OVERVIEW: Ports of Call: Rome, (Civitavecchia) Italy; Naples, Italy; Messina, Sicily; Livorno, (Florence) Italy, Villefranche, France and Barcelona, Spain (this was a one-time itinerary)
About us, my husband and I are in our low/mid 30's, married for 3 years with no kids yet. This was our first time over the pond, and it will certainly not be the last. It is very important to mention that on a cruise like this your time is so limited, that it is not possible to see everything. We focused our time on the beauty and architecture in each port.
I booked our air, transfers, precruise stay in Rome and cruise itself directly with RCI over the phone. I was nervous about this after everything negative I heard, but we did not experience any problems during precruise planning. We flew Delta there and US Airways back. The seats were small and uncomfortable on the Delta flights. We tried to buy upgrades at all of the airports, but apparently RCI gets such a discount on the seats we were ineligible for any seat changes.
As far as the ports themselves, we did everything on our own, or hired private drivers. I found this to be the most economical way to see the best of each port. PRECRUISE STAY IN ROME: A representative from the local tour operator that handles the logistics for RCI, Aloschi Bros, greeted us at the Rome airport right outside the baggage claim area. Within 30 minutes we were on a bus and on our way to the Crowne Plaza St Peters Hotel. We got to the hotel about 11:30am and we were able to check-in to our room. There was a Hospitality desk in the lobby from the tour operator to greet us. They had a welcome kit that included: instructions, a map, schedules for courtesy transportation and an order form to buy tours through them. We were also given a time for the next day for our transfer from the hotel to the pier. We were instructed to leave our bags outside our hotel room door in the morning as they would be picked up and transported for us to the ship. A nice surprise in the hotel room was one 110 volt outlet in the bathroom, so we did not need a converter to charge our electronics. There was also a hairdryer in the room. The front desk exchanged our US$ travelers cheques for Euros for a nominal exchange fee.
TOURING ROME: The best advice someone gave me to overcome jetlag was to stay on local time once we arrived. So after checking into the hotel, my husband and I decided to take a cab to the center of the city, Piazza Venezia, and just explore. We walked around for a couple hours and saw Quirinal and Palazzo della Consulta, (the official residence of the President of the Italian Republic), Trevi Fountain, Victor Emmanuel Monument (not to be missed), Coliseum, Arch of Constantine, Circus Maximus and the Forum, all on foot. After a late lunch at a lovely outdoor restaurant we took a cab back to the hotel so I could rest. Jet lag was catching up to me.
In order to see more sites in the morning, my husband decided to go back into town and rent a scooter, the preferred way to drive around Europe, (and lots of fun!) for the next day while I took a nap. For dinner we just stayed at the hotel because it was raining. Breakfast in the morning was complimentary with our package, which I did not know when I booked.
The next day, we did not have to meet the bus for the transfer to the pier until 2pm. This was the only Sunday of the month the Vatican Museum is open, and we thought if we got an early start we would be fine, but NO. By 7:30am when we got there, the line stretched for more than 6 city blocks that we could see. We then went on to Piazza del Popolo, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain again (I did not have a coin to toss in the day before) and the memorial of Giuseppe Garibaldi (we only saw this because we got lost, but it had a fantastic view). We decided to try St. Peter's, which also had a long line to get into St. Peter's Basilica. We took pictures at the square and watched the Pope give a blessing on large screens in the square. It was around 12:30pm, so after returning the scooter, we had pizza and gelato at Piazza Venezia before taking a cab back to the hotel to catch the bus for 2pm.
EMBARKATION: The bus ride to the port was scenic and seemed to be quicker than 90 minutes. We did have a slight delay at the pier because the check-in facilities are very informal. To control the flow of people, we had to wait on our bus for about 20 minutes while the bus in front of us checked in. Once they were done, we had to go through security and registration, and we were on the ship just after 4pm! Because they had collected our luggage at the hotel in the morning, our bags were in our room waiting for us.
The muster drill was at 5:15pm, so we had enough time to unpack and freshen up before we donned our fashionable orange life vests. After the drill it was off to the Bon Voyage party on the pool deck at 6:30pm. Now, we are officially on vacation as they say!
THE SHIP: The ship was so clean and tastefully decorated. A nice touch with recent on-board illnesses is the addition of hand sanitizer stations at the entrance to the Windjammer, the gangway and at the computer stations. I noticed the Solarium had "Family Hours" posted twice a day, which I do not recall on previous cruises, and there were a lot of children in the main whirlpools with their parents. Although the pool decks are always busy on sea days, I always managed to find a deck chair. I tried to use the internet service on the ship several times, but it never seemed to work properly. I also inquired about high speed internet access in the cabin and was told it was not available, only a dialup service was available in the cabins. A must see is the porthole "window" in the Crown & Anchor Lounge. Quite a view down! I loved the cascading waterfall in the Minstrel Dining Room.
THE CABIN: We had an aft deluxe balcony on deck 10, #1102. We will book aft cabins for all future cruises! It is so nice to have breakfast on your balcony in the morning! We experienced very little disruption from the Windjammer above us and we had a wonderful view! A nice touch in the cabin was full sized shampoo, shower gel and lotion in the bathroom as well as a loofah sponge for the shower. There are plenty of nooks and crannies for storage, but I continue to use an over-the-door shoe organizer for all of those little things. Our balcony was large enough to accommodate 2 chairs, 2 lounges and a table, and still have room to move around! The worst thing about the cabin was the long walk from the elevators in the center of the ship.
I followed some advice and on the first day after we met our Cabin Attendant, I thanked her in advance, gave her a portion of the tip and just asked for a couple of bathrobes if there were any extras. Within 10 minutes we had 2 robes! We also received very attentive service all week from Aishesha who made our cabin up as soon as we left!
THE STAFF: Overall, we found the service to be exceptional. The dining room staff did not get too personal with us on the first night. Our server Martina said so many people change tables or seating times after the first night that it is hard for them to keep up. So she waits until the second night to find out who will be with her all week. The CD Bill was not very impressive, but his staff was very energetic. The captain, Michael Lachtaridis from Greece, had a good sense of humor. I spoke with the ships doctor on the pool deck and he was very friendly. Fortunately for me, that was the only time I met him.
DINING: As far as dinner on the ship, there were four seating times in the main dining room. We were assigned late seating which on our cruise docs said 9pm, but upon check-in, our seapass said 8:30pm, much better for us. We did not leave several of the ports until after 7pm, so for us the early seating would have been nearly impossible. One disappointment we felt was that the shows and evening activities were not scheduled as well as they could have been. Many of the production shows were scheduled for us to see before dinner. I prefer to see shows after dinner, and some of the activities we wanted to participate in were overlapped. The dinner schedule for the week was as follows:
6:00 pm Main seating Deck 4 6:30 pm Main Seating Deck 5 8:30 pm Second Seating Deck 4 9:00 pm Second Seating Deck 5
As far as the food, I have no complaints. But, my husband and I are not the pickiest of eaters. The great thing about a cruise, if you don't like what you ordered, you can order something else! We ate in the dining room all nights except one. I thought the main dining room menu offered a lot of variety, but the dessert menu could use some more options. For breakfast and lunch we altered between the Windjammer and room service. I must admit, it is nice to have breakfast on your balcony in the morning. Both were fine, but I prefer Windjammer for the variety. I do regret not making it to Seaview Café as I've heard it was good.
There was a Murder Mystery Dinner in Portofino's on day five so we reserved early in the week. If your cruise offers the Murder Mystery Dinner, I suggest participating. It was $50 per person, but champagne and wine were included throughout the evening. Dinner was 5 courses, which had lobster as one of the entrée choices. It cost more than the traditional alternative dining, but well worth it to me!
We bought the Wine & Dine package on our second night which is a good deal if you tend to order wine nightly with dinner and are not a true "wine connoisseur". We paid a discounted price for 5 bottles, and were given a limited menu to order from. If you don't finish a bottle, they will re-cork it for the next evening. On the last night we still had 1 bottle left so the head waiter let us take it to the Schooner Bar to toast with our new friends.
BARS: I will comment on this as my husband and I tend to be social people. The best place to hang out and make new friends is the Schooner Bar. The staff was awesome and we got to know them throughout the week. Servers, Arlene and Steve were wonderful and Eric the bartender would introduce me to other passengers if I was there alone. A true meeting place! Next to Schooner was the Colony Club which was the location for: Bingo, Captains Welcome Aboard party, Crown & Anchor Welcome Back Party, The Quest and Karaoke. We enjoyed the Champagne Bar on the formal nights. They had hors d oeuvres available nightly before dinner. The sports bar never seemed to have anyone in there, but the pool bars were always busy. Also, Tanya in the Casino was awesome. She really made losing all of my money as fun as it could be.
ENTERTAINMENT: We only saw one production show which was as good as expected. Remember, this is not Broadway. We watched the Newlywed Game and participated in The Quest. Both are not to be missed in my opinion. There were not as many people participating in The Quest as on the Caribbean cruises, but I think it is because of the intensity of the ports on this cruise and the difference in passengers.
THE PORTS: Day One, NAPLES/AMALFI COAST: We privately hired Francesco Marrapese in Naples and he was great! We were with him from 7:30am until 5:30pm. He was very polite, informative, and constantly concerned that we make it to the ship on time at the end of the day. We started at the Herculaneum where he dropped us off and we spent about 1.5 hours exploring. It was not crowded at all, and much smaller than Pompeii from what I have heard. One of the guards at the property walked us around to explain and point things out for us for a nominal "tip". Then we drove the Amalfi Coast. We were able to stop in Sorrento, Positano and Ravello. We had about 45 minutes in each town to enjoy and shop. Along the drive he pointed things out to us like the balcony that was used in the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, and one of Sofia Loren's homes. He also knew just where to stop for great photo opportunities. The views were just breathtaking. The cliffs just seem to drop into the beautiful blue water. Each view was better than the previous. After returning to the ship at 6pm, we had time to relax and dress in our formal attire for the Welcome Aboard Reception before dinner. The captain was delayed coming to the reception because we had to leave the port late due to a group of passengers that arrived to the ship late. The hotel director greeted us in his absence for photos. Day Two, Messina: I had no particular plans in this port, so we just walked around the city near the port. When we first arrived we saw a group of school children dressed in costume that were playing a life size game of Chess. Very neat to watch! We stopped in some beautiful churches and did some shoe shopping. Ironically, we had a difficult time finding pizza for lunch, so we headed back to the Windjammer for lunch and relaxed on the ship for the remainder of the afternoon. This is a nice time to enjoy the pools. After the ship departed, I found out from my friends in the Schooner Bar that the ship could not sell cigarettes or duty free alcohol at all on this cruise. It was due to some Italian and Spanish laws, and they would start selling again the end of June. I can only assume it was because of the ports we embarked and disembarked at.
Day Three, At Sea: The day was perfect, with beautiful sunny weather. Today was also pretty packed with activities. We were in the 10am Slots tournament, in which I came in 2nd place. Then at 12:30pm I was a judge for the Men's Sexy Legs Contest. After that we watched the Men's Belly flop competition. We had lunch in the Windjammer and then I stopped in the Schooner Bar while my hubby was in the Blackjack tournament. Bingo was at 3:30pm and just like in the casino, I walked away with less money in my pocket! At the same time as Bingo was the horserace on the pool deck. Hated to miss the races. Tonight before dinner was the C&A party. After dinner was Love and Marriage and as always, it was a hoot! We decided to stay and watch the Production show, Now and Forever. The singers and dancers were good.
Day Four, Florence: We privately hired Marco with Tuscany Tours as our driver in Florence. He was very knowledgeable of the area. We were with him from 8am until 6pm. We started at Piazzale Michelangelo for great photos and views of the city. Then off to Florence where Marco dropped us off and gave us a map. He is not a "guide", so we spent about 4 hours on our own just walking around in awe of our surroundings. Although we did not go into any of the galleries or museums (due to long lines), we did climb over 400 winding steps to the top of the Duomo. Wow, was that an experience, and not for the weak hearted. Ponte Vecchio was very crowded but we did do some window shopping. We stopped for lunch and gelato at Café Maioli and then met up with Marco to go to the Field of Miracles in Pisa. It was amazing as we drove around a corner and there was the tower! We did not climb the tower because of the timing, but we did buy tickets to go into the Duomo and Baptistery. They only allow so many people in the tower at a time, and the next available tickets were for 4:50pm. Marco felt that would have been pushing it to get back to the ship on time, just in case we ran into any delays. The one thing that surprised me was that there is an entire street lined with vendors selling cheap knick-knacks in the area. Kind of takes away from the beauty of it all. After 1.5 hours on our own, we were off to the ship. Dinner was the Murder Mystery tonight. The characters were quite funny, and believe it or not, my table did not guess "who done it". This evening after dinner was The Quest (not to be missed). I was surprised that there were not more people participating, considering the room was full.
Day Five, Villefranche: For this port I had no particular plans except to see the changing of the guards and the Grand Casino. Guess what, I missed both! We left the ship just before 11am and immediately caught a cab right outside the tender station to go to Monaco. The drive took longer than I thought so we missed the changing of the guards by minutes! Although the drive was beautiful, the cab cost 50 euro, which is a lot more than a train ride. Once in Monaco we decided to walk around and see everything we could. We ended up going into the neo-Romanesque cathedral and saw the graves of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier. After that we wandered around in awe of the cleanliness of the city as well as the beautiful views. We then stumbled across the Oceanographic Museum, founded by Prince Albert in 1910. Jacques Cousteau was the former head of this institution. We stopped for lunch at a little street side café, Restaurant Da Sergio, and enjoyed people watching. To get back to the ship we decided to take the train but it was not easy to find. It might have helped if we knew the French word for train. We asked a policeman on the street and he pointed us in the right direction. The station was quite large and once we bought and validated our tickets it was only about 5 minutes until the 4:30pm train arrived. The ride was quick as we only had 3 stops before ours, but there was no air-conditioning. At 6 euro for the 2 of us, it was much cheaper than the taxi. After spending some time walking around the port for a while, we got back to the ship about 5:30pm. My husband was determined to go the Grand Casino, but I was exhausted. So he dressed in his suit and went back into the port while I stayed onboard for dinner. Since we were scheduled to leave the port at midnight, I worried about him making it back on time. I thought that if he did miss the last tender, at least one of us was there to pack up our cabin. It all worked out and he was back on board by 11:30pm! For those that enjoy gambling, there is a more traditional casino around the corner from the Grand Casino with slots according to my DH.
Day Six, At Sea: Our last day on board. This day was not as busy as our first day at sea, but with my hangover that was a good thing. We basically spent the day lounging around as this has been a very intense week. It was the coldest and windiest day so enjoying the pool was out of the question. I had my first hot stone massage and it was wonderful. My massage therapist was very kind and professional and she did not try to sell me any product. What a way to end the week! Before dinner we packed our luggage. After dinner we just spent the evening in the Schooner Bar saying goodbye to all of our new friends. We took one last trip around the ship to say good bye to everyone that has made this trip so enjoyable and took lots of photos.
DISEMBARKATION: The next morning we headed to the dining room for our last breakfast on board. Because we booked our transfers through RCI, we were in the first group called off just before 9am. What a nice treat! My mind is a bit fuzzy, but my husband and I do not recall going through customs. I do know our luggage was waiting for us and we were very quickly directed to a bus for the airport. As we drove through Barcelona, I wished we had a day to stay here because it looked lovely from the bus. Our flight was at 12:10pm so we had plenty of time to check in, go through security and relax (and shop duty free) before boarding.
OBSERVATIONS/COMMENTS: . Because the ports are so close and the water is so calm, the sailing was the best I've experienced. I never felt a bit of seasickness. . The spa appointments were completely booked up by the third day. They also have some deals for treatments on port days that are definitely worth looking into. . If you want to book a future cruise, pay close attention to the C&A Ambassador hours, because I missed him on the last day. Have your credit card in hand. . As always, the elevators take awhile during peak times. A trick we learned when returning from port, was to go up 2 flights and catch the elevator there. Many people would get off then so there was room for us. . Something different from previous cruises was the fact that we were able to take liquor bought in the ports directly to our cabin. We had Sangria and wine that was not questioned or confiscated. . We were disappointed in the ship's photographers. They did not seem to take the best photos, and the ones they took were difficult to find on the boards. . Compared to a Caribbean cruise, there were fewer children, and the adults were a very refined group. People did adhere to the dress code, and we saw a lot of tuxedos on formal nights. . Speaking of which, my husband was able to rent a tux once on-board. Someone came to the cabin to measure him before they had it delivered. Once it is delivered, the tux is yours to enjoy for the entire week. . Change the date/time to the local time on your digital camera to get the best record from your photos. Bring lots of memory for your camera. We brought our laptop to download the pictures onto daily. We took over 900 photos total during the 10 days. . The currency exchange rate on the ship was the best we found, and trust me, my husband shopped around on this one. They offer it at certain hours throughout the cruise at guest relations. We used ATM's twice in Italy and were only charged $6 additional form our bank for the conversion transactions. . The best book I found was "Mediterranean by Cruise Ship" by Anne Vipond. Very informative and easy to read. This is the same book they sold in the shop on board. . Eat lots of Gelato! It is so much better than ice cream. . American Express was rarely accepted in the ports, so do leave home without it, and bring your Visa or MC. . Ladies, I invested in some Chico's Travelers collection and they are the best clothes to travel with. Very lightweight and never wrinkled. . I used the Space Bags travel set and they worked great. It's amazing how compact you make your clothes! . For those flying a long distance, invest in a good neck pillow for the flight. . For your first aid kit, make sure to include Gas-X or Bean-O. Enough said. . There can be a lot of walking, so were very comfortable shoes, and make sure they are broken in! . I read terrible things about the public toilets in Europe and envisioned holes in the ground that I had to pay to use. Not so. Many of the toilets were like a standard toilet without the seat. I only had to pay at 3 of them in Pisa, Ravello and Monaco. The most expensive was .50 cents.