Our adventure started with an overnight flight to London Heathrow. As we landed Friday morning we had roughly 24 hours to experience London. We arranged for Smiths (Smithsforairports.com) to handle each leg of our transfer (to hotel, to port, to Heathrow). Cost was reasonable, drivers were early each leg, and arrangements were easily handled. I elected to pay each driver at the end of each leg the predetermined price with a few extra pounds for extraordinary service. I highly recommend this service!
We stayed at the Hilton Doubletree Westminster. Booked on-line which provided a great price and flexible cancellation. We opted for rooms on the executive level with breakfast buffet included. Everything was exceptional. They let us check in early, which afforded the opportunity for a 4 hour nap. Front desk staff were quite friendly; concierge suite available to executive floor guests was great: plenty of free drink choices, good food options and nice servers. As for the Buffett More
breakfast.....it really is awesome! We enjoyed a great mix of Americana and European fare. Honestly, though, the executive lounge would have been sufficient. The hotel location is better than most, but it's a 10 minute walk to Big Ben and Parliament area. We tried to walk to the London Tower and gave up. Would be better to opt for the hop-on/off bus, bikes, or other transport if you want to see a lot.
One last thing, we have three Gluten Free diners in our group and our research uncovered a wonderful restaurant in the Westminster area called Cotto. It has the most robust GF menu we have ever seen and the food quality was wonderful. Turns out the owner is also GF and caters to the intolerant. We highly recommend checking this place out.
9:00 am Saturday we were off to Southhampton via Stonehenge. Our plan was to see the stones and be at the port in time for lunch. However, due to insane traffic it took over 4 hours to get to even see Stonehenge and by that point we needed to be on our way to the port. Thank Goodness our driver Mike was wonderful. He was funny, interesting, remained calm, and talked just the right amount. We made the most of it and arrived at the RCCL terminal at 2:30!
The terminal was empty by the time we got there. There was a queue inside waiting for check-in, but our Diamond status cut our wait time to just a few minutes. We were on the ship in about 10 minutes and enjoying the Windjammer moments later. Cruise number 19 was finally about to begin!
The Independence, like all three Freedom class ships, features the Promenade as well as great topside pools and lounges. I won't dwell on how we spent our sea days, but I will offer that the embarkation was a bit more tedious than usual and Joff our Cruise Director seemed swell. You get out of the activities what you put into them, and we are more the type to hang by the pool, exercise and enjoy leisurely meals than to fill our days with the many options available.
First stop, Vigo. Our research indicated this stop was best suited for walking directly off the ship and self-exploration. The maps at the pier were plentiful and we navigated this low-key city easily. We had planned to partake in the oysters and found the oyster market quickly. It was located right behind the Bahamia Hotel visible from the ship, maybe a 5 minute walk. The place was a flutter of activity and there were some interesting food presentations which we may try on a future visit. However, we passed on the oysters as the size and brownish color weren't appealing. Prices were good in Vigo and every port after was quite expensive (Cadiz was similarly inexpensive), so this is the stop to buy anything you need short of locale specific items.
Day 4 was Lisbon. What a huge city! We prebooked the medieval Segway tour through LisbonSegwayTours.com and had a wonderful time. Lisbon has some steep hills so the medieval tour is not good for beginners. I hope to do the Sailor tour on our next visit. Simon and Bernardo were awesome guides and the on-line reservation process was easily navigated. We then caught a 6 euro cab ride to Belem for pastries and to see the tower. The line at Pasteis de Belem almost scared us off, but it moved very efficiently and once we experienced the embrulhados we were glad we made the trip.
Day 5 was Gibraltar. The visitor’s desk in port educated us on the "Rock Tour by Taxi". This was awesome and was less than two euros more than the do it yourself, cable car route. For 22 euros pp you get the driver (Clyde was great), all entry fees, and protection from the wild apes...which weren't all that scary. We visited the Pillars of Hercules, St. Michaels Cave, the Upper Rock View, and the Great siege tunnels. After a brief walk around town, we were back on the ship and impressed by this small town.
Day 7, Valencia is an awesome port stop. The Independence has only stopped here twice and I don't know why this isn't a regular destination. We booked a 3-hour bike tour through Suzie at ToursinValencia.com. Our guide, Gaby, was awesome due to his fun spirit and knowledge of the city. This is a great way to experience Valencia. We have traveled most of Europe and place Valencia high on our list of places we want to return to. It is clean, well laid out, an interesting mix of old and new, great food and easily navigated.
Day 8. Half way through the cruise and the ports have gotten better each day. This brings us to Barcelona. This is our second time to visit; the first time we loved La Sagrada Familia, Casa Battia and Las Ramblas. This time we reserved a 2 hour Segway tour through Barcelona Segway Tour. The tour was great and Addy was a super guide. His English was good, he had stories at each location, and was very easy going. The tour spends about 70% of the time near the beach, but Addy's perspectives opened us up to a side of Barca we didn't experience the first go-round. So, I highly recommend this tour, but only after or in combination with one of the Gothic tours.
Day 9, Palma de Mallorca. Again our second visit. Our first round we spent on the beach; so this time we wanted to see the city center. A 12€ cab ride put us at the base of the stunning cathedral. As it was Sunday, and over half the stores were closed, it only took about 2 hours to hit the main areas. I suppose a taxi tour of the island would have been a better option for today, but we stuck with our plan and enjoyed the city. We didn't find the restaurant servers and store clerks very friendly here, but it was simple to get around and blistering hot (31c).
Day 10, Ibiza. We caught a 12€ cab to Figueretes Beach. This was a nice beach with adequate facilities, access to stores and restaurants, and a beautiful vista. It presented many European style sun-bathers and you could sense that a lot of partying happens at night. This really isn't an atmosphere for children; so I'd recommend tours involving specific activities such as the water park or cross island tours. We won't hurry back here.
Day 12, Cadiz. Awesome port! We elected to self-navigate this small city. Right after we walked off the ship (outside the gate) an information table was set-up and a wonderful young woman gave us a map, highlighted her recommended route and pointed out key things to see. It took about 3 hours to walk the whole route (which was practically the whole town). We stopped at several restaurants and shops, were surprised at the prices, and thoroughly enjoyed out town. If you are into history and facts, the Walking Tour would be perfect. This port is great because the prices are relatively low, it only takes 5 minutes from cabin to town, and there is plenty to see. I can see why this is one of the crews’ favorite stops. The beach looked great and would be a 20 minute walk or cheap cab ride. On our next visit we will likely go to Seville.
As this was our first 14 night cruise, we expected to reach a point where we were ready to go home. It never arrived. Great weather, ports, service and new friends made this a trip that could last a long time and will not be quickly forgotten; however, all good things must come to an end. We were anxious about our 10 am flight out of Heathrow, but our Smiths driver (Jeff) was waiting for us at 6:30 am when we self-departed the ship. From cabin to car was 20 minutes. Customs is a simple walk through, and at 6:15 the lines were minimal. Heathrow was a breeze as well. We were at Heathrow at 7:45 and through security at 8:15! We enjoyed a nice breakfast in Terminal 3 and were shocked when they expected us to pay! Back to the real world.... Less