ABOARD THE CELESTYAL CRYSTAL_A 7-night cruise to three continents with stops at dream destinations sounded thrilling. I’d start in Greece and have a chance to see the Sphinx, pyramids of Giza, Israel, Cyprus, Rhodes and Turkey. I was ready! Despite my high expectations, Celestyal far exceeded them. Each day and country connected me with very different cultures, traditions, stories, events, and sights – – all bonded by common themes of history and archeology. It’s impossible to describe their variety in any sort of composite way, with each day so different and enthralling in its own right. Instead, I’ll attempt a day-by-day recap, accompanied by a few recommendations.
The cruise begins and ends in Piraeus, Greece, a suburb of Athens. Allow at least a day before or after your cruise to explore the ancient Acropolis and the equally stunning, glass-sided Acropolis Museum, the latter full of its own wonders, accompanied by helpful explanations of their context and importance. The glass floors let you look down on foundations of the ancient city as you wander the expansive structure.
After boarding on Monday afternoon you’ll remain at sea through Tuesday, recovering from jet lag and getting acquainted with the ship. The spa stays busy that day, so book treatments ahead of time. Passenger Peggy Sijswerda from Virginia squeezed in a 30-minute massage and claimed, “her therapist’s magic fingers melted away my travel aches and pains.”
I opted instead to get myself organized in my cabin, a room that included twin beds (pushed together), a sofa and coffee table and large window. The bathroom was tight, but totally adequate. My bed felt comfy and the room steward cleaned it and brought new towels daily. Except for the one day at sea, I was off on excursions most of the time and mainly using the cabin for showering and sleeping. The Celestyal line maintains older ships, not classed as luxury, but still well maintained, very comfortable and including everything I needed.
During the day at sea, I attended a lecture on the history of Egypt given by Egyptologist, Mr. Hanny Tawfeek, whose engaging style and encyclopedic knowledge of ancient Egypt made for a lush introduction to this sandy paradise. Other options included a Greek wine tasting, dance lessons or language lesson. In the evening, guests dress fancier than normal for the Captain’s Cocktail party. No need to worry, however, men don’t need a tuxedo (or even a tie) nor women evening gowns.
Excursion 1: Cairo
I recommend heading to bed early on Tuesday, as a very long and exciting day in Cairo begins on Wednesday morning around 6:30. The full day Cairo excursion is included with the cruise and nearly all 1,180 passengers aboard made the almost three-hour trek by bus. A professional guide is posted on each bus, the same person who leads that group on the excursion. Mine spoke about the fascinating history of Egypt and told us about current day lifestyles. He prepared everyone for their tour.
Reaching Cairo, the pyramids appear suddenly and almost magically rise from the sand, a site most unforgettable and for most, one they have never viewed before. I was overwhelmed as I stood in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the last remaining of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The gigantic stone structure towered overhead, built from stone slabs each weighing about 70 tons.
Participants could then ride camels across rolling sand dunes to soak in the panorama of the other Giza pyramids (and sync with the swaying of a camel for some great photos as well). If a camel ride seems too taxing, carts pulled by a source more familiar to Americans (horses) will still offer a version of this a quintessential Cairo experience. My camel leader stopped and took photos of me with my mobile phone and another photographer also snapped away. He magically reappeared near the Sphinx, selling the 8×10 pics for just $3.
The bus then shuttled us over to see the guardian of the complex, the Sphinx. He shows his age (he is, after all, 4,513 years old), but remains mesmerizing. He’s stared stoically back at millions who have stood here over millennia at the same site. The silence of his expression speaks to a permanence that makes our time on earth seem immeasurably brief. More time with him before driving off for lunch would have been nice, but groups here, as elsewhere, move to a far quicker pace than his.
Following a tasty meal (a harbinger of what was to come through the rest of the excursions), we rode to the National Archeological Museum for a too brief, but amazing tour. We took in statues, mummies, ancient scrolls, but most importantly, the Treasures of Tutankhamen, marveled at his solid gold death mask and the series of enclosures surrounding his mummy (Matrushka dolls have nothing on the ancient Egyptians). The exquisite workmanship and skills of the craftsmen who sent him well-dressed to the afterlife spoke to an incredibly advanced and sophisticated time and place. The group then completed the day with a long bus ride back to the ship which had moved from the port of Alexandria to Port Said.
Excursion 2: Bethlehem and Jerusalem
Hard to top a visit to the pyramids and Sphinx, but Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the next stop, lured us on. We docked in Ashdod early the next morning, then traveling by bus to Bethlehem, crossed the barrier wall into the West Bank of Palestine. Don’t miss the art adorning the otherwise chilling barrier – – it gives graffiti a better name. We explored inside the Church of the Nativity, squeezing in to see the grotto recognized as the birthplace of Jesus. The basilica functions for three religions: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic. After our tour, we shuttled off to a luncheon and took some time to shop – – olive wood being one of the great mediums of artistic expression.
The bus proceeded back into Israel and we made a stop in Jerusalem at the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations or also called the Basilica of the Agony. I was captivated by the knurled, ancient olive trees and could easily imagine Jesus praying there.
We rode up to the Mount of Olives, and overlooked the ancient walled city and extensive cemeteries in a vast area shared by departed Muslims, Jews and Christians. I found in them a great irony – – three faiths together in peace at last, at rest. Back in the bus, we traveled to the old town and entered through the Jaffa Gate. We visited the wailing wall below the golden Dome of the Rock. Our guide also led us along the Via Dolorosa, the path taken by Jesus carrying his cross, and into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The scene remains so real that, closing your eyes, you can almost see and hear an angry Jesus turning over the tables of the money lenders. This pilgrimage church was built upon a few previous ones, but is venerated as the site of the crucifixion and burial. We climbed up to the glittering Altar of the Crucifixion but did not have time to go down to the burial tomb. FYI: Expect crowds on a trip to the Holy Lands during December.
Excursion 3: Limassol, Cyprus
Thankfully, after two long and tiring tour days, Friday’s excursion in Cyprus didn’t start until 10:30. My group boarded a bus and were driven past an old crusader castle and up to the ruins of Kourion. We walked around the remaining House of Efstolios, originally a private Roman villa that became a public recreation center during the early Christian period. It consists of a complex of baths and a number of rooms with beautiful 5th century AD mosaic floors. We also explored the acoustics in the amphitheater with a spectacular view down to the sea. A quiet joy, I found this scene a chance for reflection and enjoyment of blue waters, bluer skies, and warming sun.
The group heartily enjoyed a lovely lunch in the old town of Limassol and later meandered through the historic area. I can’t say this excursion was the most interesting, but I am happy to have touched base in a new country and learned about her turbulent past and ongoing border troubles.
Excursion 4: Rhodes, Greece
My first sight of the Island of Rhodes brought excitement. Straight ahead loomed a medieval fortress at the edge of the sea. We docked, but as usual we were whisked off in a bus. On Rhodes, however, we skirted the coastline and once past a section of resort hotels, panoramic landscape surrounded us.
Do not miss the adventure to the Acropolis of Lindos. The outing grew far beyond what I expected. Wear walking shoes that have some grip, as hiking to the top involves some slippery sections, but you are given enough time to proceed slowly. As we climbed higher, we encountered tremendous wind (I almost felt I could surf the rippling puddles from a recent rain), but the sight of the Temple of Athena pulls you up. The view from the top provides an unforgettable sight of ancient ruins against the background of turquoise water. I fell in love with Rhodes on this excursion and absolutely would love to return on a day with less wind.
Our meal at a traditional tavern brought another unexpected surprise. My group lingered so long, we decided to miss the walk back through the old town and were driven directly to the boat.
Excursion 5: Ephesus, Turkey
The fifth and final excursion of the cruise took us to the ancient city of Ephesus, near Kusadasi, Turkey. The Greeks originally built Ephesus in the 10th century BC as commercial seaport, taking advantage of its strategic location. Over time, as river and port silted up, the waterways shifted. The Ionian coast now rests several miles away. Having lost its access to the sea, Ephesus nevertheless continued to prosper under the Roman Empire (1st and 2nd centuries AD).
The ruins are vast and visitors can truly get a feel for how the sizeable city may have looked. I’d been to Ephesus three previous times, but one can never tire of the majesty of the reconstructed Library of Celsus. In its prime, the library housed 12,000 parchment manuscripts and scrolls. The original builders incorporated double-lined niches to protect the parchments from humidity or damage, but a fire tragically consumed all. Ask your guide about what the local elite meant when they said they were going to the library – – you’ll find the answer shocking and hilarious (I won’t ruin the surprise).
Lucky for me, on this visit I was able to explore the Terraced Houses, the archeological ruins of homes belonging to the wealthy who lived here during early Roman times. The excavations (covered over by a sunroof for protection and glass walkways) provide a glimpse of the intricate beauty of the dwellings. Frescoed walls come alive with delicate details and mosaic floors show expert design. I so appreciated this peek into the past. If you go, try to include this additional opportunity.
We concluded our stop in Turkey at the town of Sirince, more a village in the hills beyond Kusadasi. The region is known for its olive oil and wine production. We enjoyed another incredible feast at lunch and then had free time for shopping for those last-minute souvenirs.
Conclusions on Celestyal Cruises & Celestyal Crystal Spectacular 7-Night, 3-Continent Cruise
The three-continent cruise keeps participants busy and off ship much of the time. Consequently, I did not attend all the live entertainment shows offered each night. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the ones I saw and found the talent to be professional.
The Celestyal line attracts an array international clientele. Bravo to the cruise director who has the uncanny ability to repeat every instruction in a blizzard of languages without missing a beat.
One of the many benefits of the all-inclusive policy is that no tipping is expected at the end of the cruise. Gratuities are included. Yes, I’ll repeat that- gratuities are included, adding another reason why Celestyal Cruises provide a tremendous value. Gratuities are included with the price of the cruise.
For the price, I cannot say enough about this cruise line and the itinerary. Celestyal offers affordable opportunities for those individuals looking to explore destinations rather than those looking to lavish in luxury accommodations, indulge in added activities (mini-golf, go carts, wave runners) and partake 5-star dining. Personally, I’d much rather take a cruise and be introduced to somewhere new and noteworthy, than just be pampered and entertained while sailing on a boat. If you feel the same, check out Celestyal’s fantastic itineraries in the Greek isles as well as other international ports such as this three-continent cruise.
Cover Photo: Limassol, courtesy Celestyal Cruises
Celestyal Crystal Restaurant Review, By Debi Lander:
Yummy Mediterranean specialties showcase the menus on Celestyal cruises – – a Greek line. Fresh salads and seafood dominate the a la carte selections, but passengers can always order staples like steak, chicken or burgers. The two main dining rooms and various buffets with self- service serve three meals a day. Celestyal maintains open table service, so you dine when you are ready. Guests don’t need to wait unless they have special seating requests. You do not have to join others at a table, if you do not wish. Simply ask for a table for two or whatever your needs.
Food is always available and plentiful. I ate some exceptionally good meals; others, perhaps not gourmet, were very tasty. I suggest picking the dining room over the buffets for less noise and better quality. The waiters are attentive and helpful and aim to please.
In the morning, the main dining room features a full breakfast spread that includes many international selections, as well as fresh baked breads and pastries, Menu service and waiters are also available to take your order. Here’s an insider’s tip: Head up to the swimming pool deck where you’ll find an omelet and pancake/waffle station. You tell the chef the ingredients you want and watch the omelet being made. The omelets are terrific, the atmosphere less crowded and noisy, and the views of the sea delightful. To round out your plate and get juice/coffee/tea, just step around the corner where you’ll find another buffet service waiting.
Except for Tuesday, the day at sea, I never ate lunch on board the ship. All my excursions included lunch off the boat.
Dinner is often a themed meal with suggested menu choices that were always excellent. You choose from the appetizers, soups, salads, entrees and desserts. Hungry diners may ask for seconds. I especially enjoyed the Greek night. House wine (red, rose and white) are complimentary and if you choose, you can order a bottle from the wine menu at an additional cost.
Drinks from the bar
I’m not sure when the lounges officially open, but I know you can get champagne or mimosas at breakfast. Passengers gather and chat in the comfortable lounges for afternoon drinks or pre and post meal cocktails. One is a sports bar with TV’s (regularly featuring European soccer games), another has live music. Deck 5 offers an outdoor bar at the rear of the ship. Some think the espresso there is the best on the boat, especially considering the view. If you order from the standard bar selections or soft drinks, there is no fee. Specialty drinks will be added to your bill.
If you have special dietary needs, you should contact the cruise line before sailing. Your travel agent should be able to assist you with contacting the cruise line about any special requests.
Editor’s Note: More information about Celestyal Cruises, Celestyal Crystal and to get a quote/book here: https://allthingscruise.com/browse-cruise-lines/louis-cruises/