As we live quite a distance from a port, our cruises are almost always preceded by a long flight, so we like a bit of time before we board the ship, to combat jet-lag as well as any airport/flight delays or unexpected occurrences. We landed in Barcelona after an uneventful flight, and following the advice in the Rick Steve's guidebook and the information provided by the hotel we took the Aero bus from the airport to the Plaza de Catalunya for a nominal charge of 4.20. (Taxicabs were readily available and would have been about 45.00 to Plaza de Catalunya from the airport). We spent two days prior to embarkation in Barcelona, and thoroughly enjoyed our time there. We stayed at the Hotel Continental Palacette, in a room that had an enormous sitting area, and a rather cozy bed and bath combination. The hotel boasts a nice 24-hour self-service buffet, and is nicely located within a five-minute walk north of the Plaza de Catalunya. We had no organized tours, but the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus came highly recommended and our hotel clerk, Vivian, was most helpful in providing directions and other questions we had.
The ho-ho bus is 20.00 per day, and that gives you unlimited stops and transfers from all three routes. The Blue and the Red are the major routes and take about two hours and one and a half hours respectively, with the smaller green route clocking in at about fifty minutes. The buses run every fifteen minutes to thirty minutes, depending on the day and the time of year. They provide a set of earplug style headphones with your admission, and this provides a running commentary in eight languages. (I found that they were prone to fall out of your ears, and as they are a standard microphone jack, you may wish to provide your own headphones or ear jacks). We rode all three lines, and began with the cable cars up Mont Juic (so named because of the Jewish cemetery that existed there centuries ago). After exploring the fort, we went to the Cathedral area (Bari Gotic) and toured the Civic history museum. This was interesting, as it is built right on top of the ancient Roman ruins of Barcino (founded in 10 B.C. by the Emperor Augustus). As you board the elevator that takes you to the bottom level the L.E.D. readout at the top reads "2008" and rolls down at ever increasing speed until it reads "-10", and the door opens. The ruins are covered with catwalks and labeled indicating the function of each area. We toured the maritime museum and the Christopher Columbus monument, and both were quite interesting as well.
Embarkation: Although it was only a thirty to forty minute walk down the Ramblas, and a further estimated twenty to thirty minutes from the Columbus monument to the pier (there is a high causeway as you leave land), we took a cab for E11.00. It was quick and we then whisked through the non-existent line (at about 11:30 A.M.). We were in CC cabin 9160 within 20 minutes of entering the terminal - definitely proving the usefulness of online registration!
CC Cabin 9160: This cabin is stern facing and had two lounge chairs as well as the usual table and two sitting chairs (A minor complaint - since the deck lounge chairs on the pool area on deck ten are adjustable, why are these in the cabin non-adjustable?). It was clean and our cabin steward (Lawrence from India) could not have been more helpful and courteous. He introduced himself within seconds of our arrival, and had requested items ready in minutes. The ship is well maintained, and satisfied what I'd expect of a seven-year-old ship.
Summit public areas and staff: If anything, the staff was even more attentive than any of the four previous Celebrity cruises we've been on (which is something!). Our cruise director John Howell (who has since moved over to Azamara), was amazingly attentive and personally thanked us and sent a gift to our cabin for a suggestion we made. The ship's senior officers were on hand for the Cruise Critic party (another first, and thanks to Captain Berdos and his staff for the gracious welcome!). The bridge tour that was arranged by John, (and thanks again to the Captain and his officers) as a result was fascinating and refreshing as the last one I had was before 9-11. The watch officers (Pierre - 1st Officer and Jamie 2nd Officer), answered every question put to them with obvious relish and vast knowledge and experience. Kudos!
The activities staff did their level best to provide trivia, dance contests, pool entertainment, etc. (and thanks to Greg, Brieanna, Jean Michel, Andrea and everyone else), but they had three problems: a rather port intensive schedule (that lead to a large portion of passengers heading to bed early so that they could cope with the August heat and walking demanded in the ruins of ancient Rome & Greece), many who did not have fluent English (meaning they were less interested in trivia or board games, etc), and a surprisingly large segment of children on board (about 450, according to sources). As a result, many interesting activities had little or no participation - and I'm not sure how you could resolve that.
Daniel from South Africa manned the concierge desk, and he was first class as well. I was particularly impressed by how he personally handled a gift of Swarovski crystal delivered to my wife at dessert for the late sitting, and arranged champagne to be in our limousine tour of Rome. He didn't miss a trick - well done.
The entire group of behind the scenes people worked hard as well. I was struck by how things were coordinated even thousands of kilometers away, as when one of our cruise critic group mentioned on the website during the cruise that she wished that her cabin had a clock radio. Lo and behold, she had a clock radio delivered to her cabin within hours of posting this! I can only wonder which staff member loaned this item (I can only guess it was not standard cabin equipment), but someone must have read this in Miami or onboard, and looked after my friend. When John Howell said that Celebrity pays very close attention to every detail that they can, I took it as partly company advertising, but I apologize: I'm now convinced!
Food and Beverage: The meals were the standard that I've come to expect from Celebrity (and I'm a bit spoiled!), the departure of Chef Roux hasn't negatively affected things here. Our waiter at table #501 was Jack, and his assistant was Ida - both did their best to accommodate our needs. Yussef the Assistant Maitre'd handled this well also - when we found it rather warm in the extreme aft end of deck five in the Cosmopolitan Dining Room one night, he opened a door to an engineering stairwell that cooled things off enormously. The breakfast buffet in the dining room concept was nicely presented, as was the Flava buffet on deck ten after Athens. I also enjoyed the pasta bar in the Cafe - it was nice to have it prepared fresh and hot, with fresh vegetables. The waffle bar in the Waterfall Cafe was good as ever, with one caveat: The waffles should not be pre-made and sit in a steam tray - soggy waffles (even warm ones), are less than appealing. I would rather wait for a fresh crisp one. We never got around to the Normandie, but reports from others said it was well worth the extra charge.
Entertainment: The times we did go (twice to the Celebrity Singers & dancers, once to the Awards ceremony) we enjoyed, but attendance was sparse. Again, the fast paced itinerary and the August heat wore out more than a few passengers - I compare the attendance rate with an Alaska trip we did on Infinity in September 2003 - and the contrast was dramatic. Too bad, the shows were great and they danced and sang their hearts out! Possibly they might do a drama/comedy play or two so these talented people could show off their acting ability as well? The Cirque acrobatic team was great on the last sea day as well - I never get enough of them. I did find Frontliners (party band) a bit too loud in the deck eleven bar after the award show, maybe it was the close quarters.
The activities director, Jean-Michel gave a fascinating talk on the underwater diving he did on the HMS Maidstone (lost over 200 years ago on the French Atlantic coast). His 15 year career and slides were amazing as well as the artifacts that he personally helped recover, such as cannon and ships navigation equipment. Mr. Martyn Green gave a great talk on the Greek islands and Athens, based on his experiences as well. I always enjoy the enrichment lectures - I learn so much that I make a point to seek them out on every cruise.
Suggestion to improve the entertainment options might be: more scheduled movies in the cinema (with popcorn - disappointing to no longer see that), and possibly a board games ladder style tournament for backgammon, chess or Monopoly?
Shopping: Good prices and very reasonable on some items - we didn't do the spa or the Art Auction. My DW suggests craft items be made available in the Emporium, such as cross-stitch, knitting supplies etc. These could be quite profitable if used in conjunction with the photography area to provide personalized items such as photos of the =X= fleet and themselves. Imagine the reaction of guests who could cross-stitch a picture of himself or herself in conjunction with the ship or a location therein? Or a panel of a quilt, etc? Since the ship is the property of =X=, why not take advantage of an opportunity to make a truly one of a kind memory and enhance brand identification?
We did VF13 in Villefranche 'Nice and Cannes on your own'. I was impressed with the professionalism of our bus driver who had a very narrow corridor in and out of the 16th century fortifications surrounding the port. We enjoyed the commentary and the walk down the promenade, as well as the drive to Cannes and wandering around. It was Sunday, so many of the stores were closed, but the view remained as spectacular as ever. On the return to the port, I did notice the literally tens of thousands of discarded 'tour identification stickers' from several cruise lines, that lined the stairs and wall, and this is rather disgusting. Tender service was prompt and professional.
In Livorno/Pisa/Nice, we did LV31 'Explore Florence & Pisa on your own'. As others have mentioned, the extensive walk to Pisa necessitated by the limitations of the bus parking area was annoying, as well as the length of time spent in Pisa (two hours) was too long. Even if you climb the leaning tower and visit the cathedral/church, an hour would be ample. The journey to Florence was uneventful, but again, most of the museums are closed on Monday, the day we visited. We opted to try the hop-on, hop-off buses, and earpiece issues not-withstanding, were not disappointed. The beauty of the city is revealed when you journey around it, and the view from the hill area south of the Ponte-D'oro is outstanding. You need about three and a half hours to complete both the 'A' and the 'B' routes, but by a bit of a shortcut through the Plaza Santa Maria we saw all of one route and 85% of the other.
Rome was spectacular. We had pre-arranged a limousine with two other couples we met on cruise critic, and we had a comfortable six-passenger Mercedes minivan. Our guide/driver, Claudio, met us on the pier at Civitavecchia at 8 A.M. sharp for the trip to Rome. I can't say enough kind things about this man: he spoke excellent English, and was instrumental in making sure we got the most out of our (too short!) day. Our first stop was the Colosseum (where the only surviving 'wild beasts' are feral cats!), where Claudio had purchased tickets so that we bypassed the already forming long line-up. We spent forty minutes there and then went through the Forum area, the Temple of Jupiter and Saturn (now converted to Catholic churches, which was the fate of almost every standing Roman/Greek building!), the Pantheon, the church of Maria d'Minerva, Trevi fountain, the Spanish steps, etc. Claudio saved us a lot of time because he knew exactly where to park and minimized the walking that we had to do, and when he couldn't park, he arranged a meeting point for us. None of the bus tours offered by the ship offered half as much as we saw! After the morning's sightseeing, we went to a lovely outdoor Cafe run by some people that Claudio knew, and then the feature presentation: a tour of the Vatican/Sistine chapel with a university trained art historian. Absolutely spectacular, and a once in a lifetime experience. After that, the drive back to the ship and reflecting on what we'd seen. Ah, Rome!
In Naples, we did the ship's tour NP03 'exploration of Pompeii'. This was the standard bus tour, and Pompeii was interesting, but it was only the site of the city - I would have liked to have seen some of the artifacts that had been recovered. We walked about a half kilometer back to the bus afterward - I'm not sure why the guide couldn't have arranged to have the bus pick us up at the same point he dropped us off at? The Cameo factory 'tour' (a thinly disguised infomercial style shopping trip) was unspectacular (and very expensively priced!).
Then Santorini, where we did another ship's tour SO02 'Volcano Hot Springs tour'. The landscape was interesting if you have never seen a volcanic island before (there are many more interesting ones in the world than this one, in my opinion). The walk to the summit of the new burn island is quite steep and rocky - and there isn't much to see, (in comparison with Hawaii, for example). The swim to the (barely) heated water of the hot springs was invigorating, but beware the rather pointed and ragged rocks completely covering the bay! Also, there was a rather disgusting yellowy lichen-like slime that got on your skin and bathing suit. (Yuk). A special thanks to Mark and his family from England who took some great candid shots of us jumping into the water to begin our swim! Cheers.
In Athens we had arranged a private tour a la Rome with George's Taxi. Our driver Antonio met us on the pier at Piraeus and took us to the foot of the Acropolis. The Parthenon was breathtaking, as was the Dionysian theatre, the temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaea. After a stop at the old Olympic stadium, we witnessed the changing of the guard at the Greek parliament/tomb of the unknown soldier, and the Temple of Zeus, as well as a sneak peek at the unfinished new Acropolis museum. We then drove down the Sounion coast for lunch at a lovely restaurant on the beachfront (the temperature was beginning it's climb to 38C it reached a short time later!). we then continued to the Temple of Poseidon on a rocky outcropping high atop a hill with an amazing view of the Greek coast. We then went to the Plaka for shopping and sightseeing, as well as a look at the first century sundial/Tower of the winds. It was a fascinating day and further reinforced the better value of the private tours.
Dubrovnik we did DU14 'Trsteno Gardens & Old Town Sightseeing'. The Trsteno gardens a worth (one) look - but the most interesting part was the pre-industrial olive oil pressing room. Dubrovnik and the walls were interesting, and our tour guide Ivana gave us some interesting commentary in regards to the civil war that occurred as Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990's. Ivana had gone through the siege of Dubrovnik as a teenager, and it was evident that the war had left its mark on her soul. We didn't look at the Rector's palace or any of the other museums of 17th century life at the south end of the city, but simply wandered around the town looking at the shops and the citizenry. The view as we left port was one of the most scenic of the trip - possibly due to the timing at 5 P.M.?
Venice … I'll simply say that the sights are worth seeing - but be prepared to spend some money! A one hour gondola tour at sunset will run you about 120E (not including gratuity). The museums and the bell tower are worth a look, as well as the Doge's palace. However, anything around the grand canal is usually horribly overpriced - one restaurant wanted 32E for a bowl of consomme! There are far more reasonably priced restaurants if you look around a bit. The hotel we stayed in was the Best Western Ala, about three blocks from St. Mark's Square. It was very reasonable, at 79E per night, but beware the over-priced porters waiting for you as you leave the Water Taxi - I (foolishly) allowed one gentlemen to take our 2 suitcases and 4 smaller bags on his rickshaw-like carrying device WITHOUT negotiating the price - and for his 15 minute effort, ended up paying 50E! Always negotiate in advance in Venice - the locals will take your left arm and charge you for your right if you aren't careful.
Disembarkation was swift and efficient - well done. However, more information on travel options in Venice would have been helpful onboard before leaving. We found out that the Vaporettos do in fact allow luggage, but only after boarding a more expensive water taxi.
We spent the night and left for Milan on the train, a quick and efficient three-hour tour. We decided to relax in our hotel (close to the Malapensa Airport but far from the city centre) before our long flight home the next day. As a consequence, we didn't see the Leonardo Da Vinci museum or any of the other sights in Milan this trip.
The cruise is worth the trip - that goes double if this is your first time in these ports. Second, take (smaller) private tours whenever you can, if possible - you get much more from them, often for less than the ship's bus tours. Third, take lots of Euro, and do not expect bargains compared to North America or the Caribbean!