Drink menu on AmaCerto

Love on the Danube: 5 Things that Make AmaCerto Sweet

From the time we arrived at the dock in Budapest it was clear that the crew of AmaCerto has a pride in providing service.

The bags were unloaded from the bus and a crew member even insisted on helping me with my carry-on bag, even though I was happy to wheel it on board myself.

There were no formalities at the desk other than get key cards and in the meantime, the bags were on their way to our stateroom, where we saw innovations that make Ama Waterway’s new ship a stand out.
It’s pronounced Ama-cherto and it’s a combination of Ama –the Latin for love and Certo, as in concerto, says Rudi Schreiner, president of Ama Waterways who is sailing with us on this week-long “In Celebration of Wine” cruise on the Danube. We’ll have plenty of wine along with copious amounts of beer available for the next week.

But first, my early impressions: This ship has a lot of unique features. Considering that river cruise ships are all have to basically be the same size to fit to the locks on the rivers of Europe, they’ve fit in a lot of extras into this new ship.

Stateroom on AmaCerto

Indoors or outdoors there’s a lounge with a view–Photo courtesy of Ama Waterways

Split Personality Staterooms

The trend in recent years has been for new river ships to emulate their ocean-going cousins and include private outdoor balconies with sliding doors in staterooms. Previously, ships tended to have sliding doors with a railing that guests could stand at and view the passing scene. Ama has combined the concepts with both a furnished outdoor verandah and an indoor sitting area with glass doors that slide open. That made a lot of sense on our sailing on the Danube in November where the sun can shine and temperatures can make it attractive to be outside during the day but on other days it can be too cool or wet to be outside.

Pool on deck of AmaCerto

Bobbing at the bar on the upper deck–Photo courtesy Ama Waterways

Swim-Up Bar

Most river cruise ships don’t even have a pool on deck and those that do tend to have just a plunge pool, but AmaCerto’s is a teardrop shaped affair that actually has some length to it. And at the deep end, there are seats and a small bar that serves treats like the ship’s sparkling wine, and draft beer.

Chefs on the AmaCerto

Only part of the kitchen team on AmaCerto–Photo by Wallace Immen

Top-Tier Dining

Ama is the only river cruise ship in Europe to be part of the Chaine des Rotisseurs, the famed gourmet chef association.The chefs promise to demonstrate why the line is also a favorite of gourmet diners. There will be special themed dinners most nights, accompanied by copious amounts of European wines and beers at no extra cost.

Erlebnis restaurant on AmaCerto

Erlebnis means adventurous experience in German–Photo courtesy AmaWaterways

Erlebnis

Each evening the lounge on the stern of the ship is transformed into a gourmet alternative restaurant and while there isn’t any direct translation of its German name to English, it roughly means an adventurous life’s experience. It’s a small area only seating two dozen diners, so  guests are asked to limit their experience here to once a cruise. But it’s destined to be a night to remember, with a four- course menu prepared by a restaurant team working behind what the maitre’d jokes is “bulletproof glass.” Each course is paired with a complimentary premium wine.

Service on AmaCerto

What can I bring you?–Photo courtesy of Ama Waterways

Impeccable Service

And did I mention service? The all-European staff is hotel trained to be attentive to every detail. Most of the chefs trained in Austria or Hungary and most of the rest of the staff work in the off season in hotels across Europe. Our affable cruise director is Dragan, lives in Stuttgart but has spent most of his life learning and exploring central and eastern Europe. We’re honored to also have Rudi Schreiner, the president of Ama Waterways on board as well,

This is a special event as well because like most Ama cruises, we’ve got an adventurous theme throughout the cruise, “In Celebration of Wine” with members of the family-run Honig Vineyard & Winery in California’s Napa Valley on board with a storeroom full of their wines including rare vintages that we’ll get to enjoy in tastings as well as gala dinners.

Copy of David statue in Florence

A Do it Yourself “On Your Own” Day in Florence

The abiding truth about Florence is that it’s a long journey from the cruise port of Livorno. That kept Firenze safe by being a day’s march inland for invaders, but let’s face it, the commercial port of Livorno isn’t the place you want to spend your day if you’re looking for Renaissance beauty.

My wife and I have been to Florence so many times we don’t need a guided tour, and our choice on a cruise stop in Livorno is usually to book a Florence on Your Own bus transfer. On many ships, the price of a round trip bus transfer is less than $100 a person and that comes with a guarantee you’ll make it back to the ship by the time it sails.

On our recent visit, the On Your Own excursion booked through our cruise line would cost a steep $175 a person. Going to the website for Italy’s rail system Trenitalia, I found we could do the trip for 12 Euros each way second class (About $32 round trip.) or just over $50 in first class and we could buy tickets on-line. Remembering the condition of second class Italian rail cars from my student days, I opted for first class tickets on line.

Statue and pigeon in Florence

It’s not always easy even for insiders–Photo by Wallace Immen

But there’s always a bit of unease about doing tours not arranged by the ship. “Take it easy, take the train,” is an old slogan that no longer applies to rail travel in North America.  Even in Europe where trains remain efficient, there’s always risk doing it yourself that you could miss the train, which could mean missing the ship.

I’d done the transfer from Livorno before by train before and found that the reputation of Italian trains running on time continues to be true. But strikes continue to be a fact of life in Italy, and there’s an interpretation issue with complex schedules. If you don’t read the itinerary carefully, you could get on a route that requires changing trains, which could stretch an hour and a half trip into over three hours start to finish. .

But, fortunately, workers were on the job today and I’d done my homework. The only potential hang-up might be if the ship wasn’t cleared by local authorities on its scheduled arrival time of 8. There was only one train that could get us into Florence before noon and it left Livorno’s Centrale station at 9:05 and arrived at 10:30. Later trains required connections that would see passengers finally pulling into Firenze’s Santa Maria Novella station no earlier than 12:30, leaving very little time to see the city.

Trains in Italy

italian trains come in many shapes and colors–Photo by Wallace Immen

Getting to the station in Livorno from  the port on time is a feat for taxis and not pedestrians and that proved easier than expected as well. There’s a fleet of brand new big Fiat vans waiting at the dock that easily seat six or seven along the driver and the flat rate to the station is 25 Euros. A couple of dozen of our fellow passengers who are also planning to catch the train made it easy to share a ride with other couples and bring the cost per person down to less than five Euros.

We got to the station by 8:30 and having purchased tickets in advance we could avoid the lengthy ticket queue and head straight to the platform..

 

Train station gargoyle in Italy

A gargoyle over the platform in Livorno’s station–Photo by Wallace Immen

So far, it was easy. But when we got to the platform, a brand new double decked regional commuter train was on the track getting a cleaning. The station sign said a Firenze train leaves at 9:06, but this train had a display with a completely different number and destination.

Welcome to Italy. In the slower fall and winter they combine trains. All it took was a little banter with locals boarding to clarify that this was the right train, with a different number.

Even though we had purchased more expensive first class tickets, there were only second class cars in this train, but they were clean, modern and air conditioned and so far there were plenty of choices of seats. At the appointed time, to the minute, we’re moving, with the digital readout reading velocita: 100 Km—65 mph—as we sped through thick cedar forests and passed farms and huge solar power arrays. It’s a much more scenic way to see the countryside than the highway.

It turns out you can get to Pisa on this train in less than half an hour, It’s something I’ll plan to do on a future cruise stop in Livorno. But today, it was Firenze on my mind.

The fact that this was a commuter train became clear when we got to the city of Empoli, in which flocks of passengers boarded and suddenly the cars were standing room only to Firenze Rifredi the suburban station for Florence.

The elapsed time to central Firenze SMN which is the station only a couple of blocks from the Duomo was an hour and 20 minutes, as scheduled.

Artistic coffee in Florence

Short lived art on a coffee–photo by Wallace Immen

The barista at the pleasant News Cafe near the station made that point by drawing an artistic painting of the Duomo in chocolate atop the froth of the cappucino I had at the stand up bar. Coffee is only 1 Euro if you stand, and 2 Euros if you sit at a table, but either way when you patronize a coffee shop, it comes with bathroom privileges.

I was glad I’d checked the departures schedule in the station before heading out to explore the city for the day because two afternoon trains had also been combined and we’d have to be back at 4 rather than 4:30 to make a connection back to Livorno in time to be on the ship when it sailed at 7.

That afternoon train again didn’t have first class and the second class cars were graffiti covered antiques with no air conditioning and mobs of workers and students and tourists standing in the aisles with backpacks and suitcases. We’d managed to get seats by arriving and boarding 15 minutes before departure. And fortunately we met another couple on the train who were also from our ship and arranged to split the cost of a taxi back to the port.

We were back on board the ship by 6, before the On your Own bus groups arrived.

When it all goes well, rail travel in Europe is easy, comfortable and inexpensive. I was glad I was able to take it easy and take the train.

Sign in Florence train station

Before you leave get information on your return trip–Photo by Wallace Immen

Giant figure in parade in Tarragona, Spain

An Unexpected Treat on an Unexpected Day in Tarragona, the Alternative to Barcelona

The narrow cobblestone street reverberates with the sound of a hundred drums and a chorus of horns. A giant wooden horse charges through the crowd.

Then three-story high figures of a king and queen come into view, surrounded by tiny characters that seem to be inspired by Munchkins or bad LSD trips. And that’s just the start of the parade dedicated to patron saint Santa Tecla in Tarragona, Spain.

It was an unexpected treat in an unexpected port on our voyage aboard Oceania Riviera.

Figures in parade in Tarragona, Spain

King and queen in Tarragona parade–Photo by Wallace Immen

Tarragona wasn’t even on my radar on this cruise around Spain. On the itinerary for Riviera’s port stop, the destination read Barcelona (Tarragona) and though I’ve been to Barcelona many times I was looking forward to rambling on the famed Ramblas and maybe having a tapas lunch. But checking the map, I found our port of Tarragona is a city an hour’s train ride south of Barcelona.

It’s a place that few cruise ships have visited in the past because it’s been overshadowed by the famous city of Gaudi and Olympics fame. But you’ll be hearing lots more about Tarragona, since it added a new cruise dock and is trying to lure ships that are finding it more difficult and expensive to find a docking place in popular Barcelona. Oceania was offering it for the first time on this cruise of Riviera.

I found this Catalan sister city has a lot to offer those who already know Barcelona.

Central square in Tarragona, Spain

Tarragona feels very Italian–Photo by Wallace Immen

The city feels very Italian. The menus offer cappuccinos and pizzas and calamari, which is understandable since this was a thriving Roman city in the heyday of the Caesars. In fact much of the old Roman city still stands intact. A vast amphitheater was built in the second century AD is still fairly complete. A Hippodrome—the Tarragona circus– that seated up to 25,000 people is now only partly visible because later generations used the enormous stones that made up the foundations as the underpinnings of more modern buildings.

The remains of the amphitheater have a spectacular view of the inky blue Mediterranean and a sweeping beach. It’s open to the public and you can wander through the tunnels where gladiators used to get ready for matches. The emperor Augustus Caesar used to spend winters in Tarragona and set up gladiatorial contests as an amusement.

But as early as 259 AD, Tarragona was becoming a Christian center. By the twelfth century there was major church dedicated to Santa Tecla—whose route to sainthood included being converted by Saint Paul and subsequently being persecuted by the pagans of the era but repeatedly saved by divine interventions.

Horse in Tarragona Santa Tecla parade

Horse leads the Santa Tecla parade–Photo by Wallace Immen

That’s where the parade of giants fits in. A group of about a dozen larger than life– actually larger than about four lives—figures with paper mache heads and gorgeous costumes are kept secure in a museum most of the year but are broken out for the Gegants Moros parades honoring the saint. The tradition may go back earlier than the Christian era because it has a kind of pagan influence.

The story involves the sun, a figure with a glowing orange face and another figure representing the blue-faced crescent moon. Then there are the Queen and King, followed by figures of a blonde-haired maiden and a strong young lad. And there are other figures that represent princes and knights and towns people.

Lady in front of the cathedral Just like statues Might they be politicians

Each figure is a tall, puppet-like   structure held up by a single person, who at certain points has to twirl or to dance moves as a rhythmic beat provided by horns and drummers builds in tempo. It must be a real workout because the parade winds through town’s cobblestoned streets from the cathedral of Santa Tecla and back again, where he parishioners in full Sunday best gather to admire them.
I was fascinated and so were the children who crowded around the wooden horse and rub its nose for luck.

Bull in shop in tTrragona

A surprise around every corner in tarragona–Photo by Wallace Immen

After the parade, I found that Tarragona has another attraction on Sunday, when more stores remain closed in Barcelona, Here, stores in the main business district were open on Sunday. All in all, it was a very rewarding day.

Graffiti cat in Tarragona, Spain

I’m closed but still interesting–Photo by Wallace Immen

 

Silver Discoverer adventure ship

Silversea Offers More Ways to Explore Without Roughing It

Until now, taking a ship to explore Australia’s Kimberley Coast, the tiny islands of Micronesia, the cultures of the Coral Triangle, or New Zealand’s Antarctic Islands might have meant chartering your own boat or enduring bunk beds on a cramped exploration ship.

But a newly refurbished line of adventure ships upgraded to the luxury standards of Silversea Cruises is changing all that.

With the arrival of Silver Discoverer in 2014, Silversea has three small ships carrying no more than 134 guests doing adventure cruising as it’s never been done before.

“You haven’t been there and haven’t seen that,” promises Kristian Anderson vice-president of sales for Silversea Cruises.

Silver Discoverer will concentrate on in depth explorations of such places as the Marshall Islands, the Kimberley Coast and Russia’s far east with nature walks, Zodiac tours and guided bird and wildlife watching and visits to remote settlements. On board are a staff of experts that include historians, naturalists, botanists and anthropologists to provide insights and point out details on the guided shore excursions.

The ship joins Silver Explorer and Silver Galapagos offering itineraries that used to require shipping out in rough and ready accommodations. Silversea’s ships offer the brand’s level of luxury accommodations and amenities, Relais & Chateaux dining, and service that includes butlers for each stateroom.

That meant buying exploration ships and completely rebuilding them to take everything up a notch. “With these ships we’re offering guests options that have never been available before. “We’re going to places that are so remote that other cruise lines have never been there,” Anderson says..

Silversea is offering calls to 700 destinations in 2015..

Painting in Oceania Riviera spa

Five Immediately Impressive Features of Oceania Riviera

From the time I stepped on board Oceania Cruises’ newest ship, the Riviera, I knew I was going to enjoy my experience.

I’d had a preview of the new size and look of Oceania’s ships with a weekend on sister ship Marina when it was launched two years ago, but that wasn’t enough to sample all the features and food offerings on board.

Now I’m settled in for 12 days in the Mediterranean and I can see why many of my fellow guests have become repeat passengers in the year that Riviera’s been sailing. First impressions are important and I can immediately see that there are five things that make this ship a stand out.

Deck chairs on Riviera

Plenty of space on top deck of Riviera–Photo by Wallace Immen

Size
As the average size of ships expands to the point where a ship that accommodates more than 3,000 guests is considered mid-size, Riviera is relatively small. Yet with 14 decks, it’s more than ample for its capacity of 1,600.

Riviera’s great advantage is that it’s compact enough to fit into urban docks built for small ships, while the behemoths have to pull into the container ports on the outskirts of cities. That also means Riviera can call at smaller destinations that don’t have the infrastructure to handle the crowds that arrive on larger ships. For instance, on this cruise we’re going to be the only cruise ships in port on our visits to Cadiz and Cartegena in Spain and Tangier in Morocco and we’ll be docking right in the commercial centers, an easy walk to shopping and attractions.

Chefs on Riviera

Chefs in La Reserve prepare one of seven courses–Photo by Wallace Immen

Cuisine options
There’s a different dining choice for every day of the week on board, including Asian, Italian, steak house and French classics updated by celebrity chef Jacques Pepin. All are available at no extra charge, except for La Reserve, whose seven-course gourmet menus are paired with appropriate premium wines. Actually, there’s another extra cost option, Privee which is a gorgeous room with a table big enough for 12 for those who would like to arrange an intimate dinner with friends and premium wines.

And if you don’t want to plan ahead there’s the Grand Dining Room, which is the main restaurant for anytime dining and the Terrace Cafe with more casual buffet service.

Riviera in Cartegena Spain

Riviera docks right in town in Cartegena Spain–Photo by Wallace Immen

Unique itineraries

Riviera’s versatile size helps the cruise planners make every itinerary unique. While the cruise before ours sailed virtually the same route in the eastern end of the Mediterranean, only a couple of ports from that cruise will be repeated on this one, so there are a number of passengers who have doubled up and are staying on for a total of 24 days. As an example, rather than stopping again in Barcelona on this cruise, the port is Tarragona, in the south of Catalonia with the option for tours to Barcelona or around the historic city that few other ships visit.

Painting by Ruben Alpizza

Detail of La Navede Los Locos by Ruben Alpizza

Art everywhere

I’ll be taking a closer look at the vast art collection on the ship as the cruise progresses, but my first impression is that we’ve got a stunning collection of contemporary Spanish artworks by a wide range of artists on every wall and public space around the ship. It’s colorful, cheeky and often very thought provoking. And the centerpiece of the ship is a curved stairway in the atrium specially designed for the ship by art glass maker Lalique.

 

Bathroom on Riviera

Corner of bath on Riviera

Big bathrooms

Yes, bathrooms are high on everyone’s comments about what they like about this ship. They’re certainly among the largest at sea. They’re finished in marble floor to ceiling and have ample storage for toiletries and accessories. Each features a glass enclosure with both a standard and overhead rain shower heads and a separate tub. Oceania has its own range of premium soaps and shampoos and conditioners and its own supplier of mineral water that comes in stylish blue bottles.

Exclusive Interview with Gene Simmons Reveals KISS Has Its Own Cruise Navy

Gene Simmons in KISS cruise concert

Gene promises to keep it real–no tongue in cheek–Photo courtesy Sixthman Productions

By WALLACE IMMEN

It’s becoming an armada: the KISS Navy will be forming again for KISS Kruise III.

This year Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Pearl is set to host what’s becoming an annual Halloween celebration, from Oct. 28 to Nov. 1. Fans are promised they can Rock and Roll All Night and Party Everyday. The uniform for the Kiss Navy is face paint, crazy costumes and sunscreen.

The Rock and Roll Party includes two full concerts by KISS and performances by 10 other top rock bands including Night Ranger, Big Rock Show and Craig Gass. And there will be Room Service and a Wall of Sound that promises to be Hotter Than Hell.

Kiss performs on deck of cruise ship

It will be over the top both on deck and below decks– Photo courtesy Sixthman Productions

This year the Kruise starts in Miami, spends a day in Key West, another day at sea and then visits the private island of Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas before returning to Miami after the floating party.
It’s become an annual phenomenon and loyal sailors are promised fast promotion. Those on their first KISS Kruise are sailors, on their second, their rank is lieutenant and those who have done all three become commanders. Everyone gets commemorative dog tags and guests of each cabin with get a photo with KISS.

There are already plans to continue the Kruises in coming years, so those who keep re-enlisting can reach captain and then admiral. No saluting’s required, although there’s plenty of arm waving and chances to Shout It Out Loud.

Fans crowd decks at Kiss concert at sea

Sailors and commanders whoop it up in deck concert–Photo courtesy Sixthman Productions

In an exclusive interview, Gene Simmons tells why the legendary band KISS have become the Kings of the Night Time World on Halloween cruises.

We’ve all got Great Expectations, Gene, what made you decide to take KISS to sea?

The KISS Kruise is a chance for all of us– the band and the fans– to have a ball. Just let your hair down and not worry about it at all. Kiss has always been about breaking the rules. We’ve never liked that moat–the stage– separating the band from the fans. So whenever we do a show, we try to take the action right to your face. A cruise will let the fans get up close. We try to take it inside you, we want you to smell it and taste it and feel it.

You’ve got a Kiss Navy now, do you have any previous experience with the real Navy?

For a TV show we went as guests of the United States Navy and we landed on the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. We had a lot of  security there. The Navy even had some nuclear powered missiles underneath us.

How much will the fans get to get to interact with you on the cruise?

We’re going to have a deck up top to ourselves and we will certainly want to bring up fans. It may to a little difficult to get down to the lower levels and hang out a lot, because you’ve got 3,000 people on board, who are basically going to shred you to pieces.

It’s all appreciated of course, and I say all this with tongue in cheek–I don’t mean my tongue in your cheek, but you know what I mean. The real idea of this cruise is to have fun. Everything about Kiss is over the top. Everything about it is meant to really make every day we have above ground a fun day.

We’re going to have some fun shows that will be interactive with the fans, to make them feel like family. We’ll be doing an Unplugged show for the fans to make requests and we’ll also be doing a Kiss production show in full war paint.

There will be limits. We like a lot of pyrotechnic effects and with limited space, you can’t blow lots of things up on the ship. But we’ll do the best we can. We’ll cram the act full of everything we can.

What’s going to be new?

It’s like we’re invited to a party. I don’t know anyone who brings a list of 10 things they’re going to do at a party and what time they’re going to be doing them, do you? That’s not the kind of party I want to go to.

We just let the party happen and just take requests from the fans. We’ll just try to have a lot of fun and not plan it out too much.

Of course, the one show is a full production number and that we have to have pretty planned out. But the other will be Unplugged, which is forget about it all and have fun.

Are any new songs going to be inspired by the trip?

Maybe. We’re going to be doing obscure stuff and we make some of it up as we go along. We tend to let the words and the riffs come naturally when we’re inspired by something. And sometimes you just write songs because the words sound cool and you don’t worry about the story. I have no idea what’s going to come out of the experience and to me, that’s exciting.

There will certainly be songs that we don’t do on tour. In our catalog we’ve released 45– or is it 48 albums– about 30 of them studio records. That’s certainly enough material to make it a lot of fun.

Are you guaranteeing calm seas and sunny weather?

That’s a good question. I am the God of Thunder after all. We certainly hope we’ll have great weather. We’re going to be in Florida and the Bahamas which is usually calm.
I’d love to talk more, but I’m getting the sign that I’ve gotta go.

Thank you so much, Gene. Good luck.

Details of the cruise are on the site http://www.thekisskruise.com/

A Rare Look at Life Without Crowds on a Day in Santorini

 

A restaurant terrace in Santorini

View from a restaurant terrace with a panoramic view in Santorini–Photograph by Wallace Immen

By WALACE IMMEN

I’ve visited Santorini many times on cruise ships and if there’s one thing it seems I can always count on, it’s crowds.

On each visit to this popular island there are destined to be several ever-larger cruise ships at anchor, tendering flocks of guests ashore all wanting to ride the cable car or a donkey up to the ultra-quaint town perched on the cliff around the harbor.

On a memorable cruise two years ago, our ship changed its route to arrive on a different day rather than our scheduled arrival day, on which there were going to be eight ships in the harbor. Even when there are four big ships in port, there can be a half-hour wait to get onto a cable car up to town or back down. And the narrow cobblestone streets in the town can get mighty congested with visitors who stop in clusters in shady spots to find relief when the blazing sun is directly overhead.

Narrow street in Santorini

It’s nice, but rare. to see the streets when they’re uncrowded–Photograph by Wallace Immen

It’s still always worth the effort to get up to town, because the shops are packed with designer clothes and art works at actually reasonable prices. There are also any number of restaurants where you can get authentic Greek cuisine and a beer or ouzo with a priceless birds’ eye view of the sea and panorama of the town.

Menu board in Santorini restaurant

The specials are special every day–Photograph by Wallace Immen

The colorful homes cling to a cliff that’s actually the remains of a volcano that erupted many centuries ago with one of the mightiest bangs the world has ever known.

Colorful homes of Santorini

Colorful homes cling precariously to the cliffside in Santorini–Photograph by Wallace Immen

The town was even more appealing on my most recent visit on Azamara Journey because as fate and excellent planning by Azamara Club Cruises would have it, we were the only ship in port that day. Wonder of wonders, there were no lines, no crowds and a chance to actually have discussions with unhurried shop keepers about their merchandise.

Pictures tell the story best, so here’s a look at Santorini at its best.

On a tender headed in to Santorini

Heading ashore on a tender from the Azamara Journey–Photograph by Wallace Immen

Around the shorre of Santorini

At sea level, Santorini supports a tiny fishing village; The action’s up higher–Photograph by Wallace Immen

 

Restaurant terrace in town on Santorini

Restaurant with a view in Santorini–Photograph by Wallace Immen

Display in Santorini shop

Greek colors and words of love in a Santorini shop–Photograph by Wallace Immen

 

Simple floral message in Santorini

I heart you with flowers in Santorini–Photograph by Wallace Immen

Memories of the Glory That Was Greece on a Walk Around Piraeus

Sign on cafe in Piraeus

Sign on a cafe recalls better days in Piraeus–Photo by Wallace Immen

By WALLACE IMMEN

A taxi tout at the port of Piraeus summed up what he thought tourists could find in the city: “It’s a good place to find a coffee, but that’s about all.”

Surely, he was just saying that to get someone to hire him for a day of sightseeing. There has to be something to see in such an ancient port.

Most cruises in the eastern Mediterranean have Athens on their itineraries, but technically the port where the ships dock is Piraeus, 10 kilometers to the south, which can seem a long way from the ancient city because of the gridlock on the roads.

On my most recent stop in Piraeus on board Royal Princess, I didn’t opt to take a tour into Athens, because I’d been there earlier in the year and was appalled by the number of empty shops in the Greek capital and its general decline. The financial crisis that led to rioting last year has had a lingering dampening effect on investment and consumer confidence.

So I decided to just spend a morning taking a walk around the port of Piraeus. On port calls I’d made in years gone by, I recalled well-stocked shops selling art and many quaint cafes featuring fresh seafood around the bustling marina. It seemed logical that the place where the bulk of Greece’s commerce comes and goes was doing better than the capital.

Sadly, I found that the taxi driver had a point.

St. Nikolas church in Piraeus

St. Nikolas church in Piraeus is under restoration–Photograph by Wallace Immen

Fortunately there are bright spots in the Greek economy. In coming stories I’ll point out that other ports in Greece, like Santorini, Rhodes and Kos that are doing much better. But today I found that the cafe where I had a coffee, called Memories, was one of the bright spots in a city that’s been hollowed out economically.

The visit started with a shuttle bus ride from a remote pier where Royal Princess had docked. We were in port with five other cruise ships that day, but everyone has to make their way to the central terminal to go outside the security area.

When you get to the terminal building, you’re still nowhere. It’s clear the port authorities expect that everyone is going to get on a bus or taxi to go somewhere else, so if you plan to do something radical like take a walk around the harbor , it can take 20 minutes just to find your way out of the port compound, which is enclosed by high fences.

Even crossing the main road along the port can be a challenge, because there are no intersections and you have to dodge heavy traffic and swarms of motorcycles.

Traffic chaos is constant in Piraeus during the day with cars double-parked everywhere. Motorcycles often take to weaving up onto the sidewalks, whose pavement tends to be heaved and broken and badly patched.

The word of the moment in Greece: for lease--Photograph by Wallace Immen

The word of the moment in Greece: for lease–Photograph by Wallace Immen

Once in town, I added a word to my Greek vocabulary: Enoikiazetai. Every second building had a sign with the hard-to-pronounce message that it was for lease. Each one of the empty spaces represents a landlord who is still hoping that the economy will turn around and they can get the rent they did before the crisis.

The port area is lined with bland high-rise buildings housing banks, shipping offices and insurance companies that don’t have retail on their ground floors. The stores that are on street level tended to be bank branches and offices selling tours to the Greek Islands.

But these days, the most commonly seen sign is for re/Max trying to find new tenants—even on the empty offices of American Express.

If you keep bearing to the left around the harbor, you will reach a stretch of shops that have big canopies to shade the sidewalk and shops that sell coffee, pastries and light lunches. Further along there are restaurants that specialize in Thai, kebab and curry dishes.

To their credit, everyone in town was still keeping up appearancs. People were well dressed and I didn’t see people on the street begging or anyone who looked particularly menacing. But it was clear that a lot of those walking or gatered in groups talking had nothing constructive to do– and that’s a profound shame. I’m sure they would like to  be working, if only there was something for them to do.

There were some bright signs, like the extensive restoration under way on the St Nikolas church, which has given it a freshly painted blue dome. Unfortunately the work inside made it off limits to tourist visits.

And there are still a number of stores open around the port that cater to cruise visitors. Don’t expect high-end shopping though. The merchants specialize in copy designer purses and sunglasses and sports wear. A sidewalk vendor selling inexpensive iPhones out of a bag called them “a nice souvenir,” which probably speaks volumes about how likely they are to work: all they will be in a reminder that you were here.

Doorway in Piraeus, Greece

We’ve been closed for a while. A padlocked doorway in Piraeus–Photograph by Wallace Immen

Public transport offers choices to get into Athens. A hop on/hop off bus can take you from near the entrance to the port to Athens. Another more frequent means of getting there is the Green Line Metro train, although it is easily a 20-minute walk from the port to the nearest station. Bus lines 049 and 040 run from Piraeus to central Athens as well,. The stops can be confusing because all the directions are in Greek only.

In the past, taxis were not recommended because drivers would claim their meters were broken and try to gouge large amounts from tourists. Things are more business-like now, but still you should agree only to a metered ride and get an estimate of what it will cost before you get in to the taxi. The journey between Piraeus and Omonia, in the center of Athens should take about 30 minutes and cost about 15 Euros, but traffic can be so heavy in the morning and afternoon that it can take much longer and the meters are based on time as well as mileage.

One thing that is true though is you can get a good cup of coffee in Piraeus. There are also a couple of well-regarded outdoor seafood restaurants operating along the docks, but they are only open in the evenings, which in general is after all the cruise ships pull out.

For those who have seen the sights of Athens, the advice if you want to get off the ship is to book a tour somewhere else. The city of Piraeus is not particularly tourist friendly.

In future stories. I’ll look at brighter sides to cruise visits to Greece.

Royal Princess Guests Get an Inside View of the Newly Restored Beauty of Ancient Ephesus

A rampant lion in a mosaic floor in Ephesus

A rampant lion in an Ephesus mosaic floor–Photograph by Wallace Immen

By WALLACE IMMEN

I’ve toured the fascinating ruins of ancient Ephesus many times  on visits that have spanned  more than a decade, and each time I come, I realize that discoveries are still being made regularly.

In fact, less than half of the city that eventually became buried after being abandoned nearly 2,000 years ago has actually been uncovered and cataloged. But the work is continuing.

The terraace homes in Ephesus

The structure of the terrace homes is becoming clear–Photograph by Wallace Immen

A treat for passengers on my recent voyage on the new Royal Princess was that we could sign up for small-group tours of the most newly opened discovery: the terrace houses to the left of the famous Library of Ephesus. This was the grandest of grand residential areas in the days before a giant earthquake shook things so badly that many houses became piles of broken stone. The land underneath the city was heaved up so much by the quake that it literally turned the port into a landlocked city.

 

Fitting together the pieces of Ephesus

Seven years ago, experts were still figuring which pieces went with which puzzles–Photograph by Wallace immen

I had the rare privilege of being among the first to visit the dig of the terrace houses when the site was first opened to the public in 2007. That visit was arranged by Princess Cruises as well. We arrived in Kusadasi on board the Emerald Princess and guests on the ship were VIPs on a preview of the terrace home site. At that time, the dig was mainly a construction zone with dozens of archeologists trying to fit together tiny shards of broken marble, decorated plaster  and bits of mosaic that they were later able to restore to the floors and walls they had originally adorned.

Piecing together a room of ancient Ephesus

Fitting walls and floors together one piece at a time has taken years–Photograph by Wallace Immen

The researchers at the time joked that it was was the biggest jigsaw puzzle in the world, and  it still is. But remarkably, my visit this summer, seven years later, showed that they’ve managed to fit a remarkable number of the hundreds of thousands of puzzle pieces together and create a feel for how opulent life was in ancient Turkey.

Painting on restored wall in Ephesus

Nymphs on a painted wall in a terrace home–Photograph by Wallace Immen

Normally I’m a little put off by shore expeditions that have to set off before 8 a.m., but today I was grateful to be heading out from the ship in the port of Kusadasi early, while it was still fairly cool. The forecast high for the day in this part of Turkey is 38 degrees Celsius, or 100 Fahrenheit.

Our guide, whose name is Mutlu, got us to the entrance of Ephesus just before the opening at 8 and gave us the tickets that cost an extra 25 Turkish lira to get admission to the terrace house site.

Arriving for the opening means less crowding of popular Ephesus--Photograph by Wallace Immen

Arriving early means less crowding in extremely popular Ephesus–Photograph by Wallace Immen

Trade and the fact that Ephesus was the location of the Temple of Artemis made it a major attraction and the capital of the region of Anatolia, he explained. But by the fourth century AD, the city was already in decline as Christianity replaced goddess worship. Then came a massive earthquake and the area began to be covered with silt from the river that flooded much of the city.

We started out on a challenging climb on to catwalks above the archeological site. It was immediately clear to me that a lot of rebuilding has gone on since my previous visit to the terrace homes. Walls have been recreated, with frescoes and carefully pieced-together marble panels  have been reinstalled. Bold and beautiful mosaics once again cover floors, including scenes of rampaging lions and fierce warriors.

A scene in mosaic floor in Ephesus

A fanciful mosaic in a floor of a home in Ephesus–Photograph by Wallace Immen

People who lived here were administrators, and they could afford to turn their homes into elegant showplaces, Mutlu says.  It’s clear to see that far from being mud brick shelters, these were extremely comfortable places to live, with grand entryways and high-ceilinged rooms decorated with colorful frescoes. They even had a form of indoor plumbing.

We can get a bird’s eye view thanks to the huge structure built over the dig that was financed by an international consortium of donors and institutions whose experts have come here to study and help continue the restoration of the site. Work is also continuing to piece together the walls and structures in the district around the Library of Celsus.

Word on restoration of Ephesus

There’s restoration work going on at the neighboring library as well–Photograph by Wallace Immen

But as dramatic as the facade of the library may be, I found the tour inside the extensive terrace home complex much more telling of the advanced culture that Ephesians had at a time when most people think that life was nasty, brutish and short.

If you get a chance to visit Ephesus again, make sure you get on a tour that includes the terrace homes.

Pieces of Ephesus

There are a lot of pieces still to be put together–Photograph by Wallace Immen

Five Off the Radar Things Not to Be Missed on Royal Princess

Retreat and bar on Royal Princesss

The Retreat adults-only area and its bar by day–Photo by Wallace Immen

By WALLACE IMMEN

A lot’s been written about the Royal Princess since it made its debut in Europe with a christening by Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. It’s certainly the largest and most impressive new cruise ship of the year.

I sailed a few weeks later on a scheduled cruise in Europe to see what life on board is like after the paparazzi have left and I came away in awe of the choices on board. That’s thanks to the way Princess Cruises designed the public areas as a series of small spaces to create multiple choices for everything day and night. In fact there are so many restaurants, lounges and options for staying busy or chilling out, there are some you could miss out on unless you seek them out.

Here are five things—some of them not even written up in the daily programs or advertised on the maps of the ship—that you should make an effort to try while you’re on board:

Enclave area of Royal Princess

Enclave pool at the Lotus Spa–Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises

The Enclave

This is how I imagine the ancient Roman baths for the nobility were laid out. Entered through a discreet door in the middle of a corridor within the spa, it’s an expansive relaxation complex. The focal point is a swimming pool-sized hot tub with a number of areas where you can sit or stretch out flat in soothing whirls of water.

In keeping with the Roman  bath theme there are three chambers of different temperatures. The caldarium is a Turkish style Hammam steam room lined with marble and nearby is the tepidarium, a dry warm room that encourages detoxification. Finally there is the  frigidarium, a cool room with herbal scented air whose seats and floors are heated for comfort.  The showers feature sensory experiences along with their adjustable water jets. The choice runs from tropical rain forest to Siberian summer, with lighting effects and aromas to match.

As The Enclave’s name suggests, this is a very private area and first you have to know that this spa within a spa exists. It would be so popular you wouldn’t be able to get in unless there was an entrance fee. At $39 a guest a day I found the price a little daunting at first, but when I was visiting during a day in port, I had the place to myself for the first hour I was in and that was well worth the admission price. You can also make a deal for daily use of The Enclave through the cruise.

The Lotus Spa itself is by far the most elaborate specialty spa complex on any ship. But you should plan to make reservations for treatments early in the cruise, because I find prime times book up early.

Skywalk glass floor on Royal Princess

Sea Walk’s glass floor on the Royal Princess brings you scarily over the edge–Photo by Wallace Immen

The Upper Deck Bars

The Sea Walk Bar gets discovered by those who need something bracing after walking along the glass-floored walkway that swoops off the side of the ship 16 decks above the water.

But there’s another bar that’s on the top deck that’s part of the Sanctuary and Retreat area and in the evening becomes the Chill Lounge. It’s a great space to have a sunset cocktail and there are specialty champagnes and liqueurs here that you won’t find featured on other bars on the ship. One that intrigued me was a new Moet Ice Imperial champagne, made specifically to be served over ice.

The Outrigger Bar on Royal Princess

The Outrigger Bar is a quiet retreat to scan the horizon–Photograph by Wallace Immen

Horizon Terrace and Outrigger Bar
Behind the Horizons and Bistro area is a rear deck space that most people might miss, because there’s so much going on in the dining areas. But this is the place for a quiet cocktail or to just  scan the sea from the stern of the ship. The Outrigger Bar is one of those castaway places where you can always find a bar stool or settle in to a cushioned banquette.

Entree in the Crab Shack on Royal Princess

Big bowls of ea foods come family style in the Crab Shack–Photograph by Wallace Immen

The Crab Shack
This restaurant only appears on sea days, as a corner of the Horizons and Bistro food court is transformed into a seaport eatery. They do all the hokey things like using paper placemats and providing big boxes of crayons to decorate them with and tying on plastic bibs to keep crab juice from splattering your dress.

Then come the big bowls of chowder and then your choice of combos that can include crab legs, lobster, clams and scallops with lots of steamed potatoes and saladsYou need reservations to alert the kitchen how many to expect. It’s likely to be an ongoing hit with Americans and Europeans who like something a little more informal. But it was sparsely attended when I was on the ship because it wasn’t promoted on the daily program.

Same goes for another ephemeral dining spot, Fondues in the Bistro, that sets set up on some evenings and like the Crab Shack has a $20 a guest cover charge.

Wine display on Royal Princess

Royal Princess promotes its specialty wine selections–Photograph by Wallace Immen

Winemakers’ Tastings
A premium wine tasting scheduled during most cruises will let you sample premium wines that would cost over a hundred dollars a bottle at retail. The Super Tuscan tasting on my cruise around Italy in August was hosted by none other than the Marchese Lamberto Frescobaldi, whose family has been growing grapes and dabbling in finance and politics in Tuscany for 30 generations. One of the wines was a rich Ornellaia cabernet sauvignon that is so rare that prices in auctions get bid up well over $2,000 a case. The Marchese says the family is limited to only three bottles per year for personal consumption. Another wine in the tasting was La Vita Lucente was also a standout.

I found the tasting a deal at $40 a guest because it not only included four wines, but each came with an ample appetizer that the kitchen had whipped up to accompany it. I was sorry I had eaten lunch beforehand.