Cruise: Very good itinerary - repositioning from Copenhagen to Venice with stops in Amsterdam, Brugge, Le Havre (Normandy), Malaga, Cartagena, Malta, Split.
Staff: We found the staff very friendly and helpful. The only exception was trying to get info on doing things on your own and the overall lack of knowledge of Cartagena.
Food: Food was excellent, but lobster is no longer served on this cruise. Large prawns are served instead, and they did not meet the quality of the other meals we enjoyed.
One month before our cruise, we had booked our Anne Frank house tour for 2:45 PM-3:15 PM. When we left the ship, we took a canal tour for 11Euros PP. At 11AM, we went to the Tourist Info Center near the ship, for a free http://newamsterdamtours.com/ three (3) hour walking tour of the city. The guides work on a tip basis, were interesting, and funny. We saw most of the city and then went to the Anne Frank house which was amazing. You almost felt like you were in a church, everyone was so respectful and quiet. After that we caught the Stop and Go bus (1 euro pp for one hour) to the Amsterdam library which was near the ship. They provide free terminals and free internet access. Just walk-in, find a terminal, and check your e-mail. From the library, it was a short walk to the ship.
Our research had shown that from where the ship docks in Zeebrugge - map is located at http://foto.brugge.be/dl/zeebruggeplan.pdf - we could walk to a tram or train to take us to Brugge. You really need to know what time you dock, when you can get off the ship, and when you must be back. The tram runs every 10-15 minutes, and the trains after 8:30 AM run hourly. You can find the tram and train schedules at http://www.delijn.be/en/index.htm . The ship excursion charges $49 pp to take you to Brugge for 4 hours - $79 for the full day. They also offer for $6/12 roundtrip a bus that will take you to Blankenburge where you can take the train to Brugge. The night before arriving in Zeebrugge, the excursion staff and Cruise Director were saying that no one will be able to walk from the ship to the port entrance. When we arrived in port, I finally found one of the cruise directors staff who informed me that there was a free bus from the ship to the port entrance (which we took). The part of the port we docked in Marinebasis - berth 704 seemed very industrialized. When leaving the port, we made a right and headed toward the Zeebrugge Dorp station, but jumped on the tram (Zeebrugge Kerk stop - 1 euro) since we would have missed the train because of the delay getting out of the port. Took the tram to Blankenburge and caught the train from there. On our return, we took the train from Brugge to Zeebrugge Dorp (total roundtrip cost for both train rides was 5.4 euros) since this gave us more time in Brugge. You can walk from Dorp or take the tram two stops back to the ship. The Dorp station is open 9 months a year. During the summer months, it is closed and the Strand station is open. The Strand station is the one closest to the ferries and the beach.
Brugge was a wonderful city. Many beautiful sights, churches, and lots of great beer and chocolate. There are many internet walking tours, etc. that you can research. We did our own plan and started at Minnewater Park, then the Beguinage, St. Salvador, Church of Our Lady, Grote Market and Belfry, and the Chapel of the Holy Blood. Make sure you check your times. The Chapel was closed between 12 and 2 PM. We stopped and had a beer at Bierbrasserie Cambrinus and bought chocolate at the Chocolate Line store. We did not have enough time to take the Brewery Tour at De Halve Maan Brewery. Hope to get back to Brugge again.
For some reason, the ship announced that our time in port was reduced by one hour. We rented a car right at the port (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for rates - they are the only car rental at the port - others are in town - we were very happy with the car and their service) and were on our way by 8:45AM. While driving was easy - just watch the toll lanes to make sure you get in the cash lanes - sometimes the road markers would change or disappear for stretches and there are turnabouts everywhere. We had reasonably good maps/directions, but you may want to consider a GPS if you have one that supports international. Our first stop (about 1 hour 30 minutes drive) was Bayeaux where we saw the famous tapestry and visited Notre Dame Cathedral. Then we headed toward the Normandy beaches. First we stopped at Pointe-du-hoc (our furthest distance from the ship). There we saw the cliffs, artillery craters, bunkers, etc. When leaving we proceeded east (toward the ship) along the beach roads stopping at different sites before we reached Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery. Words do not describe the feelings you get visiting this solemn place. From Omaha, we stayed on the beach roads until Port-en-Bessin, where we headed back to Bayeaux to start our trip back to the ship. We stopped for 45 minutes at Honfleur, a beautiful fishing village about 35 minutes out from the ship. Be aware that there was heavy traffic in Le Havre at 6 PM when we arrived and we had to find a gas station. The car was due back at 7 PM, and we returned it at 6:45 PM. In the cruise terminal, there was an internet location that we used (2.5 euros for an hour) and we were on the ship by 7:20 PM. As it was, the ship left later than planned because the Paris excursions were delayed getting back. The ship excursion for the Normandy beaches was $179 per person and didn’t cover as much as we saw. We talked to some passengers that took that excursion, and they felt too much time was spent at the Caen Museum and the stop for lunch.
We were informed that Sept. 21 was Malta’s Independence Day and many Cathedrals, etc. may be closed because of the public holiday (this seemed to be the case in Valletta, but not outside the city). There were no big celebrations or parades, it seemed to be a more political event. The couple we were traveling with had made arrangements for a driver (Carmel Micallef - www.avanadegarage.com ) to meet us at the port. He charged 16 euros per hour to drive us for as long as we would like. We had pre-booked a 3 PM tour of the Hypogeum, a 5000 year old burial site. They only allow 10 people per hour to visit this site and you must book it weeks in advance (the day we visited, it was fully booked through Oct. 18th). We provided Carmel with a list of things outside the city that we wanted to see and that we had the Hypogeum pre-booked. He quickly and efficiently developed a route and we spent from 9:30am to 4:30 pm with him. He told us that Independence Day is really a political event, no big celebrations, or parades. We went to the Golden Sands beach - one of only two sandy beaches in Malta the others are rocky, the Cathedral in Mosta (which was open) where a WW II bomb crashed through the dome but never exploded, Mdina a beautiful historic old town, the Blue Grotto where you can take a boat to see beautiful caves, Dingli Cliffs for pictures, Hagar Qim Temples (similar to Stonehenge) and the Hypogeum. Carmel dropped us at the Valletta city gate at 4:30 pm which gave us about an hour to see the city. We highly recommend Carmel, the cost was very reasonable, and we were able to see so much. We would welcome another stop here.
This was the only port that we were tendered ashore. The process went well, and we were in town by 9 AM. Split does not use the euro, but the Croatia Kuna (HRK). Many places will accept the euro, but you have to ask first. We found this port difficult and some of the people were not very friendly. You really have to work to fill in the day and we were surprised that the costs were higher than the other ports we visited. We tried to take a bus tour that was advertised in different tourism sites, but the bus didn’t show up and a schedule did not seem to exist. For the same cost as the bus (10 euros per person), we took a cab and had a one hour sightseeing excursion. After the cab tour, we visited the Diocletian Palace (really a walled city) and strolled through numerous fish, food, and souvenir market stands that were nearby. There is a beach within walking distance, if you would like to take a dip in the Adriatic Sea. After grabbing a Gelati, we headed back to the ship, disappointed in this port.