Our 12 day Mediterranean cruise on the Grand Princess was an incredible vacation in every respect. It met every expectations and exceeded many. I won't go into much detail on the ship itself as others have written some excellent reviews regarding the ship on Cruisecritic.com. I'll concentrate mainly on what we did in the various ports and offer some random thoughts as well. Hopefully, won't be too long and you will be able to garner some bits of information that you will find helpful. To those of you that haven't started your journey, you are in for a trip of a lifetime. How we wish we were just starting our journey instead of just having finished it.
First of all if you want to learn something especially in Europe with so much history to be explained, you are most likely not to hear much when traveling in a group of around 50 or more persons. Then you have no freedom in the ports.
Located right on the Aegean, Kusadasi is a marvel of a seaside village the water was a limpid crystal color just like the Caribbean and the air smelled of history. We had a private tour from a local tour operator, recommended by a cruise reviewer. Right on the dock we met our guide, a very knowledgeable one, who studied in the U.S. He made the places we visited come alive. He met the ship on arrival in Kusadasi and we toured Ephesus with him. You can e-mail the tour company directly at email@example.com Ephesus is beyond description. The library of Celsus is an impressive 2 story facade that has been carefully restored and is one of the most impressive sights in this town. We sat in the seats of the Great Theater that holds 25,000 people. Surprisingly, it is still in use today for concerts. You will walk on a street paved with marble that gives a hint of this city's great wealth years ago. Kusadasi has a bazaar which is the second largest in Turkey and it is situated right at the dock.
Athens was our least favorite port. We found the city to be very, very crowded, smoggy and really, in my view, not a particularly pretty city. However, the Acropolis is spectacular and something that everyone should see once in their lifetime. If you have a choice, go as early in the morning as possible. We were there around 10:30 a.m. and it was starting to fill up, and I do mean fill up! We took the tour that included the Acropolis, Corinth and the Corinth canal. It was Ok, but not something that I would highly recommend. By the time the cruise is over, you will have seen both Ephesus and Pompeii. The Roman ruins of Corinth are not nearly as developed and a bit of a let down. However, it does have a great biblical significance and for some that may be worth the trip. My wife on the other hand loved Corinth as to her it was the perfect continuation of what we had seen in Ephesus. She enjoyed it very much. So, as you can see, even in the same family there will be a difference of opinion. The Corinth Canal is alright but not worth the trip. If I (not my wife) had to do it over again, I would take a cab to the Acropolis in the morning and after seeing it back and enjoy the ship in the afternoon. You really don't have a great deal of time to spend on the ship as with only 2 days at sea the others are fairly intensive with touring the various ports.
Venice is Venice. It is everything and more than you expect. When the ship pulls in it is as if you are looking at a postcard. Venice is extremely easy to do on your own. The vaporetto's are easy to use although some can be very crowded. We bought a two day pass. I don't recall the cost but it was quite reasonable. Take the #4 vaporetto which completely goes around the Grand Canal and harbor with only 5 or 6 stops. Go to Murano Island. They talk about the glass factory and I almost didn't go because I thought it might be very commercial. We just ignored the pitch to go see the glass factory and headed out on our own. It is beautiful with many quaint colored houses along a small canal. Lovely to walk along. A photographer's paradise. You can take a vaporetto there as well. Quite simple. Mainly we just walked around the small streets in Venice.
A hint: leave St. Marks Basilica for the 2nd day. When we arrived, it seemed like the everyone from the ship was waiting in line to get in. Instead, make it your first stop on the second day. It opens at 9:30 a.m. We got there around 9:00 a.m. and while there was a line we got in by 9:45 a.m.
In Naples, we took the Princess tour that included Sorento, Capri and Pompeii. It was grand. We loved Sorento and Capri. They are such lovely and picturesque places. Pompeii was unbelievable. It was much bigger than I had anticipated. I am so glad we got to Pompeii. It was more than I expected. While this tour was a bit expensive, I think it was worth it. There is no way we could have seen everything we saw on our own and these are all places I wanted to see.
We felt very rushed in Florence. We made the mistake of taking the "Florence on your own" tour. This is the tour in which they take you by bus into Florence, drop you off and then meet you at an assigned spot for the return bus ride. In spite of the fact we docked at 7:00 a.m. the "tour" didn't leave until 9:30 a.m. and by the time we arrived in Florence it was 10:30 a.m. We wasted over 2 hours while many of the other longer tours left shortly after docking. I guess Princess was just taking care of the higher priced tours first. We simply were not given enough time to do the city justice. We didn't make it to any of the spectacular museums because we just didn't have the time to wait in line for entrance. If we had waited in line to see Michelangelo's David in the Accademia, we would have missed other sights. If I had to do it over again, I would take the train as was highly recommended to me by others before we left. Unfortunately, I opted not to do this, because of my concern of missing the boat, so to speak. However, it is incredibly easy and many, many others took that option. I wish I had as well. But, in spite of this, Florence is also a wonderful, picturesque city. Everything is very close together and easy to see (providing you have time). Get a good map. We got a National Geographic map at Borders Books which was perfect for our needs. Incidentally, we also got the National Geographic map for Venice and Barcelona and found them to be very helpful. This is where we said goodbye to Italy. What a beautiful country. Florence and Naples are destinations in their own right and deserving of much more time than a day on a cruise. We will be back.
In Monte Carlo we walked to the train station on our own and took a train to Nice. There is a small little tram that looks like a small train that tours Nice. It is called Trains Touristiques de Nice and costs 35 francs per person. We found a brochure at the train station and followed the map to find it. It took us through some lovely parts of town. This small tram took us thoughout the old city of Nice and eventually up a hill which gave us the most incredible view of all of Nice. The tram then took us back to the originating point where we walked back to the train station to catch our train back to Monaco. Along the way we stopped and had a great lunch at an outdoor cafe. Got back on the train and headed back to Monaco. In the afternoon, we took a tour to the village of Eze. It is a quaint little village on a mountain top. It is pretty commercial and has mainly shops and a couple of restaurants in it. It is quite pretty, but I think I would pass on it and explore Monaco instead if I had to make a recommendation.
You will love Barcelona! We spend 3 days there after the cruise. What a unique and exciting city. They have a tourist bus that has two routes. You can get a one day or two day pass and these buses cover all the sights. You will see the buses everywhere. The top level of the buses do not have a roof, so when you get a top seat you will have a great view of the many sights. Additionally, you can get on and off at any sight as often as you like. One of the highlights was sitting at one of the many outdoor cafes and sipping a sangria and snacking on Catalan bread which is a bread coated with olive oil and tomato...ummmm, delicious!! This is a great way to people watch. Walk Las Ramblas. It is crazy with people, street artists and vendors. We walked it once and then came back a couple of more times to soak up the atmosphere.
Through our hotel we hired a car with driver who took us to Montserrat. It is the sight of a Monastery and home to the world famous Montserrat Boy's Choir. They perform daily at 11:00 a.m. but unfortunately we were there during their summer vacation and we missed their performance. We took the funicular to the top of the mountain where there are several trail. We were short of time so we missed taking a short hike along the top. It would have been spectacular. Montserrat is not to be missed and can be done in as little as 3-4 hours from Barcelona. While there don't forget to take in the small museum. They have an impressive collection of antiquities and paintings by Casa, Pissarro, Picasso, Monet and others.
Some other random thoughts....
The evenings were the best. Everywhere we went, we found that the people come out at night. They fill the restaurants (indoor and outdoor), the plazas, and the parks. It is a social time.
Don't be in such a rush to see everything that you miss the opportunity to sit at a sidewalk cafe sipping a glass of wine or a cappuccino and watching the world go by. This may well be the highlight of your day.
Don't be afraid to get out on your own. There was no place that we could not communicate in English. Some struggled, but as long as you are kind the people there will go out of their way to help you. I am sure that the guy I heard refer to the local currency as "funny money" didn't get nearly as much assistance from the local people as others did. (Come to think of it, he probably didn't get as much out of the trip either....what an idiot!)
The cruise documents we received said there would be 3 formal night, 3 semi-formal and the rest smart casual. Forget the semi-formal. They are 3 formal and the rest smart casual. Before we left, I heard this might be the case. I called Princess myself and was also told there would be 3 semi-formal. Well, there were no semi-formal nights. Just thought you might like to know as it might save some packing space.
When they say this cruise is very "port intensive" they are not kidding. You are on the go the entire time except for the two days at sea. Expect to be tired and expect to wait until you return home to rest. There is no time to rest on this trip!
As far as we are concerned, personal choice dining is the only way to go. It is so convenient to be able to walk into the dining room at any time and be seated. We generally ate between 7:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and never had to wait once. This is particularly important on this cruise as you will be touring all day, get back to ship and there is no need to hurry up, shower and change in order to make a certain sitting time. We liked this so much that we canceled our Eastern Caribbean on another line that does not have personal choice dining and re-booked on Princess. Traditional is fine for some, but not for us. Personally, I did not notice any less service from the various waiters than if we had the same waiter each time.
If you are traveling with teens, they are in for a treat. The Teen Center on the Grand Princess is great. Our daughter has a marvelous time and made several new friends that she has been e-mailing with since we got home. They have tons of activities. If it had been up to her, I think she would have just as soon moved in up there.
We only used the Internet on the ship on one occasion. The cost is $7.50 for 15 minutes. (Try to tell a teenager they only have 15 minutes to read and send e-mail to her friends!) However, we found Internet café's everywhere along the way so we could send e-mails home and check our e-mail as well. Our family were pleasantly surprised to receive an e-mail from the various ports. In Kusadasi there is one a few steps away from the where you board the ship. We used them in Venice also and saw them in other ports as well. The cost ranged around $2.00 - $4.00 for 30 minutes. Considerably less than on Princess.
If you plan on visiting some of the Cathedrals make sure your knees and shoulders are covered. We saw one lady from the cruise refused admission to St Marks Basilica in Venice because she was wearing shorts. I believe they are far more strict about this in Italy. Although, out of respect, we always tried to dress appropriately when visiting any Church. Most Churches do not permit photography or video.
This cruise was definitely a dream. We enjoyed every single day especially in our cruising adventure!
Whatever you do, and whatever it is you're looking for, you're sure to have a brilliant, audacious, tranquil, and unbelievable HOLIDAY!!!!!