Some background. We are a well traveled 42 year old couple traveling with our 16 year old daughter. We have been on 3 cruises prior to this one. We have never taken ships excursions and have always done our trips on our own, with our own planning. This was an extremely busy cruise and the extensive planning made it easy. We did much more than the ships tours at 1/10 the cost and on our own time and leisure. We clearly understand the cost/benefits of some cruise lines and itineraries and had appropriate expectations.
Venice Upon arrival from multiple delayed flights, we arrived after we had been quoted 90-100eu for a water taxi, but since we met up with another cruise critic couple on the plane we decided to spit the cost. When the taxi service realized there would be two hotel stops the rate went to $135eu. We had planned on purchasing the Vaporetto pass for the 72 hours, but we didn't and thankfully so as we did not use it once while there. Venice was smaller than I expected and can be done easily on foot which is what we did. We did get lost a few times, but that just added to the fun of this incredible city.
We spent 2 nights prior to boarding at the Westin Europa and Regina on points and were upgraded in both our rooms. After 2 days in Venice, we were thoroughly exhausted. The crowds were incredible and we did our best by staying out of the crowded tourist areas during peak afternoon times. We used the free Rick Steve's podcast audio tours for many of the sites here and really enjoyed the Frari Church and its history.
Embarkation We decided to spend the day in Venice and show up around 4pm on the first day in port since we had the next day here too. We opted to spend the 100eu to get a water taxi from our hotel to the ship via the Grand Canal. Embarkation had started 4 hours earlier, so there was no one around. Once on the ship we knew our bags would be a while so we went to the Waterfall Cafe for a snack and made reservations for the Normandy that night at 8pm. After 3+ hours of our bags still not showing up we had our room attendant go search for the bags. He was unsuccessful; however they did show up a few minutes later giving us little time to change for dinner. This was VERY disappointing seeing there was no one checking in and it should not have taken nearly 4 hours to get our bags. Others said they too were late getting their bags, in fact we saw some bags showing up 3-4 days later at port from misrouted airlines. The Normandy experience was just OK, we commonly eat at high end restaurants so we are not easily impressed. Service was fine, if not annoying with their high level of attention. The food was well prepared and flavorful, about what I would expect from this level.
Croatia We were told the ships shuttle was $10/pp. We opted to take a taxi for $10eu each way making our R/T taxi ride about $30 for three of us, about the same if we had take the lemming (Ships) bus. We used the ATM just outside the Pile gate to get about $50 in local currency and did the wall tour, backwards (Clockwise) as recommended. We then walked around town, had lunch away from the tourist areas and returned by walking up to one of the many taxi's waiting at the walls entrance for a quick ride back to the ship. We did see some walking on their own, but I don't think they were walking to the old town area which is an impractical distance to walk. Croatia is an easy port to do on your own and I would recommend anyone to do this on your own. You can easily see the sites, have lunch and shop in 3-4 hours here.
Santorini I had given my family the choice of the donkey up or down the hill. They hesitantly agreed to go up the hill on the donkeys. It was the one experience of the whole trip that will NEVER be forgotten. As you get off the tender you will be guided by the donkey men who will try and get you to ride one of their donkeys up the hill. It was $5eu per person. I was surprised to see they just put you on a donkey and tell it to go up the hill on its own. Now, I use "on its own" because it is just that. You are at the mercy of the donkey to go or stop at its leisure. I found that yelling did nothing. Reaching back and slapping its' rear got it going. If one donkey stopped they all stopped. If one passed your stopped donkey, they would join up and start again. I would highly recommend doing this just once for the experience. Once we went into town we found not too much to do on our own, so we rented a car for the day and went to the far end of the island and went to the beach. After a few hours on the beach we then drove back to Oia for a late lunch then returned back to take the gondola back down. Santorini is an easy port to do on your own. I would recommend simply taking the city bus to Oia for shopping and lunch and return to Fira for more shopping. This is a leisure port that anyone can easily do on their own.
Athens I had read so many horror stories about the taxi drivers here that I would not even respond to their requests for a taxi ride. We opted to walk from the ship to the train station. We were told it was only about a 20 minute walk when in reality it was more like 45 minutes since it turned out to be about a mile and a half. The taxi board at the Cruise ship terminal says a taxi to the Acropolis should be $8eu, but I did hear people pay $20eu for a taxi to the Acropolis, if true would really be the way to go. Be careful, taxis try and get an agreed rate then at the end tell you that was per person. We had a great time walking around the Plaka and the Acropolis here on our own. Took the train back and once again walked back. Probably did about 5 miles walking on this port and could have cut out about 3 miles had we taken a cab.
Naples Without a doubt, Naples was one of our favorite ports because we went to Sorrento. We opted to take the hydrofoil over to Sorrento for a couple hours then take the train back to Pompeii and back to Naples. We underestimated the time we wanted to spend wandering around Sorrento, due to the incredible shops and scenery. We then walked over to the Sorrento train station which stopped right at the entrance to the Pompeii ruins. Again, even with umbrellas, it was hot out and only felt like seeing a cursory view of the ruins. We got right back on the train and got off in Naples. We made the easy walk over to Da Michele for some authentic pizza. A 16" margarita pizza was $4eu, a tasty bargain to say the least. After a late lunch we made the easy walk over to the port and back on the ship.
Rome We set new records as the tour desk did not even have times earlier than 7:50 for the train schedule. We not only got off the ship by 7:10, we were on the 7:30 train which put us in Rome for the 8:40 arrival at the St. Peters stop. An easy 20 minute walk to the entrance of the Vatican put us with plenty of time to spare for our 9:15am prepaid entrance to the Vatican. We were traveling with another couple we met on the ship that did not reserve their entrance to the museum and proceeded to get in the line that was already 1000 ft. long. Surprisingly, by the time we got our tour group together and to the tour entrance, our friends were already inside the Vatican museum entrance AND bought their tickets making their wait at 9am about 10-15 minutes. After pounding out the Vatican museum and seeing the Basilica in about 3 hours, we took a taxi to the Coliseum, walked it and the Roman Forum, Pantheon, Trevi fountain and the Spanish steps.. (Note- Make sure to buy your Coliseum/Forum/Palatine tickets at the Palatine ticket booth, just 100 yards from the Coliseum). The line to get tickets at the Coliseum was at least 45 minutes long and we were able to walk right in. From the Spanish Steps we took the Metro back to the Termini station for a 4pm train back to the ship which should have given us about an hour and half safety margin About half way back the train stopped for no apparent reason. We sat on the tracks in the middle of nowhere for about 45 minutes until we continued our journey. We found out later the trains went on strike and ALL trains had stopped. Ironically there was an accident on the highways which delayed 13 tour buses and the ship left port at 8pm, an hour later than scheduled.
Florence We took the ships shuttle to the port entrance and walked the three blocks to the train station. The train takes you right into the heart of Florence making everything within easy walking distance. We had booked 11:15am reserved entrance to the Uffizi and after seeing the lines, we were glad we did. We went up at 10am to see if we could get in earlier and they didn't bat an eye issuing the admission at 10am. Using Rick Steve's Uffizi audio tour we were able to see, in detail the pieces that were of interest to us. We then proceeded to Santa Croce (Which I highly recommend) to see the burial place of many famous historical figures. We then took the train ride back with a 1 hour stop to take the requisite pictures in Pisa makes this an easy do it yourself port.
Villefranche/Monaco This is such and easy port to do on your own. We took the city bus into Nice and walked around for a bit, but since it was so hot we opted to head up to Eze. We walked back to the bus terminal and took the 20 minute ride up to Eze. We walked around for a bit and decided we were too worn out from the previous 3 intense days and it was hot, so we opted to head down to Monaco. We did not realize the bus only ran down to Monaco like once every 1.5 hours so we had a quick lunch right next to the bus stop in Eze. We tried to get a waiting taxi for the 7km ride to Monaco, but they wanted $50eu for the 15 minute ride. After a brief walk around Monaco, we jumped on the wrong train back to Villefranche that was actually the express train to Nice. Once in Nice, we jumped back on the train for the 7 minute ride back to the ships tender early in the afternoon.
Debarkation We were scheduled to meet in the lounge at 7am to disembark. Instead we went to the dining room and finished around 7:30am and made our way directly to the gangway. There was no one around and we walked right off the ship. Since the others in our disembarkation group had already exited and claimed their bags, we simply walked right up to the baggage carousel and picked up our bags and walked to the waiting taxis. We were told the taxi should only cost about $10eu to Las Ramblas, but baggage was extra. Our taxi driver quoted us $25eu and he explained it was because there is a $2.40eu per person port charge and $1eu per bag. We argued a bit and tried to walk off. He convinced me this was the going rate and he would run the meter to prove it. On the way at one intersection our taxi pulled up to another taxi and our driver said "Punta Punta" meaning he had some whining customer (to put it politely). After taking a round about way to our hotel (Le Meridian) the meter read $8eu. I simply got out of the taxi and asked the bell men to intervene since they were well armed as to the costs of the taxi service. They too thought he was a rip off and told him he was ripping us off. He finally agreed to take $20eu which I reluctantly agreed to.
Barcelona Barcelona is an awesome city. We went first thing to Sagrada Familia and found it incredible and a definite "do not miss" on our trip. Was used the subway which I found to be one of the best in the world, I wish the USA could take some notes here. An older couple befriended us during open seating at breakfast that morning and asked to join us for our day in Barcelona. When we were getting on the subway a man and woman pushed her as they went on board and tried of open the ladies purse. Unsuccessful, they jumped off the subway train just as the doors were closing. The rest of our day was spent wandering Las Ramblas, having Tapas and just getting lost. The next morning we found the bus that left just up the street that went directly to the airport for $4eu person and really didn't want to deal with the taxi drivers again. After we got on the bus we watched the others in line waiting to board. We saw two men at the end of the line with no baggage, we watched as they slowly tried to open the baggage of the passenger at the end of the line. My wife knocked on the window to get his attention. He looked at her and she motioned to the guy behind him. He simply smiled and told the crook she was trying to talk to him. Fed up with crime in general, I climbed over everyone trying to get on the bus and told the man he was about to be a victim from the two crooks standing in front of him. I told off the thieves and told them to leave. We had been warned about the thieves and pickpockets throughout the cruise ports. We saw nothing in any of the other ports to make us look over our shoulder, with the exception of Barcelona which we encountered 2 incidents in less than 24 hours. Barcelona was one of our favorite cities, but after the criminal experiences, we would have to seriously reconsider ever coming back here.
The Ship Experience John, the ships cruise director met us at our cruise critic get together with some hors d'oeuvres and light drinks. He had some of the staff attend as well. John mentioned he follows cruise critic very closely and reads ALL the reviews (Hi John!) I was glad to see such reception from the crew to our group as well as a great turnout from the Roll-Call. The sports deck was still closed during most of our trip since they were still finishing the refurbishment from dry dock that was not completed. The condition of the ship was good. I was surprised to see a need for significant refinishing on the rails on the 10th floor near the T-Pools. This is easily repaired and I was surprised this was not taken care of in dry dock. The food was about what we expected, good, not great. Portion sizes were not large, but they were appropriate. Food Selection was good at the dining room. We never ate at the buffet, but had some snacks here. We found the selection decent, but not extensive. We enjoyed the pizza at the rear buffet area. I loved the homemade ice cream on board, but found the lines unacceptable. We watched as many as 16 people waiting in line with one attendant is not right. I complained to the food service manager on duty and he grabbed someone out of the hallway and told them to scoop ice cream for a while. That lasted about 2 minutes and the clerk would disappear without shortening the line. Once again I brought it to the attention of the food service manager and he once again grabbed someone walking by to assist. As to the ship, it was about what we expected. It was a well run machine, classy and efficient. The 12 days gave us ample time to form friendships and recognize familiar faces in port. We found the ship was about 60% Americans and for the most part they were upper middle class and respectful.
Entertainment The Celebrity Dancers and Singers were expected to be typical and we were not too interested in seeing another high school type production. Boy, were we wrong! The quality of the dancers and singers was excellent. Their Broadway musical was very well done and in our opinion was on par with some of the original productions we have seen firsthand. Granted the sets were limited, but this is a cruise ship and you only have so much to work with. I guess we went in with low expectations and they were far exceeded. We did not go to see the 4 acappella singers in the theater as it did not interest me. We did see them performing all over the ship and felt the ship was relying on their mediocre performance too heavily throughout the cruise. The ships band was awesome and we did enjoy their performances throughout the ship and the cruise. We were just too tired to see the comedian in the theater his first night. I love a good comedian and again, I skipped him partially due to low expectations. We did see him on one of the last nights and found him hilarious and regretted not seeing him on his first night. I read on other reviews complaints about the cost of drinks on the ship. To anyone who has ever ordered a drink at a nice restaurant or ANY restaurant in Europe knows $6-$8us for a mixed drink is an incredible bargain. We found $6eu for sodas commonplace in Venice, that's about $10us for a soda let alone a mixed drink which we found as high as $20eu or $30us at some ports. Sodas on the ship ran $1.95, which is cheaper than any sit down type restaurant I know of here in the States, let alone in the EU.
Shuttle costs I found the whole idea of the ship charging for shuttle services offensive. I soon expect them to charge for tender services as well. We never used the shuttle since they don't start until about an hour after the ship docks which was an hour less time in port for us, so we did it our own, for less money too. Taxis were readily available right at the ship at all the ports, however some of them did not want a short trip to the train station or to town, they only wanted to do all day tours for a small fortune.
4 days of intensity We choose this ship for its itinerary. It is a very intensive trip to say the least. There are four days in which you have Naples, Rome, Florence and Nice/Monaco all back to back without a break making the next day which is at sea very welcoming. I wish they could have simply done the overnight in Rome which would have broken up the intensity and given much need time to see more of Rome as well.
The Room We thoroughly researched which room we wanted on the ship. We knew this was a very port intensive trip and we wouldn't spend much time in the room. We opted for outside room 9001 which is on the port side. We loved the size and layout of this room since our 16yo daughter was sharing it with us. Our room steward asked if we wanted the sofa bed left open and we did. The room gave us the open sofa bed, the king size bed then a nice sitting area with 2 chairs and a table PLUS the vanity with another chair. The room size is about 250sq. ft. which puts it in the suite category for the outside cabin price.
One of the things we liked best about the far forward room was there was very little foot traffic, even from the crew staff quarters in front of us which I read other complain about. Just one floor up was the spa cafe which we ate at almost every morning. Usually a breakfast of cereals, breads and bagels, fresh fruit and yogurts made us eat better and the fact the buffet was so far away made it uninviting. The spa area and T-Pool were very convenient as well. In fact the first week I never used our rooms shower, it was easier for me to use the locker rooms to shower in. They even had free razors and shaving cream to use here.
Summary Overall we had a great trip. The itinerary is way too much to consider a vacation; this was an intense history lesson. We walked about 3-5 miles at each port; saw all the sites with only a basic cursory view due to the time limitations at each port. We returned home exhausted from our travels with a great understanding of what each country and port has to offer. We would definitely recommend the Summit and this itinerary as it was a trip we will not soon forget!
I should be able to post some of the 1500+ pictures we took and you can view them here:
If you have any questions, feel free to email me at jlawson@Bigvalley.net