If the thought of vacationing in China causes some anxiety with all the political, economic, humanitarian and cybersecurity friction going on, not to mention the language barrier and intimidation of a culture so different, consider Hong Kong as a happy alternative.
The world’s most visited city effortlessly blends East and West, and like unique sights, sounds and smells, English is omnipresent. Over 150 years of British rule will do that to a place.
Those who’ve been there know how much there is to love about Hong Kong. The shopping, the food, the nightlife, the ancient religious temples in the shadow of some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, the large expat population that reduces trepidation for less adventurous Westerners – this autonomous territory of China is exciting, yet manageable.
Because Hong Kong is separate from mainland China, there’s the other plus of not needing a tourist visa. But, as sure as the five-starred red flag flies from government buildings, this is China. The asterisk to that statement comes from the fact that Hong Kong has its own currency, passport, laws, Olympic team and anthem.
Rather than delve into politics and economics, let’s focus on the things that make Hong Kong so inviting to the foreign tourist. If you’re expecting a rundown of the must-sees, you’re reading the wrong article. Any travel piece on Hong Kong can cover the Big Five: the Peak for the mandatory photo of the skyscraper cluster with Victoria Harbour in the background, the giant sitting Buddha on Lantau Island, the Star Ferry harbor crossing to Kowloon, the street markets, and the Symphony of Lights (overrated).
Here’s the Not-So-Big Five and why both first-time and returning visitors to Hong Kong should consider doing things a few pages deeper into all those cookie-cutter guide books.
1. Say “neih hou” (Cantonese) or “ni hao” (Mandarin) to Mickey – English-language travel books and blogs like to compare Hong Kong Disneyland to Ocean Park Hong Kong. Opened in 1977, Ocean Park often gets the nod over its 13-year-old rival with the more scenic location, being three times larger, having a wider range of attractions and thrill rides, and for entertaining guests with shows starring not costumed characters, but live land and marine animals. Two categories in which Ocean Park is all wet, however, are food – ho-hum carnival-type fare versus Disneyland’s higher quality, wider ranging dining experiences – and, the deciding factor for me, what is known as “Disney Magic.” There’s something different about being at a Disney park – the hospitality, memory-making, cleanliness, positive attitude, and characters and stories beloved for generations. It’s like coming home whether you went as a child or not. HKD is the smallest of all Disney parks, but that doesn’t make a visit any less magical and unique. Its version of the Haunted Mansion is Mystic Manor, which whisks guests through the Victorian home of world traveler Lord Henry Mystic. The mansion comes alive after Henry’s mischievous pet monkey Albert opens a music box that unleashes mayhem and enchantment. Another HKD exclusive is the exciting year-old Iron Man Experience; imagine Stark Enterprises assuming sponsorship of Star Tours. Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars, HKD’s version of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, has a section where riders go backwards. Just for fun, enter the “Cantonese” or “Mandarin” line at the Jungle Cruise to hear those tired, corny jokes in a different language. OK, so there’s no Matterhorn or Pirates of the Caribbean, but when was the last time you ate smoked duck legs and curry fish balls in Anaheim or Orlando?
2. Crash in Kowloon – Thanks to cheap taxis, the even cheaper Star Ferry and the affordable, easily navigable Mass Transit Railway, or MTR, your first choice of a hotel location needn’t be Hong Kong island. Consider staying across Victoria Harbour in more colorful and earthy Kowloon. If you do and money is no object, look into the Intercontinental or Peninsula, located adjacent to the waterfront and that iconic view of central Hong Kong’s skyline. Kowloon, like many big, old cities, has hotels with rates on both ends of the scale. The sweet spot for us in the middle is the Dorsett in the less tony Mongkok area. By observation, this contemporary-style, moderately priced 285-unit gem is Kowloon’s best-kept secret among Americans. The rooms are small, but modern and immaculate. Complimentary shuttle service takes guests on a loop to all the landmarks on this side of the harbor, and two MTR stations are within walking distance. Breakfast, Wi-Fi and an in-room loner cell phone are free and fantastic. The staff is super. Oh, did I mention the hotel is 100 percent smoke-free? That, as you’ll read next, is as rare as a Caucasian in Macau.
3. Behold “The Las Vegas of Asia” – The first observation my 22-year-old son and I made when stepping inside the world’s largest casino was that we were the only white people in the joint. Make that the entire Cotai Strip. Casino hopping from The Venetian Macau to The Parisian to Galaxy Macau, we stood out like MAGA hats in San Francisco. Not that we ever felt unsafe on that busy Friday night. OK, once – until we realized this dude was following us not because we walked away with a HK$1,770 jackpot (roughly US$225), but due to us being a novelty combination of white and American among tens of thousands of native Chinese. Something else quite strange was no one was boozing it up inside the casinos. The free beverages offered by cart-pushing servers weren’t beer, well drinks and cocktails, but tea, coffee and juice. We asked a casino security guard about this, and his response, a generalization about Chinese and liquor, might appear as racist to American readers, so we’ll move on. As for the games, blackjack and poker are barely played among the sea of tables for baccarat, sic bo, mahjong and pai gow. Slot machines have a USB port next to the buttons, and every player we saw was more focused on his or her smartphone than the spinning simulated reels. Locals, we were told, see gambling not as entertainment, but an investment. Hence, the people are eerily stoic. And get this: Smoking is banned on the main gambling, not that I’m complaining. Also unlike Vegas, getting there is by boat. Hour-long ferry rides between Macau and Hong Kong run throughout the day and night.
4. Splurge on custom threads – On the bucket list for many American men is to have a suit custom made in Hong Kong. Few get the chance to fulfill this wish. The serious-minded will undoubtedly search up Punjab House, Raja House and Sam’s. These are three of the most famous tailors, and with lofty prices to match. Here’s one that does fine work at a better price: Yuen’s Tailor in Central Hong Kong. Based on shelves and shelves of orders from around the world – kept in scrapbooks since the beginning – this two-man shop is distinguished among the distinguished, late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia among them. The bespoke blazers, suit and shirts brothers Johnny and Bonny made for my son and me are the best-fitting we’ve ever worn. Starting out as apprentices in the 1960s, the brothers wear their dedication to the craft on their sleeves. Give the men a week and you’ll get the multiple fittings necessary to have things done right. They’re not cheap; my lightweight, full-canvas (no glue) suit was on the low end at a grand. But for this portly bloke to look slimmer thanks to the brothers’ wizardry with wool, the premium spent over off-the-rack is worth it. Says Johnny, “I have no fat clients.”
5. Browse on the street, buy in Shenzhen – Take it from a guy who just got back from his 10th trip to Hong Kong in 15 years, the street markets there aren’t what they used to be. Two of the most popular, the daytime Stanley Market on the South Coast and Temple Street Night Market in Kowloon, have gone down in size, selection and fun, and the merchants now seem to be either apathetic or downright testy if you bargain too much. The street markets are still worth checking out for first-timers, but if you’re planning to do real shopping, consider getting a Chinese visa weeks in advance so you can buck the guide books and head north a couple of hours to Shenzhen for bric-a-brac, electronics, shoes, clothes and luxury items of questionable origin. Your first purchase should be a cheap suitcase, which will no doubt be filled by day’s end. Take the MTR or the more relaxing ferry to any of a number of bustling shopping areas ready to test your patience and haggling skills.
If You Go
Hong Kong Tourism Board – discoverhongkong.com
Hong Kong Disneyland – hongkongdisneyland.com
Dorsett Mongkok – mongkok.dorsetthotels.com
Yuen’s Tailor – yuenstailor.com
Cancun and Cozumel have a cool factor stronger than the finest blue agave tequila. For us Sacramentans, however, getting to Mexico’s most popular hot spots means a 4,000-mile trek as the crow and a couple of planes fly.
On the other side of the country, south of our California border, is a comparable vacation destination that’s half the distance and number of flights. In fact, Aeromexico, United, Delta and American can get you from here to there in about six hours.
Located on the tip of the 800-mile long Baja California Peninsula, with the Sea of Cortez on one shore and the Pacific Ocean on the other, Cabo and its alluring coast have all the ingredients for a jalapeno-hot holiday in the Mexican Riviera.
Where to Stay
Love the gorgeous Hacienda-style grounds, walkable proximity to the exciting marina district and enticing schedule of family entertainment, imaginative kids club activities and adult-exclusive experiences. But what’s really to adore about the 386-unit Playa Grande Resort is its pristine sandy beach. Not a vendor in sight! Muchas gracias, Mother Nature.
Due to very strong currents, undertow and waves on that side of the Pacific, swimming is prohibitado along Solmar Beach and neighboring Pedregal Beach. True, the absence of annoying hawkers does come at the price of not taking a dip when enjoying the rays. On the flipside, the price of your accommodations desirably comes at a lower price. Oceanview one-bedroom deluxe suites start at under $200 a night, a value stretched by myriad activities throughout Playa Grande’s eight well-manicured acres.
For adults by day there’s aquaerobics, bracelet making, pool or beach volleyball, Zumba and bartending classes, for starters. From the “Things I Couldn’t Do in School Department,” consider taking a Spanish lesson while tossing back a cold Corona with lime at the pool bar. For a nominal fee, the daily children’s program keeps kids 5 through 12 busy with activities that include treasure hunts, face painting, arts and crafts, and pool fun.
If heading downtown for dinner and entertainment doesn’t float your boat one particular night, then saunter toward the shore for “Fiesta Mexicana” on Mondays and a happening beach party on Wednesdays. Both feature an expansive buffet, live entertainment and a fiery grand finale, as in fireworks or a fire-dancing show. Cost is $44 per person or $35 if purchased at least a day in advance. Other nights feature special dinners at the property’s various fine restaurants.
Meal plans starting at under $100 can transform your stay as something closer to all-inclusive, which is the norm at several top Cabo resorts. Being given the option is welcome for guests wanting to spread their wanderlusting wings.
Where to Play
If you desire a swimmable beach and don’t mind shoeing off pests peddling “silver” jewelry, “Cuban” cigars and “handcrafted” Mexican folk art, a short cab ride or long walk away is resort- and cantina-lined Medano Beach. By water taxi is the more secluded Lover’s Beach near the famous stone arch Los Arcos.
Nearly every watersport enjoyed by Cabo visitors begins and ends at Medano. Parasailing, Jet Skiing, snorkeling, whale watching and glass bottom boat tours are as easy to book there as ordering a tequila shot. The overrun of operators is a problem, actually, as the uninformed and gullible can be taken for a ride – and not a happy one.
Helping minimize confusion and the risks of overpaying and, worse, putting yourself in an unsafe situation, is Cabo San Lucas Tours. Partnerships with legitimate, competition-driven operators benefit customers with lower prices, convenience and, when necessary, problem solving. Case in point: Aries Water Sports put us on the wrong water taxi for a Wave Runner experience. Their error cost us an entire afternoon, though an open-water transfer from the wabbly water taxi to the rocking parasailing boat, and then back again 30 seconds after the blunder was discovered, was the stuff of Hollywood stunt men. Still, being subjected to this bonus adventure was unacceptable. Making a long, multilingual story short, Cabo San Lucas Tours handled the issue, refunding our prepaid Wave Runner rentals and booking us for the next day at Aries’ expense.
Cabo San Lucas Tours also got our business for an awesome Migrano Desert and Beach off-road adventure with Amigos Tours. The 1 1/2-hour journey over mountain, desert and beach terrain is a blast and highly recommended thanks to Amigos’ well-maintained Polaris RZR vehicles and cool, yet professional guides.
If you want to be one with the world’s largest fish, Cabo Adventures offers a full-day tour consisting of a 2-hour drive north to the seaside city of La Paz, from which a boat takes thrill-seekers to where whale sharks of roughly 30 feet long feed on massive amounts of plankton and other small organisms, but not humans. Snorkeling inches away from these gentle giants is magical and memorable. Cabo San Lucas Tours made booking this life-changing experience inexpensive and easy, and took care of our shuttle vans to and from the airport and hotel, too.
Where to Eat
El Farallon is Spanish for “the sea cliff,” and while that’s a fine name for the restaurant based on its dramatic coastal setting, also applicable would be “La Perfeccion” because every aspect of this gastronomic gem is perfect. Superbly prepared food and drinks, professional and attentive service, and a location so spectacular it’s on every YouTube video featuring the world’s most scenic restaurants, El Farallon is a standout among hotel restaurants – and what a hotel, the five-star Resort at Pedregal. Ordering is off chalkboard menus in fish market style with what’s been caught by local fisherman displayed on mounds of ice. Parrot fish and totoaba were standouts one evening, as was everything coming out of Executive Chef Gustavo Pinet’s kitchen. Not toasting to the good life with at least one of 15 labels poured at the Champagne Terrace is sacrilegious for those able to imbibe.
If you go:
With growing concern over cruise passenger safety in certain foreign Caribbean ports, Key West is a breath of fresh American air. No unlicensed cab drivers or tour guides screaming for your attention as you leave the port, no violence associated with drug cartels, and no concerns over drinking the water. And one more plus for U.S. citizens: no passport required.
So, while Key West has the makings of a Yankee doodle dandy cruise port, don’t for an All-American minute think it drips with mom, baseball and apple pie. In this southernmost corner of the continental United States, a mere 90 miles from Cuba, it’s more like Ernest Hemingway, sport fishing and key lime pie.
The aspirational phrase of “One Human Family” is Key West’s official motto, but if the community needs a temporary slogan to capture its inclusive and stalwart spirit post-Irma, it should be “Open for Everyone’s Business.” The port welcomed cruise ships only two weeks after the devastating Category 4 hurricane at its historic 130 mph winds pummeled the Florida Keys. Fortunately for the tourist destination, Key West fared better many of its neighbors as landfall on Sept. 10 was 20 miles to the east. Structural damage was minimal, but the colorful city of 23,000 full-time residents still dealt with the loss of electricity and access to clean water. Not that Key West doesn’t have experience making do already; located closer to Havana than Miami, and with just one road connecting it to the mainland, being independent and plucky comes with the tropical territory.
So is being laidback. Visitors wanting a taste of that Key West lifestyle will find it easier than one of the countless “gypsy chickens” that freely strut around town. And while Key West doesn’t judge those who vacation in the slow lane, the beauty of this town is it also appeals to tourists looking for more to do than just nibble on sponge cake and watch the sun bake, to borrow from Jimmy Buffett’s signature song, “Margaritaville,” partially written here. For the in-betweeners, here’s some recommendations:
A fun and relatively easy way to get to these and other points of interest is the Old Town Trolley ($31 adults). Pick it up at any of 12 stops, then hop off and hop on as you wish or stay on to get the full 90-minute tour. Stop 11 takes you to the butterflies and the most obligatory and falsely advertised picture spot in town: the giant concrete buoy that marks the southernmost point in the continental U.S. The true point is on a private island 10 miles farther south, but let’s not share that spoiler with those waiting in line for the ultimate Key West selfie.
Adding in the array of watersports on or in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, not to mention restaurants, bars and stores with more character than a Hemingway novel, Key West has plenty to offer the day-tripping cruiser, the week-long vacationer, or whatever duration of stay your little, wanderlustful heart desires.
Check it out at: Florida Keys Tourism Council: fla-keys.com
You paid for your meals when you booked your cruise, yet the upselling of specialty dining packages literally begins the minute you set foot on the ship. Regulars aboard Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess and NCL ships have come to expect being hounded early and often – that’s mainstream-category cruising for you. But et tu premium cruise lines?
For much of my recent seven-day Western Caribbean cruise aboard the Celebrity Equinox, it was virtually impossible to avoid a kiosk manned by a waiter/salesperson who by pushing a dining package is basically admitting that the food choices included in your fare are inferior. How aggressive is the hawking of food and drink packages on Celebrity these days? Swear to Poseidon, a crew member was even targeting passengers walking down the stairs during the mandatory muster drill – a first for this now-21-time cruiser.
So, here’s the 64,000-calorie question: “Are Celebrity’s specialty restaurants worth the additional money?”
If you asked me after my 10-day Mediterranean cruise aboard Celebrity’s Solstice-class Reflection, I’d say probably not, and that’s not a slight on the specialty restaurants. Ninety-eight percent of what was served in the main dining room, buffet, Blu (a restaurant exclusive to AquaClass guests) and Luminae (for suite dwellers) was fantastic. The “free” food being so outstanding on Reflection made dining at one of the ship’s six specialty dining venues a nice-to-do.
Upgrading lunches and dinners was often a must-do aboard the Equinox, however. If it wasn’t the coconut-crusted ham and banana-stuffed chicken breast in the Chicken Chiquita tasting rubbery in the Silhouette dining room, it was barbecue sauce overpowered with either A-1 or Worcestershire sauce in the Oceanview Café buffet. At Blu, the lobster tail was overly salty, twice, and flavorless was the plantain soup. Admittedly, these all are “first-world problems.” But when you’re paying more for premium-class cruising, one shouldn’t have to return or pass on five dishes by Day 3.
Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Like a culinary lifesaver thrown in the direction of cruisers with discerning tastes and standards, it was Murano to the rescue. The guarantee of an incredible 5-star dining experience is worth the $50 per person cover charge. A contemporary twist on French cuisine is served in an atmosphere of unpretentious elegance. Starters include a warm goat cheese soufflé, Wellington-style diver scallops and a Maine lobster bisque that wisely puts the dissolvable dollop of cognac cream on the side. Entrees prepared tableside, always a special treat, include the Dover sole Veronique (who says deboning fish is a lost art?), chateaubriand with béarnaise and cabernet sauce (so good we had it for an encore visit) and the signature Murano lobster, a cognac-flambéed tail with fresh basil, applewood smoked bacon and a Dijon cream that, because I’m not a mustard fan, was substituted with tomato sauce for our return. Save room for the Grand Marnier soufflé and the Les VI Etoiles du Murano, a selection of six distinctive desserts served in shot glasses. Ships with Murano: Eclipse, Equinox, Reflection, Silhouette and Solstice.
Tuscan Grille is an Italian steakhouse that capitalizes on its far bow location with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that line the back of the restaurant. A modern rustic décor enhances a menu featuring 100 percent galley-made pastas, artisanal salumi and cheeses, butcher-cut meats and an extensive Italian wine list. Recommendations: (starters) crispy calamari rings, super-tender beef carpaccio and a gorgeous antipasti board; (entrees) pappardelle with ragu-braised short rib, a European seabass called branzino and the ribeye steak. So large are the portions at Tuscan Grille that we were actually thankful the tiramisu was bland and undeserved of a second bite. Ships with Tuscan Grille ($45 cover charge): Constellation, Eclipse, Equinox, Infinity, Millennium, Reflection, Silhouette, Solstice and Summit.
Sorely missed on our most recent Celebrity cruise was the most unique specialty restaurant in the fleet. Qsine serves up a whimsical “dining journey” that begins with ordering from iPads and ends with picking your own chocolate-covered strawberry from a field of grass strapped to your “tour guide” (don’t call them servers). In between are the shareable courses of tasty tapas you selected, but the order in which they are served is out of your hands. If you order nothing else, get the sushi lollipops dusted with Nacho Cheese Doritos, pulled pork spring rolls (served upright in wire springs), and M’s Favorites, a sample of Mediterranean dishes that comes in an open-air case with 12 compartments. Ships with Qsine ($45 cover charge): Eclipse, Infinity, Millennium, Reflection, Silhouette and Summit.
The space occupied by Qsine on Reflection is home to Silk Harvest on Equinox. The calming qualities of soft Asian décor and matching instrumental music plus a Zen-like staff made this a wise first-night choice for dinner after dealing with unpleasant port workers and a handful of rude Celebrity crew members. Food-wise, Silk Harvest scores with its siracha-drizzled rock shrimp tempura – crispy and zingy – and perfect cream cheese wontons. The rest of our order didn’t go as well. When paying extra, the pad thai shouldn’t be mushy, the chicken satay boring and the orange chicken just plain blech. Ships with Silk Harvest ($35 per person): Equinox and Solstice.
The dining packages peddled ad nauseum do save you money. On week-long cruises, a three-meal package runs $109 and the seven-night “Ultimate Package” costs $199. Depending on the ship, other specialty restaurants on Celebrity can include the open-air Lawn Club Grill ($45) where you can be the grill master; The Porch ($25) for fresh seafood; and Sushi on Five (a la carte prices) that serves up the best rolls and sashimi this side of luxury-category cruising.
If You Go
Celebrity Cruises: 800-647-2251, www.celebrity.com.
(Third of three parts)
Picking out just 10 favorite Mediterranean ports is like choosing only a pound of chocolates at See’s Candies. They’re all so marvelous, orange cream and Marseilles excluded.
We’ve covered Rome, Athens, Naples, Barcelona, Florence and Santorini, in that order, and now it’s time to round things out. So, without further ado, here’s Nos. 6-10 as discovered during back-to-back 10-day Mediterranean cruises aboard the resplendent Celebrity Reflection and remarkable Carnival Vista.
What does the Grecian port of Rhodes have in common with Disneyland? Walk off the ship or through the turnstile and in 5 minutes you can enter a castle-like fortress where fun, food and souvenirs await. Just don’t expect to see Mickey Mouse in Rhodes – hungry feral cats abound within the 2 1/2 miles of 40-foot-thick medieval walls. Look passed the cafes serving pizza and spas where “doctor fish” nibble on the dead skin of tourists’ feet, and Rhodes’ Old Town resembles a bona fide Turkish bazaar – and for good reason: Turkey is just 11 miles away and bound by 300 years of influence.
Exploring Old Town can easily be done on your own and minutes off the boat, but getting to the second-most visited attraction in Rhodes – the beautiful, yet tourist-jammed ancient city of Lindos – requires ample time and wheels since the 35-mile trek each way takes about 45 minutes, longer during peak season that runs April through September. Crowds will also have you deciding whether the Acropolis, site of a temple to the goddess Athena, is worth hiking up a narrow and sometimes thronged and treacherous path. Donkeys can carry you up in exchange for 5 euros and your PETA membership card.
Rhodes is known for its collection of stunning beaches and shapely sun worshippers, so if taking a dip in hot Greece sounds good, avoid built-up Faliraki Beach if you have the time to go farther south to a less-congested shore. Located halfway between the ship and Lindos is Tsambika Beach, which has just enough tavernas serving grub and grog, free Wi-Fi, and lounge chairs, umbrellas and aquatic equipment for rent. The southern end is more serene and where nudists laugh in the face of melanoma.
If visiting Tsambika Beach, Lindos and Old Town sounds like a perfect day, which it was on my return trip there, do it in that order so you’re among the first ones at the ocean, and book a private driver before leaving home. Highly recommended is Taxi Rhodes, which charged 180 euros for 6 hours that began at 9 a.m. sharp dockside and ended with a sas efcharistó and antio – thank you and goodbye – just outside Old Town where we took it from there. Manolis Kiaourtzis couldn’t have been a better and more intuitive driver, guide and representative of this top Mediterranean port.
One could easily spend the entire day within walking distance of the ship in Kusadasi, Turkey. The port’s vibrant and secure shopping center and adjacent retailers are chockablock with such local specialties as carpets, silk pashmina and ceramics. If you’re ever tempted to skip a pre-paid lunch on the ship, this is the place. It’s hard to beat hospitable Guverte Restaurant for seafood (try the grouper), coffee (Turkish, of course) and Facebook-worthy photos of your floating hotel from across the marina.
But let’s talk Turkey: Cruise ships don’t call on Kusadasi because of what’s in and around the port. The emphasis here is Ephesus. Once home to philosophers, gladiators and rulers, the ancient city is rich in ruinous architecture and history, and a fleet of buses parked on the other side of the gangway can take you there in 30 minutes. Nearly every shore excursion offered through the cruise lines includes a visit to what’s considered one of the world’s most magnificent and best-preserved archaeological sites. There’s usually a no-frills 3 1/2-hour-long tour to appease your inner Clark Griswold (think Grand Canyon), and a few with durations of over 8 hours for those wishing to immerse themselves in the Greek Dark Ages to Late Middle Ages of 10th century BC to 15th century AD. Longer tours often include a visit to the House of the Virgin Mary, where the blessed mother of Jesus is reputed to have spent her final years of life. The less devout and gullible will likely deem this add-on a tourist trap. Cynics also may be turned off to the obligatory carpet demonstration that’s usually tacked onto a ship-booked tour. But don’t make a dash for the exit too quickly; learning about traditional hand-made rugs is actually pretty cool if you ignore the high-pressure sales tactics. If nothing else, enjoy the free apple tea.
A dearth of shore excursion options is actually part of the allure of this Greek island, a destination Lonely Planet keenly observed as one that “flaunts its sizzling St. Tropez-meets-Ibiza style and party-hard reputation.” Any nightlife will have begun long after it’s anchors aweigh for you since larger cruise ships are gone by sundown, but a hip vibe permeates even in daytime, as does traditional Greek charm.
Tours of ancient Delos, birthplace of the god Apollo, and shuttles to wonderful beaches get some takers, but most visitors who get off the boat hoof it to Old Town to stroll the narrow streets that lead to boutiques, museums, cafes, pastry shops, churches and a few surprises. Many get flat-out lost thanks to a centuries-old defense scheme designed to thwart would-be invaders. The town is plotted as a maze, and a total whitewash of its buildings plus a street system that would delight Sarah Winchester make navigation challenging even for tourists with GPS. Not to worry – the Aegean Sea or a friendly local will stop you from going too astray.
First impressions of Crete being a loser port are understandable, especially if judging by high Mediterranean standards. Heck, even the cruise lines’ list of shore excursions is mediocre for a place where Hercules once roamed. To this point, the “Best of Crete” tour is highlighted by a visit to the Palace of Knossos that disappoints for being overly restored and lacking in original antiquities. But give the home to Europe’s earliest civilization a chance, because the ho-hum-sounding tours give you a rare, stress-free opportunity to assimilate with the locals.
There’s no easier, cheaper or quicker way to do that than taking the hop-on hop-off open-top busses of Heraklion Sightseeing Tours. For just 20 euros (15 if you buy online in advance or cut a deal with the ticket seller), you’re taken on a loop around Crete’s capital and Greece’s fourth-largest city. Any of the 11 stops is a starting and ending point, technically, but the official one is just off the ship. After quick stops by a medieval fortress and a small, but decent aquarium, consider getting off to truly soak up indigenous culture and color. Pop in a grocery store, where the most unusual items are often in the produce and meat sections. Check out the butcher’s skinned rabbit destined for a Greek stew called stifado. Like dinner, if you’re not in a hopping mood simply stay on the bus and enjoy the multilingual recorded narration uninterrupted; you’ll be back to the ship in an hour.
If You Go
Carnival Cruises, www.carnival.com
Celebrity Cruises, www.celebritycruises.com
Taxi Rhodes, www.taxi-rhodes.com
Heraklion Sightseeing Tour, www.her-openbus.gr
Warm climate. Cultures dating back thousands of years. Exotic destinations known for their food and wine. Luxurious floating resorts that take you there.
What’s not to like about Mediterranean cruising?
Romantic Rome, alluring Athens and navigable Naples were featured in part one (http://bit.ly/2iX6DVn) of our Top 10 list of favorite Mediterranean ports. Now let’s go on a journalistic jaunt to the fourth- through sixth-ranked exceptional destinations that delighted during back-to-back 10-day Mediterranean cruises aboard the resplendent Celebrity Reflection and bar-raising Carnival Vista.
Spain’s second-largest metropolis is the whole package, offering everything you want from a cruise port without need of a shore excursion or private guide. The city of Gaudi, Picasso and Miro doesn’t take an expert to find spectacular sights, superb shopping, a breathtaking beach and fabulous food and drink. People watching also is bar none; Barcelona is blessed with model citizens – meaning so many of its people look like models!
For cruisers, exploring is really as simple as going into town by cab, telling the driver to plop you pretty much anywhere, then walking in any direction. Chances are you’ll fall in love with this luxurious and electrifying port – and its beautiful people – whether you stroll La Rambla, the three-lined pedestrian thoroughfare popular with tourists and locals alike, or the cobblestone-paved old town known as Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter), where Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro once dwelled. No visit is complete without paying homage to Antoni Gaudi’s distinctive style of Catalan Modernism. His work graces the city’s architecturally rich landscape, including at his magnum opus, the Sagrada Familia. Giant cranes have been a mainstay of the inimitable Roman Catholic church for decades – the project was less than a quarter complete when Gaudi died in 1926 at the age of 73. But an international labor of love vows to complete the city’s most iconic symbol in 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death. There will be plenty of toasts with glasses of cava then, but why wait as just a few steps from wherever you are is likely a fantastic tapas bar or café pouring the local sparkling wine that pairs perfectly with the array of small plates ready to be devoured.
The port of Livorno on the Etruscan Coast of Tuscany serves as the gateway to Florence and Pisa for more than 15 major cruise lines. Shore excursion desks keep busy fulfilling passengers’ wishes to discover the area’s famous religious sites.
Most large ships offer a “Florence & Pisa on Your Own” tour, and at $90 for an adult ticket, $80 for children, Carnival’s excursion might actually be underpriced. The reason is you’re being lied to when they say “on your own,” and that’s great! A local escort narrates the 1 1/2-hour coach ride to Florence, then provides directions, maps, tips and other guidance before saying “ciao for now” in Santa Croce Square. The roughly three hours of independent exploring are well spent checking out the Duomo with its cathedral, bell tower and Baptistry, the cherished Ponte Vecchio bridge over the Arno River, the countless leather shops, and the best pasta and gelato within walking distance according to Yelp or Trip Advisor. You’re really on your own if you want to see Michelangelo’s “David” statue at Accademia Gallery, but replicas of the marble masterpiece can be found elsewhere in the old city. From Florence it’s a 1 1/2-hour drive to Pisa for a visit to Miracle Square and its famously leaning 645-year-old tower. Don’t be shy about taking a photo of you trying to right the foundation-challenged bell tower. You’re a tourist!
Whoever said “getting there is half the fun” never went to the Taj Mahal or Greece’s most picturesque, dramatic and tourism-dependent island. India isn’t on the Mediterranean, so we’ll leave the ghastly drive from New Delhi to Agra for another story. As for Santorini, there’s no getting around a tender ride and a 400-meter climb up the cliffs of a caldera to reach Fira, a pretty town in itself, but not as picturesque as Oia a half-hour cab or bus ride northwest. Almost every shore excursion begins in Fira. Your easiest of three options to reach the plateau is a 5-Euro cable car ride with likely long lines (especially coming down). Masochists might prefer a bumpy donkey 5-Euro ride (plus tip) that several people told me is a minor hell or a zig-zagging 488-step footpath that’s free, but also complementary are the aromatic and messy souvenirs left by the aforementioned beasts. Every cruiser who hoofed it by their own power or a donkey’s told me later that they were too tired and sweaty to enjoy the first glimpse of the destination’s famous whitewashed houses and blue domes sparkling under the sunlight. Take the cable car.
Your payoff is a place where a bad selfie background doesn’t exist. Good luck not being photobombed, though; so much beauty attracts so many people. The chalk-white buildings, crawling bougainvillea and dramatic coastline, coupled with interesting museums, churches and boutiques, lure nearly 800,000 cruisers a year, and the locals aren’t too happy about that. A newly imposed cap on ship-arriving visitors has put a small dent on the number of itineraries that include Santorini, particularly during the high season of July through mid-September. But that’s a small inconvenience compared to the benefits to visitors and residents alike.
The spectacular ports of Marseilles, Kusadasi, Rhodes and Mykonos will help us round out the Top 10 next time.
If You Go
Carnival Cruises, www.carnival.com, 800-764-7419;
Celebrity Cruises, www.celebritycruises.com, 800-647-2251;
Visit Barcelona, www.barcelonaturisme.com/wv3/en;
Visit Florence, www.visitflorence.com;
Visit Santorini, www.visitgreece.gr/en/greek_islands/cyclades/santorini
Depending on the itinerary, a Mediterranean cruise can be the Whitman’s Sampler of journeys. A taste of Santorini here, a nibble of Naples there, a morsel of Mykonos this day and a bite of Barcelona that day. And, in keeping with the candy analogy, like a box of chocolates first-timers never know what you’re gonna get. That is, unless you either do your research or take the advice of those who have.
Having returned from two 10-day Mediterranean cruises within two months of each other, experienced on different cruise lines, I offer my Top 3 ports with recommendations based on personal experience heavily guided by hours of pre-planning and tips from the shore excursion directors of the Carnival Vista and Celebrity Reflection.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, so don’t even try seeing it in a day. Unless the Eternal City is your port for embarkation or disembarkation, about 8 hours is what you may get to explore Italy’s magnificent capital, factoring in the 90 or so minutes it takes to get to and from the dock in Civitavecchia.
When in Rome … must-sees are all bucket list mainstays: the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Trevi Fountain and St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. With so much to do in so little time, let professionals be your guide to navigate with optimum efficiency. Carnival Cruises offers a “Rome at its Best & Inside the Colosseum” excursion ($176) that lasts 11 hours and a lifetime. Other cruise lines provide identical tours by different names. By motor coach and hoof, Rome’s “greatest hits” are explored (the Colosseum and St. Peter’s amply, albeit without a visit to the Sistine Chapel) or given a drive-by, which is adequate for the Forum and the site of Circus Maximus, where the chariot races were held for nearly a millennium.
If visiting Rome is a bona fide once-in-a-lifetime experience for you, consider splurging on a licensed private guide, as I did on the second of my back-to-back Mediterranean cruises. Everything is personalized, from the itinerary to historically accurate storytelling. Eyes of Rome, highly rated on Trip Advisor and now by me, more than accommodated my requests for a top-notch non-smoking guide with perfect English. Katie Farrar, a California-raised ex-patriot, led us on an 8-hour whirlwind of a day that included all the must-sees, including the overwhelming Sistine Chapel, overlooked Parthenon and overrated Spanish Steps, in addition to views and restaurants that weren’t overrun with tourists.
It’s almost sacrilegious not to give even a full day to explore the birthplace of Western civilization, democracy, medicine, literature, theater, astronomy, philosophy, mythology and, oh yeah, the Olympics. Not to worry – as one of the world’s busiest cruise destinations, Athens understands the time restraints a sea-arriving visitor is under. Ground transportation from the port of Piraeus to downtown Athens can be as quick as 30 minutes, even when multiple megaships are freshly anchored.
Checking off the city’s two must-sees – the Acropolis and National Archaeological Museum – can be done with a single excursion booked directly with the cruise line. Carnival offers a 5-hour tour ($100) that comfortably takes busloads to the richest collection of artifacts from Greek antiquity anywhere. From one most important museums in the world to the most important ancient site in the Western world, next up is the Acropolis, the sacred rock of ancient Athens graced by the Parthenon, amazing views and so much more. The climb takes about 10-20 minutes, slip-resistant shoes and a lot of patience on busy days. And they’re all busy days.
Arriving early to the Acropolis helps avoid crowds and the mid-day heat, so it’s wise to choose the first departure if opting for a cruise-booked excursion, as I did on the Carnival Vista trip. Two months later, I booked a private driver through Athens Tours Greece. Four hours for 150 Euros (about $160) is prudent and fair. A 7:30 a.m. pick-up at the ship had us beating the shore excursion busses at the Acropolis, and made the second visit to the National Archaeological Museum a dream. Our driver, who just might be Greek with the name Vassilis Papadopulos, isn’t licensed to give tours inside either major attraction. Most private drivers aren’t in the city, but between your guidebooks and abundant signage in English, a human guide is unessential. Our driver packed a lot into the remaining 90 minutes, including an ominous swing past the capital city’s Syrian refugee camp, a glimpse of Hadrian’s Arch and a stop at the House of Parliament to watch the colorful changing of the guard staged every morning at 11 sharp. He pulled up to the front with one minute to spare. That Papadopulos fella is gooooood.
Pish-posh to tourists who dis Naples for its sprawling grittiness and high rate of petty crime. Just focus on its enthralling side, mind your valuables and become one with southern Italy’s largest city. But if that isn’t possible, get outta town and take a scenic drive to the tony Amalfi Coast.
Activities that were booked for both visits are enthusiastically recommended.
Daniela Ibelo, the licensed tour guide retained through ToursByLocals.com, was given a list of 12 points of interest in advance. Not only did she expertly navigate us through the city to check off each one, all but two via walking, she surprised us with such memorable moments as meeting a master lute craftsman in his shop. So generous was maestro liutaio Giuseppe Manna, he treated us to a private rendition of Italian standard “Funiculi Funicula.” Priceless. Also special were popping into magnificent 14th and 15th century churches on a lark and visiting a depressed part of town to meander through the eerie Fontanelle Cemetery teeming with real human skulls. Caloric highlights ranged from sfogliatella, Naples’ signature sweet pastry, washed down with Neapolitan espresso, of course, to lunch at Di Matteo, considered one of the top places to eat pizza in the city where it was invented. This was the only misstep. Next time it’s Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba or Da Michele. Booking a guide that does not double as a driver will save you money. As a guideline, expect to spend about $300 for an 8-hour tour at that level of service. Up to seven people can tour at this price, so if you’re traveling with family or friends, even those you just met on the ship, you’ll have more Euros for shopping if you get them to chip in.
A favorite shore excursion out of Naples is a drive to the postcard-worthy Amalfi Coast. Big-ship cruise line offers a wide selection of options, several that include the fascinating ruins of Pompeii, which was destroyed by the 79 AD eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. That appealed for the second visit. Good call, too, as the “Exclusive Amalfi Coast, Positano, Sorrento & Pompeii” shore excursion offered by Celebrity was 9 1/2 hours and $355 per person well spent. Going cheaper is easy, but bear in mind that tours that cost about half as much use large buses that can’t reach the quaint village of Positano due to the narrow, windy roads required to get there. Also, a 16-seat coach makes for intimate sightseeing and usually with the better guides and drivers. Splurging also means more time to shop (there’s no “where’s Bob?!”) and an upgraded lunch in Sorrento. The Imperial Hotel Tramontano, overlooking the most beautiful section of the Gulf of Naples, did not disappoint the nine of us gastronomically or aesthetically. Skipping the line to go inside Pompeii also was heavenly, proving that “going small” is huge when touring the Amalfi Coast or Pompeii.
So that’s my Top 3 Mediterranean ports, but please consider it merely a sample of what this amazing region has to offer. We’ll round out a Top 10 next time, covering Kusadasi, Rhodes, Santorini, Florence, Mykonos, Barcelona and Marseilles. A couple of dishonorable mentions also will be thrown in. Sorry Sicily and Crete.
If You Go
Eyes of Europe,
Athens Tours Greece,
Maestro lute craftsman Giuseppe Manna:
Tours By Locals,
Imperial Hotel Tramontano,