Last Port of Call: Kusadasi to Ephesus

Our last port of call before the end of the cruise was in Kusadasi, Turkey. Originally, this ship had been bound for Istanbul, but in light of possible security issues, the ship changed the final destination to Athens.

There is a way to travel from Kusadasi to Ephesus via a combination of public bus and a short taxi ride to the entrance of the site. We had budgeted this to be 25 USD for the two of us for round trip. The previous night, we had made plans to tour Ephesus with our new friends: Steve and Kevin and their wives. The 6 of us disembarked the ship and went in search of the public bus route when the other Kevin started talking to a local guy offering rides. The local guy offered to drive us to and from the Ephesus site for 120 USD (20 USD per person). We rarely take offers such as these, but the rest of the group is much less budget-sensitive than we are, so they thought it was a good deal. We ended up paying 40USD for transportation to and from Ephesus, which is more than we had budgeted, but we mostly went along for the company.

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Admissions was 40 Turkish Lira (around 11 USD). The driver dropped us off at the upper entrance to Ephesus, allowing you to walk downhill instead of up. We started the Rick Steves audio tour and walked through the ruins. It was similar to the Roman Forum, but much larger and sprawling in scale. We saw some interesting sites, including an old public bathroom with ancient toilets carved into a large rectangular rock. Ephesus used to be a bustling port and trade town, but over the years, sedimentation caused land to form all around it, essentially moving Ephesus inland.

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After the tour, about a 2 hour walk through all the ruins, the driver picked us up and drove back to the port. The landscape was quite beautiful, large groves of olive trees covered the rolling hills. We were dropped off in a shopping street in Kusadasi, a modern take on the “bazaar”, that sold 100% Authentic Fake watches and handbags along with carpets. This area prides itself on its excellent quality of fake products. Kevin popped his head into a watch store to take a look at the goods; a Chinese-based movement Hublot cost 25USD while a Japanese-based movement Hublot cost 175USD. Both knockoffs looked strikingly similar to the real thing. Other stores sold “handwoven” carpets and tapestries and real fake handbags. After a short stroll through the thin alleys, we returned to the ship empty-handed just in time for lunch.

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As our last port of call, there was only one more sea day before disembarkation in Athens. We were having a really enjoyable time on the cruise and were quite sad to see it end. A brief peek inside Celebrity Life:

  • Most of the evening shows were fantastic. My favorite were the shows put on by the production cast members, although it was hard to follow along the storylines. There was a Rob Lewis – Phil Collins concert that was baffling because we didn’t know who either performer was. The illusionist wasn’t very good as an illusionist, although it was entertaining.
  • We had to drink over $324 worth of beverages to make the drink package worth it (compared to the value of the other perks) so each day we started out at Café El Bacio for fancy tea and coffee. On most days, we were able to rack up between $60 – $70 in drinks (aside from the two days when we were off the ship for the entire day). If we didn’t have the drink packages, we’d be perfectly fine chugging water or smuggling drinks in our hand baggage, but it’s also really easy to just drink the whole day away. Regular tea, coffee, and juice at the Oceanview Cafe buffet is free. Ordering drinks was also a good way to get to know the bartending staff, many of whom soon knew us by name. They earn tips for every drink ordered, so we made sure to order from the staff members we liked.
  • We bounced around between the buffets for lunch and breakfast and the main dining room for dinner. Most nights, we found the appetizers to be tastier than the entrees. The attire for dinner was Smart Casual on most nights and Evening Chic for two nights, although many were dressed in traditional “formal wear” for the latter. On the first Evening Chic night, we ended up with our friends in the buffet for dinner, so we didn’t have to dress up. Turns out we didn’t really need anything that fancy at all.
  • For dinner, we had requested to sit at a larger table (for 10) to meet people, but we ended up at a table for 2. It worked out – we didn’t have to be forced to socialize with others if we didn’t have to.
  • Demographics of the ship: predominantly American and older, a sharp contrast to the type of people we had been interacting with for the past 9 months
  • Frequent cruise patrons brought business cards or custom “keep in touch” cards to swap with new friends. We were given a card by a couple during the one time we had lunch in the dining room at a table for 6, none of whom were particularly interesting.
  • Cruise staff LOVE to take photos – upon embarkation, at each port of call, at dinner, for formal nights, etc. These photos are then printed out and displayed in the photo center in hopes that you will purchase a single print for … $25. It is an unbelievably a waste of photo paper.
  • We quickly got into the habit of looking forward to receiving the following day’s schedule of activities every night after dinner. There is something almost mind numbing about being given a schedule and picking and choosing your activities from it. There’s no stress of what to do or how to do it – just show up at the designated time and expect to be entertained. Activities ranged from adult coloring time to Silent Disco (imagine a group of people dancing to music from headphones in an otherwise silent room) to trivia.

Overall, the cruise was a really nice way to “splurge” after somewhat roughing it on the road for the past 9 months. In fact, we liked it so much that we ended up with a serious case of “post-cruise blues” for several weeks after.

 

The Weight of the World

For our second day in Ashdod, we took our only shore excursion through Celebrity. It would have been too difficult to do this tour (Jerusalem and Bethlehem) on our own, and with a shore excursion, you’re guaranteed that the ship will wait for you if there are any delays. We woke up early for a quick breakfast at the buffet and a stop for coffee at El Bacio. There were about 30-40 people on the excursion with us, and having avoided tours for most of our time on the road so far, it was an interesting experience.

I was super tired for some reason, and ended up sleeping through most of the ride from Ashdod to Jerusalem. From the time that I was awake, the countryside was barren, dusty, and sparsely populated. After about an hour, we finally arrived in Jerusalem. Our first stop was the Mount of Olives, an important biblical site. The history attached to this site extends far into the Old Testament, although it is better known for the time that Jesus spent there and ultimately his place of ascension. From the mount, we had a hazy view of Jerusalem, it’s old city and the modern city that sprawls out from it.

 

 

Our next stop was the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed the night before his arrest that led to his crucifixion. As a holy site, several churches of several religious denominations have since constructed places of worship near or above it. The Church of All Nations, a Roman Catholic church, sits adjacent to the garden on top of foundations of previous chapels that had been destroyed through a variation of natural and man-made disasters.

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the rock where Jesus is presumed to have prayed

After another short but traffic-jammed bus ride, we were deposited at Dung Gate. I believe it’s the first time in my life where I actually felt weighed down by the atmosphere; it’s hard to describe, but the Old City feels heavily burdened by the weight of all of the religions that hold it to be sacred and all of the history and conflict that has come and gone for thousands of years. It is the holy land to Christians, Jews, and Muslims, each party claiming parts of the city as their own, and of course, fighting for it.

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The Temple Mount, considered to the center of Jerusalem and of Israel and holy to both Judaism and Islam, is one of the most highly contested sites in the world. The shiny gold Dome of the Rock peeks just above the walls that surround it. The Dome of the Rock currently sits under Jordanian rule while Israeli police help to enforce the rules. Entrance by non-Muslims (Christians and Jews) is highly regulated – it is forbidden for non-Muslims to pray on the Temple Mount, to carry any Bibles or anything with Hebrew lettering or other non-Islamic religious artifacts. During our tour, visiting hours for tourists were closed. Since non-Muslim prayer is strictly prohibited on the mount, which is also a holy site for both the Jewish and the Christians, the closest place for these two groups to pray is at the Western Wall (also known as The Wailing Wall). This stretch of wall is closest to the Temple Mount. It is divided up into two sections by gender, so men and women enter and pray separately. Prayers are whispered and murmured and written into small pieces of paper that are pressed into the crevices of the wall.

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Western Wall
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Years of prayers inside the wall’s crevices

The Old City is divided into 5 quarters: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Coptic Christians. They coexist, travel freely through the living quarters. It was interesting to see these different denominations and their different attire passing each other. The tour took us on the walk of Jesus, walking through numbered stations throughout the city that Jesus had stopped at during his crucifixion. We walked through many different historical sites while listening to the tour guide. At one point, I could see two men with machine guns standing on a bridge and watching over the people down below.

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security
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alleyway inside the Old City

Following a really nice buffet lunch at a shuk-turned-hotel (really great marinated salads), we got back on the bus for the last stop: Bethlehem. I actually didn’t know that Bethlehem was in one of Palestine’s administrative regions; we were essentially traveling into Palestine. I learned a bit more about the tensions between Palestine and Israel that pointed to a different perspective than what’s put forth in Western media. It was a requirement to have a local Palestinian lead the tour, so our new tour guide joined up with us on the way into the Church of the Nativity. We had to rush into the church before closing time at 5PM, so our stop inside was very brief. Soon after, we were ushered towards a “local” store to support the Christians who still resided in Bethlehem. A group of Filipino tourists rushed to fill their baskets full of olive wood carvings and rosaries, while we stood back and observed the heavily marked up prices. We met even more merchandisers outside of the store, selling bags and hats from the back of their cars. A man started off with “3 hats for $10” – he was no match for one of the Filipino women, who haggled him down to 6 hats for $10 and 4 bags for $10, all items that she distributed to her friends.

On our way out of Bethlehem and back into Israeli territory, our bus crossed paths with a demonstration by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, protesting for liberation from Israel. They carried flags and banners from the flatbeds of various trucks. I did wonder for a moment if any type of violence would break out, as the media loves to portray, but our bus of primarily American tourists continued along as the demonstrators continued to demonstrate peacefully.

By the time we arrived back at the ship, we had missed our allotted dining time again. We grabbed a quick dinner at the buffet before heading to sleep after a long and tiring day of sightseeing. The weather was quite hot and the touring was grueling enough to keep us from even venturing off the ship in Haifa the next day. I found this brief peek into Israel and Palestine enlightening as there was never really a point in which I felt unsafe. There’s such a large amount of history, religion, and conflict all wrapped up in this spot that isn’t just something that happened in the past, but rather ongoing in the present and the future.

 

Hello Tel Aviv

One of the ports I had been looking forward to on this cruise was Ashdod, Israel. Israel was one of those countries that I never thought I would have traveled to, primarily related to the difficulties of getting in and out of the Middle East. Even the night before, as we watched the position of our ship from the TV, I thought, “Wow, this is the closest we’re going to be to a pretty intense area of the world.”

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we’re at the red dot!

It felt quite unreal to arrive here on a cruise ship. For travelers visiting Israel, you do not receive an entry/exit stamp; rather, you are given an Israeli landing card for x-number of days for the duration of your stay. Our cards were good for 3 days exactly – two for Ashdod and one for Haifa. These cards were then collected once we left the country.

We got our first taste of that vigilant Israeli culture when attempting to disembark the ship on the first day in Ashdod.  We had been warned of “extensive security” inspections, so we expected long lines. We just didn’t expect it to be so long or so hot. Apparently, Celebrity was not notified by border control of this process; otherwise, they would have kept every one waiting on board instead of standing in the sun and the heat for so long. I was very impressed with the speed at which the staff members organized to help diffuse the situation; almost immediately, carts of bottled water appeared along with ice cold infused waters and ice cold towels.

The security inspections were different for each line – some baggage was swabbed looking for powders while others were sent through metal detectors and bag screening. After nearly an hour long wait, we were finally past inspections and ready to head out. The Ashdod port is quite large and general people are not allowed to walk in port. Past the border control building, a long line of buses waited to take passengers into town and onto excursions. Today was a free day – we were headed to Tel Aviv, about 43 km north, to visit an old co-worker/friend of mine from my public accounting days. The shuttle bus from port dropped us off at the central bus station in Ashdod. From there, we took a local bus bound for Tel Aviv central bus (each ticket was 7.8 shekels, about $2), and then a bus from Tel Aviv central to her apartment.

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Tel Aviv beach

 

From walking around, Tel Aviv feels like any other major city. We walked from my friend Shanny’s apartment to the beach (only 2 blocks away) and took in a view of the ocean, as well as the number of people who were at the beach on a Tuesday morning. From there, Shanny took us on a walking tour of Tel Aviv, through high end neighborhoods and hipster neighborhoods.

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Halva – thick dessert made from sesame seeds

We walked through a shuk – a traditional Israeli street market selling produce, touristy knickknacks, and local foods (halva, a thick cake-like dessert made of sesame paste and sugar with all types of flavors, caught my eye). We ended up at a café on the beach and watched sunset over the ocean while catching up.

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catching up!

We took the reverse ride back to Ashdod – 3 bus connections (Tel Aviv downtown to Tel Aviv central, Tel Aviv central to Ashdod Central, shuttle bus to the port). By the time we arrived back to the ship, it was nearly 9PM. Having missed our 8:30PM dining window, we headed up to the buffet and found Pat and Susan at the Oceanview Bar.

 

It was a fun relaxing day to spend time with an old friend and not do too much sightseeing. I didn’t have any expectations of what Tel Aviv would be like, although I was pleasantly surprised at how secular and vibrant it felt. It did also feel somewhat tense, as if the people there are constantly under a state of worry, although nothing compared to what it felt like on the following day.

Sicily, Crete, and the Wedding Games

About half way into our walk in Sicily, I realized that it’s very difficult to get a good feel for any destination from a single port day. On a cruise, you generally have two options: go on a tour (either with a local guide or with a ship’s “shore excursion”) or walk around on your own. We were saving our shore excursion for the one that would be most difficult to DIY ourselves, so for Catania, Sicily and Chania, Crete, we chose to wander around near the port.

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Catania, Sicily

Catania sits on the eastern side of the Italian island of Sicily. The port is a short walking distance away from town, so we grabbed a tourist map and headed off in search of the local sites. We passed by amphitheaters, churches, and an elephant fountain in the large square in our path towards Villa Bellini, a sculpted garden rumored to have the best view of Mt. Etna in the city.

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The Elephant Fountain – there are elephants all over town

Once we hiked up to the top, we were disappointed to see cloud cover that covered almost all of the volcano. We then made our way back to the ship for some lunch and to get a start on our necessary drinking for the day. While having lunch on the open stern deck, we ran into Pat and Susan, the couple we had met in line from the first day. They joined us for lunch that turned into drinks, and about an hour in, the clouds parted, and Mt. Etna was beautifully visible directly in front of us.  Drinks turned into coffee, which turned into dinner, followed by another show in the theater.

Our next stop was Chania, Crete, Greece’s largest and most populated island. The town itself is located on the other side of the island from the port of Souda. There is a city bus that transports passengers from port to Chania’s old town for a fare of 1.5 EUR single trip / 3 EUR round trip. We were dropped off in front of a relatively large market building, the Chania Market. The stalls here sold a variety of Greek goods, from baskets of all types of olives to olive oil and olive oil products (bar soaps included!) to salted fish to beaded works and other craft items, along with the usual fresh fruits and vegetables.

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Cheese, olives, and salted fish

From the market building, we walked through a maze of streets lined primarily by shops – clothing stores, stalls selling leather goods, cafes, and restaurants. I did really enjoy the change in architecture (having been in Italy for the past 8 or so days).

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Chania waterfront

 

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The neighborhood adjacent to the water was the most picturesque. We were headed there when we heard “Kevin!” being shouted by multiple people; Steve, Steve, their wives and a third couple waving at us. We joined them in walking along the waterfront and got to know them a little better.

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loofahs!

By the end of our port day in Chania, we were a few days into the 12-day cruise. By this point, our new friends, all cruise veterans, had told us about this gameshow activity that happens on most cruises – The Newlywed Games. They were also quite keen on getting us to participate. It had been really popular before we were born, so I had never actually seen an episode or really even heard about it until now. The premise makes total sense – spouses are tested to see how well they know each other through a series of revealing questions. When we finally saw this event pop up on the daily schedule, we were pretty excited to participate.

The theater was quite crowded for the late night game activity, dubbed “The Wedding Games” as a play on “The Hunger Games”. Stephen, the activity manager, led a series of auditions to find 3 couples to fill 3 categories: longest marriage, shortest marriage (1 day – 1 year), and marriage in between. The first couple called to the stage has been married for 51 years. Next, there were 5 couples auditioning for the 1 day – 1 year of marriage category. We won with the loudest round of applause, mostly due to our friends who had come out to see us play and various people in the crowd who probably thought we’d be the most entertaining. The last couple chosen has been married for 18 years.

To start the game, the husbands were taken to behind the theater and the wives had to answer a series of questions and do a series of activities. The husbands would then be asked the same questions and asked to guess who won the activities as a test to see just how well they know their wives. This would be repeated with the wives going backstage, husbands answering questions, and wives guessing what the husbands said/did. At the end of the game, the couple with the highest number of points would win.

My questions:

  • What would you say is your husband’s most embarrassing behavior?
  • Hula hoop – who can hoop for the longest
  • What do you do to get your husband in a romantic mood?
  • 10 seconds of acapella

Kevin’s questions:

  • If your wife’s family was a Facebook page, who would you like? block? poke?
  • Build and fly a paper airplane
  • If your mother-in-law was an animal, what would she be?
  • Draw a picture of of your wife

The game itself was hilarious – my face hurt so much afterwards from laughing!! Rich is really quite skilled in his ability to take whatever material comes at him and turn it into something funny. We ended up winning first place (with 17 points compared to 8 points and 6 points for 2nd and 3rd) – a bag of Celebrity swag (t-shirt, hat, deck of cards, pen), a bottle of champagne, and dinner for 2 at the Tuscan Grille, a specialty restaurant onboard ($90 value). We also ended up with faux celebrity status aboard the ship – it turns out that the entire show was recorded so when we were flipping TV channels, we happened across this:

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us on TV

 

The show was played on a continuous loop for at least a day. Some guests would see us, point at Kevin, and laugh. Subsequent interactions between us and crew members usually began with “I saw you guys on TV!”. We did get a copy of the DVD for our friends’ and family’s entertainment.

The experience was 1 part embarrassing, 2 parts entertaining, and 3 parts WORTH IT for that dinner!

Frozen in Time: Pompeii, Naples

Our first port of call was Naples, home to many attractions, the most famous of which is Pompeii, the ancient Roman town buried and preserved as a result of Mt. Vesuvius’s eruption. In retrospect, it was fairly straightforward to go from the port to Pompeii without a shore excursion. The subway station closest to port didn’t have any machines for ticket purchase, so we headed to the ticket office. We were sold a subway-train combo ticket for 3.2 EUR per person each way, for a total of 12.8 EUR. It seemed expensive, but we actually hadn’t done research on getting from port to Pompeii besides the general directions (train from port to Circumvesuviana station), so it was hard to know for certain the cost of the tickets.

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Mt. Vesuvius behind the clouds: essentially the reason for Pompeii’s fame
  • There was a day pass for 4.20 EUR on the subway map brochure, but all the information was in Italian so it was unclear if that day pass was for the metro only, or if it was also a metro-train combo ticket.
  • The train ride took roughly 40 minutes.
  • The Circumvesuviana station is a short walk away from the entrance to the ruins of Pompeii, the path lined with restaurants and cafes selling overpriced and mediocre Italian food.
  • Tickets for Pompeii are 11 EUR per person. There is a combo ticket for 20 EUR granting access to 4 additional sites.

Much of the site was under renovation, which was a bummer since we were following along Rick Steve’s audio tour and couldn’t actually access some of the sites he was speaking about. Pompeii was a flourishing Roman town when it was unexpectedly buried under a deluge of ash from Mt. Vesuvius. In this way, the artifacts, artwork, and structure of the town were preserved from destruction of the wars in the thousands of years that followed. Pompeii had all the similar structures of a flourishing Roman town: a central square (the forum), a basilica, an amphitheater.

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Ruins that had been covered entirely by ash
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original wall frescoes, still preserved from 2000 years ago
  • Some of the interesting sites that were open for visitors:
    • The old “fast food” storefronts with marble counters and holes in the countertops that once held pots of dishes. The ancient Romans didn’t cook much at home.
    • Detailed and preserved floor mosaics in various houses
    • Large tubs and drainage in an old laundromat
    • Detailed wall frescos still in great condition, considering they were nearly 2000 years old and had been exposed to the elements
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An old “fast food” stall: holes used to hold pots of food
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an old laundromat

Mt. Vesuvius hovered in the backdrop of the ruins as we walked on the large stone roads. The site is somewhat maze like; although we tried our best to follow Rick Steve’s instructions, we still ended up getting lost. I was really curious to see the victims of Pompeii, those who instantly died from the deluge of hot ash and smoke. During the excavation process, these bodies were discovered in near perfect casts as a result of the hardened ash. As the bodies decayed from within, the detailed casts remained. A lot of restoration work and research has gone into the study and preservation of the casts, but they were not onsite at Pompeii. Instead, there was a single human cast on display behind some fencing, along with jars, statues, and other items of Pompeii life.

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a human cast remains from Pompeii’s citizens

After a few hours of walking through the sections that were still open, we got back onto the train heading towards port. The train, in somewhat shabby condition compared to those we saw in Rome, took us back to the city. Apartment buildings were tall and crowded, walls covered in graffiti. We returned to the ship around 2PM, just in time for late lunch at the buffet and drinks at the Oceanview Bar on the stern (back) side.

The one thing I came to love about the cruise was its amount of scheduled activities. From live music to dance parties to Celebrity Life activities with the crew, there was always something interesting happening. On the first night, there was a Celebrity Life activity hosted by the cruise director Rich (this guy was just absolutely hilarious as a CD – he even has a Facebook fan club group that’s kind of scary…) called “Frisky Feud”; it was essentially Family Feud with adult topics. The lounge was divided into 2 “teams” to play. After the first duo from our side of the room lost, I volunteered Kevin to play next. The next 20 minutes were a riot because Kevin’s really good at this game. So turns out, some other people thought he was a riot too; two nights later, we were sitting in the theater about to watch the show when two men dressed in formal wear came up to introduce themselves to us – Steve and Steve. I guess they had spotted us in the crowd (not too hard: we’re two Asians far younger than any one else on board, not counting the kids) and wanted to make our acquaintance. Our first night essentially set the tone for the rest of our experience on board…with more than a few laughs coming our way!

 

 

All Aboard the Celebrity Constellation

I used to peruse last minute cruise websites and salivate at all the discounted prices – sailings around the world at 70% – 80% off. But of course, I could never take advantage of those prices because last minute bookings are last minute and usually that’s never enough time to schedule a work vacation. So back in August, after tracking last minute cruise prices for several months, we found an amazing deal: $549 per person for a guaranteed inside cabin on a 12-night Rome to Athens via Israel cruise with Celebrity Constellation.

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http://www.vacationstogo.com – where our primary research begins!

What I didn’t know going into the booking process was that the advertised rates are usually never what you end up checking out with. A “guaranteed inside cabin” means an inside cabin in any of the leftover rooms that are unsold by the time of sailing. It’s like playing roulette – you could end up with a super cheap fare in a decently located cabin or you could be sleeping right next to the engine for 12 nights. At the time, Celebrity was also running a promotion offering free perks for all oceanview cabins: pick 2 out of 4 possible options: unlimited classic drinks package, unlimited internet package, free gratuities, or $300 in onboard credit.

I actually found the cruise booking process is rather complicated, especially for cruise newbies like ourselves. Thankfully, we’ve got extended family in the industry, so I got in touch with Stephanie over at Expedia Cruises for some help. She was immensely helpful in getting the best possible deal for us (if you’re considering booking a cruise, get in touch with her at sdavisdon@cruiseshipcenters.com for a super smooth booking process!) Over the next few days, we went through all the possible options and finally settled on an ocean view cabin in the middle of the ship on a low deck. With choosing our own cabin, the price per person shot up way above that advertised $549 per person, not to mention the port fees that are not included in the advertised price. So now we know… Still, it was a great deal – an ocean view cabin plus the classic drink package (unlimited beverages of alcohol, premium coffees and teas, juices, soda, water valued at $55 per person per day and including all gratuities) and a $300 onboard credit.

On embarkation day, we headed towards Civitavecchia port, which is about 80 km from Rome. There are slow (regular) and fast trains that run from the Rome Termini station to the main Civitavecchia station. We ended up on the regular train for 1 hour 20 minutes for only 5 EUR per person. From the train station, we originally looked for a bus (Argo) to take us to the port’s bus shuttle stop. As we looked around, we saw many other people lugging large suitcases and baggage and walking towards the ships. They certainly looked more like cruisers than backpackers and they looked like they knew where they were going.

So we ended up walking around 10 minutes and found the line for the Celebrity cruise. While in line, the couple in front of us took a look at our bags and asked incredulously “Is that all you have for 12 days?”, to which we responded “It’s all we have for 15 months.” After a bit of conversation, we soon discovered they were from the same neighborhood that I had grew up in – what a small world!

I’m not sure how the process usually goes for boarding a cruise ship, but the logistics at Civitavecchia were quite terrible. We’re not allowed to walk on the port, so we had to be shuttle bused from the stop to the ship. As we waited, a handful of empty coach buses would drive by and drive past. There were no port staff members around to direct us; for a while, we weren’t even sure if everyone in line was headed to the Constellation! (after asking around, turns out most of them were). Finally, a shuttle bus arrived and half the line was able to board. Pretty much everyone had to take their time placing their suitcases in the luggage hold, but we zipped right past them and onboard with our backpacks.

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After about an hour and a half, we were finally aboard and checked in to our cabin, a lovely ocean view porthole, plush double bed, tiny cabin-sized bathroom, and a loveseat.

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First stop – drinks and a buffet lunch before exploring all of the rest that the ship had to offer!

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Ship specs

Two Days in the Vatican (How to See the Vatican Museum for Free)

The smallest country in the world sits right in the middle of Rome and is readily accessible via public transport. On our second day in Rome, we set out to visit the Vatican in the afternoon. The bus dropped us off in front of the long road that leads into St. Peter’s Square.

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A section of the road was gated and monitored by volunteers in yellow shirts. We were directed towards the main cobblestone path of the road and soon we neared the entrance of St. Peter’s Square. Here, there were many people wearing fluorescent vests hawking private guided tours of St. Peter’s Basilica and “skip-the-line” tickets. The lines were indeed quite long to get into the Basilica. I was simply content to tiptoe around the cobblestones, hopping from the Italian side to the Vatican side and to “be in two countries at once”. The exterior white marble shined and glimmered, the statues looking serious.  We could see the balcony from which the Pope speaks from.

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After a stop at the Vatican Post Office, we passed by a sign outlining the opening hours of the Vatican Museum. Each last Sunday of the month was colored green: on these days, there is free entrance into the museum from 9:30am to 12:30pm. Entrance to the museum is generally 16 EUR. When we took a closer look at the calendar, we realized the last Sunday of month was tomorrow. We decided to take a gamble and try to get into the museum on the free Sunday.

The following morning, we arrived at the Vatican to a wall of people; seems like a large portion of Rome and a significant amount of tourists all knew about the Free Sunday. The line seemed to stretch on endlessly from where we arrived at 8AM in the morning. We shuffled into line behind a group of young, giggling Chinese. We soon struck up a conversation with them and found they were university students here in Rome.

 

And then we waited.

 

With each passing hour, we shuffled forward in line. At this point, it was less of a line and more of a herd. During the entire time, we kept wondering – will we get in? Should we continue to wait? Are we just wasting time? What if we left, but we actually were able to make it in? Not wanting to miss out on the slight chance that we’d be able to enter before the 12:30PM closing time, we continued to wait. At 12:15PM, the entrance to the museum was barely visible. Staff members in uniforms started walking past us, which we took to be a good sign (they might have been cutting the line off behind us). At 12:20PM, we had moved a few more steps forward. At 12:25PM, we were in the last group to turn the corner and be allowed into the museum! As we crossed the threshold, we were very, very relieved and grateful to be the last group in (not the first group denied…).

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We made it!! 

The entrance closes at 12:30PM, but the museum closes at 2:00PM. This left just an hour and a half to go through the museum, which is definitely not enough time to really go through and see everything. In a race against the clock, we decided to head to Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel first. At this point, we hadn’t discovered Rick Steve’s audio tours, so we rushed through long hallways of beautiful art – frescos, tapestries, sculptures, mosaics, and engravings that covered every inch of space from the ceilings to the floors.

 

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As we entered into the Sistine Chapel, staff members constantly directed visitors to be quiet and to not take photos. The chapel itself is quite small, but all of the walls are covered. The southern wall has the stories of Moses, the northern wall has stories of Jesus, and the eastern wall has two frescoes of Jesus and Moses, all created by various artists. The ceiling and the western wall (The Last Judgment) were entirely painted by Michaelangelo, resulting in about 5,000 square feet of fresco. The colors were vivid and vibrant, even with the dull natural light flowing into the space, and the images were very detailed. This would have been a great place to just lie down on the floor and stare up into the ceiling and the walls; it felt like you could do this for hours and still see some new detail every time. But of course, there’s no room to do such a thing – the small chapel was packed full of tourists, craning their necks up wards and looking around, some on audio tours, others trying to still take photos (quickly followed by another warning from the museum staff).

Upon exiting the chapel, we tried to backtrack and go through the other halls more slowly, but still without any guiding context. We passed through a hallway of frescos showing the various parts of old and modern Italy, a long row of busts, a stained glass piece of Madonna and Child, and even a section devoted to ancient Egypt.

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Madonna and Child
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past the museum walls – inside of the Vatican

Nothing in Italy seems to run on time except for closing time; at only 1:30PM, staff members started to usher us towards the exit path. We doubled back for another walk through of the Sistine Chapel, this time a lot less crowded than before. As we made our way out of the museum, I tried to take my time – the crowds had thinned out and all of the artwork more readily available for viewing past the clusters of tourists with cameras and selfie sticks. The museum staff members continued to follow us and herd us out.

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tapestry of the Last Supper

Our tour of the Vatican museum was very short, but waiting in that line was so worth it for a glimpse of the Sistine Chapel. Full price tickets are 16 EUR on regular days. We would have had a very different experience if we had waited in that line and were not able to get in.