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Friendly Planet Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Mediterranean Cruise’

A Michigan family’s adventure on Friendly Planet Travel’s Athens and 4-Day Greek Isles Cruise

Taking your whole family to the Mediterranean can be an adventure of a lifetime, and it sounds like it was for Sarah Hirsch from West Bloomfield, Mich. She went on Friendly Planet Travel’s Athens and 4-Day Greek Isles Cruise with her husband, Kevin, and son and daughter, Jacob and Elena.

The Hirsch family recently returned from their tour of Greece and sent me an e-mail recapping their trip. I thought I would share with you all the kind things Sarah had to say and her beautiful photos. Thanks Sarah!


Our family at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece

It may be a small world after all, but it sure seems big when trying to narrow down vacation options. Luckily, Friendly Planet Travel makes planning a vacation easy with a variety of specific itineraries of the best destinations around the world.

I had always wanted to go to Greece and see the beautiful islands, and visit amazing historical sites like the Acropolis, Agora, Plaka, and Panathenaic Stadium.

The Athens and 4-day Greek Islands Cruise itinerary offered by Friendly Planet provided me the opportunity to do all of this and more. With help and guidance from our Friendly Planet Travel agent, Becca, it was easy to prepare for a once in a lifetime family vacation.

Our journey began with an overnight flight to Europe, and our layover in Germany gave us a morning to explore the lovely Frankfurt. We arrived in Athens in the late afternoon, and were met by a Friendly Planet representative who brought us to our hotel.

Our family on the Greek Isles

It was so nice to eliminate the stress of handling ground transportation as that was all taken care of, since it is included on every vacation booked through Friendly Planet.

Our evening consisted of an informational meeting with Yanni, our Friendly Planet point person in Greece, who gave us all of the information we would need for our cruise and oriented us for the week.

We chose to have dinner at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, which featured a view of the Acropolis all lit up for the night like a beacon welcoming visitors to Athens.

The next morning we were taken by bus to the port, where we embarked on our cruise. The ship brought us to the ports of Mykonos, Kusadasi (Turkey), Patmos, Rhodes, Crete and Santorini in the span of four days and four nights.

We were at each destination only briefly, just long enough to taste each island’s unique flavor. These ports of call are so fantastic that even to simply walk around town and spend a few moments dipping our feet into the Aegean Sea equalled an incredible experience.

Elena and I in Ephessus, Turkey

Friendly Planet offers optional excursions for an additional fee in each of the ports. We mostly chose to explore on our own, though we did take an organized tour that we booked through Yanni to the ancient ruins in Ephessus in Turkey, which gave us a look back to the way of life experienced thousands of years ago.

Our final stop was Santorini, which is so unique a place on Earth that it kind of blows your mind a little!

After the cruise, we had two more nights in Athens. Our hotel was located just a couple of minutes walking distance to most of the best sites to see in Athens. Because we chose to go during the middle of summer, the temperature hovered around 100 degrees, so we broke up our days by spending the siesta hours at the hotel pool to keep us cool.

Kevin, Jacob, and Elena in front of Greece’s famous windmills

We began our days with the complimentary breakfasts at the hotel, and spent our mornings and evenings seeing Athens’ great sites.

From the Parthenon and Acropolis, to Syntagma Square, where we used the free wifi to check in back home. The Parliament building where we caught the changing of the guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier, the Ancient Agora, the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, the Panathenaic Stadium, home of the first modern Olympics, the new Acropolis museum, the National Gardens, and the Plaka, the main streets of Athens, where we found many great shops and restaurants to enjoy.

We left early on our final morning, with a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call, but as tired as we were, Yanni was there with a friendly smile to help us arrive in the right place at the airport.

Overall our voyage was indeed incredible. It was everything that I had always imagined my desired trip to Greece would be, without any of the stress that can come along with trying to manage all the details of traveling abroad. I will always be grateful to Friendly Planet Travel for providing my family with this wonderful experience. Thank you!

A first-hand look inside Friendly Planet’s Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

When in Greece, eat Greek salad.

As a Friendly Planet blogger, I get sneak peeks of incredible deal announcements. There was one in particular that grabbed my attention back in July 2009. It was a discount on the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise.

As a young professional on a budget, the first thing that caught my eye was the price: $1,199 for an eight-day adventure on the Aegean? Flights, hotels, and cruise included? I was sold. Two days later the trip was booked. And by the end of the week, I’d recruited four more friends to join me!

After months of anticipation, we departed from JFK International on March 24, and landed in Athens 12 hours later. It was an incredible trip packed with some unforgettable experiences.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share my stories, photos, and videos from the cities of Athens and Kusadasi, on the islands of Mykonos, Patmos, Crete, and Santorini, and on the decks of the Aquamarine. It was all part of the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise. Check back for my first post, Arriving in Athens and boarding the Aquamarine.

A look inside Friendly Planet’s Iberian Coasts Cruise (part 6)

After our rocky start to the day, by late morning we had finally made it to Tangier, Morocco. It’s hard to describe Tangier without using words that make every writer cringe, such as incredible, breathtaking, and at times mind-blowing. But … well … it was.

BEST PART: Careening through the kasbah

Tangier was an assault to the senses. And I do mean assault in every sense of the word. As we wound our way through the dizzying streets of the city’s kasbah, men and young boys would pop out from dark doorways and around corners, pressing leather belts, tin trinkets, and Chiclets in front of your face. Five euro, one euro, for you good price, ten euro.

It seemed that my blond hair and our white skin was a magnet for hawkers of every sort of ware, who don’t take no for an answer, hoping their insistence would finally put a few euros in their pocket. It was exciting and eye-opening and, at times, exhausting.

But I can still say without hesitancy that our time in the kasbah was one of my favorite parts of the entire Iberian Coasts Cruise.

The sites, sounds, and smells of the outdoor markets, the streets so narrow it would have been a squeeze for three people to walk down side by side, the colorful doors leading into unimaginable homes, the communal water spigots for washing dishes and clothes, the poverty, the color, the desperation, the beauty, the sweat.

We spent most of the day with our group who had hired a local guide for the day, which turned out to be an invaluable history lesson.

TANGIER MARKET: Teeming with food

With our guide, we were given the best of the streets and a sense of relative security, despite essentially walking around with a flashing neon TOURIST sign around our necks. And without him, it’s unlikely we would have even been able to find our way out of the maze of the kasbah.

In the markets, rows of stalls seemed to go on forever. Some were teeming with olives of every shape and color. Others were selling skinned chickens hanging from gruesome hooks. Still more presented barrels of oranges the size of a child’s head and so juicy that I can still taste them today.

Our guide led us to a store packed with jewelry, knives, tin boxes, and just about every imaginable Moroccan souvenir. My husband and I politely browsed through the aisles when a young man tapped me on the shoulder. “Let me show you,” he said as he led us up the stairs into a room overflowing with ceramic plates, bowls, and vases. I assumed he was showing us more of the store’s merchandise. But he walked right past them all.

“Come please,” he said as he opened a door to the store’s roof.

“My city,” he said with a sense of pride as we stepped onto the roof and the incredible old city spread before us.

Never before had I seen such poverty crammed together in such close proximity. Houses in shades of white, red, and gray, dotted with antennas and satellites literally as far as the eye could see. It was breathtaking.

FROM THE ROOF: An incredible overview of the city

With a little free time to walk around the old city ourselves, my husband and I decided to test our haggling skills and bring something home uniquely Moroccan. Should we get a vase? Maybe a handmade ceramic bowl? A candle holder? With so many beautiful, handmade wares before us, we had a hard time choosing where to even begin.

As we browsed one shop’s selections, we were once again ushered up another store’s back stairs. The shop owner wanted to show us how he made their beautiful handmade rugs. Upstairs was a giant wooden loom with a half-finished rug. Piles of rugs were stacked throughout the floor in every room. The rugs’ intricacy, color, and craftsmanship was a juxtaposition to the crude wooden room.

And that’s when we decided that we wanted to bring home a genuine Moroccan rug. Back home, we were in the process of purchasing our first home, and frankly, we couldn’t think of a more perfect housewarming gift to ourselves than a gorgeous rug from one of the most arresting countries either of us had ever visited.

And this is where the fun of shopping in Morocco began. We haggled and haggled and refused his prices, and even went so far as to walk down the steps and out of the shop when the shopkeeper chased us down and finally offered the rug for 300 euros, less than what he said he refused to go below.

So my husband and I walked back to the bus with a giant carpet under his arm and a sense of triumph clouding our heads. It was exhilarating. And we had a beautiful rug to show for it. When we finally made it back to the bus, we dropped into our seats, put our bags down, and let out a long contented sigh. Our excitement of exploring the kasbah had overshadowed the exhausting that had been building throughout the day. Now that we were on our way back to the Louis Majesty, we felt it consume us.

Our time in Tangier was absolutely incredible, and as our bus pulled away from the city walls I already couldn’t wait to experience more of Morocco the next day in Casablanca.

A look inside Friendly Planet Travel’s Iberian Coasts Cruise (part 4)

Lying on the eastern coast of Spain, Alicante is steeped in history, rich in culture, awash with every kind of shop, and bursting with European beach life. The city of 320,000 residents enjoys a privileged year-round climate with an average temperature of 66.2 degrees and 2,500 sunny hours each year. For a sun-dog like me, that’s all I needed to hear.

As the Louis Majesty pulled into port at Alicante, I was looking forward to some slightly warmer weather in the palm-lined coastal town. Unfortunately for us, in February “slightly warmer” meant rain. But that wasn’t going to stop us from enjoying our morning in port.

STEEPED IN HISTORY: Alicante, Spain

As we stepped off the shuttle that took us from port to the city’s bustling downtown, it wasn’t hard to imagine why Alicante has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Spain, even in a drizzle. The marina area is one of the most prosperous areas of the city, an open space facing the sea replete with bars, restaurants, and outdoor squares.

Our first glimpse of the city from the boat revealed an ancient castle towering above the city center, which, when we arrived in town, was our first destination.

ON THE MOUNT: Castle Santa Barbara

The Castle Santa Barbara sits 166 meters above sea level on Mount Benacantil. Positioned for its enormous strategic value, it’s possible to see the entire Bay of Alicante and surrounding stretch of land from the mountain’s summit.

On the hillside leading up to the castle, different archaeological remains have been found dating back to the Bronze Age, as well as from the Roman and Iberian civilizations. The origins of the actual fortress however, date from the late 9th Century, when the Moors ruled Spain.

My husband and I took an elevator to the top of the castle to spend some time exploring the grounds on our own. Tracing my fingers along the castle walls, it was incredible to imagine how astonishing the Castle Santa Barbara must have seemed as it emerged from the hilltop over 12 centuries ago.

A VIEW FROM THE TOP: Bay of Alicante

After spending a few hours walking through the castle’s three precincts, we spent the rest of the morning ambling through Alicante’s streets, popping in to quiet churches along the way.

The sea was a beautiful turquoise green, which seemed to bleed into the tropical feel of the city itself. The streets were busy for a Monday morning, but the people seemed to have a bit more of a somber feel to them than those in Barcelona.

This could have been due to the rain on a city that wasn’t quite used to breaking out umbrellas, or the fact that Sundays are simply happier days than Mondays, no matter which country you live in. Or perhaps, everyone was simply biding their time until summer weather, when the true splendor of the city would truly emerge.

A look inside Friendly Planet Travel’s Iberian Coasts Cruise (part 2)

I’m sure by now most travelers interested in cruising have seen ads for American cruises such as Royal Caribbean’s Oasis Of The Seas. Have you ever noticed that not one of these ads tells consumers where exactly the boat takes cruisers? Rather, the entire appeal of the cruise is the cruise itself. The destination is the boat.

While this is wonderful for those who want to plan a vacation floating around the middle of the ocean on a boat that more closely resembles a thriving metropolis, that’s not what Friendly Planet Travel had in mind when they began planning the Iberian Coasts Cruise (or any of its cruises, for that matter). Why would they, when there’s Italy, France, Spain, and Morocco to see?

WELCOME: Louis Majesty reception area

During my time aboard the M/V Louis Majesty, I learned that they do it a little bit differently in Europe. When I first stepped foot on the Louis Majesty, I was struck by the vessel’s understated elegance. Less of a traveling circus, and more of a traveling hotel, with all the luxuries you’ve come to expect from Friendly Planet Travel.

The style on board is redolent of the art deco made so popular in the 1920s, which helps you feel that when you step on board, you’re about to embark on an adventure that transcends both time and place.

Many of the sights, sounds, and smells of Europe and Northern Africa are much the same today as they were hundreds of years ago. And life on the ship, with elegant common areas and impeccable service from a staff who truly appear to love their jobs — from the officers to the wait staff — is a small step back in time.

The outside cabin, while not overly large, offers all the comforts of home, including — and as a relatively seasoned world traveler, this was quite a pleasant surprise — power outlets for both European- and American-style plugs.

Imagine tucking into bed after a night at sea, including decadent dinner at the Four Seasons Dining Room, a stroll around the ship’s upper decks, and a quick dance at the Louis Majesty disco.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Louis Majesty outside junior suite

Now imagine waking, the room still dark with a hint of sunshine leaking in from the curtains behind your bed. You pull back the curtains to let the sun pour in and before you lies Marseille, France. The homes, stores, and restaurants all different shades of muted pastel. In the distance, you can see the Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Garde overlooking the city, with the island of Chateau D’If not far off the coast.

This isn’t hard to imagine on the Iberian Coasts Cruise, because this is your view on your first morning aboard the Louis Majesty. With an entire day at port before me, I didn’t waste any time to get into town.

BEST VIEW: Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Garde

While Friendly Planet Travel offers a number of optional shore excursions at each port, I set out this morning alone with my husband, who was able to accompany me on this incredible journey. We spent hours walking up and down the cobblestone streets with a map in our hands. The February weather was chilly, but nothing to keep you from spending an entire day taking advantage of all there is to see in Marseille.

We walked up to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Garde, which offers a breathtaking view of the entire city and port.

From there, we walked on, snapping pictures and ducking into cathedrals. Marseille is a fascinating combination of ancient buildings and traditional French architecture mixed with a subtle new world cosmopolitan flare.

Of course, we had to stop for a fresh baguette and some cappuccino too. Then on we walked. And when we felt like we had taken enough pictures and walked down enough narrow, winding streets, we popped into a small bar overlooking the harbor and enjoyed a cold beer and some olives while we watched the busy city.

EXPLORING ON SHORE: Strolling the streets of Marseille, France

When the day had finally come to a close, our cabin was a welcoming sight after an entire day spent exploring on shore. Marseille was truly an unforgettable city, and tomorrow … Barcelona!

A look inside Friendly Planet Travel’s Iberian Coasts Cruise

I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn that here at Friendly Planet Travel, we can’t ever over-emphasize the importance of world travel and cultural discovery. That’s why Peggy makes a point of encouraging everyone in the office to get out and explore Earth’s riches whenever possible.

ALL ABOARD: The M/V Louis Majesty

The benefit, besides being surrounded by travel enthusiasts, is that every Friendly Planet Travel employee can talk your ear off about how a trek to Machu Picchu or a cruise down the Yangtze River or a meal of tapas y cervezas in a Spanish piazza changed their life. That’s one of the reasons Peggy sent me off on Friendly Planet’s Iberian Coasts Cruise the other week. And over the next few weeks, I’m going to tell you ALL about it.

The nine-day cruise aboard the M/V Louis Majesty embarks from Genoa, Italy and spends time at fascinating ports of call in Marseille, France; Barcelona, Spain; Alicante, Spain; Gibraltar, B.C.C.; Tangier, Morocco; Casablanca, Morocco; and Malaga, Spain. As you can imagine, it’s a dizzying adventure to some of the most culturally significant and extraordinarily beautiful sights of Europe and Northern Africa.

Here on the blog, I’m going to tell you about my own experience on the Iberian Coasts Cruise, and give you an in-depth look at life on and off the Louis Majesty. So stay tuned, because I’ve got a head teeming with stories, a camera brimming with photos, and fingers that are itching to unload them all here!

About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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