Speak with a Travel Professional
517-349-6200

Our First Trip to Europe

SHARE:

Written by Bobby and Meghan Koivunen.

My husband and I recently spent three nights in Rome followed by 11 nights on the Celebrity Reflection for a Mediterranean Cruise. We sailed from Rome, Italy to Santorini, Greece; Istanbul, Turkey; Kusadasi, Turkey; Mykonos, Greece; Athens, Greece; Naples, Italy; and finished back in Rome. We loved this cruise ship and all our destinations. We highly recommend a cruise for anyone like us who wants to travel Europe in style!

Our travel agent, Tamara, made this trip a success for us. She arranged all our transfers for us and kept us right on schedule. In Rome, we stayed at the Domus Romana Hotel. It was really nice for what we needed. Nothing too fancy, but the room was spacious and there was a continental breakfast. It was also in a great location and we were able to walk to many of the major sites.

The first tour we did was a Hop On Hop Off tour with City Sight Seeing Roma. This was our least favorite tour of the whole trip. To be fair to the tour company, we had just finished our overnight flight straight from Detroit, arrived early in Rome and were not able to check into our hotel room, (therefore we got ready for the day in a non-air conditioned bathroom in the hotel lobby area), and then walked around Rome in hot, humid, high 90s weather, and rode the non-air conditioned bus. This did not help us enjoy the tour. We did one of these in Savannah, GA and really enjoyed it. For every stop along the tour we had a detailed map to show us what was in the area including good places to eat and shop along with coupons. This was not the case in Rome. We had no information as to what we were looking at once we got off the bus so we felt a little lost and were too tired to hunt around. I’m not saying this isn’t a good option, because it did help us figure out how to get to a lot of places, but it wasn’t as good of a tour as it could have been or what I was hoping for in a tour.

The next day, we did a guided tour of the Vatican/Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum. These were both excellent tours. We had wonderful guides that showed us around and were very knowledgeable on everything we saw. We also got an authentic Italian lunch in between, which was great. Whatever tour you do for these two sites, we highly recommend the “skip the line” tours. The line for the Vatican was very long and looked awful to sit in with how hot it was while we were there.

On our last day in Rome, we were free to explore on our own. We made it out to the Pantheon and paid 10 Euros each for a guided tour. This honestly was a great purchase. Neither of us are history buffs so we found our way to the Pantheon and then said “Ok… what are we looking at?” Someone approached us about a tour and we didn’t have to pay until it was over. It was great! We learned so much. He took us around the outside of the building and on the inside and explained everything. It was worth the price for an easy 30 minute guided tour. Other places we went- Spanish Steps, Fountain of Trevi, and Piazza Navona- all walkable from our hotel.

We were lucky with our timing in Rome. A lot of people were getting ready to leave for their holiday when we were leaving for the ship. If you go to Europe in August, it looks like it is best to go early in the month, only go to specific tourist destinations, or the places where other Europeans go for their holiday.

On to the cruise!

We have only been on one other cruise with Norwegian so we do not have a lot to compare this ship too, but it was definitely gorgeous. Other people we talked to said this was the best ship they have been on because of the size and how new it is. We had a veranda room and it was worth it for this long cruise. It was great to be able to sit outside on our balcony and watch the beautiful scenery. The room itself was pretty spacious too. There was a bed, couch, TV stand, and desk area- similar to a hotel room setup, which we thought was nice for the ship. Our last cruise ship room only had room for the bed! We would have been miserable for 11 nights in that room.

When we booked the veranda room, there was a deal where we could get the classic drink package with it. We were excited about keeping our trip as “all-inclusive” as we could. At the first bar we went to, we upgraded to the premium drink package. It was worth it! Especially since the first package was included in our room essentially. The classic drink package really limited us on what types of drinks we could get. When on vacation, we like our fancy cocktails and beach drinks and we would not have been able to get those with the classic package. It also allowed us to get the better coffee in the morning and better wine with dinner.

We decided to get a massage on the ship. It was horrible. If you like someone just rubbing a ton of oil on your back, then this is for you. We were so mad we wasted our money on this. Do not get a massage on the cruise ship.

The nightly activities and shows were great. We really enjoyed all of the entertainment the ship had to offer.

We also purchased a four specialty dinner package before we left. We feel that all restaurants should be included when you book a cruise, but unfortunately they are not. With that said, we were happy that we bought the four special dinners. We loved all four dinners and it gave us a great change of atmosphere and different foods to try rather than eating dinner 11 nights in a row in the same place. We ate at Murano, Tuscan Grille, Qsine, and The Lawn Club Grille. My favorite was Qsine and my husband loved the Lawn Club, although when we bought the package, he thought that would be his least favorite. Lawn Club was a fun, cool atmosphere and had awesome food and drinks. Qsine was a really unique place and the food displays were fun and creative.

Santorini, Greece

Here we climbed a volcano and swam in the hot springs. Very cool! The hike was doable, but it was hot and there was no shade. The hot springs swim was refreshing after the hike- you do have to swim about 150 ft from the boat to the springs and you can’t touch the bottom so make sure you are able to do this. I am a horrible swimmer though and managed. You can touch the bottom when you get to the hot springs, but it is very rocky so wear water shoes if you have them. We found out after the fact that the boat has a bathroom you can change in if you want to go into town after this excursion. To get into town, you ride a cable car up a mountain. The town was great! We ate at a mom and pop restaurant and had the best baklava we have ever had. I am still dreaming about it. We also found a store where we could do a wine tasting and ship wine home. We were also able to ship a big container of fresh olive oil home too. The line for the cable car to get down the mountain can take up to an hour and a half! We decided to walk down the 590 steps. It was doable- going down is easier than going up. However, there are donkeys everywhere- which you can pay 5 Euro to ride down the steps- but therefore it is very stinky on the way down. It was fun though; we would go back to this town. It was a truly beautiful place.

Istanbul, Turkey

We did the best of Istanbul tour and saw the St. Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, museum of archeology, and Hippodrome. We also had time to shop at the Grand Bazaar. We had a great time here. We found out that we maybe should not have been in Turkey at the time we were there, but we felt very safe and are so glad we had the opportunity to go to Turkey. Get Turkish Delights! How have I not known about these before? They are delicious and you can try them before you buy. I am a total “germaphobe” and ate them out of the Grand Bazaar- worth it! Also you have to get the Turkish coffee. You don’t drink the bottom of the cup! It is all of the grounds and those can be used for fortune telling. I did not know this ahead of time and was worried about being rude for not drinking all of it… Later the tour guide explained all of this to me. We also were able to watch how they make Turkish rugs. It was more interesting than I thought it would be and we actually really enjoyed it. We now know how to tell if a rug is an authentic, handmade, Turkish rug.

Kusadasi, Turkey

One of our favorite tours! We were able to see the House of the Virgin Mary, St. John’s Basilica, and ancient Ephesus. This town was built five times! We also had an authentic Turkish lunch. It was great! We had another Turkish rug demonstration here, but we learned how they get the silk out of a silkworm cocoon to make a silk rug. We were also able to try Raki here, which is a common drink in Turkey. It is very strong, but glad we got the chance to try it.

Mykonos, Greece

We decided to get the beach transfer to Elia today since we had been so busy sightseeing. The beach was really pretty and we are happy we got the chance to relax at such a beautiful place. Mykonos was a little disappointing though. There was a lot of litter around and all of the grass/bushes were dried up. It was not as pretty as we pictured all parts of Greece being. The beach is also very rocky, so some kind of water shoe would be good if you have them. After the beach, we were able to go into town. We felt that the town was just okay compared to some of the other places we were. It just felt a little dirtier and the souvenir shops seemed “cheap”. However, we did eat lunch at one of the restaurants in the “old port” and it was awesome. I had a chicken gyro and my husband had a pork gyro (no lamb here!). The chicken one was amazing!

Athens, Greece

I thought that Athens was the most “built up” city we went too. It could have passed for a destination in the states. We went to the first Olympic Stadium, the archeological museum, and the Acropolis. We also had an authentic Greek lunch, which again was delicious. In the states when you go to a Greek restaurant and order Saganaki, they bring it out and light it on fire and shout “Opa!” They do not really do this in Greece. Our tour guide explained that was just a show for tourists and “opa” doesn’t really mean anything, it is more just a cheer of excitement. With that said, the Saganaki was still absolutely delicious! We enjoyed Athens, but I am not sure that you would need to spend more than a day here seeing the sites.

Naples, Italy

We did not actually spend time in Naples. We would have walked around here before getting back on the ship after our excursion, but it didn’t look like we were docked by anything that we could really walk to. We took a trip to Sorrento and Pompeii. The view from the farm in Sorrento was beautiful. The weather was so nice with a great breeze off the water. Here we learned how they make olive oil and how they make different types of cheese. It was all actually pretty cool, plus we got to have a light snack after the demonstrations. Delicious! If you go here, make sure the try the limoncello; it is lemon liquor that is popular in Italy, but only certain locations have the best lemons to make it. Here is was delicious! We bought a bottle to take home. The lemons were the size of grapefruits and it made the drink a little sweet, but just right. We then had some free time to walk around in Sorrento and get our own lunch. We had pizza since this was the closest we would get to Naples and it was excellent. We had a quick demonstration of a furniture store with how they make very beautiful pieces with detailed artwork on it.

We then took a bus ride to Pompeii. Before we went in, we stopped at a cameo factory. I never knew how those were made and it was really cool to learn about it and watch someone make one. Pompeii was another great historical site to see. I was hoping there would be a museum we could walk through after we saw the ruins. If there was one, we didn’t get to see it so I was disappointed about that. Otherwise, I had always wanted to see Pompeii and was glad I had the opportunity.

Other

We weren’t sure what to expect with our first time in Europe as far as cash and credit cards go. We exchanged some US currency at our bank before we left for Euros and planned on using our credit cards for larger purchases and dinners. We were also expecting it to be pretty easy to use an ATM if needed. We already have an American Express card, which we knew would be great for the no foreign transaction fee, but we did some research and it looked like not all places in Europe would take an American Express card. We decided to get the Bank of America Travel Rewards card, which also offered no foreign transaction fees. We were told by many people that using a credit card is no big deal and everyone would take a card. This was not the case and we were running low on Euros just before half way through our trip. Both credit card companies were aware of our travel before we left so we wouldn’t have trouble at the ATM. However, on the ship, our American Express card, which has a higher cash withdrawal limit, was not working. We were able to use the phone at the guest services desk luckily and call American Express, but we got disconnected a couple of times and they could not see us even trying to use the card at the ATM. The new Bank of America card had a small cash withdrawal limit, but we got out what we could and ended up doing okay the rest of the trip. It was just frustrating to have to deal with that when we were on vacation. We still have no idea why the American Express card would not work at the ATM. Greece had their own issues with credit cards because of what is going on in their country right now, but we expected that. Turkey was good at taking credit cards, but did not want American Express, and most of the shops in the Bazaar did not take credit cards.

Overall

We loved every second of this trip. Europe was on our list of places we wanted to go before having children and we are so glad we did this. It will be hard to get away for this long of time again, but we are glad to have been able to see the places we saw. We ate and drank our way through every destination, came home with lots of souvenirs, and are filled with wonderful memories. I am still dreaming of tortellini I ate at a mom and pop shop restaurant in Rome and the baklava we ate in Greece. We learned so much on this trip and we wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.