Greek Odyssey Trip Report (June 22, 2012-July 1, 2012) (Pre-Trip Days) We booked two pre-nights with ABD and flew from LA to Athens (via a connecting flight in Istanbul) on Turkish Airlines. (Istanbul airport is a good spot for a layover—lots of shops/food places, including Turkish Ice Cream and Turkish Coffee. But! If you are changing airlines to fly on to Athens, be sure to have lots of layover time which will be spent going through various stages of security). All pretty smooth—met ABD rep in Athens and were taken to the Intercontinental Atheneaum hotel, arriving around 10 PM June 20. Since we booked the pre and post nights through ABD, the hotel room was ours for the entire Athens stay, and included an excellent breakfast buffet at CafeZoe (outstanding Greek yogurt, with numerous fruit toppings, nuts and/or honey to compliment it). The hotel pool is outside—some shade available, but in the summer Athens is hot and the pool is a welcome relief in the water (but not so much laying deck side). The exercise room is fine. The location of the hotel is removed from the main sites of Athens—it caters to business clientele (and airlines—you see a lot of pilots in the lobby in the AM). But the free shuttle offered by the hotel is terrific—you’ll get a shuttle schedule from the front desk. Runs from early morning until the last pickup downtown at 10:40 PM; if you ask the driver, they can drop you near the Plaka area (close to Hadrian’s Arch and the new Acropolis Museum). Otherwise, the standard drop-off location is Syntagma Square right by the McDonalds (try their Gyros Burger!—and keep the receipt as it has the bathroom code on it to use the McD’s facility—we saved the code and were able to use the bathroom later in the day as well). Our first full day (June 21) and most of the second day (June 22) we used the Hop On/Hop Off bus (we bought tickets in advance from Viator, which also offers other half day and full day tour options. The HOHO tickets were good for two days). Before getting on the bus we walked the area—Parliament is across the street and the changing of the guards (Evzones) happens every hour on the hour, so we watched that, and went into the Syntagma metro station to look at the site excavations and other displays inside the station. Before boarding the HOHO, you may want to stroll some of Ermou street (McD’s is on the corner of that street)—many shops, food places (and a local fast food place called “Goody’s”). If you are there on a Sunday, the flea market is off of Ermou. The HOHO is a great way to get oriented to Athens, and it will get you to places too far to walk from Syntagma (the subway is a nice alternative and you can get a ticket (1.4 euro)good for 1.5 hours if you want to hit a destination for an hour and return). We supplemented our Athens stay with the Athens map by Borch (got at Barnes & Nobel—sturdy plastic map, easy to read) and a “Top 10 Athens” book by Eyewitness Travel we ordered via Amazon. The map from HOHO and also the map at the hotel are also excellent. Most people in the shops speak English, and street signs are in Greek and English. While the streets of Athens are hopelessly winding and confusing (to be expected after a few thousand years of growth and renewal), the main sites are well marked and the people very friendly. ABD will take you to the Acropolis Museum (an easy walk after seeing the Acropolis)—you’ll have time on the tour to see the museum and have lunch in the Plaka area; so our pre-tour time was spent at the National Archaeological Museum (a HOHO stop—one of the furthest points from Syntagma), the Agora area (below the Acropolis), the National Gardens, the Temple of Olympian Zeus/Hadrian’s Arch and locating the shop of the famed poet and sandal maker. The museum fees were not too bad—and our kids were both under 19 so they were free. (It is free to walk the National Gardens—wooded, shaded – good on a hot afternoon; and Hadrian’s Arch is outside of the for-fee Temple of Olympian Zeus). It was well worth the fees to see the Agora (essentially the town below the Acropolis)—be sure to see its museum; the National Archaeological Museum held my interest—but the kids quickly tired of the various collections (we made a point of looking at the Cycladic collection—quirky and unique art style—rather than go to the museum dedicated exclusively to Cycladic art). The general rule for us: one museum a day, and pool time. On the evening of the 21st we took a taxi to Mt. Lycabettus (or Lykavittos)—one of the peaks overlooking Athens, with a small church at the top. You can hike up the hill or ride the funicular most of the way—but the funicular is a little pricy. There is no easy way to get to this area—no close subway stops, and the HOHO bus does not have a stop there. We found that a taxi from the hotel (at about 6 euro) was a great way to get there—and we were dropped at the base of the funicular and walked up from there. We waited for sunset, and had drinks/snacks at a bar/restaurant near the top. Great views of the city and the Acropolis. The restaurant was pretty expensive so we walked down and into the local area—plenty of restaurants there; taxi back from there. Tip: Taxies are everywhere—if the hotel calls one for you, they are there in 20 seconds—and use the meter. If you get one on the street (or to return to the hotel) often the meter isn’t on and you’ll pay anywhere from 6 to 10 euro; try to either have the meter turned on or negotiate a set price—but either way, for 4 of us the cost wasn’t too bad. We were told no need to tip the drivers, but if they were nice and helpful I generally tipped 10 percent (same for restaurants). Tip: when you get off the shuttle at Syntagma, there are small booths selling magazines/candy etc—pick up waters there (cold, 50 euro cents). ABD Day 1: Day one on the trip actually starts at 6 PM with the welcome reception and dinner at the hotel’s CafeZoe. Our group was large (44), and this was the first family Greece ABD trip—and every family on this trip had at least one prior ABD trip (some had been on 8). It started off well and remained so—it was a remarkably close group, with children ranging in age from 10 on up to 18. The buffet offered was filling and very diverse—a great intro to Greek food, and to the theme of the trip (over-eating). Guides: Chris (the American guide) and Mary (from Greece). [Unlike other trips, Mary was the second guide and also the main lecturer/tour guide for all of the Greece sites—as a consequence more of the admin duties fell on Chris. Both were excellent!] The hotel’s rooftop restaurant and bar offers a great view of the Acropolis—after the ABD buffet this offered a good time to see the view and the sunset. Athens has a population of 5.5 million, nearly half of the entire Greece population. ABD Day 2: We met up at 8 AM for a trip to the Olympic Stadium—only the ABD group was allowed in, and the tour and activities were fun. (Once you are on the trip, the guides provide plenty of water bottles). From there, bus ride and then two hours at the Acropolis—part of it guided by Mary, and part on your own. She used a wireless mike and we each had our own device with ear plugs, which worked well. I brought my own headset (single plug) as it was more comfortable than using them (a great tip from a prior disboard report). We had 2.5 hours after leaving the Acropolis to see the New Acropolis Museum and get lunch. We opted for a sit-down lunch first just down the way from the museum (Plaka area)—but be warned that throughout Greece, meals are served in their own sweet time. There is a café in the museum, and if I were to do it over again I’d eat there to give more time for the museum. (This is the museum that replaced the small museum that used to be on site; and the new museum has spaces saved for the hoped-for return of the Elgin pieces taken from the Acropolis and now on display at the British Museum). The Caryatids (building columns in the shape of women) are in the museum—replicas are on site. (Well, 5 of the 6 are in the museum—the 6th is in London). Most bused back to the hotel at 2 for pool time/rest—although you could stay and walk the Plaka and make your way to the hotel’s shuttle stop. That evening is a fun dinner in the Plaka—lots of food, Greek music and dancing. The bus left at 9—my DW and I stayed back (sent the kids back to the hotel—our DS is 18, so he watched after our DD). We walked the Plaka at night, took the subway to Syntagma and caught the hotel shuttle back. This was a Saturday night—fun to see the night crowds; and like other places in Europe, dinner is commonly very late—usually 8 PM or later. ABD Day 3: For a birthday surprise for one of our Junior Adventurers, the guides had a box of fresh Bakliva to pass around—a great way (even after a full buffet breakfast) to start our bus drive to Delphi (a 3 hour drive from Athens). Throwaway factoid: there are 26 types of olives in Greece. The economy relies primarily on shipping, tourism and agriculture. We walked the Delphi area with Mary—and had some time on our own. It was warm and there is some hiking involved—but the pace is good. Bring good walking shoes! (I’d recommend: good walking shoes, a pair of sandals to walk to the pools/walk around on easy days and boat shoes for a couple of days due to the water activities). Mary also guided us through the museum—not much time on your own, but the museum is not that large. You do learn the history of the oracle and what likely caused the selected high priestess to fall into a trance. (The photo of the Sanctuary of Athena that appears in all of the guide books—circular, with pillars still standing—is not part of the Delphi area but is nearby; we were not able to stop and see this). One of the “moments” of this trip (and there were many) was the lunch at a taverna in a town nearby Delphi—without outdoor tables and a view reminiscent of Tuscany. If there was a moment that our group first really bonded, it was here---nice pace, beautiful weather, great food and a chance to sit and visit. The kids all had their own table, and had a blast. (This is one of the things I like about the ABD trips—with the kids occupied and having fun, I can relax and enjoy the moment). That evening is on your own—we took the hotel shuttle to the Acropolis Museum area (the driver will stop there if you ask), walked the way back to the Acropolis area and went left into the wooded area known as Filopappos Hill. (The guidebook recommends this as a Top 10, but don’t hike it in the dark). Socrates was likely imprisoned in a cave on this hill—it is near the beginning of the trials up. The kids made it only to the cave, and we left after that for dinner in the Plaka area (DW and I went to the top of the hill on our post-trip day—well worth it!! The view was incredible from the top, and it was an easy hike). We searched for lamb gyros on pita—no luck; later discovered that the gyros we think of in the states—lamb carved from a rotating spit, put into pita—is rarely found. Most are gyros plates—and most are not lamb (rather, beef or chicken). ABD Day 4: We left at 8 AM for the Athens Airport and our flight to Santorini. It was fairly smooth at the airport—we had to take our bags as they were unloaded from the bus to check in, but that was pretty quick. After a short flight to Santorini, we bused to a nearby Wine Museum where we started with a buffet lunch (thanks to the adult group before us, this was new—before, they did wine tasting and a tour before having lunch). After lunch—wine tasting (4 different wines), followed by free time to stomp grapes, tour the facility etc. Kids and adults had a blast stomping those grapes, which were happily not part of the wine-tasting (and occurred after the wine tasting!). From there, to the Majestic Hotel. You can see water from either side of the hotel—and every morning around 7:30 AM the men with donkeys (for riding in the nearby shopping/village area) would pass by the hotel, bells a jingling. The pool area was very nice—there are two pools, and the kids all gathered at one leaving the other for the adults (who mostly stayed out of the water). A huge dinner at a Traverna was followed by the first of two Disney Movie Nights. While the kids were at the movie night, many of the adults walked to the nearby shopping area (10 minute walk—shops sloped down a cliff area). Santorini has 13 villages, with a population of 100,000 in the summer and 13,000 in the winter (Athenians head for the islands during the hot summer months). Because we have 4 in our party (and our DS, 18, is considered an adult) we have two rooms—most of the time, connected. At the Majestic we had adjoining rooms but not connected. ABD Day 5: A 9 AM departure for the port, where we boarded a sailing ship (exclusive to our group) and headed for the volcano. This is a good day to have both walking shoes and boat shoes, and either wear a bathing suit or bring one (the ship has changing rooms—although limited in number). Mary guided us to the top—a good walk up. Still active, but the big one was around 1160 BC—created the shape of the island as it exists today, and maybe (maybe) sunk Atlantis. From there we went to a cove area to swim—we were soon joined by two other small ships of people, so it got a little crowded. The water was nice—although if there were hot springs I never found them. From there we sailed to a small port for lunch at Captain John’s—maybe the only meal that needed tweeking on this trip. There was plenty of seafood, but the service was slow and the food was generally disgarded by the kids. From there we sailed to another port where we met up with donkeys for a ride up to the village of Oia—nice shopping, great cliff-side restaurants and decent art places. Two issues that the guides said would be tweeked: not enough donkeys for our group (a few of us waited for round two—without a Disney rep staying with us, which was unusual—Chris said the local local guide for Santorini will stay with the group until the last guest has taken off on a donkey for now on). The other issue was the length of time in Oia—most of us agreed that there was too much time (I think most of us were pretty beat after walking the volcano, swimming, sailing and riding the donkeys—having 3 hours of shopping on top of that was too much). We found a nice cliff-side restaurant to hang out at, enjoying the view. We got back to the hotel (by bus) around 6:15, with dinner on our own (most went to the nearby shopping area). ABD Day 6: We were asked to have bags out at 9:30, and to prepare a day bag—with a planned 5 PM departure from the hotel for the port (to catch a ferry to Crete). However, the hotel informed Chris that morning that we could, in fact, keep our rooms until 5. This isn’t always going to be the case, so each tour may be different as to how it handles this day. The bus for Akrotiri (the Pompeii of Greece) leaves at 11—so there is AM time for shopping in the village. We did this (kids stayed behind), and came across a very interesting art shop with unique, hand-crafted paintings, ceramics and metal works. As for Akrotiri—it is enclosed in a large building, and the digging continues. Akrotiri was apparently abandoned by its populace shortly before the large eruption (1160 BC or so)---Mary guided us through this, and won a heated argument with the guard as to which direction she was taking the group. The Greeks are very passionate people—we saw several heated arguments during our stay, but always verbal and relatively short in duration. From Akrotiri, we headed for Kamari Beach (a beautiful stretch of beach, lined with chairs/umbrellas with each section overseen by different restaurants—you could go and sit in the chairs for a cost [5 euros to 7 euros] although at least one restaurant offered the chairs/umbrellas in the sand for free if you ate there. But…as we found all around Greece, the meal service takes time and this ate into our beach time. Three families took over a corner of a restaurant and used that as our base, eating and then a few of us walking down to the beach for a swim. We all agreed we wanted more beach time—and part of the planning for this day was to have swimsuits/beach shoes either under our clothes, or available to change into. I just wore my swim trunks as shorts for the Akrotiri tour (and wore my beach shoes the whole time). The hotel provided the towels. I’d like to see Disney provide the lunch with set aside chairs/umbrellas for swimming. (Kamari Beach is lined with black stones—you need boat shoes to swim here; but the view in the water is well worth the effort). You have time back at the hotel to walk back to the shopping area nearby. One of our group loved gelato—but only vanilla or chocolate. We blindfolded him and had him spin, randomly selecting a gelato flavor. Sure enough, he pointed to vanilla! The rest of the trip we picked “unique” flavors for him to try—and he gamely did so! We departed the hotel at 5—caught the 6 PM ferry to Crete (2 hour ride—with decent box dinners provided, and comfortable seating). Our ride was pretty smooth—no motion sickness that I am aware of. We then had a 1.5 hour drive to the Porto Elounda resort—welcomed by staff with fresh orange juice and escorted to our rooms. Beautiful location—and with free WiFi (as was true in all of the hotels, although the best signals were in Athens). Crete is the largest of the 4000 Greek islands (400 of those are populated); it is the 5th largest island in Europe. The resort is isolated from any towns or villages. It has its own beach and many pools—most are private pools, but the pool for regular guests is close to the beach and a short walk downhill from the hotel lobby. There is plenty of free time to hit the beach during your stay. ABD Day 7: Leave at 9:30 to kayak from Plaka to Spinalonga (once a Venitian fort, and then a leper colony; my DW and I both read The Island, which is set in the time period of the leper colony—reading this before our trip really brought our visit to the island to life and is highly recommended). You’ll want to wear swimwear and boat shoes to kayak—you’ll get wet (leave the camera on the bus—they will bring your stuff to the island so you can pick it up there before the tour). Every member of our group went across in a kayak (two person)—and every member also road the donkeys up the hill in Santorini. Pretty active group. Following the tour of Spinalonga, we took a boat back to town and had lunch on our own. Our 18 yr old DS ordered a fish plate—and was given a huge plate with over 15 fish (of all variety); he ate most of it with no apparent consequence. Back to the resort you have the afternoon free—many of us did spa visits, others went to the beach. That night was the second Disney movie night (with dinner)—and the adults selected from three restaurants and were given vouchers to use, so we could select off the menu. I think this is in response to prior ABD trip reports seeking more dinner options. ABD Day 8: Depart at 8:30 for the Palace of Knossos—4000 years old, or so. At one point it had 1400 rooms and a population of 12,000. When you tour it, it feels like they are all still there. Fortunately, Mary knew her way around and we had a good tour of the place. From there we went to a small village (Arolithos), which was recreated using buildings/doors/windows of other places being torn down. Pretty cool village—we started with a toast of Raki (for the adults) or OJ, had a fairly fast lunch of many dishes (in a nice outdoor patio), visited some of the shops and spent some time making our own stress or worry beads (Kaboki beads). We had free time after that back at the resort—many went to the beach, and the weather was ideal. That evening, a fairly large group filled up six taxies and headed into the town of Elounda (to a square surrounding a small harbor) for a flat fare of 7 euros per taxi each way. The restaurant we ended up with was recommended by the guides, and was a perfect family spot—the kids all hung out at one end, the adults at the other. Gelato roulette followed. ABD Day 9: This AM we ventured off to a small village (Polithis) which we toured with one of the elder members. They didn’t get electricity until 25 years ago, thereby missing the entire run of MASH. But they occupied their time then and now by herding sheep, milking sheep, shearing sheep and, well, eating…vegetables and drinking lots of Raki. The village crazy man, Andreas—pretty cool guy, really—showed us how to milk sheep, etc—out in a rustic farm, absolutely nothing said tourism. It was as real as it gets—and the meal was cooked in a small kitchen (and in an outside oven sealed shut with bread dough). Andreas showed us how to make Shepard Cheese—and the kids got involved in that. We had Greek Coffee, too much Raki, cheese and bread for snack—and then moved to the dining area for the meal (lamb, chicken, pork, cheese pie, potatoes). (As I noted earlier, this was one long food fest). For anyone really adventurous, Andreas offered up some of his homemade wine. Back to the resort at 3, with beach time. The farewell dinner started at 6:30—and with the various activities (music, dancing and a huge buffet, among other activities) we ended the evening at 10. (If you go and you see a dessert there that is circular with a dollop of chocolate on top, grab as many as you can—best dessert we had in Greece). (And we had a LOT of desserts in Greece). I was stunned and very proud to see my 18 yr old formally shy son stand up and give a small speech thanking the guides for his amazing experiences in Greece. Wow! ABD Day 10: And so the end is near. This is departure day—for some, 4 AM transfers to the airport. For most, off at 6 AM. Many flew on to either Athens or Rome and then home. One family stayed for two extra nights on Crete. We booked one post-night via ABD in Athens, so flew back to Athens and caught the ABD transport with Chris and Mary back to the Intercontinental Athenaeum hotel—with a great opportunity to visit one last time with our great guides. Mary was heading off to another gig, and Chris was preparing for the July 3 group. Since this was a Sunday, we took the hotel shuttle into town and visited the Athens Flea Market (like a huge garage sale—blocks and blocks of books/furniture/knick-knacks and food vendors). (We walked over to the normally busy Central Market—huge indoor meat/fish/produce market, much like the one in downtown LA, but the Athens market is closed on Sundays). Hit up McDonalds and its fine restrooms (by the way, you have to ask for the toilets—if you say restroom you are likely to be sent to a restaurant). From there an easy walk to the Benaki museum (in a mansion formally owned by the Mayor of Athens)—interesting art, statuary, El Greco paintings (well—painting; there are normally 2 but one was on loan to Germany---probably as collateral for a loan). The kids were not thrilled, but this is one of the Top 10 and I thought it was interesting. There is a nice café with a roof terrace—so you can bribe the kids with a promised soft drink or dessert, because you didn’t get enough desserts on the trip. We gave the kids pool time at the hotel while DW and I went off to see the fantastic view from the top of Filopappos Hill; we caught a cab back and then took the kids out for one last dinner in Athens at a recommended 1896 restored tavern (Psorias, I believe it was called) in the Plaka area. Pretty much used up our Euros. Speaking of euros: given the uncertainty of the banking industry when we were getting ready to go to Greece (the election was held just days before our arrival), we decided to bring more euros than we normally would, purchased at home. Roughly $600 worth, which was enough--we didn't have to use an ATM the entire time. Plus we brought envelopes with American dollars for each of the guides—each hotel had a safe so we stashed it all away, with our passports (we did not have to show our passports at all, outside of the airports). We flew out the next day (Athens to Istanbul—with a lot of security checks to clear before flying from Istanbul to LA). My son recognized and got to meet Zakk Wylde, a musician. After a two hour delay in Istanbul, a 10 hour time difference, a 14 hour flight and an hour of LAX hassle clearing customs and getting our bags, I was very very very glad to have a Disney-provided driver meet us and drive us back to San Diego—I am sure I would have driven us into the first ditch. The transport was a perk to repeat guests offered when we booked this adventure—it was later discontinued, but may start up again. If you can do it, book at least one pre-night and one post-night (with ABD so you get the same hotel and transportation), get the travel insurance, bring light clothes (and I mean that two ways: for the heat, and for the weight--the airlines are getting ever more strict on weight—for Turkish Air it was 44 pounds per bag) and get a decent Athens map and travel book. That was our Greek Odyssey. A great adventure!