Day 1: Travel
Got to LAX about 4:45 AM. The pants of night had not even slipped down far enough to expose the buttcrack of dawn. There was a huge line of people at the US Airways desk -- how could all these people have all shown up at this unwholesome time? The lack of staff added to the pain, as did the fact that we couldn't do our own check-in with the automated e-ticket kiosks. The widgets wouldn't recognize us, presumably because it was an international flight, or because we hadn't booked the tickets ourselves (the cruise did it). We got to the front of the line just as they began to ask, "Anyone going to Philly?" Which we were.
But after clearing the desk it took no time at all to breeze through security and get to the gate -- everyone else was still stuck in the even longer line at the US Airways desk.
After boarding, we sat in the plane at the gate for quite a long time; apparently, traffic in Philly was holding up flights going in and out, so we were delayed getting off the ground by maybe a half hour.
Once up in the air, US Airways began its long slide to the nadir of airlines in my mind. As the most exonomical of economy carriers, everything was pay-to-play: headphones, alcohol (of course) and food. The worst part was that of the three expected food choices, the plane had been loaded only with "snack boxes". I wasn't hungry, but still -- being offered Hobson's choice for breakfast (and having to pay for it) was pretty bad. There were plenty of grumpy people who didn't want Fritos and cookies for breakfast.
I kept one eye on Bruce Willis killing the people who were trying to kill him and the other eye on a short Agatha Christie novel I'd picked up for 50 cents as plane fodder. Death Comes as the End is set in ancient Egypt and had some clever points to go with the unique setting, but it was not one of her best.
We landed in Philadelphia and cruised throught the terminals to our next flight. Even with the late take-off, we had a good 2.5 hours to kill. They had some interesting art installations of tiny birds hung from the ceiling by threads that, together, formed a larger 3D figure of a bird. More importantly, they had a full-size replica of the Liberty Bell, made of Legos, complete down to the crack. My chest swelled with patriotic pride.
Okay, the real highlight was the wine bistro, where we had some better-than-adequate food, washed down with cocktails. Tasty drinks, but more expensive than a trendy Hollywood bar. Still, a pleasant interlude.
Eventually, we boarded the Philly-Rome flight and got aloft. The $5 headphones might have rankled if the entire slate of movies hadn't been crap, starting from Father of the Bride II and heading quickly south. I dozed fitfully through the dark, but none dare call it sleep. Dinner was small and uninspiring, but not foul. The actual employees of US Air were perfectly fine, but they were given no material with which to build up any feelings of happiness in the passengers. At some point during the night, it became
Day 2: Civitavecchia
Once down in Rome, we navigated passport control and got to the baggage claim. There we were met by our first representatives from Celebrity, waiting to take us (and hundreds of others) in charge. They were numerous and obviously well-practiced in telling people where to go and what to do. They mounded everyone's baggage into impressive wheeled ziggurats and carted them off to the baggage trucks.
We passengers were mounded into human pyramids and carted off to air-conditioned buses to take us to the pier. On the bus ride over, I had my first desire to kill a fellow passenger, but the ride was only a little more than an hour to Civitavecchia, so I was unable to come up with a suitable plan in that time.
We had hoped (since we arrived long before the ship's departure time) that we might have a chance to see a little bit of Italy before sailing. Adventurously, we might have sought out the Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri or Lake Bracciano. Less adventurously, we might have strolled from the port into whatever the town of Civitavecchia had to offer -- perhaps just a cafe for some lunch.
As we entered the city, these hopes were dashed. Civitavecchia (at least the port area) makes San Pedro look like Paris. Train tracks, cargo boxes and petroleum tanks. There was one strange little church and cemetery, full of mausoleums, monuments and markers (many with fresh flowers) that huddled in the shadow of enormous petroleum tanks. But we couldn't even get to that. It seemed that any attempt to get anywhere interesting would require an effort similar to Steve McQueen's in the Great Escape. We were now prisoners of Celebrity and a forbidding no man's land separated the 6 Euro bottle of Italian wine from the $9 glass of Napa wine.
On the positive side, since we had completed all the registration guff on the internet, we breezed through their check-in and got aboard the Galaxy. Parenthetically, the Captain is referred to by the awesome title: Master of the Galaxy. I believe the lifeboats on Galaxy are about as big as anything I've sailed in before, neglecting ferries. The ship is a dozen stories tall: a floating resort town.
As we boarded, we were handed champagne and told that there would soon be a lunch buffet for the early arrivals. The staterooms were not yet considered fit for occupation, so we lounged about by the poolside the best we could in our travel-weary clothes. I explored a bit -- I like the idea of the two half basketball courts, covered in netting to keep the balls out of the sea.
The lunch buffet offered a fine spread, and it's clear that no one will go hungry on board. All the food may be free, but they certainly haven't scrimped on it. On the other hand, this means that they try to make up for things with the drinks.
Even here, the system is somewhat unusual. Water, juice & coffee are all free, but sodas cost money. I fear lots of chubby American kids must insist on getting their soda. Me, I'm happy to self-serve myself juice. Alcohol, naturally, you have to pay for and there were devious waiters coming around offering a cruise specialty drink in a commemorative glass. Suckers would bite and then discover that it went on the tab. It seemed a bit sketchy.
Not long after lunch, the staterooms were ready, so we found ours. Small, but not at all uncomfortably so. [At the other financial extreme, the penthouse suites are bigger than our house, and come with a butler.] Our luggage had not yet arrived, so we spent our time lazing about and familiarizing ourselves with all the info about the ship and its amenities. I was dismayed to discover that jeans are too casual for the so-called "casual" meals in the main restaurant. Shorts are okay for breakfast and lunch, but no jeans must ever sully the Orion Restaurant at any time. Ah well, I've calculated that I have enough clothes to get me through meals without having to go to the buffet, where the rules are pretty much "no shoes, no shirt, no service".
We showered, our bags arrived and we got ready for the first scheduled entertainment of the cruise -- the lifeboat drill!
When they sounded the alarm, we all donned our life jackets and made our way to our muster point, whence they led us to our lifeboats and harangued us about safety for a while, before releasing us. Shortly thereafter, it was time for dinner, so off we went.
We have a relatively small table, but fortunately our tablemates, Glenn & Melanie, seem like amiable companions. They're from the Niagara region of Canada. He's an entrepreneur and she's a nurse working on a Ph.D. in nursing. We conversed of many things and they were anxious to tell us that they didn't think America was too awful. Oh, it was hardly like that, but they did seem interested in putting us at ease on that score. I think they just wanted to make sure that I kept my .45 in my pocket, and that Becca kept her derringer in her handbag. Perhaps I exaggerate. In any case, they do seem to have wide interests and experiences, so I think we've drawn well in the tablemate lottery. We might've gotten that crusty gent on the bus who wouldn't give up his giant 'carry-on' bag to be stowed in the luggage compartment.
Dinner itself was good without being particularly spectacular. Given how many hundreds of meals they're putting together simultaneously, that's a huge success.
After dinner, we made our way to the martini bar, where they were offering a sampler: 6 one ounce martinis for the price of one regular martini. We got to have a 'Thin Man' experience: "Bring me six martinis and line them up right here." If I recall correctly, there was a plain vodka martini, a too-sweet raspberry martini, a nicely sour apple martini, a chocolate/vanilla martini, a tropical martini and a lemon martini that was my favorite of the bunch. In the bar, there was a violin, piano and accordian trio playing some old standards and it made for a nice end to the evening. Then we slept for eleven hours. Twelve, if you count the time change to Greece.
Apparently, we really missed things while we slept. We passed by the active volcano Stromboli, dolphin pods were seen sporting about the ship, and the assistant purser was bodily assumed into heaven.
Day 3: At Sea
Fortunately, today is a travel day at sea, so it didn't matter at all if we slept in. We caught the 2nd shift of breakfast and now have spent a few hours lazing about here and there on various decks. The travel day also gives me the opportunity to get this travel diary up-to-date. We've been mostly far at sea, but the entertainment of the day was travelling through the Straits of Messina between Italy and Sicily. No sign of Scylla or Charybdis.
Later, we tried out their Wine Appreciation class. It was a curious mix of basic and advanced information. They had six wines to try, two of which were Celebrity's own label from wineries in Sonoma. They were perfectly good, but did not merit the pumping up given them by the Chief Wine Steward, particularly since both were quite 'new' wines. The best wine (for both our tastes) was a Bordeaux - St Emilion from 2000.
A cute touch of the class was that we were each given our own tasse du vin to hang about our necks, so we can play sommelier back home. The tasse itself is interesting in that is has bumps and depressions that make it easier to judge the color, clarity and bubbliness of the wine. For wines where sediment may be expected, the done thing is to decant the wine while holding the neck over a candle flame, so that one may see the sediment.
Tonight was the first formal dinner of the cruise, so I struggled into coat and tie. Fortunately, the ship's interior is pretty icily air-conditioned, so it was not at all uncomfortable. On deck, I would have melted into a puddle. At the restaurant, it was interesting to see some people's idea of formal dress: it ranged from very elegant indeed to prom dresses to not-quite-cutting-it.
Dinner was perhaps better tonight [indeed later dinners were mostly much better than the first night]. I had an interesting melon/mint soup, spinach salad and an olive pesto pasta dish that was very tasty. Rebecca had some shrimp-y thing. I chose a bottle of white wine that the sommelier declared an excellent choice, though I can hardly imagine him shaking his head and sneering. It was a Roero Arneis from the Italian Piedmont. I thought it was a pleasantly rich white, but Rebecca was less enthusiastic. The chocolate mousse with cappucino cream was pretty tasty as well.
After dinner, we strolled about on deck. With the breeze, it wasn't too stifling, though it was still quite warm and humid. We eventually strolled our way to the after deck, where we watched the barman make our mojito and Singapore Sling and then drank them happily as the sun sey into the dense bank of ooky smoggy haze that extended a few degrees above the horizon. Not quite as romantic as the sun setting at the actual horizon, with maybe even a green flash at the end, but the colors in the sky were still very pretty.
Up to now, although the trip has been pleasant, it doesn't seem as though I've left the US. The only currency used on board is the dollar, the crew is English speaking, and the sea (and even most of the bits of land) could be sections of California. Fortunately, this will soon change as we get ashore.
Day 4: Mykonos & Delos
In the morning, we were up early enough to have actual breakfast in the main restaurant. We were seated with others at a large table overlooking the retreating sea at the aft windows. One lady protested that she couldn't sit facing the sea, and there were other little complaints from some of the others at the table, but after a little chitchat, a little coffee and a little omelette, we were ready to face the rigors of lying around in a deck chair.
Once there, the breeze had stiffened considerably and much of the smoggy haze that had surrounded us since leaving port had dissipated. In the distance, an island slowly drifted past us as we lay about... rebecca reading of Cicero while I, gentle reader, catch you all up with the present. Later today, we will set off on an excursion to Delos. there, I hope to finally feel like I'm in Greece.
As we approached Mykonos, the wind increased in fury and whitecaps appeared on the sea. It's absurd to say that our gargantuan ship was 'tossed' by the waves, but for the first time the motion of the ship had a small element of roll from the seas. The wind was stiff enough that spray was being torn off the tops of the white caps. From our vantage high above them, we could see rainbows in the spray. Fortified by some pizza and caipirinhas, we went to the assembly point for the excursion to Delos. There was quite a throng there.
Mykonos harbor is too small to dock a ship as large as the Galaxy, so we were to be brought to shore by tenders. Galaxy carries her tenders up among the lifeboats. Due to the wind and sea, there was some difficulty getting the tenders lowered to the water, but since we were going on a planned excursion, we had first dibs on going ashore.
The tenders carry about 100 people packed together. Given the choppy seas, it was a pretty rocky ride, but short enough to be tolerable. From there, the excursion moved onto a much larger ferry bound for Delos. Several tenders' worth of people slowly assembled on board, so there must have been about 300 people on the excursion.
We thought we had scoped out some great seats on the upper deck near the port bow, but once we got moving, there was enough rolling, pitching and yawing to make plenty of spray. Slightly dampened, we squeezed our way further amidships to avoid further drenchings.
Delos is a pretty barren rock, but as we came around it, we could see the ruins here and there. As we came to the dock, a couple dogs chased each other along the shoreline. Apart from the dogs, archeologists, museum staff and tourguides, the only inhabitants of Delos are the lizards.
We broke into 9 or 10 groups, each with our own tourguide. Our guide was named Amaryllis, and she did a nice job of hustling us along, giving us important info about the site, and setting it into the larger history of the island. I may not have paid close attention as our group was pretty large to hear her well, and I was too busy enjoying getting free rein to clamber all over an ancient Greek city.
The city is quite well preserved, with many tall walls in place here and there. Some of them still have stucco on them and some of the stucco still has the original painted plaster on it.
In mythology, Delos was where Leto gave birth to the twins Apollo and Artemis. We saw the (now dry) sacred lake where the divine birth took place, as well as remains of several temples to Apollo.
The temple of Dionysius was flanked by some fractured phalloi. A theater, some herms, a broken-down Roman general.... many things to see in every corner. It was similar to Pompeii in extent, but Delos is completely overgrown with weeds sprouting from between every pair of stones. On the other hand, unlike Pompeii, visitors can walk into and around just about every building on the island. Only a few things, like mosaic floors, are roped off entirely.
The ferry ride back to Mykonos was similar to the outbound trip. We bellied up to the bar and shared a can of Mythos beer. It was very hot and close inside the bar (and I will forbear describing the WC) so Rebecca and I ventured back to the open stern. Now the spray coming off the swells was more welcome after our hours spent on barren Delos under the sun. The stern only got a little spray, but the roped off bow area was getting drenched well enough that an inch of water drained back along the scuppers to where we stood.
Back in Mykonos, we had a couple hours before we had to return to the ship, so we ventured into the city. The sea frontage is all very sensible and comprehensible, but as soon as you take three or four steps in a landward direction, you (or at least I) get lost immediately. The architecture is all the traditional brightly whitewashed cubic construction. Here it all towers up two or three stories over lanes no more than ten feet wide, and often less. Although I saw at least one cargo-Vespa zip along, it was all pedestrian traffic up and down the twisty hilly lanes. With the close tall buildings, one could see at most a slender sliver of sky overhead, making orientation impossible.
We hit an ATM and loaded up on Euros. Then we found a taverna and had some saganaki, spanakopita and Greek salad. More importantly, mineral water and retsina. For good or ill, both Rebecca and I have developed a taste for cold retsina. After a hot day's work clambering over ruins and getting lost in Greek tourist towns, retsina is the perfect summer cure.
After catching the waiter's eye and settling the logariasmo (I find it peculiarly enjoyable to ask for the logarithm when you want the check; it's not so enjoyable that you usually have to throw a rock at the waiter before he'll acknowledge you) we wandered through Mykonos a bit more, met one of the local cats and then headed back to the tenders.
Now that we were heading against the wind, the trip back out to the Galaxy was a bit rougher than the way in. Spray flew liberally in through the open gangway, cuasing the Japanese family to cower lower and lower whenever a wave drew near. Finally back aboard around 10pm, we headed pretty directly for showers and bed. I was surprised to discover that, due to the wind and spray, I resembled the Wild Man of Borneo. Rebecca apparently hadn't noticed or cared anything unusual about her dinner-companion.
Day 5: Rhodes
In the morning, we had breakfast and the same complaining couple we sat with yesterday was at our table, making further disparaging remarks. The laws of probability decree that we shan't see them again, but if we do, Rebecca is resolved to slap a happy smile onto their faces. [As it happened, we generally went to the buffet for breakfast afterwards - not to avoid the booboisie, but because it was faster.]
Shortly after breakfast, the ship pulled in at Rhodes. We shoved our way across the gangplank with the rest of the herd and made our way into the city. Rhodes is quite unusual in that the bulk of the city remains medieval in character, stemming from the days of the Crusader Knights, who built castles and fortifications all over the place, where they mostly still remain today. Even in the port, towers and walls are there, providing an unusual backdrop to the yachts and cruiseships in the harbor. So you have to imagine the whole city (or at least the part within the outer defensive wall, which is about half the modern city) is composed of stone buildings of the 14th-15th centuries or so, often bearing arms and signs of the Knights of St. John and the Hospitallers, etc.
After passing from the port area through the wall into the city proper, some unusual tootling presaged the arrival of a small parade of musicians. Perhaps less a parade than procession, since it was the feast day of Saint Panteleimon, and an icon of same (accompanied by black-clad orthodox priests) was being exhibited in the streets after the marching band. A very unexpected bit of local color.
Rebecca had hoped to rent a motorscooter for checking out some more distant parts of the island, but we must have gone to a too-ethical rental place, since they wouldn't rent one to us without a motorcycle license. That was a little depressing, since Becca was looking forward to it, but fortunately Rhodes has a great deal to offer right in the city.
We saw the Hospital of the Knights, which is not only a neat building but a museum. There were many nifty classical artworks, including the Aphrodite of Rhodes.
Further up the hill was a mosque under reconstruction and a clocktower affording the best views of the city. The clocktowere was a private concern and the cost seemed prohibitive, so we skipped it. We had done enough that lunch seemed a good idea, so we found a secluded cafe high up in the city, far above most of the tourists who would venture no further than the shops near the port. A light lunch of pizza, 'toast' and beer fortified us for more.
Interestingly, the tavern was situated in the courtyard for a historic Byzantine church, so we poked our heads into it before moving on to the big castle atop the city, the Palace of the Grandmasters. Here the Hospitallers and ex-Templars hatched their schemes... at least until the Muslims kicked them off Rhodes and they had to resettle in Malta (thus, setting the stage for the Maltese Falcon). It's really an impressive place: roomy and solid, with oodles of handcrafted wooden furniture and Roman mosaics removed from the island of Kos. An excellent place to carry out the business of the Crusades.
It also housed some artifacts of note and also a specific exhibit centering on the city of Rhodes itself, but the real star was the architecture. Apparently, the castle had been restored by Mussolini as a summer residence, but he never actually visited the place. Maybe he didn't benefit from the restoration, but we did. It looks fabulous.
After that, we threaded our way through various narrow medieval lanes, atop walls, through gates, under buttresses, just enjoying the layout of the city and meeting a cat or two on the way. I confess we stopped to allow some water and retsina wash away the heat of our travels. All in al, though, apart from the first day in Rome/Civitavecchia, the temperatures have not been terrible hot.
Having seen a great deal of Rhodes, we boarded the ship again and showered and changed for dinner. Just for the view, we hung out up on one of the upper decks as the time for the dinner gong approached. I noted an unusual aspect of this floating ecology. There was a small trail of ants assaulting a french fry on the floor, some ten floors above the waterline of the ship. Well, no one has ever called ants slackers. They probably have a nicer stateroom, too.
Dinner was unexceptional, but we followed it up with our usual test of the daily drink special, in this case the kamikaze. With that rather uninspiring description out of the way, perhaps I will digress and speak of the bathroom fiasco of deck 4 aft.
The staterooms each have a bathroom and the toilet works on some sort of vacuum principle. I had noticed a couple days ago that sometimes it didn't whooooosh on the first go, but I wasn't concerned. Then when we returned from Rhodes, there was a ghastly stench in the passageway on our deck. Upon entering the stateroom and using the WC, there was no whooooosh at all. Evidently, the lines on our part of the ship were blocked. Later in the evening, we saw plumbers trying to fix things and before bedtime, we were back to full whoooooshiness. [The power of whoosh continued to come and go unpredictably. Its absence was generally accompanied by stench. On the whole, it was not a problem.]