BACKGROUND This cruise was actually not our original choice. We have enjoyed river cruising lately and had planned on taking a French river cruise with land stays at Paris and Barcelona at the beginning and end. However, as we started totaling up the costs of the river cruise, even with a sub-water level room, it appeared that an ocean cruise might be a better value. Sure enough, due to the Costa effect or the economy or whatever, we found great values on Mediterranean cruises and opted to go that way. We booked this cruise on Nieuw Amsterdam because it was a new ship, we like the traditional nature of HAL and we liked the itinerary that included many interesting ports PLUS some days at sea. The trend these days seems to be to cram as many ports as possible into the itineraries, but we always enjoy sea days, and you NEED them to recover from the rigors of sightseeing! Since we had allocated about 15 days for the original trip, we decided to do a pre-cruise stay in Venice.
VENICE -- PRE CRUISE Lufthansa is our airline of choice whenever feasible. The airline offers direct service to Munich out of Charlotte, our home town, thus bypassing the horrors of Philadelphia, New York or Newark. What's more, it's a top notch operation where you actually get some service aboard and the flight attendants are younger than you. Our flights were right on time, and we arrived at Marco Polo airport shortly after noon local time. While waiting for the bags to arrive, I wrestled with the automatic ticket vending machine to get tickets on the ATVO express bus to Venice. I wouldn't call it user friendly, or it might have been my jet lagged fog, but after numerous attempts I finally procured the tickets. (There are also ticket machines next to the bus stop outside the terminal and the bus driver can help with the machine.) There are basically 5 ways to get from the airport to the Piazalle Roma, which is the entryway to Venice and terminal point for vehicles. You can take the ATVO bus which is a nice, air conditioned Greyhound-style bus with plenty of bag storage space below. This is what we opted for at a price of 6 euros each. You can take a cab at a price of about 50 euros. You can also take the city local ACTV bus, but bag storage is minimal and it makes stops. It is part of the city transportation network, however, so a multi-day ticket is good for it and the vaporettos in Venice, making it the cheapest option. There is also an Allilaguna Boat option but its destinations are limited -- San Marco and the cruise ship piers come to mind. I think the fare is around 16 euros. Finally, there are the water taxis which are the fastest and most convenient and can take you closest to your hotel, but are also very costly -- over 100 euros plus bag fees.
I did a lot of pre-cruise research on hotel locations since I knew Venice was a tough place to get around with luggage. I narrowed my search to an area near the Piazzale Roma, which is the arrival square for public transportation and near the people mover that takes passengers out to the cruise ship piers. I reasoned that a hotel in this area would enable us to walk to our hotel and then back to the people mover when we started our cruise. I did realize the challenge of toting bags, so I limited my choices to hotels that were well reviewed by Trip Advisor and within a 15 minute walk of the Piazzale Roma. The Hotel Canal Grande, right on the Grand Canal, met these requirements, and that is where we booked.
We arrived at the Piazzale Roma by airport bus as mentioned, but worn out by the rigors of the overnight flight, subsequent connecting flight and the bus transfer to the city. Unfortunately, our challenges were not over at this point. The hotel was, in fact, only a 10 -15 minute walk, but that assumes that you are just walking there. We had 2 airplane-max weight bags (50#) that we could hook together, a 25# roll-aboard suitcase and two hand bags. Negotiating level ground with this combination was not a problem, but once we go to our first bridge, the challenges started. I did know that there were bridges between the Piazalle and the hotel, but for some reason, I assumed they would be level or at the least have some sort of smooth pavement for handicapped persons. Well, we all know what "assume" stands for! The bridges were arched with only steps. So getting all our bags over the bridges required multiple trips carrying the bags rather than pulling them. Multiply this by 4, throw in the crowds on the bridges plus the unseasonably hot weather in Venice (90 degrees +), and by the time we got to the Hotel Canal Grande, we were "all give out" as we say here in North Carolina. My faithful traveling partner and good sport, Barbara, was ready to divorce me at this point, had we been married!
So what can you do to avoid a situation like this? Not much, I'm afraid. Obviously, packing light is the way to go, but how do you pack lightly for a 15 day trip that includes a cruise with formal nights? Once you get to the Piazalle Roma, there are only 3 ways to get to your hotel: walk, vaporetto (public boat), or water taxi. We have already talked about the walk option. The vaporettos are usually crowded so schlepping bags onto and off them is a problem. Plus you still have to get from the water stop to your hotel. The water taxis are the obvious best way to go, but they are ridiculously expensive, even for short trips. So, this might be one of those cruises where you want to consider the ship arranged pre/post cruise stays since they usually have arrangements to transport your bags. Be prepared to pay the price, however.
Hotel Canal Grande http://i1069.photobucket.com/albums/u479/shipnc/18f9f796.jpg
View from room: bridge from RR station that you have to lug bags over http://i1069.photobucket.com/albums/u479/shipnc/95d92e12.jpg
Once we recovered from our mule-packing event, we were fine. The Hotel Canal Grande was great and we enjoyed Venice, despite the crowds and record heat. We are Rick Steves fans and downloaded several of his podcast tour narrations which we found to be most helpful. Venice is a great walking city but forget trying to navigate with the tourist maps the hotels provide -- just about useless. But there are signs all over the city pointing to the major attractions so it's not hard to navigate. The vaporettos were easy to use but somewhat expensive and often very crowded. Plan your travel so that you can buy a boat pass for the optimum number of hours that you will use them since that will be the cheapest way. You have to validate your boat pass on machines every time you get on a boat, and yes they do check them -- twice on boats we were on.
Checkout time at our hotel was 12 so we toured the Friari Church in the morning, prior to embarking on Nieuw Amsterdam. This is an often overlooked gem that we enjoyed; or maybe it was just such a relief to be in a church without mobs. http://i1069.photobucket.com/albums/u479/shipnc/24e9f7b5.jpg
We checked out of the hotel around 1130 to head for the ship. I had come up with a new plan to minimize, if not eliminate, the trials and tribulations of the incoming bag packing evolution. I left my big bag and shoulder tote in the hotel and Barbara and I strolled to the people mover with a much more manageable load. She waited for me there while I returned to the hotel to retrieve the remainder of the bags. We then rode the elevator to the people mover and took it to the first stop where we descended and met the shuttle bus that took us the rest of the way to the ship. Considering a water taxi was going to charge us 80 euros plus bag fees, and the people mover cost a total of 2 euros, I figured we had just earned ourselves two dinners at the Pinnacle Grill!
Nieuw Amsterdam is a new, medium (by today's standards) sized ship that is built in the HAL tradition. If you are looking for glitz, bright colors and neon, do not book this ship. It is designed in a classic tradition with earth colors and sedate interiors that create a calm, conservative atmosphere. Kudos to HAL; they are one of the few companies that cling to the 360 degree wraparound promenade deck with real wooden deck chairs. The ship was super-clean and in good repair, with the exception of worn carpeting in high traffic areas. It had been some time since we had sailed on an HAL ship and we were wondering if the fresh flowers would still be there. They were, if in somewhat less abundance than before, but that is still saying something. The ship was well designed with most of the public rooms on lower decks so noise spillover into cabins was not an issue. On board, there was an abundance of lounges, big and small, where you could find your own niche. Our favorite was the Silk Lounge which offered spectacular views and was the only ship lounge I have ever seen with couches where you could doze!
We initially booked a V category verandah stateroom on deck 8 because the prices were so good we felt we could splurge. Well, about 2 weeks prior to sailing, our TA called and told us that HAL had offered us the opportunity to upgrade to a Deluxe Verandah Suite -- category SA- for an additional $600 per person. This seemed like an opportunity of a lifetime so we did it. And now I regret it........because we have been spoiled forever! The cabin was huge: over 500 square feet. I can't ever remember being on a cruise where we didn't use all the storage space, but such was the case here. Plus the suite comes with a bunch of perks we weren't even aware of when we booked it: free, unlimited laundry and dry cleaning (and boy did we need that in the heat of this trip); a separate lounge with morning breakfast available, which was really handy for our early morning departures; priority boarding for tenders (invaluable in Santorini); priority check in and disembarkation; sit-down breakfast service in the Pinnacle Lounge just for suite passengers; a variety of special events that provided free drinks and appetizers. Best of all, though, was the wonder large deck that included two lounge chairs in addition to a dining table and chairs. As a result of this beautiful room and deck, we spend a lot more time in our room than on previous cruises. My only complaint with the suite was the shampoo/soap/conditioner dispensers that were affixed to the shower wall; ok for your local gym but not appropriate for a suite, IMHO. So, was the suite worth it? For the list price; maybe not. Was it worth $600 more than an already good price on our other cabin? Oh yes!
FOOD AND SERVICE We opted for the traditional second seating dining and ate dinner in the main dining room 11 out of the 12 days. We had a congenial table for 8, and enjoyed getting to know our tablemates. The food was good to very good, and the farewell captain's dinner of surf and turf was excellent. I was curious to see if the new "gratuity included" concept would affect service, and I am pleased to say that our dining room stewards were as efficient and gracious as ever. We ate one night at the Pinnacle Grill (using the proceeds from our money saved getting to the ship!) and it was absolutely excellent. One does pine for the old days when dining in the main dining room was like dining in the specialty restaurants today, but the competitive pricing of today's cruise industry brings with it an inevitable reality. Beyond the main dining room, I was constantly impressed by the friendliness and efficiency of crew in all other areas we encountered. I have always been amazed that these workers, for whom every day is "ground hog day"- and not a very fun ground hog day to boot - can nevertheless be cheerful and upbeat, yet they are. We happily tipped our room stewards and dining rooms stewards over and above the mandatory "hotel" fees in recognition of their hard work and good service.
PORTS OF CALL
I'm going to provide the abbreviated version of our port calls here, but will provide a more detailed look at some of the ports and excursions in the "ports" section of Cruise Critic, if anyone is interested.
Kotor, Montenegro. We took our only ship tour here since it was a tender port, our time was limited and we reasoned that ship tours would get off first, giving us the most time to explore. We took the Boka Bay cruise which sailed the bay and stopped in an attractive island church and picturesque city. It was a pleasant and relaxing trip, but basically it retraced the route that we sailed in on, and the church and city, while interesting, were nothing spectacular. We did have some time to walk the old walled city of Kotor after the tour, but if I had it to do over again, I would have just toured the city on our own and maybe climbed to the fortress.
The Gospa od Skrpjela Church in Boka Bay http://i1069.photobucket.com/albums/u479/shipnc/40483a65.jpg
Athens, Greece. We got off the ship first thing in Athens and took a cab to the Acropolis. We caught the cab on the main road in front of the terminal, bypassing the port fee and "tour guides." We used Rick Steves Podcasts to tour the Acropolis, the Agora and the Athens City Walk. We had the obligatory Souflaki lunch and returned to the ship using the metro and bus. For more details, see the Athens section of cruise critic port boards.
Istanbul, Turkey. The ship arrived in Istanbul around 4 p.m. and overnighted there. After docking, we caught the streetcar into the historic district, after a considerable walk to get out of the dock area onto the main street. The streetcar basically runs right through the historic area and is as fast, if not faster, than the shuttle buses and tours from the ship. We got off the train at the main tourist area, previewed St. Sofia, the Blue Mosque and toured the underground Cistern. After a brief visit to the Grand Bazaar, we retraced our steps via the street car and were back on the ship in time for dinner.
The next day we joined our tour group organized by one of the Cruise Critic members on the Roll Call threads. Believe me, if you can find someone willing to organize a tour like this, it is the way to go. Our tour hit all he same spots as the ship tours, was led by an excellent guide and cost half as much as the comparable ship tours. Plus, you have a congenial group of 10 -- 12 instead of 50 or 60. We saw the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and St. Sofia Church and had a great lunch. It was a full day, but a good day.
St. Sophia Church. http://i1069.photobucket.com/albums/u479/shipnc/c5ecf162.jpg
Mykonos. The incredible heat that had plagued us in Venice and Athens finally broke, but along with the frontal passage came high winds. With 40 knot winds in the harbor at Mykonos, the ship could not maintain station, let along tender boats, so this port was skipped. We proceeded directly to our next port, Kusadasi, where we docked for the night.
Kusadasi. We had another tour organized by our intrepid Cruise Critic member and it was just as successful as our Istanbul trip. We visited Ephesus, including the terrace houses, the Virgin Mary's House, and St. John's Basilica. The tour also included an excellent lunch and carpet making demonstration, which is a fully recognized sales technique but was actually very interesting. Yes, we did buy two (relatively) inexpensive rugs which were shipped back to the States for us. They were probably not a real bargain, but they are beautiful and wonderful mementos of our visit to Turkey.
Ruins of the library at ancient Ephesus. http://i1069.photobucket.com/albums/u479/shipnc/17d7ac53.jpg
Santorini. See the Europe ports board section for a detailed summary of our Santorini visit. I think this may have been our favorite stop since it was so drop-dead gorgeous and, to be perfectly honest, didn't require any great history study or preparation. This was a tender port and it is critical to be off as soon as possible to avoid lines at the cable car. We were off early, rented an ATV, and drove to Oia where we spent most of the morning. It is a beautiful place with a photo around every corner. After a late lunch back in Fira, we returned to the cable car where Barbara took the cable car down, despite the lines, while I walked the mule trail in the interest of journalistic research. Let's just say that this hike will never make the Sierra Club's top ten walks, due to the aromatic nature of the mule residue, but it took only about 20 minutes and is certainly preferable to waiting in a long line for the cable car, to my way of thinking, anyway.
The beauty of Oia, on the island of Santorini. http://i1069.photobucket.com/albums/u479/shipnc/8146eeb2.jpg
Split. This was our final port, and our energy meter was blinking low by this point in the trip. Split is a scenic walled city that can be enjoyed just walking around. So that is what we did. We also climbed the church steeple for panoramic views and listened to the street singers.
View of Split from church tower. http://i1069.photobucket.com/albums/u479/shipnc/b7e4508d.jpg
Our ship docked back in Venice early in the morning, but we were staying an extra day since our Lufthansa flight left early in the morning. The disembarkation was very orderly and smooth, with people getting assigned times to leave the ship, based on their schedules. Since we were in no rush, we had a leisurely breakfast and then left the ship around 9. There was a pretty log queue for the water taxis, but we hopped on the shuttle to the people mover and returned to the Piazalle Roma. On our last day in Venice prior to boarding the ship, we scouted hotels around the Piazalle and made a reservation at the Hotel Popadopoli which was only one small bridge away. This worked out well. We stowed our bags at the hotel, did some more walking around Venice and then took the boat to the island of Murano, famous for its glass blowing factories. The following morning we were up early for the ATVO bus back to the airport and our flights home, which went as scheduled.
If you're older and like a more traditional cruise experience (we resemble those remarks!), HAL is still the way to go. This was a most enjoyable cruise aboard a beautiful ship, with a great room, and a nice combination of interesting ports and sea time. Holland America is still a cut above, and Nieuw Amsterdam is a class operation.