Azamara Journey Cruise Log - Athens to Istanbul
The Azamara Journey has a lot of great features--size, cuisine, service, and destinations. I sailed the Aegean Sea on this wonderful cruise ship between Athens and Istanbul and learned exactly what Azamara Club Cruises was talking about when they say the company's objective is "destination immersion". Two of the examples of this immersion included cooking (and eating) Turkish food in a country house near Kusadasi and meeting one of Patmos' oldest residents in the home that had been in her family for eight generations. We had long days in four ports of call and an overnight stay in Istanbul before sadly ending this amazing Azamara cruise.
This cruise travel log provides details of our Azamara Journey cruise.
Boarding the Azamara Journey in Athens
Many cruises embark in Athens, and travelers should plan to arrive at least a day early to see some of the major attractions and taste some marvelous Greek food. My friend and I arrived a day early in Athens and had time to tour the Acropolis Museum and see the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Syntagma Square. We also took my own advice and strolled the old town of Athens, checking out the farmer's market, shops, and tavernas.
About noon, we left our hotel in downtown Athens and were on the Azamara Journey cruise ship in Piraeus before 1:30. Since the cabins wouldn't be ready for a short time, we went up to the Windows Cafe for a buffet lunch of sushi, Pad Thai noodles, and grilled salmon. Very nice buffet. Ice cream (of course) with hot fudge topping for dessert. Azamara has drinks included, so we both had a couple of glasses of the "wine of the day", which was a Spanish white wine.
After unpacking, we went out on the deck and watched as the Azamara Journey slipped quietly away from the pier at Piraeus. I always love to get settled in for the week, and unpacking only once is one of the unique features of cruise travel. We had dinner at Aqualina, one of the two specialty restaurants on the Azamara Journey. As the name suggests, it's mostly a fish place. However, I started with beef carpaccio, followed by a watermelon/tomato salad, grilled garlic shrimp with saffron rice, and a limoncello souffle. Claire had an ahi tuna appetizer, pine nut salad with blue cheese, bacon, eggs, and greens; Dover sole, and tiramisu for dessert. Aqualina is at the far aft of the ship and has huge windows overlooking the stern, providing us a spectacular sunset view.
The next morning, the Azamara Journey arrived at the Greek island of Santorini, one of the most spectacular islands in the world.
Azamara Journey - A Day in Santorini
Early on the first morning of our Azamara Journey cruise, the ship pulled into the ancient volcanic caldera of Santorini about 8 am, but we could see the tall cliffs long before we got there. This volcanic island exploded about 1650 BC in one of the largest eruptions in recorded history.
Azamara had three nice shore excursion options for Santorini. The advantage of a shore excursion is that a special tender takes participants to the port of Athinios where buses then take them on the tours, thereby avoiding the long lines at the cable car. The first excursion was a bus ride across the island, with stops for walking tours at Oia, Fira, and a local winery. The second was a visit to the Akrotiri archaeological site, which was buried in the volcanic eruption that gave the island its distinct look. The third shore excursion was a walking tour of the village of Pyrgos. followed by mezes in a local taverna. Since I have been to Santorini several times, we decided to just explore on our own, using the cable car and public bus system.
Our ship was staying in Santorini until 10 pm and we didn't have a shore excursion, so didn't rush ashore. At least five other cruise ships were floating around in the caldera, which is way too deep for them to anchor. The ships have to run their engines to maintain a position--kind of like treading water.
Most everyone had gone to shore by about 10:30, so we boarded the tender to take us to the small port of Fira Skala where the cable car goes up to the town of Fira, which is the capital of the Santorini island group and on the main island Thira, which most of us call Santorini. It was a pleasant surprise--no line at the cable car.
We walked through Fira, avoiding the jewelry and clothing stores. Never a good idea to buy something on the outbound trip. The bus station is on the opposite side of the town, but not difficult to find with a map. The first few streets in Fira are narrow and pedestrian only, so buses park on the edge of town at the station, which is near the post office. The public bus to Oia is a great deal and runs frequently. It's only 1.60 euros each, and a fee collector collects your fare while the bus is moving. Glad to know you don't even need exact change--just euros. The weather was hot (at least 100) and very calm--we were drenched by the time we even got to the bus. Fortunately it was a (slightly) air conditioned bus. The Oia bus stop is just down the hill from its main square and easy to find for the return trip to Fira.
Claire and I walked around the scenic town of Oia, lingering in front of almost every open doorway whose cool air was pouring out into the street. After an hour or so, we found a small cafe with an amazing view and split a Greek salad and the house special of a "Greek hamburger", which was actually kind of like a meatloaf except for the seasoning. It was delicious.
We rode the bus back to Fira--didn't even have to wait on it since it was boarding when we got to the bus stop. We got the last two seats, but they were in the back and the air conditioner kept dripping on us. Although we figured the water was filthy and probably filled with Legionnaire's disease or something, the cold water felt good and we were already soaked with sweat. We strolled around Fira for a while (bought postcards) before heading back to the cable car station. Voila!! No line yet again. Back on the Azamara Journey (and its marvelous air conditioned space) by 4 pm. Took showers and went for a drink before meeting our group to head back ashore for dinner in Pyrgos, a tiny inland village on Santorini.
Dinner Ashore in Pyrgos on Santorini from the Azamara Journey
Azamara Club Cruises has a "think global, eat local" program where guests can go ashore and eat in a restaurant that locals would frequent. The shore excursion staff arranges these dinners. Most of the dinner group met onboard and had a small van take us to the restaurant (some took a taxi from Fira and met us at the restaurant).
We ate at an outdoor cafe called Kallisti Taverna in the tiny town of Pyrgos, which is in the interior of the island. It has narrow hilly streets, but is not as touristy as Fira or Oia. The meal was very good, but I think I've had better "authentic Greek" dinners. We started with several mezzes (appetizers), many of which were made with tomatoes, which was fine with me, but others in the group could have used more variety. Several at the table loved one made from white aubergine (eggplant). The main dish was lamb chops, and we had a baklava-type dessert. I loved having the local Santorini wine.
The best part of the meal was the camraderie and fun we had with our dining companions. I'm sure others from the ship took the opportunity to watch the Santorini sunset. It's an excellent idea to extend time at some of these islands that offer good restaurants, nightlife, and sunsets.
Back to the Azamara Journey by 9:45 so we could sail by 10 or so. Nice day in Santorini.
The cruise ship was at Mykonos the next day.
A Day on Delos and Mykonos from the Azamara Journey
The next morning the Azamara Journey arrived in Mykonos about 8:00 am. The ship docked rathered than tendered, and we had a free shuttle bus to take us from the port to Mykonos town. The weather was still hot, but very windy, with winds up to about 34 mph. My friend and I had signed up for a shore excursion tour to the sacred island of Delos, so we were up early since we had to be in the lounge to meet up with our tour at 8:15. The ship had two other organized shore excursions. The first was a bus transfer to one of the island's many beaches. The second was a driving tour of the island with a stop at at 16th century monastery. We chose Delos because my friend had not been before and also because the Azamara Journey was staying late in Mykonos, so we would have plenty of time in the town to shop and explore after our half-day excursion.
A Morning on the Sacred Island of Delos
We met up with our guide Constantine on the pier and rode a shuttle bus to the town of Mykonos. It's mostly a pedestrian town, so we had to walk along the harbor to the opposite side to catch our small boat to Delos. There were about 15-20 in our group, but we shared the boat with 2 other similarly-sized groups along with several people who were going to Delos on their own.
Anyway, we arrived at Delos about 9:30 am (about a 45 minute boat ride) and started walking around the site. Delos was once considered the center of the universe by Greeks since it was the celebrated birthplace of the God Apollo. The entire island is uninhabited (except for some visiting archaeologists who stay in tiny houses), and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. French archaeologists first started excavating Delos in 1873, but only about 10 percent of the ruins have been excavated--lots more work to do, but not enough money to keep the digging going.
Some of the ruins date back to 1650 BC, but most seem to be in the 500-400 BC era. The island is very windy (like nearby Mykonos), so most relics have been moved either to the archaeological museum on Delos or the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
We walked around the site with our guide Constantine, and he pointed out buildings in the commercial area, the 6500 seat outdoor theater, and some of the homes of the wealthy, with their mosaic courtyards. He then led us to the religious side of the town, but most of the temples/monuments have been destroyed. Many of the buildings on Delos were built of marble, and looters over the centuries have robbed anything worth keeping that wasn't buried. After touring the site for about two hours, we had about 30 minutes to tour the small museum before heading back to Mykonos.
Afternoon and Evening on Mykonos
Back on Mykonos by about 1 pm, Claire and I went back to the ship to get refreshed and have lunch. The Azamara Journey culinary staff had some delicious salads and some yummy chicken wraps that we both enjoyed along with wine. Then we rested a little before taking the transfer bus back into Mykonos around 4 pm.
The Azamara Journey was the only ship in town, and I don't think I've ever seen the streets so quiet! It was really enjoyable to walk the narrow streets and get lost over and over, but see few people. We could appreciate the interesting architecture without having to dodge other tourists. A really nice afternoon. We thought about staying in town and watching the sunset, but decided to watch it from the ship and went to dinner in the Discoveries Restaurant for the first time.
We got lucky with our table mates and with the sunset. We ended up at a table for 8 by the window and sat with 2 married couples about our age--one from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and the other from somewhere in England. We were also joined by two women who were each traveling solo--one from Australia and the other from Tampa, FL. They had met on a previous Azamara cruise and just happened to be on this one. The horizon was covered by clouds, so we didn't miss much by returning to the ship and not being at the Mykonos windmills to watch it set.
We all hit it off and had a fun time. I had spring roll, cold tomato soup, and grilled salmon with grilled veggies (gave the grilled eggplant to friend Claire). Claire had the spring roll, cold tomato soup, and a medallion of pork and one of veal.
After dinner, our table adjourned to the Mosaic coffee bar for cappucino (Claire) and ice water for me. The couple from Belfast) had told the hotel director the night before that they liked to have a scone or biscuit before going to bed. While we are sitting in the coffee bar, one of the chefs from the galley appears with a whole plate full of scones, along with some clotted cream, butter, and jam. Very nice touch and excellent customer service.
Back to the cabin by 11 pm and asleep before midnight. The Azamara Journey sailed about 10 pm for the Greek island of Patmos, where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation.
Visit to a Patmos Convent from the Azamara Journey
The next day the Azamara Journey was on the charming island of Patmos, which is one of the Dodecanese islands of Greece. These 12 islands are closer to Turkey than to mainland Greece, so they've been more influenced by the Turks and also more subject to invasions by pirates in the 17th century and forward.
This tiny island does not have an airport, but does have ferry service. Not many cruise ships visit since they have to anchor in the harbor and use tenders. The island only has 3,000 residents in about four villages. Patmos is famous because John the Theologian (also known as John the Divine or John the Disciple) was exiled to Patmos from Ephesus in AD 95 and spent about 18 months on the island before his exile was lifted. During that time he lived in a cave (he wasn't imprisoned) and wrote (or dictated to his assistant since he was very old) the last book of the Bible, Revelation.
Patmos is a popular pilgrimage spot for both the western and Orthodox Christians. People visit the Cave of the Apocalypse that is celebrated as the spot where God delivered the Revelation to John. It now is a chapel, and you have to walk down 40 steep steps to get there. We didn't visit it this time since I've been a couple of times before. Pilgrims don't have to look far for a place to worship since the island has about 1000 chapels and churches. According to the local guidebook, based on its population and size, it has the "most churches and monasteries than any other place in the world."
Azamara had four shore excursion tours on Patmos. The first was a visit to Patmos' most famous monastery called St. John the Theologian Monastery, which was founded in the 11th century and built a massive fortress on the top of a Patmos mountain in the village of Hora (also spelled Chora). Azamara St. John is the monastery that can be seen from the harbor and where most of the tours visit. This tour also included a walk around Hora, a visit to one of the historic homes, and a stop for mezes.
The second tour also visited the Monastery of St. John, but also toured the Cave of the Apocalypse and a drive around the island for panoramic views. The third tour was a bus transfer to one of Patmos' best beaches, Kambos Beach.
Since I had been to the Monastery of St. John and the Cave of the Apocalyse, we took an Azamara Journey "Insider Access Series" tour entitled, "Daily Life at the Monastery". The use of the term "monastery" was a little odd at first since we visited the Convent of Evangelismos, not a Monastery. The local (free) guidebook I picked up at the Tourism Bureau calls it the Holy Monastery of the Nuns of the Annunciation. I think you can see the confusion, and it's important for those choosing this tour to know that they will not be visiting the huge monastery at Chora. The "Insider Access" tours are smaller groups and visit places that are less touristy and provide a closer look at local lives.
We thoroughly enjoyed the drive from the town of Skala (where the tender dropped us off) to the southwest part of the island, where the Holy Monastery of the Nuns of the Annunciation (also called the Convent of Evangelismos) located. It sits on a lovely piece of land overlooking the ocean. This convent/monastery was first built in 1613 by a monk named Nikeforos. The convent was renovated many times, with the most recent being 1937.
The Greek Orthodox Church of the Evangelism, which is on the convent grounds, honors St. Loukas (Luke). A chapel honoring St. Anthony is also on the grounds. The 40 nuns at the convent spend their time doing gardening, community service, beekeeping, and Byzantine embroidery called spitha (sparkle). This embroidery is very delicate and fine and is 2-sided with no knots. I didn't even ask how much a piece was in the gift shop since I thought it would be very expensive. One of the nuns who died a few years ago was named Olympia. This Sister was a student of the famous Greek iconographer Fotis Kontoglou. She painted many of the figures/icons in the church and also instructed many of the nuns on the painting techniques/style so that they could carry on after she died.
Since we were there on a Sunday, they had just finished the church service. We toured the ornate church and oohed and aahed at the amazing paintings and icons. Very interesting. Our guide, Carolyn, was British but has lived on Patmos for over 20 years. She just recently (4 weeks before) completed her 1.5 year training and converted to the Greek Orthodox religion. She was very enthusiastic about her new religion and was quite open to our questions about how it differed from Catholicism and other Christian denominations.
We walked around the gorgeous gardens (best looking basil and other herbs any of us had ever seen) and had a small snack of water/coffee and biscotti-like cookies covered in sesame seeds. It was unbearably hot, and none of us could imagine working in the gardens or doing other chores in their completely black habits. Carolyn our guide told us that they sometimes wore gray cotton ones rather than black silk ones, but were still completely covered. We had been told to dress conservatively, so we covered our shoulders and knees, but still had to put on a skirt. Even the men in our group who had worn shorts had to wear skirts (provided by the church).
As we toured the chapel, we were all glad we had put on the conservative clothes since it was spectacular. Sister Olympia and her novitiates did an exceptional job on the paintings and icons inside the St. Anthony Chapel. Their skill was remarkable, and it's good to know that an ancient skill like this one is being carried on.
Leaving the convent, we rode to Chora (Hora), the capital of Patmos.
Walking Tour of Hora, the Capital of Patmos
We left the convent and rode to the hilltop town of Hora (Chora), which is also the capital of Patmos. There we toured the town's oldest house, which is inhabited by the 8th generation of the same family, led by the 92 year old matriarch. The house dates back to the 15th or 16th century. She had many mementos and keepsakes and told us she walks up to the second floor many times each day. We all agreed we wouldn't want to do it--the stairs were steep and tall.
Chora has narrow streets and white houses with flat roofs that are connected. When pirates used to attack the island, the citizens could easily flee their homes and escape to the monastery fortress by running from roof top to roof top. Chora has become popular with the rich and famous, so housing prices are astronomical.
After walking around Chora, we had a heavy snack at a small cafe that overlooked the harbor--several mezzes including bread, tzatiziki sauce, fried cheese, meatballs, tomatoes and cucumbers, some kind of roe spread, and hummus. It went down very easy with a large cold Fix beer (Greek beer).
Back to the pier by 1 pm, Claire and I walked around for a while in Skala town, but I didn't buy anything.
Took the tender back to the ship, arriving about 3 pm. We missed lunch at the buffet, so ate something at the pool bar although we weren't hungry from the mezes in Chora. We split an ahi tuna wrap and some onion rings. The wrap was especially good.
It was White Night on the ship, and they had a huge international buffet outdoors on the deck with entertainment (music and dancing) starting at about 9 pm. We wore our white outfits, but opted to eat in the Discoveries Restaurant rather than the buffet and then go to the party after dinner. Fun dinner with a group, and we all had a shrimp cocktail and surf & turf (lobster and a small fillet). They had other options, but we all ended up with the lobster/steak. Claire also got a Caesar salad, but I passed on it. I had the honey apple gelato and Claire got the lemon sorbet. Both were good desserts.
By the time we got out on the pool deck, the party was going strong. We sat and watched everyone dancing. You could tell it was a baby boomer crowd by the music, and everyone (including us) looked very cute in their all white attire. Some didn't dress up in all white, but most seemed to.
We didn't come back to the cabin until almost midnight--didn't follow the crowd inside to continue the party. It was another nice day in Greece, and the next morning we were in Kusadasi, Turkey.
Azamara Journey - Tour to a Country Home in Kusadasi, Turkey
The Azamara Journey docked at the port of Kusadasi, Turkey about breakfast time. The cruise ship had four different tours to the ancient city of Ephesus, which is about a 30 minute ride from Kusadasi. Anyone who hasn't visited Ephesus should definitely take a tour there. I highly recommend that you choose an Ephesus tour that includes the "Terrace Houses". This section requires an additional fee, but is very impressive and worth the money. Some tours to Ephesus also include a stop at "Virgin Mary's house", which is a shrine dedicated to the mother of Jesus. Although it cannot be proved, many believe the Virgin Mary once lived on this site and it is where she was assumed into heaven. Visits by Popes and other religious leaders to the site have helped solidify these beliefs.
Although almost everyone went to Ephesus and/or to St. Mary's house, we booked another "Insider's Access" tour to a country home, where we had a tour of a traditional Turkish country house, which is actually like a museum where no one lives in now, a cooking lesson, and lunch. This tour is an excellent option for anyone who has visited Ephesus and wants to have another memorable experience in Turkey. I've been on a lot of tours, and this was one of my favorites.
One of the factors contributing to an excellent shore excursion is the guide. This tour had an excellent guide named Elif who spoke English well. When we arrived at the country home, the charming daughter of the owner of the house did much of the talking. She had gone to school in Pittsburgh, so was quite knowledgeable.
We started off with Turkish tea. If you ever spend five minutes with a Turk, he/she will invite you for tea. The tea is grown in Turkey and is a black tea, always served very hot in clear glasses shaped like a "belly dancer", according to our guide. A Turkish tea pot is in two parts--like a double boiler. The bottom holds boiling water, while the top holds the tea also in water. The top section has a strainer so you don't get any tea leaves. Turkish people drink hot tea all day and evening long, and make a pot three times per day.
You have to gingerly pick the glass up near the top and sip it since it doesn't have a handle. Most people added sugar, but it was very good just plain. (I'm a huge fan of tea and never add sugar or milk to it.) With the hot tea, we had a snack of a steaming hot Turkish quesadilla stuffed with a mixture of feta cheese and fresh parsley.
After our tea and snack, we moved to the spectacular indoor kitchen, which was in another building. (We had drunk the tea outdoors in the shade, but it was still about 100+ degrees.) The kitchen had about five steps going down into it, so it was almost like in a basement. We all oooed and aaaed over the gorgeous kitchen. Plus, it had air conditioning, making it look extra good.
Like a tv cooking show, our hostess made several of the dishes we would eat for lunch and then she or her assistant would pull the finished dish out of the oven or refrigerator. Before we could participate in the preparation, all the women had to cover their hair with a traditional scarf. The hostess and her assistant wrapped each of our heads in one of the several traditional ways. Turkish people can determine which region of the country a woman is from or her sect by the way she ties her scarf. We each ended up with a different look. Claire's was the best, and it suited her personality--she looked a little like Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia". Her look had 2 scarves--one over her hair and down her back and the other tied like a headband around the first. The women from the region who wear this style are kind of the like the goddess Diana--huntresses who ride horses, are close to natute, and powerful. Mine was much more boring and I looked very dorky with it on.
We got to help make the stuffed graped leaves (dolma) and stuffed phyllo dough (also called dolma). Our guide said that anything "stuffed" in Turkey is called a dolma, even a packed bus in Istanbul. We all laughed at the direct translation for the cooking of many of the items--in Turkish you "kill" any fresh item when you cook it rather than saute or fry. For example, you kill the garlic or onions when sauteing them. Or you kill the grape leaf by boiling it before you add the stuffing.
The menu for our meal was amazing, and we brought home a cookbook in case we wanted to have a traditional Turkish country meal. The meal was served outside around a big table family style. We had red lentil soup served with a dollop of melted butter and a dash of mint; cold sauteed (not raw) carrot salad with yogurt; cold stuffed grape leaves; phyllo dough stuffed with feta cheese; stuffed peppers and tomatoes; cheese stuffed mushrooms; fresh watercress with yogurt; split belly eggplant with a ground meat stuffing; and fresh fruit for dessert (figs, peaches, watermelon, apricot, grapes).
Needless to say we waddled away from the table to another space to have our Turkish coffee and to get our fortunes read from the coffee grounds. A slurry of water mixed with finely ground coffee is poured into a tiny cup and then boiling water is added to taste. Sugar cubes are also often added. It's very strong and you only drink down to where you get the slurry.
Our tour guide Elif was also an amateur coffee-ground reader, and she volunteered to "read" each of our cup's remnants. So, after drinking down to the slurry, we put the saucer on top of the cup and turned it upside down. After a while, she picked up the cup and read the inside of the cup where the coffee grounds had stuck. Then, she poured the grounds from the saucer back into the cup and read the remains on the saucer. Great fun, and I think she picked up on all of our discussions to help determine our "fortune". No one heard anything bad, and we all saw it as great fun.
After the tea, cooking demo and participation, lunch, coffee, and fortune telling, it was about 2 pm and time to return to the ship. Very nice alternative tour for those who had visited Ephesus or Mary's house (or both).
That evening, we had an AzAmazing Azamara evening event at Ephesus.
AzAmazing Azamara Evening Event at Ephesus
Back on the ship from our visit to the country home, we showered, cleaned up, and ate an early dinner buffet in the main dining room. At about 7 pm, we left the Azamara Journey for a bus ride to Ephesus for an AzAmazing Event, a free evening event offered on all Azamara sailings for all onboard guests. (Of course, each cruise has a different event, depending on its itinerary.) This AzAmazing event was a string concert at the small Odeon theater (seats about 600 or so) at Ephesus.
Our bus arrived at Ephesus at about 7:30 or so, giving us a little time to walk around the site before the concert started. It was lovely to walk around this ancient city in the cool evening when no one was there except for us. The city looks much different at dusk.
The concert featured a Turkish ensemble of 8 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, 1 bass, and a harp player who joined the ensemble for 3 songs. It was a very entertaining evening, made even better by the historical setting. Azamara provided seat pads, so the marble seats didn't even feel too hard.
The concert only lasted about 45 minutes, so we were back on the ship before 11 pm. The traffic in Kusadasi was bumper to bumper, with many tourists and locals out enjoying the evening. Since all of us had eaten early, we had an (almost) midnight buffet. People were digging in like they hadn't eaten in days. I can't say much more since we were right with them.
In bed not long after midnight, ready for a day at sea on the way to Istanbul.
At Sea on the Azamara Journey
The day after Kusadasi was a sea day--our first on the Azamara Journey. It was a good time to catch up before arriving in Istanbul the next morning.
After a late breakfast of my usual berries, yogurt, and muesli, followed by 1/2 an omelet split with Claire, I made photos of the ship interiors and Claire walked the outdoor track for about an hour. The weather was much nicer than it has been on the ship--guess it was because we were moving!
We enjoyed an "officer's barbecue", where the top level staff (including the captain) served barbecue and all the fixins' for lunch. They had the Captain serving baked beans and corn on the cob, while other senior officers doled out tacos, pulled pork, etc. Many people sat outside by the pool in the afternoon. It was windy, but comfortable.
Claire and I went upstairs to the Looking Glass bar on deck 10 forward and had a drink before dinner. It was very quiet and we had great views of the Dardenelles. We met our group at the Prime C steakhouse and enjoyed a lively dinner. I had shrimp and crab chowder in a bread bowl, lobster salad, filet mignon, and a chocolate lava cake. Claire had a trio of shrimp, crab, and scallop appetizer, the shrimp and crab chowder, filet, and a delicious "multi-grain" souffle. It was unusual but delicious.
After dinner, we all adjourned to the Looking Glass lounge for more conversation and drinks. At 10 pm, we split up--most everyone went to the show (a Scottish flautist/singer and a comedian) while others went to a bar or to bed. It was going to be a long day in Istanbul the next day.
Our last full day on the ship we have a tour in Istanbul and then free time till our "farewell" cocktail party the last night on the ship.
A Day (and an Overnight) in Istanbul on the Azamara Journey
We were outside on the deck at 7 am so we could see the spectacular city of Istanbul as the Azamara Journey sailed up the Bosphorus strait dividing Europe from Asia. The Bosphorus runs north to south and also links the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmaris and the Mediterranean.
We left the ship at 9:45 and met our small bus for a tour of the city. It was already very hot, so we were thankful for the air conditioning in the van. I had last visited the city in 2012, and it seemed much more crowded. Our guide said it had grown from 2 million citizens in 1970 to almost 20 million today. The improvements in roads and bridges have not kept up with the population growth. The city also has up to 2 million refugees from Syria. Unemployment for college educated people in Turkey is about 18%, so although the place is packed and seemed very busy, many young people are unemployed or underemployed and working 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet. Housing is also very expensive in Istanbul since the construction of homes and apartments has also not kept up with the growth.
Our driver first took us across the bridge to Asia (cruise ships dock on the European side of Istanbul) and we stopped at a small park to look back at Europe. Our guide said most families with children live on the Asian side because housing is cheaper and you can get a stand-alone house with a yard rather than just an apartment. Next, we drove back to the European side and across the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn to the spice market. The Golden Horn is a tapering inlet of the Bosphorus shaped like a horn that divides old town Istanbul from the modern city.
I love the Spice Market and thought Claire would too. She did. With only about 150 shops, it's much smaller than the Grand Bazaar with its 4,000 shops. Originally, it was a place for locals to shop for spices, and it still is, although there are a few souvenir shops. The smells of the spice market are enticing and exotic.
After shopping for about 45 minutes, we ate lunch at a nearby restaurant at 12:30. It was called Hamdi, and we had a table on the 4th floor with nice views of the old city, the Bosphorus, and the Golden Horn. We enjoyed a selection of mezzes (appetizers)--dolma, spicy chili spread, Turkish bread, hummus, cheese, etc. before having a main course. Although Claire and I were at opposite ends of the table, we got the same dish--kebabs of half ground lamb and half ground veal mixed with pistachios. Sounds a little weird but delicious. No dessert for most of us, but a couple of folks got baklava (of course). None of us drank any alcohol for lunch, although this place served it. Everywhere in SW Turkey where I was last summer served beer and wine, but a license is expensive and you can't serve alcohol within a certain distance of a mosque. So, less places seemed to serve alcohol here in Istanbul.
After lunch, the bus took us over to the Haggia Sophia (Aya Sofya), one of the world's largest churches. There was a long line at the ticket counter, but since we were with a guide, we could walk right in since she had gotten our tickets earlier. Nice.
Aya Sofya has been a museum since 1937, which is why there's a fee to enter. The building started out as a Christian church in the 6th century, and was the greatest church in Christendom until the Ottomans took over Constantinople (old name for Istanbul) in the 1400's. It was changed into a mosque until Turkey became a republic in the late 1920's.
Attaturk, the great leader of Turkey who helped mold the republic into a secular state (rather than a religious one like other Muslim countries), decided the building should be a museum so that it could keep both its marvelous Christian and Moslem decor. The Moslems plastered over all the Christian artwork when they turned it into a mosque since their religion doesn't allow any figures--human or otherwise--just geometric patterns and calligraphy. When it became a museum, some of the plaster was removed, and some of the Christian mosaics are displayed next to panels celebrating the glory of Allah (written in Arabic). The architecture of this 1400-year-old building is especially impressive. How they ever built such a large domed building in the 6th century is almost unbelievable.
After touring Aya Sofya, we were off to the Grand Bazaar to do some browsing (Claire and I bought nothing). We strolled the length of the "mall" from gate 1, but ignored the vendors and just did some people watching. Back on the bus early to absorb the air conditioning. Have I mentioned a few dozen times that it was hot?
Back to the ship, arriving about 5 pm, just in time to get cleaned up for drinks and dinner with our group. Claire had the sea bass and loved it. I had a horseradish encrusted salmon, which was good, but not as good as her sea bass. After dinner, we went to the farewell show, which was all Broadway songs and very good. The cruise director was the "star" of the show.
Back to the cabin to pack and to bed. The next morning, we disembarked the Azamara Journey and headed to a hotel in Istanbul to stay for another day and a half before heading home.
Conclusion on Azamara Journey Cruise
The Azamara Journey promises its guests the opportunity to spend more time in port and voyages for those who love travel. The ship delivers on both. The ship is best suited for adults who want an almost-all inclusive experience on a mid-sized ship and are interested in both the most popular ports of call along with some that are more unique. Although Azamara has one "Azamazing" evening event on each cruise, I'm sure many of its guests go home thinking that the entire Azamara experience was azamazing.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary cruise accommodation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.