I actually started the roll call after getting a suggestion from someone on Cruise Critic who did this itinerary in 2009. I figured we'd meet some people and set up some private tours. We wound up meeting some great people and set up some amazing tours. As for the roll call, it's over 1,100 posts and nobody seemed to care that no officials from Princess showed up our Meet & Greet at Adagio's on the sail away day (second day of the cruise).
The cabin itself was a typical Princess BD balcony, Baja 419. Typical Princess small room and covered balcony. After having four of us in a great mini-suite last year, this was fine for two people. No complaints and thank you to our surrounding balcony neighbors as there was no smoke at anytime we spent on the balcony. Room steward was satisfactory. My impression is that these guys have more rooms to cover than our previous Princess cruise and that impacts service a bit. But there were no complaints.
The biggest surprise to us was the improvement in both service and food in the Main Dining room for dinner. We always went to the Da Vinci dining room and the Maitre D took good care of us and sat us in a great area on the first night. Service was great and we stuck with the same waitress for just about every dinner and we went at various times between 6:15 and 8:00 pm. There was never a wait. I have never been treated so well as we were by the Maitre D in that room. First Maitre D I have ever tipped for service after the fact. I can't explain why the food was better. It's possible that we caught Princess on a bad week last year. Who knows?
We also went one night to Sabatinis and another to the Crown Grill. Both were good nights out with two other couples from the roll call. Enjoyed food at Crown Grill more. Maybe I'm just spoiled by going to so many great Italian Restaurants in the North End of Boston and Federal HIll in Providence.
Before getting to the rest of the review, including ports of call and reviews of private tours, I want to point out areas for improvement for Princess. The first is the decline of Vines and International Cafe. I don't mind paying for the good things that were available last year. In 2009, for $1.50, you could get almost a full plate of sushi rolls and pick your ingredients. There are no longer rolls on demand. Yup, it's "free". But once we had to put up with the suggestion from the Princess server that the sushi is really for those who order wine and same for tapas (not much to offer from). When you asked, they would give you two small pieces, consisting of rice with a piece of fish on top. Downhill for Princess. Second beef is with internet, which would slow to a crawl at times. At those prices, Princess should do something about it and look to increase bandwith. My other issue is the gym opening at 7. Why not 6 and why not increase the number of eliptical machines considering waits for them. An even smaller issue is the water shuttle from the ship back into Venice where Princess puts the onus on the passenger to use it or get charged anyway if you don't return a card within two days. No thanks for making passengers go out of their way to do this. It didn't bother me that Princess collected our passports on day 1 of the cruise. But it would have been nice to get to be notified ahead of time that they were going to do this.
Entertainment was generally very good and they brought Philippa Heatley on board. What a singer. There was a very good comedian (Carey Long) and a good magician. There was an awful comedian on the first couple of nights (name is Brown and Princess should never hire this lack of talent again). The first production show was very good. The second big one called Once Upon a Dream was not so good. Movies Under the Stars mainly had World Cup Soccer. This drew big crowds. For those of who don't like soccer, too bad. Cruise Director Lisa Ball sent an e-mail promising the Steve Carrell movie Date Night. But they never showed. Maybe Lisa never contemplated that all they would show would be World Cup Soccer. Sheesh, they even showed the consolation game.
Our cruise plans got a bit sidetracked by Aer Lingus when the airline changed a long layover in our Boston-Dublin-Venice flight to a full day layover. But it was a bonus. We have never been to Dublin and spent a great day in a beautiful country with friendly people. We walked around Dublin and did a day tour to Powerscourt/Wicklow Mountains. Hey, now the next non-family cruise could be British Isles with Princess. We stayed at Locanda Orseolo in Venice for our oe night and got upgraded to their best room. This boutique hotel, while not cheap, has a great location (our window was over two canals that met) great service, and great breakfast included. Wow!!! Venice is a great port. We took the Venice Link Shared water Taxi. We later found out that it does not go directly to the hotel. A porter greeted us at the Alilaguna stop and walked with us as he wheeled our bags in a 5 minute walk to the hotel for 25 euros. On the way to the cruise port, we met a couple going on the Celebrity Med cruise and shared a private water taxi right from the hotel to the cruise port. We happily split the 90 euro cost among the two couples. While in Venice, we walked through the city, went to a decent restaurant, took our own gondola ride at 10 pm, and toured Doge's Palace before leaving for the cruise port.
Embarcation was easy upon our arrival at 1 pm. We went straight to the Princess employee and got put in Group 15 and Group 14 was boarding at the time. We spent 12 minutes in port facility. After boarding the ship, we ate lunch and then I made the 15 minute walk the supermarket near the cruiseport (The Coop). Picked up three bottles of wine, two sixes of diet coke, a six of MOretti beer, juices, and some other things that we just needed. Upon re-entering the ship, Princess made no issue of the extra wine or beer. Note that we picked up wine in Kusadasi and later from a winery in Tuscany. Thank you Princess. But they made it up with the corkage charges. Oh well.
The first couple of days were really sea days (first day was sail away at 8 am - muster drill at 11 am). Our meet and greet was on sail away day and we had roughly 60 at Adagio.
First port was Athens. We had a large group booked with Paul of Athens Taxi. Paul hired a great licensed guide for us. While Paul drove, the guide went everywhere with us and he was the one with the mic on the mini-bus. His name was Basili. If you use Paul and want a licensed guide for the day, I would recommend asking him to book Basili, if he's available. Tour was outstanding and Basili provided so much information and answered all of questions. The price was right too at 120 euros per couple. Lunch was extra and the big group went to the area of the Plaka that had all of the Tabernas. Great day.
Next up was Kusadasi. We used Kusadasi Tours and one of the principals, Melih, was our licensed guide (not sure who the driver was) for our trip to Ephesus. We included the Terrace Houses in our group of six. Melih great to go with and a nice guy as well. Price was in the mid $50s (US dollars) per person.
Melih also booked us for Istanbul. One of his associates, a young lady name Pinar was our licensed guide there for our same group of three couples. Istanbul is an amazing city. In addition to one of my favorite meals of the vacation, we saw the typical highlights including the Palace (we added on the Harem), Sophia Haggia (sp?), the Blue Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar. I will mention the benefit of doing a private tour is that you tell them "NO RUG SALES" and you are not subjected to that like you may be on a ship tour. Great day. Price at $78 per person included all admissions and even lunch. That's the way to go. Even with some rain in the morning, it was a great day.
The next port was Mykonos. A member of our roll call contacted a couple of hotel resorts and spas and one agreed to provide us transportation back and forth and full use of facilities for the day for 30 euros per person. It was the Saint John Resort and it was a great day. The pool practically overhung the sea and went for fairly inexpensive massages and swam in the sea and the pool. Great day.
After a sea day, the big three ports in Italy were up in three successive days. First up was was Naples. We put together a group of 16 on the roll call and took an AP Tours trip to Pompeii/Positano/Sorrento. With the large groups, AP gives you a free licensed guide for the day. Georgio was the guide. The Pompeii tour was very good and Positano was amazing and we spent significant time there. Unfortunatley, although we ate lunch in Sorrento, we didn't get much time there. With tip, I think the cost for the tour was 65 euros per person. Lunch and admission (€11) to Pompeii were extra. It was a good day. Having a guided tour of Pompeii is a must. But I wonder if we would have been better off with two groups of 8 and paying more to get more flexibility.
Next up was Rome and my favorite tour. Francesco was both our guide and driver and we had a group of six. Francesco is part of Miles & Miles tour company. They got incredible reviews on Trip Advisor and it is more than a limo service. Francesco got out with us at every stop with the exception of our own requested stop of the Great Synagogue of Rome (they run their own tours). Francesco showed us "his Rome" which included the typical highlights, but also much more. It included a private visit to the Vatican department that makes mosaics. We saw five artisans in action making this incredible artwork. We didn't request a Vatican tour. But Francesco wanted us to see this. He also showed us incredible views including the famous "keyhole" and the great view from next to the Garibaldi statue. Wow!!!! The family that runs M&M caters their tours to english speaking tourists only. Francesco told me his Dad asks that all family members spend considerable time in the US and that explains why his english is better than every other guide we did business with. I cannot recommend any tour more highly.
The final Italy stop was Livorno for Florence/Pisa, etc. Eight of us were in my group for a tour with Papillon Service. The owner, Roberto, did the tour for us. It was a packed day and Roberto was great. For €540 for our group of eight, included was Pisa, where we climbed the Leaning Tower, Florence, where we went to the Accademy to see the David, and spent another couple of hours and also ate lunch on our own, and a trip to a winery for a demonstration and a tasting. It was another great day.
The final full day for this cruise was the port of Monaco. A group of eight of us contracted Azur Connection for four hours for €270. We wanted to make the most of our time and see two key things. One was see Cours Saleya and the other was the Chagall Museum. We were dropped off at Cours Saleya and told to meet back there at 10:30 for a ride to the museum. At 10:20, the driver called and said he had to leave for an emergency and to meet him at 10:50. To us, that wasn't acceptable. While the time was made up on the back end, we all believed that when you contract these services, you have the services of the vehicle and driver for the time purchased. We enjoyed Cours Saleya and the Chagall Museum. But others were able to do one on their own and spend time in Monacao for a pretty low price. In retrospect . . . .
Debarcation in Barcelona was as easy as I have every seen. We met at the designated meeting point at 8:45 and were off the ship at 8:47 and in a cab to our hotel ten minutes later after locating our luggage.
Post cruise was two days in Barcelona. This is a great port and we were happy to do it on our own and decided to walk whenever possible to get a good feel for the city. Others on the roll did the hop on hop off bus. We did take cabs to and from two sites (Parc Guell and the Magic Fountain) and also saw and attended a symphony at the Palace of Catalan Music (Vivaldi's Four Seasons). I know some just do tours of that facility and the facility itself is amazing. We also saw and toured Casa Battlo, saw Sagrada Familia from the outside, walked through Las Ramblas, Arc de Triomfe, and the Old City. We had dinner at the famous 4Cats restaurant. While some have claimed it's a tourist trap that overcharges, we had a great meal and they got us out in time to see our show. The other restaurants we went to include Citrus, Tapas Tapas, and Tenorio. All were good.
A couple things I want to address with respect to this cruise. There is a gentleman (non-employee of Princess) named "Hutch" who provides help for cruisers on how to do ports on their own and gives tips on what to see. He has a cult following and it's great that Princess hires him even though he won't talk about Princess tours, plug them or recommend them. He knowledgeable and provides individual consulting as well. He's a good resource. I was a bit surprised that he didn't know about the Palace of Catalan Music, considering that Trip Advisor has it rated as a top site in Barcelona. He also insisted one day that a museum was closed that was actually open. All in all, he was great. Nobody's perfect. The other thing worth mentioning is that this ship could not handle internet usage of its passengers. They charge a lot for service and the service was awful at times and there were many upset passengers.
I hope some find some of this information of some use. It was a great and very special vacation on a great ship with the best Med itinerary I have seen. We spent a lot of time planning this thing and planning is the key to a great Med cruise.