What a month I have had! 36 days on the amazing MSC Orchestra cruise ship, following the path of our Anzac soldiers 100 years on. I had extremely limited internet access on board, so this is my first post in over 5 weeks, but I’m back online and ready to share some amazing stories. Firstly I just wanted to do a quick review of the cruise as a whole and the MSC Orchestra ship. This is only the second cruise I have been on, the first being a P&O Cruise to the Pacific Islands when I was just 13 years old. I didn’t really know what to expect but just from our itinerary I knew I would not be disappointed.
A brief overview of the itinerary
We set sail from Fremantle in Western Australia on the 26th of March to head to Albany, also in WA. Albany was the major port in which Australia’s war ships congregated before they left to join World War I in November 1914. A museum was built for the 100 year anniversary of the first fleet leaving Australia and it was a wonderful tribute atop a hill over looking the beautiful bay.
Leaving our last Australian port, we headed for Sri Lanka and had a full 7 days at sea. On day three of our sea voyage, we detoured to pass the resting place of the HMAS Sydney, an important Australian war ship. It was destroyed in 1941 in Australia’s worst naval disaster after losing a battle with the German raider HSK Kormoran. All 645 men on board went down with the ship. The next day we sailed through the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, a beautiful chain of Australian islands inhabited by native Malay people and small Australian settlements. This was also the site of a success story for the HMAS Sydney in WWI when a German light cruiser, the SMS Emden approached to destroy the communications tower on Direction Island, but failed as they destroyed a ‘dummy’ version instead. The Sydney heard the distress calls and left the fleet that was en route to the war to battle the Emden and won, running the German ship aground at North Keeling Island.
After this we had another three sea days before we reached Colombo, Sri Lanka. In WWI, Colombo was used as a refueling and restocking port. The city was very clean, as all of the locals kept pointing out, but it was a stark contrast to the poverty that lie in the streets just beyond it. Tourism hasn’t taken off much in Sri Lanka, and most locals were begging us to return for another visit. A nice city, very humid but overall I probably wouldn’t go back. Even the beaches were too polluted to swim in.
Onto another seven days at sea, more relaxing by the pool with cocktails and new friends. Our next stop was Luxor, Egypt where we visited the Luxor Temple and the Valley of the Kings. Luxor was a long drive from the port (about 3 and a half hours each way) which left little time to see the sights, but we managed to fit the two major attractions in and a horse and cart ride around the city. Poverty lay all through the back streets of Luxor, but it was more unsanitary than anything. The Valley of the Kings was interesting, with tombs buried miles under these hills, and the tomb walls were intricate and beautifully done, but the tombs themselves were cleared out, with all the artifacts going to museums. This destroyed what could have been even more spectacular. Luxor Temple was a highlight as it was very much still in tact and very grand and the people of Luxor were very friendly, happy to wave and say hello.
Cairo was our next stop, which was another long drive from the port (2 hours) but had a special significance to our trip. Our Anzac soldiers set up base camp and trained here, right next to the famous pyramids before they left for war. This was a very rushed day. We squeezed onto a last minute tour and went to the Egyptian museum and the Pyramids and Sphinx of Giza. Well, kind of. The museum took up most of our day but it was interesting to see such ancient artifacts and the relics from Tuttenkarmen’s tomb were a highlight. So advanced for his time and so well preserved. An extra room with ancient gold jewelery and tombs was also amazing, to see such craftsmanship from so long ago. Afterwards, we had a packed lunch provided by the tour company on the bus on the way to the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx of Giza, which I was most excited about. I was very let down. Read more about my tragic time in Cairo here.
After Cairo, we had a day at sea to cruise through the Suez Canal. A man-made channel to connect the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, Built to save ships having to make the journey around the bottom of Africa to get to Europe.
Onto Cannakale (cha-nuk-ah-lee), Turkey, the closest port to the Gallipoli peninsula as it was just on the other side of the Dardanelles. We had two days here to explore the reason for this special cruise. Gallipoli Cruises organized a bus route to take us to all the important sites of WWI. The other day we had to explore the seaside town, or venture out to the famous city of Troy. As we were there a week before Anzac Day, preparations were underway for the big day with grand stands and stages at Anzac Cove and Lone Pine. The cemetery’s were beautifully kept, thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and it was a very emotional and touching experience. Although such a sad end to thousands of soldiers lives, it was the birth place of the Anzac spirit and you can’t help but get a feeling of pride when visiting. Lest We Forget.
As we had the first day to explore Gallipoli, the second was used just to explore Cannakale. A beautiful port town with stunning landscapes all around, quaint streets, delicious Turkish food and beautiful people.
After exploring this, we sailed up the Dardanelles and into the Marmara Sea to get to Istanbul. Unfortunately we arrived to a cold and wet city that day, but we had to push through, as it was a one day only stop. The Egyptian Bazaar was a highlight as well as the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The Blue Mosque was unlike anything else I have seen. Inside, the walls are covered in intricate ceramic art and I could have marveled at it all day.
Next stop, and our last port in Turkey was Kusadasi (Coo-sha-das-ee). The ancient city of Ephesus was our first stop here, and one of my favorite ancient sites to date. The area excavated is huge and is very well preserved, but is only 10% of one of four Ephesus cities. The Library front (pictured) is just breathtaking and all put together from original pieces found there. After Ephesus we spent the afternoon shopping and eating around Kusadasi and it was one of my favorite ports. Beautiful beaches, water and scenery to look at. There is a lot of shopping there too, which adds another tick for me!
On to the next country, and we arrived in Santorini, one of the most famous Greek Islands. From the second I looked out of our cabin window, I was in awe. The beautiful island is actually the edge of a volcano, with white buildings along the edge of the steep cliffs. Absolutely beautiful, but one day was enough to see it all. There isn’t much else to do except to explore the two major towns on the cliffs of the main island. We explored Fira but missed Oia as it was a long walk or ferry ride away (although friends who went said Oia was their favorite).
Next was the contrasting landscapes of Mykonos. Flat with small hills but still a very rocky island covered in the typical white houses. The streets here felt like you were inside a tricky maze. Skinny and with a turn left or right every few meters, some leading to a dead end and all white of course. Shopping here was great, with a lot of ‘greek’ things. We hired mopeds for the day and explored some stunning beaches and small villages and we even got to sample the famous nightlife, which did not disappoint.
After the fun of Mykonos, we cruised back to the Gallipoli peninsula for the 100 year anniversary dawn service on April 25. Everyone on board was up at 5am, rugged up for the cold and watching the live broadcast of the official dawn service at Anzac Cove on the big screen up on the top deck. As the ceremony was going ahead, we got to see the sun rise behind the Gallipoli peninsula and have the same view our soldiers would have had at the same time in 1915. It was such an emotional morning for all, but the tribute was beautiful. After the official service, we had our own services on board and entertainment by the likes of John Williamson and Bruce Woodley. The AFL Anzac Day match was also broadcasted for us (well briefly as the internet was horrible).
Next stop was Athens, with the famous Acropolis and Temple of Zeus to visit. So much history there but to be honest, I was expecting more as it’s known for it. Still a beautiful city, with great food, shopping and we even got to watch the changing of the guard at Parliament.
We left our last Greece stop to head for our first of three Italian ports, Palermo, Sicily. Not too sure what to expect in Palermo, we just started walking around. The city felt dirty straight away, with the buildings all very poorly maintained and covered in black soot. The city did have some nice buildings and it was backed right up against some impressive mountain ranges which made it pretty special. After some beautiful pizza for lunch (I love Italian food!!) we decided to get out of the city and caught a ride to Mondello, a beach town close by. We didn’t have much time here but it was one of the best beaches I have seen in Europe. Beautiful colored water, soft white sand and stunning mountains just beyond. If I was Italian I would definitely buy a summer home there!
Naples was next, although we didn’t see Naples at all. We got onto a tour to see Sorrento and Pompeii instead. Sorrento was a stunning coastal town atop steep cliffs on the Amalfi Coast. The beaches below the cliffs were very average, but they were still turned into hang out’s for hotel guests and you couldn’t get to them otherwise. The cliffs had the winning scenery shot for me, just so unique and at the viewing points you could look out over the water to see Mt Vesuvius across the other side.
Pompeii was something I have wanted to see for a long time, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. It was an ancient excavated city which was extremely well preserved, but I was expecting more ‘bodies’ and furniture still in houses as they were found and as the legend goes. Instead, bodies were enclosed in glass cabinets and pottery and other items found were all put in one big shed together on display. I could have seen that at most ancient sites. The bodies of people trapped in the ash of the eruption of Mt Vesuvius were interesting but our tour guide admitted they were enhanced and kind of recreated, and weren’t found like that. Still an amazing city to witness, and so very big.
And that was the last port of call. We had our last night on board the ship on our way to Rome, our final destination. After 36 days on a boat, lasting friendships were made and it was a very emotional time to say goodbye to new friends and the staff you had grown to love and call friends as well.
Review of the MSC Orchestra
The boat was absolutely beautiful, inside and out with two main pool areas, four spas, a big screen TV on top deck, about 13 bars and lounges, a good sized casino, kids play ground, tennis court, mini golf, double story theater, a library, cards room, two grand restaurants, a specialized restaurant, cigar room, coffee bars, ice-cream bars, a gym overlooking the front of the ship, spa and sauna and a three story lobby. There wasn’t much they were missing, but I thought I would score each area and explain what was disappointing.
Cleanliness – 9/10 The staff cleaned our cabins twice a day with fresh towels and all public areas were spotless. The only very minor downside being that I think we only received fresh sheets maybe three times on a 36 day cruise.
Pools and Spas – 9/10 The pools were emptied and fresh water put in every day and to start with the water was very cold, but got warmer as the cruise went on. They seemed to take sea water to fill it, but it was filtered and very clean. One day I did go into the spa on a coldish day and the spa wasn’t hot enough for my liking.
Bars and Lounges – 8/10 After 36 days, the entertainment in each lounge started to sound very repetitive, and they could have mixed it up a little bit, but overall the bands were great and suited to all types of music. The drinks offered were always made perfectly and the staff were always very friendly. There were a great variety of bars to choose from including a wine bar, martini bar, coffee bar and more. Being a cruise filled with Aussies though, most were often crowded and sometimes it took way too long to be served. Table service was often hard to get and us Aussies are used to lining up at the bar for a drink and I don’t think they were used to that.
Staff – 10/10 Everyone on board the MSC Orchestra became a family, including the staff. They were super professional and polite but not afraid to have a chat and a joke with you. There were people of all nationalities working on board which was extremely interesting as well. Couldn’t have asked for much more.
Food: Buffet – 5/10 Very repetitive, with the same things every day and maybe a dish or two different each day. Food was of good quality, but let’s put it this way… I wasn’t super excited to eat here every day.
Food: Restaurants – 9/10 Some of the best food I have had. The menu’s were changed every day and we had themes such as ‘Indian’ or ‘Italian’ on many occasions. The food was delicious, the only problem being there weren’t too many options each night for vegetarians and especially vegans.
Paid services – 10/10 I only had my hair done whilst on board, but I was very impressed with the outcome. Being so blonde, it takes a good hairdresser to get it right and they got it perfectly.
Entertainment – 10/10 All of the shows the MSC singers and dancers put on were amazing. Being a cruise line that usually operates out of Europe, they have to cater to so many different languages so they do an amazing job. One Italian male singer was a bit hard to understand when singing English songs, but his beautiful voice outshone the tiny flaw. The Entertainment team on board were also incredible. They would host an event every night with a different theme as well as running daily quizzes, bingo and running the sports section. Every member of the team made an effort to get to know us all and some of them became some of my best friends on the ship. They would pull everyone up dancing and just made the whole cruise an electric and fun time.
Internet access – 1/10 If I could score this a 0 I would. I paid 70 euro’s for 8 hours of WiFi, ridiculous! And about 7 of those hours were wasted, either waiting for it to connect, loading a page which took an hour or I lost it because it would fail to even load the log out page so I lost time. I did complain about this one time and they re credited me my time, but after a second time and losing about half an hour, the reception lady said she couldn’t do anything. Even the internet cafe was about 3.40 euro’s to connect and 1.50 euro’s for every minute following and that was just as slow. Way too expensive for a service that doesn’t even work!
Review of Gallipoli Cruise 2015
As this was a special, once off cruise, a lot of the organizing was done by Gallipoli Cruises, not MSC. The travel desk was taken over by them and much of the entertainment and events were held by them.
Entertainment – 10/10 We had Bert Newton host our Black Tie Gala night in Albany and his wife Patty performed a little number, then we had John Williamson, Daryl Braithwaite, Kate Cebrano, Ross Wilson, Normie Rowe, Claire and Bruce Woodley, Paul Martell, BABBA, Mike Vee (John Farnham impersonator) and the Beetles tribute band, Rubber Soul for either part or all of the cruise. The Aussie talent on board was exceptional. They also hosted daily lectures on sea days which were a huge success and it was great to go and learn more about the Gallipoli campaign and WWI.
Shore excursions (Included) – 10/10 We had organized bus routes at two of our ports, Albany and Gallipoli and at Mykonos we got free transfers to the main part of town from the ship. The bus routes were organized very well, with all the important stops covered. On the days we were in Gallipoli, we were even given packed lunches, made up by the ship to take for the day.
Shore excursions (Paid extras) – 5/10 This would have been a higher rating if it wasn’t so expensive. We only did a few tours through Gallipoli Cruises, and only ones we got last minute due to people forfeiting seats. We hadn’t booked any tours prior to boarding as we thought we would see how we feel and book on the ship, but the travel desk insisted we had to book and pay 3 months in advance for these, which was a bit ridiculous. I booked a tour in Turkey for about the third of the cost of the one through Gallipoli Cruises doing the same thing and we got a private tour, with just us four and our own guide and driver compared to the huge bus of 50 strong people with one guide and driver. The tours we did do were nice but very rushed, especially my disappointing Cairo one.
Ceremonies – 10/10 The ceremonies on board the ship were fantastic. Very respectful, well put together and heart felt. The speeches and talks when passing HMAS Sydney’s resting place, the Cocos Islands and on Anzac Day were beautiful tributes and it was easily made into a memorable occasion we will never forget.
A one in a lifetime experience
Well all in all, the cruise was an absolute 11/10. I have missed the boat and the people every day since I have left and it was the best time of my life. Something I am so grateful to have gotten a chance to experience, thanks to my dad, and something I won’t forget for as long as I live.
All I can say is, if they ever do it again, I couldn’t recommend it high enough. Bring on the 150 year anniversary!