Kusadasi and Ephesus, Turkey

The port in Kusadasi was certainly busier than the last time we were here, when we were the only ship. Either things are quieter in the Middle East or people have just gotten used to it. No circling gunboats this time, and a relaxed atmosphere throughout the busy town.

In any event, the contrast between Greece and Turkey is striking. Where Greece seemed completely shut down, Turkey is booming. Kusadasi is vibrant, with shops, restaurants, construction and lots and lots of tourists. The Turkish people are very friendly (albeit insistent shopkeepers, which takes some getting used to), and well aware that tourism is Kusadasi’s number one industry (followed by textiles and agriculture).

The main reason is Ephesus, about a 20 minute drive from the port. 2000 years ago it was the most sophisticated city in the world, other than Rome. It’s population was a quarter of a million. Its homes featured running water, toilets, heated floors and beds, and many other innovations that wouldn’t be rediscovered for more than a millennium.

Ephesus was physically destroyed by earthquakes and a landslide, and economically destroyed when its canal to the sea disappeared. Almost completely buried, it wasn’t rediscovered until the 20th century. The site has now been 14% excavated, and attempts have been made to reconstruct some of the structures, much like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

Our day couldn’t have been more different than yesterday. Not only was the archaeology 100 times superior, the weather was, too, with clear skies and a temperature of 60.

Since we’d been to Ephesus before, we opted for a more detailed tour this time, with a working archaeologist, Erjon, as our guide. (Our tour director also was an archaeologist, although she has been directing tours for 11 years, since it pays better.)

We began by taking a coach to an off-site museum where Erjon guided us through all the best finds from Ephesus. (Some of the pieces have been copied so that a duplicate remains at the site, subject to the elements.) Then we traveled to what is essentially Ephesus’ back door, so that we could work our way down the rather steep main street.

The best part of our tour was a visit to the villas. This new excavation, beneath a protective cover, exposes seven adjoining homes, each up to 7000 square feet. The first one had an 1800 square foot dining room. The high rent district, indeed! The way they’ve done this excavation is spectacular, with glass walkways that allow visitors to walk through the entire space and see everything below them.

After the villas, we posed in front of the facade of the library, which looks like a two-story building, but wasn’t. One of its more interesting features was a tunnel to the bordello, making a visit to the librarian pretty exciting indeed.

In the afternoon we traveled to Restaurant Sizguzar for a delicious Turkish meal of grilled vegetables and minced lamb kebabs, then returned to the port to walk through the bazaar and tell very polite but insistent shopkeepers that we didn’t want a rug. Or a jacket. Or jewelry. Or a statue of Priapus that was six inches tall and six inches long, if you know what I mean.



This is our first time on Oceania, although they are owned by Regent, a high end line Dani and I once took for an enjoyable Mediterranean cruise. The Insignia is a beautiful ship, with by far the nicest finish work of any I’ve sailed on. Unlike the Princess, Royal Caribbean and NCL ships, there is no tacky chrome and glass, or garish colors. It’s all detailed woodwork, leather, and brass. Every public space, even just little out of the way corners, is furnished with ritzy, comfortable living room furniture like you’d find in someone’s home. Oddly, they are retiring this ship; it’s not in next year’s catalog, as the plan to lease it to a German company. That’s surprising, considering it seems in perfect repair, but I guess they need larger ships. This one is small compared to almost all that I’ve been on, accommodating only 684 passengers, rather than the thousands we’re used to. Still, it has several lounges, and four different dining experiences.

For our first night aboard we ate in the main dining room, and certainly enjoyed the best meal I’ve had on a cruise ship. This is not Royal Caribbean food, where a cheese plate comes with saltines and Kraft slices!

The wine list isn’t high-end, and the prices might be low for a fine restaurant, but they’re a bit high for a cruise ship. However they offer a package that provides a 30% discount if you preorder bottles, so that’s quite a good deal.

Water, coffee (even cappuccino and so on) and soft drinks are free on this ship, a benefit worth many hundreds of dollars over two weeks. Liquor is also a pretty good deal.

Sunday we were up early (very early, given the 7-hour time change) but we had a good night’s sleep, and were ready for our 7:45am departure for The Best of Istanbul tour. We opted for a small tour group, with only eight people, which made it very easy to stay with the group and to hear our guide.

Unfortunately, it was rainy, although that didn’t affect our plans. What did affect our plans was that today was the annual Euro-Asia marathon, with 250,000 entrants, so the streets were closed and the city was impassible for most of the day. It’s the only marathon that covers two continents, and–not coincidentally–Istanbul is the only city that spans two continents.

Our van dropped us off in the old city, not far from the ship, and our day was spent on foot.

Our first brief stop was at the first needle stolen from Egypt by the Romans. They could only manage to move the top two thirds of it, and once they got it to Byzantium (aka Constantinople, aka Istanbul) it took more than half a century for them to figure out how to stand it back up.

Nearby we visited the Blue Mosque, the largest mosque in a city filled with them. It is unusual in that non-muslims are allowed to visit in between the five daily prayer sessions. We learned that Turkey is a unique muslim country, because even though it is 99.9% muslim, it is secular. In fact, the government dictates what is allowed in the sermons, to prevent religious uprisings such as those that have toppled other governments. It is also technically illegal to cover your face, although we saw one Iraqi woman at the airport wearing a burka.

A short distance from the Blue Mosque is the Topkapi Palace, where the Sultans ruled for 700 years. The palace is actually a sprawling complex of courtyards and single story buildings that have been converted to museums. There was a textile museum that displayed various sultans’ garments of considerable age, and a holy artifact museum that displayed possessions and bits and pieces claimed to come from various prophets. Most impressive was the treasury, which displayed jewelry, swords and boxes studded or filled with many, many enormous diamonds, emeralds and other precious gems.

Outside Linda posed in the rain for a picture on the balcony overlooking the strait. Behind her, on the left, is Europe, and on the right is Asia. Only 3% of Turkey is in Europe, though, making it a long shot for membership in the EU.

Another short walk brought us to Saint Sophia, the most impressive stop of the day. Built in the early 6th century as the first domed basilica, it remained the largest building on Earth for over 1000 years! It is still the fourth largest basilica in the world. The size of the unsupported dome is rather amazing, especially for its age, and particularly because it was constructed in five years. (There’s a cathedral in Koln that took the better part of a millennium to build!)

Another short stroll brought us to the lovely Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul, where we had a marvelous buffet brunch of sushi, sashimi, salads, and omelets, all included in our tour. Best tour lunch ever.

Unfortunately, the marathon road closures made it impossible to get to our final destination, the spice market, so we spent a couple hours relaxing in the hotel, and then headed back to the ship for the ever-popular lifeboat drill.

Then we bid rainy Istanbul goodbye, and headed out into rough seas for Greece.

New York to Istanbul

With a lull in Linda’s projects for Disney, she was able to get away, so for her birthday we booked a cruise in the Mediterranean. When Delta changed their flight schedule, our connection through JFK became dangerously short, so we decided to fly into New York a day a day before our international flight and celebrate her birthday a couple of days early, with dinner at Daniel and a night at the Hotel Athenee. Booking through Amex got us some nice benefits, including an upgrade to one of only two balcony rooms. Although it was rainy (with an impressive thunderstorm in the middle of the night) we were lucky during our walks around the city, and never needed an umbrella.

Dinner was nice, if not quite at the level of Eleven Madison Park or Jean Georges. The dining room is beautiful, and there were an astonishing number of wait staff. The service was extremely professional, but neither stiff nor friendly, just sort of a frenetic attempt to make everything perfect. It was, at times, a bit exhausting to watch. That’s very different from Eleven Madison Park, where the perfection feels effortless.

We had the six course tasting menu with matching wine pairing. There were two choices for each course, and I let Linda pick first, then took all the alternatives. As it turned out, I think I got the better choices. Of the wines, a 2009 Copain Pinot Noir from Alexander Valley really impressed us with its earthy/fruity complexity.

The next day we ate at Linda’s favorite lunch restaurant, Alain Ducasse’s Benoit, where we had her two favorite courses, the Charcuterie and the Roasted Chicken. Both are really, really French, and the pommes frites that accompany the chicken are the best anywhere.

On our walk back to the hotel we passed the Apple Store, where a tribute to Steve Jobs had been set up by fans. It happened to be iPhone 4s launch day, and there were hundreds of people in line outside.

Our 5:15pm flight to Istanbul was delayed when a bird was sucked into one of the engines on arrival at JFK, and eventually Delta ended up replacing the plane, recatering it, and we finally took off close to three hours late. Fortunately we had nothing to do on arrival. We were both able to get four or five hours of sleep on the way, and felt fairly refreshed as we watched the comedy team of baggage handlers try to round up 69 passengers and their bags at the Istanbul airport. Then it was off to meet our ship.

Our luggage is on the bottom.