Mediterranean Cruise on Vision of the Seas
This is my review of our most recent cruise. It was our twenty- ninth cruise, and our first in Europe. We prefaced the Barcelona departure with two pre-cruise days in London. Approximately half of our cruises have been on Royal Caribbean, however, we have cruised with Norwegian, Disney, Princess, Celebrity, and Carnival as well. This booking was made a year in advance, and all cruise amenities and/or add ons were prepaid prior to boarding. This is significant and worth noting. All European cruises that leave from a European port are subject to a 21% VAT Tax from the European Union. This means everything from drinks to souvenirs, to excursions and any packages such as Internet, Dining, or Beverage that are purchased onboard. So, to save, pre- buy these items prior to boarding. Our flight arrangements and transfers were all booked via the cruise line through their Choice Air connection. The rates were competitive and we were kept informed of all changes that occurred prior to departure. In reference to changes, there was one pre boarding change made to our itinerary. The port of Malta was changed to a stop in Crete instead. Also during the cruise, the port of Mykonos was cancelled due to high winds and a second day in Athens was substituted.
Our eight- and one-half hour flight to London was on British Airways and was uneventful. Taking place in the middle of a British Airways pilot strike we were worried about this leg of the trip, but it went smoothly. Service was adequate, seats in Premium Economy were not particularly comfortable, and the food was mediocre. We stayed at the Heathrow Hilton T4 which is connected to Terminal Four by covered walkway. There is also an Underground Tube station at the terminal. The hotel was nice and food and service was very good. Taking the tube into London using our pre-purchased "Visitor Oyster" cards was easy, however, on both occasions that we used the tube to return to Heathrow from downtown London the cars were overcrowded to the point of absurdity. There are no words that adequately describe the amount of mass humanity that can jam into a London subway car. Very unpleasant, but unavoidable. We managed to see a surprising amount of the iconic London landmarks, and even took a Thames River cruise from Westminster to Greenwich during our one- and one-half days in London. The high point of our London visit was the tour of Buckingham Palace. We had been very lucky to obtain these hard to get tickets in the months prior to our departure. It was an amazing visit and the gardens were beautiful. In the course of our London visit we walked just under sixteen miles.
Our flight from Heathrow to Barcelona to catch our ship departed at 6:15am and required that we take a taxi from Terminal Four to Terminal Three. It was arranged by the Hotel Concierge and went smoothly at a cost of Eighteen British Pounds. This flight was also on British Airways and went smoothly. The Barcelona Airport proved to be a miserable place, and getting through Customs took almost as long as the flight from London. A prime example of inefficiency this place has inadequate signage, rude people, and absolutely nothing to recommend it to anyone. The transfer from the airport to the cruise terminal was slow and not without minor issues, but was accomplished after a short wait. Due to the number of ships in port the Vision of the Seas had been relegated to an industrial dock far from the cruise terminal. The bus from the Airport took us to the terminal for check in which went quickly, and a second bus then took us to the ship for boarding. Again, not very efficient but it did get the job done.
Upon boarding Vision of the Seas which we had sailed on previously we made our way to the Windjammer Buffet for lunch. Finding a seat was easy and the food was good. The food at the Windjammer proved to be very good during the entire cruise. Service in the Windjammer was very poor during the first couple of days, but did improve as the cruise went on. Our cabin, an inside stateroom on Deck 7 forward was ready by 1pm and we found it to be in good order and more than adequate. Our Cabin Steward, Alexander provided exemplary service during this twelve-day cruise. One caveat, our cabin 7513 was directly over the Theater where live performances take place and from time to time could be a bit noisy. The ship does show some age, but for the most part it seems in good condition with ample seating in and around the Atrium. The cleaning of tables around the seating areas was for the most part non-existent. Very poor job of housekeeping in this area. As far as the running of the ship, it did seem that it was being operated efficiently. It arrives and departs on time, and the Captain keeps passengers well informed. The ship also seems to ride very well, and is for the most part very comfortable. Entertainment in the Atrium was pretty standard with small combos, and piano players making regular appearances. We did not sample the main theater, or the main dining room on this trip. We ate exclusively at the Windjammer and were never disappointed. It seemed that the main dining room was not attracting as many people as in the past, and the Casino also rarely seemed crowded, although we didn't really check it out during prime hours. The shops were the usual basic Royal Caribbean fare, and the Photo Gallery still prints pictures bucking the recent trend of going all digital.
Our first stop was Cannes, France. Cannes is a tender port, so you must take a tender boat to and from the ship. We did not have a shore excursion and simply went ashore and walked along the waterfront and among the shops and street side restaurants. It is a very pretty little place, and did not seem too difficult o get around. Of course, we had to buy the usual souvenirs that tourists love so much. We stayed ashore long enough to get a feel for the place and appreciate its beauty. Crowds were not bad, and overall it was a pleasant experience.
Our second stop was Livorno, Italy which is the port nearest to Florence and Pisa. We had an excursion to Florence that include the Piazza Santa Croce dominated by the Basilica of Santa Croce which is the burial site of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo among others. We also visited the Galleria dell'Accademia to see the renown statue of David by Michelangelo. We also saw the Duomo, and many other historic sites as we walked through Florence. This was a walking tour, and it included lunch. Overall a beautiful place and a worthwhile visit. Be aware, this tour required that we walk over five miles over uneven and often slippery cobblestones and roadways. Also be aware that like all popular locations the crowds will be ever present, and often daunting. A sea of humanity all jostling for position and trying to keep up with and in sight of their tour guides. When multiple ships are in port the crowds number in the multiple thousands. One member of our tour became confused about our time of departure and missed our return bus. Fortunately, she was able to get help from shop owners who got a taxi which she took back to the port on her own. This error cost her two hundred Euros, and she just made it back to the ship in the nick of time. Beware.
Our next port was Civitavecchia, Italy which is the port town serving Rome. Our excursion to Rome included visits to the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain and the Vatican. The Colosseum is amazing and awe inspiring, however, it is also crowded beyond belief. Ours was a special small group tour and we got to go inside and up to the second level for good viewing, but there like so many of these places the overwhelming amount of people make enjoying the sites problematic. Walking to the Trevi Fountain was a beautiful walk with many photo opportunities along the way. But again, at the fountain it is almost impossible to get to the site because of the crowds. We had a very good Pizza near the Fountain and then headed to the Vatican. The Vatican is always crowded. We went through the Vatican Museum, The Sistine Chapel, and Saint Peters Basilica. All were beautiful, and all were packed with people. A member of our group got caught attempting to take a photo in the Sistine Chapel and our entire group was removed as a result. We had been warned. But overall the Vatican was well worth the visit and putting up with crowds and their antics.
After these stops, we had two sea days to rest. Believe me they were welcomed. The ship being a bit smaller than many did not seem overcrowded and moving around was very easy.
Our next stop was the Port of Piraeus, Greece. This is the port that serves Athens. We booked two excursions, one for each of our two days at this port. On our first day we went to the Acropolis and Cape Sounion. The Acropolis is absolutely unbelievable. It is well worth the walk and climb to see. However, be aware that the walk and the climb are both significant. If you have any mobility issues or breathing issues, do not attempt it. The crowds here were among the worst of the trip. Old stairs with no handrails, uneven stone walkways, and slippery marble all must be contended with. It is, however, worth the effort if you can make it. After a provided lunch buffet at Hotel InterContinental Athenaeum which was very good, we made our way down the coast to Cape Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon. Beautiful place, with high winds, slippery walkways and a vertical climb. Our second day in Athens found us on a basic downtown sightseeing excursion that included an extended shopping time in the Plaka Shopping District in old Athens below the Acropolis opposite Hadrian's Arch. The shopping was good and the area is picturesque and lively.
The next stop was Santorini, Greece. First, it is as beautiful as the pictures that we have all seen. The one main problem it has is accessibility. You must tender to the dock to catch your excursion and the only way back is down a 600-stair stairway shared with Donkeys or a hopelessly overcrowded cable car system. our excursion took us to the amazing ruins of Akrotiri where you can walk among an active archeological dig and see the civilization that has been recovered. We also toured the island and Oia we had lunch at a small pizzeria overlooking the caldera that forms Santorini's bay. It was just a breathtaking setting and pretty good pizza to boot. The last stop was the capital of Fira. Catching the cable car back down to the dockside was a nightmare. You stand in line in the sun for one to one and one half hours to reach the ticket window. The line moves painfully slow and snakes through a shopping area. As you near the stairs into the cable car house people sneak out of the shops and begin to cut the line. This happens continually and everyone is aware and grumbling but no one does anything about it. This can and does lead to unpleasant encounters between those who dutifully stood in line and those interlopers who think nothing of cheating their fellow passengers. Later this was the number one complaint made by passengers on our ship about their visit to Santorini.
Our last stop was the Greek island of Crete. There is not a lot to see, but it is a very pretty place with an interesting history. The story of the Battle of Crete during WWII alone is worth noting. We saw the remains of an Ancient Roman wall and an Ottoman fortress. Crete also is home to the only deep-water Mediterranean port used by the U.S. Navy. A pleasant stop, and a pleasant place.
Our next two sea days brought us back to Barcelona. Disembarkation was smooth with only a slight problem in finding the correct transfer bus to that terrible Barcelona Airport. It seems that in Spain when Person A directs you somewhere, then Person B at that location will not have the slightest idea as to why you were sent there. Our flight home was with Delta Airlines and went smoothly and without incident.
A few items of note. First, money. We did bring small amounts of British Pounds, and European Euros, and we did use them with no problem. However, our credit cards with chips were used without any trouble as well. We were never asked for a Pin#. We simply used the card and then were required to sign, hence the term, "chip and sign." Second, restrooms in Europe are another story. They are not plentiful. They often charge you to use them so always have some Euro coins handy for the attendant, and they are often not clean, or have no toilet seat. Some see this as "old world charm”. I don't. Third, if you are used to having ice in your beverage don't go to Europe. Again, "old world charm." Fourth, crowds. As I have pointed out in many parts of this review crowds in Europe are ever present, unyielding, often rude, and always overwhelming. Fifth, theft. You will be warned about pick-pockets everywhere you go in Europe. Take these warnings seriously. A fellow cruise passenger had her wallet lifted from a zippered compartment in her backpack while waiting in that Santorini cable car line, and she never felt a thing. Take precautions, and consider how you carry your valuables. And finally, sixth, filth. European cities are often dirty and smelly with garbage piled along the street and graffiti covering literally every surface in sight. One gets the impression that if you stand too long in one spot you run the risk of being "tagged" by some young Michelangelo "wanna be". In conclusion I am glad we made this trip and what we saw was absolutely worth the effort, but I don't need to see it again anytime soon. Also be aware that according to my wife's Fit bit we walked 65 miles during this trip. Be prepared.
If you are interested, we did VLOG this trip. You may find our videos on YouTube. Simply search for our YouTube site, "Cruise Views and other Stuff." Please subscribe if you like the videos. Thanks.