European Explorer Cruise - A Fantastic Voyage!
Europe - Western Mediterranean
First, a little about us. We are in our early 50's and were traveling with one other couple. This was our fifth cruise, second cruise with Princess and our first trip to Europe. I had been pretty active on our Cruise Critic Roll Call, and we had private tours planned in most every port.
First of all, the Crown Princess is a beautiful ship, and as others have said, despite that fact that there were 3,200 passengers on board, the public areas never really felt crowded. Our cabin (C614) was very nice (loved that extra large Caribe balcony!) and our room steward, Jadeah, did a terrific job.
One of the first things people always ask is about the quality of the food. Let me qualify my answer by saying that we are major "foodies." We appreciate good food and we love to try new things. We had traditional, late dining at a table for four. Our waiter worked hard, and aside from some communication issues due to English being his second language, he did a good job. The food itself was "OK." Some of the things I tried were very good. Most were fine. Some were just not good. Somehow, I still managed to leave each meal totally full. J
Due to rushing out the door to meet tour guides early most mornings, we only ate breakfast in the dining room a couple times. The breakfasts I ate a the buffet, were fine, and the service I received there was very good.
We ate at the Crown Grill one night, and it was outstanding. Although it killed me to pay "extra" for dinner, I must admit it was worth it. We also participated in the "Chef's Table" one night. It was fun, and the food was mostly very good; however, next time, for the same money, I would probably opt to go to the Crown Grill twice and skip the Chef's Table.
I would like to give some kudos to James Deering, the ship's Passenger Services Director. He came to all of our Cruise Critic "Meet and Greets" and he was very informative and helpful. He is a class act, and the Crown Princess is lucky to have him on board.
The entertainment of the ship was pretty good. We went to several of the 10:15 shows at both the big theater and the Explorers Lounge. We never had trouble finding seats, and we enjoyed the shows. It was not a big deal to me, but I think perhaps the on-board activities on the days at sea were a bit lacking.... or at least they didn't appeal to me. I had some good books to read, so I didn't mind.
The ship's Port Lecturer, Rusty, does an excellent job. We never attended his talks in person, but each day he put together a TV show about the next day's port of call, and they were interesting and informative.
Now I will review briefly what we did in each port of call
n Rome - We spent two pre-cruise nights in Rome at the Albergo del Senato, which is a lovely hotel right beside the Pantheon. It was a bit pricey, but worth the splurge to have this amazing location for our all-too-short stay in Rome. We walked all around central Rome and saw the Trevi Fountain, the Coliseum, the Forum, the Piazza Navona, ate pizza and gelato, and drank wine. It was just as I had dreamed it would be.
n Livorno, Italy - A Cruise Critic buddy made reservations for a tour of Tuscany Countryside with Papillon Tours. The van comfortably held 8 of us, and the total cost was 640 euros, or 80 euros each (not including lunch or tip, of course) We made a quick stop in Pisa, then went to two wineries in the Chianti Classico region, had a nice lunch at the second winery and then visited the town of San Gimignano. I forget our driver's name, but she did a good job. If we were to do it over again, we would skip the long, sit down lunch so that we would have had time to go to Siena. (www.papillonservice.com/)
n Genoa, Italy - We joined a tour to Cinque Terre. The company was called Benvenuto Tours. We had a group of 18, plus a guide and driver on a small bus. Again, I am sorry to say that I forget the guide's name, but she did a great job. One small disappointment was that we couldn't ride the ferry from one town to another as planned due to rough seas, but we rode the train instead and it was still a very nice day. I believe the cost was about 1,200 euros for all 18 of us, plus the cost of the train and the Cinque Terre park pass. (http://www.benvenutolimos.com/)
n Cannes, France - We hired Riviera Premium Tours to take us on tour of the countryside instead of the more popular French Riviera towns. We visited Antibes, Gourdon, Tourettes sur Loup and St. Paul de Vence. Our guide did a nice job, and I would recommend this company. The cost for 8 of us was 490 euros. (http://www.rivierapremiumtour.com/)
n Barcelona, Spain - 19 of us hired a mini-bus through Barcelona Pepito Tours to give us a Barcelona Highlights tour. It was a combination driving and walking tour. Our guide was knowledgeable and did a good job, but this wasn't one of my favorite days. I am not sure why... maybe it is just impossible to do justice to Barcelona in just one short day. The cost for this tour was around 50 euros each.
n Gibraltar, UK - The guys chose to golf in southern Spain (the Costa del Sol resort region). They took a taxi to the Alcaidesa Golf Course, which was only about 20 minutes from the border. They said it was a beautiful course with stunning views of the ocean and "the Rock."
Karen and I explored Gibraltar on our own and took a taxi "tour" of the
Rock. I wasn't really looking forward to this port of call, but I must admit that I enjoyed myself and found it very interesting.
n Cadiz, Spain - We opted not to go to Seville and to just explore Cadiz on our own. We rode the "Hop On Hop Off Bus" and then just walked around this beautiful city. It was a very nice day.
n Lisbon, Portugal - We had arranged for a private "highlights of Sintra and Lisbon" tour with My Way Tours. Our guide was Carla Carita, and she is highly recommended! She took us to the lovely town of Sintra and to Pena Palace. Then we drove along the coast back to Lisbon. It was a wonderful day, and Carla was great. It was also a good value at only 250 euros for all 8 of us. (www.mywaytours.pt)
n Vigo, Spain - I had arranged for 6 of us to take a tour of the Vigo area with Brendan of Guided Galicia. While, Brendan was a very nice young man, this was not a very good value. He charged us 85 euros each, and his knowledge of the area was limited. We did visit a very beautiful castle in the area and had a nice (albeit expensive) lunch in a quaint fishing village.
n Cobh, Ireland - We went on the E Tours bus tour of Blarney, Kinsale and Cork. This was a good value at 20 euros each. Our guide did a very good job. (http://www.ecoach.ie/blarney_bus_tour.php)
n Le Havre, France - The four of us rented a car from "Rent a Car" and explored Normandy on our own. This was a good value at 95 euros for the car rental, 10 euros for a GPS and gas. They have a desk right at the port and the cars were right there. The only down side was that it took an hour to get the car due to the long line. If you do this, try to be one of the first ones off of the ship. Also, reconfirm your reservation, as there were people in line who thought they had a car reserved, but they didn't get one.
We drove to Bayeux, a lovely town with the famous tapestry, went to Omaha Beach and visited a farm where they make the local drink of choice, Calvados (a hard apple cider).
n Zeebrugge, Belgium - We decided to visit Bruges on our own, and enjoyed our day there very much. We shared a taxi from the port to Bruges (cost 50 euros for 6 of us) We rode a boat around the canals, walked around the cobblestone streets marveling at the gorgeous brick buildings, sampled incredible chocolates and enjoyed a couple local Belgian beers. The day would have been perfect except for the fact that when it came time to take a taxi back to the ship, no taxis could be found. A group of about 30 from the ship of us decided to take a bus to the train station and ride the train back to Zeebrugge. The train station was about a 30 minute walk from the ship, so we made it back to the ship with only 15 minutes to spare! It was a bit stressful, but "all's well that ends well."
n Southampton - Well, our fantastic voyage ended here in Southampton. We had hired a guide named Harry Norman to pick the four of us up at the ship, take us to Stonehenge and Windsor Castle before dropping Karen and Jack off at there hotel near Heathrow Airport. After dropping them off, Harry gave Alan and me a "Highlights of Central London" tour before taking us to our hotel in Paddington. Harry was awesome and is highly recommended!! (http://www.londonstours.com/)
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