This was out first Med cruise and the itinerary was perfect for us with a mix of amazing history and amazing scenery. We traveled with my parents (their first cruise ever) for our anniversaries. We spent 3 busy days in Rome before the cruise, home-based at the lovely Hotel Maryelen near Termini Station. The location of our hotel was perfect since we could walk two blocks to the metro, the bus or the trains. We used all three (the Roma Pass was great for the bus & metro), ultimately taking the train from Termini to the port at Civitavecchia. The train was a nice way to travel to the boat other than some stairs down then back up to cross the tracks at the end of the ride. There is a short walk to the port gate, then a complementary bus to the ship. The check in process was hectic looking but well run, and we were on board with little delay. Our cabins were ready upon boarding, though we were amongst the last to get our luggage.
We dined in the main dining room on all but one night of the trip and thoroughly enjoyed the food and the service. It was rare that we weren't debating multiple choices on the menu and I never had a disappointing meal. We preferred the Windjammer buffet for breakfast and lunch which always had a good variety and some really good veggie/salad selections & desserts. There was plenty of availability for water/flavored water/teas for those forgoing the soda program. The only time there was a shortage of anything was the last day's breakfast when silverware/napkin sets became sparse. We spent one very nice evening at the Portofino restaurant and had a very relaxed and delicious dinner. I was surprised to see that the fine dining venues did not seem busy despite the entreaties to book them early.
The public areas were gorgeous. One could see a little wear and tear in a few spots, but the ship was in amazing shape considering it's heading in for refit in the Spring of 2014. Some of the fittings in the cabins showed their age more than the rest of the ship. Our TV was an LCD, awkwardly mounted in a table designed for an old tube TV. We focused on our shore excursions and dining, so didn't use many of the ship's facilities, but I was impressed that places never got overcrowded (except the Promenade during special sales, LOL). The library didn't stock much at all and lacked reference books that would have been nice for looking up maps and information about other countries. Wireless internet access was only available in certain areas of the ship and ran $0.75 a minute, or less with packages (we didn't bother).
We loved the ports of call, but chose to do our own excursions and had no regrets. For Messina we chose Taormina Tour (www.taorminatour.com) with our wonderful driver and guide, Joseph. He was gracious, knowledgeable and spoke impeccable English. We drove to Taormina, where he treated us with Sicilian pastries, but even better, up above to Castelmola where we wandered and had a relaxing lunch on a terrace looking out over Mt Etna. Castelmola is the beatiful hillside village that Taormina advertises, with even better views. We did drive back down to see the Greek theater and spent some time there. Definitely get off the main street with all it's crowds and high-end shops ASAP while in Taormina. We also saw some sites in Messina and stopped for a gelato at Joseph's favorite shop. A gorgeous tour!
In Athens we had the great experience of touring with Christos (www.athenstours.gr). We had a nice Mercedes taxi for the four of us and headed straight out as the tour buses were slowly loading. There's so much to see in Athens, but Christos did a great job guiding us and adjusting the tour to our preferences. We started at the Acropolis, then worked our way around various sites in Athens, both old and new (well, relatively new). Aside from the Parthenon, one of our favorites was Lycabettus Hill providing breath taking views over the whole of Athens, well above the height of the Acropolis. We chose to forgo a sit down lunch for time in the Acropolis Museum (still tough decisions to make on vacation), but we did have some brief breaks for spanikopita, iced coffee and later souvlaki to help keep our batteries up. Christos then took us on the scenic ride back to the ship, cruising through Athens picturesque portside areas. I can't recommend Christos enough as a great guide, excellent driver and incredibly knowledgable host.
Ephesus was a surprise for all of us, being much more impressive than we expected. At Kusadasi, we disembarked and were met by Murat, an energetic, smart and charming guide and this time, a separate driver. This was great as Murat was able to talk with us and show us maps as an introduction to Turkey and Ephesus while we drove to the site from the port. We wound our way down from the State Agora through the main streets to the public agora and giant theater. There were many impressive structures, but the facade of the Temple of Celsus is stunning in person. A side tour of the Terrace Houses (separate admission) is well worthwhile as the preservation of some of the structures and artwork here really brings this city back to life. we did some brief shopping in the mini bazaar after the exit, then moved on to the temple of Artemis, formerly one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, now a rather sad, single stack of column drums. One is able to get some sense of the size of the Artemision in it's day and It also provides the revealing backdrop of the Mosque of Isa Bey, the Basilica of St John and the Ottoman Grand Fortress displaying a diverse span of Turkish history in one vista. We had a relaxed lunch nearby with traditional Turkish foods, then moved over to a carpet making demonstration next door. The demonstration was fascinating, the carpets beautiful, but we skipped on buying something that large and expensive. After returning to Kusadasi, we had a little time left to stroll through the bazaar just outside of the dock area, shopped a little and dragged ourselves back on the Navigator. Murat was awesome as a guide: http://www.privatephesustours.com/
We took it easy on our last stop at Chania (ported at Souda) on Crete. With the early departure there at 2:30, we opted to take the inexpensive city provided shuttle bus into Chania to shop and stroll. The Venetian port is very pretty and the streets in the port area are lined with shops, restaurants and a few museums. We stopped at the Naval Museum (my wife would say we stalled there) where my dad and I had a great time looking at artifacts and models of ships from the Minoans to today. If you are into models, find the room where two gentlemen construct ship models of all sorts from scratch with unbelievable detail - they are happy to show off their handiwork. The old mosque in the middle of the port is no longer in religious use and is somewhat neglected, but still picturesque. the Venetian lighthouse is a standout you can't miss. the old Venetian boathouses are rather rough looking, but still in use as warehouses. There is also a replica Minoan ship on the east side of the port worth a stop if you like that kind of thing. My wife does not. There are plenty of great places to eat and shops to browse making this a good "lazy" port of call.
Our last day at sea, we went to our only show, the farewell show which featured a cirque de soleil juggler/physical comedy act that was far, far better than it sounds as I write this. Truly excellent and hilarious, actually. The ice skating and dance shows just weren't our style, nor were the music reviews, so we didn't bother. The casino didn't seem as busy as on a Caribbean cruise, but I just strolled through a few times. we did quite a bit less on the ship than on Caribbean cruises because we were much more tired after our go-go day trips, but I was fine using the ship for transportation and dining purposes primarily.
We self disembarked which wasn't bad at all. I thought elevators would be hard to come by, but that wasn't the case. We had a taxi service hired which picked us up shortly after we were off the boat, just outside the disembarkation area. From there it took us to our hotel in Fiumicino, near the airport where we stayed another day before returning home.
Last, but not least, the staff worked their tails off for our benefit and were wonderful. Our steward was always on top of room but never obtrusive. Our waiters were very attentive, fun and professional, always ensuring we had a great dinner. Everywhere on the ship, people were gracious and working hard. I had no complaints about any of the Royal Caribbean crew. Even the maintenance guys coming through to fix things had a smile and greeting as we would pass in the corridors. Well done, Royal Caribbean!