Sunquest Tours Sunbird by Bob and Wendy Evans Western Mediterranean July 26, 2003
This was our 6th cruise, and we've also taken cruises in the eastern Med, Caribbean, and Hawaii. The itinerary was Mallorca, Malta, Sicily, Naples, Sardinia, and Corsica. It was an all-inclusive air and cruise package from Sunquest, flying out of Toronto. We booked an inside cabin at a sell-off rate of $14xx. CAN.
Sunquest has many flights arriving in Palma, Mallorca, for this cruise, and the flights are usually well staggered. Norwegians told us they arrived about 10am and after the 20 minute shuttle from the airport, check in to board the ship took about 15 minutes. Some UK people arrived between 11 and 12 and were on about as quickly, as were some who arrived late afternoon. Our flight was early, and a few others were late, all around 1:30, which caused a bottleneck at embarkation, with a 2 hour wait in line, which the photographer said was twice as long as he'd ever seen. We heard that when this has happened before, passengers were taken to a ship lounge, given a number, and waited in comfort (and A/C) to check in. Others heard of the shuttle coach taking a tour of the lovely Palma area to see the sights and kill some time. Not this time however. Passengers were not allowed to leave the dock, but some snuck away and sent into Palma for awhile, and when they returned in late afternoon they got on right away..
The Sunbird was built in the '80's and sailed as the Royal Caribbean's "Song of America", then sold to Sunquest/My Tours and refurbished in 1999. The shipboard currency is UK pounds, which is how your account/credit card will be billed. It's a smaller ship by today's standards, 1600 passengers, but it's clean and very acceptable. Of course it doesn't have the attractions of the new megaships, such as ice skating rinks, rock climbing walls, and mini putt, but there are tons of scheduled activities. The gym is small, 2 treadmills, 2 ski machines, 2 steppers, a couple other machines, and 1 weight bench. There is no jogging track outside, and passengers are advised to use the promenade deck, which would involve climbing stairs at each end. There are 2 pools, lots of chairs, and other sunning spots fore and aft. The cabins are a bit small by today's standards, but clean and servicable. Bring a power bar for the 1 vanity outlet (110 V) and a hair dryer, but soap and shampoo are provided. Lots of hot water in the shower. Storage for suitcases under the bed, lift them up to slide the suitcases under. Pool towels in each cabin.
The food was interesting and generally good, equal to an upscale city restaurant. There are many choices reflecting the European clientelle, but lots that will also be familiar to N. Americans. 5 or 6 entree choices at dinner, 3 or 4 at lunch. Buffet dining outside at the Lido was a picturesque change, with most of the same choices as the dining room. The fish and other seafood entrees were particularly good, Twice the lamb was tough.
Breakfasts and lunches in the dining room are open seating, so you will be with different people each meal. At dinner you will have a set table. Breakfast is a choice of buffet or full service, and lunch is only full sercice in the DR. All meals can also be taken in the Lido, buffet style. Tables have a nice view of the ocean.
There are snacks between 11-12am, 4-5pm, and at 11:30pm, some nights a full buffet, and other nights snacks on trays the waiters take around the bars and public areas.
There were the usual stage shows and comedians, lively stuff, good fun, but the best were the passenger participation shows, take-offs on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and "The Weakest Link," plus singer impersonators drafted by the crew from the Kareoke, complete with costumes. It was a more personal style of entertainment than on N. American cruises.
The ports are the reason for taking this cruise. After seeing these, the Caribbean will seem bland and all-the-same. But you have to enjoy exotic/foreign countries where they often don't speak much English, the money is different (Euros), and the food is different. If you want things just like at home, you're better doing a Hawaii/Alaska/Caribb cruise. Bring euros to spend, it's easier than dollars, and you can buy them from the ship using cash or travellers cheques, but not using credit/debit cards.
You won't be able to look around Palma unless you embark early enough to leave the ship and see the city before returning to sail at 10pm. First get a city map from the tours desk. Alot can be done by walking, the ship is right at the city, but cabs are available too. There are old cathedrals, historical sights, and shopping. To walk to shoppping, go off the dock, across the bridge, turn right, and walk about 10 minutes.
The first port is Valetta, Malta, where you have a full day. This city, and nearby Mdina and Rabat, are a fascinating return to midaeval times, built by the Christian knights to withstand the "infidel" expansion into Europe. These huge walled cities have stunning architecture, immense cathedrals, and other historical landmarks. Some web sites for Malta are: www.mol.net.mt and www.visitmalta.com The latter has good maps and other info.
Valetta has good shopping on Rebublic Ave and Merchant Ave. Shops in Europe close from 1-4pm, and are open in the morning and from 4/5-8pm. So shop and view Valetta in the AM and visit Mdina in the afternoon. It's hot, about 90 (low 30's C), but you can buy cold bottled water everywhere for about a dollar or half a Euro. Beer is a little bit more, but cheaper in grocery stores than bars and shops, and you can drink it while walking the streets if you want. Malta hasn't switched to Euros yet, but accepts them. Prices are listed in Malta Liras, worth just under $4.00 CAN and about $3 US. Sellers will convert your purchases into Euros for you, but it's wise to know the approx exchange so you aren't duped. Price bargaining is common and expected, and you'll usually get it for about 20% less than the tag for cheaper items, and some people got about 30-40% off more expensive items.
The ship tours are 20 UK pounds p.p. for a half day (about $50 CAN or $40 US), or you can take the local bus to Mdina for .30 ML, or about a dollar, which we did for local flavor and to save beer money. The ride took about 20 minutes. You need to change euors into ML for the bus, which any shop will do. The bus terminal is right outside the Valetta main gate, and is a zoo. If you want details email us (Bob7RemoveThis@canoemail.com).
Messina, Sicily was the least favorite port with most of us. The shopping is sporatic, the city is nothing special, and the Mt. Etna tour is long, 2 hours each way, although pretty. Visitors aren't allowed to go the the crater, but you will see other lesser craters, cold lava, and great scenery, and ppl enjoyed it.
Naples made up for Messina. The shopping is great on Via Toledo, a 10 minute walk from the ship (there is a huge old castle by the ship, walk up the right side of it into town). Leather items are a great buy, such as non-designer leather purses for 10 E, and designer ones for 60E. Get a city map from the tours desk. The tours are good, to Pompei and Herculaneum, and the Isle of Capri. There is no tour to the Mt. Vesuvius crater, but you can do that on your own, which we did ... 20 minute 30E taxi to the Herculaneum ruins (at the current town of Ercolano), 30 minute 5E minibus ride to the crater parking lot, and lastly a 30 minute walk from the parking to the crater on a fairly well inclined cinder/ash path. At the top a mandatory 6E guide is required to accompany you along the crater edge. If you don't want to go further than the parking lot you still have lots of good views, and a small cafe serves beer, pop, and bottled water. Taxis are also available from the Ercolano train station, near the ruins, at a set cost of 36E to take you to the parking, wait about an hour for you to do the crater, and take you back down. If you really want to save money doing Vesuvius, you can take the Circumvesuviana train from Naples (10E taxi from the ship) to the Ercolano-Scavi stop for under 2 E each way. Trains run every 30 minutes, and a schedule is on their web site.
Olbia, Sardinia, is a quaint city, interesting shopping although no great buys, narrow streets, much cleaner than Naples, lots of cute open-air cafes. Nice beach 10 minutes by taxi, forget the name. The ship is out on a long dock, perhaps a mile from the city. The city offers a free shuttle bus, but zillions of ppl are lined up for it, and it can be a 30 minute wait. The staff tell you it's a 30 minute walk, but we returned by foot in 20 minutes at a slow stroll, and it could easily be done in 15. A taxi would also be cheap, some ppl did that. Taxi rates are set, no haggling, and they have a sheet of rates and follow it, and show it to you. The ship has interesting tours here too.
Ajaccio, Corsica, was generally everyone's favorite. The city is beautiful, clean, quaint, interesting, friendly, lovely buildings, historical sites. Shopping is good along Rue Napoleon, a 10 minute walk from the ship, and there is a good ship tour of the area. Get a city map at the tour desk. The downside is the ship is only there for the morning.
ODDS AND ENDS
Tipping - is included with the ticket, and re-stated in the ship daily paper, but the tipping envelopes are still put out, with the comment that we may wish to do further tipping. So of course many feel guilty if they don't give the waiter and cabin steward something, and it ends up being double tipping. We would rather do all the tipping ourselves, or get rid of the envelopes if it's pre-paid.
Disembarking - you don't need to clear your cabin by 8am, 9am is fine, leaving time for breakfast and 10:15 disembarkation.
Personal liquor - is not permitted in the cabins, but there is no x-ray or search of carry on bags or checked luggage.
Unlimited drink cards - are available for 119 UK pounds (about $300 CAN). If one person in a cabin buys one, everyone has to, to avoid both using the same card. For the card to be cheaper than just buying drinks, you'd have to have more than 9 drinks a day.
-Bob and Wendy Evans