Western Mediterranean 2015-11

Our Western Mediterranean Cruise

We had a small family travel group visit the Mediterranean, flying to Barcelona, then cruising on the Norwegian Epic to Naples, Rome (Civitavecchia), Florence (Livorno), Cannes, Palma Mallorca, and back to Barcelona. “We” was me, my wife Laurie, my father, Laurie’s sister, and her cousin. Full photo collection on Flickr, with subsets linked below.

Friday – Saturday

We left directly from work, taking the Blue Line CTA from downtown to the airport. We haven’t done that before, and it surprised us with how well it worked, getting us there quickly. We had trouble getting our carryon bags stowed, due to the coats and small bags other people had put in the overhead bins. We got to Toronto in time to wave at Dad and Laurie’s cousin Jon as they boarded, and to join the line for our boarding group. We flew Air Canada, which was new for us. We noticed the crew were all very pleasant, yes?

Saturday night

It was not the best plan to look for dinner at the same time as the Barcelona/Madrid futbol game. But we had entertainment cheering for the local team at the neighborhood restaurant we settled in. And the food was pretty good, although paella with pasta rather than rice seemed a bit unusual. Barcelona photos.


Some of us spent the morning wandering the Gothic quarter, to see what we could see. Interesting churches, streets, and statues. And coffee/breakfast at two different places. One was a pastry shop next to the police station. Yes, police seem to be the same everywhere, enjoying their coffee and donuts.

A highlight of the morning was not once but twice being stopped and asked for directions. And better yet, being able to correctly give them! In a mix of bad Catalan, fair Spanish, and poor French. It got the job done.

Then to the port, and boarding the ship. Norwegian manages this well, boarding 4,000 passengers about as efficiently as possible. We have cruised enough to have learned some tricks – one is what to do immediately on boarding. If you’re early, as we tend to be, the stateroom won’t be ready yet. No problem, find the open dining room and have lunch. Avoid the buffet, it will be a zoo.

About the ship…

The Norwegian Epic is very different than the Jewel class ships we have cruised on before. Twice the size, with a very different layout, which after a week on board we think is a mistake. We prefer the buffet and outdoor cafe to be at the stern, rather than in the bow. Having elevators only fore and aft, with none midships meant a lot of walking one direction on one deck, using the lift, then walking back. We really missed the Spinnaker Lounge, which on the Jewel class ships is forward on an upper deck, with large windows for a good view. It’s often a good space for quiet reading during the day. We never found a space like it on the Epic. The Epic also has no porthole seats on the public decks, our favorite place for evening people watching as those who dress up go to dinner.

The food was overall very good. The menus were interesting, and the food was well prepared. My preference is generally for the buffet, while my father likes the dining rooms, so we did some of each. The food was at least good and often better in all venues. The service was generally fair to poor. In the Manhattan Room in particular, it took more than two hours for what should have been a 45 minute to one hour meal, according to the greeter. Points at which service failed: length of time from being seated to being asked about beverages, length of time from all menus down to taking an order, length of time from utensils down to plates being cleared, length of time from plates cleared to being asked about dessert, length of time from being asked about dessert to being asked about coffee or tea, length of time from delivery of dessert to delivery of beverages. Just about every point where an attentive waiter had an opportunity to provide excellent service was a complete failure. And when we tried to talk to the floor manager, we were asked to wait some more. My advice, skip the dining rooms and use the buffet. Yes, it gets busy and you will have to stand in line for the most popular entrees. But you know what you’re getting into, and won’t be surprised.

The shows we watched were some of the best we have seen, on board or on land. My standards are very high, having spent ten years making a living in theater. “Burn the Floor” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” had great production values, terrific lighting and costumes, and were well performed.

Overall, Norwegian Epic met our needs and most of our expectations, while not being our favorite cruise ship. A few photos from on board.

One additional note about the ship – the extra cost satellite internet is not worth the cost. I understand and expect that satellite connections will be slow. On the other hand, the inability to reliably render it’s own login and logout screens, and taking more than 30 minutes of connectivity without downloading even email headers is unacceptable. WiFi can be found ashore at all ports of call, plan to catch up while in port.

Speaking of ports…

Naples (Tuesday)

We docked downtown in Naples. It is easy to walk off the ship and into the city. Laurie, Dad, and I went on excursions to “Tunnels of Naples” and visited Pompeii. See http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g187785-d2161503-r330234114-Galleria_Borbonica-Naples_Province_of_Naples_Campania.html and http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g187786-d195477-r330234708-Ancient_Pompeii-Pompeii_Province_of_Naples_Campania.html for reviews. WiFi is available at many cafes, have a little something while catching up. Photos from Naples and Pompeii.

Rome (Wednesday)

We dock in Civitavecchia for Rome. Getting out of the port we took a shuttle bus to a public bus to the train station, easily done by following signs, and costing a few Euro each. We could have followed the directions I found on the internet to walk to the train, and next time we will. Getting tickets to Rome was easy, and the hour or so train ride had its own entertainment, listening to and watching the other passengers. Total cost for transport to, from, and around Rome (including a day pass for the Metro) was under €30 each, much less than the “Rome on your own” shore excursion.

Too late to do anything about it, we realized that there are several sites in Civitavecchia that would be of interest. Next time we will probably spend the day there. Laurie did get her feet into the Tyrrhennian Sea. Photos from Rome.

Florence (Thursday)

For Florence, we dock in Livorno, a large commercial port. Research ahead of time suggested that public transport would be difficult to get to, so we took a “Florence on your own” excursion. It turned out to be a good choice, with an engaging guide on the bus ride in and out. See Trip Advisor.

A particular success was finding a supermarket just off the square with Il Duomo, and getting our lunch there. The city of Florence provides free WiFi in all public squares, up to two hours. Photos from Florence.

Cannes (Friday)

The Norwegian Epic is too large to dock in Cannes. Tenders run continuously while there, making on and off fairly easy. Tenders are reserved for excursions first, then first come first served. There wasn’t much we were interested in, so we just wandered around looking at buildings and narrow streets. We did have a success experience asking some policemen for a pharmacy, and getting directions all in French. Buying the OTC drugs was a successful transaction, but done in English. Not quite as satisfying a travel experience. Laurie waded in the Ligurian Sea. The city of Cannes provides free WiFi in the port area. Photos from Cannes.

Palma, Mallorca (Saturday)

This stop was frustrating in numerous ways. The Norwegian Epic is too large for the pier at the center of the old city, so we docked a $15 and 8 km shuttle bus ride away. I had been expecting a “walk off to the center of town” experience. Then we discovered that the 2pm arrival time coincided almost exactly with most attractions closing for siesta. More time in online research ahead of time might have turned up this issue. We did enjoy wandering streets, the outside of the cathedral, the Arab baths, the church of Sant Francesc and learning a bit about Ramon Llull. Photos from Palma.

Barcelona (Sunday)

Back to Barcelona, where we were up early to clear out of our stateroom by 8:30a.m. We dropped our bags at the hotel (see review at TripAdvisor) and took a hop on hop off bus tour (review). We hopped off to spend a couple of hours at Sagrada Familia (see review), and I could have taken longer. Fascinating building, with a mix of beauty and oddity, for my taste. I was a bit disappointed at being outvoted by our group at several other hop off opportunities, but the audio on the bus was interesting and informative as we rode around the city.

After checking in to the hotel, those of us with energy headed out to the maritime museum across the street. (See review) We were distracted by the sound of drums, and followed them through a large wooden door into a small private park. We watched a ceremony with people in ornate 17th century clothing, taking place in Catalan. We later discovered (in a mix of very bad English and some even worse Catalan, leavened by Castellano) that we watched the installation of a new colonel commanding the citizens militia. What wasn’t clear was if this is a current organization or a group of historical reenactors. I suspect the latter, but finding out without potentially insulting the man we were talking with was beyond my language skills without advance planning. Another link to photos from Barcelona (same as the link above, no need to take it twice unless you want to).

And then we returned home on Monday. The flight from Barcelona was delayed by computer problems on the ground, which eventually caused trouble with our connection in Toronto. I lost count of the number of times our passports and boarding passes had to be reviewed. I would have thought once to enter Canada, once to leave Canada, once to board the next flight would have been enough, but it was at least twice that many times. In any case, that whole rigamarole, along with US (i.e. TSA) screening (because European screening is clearly not good enough theater) and the late arrival meant that when our Chicago flight departed two minutes early, we were not on it. Fortunately, Air Canada found us and at least a dozen others in the same situation another flight within an hour or so.

And now to recover from jet lag.