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Maybe I’m spoiled…but I just can’t get on board with this whole cruise thing (no pun…okay a little bit of a pun). Maybe I just don’t know how to cruise correctly. I don’t know. This has nothing to do with the actual cruise product because Crystal Cruises is the creme de la creme in the industry. This is sailing in true luxury. The food is superb, my stateroom is beautiful, all balconies face the ocean, the gym is 24 hours. It’s just done right. My issue lies with the amount of time that cruise ships spend in port.
When I was growing up we would take vacations that got us in in with the locals. It was boutique hotels or rental houses with kitchens so we could shop at the local markets and eat what the people ate. I’ve road tripped, backpacked and trained across most of Europe. I’ve taken a nine-hour public bus from Mexico City to Zihuatanejo. I’ve hiked and camped in the Andes. So when it comes to cruising, eight hours in a port of call does not cut it for me.
Yesterday I had all of four hours to see Istanbul. Istanbul! This city has been on my list for years! (To be fair, most international destinations are on my list…but whatever.) And how did I see it? Following a tour guide holding up a big goofy sign. And what did I see? Sure, I saw the Blue Mosque (which, by the way, is only known to locals as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque), and the Hagia Sofia (it’s typically closed Mondays but Crystal Cruises paid for a private entrance – that’s pretty cool). But…that was all I saw. No spice market, no grand bazaar, no kebabs, no secret underground late-night belly dancing clubs (I was most bummed about this part). I just want more!
So here’s what I walked way from Istanbul with:
The Sultan Ahmet Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616. Istanbul is home to thousands of mosques, but the Blue Mosque is the most unique because of its six minaret towers. It is affectionately known to tourists as the Blue Mosque because it is decorated with thousands of blue tiles. Turkey is predominantly a Muslim country, and all its people are called to prayer five times daily. During prayer time the Mosque closes, but when it is open it welcomes thousands. You are required to remove your shoes and all shoulders and legs must be covered.
Hagia Sofia is an ancient church that was built in the 6th century. It was later converted into a Mosque and today serves solely as a museum. Its dome rises almost 200 feet above the ground and is entirely covered in Byzantine mosaics.
Turkey is a country of two continents. Only 3 percent of the country is in Europe, and the rest sits in Asia. The two sides of the country are split up by the Bosphorus, which connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. The Bosphorus runs directly through Istanbul, so when staying in the city it is possible to party in Europe one night and in Asia the next…not that I would know, seeing as I missed out on all the wilding.
Today we are en route to Mykonos, Greece…where I’m sure I’ll have just enough time to run off the boat, eat something Greek and wave good bye.
Note: Due to the fact that tomorrow is the 4th of July, and I doubt that any of you will be reading this on your day off, we’ll postpone Name that Skyline! until next Wednesday. Happy Independence Day! Go do something stupid that Washington and Jefferson would frown upon.
I’d like to clear up a few misconceptions that people have on the glamorous lives of travel writers. Contrary to popular belief, life is not one big vacation. When you, reader, go on vacation, no doubt the worst part of the whole experience is the airport. However, at the end of that tunnel, you have a beautiful hotel, no schedule to keep but your own, and usually about a week in which to enjoy your destination.
Travel writers, on the other hand, spend the majority of their time in airports only to get to a destination, follow someone else’s itinerary and turn around to come home in about four days…only to have just enough time to recover, see some friends and get back on a plane to do it all over again. Allow me an example:
Saturday, at approximately 4 p.m. I checked into JFK at the SWISS counter, only to find that I had been granted access to the Business Lounge. What a nice little start to my press trip, I thought. But airports are fickle mistresses. They can seduce you with complimentary cocktails one minute, and the next tear your heart out and leave you for dead sitting on the tarmac like a shmo…which is exactly what happened.
Our aircraft took off down the runway for an ON TIME departure, only after the captain had announced that we’d be getting into Zurich early. The plane sped up, cocking itself at that slight angle before its wheels lift into the air, when suddenly it jolted back to 180 degrees, our bodies thrust forward as the captain slammed on the brakes….So that’s what those flimsy seat belts are for.
“Folks, we’ve had to abort our takeoff due to the failure of one of our engines.”
And so began a two-hour saga while we waited for maintenance to find a staircase so that they could actually get onto the plane to check it out. And even after that, it was discovered that there was no problem with the engine at all. The signal light was broken. So to the back of the taxi line we went, only to take off three hours late.
Of course, I missed my connection in Zurich and so I had to wait on the transfer line, only to miss the next flight to Istanbul. After I eventually did get rebooked, that flight was delayed due to thunderstorms.
Cut to the next scene: Me on a flight to Istanbul with a French child behind me kicking my seat with the force of some kind of small horse, while her mother screeched, “Arrêt!!!” for three hours. Seriously. This is how I commute to work. The normal employee may sit in traffic for an hour, get jostled on a subway, or what have you. This is how a travel writer commutes.
Atatürk International Airport in Istanbul is a shit show. There really is no other way to describe it. I was told that cruise passengers do not need a visa to enter Turkey. That is a lie. Do not attempt to stand on the immigration line without a visa, even if you are a cruise passenger. (I’m attending the Crystal Cruises’ 22nd Annual Sales Gala this week, if you are interested.) Oh, and FYI, the line to purchase a visa can give the Great Wall of China a run for its money in terms of length. Visas into Turkey cost approximately $20, and no, they do not accept Turkish Lira…in Turkey…to buy a Turkish visa. There are ATMs, however, that dole out cash in dollars and euro. But folks, let’s remember that travel writers are still writers. Making writers’ salaries. And unless you’re a former president or JK Rowling, writers’ salaries ain’t much. No worries, though. Visas are $20, and I had $36 in my checking account.
Hello, Istanbul. Twenty-four hours later. No joke. I looked down at my feet in horror as I saw they had swollen to the size of giant hams, and my toes looked like little cocktail weiners stuck into their sides. My ankles had been swallowed by my calves. At a certain point I also realized that that thing I was smelling was me. How’s that for jetsetting glamor?
Now I sit on a cruise ship and will have four hours to take in Istanbul before we ship off to our next destination. Not so much with the cultural immersion when on a cruise. (And this is a conference…so any free time you would normally have is eaten up with interviews, general sessions and sales presentations.)
Look – don’t get me wrong. I love my job. This is the life I chose, and for every 50 horrific issues, there’s that occasional private jet, epic meal or spa treatment. I love this lifestyle, but it is NOT for everyone. So the next time you meet a travel writer and say to them, “I wish I had your job,” really think about it. Do you? It’s lonely, it’s exhausting, it’s hectic and it will make you want to scream 80 percent of the time. That other 20 percent, however, is the reason why this is the only job I will ever have.
With Memorial Day Weekend fast-approaching, it is time to formally introduce the Summer of Fun 2012 list. For those of you unfamiliar with Summer of Fun, it is that time in New York when we go out and explore just why this is arguably the best city in the world (and we also go out in search of justification for the ridiculous rent prices we all pay to be here).
Summer of Fun officially kicks off Wednesday, May 30, with Manhattanhenge and will run through Labor Day.
So for those of you looking for things to do in NYC this summer, here is what I will (be attempting to) do and report back on. Feel free to join in on the journey.
I’ll give you one good thing about cruises: the access to free drunk food is amazing. I spent much of yesterday cursing the day as I went down the laundry list of alcohol I consumed the night before, the likes of which included champagne, martinis and scotch. (Yes, apparently I turned into a high society booze hound on Monday night.) But this stream of poor decisions led me to see the light about cruising: all-you-can-eat pizza is….perfection.
Okay, so maybe I’m going overboard (no pun), but when you are stumbling back to your room after partying with fellow media (because those dudes can hold their own), and you see a man holding a piping hot pizza, cheese glistening with grease, and he says that it is free and unlimited…well…let’s just say good thing I’m not single.
So maybe cruising isn’t exactly for me, but at least with Oasis of the Seas, for whom they cater to, they do a very good job. Everything about the experience has been seamless, the staff is friendly and the food is actually surprisingly good. This isn’t how I would choose to spend a vacation, but I’m not exactly complaining about the 85-degree weather, tanning on the pool deck and hanging out on my stateroom balcony. It’s also fun to play the part and embrace your inner kitsch.
Sure, the internet connection is sh*t, and when the ship docks the passengers rarely leave the port, which to me, begs the question “why even travel?” But I’ll put my travel snobbery aside I suppose, because I’m supposed to be cruising like a cruiser.
However, when docked in St. Thomas a writer friend and I took ourselves into town for lunch and a local beer (the hair of the dog, am I right?). If ever in town on a short amount of time, hit up Coconuts and try the fresh grouper and a Blackbeard Ale (sold exclusively in the Virgin Islands, but bottled in Portland, Maine…). You won’t be getting a local experience, but at least you are off the boat. The food is fresh, the beer is cold and you’re in the Caribbean. Life is good.
Tonight there will be time for one last adventure before disembarking in St. Maarten for a solo stay.
David Foster Wallace once wrote, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” It was about cruising. Well played, Dave. Well played.
I arrived in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday morning with the notion that all-inclusive cruises were the reason why the world hates Americans (I’m thinking of you, midnight buffets and the march of the XXXL’s). Don’t get worried – I haven’t had some life-affirming experience that has changed my outlook on cruising, but there are a few upsides to this floating Las Vegas that could help put it in a new light.
First of all, it’s a floating Las Vegas. Let’s look at the positives of that. Last year I went to Vegas four times (all for business, relax). When you go somewhere that often you need to learn how to make the most of it, which is how I have been approaching this sea titan. The upsides: Excellent restaurants, legitimate pool/hot tub scene, great bars and a spa/fitness center. And the views of the ocean don’t exactly hurt, which is something Vegas sorely lacks. Also – let’s not forget that cruising at this level was designed for the truly lazy (and no this does not belong in the negative column). When you are in Italy, you would be an idiot to sit by the pool all day. When you are in Ho Chi Minh City, you aren’t signing up for multiple spa treatments. But when you are on a Caribbean cruise? You go ahead. You lay by that pool, you meander off the boat at a leisurely pace only to return an hour later having accomplished nothing. It’s okay! Good for you!
Truth be told, cruising has come a long way and this ship was a definite game changer. You are no longer forced to eat at the same time with the same people holding awkward conversations (although you can, if you still want to). The entertainment has upped the ante in terms of electronics (and perhaps pyrotechnics) and everything just feels fresher and newer.
The downsides: Much of it is all-you-can-eat, which is often grossly taken advantage of. (I once heard a story about a guy at an all-you-can-eat that sucked sauce off of his plate to make room for more food. Oh, America.) Second, it’s all families and couples and once again I’m here alone, though that’s just the nature of the biz and no fault of the cruise line. Bucket of champagne for two for one? Yes, I will drink that all alone and further drown my loneliness by eating all of those chocolate covered strawberries….what?
Ahem. Point being, it’s not awful. I could actually see myself having some fun. But going back to Mr. Wallace, his outlook is probably with where my allegiance will align.
If you are anything like me, you are always ready for a last-minute adventure. Royal Caribbean International’s Voyager of the Seas is preparing for its early 2012 sailings to the West Caribbean and there are some spots left. Here’s where you come in. Snag this seven-day cruise that hits Cozumel, the Caymans, and Jamaica – and it can be yours for just $399. Hey, we’ll even throw in this free set of ginsu knives!
Happy weekend, friends. I’m off to the newly renovated Mount Airy Resort for a mini press trip. Tales on Monday.
Any cruise fans out there? Anyone? Bueller? I’m not a big fan of the all-you-can-eat, kids-at-every-corner concept. But when I get to meet Guy Fieri at an event for Carnival Cruise Lines, sure, cruising gets a little cooler. (Note: I’m a Travel Channel fan through and through. I bleed Bourdain. But something about this frosted tip, burger guzzling, California dude makes me smile.)
I’ve taken one cruise in my entire life. It was a three day shindig from San Francisco up to Vancouver and it was aboard Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Symphony. I’m told that’s the way to go. It’s luxury cruising at its finest. So believe me when I say I am no cruise connoisseur.
But for all my cruise fans out there, let me tell you that yesterday I attended an event for Carnival Cruise Lines at Manhattan’s very swank Hudson Terrace (probably the only time I will ever see what’s beyond those velvet ropes). Sitting among members of the media (I’m talking real members here, like USA Today and Fox), I learned about Carnival’s Fun Ship 2.0, which includes a host of new offerings centered around dining, entertainment and bars & lounges (complete with some celebrity partnerships – enter Guy Fieri. Oh, and George Lopez. He was there, too.)
Fieri will be overseeing Guy’s Burger Joint, a “straightforward, real deal, quality burger,” according to Fieri. Lopez will take on Carnival’s signature The Punchliner Comedy Club as the new “curator of comedy.”
I apologize that this post is so industry-related. I’ll have some more tales from my weekend jaunt to Philly sometime tomorrow. If you really care about Carnival Cruise Lines’ announcement, you can read the post I did for my actual job here.
I’m sorry, but if you have been one of those people on the double decker bus tours in NYC, I have mocked you, refused to make eye contact with you and generally avoided you like the plague. Tourists. Nasty.
Ahh but this weekend I was served my just desserts. I was in Chicago, a new city for me, visiting a good friend who has just relocated there and somehow we were lured onto an architecture boat tour. Just picture a double decker bus on the water moving slowly while a man with a microphone points out buildings of interest.
Here’s the irony: I actually enjoyed it. A 90-minute cruise with the Official Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise takes you down the Chicago River and past iconic structures in the Chicago skyline, such as Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Trump Tower, the Civic Opera Building, the Tribune Tower and NBC Tower.
Sure, locals will hoot and holler from the bridges above and demand that you wave to them and you feel a little bit like a fish in a fishbowl, but for a $35 ticket, a seat and a full bar it’s probably one of the better touristy things you can do in the Windy City.
Other cool things to do? Check out the John Hancock Center‘s Signature Room and Lounge. From the 96th floor you will get a totally sweeping view of Chicago, and one of the best dirty martinis I have ever had.
Take things down a notch in class and grab a cheeseburger (cheezborger!) at the Billy Goat Tavern (of Saturday Night Live fame).