Rose Sculpture in the Atrium
We recently had the chance to tour the brand new Celebrity Reflection and thought you might like to see a few pics of this beautiful ship.
What do you think? Do you these photos make you want to cruise on the Reflection?
After our exceptional time in all our Greek ports, we had high hopes for Santorini. It is supposed to be the most beautiful of the islands with postcard perfect views, and it is pretty. But, it is a pain in the butt to get around.
The first problem is that Santorini is a tender port, meaning that you have to take a smaller boat from the ship to the dock. All tender ports are somewhat frustrating, but once you get on dock, the headache is usually over. Not in Santorini. Here, you have to then either take a cable car or a donkey to the top of the cliff where the town is. Since each tender boat lets off about a hundred passengers, you can imagine that the lines for the cable car back up pretty quickly. Can you guess what we did? Yep, we took the donkeys.
It was actually pretty fun, although smelly and at times, scary when they got close to the edge. Definitely an experience we won't forget! Once in the town of Fira, many people recommend taking the bus to the picturesque village you see in all those Greek postcards, Oia. So, we found the public buses and made the trek.
Oia is about 20 minutes away, and is very beautiful, but can get overrun with tourists easily. It is also a very expensive place to have a meal, which is what we were looking to do. We couldn't find any little gyro places, only more expensive restaurants. All I can say is that I am glad my new friend, JoAnn, is an amateur photographer and has agreed to share her photos. I'll post them, and we can all enjoy Oia through her eyes.
As for James and I, we headed back to Fira and completed the many modes of transport it took to get back to the ship: bus, cable car and boat. For me, Santorini is not worth the trouble. Corfu and Mykonos are far easier and almost as beautiful.
Back on the ship, we enjoyed Indian food that they made especially for us. (You can request this on Princess in the main dining room) We saw a show, played a game and went to bed. Typical cruise night, but atypical for real life. Is it any secret which I prefer?
Day 10: Athens!
Some days you have to really prep for. You know that you will see amazing things, but you know that you will be exhausted at the end of it. A port stop in Athens is one of those days. We had two couples that we were traveling with and a busy itinerary. Of course, we were doing everything on our own, and I had it planned to the tee. We met up before sunrise at 7:15 and walked to the train station. (Complete info on how to do Athens on your own is coming)
First, we hit the Acropolis Museum which houses some of the original sculpture and frieze from the Parthenon. Back in the day (awhile ago) Lord Elgin from Great Britain took all the best sculpture from the Parthenon and toted it off to London, where it remains at the British Museum. They have refused to give them back to Greece, continually stating that Greece has nowhere to house them. This is the museum that was built in response, and it is a beautiful place to showcase the ruins. Of course, the British Museum is now skittish about giving them back, afraid of similar requests from other counties. The museum does have the ruins that Lord Elgin didn't deem worthy to take, as well as sculpture from temples which predated the Parthenon. An accompanying movie really helps to understand and picture the original structure.
Next was the Acropolis itself. I was acting as tour guide, and of course James scurried up the hill ahead of the rest of us. At the top, we took the obligatory pictures and reviewed the history. It really is crazy to see buildings that stood in the 4th century BC. We went down, toured the Agora, and tried to imagine Socrates and Plato walking the streets. After a few more old rocks, we were getting tired of ruins and ready for lunch.
Greek food has been superb this trip. Sometimes I worry about the real version of something being a little too authentic for me, but so far the real version of Greek food has been superior in every way to Americanized Greek food.
After some yummy gyros and feta, we did a little shopping and recharged our batteries for one last push: the National Archaeology Museum. Items from Troy, statues that are 1500 years old, and an array of items which would astound in most situations fill this museum, but after an entire day of ancient ruins, it begins to blend together. That is why you take photos.
A quick train and bus got us back to the ship, and we had successfully conquered Athens.
I was a little skeptical about today and our trip to the site of the Ancient Olympics. I had heard that there wasn't much left out there, and that it was really difficult to visualize the games etc. Well, I don't know if our Rick Steve's walking tour was the reason, or if maybe I have a great imagination, but I was totally impressed by and enjoyed the site of the ancient games.
Starting at the beginning: the port of Katakolon. Katakolon is about 40 km from Olympia, but the transport is very easy. We found out about a transfer service that was significantly cheaper than the cruise line tours, that still guaranteed your return to the ship. It is called Katakolon Express, and they were great. I'll write a full review later, but the buses were very nice, and we were back to the port with a couple hours to spare.
Olympia has two major sites: where the ancient games took place, and the accompanying museum. Both are worth seeing, and come in a combo ticket for 9 euros. We started with the site, and it was so cool to walk among the columns which had been arcades that surrounded the training courtyards. They still have a bathtub which they used to clean off the layer of olive oil and dust which covered their bodies to protect from the sun and injuries. We saw the workshop of the man who created one of the wonders of the ancient world: the statue of Zeus. Then, we saw the site of the real thing. I don't know about you, but standing on the ground which ancient philosophers like Plato visited and people from around the world renowned is pretty crazy to think of. That 40 ft statue must have been a site to see which his ivory, golf and gemstones glittering in the reflective pool in front of him. I guess when the Greeks came to the games, it was sort of like our vacations today, mixed with a religious pilgrimage. They certainly were rewarded for their efforts in getting there.
After walking down cheaters lane, where early drug dopers (animal blood and herbs) had their names engraved on statues which they paid for, we walked through the grand tunnel, out into the stadium. This stadium had no seats, only hillside, except for the judges who were known for their fairness. The marble starting and ending blocks are still there, and James just had to run where many, many others had run before. I myself, got a snazzy photo on the starting line. The ancient games ran for several centuries before being banned by the new Christian rule. Think of that: our modern games have only been going since the 1890's, barely over 100 years. How many people must have visited and competed at that ancient site?
After passing a temple where they light the current flame and a monument to the family of Alexander the Great (who actually competed in the games), we finished up and visited the museum which holds many of the statues which adorned the ruins.
Upon returning from Olympia, we spoke with and had lunch with one of owners of Katakolon Express. She took us to this little seafood restaurant on the water, where all the tables were reserved and she knew the owner/ cook. I have to say that my favorite part of traveling and doing the show is meeting the people and having experiences like this. She told us of Athens and mythology as we munched on fresh feta, tomato salad with amazing olive oil, little fried fish and beautiful grilled shrimp. We didn't even order, Andre just kept bringing us things he thought we should eat. The water was gorgeous, Maria was a great storyteller, and the food was so fresh, you could swear it had been caught or picked that morning. Greek music played in the background, and it felt like a scene from one of those romantic Greek movies.
We could have had no better introduction to Greece, and I can't wait to explore further in Athens tomorrow!
Day 8: First Day in Greece
I must admit, of the places in Europe we planned on visiting, Greece has never been high on our list. There really isn't a good reason. James knows more about later history than that, and other places just capture my imagination more. Today has me thinking that we were likely wrong. Although it was just a relaxed day in Corfu, wandering the little streets, exploring a fortress and eating gyros, it was still an amazing port stop. The views were gorgeous, the shopping was cheap, and the gyros had French fries in them. It doesn't get much better than that.
Back on board, we relaxed on deck, played a little trivia and prepared for our dinner at the specialty restaurant steakhouse, Crown Grill. I have to say that at $25, the Crown Grill must be one of the best values at sea. The food looked and tasted great. I started with scallops with pancetta, black and blue onion soup, and James had a lobster cake and shrimp bisque. Our steaks were cooked perfectly, juicy and flavorful, and were excellent cuts of meat. The vegetables are served family style, and you can order as many as you like. By the time we got to dessert, we were practically forcing ourselves to eat bites of the chocolate soufflé and berry cobbler. This is the type of food we were hoping to have at the chef's table we visited on a previous cruise: elegant, beautiful and delicious.
After losing a 50's music trivia, we hit the sack, ready for a full day at the site of the Ancient Olympics!
I'll admit it: I am a bit obsessive. Before I go on a cruise, I scour websites for cruise papers, menus, photos, and reviews. I have many reasons for my obsessive research. 1. It gets me excited about my cruise. (well, more so) 2. I know what to look out for on a ship/ what not to miss. 3. I prepare myself that they may not have things I really enjoy.
While recently thinking about all of that pre-cruise research, I did wonder: what exactly am I looking for? The answer is... my favorite cruise things!
1. Creme Brulee
I am always happy to see creme brulee on a menu, but even more so if it is available on an everyday menu like Celebrity, or in different flavors like pistachio, maple, banana etc. I know that creme brulee is not specifically a "cruise food" like Baked Alaska, but it is one of those different desserts that I just don't come across much in my everyday life. It isn't at Applebee's or Chili's, so I usually only get it when I am on vacation. On my last Celebrity cruise, I couldn't bring myself to order anything else for dessert EVERY SINGLE NIGHT.
2. Broadway Music Trivia
Okay, I enjoy participating in the many trivia contests anyway, but not as much as my husband. His broad base of knowledge in history, geography, literature etc. really makes him a trivia force to be reckoned with. My strengths have always been more artistic in nature, specifically music, and so my favorite trivia contests are "name that song" types of trivia. At the top of that heap is Broadway music for me. I have a deep love for all things Broadway, and these contests are the only place in the world where I can show off my knowledge a little. I never get to win trivia contests, so I am sorry, this one is mine. I may be a nerd for being able to name a Miss Saigon song with only a couple of notes played, but at least all those long hours of listening to soundtracks has amounted to something. (And cruise lines, please include at least one per cruise!)
3. Good Adult Entertainment
We have a daughter and we don't live in a real "happening" area, so we never go out and do anything adult at night unless we are hitting up the local touring Broadway show once in a blue moon. In fact, I had never been to a comedy show at all before I went on a cruise. I really enjoy watching the Marriage Game, the Liars Club and the Quest. Surprisingly, Disney does a particularly great job at providing great things for adults to do at night with nightly cabarets, comedy shows and more. Sorry, but I am looking for more than a DJ and a themed deck party when I peruse those cruise papers.
4. A Piano Bar
I absolutely love a piano bar. The talent of these guys astounds me, and they always play music that I personally love. It isn't so loud that you can't talk to your friends, and everyone seems more relaxed in a piano bar. People sing along and request songs, and just have fun. By the way, combining a piano bar with music trivia is a one-two punch for me.
5. Good Deck Food (with long hours)
One of my favorite things about being on a cruise ship is the ability to just go get some food when I am hungry. I love to snack, and what better place to snack than on a cruise ship? But sometimes cruise lines seem to spend all their time and energy on the restaurant food, leaving the deck food worse than fast food. Trust me, I eat a lot of this type of food and I know that it isn't that difficult to make it good. Just cook it fresh! This stuff is cheap, so it isn't going to increase your food cost bottom line, and there is almost always a line of kids (and me). It shouldn't be that hard to keep it fresh. Some of my favorite memories are of sitting on the pool deck, watching something on the big screen and eating chicken fingers and cheese fries in the middle of the afternoon. What can I say? I am easy to please. Just make it worth the calories, please!!!
My list could go on, but so could yours. Let's face it: we all have our idiosyncrasies and favorites that maybe everyone else doesn't understand, but if you look across the cruise lines, you will probably find your niche. That is one of my favorite things about cruising: even on the same line, ship and itinerary two different people can have such drastically different experiences, and still have their own special vacations.
What are those "favorites" that you look for on a cruise?
I saw a story this morning on a new package that Royal Caribbean will be offering which centers around Barbie. Little girls will be able to sleep in a pink Barbie-decorated stateroom, attend a fashion show, go to tea parties, design Barbie outfits along with Barbie-themed movie nights and sleepovers. You can have all this for the additional cost of $349 per person starting in January.
This got me thinking about what kind of person would allow something like this to influence their vacation decisions. Don't get me wrong, this package and Royal Caribbean are by no means the first cruise line to cater to the desires of children. It could be argued that Disney's entire cruise line is built on catering to children. But is this a good trend?
Back when I was a child, vacations were decided upon entirely by my parents. They made the money, so they picked the trips. I often didn't even know where we were going until a few weeks out. While I'm sure my parents wanted me to have a good time, I am also fairly sure that they didn't plan the vacation based on my desires. Most people immediately think of Disney World when considering child-centric vacations, but my parents went there on their honeymoon, and I know MANY adults who enjoy the parks more than their children. (Sis, I am looking at you! Heck, I am looking in the mirror too.)
Call me crazy, but a cruise has always seemed to me to be a truly "adult" vacation choice. No vacation more appropriately meets the needs of an adult, in my opinion, than a cruise. Relaxation, fine dining, live entertainment, adult enrichment activities, etc.: cruising just seems to be the epitome of an adult vacation. So, are children hijacking our ships, or are we just letting them come along?
A few decades ago, cruise lines figured out that they needed to provide something for kids in order to encourage the parents to try their ships (and to get them to relax and spend some money once there.) I firmly believe that the invention of kids' clubs on cruise ships is one of the best ideas the cruise industry has ever had. What other vacation provides free babysitting? Really? Especially at the price of a cruise? But now that cruise lines seem to be eager to move past just providing services for the children once on board into creating a vacation with children in mind. Is it a good idea?
I can only speak for myself, but I will not be selecting a cruise based solely on my daughter's interests any time soon. If I am zeroed in on a particular departure port and itinerary, and one line has characters she enjoys more than the others, that may factor into my decision. We'll also likely take her on a Disney cruise at some point, but considering how much we enjoy Disney AND that I think Disney really has a lot to offer adults, although I know she'll love it, it isn't really all about her.
What do you think? Will you shell out $350 to sleep in a pink Barbie room just so your kid can?
This is your future self, and I just wanted to write to encourage you in your future cruise endeavors. I know that right now you are totally wrapped up in Disney, and there is nothing wrong with that. You and James are stationed with the military up in North Dakota, and I can imagine that the idea of getting away to a familiar, fantastical place like Disney World is pretty appealing at this point. But, your way of vacationing is about to change completely!
Right now, you picture a cruise as being boring, claustrophobic and for people who are either old or don't have much imagination. You fear the small staterooms, aren't even sure if they actually have double beds or if you'd have to sleep in twin beds, bolted to the floor. Your sister in law just got back from a cruise and mentioned the soda card, and you cannot believe anyone would spend that much money on Coke. She tried to tell you about all the activities on board, but all you heard was "casino" and "learn to scrapbook", neither of which appeal to you. And, as we both know, you aren't a big sunbather, so laying by the pool day after day is not an option. Then you saw that Samantha Brown special on the Travel Channel, and raised an eyebrow at all the people in beaded outfits taking photos of the fruit displays at the midnight buffet. You're thinking "is it so boring that they get dressed up and stay awake til midnight, just to be entertained by some food?" You've heard horror stories about people getting sick on ships because they are in such close quarters, and really very little about the whole experience appeals to you.
It will be a fluke that finally gets you to consider a cruise: a great rate on a Disney ship (which I now know is insane!) But since you love Disney, it works. And you will have an amazing time, but even after that first cruise, you won't trust the experience thinking that maybe you only liked it because it was Disney. When you try it again and realize that cruising is, actually perfect for you, the whole world will open up.
Cruising will allow you to go to Europe for the first time, (and second and third) it will bring you to the Caribbean and Mexico and have you thinking about visiting places you've never considered like China and Australia. It will introduce you to some of the best people you've ever met in your whole life, lifelong friends. You will never be bored on the ship, alternatively you will have trouble fitting in everything you want to do. Yes, you will pay those high prices for Coke, but you won't even think twice about it. You'll sleep in comfy accommodations (not twin beds), hardly ever lay by the pool, but you will take pictures of food. Who knows? You might even start a blog or podcast. :)
So, just remember to stay open to travel experiences, and try not to prejudge. Something amazing could always be around the corner!
Your Future Self
P.S.- Enjoy those last few "child-free" years, but that is a WHOLE other letter.
Why Cruise in Europe?
As anyone who knows us or listens to our show can attest, we LOVE to cruise in Europe, specifically the Mediterranean. But, why?
1. Cruising is the easiest and cheapest way to see Europe.
If you have ever looked at planning a European vacation, it is really easy to get overwhelmed. Where to go, what to do, where to stay, how to get around: there are a myriad of things to consider. Even as someone who loves planning and handling those details, it made my head spin. Cruising presents this great opportunity to answer most of those questions for you, allowing you to focus and enjoy the experience.
Don't know where to go? Find a cruise itinerary that hits a lot of those places you have dreamed of. Don't worry if it goes a few places you haven't heard of yet, those are often hidden treasures. Once you have the itinerary selected, you can focus on what you want to do in each port. Europe is very walkable and public transportation is plentiful, so it is much easier to see the sites independently than in the Caribbean. If you are nervous about that prospect, the ship offers a plentiful selection of guided tours. The question of where to stay is obviously handled by the ship, but another plus is that you are often getting a much higher level of accommodations than you would normally find in Europe (with air conditioning!). And finally, the how to get around is answered by the ship as well. Compare the daily price of a cruise to what you would pay to stay in a comparable hotel, meals and transportation; the numbers really speak for themselves.
2. A cruise for non- "beach people".
We are not beach people. I know most cruisers are, and I completely respect that, but I hate getting a tan and get bored if I have to spend more than one day on a beach. I love to be out there, in the local culture, meeting people and seeing history. While there is some history in the Caribbean (mostly Mexico), Europe is chock-full of it. Every single port has more history than almost any port in the Caribbean. If that is the sort of thing that you like to see on vacation anyway, then combining those sites with the relaxing atmosphere, amazing food and entertainment on a cruise ship is like a slam dunk. It is like two incredible vacations rolled into one!
3. A cruise lessens the culture shock.
As much as I love Europe and other cultures, after a few days I am often wishing for a normal sized towel or tap water with ice in it. I miss my air conditioning, my large bed and talking to someone other than my husband. Cruising in Europe is so cool because you can get out there and experience the culture, and then come back to some comforts. You can discuss your day with new friends and eat a hamburger with fries (and a chocolate melting cake).
4. Europe is where most of the ships are in the summer.
Lately, in the summer when kids get out of school, most of the ships pack up and head to Europe. Unless you want to go to Alaska or sail with Carnival, your options are pretty limited. And guess what?! The cruises in Europe are usually NOT more expensive per day. My upcoming cruise was $899 for a 12 day on a premium ship, and I see deals all the time for a week-long cruise for $500. Now, of course you have to worry about air fare, which is not cheap, but many lines are giving air fare credits and if you add all the costs up, it might surprise you. Also, most new ships are built in Europe, so many do several cruises over there before heading to the United States.
One last word:
Cruising in Europe is not for everyone. If you love those beach days and can't imagine wanting to trek around the Forum or Colosseum instead of enjoying a nice margarita on the beach, I wouldn't suggest taking the leap. But, if you have always wanted to go to Europe, but have held back because of the overwhelming planning or cost, you should give a European cruise a good hard look. Chances are, it will be the best vacation of your life!
I'll admit it; a few years ago I had no idea how using a travel agent actually worked. I assumed they were for wealthy people, kind of like personal shoppers. In my mind, these people had gobs of money just sitting around for travel and had no idea what to do with it, so they went to a travel agent. The travel agent would then advise these people who were too busy and luxurious to plan their own trips and would get paid a large sum by the consumer for this work. How much? I had no idea, but I knew that it was likely more than I would ever be willing to afford. Plus, with the popularity of online booking sites, why would I EVER need or want to use a travel agent when I can do it so easily myself? Boy, was I wrong!
A favorite Disney podcast, WDWToday, introduced me to the fact that many travel agents are, in fact, free. What?! Who pays them? Well, the cruise line or whomever or whatever you end up booking. Doesn't that mean that their prices will always be more than what you can get on the cruise line's or Disney's official sites? Actually, no. The price is going to be the exact same, if not cheaper because of a group rate or a discount that they are willing to find for you that someone working for the company might not be willing to do. If you book with the cruise line or official site, they just keep the amount set aside for commission and pay those who handle their bookings with it. So, what are the advantages of using a travel agent in this day and age? I am glad you asked.
1. You have someone working for YOU.
When you book with a good travel agent, they have your best interests at heart. They want you to have the best trip possible, so they will try to get you the best rate they can find, the best stateroom location, and give you tips for your trip. A critic might say, "why would they be working for you when they are getting paid by the cruise line etc.?" Yes, just like the cruise line agent on the phone or the guy working the Internet site for Travelocity, they are getting paid by the cruise line, but unlike those people, they want your repeat business. Travel agents thrive when they have loyal clients, while those others just rely on simple volume. That in itself is an incentive for a personal travel agent to provide better service and to work on your behalf, not the vacation providers'.
An example: on a recent cruise, we got a shore excursion discount email. The cruise line didn't want to uphold it, claiming that it was a mass email that we got by chance (even though it had our names and sailing date on it.) Our travel agent called and called again until she spoke with a supervisor who would uphold the discount offered to us. If I had booked through the cruise line, either I would have had to call and fight with management or more likely, I would have relied on the person I booked with, who would have likely just spouted whatever the cruise line had told them. A good travel agent is your advocate, which leads me to my next point....
2. A travel agent is indispensible if something goes wrong.
Imagine that you have booked a cruise online and something happens, preventing you from boarding the ship in time. Exactly that happened to a client of my travel agent. Her flight was delayed, and she got to Port Canaveral after the ship had sailed. She called her travel agent, who was then able to reach the cruise line and convince them to allow the money they had paid to go toward a future cruise, then booked them a wonderful trip to Disney World on the fly, saving their vacation. Sure, it might have been possible to do those things on your own in a time of amazing stress and from an airport, but someone else that she already had a relationship with and trusted (and had considerable knowledge on the subject) did it for her.
3. You have a personal contact for questions (and much more)
Any stupid question you have, a good travel agent will make it their duty to try and answer. And considering the amount of knowledge that they usually have on the destination, ship or hotel, they can probably answer questions you didn't even knew you had. Not only that, but as you continue to book with them, they get to know your likes and dislikes etc. and can help steer you in the right direction for future vacations. They can send you deals on your favorite ships or places certainly before you would likely hear about them just by searching the Internet in passing.
4. They handle all the details
Okay, this one is self-explanatory, but wouldn't it be nice to handle all your travel needs with one phone call, rather than having to search around on Internet sites for the best deal, book everything, (including even the little things like dining reservations at Disney) and remember to follow through on final payment deadlines etc.? When you use a travel agent, they do all of that, including reminding you of those important dates you might let slip. You can be assured that all those little things will be taken care of in a timely manner, and just worry about the fun stuff.
The Other Side/ A Couple of Caveats
Not every travel agent is a good one. Because it is fairly easy to become a travel agent with some agencies, you could end up with a dud. Extensive training is not always required, and knowledge on a certain destination or subject cannot be assumed. Some people sign up just for the travel discounts and do it as a hobby, so they might not care about repeat business like a good agent would. A quick Internet search can provide reviews of most agencies, and if you don't get the information you are seeking, ask the agent for referrals or about their background. Good agents will be happy to provide that information.
Also, not all travel agents work solely on commission; some do charge for certain services. You are most likely to come across this in agents who work with a luxury clientele, and it should be very clearly stated upfront either on their website or in conversation. I have nothing against these agents, they just don't tend to be what I prefer to work with. If an agent does plan above and beyond commissionable travel like personalized, in-depth foreign itineraries with museum tickets and more, then a fee could certainly be fair. You just want to make sure you know ahead of time.
The Bottom Line
Even for a seasoned traveler who is computer-savvy, a good travel agent is an invaluable asset. The right one will above and beyond to make sure your vacation is perfectly suited to you and goes off without a hitch. It should also be at the most affordable rate available and, as previously discussed, is at no extra fee. You gain an advocate who handles all the details for you. What about people like me who LOVE to plan the details of their vacation? No problem! Again, a good travel agent knows your preferences and will step back and let you handle the things you enjoy, just answering questions when asked. So why pay the exact same rate to spend all that time doing the research yourself? Take the leap and find a great travel agent today!