Last fall my best friend with whom we regularly cruise told us that his two sisters insisted on a big family vacation. They were all asking their friends to join as well. We ended up being a group of 13 with 8 married adults and 5 "kids" in the 19-29 year old range. They chose the Ruby Princess June 22 thru July 4 and we choose to join them. (Side note - my DW and I did a similar cruise in 2007 on RCI and our granddaughter - RUBY - was born back in Chicago when we were between Florence & Naples. So taking a cruise on the RUBY Princess 3 years later seemed somehow very appropriate.)
With a debark day of Tuesday, it was a 'no brainer' for us to fly to Rome over the weekend. Wrestled a pair of tickets from Delta using a lifetimes worth of Sky Miles. Disappointed that it took 75,000 miles each for coach seats - but such is life these days.
Flight over was uneventful. Actually a bit better than we expected. Arrived on time in Rome and after a small delay awaiting the driver the hotel had arranged, we were on our way. We stayed at Hotel Genio in Rome. Its just a few steps from Piazza Navona and the location could not have been better. Its very old, and we saw conflicting reviews on Trip Advisor, but we were very happy with the arrangements. Much less costly than many other hotels we saw, and while it was not the lap of luxury, it was completely acceptable. Our room was not ready when we arrived, but they held our bags right by the check in desk, and we were off to explore Rome.
We had the "formal tour" of Rome in 2007 (used Limo in Rome and were very happy) but this year wanted to do a more leisurely 'Rome on our own' kind of a thing. Equipped with a good street map, we easily found our way from P. Navona to the Pantheon and back. Stopped off for a coffee, people watched, and went easy as we had not slept the night before on the plane. Got into our room around noon, freshened up, and then took a cab to the Great Synagogue of Rome where we meet my friend and his wife for a prearranged tour of the Jewish ghetto. (Their daughters were bumped by US Air in Charlotte and did not arrive till the next day.) Lunch and a private tour pretty much finished us and despite the fact that Italy was playing in a World Cup match, we managed to find cabs back to our respective hotels. An early and light dinner followed by 12 hours of sleep was just what we wanted, and just what we got.
The next day after a nice breakfast at Hotel Genio, and we were off to the Roman Forum. Had a wonderful morning exploring at our own pace. Found a little restaurant for lunch (deliberately walked several blocks away from the tourist area to finds something less - well less touristy) and then we were off to St. Peter's. We had done the Vatican tour with a licensed guide before, and this trip just wanted some time in this most beautiful church. A little research told us of the dress code, and where we could gain entrance without an admission fee. When done we took a cab back to Genio and then had a wonderful dinner at Osteria dell' Antiquario - just a few blocks away - recommended by our TA, and very enjoyable.
Following dinner we met up with our fellow Cruise Critic Roll Call friends for a "Gelato Crawl." We had a very active roll call, and one lady in particular (Joan) was a great planner. In addition to an onboard "Meet & Mingle" she coordinated a gelato crawl for the night before embarkation in Rome, and I was very surprised at just how many of us turned up. Meeting the folks we had exchanged so many messages with via the boards was wonderful, and between Joan's knowledge of Rome and my map, we found our way to our first gelatreria, and then to the Pantheon, and then to P. Navona. Rome after dark was something we had never experienced, and are so glad we did. Street artists and family's out for an evening stroll - it was very enjoyable. The group was off to another gelateria (near the Spanish Steps or Trevi fountain- not sure which) but we said our goodbyes to the group as we were close to "home" and tired.
My friends sister had arranged our transportation from their hotel to the port, so Tuesday morning we just grabbed a cab over to the Splendid Royal where we were met by a full sized "cruiser" bus (like what the cruise lines use for their tours of 60 folks) for our group of 13! But at $50 per person, what the heck! Check in was as easy as could be. Princess does such a good job of managing crowd flow. Compared to my recollection of RCI & Celebrity, Princess is the best at getting you on and off the ship.
We had cruised on the Crown (sister to Ruby) several times, so our mini-suite accommodations were exactly what we expected. (OK - we have to find something that's not perfect so here goes - the paper products - TP & Kleenex - both are very poor quality - like sand paper. That's it. Those are our 'beefs." That and a lack of quality Kentucky Bourbon in the bars.) While on the subject of the ship, let me say the food was very, very good. Likewise the service, both in our stateroom as well as the dinning room. Ships staff were all very anxious to accommodate any request.
First stop was Monte Carlo and we had arranged for a private tour from Med Tours. They usually do land based tours starting in Nice, but for an extra €20 they agreed to pick us up at the dock, and return us. It was a half day tour that included Nice, Antibes, Cannes, and St. Paul de Vence. The latter was the best and on our next trip (please may there be a next trip) we will plan on spending more time there. We opted for a drop off by the Grand Casino, and we splurged on a outside table at the Cafe de Paris and enjoyed some gelato while people watching. It was so very 'continental' of us.
Did "Florence on your own" via the ship. I had purchased ticket to the Uffizi in advance, and did a quick run through to see a few of the masters (which is all we wanted) and then wandered Florence. Ended up purchasing several items for the folks back home, and even a pair of leather belts and a wallet which I needed. (And of course - some gelato.)
Naples - in 2007 we used AP Tours for our day in Pompeii & Amalfi. We did not hesitate to go back to them again. Were joined by 4 other folks we found on our roll call and we enjoyed a very nice day touring the beautiful Amalfi Coast.
After a very port intensive couple of days we needed the day at sea to rest.
Next stop was Santorini. Taking the cable car was another one of those 'no brainers'. Once "UP" we strolled over, found the bus station and for a few Euros we had a ride to Oia. WOW - talk about picturesque! One view was better than the next. We were just talking about finding a place for lunch when my wife spots a place that our TA had suggested: Pelekanos. We bounced up stairs and had a delightful and delicious lunch with breathtaking vistas.
Our next stop was Kusadasi - the port city for Ephesus. Before arriving, we were unsure how we would feel about this port, but joined the rest of our party of 13 on a private tour. As my wife later said, "it was our first really big wonderful surprise of the cruise". After seeing the wondrous sites, our guide suggested we stop, sit and have a cup of Turkish coffee. After getting our legs back (and laughing at the signs that were all over advertising "Genuine Fake Watches") he asked if we would like to visit a mosque. No hesitation in our group. We visited a mosque built in 1375. Earthquakes had damaged it several times, but it was always rebuilt. It was completely empty when we arrived, and we were told we could enter & even take photos as long as we removed our shoes and hats. It was an extra that we never thought we'd experience. From there he took us back very near the port for a typical Turkish lunch, followed by the demonstration of rug weaving, the expected pitch to buy, and we left with full bellies and big smiles after a wonderful day. We of course had to go through the (Turkish) Bazaar, and even bought a small item. Back on ship a dip in the pool was definitely needed.
That night 12 of us were 'wined and dinned' at the Chef's table. I could easily write another 3 pages here - but suffice to say for "foodies" like us, it was wonderful.
Next was Mykonos. A very pretty little island, know for it's tolerance and love of late night parties. Apparently one of the hair dressers on board told one of the girls in our party that we'd dock about 1 AM, and often the younger folks went directly ashore to join the parties. Sure enough a few of them did exactly that and even reported a "TV star" sighting. Apparently a good time was had by all. We did the i-pod self guided tour at a more reasonable hour, and enjoyed a leisurely day ourselves. Lunch with my loving wife at a quaint little place overlooking the Med - well it doesn't get much better.
Later that evening folks were all abuzz as the news reported that there was trouble in Athens - our next stop, but we docked as planned, and were picked up by Athens Taxi at 7:30 AM - as planned. We had Paul's son - Dimitri as our driver/guide. We started early on purpose, and were at the entrance to the Acropolis ticket office at 2 minutes to 8. It opened at 8 on the dot, and we were among the first 15 or 20 people in. The early start allowed us to beat the crowds and the heat of the day. We shared our day with two of the folks we had been in Amalfi with, and were very comfortable with them. We saw all the highlights (and then some). We were all bone tired, and had more than our fill of ruins, so after lunch and a visit to the Plaka, we implored Dimitri to take us back to our ship - the fact that it was only 2:30 notwithstanding! He reluctantly complied - wanting to make certain we got our full day tour as promised.
Next stop was Katakalon where we took the ships tour of Olympia - site of the very first Olympic games in 756 BC. It was very hot, it was more ruins, there was heat thunder, there was no shade, and other than the entry to the old stadium, the old stadium, and a the purchase of a few souvenirs, we were pretty wasted. This was our 5th port in 5 days. Temps were frequently 90 degrees plus, and we were feeling it.
Corfu - we had been to Corfu on our last trip and were not impressed. That changed this time. My friend rented a car and we drove off to Paleokastritsa. (Yep, you pronounce it just like it spells :-). Anyway, there you find the clearest water anywhere. If I'd have known, I'd have wanted to snorkel, and I don't even know if snorkeling is allowed. The locals offer rides in their small boats to see the caves and crystal clear waters. For ten Euros each, we went and enjoyed. Then we headed for another beach where his sisters had headed, but the weather turned cloudy and cool and we headed back to Corfu town. Here was another pleasant surprise. We all wished we had more time as it looked like it was really cool, but we needed to get back on board.
One final day at sea, and then Venice. Debarkation was painless (or as painless as leaving paradise can be). I again compliment Princess for doing it so well. Off at 8:15 AM as planned, grabbed our bags, and found a taxi to P. Roma (€12 for the 2 of us because we had so much luggage!) From there it was a reasonable walk (300') to our hotel (the Carlton on the Grand Canal) just over "2 small bridges." Right! Their bellman stored our bags and by 9:15 we took off to enjoy our day in Venice.
It is as charming as we remembered. We walked until our feet hurt, then stopped and sat by the Rialto Bridge for a couple of Cokes. Rejuvenated, we continued, buying a 12 hour Vaporetto pass and heading back towards our hotel. Lunch at a near by restaurant was authentic Venetian (suggested by the fact that there were two tables filled with gondoliers on lunch break). Our bags were waiting by our room when we arrived, and while not requested, we were given a room overlooking the Grand Canal - SWEET!! After a short rest, we were back out and about. Ended up running into some CC friends at the restaurant we wandered into for dinner. At St. Mark's we also ran into my friend and some if his family. It was their first time in Venice and they were as blown away as we were the first time we experienced this magical city.
We had to stay in St. Marks a while longer as the skies opened and there was a huge rain/thunder storm. So we forced ourselves to have more gelato as we waited out the storm. Managed to get back to our hotel without getting drenched.
Next morning we used two smaller bridges to get back to P, Roma and took the D2 bus to the airport for €3 each. Arrived at 9:30 for a noon flight, and the Delta agent asked - "What are you doing here - your flight has been cancelled - weren't you notified?" Well no - and apparently nor were the other 250 or so folks that we were flying with. So we milled about as this very brave and capable man eventually found us all overnight lodging. (And that story is another 3 pages, so we'll just let it pass.) Next day we were up at 5 AM, picked up at 5:45 for a morning flight to JFK. Layover from 12:30 to 4 PM extended to more like 6:45 PM and then circled Chicago for an hour due to thunder boomers, and at long last, home at about 10 PM. Some 24 hours after the alarm woke us in Venice. We had been awake and in travel mode for 24 hours straight! Next morning it was back to work!
All told, with the exception of the journey home, it was a near perfect vacation. A few photos (and I had a hard time getting it down to a manageable quantity) can be seen here: http://picasaweb.google.com/TDW826/MedCruiseSummer2010#.
My only outstanding question - when do we (when can we) go back?