My husband and I did the Mediterranean/Greek Isles cruise on the Brilliance of the Seas, leaving out of Barcelona on June 3. He is 31, I am 25; we have done 3 previous cruises together, one of which was on RCCL. We returned because we liked the quality of service with RCCL and enjoyed their selection of onboard activities. Plus, when Carnival cancelled their 2009 Mediterranean itinerary, this was the next best itinerary we could find for the price. We admittedly chose this cruise more for the ports than the ship/cruise line.
Embarkation and Rooms: We stayed in Barcelona for 2 nights before the cruise began. We had the hotel concierge call us a cab, and we were at the pier in no time. Porters were quick to take our bags, and the line inside took us maybe 20 minutes to get through. I believe we arrived at the port around 1pm, and we were on board by 1:30pm. Very smooth process. The only thing I would note is that they took our passports away for the week. Because Turkey is not part of the EU, Greek customs required RCCL to present all of our passports when we left Turkey and arrived in Athens. Kind of threw us off (every traveler knows not to go without a passport!) but we had no problem getting them back after the Athens stop.
We stayed in a balcony cabin on deck 7. The room was your typical cruise ship accommodations. The only complaint I had was that the shower had a curtain, not a sliding door (as we've seen on other ships). This was super annoying, since the curtain would stick to you throughout your entire shower. The location on deck 7 is nice because you can get to the Centrum activities easily, but there is not a lot of noise on this deck.
Entertainment: Our cruise director was Kieran, he was great. Very funny and friendly guy. We also saw him out and about at many of the ports, which was nice. Brilliance had your typical production shows...we did not attend all of them, but the ones we saw were pretty good. There was a Beatles cover band one night that everyone LOVED, as well as a very good magician. There were 2-3 stage performers that we thought were just so-so; they did musical and comedy routines that were definitely geared towards the older people in our audience. Though we were admittedly in the minority as far as age range goes, we were hoping for some of the more fun and risquE comedians we've seen on other ships.
The Pacifica Theater was a good spot for the shows, not a bad seat in the house. We visited the Schooner Bar quite a bit for the live music, and the Colony Club was good for the karaoke-type events, though there were a lot of obstructed views there. We enjoyed the sports bar—lots of TVs, plus the bartender there really knew how to make a strong drink! The Champagne Bar is great—visit them after 6pm for free appetizers.
The one thing about onboard activities that we didn't like—most of the entertainment was done by 11pm. Really the only thing open late was the Starquest Disco, which was quickly taken over by the small group of teenagers on board. Not much for the 20-something set after hours.
Other Amenities: We took advantage of both the 24-hour mini golf, and the rock climbing wall—good fun! The pools were always quite crowded, with all the seats claimed no later than 9am. Get up early if you want a fighting chance. We tended to stay in the Solarium pool area...quieter, less sun (good for those of us not working on a tan), and the bar isn't as busy as the main pool bar. Also, it's adults only, so no screaming and yelling.
Food: Overall we enjoyed our dining experience. RCCL did an EXCELLENT job with the seating arrangements. We were at an 8-person table at the later dining time (9pm). Honestly, we were afraid we would be the only young couple at the table, but we were paired with 3 others nearly our age, as well as a wonderful middle-age couple from the UK. We had fun with them all week. Our waiters, Worawit and Miro, were great, some of the best we've had on a cruise. Wit was especially helpful with his hints on the ports, we often got better information from him than from the Cruise Compass!
The food itself was good, though there is a difference from our past cruises. They seemed to rely on pasta dishes a lot more than usual, and of course there was no lobster or filet mignon. All the food was good quality, we just felt that the selection was not as great.
The Windjammer was typical buffet fare, nothing special to note. Be aware that the food at the Latte-tudes Coffee Bar is FREE. A lot of people assumed there was a charge there (because the coffee is not free), but we were happy to figure out that we were free to eat all the brownies and cookies we wanted.
Barcelona: We arrived here on June 1 and stayed at the Hotel Banys Orientals for 2 nights pre-cruise. We booked this on our own, not through RCCL. We had an excellent experience with Banys. The price is amazing (99 euro/night), the staff is friendly, and the location can't be beat in the Barri Gotic. I would much rather stay here than La Rambla, which I thought was overrated anyway. I highly recommend using the tourist bus to help you get around to many of the sights. It runs frequently and on time. In 2.5 days we were able to see all of the major highlights that we wanted. Must sees include: Sagrada Familia, Parc Guell, Picasso Museum, Barcelona Cathedral, beaches at Barceloneta, and the FC Barcelona Stadium. If you want great tapas, try Cal Pep (best meal I've had in a long time), or Taller de Tapas.
One recommendation: if you plan to spend extra time in Barcelona, I'd do it before the trip. We were so exhausted by the end of the cruise, I don't think we could have done half of what we did in Barcelona by that point. We actually ate with a couple who cancelled their post-cruise stay in Barcelona because they were just too tired to do it.
Villefranche: We did not schedule an excursion for this port. We got tickets for an early tender (hint: when they are giving out tender tickets, if you want a low number, get in line at least 30-45 minutes before they start handing them out). We took the easy walk to the train station, and bought tickets to Nice (only a 10 minute train ride). Nice was beautiful, definitely a beachy resort town. We explored the shopping areas and the Promenade d'Anglais, and made a stop at Castle Hill. There is a great food/craft market near the Castle Hill end of the promenade—we ate lunch at a great little restaurant in the middle of it. Overall this was a really relaxing day, bring your bathing suit if you visit Nice. You can also take the train to Monte Carlo (20 minutes) or Cannes, though I believe Cannes was further away.
When we finished in Nice, we did get about 2 hours in Villefranche, which is a very quaint little fishing village. It's good to give yourself some time to explore it and get lost in the winding streets.
Florence: One of my favorite ports. We booked the "Florence on your own" tour for this excursion. Essentially this is just a bus taking you the 90 minutes from Livorno to Florence, and they bring you back at the end of the day. We started off with a bang as our bus driver plowed into the car in front of us on the Italian highway...yikes! We were delayed about an hour waiting for another bus, but we were given extra time at the end of the day to make up for it. Well handled. We were dropped off at the Basilica of Santa Croce and given about 6 hours on our own. My husband and I visited all the major sights, and I highly recommend climbing to the top of the Duomo—amazing! A long climb but worth it. We didn't have time to go into the Galleria d'Accademia to see the David, or the Uffizi gallery...you will need to spend your day doing just those things if you really want to see them, in my opinion. We did have a great lunch at Antico Fattore, the pasta and wine were amazing.
A note about the "on your own" tours: they are pricy (usually at least $80 a person) but we felt they were very much worth it. We always got more time in town than our friends who took trains in, because we didn't have to waste time finding the station, and at the end of the day, we didn't have to leave early in fear of missing a train. A good deal if you want to maximize time and not worry about missing the boat.
Rome: We did "Rome on your own" this day. No bus crashes on the 90 minute drive in, thank goodness. We were dropped off near St. Peter's; my husband and I immediately took a cab over to the Roman Forum to begin our whirlwind day. We got a 3-site ticket at the Forum to see it, Palatine Hill, and the Colosseum. DEFINITELY buy this ticket at the Forum, there was no line at all, whereas the line at the Colosseum was massive. We visited all three sights, then walked towards the Trevi Fountain. Stopped there, had some pizza, and threw in our coins (we will be back!). Made a stop at the Piazza Navona before heading back towards the Vatican, crossing the Ponte Sant'Angelo (gorgeous). We made a beeline for the Vatican Museum so that we could see the Sistine Chapel, which is absolutely a MUST see. Breathtaking. Afterwards we walked around St. Peter's Square, but we weren't left with enough time to go into St. Peter's. This was truly a crazy, fast-paced day, but you can see both sides of Rome if you really hustle. We had a lot of fun though we were quite exhausted at the end.
Santorini: We didn't book an excursion here. First off, Santorini is gorgeous. Take your time here, and take in the scenery. We took the cable car up to Fira and explored some of the shopping areas for a while. We then took a city bus (quite reliable, and cheap) over to Perissa, and stopped at the black sand beaches (warning: black sand is hot!). This was a nice relaxing way to start the day. We thought about taking the bus to Oia as well—we would have had time, but barely, so we just decided to head back to Fira for some relaxation. We had a long, leisurely lunch at a rooftop restaurant, sampling all the classic Greek fare: souvlaki, Greek salad, saganaki, Greek wine, baklava. We ended the day by watching the sunset over the caldera. What a beautiful place!
Kusadasi: We booked the Ancient Glories tour for this port. The tour began quite early, and took us to the ruins of Ephesus, Miletus, Magnesia, and Didyma. Beware: Turkey is HOT! Nearly 100 degrees this day. Bring water and dress cool if you are taking any of the tours. The tour guide was very informative, which was great because we got a lot more out of the ruins by hearing about their history. A buffet was also served at a Turkish restaurant near Didyma, which was excellent—lots of local fare and fresh fish. The tour ended back in Kusadasi at a rug shop. It was interesting to see how the rugs were made, but it was a little annoying to have to sit through their sales pitch—ah well. We explored the Grand Bazaar for a while before heading back to the ship at the end of the day. Lots of deals to be had at the bazaar, especially if you're into clothes, bags, watches, etc.
Mykonos: No excursions for us this day. We kept hearing how great the beaches were in Mykonos, so we decided to find them on our own—everyone said they were so easy to walk to. This was not so! We, along with many other confused-looking passengers, ended up giving up our search for the beaches after an hour of walking, trying to figure out the Mykonos buses, etc. Very frustrating. RCCL should either run buses to the beaches (they are on the other side of the island from the ship), or they should provide a better map to tell you how to get there. But, this did not ruin our day. We walked around town, which was great because the winding streets are so beautiful. Had lunch at a little cafe, and explored the windmills near town. Mykonos is definitely a relaxation destination.
Athens: Our plans were initially foiled by the Greek Tour Guides Union strike—all tours were cancelled for the day. RCCL let all of us know this the day before we arrived in Athens, which was a sea day. This was very poorly handled by RCCL. We were told the day before that all tours were cancelled, but RCCL would be running a shuttle into the city if you just wanted to be dropped off in Athens. If you wanted a ticket for the shuttle, it was $25, non refundable, and they went on sale that afternoon at the excursion desk. We were also told that seats were limited. So, of course everyone rushes to the desk that afternoon and buys the tickets. Well, that night at the show, the cruise director tells us "a little secret": the train station is not a long walk from the ship, and train tickets to Athens are only 1-2 Euro. Imagine how upset we all were! RCCL clearly needed to make their money back from the cancelled tours, so they sent everyone into a panic over the shuttle tickets, and never said a word about the train. (I'm sure Kieran was given a talking to about informing us later on, poor guy.)
In general, we found that RCCL staff were very reluctant to give out any information about a port that was non-excursion related. We understand that they need to make their money, but we know many passengers were frustrated, not just by the Athens incident, but also because simple questions they had about other ports (where a train was, etc.) were skirted by RCCL employees in an effort to boost excursion sales. Tsk tsk.
Anyway, on to Athens. My husband and I took the shuttle into town, and were dropped off near Hadrian's Arch. We walked up to the Acropolis first—this was probably the hottest day of our cruise, so yet again, pack water and dress lightly for this city. The Acropolis and Agora were close by each other and definitely worth the hike. We also walked over to the old Olympic stadium, through the Botanical Gardens, and over to Syntagma Square to view the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Had a great Greek lunch in the Plaka district as well. All the major sights in Athens are fairly close together, so we had no problem exploring on our own this day.
Naples: We booked the Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius tour for today. We had not heard great things about Naples itself (other than the pizza), so we were okay with forgoing a trek into the city. The Pompeii tour was good, though a bit shorter than we had hoped. It would have been nice if we had some time on our own in the ruins, rather than just being guided the whole time. Mt. Vesuvius was amazing though. We were driven most of the way up the mountain, then given time to climb on our own to the peak. The volcanic crater is very cool, and the views of Naples and the Mediterranean were great once the clouds lifted. This is definitely worth it, especially if you enjoy hiking! If you do this tour, be aware that you'll get quite dirty climbing up the mountain, there is volcanic ash all over the place and my shoes/pants were never the same!
Overall this was an excellent cruise for two people who had never been to Europe. We knew that we wouldn't be able to spend tons of time in each place, so we spent a lot of time before the trip planning out exactly what we wanted to see. It's important to do this, or else you will just be overwhelmed by all that you can do in one day. This is definitely not a relaxation vacation—we were exhausted by the end, and slept our way through most of the sea days. But if you want a cruise with amazing ports, this is it.