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Bucket List Cruise with Celestyal Cruises
In early December, my husband and I were invited on board the Celestyal Crystal to experience this cruise and share our impressions with you – the good, the bad, the ugly – as they say. I will share our cruise itinerary, our favorite experiences, what we liked and didn’t like about the cruise and our top tips for the 3 Continent Eastern Mediterranean cruise with you, so keep reading.
Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Itinerary
This cruise offers you some top notch destinations. Here they are at a glimpse:
Day 1: Greece – Athens and Piraeus – Acropolis (UNESCO Site)
Day 2: Sea Day
Day 3: Egypt – Alexandria – Drive to Giza Plateau – Pyramids (UNESCO Site), Lunch on Nile River – Egyptian Museum Cairo – Port Said
Day 4: Israel/Palestine – Ashdod – Bethlehem Church of Nativity (UNESCO Site) – Mount of Olives – Wailing Wall – Jerusalem Old City (UNESCO Site), Via Dolorosa – Church of the Holy Sepulcher
Day 5: Cyprus – Kourion – Limassol
Day 6: Greece – Rhodes – Lindos
Day 7: Turkey – Kuşadası – Ephesus (UNESCO Site) – Şirince – Kuşadası
Day 8: Greece – Piraeus
Our departure port for the Eastern Mediterranean cruise was Piraeus, about 35 minutes outside of Athens. Our boarding time was in the late afternoon, at around 4:30 PM. We had ample time to explore the UNESCO Site Acropolis, head to the Acropolis Museum and have a delicious lunch.
Tip: Visit the Acropolis early in the morning to avoid the crowds! I also recommend taking a tour, so you can learn about the history and story behind the place that is known as the cradle of democracy.
>>Also read my top tips for taking a winter cruise in the Mediterranean.
Our first day on the cruise was a sea day, as we crossed the Mediterranean from Piraeus to Alexandria. Unfortunately, I did not feel well that day, so I spent most of the day in our cabin. Thanks to the great ship Doctor, I was back on my feet in no time though and could enjoy the rest of my 3 continent cruise.
My husband explored the ship and took advantage of the various activities. His favorite was the Egyptology lesson about the history of Egypt. The instructor Hany Tawfik has a PhD in Egyptology and so much passion for the topic that he got everyone even more excited about the next day’s adventures in Egypt.
In the evening, he attended the Captain’s Dinner, which was more of a photo opportunity with the Captain after the dinner.
Bright and early, we left the ship in Alexandria at 6:30 AM and boarded the bus to Cairo. To our great delight, our guide was Hany, the Egyptologist from the ship. On the 3.5-hour bus ride to Giza, he told us a lot about the pyramids, Egyptian history, and current events in Egypt.
Once we arrived at the Giza plateau, we were awestruck by the first sight of the pyramids. Each one of us had seen hundreds, if not thousands of pictures and movies about them, but it was humbling to stand in front of them and see them with our own eyes.
One of the top highlights of this excursion was the visit inside the Great Pyramid. We walked a narrow steep pathway at about a 45-degree angle for about 15 minutes. I am only 5 ft tall and I still had to bend quite a bit, so if you are claustrophobic or have back problems, this might not be for you.
Once on top, we arrived in the rectangular burial chamber. It was empty except for a stone basin that was part of the sarcophagus. Seeing the smooth walls and precise craftmanship of the pyramid from the inside was very interesting and definitely gives you some bragging rights.
Next up, we saddled up and went on a Camel Tour around the Giza Plateau. While the main entrance around the Great Pyramid was quite crowded and buzzing, we got to experience the other side of the plateau and had it practically to ourselves. This gave us not only some great photo opportunities but also a more tranquil and peaceful experience of the Giza plateau that made it much more enjoyable.
After a quick bus ride, we did a quick stop to see the Sphinx. There we had some time for souvenir shopping and to take some iconic shots of the mythical creature. All this sightseeing left us quite hungry and we enjoyed a delightful lunch on the river banks of the Nile river.
Egyptian Museum Cairo
After lunch, we headed to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, right on Tahrir Square, in Downtown Cairo. This is where the protests of the Arab Spring happened that led to the Egyptian Revolution and the resignation of President Mubarak.
Hany explained to us some of the most interesting power struggles of the various Egyptian dynasties. I have to say, those pharaohs led some scandalous lives. Fathers married daughters or granddaughters, had multiple wives and concubines and did everything to keep the power in their family.
At the moment, the Egyptian Museum is in the process of moving to the Grand Egyptian Museum that is scheduled to open in 2020 (but has been postponed to open for a few years now).
We left Cairo right around sundown and made our way to the mouth of the Suez Canal, where our ship was waiting for us. While we were out exploring, the ship went all the way from Alexandria to Port Saed to pick us up and minimize transit time between Egypt and our next stop: Israel.
We are definitely planning to return to Egypt once the new museum is open and explore more of this stunning country. Next time, we want to spend more time in Cairo, then head on a Nile cruise and explore the Valley of the Kings and Aswan, finish off our trip at the Red Sea.
Israel & Palestine
This Celestyal Cruise around the Eastern Mediterranean really offered highlight after highlight. Early on our 3rd day on the ship, we reached Ashdod, Israel, for another jam-packed day.
After immigration, we boarded our bus and met our Israeli guide Danny. On our 45 minute drive to Bethlehem, we got a first overview of the history of Israel, the Israel/Palestine conflict and our itinerary for the day.
As we were driving, our guide asked us, if we knew who David and Goliath were. We all nodded, remembering the story of little David defeating the giant. Nonchalantly, he pointed outside and said: “We are driving through the valley, where the battle happened.”
We only had about 10 hours to explore the region, so we got a short glimpse of the most noteworthy things to see. While this area certainly deserves a lot more time, I was impressed with how much ground we covered and how many sights we got to see.
Our first stop was Bethlehem. Right after we crossed into Palestine, we picked up our Palestinian guide (Israeli guides cannot guide in Palestine and Palestinian guides not in Israel). George showed us the main sight in the city: The Nativity Church (UNESCO Site), built on the spot where Jesus was born.
I was raised Catholic and though my church visits have become quite infrequent, it was very moving to visit one of the most important religious places of my faith. When our guide George recited the Our Father prayer in Aramaic (the language that Jesus spoke), it felt very special.
After our visit to Bethlehem, we dropped off our Palestinian guide and went to Jerusalem. Our first stop was a scenic overview of the city on the Mount of Olives. A little further down the hill is the Church of all Nations, also known as Church of the Agony, where Judas betrayed Jesus and Jesus was arrested.
The rest of our time was mostly spent in the Old City of Jerusalem, another UNESCO site. Our first stop was a visit to the Wailing Wall, part of the historic Temple Mount. The Wailing Wall is the closest wall to Solomon’s Temple, also known as the First Temple. It was built about 3000 years ago and was destroyed in 587 B.C.E. by the Babylonians.
After the fall of the Babylonian Empire in 539 B.C.E., the Second Temple was built in the same place and lasted until it was destroyed again by the Romans in 70 C.E.
When Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims in the 7th century C.E., they started building the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount, the famous Mosque with the golden dome.
From there, we walked through the narrow streets of the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, filled with shops, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and tea houses. I wish we had had more time there to explore on our own, shop a little and try some of the deliciously smelling shawarma and falafel sandwiches.
In the heart of the Muslim Quarter, we reached Via Delarosa, the street that Jesus carried the cross to his crucifixion on Golgotha. This place is now marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and you can see the stone, on which Mary prepared Jesus for burial and the crypt where he was buried. As the holiest Christian site, the governance of the church is split among various Christian denominations: Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, as well as Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopian Orthodox.
It was incredible to see all these sights that I have heard about all my life and it moved me more than I had anticipated. I can’t wait to return to this region and learn more about its history and get to know its people.
Some people say that just the act of traveling is a political act, especially if the destination is Israel/Palestine. I would not go that far, at least not for the average visitor.
It is almost impossible though to visit this region without hearing about religion, politics, and the ongoing conflict and turmoil that affects so many people on both sides and its ripple effects that reach far beyond the region.
However, I am not an expert on this topic and as I only spent ~10 hours in this region, I had only but the shortest glimpse of insight. If you want to learn more about this region, its history, and everyday life, you might find these books interesting.
After experiencing the pyramids and Bethlehem/Jerusalem back to back and 2 long and active days, it was nice to arrive in Limassol and look forward to a more relaxing and slower-paced day.
I had been to Cyprus as a small child with my parents but did not explore much outside of Paphos, so I was excited to get to know another part of the island.
Cyprus has been occupied by so many, so its history and influences are very intriguing. Instead of becoming wary of foreigners, Cypriots embrace their multifaceted history and welcome strangers with great hospitality. Whether it was the Romans, Babylonians, Persians, Assyrians, Greeks, or Turks, each one helped form this beautiful culture.
We arrived in Limassol and headed straight to Kourion by bus, one of the top sights near Limassol if not all of Cyprus. The ruins of the ancient city date back to Roman times and back then, Kourion was one of the most influential cities in Cyprus.
In the late 4th century, 5 strong earthquakes hit Kourion and while it was rebuilt to a certain extent, the locals abandoned the city, after it was raided by Arabs.
The location of Kourion is breathtaking. Sitting on top of white chalk cliffs, you can overlook the deep blue of the Mediterranean sea. Especially the Amphitheater makes you wonder if the spectators came to watch the gladiator fights and plays, or simply to enjoy the stunning view.
After exploring the ruins, we worked up an appetite and headed for a delicious lunch at La Mer, right on the beach boardwalk in Limassol. A delicious lemon-chicken-egg soup called Avgolemono that had the color of the sun, followed by savory chicken kebabs with mashed potatoes and grilled vegetables and finished off with a honey-soaked upside-down cake left us more than happy and satisfied.
To walk off, some of the copious amounts of calories we just consumed, we made our way to the old city of Limassol, for an afternoon stroll and some quick shopping.
Before we went back to the ship, we were invited for Afternoon Tea at The Royal Apollonia, a stunning 5 star property right on the beach in Limassol. The property looked beautiful – elegant and sophisticated, yet comfortable and approachable and perfect for luxurious Mediterranean getaway.
On the 5th day of our cruise, we made our way back to Greece – Rhodes to be exact. Before we arrived in port, the head chef gave us a cooking demo and showed us how to make Shrimp Saganaki. What a tasty way to start the day!
The beautiful Greek island of Rhodes really got to me. The landscape is gorgeous, the water turquoise like in the Caribbean, and the food beats everything.
Our highlight of the day was a trip to Lindos, a picturesque village perched on the hill overlooking the ocean. White-washed houses, narrow, cobblestoned streets, and cute souvenir shops and cafés are a bit touristy, but still very enjoyable.
At the very top of the hill, you will find the ruins of the Lindos Acropolis and spend your time exploring the crumbling remains. The view from up there is spectacular, but make sure that you wear good shoes with a lot of grip. The cobblestones are extremely slippery when wet and the steep slope up the hill makes it hard, but so worth it to go to the top.
Make sure to visit the Church of Panagia in the heart of Lindos, it is magnificent. I could have spent hours looking at the intricate paintings and decor.
Oh, and did I mention the cats? Greece, in general, is known for its huge cat population, but Rhodes especially is a cat lover’s dream. I am actually more of a dog person and quite allergic to cats, but I still fell in love with them, especially this little fella who followed me around for quite some time.
Before we got back on the ship, we had the most delicious dinner at Pollōniátissa, a local taverna. This was one of my favorite meals in Greece and I would travel back to Rhodes just for this restaurant. If you have the chance to eat there, I highly recommend it!
However, they don’t have an English menu and don’t really speak English, so I if you go, I highly recommend downloading Google Translate and Greek, so you can communicate.
Our ship arrived early in the morning in Kuşadası, Turkey. This Eastern Aegean seaport is the gateway to the UNESCO Site Ephesus, an ancient Greek city built in the 10th-century B.C.E. and one of the best-preserved ancient cities in existence.
What took me by surprise was the biblical importance of Ephesus. I had no idea that the Gospel of John was supposedly written there and that the last known residence and presumably the final resting place of Virgin Mary is located in a small village nearby.
What makes Ephesus so special is that it is so well preserved and had been the meeting point for the Who is Who of ancient times: Apostles Paul and John together with Virgin Mary, Egyptian Kings, Mark Antony and Cleopatra, they all visited and called Ephesus home for a while. Augustus even declared Ephesus the capital of Asia Minor, favoring it over Constantinople.
Another interesting fact about Ephesus? The city used to be a flourishing port city. Now it is 3 miles from the sea. The water was so shallow though, that the ancient Romans built a canal for the ships to make it to the port. So it took only a few minor earthquakes to change the geological features of the area to cut Ephesus off completely off from water. When this happened, it quickly lost its importance as a city and the locals abandoned it in the 15th century.
I highly recommend visiting the Terrace houses in the covered part of the Archeological part, where you can actually walk through/over the rich merchant houses. They are in great condition, despite being almost 2000 years old. You can see the intricate frescos on the walls and detailed mosaics adorning the marble floors. Another plus point: We had the area almost to ourselves, as there is an additional entrance fee (~6 EUR).
Next, we headed to the cute hillside town of Şirince for a delicious lunch at Güllü Konakları – a really cute restaurant/Boutique hotel. The food was absolutely delectable and the grounds looked so nice. I would love to stay a few days there one day.
After lunch, we had a little free time to explore and my husband went to the small bazar for some Turkish coffee and tea. They had large ceramic pots with coals in them, covered by a metal trey with a large heap of sand. When we ordered the coffee, the lady prepared it right in front of us, moving the tiny coffee maker over the hot tray and through the hot sand until it almost bubbled over and then she poured it into our cups.
In the late afternoon, we headed back to the port city of Kuşadası. We had a few hours to kill before we had to be back on the ship. We strolled around town and walked up and down random streets, looking for souvenirs, and motives to photograph.
As we were walking, an older man told us – with hand and feet and lots of smiles – that there was a photo opportunity at the end of the dead-end street we were standing on. When we got down to the end, there was indeed a nice view. Unfortunately, it was obstructed by a fence and multiple power lines. Just in that moment, a local family, who owned the house right at the end of the cul de sac.
You never guess what happened next. The man, with perfect English, invited us into his home to take photos from his balcony, overlooking the Bay of Kuşadası, including a great shot of our cruise ship (see the first photo of the blog post). We took photos and chitchatted for a bit and it turns out, Atta and his family had lived in California for a few years and his son was actually born less than 1 hour from San Diego.
What a small world. The friendliness and hospitality in Turkey has always amazed me and this was another example of how wonderful this country and its people are.
After 7 action-packed days, we arrived back where we started: Piraeus, Greece. We had an incredible time on our cruise and the destinations and experiences we had truly made for an exceptional trip.
My husband and I added on 3 more days in Athens and explored more of this fun city. We did a cooking class, ate at great little Greek tavernas and met up with some friends. We’ll share more about our adventures in Athens in some coming articles.
Celestyal Cruises Pros & Cons
Celestyal Cruises is a Greek cruise line with its headquarters in Piraeus. Their specialty are destination-focused cruises, where passengers can have more time at the destination. The excursions are longer and try to cover as much as possible. With Celestyal, you will have the most time in the countries on the itinerary, so you feel a bit more immersed than on regular cruises.
They also select the tour guides according to this and most of them are true experts. Many of our guides had a PhD or Masters in History or country-specific degrees and shared their passion about the topic with us.
I had been on other cruises before, where you had a mere 3-4 hours in a destination. Of course, even with 10-12 hours in a country, you can only get but a glimpse of it. I still appreciated the longer time we had at the destination and during the excursions.
The Celestyal Crystal is a relatively small cruise ship with about 1200 passengers. So the offers on the ship itself are a bit more limited compared to the big ocean cruise ships. There is still plenty to do and experience, whether you are in the mood for an evening show, classes, or a visit to the spa.
The food on the cruise was also very good, offering a variety of dishes a la cart in the main restaurants, or as a buffet. There were quite a few options for vegetarians and vegans. I wish there had been more local or Greek dishes. I love eating the local food of the countries we visit and it would have added a special touch.
The service on board was excellent without being obtrusive. The staff genuinely cared and wanted us to have the best experience possible. When I was sick, the staff went out of their way to make me feel comfortable. They brought me hot water for tea and even a full jar of honey to sooth my throat.
Another big advantage that I really liked was that the cruise was all inclusive. It included 3 excursions, a drink package (top shelf was extra) and even tips.
The 3 included excursions are:
- Classic Cairo
- Acropolis of Lindos
- Ancient Ephesus
Our excursions were specialty tours though, so not everything we did is included in the standard tours offered.
I also liked that the cruise started/arrived at the same port. Round trip tickets are usually a lot cheaper than booking multi-city airfare.
The 3 Continent Cruise with Celestyal Cruises through the Eastern Mediterranean is perfect, if you want to see incredible sights, spend as much time in the destination as possible, want to learn more about history and don’t mind a packed schedule to make the most of your time.
If you are the person who wants to spend the majority of the cruise on the ship for entertainment or want a relaxing beach holiday, this cruise is probably not for you.
Top Cruise Tips
- Don’t overpack – laundry on the ship is affordable (1 large bag of clothing was 20 EUR).
- “Captain’s Dinner” is a bit less formal than on other cruise lines. Smart casual is appropriate, black tie is not necessary.
- This cruise is focused on the exploration of the cruise destinations. It is not the best choice if you want to relax on the pool/beach for the week.
- Bring stain resistant travel clothes and comfortable shoes.
- If you travel with a cruise, most passport holders do not need a visa.
- Celestyal will take your passport at certain ports beforehand to make immigration faster and easier. You will get your passport back before you leave the ship. I recommend making a copy of your passport and keep it in digital form (email), as well as in print with you.
I hope this article helped you get a better overview of what to expect from a 3 Continent Eastern Mediterranean cruise with Celestyal. My husband and I had an amazing time and can highly recommend this cruise.
To book this cruise, just go to the Celestyal Cruise website and read more details about sailing dates, cabins and of course to go through the booking process.
A big thank you again for the team from Celestyal who invited us on this cruise and made this trip possible. Thank you Chuck, Marios, and Frosso for taking such great care of us.