Blog #19 - We're Not Supposed to be on this Boat!

Last we left you we were sleeping over in the Abu Dhabi airport as we were flying to Istanbul to start the Luciani European Vacation. 

And now we’re in Athens! 

But last week we were in Egypt! 

How is this possible?  Because, yo!  We’re on a cruise!

Now, you may be thinking what would two self-respecting backpackers be doing on a cruise?  Well, for some time we’ve knew Europe would be the most expensive part of our trip, so a while ago we began looking at “last minute” cruises as a cost-saving option.  These suckers really go on sale as the departure date approaches, so if you’re flexible with your time, you’re good to as gold! 

However the challenge for us was to find a cruise that would bop us around for a per-day total cost that was lower than we could manage overland in Europe. 

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Well, to cut to the chase, the “price was right” and we booked a seriously rockin’ Mediterranean cruise a few weeks ago.  The winning bidder that fateful night was the “Holland America” cruise line, and since leaving Istanbul we have already gone through the Greek Islands, to Egypt and back to Athens. 

At the moment we’re in Athens and next week we’re headed to Croatia and Italy!  All for cheaper than we could do it ourselves.

But putting aside the great value we’re getting on this ride, and the myriad of different coastal cities we’re seeing – a new one almost every day – this boat, and cruising in general, is it’s own surreal experience.

It started even before we landed.  As our plane descended toward Istanbul we could see the Bosphorous Straight below, that divides Europe and Asia.  And docked right in the straight was this big navy blue ship that looked like a massive floating hotel.  Could that be it?  Holy smokes.  We immediately started giggling.  The other passengers on the plane probably thought we were just nervous flyers.

We landed, figured out the Istanbul transit system and went straight to our hotel in the old part of the city.  We explored the immediate area and took in as much non-Asian food (finally!) that we reasonably could, and tried to fight off jetlag. 

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The next morning we got on an Istanbul hop-on, hop-off, bus tour.  Corny, we know, but since we didn’t have much time in Istanbul, we figured this would be the best way to spend our time.  However it also served a second purpose – transport.  Since the hop-on, hop-off bus tour went past the ship, later in the day we did a second loop with our backpacks (not a recipe for popularity), hopped-off with our packs and just walked up to our ship!

What looked large from the ship, and from the bus, was just insane from the dockside.  The “Noordam” is a crazy navy blue spectacle.  Sitting at ten decks high with two pools, a basketball court, theatre, movie room, piano bar, and about a half-dozen restaurants and countless bars, in many ways this is the most magical experience we’ve had on this trip! (Please keep in mind how much time we spend concerning ourselves with food, shelter, security, etc. ;).

We admit, we haven’t been really “roughing it” very hard the past few months, but this cruiseboat is out of this world, and we’re a little afraid it will be hard to adjust back to backpacker life once we are done.  Consider that right now we are in a floating five-star hotel, gym, restaurant and taxi, and that since we boarded most of our meals have been on tables that have actual tablecloths, and of course the food is first-rate.  Also, there is no shortage of it.  We heard someone say, “at the beginning of a cruise people check-in as passengers, and check-out as cargo”, but despite the tools of destruction that are at our disposal, we’re trying our best to stay conscious of what we are eating while taking advantage of all the food that is nearly impossible to come by as backpackers (in particular, fresh veggies, good meat and fish, and of course, soufflé).

As such, we may have set ourselves up for a fall.  ;)

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Cruise tip: when you eat in the dining room (as opposed to the buffet) you will be sat at a large table with other couples.  Not time nor the place for a quiet, solitary meal.  You see, cruising benefits the extrovert.  On board there are about 2000 people and everyone has a small room.  So people are always about and social engagement is constant.

So what do we do?  Actually, for most of our meals we choose the dining room (white tablecloths!), and as such we are rewarded with interesting conversation from interesting people who are (invariably) our elders.  Given that we’re their kids’ age, and not employed at the moment, we get a lot of the same questions.  But it’s fun!  It’s like going through three job interviews per day (… good practice for when we re-enter reality ;). 

So if you’re a sociable type and like to meet new people from different walks of life and chew the fat (figuratively, or that of some exotic animal), cruising is definitely for you.

So, who cruises?  On this boat, retirees.  Mainly from the US, Australia and Canada.  You see, Holland America is one of the most “traditional” cruise line brands and as such it has one of the highest average passenger ages of the major cruise lines.  This is not a party boat.  In fact, every “formal night” Steph has to wear a dress, and Vince has to wear his fancypants and loafers we purchased just for this purpose. 

On average, approximately 75% of Holland America’s passengers are over 50.  So, if you didn’t already know, that makes us special!  But seriously, deep down we must be old souls, because we're fitting right in.  Now, there are also a few young families and younger couples on board (however every time we cross their path we wonder if they’re also here on a “last minute” sale. ;) 

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The on-board activities are ridiculous, but after a few days Stockholm syndrome sets in and they don’t look so bad: namely, shuffleboard, trivia contests, bingo, and skill contests that involve rolling hula-hoops for accuracy. 

Well, to our credit, as a team we won the movie kiss trivia contest against a dozen other teams: the game involved identifying the kiss scene being shown on the screen…which were stills taken from old Hollywood movies.  Needless to say Team “Lucky Luciani” took the title with 37 correct answers out of 40, and this massive score, according to our smarmy show host who is also a bingo caller, was a Noordam  record! 

Whatever, we won a bottle of bubbly (which we will save until next Saturday ;).

Every night there is a live show in a three-story theatre that seats hundreds (remember there are almost 2000 people on this boat).  Apparently, the company that puts on the show is owned by none other than Barry Manilow.  That seems about right (we don’t feel the need to comment any further on the live entertainment ;).

Overall, cruising has been like a vacation from our vacation. 

So you may be thinking, are you guys bored? 

Actually, it has been quite the opposite.  We wake up in a new place almost every day, so time is flying and we’re having a tough time keeping up! 

To give a quick rundown, so far we have explored: Istanbul, Mykonos, the ancient city of Ephesus, Rhodes, the Giza Pyramids in Egypt (including a lunch cruise down the Nile River), Alexandria, Crete, and Athens.  And we’re only half done!

At lightening speed, then:

Istanbul was as good as the hype and was also a great place for Vince to get a proper shave.

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Mykonos island was beautiful and quite cosmopolitan (and has beaches that are ready to party)!

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The ancient Roman city of Ephesus has seen better days (after all, it was once the second largest city in the world, behind Rome).

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Rhodes is very interesting to explore on foot – a true medieval city, with roots and roads that go much further back!

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We spent two days at Alexandria and got to see Cairo, and the Sphinx and the Pyramids.  This, of course, was magnificent.  And spending a day on the ground just touring Alexandria on our own was a good, if adventuresome, experience

Crete was cool and it seemed to have it’s own thing going on, aside from tourism (we know this because once we got more than a few streets away from the dock, there was zero English).

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And right now we’re in Athens.  So far, this place is far, far better than Vince remembers it from his trip here in 2007.  We’ve successfully tromped around on our own, with the help of yet another hop-on, hop-off bus, of course…

From the first morning when we got on the boat our time has been rolling along like a dream.  Every time we wake up we’re docked in a new place, and from the point of view of this massive boat, where you don’t even feel the waves, it can feel like the travel gods are just floating the cities up to you, instead of the other way around

Now fast-forward into the future: from the best we can tell we will (as will many of you!) probably be cruising when we retire. 

And if we could take it one step further, on the few days we’re entirely “at sea” (i.e. not docking anywhere), it becomes like a “vacation from our vacation from our vacation”! 

But for now we’re super-glad we’re travelling this way on our way to Italy!

With many more days more to go we expect the funny stories, people and memories to keep piling and look forward to sharing those with you.  Gotta run now…we are in a Cha Cha contest and Steph is revved to open a can of whoop ass on those old foggies…hahaha…watch out grandma!

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