I recently returned from a 12-day Mediterranean cruise out of Barcelona on Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas. The following are some observations and tips that may be of interest to others.
Overall, I enjoyed the cruise, the ship and the staff. I have been on higher end cruises before and knew not to expect the same level of service and amenities. With reasonable expectations in mind, I was not disappointed. One area of particular dislike was the cost of shuttles from the ship into town. See below for more information.
Barcelona: Boarding the ship for the first time, and disembarking at the end of the cruise was easier than any ship I had been on. This was a very quick process both ways. Although I did not use a taxi, others told me that the costs were reasonable. I used the port shuttle bus, which was 2 Euros and dropped passengers at the Colon Monument. This is a short walk to Ramblas, and about a 20 minute walk to Catalunya. For a nice pre or post cruise hotel, consider the Hotel Gaudi on Carrer Nou de la Rambla, 12, right off the Ramblas and convenient to the Metro. There are rooms on the upper floors which overlook the beautiful roof of Gaudi's Palau Guell (currently closed for renovations). It is very easy to get to and from Barcelona's airport to Catalunya via the Aerobus (different buses to different terminals).
Cannes: This was the only stop on our tour where we tendered to shore. The process went very smoothly. We immediately took the bus to Antibes, where Picasso lived for a time. The Picasso museum is very nice. If you take the bus, the area where buses park is a couple blocks to the left of where the tenders are located. When we returned to Cannes from Antibes we strolled along La Croisette and Rue d'Antibes.
Livorno: We recommend skipping Florence if you have been there before. Most of our family went to Florence for the day and that although they expected crowds, they were worse than they anticipated. Having been to Florence several times before, we went instead to Lucca and Pisa. Lucca was an easy train ride from Livorno, with a change of trains in Pisa. Lucca is a charming walled city, it had few tourists. We took the bus from there to Pisa (beautiful ride down narrow streets). Pisa was crowded but bearable. We only toured outside and did not line up for any interior visits.
This is where we first ran into the shuttle issue. Livorno is a very large and busy port, and it makes sense that the port would not want cruise passengers walking around. In that case, either the port or RC should provide a free shuttle to the port entrance (as they do in Civitavecchia). However, RC requires that you purchase either a one way (!) or unlimited shuttle pass. As if that wasn't an inconvenience by itself, the shuttle does not take you to the train station, which is where a majority of passengers are going to. Instead, the shuttle drops you off at a small square, presumably in the center of town, but nowhere near the train. From the square you have to take a city bus to the train station. Be aware that on the return, the ship shuttle may not be in the same place where you were dropped off. We waited for 45 minutes before a return shuttle showed up. As for the idea of staying in Livorno and not going to other towns - we heard from several people that it was a nice town to explore.
Civitavecchia: This port was easy, as there is a free shuttle to the port entrance. From there, turn right, and the train station is an easy 15 minute walk. There are regular trains to Rome. As always, booking trains on your own is significantly less expensive than taking RC's transportation to the city.
Unless you are familiar with Rome, I would recommend taking an excursion. If you are comfortable with traveling on your own, do something like we did: We took the train from Livorno to Rome Termini. From there we took the Metro to the Coliseum, walked through the Forum, onto Piazza Navona, Campo de'Fiori, Trastevere and the Vatican. We returned to Livorno from the Rome San Pietro station.
Some of our family stayed in Civitavecchia for the day and enjoyed it, especially the open air market.
Naples: This was the only port where some of our family took an official excursion. We did a tour that hiked up Mt. Vesuvius and then went to Pompeii. We enjoyed the tour, although the Pompeii portion was not as long as we would have liked. The others in our group took the hydrofoil over to Capri for the day.
After our tour, we walked through Naples and found L'Europeo dei Mattozzi, considered by a New York Times travel writer to be one of the best pizza restaurants in Naples (which is considered the best pizza in the world). Be aware that Naples is not for the faint of heart. Compared to the cities of northern Italy, it is dirty (trash blowing in the streets), disorganized (ongoing metro construction), with lots of shifty characters around the port (one guy on a motor scooter kept trying to sell us stolen iphones right in front of a policeman). The pizza was totally worth it!
First at Sea: Our travel agent had booked us into the ship's Portofino restaurant. This was a new concept for us, a separate restaurant where an additional fee is paid. However, the food and the service was really top rate, and we enjoyed ourselves. I personally don't mind the idea of paying for this service, but I did object to the idea of paying to get cappuccino or espresso from the coffee bar. Perhaps that is what most ships are like nowadays. I recall that there was never a charge on the Costa line.
Venice: The entrance into Venice is spectacular. To be on the top deck of the ship, towering over the city was unforgettable. The ship is moored some distance from the center of the city (St. Marks). You can walk it yourself, but understand you will make some wrong turns. Give yourself at least 45 minutes. We took the RC shuttle ($25 one way, $35 unlimited). Again, since every passenger is going into the city, we would expect the cruise to provide this without such a cost.
In terms of things to do, the best is to walk the streets and get lost. You will usually find your way out. We had a friend to meet in the city and she took us to some spots off the beaten track. Also, if there is any consolation to using the shuttle, it is that it comes with a Chorus Pass, which gives you entrance into numerous churches (why one should have to pay to go into a church is another story), many of which were beautiful. Visitors should make the attempt to tour around Venice at night, as it is magical. Keep in mind that prices in Venice are significantly higher than the rest of Italy, especially fine dining, such as fish. On the other hand, aperitifs generally include a variety of delicious snacks. Try & get the official drink of Venice - a Spritz (Prosecco and liqueur).
Dubrovnik: Once again an RC shuttle with charge. The port is not near the walled city, so you really can't walk. The old town is a gem. If you can, take the walk around the city walls early in the morning before the heat starts baking the town. If you get a chance, eat the small fried fish (including heads & tails) with Grasevina, the refreshing local white wine. We ate in Kamenice which was very nice and inexpensive. Incidentally, Croatia is the only country on the trip that is not an EU member, and therefore does not use the Euro (their currency is the Kuna). However, everywhere we went the Euro was accepted. Gorgeous scenery when the ship leaves the harbor.
Corfu: This is a very beautiful island, but it will feel like a tourist trap to many. Again a shuttle charge. The real problem we had with this is that RC provided inaccurate information on where the shuttle would let us out and pick us up. Many passengers were lost, trying to find the return shuttle. In the location we had been told, there was a shuttle to another RC ship, the Splendor of the Seas. Their tour representative eventually called the port agent in an attempt to find the return shuttle. Some of us found the shuttle, others ended up taking a cab back to the ship. This inaccuracy made it a harder day than it should have been, but upon demand and written request, RC refunded us the shuttle price.
It is best to avoid taking a cab on Corfu, as the taxi drivers charge outrageous amounts. If you want to go to a beach 25 minutes away, it will cost you 40 Euros each way. A 4 hour tour around the island will cost around 200 Euros.
Many of the beautiful old town streets are mobbed with tourists and shops selling typical souvenirs. Walk a few streets away and you are in local areas, with great bakeries and grocery stores. In the stores you can pick up gifts such as Greek honey, at normal, not tourist-inflated prices.
Overall: As mentioned, we enjoyed the cruise. No vacation is without inconvenience and mistakes, and this was not the exception. Nonetheless, we were happy with RC's service. On the other hand, with numerous cruise lines to choose from, we would probably take a different company in the future.
A few words about alcohol: This is an area where the cruise line really makes money, and some of the costs seemed high. Although one is not supposed to bring alcohol aboard the ship, we had no problem in Barcelona or Venice.