Holland America Westerdam Mediterranean Civitavecchia (Rome) to Barcelona June 2017
While everyone has their own likes and dislikes, there was very little not to like about this cruise on the Westerdam. This ship had been in drydock a few weeks earlier. Some of the rehab work took longer than expected and continued up until our voyage. By the time we got on, all of the work appeared finished.
New carpet and drapes were just the start. The lobby was completely redone (the crystal chandelier is gone), along with most public areas of the ship. A few new cabins were added. The most controversial moves among the HAL devoted were the elimination of the old library and the Crow’s Nest, the former high front-facing bar/nightclub. The real consternation on message boards seems to be the worry that HAL is straying from the classic maritime look. After actually seeing the changes in person, I personally think the worry is overblown. The new look is definitely more “modern.” For the most part, the color palate is understated with grays, browns, golds and creams with a few other splashes of color carefully mixed in (frosted blue chairs in the cabin for example). Nothing screams at you. I remember the world almost came to an end when the Zuiderdam was first introduced with the bold loud colors. While some elements may not be my personal taste, the look is certainly fresh and clean, and I would argue, classy.
This cruise represented a bit of a personal transition for our family. It was the first time our teenage boys (ages 14 & 16) were not active in Club HAL. This was quite a departure from previous voyages where one (or both) would rush through dinner to race up to the Club HAL room. We have great memories of Club HAL adventures over the years. My wife and I will never forget walking on the deck one evening after dinner and glancing in a window and spotting our boys, dressed in pirate hats and painted on mustaches, swinging swords as they marched through the ship. Our boys especially remember a few of the CLUB HAL counselors over the years, especially the guys who actively played with them instead of just babysitting. Kids grow up. Now we’re at that stage where the boys aren’t interested (yet) in a teen disco. Our boys played a few video games along with basketball and even soccer on the sports deck. We’re thankful they have each other.
We are all creatures of habit and we like what we “know.” Count our boys in that category. Last summer, we took Princess to Alaska (my wife and I had taken HAL to Alaska before kids and we wanted a slightly different itinerary. During our entire trip on Princess, our youngest, talked about how he wished he was on HAL. He constantly pointed out the differences. Of course that immediately prompted comparisons the moment we stepped on the Westerdam.
Despite the bias of a 14-year old, the service and staff on the Westerdam was really superior. We only saw natural smiles on the crew members. On this cruise, more than any other we’ve been on, we were constantly greeted and engaged by the crew. It is really an understatement to say we were pampered. In the Lido we were constantly asked if we wanted a refill on juice during breakfast. Plates were removed from the table without being intrusive. Staff members polishing the stairways would ask if we were having a good time—and really wanted to hear the answer. Our room steward Mawardi IMMEDIATELY knew our names when he first saw us. His assistant Wayan was almost as quick! Our luggage had gotten wet during our travels. Mawardi came to the rescue and volunteered to rush it to the laundry and got it back in three hours! During our cruise we came to know Mawardi as the outgoing type who would see us down the hall and call out our names. Wayan turned out to be more reserved but yet so kind.
We had “Anytime Dining” which we had enjoyed on HAL before, but found it more cumbersome on Princess. Previously on HAL, we could make reservations (6:15 for example). We tried unsuccessfully to do that last year on Princess and ended up standing in line each night. Again, back on HAL, we made reservations for the full cruise and had the same wait staff. After the first night, our waiter Jro Gede had glasses of iced tea waiting on the table for us. A constant smile on his face even when he was busy. Again, like the assistant cabin steward, our assistant waiter Wayman (yes, similar name) was more reserved but was gracious and the ultimate professional. Throughout the cruise at least one of us at every meal would comment about how much better the food was on the Westerdam than Princess. My wife pointed out that it seemed we ate more quantity on Princess in an effort to find something that satisfied us. Our dishes were all well prepared. Some nights we even skipped a course or didn’t order dessert because we were full and happy and couldn’t hold any more. We did note a little pattern as the cruise went on with side dishes and garnishes. For example one night would be “eggplant” night and it would be used in some form or fashion on many dishes— main dish of eggplant parmesan, on another dish there be a slice or two of grilled eggplant as a side and a small wedge of eggplant would be used on yet another dish for a spot of color on the plate. Another night it would be spinach, risotto, broccoli or potato. We just found it amusing to see how many forms each one could take. We did not visit the Pinnacle Grill or Canaletto.
The Lido has some subtle changes. It’s now called the “Lido Market.” Other than a few new fabrics, I really can’t see many physical changes. There are slight changes to the way some foods are presented and served. The hit seemed to be a somewhat expanded salad bar on both sides in the back – you tell them what you want in your bowl. You do not touch anything. They’ll even toss the salad for you if you’d like (just like some of those trendy big city salad restaurants). Many sandwiches are pre-made and put in brown wrappers. An Italian section is open almost all day and night where you choose your noodles, sauce and add-ins. This is also where the pizza station is. While lacking a large variety, the pizza HAS GREATLY improved. For years, the pizza on HAL was the worst on the planet. This is one area where Princess still prevails, but now HAL pizza is actually pretty good. It’s closer to Papa John’s as opposed to the sorry excuse for food it used to be. The next step would be more exotic toppings but I’ll gladly take this current offering as a decent option. The Dive-In is still a hit! The burgers are really excellent. We were split on the Dive-in fries. Two of us LOVED the seasoned fries. Two liked them but preferred regular fries. None of us cared for the hot dogs. They were big and plump but we all seemed to think the burgers were by far the better choice. The steam table next to the Dive-in had chips, salsa and other Mexican items. There was an excellent seafood salad and corn salsa. This is a chance to be creative. We had traditional Mexican food, but also experimented. Once we used the BBQ on top of the nachos instead of the traditional taco meat. Two things hold this back from being a spectacular experience-- the nacho chips themselves are really inferior from what people are used to now and the melted canned yellow cheese is tasteless goo that is not even served anymore at ballparks and amusement parks.
A few other notes about the revamped Lido: More often than not, they bring drinks to you (or at least they offer). Scooped ice cream is still there with a rotating flavor in addition to the big three. The famous HAL bread pudding is at the ice cream station during lunch hours and I forgot all about getting some! In the evenings, the entire Lido is dressed up a bit with trendy bamboo looking placemats and a few other flourishes.
The demise of the deck parties is apparently true. Totally gone. A few years ago we had lavish deck parties featuring food from the ports/country we were in. Two years ago, we noticed the number of deck dinners had been scaled back but yet there were still hors d’ordeuvres or appetizers served on some nights instead of full buffets. Of course the dessert extravaganzas are totally gone as well. I understand the issue of running into sanitation regulations with the deck dinners but the loss is still there. I also admit the dessert functions had gotten smaller and less “extravagant” and were much less tasty or tempting. But they did add energy and provided an “event” to each cruise.
The entertainment puzzle is a hard one to solve. I’m really not sure if there is a way to put all of the pieces together and make everyone happy. We enjoyed some of the offerings, others we didn’t care for. We did appreciate the flow and timing of the entertainment— so that when one event ended, another act would be starting in another venue. As the cruise went on, our routine seemed to settle on the main showroom and then exiting to the duel pianos (called “billboard onboard). But we did stop by Lincoln Center Stage (classical) and BB King’s Blues Club a few times.
With a music and entertainment background, we found the production shows good to OK. We never had a problem getting a great seat -- and that actually saddens me. If people do not attend, they’ll stop mounting these production shows. On the other hand, if the quality were boosted just a bit, then I think people would respond. Generally, the production shows lacked personality. They were machines on the “automatic” setting. The people who put these shows together obviously favor dance movements over vocal. I watched as the performers “pranced” through the paces. We used to call it “voguing,” where someone struts across the stage as if they’re on a fashion show runway. The dancing was sharp and very good—but the performers were robots. One guy, Gene, gave it his all night after night, every single second he was on the stage, but he was the exception. The vocalists could all sing but the shows did not allow them to show off their talents. The shows followed a formula with the six vocalists trading off solos and a few duets. There were very few times when the six sung at the same time to create a strong wall of sound. The shows had many successful ingredients, but when baked, they lacked the flavor. The electronic sets, combined with the costumes, were really stunning. The song choices though baffled me—some were obscure, others left me shaking my head asking, “why did they pick that?” If the audience does not know the song, then it better be so intense, so well done, so strong, that the audience gets caught up in the pure talent. Otherwise, pick songs that are familiar.
On nights when then there were not production shows, the entertainment had a wide range:
-A Tina Turner sound-alike (haven’t I seen this before)
-A magician (Ruben Vilagrand – I wasn’t excited about seeing this but he was an original spin on a magic show)
- Musician who played many instruments (Andy Bunger – Different!! Panpipes, marimba and others)
- Spanish musician Andrea Amat (Let’s just say it’s hard for one person to hold a stage for an hour.)
The Mainstage highlight turned out to be a movie???!!! In a fairly new concept, a one hour nature film, Frozen Planet Live,” was shown on the digital background in brilliant HD. All of the ship’s instrumentalists were pulled together from the Lincoln Center Stage, BB King and the Mainstage. They performed the musical score live (but somebody please move them over a little bit so they don’t block the view of the screen). It was absolutely beautiful and was the only time that people were excitedly talking about how good the show was as they were leaving the showroom. Even ship officers and staff members came in to watch.
I should also single out that part of the renovations of the ship included opening up the piano bar to the casino. The lack of walls invited people to stop and listen for a while. The piano bar concept is now TWO pianists and singers. The two guys were incredibly talented. They took turns playing/singing and they would also sing together and harmonize. The two seem to enjoy each other and that attitude filled the huge space. One minor criticism was that both had higher voices and a lower key would have made it easier for the audience to sing along.
We appreciate the effort to keep PA announcements to a minimum but we rarely heard or saw Cruise Director Hamish. I do wish he had pumped a few of the shows by saying something like, “you’ve got to come to the Mainstage tonight for ‘Planet Frozen.’ It’s a totally new concept on HAL with super crisp HD images of penguins and polar bears and every musician on the ship will be on stage to play the score live.” On past cruises the cruise director would push and promote one big thing each day so people knew what they should not miss.
Several cooking demonstrations were offered during our cruise. Have things changed? We were surprised no “nibbles” were offered of the dishes they were showing. I REALLY wanted a bite of those “Ultimate Brownies.” The chef (I never caught his name) was excellent and engaging. Only one hands-on class was offered and it happened to be on a PORT DAY when we were off the ship.
We found ourselves with extra on-board credit and opted for a spa visit. My wife described the treatment as wonderful but was a bit turned off by the “product sell” at the end of the session. She said it negated some of the relaxation treatment she had just received.
As with every cruise, we get off regretting we didn’t sit on the balcony more! But having it there with the large windows is sure nice.
All cabins now have large screen TV’s. Our was mounted to the wall instead of the small box tv sitting on a shelf. The TV’s come with on-demand movies, music channels, some live TV channels, shore excursion information and more. This is a huge improvement. We will admit to binge watching (it’s vacation and during the school year we don’t have time for movies!). So while it was nice to watch in bed (stayed up too many evenings!), we do miss the dedicated movie theater and the popcorn that came with it.
We really had one true frustration. While I would not call it a “complaint,” others on our cruise did! There were several points (Livorno, Sete, Marseille and Barcelona) where the ship was docked at a large port and shuttles were needed to transport guests to the city entrance. The city of Sete provided a free shuttle but Livorno and Barcelona required an extra charge. We had private tour companies come to the ship and pick us up in Livorno and Barcelona, so we did not have to deal with the shuttles. In Marseille, we were told we had to buy shuttle tickets or use a cab, but thankfully I had read on the internet that a free shuttle was provided by the port if you followed the path (the ship did not mention this to passengers). We heard others who were “mad” they had to pay extra just to get off the ship. I believe the cost was about $16 each, but obviously that adds up for large families or groups. Our frustration was more about getting information. There was a cloud of suspicion that ship personnel were not forthcoming about land transportation so you would buy a shuttle ticket or a shore excursion. While that suspicion may not be founded in fact, there is the issue of perception.
To sum up the cruise itself, we felt like we were on a new and fresh ship. EVERY crew member seemed happier than any other cruise we’ve ever been on and our food seemed especially well prepared.
Our ports of call:
Livorno, Italy (Pisa/Florence)
Monte Carlo, Monaco
Villefranche-sur-Mer, France (last minute change from St. Tropez,France)
Ajaccio, Corsica, France
Ceuta, Spanish Territory
Sete, France (Carcassonne)
We had difficulty finding information about some of the ports, so I’m including this:
Rome— We pre-booked the TAM bus from the airport to the main train station for five euros. Note while you book a “time,” there is no problem simply jumping on the next bus if your flight arrival time changes. We stayed at the Boscolo Exedra Roma using Marriott points. This hotel was awesome. It was in an historic building and was unique and different from a sterile Marriott! Elite members are offered a huge free breakfast buffet that was also unique with meats, cheeses, European cakes and even a salad bar. We walked almost everywhere. (There is also a metro stop at the hotel front door.) PLENTY of restaurants are nearby. We used walksofitaly.com to book two tours (easy process on-line). One was a night visit to the Colosseum (we picked a 7pm time and got to experience both daylight and night). Our other tour was the night Multimedia Tour Inside The Forum. Both experiences were neat. I will note, it appears private tour companies buy these tickets in bulk and resell them. Your “added benefit” to justify the price markup is a guide that talks to you for about an hour before turning you over to an official guide at the venue. Yes, we learned more with those extra tour guides, but I’m not sure the extra cost was worth it. However, you may not have a choice because individual tickets are hard to come by for these venues at night. During the day, we did a six hour bike tour on the ancient Appian Way with topbike rental. This was excellent. They provide “e-bikes,” which made your ride much easier. You don’t have to be an athlete to do this. It would be suitable for regular people, young and old, as long as they are somewhat comfortable on a bike. The ride took us out of Rome along the Appian Way. The original stones on the old Roman road create a bumpy ride, so we mostly rode beside it (hee-hee). We stopped for several breaks, including a tour of some catacombs and a park to view the aqueducts. On our second day we pre-booked a tour with Eating Italy Food Tours. This was also a fantastic experience. It took us just outside the main tourist areas through the Testaccio neighborhood. We visited a gourmet grocery store where we tasted “aged” olive oils, sandwich and pastry shops, a produce and food market, had a pasta lunch at a neat restaurant inside what used to be a Roman trash dump (a mound made out of broken pottery jars) and were taught how to spot “real” gelato from the mass produced stuff. In between all of this, we visited the monuments and fountains.
Rome to Civitavecchia: Pre-booked train tickets on Trenitalia (five euros). Walked with our rolling luggage several blocks from hotel to train station. The train ride was just over an hour. The walk from the Civitavecchia train station to the port property was easy (a wide sidewalk lined with vendors selling t-shirts, hats and art. After walking through the gate, we weren’t sure how to get to the ship. We started walking and lucked out on finding the free port shuttle. That bus took us to a staging area where all cruise ship passengers get on buses to individual ships. This process took more than an hour. It would be impossible to do this with a lot of luggage. We did not see any cabs outside the Civitavecchia train station (they have to be there somewhere???) Apparently a cab can take you directly to the ship.
Livorno, Italy (Pisa/Florence)
We hired a private car (Nicola Scovenna) which met us at the dock. Our driver took us to Pisa and drove us around the town for a few minutes before letting us out at the gate to the Leaning Tower/Church property. Nicola Scovenna arranged for timed tickets for us to climb the tour and enter the church. We were told to spend as much time as we wanted and spent about 90-minutes there. He then drove us to Lucca for a great afternoon. Our driver actually lives in Lucca and he drove us around the “new” portion of the city for a few minutes and then took us to the “old walled” city. Cars are not allowed inside the old city. He took us to a bike shop where we rented bikes for two hours and we rode on top of the old city walls (very level and easy). Then we rode the bikes through the skinny streets of the city and explored. Later, we met our driver back at the bike shop and he drove us around to another side of the walled city and let us out at the edge where he pointed us to a gelato shop (CHEAP compared to Rome) that’s been in business for nearly 100-years. After our snack and more time to explore another part of the town, we headed back to the ship. Our driver stopped by a huge grocery store/mall where we bought a large package of Coca-Cola for five euros to take onto the ship. We could have done most of this by train and saved a few dollars. But our driver arranged our tower tickets, we didn’t have to manage train schedules, and he took us directly to the bike shop in Lucca and to the gelato place and we stopped by the grocery store. All of this was still less than expensive than the ship tour. I should point out we chose Pisa and Lucca because we were docked on a Monday and some museums and attractions are closed in Florence on Mondays.
My original plan was to jump on the Hop on hop off bus (La Grand tour red bus) that stops at the cruise dock. The line was long and after waiting for two buses and realizing we didn’t stand a chance of getting on a bus anytime soon, we set out on foot. I read on the internet there are easier ways to go “up” the hill toward the palace, but I couldn’t figure out how. Many would not want to walk and climb the stairs we did! We toured the palace and watched the changing of the guard and then walked the streets and the parks and visited the Cathedral. We decided to return to the ship and ate lunch and set out again to see the car museum and look for an ATM. After returning to ship again for dinner, we took an evening stroll over to the famous casino (another long walk). The Grand Prix had just been the week before so we walked in front of the grandstands on the streets that are used for the track route. We made it to the casino at dusk and got some beautiful pictures of the casino and watched the expensive cars arrive. The evening walk and pictures were probably our favorite part of our day.
High winds prevented us from docking at St. Tropez. After two attempts the Captain pulled back and headquarters sent our ship to Villefranche-sur-Mer. We were so glad the day worked out like this! The extra time on the ship allowed us to rest and take it easy. We docked around lunchtime, so most people ate on board before getting off. There was a beach within easy walking distance. After spending three hours on the beach, we explored the charming town. There were many sidewalk cafes along the waterfront where we saw many from our ship soaking in the atmosphere. I didn’t hear one person complain about our change, in fact most seemed happy about it!
Ajaccio, Corsica, France
This port has been described as the perfect kind of stop—easily walkable. This was market day in the town square and we saw many tents selling meats and cheeses that are special to the region. Too bad we had no way to buy and transport those tempting foods home!! This town is known as the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. We paid a small fee and toured his small house (more interesting than we expected). This was another place where it’s best to simply walk and explore.
We normally make our own plans in port and book with private vendors. But after finding very little information about this port on the internet, we ended up taking a ship tour of the Tabernas Desert. The tour was actually pretty cool. We boarded buses that took away from the port to our restroom stop (about a 20-minute ride) where we were divided up to ride in jeeps. Each off road vehicle held between eight passengers along with a driver. We toured the desert and learned that it is actually quite famous. Hollywood discovered the location decades ago. Our guides provided pictures of famous movie scenes and so we could easily see what had been filmed in specific spots. The desert is used so often that electric power cables are even buried in the ground to help moviemakers. The desert has been used for westerns, action films and war movies. The producers are required to return the desert back to the original condition. We even heard stories about production assistants carefully putting small three inch rocks back in the correct spots after filming. A small theme park is nearby built around some of the old western movie sets but we didn’t go there. After our jeeps left the desert, they dropped us off at an olive oil production facility. Since harvest season is in the fall, we were able to tour the entire factory.
Ceuta, Spanish Territory
This was also a port where I had difficulty finding information about private tours and vendors. We opted for the ship tour into Morocco. Looking back, this is one of those rare cases where I’m glad we took the ship tour instead of trying to do it on our own. The bus ride to the Moroccan border was less than ten minutes. Moroccan authorities took our passports and kept them until we returned. On the bus, our Moroccan guide told us how safe we are in his country. However, we were advised to stay with the group once we got to Tetouan, Morocco because the tour of the Medina (the old city market) was like a maze and we could get lost. Unlike European markets that are in large squares and along wide streets, a Medina in many middle-eastern countries is located in skinny alleys. Think about spy movies where a chase takes place—where people are running and tripping over animals, produce boxes and sneaking down small side alleys. All was good until we turned a corner. I was in the back of our group and I heard commotion at the front. A man came running up to our group and punched a lady in the face while screaming in Arabic. Thankfully, after getting over the shock, the lady was ok. It was then we realized we had four bodyguards with our group… including an undercover police officer. They quickly went into action and wrestled the suspect down. The suspect’s pants got pushed down during the scuffle and revealed more than you wanted to see. It was a dramatic few minutes. The undercover officer put handcuffs on the suspect and led him away with his pants still down enough to reveal every “thing.“ Our tour continued with the guide and authorities grabbing native costumes and dresses from vendors and using the attack victim as a model and then giving her the clothing to take home. She ended up with a nice collection of goodies. A delicious lunch was in a restaurant with musicians and dancers. After lunch there was the expected rug store stop which most people seemed to take in stride. Much to our surprise, some people actually bought! I personally don’t see how anyone could make a decision about a large and expensive rug in such a rushed manner. But to each his own. I would certainly take this tour again. I didn’t feel unsafe before our “incident.” And after discovering we had bodyguards, I totally felt safe. I’m sure the suspect was dealt with severely.
During research, I read how easy it would be to take a bus to Aix-en-Provence. It turned out to be super easy (almost)! Passengers were told it was not possible to walk from the ship to the city and that shuttle tickets could be purchased that would take you to the city. I hated the thought of buying four shuttle tickets, but still be faced with the task of getting to the train/bus station. We asked on board about a city bus (thinking that would get us to the bus station) and couldn’t get a firm answer. We got off of the ship and started walking looking for the port exit to get a city bus. After a five minute walk, we came to an area with benches and a sign that said “FREE SHUTTLE for cruise passengers. We saw a port security guard and he told us the shuttle would be coming in a few minutes. Another option was we could have walked to a nearby gate and gotten a city bus. After a 30-minute wait, the shuttle arrived. The shuttle ride was long—so it would have been impossible to walk to the city square. On the far end of the square, there was a metro (subway) station. We easily bought subway tickets and rode two stops to the train station (I’m told walking is possible but we wanted to maximize our time). At the fairly large train station, we found the city bus parking lot (plenty of bus signs in the train station) and found the #50 bus. There was a bus ticket window inside the train station but we were told to pay the bus driver. The ride was about five euros each and took about a half an hour. The buses travel between Marseille and Aix-en-Provence frequently (roughly every ten minutes). Exiting the bus station in Aix-en-Provence we turned left and walked down the street about three blocks and were in front of the large visitor’s center and a large modern glass Apple Store. We got a map inside the visitor’s center and spent several hours exploring. This was a Tuesday and was market day and was one of the most expansive street markets we had seen. It covered blocks. A few of the tents and stands sold food. Mostly the vendors were selling women’s dresses, scarves, hats and shoes. A few offered linens (table runners and tea towels). We are not shoppers and grew tired of the market fairly quickly. But wandering the streets of the historic town was nice. There were cafes, bakeries and many shops selling only nougat (A Confection: Main ingredients: sugar or honey, nuts like almonds, walnuts, pistachios, or hazelnuts, egg whites, sometimes candied fruit). We visited some sites/churches and made our way back to the bus station for our return. Aix-en-Provence is picturesque (go on the side streets off the main road) and well worth a few hours. We again went to the FREE SHUTTLE stop near the city square and waited about 20-minutes for the shuttle to arrive. Because of this, we decided not to venture back into Marseille late in the afternoon.
Sete, France (Carcassone)
A free shuttle was provided by the town to take you from the ship to the edge of the port where you could walk into the town. It is described as a movie set, an ideal seaport town with art deco buildings along the Canal Royal. We did not see it. Instead, we went to Carcassonne, the number two most visited site in France behind the Eiffel Tower. But getting started was the hard part. In researching options, I found some opted for a train to Carcassone and others chose a rental car. Of course the ship tour is always an option as well. Before the trip, I didn’t see any information about how to get to the train station. In addition, a map showed it was not near the ship. I also didn’t see much information about how to get from the train station to the historic site. I saw one person mention using Europcar for a rental. But again, the office didn’t appear close to the port. I chose to use Hertz and got a fantastic deal with my corporate code (less than $50 for an automatic) for a somewhat decent sized car. By looking at the map, I was going to have to take a taxi to either the train station or a rental car location, so I chose Hertz for the price and to get points . On the ship, I had the hardest time getting information about how/where to catch a taxi in the port. When we got off, Sete shore representatives were super nice and called a taxi to meet us at the shuttle drop off location at the edge of the port. It took 30-minutes for a taxi to arrive. I’m not sure what we would have done if we had taken the shuttle directly to the port gate because I didn’t see any cabs. The taxi took us to the Hertz location (which was actually part of a Toyota dealership). It took quite some time to complete the paperwork even though I’m gold. Once we were in the car we followed Mapquest or an hour and 20-minute ride. Whew! Carcassone was neat. It’s a walled city that dates back to Roman times. Walking around inside the walled village is free. There are restaurants, candy stores, bakeries, clothing shops and even a hotel. It was easy to think you were in a manufactured fantasy land at an amusement park, but the buildings were REAL. The main attraction is the castle. The entrance fee for that includes an audio guide. While standing in line to buy entrance tickets, a group of people wearing the cruise ship tour stickers came up behind us. In other words—the ship “tour” was transportation to Carcassone—They still had to buy tickets to visit the castle. The castle history was interesting. I note there were no furnishings in the rooms. After our tour, we walked along the ramparts (along the top of the walls). There was a beautiful cathedral in the village and a music concert happened to be going on inside when we were there. We left around 2:30 and started back to Sete. There was a shopping center with a grocery store and a McDonald’s and gas station. We zoomed in there to refill the tank. The gas pump wouldn’t take my card and I had trouble finding someone who spoke English. Finally I figured out I had to fill up my tank and then drive to a booth and then pay before I could leave the gated area. Once back at Hertz, we asked them to drive us back to the port. We didn’t have enough time to really see or walk around Sete. I would estimate our total cost of the day was around $125.
In an effort to maximize our time in Barcelona, we hired Barcelona Day Tours for a half day tour. They met us at the ship which meant we didn’t have to bother buying tickets for the ship shuttle. The ship was docked a L-O-N-G way from the port entrance. We had a driver and guide and they moved us quickly through the city and showed us the highlights. A skip-the-line ticket at Park Guell was included (we had roughly 45-minutes there). After four hours, they dropped us off near the Palau de la Musica Catalana (the music hall) where we had tickets for the 3pm English tour. At this point, since we knew where we were, we explored and looked for a quick lunch spot and found a Spanish fast food restaurant called Pans (a mixture of a Subway and a McDonald’s). We went back to the Palau de la Musica Catalana for our tour. Well worth it!!! The building is noted for a giant stained glass roof. You’ve no doubt seen pictures of it advertising TV sets in the Best Buy ads. After our tour we grabbed a cab (very reasonable) to travel across town to Sagrada familia for our 4:45 timed ticket entrance that we bought in advance (highly recommend buying in advance to avoid the LONG line). At this point in our trip (and combined with other vacations) our teenage boys really didn’t want to see “another church.” But I promised them this one would be different. Words can’t even begin to describe this. The story behind it is incredible. The construction techniques are unbelievable and the beauty of the interior is genius. Our ticket included a trip up in an elevator in the “Nativity Tower” (walk down winding stairs). Construction is expected to continue until 2026. My family wants to go back then! We spent three hours there taking the audio tour, the tower climb and looking at the exhibits in the basement. We took some absolutely gorgeous pictures of the light coming through the stained glass windows. Another cab took us to a dinner location for tapas—TAPS (Mare de Deu Del Remei 53). The food was reasonable and good (but choices were more limited than I expected). After dinner, we walked to watch the magic fountain show. The streets and sidewalks are packed around the main fountain. When the show started there was excitement in the air. Everyone was smiling and enjoying and EVERYONE was taking pictures. The fountain is historic. It dates back to the 1929 World Exposition. The show itself lasted a solid 45-minutes. You’ve probably seen other water fountain shows with a few more tricks thanks to modern technology, but again, this was fun and happy and a great way to end our day and our vacation. We easily hailed a cab when the show was over and it took us directly back to the ship (again bypassing the need for the paid shuttle bus). Read Less