October 29, 2005
My wife and I, along with several other people from our area, cruised the Mediterranean and Greek Isles itinerary on the Grand Princess, with a pre-cruise stay in Venice and a post-cruise stay in Rome. It was the last Eastern Mediterranean cruise of the 2005 season for the Grand Princess.
The late season timing was very good -- nice weather and light crowds at nearly all the stops we made. It was a special treat to walk where ancient Romans, Greeks and Turks lived, worked and played. We stood in the Roman coliseum, walked on the field at the ancient Olympic stadium, sat in the stands at the Pompeii theater, and saw the modern Olympic stadium in Athens. In between, we walked the streets of Venice with St. Mark’s Square at its center, dined at the cafes in the streets of Rome, and toured incredible places with magnificent scenery and met very nice people. All this with a grand class cruise ship as a base of operations.
PRINCESS' SHIP AND ARRANGEMENTS The Grand Princess lives up to its name, with all the onboard amenities of a Princess Grand Class ship. It has three large restaurants for evening dining with two set aside for Personal Choice dining, and a nice selection of shops and entertainment -- but the focus of this cruise was the ports.
Hint: For personal choice dining, make reservations before noon. There may be a long wait on some evenings, like formal night for prime time seating, but the flexibility for shore excursion-intense itineraries is a clear advantage if you enjoy having dinner in the dining rooms.
The only disappointment with the ship was with the steak house, which doesn’t come close to matching up with other specialty dining options on other ships.
Embarkation in Venice and disembarkation in Rome were smooth and quick. It is a memorable treat to take the water taxi from the hotel to the ship in Venice.
VENICE AIRPORT TRANSFER Use the water taxi to get from the airport to Venice. Its almost a door-to–door service. Other options may not be as easy. Taxi reservations can be made on the Internet and a taxi will be waiting at the airport, just a short covered walkway walk from baggage claim.
VENICE We stayed at the Luna Hotel Baglioni, a very nice place half a block from St Mark’s Square that supposedly was established by the Knights Templar in the 1400s. The water taxi docks within 15 feet of the entrance. Convenience to the square is a major plus in Venice, where walking is the only way to get around. St. Mark’s Square has the famous places like St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doges Palace that should be toured. Don’t miss the music on the square or the chance to walk the narrow streets with a lot of shops and sidewalk restaurants at night. Our late season visit was nice, with small crowds and comfortable temperatures for more enjoyable walking.
Hint: Street signs are few. Note that “Per Rialto” and “Per San Marcos” are on many corners, so you will always know the way to the Rialto Bridge or St. Mark’s Square.
Take the elevator to the top of the Campanile (bell tower) for photos of the city. Great views! Walk the waterfront to the residential areas for a feel of how locals live. Murano Glass has a large presence in the city as well as having a factory on a nearby island. There is a mini-factory near the square where you can get a glassblowing demonstration and purchase glass in a large showroom.
DUBROVNIK, CROATIA We took the tour to Cavtat and the old city that included a folk dancing presentation in a roofless theater. The drive was a breathtaking trip along a narrow road with a huge drop-off to the water. Cavtat was quaint but not spectacular. I would focus on the old city and its walls next time. The folk dancing was fun.
Hint: Focus on the old city made famous by its ancient walls and importance that rivaled Venice.
CORFU, GREECE We took the island tour, which is a bus ride up a mountain along hairpin turns with great views of the sea. We stopped at Paleokastritsa and Lakonas Village, both with nice views and a lot of olive trees. In Corfu town we saw the old fortress.
KATAKOLON, GREECE A centerpiece of the trip is a tour to Olympia, the ancient site of the original Olympic games. The ruins are much more extensive that we had imagined, and included are not only the stadium but a large number of buildings as well as a museum with significant artifacts including statues. The most impressive may be the statue of Hermes. A guided tour of the ruins is worthwhile.
Hint: Be prepared to walk over uneven ground for at least an hour.
You can also walk along the Katakolon shoreline with its shops and restaurants after the trip to Olympia. The shops are a short walk from the ship’s pier.
ATHENS, GREECE The ship docks at Piraeus, a port city a few miles from Athens. We booked a tour of Athens that included major city sights and a coffee stop.
Hint: Book a tour, because the area is large and very busy with a lot of traffic. Venturing on your own has a much higher risk because of the traffic unknowns and the distance of Athens from the port.
We stopped at the modern Olympic stadium used in the last Athens Olympics, an appropriate contrast with the first stadium at Olympia. We got a nice view of the Acropolis. Athens is a very busy city with unbelievable traffic. (Off-season traffic was actually busy in all the cities. I can’t imagine what traffic must be like in peak season.)
KUSADASI, TURKEY We were impressed with the Ephesus area, especially the Virgin Mary Shrine and the ruins of St. John’s Basilica. Friends toured Ephesus and said they believed the ruins rivaled Pompeii for size and detail. St. John’s Basilica is much larger than we expected, and has as a highpoint a marker noting the position of the tomb of St. John. The Virgin Mary Shrine, on the site of the home where the Virgin Mary spent her last years, is a must-see, especially if you are a Christian, and you will be rewarded with impressive scenery and a special experience.
Shopping in Kusadasi is very near the pier.
SANTORINI, GREECE If you like magnificent scenery you will enjoy Santorini. As a start, the ship anchors in the crater of an ancient volcano with the sides rising almost straight up for hundreds of feet above the sea. Atop the rim are the whitewashed buildings, with blue trim, of the towns that dot Santorini. Tenders take people signed up for tours to Athenios for a bus ride up switchbacks along the cliff sides. Incredible views!
The island is covered with small villages, all with whitewashed buildings, just like the travel brochures and postcards. Grapes and wine are the island’s economic base along with tourism. Vineyards seem to cover every square inch of available land and we stopped at a winery to sample the results. Their wines were quite good with a slightly sweet taste.
Perhaps leaving the island is the most memorable experience. After a tough walk through the streets of Fira, located on top of the edge of the crater, we found three ways to get down the cliff to the tender pier: Walk, donkey and cable car. We were told the walk has 480 steps and opted for the cable car. We were tempted by the donkey ride but couldn’t reconcile looking over the edge of the path from the back of a donkey. The cable car takes only three or four minutes.
Hint: Don’t forget your camera. You can also take the cable car up to Fira, which has a lot of shops near the cable car station.
NAPLES, ITALY Another centerpiece of our cruise was the opportunity to visit Pompeii and its ruins. We were not disappointed! Pompeii is a huge site, perhaps best demonstrated by its two mile long main street. It’s a “you have to see it to believe it” experience. The tour covered a gladiator training school, shopping district, bakery, brothel, baths, a home, and a theater. Frescoes on the walls and mosaics on the floors were interesting, as were the plaster figures made from voids in the ash by the bodies of people who died in Pompeii (they were in special cases in the baths).
The cobblestone streets and sidewalks along the streets were picturesque. Grooves from ancient chariot wheel are easily seen in the stones.
Hint: Be prepared to walk over very rough terrain. Purchasing a map/guide before you tour might be helpful even though the tour guide was good.
ROME, ITALY Rome was a fitting finale to a great cruise and tour adventure. We stayed for two days at the Westin Excelsior Hotel on the Via Veneto, right in the center of the bustling city and next door to the U.S. Embassy. The Excelsior is a very elegant old hotel with all the amenities of a first class hotel. It is very expensive to partake of some of its amenities (e.g., continental breakfast, $35).
Hint: Eat at local restaurants very near the hotel -- nice food and a fun atmosphere with seating in protected areas on the street.
There are very nice shops and restaurants all around the area. We went for several walks in between tours, both during the day and at night, when the atmosphere was special. English menus are available when requested.
We took a tour in combination with our transfer from the Civitacecchia port to Rome.
Hint: We didn’t book the Princess transfer or hotel. I would do so next time for several reasons, including smoothness of the transfer and access to guided tours.
There are almost endless famous places to visit in Rome. We put the coliseum at the top of our list and enjoyed a great tour. The coliseum is much bigger than I expected and includes a museum on its second floor. Don’t miss taking the elevator to the second floor.
We also visited/saw the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Circus Maximus site, Pantheon, churches, embassies and several ancient Roman sites. The Westin is just a couple of city blocks from one of the ancient Roman city gates.
Rome’s taxis, traffic and parking are worthy of note. Taxi rides can be a thrill because rules like we know don’t seem to apply. Lots of police are visible on the streets but they seemed oblivious to the action around them. Traffic is heavy, with swarms of Vespas/scooters buzzing around and parked everywhere along with autos and delivery vans -- sometimes three deep in a busy street. Every available spot has at least one parked vehicle.
CONCLUSION: This is a great cruise itinerary filled with opportunities to experience famous cities and sites. The end-of-the-season strategy was rewarded with very tolerable weather and small crowds.