We wanted to celebrate a big anniversary somewhere memorable, but as always in these strange times, Covid played a major factor in determining what was open to us (and with not too many related hoops to jump through) and what felt reasonably safe. That first “bulletproof” feeling after getting our vaccines was waning as breakthrough cases started popping up everywhere (including among family). Focusing on outdoorsy destinations seemed like a good idea… and, after a little research, the Galápagos Islands moved to the top of my list.
The final stop on our Irrawaddy flotilla steamer cruise before Bagan was the former colonial outpost of Salay. We unfortunately arrived in the heat of the afternoon, maybe because our schedule had been off for the last couple of days due to a 3-hour delay when we ran aground on one of the Irrawaddy’s many sandbars. We’d been warned in advance to expect such minor mishaps and to be flexible, and the delay had been a non-issue for the most part (and actually kind of interesting to watch the maneuvers involved in extricating the boat from its predicament).
Although Bagan and its 2000 stupas was the ultimate destination of our river cruise on an Irrawaddy Flotilla Steamer, the first time we saw the city was from across a wide spot in the river and only a few days into our week aboard the steamer. We stopped overnight at Tant Kyi village, so we could visit the hilltop Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda with its sweeping view of the Irrawaddy and Bagan in the distance. Also, being there in the morning allowed us to see the many boats full of locals arrive at sunrise to visit Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda before heading back across the river to Bagan. The point of this early pilgrimage was to try to visit four special pagodas in one day, Tant Kyi Taung and three in Bagan. Yen explained that doing this is said to bring about the granting of a prayer, but the only way to visit all three is to begin in at dawn.
Another fun stop on our river steamer cruise down the Irrawaddy was at the large town of Pakkoku (population of about 100,000). As always, we moored at a rough bank of the river, no pier in sight. This time, we hiked up a steep flight of narrow stairs to find ourselves at a single-file footpath along the side of a field. As soon as we made the top of the river bank, we found women waiting to sell us the ubiquitous souvenirs: longyi (the local tube skirts worn by nearly everyone), jewelry, scarves and the like. One woman latched onto me immediately and we went through the now-familiar “you like?/maybe later?” routine. Although they can be persistent, we’ve found the Burmese to be much less pushy than other Asian vendors. Burmese are generally a friendly, cheerful group; the people on the street tend not to make overtures to us first, but they beam back when we smile at them and wave, or greet us with a bright “Mingalaba!,” the local greeting that is sort of a combination of “hello” and “auspiciousness to you.” Vendors do approach or call to us, of course, but they’re not overly aggressive, just hopeful. There was something particularly charming about my new friend, and I found myself considering that “maybe later” as she followed along the footpath with me. At the far end of the field, three larger, truck-style tuk tuks awaited our group. Climbing aboard, we were off on a dirt road through fields and past ox carts until we came to the intersection with a major paved road.
One of my favorite stops on our Irrawaddy riverboat cruise was Yandabo, a village known for pottery production. Yandabo is cleaner and more prosperous looking than many of the villages along the Irrawaddy. The government is assisting with funds to build a river wall (erosion being a big problem along the Irrawaddy) and the locals organized to clean up trash (another big problem along the river and in the villages). We were impressed to learn that the entire family of potters we visited had university degrees. Sadly, though, they could earn more making terracotta pots.
We’ve really been looking forward to our time on a wooden Irrawaddy Flotilla Steamer. Prior to WWI, the largest river flotilla in the world was on the Irrawaddy River in Burma. Most of these classic teak wood boats were destroyed, either by bombs or by scuttling. Pandaw, the river cruise line I’d chosen, salvaged and restored one of these boats, then built others, copying the original 1930’s style, but with modern updates. I’d carefully chosen our intimately-sized boat and even the side of the boat I wanted our cabin on. So, I was worried and disappointed to read an email from my booking agent the day before we boarded in Mandalay saying we’d been changed to a larger riverboat. A little research revealed this new boat, the Pandaw Orient, was 8 years older than the original, Pandaw Kindat; worse, the Orient had 30 cabins vs. 18 on the Kindat.
We’re just back from a short 4-night cruise, the highlight and point of which for us was to finally visit Havana, Cuba. We actually booked the same Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) cruise last summer, trying to beat the new Trump-imposed regulations on travel to Cuba, but were thwarted when Hurricane Irma canceled the cruise. This time, all went beautifully and we found our day in Havana to be fascinating and the travel easy and hassle-free. [Note: Find more practical info and links at the bottom of this post.]
I had lots of questions and some concerns about the new regulations, pre-trip, and learned a lot by researching online. Still, I had questions to which I could find no answers, so this post will have plenty of practical info and details that I wish I’d known in advance.
Choosing a Category of Travel Under New Restrictions: We settled on making our first visit to Cuba by cruise ship simply because it was easy and the most sure-fire way to travel there without worrying about U.S. restrictions on travel. These reasons seemed even more relevant after the new regulations went into effect, doing away with individual “People-to-People” travel which had previously been the main way for Americans to do a general visit to Cuba. “People-to-People” is just one of many so-called “licenses” that Americans much choose in order to travel legally to Cuba. This is a U.S. requirement and means nothing to Cuban authorities.
Group “People-to-People” is still allowed and that is the category under which most cruise-line-sponsored shore excursions fall. Given the ridiculously high prices and large-group/motor-coach nature of those ship-sponsored excursions, I wanted to book a private tour. Under the new regulations, the preferred license category for individual travel is now “Support for the Cuban People.” We checked that box on the form supplied by NCL used by them to obtain our visas, and in addition, checked “Journalism” as we both freelance from time to time in addition to writing this blog. Since we specifically wanted to visit and write about breweries and beer in addition to travel and that would comprise a part of our itinerary in addition to the basic “Support for the Cuban People,” we wanted to be sure we covered all our bases.
Private Tour with Havana Journeys: After doing my initial research, I chose Havana Journeys for our tour. At $120/100CUC for a 6-hour private tour (not including lunch which we paid for separately), it was one of the best prices I found, had solid reviews, included a vintage car for the driving portion of our tour, and offered to provide a written “Support for the Cuban People” itinerary. We paid a deposit of 20CUC online (which resulted in a modest extra processing fee) with the 80CUC balance due on arrival in Havana. Havana Journeys were very professional in the lead up to our trip, replying promptly to questions, sending a photo of our guide, Katiusca, and telling us where to meet her (“by the Chopin statue” in Plaza de San Franciso, just across the road from the pier). Our ship was scheduled to dock at 10am and we were concerned that formalities and money exchange (Cuba is a cash-only destination) would take time, so we agreed to meet Katiusca at 11am.
Tour Disaster Averted. The only issue that came up with Havana Journeys–and it could have been a huge one–was an unexplained change in the date of our tour. We were arriving on Wednesday the 12th. I initially requested that date and they confirmed the date, but somehow on the final itinerary document sent by Havana Journeys shortly before our departure, the date was changed to Tuesday the 11th. I totally missed the change, so bear some responsibility, but I simply never imagined such a change, this being a port stop set by the cruise line and fixed from the time we purchased the cruise months prior. We spent 11am-2pm Tuesday the 11th on NCL’s private island in the Bahamas, so had no Internet access although I’d bought ship wi-fi (something I had not intended to do) due to a last-minute situation at home that required my availability. Thank God I did! When we returned to the ship Tuesday, I found I’d missed several WhatsApp calls and messages. Havana Journeys was trying desperately to reach me: The guide was waiting for us. Where were we? Katiusca would wait 1h45m for us before giving up…and that time was passed by the time I got the WhatsApp messages. What to do?? I quickly tried to call back, but got no answer. I emailed every address I had for Havana Journeys, wondering what we’d do if I couldn’t reach them…and very thankful I at least had the notice I did. If we’d just showed up the next day, ignorant of the situation, we’d have waited in the heat, wasting our precious time in Havana, and eventually going off in search of some way to reach Havana Journeys. I had contact numbers for them in the U.S. and mobile and land line numbers for the contact in Cuba, but not a number for the guide since we would not have phone service in Cuba or on the ship. Internet is scarce in Cuba, so we’d have had some problem finding wi-fi before I could even begin to try to contact someone. Thankfully, I did finally reach Havana Journeys by WhatsApp call. While I waited on the line, they rescheduled Katiusca for the original, correct date and we were back on. Whew! Moral of this Story (which I knew and didn’t do): CHECK AND RE-CHECK DATES.
Docking in Havana. Although scheduled to dock at 10am, we actually docked earlier, sailing past iconic landmarks I’d only see in photographs and video: El Morro fortress, the Hotel Nacional…It was thrilling. The cruise terminal in Havana is wonderfully convenient. We pulled up to the pier, “parking” like some mammoth car, just across the street from lovely Plaza de San Francisco. We joined other passengers on the bow of our ship smiling and waving at the people just below and the vintage American cars gliding by. I could even spot the head of the bronze Chopin statue were we were to meet our guide. Cruise ports don’t get much more conveniently located.
Group tickets assigning debarkation times were to be handed out starting at 8:30am, but they started early and David was only able to get us in Group 4. This turned out to be a non-issue as they started calling groups before 10am, called Group 2 about 10 minutes after Group 1, then called Groups 3 and 4 together. We stepped off the ship at 10:02am. Despite our concerns, we breezed through customs, security and money changing and were out on the street 20 minutes after we exited the ship. At the customs booth, the agent took the paper tourist visa we’d been given by the ship, snapped a photo, stamped our passports and we were off. Security is just a standard airport-style x-ray machine. Money exchange is at the far end of the rectangular terminal building. Many people were on duty there and there was virtually no wait. The man we dealt with was friendly and spoke good English, and was very patient as we exchanged both the last of our euros and U.S. dollars. (There’s a 10% penalty for changing dollars due to the chilly relations between our countries, so the exchange rate is better for euros.) Despite being warned repeatedly that foreigners must change money to the local closed tourist currency, the CUC, we found out later that many individuals and places apparently do take foreign money. I wish we had known. Havana Journeys did, however, require us to pay the balance of the tour (80CUC) to Katiusca in CUC.
With nearly 40 minutes before we were scheduled to meet our guide, we opted to visit the 16th century basilica and the monastery of San Francisco de Asis (Saint Francis of Assisi) on Plaza de San Francisco. The building is undergoing renovation, but much is still open including the sanctuary, and two floors of the monastery surrounding an open central courtyard; it’s a lovely spot. A small orchestra playing in the main sanctuary added to the experience and the guides scattered throughout were helpful and friendly, even encouraging me to climb up on the wall of an upper floor terrace to take photos and a video of the lovely square below where I could see the bronze Chopin statue where we were to meet our guide.
Our month cruise from Singapore to Italy was better than we could have hoped for, but now it was time to be back on our own and we were looking forward to it. Civitavecchia is the nearest port to Rome and most information about the port assumes people are going to Rome either to stay or to fly out of the airport. We’d used a driver in the past to get from the port to Rome, but this time we were skipping the Italian capital and heading north. I wanted to rent a car for the 2+ weeks we planned to tool around Umbria and Tuscany, but I had trouble finding clear info online. I knew the port was too big to walk out of and that passengers not wanting to rely on expensive cruise ship excursions and transfers needed to get out of the main port gate to get to other modes of transport–taxi, train, rent cars–but the info was vague. This short post is just to clarify transport options and the lay of the land at the Port of Civitavecchia.
The ship offered a free motor coach shuttle to an area just outside the port gates where other transportation is offered. Buses for the train station pick up here for €2 per person. Rent car pick up is just across the street. I’d booked us a Hertz rent car and emailed with them from the previous port. When we left the ship, I called them (Hooray again for T-Mobile international!) and a van arrived to pick us up shortly after we got off the ship’s shuttle. Another 5-minute drive and we were at the Hertz office in a nearby strip center where we did paperwork and were on our way in short order.
Katakolon, Greece, is an easy port for cruise passengers. Although Ancient Olympia is the main draw, the quaint waterfront town of Katakolon sits just at the end of the cruise pier. I’d visited Katakolon and Ancient Olympia years ago with my sons. We’d taken an excursion to Ancient Olympia then, but I wanted more freedom on this visit so I’d arranged a Sixt rent car for the day.
In doing my pre-trip research, I found Sixt to offer the best price as well as port-side car drop off. Sure enough, a nice young woman was waiting with a car when we walked off the pier. Some paperwork and a quick inspection of the car to make sure there were no dings or malfunctions that might later be attributed to us and we were off.
I’d downloaded driving directions to Olympia and the Mercouri Estate winery pre-trip and added them to my calendar. Coordinates and addresses at the ready made it easy to program in our destinations and T-Mobile had us connected in Greece and data-ready so Google Maps had us covered. The roads in the area nice and well-signed and it was an easy 30-40-minute drive to Ancient Olympia. Our only slight snag was when Google Maps took us to the tour bus parking. A few questions and a little luck put us in a free parking lot right by the Ambrosia Garden Restaurant and a wide paved footpath that lead across a small creek to the Archaeological Museum of Olympia. (The path is wide with white stone lines laid across concrete and regular intervals. If Ambrosia is on your left, the museum is ahead. The path is visible on Google satellite view of the area.)
We paid €12 apiece for a ticket that granted entrance to the archaeological site and three associated museums: the Archeological Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Olympic Games and the Museum of the History of the Excavations at Olympia. We decided to save the museum for later and went straight to the archaeological site where we spent a couple of hours wandering the many ruins.
The Archaeological Museum was a great ending to our site visit. Although not large, the collection is impressive and well laid out. The building is modern and well lit and there are clean modern toilets available in an area accessible downstairs and to the left of the main doors as you exit into the outside courtyard. We opted to forego the other two museums.
Walking back along the footpath to our car, we decided that Ambrosia offered a too-easy and appealing place to stop for lunch. We ate outside under a vine-covered lattice and thoroughly enjoyed our Greek lunch.
Back in the car, we drove about 30 minutes straight to Mercouri Winery only to slip through their wide gate just before closing time. I’d downloaded their brochure, but completely forgot that they close at 3pm, Monday through Saturday. Our hostess was a little less than welcoming, but all turned out well. She sold us a tasting of wine and left us to wander on our own, just asking that we avoid a cruise ship tour that was on the property. We preferred to be on our own anyway, so that was no problem…if a little less-than-flattering in her delivery. Oh well.
We explored the gorgeous grounds, sipping our wine and charmed by the peacocks we found, especially the male in full display, slowly rotating at the top of a split stairway leading to the slightly-crumbling original estate house.
A marble marker proclaimed a self-rooted vineyard to have been planted in 1870. Oranges and flowers, antique wine-making equipment and an old well decorated the winery while the sea sparkled in the distance. It was all achingly picturesque.
From Mercouri, it’s a less than 10-minute drive back to Katakolon. With plenty of time until we had to be back aboard ship (and the car rented for 24-hours), we decided to check out a local beach before heading back to town. We found long, sweeping beaches near town lined with houses and totally deserted but with tire tracks showing that these were, as in my native Texas, drive-on beaches. When you have a wealth of beach, it’s a thing.
We dropped off the car in the same spot we’d left it, rendezvousing with the same nice young woman. In our remaining time, we explored the quaint, touristy streets and waterfront of Katakolon. We sampled local food and drink set out in the many shops, finally buying a bottle of honey wine before heading back to the ship.
I rented our little 4-door Volkswagen hatchback online from Sixt for €38.49 including all taxes and fees. (There were lots of taxis waiting at the port as well as cars and vans available for on-the-spot rental. There is also a €10/person train that runs from near the port to Ancient Olympia, but if you miss it coming back, you’re on your own.)
Entry to Ancient Olympia and its museums was €12/person.
Mercouri Winery usually charges €10/person for a tour and tasting. We were charged something less, but I forget what.
By way of comparison, the ship offered a 5h30min. excursion to Olympia and the Mercouri Winery for $179/adult and $159/child. A 5h15min. excursion including a tour of Ancient Olympia, the Archaeological Museum and free time cost $119/adult and $99/child. Neither excursion appeared to include lunch.
After transiting the Suez Canal, our first port in Europe was Piraeus, Greece, the nearest port to Athens. I’d been to Athens a couple of times before, but it had been awhile and I’d never been with David, so we were both really looking forward the day. We wanted to do Athens on our own, though, and planned to take advantage of the Metro system. Not only did the Metro offer freedom of movement, but it is also very cost-effective, particularly when compared with exorbitant cruise line excursions.
Our ship docked at Cruise Terminal C “Alkimos” of the massive Piraeus port. Our Gate was E12, although the gate itself referenced Terminal B “Themistocles” which I think was the terminal building just next to ours where another Celebrity ship was docked. In any event, cruise ships dock at Gates E11 and E12; Gates E1-E10 are docks for the many ferries that service Greece’s scattered islands. The Piraeus Metro station is near Gate E6, a walk we made in about 30-35 minutes. There are buses that run between the far gates and the Metro Station and nearby train station, but we had too little information regarding buses at that point to be sure which one to choose (although we could have asked a driver or waiting passengers) and we were curious to at least see a little of Piraeus before we headed into Athens for the main show.
We walked on a wide sidewalk with the water of the port on our left. The Metro station was eventually on our right, across a broad street. There is usually a pedestrian bridge over the road to the Metro station and nearby train station, but it was closed due to construction along that stretch of the road. Still, between Google Maps (thanks to our T-Mobile international data plans) and following the crowds of people moving with the purposefulness of commuters, it was easy to find the crossing to the station. Just inside the station, we split up with me heading to a bank of ticket machines to the left of the main doors and David getting in line for a live teller to the right. I was easily the “winner” and flagged him away from his slow-moving line as soon as I had our 5-ride passes in hand.
Since Piraeus is the terminus of the Green Line 1 of the Athens Metro system, there was nothing to picking the right train. Metro Line 1 that runs between Piraeus and Athens is the descendent of a steam railway opened between the two cities in 1869. It’s the only one of the three Athens Metro lines that runs primarily above ground. The cars are nice and modern, although on our return to Piraeus in the late afternoon our car lacked adequate air conditioning and I was too warm until I could move into a seat where a breeze through a high, open blew directly on me.
Hoping to beat the worst of the day’s heat, we wanted to check the Acropolis off our list first. We rode the Green Line 1 eight stops to Omonia and changed there for the Red Line to ride three stops to the Akropoli Metro station. We just followed signs and found navigating the Athens Metro to be easy.
The escalator from the Metro station opened onto a cobblestoned, mostly-pedestrian street. A short walk straight ahead in the direction we exited the Metro and a turn to the left found us at the entrance to the Acropolis. Unfortunately, a not insubstantial line was already formed. Given the docking time of our ship, the 8am opening time at the Acropolis, and the travel time to Athens (which was not appreciably longer by Metro than it would have been by bus or car through traffic), we knew there was no way to beat the crowds, but this was daunting.
The hold-up appeared to be only two tellers and an inefficient charging system. Guides hawked tours, promising to the ability to cut the line, and we considered it, although we didn’t want a guide, just the cut. A nearby sign tantalized with the information that online tickets to the Acropolis will be available soon. Oh well, we just waited. It actually wasn’t too bad and we through the line in about twenty minutes. (It did get warm in the sun, though, even in early May. An umbrella/parasol wouldn’t be a bad idea, especially if you find yourself at the Acropolis in the summer.) Although a €20 ticket for just the Acropolis and its slopes is available, we opted for the €30 package ticket that includes the Ancient Agora, Roman Agora, Hadrian’s Library and more.
Crowds were spread out across the expansive slopes and walkways leading up to the Acropolis, so we could view the approach, theater/odeon, etc. relatively comfortably. But, crowds were funneled back together at the main stairs.
This is one of the frustrating facts of visiting someplace on a cruise or when a cruise ship or ships are in port: hordes of people wanting to visit a major site all at once. Having visited on much less crowded occasions, I regretted that this was David’s first glimpse of the famous ruins.
Moreover, extensive work is being done on the Parthenon and other structures, so large areas are cordoned off and work-in-progress is visible from nearly every part of the Acropolis. Despite the drawbacks, it is still one of the great wonders of the ancient world and it was good to be back.
Descending from the Acropolis, we headed north this time, following signs to the Roman Agora. We wandered this small rectangle of ruins, admiring its unique octagonal Horlogion or Tower of the Winds which once housed a 2nd century BC water clock.
Leaving the Roman Agora, we walked down a street bordering a fenced off area containing the ruins of the Library of Pantainos, then turned right down a street (Vriskaiou) drowning in graffiti towards the ancient Plaka district and the much larger grounds of the Ancient Agora.
Like the Roman Agora, the Ancient Agora was included in the combination ticket we’d bought at the Acropolis. Highlights of the Ancient Agora area include the massive Temple of Hesphaestus and the beautifully rebuilt Stoa of Attalos, a many-pillared, 2-story building with long open porticos and which houses a small museum.
The grounds are also lovely with paths wandering through flowering plants. There’s also a small Byzantine church on the site dating back to the 11th century, The Church of the Holy Apostles, with stunning wall paintings once hidden beneath plaster.
Hungry after our busy morning and ready for a break from the heat, we chose a restaurant, To Uovli, just outside the entrance gate to the Ancient Agora. Their lunch special offered “homemade” fare, including great bread, a hearty Greek salad for 2, moussaka and chicken gyros plus two glasses of beer for €28. Sitting outside in the shade and overlooking the Ancient Agora, it was a near-perfect break, marred only a tiny bit by the too-dry gyros.
Sated, cool and happy, we headed off after lunch to explore the rabbit warren of shops in the Plaka a we made our way to the Athens Flea Market.
Syntagma Square and the hourly changing of the guard in front of the Parliament building was my ultimate destination. There was no way I would let David miss that unique ceremony!
We arrived at the front of the Parliament right on schedule and staked out a spot at the front of a growing group of people. The ceremony was everything I’d remembered from previous visits, the unusual uniforms, over-sized pom-pom-bedecked shoes, and almost-absurdly-stylized steps a unique mix of solemn and almost funny. I couldn’t shake images of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks no matter how hard I tried to focus on the somber symbolism of the ceremony and the eternal flame in front of the tomb of an unknown World War II soldier.
After the ceremony, we ducked into the iconic Hotel Grande Bretagne to admire the beautiful lobby before taking an elevator upstairs to admire the view over Syntagma Square from the top-floor bar. (We also availed ourselves of very nice bathroom facilities. An early lesson I taught my sons when traveling with them: You can often skip unpleasant–and often for-pay–public bathrooms by dressing neatly and walking confidently into a high end hotel. I’ve never been stopped.)
Happy with our day and ready to head back to the ship, we got on the Metro at the Syntagma station, rode two stops to Omonia and changed to Green Line 1 for Piraeus. Scanning a bus schedule at the Piraeus Station, we saw we had several options for buses back to the ship. We walked back to the main road on the waterfront to a nearby bus stop and caught bus 843 which dropped us off in less than 10 minutes right at Gate E12 and our ship.
Practical info: The Athens Metro/Tram/Bus tickets cost €1.40/ride and are sold on a non-personalized ticket for €7 for 5 rides in 24 hours and €14 for 10 rides in 3 days. You can reload the cards at machines in every Metro station. I had no trouble paying at the machine in Piraeus with my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card.
The Acropolis is open 8am-8pm with the last entrance at 7:30pm. Tickets to the Acropolis and its slopes are 20 and the combination tickets are 30 and include 1. Acropolis and its slopes, 2. Ancient Agora and the museum at the Stoa of Attalos, 3. Roman Agora, 4. Hadrian’s Library, 5. Olympieion, 6. Kerameikos (Archaeological Site and Museum), and 7. Aristotle’s Lykeion. Pay in cash or card and the entrance to the Acropolis. Hopefully, TICKETS SHOULD AVAILABLE ONLINE SOON to avoid the long queues.
By way of comparison, Celebrity offered a 6h45m excursion which included motor coach transportation, entry to the Acropolis, the New Acropolis Museum (which we decided to skip in favor of the Agoras and Syntagma, but which does look excellent), a souvlaki lunch and free time in Plaka for $179/adult and $159/child. We spent €102 (about $119) in total for our day (Metro/bus tickets, Acropolis combination tickets and lunch).