I travelled with my mother-in-law on her first-ever trip to Europe, although not her first cruise. In late July, Princess offered a sale that divided a 12-day cruise from Rome to Venice into 2 segments of 6 days: we were on the less port-intensive first half, departing from Civitavecchia, with stops in Livorno, Naples and Santorini, before arriving in Athens where we disembarked. We also had 2 sea days- a good chance to enjoy the wonderful weather and the ship's facilities.
Embarkation: Having spent several days in Rome before the cruise, we booked a transfer by minivan from our hotel, sharing the cost with another couple. Once our driver figured out the right way to the pier, things went smoothly- less than 15 minutes from bag drop to being in our cabin.
Cabin: We booked a BD guarantee, and that's what we got- a balcony cabin just aft of midship on Baja deck. We only received our cabin assignment the day before our departure for Rome and 5 days before embarkation- although I know this can happen I was still checking the Cruise Personalizer about 3 times a day that last week! The cabin was as expected, with more than adequate storage space, and a bathroom (and shower) that seemed luxuriously large compared to the one my husband and I had on our Adriatic cruise last summer on Voyager of the Seas. We enjoyed the balcony which was rarely too hot or too windy. The port side seemed to be ideal for views, especially on the Santorini day. We never saw our cabin steward(ess) in the cabin other than the first day but often exchanged greetings in the corridor. Robes requested in the Personalizer appeared on the second day without having to ask, and towels and toiletries were replaced frequently.
Dining: We had the first sitting, Traditional, in Botticelli Dining Room. There were many empty seats, including at our table for 8, where we were 4 on 3 nights and 6 on the others. The long port days made this a somewhat awkward time to eat. My mother-in-law must follow a gluten-free diet and I faxed this request to Princess upon booking. I received a detailed letter which we presented to the Maitre d' on the first afternoon, and from the first dinner onward, the Head Waiter came to take her order for the following evening's meal (and for lunch on sea days in the dining room as well- we did this once). There were very few limitations on what could be prepared for her gluten-free, one exception being dessert, where she was usually presented with a "surprise from the chef" which differed from the regular menu offerings on several nights. We ate all our breakfasts in Horizon Court where toast made with gluten-free bread was prepared in the kitchen without hassles. Overall, I was pleased with the quality and quantity of food served. No, it's not the way it was on my first Princess Med cruise in 1993-I can still recall the free caviar and iced vodka at the midnight buffet-but there are also more options. I was pleasantly surprised by the beef dishes, especially the melt-in-your-mouth Chateaubriand with Bearnaise sauce, and the barrimundi the first night was excellent. The only "miss" was a vegetarian strudel filled with mushy peas and potato that was pretty tasteless. Overall, the food was much better than on our RCCL cruise last year, although I missed their nightly curries and the chopped salad bar in the dining room on sea days.
Entertainment and activities: Cruise director Lisa Ball was originally a dancer, and this cruise had a surprising number of dance classes and venues scheduled for dancing. I attended an enjoyable merengue class that she taught, but had the most fun at the Zumba and Brazilian line dancing classes taught by Nat, a staff member from Brazil. Lisa Ball also led the one Princess Pop Choir practice I was able to attend. I was a bit disappointed that there was only one production show in our half of the cruise- Motor City, but I did enjoy some of the short performances put on in the Piazza in the evening. The pools were busy during the day but there was always somewhere to sit, except at the Terrace Pool. I really don't see the point of MUTS during the day- I couldn't even see the screen when I had my sunglasses on- but I loved the experience the night I went to the late showing of The Hunger Games: blanket (needed after midnight even in the Med), popcorn, cookies and milk: what's not to like?
Ports and excursions: With limited time to plan, we chose the easy but not cheap option of Princess tours. From Livorno, we did Florence + time on your own, with an excellent guided walking tour and about 3 hours of free time, much of which we spent at the Uffizi Galleries where I had pre-booked our tickets. From Naples, we did the Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast bus tour: a lot of time in the bus, but what views! Definitely a place to go back to. On Santorini, we did the Oia, Fira and Winery tour in the morning, which meant tasting wine, cheese and olives at about 8:45 am- a bit odd, and unfortunately it was so foggy that we couldn't enjoy the views from the winery's terrace. But Oia was spectacular. We were given vouchers for the cable car so we could stay as long as we liked in Fira- we chose to return to the ship around 2 pm for lunch and enjoyed the relative peace and quiet around the pool in the afternoon.
Disembarkation: It seemed very strange to be the only ones in our hallway putting out our luggage on the 6th night, and even stranger to find ourselves wandering around a ghost ship while waiting to assemble as a group to disembark at 8:45 am in Piraeus- everyone else had headed into Athens. The process was smooth and painless, especially since we had purchased the Princess transfer to the airport.
Overall, it was a most enjoyable cruise, but 6 days really flew by quickly. I have a long list of things I didn't see or do on the ship- so I guess I'll just have to book another cruise soon!