Our Mediterranean cruise was chosen primarily for its itinerary, and taken by mom & dad (late 40's) and daughter (15) along with another family of similar configuration from the Puget Sound area in Washington, USA; for most all of our extended group, this was our first trip to Europe and was our first cruise with Princess Cruises and our 7th cruise overall. The cruise was booked through a local travel agent, with our air arrangements booked separately with frequent flier miles (by mom). It should be noted that a fair amount of planning went into this whole trip (mostly by mom) which should not be under emphasized as important.
At the outset, it should be said that the main purpose of the trip was to get a 'taste' of what these great regions of Europe have to offer; it is really tough to more than scratch the surface on a trip of this nature. Given our limited time, and tastes, we also were not specifically looking to 'dive deep' into the wines, foods and museums of the region and this review probably reflects that.
We flew into Rome via London with no major problems (thank you British Air) with enough time to spend a full day and a half in Rome prior to leaving for Civitavecchia to meet the ship. We had arranged our transfers and touring (through most of the Italian stops) through 'Rome in Limo' who did a fantastic job of meeting us, getting us to and from sites and to the ship on time (thank you Vincenzo). We could not recommend them highly enough (www.romeinlimo.com). In Rome we were able to see the Coliseum, Trevi Fountain, Forum, the Vatican, Sistine Chapel and St Peters Basilica; we had also arranged a private guide through the Vatican which was well worth the added cost. I'll leave specific descriptions to others; there is obviously a reason it is called the Eternal City. There were also a number of other stops which are probably too many to list here; suffice it to say Rome in Limo was able to coordinate just about anything and tell us what could fit into the time we had; they also directed us to some nice quick, affordable and tasty dining establishments; here is where doing your research pays off: know what you want to see and it can be coordinated so there are no disappointments. We had none.
We were dropped off at the ship with plenty of time for embarkation; Civitavecchia appears to be a busy port that seemed somewhat complicated with several cruise ships docked and a number of routes to them; we saw several people rolling their luggage a long way to get to the correct ship. Embarkation went pretty smoothly other than after you drop you bags off and go into the tent, there isn't really much direction to 'get a number' to proceed in order to the formal registration. A loudspeaker would have been welcomed. We had done most of the pre-registration before hand and had no problems; and were in our room in about a half hour.
The Ruby Princess is a pretty handsome vessel; sometimes cruise ships come off as a cross between a palace and a bordello; this ship was just right in decoration and theme for the Mediterranean as well as being clean and reasonably efficient. We were in a BE class cabin with an outdoor balcony on the Baja deck, which was of average size for a cruise ship, and efficiently laid out; the closet configuration made it seem a little bigger than cabins on past cruises. Our travelling companions had an adjoining cabin and we were able to have the balcony divider opened which made everything seem bigger. Our cabin steward was probably the best that we have had on any cruise (thank you Piotr); and made our stay most comfortable and entertaining.
Most of the facts about the ship concerning accommodations, amenities, size and capacity can be gathered better elsewhere; let's just go forward with the following observations: For carrying about 3000 people, it never really seemed crowded, even on sea days. While there were lounge hogs, it still seemed possible to find a place. For all this space, it seemed like the arrangement of things didn't flow as well as other ships; it isn't really symmetrical and there seemed to be a number of dead ends that we found ourselves in. It was very clean and the staff/crew were very hospitable.
Other negatives (to us): The large movie screen at the main pool; for the most part we thought it was really annoying at sea and hear some movie with loud car crashes (why are we going to sea again?). There also seemed to be a lack of shade on public deck areas. The one place they had it was in an area called "The Sanctuary"; this appeared to be a nice quiet comfortable area, though it cost about $ 10-$ 20 per day to use it. Excuse me Princess but haven't we paid enough for this already? I'm sure Princess has done their demographics on these items but they missed the boat as far as we were concerned.
The entertainment was not a real big deal to us. I don't think I could remember more than a few messages from the cruise director (which is a good thing to us); no constant annoying contests and announcements. They had a reasonable deck band during the days and some at the clubs at night that we didn't really check out too much. The ship shows in the evenings were poor; really, really poor; though after seeing one or two we did not go back.
The food and drink aboard was fairly good by our standards, considering the number of people served. We did not try any of the specialty restaurants and ate mostly in the dining room for dinner and lido deck cafe's for breakfast and lunch. Due to a miscommunication with our travel agent, we were stuck with Anytime Dinning which stunk for us; the last thing I want to be doing at 6:00AM in the morning before a shore excursion is coordinating dinner reservations for 6 people. We finally got that changed on the second day and had a consistent time being served by Luisto and Bruce who were excellent for the whole trip (Thank You).
Dinners were OK from a variety standpoint with the best foods, to us, being sea food (salmon, crab legs, lobster) and pasta; steaks were OK though they looked like they came from cows about the size of a big Labrador Retriever. Breakfasts and lunches were commercial though they did seem to have a variety that might appeal to travelers with a more adventuresome palate than ours; unfortunately, when something new and good appeared it only seemed to last a day in the cafe. The drinks aboard were typical by cruise standards (to us); fairly expensive. Beers about $ 6.00 including tip; didn't try mixed drinks as they never seem to get it right to me. There didn't seem to be a lot of 'hustling ' to buy the drink of the day on this cruise. We had soda cards (about $ 51.00 each for the cruise) which were worth it to us. Getting juices, lemonade or tea seemed tougher to come by as it seemed the wait staff handled that as opposed to a self serve dispenser.
Our first stop was Monte Carlo; we had not arranged any formal tour but decided to go out on foot by ourselves. This was a tender port and we got ashore mid morning and decided to walk up to the palace area. If you stay to the left going up, around the tunnel, you can catch escalators that make the trip easier by foot; going around towards the city and up is a much more difficult walk. At the top there is a palace guard, beautiful views on both sides and a small shopping restaurant area that you can find any number of souvenirs and food/beverage. Towards the sea, on this plateau, are a beautiful church and the oceanographic institute.
Our next port was Livorno; we had arranged a private tour through Rome in Limo which was fantastic (thank you John). We started out early and headed to Pisa with the Leaning Tower being the main 'attraction'; while this is interesting and shouldn't be missed it was just as interesting to see the whole area around it; the former walls of the city in their various layers, the architecture of the compound and the view from atop the tower is one not to be forgotten; we also learned that the leaning tower of Pisa is not the only leaning tower in Pisa!
From Pisa, we went to Florence, taking a route through Tuscany which was much more interesting than a typical highway drive, arriving at a great vantage point to see an overview of the city including the Ponte Vecchio bridge over the Arno river, and remnants of the old city walls against the background of Florence. We also took in seeing il Duomo, the Baptistry, as well as Michelangelo's David; Rome in Limo had arranged admission so the wait to get in was minimal, which should not be missed. There was even some time for shopping before the trip back to the ship. John also found us some great gelato.
The next stop was Naples; again a private tour arranged through Rome in Limo which was great (thank you Raphaelo). This tour included a trip down the Amalfi Coast with a stop in Positano and Sorrento; the road along the coast that we took was one of the most picturesque that you could imagine; we were able to stop several times for pictures of this beautiful Mediterranean coast line. In Positano we had time to wander some of the narrow streets for shopping as well as in Sorrento on the way back. Raphaelo found us a restaurant for lunch, Antico Frantio, which had fantastic, fresh local food in a setting overlooking Sorrento and the Gulf of Naples, that was 'priceless'.
On the way back to the ship we stopped for a tour of Pompeii; surprisingly this is just about 5 minutes off the freeway, just next to a commercial district. We had arranged (through Rome in Limo) for a private guide who was fantastic; Alphonso (Thank You) guided us through an informative/entertaining two hour walk through some of the ruins, giving us probably more information than we could have gathered in a whole day or two on our own; again, these guides are well worth the cost when they are as knowledgeable and passionate about their subject as Alphonso was. Following this trip, we were driven back to the ship to a chorus of 'That's Amore' led by Raphaelo; a great way to end the day.
The next stop was in Santorini Greece. Our tour here was arranged through Princess; which while not necessarily the best value, was very well organized (Princess seems to do this well), especially for departure. Our tour started with a tender ride to busses that took us to a winery (at 8:30 AM); a little early for a trip to the 'magic kingdom'. The tour then went to the village of Oia, which has nice shopping and some of the most beautiful views and buildings that you could imagine. After that, we were taken on a short trip of the island and taken to Fira for shopping and snacks; from here you could catch the tender back to the ship. Fira had some great view restaurants; it is worth taking the time to stop and have bite and a beverage overlooking the sea. Be sure to allow enough time to catch the tram down to the tender area; this can be a long wait in hot sun.
Next in line is Kusadasi, Turkey where the main attraction for us was Ephesus. Arranged through Princess, this bus tour took us from the ship for a 40 minute drive to Ephesus; throughout this drive the tour guide gave an informative and interesting history of the region from both an archeological and geological point of view; the Ephesus site was a real surprise (positive) as we had not heard much about it but it was well worth the trip; we also saw the ruins of St John's Basilica and the house of the Virgin Mary. The final stop was at a rug/carpet store which was pretty useless unless you were in the market for such, which we were not. A final note, the shopping areas around the ship are much like the streets of Tijuana; a lot of hard sell and negotiating. This area of Turkey is far more beautiful than we thought, when we think of Asia minor.
Mykonos was the next port; here we had scheduled a beach day, through Princess Cruises. This was swimming at Platis Yialos. This trip was a disappointment as we didn't get much history of the area on the bus ride, were sort of 'dumped off' and left to figure out where to go. This wasn't too difficult, though. The water was a little dirty (seaweed) at one end; go to the far end of the beach where it seemed cleaner and a nicer beach though the lounge/umbrella rental was slightly more expensive; the water there was divine.
Athens was the next stop and probably the most anticipated for our group. We had tagged on to a tour arranged by someone we met on the Cruise Critic roll call for this cruise (Thank you, Luvz2run2000). This tour included a first stop at the Acropolis to see the Parthenon and other sites; for this part of the excursion, we had a private guide who, while probably very knowledgeable, did not have a real good command of English; as such, it was tough to get as much out of this tour as we would have liked. I suspect there is not much point in describing this site too much other than to say, it looks as much like a modern construction site as it does an archeological ruin; also, try to get there early in the morning (heat and crowds).
Also on our Athens tour we were able to see the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown, do a little shopping at the Placa, and take a leisurely drive to Sounion to see the Temple of Poseidon ruins. We had not thought too much about this before our trip but found this to be very enjoyable; the ruins are in pretty good shape (for ruins, that is), not near as many crowds and there is a nice restaurant for a drink and a rest in the open and shaded air.
Katakolon, Greece was the next stop, where our primary destination was to see Olympia; this tour was arranged through Princess and was very good. It was about a 40 minute bus ride from the ship to Olympia on which our guide gave a great description of the area and history surrounding Olympia. The site itself, while in more of a state of ruin that some others, was more than worth seeing given the history surrounding it; again a good tour guide made this better than we could have hoped. Near the ship in Katakolon, there is also a main street within walking distance for typical shopping opportunities.
Corfu, Greece was our penultimate stop, here we did a morning beach excursion to a local beach/hotel which was nice but all too short (this was arranged through Princess). In the afternoon we walked along the waterfront on our own, past the fort to a shopping/restaurant areas and spent some time there; a very relaxing day all things considered.
The final stop of our cruise was Venice. The ship itinerary puts the arrival time at 10:00PM; we were able to get in earlier and sailed in about 7:00PM in time to see the city as sunset neared. With the music of Andrei Bocelli playing it was a dramatic entrance that should not be missed; make sure you get to starboard early enough to get a spot on the rail to take in the view and great pictures. Princess had arranged for transportation via vaporetto ($ 15.00 per person)that evening so we went in and looked around a little during the evening. The next day, after disembarkation, we had arranged for pick-up and bag storage for the day and transportation to the airport at the end of the day, which worked well.
Disembarkation went pretty well; probably better than any other cruise we have been on. Generally, they give you a time to get off rather than call your area; make sure if you have a connection to meet that you see the pursers desk to change your time if you need to; this was handled for us very easily.
We spent the day in Venice travelling around mostly by vaporetto which is basically a water bus but works pretty efficiently (16 euros per person for a day pass). Most of our time was spent taking in the area around the Piazza San Marco; fantastic sights (with the exception of the bridge of sighs being mostly covered for restoration with shrouding that basically looked like a commercial). We also did the typical gondola ride (100 euros for all six of us lasting 40 minutes) and had a leisurely snack and drink at a cafe right on the Piazza; you could also go for some American food at the Hard Rock cafe which isn't too far away.
The transfer to the airport was not too eventful; the airport itself is rather unremarkable until you get through security and it looks very upscale and remodeled; if you can't check in early you sit and wait in an area more akin to a bus station than and airport. After leaving Venice, we spent two days in London which is another subject but, well worth the visit there.In summation, this was a great trip; you could call it a trip of a lifetime, though we all hope to return again someday. While we chose this cruise mostly for the itinerary, Princess was a pleasant surprise. We would definitely use them again though probably not this same cruise (we just did it, of course!) the weather we had was great; we only had a couple instances of rain (Rome) that didn't last too long. Being from the Pacific Northwest, we couldn't imagine doing this trip in the dead of summer; it was pretty hot and humid as it was in late June (Keep Hydrated!!). The only other thing to re-emphasize is planning; mom did a fantastic job on this and used a number of resources including the CC roll call for this trip; while we didn't meet many from the roll call, the duscussions were of much value (Thank you Mr Shy, though we never got to meet). The sights were largely unforgettable and coming from an area where a 100 year old building is a rarity; seeing a 100 year old building that is, by relative standards, a new building is eye opening.