BACKGROUND: My husband & I are in our late 50's. We have been on over 30 cruises in the last 10 years. On this cruise, we cruised with 2 other couples. One couple flew in the day before the cruise with us; the other met us on the ship. I spent the last 1 1/2 years reading, researching & collecting photos from the internet. I traveled with a binder, sectioned off with the ports. Yes, I'm an over-planner but I find that part of the fun is preparing for the trip. This was our first trip to the Mediterranean and it was truly magnificent.
PRE-CRUISE: We flew non-stop from JFK on Eurofly & were pleasantly surprised with good service & a friendly staff. I had dreading the 8 hr flight for months but came through fine. Having 6 movies to view also helped! Our flight was delayed so we arrived too late to do our Vatican & St.Peter's tour which was arranged through Stefano @ Rome Cabs. Our driver took us from the airport to our hotel-Best Western Spring House. Great hotel. Staff was helpful, made us feel welcome & our rooms were not as small as we were expecting. Better than average breakfast buffet also. It started to pour so we dug out our ponchos & made our way via taxi over to the Trevi Fountain. After a few quick wet photos, we had dinner in a cozy local restaurant by our hotel. On the morning of our cruise, the sun was out & stayed out for most of our cruise. We couldn't have asked for better weather. We used Rome Cabs again & had a 2 hr tour of Coliseum & Forum. We spent some time walking around the Forum and skipped entering Coliseum due to very long lines. Had lunch in Rome, and then traveled on to the ship. Both times everything went perfectly and we were 100% pleased with the service.
EMBARKATION: What embarkation? Seriously, this was the quickest easiest embarkation we ever experienced. We were in our cabins within about 15 minutes. Carnival helped us organize our Cruise Critic get together by holding the Swing Time Lounge aside for us. Lots of fun putting faces to names and enjoyed having new friends on the cruise. The Cruise Director was invited but didn't show up. I'm sure he had lots to do since this was the first day of the cruise.
THE SHIP, THE CREW, THE SERVICE, ETC: We booked early to ensure getting a balcony cabin facing aft. I enjoy sitting outside & watching the ship's wake. Very quiet area with little movement also. Our cabin was very roomy. 3 closets, lots of shelves, deep drawers under the couch & 2 small nightstands. Our suitcases fit nicely under the beds. Bathroom has 3 glass shelves on each side of the mirror, and some small space under the sink for storage. Carnival supplies a robe to every guest now, and continues to leave a small basket filled with some goodies such as razors, and lotion. Always had good pressure & hot water. Balcony was roomy with 2 chairs (one was adjustable) and a small table. We used our room service card each evening & the morning coffee arrived everyday on time. Our room was very clean & we loved the new bedding. The flat screen TV was a nice addition although the programming was poor. Noticed on our last day they were still playing the Welcome Aboard Show. The ship is typical Farcus, maybe toned down a bit with darker colors. Easy to navigate once you learn that you can't reach the Chic Dining Room from certain decks. We found the easiest way was to just walk across our deck then go down. Enjoyed all our dinners & lunches in every area. Our server & assistant went out of their way for us and we appreciated that. We had late dinner seating in the Chic Dining Room. Food was above our expectations. Especially enjoyed the appetizers. Some nights I ordered more than 1 along with a side order of the pasta they were serving that evening. Skipped the entrEes & desserts. Dinner took an average of 1 1/2 hrs each evening. We had breakfast in the dining room only once & it was a little disappointing in the area of service. There was a group of women servers that were not pleasant at all to the point I was afraid to ask for a spoon & sugar. Maybe they just didn't get enough sleep the night before. Found the pizzeria convenient when we just wanted a snack & other snacks were available late in the evening by the sushi bar near the casino. The also offer pre-dinner snacks here. Entertainment was good. The production shows were very good. Not much else going on except the Passenger Talent Show which was especially enjoyable since some of the Cruise Critics (great job Mary Ann & Luis) participated. Now for my only major complaint...Carnival's blatant lack of concern for those not on their excursions. Most of Carnival's crew put 100% of their effort into pleasing the guests. However, it seemed those in higher positions sort of lost their priorities & spent most of their time promoting something or not being well informed except for what they were trained for. The Cruise Director made it clear by constantly promoting Carnival excursions & putting fear into the passengers if they went out on their own. Those at the Pursers Desk & Excursion desk had no information except for those on an excursion and gave the impression that the only way to do things was through them. We had a pretty uncomfortable experience in Venice. My husband & I decided to spend the evening (our ship stayed overnight) in Venice @ St.Mark's Square to listen to the orchestras playing. We took the last Vaporetto back to Piazza Roma. Shuttle buses from here to the ship were not running at this time, which we already knew, so we began to walk to the ship. We could see the famous Carnival funnel, but had no idea how to reach it. After over 40 mins. we reached the port, only to find out we had a river between us & the ship. We had to start all over again. We were extremely tired from walking in Venice all day & a little nervous walking in this deserted area. We finally reached the ship after 1:30 am. This could have been easily avoided if Carnival had put up some sort of temporary signage for passengers to find the ship. We found the same problem existed in Barcelona & Cannes. You can see the ship, but the ports are huge & it's extremely difficult to find your way to the ship. Shuttle tickets from the ship into town was another big problem for those of us not on a Carnival excursion. It was like some sort of secret where to get them & when. I've never seen this on any other cruise. Perhaps they haven't gotten all the details together yet but even with all the planning & research I had done, I felt uncertain & nervous at times.
PORTS: I learned an important lesson! Looking at a map and being there are two different stories. Finding places I had mapped out at each port was very difficult. I was not able to find 3/4 of the recommended restaurants, gelato shops and stores I planned to visit. No problem though because we enjoyed every meal, ate lots of gelato & hubby hates to shop.
NAPLES: Our first port, Amalfi Coast (Naples) was great. I was so overwhelmed by everything I had to pinch myself a few times & remind myself this was all real! Our tour guide was Stefano of Drive Amalfi. He is #1 & although he was somewhat "business-like", he gave us a great tour and I highly recommend. him. He has others drivers and we spoke to passengers that used them & they were also very satisfied. From Naples we saw Sorrento, stopped in Amalfi for about an hour, & had a short stop @ Positano. Would have preferred not stopping in Amalfi & stopping in Positano longer. Positano is so beautiful & different that it seems unreal. He also would stop along the route at places for us to get out & take some fantastic photos. As he would say, "I will stop at another belvedere for you". I never knew belvedere meant "beautiful spot". Had an outdoor lunch in Ravello at a restaurant high on a cliff. Stefano takes all his clients here. If you decide to do this here's a tip: The restaurant offers 2 choices. 16E or 20E meal. My husband & I split the 20E lunch & it was more than enough. Ended the day at Pompeii. Stefano set us up with an official guide @ 100E for 2 hrs. 6 people. She gave us a wonderful, easy to understand, informative tour. This was a great day. With all we saw & did, he managed our time efficiently & got us back on the ship with extra time.
CROATIA (DUBROVNIK): Since we had no information about the ship's shuttle to town, we were going to get a taxi van at the port to take us to Dubrovnik. We weren't successful in doing this since the cab drivers seemed to ignore our group of 6 over smaller groups. Fortunately, we found the ship's shuttle bus. At first we thought we wouldn't be able to use it since we didn't have tickets but found out no one did & everyone was paying on the bus. Very confusing especially since some were paying in U.S. $, some in Euros, some in Kunas. The person collecting the fee didn't have change & passengers helped each other out by making change. Forgot how much we paid, but it was very inexpensive. Easy ride over to Dubrovnik. We lingered around, had espresso, visited the churches & took a nice boat ride for 10E. Very relaxing day. If you are fit, the climb & walk on wall around the city seemed like a great place to get away from the crowds & get some beautiful pictures. Had a great lunch with the best mussels & fried calamari here at Kamenice's & bought some local products at the small outdoor market.
VENICE: Please make sure you get familiar with the vaporettos, tickets, and stops before your trip if you intend on going out alone. Another thing, as others have said, maps are of no real use here! We saw all to see but spent most of the first day getting lost in the back alleys! Arriving into Venice on the Grand Canal was beautiful & gives a great overview of the area. Once you dock, you need to take a shuttle bus to Piazza Roma, purchase tickets & then take a water taxi (vaporetto) into Venice. We took the local vaporetto (could not find the express) to the St.Mark's Square stop. I was able to pre-reserve St.Mark's Basilica online (free) for the last entry & walked right in. Noticed there wasn't much of line at that time anyway. We took a gondola ride at night. $140E for the 6 of us, which I felt was more than reasonable. Ended up we picked a celebrity gondolier. His website is gondolawedding(s?).com. Roberto can be found at the gondola stop right at St.Mark's square. Our friends went back to the ship & we stayed to enjoy St.Mark's.Square at night with the orchestras. Over 42E for 2 cups of espresso & 1 shot Sambucca, extravagant...but priceless. Woke up early the next day and went back to Venice to the Rialto area. By 10 a.m. it was very crowded & uncomfortable so my husband & I split up from the others and headed over to the neighborhood of Campo Santa Margherita. No tourists here and we enjoyed this area. Bought beautiful flowers that lasted the entire cruise. (thank you to Cruise Critic who told us all about the "Wunder Vase"). Venice was clean & interesting, but a little too touristy, crowded & noisy for my taste.
TAORMINA(MESSINA): Especially enjoyed the local feel till it started getting crowded. Make sure you get to Taormina early, before the crowds, to really enjoy this authentic & pretty town. From the little we got to see of Sicily, I know for sure that would be the place we would return if we ever travel to Europe again. I couldn't take my eyes off the view as we approached the island. 4 of us hired a cab driver in Messina to take us to Taormina. The taxi ride was about 45 mins & very pleasant. We didn't do anything special here except stroll around and witness a wedding & festival at the church. We found a great place for lunch by accident while diving from the scooter drivers. If you want an authentic Sicilian lunch at a very reasonable price, try: La Cucina Di Riccobono. Nothing fancy. You point to what you want, take it to a table & enjoy. Best way to explain location is it's at the last stop for buses & cars (no vehicles in Taormina), on the first hilly block on your right. We ended our day in Taormina with canolis which were the best I've ever had!
BARCELONA: Loved this port, although my husband said he was a little concerned with the pickpockets so be aware, especially in crowded areas. We took the ship's shuttle bus from the pier into town. We spent a large chunk of our time visiting the market. It was so jam-packed with interesting stalls we couldn't get ourselves to leave. We also strolled along Las Ramblas (lots of human statues here). We took a taxi from the top of Las Ramblas to Gaudi's Sangrada Cathedral. The Cathedral is amazing. Pictures can't capture its beauty. After spending about an hour here, we took another taxi over to the Bari Gothic area. Taxis worked out fine for the 2 of us. They were reasonable & easy to find. Had a great tapas lunch at Bilbao Berra, near the Gothic Cathedral. You pick what you want off the counters and a guy comes by when you're done & counts the toothpicks for your bill. Big toothpicks were like 2E, small 1E. We found better prices for shopping in the Bari Gothic area side streets.
CANNES: Our tour guide-Michel of Revelation Tours-was the best of all guides we hired. He made us feel like royalty, was polite, funny, easy to talk to, informative & considerate. We spent most of our day in Nice, walking the Old Town area, seeing the market & having lunch at Safari restaurant. Michel then took us a short distance to the ancient village of St.Paul De Vence (way up on a mt top). I chose this town over Eze because I read it was less touristy. If this is less touristy, I'd hate to see what Eze was like because we were wall to wall people here. Better to find your own little path through town then joining the crowds on the main street.. Michel then took us back to Cannes. He drove us around a bit & gave us some background about the area before taking us back to the ship.
FLORENCE & PISA(LIVERNO): Had another fantastic tour guide, Elio of "Tuscany by Taxi". What a nice man! We were expecting just a driver & got much more than that. He made our day perfect! We weren't able to see the museums (it was a holiday) but had a full day visiting all the other great spots. Started to rain on our way to Pisa but we managed to get out and get some pictures.
POST CRUISE: Honest truth? We ignored the calling of colors in the morning debarkation, and met for breakfast about 1 hr before our pick up time with Rome Cabs. Stefano took 4 to the airport & then took my husband & me to the Best Western Hotel in Rome. Best Western gave us an upgrade to a room with a balcony & I spent over an hour just "absorbing" Rome from there. We took the bus over to the Pantheon & that area. Decided to head over to Vatican & ST.Peter's & see if there was a line. No lines!!! Funny thing is, I think you're better off with a little bit of a crowd in the Vatican Museum if you don't have a guide. We had no idea where to go and got lost in the Vatican for almost 3 hrs! I think we saw every single room till we finally reached the Sistine Chapel. We were both exhausted. Luckily found some seats along the wall. From here we went into St.Peter's Cathedral. Of all the spots we visited during the entire trip, St.Peter's impressed us the most. Absolutely amazingly beautiful and overwhelming. We had dinner by the hotel at a place called "Dino & Tony's". What an experience!!! Owned by 2 brothers or cousins (not sure). They wait till most of the tables are filled then roll a cart down the middle and plop down plates for everyone at once. No menu, you get what they cooked that night. We were so stuffed after the antipasto & pasta that we begged them to stop. They ignored us & served us some more. The next morning we were up by 5 am to start our trip over to Ischia (next to Capri). The hotel held our luggage which made things a lot easier. We took the Rome subway (easy) to the main station and took Eurostar to Naples. I loved the train ride so much I was disappointed it ended so quickly. Once in Naples, we bravely walked to the bus stop and bravely took the bus over to the harbor. Naples is what everyone said it would be - dirty and filled with beggars, and pickpockets. On the other hand, it is a big crowded city and the area we were in was similar to being by the Port Authority in NY, so I'm not sure if I gave it a real chance. Seeing the tremendous Mt. Vesuvius in the distance was amazing & beautiful. The hydrofoil over to Ischia took about 1 hour. Once my feet touched the ground, I had the most overwhelming feeling in the world. There's nothing like getting the opportunity to visit your grandparent's homeland. After 2 days, we made our way back to Rome and the Best Western. On our last night, we visited Piazza Navonna. As you can see, I tried to fit in as much as possible with little time to rest. All in all though, I felt as though we had just begun to understand & enjoy Rome when it was time to leave.
CONCLUSION: I'm savoring so many great simple memories like the little old lady hanging out the window next to our hotel in Rome watching the people walk by and the evening "passeggiata" we witnessed at so many places in Italy. At around 6 pm all of a sudden the streets are filled with families holding hands, wheeling strollers and just enjoying each other. We both felt that cruising in the Mediterranean is the way to go. It's the simplest way to see all the tourist spots. Especially with our dollar & the Euro nowadays, it was very economical sleeping & eating most meals on the ship. Carnival did a great job & met all our expectations (except for the lack of concern for those not on excursions). We also agreed that spending some time pre or post cruise is a good idea.