We just got home from our 12 day Venice to Barcelona Med cruise on the Spirit. It is 2am in California and I am wide awake because I am still on Europe time, so if some of this review starts to sound weird I am probably falling asleep. So, let's begin with my review of our cruise of a lifetime!
We are a family of five with two teenagers and a ten year-old. Our journey began with an eleven hour flight from San Francisco to Amersterdam on KLM airlines (fabulous airline), then a zombie-like walk, as it was 1am to us, to our connecting flight to Venice. We landed in Venice at lunchtime there, and, still half asleep but excited, got a private water taxi to our hotel near St. Mark's Square, the Locanda Vivaldi. I chose it because it is walking distance to St. Mark's, so we could see it on our own (we came a day before the cruise began, both for this reason and in case of any airline delays). It was a small hotel, formerly the home of the composer Vivaldi, and was charming. It had free Wifi and breakfast included. We made ourselves stay up until 8pm there, to avoid getting really screwed up, and wandered the crowds in St. Mark's, found a few souveniers (how the heck do you spell that?), and of course had gelato. In the morning we had the hotel get us another water taxi to take us to the ship. For those of you wondering, it was about 120 euros for the five of us from the airport to the hotel and then about 90 euros from the hotel to the ship. It was well worth it. You are like James Bond speeding across the canal, the wind blowing in your hair and the sights all parading before your eyes. Speaking of eyes, I accidentally left my sunglasses on top of my suitcase when we climbed into the water taxi and they fell into the water, so part of me is still in Venice, haha. Luckily on this cruise you will see hundreds of cheap sunglasses to buy, so I replaced them easily with a ten dollar pair from a street vendor in Athens. In Italy and Greece there are vendors selling knockoff brand name purses, belts, sunglasses, and watches on every corner, and they will follow you everywhere. They even waited at the bus dropoff spots. And in Turkey you will be followed by vendors selling lots of weird toys, like some splat ball thing, but if you shake your head and keep walking they leave you alone. I still recall an elderly mentally-challenged man in Turkey who was selling postcards for one euro, and he was so sweet everyone in our tour group bought some.
So onto the Spirit - a fabulous ship, which is the oldest in the NCL fleet. It is showing its age but is an oldie but goodie. She is clean and welcoming, with a wonderful crew. Seriously, every crew member we came in contact with was charming and helpful and put smiles on our faces. We had a suite, so got to wait in the priority embarkation lounge and were then escorted to our cabins. This is a nice perk. We had an SF suite on the 10th deck with a BC balcony connecting to it. Of course myself and two daughters got the suite, because it has two sinks, a jetted tub, and a lighted vanity and those are girlie things, so that relegated my husband and son to the balcony cabin. They were more than happy with it, as long as they had a hot shower and a TV to watch World Cup soccer they were thrilled. The suite is worth the splurge - a shower and tub that overlook the sea (with blinds in case you are in port and don't want to put on a X-rated show for the people on the dock), big closet, two TV's, a dining area, a sofabed that my 16 year-old daughter used (I recommend asking for the eggcrate mattress pad for that, made it much more cozy for her), and a small balcony. Our steward was Sanjay and he was excellent. He made awesome towel animals for my kids and got me whatever we needed and always with a smile. And he always smiled at the things my kids did, whether it was a stack of tiny Fruit Loops boxes that my youngest daughter hoarded from the buffet (like they would run out or something) or my son fashioning a soccer goal out of bed pillows to test out the mini soccer balls he always managed to find at each port. Our butler was Ravi, and he was always friendly and brought us the few things we asked him for, like chocolate chip cookies every night and a few DVD movies to watch. It is tradition that my son and I watch Pirates of the Caribbean movies while on a cruise during downtime in the late afternoon, before dinner and after a long day of exploring the ports on our tours. The girls prefer to be at the pool and my husband face down on the bed napping out of exhaustion.
Speaking of ports, we did all NCL shore excursions and they were all fantastic. The cost isn't that much more, you just stick a bus number sticker on your shirt and follow your tour guide around, they have headsets on some of the bigger ones so you can hear the guide better, and you always make it back to the ship, and if you are late they will wait for you. This is the main thing for us, especially in a foreign country. We witnessed several passengers on this cruise that almost missed the ship, running to the gangway with people clapping as they watched from above. Then in Toulon France we watched as two people on a private tour literally missed the boat. The ship waited an extra fifteen minutes for them, then had to hand their passports over to their tour company rep and leave. I felt bad for those people, as the next day was disembarkation in Barcelona and they had to now get there on their own, and at their own expense, but a rule is a rule and NCL is always very clear about that. They remind you of the return aboard time until it is drilled into your head. It is well worth the money to use NCL excursions, because if there is any delay on your way back to the ship, and we had major traffic in Rome and in Istanbul so there are ports where that could very well happen, the captain will wait for you.
As for the food on the ship, which for two teenagers is the highlight of their day, it was always good and plenty of variety. We ate at the buffet a lot, since with picky eaters that is the way to go, and it was always great with plenty of places to sit and friendly staff. I can still hear them say "washy washy" as they dance around and spray your hands with sanitizer on the way in - and as a mom I appreciated that. I don't know how people can complain about having to sanitize your hands before you eat, why wouldn't you? Would you rather waste time in your cabin sick and miss seeing Europe? So anyway the kids loved the always ubiquitous hot dogs, French fries, mac and cheese, pizza, and ice cream; and I delighted instead in chicken scallopini, beef wellington, carved prime rib, etc. and wonderful salads. There was always a pasta station, Chinese food station (yummy chow mein), Indian food station (look for the dal bread), tons of breads and fruits, I mean if you can't find something to eat you have a problem. Every morning at breakfast the girls and I ate our weight in chocolate croissants and my son tried to beat his previous day's record in waffles. And we always ate dessert in the buffet after dinner in the MDR, since the desserts there are limited and no soft serve ice cream. That machine always had the longest line in the buffet.
One quick note on the main dining rooms, they definitely enforce the no shorts rule at dinner in the fancier Windows dining room. My son lives in shorts every day of the year, even in snow, and since it was his vacation too we weren't going to make him wear pants, and we tried it once (doubting that he would pass for under age 12 but who knows) and were politely advised to go to the casual Garden dining room instead. No problem, they have the same menu anyway. And not having to pack formal wear saved a lot of valuable luggage space for us. The Garden had wonderful staff and delicious food, I never had anything that wasn't hot (don't know why I read that complaint a lot) and am still dreaming about the steak Diane special they had one night. We paid extra twice to eat at La Trattoria, which was yummy Italian food and we are Italian so always love our pasta or pizza. The staff was great there too. It is a small area in the back of the buffet during the day, and then at dinnertime it is curtained off. We also were comped dinner one night at Cagney's, a fabulous steakhouse and it was marvelous. The staff there is always great, it is where we as suite passengers ate breakfast sometimes (if the buffet was too crowded) and that is where the concierge is located. More on that in a bit, but I'm sure you are wondering why we were comped dinner. Well, when we first boarded the ship, I was barefoot on the carpet hanging clothes in the closet and noticed it was wet. It turned out to be a toilet valve leak (the toilet still worked thank goodness) and the previous passenger in our suite hadn't noticed it. They sent a plumber right away to fix it, then had to set up one of those blower fans to dry the carpet out. They ran it for the first two days of the cruise, which were sea days so we had to deal with the noise if we were in our suite during the day, but of course they removed it in the evening before bed. It wasn't a big deal to us at all, since if you have kids you learn to be adaptable anyway, but they felt bad for the inconvenience and offered us dinner at any of the specialty restaurants. Of course we picked Cagney's since it is the highest price (haha) and my husband wanted a good steak.
So the concierge for us was Ryan for the first half of the cruise, then he had to leave in Rome and we got a new gal named Raswean or something like that. Both of them were charming and always helpful. They made sure we utilized our suite perks, like priority disembarkation (great to cut the huge line and walk off the ship when we wanted in Barcelona), priority balcony seating at the shows (only saw two, World Beat - a new dance show that was fabulous and Elements - absolutely breathtaking!), early entry into the chocolate buffet (only my husband went because it was at 10pm!?), and we would have had priority tendering in Mykonos Greece except the ship actually was able to dock there on this cruise. Mykonos must mean "windy" in Greek because it was soooooo windy there!
Finally, the ports were all fun in their own way. In Athens we scaled the Acropolis like mountain goats (definitely a level 3 excursion and not for the faint-hearted) up a packed stairway that was wall to wall people in ninety degree heat. The view from the top made it worth the trek. We lost one member of our tour group there because he took off his bus number sticker and gave away his headset (???) and didn't find his way back to the bus. I guess he took a taxi back to the ship. In Kusadasi Turkey we went to a small village and walked like locals, on a great new excursion called A Walk in the Past. We toured a carpet weaving village run by the government (and a mandatory stop on Turkey excursions) that was fascinating - we saw rugs made from silkworm to weaving loom to final product. The staff were friendly and not pushy at all, we never felt pressured to buy anything. They gave us free drinks and the local ladies cooked us a local delicacy, some kind of tortilla filled with feta cheese. It smelled good but we were too picky to try them (those who did proclaimed them delicious). We also toured a small mosque that didn't require us to cover our heads or knees like the bigger mosques would.
In Istanbul we had a tiny tour group, only nine people and we were five of them, so it was basically a private tour. We rode in a small minibus and our guide, a handsome young man, took us through Dolmabahce Palace first and later to Taksim Square and the Spice Market. The palace was breathtaking, set against the Bosphorous Sea and we even saw dolphins swimming by as we looked across the water to Asia. It is a European style palace where the sultan Ataturk lived (and died - the clocks are still set to the exact time he died). Taksim Square was basically an outdoor shopping area with plenty of locals, tons of pigeons, armed Turkish guards and police (which thrilled my son), and even a Starbucks and Burger King. And of course lots of mall-type stores to explore, like an Adidas store for my soccer-crazed son and baklava bakeries (I thought that was Greek but apparently it was Turkish first). The Spice Market was crazy, too warm and crowded. We stayed a few minutes and then retreated to the calmer outside area by the water. I can't even imagine how insane the Grand Bazaar must be!
As mentioned above, Mykonos was windy but still a beautiful island and a cute town to shop in. There is a resident giant pelican who wanders through the streets, and we lucked out and actually saw him. At this port there was a free NCL shuttle bus that drove you from the ship to the old town area. It was way too far to walk on your own.
Onto Italy, where we toured Pompeii in Naples (awe-inspiring sight and worth the hot walk across cobblestone streets - the kids loved the preserved bodies and my husband loved the brothel, with its anatomic "pointing" street signs, use your imagination, and pretty X-rated murals - thankfully my ten year-old didn't notice any of it and my teens snickered their way through). I was saddened by the bodies of a pregnant woman and a dog and it made it more real as to what a tragedy Pompeii really was. In Rome we did the City Highlights Tour, which included a Colusseum driveby, the Pantheon (not to be confused with the Parthenon in Athens), Trevi Fountain, a lunch stop in Piazza Navona, and St. Peter's Square. Two important notes here: Rome is an hour and a half drive from the ship, and the Trevi Fountain is currently under renovation so it has no water in it and scaffolding everywhere. We didn't know this until we got the shore excursion tickets when we boarded. So it was not as expected, but so crowded anyway that it really didn't matter. It was kind of funny because the guide said we could still toss our coins into the "fountain" but please to not hit the workers on the head.
In Livorno Italy we went to the Tower of Pisa of course. You ride a trolley from the bus stop to the Tower area (the Field of Miracles) and then back again. We took the requisite pictures of the leaning tower and cathedral (Duomo) and then shopped for souvenirs and marveled at a local Subway restaurant. It was warm there too and crowded, but not as crowded as Rome was. That city is gorgeous and timeless but man is it packed. There is no room at all and they park their cars on the sidewalk, sometimes triple parked. And crosswalk is a loose term there, or as our guide told us, "close your eyes and cross." My son was annoyed to not see any Ferraris or Lamborghinis, just small cars with dents and some human hood ornaments, haha. Quite a city and unforgettable!
Finally to France, which was my favorite port. Provence is picture postcard perfect, like something out of a movie. We toured a medieval hilltop town called Le Castellet that was utterly charming, with a candlelit church filled with stained glass, cobblestone streets lined with cute little shops and French cafe's, and a killer view from the top. Then onto a resort town called Sanary where we walked along the harbor and had free time for lunch - we bought beignets at a little bakery and watched all of the locals walking their dogs and wandered through a farmer's market. A very relaxing day compared to the others before it, and much appreciated at the end of our cruise.
Barcelona was easy disembarkation, a long line to get a taxi (and if you have more than four people in your group like us be prepared to wait longer for a minivan taxi), a charming city, and sadness at being off the Spirit. We stayed overnight at the Hilton Diagonal Mar to relax one more day before flying home. My kids at this point were sick of touring historical sites and vetoed our idea to ride a tour bus to see the Sagrada Familia - so my husband settled for pictures of the outside of it and we spent the day at the mall next to the hotel and at the hotel pool. This was a great hotel for anyone with kids - the mall across the street has familiar stores, even a full grocery store to buy snacks and water, and everything from McDonald's to tapas. And the beach is a five minute walk away. Our rooms overlooked the Mediterranean, quite a sight to wake up to on our final day in Europe.
So in retrospect, this was indeed the cruise of our lifetime. Nothing compares to it. And the Spirit is wonderful. Don't hesitate to book this ship (although it is rumored that she is leaving the Med in 2016, so for this itinerary do it by next summer) and you really can't beat this itinerary - five countries in 12 days. We will remember it for a lifetime.