When my step-mother (65) invited my husband (34) and I (45) to join her on the Liberty of the Seas 7-Night Mediterranean Cruise, I have to admit that we were a little hesitant. A cruise, on such a massive ship, was never something my husband and I had ever considered, but my step-mother's excitement rubbed off, and since we hadn't seen her in almost five years (we live in Europe and she lives in Canada), we decided to make an adventure out of it.
The bus shuttle located across the street from the Colon (Columbus) statue in Barcelona at the bottom of Las Ramblas takes you to the ship and costs €2,00 per person one-way. The ride took 15 minutes on an empty shuttle, but I imagine it takes longer when packed and dropping off people to other ships.
Once at the ship's terminal, it took all of 20 minutes to drop off our bags, move through the security, fill out a health status form and do the check-in to get our SeaPass. It would have probably gone faster if we didn't have one pen between us to fill out the forms and if we hadn't lingered in the duty-free shop, which didn't really seem very duty-free to my husband and I, although my step-mother thought the prices significantly cheaper than back in Canada.
LOTS is an impressive vessel and can initially seem overwhelming. However, you aren't likely to get lost. Interactive maps are located near the elevators, and inside the elevators each floor is listed with the restaurants and bars or facilities that you'll find situated on each floor. Outside the main dining rooms you will also find interactive maps, and you can check the evening menu on them as well.
My husband and I really loved the interactive TV in the stateroom, which you can use to keep track of how much you're spending, find events happening on the ship and check service discounts and "complimentary consultations", which are plentiful. Some of the events seemed a bit absurd to us, like napkin folding, although to each their own, I suppose, and the consultations struck us as sales pitch seminars. We didn't bother.
There is a children's pool and an adults-only pool along with a general one, which I thought was great for accommodating different types of people. The adult pool is significantly quieter. There is an arcade with interactive video games and old favourites like Space Invaders. My husband and I had fun spending some money there, although at $0.75 to $1.95 per game, it can add up quickly. Surprisingly, or maybe not, there were more people in our age group in the arcade than there were children or teens. The library is a nice, quiet getaway to sit back and read, and there is also an Internet room. Internet will set you back 0.65 cents a minute unless you opt for one of the Internet packages to save you a few cents and, if you read the fine print, there aren't any guarantees in regards to a solid connection, although you'll still have to pay even if your connection pops out while using the computers.
I can't say enough about the fabulous service from all the staff we came across. The headwaiter in the Michelangelo Dining room often chatted with us, and we thoroughly enjoyed our assistant and main waiters in this same dining room. Our first night, in the Rembrandt dining room, was awkward not only for us, but for the wait staff who had to keep smiling through the whole nightmare, but upon later talking to our waiter in that room, we learned that she had made a complaint to the head waiter. Of course, what can any of the staff actually say to rude, prejudicial, obnoxious drunks paying to be on-board? We dealt with that couple on our own, but it was very easy to change our seats, which we did. Our room attendant, Arturo, was fantastic and left us little towel animals, one day a dog wearing a pair of sunglasses I'd left on the table, and another day a monkey on a hanger dangling from the ceiling. I thought it was a sweet, fun gesture, but it was my step-mother who really got kick out of it. She loved those damn towel animals!
We planned everything ourselves, and didn't book any excursions, but we did use a shuttle from the ship into Livorno ($8.00 per person return). It could have been due to the general strike we met that day in Italy, and therefore an unanticipated surplus of passengers coming and going from Livorno, but the shuttle was poorly organized. Actually, getting to Livorno was easy, but when we tried to return to the ship we discovered that two of apparently only three bus drivers had gone for lunch. As buses shuttled people back and forth from the Norwegian Epic (whom my husband named our nemesis) and Brilliance of the Seas every ten minutes, it took nearly an hour before a bus for LOTS came around. This was the only time we dealt with customer service and they were excellent. By the time we returned to our room we had been fully reimbursed and had received an apologetic phone call, although we hadn't asked for or expected either.
As a party of three, I'm not sure that it was much of a surprise to find ourselves seated at a table for eight at dinner in the Rembrandt dining room on our first night. I understand that when seating such a diverse range of individuals, the powers that be attempt, as best they can, to group those with common interests together. However, other than the hometown of the person making the reservation and the age of the guests, there are few common denominators that Royal Caribbean (RC) can get from a booking. We were completely mismatched, as I said, but we did meet a number of friendly and interesting people on the cruise. If I were to be in a similar dining experience again, then I would happily fill out a questionnaire to better match my party with dinner companions.
Now, I have read many reviews about the poor quality of the food in the dining room. I ordered fish twice (some sort of sea bass and sole) and on both occasions the fish was terribly over-cooked. Fish is not the highlight on this cruise. Otherwise, the food exceeded all of our expectations. Shrimp was plump and tender and both the filet mignon and NY strip (ordered rare and medium-rare by our party) were succulent and cooked to perfection. My husband thoroughly enjoyed a roast leg of duck one night, although he felt a pork dish was a bit dry. The Caesar salad seemed, to me, made with a bottled dressing, which was fine, but I didn't order it again. The soups - cream of mushroom, asparagus and green gazpacho - were fantastic, and my husband and step-mother raved about two appetizers - one of shitake mushrooms in puff pastry served with a marsala wine sauce, and the other a Vidalia onion tart. Desserts were also very good. I enjoyed a lemon meringue tart, although my companions loved whatever chocolate was on order for the evening - and there was always chocolate on the menu. Lunch is served in the dining room on the cruising day, and since Carpaccio was on the menu, I couldn't resist. Again, we were more than pleased.
A breakfast buffet in the Rembrandt dining room wasn't a step-up from the Windjammer, but there were significantly fewer people, attentive waiters, in addition to bus people, and there was a breakfast menu that you could order, from if you wanted to opt out of the buffet. Each day, the dining room offers a special breakfast (e.g. eggs Benedict on crab cakes, huevos rancheros) but you can order any style of eggs from the menu.
There were two formal nights on this cruise. I wore a fitted black blouse and pants and my husband black trousers, shirt, vest and tie and we felt more than comfortable. Most of the women wore summer dresses and most men wore suits, but it was fun to see the occasional couple in a gown and tux, and a few mature men with ascots. There were fewer people in the dining room on these two nights, and although we didn't go all out, it was fun to catch a glimpse of those who did. Of course, the problem with formal nights is how to keep your clothes wrinkle-free during all the travelling, but there is a laundry, dry-cleaning (I think, but forgot to pack that brochure so don't quote me on this one) and ironing services available for an fee.
Windjammers (WJ) is one buffet-style eatery. Jade is the Asian food buffet. During our stay, we ate at WJ a few times, once for each of lunch and dinner and a few times for breakfast. It's hard to complain about a buffet (my expectations, for one, are never high) and to tell the truth, I can't imagine how anyone could. If you can't get up to get your own drink or condiments, then you should probably eat somewhere else. I've read complaints about the wait staff at WJ, but I observed that there isn't really wait staff. What you'll find are guys wandering around trying to push freshly squeezed OJ and elaborate, tasty-looking cocktails, but all other workers are bus-boys and girls hurriedly clearing dirty plates and keeping the tables clean so that when you return to your table you don't have a pile of plates and cutlery and so that new people arriving always have a clean table to sit at. When someone cleared your table, and if you asked for something, they were always courteous and accommodating.
Food choices at the buffet are extensive for each experience. In all honesty, I preferred the dining room for dinner, but I was content with the one dinner that I did eat at WJ. Sadly, a month later, I can't even tell you what I ate, tasted or tried for lunch or dinner at WJ. The food was indistinctive, although the salad bar was great. A lot of families eat here, so expect many kids, but there are tons and tons of choices and I do recall thinking that there was enough variety to accommodate just about any diet or any Nationality. At breakfast, for example, you could do American-style or even eat kippers and grits. English breakfast items that I noticed included bangers, blood sausage and baked beans, continental in the tradition of Western Europe was available with platters of hams, cold cuts, smoked salmon, cheeses and even Jade was serving more Asian-influenced eggs and other things. The scrambled eggs are beaters, so the flavour isn't spectacular and the bacon is pre-cooked and re-fried before arriving at the buffet. The sausages (North American-type ones) were good, but then as an ex-pat, I'd been craving them for five years and a little taste of home never disappoints.
I had been looking forward to onion rings at Johnny Rockets, which again I hadn't had in five years and have never been able to find in my adopted country. They may not have been as tasty as the ones I remember eating back home, but they satiated my craving. The burgers were decent-enough and my husband and step-mother enjoyed the milkshakes. The service in this restaurant was interesting. The women, and most of the men, seemed happy to be there, but one guy seemed completely out of his element. Then again, he didn't strike me as the kind of guy who would enjoy dancing and singing at the best of times, let alone in the middle of service.
Portofino's was absolutely fantastic. We ate there on our last night and I wanted to take my time without having to worry that there would be another seating after us. We leisurely sipped aperitifs and ordered our food one course at a time. I had melt-in-your-mouth Carpaccio and my companions both ate Risotto ai Gamberetti. It was the first time my step-mother ate risotto and she was very pleased, particularly with the accompanying shrimp and my husband commented that the rice was perfectly cooked and the dish beautifully creamy. We shared a Caesar salad with a vinaigrette-like dressing, which was good, but I've eaten better. Dinner's included Spiedino di Mare (seafood k-bob), Saltimbocca alla Romana (veal), Filetto di Manzo (beef tenderloin) and we enjoyed every savoury bite of our meals. Tiramisú came with a shot of liqueur and there was a tray of delicate cookies, wafers and chocolate-dipped strawberries, which perfectly topped off our dinner.
We didn't have a need for room service, since Seattle's Best was open 24/7 and I was always able to get a fresh American-style coffee at sunrise. Espresso and other specialty coffees are not free, but there are some tea options for those with the preference. The coffee shop also serves an array of croissants, donuts and other pastries for those who don't want to wait for WJ or the dining room to open.
Lounges and clubs
By the end of the week we noticed that each lounge or bar had a clique clientele. In the English pub, Hoof and Claw, there were plenty of individuals from the UK and other English-speaking countries. It's a cozy, busy place in the evening and at 10:00pm a musician, guitar in hand, sat up on his small stage and belted out American and British folk, pop and country tunes that everyone in the pub seemed to know by heart. It is smoky inside this bar, as it is one of the smoking areas, but there is seating on the patio along the Royal Promenade that is non-smoking and where you can still enjoy the entertainment. Beer lovers will enjoy the variety of stouts and ales, but you can order pretty much anything.
Boleros was another favourite of ours, and we particularly enjoyed servers Lolly and Norma. You can order plenty of fancy Spanish and Portuguese cocktails in this area, and at night the place is packed with crowds of Spanish and Portuguese individuals, and some other nationalities as well, sometimes dancing to a spicy-sounding live band. This bar is located in an open rather than intimate space and has both a smoking and non-smoking area. The non-smoking area is in front of the stage and surrounds the bar, while the smoking area is more secluded on the opposite side of the ship with a staircase in between.
The night we showed up at the Sphynx, there seemed to be ballroom dancing. The floor was full, but we didn't stick around because all we really knew were a few tango moves that we learned for our wedding and performed poorly. The Viking Crown appeared to draw a mature crowd, and there was a sports bar, On Air, where you could do karaoke or watch a football match (European), which my husband did for a few seconds before I dragged him off to one of the onboard shows.
The shows were well-scheduled. We ate at the 7:00pm seating and always had ample time to get to the 9:15pm curtain time. There were also earlier shows at 7:30pm for those choosing the 9:00pm seating, and at least one show (In the Air) at 11:15pm.
In the Air was basically a welcome aboard show. There wasn't much rhyme or reason, but it was relatively short and enjoyable as players sang popular music tunes and performed acrobatics. Encore! An Ice Spectacular was another short one with solo skaters, pairs and ice-dancers. The rink is very small but, for the space, the skaters were surprisingly fast. Guest star Marina Karamycheva did a hula-hoop act that had the whole house cheering, whistling and hollering. She definitely made the night worthwhile, but I have to give credit to the other skaters and the acrobats, as well. We missed Saturday Night Fever because we were exhausted from a full day in Rome.
Ports of Call
We were stuck in Livorno due to a general strike in Italy (not uncommon, there is a whole website devoted to these planned strikes and so we were prepared for it a few weeks ahead of time) and we didn't get to Pisa. While Livorno is initially unattractive, we found some charms and got some great pictures when we purposefully decided to lose ourselves on the back streets.
Napoli (Naples) has no excuses. It's a dirty and ugly city that is fascinating because it is so dirty and ugly, but we were happy to see it, move on to Pompeii and return to Naples and not get robbed when I wanted to pull out my video camera to catch life in a particularly bad, but fascinating area filled with sun-bathing rummies.
Rome is Rome - spectacular, filled with friendly locals and thousands upon thousands of tourists, hundreds of things to do and lots of dog poop (watch where you step). During our visit, Mass was being held in St. Peter's Square. The first entry point we came to after getting off the train at San Pietro had an exceedingly long line, but we just walked around and entered with ease at another point. It's free to enter the square, but we did have to pass through security. We didn't stay long in the Square before walking to the Coliseum across town, passing a few sites including the Piazza Navona and taking a leisurely peek inside the Pantheon. We pre-bought tickets at the official site online and therefore didn't have to wait to get into the Coliseum. Tickets cost us €13,50 euros per person, which gave us access to the Coliseum, Roman Forum and Pallatine Hill. We knew there wouldn't be time to see everything, and we weren't rushing, but bypassing the excruciating line for the Coliseum alone was well worth any price. We managed to see a slice of the Forum, but never got to the Hill. In retrospect, it would have been better to either do Vatican City or the Coliseum/Forum/Hill in the limited time we had, but getting off at the St. Peter's station (a last minute decision) shaved a half hour of travel time, gave us an opportunity to hit up sights we wouldn't have otherwise seen and forced us to get on the return train at the central station, which is definitely the station you want to be at the end of the day with a thousand tourists taking the same train back to Civitavecchia.
I wasn't all that interested in Monaco, and initially had made plans to visit Nice, but had read an article about it in our local TimeOut magazine. We wanted to give my step-mother a great trip and hit up as many countries as possible, and so the decision was made. It was a great choice for a leisurely day prior to what would have been walking all over Pisa, Rome and then Pompeii. The country/city is a bit cookie-cutter, and while it's not likely to be a place I return, I have to say that it is a sight to behold at least once. The view from the Rock over the marina and the entire country, is spectacular. A little touristy train ride from the Oceanographic Museum (a wonder of a building entombed in rocks sinking into the ocean) takes you to all the touristy places for a minimal fee and a guided description in the language of your choice. The people are wonderful and friendly, the St. Martin gardens are beautiful, and since my step-mother is a flower addict, she loved it. At 65, she is still young, but has trouble with her hip and knee. She kept up with us wherever we were and made no complaints, but the leisurely pace of visiting Monaco, taking in the garden and just kind of relaxing, was something she really enjoyed. I definitely recommend Monaco to any travellers who want an easy day trip.
I apologize for writing the ports of call out of whack, but I truly just wanted to mention a few things about each place before writing a little more about the under-rated Toulon. Prior to the trip, I'd read a ton of reviews about how there was nothing to do in Toulon. I also met a bunch of people on-board who didn't go to Toulon because they said they heard there was nothing to do there. On this day of the cruise, when we returned at 4:00pm, the tanning chairs were packed, the pools and the bars were full as if no one ever noticed this shining little dot on the map of France.
Toulon has a fascinating history dating back to Greek trade in the 7th century BC. While many buildings and structures were destroyed during WWII, there are still a number of worthwhile sights like La Grosse Tour, Cathedral Sainte-Marie-Majeure, L'opéra de Toulon and the many beautiful fountains, not there for no reason, and all free to see, scattered around the old city. In fact, we didn't have enough time to go to the Marine Museum or even the tower clock of the Arsenal. With this being said, my husband is an architect and so part of our tour included being awed at various buildings, yet, if for no other reason, you should at least get off the ship and eat lunch at one of a multitude of restaurants lining the harbour.
Judging the menus (we read almost all of them before making a decision), many offer wonderful examples of Provençal cuisine and regional wines including Bandol, produced near Toulon. We decided on Herrero, a restaurant with a blue awning over the patio and shouting Provençal cuisine in bold white letters. I have one word: WOW! It was the highlight meal of the whole vacation. Similar to most restaurants in this area, there are no English, Spanish, German or even (surprisingly, since Italy is about a 15-minute drive) Italian-language menus. It struck me as a bit backwards compared to almost every other European country I've spent time in, but as a Canadian from Ontario, it didn't surprise me that much. Even though my French is a bit rusty, I got by reading the menu and while my husband was also a little out of practice, he got on better. Nevertheless, like in Quebec, once you attempt speaking the language, they'll send over the waiter who best understands you, even if that waiter's English is as good as your French.
There were three appetizers on the menu and we each tried one. The French titles are a little long to recount, but basically we ate a fresh tuna (as opposed to canned) salad, a fish soup (locally fished and a local specialty) served with traditional accompaniments and a seafood platter (cooked shrimp, raw oysters, raw mussels and other raw shellfish). For the main course, two of us ate pastry encrusted Coquille St. Jacques with a crab sauce and one ate Daurade Royale (BBQ golden sea bream). There is no other word to describe the scallops other than divine. I could have done without the fennel side dish, but the scallops in pastry were heavenly. My husband ate the Daurade Royale without the side enhancements and while he enjoyed it, he commented that the Portuguese do it better, but he's biased and the Portuguese use sea salt to bring out the flavours of the fish, while the French do not. Desserts included Crème Caramel (which was big enough for a party of five), ice-cream and a selection of fruits with sorbet.
As for getting to Toulon, the locals use a boat shuttle for a €4,00 return fee, dropping you in the centre of the old town and picking you up in the same place. Most choose to pay for the ship shuttle, but it costs twice as much and, with traffic, might end up taking twice as long. If you walk from the ship, along the road, keeping the water always to your right, and continue along the water even when the road turns left, you'll come across what looks like a bus stop. It reads "Espace Marine" and you should stay there. We saw many people running back from wherever they were to catch the boat, but just stay there, the boat comes to you and it's a beautiful ride past the new and old rusty Navy ships.
We also visited La Grosse Tour. I suggest investigating the history of the place before going, as it is interesting and will spin a whole different light on your experience of the space (and it is more a space). The views from here are gorgeous, but buses don't run regularly on a Sunday in Toulon. We walked and it was a bit farther than we expected. The walk back seemed less arduous because it was downhill, but if I were to do it again, I'd take a cab there and either walk back or catch the phone number of the cab company and give them a ring to pick me up.
In the end:
My favourite part of the cruise was waking every morning to see the sunrise and the boat dock. There is nothing more peaceful or beautiful than being on a ship at sunrise or sunset, or even at night while the stars shine and the moon ripples off the sea. Even if some ports were a bit industrial, if you can manage getting up at sunrise before the ship docks in La Seyne-sur-mer (Toulon) you will not be disappointed.
Eating is a major part of this cruise, and wherever you turn there is food, food and more food than you can imagine. We thought that we'd lose weight walking around every port of call, but we were mistaken. We barely ate a thing for the first three days when we returned home. How could we?
Our stateroom was an interior and we were fine with that, because we didn't expect to spend much time in it, which we didn't. If I were to cruise again, I would take a room with a view, if only to gauge the time (I wake up a lot in the night) by light, which is better than searching for our cell phone in pitch dark just to figure it out.
Never having been on a cruise of this magnitude before, and having never thought I would, I can in honesty say I was impressed. We all were. Sure, it feels like a big floating shopping mall, but a shopping mall where every need is met, sometimes even before you realize you have a need to be met.
Would I take one again? Sure. A ship is a floating hotel. I wouldn't take one to the same destination. I'd likely prefer something through Nordic Fiords or the Philippines, but yes, Liberty of the Seas was a good experience and I'd do something like it again, and I would do it on the Liberty, if she'd take me there.