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Europe - Western Mediterranean
We were in Barcelona 3-days pre-cruise, which helped with jet lag from the states. We arrived at the pier via private transport (www.autosvilar.com) and a porter came right over to take our bags. We did not tip him, and it did not appear to be expected like it is in the U.S. Check-in at port went very smooth and didn't take very much time. We had forgotten to bring the credit card we had signed up online with for all ship charges, so had to make an adjustment to our account while checking in, which took a little bit of time. Everything else went very smooth and probably didn't take longer than 40 minutes. There was a duty free store for shopping prior to getting on the ship (after one of the security check points, but before the second), but RCCL was confiscating all alcohol bought here prior to boarding the ship. We were on the boat by 12:20 pm.
After We Checked In and Were on the Ship:
We proceeded to head to our cabins (deck 9) to drop off our luggage that we More
had carried on, but were stopped when exiting the elevator and told cabins wouldn't be ready until after 1:00 pm. So, up to the Windjammer we headed!
Since it was still early, the Windjammer wasn't too crowded. We all loaded up on the honey stung chicken since we know it's only offered on the room service menu and embarkation day. It's definitely not to be missed. After lunch, we were able to go to our cabins and drop off our carry-ons. Our cabins had the old style "tube TVs", and Ken's dad's cabin had a flat screen TV. Otherwise, all 3 cabins were all identical. I asked our cabin stweward for an egg crate mattress since the bed seemed a little firm for my comfort. Our balcony had 2 chairs and a table and was plenty big for the two of us. Our luggage arrived a few hours later, and we got everything put away. Once we stored the suitcases under the beds, filled the closet and drawers and found "homes" for all of our items, the cabin size was not an issue.
The Serenade of the Seas
We were originally concerned about the condition of the ship since we knew it was going into dry dock at the end of the year. The ship is showing normal wear and tear, but nothing stood out at being horribly worn. The TVs in the staterooms are outdated (we still had the old tube TVs, although some of the cabins do have flat screens). We were happy to see that the ship was broadcasting Euro 2012 so we were able to catch up on the soccer games while getting ready for bed at night. The crew is constantly cleaning the stairwells, carpets, dusting, etc. I am disappointed to hear they are doing away with the Sea View Cafe as it was one of our favorite places for snacks. We also heard they are reducing the size of the Windjammer, which I find hard to believe as it wasn't always easy to find seating.
The staff all seem very friendly. Jeffrey was our cabin steward and he did a wonderful job. We teased the boys that he was hiding under our bed because we would leave for a few minutes, return to our cabin and it would be made up/or turned down! Our waiter was Judas and our assistant waiter was Sami. Sami was a kick and kept us laughing. Judas warmed up to us after the 3rd night and was quite honest with us on more than one occasion when we chose an entree or dessert ("and you're 2nd choice will be?"). It was quite funny, and he was right on 100% of the time!
Our cabins were near the front of the ship but that was not a problem. The ship really isn't that large and walking to the back for meals never was an issue. We were right near the elevators and staircase and never heard any noise from either one.
As for meals, we had 3 formal nights: Day 2 (cruising), Day 7 (Ravenna) and Day 10 (Rome). The MDR was empty for the 3rd formal night as most people didn't get back to the ship until late and were too tired to 'dress' for dinner. I think by the 3rd formal night, passengers were tired of getting dressed up. We opted to go to the MDR for all formal nights and only ate in the WJ for dinner once, on a casual night. Although we did walk through the WJ each evening to see what was being served, the food in there was quite impressive and often looked better than that served in the MDR. We weren't impressed with the MDR food and felt it has gone downhill since our last cruise on Freedom 2 years ago. We do enjoy eating a 'sit down' meal for dinner as opposed to a buffet since we tend to eat less when being served and you can eat together instead of someone always getting up to get something else. The MDR is just a little more relaxing to us.
We ate all of our breakfasts in the WJ so that we could disembark early. They had two omelet stations, eggs cooked to order, and the usual breakfast foods including smoked salmon, pancakes, French toast, bacon, sausage, donuts, cereal, oatmeal, etc.
As for lunch, we ate two lunches in the MDR. The MDR has a WONDERFUL salad bar during lunch that is not to be missed! Definitely beats the salad bar in the WJ! We also visited the Sea View Cafe on several occasions where you can get cooked-to-order American comfort food like cheeseburgers (better than the warming tray WJ ones), hot dogs (Nathan's as opposed to generic sausages in other venues), fish strips and chicken fingers, salads, and an awesome Reuben sandwich!
On our last 2 ships, soft serve ice-cream/yogurt was readily available on either the pool deck or the promenade. On the Serenade, it is in the WJ in the back by the desserts. The boys were quick to locate the self-serve machine and it became a staple for them, much like coffee in the morning!
We attended 2 of the shows: The Welcome Aboard Show and the Magician/Comedian. We were either too tired to attend any of the other shows or they didn't interest us. The ones we did see were typical cruise shows, nothing to write home about and rather forgettable. On evenings that we didn't attend the shows, we walked around the track on Deck 12, walking 2 miles each evening. The weather was always very pleasant during the evenings.
Shops on Board:
As we had always sailed on larger ships, we were disappointed in the souvenirs in the gift shops. It was very surprising that they had absolutely no t-shirts for children. Also, they had quite a few items for Greece (which was the itinerary before and after ours). We never visited any Greece ports, but sadly they didn't change out the 'gear' for the Italy ports. Sizes for the clothes on hand were very limited as well. Less
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Port and Shore Excursions
We really did not have any specific plans while in Barcelona and wanted to just explore day by day. We considered buying a ticket for the hop-on/hop-off busses that run from Pl. Catalunya (around 25/pp for a day or 35/pp for 2 days), but when we looked at them, there were some big lines, and it was more than we wanted to spend. We spent a lot of time walking EVERYWHERE! We explored Las Ramblas, strolled along the marina, explored the Gothic Quarter, visited the Olympic stadium, as well as the arena where they used to have bull riding, walked by the Picasso museum, saw the Gaudi house, walked by the Columbus Monument, and I'm sure many others that I can't recall. We also used the metro and purchased 2-10 ticket cards for 10 euros. Once we figured out the train routes, it was very easy to use. There were automated kiosks in the stations that were fairly self-explanatory and could be changed to English. There was a separate automated kiosk if you wanted to use a credit card. I found the signage of the metro to be clearly marked, directions were clear, and it felt clean and safe. Our limited high school Spanish did not hurt us either. Visiting La Sagrada Familia is a must, at least the outside. Note: Credit cards are not accepted for the entrance fee. They did have to wait in line, but it moved fairly quickly.
Euros were needed, but ATMs are readily available.
Pisa is about a 45 minute drive from the port of LaSpezia. We walked around Pisa for around 40 minutes, taking the usual photos holding up the tower and trying to push it down. If you're planning on stopping in Pisa, you can pre-purchase a ticket to go up to the top of the leaning tower. We heard it is very steep and hot inside (no a/c), so we chose not to climb the tower. After walking around the tower, we met back up with our driver who then walked us around the City of Pisa explaining many of the buildings, churches and sites. She showed us where the locals shop, and we stopped at a local 'gelato' place which was one of the best gelatos we had during this trip. It was actually one of the cheapest too! This was all within walking distance from the tower!
After touring Pisa, we all headed back to the van and made our way to Lucca, which was about a 45 minute drive. Lucca is much like Venice in that it is very difficult to drive there. Most people walk, are on bike, or a scooter. We each rented a bike in Lucca for 3 euros per hr, very affordable. Riding the bikes was a highlight for us. The wall was not very crowded and it was a refreshing change from being around a ton of people and/or sitting in a bus or van. The entire ride around did not take very long and was about 2.5 miles. There are many paths to pull off and go into town, but we chose to make the ride around before heading into town. We ate lunch at a local restaurant in the town square which was delicious.
After lunch we walked around Lucca, but unfortunately all of the shops were closed for "siesta."
We did find a local wine shop and got to taste test some local wines as well as Lemoncello and olive oil! We asked her about a good Chianti, and she opened a bottle for us to try!
We were in Monaco for the day and decided to explore on our own. We docked around 7:00 am and were off the ship by 9:00 am to explore. We walked to the casino so the boys could check out all the expensive cars, and expensive they were! Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Mercedes were everywhere! One of the waiters in the WJ had told us that they have brand new Mercedes as taxis, and he wasn't joking! It was fun checking out the cars. We did not even try to go inside the casino since (a) we were told there was a 10 euro per person charge and (b) you had to be 'properly' dressed. Before heading back to the ship, we headed up the hill to check out the souvenir shops. It probably was about an hour walk from the casino to the shops up a very steep hill, but the weather wasn't too hot and the scenery was gorgeous. Plus, everything was sooo clean! On the way we found a local grocery store to explore and buy some last minute food souvenirs. The people in Monaco speak French, but many of them also speak English so we had very little problems communicating. The only incident we had here was while looking at t-shirts inside one of the shops. We picked up a "folded" shirt in a stack to look at the design, and the shop owner came right over and told us "if we need a size to let her know. All sample designs are outside." This was something we weren't use to nor did we know that's how they do things there.
Sorrento was beautiful! Of course, we had to try the gelato! We also visited many of the shops and bought some lemoncello. The crÃ¨me lemoncello was delicious and the samples were a nice treat! Sorrento has beautiful ceramic shops in this city. There were quite a few produce carts and some of the lemons were amazing in size!
Originally we were supposed to dock in Naples, but we docked in Salerno instead (rumor has it that Salerno is cheaper for docking cruise ships). There really isn't much to see in the port of Salerno except a bunch of sailboats. The schedule for today was to tour Pompeii and Sorrento and visit a local farmhouse to taste fresh mozzarella cheese, fresh vegetables, olives and lemons; the only ship sponsored tour we signed up for. After breakfast in the WJ, we were to meet up at 9:30 in the Safari Club lounge for our 9:45 departure for the ship's bus. Our tour guide was Monica. She gave us all headphones to listen to her guided tour while in Pompeii. It was nice that we didn't have to push to be in the front of the group so we could hear her. She told us that we would first be going to Pompeii since there was a strike on the roads and it would hopefully be cleared after our visit to Pompeii. We were hoping to visit Sorrento first so we could eat lunch there since they are known for their pizza, but it worked out fine since Pompeii was EXTREMELY warm. I can't imagine how hot it would have been had we waited until the end of the day to visit.
Farmhouse -- The bus dropped us off at a lovely farmhouse where we watched and listened to a wonderful demonstration on how they make fresh mozzarella cheese. After the 15 minute presentation, we were directed to an outdoor seating area to taste the fresh mozzarella cheese, salami, bread, and home grown tomatoes. We were also treated to some of their homemade wine and a sampling of lemoncello. Everything was delicious and a highlight of this tour for us! The mozzarella cheese and salami were all given a thumbs up by the 5 of us! Wish we could have taken some back home with us.
Pompeii -- Pompeii was EXTREMELY hot and crowded. The terrain is cobblestone rocks so we were glad we wore comfortable shoes. It was a very informative tour and lots to see. The only disappointment as that we did not get to see the brothel where all of the artwork is displayed (we did not realize this until after we returned to the ship). We had a quick pizza lunch here, which was mediocre. The cruise paperwork about the tour says "you will visit a cameo factory, time permitting, where you will have the opportunity to observe the local artisans at work." Ironically, this was the first stop while in Pompeii and there definitely was time permitting. Leave it to RCCL to try and get you to spend money!
Tons of history and lots to see and do. Can't possibly get it all done in a day, but you can sure try!
Our tickets for the Vatican were for 9:30 am, so that was our first stop. It was at this time that I realized the major benefits of touring with Rome-in-Limo. Not only did we have our own private driver to get us to and from everything but our driver also has VIP access for everything! We had booked a private tour guide to take us through the Vatican, which was 150 euros for our group of 8. Our guide was Cecelia and she was amazing and provided a wealth of information! She took us right inside! The line at the Vatican was very long for people who had previously purchased a ticket! I can't even imagine how long the line was for people without one. Cecelia escorted us everywhere, answered questions for us, and explained things to us so that they were very interesting (even for those not interested in art!). We were able to see the entire museum, the Sistine chapel and St. Peter's Basilica just as scheduled. The Vatican is very strict and does not allow anyone to wear shorts inside (knees can't show nor shoulders). They do take this rule very seriously! Photos are NOT allowed to be taken inside the Sistine Chapel and talking is not allowed either. They are VERY strict about this and all you hear is "shhhhhhh..... QUIET! No photos!" And lots of whispering.
Absolutely beautiful and a must see!
We drove by the Spanish Steps as there was no parking nearby. It was very crowded.
St. Peter's Square was wonderful.
The Trevi Fountain was beautiful but very crowded. Our driver with Rome in Limo taught us the proper way to toss our coins in the fountain for for good luck.
Spilt was a tender port. Tender tickets were handed out to those not taking the ships excursion. Our tender ticket was in group 17, so we waited, and waited, and waited in the lounge for our number to be called. Around 11:30 am, we decided to head to get some lunch before departing the ship so we could spend our time in port exploring ... If we ever got off! The ship was using the lifeboat tenders which did not hold nearly the same number of passengers as the local tenders used in La Spezia. After lunch, our number was finally called so into Split we went. We walked around town, explored the narrow passageways, did a little shopping, and of course ate some gelato! Split does not accept the Euro, as Kunos are their form of money. We were back on the ship in a couple of hours.
The Serenade of the Seas made its way into Venice around noon, and I must say coming into Venice was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen! Around 10 am, people started lining the decks for a good position for sail-in. We were on the helipad, which got quite crowded but we were still able to find a spot on the rail as most passengers either did not seem to realize the helipad existed, that it was accessible or went for the higher deck. As we passed by St. Mark's Square, we were in shock at how many people were there! It was packed!
The ship docked down by the bus and parking terminal. We chose to explore Venice on our own and purchase a 36 hour Vaporetto ticket for 25 euros. Before leaving home, we downloaded Rick Steve's free podcast of Venice while on the Vaporetto (line 1) which was a 45 minute guided tour of the buildings as we passed. It was amazing and he does a great job with his guided tour!
We visited St. Mark's Square, St. Mark's Cathedral, shopped in stores selling Moreno glass, got lost looking for a particular Gelato place named in Rick Steve's book, ate Gelato, ate pizza, drank vino, and paid 1,50 euros p/p to use a Water Closet (aka toilet)! Note: We paid 1 euro p/p and made a reservation online before leaving home to go inside St. Mark's Cathedral and were able to bypass the very long line to enter. We also downloaded Rick Steve's free podcast of the Cathedral so we knew what we were looking at (he gives a guided tour). Everything we read says you need to dress conservatively while inside the Cathedral (covered knees and shoulders). However, we saw quite a few visitors wearing shorts so obviously this isn't enforced like it is at the Vatican.
This is the only port where cruise passengers were required to take their passports ashore. Passports actually were checked by Venice port security before reaching the ship's security, so it was definitely necessary to bring them.