Shore Excursions: I spent months researching the ports for this cruise. I focused on art, architecture, history, and gelato for my daughter. I downloaded the shore excursion brochure from Princess to compare costs and places to visit with what I could get from a private tour. Without exception, private tours were the way to go; they were always cheaper (there were four of us, me(42), my husband (41), my daughter (9), and my mother-in-law (72)). I contacted the companies by email several months before, and asked for prices and itinerary. This is what we came up with:
Florence: We hired a driver for Florence (the difference between a driver and a guide in Italy is that a driver just takes you places, a guide is licensed by Italy to take you into places and describe them to you.); we hired a driver because some dork at Princess decided it would be okay to descend in Florence on the one day the museums are closed. We didn't need a guide. We went with Guido at Tuscany in my pocket. It was 490Euro, not including tip, and I have to say that I have never met anyone who loved their job and their city more. He picked us up at the dock and drove us into Florence; he also drove into the city, which the tour buses could not do, and it saved us hours and hours of walking. He drove us right up to places. I actually joked that he had reserved parking and I started calling him The King of Florence. He was just a delight. firstname.lastname@example.org
Rome: We walked to the train station from the pier and bought our own train ticket into Rome. The tickets were 9Euro each - that was for round trip, and unlimited use of the metro while in Rome. Princess was selling train tickets for 79 dollars each! For the train, you can get off at St. Peter's and see the Vatican first thing, or you can go to the heart of Rome and get off at Termini. Termini was very crowded and very busy and if you don't need to go there, then don't. I would suggest getting off at St. Peter's. We hired a local company to give us a tour while in Rome. Even after copious research, the tour was a bust: the guide was excellent and knew a staggering amount of history but we had a serious miscommunication with the front office and I would not use them again. And I would not recommend them.
Naples: My favorite day. This day is the closest to heaven I've ever been. We by-passed Naples altogether and hired a driver to take us to Sorrento and Positano. Everything about this tour was perfect. Our driver Fabrizio Fiorinelli was perfect; he knew when to talk and when to let us enjoy the view, he knew when to leave us to shop and how long we needed, and the personal touches just brought tears to my eyes. Once when we were taking pictures, he disappeared. Turns out he was buying a bag of cherries for us - and having them washed - just because he overheard my daughter wonder if Italian cherries were as good as Washington state cherries (they are!). He gave us time to dip our feet in the Mediterranean, and allowed time for my daughter to look for sea glass. The restaurant he took us to for lunch was ..... I can't even describe it well. All I can say is we had a table by the window, the window was open - no screens, no bugs - there were tera cota pots filled with red geraniums on the window sill, and the table cloths were starched white. The house wine was the best I've ever had and the food was ..... so amazing. The name of the restaurant was da Costantino. It was so amazing it will make you weep with joy. I don't know the address, but it's right on the main curvy road. . We paid 20 Euro each for .. probably 8 courses, including wine, lemoncello, espresso, and tears at the door when we had to leave. I was seriously asking the owner if I could stay and work for him if he would just feed me. I lost my mind and didn't want to leave.
The Cruise in General:
The Good Stuff: Movies Under The Stars: A warm blanket, a huuuuge screen, really good popcorn, and the deck attendant comes by later with warm cookies and milk. One night - my birthday - we went to the 24 hour buffet and brought back a dinner plate of desserts and three forks. My husband, my daughter, and I had a dessert feast. The movies were well selected, nothing overly violent.
Wine: You can order a bottle of wine in any restaurant and if you don't finish it, they will store it for you until you want it again - in any other restaurant. That was way cool. We ordered wine in Michelangelo and the next night we drank the rest at DaVinci. Sometimes we wanted wine, sometimes not, but the waiters always managed to find whatever it was we'd ordered.
Afternoon Tea: The tea was really strong and hot. Really good. The music was weird but the whole experience was very civilized. The mini croissant filled with ham is really good, and my husband loved the scones.
The Pools/Unpacking Once/Meals on Demand: We were able to see so much more because the boat traveled when we were sleeping. We didn't have to navigate train stations, didn't have to book hotels, didn't waste time getting from place to place. When we were done with a port, we jumped in the pool for a while, and had dinner when we were ready. In the morning, we were refreshed and ready to see something new. That is Very Awesome. (Of course, the price for this is that you have to travel on their schedule. I could have spent a week in Sorrento/Positano, Florence, and Venice and could have skipped Turkey and Monoco altogether.)
The Bad Stuff: Photographers: Seriously: I don't need a picture of me getting off the gangplank at every port. What is it that the photographers are trying so hard to capture? When you think about it, it's a gangplank. It's always a gangplank. It looks the same all the time.
Shore Excursions: We took two from the boat, one in Athens and one in Istanbul (along with everyone else who was afraid to be on their own in Istanbul). Both were wretched. Picture a hostile tour guide, a very crowded bus, narrow streets with heavy traffic, and 15 other busses, some from other cruise ships, going exactly where you going, and doing exactly what you are doing. Princess does not make it easy to go on your own; they don't give you enough information to get into town on your own, and they don't provide any maps. My advice is to do your research before you go. Book a private tour if you need to, take a taxi or public transportation, but get away from the crowds and explore on your own. Seriously.
The What-Were-You-Thinking-Stuff: First, and it has to be said, what moron decided that it would be a good idea to schedule a port call in Florence on a Monday when all the museums are closed?? Yes, we figured a way around it and there are other things to see: art is really everywhere in Florence. But seriously, why should you have to "work around it"? Why not arrange the schedule so we get into port on a Tuesday? Monte Carlo wasn't all that great - we could have skipped that.
And oh my goodness, the coffee on board is the worst I've ever had. Boxes of "coffee concentrate" are stored under the counter and whatever that is mixed with hot water and spit into a very small cup. I have never - ever - had worse. Not in an airport, not in a hospital waiting room, not in a college dorm, not anywhere. Even mixing it with an obscene amount of cream didn't fix it; that just made it taste like hot coffee ice cream. Seriously gross.
Diet coke: There isn't any. What they have is Coke Light and it is nothing like diet coke. I suggest you try it before shelling out 54 bucks for a soda card because their other selections, too, are severely limited.
What I learned on board:
Bring a travel alarm clock. There isn't one in the room. Bring a travel mug for tea. Mornings at port are kind of rushed so if you need to relax with tea - or that nasty, nasty coffee - you're going to want a travel mug. Also, the coffee mugs on board are really small. You don't need to buy bottled water, the water from the tap is fine and if you drink that, you save the 4 bucks Princess charges for 1.5 liter of water. The tap water tastes like tap, so if you can't abide that, bring a water bottle that has a portable filter inside. But really, it's fine. Also, at every meal, the waiters will present a bottle of still water and a bottle of carbonated; they are not free. They are presented in such a way as to appear that they are free, and if you want to buy them, that's fine, just know that you are buying them. We stuck with iced tap. If possible, book a room high up with an odd-numbered cabin. The odd-numbered cabins are starboard side and they get a breath-taking view of Venice when the boat enters the Grand Canal. Also, on the last night, they unload the luggage on the Port side and it bangs all night. You don't get as much time in Venice as they say. We arrived at 12:30 or so, and they wanted us off the boat by 8am the next morning. Luggage was supposed to be packed and put outside your door by 7pm. People who had flights out that morning were hustled out even earlier - like pre-dawn, 4 am. Luckily we booked a hotel in Venice and the room was ready early. (I loved that hotel...)
Overall, I'd say Princess really tries hard with the food, but they have a lot of people to feed and most of them are eating all the time. The presentation is well done: despite the number of people, the buffets are always clean and the food isn't left to sit out. When a tray is half-empty, it's usually refilled. At breakfast there is a really good fruit selection, and at lunch the salad bar is outstanding. Dinner in the restaurants is well-presented and service is usually pretty fast. (My daughter fell in love with the caesar salad and fettuccini alfredo and had it for dinner for 12 nights.)
There were exceptions, however: the beef burgundy served at dinner was gross and the meat was hard and overcooked. The pastries/bread/muffins at breakfast were never flakey, they always seemed a bit damp. Usually, the food was well done and tasted good. Good but not over-the-top outstanding. If you want over-the-top great, eat a meal at port in a good restaurant.
The scrambled eggs really are as bad as people say. I didn't think it was possible to mess up scrambled eggs, but they do. They have a weird texture: like a combination of tapioca and sponges. Really gross. Really.
Another weird thing was Sabitini's. I was anxious to try it, based on reviews here but I was very disappointed. It wasn't an Italian restaurant were you go in and order off the menu - they had a tasting menu were they brought you a tablespoon of everything they had. Some of it was revolting and after 3 incredible meals in Italy, I really wonder what the chef was thinking. The food at Sabitini's was overdone and fussy; the waiters served everyone in the restaurant from one platter and that was pretty off-putting. I really don't want the leftovers from "table 9". And we didn't have the opportunity to order what we did like, so we left not happy. We ate a lot of bread and wished we were some place else.
To sum up, we liked the cruise because it made visiting many places effortless. On our own, our days would have been spent catching trains, checking into hotels, and finding restaurants. On a cruise, that's taken care of.