August 10 - 24, 2010 Rome to Venice - Pompeii is Something So Wonderful
Flights: We were booked on a direct flight to Rome with seats together. Immigration in Rome was interesting, they not only hardly glanced at our passports, but they didn't stamp them. Interesting when we arrived in Munich on the way home and they wondered how we got to Europe in the first place!! On the return, we only had 1 hr. 20 minutes to change planes in Munich from the Venice flight, but did the run through the terminal, and made it. The Venice flight had been delayed. All went well though, and our suitcases were at our destination when we arrived.
Demographics: The trip was in August, so perhaps the make-up of the passengers was a little younger than usual since there were many teachers aboard and several teenaged or near teenage children. Also, August is hot, and the towns, archeological sites, museums and churches are understandably crowded. But the use of the wonderful Vox technology, and the small tour groups, made it easy to hear our guides while having the option to wander away to take that perfect picture. We had 200 passengers and around 50 of those had taken advantage of the waived single supplement, including me. Everyone we encountered was friendly, open to having new people sit with them at lunch or dinner. Full sized buses were used, so there was no crowding, and even when they combined two groups (once or twice), just to get us to the tour site, I always had my own seat. Most, if not all, passengers were from the U.S., Australia, the U.K and Canada.
Organization: Before I left I had mailed my choices of optional tours to the Fort Lauderdale office. Onboard, at the orientation, we were asked to reconfirm the tours we wished to take by filling out the same form, signing and noting our cabin number. Sometime during late day or evening, you would find your excursion ticket under your door for the next day's tour(s), with the appropriate color group noted. While they never made a mistake in my case, there was certainly time to rectify the situation if the ticket for something you intended to take didn't show up. A friend and I asked to be in the same color group, and they were happy to comply. Once your color was called you disembarked either near the Marco Polo restaurant if tendering, or on Deck 4 if in port. Those on the concierge level were called first, and then they varied the order in which the other groups were called. In the case of walking off the ship, there was only a few minutes difference, if tendering that could stretch to ½ hour although since free time at the end of tours was built in, I really doubt any tours were cut short because of your place in "line". An exception in our case was when an expected stop wasn't made on the way back to the ship, because the tour guide had spent all the time on the tour! The first day we were given both the earpiece and the Vox unit with instructions to keep the earpiece until the end of the trip, but to turn in the receiver to be recharged each night, or between tours. You had your boarding pass swiped when leaving the ship, and again when returning, so they could be sure all were onboard before sailing away. We were handed one or more bottles of ice-cold water either when getting off the tender or at the bottom of the gangway for walking or bus tours. A really nice and appreciated touch and no charge. Also under the door, usually by the time we returned from dinner, was the Journal for the next day with all the information you would need for the next day, the order and time when you could be called, briefing, concert and lecture times, restaurant and bar times, and importantly, the name of the ship's agent in each port and how to reach them in an emergency. On my way up to breakfast each morning I would stop for the map for that day's port, at the excursion side of the reception desk. On the opposite end of the desk you could help yourself to the day's crossword and Sudoku puzzles.
Changes to Schedule: We had three changes to the schedule. The stop to take optional tours in Ravello or Positano and Amalfi was changed to cruising along the Amalfi coast. This area was determined to be too rough to tender and so the decision was made to skip it. We had the reason and the decision in hand before we left for the trip.
The second change was a tender stop in Syracuse rather than being in port - two explanations - either the other "big ship" got there first, or they had reserved the spot two years ago before Aegean Odyssey even got started. Either way, it was okay except it meant four trips in the tender since we had both am and pm tours. I will say though that they run two tenders to bring you back to the ship, so about every 15 minutes you had the opportunity to return after free time. While these are not brand new tenders, we did hear they were better than those used on the earlier trips, and there were so many crew to help you on and off and help get you to your seat, that I never heard of any injuries - it's just very awkward to stumble around while the 'boat' is rocking trying to get to a seat.
The third change was, again, rough seas, which resulted in a port stop in Messina for our stop at Taormina instead of tendering to Naxos. They arranged for the local agents to move all the coaches to Messina for the day's tour and put together a short synopsis of the area which was under our doors when we woke up. They also printed maps of Messina available at reception. The downside was that you had to take the bus back rather than being able to cable car down and wander around Naxos, perhaps go to the beach, and then take the tender back to the ship. But, since we were in port there was the opportunity to visit Messina's churches, stores, etc. You just have to go with the flow when you are cruising, and sometimes it's a very pleasant surprise!
Cabin: We were allowed to board early with a few others who had arrived in Rome on early flights. We got the cruise terminal before it opened at 9 am and were told the embarkation wouldn't take place until 2 pm. As you can imagine, that was very upsetting. The ship was called though, and an exception was made. One of the staff came and after we went through security at the terminal, walked us to the ship where we checked in. Some of our cabins were even ready, and we were told they would provide lunch between 12-1 in the Marco Polo Dining room. My friend and I toured the ship, and then stretched out on the lounges by the pool for a rest until lunch. The other thing you can do if you get there early is to take a shuttle into Civitavecchia and walk around there until it is time to board. They do take your luggage to the ship, and it's up to you whether to keep your carry-on bag. Since we didn't realize there was the potential of a five-hour wait, we had held on to ours, so the walking around option wasn't very enticing, and especially not for others who had been traveling for 12 - 15 hours. Luggage came by 1:15, I was able to set up my charge account and buy internet time by 2:20 - I chose 4 hours for $18 and I never went to the internet room when a terminal wasn't available.
Cabins: Since we were onboard early and got to see some doors open while the staff cleaned, I saw the owner's suite (wow) and some balcony rooms on concierge level - they made two cabins from the old three and looked quite roomy. My friend had a single on deck 5 - Belvedere - with a maybe ¾ sized bed. Her only complaint was no lip on the shower, and occasional issues with the water draining too slowly and getting the bathroom wet, and at one point required a technician from the ship - by the way, the cabin steward accompanied him to her room and introduced them. There is a built in line for drying clothes in the shower. I was on deck 4 - Columbus Deck - and had two twin beds with a chest of drawers between with three good sized drawers, and a "desk" that pulled out from over the top drawer. The closet had 20 hangers and another cabinet with four smaller drawers, and the safe. Plenty of room for one, and not bad for two people. There was a shelf under the sink in the bathroom and a fair-sized counter (for a ship). The rooms were kept immaculately clean and it was lovely having my bed made, the chocolates, a rose in the bud vase, and some other nice touches. A large bottle of water was delivered to each cabin the first day. I had a smallish window, but it was wonderful while we were sailing or in a port that wasn't eye level to the room. Then I had to close the curtains, so that's the downside of a port-side room on a low deck! The cabin was "J" class. The upside is that I never felt the motion others felt when we were rocking and rolling. Gentle rocking and slight vibration from the ship combined to give me a great night sleep! I never heard of any air conditioning problems on this trip - although I did hear someone complain his cabin was too cool. He might not have learned how to close it - you had to adjust the opening by reaching up to the unit on the ceiling.
Food: Marco Polo, Terrace Cafe, Tapas on Terrace: I found the food overall to be quite good, but I am not a gourmet either for food or wine. After a few days we took to scanning the menus displayed at reception to decide whether to do formal dining in Marco Polo (no shorts or t-shirts), or the buffet at the Terrace Cafe - we usually ate outside when at the Terrace, and true the chairs have faint black streaks from the former problem of soot from the funnel, but it seems a temporary adaptation was made that has helped quite a bit. If I didn't feel comfortable sitting, or spotted a speck, I asked for napkins to be put on the seat. Once when I forgot and did get a spot, it came out easily with a travel detergent stick. There were always fish, meat, fowl, and vegetarian choices. Some nights we did tapas and had a glass of wine, then went to the buffet for dinner, more wine, and then the dessert bar for sweets - decadent. The wines were from Sicily or Croatia, so it seems they are listening to complaints and serving local wine. An interesting statistic from the debarkation Journal: we consumed 4000 bottles of water and 8000 bottles of wine - that seems about right! And if you hadn't had enough to eat, at 10:30 pm they served after dinner snacks in the Charleston Lounge. Two other complaints have been addressed - there is now an early-bird breakfast from 6:00 - 6:30 of coffee and pastries on Lido Deck, then breakfast 6:30 - 8:30, and then late-risers coffee and pastries again on the Lido Deck until 11 am. Also 24-hour tea, coffee and ice water on the Lido Deck. Fruit trays were passed around while sunning at the pool. And - afternoon tea most days from 4:00 to 4:45 with Tim at the piano.
Pool: Complaints from earlier cruises have been responded to and there are safety bars all around the pool and a longer ladder for ease in climbing out. The pool is filled from the sea well before getting to a port, so the water was fresh and clean, and is salt water of course - made for lovely floating around. When the sea was too rough, however, they drained the pool or if it was already empty, didn't fill it for safety reasons. It was full most days when there was an opportunity to use it. It is small, but for the number of people who actually used it, quite adequate. There is also a hot tub, and showers, and they were often used if someone wanted to get wet and sunbathe and the pool was empty.
Lectures, Briefings and Ambassador Lounge: We had superb lecturers on board - since it was August, perhaps we were lucky to have several professors during their summer break. We also had a former career diplomat, two authors including Mary Beard who has written extensively on Pompeii! Lecturers mingled with passengers, and were always available for questions. The Ambassador lounge was usually comfortable, and I never needed a sweater or shawl. The sound system was good, and someone worked controls at the back of the room to ensure that. A large screen came down from the ceiling if the talks included a slide presentation. We were treated to three concerts by the in-house Romanian trio, and a special treat when the son of one of the players, a 19 year old pianist who has been named Romania's top pianist two years running, gave a concert. Another night his father and he performed, and the final concert, he performed one more piano solo. Just wonderful. In the Charleston Lounge there was Tim at the keyboard with all the bells and whistles. On a sea day they tried music trivia to see how it would be received, and it turned out to be a lot of fun.
Itinerary: This itinerary "Pompeii is Something So Wonderful" WAS wonderful. With a total of 11 ports, we saw unbelievable things, had excellent, knowledgeable local tour guides, and some amazing extras for example the option to visit the Palazzo Gangi in Palermo and see the ballroom featured in the movie "The Leopard". It's a magnificent place. After a tour we were given sweets and juices. The downside is it was hot inside - it was August - and also, for me at least, a little expensive at 55 Euro. Still, it was a once in a lifetime experience. The included early evening visit to St. Mark's in Venice was awesome as the lights came on all over the Basilica - a private showing just for our ship. During the trip we were immersed in temples, museums, famous paintings and mosaics in churches, wonderful towns with cobblestone streets and little alleys full of surprises, Dubrovnik with its wall, and the Palace of Diocletian at Split, and finally Venice - I rest my case! And the unexpected, like in Trapani where we docked overnight and managed to catch up with the parade of worshippers, carrying a heavy statue of the Virgin Mary, chanting a prayer, for the Feast of the Assumption. The parade wound throughout the streets for hours, and the night finished with fireworks that we watched from lounge chairs on the aft Lido deck, as if it was our own private display. Hundreds and hundreds of people crowded the streets - just a magical night.
Dress: Hot and sunny every day - not a drop of rain. Good advice from the boards to have an umbrella for shade, hats of course, water (ship provided), fans, spritz bottle. Shoes with good ridged soles were very important on slippery streets, and climbing rock and sand covered hills to get to temples. This is not a trip for someone with serious walking difficulties. Also, because the churches required shoulders covered and most required pants or skirts be below the knees, you couldn't really dress as minimally as you may have wanted. One tour guide had a strapless short dress on though, and with a scarf managed to get past the "shoulders covered" rule. To wear sleeveless and then have to put on a jacket or shawl in those hot churches was unbearable, so I tended to wear short-sleeved tops and Capri length pants. Because of the heat, we did wind up changing every day after the tours, and wore dresses or dressy tops with slacks for dinner.
Conclusion: I've cruised on the mega-ships and on riverboats, and I loved this size ship. I think it was a great value for the price, and I wish them much success in the future. Many I talked to fully intend to book a tour for next year. I feel confident they will continue responding to passenger issues.