We recently returned from our 12 day sail onboard the Carnival Magic departing from Barcelona 12/06/11. My Mum and I, both English, decided to go away on holiday as we needed a good break to relax and recharge after a stressful year; unfortunately we didn't find this whilst onboard the Magic. This is our third cruise and our first and last aboard a Carnival ship.
_Embarkation & Disembarkation
This was a very smooth process. Before you arrive at the Barcelona dock be sure to find out the dock letter buried in the small print of your Carnival documents, so your cab driver knows where to go (there are 4 A-D). When you get to the dock, your bags will be snatched away and put on a conveyor belt straight into the ship. The rest is just some health questionnaires, embarkation photos and getting your cards.
Disembarking was also easy. Carnival divide up the passengers by time slots based on what time your flight/tour/taxi is booked for. You then put your bags outside the room the night before and reclaim them in the terminal after you disembark meaning you avoid lugging them through the ship and the gangways. You have the option of getting off whenever you like if you don't want time restrictions, but you have to handle your luggage on your own. However, if you're waiting for a cab, be aware there's little seating at the dock terminal so you could spend a long time standing around waiting in the sun if your connection is delayed.
The ship itself is very large (with 4000+ passengers) and much larger than the previous cruise ships we had been on, which often made it confusing when trying to navigate around the ship. I'm not sure that we really understood where everything was onboard, or even saw all of the ship by the last day. The dEcor is quite loud, lots of shiny surfaces, neon lightings, bright colours, tropical paintings; it feels very much like you're in a giant casino. As the ship was only just over a month old at the time we boarded, everything was clean and new looking so no signs of wear and tear. They also seemed to be continuously painting and varnishing the ship whilst we were onboard, which often meant sunbathing was accompanied by paint fumes..
Whilst we were at sea, you could virtually forget you were on a moving object as there was very little movement on the ship. The only time we did experience a fair amount of rocking was on the return journey to Barcelona on our last night. When we looked down at the decks in the morning the Red Frog pub and most of the deck was soaked with water, so the crossing return is obviously a lot choppier than any other part of the trip.
We booked a balcony stateroom, apparently the last one available, which was on deck 9. We wanted a balcony so that we could relax and enjoy the views in peace on sea days/returning from port. Unfortunately this never happened. Carnival unfortunately permits smoking onboard their ships, and surprising to us, they allow smoking in their staterooms and on balconies. Since neither of us are smokers, nor enjoy inhaling second-hand smoke, we try to avoid being around smokers when at all possible. Unluckily for us, the couple staying in the room forward from us (meaning we were downwind of them) were chain smokers, and seemed to spend almost all of the day on the balcony lighting up. This essentially meant as soon as we sat outside we would soon be breathing in lungs full of secondhand smoke. The UK outlawed smoking in public areas and places of work several years ago so we are used to clean air or at least being able to avoid smoke if we need to. However, when you've paid for a balcony and the people next to you have also paid, seemingly with the primary intention of smoking outside, you have nowhere to escape to, except inside your cabin. We may as well have not bothered to pay extra and just had an inside/seaview room instead. Aside from the obvious inconvenience to non-smokers, I would think the danger of fire and damage to the rooms, such as cigarette burns and nicotine stains would make it sensible to ban smoking in the rooms and balconies. We were informed that Carnival are working to reduce/ban smoking as of December. Not very much use to us as it ruined our enjoyment of this holiday and we definitely won't be cruising with Carnival in the future. Smoking was also permitted in the pub, bars, casino and certain areas on the open decks (although it was never obvious where and we never saw a "no smoking" sign anywhere). Gladly the dining room is smoke free.
The room itself is very cramped, considering the cost and compared to previous cruises, it's a lot smaller than we expected. It was very clean though, and well maintained by our Room Steward who would clean our room every day and provide us with fresh ice each evening. It helps that the ship is new, so it hasn't had the chance to show signs of wear yet. The Staterooms bathrooms are equipped with a toilet, sink and shower and you are provided with some a few soaps, razors and shower gel. The bath towels, face clothes and hand towels provided were rough-starchy feeling, almost as though they've had years of washing to get to the brillo-pad stage they're at now. You are also provided with 2 bathrobes, which were very good quality, and felt new. Inside the top drawer of the dresser there is a hairdryer, which is handy as you don't need to take one with you. For Europeans, you'll need to take adapter plugs to convert your power cables to American sockets/voltage. Each night there was also the obligatory towel-origami animal that our Steward left on our bed, or hanging from the ceiling. Although these are a cute feature and a nice touch, I couldn't help feel it was a huge waste of their time as they have to create each of these towel animals for every room on the ship every night (you can even purchase a book from Carnival on how to recreate them).
There isn't a huge amount of wardrobe space, and some of it's taken up with bunkbed ladders and life jackets, so we spent most of our time riffling through piles of scrunched-up clothing every day. I would recommend taking your own hangers if your luggage has room for it, since you'll quickly run out of hangers for your clothes (we left some behind in our cabin should they be any use for future occupants - though I suspect they probably got thrown away). Fortunately they had designed the beds to accommodate the suitcases underneath them so you don't have to dance around them the whole time, but even without this the room is awkward to move around. I really couldn't see how a family of 4 could comfortably share the same space without forever falling over each other. In terms of noise, we couldn't hear our neighbours through the walls, but we were forever being disturbed by people going in and out of the balcony letting the door slam behind them. The same is true of the stateroom door, which would be slammed shut along the corridor late into the evening, along with many post-casino revelers who felt the need to chat loudly as they returned to their room. Being on the 9th deck, the Lido deck was directly above us, which meant that through the night you could constantly hear trollies rolling back and forth, stiletto heals pounding the floor and children running around above your head.
The balcony, when we attempted to use it, wasn't very large either with little space to move around or recline. You're provided with one reclining-backed chair, one fixed chair and a metal table. The dividers between the balconies have been designed to be metal doors that can be opened if you have adjoining cabins, or I guess to make it easier to clean. Unfortunately the huge gaps above and below the door also aid in the noise and smells from your next door neighbours traveling through to your balcony. Being port side and aft, the Red Frog Pub and the Vibe Nightclub were several floors below us. We'd read other reviews that noise from the Red Frog constantly disturbed their time on their balcony, but we only really found it noisy on our last day when people were outside playing drinking games and cheering loudly.
The TV offers you several channels with webcam views of the ship and port - and this was often the most entertaining thing on TV we discovered. There are several news channels and a couple of french/italian/polish channels as well as a couple of free movie channels. These movies started every 3 hours, although we were never sure exactly when, and were a relay of the films played on the Seaside Theatre the night before. Not bad since they're free, but they were mainly kids films or ones we'd seen before. You can purchase a small selection of films from their interactive TV System at overpriced $10.99 a go if you get very bored. You can also view your account total, view restaurant menus and order room service through your TV which is very useful when you don't want to pick up the phone.
I was determined not to spend my holiday stuck on the internet since I do enough of that when I'm at home/work, but we decided it would be handy to have just to keep family up to date or do port research. This turned out to be essential when we booked some last minute excursions whilst onboard, but you'll discover the speed is extremely slow and you're being billed by the minute not data use. The best thing we found is to use it in the early hours or during port days when few people are accessing it and you should get a reasonably quick service. We took our own laptop and purchased the 240 minute package ($89) which we had to keep topping up.
Before going on this cruise we'd read several reviews that rated the food mediocre and cold. We honestly didn't find this to be the case during our time onboard. We were seated in the Southern Lights dining room, late seating and we had requested to have a table for 2 during our cruise, which we did have every night. However, as we were seated on a table-for-four every day, we discovered from our waiter that there should have been a couple dining opposite us, but they never turned up for dinner. Had they been present for our meals I think we probably would have been unhappy that our request for a table for 2 was ignored, especially since upstairs there were quite a few 2 seaters that seemed unreserved.
The daily specials menu changes each day, alongside a menu that remains the same throughout, with common staples such as steak, gourmet burgers, chicken, etc. We did find that towards the end a lot of the daily special menu seemed to be reworded/similar dishes to the previous days/week, and a lot of the options were fish based. The starters were often a choice of fish or soups too, and with some unusual choices, e.g. "chilled cherry bing soup". We didn't try any of the fruity/cold soups, but I can definitely recommend the more traditional soups for their flavour. However this said we never struggled to find something we wanted to eat and enjoyed virtually everything delivered to our table. There had also been reviews commenting on cold food, which we didn't find whilst we were dining there. The menus and in general, food onboard, is very skewed towards and American clientele so you'll discover "Grilled Reuben sandwiches" (cheese and ham to the rest of us), "Idaho potatoes", "Wisconsin Cheese", "FrootLoops" and Grits. You'll also struggle to get a decent cup of tea, or in some cases, to find milk to go with it.
The staff are generally all very friendly onboard and our waiting staff in the dining room were great. We were seated in level 3 Southern Lights with Inver, Ivan and Juan as our waiting staff who were very attentive and friendly; our ice water was regularly replenished without asking and we were always promptly served with bread as soon as we sat down. There isn't a time limit on dinner so if you arrive a little late they aren't going to boot you out; we saw people still arriving for dinner after 9pm some evenings, and you'll still receive the same attentive service. They're also very keen to make sure you're happy with your meal, so if you have any problems, just let them know and they can bring you something else if you'd like. And despite serving countless passengers, they were still able to remember our preferences over food, so we were brought cappuccinos with our dessert without even asking. In regards to service, we felt the dining room was extremely good and probably better than we had experienced on other cruise lines. We purchased a wine package at the start of the cruise, which gives us 5 bottles of wine (at $126 - not especially cheap) to drink over the course of our 12 days. We always have wine with dinner, but just about managed to make the bottles last until our last day. Cocktails are also charger at a premium, around $8-£10, so we didn't spend a lot in this direction, although I do have a soft spot for a Pina Colada. Certain food/drink areas around the ship incur and additional charge, such as the coffee bar and the Red Frog Pub, so these places will certainly rack up your Sail & Sign account if you use them regularly. We never used the Red Frog, because aside the cost, the pub seemed to be extremely noisy and full of people whooping and hollering the whole time.
During the day the primary food source is the Lido Marketplace, which is a large buffet of hot and cold food, providing breakfast, lunch and dinner (7am-9.30pm I believe). There was also a tandoori section and a sandwich deli making food to order. All of the tables are cleaned and cleared quickly and there was always plenty of cutlery/plates available. Outside on the mid Lido deck, pizza, hotdogs and burgers were served 24 hours a day; although we saw them packing in around 2am, which is roughly when the packs of teens stop herding through the food areas and chatting loudly in the stairwells.
The dress code in the dining rooms is termed as "Casual Dining", meaning you can basically wear what you like with the exception of bikinis, flip flops, shorts etc. Most people abide by this and in general most people seemed to dress reasonably well during dinner - there were a few exceptions with people in sweat tops and denim shorts. In the open decks, lido and pool areas people mostly wander about in swimwear and shorts. We had two "Cruise Elegant" nights, which were intended for people to dress up more than they would usually. Most people did make an effort here, varying from prom-type dresses, cocktail dresses, smart skirts and men in shirt and ties, but again some people that didn't attempt to dress any differently.
Room service is available free 24 hours a day, not something we'd experienced on previous cruises, so I have to give full marks to Carnival for this one. Another good innovation is that you can order directly through your TV saving the hassle of phoning down to the guest services desk. From room service you can arrange breakfast in your room at a time to suit you, and can order tea, coffee, juices, toast (will arrive cold), croissants, bagels, and smoked salmon. During the day you can also order sandwiches, salads, cookies and desserts. This service could sometimes take up to an hour, but generally was quite speedy and arrived well presented.
This is Carnival's biggest let down on this cruise. From what we could make of it the primary entertainment on the ship was eating, boozing and gambling, because it certainly wasn't the promised "Vegas-style shows". The Magic Theatre put on maybe 3 proper shows during our 12 days, and really we would only say that one of them was any good. The first three days on the ship, there seemed to be no entertainment to speak of at all, and in its place was the cruise director John Heald playing games of public humiliation with unfortunate members of the audience. One night this consisted of lengthy quizzing of around 6 people followed by a game of "pass the spoon on a piece of string through each others clothes". Whilst this raised a few laughs, it certainly shouldn't be the primary format for the evening shows. One evening the main entertainment consisted of a Dutch juggler, who, whilst talented, was like watching an hour-long Britain/America's Got Talent audition. Many of the shows seemed to consist of an opening game of bingo as well, which just added to the tedium and underlined the cheesy Butlins-style entertainment most evenings. Even though they usually do 2 shows a night, you'll still need to get to the theatre early to make sure you get a seat... if you actually want to watch it that is.
The first properly organised performance, close to "Vegas-style" was a magician's show with a choreographed series of dance routines by Carnival dancers (who were onboard the whole time apparently and yet we saw only twice) and a singing duo of Monquez Pippins and Adriane Hall. This was very well put together and visually entertaining, even if the magic tricks were fairly tired, e.g. sawing a girl in half, making people disappear etc. However, the shows only lasted around an hour and when it was over with there seemed to be nothing to do afterwards, unless you enjoyed gambling or drinking, as everything apart from the casino closed around midnight. In chatting with some of the staff in the Spa, who seemed to be mainly British, they thought this was because Americans were too tired in the evening from their 10-12 hour coach tours to want to enjoy long shows. This clearly wasn't the case given the number of people propping up slot machines in the casino or aimlessly floating around the photo galleries every night. After giving up on the Theatre entertainment one night we did make it to the Spotlight lounge for the adult-only comedy, which we did find quite funny.
Daily entertainment consisted of various trivia quizzes about Motown, 60's & 70's music, animal trivia etc., beanbag throws or conferences on losing weight. There also seemed to be a heavy leaning on art auctions and trying to sell you paintings and photos. "Friends of Bill W / Jimmy K" (often held in one of the bars, which I thought ironic) met every day, and Karaoke parties were common just about anywhere onboard. None of which interested us, so we generally avoided most of the entertainment on offer as none of it appealed. Due to the size of the ship it was often hard to find where exactly entertainment was onboard and we were usually disappointment when we got there.
We did find one thing to do that lasted well into the early hours though...
Now, the fact Carnival have laundry rooms is pretty useful, and I don't think we've had these before on other ships. We stay up quite late anyway and usually discover it's quiet around the ship after about 1am, so we made the foolish assumption the laundry room would be empty at this time. We went down at 2am on the night of our first sea day, to discover a queue of people with bags of washing waiting to clean their clothes. This carried on throughout the night, but we were able to get our washing into a machine around 4am, but only after we had gone down to the Guest Services desk to get the few dollars I luckily happened to bring with me, exchanged into quarters. The soap dispensers, washers and driers are all American, so they will only accept quarters. The wash took half an hour, but the dryer takes an hour and a half... we eventually got to bed around 8am after having some pre-sleep breakfast and watching a beautiful sunrise over the sea, which sort of made the effort worth it.. but not really. This is not an experience we repeated again. Half way through the cruise there was a discounted offer on having your clothes laundered through your room steward who will deliver them to your room the same or next day. Definitely, definitely do this if you need something washed, or you'll spend a good portion of your night awake, waiting for a washing machine. If you have a lot of laundry to do.. well, you'll be in for a long night. I also couldn't help wonder how the people in the cabins nearby the laundry rooms felt since they must be subject to constant noise from the washer/dryers and people coming and going all hours and the only benefit being prime access to the washers.
This is one of the key features we were looking forward to on this ship for a bit of R&R. The treatments on offer vary from facials, mud therapies, massages, acupuncture and even Botox. Most of the prices for these started around the $100-200 range so we didn't try any of them. The spa itself is actually very nicely done, providing you with a quiet child-free zone on the ship to unwind after touring the ports. The thalassotherapy pool and thermal bed areas are relaxing and well maintained. You'll also find steam rooms, saunas and an aromatherapy shower which smells lovely. After you've finished steaming, boiling and mud scrubbing yourself there's a very peaceful lounge with sofas where you can sit in quiet and just watch the view with a glass of water or tea (only if you like it without milk!!). It would be nice if there were more drink options here, since we aren't all green tea and lemon water drinkers. Ignoring this, the views in the spa area of the ship are some of the best onboard as you're right at the front of the ship, and have a complete panorama view of the sea ahead, so take a book and have some chill time in peace.
We didn't find the facilities very busy when we used them, but we usually went whilst most people were in port or during mealtimes/entertainment times. Had they been available at the time of booking, we would have selected a Spa stateroom or suite, as they are located in this area and are non-smoking. Unfortunately our stateroom was virtually at the opposite end of the ship, meaning we trudged from one side of the ship to the other in dressing gowns when we visited the spa. The facilities closed at 11pm port days and 10pm on sea days, which of course meant you couldn't access them in the evenings if you dared to try any of the entertainment on offer. When you access the spa the receptionist will give you a wristband to prove you've paid to access the area that day. Towards the end of our cruise the spa had implemented swipe cards to access the facilities, presumably because they only just realised people that hadn't paid were just going straight in without being charged.
The gym is situated just below the Spa area and offers equipment you'd find in most gyms. We did use the gym once or twice, but found the equipment wasn't very easy to access/weight settings weren't the same as the UK and the room itself was very warm. Plus you don't really need a gym with the amount of trekking around the ship you'll end up doing.
The "Serenity" area is situated above the Spa for adults only, but other guests commented that they often saw children around the area and the staff never asked them to leave. The same thing is true of people reserving loungers/deck chairs with towels, books, hats etc. The belongings would seem to sit there all day with no one using them, despite signs telling you not to. The staff said they weren't allowed to touch other peoples' property meaning there was often nowhere to sit, despite mostly unused chairs/loungers. This area is nice, when you can get a canopy beds, but if you sit in the wrong area you'll get blasted by the aircon exhaust and the noise from this.. not very serene. On one port day, where we had decided to skip the tours and stay onboard to do some sunbathing before everyone returned, however what we discovered was most of the area was out of bounds thanks to the deck areas being waxed. We found that many of the facilities, bars, cafes, etc. seemed to shut down or be out of bounds to passengers on port days, presumably because they think everyone's onshore so they needn't bother staffing it.
Onboard shopping is great on this ship, if what you're looking for is overpriced jewellery, watches, cosmetics, booze or anything with the word "Carnival" tattooed all over it. There's also a candy store selling numerous sugary items, again with American favourites.. Hersheys, Saltwater taffy, Altoids, Reese's Pieces. If what you're actually looking for are essentials that you forgot to bring or couldn't fit in your case, good luck. On the last day we did eventually discover a very small shelf stack with plasters, razors etc. which is tucked in the corner of the alcohol area, and behind the till.
We aimed to book most of our own excursions, as we don't enjoy climbing on and off coaches for 10-12 hours a day. However, we did book a few of the shorter and "easy" tours that Carnival arranged for Monaco, Naples and Venice. We had a few more booked but following our trip in Naples we requested our other tours were cancelled for a refund. To their credit, the guest services guest were fine with us canceling and provided a full refund without any issue. In general the reviews you read of Carnival tours are accurate; they're overpriced, boring and give you little insight into the area you're visiting.
Before you can get going on your Carnival arranged tour you have to be processed by the staff and wait in the magic theatre. We assumed the staff must be pretty used to calling numbers out given the amount of bingo they also host. The first day we did a tour, Monaco, we went down at the time indicated on the ticket, only to discover a queue of people all the way from one side of the lobby to the other and snaking around the dining room. All that's happening here, is the staff are asking your name, checking you off and giving you a sticky label with your coach number so I have no idea why it takes so long. After this you'll sit for what feels like an eternity, waiting for your number to be called, at which point a bunch of people you'll be traveling with will stand up, whoop and cheer and start stampeding down the staircases. You could use the lifts, but you'll soon discover that no matter what time of the day, trying to get a lift takes forever on the ship.
Monaco - Carnival tour "Spectacular Riviera", takes you on a very brief drive of Monte Carlo and you spend most of your time driving around the hilly countryside where you'll stop periodically to take pictures and then stay at an uninspiring village for a cup of coffee. You have the option to hike up to Eze at this point if you wanted, but it was a steep climb up the hill and with only half an hour to go and return. This tour was only made interesting really by our tour guide Pascal, who was our friendly and funny insight into Monoco life and the tax dodging rich (ahem, Bono) that live there. You see little of Monte Carlo, the Grand Prix track, etc. on this tour which would have been more interesting. We selected tours that require little or no walking as we both struggle with long walks/hilly climbs. However when we looked at it, I think it would have been quite easy and more interesting to get a cab or walk into Monte Carlo to look around. The primary fun thing to watch are the rich and famous taking their yachts and jet skis' in and out of the harbour.
Rome - We booked a private excursion in advance for this because we really wanted to see Rome properly. The tour company we used was Carratoni Tours (http://www.carratonitours.com/eng/tours.htm) who provided an excellent service and took us everywhere we asked. Mauricio picked us up at our pre-arranged time from the dockside and had our name on a sign. The car was air conditioned, very comfortable and modern. From here we drove into Rome, roughly a 45 minute drive where you can view the scenic coast line and hillsides. When we were in Rome we were driven to all the sights we'd asked to see and saw a few extras along the way - including the Coliseum (well worth seeing), Trevi Fountain, Mouth of Truth, Circus Maximus (you can't go inside sadly), St Peter's Basillica, Triumphal Arches and Pantheon. Mauricio was very skilled at driving through the narrow windy streets, giving us a great view of all the little side streets that you'd otherwise miss on a coach and giving us details about what we're seeing. We only wanted to spend a maximum of 4-5 hours doing tours, and we managed to accommodate everything in this time frame by doing it privately and we would definitely recommend Carratoni Tours if you want something personal. He also bought us each a little gift of a scarf and bottle of water which was a very charming touch. Collection from the dock, tour and return to the ship cost €350 and was well worth it (especially as the vehicle could have taken another 4 passengers for the same price).
Livorno - We debated about whether to go into Florence or not, but because it's about a 1.5hour drive each way, we decided to skip this port and spend the day chilling on the ship instead. We enjoyed the break in the touring to have some quiet sunbathing at the back of the ship (gladly no one was painting this day) whilst watching the activity in the port and the beautiful sun setting on the sea.
Naples - This was the worst port of the whole trip. We really should have done the Pompeii trip, but we were concerned it would involve a lot of walking in hot weather whilst trailing around after a tour guide. So instead we went for the Carnival Tour "Leisurely Naples". This started off badly with some very rude passengers on the coach which pretty much ruined the trip from the start for me. The incident largely occurred due to poor organisation from the staff arranging the tour, so could have been avoided. The tour itself consisted of driving around an ugly industrialised town, full of rubbish, then heading up the hill and stopping periodically to take pictures of the sea where our ship was docked. There was then a brief stop at a cafe along the shore-front to get a free ice cream or soft drink. If this trip is anything to go by, Naples isn't worth seeing. In hindsight we should have done Pompeii via private tour.
Dubrovnik - In contrast this was our favourite port of the trip. Primarily I think because we didn't have any preconceived notions or hopes, so we were very pleasantly surprised to discover how beautiful Croatia is. We were booked on a Carnival tour but cancelled it because of the experience with the Naples tour the previous port day, so spent the evening searching for a taxi tour company using the super-slow onboard wireless internet. Amazingly we managed to book a tour and the following morning as we disembarked, we were met by our tour driver at our arranged time, who spoke English and took us on a breath-taking tour along the coast line and up into the hills. He drove us up into the highest point, along a very windy narrow road (pray no one is driving in the opposite direction) above Dubrovnik, which is where the Cable Car goes up to. The view over the bay, looking at the various islands is truly beautiful and well worth doing. We also drove into the little harbour villages of Mlini and Cavtat, which had crystal clear water, pretty little gift shops and people playing water volleyball. We then went into the Old Town, which is the walled area of the city with small markets, ice cream sellers, pretty cafes and restaurants. From here you can also arrange all sorts of boat tours taking you around the bay, three island tours, pirate ships and glass bottom boats. All the people in the town that we spoke to had good English, and in fact, better than in Italy or Spain so you won't have a problem arranging things within the city. For this tour we used Car Hire Dubrovnik (http://www.carhiredubrovnik.com/), and simply called to arrange a 3 hour tour of the area and the town which cost €120, and this was actually cheaper than the Carnival tour we had originally booked. We loved this port and on the basis of this tour intend to return to spend a longer holiday in the area to explore it further. Leaving Dubrovnik was also the most beautiful sight, as you pass through the islands as the sun is setting. The primary currency in the shops is the Kuna, but most are able to convert prices into Euro for you. Cash points in the town will give you the Kuna - I think €30 was around 70 Kunas. You'll also need your passport to leave the port as Croatia hasn't yet joined the EU.
Venice - I was very excited about this port as I haven't ever been and have always wanted to experience it. The arrival into the port takes around an hour and gives you a view of the outer islands and St Marks Square as you travel down the Guidecca canal. If you want to see St Marks and Dodge's Palace you need to be on the starboard side of the ship, but the Cruise Director will inform you of this as you're sailing in. If you're on the lido deck during this, you'll be blasted by Pavarotti apparently - something we chose to avoid. I can only imagine which the Venetians make of a giant cruise ship ploughing down their canals, blasting out cheesy opera. We'd booked the Carnival Tour "Panoramic Tour by Motorlaunch", which I had little hopes for, but it didn't involve a coach - how bad could it be? To be fair it wasn't that bad, but it certainly wasn't that great either - or worth the money. It takes you on a lengthy journey around some of the Islands whilst someone talks to you over the intercom about the various insane asylums, black plague hospitals and churches you're looking at. We chose to sit outside at the back so we missed most of commentary, and instead chose to watch the sights and the water. It was quite a pleasant journey and at the midway point you're allowed to disembark at St Marks, where you'd have to find you own way back later on. We decided to do St Marks the following day so stayed onboard and returned to the ship.
The following day we wanted to get into St Mark's on our own. We had contemplated getting a water taxi but were aware these were very costly, and also difficult to get on and off unless you're the athletic sort. We gave up anyway, after attempting to call some water taxi companies and discovered they hardly spoke English and wanted everything emailed to them. From where the ship docks there are booths where you can arrange water taxis and also a private water bus called the Alilaguna (http://www.alilaguna.it/linee.en.html - blue line, €13 return) which leaves every half an hour and goes directly from the port to St mark's, taking approximately 20 minutes down the Guidecca Canal. This essentially takes you the same route as the Carnival tour we took on the previous day, but without the roundabout tour of the islands, which weren't all that interesting to look at. When you arrive at San Marco pier (St Mark's) you'll get off at the ticket office, this is where you'll board your boat for the return journey. You can also purchase a tour of the Grand Canal and the Murano, Burano & Torcello islands from this ticket office. Unfortunately we didn't realise this until we were heading back to the ship otherwise we would have done the Grand Canal tour. These are all tours Carnival offer and charge ridiculous prices for. You can easily arrange these yourself by getting the Alilaguna into San Marco and purchasing the tours from the ticket office there. The alternative to this is to get the public water buses called vaporetto, run by Actv (http://www.actv.it/en/movinginvenice/waterbusservicestimetable), which you'll see all over the place. To do this from the ship you'd have to get on the people mover, which costs €1 each, and then transfer to the overcrowded public transport boats to get around. We had a feeling this would be a lot more complicated and less tourist friendly than the Alilaguna was. St Mark's itself wasn't all it was cracked up to be, or at least, that was my view. There were long queues to get into the Basilica, but frankly, I've seen far too many churches and cathedrals in my life to spend yet another trip doing this. The square itself is nothing amazing, I was expecting people playing music, stalls, people having coffee and Venetians milling around. All I saw were cafe chairs stacked up and tourists with cameras. The side streets are where the culture of Venice is. The narrow streets squeezed between canals offer you a bounty of places to part with your money; primarily Murano Glass, scarves, bags and masks. It's well worth walking beyond St Marks and exploring some of the little side streets where the prices are considerably cheaper, the goods are the same and the tourist volume is lower.
Messina, Sicily - We originally booked a tour for this with Carnival, but again, decided to cancel it and just enjoy a day onboard doing some sunbathing. This is where we discovered the Serenity area was being waxed and so half of the deck chairs were piled up out of action and the rest were covered in towels with no one using them. The staff were also reluctant to help with seating in this area, but eventually put some more seating out after more people arrived with nowhere to sit.
The options for this port were Mt Etna or Taormina. We weren't sold on either and had been told Messina itself is nothing special, so we thought we may as well skip this port. Later on that evening as we were leaving Sicily we sailed past the volcanic island of Stomboli. The Cruise Director, John Heald, claimed this was a special request just for us, but if you do a bit of reading you'll find most reviews say they did the same thing. So it's safe to say every trip that leaves Messina will sail past this island. The view was on the port side of the ship, so we were able to watch this beautiful sight from our own balcony.. although we did have to ignore the smoke coming from next door. The ship gets very close to the island, and you can see the little town built into the side of the volcano, then the ship turns to follow around the corner so you can see where the previous lava flows have slid down the side. Sadly the volcano wasn't erupting as we passed it, but you could clearly see the steam and smoke coming out of the top. Despite not getting off the ship we still managed to see a live Volcano from the comfort of our stateroom, which was as close as I felt I needed to get.
Barcelona - We arranged to stay overnight in a hotel at the end of our trip so we weren't in a hurry to get to an airport. We'd prior arranged for a tour company (http://www.barcelonadaytours.com/) to collect us from the port in Barcelona and take us around the main sights. This was a half-day tour of Barcelona Highlights. We saw the Gothic Quarter, the Olympic stadium, Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, Guell Park, Casa Batillo and several other sights along the way. The tour was very comprehensive and our driver had an amazing knowledge of the area. The tour was around 4 hours long and cost €230 euros for two. In the evening we arranged to go to a Flamenco show on Las Ramblas, which we arranged through the hotel. The club was called Cordobes (http://www.tablaocordobes.com/) and offered dinner before the show or just a drink with the show. We looked at the menu and decided the food on offer was probably not very edible so we ate dinner in the hotel first instead, which was probably equally as bad. We went for the last show of the night and found that it was still packed in the room. You'll discover that the venue was probably once a cosy house, particularly judging by the number of times the dancers must have scraped the ceiling with a dramatic flourish of their hand. The show itself is a real experience and gives you an authentic not-too-touristy feeling of Spain.
Overall the places we visited made the holiday worth doing, although the only memorable tours were the ones we arranged privately so I would strongly recommend you do your own excursions so you get the most out of your port days. It's a shame the port days are primarily in the first week and more sea days in the second week. If you want an evenly balanced cruise, you need the intensive port days to be more evenly spaced giving you a break in between. Had they been done this way I think we'd probably have gone into Florence for example and probably Pompeii, which we regret not experiencing. From the aspect of the cruise line or that particular ship, we were left very unimpressed after all the hype about how great it was going to be. Maybe this was because we weren't from the US, since the ship is very much tailored to Americans, but when we spoke with them, they sounded equally unimpressed with the general experience. One even told us this would be their first and last visit to Europe after this experience, which is a little sad, given how amazing most of Europe is. This is mostly down to the peculiar shore excursions Carnival arrange which provide a very polarised, uninspiring view of the place you're visiting. The onboard experience, despite the high quality service from the staff, feels very much designed to extract more money out of you especially as there's little entertainment to occupy you. Whether this be the pricey drinks, the extra charges for food, the tedious shops, the paintings, the internet, the over-priced excursions or even just the "convenient" service charges added to your bill. Rather than feeling thrilled to visit places like Rome and Venice, you could come away feeling exhausted, uninspired and ripped-off.