"Con te partiro` su navi per mari... (With you, I'll leave on ships for seas...)" as Andrea Bocelli sings, this is exactly what happened: We departed from Miami April 30th, after a slight delay when a routine engine check revealed a wiring oddity; however, we confidently sailed once again in the capable hands of our friend Captain Michael Lachtaridis (Samos, Greece). We had sailed with him last year on the Grandeur of the Seas from New Orleans to Harwich, England and then on to the Baltic capitals. This extremely competent master is beloved by the passengers for his droll and humorous daily noon reports on the ship's position and the weather. This cruise had calm seas all the way.
Since we have already published a review of the Brilliance of the Seas' maiden Transatlantic Voyage (Sept. 2002), describing in detail the ship, this review will concentrate on service, food, activities and the many European ports of call.
THE SHIP The Brilliance is the second of the Radiance class. The first was the Radiance of the Seas (2001), then the Brilliance (2002), the Serenade (2003) and finally, the new Jewel of the Seas, which will make her Maiden Transatlantic voyage from Harwich to Boston (Sept. 2004), with us on board, God willing! This Panmax ship is 90.090 tons, 962 ft. long, a beam of 106 ft. with a draft of only 26.7 ft. and a top speed of 25 knots. Several times Captain Lachtaridis announced that, if we were to make the next port on time, and we always did, then he would have to put the proverbial "pedal to the metal." Top speed is most obvious to the passengers when riding one of the four elevators overlooking the ocean: The sea rushes by horizontally as the elevators go vertically ---- This is a very heady experience, which many cruisers miss, since they, like robots, face front to the elevator doors. We are usually facing the sea, since it is difficult to turn the wheelchair around when other passengers are in the elevator with us. Oh, the unexpected delight of viewing life from a unique angle!
The Brilliance can accommodate 2,501 passengers and she is just as beautiful now as when she was launched. She is kept in excellent condition and her service is top of the line under Hotel Director Gordon Shenk (USA) and Food and Beverage Manager Rinaldo Lemma (Italy). These two welcomed us and shared information about the new menus, dining times and other particulars about the ship; thus, we learned how RCI regards passengers' needs by adopting new menus and dining schedules to suit their customs and habits.
EMBARKATION Crown & Anchor members never have to wait on line; this is the best reason for being a RCI repeater. After ten cruises you will be greeted in the C & A room and processed quickly. It makes a big difference if you are travel tired. We arrived at 12:15pm, were checked in shortly, and in our cabin by 12:30pm, left our hand luggage (rooms were not officially ready until 1:00pm) and went to the Windjammer Buffet. After lunch we always go by the dining room to check our table assignment for dinner. We met the very capable Maitre D' Paulo Barbosa (Portugal), who arranged a table for two for us near the entrance. Excellent! This stop is a must, or at dinner time you may find yourself in a long line of grumpy, tired and hungry people.
SHIP'S PUBLIC AREAS As mentioned in our first Brilliance review, this ship is beautifully and tastefully decorated with light and dark woods, lots of brass and marble, and an eclectic art collection. The public areas catered to cruisers' needs and comfort. For a deck by deck description see our Sept. 2002 review at this web site. The eight deck tall Centrum was the center for some of the best music on a ship ever. The relaxing guitar of Voytek (Poland) was enhanced by his wonderful repertoire of classical songs. The "Romantic Strings" and "Frank's Company" were magnets for passengers. We kept saying that this was the best musical cruise we've ever had.
This cruise began with Seven Sea Days, and we were never bored. Our routine began with breakfast in our cabin at 7:00am, then we went to the Solarium where Vincent enjoyed the Hot Tub and Mary the Lap Pool. At this time of day it was all ours. At 9:00am, when it was getting crowded, we would leave and visit Chris Hou in the Concierge Club (reserved for Suite occupants and Diamond members) for an expresso or cappuccino and a cream cheese bagel. There is always a brunch set up here. There are two computer stations, and the daily newspapers in brief. We like to compare how the news differs from various countries, (i.e., France, England, Spain and United States). Concierge Chris, is extremely capable and helpful by getting excursion and tender tickets, etc. From here we usually go to the Library on Deck 9 and pick up a daily Trivia Quiz to check it for errors. It's the habitual teacher thing in us that we can't control.
Ah yes, lunch at the Sea View Cafe (Deck 12), fish 'n' chips, chili, soup, salad and apple pie or brownie; then an afternoon movie or nap. At times, before dinner, we would go to the Concierge Club where from 5:00pm to 9:00pm there is a cocktail and hors d'oeurves set up; then dinner at 6:30pm, theater at 9:00pm, and after that we may go strolling on the Promenade (Deck 5). With a schedule like this there is no time for boredom or hunger, since there is always 24 hour room service (fast, friendly and excellent). Some of the crossing's highlights included the Captain's dinner on Day 2. There is no better place to dine than at Captain Lachtaridis' table: Crostini and mushroom tapanade, escargot with sautéed onions and fresh tomato concasse in puff pastry, Sea Bass stuffed with jumbo shrimp, and a dessert cup crafted out of caramel and almonds, filled with wild berries, rum and creme anglais. Captain Michael confided that on the very next Mediterranean cruise, he would accomplish a life long dream: to sail into Piraeus (Athens) as commander of a ship. As captain, he had sailed into many ports all over the world, but this would be his first time into the capital of his homeland. We wished we could have been on board with him. The last time we sailed there, the water was a beautiful blue with delicate, bridal veil like medusas (jellyfish) floating in it.
Day 3. We had a plumbing problem which Chief Purser Tatiana Cortes Berglund (Sweden) handled with aplomb; that evening there was a red planet on the horizon at midnight. Breathtaking.
Day 4. Tatiana moved us to Suite #7672 (2 bedrooms, 2 baths, 2 TV's, dining room, living room) in the rear of the ship and with white caps on the seas, we had a bumpy and noisy night. However, we do suggest this accommodation for a large family or group.
Day 5. We moved to Suite 1542 and finally settled in for the duration. This was an excellent experience, since we became familiar with several types of staterooms.
Day 6. The sea was tranquil all day and dolphins and sea terns were visible as we passed closely to two of the Azores' islands. The first was a volcano rising straight out of the ocean, and the second was a long, low lying island. At 7:00pm the temperature was 62 F. We had lost 20 degrees since Miami, and several hours by moving the clock ahead an hour almost every evening. That night we had dinner at Chops Grille with Gordon and Rinaldo our interesting new friends. Chops has a terrific menu: crab cakes, New England clam chowder, interesting sides and salads, filet mignon, veal chops and Mississippi Mud pie for dessert. Excellent! Day 7. There was a Crown & Anchor Society cocktail party; the Champagne flowed freely and the hors d'oeuvres were hot. We were sailing through the remnants of a huge storm over Ireland, we felt some movement, not too bad, but just enough to make walking amusingly unsteady and to be gently lulled to sleep.
Day 8. The sea was much calmer, the sun was out on this last sea day of the Transatlantic crossing: tomorrow Lisbon, Portugal. The ports will be discussed later.
FOOD & SERVICE When people ask, "How can you stand being confined to a ship for seven days?" We answer that unless the port is new or worthy of many returns, well, there is no better destination than a beautiful ship. Maitre D's Paulo Barbosa (Portugal) and Emmanouil Kampanakis (Greece) go out of their way to please passengers not for just one meal, but for weeks on end. A table for two, just in front of the lovely stair case, being serenaded every evening by the melodic guitar of Vortek or the Romantic String Trio, is always a beautiful experience. Believe us, we never missed land.
According to Gordon Shenk, RCI has instituted new menu initiatives which strive for uniformity in plating, ingredients and preparation. There is a new dining room luncheon menu listing the following: 2 soups, 3 salads, 2 appetizers, 6 different entrees and a "Tutti Pasta" set up, where one can choose a variety of sauces for pasta. Finally, don't forget the dessert, five including creme brulee. The evening menu offers even more varieties of meat, fish and fowl selections. Keep in mind this is only the menu in Minstrels main dining room. You may want to eat in the Windjammer Buffet (Deck 11) or the Sea View Cafe (Deck 12), pub style diner. During the transatlantic crossing, the Minstrels had a 6:30pm main seating and an 8:30pm second seating. However, in the Mediterranean, the formal afternoon Teas became Tapas on the pool deck at 4:30pm and the evening dining room hours were now 6:30, 7:30, 9:00 and 10:00pm, to accommodate the large number of European passengers who prefer dining late.
RCI portions are generous. We keep begging for one-half portions. However, anyone can be satisfied by ordering more, less or sharing. Service at our table was excellent: During the transatlantic crossing, our waiter was Leane Kershaw (S. Africa) and Cetin Devrim (Turkey) her assistant. In the Mediterranean, waiter Hakan Pamukcu (Turkey) was wonderfully assisted by Kadir Oz (Turkey). Hakan was a competent teacher to his new eager assistant. Among the many courteous waiters, we remember Ismael (Mexico), who was always sociable and helpful in the Windjammer Buffet.
The Minstrel Dining Room is beautiful with a birchwood balcony, a waterfall behind the curved staircase, and a two deck tall mosaic of wandering minstrels at the aft end. The blue, gold and green decor is elegant, while food, service and ambiance rival any four star restaurant on land. Food & Beverage Manager Rinaldo and the two maitre D's Paulo and Emmanouil are brilliant in their dedication to pleasing passengers. After all, as Gordon says, "That's what it is all about." This attitude radiates all the way down from the Captain, whose genteel manners made every passenger feel at home. We observed him even checking the pool water temperature on his early morning rounds. Great service is noted in the details; whenever we tendered or disembarked the ship's crew was exceptional in assuring our safety, especially with Vincent's wheelchair.
CABINS We occupied 7110, 7672, 1542 and 7610. All were balconied cabins and the decor of 7110 and 7610 were exact. When entering on the left there was a double armoire with safe, a long mirrored desk/vanity, TV console, refrigerator and a sofa bed. When entering on the right there was a 6'X6' tiled bath, with mirrored medicine cabinet and safety rails appropriately placed. Then, there was a king sized bed, a large coffee table and a glassed wall to the balcony holding a small table, two chairs and a chaise lounge.
Both cabins had the same two pictures: one was lemons and sunflowers and the other orange day lilies and red peppers. 7672 we've already described and 1542 was similar in size to 7110 and 7610, only there was a tub in the bathroom and the dominating picture was of a reclining woman in a white sun dress. Basically, the cabinets were maple wood with dark mahogany trim and the color schemes were variations of navy blue, maroon and gold -- very nautical.
All four cabins were comfortable, but only 7110 and 7610 had automatic door openers for wheelchair accessibility. All of our stewards were excellent and efficient: Elvis, Florian and Anthony, thanks once again.
ENTERTAINMENT Cruise Directors Peter Benfield (England) and Bill Brunkhorst (USA) were both friendly and engaging. The ship has sport facilities like rock climbing, basketball, golf, ping pong, shuffle board, swimming and a great gym and health spa, not to mention dancing all night.
The RCI singers, dancers and orchestra performed Broadway style shows with energy. Headliners included violinist Gary Lovini (UK) who put on a spectacular virtuoso performance: WOW. Crowd pleasing were also two tenors: Frank Tenaglia (USA) had a wonderful voice (he should sing more and tell jokes less and his repertoire did not do justice to his great voice); and Renato Pagliari (Italy), whom we have seen before. Pagliari also sang in the centrum one evening and the eight decks of balconies were packed. Every one was impressed with his Caruso style performance. Bravo! "Dancing Fools" the Taylors, a husband and wife team, were sensational.
At several ports there were local talents. But in Naples, most impressive was the mini concert by singer Roberto Rossini with his guitar accompanied by a mandolinist in the Centrum. He sang many of the classical Neapolitan favorites with style, and Vincent had tears in his eyes. RCI, please note: He is wonderful and really radiates Neapolitan musicality, a nice touch during the Mediterranean cruise. Other passengers said that he had also performed on the dock and drew admirers.
The Brilliance also has self leveling pool tables, bingo, the Casino, sports bars, lounges and poolside activities ---- something for everyone.
PORTS OF CALL Day 9. Lisbon, Portugal Arrival: 7:00am Depart: 3:30pm Departure was delayed for late passengers. We have visited here many times and we suggest that you watch your wallets and handbags. Every cruise the pick pockets warmly welcome the tourists, as they did this time. Our acquaintances had their bag stolen from their wheelchair (passports, wallet, cash and personal check book were all taken). We never bring these items ashore, and since American Express checks are safer, we never bring a personal check book. Try to travel with less valuables and as light as possible.
Tour LSB1, City Panoramic Drive, $39, 2 hrs, is a nice tour for those with limited mobility and the first timers.
More interesting is tour LSD1, $44, 4 hrs, visit to the village of Sintra with the old Royal Palace and the resort town of Cascais.
Day 10. Malaga`, Spain Arrival: 11:30am Depart: 8:00pm This is the second time we have visited this resort on the Sun Coast and always on a Sunday; thus, we have no idea what real shopping is like here. It is the birth place of Picasso and the best tour would be to Granada. Some of the interesting tours:
Tour MGA1, $118, 8 hrs, a drive through the Andalusian countryside and Granada and visit to Alhambra Palace & Gardens. Lunch is included.
Tour MCE1 $42, 4.5 hrs, scenic coastal drive and visit to the famous Cave of Nerja.
Day 11. Alicante, Spain Arrival: 9:00am Depart: 3:30pm Alicante is linked historically to Africa through trade; there is lovely Baroque architecture; all the tours were walking over uneven surface for over one mile, an impossible task for those with mobility problems. We took the shuttle to down town to the Bay Walk, a wide tiled promenade at the base of the terra cotta colored Castle on the Mount.
Tour ALB1, $40, 5 hrs, this is a breath taking ride along a curvy mountain road through lemon and orange groves to Guadalest, a mountain top village with Islamic origins.
Day 12. Barcelona, Spain Arrival: 7:00am We disembarked here for three days and booked a hotel in the 13th century Gothic Quarter in order to be in walking distance to Las Ramblas, but it was rainy and cold the first part of our stay. We did get to see much of Barcelona: La Sagrada Familia of Gaudi fame, the Gothic Cathedral and other sites.
Interesting is tour BRF, $42, 4 hrs, visit to Monteserrat. This goes through the Cataluna countryside to the monastery, which has "La Moreneta" (the Black Madonna).
PART II May 14th. Barcelona, Embarkation Depart: 6:30pm Barcelona has fine modern port facilities. The porters were fast and efficient. Going back on board, we felt like we were returning home. So, we began the second leg of our cruise by sitting on our balcony contemplating a slender silver moon.
Day 2. Villefranche, France Arrive: 10:00am Depart: 11:00pm
We booked Tour VFG1 $49, 3.5 hrs, Scenic French Riviera, which departed from the old port's Citadel on the Lower Corniche road slowly climbing to the Middle Corniche and finally the Grand Corniche. From here we viewed Cap Martin, Monaco, Italy and Nice. Our driver Gianluca and tour guide Sophie were terrific and very knowledgeable in both history and current events. The Monaco Grand Prix preparations and time trials were going on and we got close enough to see and hear the racing cars. But, Monte Carlo was cordoned off, so we had to be satisfied with an aerial view from the Grand Corniche. We also saw a collection of former Grand Prix winning cars.
Sailing out of Villefranche was beautiful with the golden lights of the town offset by bright white shafts of light coming from the lighthouse on the promontory and again that slender white crescent moon.
Day 3. Livorno, Italy Arrive: 7:00am Depart: 6:00pm There were tours to Pisa and Florence from here, but we've been to both before; thus, we settled on the Tuscan countryside: Tour LVF1, $52, 4 hrs, Scenic Drive and Wine Tasting. There were bright red poppies all along the road side and beautiful huge roses in many garden. We drove through medieval towns with olive groves and vineyards. At the Michi Villa we met Wanda and Vincenzo the owners and toured the villa gardens and the winery. They produce cold pressed virgin olive oil, a lesser red wine, and a finer white vin santo (dessert wine). Vincent spoke with the loquacious, elderly Vincenzo. They talked of using the chestnut casks for the young wines and the oak casks for the finer aged wines. The Michis planted the vineyard after WWII and enjoy the visitors.
Sail away was after 6:30pm and by 8:30 there was a glorious sunset. We passed Elba, the island of Napoleon fame, and at 10:00pm there was the very bright Venus in the NW sky.
Day 4. Naples, Italy Arrive: 8:00am Depart: 8:00pm There are many beautiful tours departing from here: The Isle of Capri, Pompeii Ruins, Herculaneum Excavations, Sorrento, and the Amalfi Drive. All of which we have done, since Vincent was born near Naples. Instead we were met by relatives and friends who treated us to a lovely private concert during a drive along Naples' "Lungo Mare" and Posillipo, then topped it off with a great dinner at Giorgio Rosolini's "La Cantinella." This picturesque restaurant, with a view of the bay and the Vesuvius, served exquisitely prepared seafood: Spaghetti e vongole, delicate sautéed fillet of sole, and delicious rum baba. At sunset we sailed out of the port of Naples with a beautiful red sunset in the west. "Vedi Napoli e poi muori" (see Naples and then die), as the old adage goes, once you have seen the beatiful Naples, you've seen it all.
Day 5. At Sea After four port days in a row, the passengers were happy just to stay on board and relax.
Days 6 & 7. Venice, Italy Arrive: 1:00pm, Overnight, Depart 5:00pm The Captain's cocktail reception for Platinum & Diamond Members was set for 10:30am on the second day in Venice at the Starquest Disco on Deck 13. This was the perfect vantage point from which to view the unfolding panorama of Venice, as we slowly sailed by the wonderful buildings and canals spread out before us: The Campanile, Dogi Palace, St. Marks Cathedral and the Bridge of Sighs. There are terra cotta roofs, trees, canals and the music of the Romantic String Trio: Bellisima. Never mind the camera, savor the passing splendid view. We have to thank the Captain for this slow measured entrance into this magnificent city, when repositioning the ship on the second day.
We have visited Venice before, so we went out on our own. In order to get the vaporetto (water bus), we had to traverse two bridges, since we went off forward. We strolled through St. Mark's Square early in the morning before it was glutted with tourists. We went to Cafe` Florian and saw its many beautiful rooms. Then we ate at "Al Chianti" Ristorante Pizzeria, on Calle Larga S. Marco, near Piazza San Marco. This is where the Venetians eat. We had Frittura mista of fresh Adriatic sea food, Spaghetti vongole, almond pie for dessert, a beer and a lemon soda. All this for only 34.30 euros. On the return, we took the vaporetto (3.50 euros) to the exit past the ship, and only had to traverse one bridge. A great day for sights and memories.
Day 8. Dubrovnik, Croatia Arrive: 9:00am Depart: 6:00pm We sailed into this perfectly preserved medieval town, which looks as if Disney could film fairy tales here without making any changes (a walled city with charm). The main street, Placa Stradun, was paved in large smooth stones. It was neat as a pin. The very narrow side streets had hundreds of stairs leading up to the mountain. The Croatian Kuna was six per dollar, and they accepted both euros and dollars. Prices here were very reasonable and the people sweet. The ship had wonderful tours, priced reasonably, but alas all included strenuous walking; thus, they were not for us. We entered the old town, which is a pedestrian island, and got around with the wheelchair easily.
When we sailed out of Dubrovnik, Captain Lachtaridis blew the ship's horn to aknowledge the friendly waiving by the Croatians, who were flying their national flag from the ancient city walls. That night the ever crescent moon was beautiful over a very bright Venus in the NW sky. This was picture perfect.
Day 9. Corfu, Greece Arrive: 7:00am Depart: 7:00pm This island 18 miles wide by 36 miles long is one of the most beautiful of the Ionian isles --- it is densely populated and lushly vegetated with olive, fig and citrus trees. We took the shuttle bus to the Old Fort, from where we walked down Dousmani to the center. Very nice ambiance with outdoor cafes and some good shopping.
Both Dubrovnik and Corfu had an abundance of shore excursions all of which involved walking over rough terrain; thus we enjoyed both cities and eschewed the country sides.
Day 10. At Sea We passed through the Straits of Messina and by Reggio Calabria (near Grotteria, the birth place of Mary's father). Later on we sailed nearby the volcano Stromboli with clouds shrouding its peak, and a tiny town at its feet.
Day 11. Civitavecchia (Port of Rome) Arrive: 7:00am Depart: 7:00pm We have lived in Rome, so we had a reunion of family and friends planned at Ladispoli, a sea side resort near Civitavecchia. Nineteen of us ate at the Grazia Deledda Ristorante (moderately priced). We all enjoyed the delicious seven course dinner, reminisced, laughed and when it came time to leave, we all cried. Arriverderci Roma!
The ship's tours here are many:
Tour CVA1 $179, 10.5 hrs, Rome the Eternal City. Basically, it visits Vatican City, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican Museum, and the Sistine Chapel, lunch at a local hotel or restaurant, then a drive through the city to the Colosseum.
Tour CVB1 $150, 10.5 hrs, Imperial Rome. It visits the Roman Forum, the Colosseum and St. Peter's Basilica. Our new acquaintances, the Neimarks took this tour and enjoyed everything seen, but were dismayed over the included lunch. They felt that in Rome lunch should have been at a "local restaurant" as the description states. Instead, they were taken to Best Western and served what someone thought was American fare, with overcooked pasta which no Italian would want to eat. They felt it would have been better to have a local pizza, than the inedible meal provided. Only the "rosette" (Roman bread rolls) were good. When in Rome, eat as the Romans eat ---- after all Americans may eat at Best Western any day at home, but these cruisers were in Rome for only a day.
Tour CVC1 $82, 9.5 hrs, A Taste of Rome. This guides the tourist to a partial independent exploration of Vatican City, St Peter's, the Colosseum and Roman Forum. Here lunch is on your own!
Tour CVE1 $52, 5 hrs, Panoramic Rome. This is probably the best brief tour of the Etruscan countryside and the highlights of Rome, including the Vatican, Villa Borghese, Via Veneto, the Colosseum, etc. and lunch on your own.
Sailing away from Civitavecchia, we enjoyed a spectacular sunset, while admiring the promontory of Argentario, the islands of Giannutri and Giglio. The visibility was so good that we could see the profile of the distant island of Monte Cristo. Late in the night we passed the straight of Bonifacio, between Sardinia and Corsica.
Day 12. At Sea
Day 13. Barcelona Arrive: 6:30am Disembarkation in Barcelona was a dream and very orderly. Those in need of assistance waited in the Centrum until their baggage color was called and then, they were handily dispatched. There were many porters to assist with the luggage and taxis were assigned on a first come first serve basis. Make sure the taxi driver uses the meter and doesn't con you.
CONCLUSION We love these back-to-back cruises which include one leg with many sea days and the other with port intensive itinerary. This was the second time we have booked a transatlantic crossing followed by a European cruise. Both trips we had sufficient sea days for rest, relaxation, enjoying the ship and the sea, and then the excitement of visiting beautiful and historical ports. It surely made a superb long vacation.
Now we look forward to enjoying an Alaska cruisetour on the Island Princess (July 2004) and then another transatlantic crossing on the newest RCI ship, the Jewel of the Seas (Sept. 2004). Happy Cruising!