This was our first experience with cruising and our trip was a real pleasure. Having read critical reviews of Italian cruise lines after purchasing our tickets, I was a bit apprehensive. However, having visited Italy many times we knew that Italians were fastidiously clean; and we also knew that Americans and Italians have different expectations concerning hospitality and service. The quality of service greatly exceeded our expectations. Those who served our needs were primarily from Bali. They were kind and cheerful and anxious to please.
On arriving at the ship we were each provided a plastic card that we secured with our credit card. A ship is a cashless society. This magic card allowed us on and off the ship, indicated our dinner seating and our pre-paid drink and spa packages, opened our cabin door and served as a credit card for purchases throughout the cruise.
Our cabin was a pleasant surprise. It was a well-designed livable space with sliding glass doors onto the balcony. An eight-by-eight foot wall mirror added to the feeling of spaciousness. The bath was small but adequate. Bath gel and shampoo were in dispensers in the shower. A hair dryer was anchored in the desk drawer leaving the bath free for the other's use. Outlets were available for both voltages to accommodate our electronic needs. Empty suitcases were stored under the bed. Your personal plastic cruise card activates the lights in your cabin and also activates a small light outside your door when it is removed. This small light alerts your steward that you are not in so that he can go in and tidy up while you are away.
We were joined by our adult daughter who lives in Milan. She had an identical cabin, paying a 50% supplement as a single occupant.
The many public spaces were pleasant and interesting. Several pool areas occupied the many families with children. There was one Zen pool area (read adults only). We enjoyed the music and dancing in the lounges.
Food in the formal dining rooms was very good and the service excellent. My husband did not bring a tie and found that one navy jacket and several nice open-neck shirts with slacks were appropriate even for Gala nights. We opted for a later seating to allow time to relax and refresh after returning from shore excursions.
Food in the casual buffets was barely satisfactory for us but crowded with happy teens enjoying the pizza and burgers. Stay with the dining rooms. Our experience with the alternative dining venues was unremarkable. Snacks in the lounges and discos were limited to chips and crackers and there was no option to purchase anything more. The cruise line is missing an opportunity here.
We pre-ordered drink packages that were, for us, not a good investment. We suggest that you do better to pay as you go. We were also surprised to find that the re-embarkment inspectors looked the other way when we brought a bottle of wine on board from our shore excursions.
We pre-ordered a couple's Spa package that my daughter and I shared; a great investment. With a little bartering we got additional Spa services on board at a discount. Don't be afraid to ask.
We did not use the ship's shore excursion trips in the six ports we visited, but arranged our own guide and/or driver in advance. This gave us personal flexibility and opportunities to mingle with the locals in each area. We also enjoyed experiencing the local cuisine. While we paid a bit more we found that this arrangement provided more bang for the buck. We felt it turned a modest cruise into a first-class experience.
This was our first cruise ever; I never even thought I wanted to do one. Both of us enjoyed it tremendously and we are now total fans. I can't wait for the next opportunity.
Our Ports of Call:
We had arranged for a driver to collect us at the ship and take us to Aix en Provence where we met Jennifer Dugdale, an American expatriate, who introduced us to the Taste of Provence (tasteofprovence.com), a delightful walking tour of the town. It was a culinary adventure as we were introduced to the fine food purveyors, sampled their specialties and heard stories of this aristocratic town.
Our driver, Donal Branigan (donal firstname.lastname@example.org), an Irish expatriate picked us up again after our tour and drove us through the countryside to visit two vineyard before returning us to the ship just in time to set sail.
Genoa is a lovely city we had visit on earlier occasions and so I made it a day on board and enjoyed a facial, an offering of the Spa package that I arranged before sailing. It was the finest I ever experienced. My daughter and my husband went for lunch at beachside Ristorante Santa Chiara, in Boccadasse, a small bay area not far away. They said it was superb.
We arranged a driver, Mario, to collect us at the ship. Not having had time for breakfast, we stopped a block from the ship for a coffee and pastry at a tiny shop that catered to the harbor workers. It was exceptional. We then drove to Pompeii . There we hired an elderly guide, another Mario, who had been sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm for the site for forty years. He navigated the ancient stone streets with energy and skill and entertained us with little known stories. Having visited Pompeii 30 years ago it was a wonderful experience to see the current level of excavation.
After this fascinating tour our driver returned us to Naples where we all shared authentic Margherita pizzas and beer at his favorite little backstreet restaurant, the Pinotxo Bar. We were not disappointed.
In Palermo the ship docks right at the front door of the city; just walk across the street and you are there. Our guide, Paola, and driver, Gianpaolo Frederico, met us. We had a lovely walking and driving tour of the city and then went up to the lovely hill area of Monreale where we bought beautiful ceramics from artist Elisa Messina (elisamessina.it).
We returned to the city for a lunch of delicious local cuisine at Ristorante Zafferano joined by our guide and driver who continued to entertain us with stories of the city and life in Sicily .
Palma de Mallorica
Palma is a clean sparkling city with the ships' docks right across the street from downtown. Our guide, Miguel Corral (ourexplorer.com), was an enthusiastic Mallorcan. He met us as we left the ship and provided us a delightful tour of the city riding or on foot. We then went out into the countryside to visit a gem of a little village, Valldemossa. Hollywood could not have produced such a perfect place. It in fact has been used for movies and has drawn the famous and talented for centuries. Miguel entertained us with stories as we walked about. We bought some Mallorcan pearls at the small shop of a jewelry maker. Back in Palma, Miguel dropped us at a restaurant next to the modern art museum. We were too late to visit the museum but enjoyed wonderful Mallorcan cuisine at Es Rebost d'Es Baluard.
I visited Barcelona nearly 30 years ago to study architect, Antoni Gaudi. I often told my husband that someday I would return and show him this rich and textured city. For his birthday this year, I did. We were both enchanted by the Spanish people and the Spanish lifestyle.
The afternoon we arrived we attended a Flamenco show at 'touristy' Flamenco Tablao Corobes. The food was fine but the show featuring guitarists and dancers was spectacular; it was the perfect way to begin our exploration of Barcelona.
We stayed in a four star hotel, the Olivia Plaza, on Catalunya Plaza for several days before our cruise. The public spaces were unique and delightful but the superior room had no drawers or place to open your suitcases except the floor. The hospitality and ideal location of this hotel more than compensated.
We arranged a tour guide in advance from ourexplorer.com., Marie Montcourt. She is a young French woman who married a Spaniard, moved to Barcelona and fell in love with her adopted city. Two exciting mornings we spent with her. One day we explored the old city and another we immersed ourselves in the magic of Gaudi. What a treat it was for me to see the progress that has been made in finishing the magnificent Cathedral of Sagrada Familia.
The last day in Barcelona we were joined by our daughter to cruise the Western Mediterranean aboard MSC Splendida.
After completing our cruise we spent the night before our flight at a small hotel within the terminal of the airport called AirRooms. The rooms are tiny but fresh and convenient and meant for business travelers; it was ideal in that there was no frantic taxi ride to catch our plane early the next morning. Dining is limited in the airport and so we asked at the information desk if there might be a restaurant nearby. At her suggestion we took a 10 minute cab trip to the seaside town of Gava where we enjoyed a delicious meal at Les Marines restaurant.
The qualities that make the Spanish people and lifestyle so attractive does not however contribute to running a smoothly organized airport. Keep your sense of humor and go with the rhythm of the country until you depart.