When planning and preparing this wonderful vacation for my family, I relied heavily on CruiseCritic and TripAdvisor as my main sources of information. This is my attempt to help others who are (like I was) looking for some reasonable assistance/guidance/opinions as they plan their trip of a lifetime. I tried to steer away from silly comments like "the bed was too firm" or "the coffee was too strong". Those are personal preferences and, in my opinion, not helpful. So I hope that my scribbles help you discover a trip that you will truly enjoy as much as we did.
We began our journey with an Air Canada flight from Winnipeg to Toronto. Since our connector, Air Canada Rouge, offers a direct flight from Toronto to Barcelona on Tuesdays (arriving on Wednesdays, because of the time change) the schedule was the perfect way to permit us to spend a few days in Barcelona prior to our embarkment on the Saturday. Air Canada More
Rouge is a fairly new offering from Air Canada. A year old, I believe. I would describe the airline class as your typical charter bus with wings. But it was a direct flight from Canada, the price was right and the schedule matched our needs exactly.
Navigating the Barcelona airport was very easy. Once we were through the fairly simple immigration process, we simply followed the directional signs and found our way to the Aerobus without difficulty. We chose the Aerobus as our method of transportation because of its convenient stop near our hotel and its inexpensive price of 5.90€ per person - for us, less than half of what a taxi would have cost for the same distance!
Hotel Jazz, a recommendation we found on CruiseCritic and well reviewed on Tripadvisor, was as advertised. Hotel Jazz is a clean and comfortable, euro-modern hotel. Our choice of a junior corner suite met every expectation for our family of 3. It was fairly spacious, had a small fridge and the bathroom was a very good size. The roof top pool, with its wonderful bar/lounge area, was a great place to relax and enjoy a glass of wine accompanied by some fresh olives at the end of each day. It is important to note that Hotel Jazz is also very conveniently located near the Placa de Cantalunya and Las Rambla. As well, there are several good and reasonably priced cafes, restaurants and bars in the immediate neighbourhood for you to enjoy. Our favourite morning coffee was found at the Granier Cafe, just across the street from the hotel. Delicious! We would easily recommend Hotel Jazz. Travel tip...book your room early and then watch their website for sale prices. The hotel was sold out many weeks before we our arrival date.
Barcelona is a beautiful city, surprisingly clean and can easily be discovered on foot with the assistance of the Hop On, Hop Off bus. There are two bus companies that provide this service. We selected the Turistic Bus and bought discounted tickets from their website prior to our departure from Winnipeg. By-the-way, make sure you print the ticket. Electronic versions are not accepted by the bus driver. We encountered no problems or delays and thoroughly enjoyed our day hopping on and hopping off at the sights that we found most interesting. Important travel tip...if you plan on visiting Sagrada Familia, use their website and buy your tickets on line in advance. This is a must! If not, you will stand in line for hours!!
When preparing for our vacation, we read many comments regarding the prevalence of pickpockets in Barcelona. With this in mind, we followed the recommended precautions, maintained awareness and used common sense. Other than one aggressive beggar in the market, we did not encounter any difficulties of this kind in Barcelona. In fact, we found the people very friendly and engaging. So, allow yourself a few days in this beautiful city - you won't be disappointed!
We took a taxi from Hotel Jazz to the port. Cost, 20€...cheap!
Boarding the ship was well organized and took us no longer than 30 minutes from start to finish. Prior to the gangway there is a duty free shop that sells 6 large bottles of water for 8€...buy them! Especially, if you are going on many excursions. You won't regret the decision when you see the price for the same bottles on the ship.
By now you must have read in other reviews that the balcony staterooms on the NCL Spirit are on the smaller side. That is absolutely accurate. However, the room size should not be a problem at all for couples. As a family of 3, we still managed to manoeuvre without too many collisions but, I admit, it was rather tight. We survived. It was fine.
The ship itself is quaint but a little bit underwhelming. And, in some areas, the NCL Spirit is starting to show her age. By comparison, we preferred the RCI Serenade of the Seas (a similar sized ship that we have sailed before) over NCL Spirit. However, this cruise was selected based on the ports of call and not the ship. If the ship's WOW factor is extremely important to you, the Spirit may not be the best choice. But, a well travelled friend of mine told me that when cruising the Mediterranean, view the ship as simply a method of transportation and allow the ports of call to be the determining factor. Good advise, since we spent little time in our cabin during the day on this excursion driven cruise. I would suggest a balcony stateroom over an inside room. I think twelve days in a closet would be too much but the choice is yours. We slept with the balcony doors open on most nights. The fresh sea air was wonderful. Travel tip...bring a bar of soap if you prefer that over soft soap. And, a small power bar would be smart to bring if you have many electronics to charge since there is only one outlet in the room.
Since the taste of food is a very personal thing, I won't go into great detail on what was good and what was bad. However, what I will say is that our overall opinion of the food was very average to very good depending on the choice. We found the buffet lacking in presentation, rather limited and somewhat repetitive. On more than one occasion the soft ice cream machine and juice fountains were either empty or out of order. However, the staff were always helpful and very attentive if something was unsatisfactory. The two main dining rooms are conservatively elegant but again, not awe inspiring. The service was excellent and there was always a table available when we chose to dine - which was typically somewhere between 6 and 7 PM. In most cases, we were generally pleased with the quality of food in the main dining rooms. But again, that a personal preference. What we REALLY enjoyed the FreeStyle dining experience. No suit, no schedule...that concept absolutely works for me! NCL definitely scored points with us with this great idea. I should also mention that there are several other patio style dining options like the Blue Lagoon, Henry's Pub, Bier Garden, etc. that were available for a quick snack. A BBQ can also be found pool side for lunches. Again, overall...average to above average depending on your taste.
As expected, the main pool area was always the centre of activity for sun worshiping adults. And, at the rear of the ship there is a wonderful buccaneer-themed kiddy pool with two small waterslides. The toddlers were having a blast! Definitely a plus for families with small children.
We didn't attend many of the shows so I will reserve comment. After day long excursions, who can stay awake for Johnny the Juggler? Not me. Although I must confess that I did find myself in the casino several times during the cruise and I still have my shirt sooo...not too bad! I will say this about the shows...some people we met claimed they were entertained by the productions that they attended. I will let you be the judge, should you choose to take in a show.
Final comment on NCL Spirit...if you are looking for the mega ship WOW experience, you won't find it here. But the ports of call were absolutely amazing which easily made up for any of the Spirits short falls. Lets be clear...I'm not saying the Spirit was awful - far from it! We had a great time and the service was very good. What I am saying is that it wasn't breathtaking like the newer mega vessels. For this trip, the Spirit was comfortable, well staffed and more than satisfactory. Although, if Royal Caribbean offered the EXACT ports of call for approximately the same price range, we would select RCI over NCL based on our experience.
We expected very little from our first port of call, Toulon, but we were pleasantly surprised by the french village. As soon as you exit the ship there is an inexpensive tourist shuttle in the shape of a small train that takes you to and from Toulon's various points of interest. Beach goers, this is your perfect mode of transportation as it stops adjacent to a lovely beach with many restaurants. There appeared to be more pebbles than sand but still quite nice. Ladies, feel free to pop your top...this is, of course, the south of France and the locals aren't shy at all!
We decided to wander the streets of Toulon. Travel tip...stay left as you leave the ship and walk along the waterfront. The 5 minute stroll will take you right to the centre of town. There are many cafes along the way where you can dine, try a crepe or just enjoy a cold beer or a glass of wine. From here we discovered an authentic farmers market with fresh produce, some good retail shops and a few of the historical sights just by wandering the alley ways. Although Toulon will not be the highlight of your trip, it wasn't the complete waste of time that I expected.
Florence & Pisa
This was our first of 3 tours that we booked with Rome-In-Limo...a decision that I will never regret! I cannot begin to say enough good things about this company. I repeat....Rome-In-Limo is the best! Jany was incredibly helpful when called upon and each of our drivers/guides were fantastic...starting with Elisabeth.
Elisabeth was born and raised in Pisa. Her knowledge of the area was phenominal. With each descriptive word, you could hear the pride in her voice. Her love for Florence and Pisa translated into an incredibly informative and thoroughly entertaining tour. Such a friendly woman. Elisabeth was an absolutely joy!
We started the tour in heavy traffic that followed us to the beautiful city of Florence, home of the Renaissance. Since we arrived on a Monday, the museum that housed the authentic statue of David and other incredible works of art was closed. No matter, because, since we travelled in a mini van, Elisabeth was able to take us into areas of Florence that the large tour buses could not access. As far as I am concerned, there is no better way to see these amazing cities and their incredible streets of history. The majority of day was spent in Florence visiting the wonderful points of interest, the most beautiful being Santa Croce. Our tour permitted some time to shop (actually a very good place to buy leather goods) and enjoy a delicious lunch at MaMaMia Restorante before finishing in Pisa. And yes...in Pisa...we got the shot! Travel tip...go to left of the tower behind the green space for the best angle of the Leaning Tower. A great tour that is impossible to duplicate on your own.
When we booked this 2nd tour with Rome-In-Limo, Jany urged us to purchase our admission tickets to the Colosseum and the Vatican in advance on-line. Sound advise! The line ups were huge!!
Sergio was our driver for the tour of Rome. He was brilliant! Not only was he an incredible source of information, the man can drive! He got us through the crazy traffic with ease so we could stay on time and see as much of Rome as possible. Sergio, a true Roman, was born and raised in Roma and seemed to know every amazing detail about the ancient city. He also had a great sense of humour. Our time spent with him was both entertaining and tremendously educational.
We decided to wander through the Colosseum on our own but chose to book a guide for the Vatican tour. Rome-In-Limo arranged this for us. Federicka was our guide. She was fantastic and, quite frankly, a must. Federicka's ability to manoeuvre us through the dense crowds and still share with us her extensive knowledge was golden. Whether you are religious or not, have a deep appreciation for fine art or not - the Vatican and Sistine Chapel tour is a must. The beauty is incredibly overwhelming and the history is almost beyond comprehension.
Other stops included but were not limited to; a view of Circus Maximus, the Parthenon and the Trifoli Fountain - which was disappointing since it is currently under restoration (but we wanted to stop anyways).
Thanks to Sergio, we saw everything we wanted to see in Rome, had a great lunch at Restorante Renovatie and still made it back to our ship on time completely exhausted but thoroughly pleased with the tour! Travel tip...it is impossible to see Rome on your own. This Rome-in-Limo tour was absolutely amazing AND at a fraction of the price than the NCL sponsored excursion. Do not hesitate to book with Rome-In-Limo. They are the best!
Our 3rd and final tour with Rome-In-Limo was a tour along the Amalfi Coast and a visit to the ruins of Pompeii. Our driver's name was Tony. Imagine that? An Authentic Italian named Tony! Who would have guessed?
Tony was great! Since he was born and raised in Sorrento (are you seeing a pattern here with the guides?), Tony shared his tremendous knowledge of the area as we were amazed by the endless beauty of this incredible coastline. The Amalfi Coast is easily one of the most beautiful country sides I have ever seen and Tony was proud to share it with us. By-the-way...Tony can also carry a tune. Maybe not Dean Martin good, but not bad at all!
We stopped often for pictures. The view of Positano is almost indescribable. Absolutely gorgeous! After two full days of historical facts, the shear beauty of this region was a welcomed change of pace. After about an hour of shopping in Positano, we made our way back to Sorrento for lunch and little bit more shopping before we headed to Pompeii. Travel tip...have plenty of water on hand if you plan to visit Pompeii. Its hot, dry and dusty...but beyond belief!
In Pompeii, we were met by our incredibly knowledgable guide, Pina. Initially we had planned to walk through the ruins on our own but after our experience in Rome, we decided on a guided tour. Tony arranged this for us. Pina was an incredible wealth of knowledge and highly educated on the history of Pompeii. Without her, we would have missed so many amazing things because of the vastness of this incredibly well preserved ancient city. Pompeii is another must see.
After the tour of Pompeii, Tony returned us to our ship, on time and completely satisfied with yet another wonderful tour.
I know that I am repeating myself but I highly recommend Rome-In-Limo and all of our drivers and guides. They were amazing - each and everyone of them! Thanks again to our drivers Elisabeth, Sergio and Tony...as well as our guides, Federicka and Pina. You have given us the most wonderful memories of Italy that we will never forget.
Day at Sea...thank goodness! We were exhausted from the busy 3 days so it was great to just relax and enjoy the ships amenities.
Mykonos is a quiet little Greek island that we easily discovered on foot in a few hours. The waterfront area has many little shops and restaurants that we explored as we wander through the maze of white-washed alley ways. There are a couple of little beaches near the pier that are nothing special, but, they are convenient enough if you decide to go for a quick swim. If you are a real beach goer, I suggest you take a cab to the more popular beaches. We were told that they are beautiful.
The ship began tendering passengers into Mykonos around 7:15 AM. The final tender back to the Spirit was at 2:30ish PM. This might seem like a short period of time but it really was all the time we needed to visit this small port.
This is, by far, the largest city I have ever visited. Estimated population of the city and surrounding area is approximately 20 million people. And every one of those Turks wants to sell you something! Just kidding. It actually wasn't as bad as portrayed. I read several reviews where it was suggested that this port is a DIY. Possibly, but, you can easily get lost in the maze of streets just trying to find the Grand Bazaar just so that you can then get lost in the labyrinth of shops. Unless you are up for an adventure and a 4 KM walk to and from the tourist sites, use a guide.
Our choice was to hire Ephesus Shuttle in Istanbul. Another good decision! They took care of everything including the advance purchase of all admission ticket. Our guide was a lovely girl named Hulia. She met us as we exited the port's secured area and then a shuttle van drove us to the location of the ancient Hipodrome. From here we spent the rest of the day on foot since the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar are all within walking distance of each other. Hulia was a very informative and her ability to navigate through the crowds was valuable. The advance tickets saved us from standing in long lines yet again. Travel tip...if you are expecting incredible deals on knock offs at the Grand Bazzaar, you might be surprised by the prices. Not cheap! But the quality of the fakes is impressive. Whatever you decide, barter hard! My wife purchased a leather Yves St. Laurent purse for 100 Lira. The starting price was 270 Lira! (Thanks Hulia, for your assistance with the transaction! )
By-the-way...we had an authentic Turkish lunch at The Pudding Shop. Weird name for a Turkish restaurant but delicious food and nice people.
We arrived in the port of Kusadasi at 1 PM. We pre-arranged another tour with Ephesus Shuttle to take us to the ancient city of Ephesus. Our guide was Tan. He was very personable and extremely informative. Ephesus was truly remarkable. Unlike Pompeii, the majority of the marble laden street surfaces remain intact so you really get a sense of Roman wealth and power. The Celcius Library and Mazeus Mithridates Gate are worth the price of admission. Wow. Incredible. And the amphitheatre was quite impressive too. Travel note...wear a hat and bring plenty of water. Its extremely hot in Ephesus.
After our tour of Ephesus, we returned to the Bazaar which is located just a few steps from the port gates. If you choose not to tour Ephesus or the many other historical sites and attractions around Kusadasi, you can easily browse for hours in this outdoor maze of shops. As one sign read "100% real fakes", so you get the picture. The quality of goods are inferior to Istanbul but the prices are considerably less as well. After a while, it all looked the same crap to me. LOL
Athens is approximately 7 miles from the port of Piraeus. Which, with traffic, translates into about a 30 minute drive! We selected Spiro's Taxi Service for the half day tour of Athens. Our driver's name was Dimitri. He was a true gentleman. Dimitri was very polite, attentive to our needs and as knowledgable as you will find. He also claimed to speak 3 languages...and a little bit of Greek. Funny.
Our first stop was the main event - The Acropolis! Since our ship cleared about a half hour later then expected, we found ourselves amerced in the bus crowds which Dimitri said we could have avoided if not for the delay. Since you cannot buy your admission tickets in advance on-line, expect a line-up. Ours took around 30 minutes. Once you have your ticket, then you can proceed to the entry gate. It is quite a hike to the summit. The marble steps are slippery and uneven. The point is...wear good shoes! The Pantheon (which is colossal) and the Temple of Athena are the two main attractions. Most everything is under restoration but if you like this sort of thing, it's still worth the effort. The view of Athens from the top was also spectacular. Our tour included several stops at various points of interest including The Temple of Zeus. Once you've seen Pompeii or Ephesus, these relics pale in comparison but still an Athen's must see. After some free time for shopping, Dimitri took us to a cute little greek restaurant, which I sadly forgot to make note of its name. The authentic Greek food was terrific and at a very reasonable price. After lunch, we returned to the ship for a nap.
On a personal note...Athens was the least inspiring stop on our journey. The city in an economic ruin. Greece suffers from a 28% unemployment rate and it shows. Its a dirty, dilapidated city that is in desperate need of its own renaissance. Everywhere you look, there is spray paint from "taggers" and litter in the streets. Its sad, actually.
Day at Sea...for those who like to partake in ship activities, there are many. Some at a cost like Bingo and Deal or No Deal, while others that are free to participate in or just fun to watch.
Our final destination. We chose to stay a few extra days in this unique and beautiful city. As I mentioned earlier, the Air Canada Rouge schedule manages this perfectly.
The Spirit is one of the last ships that will be allowed to sail past St. Mark's Square as you arrive in Venice. Larger vessels have already been banned due to erosion. From what we were told, come November 2014, no large cruise ships will be permitted to sail this route to the pier. We consider ourselves very lucky because the view of St. Mark's was spectacular!
The ship docked at 2 PM. There was no set time to return for passengers that evening so we could come and go as we pleased. You can either use the water taxi or the People Mover to find your way into Venice. Both are located close to where the ship is docked. Venice is a very easy do-it-yourself port. You will get turned around from time to time, as you wander the streets along the canals but sooner or later you will find your way back. Quite honestly, that was part of the charm of Venice. Throw away the map (its useless) and simply follow your instincts...or the yellow signs that are posted on the side of buildings. We loved wandering the alleyways from shop to shop. Although there are still many of your typical "Made in China" gift shops, you will also find an abundance of unique and wonderful stores that sell Venetian masks, Murano glass and leather goods, etc. that are hand crafted by local artists. Venice was easily one of my favourite ports. Doge's Palace is, without a doubt, a must see! An incredible display of private wealth!
Disembarking the following morning was a breeze. We easily found our luggage and were on our way to our hotel in no time. We selected another CruiseCritic favourite - the Best Western Olimpia. Again, the excellent reviews on TripAdvisor were spot on. What a lovely hotel! Just old enough to get a feel for venetian lifestyle but with all the amenities of a modern hotel. The staff were extremely helpful and friendly. The complimentary breakfast buffet was delicious!
If you decide on staying at the Best Western Olimpia, the location is very convenient. Once you disembark, follow the signs that guide you to the People Mover. Its a short but easy walk. The cost is 1.90 € per person, one way. The People Mover will take you a short distance to the Piazza Roma, which is essentially a bus and taxi hub. Keep right and walk to the end of the parking lot. Its not far. You will see the hotel sign on the side of their building as you come to the small bridges. Cross the foot bridge to the right and you will find the hotel entrance a few steps away. Sounds complicated but it's not.
Travel note...if you do plan to stay a few days in Venice, purchase a ACTV water bus pass. We bought a 48 hour pass and use the water bus like a hop-on-hop-off tour bus. Crowded at times but fun and it's an inexpensive way to see all of Venice. We also took it to Murano so it paid for itself in no time.
To get to the airport, we took a cab from the Piazza Roma to the airport at a flat rate cost of 40€. If you are flying Air Canada as we did, when you enter the terminal, turn to your left. The AC kiosks are down at the far end.
We arrived in Winnipeg on time and completely exhausted.
Overall, we had a wonderful trip. I hope this summary was useful. Less
Good advise, since we spent little time in our cabin during the day on this excursion driven cruise. I would suggest a balcony stateroom over an inside room. I think twelve days in a closet would be too much but the choice is yours. We slept with the balcony doors open on most nights. The fresh sea air was wonderful. Travel tip...bring a bar of soap if you prefer that over soft soap. And, a small power bar would be smart to bring if you have many electronics to charge since there is only one outlet in the room.