My wife and I arrived the day before departure and took the train from the airport to Tiburtina station. We purchased the tickets at the train station at the airport as well as our round trip tickets to and from the cruise port. A bargain at 20 Euros for two people! We took the local bus to a block away from the Best Western Hotel Blu. We found this non-tourist residential neighborhood to be very pleasant, with mostly locals around. There are no major tourist sights here and the locals were out and about shopping (nice little shopping mall, open on Saturday evening and Sunday, a somewhat rare find in Europe) and going out to dinner (nice selection of restaurants within walking distance). The very pleasant man at the hotel desk directed us to the mall and a good cafe for a pizza. Coffee and tea tray were provided on request. Only drawback was that all of the gelato stands had closed by the time we finished dinner and were heading back to the hotel, so have one before dinner!
The next morning we took the bus back to Tiburtina station and caught the train to Civitavecchia, changing at Trastevere station. The train was very full and when we arrived at the port we knew why - I counted no less than eight cruise ships in port, not to mention the usual large number of ferry ships.
The shuttle to the ship was pretty full but because we only travel with carry on luggage we were able to get right on the bus. The luggage compartment was full but there were plenty of seats available! So we just walked on with our luggage and put them on one of the vacant seats. Boarding went very quickly and we had time to eat, unpack and verify our dining arrangements before the lifeboat drill and departure.
The ship was in good condition but there was some evidence of deferred maintenance, probably owing to the upcoming scheduled refurbishment. For example there are usually more table and chair combinations on the pool deck so that you can take your meal from the Windjammer buffet outside and eat. However, there were only three tables and even more astonishingly only three chairs! Needless to say they were in great demand.
We have enjoyed all of the ice shows on RCI ships, but we thought that this one was one of the best. The shows in the theatre were mostly average but the classical duo that performed in various lounges was really excellent and they were happy to take requests.
We only ate in the dining room two times for dinner but we ate there for breakfast most days. The dinners in the Windjammer buffet were very good and it was easier to eat there in the evening due to the port intensive nature of this itinerary. We generally eat dinner in the dining room on cruise ships, but we were happy to do the buffet on this trip in order to spend more time in the very interesting ports.
Speaking of the ports, we were given notice when we embarked that we would be skipping Athens and going to the Greek island of Mykonos instead, due to anticipated problems with strikes and demonstrations in Athens. This was ok with us because we had been to Athens two other times but only once to Mykonos. We felt sorry for the people who had not been there and would not be able to visit that very interesting city.
Mykonos is extremely picturesque, all white buildings with blue trim and very well kept up. We took many photos of the iconic windmills and spent some time relaxing at an alfresco cafe, after walking all around town. It was nice to see too that free Wi-Fi was available everywhere. The weather was beautiful the whole trip, sunny and warm but not hot. It was good that it was warm because in Mykonos the winds were strong enough in the open areas that it was hard at times to walk against it, or even stand up. Fortunately the narrow lanes of the town blocked out a good portion of the winds.
In Messina we spoke to a very nice woman at the tourist info table in the cruise port and obtained directions to take public transportation to the more scenic town of Taormina. She told us to take the bus rather than the train because the bus went right into the town, but you had to take a taxi from the train station to the town. We walked about 15 minutes to the bus station using the map she gave us. The bus station is next to the train station, but it is a very small office and not easy to spot. There was a little bit of language problem with the ticket agent but we purchased two round trip tickets for just under 14 Euros. The schedule we asked for was surprisingly difficult to decipher. We had some time to kill so we had a cappuccino at a sidewalk cafe next door. The buses loaded on the street right in front of the ticket office and we located the one we needed, being some of the first to board. This was fortunate because the bus filled quickly and no standing was allowed. When it was full the driver closed the door and we departed, leaving behind people wanting to board. So if you do this little adventure on your own allow plenty of time and get in line early. We realized later that there are 2 buses departing within about 15 minutes of each other - one is a non-stop via the freeway and the later one stops along the way taking about twice the time to get there. Same for the return schedule. The bus ride was non-stop and on modern freeways. We arrived in only an hour and disembarked right in the town center. We asked the driver where to go for the return and he pointed down the street. This was a little unclear but we decided to locate it when we were ready to start back. The town of Taormina is very scenic, as evidenced by the throngs of people there in tour groups from the cruise ships. From the little park you have a panoramic view of the ocean and the active volcano Mt. Etna. There is also a Roman era amphitheatre but we did not have enough time left to justify the admission charge. Next time for sure. We sampled canoli in its Sicilian birthplace, ate some gelato and took lots of photos before locating the bus station and catching the bus back. This proved to be another part of our adventure. The road back down from Taormina to the freeway is very narrow, twisty and steep. There are many narrow bridges and tunnels, each with fairly sharp curves in them. Our very friendly driver negotiated all of this with ease, but the tricky bit was the oncoming traffic, which had become much more congested since our drive to the town. Add into this other buses and large trucks and the curves became impossible to negotiate without oncoming traffic backing up to allow the larger vehicles to pass. Our very Sicilian driver accompanied all of this with ongoing commentary in Italian. We were in the first seat and had a bird's eye view as it all unfolded. When we returned to Messina the driver took us right to the cruise port, even though we are pretty sure this was a deviation from the official bus route. What a great personality! We took his picture after we got off and he gave us a big smile and a double thumbs up, which we happily returned. This left us with enough time for a quick walk around Messina and then back to the ship.
We had been to Kusadasi before but my wife wanted to see Ephesus again. This is a spectacular archaeological sight and not to be missed. The town of Kusadasi is very lively with shops but not too much else. Ships come here because of Ephesus.
We had been to Crete before but that cruise docked at Heraklion, so Chania was a new port of call for us. The city bus from the cruise port cost only three Euros round trip. We walked around the waterfront and the old town and spent some time at a sidewalk cafe before catching the bus back to the ship.
There were two sea days mixed into this itinerary. We took the train back to Rome at the end of the cruise and spent the last night at the Mercure Corso Trieste hotel. This hotel is in a pleasant somewhat upscale neighborhood of Rome, with Metro and bus links to the tourist areas. This was the only day it rained, but by noon it was sunny again. We walked around all of the sights. The street between Piazza Venezia and the Coliseum is closed to traffic on Sundays and it was filled with people out walking, including many locals. It is easy (and free) to look out over the Roman Forum along the way. We also walked to Campo de Fiore, Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and points in between. We had a pizza at a sidewalk cafe and gelato from Giolitti's for dessert. Yes we like sidewalk cafes!
We decided to splurge on a car arranged by the hotel instead of the train for our airport transfer, early the next morning. This proved to be a good idea as we were awakened at 4:00 am by a severe thunderstorm and some of the strangest sounding thunder we have ever heard. This made the car in the rain a very nice perk compared to walking to the Metro station from the hotel, even though it was nearby.
This was a great trip and we would highly recommend it. The only negative for this ship is that if you are Crown and Anchor Society members the services on board do not measure up with the experiences we have had on other RCI ships. We are Diamond level and therefore we had access to the Diamond lounge reception each evening. While this is pleasant enough, held in a section of the Crown and Anchor Lounge on the 14th floor, it did not compare favorably to the nightly reception on the Mariner of the Seas, for example. There was wine and soft drinks but only peanuts to go with the drinks. On the Mariner there were appetizers and a full bar. Also the lounge was open to the card room so anyone could walk through. Perhaps this is why it did not seem that many people came each evening. However the servers were very pleasant and accommodating.
Several events that are supposed to be offered never were. There was no meet and greet with performers from the show, no special trivia game and no entertainment tour. I requested a beer at the return cruiser and top tier receptions and was told this was not possible. This was not the case on every other one of the RCI ships we have been on.
In general this ship did not seem to have a very motivated staff at the upper levels. The 70's disco night is normally a lively and fun event, but on this ship the music was all recorded. On the Mariner the principal singers from the theatre sang the songs live. At one of the production shows the singers appeared to be lip synching even some of the featured songs. We were left with the impression that maybe the performers were new to the ship and had not fully mastered some of the shows.
I would not let any of these things prevent me from sailing on this ship again. We are obviously people who like the Royal Caribbean line, but there is some room for improvement on this ship compared to others in the line.