This was my fourth cruise with Princess and fifth cruise overall. We are an active couple, ages 46 and 55. I was a bit worried about sailing on the Island Princess after the refit, but the overall changes were not something that really affected us. The gym is small and dark, but we chose to run/walk on the promenade deck instead...it is inconvenient that it doesn't go all the way around anymore, but you can either cut through the ship (and enjoy the air conditioning) or turn and go back the other way...a small price to pay for the great scenery. I didn't miss the Universal Lounge at all-I have previously sailed on the Island's sister ship, Coral Princess and I didn't think the sight lines and space constraints in the Universal Lounge were that great.I had done research before we left and knew enough not to book our cabin in the aft area due to all the vibration issues. We sat next to a couple at dinner that had a cabin in that area and they said the vibrations were awful, .like the vibrating beds they used to have in motel rooms. I was curious to see if the dining felt crowded now that they had added more people to the ship, but we didn't find that the case any more than usual.
We arrived at the ship just a bit before 1:00. There was a large crowd, but we only had to wait about 15 minutes before our group was called and we were quickly on board.
We had traditional dining at 5:30 but were seated in the Anytime Dining Room at a fixed table for 2 that we were allowed to just walk in to each night. I really enjoyed this as the Anytime Dining room seems to move at a faster pace than Traditional Dining. We ate in the buffet each morning for breakfast and also for lunch on sea days. We occasionally ate dinner in the buffet when we got in from ports too late for our early seating or on nights when we just wanted something casual. The buffet was crowded at peak times, but we were always able to find a seat. The rest of the time, there was just moderate traffic in there. They had some great shrimp dishes and even king prawns on the buffet. I really liked the specialty dish that they would cook up in a wok in the evenings at the end of the buffet area. We also ate at the Grill the first day after embarkation. I try to avoid the buffet that day and the food from the Grill was very good. We used the Anytime Dining one night when we got back later than our assigned seating and we were seated very quickly and the service in the dining room was great. I thought the food was great. It's hard to complain about something you don't have to fix or clean up. I had read some reviews about food being luke-warm...that never happened to us. We had great waiters.
We didn't go to any of the shows in the theater, as we have seen plenty of those, but spent most of our evenings watching Movies Under the Stars. I thought Princess' choice of movies was great and love just lying on a chair watching a movie with a blanket, some popcorn & cookies and the stars overhead. It did sprinkle on us a couple evenings, but we were able to move to chairs that were under the deck. We always went to the early movie and it was sometimes hard to hear for the first part of the movie as there were still a lot of people walking by and talking to their companions. Once the foot traffic slowed down, we were able to hear the movie fine.
Disembarkation: We chose to carry our own bags off the ship in the 8:30 am slot. This went very smoothly and they actually let us off just a bit early. We had purchased a fake dagger for our son in Istanbul and it was taken from us as we re-boarded the ship in Istanbul and returned to us as we disembarked on the last day. My key card beeped as they scanned it as I was disembarking to let them know that I had an item to be returned to me. It was handled very well.
We enjoyed our cruise very much. It is my favorite way to travel...unpack once and wake up every day in a new place. I love Princess and find their itineraries to be better than other lines for my preferences. Already planning our next cruise for Summer 2016.
We are complete do-it-yourself people when it comes to shore excursions and only took one organized tour from a private tour company. We like to be able to just do our own thing and change our plans during the day if it fits our needs. We walked and walked every day, sometimes close to 15 miles. This is pre-planned to counteract all the food we eat on board!! As I have gleaned a lot of port information from Cruise Critic, I am going to share a very detailed description of what we did in each port.
We arrived a day early. We rode the free green bus from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2 where we walked out to the RENFE train station (up the stairs and across a covered walkway) and bought a T10 ticket for 9.95. There was a ticket window there as well as automated machines. This ticket can be shared with your traveling companions. It is good for the ride on the RENFE train from the airport into town. This train ticket, if bought alone, was almost $5 per person, so the ticket paid for itself in the first use by the two of us. It gives you 10 rides (5 for each of us) on the train, metro or buses in Zone 1 (basically the airport train and then the center of Barcelona where all the tourist attractions are).
We rode the train to the Passeig de Gracia stop which was near our hotel. We walked to the Block of Discord and then down to Catalunya Square and down the Ramblas, stopping at La Boqueria to wander around. My husband loved this market with its interesting and varied displays of fruit, nuts, candy, bread and meats. We circled around the Columbus Monument at the bottom of Las Ramblas and then jumped on the metro at the Drassanes stop and rode the green line toward Trinitat Nova back up to Passeig de Gracia where we changed to the purple line toward Bandalona Pompeu Fabra and rode to the Sagrada Familia stop.
I had pre-purchased tickets to La Sagrada Familia online and we were able to get in quickly. It is breathtakingly beautiful. We spent a couple hours there, then hopped back on the metro on the blue line toward Cornella Centre and got off at Diagonal where we changed to the green line toward Trinitat Nova and got off at the Vallacarca stop for our visit to Parc Guell. It is between the Vallacarca and Lesseps stops on the green line. We walked down the street and then turned left toward Parc Guell. It is a steep uphill walk, but there are escalators for most of it if you chose to use them. There were signs spray painted on buildings to lead you from the metro stop to Parc Guell. We walked around the outside areas and then entered the monumental zone with our timed tickets that I had also purchased online. A very fanciful place. It poured rain on us while we were here, but it didn't last long.
We walked downhill to the Lesseps metro stop (somewhat steep, which is why I chose to do the metro stops in the order I did...I didn't want to walk up). We got on the green line going toward Zona Universitaria and got off at Passeig de Gracia and walked to our hotel (Hotel Victoria Palace). The next morning, we walked back down to Catalunya Square and then into the Barri Gotic neighborhood. We toured the Cathedral and then walked around to the Martyrs' Statue and Placa Sant Felip Neri...under the bridge of Sighs structure and to Placade St. Jaume. On from there to the royal palace. We decided to pay another visit to La Boqueria market on the Ramblas and so didn't go on to the Church of Santa Maria del Mar or the Arc. This is the beauty of doing things on your own.
After our trip through the market, we walked back to the hotel, packed up and rode the metro from Passeig de Gracia on the green line toward Zona Universitaria and got off at Drassanes using the last our of T10 ticket. We walked the block to the bottom of the Ramblas and crossed the street and found the port bus which we took out to the port (2 euros each).
We walked into the center of La Seyne sur Mer (where the ship actually ports) and found the bus stop. We waited for bus 8 to take us over to Toulon. It said it was coming in approximately 20 something minutes, but when that time came and went, it finally just went to saying "No Service". Instead, we walked further into town and curved around the marina where we finally found the ferry going over to Toulon. A lot of wasted time due to the bus not coming, and to add insult to injury, once we finally found the ferry stop and were waiting for the next ferry, I saw bus 8 go by, running its route once again. I just had to shake my head. It was a beautiful day and I was in France...what more could you ask?
You pay on the ferry...no need for tickets in advance-2 euros each. The train station is about a ten to fifteen minute walk up from the dock in Toulon. Our rental car agency was right across the street from the station and we were in our car and on our way up into Provence in no time. We took a somewhat indirect route up to Aix en Provence as we wanted to see as much of the countryside as possible. We drove around Aix, but weren't able to get out and walk as we had hoped due to the time that was lost that morning. We took a different route back to Toulon to see more of the countryside and arrived back at the rental agency just in time to walk back and catch the ferry back across to La Seyne sur Mer. There is a ferry stop closer to the ship than the one on the marina. It isn't well marked, but on the way back, the ferry stops there before it continues to the main stop by the marina. It was a short walk back to the ship and we arrived just before all aboard time.
We also rented a car here through the local Hertz agency. They have an office right in the terminal and had our car waiting for us. They have already programmed the GPS for parking areas near the sites in Pisa, Lucca, Florence, etc. We drove first to Pisa and I'm pretty sure we wouldn't have made it out of the port without that GPS...I have never seen a port that had as many roads going here and there as that one. Our parking on the street in Pisa that our GPS took us to was free since it was Sunday and the Hertz people had told us about this in advance. We walked a couple blocks to the Field of Miracles and saw everything there. It was pouring rain most of the time we were there, but it was a sight to see none the less and fun to climb the Leaning Tower.
We went from there to Lucca, as we had decided not to try and do Florence on this trip. We were so glad we chose Lucca. What a delightful city! The wall around the top is about 2.5 miles and we walked the whole of it. Great views down into the town and just a fun place to people watch. The sun had come out as we drove toward Lucca so we had beautiful weather while there. We went down into the town and my husband tried gelato for the first time...and then tried it again because it was so good. I had tried to explain how wonderful it is, but you really have to just taste it on your own. We took an indirect route back to Livorno so that we could drive through as much of the Tuscan countryside as possible. As it was Sunday, a lot of the gas stations along the highway were not manned. You could use bills in the pumps, which we figured out after a bit of trial and error as there is a central location where you put bills in and then select your pump number, but you had to have smaller bills unless you need a lot of gas because they wouldn't give you change.
I had read before we left that the free shuttle bus was now taking people to a different location and that you could either take a local bus to the train station or walk. I located the new drop off point on google maps and decided that wasn't really going to work for us as we were hoping to catch the 7:52 train to Rome and they weren't going to even start running the shuttle until 7:30 which was 30 minutes after we docked. So, we got off the ship at 7:00 and just walked out of the port. No one tried to stop us and we had a couple of security cars pass us. One man even gave us directions when we made a slightly wrong turn close to the end of the port area...we went into a parking area instead of staying on the road we were supposed to. I didn't see any other people walking, but I had read of others doing it previously. It was quite a ways to walk out of the port...perhaps about 20 minutes and we are fairly quick walkers. However, the main port entrance is only about 10 minutes from the train station, so we were able to get our BIRG tickets and catch our train with about ten minutes to spare.
We rode the train to San Pietro and walked to St. Peter's Square. We waited in the already long line for the basilica, but rather than go inside, we went to the right side of it and paid to climb up inside the dome. This was a great choice as the line to do this later in the day was REALLY long. There were great views from up there and when you come down, you can exit directly into the basilica without waiting in the line again. We only saw about half the basilica before it was time for our pre-purchased tickets into the Vatican. I highly recommend getting these tickets online before you go. The line was 3 hours long for those people that didn't have tickets. We wandered through the museums and finally made it to the Sistine Chapel. It was very crowded in the museums and that made it not as enjoyable for us, but it was the middle of Summer, so to be expected.
The Sistine Chapel was beautiful, but we were on sensory overload after going through all those museum exhibits. We exited out the back door that lets you back into the basilica without waiting in the line so that we could see the rest of it. From there, we walked down into Rome, through Piazza Navrone to the Pantheon, on to the Trevi Fountain and then down past Trajan's column to the Forum and Coliseum. We didn't have time to do more than walk by the later two as we had chosen to spend more time at the Vatican than we planned. I had been to both of them before and my husband said he could see enough from walking around the outsides to suit him. We walked by the Circus Maximus and got on the metro at Circo Maximo and rode to Ostiense where we caught the train back to Civitavecchia and walked back to the port.
I stopped at an internet cafe right at the port entrance to check in with home and then we walked to the shuttle stop that is still fairly close to the port entrance. The bus doesn't drop you here in the mornings, but the return buses do stop here in the afternoon. However, they told us that there were no more Princess buses coming even though we were 5 minutes before the last shuttle was supposed to have left the first stop...we should have still had 10 minutes to spare. No worries, we just walked back into the port. We had to go through a building near the entrance where they looked at our cruise cards, etc, but they didn't try to stop us from walking into the port either. We got back with only 5 minutes to spare after not being able to catch the bus, but good enough. We like using up our full day in port.
We bought tram/train tickets from a tobacco shop on the corner of the intersection where you exit the port and then caught the train in the center of the road to the train station. The ticket machine on the tram wouldn't validate our tickets, but the man that checks your tickets had gotten on and an Italian women told him that we tried and the machine wasn't working. He wrote on the back of our tickets and passed them back to us. When we got to the main train station, we bought the rest of the tickets we would need for the day and caught the train to Pompeii. The train was VERY full. Standing room only and so we made our way to the door at the stop ahead of ours.
Due to construction, Pompeii was opening 30 minutes later than we had thought, so we waited outside the gates. The ticket lines did not move very fast once they let us all in. We bought a combo ticket for Pompeii and Herculaneum and then toured through Pompeii. There were a lot of roads/areas that were closed off, so we had to keep backtracking on our walking tour. By the time we left Pompeii a couple hours later, the ticket line snaked clear around and up the exit ramps. I would suggest going there as early as possible. We rode the train back to Ercolano. We checked with Vesuvio Express and they said they had two buses leaving to go up Mt. Vesuvius, one in 20 minutes and one in 40 minutes and that we would be back in time to catch the train to Naples at 4:06 regardless of which one we took, so we hurried down the road to Herculaneum and toured through there very quickly. We got back to Vesuvio Express only to have him tell us that we could not go on that bus and make it back for the 4:06 train. His English was not very good and we don't speak Italian, so there was a miscommunication. We wished we had gone on the first bus and climbed Mt. Vesuvius and then toured Herculaeum, time permitting. Lesson learned.
It was very disappointing to us as we really wanted to climb Mt. Vesuvius. We had some gelato (comfort food) and took the train back to Naples where we had some pizza...can't go to Naples and not eat pizza :) Back to the ship with plenty of time to spare.
We decided to walk into town rather than take the (for fee) shuttle bus. I have walked it before and it is an easy walk, though there really isn't much of a shoulder on the road so I would caution anyone that doesn't like being right next to the traffic. There is also a boat that takes you from the little marina next to where you dock into the center of town and is cheaper than the shuttle. This wasn't running when I was here before (2012) and I'm not sure if it is a newer service or if it just wasn't running when I was there before because it was pouring rain.
We wandered all around town, to the windmills, etc. We enjoyed just getting lost in all the little alleyways. We even ended up running into Petros the Pelican, who tried to bite my husband's stomach while I was taking a picture. I had really wanted to take the shuttle to Delos, but there was only one return shuttle that would have gotten us back in time for all aboard and I decided not to chance that it was running late, etc. as there was only a short window to make it back to the ship once the ferry docked. Something to do next time.
We disembarked and walked out onto the main road. We got lira from an ATM and bought tokens for the tram from the machines in the middle of the road on the tram platforms. We rode the tram up to the Sultanahmet area. We toured Topkapi Palace and the Harem, Haggia Sophia, and the sites around the Hippodrome. We decided to skip the Underground Cistern (been there before). As it was a Friday, the Blue Mosque is closed until after the noon service, so we walked over to the Grand Bazaar and wandered around there for a bit. We got temporarily lost as we exited the bazaar, but quickly got our bearings and headed back to the Blue Mosque. They have moved the entrance line from when I was here before and so my husband got in what we thought was the line and they let him through, but they stopped me (I have blonde hair which you can still see even with the shawl) and told me that I was in the line for the locals going in to pray and I needed to go to the tourist line, which they pointed out. It was REALLY long, so I just motioned my husband to go ahead without me. I had been inside before and he had not, so I just waited for him at the exit.
We wandered back down through Istanbul, following the tram tracks back to the Galata Bridge, across and to the ship. It was further back to the ship once we were across the bridge than we had remembered, but we made it in plenty of time. We tried the roasted chestnuts the vendors were selling on the streets before we came across the bridge...yum!
This is the port where we took an organized tour. You can get to the sites on your own, but it is a bit problematic. We used Ephesus Deluxe and they did a great job. We visited The Virgin Mary House and walked right in with no lines as we beat the tour buses there. On to Pompeii and the Terrace Houses...from there we did a quick stop at the Temple of Artemis. Back to Kusadasi for some shopping and an internet cafe before boarding the ship. Our guide pointed out a great shop for fresh Turkish Delight and baklava. Yum!
We walked up to the metro station. There is some construction around the building and we took a wrong turn, but it was easily fixed with a little backtracking. We rode the metro from Piraeus to Omonia, then switched from the green line to the red line in the direction of Aghios Dimitri and got off at the Acropoli stop. We walked up to the Acropolis. There was a small line for tickets. The combo ticket included entrance to everywhere else we went that day. The rocks on top of the Acropolis are slippery, so wear shoes with a good tread. I actually fell while we were up there, but I was not wearing tennis shoes like usual and I am, admittedly, a clutz.
After touring the Acropolis, we climbed up Mars Hill. From there we walked down to the Temple of Zeus and through part of the National Gardens. They were very pretty and I wish we had had more time to spend there. We did a walking tour on my iPod through the main part of the city and then through the Ancient Agora. The Tower of the Winds on the Roman Forum was completely covered with scaffolding, so that was a bit disappointing. We stopped at our church for an English speaking sacrament meeting (it was Sunday) and then back up through the Plaka looking for gifts. We caught the metro at Monistiraki with not much time to spare, rode the green line back to Piraeus (end of the line) and walked back to the ship. All aboard with 10 minutes to spare.
We watched Sail Away from the aft deck on Deck 8. Had it all to ourselves. Once the ship was backed out and turned, we went to the forward deck on Deck 10 and watched from there as we cleared the harbor. Even landed the starring role in someone's YouTube video showing the Island Princess leaving Piraeus that day.
We watched sail in from the forward deck on Deck 11. It wasn't very crowded. Everyone found a place along the rail. We walked from the port to Piazza Roma where we bought tickets for the bus to the airport the next morning (8 euros each) and then walked over and bought tickets for the vaporetto and sailed down the Grand Canal to St. Mark's Square. We toured through there, Bridge of Sighs, etc. Walked slowly back up toward Piazza Roma, shopping along the way and trying to get lost in all the back alleys. There are basically no people if you just go one street over from the main thoroughfares. I love all the little skinny alleyways in Venice. We did have to backtrack a few times when we came to streets that ended at a canal with no bridge, but that was part of the fun. We were ported overnight in Venice so it wasn't like there was a time we had to be back. We were still back well before dark, even with all our side trips. As I mentioned above, we chose self-disembarkation and carried our own luggage off the next morning. We walked to the people mover and paid the 1.50 each to ride that to Piazza Roma instead of pulling the suitcases for that 15 minute walk. Our bus was just arriving as we got into the Piazza and as it is an airport bus, has plenty of storage underneath for luggage. We were at the airport in 20 minutes...too bad the flights home weren't that short!