On Tour: 12 Day Mediterranean Cruise – Odyssey of the Seas

NB: As always on my travel blog posts, all the photography is mine unless otherwise indicated – if you wish to share, link back to this blog and credit me please. My brother took some great photos in Santorini and I just had to share him and I’ll credit which photos are his. He’s also a really talented guy: good at cooking, very athletic, and very smart. Shoutout to you, Sammy! He doesn’t have a social media presence, but I wish he would have a travel Instagram because he takes great photos. If you want to see more of my travel photography, plus some cat pictures and outfit pictures, go to my main Instagram: @angiemichellemoon.

My parents love going on cruise ships. If My Strange Addiction still existed, I could see an episode of my dad talking about his addiction to cruises. Ever since he went on a cruise around 40 years ago, he’s been hooked and he’s shared his love of cruising with the family. While I prefer going to one place and seeing it in depth like a local, there are positives of cruises. If you want to go to a lot of destinations but not have to pack and repack your bags and schlep things to the airport or train station, then cruises are perfect for you. The trade off is the itinerary is set and you may not get to see as much of a place as you want to. I know I felt that in one of the ports! That said, my body felt less exhausted on this trip than the last one in Turkey, with a side trip to Athens or that time I was in Israel.

This is my second Mediterranean cruise and my third cruise in Europe and even though I have more experiences on cruises on the other side of the Atlantic, hands down the best cruises are the European cruises. The ports are even better, much nicer, and there’s so much history and great food. But I’d always recommend seeing Europe by and and in depth for the most authentic experience. That said, I know people will be pedantic because technically this isn’t just a European cruise, most of the stops were in Asia, with two ports each being in Turkey and Israel.

As always in my travel reviews, I share my honest opinions about everything related to my travels: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Without further ado, here’s the whole story of my trip from start to finish. Lots of beautiful pictures ahead that you won’t want to miss! Plus some crazy stories!

Day 1: Travelling to Rome

It wouldn’t be another one of my travel adventures without some long bus travels and being awake at stupid o’clock. A few months ago I moved from the centrally located but very grey and boring Limerick to my husband’s beautiful hometown of Killarney (aka American tourist central). The positives are the surroundings are beautiful and I have a nice view of the mountains, but the negative is it’s a long journey to the Dublin airport and buses don’t run as frequently or as late to or from Killarney so it’s an ordeal. I mean I’m only travelling across the country so it’s to be expected that it’s going to be a long trip so I came prepared Spotify playlists downloaded and my two pairs of wireless noise cancelling headphones. Can’t be without my music, if there’s one thing I love more than travelling, it’s music and nothing is more boring than travelling without music. Both to and from Dublin airport I had to hang around the airport, waiting around the airport until my flight and waiting around for the first bus home, bright and early in the morning. Unfortunately, since I’m travelling alone, I can’t sleep and I had to do this all without coffee. I need a medal.

Incredible how Italy looks like a painting! Yes, that’s really the view out the window!

After a three hour flight, I made it to hot, sunny Rome. Getting to and from the airport was quite easy, just a short combined bus/train trip and you’re in the city centre. Italy doesn’t have the best public transport in Europe but compared to Ireland, it’s great!

I meet up with my family at the central train station and we hit our first bump in the road, an Airbnb scam. Yes, those scams are still around and it’s important you do your research before booking an Airbnb. Felt like I was in that one episode of Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back, but without Joe Lycett. So we had to wait around while my dad talked to customer service. I was hungry and in need of a washroom and not willing to pay for one on principle so my brother and I walked around looking for a hotel with a bathroom. We walked into one and it just so happened that they were filming a movie or something in there. My brother and I discreetly walked through the lobby and down the stairs to the toilet. Because we were weighted down with bags, we couldn’t go out of the train station for food and vegan food is hard to come across in Rome (seriously, I was surprised), we found a poké restaurant in the train station and I got a poké bowl. What did you come to Italy for? Poké of course! I was imagining pizza or pasta but hey, the poké was quite good and I liked how the olive oil went with it. A bit pricey though but it was a lot of food. Never fear though, I got my pasta later that day. 

Thankfully, we got a new accommodation not far from the train station. I was exhausted and the last thing I want to do is drag my bag along the bumpy pavement. Yes I know you gotta pack light but I love fashion and I’m gone for two weeks so I gotta travel like a celeb and bring my clothes (none of which are appropriate for this weather – #1 because I live in Ireland, where it almost never is hot and #2 because I am not going to give up my vintage style for comfort – why spend money on ugly clothes, am I right? 

After a much needed nap, we walked to the Spanish Steps and then got pasta afterwards. I went to a vegan restaurant called Il Margutta and got takeaway, a vegan pasta with pesto and vegan cheese. One thing that’s really different about pasta in Italy is that it’s not as soft as what you’re used to. It still tastes great though.

Come sail away!

Day 2: All aboard! 12 day cruise on the Odyssey of the Seas

On previous cruises in Europe, we got bus transfers to the port through the cruise line, but really it’s not necessary like it is in the US. We took the train from Rome to Civitavecchia (where cruise ships go when they go to Rome since Rome is not on the coast) and it was only a fraction of the cost and very doable. In our case, we scrambled for the train and made it just in time. Some pictures en route to the cruise:

The train station is a bit of a ways from the port so there are buses that cost €3 a person each way but if you’re on a low budget you can walk closer to the port, near the castle and take a free courtesy shuttle that drops you off at the ship. That’s what my family opted for. Hated it in the moment because I can’t handle the heat, but it was worth saving money.

The cruise ship is a pretty much brand new ship, The Odyssey of the Seas, the second newest in Royal Caribbean’s fleet and part of their high tech/action-packed Quantum class of cruise ships. This ship isn’t a garden variety cruise ship. You’ll never be bored because it’s got all the bells and whistles, and maybe some more: an observatory called the North Star – the highest viewing deck on a cruise ship, Ripcord by iFly – a realistic skydiving simulator, bumper cars, a bungee trampoline, a rock climbing wall, a surf simulator called the Flowrider, and not just one but two extremely high tech theatres with incredible lighting and A/V setups that rival concert venues. I only wish we had more sea days because I wanted to enjoy the cruise ship facilities more. But I guess I’ll have a lot more time when I go on the Hawaiian cruise because half the days are sea days, but that cruise will be on the Odyssey’s older sister, the Quantum of the Seas.

Still, I had a blast as you can see in the two videos of me below enjoying the skydiving and bumper cars.

One other thing that makes this cruise different from ones going out of the US or Canada is that it’s much more international and that means multilingual announcements. The cruise director Ana is from Portugal and made announcements in Spanish and Italian. There were also activities and tours in Spanish and Italian.

I’ll also get the cruise ship food review out of the way in this section. I think it’s important to keep in mind that cruise ship catering is a difficult job. You have to feed thousands of passengers and crew and you can’t be too avant-garde or daring. Don’t expect spicy dishes or out there stuff. It’s going to be what appeals to most people, as in normies. As someone who eats spicy food at home all the time, my taste buds were like ‘Where’s the flavour?’ So take my review with a grain of salt considering that. While things are slightly improving for vegans, I won’t say that a cruise ship is an effortless place to be vegan – still no dairy/egg allergen labels (but there were some for gluten and nuts). Much easier for vegetarians than vegans, but there’s still room for improvement. Meals were still hit or miss and there was a lot of repeating of dishes (although this is understandable because it’s a long cruise), not as much variety for vegans/vegetarians and it was clear that meat free meals were an afterthought. Womp womp.

I couldn’t even find a vegan ice cream, not even a sorbet, which is very easy to find nowadays – everywhere has sorbet. There was no vegan cheese, which again is easy enough to find in most shops. The veggie burgers available at the buffet were essentially Boca Burgers straight outta 2008 – not a good kind of throwback. I believe there were Impossible burgers available at the sports bar Playmakers, a premium eatery, but the default serving isn’t vegan (seriously? how hard is it to serve it with no cheese or mayo by default and if a person wants it, they can add it). To be fair, at the buffet, there was a vegan/vegetarian section, but it was quite small and often the only vegan dish was dal, but it was a quite watery one – not my thing, my husband makes dal better. They did always have vegan desserts available, but the ones they were serving weren’t my thing, but that’s not their fault. I just don’t like cupcakes or most pastries. Would have loved to see more cookies and brownies. One thing that did surprise me on this cruise ship is the lack of a salad bar or at most a bare bones one. Usually on other ships, it was easier for me to find something to eat because there was a salad bar available. There is an option to special request meals. It’s my fault I didn’t avail of it because I am awkward.

Once again, my vegan dining manifesto:

  1. Label food allergens, not just for vegans but because people who have allergies and food intolerances exist and it’s easier for both guests and the employees. Quite a few times I saw people asking if there was a certain allergen and that meant the worker had to go out and find the answer. Sometimes that held up the queue.
  2. Make the base items vegan, and have the eggs, dairy, and meat (or condiments that contain these things) as add ons. Why is that? When something is vegan, it’s universal. Vegans, vegetarians, and meat eaters can all have it. Base items include things like bread, pasta, potatoes, rice dishes, and salads. I’d also love to see vegan crepes and pancakes available too – it is indeed possible to make them and not difficult at all.
  3. Make vegan and vegetarian options high quality, available, and promoted. Why? People who eat meat may even want to try some of the vegan dishes. Don’t assume they won’t give it a shot. People sometimes like to shake things up. If you put effort into the vegan dishes, they will be more popular. And why promote? Cruise lines like to talk a lot about the things they do for the environment (though like any corporation, it’s all greenwashing), but one small thing they can do for the environment is promoting more plant based meals and options. I’d appreciate the non-dairy milk being readily available next to the cereal and tea/coffee stations. Plant based is less of a stress on the planet than meat, after all.

And that’s enough of my vegan rant! When they did get things right as far as vegan options go, they did it well, such as the vegan pesto pasta made specially for me at the specialty dining restaurant, Giovanni’s. Also that toffee cheesecake was incredible! So good that my parents ordered one for themselves. Also big shout out to the head chef who gave me the recipe!

Here’s a selection of what I had to eat, plus my thoughts in the captions:

To go more into detail on the entertainment, since this is a long cruise itinerary, they didn’t have new shows every day. I’m generally not the most into cruise ship shows, but I will give credit where it’s due. The performers are indeed very talented, having to memorise how many shows and having to perform and rehearse every day. I know I certainly can’t do that job. What’s especially impressive is the technology in the Two70 theatre. By day, it’s a place where you can get nice views of the sea and at night, screens come down to cover the long windows and it transforms into a theatre where there are live performances and virtual performances alike. There are stages that move up and down and there are trapdoors and stuff where actors come out. The real flex though is they have six robo screens that move around and even have special shows made just for them where the visuals move with the screens and interact with each other. These screens were developed by andyRobot, who has done work for NASA. But the most impressive show technologically, The Effectors, was held in the main theatre. While it may sound and look cheesy looking like some cheesy Marvel parody, the visuals were impressive: 3D effects on the screens, light shows, and even drones with lights on them flying above the audience. A lot of work went into it and here’s something interesting. How often do you hear about a cruise ship having a sequel to one of their original stage shows? Well, in this case, there’s an Effectors sequel but only on the Wonder of the Seas.

Port 1: Haifa

I don’t want to be so negative, but I’ll get it out of the way, while most of the ports were amazing, the timing was not so great when it came to the ports in Israel, and that shows the downside of a cruise – they have a schedule and you can’t see what you want when you want. We arrived in port on the Sabbath, I kid you not. Now with Israel being a majority Jewish country, even though not everyone observes the Sabbath, a lot of things are still closed and people still take it as a day of rest. There is also extremely limited public transport on the Sabbath. It’s really weird why a cruise would dock in Israel during the Sabbath and my dad wanted to know why. Of course cruise ship employees will give a very PR answer, but it seems like there are some factors at play. One of them being port charges and priority. An Israeli cruise employee who formerly worked for Mano Cruise, an Israeli cruise line said that Mano get priority at port because they are from Israel. The other factor is because the cruise also goes to Turkey, a country that Israel doesn’t get along that well with, the cruise has to go to Israel first because it’s easier to get clearance (more about that later). However, I’ve seen other Royal Caribbean cruise itineraries that go to Cyprus before Israel. I assume Israel and Cyprus get along well enough then.

Here are some pictures of Stella Maris – the walk there is very beautiful:

Israel is different from other countries. It’s the only majority Jewish country in the world and with antisemitism always being a problem and Jews’ safety being threatened, Israel takes security very seriously and understandably so. That said, there are definitely some controversial things going on. There is definitely racial/ethnic profiling going on, especially towards Muslims. I saw it right in front of me at the airport: while waiting in the security queue, there were two hijabis (American citizens btw) in front of me and security searched every centimetre of their bags, but when they got to me (born Jewish, although mixed but at the time I looked white since I didn’t have a tan and my hair was dyed red), they pretty much waved me through, even ignoring the fact I had a full water bottle in my bag. My brother (who looks even more mixed than I do, since he has tanned skin and an Afro) had his own share of weird experiences when he went on birthright in July. Just a couple months before that, as a family we went to Turkey and they of course stamped his passport. When flying to Israel, you have to go through even more security than when you fly to other countries. The airline (usually El Al) will have their own agents asking you questions and they can get quite personal, asking if you’re Jewish, do you know anyone in Israel, say a prayer, what holidays do you celebrate, it’s awkward especially for me because I don’t exactly have the fondest memories (long story short, my Hebrew school didn’t exactly accept me because my mum’s a gentile). The El Al security staff pulled my brother aside for additional questioning. So what happens when you visit Israel on a cruise? You have to go through immigration like when you arrive in a country by land or air. Usually on a cruise, you can just walk right off the ship and presto, you’re in a new country. Not so in Israel. It can take a couple of hours to get through immigration, and some people even have to go through more questioning. Even if you choose to stay on the ship, you still have to go through immigration. They’re very strict about people entering Israel, but when it comes to leaving, it’s very quick and easy. Frankly, if you want a good Middle East experience with better bang for your buck, you’re better off going to Turkey. One place Israel does beat Turkey is options for vegetarians and vegans – even at restaurants that serve meat. As long as you got ol’ reliable: falafel and hummus, you’re good! It may be a little expensive, but the portions are large and you’ll be full – don’t forget to try the peppers and veggies served with it. We went to a few good places for that in Haifa: Abu Shaker and Abu Yossef for hummus and HaZkenim for falafel – all were recommended by a friend of Sammy’s from Birthright. Easily some of the best falafel and hummus I’ve had in my life – HaZkenim believes so much in their falafel they’ll give you a free sample as you walk in, it’s that good. I’m not kidding I could eat falafel and hummus every day, that’s how much I love it.

The real highlight of Haifa though is the Baha’i Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site – they look like a Wes Anderson film: very symmetrical, pristine, like I’m in a simulation almost – visually satisfying nonetheless. There are some areas that you can walk around on your own, but to see all the main portion of the gardens and do the whole walk down the 600 steps, you must have a tour. The reason for this is if people are allowed to walk around the gardens all willy-nilly, then they would not be immaculate. Tours are free, take an hour, and are offered in English, Hebrew, and Russian. No donations are accepted from non-Baha’i – not even tour guides are allowed to accept tips. As this is an holy site for the Baha’i, there are additional rules. You must wear clothes that cover your knees, stomach, and shoulders – so no miniskirts, crop tops, or vest tops. You are allowed to take pictures anywhere you want, except inside the shrine. In our case, the shrine was not open because of maintenance, so we could not see it. Below are some pictures I took:

Port 2: Ashdod

And now we have the craziest story of the trip, and I was there to see it. There is never a perfect holiday, always a snafu somewhere and this is where it happened. My brother and I were excited to go to Tel Aviv and Ashdod isn’t that far from Tel Aviv so we thought, surely this is our chance and we can make it there. Wrong! The day started out not so great. We open the window and all we could see were shipping containers. This was no cruise ship port. This was a cargo port. Already a bad sign and we haven’t even stepped off the ship yet. My parents had a tour booked for Jerusalem, so they were sorted. There was room for one more person to go on that tour, but I didn’t want to leave my brother behind and I’d rather go to Tel Aviv than Jerusalem so my brother and I thought we could go to Tel Aviv on our own. My brother trusted good old Google Maps to lead us to town. What we didn’t know was there was a free courtesy shuttle to Ashdod city centre, and we didn’t know that until we ran into some fellow passengers who said there was a free shuttle. We’ve never heard of a free shuttle on a cruise ship. What did we do? We walked like idiots around a bunch of shipping containers to get out of the port and hopefully to a bus station. Felt like we were in a GTA game. A big safety hazard and a bad idea! Now I don’t want to blame the cruise line, but I honestly think they should have had security closer to where the tour buses and courtesy shuttles were and not allowed us to waltz through a cargo port. I will say this again, my brother and I made some big boo boos here, but at least it makes for a funny story after the fact. Second time that things went totally wrong for me in Israel, I swear the universe doesn’t want me to have a good time in Israel, just kidding.

We finally find out way out of the labyrinth of shipping containers and we get to a gate and a security guard stops us, feels like a Bald and Bankrupt video. He questions us and asks where we came from. My brother gave the truthful, but smartass answer of “the cruise ship”. We sit at a bench while the security guard talks to his supervisor and he lets us walk out of the port, strongly cautioning us about walking around. A taxi driver also warned us about making a journey by foot but we foolishly didn’t listen because we’ve dealt with scamming taxi drivers in the past. We walk and walk and suddenly we get to the motorway, no more footpath. We had to turn around. We eventually get a taxi and we paid about $10 to get to the city centre. Ouch! We get dropped off at the mall/bus station and we are greeted with an extremely long, disorganised queue to buy bus tickets. My brother and I waited for about 30-40 minutes and eventually gave up, it wasn’t worth it. The queue moved at a snail’s pace with transactions taking ages. There were machines, but only for local passengers who had their version of an Oyster card. I complain a lot about public transport in Ireland and call it the worst ever public transport, but I think it’s even worse in Israel. At least in Ireland you can buy tickets on the bus or at a machine, or even online. Understandable since it’s their country’s language, but for tourists, not so easy. I guess I know how non-English speakers feel when they visit. What a pain in the butt.

Anyway, we cut our losses and buy some Bambas at the grocery store. We decide to head to the art museum and it turns out it’s closed, bad luck. The worker at the art museum suggested the beach. So we walk to the nearest beach and the first one turns out to be a women only beach. Yup, that’s right, in Orthodox Judaism there’s a lot of gender segregation. For example, men and women have to go through separate entrances and sit in separate sections of the synagogue, similar to Muslims praying in mosques. Awkward thing is there was a male security guard working at the women’s beach. Weird. We were so frustrated we took out the chocolate filled Bambas and started snacking on them and holy crap they are really good. For the Americans reading this blog post, you can find Bambas at Trader Joe’s – if you want a similar taste, just dip them in Nutella or a vegan version of it, if you’re vegan or lactose intolerant. If you love Reese’s, you will love this combo. It’s really hot out so we go to an ice cream shop to cool down and lucky for me there’s vegan ice cream and yay there’s dark chocolate, my favourite! We proceed to go to the mall and sit in some air conditioning – my brother said that this was like Birthright all over again because they spent so much time in various shopping malls finding something to eat at the food court.

I finally get some wifi and after some walking around the mall, we go back to find the all genders beach. The sand is hot, as you can expect. My brother finds an ancient fort, called the Yam Fortress, and we both go there, that was the coolest thing we saw in Ashdod.

Afterwards, we walk all the way back to the city centre and we decide to get falafel. We get falafel at this one shop and it was a letdown compared to the falafel we had in Haifa. The tahini had no flavour in comparison. Well, we couldn’t end the trip on a negative note so I go to a smoothie shop called Rebar and get a smoothie. We are not complete idiots, we learnt from our mistake earlier in the day and we get the shuttle back to the port. Well, at least we didn’t miss the cruise ship. Good news is the trip got better after this!

Port 3: Limassol, Cyprus

Cyprus is one of those countries where there’s tension: two countries/cultures fighting over an island: Greeks vs Turks and that conflict is not helped by the fact the British colonised Cyprus, and technically Cyprus has a third country on it, the British military bases of Akrotiri and Dhekelia. Since the 70s, the island has been divided into Northern Cyprus and the Republic of Cyprus, with the smaller northern section being controlled by Turkey and only Turkey recognising this, and the south being recognised by every country. In between the two is a UN buffer zone, sounds kinda dangerous, but in reality, if you’re a tourist you’re going to be fine and you really won’t be anywhere near there. Cyprus is part of the EU and has been since 2004. I’m not going to get into the politics, but if you want some background info on why Cyprus is divided, here’s a YouTube video about that.

Anyway, Cyprus is a popular holiday destination for British and Israeli tourists, who love the cheaper prices and of course sunshine! There are so many British tourists and expats that you’ll find British chains in Cyprus like Costa Coffee, Wagamama, and Marks & Spencer. You won’t have many problems with language barrier because English is widely spoken.

In this port we took a cruise organised shore excursion that went to Aphrodite’s Rock, which according to legend is Aphrodite’s birthplace. For those who don’t believe in legends, it’s simply a really cool looking sea stack and photos make a great computer wallpaper. After that, we made our way to the coastal city of Paphos, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Not only does it have nice beaches, you can find some archeological ruins: mosaics, the House of Dionysus, and tombs. There’s also a lighthouse and some great views. Overall, my parents were really impressed with Cyprus and they say they’d love to visit again.

Now it’s time to say hello to a new country!

Port 4: Bodrum, Turkey

My parents were smart to book tours in both ports in Turkey and we went through Viator. In Bodrum we went on a village tour, going off the beaten path and seeing something a little less touristy and much more relaxed, life in a small village in Turkey. In this case, we had a private tour of the village of Sazköy. The village only has a few hundred people and a large number of them will go seasonally to Bodrum to work. The first thing we did was visit the local mosque. Typically, women have to cover their hair when they go to the mosque but because we were alone and our tour guide isn’t observant, we didn’t have to wear a headscarf. Next, we walked to their local coffee shop and had some apple tea and roasted chickpeas. There, we met the mayor of the town and his father. In this small village, the mayor is not elected, but instead it’s hereditary, like a monarchy – so that’s unique. The tour guide talked about the local economy and what is made there: olive oil, and various fruits like pomegranate and grapes. Afterwards, we saw a 200 year old house and got an idea of how life was like in 19th century Turkey: a very small house, only one room that is used as a kitchen, living room, and bedroom. One thing that I found incredible about the old house was how cool it was inside. There’s definitely something we can learn from historical building techniques. People didn’t always have air conditioning so they had to get creative with how they built homes and how they dressed.

The highlight of this tour was trying the local food, which was all natural and delicious. As an appetiser we had some gözleme, which are basically a Turkish version of crepes, which can either be sweet or savoury. Since I was vegan, they made me some sugary ones, and the rest of my family got spinach and cheese ones. My dad even liked the sugary ones too. As for the main course, we were taken to a covered patio decorated with rugs, kilims, and cushions. We ate the food traditional style on the floor, shoes off. The dishes were a mix of vegetarian, vegan, and meat dishes. I had aubergine, salad, olives, and potatoes. I even had some of the locally produced wine.

After our food had settled, they took us to a neighbouring room where they made a sales pitch: buy a rug! Earlier we had seen a demonstration of how the rugs are made. They’re weaved by hand on a loom, are made of wool or silk, and even the smallest rugs take months to make. Because of the much lower wages in Turkey, compared to western countries, the rugs don’t cost as much as you’d think, with them costing a couple thousand or even less. They also are very durable, resist staining (especially the wool ones because of the lanolin), and are considered something that could be an heirloom, passed down to your children or grandchildren. They have special designs that originate in the region. They even had ones that were based on Bible stories, and of course my favourite, cats! One of the rugs had a cat that looked like my cat Bowie on it. They also served us Turkish coffee, which as you may know is very strong and therefore only served in small cups. May or may not be your thing. After a while when they knew we didn’t have the budget or the space for a rug, we went back to town and bought some souvenirs before walking back to the ship.

Next stop…

Port 5: Kuşadası/Ephesus, Turkey

This was the port that really impressed me the most and that’s because of Ephesus. If you love Athens and Rome and the ruins there, there’s way more to be found all over the Mediterranean. It’s always important to remember that borders in Europe/Eurasia have changed a lot over human history so there’s a lot of mixing and ruins from one culture being found in another country. What really blew my mind about Ephesus is how you only see a small fraction of what has been discovered there, only about 10-15%! Imagine how much more there is and while you’re there, you’ll see archeologists working away.

And what makes Ephesus special to me is because it’s in Turkey, guess what there are a lot of? Cats! Yes! You’ll see cats there and pictures of cats at historical ruins are even cooler than cats in the city.

After Ephesus, we had lunch at a cafe that served gözleme and I had two different types. I had a spinach and potato one and a dessert one with what I believe is tahini or something in it, I have no idea but it was delicious and I wish I could have some now. After lunch, we went to a popular pilgrimage site, the Virgin Mary House. They had a water fountain there and my mum swears that the water was magical because afterwards I had less back pain. I have no idea. Our final stop before returning to the port was to a carpet store where they gave a sales pitch and showed how rugs are made. Beautiful stuff, but I can’t think about buying one until I own a house, and with the way things are going in this economy, I don’t see it happening.

In my opinion, this was the best tour and it’s all thanks to the tour guide Lori. We really lucked out! She has a great attitude, is very knowledgeable, very helpful, and you could easily tell she loves her job. She really made the tour even better and I’d have to say she’s one of the best tour guides I’ve had on a trip – very memorable, it’s not often that I remember much about a tour guide. As well, because this was a small group tour, we got to ask a lot more questions and get more personalised attention than on one of those big 40-50 people tours you see all over the world. There was one other family on the tour from the northwest of England and they were really friendly too. While a bit of this tour was very similar to the last tour and we were familiar with a lot of things because we’d been to Turkey before, Lori made it fun.

If you are going on a cruise that stops in Kuşadası, you must find your way to Ephesus, absolutely worth the drive and if you can go on a guided tour, even better because you’ll get a lot more appreciation for the ruins and the history of them.

Photo credit: Sammy, who hiked all the way from Fira to Oia and back! What an accomplishment!

Port 6: Santorini, Greece

This was the port that I was looking forward to the most, despite knowing its overrated and overhyped reputation, especially in recent years. Who doesn’t want to have a photo of them with the famous white buildings and blue domes as a backdrop? But that’s essentially what Santorini has become, an Instagram photo stop. Makes me think of that Kinks song “People take Pictures of Each Other”: “People take pictures of each other and the moment can last them forever of the time when they mattered to someone”.

It’s still beautiful, but it’s so small that it can’t handle the huge crowds that flock every summer. Too many people! You’ll notice in the tourist hotspots of Fira and Oia that hotels try to make the experience better for their guests by barring entrance to the public and I suppose that’s the best way to do Santorini, actually go there, spend time there, and immerse yourself in the beauty of the island. But anyway, at least I got my photos and got to see the island and all its beauty.

Once again I have to emphasise that the tour guide makes or breaks your tour and in this case, we had a Squidward like tour guide who didn’t say anything really and looked like he’d rather be literally anywhere else – no passion for the job. When my dad asked him if he could provide some background information, he was all huffy and pooh-poohed him. A tour guide can make what is seemingly a run of the mill trip really fun and interesting, or a tour guide can make what should be a dream trip a letdown. And in this case it was the latter. I was under the impression that this was supposed to be a guided tour, but it was basically an on your own tour – bus transfers plus a little background information from the tour guide, but it was not marketed that way.

The other thing that I would like to note about this tour is that so much time was lost because of the way they did the transportation to the tour buses. To explain it, not all cruise ship ports are big enough to accommodate cruise ships, so the way cruises visit these places is they anchor a bit of a-ways away from the shore and passengers get on much smaller tender boats, which will take them to the port. Tenders are often the lifeboats that you see on the ship, but in this case we had larger ones provided by the island. Those with shore excursions went a different route than usual, a more scenic route to get to their tour buses – so we had to go to where the ferries to Santorini go and get on the tour bus – the positive is if you aren’t good with steps, no need to worry. That was the annoying part. We could have more time enjoying Oia and Fira, but because we had to take the scenic route both ways, we lost precious time and we only had an hour in Oia and not even an hour in Fira, the other half the time was spent on tour buses, where because the tour guide didn’t give us any information really, I was just spacing out and listening to music. Anyway, if you’re going on a cruise, make sure to go on a full day excursion, not a half day excursion.

If you want to hear something impressive, my brother hiked all the way from Fira to Oia and at the end of the day, his step counter said he walked 19 miles that day. Here are some pictures he took:

I definitely want to come back to Santorini, but I’d want to get a nice hotel and really experience it.

Port 7: Chania, Crete, Greece

Our last port was Chania, in Crete. Crete is well known for being very touristy and popular among British people – The Inbetweeners Movie took place in Crete. The really sad part is that we didn’t have a lot of time in the port, only arriving at 7 AM and leaving at 2 PM, what a shame. This time, my brother and I walked around on our own and tried to find a beach, where we had our share of adventures.

After walking around town, which was pretty empty because it was early morning, we made it to the beach and sat down and all of a sudden, a ginger cat sits on my brother’s backpack and decides that he’s comfy there. Fun fact, Crete is also very well known for cats. While it’s still not Turkey, I’d say it’s at least as many cats as Israel. The cats are also often quite friendly and like people, but remember to respect their space. If they don’t want to be pet, back off because they will bite you. My brother wasn’t aware and the ginger cat bit him. The ginger cat liked me though and I wanted to bring the cat home so Bowie could have a new friend, but I don’t think cruise ship security would have been okay with me bringing a cat on the ship. While my brother was working on his tan, I went swimming and I was having a good time, but then I started feeling this pinching, almost stinging feeling and apparently the fish were biting me. So my brother wasn’t the only person getting bit here.

On the way to the beach, we passed by a vegan restaurant called Pulse Vegan, and I wanted to try some local food in Greece while I had the chance so I kept that restaurant in mind so I could eat there after the beach. Of course, I had to have a vegan souvlaki and a smoothie and the price wasn’t bad especially considering it’s a vegan restaurant, €9 in total. Afterwards, we walked around the town for a bit taking some pictures before my brother and my parents had some gyros, sorry, no vegan ones at that restaurant.

Vegan Souvlaki: Pulse Vegan, Chania

There’s so much more to Crete and honestly, it’s a place I want to go back to so I can see the famous gorges. You have to think of cruises more as a taster or sampler because you really can’t do it all on a cruise and that’s the pitfall for those who want to see places in depth. On the other hand, you see a lot more places on a surface level and maybe even some places you may not have otherwise considered visiting – and it’s nice not having to unpack and repack over and over again. Cruises have a lot of convenience and they’re great for accessibility and disabled travellers, but there are downsides like being nickelled and dimed, internet is expensive and slow (that may be a positive for those who want to unplug), and the itinerary is set – no flexibility. There’s always a tradeoff in travel and different people prioritise different things.

One of the cool things about this itinerary is the ship goes through the Strait of Messina and that means you get some beautiful views of Calabria and Sicily. here are some pictures I took both ways:

Back in Rome!

One thing I was really happy about this trip was that we got to spend a decent amount of time in Rome. I’m not sure if you all know this, but Rome was the first city in Europe I visited and that’s because we had a long layover there on the way to London. We didn’t have a lot of time during that layover so we just went to see the Colosseum and get a pizza and then go back to the airport. We really underestimated Rome that trip. We went back a second time in 2014 because it was a stop on the Western Mediterranean cruise – we loved it, and now this is our third time in Rome, and honestly, it’s high up there as far as favourite cities in Europe I’ve been to.

I’m impressed with how walkable it is – you can easily see a lot of the highlights on foot, making it budget friendly and a good workout too! The architecture is so beautiful. And you can’t forget about the amazing food, a bit more challenging when you’re vegan (they love their cheese and a lot of pasta is made with egg – if you’re vegetarian you will be fine), but it’s there if you know what to look and ask for: cheeseless pizzas will be your best friend! My brother and my dad were joking about all the amazing sites we missed out on because were so focused on the Colosseum, saying well those were just built within the last 12 years. Gotta love dad humour.

We didn’t pay to go into any of the ruins but you do get to see a lot even just walking by them. Another highlight was going up the steps of the Altar of the Fatherland and getting some great views of the city.

While I only had pizza a couple times, I really want to shout out a pizza place that made a custom vegan pizza for me. While walking around the city we saw a very popular takeaway pizza place called Grano la cucina di Traiano and we decided to check it out. Prices weren’t bad and it just so turns out the owner lived in Venezuela for 20 years and my mum had a conversation with him and asked him if he could make a vegan pizza for me and he did! This was also the first time I ever had balsamic vinegar on a pizza and it was really good. When in Italy, you gotta have some gelato and a lot of shops have vegan options, just ask! We went to one place called Della Palma, which had 150 flavours of Gelato! Take that Baskin-Robbins with your 31 flavours! The last day for lunch I went to Flower Burger. A bit pricey compared to other restaurants and I wish the meal came with a dipping sauce for the chips, but the chips were good.

The journey back was a bit of a headache because I live 4-5 hours away from Dublin and there aren’t buses to where I live late at night so I had to wait 6 hours at the airport. But I got home and that’s why you’re seeing me write this! 🙂 Unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to check out any record stores, but it’s better that I didn’t because I am moving next year and I can’t acquire more things.

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