What a whirlwind! We sailed the Ruby Princess September 25 to October 7, 2011 from Venice to Civitavecchia, with stops in Croatia, Greece and Turkey along the way. This itinerary is not for you if you like sea days - there was only one! We wanted to see as much as possible, so consequently we were out all day, every day, on tour. This didn't leave time for much else. So, it didn't really feel like a cruise. We spent more time off the ship than on it, using the Ruby more like a floating hotel that deposited us somewhere new each morning. This was our eighth Princess cruise, and altogether I've sailed fifteen times.
Although we'd never flown internationally to begin a cruise, we reached Venice without incident and boarded the ship easily. We utilized the Princess transfer from the airport, which makes things very convenient. We were booked in a balcony cabin on Caribe deck amidships. We'd previously sailed on the Emerald Princess, the Ruby's sister, so we knew our way around and felt right at home. However, there was a period of adjustment. Our most recent cruise was on the Royal Princess, which has since been retired and which carried a far lighter passenger load. Although the larger ships are able to offer more choices in almost every category of amenity, I missed the small ship ambience.
There is no way other than a cruise to cover as much travel territory in as short a time. Our cruise began with an overnight stay in Venice, followed by calls in Dubrovnik, Croatia, Corfu, Katakolon, Mykonos and Piraeus in Greece, Kusadasi in Turkey, then back to Greece for Rhodes and Santorini, followed by our welcome day at sea. The final call was Naples, Italy with disembarkation the next day in Civitavecchia on Friday, October 7 - the start of the Columbus Day holiday weekend back home, which allowed us a three-night post-cruise stay in Rome to wrap things up with bang. Come to this itinerary well rested! It was a grind, with a lot of walking and hill-climbing. Each day we were up early for a tour, out all day and returned to the ship just in time for all-aboard. That left time only for a shower, dinner and to get ready for the next day.
My comments on life aboard the Ruby are limited to what we experienced during the short time each day that we were aboard and awake. I'll take them one by one, starting with our cabin steward. He deserves special mention, because even though he performed all of the expected duties, he had a giant chip on his shoulder, and wore it with pride. Some might call it an attitude problem. He started out on embarkation day by telling us how he was so good that they'd asked him to serve on all the newest ships, about how passengers usually make unreasonable requests and, that because we were Platinum members of the Captain's Circle we must be rich and own stock in the company. He then proceeded to give us the cold shoulder for the rest of the cruise. One night, we ran out of shampoo, so we left a note the next morning asking for more. He left us twelve bottles of shampoo. I won't waste time on details, but his behavior was odd. And the shortcuts he took in taking care of our cabin were consistent and obvious.
Dining was very good in the dining room at dinner but very bad at breakfast from room service. We had a table for the second traditional dinner seating each night at 8:30, and our waiter and his assistant were friendly, helpful and efficient. The food was what we've come to expect after many Princess cruises. My favorite was the night they served a Greek and Turkish menu. The choices ranged from Chicken Braised in Peloponnesian Wine, Warm Dill Scented Oysters over Wilted Greens to Hearty Red Lentil Soup with Potatoes and Leeks. I really enjoyed my Avgolemono Soup with Chicken, Lemon and Mint and Trilogy of minced Veal Kofte, Chicken Shish Kebab and Lamb Chops. They really should do more of this -â€“ tying the menus for the cruise into the areas being visited. Superb.
Because we were often in a rush to get out the door in the morning we ordered quite a few light breakfasts from room service via the provided hang-tag. We've done this on every cruise we've taken, and it's usually a no muss, no fuss affair. So I couldn't quite believe how bad it was on the Ruby. I'm talking about orders that arrived 20 minutes early or a half-hour late. Coffee with no cups, or cups but no coffee. Warm milk -â€“ it was almost hot. And in a glass. I prefer nice, fresh cartons, which evidently have been cut as a cost-saving measure. Warm juice too, with lots of water cutting the orange juice. Cold toast. It was amazing. We'd save juice and milk to put in the fridge for use the next day when it would be cold. We then replaced what we used with the warm glasses delivered that day. We made it work, but it wasn't pleasant.
The onboard entertainment that we sampled was limited to magician David Cats, who was from Venice and who showed some promise, but his act was all "sizzle" and no "steak". There was a lot of dramatic music, flashing lights, drumrolls, strobes and lasers but when he threw up his hands and waited for applause, no one clapped. I wondered if we all missed something. When it came time to make his assistant disappear, one could clearly see her jump in and out of the box, which was quite obviously jostled as she did. Card tricks are difficult to perform from the stage, and David tried to get around the problem by -â€“ supposedly -â€“ having his movements televised on a big screen above the stage. But it was clear that what he was actually doing was performing in sync with a pre-recorded video. His show was disappointing. Another night we sampled Eric Stone's act, the lounge singer in Crooners Bar. He used way too much reverb. It was painful to listen to and sounded quite silly. He had an odd repertoire. I honestly never thought I'd hear Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" in a piano bar. I actually looked closer to assure myself that it wasn't Bill Murray up there doing his old Nick the Lounge Singer act. We stayed about five minutes.
We booked an all-day tour in each of the ten ports we visited over twelve days. Actually, there were eleven tours, because the cruise began with an overnight stay in Venice, and we had something planned for both days. In Venice there are no cars, no taxis, and no buses. Everything is done by water. Princess operated a Water Shuttle between the ship and Saint Mark's Square, which ran continuously and took about twenty minutes each way. Tickets were left in the stateroom and a $15 charge for each was applied to your onboard account. The ship's tours included transportation, so we returned them for credit.
We started off with a bang the first night with a gondola ride. The old saying is that if you're planning a gondola ride in Venice and you don't think that it's outrageously expensive, perhaps you misunderstood the gondolier. Well, expensive it was, but also quite memorable. We arrived in town at dusk, and it was nearly dark by the time we boarded the boat, four to a gondola. We were given a bottle of Prosecco to enjoy as we set off down the quiet, narrow, dimly lit canals. Every few minutes we passed under a bridge, and the camera-toting tourists looking down snapped photos. The experience was somewhat surreal. Although it was just like I'd always imagined it and everything was just as I'd seen on TV or in the movies, it reminded me of a ride at Disney World - it was so downright cool that it just had to be artificial! I wondered for a second if the gondolas were actually operating on tracks just below the surface. As we entered the Grand Canal with a view of the famous Rialto Bridge to our right, we joined up with several other gondolas full of Ruby passengers and, as the gondoliers propelled the boats parallel to each other and only inches apart, our serenade began. The singer was standing in the middle gondola as his voice rang out in the night, accompanied by Italian accordion. Sure, it's a little corny -â€“ but the night would have been incomplete without it.
The next day was busy with a tour of Saint Mark's Square and Basilica and the incomparable Doge's Palace before the early afternoon sailaway from Venice, with commentary provided by Port Lecturer Deborah, accompanied by music and broadcast throughout the ship by TV and loudspeaker. This has to be one of the most beautiful and unique experiences in the cruising world -â€“ it brought tears to my eyes.
Leaving Venice behind, we began the daily routine of a short, leisurely overnight sail to the next port and a new world outside our window each morning. The weather was spectacular the whole way, with not a drop of rain and plenty of warm sunshine. We saw so much, in so many places, that it's all a bit jumbled in my mind even now. I'll mention only the highlights.
Dubrovnik's Old Town is a fun place for a stroll, but Cavtat, about 15 km to the south is a gem by the sea, with many shops and restaurants along the waterfront. It's popular with tourists, including the owners of more than a few luxury yachts.
Corfu is two miles off the coast of Albania at the closest, and you're sure to meet a few Albanians who've come to Corfu seeking work in the shops of the Old Town. There are examples of Venetian, French, British and Greek styles of architecture on Corfu due to the influence of these rulers through the centuries. Ten kilometers outside town is Achilleion Palace, built by Empress Elisabeth of Austria in 1890 on a hilltop with majestic views of the surrounding hills and valleys and the sea below. The palace and the gardens house many paintings and statues of Achilles. German Kaiser Wilhelm II purchased Achilleion in 1907 after Elisabeth's death and used it as a summer residence. By the 1960's the upper level of the palace had become a casino, and a scene in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only was filmed there.
From Katakalon we easily reached Olympia and the site of the ancient Olympic Games in the morning, leaving the afternoon free for a leisurely visit to Kourouta beach. We soaked up the abundant sunshine, along with a couple of bottles of Mythos beer. Dips in the warm water at this long, sandy beach -â€“ quite quiet in late September, kept us relaxed.
The waters around Mykonos were churned up by the strong wind -â€“ typical almost anytime, we were told. This made the ferryboat ride to the neighboring island of Delos quite a rollercoaster ride. Delos is known as the birthplace of the mythological twin brothers Apollo and Artemis, and, today, as an important archaeological site with extensive excavations dating back to thousands of years before Christ. Our guide led us past the remains of temples and statues, a theater, and the residential area where many of the mansions and villas had mosaic floors, portions of which have survived the passage of centuries. After our tour, we had to wait close to an hour for the next boat back to Mykonos, which put us in danger of missing the meeting time for our afternoon tour. We made it, though -â€“ but just barely -â€“ and saw Panagia Tourliani Monastery, Kalafatis Beach and a glimpse of the famous windmills of the island, some which were built by the Venetians in the 16th century. In the labyrinthine Old Town, Petros the Pelican, the official mascot of Mykonos, posed for pictures with his admirers along the waterfront. We snuck away from the tour to enjoy a bite to eat at a small restaurant. A gyro -â€“ hot and tasty pork and chicken for me, and some spinach pie for my wife. We asked if that was homemade. Our server pointed to his mama, who was finishing her own lunch in a corner of the shop.
Our tour of Athens was a highlight of the cruise. How do you top the Parthenon at the Acropolis? It seems like it sits on top of the world -â€“ you can take in the entire city at a glance. The rocky slope to the top was very slippery -â€“ I saw three older ladies fall, hard, to the ground. The wind was very strong, and as it howled we were sandblasted by the fine dust swept up from the ground. And we were told that the crowds never die down. But taking it all in is worth the effort, and you can understand why the ancients built their temple to Athena in this place. I was surprised at how little of it actually remains, and of that, not much is original -â€“ much has been restored. Somewhat ignorantly, I had imagined that it had been sitting peaceably on the hilltop for millennia, undisturbed but for the passage of time. When you learn of its history, though, you find that the truth is quite a different story. The Parthenon had been used as a treasury, a Christian church, a mosque and an ammunition dump. It had been bombed, burned, scavenged, pillaged, and all but destroyed. Our visit to the new Acropolis Museum nearby helped to set the record straight. Open since 2009, the goal of the new museum is to house every artifact from the site. The museum itself sits over an extensive archaeological site. The floor is, in places, made of glass, allowing visitors to see the excavations below. Forget about taking photos of anything inside, though. There were more security guards and cameras than I'd ever seen before in one place -â€“ including airports -â€“ all to make certain that you do not get too close to anything or to take a picture.
For lunch in Athens, we visited a restaurant called Ancient Tastes, where they serve only dishes that might have been eaten by Greeks long ago. So, no potatoes or tomatoes, which came later from the New World, and no forks -â€“ the ancients used only knife and spoon. The entrees featured ingredients such as honey, pomegranate and thickly ground barley. Between courses we were entertained by a dancer in traditional costume. The meal was a welcome departure from the usual hotel-style buffet typically served to tour groups.
The day concluded in the Plaka, the oldest neighborhood in Athens, with narrow twisting streets of shops, bars, homes and few cars, which are not allowed in most areas. We were given 45 minutes of free time for shopping and exploration. The majority of the stores sell tourist junk, and after we'd perused a handful of nearly identical stores we quickened our pace and went off in search of something more meaningful. The streets were narrow and the buildings tall and plentiful enough to block the big-picture view, but I figured that my innate sense of direction would lead us back to the meeting point in plenty of time. My wife, ever the worrier, began to get nervous the first time a street didn't take us where I thought it would. As we walked, I glanced at my watch from time to time and soon I had to admit that our time was running out, and that I had no idea where we were. Armed with a simple map showing the meeting point and without the ability to speak Greek, our pace ever quickening, I had to do something most guys do only reluctantly: ask for directions. Then ask someone else. Then, to start running -â€“ and to ask yet a third person. We came, trotting and out of breath, into the square where the rest of the group waited -â€“ with a minute or two to spare. As it turned out, we waited another ten minutes for two ladies who had misunderstood the meeting time and who were slowly strolling up the street, oblivious.
Our call in Kusadasi showed me why we try to get as far away from the pier as possible when selecting a tour, for the area around the dock and the surrounding countryside could not be more different. When you step off the ship, you are greeted with shops aplenty and their aggressive proprietors, hawking everything from Turkish carpets to "genuine fake" watches to Turkish Delight and "saffron" - heavy on the quotes - because it is not the famously expensive spice painstakingly collected from the crocus but dried safflower. But as our motor coach headed out to Mt. Koressos to visit The House of the Virgin Mary, a shrine believed to be the last earthly home of the Mother of Jesus, our impressions of the place changed. Enroute, the plains give way to rolling hills and while it looked a bit dry, it reminded me of southern California. Visiting the shrine was an obviously moving experience for many as they walked silently through the building and continued past a wall where prayers, written on slips of paper, were tied into knots and packed tightly together to form a mural of human hope, love and devotion.
Then it was down the hill again and out to Ephesus, which in the 1st century BC was the second largest city in the Empire and in the world, with a population of more than a quarter-million. Ephesus is in Asia, but just barely -â€“ still, it meant we could check off another on our continents visited list. Ephesus is sprawling, but 85% of the site remains to be uncovered. The highlight was the magnificent Library of Celsus. Next, our tour visited the Basilica of St. John, built over what may have been the apostle's tomb. The past has an almost palpable presence here.
Rhodes is not often on cruise ship itineraries so we were lucky to be able to see this rare gem of the Dodecanese islands. Rhodes is best known for something which no longer exists, but our guide pointed out the place where the Colossus may have once stood. That was about all she did right -â€“ for many reasons we thought of her as the worst guide we've ever been stuck with, and I will specifically name the Princess tour entitled "Rhodes, Grand Masters Palace & Lindos" as one to be avoided. Why? Lindos is spectacular, and worth the trip, but the rest is either not -â€“ or easily within walking distance of the ship. The tour featured a stop at a "gold museum", which was actually simply a store. You can tour the Grand Masters Palace on your own -â€“ it's a 10-minute walk from the dock, and by the way, it was never used as a palace. And the "old town" was, once again, a warren of tourist traps. Lindos, though, on the east coast south of the port, is home to the acropolis of Lindos, an ancient fortress high on a hill with spectacular views of the surrounding harbor on one side and the town on the other. If the steep, sloping path up the hill discourages you, there are donkeys for hire that seemed to know the way.
Then, Santorini. The weather was perfect. Yes, it was crowded with five or six cruise ships anchored that day, but somehow this beautiful island made me forget about that. It was amazing how alone we could feel just by veering off the heavily congested main shopping street and heading down a small lane or staircase, where we could take in the breathtaking view of the caldera in near solitude. I held up my camera and the pictures practically took themselves. We stopped at Santo Wines, where the samples were generous and the view was unbelievable. Their best wines were made from Assyrtiko grapes, which have adapted to the unique conditions in Santorini, by growing low to the ground to best collect the morning dews, which are often the only moisture available for months at a time. We'd love to come back to this island for a longer stay, and I scouted around and collected a few business cards from hotels with stunning views, but it will have to wait until Greece gets its economy straightened out and the surprise protests and airport closings stop. The day ended with an hour-long wait for the aerial tram back down the hill to the tender dock.
Sailaway from Santorini was especially sweet, not only for the views, but also because we had nowhere to go the next day! Our one sea day of the twelve gave us a welcome break and we spent a few hours on the balcony with the wine we'd bought the day before.
We had an ambitious day planned for our final port before disembarkation, Naples. When we booked the tour, I wondered how anyone could possibly fit Capri, Sorrento and Pompeii into a single day. But the Princess excursion covering all three was tempting. In the end, we sacrificed quality for quantity -â€“ and opted for shorter stays in more places. Visiting the ruins of Pompeii, buried in 79 A.D. when Mount Vesuvius erupted, had been a lifelong goal for us, and we'd have been satisfied if that was all we saw. Of course, you could spend an entire day at Pompeii, but we did catch all the highlights. Ironically, while we were at the site, an exhibit of artifacts from Pompeii opened in a museum back home. It's eerie to visit the excavations with the volcano in view on the horizon. Vesuvius has erupted many times through the centuries, most recently in 1944. Earlier, we'd begun our day with a hydrofoil ride to Capri, which has served as a resort since Roman times. As we strolled along the narrow pedestrian lanes, we realized that in Capri it would be handy to be wealthy. The crowds boarding the ferries back to the mainland were incredible - I thought someone would end up in the water as we struggled along the pier to the boats -â€“ but we survived and arrived in Sorrento, in time for a disappointing lunch. The portions were small, which was perhaps for the best as the tastes and textures were nothing special. Afterward, we had a short time to explore the nearby streets and to pick up a few souvenirs.
We disembarked the next morning in Civitavecchia and began a three-night visit to Rome, and we kept up a frantic pace right through the weekend. We walked mile after mile through the city, from the Colosseum, to the Parthenon, to the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, to Saint Peter's Basilica where we climbed the dome and admired the view of the Eternal City from the top. One day, we visited Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome, reached easily by train, and spent an afternoon wandering excavations at least as extensive as those in Pompeii. We found some wonderful restaurants, loved the hotel where we stayed, were thrilled with the private transfers that we'd booked, and flew home directly from Rome without problems. It was hard to believe that our long-awaited, fifteen night European odyssey was over.
If we had it to do over again, we'd only make a few minor changes, so I'd guess that's a sign of successful planning. If you like history, if you can tolerate crowds, if you don't mind doing some waiting and standing in line, if you can remember that you're there to see some of the most memorable and beautiful sights in all the world, then you'll enjoy every moment. We may never pass that way again, so we made the most of it all, and brought home memories to keep and to treasure.