Background My wife and I have just turned 50 (ish) and this is our 8th cruise, previously one cruise on Brilliance of the Seas and all the rest on Princess ships. We go for the destinations and are not shoppers and we don't use the onboard Spa's or the Casino. This cruise was for our 30th wedding anniversary and so we added the 4 night pre cruise tour of Madrid & Barcelona (we only do this on special occasions).
Madrid and Barcelona A good start with a half empty BA flight from Heathrow, chauffeur driven car from airport to hotel where we met Katia, our tour manager for the next four days. Madrid was hot but worth the trip, we did a city tour and then had free time for exploration. On day 2 a coach tour to Toledo then transferred to station for high speed train to Barcelona (2.5 hours for 360 miles), very smooth train ride and well worth it. We had a coach transfer to our hotel which is where I met my first small problem. The air conditioning in the room would not go below 22.5 C. As a Northern European (Yorkshire, UK) I like to sleep in a cold room (10 to 15 degrees C). I did complain but nothing was done and indeed other people did say they had trouble sleeping (outside daytime temp was 29 degrees C). The rest of Barcelona was wonderful, I highly recommend a few days there pre-cruise.
The Ship We had a concierge class cabin on deck 8 towards the stern. First impression was it was smaller than a Princess mini suite and I didn't like the fact that there was a large overhang from the main deck which left us almost permanently in the shade. Otherwise nice room with just about enough wardrobe/drawer space (cases fit under beds). Our steward was Ivan who was very efficient and friendly - on our anniversary we had room service breakfast and ordered the half bottle champagne, Ivan came with a full bottle explaining the half bottle wasn't on the menu anymore but there would be no charge. Overall ship impression. I felt that this ship was poorly designed, the cinema, conference/boardrooms are a complete waste of space.The conservatory was not at all how the brochure described it. It was just a florists with no seating. The foyer area was dark and not much happened there, I felt sorry for the musicians who normally played to a small number of people in the coffee/pastry area. The ship sorely needs a smaller functions room on the lines of Princess Vista lounge as some of the theatre acts played to very small audiences which was a little uncomfortable in such a large venue. There was the usual towels on sunloungers scenario with the crew doing nothing about it. Dining Waterfall grill - nice seating but horrible servery. With its trays and runners in front of the counters it felt like a motorway service area and trying to ask for things through the screens made it very difficult. We mostly had room service breakfast because we didn't like the waterfall. Evening dinner was a very nice experience, we had a table for six with Geoff and Christine from Australia and Mark and Gill from Alberqueque who only came three times. I should point out that we hate fixed dining and believe it to be an outdated system which should be removed as soon as possible. 6.15 is too early and 8.45 is too late but we picked late as lesser of two evils. The Normandie is a wonderful venue and everybody should try it at least once, the service and quality of the food is outstanding. The ships captain was the most boring person I have ever heard speak on a tannoy and became the but of our jokes over dinner. The cruise Day 2 at sea. As Villefranche is so close the ship sailed really slow to give a day at sea, this made the ship roll a little and I would hate to be in this position on a rough day, we were only travelling at 5 knots. Day 3 Villefranche. Royal Caribbean arrived first but tendering process was smooth and there were no crowds in the port. We took the buss to Nice (1 euro each) and then the bus to Eze (1 euro each). Eze is a very nice hilltop town, you could pass two hours here, longer with lunch. Public toilet behind tourist info (not free). We spent some time in Nice which was ok but Eze was better.
Day 4 Livorno. As we have stayed in Florence before we opted for the train to Pisa. You can walk to the station from the shuttle drop off point but I would recommend the bus (no 1 terminates at the stazione). The train cost 7.20 euros return for two. If you take the direct route from station to leaning tower there is nothing to see but if you go to the right and up through the shopping centre it's much better and there are plenty of street cafes. It also brings you around the side of the leaning tower past some roman remains.
Day 5 Civitivecchia. Again we travelled by train (9 euros each) and then used a HOHO bus as we had been before, we took in the roman forum, Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain etc. We stayed away from the Vatican as it was a Sunday plus you need a full day there on its own.
Day 6 Naples. As we had been to Pompeii before we opted for a train to Herculaneum. Don't go to Stazione Garibaldi as there is a Circumvesuviana station nearer. Make sure you take your passport with you if you want an audio guide (we forgot). On our return we walked through the city to Galeria Umberto braving the traffic (you need nerves of steel). Naples is a dirty City but is still full of character (there is a HOHO bus if you need it). As with some other stops I got the impression that we didn't get the best berths (Costa, MSC seem to get better).
Day 6 at sea. Second formal night and our 30th anniversary. Started with champagne breakfast and then day sunbathing ending with dinner at the Normandie - wonderful.
Day 7 Santorini. What a fantastic place to park a ship. Tendering process was pretty good (Greek ships) but the queue for the cable car was a nightmare, it took one hour and we had to fight off the German and Italian queue jumpers from the Costa and MSC ships. The harbour is tiny and can't cater for disembarking passengers and the cable car queue. Santorini is a wonderful place and I wouldn't recommend a ships excursion, just go up to Thira or catch a cheap bus to Oia.
Day 8 Athens. Our original plan here was to use the metro to travel in. However, all the Athens tour guides went on strike and tours were cancelled. Instead the coach companies put on Shuttles for $20. We weighed up the pros and cons and decided to use this shuttle which would save walking and be no more expensive than a taxi. We got to the Acropolis at 0900 and it was already getting hot. Acropolis was worth a trip and we went on through the Plaka and up to the Parliament building for changing of the guard, all this is quite doable. Unfortunately the new Acropolis museum hadn't opened (it has now). If you go to the Athens be prepared for the heat (36C in early June rising to over 40 in July/Aug).
Day 9 At sea, pleasant apart from fight for sunlounger, not much entertainment but suited us.
Day10 Dubrovnik. Excellent place, walls very much like York (UK) but be warned there are lots of steps and they are very steep. Most people spoke English and accepted Euros so no need to do any foreign exchange.
Day 11 Arrived in Venice. This, for me, was the highlight. Make sure you are on deck for this, it takes about an hour to sail through the City (yes, you sail right alongside St Marks and all the sights. Venice is a great city to travel on foot but you can get around on the vaporettos which get very crowded and cost 6.50 euros per trip (valid 60 minutes) unless you get a day ticket. We spent hours in and around St Marks and then blew 80 euros on a Gondola ride (35 minutes), well we might never go back.
Day 12 travel home. To avoid the despicable cruise line practice of dumping you at the airport five hours before your flight we took our only ship excursion. This was a trip to Padua and airport drop off. Padua is a pleasant place to spend a morning (nice coffee bars) but they still dropped us at the airport 3 hours before our flight (they don't open the check in desks until two hours before flight). Marco Polo airport is small and there is very little to do until you get through security.
This is my first attempt at a review and hope I didn't go on too much. Overall impression was, wonderful cruise. Regardless of the few critical comments above the service was excellent, I didn't come across one bad crewmember. All behaved and acted impeccably. Full marks to Celebrity for this alone. IF Celebrity took over Brilliance of the seas that would probably make it perfect.