Istanbul on a Pre-Cruise Visit


Like most travelers, I plan my trips months and months in advance, allowing for plenty of time to research my destination and save money.  That was not the case this time…and you know…last minute and spur of the moment trips can be pretty exciting!  I found out on a Friday there was an opportunity to host one of our groups on Crystal Cruise Line.  I would be hosting 57 guests on a fabulous itinerary from Istanbul, Turkey, to Barcelona, Spain…featuring the Gran Prix of Monaco!  I went for it!

I compressed the normal months of preparation into one Saturday and Sunday of shopping and packing after work on Monday and Tuesday. I was off early Wednesday morning.

Thank goodness I was able to fly first class from Los Angeles to Raleigh Durham and business class to London.  If you can afford the additional cost for these upgrades they are well worth your improved physical well being upon arrival.  The seats were spacious and comfortable; the food service was exceptional.  My favorite touch was the free use of the Bose noise-reducing headset…what a difference!  You can actually hear the movies and you can fall asleep with ease.  Worth every dollar!!

I actually left home without travel arrangements set for Istanbul…no arrival transfer or pre-arranged touring…something I never do. NEVER!  But I was lucky enough to be on the consumer side of the table this time, and used the services of a great TravelStore agent, Susan Motawi.  She has years of experience working with our destination specialist company in Turkey.  Together they took me in hand. 

I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced the slightly fearful and anxious feeling you get when you step out of the arrivals hall in a very foreign country.  I always need to take a gulp and pull up my britches, so to speak.  Upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised and greeted, staff was waiting for me with a big sign and it felt like my mom was handing me my security blanket.  I was quickly whisked away to a waiting van and onto a very picturesque sea-side drive along the Marmara Sea.  We viewed waterfront cafes and bustling pedestrian traffic.  This was a lively city and my kind of place.

The hotel I was able to secure was the 3-star Aria Excellance.  Personally, I love 5-star pampering, but I’m so often asked to recommend a good 3-star property that this was a great opportunity to have an adventure!  This hotel is located in the district of Sultanahmet which was the center of Istanbul during the Byzantine Empire. I was within 5 minutes walking distance of the main attractions in Istanbul: Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.

What my hotel lacked in conveniences, such as a lobby, elevator and interior space, and I’m not being facetious, it gained in charm, local flavor and location, location, location.  I was literally on the main street of the district, Akbiyik Caddesi. At night the neighborhood was alive with lights and strolling visitors.   

Many hotels located in this neighborhood are considered boutique family-run establishments.  It seems that entire families owned small homes in this ancient neighborhood.  The only way to keep the property in the family during modern times, and provide employment for the extended family, was to rehabilitate the properties into boutique hotels and restaurants.  This explains the unusual room sizes and layouts.

My adventure began when I was dropped at a sister hotel located on the street behind Akbiyik Caddesi.  I checked in there and was escorted, luggage and all, to my hotel on Akbiyik Caddesi.  I literally walked and rolled the luggage up one cobblestone street and down the other to get to my hotel.  I was escorted to the interior of a small restaurant to reach a side door that opened to a stairwell to the hotel rooms.  Every time I came and went I would suddenly appear to dining patrons from this mystery door.  It was actually fun to surprise guests with a smile…definitely an adventure and definitely not 5-star!

On most trips, when I’ll be in a major city for less than 2 days, I arrange for a private car and driver.  This is well worth the cost in time saved searching about in unfamiliar territory.  My guide, Tilda, came to collect me at 9AM.  She was a professor of history with years of experience hosting foreign visitors.  Literally, my wishes were her command.  She took me to the highlights…Topkapi Palace…the Grand Covered Bazaar, the Blue Mosque.  But she also allowed me to have some experiential experiences.  I drank hot apple tea while I shopped in a top cashmere and silk store. We searched out a true kofte bar (fried meatballs) in the far side of town, shopped at a local street market near the Akmerkez shopping mall in a very modern and up and coming neighborhood and found time to be photographed in a Turkish costume as the Sultan’s  princess. 

I did my due diligence though, with site inspections of the Four Seasons Bosphorus and the Cirigan Palace Kempinski.  Both hotels are featured by Crystal Cruises in their pre-cruise packages and are very convenient to the port of embarkation.  Opulence, luxury, history, incredible furnishings are words that only touch the surface of what these properties represent and offer…no doubt on my next trip to Istanbul! 

So what memories do I cherish from this brief trip to Istanbul?  For one, the food!  I enjoyed the best spinach yogurt, had my first taste of Tongue fish, and “died and went to heaven” while enjoying a sea bass casserole made with shrimp, calamari, mussels, mushrooms, onions, red sweet pepper, cheese and lots of spices.  And let’s not forget the delicious hot apple tea.  I have to go back just for more Turkish delights. 

I’ll remember sharing a meal with an Austrian couple and a mom and daughter from South Africa…a spur of the moment encounter, and just because we were seated so close to each other in the restaurant.

I found the Turkish people to be very friendly.  Shop keepers and everyone involved with tourism seemed very happy that we were there.  I was told that over 1,000 plain clothed and undercover police personnel were on the streets to keep the peace because the Turkish government doesn’t want anything to endanger tourism to the city.  Many museums and historical sites close on alternating days. I was lucky that three cruise ships were in town (Holland America, Celebrity and Crystal), because the government chose to open the sites to accommodate the visitors from the ships.  Of course this move meant big dollars to the city’s economy.

Now I’m off to board the ship and begin my 12-night Mediterranean adventure.  Oh, but that’s for my next blog.

Eva Bailon