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By Eric Harlan
Published: October 22, 2011
Updated: October 22, 2011
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Ok time for a follow on Cruise blog post to “Cruise on up to Alaska”.  My wife and I had a pretty wicked trip to South America planned this year. We were going to hike up to Machu Picchu, camp in the Amazon and wonder through Ecuador.

Well mother nature had other plans and for reason I attribute to genuinely feeling better about ourselves after our weight loss, little Olivia (currently loading) probably wouldn’t fair well to the altitude and immunizations mommy would have to go through.  So we set out to find something that would give us some adventure but would be more leisurely.  A baby-moon if you will (even though I hate that word).  It was actually pretty hard to find a good combination of those two things.

After some research we decided on a Mediterranean cruise that hit Rome (Italy), Messina (Sicily, Italy), Athens (Greece), Kushadasi (Turkey), Chania (Crete) and back to Rome.  After a few tips on the Royal Caribbean line we decided to go with them for the trip. As always I try to wrap my travel posts with a bit of lessons learned that accompany my charming wit and sense of humor[/ego].

So let’s start off with the lessons learned from the Ship/Company itself first.

- Bye Bye Passports.


When you board, you go through something sort of like airport security. You fill out any last paper work then you get your boarding cards. Then they inform you that you will be giving up your passports to some guy later in the queue. Now they very well may have had this in writing, but it certainly didn’t stand out to me if they did. Something like that to a frequent international traveler WHILE IN COUNTRY is VERY scary to deal with.  Obviously everything worked out fine and the return process was very orderly and well thought out. Still don’t like giving up my passport EVER.

- Smoking in places with very little ventilation (casino bars)
So Royal Caribbean is MOSTLY none smoking. You can smoke outside obviously, the Casino on board and some of the bars on board. Here’s the problem though. The areas you can smoke are adjacent or directly below (with open roofs) to main none smoking areas.  Now it’s a proven fact that people who don’t smoke are MUCH more sensitive to the smell of smoke then smokers are. So you can pretty much smell the smoke anywhere congregation areas are.  Some serious thought needs to be put into better ventilation or limiting smoking to above decks.

- Bed was worn out
The bed we had was super comfortable the very first night due to the fact that previously I literally flew two red eye flights in a single day (some kind of new record) and the bed was the first time I was actually horizontal in something like 35 hours. After that however it was painfully clear the mattress we had was in need of some flipping or replacing. Big valley’s etc etc.

- Buffett food mediocre while exclusive seating was quite good
The galley style mass trough feedings were iffy.  The food in the common areas were very repetitious and pretty low quality.  Granted I’ll give the benefit of the doubt there were plenty of other options readily available but if you wanted to grab a quick lunch or an off hours breakfast, it was pretty lame.

The other options on board range from a steak house to Italian so like I said if you’re tired of the buffet don’t get “My Time Dining”. My time dining essentially lets you eat whenever you want which basically means buffet food. If you get a set time assigned to you, you get placed in one of their nice rooms to eat that have an actual menu and pretty decent food.

- Room was large with balcony
Our room compared to the Holland America trip we took to Alaska was exponentially bigger. The stateroom with a balcony cost WAY less than the option on our Alaska cruise. I think mainly because of the sheer number of balcony suites available.  Looking at the side of the ship it just seemed the entire boat was balconies.

- No espresso package
So a few tips about beverages on the ship. First like anything else all alcohol was extra, no freebies (at all). And the beer options left a bit to be desired especially in terms of draft beer.  But you could order these drink packages. They had one for bottled water, one for soda and one for wine. Coffee, tap water, hot/ice tea were all free. The only thing that kinda sucked was that there was no package for premium style coffee drinks (cappuccino, latte, espresso etc). If there was I would have been all over it.

The other thing to note, the soda package. You get this tumbler thermos style drink cup when you get the package delivered to your room. The package is like 45 dollars however the EXACT same cup is sold dock side when you board for like 5 bucks. Granted you also get a card marked with the fact you have a drink package but as long as your filling up with that cup, no one really gives you crap because it’s basically a self-serve fountain you use yourself. I’m not constituting stealing, just saying.  That said you shouldn’t drink soda in the first place .

- Bathrooms kinda sketeched (smelled)
The toilets on the ship were all airplane suction based systems. In that when you flushed it could technically give your butt a hickey. That said, they failed to work a little too often in my opinion.  Sometimes it wouldn’t flush sometimes you’d randomly smell things you just didn’t want to smell wafting around the ship.

-Hey stateroom attendant; do not disturb does not mean stand outside my door and call my room phone asking me to come to the door. It means don’t bother me.

Ship Summary:
Honestly the ship was beautiful and had a lot to offer. It had a freaking ice rink for goodness sake. However it doesn’t matter how cool it is a confined space gets boring after the 7th day on it regardless.  Compared to my first experience on Holland America I would cruise with Royal Caribbean again in a heartbeat. Between the on board Johnny Rockets, Ben & Jerry’s, Arcade, separate supervised sections for kid age ranges there was plenty to do.  Minor tweaks from the above would make it outstanding and honestly I had to dig kind of deep to come up with less than positive things to say.

-Rome and port of departure.
The only moderately annoying part of the vacation was getting from Rome to the port where you actually leave which is in Civitavecchia (“Chivie-Ta-Veck-E-Ah”). You can book private transportation that will cost you a pretty penny or a taxi which will utterly take you to the poor house.  Or you can do as we did and take the train.  It takes about an hour to get from the main train station in Rome (Rome Termini) to Civitavecchia and will only cost you about 18 euros a person for the round trip.  

Now just like any other train system there are many other ways and lines to get to where you need to go so your best bet is to find where you are whether that is your hotel or the airport, and where you need to be train station wise and get a connection that will either take you to Civitavecchia directly or get to Rome Termini first (which is a directly line to the port). We actually purchased a ticket to get from a train station near our hotel, to a station a bit further down the line from Rome Termini but due to a translation bug in the system we ended up at Rome Termini and had to improvise. It cost a little more in taxi fare but ended up being more convenient in the long run.

First you need to decide if you want to purchase tickets in advance as I did or to purchase them when you get there. Since the station we were originally going to go to didn’t have a teller I bought mine on line, however if you go to Rome Termini first you can purchase them either at a kiosk or they have a “TrenItalia” customer service desk . I found this desk because of said language snafu and needing to change the tickets to leave from the new station. If you find you need to purchase tickets from an English speaking person, or you need to get info or just adjust tickets, this is what this desk looks like that you want to make your way to.



The train leaves usually from track 25-27 which is their regional tracks. The station at ROME Termini is divided into 3 areas. A bunch of Kiosk’s and travel desks, a main center waiting area that has the large ticker style departure/arrival times and tracks as well as some shops, and then the actual business end where the trains come in and out.  My opinion is it is best to go right to this 3rd area where the trains are after you get your ticket and find wait for your train to be posted a track.

VERY IMPORTANT – The last stop on the train you’re getting on is “PISA” so the train that gets posted looks something like this “PISA Cht” which means basically “going to Pisa by way of Civitavecchia” so once that posts, take your ticket and validate it. To validate your ticket you walk up to one of the many yellow machines on the support columns of the building and stick your ticket in. It then gets stamped with a time and date once you have that, go to that track number.

It takes like 5 mins to walk from that area to where the train actually departs from so walk with a prudent pace.  Also the train we took going out has much less storage then going back into ROME. So be ready to jockey for space for your things.

Now once you get to your stop (Civitavecchia) you don’t need a taxi (if you’re able bodied). You walk out of the building which looks like this, turn right and walk down that street straight for about 3 blocks. No turns, no deviations just straight down.  It’s a very nice sea side walk with vendors, shops and the best Pizza I ever had at “Pizzaria da baffone” (get the Margarita pizza, tell em Eric sent you….. he’ll look you like you’re insane but it will be funny anyway).

Once you walk to the end of that road there will be a McDonalds on the right and side and a gate straight ahead with an opening to the left. You just walk right through and they will have buses lined up to take you to the ship itself (don’t walk it’s pretty far from this point). Just look for your ship name on a sign in the front of the bus.

Boarding took 20 mins total which was very fast and efficient. Only complaint here is the space at the counter is completely mobbed and it’s hard to get in to talk to your rep, you kind of have to fight your way in. A little organization on their part would go a long way here.

That’s it; you’re on board at that point.

The only other thing to note is that when you get off the ship, at least on our itinerary it was pretty early in the morning.  And we wanted to spend some time in ROME without going to our hotel first.  So we did some quick research on luggage storage.  Train stations in Europe are nice in that you can dump your baggage in a locker and go check out the city you’re in.  

Under Track 24 at Rome Termini there is a baggage check called “Deposito Bagagli” you can take the elevator down and there are stairs as well.  Here are the prices for it, kinda steep but worth it to not get a taxi back to your hotel or lug around your stuff all day.


Here you can see a photo I took of prices.

 

 

 -Messina and Traffic Free for all

I’ve been to a lot of places in my travels the common theme is that everywhere outside the US it’s basically a traffic law, free for all. In that there are pretty much no rules in when to stop or go, when to switch lanes even which side of the road to drive on. Messina didn’t disappoint.   Which is to say kind of fun to watch and amazing at the same time, kind of like ordered chaos.

Anyway…

If you notice in some of my photos, I like to taste the local beer or where ever I go.  Granted I’m sure there are MUCH better beers available in these locations but I usually get what is readily available. Honestly I’m usually let down. Just like most default local “main stream” beer, Messina beer is like an American medium ale. If you’ve tasted stella, miller lite, budweiser etc etc. It’s pretty much all the same.

In terms of what to do in Messina there wasn’t much to do in terms of shore excursions so the wife and I decided to “Freestyle”.  When we walk around with no real plans and no real direction we call that free styling.   Don't get excursion you can walk to most places. You cannot however walk to the volcano Mount Etna which is about 35 minutes outside of the city. So if you want to go walking on a volcano get the excursion.  It was a nice town to walk through, they have one of the most ornate clock towers that I’ve ever seen and has some pretty cool moving parts. You can check that out here.  (cliff notes, Lion roars, rooster crows, people die, church is displayed etc etc).  

We hiked to the top of a pretty cool over look that looked out over the city took a bunch of pictures and just genuinely enjoyed our time together.  Honestly, free styling is one of my favorite things to do; you just never know what you’ll come across, good food you’ll have etc.

- Greece and the Temples
We were really looking forward to heading up to the Acropolis I didn’t do the proper research to find out what the state of the site would actually be.  Turns out they’ve been working on it for years filling in some of the holes that have come with time.  With that, there were TONS of cranes, scaffolding and workers running around the entire time. Granted I understand why it’s being done, but man it really ruined the opportunity to take photos.

The cool thing is that the day we were there was October 12th 2011 was the 60th anniversary of when the Nazi flag was ripped down from the Acropolis and Greece was returned to the Greek people, essentially liberating them from Nazi occupation. They had a pretty cool ceremony to mark this which consisted of raising the Greek flag and having the president on hand etc.

Given the state of things in Greece economically there were quite a few protestors at the location as we exited. Kinda glad they don’t go through the same security measures as they do in the states. If so we would have never been able to get in on the same day.  As we arrived so did about 3 other cruise ships, plus the ceremonies; it was a freaking mad house. Just getting in took about 30 mins.  

My advice for the Acropolis and the Parthenon is that to make sure you have a good 3 hours to spend up there. We only had about 1.5 hours and it just wasn’t enough time. We wondered around a bit and before we knew it, it was time to leave.  

We did the “Athens and Sonora” trip which also took you for a 45 minute trip around the coast out to the Sonora peninsula where legend has it the Athenians dedicated the temple to Poseidon after he lost the peoples favor to the Greek God of Athena (hence “Athens”).  Well not so much lost favor but lost the campaign between the two of them to see who would be the favorite of the people.  The first democratic vote in Greek mythology and the first guy to get laughed at by his friends for losing to a chick.

The drive out was beautiful and totally worth the extra time. And the Temple was pretty cool as well, very well preserved.  And to boot, Kacey and I got to stand on the furthest point south in main land Europe (that’s two continents for me).

A few tips:
- If you don’t go through a tour, it costs 12 Euros a person to get into the Acropolis
- If you do take the tour be warned there is an “optional” yet forced visit to a local swag shop where they sell nothing but tourist junk and serve you orange tang. The bright side; it’s been like years since I’ve had a glass of tang!

- Turkey, Ephesus, Saint Paul and First footsteps on Asia
Kushadasi is on the west coast of Turkey and used to be part of the Greek empire.  It’s also the site of Ephesus which biblically a ton of stuff happened that involved Paul and the Ephesians.  Regardless, it was just a really cool place to go wondering through. It was actually more fun to explore than the acropolis and the Parthenon was.

Here you could actually have free reign to move through most of the old shops and houses that made up ancient Ephesus. Ephesus was hailed as the gateway to Asia. It’s where the Temple of Artemis and the statue of Diana was (one of the 7 wonders of the Ancient world).

Believe it or not, this budding world traveler set his first step into Asia at this stop. That’s right part of Turkey is actually in Asia.  I was hoping to run up to Istanbul at some point though. That city (and the country it resides in) is the only city/country that resides on two separate continents (Europe and Asia). Well maybe next time. The important thing is, new continent :-D. Granted I’ll be hitting Asia pretty hard in the coming weeks, it was still cool to do it there.

Some notes:

I always wanted to hear an authentic Adhan (Muslim Call to prayer). I found a great little café, had some Turkish coffee on hand and waited. I looked up possible prayer times on the web and found it listed at like 1:11. So I sat until about 1:30 and it never came. I was pretty bummed, so my wife and I continued about our day and explored, only to find that in Kusadasi the closest Adhan for the time I was there was at 4:11 pm. The good news is I did end up getting to hear this walking back to the ship. In a parking lot, ticked that I was hearing it for the first time surrounded by noisy Americans (no offense), taxi’s and a 12 deck super liner. It sucked. Maybe next time.

Free WiFi main bazaar named TP_LINK_BA0BCE. It’s near a Pandora shop… just saying, if you need a fix.  There is also a café where I had some more coffee called “Lisa Café”. The WiFi password for the Lisa Cafe in the main bazar is "lisacafe090909". Again, if you need a fix.

The only bad thing about Ephesus, was that we didn’t have enough time to REALLY look around. It felt very rushed. We took the tour called “Ancient Ephesus”.  My suggestion is to really try to arrange some private transportation beforehand and spend a good 4-5 hours there. We only got about 1.5 hours which was definitely NOT enough time.

That said, don’t take a taxi to and from Ephesus is about 60 Euros, you can arrange private transport for 20-30 euros. Save the extra few euros for renting the self-guided radios. They even have Ipod tours.  If you get a tour and they take you for a tour of Matis which is their local rug emporium, they will take you down for a “demonstration” it’s actually quite informative, however the second it’s over you get mobbed and shuttled off to individual rooms where they start rolling out rug after rug and start with the hard sell.  Do yourself a favor, unless you REALLY want to buy a 3,000 dollar rug (and that’s the very cheap end) as soon as the demo is over, get up and walk out quickly, its a tarp!

Bad Turkish coffee is just bad coffee!  I mean… really bad. And NEVER and I do mean EVER, drink Turkish coffee to the bottom of the cup. See, the grounds stay in the coffee. They bring the grounds, water and sugar to a boil three times. Then they pour it, grounds included. So if you drink to the bottom of the cup, you get a mouth full of spent coffee. Not good. Take my word for it.

Saffron is really cheap about 10€ for 10 grams (for the good stuff) 20 grams for the ok stuff. When we came home, my wife showed me the pinch she purchased a few weeks before for something like 8 bucks. So yeah we loaded up.
 
-Chania Crete
Looking on the list of things to do in Chania (hun-ya) it seemed like it was going to be a complete bust of a day. We were only at dock for about 6 hours which was very short compared to the 10-12 hours we were at other stops but I had a good sign as we sat for breakfast.  We’re sitting at the table at the stern of the ship looking out over the water. And literally I watch a submarine surface right in front of me.  It was the first time I’ve ever seen one do that in real life. At first I thought it was a buoy, it got larger and I figured I just didn’t look at it well enough then assumed it was an out cropping with some sort of warning light on the top, next thing I know it’s moving and has the entire deck above the surface. VERY cool thing to watch happen over orange juice and fake eggs.  

Based on the things we saw available to do (or lack thereof) we decided yet again to free style and boy was that the right choice.  Don't get an excursion the bus that comes right next to the ship is only 3€ per person round trip and takes you right to the city center, you can’t walk because it’s a 20 min drive.

Forget turkey if you want hand crafted leather bags Crete is the place they make them in the shops.  I mean incredible craftsmanship goes into these things. Everything from diaper bags, to purses, sandals, to laptop bags.

Cool to walk to the fort through the side streets we had a map but it wasn't needed, you can pretty much roam and find your way, just keep walking down hill until you get to the Venetian harbor.

We had a great time here walking through the narrow streets, again coffee and chill time is a must I really enjoyed Crete the most in terms of freestyle-ability.

- Summary
I’ve worked myself into a bit of an odd corner. I’ve inadvertently set the bar very high in terms of what interests me while traveling. When we found we couldn’t safely do our South America trip, we were trying to find something “Fun, Exciting and Adventurous” yet easy on the body and relaxing.  That was WAY harder than I ever thought it would be to find.

Once we did, we had an absolute blast; my wife is a freaking mountain goat (in a good way). That chick hiked up and down the acropolis, all around Ephesus, down through the streets of Crete and dodged the crazy drivers in Messina. I was seriously impressed.  With all the walking she did, we might just have been able to do Peru after all. Ok, well maybe not but still pretty impressive.

I would certainly sail on Royal Caribbean again, like I said I had to work pretty hard to find negative things to say. It was a pretty tightly run ship (giggity) and overall was a pleasant experience.

Definitely get maybe 2-3 days in Rome collectively. There is a LOT to do it’s a place I wouldn’t mind going back to and exploring a little bit more.

If you’re looking for a little adventure while still having a nice quite SMOKE FREE (talking to you Holland America) room to go back to. You should check it out.

Hope that was helpful and as always, some more.


 

 

 


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