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The 2012 Hong Kong-Athens Cruise, part 6 of 6

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The 2012 35-Day Hong Kong-Athens Cruise, Oceania ms Nautica, 6 of 6

Text and pictures by Snookums, webification by Filbert

Part Six

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May 11 (Friday, Day 36, Haifa, Israel; 1 ILS = $0.26; $1 = 3.79 ILS) -

Baha'i Gardens

At 8 AM the six of us met Omri to start our day seeing the Christian highlights. We started off by driving to the top of Haifa’s Carmel Mountain for a panoramic view over Haifa bay and the famous Baha'i Gardens. Haifa is Israel’s largest port and third-largest city. The most striking landmark on the mountainside is the gleaming golden dome of the Baha’i Shrine, set amid utterly beautiful circular grass terraces that fill the slopes from top to bottom. Haifa is the world center for the Baha’i faith. Then we drove along the plains of Armageddon to Nazareth - the place where Jesus spent his early years. In Nazareth, we explored the Basilica of the Annunciation, one of Christianity's most revered shrines and largest church in the Middle East. The Nigerian group that we saw yesterday was at this church today! We walked next door to the Church of St. Joseph and it was built over the cave where Joseph did his carpentry. Nazareth was a cave village so most of the historical sites are built with the historical caves in the bottom of them. In recent times, Nazareth used to be a majority Christian city but is now mostly Muslim since the Muslims are having more children than the Christians.

Under the Church of St. Joseph

Then we drove through Cana, the place where Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine. It is now a primarily Muslim community and all of the gift stores were selling Cana Wedding Wine.

We stopped at a Sea of Galilee overlook and it looks like a big lake. Omri’s mother-in-law lives in a kibbutz so he drove us through Kinneret Kibbutz. She works in the accounting department. Kibbutz’s used to be like communes where everything was shared and the children were taken from their parents. Today people can buy their own cars and the children stay with their families. Omri was born in a kibbutz, but his parents left when they realized that he wouldn’t be growing up with them. Omri’s wife grew up in one and wants to live in one, but Omri and their two children do not. Their children go to the school at the mother-in-law’s kibbutz, though, since it is better than the local school. The kibbutz that we drove through has a dairy, a plastics factory and a date farm.

Overlooking the Sea of Galilee

Then we drove to the Yardenit baptismal site where the River Jordan separates from the Sea of Galilee. The River Jordan is where John baptized Jesus. Pilgrims from around the world come to perform baptismal ceremonies and we saw several people being baptized when they walked in the river.  It is a very small river. Nutria were swimming in it. The Kinneret Kibbutz owns the Yardenit site. It was free to enter, but everything else cost money, including the bathroom ($0.50). It generates a lot of money for the kibbutz and Omri knows this since his mother-in-law works in accounting.

The River Jordan

We drove by the Mary Magdalene excavation. It is closed to the public but they are trying to raise funds to build it.

Then we went to lunch. We pulled up to what looked like a truck stop and the sign on the top said “Oriental Restaurant”. Omri said that even though tour buses stop at this restaurant, he brings his family here. We were game, but Snookums was thinking “No, not Chinese!”. John and Ronnie opted to not eat lunch since they rarely eat lunch on the ship. So Omri and the four of us sat down. Then Snookums saw that the menu was for a Lebanese restaurant and she was psyched. Omri suggested we just start with the salads and we agreed. The next thing we knew, out came ten or twelve plates of cold salads! Barbara saw that arak was on the menu. Arak is a licorice-flavored liqueur (like ouzo). She was thrilled and ordered the $5.75 version from the five brands listed on the menu. Filbert couldn’t be outdone and he also ordered a glass of the other $5.75 kind. In the excitement of tasting all of the salads, plus the pita bread and the toasted pita bread, Filbert and Barbara forgot to do a taste test of their araks and will never know which brand was better. Filbert thought that the liqueur did complement the meal quite nicely. The bill for the meal was $90 and we split it down the middle since we wanted to treat Omri. (Although $45/couple sounds like a lot for lunch, the tour information did say that around $20 per person should be brought for lunch each day.) One of the salads was tabbouleh but this version was 99% parsley and 1% couscous. We managed to finish at least four of the plates (including a tomato sauce/salsa-type salad, tuna salad, hummus, and goat cheese salad) and thought we were done. However, out came the bronze ethnic coffee pot with tiny cups and a plate of fresh dates. Fresh dates are not as sweet as dried dates, but are very similar.

After lunch, we went to Tabgha, the site of the miracle of loaves and fishes. There is a church there now. Then we visited Capernaum ($0.80) which is located on the beautiful shores of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum is considered the center of Jesus' ministry while he was living in this area. We saw the ruins of an ancient synagogue where an impressive mosaic floor was recently discovered.  We also saw the ruins of Simon Peter’s home.

Then we drove to the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus preached the famous Sermon on the Mount. This was a gorgeous place with lots of flowering trees and shrubs and looked like a resort.

The Mount of the Beatitudes

After that, we drove back to Haifa and got on the ship around 5:00 PM. We drove all over Israel and saw a lot of its land. It is very hilly and has a lot of agriculture. It looks a lot like California. We also saw the walls that block off Palestinian territories from the rest of Israel. They looked very much like the Berlin wall since they were very tall and had barbed wire at the top. Due to the suicide bombers several years ago, Palestinians are not allowed to travel throughout Israel without permission, which is not easy to get. In fact, the security in Israel is higher than any of place we visited on this cruise. Random searches took place as passengers were getting on and off the ship and our bags were checked before going to the Wailing Wall. We had to pass through metal detectors, too. It’s just a way of life in Israel and Omri said he doesn’t even think about it and is not fearful. We had a great day for $130 per person, excluding lunch. The ship was charging $149 for its tour and it included lunch, but our tour group of six was much smaller and our lunch was outstanding.

Filbert still hadn’t received the lost/stolen form so we asked about it at the Front Desk and was told it would be delivered. This was another example of Oceania’s incompetence (and most of the incidents did not make it into this journal).

Snookums did laundry and some moron took our clothes out of the dryer before they were dry. The dryers rarely stop, either, so the “in use” light was on and the person took them out and dumped them in a laundry basket which meant lots of wrinkled clothes. Snookums plans on washing all of our clothes when we get home anyway, but it would have been nice to have wrinkle-free clothes for the last few days. (We brought around four outfits each so there aren’t a lot of clothes to wash.)

May 12 (Saturday, Day 37, Haifa, Israel; 1 ILS = $0.26; $1 = 3.79 ILS) -

We woke up and took the 10 AM shuttle to downtown Haifa. We decided to go up to the Baha’i shrine, or the Shrine of the Bab, and started our hike. After walking up many, many, many stairs for ¼ mile (that doesn’t sound that far, but when it is almost straight up, it is!) that are located outside the Baha’i property, we were at the shrine and the surrounding gardens. The gardens are 19 stunningly landscaped terraces that are a harmony of color and form – pale pink-and-grey-stone flights of stairs and carved urns overflowing with bright red geraniums set off the perfect cutouts of emerald green grass and floral borders. Haifa is the world center for the Baha’i faith, founded in Iran in the 19th century. It holds as its central belief the unity of mankind.

Shrine of the Bab

We walked around the gardens and made our way to the Shrine of the Bab. We removed our shoes and walked in and no cameras were allowed. It was disappointing, to say the least. There were assorted Persian carpets on the floor and no interesting or ornate decorations on the white walls or ceiling. There were some chandeliers and then the “altar” or “shrine” part of it contained a bunch of candelabras of differing sizes and some cloisonné bowls. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to these items. Some candelabras held eight candles, some 12. It didn’t seem to matter.

At the top of the gardens

We were hoping to buy a painting for our travel wall since we buy one on each trip as a souvenir. However, we hadn’t seen any at Petra, Wadi Rum or Jerusalem. We thought for sure we would find one of the Baha’i Gardens, but we didn’t. There was not a souvenir store or even an information kiosk. The Baha’i could raise a lot of money by having brochures, postcards, souvenirs and water for sale. But, there is nothing for sale and no information at all in the entire complex. There are security guards and that is all. No explanatory signs or anything. We’ll have to frame one of Filbert’s photos.

When we saw all that we could, we decided to walk back down to the shuttle stop a different way. Most of the stores were closed since it was still the Sabbath. However, we managed to find a Russian grocery store and since Filbert still had a ten-shekel coin ($2.50) in his pocket, we had to spend it. (Immigrants from the former Soviet Union make up 25% of Haifa’s population.) There was a huge selection of foreign beer, wine and liquor. We could have purchased all sorts of Russian things (chocolate, jam, vodka) in addition to normal items found in other Israeli grocery stores. We ended up buying a Coke Zero ($1.50) for Filbert and an $0.80 pound cake pastry with jam filling for Snookums. We were left with $0.20 and Snookums found the one cashier that spoke English (everyone spoke Russian) and asked if there was anything we could buy for it and was told “no”. She gave the $0.20 to the cashier.

Prices in Israel seem to be similar to the U.S. A 20 oz. can of tomatoes cost $0.87. 0.8 gallon of milk is almost $5. Gasoline is around $7/gallon. A 4 oz. can of tuna is $2.50.

We made it back to the shuttle stop and took the 1:30 shuttle back to the ship. We were very hot and tired and definitely got our exercise for the day!

When we got back to our cabin we saw that the wood railing on our veranda had been varnished and there was also a 1½ liter bottle of Caffeine Free Diet Coke on the desk. (Snookums was told that it had run out on May 5 and she strongly suggested they look in every port for it. Oceania finally found some on the third day we were in port. Better late than never??)

We received a call from the purser around 5 PM saying that our onboard account would be credited $50 for the sleep apnea face mask that housekeeping lost on May 5th. That issue took way too long to resolve, too.

We enjoyed happy hour with Barbara and Donna followed by dinner. They are fun traveling companions. And when Donna gets her new knees, watch out!

May 13 (Sunday, Day 38, Cruising the Mediterranean Sea) -

During this entire cruise we haven’t seen much sea life. We saw dolphins three or four times and lots of flying fish. When we were in the Red Sea we saw 1000s (and this is not an exaggeration) of pink jellyfish that were around 8” in diameter. We saw a couple of sea turtles and a shark, too, during the cruise. All in all, though, there wasn’t much sea life.

We met Barbara and Donna for happy hour (every night from 5 – 6 drinks are two-for-one in some of the bars) and then had a very nice dinner with them in the Grand Dining Room. After that it was time to pack.

May 14 (Monday, Day 39, Athens (Piraeus), Greece) -

We woke up, showered, picked up our passports and ate a leisurely breakfast. We weren’t meeting the George’s Taxi van service until 8:50 AM and it seemed that most people were getting off the ship around 8 AM so breakfast was not busy at all. Oceania requests that all passengers vacate their cabins by 8 AM and all passengers must disembark by 9 AM. (Holland America lets passengers remain in their cabins until they disembark.) After cruising 8,203 nautical miles over 35 days, we got off the ship for the last time, found our luggage, walked through passport control and customs and found the van and six other passengers. One hour later and $55 total, including tip, for the two of us, we were at the Athens airport. (Oceania was charging $79 per person for its transfer service.)

We got to the gate three hours prior to our departure but that was okay. We used the free WiFi and relaxed. Snookums was happy since she was able to buy a liter of water for $0.88 which is the cheapest she has ever paid at an airport. Filbert’s two small Coke Zeros were $3 each.

Our 1:05 PM flight from Athens to Munich was on time and Lufthansa served a hot meal. It would be nice if US airlines served hot meals, or any meals, on flights that were only two hours and 35 minutes long! And, the meal of meatballs in a tomato sauce served on rice was quite tasty. Snookums told Filbert that this meal had more flavor than any of the Oceania meals and he readily agreed. Sad, but true.

We landed in Munich with one hour to catch our flight to Chicago. Unfortunately, the Munich airport is very large and going through passport control and security took a long time. Snookums made a quick stop at a store to buy water ($4.33) while Filbert kept going ahead. We both made it to the gate and the gate agents were yelling for Chicago passengers. However, there was one more security checkpoint to get through and around ten of us were in a single file waiting to walk through the metal detector and then succumbing to a manual search. The plane waited for all of us.

During the 9 hour and 45 minute flight to Chicago Snookums got a sore throat. Other than that, it was uneventful. The O’Hare passport control lines were the longest we had seen there but we finally made it through and got our luggage. Then we climbed on the tram to the other terminal and made it to the gate with about 5 minutes to spare before boarding the flight to Kansas City. Today was a day of just barely enough time to make connections.

All of our luggage made it to KCI and our van driver was waiting for us. We got home around 10:30 PM, made sure everything was still in working order, showered and went to bed around 11:15 PM.

Snookums woke up on Tuesday with an awful sore throat as well as crusty eyes and no energy or appetite. She ultimately went to the doctor later in the week and had a blood test for malaria which was negative, as was everything else. The doctor said she had a virus. The sore throat, crusty eyes and lack of energy lasted for a full 14 days. She lost 10 pounds during those 14 days (but that was after gaining four pounds on the cruise while Filbert gained one pound)!

Final Impressions

Things we liked about Oceania:
Afternoon tea was very good.
The pizza was the best cruise pizza, but that’s not saying a whole lot.
The French toast and breakfast fresh fruit selection were great.
The sticky buns that were served on some mornings were great.
The bed and sheets were very comfortable.
There is no onboard photographer hassling you about taking your photo.

Things we disliked about Oceania:
The cabins were very small.
The soft drink selection included only one kind of diet soda – Coke Light.
There were only four washing machines and four dryers for 650 passengers.
Every bingo session announcement came to every cabin if the TV was on.
After 2 PM, the only lunch option was the outside grill with its set menu.
Requesting sandwich bread or yellow mustard at the Terrace Café during lunch or dinner was regarded as a major hassle.
The salad bar was very limited with five items per day in addition to mixed greens and it was not self-serve.
Dinner entrees and appetizers were frequently repeated.
The food was very bland, including the ethnic dishes.
The crew was from many countries which made communication difficult.
Terrace Café service was poor – not enough buffet servers, not enough wait staff refilling water glasses.
The medical doctor that Snookums saw on the ship was incompetent.
The special ordered Coke Zero was delivered late and then supposedly ran out for three days. Caffeine Free Diet Coke ran out with eight days to go.