Category Archives: culture

San Gervasio Mayan Ruins

Location: Cozumel, Mexico

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Today we are back in Cozumel, Mexico. We were here last year and took a tour of the Chitzen Itza ruins in Yucatan. Today we set out to explore the San Gervasio ruins here on Isla Cozumel.

These ruins were dedicated to the Mayan goddess of the moon and fertility. Leigh and Becky, who did not join us on the tour, were very happy to hear about the latter. ūüėČ

It was hard to appreciate the meaning behind many of the ruins. Luckily our guide Cesar was able to give everyone the necessary background on Mayan mythology and numerology to understand the architecture and symbolism of the sites.

The ruins were more modest than what we toured last year. We saw the temple dedicated to¬†moon goddess…

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and another to both the sun and moon.

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We also saw the gates and road to the city.

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After the visiting the ruins our tour took us to a beach on the Caribbean side of the island. We spent about 90 min here relaxing in the cove and occasionally lying in the hammocks.

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The evening show was the Broadway Intimate¬†Cabaret. The ship’s singers sang a variety of Broadway hits.

Tonight, we also joined Becky and Leigh for dinner in Murano, the ship’s French specialty restaurant. The food was delicious.

We overnight in Cozumel tonight. And tomorrow we go on tour of an underground river cenote on the mainland.

Total steps: 9670

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Totem Poles of Ketchikan

Location: Ketchikan, Alaska

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Today we we made port in Ketchikan, Alaska’s first city. We didn’t have an excursions booked so we took it easy again today and did a self guided city tour.

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Ketchikan has more totem poles than anywhere else in the world. The city has erected new totems in its many small parks and relocated older totems from abandoned towns into the area. There are convenient walking trails that one can follow to see the newer totems.

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We followed one of those trails to the Totem Heritage Center, because Ryan. There we saw exhibits on Tlingit culture and older totems poles kept indoors to prolong their lives.

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We actually didn’t see any an eagles during our walk through the city, which was a little disappointing. If we were here next month we would have plenty along the creeks during the salmon runs. We did however get to see a few later in the day as the ship was leaving port.

Eagles along the shoreline
Eagles along the shoreline
Golden eagle in flight
Golden eagle in flight

In the evening we saw the second production show, “The Piano Man”. It featured music from Billy Joel, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and others. Rachel enjoyed it.

Tomorrow is an “at sea day” with no scenic cruising on the agenda. We plan to take it easy tomorrow doing relaxing cruise ship stuff.

Today’s weather: High 53, Low 45, Rain

Sunrise: 4:26am, Sunset 9:33pm

Total Totem Poles seen: 33

Total Steps: 8,220

The Lost City of Chichen Itza

Location: Cozumel and Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

Today was the long awaited day where we got to tour ancient Mayan ruins. The excursion to see the city of Chichen Itza was the entire reason we booked this cruise itinerary.

The excursion itself is very long. Those on this tour are the first people to leave the ship, and usually the last ones back aboard. We left the ship a little after 930, walked along the dock until we boarded a ferry boat to Playa del Carmen. It was a large and comfortable ferry, and the excursion people on the Freedom told us that the weather was great. Sadly nobody bothered to tell that to the surf.

We had read that the ferry ride can be rough. So we took dramamine pills and wore wrist bands to help control the sea sickness. We boarded the ferry to and tried to stay in the back so even further reduce the motion. But we and everyone else on our tour moved to the fore of the ship to expedite our egress upon arrival. ¬†After about 20 min of waiting the crew then boarded several dozen 15-16 year old girls on¬†quinceanera. It was a loud trip across the channel. And very rough too! The ships bounced on the waves and swayed back and forth, no one was happy with the ride, and many people couldn’t keep breakfast down. The pills and bracelets helped us maintain our composure.

After we docked in Playa, we were transferred to a tour bus. Then we went on a 2.5 hr drive on a highway through the jungle. We were given a small snack to eat during the drive. Our tour guide Luis spent most the time telling us about the area and Mayan history.

After a while we made it to the ruins of Chichen Itza. It took some time for everyone to get off the bus and for us to make it through the long lines to get into the site. By the time everything was done, we would have only 45 min on site. Not nearly enough time. We were also given bottled water to drink in the park.

We got to see the El Castillo, the giant ancient Mayan pyramid. Another tour guide, Armando, explained the significance of the pyramid and how it was used a giant solar calendar. He also demonstrated how sounds bounced off all of the structures in interesting ways. For instance the sound of clap coming off El Castillo sounded like a chirping bird.

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El Castillo
El Castillo
El Castillo

We also got to see the Temple of the Warriors, where sacrifices occurred, the Venus Temple, and the great ballcourt. Everything was built with an astronomical purpose in mind.

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Temple of the Warriors

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The latter of which is the largest ball arena in the Americas. The playing field is over 550×230 ft. We were told that the games were played every 4 years, only on the leap day, and that it was the captain of the winning team who was sacrificed. Because only the blood of the victor would be worthy.

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Great Ball Arena

All too soon we were herded outside of the park and back onto the bus. We had to get back to the ship in time. We were given a box lunch and soda to eat on the way back. The 2.5 hour drive went by without note. We also had to take the ferry again back to the ship. This time, we sat in the back and the seas were calmer.

Tomorrow is our last full day on the ship. It is an “at sea” day. We plan to spend it relaxing by the pool.

Total steps: 10,072

Total complimentary purell squirts: 6

Pompeii

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Location: Amalfi Coast, Italy

We made port in Salerno, Italy early this morning. Salerno is at the southern end of the famous Amalfi Coast. And it’s only a 45 min drive north to get to the much larger city of Naples. But we weren’t here to look at scenic cliffs and seaside towns; we had loftier ambitions. We boarded our tour bus in the morning and made our way to Mount Vesuvius.

We eventually arrived near the top of the infamous Volcano. Our guide let us off the bus and told us to hike up the trail (300m up) where we will meet another guide who will give us a tour around the peak. He said it was a 20 min hike.

You can kinda see the path up the volcano in this picture.
You can kinda see the path up the volcano in this picture.
The view of Naples.
The view of Naples.

 

 

 

Forty-five minutes later we reached the top. Due to the limited time, we and several other people on the tour declined the additional guide, and explored the volcanic rim on our own.  

The crater.
The crater.
View with a fish-eye lens.
View with a fish-eye lens.

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It took us another 30 min to make it down the mountain and board the bus again. Our next stop was Pompeii. It was not a long drive. Naturally the lost city would be near to the volcano that destroyed it.  

Walking down the mountain.
Walking down the mountain.

 

Our guide told us that it normally takes two days to explore Pompeii. We had two hours. He did a good job taking us through the city, hitting the highlights and carefully explaining their significance. We began at the theater where he explained and demonstrated the design and acoustics. Next, we walked along the elevated sidewalks beside the streets. The tough lava rock prevented the Romans from building a sewer system in the city. Instead the sidewalks and structures were built above the base of the roads. The roads doubled as means of removing water from the city during storms. Only carts, chariots and animals walked the streets. ¬†They even built ‘crosswalks’ so people did not have to walk in the water to cross a street. ¬†

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The 'crosswalks'
The ‘crosswalks’
A theater
A theater

Next we visited a Pompeii home. We saw the bath and courtyard, as well as the other normal rooms of a residence. We also saw human bones and broken volcanic-ash husks. This house was looted post-excavation disturbing and breaking the husks before they could be properly preserved. When the pyroclastic flow destroyed the city, it immediately enveloped the bodies of people. This created tight stone outlines of the people as they died. These statue like objects still exist today. Over time, the bodies would decay away inside the husks leaving only bones. The husks are fragile unless filled with cement.

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Bones in the display cases.
Bones in the display cases.

We would see examples of intact husks later in the public baths.

The Baths
The Baths
An intact 'husk'
An intact ‘husk’

Our next stop took us to the brothel. Detailed illustrations of the services offered still appear on the walls today. Rachel did get some pictures, but they are not PG rated. You’ll have to google it to see them. And FYI, the gift shops outside the city sold magnets and calendars with these illustrations. And no, we did not buy any.

Last we went to Forum. There was a very nice view of Vesuvius.

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Later in the afternoon we made it back to the ship. We boarded and relaxed in the hot tub for the last time. Afterwards we packed our bags because we go home tomorrow. We had our last dinner with our cruise companions as well tonight. We’re sure to see them again on another vacation.

In other news, our cruise companions when on a scenic boat tour of the Amalfi Coast. They enjoyed it and shared war stories of their tour with us at dinner.

Tomorrow we disembark the ship early in the morning and fly back home.

Total steps: 16,001

Total time Rachel got out of a hot tub without injury: 12/12

Mount Etna

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Location: Sicily, Italy

We had another full today. We woke up early to catch the excursion “Taste of Sicily: Mount Etna and Taormina”. Admittedly we were only interested in seeing Mt Etna, but this excursion was the closest thing to getting us to the top of the volcano. We should also point out that this was our first tour in nearly two weeks that not involve the cats/cruise companions.

We boarded a tour bus to Taormina. The drive on the highway was uneventful enough until we got off the highway and started up the cliffs towards the town. The switchbacks were very tight and not built with tour buses in mind. Our driver had to honk before every turn to alert potential drivers coming the other way. Usually it worked, but one driver ignored the warning and nearly hit our bus on one turn. A collision did not occur.

The town itself was built above the coast up on a cliff. We had a short stay, which mostly consisted of window shopping. Taormina had a small road lined with high-end boutiques next to low-end tourist crap shops. It seems like every tourist city in Europe has one of these. We also ran into Rachel’s parents and the Barons while in town during our free-time. They were on a different shopping excursion. While in town we also picked up an early lunch. Ryan found a place that had calzones. It was the easily the best calzone we ever had.

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Next we made our journey up the volcano in the bus. More switch-back fun ensued. We learned about the many times the volcano destroyed or devastated towns on the island. Despite the frequent destructions, the area near the top of the volcano was built up with restaurants, hotels, and tourist stores. ¬†The bus stopped at one restaurant for free cannolis and had the opportunity to get a larger meal, buy souvenirs and pay to use the bathroom. We spent an hour there, and were told that we didn’t have enough time to take the cable car to the top of the volcano. We spent most of that time walking around the lava-rock areas near the building and photographing a fox cub who happened by.

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The last part of the tour took us to a different part of the volcano where we could walk around a cinder cone crater. We took lots of pictures and rock samples.

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Crater
Crater
Ryan didn't learn in Hawaii... NEVER STRAY OFF THE PATH!
Ryan didn’t learn in Hawaii… NEVER STRAY OFF THE PATH!

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A view from the bus.
A view from the bus.

The drive back to port in Catania was uneventful.

Tonight was formal night, so once again we classed the ship up. Some of the other passengers did too.

Sunset over Sicily
Sunset over Sicily
Formal Night
Formal Night

Tomorrow we make port in Salerno near Naples. We are climbing Vesuvius and then touring Pompeii.

Total Steps:  12,521

Malta: The Tiny Island Nation You’ve Never Heard Of

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Location: Malta

Today we made port at the sixth country of our trip: Malta. Malta is a tiny nation made up of 3 islands south of Italy in the middle of the Mediterranean. It spent most of its history being conquered by various empires, before eventually achieving independence from Britain in 1964. It joined the EU in 2004. It is best known for its offshore banking, online gambling, and ship registry. Celebrity Cruises flags all of their ships (except the eXpedition of Ecuador) in Malta. More seasoned travelers know it for its scenic landscape and quiet villages. Nearly every structure in the country is made from limestone mined from the island.

This morning we and our cruise companions left the ship to go on a private tour of the island. Our tour guide, Godfrey, was once a lecturer at the local university and was a wellspring of information about the country. ¬†We started with a tour of the capitol city Valletta. This town is based around a natural deepwater port. It was founded by the crusader Knights of St John. The town was originally laid out in a grid (an oddity in Europe) and is surrounded by very thick and steep walls designed to keep the Turks out. ¬†Godfrey briskly walked around the city pointing out monuments, the Parliament, Prime Minister’s office, and stock exchange. We also saw the Barrakka Gardens at the top of the city walls overlooking the harbour and the castle used to defend the city during the last Ottoman siege.

Barrakka Gardens
Barrakka Gardens

 

Later we walked down commerce street and toured the inside of St John’s Co-Cathedral and Museum. The cathedral was ornately decorated. But each section of the cathedral was decorated by knights from different countries. Godfrey explained the differences between them. Before leaving Valletta, Ryan and Leigh stopped by the public bathrooms. They described the automated restrooms as the most interesting places they’ve ever conducted business.

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Our next stop took us out of town to see the Blue Grotto caves and cliff formations. These limestone formations are one of the larger tourist draws of the country. We stopped by a viewing point at the top of the cliffs nearby and we able to get some nice photos.

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Next we visited the Hagar Qim Temple and Museum. These ruins predate the pyramids and are the oldest free-standing stone structures ever discovered. They appear to be an ancient temple dedicated to a fertility goddess built around 3500 BCE. Whomever built them have long since disappeared. The ruins were forgotten until rediscovered in the 1800’s. The museum also premiered its 4D immersive movie about the temple and its history today. We were amongst the first visitors to actually see it. The movie was animated in 3D, and featured wind, rain, and scent effects. It was a pleasant surprise for us. Godfrey walked us through the museum pointing out theorized construction techniques, astronomical connections (equinox and solstice orientations), and other symbolism. Then he walked us around the ruins of one of the temples and explained the various rooms.

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We had lunch in the small fishing town of Marsaxlokk. We ate alongside the harbor at a restaurant called Pisces. We unintentionally had a grand feast of fresh seafood. It was all excellent.

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After lunch we visited another crusader city further inland called Mdina. This city has never been taken due to its massive defensive walls. Inside we found tight streets, lined with churches, palaces and stores.

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All too soon we had to return to the ship. We arrived not long before the ship had to leave for its next destination. The journey out of the harbour made for some great pictures.

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In the evening we saw the ventriloquist Gareth Oliver. He had a different take on how to do ventriloquist comedy without the use of dummies. He claim to fame is losing to Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent five years ago. ¬†It was not what we expected, but it was entertaining.

This is the southernmost point of our trip and the last new country. Beginning tomorrow, the rest of our trip is entirely in Italy.

Tomorrow we visit Catania, Sicily. We will tour Mt. Etna and the nearby village of Taromina.

Total Steps: 14,255

Total time Rachel got out of a hot tub without injury: 11/11

It’s All Greek To Me

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Location: Athens, Greece

Very early this morning we docked in Athens, Greece, which has one of the busiest harbours in the world. Greece has the world’s largest merchant fleet and is responsible for about 20% of all shipping. We however we here to visit the acropolis.

We woke up early this morning to tour the ancient ruins. We were only joined by the dental cats for this tour. Our guide, Sofia had a wealth of knowledge on Greek history and current affairs. Sadly due to the poor audio, and monotone delivery we had trouble taking it all in. Our first stop of the tour was the Panathinaiko Stadium. This was the location of the first modern olympic games in 1896. We didn’t have much time here, so we only took photos.

Next we drove by the ruins of Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus. We didn’t get any good pictures from the bus. But we got a great shot from the hill later in the day.

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The highlight of the tour came when we went up a tall hill to see the Acropolis and the Parthenon. It was crowded and a steep climb over slippery marble but more than worth the effort. In addition to the Greek ruins (circa 5th Century BCE) there were ruins of a theatre from the Roman era (2nd century CE).

The Parthenon
The Parthenon

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The tour finished with a panoramic city tour of some of the modern governmental buildings, such the Parliament, Presidents office, Academy of Sciences and Arts, and the old King’s Palace. ¬†We even manged to drive by during the changing of the guard.

Back on the ship we relaxed in the hot tub and solarium.

Tonight was the first formal night of the new cruise. While we’ve joked in previous entries about classing the ship up with our formal attire, we never meant it seriously since nearly everyone else dressed up. Tonight however we mean it. Ryan, Leigh, Barry, and Bob actually did class up the ship in tuxes and suits. Most of the other passengers had a DILLIGAF approach to the dress code and few bothered to even wear an ironed shirt much less a jacket. No matter what, we still looked good!

This marks the end of the Greek portion of our trip. Tomorrow is our only “sea day” of the trip. We are looking forward to our day to relax.

Total Steps: 10,897

Total times Rachel got out of a hot tub without  injuring herself: 10/10

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The Winds of Mykonos

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Location: Mykonos, Greece

Today we made it back to Greece and the European Union. The ship dropped anchor near the Greek isle of Mykonos. This is another sparsely vegetated island with picturesque white houses with occasionally blue roofs. Both Santorini and Mykonos were laid out in a manner to protect the residents from ¬†pirates. Since Mykonos lacks the tall cliffs of Santorini, it arranged its roads and sidewalks in a maze-like fashion to have tight corners and cul-de-sacs to create confusion and kill zones to trap the attacking pirates. Today it’s used to trap tourists. =)

We didn’t have any planned tours at Mykonos, and we arrived after noon so we made today an easy day and slept in. It was very windy today, which meant that the surf would be rough and tendering would take longer than normal. Since we had nothing planned today the delay didn’t bother us and we relaxed on the relatively empty sundeck.

View from the ship.

View from the ship.

Later in the day we made it to the island. We did the obligatory things to do in Mykonos. Our first stop was visiting the windmills. It was very windy there, and we got sand and dirt blasted. But it wasn’t that bad. Later Ryan got a late lunch, and unlocked the “Eat an authentic gyro in Greece” achievement. Following that, we bought magnets and went down to the beach.

The Windmills
The Windmills

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Ryan putting his feet into the Mediteranean.
Ryan putting his feet into the Mediterranean.

We didn’t get a chance to see the iconic pelicans of ¬†the island. Most other passengers had troubled finding them too.

Tomorrow we make port near Athens, Greece where we’ll visit more Greco ruins including the Acropolis.

Steps taken: 10,557

Number of times Rachel got out of the hot tub without injuring herself: 9 (out of 9 attempts)

Ugly Americans encountered: 3

Another selfie... we are getting good at these.
Another selfie… we are getting good at these.

It Ain’t Nobody’s Business But the Turks

Location: Istanbul, Turkey

Today was the last day of our first cruise. But since we are cruising back-to-back we didn’t have to do much except for getting ourselves new cards for the next cruise. In all it took less than a few minutes. The real problem came when we tried to leave the cruise terminal. Istanbul is the only cruise terminal in the world which requires passengers to scan their cards in to and out of the terminal. This prevented the 100 of us with new cards from being able to leave the terminal. It took awhile for the port to get their act together. We were 30 min late for our tour. Hooray for Turkish bureaucracy!

We had another tour with Deniz today. Our first stop, to try to beat the crowds to the Blue Mosque. The inside of the mosque is beautiful with mosaic tiles lining the walls and ceilings. Deniz carefully explained the art and history of the mosque during our visit. Just as we were about to leave though, a prolonged heavy thunderstorm passed through. We didn’t leave the mosque, but instead found a quiet area to sit down. Deniz passed the time with more history of the area and some primer on the Hagia Sophia.

The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque
Inside the Blue Mosque
Inside the Blue Mosque
Inside the Blue Mosque
Inside the Blue Mosque
Waiting for the storm to pass.
Waiting for the storm to pass.

When the rain storm calmed down we left the Blue Mosque and travelled to the Grand Bazaar. There, the cats went shopping for tiles and jewelry. Ryan used his world-renowned mastery of haggling to shave a few bucks off buying souvenir magnets. It takes skills to get a merchant to give you back money after you’ve already handed him the cash.

We ate lunch at an upscale turkish restaurant. We all enjoyed the desserts. Leigh and Barry drank strong dark turkish coffee.They’ll fall asleep eventually…

After lunch we went to the Hagia Sophia Museum. It was a historic Byzantine cathedral which was converted into a mosque when the Ottomans took over, and then became a museum when the Turkish Republic was established. It was quite the sight to behold.

The entire groupin front of Hagia Sophia.
The entire groupin front of Hagia Sophia.
Inside Hagia Sofia
Inside Hagia Sofia
Looking up!
Looking up!

Afterwards, we and the male cats went across the street to have our pictures taken next to the milestone. This marker was the center of the entire Roman Empire travel network. Then we went down to the cistern. This is where the city’s water supply was held for over a thousand years. It was made of recycled materials from pagan temples.

The Milestone
The Milestone
The Cistern
The Cistern
The Cistern
The Cistern

Our last stop was the spice market. Some members of the group bought more desserts here.

This was our last stop in Turkey. We then reboarded the ship as part of a “new” cruise.
Istanbul was also the furthest point east on this trip (or for either of us ever).

Tomorrow we anchor in Mykonos, Greece. We arrive at 1:00 so we get to sleep in. It is also only the second day of the trip where we don’t have a tour planned. We plan to relax in town or on the beach.

Total steps: 14,494

Total pictures taken so far: 4973

Total times Rachel got out of a hot tub without injuring herself: 7 (out of 7 attempts)

Not Constantinople

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Location: Istanbul, Turkey

Today was the first day of the trip that we got to sleep in. The rest of the trip so far has been loaded with wake-up calls at 6-7 AM followed by 12 hr days of touring or travelling. Today however we woke up at the crack of 11:15 to get a late breakfast and take pictures as the ship pulled into the Istanbul cruise terminal.

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At 1:30 we, and the cats, left the ship and met our tour guide Deniz, for a tour of the Topkapi Palace Museum.j

Deniz gave us some background on the Ottoman Empire and the Sultanate system in shady cool areas with adequate seating. Some which all of us greatly appreciated. She had a wealth of information to share, much more than any of us could retain. But it did provide for some good wikipedia binging when we get back home (when the internet doesn’t cost $0.79/min and move at the breakneck speed of 2400 bps, thanks Celebrity Cruises).

Inside the palace we saw Baroque architecture and art interspersed with Arabic reliefs. We saw some of the meeting areas for the government of the Empire, the old mint building, and the imperial gardens.

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Later we toured the Harem area. Unlike the myths of western culture, the harem was a private area for women that were sold to the Sultan or given as gifts.  The Harem also included classrooms for the women who lived there. We also toured the private residence of the Sultan and his family. It was here that we learned of the kill-or-be-killed succession rules for the Sultanate; as well as the education and marrying systems for the intellectual and political elites of the Empire. We also saw the treasure rooms which included various thrones from different Sultans, gifts to Sultans, and very ornate jewelry (including an 86-carat diamond!).

 

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A classroom
A classroom
In the 4th courtyard.
In the 4th courtyard.

By the time we finished touring the Palace we had to get back to the ship for dinner and get ready for our next excursion. Along the way back we saw some of the sights we’ll explore tomorrow, such as the Blue Mosque.

After a short dinner in the Oceanview Cafe we left the ship to go on a night cruise on the Bosphorous River. Rachel and Barry spent much of the early parts of the trip competing to take pictures of the many sights along the river. Meanwhile the crew kept us well fed with local appetizers and free drinks.

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About halfway through the cruise, a belly dancer came out to entertain the crowd and dance with people on the boat (including Ryan).  After, the DJ on the ship kept the dance music going for the ride back.

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Tomorrow we continue exploring Istanbul.

Total steps: 11,973

Total times Rachel got out of a hot tub without injuring herself: 6 (of out 6)

View of Istanbul from the cruise ship.
View of Istanbul from the cruise ship.