Turkish delight

When we told friends and family where we would be travelling to last summer, reactions were always either “Are you crazy? Why would you want to go there?” or “Wow! What a great trip. I’m so jealous.” My husband and I clearly fell into the latter group who thought a luxury Mediterranean cruise on a Silversea ship to Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Greece and Turkey was off the well-beaten path and worthy of jealousy.

We were to meet the Silversea cruise ship Silver Wind in Alexandria, Egypt. As part of the package offered by Silversea, we chose both pre- and post-cruise stays. The pre-cruise offer was too enticing to pass up: accommodation in Cairo with a day trip to the Pyramids at Giza, the Sphinx and the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities.

Our first anticipated stop was, of course, the Pyramids. Thankfully, our guide had decided a morning outing to the desert would be best because it was mid-July and the heat by afternoon can be unrelenting. We were shocked at the small number of tourists walking around the Pyramids. Because of ongoing fighting in the Middle East, Egypt’s tourism continues to suffer. While it means tourists don’t have to wait in long lines, they are continually surrounded by merchants who aggressively hawk their wares at every turn. We learned that avoiding eye contact, keeping your hands in your pockets and a quick No were the best responses, but this came after many failed attempts to be polite.

We toured the Pyramid of Chephren and were warned by people around us that if you’re claustrophobic it could get dicey. We followed a line of people into a small opening at the base and walked down a wooden plank while bent over into a dark and narrow passage. We had one stop halfway through where we could stand up and then continued on to the tomb chamber where an empty sarcophagus sits at the far end. Standing in the tomb, we felt very small when we realized the history and sheer weight of what is overhead. Nothing about the Pyramids compares with anything you have seen in books or watched on television. The enormous size is only apparent when you are standing at the foot of one of these wonders. You can feel the thousands of years of history, and the surrounding desert is just so far removed from the Canadian landscape.

We climbed the Great Pyramid to get a sense of the size of the blocks, and then we were off to ride a camel into the desert. We were led into a portion of the desert where the backdrop is a jaw-dropping view of all three Pyramids.

Back in Cairo, we visited the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities where there are so many artifacts it is said that it if you spent one minute looking at each, it would take nine months to see the whole museum. The museum itself isn’t air conditioned, and the artifacts are accessible. You can touch many of the statues, and the crowds during our visit were more than manageable. The Royal Mummy room is worth paying the extra money to see. The room houses a selection of mummified pharaohs, including the great Pharaoh Ramses II, in glass cases, and you can literally see the hairs on their heads, their fingernails and teeth.

A walk in downtown Cairo can be a test of patience fighting your way through insane traffic and warding off merchants who want you to come to their shop. A felucca ride (C$10) on the Nile outside the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel, where we had a beautiful room with a Nile view, was a great way to get a feel for the city without the traffic, aggressive sales pitches and unwanted attention, and the breeze off the water helped keep us cool in the heat. That night, we had a delicious Lebanese dinner at one of the 11 restaurants in the hotel. At night, the view from our balcony was spectacular, with the Nile lit up with coloured lights of tour boats and restaurant barges. The bridge below us was full of hundreds of Egyptians cooling off with the night winds and socializing until the small hours of the morning.

Now that we had seen Cairo and the Pyramids, we could cross off a few lines on our things-you-have-to-do-before-you-die list.

Arriving in Alexandria the next day to catch up with the Silver Wind, one of four ships in the Silversea fleet, we were happy to have our private bus with only four other people and our own guide to negotiate all of the requirements for visas in Egypt. We were boarding the ship midway through the Silver Wind’s cruise, and the ship had already been to ports in Italy, Malta and Libya. (Silversea will personalize cruises, allowing guests to get on and off the ship where they choose; passengers who do so are charged a daily rather than package rate.) We checked in and were handed a glass of champagne as our personal stewardess took us to our room. The standard room had a king-size bed, marble bathroom, walk-in closet, sitting area, bar (stocked daily with our alcoholic and non-alcoholic choices) and, most importantly, our own private veranda. We broke open the chilled champagne set out for us and toasted the next leg of our trip.

Before we boarded the ship in Alexandria, we had been told that the ship’s itinerary had changed due to the bombing of Lebanon and Syria by Israel after Hezbollah kidnapped an Israeli soldier. Our scheduled stops in Beirut and Damascus would be cancelled, and we would be docking in more Turkish ports than planned. We kept our family back home informed of the changes by using the ship’s library, where several computers offer access to the Internet and e-mail.

When we woke the next morning and I pulled back the curtains on our balcony window, it was like unveiling a scene from a movie. The view of tile-roofed houses nestled into the mountains of Alanya, Turkey, was breathtaking. The ship had docked inside a bay at the base of the mountainous landscape where a rock wall runs from the sea to the top of the mountain surrounding what remains of Seljuk fortress built in the early 1200s and Kale Camii, a castle mosque. We planned to spend the day exploring. We walked to the downtown area and passed beaches filled with European tourists who had long ago discovered the beauty of Turkey. The town of Alanya itself was given by Antony to Cleopatra after it ended up in the hands of the Romans. We ended up at Cleopatra’s Beach, which is in another bay with stunning views of the fortress and wall. Pirate-style ships take tourists on a short sail before mooring off the beach and allowing them to dive into the blue waters.

We hired a cab – after negotiating the fare – to take us to the top of the mountain where we explored the remains of a Byzantine church and lighthouse dating back to 1720.

One of our favourite rituals on the ship was enjoying hors d’oeuvres in our room (delivered every night at 5) and a pre-dinner drink in the Panorama Lounge where we would sip our cocktails and look at the view through the wall of windows or settle into a teak deck chair just outside the lounge to enjoy the sea air while we talked about our day and what we would do at the next port. For history buffs or sightseeing enthusiasts, a Silversea cruise offers a good choice of destinations and in-depth tours. Some passengers actually stay on board for three months at a time. On return cruises, the ship doesn’t dock in the same ports so there is no chance of boredom for these continuing passengers.

Our next port, Antalya, is the capital of Turkish tourism. Located on the Gulf of Antalya, the harbour is a beautiful crescent bay at the base of steep mountains and dramatic cliffs. It’s no surprise that the town of 603,000 swells to two million during summer months when visitors head to the beautiful beaches. Silversea offers walking tours of Perge, east of the city. The remains of the fourth century BC site are impressive and include a 12,000-seat stadium and 15,000-seat theatre. A stop on the return bus ride at the Antalya Museum, which houses artifacts from the Neolithic to the Roman period, is a must.

The following day, we landed at Marmaris, a tiny Turkish port where you can spend the day shopping in its quaint streets or catch a ferry to Rhodes in Greece. We chose to board a bus tour with six other Silversea passengers (cruises on the Silver Wind have only 296 passengers, so tours are small and intimate) for the hour-and-a-half ride to the ancient city of Dalyan where we took an excursion boat down the river to see the incredible Lycian tombs carved into the rock face of the cliffs along the river. The ornate carvings with Roman-style columns in pink rock are easy to see, but it’s a great idea to bring binoculars.

Our guide gave us a tour of the ruins of the ancient city of Caunos. Excavation of the city began only 35 years ago, but layers of the earth have been removed in various spots to reveal streets dating back to 300 BC. Located atop a mountain with views out to sea and protection on all sides, the city was once an important Mediterranean port and has the remains of an amphitheatre, which seated 5,000 people. Our knowledgeable guide explained that the city population was eventually wiped out by malaria. We took our small boat back up the river to Dalyan for lunch. We were treated to a feast of plates heaping with pitas, stuffed peppers, fresh sea bream, roasted tomatoes, hummus, tzatziki, goat cheese and fruit. We headed back to our room for a decadent afternoon nap before dinner and dancing under the stars that night as the ship made its way to Rhodes.

The walled city of Rhodes provided us with lots of shopping opportunities. We had a fabulous lunch in an outdoor café under an awning of grape vines – platters of grape leaves, tzatziki, hummus and the best calamari I’ve ever had. We spent the afternoon outside the walled shopping area and ventured along the walkways lining the beaches. Later, we sat on the top deck as the ship pulled away and headed back to Turkey and the city of Kusadasi.

We were most excited about visiting Ephesus during our stop at Kusadasi. We had been told by many of the other passengers on board that the ruins of this ancient city, which dates back to the 10th century BC, was a must-see, and we would be truly awed by the archeological finds. They were right.

Excavation of Ephesus began 139 years ago and, according to our guide, it will take another 300 years to uncover the entire city. What they have uncovered to date amounts to three city streets. Amazingly, the ancient housing off Curetes Street, the main street through the site, had heating systems, running water and street lights 2,000 years ago when Cleopatra visited on her honeymoon. Built in AD 135, the Celsus Library with its two-storey facade was, during its time, one of the largest in the Mediterranean. Past the library is the Grand Theatre, where St. Paul preached to the Ephesians, and the theatre is said to still have perfect acoustics today. The silting-over of the delta put an end to the city’s importance as a port, and malaria caused the city to be abandoned. Multiple earthquakes eventually buried it.

We spent the night travelling to Istanbul and arrived in the Sea of Marmaris earlier than anticipated. The ship’s captain took the Silver Wind on a cruise up and down the Bosporus Strait, which connects the Sea of Marmaris to the Black Sea. We cruised slowly so passengers could fully appreciate some of the most expensive real estate in the world on the banks of the strait. Many of the homes are former villas and palaces, which have attracted many wealthy Russians because of its location on a major route from Russia to the Baltic Sea (one home recently sold sight unseen for US$32 million). Our vantage point from the ship provided us with spectacular photo opportunities of the Dolmabahce Palace, the Bosporus Bridge and the Blue Mosque.

Once on land, we headed straight to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar with friends we’d met on board. We had steeled ourselves for the hectic pace and endless hassles we had been told to expect, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that the bazaar was far less intimidating than anticipated. If you go with the flow and are ready to meander, it’s a great way to explore the maze of shops. Shops at the bazaar are passed down through the generations, and many vendors are young and enjoy the banter of tourists trying to barter. We were told to start bartering at half the asking price for an item and work our way up to what we were willing to spend. Thanks to the bartering techniques of our friend Gloria, we ended up with a leather bag, a silver ring, three pashminas and two leather belts, all for what we felt were great bargains.

Istanbul itself has a very European look and feel. Walking the streets is best done with a map. Asking for directions will most likely get you nowhere as many of the locals will literally take you to their uncle’s carpet shop instead of where you really want to go. We tried twice to get directions to the spice market, and both times were led to out-of-the-way shops where family members were hoping to sell us souvenirs. If you choose to cab it around the city, negotiate the price before you get in. If the driver isn’t interested in bartering or working out a fare, get another cab. There are plenty who will be only too happy to oblige.

The next morning, we disembarked and checked into the Ritz-Carlton Istanbul for our post-cruise night. We were quickly out on a pre-arranged guided tour of Istanbul. Our private van with lots of room and air-conditioning was the best way to get a feel for this beautiful city. The first stop was the Hagia Sophia, built in the sixth century AD and the most important church symbolizing the power and wealth of the Byzantine emperors. Eventually, it was converted to a mosque when the city was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, and today it’s a museum. Currently, the museum is undergoing massive restorations, but the scaffolding can’t detract from its sheer size, beauty and importance in world architecture and history. We walked across the street to tour the Blue Mosque, which is even more stunning up close. Entering the courtyard, we took it all in while our guide explained the significance of Istanbul’s most important mosque. Inside were hundreds of local residents praying, and it was a wonderful way to really experience the Muslim call to prayer. Our final stop was the Topkapi Palace, where sultans who ruled the Ottoman Empire resided for more than four centuries. It’s worth devoting a lot of time to fully exploring the palace because of the many wonderful stories and legends about the men who ruled here. Visitors can line up to view gorgeous treasures, including the famous Topkapi dagger and Spoonmaker’s Diamond, the third largest diamond in the world.

After a full day, we made our way back to the Ritz-Carlton for a decadent massage in the Laveda Spa, where adventurous westerners can experience a true Turkish massage (our friend Paul tried it and said it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience but not for the modest) or opt for any spa treatment you can dream of. It was the perfect way to end our day. Later that evening, in our Bosphorus Suite, aptly named for the panoramic view from the six-foot-high windows overlooking the strait below, we chose to order room service for dinner. We couldn’t imagine a better table with a view than the one in our suite. When we climbed into bed and turned out the lights, an elaborate fireworks display began. It was as though it had been timed just for us – the Turkish finale to a trip that had exceeded all our expectations.

To request a brochure or for more information on Silversea cruises, go to www.silversea.com or call 1-877-760-9052.
For information on the Semiramis Intercontinental Cairo, go to www.ichotelsgroup.com or call 1-888-424-6835.
For information on the Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul, go to www.ritzcarlton.com or call 1-800-241-3333

Photography: Garth Walker