We flew into Rome the morning before our departure date (May 22)- we had a long, yet uneventful flight aboard US Airways out of PHL into FCO. I had pre-arranged ground transportation through our B&B (58 Le Real De Luxe) which was a cheaper alternative (60 Euros for 4 people) than those we researched through Carnival and our travel agent. Our stay at 58 Le Real De Luxe was fabulous - the minute we crossed the threshold, we were warmly welcomed and felt immediately at home. The staff of 58 Le Real De Luxe, Paulina, Luka & Consuela were spectacular and made sure we had all that we needed to make ourselves comfortable. They also went out of their way to make sure we were familiar with the surrounding area and provided several recommendations for meals, shopping and entertainment.
After thorough research, I secured driverinrome.com for a half-day tour of Rome. The morning of embarkation we were greeted by our driver Daniele who was fantastic. We managed to do in 4 hours what would have taken us 2 days on our own. We took in the Colliseum, Roman Forum and Pantheon along with a number of other interesting sites. Daniele had a thorough knowledge of the city, was very charming and extremely entertaining. Doing a private tour is the way to go - you can customize the tour to suit your needs and getting around the city and attractions is much easier in a smaller vehicle and you don't waste time waiting for 50+ people. The cost for 6 of us was 260 Euros total.
We also arranged for transportation from the hotel to the ship through our B&B - this was again the cheapest alternative (160 Euros for 6 people). Embarkation was a breeze - we were aboard the ship in a matter of minutes and our luggage came about 15-30 mins later. Once unpacked, we had little time to check out the ship prior to the CruiseCritic.com meet & greet and muster which was at 7:45pm, however, true to expectations, the decor was on the gaudy side. We had late seating for dinner which was in the Chic dining room. We were fortunate to have seating near the windows so we were afforded a view each night. Our waiters, Darko & Bojan were fabulous and they kept us well fed and entertained through the duration of our trip.
The first night we went to Scott's Piano Bar and had a thoroughly great time with the piano man, Brad Alexander, and our fellow guests. From that night on, you could typically find us in the piano bar - the bar staff was sublime and knew our needs before we even did! Brad is a great entertainer and if you're reading this post and planning a trip aboard the Freedom, I hope you're fortunate enough to have him aboard.
NAPLES: We did not have any excursions lined up for Naples, we elected to spend the day in Capri and this was easily accomplished by catching the public water jet from the dock. Once in Capri we caught the funicular to the top and spent the afternoon shopping and eating. We had the best pizza and wine in a little cafe which had panoramic views of the island. In my opinion, Capri was one of the highlights of our trip.
DUBROVNIK: We took the shuttle that Carnival offered into Old Town and generally just soaked up the gorgeous atmosphere. This walled-in city is definitely unlike anyplace I've ever been to before and just reeks history. The streets are marble so be sure to wear rubber-soled shoes for your walk-about. Cafe Buze is a must see while in Dubrovnik - it's a little cafe built into the cliffs just outside the city walls and you can have a refreshment and take in some cliff-diving. We had difficulty locating it at first, but the locals were extremely friendly and showed us the way.
VENICE: One word of caution - Carnival did an extremely poor job of communicating the ground transportation details. I had secured a private tour of the grand canal and due to unclear direction from Carnival we were over 30 minutes late meeting our tour guide. I had allowed what I thought was sufficient time to get to St. Mark's square, however, we ended up standing in a long line to buy tickets for the shuttle into the city. Make sure you buy your ticket before leaving the ship and if you are fit, I'd recommend just walking into town (about a 10-15 minute walk) and catching the vapporetto from there. For about 16 Euros you can buy a 24 hour pass for the public water taxi (vapporetto). These depart from Piazzale Roma (where the shuttle drops you off) on a regular basis (every 10 mins or so). Be sure to pick up a routes listing so you catch the appropriate one (going in the right direction) and #2 is the express route.
Although we were severely late, our tour guide Antonella could not have been more accommodating. Since we had secured a private water taxi for only an hour, she talked the driver into taking us down the canal and then proceeding to give us a walking tour once our time with the taxi was up. She was wonderful and knew so much about the city - I highly recommend discoveringvenice.com.
MESSINA: We joined a large group tour arranged by one of the CruiseCritic.com members to take a drive to Taormina. Taormina was very quaint and since it's atop a mountain, had vista views of the island. There is great shopping in this town with loads of wares by the locals. There was jewelry made from volcanic rock, ceramics and terrific local wines.
BARCELONA: We took the shuttle into the city which dropped us off near the Colombo (Christopher Columbus tower) where we purchased tickets for the hop-on/hop-off bus for a tour of this gorgeous city. Very tourist friendly, they provide you with headphones that you plug into your seat so you can hear the details about the sights you experience along the route. If you elect to do the hop-on/hop-off bus, due to the limited amount of time at this port, be sure to allow sufficient time to do the full route or you may need to elect to catch a taxi back to the shuttle stop as we did. Don't miss the opportunity to see the Segrada Familia as it is spectacular. We did spend some time walking Las Ramblas which was very colorful with plenty to see & do.
CANNES: We had no problems with the tenders at this port. We left the ship mid-day and at that point they were not requiring guests to wear stickers. We did not venture to any of the nearby cities (Monaco, Monte Carlo or Nice) and were quite content wandering around in Cannes which is absolutely beautiful.
LIVORNO: I also secured driverinrome for a full day tour of Tuscany, Florence & Pisa (9 hours @ 600 Euros for 6 people). Due to museums being closed (it was Monday), we were afforded more time touring the countryside and shopping in Florence. Our driver Lisa was phenomenal - I can't praise this company enough. Florence is definitely the place to shop for bigger ticket items. All of the women in our group bought leather purses and some bought coats. Don't miss the Duomo and the Doors of Paradise.
ADVICE: VAT - If you spend more than $150 in any one shop, be sure to ask for a VAT receipt. This will save you from paying taxes on your purchases and you need the VAT receipt when you go through customs.
ALCOHOL - The cruiseline tells you that you are only allowed to bring on one bottle of alcohol per person at the start of the cruise (embarkation). However, we learned in Sicily that a number of people had been bringing wine onboard at each port with no problem. We started purchasing local wines at each port and had no issues. This would have saved us a lot of money at the start of the trip had we known. Our head waiter was kind enough to not charge us the corkage fee each night.
MISCELLANEOUS - Bring one weeks' worth of clothing and do laundry mid-trip. I had no problems snagging washers & dryers early in the morning (jet lag got me up earlier than usual and I did laundry one morning at 6:00am). The laundry package the ship offers is a rip-off and you can do for $4 what they charge $15 for.
Bring a nightlight - the cabins (inside and outside alike) are very dark and our nightlight was invaluable.
There are a lot of experienced cruisers who use this board and offer tons of advice, I read the boards regularly and kept a checklist of sorts that was extremely beneficial. Join the roll call boards and get to know folks in advance - we saved a lot of money by joining a larger group tour.
All-in-all this was the best vacation I've ever had and an experience of a lifetime. The staff of the Freedom is unparalleled and helped to make my time aboard very enjoyable.