End of the Five Star Living on the High Seas
We are now in Athens, Greece. We have spent the last three weeks living on the MS Rotterdam and allowing the Holland America crew to pamper us and fatten us up quite frankly. We had a great trip and met some amazing people. I guess after spending three weeks with the same people, following the same schedules, eating the same meals, visiting the same places, it is inevitable that you develop some close acquaintances.
In my last post, we were about to stop in Athens after the first half of our voyage. During that stop, Nicola and I only got off the boat to access some wifi and scope out how to get into Athens from the port in Piraeus when we were done. Unfortunately however, despite guarantees that we could avoid long lines with immigration because we were re-embarking, the customs officials had other ideas. It was the most disorganized schmozzle at the port. We regretting off the boat. The captain actually apologized to everyone for that and promised he was sharing a report of the mess caused by Greek customs that day.
The next day, we went to Kusadassi, Turkey. This is a port close to the ancient ruins in Ephesus. We took public transportation with Barrie and Kathleen (from Seattle) and Andrew and Amanda (from St. Louis) to Ephesus. Ephesus is the ruins of an Ancient Greek city and is renowned for the Temple of Artemis which is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. I am avoiding googling the background right now, but it is about 3000 years old. It is amazing that we are able to walk around ruins that old. It seems to me that you would be prevented from stepping onto or into anything that old but we walked right into the remains. It is clear that some of it has been preserved to prevent further deterioration. That said, I find it very interesting to see even a small portion of what once was. It causes the imagination to fill in the blanks and think about what life was like in those times.
Next we went to Crete, Greece. Specifically, we were at a port in Heraklion. Again, we planned our own tour with Amanda and Andrew. This time, we took public transportation to the ruins of the Knossos Palace. These ruins were even older than the ones in Ephesus. If I recall properly, I believe that they have dated these ruins to about 4000 years ago. The ruins are evidence of the Minoan civilization that lived on Crete and is evidence of the first modern European civilizations. These people were likely all killed by a tsunami following a volcanic eruption on a nearby Greek island. The palace is supposed to have been the home of the Minotaur who was made to live in the labyrinth beneath the palace. What surprised me though was the fact that these ruins had really been reconstructed a lot. In fact, that is the biggest criticism of that sight by many people. In particular, critics feel that the guy who lead the reconstruction really rebuilt it the way that he envisioned it. That said, there is still lots to see and learn by visiting this sight.
After an at sea day, we stopped next in Limassol, Cyprus. This was one of the most underwhelming stops on the cruise. We had actually been looking forward to going to Cyprus. However, there is not really all that much there. We visited a castle museum that was somewhat interesting. The Kolossi Castle was built by the Frankish Military around the year 1200 or so. When we tried to get back on the bus though to go back to the ship, we got on going the wrong direction. We rode it for quite a while before really being sure that we were not getting anywhere closer to the ship. We got off, crossed the street, and caught a bus going the other direction. I think when they finish all the construction in Limassol it will be much nicer. The last couple of stops on the cruise made me realize that I was becoming more unimpressed with some of our ports of call. I guess that happens when you are on a ship so long. Many places start to look the same, feel the same, etc.
Israel was the high point of our cruise. I think I have already mentioned that it was the two stops in Israel, Jerusalem and Haifa, that sold us on taking this cruise. We did not book any shore excursions through the ship during this cruise but we went online and found a company that organized shore excursions in Israel. They were a bit cheaper than the ship ones. Barrie and Kathleen also got the information from us and booked the same two excursions in Israel so it made it more fun that we were with friends. There were a couple of very slow people on the day trips though that made it a bit more frustrating for the whole group.
Upon arrival in Jerusalem, we had to wait to be called off the ship by floors. They started with the expensive rooms on the 7th floor and worked their way down to us poorer people at the bottom of the boat. We were on the 2nd floor. However, when they called us they must have also called all of the people who were on ship organized shore excursions who were waiting in the lounge on the 5th floor floor because all of the stairways were backed right up. It took us a long time to get off the ship. Then we queued up to get through immigration. The whole process was again poorly organized by Holland America. When we got to the customs official, she seemed to spend a long time on my passport. She then asked me what I had been doing in Morocco. I guess they are always on alert for people moving from Arabic countries to Israel. Going through the scanner, they asked Nicola about a sticker that she had placed on her iPad. In Morocco, we were using her iPad for a map on the street. There were a couple of kids watching us closely and she thought it would be better to cover her apple symbol. She had a sticker from the mosque we had visited in Casablanca and she stuck it on the back. The security officials all discussed it and finally asked her what the sticker said. Again, it was in was in Arabic. When she said it was from Morocco and was from a tour we had done they let her through.
After all the hassles, we almost missed our tour. The van had actually left already. We did not see Barrie and Kathleen anywhere and it was only when I noticed Nicola’s name on the back of a man’s sign that I approached him. He called our tour guide and they came back for us. I am sure that everyone on the tour was frustrated by us but it was really out of our hands. I appreciate that we they came back from us. They were just leaving the parking lot I guess so they were not very far. Thank goodness they did.
The boat actually arrived in Ashdod, Israel so there was a bit of a drive to Jerusalem. With traffic it was about an hour… maybe longer. We started by going to the Mount of Olives. It is a high point in the city and you can see a great panoramic view of all of the important sites in Jerusalem. On the side of the Mount, there are thousands of graves in a Jewish cemetery. Jewish people believe that when the prophet comes, they will be brought back to life and the people here will be the first.
The schedule of our tour was a bit messed up. John Kerry and the President of Poland were in town and were meeting with Mahmoud Abaas in Bethlehem at 2pm. We were supposed to go to Bethlehem in the afternoon but they reversed it because everything in the West Bank would be shut down while they met. Specifically, the Church of the Nativity and the border into the West Bank. About half of our group was going to Bethlehem while the other half went to the Museum. The half that went to the Museum were quite upset that it was closed because one of the dignitaries was in there while they went. It was not the tour groups fault but if they had not reversed the schedule, the other half would have been able to go in I think and we would not have been able to go to Bethlehem.
I think that I was more amazed by the experience of entering the West Bank than I was by going to the Church of the Nativity. Just seeing the wall constructed by the Jews to prevent the Palestinians from being able to freely leave Bethlehem was an experience. It felt like we were entering a prison. We passed through a series of fences and gates. Once inside, our guides met us. Our Jewish guide on the other side had been sure to tell us that they were Christians and if we were to buy some souvenirs from them it would really help them. They took us to their souvenir shop and some people did buy things. Being gone for a year however, we have no room and no weight for souvenirs. Next they took us the Church of the Nativity. This church stands in the location where Jesus was born. There was a long line to go down into the basement to see the exact location. The wait would have been almost two hours so we did not do it. Apparently, some people waited and then it was shut down and many people never got in after waiting. All because John Kerry came. I am sure that would have been very frustrating.
After the Church of the Nativity they took us back to the border. However, when we got there it was all closed off by security because the President of Poland was apparently entering. We were worried that we would now be stuck inside. Our driver told us that this often happens at Christmas when dignitaries come to Bethlehem. He drove around trying to find another way to get at the border but to no avail. Eventually they just allowed people by so I guess the President made it in. Getting out of the West Bank was more of a challenge than getting in. Remember that the security is Israeli security preventing “terrorist attacks” by Palestinians. The issue is Palestinians getting out I guess. We had to go through an extremely sensitive metal detector that required me to take my shoes, belt, watch, and ring off. Apparently, Palestinians need a permit to get out.
I wish they had spent more time on the tour talking about the modern history of the politics and conflict. There was some discussion but I wanted more. We heard a bit from the guide on the inside of the West Bank and I asked a bit of the Jewish guide. I suppose it is so complicated and most people who are doing this tour are more interested in the religious significance of everything. However, as I mentioned I was more interested in the reality of the life that people live to this day in Israel and the West Bank that is still so tension filled despite a thirteen year cease fire agreement.
Next we went to the Old City in Jerusalem. I won’t go into every single thing we did and saw, mainly because I am sure I will miss some of it, I am sure. We did get to see the Wailing Wall (Western Wall – one of the most sacred Jewish sites) and walk the stations of the cross on the Via Dolorosa. We started at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where you can see the Golgotha (the rock where Jesus’ cross apparently stood). People crouch down at a rock slab to pray and bless clothes where Jesus’ body laid after he died. We finished up our tour by walking through the Jewish Quarter a bit. All in all, a very busy day. We were back at the ship by around 7pm. We were pretty tired that night but stayed up late to see the Philippino Crew Show at 11pm.
In the morning, we arrived in Haifa. Nic and I got up early and made sure that we were the first ones to be waiting for our tour outside because of the problems we had had the day before. About half of the group was the same as the first day. The second day tour was of Nazareth and Galilee. On day one we saw where Jesus was born and died. On the second day, we saw where he lived and preached. Some people just stayed in Haifa for the day but we had a long day that involved lots of driving. Nazareth was about an hour and a half away. At one point we stopped at a spot that overlooked the Sea of Galilee. The sign indicated that this was sea level and then we descended about 200 metres below sea level. I was again interested to learn that in the distance we could see the Golan Heights and in the other direction was Jordan. Our guide talked a little about the Six Days War in 1967 when Israel took the Golan Heights and forced Jordan and Syria out.
Some of the highlights were going to the Church of the Annunciation (built where Mary lived and the angel Gabriel delivered her the message that she would have a son). Next to it is the Church of St Joseph built where Jesus’ father apparently had his carpentry workshop. Each of these churches has been built over a location and those locations are preserved within. For the most part it is a cave and the cave is contained within the church.
We also visited the Baptismal site on the Jordan River. Many believe that the true spot where John the Baptist would have baptized Jesus is actually farther away. People change into long white t-shirts and enter the river without any ceremony. For them I am sure it is a spiritual moment. We went in up to our ankles only.
From here we went to a restaurant and I ate a St. Peter’s Fish caught in the Sea of Galilee. I asked the tour guide why they call it a sea when it is really a lake. He did not have an answer and said it is really a lake. It provides more than half of the fresh water for the country of Israel. The other half comes from desalination plants.
After lunch, we went to the Town of Jesus (where he lived for three years). These were perhaps the most important three years of his life as he built his ministry and became the messenger he was meant to be. The ruins of the town are preserved here. There are the ruins of the Synagogue of Jesus. That sound a bit funny but I guess Jesus was a Jew. The remains of a church are next to it that was built on the apparent spot where St. Peter’s house was.
We also went to the church that is built on the location where Jesus performed the Miracle of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes. Then we went to the church that is built on the location where her delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
At the end of the tour we were to see the B’hai Gardens but it was dark and there was not much to see. They are in Haifa so Nic and I, along with Barrie and Kathleen, got off the bus at this point and slowly worked our way back to the ship. Nic was a bit disappointed that it was dark and she did not get to see them. That is what she had really wanted to see the most. I guess it is reason to come back to Israel some day.
The next day was an at sea day thank goodness. We were exhausted. We enjoyed a slow paced day involving sleeping in late, sitting by the pool, playing trivia and having a beer or two throughout the day. Our next port was in Antalya, Turkey. This was one of the substitute stops because the original cruise was supposed to go to Egypt and when that got cancelled they substituted a couple of stops. The actual sites to see in Antalya are about a 20 minute drive from the port. It seemed in the presentations that they do on the ship about the places you will be going that they were stretching to find interesting things to see in Antalya. The shuttle into Antalya was $14 return per person and we decided not to bother. I think Holland America makes some strange decisions. When they realized that they had to change Egypt and picked Antalya, they should have provided a free shuttle… as a courtesy to people so show that they are sorry for the change. It seems petty to charge for it… especially in a boring port town. Some people said Antalya was okay but for us it would have been more of the same: walled old city, ruins, and churches. Frankly by this point we were all ruined out. We just walked into the port city and explored a little. The highlight was having a Turkish coffee, dessert and getting some free wifi with Andrew and Amanda.
Our final port, before ending in Athens that is, was in Rhodes, Greece. This was a neat little town. You could walk right off the ship and were right inside the old walled city almost immediately. We did the same as most people on the ship did… we just wandered the streets in then visited the old palace which is now a museum. It was a short day. We were leaving at 1pm. Another Holland America decision to save some money. It would have cost them a little more to stay a bit longer so they decided to save a bit by having a short stay. I guess it is these things that help them offer the cruise more inexpensively. I think I was okay with the short day.
Cruising is a different life than we had become used to. We ate way more than we normally do and I now feel a bit sluggish. I am actually looking forward to eating less. I did enjoy it though and I am sure we will be on a cruise again at some point. We are still wondering if there is a cruise we can take either from India to South America; from South America to New Zealand; or from New Zealand back to North America this year. Andrew and Amanda are taking a cruise from Japan to Vancouver in May that is actually cheaper than a flight. On a cruise for that amount of time you are part of a little community. You become very friendly with the crew and other passengers. I like the atmosphere. Of course we had some criticisms but that is normal I think.
I just thought I would make note of the people we met. We probably spent the most time with Andrew and Amanda. They are in their 20s and are also travelling the world for the year. They have been on the road for about six months. We had a good time sharing our adventures and our plans with them. Like us, they found this an inexpensive way to see lots of places. And like us, they did not want to spend lots of money along the way. It was great getting to know them a little for the past three weeks. Also, we spent quite a bit of time with Barrie and Kathleen Hughlock from Seattle. We first met them on the first day on the ship during happy hour on the back deck. Somehow it lead to Kathleen feeling she owed me a beer. We seemed to keep trading who owed whom throughout the voyage. We play pub trivia with them almost everyday at 6pm and did a number of day excursions with them as well. Dennis and Gina were another couple that we seemed to see out and about almost every day. We played trivia with them a few times as well. David and Doreen was another couple that we met and seemed to have dinner with several times. David is a restaurant critic and had many stories about his PBS food show. Gail and Ted from PEI we also did several things with although they were only on for the first leg. We also crossed paths a lot with Neil and Rebecca from Penticton. Of the crew, the ones that stand out the most for me are Marlon and Norje; Peter; Sandra; Fauzi; and Yvonne. Their exceptional service and friendly nature is what struck me the most. There were others as well. Highlights on the boat were pub trivia every day; singing Karaoke with a live band (Regan and the Hal Cats); formal nights in the Fontaine; and sitting in the hot tub on the back Retreat during sail aways.
So, now we are in Athens. I was actually excited a little yesterday as we wandered the streets and saw the sites like the Acropolis and the Agora from afar. We did not go into any because we were hoping to do a walking tour today. That did not pan out though I guess because it is low season and there are not as many tourists. We will explore those sites today.