Embarkation was somewhat different than we had ever experienced on Carnival. When we arrived at the port (around noon), we were handed a number and told to sit and wait until this number was called. We had a wait of at least 30-45 minutes before we were called. Then we got in line and they collected our number. We saw people cutting in line further along (past where they collected the numbers), so felt that this was not a very good method. Better that they just directed folks to the end of the line as they arrived. Also, there was no special line for those that had completed their "Fun Pass" prior to arrival. Everyone was just lumped together. Others we spoke to said that their earlier or later arrival did not encounter this number system.
After reading prior comments on the horrible dEcor, we expected we would need to wear sunglasses when we boarded to minimize the gaudiness. We were pleasantly surprised with the dEcor throughout the ship, and found it to be appropriate and tasteful. I overheard several comments from veteran Carnival cruisers that they felt that this was the nicest Carnival dEcor that they had experienced. I guess everyone's taste is different, and that is okay too.
We had an aft cabin on the Veranda deck and it was comfy and pleasant. We were able to store all of our stuff easily and found the bedding to be dreamy. We occasionally heard deck chairs being moved around above us on the Lido deck, and we could feel some vibration in the ship, but neither caused any discomfort or problems for us. We have had an aft cabin before and will again on Carnival.
We had one glitch early on that was resolved quickly. Several of us who "met" on cruise critic decided to dine together. We worked through one travel agent to hook our cabin numbers to dine at 8 p.m. When we got on board and received our "Sail and Sign" card we all noticed that our dining time was incorrect. Although we understand that dining preferences are not guaranteed, we went to the dining room to see if we could get it straightened out and, as (good) luck would have it, some of our expected tablemates (whom we had not yet met), were also there trying to get it resolved. It seems that each couple had been assigned different tables in different dining rooms at different times. Fortunately we got it all straightened out and we were put at a table together, though at 8:30 instead of 8. In addition, the 8:30 dining in the Posh restaurant had Ken as the head maitre d. We had had Ken on the Carnival Pride five years ago and remembered him as the singing maitre d. He did sing most nights on this cruise and he was super.
One other point on seating arrangements that might be helpful to other groups: when we were trying to coordinate seating prior to the trip, we had requested a table for 10. The travel agent who was helping us said that Carnival told her that there were no tables for 10. We asked someone from the first cruise of the Freedom to check this out and he reported seeing only a few tables for 10. Well, we ended up at a table for 10 and there were many, many such tables. Unfortunately, we never met up with the folks that were to be the 9th and 10th at our table, so felt bad that they weren't able to join us. Anyway, if a table for 10 is what you want, know that there are many of them.
The food was fine, though we did hear some grumblings from others that they thought it was not as good as they've previously experienced on Carnival. There were no such complaints at our table and we liked our wait staff, Santiago and Michael. We also had a good bar server (did not get his name) who also worked up on the Lido deck in the morning, and graciously brought my husband a Bloody Mary from another bar one day when the aft bar had not yet open. We did do the Supper Club on the second day at sea and loved it. We felt it was well worth the extra $30 per person; nowhere could you get this sort of meal for that price. The service was exceptional and the duo that provided music was wonderful. We had heard to expect to dine for 2 ½ hours, but we were there for almost four hours. It was relaxing and we had such a good time with some of our new friends.
Regarding entertainment, we went to the Welcome Aboard show, the tribute to the Beatles, the New Orleans tribute, and the Guest Talent show. All were very entertaining, with the tribute to New Orleans being my favorite. We heard from other guests that some of the other shows were very good; some just so-so. The two main singers for the big shows were wonderful. The cruise director, John Heald, is so funny. We had him on the Liberty and even though some routines were familiar, they are side-splitting. He is such the entertainer and we hope to see him again.
Throughout the ship the staff was very friendly and anxious to make our time on board special. DH enjoyed time in the casino and found the staff there very pleasant. I had one spa treatment and was not pressured to purchase products (this is often a complaint I've heard about ship spas). I was merely asked if I wanted the staff person attending to me to jot down the names of the products she was using for my facial; I said "no thank you" and that was that. No pressure to purchase any products and the facial was terrific. One thing I may do next time is wait for the daily specials to book a treatment. They have them throughout the cruise at markedly reduced prices. The only problem with waiting is that you may not get what you want at a time you want it. But if you don't care, than it would be a good savings.
We had no complaints about the alcoholic drinks we consumed, except for one Stinger in the International Lounge one evening. It was very, very skimpy. Otherwise, our drinks were good. Most mornings they had mimosas and Bloody Marys at a reduced price (under $4.00) until noon.
I purchased one of the Internet packages at $55.00 for 100 minutes. The Internet was extremely slow; worse than dial-up. One time it took me about 15 minutes to access my email. I like the convenience of using the Internet on the ship as its available 24 hours, but will probably consider using port Internet cafes next time as we understand from others that it is much quicker and more reasonable.
One note about the gift shops on board. Because the last day is a port day and night (Civitavecchia), the gift shops were closed on the last day. Signs were posted on the next to last day, but the lines were long, so if there is something you want to purchase in the gift shops, try not to wait until that last day.
Debarkation was very quick and easy for us. We were told to gather in the Victoriana Lounge by 5:45 a.m. and that debarking would begin by 6 a.m. Because we had a scheduled early flight (10:10 a.m.), we were in the first group off the ship and then on the first bus to the airport. It only took 45 minutes to get to the airport.
Rome: We booked our transfers and hotel through Carnival. Even though it is more expensive, we just felt covered if there were any problems. The hotel was the Visconte Palace, which was about a mile from St. Peters. We met new friends from Arizona on the bus from the airport to the hotel. They were staying at the same hotel and we are so happy to have met them. We all went to lunch together the first day and spent most of the next day with them as well. The evening of our arrival, the Arizona folks had scheduled a walking tour. There was a huge rain and hail storm around 6 p.m., so DH and I had drinks at our hotel bar and when the weather cleared, we walked over the river to the Piazza Narvona and had a delicious meal while listening to music and people-watching. It was a relaxing 20 minute stroll to and from our hotel.
The next day we joined our new friends and got on one of those on/off buses which tour Rome. We had read about there being red buses and green buses. We tried to get on a red one, but were told that they were only for people buying two-day passes. Since we only wanted 24-hour passes, we were directed to a yellow bus. We secured upper level seats and enjoyed the entire loop which took about 1 ½ hours. They give you ear phones so you can listen to commentary on the various sites you're passing, but we found the recorded English rather difficult to listen to, so ended up just enjoying the ride and the sights. They give you 10 minutes at the St. Peters stop (if you want to get back on there), so we took advantage of this as a bathroom break and also bought beer to take with us as we continued the ride. Once back at our starting point, we decided to stay on and get off at the beautiful Borghese Park. Once there we strolled around and enjoyed the lovely day. Back at the bus stop we had a 20-30 minute wait for the bus and once it came, we were not allowed on as it was full. Some German tourists, who had been waiting longer than us, were really upset (understandably). We ended up grabbing a cab back to St. Peters. Even though we couldn't get back on the bus at this one stop, we highly recommend the on/off bus as a great way to tour Rome for only 13 euros.
On our trip to Rome in 2005 (on the Liberty), we did not go into St. Peters due to the long lines but learned that it is less crowded in the afternoon. So this trip, we planned to go in around 3:30; however, this day was a Wednesday which is when the Pope addresses the folks in St. Peters Square in the morning. Because of this, the basilica doesn't open until 1 p.m. on Wednesdays, so the line was still quite long when we arrived. It did move quickly however, but it was very crowded inside. It is very beautiful and worth seeing.
Naples: One of our new friends met through cruisecritic had arranged for a private driver, Roberto of Drive Amalfi, to take us on a drive of the Amalfi Coast. It was terrific and Roberto was a great guide. We drove through Sorrento and stopped in Positano and Amalfi. Roberto also took us to the Emerald Cave where we rode an elevator down to a lake inside a cave and we rode on a little boat across the lake while a driver pointed out some interesting formations and underwater sights. Roberto also took us to a little town outside of Ravello, where we had a delicious lunch (on our own) with a spectacular view. It was a memorable tour and I highly recommend Drive Amalfi and Roberto.
Rhodes: This was the "find" of the trip. What a little gem! We love history, so walking these medieval streets was a real treat. The shopping was great and the vendors not at all pushy. We looked for a restaurant off the beaten pass, and found a delightful one where we could sit outside in a little alley. I don't know what street it was on, but I think the name of the restaurant is "Myetarotia" spelled in the Greek way. Each of the four of us had something different and enjoyed every morsel. Once DH and our new friends returned to the ship, I wandered around for another hour just exploring some of the back alleys and little streets. Would definitely like to return here and see more of the island. Did not get to Lindos.
Izmir: We took the Carnival tour for Ephesus and the Terrace Houses, and thought that it was very well done. We had a very good guide (Seenon) who spoke excellent English and was very knowledgeable. The site is wonderful, and the terrace houses, simply amazing. I will caution those who have difficulty walking. There are many, many steps within the terrace house (our guide noted this before we entered), and although the steps inside going up were not difficult, the steps on the outside going down were very hard on the old knees.
We found the Turkish countryside to be quite beautiful.
Istanbul: This city of 15 million is remarkable. We took a Carnival tour here as well. It included the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkepi Palace, a carpet demonstration, and time in the Grand Bazaar. As reported by others, we had to take our shoes off in the Blue Mosque. Carnival provided plastic bags to us for carrying our shoes. The mosque is marvelous. Likewise, Hagia Sophia is an amazing place. We did not have to take our shoes off here and pictures were allowed in both places. The Topkepi Palace was interesting as we got to see some remarkable artifacts and treasures (no pictures allowed), which included the Spoonaker Diamond (huge), and a piece of the skull and arm of John the Baptist. You could actually see pieces of his arm bone and of his skull. Morbid, but amazing when you think of how old they are. We also saw a nice display of ceramics and silver in the palace. I was disappointed that we did not get to see the harem, as I'm sure that is something most tourists would be interested in. We had thought of ditching the carpet demonstration and telling our tour guide that we would find our own way back to the ship, but by the time we reached the carpet demo and Grand Bazaar area, we decided that the demonstration would be interesting (it was—beautiful carpets and a nice cup of apple tea and snack), and that an hour in the bazaar would be enough. One problem with this tour is that there was no time to get lunch. Carnival does tell you to have a good breakfast due to the timing of the tour, but we so enjoy eating in the different ports and sampling local food, that it would be nice if they would build in some time to get lunch on our own on such tours. At no time did I ever feel uncomfortable in this city, nor in the bazaar. It is a fun, vibrant place, very busy, and nicer and cleaner than I expected. We did get to hear the call to prayer once, and it was quite moving. We would return to Istanbul if we ever have the chance as there is much more to see here. We left the port at dusk and the sight of lights coming on, and the beautifully lit mosques was truly a wonderful sight.
Athens: Even though I had wanted to come to Athens to see the Acropolis ever since I was a child, this was probably our least favorite port. The ship docks in the port of Piraeus. I had read online that the cruise terminal is only a five minute walk from where the ship docks, and I had printed out directions from the Port Review site on how to get to, and use, the train station to go to the Acropolis. Well, our ship was docked a good 20-30 minute walk (we figure a solid mile and a half) from the cruise terminal. By the time we got there, we thought that the reported 20 minute walk further to the train station must be longer, so we opted for a cab. There is a sign posted that the cab cost 8 euros, but we didn't notice if that was per person or for the cab. We ended up paying 20 euros to go to the Acropolis, and 15 euros to return to the terminal. We were fine with this as it was still cheaper than a tour of any kind, and all we really wanted to do in Athens was to visit the Acropolis and have a nice lunch in the Plaka area. We accomplished both things. We climbed up to an area near the Parthenon that had great views over the city. We were about to pay our 12 euros each to go up to the Parthenon when we looked up and saw hundreds of people up there. There apparently were a lot of school children on class trips that day, so rather than fight the crowds, we just enjoyed the sight from our vantage point before heading back down. We had a really wonderful lunch of roasted lamb and potatoes (me) and filled grape leaves (DH), followed by a large portion of baklava, which we shared. The beer and ambiance was also enjoyable.
Katakalon: We were on another private tour led by a terrific tour guide, Gemma. She was so pleasant and knowledgeable and truly has a passion for ancient Olympia. This was another wonderful site, as was the nearby museum containing many statues taken from the original site. The shopping street of Katakalon is very close to the cruise ship, which made shopping very convenient. There are several restaurants along the water, but we opted for gyros (1.5 euros) and beer (2.5 euros). The gyro was okay, nothing special, but we couldn't complain about the cost. Very cheap lunch.
Messina Strait: As we passed between Italy and Sicily, we had a very nice early morning view of Mt. Etna.
Stromboli: Though not a port, the captain passed close to this active volcano which was sprouting a lot of steam. We passed Stromboli in 2005 on the Liberty at night, and at that time could see some red sparks coming out of it. This time the volcano was supposedly more active in recent weeks, so much that they had evacuated the town there, but on this day, it was relatively quiet. It still was quite interesting.
Livorno: At this port we took another private tour to the towns of Siena and San Gimignano. The drive through the Tuscany/Chianti countryside was spectacular. Both towns were wonderful and everyone seemed to want to spend more time in each. I think if we ever get back to this part of Italy, we will plan to spend more time in a single town. We enjoyed a really great gelato in Siena and also were treated to a parade. We had time for lunch on our own in San Gimignano.
Civitavecchia: We had thought of either walking into town, or taking a train to a nearby seaside village as suggested by some of our new friends. Alas, we awoke to a rainy, dreary day, so opted to stay on ship even after the weather cleared in the afternoon since DH had been nursing a cold throughout most of the trip. It proved to be a very relaxing day of reading, resting, eating, and packing before heading home the next day.
Carnival Transfer: We used these at both ends of the trip and they worked very well. We had a little delay when we arrived in Rome as someone apparently passed away on the bus coming to take us to our hotel in Rome. They were with people being transferred to the airport. Very sad. A replacement bus came for us in about 30 minutes.
The Carnival representative at our hotel was very efficient. Transfer from Rome to the ship went fine, and we didn't have to handle our luggage at the port. For the trip home, we were on the very first bus to the airport, which was quite nice.
Visconte Palace: This hotel was more contemporary than the one Carnival put us in in 2005. However, it was quite comfortable, had a small bar, a nice outside patio, good breakfast buffet (included),and the maid retrieved a pair of shoes I left behind when we checked out and got them to me, via the Carnival representative, before we left for the port. I used the Internet once from this hotel. It was around 5 euros for 30 minutes. The European key for @ is located in a different place on the keyboard. Just ask at the front desk of whatever hotel you're staying at for assistance. (Note: on the ship, the keyboard is the same as here in the U.S.)
Passports: There have been some comments in various reviews regarding the fact that we had to relinquish our passports upon embarkation. I found out about this only by reading a super thorough review by someone on an earlier cruise. I was very concerned about this, but was reassured by other cruisers that this would not be a problem (and it wasn't). However, since most information regarding passports say that one should NEVER give them up, I think it would behoove Carnival to provide information beforehand on the how and why passports need to be relinquished on this cruise. I would have been in panic mode if I hadn't learned about this beforehand.
Bob Dickinson: The President and CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines was on this cruise with his wife and another couple. They mingled just like other guests and were very approachable. Their table in the Posh dining room was very near ours and they sat there about 50% of the nights. Mr. Dickinson also hosted two informative Q and A sessions (on two of the sea days). He was exceptional in the manner in which he handled the questions. Some questions were very good; others were just plain stupid. He answered in a knowledgeable fashion, said "I don't know" if he didn't, and requested Carnival staff to make note of some things and to help the inquiring quests with others. He was direct, sincere, and at times, humorous. We appreciated his candor.
Flight Issues: Enroute to Rome we were booked from Philadelphia to Chicago to Rome. As we were traveling at the time of some wicked storms in the northeast/mid-Atlantic, our flight out of Philly was delayed, but luckily by only an hour. Our three-hour layover in Chicago proved to be a blessing. We flew American Airlines and thought that it was the most uncomfortable overseas flight that we had ever taken. The seats were much less roomy than the US Airways flight we took in 2005, plus the plane seemed to stay active all night long. Usually, an overnight flight will quiet down and the lights will dim, but this flight seemed to have most passengers wide awake and the lights in the cabin stayed on most of the flight. It was a very smooth flight and we are thankful for that. Our luggage was among the last to come down the conveyor belt in Rome. Once all the luggage was down, we were still missing my large suitcase. Turns out, the colored identifier on the handle must have come off, so we missed it going around once, and someone apparently took it off the belt and left it sitting on the floor out of our sight. The Carnival representative found it for us. Whew!
The flight home was an adventure. We flew Lufthansa from Rome to Frankfurt and then onto Philadelphia. We only had an hour layover in Frankfurt. Our plane left Rome one hour late, so of course, we were quite worried about the connection. We were told that it left late because some airport personnel had not shown up for work due to an Italian holiday that day. So there were less folks to check in baggage and to check us onto the plane. While on the flight, we were informed that because of the numbers of passengers connecting on to Philadelphia, Toronto, and Washington, D.C., each of these groups would be met by Lufthansa personnel in Frankfurt and provided with "special transportation" to our departing gate. They were also going to hold our planes for us which was very welcome. Our "special transportation" turned out to be a very young man who practically had us running through very long corridors to our gate. There were 16 of us going to Philadelphia, and most were middle-to-senior citizen age. We were strung out so far, that at times we couldn't even see the young man leading us. Some of our group required motorized assistance which Lufthansa provided. We all made it to the security checkpoint where we underwent a very long, tedious process. They had to wand everyone and went though many carryon pieces. All this time, another airline representative was yelling, "Hurry, hurry—the plane is waiting. Hurry."
Here is where I made a mistake. When packing the night before I was very careful to pack most of my cosmetics in my checked luggage, and only had a few small items in a quart-size ziplock bag for my carryon, per current regulations. What I completely forgot is when I packed my souvenirs; I figured that I would carry on all potentially breakable items. Therefore, two of my items (coffee-flavored ouzo and a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil) were confiscated because they were larger than the 3 ounces permitted. I knew this but just didn't think of it when I was packing. Dumb.
The Lufthansa flight was a bit more comfy than American and they provided nice amenities, including hot towels on two occasions to help us refresh. Not surprisingly our luggage did not make it back to Philly with us; however, they said we would have it sometime after 9 p.m. the next night, and it did all show up around 7:30 p.m. I was happy to put off laundry for a day.
Weather: We had absolutely beautiful weather the entire cruise except for the last port day when we had rain in the morning. The temperatures ranged from high 60s to low 70s which may not be great pool temps, but were great for touring. Since this was a port-intensive cruise, this was suitable for us. On the days at sea, I spent some time reading by the aft pool which has a retractable roof. It was quite pleasant. I did not go into the pool, but did feel the water which felt very nice. I noticed those that did go into the pool went right in without hesitation. I expect those with cruises in the upcoming months will be able to enjoy the pool deck more.
I hope this is helpful to those looking forward to this wonderful cruise, or for those contemplating it.