Travel for us is about experiences. Sometimes it’s the places we visit; sometimes the people we meet. Other times it’s the food we eat or the wine we drink. All of these form the experiences of the discerning traveler. But sometimes, experiences are unexpected and not related at all to where you’re visiting. A few months ago, while aboard the Oceania cruise ship Nautica, we witnessed a helicopter medevac as we sailed the Mediterranean off the coast of Greece. And our thought was this: It could have been anyone of us.
It all started a few hours earlier as we sailed peacefully on our way from Malta toward Crete. We had noted only peripherally (as you do when you’re enjoying the only day at sea in an itinerary-rich cruise) that the ship seemed to have sped up. The onscreen information that continually streamed on a television channel from the bridge confirmed this suspicion, and we had also slightly altered our course. We thought little of it.
Half an hour later the Captain took to the public address system to tell us that we had indeed altered our course so that we could get closer to mainland Greece in an effort to meet a helicopter from the Greek Coast Guard that would effect an evacuation at sea of a passenger who had fallen ill. As we all know, cruise ships have well-equipped infirmaries, but there are some illnesses that require more than can be provided by these facilities, and by the single physician and nurse aboard. This was evidently one of those occasions. And wouldn’t you know it? It happened on the only day we weren’t in a port!
Evidently these kinds of thing happen more often than we might think – although in some fourteen cruises, we had never observed one.
An hour or so after the Captain’s address, we saw the helicopter approaching the ship. The Captain had requested that everyone stay off the open decks for safety reasons – and we can only imagine that it would be an extra burden to the passenger and his wife to have onlookers curiously peering at them close-up. Although some of the newer and much larger cruise ships these days have helipads, most don’t, requiring the helicopter to hover for a half an hour or more – as long as it takes to send down an emergency medical technician, secure the patient to the stretcher, hoist the patient up to the chopper, then hoist the technician and the passenger’s wife into the hovering beast.
Those of us with verandahs in the aft of ship had a view of the entire operation from beginning to end. We were impressed with the efficiency of it all, and the coordination it took to get such an international rescue underway so quickly. We were just happy that it wasn’t one of us.
Several days later, we happened upon the ship’s doctor on an elevator and Art, who in his past has actually done a stint as a ship’s doctor, enquired about the outcome of the medevac. The doctor said that the patient had evidently had a stroke and the medevac was successful.
Consumer Reports covered the subject of medical care at sea in a blog post last year. Among the seven things they suggest you need to know are the following:
- The medical facilities at sea are not the same as your local hospital with respect to either equipment or staff.
- Medical care at sea is expensive. Be prepared for sticker shock, as they say.
- If a ship is 500 or more miles away from shore, “it’s unlikely the Coast Guard will respond.”
As discerning travelers, we are always aware that these kinds of things can happen. We try to minimize it by being healthy when we leave, and taking a few precautions while we’re away (such as hand-washing, staying away from buffets etc.). Unexpected things do happen, though. We never leave home without travel medical insurance. And we are always sure to read the fine print!
We’d like to share with you the video we took of the medevac. Travel often and stay well!
We had been to Rome twice before, arriving by ship both times. Just this past fall, we flew into Rome and landed for the first time at Rome’s Leonardo Da Vinci Airport, its international airport in Fiumicino.
After three wonderful days in London, we had made our way to Gatwick for the short flight to Rome, anticipating our three days there before setting sail for the Greek Islands and Istanbul. In spite of all the woes of airline travel these days, we were still excited to be making our way to the eternal city. An hour later in Rome’s airport we were beginning to doubt our modus operandi. To say that the luggage handling was lengthy would be an understatement, and there was a distinct lack of any customer service for British Airways passengers. However, after a rather impatient wait, the luggage finally arrived. We were ready to take on Rome. Or so we thought.
We made our way out the doors of the international arrivals into a sea of people waving placards announcing the names of their passengers who had pre-booked their taxis. We often do this, but we’ve had to wait so many times for our taxi drivers – especially at Heathrow – that this time we decided to wing it. Mistake number one.
As we made our way through the crowd, Patty spied – or was spied by – a man sporting a lanyard which presumably identified him as an official taxi driver. As throngs of people passed by, he asked us if we were looking for a taxi. “Yes,” Patty said, immediately after which he grabbed her suitcase from here and propelled his way through the crowd toward the door where the taxis waited in a queue at the curb.
He maneuvered his way past this line to a waiting car just beyond and thrust our suitcases rapidly into the trunk. He smilingly opened the door and ushered us into the back seat which we obligingly let him do. Mistake number two.
There was already a man in the front passenger seat. We wouldn’t mind sharing the cab with his brother, would we? We actually did mind, but it seemed unfriendly in the face of their clear friendliness to tourists, and he was already there.
There was no visible identification inside the vehicle and no meter. He began to pull away quickly as Patty asks him, “How much?”
“Just tariff,” he says.
Patty presses him. “Could you be more precise?”
The driver sighs and pulls out a laminated card from a pocket. We look at it. It is this moment where we know without any doubt that we have “been had” as they say: 100 Euros for a trip from the airport didn’t seem right. After all these years of traveling, we have managed to avoid most of the travel scams and consider ourselves to be quite savvy. This time we weren’t. But it wasn’t over yet.
The joys of modern technology meant that we were able to immediately pull out a cell phone and track our route on Google maps so that we could be assured we were actually taking the direct route to our hotel, a tactic we highly recommend in any city you don’t know well. We followed the dot all along. The friendly driver and his friendly brother were both aware of our tracking, but were not aware that Art had, in fact, also searched out and discovered that the tariff would be closer to 40 Euros.
We finally arrived at our hotel, the driver pulling up to the curb far enough past the hotel that the bellman didn’t immediately realize we were guests of his establishment.
We were both out of the car quickly, pulling our suitcases from the now-open trunk (which the brother didn’t’ want us to do), before the driver demanded 100 Euros. Art passed him 40 Euros which resulted in an angry rebuttal about the fare. At this point, the bellman at the hotel noticed us and immediately came over to assist with our luggage. As the bellman took our luggage for us, Art asked him what the normal tariff from the airport to this specific point in the city would be. He indicated that it was between 40 and 50 Euros, so Art pulled out another 10 Euros and gave it to the brother who was still demanding a hundred. We firmly paid the 50 and followed the bellman and our luggage into the hotel, not looking back. The bellman was appalled at the audacity of his countrymen.
In retrospect, we realized we should have been savvier, but we had been anxious to get away from the throngs at the airport. We should have lined up for the taxis in the official line and been patient.
On occasion, however, you might find that you don’t have much choice. We recommend that you get the fare sorted out before you put your luggage in the trunk of the car, even if you have to restrain the driver – which we would have had to do. Then get out your cell phone and track the route (make sure you have a roaming package before you leave home!). We learned a lesson – we hope you might benefit from it.
We’re now ensconced back home in Toronto and walking this beautiful downtown is how we get around: how we buy groceries, how we go out to dinner, how we appreciate all it has to offer. This last consideration is one we take to heart when we travel abroad.
In October we revisited London (the fact that our youngest son makes his more there now is an added benefit). Every time we venture across the pond to this other marvelous city, we stay at different hotels in different parts of the city. In fact, in recent years, we’ve stayed at five different hotels each of which is centered in a different district or neighborhood of London. On this last visit, we stayed at the wonderful Threadneedles Hotel. Threadneedles is located right in the heart of the “City of London”, that single square mile of real London town. Housed in a building that was originally home to the City Bank of London, this boutique property exudes a timeless elegance that draws you into the history of this venerable city. On each of our three days there, we headed out in the morning to walk different directions – never treading the same street twice is our motto when walking a city.
We then flew from London to Rome, a city we’ve visited several times before, each time for only a day trip from a Mediterranean cruise. Although we had seen the highlights of the tourist sites: the Vatican (hours and hours spent there on one visit, the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain etc.) – we had never really been able to get a feeling for the city of Rome. This visit was different. We walked. In fact, one day we walked eight miles! How do we know this? We find it interesting to always wear a pedometer when we travel. Knowing how far we walked is the best rationalization for all that wonderful pasta we ate and Barolo we drank.
Our last stop on this visit was the magnificent city of Istanbul. We stayed at the fabulous new Marriott Hotel in the modern Istanbul, a couple of kilometers north of Taksim Square. Although that might seem counter-intuitive to anyone who wants to spend time walking around the old city of Istanbul where the main historical sites are located, the fact that we weren’t confined to that relatively small area was a real bonus. We walked around the modern city to get a feel for the everyday life of Istanbul’s 15 million residents! Although we didn’t walk around the Asian side where a large proportion of the residents actually live, the modern city of Istanbul did provide us with a sense of the
city. Of course, sitting high above the city each evening overlooking both the old and new parts of the city along the shores of the Golden Horn with the Blue Mosque shining in the distance was an added benefit from the top floor lounge in the hotel.
Then our driver and guide picked us up to take us to the historical sites (read about our fantastic private experience in Istanbul here). We walked through museums, palaces, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, and market streets that cater only to the locals. We would never have had that opportunity without our guide! But with or without a guide, walking is our recommended method for seeing a city.
Get out of that taxi or off that bus. And for heaven’s sakes, get above ground and out of that subway or tube! You’ll never get to know a city that way.
We’re just back from another wonderful travel adventure that took us from London to Istanbul with many fabulous experiences in between.
We began with three exceptional days in London to visit our son, then flew from Gatwick to Rome where we spent three days on self-guided walking tours. After Rome, we boarded an Oceania ship and set sail for various islands – Crete, Sicily, Santorini – then Athens and Turkey, ending in Istanbul. Along the way we did some touring on our own, a few of the dreaded “shore excursions” (we’ll tell you about the good and bad of those in the upcoming posts) and several private tours. There is little doubt in our minds that when you need to be guided around a new-to-you city where there is a significant language barrier (and sometimes even when there isn’t) you cannot beat a private guided tour.
We’ve had private tour experiences in places like Costa Rica, Tahiti, England, France and Ireland among others, but our recent sojourn in Turkey reiterated for us the myriad reasons why for us it’s one of the very best ways to experience a culture.
The tour really began months before as we searched online for the ideal tour. We had used several tour companies previously – with great results – but this time those ones didn’t really have what we were looking for. During the research we discovered a company called Tours By Locals. Based in Vancouver, this Canadian-owned company has local guides seemingly all over the world. We zeroed in on Istanbul and found that their presentation of the guides was fascinating. Each guide was showcased by personally-written biographies, a listing of credentials and the all-important feedback and ratings from previous customers. We zoned in on a young man named Emre Ozkara and contacted him to see if he could accommodate our needs in Istanbul.
This company permits you to make the arrangements directly with the guide thereby eliminating communication barriers and allowing you to get to know your guide through email. Then, when you have come to a decision about the tour, the guide prices it for you, uploads it to the company, and the itinerary is sent to you via the company’s web site. You pay the company who then pays the guide after the tour is over. For a discerning traveler, knowing that you have third-party recourse is comforting should anything go wrong. We were happy with this layer of security, so we booked the tour.
Emre did his homework and emailed us to let us know that he had noted that our ship would actually be docking in Kusadasi down the coast from Istanbul several days before our final disembarkation and private tour days in Istanbul. A home-town boy from Kusadasi, Emre indicated that he would be visiting his family at the precise time we were there and did we want to add a day tour to the ruins at Ephesus to the Istanbul days? We had already booked a small-group tour of the ruins through the cruise line, but the price was almost identical (!) and we thought that we would, indeed, prefer a private tour. Since it was early enough to cancel the group tour and get a refund, we went ahead. We were very glad we did.
Just as promised, Emre was waiting for us at the cruise terminal in Kusadasi where he whisked us off in a BMW 4X4 to Ephesus (more about that in a later post). While we were driving to Ephesus, he got to know us a bit better discovering that in addition to history and culture, we are also interested in food and wine. After finding that we would be happy with lunch at a boutique winery (we were not aware that Turkey had such places), he made a call and the arrangements were complete.
To say that our day with our private guide was fabulous would be an understatement, but we didn’t’ know at that point how fabulous our time with this guide would be.
Three days later, as arranged, we were picked up at the cruise port and had a general orientation to Istanbul before checking into our hotel. The next morning, Emre and his brother who was to be the driver arrived at the hotel to begin our in-depth two days touring the magnificent city of Istanbul.
What can we say? He is among the best private tour guides we have ever had. What makes a great tour guide? Here’s what we think. A guide should demonstrate…
- A commitment to determining our personal interests;
- Deep knowledge of the history and culture;
- Passion about sharing the culture; and
- An extraordinary ability to tell a story – not relay facts.
This is what we got. Imagine sitting on the carpet at the back of a quiet mosque in the heart of Istanbul (after visiting the bigger tourist magnets like the Blue Mosque) and listening to a story about the Muslim way of life and how this religion is a part of but doesn’t define the Turkish culture. Our understanding of Islam now goes far beyond the front-page stories we see on a daily basis in the media. Emre knew that we were interested in this story: not everyone would be, but he had gotten to know us and we asked the questions. He also arranged two wonderful lunches including one at Deraliye, a new Ottoman food restaurant that had searched out and presented twelfth and thirteenth century dishes. What a great experience!
After our days in Istanbul, we were dropped at the airport as we requested in the tour package. We were truly sorry to say good-bye to our guide who had made us feel that we had shared a bit of his culture and his home. What a way to go!
You can visit Tours by Locals at http://www.toursbylocals.com/
You can visit Emre’s own tour company Delightful Istanbul Tours web site at http://www.delightist.com/
You can visit Deraliye Ottoman Palace Cuisine at http://deraliyerestaurant.com/
You can read about other places we’ve taken private tours and the companies we’ve used in the past: