Planning a Mediterranean cruise is very difficult, especially if you've never been to Europe. So I searched the internet, scanned library shelves and spoke to those who had been there to determine the best itinerary, best cruise ship and, of course, best price. After my research, I honed the list down to Celebrity, RCL and Carnival. We picked Carnival for two reasons - itinerary and price. Carnival was the only itinerary that began and ended in Rome. My research told me you spend nearly ½ a day getting to and from the port to Rome. So, how much of Rome could you see in ½ a day. And, of course, the price was nearly $900 per person less than the other cruises. So we chose Carnival. Needless to say we were a little leery what with Carnival's reputation, less than stellar reviews, and a prior bad experience. But, based upon the fact that we wanted to stay in Rome after the cruise we picked Carnival rationalizing that, "after all its just a floating hotel," and "if we don't have to shop for it or cook it, how bad could the food be?" Well, I have to tell you I was shocked. It was, by far, the best cruise experience we have ever had. The food was outstanding, the service second to none, and the entertainment the best this side of Las Vegas. Bottom line - I would not hesitate to cruise with Carnival again. Here are the details:
TRAVELING TO ROME/CIVITAVECCHIA: Needless to say the flight was arduous - nearly 12 hours from Cleveland, Ohio on a modified cattle car (767) with food that was fit for a ______. The movies were so good they helped me sleep which is unusual because I normally need to stay awake and help the pilot fly the plane. We arrived at Rome's airport at 7:30 am Rome time. Getting through the airport, claiming our luggage and getting through immigration was surprisingly easy. Coordinating with our ground transportation was not. They were late and with 19 in our group, all with three pieces of luggage a piece, we looked like the second armored division deploying to Italy. Well our transportation arrived about 20 minutes late (after a hectic call) and we had a lovely ride to Civitavecchia, about 1 hour from the airport. One recommendation - Use Carnival's transfers. Their representatives are in the baggage area directing you to their ground transportation. Its worth the extra few dollars.
EMBARKATION: We arrived at Civitavecchia and were greeted with porters who took our luggage and directed us to the registration desk where our boarding documents were processed quickly. We were directed to the boarding area where we took our first of many pictures, boarded the ship and proceeded to our first meal (of course). The remaining part of the day was spent exploring the ship and relaxing at the pool. With this ship you need to get the "lay of the land." As with most cruise ships many of the decks are cut off where you need to go up or down a deck or two to go forward or aft. By the second week we almost had it down. Our luggage arrived in plenty of time for us to unpack and enjoy some sushi before we showered and got ready for dinner.
THE SHIP: Gaudy - yes. Unbearable (as others have reported) - No. While we wondered whether some 1960's hippy trippin' on LSD had designed the interior of the ship, we were use to it by the second day and none of our group commented thereafter. As I said, in the middle of the ship you need to go up or down decks to go forward or aft because the Chic Dinning Room is located right in the middle of the ship on the 3rd and 4th decks effectively cutting the ship in half. Most of the day the doors are open and you can walk through, but at other times it is closed.
CABIN: OK. Nice touch with drawers under the couch that can be used for additional storage of large items such as pants and sweaters. The beds were the most comfortable I've ever slept in. The faucets at the sink actually had cold water so you could brush your teeth in comfort unlike other cruises where the water was lukewarm or even hot. And the showers were consistently warm unlike other cruises where you play Chinese torture when the water suddenly turns ice cold or boiling hot.
SERVICE: Terrific always with a smile and a "good morning" or "have fun today." And service even when you don't expect it. Apparently our cabin steward saw me bring wine I had purchased and there, after dinner, was plastic and bubble wrap on my bed so I could wrap the bottles to store in my suitcases when we left.
ENTERTAINMENT: The best I've ever had on a cruise. In fact, the production shows rival anything I've seen in Las Vegas - that's how good the singers and dancers were. The ship has a jumbotron at the pool. Every afternoon around 4:30 the ship ran a concert on the screen - Barry Manilow, Tina Turner, The Bee Gees, etc. What a great touch - you return from a long day of touring and you relax at the pool while watching a wonderful concert. Even the ship's band was terrific. Here is a group of Filipino musicians playing an entire anthology of Beatles hits. If you close your eyes you'd think you were in Liverpool! I mean from start to finish the finest entertainment on any cruise - ever.
DINNING ROOM/FOOD: The food was the best I've ever had on a cruise. Prime rib you could cut with a fork, large lobster tails which were plump and succulent, Duck ala Ronge with just the right amount of flavor with crispy skin and delicious meat, steak made just right. And unlike other cruises the lunches had variety - different types of salads and hot entries each day. Not enough variety? How about a deli, stir fry station, barbeque, Chinese food and, of course, grilled hamburgers and hot dogs every day with steak sandwiches to die for. And don't forget the Sushi every afternoon and the Viennese pastry shop. Oh, I forget the specialty restaurant that was also available - but why? My sister is a gourmet cook and could not stop raving about the food.
The cruise itself was absolutely fantastic. Other than an inevitable minor glitch here and there this was, by far, the best cruise I have ever been on. So, lets talk about the reason for the cruise - the ports of call in the Western Mediterranean. Before I discuss each port, allow me to express some opinions:
1. If you can not walk an/or do not like sightseeing this is NOT for you. Most, if not all of the shops in all the ports are the same we have in the states- except more expensive. If you want a cruise for shopping, go to the Caribbean.
2. Use private tours. We found by doing so, we were in smaller vans and buses that could take you places the large ship tour buses could not. In addition, the guides took us to small out-of-the-way places that a large tour would not. In addition, we didn't waste time waiting for 50-60 people to re-board the bus.
3. This is NOT a relaxing vacation. If you want to see the sights, you are up and out of the ship by 8:00 am and will not return until the ship is ready to leave port. By the way, get late seating. This will give you time to relax and wind down after a long day of touring prior to dinner.
OK, now for the ports.
NAPLES: While Naples has some sights, they do not compare with what you'll see along the Amalfi Coast - Pompeii, Sorrento, Positano, Capri. Naples, unfortunately, is probably the filthiest city on the entire tour. I don't think the facades of the buildings have been cleaned for years and there was animal excrement everywhere. We got to see this because our tour bus was two hours late. So our guide filled in the time by giving us a walking tour of the city while we waited. Once the bus arrived we left for Pompeii. Our tour operator was Driver in Rome (www.driverinrome.com). The guide, Santiago, was just outstanding. In Pompeii he gave us a fascinating history of what befell the city while guiding us through the streets and buildings that were excavated. It was truly a must see. From there we were taken to Sorrento along the Amalfi Coast where he guided us through the lovely village of Sorrento and took us to a lovely outdoor cafe for lunch. Unfortunately, we were unable to go any further on the Amalfi Coast due to our bus being late, but the tour operator gave us a substantial discount and, truthfully, by that time our group was exhausted and frankly, looked forward to returning to the ship to rest.
VENICE: Which adjective do you want me to use - breathtaking, fascinating, romantic - I could go on and on. Just to show, once again, how the ship made it special - as we entered Venice along the canal adjacent to the city, a Pavarotti concert was played on the jumbotron with his music being piped throughout the ship. We moored along the western edge of the city and, unfortunately, had to walk a good distance to Plazza De Roma to pick up the vapparetto (the water bus) into the city. Carnival really has to work on this. They need to provide transportation. I don't know how the more elderly and physically impaired passengers were able to traverse the distance. On both days we used Discovering Venice (www.discoveringvenice.com). Our guide, Antonella Fantoni, was extremely competent and fascinating. The first day she arranged a Grand Canal cruise where we were guided through Venice's main "thoroughfare" explaining the history of the various buildings throughout the tour. The second day she guided us through the Doges Palace including the prison over the Bridge of Sighs. Then she explained the components of St. Mark's Square and concluded with a glass factory tour (no need to spend the inordinate amount of time traveling to Murano). That left us with plenty of time to walk the "streets," of the city over its many bridges and get a feel of the character of Venice. Along the way, there were a myriad of small shops selling Murano Glass, leather goods and other trinkets. We made our way to the Rialto Bridge to take our perfunctory pictures and then boarded a Vapparetto back to Plazza De Roma. We boarded the bus taking Costa passengers back to their ship (if they don't ask, don't tell) and we arrived back at our ship much less tired than if we had walked all that way.
Dubrovnik: Fascinating city in Croatia because of its many contrasts between medieval and modern times. No need for a tour at this port. Just pay for the bus at the pier that takes you to and from the old city which is a medieval fortress where many modern shops abound along with hidden sites from an earlier time. Here you are walking in streets that were built around 900 AD - the same streets crusaders walked nearly 1000 years ago. Within the small and narrow streets running perpendicular to the main street we found a small Jewish Synagogue used by the remaining 40 Jews left in the city. More fascinating was the small museum attached which had scrolls dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. And, if you can, walk the ramparts that run the entire circumference of the old city. From this lofty position you can see breathtaking views of the city and the Aegean. One interesting tidbit - to commemorate those who lost their lives during the civil war, all reconstructed buildings must be topped with orange tiles or roofing to show the destruction the civil war caused and the rebuilding process - just beautiful and very touching.
SICILY/MESSINA/TAORMINA/MT. ETNA: No need to see Messina. Just a dirty old port with nothing significant to see. Once again we used Driver in Rome and once again, we had an outstanding tour of the Sicilian countryside, Taormina and Mt. Etna. We even stopped at a local winery where the small vintner bottled his own lemonchello and orange wines and almond liquor. We bought some to take home. Be careful. It was 39% alcohol. Taormina is a village first founded by the Greeks in about 300 BC. The Romans then invaded about 100 AD and then the Normans about 1000 AD. The guide took us to fascinating spots where each of the architectural styles of each were openly displayed right next to each other. Then we were taken to the Greek Theater, a large amphitheater where the Romans entertained themselves. From Taormina we went to Mt. Etna. I strongly suggest taking a jacket. It got very chilly at the top.
BARCELONA: We decided to use some of our $200 ship board credit by taking ship tours in Barcelona. My wife took the highlights tour because she wanted to spend more time in Las Rambles - the shopping mecca of Barcelona. I took the Gaudi, Picasso tour. We were taken on a tour of many of Gaudi's architectural wonders including the church (looks like a drip castle) and the city park where Gaudi attempted to construct a residential community using his style of architecture. Two of the homes he designed were still there. They look like the gingerbread house and wicked witch's house from Hansel and Gretel. No wonder the project went under! From there we were taken to the Picasso Museum where the artist's early works are displayed. Paintings on display show his life from his teenage years through his Blue Period. There is one room dedicated to his cubist period, but only one. As much as I love art, I still don't get cubism! But it was interesting to see his transition from one art form to another. During the ride to the various locations, we saw a truly beautiful city - clean, very airy with buildings sporting terraces and porches with flowers and hanging baskets. It is obvious the citizens of Barcelona take great pride in their city.
CANNES/NICE/MONTE CARLO: Based upon friends' recommendation, we hired Sylvie DiCristo (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we were glad we did. We had a beautiful ride along the French Riviera, through Nice to Monte Carlo and Monaco. She pointed out such interesting spots as the island just across the bay from Cannes where the Man with the Iron Mask was imprisoned and the spot where Princess Grace's car ran off the road. She walked us through the open air market in Nice (I purchased a dozen long stemmed white roses for my wife for just 3 Euros- $4.50!) and where Mattisse's apartment was located. Along the way she took us to a small village called Eze where we had a lunch of delicious crepes while overlooking the beautiful French coastline. In Monaco we toured the church where Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier were married and saw where they are buried. After viewing the castle, we traveled to Monte Carlo and saw the casino, Hotel De Paris, and had terrific Hagen Das Ice Cream.
LIVORNO/PISA/FLORENCE: Once again we benefited from hiring Driver in Rome. We were in smaller vans that could traverse the small streets of Pisa and Florence, getting us closer to the many highlights of both cities. For example, instead of having to walk about 1½ miles from where the large buses were required to park, our tour bus drove right into Pisa, less than 250 feet from the leaning tower. Suggestion - get out of the van, take your pictures and get back in the van. You'll need as much time as possible to see Florence - Italy's most beautiful city. Another advantage of a smaller tour - instead of going directly to Florence using the highway, our guide drove us through the Tuscan countryside and stopped at a local coop where local farmers pressed and sold their own olive oil. And the sights of Tuscany are truly some of the most beautiful I've ever seen. As we drove toward Florence, we stopped at a monastery overlooked Florence. What a view! What ever tour you take, you must make your guide stop at this location. It is truly breathtaking. Because of the size of the van, we were able to drive right into Florence along its many narrow streets. For lunch we stopped in a small piazza insignificant other than the fact that an apartment above us was Michelangelo's apartment. As the guide said, you might be sitting in the same place Michelangelo sat eating his lunch 500 years ago! We saw the famous churches of the city and, of course, the Paradise Doors, and drove past the many famous museums (they were closed because it was Monday). We did stop at a small flea market where you can get some real bargains in leather and silk. Unfortunately, we had to leave for the long ride back to the ship. I wish I had more time to explore the city.
ROME: We made reservations at a local hotel where we stayed for two days after the cruise. Once again, Driver in Rome picked us up and guided us throughout our two days. The first day, we toured the Vatican Museum and St. Peter's Basilica. Another advantage of the tour guide. They were able to get us tickets so we could get immediate entrance to the museum. Others had to wait up to two hours. Be prepared to walk. The tour is a good three hours. But, from the minute you enter the museum you are in awe of what you see. Famous art works from Roman and Greek sculptures, beautiful tapestries from medieval artists, and wall and ceiling frescoes by the most famous artists of the Renaissance, topped off by your view of the Sistine Chapel. No flash photographs here so you better have the proper F-stop on your camera with good zoom. From the museum, we entered St. Peter's Basilica - the world's largest church. Did you know 33,000 people will fit in the church's nave? Within the walls of the church are 47 prayer alters along with the same number of confessionals. On the second day, our guide took us on a tour of historic Rome - the Catacombs, the Coliseum, Circus Maximus. He then walked us through a typical Roman neighborhood where we had lunch (delicious sandwiches) and the best Gelato in Italy. We concluded our tour in the Piazza Navarro - an artist's conclave, then viewed the Trevi Fountain, and walked up the Spanish Steps. Wish we had another day as we didn't have enough time to see other parts of Rome.
DAYS AT SEA: There are three and needed. Gives you an opportunity to rest, enjoy typical cruise "things" - trivia games, bingo, the spa, etc., and wash clothes. You need the R & R because this cruise is intense - touring from morning to late afternoon and lots of walking.
In conclusion it was the most wonderful cruise we've every been on. The Carnival Freedom exceeded any expectation we had. The small touches by the ship and its crew made it special and, as I said, we had the best food and entertainment I've ever had on a cruise.