Our first cruising experience was amazing. We didn't want the holiday to end, and thoroughly enjoyed our week. There were of course a couple of things that we'd do differently or bear in mind but overall Royal Caribbean didn't disappoint.
I'd been sceptical of cruising, afraid that it would full of older people with nothing for me to do, and that I might have blown over £3000 on a kind of floating Butlins for the middle classes. What I found was that being in a different location every day with a full entertainment programme was ideal and there were hardly any oldies!
• If you have 'My time' it's worth booking dinner for several nights ahead. If something comes up that you want to do the next day, swap as soon as possible. The food was amazing. I'm vegetarian and the choices were reasonable in the dining room. One night was a bit more limited, and ended up going for Spaghetti which wasn't the easiest to eat with a white dress
• Take swimwear in your hand luggage if you're arriving in the early afternoon.
• Book tours before you go, save time and money
• You don't need beach towels unless you're planning on visiting a beach on-shore. You get free towels onboard by the pool.
• Take some flip flops in your bag if like me, you like to travel in your heaviest heels or shoes, so you can be comfy and get around the ship before your luggage arrives.
• If visiting, and walking up, the Tower of Pisa, don't take a bag. They dont allow you to take bags up the tower (although a few people had camera bags). Even a very slim handbag (a Radley messenger) wasn't allowed, although I did try to reason that it didn't make me any bigger than somebody with a large bottom. Just take wallet, passport, camera and phone, and ensure you apply sun cream before you leave the coach.
• Know what's free. At mealtimes in the Windjammer, certain drinks such as iced tea, iced water, and sugar free cordials are freely available. There are one or two coffee stations (only one or two) that are free, and as well as buying proper coffee, tea and hot chocolate in the Promenade Cafe, you can get free coffees from the self service area as well as free cakes and biscuits. Tap water is free at mealtimes, or you can get a large bottle of chilled mineral water for $4. We had the fountain drinks package for each of us, but going next time I probably wouldn't do it as we mainly drank iced water anyway.
• Get bottled water for going on day trips. It may be expensive but it can sometimes be a while before you can stop to buy some.
• There are some good fixed price restaurants in Rome near the pantheon, but less towards the Trevi fountain. We had a good meal near the Trevi fountain but it seemed there was more choice nearer the Pantheon.
• Watch your bag around the Trevi fountain - last time I was there we had our camera nicked, and it was round the Trevi fountain that our guide spotted a young girl pickpocketing. Watch out for loud sneezing near you, people offering you random things like roses or trying to engage you in conversation, or anything designed to distract your attention.
• Don't buy anything on the boat until the final day unless you're absolutely desperate, or there's only one left. They have a sale on the final cruising day.
• If visiting Pompeii, Herculaneum or Vesuvius, in August take a parasol. It is incredibly hot.
• The tours in Italy, by Aloschi bros, I think, handed out a bottle of water to each person but it's still worth taking a bottle.
RCI are really well organised. We were met at the airport to 'check' in, and once we'd handed our luggage over to them at Barcelona airport we didn't see it until it was left by our staterooms later that day. We were met by friendly reps to check in, provide us with our Sea Pass cards, and get us on the right transfer coaches. The port itself was not too busy at about 12pm but it was good to bypass the queues. If you hadn't flown on one of RCI's flying partners, I don't think it would be too arduous to get through the queues at the ports.
There were a couple of shops by the port to buy Barcelona souvenirs, pharmacy items, flip flops etc. As my feet had already had enough of my high heels I decided to buy a pair of flip flops for 6 Euros - a good idea as my case didn't reach my room till 6.30pm by which time I'd walked around the boat several times. It may be worth taking your swimming gear if you are arriving to the boat in the early afternoon, as it was a good opportunity to use the pool while it was fairly empty.
Our room, an E1 stateroom was lovely and large. I had been expecting a few better toiletries if I'm honest and hadn't brought much shower gel. There were 2 soap bars, and some shampoo/conditioner on the wall. The Cruise Compass was initially in Spanish (an easy mistake as my husband is of Spanish nationality and we have a Spanish surname) but as soon as we mentioned this to our stateroom attendant changed it and after that it was always in English. We also received an invite to the 'Honeymooners Reception' which was the following night.
At 4pm the 'Muster' - basically a safety drill. Husband and I felt a bit irked by this - we arrived at the muster point without about 20 minutes to go, so plenty of time. It's very well signposted, but every Royal Caribbean person seemed to want to tell us where to go. Helpful initially, but then kind of felt quite bossed about. I think this is because it's day 1, people do look a little bit lost, and they just want to come across as helpful. Thankfully this was the only day we felt bossed about.
A Set Sail Party was at 5pm by the swimming pool, watching the entertainers, sipping cocktails, and waving bye to the port got everyone in the mood. Get your cameras out! Sunbathing in the main pool area was possible, but swimming was difficult given the number of diving kids in the pool. Great for families but quite noisy.
We booked the 'my time' dining, and had dinner about 7.15pm, which meant we could watch the sun setting over Barcelona. We spent most of the time after dinner just wandering round the boat, reading our cruise compass and planning our next day.
There was a parade at 11pm along the Royal Promenade. This was little cheesy but it was fun, and well put together - all the kids loved it. It was a nice end to our evening.
Pisa was our next stop. We opted to do Pisa and the field of Miracles rather than visiting Florence on the understanding there’s a lot more to see in Florence than there is in Pisa. Our guide, David met us off the ship and gave a lot of information about the area. It was another early start and Livorno (and the rest of the Italian ports) are a lot less pretty than the French ones. By the time we reached Pisa the heat was incredible. There’s a short walk from the coach park to the field of Miracles, and a few dodgy traders along the way. The field was packed with tourists even at 9.30am but even so it wasn’t difficult to get the essential pictures of us pushing the tower back up straight. Going up the tower requires a certain level of fitness, but if you can walk up stairs in an office block you’ll be fine. This was a fairly short trip, although we did have plenty of time to wander around the field of miracles, get a Pistachio ice cream, and buy a couple of souvenirs.
In the evening, as well as seeing our first In the Air Show, we went played some mini golf and wandered around the boat. At sunset, as the ship pulled away from Livorno, we stood at the front of the ship watching the sun go down. However, as we did we noticed Dolphins in the sea following the ship. Not easy to get a good view, as we were on deck 12, but the next nights we tried from Deck 4 where the heli-pad was, this is lower down. Unfortunately no dolphins after that
In the Air Show
I hate cabaret. I’ve tried to get in the spirit of it, I’ve tried to appreciate the artists for being very talented, and the costumes etc. And the In the Air Show was somewhat more enjoyable than a typical cabaret show. They’re big productions which are fun to watch, although some sketches if you dislike cabaret will leave you wondering what on earth you’re doing. However, the star of the show was a High ribbon performer (?) called Dmitri. This guy (we guessed he was Russian from his looks and then later his name kind of confirmed it) had muscles on muscles, and used two long ribbons of fabric from the ceiling to move up and down using pretty much just his own body strength to music. It was incredible and I’d recommend sitting through the 30 other minutes of cabaret to see him. Really good.
The Ship docked just outside of La Seyne Sur Mer, a port town 20 minutes away from Toulon. Royal Caribbean actually ran coaches from the port to Toulon for €15 Euro round trip, although these weren’t part of the guided tour. Had they not, it would have still been possible to get a taxi or bus. A small train ran from the dock into La Seyne Sur Mer if you wanted to go and visit a French cafe for lunch. The dock also had a few shops selling souvenirs and hand crafted items such as painting and handmade toiletries.
The Royal Caribbean trips advise that the shops are closed on Sundays in the French towns that their tours visit, and for this reason alongside that we weren’t particularly interested in any of the tours that day we decided to remain near to the ship and familiarise ourselves with the amenities on board. We found the adult only Solarium area was by far the most relaxing for swimming and sun bathing. It is a little shady though from about 3pm onwards – if you are seriously after a tan then you could go up to Deck 12, or else get a bed right near the pool in the centre of the area to avoid the sun being obscured by the sides of the boat. Jacuzzis overhanging the sides of the ship are found in the Solarium area.
Dinner tonight was formal; annoyingly some people were in there in jeans although they did wear them ironed, with a shirt and shoes (who does that?) followed by a ‘Honeymooners Reception’ held in the Catacombs. This was a nice touch by Royal Carribean, for about 30 couples, a champagne reception with various raffle prizes. They did however, practically force us to do a cheesy first dance – absolutely hilarious as my husband and I had found the first dance the most difficult element of our entire wedding day, so repeating the experience was not on our to do list! However, we enjoyed it, had the free champagne and were served a delicious cake.
It was a bit of a shame actually – the cake they made was huge and went largely uneaten but having just had dinner we were absolutely stuffed. Plus, cake on the Liberty of the Seas is not exactly in short supply!
This area of Italy (Campania) is beautiful and well worth taking some trips out for. I have spent some time here previously and can recommend trips to Pompeii, up Vesuvius itself, Sorrento, Positano, and Capri.
In the morning, under the baking Amalfi coast sun, we wandered into Naples. Naples is a port, very industrial and basically the area where you’re dropped off is pretty rough. By the port, there are some great shops in a modern shopping centre that you can visit. We wandered towards the town itself which was quite interesting. It wasn’t hostile at all but it didn’t feel particularly safe – the traffic here is less likely to stop than even in Rome, it’s busy and there are plenty of suspect blokes wandering round. You can however take a sightseeing bus straight from the Port area, which would give you more of an idea about what else was going on, and where to visit. Also, you could take a taxi to a nicer area, and if I went again I think I’d research stuff to do nearby, such as visit Ischia which is between 40 mins and 1 hour away by ferry. You’d have to get up early but Ischia looks really amazing with a natural thermal spa.
We decided to visit Herculaneum which is the lesser known town devastated by the same eruption that destroyed Pompeii, but is actually better preserved as it was buried in mud for hundreds of years. The trip also involved visiting a cameo factory. The cameo factory was very interesting – these pieces of jewellery are made by artisans using shells and require significant skill and talent. They are expensive (start at about €200) but well worth the money. From there we went to Herculaneum. This was the peak of the day and absolutely roasting hot! It was unbearable to be in the sun even though this was a cooler week than the previous three. Most people ran from shade to shade and drank plenty of water. Our tour guide, Paolo, was brilliant. A working archaeologist he does the tours to Herculaneum alongside his other work, and was able to really bring this town to life. Ercolanum, as the Italians call it, is only partly excavated as much of the town is buried beneath ground that has been built upon. However, you can see the friezes and artwork which rich romans had in their homes, statues, wood work, and even furniture. Tiles and mosaics are intact, and materials like marble, brick, and concrete still in situ for you to look at.
This was a relatively short tour, but one of the most enjoyable. We came back able to really enthuse about the town and understand it’s history – well worth a visit.
Black and White Open air Party
Back on the boat, after sunbathing in our favourite adult-only Solarium area we prepared for the Black and White Party. I imagine that they run these every week. After dinner the party started late but was busy with it seemed, most guests. The bars were however quite busy. If you had only eaten a light meal (which we’d recommend, or not eating at all), there was a barbecue buffet with the usual selection of fruit and desserts. There were also ice and fruit sculptures to enjoy, as well as cocktails. It was a great night, we got talking to a few people, and then afterwards in the Solarium there was an adult only after party until the early hours. The music was pretty good from the two DJs, and many of the off-duty staff were also enjoying the party.
Day Seven, At Sea
Today we had the whole day to enjoy the ship. It was hot weather so humid that within a few seconds of opening our balcony doors, every mirror and glass had misted over. It was difficult to get sun beds in the family area – there were a lot of chair hogs, and although we were quite conscientious in not leaving our things there for more than 30 minutes, many people weren’t and Royal Caribbean weren’t great at enforcing their own rules. I think if you went up a level on deck 12 and away from the swimming pools you’d have been fine. We did however find a couple of beds in the Solarium and today was the first day that the Solarium pool was not icy cold! Throughout the morning there were various competitions and events in the family pool, including a belly flop competition. I think to enter this you might need to speak with the cruise entertainment director by hanging around that area in the couple of hours before hand. It was fun watching it, and really well done. Today you could also go ice skating during a public skate time, and there were films being shown up on the pool deck and in the screening room. Today for us was very much about relaxing and sadly, packing. We dined in the main dining room, a perfect finish to our week.
We first stopped to visit the St Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli) Basilica, which houses the Michelangelo statue of Moses. This church is strangely plain from the outside compared to other catholic churches, but has a long and interesting history. The real reason to visit it though is for the statue. There are one or two relics, although I’m never keen on dwelling on the body parts of the dead. From here we walked to the Coliseum. The heat was intense by this time, about 10.30, 11am, and we were glad to find shade and have hats, noting many people had to buy emergency hats from tourist stalls. There wasn’t time to actually go into the Coliseum, but we had 20 minutes to look around it. Next was the Vatican, where we visited St Peter’s Basilica. Quite a few members of the group, my husband included really weren’t so bothered about visiting this. However the tour guides were quite insistent that we visit, if only to see the size and the artwork. Being a catholic who chose to step away from the religion, my husband found this quite difficult (residual Catholic guilt I imagine), and I can understand that if you are quite respectful of other religions as we are, it doesn’t feel quite right to gawp at the religious places of others. However, it was a kind of ‘when in Rome attitude’ that we went along with, and I for one was quite glad we did to understand the history and importance of Rome in Catholicism. Judith continued with her commentary which really added a lot of value to wandering around, and made the trip much more interesting.
After this we had a few hours free for lunch and exploring Rome alone. We hopped in a taxi to the Pantheon (€6), and after exploring there, walked to the Trevi Fountain and Spanish steps. There are some great designer shops in the side streets around the Trevi fountain. These include the Ferragamo shop where Audrey Hepburn’s last is/was held. This is the perfect day to splurge if you want to get a souvenir too! The shops near the Vatican where the coach picks up are quite religious tourist shops – if you want to get some Rome specific tourist items, get them from further away.
Again, we got a taxi back to the Vatican to pick up the coach, and whilst waiting had a couple of brilliant Pistachio ice creams – our favourite to have in Italy!
Johnny Rockets Dinner tonight was a burger at Johnny rockets, as I couldn’t face another 3 course meal. Johnny Rocket’s is the Diner – it was fairly quiet. They do brilliant burgers, including a Soya burger – whoop! Husband had a chicken sandwich/burger thing and a really tasty milkshake. Great service too. Husband felt this was the best place ever. Meat-eater.
Encore! Ice Skating Show The Encore Ice Skating show, in studio B, played to a full house. There were 8 skaters plus an additional magician act. Unfortunately as we sat down we noticed the ice was perhaps not as firm as it should have been, and with big chunks being taken out of it during the routine, it left a fairly uneven skating surface which caused a tumble at one point. However, the skaters were unbelievably good; when you consider that they are skating on a moving ship it is all the more incredible. The skating rink, whilst reasonably sized, is not huge and the routines that they did used every inch of it. The skaters danced to some great music with routines which genuinely impressed and astounded (headbanger twirls!) This show was by far my favourite, and I didn’t want it to end. 45 minutes was not long enough!
So exciting: after following formula one for 7 years Husband and I were going to Monaco on our honeymoon! It was a ridiculously early start, which did sort of take the edge off, and at 6.45 am we were in the ‘Studio B’ ice rink area to catch a tender boat. Villefranche’s port and much of the French Riviera is too small for the Liberty to dock in, so small tender boats took us a few hundred meters to Villefranche. Getting up so early was worth it, as we watched the sunrise over the hills around the bay, slowly flooding the small French town with the famous Cote D’Azur light.
Our guide Nathalie greeted us and distributed earphones and small devices so we could hear her commentary. Kudos to Noel the coach driver who expertly guided the coach from the tightest of spots and onto the beautiful Corniche road. Many sights were pointed out to us; Abramovich’s new house, Bono’s, the hills where Princess Grace had her fatal accident, and other houses of the rich and famous. Reaching Monaco we were soon greeted with Lamborghinis, Ferraris, McClarens, Bugatti’s, and Bentleys. We visited the port of Monaco first, and walked up passing the famous formula one hair pin bend, to the Monte Carlo Royal Casino. Here we had a half hour to explore, although as it was so early in the morning few shops were open, and the casino certainly wasnt. It was a great opportunity to get some good pictures, before we headed off to Prince Rainier’s palace. For a further €8, we had an audio guided tour of the palace which was well worth the money. This wasn’t part of the official tour, but Nathalie recommended we went and got the agreement of most people. If you didn’t want to do this, we had a meet-up point and time to explore freely. We also visited the Monaco Cathedral where all the royal family were buried, and went past the Museum of Oceanography which several people opted to visit during free time.
Back to Villefranche, we wandered around this absolutely gorgeous town. It would have been lovely to have lunch in one of the portside restaurants although to be honest we were baking in the sun and desperate to go swimming so headed back to the Liberty. There were a few market stalls near to the port with quite nice clothing.
Monday night was when we decided to book in for Portofino, the Italian restaurant with an additional cover charge of $20 per person. This was an amazing meal – one of the best I have ever had. Just make sure you go hungry. Before the first course one of the tastiest bread baskets you’ll ever see was put in front of us, along with a garlic dip, balsamic, red pepper tapenade, olive tapenade, and butters. We then had our starters – a variety of bruschetta. There are no pizzas or typical pasta’s here, and I, although vegetarian normally, opted for a fish dish with Mediterranean vegetables whilst my husband ate lamb. Both were perfectly cooked. By this point, we were stuffed but kept eating the quartet of mini desserts and then (!) petit fours. OMG – I had to go to the room and lie down to recover from my indigestion!