Background - My wife and I, along with our son/daughter-in-law, and daughter/son-in-law decide to celebrate our 35th anniversary with a 12 day Mediterranean cruise on the Brilliance of the Seas, departing on 7/28 and returning on 8/9. . Since there were 9 ports of call, we divided the ports into 3 groups, and the planner in each family unit did the research on each of 3 ports and made recommendations regarding what to do in each port. We made a group decision to book the least expensive rooms that were available and to spend more on the tours and excursions. After some research, we learned that we would get more bang for our buck by booking private excursions. I can tell you now that we were extremely pleased with the results of those decisions.
Pre-Cruise - We made our own travel arrangements and flew with Continental Airlines from Orlando to Newark and on to Barcelona. We flew on the 25th, arriving on the 26th, to give us time to enjoy Barcelona and to avoid any potential travel hassles. The trip itself was uneventful, and we arrived at the Hotel Pulitzer in downtown Barcelona. The Hotel Pulitzer is a clean and contemporary "boutique" hotel which we recommend. It is close to the Ramblas and just a short walk from a HOHO bus stop as well as the subway. Over the course of our 2 1/2 days in Barcelona, we visited the rebuilt Port Vell harbor area which has lots to see and do, took both the red and blue lines of the HOHO bus, visited La Sagrada Familia, ate wonderful food and lots more. It was a great start to a great trip.
Embarkation - Around 2PM on the 28th, we made our way by taxi to the port to get our first look at the Brilliance of the Seas. The embarkation process went quickly and smoothly, and within 1/2 hour we were enjoying a lovely buffet lunch on the open air rear area of the Windjammer restaurant. This area never seemed to get discovered by many people, and we enjoyed many pleasant breakfasts (and lunches on sea days) overlooking the various harbors and the sea from this location. After lunch we wandered around to get familiar with the ship and then unpacked our luggage, which arrived at our rooms in a short time.
The Ship - The Brilliance of the Seas is every bit as beautiful as all that you have read about. The ship was very clean, well laid out and never felt a bit crowded even though it was sold out. The only exception to that was on sea days in the late morning to mid afternoon when the pool areas did fill up. As noted earlier, we booked 'inexpensive" interior rooms on deck 3. We were surprised by the relative roominess of the space and found that being on the interior had the advantage of being in something like a dark cave when the lights were out. It made for easy sleeping and napping. The room was also very clean, and was kept that way all through the trip by our cabin attendant, who did a very good job. The only slight complaint was the well documented odor that normally wafted through the hallways of the lower levels. We laughingly referred to deck 3 as the "poop deck". Fortunately, the odor did not come into the rooms and it was not a big deal at all. The service on the ship was outstanding from start to finish, and the individuals that we came in contact with were, without exception, pleasant and helpful.
The Food - We did not know what to expect regarding the food on the Brilliance. After reading many reviews and posts regarding the declining food quality on Royal Caribbean, we were prepared for the worst. I must tell you now that none of the 6 of us have a clue as to what those people are talking about. With the understanding that they are preparing meals and menus for 2500 people at a time, we all found the food to be quite good. There was plenty of diversity of selection, and none of us ever felt the desire to send anything back. We took the 9:00 seating for dinner, in order to have some down time after returning from shore excursions, and that worked out well. Our server at dinner, Sueda Cakmak of Turkey, was simply the best server that we have ever come across. She and her assistant, once they got to know us, seemed to anticipate our every need and handled our every request promptly and accurately. She was also wonderfully personable and would spend lots of time with us telling us funny stories about herself and the ship. On almost every dining room night, the 6 of us were one of the last people to leave the dining room. We also booked one night each in Portofino and Chops, and can tell you that each of those dining experiences was both memorable and worth every dollar of the small additional fee that is charged. The only small disappointment was the Murder Mystery Dinner at Portofino. While the food was good, the show was so-so. While the actors tried hard, it just was not that much fun. It was not worth the extra $49.50 each.
Ports and Excursions -
Villefranche (Nice), France - This was our first port and was tendered. After reading on a previous review of issues with the lines for the tenders, I got on line at 8:20 AM for tender tickets. Ticket distribution began at 8:45, and I secured tickets for the 2nd tender. We docked at 10 AM, and were on shore by 10:15. Our daughter-in-law, Liz, had booked a private tour with Michel of Revelation Tours. Michel was there waiting for us at the dock in a clean, modern, spacious van. We cannot say enough good things about Michel. He was interesting, informative, funny and a careful driver. Driving a van in Europe is no easy task. Our itinerary took us to an overlook of Nice, where Michel described the history of the area, an open air market and flower market in Nice where we walked around a bit, and the beachfront there. We then proceeded to St. Paul de Vence, a small fortified hill town, where we had lunch at a lovely small cafe called Malabar, and then walked around a bit. After that, we drove to Monaco and walked around in Monte Carlo for a bit. It was very crowded, and we decided not to walk through the Casino. Finally, we went to the lovely village of Eze, walked around again through an ancient and beautiful town, and then went back to the ship. Michel returned us to the ship with plenty of time to spare. Overall, from our experience, I can tell those of you who concerned about missing the ship from private tours, that you have nothing to be concerned about. Every one of our drivers was very aware of the time and there was never a question of possible lateness. Our first day experience was outstanding.
Livorno (Tuscany) - We broke very much from the norm with this tour and did not go to Florence or Pisa. Most of us in the group had been there before and wanted to do something different. Our son-in-law , Gregg, researched this stop and booked a tour with a little reviewed company called Tuscan Heart (www.tuscanheart.com)where we booked the "Chianti Countryside" tour. We docked at Livorno at 8 AM and our driver Daniele was waiting for us in a nice clean van. As an aside, Liz, Gregg and I had an informal competition set up to see who was going to arrange the best tour. When Daniele started out, Liz and I were commenting to each other that one of us would win, because our first reaction to Daniele was that he was not nearly as good as Michel the day before. Daniele was not the informative historian that Michel was the day before, and we were not impressed. He drove us to a lovely villa called Vicchiomaggio, where we took some beautiful pictures of the exquisite Tuscan countryside, but there was little information. We then proceeded to a little town called Greve in Chianti, where we walked around a bit and then were taken by Daniele to a lovely underground wine and food tasting shop where we purchased cards that allowed us to sample many different wines and foods of the region. Daniele's stock was beginning to rise for us. We then proceeded to drive further into the Tuscan countryside, where we had a lunch reservation at a farmhouse/cooking school/bed and breakfast called Fagiolari (www.fagiolari.it) hosted by the owner, Giulietta Giovannoni. There are no words to describe the beauty of the area and the absolutely exquisite but simple meal that we enjoyed there. It was simply fantastic. Daniele's stock was now way up. We then proceeded to a lovely vineyard called Villa Cafaggio, where a private tour and winetasting was arranged for us. Our second port day was in the end, every bit as wonderful as the first, but totally different.
Civitavecchia (Rome) - Again, we broke away a bit from the norm, and did not take the tour that most people seem to take. I was responsible for the planning of this tour, and decided to book with Stefano Costantini of Rome Cabs. In the planning stage, I indicated to Stefano that we wanted to take in a bit of Rome and then a bit of the Roman countryside. He put together a special itinerary that turned out to be terrific. Even though Rome Cabs is a good size company, I was pleased to see that Stefano himself came to conduct the tour when we disembarked at 8AM. We proceeded immediately into Rome and saw the location of Circus Maximus and then proceeded to tour the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. By the time we got to the Colosseum, there was a huge line that we bypassed, and we were brought through a special entrance. Stefano was not able to join us on these tours, but he gave us plenty of information and insight before going in. It was all incredible. After that, Stefano took us to a high hill overlooking all of Rome, which gave us a wonderful perspective of the area, including Vatican City. Here is where we broke away from the norm. Instead of going to Vatican City, we escaped the crowds and the heat (boy, was it hot) and went into the countryside, where we were taken to a tiny fortified town called Ceri, where we had another outstanding lunch at a wonderful family owned restaurant called Trattoria Sora Lella, with terrific views and even better food. Stefano accepted our invitation to eat with us, and he continued to share many wonderful stories of the region. Our final stop, after lunch, was a trip to Odescalchi Castle in Bracciano , a medieval, well preserved castle on a beautiful volcanic lake which was the place where Tom Cruise and Katy Holmes got married. As usual, we got back to the ship with no time concerns. Our day with Stefano was every bit as great as our first 2 days had been.
1st Sea Day - Boy, was this welcomed. As much as we enjoyed the first days of the trip, it was time for a respite. We all did our own thing throughout the day. It was a bit windy in the Aegean Sea, and was actually a little cool in the shade. By the way, the weather all week was terrific. A bit warm, although by Orlando standards, not so bad, and not a cloud to be seen for 2 weeks. The Brilliance has an indoor pool area called the Solarium which is adults only, and which was a great place to relax in after a lot of sun. We ate that night in Chops, which as mentioned before was outstanding.
Mykonos, Greece - This was the only real disappointment of the cruise. I had read in a review that stop on the previous cruise to Mykonos on the Brilliance had been cancelled due to high winds, and danger for the tender boats. On the previous day, we learned that the Captain had made arrangements for a berth on Mykonos, instead of the usual tender operation. Even though we awoke to stiff winds, we presumed to be okay. Unfortunately as the morning progressed, (we were due in Mykonos at 1PM) the winds increased steadily to over 50 knots, and everyone was cleared off the top deck above the outside pool. Around noon, the Captain came on and advised that it was too windy even to berth in Mykonos and we would proceed directly to Ephesus in Turkey, our next port. He advised that we would arrive around 9:30 PM, and we would be able to go off the ship that night. We arrived in Ephesus as indicated and proceeded to walk a bit around town. To say that the experience there was a surprise would be an understatement. It was incredibly busy at that time of night in the dock area, with thousands of locals and tourists having a Saturday night out. The sounds and smells of the area were so unusual for us. In this place we really knew that we were in a foreign country. We spent a couple of hours wandering and then went back to the ship for the early start the next morning.
Kusadasi (Ephesus), Turkey - This was the port that most of us cared about the least before the cruise. We couldn't have been more wrong. Liz booked a tour with Sammy's Travel, and as normal, a large van was waiting for us at the port at 7:30 AM. We had both a driver and a guide for this tour. The guide for this tour was Bulent Soysil, a lifelong, full time archaeologist who turned out to be terrific. As we toured the House of the Virgin Mary, Isabey Mosque, Ephesus Ruins , Ephesus Terrace Houses and more, he brought the experience to life in a way that is hard to describe. It was all incredible. I can not believe that a bus tour with 50-60 people could have possibly even approached our experience. After the tours, we were brought to the Turkish Handycraft Production Center, which started innocently enough as an opportunity to see how silk is produced and to see how handmade wool and silk rugs are made. Quickly, though, it turned into a hard sell, well orchestrated carpet presentation which was a bit unnerving. Somewhat fortunately, Liz, and our son Mike, had been planning to buy a small rug on the trip, and they found something to their liking. In reflection, it was all okay, and now is a great story to tell people. Overall, this tour was every bit as good as the previous ones, and was made even better because it was unexpected. It was not an all day tour, so we finished up in the middle of the afternoon, walked a little more around the port shops, and headed up to the ship for some pool or nap time.
Santorini, Greece - This was the port that I wanted to see the most before the cruise, and it did not disappoint. I learned that the ship was going to arrive into the harbor around 6:15, and that sunrise was around 5:45, so I set the clock to see the sunrise and to see our arrival in the middle of all these volcanic islands. It was so worth it! The sunrise colors were unbelievable and the transformation of Santorini from the pre-dawn to the sunlight was memorable. We decided to do Santorini on our own, and also decided not to try to beat the tender crowds, so we waited until about 9AM to get off the ship. We had no crowds there (there was only one other small ship in port that day) and took the cable car up to the top of the cliff into Fira. It was quite different up there, though. It was incredibly busy, with people, cars, scooters and ATV's everywhere. Parts of Fira were very picturesque, but parts were awfully touristy. We had planned to make our way to the smaller town of Oia, so we walked a little and made our way to the bus station. Unfortunately, we missed the Oia bus by 2 minutes and had to wait 45 minutes for the next. We walked a bit more and came back to the bus station which was by then, a bit of a madhouse. Long story short, we got the next bus and proceeded to Oia. The drive was a bit unnerving, with buildings passing a foot or so from the bus window, and part of the drive on the top edge of a very steep cliff. However we made it safely to Oia, walked a couple of hundred feet from the bus stop, and were presented with some of the most fabulous views that you will ever see in your life. The blue sky, the blue water and the white buildings on the cliff sides made for an incredible vista. After walking a bit, we stopped for lunch at a wonderful restaurant with incredible views out to the water and equally wonderful food. It is called Restaurant Skala and is highly recommended. After lunch, we walked a bit and then decided to get the bus back to Fira, as we had read of potential issues to get back in time, as there are barely any taxis, and no alternative transportation. We almost had a serious bus issue involving some extremely aggressive teenagers and some very pushy crowds, but we made it back to Fira without any real incident. After walking around a bit more in Fira, we decided to scout out the cable car line, and were glad that we did. It turned out there was over a 1 hour wait for the cable car, and we were not prepared to go down to the bottom of the cliff either on foot or by donkey. We made it back to the ship with a little time to spare, but not much. I can only imagine what it must be like when there are 4-6 ships in port. While the day had its challenges, it did not disappoint.
Piraeus (Athens), Greece - Liz planned this day as well, and booked a tour with Paul of Athens by Taxi Tours. We were picked up at 7:30 AM by Petros in another nice van and proceeded directly to the Acropolis. One note on this subject - there is often a huge advantage when going to these historical sites with a private driver in that in most cases, you arrive before the huge crowds. This was especially true at the Acropolis. When we arrived, we could see a very modest number of people milling about. 45 minutes later, it seemed like thousands of people had arrived. We were able to get some great photos and view the place in relative privacy for awhile. After finishing there, Petros spent the next couple of hours taking us to a number of historical sights while providing a wonderful blend of the history of ancient Greece and of modern Athens. Fortunately, for us, we were there during a time when many locals are on holiday, so the traffic was relatively light. I would hate to see how bad it normally is. After some time, he took us to the part of town called The Plaka where we had a terrific local lunch at a restaurant that Petros recommended, and we walked around a bit to shop and sightsee. It was very hot, (over 100F) so his cool van was a welcome sight when we met at the agreed time. Again, we got back to the ship in plenty of time, and had an outstanding day with Petros, who was every bit as good a guide as our previous ones.
2nd Sea Day - This 2nd sea day was every bit as welcome as the first. As much fun as we continued to have during our excursions, it was time for a restful day. All in all, the day was uneventful, and we just enjoyed reading and working on our tans.
Naples, Italy - I was the planner for our final excursion, and chose for our guide, Giovanni Lerusce (www.positanocardrivers.com). There was very little to find about him on the Web, but there was something about one old review that I did find that led me to contact him. He responded quickly and accurately to me almost a year ago, and we decided to use him. We decided to take a tour of Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast. Giovanni pre-arranged for a guide for us for Pompeii by the name of Salvatore, and he was outstanding. Salvatore is a soon to be retired high school teacher from the area who truly understood and appreciated Pompeii and the history of the region. He really brought the ruins to life for us and was terrific. After 2 hours in Pompeii, we proceeded to drive through the Amalfi Coast and were absolutely blown away by the beauty of Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi and Ravello. It was a slightly hazy day, so that the views weren't pristine, but they were still incredible. Giovanni was incredibly informative and interesting as he made a very difficult journey through this region. We made a few different stops along the way for pictures and walking, and made our way to have lunch at a very simple but wonderful place called Ristorante Pizzeria San Giovanni in Ravello. It overlooked the sea from high on a hillside and the food was spectacular. Memorable does not do this place justice. After lunch, we had a little time we walk around the center square of Ravello and found the place to be charming. Our only disappointment was not to have more time. Giovanni was careful to be sure to leave enough time to get us safely back to the ship on time. It was another fantastic day and a fitting end to our shore excursions. I would give Giovanni Lerusce the highest of recommendations.
3rd Sea Day - Another uneventful but great day. Obviously, we are sad that it will end soon, but it's time to pack and and give up our space to some other lucky devil. We said our farewells to our room steward and servers today and thanked them for here excellent service.
Post Cruise - The Disembarkation of the ship was quick and painless, other than not wanting to leave. We had a final breakfast at the rear of the Windjammer and made our way by hotel shuttle to the Renaissance Hotel near the Barcelona Airport. We dropped off our luggage, as it was too early to check in, and made our way by train into town. Due to some construction issues on the train line that we were using, the trip into town was much more difficult and time consuming than planned, but we finally made it. We walked around a bit, had lunch in a terrific little tapas restaurant, and proceeded to visit the incredible Battlo house by Gaudi on Passeig de Gracia. By that time, my wife and I were spent (yes, it was hot, again) and we went back to the hotel while the kids took in more of the town. We had a final light dinner at the hotel. The trip back was uneventful other than Continental losing 6 of 8 pieces of luggage for a day. They got them back to us the following morning, so they did us a small favor by us not having to handle them.
Final Thoughts - This was an incredible trip. For my wife and I, the opportunity to travel as we did with our adult children and their spouses, and to have done and seen what we did together, was the trip of a lifetime. The memories we have and the photos (over 1000 of them between 3 cameras) will last as long as any of us are alive. We are all proud of the planning that we did. That planning was a key to the overall success and experience of the trip. Once again, I would sincerely recommend all of the tour guides and companies that we utilized. If you were to ask me to rank them, I simply couldn't. They were all gold medal winners. I would be happy to attempt to answer any questions that anyone has. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Finally, thank you to all who have reviewed and answered boards before me. Your contribution to our vacation was invaluable.