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Trip to Italy & Cruise to Greek Islands

Author: Moses Thrasher
Date of Trip: September 2012

Trip to Italy and Greek Isles - September, 2012

Tuesday/Wednesday Sept. 4 & 5 – It was the trip of a lifetime; my first journey to Europe! And we were spending an entire month! My sweetheart and I planned for months. Finally the big day arrived. We live on the Big Island of Hawaii and flew United Airlines out of Kona. After a brief lay-over in San Francisco we landed in Philadelphia at 7:00am. Having eleven hours to kill, we took the train to midtown and had a wonderful time in a beautiful and friendly city. The highlights were Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and a wonderful market place near the train station.(Reading Terminal Market)

Thursday Sept. 6 – Then it was on to Venice. The first thing we noticed is how few Italians speak English. We were staying at a small hotel on the nearby island of Sant’ Erasmo and decided to take a boat from the airport to Venice. We changed some dollars into Euros, purchased our ticket, stumbled through the directions we were given, and after a very long walk carrying all of our luggage, we found our boat. The thirty minute trip brought us to a dock in Venice where we found that we had to walk again, lugging our bags over a bridge with steps, to another landing to catch the local boat to our destination. This was not easy, as everything was confusing and all information was written in Italian. Again, no one seemed to speak English.

Hotel Il Lato Azzurro is a three story “Villa” with small rooms and shared bathroom. There is nothing else on the island, so we spent the next two days in Venice. To someone who has never been, the city is beautiful and romantic with its rich architecture and canals with arched bridges. There are no motor vehicles, so boating and walking are the only ways to get around. However, again I must stress how annoying it was to have the people, especially those in the tourist service industry, be so unhelpful, rude, and unfriendly. The first time someone told us, “Just go over the bridge and turn right” in response to us asking directions, we believed him. After about ten such responses, it became apparent that they were purposefully deceptive with directions and assistance of any kind. It cost 1.5 Euro ($2.20 US) to use the public restrooms. We quickly found that if you stopped in for a coffee or a gelato you could use their facilities.

Friday Sept. 7 – Borrowing a bicycle from the hotel, we rode to the dock and caught a boat to Murano. The island houses some of the oldest and renowned glass blowing foundries in the world. It was fascinating to see hundreds of shops offering thousands of hand-blown works for sale. Unfortunately, we never were given the correct directions to actually visit a foundry. Then it was back on the boat to Venice. We had planned a side trip to the Greek islands. The ship was the Norwegian Jade. Getting to it however, was such a challenge. Again, local directions were confusing. I am so happy that we decided to go on a trial run today.

Saturday Sept. 8 – Even after our “trial run”, getting to the ship was still challenging; taking the right boat, to the right landing, walking to the right terminal, lugging our baggage up flights of stairs to catch the “People Mover” tram, getting off at the right stop. From there we were still a mile from the gang plank. There were no shuttles, buses, or taxis. It was somewhat surreal, walking in the hot sun with hundreds of passengers all wheeling our luggage to the ship.

The Cruise! Once on the ship, and after a long hot shower, we started exploring our new surroundings. I had never been on a cruise before, but it did not take long to realize that the focus of the cruise line was at odds with mine. I was there to experience the Greek Islands; they were there to keep me on board as long as possible spending money. And this floating hotel had endless ways to accomplish this. The food and room were included in the price of the cruise. Everything in a bottle, including water, was an extra charge. So was money exchange, internet, several specialty restaurants, the spa and its facilities, photos taken of you, and of course the stores and the bars. The shore excursions were a big expense if you chose to take them. We opted out on these and most of the extras.

There were 2400 passengers from all around the globe, speaking numerous languages. We met several people on board that we became friendly with. There were at least six no-charge restaurants available, two swimming pools, a large water slide, four hot tubs, shuffle board, tennis and basketball courts, a library, an art gallery, a ship’s helm viewing room, and even a golf driving cage.

We splurged and bought the cruise-long spa package that allowed us to use the lavish hot tubes, steam room, sauna, exotic showers, and the relaxation room. I won a free body treatment. And we both took advantage of the manager’s discount for a massage. Of course, the 24 hour buffet dining room was a constant temptation, which we took way too much advantage of. Oh, and chocoholic night, Yikes!

There was wonderful entertainment on board at no extra charge. We went to the theater almost every night to very professional live performances. I heard a ship musician at the pool playing many of the oldies that I do. Later I met him and found that he was from the Philippines but had always wanted to visit Hawaii. When he found that I was a musician, he invited me to play one evening. That was a highlight for me; playing the Aloha Bar on the Norwegian Jade/Spirit of Hawaii. I guess I did OK. He invited me back the next night as well.

One wonderful coincidence is that the ship we had boarded was an old Princess Cruise Line vessel originally christened as the Pride of Hawaii. All the art and décor was reminiscent of Hawaii. We felt so at home. The main restaurant was reminiscent of a ballroom in Iolani Palace during the days of the Hawaiian monarchy. There was a life size statue of King Kamehameha extending his hand to the people, surrounded by orchids, ti, ginger, and other Hawaiian plants and flowers. The walls were covered with paintings depicting scenes of life in old Hawaii.

Monday Sept. 10 – The first port of call was Corfu. We chose not to purchase the excursion offered by the ship. We walked to the little town to see as much as we could in the limited amount of time allowed. The most memorable event was lunch. We ordered one gyro sandwich, a Greek salad and water. Without us asking for it, they brought bread and the sauce you were to put on the sandwich as if it was included. Even though the menu priced our choices at 15 Euros, the bill was 30 Euros ($42 US). Apparently the bread and sauce, which the waiter failed to mention, was as much as the meal.

Tuesday Sept. 11 – The next stop was Mykonos. We decided to rent a scooter and see the sites on our own. We drove this way and that, passing windmills, the city, the ocean, a couple of beaches, and then we found a Starbucks Coffee shop. What a pleasant surprise, and they had real American coffee!

Wednesday Sept. 12 – Then there was Santorini. Oh my God… What a beautiful place. We anchored out in the bay about 1:30pm and took a ferry boat to shore. The town was at the top of a sheer cliff. There were three ways to the top; walk, ride the donkeys, or take the ski lift. The walk was long, steep and followed the same trail that the donkeys used. (beware of donkey droppings!) The donkeys smelled, and so would we if we rode them. So we opted for the lift. Once at the top, we found and rented another scooter. We wanted to visit Akrotiri, but had heard that it closed at 3:30. We rushed across the island and found out it was open until 5:00, so we spent a couple of hours exploring the ruins of “Atlantis”. We then drove to the opposite end of the island to Oia (pronounced ee-ah) in time for sunset. The area and the town were so beautiful. Snow white buildings with rounded corners and blue rooftops nestled cozily into the vibrant green hillside. We wandered through the cobblestone streets and found a taverina overlooking the bay, where we enjoyed a cappuccino and homemade baklava while watching the sunset over this spectacular island. As sunsets go, I have to say, Hawaii has them beat hands down.

Thursday Sept. 13 – Maybe I was just burning out on the short, energy draining jaunts into these ports, but Olympia did not impress me. It was probably no more of a tourist trap than the other ports, but it lacked the character. I didn’t even bother to do the home of the Olympic Games tour. After an uneventful bus ride to and from town, I was glad to get back to the ship and on to the next adventure.

Saturday Sept. 15 – Back in Venice, we basically repeated the long journey from the ship in reverse. Feeling we had had enough of this town, we went straight to the train station and bought tickets for Bologna. Our train ride was to be the first of many. We could have spent 45 Euro and taken the first class express, but what fun is that. For 15 Euro we got to stop repeatedly and change trains four times. Thankfully we met a family traveling the same route, or we may never have gotten out of the Venice station. We certainly would not have made the connection at Prato, where we had only five minutes to traverse the tunnel under seven train tracks and up the stairs to catch the next train. Of course, we were still lugging all of our bags. Once there, we found the nice and inexpensive Hotel Astoria relatively near the station. After checking in, we set off to explore the town by catching a city bus. It was perfect. Later we had our first real Italian dinner at the Ristorante Bolognese.

Sunday Sept. 16 – This morning there is a huge marathon that has many streets blocked off. So we explored Montagnola Park, a large open area in the center of town. We were starting to feel better about our trip and getting used to the land of Gracie and Prego.

Back on the train, we traveled southwest through Florence station to a town called Figline. Sheri had used time-share credits to book a camping village in the mountains above the town called Norcenni Girasole Club. I guess there may be an American equivalent to this place, but I have never heard of one. There were four thousand “campers”; some in RVs, some in trucks with campers, there were trailers of all sizes, and even some tents. Near the entrance was a little village that serviced the campers with three restaurants, two bars, a grocery market, a gift shop, a laundromat, a wine shop, and of course, a gelato stand. There were also several swimming pools and a spa. We stayed in a two bedroom trailer with a bathroom and kitchen. For the first time, we were able to shop at the market and prepare our own meals. We did walk down to the gelato stand after dinner for dessert.

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