Before I get to the topic of this blog, I have to write a short discourse on ‘cruising.’ My sister had wanted to go to the Greek Islands forever and the only logical way seemed to be on a cruise. While she had been on a Caribbean cruise, I had never cruised and had no idea what to expect. A friend who’s taken several Gate 1 trips suggested using them so we booked an eastern Mediterranean cruise from Venice to the Greek Islands of Corfu, Mykonos and Santorini with stops in Kotor and Dubrovnik.
The cruise was with Norwegian Cruise Lines and all I can say is wow!! And not in a good way. The Gate 1 tour included a transfer from our hotel in Venice to the ship and we received a fax on Saturday saying we would be picked up at 11:05 am on Sunday, October 15th. That morning while in the breakfast room, a guy who apparently had booked through Gate 1 said he had received a text that the ship would be three hours late. But I never heard from Gate 1 and certainly not from NCL.
The water taxi was late also and we were thankful after we found the mess at the port terminal. The ship was supposed to be at the port by 8:00am but didn’t arrive until 2:00pm then took nearly 3 hours for all the passengers to disembark.
During that time we were packed into a concrete bunker-like room with water (the only time it was free on the cruise) and candy bars, listening to crying children and angry people, many of whom had nowhere to sit.
It wasn’t until all the passengers were off the ship that NCL began the check in process which took another 2 hours. A bigger cluster would be hard to imagine. By the time my sister and I staggered on board and found our room, it was 7:00pm. We found the nearest bar and ordered two glasses of wine which cost us $21 each. Yikes!! We didn’t pay that much in Venice.
Which leads me to one of my two major criticisms of the cruise: NCL not only charges for everything, it gouges for everything. We knew better than to take anything from the mini bar but assumed that a bottle of water sitting by the glasses was complimentary. Nope. They charged $6.50 for a bottle that wouldn’t cost $2.00 in the states. In addition they have incredibly obnoxious photographers running around interrupting people at dinner to take photos in hopes of making a few bucks.
The final insult was being advised the day before the end of the cruise that we would be charged $14/person per room per day as a gratuity. I went ballistic. Not only were many of the staff rude, NCL should be paying them a decent salary given how they rip off all the passengers. Luckily I ran into a guy who informed me that I could ask the ‘front desk’ to remove the charge. They did, after making me fill out a form saying why I thought the service didn’t warrant the charge.
They provide almost no information on the shore excursions –not even maps–(my second major criticism) presumably in hopes of getting people to buy their overpriced tours. Even a Princess cruise ship had buses for their passengers in Corfu, while we were left to our own devices. And after disembarking in Venice we had to wander all over the port trying to find transportation to the train station. The only help we received was at a newsstand where we bought vaporetto tickets.
Still I have to say that it was great sitting by the pool and listening to a good band on our free afternoons.
Soo now that I’ve vented on cruising (and I feel terribly guilty about participating in this giant environmental disaster to begin with) I’ll write about our shore excursions; three of which were wonderful, one was terrible and one was mixed.
One of the few benefits of cruising is getting to watch the cities appear on the horizon and see the beautiful vistas. In the case of Kotor, there is the extra benefit of the long slow cruise up what the ship’s captain called a fjord but others call a submerged canyon. Whatever it is, it’s gorgeous. Here’s what I wrote in my journal: It was picturesque and odd at the same time–huge rugged mountains dropping off abruptly to the sea, with tiny villages lining the shore and every type of boat around us from dinghies to yachts.
We were supposed to arrive in Kotor at 2:00pm but due to Sunday’s delays, we didn’t arrive until 4:30pm and then it was 5:00pm before we disembarked. Once again there was little to no information provided by NCL on the town, not even a map.
But I had a small map I’d downloaded from the internet before the trip and we managed to find our way through the town, seeing the main sights—St. Mary’s Church, St. Luka’s Church, St. Nicholas Church, the Maritime Museum…although I think we got off course and missed St. Tryphon Cathedral. I wrote : It’s charming but smaller than it looked on the map I’d downloaded. We wandered the streets that alternated between cobblestones and what looked like marble but was probably polished granite. There are zillions of shops and Sue bought an ornament in the shape of a cat; cats being the symbol of the town. (Post trip note: compared to the other stops, though, there were hardly any tourist shops.)
We saw some tables outside what looked to be a restaurant and asked if we could sit and have a glass of wine. It turned out to be the Hotel Astoria and our waiter suggested we buy small bottles of the local rose’ which was wonderful and was only 6.50€ a bottle. We drank 3 bottles and asked if we could buy some to take. “Why not?” So we bought two more to take to the ship. We sat there for an hour and a half at least, talking and laughing and occasionally waving to other passengers. It was a gorgeous night (and one of the highlights of the trip.)
I thought Corfu would be my favorite stop but it was somewhat of a mixed bag. We disembarked fairly easily, just walking off the 4th deck like Monday but then found that we had to take a 1.50€ bus ride to the town center or a 30 minute hot walk, something that NCl once again failed to inform us.
From the bus stop we walked up to the New Fort, taking pictures of the spectacular views, seen in the gallery below.
Corfu’s a relatively easy walking city and after the fort we started up the hill towards the esplanade, stopping in a square for photos and walking over to Agios Spyridon.
A website I’d looked at prior to the trip, http://www.visitgreece.gr/en/greek_islands/ionian_islands/corfu, refers to the Old Town as ‘beautifully preserved’ referencing the fact that it is a UNESCO world heritage site. Corfu is a pretty town and could be beautiful if it weren’t for the wall to wall souvenir shops with cheap Chinese junk. Here and there you can find a local shop and we did buy some locally made sandals and jewelry but were really put off by the aggressive hustle of the vendors.
Still the esplanade and the gardens around the Palace of St. Michael and St. George were absolutely gorgeous. We spent at least an hour walking around the gardens taking the pictures seen below.
After the palace and the gardens I got a wild hair to walk to the far end of the esplanade to check out a restaurant that was mentioned in our Corfu guide book. But when we finally got there, it looked ticky tacky so we went back to the esplanade, stopping at a very nice restaurant under the trees, Tesoro Mio. We lingered there for an hour and a half, maybe longer, having wine and delicious salads. It was a bit more expensive than what we’re accustomed to in Italy but well worth it.
We did a slow walk back through town, buying our sandals and jewelry, getting back to the bus stop around 2:30pm. After being dropped off near the port, we thought, it would be a cake walk to get back on board but some really nasty security people with the port authority (presumably) grabbed our boarding cards (which double as room keys) and manhandled us through security.
Super angry we went to our cabin, got some wine and sat outside watching the ship return through the ‘fjord.’
This was our least favorite island. As with the other stops, I’d read information in guide books and online about Santorini which raved about its beauty. Maybe it was at one time but in my opinion, tourism has ruined it.
I knew there were only three options to reach Fira: riding a donkey up the 600+ steps, walking them or a funiculare. But I had no idea how bad each of those options was until I saw the steep cliff going up to the town. Both my sister and I have a fear of heights and neither of us wanted to ride or walk up, so we walked the hot and unbelievably crowded pier looking for another option.
We thought we’d found a perfect solution when I saw a sign for a motor boat ride to the harbor at Oia, a bus ride to the town itself and then a bus ride to Fira from Oia, all for 15 €, compared to 12€ for a one way ride on the funicolare. So I bought tickets and we proceeded to wait for 45 minutes on the hot, crowded pier with people pushing and shoving and crowding in front of us. The motor boat ride was, as advertised, 15 minutes to the Oia port but then we spent another 25 minutes trying to dock because a sail boat wouldn’t get out of our way.
We had to walk about a quarter mile up a very steep road to the buses and our driver then proceeded to terrify us when he couldn’t get the bus in gear and we kept rolling backwards. He dropped us off just outside town, just in time for wave after wave of (mainly Japanese) tour groups to arrive.
I tried to find a different way to the top of the town where we could get some photos but there’s only one street that was so packed we had to go single file. We did get a few good shots but we were so exhausted and hot and sweaty that we went to a little taverna, and had wine and ‘spinach pies.’ It was cool and pleasant, and even though a bit more expensive than expected, we were glad to sit for awhile.
We decided to take the 5:00pm bus from Oia to Fira and were glad we did. After a crazy drive across the plateau, the bus driver dropped us off about a half mile above the city. It was sheer guess work but we found our way to the main street through town. It was crazy busy but nothing as bad as Oia and I wish we’d had more time there because it looked pretty and interesting.
Fearful that we might miss the last tender to the ship, we started down the steps. OMG!! A half hour of steep rocky steps, dodging donkey shit, left us in dire need of a drink.
We loved Mykonos as much as we disliked Santorini. The shore excursion started at 8:00 am and lasted until early afternoon and we got off the boat as early as possible. So we were able to wander Mykonos for a couple of hours in the early morning light with hardly any other tourists.
We more or less accidentally found our way to the Folklore Museum in one of the iconic windmills and took lovely pictures of the windmill and the view over Mykonos. Then we more or less accidentally found our way back to the port area. (And I say accidentally because the streets are so winding and confusing, that I had a terrible time figuring out where we were at any given time.)
After returning to the port, we sat outside at a little café and had espressos and cappuccini that tasted wonderful. Even though the coffees cost more than we typically paid, it was worth it for the free wifi and the people watching.
After our coffees we followed the street along the water front and then up the hill to the Archaeological Museum. When we returned to the port area, we stopped at a store and bought cloth bags supposedly locally made. Not sure about that but they were very pretty.
We, then, found our way to ‘Little Venice’ called that because of the colorful houses with balconies that overlook the water, making some people think of Venice. (see link at http://traveldrinkdine.com/travel/a-walk-through-little-venice-in-mykonos/ Having just been in Venice I didn’t really see the connection but it is lovely.) We walked through the area window shopping, continuing up to a hill where there are three windmills.
While walking to the windmills we had decided to stop for a glass of wine on our way back through Little Venice and picked a bar/restaurant called Katerina’s on Ag. Anargiron. The bar is upstairs and the restaurant is downstairs. The bar has a small balcony with seating overlooking the harbor. We decided to sit inside at a table next to a window which turned out to be perfect—a beautiful view, a cool breeze, great jazz and nice wine. As usual in the islands, the wine was more expensive than what we normally pay in Italy but it was well worth the price. We sat there for an hour and a half enjoying the view and music; trying to pretend we were locals.
We had to be back on board by 4:00pm and were sad to leave the island.
I started this part of the post within a few hours of visiting Dubrovnik because I was so blown away by this city. I almost skipped this excursion because it was from 7:00am to noon and I hadn’t felt good the night before. I am so glad I didn’t.
It is one of the most stunningly beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. And we wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much but for the fact that we declined NCL’s 15€ bus ride to the old city from the port. We knew the city buses charged less than 2€ so we started walking towards the bus stop. A young guy stopped us asking if we wanted to do a panorama tour. We said ‘no,’ that we just wanted to go to the old city. He, then, offered us a round trip transfer for 5€ each to the old city and we jumped at it. He took us to his tour office which was a bit barren and started to give us the sell for the panorama tour. Then he left to find more tourists. I was beginning to think we’d made a mistake but after returning with a fairly large group, he turned us over to a driver who quickly got us to the old town.
I’ll write more about him and the little tour company later but now I want to focus on the city. We walked through the entrance on the west edge of the wall, then along a narrow street between 20 foot walls. We followed this street oohing and ahhing over the beautiful buildings. The street brought us out into a square where we could see the city hall, cultural center and St. Blaise church. We strolled through the square taking pictures. Since it was barely 8:00 am the pictures below don’t really do it justice.
We, then, walked back to the ‘gate’ since the entrance to the wall is located just a few feet away. It cost 150 kuna per person ($23) but it was worth every kuna. We walked the entire circumference of the city (about 2 km) and although the steps up and down can be a bit harrowing, I wouldn’t have missed the views for the world.
After descending from the wall, we walked back to the main square and from there took the street going east to another square (Poljana R. Boskovica, I think) where there’s an interesting covered well or fountain as well as St. Ignatius Church and the Natural Science Museum. On the way my sister changed some $$ into kuna so we could have a coffee and perhaps buy some mementos. We walked back along a street where my sister bought a Christmas ornament and then stopped for coffee and some of the best chocolate croissants I’ve ever had at a little restaurant called Tavulin where we took advantage of the free wifi.
We only had about a half hour left after that before meeting our taxi driver so we agreed that Sue would go to St. Blaise Church while I wandered. I checked out the little market and a wine shop, listened to a classical guitarist, took some pictures and found a little store (Nonenina) with some unique local handicrafts. When my sister came out of the church, I encouraged her to go to the shop and she bought a lovely embroidered sachet and a ceramic piece by Andrea Bassic.
We reluctantly went back to the bus stop where we were to meet our driver. Initially he said we had to go with another driver but then took us back to the port himself. On the way he gave us all kinds of interesting historical tidbits including the fact that Richard the Lionhearted was shipwrecked near Dubrovnik and built several churches there after being rescued. I didn’t get the driver’s name but he was terrific and the agency’s name is Nova Distribucija. If you’re ever in Dubrovnik I recommend using them. We finished out our tour with a quick glass of wine across from the port, wishing we had many more hours to spend there.