We booked this cruise in 2012 to celebrate our 25th anniversary. Before booking airline tickets, we added a week in glorious London pre cruise. Please read the London review on the British Isle boards.
I started the roll call that eventually included almost 50 people. The cruise was amazing, but meeting and enjoying time with our fellow cruisers added much to the experience. For those of you who lurk on the boards as I once did, get on or start your roll call. Be active, take advantage of what the boards offer. We all took the attitude it was great to meet up, but that we all may have needs for privacy and time to spend with family/friends. I invite others from the cruise to comment and fill in the gaps. We truly had an amazing group of CCers. I hope to sail with many of you again.
I want to thank fellow cruisers who traveled before us for all of their advice, so now I am taking the opportunity to pay it back. I am hoping this review will help fellow cruisers especially those traveling next year. I develpoed a spreadsheet and table that help us form private tours. All information is based on my own experiences, and true to the best of my understanding, however, things change all the time.
Our group included folks from Canada, England, Australia, and the US. We even had one couple who found us through romeinlimos tour sharing who are now CC fans.
Flights: We took advantage of last summer promotional offers by the major US carriers to purchase extra airline miles on both United Airlines and American Airlines to help us meet a required goal of 60,000 miles each for 2 people to fly to and from Europe. So the total cost was about $900.00 for the 2 of us. I then studied the availability for booking using miles at the 331 day mark. Doing this I determined it was best to fly over to Europe on American Airlines and back on United Airlines. So at 3am on the 331 day out I snagged 2 seats on American from Fresno to Heathrow. 21 days later I snagged the 2 return tickets from Barcelona to Fresno on United. Just some tips, other things may work for you.
Packing: Of course I packed too much, but one of our fellow CCers actually had to buy another suitcase to get stuff home! I am a true believer in packing cubes now and for the first time in my many years of travel actually know where my stuff is.
Cabin: We originally book a balcony cabin, but after several price drops we upgraded to an Aft Penthouse Suite, the Gemini Suite. More on this at the end of the review.
We left Fresno and flew to LAX, then on to Chicago OHara and finally London. We used Just Airports private car service from Heathrow to our flat in London and then again from the flat to Gatwick. This flat is ideally located next to the Park Plaza Riverbank Hotel on Albert Embankment. Please see review on the British Isles boards.
AA placed us in the back of the plane, but there were many empty seats so I could actually sleep for short intervals. Even so after landing we still did not feel human for the first day.
After a week in London, we flew into Venice from Gatwick on British Airways. British Airways did not charge luggage fees (first bag) and served breakfast. We found it better to fly with them. The flight was about 2 hours. We booked a shared water taxi in Venice from the airport. We did wait about 40 minutes but then passed all of the slower public transport boats on our way to the hotel. This was a nice wooden speed boat.Nice experience.
We stayed at the Hilton Molino Stucky. The rooftop pool is awesome. We were able to see the Spirit arrive as she cruised right in front of the hotel. Everything here is extremely expensive; including 8 Euros for a glass of ice tea. The hotel shuttle boat to Saint Mark's only runs on the hour and takes 2 breaks twice during the day at which time it does not run for 2 hours. The schedule is posted on the hotel's web site. The public transpiration does not stop at the hotel; you need to take the number 2 M blue line. The public transport that includes the 12 hour pass does not stop at the hotel. You will need to cross over bridges, some of which have stairs. So take all of this into consideration when staying at the Hilton. This hotel is the place for Venice as it is a refuge away from the scores of tourists. The view from the rooftop hotel and restaurant is amazing. We book this on a promotion of 35 percent off.
Then the" M" blue line leaves directly from the Hilton starting about 11 am every half hour and arrives at the port in 6 minutes. You do not need to take the people mover. Buy tickets in advance or have change 18 Eros for 2 with our luggage. As many people have reported on these boards the NCL Spirit does not currently dock at the 2nd people mover stop so you do have somewhat of a hike from the people mover, but much less of a hike from the boat dock.
Boarding looked chaotic; we had priority boarding and were on board and in our cabin in a short period of time. After settling in the room, we went into Venice, using the people mover and public transportation line from Piazza Roma. This whole process took over an hour from the ship to Saint Mark's Square. At rush hour many people are returning to Piazza Roma and the train station stop, so the Vaporetto was packed, with the captain yelling at people to stop boarding as he had too many already. Venice was insanely crowded in late August.
The cruise departing from Venice is very nice as the two sea days are much appreciated after a week on the go in London.
Our meet and greet was day 2 at 10AM in Henry's Pub. Much of the credit for this goes to "haleoak J and S". They had prepared Disney buttons name tags for everyone. About 40 people attended. The ships officers were present.
We had 2 games. One was a gift exchange. Each person brought a gift which represents their home. CCers picked up a gift then opened it and tried to guess the identity of the giver. This opened folks up to mingle. The gift I chose was a wonderful book about Frank Lloyd Wright and his buildings. I knew immediately it was from a couple from Chicago. Thank you! What a wonderful treasure. We took Pistachio nuts from California and Macadamia nuts from Hawaii. Both were inside reusable bags. I saw the couple with our Hawaiian bag using it 2 days later. Roger picked up a University of Florida gators t shirt which he wore on the tours. Ok yes, he screams American tourist.
The 2nd game was a trivia contest with questions about the ship and the ports. Each person who wanted to play put 5 Euros in the pot. You could play for free and not share in the pot if you wanted. The questions were fairly difficult. The pot was split between first and second place prize. The split was about 70/30. I won! I collected about 65 Euros!
Sample questions included, "How many bridges cross the Grand Canal in Venice and what was the original name of the NCL Spirit?
Dinning: Service in the main dining rooms was painfully slow. Some in our group reported service in the Garden was faster than Windows, but my experience was that both were very slow. The food was mediocre from my point of view, but I realize this is an individual thing.
Cagney's: Breakfast and lunch was opened to suite guest and was great. The steakhouse dinner was excellent as well. Service was slow as we stayed for three hours.
Teppanyaki: Great as well. This service was quicker. I suspect this was because the next group was to come in soon. Only 10 guest at a time. Reserve as soon as you board, this sold out before the next morning.
La Trattoria: This was most our favorite meal. The waiter insisted we try everything. He was delightful as was the meal.
Shows: We attended a few game shows but only one show in the Stardust Theater. I was not impressed, but others were. I did enjoy the suite seating area though.
We did go to the Bee Gees tribute. After that people recognized us everywhere (including those on the plane home) as dancers. We are really not that good.
The pool was crowded but you could find a chair if you wanted. The hot tubs were full most of the time except early morning and late in the evening. Everyone was quite polite when sharing this public space. We found our preferred space was right next to the Bier Garden starboard side as there was an excellent sea view. Get there early! The pool is salt water, the hot tubs chlorinated. The back of the ship has the kid's pool, but no one over the age of 12 can go down the slide (boo) too bad for me and "B" from Vancouver Island.
We both wanted to go down that slide.
Not very many kids this cruise as probably school had started in most places. Our suite was directly under the kid's pool area, but we only noticed noise while in port. All families appeared to be having a good time. I would I imagine it might be more difficult with more kids on board to share the space.
Tours. It is important to remember that you will get a brief experience in most ports. If are ok with that you will be fine. There is not enough time to do everything. To do that you need to stay overnight in most of the ports and several days in some of them. Private tours are the best option for all of the ports in my opinion. Study the descriptions, reviews and costs and make your decisions.
Something else I think is important to keep in mind for all of us who do not speak the languages is that most are doing their best to communicate with us. Sometimes the words they speak may not match exactly with our interpretations. I believe since I do not speak their language, I should give them the benefit of the doubt before jumping to any conclusions. Additionally their customs and laws may be different, and I need to respect that.
That being said, it is possible for some to DIY. Keep in mind the ship called for missing passengers on several ports. I do not believe we left anyone, but in Rome one group boarded within one minute of cut off time. The captain was not pleased.
Athens: We entered the port about 7am. We were lucky enough to have our concierge, Yahira, take us out and met Nicolas from privategreecetours. We went immediately to the Acropolis. Nicolas gave us some brief history as well as a cell phone to call him when we were finished. Tickets for the Acropolis were 12 Euros each, cash. We walked to the top though a basically empty path. Greek soldiers were marching down from raising the flag at the site, fully armed. . Many heroic stories exist around this flag pole, including two teenagers (one who is still alive) who raised the Greek flag after the Nazis ordered it removed. The other story centers around the Greek soldier ordered to lower it by the Nazis who then did so, warped himself in the flag and jumped to his death.
Once we spent some time at the top, many, many, many people began to arrive. The path is uneven with some parts consisting of gravel and others parts are marble. Marble can be extremely slippery. Be careful. Wear good shoes.
Next we visited the Temple of Zeus. Only a few of the original columns remain.
Next we visited the Parliament building and watched the changing of the guards. Nicolas told us where to position ourselves to obtain the best photographs. Next we went high up a hill to obtain some magnificent photos of the city. We then visited the modern Olympic stadium. We stopped at the old market for some shopping and an authentic Greek lunch. We also stopped at a local market for other supplies,then back to the ship in plenty of time.
Nicolas was very informative and entertaining. He went out of his way to make sure we had a great experience. Ask for him when you visit Athens.
Ephesus: Again we were off early. Today we traveled with Ephesus shuttle. This van was brand new and the tour guide was included in the price. The drive was just under an hour on a very modern highway. Benjamin's spoke all the way telling us about Turkey. We went first to the House of the Virgin Mary. This was up a hill, the countryside was very pretty and the air was cool at the site. After this visit we stopped for some Turkish tea and coffee. Next we went down to Ephesus with Benjamin explaining the ruins as well as life in the ancient city. The ruins are impressive as well as the Terrace Houses. The amphitheater is amazing. We stopped and did some shopping at the shops at the end and then back to the ship. Benjamin turned on a hot spot for us allowing us to check email. Nice touch. Today was a short day. I could not even imagine trying to do this as a DYI. The day is too short, and the distance too far from the port.
Istanbul:. Again we travelled with Ephesus shuttle. Husain was our private guide Husain and driver. Husain was very well educated on Turkish and Istanbul history. All of our guides were amazing; I would say Husain was outstanding.
We visited the Blue Mosque removing our shoes and covering our heads, shoulders and knees for women. Men covered their knees. There were wraps available for those who had shorts and short sleeve shirts. The mosque was amazing. Pictures were allowed. Next was the Hagia Sophia. This is a very large museum. After that we walked to the Topkapi Place. Armed guards were present at the entrance. We had a wonderful lunch overlooking the Bosporus straight at the Konyali restaurant.
After lunch we viewed the sultan and his family's wardrobe and the Crown Jewels. We then entered the area where many holy relics are kept. Then we visited the clocks and weapons area. After this we visited the spice market, as the grand bazaar was closed as it was Sunday. We bought some saffron and tea.
Purchasing items in Turkey. This is very confusing. Businesses will accept other currencies but they are estimating their best options for currency exchange. My guess is they would need to estimate on the high end. Try and estimate what you might spend and then pay cash items in Lira and use your credit card if you need to, but purchase items in Lira.
Mykonos:. We docked at this port. The crew said it was the first time this season. Usually the Spirit tenders at Mykonos. Then we were bused to the port. We were supposed to go on a kayak tour, but after driving to the other side of the island and studying the water the operator decided it was too windy. The narrow streets were full of tourist on ATVs. We therefore went back to town and first swam in the sea. Then we walked into town we took pictures at the windmills and little Venice. We had a couple of beers at a very nice place right on the water, Rhapsody Cocktail Bar-pub.
Amalfi and Pompeii: We hired Simply Amalfi this tour. Salvatore was our guide. He was very funny. The views were simply amazing along the coast. We had lunch at a local restaurant but the bill was very confusing as we did not get separate checks; and all of the drinks were listed as one item. One member of our group could not eat her lunch. Salvatore felt bad about this and brought her a book and a bottle of limoncello. Next we went to Pompeii. We hired a private guide for this site. This was a great choice as the area is massive (66 football fields) and the guide was very knowledgeable.
Rome: Romeinlimos Ultimate Tour of Rome. Our guide for today was Sergio. We went straight to Rome after disembarking the ship early again. If you have the opportunity to do this, take advantage of it for Athens and Rome. Both drivers in these ports were pleased we were some of the very first off the ship.
Rome included the Coliseum, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Parthenon and the Vatican. We did not visit the Vatican as we had been there before. Instead we went back to the Forum. We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon exploring more of the Forum. Sergio then took us to a grocery store and a quick stop for gelato. The gelato was very good. Our ticket for the coliseum allowed us entrance to the Forum. Ah Roma!
Cingue Terra and Pisa:. We hired a private tour company, Papillion. Nicolette was our driver. We drove to the Portovenere where we had about 20 minutes to explore the town . Then she gave us the boat schedule for the different towns. We purchased ferry tickets for 16 Euros each. The Ferry was very crowded as there was a cruise ship in La Spezia which is very close to Portovenere . Romaggione, the lovers walk is stilled closed as of September 2013. Be quick to get off the boat as the captain does not linger We missed the first stop as by the time we walked forward the captain had tossed off to the next town. It all worked well, however ,since we spent more time in Vernazza. We climbed to the top of the Belforte Tower (1,50 Euro admission, worth the price and the climb for the incredible view). Being part time Hawaiian residents, we never leave for a warm inviting coast line without a bathing suit on or in our backpack, so we were prepared to surrender to the clear waters and jump right in.
Next we took the ferry to the last town, Monterosso. More swimming and lunch at Il Casello. What a beautiful setting and amazing view. We then travelled back thought the mountains to Pisa. We visited the square and climbed the tower. Our driver Nicollete brought both couples a package of be noting, a rather fat spaghetti with a hole in it at one end that we had fallen in love with at the previous ports.
Toulon: Everyone thought we would all be exhausted by now and so we all were. We took our time and went off ship about 10 am. We visited the town and then found a nice beach about a 35 minute walk from the port. It was relaxing but it is topless. We brought some lavender soap and had some pommes frites( French fries). Others reported shops closed in the early afternoon, for a few hours, so make note of that.
Barcelona: We arrived at 5am. Still sleeping and dreading leaving the ship. We had breakfast in Cagney's one last time and then were escorted off with our luggage by Yahira. Very easy.
We met outside with more from our group for a tour of the city with Barcelona Day Tours. Anna was our guide. She was delightful. This was a shared tour and we picked up six more who were getting on the ships( 4 to the spirit and 2 on a RCL ship) the tour included la Sagrada Famllia(church of the holy family) Anna was very knowledgeable and shared her expertise. We then said good bye to our Canadian Friends (happy planner and family) and went on to our hotel Holiday inn express with Haleoak. This was a budget friendly hotel that had a marvelous boulevard with cafes and shop and vendors one street over that lead to the Beach. This was very lively without the crowds of Las rambles . By now we had had enough of crowds and markets. We enjoyed Paella on the beach at Eseriba.
We returned to the hotel, and collapsed to sleep preparing for our flight home. We shared a taxi with "haleoak" and arrived at the terminal in plenty of time. The fare was about 50 Euros. There are several different check points. First you obtain your boarding passes and drop luggage. Next a security checks point. You then enter the main shopping area. However, you have one more checkpoint. This is for your passports. After this, we found few restaurants and shops. This reminded me of all of the hoops we go through flying from Hawaii to the mainland.
Cabin 9212 Gemini suite.
This suite is simply wonderful. A very thorough review written a few years ago by "Needhamite" can be found on the boards and is still very accurate. The cabin has more of a European feel with soothing colors and paintings of Venice. The aft balcony has 2 chairs and one lounger. The hot tub overlooking the wake is great. You must fill the water up to get the jets to work. There is plenty of storage space and two small safes. The lighting system is a bit confusing. There are two main switches which will turn everything on and off. Even so, the bedroom can be very dark. Afternoon treats consisted of either cheese and bread or sweets.
Along with the suite you can have breakfast and lunch in Cagney's ,priority disembarkation, access to a DVD library. an invitation to the captain's cocktail party, early entry into the Chocolate Buffett, and reserved seating at the shows among other perks. We found ourselves using the back stairs located at each end of the back hallway to go up to the pool. Room service for breakfast was available but Cagney's was open early on the port days, so we usually went there.
Yahira , the concierge was great. She greeted us in the VIP lounge in Venice. She immediately secured dinning seats for us in Teppanyaki, while we were we waiting for someone to escort to our room. The next morning in Cagney's we discovered all these seats were taken by then. I suspect that this is true of the Chef's table as well. The Chef's table was held twice once on the day we visited Ephesus( a short day) and again, the day we visited Rome. The priority disembarkation was the real perk, however.
My vacation heroes were Mary Jane, our butler,Emmanuel, cabin steward, and Yahira. The three of them worked tirelessly to make our vacation a true experience to remember. Their smiles and can do attitudes reflect their dedication to their work. It is easy to understand why they hold their current positions. I would expect due to their professional expertise and their dedication to their work that all of them will advance to other positions within the company. Thank you, Mary Jane, Yahira and Emmanuel.
For those of you considering this trip, you are in for a real treat!