We hope you will find some helpful hints here on how to do this cruise yourself - no ship's tours or transfers. We arrived at the Rome airport two days prior to the cruise, and followed the signs to the train. Buy the train tickets to Termini station at a kiosk in the train station (14euros ). Be sure you board the train marked Leonardo express - not the one marked Ostia. From termini (Rome's central train station) we walked to our hotel (Hotel Diocleziano.) After two scorching hot but splendid days in Rome, we walked back to Termini and took the train to Civitavecchia (4.5 euros, buy at ticket machine.)
Upon arrival at Civitavecchia, turn right out of the station (there are a lot of stairs to climb up and down at this station). After 10-15 minutes, you will see the gate to the port on your left. Just inside the gate to the left is the bus stop for the free port shuttle. Board the bus marked with your ship's name.
Boarding was fast (at 1400.) Room was ready, lunch being served (more about the "buffet" later.)
We had an inside category N cabin, which was the smallest cabin we have ever had. However, it was just fine, spotless, and had a flat screen TV and dvd player (free dvd's to borrow), as well as a mini-bar. It's ok to bring on your own wine.
The ship charges 69.00 per person for transfers from the port to the airport or the city, and if you have luggage this actually might be a good option for you. Believe it or not, we travel with carryon only, so we just took the train back to Rome (if you want to go the airport from the port, you need to take the train to Termini, and then another train to the airport.)
Cabin - as mentioned, an inside cabin. Very small, no room for in-room dining, not enough drawer space, but lots of closet space, and room under the beds for luggage storage. All in all, great value. There were spa toiletries in the shower (in dispensers) - Elemis shampoo, conditioner and body wash, all excellent. Bathrobes are provided, as is a Holland America tote bag.
Library /Internet cafe - very well stocked library. Lots of computers to use, but absolutely no need to do that on this itinerary. We will mention the free wifi spots on shore later - do bring a smart phone and / or netbook.
Drinks - average price 6.75, two happy hours a day when you can buy the second identical drink for 1.00. Drink of the day 5.75. Pop in cans 1.95. 15%added to all prices. Coffee bar in library/computer area for espresso/latte drinks, around 3.00. Some wines for 4.50 per glass.
Casino - very smoky, the usual slot machines and table games.
Entertainment - minimal entertainment, average to fair quality. Don't count on this ship to entertain you.
Dining - main dining room - there is a choice of early or late sitting, and also "as you wish dining." You just show up whenever you like, and request a table for however many you prefer. Unlike previous posters,however, we did not have to wait long for the main dining room "any time" dining - just put your name in, and sit in the nearby lounge with a glass of wine, listening to the string trio - even my 22 year old daughter enjoyed that. The service is unobtrusive (slow), the portions are miniscule, but the food tastes great.
Dining - "buffet" - okay here it is. I wish I could give a more positive review than previous posters, but in a word, the "buffet" set up is horrific. It is cafeteria style, where you have to wait in line for absolutely everything, and you can't help yourself either - portions are sparingly doled out by staff. You will lose weight on this cruise, I promise you. The line-ups were so long, I ended up having just rolls and butter for breakfast several times. However, if you do make it through the line-ups, the food (sparing as it is) is fantastic. You also have to dodge staff members who barricade the coffee station for some unknown reason. For the first two days of the cruise, passengers were not even allowed to help themselves to coffee or water, for "hygienic reasons." Even the poolside bbq was appalling, the food seemed to go on the bbq as passengers queued for it, so everyone had to wait for the kebabs to be grilled. Horrific! After waiting, we were given a single kebab with two tiny pieces of lamb.
Bars - again, unlike previous posters, we were never harassed to buy drinks. In fact, I went to the Ocean bar one time and could not find a bartender or server to even get a drink at all.
Tips - 11.00 per day per passenger is automatically added to your ship account. Tipping is not mentioned during the cruise, unlike other cruise lines that constantly allude to the "questions" you might have about tipping. It was refreshing not to hear the word mentioned. We didn't order room service but I would certainly give a couple of dollars for that. I did ask for a corkscrew, and they sent someone to open my bottle for me(no charge, so I certainly tipped).
Gym - the usual, lots of treadmills and elliptical machines. No sauna/steam room except for guests who purchase a 10 day pass.
Spa - we didn't use the spa services, but noticed that they have good specials on port days, but full prices are charged on sea days.
Pools - they always seemed crowded and cramped. I have not noticed this on other cruise lines, but the layout here leaves something to be desired. However, it was very pleasant to sit at the tables poolside in the early morning with coffee. We actually preferred the Lido family pool over the Seaview adult pool because of the smoking at the adult pool.
Muster drill - why cant cruise lines get their act together on this? We were made to stand for over half an hour in the broiling sun. unacceptable.
Design - overall design of the ship is small, cramped and dark. This is unlike other cruise ships we have been on.
Ports (and wifi options)
Rome - we just walked and walked in this port. Take the metro to the piazza del popolo, and walk down via del Corso. Detour to the Spanish steps, and later the Trevi fountain or Piazza Navona. Plenty of cheap internet spots on the streets outside Termini.
Dubrovnik - walk out of the port area, and the bus station is to the right. Exchange money into Croatian currency at the wicket here, then buy a ticket for the city bus at the next wicket. The bus stops on the road outside the station. You can exchange any unused currency again when you return to the station. Take the city bus to the gate to the old city. We didnt walk the wall as the line up was too long, but the old city is beautiful,just walk around it, and go down to the port. Wifi and computers available for a fee at the tourist office just inside the gate. Free wifi at Glam cafe (another espresso macchiato.)
Corfu - head out of the port to the left, and walk around to the old city (it is well marked.) Free wifi at the port. We just walked around the old part of the town, all tourist shops and cafes, many with free wifi.
Katakolon - the main part of town is basically right at the port. We did not go to Olympia, but there are cheap options to get there right from the port, no need to go on an expensive ship tour. Many cafes and shops, almost all cafes have free wifi.
Athens - we walked to the metro (1.3euro). Free wifi at the port. Exit the port area to the left, about a 20minute walk. We changed metro lines to arrive at Acropoli station, very convenient. We did pay the entrance fee to access the Acropolis, a steep climb, and so crowded you wouldn't believe it. Lot's of great shopping in the Plaka area.
Kusadasi - hmmm. We booked a tour from a company in the port shopping area, 20euros for Ephesus and Virgin Mary's house. After seeing Ephesus, you will wonder why you bothered to go to the Acropolis. We used the free wifi at the Starbucks in the port mall (ask for the access code.) We did not enter any shops at the port - we did not enjoy being accosted by every single shopkeeper in the place.
Santorini - is as wonderful as you have heard. We felt sorry for the donkeys, so we took the cable car to the top (4euros). We rented ATVs (20euros for the whole day) and drove ourselves to Oia, the town with the iconic blue roofs. Back in Fira, the main port town, we had a relaxing late lunch (free wifi at many cafes).
Messina - was almost completely closed, as it was Sunday. We ended up at the astronomical clock plaza, which did open for the tourists. At 12noon, the clock puts on a show that you should not miss. Free wifi on the street leading down from the clock (you will see the crew members sitting on the sidewalk.) I tried a cannoli (for the first time), it is their specialty - yum.