The Sept. 29-to-Oct. 8 sailing aboard the Silver Spirit, the largest ship in the Silversea fleet, was originally going to be a total Black Sea cruise. But the unrest in the region caused Silversea, like other cruise lines, to eliminate calls in Ukraine (i.e., Yalta, Sevastopol and Odessa) and Sochi, Russia.
Silversea still started and ended the cruise in Istanbul, one of the great cities to explore; kept their calls on the west side of the Black Sea (as did most cruise lines); and then added in some lesser-known ports in Greece and Turkey. For me, one of the appeals was that beyond Piraeus/Athens, all of the other ports were new places to see.
The onboard experience was outstanding in every way: food, service, entertainment and the ship itself. And it turned out to be an excellent series of stops.
Here is a recap of some of the ports of call:
Athens/Piraeus: There's no way to see all that Athens had to offer in one day.
The absolute highlight has to be the Acropolis, sitting high on the hill where the Parthenon, its most famous structure, is in full view. The massive renovation project is nearly done, making a visit ideal for everyone; there's a bit of a climb to reach the site, but it's not too rigorous.
Museums abound in Athens; the best one for Acropolis buffs is the Acropolis Museum, featuring a great collection, videos and outstanding views.
Organized tours included a variety of stops: Constitution Square and the Royal Palace (with the very proper changing-of-the guard ceremony), Olympic Stadium, Temple of Zeus and more. Everywhere one looks, there's history.
And then there's the shopping and eating mecca, the Plaka district and adjacent Ermou Street.
Experienced travelers can just jump in a taxi at the port of Piraeus and go into Athens; for two or more people, it's cost- and time-efficient compared to cruise line transfers.
Izmir, Turkey: Izmir is Turkey's third- largest city and its biggest seaport on the Aegean Sea. The primary shore excursions are trips to Ephesus, which has to be one of the most breathtaking ancient treasures ever to be uncovered. New areas, such as the Terrace Houses, continue to be discovered.
Having already been to Ephesus a few times, I chose to take the Izmir city orientation tour that included the Agora ruins, which are constantly undergoing discovery and rebuilding. It also went to the Archaeology Museum; the mosaic exhibit may be the best I've ever seen. Izmir's waterfront goes on for miles with one restaurant after another (grilled calamari time!) on the inland side and walking paths and statuary on the water side.
Constanta/Bucharest, Romania: Constanta is the largest Romanian city on the Black Sea, but the highlight was the ship's full-day, complimentary tour to Bucharest.
I've never really enjoyed three-hour bus rides (in both directions) but this was really worth it. The ride was pleasant enough with some nice scenery, and the two skilled tour guides did a terrific job.
Bucharest itself was fascinating, with stops made at key highlights: Palace of Parliament; Patriarchal Hill and Church; the open-air Village Museum; lunch featuring local cuisine and folk dancing; and photo stops or drive-bys at some of the well-preserved Eastern European-style buildings and churches.
Nesebur, Bulgaria: The last scheduled port of call was to be Nesebur, a rocky peninsula sitting on the coast. Unfortunately the waters were rough and the tendering operation had to be scrapped. Thus I did not get to see the city considered to be one of the great Unesco World Heritage Sites with its Greek and Roman ruins.
While I had planned on touring Nesebur, fellow guests had planned on seeing Pomorie, rumored to be a lovely resort city on the Black Sea. I guess I'll have to go back.
Lines are still adjusting itineraries for 2015 due to the situation in Ukraine. Silversea, for example, will not be calling at any Black Sea ports, while Seabourn will still be calling at Constanta, Izmir and Nesebur.
Both lines will be calling at some smaller spots in Greece and Turkey, including Limnos, Thessaloniki, Volos and Santorini in Greece and Marmaris and Kusadasi (also a port call for Ephesus) in Turkey. This creates a terrific mix of port calls for experienced as well as first-time visitors to the region.
As long as the cruise begins or ends in Istanbul, a pre- or post-hotel stay is an absolute must. For those concerned about safety in the area, Istanbul is at least 500 miles away from the Syrian border; it's not a city to be avoided because of regional issues.