We flew Continental from our hometown to Houston and connected to Air France direct flight to Paris (9 hours and 45 min flight time). Arrived and several hours later flew, also with AirFrance, to Rome (2 hours + flight time). Good flights, no issues and all of our luggage arrived intact. (70+ of our fellow cruise passengers lost their luggage with Delta). Knowing we were going to be dead tired, I had booked directly with Hilton (two rooms) in Rome's airport at the Hilton Garden Inn. Beautiful, new, modern hotel located in airport premises but you need to drive to get there. This is not the Hilton located right there walking distance, however, they do provide a free shuttle service to/from hotel to airport. When you arrive to the airport call them so they can come and pick you up. Breakfast is extremely complete and delicious but you need to pay for it. Took their free shuttle back to the airport and hopped on the Leonardo Express to Rome Termini (11 euros pp and they run continuously all day). At Termini we took the train to Civitavecchia and paid 34 euros for the four of us (this was a direct - non-stop train and is more expensive than the regular one). Check the timetables for the direct trains if you don't want to be stopping in every town. Direct train takes 46 minutes and the others 1 hour and 10 min. When we arrived to Civitavecchia we excited the Station and walked about 7 or 8 blocks to the entrance to the port. It is super easy to find your way just follow the coast line towards the port (to the right as you exit the station). On the port entrance there are shuttle buses taking you to your ship (make sure to see your ship's name on the window because there are several ships docked there at the same time). Once outside your ship it's like any other embarkation: they take your luggage and you enter their lounge where embarkation was swift and easy. We had arrived by 1:30 and the place was pretty empty. We felt most transportation buses from Rome arrived late in the day in order to bring latecomers from the airport.
Advise: Rome is not handicap friendly in any way whatsoever. Please, if you cannot walk and go up and down long flight of stairs with luggage I urge you to take transportation to the ship. We are in our 40's with two teenage children (12 & 14)and it took a toll on us with 6 pieces of luggage.
The ship is decorated in the ugliest manner possible. The thought of spending so much money with such bad taste is incredible although Carnival has done this before. The ship also has areas that are very hard to get to, you need to go up and then down and then.....but what tops it all is you need to go through a cigar lounge in order to enter the internet room. Once we got over our shock we enjoyed everything else. Our stateroom with balcony was very nice and comfortable. Our cabin attendant Jana, was without a doubt the best we ever had (we've sailed before 9 times). It has two formal dining rooms and we were in the Posh 2nd floor 2nd seating. Our table mates happened to be a family like us with two teenagers and we hit off immediately. All the dancing and singing in the dining room happened on the first floor and we had to leave our tables and our food, fight for space on the railings in order to watch what was happening downstairs. I can say if you do this once during your trip is OK but not every night. Sometimes we wanted to enjoy our dessert and coffee and conversation and were unable due to the hoopla. The Maitre D' who sings every night never showed his face on our 2nd floor, the one who did was a very efficient lady assistant who is the one that actually works. Food was very good at the Posh with a spa menu, vegetarian menu, and other options menu in case you didn't like that day's menu. The appetizers were small so we ordered two different ones. The waiter and assistant were extremely professional and served us impeccably. The chocolate melting cake was to die for and was served everyday at our table. The Lido has good food in the traditional buffet style. Sometimes excellent desserts and others just OK. There is variety of entrees and something for everyone. Breakfast was excellent and complete and they have a station where they make your eggs to order which we used almost everyday. We often had delicious sandwiches from the excellent deli window on a side hallway as well as the food they grill for you in another window. Some days they had sushi in midafternoon and it was good. One comment: the hours on the food were sometimes erratic or weird. At times we found ourselves with everything closed except the pizza outside which had the longest line. One time we went to our cabin and ordered room service just to be able to eat because nothing was opened (by the way, the best wrap ever, chicken with guacamole, was served by room service). The lines on the Lido are the longest I have ever seen on any ship and we think it is because the number of passengers is way too many for this ship. Shore excursions: Naples: We had booked with Rome in Limo Company (www.romeinlimo.com)a 9 hour private tour. The gentleman was waiting for us at the dock and we traveled to the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento, and Pompeii. Too short a time for doing also Capri but he took us instead to another grotto you reach by car and enter on a small gondola. We walked Pompeii for almost 2 hours and the kids loved it. Nice man, good driver (I think his name is Castello or something like it) but is very, very quiet and has a serious demeanor. I kept asking him all type of questions and he answered all but was not forthcoming on his own. Definitely not a guide but a driver.
Venice: We joined our table mates on their private tour previously booked with A Guide in Venice (www.aguideinvenice.com). Our guide was Sabrina Scaglianti (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) and what a guide!! First day she picked us up from the dock in a fast boat right next to our ship (WOW) and gave us one hour tour through the Grand Canal. We were dropped at Piazza San Marco and did more than 2 hours walking tour of the Doge's Palace and the Church. Skipped all the lines because guides are allowed to do that. The eight of us later bought a gelato or panini and walked together for the rest of the afternoon and dined at a place the guide had recommended (we actually found it) Ostaria al Garanghelo (San Polo 1570-1571-calle dei boteri- tel 041-721721) out of the tourist mayhem and great venetian food and service. We walked back to the dock at night (looong walk). The next day Sabrina again picked us up on a fast boat and we headed to Murano where she took us to a glass making demonstration and were able to walk to other shops. Afterwards we headed to Burano where they make the lace and we saw a lady doing the lace and walked. Snacked on some traditional cookies and loved the island. Later we headed to Torcello and visited the Basilica di S. Maria Assunta. If you read reviews they'll tell you it's not worth visiting because there is only this old church here. Through the guide we discovered this was the original settlement before Venice was ever settled. The church is so simple made of brick and so old it was awe inspiring, I loved this church. The fast boat took us back to the dock right next to our ship.
Dubrovnik: Took the ship's shuttle to the Old City. As we entered we climbed the stairs to the left, paid and continued climbing until we reached the wall's walkway and walked for over 1 hour around the city looking down on it. If you are able to walk it is well worth it. Amazing vistas everywhere you look, just take bottles of water and do it as early as possible. Later walked in the city and had lunch in a very nice outdoor restaurant called Koroba Amoret where the waiter took time out to talk to us about his country and also about the recent war. Great experience, great food and beautiful city.
Messina: We took the ship's bus tour that goes to Mt. Etna and Taormina. Taormina is beautiful and it's Roman amphitheater is well worth the trip, amazing. The tour took us to lunch which surprisingly was very good (pastas and salad and dessert) and then to Mt. Etna the volcano. We all loved it! We are still amazed when we see ourselves in the photos we took standing on the black cooled lava.
Barcelona: Took the ship's shuttle that leaves you where the hop-on bus starts. We took it and rode one line and then changed to the other line. This is the best organized Hop on bus we have ever seen. The lines are ridiculously long and we got dismayed, but very soon we realized it wouldn't take long because the staff and even police are moving the line swiftly and in order and there is one bus after another running constantly. Congratulations to them. We had a late lunch at the Rambla pedestrian commercial street in an outdoor restaurant called Restaurante Amaya. Delicious plate of assorted tapas and a huge delicious Paella. Beautiful city and we were surprised most people don't speak Spanish (they are in Spain) but another language called Catalan which I had thought of as a lost dialect. Walked back to the shuttle and took it to the ship.
Cannes: Our table mates had been to the South of France before and had reserved a Hertz car to drive. We reserved from the ship another rental car and from the dock where the tender drops you off (huge tenders, the line goes fast to disembark) we took a city bus along the coastal street to the Hertz rent a car office(two of us can sputter in French so we got along). Followed the other family (we also had radios to communicate)and drove to MonteCarlo - Monaco for about 1 hour and a half. The traffic stopped before the exit to MonteCarlo from the highway and the one-lane line continued for more than 25 minutes into the center of town. Ridiculously traffic-jammed mini city. We had a very, very hard time finding a parking space and walked around the two blocks worth seeing. The casino building is gorgeous from the outside but it closes from noon to 2:00 and we were unable to wait one hour and a half to see it from the inside. We saw a few cars we only see in the rich and famous magazines and that's about it. The difference between the hoopla of that place and what actually is, it's terribly big. Honestly, I never imagined I would say this, but don't waste your time and skip this mini city. Next we drove to Ez, an old medieval town about 20 minutes away and it is gorgeous. We had lunch inside the old city in an outdoor cafe (some paninis) and the atmosphere is just beautiful. We truly wished we had come here to start with. Later we drove to Nice. That, we also loved. We parked and walked all over the place. Had a gelato and bought some italian ceramics. First time in Italy we saw actual beautiful blues in the water on the beach (like in the Caribbean you see those beautiful hues of blue)although there is no sand but pebbles. The atmosphere makes you want to stay, really. Then we drove back to Cannes, returned the rental and unfortunately had no time to sightsee but from the Hertz office just walked back to the dock where we took the tender back to the ship. Advise: After the adventure I recommend you don't do as we did, we were lucky to have followed someone who knew the roads and had been there before. Take a private tour or a ship tour but try to go to Ez and Nice.
Livorno: Our table mates joined us on our pre-booked private tour with "Rome in Limo tours" (I gave their info previously). We contacted Duman, the owner, from the ship and he very graciously arranged for it. Our guide this time was Laura and an excellent guide to say the least. She drove us to Pisa where we walked for an hour and then to Florence. The tour she gave us was excellent (so much information)and I don't know how but we only had reservations for four to the Accademia to see the David and she was able to get our friends inside too, truly amazing! She took us to the most delicious pizza place. On our way back she drove through back roads and saw the most beautiful Tuscany country side - like a movie, gorgeous.
Disembarkation is done before your actual time. This is the first ship I know that does this: We had 9:00 a.m. and were actually called at 7:45. Obviously we were not ready and disembarked at 9:00 where we found only our luggage left with that color tag (everybody else with that color tag had obeyed and left). True to Italian form it was mayhem outside with the buses, shuttles, taxis, private cars, etc. Nobody could tell us which was the shuttle that takes you to the port entrance. We finally found it after walking around like lost puppies for 20 minutes and took it. Walked from the port entrance to the train station and again mayhem with people trying to buy their return tickets. There were four cruise ships disembarking at the port on that day. Advice: purchase the return ticket before the cruise so you won't have any trouble. We purchased finally the tickets for a regular train and it cost us only 15 euros for the four of us (one paid as a child). It took the train one hour and 15 minutes and stopped in every town. When we arrived to Termini we took a cab but negotiated a price for the ride to our hotel before accepting his ride.
Rome: Stayed at the Villa S. Pio hotel for three days. Great hotel and awesome breakfast made so by the garden where it is served and the great food and coffee. Excellent hotel staff. They had a quadruple room with good A/C, nice, clean, comfortable and nice bathroom. If they could top their King mattress with a foam topper it would be perfect. Had made reservations at the Borghese Gallery and headed that way by Metro. Next day had a private tour also with "Rome in Limo tours" and our driver/guide was Maurizio. Excellent guide, knowledgeable and courteous. Took us to Villa Adriana, Villa d'Este, Tivoli, and Castelgandolfo. 9 hours of a delightful trip with a great guide. Next day, the same company provided a guide for the Vatican her name is Domizia Catini (e-mail: email@example.com) and a truly great guide. Knows so much about the Vatican and is willing to share it. Great relief...We skipped the line and when you see this line you'll know what I mean.
In Summary: The service on the ship was top rated in dining room and stateroom attendant. Food was excellent (for those who criticize ship food I want to know what they eat on a regular basis, also, I believe it beats cooking any time). Entertainment, we saw the ship's dancers and singers once, a comedian, we had already seen a lady singer from West End on another ship, but the best was John, the cruise director. He is so funny and entertaining he deserves a special place among cruise directors. The children's clubs: for the past two cruises our children (14 & 12) have refused to attend those and prefer to be with us. We accompany them everywhere plus we all have the radios we carry. I saw all children (exception the tiny ones) loose on the ship from day one and that is very disconcerting, where are the parents? One day security (about three of them plus the Chief) had five or six teenagers encircled outside the 70's disco and apparently something had happened, we did not stop to ask but again, where are the parents? there are more than 3,000 passengers plus more than 1000 employees all of them strangers and the children roam the ship completely on their own. Maybe the children's activities director needs to find a way to make them want to attend. Great cruise!!!