We have cruised 9 times before, but this was our first trip to the Mediterranean (and our first time to Europe). We would not likely have selected this trip, but we were fortunate to be invited as part of a corporate trip involving my wife's employer. This was our second time with Royal Caribbean, having sailed on the sister ship Freedom of the Seas a year ago.
We came a day early and stayed 5 days afterwards in Barcelona, so we did not use the RC airport transfer service. We came a day early so that we would have at least partially adjusted to the time-change, and we stayed at a reasonably priced hotel in Las Ramblas area. We were glad that we did, because some storms disrupted the travel plans of many in our group, some of whom were not able to join the cruise until the third day.
We arrived at the port at about 11:30 am and were very pleased to have the easiest embarkation that we have ever experienced. Less than 5 minutes waiting in line and we were on board by noon. On past cruises, we were able to drop our carry-on bags into the cabin without difficulty, but this time, we found someone stationed by the elevator on our deck who instructed us to go up to Windjammers and the pool deck and to come back at 1 pm, which is what we did. Luggage arrived at our cabin some time between 1:30 - 4 pm. Muster drill was quick and relatively painless and efficiently conducted.
Dinners were a different experience for us than typical on a cruise, because we were part of a group of several hundred people. The ship has a 3 level dining room, and much of the 2nd level, 2nd seating was reserved for our group, and we could eat at whatever table we wished. So, we did not eat at the same station every night, and as it turned out, we did not have the same dining room servers more than once. Nevertheless, a few of them did recognize us as we say them at other meals, and the we thought that the servers were very friendly and accommodating, especially on the not infrequent occasions when members of our group would stroll into the late seating 45 minutes after it had started. I never saw a complaint, and they managed to work us all in. This was a very hard-working staff.
Nevertheless, we are only luke-warm about the dining service. Some of the staff did not really know much about the dishes, and the food quality was significantly lower than we had experienced on our several Celebrity cruises and even less than we had experienced on our last Royal Caribbean cruise just 18 months prior. We tend to follow our server's recommendation and usually enjoy what we eat, but some of the dishes really missed badly - cheap cuts of meat, wilted lettuce in the Caesar salad.
Because of the nature of the dining (and thanks to a generous on-board credit allowance from our corporate host), we felt more free to try the Specialty Restaurants, and we went to Chops on the third night and Portofinos on the last night. We had tried Chops on our last RC Cruise and had been very impressed. It was still good, but the cuts of meat were noticeably inferior to our last sailing, when we thought that they were comparable to very fine steak houses. The steaks were all perfectly cooked and deliciously seasoned, but the quality of the meat wasn't there. We had heard mixed reviews of Portofino's, but our group of 4 was unanimous in thinking it was better than Chop's. That was a surprising conclusion, particularly since we had just enjoyed some truly great meals while in port in Italy, but it was a really great time. Perhaps it was because it was slow for the last night and they were able to give us more attention - but Portofino's was by far the superior dining experience of the two. And, I ordered a steak (prepared Florentine-style) at Portofino's, so I was particularly surprised to find it better than @ Chops, but it was.
We went to Windjammers twice for lunch and felt that it was fine. We particularly liked the carving stations. The attendants were very anxious to please, and the waiters were not too aggressive with the drinks (which was not the case at the pool deck - more on that later). One morning we had breakfast at Windjammers, and with many excursions leaving right around the same time, it was crowded, hectic, and not particularly pleasant. A far better choice with an early excursion is to go to the main dining room, where you have a choice between ordering something to order or getting something quick at the buffet. If someone were in a hurry, they would do better going to the buffet in the main dining room - counter-intuitive, but true. We ordered room service a few times - once for some cheese and a fruit-tray, and twice for breakfast. Service was prompt - each time coming right at the early range, with a phone call telling you that it was on the way. Oddly, service in the main dining room was spotty, with ordered items being omitted, difficulty getting water or coffee refills, and once, items not coming together. On one occasion, we were seated at a table for 6 that had been previously used by 4 and not yet cleared. They seated us at the two unused seats. While we were eating, they cleared the other 4 - very odd.
Our stateroom attendant was nice; we asked him for ice the first day, and he unfailingly supplied it every day after that. He promptly addressed a few other special requests that we had. But, he would continuously try to get into the room when we were dressing for dinner. I understand that he wanted to do the turn-down service, etc., early, but we had the late seating at 8:00 pm, and he would want to get into the room around 7:00. Sometimes, when we came back from a late afternoon at the pool deck (cooling down after a hectic day in port - more on that later), we would find that our cabin had been turned down already before we had showered and dressed for dinner.
This was a VERY active itinerary with 5 ports in one sea day. As I previously mentioned, we would never have chosen to be introduced to Europe this way, as it is more our style to slowly experience new places. We also are usually very disinclined to use cruise line excursions - we've never really been pleased by one, and we've never really been disappointed by a private one that we saw recommended on these boards. But, because we were traveling as part of a group, and because some of the places of interest were some distance from the ports, and because our corporate host gave a generous allowance for excursions, we signed up several of the RC excursions.
First day, in Toulon, we did the Aix en Provence excursion. Our tour guide spoke little English and she spoke with such a heavy accent we could not understand her. We enjoyed the coach ride through the French countryside, and Aux was a beautiful town. We fairly quickly ditched the guide and walked around on our own. Others we spoke with fared better because they had a better guide. If you sign up for this one, see if you can avoid Natalie for your tour guide. Truly awful. But, we did enjoy walking through the quaint streets of this beautiful village and drinking coffee in a cafe. Because it was a Sunday, all of the shops were closed. This was our least favorite stop - if I had to do it over again, I would rent a car or hire a private driver. Not much to do or see in Toulon.
Second stop was Cannes. We decided not to book anything - we had a leisurely breakfast and, after the crowds cleared, took the tender (the only port where we tendered). We spent a few hours walking around and then had a wonderful meal at a cafe - the idea being that we should have at least one decent meal ashore when in France. The care wa La Marina. A very memorable meal. After that, we went to one of the public beaches and swam. The public beaches are free, and it is possible to put your belongings in a spot where they will always be in view. We felt safe having them there. There were some topless bathers - we took a healthy walk to the West and noticed that the further from town, the more prevalent the topless bathing (and the less crowded the public beaches).
Third stop was Florence. We had arranged for the Florence on your own excursion. We were accompanied by a guide, who gave us a really nice overview on the ride out. They offer you coupons for water at a shop that also offer restrooms - all a ploy to get you to shop at an overpriced shop. They also had arranged a leather=making demonstration. As soon as we saw where the rendezvous spot was, we skipped out and started to explore this remarkable City - a highlight of the cruise for us. We opted to fully explore the major Renaissance sites, which did not leave much time to go into areas that had huge lines. We tried (but failed) at getting advance tickets to Academy, so we couldn't see the original David. But, most of the best sites in Florence are outside. We had downloaded Rick Steve's very good audio Renaissance Walking Tour, and that added much to our appreciate. High on my list was to see Galileo's Tomb, so we went inside the Church of the Holy Cross (where Michelangelo and Machiavelli are also entombed). Had a nice lunch at one of the cafe's followed by some exquisite gellato, which is the local specialty. One thing we learned - stick with the house wine to get good value and decent quality (we're wine aficionados and would know the difference). Getting back at the end of a VERY hot and long day, we desperately needed to get into the pool and cool down a bit, which we did after every day of excursion, but it was particularly appreciated this day. This was very much a whirlwind day; the 5 1/2 hours allotted for Florence is no where near enough, and we did want to spend some time unwinding - hence the nice lunch. All you can do is get a taste of the City, and that we did.
And, this is doubly true for Rome. We did the Taste of Rome excursion, which I would highly recommend for someone who wants to see the major sites but also have some time on your own. We had a good guide on the coach ride into the City who gave us a good overview. We were dropped off near St. Peter's Square and managed to explore a few major squares, the Pantheon, and Trevi Fountain. From there, we went to the Spanish Steps, walked up, purchased sandwiches, and ate them on the steps. After that, it was time to go back to the meeting spot, where we were surprised to find that the Pope was addressing the folks in the square. We later found out that was a pretty big deal and quite rare (it was St. Peter's Day). We didn't know it was the Pope that we were hearing (we found that out later), and we never bothered to look up to see where he was (it was later that we learned from where he spoke). The rest of the afternoon was a guided tour - they took us through the Vatican (St. Peter's Cathedral - not the Sisteen Chapel, to St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, and to the Coliseum (outside only, no time to go in). We were given 15 minutes to walk around the Coliseum and to shop at the vendors. I found that one of them sold beer, and got one for me and my wife - and everyone else on the bus was very jealous; it was another very busy and very hot day. We were grateful for the pool on our return.
Next day was Naples, and for this, we hired a private driver through Romeinlimo.com We went straight to Pompeii, where we beat the buses from the ship excursions; our driver got us a fantastic guide. From there, we went to Sorrento, where we spent a nice hour or so. From there we went to lunch. We told the driver we were in his hands and to get us to a great seafood restaurant with a view of the amazing Amalfi Coast. He took us to Zio Sam, which was the consensus best meal of the trip among all 4 of us. We got an assortment of antipasta and we all had pasta dishes. I took our the recommendation of our waiter (the owner's son)and had the Fruti del Mar - and it all came wrapped in foil - so that the juices of the amazingly fresh fish would be soaked up by the pasta. Best I've ever had. And, we shared an order of Calamari Roma (fried calamari), which we all thought was the best we had ever had. We drank plenty of house wine (a dry Rose) and then we had 2 shots of Limoncello - on the house! We took our time over lunch, something you can't do on a group tour, and as a result, we didn't get as far up the coast as we otherwise would have. But, our driver took us to a few additional vistas for photos, etc., and then we asked him to take us to one of his favorite coffee shops.
That request really touched him, and he told us how important coffee was to the Napoli. We went to a roadside cafe, and he bought espresso's for all of us and insisted on paying. After that, although we were full, we told him that we wanted to check out an authentic Naples pizzaria, and he took us to Da Michele, which we later learned had become world-famous because of its having been haled as the world's best in Eat, Pray, Love. After that, time to go back to the ship, quite stuffed and perhaps a little tipsy from the wine, limoncello, and beers with the pizza. A most memorable day.and if ever in Naples for a day again, I would probably repeat the itinerary exactly.
Next day was a Sea Day, and it was very windy and a little cool. We tried to enjoy ourselves on the pool deck, but it just wasn't comfortable, so we tried somd gambling (not much luck).
We did not go to any of the shows. One of the special shows, Up in the Air, had to be rescheduled due to technical difficulties. We had planned to go to that one, but we couldn't go to the rescheduled time because it conflicted with one of two private receptions held for our corporate group. We did experience several of the lounges and, having been on a twin ship, we knew that Olive or Twist was the place for us. The band there was very good, and this is just a great venue for quiet conversation when they aren't playing.
For disembarkation, we paid extra to get late disembarkation. For $35/pp, we were permitted to stay in the cabin until 9 pm and remain on board until 3:30 pm. So, we had a leisurely breakfast, went up to the pool deck and relaxed for a few hours, had some lunch at Windjammers, and then disembarked. We felt that we needed that unwinding time after such a hectic itinerary, involving early port calls and dinners that didn't end until close to 11:00 pm. We had 5 days in Barcelona, where we stayed at a Bed and Breakfast, and we finally had a chance to explore a European City the way that we could prefer - by strolling the streets, setting in the squares, parks, and cafe's, and getting to meet and talk with some of the people. We did manage to see the major sites, too - The Sagrada Familia, a concert at La Palau Catalonia, several museums, the Magic Fountain, the Gaudi houses, folk dancing at the Cathedral, and much more. Incredible Jamon Iberica (Serrano Ham, finished on acorns, cured and aged), Tapas, Paella. And more Cafe Solo's than I can count. By the end of the 5 days, we were relaxed and ready to head home - 4 might have been enough, and 6 would have been too many.
As for the ship, I continue to think that RC is tops for young adults and families with teenagers. My wife and I are no longer young adults, though, and when traveling WITHOUT our two teenagers, that is not going to be our first choice. Still, we think that the Promenade is a terrific feature on these ships, and it provides a great place for folks to come together. In all, this was a great cruise - but I still don't think that a cruise is the best way to see Europe.