My wife and I are both in our late 20's / early 30's and we have been on around 10 cruises together. This was our first trip to the Mediterranean and my wife's first trip to Europe. We traveled with another couple and made all of our cruise and flight plans through a travel agency. I arranged most of the shore excursions on my own.
I have gone through our trip from the flights all the way to the disembarkation and post cruise excursions. I hope you enjoy the review as much as we enjoyed the trip! Thank you to all of the Cruise Critic members for your feedback and help while I was researching and planning for this trip.
Our trip got off to a bumpy start when we were delayed for over 4 hours in New Orleans due to high winds at our connection airport, Newark. Apparently this is a common occurrence when flying through Newark as I learned later. The delay caused us to miss our connection to Madrid. The Continental gate agent in New Orleans was supposed to put us on the late flight to Madrid, but upon arrival in Newark and after a marathon run to the gate, I was informed that in fact we were not on the flight. They proceeded to put 6 stand-by passengers on the flight ahead of us. I was not a happy camper!
Thus, we had an unexpected detour and instead of staying in Barcelona we had deluxe accommodations at the Holiday Inn - Edison, NJ. We made the best out of the situation by spending the day in New York until our late afternoon direct flight to Barcelona.
While I thought our trouble with Continental was over... boy was I wrong! After checking with baggage services multiple times in Newark to make sure our bags were correctly rerouted directly to Barcelona, neither of our bags arrived on the flight. After waiting in a long line and filing a claim for our bags, we hopped in a cab with the clothes on our backs and a few items in our carry on bags and headed to the ship.
The cab ride to the port was uneventful and cost around 35 euro. We were dropped off right at the front entrance at around 11:30. We proceeded to check in and noticed that a special desk was setup for lost luggage. Apparently this happens a lot! The NCL folks were very helpful at the desk and took a full report on our luggage situation. They informed us that since our first port of call, Messina, Sicily, did not have a commercial airport the first possible delivery point for our luggage was Naples which was Wednesday (this was Sunday). Boooo! NCL again was very helpful and offered us unlimited laundry service, a bag of toiletries and also gave us directions to a local mall where we picked up a handful of items. After filing our baggage paperwork, we breezed through the check in line in about 5 minutes and we were aboard.
The ship was in immaculate condition and the theme was very tasteful. It definitely had a more upscale feel to it.
Our room was small, but nice. We chose an interior room to save money so that we could go all out on our shore excursions. This turned out to be an excellent decision. While we thought we would be unhappy buried on level 4 the location was superb as we were able to get off the ship first in almost every port. The room was also very quiet at night with no engine noise and very little movement at all. The only time we really spent time in the room was at night to sleep. It definitely served the purpose.
The ship was well laid out with plenty of spaces to sit down and enjoy a quiet moment. We were especially impressed with the layout of the buffet area. Even though the space was servicing a majority of the 3,000 passengers on board it was laid out in a way where it flowed well and never seemed over crowded.
We really spent very little time on the ship other than our first day at sea so a lot of the spaces on the ship went unused by us.
This was our first cruise with NCL and thus our first experience with "Freestyle Dining". We enjoyed the concept and felt that it allowed for more of a personal choice on each night. The way the restaurants were managed and the methods to inform the passengers of the current wait time, televisions throughout the public areas, was well conceived. We ate at the Tex Mex restaurant, the "regular" dining room, and the extra fee steak house. All of our meals were great. The only downside that I can see to the Freestyle Dining concept is that the service is a bit slower than your typical mass feeding style due to the fact that all courses are not being served at the same time. You also don't get the personal connection with your waiter as you would if you were dining at the same table every night. With that being said we preferred the choice and the freedom that Freestyle Dining afforded us.
Our first port of call was on the beautiful island of Sicily. I had prearranged a private tour for the four of us in our traveling party with Sicily Life. Alessandro from Sicily Life was waiting for us as we exited the ship. He was a very nice guy and spoke excellent English. We hopped in this van and were off for our first stop in Mt. Etna. Along the way Alessandro told us many interesting facts about the island and really seemed to know a lot about the history and culture of Sicily. We stopped briefly at a small village at the foot of Mt. Etna for a photo op and then stopped several more times on the way up the mountain for photos of the breathtaking views. Upon arrival at the visitor's center we climbed up one of the dormant craters. We then noticed a much higher crater and decided to make that climb as well. This trek was a bit harder than it looked and we all got our workout for the day. Be advised that it is very windy on the top of the mountain so keep hold of your possessions, such as hats. I speak from personal experience as I lost my hat at the top of the higher crater. As I mentioned before I still had no luggage so this was my only hat! Luckily a very brave Italian decided to save the say and literally slid down the side of the mountain to retrieve my cap. We offered him a "tip" but he declined and went along his way.
After returning from our climb we grabbed a few drinks from the visitor's center, met back up with Alessandro, and headed down to our next stop Murgo winery. This was a small family owned winery in the foothills of Mt. Etna. Alessandro arranged for us to taste some wine and olive oil and after purchasing a few bottles we proceeded down the hills to Taormina. Alessandro took us to an overlook that offered awesome views of the town and sea below. Being from Taormina, Alessandro seemed to know all of the best routes to avoid the crowds. We took a few photos at this spot and then we were taken to lunch that we had prearranged with Sicily Life. The restaurant offered a great outdoor terrace and wonderful Sicilian selections. Our only complaint here was that it had really heated up through the day and at this point the temperatures were pushing 100 degrees. We still managed to enjoy our lunch and had some time on our own to wander the streets and shops of Taormina before being driven back to the port in Messina.
Alessandro and Sebastiano, who we communicated with to book, from Sicily Life were both wonderful and I would not hesitate to recommend them.
Naples / Amalfi Coast, Italy
The ships next call was in Naples. Again I had prearranged a shore excursion this time through Drive Amalfi and Salvatore. Salvatore was waiting for us at the port doors as we exiting the ship and we all climbed into his van and headed out for the day. Salvatore is a very nice guy and really knows a ton about the area. He is originally from Amalfi and his family has lived there for generations. If you are looking for a reputable guide that knows his stuff he is your man!
We hit a bit of traffic driving through Sorrento, but eventually made it to the famous Amalfi drive. Salvatore stopped at several locations to allow us to take pictures before driving through the small coastal town of Positano. As others have mentioned driving along the Amalfi coast can be a bit scary so we were glad we were in the good hands of Salvatore. We drove along the beautiful coast and made our way to Amalfi. After seeing Salvatore's son and brother along the way, we were dropped off downtown and we were given around 30 - 45 minutes to walk the town square and check out some of the local craft shops.
We picked up some great gifts from a local stationary shop and met Salvatore for our drive to a lunch spot that he had selected. He took us to Ristorante Pizzeria San Giovanni in Pontone. They restaurant had a great terrace overlooking the Amalfi coast. The food was wonderful and reasonably priced. We enjoyed our lunch after our after lunch limoncello.
After lunch we headed back down the hills for a stop in Pompeii. Since we had run into a bit of traffic earlier we didn't have as much time as we would have liked to explore the ruins, but we were still able to see a good bit albeit quickly. After Pompeii we met Salvatore and jetted back to the port in Naples.
All in all, it was a great day along the Amalfi coast with Drive Amalfi and Salvatore.
We arrived back to the ship and learned that our luggage did not arrive in Naples. Thanks Continental! I love wearing the same clothes!
For our stop in Civitavecchia (Rome) we decided to go it on our own. With some assistance from the Cruise Critic gang (thanks Hein!) we had great directions on catching the train from Civi to Rome.
We boarded the train and got off at the first stop of San Pietro as I had faxed in our info and prearranged a guided Vatican tour for 10:30. The best move that we made on the entire trip might have been prebooking this tour as the line at 9:00 was unbelievably long! We skipped the entire queue and checked in with the guard at the front of the Vatican Museum. Within 10 minutes we were in the museum and paired with our tour guide. Along with a group of around 30 we toured through the museum and the Sistine Chapel. After seeing the overwhelming sights inside the chapel we headed over to St. Peter's. We took some photos and bought a few things from the gift shop.
We found a small cafe along the way to the metro and decided to grab a quick bite to eat. After eating we took the metro to the Termini station, changed lines, and got off at the Coloseo stop to see the Roman Colosseum. The structure was massive and very impressive. We walked through the Roman Forum and took a few more shots. We decided since the line was pretty long at the Colosseum to forego the inside tour and to catch a cab to a few more sights before having to hop the train back to Civi. We got a cab over to the Pantheon and then took a short walk over to the Trevi fountain. After once again being overwhelmed by the history of the city we took a cab back to Termini and caught our train back to the port.
We ended up seeing a ton of things in Rome on this day and in the end we were very happy, but exhausted!
Upon return to the trip we got a pleasant surprise when we found our luggage waiting outside our door. Once again I want to stress how impressed I was with NCL's help with this matter. They kept us constantly updated on the status and were very helpful along the way. I cannot say the same for Continental since we were never contacted by the airline. I will be filing for reimbursement for our clothing and personal item expenses incurred during the 6 days we were without our luggage. Also for the first time ever I purchased travel insurance so whatever the airline will not cover will be covered by insurance.
Livorno / Florence, Italy
Our last stop in Italy was in Livorno. Once again I arranged a tour through Tuscany in my Pocket and Guido. For some reason we were a little apprehensive for this tour as there weren't as many reviews on Guido as some of the other tour guides. We were way off on this one! In all my years of cruising and after booking dozens of private tours, Guido was the best guide I have ever had. Immediately upon entering his van he had all of us cracking up with his catch phrase, "Mama Mia!" I thought that was only in the movies! He told stories and kept us all interested for the hour ride to Florence.
Our first stop was the Duomo in the center of town... Wow! What an impressive and ornate site! We spent a few minutes there and then hopped back in the van over to the Academia Gallery to see Guido's friend, David. However, upon arriving at the gallery we were rudely greeted with a sign on the door stating that the gallery was closed for a few hours in the morning due to a "staff meeting." It turns out this was an unannounced strike. Welcome to Italy! Without missing a beat Guido brought us back to the car and took us to the Basilica of the Holy Cross. There was a long line to get in, but Guido brought us through the back door into the small leather shop. We were even treated to a private leather demonstration by the owner of the shop. We ended up buying a few hand crafted items and the shop keeper put our initials on the items in gold leaf. We toured the church and saw the final resting places of Michelangelo and Galileo among others. This was a great stop.
After spending almost an hour in the church we headed back over to the Academia. When we arrived the place was in chaos. All those who had booked tours in the morning, including us, were jammed in the alley waiting at the door for them to open. Guido again took matters into his own had somehow communicating with one of workers. He then whisked us off to another door where that same worker came over, met us and let us in. The David was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen. Until you see it in person you cannot imagine the scope and precision of this work. It is truly a masterpiece.
We walked through the rest of the gallery and then met Guido. He took us to one more stop at Michelangelo Park for some great views of Florence from the hills. After snapping a few photos we were off to the Chianti region of Tuscany. Guido had arranged for us to dine at and tour a small winery named Monagliari. This was also a wonderful stop and the beauty of the countryside cannot be explained in words.
Since we had the unexpected "staff meeting" at the Academia we were running a bit behind so we didn't get to spend as much time as we would have liked touring the winery, but did enjoy a fabulous lunch. On the way back we talked and laughed with Guido about various topics from how Rome is great without the Romans to he and his son's love for Spongebob. Again Guido is a wonderful guide and I don't thing we would have had as memorable of a time if he was not with us.
The final port of call for our trip was Villefranche. We decided to book an excursion through the ship since this was a tender port and our time was very limited. We chose the Monaco and the View from Eze tour with NCL. We had seen a show on the Travel Channel about Eze and we were really looking forward to that stop. After meeting and tendering to shore we hopped in a bus and headed to Monaco. Upon arrival we stopped at the cathedral and saw the tombs of Princess Grace and Price Rainier. We then took the short walk to the Royal Palace and were given 30 - 45 minutes to explore on our own. We caught the changing of the guard and walked back to the bus for the short ride to Monte Carlo. We walked around the casino area and had a short time for personal exploration. After Monte Carlo we boarded the bus for the half hour ride up to the mountain village of Eze. Eze was a great village and offered some unique shops and quaint medieval charm. Our friends who knew very little about this village really enjoyed our choice.
I was pleased with the NCL organized tour. I am sometimes wary of ship excursions because I hate being herded like cattle, but this tour was very relaxed and allowed for plenty of personal exploration time.
Disembarkation and Post Cruise
The disembarkation process was very smooth and uneventful. We chose the express walk off option so after enjoying a final breakfast on board we walked off and quickly jumped in a cab.
We spent the rest of the day until our flight to Madrid at 8:00 p.m. exploring Barcelona on the HO-HO bus. We found this an efficient way to explore the city given our limited time (we were supposed to have an additional day at the front end, but due to our flight delays this did not happen).
At the end of the trip we spent two days in Madrid and took a side trip to Toledo. I would highly recommend our hotel that our travel agent set up for us in Madrid, the Petit Palace Londres. It was a typical small, Euro-style hotel, but the location was unbelievable. We were on a street between Puerto del Sol and the Gran Via.
All in all even with the flight/luggage issues this was the trip of a lifetime for us. We were glad we got to share the experiences with our friends. We all would like to thank NCL, the staff of the Jewel and all of our tour guides for making this trip so memorable!