Not Perfect, But Not The Voyage From Hell, Either
I love long sea days, so I looked forward to trying a TransAtlantric crossing for the first time. The last half of this 20-day trip is mostly at sea and I loved it. Big hint: if you are sailing from Europe to the US in December, book a port balcony cabin if you want the sun. We booked Baja 708 on the port side and soaked in a week of beautiful sun every day. The weather on all crossings varies, of course, but it is also true that the starboard side was shady every day, so keep that in mind. We had two rough sea days out of 20, and I thought that was pretty good, considering this was December on the Atlantic.
The Norovirus broke out in Venice, when we boarded, and this meant that the buffet meals were time-consuming. Passengers could literally not touch anything. You were given one plate when you entered the buffet line and a staff person placed anything you wanted on your plate. A salad could take five minutes to have someone else construct, one item at a time. The drink More
stations were the biggest problem, as 3,200 people all wanted their coffee differently every morning and no wait staff- no matter how cheerful- can handle this for 20 days in a row. This all sounds petty but it is amazing how annoying this became after a few days. We were overjoyed when we were finally allowed (on day 18) to make our own salads and coffee.
The virus is serious, of course, but we didnt get it, no one we met on the ship had it and there didnt appear to be many people missing from the diningrooms or activities, so it is hard to evaluate the true impact the illness had on this trip.
The ship is very simple, which may or may not suit your tastes. There are no rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks or deluxe swimming pools. On the other hand, the Movies Under The Stars had an excellent mix of old movies and new, the ice cream bar stayed open late, the beds are very comfortable, the cabins are silent, the hot tubs that were open were immaculate and the main dining room staff was very good. Our room steward was a typical Princess steward: discreet, thorough, fast, always friendly and quiet.
The ports were all great (see below)but beware of the transfer shuttle Princess sells in Barcelona: they charged us $32 for (literally) a five minute bus ride, when local cabs and buses were plentiful and cheap. I know they have to make money somewhere, but this was a blatant ripoff (the only one we experienced on this trip, and we did take quite a few cruise-sponsored excursions.) Live and learn.
I loved this trip but it was too long for my husband, who likes a port every day and lots of choices on things to do. If you like drowsing in the sun, watching movies under the stars, reading on your balcony, eating ice cream and taking your time over dinner, then a long TA voyage like this might suit you.
Boarding in Venice was fast and simple, and even the self-debarkation in Galveston was quick and painless. All in all, despite the Norovirus, the slow buffet lines and the rough sea days, I loved the ports, the sunshine on the port balcony and the quiet. I will definitely do another TA crossing. Less
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Port and Shore Excursions
Another easy place to walk, if you can figure out a way to into the city without getting ripped off by the cruise lines (The 5-minute shuttle cost $32. The cabs were much cheaper). Las Ramblas is the long shopping district that runs through the middle of town, easy to find, full of interesting shops and tourist places, about equally mixed. The Gothic Quarter is a medieval area, very old and quaint. Do not miss the massive and beautiful farmers market called La Boqueria Market, right on the main artery, as you enter the city under the Christopher Columbus monument. Even in December we had marvelous raspberries and fresh red cherries- delicious and right off the stalls (the fruit are sold in small dishes with forks, for eating right then.) The harbor is also easy to access and scenic: modern and clean and filled with yachts. With so much history and variety in Barcelona, it is easy to fill one day on your own.
You can see everything there is to see in this charming little place on foot, including the walled gardens, the church on the hill and some wonderful shopping back in the neighborhoods. We bought wine and chocolate and candy in tiny grocery stores here, window shopped at the Bentley dealership, gawked at the furriers, wandered around cobblestone alleys and enjoyed our day without an excursion. My husband wished we had taken the train to Monaco, to see the Prince's car collection, though. The trains look easy to decipher and we will definitely go exploring on the trains next time. There is a McDonalds downtown with free wifi. Because you are in France, wine is far cheaper than water and Princess was very nice about letting us bring back bottles. We found an incredible light white grapefruit wine, locally blended, along with the 2012 Beaujolais Nouveau, both for under $5!
Florence & Pisa Tour
Coldest day of the trip, but both cities are magnificent. This excursion is basically a bus ride to each city, with good maps, free restrooms and plenty of time to go roam around on your own, which we loved. Florence, especially, was glorious: ancient and charming, with a Christmas fair in Piazza di Santa Croce, about 800 metres south west of the Duomo. My favorite day of the whole cruise!
The ship enters this port under a magnificent bridge, sailing right under this huge structure and docking by a huge statue on the mountainside. Be sure to watch the entrance into the city, if you can! The hop-on-hop-off bus here is a bargain: 15 euros for several hours of wonderful old forts, cathedrals and architecture of all kinds. Lisbon is a rough port city, not as much of a tourist haven as some of the other ports. But the fish shops, wine stores and chocolate vendors were interesting and inexpensive. We bought lots of little souvenirs and also discovered one of the secret pleasures of Lisbon: The Ginjinha of the Praa de São Domingos, which is a cherry liquor sometimes served in a tiny chocolate cup, which you then eat. Lisbon is also famous for the ancient yellow trolley cars that go up and down the narrow cobbled streets- very unique. I would not want to be in parts of Lisbon after dark on my own: it definitely has a vibe of a big city, with more graffiti, trash, rundown buildings and deserted areas that other ports on this itinerary. But we still had a great day on our own, and Lisbon is more genuinely historic than many cities.
We took the excursion to the volcano- and it was worth it! This little island is remarkable and will have something to surprise almost everyone: cows and gardens on one side, volcanoes and rain forests on the other, ancient cobblestone towns, pretty beaches, pineapple plantations, very chic (and expensive) shopping downtown- quite a variety of things on such a tiny piece of land. Also, the pier here was by far the best of the entire trip: walk off the ship and you are a few blocks from the downtown shops (unique but pricey) and the pier itself has cafes and bars with "free" Internet ( for the price of a coffee) along with nice little stores selling tea, soap, books, and other unique mementos. Plus, the water is a gorgeous deep blue and the port is filled with lots of boats of all kinds.
Also cold in December (in the 40s) but we had been here before and love it. It is easy to catch the train to Rome from the port. You do have to walk a few miles, so wear warm clothes and comfy shoes, but the port town of Civitavecchia is pretty and clean and very easy to navigate. There are ATMs on the waterfront, along with liquor stores and cafes. It takes about an hour to get into Rome once you board your train, but it is simple to get off at San Peidro (St Peters Square) and roam around the Vatican on your own. We especially loved the book sellers stalls and the carousel near the Castel Sant' Angelo on the banks of the Tiber close to the Vatican. You dont need an excursion here, if you have plenty of time and enjoy exploring on your own.
Cold in December, but gorgeous. Take the vaporetto to San Marco and walk around the plaza, then check out the trinkets on the pier by the gondola platforms. Venice is spectacular, even when it floods, and is worth a few days before sailing to get the full flavor. We stayed at the Duodo Palace, (check out the reviews on TripAdvisor) behind the Rialto Bridge, and caught the vaporetto to the ship. Easy, beautiful and not expensive.