"I Would Sail 2,700 Nautical Miles and-a I Would Sail 2,700 More…"

Admit it… you sang the title in your head, complete with the voice raising on the “and-a I”

I love to cruise.  Jen loves to cruise.  And now… Julia absolutely loves to cruise.  We have very few experiences aboard cruise ships, but each time we’ve been on one of these massive floating hotels (or mini-floating city’s… I couldn’t choose between adjectives – you pick your favorite), we feel like royalty.  We know that we will chose this method of vacation many more times in our lives.  Cruising requires little planning and you are always rewarded with the very best customer service, the opportunity to see many more cities than you normally could in a given time period, endless activities aboard the ship, wonderful food, the benefit of unpacking only once and perhaps best of all – a very affordable vacation (you can get very good deals if you hawk the last-minute deal sites).

Our ship – Holland America’s MS Nieuw Amsterdam

The first time that Jen and I took a cruise was on our honeymoon.  We spent three weeks sailing around South America (from Buenos Aires, Argentina all the way around Cape Horn and on to Santiago, Chile).  I chose Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) for our first cruise, primarily because the itinerary was perfect and I found it to be reasonably priced.  I wasn’t nearly the internet-nerd I am today and so I did little research beyond that.  We had a wonderful vacation, ate way too much food, enjoyed some lovely scenery (I have thousands of pictures to prove it) and had an absolute blast.  However, I had no idea how amazing cruising could really be until we recently boarded Holland America’s, MS Nieuw Amsterdam (pronounced, n-e-w); one of the newer ships in their fleet.

Boarding the Nieuw Amsterdam

I had a few checklist items when we moved abroad – things I wanted to do and to see.  Experiencing a cruising-adventure was definitely on that list.  For the first time in our lives, we had the flexibility to really take advantage of a “last-minute” vacation, and so the plan was to use that to our full advantage.  Unfortunately, we discovered that having a child prevents you from really getting those steep 70% off discounts you see flashing on the side of your favorite webpages.  Some cruise lines require a child to pay a full fair.  Others require that he or she have a special room or special bed.  Either way, it seemed that the myth of really inexpensive cruising (at least with a child) was just that – a myth.  Eventually, we searched for dates further into the future (ensuring the ability to book a room that could accommodate a small child) and narrowed our choice down to two cruises with two very different itineraries on two very different cruise lines.

Could this little peanut (eating until her heart is content) actually prevent us from finding our perfect cruise?!
“Who me?!  No way, Dad.  Now, let’s EAT!”

World travelers and vacation aficionados – here’s where you need to pay attention.  I am going to share two valuable resources I discovered throughout this process.  First, I had been paying a fortune in cell phone bills, calling these various companies to get accurate information about their cruises.  Then I stumbled across, gethuman.com – an internet based voiceover IP company that allows you to call most major companies from your computer – for free!  I have spent this past year calling American Express, Visa, Wells Fargo and other companies at a cost of roughly €10 per call… just to get past the automated prompts! This site has revolutionized my ability to manage tasks at home while living abroad.  Second, we discovered cruisecritic.com – the ultimate guide when selecting a cruise.  Consider it the yelp or trip advisor of the sea.  This site allows you to plug in any cruise line and read reviews – but more importantly it allows you to search specific cruise ships, ranking everything on that unique vessel from the food to the service – ultimately awarding the ship a nice, neat approval percentage number.  It’s all very easy and streamlined.  What I learned was that a cruise line can offer a vastly different experience aboard any number of their ships (for example, an older ship with lesser quality food may not be nearly as pleasant as one of their newer ships).  Therefore, we learned that the ship itself is more important than the cruise operator.  And we learned this lesson just in time.  I was on the phone with Costa (the losing company), about to book our cruise.  I had selected this particular cruise because of the funky itinerary.  In addition to the “normal” places, we would have ventured into Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria.  I was moments away from giving my credit card number when Jen motioned at me frantically, having just discovered this particular ship only had a 54% approval rating.  I got off the call as quickly as possible and called Holland America, booking aboard the Niew Amsterdam.

Julia evaluates one of the rooftop pools – this one was located midship

Our cruise departed from Venice, and so we took the three hour train from our home.  We were in no rush to get into Venice early, having been there on previous occasions.  We bypassed the throngs of tourists vying for photos of the canals and simply went right to the ship.  We stayed in Venice’s port the first night, but set sail early in the morning.  As we sailed through the Canale Della Giudecca in the middle of the city (I had no idea that it was deep enough to accommodate our massive ship), our fabulous Location Guide, Tom gave a memorable and insightful tour of everything that we were seeing.  I apologize in advance for the pictures, I only had Jen’s cell phone with me – poor planning.

Sailing past another ship in the harbor
From high atop our cruise ship – we could see the entire city unfold before our eyes
A beautiful view of Santa Maria della Salute and the Campanile of Piazza San Marco
From this height we could actually look down and across Piazza Saint Marco – a very unique perspective
Here you can see many of the 118 different islands that make up Venice

Our first full day aboard the ship was a Sea Day, which means exactly that – we were at sea all day.  This is wonderful portion of the cruise for anyone that likes to eat, gamble, drink, workout, spa, play in the pool, attend cooking courses, read, mingle, do nothing, do everything…. you get the point.  I think I hit about four or five of those things in the first three hours – eating and gambling at the top of the list.

We woke up early, eager to start the day – but Julia reminds us not to wake our neighbors
We enjoyed a cooking demonstration
Posing with the Chef and Activities Coordinator
Julia would stop and watch this duo, Adagio perform each night after dinner
We hoped that lady luck would find Julia
Julia treats me to a kiss during one of the “formal nights”

The following morning was a real treat – our first Port Day.  We were at port in Katakolon, Greece, which was just a short bus ride away from something you may have heard of… Olympia, Greece.  As in… the place the very first Olympic Games were ever held.  As in, the place that contains the ruins of Zeus’ temple.  And so I was a little geeked-up to see it all.  I didn’t have to imagine standing in the very first olympic stadium – where the worlds best athletes competed since the 8th century BC; we actually got to do it.  It was very awe-inspiring.

Our first sunrise at port
We strolled through Katakolon before our bus departed for Olympia

Travel-bugs… please allow me to give you another tip.  If you are reading this post and thinking, “Greg is making a convincing argument for a cruise… I think I’ll give it a go”; don’t make the mistake many cruise-goers make.  Do not book excursions through the cruise directly.  Sure, it’s easier.  Some may say safer.  Others may tell you they’re better designed.  That’s all true… but at an immense premium.  Please allow me to state my case.  Below is one of the excursion options at our first port (copied from Holland America’s site).  Just skim it if you’d like… I’ll recap:

The small fishing village of Katákolon is your gateway to the mystical site of ancient Olympia, 25 miles to the east. The sanctuary of Olympia has the appearance of a park, and as you step back 2,000 years into the past, imagine the area crowded with athletes, orators, merchants and philosophers surrounding the Temple of Zeus with its forty-foot statue of the god, the ruins of which you will see today. It’s easy to imagine the roar of the spectators as the athletes took their marks on the marble starting blocks, and to picture the temples, treasuries, porticoes and statues as they were. After your visit to Olympia, you will continue to Mercouri Estate, known not only for its wines of supreme quality but also for its magnificent location. This is the area where the Refosco grape was first planted after being imported from Italy. In 1930, the Mercouris built a modern winery and distillery, updated again in 1990 with the latest technology. You are invited to experience the beauty and charm of the vineyards, to see the old and new wineries, and also to taste the locally produced wines.

OK – so you get a bus ride with 40 other schmoes to Olympia, gate access and a wine tasting.  It’s very well written and this guy is singing a sweet sirens song – but he couldn’t lure me.  Guess what it costs… $150 per person plus $60 for kids.  OK – so we’d be all in for $360.  Guess what we did?  We got off the ship, walked over to the person selling bus tickets to Olympia (the same cushy travel bus with A/C and TV’s that the cruise people take) and bought both tickets for $20.  Then another $20 at the gate and I’m all in for $40.  A savings of $320.  With that much left in my pocket, I had my choice of any number of Greek wines “known for their supreme quality” that we picked up at Duty Free on the way back to the ship.

We stop for a family photo in front of the Palaestra
Julia does a little dance number
Ruins of the Theokoleon
A lone column capital (top) remains… 1,000 years old?  2,000 years old?  2,500 years old??
I stop to stand in front of the Temple of Hera
Jen and Julia challenge competitors on the Stadium ground
Lost amongst the rocks in front of the Temple of Zeus
Another view of the Theokoleon
Impressive remains of the Philippeion

The next day we woke up in Piraeus, Greece – which is the port city outside Athens, Greece.  Same thing as before – I bypassed the tempting, but expensive excursions and departed with Jen and Julia in tow.  We walked around the corner and found that the Greek Gods were smiling on us that day.  In addition to the regular cabs and buses to take us the 20 minutes into Athens, there were “Hop On-Hop Off” open-top tour buses.  That meant we would get a ride, an audio tour and the ability to come and go as we pleased, all for $30.

Athens is an amazing city with a recorded history spanning 3,400 years

We rode around Athens, enjoying our tour and chuckling to ourselves at the Greek music they kept playing over and over (imagine the soundtrack to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” on repeat).  My plan was to complete the loop and finish the audio tour before getting off, but when I saw the majesty of the Parthenon, I knew we needed to depart the bus immediately.

The Parthenon sits atop the Acropolis of Athena

The Parthenon is the featured temple within the Acropolis of Athena; a temple built to honor the Goddess, Athena.  Construction of the temple began in 447 BC and today it is widely considered the most important surviving building from Ancient Greece.  In order to reach the temple, you must climb the imposing slate steps to reach the Acropolis of Athens, an ancient citadel set high atop a rocky outcrop far from today’s modern Greece.  But before we climbed the steps of the Acropolis, we first climbed a neighboring cliff for a view of the magnificent ancient city and the more modern one below.

Athens has roughly 3.2 million inhabitants – Greece’s largest city by a wide margin
Hundreds of visitors passing through the gates of the Acropolis
Ancient ruins are a part of the city – even as modern urban sprawl is built around it
Some more “modern” temples perched atop their own cliffs
My girls begin their ascent
Julia fights the wind and I steal a kiss
I think Athena herself would have been pleased to have this little guest in her temple
As we climbed the steep incline of the Acropolis toward the temples, we narrowly missed slipping and sliding back down to the bottom.  The slate steps were slick even though they were bone dry – I couldn’t imagine making the climb if it had rained.  There were many sights to see, including the amazing expanse of a remarkable city below.  We marched through the ancient doorway leading into the city and stopped for a rest and some photos.
Odeon of Herodes Atticus – a steep sloped amphitheater built in 161 AD
The southern wall remains well intact
Julia lets me kiss her for all of Athens to see
The Parthenon – Temple of Athena
It’s amazing how well the Parthenon has been preserved
Julia pays her respects to the Greek flag
Family photo in front of the Parthenon

While the Parthenon is clearly the star of the show within the Acropolis, there are many other important ancient buildings and temples.  The Greek word Acropolis (Ακρόπολη) is made up of two components – akron, meaning “edge” and polis, meaning “city”.  While there are many other Acropolis’ within Greece, it is commonly accepted that the Acropolis of Athens is the Acropolis in all of Greece.  From the moment we walked through the gateway into the city, I truly felt as if I was transported into an ancient, mythical world – where Gods and Goddesses ruled from on high.  Perhaps I have seen too many movies, but I really did feel as though I was apart of something far bigger than I’ve ever known.  I think I was even annoying Jen a bit with my enthusiasm and newfound feeling of power (as if I was somehow apart of the world of The Gods and could strike down any mere mortal…).  It was probably good that I got out of there when I did, lest I try to actually smite someone.

The Erechtheum – a Temple for both Athena and Poseidon built between 421 and 406 BC
The Porch of the Caryatids (maidens) built to conceal a 15 foot support beam
Another view of the Erechtheum from the south west

We had worked up quite the appetite touring the Acropolis and so we descended the ancient city toward a more modern part of town.  We found a charming pedestrian area of the modern city and stopped for a lunch of what else… Greek salad!  We drank a couple of refreshing Greek beers and then strolled through the ample markets.

Greek salad – the authentic way!

Finally, we boarded the ship and set sail for our next adventure…  I hope you’ll hop back aboard for Part II (coming soon)!

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