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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!

Fifth edition of our first-hand look at the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

View from the steps to the Cave of the Apocalypse

When I left you last I had boarded the Aquamarine after a morning in Kusadasi, Turkey. We were headed for the port of Skala on the island of Patmos.

This island is one of the original Dodecanese (meaning “12”) Greek islands. The earliest known temples on the island were the fourth century B.C. sanctuary of Diana. It’s believed that the name Patmos might come from Latmos, or Mt. Latmos of Turkey, where the goddess Diana was worshiped.

Patmos was populated beginning in about 500 B.C. by Dorians, then Ionians, and then the Romans in the second century B.C. It was during this time that the island fell into decline and was used as a place to banish “criminals and religious and political troublemakers.”

Not long after, according to some, Patmos makes its mark in the history books. The story has been subject to much scrutiny, but legend has it that John the Apostle (sometimes referred to as John of Patmos) received his first visions while living in exile on the island. These visions inspired the writings of the Book of Revelation, the last document of the New Testament.

It’s for this reason that Patmos is a frequent destination for Christian pilgrimage. So for obvious reasons, the shore excursion that takes Friendly Planeteers to the Monastery of the Apocalypse, Cave of the Apocalypse, and Monastery of St. John are very popular. This was the excursion my friends and I opted to go on, as did almost all of our tour group.

The port of Skala: View from the Monastery of St. John

We boarded buses in Skala that took us on a short drive up the hillside to the village of Chora where these three sites are located. The first stop was the Monastery and Cave (or Grotto) of the Apocalypse. The Monastery is small, beautiful, and peaceful with amazing views of Skala and the Aegean.

Next to the Monastery is a long stone staircase leading to the cave where St. John is believed to have written the Book of Revelation. We saw niches left in the wall marking the pillow where he rested his head and ledge used as a desk. Above your head is the crack in the rock said to be made by the voice of God honoring the Holy Trinity.

Further up the hill is the Monastery of St. John, built 900 years ago. The main church, still in use today, is known for its intricate frescoes and decoration. We were there the day before Palm Sunday, and leaves tied into delicate crosses were hung inside the building. Nearby is a small museum that houses priceless ecclesiastical treasures, books, manuscripts, mosaics, icons, splendid medieval textiles, vestments, and jewelery.

Drinking Ouzo on Patmos

After two hours of sightseeing, we headed back down to Skala to explore on our own. We went into the little white-washed shops to find gifts for our families, and sat outside of a cafe where we shared pastries — baklava and kataifi — and had our first tastes of ouzo.

Ouzo is typically mixed with water, which turns it from clear to cloudy. We forgot until about halfway through our drinks that we’d been warned about the drinking water on the islands. But luckily, we lived to tell the tale. 🙂 When we asked the waitress where we could get our own ouzo glasses to commemorate our day in Patmos, she said, “You can keep these!” It was the perfect souvenir to bring home with us.

As night fell, it was again time to head back to the ship for dinner. This was one of my favorite stops on the tour — very beautiful, peaceful, and seemingly untouched by the rest of the world. If I had to choose one place to spend the whole week, this would be it. The next morning we’d be arriving at Crete to make an 8 a.m. wine tasting appointment. More on that in my next post.

Fourth edition of a first-hand look at the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

When I ended my last post in this series, recounting the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise, my friends and I had just found our way out of the Mykonos maze.

A. Mykonos. B. Kusadasi.

We spent our first night aboard the Aquamarine and woke up to views of colorful Kusadasi, Turkey. The geographically challenged (myself included) might be wondering how we ended up in Turkey on a cruise in the Greek Isles.

If you pull out a map, like I had to, you’ll see that Turkey also borders the Aegean Sea, and isn’t far from Mykonos or Patmos, another island we’d soon visit.

First order of business in Kusadasi, according to our tour guide, Izzy: Learn how to pronounce the name of this town. It’s koo-SHAH-dah-suh, not KOOS-uh-DASS-see. The incorrect pronunciation translates to Bird Island. Saying that to a local would be pretty embarrassing.

Kusadasi, Turkey

Kusadasi was the first place where I opted in for a shore excursion — a visit to Ephesus. This is the second most well-preserved ancient site in the world (after Pompeii, the city that was buried in ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D.). Ephesus is located near Selcuk, Turkey, a 30-minute drive from Kusadasi.

Ephesus was first an ancient Greek City, and then a major Roman city. In fact, in the first century B.C. it was the second largest city in the world with a population of 250,000.

Izzy, was in a BIG hurry to get us to the site of Ephesus that morning. Why? Because when you’re the first to enter the city, you have some incredible, unobstructed views (and photo opps) of the ruins and the valley. It’s pretty rare to get a shot like the one below that isn’t packed with tourists. Be jealous. 🙂

Tourist free Ephesus

We saw some incredible things at the archeological site. It’s actually the largest collection of Roman ruins in the eastern Mediterranean. Izzy’s descriptions of what the site once looked like brought the city to life.

We saw marks that carts made in the stone pathways more than a thousand years ago, beautiful Roman-style columns, intricate lettering carved in stone, and most notably, the Library of Celsus. It was once home to over 12,000 scrolls.

The library’s facade has been completely reconstructed from its original pieces, and the result is breathtaking.

Library of Celsus

We also saw the Grand Theater in Ephesus, which seats about 44,000 and is believed to have been the largest theater in the ancient world. It was used as recently as 2001, when Elton John played a concert there.

After our tour, we headed back to Kusadasi to get a taste of Turkish life. The first stop was a Turkish rug store. The owner was VERY intrigued that there was a New Yorker in our crew. He asked her about a million questions about “the best city in the world,” and had pretty much invited himself to come stay on her couch by the time we left.

We watched a woman do the back-breaking work of weaving a rug on a loom, which can take years for the most intricate designs. And we learned about the different styles of rugs while we sipped Raki (the Turkish version of Ouzo).

Hand-woven Turkish rug

After leaving the shop, we headed into the marketplace in Kusadasi. Now this was an experience I’ll never forget. Heather had warned us that the shop keepers were a little aggressive. That was the understatement of the century. These guys would probably drag you into their store if you let them.

In the Kusadasi marketplace, you’re expected to barter for the best price on handmade Turkish goods, such as beautiful (and real) pashminas, handmade jewelry, pottery, and much more. Bartering is something that most people don’t have much experience with, so here are a few tips:

  • Ask how much they want for something. Offer about 2/3 of that, or less if you really think that’s all you want to pay for it, and go from there.
  • If they won’t budge on a price, walk out. If they really want to make the sale, they’ll chase you down the street to give you the discount you asked for.
  • Be respectful of the fact that they do need to make a living, don’t offer them pennies for their goods.

I spent 30 minutes haggling with one jewelry maker over a silver bracelet. I walked out when he wouldn’t budge. He even got his dad on the phone before he’d agree to a lower price. But I did get it for about $50 less than he asked for at first. 🙂

If you can believe it, our tour of Ephesus, lesson in rug weaving, Raki drinking, and Turkish bartering all happened in one morning. We headed back to the Aquamarine for lunch, as the ship set a course toward Patmos. More on that in my next post.

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