On the Norwegian Spirit: 12 day Grand Mediterranean Cruise — Venice to Barcelona

Visiting Venice, Athens, Izmir (Ephesus), Istanbul, Mykonos, Naples (Sorrento & Pompeii), Rome, Livorno (Florence & Pisa), Toulon (Le Castellet, Bandol & Sanary) and Barcelona.

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If you’re interest is in the cruise review and you aren’t spending pre-cruise days in Venice, you can scroll down and skip to “Day #1 Embarkation Day.”

Pre-cruise Weekend in Venice, Italy

Friday, April 26, 2013:  Flight day. We had originally intended to fly on Saturday but I found a single Friday night flight that was cheaper and it would allow me to still work on Friday (and not use an extra vacation day) while giving John and I more time to explore Venice. The problem was the schedule. Instead of our intended one stop flight, this one was Cleveland to Chicago to Frankfurt to Venice. If I had to do it over again I might because it saved us about $500 per person.  But it was tough.  We wasted a few hours flying west to Chicago only to fly back east to Frankfurt.  The Frankfurt flight was on Lufthansansa.  I said years ago that I’d never fly Lufthansa again after a flight from Chicago to Munich in which the plane cabin must have been 85 degrees the whole way.  Once again, our plane cabin was hot.  Not as hot as on our previous flight, but still way too warm.  There was a pillow, blanket and headphones on every seat when we arrived — for no extra charge.  Too bad it was too hot to use the blankets which were trampled on the floor and in everyone’s way all night. Beer and wine were on the drink cart — also no extra charge.

We took off from Chicago at 10:15 p.m. Doc and I had planned to immediately go to sleep.  But that wasn’t the airline’s plan.  The bright cabin lights remained on through the first round of beverages. We attempted to get some shut eye after that (with the lights still on) but, at 1:15 a.m., they decided to serve a meal which meant they allowed no reclining of the seats until everyone had finished eating.  We’d had dinner before the flight and, being the middle of the night, I had no desire to eat a chicken dinner.  Finally, around 2:30 maybe, the cabin lights went out and we were able to get a few hours sleep. The TravelMate memory foam neck pillow I bought off of Amazon was more comfortable than any neck pillow I’ve ever used before. I highly recommend the memory foam . I had read some great reviews about travel foot rests and wished I had bought one of those too.  I managed to elevate my feet a little under the seat in front of me by resting them on my travel purse but it wasn’t really big enough to do the job and my feet and legs were the only part of me that ever felt uncomfortable. I was grateful though that I didn’t have a bigger carry-on bag stuffed under the seat in front of me, using up that precious foot room. I’d noticed lots of people with very large carry -on bags and can only imagine how uncomfortable people must have been if they were unable to stretch out their legs under the seat.

Venice

Getting from the Marco Polo airport to the Mestre railway station (or the Piazelle Roma): We had reservations at the Tritone Hotel across from the Mestre station. The Tritone does provide a shuttle for 5 Euros and the driver will meet you at one of their scheduled times. We should have used it as it would have been less of a hassle, but I had not made a shuttle reservation since their set shuttle times meant waiting around the airport for an extra hour. I’d also read that it would be just as easy to take the airport bus. It wasn’t. Arriving at the Marco Polo airport on a dark, rainy day, we collected our luggage and headed for the “ATVO” ticket machine to buy the “Mestre Railway” ticket.   All the instructions written on the machine are in Italian only. I pushed the button for English hoping to at least get English on the ordering screen but I only got one screen in English and then it reverted back to Italian. After playing with the machine for a minute we stepped aside and gave someone else a try. A small crowd was gathering and no one, including an Italian girl, was able to get the machine to work so we think there was something wrong with it.  An airport worker saw us struggling and he came over and told us that if we went through the exit doors and turned left, we could buy a ticket at the ticket window. That is what we all did and it was much easier.  From the ticket booth we walked out another set of doors and across the street to bus stop #2 which is the stop for the Mestre Railway Station. (Bus #2 also goes to the Piazzelle Roma).  We stowed our bags beneath the bus, validated our tickets in the yellow box (very important) and climbed aboard. The entire bus stop area is covered so we stayed out of the rain. The location sign on our bus wasn’t working and we wouldn’t have even known we were near the Mestre Station except we saw a big neon sign with the name of our hotel peaking over the tops of some buildings. We got off at the next stop which was a small parking area next to a ticket window. We knew our hotel was “across the street from the Mestre Station” but standing in the parking area, we weren’t even clear about where the front of the station was.  We had no idea which direction to walk and none of the few people around spoke English.  A woman at the ticket booth finally pointed when we asked “Tritone?”  Leaving the ticket booth, we walked to the left around the metal enclosure and down the street.  It was just a short walk and our hotel became clear on the opposite side of the street across from the first bus stop we came to. We later realized we had gotten off one stop too early but it was better not to take that chance and the walk was only a couple hundred feet anyway.

The Tritone Hotel: Everyone we encountered in the hotel spoke good English and was very helpful with everything we asked.  A young man helped get our luggage to our room on the 7th floor via their teeny tiny elevator.  Our room was nice, not very big. The beds were a bit too hard for our taste but we realized after our first night that they were comfortable enough. The pillows were new but dreadfully flat.  No problem though as the bell boy quickly brought us extras. The bathroom was nice with adequate space for toiletries.  There was a hair dryer. The shower/tub was very, very narrow with a hand held shower. It was enclosed with glass shower doors. Europe has lots of new technology and it is different from the new technology that I don’t understand at home. I understood this even less.  I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to get the TV to work. I played with the buttons for awhile and eventually got a single English news channel which is all we  wanted anyway. It was also too warm in the room and adjusting the thermostat was a challenge. I played around with those buttons too until I managed to hit the right combination and got a fair amount of cold air to pump out of the overhead vent. Had I not been able to figure things out though I know the desk would have gladly sent someone to help since they were always anxious to make everything right. There is free WiFi in the room although you have to make sure you sign on before 4 p.m. on the last night of your stay. I waited too long and my code to login was no longer good. I was annoyed since I was still a guest at the hotel but it was late at night and I was ready to sleep anyway. There is only one electrical outlet in the room and it is in the bathroom.  It is configured for both European and American 110 volt plugs but because of the odd way it sets into the wall, it won’t accept a large box-type plug (like my computer has) unless you have something like one of those three-prong-to-two-prong adapters to give the plug some depth. Luckily I had brought one with me. The complimentary breakfast was wonderful with scrambled eggs (particularly good), bacon, cold meat, cheeses, breads, danishes, juice, coffee, etc. An airport shuttle is available and must be reserved in advance. The airport bus #2 goes to the Mestre train station which is directly across from the hotel. The same #2 bus will also take you to the Piazelle Roma across the causeway in Venice and from there you can walk to whatever you want to see or take a vaporetto. After checking out of the hotel we were able to leave our luggage in their safe luggage room.  That allowed us to tour Venice all day without worrying about what to do with it before boarding the ship.

After hanging our clothes to dry, we got a shower and headed out into the rain to find a place for dinner. There was no room at the around the corner Moro Restaurant which had been recommended by the hotel clerk We continued down the street and stopped to eat at the Al Piron d’Oro Restaurant.  It was 8 p.m. and no one else was there (a bad sign). The meals were good, although nothing spectacular that would cause me to say “eat here.” For us, tired and hungry, it served its purpose. We went back to the hotel and climbed into bed.

Pre-cruise day #2: Venice

Getting from the Mestre Station to Venice: After already spending a day in Venice I would have no problem getting bus or vaporetto tickets and finding my way around.  But I am not going to tell “newbies” that this was a fast and easy thing to do.  It wasn’t. I had done lots of research and had even downloaded instructions from others on how to do various things but the whole process of transportation, for us as newcomers, was still time consuming. It can be done.  But it will take longer than you expect.

We left our hotel and made our way back to the previous evening’s ticket window at the Meistre Station where  we bought two one-time use bus tickets for Venice. The woman at the window this morning was a little better at English and told us to catch the #2 bus which stopped in front of our hotel. Once you have a ticket you need to validate it and they don’t tell you that at the window. I knew about the yellow boxes.  If there is a yellow box, insert your ticket and it will be time stamped.  I didn’t know about the white boxes. At the vaporetto stations and on some buses the box is white. To validate your ticket, you simply wave the bar code in front of the machine until it beeps. That morning we forgot to validate our tickets and I was DSCF1483worried we’d be fined as we rode the bus to the Piazzele Roma but we arrived without any problems. From the busy parking area of the Piazelle Roma we followed the signs to San Marco. Lots of people were headed that way so we just followed. It was about a 30 minute walk. We had 9:55 a.m. tickets to the secret tour at the Doge’s Palace but by the time we got up, had breakfast, figured out the bus system and found our way to St. Mark’s Square, we had missed our ticket time and the tour.  Disappointed, we thought about standing in line to buy regular tickets but the line was LONG. The lines to get into everything were long even though this was only April. I wondered how long they would get during peak tourist season.  Our pre-purchased tickets for St. Mark’s weren’t good until 2 p.m. so we spent the morning wandering Venice.

Vaporetto tickets: Vaporetto tickets aren’t cheap.  We bought a 24 hour pass for 20 Euros each. From reading the sign (what we could read) we thought we would need a more expensive ticket to do the Grand Canal but luckily the ticket woman asked if we wanted a tour or a “simple” ticket. We bought the simple ticket without narration. As I recall, they were about 20 Euros each. For the few times we used it, it would have been cheaper for us to buy individual ride tickets. The vaporetto was very crowded. We had to stand and it wasn’t always easy to keep your

DSCF1437 balance. On one trip, the vaporetto was so crowded that there was no choice but to stand right against the stranger next to you and vaporetto workers found it nearly impossible to cross from one side of the boat to the other to let people in and out at the various stops. Not fun. I’m not sure why it was so crowded except that it was a Sunday. We tried to visit the Academia but discovered it was closed. For lunch we shared a really lousy pizza purchased at a take-out counter for 4 Euros. Then we headed back to St. Mark’s to scope out where we’d need to go when our ticket time came.

Entering St. Mark’s:  We bought a gelato and sat down outside of St. Mark’s to wait for our 2:00 ticket time.  We watched people in line being turned away because they had bags.  They were sent to a bag check location around the block. There is a sign (in Italian only) explaining that you can’t take bags into St. Marks. The only helpful thing about the sign is that there is a picture with an arrow showing where to take your bag.  I was hoping to get away DSCF1465without checking my bag which is fairly small for a travel bag. Women with purses bigger than my bag and even people with backpacks were exiting the church so I’m not sure how they determined which bags could enter and which couldn’t. While sitting in front of St. Mark’s, a woman walked past us eating a sandwich and a huge sea gull swooped down from the sky and tore it out of her hand! A while later, we watched another sea gull do the same thing to a man walking by but this time he was quicker than the bird and he managed to save his lunch although I do believe the bird bit his hand. It turned out that the first vouchers for the day had been sold for 2 p.m. and when our time came lots of people with our same voucher in hand lined up in front of “St. Peter’s Door” which had previously been closed. It is the middle door between the Exit door and the one the ticket purchasing people were entering. When the time came to enter the church, I took my bag from around my neck (it’s a cross body bag) and slung it over one shoulder hoping to make it look more like a purse. I handed the worker my pre-paid voucher and walked in with no problem. The church was crowded with a solid line of people streaming through. We paid an extra 2 Euros to see the glass encased panel of gold (not worth the price in my opinion) and an extra 5 Euros to climb to the second floor where we saw the horses and other artifacts plus the great view over the square (worth the price).

Venice Restrooms: After St. Mark’s we followed the blue WC directional arrows that are on the streets and sides of buildings to the closest public restroom.  Here we climbed stairs to the second floor.  Men and women line up together and all conveniently use the same restroom. It costs 1, 50 Euros that you put into a machine and then the turnstyle will let you pass.  There was a woman at one of the two turnstyles making change. She was yelling at everyone as they came through but yelling in Italian so I had no idea what I or anyone else was doing wrong!  Inside, there are separate stalls (more like an enclosed closet) some are marked men and some women.  It was reasonably clean.  The whole process was noisy and chaotic.

There is also a restroom at the Piazzelle Roma.  When you first begin to follow the signs to San Marco there is a small park-like area on your right where some vendors have set up stands.  At the entrance to this area you will see a brown WC sticker on each side.  Just through there is a pay restroom.  You have to put 1,50 Euro in the machine to get through the turnstyle and this time there is no one to make change.  Men and women all use the same place with enclosed stalls. It was clean.

Venice “Beggars”: Throughout Venice we would see an occasional beggar.  What immediately struck me as odd was how clean these people looked and how new their clothing was. Clearly scam artists and not really poor or homeless.  One woman was such an artist she was dressed like an old woman and was down on the ground hunched over so you couldn’t see her face. Her arm was posed in such a way that her cup rested gracefully on three fingers. She was able to hold this awkward pose completely still. I recognized the same “old woman” in the WC later in the day and she couldn’t have been more than 25! A man also walked up to us as we were sitting in a cafe, held out his hand and demanded money.  He made the rounds of the tables. Everyone ignored him. He also was wearing nice cargo pants, had really nice shoes and a black down vest that looked brand new. A high school drama teacher could give these people some tips about costuming.

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Caffe Sareceno: We had dinner next to the Rialto bridge at a place called the Caffe Sareceno  where we sat outside at a table next to the canal.  Our waiter was arrogant and not the least bit friendly.  We ignored him and ordered.  Doc had lamb chops and I had the Ravioli with Ricotta and Spinach. The menu said it came in a tomato sauce.  It actually was a tomato cream sauce which was heavier and much richer than I expected.  Doc had wine and I had a Sprite. We also asked for water and were brought a large bottle (7 Euros added to the bill).  If you want tap water anywhere you need to make that clear when you order. We were so thirsty that we weren’t going to complain.  The food was good, no complaints here either, and our bill was 67 Euros.  A bit steep for a meal that was just “good” but we were in Venice and paying for the location along the canal which was nice. The canal was loaded with boats and gondolas going every which way and I was amazed that they didn’t run into each other. The Rialto bridge was heavy with tourists.

Tired from a day of walking, we made our way back to the Piazzale Roma following signs but this time the signs took us on very long route. We felt as if we were going in circles and zigzagging back and forth through the city.  Several times we came to dead ends and had to retrace our steps. We eventually came to the Grand Canal and followed it to the Piazzelle Roma.  We passed several hotels near the bridge that crosses over the canal to the train station.  These would be very convenient hotels to stay at and if I had it to do over again I may have chose to pay more for one of these and saved us the bus travel.  Finding the ticket booth we bought another one-ride ticket and boarded the #2 bus back to our hotel.

Day #1 Embarkation day: After a second nights sleep and good hotel breakfast, we were finally beginning to recover from our vigorous flight day and we felt more rested.  We checked out of our hotel but left our luggage in what they call their “safe luggage room” to be picked up later.  I understand there is a luggage check at the Piazelle Roma also, but it costs 7 Euros per bag and the hotel was free. It was raining. No problem if you don’t have an umbrella because men were walking the streets all over selling them. From the Piazelle Roma we walked to the Schoula of San Rocco.  It’s not a long walk DSCF1425and most people walk right past it on their way to San Marco. The outside of the building is stunning and the art inside is even more so.  By the time we arrived the sky was clearing. We toured this gorgeous and lightly visited museum and then went through the San Rocco Church next door.  We also visited the Leonardo Da Vinci museum which gives you an idea of what a genius he was as you look at all of his inventions and anatomical sketches.  Last, we walked around the block to the left and toured the huge Santa Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari Church. Wow. This turned out to be the highlight of our visit to Venice. I thought it was much more interesting than St. Mark’s. It helps to have a tour book to explain all the various features which are numerous. There were no lines at any of the places we visited.  All of the people flock to San Marco Square and the rest of the sites in Venice are left for the few tourists who venture further afield. By now we were tired and ready to board the ship. After two days of walking my feet were aching.  I was looking forward to two “at sea” days to give them a rest. We took the bus back to our hotel in Mestre and collected our bags.

Getting to the ship:  I had read all the instructions on how to get to the ship via the train, the bridge over the canal, and the people mover.  After navigating Venice for two days I was not looking forward toDSCF1485 the hassle of all this or the distance we’d have to walk which I’d already paid particular attention to while on our bus rides in and out of the city. I knew I’d have a difficult time managing my bag from start to finish and Doc would find it hard to handle his and help me too.  In the end, we gave in and asked the desk at the Tritone Hotel to call us a cab.  By the time we collected our luggage and got to the street, the cab had arrived. Let me just say, this was the best 38 Euros we spent on our trip. The driver took us right to the luggage drop off for the Spirit. From there we walked around the building to the next yellow building where we quickly checked in. It was about 3:00 p.m. and all of the early embarkers were already on board. There was no line to check-in. We walked right up to the desk. The entire process took less than 10 minutes and we were walking up the gankplank and onto the ship. We went immediately to our room. Our luggage was delivered an hour or so later.

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Norwegian Spirit Ship Review: A beautiful ship holding 2000 passengers however the ship has never felt crowded.The public areas are all lovely and the cabin hallways are attractive as well with each floor being a different color. Originally an Asian ship the artwork continues to carry its Asian decor. There is lots of paneling and polished wood.  The Tivoli pool area includes 4 hot tubs.  Numerous lounge chairs were always available any time we looked somewhere in the outdoor areas on decks 11, 12, 13 or along the Promenade. There is a   second, very nice children’s pool area with a pirate motif and small water slides at the back of the ship. The children’s pool is big enough for adults and I did see parents using the children’s pool. There is also a hot tub located there. There are lots of lounge chairs and room for families to spread out and the location is also convenient to the buffet.  At the same time, the location is secluded and off the beaten path and there is no reason passengers without children would ever need to pass through the area. All of the families with kids seemed to stay in this area and I never saw any children in the main Tivoli pool. 

Our Balcony Room: We were on Deck 11 in room 11116. The room was always quiet and the location was great, mid-ship toward aft. The balcony was small with two chairs and a small table. It was nice to have a private outdoor space to sit and have a cup of tea. I didn’t find the room to be particularly attractive with its bland white walls and white bedding. Aside from the red/gold carpet and a yellow/red desk chair there is little color in the room and it seems a bit dull. The curtains are a muted gold and the “sofa” a dull yellowish beige.  The decoration didn’t affect the function of the room however and the room was adequately sized for two and quite functional.

DSCF2113There is plenty of storage space beneath the bed for luggage or anything else you might want to stash there. There is a large closet with both hanging space and corner shelving. There were more than a dozen hangers to start with and a call to guests services brought us 15 more within a 1/2 hour. The closet also contains a row of shelving. A wooden unit holds the flat screen TV above the refrigerator/mini bar and beneath that are 4 very small drawers. We found the storage space for clothing to be adequate for a 12 day cruise. Inside the closet is a safe that was just large enough to hold my netbook.

There is a small desk and a chair and this is where the one electrical outlet in the room is located. It will accomodate US 110 volt items but only up to 500 watts which is why there is a sticker that says “no hairdryers.”  Another outlet next to it, I believe, is for European plugs. If you plan to plug in more than one thing at a time you will need a power strip of some sort.  The desk is located right next to the balcony door and my computer cord was long enough for me to sit on the balcony with my computer while it was still plugged into the wall.

The bathroom is divided into three sections with the sink in the open center and the toilet and shower on each sideDSCF1493 enclosed with a sliding glass door. While the toilet door is frosted glass, the bathroom still remains more or less a one-person-at-a-time space as the shower door is clear and gives no privacy. Bathroom storage is adequate with shelving on both sides of the mirror to hold lots of toiletries.  There is also a shelf beneath the sink where I stashed my toiletry bag and taller toiletry items.

You probably aren’t going to want to watch much TV and that is just as well because there isn’t much to watch. There are a bunch of NCL informational channels. There are also English, German and French movie channels. The same movies ran every day and always at the same time each day so that every single night of the cruise we could watch “The Hobbit” at 8 p.m. We never watched a movie. There was a Sky News Channel which seemed to be Europe’s version of sensational news that focused mostly on murder trials and sports scandals. There was a sports channel that always seemed to be playing a soccer game. I was glad to find that there was the BBC news channel. That was the only thing we ever watched. There were no U.S. news channels of any kind. The only news we got from the U.S. throughout our entire cruise was whatever the BBC found important enough to report on. For the majority of the week it was news from home.  Three women who had been kidnapped as many as ten years ago had escaped from a home in Cleveland.  It seemed strange to have the opening story of every newscast be about Cleveland when we were halfway around the world.

DSCF1504There is WiFi throughout the ship but it is expensive. If you are going to use the internet, buy a package. I had decided that I’d pay by the minute since I didn’t intend to use it much. We logged on the first time and checked my husband’s baseball scores and I sent our daughter a quick 2 line message to tell her we’d arrived on the ship.  The internet connection is so slow that it took 7 ½ minutes to do those two things. It cost 75 cents per minute plus a $3.95 activation fee the first time you log on.  The only other time I used it was when I sent my daughter another 2 line message to tell her something I’d forgotten to tell her before we left. That took another 6 minutes. My internet bill was something like $15 for two logins that I could have done in no more than a minute or two at home.

Why a hanging organizer really is needed: I thought it might be going a little overboard when I read all the recommendations from people on the Cruise Critic website to pack a hanging door organizer but then I got into my cabin and was glad that I had packed an organizer of my own. There is plenty of storage space for clothing in the cabin but no room for anything like cameras, battery chargers, books, or any of the other extra “stuff” that is always lying around the room. Other than the bed, sofa, and the tiniest nightstand ever built, the only other furniture in the room is a chair and the small desk.  A tray holding the coffee pot and supplies takes up almost half the desk top leaving just enoughDSCF1500 room to set up a lap top.  There is little room for “extra stuff” if you plan to use the desk top for a computer or writing.  I did use a 4″ x 4″ cardboard tray on the desk to hold small items like loose change and my lipstick and earrings when I removed them. But I was glad I’d brought the hanging organizer that came with our luggage set which I hung on the door hinge for the adjoining room to stash all of the other extra stuff in.

Windows: After unpacking, we dressed and went for dinner in Windows, the MDR.  Yohan was our waiter and we loved him immediately.  We asked to be seated as his table on following evenings. We never had any problem getting a table anytime we wanted and from watching the special restaurant reservation boards on the TV it seemed it was pretty easy to walk in to the specialty restaurants too. In Windows we had the special first night lobster tail and steak special with Key Lime Pie for dessert.  It was delicious. Doc ordered a bottle of wine and had one glass.  The bottle was stored and brought to him whenever he asked for it throughout the rest of the cruise. A group of woman at the table next to us complained that the lobster wasn’t sweet enough. Honestly though, I can’t imagine how anyone can complain about the food. We ate in Windows or the Garden Room nearly every night.  One side of the menu is same all the time but I didn’t find that to be limiting since it has numerous choices. I rarely chose anything from that side of the menu though because the other side of the menu, the daily specials (usually 3 appetizers, 4 or 5 entrees and 3 desserts to choose from each day), were always so wonderful that I nearly always chose from those. My only complaint was that the portions were too big.  I could never completely finish a meal and often ate more than I should have because I felt guilty about throwing out so much food.

Entertainment: After dinner we went to the 9 p.m. show. Shows are generally at 7:30 and 9:30.  The only show on the first evening was at 9 and was 35 minutes long. It was a sampler of a few of shows to come later in the trip.  The opening dance number was just okay.  Working in a small theater I see a lot of shows and the dance number looked to me like it hadn’t had enough rehearsal. It may be one of those things that no one would notice but me.  The Motown group was fabulous. I could have listened to them all night. The illusionist was not so hot.  I was surprised because all the entertainment we’ve seen on ships previously was nothing but fantastic.  The illusionists sample act made me NOT want to see the full show.  It was both cheesy and boring.

Other shows in the theater: Day #2: Soul Satisfaction — the Motown show lasted just under an hour and was fantastic.  We could have watched it over again but the theater was packed for the 7:30 showing and I knew it would be packed again for the 9:30 seating. We knew we shouldn’t take up a seat so we headed out to listen to other music instead. Day #3: Soul Nights — a rock and roll show that was very good.  Not as good as the Motown group but worth seeing just the same. They did songs from the Who, Queen, Journey and more. Day #4: Cripton & Renata Illusionists –– We skipped this since we hadn’t liked their “sample” skit on the first evening. Day # 5: Jay J. Downes –This was a music show. Jay J. was very good playing a variety of instruments and singing with the Spirit Showband to back him up.  He did all sorts of songs from oldies to country. My second favorite show so far after the Motown night. Day #6: Cirque du Jour Show — Unfortunately, we were busy and didn’t see this. Day #7: Broadway Show — A great show. The Spirit Entertainers did a selection of songs from a number of newer Broadway musicals including Wicked, Swinging, Movin Out, Mama Mia and Jersy Boys. Day #8: Jacob Konviser— A violin virtuoso.  An outstanding performance that was not a soothing classical show as I expected. Day #9: Ugo Paliotto.  Italian Tenor.  Didn’t see this. Day #10: The Flamencoes Spanish Ballet.  Didn’t see this. Day #11: Elements.  This was billed as the greatest show of the cruise.  It wasn’t.  It was a good show though.  I would have liked it better if they’d left out the illusionist acts. Day #12: Duo Platchkov from the Moscow State Circus.  Didn’t see this.

Live music: Ironics: This was a pretty good band who managed to pull off a number of things including disco, 50’s/60’s music and more. Latin Express: A typical steel drum band.  We heard them play around the pool.  They were very good. Pablo: We loved listening to Pablo in both Champagne Charlie’s and Henry’s which are less intense venues than the Galaxy Lounge. Pablo, a Spaniard, plays guitar with his computer system as back-up and he can play anything.  We enjoyed listening to him play the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues and a whole variety of other stuff.  Pablo ties with the Spirit Show Band for being our favorite musician on board. The Spirit Showband:  Wow.  Was this ever a great band.  They did all the back-up music for the theater shows.  They also did an afternoon in the Bier Garten playing polkas and an evening Big Band Tribute but they are actually fantastic jazz musicians. All from Romania. We tried to go and listen anytime we saw them on the schedule. Fabrizio: We usually like piano players and even lounge type of piano players but we didn’t like the style of this particular piano player. Most of his songs, no matter what song he was playing, came out sounding like a Barry Manilow/Carpenters song adapted for elevator music. Even when he did old classics or an Elton John show the music was very soft and flowery.  It worked okay in the Windows Dining Room as soft, background music but isn’t anything we wanted to just sit and listen to. Cathy & Claudio: We didn’t like the playing style of this group.  One on piano, the other on drums. They did popular songs that people know and like but their style was odd, difficult to describe, and not to our taste.

Activities: This, in my opinion, is the weakest aspect of this cruise. Even on “at sea” days there was no increase or variety of activities.  Activities were always the same or similar and ranged from game shows such as “Deal or No Deal” and Bingo to “Family Lego Building” and a “Napkin Folding Class.” There was a shuffleboard tournament, a Ping Pong Tournament and some other group sports. The casino is open around the clock. For those not interested in games, gambling or group activities however, there was little to do.   There were “talks” but they were all about buying gemstones or were spa related (such as “Back Pain Relief with Acupuncture” and “Love your Lips”) or art auction related. On “at sea” days we spent the day lounging and reading. There were two “at sea” days in a row however once we left Venice and by the end of the second day things got kind of boring.  I wished there had been some port and/or history lectures. Or lectures on any topic for that matter. The ship was made up of a middle aged to older crowd who would, in all likelihood, be interested in something like that. When polled before the show one night, very few raised their hand when asked if they were on board for the food or the entertainment.  But nearly everyone raised their hand when asked if they were aboard for the ports. On another night Archie, the cruise director, asked if everyone was looking forward to the 10:30 p.m. toga party. About two people let out a “whoop” while the rest of the huge audience remained silent. That should tell the activities planners something. Older people aren’t going to be interested in a 10:30 toga party after a long day in port or the night before they have to get up early to leave the ship at 7 or 8 a.m. On the other hand, the Galaxy of the Stars was crowded with lots of older folks on the dance floor the evening that the Spirit Showband did a “Big Band Tribute.” There was little live music scheduled before 6 p.m. even on “at sea” days except for an hour by the pool at noon or an hour or so of polka tunes in the Bier Garten during lunch one day. We would have gladly sat in a lounge and listened all afternoon had music been available. The only movies scheduled in the Clipper Room were on port days when most people were off the ship.

Day #2: At Sea We breakfasted in Raffles (the buffet).  The food was fine, nothing as good as in the MDR but typical buffet breakfast foods. The atmosphere is chaotic.  It was just too loud and frenzied for me so early in the morning. It is a good spot for a very fast meal though if you are in a hurry on a port day. The buffet was usually quite busy and chaotic any time of day.  For that reason I preferred Windows or the Garden Room for lunch and dinner.  We did have dinner in the Buffet once. The food was okay but it didn’t compare to the MDR.  I suspect the people who complain about the food on the Spirit are eating most of their means in Raffles or The Blue Lagoon. You have to eat in the main dining rooms to get the best food. If there was a weak point in the buffet I would say it was with the bread/rolls which didn’t offer a lot of variety and often seemed somewhat dry. I’ve heard people complain about the desserts but I thought they were very good. They are not the rich, gooey desserts such as the ever popular “volcano cake” that Americans seem to gravitate toward so perhaps that explains the complaints. The only dessert I didn’t like was the Chocolate Raspberry Truffle Cake in the MDR and an Apple Strudel from the buffet. Everything else I had including the Mississippi Mud Pie, Key Lime Pie, Lemon Ginger Custard, etc. was delicious and I appreciated the small sizes especially in the buffet which allows you to sample more than one without feeling guilty.

At 10 a.m. there was a presentation on shore excursions in the theater.  I thought maybe it would be just a sales tool to get us to buy ships excursions but this wasn’t the case.  Yes, the man did talk some about the ship’s excursions but he also talked about the ports in general, what sites there are to see at each one, and he even told people what they could do on their own and what sort of transportation was available. He mentioned from time to time the best things to do if you have mobility issues. He also clearly stated that if you are on a ship’s excursion and are late the ship will wait for you. It was a good thing too because not one excursion we went on during our entire 12 day cruise made it back to the ship by the “all aboard” time. On Day #3 there was a talk by the same guy about other Norwegian cruise ships and routes. We skipped it. On Day #8 there was a second port presentation on the ports we were visiting on the next half of the tour.

For dinner we decided to try the Garden Room. The menu is the same as in Windows. I had roasted pumpkin, fennel and arugula salad with orange vinaegrette dressing, Thai chicken and shrimp curry with roasted summer squash over rice, and for dessert– lemon and ginger custard.  It was all very good and the garden room atmosphere was lovely as well.  We arrived shortly after 5:30 and got a table for two right next to a window.  By 6:00 the restaurant was full.

Day #3 At SeaOn day #3 all non-European passports had to be taken to the theater between 2 and 5 p.m. and turned over to the ship. This occurs before the ship gets to Athens and they aren’t returned until the ship leaves Mykonos.   We were told that we should always take a form of photo ID into port when we go and would therefore need another one for the next several days, such as a driver’s license or a copy of our passport would be acceptable. I was glad that I’d made passport copies before we left as an emergency back-up. As they collected passports they asked you if you had a second ID. I don’t know what they did with the passengers who didn’t. Before every shore excursion we were told that we had to take a photo ID into port with us and that it could be checked when returning to the ship.

Day #4: Athens, Greece:“The Acropolis and the Archealogical Museum”: Our meeting time was 7:30 in the theater and there was no lagging behind.  At exactly 7:30 we were sent to our bus in the parking lot. Our guide talked about the history of Athens as we drove along. In the beginning she was difficult to understand but once we 

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got used to her accent it was fine. Her English was really very good. We made a photo stop at the Olympic Stadium which is not an ancient site.  A photo stop at the Temple of Zeus would have been more interesting.  Driving by and seeing those huge columns in the middle of the city was fascinating. We had considered doing this port on our own and I was glad afterwards that we’d chosen the tour instead. Having never been there before, I realized it would have been more difficult and complicated than I’d expecting after reading reviews from other “do it yourself- ers.” The place is bigger than I’d imagined and even with the bus to carry us from place to place there was much walking. The distance between the Acropolis and the Agora is much, much further than I expected as is the distance to the Plaka. We would have spent a great amount of our port time just walking from place to place.

DSCF1537At the Acropolis there are quite a few stairs to climb and they can be slippery. When you reach the top the pathway is cobblestones, loose gravel and random rocks jutting out here and there. By the time we arrived at around 8:30 or 9-ish the place was already crowded with tourists.  It was difficult to keep up with the guide who always hurried ahead leaving the group to follow while other groups and tourists pushed ahead and weaved in and out between us, blocking site of our guide and where she had gone.  We lost the guide several times which was annoying and which could have been prevented if she’d simply stayed with the group and kept us all together. It was nice having a guide to give some history and answer questions. After her talk we had a little free time to wander on our own.  The Acropolis is an amazing site. I felt that the amount of time we spent there was about right. As we left, we thought we had given ourselves plenty of time (20 minutes) to get back to the meeting point with time to spare but the crowd going down the hill was so big and slow that we just made the deadline.  You have to allow much more time than you think to get down the hill to the meeting point if there is a crowd.  The entrance and exit is at the same place but once at the bottom of the hill the crowds to get inside were so large that it was difficult to find just where the exit was.  Finally on the street we made our way to the meeting point and arrived without a minute to spare. Without waiting even a minute past the meeting time and without taking a head count, our guide hurried us to the bus. A few passengers got left behind and were angry about it but luckily they knew where the bus was parked and had been able to catch up.  I don’t think I’d have been so lucky finding the bus.

We next went to the Archaeological Museum. The guide led us through showing us many of the highlights. YouDSCF1550 could spend days inside. The place is filled with amazing things.  It was nice having someone pick out the highlights and describe them. Surprisingly, I felt I got quite a lot out of the visit even though it didn’t last much more than an hour or so.  At about 1:30 we went to lunch in the Plaka district. We sat at long tables outside the restaurant and the weather and atmosphere was lovely.  Lunch consisted of bread and some sort of yogurt dip, greek salad, skewered pork, french fries and wine. The salad was fantastic.  The pork was dry and tough and most people left it on their plate as it was inedible.  The french fries were the typical frozen variety and not at all what I expected to be served as part of a greek meal. Dessert was a prepackaged, individually wrapped piece of baklava that was too tough to bite.  I was extremely disappointed with lunch.  This was our only opportunity to experience a greek meal.  For the cost of this tour I expected a meal that would at least rank a ‘good’ rating. If we could do it over again we would have left the group and had lunch on our own at one of the many nearby restaurants.

After lunch we split up and had about an hour to wander the Plaka on our own.  My husband and I stayed very close to the main street we had come in on because we realized how easy it would be to get lost.  We browsed the shops nearby without straying too far from the main street and met back at the meeting point about 10 minutes early.  Two women did not arrive back to the bus.  They had gotten lost and couldn’t find their way back. The trip back to the port was the only time the guide ever took a head count.  When she realized the two women were missing we waited for them.  We were in danger however of missing the all aboard time if we waited very long so after 15 minutes we left for the port. The two lost women beat us back to the ship by taking a taxi.

Day #5: Izmir, Turkey: “Ultimate Ephesus”: We set our alarm clock for 5:30 a.m. Our meeting time was 7:00 a.m. in the theater and once again there was no room for anyone to be late.  At 7:15 on the dot, we were sent to our mini van and immediately got on the road.  Our small group tour consisted of 10 passengers and our guide.  Ephesus is an hour from Izmir.  Once we arrived we were given a chance to use the restroom (for a fee).  We then spent the next 2 1/2 hours touring the site and the terrace houses.  The terrace houses can only be visited in small group tours.  It was well worth the added expense to see the homes where people lived and the frescoed walls and mosaic floors that have survived.  3 hours in Ephesus won’t allow you to see everything but I felt it was adequate to give us a feel for the place and any longer probably would have been overwhelming.  At no time did we feel rushed.  Our guide was good also about leading us down paths that bypassed the large groups of tourists so most of the time we were visiting our particular stop on our own.  At one point, a group was standing in front of the Nike relief thatDSCF1594 our guide wanted to show us.  He barged in and told the other guide to move his group out of the way and then started shooing the members of the other group off to the side! Then he made us all move to the front with him!  Afterwards, he told us that he had a right to do that because the other guide was in the wrong location and wasn’t supposed to be there. I’m sure the other passengers on that tour though didn’t understand that and thought we were all being rude! At the end of the tour we had another chance, about 20 minutes, to use the free restroom and to check out a gift shop or two. We met back at the bus and were off to lunch.

Lunch was in a 5 star hotel overlooking the ocean. What can be said about a meal in a five star hotel? The food consisted of many different Turkish dishes plus wine and water and all were excellent. The grounds by the sea were beautiful. If I wanted to eat lunch in a hotel though I could do that at home. We all would have been happier having a more casual meal in a more traditional location. The restaurant gave us a feel for where rich tourists might stay and eat but didn’t show us the real Turkey at all.  The restaurant was pretentious and everyone around the table was uncomfortable trying to figure out which of the eight or nine forks and other utensils were appropriate to use for which course. There was little conversation as everyone was DSCF1632whispering, attempting to be on their best behavior.  Lunch lasted about 45 minutes and no one wanted to linger any longer.

From there we were off to the carpet “demonstration” which also lasted about an hour. One man on our tour tried to stay in the van but our guide wouldn’t allow it.  We were all ushered into a room where two men demonstrated how silk threads are made.  We returned outside and walked a short distance to a spot where an outdoor oven of sorts was boiling big pots of yellow, red and blue dyes.  The man explained about the different dyes and what types of plants they use to get certain colors.  From there we moved to an area where we watched women weaving the rugs as the carpet man explained the process.  All this was fine and even quite  interesting.  Then came the catch.  We were next ushered into a large room and the door was shut behind us.  The room was filled with carpets and we were asked to sit down along the wall for another demonstration. If I had known any better at the time, I’d have developed a sudden urgency to use the restroom and would have spirited myself out of there, pronto.  First we were served our choice of wine, raki or tea.  Then, as men started laying out one carpet after another onto the floor in front of us, we were all told to remove our shoes and socks so we could have the “opportunity” to feel the carpets.  If you ask me, it was to prevent us from making our escape and running quickly out the door. One woman in our group asked the price. She was hurried off to a corner and shown more and more rugs. My husband then made the mistake of mentioning that we already owned a silk carpet very similar to one hanging on the wall and he got us tagged as people who buy carpets!  Yes, we do own two Turkish carpets thatDSCF1562 we’ve had for years and they are great quality pieces which is exactly why we don’t need or want anymore! One of the men kept trying to show us more and more carpets even after I’d said several times that we weren’t interested.  We finally had to just put our shoes back on and run for the door. And then at that point, our guide stopped us and tried to talk us into “at least buying a small one to hang on our wall!”  How many times do you have to say “No?” There are a few other crafts you can purchase there as well but, honestly, after the rug demo I was afraid to ask the price of anything or show interest by looking at a price tag. We arrived back at the ship just after the 2:00 all aboard deadline. This was a fantastic five star tour with a fabulous guide for the first 3 hours.  Lunch was excellent but the atmosphere was uncomfortable. The carpet demo itself was informative and interesting. If they’d only left out the last room where they attempted to hold us all captive it would have been a worthwhile experience.  As it was, I was glad to be done with it and to get back to the ship.

This evening we had dinner in the buffet.  I had a pork stir fry that was particularly good.  Finished with Mississippi Mud Pie.  Very light but chocolately.  Very good. We went to the 7:30 Jay J. Downes show in the theater.  He was very good playing a variety of instruments and singing with the Spirit Showband to back him up.  He did all sorts of songs from oldies to country. My second favorite show so far after the Motown night.

Day #6 Istanbul, Turkey: “Classical Istanbul”: Woke up this morning just before the 5:30 a.m. alarm.  We had an hour longer to get ready.  Our call to the theater was at 8:15 a.m. Our tour was with a group of 40.  I considered booking the small group tour instead but I’m not sure it would have made any difference. Istanbul was crowded.  Not just crowded.  It was swamped.  There were 8 buses from our ship doing the Classical Instanbul tour but the tour schedule was switched around for each bus so that DSCF1671we never saw more than one other group at any of the sites we visited.  It would be a good plan to spread the cruise ship visitors around so that no one site gets too crowded with their own ship’s tourists.  The problem we had though wasn’t that the Spirit had 8 busloads of tourists but that there were so many other tourists not from our ship. The streets were flooded with people.

Our tour began with a walk through the Hippodrome.  From there we walked to the Blue Mosque.  There is no way to bypass the line and the line was long but it moved reasonably well.  You need to wear long pants, shirts with sleeves (short sleeves are okay) and women need to cover their hair.  I had brought my own head scarf but the mosque provided them for women who didn’t. You take off your shoes and put them in the bag provided by the guide and then you can carry them with you until you leave. The mosque was beautiful and worth waiting in line to see. With its 21,000 blue tiles it was one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen. We next walked to the Topkopi Palace.  Entering here was a nightmare.  Even though we had pre-paid tickets and could bypass the ticket line, we still had to wait in the line to enter.  For a long time the line didn’t seem to move and it was only because the crowd was so large. Everyone in our group got swept into the crowd of people pushing and shoving their way to the entrance and keeping the group together was impossible. When we finally reached the door, everyone had to go through a body scanner and send bags through another scanner.  There are only 4 body and 2 bag scanners. People were pushing from behind to get through. It wasn’t a safe situation.  I’m not sure the scanners were for more than show since people were shoving bag after bag through the machine all at once and the worker was pushing people through the scanner very quickly. I can’t imagine anyone really had a chance to look at the scans or even pay attention if the scanner alarm sounded.   Once inside our group gathered and we talked about how we needed to change our schedule because we were now so far behind.  The guide led us to the treasury which is four connected rooms.  The line to get into the first room was very long but if you were willing to bypass the first room you could get into a still long, but not as long, line to enter the second room which would allow you to see rooms 2-4.  We got into the shorter line and followed the crowd through the treasury. We regathered with the group without seeing any more of the palace whichDSCF1698 made the stop a bit of a waste.  We could have skipped it entirely and not felt like we’d missed anything.

At about 1 p.m. which was probably a 1/2 hour to an hour late, we went to lunch. Lunch was a great sampling of Turkish foods.  It was very good and more food than any of us could begin to eat.  The appetizer plate alone was enough to fill me up and that was followed by a salad, main course and dessert plate.  From lunch we went to the Grand Bazaar arriving at 2 p.m. We were given an hour and 15 minutes to go off on our own since the guide had already said we wouldn’t be doing the obligatory rug demo as we’d all done it the day before. The endless maze of streets in the bazaar was fascinating as were the tiny little shops packed solid with merchandise.  It didn’t take long before we had sensory overload. I would have been interested in buying a few souvenirs but didn’t buy anything at all.  The problem was that the moment you stopped to look at anything a salesman would rush in.  I wanted to buy some scarves and John would have liked a t-shirt but we wanted time on our own to browse and choose what we wanted.  The salesmen however, were constantly in your face, insisting on showing you what they thought you should like and giving you no chance to just look on your own.  A couple of rug salesmen tried to drag us into their shops. The bazaar was wonderful to see but most of the shops sold the same things and it was crowded and hot inside. We did not wander too far from the main entrance for fear of getting lost so there may have been other types of goods sold further inside.

It was late in the afternoon when we arrived at the Hagia Sophia and the crowds had thinned out so, while it was still crowded, it wasn’t as bad as the earlier sites and our visit was enjoyable. This is a masterpiece of Byzantine archetecture and is now a museum.

Everything we saw on this excursion was worth seeing. The best time to see these sites though would be in the winter.  Even though it was only spring when we visited the crowds were unbearable.  Our guide told us that the crowds are as bad all summer long.

Day #7: Mykonos, Greece The ship arrived in Mykonos at 12:30, a half hour ahead of schedule.  We didn’t sign up for a tour as none of them seemed to do anything special or go anyplace that we really wanted to see. We had picked up our tender ticket before lunch and were on tender #13. Several tendersDSCF1775 were running at a time however so people were transported quickly.  We  tendered to Mykonos at around 2 p.m. and spent the afternoon walking the streets, visiting the shops and climbing up to see the windmills. From the ship, Mykonos looks like a large brown rock with white houses scattered along the shore and up the sides of the hill. Once on shore it’s very lovely with tiny winding streets and alleys. The town is very nice for getting off the ship and just wandering.  The shopkeepers were much less aggressive than in Turkey which was nice because it allowed you to browse. We bought a hand painted ceramic spoon rest. When we got tired of walking we sat down at a little outdoor restaurant called “Marias.”

Maria’s, Mykonos, Greece: I ordered spagetti with chicken, peppers, mushrooms.  The red sauce was very light and delicious. Doc had spagetti with shrimp in a cream sauce and he liked his meal very much also.  He ordered a glass of wine and it came filled nearly to the top.  I found it odd that no bread was served with the meal but we didn’t ask for any either so perhaps it needed to be ordered separately. The restaurant is on a little back street not far from the main drag.  It’s a charming place with different colored tables and surrounded by flower boxes, trees and vines. We sat under the awning in the shade but there were also tables out in the open. The waiter was very friendly and my husband enjoyed talking with him about the NBA once we discovered that he is a huge fan and knew all the American teams and players.  There are stray cats wandering all over the island and we enjoyed watching them as we ate. As we were sitting there enjoying the scenery another couple sat down at a table at the other end of the covered area.  After ordering a drink, the “gentleman” proceeded to remove his shoes and socks and pick at his feet at the table!  We were glad to be seated at the other end of the restaurant!

At about 5:00 we caught the tender back to the ship. The musician we had met earlier in our trip, Pablo, got on with his wife, Alexandra and they came over to sit by us.  We had a great talk about our families and our cats and discovered that this is Pablo’s last cruise for the season.

Day #8: At Sea We had lunch in the Blue Lagoon. We ordered fish and chips which were okay but not great.  There was a lot more breading than fish. We also had an order of mild wings with blue cheese dressing.  The wings weren’t hot.  I suspect they’d been precooked and had sat out on the counter for awhile until we ordered them.  If they’d been hot they would have been very good. There is very limited seating here.  Maybe a half dozen tables. After that first experience, we never went back.

Day #9: Naples, Italy “Flavors of Sorrento and Pompeii” Pulling into Naples at sunrise, DSCF1789the first thing you notice is that Mt. Vesuvius looms ominously over of the entire area. The size of the volcano is immense.  I couldn’t help but wonder what it must be like to live in its midst. On the bus, we made  a beautiful drive along the coast to the town of Sorrento. For the best view get a seat on the right side of the bus. First we were taken to a shop that makes wood inlay furniture. The demonstration lasted no more than a minute and then we were free to wander the store or go outside. This was also a restroom stop. We were then given two hours of free time.  We wandered the historic district and the many shops.  Sorrento was very charming and one of my favorite cities on the tour. We asked in one of the shops where we could find a newstand and were directed a ways down the street where John was able to buy the International version of the New York Times to get some American news.

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Next we drove to a Sorrento farm for lunch. The farm was amazing.  Totally self sufficient but all on only 4 acres!  The drive is so narrow there would be no way to get a bus down the hill so we transferred into two of the farms vans and were driven down to the restaurant. Lunch consisted of cold meats, cheeses, olives, bread and wine followed by a rather boring pasta dish with tomato sauce and ricotta cheese.  For dessert we had two cream puffs and a sampling of limoncello. After lunch we were shown how Mozzerella cheese is made and then we walked to the gift shop where the host told us how the limoncello is made. The gift shop sold jams and other food items made on the farm.

We drove to Pompeii where we first were taken to a Cameo shop and spent a good half hour there as our group browsed the shop.  It was a waste of precious tour time and even the chance to use the restrooms wasn’t needed as there were restrooms across the street at Pompeii. The tour of Pompeii was good but we only saw a small section of it and I think we missed a lot of the sites that are usually considered the highlights. We did see a number of places including the brothel with its frescoed walls and stone slab beds.  The amount of time spent at Pompeii seemed about right although it would have been nice if we’d have had some free time at the end to wander a little on our own (that wasted time at the Cameo store).

Day #10: Civvatavechia, Italy “Ultimate Rome”: This was a small group tour of 15 which shared a bus to Rome with another small group. Halfway through the drive we stopped at a gas station/convenience store to use the restrooms. Once in Rome the two groups split off to go in different directions. First stop was an inside visit to the2 Coluseum. We spent about 45 minutes here before reboarding the bus and driving to the Trevi Fountain.  At the fountain we were given 45 minutes of free time to grab something to eat. There are restaurants around the fountain area to sit down and eat but we thought that might take too long so we just grabbed a slice of pizza. The meeting point was at a gift shop where we could use the restrooms.  We met at 1:15 and from there walked to the Pantheon. This is a beautiful building.  The dome is open at the top because the builders didn’t understand how to close it.  When it rains the rain comes in and enters a drain in the floor.

We reboarded the bus and this time had to leave all of our bags and belongings on the bus because bags bigger than a small purse can’t be taken into the Vatican.  Our walk through the Vatican Museum started with a long and tiring climb up a multi-story ramp. The guide led us to many different pieces of art and gave a description of each one.  The crowds were ridiculously large and the museum and Sistine Chapel were wall to wall people. In the Sistine Chapel we gathered in the middle of the floor and just looked up and stared at the beautiful ceiling.

DSCF1916Upon leaving the Sistine Chapel we entered St. Peter’s Basilica.  Again, the crowds were a problem.  But who would have thought we’d have more problems getting OUT of the Basilica than we had getting into it? As we left the basilica to go out into the square the crowds were huge and pressing and it was impossible to keep our group together.  It took us a half hour to shuffle our way out the door.  A young man from our group, George, was next to me.  I grabbed onto the back of his shirt and Doc grabbed onto me so that if we got lost from our group we’d at least be lost together! George was very tall and able to see over the other heads in the crowd and he managed to locate our group waiting in the square.  When we finally managed to escape and get our group together we were way behind schedule.  We made a quick stop at a crowded gift shop but as I had no interest in buying religious souvenirs I waited outside.  We met again 10 minutes later and walked to the bus. We were late getting back to the ship but since we were on a ship’s tour it wasn’t a problem. Other buses were also very late, some of them stuck in traffic, and the ship didn’t leave port until nearly 2 hours later than planned.

Day #11 Livorno, Italy “Exclusive Pisa and Florence with the Uffizi Gallery” This was the hardest tour day we had when it came to walking. There is A LOT of walking on this tour and after all the walking in Naples and Rome, I was really glad to have brought two pair of good walking shoes on this trip that I switched out from day to day. My feet were tired by the time we got to Livorno but at least I didn’t have to worry about blisters or anything else that would have made this tour impossible to tolerate.

We drove first to Florence and stopped at an overlook to see a fantastic view of the city. After using the public DSCF2018restrooms we climbed back on the bus and were taken into the city to a central drop off point. From here we made a long walk to the Uffizzi Gallery. On the way we saw the Ponte Vecchio but never had the chance to walk across it. At the Uffizzi artists were set up all around the square doing their art work. We had tickets to enter at 11:00 and had to wait about 20 minutes or more.  It was not good planning on our guides part as there would have been plenty of time to visit the nearby Ponte Vecchio or some other sites on the way.

Once inside the Uffizzi which was once the office building of the Medicis, our guide led us to many highlights and described each one. Even though we didn’t spend a lot of time there the visit was worthwhile. The downside of this visit were the many floors of stairs we had to climb both up and down on our tired feet.

Leaving the Uffizzi, we walked through Signoria Square where we saw “The Rape of the Sabine Woman” and a replica of “David” on our way to a gold store. This is the spot where “David” was originally displayed which is what I was most interested in seeing so I was pleased we passed by it. At the gold store we could use the restrooms and we were then given free time for lunch. Two+ hours was too long and could have been better spent touring. We were under the impression that we would be visiting the Ponte Vecchio after lunch but this wasn’t the case.  If we had known that we would have visited it during the lunch break. With a confusing map and no real direction from the guide we were unsure what to do with all of our extra time and spent it browsing an outdoor market (as  non-shoppers we didn’t find this fun).

After meeting back at the gold store, the group walked GetImageCAUAUF3310 minutes to the Duomo which we viewed from the outside. Although it wasn’t scheduled on this tour, our guide gave us 10 minutes of free time because several of us wanted to go inside the Duomo. We hurried inside to see the painting of the dome which gave a real feel for how scary it must have been painting up that high. We also viewed and had a talk about the baptistry doors which are extremely beautiful.

It’s a fairly long walk from the parking lot to the leaning tower of Pisa. If you want to go inside the church you need to get one of the free tickets across the walkway.  The woman working in the booth didn’t speak English and so figuring this out wasn’t easy. There’s not much elso to see here unless you want to climb the tower but if there’s a line you won’t have time and they only allow so many people per hour to climb.  We took some photos and then walked back toward the entrance browsing the line of tourist kiosks that are set up along the street.

As we were returning to the bus a Japanese couple spotted our guides NCL sign and ran up to him for help. They had gotten separated from their group and were panicked.  Our guide used his cell phone to call his office to track down the other guide.  We all walked back to the bus parking lot and after several minutes of confusion discovered that the couple’s bus was still there waiting for them. It was a long ride back to the ship and again we were late returning. We were last on the ship and the gangway was immediately pulled up as soon as we boarded and the ship sailed.

 Day #12; Toulon, France We got up early this morning and watched the ship pull into the port of Toulon.  This is by far the prettiest port area that we’ve stopped at.  Lots of yachts and naval vessels with wooded hills all the way around.

“Hill-Top Le Castellet & Seaside Bandol” Our meeting time was 9:00 a.m. This was the most relaxing tour day we had with the exception of Mykonos.  We first drove to Le Castellet which is a medieval walled village atop a hill. The bus parked at the bottom of the village and we walked up the narrow streets to the top of the hill.  It is not a long walk DSCF2156however, and not difficult.  There are small narrow streets with shops all along the way and also a medieval church which was especially interesting as part of it has never been renovated so you get to see it in its original state.  It is such a small village that you can wander without any worry of getting lost.  All roads lead back to the bus. It is also a clean and charming town with lovely trees and flowers growing everywhere. After our short walking tour we had about an hour to walk around here before meeting at the bus.

Next we went to Bandol, a new, man-made “seaside resort.” It consists of a casino and a single street lined with swanky shops and restaurants and a harbor filled with the boats of tourists. We tried to have a quick lunch in a couple of places with lovely outdoor seating but had a difficult time understanding the posted menus all written in French and when we asked questions we discovered that either people didn’t speak English or, we suspected, they just weren’t interested in speaking English so we moved on. We stopped at a street vendor who was cooking hot sandwiches. He did speak good English but told us he was done cooking lunch for the day except for his “pre-orders.” Next we stopped in at a Pizzeria hoping to grab a quick slice of pizza to take back to the bus with us but were told that they didn’t sell by the slice only by the whole pie and they didn’t do any take-out at all. The stop in Bandol wasn’t really long enough to sit down and have lunch somewhere so about all you can do here is shop or maybe have a coffee. We would have been happy to skip this stop entirely.

After a drive back to the ship we met in the parking lot for our afternoon tour.

“Charming Sanary” The NCL descriptions call this “a lovely 16th century port” with a Roman Tower dating from the 13th and 14th centuries which can be climbed for “a fantastic, panoramic view” and a 16th century church bell tower.” There also, supposedly, is a diving museum here. But we never knew any of this or saw any of these things while on our tour. This was the fault of our tour guide who got off  the bus with us, pointed us toward a modern church that she thought we should look at, told us which restaurants were the best and then sent us on our way for the next two hours while she went off to shop and make her own café stop.

GetImageCASDCT8O Sanary is an attractive but busy resort area filled with shops and restaurants and this tour turned out to be nothing but a shopping excursion for us the shopping-haters.  I knew that wasn’t what I had signed up for however, when I booked this tour so many weeks ago. Only after returning to the ship and pulling out my NCL descriptions did I realize what we had missed seeing. We did have a nice, leisurely lunch here and then shared a gelatto afterwards so the trip wasn’t a total waste but being people who like history we were disappointed with the tour.

Our last evening on the ship we spent packing and listening to Pablo in Henry’s Pub.

Day #12: Saturday. Barcelona, Spain The ship was scheduled to arrive in port at 5 a.m. and was right on time.  I had called NCL before our cruise and asked how early a flight we could book and was told not to book anything before 10:30 a.m. Our flight was scheduled for 10:45.  We would have liked to haved stayed in Barcelona for at least a day.  There was no late day flight available to us however. Sunday flights were about $400 more per person. We could have flown home Monday morning for the same cost as the Saturday flight but that would force me to use more of my vacation time and I wanted to save it for another trip later in the year. A Sunday flight was our only other option and the extra cost plus the price of a hotel would have meant spending more than an extra $1000 just for that one day. We chose to fly on Saturday instead.

We also chose to disembark ourselves so we didn’t bother to get the timed luggage tags.  After breakfast in Raffles as soon as they opened, we grabbed our bags and left the ship at about 7 a.m..  There was no line and it was very easy. A line of cabs were waiting outside.  The next driver in line loaded our suitcases and told us, when asked, that the fare would be about 38 Euros. Once inside the cab the driver asked us if we wanted terminal one or terminal two.  We had no idea where United Airlines would be. The driver did not speak much English but he understood that we were having trouble and he showed us his printed list with all the airline names and what terminal they were located at. The problem was United wasn’t on the list. Finally I realized that Continental was on the list at Terminal one. Knowing that Continental and United had recently merged, I assumed that United had probably taken over their operation and we told the driver to take us to Terminal one.  Lucky for us, this was right.  Even though we were in the right place, finding the United window wasn’t easy as it had just one small counter with one small sign.  We asked at the Lufthansa counter (United’s partner) and were directed the right way. I had purchased the Economy Plus seats for an extra fee which gave us extra space and extra legroom.  It was worth the extra money on such a long flight to Newark.  In Newark our flight was delayed 5 hours.  The only snag in an otherwise wonderful trip.

Notes:

Shore excursions: We chose to do ship’s excursions for several reasons. First of all, I booked this tour only 4 or 5 weeks out. We got a great deal that way after watching the price drops for awhile. Booking that late, I didn’t have a lot of time to research that many ports. Guided tours just made more sense. Another advantage I saw with the ship’s tours was that it gave us the maximum amount of time in port. We could spend every possible minute seeing the sites without worrying about getting back early so as not to miss the all aboard time. It was nice having a guide to give some history and to not have to figure out things like transportation and entrance tickets. I don’t think we ever could have seen as many of the sites that we saw if we’d have been doing things on our own. It was great that in most places we were with a guide who walked us right up to the door and into the building. The disadvantage to doing group tours is that you had to stay with the pack and follow the set plan. I would have liked to have seen the Agora in Athens and maybe even climbed the Duomo in Florence but alas, it wasn’t on the plan.  On all of our tours we felt well taken care of. Some tours were larger and we had some of the small group tours as well. I’m not sure it made much difference. Once you arrive at the sites everyone is all together in the crowd anyway whether you are on a bus tour with 40 others or doing the port on your own.  You cannot be late for these ship’s excursions. You are given a meeting time and would do well to go early because the minute your meeting time arrives you are sent to the bus and are off.

Room Service: I ordered room service for breakfast on many port days. The room service menu is very limited. You can get things like fruit, cereal, yogurt and breads but not hot foods. I was fine with that and happy to be able to eat at my convenience without fighting the buffet crowd on port mornings. There is a room service brochure at the desk when you arrive with breakfast forms. You check off what you want and put it on your door before 4 a.m. and breakfast will be brought to you at the time you specify.

Service: This is the most service oriented cruise ever. EVERYONE was constantly greeting us in the hallways and doing everything possible to make sure we were happy. Our room steward did what a room steward was supposed to do and came in and out of the room when we weren’t there.  He finally introduced himself on about the 3rd or 4th day but otherwise was good at not being seen.  If I wanted anything I left him a note on the bed.

Laundry Service: Twice during our trip they offered all you can stuff in a bag for $25. I was surprised by how much you can get into one of those bags. I washed something like 6 polo shirts, 3 pair of Docker slacks, 2 or 3 t-shirts, a couple of blouses, pajamas, and several pair of my husband’s undershorts and socks. If I had known the bags held so much I would have packed much lighter. I could have easily packed for 6 days and done enough laundry one time to get us through the other 6 days.

This was a fantastic cruise from start to finish. If I had it to do over again, there is little that I would change.

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