Construction is now underway on the World’s Largest Hotel in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The Abraj Kudai, which is owned by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Finance, will feature 12 towers, 10,000 rooms, and upwards of 70 restaurants. Read the full story HERE.
Better start saving now for the hotels Grand Opening in 2018!
A new McDonald’s commercial is trending in Taiwan with millions of views.
As tens of thousands were out on the streets of Taipei marching in Asia’s largest gay pride parade, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen came out in support of marriage equality. In a 15-second video posted on her Facebook page, which has been shared more than 3,000 times, Tsai said, “In the face of love, everyone is equal.”
In the middle of our fabulous European vacation, we stopped in Santorini, Greece. As a reminder, this port was the reason we chose this vacation and this particular cruise in the first place. My friend started planning this 40th birthday vacation-of-a-lifetime almost two years ago, solely based on this dream destination.
Before we embarked, he and I confirmed that we definitely wanted to be together in Santorini, but we thought we’d enjoy the freedom of being able to explore on our own more than we would appreciate a guided tour or excursion. So, we planned to leave the ship as soon as it docked and eventually make our way to Oia.
Quick Geography Lesson:Santorini is a small island in the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Greece. It is a remnant of a volcanic caldera – the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions ever recorded in history. What remains today is, essentially, a city atop a mountain.
Seeing as there are only a few main roads on the island, we thought it’d be fine to arrive at Athinios Port, take the cable car up to Fira and make our way to Oia on foot.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to own up to a few mistakes I made in regard to Santorini, which ended up having an effect on the day’s events.
Mistake #1: I skipped breakfast because our dock time was ridiculously early – 7 a.m.! I was so excited to get out and see Santorini, I didn’t want to take the extra 20 minutes to get some food. Guess what? Nothing was open at 7am. Commence cranky…
Mistake #2: I researched and planned every single detail of every single port on our entire itinerary except Santorini. Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t read or learn more about the logistics of the place before we left. This actually kind of boggles my mind, considering this was thereason we were on this trip in the first place!
Mistake #3: So, I am a little embarrassed to say this out loud and put it out there for the world to see, but here it is anyway. Confession: I might be a bit of a perfectionist and/or control freak. And I have a tendency to possibly build things up in my imagination ahead of time and then, when things don’t go exactly as I expect them to go, I sort of have a history of meltdown.
OK, so what do you think when you think of Santorini? You didn’t know I’m a mind reader, but I can see into your brain. The answer is: THIS PHOTO.
Oh yeah…all those beautiful blue-topped churches and buildings overlooking a gorgeous cliff and the sea beyond. Yes. That is iconic Santorini. That is what I had built up in my mind for two years. But guess what, guys? That is OIA. And the city we were dropped off in was FIRA. And they are not the same.
No problem, right? We can just walk to Oia! We have all day!
NOPE. The road is incredibly steep and windy, with blind turns and the worst traffic you can imagine. It is completely unsafe to walk that road all the way to Oia.
Next plan: let’s take a bus. Yeah! It only costs 1 Euro and the bus comes every 30 minutes. Ok, perfect.
WRONG. The traffic was so bad on the hairpin turn roads that it was nearly at a standstill. Buses blocked everything and no one even bothered to stay in their correct lane. It was mayhem. That means, the actual bus that was on its way to Oia was stuck in traffic further down the road. So the schedule for the bus was already shot. Then, when it FINALLY arrived (after we had wasted almost an hour of our time on the island), it was jam packed with people, to the point that not even one more person could squeeze in.
We really had no choice but to stay in Fira and enjoy the remaining time we had there. If you’ll remember, I was suffering from major hanger and it was also over 100 degrees in July. As much as I tried to keep my spirits up for the group, I honestly felt I had failed them. I’m supposed to be a travel agent and I didn’t plan for this?! (Granted, I was not one when we planned this trip. This was in the works waaaay before I learned one single thing about the travel industry.) But, still. I felt a little humiliated. However, instead of just apologizing or expressing my true emotions to my loved ones, I funneled all my frustrations into petty annoyance and anger.
I remember feeling deeply disappointed once we’d re-boarded the cruise ship. Here I had built this location up in my mind for over a year and it just wasn’t…what I had wanted it to be. Truth be told, it was a rough day. And, you know, we all have them. Even on our dream vacations.
But time has a way of healing heart wounds, and that is no less true for situations like this. When I sat down to write this blog about Santorini, I felt a sort of dread. I didn’t want to return to the feelings of that day. But, now that I look back upon the entire experience, I can see that my behavior was ridiculous. And the idea that I somehow missed out on the real Santorini because I only went to Fira is absurd. What was I wanting from Santorini in my dream scenario? Blue-topped churches, beautiful buildings, a delicious meal overlooking the caldera, authentic island experiences and unmatched memories of one of the most dreamy places in the world?
Here are the facts that I can finally see, now that I am past the initial grouchiness of the actual day…
I have realized…I was in the real Santorini! I docked at Athinios Port and I took the cable car up the mountain.
I ate a delicious meal on an outdoor patio, looking right out onto the ocean below. Gyros in Greece! What more could a person ask for?
I looked out over the caldera and I did, indeed, see the magnificent views from the top of the island. I witnessed some of the most gorgeous architecture in the world – something about the arches and the color of the walls makes the sky look so blue!
I even saw a few blue-topped churches!
In retrospect, yes…I could have planned better. But there was absolutely nothing wrong with our stop in Santorini…except my attitude. I realize now that there are people who might never have the chance to see the places I’ve seen or experience the things I have experienced. And, rather than be disappointed that things didn’t meet my unrealistic expectations, I should be thankful that I’ve been able to experience them at all.
This is actually a belief I’ve had for awhile. My husband and I sometimes like to joke with each other about cruise passengers who somehow find reasons to complain about every single little thing that is wrong (not gonna lie…usually Diamond Club Members). We always thought they were ridiculous. We always want to shake them and say, “For God’s sake, man! You’re on a CRUISE! In the Mediterranean! You could be at home! Working! In…Indiana! But, nooooo. Right now, you are in Europe! Be happy! It’s vacation!”
I suppose I have a little bit of understanding for those people now. But just a little. Even though I failed to see the signs in myself at the time, I can easily look back now and see how my experience in Santorini was altered by my mood that day. It’s true, though, isn’t it? Travel is colored by our frame of mind and our attitude. Your vacation is what you make of it.
Today, I have memories from Santorini that are beautiful…and I will always cherish them.
So far, I’ve shared some in depth insights into Dubrovnik and Katakalon. Today, I’ll share our rather interesting experience with Kusadasi (a port city in Turkey).
First, I should mention that I traveled to Izmir, Turkey on Spring Break many years ago, when I was in college. Izmir is a larger city and the group I traveled with back then was completely immersed in Turkish culture, so it was quite different from a one afternoon cruise port of call. Still, I have such wonderful memories from that trip. The food, the language, the culture. I just couldn’t wait to share all these things with my husband and my travel companions! Unfortunately, political winds shifted just before we left the U.S.
In light of the attempted military coup, which took place just one week before we arrived, we went back and forth as to whether we would even get off the ship in Kusadasi. Frankly, we were surprised that the city was still on our itinerary, as I had called the week before and learned that Royal Caribbean had diverted two of its ships to Crete.
After quite a bit of discussion, we decided that, if the ship was going to stop in Kusadasi, then it must be safe for us to disembark. We decided not to purchase any shore excursions and, instead, opted to stick close to the port area and not venture out any further into the country – just to be on the safe side.
We got off the ship, walked through the main duty free/cruise line shopping thoroughfare and crossed the street to look at some of the local shops. I had a request for a couple of rings from my younger sister and I thought, “What better place to buy sterling silver at a great price than Turkey?” The shopping area was packed with stores, all the shopkeepers just outside, beckoning shoppers with all sorts of pleas and bargains.
I remembered learning on my college trip that bartering was quite common in the Turkish markets, and was expected. I must not have remembered correctly, though, because these shopkeepers were extremely pushy and forceful in their sales tactics. It was humorous at first, but after some time, it began to wear on us. It was especially awkward as a woman, because we could feel the men’s eyes crawling all over us. If it weren’t for the rings, we would have turned right around and left.
Luckily, I did find a shop with exactly what I was looking for. The owner asked me for much more cash than I actually had on hand and I was ready to leave. I, honestly, couldn’t afford his price, but I also didn’t feel it would be fair to low-ball him. That was when he admitted to me that the cruise ships had not stopped in Kusadasi in 10 days, so he had not had any business at all. He said, “Any money is money. We will take anything. We’ll take Euros, Dollars, even Yen.” Heartbreaking. It did give me some insight into the reasons we were being pressured so heavily to buy. Still, we were uncomfortable, so we headed back to the ship.
On the way, we actually found a nice little seaside bar and ordered some drinks. We sat there for a long time talking and enjoying the breeze.
I was a bit disappointed with the port overall. For one, all that great culture that I couldn’t wait to show my husband and my friends just wasn’t there. There were no city-wide prayer calls ringing out over the landscape. There were no authentic restaurants serving iskender or kofte. Aside from one statue, way up on a hill, there wasn’t a statue of the great founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, on every single corner. It was just really touristy and shopping-focused. I understand, though, that our reluctance to move further into the mainland or purchase a guided excursion had quite a bit to do with this lackluster experience.
We did have a nice time together at the bar, though. The view was lovely and I could see one Atatürk up on the hillside (pictured above). I got the rings I was looking for at a rock bottom price. And, at the very least, we got some free nazar amulets to ward off evil. All in all, an OK day. Next time, though…we’re definitely snagging that tour of Ephesus.
However, before we embarked on our journey, we had decided, along with our travel companions, that we’d like to have at least one relaxing beach day on this vacation. Quite honestly, this was one of our only opportunities to do that in port without missing some other amazing tourist attraction. So we paid roughly $35 per person for a coach bus transfer to and from Kourouta Beach, which is supposedly the nicest beach in Katakalon on the Ionian Sea. In fact, it’s been called “the Mykonos of the Peloponnesse” by the locals.
The port area in Katakalon is gated and enclosed. Although there were constant shuttles running from the ship to the port gates, it was easily walkable. If you stop here, pay attention to the water near the ship – we spotted schools of fish, beautiful jellyfish and colonies of sea urchins everywhere!
Just outside the gates, there’s a nice little street with a bunch of shops, restaurants and a church (St. Nicholas). Some of the shops are your typical cruise line stores that you see in every port and, of course, you have your souvenir/tchotchke dealers aplenty (which isn’t to say they are a bad thing – we buy plenty from those places when we travel! They are perfect for purchasing gifts for kiddos and pet sitters!) There are some really great shops along this row with authentic Greek alcohol, candy, wine, olive oil, etc. It’s a fun stretch to browse and there are lots of free samples! But this area probably wouldn’t fill an entire day. I’d definitely recommend some sort of shore excursion in this port.
We were rather surprised to find that our tour bus transfer included a tour guide. This wasn’t mentioned in any of the descriptions, so it was an extra bit of fun for us. The ride to the beach took about 30 minutes, so we welcomed the stories and facts that our guide shared along the way. It was particularly interesting to see a “real life” Greek city, sort of behind the “tourist veil”. On the way to the beach, the guide apologized for the great piles of garbage lining the streets. Apparently, the financial crisis hit the country so hard, they haven’t had garbage pick-up service in months. When we visited, she said they were just beginning the effort to restore service and get everything picked up. It was sad and eye opening. The fact that they desperately need our tourist dollars was evident. But it wasn’t all stark economic realities – we also got to view the magnificent beauty of the Greek countryside, full to the brim with olive groves and farmhouses. Beautiful.
The small city just outside Kourouta Beach was pretty sparse – our tour guide said it was mostly abandoned. But, once we got closer to the beach (which was very small), the boardwalk area brought some life to the landscape.
Our transfer dropped us at a popular coffee shop and let us know that we were welcome to use any of the beach chairs/umbrellas on the beach in front of the coffee shop, as well as their wireless internet, as long as we made some sort of purchase. Another nice bonus!
The beach itself was small, decent and we had no complaints. I wouldn’t call it a white sand paradise, by any stretch of the imagination. But the water was nice and we found some beautiful rocks (when you get into the water, you tread on thousands of them for about 20 feet or so until you get into the deeper waters where the sand is finer and soft on your feet). Even further in, the water isn’t too deep. We spent quite a bit of time in the ocean and enjoyed it immensely.
All in all, it wasn’t really anything to write home about, but we found some good food along the boardwalk, had some great sunbathing time, and we were able to relax and cool down after almost a week of non-stop walking and baking in the Mediterranean sun. We truly enjoyed the down time.
You can read more reviews of Kourouta Beach from TripAdvisor here.
Delta’s about to cater to those of you who absolutely cannot stand speaking to another human being on an airplane! Haha. Probably going to come with a pretty hefty price tag, though…since one of those lay-down seat thingies in First Class on an overseas flight costs around $2,400. Yikes!
Check out the details on Delta’s new Business Class Suites HERE!
One of the cities my husband and I were most looking forward to visiting was Dubrovnik, Croatia. I will admit that we had never seen one episode of Game of Thrones when we booked this cruise almost two years ago. However, when I researched ports of call and saw that the King’s Landing portion of the show had been filmed in Dubrovnik for years, I thought it was time to jump onboard. We wanted to be able to appreciate that aspect of the destination…for our geeky friends, of course! Update: We are now completely addicted to, and way too emotionally involved in, a world of fictional characters. But, that’s not what this is about.
This walk-through of Dubrovnik will include photos and video and a healthy dose of GoT geekery. Enjoy!
First, I should mention that I’m focusing pretty much only on the Old City of Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik is actually a pretty large city and most of it could be mistaken for any other average city across the world. This is what we saw from the ship as we headed into port.
Our travel companions opted for a ship excursion, which was a guided tour of Dubrovnik. (Royal Caribbean even offered a Game of Thrones tour, which is a new excursion option – sold out, of course!) But, since we weren’t looking to spend a whole bunch of money in this port, we decided to venture off on our own. We did, however, purchase tickets for a bus transfer from the port to the Old City. For $12 each, it was a great deal! The trip took about 20 minutes and the roads were steep and narrow. In addition, a bus left from the old city every 20 minutes to return to the ship, so we had control over how long we stayed. This ended up coming in handy because we assumed we’d stay all day and be on the last bus back to the ship. But, with a heat index of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, we saw what we wanted to see and we were pretty much done. We ended up only spending a few hours in port. The heat was just so oppressive!
When you arrive at the site of the Old City, you basically have to follow the crowds to get into the city. There is one main entrance (that we saw) called the Pile Gate. I guess it seems pretty obvious, but I never really thought about what the term “walled city” means. It means there is literally a huge wall with an entire city inside. And it makes for some absolutely stunning views.
Once inside, there is a single, long main road through the city. But, off of this road, there are a BUNCH of tiny side streets, which allow access to a dizzying number of restaurants, stores, residences, etc.
GoT GEEKERY:Remember Cersei’s Walk of Shame? It was most certainly on one of the many side roads in the Old City.
Right inside the Pile Gate (to the left), you can pay 120 Croatian Kuna (~$20 USD) to climb the hundreds of stairs to get up onto the walls and have a birds-eye view of everything (along with some amazing photo and video opportunities).
Looks easy, doesn’t it? WRONG! These are just the first of literally HUNDREDS of very steep, grueling steps to get to the highest lookout point on the wall. It is, however, worth the trek…bad knees and all. Because look at the view!
GoT GEEKERY: Remember the scene in this season’s finale where Daenarys is supposedly “surrendering” to the slavers and you see just a hint of Drago flying in the background before he comes up and Daenarys jumps on him and kicks some major slaver a&*? I’m almost 90% sure the actors were standing atop that fort (in the photo above) looking over at the walled city when they filmed that scene.
Here’s a video that shows the view from pretty low down on the wall, starting with the regular city outside the Pile Gate, panning around to the view of the fort, then eventually showing Old Dubrovnik and ending with a view of the main road from up on the the wall.
In this selfie, you can see the rest of the wall behind us, which turns and heads off to the left as it rises. This will be important for the next GoT Geekery tibdbit.
GoT GEEKERY: While it’s not the greatest photo I could find and while there has clearly been some CGI castle edited in, this is a great shot of Tyrion and Varys on the wall, pretty close to the spot where the path on the wall turns to the left.
Finally, some views from the very top of the wall. Just gorgeous.
Side Note: Some brilliant business woman set up a beverage and ice cream stand at the very top. After climbing 180+ steps in that heat, people would have paid $20 for a Popsicle. Absolute genius!
Aside from the views, there are all kinds of restaurants inside the city, as well as some amazing shops (with plenty of GoT regalia available for purchase, of course). Rumor is there is even a shop (called the Dubrovnik Shop – uh, real helpful) with a full-sized replica of the Iron Throne, where you can take photos (if you buy something in the shop). We never found it, but if we had more time, I’m sure we would have. There are beautiful churches you can tour – we also missed these, but my friend says there is a fragment of what is believed to be Christ’s cross in one of them?! And, for some reason, there are cats everywhere! They just mosey along the sidewalk and lay near the shops (some of them even saunter into the shops like they own the place) and no one pays them any mind. It reminded me a lot of the cats of Old San Juan in Puerto Rico. Cute. I, honestly, feel I got just a tiny taste of Dubrovnik and it’s definitely on my Bucket List to go back someday and explore some more and spend some real time not only in Dubrovnik, but on the entire chain of Dalmatian Islands along Croatia’s coast.
Have you seen the new iPhone commercial, based on a Maya Angelou poem? I just love it. It is absolutely stunning. It really reflects the beauty of international travel and how traveling and meeting people in other parts of the world helps to break down all kinds of prejudices, stereotypes and perceived barriers.
It reminds me of a quote from Andrew Solomon’s book, Far & Away – Reporting from the Brink of Change: Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Countries.
“You cannot understand the otherness of places you have not encountered. If all young adults were required to spend two weeks in a foreign country, two-thirds of the world’s diplomatic problems could be solved.”