of the pier. For 20 minutes at least we could SEE Galaxy but would have had to swim to her! He encouraged us to get out and find our way on foot. We declined as clearly we were in the wrong area of the port, with no access to our ship! Eventually my son figured out which entrance the taxi driver needed to use and we were back to the ship.
Athens was a "must see" for me personally and I would not have wanted to miss the ancient treasures. Having said that, I left with no immediate desire to return. I suspect that a good private tour guide, hired for the day, could have left us with a more favourable impression and memories of a more enjoyable (not just educational) day. If on a future cruise I find myself heading to Athens, I will plan carefully and test this theory.
It was a good decision, but any of the choices would have been equally so I think. Capri was very crowded (even the excursion ticket warned of this) but we knew to expect this and were therefore prepared for it. I told myself that as tempting as Capri was for me, it must be for others, and therefore I couldn't blame them for wanting to see this island as much as I did.
The hydrofoil ride was boring and not nearly fast enough but as we approached Capri and saw the magnificent yachts in the harbour and the view up the mountain, the boat trip was forgotten. Our guide (who was excellent) took us first to Anacapri and while some folks opted to sight-see a bit on foot, my teens and I took the chairlift to the top of the mountain. The views on the way up and also at the top were incredible.
On the ride up (in single-seater chairs) we passed atop beautiful gardens, grapevines growing up trellises, and one garden which must have belonged to the local "Queen of Kitsch" because it had every kind of doll, troll, a miniature pond, just a whole conglomeration of tsotchkes. We have a neighbour around the corner from our house who subscribes to the same "more is more" philosophy, so we smiled as we passed overhead on our way to the summit.
We spent about half an hour at the top, taking pictures mostly. I had a glass of wine and tried to convince myself that I was really at the top of the mountain on the Island of Capri. Not for the first time, the experience of simply "being" where I was felt just a little surreal.
Back in the city, we were taken to a small hotel for lunch. It was a simple meal, but enjoyable, and mercifully was served with great efficiency so that we could make the most of our remaining time to explore. The small shops contained some very big names (and bigger price tags … or actually, as my daughter pointed out, NO price tags which really said it all). We focused on the artistic local items including small watercolour paintings that we could take home and frame as mementos.
Our guide had pointed out "the best lemon granite" (slush) as we arrived so we made a point of consuming some before we departed. Made with freshly squeezed lemons, it was delicious and very refreshing. This was yet another very hot and sunny day, thus we needed some form of hydration (or so we justified to ourselves).
Sadly the time to say good-bye to Capri came all too soon and we were back on the hydrofoil. Despite the crowds, the heat, the hydrofoil ride needed to get to Capri from Naples, we all felt that Capri had been well worth the effort and a very enjoyable day for us.
In all too short a time Galaxy took us back to Rome where disembarkation went smoothly and our scheduled private transfer from port to airport moved us rapidly away from a dream and back to reality. Galaxy and her professional, accommodating staff took us beautifully and comfortably through a wonderful 11 day panorama of stunningly beautiful, varied, interesting and memorable ports.