This wasn't our usual sort of trip. For a start, our bed, the four walls and even the dinning room traveled with us.
Going on a cruise around the Western Mediterranean sea was mainly down to chance. Our first plan had been to try and book a trip that would start with a city break in Edinburgh then take in a train ride to London then more trains til we'd visited a city or two in Europe, somewhere like Brussels/Munich or Paris/Milan. This trip was to have us in London on the 10th anniversary of the day we met - and also our 3rd wedding anniversary. Sadly it was a no-go, after adding up all the train fares, hotel costs, factoring in it'd be November and potentially we'd face delays with so many connections, it was just too risky and costly. First world problems I know.
Other plans also fell by the wayside due to practicalities and cost but as luck would have it, one trip that Norngirl turned up in her extensive search was what must have been a rather empty cruise because the price was very low at the time for what it was. Though it did mean having to go on our first Ryanair flight (never again if I can help it!), it was doable. I think the words were along the lines of 'Why the hell not, LETS DO IT!'. So we worked out the logistics and itinerary and Norngirl got the cruise booked. It was an 11 night trip taking in Palma in Mallorca (a substitute stop in place of Tunis due to the unrest there at the time), Valletta in Malta, Messina in Sicily, Naples, Rome (Civitavecchia) and Pisa (Livorno).
Time soon caught up with our departure date and in the dead of night we traveled down to Dublin by bus (which we happened to get all to ourselves - it was the worlds largest taxi). Luckily it was the night of the US election and the bus and Dublin airport have free WiFi so we were in our element following it all. Thankfully a happy ending given that even in Northern Ireland Mitt Romney would be hard pushed at being electable and that's saying something!
On the way out we flew with Aer Lingus. From what I'd heard through the grapevine I expected the sort of service we ended up getting on the way home with Ryanair. It was nothing like that though, it was clean and comfortable, they reminded me of generic low cost airlines likes Flybe, Jet2 or BMI. After a nice flight we landed in Barcelona. We'd been here a couple of times before so knew our way around and got the bus into the city. The hotel we stayed in was tucked away down a side street that didn't exist on Google Maps but it was quite new and nicely modern. Our room was clean and tidy and had a fun shower that was like one of those fountains you sometimes find at leisure centre swimming pools. In Barcelona we headed out for a bit of tapas and a bottle of wine (day drinking on a tired head... weeeeeee) followed by a walk to the harbour area where we had a look around.
Our intention going down there was to finally ride the cable car.
We'd been as close as the station at the top of the hill a couple of years earlier but time was an issue that day. Sadly, we were thwarted again. We got to the central tower only to find out that entrance/exit was closed for a few months. As we hadn't slept since the day before we didn't fancy any random trips across town to the top of the hill or around on a bus to the far side of the harbour. It wasn't to be, so we went back to the room, rested a while then went out in search of food using the downloaded maps on our phones. We found a bakery and a convenience store and got some odd looking snacks. I think mine was something along the lines of an imitation crab meat seafood stick sandwich which was ermm, different but not bad at all.
The next morning we made our way in a Taxi (which wasn't too expensive though they do charge a little extra to take you to the port or airport) to the cruise ship itself.
The ship was called 'Serenade of the Seas'.
This was our first cruise so we just went along with what everyone else was doing. Sea pass in hand we boarded and went through the now familiar on-boarding security screening. We were travelling with Royal Caribbean and onboard alcohol is rather expensive so some people were trying to smuggle it on. We didn't bother (as much as we wanted to!), we did buy a few drinks onboard during our trip however we went sparingly and opted to make the most of our port days. Like this wine we merrily passed the time with in the not so exciting city of Messina.
It wasn't a bad thing as there was a distinct lack of real ale onboard the ship and most beer onboard came in cans or bottles and at posh hotel pint prices. Some San Miguel in Palma, Cisk in Malta and Sicilian Beer in Messina, though not the greatest drinks, were nicer than a can of Guinness for 5 times the price you'd usually pay.
Ummm, holiday beer.
Though we did very much like the cocktails onboard ship and got plenty of promotional glasses which we now use at home. They were also very nice for each sail away. We got very lucky with the weather during our trip and so had views like this to enjoy.
I'll be putting together some posts about what we saw in the ports we visited soon but as far as the cruise experience goes, here were the highlights and low-lights.
The good stuff:
- The ship itself was clean and tidy, and other than some of the old fashioned decor, it had some great sights:
- The food: was brilliant! In all the spots you can eat (there was a huge choice and the standard was beyond expectation). The food was probably the highlight of the cruise experience. Evening meals in the dining room were perfect and other food around the ship was great too, so much choice it was unbelievable. Having views like this from one of the cafes was a awesome way to eat your breakfast!
- The service and staff: were brilliant - especially the waiting staff who covered our table in the main restaurant and our room’s attendant.
- The onboard activities: I had great fun with the mini golf course though it wasn't my proudest moment (OK, well I was a little proud) when my ball clipped a rock, bounced off 2 odd shaped obstacles and managed to find somehow squeeze between the protective screen and land on the deck below – oops! Shooting some hoops on basketball court was good craic too.
We also went along to a couple of the ‘Language basics’ classes for Spanish and Italian, they were just the right amount of basic to pick up a few extra words to add to please, sorry and thank you and came in handy on our trips away from the boat. The swimming pools, both indoor and outdoor, were grand to float around in though a little tricky to do much swimming, especially at busy times. The hot tubs when you could get a space in one were also nice and relaxing and the outdoor ones a nice place to chill.
The entertainment – the shows we went to we enjoyed, the entertainment was like a dolled up Butlins show - lots of former talent show competition winners etc. The entertainment manager and some other guy from the entertainment team did a show each day where you could write in and have stuff read out. We found ourselves submitting slips of paper most nights by the crazy teapot.
- Sleeping at sea: on a couple of nights it was a bit of a rough sea but we slept like logs, you just get used to the motion and it’s like a comforting rock, combined with lots of sightseeing we were asleep as soon as we turned over and our heads were on the pillows.
- I really quite like the relaxed feel onboard the ship and I could get used to waking up most mornings, rolling over and seeing a new port or city. Then heading for a cup of tea and some breakfast whilst watching a city or port go about it’s business below.
The not so good stuff:
- Fellow passengers, not all mind you (most of those in the photo below are probably lovely people) but 4/5 of those who tried to seriously engage us in conversation, I could have done without meeting.
There was one guy from Belfast who no longer lived in Belfast who seemed to want us to think he was Bono with a harem in tow – which he could have pulled off had it not been for the fact he was so drunk he knocked over his own drink without realising and then wondered where it had gone. Another guy from New York met us twice and gave us the entire same conversation both times before just ending mid sentence each time and wandering off like a puppy who got distracted and lost his train of thought.
- Sales technique - we were looking forward to what were described as destination lectures. Yeah, don't. Glorified sales pitches for overly expensive tours. Some of the information wasn't exactly accurate either.
- The location and transport options/price from where we docked in Palma (Mallorca) was terrible (unlike the port in Belfast, don't expect a free shuttle into the middle of town).
Overall: I enjoyed this holiday but it's hard to look at it as travelling in the usual sense because it was largely just a flying visit at each port of call (though the 2 days in Rome was great). The concept of a cruise like this with ports so close together seems a good idea for a taster of places, but there just isn't chance to spend much quality time to really get to know a place or see everything.
We had 2 sea days on this 11 night cruise and I think if we ever choose to splash out on a cruise again we'd be looking for less ports and more days at sea. Time to be able to unwind and treat it as a beach holiday. I'd also be looking for a company that provides basic alcoholic drinks as part of the package. I think the cruise we were on was better suited to an older, wealthier crowd but we certainly made the most of it and had a good time though to be honest I don't think cruises will be very near the top of my wish list when we're next looking for a holiday for ourselves.