by Bud Lockwood
September 19, 2007
This cruise that gave us the opportunity to see the Mona Lisa painting, lunch on the Eiffel Tower, ride the canals of Amsterdam, tour the Sagrada Familia cathedral, see the Monte Carlo casino, ride up the Rock of Gibralter, walk around the leaning tower of Pisa, stand in St. Peter's Square, and much more. This cruise took us to nine countries, all in the comfort and security of the Princess grand class ship, the Star Princess.
The itinerary was titled the "European Explorer", originated in Copenhagen, Denmark and ended in Civitavecchia, Italy with eleven stops along the way. It was a one-of-a-kind itinerary when I found it about a year before sailing.
This review is designed to provide information that you may find useful when planning to cruise to Western Europe, give some potentially helpful hints for getting the most out of your cruise, and to share our experiences so that you may look forward to cruise visits to the same ports.
Getting There and Back
Hint: Arriving a day early provides a high level of confidence that you will have little or no difficulty making the cruise. It will also help with jet lag recovery.
Pre and Post Cruise Accommodations
In comparison, on a previous cruise, transferring on our own and selecting our own hotels left us anxious at several points in the process. Our taxi driver was two hours late meeting us at the cruise terminal and we had no way of contacting him. Another driver spoke no English. Uncertainty about when and how to get to the ship are all negative fringe benefits of doing it yourself.
Hint: Take advantage of the experience and assistance offered by the cruise line. Book through them. The differences are major.
Hint: Be prepared for surprisingly high costs in Europe! Be especially prepared for high costs of food and drink in major hotels. People are frequently stunned! One example: a pint of beer for $11 in a hotel bar.
Embarkation and Disembarkation
Hints: Be prepared for long, slow moving security lines, especially at airports. Give yourself three hours for check in and security in Rome. Give yourself at least two to three hours between your arriving flight back into the U.S. and your connecting flight home in order to clear customs and transfer your bags. Know the rules for carry-on baggage.
The Star Princess and Crew
Dining is a special consideration on shore excursion intensive cruises like those to Europe. Dining flexibility is a requirement because of the timing of the shore excursions; for examples returning too late for normal lunch or early dining. The buffet on Princess is always open so you can always get something to eat. They also have "anytime dining" in two dining rooms so you have a four hour window for scheduling dinner. We selected "anytime dining" and had no more than a five minute wait to be seated in the dining room.
Hint: For shore excursion intensive cruises select "anytime dining". You will have a wider choice for your dinner schedule.
The Star Princess also has a steak house, Tequila's, and an Italian Trattoria, Sabatini's, where cover charges apply. We have eaten in Sabatini's on three Princess ships. It is a unique dining experience.
Entertainment on the ship was varied and good, ranging from the main theater cast dancing and singing to lounge singers and bands to comedians and much more. The casino was large and a pleasant place to play either slots or table games.
Every port had a list of shore excursion choices, most pretty extensive. Some highlights of the excursions we took are included here.
Rotterdam, The Netherlands: A free port shuttle provides service to town and the ride is ten minutes.
Rotterdam is the port city for Amsterdam. We took the "Best of Amsterdam" excursion that gave us a visit to a wooden shoe factory, a nice bus ride around the city, lunch and a canal boat ride. Amsterdam canals provide opportunities for very scenic views of the city and a very different perspective. The wooden shoe factory was an only in Holland experience, but interesting. People still wear wooden shoes.
Zeebrugge, Belgium: A shuttle costing $5 or 5 Euro is available for trips to the center of Blankenberge.
We took the "Bruges and Belgium Chocolates" tour. Bruges was one of the unexpected highlights of the trip. It is an old, picturesque town with narrow streets, a seemingly endless number of cafes, numerous canals, and buildings dated from several centuries ago. It had town squares with restaurants and shops, horse drawn carriages, cathedrals and many historic buildings.
The chocolate factory was our introduction to Belgium chocolates. Very, very good!
Le Havre, France: A $5 shuttle takes people to town.
Le Havre is the port for Normandy and Paris. Normandy highlights the WW II invasion by allied forces. We took the " Louvre Museum in Paris" excursion. This included a brief tour of the Louvre where the highlights included the Mona Lisa painting, Winged Victory and Venus de Milo statues, numerous old master paintings and statues, and the upside down glass pyramid of "DaVinci Code" book fame. It also included lunch on the first level restaurant of the Eiffel Tower. Even the first level of the tower provides spectacular views of Paris. The bus took us on the Champ Elysees, past the Arch de Triumph, and through the French countryside.
Hint: Lines at famous places are long. Joining a tour helps to minimize the waiting.
Vigo, Spain: Shops and cafes in an older part of the city are an easy two block walk from the ship. There are also free shuttles to modern downtown.
We went into both downtown and the old port area. Vigo is built on big hills so the streets are steep and a difficult walk. It is worth visiting both areas.
Lisbon, Portugal: The pier is in an industrial area but there are a few shops just outside the port terminal. A $5 shuttle will take you downtown in about twenty five minutes.
We took the "EZ Lisbon" tour which visited a few highlights including the Monument to the Discoveries, a very recognizable monument, and the Belem Tower along with a good overview of Lisbon. The 25th of April suspension bridge, under which the ship travels, is impressive. It is named for the successful Portugese revolution date. Passing under the bridge is a popular event with passengers.
Cadiz, Spain: A very nice shopping and café area is an easy two block walk from the pier.
Cadiz was impressive for its cleanliness, impressive buildings and very active shopping. We took the walk into town and thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere.
Gilbralter, U.K.: The pier is a long mile plus walk from town. There is no shuttle.
We took the "Gibralter Highlights" tour that took us up the Rock of Gibralter to St. Michaels Cave with a couple of stops along the way, one to see the barbary apes. St. Micheal's Cave is very large and filled with illuminated stalactites and stalagmites with a theater in the middle. The views from the rock are impressive, including a very busy harbor and a surprisingly large town center area.
Malaga, Spain: The ship docks in an industrial area and there is a free shuttle to the port gates from where it is an easy walk into town.
We took the "City of Malaga" tour which visited two of the city's main attractions, the Alcazaba fortress and Malaga cathedral. Both are impressive. The fortress requires a very tough up hill walk from ground level to 1000 feet on cobblestones walks and steps inside the fortress. The views at the top are a payoff for the climb. Malaga is an impressive city.
Barcelona, Spain: A $5 shuttle takes people into Barcelona, a ten minute ride from the port.
We took the "Barcelona Highlights" tour. The centerpiece of the tour was the architecture of Antoni Gaudi which stands out from anything near it, whether it is an apartment building or the Sagrada Familia cathedral, a must visit in Barcelona. The cathedral is clearly visible from any high point around the city including Mt. Montjuic which we visited. A statue of Christopher Columbus is in the center of a traffic circle near the port.
Cannes, France: The ship anchors in the harbor but the tender pier is walking distance into the city.
We took the "Monte Carlo" tour that took us through Cannes to Monte Carlo, Monaco. The Monaco palace currently occupied by Prince Albert, the cathedral near the palace that contains the tombs of Prince Ranier and Princess Grace (formerly Grace Kelly), and picturesque streets are on the "rock" above the harbor. We also visited the Monte Carlo Casino and Hotel de Paris area, just across the harbor on another hill. The entire area is beautiful.
Livorno, Italy: A $5 shuttle takes ship passengers the two plus miles into town.
We took the "EZ Pisa" tour that drove us to and through the city of Pisa to the walled city that houses the leaning tower of Pisa, the cathedral and baptistry along with shops, restaurants and a large number of souvenir vendors. The tower is impressive and a great photo subject but the city wall, cathedral and baptistery are also impressive. The "EZ" tour, complete with a special tram from the bus to the main attractions, was one of the most traveler friendly "EZ" tours we have ever taken.
Hint: The "EZ" or "highlight" tours are excellent for first time visitors to a city and for seniors with limited mobility or stamina. They provide very nice overviews, usually include famous landmarks and take less than a full day, normally three to five hours. That leaves time to select a second tour option or just rest.