Recently, between 11 and 29 June 2009, my wife, 6½ year-old daughter, and I took an 18-day vacation to Europe. The vacation consisted of three main parts: 1) flying to and spending 3 pre-cruise days in Venice, 2) taking a 14-day Mediterranean cruise from Venice to Barcelona onboard the Crystal Serenity, and 3) flying back to the US with a one-day post-cruise stopover in San Juan Puerto Rico.
As we did all the planning for the vacation we knew that we wanted to see as much of Venice and the other ports of call (Dubrovnik, Corfu, Taormina, Sorrento/Amalfi Coast, Rome, Cinque Terra, Pisa/Florence, Monaco, St Tropez and Barcelona) as practical. But we also knew that we would have to do so within the constraints of the ship's shore time (normally 10 hours in each port - nominally from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM) and the touring abilities of our daughter - who is a good traveler and would be taking her 4th cruise.
As we looked at the Crystal Serenity's shore excursions it became clear that they fell into main two categories, 60-person bus tours and special activities for small groups (e.g. touring the Lamborghini factory, taking a hot air balloon ride in Padua, etc.,). Neither of these options really fit what we needed. The bus tours offered no flexibility and conjured up visions of us at the back of the group with our daughter, unable to really see the sights or hear the guide. The special activities were clearly targeted at adults - so they were out too. The other thing that we took note of was the cost of the shore excursions which averaged $220/person (after excluding the most expensive excursions which cost between $1,500/person and $8,999/person). So armed with these constraints we began to look for alternatives that were available in the cities we were visiting, could be done in 10 hours, would be fun (or at least tolerable) for a 6½ year-old, and would cost around $700/day (~500 Euros/day).
The obvious answer was to take the Crystal excursions where they made sense and to set up private tours at the other locations. But finding a reputable tour company that was not exorbitantly expensive proved to be challenging.
My first step was to contact my travel agent who had taken the time to understand what we wanted from our vacation and had done a superb job recommending and setting up the cruise, hotels and other assorted details - Nancy Yale - the President of Cruise Resort & World Travel - http://www.bookavacation.com/ . Nancy contacted the tour provider that she normally uses in Italy - and, although reputable, they were more expensive than we were willing to pay - especially since we needed to setup between 6 and 10 tours which had the potential of adding another $5,000 - $10,000 to the total cost of the vacation.
So while Nancy and Pat Raftery (her office manager who was going on a 10-day trip to Italy) checked other options I began an internet search. Of course, as many of us find on the internet, sometimes there is just too much information and it is hard to differentiate a reputable company from a fly-by-night operation. Luckily I stumbled across a post by Elizabeth Mandarino - the Senior VP of World Travel - http://corporate.worldtravelinc.com/ - that highly recommended a tour company owned by Marco Tavola named "Rome Connection". Although Nancy and Pat proposed some other alternatives that might have worked out fine, we decided to use Rome Connection based largely on Liz's strong recommendation and the details on Marco's website - http://www.romeconnection.com/. The recommendation and company turned out to be just what we were looking for, and the fact that Liz trusted Marco so much made me feel considerably better about the whole process. Especially since I knew that if the private tours flopped the entire vacation would probably be a disaster.
After examining the tour options in detail we decided to take the Crystal excursions in Dubrovnik and Corfu, a Virtuoso (http://www.virtuoso.com/) excursion in Barcelona, and to "go it alone" in Monte Carlo and St Tropez. That meant that we needed Marco to setup drivers, guides and itineraries in Venice, Taormina, Sorrento/Amalfi Coast, Rome, Cinque Terra, Pisa, and Florence.
Although Marco's company is based in Rome, he has a vetted network of other companies throughout Italy that he continually works with so he knows who they are and knows that they will meet his exacting standards. What this allowed us to do was to specify what we wanted to Marco and to then have him contact the appropriate people in each city to work the details. Using email made it all very easy. Marco drafted initial itineraries and costs for each city based on our broad guidelines and emailed them to us. We emailed back our comments and the specifics of the ship's port times. Marco then finalized the itineraries and costs (which averaged 540 Euros/day). Based on Marco's responsiveness, professionalism, and knowledge of the sights that fit within our travel constraints, I knew that we were on the right track from the initial response that I received from him.
So how did it all work out? In a word - FABULOUS!!
On 11 June we flew from Boston to Venice on Iberia. Thirteen hours after leaving Boston we were standing in Venice. Iberia was great and the only challenge of the entire trip was getting our daughter to hurry up on the long walk from the far end of the international terminal to the opposite far end of the domestic terminal in the Madrid airport.
After arriving in Venice at 1:00 PM we collected our luggage and walked 5-10 minutes to the water taxi/bus stop located near the Marco Polo airport. We then took a water taxi to our hotel - Palazzo Sant'Angelo - http://www.sinahotels.com/eng/palazzosantangelo_home.htm . The Water taxi cost 100 Euros, but since it took us, and our 9 pieces of luggage, directly to the hotel's landing the price difference (58 Euros more than the water bus) was worth it. The Palazzo Sant'Angelo was recommended by Nancy and proved to be a great choice for the hotel. It is located on the Grand Canal within a 10 minute walk from the Rialto Bridge, Saint Marks' Square, the Accademia museum and almost every other sight we were interested in seeing during our stay in Venice. Since it only has 14 rooms it is also quiet which allowed us to quickly get over our jet lag.
During our three days in Venice Marco had arranged for a guide, Elisabetta, to show us Venice for half the day on Saturday and half the day on Monday. Elisabetta met us promptly on Saturday morning and, after a brief discussion of what we wanted to see and what she recommended, Elisabetta took us on a tour of the city; to include the Basilica di San Marco, the Doge's Palace, the fish/fruit market and many other places that were off the beaten path. One of the nice things was that Elisabetta tried hard to engage our daughter and to make sure that she was involved in the tour - not just dragged along. Among other things, Elisabetta also knew just where to go to get our daughter a Venetian mask that she could actually wear instead of just use for decoration. Another souvenir crisis averted. At the last minute we were told that the ship would depart from Venice at 12:00 PM on Monday instead of 2:00 PM. This meant that we needed to adjust our plans since we had intended on touring with Elisabetta on Monday morning. As expected one of the advantages of setting up a private tour was that Elisabetta was able to adjust her schedule so that she could be with us on Sunday afternoon instead of Monday morning. So we changed plans, toured the area and Academia museum on Sunday afternoon (the fact that Elisabetta knew her Art History certainly enhanced the tour and the discussions) and then returned to the hotel, collected our luggage and took a water taxi from the Hotel's front door to the Crystal Serenity. After returning home we found out that Elisabetta was even recommended in Rick Steves' Venice 2009 book - we could see why.
Ahh - the Crystal Serenity - what can I say about Crystal and their great product. We have been on 10 cruises ranging from a 7 day Caribbean cruises to a 21 day Bangkok to Sydney cruise. We have been on Crystal, Windstar, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Princess and NCL. Of all of them Crystal is our favorite. You get all of the large ship amenities without all of the large ship crowds. You get staff personnel that actually try to learn your names and preferences so that they can help you instead of just passing you along. You get casual elegance (you can be casual, the ship and staff are elegant). For our 14-day cruise we actually took two 7-day back-to-back cruises; the "Adriatic Adventure" and "Renaissance Rendezvous" (cruise #9312 from Venice to Rome and #9313 from Rome to Barcelona). As expected, the ship was wonderful, the staff was helpful, the ports of call were interesting, the food was ever present and delicious, the weather was perfect (during 18 days we only saw 30 minutes of rain in Rome), the entertainment was lively, the children's program was fun and we all had a great time.
Although I have heard that some people with children shy away from Crystal since they do not have all of the allegedly "required" children's amenities (e.g. water slides, rock climbing walls, ice skating rinks, cannonball contests, etc.,) my daughter loved their program since it was focused on counselors doing activities with the kids; not just parking the kids by the pool. My daughter got to make crafts, play hide and seek, have a scavenger hunt, tour the bridge, tour the backstage with the dancers, have a pajama party, play music, decorate cookies, and do all sorts of other fun things. In fact she enjoyed the program so much that when we were in Monte Carlo she was upset that we did not go back to the ship for the Animal Mask making activity. To their credit one of the counselors sat with her one-on-one later that night so that she could make her animal masks.
So what about all of the other the private tours that we had arranged? They were all perfect. In fact everything worked out better than we could have hoped. All of the driver/guides were personable, professional, flexible, interesting and knowledgeable about the area and sights. In all of the locations the driver was waiting for us with a recent-year Mercedes sedan as we came off the ship (or tender as applicable). From there they asked what we wanted to see so that we could flesh out the high-level itinerary, finalized the overall plan for the day, and then started the tour. With all of our drivers/guides as we drove we were able to talk about the area, living in Italy, Italy in general, and whatever other topics came up. This made even the travel time between the sights enjoyable and interesting.
In Taormina we were met by Alessandro. We then drove up the mountain to see Castelmola. From there you could see the entire area to include Mount Etna and the coastlines. Since we had taken a car (which was faster than a bus) we were just finishing up when a bus from the ship arrived. So we got to see the small town of Castelmola when there were literally no other tourists around while they got to see it in a crowd that they brought with them. From there we drove to the even smaller town of Forza d'Agro to see the sights and the two beautiful churches there. Unfortunately, all of the winding roads gave our daughter a headache. But once again being on a private tour paid off since we were able to sit in the town square, have some bread and gelato and color while her headache cleared. Then we drove back to Taormina where Alessandro dropped us off in the town center; a place that a bus could never have reached since they have to park in the town's single designated parking area. From there we strolled through the shops, had lunch, and toured the outdoor Greco-Roman amphitheater until it was time to return to the ship. When we compared notes with other people on the ship it was clear that not only did we get to more locations, but we also had more time (to include quality time) at each of the locations.
In Sorrento we were met by Fulvio as we got off the tender. From there we drove to Herculaneum (since my wife and I had previously been to Pompeii) and were met by Andrea - a guide set up by Marco and Fulvio who knew the details of Herculaneum. As with many cruise shore excursions the good news was that we were at Herculaneum, the bad news was that we had only allocated 2 hours and had a 6½ year old with us. But Andrea understood the situation and hit the highlights. For those who have not been to Herculaneum it is smaller, but much better preserved than Pompeii; well worth seeing. From there Fulvio drove us toward the Amalfi coast and Positano. Along the way we mentioned that our daughter was looking for a special souvenir. So Fulvio made a detour to an inlaid wood factory/showroom. There she found a musical jewelry box that did the trick. While we were at the showroom Fulvio inquired about what we would like to do for lunch and since we were looking for local fare he recommended a restaurant on the mountain overlooking Positano. It sounded good so he called ahead to set it up. Once there we had the local sampler lunch (antipasto, pasta, dessert - thank God no meat course since we would have been to full to eat it). Following lunch we drove to Positano where Fulvio dropped us off in the middle of the town. We then walked through the town until we hit the beach. The coastline view, the bougainvilleas and the houses perched on the cliffs were beautiful. Charming town - but I am not sure that I would want to live there since the only road only goes one way through the town, so if you have to drive somewhere you have to make a complete circle of the town's winding road.
In Rome Marco himself met us dockside and was our guide for the day. When we woke up it was raining fairly hard, but by 8:00 AM when we left the ship the sky had cleared and the sun was out. Since the ship docked at Civitavecchia we had a 1 hour drive to Rome (~75 km). Once again taking a private tour paid off. We left the ship and were on the road before anyone else. Then, since we were in a car we traveled faster and in Rome were allowed to drive in lanes where private cars could not go. This allowed Marco to literally drive us up to the front door of every sight we wanted to see. First we stopped at the Basilica of Saint Paul. Just stunning. Then we headed to the Colosseum. Prior to arriving at the Colosseum Marco purchased the tickets for entry so that we did not have to stand in line at the Colosseum. In fact, since we were with Marco we parked directly across the street and were allowed to bypass the lines and enter immediately. What a timesaver. As we left the Colosseum my daughter needed two things - a bathroom and a gelato. Marco knew just where to go. Once again flexibility paid off. From there we saw the Circus Maximus, Aventin Hill, Trevi Fountain (where we got rained on for the only time in 18 days - at least the rain allowed me to get good pictures of the fountain since all of the sightseers were standing in stores or under awnings), Forum, Pantheon, Spanish Steps and Saint John Lateran Cathedral (another stunning church). As we were driving we discussed various things and somehow got on the topic of Leonardo da Vinci. Marco said that there was a small Leonardo da Vinci museum with working exhibits in Rome. Our daughter thought that this would be interesting so we asked Marco to take us there. It was a nice unplanned side visit since it had mechanical devices that you could actually try out. In between all the sightseeing Marco took us to the Hostaria Antica Roma http://www.anticaroma.it/ - on the Appian Way for lunch. The chef was very interesting and accommodating, the food was great and the location was unique since the restaurant's interior holds the centuries old "Augustus' Freedman Monument" which was commissioned by the Roman Emperor to honor slaves who had earned their freedom. Finally we had to leave Rome and head back to the ship, but on the way back my daughter needed a souvenir of Rome. It was now 6:00 Sunday evening, and there were not many stores open for shopping. But once again Marco knew where to go. He took us to a street with three souvenir shops next to each other and my daughter found two beautiful "Roma" scarves. I cannot emphasize enough how much more of the city sights we saw compared to the people that took the standard bus tours or tried to see Rome on their own. The fact that Marco knew exactly where to go, could park the car literally right outside the site we were stopping to see, knew how to gauge our (and our daughter's) level of interest, and had the ability to be flexible as the day progressed was invaluable to the tour and our enjoyment.
In both Cinque Terra (Porto Venere) and Pisa/Florence (Livorno) Francesco was our guide. Francesco met us as we got off the tender in Porto Venere and off we went on the winding roads toward the five towns of Cinque Terra - http://www.lecinqueterre.org/eng/ . First we stopped at Riomaggiore. As with many European roads they got narrower as we drove away from the major cities. By the time we got to Riomaggiore it was clear that it would be hard, if not impossible, to even get there in a tour bus. In Riomaggiore Francesco parked the car that top of the town and then walked with us to the start of the Via dell'Amore, a paved walkway that hugs the coastline and connects the five towns of Cinque Terra. From there we continued walking to Manarola where we took in the sights and had some gelato. We then caught the local train, passed through Corniglia, and got off in Vernazza where Francesco was waiting with the car. As we walked through Vernazza we came across a playground which allowed our daughter to stop and play for awhile. We then drove to the last town, Monterosso. The road from Vernazza to Monterosso wound up and down the hillside and at times was barely wide enough for the Mercedes to make it through; a bus would never have made it. In Monterosso Francesco dropped us off at one end of the town then drove around to the other side to meet us after we were done strolling, sightseeing and having lunch. Having seen all the sights that time allowed we headed back to Porto Venere where we walked through the small town and climbed to Castello Doria, a 16th century castle overlooking the port. Once again the amount of sights that we had time to see, the amount of time we got to spend sightseeing instead of "working the logistics" and the trouble free nature of the day due to the private tour made everything so much more enjoyable. We had time to enjoy 4 of the 5 towns in Cinque Terra. Other people that we talked to only saw two of them and spent much more time just getting there and back.
For our last day in Italy we had scheduled to see both Pisa and Florence. Although both Nancy and Marco had said the Pisa was beautiful, the also both recommended that we spend only 1 or 2 hours there. Consequently we decided to compress both Pisa and Florence into one day and spent the prior day solely in Cinque Terra. Luckily on this day the ship was in port from 8:00 AM until 9:00 PM. As with the day before, Francesco met us as we got off the ship. However this time he met us in Livorno instead of Porto Venere. From there we drove to Pisa. As expected it is beautiful, not just the tower, but the entire square. One can only imagine how majestically impressive it would have been to a farmer from the countryside eight hundred years ago when it was first built. As we were finishing up our sightseeing and preparing to leave I noticed that the number of people in the square was significantly increasing. When we had arrived there were hardly any other people around, now, as the tour busses arrived, it began to get harder to shoot a photo that did not have people in the field of view. Needless to say, we were glad that touring with Francesco had allowed us to get there first. From Pisa we drove to Florence. Once again, being in a private tour car allowed us to enter the city faster and to drive where busses were not allowed to go. Francesco drove us to the Palazzo Vecchio where we met Simone, our guide for the Uffizi museum. As Marco had done in Rome, Simone had already purchased the tickets for the Uffizi and we entered without any waiting in line. For the next two hours we toured the museum. Of course there is so much to see that we could have spent the entire day (or days), but we only had two hours in the schedule. From there we drove to the Accademia to see Michelangelo's David. Here people were standing in line for 3-4 hours to get tickets to enter. Once again Francesco and Simone had already purchased our tickets (tied to a specific entry time), so after a 10-15 minute wait we were allowed to enter. From here we went to the Loggia del Mercato Nuovo (outdoor market area) to sightsee and have lunch. Here there were artists reproducing artistic masterpieces on the street pavement; very interesting. Following lunch we drove up to the Piazzale Michelangelo which overlooks the entire city of Florence. From here you could really get a perspective of everything; this is really a must do in Florence. Next Francesco dropped us off on the Piazza de' Pitti so that we could walk across the Ponte Vecchio (the covered bridge) to the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte. After seeing the baptistery and all of the stunning mosaics, we met Francesco and headed back to the ship. As with Rome the ability of the private tour to focus on what we wanted to see and to easily go where we wanted to go significantly increased the number of sights that we got to see and the amount of quality time that we got to spend at the sights.
On the 28th we finally left the Crystal Serenity and began our trip home. Due to the airplane schedule we flew Iberia from Barcelona to Madrid and then from Madrid to San Juan. Arriving at 7:00 PM we cleared customs and took a cab to the Ritz Carlton Hotel which had been recommended and booked by Nancy - http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/SanJuan/ . Again this proved to be a great suggestion. The hotel was a 10 minute cab ride from the airport, so we quickly got there and began to unwind from the day of traveling. While my wife went to sleep my daughter and I went to the hotel's beautiful swimming pool to relax and unwind. Then, after a few hours of sleep, we were all up and on the hotel's beach before anyone else had even gotten out of bed.
But all good things must end - so on the 29th we boarded a American Airlines plane and flew home. Incidentally, the plane left San Juan two hours late due to weather in the Boston area. This was the only glitch on our entire 18 day trip- a fact that I ascribe to good planning, good recommendations from caring travel agents (Nancy, Liz and Marco), and good travel providers (Iberia, Crystal, Rome Connection, Palazzo Sant'Angelo, Ritz Carlton).
Bottomline: Our 18 day European vacation/cruise was great and everything worked better than we could have hoped. The cruise, hotel and other travel arrangements suggested and made by Nancy Yale were wonderful. The Italian tour company highly recommended by Liz Mandarino could not have been better. The service provided by Marco Tavola's Rome Connection and his affiliates was exemplary, very cost effective and allowed us to see far more of each city than we would have been able to if we have taken the 60-person bus tours. Along with the airline travel and cruise arrangements I viewed the private tours as one of the three "make or break" components of the vacation; they surpassed our expectations. I cannot recommend Rome Connection highly enough. If you need a driver in Italy, do yourself a favor and call Marco - http://www.romeconnection.com/. The ship and hospitality provided by Crystal proved why they are always so highly recommended when compared to their competitors. So, if you are looking for a wonderful vacation, you might want to consider these travel agents and companies as part of your plan. They certainly helped us have an unforgettable vacation.