What a way to kick off the summer! This trip took us to Venice, Italy, Kotor, Montenegro, Piraeus (Athens), Greece, Cruising The Dardanelles, Istanbul, Turkey, Mykonos, Greece, Kusadasi (Ephesus), Turkey, Thira (Santorini), Greece, and Split, Croatia. With this being a very port-intensive cruise, the cruise itself is a little bit different from what we had experienced in the past.
Everything seemed to work, our flights, our private shore excursions (we saved money!), and to top it off, our young boys (ages 9 and 11) were close to perfect and even did better that we did in some "boring" situations.
Because so many cruises begin and/or end in Venice, I will spend a little more time talking about the logistics of Venice.
We arrived late Sunday morning in Venice via US Airways. The airport is not that large. We covered every bit of it looking for a sign or kiosk to call the Marriott Courtyard Shuttle bus. Our Marriott reservation rate included "free airport transportation." Before leaving the United States, I called Marriott reservations to ask them "how" to arrange for the shuttle and was told to look for a kiosk with a phone to call the hotel. There is no kiosk. We were not quite at the point of frustration yet, when we decided to go outside... and the shuttle bus was parked right in front of our eyes.
The hotel was about a five minute drive. This is an "airport" location (I didn't realize it was "that" close to the airport). The place was full of cruisers coming and going. The staff was excellent... all spoke perfect English. Being a European hotel, the guest rooms are smaller than what we Americans are used to. Marriott's website would not let me book four people into one room. Knowing that most European hotels offer rooms with either two twin beds or one large bed, I was afraid of booking just one room. In hindsight, the beds were larger than expected and I guess all four of us could have made it in one room (if the front desk would have allowed it). But it was nice to have two bathrooms to get ready in the mornings. We mistakenly thought all Courtyards have free internet. This location offered to give us a code once for 30-minutes of free time in the lobby. We saved that opportunity for later.
While the hotel was not in "old" Venice, it turned out to be in a great location. Admittedly, I wanted "Marriott Rewards" points. The "name-brand" hotels in the historic district were more expensive and we would have had to figure out transportation and baggage logistics (meaning carrying bags or hiring a porter to carry the bags through old Venice). The Marriott Courtyard simply was less hassle. The airport shuttle (once we found it) was quick. Tip: The hotel is on the bus line (number 5). The bus stop toward the historic area is right across the street from the hotel's front door. Note the return stop is in front of a church (that is set back from the curb) on the Marriott side of the street and is about 500-feet before the Marriott. It's hard to spot your stop to ring the bus bell early on the return trip, so pay attention to the landmarks on the LEFT side of the bus as you leave the Marriott for the historic area.
The best decision of our trip was arriving in Venice a couple of days early and buying a transit pass. The ride from the Marriott to the "bus station (Piazzale Roma)" took about 20-minutes. The bus "station" is not a building. It is basically a huge cul-de-sac. From there visitors have three choices: in one direction is a building that is the entrance to the cruise ship tram/people-mover (One-Euro each way), On the opposite side of the cul-de-sac is a line of boat (vaporetti) stops and a bridge that crosses the water (the start of The Grand Canal) into old Venice. We walked across the bridge and promptly began wandering the streets of Venice. Tip: Transit passes are good for buses and boats (vasporetti). The official site is http://www.veniceconnected.com/node/1454 . The site is in English but it does not do a very good job at explaining "how" everything works. You can save a few dollars by buying a one, two or three day pass on-line before you leave the states. You are provided with a confirmation number that you then enter into an ATM-like machine at the airport (baggage claim area). An important piece of information is that you specify a date for the pass on-line during the purchase process. The on-line calendar is a Monday-Sunday calendar instead of the American Sunday-Saturday calendar. We clicked wrong day and were unable to pick up our pass until Monday.
In the following days, we rode the bus from the Marriott to the bus station, jumped on a city boat (Vaporetti) and explored. Experts will tell you the best thing to do in Venice is to "get lost." We weaved through walkways and over canals. We found great "reasonable" restaurants." The general rule is the further away from St. Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco), the cheaper everything is. Our most enjoyable activity was riding the boats. One night we got on the boat as the sun was setting and got terrific shots of Venice at sunset! Yes, because we have kids, we paid the 80-euros for the family to ride an actual gondola (prices and routes are regulated) but the public boats are all you "need."
On Tuesday we slept late, got dressed, and ate our emergency food of Lance snack crackers because we figured we would have a big lunch on the ship. We checked out and they gave us a code for some free internet time. By email on our iPad, we confirmed our arrangements for Kotor, Montenegro.
With luggage in tow, we, along with other cruisers on several ships, boarded the city bus with our handy transit passes. We hauled our luggage across the cul-de-sac and toward the tram. Machines for the one-euro tram (people-mover) tickets accept credit cards. Cruiser go up an escalator and onto the tram (an elevated train-type ride). There is no way to walk. The tram makes two (2) stops. The cruise ships are typically at the first tram stop. After exiting, we had to go down an escalator, walk to an awaiting bus, load our luggage and then ride to the cruise terminal (about a five minute ride). After unloading our luggage from the bus, we rolled it about 100-feet and gave it to a cruise port attendant (required). We entered the terminal around 12:30 and found no line. After check-in, security screening and the cruise photographer stop, we boarded the ship and went to our cabin (5056). We realized we missed the "Welcome Back Luncheon" in the main dining room and headed to the Lido. Tip: Another option would have been a taxi from the hotel to the cruise terminal. We would have avoided the one-euro tram ride and gotten on the ship about 30-minutes earlier, but we saved roughly $50 by using our transit pass.
Smartest decision we made on board our ship: Getting unlimited laundry. After lunch, we unpacked and sent our formal wear shirts and our clothes from the past few days out to the laundry. There is no need to pre-arrange this. There is a checkbox on the laundry form for "unlimited laundry." The cost was about $8 per day and covered all four of us in the cabin.
After unpacking we got off the ship and did the reverse route to get back to Venice but without the bus ride. Note, depending on where the ship is docked, this can be a LOT of walking just to get to the tram. Once at the bus station, we boarded a boat that took us directly to Saint Mark's Square where we got some better pictures and visited some several churches. We went back to the ship for a late dinner.
The first night of our "cruise" overnighted in Venice. We got up early and used our transit passes again to travel to Murano. We used Rick Steve's book extensively during our time in Venice and Murano and saw many others using it as well. And speaking of Rick Steve's guidebooks, the ship library had several copies of his Mediterranean Cruise Ports book. However, we found the pages had been torn out for the ports we were visiting!
Our "cruise" officially got underway when the ship left Venice mid-afternoon. There is no way to describe the priceless experience of standing on the bow of the ship (the bow was opened several times during our 12-days), listening to Italian music and sailing out of this magical city. Holland America gets major points here... commentary was provided either entering or leaving every port. Often music was matched to the port. The commentary was appreciated, but we found ourselves in a quandary. We so wanted to be on deck, to feel the breeze, to get a full clear view and take pictures. But it was difficult to hear everything and so sometimes we retreated to the Crow's Nest.
Food on the Nieuw Amsterdam turned out to be wonderful mix of offerings and tastes. The hit of the cruise for our family turned out to be breakfast. Several days into the cruise, one of us happened to spot a crepe being made at the waffle station. We'd all had crepes before (during a family trip to Paris), but for some reason these really hit the spot! It turned into a crepefest every morning... crepes with Nutella and various fruit compotes (raspberry and blackberry seemed to be the favorites). The waffle station is also the secret place where passengers can find the imitation McDonald's Egg McMuffins wrapped and almost hidden from view. The other "must-have" item every morning was the ship-made potato cakes (they were best with a little sea salt from the grinder that is on most tables). These were not the usual frozen hash brown patties from a box. Sometimes we had to search the various food stations of the Lido to see which ones had the potato cakes instead of fried potato wedges.
Lunches seemed to be the usual cruise ship fare. The boys seemed to gravitate to the daily Asian-inspired offerings. The burgers (including lamb burgers) and hotdogs all looked and smelled good at the Lido Pool Grill. We were tempted but the serving sizes were so big and thick that we opted to go for the mixture and sampling of other items in the Lido. At various times, we all chose the taco/burrito station which also offered a chance to make your own nachos.
I would say during our entire cruise there were only a couple of food items that fell short of expectations. The chips for the nachos were a thicker texture and just didn't satisfy when compared to your local Salsarita's or Moe's quick serve Mexican restaurants back home. The other disappointment was the pizza. The crust was tasteless, the toppings lacked imagination and the cheese was sparse (how about some plain pepperoni and mushrooms, buffalo chicken, philly cheesesteak, pesto?) . We all tried pizza once. I gave it a second shot and it was better but still not good. Apparently we were not the only ones who felt this way. The pizza counter was not a popular place. Tip: Don't forget the famous HAL bread pudding for dessert in the Lido. This dessert is a tradition for many past HAL passengers, but I'm afraid unless you know about it and look for it, newer HAL customers will opt for the standard (and less tasty) dessert options in the dessert cases beside the ice cream bars.
This was our first time with "Anytime Dining" in the main dining room and it would out perfectly for us. We ended up going to the dining room each night between 6:15 and 6:30. The first night of the cruise we were sent to a table upstairs (packed because EVERYBODY eats in the main dining room on the first night). But for the rest of the cruise we were seated downstairs and had the same excellent waiter who quickly learned we liked Iced Tea and needed extra butter (kids love butter on bread and it's something we normally don't do at home). We never requested a specific time and never requested a specific table or waiter. It appears HAL tries to make the experience the same fixed seating as much as possible. We noticed other passengers around us, generally arrived about the same time as well and were seated in the same seats for the most part. Our food arrived as quick as you could ever expect and we were always able to make the 8pm main stage show. We were super pleased with Anytime Dining and will certainly use this option again. By the way, the Baked Alaska parade took place as usual for the fixed seating dessert time. However, the waiters also paraded down the staircase and included the Anytime Dining room. So there is still the opportunity to wave your napkin if you choose. Tip: You are able to make a reservation and specify table and/or waiter.
We have our own family vacation game that we always play, whether it be on a cruise or a land vacation. "How long can we go WITHOUT our kids eating chicken nuggets and fries!?" It's not that we are against those foods, but we do object to serving them to our kids for lunch and dinner every day of vacation. Think about it, no matter where you go, that's what EVERY restaurant offers on the kids' menus. On the ship, no kid's menus for us! A cruise is a perfect time to for kids to try new foods because if they don't like something, they can always get something else without additional costs. Our boys started the week with mussels, lamb, escargot, lobster, different varieties of fish and pasta. They did not seem to like the chilled soups for some reason, even though we tried to encourage them by comparing the soups to melted ice cream.
We skipped the main dining room several nights because of special food that was served outside on the Lido deck. Several nights the food team grilled MEDITERRANEAN inspired foods, kabobs, gyros, olive spreads, cheeses, special pita breads and desserts. These affairs were great and well attended. Greek music was playing, Greek food was being served, and all enjoyed the scenery as we sailed away from the ports... but we had to take our food into the Lido to actually eat. There just wasn't enough space for everyone to eat outside. While not "complaints," there are several things that HAL could do to improvement enjoyment. Would there be any way to remove sun lounge chairs and set up additional seating during these events? Some extra umbrellas for shade would be excellent as well. Finally, a general comment about Lido dining... Please HAL, buy more of the larger glass sizes. Apparently the Lido stocks two sizes, a smaller "juice" glass (guessing about 6-8 ounces) and a larger glass that's about 10-ounces. It never failed, no matter what time we went to the Lido, morning, afternoon, night, I always got stuck with the smaller glasses. Others in my family would get the larger glasses, but not me! Tip: Find a table, put down your food, and then go get your drinks and always plan on carrying two glasses of drink per person. There are no trays.
Entertainment aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam has improved. Music choices were both old and new. The production levels are blew me away (more on that in just a minute). Where the "Welcome Aboard/Preview Show" was once a complete waste of time, it's now worth seeing! The highlight of the entertainment schedule was the first show, "Cantare." Four male singers were featured and the audience that was there to see them went wild. One singer was obviously the "star," but as our cruise went on, I realized the other singers were extremely talented, and I would say, were even under-used.
The staging was spectacular and simple at the same time. Pieces Roman columns and blocks were mounted on a turntable. In addition, there was a live orchestra was on the stage. Behind it all was an electronic LED board that "changed" the background than flashed visions of cliffs as well as colorful artistic backgrounds. It was stunning. The next show, "NYC," utilized the electronic light board even more by creatively showing computer animation of a New York city street and subway station. One of the performers "moved" on stage and the illusion made it appear that he was actually walking down a subway staircase. It was off-the-charts cool. The music in these two shows would have fit anyone's taste... in fact our boys enjoyed them and asked to go back for the next shows. Sadly, I was disappointed in the attendance. For all of the criticism that HAL caters to an "older" crowd, I thought these offerings would dispel those notions. Later in the cruise, a cruise official told a large percentage of the passengers had already been on the ship and had seen most of the production shows and that European cruises are usually quieter because they are so port intensive and people are actually tired (I totally believe that).
The other production shows, Garage Band and Avalon Ballroom were closer to the typical cruise ship shows. We were glad some of the other singers got a chance to shine. The ship picked up comedian Paul Adams (clean and funny) and pianist Elliot Finkel. I was worried that he was too close to the HAL "mature" stereotype... but he had the audience eating out of his hand... young and old LOVED him.
There were a few one-time events/shows that we were able to see at least some of --cooking demonstrations and animal towel folding. The "Deal or No Deal" show had the potential to be a lot of fun. There were nearly 800 fun-loving Australians on board and wouldn't you know the one with zero personality was the one picked to be the "Deal or No Deal" contestant. She sat there and didn't care if she missed out on winning $1,000. She figured anything she won would be more than she started with. ...And she was right--she left the show with about a dollar and showed no emotion when she lost the big money. The newly-wed show featured three older couples... and they were FUNNY! Cruise Director Dan and Mario the DJ were hosting this and totally lost control a few times (you would think they've heard and seen it all before-- but obviously they haven't).
Our boys loved Club HAL. They've enjoyed Club HAL in the past and just like our last cruise, they raced to Club HAL after dinner each night. This surprised us a bit. We were a bit worried because often they were the only boys taking part in the activities. Thankfully, there was a guy working in Club HAL, so I think he found some other activities for them to do when things got too girly. Interesting note, there were roughly 50-kids on our cruise. We were told the number would climb to 250-kids on the next voyage. My boys wanted me to play Wii with them at one point, but adults are not allowed in the Club HAL room when other kids are present (for security reasons). We would have appreciated the opportunity to play computer games as a family during sea days on when we returned early from a shore excursion.
At one point, we took our boys out to the pool. They jumped into the back ocean-view pool and within a few minutes, they were told children are not allowed (this was fast, I was standing right there and I didn't see this happen). After this happened, I "think" I recalled reading something about an "adults only pool" on Cruise Critic, but I swear I never saw a sign or a note anywhere on board. We went to the Lido Pool and found a number of other kids there. My boys quickly jumped in and began splashing and playing tag with the others. One passenger was visibly upset. Let's face it, it's not a big pool to begin with compared to the land-based pools kids are used to. ....Maybe if passengers had realized all of the children were being told they had to go to that one pool that man wouldn't have been there to get splashed????
The movie theater was a fantastic venue with nice comfortable high-back seats that slightly recline. The seats even have small tables beside them for drinks and popcorn. Yes! HAL still has the bags of popcorn on a tray at the entrance to the room. Our complaint is simply the fact that we couldn't take advantage of this nice venue more often! With so many extensive port days, the movie schedules just didn't work for us. We saw a couple of movies here on our sea days, and again, we're sorry we couldn't see more. This was also the site of one of our family "adventures." (You know, one of those family stories that will be told over and over for years to come.) Without relaying every detail, a showing of "War Horse" was very crowded and all of the seats were gone. Some had already seated themselves on the riser steps. More people were standing at the entrance wondering what to do. I went across the hallway and took stackable chairs (which I returned after the movie by the way) and carried them over to my family. By now the lights had been dimmed and the movie was starting. I un-stacked the chairs and my family members all took one-- except in the midst of doing this--one man suddenly walked up and took one of our chairs. It was one of those crazy moments frozen in time. I stared in disbelief--THAT MAN JUST TOOK MY CHAIR! By now, others were going across the hall and bringing chairs over too. I had to go get another chair. When I returned, there was no place for me and my new chair. The one available spot was across the room along the outside wall. I didn't realize it until later when my wife told me, but the empty spot was right in front of the man who took my original chair!
We found the ship in almost perfect condition. We saw nothing broken or damaged other than a few worn spots on the stairs in the highest traffic spots (and that's being super picky). We all loved using the "outside" glass elevators and appreciated the floor mats in each elevator car reminding us what day of the week it was!
Stops Along The Way: For the most part we made our own shore arrangements and we were very pleased. There are plenty of websites and guidebooks (Rick Steve's) that tell you what to see at each port. I'll only mention a few highlights. Full disclosure: We are not shoppers and I'm sure others would enjoy exploring the villages and bazaars a little bit more than we did.
Kotor, Montenegro: If you were to ask our kids the highlight of this vacation, they would tell you Kotor. We booked an afternoon the "Monty B (www.montenegro4sail.com)." The Monty B is a private sailboat operated by a British couple. They live on the boat and host travelers to make a living. We were delayed in getting off of the ship--ship-sponsored tours get tender service before "independent" travelers. After leaving the dock, we turned left and walked less than five minutes to a small shore-side park with a stone monument and a small dingy (raft) was waiting for us. We climbed in and were rowed to the Monty B. The couple was delightful. We rode around Kotor Bay for several hours and saw the UNESCO World Heritage site of Perast from the water. Granted, we didn't walk around Perast as I guess the ship-excursion people did. But our boys took a quick dip in the Adriatic Sea, hoisted the sails, turned the sail gears and "drove" the boat. We were provided with a light snack and local cookies. We had about 45-minutes to peek inside the old town and gaze up at the wall of the fort (looks like the Great Wall of China that climbed the mountain) before catching our tender back to our ship. This happened to be the day of our 15th anniversary and we will treasure it.
Piraeus (Athens): We made arrangements by email with Paul Kalomiris (www.greektaxi.gr). We were advised to get off the ship the moment they open the door to meet our guide. We did and that turned out to be EXCELLENT advice. Our private driver, Konstantinos, was waiting outside the cruise terminal with our name on a sign and took us immediately to the Acropolis. It was not crowded and we started snapping pictures right away. Thirty minutes later, the place was a mob scene. The bus tours started arriving. We left the Parthenon about 45-minutes after we arrived and could not believe the giant crowd of people on the steps waiting to get in. Our driver Konstantinos is technically a driver and not a licensed tour guide so he could not accompany us into the sites. He told us about the history and sites before we got out of his car. Honestly, that was fine. His company can arrange for an official guide to escort your into the sites but I really don't think that's necessary for most people. We were rushing around the entire day and really could not have spent more time listening (absorbing) any other details. Our boys enjoyed seeing the changing of the guard outside the Parliament Building. Our driver made this day. He had so much personality and excitement and really seemed to enjoy his job. On top of that, he seemed to appreciate our business. He presented our boys with postcards, bookmarks and a nicely packaged box of baklava at the end of the day. Tip: Konstantinos got us to the Parthenon before the crowds. We were so taken back by the site and took so many pictures that we ate up too much time. Give yourself 30-minutes and then move on to see the other ruins at the Acropolis site.
Istanbul: This was the port where we were totally confused. Thank God for the ship's doctor! We ran into him on the bow of the ship as we sailed into Istanbul. Despite asking for clarification with the on board port guide and the shore excursion desk, it was the ship doctor who really explained "how" the Istanbul port works. Apparently there was a shuttle bus that would take you to the Galata Bridge for a charge. The doctor told us to skip the bus and walk! So glad we did. We had a few notes from a Rick Steve's book and explored. We went back to the ship for dinner. Our boys went to Club HAL and my wife and I went back out to take pictures as the sun started to set. We got some beautiful pictures of mosques lit at night and the Galata Bridge. I didn't understand the fascination with the bridge until we went to see it in person. It's a multi-level bridge... cars and people travel on the top... restaurants are on the lower level. This is a grimy urban bridge but the open air restaurants appeared to be super clean! Many on the ship had chosen a Bosphorus River dinner cruise or dinner and whirling dervish show. I thought the whirling dervish shows were too late in the evening to keep the boys out considering we had a full day of touring Istanbul the next day. Our dinner on the ship turned out to be one of the best (Lobster Thermidor) but I would suggest others consider dinner on the Galata Bridge for the experience.
The next day was a full day tour (www.dailyistanbultours.com). Another family from the ship with children about the same ages as ours, had also booked this tour. Truthfully, our guide was fine, but she lacked the enthusiasm and energy of our driver in Athens. I don't think she took enough cues from both families. She really didn't engage the children and, despite both families telling her that we are not shoppers, she left us alone in the Grand Bazaar for an hour (we all visited a nearby mosque on our own during shopping time).
Mykonos, Greece: Our ship-sponsored tour took us to Delos on the afternoon we arrived. We all enjoyed the boat ride over to Delos. There were a lot of ruins on the ground on Delos. According to Greek mythology, this is the place where Apollo was born. During roman times, it was an important trading port. Very little has been reconstructed here. I wish there had been drawings to help visualize what used to be here. With few trees and no shade and difficulty visualizing, our boys got tired of this. Honestly, we were starting to get mentally tired as well. After dinner on the ship, we went to Mykonos and walked over to the windmills and saw the most wonderful sunset! We got some terrific pictures!
Kusadasi (Ephesus), Turkey: Our private guide arrived about the same time we got off of the ship and walked out of the terminal (http://www.ephesustours.biz). She was a lovely lady... a former teacher and had a genuine love for people. By the way, the terminal area here is nice and fairly new... a very impressive entry to the country. Our Mercedes Benz van took us to the Virgin Mary's House. Again, we beat the tour buses. From there we spent about three hours in historic Ephesus. This IS IMPRESSIVE. Very quickly, the place became VERY crowded and hot. A delicious lunch was served to us at the nearby at the government sponsored carpet weaving school. After a carpet demonstration, with only slight pressure to buy, we went to see other ruins. It's obvious why everybody wants to visit Ephesus. Tip: Make sure your camera battery is charged... this is THE place to see and photograph ruins.
Thira (Santorini), Greece: From the descriptions we heard before we arrived, this was the second-most confusing do-it-yourself port. We had no specific plans. The ship shore guide made it sound more complicated and encouraged us to take a ship excursion. We did not and ended up making the right choice. This is a tender port. The tender boats arrive at a small dock at the bottom of a cliff. There are three ways up: 1). Cable car (ski lift type of cabin) 2. Ride a donkey 3. Walk up the steps (you would be nuts to try this). HOWEVER, we did not choose any of those options. It just so happens that at the dock, there was a small boat tour office. For a tiny price (at least compared to the ship shore excursion), we bought tickets on a large wooden pirate-looking boat. It took us around the edge of the island to the northern tip where a bus met us at sea level and gave us a ride to the top where we visited the town of Oia. This is the photographic spot everybody wants to visit for the shots of white buildings and blue-domed churches. After two hours, the bus took us back to the town of Thera where we would have to go back down the cliff to our tender dock. Santorini is a fairly small island, but it's much too large to traverse without some kind of transportation. Back in Thera, we walked around and decided to it was time to head back to the ship. This is the thing that every cruise passenger needs to know: You've got to get down the cliff back to the dock. The cable car line was l-o-n-g. Passengers later told us back on the ship that the line was an hour and a half! While I would have liked to have spent a little more time in Santorini, the fact of the matter was we were all getting tired and really needed to get back to the ship as quickly as we could. Looking at the stairway... it looked like it would take forever to walk down. We chose to ride the donkeys down (five euro each). It was an adventure. They went down the steps much faster than I would have liked... trust me, you have to hold on! Don't even think about taking a picture while riding these donkeys! Tip: The cable cars can only handle a small number of people at one time. The line is slow. Be prepared for the wait, especially if there are several cruise ships in port at the same time. You do not need a "guide" in Santorini, but you do need to think about transportation. Ship excursions will get you around the island, but they all end at the top of the cliff and you have to decide how you want to get back down. Walkers have to use the same staircase as the donkeys (watch your step!).
Split, Croatia: This can easily be done on your own. We entered the historic town (the walled palace interior was a town) and paid a small amount of money to buy a church pass. This allowed us inside the church, baptismal, bell tower and a small museum. After that we walked around a few minutes and were ready to try something different. We went back to the ship, ate lunch and went back into Split with beach towels. At the end of the dock, turn right, follow the palace walls until they end at the bus station and keep walking and follow the railroad tracks. As long as you follow the tracks you will find City Beach (we didn't and it took us longer). We went under a graffiti covered bridge and were there. This was a neat experience. Once you get past thinking about the urban and dingy entrance way, you realize the water is only waist deep for about the length of three football fields. Young and old were there. Every size and shape of humanity was on display. It should be against the law to sell a bikini to some people! We were amused at the number of people speaking English... every American college student backpacking across Europe must have been there that day.
Back in Venice, we now understood the transportation system, and could have easily gotten back to the airport using city transportation. I had previously made arrangements with www.europeantransfer.com for a van ($45). We got to the Venice airport 2 Â½ hours before our flight and needed every minute because the check-in lines moved slowly. Our flight was full. US Airways was offering passengers a $900 voucher, hotel and meals for anyone who would stay overnight and fly out the next day. I had to be back at work the next morning otherwise we would have jumped at the opportunity.
Additional odd notes:
- I almost felt out of place wearing a tuxedo (I happen to have one).
- Internet was slow--but not as slow as I expected.
- They will still deliver the printed New York Times to your cabin if you request. The New York Times website can be accessed FREE in the Explorers Lounge.
- We were a bit surprised there was no note of congratulations or mention of our 15th anniversary. There was a deck party/cookout the night of our anniversary so we did not eat in the main dining room.
- The Dessert Extravaganza seemed more "flashy" -- beautiful. However, a lot of it tasted the same. Everyone took pictures of the cabinet of candy apples.
- Never once saw anyone using the spa pool (we walked by it all the time).
- I never realized I would use the front desk like an ATM machine. I needed Euros and they just added a charge to my cabin. There was a small service fee but less than I would have paid using an ATM. I could also convert Euros (bills not coins) back into American dollars with NO fee (HAL uses the Bank of America conversion rate).
- We really didn't feel the need to sample the other restaurants. We really enjoyed the pool side cookouts as we left a number of ports and we were out on excursions many days at lunch.
- We did get a soda card for $25 before the cruise (value of $50). We're not the kind who drink a lot of soda, but thought over 12-days, we'd use it. But since we had soda on so many shore excursions with our included lunches, we really didn't have a desire for more Coke. We had trouble using it up. But if I were going to the Caribbean, I think it would be a must-have. No matter where we were on the ship (Lido, MDR or bar), we received a can of Coke. There has been some question about whether you are served a can or a bar fountain Coke on other HAL ships.
- We were so busy, we only used the gym once. We really enjoyed walking the deck!
- Thankfully, we had a number of "half" sea days... where we did not dock until the afternoons. This proved to be invaluable, not just physically, but also mentally.
- This cruise required physical stamina. There was a LOT of walking. In addition, there were stairs and uneven walking surfaces at the historic sites. I really don't know how some people were able to do it.
- We ordered movie DVD's from the front desk several times. They are FREE. You can pick them up or they will deliver to the cabin. Watching a movie in the late afternoon while the "smart ones" among us (who me??) dozed off after a day of touring, was a welcome respite.
I tend to be a perfectionist. I am always looking for ways to make something "better." But the truth is, I'm not sure what I could have done to improve our vacation experience. However, I have one regret. Our boys discovered the terrycloth robes in the cabin and wore them EVERYDAY. When they weren't "lounging" in them, they were acting out their martial arts skills they acquired by watching Kung Fu Panda. I'm sorry I didn't order robes with their initials monogrammed and hidden them away for Christmas presents.