On this trip it was me (43) my husband (50) our daughter (17) and son (11). We were celebrating our daughter's high school graduation. This was our third MSC cruise and we were so excited!
Before booking this trip, I had never even heard of Bari, Italy! With such a long way to travel, I knew we would need to arrive the day before to be on the safe side. I searched Cruise Critic for Bari hotels and activities but didn't find much so I began my own detailed search. After finding some hotel options I cross-checked online reviews and prices. I ended up choosing The Bari Palace Hotel based on reviews, location, price and the ability to do 4 people in a room (a quad). That can be hard to find in Europe.
Transportation from Bari Airport to Hotel:
I had a bit of difficulty finding affordable transportation or transfer from the Bari Paliesse Airport to the hotel. I knew we didn't want to utilize public transportation because we arrived at night and we would have been coming off of a 17 hour travel day. After much searching, I found a company and booked their services online, crossing my fingers that it was a legit company. It was and they were there waiting and transferred us and all of our luggage to the hotel no problem. The car was clean and comfortable.
* Just a tip, when I made the reservation online, I forgot that most parts of Europe use military time...like 14:00 instead of 2:00 p.m.. The driver said he showed up at 8:00 a.m. because I didn't put 20:00. He came back at night when he realized my mistake but he also charged us a penalty of about ¾ of the cost of the transfer in addition to the actual transfer. An expense we weren't counting on.
When we got to the cruise port in Bari we were a bit overwhelmed with number of people packed in the upstairs check-in area. The instructions weren't really clear but we were given a number. I had done the online early check-in on the MSC webpage...thank God! We saw a sign that said express check-in and MSC club members but there was a solid sea of people. With our carry-ons, it seemed impossible for us to get through. Slowly we worked our way towards the sign at the far end of the room. We got to a closed rope and showed one of the MSC employees our express check-in forms. He opened the rope and we were let in ahead of ALL of those people. From there it was a breeze. I Highly recommend the online check-in and that you become an MSC club member.
We knew we wanted to see Olympia on this stop but we weren't sure how we wanted to see it. Thanks to the Cruise Critic message boards we found George Letsios of Katakolon Taxi. He got glowing reviews and recommendations. I contacted him directly and he was prompt, friendly and professional; with his replies. We booked him right away about 6 months ahead of our trip, for our short time in Katakolon. We became his "friend" on Facebook, which I thought was fun and made it more personal. Over the months he posted pictures of his tours and family. It made us feel like we knew him.
Katakolon was our first port and we were all still very jet-lagged. Olympia was very interesting but it was also very hot and were dragging a bit. We really like the new museum and loved seeing the Temple of Zeus. George got us there before the big crowds and tour buses and that alone made the whole thing worth it. The ships tours were just arriving as we were leaving. George took us to some other interesting spots but time was short so we didn't get to see all he wanted to show us. He had a lot of information and was so kind and friendly. Another bonus was that he has Wi-fi in his car...everyone was happy about that. I would highly recommend George for a private tour...I only wish we had more time to really experience all he had to offer. I felt that the price was fair at $$$ plus a tip. He was so aware of the time too and really knew the distances between sites. At the end of the tour he drove onto a beach and took our picture with the ship in the background. We were able to pur our feet in the sea which was great too. He dropped us by the port and we had a little time for some souvenir shopping before all-aboard.
I was very excited about this stop. From the pictures you see, it doesn't look like it can be real...but it is. I had tried to book a ship's excursion before our trip but they only let you book this port while on the ship. I am not really sure why. I thought because our time was so short there it would maximize it by doing the ship's tour. Because this port was so important to me, and because I was concerned that the excursions might be all booked by the time we got on the ship (because most passengers got on the day before us in Venice, Italy) I decided to research private tour companies. I stumbled on Pixel Tours and after doing my cross reference of reviews and prices I contacted them. I received quick, informative email replies and booked with them. This was a great decision!
We had to tender into the port and then you must ascend the cliff to arrive at the town. We found it helpful to try and be one of the first people off of the ship and head directly to the cable cars. You actually have three choices...take a cable car, walk up a billion steps or ride a poor, sad donkey. We rode the cable car up and it was perfect. The whole process takes a little while but just be patient...it is worth it. We were a bit earlier than they thought we would be so we called the company and told them we were there. In about 10 minutes there was an escort was there to take us to our guide. Then we met Vicky. Vicky was a breath of fresh air...vibrant and full of life. Super friendly with a warm, outgoing personality. Just what we all needed to perk us up after all of our travel and remaining jet-lag.
Santorini was spectacular and breath taking. Exactly like the post cards. We saw so much in our short time on the island and Vicky had lots of great information and humor to share. We saw both main cities...Fira and Oia, a black sand beach, a winery, several small towns, etc...it was a wonderful tour. And, again, we beat all of the crowds everywhere! If you go to Santorini you MUST contact Vicky. You will have the time of your life without worry of getting back to the ship on time.
As we read online, the lines or Queue for the cable cars are VERY long...like crazy long. We waited for a little while and it didn't move at all. MSC assured us that they would wait for all of the of passengers to get back but we didn't want to take any chances so we decided to walk down the steps. It sucked. There were tons of donkeys and there were tons of steps. It went on and on and on...they were steep in sections and slippery, there was donkey poo and lots of people. While I am glad we didn't wait for the cable car...I don't really ever need to do the walk again either. I don't recommend that you choose to walk up unless you are super fit. It is a LONG way.
This was sort of an unexpected stop but kind of cool. We were going to be there for the evening for dinner, shopping and some nightlife. We chose to do the ship's shuttle bus from the port to town. It was easy and quick.
The town is so pretty and right at the edge of the sea. If you are there in the eve, I recommend that you take some pictures as soon as you arrive as the sun went down quickly. We wandered through the narrow alleys filled with shops and restaurants. We decided to eat at a really pretty outdoor restaurant in the middle of an open courtyard. It was called Familia. The food was good but expensive. The atmosphere was wonderful...like you were in the middle of a party...under a pergola draped with bougainvillea. There were many cats wandering about and one scrawny one sat at the edge of my leg for my entire meal...just staring up at me.
After dinner, we did some shopping and I got a beautiful gold ring. I had hoped to find a gold ring on our trip as a memento and that I could wear as an updated wedding ring. I found it in Mykonos. It was a replica of an old coin that flipped. One side had Zeus and the other side showed Apollo's Harp. Both Gods have personal meaning in one way or another to us and our children so it couldn't have been a more perfect memento of our trip and a representation of our family.
On the walk back to the ship's shuttle, we tried some Baklava and Kababs at an outdoor cafe on the water. We stopped in a tiny church and lit candles. It was too early to enjoy the nightlife but the music was starting and the lights were flashing...
We were all excited about this stop but by the time it came up we were all so tired from all of the sightseeing! Athens was a big city...like any other big city. We did a private excursion here that I booked from home. I chose Paul Kalomiris https://www.athensminibus.com based on recommendations I found on Cruise Critic. It was a great decision.
We went right to the Acropolis completely beating all tour buses. It was practically empty for our whole visit! The buses were letting off just as we were leaving, whew!
Again, we were so grateful we didn't have to be with a big group. We saw many other parts of the city including The Plaka where we had some lunch and got a few souvenirs. We saw the changing of the Guards too...very cool. Our guide knew all of the best spots to view things from. We were very pleased with our choice.
The only evidence of the political issues in Athens was some banners and signs hanging around City Hall. There were no demonstrations or crowds.
He delivered us back to the ship with plenty of time to spare. It was a great day and the sites were memorable but I don't think I need to go back there again.
• I noticed a small clear sticker with a little metal thing in the center on the right side of the windshield of our driver's car. I asked what it was and he told me that it proved he is an authorized taxi and said that there are lots of unauthorized drivers. He said no one ever asked about it before.
Corfu is such a pretty island. Lush and green...turquoise water.
We did a private tour and had another great day. Based on research and Cruise Critic suggestions, we chose Spiros Kritikos from Corfu Taxi Tours. We thought the price was fair and knew we would get to see most of the island.
We were late getting off of the ship due to the crowds and had to tender to land. We called our driver to let him know about the delay and he was waiting for us, no problem. He took us to so many cool spots that we never would have found on our own. A great thing was that he took us to an out of the way small local shop with authentic souvenirs and gifts. We got fresh olive oil, olives, honey and much more.
We went to the Monastery with the most spectacular ocean views. We went to Paleokstara beach and were able to snorkel for about an hour. Be careful, we saw sea urchins hiding in the rocks. Be sure to bring water shoes. Most of the beaches we went to had rocky bottoms. He took us on a tour of the whole city and pointed out the Jewish section and synagogue. He was a character and kept us entertained with personal stories and beliefs. He was very opinionated and traditional.
He offered to take my post cards and said he would mail them from the post office near his home...I thought that was very considerate.
* Packing tip - Our guide told us to take an empty water bottle and cut around the top. Then you can put your bottle of oil or any other breakables inside and the bottle cushions and protects it during the flight. We did it and it worked like a charm. I left the bottles wrapped in their bags and stuffed the whole thing in the empty water bottle.
We were kind of torn about Dubrovnik. It was a destination we didn't know anything about before we left and we weren't even really focused on it. From my research pre-cruise, I learned a little about it and the glowing things people had to say about it. Before we left, there didn't seem to be any ship sponsored excursions that we wanted to do but once on the ship we noticed one we don't remember seeing before. It included a trip to a beach and sounded like something we would like. Unfortunately we took too long to sign up and all spaces were filled...which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
This is what we did...and it was a magical and less expensive day.
We got off of the ship as early as possible...about 7:45/8 a.m.. We chose not to do the ship provided bus into town. There was a fee and we knew it would be very crowded. Instead we walked to a small information booth a few feet away and got a map of the town. The woman informed us that the taxis would take Euros and that the same beach the ships tour was on (St. Jacobs Beach) was only a short drive away. We grabbed a taxi from the taxi line and he took us to the main gate of the old town for 10 euro...super simple. We were immediately struck by the view of the water to the right and stopped to take some pictures. We did see an exchange office just before entering the old city but there was a line and we figured there would be more opportunities inside. Truth is everywhere we went they too euros.
It was a great time to get there as it wasn't crowded and we got to watch the old city "wake up". We walked the main street to the end where the harbor is. So beautiful! We bought a few souvenirs and just kind of wandered about. We had read there was a Wi-Fi hot spot by the Lacoste shop so we stopped there to see if we could check our email, etc.... We didn't get a good signal but right across for the store is a cafe Orlando and they had good, free Wi-Fi. We sat outside and had some coffee and cold drinks. They also had a nice, clean bathroom that was free to guests or about the equivalent of $1 for non-guests.
At the harbor, we saw some glass bottom boats that do a 45-50 minute tour around the island and will drop you off and pick you up at St. Jacobs Beach. They charge 10 euro a piece for the trip. We thought that would have been perfect but it turned out that it was too windy and they would not be sailing until later in the day.
We walked back to the front gate to get a taxi to the beach and by now there was no line in the exchange office. We changed some euros so that we would be prepared if we went somewhere they didn't take the euro. The woman in the office warned us that it was a holiday and that all of the banks were closed...that we wouldn't be able to change the Kuna back to euros. We found out later we were able to change them back at the exchange at the cruise port, no problem.
We got a taxi and headed towards the beach. The ride was about 7-8 minutes and we saw the backside of the city walls. It was very cool. The ride cost 10 euro.
When we got out of the taxi the view took our breath away! The beach area and the water color looked like a postcard. You just have to walk down some stone stairs to get to the beach. There is a beach club there called East West. They rent beds, lounge chairs and canopy beds. The canopy beds rent for 35 euro and the lounge chairs rent for 10 euro each. We rented 4 lounge chairs. Because we were there early and well before any cruise tours, we were able to select4 chairs right at the seas edge. It was too windy for an umbrella though.
The beach club is great. I only wish we had more time to spend there. They have beach service for food and drinks and soft pillows for the lounge chairs. They also have a restaurant, ice cream bar and a nightclub. It is all very modern and has a sexy vibe.
The beach is a pebble beach covered in smooth stones. I had on sandals and the stones got in my shoes and hurt. It is a bit hard to get your footing as the stones slip around and sink. I did bring water shoes but mine are the type that are open on the sides also letting rocks inside. It was uncomfortable for me to walk on the stones in my bare feet but others were doing it just fine. The water was glorious. Cool at first but then it warmed up right away. We had masks and snorkels and that made it fun to explore. A funny tid-bit, my husband found an X-rated sculpture/drawing made out of larger rocks in a flat area about 30 feet down under the water. He took a picture to show us. If you go, see if you can find it!
We ordered drinks and dried off in the warm sun. There was a great breeze...and sometimes a very strong wind gust, which made it not seem so hot. Then we walked up the stairs and headed toward a taxi stand. There were plenty of taxis waiting but ours did not want us in there with wet bathing suits so we had to sit on towels. It was 15 euro to back to the cruise port. Once there we shopped in some tiny shops that had opened while we were gone and exchanged the rest of our money back to euros. We headed back onboard and went to have lunch.
It was one of our favorite stops and we ended up saving a lot of money by doing it ourselves. I would highly recommend it.
* Note - we had planned to walk the old wall too but we had just come off of 4 days of major walking tours of Greece and we just didn't have it in us. We don't regret our choice and look forward to doing the wall on another visit. For us, the old town and the beach were perfect!
Both the arrival and departure to and from Venice on the ship was magical. We chose to take our ships water shuttle to St. Marks Square. It was just easier than trying to do it on our own and was well worth the money
We wondered around the streets surrounding St. Marks Square while they were still relatively empty and open. That quickly changed! We found an outdoor cafe to have something to eat. I don't think you can go wrong with any of them.
I had done a little research on gondola prices and what to expect and it was right on. We found an area they were departing from...they are all over. I think it was about 80 euro for about an hour. It was a combination of the back alleys and the Grand Canal. It was a bit crowded but still a wonderful thing to do. They took us by the Rialto Bridge and our driver pointed out important and interesting sights.
After, we just wandered around some more, had gelato and shopped.
The last time we were in Venice, St. Marks Cathedral was closed for renovation so I knew I really wanted to try and see inside on this trip. Again, I did research before and found a site online where you can book entry ahead. If you just show up it is free to enter but the lines stretched around the building. If you reserve online it is $1 each person but you are given a specific time frame on your specified date and you just show up and walk in. OMG, SO worth it!
Be sure to give yourself time to check any backpacks or bags. It is a short walk around the building to do this so you want to make sure you have enough time.
We took the ships water shuttle back and enjoyed the view of the city from the water.
It was fun to watch the tugboats help the ship leave the dock...a perk to having an aft balcony!
It was easy. They gave us a specific luggage tag color and we just waited in a designated area until we were called. It wasn't an early morning disembarkation so we were able to have a nice breakfast and even a light lunch. We put our big luggage out the night before and they took it. We just kept our carry on luggage with us. We were lucky to find a table under the overhang, on the pool deck while we waited to be called. We had to vacate our cabin early so it was nice to have a place to sit and relax...have something to eat, etc...We got off easily and waited to be picked up.
The ship, like the other MSC ships we have seen, was beautiful. So elegant and tasteful...lush and comfortable. Completely spotless and gleaming at every corner. The public spaces were well thought out and never felt over crowded even though our sailing was sold out. The pool area was crowded but we were always able to get a deck chair. The hot tubs were over filled with people so we didn't use those much. I didn't find smoking to be as big of an issue on this sailing as previous ones. The smokers really seemed to stay in certain areas and mostly outdoors.
We loved the food in the dining room. I don't think I have eaten that much bread in a long time. There were many options and I think out of the entire week there were only about 2-3 meals that I didn't find something I loved. We loved all of the different risottos and my kids tried lots of new seafood. We had the cheese plate often. I didn't care for the buffet as much. It was crowded and there weren't many options that I liked. Other people seemed happy with it tough. Room service was limited but we did have it a few times more as a snack while waiting for the late dinner seating. I thought it was priced fairly at one item for 3 euro or two items for 5 euro. They had salads, sandwiches and desserts. We only did the continental room service breakfast the first morning...it was late and wrong so we decided it was just easier to go to the buffet.
When I originally booked this cruise we knew we did not want an inside cabin and at the time, all that was available was a cabin with an obstructed ocean view. I took it hoping something else would open up. I called MSC every few days to see if there had been any changes and a few weeks later all of those calls paid off! Not only did a balcony cabin open up (which is what we were really hoping for) but it was an aft cabin...which is off of the back of the ship! Yea! We were 4 people (a quad as they call it) so we were really lucky to get any cabin, let alone an aft balcony. This was our first balcony, now we are spoiled.
As I mentioned before, this was out third vacation with MSC and we have been happy with our cabin each time. We think the storage is ample and well thought out. The cabins feel spacious (as spacious as a cruise cabin can feel) and we never really felt overly crowded. The bathroom isn't huge but it was manageable.
The use of color and mirrors really added to the comfortable feel.
The Activities: This trip was so port intensive that we didn't really participate in many of the onboard ship activities and games. We watched some and did a few but this trip, for us, was more about the ports and excursions. I know that those that did participate looked like they were having a ball. The Animation Team that organizes and hosts the games and activities were young, friendly and fun. It never ceases to amaze me at their ability to rattle off instructions or bingo in five different languages so easily. It is truly impressive.
The Entertainment: We like the MSC entertainment overall. We enjoy going to the shows and think they help kick-start our evening. This trip we did the late dinner seating for the first time so it was a little strange going to the show before dinner. This trip was mostly singing and dancing but some of the shows had specialty acts and magic. The theater is beautiful on the Musica and they are able to create many different effects to enhance the shows. I was impressed with the quality of the lighting, lasers and special effects.
The Services: We didn't really utilize many of the additional services. We didn't eat at the al la carte restaurants and we didn't use the spa or gym. My daughter and I did have our hair washed and blown dry for the first gala evening. That was a treat not to have to do it ourselves after the first day of excursions. We both have long, thick hair. I wouldn't normally use the hair salon on the ship but they had a gala night special for the wash and blow dry...about 30 Euro for each of us or if you purchased any two Kerastasse hair products the wash and dry is free. I chose to do that since I like Kerastasse products. They did a nice job and the convience was well worth it.
The Staff/Employees: As on our trips before, all of the employees and staff we came in contact with were friendly and helpful. We didn't have any issues with the quality of service we received.
Minor Complaints: There were only a few and nothing big enough to effect the enjoyment of our trip.
* We didn't think the professional pictures were as good on this trip and we think they are too expensive. We did purchase two but didn't care for the price.
* Our air conditioner didn't work well and it took the first 3 days to get it fixed. Even after that the cabin never really was very cool.
* With the late seating not being until 9:30 we found that we wanted something light to hold us over from lunch that we would eat around noon and there were no options between ,say, 3:00 - 8:00. Only ice cream or room service, which was very limited and had an extra fee.
* The time in port was too short for almost all of them.
Italy, Post Cruise:
We had a day and night after our cruise before our flight and originally we planned on just staying in Bari at the hotel we stayed in the first night. Then I started to do some more research and realized that there wouldn't be much to do as we had already seen most of Bari the first day. I also found that the area isn't big and there are many interesting sights in the surrounding countryside.
On one of my google searches I stumbled on a picture of the most beautiful beach, cliffs and hotel. I was determined to find out where it was and voila' I found it... Polignano a Mare in Puglia, Italy. OMG! SO beautiful and not far from Bari!
I found the actual hotel in the picture and decided to stay there....not thinking it could really be as beautiful as in the pictures. (it was!) Covo dei Saraceni Hotel in Polignano a Mare. We booked two rooms with ocean views.
We dealt with the hotel staff via email and they were very responsive and helpful. They arranged transportation for us from the ship port to the hotel with a stop in Alberobello...a historical site we wanted to see.
The driver picked us up at the port and I think it was about an hour to Alberobello. We spent about an hour walking the streets and seeing the funny, odd little Truli houses and shops.
Then it was about 45 minutes to the hotel Covo dei Saraceni. We turned the corner and there was the scene from the web pictures! Breathtaking.
We checked in and were very pleased with the hotel. The rooms were lovely and both had balconies. Our kid's room had a little bonus guest room and our balcony was huge!
We found out soon that this town is for Europeans...no Americans/English. Which was fine. After checking in, we had some amazing ice cream at a shop they recommended and walked around a bit. It was the late afternoon so almost everything was closed. We wanted to eat but nothing was open...not until 8 or 9 pm.
We changed and went down to the beach. It was very rocky! Wear shoes. It was windy and the water was too rough to swim in but we sat down for a while and enjoyed the scenery. We found pebbles that people had drawn little pictures on...it was like a treasure hunt.
We were hungry and knew we had to wait until later for dinner but we found a small market up the street from the hotel. We picked up some snacks including Italian Pringles potato chips in a Rosemary Olive Oil flavor! So yummy! I think my new favorite.
After our snacks, we all rested and got cleaned up. From our balcony we saw a bride and groom having pictures taken on the cliffs. We also saw fisherman hanging on the rocks while they caught their fish.
We had made a reservation at the restaurant in the hotel, which looked lovely, but decided to cancel it because we wanted more simple food. There was a pizza restaurant directly outside our hotel called Carpe' and it was delicious! It also had a very cool interior. No one spoke English but we managed. Great pizza and atmosphere.
We went back to our hotel and tucked in for the night. We had an early departure the next morning but the short stay here was worth it and a memory we will never forget. It was scenery like we have never seen before.
The hotel had the same driver return to transport us to the airport. He was right on time and the ride took about 45 minutes.
We had another long layover in Zurich so we visited with our Swiss friends, ate, shopped and charged our electronics.
The flight home was uneventful and super easy. A perfect end to a spectacular trip.
Our Packing tips:
I want to pass along some of the specific items we found really useful on the ship.
* over the door, plastic shoe holder...the flat kind with the little pockets. We got a clear one that folded really flat at Target for about $5...also the shelf kind of shoe rack...also Target $5...loved having these!! We had two of the shelf ones. Both went inside the closet and helped disguise the fact that I brought so many pairs of shoes and helped with purses, scarves, hats, etc...and the pocket one hung on the outside of the closet door...we filled it up with sunglasses, sunscreen, hair stuff, bug spray, etc...really helped keep us organized.
* 2 power cord strips...used it everyday...needed 2 on this trip with a teenager and 11 year old!
* pop up mesh laundry basket (Wal-Mart $5)...loved having this. kept it in the closet.
Our Cruise Tips:
* Do your research before. I like to learn about where we will visit and find interesting things to see or experience. Hunt around Cruise Critic for great suggestions and places to investigate. Keep a list of places to see, restaurants, activities, etc...in case you need it.
* We create a binder with a divider for each port and for hotels and flight information. It really helps me stay organized when there is so much information to keep track of. It is also good for all the other travelers to have access to the trip information so I don't have to be the constant point of reference! They can look at the binder and see what is planned, times, activities etc... It's a place I can keep notes before the trip too, organized by port.
* I have a packing list that I made by compiling and combining lists I have found online (just google "cruise packing lists" for ideas). About 2 months before the trip I begin to add to that list as needed based on the location we will be traveling to. I just kind of do it as I go and as I think of things. It is a real lifesaver when it comes time to actually pack and I find that I don't forget anything. It helps me to keep a running list on my smart phone.
* We always make extra copies of all important documents...driver licenses, passports, airline tickets, etc... We keep one set with someone at home, and each adult keeps a set in their carry on luggage in a plastic zip lock bag.
* If your schedule and budget allow try and have a day or two cushion on each side of your trip, especially if it is a long trip like to Europe or if it is winter.
* When planning your budget always add about 30% for unexpected expenses. Everything will cost more than you thought! Be sure to allow for fluctuating currency changes like between the euro and the dollar, credit card exchange fees, etc...
* Go with an open mind and try not to have too many expectations. Each experience is new, take it in.