Thursday, 31 May 2007

Hotel Arsinoe - General

The Arsinoe Beach Hotel (http://www.arsinoe-hotel.com) is a 3 star hotel about five or six miles from the centre of Limassol just past the tourist area on the coast road heading towrds Larnaca. The hotel is much larger than I expected from the photos I had seen on the web. It has 2 pools both served by bars, with the more modern pool having a cafeteria next to it during the daytime. This pool is at the back of the hotel and is surrounded by trees and bushes, with a grass area behind containing more sunbeds, some swings for the kids and a tennis court. The smaller pool, I guess the original one, is a plain rectangle bordered on three sides by the building but gets the sun still by late morning. It is closer to the front of the hotel, by the main bar which has some form of entertainment on each evening.
There is also a third indoor pool in the gym area. The gym is free to use for residents but any spa treatments obviously have a fee. Although I didn't use the gym I did have a very relaxing back and leg massage for just Cy£5.00 which I thought was good value. My wife did use the gym however, and commented that much of the cardio-vascular equipment was out of order, so she wasn't too impressed, and the Dead Sea Mineral bath she also paid Cy£5.00 for, was really just that - a bath with some minerals sprinkled in - no bubbles or water jets or anything so that didn't get rated as spankingly good pot noodle either.
The staff are very friendly and helpful and the other facilities include an on-site hairdresser, internet access, a dive shop (PADI certified - you can take a PADI course or do one day intro scuba couses here), an ironing room and various video games, table tennis and pool. Strangely, although there is an ironing room, there is no laundry room, so it's the normal 'smalls in the sink', if you didn't bring enough, or there is a laundrette about five mins walk away (just before the Hamlet Pub going left out of the hotel). They can change money at the reception, but you'll get a better rate in the little supermarket to the right of the hotel (hotel rate 0.80 Cy£ to UK£, next door were giving 0.84 with no commision).
Use of the safe will cost you Cy£5.00 per week to get a key from reception.

Hotel Arisnoe - Room

The room we had, like much of the rest of the hotel, has a bit of a dated feel to it mainly caused by the various shades of brown decor which was last seen in the UK in the 70's, but it was clean and, though not large by any standard, was completely ample for two - more than enough room to swing several cats. There was a power socket sensibly placed behind the dressing table and another easily accessable on a blank wall. Some of the welcome documents said not to use electrical equipment in the rooms, but seriously... they have to be joking - my travel kettle hadn't travelled for nothing. The sockets are standard UK square pin ones, so you don't need any adapters (except me who had ensured I only brought european round pin chargers with me so had to borrow an adapter from reception - deposit of Cy£2.00). There is a television in the room that could pick up one solitary german channel (untill we got it tuned to about 3 extra Greek speaking ones), and a radio which got more use, picking up Radio One (the cypriot version - but english speaking as it aimed at the forces stationed out there). We had twin beds that were fairly narrow (2.5 foot) but comfortable with a decently thick pillow. The aircon was OK, and though we were there in the last 2 weeks of may it was about 25c - 28c, so I suspect it would cope with high season too.
The bathroom has a bath with shower and the toilet paper can go down the loo, or at least there are no signs saying you can't (unlike the little bins you have to use in most of Greece and in many other places in the resort) and there's also a shaver socket. The room also had a hairdryer right next to the dressing table.
The windows for the room are full height patio doors that lead out onto the balcony and they cover the full width of the room too which makes the room nice and light. The balcony itself was OK with the standard 2 plastic patio chairs and a table.
All in all I had no complaints with the room at all.

Hotel Arsinoe - Entertainment

Oh dear! Well I suppose again, catering for the Brits I should expect bingo, pub quizzes and kareoke, but the real problem with the droning scottish accent of 'Mr Les' the quiz-master and the Hammond Organ versions of classic oldie pop music by 'Mr Nicholaus' is that the hotel has nowhere to go to escape it. If only they would keep the bar out the back of the hotel open past 5:30 or after they finish dinner once it moved out there, then there would be somewhere to enjoy a drink and talk, but you really have to go out if you want a more laid back quieter evening.
For those that do enjoy the organised style of hotel entertainment, there also put on a variety of daytime activities such as darts and table tennis competitions, pool aerobics (with Doreen) etc.
For the sport minded amoung you, it seems they do screen the major fooball matches, as the Liverpool vs. AC Milan Championship League final was on while we were staying.
If you do drink in the hotel bar, spirits are measured by optics so they may seem a little weaker than many of the other bars who just pour straight into the glass, but prices seemed reasonable and between 9:30 and 10:30 there's happy hour when the drinks are half price.

Hotel Arsinoe - Local Area

The hotel is on the landward side of the coast road. This is a fairly busy main dual caridgeway with a cycle path on the seaward side of it and he No 30 bus run along here to and from Limassol centre. The stop opposite the hotel is where you board going into town and it costs 80c per journey. Coming back you get off just past the hotel next to the Blue Bar
There is another row of hotel and buildings between the road and the beach and then a narrow 'promenade' path that runs along the beach which is popular with the joggers and power walkers in the cool of the evening.
The main road, or 'strip', has lots of bars, shops and restaurants along it, with many of these being 'brit' bars so don't expect this area to be at all the 'real' cyprus. There are however a few cypriot run places so you don't have to stick with egg'n'chips meals. The Kissos Taverna (http://www.kissos.com/) is a very good place where they have put a lot of effort into it, filling the dinning area with rockeries, small trees and flower beds, so even though it's on the main road, it was a very pleasant place to eat the more traditional cypriot cuisine. This was about a 10 or 15 minute walk turning left out of the hotel. Also for great food up in this direction and a little closer was the Danae Taverna (ferd1963@hotmail.com), where I had one of the best fillet steaks in a long time. Down the other way towards Limassol we tried the High Chaparral that has apparantly been open since 1968 and advertises itself as a "Famous Fish Taverna", but although we had meat rather than fish, we were very disappointed with the food.
There are a few bars and restaurants along the beachfront path, but a lot of this stretch is taken up by the big hotels with their residents only sunbed areas. One good one to base yourself at for a day on the beach is Drops Bar which is a 5 or 10 minute walk along the beach towards Limassol. It's a little more expensive than on the main road but is quite chic with 'habitat-esque' style square thick weave chairs and chrome railings. The toilets are clean and most importantly have working locks. Sunbeds cost £1 per day and they don't charge you extra fot the beach brolley. They will serve drinks to take down onto the beach itself in plastic pint glasses.
The beach itself was a mixture of sand with a few strips of pebbles as you get into the sea, and is protected by lines of piled rock breakers about 100 yards out. A lifeguard post is just by the bar, ideal if you are drowning, or more often for the ladies to admire the occupants. With it's location on the south coast, the sun shines all day long without obstruction save for any unfortunate clouds.
Along the main strip one of the better brit bars is the Hamlet Pub, which is a faily large place that has lots of 'sink into', soft leather two seat sofas in the front (although we stopped using them as some as a big cockroach scuttled out from under our sofa one evening) and a roof terrace. They do a good range of drinks inluding Leffe blonde and brown for the belgian beer lovers.
Across the road is the Armonia cafe built into the paint peeled building of The Golden Beach apartments, but it has lots of tables and chair out on the grass under the trees looking out to sea for a quiter eveing drink. On Wednesday nights they have live music which was a traditional sounding Greek Cypriot singer when we went with his guitar. Nice soft background music that suited the peacefull suroundings under the pine trees.
Going left out of the hotel either along the road or the beach path you eventually leave the built up area and come to the archeologic site of ancient Amahous, an important city state in ancent times, which is worth a look. It's only Cy£1.00 to go in and it doesn't take long to look round as it not very big. There are a few infomation boards as you enter and then you wander down the path past the cordened off ruined foundations of square buildings and houses to the agora area where there is some reconstructed columns and the remains of a pepple mosaic floor. A podium affords you a view over the agora area with a plan marking out the various bath areas and storerooms etc. The one thing that is often remarkable about these places is that you can still see the drain systems that seem to be so much better than modern Greek plumbing - I bet the ancient greeks could flush their toilet paper down the loo!
However, my main impression of the whole area around the hotel is that there's little that is particulary aesthetic about it. None of it captivates the eye the way beautiful coves of Parga, or the sugar-cube buildings and maze like alleyways of Lindos do. Unfortunately a lot of the apartment blocks look very shabby as the paint (and in some cases the concrete!) has peeled off. What you 'need' is there - there's bars, restautants, supermarkets with sun, sea and sand, but nothing to take hold of your spirit to convince you that you just must come back again.

Hotel Arsinoe - Food

Breakfast at the hotel is a bit of a bun fight as the buffet area is a tad cramped for the number of guests (I'd hate to think what it'd be like in high season), with the big toasting machine inconveniently positioned at the end of the gangway between buffet tables. This means that there's always a crowd in the way here waiting for their toast, but vary when you come down for breakfast to find a quieter time. The breakfast area is out the back of the hotel and there is indoor seating for when it's raining but mostly everyone sits outside when it's fine. The food itself is OK, not brilliant, but then this is not an expensive hotel, and there's a fair variety so that most people will be able to find something to enjoy. There's the usual hot eggs, sausage etc. together with, breads, cheese, ham, tomatoes, yogurt, fruit, cereals, tea, coffee and fruit juice. It's not a hugh variety, but completely adequate to find something you can stoke up on for the day.
Dinner too, is a buffet, although in the main indoor restaurant, and is well made with not a vast of choice on the menu but certainly enought to suit most tastes. Again it gets quite crowded round the buffet tables and the fair is obviously aimed at the tourists, with very little in the way of local dishes (there's a cypriot night once a week which has a few more local dishes, but apparantly us Brits complain if we can't get food like at home!). There's normally a carved roast meat and a couple of other meat and fish choices in the buffet trays together with a couple of choices of potatos and veg each. There's also always a decent variety of salad dishes, and a soup of the day. For desert there's a choice of about 4 different cream cakes or profileroles or creme carmel or the like, or fresh fruit. All of the food changes each evening and it's generally very tasty, the salads often tasting a lot better than they look for change.
In the second week of our stay (last week of May) they moved the evening dining out the back to the same place as breakfast which was so much better to be able to sit outside in the evening. The main dinning room having to cater for 200 roomfulls of guest's feels more like school dinners than a holiday evening meal. But, you get what you pay for, so if you want intimate dinning in your hotel, then up the star rating of where you book. All in all, I'd say the food was excellent for the price we paid, and once the dinners moved outside the atmosphere for eating was much better too.
One other really good point is that if you are half board you can change your evening meal for lunch by letting the reception know in the morning. You have to do this either first thing of the day before as they need to know how many they are catering for before they start preparing lunch, but it does provide a good way to make the most of your money when you still want to go out for evening meals every now and then.

Limassol Centre

We took a taxi into the centre of town one morning. The intention was to take the bus but a taxi stopped first and offered to take us and two others waiting in for just Cy£1 each which is only 20c more than the bus and I think the Merc was probably a lot more comfortable. You will find that taxi drivers may sound their horn as they pas you if you are walking the main road in case you want to give up on the feet, which may well be the case as it's about 6 miles from hotel to Limassol centre, and not a particulary interesting walk along the coast road as it's just endless tourist bars and souvenier shops.
We started in the shopping area of Agiou Andreau which is a little pedestrian street with lots of little shops aimed at the tourists selling t-shirts, souveniers, dried fruit and nuts, handbags and the like. Walking down this road and on to the centre you get to the small castle of Limassol (not to be confused with the Collossi castle which is out of town). The castle doesn't lookmuch from the outside, but the interior contains and interesting museum whise exhibits occupy each nook and cranny of the many rooms and levels of the structure. You can climb up to the roof for a good view over Limassol. Entrance cost Cy£2.00 when we went and phoography is not allowed inside.
The square around the castle is lined with bars and cafes and is a very nice place to sit wih a drink. Some of the restaurants here are mentioned in the guide books as being very good places to eat, but the one we choose when we went back for an evening meal, 'To Frouria', was not paticularly great with the seafood meze we had. Still, the location by the lit up castle made it a very pleasant evening.
Walking back along the coast road, a much better place to eat (and kind of wish we'd gone back there for the evening meal) is 'La Mer' (lamer@cytanet.com.cy), a restaurant you come to just before the Municiple Gardens. Only wanting a light lunch I ordered a cheese and ham salad and my wife ordered a starter kalamari (squid), but when the food started arriving at first we assumed they'd got the wrong table as the few dips that the menu mentioned came with the salad tured out to be 11 extra dishes that covered our table. And the salad itself was vast, and the kalimari was virtualy an entire squid. We certainly couldn't finish all this (but had a damn good try) and the whole thing with water an extra plate of crocette potatos, which we certainly didn't need, came to Cy£10.95, or about UK£14.00. Bargin!The municiple garden are a well laid out area full of palm trees and greenery and nice for a walk about with lots of shade. There are peacocks showing off on the lawns and a small zoo costing 80c isa little depressing when you see the rather barren cages that the leopards and other animals have to live in.
On the Saturday evening there was a market stall fair that stretched down the promenade from just past the old port. The fair stalls where quite nostalgic as they were hings like throw the hoop over the prize (with the square stand that's virtually impossible to get the hoop over) and pin boards where you roll the ball down the board and see where it lands to determine which prize you win. There's also quite a few market stalls together with many stalls cooking corn on the cob,
Limassol is not a pretty city at all, but does have some charm in the old centre, so it's worth a look in the daytime and perhaps a few evenings out in the bars and restaurants.

Limassol Coast Road

The stretch between the Arsinoe Hotel and Limassol centre is split into three main sections. Stretching out from the centre is the heavily built up area that is mainly lined by apartment blocks along the roadside and the main promenade along the beach. Debhamans pretty much marks the furthest edge of this area and a little way further on, the 'tourist' area starts which although not quite as high rise is more packed with souvenier shops, bars and restaurants. Through this area the road cuts away from the coast a little and allows for a line of hotels to be built between the road and the coast itself. Unfortunately this seems to mean a lack of bars along the beach itself except for those in the hotels. There were a few remains of closed down bars and I can only guess that these have been bought out by the hotels to stop their guests going next door forcheaper drinks. This middle section is actually refered to as the "Tourist Area" on the street signs and can cause confusion as one family we met were assuming the tourist area would be the centre of town and hence were walking in completely the wrong direction having followed these signs.
The tourist stretch fizzles out into a much less built up area in which the Hotel Arsinoe sits. There are still bars and restaurants but the businesses are no where near as crowded and you don't find the big chain names like Pizza Hut, Starbucks and Burger King etc. that the tourist stretch sports. This area too tends to have the more expensive hotels at the far end such as the Amatheus, Hawaii Beach and the Four Seasons.

Famagusta Old Town

We joined in one of the tourist day trips to Famagusta in the Turkist occupied area of Cyprus which cost Cy£25.00 per person and picked up right outside the hotel. With all the other pickups, a 20 minute stop for coffee along the way and getting through the border checkpoint, it took about 2 and a half hours to get to Famagusta itself. During this time the guide kept up a running commentary on what you were to see and the history of Cyprus with particular attention to effect of the 1974 Turkish occupation. Our guide herself was one of those who 30 years ago had been forced to flee from her family home in the north.
Famagusta itself is a walled town with a few rabbling shopping streets in the centre where you can buy lots of (pressumably) knock off designer fake clothing, together with lots of bars and restaurants. The old cathedral, where the kings of Jerusalem used to be crowned before going off to the holy land, has been converted into a mosque most obviously by the addition of a minurette tower on one corner. Whilst interesting to walk about the town with its old walls and buildings, rather than the romantic ruin feeling you get when visiting many historic places, Famagusta leaves you with a sense of neglect. The weeds grow unchallenged in the crumbling church buttresses, the windows of the cathedral are half bricked up, and the modern new shops selling t-shirts and souveniers so obvious catering to tourists nestle in between the local shops with sparse window displays sporting the few products with age and sun faded boxes. The tour only gave you an hour to explore the town and you got a voucher for a can of pop at the bar by the coach drop off and pick up point, so if you wanted time to sit down for a drink, you only really had 40 minutes or so to walk round. Hence, we did not get to go and see the Othello tower, supposedly named for the play of the same name that refers to the sea gate in a cypriot port. As they cater for the day trippers from southern Cyprus, the bars are happy to take cypriot pounds as well as turkish lira, and will even give you change in the same.

Famagusta beach & ghost town

The second part of our day trip to Famagusta was a stop for lunch and a swim on the beach right on the edge of the border between the inhabited part of the town and the shattered hotels of the ghost town. The fence separating these ran right along the back of the beach bar we sat in and the ruined half of one of these hotels towered above he bar with twisted chunks of reinforced concrete hanging ominously on to the edges of great holes in the walls. One half of the hotel had completey gone leaving the inside of the lift shaft open to the elements like a great wound. This was the first of many hotels in a similar state that you could see stretched out along the bay like some Mad Max style parody of the Benidorm coastline. Guardposts were built into these ruins to stop trespassers and to ensure no photographs were taken - unsuccesfully it turns out, as even though it was forbidden, many people still took photos either seruptitiously (like myself with the camera hidden inside my bag and hoping it was pointed in the right direction - I still remembering watching Midnight Express!) or more openly.
The beach itself was beautifull with clear blue water and golden sand and to look left down the coast, you could have been in any carribean island with the grass roofed beach bar playing Bob Marley hits. But turn your head back, and the spectre of those shattered buildings reminded you of the ironic twist that what had once been the favourite of cypriot tourist destinations prior to 1974, was now popular again specifically because we can't go there any more. It was very strange indeed to be sitting in the sunshine enjoying a beer and a kebab, while others sunbathed and swam, beneath the crumbling testament to lives lost and the ruins of war.
After 2 hours stop at the beach it was back on the bus home to Limassol with a brief drive around the edges of the ghost town while the guide explained a bit more about the rapid abandonment by the Greek Cypriots ahead of the turkish advance.
For our guide this tour was part of her family life history and although I could appreciate her sadness at the sites, I felt somehow pressured by the days comentary to join in with the emotional journey, which made me feel a tad uncomfortable, as even though all war causes grief and misery, as an outsider I did not have the attachment to the events to either ignore the arguements on either side of the confrontation or feel the horror at the loss of life. These were hotels and houses and in the modern west we do not have the same sense of 'belonging' to places with many of us choosing to live far from where we are born and grew up. Unlike the ruins of Nazi gas chambers which, when you visit, stab into your very soul as they are the actual constructions of death and mass slaughter, these segregated, guarded and abandoned buildings could have been any town and are more eirie than disturbing.

Famagusta - general comments

If you plan to go on this tour, remember to take your passport with you as you need it for the border crossing. Also swimwear if you want to take full advantage of your beach stop. If you are unsteady on your feet at all, ask the guide to wait until you have sat down before driving, as the coach drivers tend to set of as soon as you have boarded.
Be carefull what you take photos of. In the main town snap away freely, but at the beach avoid pointing your camera at the ghost hotels, and don't even think about using it to photograph any of the military bases you pass by. In fact, it's probably best to avoid pointing a camera at anyone in a uniform.

Troödos Mountains

One trip that I would heartily recommend is the jeep safari to the Troödos mountains at Cy£35.00,which although more expensive than the Famagusta trip, seemed to pack a lot more in and was much more fun. We had 6 people plus the driver in the jeep with one inthe front, three across the middle seats and two on the sideways seats in the back. I don't know if they would try to pack another couple into the back in high season,which would make it too cramped but with our numbers it was comfortable enough.
There were two jeeps on the trip and the first stop was soon after we got into the mountain area at a good vantage point for a view of the region, just to introduce both drivers and explain the program for the day. Our driver, Rico, and his sidekick Robin (introduced for the day as Adonis the god of love) kept the whole day quite jokey with their cheeky manner, which really made the day. We were asked to ensure we all swapped seats at each stop which was a good idea to give everyone a fair chance at the relative comfort levels of each seat - there were a few sore heads for those in the back on the off road sections.
We then stopped at Omothos, which is the most visited of the Troödos villages that represents what Cyprus used to be like. So you have those narrow little streets lined with crowded stone buildings most now converted to tourist shops, but there's still some of the older generation women selling hand made lace from their chairs out on the street. Even though this is now a tourist spot, the character of the village is so much more laid back than the coast. The very shape of the streets and houses have an interest value you can't find in the bars and apartments that stretch along the coast highway. Basically, it's quaint - don't like to use the word, as it sounds like I'm a rich American visitor wanting to buy the place, but it is. The main square was bustling with the tourists and a school party, but it was still peaceful and radiated that charm of a life in the slow lane. Had we not been on the schedule of a day trip, I could have happily whiled away a few hours watching the world go by from a bar in the square. There's also a monastery in the village that's worth a look.
From Omothos, we went on for a wine tasting at the small Nelion winery (cyprusvines.com/nelion.htm). The lady there gave us the fastest tour of the wine making process I've ever encountered and then we sat down for tasting of the ten or so wines they produce. Most were pleasant but none grabbed me enough to want to buy, although my wife went for a bottle of their Grenache-Cinsault.
Onwards, via ashort break at a river ford with an old bridge (very picturesque) to the Kykkos monastery, which is the biggest and most popular in the area. The amount of gold inside is staggering and the walls are decorated with mosaic frescos of various religious scenes, much of the small tiles making these up also covered in gold leaf. A fascinating place to look round it also left me a little cynical of a church hording so much wealth in a country that has tradionally a struggling population. This all hangs on the comment Jesus made to his disciples when they queried the cost of the ointment Mary had bought to wash his feet, the money for which could have fed many of the poor. Jesus said, "There will always be poor". Somehow this concept seems to be taken to a somewhat vulgar extreme in these places.
The lunch stop was next at the village of Prodromos which is the highest village in the Troödos. We didn't have time to look about if you wanted to eat but the lunch was a great buffet of traditional cypriot dishes such as mousaka, stifado, kleftiko etc and very good value at just Cy£5.00 per head including a drink and sweet. It's so nice to go on a day trip where you don't feel like you are dumped at an out of the way lunch stop with crap food at high prices. This was quite the opposite.
After lunch we went over to one of the waterfalls high in the moutains that is close enough to the spring to be flowing all year round. It was one of those idillic spots in the cool shade of the forest, the water cascading from the lip of the cliff, all of which a short 5 minute walk from the end of the dirt road where we left the jeeps. It had that secret grotto feel to it, and although Adonis went straight in to shower under the falls, he could only coax one other member of the group to do likewise as inviting as it was, no-one had thought to pack a towel.
Apart from a brief drive to the highest point for a look at the view (we didn't get out as the summit was swarming with flies) where you cant apparantly see 65% of the entire island, we then headed back down into the sauna like heat of the coast to be returned to our hotel.
The drivers, although very fun and lighthearted in their attitude were still very inforamtive and Rico was forever suddenly stopping the jeep to lean out and grab a sprig of sage, peppermint, lavender or a rose flower for us to smell that grew wild in the region. The wild roses are havested to make the rose water that goes over many of the cypriot desserts, and the herbs were so much more pungent than their shop bought equivalents. This was certainly a day to remember, made more so by the friendliness of a small group and humerous nature of the drivers, and one I would recommend to anyone.

Princesa Marissa cruise - Embarkation

We booked on the Salamis Glory for a two night cruise to Egypt, but a few days before, this ship developed a problem and we were switched to the Princesa Marissa by the tour agent which was a shame as we'd done our homework on both ships and the Salamis Glory being a true cruise ship looked to be by far the better ship than the converted ferry we ended up on, having both more room per passenger, more crew per passenger and it also had a swimming pool. The other bad point about this switch was that everyone was now trying to get on the one ship which meant it was at full capacity.
Embarkation, it has to be said was a complete nightmare, some of it unavoidable but some of it most definitely due to bad organisation. The coach pick up was only about 20 minutes late, but once we got to the port at a little after 1pm for a 3pm departure we were told that the ship was delayed by an hour so we were all rather crowded in a hot departure lounge for ages. Once the boarding was called, a large queue formed instantly for the security check. This moved slowly and would not have been much of a problem but for, as we neared the front, an anouncment in greek that had the other have of those waiting up out of their seats and swarming for the security checkpoint as if the building were about to colapse. So it turned into every man for himself, elbowing your way forward until finally you got though to..... another holding area! Here we waited another ten minutes or so before they let us walk to the boat.... to wait again on the dockside, and then into the diesal smelling car deck to wait for ages in a long queue that snaked up the stairs to reception. Most people were already pretty fed up by his point so many declined the offer to have your smiling photo taken with a mock up captain as you boarded. We waited for ages as this queue crawled up he stairs to the reception where the reason became apparant as they had just one person checking in all the passengers even though there was about a dozen or so other staff staning about waiting to show you to cabins. Once checked one of these crewman showed us to our cabin but then walked us straight past it to yet another desk where we waited yet again. At this point several people (including myself I must admit) were heard to utter, "Oh for f*** sake, you have to be taking the piss!". At this desk we were told bruskly that our dinner slot was at nine, and were then left wondering if we had to do anything else. After a few moments our crewman got the idea that we needed some explanation and got us to follow him back to the room and finally gave us our key. Off to the bar then to get a 'count to ten and calm down' beer as we waited another hour our so until we got underway at about 5pm.

Princesa Marissa cruise - The Ship

As I've mentioned this ship is a converted ferry as was obvious when boarding via the car deck. So there's no pool or anything like that.
Here's what you do get. There are 3 bars: a forward indoor bar that I'm afraid smelt bad the first time we went in so we never ventured back, a second indoor bar at the rear of the dinning deck called the Ledra Lounge where the ship's entertainment happens, and finally the outdoor bar at the stern on the deck above the Ledra Lounge. This last bar serves the sun decks out back which are on the three levels from the bar upwards to the third small deck up bt the funnels. As it was a full ship, suloungers here were at a premium but there's a fair amount of space which the standard white plastic garden furnitur to sit outside. Running down the sides of the boat away from the bar towards the bow are outdoor gangways below the lifeboats where people lean on the rails looking out to sea. There is a long bench running the length of these areas for extra outdoor seating, and at the end some steps take you up to small vantage points just below the bridge. These side decks are great places to cool down as they always get the breeze as the ship motors along and at least one side will always be in shade.
There is also a small casino on board and a couple of duty free shops. The duty free seems to sell an awful lot of chocolate cosidering you're cruising to the 100F heat of Egypt, but I guess the ship itself is kept cool enough with good air-con.
The dinning room is quite nice and does have more of a restaurant feel than our hotel's canteen atmosphere. Dinner is a three course waiter service from a menu that had about three or four choices for each course. The food was much better than I expected as I had imagined a buffet style affair, so the individual service and good quality of food meant I thoroughly enjoyed both evening meals on board. Evening breakfast (which was a buffet) was much better than the hotel, although the first morning was a bit of a crush with everyone trying to fit breakfast in before the excursion (breafast being served 6 until 8 but excursion muster bein at 7). There are two sittings for dinner at 7pm and 9pm, to fit everyone in,and the doors are closed for entry 1/2 an hour after your shift starts. This rule of course collapsed on the second evening as the coaches only returned from the excursion after 8pm. At this point I was glad I was on the second sitting as many people were having to go straight into dinner after the long and very hot day in Egypt still in the same sweaty clothes and still carrying all their bags of souveniers. When the schedule works you are allocated a table (writtn on your boarding card when you embark) which you keep for each evening so you are likely to be sitting with people either just in front or just behind of you in the embarkaation queue. Of course with the late excursion return they ended up just seating people where ever they could on the second evening. House wine was only Cy£5 per bottle which is the same price as two glasses so better to buy by the bottle.
The entertainment on board was quite good, especially compared with what we were used to (or at least 'avoided') in the hotel. Two decent singers and three dancing girls who sang some greek songs together with more mainstream recognisable stuff, and dancing started with a showgirl number and also covered, river dance, belly dancing and the can-can. There is a raised platform in front of the stage area so you need to get there early for a good view, or at least have no quarms about asking strangers ifbyou can join them at their table. The rest of the bar is a couple of foot lower down behind this platorm but can see what's going on as they have a camera linking the show to the TVs in the bar - not quite the same though.
The cabin, like the rest of the ship was generally clean and tidy, and we had plenty of space for he two of us, although we had paid extra for a 'G' class twin cabin with a sea view. The descriptions of the twin bunk inner cabins sounded a little cramped, but they would save you about £100 and if you are people who are quick to get ready then you're not going to spend much time in them awake. Our cabin had twin beds on either side, with optional pull down bunks over then (so you could have squeezed 4 people into it), a twin draw bedside table between them, and then a dressing table, and wardrobe along one wall and the bathroom along the other. Sockets on board are the two round pin Euro style, so remember adapters even though Cyprus itself it UK standar square three pin. Air-con in the rooms is excellent if a little noisy, but then again the ship engines are just as loud, so if you need quiet to sleep, bring along some earplugs. Pictures I'd seem of the Salamis Glory suggest the same price/class of cabin on that ship would have been more spacious, but I don't think I could really find any fault in our cabin on the Princesa Marissa.

Princesa Marissa cruise - Bits & Pieces

There's a lot of bits of paper and cards you get on this ship as you board. A green card stays in your passport which is kept by the ship's reception as you board. They do this so that they can get all the passports stamped at the same time in the morning while you are still enjoying breakfast. Another long white boarding card is kept with your passport which is also stamped. At reception part of the green card is given back to you as a receipt for your passport. A second long white boarding card has a barcode on it and on which they also write you dinner table and sitting (so we had 50B written on which is table 50 and 'B' for second sitting). Ths card you should keep on you as you need it to go into dinner and to get off an on the ship in Egypt.
Finally, you will also be given a book of vouchers (like a thin checkbook) which contains your transfer and excurtion vouchers together with a ticket for the cruise.
In the morning at 7, everyone gathers in the Ledra lounge to get their passports returned once the Egyptian authorities have done their stuff (more queueing I'm afraid and remember to have your green receipt), before you can disembark for the excursion (bar coded boarding card at the ready to be counted off the ship back down on the car deck). The customs in Egypt just do a bag check through an X-ray machine and we didn't have to show any papers or passports, but take then with you anyway as I wouldn't want to have a problem in Egypt and not have your passport on you.
Back at Limassol you need to hand in the stamped,non barcoded white card in as you get of the boat, although confusingly a crew woman was telling everybody that the needed the barcode one as they wated in the queue to get off.

Princesa Marissa cruise - Egypt Excursion

Getting from the boat, through security and to the coaches is your first taste of the Egyptian souvenier salesman. It's a bit like running a gauntlet of a haggling, hard sell mass of seething sales attack that doesn't take no for an answer. Don't try to give any excuses as to why you don't want to buy as they have an answer for everything, and by that point your in conversation with them and have to work twice as hard to get away. Just stick to repeatng, "No, thankyou", keep walking and get used to it, as where ever tourists are in Egypt, so are these sellers. Of course if you want to buy these souveniers just be ready to haggle, and this bit by customs is probly not the place you want to be held up.
It does pay a bit to be at the front of the queue here as you get on to coach number one (of a dozen or so) which give you a view of your army escort of four soldiers driving ahead. If you are one of the first to board you will be sitting on the coach for about an hour while the rest of the passengers get through the gauntlet to their coaches, but our guide, Hany, started his talk straight away and as he was both funny and informative, this did pass the time well, while we waited the hour and on the two hour drive to Cairo.
The coaches travel in convoy with both the soliders up front, a police escort and an armed security guard in each coach looking like CIA operatives - and when I say armed, it looks like a short stubby machine gun under their jackets, rather than a little pistol. At times all of this gets a little embarrassing as other traffic is pushed out of the way to make way for the all important tourists. Red lights are ignored, checkpoints are breezed through and you get the impression that the average Egyptian would probably resent the whole thing. It almost felt like a return to the days of empire, "I've got a British passport, and I'll go where I damn well please - out of the way, natives!"
We drove out of Port Said and along the Suez Canal for a while before cutting away across the desert to Cairo. For the most part you cannot see the cannal, just the ships travelling along it which look very strange as if they are cruising the land rather than the water you know they are on.
At each checkpoint along the way the truck full of soldiers is swapped for new troops who only leave the convoy as you get into Cairo.
Assuming you don't breakdown enroute (although we were lucky on our coach, we were told 8 out of the12 coaches did breakdown and one of them couldn't be fixed by the team of mechanics that follow the convoy and had to be moved onto the backup coach that support team travel in), the first stop is the Giza plateau and the Pyramids. We parked between the Great Pyramid (7th wonder of the world and all that) and the second slighly smaller one which most people mistake for the great pyramid as it's more complete with some of the original smooth stone finish like a cap at the summit. Again you are beseiged by the souvenier sellers and here you also get the camel men who will invite you up onto the camel for your partner to take your photo and then demand money before they let you back down. Basically if anyone (even the police guys wandering about) offers any kind of favour, they'll want money for doing it - just say NO kids. The pyramids themselves are quite spectacular though and even in the 100+ heat I was content just to stand there 'being' in their presence. With only 30-45 minutes there I didn't go inside (another Cy£3 which you have to pay your guide first to convert into egyptian pounds) as I'm told it's just a long,hot,cramped and smelly tunnel leading to a bare chamber where you turn round and climb out again.
The great pyramid has the very top missing but a metal pole at the pinacle shows you the original height; it's not a radio mast or anything.
When the wind blows the sand whips up and stings any bare skin, but even with the sand, sellers, camel men, the heat and rip-off cops, it's worth it just to have been there.
A couple of minute drive down the road and you stop again to get a close look at the sphinx for which you walk down through part of the ancient plateau complex for the best vantage point. As space here is a little more limited, it seems much more crowded than the pyramid area but it's a must fot those holiday snaps of the sphinx with the pyramids in the background. I would have liked a little more time to explore the complex but this is listed as a short photo break so although you don't have to rush as such, you really only have time to walk in, spend a couple of minutes to appreciate the view, take the snaps and leave again. This I guess is always the problem of doing day excursions as so much has to be fitted into the day that the whole thing seems to be a whistle stop tour.
From here we drove into Cairo itself, which isn't far - if you expected the pyramids to be solitary sentinals in the expanse of the desert, you'll be disappointed as they are right on the edge of the city. You get the impression it's only the existance of the pyramids that stops the city sprawling further in that direction.
The next stop is the Papyrus factory - or that's how it's billed. In actuality it's a shop where you get a quick demonstration of how papyrus is made and then half an hour to browse the papyrus paintings which will cost you anything from £20 for a very small one upwards. You then walk straight through into the 'department store' which is just a very big souvenier shop, where although there is no hard sell compared to the traders by the pyramids, you do end up with a staff member shadowing you the whole way round the shop to extol the virtues of any item your eye rests on for more than a few seconds. It's a shame that the staff don't realise that many of us are far more likely to buy stuff if we are leftalone to browse. As it was I spent most of my time trying to get away from the guy sodidn'treally look at anything properly. During the drive to Cairo the guide had taken orders for people that wanted 18c gold or silver cartouche pendants made up with your name in hyroglyphs and this is the store where you picked them up. My wife had a doublesided one made with both our names on which cost the equivalent of about UK£85. (go to www.meritbazar.com if you have a burning desire to order a cartouche or some papyrus or anything from Egypt.)
Lunch came next after a drive down to board a river boat which did an hour or so cruise on the Nile while you enjoyed a buffet lunch with the traditional egyptian dancers and musicians entertaining you in the background. The food was ptretty good and the boats really well decked out looking very much the floating restaurant. There was a small sun deck on the second level where you could get a beter view of the shore line but as this is a cruise within the very large city (Cairo has about twice the population of London) don't expect fields of papyrus and quaint fishing boats. It's more like towering shabby looking apartment blocks with mosques huddling between. Our guide who living in Alexandria, was obviously having an even longer day than us, took he cruise opportunity to sleep for an hour on a sofa in the boats reception area.
If you want a tilet break, these are probably the best bathrooms during the day, but expect to be held up entering while a staff member rushes in before you to give it a quick wipe round. As he lets you in he helpfully points out the door lock with his hand clutching a bank note to give the hint he wants a tip for the service - a hint I cheerfully ignored, it has to be said.
Onwards after lunch for our last stop of the day which is the museum containing, amoung many other things, some of the treasures of Tutenkamun's tomb. The most famous is the burial mask which if housed in the centre of a special air conditioned room together with the golden coffins much of the jewelery and the golden bands that bound up the mummy. The guide takes you on a tour round the important exhibits but is not allowed to go guide in this particular room itself. This is understandable as it would get too crowded with coach loads of tourists gathered round these exhibits in the small room when there are obviously the most popular attraction in the museum. The guide was very informative about all the exhibts we looked at, although with a whole coachfull of people crowding round each place he stopped you had the choice of either squashing in at the front were you can hear well and see the exhibit, or have a bit more space at the back where you just about get the gist of what he says and grab a quick look at the object in question as everybody moves on. Still the museum is fascinating and even with the hour and a half walking round this hot and humid building getting fairly footsore, I was glad to have seen all these treasure first hand that I recognise only from books and television.
Our guide got us all back onto the coach and left us (as his home was in a different direction) to make the long journey back to Port Said through the Cairo rush hour and on across the desert. Even with our police and army escort clearing the road and running every red light infront of our convoy, it was still gone 8 in the evening by the time we were running that final gauntlet of souvenier sellers on the portside to reboard our ship.
The whole day is very tiring, made more so by the heat, but it was also one to be treasured. Hany was a superb guide who kept us interested while we were on the coach, many times dragging people up to the front of the bus to help him out (I made the mistake of answering a question about the Rosetta Stone and was dragged up to the front to explain to the rest of the bus everthing I knew on the topic). He had a great sense of humour and certainly made the day one to remember even without considering the sights we saw. The Giza plataeu and the treasures in the museum were all quite awe inspiring and in seeing it all first hand, it becomes easy to understand why ancient Egypt has captured the imagination of so many people from early romans garrisoned there (one famous piece of graffiti on a tomb wall reads "I woz here", sign by a roman soldier) to the modern day package tourist like myself. A fabulous and educational day.

Princesa Marissa cruise - General Comments

There were several reasons we choose to do the 2 night cruise to Egypt instead of the flight which does the whole trip inside a day. One is that we didn't want to do the whole thing in such a rush, and secondly we wanted to try out cruising as a possible future choice. Although I realise these smaller vessels can't compare with the facilities available on the big cruise liners, it was a reasonable idea to try just two nights with limited facilities as a comparison to a couple of weeks on a bigger ship. On the plus side we found the staff to be helpfull and pleasant throughout, even if at times they gave the wrong infomation or just didn't understand the question well enough. Both the cabin and the food were also much better than I expected and the bar prices although a little higher than landside were not a complete rip off they could have been given the, by its nature, monopoly they have on your drink purchasing. There is also something more satisfying about travelling by sea than you can ever get from a plane journey. Air travel is to be endured, but with cruising, the 'getting there' is a pleasurable part of the experience. Just leaning on the side rail an looking out at the open sea as your ship plies it's way, has a contentment all of it's own.
However, for me all the pleasures of the cruise were somewhat over shadowed by the endless amount of queueing involved. Each time you went to the bar it seemed like it was for one of those 'I need one after that ordeal' drinks.
I guess this overall ngative feeling I ended up with wasn't helped by our original boat choice being cancelled, and the replacement being late, but I'm afraid, it seems as though cruising has been knocked of the top ten holidays Imust try.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Kolossi Castle, Kourion and The Sanctuary of Apollo

Our last day and we decided we'd better go and see the local sites so we headed into Limassol where we had seen earlier that you can get a bus from outside the Limassol Castle that takes you to the Kolossi Castle and Kourion. When we got there and started to look at the timetable we were immeadiately accosted by a Taxi driver who said that the busses weren't running and he could take us round these sites plus the Sanctuary of Apollo for Cy£26.00 or Cy£32.00 if we wanted to include the Monastry of the Cats by Akrotiri.
This being a Saturday and the sign saying "no service on Sundays and Bank Holidays" we said we'd rather wait for the bus. He seemed very confident that the bus wouldn't come and said he would still be here once we'd waited and even got the Taxi engine going to get the aircon on. So we waited until after the bus was due and thought about whether he was quoting a good price or not, and then having decided that Cy£32 was about what we would have paid for a day's car hire, that we'd take him up on his offer. Only at this point did he point out the bit of the bus sign we hadn't read which said "Monday to Friday"! Did we feel stupid or what?
Anyway, Nikos, the driver was an excellent bloke and gave us a bit of commentary as we drove down to the Monastry of the Cats first. His Taxi, like many, is a nice comfy Merc, and the aircon kept it cool. The monastry was quite small with just a single vault chapel but was very pituresque and the few nuns that work there tend the gardens round the back which indeed are full of cats - so if you're a cat fan, it's well worth a look. There was also a little shop attached were you could by some souveniers - many icons and the like - or leave a donation to help the upkeep of the cats. Aparantly the cats were brought over to Cyprus from Egypt and Palastine when the Monastry was built to help combat the many poisonous snakes in the area. Here like at all the sites, Nikos left us be to explore by ourselves, suggesting how much time we would need to look about.
Next stop was the Kolossi Castle which is probably about the same size as the Limassol one but out in the countryside more. I love these castles so was happy to have a wander about exploring the rooms. It's basically three levels of pairs of vaulted chambers and has a very "neat and tidy" feel about the design. A narrow spiral staircase in the corner leads up from the first floor to the second and then out onto the roof for a view of the surrounding countryside. Once you've finished looking round there's a lovely little ramshakle bar by the ticket boot that sells drinks of fresh orange for just 50cents. It almost felt like just being on someone's porch and had we had more time would have been a very pleasant place to sit and watch the world go by.
Moving on to Kourion, this large site is probably the main tourist site in the area and starts with the covered section which was the bath house in roman times and this has an impressive set of mosaic floors on display. Next to this is the theatre which although not ancient is a recreation of what the theatre would have been like. The path from the bathhouse goes past this theatre and on over the road to the main site which spreads out for some distance and I thought that perhaps we should have had more than the hour that Nikos had suggested to fully explore. At the far end of the site is the House of the Gladiators so named for the mosaics of those fighters on the floor. A guide would be useful at this site as there is much to look at, but there are plaques dotted about to explain the various buildings. Most are at pretty much foundation level (although being roman the underfloor heating remains is quite interesting at this level anyway) but with a sprinkling of columns and higher walls about to give the site some shape and interest for those who aren't knowledgable about what they are looking at.
The whole site of Kourion is very well kept up and they have thoughfully provided shaded viewpoints in the grounds where you can sit and look at the view over the site itself or, as it is built at the top of a hill, across the landscape.
Our last stop was the Sanctuary of Apollo which although much smaller than Kourion itself, I found the more interesting site. A corner of the original temple has been reconstructed and enough of the main buildings still remain to get a good idea of what it must have been like originally.
The whole trip only took about three to three and a half hours but I still think it was good value for money and would recommend Nikos as an excellent driver for excursions if you want sometime not quite as regimented and crowed as the coach tours. His number if you want to use his services is 99-419420 and his card says he gives a 24 hour service. All these sites are well worth a visit whether you do them on an organised tour, on the bus, or by taxi or hire car. If you can go early morning or late afternoon for the best pictures. We were there in the middle of the day so the sun being directly above doen't make for the best shadow contrasts.