We had a great time, and it gave us a chance to sample some really cool ports - some of which we definitely want to return to and spend more time someday! This is really a cruise to take 1)for the amazing ports and 2)for the relaxation. If you're looking for extravagance on the ship - wild food displays and constant activities - I get the feeling an American cruise line in the Caribbean will be better suited for you.
SHIP INFO: Since it was my first cruise, I didn't know what to expect. I was happy with the amenities, the cleanliness, etc, etc. Plenty of different bars and lounges with great service, a casino, a disco, a duty free shop, a few different pools, a spa, etc etc. There were over 3000 passengers on board, but it really never felt crowded, which was nice. The cruise was 90% Italians and Spaniards, with a handful of Germans, Portuguese, Japanese, Australians, Americans, etc, etc. Just a few hundred English-speakers overall, but a VERY welcoming English-speaking hostess, excursions in English, and a staff that is 100% fluent in English and very accommodating.
STATEROOM: We has a B1 veranda cabin, on the starboard (right) side near the front of the ship. The room was clean and more spacious than I imagined. We slept like babies every night since it was quiet, the ship was fairly stable, and the bed was very comfortable. I can't imagine not having the balcony. We spent lots of time out there reading, watching the sea, or just having a glass of wine at night. In most ports, our side of the boat had the best views, which was a plus. NOTE: there are no alarm clocks, so bring your own! We forgot ours, so used our room service breakfast as a wake-up call (which was free). Also, TV options are limited - just ship programming and a few news channels.
DINING: There are two main restaurants on board - everyone gets assigned to one of them, either early seating at 7pm or late at 9:15pm. We were assigned late seating, and our table mates were another American couple on their honeymoon. Every night you could select an appetizer, a soup, a pasta course, an entree, a salad/cheese course, and a dessert. Most people got most courses, so you will NEVER go hungry. I am a vegetarian, and usually had one option for each course, which luckily turned out to be something pretty good every night. My husband went the other direction and tried lots of things he'd never had before (or doesn't have often) - rabbit, duckling, veal, etc, etc. We were always happy with our meals, though only a few dishes to really write home about. There were two gala nights, where most people dressed up, but you could still feel comfortable in khakis/button-up or a simple dress. There was also an Italian Night, which was a lot of fun.
For breakfast, we often went with room service, having coffee, juice, yogurt and pastries delivered to our cabin. Room service is free for breakfast, and it was a relaxing way to start the day. It was always on time and enough to get us started. A few days we hit the buffet, which was a full spread - eggs, bacon, ham, hashbrowns, pancakes, oatmeal, pastries, fruit, yogurt, cereals, omlettes-to-order, and probably a ton of stuff I'm forgetting. Satisfying for the European or American palate.
For lunch, we always hit the buffet. There was the sit-down option, but we didn't want the fuss. The buffet had plenty of choices - usually lots of seafood (prawn, mussels, etc), some pasta, pizza, salad, meat entrees, desserts and ice cream. We left stuffed everyday.
When it wasn't an official meal time, there was almost always pizza available, including late night. You could also get water, coffee and juice from the buffet. There was also an afternoon tea time with desserts and finger sandwiches.
We booked the X1 drinks package in advance to get unlimited beer, wine, mineral water, and soda during lunch and dinner hours. The first night at dinner, we showed our card, ordered red wine, mineral water, and a beer for my husband, and from there on they just brought it all out right away (though they checked to make sure that's still what we wanted). They always brought a bottle of wine, which sometimes we'd take to the cabin to finish. Since we had late seating, sometimes we'd stop by the buffet around 7pm for a small salad and a beer, which was no problem. We used the package for soda, mineral water, and the occasional beer at lunch. It was convenient and definitely saved us money. Highly recommended! They DO enforce the hours. Only during lunch and dinner, so plan accordingly! Regular drink prices on board are not cheap - not completely unreasonable, but NOT cheap - so it adds up fast.
ACTIVITIES: When we were on the ship, we really just wanted to relax, so never took part in the activities. There was "SuperBINGO", exercise classes/yoga, some arts and crafts, a few theme night parties, but we preferred just to read on our deck, nap after the day in port, or have a drink in one of the lounges. There was a kid's club on board, and we often saw the teens doing group activities in lounges or early evening in the disco.
ENTERTAINMENT: There were daily shows in the theater, running before 2nd seating and after 1st seating. We peeked our heads in occasionally - there was a magician, an acrobatic team, and a few musical revues (all stuff that works across languages). The performers were all talented, and the theater always had a good crowd, but we only watched tidbits since this kind of thing is not really "up our alley".
SERVICE: The service on board was absolutely stellar. The ship had ample staff in all areas, who were always quick and friendly in whatever they did. Room service was always prompt, the cabin was well-kept, the waiters were courteous and accurate... excellent service all around.
PORTS/EXCURSIONS: First, this is a great itinerary. Each stop was a little different, which gave a good mix of history, culture, natural beauty, architecture, foods, and of course shopping. You'll end up wishing you had a whole week in each and every port. (...though you do have enough time in each to get a good feel for it. I was a little worried they'd be too brief, but I almost always felt like we could fit in our "must sees" without a time crunch.)
Bari was first, and we took the excursion to Matera since Bari itself doesn't seem to have much going on. Matera was a fascinating place to see, and the excursion was very well organized. A nice bus ride through the countryside, and a good guide. Recommended.
In Olympia, we decided to save money by renting a car and driving to the ruins. We booked in advance, but many Europeans just got off the ship and rented on the spot. It was a fairly simple route, but potentially harrowing if you're not used to driving in places with "loose" speeding and passing customs. The historic site and museum are both worth seeing. The site has the larger ruins and the museum has the more detailed statues and relics. If you don't have a tour guide, get a guide book of some sort so you know what you're looking at!
Santorini was the most frustrating port. We thought we'd do it on our own, making our way to Oia and back via bus or taxi, but the night before, we found out that the tenders would be taking excursion passengers off for about two hours before non-excursion passengers could get off. There's no quicker way to do it I guess, but it still SEVERELY limits your time on the island. We decided at the last minute (ie: 6:45am) to just jump on an excursion so we'd have more time. I'm glad we did, despite the cost. We saw more of the island, and actually got to learn a little from the great local guide. If you really want to see Santorini, I URGE you to just book an excursion. This is the one port where I think it matters, and it is a beautiful place to see.
Mykonos, Rhodes, and Dubrovnik were all great do-it-yourself ports. Even though Mykonos and Dubrovnik were tenders, we still had plenty of time to wander around and see the sights. Rhodes gives you plenty of time, so you can see the old city, and also walk over to the beach for a while (there is a HUGE public beach with umbrellas and chairs a short walk from port). Again for Rhodes - if you don't have a tour guide, get a book on the sites so you know what you're looking at! Overall, Rhodes, Dubrovnik, and Santorini were my favorite ports, just for their unique character and beauty.
HOTEL/TRAVEL INFO: We did not have a hotel on the first day, as we went straight from the airport to the ship. We had a connecting flight through Paris, and gave ourselves a long layover to reduce the chance of anything going wrong there. We arrived in Venice at 2:15pm and were thinking of taking the city bus or a taxi to port, but found a Costa desk at the airport and decided to just pay the 20E for their shuttle. After traveling, it was nice to have something so convenient! Got us quickly and easily straight to the ship, and was comparable to the cost of a taxi. After disembarkation, we spent one night at Hotel Abbazia, near the Venice train station. It was a beautiful converted monastery with an outdoor garden, clean rooms, and an OK price (for Venice). It was very convenient since we could easily walk there from the ship after disembarkation (15 mins), then from the hotel to Piazzale Roma for the ATVO bus in the morning (5 mins). We caught the first ATVO airport bus at 5am, and had no problem making our 6:55am flight.
EMBARKATION/DISEMBARKATION: Embarkation was by far the worst aspect of the whole cruise. We spent nearly two hours in the cruise terminal waiting for them to check our passports and let us on board. It was organized - everyone was assigned to a numbered group - but the operation was SEVERELY understaffed. They had maybe 4 poor workers trying to check all of us in. They were all efficient and friendly, but just too understaffed to get us on board in a timely manner. When we finally got to our room, our luggage, cruise cards, and the fruit basket/wine we ordered were all nicely waiting... it just took forever! Disembarking was much easier. We were hoping to just self-disembark, carrying our own luggage, but it seems they really don't want you to do this, and you still have to disembark at the time you're assigned to, so it really would not have benefited us. We put our luggage out around 1am the night before, woke up, had breakfast in the buffet, and were off the ship by about 9:30. It was all very smooth, and groups were getting called ahead of schedule. We easily found our bags and walked from the port to our hotel, with plenty of time to explore Venice that day.