Venice to Rome on the Grand Princess
5/26/07 to 6/07/07
Ports of Call: To do justice to this cruise, we had to write the review in two parts. The link to the second is at the end of the first.
Part #1 Venice, Italy; Dubrovnik, Croatia; Corfu, Greece; Katakolon (Olympia), Greece; Athens (Piraeus), Greece
Part #2 Mykonos, Greece; Kusadasi (Ephesus), Turkey; Rhodes, Greece; Santorini, Greece; Naples/ Capri, Italy; Rome (Civitavecchia), Italy
Shortly before our 2003 Mediterranean cruise on the Brilliance of the Seas, the port of Ephesus, Turkey was canceled due to the war. Since then we have been anxious to return to the Med so we could visit the missed port. When I found an itinerary on the Grand Princess that had six Greek ports and three Italian ports along with Ephesus and also Dubrovnik, Croatia, another port that was on our “must do” list, I knew that we had a winner. We booked this cruise as soon as it became available, 14 months before sailing. It made for a long time to wait, but it was certainly worth it. It also gave us plenty of time to meet other cruisers on the Cruise Critic Roll Call for this cruise. We ended up with a great group of CCers that got along very well all during the cruise.
Pre-cruise in Venice, Italy
With the cruise embarking in Venice, it gave us an opportunity to be able to enjoy a two day pre-cruise stay in one of our favorite cities. We had booked our airfare independently through Air France. I was a bit concerned because we had read horror stories about transferring between flights at Paris’ Charles DeGaulle airport. There were also comments about the Air France cabin crews not being particularly friendly or helpful. But since Air France had the perfect flights and the best price, we booked them and hoped for the best.
We were disappointed when we found out that the original seats we had booked, that were in the 2 seats section at the back of the plane, were not available. We were in the middle 4 seats across section. Fortunately these seats weren’t as bad as we expected, and there was adequate leg room. Our biggest surprise was that the Air France crews on both legs of the flight were very pleasant and helpful.
However, the Charles DeGaulle transfer experience was just as bad as we had feared. Since we had 1.75 hours to make the connecting flight, I felt pretty comfortable that we wouldn’t have any problems. Bad assumption!
We actually arrived a few minutes early; but after a long taxi in, we had to wait 10 minutes in the plane until the shuttle buses arrived to take us to our arrival gate at Terminal 2F. After loading the buses, it was a 20 minute ride to the terminal in a vehicle that was not air-conditioned, and didn’t even have windows that could be opened. In addition, we were standing and packed in like sardines.
Little did we know that the stress had just begun. On the plane we were told we didn’t have to go through immigration, but the information lady inside the terminal said that the only way to get to the gate we were supposed to leave from in Terminal 2E was to go through the long immigration line. It didn’t sound correct since we had a connecting flight on Air France, but we asked her twice, so we got into the very long line.
It was taking a long time and we weren’t moving up very fast. We began to slide into hysterical mode, since we didn’t want to miss our plane. The other folks in line were very kind and let us get ahead of them. After 50 minutes of waiting in line, we finally cleared immigration. We then ran to Terminal 2E. We had a slight delay going through security and made it to the plane with less than 5 minutes to spare. A horrible experience, but we were on our way to Venice.
We had read many wonderful reviews about a hotel close to St. Mark’s Square, the Locanda Orseolo, and the Peruch Family who runs it. We were quite excited when we were able to book a room there. Unfortunately, three months before the cruise we were informed that the building next to the Locanda Orseolo had plumbing problems; and that a few of the rooms would be closed for the whole season. Ours was one of them. This was very upsetting, since we really had our hearts set on the LO, and good rooms in Venice would be hard to find at that late date. The Peruch Family recommended a small hotel on the Grand Canal, just next to the Rialto Bridge called Al Ponte Antico (Link). They said that it was a nice hotel and that they had even considered buying it. So I booked it.
We were so excited when a few weeks before the cruise we read in some Al Ponte Antico reviews that one member of the Peruch Family, Matteo, had purchased the hotel a month before our visit. This really lifted our spirits. Perhaps we would have the great experience at this hotel that Locanda Orseolo customers have raved about for years.
We had decided to take a water taxi to the Al Ponte Antico since it was right on the Grand Canal, and we knew that we would be exhausted from the flight. It was a longer walk from Venice baggage claim to the taxi port than expected, about 10 minutes. We should have piled our luggage onto one of the rolling carts rather than just dragging our wheeled bags; but I didn’t think we would be able to take them all the way from the airport to the port. Wrong assumption. If you plan to take a water taxi, haul your luggage on a cart and make it easier on yourself.
The water taxi ride was great. It was well worth the 90 €. What a great way to start a vacation in Venice with the lovely views along the canals in this unique transportation method. Being able to stop right at our hotel and drop off the luggage was really nice.
As we pulled up to the Al Ponte Antico, it was hard not to stare at the beautiful Rialto Bridge. It was only a couple of buildings away from the hotel. The hotel is on a bend in the Grand Canal, so in addition to the view of the Rialto Bridge, there was a great view down the Canal when we looked the other way. We had definitely picked a hotel with an awesome view.
Armando, who had arranged for the water taxi, met us at the dock. He took care of the luggage and took us to our room on the second floor. We had booked a courtyard view room, so we were quite surprised when he took us to a lovely canal view room. We had been given an upgrade. It was a large room decorated in traditional Venetian style with lovely furniture and fixtures. The bathroom and dressing area were also very nice and large. I liked this hotel.
After a quick look around the room and the balcony that overlooked the Rialto Bridge and Grand Canal just outside our room, our bags were delivered. As I am accustomed to doing, I get out of Carol’s way while she sets up her nest. This worked out great, since we were in the center of Venice and I wanted to walk around and see the sights and take some pictures.
My first goal was to make sure I could get back to the hotel. It is very easy to get lost in Venice, since there are so many narrow curving streets and bridges. I took a quick walk to the Rialto Bridge, since I knew I would be able to see our hotel from it.
From there I headed down to one of my favorite places, St. Mark’s Square.
After I had worn myself out walking around all over the place, it was time to go back to our hotel. As I climbed the stairs to the lounge area on our floor, I recognized the owner Matteo cleaning up around the bar area. I introduced myself and he asked how Carol was doing. Here was a proprietor who cared enough about his customers to know their names, even before he had met them. As I talked to him, I realized that all the rave reviews about the Peruch family customer service were well earned. He really seemed interested in our having a wonderful vacation in his town while we were staying at his hotel.
After I rested a little and Carol had finished her nesting, we decided it was time to do some walking around touring and find a place for dinner. As we were leaving, we ran into Matteo; and I introduced him to Carol. He quickly proceeded to charm her. She was as impressed by him as I had been earlier.
Matteo had recommended the Marco Polo Restaurant. It was pretty close to the hotel, but I unintentionally took a more “scenic” way to get there. The food was quite good and reasonably priced. The staff was extremely friendly and just a pleasure. It was so nice to just sit back and enjoy our first dinner in Venice.
We took an after dinner walk to St. Mark’s Square to see the area at night. The crowds were gone and it was much more peaceful.
When we returned to the hotel, we walked out on the balcony. Wow, what a view! It speaks for itself.
I have a tendency to wake up early when on vacation. Carol says I’m hyper, but I prefer to think that I’m just excited to start experiencing whatever city or port we are in. On Friday morning, I was down at St. Mark’s Square in time to hear the bell tower strike six times. If you can, this is the best time to explore Venice. It is so very peaceful and there are no crowds, only pigeons. It is such a special feeling to be able to watch the sun rise on this amazing city. It is also a great time to take pictures.
There are just so many beautiful buildings, statues and things to see all over Venice, that it is almost a visual overload to take it all in. One of the places I was anxious to visit was the Church of Santa Maria della Salute. I missed it the last time we were in Venice. Unfortunately, major renovation work was in progress on the beautiful dome. Oh well, maybe it will be finished when we return again.
Church of Santa Maria della Salute Island of San Giorgio
At least the Island of San Giorgio looked quite lovely in the early morning sunlight. As I was getting ready to return to the hotel for breakfast, the Costa Serena sailed right by St. Mark’s Piazzetta.
One of the highlights we had read about the Al Ponte Antico was the breakfast prepared by Matteo. His specialty is chocolate crepes. We took some of the items from the buffet to tide us over till the crepes came.
The fruits and breads were fresh and quite tasty; but when we saw Matteo with the crepes, we fell in love. They almost looked too good to eat. They were quite delicious. He told us that it was a family recipe, and his mother would make them as a special occasion breakfast. Best of all, I knew we would have a repeat performance the next day.
After breakfast we walked to St. Mark’s Square to go to the top of the Campanile, the bell tower. Fortunately, there is an elevator to the top. This is the best view available of Venice without benefit of a helicopter.
The remarkable panoramic views of this unique city are breathtaking. Since we were in the first elevator of the day to go to the top, it was easy to get around and see all the views; but only for a little while.
Mike could see the ships in port with his telephoto lens.
The elevators quickly brought up more folks and it got a little crowded. In addition to the views, the bells themselves are quite a sight since they are huge. I don’t think I would like to be up there when they sound!
We had scheduled the Doges Palace Secret Itineraries Tour for Friday. We had booked it on line at (Link) . The benefit of using this site is that the cost does not have any ticketing up charge, so the tickets are only 16 euros each. Better yet, since we had advance tickets, we didn’t have to wait in the very long line.
We had previously toured the public area of the Doges Palace in ‘99; but since we had heard good reviews about the Secret Itineraries Tour, we wanted to go again. This tour goes behind the scenes to places the normal tour doesn’t go, so we thought it could be worthwhile. Well it wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped, although the narrative on the tour was very good and quite informative.
One of the big appeals of the Doge’s Palace is its ornate rooms. This tour doesn’t involve that area of the palace. It goes behind and above these rooms, which is interesting; but the “secret” rooms are plain and unappealing as well as quite hot. We actually went all of the way up to the attic under the roof. That was kind of neat, but it was so hot that the guide told us that they can’t do this in the summer. For the time and energy expended, it just wasn’t worth it to us.
After the tour, we were free to roam around the public area of the palace if we wanted to. Unfortunately, we got lost in the prison cell area while trying to get out and walked around, up and down different floors trying to escape to the outside. It was really disturbing, since there was no one around to ask how to get out, just more cells. It was not fun being a prisoner in Doge’s Palace.
If you take this tour, the Secret Itineraries portion takes 1 ¼ hours. Be sure to take water, since you do a lot of walking and it gets hot, even on the relatively mild day we were there. You also want to leave time to wander around the beautiful part of the Palace. The best part of the Secret Tour is not having to wait in the long line to see the public areas.
It was time for lunch and we stopped at Ristorante Aquila Nera, not too far from our hotel. We ordered proscuto and mushroom pizzas. Just wonderful! The Italian beer really hit the spot. We spent the rest of the day wandering around and shopping in this lovely city.
Mike at the Clock Tower Typical back street canal
We looked at the colorful displays of merchandise and food in the shop windows; while admiring the beautiful architecture and scenic views around the canal city.
Matteo had recommended a local restaurant for dinner. As we were heading there, we came across the Restaurant Riva Del Vin, right along the Grand Canal. The refreshing cool breeze and the Grand Canal view were too welcoming to resist. We were tired and this lovely cool spot was just what we needed. I think the food was OK, but the main thing I remembered was how enjoyable it was to be dining along the Grand Canal with Carol.
While eating, we struck up a conversation with the people at the table next to us. We were quite surprised when they told us they were on the Grand Princess which had been scheduled to arrive at 10:00 PM. It had arrived quite early at 5:00 PM. This was great for the passengers, since they would get to spend a little extra time in Venice that day. I had planned on getting pictures of the arriving Grand that night; but it was just as well, since we needed to head back to the Al Ponte Antico to pack because we were boarding the Grand Princess in the morning.
The next morning started out very much like the previous day, with a cappuccino and Matteo making a wonderful breakfast.
This morning in addition to the chocolate crepes, he asked if we wanted some eggs. He said that they were from his grandmother’s farm and that she delivers them fresh a couple of times a week. We had to try them even though we had eaten the crepes. I am so glad we succumbed to temptation. They were without a doubt the best eggs we have ever eaten. Just plain scrambled eggs, but oh so good.
We had ordered free tickets on line to tour the St. Mark’s Basilica on Saturday. Although the entrance is free, by pre-ordering for a particular time, we got to see the Basilica without having to wait in very long lines. We had ordered them at (Link).
At the appointed time, we walked to the left side of the entrance line and went right in. That was when I found out that I was supposed to have checked my backpack before going inside. The place to leave it is located around the corner of the building. What was interesting is that if you don’t have a ticket to go into the Basilica, when you check your bags, the plastic number they give you will give you entrance to the Basilica without a ticket. A very handy tip to remember.
To me the outside of St. Mark’s Basilica is the most beautiful part. The inside is nice, but more understated than expected. I had read to be sure to go to the upstairs museum to see the original horses that were on the front of the church and to walk around the balcony for the view. It was very easy to find the stairway as we entered the church. Once upstairs, there is a lovely view of the church interior. As expected the view from the outside balcony was very nice.
The highlight of the morning was getting together with two couples we had met on the Tahitian Princess in 2005. They were on the Grand cruise right before ours and had just disembarked. It was so good to see Wade, Trina, Brett and Toni; but we couldn’t visit for long.
We had to hurry back to the hotel, since Matteo had booked a water taxi to take us to the ship at noon. It was difficult to leave this wonderful hotel. We felt like we were leaving our family. They had treated us so well and we had enjoyed our stay so much. After saying our farewells, we boarded the water taxi.
We headed to the other side of the Rialto Bridge to pick up Dave and Millie, a Cruise Critic couple we were sharing the taxi to the Grand with. We had met them in Miami for dinner a couple of months before the cruise, so it was easy to spot them on the dock.
The ride to the Grand Princess lasted about 15 minutes and took us down several canals. When we finally arrived at the port, there were a large number of water taxis stacked up waiting to unload their passengers and luggage. It is rather amazing how skilled the taxi drivers are to keep from hitting each others’ boats. With the water moving up and down and the taxis moving in and out of the dock, I can’t imagine how they made this potential mayhem look like an organized event. I was impressed. We were in cue for 10 minutes and quickly got on the dock with our luggage.
Princess had the luggage removal process set up beautifully. We just handed it to the porters on the little taxi dock and they took it away. Very easy and efficient. The luggage was taken care of within the length of time it took us to pay the taxi driver the 90 € for the four of us. It was well worth the cost.
The terminal building was a pretty good walk from the water taxi dock, but the way was very clearly marked. In addition, the entrance to the terminal was on the opposite side from the dock so it made it seem longer. The paperwork process went very quickly. We then got our cruise cards and headed for the ship. We had to board a bus to take us there. It was a very short bus ride, but the line to get in the ship was relatively long and it moved very slowly. We chatted with some very entertaining Brits who were going back on the ship to get their hand carry luggage before going home. It took half an hour from the time we got the card till we got in our cabin at about 1:15 PM.
We had been very lucky with the weather in Venice. Before leaving Florida, the forecast had said we would have cloudy weather with showers. Both days, the weather was just perfect. Maybe a little warm in the afternoon, but the cool breezes made it quite tolerable. The rains finally caught up with us Saturday afternoon. Since the ship was in port overnight, the folks that got off the ship got drenched in some pretty heavy rains. We had already decided that we weren’t getting off the ship till our first port, since we needed to recover from all of our touring. Sunday morning we just relaxed from our two hectic days in Venice. The ship’s muster drill was held inside in the Vista Lounge at 12:15 PM before our 1:00 PM departure time.
Departing Venice is an event. Most people go up to the higher decks to see the views as the ship sails down the Grand Canal. The port lecturer provided narration as we passed various points of interest. The best side of the ship to be on is the Port side, since that is the side that faces St. Mark’s Square.
It was a fascinating ride. We got to see lots of places that we never would have seen otherwise. What a great way to start a cruise.
The Grand Princess has always been special to us since she was placed in service the same year we moved to Florida in 1998. While on another ship on our first cruise out of Ft. Lauderdale that year, we saw the Grand in port. We were awed by her size and unique design; and we knew that we just had to cruise on her some day. We did get to take a two day cruise to nowhere on the Grand in 2001. We thoroughly enjoyed that little taste and wanted to sail on her again for a full cruise. That day finally came on this trip.
The Grand Princess is showing her age, but is still a very nice ship. It doesn’t have the tall centrums or multilevel dining rooms that make some ships so impressive. Nor does she have some of the glitz of the newer ships. But she does have a very tasteful and nicely decorated interior. She has a very unique exterior. The most distinguishing feature is the Skywalker’s Lounge across the upper back of the ship, on what many people refer to as the “handle of the grocery cart”.
The layout of the ship is pretty easy to get used to, with the exception of the dining room locations. The Boticelli Dining Room, which is used for fixed seating diners, on deck 6 can only be reached by a couple of the aft elevators or the stairs from deck 7. The other two dining rooms used for free style diners, Da Vinci and Michelangelo, are almost midship in an area that is difficult to locate. Once you know where the walkway is, it is easy to find; but we only went there a couple of times so we got confused. All of the dining rooms look the same other than the art on the walls, which is based on the famous artists that are the restaurants’ namesakes.
Da Vinci Dining Room Michelangelo Dining Room
Boticelli Dining Room
The upper decks with the five separate pools are laid out very well to allow for lots of lounging around on the numerous chairs and chaise lounges. There's also a splash pool for the small children. The main pool, Neptune's Reef, area also has the Movies Under the Stars (MUTS) where movies and other entertainment are shown during the day and night. It is surprising how bright the screen is, since you can still watch it even in bright sunlight. Each pool has a different feel to it. I never used any of them, since we were touring all the time, but I really enjoyed just looking at the aft terrace pool sitting under Skywalker’s with the ship’s wake in the background.
Neptune's Reef Pool
Conservatory Pool Spa Pool
Aft Terrace Pool Kids Splash Pool
The Lotus Spa is quite an elegant place, with lots of marble and decorations. Since we didn’t use the spa, the only time I saw it was the first day while taking pictures. They did have nice equipment in the gym area; but we knew we would get enough of a workout on this non-stop port excursion itinerary.
I was very impressed with the kids’ facilities. The Fun Zone was for the three to twelve year olds, and there is a separate area for the teens which is called The Teen Center. The Voyage of Discovery Arcade is well outfitted to keep teens busy during the long cruise. Adults are not allowed in these areas, so I was lucky that I got pictures before any kids came in.
Children's Fun Zone
There are three main lounge areas. The Vista Lounge is the largest and is used for the second entertainment choice each evening, since it has a fairly large stage. It is best suited for an individual performer such as a comedian, not for a larger production.
The Explorers Lounge has an Egyptian decor and offers an interesting drink selection. They normally have one of the ship’s music groups entertaining each night. It is also used for some of the late night games and Karaoke activities.
The other main lounge is the Wheelhouse Bar. It is just a very relaxing room with a nautical design that has very comfortable furniture. It would be easy to spend a lot of time there just hanging with friends.
There are several other bars scattered around the ship. Among them is the Promenade Bar which features a piano player each night. He was quite talented and enjoyed by many.
The specialty restaurants are Sabatini’s, the Italian restaurant and the Painted Desert, which is the steakhouse . Both of these rooms are very attractive places to enjoy the special dinners they serve.
The Horizon Court buffet was always crowded and seemed to suffer from bad people flow. This could be because the excursion schedules made the eating times shorter. That meant that the restaurant had to accommodate the same number of passengers within a shorter time span than the restaurant is designed for. There just never seemed to be enough empty tables.
The Atlantis Casino was a relatively sedate room. The newer ships seem to really make their casinos very glitzy and exciting with lots of lights. Apparently people prefer the glitz because there never seemed to be that many people gambling. Perhaps it got more crowded later when I was trying to sleep off my exhaustion from the day’s endless walking and climbing.
There was a nice assortment of stores carrying the normal jewelry, clothes and souvenirs that are found on most ships. I was also impressed with the large library and internet café. I normally used one of the three computers in the library to access the web, since there always seemed to be at least one available. As expected the connection is slow, it was better than some I have experienced. Being a Princess Circle Platinum member entitled each of us to a $100 internet package, which was 240 minutes each. That was more than enough on this cruise since we only had one sea day.
Library Internet Cafe
We had always heard people raving about aft cabins. They were supposed to be the best ones to get. Since we booked this cruise the first day it became available, I was able to get Cabin C753. This is a special cabin, because it is one of the few non-suite aft cabins. It is also special in that it is a corner aft cabin so there is a side view as well as an aft view. We were quite excited to finally be able to experience aft cabin life. Unfortunately, when there is only one sea day out of twelve there isn’t a lot of time to enjoy the balcony. I must say it was really nice during sail away, which I tried to observe every day.
I would highly recommend this cabin because it was quite private. We even had a private hallway leading to our door. We didn’t notice any additional noise or vibration as some folks worry about. The only time the motors were loud was when the ship first cranked them up preparing to sail, and of course that only lasted a minute or two. The location was also good because all of the eating venues we used were at the back of the ship with us.
Our cabin steward Somchai from Thailand did his job very well. Unlike most of our previous stewards, he seemed much more reserved and shy. He was very pleasant, but we just didn’t see that much of him. When we did he was friendly, but he didn’t say much.
The one design flaw that we noticed early in the cruise was a plastic curtain pull that would tap the wall in the middle of the night. I finally solved the problem by tying a tissue around it so it wouldn’t bump. That worked great.
The cabin itself was not particularly large, but it must have been arranged well, since we seemed to have enough room. The bathroom and especially the shower are well designed.
The ship’s age was really showing on our balcony, where some of the metal was badly corroded. I was surprised that something like that would be neglected to this extreme. I would think that it could turn into a very expensive repair job.
One of the things we like about Princess is that we can reserve a traditional dining time, but if we want to switch to any time dining later in the cruise, we can. We did that on our Diamond Princess cruise last year and thought we probably would want to do it that way again. As usual we had requested early dining because we like to eat early so we can go to the shows and then to bed. We just aren’t late night partiers.
We were put at a table of six. We were fortunate to get some good tablemates. Ron and Nancy were a couple from Las Vegas, whom we seemed to run into wherever we went onshore. Also at our table were Mary Beth and Carolee, friends from the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts. Our waiter Cezar from Romania and assistant waiter Dan, who was also from Romania, were excellent. They provided great service and were a pleasure to have taking care of us. We looked forward to seeing them and our tablemates each evening. As a result we decided to stick with traditional dining for this cruise.
Ron and Nancy Carolee and Mary Beth
Our main service disappointment was with the head waiter, Harkan from Turkey. He introduced himself the first night and he never came around to our table again. Every night he seemed to be more interested in joking around with one of the other head waiters, than in checking on his customers. He also visited the table next to us several times, but never even looked our way. It actually became a joke between the six of us. Fortunately Cezar and Dan took very good care of us, so we really didn’t need anything from him.
Food quality and preparation is always a difficult thing to measure because each of us has different preferences. We ate most of our breakfasts in the Horizon Court buffet due to time constraints, and it was fine other than the large crowds in the serving area and limited seating unless you wanted to go outside. We didn’t have many lunches on board and the few we had were at the buffet and were OK. We had hoped to go to the Painted Desert Steak House, but early in the cruise it was totally booked for all the nights. So, we ate every dinner in the Boticelli Dining Room. Some of the food in the dining room was very good, but the majority was just “good”. Some of the beef dishes were quite bad while others were fine. One night everyone at the table ordered the ribeye steaks, and we could barely cut them they were so grisly. On the other hand the prime rib was quite tasty. The seafood dishes were very good for the most part. The king crab and lobsters were the best we have had on any cruise ship. We were surprised at the large size of the lobsters because they are usually so small on ships. Even our tablemates from Cape Cod thought they were sweet and delicious. The salads and soups were also very good. Deserts and appetizers were OK. Since I don’t expect gourmet food on a cruise, I am normally not disappointed with what I get. All in all we were happy with the dining room food.
Princess had two formal nights and ten smart casual nights on this cruise. People dressed quite well for the formal nights; and I didn’t see anyone that wasn’t properly dressed, which is quite unusual. On the other nights most people dressed appropriately; but there were some folks that just had to wear their jeans or shorts to dinner every night. I don’t understand why the rules aren’t enforced.
We always look forward to the entertainment on our cruises. It is the part of the trip when we can totally relax and just enjoy ourselves. This cruise had some very good entertainers that I really enjoyed. The problem we had was that for some unknown reason the first two production shows were presented in the Vista Lounge rather than in the large Princess Theater, where production shows are supposed to be shown.
We couldn’t imagine why a production show would be performed on a stage that is designed for a comedian or small musical group; but we decided to see if we were missing something. The first thing we were missing was seats. The Vista couldn’t handle all the people that wanted to see the show. I don’t know how many people were watching the comedian in the large Princess Theater, but a lot of people couldn’t stay for the production show because there was just no place to sit.
Production Show in the Vista Cruise Director James Ibrahim
To make matters worse, the Vista has pillars that you have to look around, so there are obstructions while watching. Since the seats are not as tiered as in the theater, the people on the back row ended up either kneeling in their seats or just standing up! This is a problem when watching a production show. We stayed for a little while, but it was difficult to see the show; and it just didn’t seem that good anyway without all the sets and lighting effects. It was a real disappointment. The first two production shows were done like this, so we didn’t even go to the second one. The last production show on formal night was in the Princess Theater and was very good. For the most part the individual entertainers we saw were very good.
Comedian Miguel Washington Illusionist Wayne Hoffman
British Singer Darren Linton
Since we had a group of 450 Aussies from one organization on this cruise, they really had a good time with the comedians. Everywhere you went on the ship, the Aussies were laughing, carrying on and just having a good time. Even the elevator rides were fun with them. It was a pleasure sharing the cruise with the folks from down under.
I did go up to see Movie Under the Stars (MUTS) one night. It is really very pleasant. With it being outside, the blankets were a necessity. I had seen the movie The Illusionist before, but I was glad to see it again in this unique setting.
We missed out on some of the later night entertainment since we were worn out from the day’s activities, and we had to wake up early the next morning to start them all over again. From what the Cruise Director James Ibrahim said, there weren’t many folks participating in any late night activities.
Media and Events:
The Princess Patter was the worst cruise information bulletin we have ever had on any ship. It provided very little information. It left out information that we needed to know, and it gave incorrect information. I won’t go into details in an effort to be kind, but they were really pathetic. They were basically just advertisement supplements.
We also were disappointed in the cruise information channel on the television. This is the one that shows where you are, how many miles you have traveled from the last destination, how far to the next, the ships speed, the temperature, humidity and sea height. I would check it daily, and then periodically whenever I was in the cabin. On one day, when I checked it several times, I noticed that it never changed all day long. And the temperature was staying exactly the same for several days in a row, when we knew that wasn’t the case. Kind of worthless.
For this cruise we had a very good roll call going on www.cruisecritic.com. As a cruise line, Princess doesn’t sponsor a CC party as Celebrity and Royal Caribbean do. However, they were more than willing to help us set up one ourselves. Carol contacted Princess and told them what we wanted, and they were very accommodating. They set aside a place for our group of 44 in Skywalkers. We were scheduled to leave Venice at 1:00 P.M., so we had decided to meet from 3:30 to 4:30. Princess provided a bartender, and we could purchase drinks. We had 39 of the 44 people in attendance, which was really great participation. We finally had a chance to meet the people we had been talking to online for the last year. (A link to the party photo album is at the end of this review.)
On the first formal night the Captain’s welcome party was held for the passengers. We attended the one for early diners. Unfortunately, it was located in the Centrum on two decks. It was chaotic. There was a line of people waiting for portraits because that’s where the photographers were set up. People who were not attending were there trying to shop in the stores. Too many people in too small of a place for totally different purposes could only lead to mayhem, and it was certainly that! We searched on both decks, but we did not see a single officer in attendance, much less the Captain. I would suggest that this event be held in Skywalkers, or even Explorers. Anywhere except the Centrum!
On the last formal night we went to the Captain’s Circle Party, where returning Princess Customers normally get to meet the captain, cruise director, hotel director and important staff members. When we came in about five minutes after the start time, there was an officer standing around the door, but no one else, no reception line. Later on the Captain and Cruise Director came in, but it didn’t seem to be a very organized event.
As we came in, we were told to please be seated. Usually, you mingle a little first while the waiters walk around passing out drinks and hors devours. But, we did as we were told and sat down. However, once people were seated, the waiters didn’t seem to have an organized pattern or system to serving. We ended up having to go run the servers down to get anything. They just never seemed to get around to the people who were already seated and waiting to be served. Very poorly organized.
The main speakers were the Future Cruise Consultant and the Captain’s Circle Representative. The captain spoke for about a minute, and the Cruise Director didn’t say anything. This was unlike any customer appreciation event I have ever attended.
I hate to sound so negative; but if Princess is trying to impress new cruisers with the welcoming party, and returning customers with the Captain’s Circle party, they did not succeed.
There is a coin laundry on each passenger deck. Alternating decks will have it towards either the front or the aft end of the ship. You can see on the diagram of the ship where it is located in on your deck. If it’s all the way at the opposite end from your cabin, just go up or down one deck and you’ll be closer to one. If this sounds confusing, just refer to the ship’s diagram which will be in your cabin.
The washers and dryers only take quarters. There is a change machine that takes dollar bills, but it is often empty. You can get change at the Purser’s desk, but I usually just stick a roll of quarters into my suitcase before I leave home. There is also a machine that dispenses detergent (4 quarters per box) which is the pre-measured amount for one load. The washers take 4 quarters per load and the dryers take 2 quarters. However, the dryers sometimes need a second cycle. There is also an ironing board and a steam iron.
Ports of Call
The two ports that were key in our itinerary selection were Ephesus and Dubrovnik. In looking at the extended weather forecast before we left the U.S., it appeared that Dubrovnik was going to have bad weather on the day we were in port. Although the Princess Patter said that the day was going to be “Sunny”; when I woke up and went out on the balcony, it was very overcast. Maybe the rain would hold off. We crossed our fingers, but took our umbrellas with us.
Dubrovnik is a beautiful medieval walled city. Everyone who goes there always raves about it. The most popular tourist activity is to walk the 1.2 mile wall. By doing this you get the best views of this lovely orange roof topped city on the Adriatic Sea. If the walls were wet it could be dangerous; and if it was raining the views wouldn’t be nearly as good, so we were concerned.
Dubrovnik was one of only two tendered ports on this cruise. We were able to get on an early tender, which was good since our research had told us to walk the wall as early as possible to beat the crowds and do all the climbing before the temperature got hotter. Princess was charging 10 € per person for a round trip on the shuttle bus to Dubrovnik, which was a pretty good ride. We decided instead to take a taxi, which cost 10 € each way for as many people as could fit in the taxi. So with two people the price was the same to take a taxi rather than the bus, and we did not have to wait for the bus to leave. We found out later that some folks had to wait over an hour for the bus to take them to town. Our taxi driver was very friendly and told us about some of the places we were passing and told us a little bit about Croatian life during the ride.
He dropped us off close to the Pile Gate. The first impression from outside the walls of this city is quite impressive. It is difficult to believe how big and solid the walls surrounding this storybook town are. They are much bigger than I expected. I am sure they protected the inhabitants of the ancient city quite well.
Once inside the walls, the first thing we came to was the Big Onofrio’s Fountain. This is a very large structure taking up a part of a small square.
Since there wasn’t anyone in line to walk the wall, we weren’t sure we were taking the right steps, but it looked like this must be the starting spot. The cost was 50 Croatian Kunas, but they took Euros or Dollars also. I think they took 6 euros or $10, which made the euros a better deal. It was a steep climb up the steps and would certainly not meet OSHA safety requirements.
It was a relief to reach the top of the wall; and a pleasure to finally be able to look out on the tops of the old orange roofs of Dubrovnik. I could see why this was the best way to see the city.
Just reaching the top of the wall doesn’t end the climbing. The trip around is a series of ups and downs, lots of steps. It is excellent exercise, but I would not advise people with very bad knees to try it.
The views are so lovely, especially along the water, where you can see the blue water crashing into the large rock formations all around the wall. It would be very easy to just stand in one place and enjoy the view, but we had to keep moving, since there were lots more sights to see.
Every time we took a turn or came to a different section of the wall, we just stared in amazement at the beauty of this 1,400 year old city.
I was so glad that clouds had broken up and we were having a fairly sunny morning. It allowed me to take a lot of pictures to help show how lovely this place is.
The highest point and most prominent site on the wall is the Minceta Tower. It looks like a large castle from a chess set. There is a very narrow steep staircase that goes to the top. I decided to climb it since I assumed there would be some great photo ops up there. It was tiring getting to the top, but the views were great.
It took two hours for us to walk the 1.2 miles of the wall. It seems so much farther than just 1940 meters. We were ready to get down and explore the town. As we headed down, we couldn’t believe the long line of people on the stairs and in the small square waiting in line to get onto the wall. We were so glad we had gone early as had been recommended. Just as we got down, the rain started. We couldn’t believe how lucky we had been to be able to have a relatively sunny morning to enjoy a walk on the wall of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. We had done what we came to do and anything else we did would be a bonus.
We pulled out our umbrellas and started walking around the town in search of some souvenirs and a book on the area. The stores were doing a great business selling umbrellas and rain coats. We decided, since it was almost noon, to find a restaurant so we could sit down and get out of the rain. We found a nice little place and ordered a delicious gorgonzola pizza and a mediocre calzone. The couple next to us had raved about the gorgonzola pizza, so I had to try it. I also couldn’t pass up some Croatian beer. It was quite good and very refreshing.
Once the rain had slowed down a little, we did some sight seeing and shopping. We walked down the lovely stone streets to the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin. It was not as ornate as many of the European churches we have visited, but it did have its share of beauty. It also felt like a very religious place and was well worth the visit.
Since we had just come from Venice, one of the glass capitals of the world, I wasn’t expecting to be in the market for any glass. We chanced upon a store that had some very unique designs, so we couldn’t resist a very reasonably priced lovely glass vase.
At last all of the wall climbing and walking, as well as the shopping, was taking its toll on our bodies. It was time to head back to the ship to rest and dry out. We presumed it would be as easy to get a cab back as it had been in the morning. Not so! Apparently due to the rain, some roads were blocked and the traffic that was overloaded with all the buses was terrible.
Additionally, when it rains in Dubrovnik, the residents who would normally drive motorcycles use taxis to get around. So there weren’t a lot of taxis available. Fortunately, we were the second couple in a line that had started to get very long. We had talked with some folks who were also waiting, and we decided to share the next taxi back to the ship. After about a 15 minute wait, we headed back. Since the Holland America Veendam, which was at the dock when we arrived, had left earlier, the Grand had moved into its place at the dock. It surely was nice not having to take a tender back to the ship.
We woke up to a beautiful sunny day with an expected high of 72. Perfection! When we booked this cruise, we didn’t know much about Corfu. In doing our research, we found that Corfu was supposed to be one of the prettiest and greenest of the Greek islands. We decided to take a Princess excursion, The Best of Corfu. It seemed to cover all of the island’s highlights. This was going to be a great day.
As we headed up to our first stop, the Achilleion Palace, we could look west and see the country of Albania not very far away. The palace was built in 1891 for Empress Elisabeth of Austria. She named it to honor the Greek Hero Achilles. After she was assassinated in 1898 it remained empty until Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany purchased it in 1907.
It is quite a lovely building built in the Pompeian style. There are many intricate and impressive statues all around the palace. The inside was quite beautiful with more statues, exquisite decorations and murals.
Bougainvillea in full bloom The Wounded Achilles
The Statue Terrace The Front Entrance Hall Staircase
The Judgment of Jesus in Elisabeth's Chapel The intricate fireplace in the front room
After getting back to the bus, we headed for the Paleokastritsa area. The first stop was to the Monastery of the Virgin Mary. It sits on a hilltop and has an incredible view of the cove way down the hill. The multi shaded blue water looked so inviting.
There were a lot of tour buses that were dropping people off there. We had to wait to get into the monastery; and when we did, it was warm and very crowded. There were lots of lovely icons and decorations; but it was uncomfortable with so many people packed into the small room. We left pretty quickly and went back to the cool breeze and the lovely views of the water.
From the monastery, we headed down to sea level and a nice restaurant in the tourist area of the Paleokastritsa village. We were served three appetizers, Mousaka, Baklava, wine and soft drinks, which we shared with fellow CCers Paul and Trudi. The meal was quite enjoyable and the view of the water made for a great lunch setting.
After lunch we headed for Lakones, and an area called Bella Vista or beautiful view. We passed through several small towns and traveled up the mountain on windy narrow roads. We were really surprised that buses were even allowed to drive on these very narrow streets through the towns. There just wasn’t much room to spare. But I must say the view from Bella Vista was worth the stressful drive. We could look down at the six coves of the Paleokastritsa village. Very beautiful.
The excursion was running late and we didn’t get to Corfu Town until about 3:40. Since the tour was supposed to end at 4:30, it didn’t leave us a lot of time to explore what appeared to be an interesting city with lots to see. The tour guide gave us a quick orientation and told us to be back in 45 minutes. We went into the main shopping area and looked around and then headed over to the Old Fortress passing by some nice buildings and statues.
We got back to the port 15 minutes later than scheduled, but with plenty of time to spare to get back on the boat. The Grand was right next to the Norwegian Jewel. This had been a really nice port stop and a wonderful day weather-wise.
Katakolon (Olympia), Greece:
We had previously been to Olympia in 1999 on a land tour. It is one of those places that you only need to see once. Since we had previously had a very good tour, we almost didn’t take an excursion there. But since I had gotten a new camera since the ’99 trip, and there really wasn’t much else to do other than stay on the ship, we took the Princess Olympic Spirit tour. The good news was that we had another beautiful sunny day in the 70’s to look forward to. I was surprised how long of a drive it was from the port of Katakolon to Ancient Olympia. It took over 30 minutes. For some reason, I thought it was closer.
The port of Katakolon Restaurants along the port
The first stop was at the archeological museum, which is quite nice and one of the reasons I wanted to take the excursion.
The museum was quite full of folks on multiple Princess excursions. It really took away from the experience, since it was noisy and made it difficult to hear what the guide was saying. We also had to wait to go into the exhibits until other groups left.
Walking out onto the grounds of Olympia is somewhat disappointing, since there are so many “ruined” ruins. There are some nice structures, but for the most part there are lots of pieces of columns on the ground.
I was amazed at how many people were there. The last time we visited Olympia was in October ‘99 and there was only one other bus there at the same time. Quite a different experience on this trip.
The guided tour around the grounds was pretty superficial and just covered a few areas. If you are really interested in the history and in seeing some of the other interesting parts of Ancient Olympia, I would recommend finding a private tour and doing it on your own.
The next stop was to the modern town of Olympia. There were quite a few shops that the folks on the tour wanted to visit, but since we only had 25 minutes to shop, people didn’t explore much out of sight of the bus. In addition, the stores were very crowded with tourists and it made it difficult to shop.
After we returned to the ship and had lunch, Carol used the rest of the afternoon as a sea day to just relax, read and catch up on the laundry. I wanted to walk into Katakolon, since it was a much more active tourist area than I had been expecting. There were lots of stores and restaurants. While wandering around, I ran into a friend of mine from my office who was on the NCL Jewel cruise. We knew we would be in port on the same day, but didn’t expect to see each other. We talked briefly about how each of our vacations was going as we had a beer, and they finished up their late lunch. It was really nice to be halfway around the world and see a couple of friends from home. It really made this port special.
Athens (Piraeus), Greece:
After our visit to Athens in November 1999, we didn’t care if we ever came back. The city was very dirty, and they were in the middle of a garbage strike causing large piles of garbage to be stacked everywhere. On our 2004 Med cruise we chose to avoid Athens and go to Cape Sounion. However, since it had been eight years since we had been to Athens, and since there was a large investment made in fixing up the city for the Olympics, we thought it might be time to check it out again. We are so glad we did. This port was the biggest surprise of the cruise for us.
This time we decided to take a private tour rather than using a big bus with lots of people. We chose one of the highly recommended taxi drivers, Spiros (Link). We had heard very good things about Spiros (pronounced Speeros), especially that he spoke very good English because he had lived in the US for awhile. We were sharing this tour with two of our Cruise Critic friends Grant and Wendy from Calgary, Canada. This was their first visit to Athens, so I was really hoping that it would be a good day for them. The weather was certainly cooperating again with a very clear sky and an expected high temperature in the 70’s.
We met Spiros just before 8:00 and headed for the Acropolis to try to avoid the crowds if we could. On the way there through the busy traffic, he described what we were seeing and told us about some of the things we would see. He had a very comfortable Mercedes sedan that was a welcome change from the buses we had been touring in for the previous two days.
He took us as far as he could toward the Acropolis and we started the climb up. The first level going up to the ticket booth was more strenuous than from the ticket booth up to the Parthenon. Spiros told us to get the 12 € ticket, since it had six other tickets attached to it that would get us into most of the other sights we would visit. He was right; it was the best deal going.
We had arrived prior to the large crowds. Being on the Acropolis is such an invigorating experience. The combination of the beauty, the history, the views of the city and being in one of the most recognized places on earth is very humbling. I was pleased that most of the scaffolding that had been on so much of the Parthenon in 1999 was not there this time. There was other restoration going on, which I assume is always in progress on this 2,500 year old structure; but it was less intrusive on the views of this special place than it had been in ‘99.
After we went through the Acropolis Museum, we headed back down. We couldn’t believe how crowded it had gotten in less than an hour. It seemed like solid people as we tried to go down the steps to and from the Propylaea. A lot more folks were coming up the steps than going down. If you go to the Acropolis, be sure to do it as early as possible to enjoy it.
When we had descended, Spiros was waiting for us and took us over to the Theater of Dionysus. It is on the Southern slope of the Acropolis and was originally built in the 5th century BC, with the current structure completed in the 5th century AD.
Our next stop was the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It is set in a very large park and unlike the Acropolis, it is not at all crowded. Sixteen of the tall Corinthian columns are still standing from when they were built in 131 BC.
When we visited Athens in 1999, we just did a drive by of the Kallimarmaro Stadium. It is made completely of white marble and was used for the 1896 Olympic Games. This time Spiros dropped us off so we could walk up to it. The stadium itself is closed to tourists, since they had had problems with people chipping the marble for souvenirs. It is a beautiful structure and much more appreciated from a close view rather than just a drive by.
Moving on we headed to the tallest point in Athens, Lycabettus Hill. Spiros drove us up as close as he could, and then we started climbing the steep incline to the peak. The views of Athens were amazing. As we arrived close to the top, quite exhausted, we saw that there was a very nice outdoor restaurant up there. We couldn’t imagine how they could have much business, since the customers would have to walk all the way up there.
When we got to the top, we were blown away by the panorama before us of this large and historic city. This was quite a special place. It is hard to believe that there were only a couple of other tourists up there. At the top is the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. It is a small building but ornately decorated inside.
The walk down was much easier and faster. When we got to the car we asked about the restaurant. He said that most people take the funicular on the other side of the mountain for 4 € each. He didn’t think we would want to waste the money and miss the nice walk to the top. Wrong assumption, but now that it was done; we do have fond memories of the climb and Carol was quite proud of herself for having accomplished the task.
Spiros then took us out of town on our way to the Kesariani Monastery. I had asked him to find a beautiful place for us to go to that was not frequented by tourists. He succeeded. I couldn’t believe how quickly we were able to get out of the heart of Athens and into a sparsely populated lovely wooded area. The contrast from the hustle and bustle of Athens to the serenity of the foothills of Mt. Hymettus was very welcome. The outside of the monastery is quite beautiful and the inside, which is quite dark, has some lovely wall and ceiling paintings.
We were very lucky to be able to see this place, since it is getting ready to be closed down in June for a year due to renovations on the church and residence. Spiros had some interesting stories about the owners of these facilities and how they had made one of the buildings on the grounds into a very fancy residence. We would like to come back some day to see it when it is fixed up.
It was only noon and we had seen so much already. We were getting hungry and Spiros had a special restaurant to take us to in Athens that only took about 15 minutes to get to from the monastery. It was called Five Brothers. We were the only people in this nice modern restaurant. Spiros told us that it would become busy later, since most Athenians don’t eat until around 2:00.
The food that was available was on display and looked just scrumptious. The names meant nothing to us and the descriptions didn’t help a lot. Spiros made some recommendations and we sat down in anticipation of a real Greek lunch. The Mythos Beer was the first thing out and oh so good. I don’t remember the names of the food, but everything was just awesome. We were not impressed with real Greek food on our last visit because it was very greasy and just wasn’t that good. Five Brothers, on the other hand, would be a regular place to eat if I lived anywhere around there. We all really enjoyed the meal. And for the five of us, with drinks and desserts, it was only 44 €. What a bargain. Spiros steered us right again.
After the relaxing lunch, we were off to visit the Roman Agora or market. On the way we passed by the well known Marathon Man statue. It is made of fiberglass. Kind of a strange piece. It is supposed to look out of focus to represent speed.
The Roman Agora area is one of the better preserved areas in Athens. I am surprised that our previous land tour didn’t visit there. The Temple of Hephaestus is in outstanding condition. The Stoa of Attalus II is used as a museum and has an open air section that has many sculptures. It also has nice restroom facilities, an important consideration when in Europe.
The Church of the Holy Apostles that was originally built in the 11th century is also located in the Agora. The outside is very nicely decorated, but the inside does not have much of the interior decorations remaining.
After walking around this large area, we were really starting to wind down. Spiros still wanted to take us to three more places. The first was Keramikos. This is the old cemetery. It didn’t sound like it would be worth the effort, but we needed to use up some time before our next stop. It was a very pretty area and the Street of Tombs was quite impressive. It is where the rich and famous of old Athens were buried. There are some lovely monuments there and the museum is quite nice. If we hadn’t been so tired, we would have enjoyed spending more time there.
The next to last stop of the day was going to be to see the changing of the guards at the Presidential Palace. The ceremony also takes place in front of the Greek Parliament, which is where most tourist go to watch. Unfortunately for them, the Parliament building is in the open sun.
Spiros brings customers to the palace because tour buses aren’t allowed, and you can wait for the ceremony to start while sitting under the shade of the trees. Since the temperature was warming up, this worked out just great. Right at 3:15, the ceremony began. It was very nicely done and we all enjoyed it. The specially trained soldiers get a real workout doing this, since they have to lift their legs up very high. Besides ourselves, there were only about 6 or 8 other people around, and we were within about 4 ft. of the guards as they performed.
We really enjoyed the event, and we even got to have our pictures taken with a guard after the ceremony was over.
Spiros then took us right into the Plaka. He pointed out where the Princess buses were parked several blocks away. The folks on those tours had to walk a pretty good way to get into the Plaka. Since we were quite exhausted from the very wonderful and active sightseeing day, we didn’t want to spend too much time in the Plaka; but we did have to check things out.
While looking at some of the shops, I ran across a specialty liquor store named Brettos, which had a beautiful bottle display on the walls. They have a huge selection of liquors and specialty wines. Fortunately for me they also had a very cold Mythos to help quench my very dry throat.
We couldn’t believe how quickly we were able to get back to the ship. It took about 15 minutes from the Plaka. It is amazing how fast you can travel when there isn’t much traffic. We said our farewells to Spiros and thanked him for an amazing day in Athens. His tour totally changed our opinion of Athens. It was such a wonderful experience to tour this city with a professional who knew when and where to go to avoid the crowds and to highlight the beauty of this great city. I am so glad that we gave Athens a second chance.
Click Button to Continue to Part 2 of the Review for the remaining ports
Photo Album # 1 - Click here for Venice, Dubrovnik, Corfu, Olympia, and Athens
Click here for the Cruise Critic Party photo album
Photographic Equipment Used in Review
Canon Rebel XT digital SLR camera
Canon 17-85 IS lens
Canon 10-22 ultra-wide lens
Canon 70-300 IS telephoto lens
Canon SD550 Digital Elph camera
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