This is an exceptionally long review. To make it easier to digest, I have broken it up into 4 pieces that are included in the appropriate Message Boards:
Jewel July 2 Barcelona Getting there. On the Cruise Airfare forum. Jewel July 2 Barcelona What a Great Time. On the Norwegian Cruise Line forum. Jewel July 2 Barcelona Ports of Call. On the Ports of Call: Europe forum. Jewel July 2 Barcelona - Post Cruise Visit to Barcelona. On the Ports of Call: Europe forum.
Finally, I have placed this review, in its entirety, under Member Reviews.
WE DECIDE TO TAKE A MEDITERRANEAN CRUISE Early May 2006.
So, we (myself, my wife and my son) have decided to book a cruise on the Norwegian Jewel for their itinerary beginning in Barcelona, Spain on July 2, 2006. After several phone calls to NCL and visits to a variety of web sites, it seems the best value we can get in a cabin is directly through NCL. Although Ive never cruised on their line before, six weeks before departure we are given an early booking rate, with a repeat cruiser price for their AG mini-suite. But, they upgrade us to the AF. I dont know exactly what all their hocus-pocus discounts really mean, but its a better rate than I got from any travel agent so we took it.
Based on our web research, we decide to get travel insurance through CSA travel, who offers a pre-existing condition clause. Basically, if any of our known health issues should flare up at the last minute, we would still be covered with trip cancellation insurance. (A tip from several travel agents was dont worry about pre-existing condition clauses. You wouldnt be the first person to ask a doctor to write a note saying you had the flu. Anyhow, thats not my style.)
I didnt care for the airfare through NCL. They told me I wouldnt have my flight arrangements until three weeks prior to departure. I like to know when and where Im going. Also, my research on cruisecritic.com found a few experiences I didnt care to share, such as 14 hour lay-overs and triple connections. Theres just too many things that can go wrong. Also, I preferred an airline where the cabin crew spoke English.
British Airways was about $50 more per-person than NCLs airfare, a worthwhile expenditure in my opinion.
GETTING THERE IS HALF THE FUN OR WELCOME TO BA.COM
I first found out that British Airways could get me from New York to Barcelona on Expedia.com. BA offered the lowest fare at the time on a single airline. I could have saved a few dollars by changing airlines at connections, but I was worried about luggage getting lost. Also, Expedia would be harder to deal with if I wanted to change my non-cancellable flights or if I missed a connection. I figured with British Airways, I could go to a ticket counter at the airport and at least deal with any travel problems face to face with a person.
We were traveling from New York to London, then connecting in London to Barcelona.
When I booked our flights through the British Airways web site, I had several surprises. First of all, after paying for our tickets, I went to the My Booking section to select seats and found that they were not allowing seat selection. The terse explanation on the website was that they had already met their allocation of pre-selected seats.
Then came the second surprise as I read through the long email confirmation they sent me and saw a section about connecting flights. The computer had arranged a connecting flight 90 minutes after our London arrival. It also turns out we had to take a bus from their Terminal 4 to their Terminal 1. It also said we needed to go through security at terminal 1. But the thing that bothered me the most was when it said to allow a minimum of 75 minutes to transfer between flights at different terminals. That gave us 15 minutes of leeway. We had to get out of JFK in New York and go to Heathrow, two of the busiest airports in the world, and we only had 15 minutes of safety time to fall back on.
Since there were three of us together, I wanted to make sure we sat together. The computer wouldnt let me. Also, I was concerned about the tight connecting time what if our plane leaving New York was delayed half an hour? Thats not exactly unthinkable. No FAQ covering that.
So, I figured Id give them a call.
Heres what calling British Airways means: Monotonous British Airways theme music, a never ending on-hold recording telling you that they will charge you $20 to talk to you, and a reminder that all your answers would be on BA.COM.
After half an hour of their horrible symphony, I gave up and decided I would argue it out with them at the airport if necessary. I did some research and came up with a list of five direct flights from Heathrow to Barcelona, plus another 12 connecting flights, that were after our scheduled flight yet would still get us to the port in time to make our cruise, so that no airport employee could tell me I was stuck and there was nothing that could be done.
The day before leaving, I logged on and found our seats were all together and quite satisfactory. I even had the opportunity to move the three of us a few rows up from the back, which was important because we had a connecting flight and the quicker we got out of that 747, the better. I dont know why they couldnt tell me where they were when I booked, but I guess thats the way BA does things.
However, there was another surprise: British Airways was changing their baggage policies! While it didnt affect us, it did make me read the policy carefully, which told me that my carry on luggage was an inch and a half too large to take on board. A few searches of cruisecritic.com helped me find out that BA is very strict, so at 8:30 at night we ran out to the nearest Sears to buy a suitcase that was an inch and a half shorter.
We showed up at the airport three hours early and went to the Fast Luggage Drop to put our bags on. The clerk saw our carry on and asked us to put it on her scale. It turned out it was 7 lbs. too heavy. It was the right physical size, but too heavy. She wanted us to take some stuff out of it to put into our regular luggage, but all it contained was a change of clothes for three people and a few books and magazines. What could I take out? Also, I wasnt opening my luggage at the counter to put on a show for the other travelers to see my underwear so I told her well just check it, which really seemed to surprise her. Maybe she just wanted to check out my undies?
I said to the clerk - thats strange, weve only got a change of clothes in the bag, and she said that those types of bags arent really good for carry-on because they were so heavy.
This was the standard Crew bag with the telescoping handle that almost ALL travelers carry.
BTW I travel several times a year throughout the USA and always use our larger crew bag as a carry-on. I cant recall ever seeing ANYONE having a carry-on challenged. Ive seen guitars and skateboards going into overheads, as well as duffel bags that were twice the allowed length and required two men to lift them up.
I guess British Airways is strict.
Until I got to the waiting gate. There were bags twice the size of mine being carried on. There were backpacks with aluminum frames, and plenty of pilot bags And it just wasnt in Business Class or First Class the woman seated in front of me had a suitcase that was twice the length of a crew bag AND she had a crew bag as well.
I dont know what the baggage clerks problem was and why I was singled out. At that point, I just hoped theyd lose my luggage so I could get some money out of them.
Incidentally, they did a fine job with our luggage. Nothing was lost, nothing was damaged. There was just that *&%$^&* clerk at JFK.
Once on-board the plane, the crew was attentive, friendly and better than any flight crew Ive ever encountered in the coach section of an American carrier. The service was wonderful, especially considering that it was a full 747 that must have contained 400 people. Maybe it was just that they had more attendants working the plane. There seemed to be 6 flight people in the World Traveler section, which is BASpeak for cheap seats. Yeah - $1100 - thats cheap.
We landed in Heathrow on schedule and rushed to the bus. We were at Terminal 1 within 15 minutes of exiting our plane at Terminal 4. I walked up to a British Airways representative and showed her the boarding pass for our Barcelona flight and asked where to go. She saw that I only had an hour and she took my family to the front of the security line and asked the security personnel to let us through because we were close to our boarding time. We were at the waiting area in Terminal 1 50 minutes before they announced the gate.
The flight to Barcelona was on a 767, instead of the 757 that Expedia said the flight was. That means our seats D-E-F were in the center section, not a window section, which was disappointing because we had never flown over London or Barcelona and wanted to enjoy the view. Thats certainly no fault of British Airways, however.
WELCOME TO BARTHELONA
Our first task was to get through Passport control in the Barcelona Airport. Not hard to find. I had my Spanish phrase book open to the page on how to talk to customs inspectors. As it turned out, there was no customs people to talk to, just a uniformed officer with a big rubber stamp who stamped our passports. Im not sure if he was even awake.
I studied Spanish for 4 years in High School. That was 30 years ago. But my wife speaks German and my son is studying German in school, so I was the closest thing to a Spanish speaker in the family. I could ask how much something costs, I could understand some of the answers I got, and I could navigate a menu in a restaurant.
Of course, in Barcelona, the books all say that the language is Catalan, not Spanish. My experience was that anyone I had to deal with spoke Spanish. It also seemed that most people had a smattering of English, except the cab drivers. My wife had prepared for that by writing out index cards with the addresses of places we intended to use taxis to reach. We had no major language barriers, although a few misunderstanding.
On the trip to the boat terminal, I asked him, based on in my wonderful Spanish education of thirty years ago, how much the trip would cost. He told me Nada mas, veinte minutos (Not much twenty minutes).
So much for my Spanish capabilities. Well, how much could it cost anyway? (It was 15 Euros).
The taxi drove us right up to the terminal where an NCL porter took our bags from the trunk and put them on the ship. No hassles, and he seemed very happy with the 5 Euro tip I gave him. It was about 10:45 AM.
Walking into the terminal, we went through metal detectors, our hand luggage went through X-Ray and we passed into the check-in area. There were at least 50 check-in stations and we were immediately checked in. We walked through the terminal, which had perhaps a dozen stores selling soda, water, liquor, wine, sundries and souvenirs.
I bought a 6 pack of 2-litre water bottles for 6 Euros. I had brought some Crystal Light lemondade mix that I later used to make something to drink in the cabin. (I prefer to get my calories from wine and food, not soda.)
As we reached the stairway to the entry point, there was a large empty table with a sign saying alcoholic beverages had to be left there, and an NCL woman asked us if we had any liquor. I told her no and we went up the escalator. The gangway onto the ship was at the top, and after the obligatory photographs, we were on the ship.
WHAT A JEWEL
It was about 11AM. We walked on and met the first sanitation nazi.
Sanitation nazis are the unfortunate crewmembers that have to sit at the entrances to the buffet and the boarding points and nag the passengers to make sure that they wash their hands with a special sanitizing gel. The dispensers are pretty cool, though, you just wave your had under it and out comes the stuff. Most of the time. I guess with the recent rash of guests getting sick on ships, its a good thing. Id just hate to have to stand there for three hours straight with a smile on my face telling people to wash themselves.
The steward was still making up our room, but he invited us to put our hand luggage in the room and enjoy the ship. I gave him 20 Euros and asked him to take his time getting the room ready and to please get us extra bath towels. For the rest of the cruise, the room stewards were attentive, the ice bucket was kept full, and we had no complaints at all.
A quick note I like to tip in cash. I figure that the cruise line knows whos getting what if you add it to a bill. If you tip a person in cash, they can put it in their pocket with nobody knowing anything about it. If they want to share it with the tip pool, thats their business, but a lot of these servers are sending money back home to their spouses and children, and I bet they appreciate having a few extra bucks in their pocket.
In the room were two bottles of wine, two bottles of champagne, two fruit baskets, chocolate covered strawberries, a cake and Happy Anniversary banners. I bought an Anniversary package for my wife. She bought champagne and wine for me, and my mother had ordered us a bon-voyage present. The NCL order department must have had a real laugh if any one single person saw the amount of alcohol being delivered to our room.
Our Cabin was 11574 a midship type AF mini-suite on the Port side. We were two steps from the elevator, although we tended to use the stairs a lot. Directly above our balcony were the ping-pong tables, and one night there was a lot of ping-pong playing going on. But, we were so tired nothing could have kept us awake.
Dont let the word mini-suite fool you it is nothing more than a cabin with a full sized bathtub. The toilet is in a separate compartment from the shower, but its got a frosted glass door, so I dont think the wife would have appreciated me using it while she was bathing. I chose to go upstairs to the public rest room if the need arose.
This room was only slightly larger than a standard balcony cabin on the Carnival Victory we cruised on two years ago. With the couch opened into a bed for our son, there was little room to move, same as the Victorys cabin. Of course, the Victory couch was a twin sized bed, while the Jewels was a double.
Now, that being said, you should note that NCLs standard Balcony Cabin is smaller than their mini-suite, so you get what you pay for.
While wandering around the ship, we saw an outside cabin with a window, not a porthole, and it looked like a closet with two twin beds. That would not be my choice for a place to stay in, but everyone has their own set of values and must decide whats important for them.
Our room was by no means bad it just wasnt a suite. When we booked it, the rate for the mini suite was actually lower than the rate for the balcony stateroom, so I grabbed it.
The garden buffet was one deck above us on the starboard, and it was convenient to pop upu for breakfast before our excursions. The wife would order coffee for three for the room, she would eat from the two fruit bowls we had received as gifts, and my son and I would go upstairs to the buffet. I typically ate the smoked salmon, some pickled herring, and some fresh or dried fruit. I had an omelet one day, but the lines were generally longer than my patience would stand for.
My son preferred the muffins.
Anyhow, back to embarkation: Since the steward needed to finish preparing the room, we hit the buffet for lunch.
Food quality was good but not exceptional. The hot food was hot - the cold food was cold. There was plenty of dried fruit and fresh fruit, and a large array of breads and rolls. Cold cuts, a Vegetarian hot food section, a carving station, chaffing dishes with hot meats, chicken dishes and fish selections, vegetables in cream sauces and plain steamed and a salad bar. I would get tired of eating off the buffet for an entire week, but with so many eating choices on NCL, it wasnt going to be an issue.
The first official order of business was the muster drill. We have traveled on Carnival Cruise lines before, and they make everyone put on their lifejackets and line up by the tenders. After 20 minutes of being squished into tight rows, with some loudspeaker explanations, they let you go back to buying drinks.
NCL did it much better, I think. First of all, the muster meeting sections were much smaller. We were in the Tangos restaurant with about fifty other guests. They actually took attendance, which seems like a good idea. There were also ships personnel there to attempt answering your questions. Personally, if I was on a sinking ship, I dont know if Id want a barely English-speaking dishwasher to direct me in the proper way to save my family, but at least it was well organized, and in an emergency, thats one of the most important things to be.
One important aspect about the NCL Jewel worth noting. On this itinerary, the Jewel is essentially an American ship with a majority of American passengers. We were a little concerned about not getting information or instructions in English. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Id estimate that half the passengers were American and a good 20 25% were British. There were plenty of other nations represented, but if you spoke English you were part of the majority.
All ships announcements were made in English first, followed by German, Italian and I believe Spanish as well. FOOD - FOOD - FOOD
Mid Afternoon, Embarkation day.
The next thing we did was make dinner reservations. Sunday, we planned to eat in Tsars - but because of traveling from New York, we had already gone 24 hours without sleep and we were tired. We saw in the newsletter that there was a barbecue on the pool deck, and we went there. It was hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, sausage and all the trimmings. Pretty good, actually.
We heard something about a Concierge who would make reservations for us, but since I couldnt find his/her desk, I just wandered up to Tangos where there were three people on line in front of me. It took five minutes until I was able to make our reservations.
Monday, or first day at sea, which was also our 20th Anniversary, we chose to eat in Tsars. It was Lobster night, why pay to go anywhere else?
Tuesday we planned to eat in LeBistro. Wednesday in Cagneys. Thursday we would be touring Rome and getting back to the ship late, so we figured wed grab from the Garden Cafe (aka The buffet.) Friday would be a late day in Florence, so we planned to do the buffet again. We reserved a spot in Tepanyaki, the Japanese steakhouse, for Saturday.
On Wednesday, we decided we wanted to try Tangos and I went up to make a reservation for Thursday. It was no problem getting a 7:00 table on a days notice.
From talking to other guests, I found a wide variety of opinions on the restaurants. Sometimes you get a good server, sometimes he or she may be a bit crabby. Sometimes you get the good center cut of the steak, sometimes you get the end cut. If they cook all the lobster tails for fifteen minutes and you happen to get a 3-1/2 ounce tail while your spouse gets a 4 ounce tail, youll swear that your lobster tail is chewy and dried out while they say theirs is the best lobster they ever had. Thats food, my friends.
One comment I read on many NCL reviews was that portions were too small. I dont know how much some people normally eat but I found the portions were perfect. I dont need a 16 ounce steak. The portion sizes allowed me to try lots of different things Ive never had before. I wonder how many people really loose weight on these cruises because the portions are too small?
Heres my quick rundown on the restaurants:
Tsars breakfast was great. Everything was hot. I tried their Cooking light selections both times we ate breakfast there. The first day it consisted of two PERFECTLY poached eggs with some spinach and a low fat hollandaise sauce. The other breakfast was a similar poached egg with asparagus and some more low fat cream sauce. I think their idea of low fat is only putting six ounces on instead of twelve. Anyhow, it was delicious.
For dinner on formal night, we had lobster. The broiled lobster tails were unspectacular, but Ive never met a lobster I didnt like. When I asked for a second tail, our server had one waiting on the waiters station for just that purpose. I tried the escargot appetizers. They tasted pretty good if you like lots of butter. First time I ever ate them, so I have nothing to compare to.
For desert, we ordered a variety of sweets from the menu. Then they brought us an Anniversary cake and sang, Let me call you Sweetheart.
Overall, the service in Tsars was excellent, and we gave them a nice tip.
Now, we had two cakes in the cabin.
Tuesday at Le Bistro was definitely my favorite meal on the ship. I had mahi-mahi, which was moist, tender and cooked perfectly. My son had the Beef Wellington, which was cooked exactly as he asked. The wife had the salmon, which she loved.
The chocolate fondue, so often discussed on this board, was great. They didnt ask if we wanted a second helping, they just brought it out.
We had a bottle of California Merlot, which was included in our Anniversary Package. I asked if I could just have the value of the Merlot towards ordering a different bottle of wine, but I guess thats not their way of doing things. Actually, the value of the wine was probably about two dollars. The wife said, Just take the wine, so we did. It was your standard jug wine in a 750 ml bottle.
One more thing the service at Le Bistro was great. They were worth the extra Euros we left for the wait staff.
Wednesday at Cagneys was my wife and sons favorite dinner. I asked if they had filet mignon. They said they were out of it. (The menu had Surf and Turf which included a lobster tail and a filet mignon, but I wasnt in the mood to make an issue. Obviously thats just the way they do things.)
My son had the NY Cut Strip steak and my wife had the rib eye. I had a regular cut Strip Steak and choose to fill up on appetizers instead. Once again, the service was great.
Then we had some delicious deserts. I wish I remembered what it was specifically, because Im going to be starving myself the next month to lose that weight off of my stomach.
Finally, the staff came over with an anniversary cake and sang, Let me call you Sweetheart.
I didnt think Tangos was so good. We brought the bottle of champagne from our Anniversary package and the waiter challenged us (but not too determinedly) and wanted to know if we bought it on land. I guess he didnt recognize their own cheap wine?
After half an hour I had to ask for our champagne the waiter had forgotten. Along with my sons soda. And our appetizers. The service -- at least our server, was very inattentive. I suppose that they figure that since its the free restaurant, they wont get any tips, so whats the use?
My wife and son both had the chicken fajitas. The chicken was the worst Ive ever been served in a restaurant. It was chopped into small enough nuggets to wrap in your fajita, but it was at least half fat and skin. It wasnt chicken thigh. It was the part of the thigh you throw away when you clean it. You could barely chew it it was gross. The chicken on the buffet upstairs was a hundred times cleaner.
At least the Caesars salad was good.
I ordered the blackened grouper and it was very good, no complaints from me.
I dont remember exactly what we had for desert. The wife had the Sapodillas. Sort of like a zeppoli with chocolate. I dont remember what myself or my son had, they were Mexican themed desserts, sugary and chocolately - A diabetics nightmare, but very tasty.
Even though the service was somewhat lacking, we still tipped the waiter and finally saw him smile. But we gave him a little less than we had been dispensing at the other restaurants. The service was really bad.
Tepanyaki was a fun meal. I dont think we had the most experienced cook show-wise, but everything was cooked perfectly.
I really enjoyed the coconut ice cream desert. The service was very disorganized, they kept forgetting to get us drinks, which is really surprising because drinks is a major money maker for NCL.
Our Tepanyaki dinner finally concluded as the entire wait staff came over with an Anniversary cake and sang, Let me call you Sweetheart. At least, by the third time, I knew I was supposed to kiss my wife at the end of the song. The entire room applauded us.
Man, once NCL gets an Anniversary in the computer, it doesnt forget.
That was four anniversary cakes NCL gave us. I tried the first one, the one my mother ordered for us. It was very very sweet. However, after a few martinis and no sleep, it got fairly well attacked the first night. I was scraping the icing out from between the layers and licking it off the knife.
The three cakes from the restaurants were terrible. Imagine making an emulsion of sugar, sugar water, sugar syrup, and more sugar! Maybe a little lard thrown in for color. The wife wanted me to give it to the cabin steward so it wouldnt be wasted. I pointed out he probably got four cakes a day and he probably threw them all out. We just gave him some more Euros and asked him to remove the cakes when he had a chance.
The Chocoholic buffet was a little disappointing. I was expecting a wide array of chocolate candies, pastries, unusual stiff. It was pretty much the same cakes they had at the buffet the rest of the cruise, only all at once. As you walk up to the buffet, there are waiters shoving glasses of champagne with strawberries into your hands, which was really neat. Then they demand your sign and sail card. Oh well, I guess nothings free.
My favorite was the chocolate dipped fruit, but they only had one dipping station and the crew had to dip it for you, so the waits were a bit long, but it was delicious.
They had an ice cream bar, but once again, a crewmember scooped it into your dish. Since the toppings were in front of the ice cream bar, you had to wait while a bunch of little kids choose if they wanted twelve jellybeans and six marshmallows, or eight marshmallows, two M&Ms and four jellybeans, etc. They could have had a much shorter line by putting the toppings to the side.
Not that ice cream could ever be bad, IMHO.
Finally, two nights we just wandered over to the Sushi Bar, where there was never a bad wait. My wife and I have a local Japanese Sushi restaurants that we frequent, so we love the stuff. The California rolls were very tasty. The tuna was pretty fatty - I prefer the very lean type. Sorry, but I confuse the Japanese names unless I have the place mat with the pretty pictures. The "White Tuna" was awful - it was very cold and had no taste at all. I enjoyed the Octopus and my wife liked the shrimp. However, for my complaints, I did go back two times - it wasn't THAT bad.
Heres a quick rundown on drink costs, as best as I can remember them. I had quite a few, so maybe my memory isn't perfect. Remember that NCL adds 15% to your drink bill:
Tanquerey martini - $8.75 Except sometimes it was $9.75. It depended upon who served you and which button they pressed on the computer terminal. It usually said "Bombay" martini on the receipt, but a bartender explained that "that doesn't mean anything." Okay.
Glass of Chardonnay: $5.75. Or $7.50. Or $11.50. It depends what the bartender feels like pouring, unless you hang over him or her and request a particular wine. Dont order Chardonnay, and dont order House Chardonnay. Look at the menu and ask by name, or ask the price first.
Margarita: $9.75. Except when it was $8.75. The free souvenir glass seemed to get the price lower. You could order a small Margarita for $6.00, but get less ice, but I think the same amount of drink. Who knows?
Glass of Sangria, oh yeah. Up in Tangos, the bartender told me Sorry sir, we only sell this by the bottle. That is, unless you ask Florentine, the bartender in the Atrium lobby who ran up to Tangos and got it for me for $5.50 a glass. (She had originally sent me to Tangos for it, and was greatly distressed when I came back to her and ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio. When I told her they wouldnt sell it by the glass, she said thats no way to treat a guest and she took care of it personally. If you see her or her partner Reginald, in the Atrium lounge, make sure you take good care of them. We did and they returned the favor.)
Gin and tonic finally, a bargain for $5.50.
Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages a nice, fruity dry red wine you can get for $8.00 in the USA. Or for $30 on the Jewel.
Bottle of Dom Perignon: $170. But served with a smile. Dont forget the 15% gratuity. Cheers!
THINGS TO DO ON THE JEWEL
I won $175 playing bingo the first day, not a bad start. Since I figured theres no way Id win twice, I didnt play any more bingo and didnt try the casino. I came out ahead, unless you count all the rest of the money I spent.
The shows werent my favorite thing. Maybe I was just too tired after all the touring we did during the day. The eight oclock presentation of Cirque Bijou was standing room only. I was too tired (and jetlagged) to stand through the whole thing, and it really wasnt my cup of tea. I fought to stay awake for the Magic show the following night, but once he started teasing the audience members in the front rows about falling asleep, I decided to sleep on my balcony instead.
The Second City Improv show was okay the little kids in the front row were having a grand time. I guess I was just too tired after nine hours of walking around Italy and a bottle of wine for dinner to really appreciate the entertainment.
We did enjoy sitting in the Atrium and listening to the band. They were an Asian group that played a lot of American Country music. The lead singer had a very deep Johnny Cash type voice, and they played Elvis, John Denver and Willie Nelson to name a few. It was funny watching a bunch of Asians sing about America, but they were talented and we made it a point to get down there every evening for a drink. Too bad they only played until 10:15pm.
We tried visiting the Spinnaker Lounge to watch the soccer matches, but there wasnt even standing room. Strange that most of the lounges had the world cup, but they didnt pump it up to the individual cabins. I guess NCL figured they wouldnt sell any drinks if we watch in our cabins.
We enjoyed the games on the ship, such as Movie Trivia. No prizes, just a fun half hour activity.
Please dont think Im criticizing the entertainment. I went on this cruise to visit Europe, not to watch shows. We were tired every night from all the running around we did all day, and as I said, the wine didnt help either.
Our first day at sea, my son and I did a one mile jog around the sports deck, followed by a good workout in the fitness center. It didnt have all the equipment as the gym we attend at home, but we did okay and were able to get a vigorous workout.
Man, have I written a lot. And I havent even talked about the excursions yet.
PORTS OF CALL
As I said earlier, we were pretty tired from our travels. Since Messina was our idea of a me too tour, we decided to just explore around the port neighborhood.
We got off around 10:00 AM. A gentleman walked up to us and started talking in Italian. Oh my gosh Im not in Kansas anymore. These people speak another language!
I was able to make out the word taxi and figured he was asking if we want a ride so I told him No grazie, just like my phrase book told me to. About a dozen old men were hanging around the port with cloth maps that said either Sicily or Italy and they were yelling One Euro. See everybody knows English! No Grazie.
There is a Visitor info booth right at the dock. A couple of ladies were giving out maps and telling you what you could visit. We decided to go the Messina Cathedral since it was so close to the ship. We self - toured the cathedral and found it interesting. There are a lot of beggars in the plaza around the cathedral. I made it a point to get some Euro coins to give out.
We sat down in the cafe across from the clock tower and had the most delicious Brushetta Ive ever eaten. Then we had some Margherita Pizza that was the best pizza Ive ever eaten.
For Naples, we had originally planned to walk around near the ship in the morning, then take a train to Pompeii.
For the morning, we walked around Naples, not far from the boat, and my son and I both bought leather coats from a street vendor for 30 Euro each. My son was thrilled to have his own leather coat, and I just enjoy haggling. The fact that I couldnt speak Italian didnt make much difference, I just kept saying no and he kept lowering his price.
We chose a restaurant for lunch, because the waiter stopped me on the street and said he had the best Pizza in Naples. I asked how his wine was, and he said it was the best in the world! How could you pass up the best wine in the world?
Lunch was delicious. The pizza had prosciutto, spinach and half a dozen greens I couldnt even recognize. And the wine wasnt bad either, especially when I came to learn that when you order a wine they bring you half a liter.
We chickened out after our inability to communicate efficiently at Messina, and decided to take the ships tour of Pompeii. Im glad we did. The tour guide, Antonio, was really funny and kept referring to us as Antonios family. We did do the obligatory stop at the seashell factory that others have mentioned.
His knowledge of Pompeii was far superior to mine, and I would have missed a lot of things if we had gone alone as we originally planned. It was well worth the money to take the ships tour and pay the $60 per head.
We were planning to take the train to Rome the next day but since the bus trip to Pompeii had gone so well, we went to the excursion desk Wednesday evening to ask about where the Rome on your own bus leaves you off and how much time youd have in the city.
At the excursion desk, we were told Theres no way you can get from the ship to the train station on your own, which was pretty much a strong-armed tactic to frighten us into taking their tour, based on the information I had read on cruisecritic.com.
Then we heard that the taxis were on strike that day, and they might be the next day too. We realized that the people at the excursion desk were going to try to sell us as much as possible, but we didnt want to waste half the day dealing with getting around if the taxis DID decide to go on strike. So, we put our $90 down and signed up for the bus ride.
Once again, it was well worth it. Man what a topsy turvy route it is to navigate through the Port of Civitavecchia. I think it was worth it to play it safe.
The tour guide/babysitter on the bus, Natasha, was great. She talked for about half the trip to Rome, telling us what we were passing and what we would see. She gave out maps and walked through the bus asking people if they needed help finding anything on the map.
Before leaving New Jersey, we had reserved a 10:30 guided tour of the Vatican through the Vatican web site. The bus got to Rome at 10:30 and left us off at the Coliseum. We rushed onto the nearest metro train, figured out how to get to the Vatican, and took off.
One note about Rome: we had heard many stories about pickpockets. This is what we did to avoid problems:
First, no wallets. I split my cash up between my shirt pocket and pants front pocket, with a little extra in my camera case. I had a credit card and some more cash in a money belt around my waist, under my pants, with a shirt hanging over my belt.
Second, we were vigilant. On the trains, I made eye contact with anyone that looked in my direction. If anyone was checking me out, they knew that I was doing the same to them.
Third, I constantly looked over my shoulder and moved back and forth from leading my family to following. My wife wore a fanny pack (with nothing of real value in it.) When I saw a guy getting a little too close to my wife, I was on his heels immediately and I let him know it.
Fourth, everything I carried with me in Rome had a photocopy of it on the ship. So, if I did lose something, I could report it quickly.
Fifth, I was verbally prepared to start screaming and yelling and making a scene. As a tourist I may have been a target, but I wasnt going to be an EASY target.
One of the people on the bus did get pick-pocketed on the train, however they didnt have a lot to lose as they were well prepared too.
The St. Peters Basilica Metro stop is about four blocks from the walls of Vatican City. One tip to help you that I found out eventually on my own: in Rome (as in Florence, Naples, Barcelona & Villefrance), street names are posted on buildings about two stories above the street. In the US, were used to seeing them on signs on the corners. You have to look UP, and if you dont see it, look across the street to the other corner.
Also, street signs dont exactly match maps. A map may say via Angels while a street sign will say Via Angelo. I couldnt figure out the method of capitalization or the use of the letter O or A at the end of a word. Maybe whoever put the sign up just does it how they feel like it, or maybe each mapmaker just takes his own liberties.
Anyhow, weve walked the half-mile from the metro to Vatican City. The line to the Vatican Museum was wrapped around the walls, almost to St. Peters Square. Id guess it was at least a 1/3 mile line.
From the street we walked from the metro on, its another 4 blocks or so to the museum entrance. It was 11 AM when we finally got there. I showed our reservation to the security guard and he said we were half an hour late. He sent us to another guard who said you probably wont be able to catch up, but go on in and they let us into the Vatican. The tour was long gone and we were at first upset about missing it, but then it occurred to us we are in the Vatican and didnt wait on line! Lets pay the entrance fee and do the self-tour, which we did.
It was awesome. But the biggest thrill I got was in the Sistine Chapel. What a sight! All I can say is dont miss it.
Leaving the Vatican museum, we walked around the walls to St. Peters Square, which is about a five-block walk. It wasnt too crowded as it was near lunchtime. We wanted to go into the Basilica, and the line didnt look too bad, until we got closer and saw it was a Disney style que where the line wrapped back and forth. Rather then loose 45 minutes waiting; we decided to go back to the metro and head to the Spanish Steps. The Spanish Steps are a few blocks from the Metro, and we finally stumbled onto the bottom of the plaza after getting confused with the map.
Then we walked to the Trevvi Fountain. Again, the map was hard to follow maybe I was just excited, tired and temporarily stupid. Time was running out and we all threw some coins in because we definitely wanted to come back.
Then we walked to the Forum. As Americans, we see something thats a hundred years old as being old. Two hundred years is historic. But the Forum thats thousands of years old. We just have no concept of what age is here in the United States.
We took a cab to the Coliseum, and I was dismayed at the size of the line. We had expected it, but it was also later than we expected and close to our rendezvous time at the bus. I was afraid I was going to miss seeing the inside, which was one of my major expectations.
Then a young lady walked up to us and asked if we spoke English. We said yes, and she asked if we wanted a tour of the Coliseum for 20 Euros. I asked if she could get us in without waiting on line and she said that was part of the tour. She explained that admittance was 11 Euros, so she was only charging us 9 Euros. I gave her our money and we walked in with an entire tour group. I guess it was some type of official tour, they had had flag that the tour guide carried and they had tickets and receipts. Anyhow, we were in!
We stayed with the tour group for about fifteen minutes, than went off on our own. I had a blast. Best 9 Euros I spent that day!
Now, as we were waiting to leave Rome, we sat on our balcony and watched the buses unloading their guests. Then a few private cars, vans and even limos unloaded guests. Than one of the two gangplanks were brought in.
Finally, a single gangplank, with a single crewmember sat at the dock, with a small car next to it and a woman who continuously looked at her watch and talked into her cell phone. For almost an hour after the All Aboard deadline, the ship waited for a private tour that had failed to return in time.
Lucky for those people the ship had a short ride to Florence and the captain was willing to wait. It made no difference to us if we left the dock at 7 or 8, but we did think about our plans to train it to Florence tomorrow. What if we ran into problems, would they wait for us?
The next day in Florence, instead of doing the train as we had planned, we gave the ship another $90 each for the Florence on your own excursion. Now the excursion desk realized they had us hooked and they said Why do you want to do it on your own? Wouldnt you prefer a guide to make sure you see everything?
No, I told her. I wanted to miss a few things and just give me the tickets and stop selling me. I asked her how far it was from the bus to the Uffizi and she didnt know. She asked me to stop by and tell her when we returned to the boat. I forgot to do that.
One interesting observation one of the people on the bus was one of the agents from the Excursion desk, obviously taking advantage of an empty seat on her day off to do Florence on her own. I wonder why SHE didnt take the $200 tour to make sure she didnt miss anything.
On the road to Florence, the tour guide talked about an hour, telling us about Florence. At one point, she pointed out Pisa off in the distance, and from the highway we could see the leaning tower, albeit very tiny, as we were several miles away. At least I can say I saw it, right?
Before leaving the states, we purchased admittance to the Academia Galleria and the Uffizi Museum, so we didnt wait on any lines. We had an 11AM admittance to the Galleria and a 2PM admittance to the Uffizi. We got into both museums about fifteen minutes early, when we arrived, with no question asked.
I got to see Michelangelos David, Botticellis Birth of Venus and a thousand other works of art. The Uffizi had a special DaVinci exhibit that we spent a few minutes in as well. Florence was Awesome.
I wish I had another day or two just to spend in the Uffizi museum. It is immense. As soon as we got there, we said theres no way were would see everything, so we set our priorities based on where we were and where the exit was, and we enjoyed what we could.
One sad footnote to Florence several of the people on our bus were almost half an hour late getting back to the meeting point. I was there on time. To their credit, the tour company waited for them, but all I could think of was that I had an extra half hour that I could have been exploring one of the most amazing art museums I had ever seen.
On the ride back to the ship, the bus driver took us into the hills overlooking Florence where we could see a wide vista of the entire town what a beautiful city! I cant wait to come back here again.
One note about the Florence on your own bus tour: The bus lets you off at a parking area about a mile from the Plaza Santa Croce which is the meeting point. From there, you are another mile to the Academia Galleria, or about a third of a mile to the Uffizi Museum. At the end of your day in Florence, you meet at the Plaza again and them all walk as a group to the Bus parking area.
This is not exactly what they told us on the ship: The bus lets you off right by everything! I guess it depends upon what your definition of everything is.
Another note they didnt tell us: There is a very large church in the Plata Santa Croce where Michelangelo is buried. While we were waiting for our late tourists, I called my mom on the cell phone to say hello and she told me we should be able to get in to see his tomb. Of course, if I knew I was going to be standing around for half an hour waiting for someone, I would have done that.
I guess that will have to be for another trip.
Our last stop was in Villefrance, France. This was another me tour stop on the itinerary.
We decided to just walk through town and maybe get a bite to eat. I wanted to go swimming in the Mediterranean, and we found a little restaurant overlooking the beach about a quarter mile from the marina. When I asked if she spoke English, she barked no and just about walked away from us (Id guess she was about 18 years old). The servers were snotty and inattentive. It took me ten minutes to get her attention for a glass of wine.
While the wife and son sat in the restaurant having a snack, I ran down to the beach, put my shoes and shirt next to bunch of sunbathers and ran into the water.
It was very clean and warm Id estimate the water at about 80 degrees. You could see the bottom from the surface in 15 feet deep. Little fishes swam about under the bathers, and there was a large field of eelgrasses right off the beach. I had a pair of swim goggles, but they were my sons and didnt fit right. I tried diving down to explore a little, but the goggles filled with water and blurred my vision.
I had a nice little swim, got out of the water after about fifteen minutes, and went back up to my clothes, which were still there I had had some doubts.
I leaned against the wall and dried in the sun and looked around the beach and I suddenly realized it was a topless beach.
Actually, only about one out of twenty women were topless. It wasnt the least bit sexy or erotic -- myself and the other Americans were probably the only ones who noticed anything. I guess you would say it was natural. Whatever, it wasnt the Jersey shore.
Once I was relatively dry, I rejoined my wife and son in the restaurant. They had only gotten drinks wine for my wife and soda for my son. I had a little talk with the owner of the place about tipping; he set me straight about how it is in ALL of France! He told me Of course, a payment is appreciated if you think the service was good, but its not expected.
Anyhow, as hard as his attitude was, he was very friendly and I enjoyed the time there. An American woman walked up from the street and asked to use his bathroom, and he didnt force her to buy anything.
My wife gave me my wallet to put back in my now dry pocket and lo and behold what did I find in my pocket but my Cell phone! Yes, I had purchased an unlocked quad band cell phone for our European Vacation, I purchased a European SIM for it, I spent hours programming all the numbers I needed into it. I set up the voice mail from the USA, which, at $1.50 a minute, was a bit expensive. After an investment of about $200 and many hours, I took it swimming in France.
Cest la vie! Cell phone no more.
We walked a little longer towards the marina and found a restaurant overlooking the harbor. I asked the waiter where I could sit and he basically said there, there or there and turned his head and walked away.
A few minutes later, he came by and briskly thrust the menus at us. Talk about making you feel at home.
My wife and I shared a carafe of local wine (it was delicious), she ordered a plate of cheese and I ordered salmon tartar. A soda for our son. When the server asked what our son wanted, I said nothing and youd think I started an international incident. The waiter thumbed up his nose and sneered. I guess were used to service with a smile in the USA. Maybe they just dont do it that way in France.
Anyhow, the waiter brought a large disk of French fries for my son, which he didnt charge us for. They were, according to my son, the best French fries he ever ate. I teased him to thank the waiter but ask for some Ketchup for his Freedom Fries. I tried the fries and they were excellent.
When I paid the waiter, I gave him a good tip, and he suddenly became all smiles and thanked me.
I wonder if the waiters assume theyre not getting tipped and just treat everyone lousy. But, if they treat everyone lousy, they wont get tips? So they dont get tips? Anyhow, I hope he didnt spit in my food.
Final ports note: The Bathrooms. We had no problems finding a bathroom in italy. At the Ufezzi gallery, there was a ten minute wait for the lady's room. My wife was prepared with her own private stash of TP.
The bus to Pompeii had a bathroom on it. The buses to Rome and Florence didn't. The tour guides offered to stop at a rest area if anyone wanted, but nobody needed it. DEBARKATION
They leave luggage tags in the atrium and tell you to pick up what you want. Some are for people with tours or post-cruise hotel packages. We wanted to leave the ship as late as possible since we had to drag our luggage around Barcelona until our hotel room was ready. Luckily, we were able to get luggage tags for the latest general debarkation offered, the 9AM group.
We tagged our luggage and put it out in the hallway the night before and it was picked up promptly.
The next morning, we slept late, had a calm breakfast and around 8:45 went to our room. When they called our group, we walked off the ship along with a very small, orderly, well organized line.
Our luggage appeared on the carousel quickly, a porter helped us with our bags and we went to the taxi stand where we had a forty five minute wait for a cab. It wasnt very well organized. There was a line of cabs wanting to pick up fares, and a line of passengers wanting to rent cabs, but the actual pick-up section was only about thirty feet wide, wide enough for five cabs to pickup at a time. But I guess thats a Port issue, not an NCL issue.
I gave the cab driver my index card with the name and address of our hotel and away we went.
POST CRUISE We decided to stay a few days in Barcelona. Based on research, I choose the Hotel Continental Palacete. Its a few blocks north of Las Ramblas which means its quieter in the evenings, yet still in walking distance to the tourist areas. The hotel has a 24-hour buffet that includes wine, beer, espresso and a serving table about twenty feet long. For breakfast, they had several choices of omelets, salmon, plus all kinds of salads. My favorite was the chocolate covered walnuts. The beer, as I found out later, was way too warm for me. The red wine was a zinfandel, but I wandered around and found a Bodega where I purchased a bottle of dry red wine for the room.
For 210 Euros for a triple it was a steal, compared to what they were getting for other hotels in the area. The rooms were clean and modern, and about the same square footage as our AF cabin on the Jewel.
The staff ALL spoke English and were very helpful with directions, maps, etc.
We arrived at the hotel around 11:15 AM. Check in time was 3PM. They had a locked luggage storage room where we put our bags, we grabbed a quick snack from the buffet and walked down through las Ramblas to the Picasso museum.
Back to the hotel, my only complaint was the air conditioning. From the reviews on Trip Adviser, I think Continental Palacete has better A/C than most other las Ramblas hotels, but our room never got below 75 degrees. When the maids service the room, they turn the AC off, so you come home in the afternoon to a very warm surprise.
It got very hot in the afternoons in Barcelona. Maybe it hit me worse because us NJ/NY folks are used to moving fast. Now I know why people take siestas and move so slow.
But this is Spain, not the US. We didnt find strong air conditioning anywhere, either in Spain or Italy. Even the museums, where youd expect strong A/C to protect the artwork from deterioration, were warm (by my standards you may feel completely different.)
In Barcelona, we used the metro to get around and found it easy to navigate. (The train cars were air conditioned very well.)
We visited the Picasso museum, the Sagrada Familia, the Dali museum, and we spent several hours walking up and down las Ramblas. What a carnival that place is.
One sorry note to our trip was a couple from Illinois we ran into in the hotel. They had walked from the hotel to the Sagrada Familia, in the afternoon, and as theyre walking along, she got splashed on the back of her clothes. A man came running up and said that he saw some kinds spill water down on her from a window, and he helped her to the side of the building where he grabbed some paper towels and started patting the water off her back.
He quickly left and she suddenly realized her pocketbook, which had been in FRONT of her the entire time, was open. Her wallet was missing. She told us it happened so fast she didnt realize what had happened. Once again, she had her credit card numbers written down and called as soon as she got back to the hotel, but by that point there had already been a $2000 purchase on her credit card at a jewelry store. Shes only responsible for $50, but -- Ouch! One of her words to me was Ive lived in Chicago almost my whole life I thought I was a savvy city person but it happened so fast.
BYE BYE EUROPE
The return flight from Barcelona to Heathrow was uneventful. Heathrow is weird in that we had to go through security leaving Terminal 1, but not entering Terminal 4. I realize it has something to do with the layout and passenger flow, but it just seemed bass awkward.
The flight from Heathrow to New York left about an hour late and they were having air conditioning problems on the jet. They couldnt get any cold air moving as we sat in the afternoon sun, but the flight attendants began to come around with plastic cups and pitchers of ice water, even for us poor sweaty slobs crushed into coach.
They pushed the plane away from the gate, but then there was a delay because, according to the captain, flight control has informed us that there is a bit of debris on the runway and it will be ten minutes whilst they straighten it up. I just love the way they talk. In New York, theyd say shut up and sit down, were scraping some crap off the runway.
When we finally took off, the lady in front of me reclined her seat in my face, making for a totally horrible 7-hour flying experience. I corrected her once when she started fluffing out her long black hair and let it fall back over the seat, covering my video screen.
The flight attendants came through with the drink cart and gave everyone two drinks saying, After that dreadful wait, you must need a double. They also dispensed bottles of wine to anyone who wanted it so they wouldnt have to wait when the meal came around.
The in-flight meal was actually edible. Salmon, a salad and a piece of cheesecake. There was a late flight snack, which consisted of a ham sandwich. Three days later, my stomach is still reminding me about.
Does anyone else always seem to get stuck behind the person who must recline their seat? I wouldnt recline mine unless the person in front of me did I find it uncomfortable to sit that way. Or am I just an anomaly in that respect?
We had been thinking of our trip as the trip of a lifetime but now we want more. We cant wait to go back to Rome and Florence and have some more time to enjoy the cities. We love cruising, but thats not the way to visit Italy, at least not a 7 day cruise with only one day in each Port.
One postscript to our trip.
When the plane touched the runway in New York City, I turned to my wife and said isnt it nice to be home?
Then the cabin crew announced Welcome to the United States and I had a touch of pride, thinking that many of those foreign voices and accents I had heard on the plane for the past seven hours belonged to people who were coming to visit my country, and I wondered if they were going to be as excited as I had been the past ten days visiting Europe. I thought of the excitement I have when I take someone from out of town into New York to visit our sites.
Remember in the old days of airline travel? Your family would come down to the arrival gate and as you stepped off the plane into the terminal, there was the old fashioned ritual of being welcomed home by the people you love and care about.
These days, you need a boarding pass to get into the terminal. Its unfortunate in that some of the old ways die as the world changes. Weve lost that special feeling of having your family come to meet you on your return home.
When we arrived at JFK airport in New York, there are two separate lines for Passport control. One line for US Citizens and one for non-citizens. When our plane got in, there was a long line for non-US citizens but we Americans got through with no wait.
The officer at passport control took our passports and ran them through his scanner. Then he stamped them. He asked us how our trip was and we told him it was wonderful, we loved it, Italy was fantastic, but it still felt great to be back in the states.
He handed us back our passports and said Welcome Home.
It was a Kodak moment for me. Read Less