I will begin the post with how this cruise came about and the planning involved for our very first cruise, which means if this does not interest you, now is the time to skip to the next paragraph 🙂 Firstly, a dear friend in Cayman did a similar itinerary last year and raved about Petra and Oman. We were so intrigued by her experiences we looked in to a similar cruise and found this one with Celebrity, as not many cruises do this route. That was the first step! Next we spoke to fellow nomad and regular cruiser Tom, and he kindly sent us 3 or 4 emails with information, suggestions and contact details to book a cruise. As he suggested, we searched the VacationsToGo website for the cruise we wanted. Then did in depth research regarding the layout of the ship to determine an optimal cabin location. What is an optimal cabin location you ask? We determined that you want other cabins above and below you thereby avoiding potential noise from a nightclub, restaurant, casino, gym or pool area. How would you like to be woken up at 5 am with the staff moving all the pool deck chairs back into place, or kept awake until 2 am with thumping disco music?? Once we chose an itinerary the cabin selection was next, done by looking directly on the Celebrity website to see what cabins were available and then it was time to contact VacationsToGo and make our booking. Our agent Cia walked me through the entire booking process, answering my many questions, offering great advice, eventually booking the cabin I had chosen. This took over an hour on the phone! For that original booking our cabin was on the 8th deck with an ocean view. Keeping in mind we made the booking 1 year before the cruise, the next step was to regularly check the cruise price to see if it decreased, because if it did, we were entitled to the reduction providing it occurred prior to 90 days before the cruise. At the 90 day mark your price is locked in. Fortunately for us, prices dropped twice plus Cia found us a discount offered to Canadian citizens. The reductions in price allowed us to upgrade to a mid ship balcony cabin on the 7th deck and still reduce our fare. It is well worth the effort to regularly check your cruise booking for price decreases, as we found out. Another suggestion made by Tom was to join Cruise Critic, a website made up of cruise passengers who share information about past cruises and make plans for upcoming cruises. You can research specific ships and even find specific cabin ratings. Using this website we found out about one day specials the cruise company was offering that we may have missed. Once you join the group you can then sign up for a Roll Call for your specific cruise allowing you to be in contact directly with other members on your trip. It was through this Roll Call that we were introduced to Nick and Hillary who were looking for people to join tours they were organizing in Athens and Petra. By connecting with them we were on small group customized tours rather than a large group arranged by the cruise ship. Another suggestion made by Tom was to choose “anytime dining”. This means that you are not assigned to one table, at one set time, for every evening meal for the entire cruise, potentially avoiding being seated with people you have nothing in common with or don’t speak English. This meant we could go for dinner anytime between 6:30 and 9:00pm, having the option of a table for 2 or sharing a table with others, giving us the opportunity to dine with new people every night. Sometimes this was good, sometimes not so good, but every evening was interesting and different.
Now, on to the cruise itself! We boarded the Celebrity Constellation in Rome, Italy for a 15 day voyage ending in Abu Dhabi. After seeing many cruise ships and passengers while living in Cayman, we were not sure cruising was our thing, however this cruise took us to places we wanted to visit. I must admit that many of the negative things you hear about cruise ship passengers are true however we enjoyed our time on board and met some very nice people. We have found that cruisers are typically older than us…..hard to believe that at 61 we are the youngsters!! That being said, this was an unusual cruise with not many ports of call so probably not a very appealing itinerary to younger people on an annual vacation. During one evening meal we were seated with two older couples, where 3 of the 4 were nearly deaf….I will let you determine how much fun that evening meal was!!! Overall though we had enjoyable company for most of our meals. The staff is well trained and attentive, and the food quite good considering how many meals they serve at one time. Our choice of booking a balcony cabin was an excellent decision giving us a quiet place to sit outside, relax and read a book. We have been pleasantly surprised with the evening theater entertainment, it has been varied and more interesting than we expected. We enjoyed the performances of singers, comedians, a magician and a wonderful concert pianist. To work off some of our delicious meals there is a good size gym on board where we spent each morning of our sea days. There are non-stop activities and events available from early morning until the wee hours catering to every interest. Just reading the daily calendar can be exhausting 🙂 We partook in a wine tasting event and attended an improv comedy afternoon, scheduled over the days at sea. This cruise is different than most, being a one way voyage we only had 5 ports of call leaving us 8 full days at sea, which sounds like a lot but we had no problem filling our days and watching the world go by, literally 🙂
The cruise itinerary included:
Catania, Sicily – is the second largest city in Sicily, sitting at the foot of Mount Etna. We spent 2 weeks in Sicily in 2011 so chose not to take the organized tours to Taormina and the Etna volcano, instead we walked around Catania’s old city center which is a World Heritage Site. Catania has a history dating back 2,700 years and was a rich commercial center mainly due to its port. Not far from the port is the main Piazza del Duomo containing the Elephant Fountain and surrounded with churches, old buildings and the nearby excavation site of a Roman Amphitheatre, most of which is still under the surrounding buildings. Via Etnea is a main shopping avenue beginning in Piazza del Duomo being compared to Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Catania is located next to the biggest active volcano in Europe and has been destroyed many times in the past. As a result you will find a great variety of architecture, predominantly baroque, in the city center. We only had a few hours in Catania so not much time to do a lot of exploring, plus as you can see by the photos, it was threatening rain during our visit and fortunately did not start until after we arrived back on board.
Athens, Greece – is a huge city with over 4 million residents in the metropolitan area. Our day was spent with 5 other cruise ship passengers on a private tour, arranged by Nick and Hillary from the UK. Our group was made up of 4 Canadians and 3 Brit’s, getting along famously and having a lot of laughs during our day together. Our driver for the day was George, a Greek gentleman who spoke excellent English, with a South African accent. (he lived there for 15 years) Rumor had it there was to be a demonstration in downtown Athens at 11 am so we started our tour there first to avoid any road closures and traffic jams. George informed us that demonstrations are a regular occurrence in Athens with most people currently unhappy with the government. Our tour began in Piraeus, where the docks are, taking us along the seaside past expensive yacht marinas and facilities of the 2004 Olympics. Our first stop was the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the biggest temple in mainland Europe dedicated of the king of the Pagan Gods. Next was the Panathinean Stadium, built in 1896 using marble from a nearby mountain and a reconstruction of the 2nd century AD Stadium of Herodes Attius. This fine marble stadium can fit 60,000 spectators and was used as the finish for the 2004 Olympic Marathon race. Today it is mostly a tourist attraction, but is still used on various special occasions.
We continued to the Parliament of Greece to see the National Guard and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The 2 guards perform a slow motion parade during their one hour time on duty which was very interesting to watch. Our final stop of the morning was the trademark of Greece, the Acropolis. The most important plateau of the 5th century BC surrounded by impenetrable walls. Despite this being the off season, the Acropolis was teeming with tourists. I cannot imagine how this place must be in the busy season, especially with temperatures in the high 30’s Celsius!!! There are a number of steps and uphill sections to reach the top and the views once there are amazing. To our disappointment, the Parthenon is under reconstruction, and will be for many years, having a huge crane in the middle and scaffolding covering the front side. However, it is still an amazing sight to see and nearby is the Temple of Erechtheion and the Amphitheater of Dionysos, god of entertainment and wine. We enjoyed a full 90 minutes wandering about the various ruins in the Acropolis, walking on stones thousands of years old. What history there is in this place!!! Our final stop was in the area of the ancient Greek markets, today busy with many restaurants and side streets filled with flea market stalls and small shops. It turned out that after seeing the Acropolis our group preferred a long lunch, with copious amounts of Greek wine, to touring a museum, our kind of folks 🙂 After lunch we took a short walk through the market perusing the variety of tourist trinkets for sale before heading back to the cruise ship for our 4 pm departure. The grandeur of the Acropolis is very impressive and certainly worth visiting if nearby.
Suez Canal – while not a port of call, was a notable point of interest during our journey, enjoyed partly while on the treadmill at the gym 🙂 The Suez Canal was constructed between 1859 and 1869 connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, and has had a rocky history since then. The canal is 120 miles long flowing freely with sea water, and unlike the Panama Canal has no locks to pass through. We arrived into Port Said late at night, anchored and waited to join the Southbound convoy departing at 3:30 am. Our arrival into the canal was during the middle of the night so we awoke already in transit. On a typical day, three convoys transit the canal, two southbound and one northbound. Despite the canal being expanded to accommodate two way traffic in 2015, convoys are required because the canal does not allow unregulated two way traffic. All ships transit in convoys at regular times scheduled on a 24 hour basis taking between 12 and 16 hours to transit the canal. Our captain informed us that our southbound convoy consisted of 25 ships and behind us was one of the biggest container ships in the world…..it was the biggest one we have seen! The Suez Canal is not a pretty waterway, both sides of the canal being large expanses of sand with a few small cities along the way on the Egyptian side with the Sinai Peninsula being mostly sand as far as the eye could see. There is a brick wall dotted with manned watchtowers on both sides of the canal and we noticed a few military outposts on the Sinai Peninsula side, keeping the canal and the ships well protected. Towards the end of our canal journey we had a military helicopter circling around the convoy for a while. Once our transit was completed, about 3 pm, we entered the Red Sea, continuing southward arriving in Aqaba, Jordan the next morning. The last time we were in the Red Sea was on a dive boat in 2001 🙂
Petra, Jordan – WOW!!! The fabled red rose city is believed to have been the capital of the Nabatean Kingdom during the 4th century BC. The Nabateans were nomads (like us, ha ha) establishing Petra as a major regional hub for the nearby trade routes. The kingdom was absorbed into the Roman Empire in 106 AD and continued to flourish until a catastrophic earthquake in 663 AD virtually destroyed the city. Petra was abandoned and forgotten about for centuries by the western world until in 1812 a Swiss explorer infiltrated the by now Bedouin-occupied city. Major excavations of Petra began in 1929 revealing over time what we see today. Petra’s history is so far beyond the scope of this post I will leave it to you to delve into the history if it interests you. Suffice it to say that if you have a bucket list, this should be on it!!
Petra was the #1 reason we took this cruise and we were not disappointed. We were part of a 6 person tour arranged by new friends Nick and Hillary, transporting us 2 hours through barren desert from the port in Aqaba to Petra where we began the walk to the ancient city. From the entrance gate the slightly downhill walk is around 1.2 km through the winding sandstone canyon known as the Siq. It is a fairly narrow canyon with a few small carvings here and there along the way, but the most impressive sights are the colorful sandstone patterns in the walls. We arrived early enough that our walk through the Siq was not all that crowded. Upon exiting the Siq you come face to face with The Treasury (al-Khazneh)…..WOW!! The Treasury is jaw dropping amazing, carved out of the most beautiful rose colored sandstone with intricate details adorning the façade. The Treasury was constructed in the 1st century, believed to be the mausoleum of a Nabatean King. We stood in awe, taking endless photographs from all angles. (more photos will soon be on our Instagram feed)
From the Treasury we continued our walk toward the center of the city down a large canyon named the Street of Facades lined with small facades and numerous tombs carved into the walls. The walk is downhill over rough and rocky terrain, which means on the return journey the entire walk out will be uphill! At the end of the street is the 7,000 seat Roman amphitheater cut into the hillside enclosed on three sides by rose colored mountain walls.
On the opposite side are the Royal Tombs, so named because they are quite grand in scale to the others in the area, but it is unclear who these tombs were for. These facades are absolutely stunning as well.
The next part of our tour was an unguided hike to the Monastery (El Deir), the largest carved façade in Petra also dating from the 1st century. It is more than 800 steps up to the Monastery taking us roughly 35 minutes to hike, we were told an hour! It was well worth the effort to see the impressive façade of The Monastery, the largest in Petra, and for sure another WOW moment!
10 minutes past The Monastery is the High Place of Sacrifice, at the top of the mountain, containing sacrificial alters. The view down the back side of the mountain over the Jordanian landscape was breathtaking with sheer drops of a few thousand feet below us.
The walk down took almost as long as going up, taking great care on the slippery sandstone steps carved out of the rock. Down is much harder on the knees than up!! Back in the main city we noticed the crowds had more than tripled since our arrival early in the day, so after making our way back to the Treasury for a few more minutes and soaking in it’s beauty, we made our way up through the Siq to catch our van back to the cruise ship. The walk out was a crazy busy mix of walkers and horse drawn carriages racing through the narrow canyon. Donkeys, horses and camels are everywhere, ferrying visitors in and around the city. We had to jump out of the way a couple of times. In all we had a fantastic visit to Petra and words cannot adequately describe what it feels like to be here. Photographs simply cannot do this place justice. We highly recommend visiting Petra and we would love to come back and spend more time here! Not only to visit Petra but the surrounding desert, that we have heard is amazing as well.
On a side note, Hillary had read a book about a New Zealand woman who fell in love with a Bedouin man while visiting Jordan, married him and raised a family living in a cave here in Petra. (the Bedouins were only resettled out of Petra in 1985) Hillary mentioned this to our guide and he knows the lady very well, taking us to a stall run by one of her son’s. It was quite interesting to meet a handsome young Bedouin man speaking with a Kiwi accent. I understand when the husband died the woman moved back to New Zealand with her children where they attended university, but subsequently returned to Jordan, probably where she felt more at home. The book is called Married to a Bedouin and I will be looking to read it now my interest has been piqued about her life living with the Bedouins. I can’t imagine how difficult living in a cave must have been for a Western woman!
5 Days Of Cruising – after Petra we had a long journey around Saudi Arabia, Yemen and most of Oman before our arrival in Muscat, Oman. During our journey we exited the Red Sea through a narrow channel between Yemen and Eritrea into the Gulf of Aden, a dangerous area close to Somalia with potential piracy activity. The first day of cruising, while still in the Red Sea, we had a piracy drill. When the captain makes a specially worded announcement, everyone must move to the middle of the ship, away from any windows. This is only if there is a threat from a nearby boat, highly unlikely to happen. We have been told there is more than the usual number of security staff on board, we picked up a few extras for this part of the trip, plus our ship moves quite quickly and would be a difficult target. During our transit of the Gulf of Aden guards were placed around the ship at night, most external lights on the ship were turned off, we had to keep our drapes closed and balcony lights off after sunset, plus all outside decks were closed from sunset to sunrise. Whew, lots of precautions to improve the security guards’ ability to look out into the sea at night, and we made it through without incident!! The ship referred to those 3 days as LOVE days…..Lights Out Virtually Everywhere!! The sea days were an opportunity to spend time in the gym, relax, explore and enjoy the ship.
Muscat, Oman – is the capital and the country’s largest city with close to 800,000 residents, governed since 1970 by Sultan Quaboos bin Said. Our ship arrived at 10 am and we were not able to disembark until 11 am leaving us only a few hours to explore. Since we will be back for 4 days in a couple of weeks, we decided to walk from the port along the corniche to the Mutrah Souk, enjoying the sights and sounds of this busy marketplace. In the harbor were two very large yachts, reportedly belonging to the Sultan, the palace being not far from here. The Souk started closing up at noon for mid-day prayers so we continued walking along the waterfront road, stopping for lunch along the way. During lunch we had the chance to watch the Omani people walking around and notice the various types of dress. The majority of men wore long white tunics and the women wore black. Some completely covered, exposing only their eyes, but most had their face uncovered. It must be very hot under all those layers the women wear, even though they are loose. Under the outer black layers you got a glimpse once in a while of sparkly shoes and colorful skirts or slacks. We were here on a Friday, which is their holy day, meaning almost everything was closed so we kept our visit short and went back to the ship mid afternoon ready for our 4 pm departure. We look forward to exploring the city further during our upcoming visit, especially the mosque, which was closed today.
Abu Dhabi – is the capital of the UAE offering a quieter and more authentic experience than its flashy neighbor Dubai. We arrived on a Saturday around 4 pm and were required to attend a face to face interview with immigration officials before being allowed to leave the ship. We did not disembark until Monday morning so enjoyed 1.5 days on board the ship in Abu Dhabi to finish off our cruise experience. After clearing immigration on Saturday, we joined Nick and Hillary in a taxi to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque for a night tour. The mosque is one of the largest in the world and has the world’s largest carpet and 3rd largest chandelier. This mosque is definitely a WOW place to visit.
The intricate marble designs, the massive Swarovsky chandeliers, the seemingly endless hand made carpet, marble columns with precious inlaid stones, reflecting pools, etched and mosaic glass windows, etc etc. Much to my surprise 2 hours flew by as we wandered with gaping mouths at the beautiful designs everywhere. The largest chandelier in the central prayer hall weighs over 12 tons, is 15 meters (49 ft) high and 10 meters (33 ft) in diameter, that is almost the height of a 5 story building!! Even the bathrooms in the basement are huge and have gorgeous tile work. The mosque can accommodate 41,000 worshipers!! Without a doubt this is the most beautiful mosque we have ever seen, is free to visit and includes an audio guide. Of course the rules are very strict for women visitors, head covered, long sleeves and long slacks or skirt.
After our mosque visit Nick wanted to go to a Lebanese restaurant so we hailed a taxi to take us to an area with lots of local restaurants. Dinner was good, no other tourists and very reasonably priced for Abu Dhabi. The next day we took a free shuttle to the World Trade Center Mall and Souk for a bit of a wander then caught a taxi to the Etihad Towers. We paid 95 AED (approx 26 USD) each to go to the observation deck on the 74th floor, giving us a view of Abu Dhabi. The price included 55 AED towards food and drink which makes it a pretty good deal. Unfortunately it was a hazy day and the windows needed cleaning so we could not see as far as we had hoped, but it was still a nice view of the city.
Then it was back to the ship to pack and enjoy our final dinner of the cruise, disembarking the next day at 7:30 am for our hotel in Abu Dhabi and ending our 15 day journey from Rome.
So what is the final verdict on the cruise…..we enjoyed our first cruise and the opportunity it gave us to visit places we may not ordinarily have traveled to, or would have been complicated to get to. We especially liked the fact that it was a repositioning cruise, ending in a part of the world we have not been before and wished to explore. We plan on using cruises in the future as a way to move between various locations. It is much more relaxing than flying with the added benefit of meeting new people and interesting stops along the way. The only negative to the cruise is I have yet another cold!!! It seems like I just got over my 5 week long UK cold ☹ There were so many people sick on the ship towards the end it is not surprising, but hopefully with the warm weather we now have it will not last as long.
Now here we are in the Middle East, excited to explore this exotic part of the world for a short while…..
Cruise – we booked our cruise with VacationsToGo and have been very happy with the service and advice we received from our travel advisor.
Cruise Critic – a website of cruisers full of information about past and upcoming cruises where you can post questions and meet people registered on any cruise you decide to take.
Petra – we booked an excursion with Via Jordan tours at a cost of USD $215 per person which was only slightly less expensive than the cruise ship tour, but ours was only 6 people and customizable to our wishes. Petra is very expensive to visit no matter how you choose to do it but well worth it.