Here is a review of our trip and cruise on the NCL Epic departing Barcelona May 12, 2013.
For starters be sure to get the Rick Steve's book on Mediterranean Cruise Ports. Whether you elect to take the ship's excursions, third party excursion or your own this book was invaluable with information.
Plan on spending a few days in Barcelona to get over the jet lag and visit a cool city. If your hotel is near Placa De Catalunya then you are near Las Ramblas and all the transportation options. The Aeroport bus for a little over 5 euros each for example drops you off Placa De Catalunya and then you can walk to your hotel. The metro is also available at the placa. If you are familiar with the subway in New York then you can manage the metro. The T10 card is the best deal. It is 10 rides for anybody for a month. Don't miss Sagrada Familia. Be sure to buy your tickets online in advance to avoid a very long line. Do Not miss the museum under the church. I also recommend the open top tourist buses. The one we took for one price lasted most the day and took us on three different routes. We also visited the Barcelona City History Museum which traces Barcelona's origins from Roman times. Strolling the Ramblas reminds you of Time Square.
On departure morning we strolled down the Ramblas to Columbus Monument. To get to the ship there is a E2.50 per person bus to take you from near the monument to the ship. It's a little hard to find but you can ask the people at the TI booth for help.
I have a few comments about the Epic. It is a big ship with over 4000 guests but you never felt crowded. Guest Services said the ship was full but other than trying to get an elevator sometimes, we never felt overwhelmed. There are many places to eat on board but there are four basic free areas that stand out. There is the main food court called the Garden Cafe on deck 15 forward, there is a sit down grill in the middle of the ship called O'Sheehans and there are two nice sit down restaurants called Taste and Manhattan located on decks 5 and 6 near the rear of the ship. The Taste and the Manhattan are basically the same. They serve the same food but with different descriptions and veggies. We ate our breakfasts in the cafe (fastest) and every dinner at the Taste or the Manhattan. It was a great dining experience every night. (Lunch was on shore as we were sightseeing. More on lunch below.) There are extra charge specialty restaurants on board but we didn't partake. Don't miss the bridge viewing room on deck 13 and don't forget to put your name in for a chance to dine with a ship officer.
Be sure to reserve and see the Blue Man Group, the Concert Legends and the Cirque Dreams and Dinner well in advance. If you pay for the premium seats in the Cirque get there early and ask to be seated in the balcony. We always went to the early shows because you must get up early to do the sightseeing.
We opted for the 4 bottle low end wine package to be served with our dinners for $88. Since wine by the glass was $7.25 we thought this was a good deal. With tax and gratuity the total on my CC was $110. I wondered if the VAT might only be charged when we were in port. That is something to check out. People complain that the liquor was expensive. Since our afternoon frozen margaritas were served in 12 once cups I was content.
Instead of reviewing all the shore excursion options I decided just to tell you what we did.
The first port was Naples. We opted to go with Rick Steve. If you have an iPhone be sure to download his free app and his free audio walking tours. I, my wife and about 30 other passengers all equipped, I could see, with Rick's book purchased an all day transportation ticket at the magazine store next to the tram on rails. After taking the tram to the train station we rode the train to Pompeii. The train stop is within 50 yards of the Pompeii entrance. With Rick's audio tour on our iPhone we strolled through the ruins following his directions. A word of warning here -- while I had his latest edition, his info on prices can be old. Also since they are excavating constantly at Pompeii Rick may try to send you to an area that is closed off. Don't forget to bring a hat, sun screen and an umbrella. To be safe I also used a money belt I got from Wal-Mart. I kept most of our money in the belt as well as our passports. I never felt threatened but there were lots of stories circulating. Don't make it easy with an simple to steal backpack. We heard of a girl loosing hers while it sat next to her on a city bus. Rick suggests an ATM card to get Euros which I used at bank-only ATMs.
To save time we always packed a lunch. Be sure to bring some sandwich baggies with you on the cruise. At breakfast pick up some sandwich making stuff, e.g. rolls, cheese, etc.
Regrettably the Epic visits Naples on Tuesday which is the one day the archeological museum is closed. If you are a big Pompeii fan then you don't want to take this cruise. Since the museum was closed we elected to stop in Herculeum and check that out. It was a short walk down hill from the train station to the excavations. At Pompeii we had purchased a ticket that got us into both sites.
At Civitavecchia (the Ci is pronounced "she") we purchased the BRIG ticket just outside the port entrance and then walked to the train station. There is a train stop a few blocks from St. Peters. Again this is not the right cruise to do St. Peters. There is a mass scheduled most Wednesdays mornings at St. Peter's Square. On this particular Wednesday there was a major event with a zillon people. St. Peters never opened which really disappointed a lot of guests. After blowing off trying to get into St. Peters we proceeded to the Vatican Museum. Advance tickets in hand for the 9:30AM entrance we walked right in. After completing our museum visit with the Sistine Chapel we walked to the closest metro stop. Our BRIG ticket covered all our transportation costs.
After a metro change at the main terminal we exited at the coliseum stop. Advance tickets again enabled us to enter directly. We wandered through the coliseum with Rick's help before proceeding to the forum. The return was easy with a ride on the Metro to the main train station to get the last train back to Civitavecchia. There is a major lack of signage at this train station. The train tracks are numbered from left to right. Avoid walking around as you might be going in the wrong direction away from your track. Get the track number from the overhead display then get up the stairs to the tracks. Also don't believe the times on the signs.
Our next stop was Livorno. Because the train ride to Florence was going to take two hours we elected to just do the Leaning Tower of Pisa. With a tour you could do both. The port shuttle drops you off downtown Livorno. The local TI has made arrangements for RT bus transportation to the tower in Pisa. The tickets are available in the TI next to where you are dropped off.
We tried to find free WiFi at cafes, McDonalds, etc. There is a cafe in the same building as the Livorno TI. After buying a pastry I asked about the free WiFi that they had posted on the door. The guy said it wasn't working. After I showed him it was working on my phone but that I needed a password he said I hadn't bought enough. The lesson here is ask before buying. We did buy WiFi by the minute on board but that is a rip off because the satellite is so slow. You churn through your minutes just waiting for a response. We did send and receive txt messages while on board.
Marseille was next. Because the boat is parked so far away from everything you have to purchase a $12 RT shuttle to get to town. We skipped the little tourist tram and elected to take city bus no. 60 to Notre Dame on top of the hill. We walked back from the church to the shuttle stop. It is a really beautiful city. They have a main drag like Las Ramblas that is worth strolling. The McDonalds in port had their WiFi working.
Our last stop was Palma de Mallorca. Again to get to town you had to pony up $12 charged to your room for RT transportation. Here we toured an old church, a flea market and a palace. I should mention that this port is not in Rick's book. You will need to do your homework from another source before you arrive.
The following morning was back at Barcelona. The Garden Cafe opens by 5:30 to allow you to get breakfast before leaving. Since all our luggage was carry-on we just walked off the ship. With another couple we shared a taxi to the airport. Your other options are ship's arrangement or taking the E2.50 per person shuttle to the Columbus monument, metro to Placa de Catalunya and then the Aeroport bus.
The Barcelona airport is separated into three sections. There is the pre-security area and two post security areas. After security if you are international you are directed to passport control and terminals on the third floor. Everyone else goes to the first floor where there are lots of shops and restaurants. You cannot get to the first floor after passport control. If you have some time to kill do not go through passport control but instead after security go down the stairs to the shops. When it is time to go to your gate go back up the stairs or escalator, go through passport control and then to the international gates.
It was a great trip except for the conflicts regarding the Naples Archeological Museum and Wednesday Mass at St. Peter's Square.