Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam: Katakolon and Athens

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


Join me as I chronicle my journey through the Adriatic, Mediterranean, and Aegean Seas on our 12-night “Mediterranean Empires” cruise aboard Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam.  The next few blog entries will detail the various ports of call we visited during the cruise…

We sailed out of Venice in the middle of a thunderstorm, forcing us to relocate from the open decks at the top of the ship to the our balcony.  Though it was dreary out, we still had some beautiful views of the rooftops of Venice as we sailed out of the picturesque city.

May 3 – At Sea

The first full day on the ship was spent at sea.   After a breakfast of eggs Benedict on the balcony, I headed off to the gym and then to explore the ship with my girlfriend.  The rest of the day was spent lounging around while she enjoyed her spa treatments.  This was the first formal night, and we dined in the Pinnacle Grill — one of two specialty restaurants onboard.  The Pinnacle Grill is an upscale steakhouse serving prime cuts of meat and amazing appetizers.  I ordered the rib eye, which was excellent.  Others ordered the filet mignon, and I go to have a few bites.  It was simply perfect — one of the best filets I’ve had anywhere.  The cost of the meal is $29 per person, and this is WELL worth it, as a comparable meal on land would run well over $150 each.  We were pretty much beat after dinner, so we headed back to the suite after a couple of drinks in the piano bar for some good rest before the barrage of ports ensued the following morning.

May 4 – Katakolon, Greece

We awoke to breakfast being delivered in our suite just after the sun came up.  As the fog burned off, we watched as the Nieuw Amsterdam docked in the port of Katakolon, Greece.  This town is a small fishing village that serves as the hopping off port for Olympia – the site of the ancient Olympic Games.  Though several tours were offered through the ship, we opted to head to Olympia on our own.  We bought a round-trip train ticket from Katakolon to Olympia for €10 each and arrived in Olympia 40 minutes later.  Olympia itself is a cute, clean Greek town with a number of sidewalk cafes, restaurants, and shops.  We walked through the town in the middle of a light drizzle to the entrance of the Olympia archaeological site where entrance was €6 apiece.  Here, we viewed the excavated ruins of the ancient Olympic Games.  The highlight of this site was the original Olympic Stadium where my girlfriend and I ran a lap on the original 440 meter “track” which more resembles a couple of dirt football fields back to back.

We were done viewing the ruins after about an hour.  Unfortunately, we still had about two and a half hours before our scheduled train was to leave.  So, we did the only logical thing – we hopped a bus that we thought may go in the right direction.

The driver spoke pretty much no English, but the only thing he could say was “Pyrgos.”  We knew Pyrgos was a city a little more than halfway between Olympia and Katakolon, so we hopped the bus to see how that would work out – the price was right, at about €1.20 each.  About 35 minutes later, we disembarked at the bus station in Pyrgos – a large, somewhat dirty town about 10 kilometers from Katakolon.  There was another bus to Katakolon an hour later, but we opted for a taxi, who thought he was Sabastian Vettel.  This guy was flying down the road at over 140kph, and had us in Katakolon in no time.  This was a great adventure to get us back to the ship, and was much more fun than the standard bus tour shore excursion offered by Holland America.

Upon arrival back into Katakolon, we found a nice restaurant called “Arhipelagos Fish Tavern” (this is directly from their business card, which may or may not have had a typo) right on the harbor where we enjoyed a lunch of gyros, fried cheese, greek salad, and a few beers (as well as free wifi).  This made for a great early afternoon before we headed back to the ship.  We enjoyed champagne and beer in our private hot tub on the balcony as the ship set sail from Katakolon — not a bad way to spend an afternoon!

May 5 – Piraeus (Athens), Greece

I awoke to the hustle and bustle of a very industrial port swarming with ferry activity.  This port – Piraeus is the port neighborhood of Athens.  Athens is a seemingly never-ending metropolis, and Piraeus is where the sea of white rooftops ends at the Aegean Sea.   We again opted against taking a ship-arranged tour, and set out on our own.  A cab driver approached us and offered a €20 ride to the Acropolis, which we thought was more than reasonable for the three of us.  After about a 20 minute ride through the lightly congested highways and streets of Athens, we arrived at the south entrance to the Acropolis.  We ascended the stairs to overlook the amphitheater, and eventually made it up to the famed Parthenon.  We walked all around the Parthenon and Temple of Athena, taking dozens of pictures of the recovered ruins and stunning vistas of Athens that were aided by picture perfect weather and blue skies.

Once we deemed that we’d seen enough, we walked down the north side of the Acropolis, stopping at a café  for a few beers in the Anafiotika neighborhood on one of the steep, narrow streets lined with cafes and restaurants.  This shady and picturesque street (Mnisikleous Str.) made for a great place to rest the legs, relax with a drink, and check up on e-mail with wifi.  We really enjoyed ourselves at Anafiotika over these couple of hours.  After this, we headed down to the main shopping area in Athens before stopping for a quick gyro lunch.  We decided to take the metro back to Piraeus since it was a straight shot (about 4-5 stops) and only a couple of euros a person.  The train station is about a twenty-minute walk from the ship, but that wasn’t a problem at all.  Upon arriving back in the room, we all crashed for an hour nap before enjoying the sail out of Piraeus into the deep blue Aegean Sea from the comfort of our balcony.

 Next port of call:  Istanbul, Turkey…

 

DC to Dubai and Tokyo via… Santiago? Four Days in Tokyo: Day 2

Introduction
Planning
TAM Economy Class New York JFK – Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Santiago
LAN Economy Class Santiago – Sao Paulo
TAM Economy Class Sao Paulo – New York JFK
United BusinessFirst Denver to Tokyo Seattle (Emergency Landing)
United BusinessFirst on the 787 Seattle to Tokyo
Cathay Pacific Regional Business Class Tokyo Narita – Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific “The Wing” Business Class Lounge Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific Business Class Hong Kong – Dubai
Dubai, Day 1 (Traiteur Brunch, Park Hyatt Dubai, Burj Khalifa, Atlantis Palm Islands)
Dubai, Day 2 (Shark Dive at Dubai Aquarium, Burj Al Arab, 360)
Cathay Pacific Business Class Dubai – Hong Kong – Tokyo Haneda
Tokyo, Day 1 (Park Hyatt arrival, Roppongi)
Tokyo, Day 2 (Imperial Palace, Shibuya Crossing, Ebisu, Kendo, Dinner and drinks in Shinjuku)
Tokyo, Day 3 (Ramen lunch, Harajuku, Meiji Shrine, Baseball at the Tokyo Dome, Dinner at New York Grill)
Tokyo, Day 4 (Tsukiji Market, Tokyo Subway, Airport Transfers)
Park Hyatt Tokyo


…Continued from Day 1

Imperial Palace

The next morning, we took the Tokyo Metro to the Tokyo station and made a short walk from the northeast entrance to the Imperial Palace.

Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo

Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo

Imperial Palace on a moat

Imperial Palace on a moat

Guardhouse

Guardhouse

The Imperial Palace is located in a massive park in the middle of the city.  We primarily walked through the East Garden of the Imperial Palace complex.  The Garden was beautifully landscaped and is a true oasis in the  middle of the biggest city in the World.

East Garden of Imperial Palace

East Garden of Imperial Palace

East Garden

East Garden

After about an hour of walking around the Imperial Palace grounds, we decided to leave and head over to Shibuya to hit up Shibuya Crossing during the lunchtime rush.

Shibuya Crossing

After a short metro ride to Shibuya station, we emerged just a block or so away from the famed Shibuya Crossing.  This is supposedly the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world.  Unfortunately, on this particular afternoon it started to rain pretty hard.  Surely that thinned out the crowd a bit.  We zapped a few pictures and then headed up to the Starbucks for an aerial view of the crossing.

Shibuya Crossing from Starbucks

Shibuya Crossing from Starbucks

This Starbucks is the highest-grossing Starbucks in the world, and it provides an awesome aerial view of all the people crossing the street.  We hungout at Starbucks for a little while until the rain subsided, and then started weighing our options for lunch.

Me in rainy Shibuya

Me in rainy Shibuya

Ebisu and lunch at Blacows

After we asked about a place to find an awesome Wagyu beef burger in Tokyo, the concierge at the Tokyo Hilton highly recommended Blacows in the Ebisu neighborhood, just south of Shibuya.  We decided to head there for lunch.  It took about thirty minutes to walk from Shibuya Crossing to Ebisu, but we took a leisurely pace as we stepped into a handful of vintage stores on the walk.  Upon arriving into the Ebisu neighborhood, I immediately liked it.  Ebisu is an upscale neighborhood lined with restaurants, bars, patiserries, boutiques, and vintage stores.  I much preferred this neighborhood to the hustle and bustle of Shibuya and Roppongi.  With minimal effort, we located Blacows, tucked away on a side street in Ebisu, a few blocks from the Ebisu station.

Blacows

Blacows

Blacows literally translates to “black cow”– referring to the legendary black Wagyu beef, which is used exclusively in the burgers made here.  This place has been proclaimed by several websites and periodicals to have “the greatest burger in the world.”  While I’m not ready to proclaim this as the best burger I’ve ever eaten, it certainly was in the top five.  After being immediately seated, I ordered the bacon, egg, and cheeseburger for 15oo yen.  Oh, man this thing was good.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Bacon, egg, and cheeseburger at Blacows

Bacon, egg, and cheeseburger at Blacows

Blacows... Nom Nom!

Blacows… Nom Nom!

If you’re a fan of burgers, definitely check this place out while you’re in Tokyo.

After lunch, we strolled around Ebisu to the Ebisu Garden Place and the area Sapporo Beer Headquarters before taking the JL train back to Shinjuku.

Japanese Kendo Fighting

After a quick nap, I hit up the Manager’s Happy Hour at famed New York Bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. The view from the New York Bar offers some of the best views of Tokyo and the immediate Shinjuku area.

Happy Hour at the New York Bar at Park Hyatt Tokyo

Happy Hour at the New York Bar at Park Hyatt Tokyo

Late afternoon from the Park Hyatt Tokyo

Late afternoon from the Park Hyatt Tokyo

I then proceeded to the Tokyo Hilton where I met my friends to embark on a visit to the Shinjuku Cosmic Sports Center where we arranged to sit in on  Kendo practice.  Kendo, or “way of the sword”  is a Japanese martial art based on sword-fighting.   This form of kendo features bamboo swords, or “shinai” and lightweight armor called “bogu.”  Formal competitions are judged with points, and the goal is to strike the opponent on the throat, the top of the head, the side of the head, the sides of the body, or forearms.  The kendo instructor was extremely happy to have us sit in on their practice, and it was an extremely cool experience.  For an hour, we watched dozens of Japanese kendo fighters basically whack the hell out of each other with fake samurai swords.

Kendo!

Kendo!

Fight!

Fight!

It.  Was.  Awesome!

More Kendo fighting

More Kendo fighting

A calm end to an intense Kendo session

A calm end to an intense Kendo session

I highly recommend trying to experience this while in Tokyo.  The best thing to do is to ask your hotel concierge to arrange a trip to a practice if there is not a formal fight while you’re there.  I suppose one could contact the Shinjuku Cosmic Sports Center itself, but there was not much English spoken there.

Shinjuku Dinner

After our kendo experience, we hopped a metro back to the main Shinjuku station in search of a dinner place.  We ended up seafood barbecue and Izakaya (bar)  place that came highly recommended by a few locals, called Marukou-Suisan in Shinjuku.

kj

Marukou-Suisan in Shinjuku

The place was packed, and we were the ONLY Westerners in the joint.  While the language barrier was a bit of a challenge, we managed to have a pretty good sampling of the menu brought to us.

Sake!

Sake!

Mussels and Squid

Mussels and Squid

Mussels

Mussels

Grilled Calamari

Grilled Calamari

Oysters

Oysters

Some dishes were good; some were pretty awful, but the overall experience was quite special.  Grilling raw seafood on the dinner table was certainly fun time.

Grilled Prawns

Grilled Prawns

Tempura fish (I think?)

Tempura fish (I think?)

Tempura peppers and veggies

Tempura peppers and veggies

We sat next to some locals who could not have been  nicer, and introduced us to a whole bunch of shochu — a Japanese distilled liquor.  We hit that pretty hard, actually…

Shinjuku Golden Gai District

Upon completing a huge dinner, we were ready to go out on the town.  This time, we decided to keep things relatively local, and headed to the famous Shinjuku “Goledn Gai” district.  This is a relatively small area of a few square blocks that features the highest concentration of bars in the world.  Most all of the bars are small, shanty-style bars with no more than 15 bar stools.

The bars of Golden Gai

The bars of Golden Gai — ha.. Baltimore!

Each bar is essentially a different dive bar that has a different theme – from jazz to karaoke to R&B to punk rock — , and we thoroughly enjoyed hopping to a number of different places throughout the night and into the early morning.  Apparently this is an area frequented by locals, and Westerners have had a hard time being welcomed, but we had no problem whatsoever (shocking, I know).

Shinjuku at night

Shinjuku at night

After a few hours in the Golden Gai district, we decided that it was time for some late-night noodles before we called it a night.  We stopped in a noodle shop in a back alley just north of  the north entrance to Shinjuku station in Nishi-Shinjuku.  This area is filled of narrow alleys that are lined with ramen and sushi shops — it’s a must see in the early evening hours, for sure.  We settled on a decent looking noodle shop, and were served a piping hot bowl of Soba noodles topped with tempura fish.  It was freakin’ awesome, and a perfect small meal to end the night.

Perfect late night meal

Perfect late night meal

 To be continued with an installment for each day I spent in Tokyo…

Tokyo, Day 3 (Ramen lunch, Harajuku, Meiji Shrine, Baseball at the Tokyo Dome, Dinner at New York Grill)
Tokyo, Day 4 (Tsukiji Market, Tokyo Subway, Airport Transfers)