If you’re anxious about taking a cruise, don’t be. Our first time cruise surpassed all of our expectations and we will definitely cruise again! We chose this cruise because we had specific time periods we could travel and it offered ... Read More
If you’re anxious about taking a cruise, don’t be. Our first time cruise surpassed all of our expectations and we will definitely cruise again! We chose this cruise because we had specific time periods we could travel and it offered the ports we wanted at a price we could afford. In addition, the cruise line had been recommended to us by trusted friends and experienced cruisers. We liked the idea of the Aqua Class cabins with exclusive Blu dining, and the Persian Garden. This cruise line and these cabins in particular were recommended to us by our travel agent.
We had not traveled outside of North America and only speak English. We thought that a cruise would be a good way to see many different European cities through day time excursions while having the comfort of knowing where we would sleep each night. The more we travel, the more adventurous we might become!
And now...the gory details!
Airline: Air Transat
We booked through our travel agent and followed all of her recommendations (cruise line, airline, etc.). After speaking with several guests who were veteran cruisers, I would do some serious package comparisons with other companies (Costco travel online – who knew – and other agencies that specialize in cruises). There seemed to be vast differences in ‘perks’ that were included. At the time of booking our cruise, we were offered 2 free perks – we chose the classic beverage package and the $300 onboard credit to be used for excursions, spa treatments, shopping, etc.
FLIGHT: We had a direct flight from Toronto (7.5 hours). The flight was on time and good, but if I were to do it again, I would break it up. We flew economy and it was quite uncomfortable for 7.5 hours. It was also freezing cold which we didn’t anticipate. We had put a few extra things in our carry on, but despite having used my carry on suit case many, many times with Air Canada and WestJet, the counter agent checking our bags made me use the sizer and it was too long with the wheels so I had to check the bag and our extra clothes along with it. Other passengers were getting through with larger bags but it’s the luck of the draw sometimes. Blankets were sold in a $9 package (pillow/blanket) if you really wanted it. Food service was included in the flight. In-flight entertainment was available through the Air Transat app. We paid extra $$ to select our seats for the trip home as there are some rows with only two seats instead of three across. However, the only ones left were the very last row and you hear constant noise as the attendants get food and drink and passengers use the washrooms. You should get perks for sitting in these seats, not pay extra. Airport transfers were included by Air Transat who also guaranteed we would make our cruise in time. We arrived in Barcelona at 1:30 p.m. and the ship did not leave until 5:00 p.m. – lots of time for unexpected delays or issues (and we had none).
NEXT TIME: We will bring back packs for our carry on. We could have used backpacks on our shore excursions. I would definitely recommend that you add a day or two on the front end so that you have time to see Barcelona before boarding the ship. We heard over and over and over again how beautiful it was.
Embarkation: Having the transfer included made embarkation seamless. There was a taxi waiting for us upon our arrival in Barcelona and we were at the cruise terminal in 20 minutes. We completed the full, online check in weeks prior to our arrival and it made embarkation a breeze. You can print your luggage tags at home and attach them. The entire check in process at the terminal took about 5 minutes. Your luggage is taken prior to you boarding and arrives at your room before you leave the port. All we had to do was walk on board and grab our mimosas!
Clothes: We did not pack enough clothes for a cruise. Your clothes on excursion days are done and you need to be dressed fairly nicely every night for dinner. You can get clothes laundered for a fee but we both had 10 pounds free in each suitcase and could have easily packed more clothes.
Dining: The Aqua class cabins give you exclusive access to Blu dining. It’s open for breakfast and dinner and there are no set eating times. You simply walk in when you want – we NEVER had to wait for a table. The food was AMAZING! We never had a bad meal and the service was exceptional. Everyone – the hostess Maria, the Maitre d’ David, our servers Jerry and Anna, and our sommelier Zeljko – was friendly, engaging, and eager to make your experience the best that it could be. There were always healthy choices on the menu and while it changed every day for dinner, there were some standards that you could always get if you wanted them (e.g. steak, chicken, salmon). If you didn’t like what you ordered, you simply ordered something else.
The other thing we liked about Blu was the seating. Tables of two were positioned relatively close together which allowed you to meet other guests – we met some amazing couples on board and everyone was always eager to share their cruise knowledge and experience. If you wanted to keep to yourself, it was easy enough to do. When we saw the lineups at the San Marco restaurant each evening, we were really pleased to be able to walk right into Blu!
We typically ate lunch at the Ocean Café buffet if we were on the ship (rarely) and there was always lots to choose from for all different appetites and diets.
One night, we tried specialty dining, the Tuscan Grill. For us, the cover charge was $45 USD/per person (not cheap); however, when we booked and completed the online check-in, we noted that we were celebrating our anniversary and to our surprise, a voucher for complimentary speciality dining appeared in our room on day 2! In chatting with others, we discovered that complimentary speciality dining was included with their cruise booking which is why I would really recommend shopping around. The Tuscan Grill is an Italian restaurant and the food was…no surprise…spectacular. Our server, Sheyla, made the whole dining experience great fun for us. She was very engaging.
We did not try Ocean Liners, the upscale French cuisine restaurant.
Entertainment: Each evening, a newsletter is delivered to your room to outline all of the activities on board the next day (there are lots) and to describe the port that you will be in. It also contains all of the dining options with hours of operation. This was an invaluable piece of communication. We did not go to the casino but others we met did and they enjoyed it (as compared to other cruise casinos they had experienced). We attended a few of the evening shows in the theatre. Some were quite good and others were a little lacklustre but all in all, they were okay. We rarely took advantage of other on-board activities as we went on many excursions and were tired by the time we got back to the boat.
Shore Excursions: We were really torn about what to do in terms of excursions. The cruise ones seemed quite expensive but they guaranteed you would be back to the ship on time and I hated the thought of risking a bad experience. At the end of the day, we booked three excursions with Celebrity and we weren’t disappointed. All of the tour guides were excellent – friendly and knowledgeable and the bus drivers were all miracle workers in my opinion given the insanity of the local drivers and the tight roads they had to manage.
Rome: It was expensive, but worth it. We saw the Colosseum, St. Peter’s, Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. The Colosseum tour included the underground and it was excellent. We didn’t wait in line and had access to areas that general admission guests did not have. It is a 10-hour day as Rome is about 1.5 hours from the pier. Wear comfortable shoes! It was very, very, hot. Be sure to read all tour requirements. There are clothing requirements for St. Peter’s and there are no exceptions. I forgot to bring a scarf, but thankfully another tour guest had a scarf I could use (to cover my shoulders). There was some free time to wander and shop but you MUST be back at the meeting point on time – the tour continues with or without you. One guest on another tour in Rome got separated from his group and lost the emergency number everyone gets…just in case. It cost him $200 Euro to get back to the ship via taxi as he did not know how to access the public transportation (train) system that was much cheaper. We did not find this excursion overly taxing in terms of physical exertion (we are both 50 and in relatively good shape). We had plenty of time at all locations to take photos.
Amalfi Coast: We took the motor launch tour of the coast that also included Pompeii. Seeing the coast from the water was great. We docked and had about 90 minutes to tour the town and shop. Then it was off to lunch before heading to Pompeii. Again, the heat was quite intense while touring Pompeii but it’s one of those things you have to see to believe. There are public water fountains everywhere so be sure to pack a refillable water bottle for all of your excursions. In general, I find that the tour guides sometimes forget that tourists need bathroom breaks. You have to speak up and ask or they just keep moving – at the end of the day, they have a schedule to keep and have to get you back before the ship sails. We never felt rushed on any of our excursions. There was ample time to look around, take pictures, shop, etc.
Zadar, Croatia: Our final excursion was a river kayak tour of the Zrmanja river. This was by far our favourite. There were about 27 people in our group and we had 5 guides who were all knowledgeable, helpful and fun. This excursion was more physically demanding than the others but well worth it. You paddle for 3 straight hours, relatively easy paddling (no real breaks). There is one point where you have to exit the kayak because the waterfalls are too high to go over. While the guides shoot the kayaks over the falls, you have to walk over fairly rocky terrain to get down to the bottom of the falls and back into the kayaks. Way too many people had flip flops on (bad idea) and had difficulty managing the rocks and getting in and out of the kayaks. The scenery is breathtaking throughout the entire tour. They tell you the water is clean enough to drink (and the guides frequently drink it) but I stuck to my water bottle – why take the unnecessary risk? At the end of the tour, there is a great BBQ awaiting you (chicken, pork, rice, salad, bread...and a cold beer if you want one!). I would recommend making sure you have some sort of snack to take with you and consume on the bus before the excursion (the bus ride is one hour from port) or during the excursion. We were really hungry by the time we got to the end of the paddling. Though they say there will be time for swimming, there wasn’t. I think they promoted it as a small group excursion (max 12…honestly can’t remember the number) but there were 27 in our group. Thankfully, everyone was able to paddle half decently so there were no major issues with the group size.
Other Ports: We made our way around Cannes, Kotor, Ravenna and Venice on our own with relatively little trouble. The streets can be very confusing at times but if you are in the main tourist areas, there are lots of people to ask and tourist centres with staff. We tended to get off the ship early on these days, see the area before it got too hot and then head back to the ship for a late lunch. No matter how beautiful everything was, eventually, the heat got to us. We heard from people who went on the Monte Carlo excursion in Cannes and loved it and the National park tour in Zadar and didn’t like it (it was Croatia’s largest national holiday that day and the park was very, very crowded according to other guests).
We heard from many seasoned cruisers who booked their own excursions using local, reputable tour operators. They tended to pay a lot less, have far less people in their group (often it was a private tour just for their group), and they had great service and tour guides.
Debarkation & Venice: These were the only things that I would have to say could have been improved upon. Part of the challenges we faced were a result of us being first time cruisers and part of the challenges are just poor organization and planning at the port in Venice.
Our cruise was supposed to overnight in Venice and it didn’t – it stopped in Ravenna (not originally on the itinerary) prior to Venice. I didn’t realize this until I received my itinerary two weeks prior to the cruise and I didn’t really think anything of it until the day before debarkation. We realized that our airport transfer (included with our package) was for 10:00 a.m. and our flight was for 7:00 p.m. That would mean we would see none of Venice – only the inside of the airport. This was a big letdown for us. We tried to get information online but the internet wasn’t working. We tried to get help from the Shore Excursions desk but they had limited hours and there were no staff – we hoped to grab a last minute excursion as they typically end with the bus taking everyone and their luggage to the airport but they were sold out and couldn’t help us. We tried to get help from guest services and they didn’t really have any concrete information. They just assured us it would all be obvious and easy when we got off the ship…it was anything but!
There are thousands of tourists exiting cruise ships and one little kiosk selling water bus tickets. There were virtually no other people outside the terminal to help people sort out where to go and what to do unless people had pre-paid for transfers/tours. There were a lot of frustrated tourists at the cruise terminal.
In the end, we decided to ditch our airport transfer, store our luggage in the cruise terminal for $5 Euro per bag and at least see St. Mark’s Square before making our own way to the airport. As soon as we docked in the morning and had internet, we found information on water buses. As you get off the ship, there is an Alilaguana kiosk selling tickets for water buses ($15 Euro per person round trip). The water bus to St. Mark’s square was 15 minutes. We had tons of time to see the square, wander around the central tourist area, grab a bite to eat and then try to find the airport. The woman at the waterbus kiosk recommended we take a city bus to the airport as it would take 40 minutes versus the 100 minutes it would take if we took a waterbus.
In the end, that was a very bad decision for us as we had plenty of time to get to the airport and should have taken the waterbus.
The city buses are a little confusing and because we had not planned on every riding a city bus, we did not research this part of our trip. The bus ticket to the airport was $8 Euro. The woman selling the tickets told us to take bus #5. The buses are lined up in aisles with large aisle signs and we boarded a bus in aisle 5 instead of bus #5. Forty minutes later, we found ourselves right back where we started. Thankfully, the bus driver walked us over to where we needed to be and we had left tons of time to get to the airport. When you get on a bus, you have to scan your ticket. No one advised of this, it is written in tiny print on your ticket and there are only scanners at the front and back of the bus…but doors also open in the middle of the bus where there are no signs and scanners.
Guess which doors we used to board the bus? We were packed in like sardines – lots of tourists and luggage all headed to the airport – and you couldn’t even see the scanners located at the front and back of the bus it was so crowded. About 200m before the bus stops at the airport, it stops and transit cops board the bus (funny, this did not happen on the local bus we got on by accident the first time). It is obvious that they target the tourists. We were given a $60 Euro fine (x 2 – the equivalent of $180 Cdn.) and it didn’t matter what you said – they didn’t give one hoot. There were many tourists in the same predicament as us. It was a really sour way to end the trip and a pretty shameful practice for the local transit authority. Every other form of transportation we took – water bus, monorail – worked as it should but the buses were a different story.
If I had it to do over again and hadn’t been so tired and stressed, I would have delayed payment of the fine (this was an option…a more expensive one) and then simply not paid the fine when I got home. Logically, you have to ask yourself, what power does a city transit authority have once you are home? I don’t ever intend to go back to Venice so I suspect our fines would have been among the many that never get paid. Live and learn.
In sum, we had 8 great days and one crappy afternoon so it’s hard to get too worked up about it now that it’s over and in the past. Read Less