The Mediterranean Sea is one of the best places in the world to cruise. The region is filled with history, fascinating cities, interesting architecture, spectacular natural sites, and quaint towns and villages.
My mom and I cruised for 12 days on the Holland America Nieuw Amsterdam in early June and enjoyed the nearly perfect weather and 10 diverse ports of call. We embarked in Venice and sailed to Barcelona, enjoying the ship and the many different places we visited.
The Nieuw Amsterdam had overnight visits in both Venice and Barcelona. Our voyage covered 2,351 nautical miles, and the ship was full with 2,106 guests. The Nieuw Amsterdam used over 33,500 gallons of diesel fuel per day, and the passengers and crew used 220,000 gallons of potable fresh water per day. (Note: Since the ship can produce 540,000 gallons of potable water per day, we were not in any danger of running out.)
Our overnight flight from Atlanta arrived in Venice about lunch time and we easily found the Holland America representative for our bus transfer to the ship. Since we had filled out all our paperwork in advance, embarkation was quick and easy, and we were in our cabins by 1:30 in the afternoon.
While waiting for the bags to arrive in our balcony cabin (#7081), we went and ate lunch. Then I explored the ship while mom took a short nap and unpacked. We attended a wine sampling at 6:30 pm ($2 for about 2 swallows) at the contemporary Pinnacle Bar before dinner. The ship was having a pool deck barbecue, so instead of getting all dressed up, we just ate outside and had good ribs, steak, and other barbecue standards. Very tasty and a good start to our cruise vacation.
After dinner, mom and I put on our walking shoes and took the shuttle bus to the "people mover", a monorail train that links the Venice maritime port with the Piazzale Roma, which is the bus and water taxi terminal. You can't go any further via taxi/bus/car into Venice than Piazzale Roma. We bought a couple of vaporetto (water taxi) tickets and rode to St. Mark's Square. We were going to get a drink but decided against it, so walked around a little and then took another water taxi back to the Piazzale Roma, followed by another 1 euro ride on the people mover. The shuttle had quit running at 8:00 pm, so mom and I had to walk for about 15-20 minutes from the people mover back to the ship, but the walk was flat and it was a gorgeous night. The Nieuw Amsterdam featured a nighttime gondola serenade as one of the shore excursions, and this was a lovely night to be exploring the magical canals and narrow streets of Venice on a gondola, vaporetto, or on foot.
It wasn't long after we got back to the cabin at 10:30 before we were both asleep. Our goal was accomplished--to not go to bed TOO early on our first night in Europe! The Nieuw Amsterdam sailed for Dubrovnik the next day after lunch.
A Morning in Venice
Our first full day on our Mediterranean cruise in Europe, we were up early since the Nieuw Amsterdam was sailing away from Venice right after lunch. We ate breakfast and took the shuttle to the monorail/people mover again. We were amazed to see dozens of people lined up to get on the people mover. Four new cruise ships had arrived in the early morning hours, and many of their passengers had chosen to "do their own thing" and not take a ship's transfer to the airport, train station, or local hotel. Since the authorities didn't seem to allow taxis into the port unless they were carrying passengers, travelers have to make their way to the Piazzale Roma to get transport off the island of Venice. Families and couples were all dragging their bags to the people mover, so the line was very long and agonizingly slow.
The people jam at the monorail took longer than we planned, so we decided to just explore the wonderful streets and alleyways between the Piazzale Roma and the Rialto Bridge rather than ride the vaporetto. It was a beautiful Saturday morning, and we spent a couple of hours wandering around and getting a few times, returning to the ship at noon. Locals were out doing their shopping, and we saw a few tourists, but not as many as we might have on the St. Mark's side of the Grand Canal. Venice is a great city for walking and you can't get too lost since you will end up at a canal or a sign with directions to one of the most popular tourist sites. Holland America provided useful maps of all the ports of call, and they came in very handy everywhere we visited.
The Nieuw Amsterdam had several tempting shore excursions, but we had done most of them on previous visits. Those who haven't been to Venice before should take one gondola ride, just to say you've done it. In addition, a guided walking tour of the city or of one of the museums from the ship can be very interesting if you don't enjoy exploring on your own. The ship also had excursions to Murano to see the glassblowing workshops and to Burano to view the quaint homes and lace making.
After a delicious lunch of pasta and salad, we went up to the top deck to watch the sail away from Venice, one of the best in the world. Seeing the city laid out below the huge ship was mesmerizing. After the sail away, we had the mandatory lifeboat drill. Mom and I had the cabin steward ice down our champagne, so we sipped it during the afternoon while we were resting and getting ready for our first formal night. I ordered room service shrimp cocktail and a cheese plate to go along with the ice cold champagne. A nice, easy afternoon on the Mediterranean Sea!
Dinner was the first formal night, so we got dolled up and went to dinner at 7 pm. Holland America has both first and second fixed seating dinner, as well as "as you wish"/anytime dining, which mom and I selected. You can go anytime between 5:30 and 9:30, but they prefer you make a reservation. So mom and I made a 7 pm reservation, and we ended up at a table for 10 with two couples from Toronto, one couple from California, and an 80-year old lady traveling alone from the Netherlands. Very nice dinner. I had a fish/shrimp cake, an Italian Pistou soup with beans/pasta/veggies that reminded me of the one at Olive Garden Restaurant, lobster and a small filet combination, and warm strawberry crumble with ice cream for dessert. Mom had the melon/papaya salad, creamy chicken dumpling soup, and lamb chops. All the food was good, and we enjoyed the company.
After dinner, we went to the show, which was four young American singers from Atlanta, Hawaii, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. They are also in the production shows, but the name of their quartet is Cantare, and they were excellent. We were so glad we went since they harmonized well and sang a good mixture of songs. The audience all seemed to agree that they were a really terrific group. They also used a slide show of huge photos as their backdrop and had organized choreography as they sang.
Since we were still on Georgia time, we didn't turn off the light until 12:30 am. The next day we were going to be in Dubrovnik, Croatia.
A Day in Dubrovnik
The Sunday the Nieuw Amsterdam was in Dubrovnik, Croatia was a gorgeous day, sunny and very warm. High was supposed to be 76, but it seemed much warmer. The old city of Dubrovnik is surrounded by thick, tall walls, so the city holds in the heat. Plus, the streets are paved with marble, which seems to radiate heat in the Mediterranean sun. Mom and I rode the shuttle bus into Dubrovnik ($14 round trip per person), and it dropped us off right at the main gate to the old city.
We had both been to Dubrovnik before and had walked the wall surrounding the city. Unless you have mobility problems (many steps), this is an excellent way to get great views of the city and the blue sea beyond. You will need some local money or a credit card to buy a ticket. Many people stand in line to buy tickets to access the wall right inside the main gate, but there are other entrances to the wall on the other side of the city (past the clock tower and on the way to the Dominican monastery) with no lines. We wandered around, taking in the sights and all the people. Like Venice, there were several ships in port, making for crowded streets. We saw many people carrying towels to go to the beach, but it didn't look like much to us.
We stopped and sat in the shade quite a bit and loved watching all the other tourists. After a while, we decided to sit in a restaurant and have a snack and a beer. We found one in a prime location, and it thankfully had a nice breeze. Very pleasant, and we split a very small pizza and drank a local draft beer.
The Nieuw Amsterdam offered 10 interesting excursions, some of which stayed in Dubrovnik while others traveled away from the city to other parts of Croatia like the seaside village of Cavtat or the Konavle region. Those looking for something active could go biking or sea kayaking.
Returning to the ship about 2 pm, I took a nap (guess it was the beer) before we went up to the Terrace Grill for a late lunch since dinner was not until 7 pm. Walking around the Nieuw Amsterdam, it looked like most everyone was on full-day shore excursions or were still in town. The ship had several afternoon activities such as bridge playing, trivia, exercise classes, and computer classes, so those who were back onboard had plenty to keep them entertained.
After getting cleaned up for dinner, mom and I went to the Ocean Bar on the ship to listen to live music and have a cocktail. We were surprised to only find about eight other people in the bar. Obviously, we didn't find the one that was popular, although our drinks (green apple martini for mom and a cosmopolitan with a splash of grapefruit juice for me) were very good.
Dinner was in the Manhattan dining room again. We ate at a table for eight with a young couple from California (in their 20's), a retired couple from Naples, Florida; and a retired couple from Kansas City, Kansas. I had an Asian chicken pot sticker, salad, grilled turbot, and pear crepes. Mom had the pork tenderloin. We stayed for dinner for a long time. Always fun to talk with new people, and the couple from Naples had been on back-to-back cruises on the Nieuw Amsterdam. The ship alternates eastern and western Mediterranean cruises, so they only had two ports visited twice on their 24-day cruise--Santorini and Venice.
We weren't sure whether we would like the show, but it turned out to be very good. An Irish couple sang and played a variety of music. They were called "LiveWire", and his name was Michael and hers was Claire. They had been married since 2000, and she played the electric violin and he played guitar and an Irish drum/percussion instrument. They were quite funny, and had Celtic music (like Danny Boy, Molly Maguire, and Riverdance), along with Fiddler on the Roof and other melodies. Fun.
We were going to lose an hour, so it was after 1 am when we got to bed. Another late night. But, we got to sleep late the next day because the ship didn't dock in Corfu, Greece until 10 am.
A Day in Old Town Corfu
Corfu is a Greek island in the Ionian Sea, which is the section of the Mediterranean Sea between Italy and Greece. It is also known as Kerkira and is much greener than many of the Greek islands further south. Corfu is also filled with gorgeous flowers like bougainvillea, oleander, and huge purple jacarandas. The old town has two huge forts and a large pedestrian shopping area. At one time the British occupied the island, and about 6,000 British mostly retired ex-pats live on the island today.
Holland America had a half dozen Corfu shore excursions, three of which visited the Achillion Palace built by Empress Elisabeth of Austria, better known as Sisi. We had toured this home a few years ago when on Corfu, and it is particularly interesting when you go to Vienna and elsewhere in Austria and learn more about this fascinating woman. Some passengers took a 4-wheel-drive safari around the island, giving them a chance to see the countryside. We decided to just explore the old town and pedestrian shopping area on our own.
Mom and I slept in and ate a leisurely breakfast before the Nieuw Amsterdam arrived in Corfu at 10 am. We took the free shuttle bus off the pier and then transferred to a shuttle into old Corfu town. The shuttle bus was $8 each way and it was about a 20-minute ride. We were dropped off near the old fortress and toured it (4 euros each) before strolling the few blocks into town. The fortress had the interesting Greek church seen in this photo, but the hospital and much of the fort was on a high hill, which was too hard to climb for us old folks, especially in the hot sun.
We strolled the streets of Corfu, I found an ATM to get some euros, and mom bought some souvenirs and a Greek pastry made with honey and sesame seeds that we split. The local items seemed to be mostly a kumquat liqueur kind of like Limoncello but sweeter, bath sponges, and soap and other products made from olive oil. Since 30% of the island of Corfu is covered with olive trees, I guess we weren't surprised!
We found an outdoor cafe with a breeze and shade and tried a "Corfu fresh beer", which was an unfiltered, unpasteurized ale. Different than our usual Pilsner, but tasty after the first couple of sips. More importantly, it was ice cold and hit the spot. After about four hours in town, we were very hot and tired so went back to the ship for a late lunch. I had Mexican chicken fajitas and mom had spaghetti from the Lido buffet.
Activities afternoon on the Nieuw Amsterdam included trivia, tea time, bridge, digital classes, fitness classes, or just sitting by the pool in the sun (or shade).
Mom and I had a reservation at the Pinnacle Grill for dinner. Before dinner, we tried another bar but found no one there either. We later determined that our fellow travelers were going to the happy hour between 4 and 5 pm rather than just before dinner. Dinner was at 7:00 pm and was delicious. The menu had many items we wanted to try but didn't have room. The meal started with a mushroom cappuccino amuse and a selection of bread and three different kinds of butter (red pepper, garlic, and plain). Mom had the French onion soup and grilled lobster with drawn butter. She got two large lobster tails--way too much for her. I got crab cakes with a spicy chili sauce and "sea and land", which was two large grilled prawns and a 7-ounce filet. My filet was good and had a nice flavor, but mom's lobster tails were done perfectly. We split a chocolate volcano cake, which was marvelous, and plenty enough for two people. All in all, a very good meal and excellent atmosphere and service.
After dinner, we strolled through the shops and checked out some of the bars, which seemed to be busier than earlier in the evening. They were showing a movie in the theater, followed by the Filipino crew show, which was starting at 11 pm--too late for us since we had an early day in Cephalonia (Kefalonia) the next morning.
A Day in Argostoli, Cephalonia (also Spelled Kefalonia and Kephalonia)
Cephalonia (also spelled Kephalonia or Kefalonia) is the largest island in the Ionian Sea. People often ask why things are spelled so many different ways in countries like Greece. The answer is simple--the Greek alphabet is different than our Latin one. Therefore, when towns or island names are written in English letters rather than Greek, there is no specifically defined spelling. Makes sense, doesn't it?
The Nieuw Amsterdam docked before 7 am at Argostoli, which is the capital and administrative center. Argostoli features a very protected harbor and was once one of the busiest ports in Greece. Cephalonia suffered major damage and German occupation during World War II. What the Germans didn't destroy the earthquake of 1953 did, with the result being a leveling of the town of Argostoli. So it doesn't have the old buildings that Corfu did. It does have the famous Drapanos stone bridge built in 1813 that connects Argostoli to the opposite coast of the harbor.
The Nieuw Amsterdam had three shore excursions from Argostoli. Like at most ports of call, the easiest (least walking) tour was a driving highlights tour of the island of Cephalonia, which included stops at Fiscardo and Sami. The second visited a monastery and a village rebuilt in the neo-classical style after the 1953 earthquake that destroyed much of the island. The third tour was well-suited for those who love natural wonders and was a chance to visit the famous Drogati cave and ride a small boat in the underground Melissani lake.
Mom and I had visited the famous Melissani Cave and did a driving tour of the island when we were last there. I had also been to the lovely resort town of Fiscardo, so we were content to leave the ship at about 9:15 and just wander around the Argostoli shopping area and have coffee/diet coke and watch all the other tourists walk by. We also took a 5 euro ride on the "Argostoli Express", which is one of those small motorized trains like they have at fairs and in Rudesheim, Germany. It was a 25-minute ride and allowed us to see the parts of the town we didn't walk through.
We returned to the ship about 12:30 and ate lunch, followed by a relaxing afternoon. Mom read her book and I downloaded photos. We went to our third bar, the Crow's Nest on deck 11 forward, before dinner. It was busier than the other 2 bars and had a live guitarist. The library is next to the bar, so we used the time to read the American newspapers.
As usual, the ship continued to have numerous, varied onboard activities for those who either wanted to stay onboard or who only planned to spend a half-day in the town like we did. The fitness center had classes in both the morning and the afternoon, and the party planner led a walking tour of all the lovely fresh flowers on the Nieuw Amsterdam.
Dinner was in the main dining room, and we had a window table with a couple from England and another couple from Texas. Fun evening. I had tomato and mozzarella salad, followed by a green salad with pecans, Dover sole, and chocolate chip ice cream. Mom had the tomato and mozzarella salad and the lamb skewers.
After dinner, we went to the production show. It was very good and titled, "Avalon Ballroom". The show featured the four guys who sang the first night (Cantare), along with two women singers and a couple of ballroom dancers. The orchestra was the real star since it had at least a dozen members, one of the largest I've ever seen on a ship. Anyway, it was a good show, and all the singers did a good job, as did the dancing couple.
After the production show, we were in bed by midnight, anxiously awaiting the chance to visit one of the most fascinating islands in the world the next day--Santorini, Greece.
A Day in Santorini, Greece - One of the Most Spectacular Places in the World
The next morning, we approached Santorini (population of the island is about 12,000, along with millions of tourists) about 7:30 in the morning, and stopped in the ancient lagoon-like caldera about 9:15. The captain couldn't drop the anchor because the water was too deep, so he had to keep the engines moving all day to hold the ship in place.
Today the island is crescent-shaped around the caldera, but was once a solid mass and called Thira. In about 1500 BC, the volcanic island exploded and 32 square miles of it sank over 1,000 feet into the ocean. Scientists say the explosion was the worst in history. The volcano was last active in the early 1950's. Santorini is one of the most popular places to visit in Greece, and its popularity is well-deserved. Pictures just don't do it justice; the island is spectacular and its look demonstrates the massive power of volcanoes.
I've been to Santorini twice before and took a tour each time, so this time we decided to do Santorini "on our own". The cruise director warned all of us on the ship that doing Santorini independently would mean that we would have to either take the cable car from the bottom of the cliff to the island above (5 euros each way), ride a donkey (5 euros each way), or walk the 800+ steps (set about 5-10 feet apart) up the long and winding donkey trail and have to dodge both the donkeys and the donkey poo. Obviously, mom and I, along with thousands of others, chose the cable car. We got our tender passes (cruise ships use local boats as tenders) and were off the ship by 9:45.
The wait to ride the cable car was only 1 hour and 5 minutes (I timed it); we had been told it sometimes got up to almost 2 hours. Local authorities claim they can ride 700 people per hour, but we had six cruise ships anchored in the caldera. Lucky for us, it wasn't too hot and we had interesting folks to chat with on both sides of us. Anyone who doesn't like to stand for long periods should definitely take a tour. The ship had four, all of which began with a bus ride from another tender docking point in the caldera. Only one of the tours used the bus port on the return. The others all required people to ride the cable car back down from Fira and take the tender back to the ship. I've done the tours to Oia and the winery and both were excellent. The island is much more than just the dramatic caldera and the white-washed buildings along its rim.
Reaching the top of the caldera and the town of Fira by about 11:15 am, mom and I walked a little before finding a small cafe overlooking the caldera. One of the best views ever. Reminded us of the many other places we've had a drink, snack, or meal with great views, and mom and I reminisced a little while taking in the view. After a leisurely beer, we explored the city some and found the bus station that would take us to Oia, the picturesque artist's colony at the tip of the island. It's quieter than Fira, and the white sugar cube houses and other buildings are built into the cliffs. Along with the blue-domed churches, Oia is a photographer's and artist's mecca. The bus station was packed and looked pretty busy. Not wanting to subject either one of us to standing in a hot bus for the 20+-minute ride to Oia (and back), followed by another hour wait for the cable car back down to the tender, we decided to pass on the ride to Oia. We had both been there before, so I have photos. We decided to just spend more time shopping/exploring in Fira.
The line was only 40 minutes long for the ride back down to the ship. We got back onboard; ate a very late lunch, and read our books and took naps. All that standing in line wore us out! I've learned my lesson and will either do a shore excursion from the ship or wait and go into town later in the day the next time I am in Santorini.
We were invited to a "frequent cruiser" cocktail party with the captain and hotel director (and about 100 other people), so attended it in the Crow's Nest observation lounge before dinner. Sat with a nice couple from Philadelphia who were 2 of the 300 who had been on the previous cruise. They had gotten a very good deal on booking back-to-back cruises with Holland America.
Dinner was a little later--about 8:00 pm in the main dining room. Even with random seating we ended up with two women who are travel writers--one lives in Bend, Oregon, and the other near Vancouver, BC. They own an online magazine called WAVE Journey (Women Adventure Vacations and Experiences) and have been in business since 2005. We enjoyed meeting them and comparing notes on the cruise and ports of call.
After dinner, mom and I dashed off to the show. It was a young Irish woman singer/comedian, Siobhan Phillips. She had a marvelous contralto voice, sounding much like Cher. But, when she spoke, a very strong Irish accent came out (and not nearly as deep a voice). Siobhan was very funny, and her show was a good mix of music and comedy. She had a fun, self-deprecating sense of humor, and her deep singing voice didn't match her looks or speaking voice at all.
Back to the cabin by 11:30 and to bed by midnight. The next day would be a full day at sea, arriving in Catania, Sicily early the next morning.
A Day at Sea on the Nieuw Amsterdam
Our next day on the Nieuw Amsterdam was a welcome, quiet day at sea. Mom and I slept in (until about 8:15) and had a leisurely breakfast. After breakfast, I worked on my photos and journal, and mom read her book outside on the deck. It was kind of cool and windy, but she wrapped up well.
For those who didn't want to sleep, lie in the sun, or read, the ship had many activities to keep its guests occupied. In addition to the usual fitness classes, computer classes, and bridge games, there was a galley tour, beer tasting, spa seminars, mixology class, wine tasting, dance class, and bingo. Plus, the casino and shops were open all day since we were at sea.
After lunch of shrimp cocktail and roast beef (mom) and tuna sashimi salad and grilled salmon (me), we went to a cooking demo in the Holland America/Food & Wine Culinary Center. The guest chef was Michelle Bernstein from Miami. She is the executive chef for four restaurants and her husband runs "the front" of the restaurants. Michelle was very likable and did a running commentary while preparing a seafood ceviche and a cooked bass. Very interesting and some good tips on seafood prep. She is sailing with her parents, husband, and in-laws. She recommended we all try an Aji Amarillo pepper paste you can buy on Amazon.com to put with seafood. She was also very enthusiastic about the different peppers you can get from Peru.
After the culinary demonstration, we returned to the cabin. Mom went upstairs to sit in one of the lounge chairs and read in the Crow's Nest observation lounge, and I walked for about an hour on the promenade deck--three laps to the mile.
Before we knew it, the time had come to get ready for dinner at Tamarind, the exceptional Asian restaurant on the Eurodam and Nieuw Amsterdam. We went for a drink in the Silk Den Asian theme bar before dinner and then sat down for a real treat. We both had difficulty selecting what to eat--many of the choices were appealing. I settled for the pho chicken/coconut milk noodle soup, green papaya salad, wasabi crusted beef tenderloin topped with fried onion rings, and a selection of three sorbets--passion fruit, green tea, and wasabi. The whole meal was outstanding, and I could have easily chosen the sushi or one of the delicious-sounding fish dishes. Mom wasn't too hungry and had the selection of four spring rolls for an appetizer and steamed shrimp and scallops for the main course. Her dessert was yummy, too--mango egg white souffle and mango sorbet. All and all a very good meal, just like I remembered from the Eurodam. The sauces accompanying the meal were very good, too and we got steamed rice (brown or white) and veggies along with it. The service and presentation were perfect and the meal was well worth the $15 per person surcharge.
After dinner, we went to the 10:15 production show entitled, "HAL's Garage Band". The show was quite good, with great sets, costumes, and even some special effects. The 8 people from the other night (6 singers and 2 dancers) were in the show, plus 1 more male dancer and 2 women dancers, for a total of 6 men and 5 women). The music was from the 50's and 60's, so I loved it.
The Nieuw Amsterdam continued its westward way towards Catania, Sicily.
A Day on Sicily at the Foot of Mt. Etna
The Nieuw Amsterdam docked early the next morning in Catania, Sicily, and mom and I did our first shore excursion to the lovely little tourist town of Taormina. Everyone loves to visit this small town draped across the side of a mountain, but it is definitely touristy. Our tour group was a whole bus full, so we couldn't hear the guide most of the time since she didn't use the audio/earplug devices. The day was perfect, and we had terrific views of Mt. Etna, which was billowing smoke out of her cone. There was still snow on one side of the volcano, and I got some good photos. I've been to Taormina twice before, but both times the volcano was hidden by clouds.
We walked to the Greek Theater with the guide because I wanted mom to see the views from there, but they had constructed a huge movie screen and added many temporary seats, flooring, and trailers to the lovely spot. Turns out the "Taormina Film Festival" started the next day. Who knew? The screen sure ruined the view, which would normally be a spectacular framing of Mt. Etna by the theater's huge Greek pillars. Oh well. Guess a few hundred/thousand movie-goers isn't going to ruin a theater that has been standing since 300 BC.
Mom and I left the tour early and did some browsing, stopping for a granita (fruit slushy), gelato, and beer along the route back to the bus. Saw a tiny street only about 18 inches wide and many pottery pieces adorned with the symbol of Sicily--a Medusa head surrounded by 3 legs representing the three capes of the triangular-shaped island of Sicily. Not very attractive, but it adorns the red and yellow flag of the province.
The Nieuw Amsterdam had several tours from Catania. One was to the ancient site at Syracuse, two were to Taormina, four were to Mt. Etna, and one was a 4x4 expedition on Mt. Etna. There was also a walking tour of Catania and a fun day at the beach.
Sicily has been rocked by so many earthquakes over the years that it doesn't have quite as many ancient sites as elsewhere in Italy, but the island has been occupied by almost every Mediterranean culture and still has buildings, bridges, and statues from the Arab/Greek/Romans and a few other civilizations. Hearing stories of towns that have been inhabited for over 2000 years really makes one realize just how (relatively) young the USA is.
We met the guide at the Duomo square at 12:00 noon (way too early for most of us) or at the bus at 12:15. We were back in Catania by 1:00 pm, but it took another 45 to make our way to the pier. We drove down the main street of Catania, which was extra busy since most shops in Catania close between 1 pm and 4 pm for lunch and siesta. (According to our guide, the Sicilians picked up that habit when the Spanish were in Sicily).
Mom and I ate lunch at the Lido buffet restaurant. It was Greek food day, so we both enjoyed some of that, along with other tasty things.
We sailed from Catania at about 5 pm, and mom and I met the two WAVEJourney.com women for dinner at the Evening at Le Cirque in the Pinnacle Grill. Holland America (HAL) has one Le Cirque dinner per cruise, and HAL has a 3-year agreement with the founder of Le Cirque in New York to have menus he consulted on/designed served on their ships once per cruise. The dinner was exceptional. It had fixed amuse, appetizer, and soup, and three choices for main course and dessert. The amuse was rhubarb topped with pate, the appetizer was a lobster salad, and the soup was corn chowder. The three main courses were wild halibut, rack of lamb, or a huge steak. The desserts were chocolate souffle, creme brulee, or selection of ice creams/sorbets. Mom and I both had the lamb and it was wonderful. Very tender and juicy, and with a very mild flavor. I scraped my souffle cup to get to all the chocolate souffle, and mom enjoyed the creme brulee.
It was a delightful dinner and I loved comparing travel notes with the other 2 writers. They've spent 7 weeks in Europe--2 weeks on a bus tour, 3 weeks hiking in Spain, and now 2 weeks on this cruise.
The show was an English singer/pianist named Brett Cave. He was very funny and an excellent musician/singer. He sang music by Billy Joel, Neal Sedaka, the Beatles, Elton John, Barry Manilow, Stevie Wonder--all great artists. His English wit was dry and well-appreciated by the audience. Mom and I have really enjoyed every show and glad we have stayed up for them!
The next day we were in Naples--where pizza was invented!
A Day in Naples
The Nieuw Amsterdam docked in Naples, Italy, having sailed overnight from Catania, Sicily. We arrived a little before 8 am, and since the day was overcast and you could barely see Capri, we decided to stay close in case of rain. We ate a nice breakfast and headed ashore about 9:45. We walked by the hydrofoil/ferry dock, which was just next to our ship, but were glad we decided to skip Capri or Sorrento or Ischia. Although visiting these three fascinating destinations are all easy ferry/hydrofoil rides from Naples, the weather was getting more overcast, so we figured the views wouldn't be that great.
Holland America had many tours from Naples, all of which were excellent and I had done previously on other cruises. Although a tour of Naples is interesting, a day at Pompeii, Herculaneum, Mt. Vesuvius, Sorrento, the Amalfi coast, or Capri should not be missed. Obviously, you can't do all these things with one day in Naples. You will have to read the material and decide which fits your interests better. And, you have to return to this part of the world to see the rest.
We strolled by the old Castel Nuovo, which means "new castle", even though it dates back to 1282. They have a wooden walkway over a large archaeological site. Looked like there was once a settlement just outside the fort and moat. We walked just a couple of blocks to the Galleria Umberto, a gorgeous old gallery built in 1890 filled with shops and cafes. Mom and I looked around and then had a coffee/diet coke while engaging in some people watching. This shopping gallery is spectacular, with its high dome and marvelous mosaics depicting the astrological signs decorating the floor.
Although it was overcast, we still didn't have any rain, so we decided to ride the nearby funicular to the top of the large hill overlooking Naples. It had a castle named Castel St. Elmo that looked like it would provide great views of the city, harbor, and Mt. Vesuvius. The guide (me) took a couple of wrong turns trying to find the funicular, but we finally found the station after walking through some typical narrow alleyways that looked just like a caricature of Naples, with laundry hung everywhere and people leaning out the windows conversing in loud, fast Italian with each other.
Turns out the funicular station was at the rear of a small courtyard right across the street from one of the exits out of the Galleria Umberto. Oh well, we just walked a few blocks extra. The funicular centrale (1.2 euros each one way) took us up the hill, and we got off at the last (4th) exit. The funicular was like a subway--no views. We followed the signs to the Castel St. Elmo, and the entry was 5 euros per person. This old fort had marvelous views of our ship, nearby Mt. Vesuvius, and the surrounding harbor and countryside. It was very hazy, so we could barely see Capri, Sorrento, and Ischia. Everything nearer was quite sharp, and the overcast sky made the temperature wonderful. We ran into some Canadians from our ship, but we only saw a handful of other tourists.
On the way up to the Castel, we passed by another funicular station. We decided it must have been the 3rd station, so we went into it and bought a ticket for the return. We noticed when we got on that this one was going down a different way since the walls of the funicular tunnel looked different. Turned out this funicular connected Vomero on the hilltop with Stazione Montesanto at the bottom. We didn't realize there was a second funicular that came down in a completely different part of town! After I located the second funicular line on the Nieuw Amsterdam-provided Naples map, we quickly decided it was too far to walk back to the ship, so re-boarded the funicular, rode it back to the top, walked back to the Piazza Fuga where we exited the first time and went back down the hill! Oh well -- such is the life of independent touring. We saw lots of Naples!
It was about 1:00 pm when we got back to the area near the Galleria, and we found an outdoor cafe to have pizza (what else, it was invented in Naples) and beer for lunch. Very tasty. It started sprinkling rain while we were dining, but since we were sitting under a large outdoor umbrella, we never got wet. It had stopped raining by the time we finished, so we meandered back to the ship, and I even stopped for my daily gelato. As we approached the terminal, the lightening and thunder started out across the bay, but it never rained. We were back on the Nieuw Amsterdam by 3 pm. We ran into a couple we had enjoyed a drink with the other night on the ship. They said it poured down rain in Sorrento. No wonder we couldn't see it from Castel St. Elmo. What we thought was haze was actually rain.
It was nap time for mom and I worked on my photos and journal. We watched a documentary on TV about Sirio Maccioni, the founder of Le Cirque Restaurant in NYC. He and his family have partnered with Holland America to present Le Cirque on all the ships once per cruise. It was an interesting story of a very young boy who immigrated to the USA soon after WWII. His father was killed in the war, and he went to work as a waiter at a Tuscan hotel before joining an ocean liner as a waiter. When he got to NYC on the ocean liner, he "jumped ship" and has been there ever since, although he still keeps a home in Tuscany.
Mom and I had a 7:30 shore excursion to Rome the next day, so we decided to just eat at the buffet and go to the 8:00 pm show. We were back in the cabin and ready for bed by 9:30--much better than our usual midnight.
The buffet was good and faster than the dining room. Mom had pepper steak with fried rice and I had a salmon tartare appetizer, grilled salmon, and French fries. Mom's steak was huge and I ate half of it.
We went to the 8 pm show. It was a combo of the Celtic duo and the piano player/singer we loved so much the night before--Brett Cave. All in all a good day. The next day was our Roman holiday, just like Audrey's Hepburn's.
Roman Holiday - In the Footsteps (or Vespa track) of Peck and Hepburn
The Nieuw Amsterdam was in Rome on a Sunday, which meant that the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel were closed. If you are planning a Mediterranean cruise, be sure to check closing dates of museums for the days your ship is in port. Although many museums close on Mondays, the Vatican closes on Sunday. There are thousands of other things to do in Rome, but I know that many first-timers have the Sistine Chapel on their must-see list.
The Nieuw Amsterdam had several tours going into either Rome or Vatican City. Some were mostly walking; others on a bus. The ship also had some tours that did not visit Rome for those who had been many times before. These included a day in Tarquinia and Tuscania, time in Ostia Antica, or a visit to the catacombs outside Rome.
We were up before six am on Sunday morning since we had our early morning "Roman Holiday" tour. This full day tour was visiting many of the settings and spots are seen in the movie "Roman Holiday", which starred Gregory Peck and Eddie Albert and introduced Audrey Hepburn to the world in her first movie. The movie was filmed in Rome, and much of the city is remarkably unchanged in the past 60 years. (Not sure why this is surprising since some of those places are unchanged in the last 600 years.) Most of the 20 participants on the tour were like me--had visited Rome many times and were enamored of the movie. Others had never been to Rome before but thought the tour included most of the places they had dreamed of seeing. Having a small group of 20 sure makes big tours look hectic and crowded. However, smaller tours usually are more expensive, so that is a factor you must consider when planning your time ashore.
We had another lovely day--in the low 80's and partly cloudy. Our bus left the ship at 7:45 and was in Rome by 9:00 am. It was Sunday, so traffic was light. We rode into Rome a slightly different way than I've been before, passing by the "St. Paul Outside the Walls" church and the tomb of a rich Italian that was built about 18 BC–12 BC as a tomb for Caius Cestius that was modeled after the Great Pyramid at Giza. It is well preserved but looks out of place in Rome.
The first stop was at the Palazzo Brancaccio, which is an elegant villa built in the late 19th century (a few blocks east of the Colosseum near the Parco di Traiano). For those who have seen the movie "Roman Holiday", the palazzo was seen in the first few scenes, where Princess Anya (Audrey) is welcomed to Rome with a party hosted by the Italian ambassador from her country (wherever that was, they never say). (Note: the palace is not on the river, so she must have been either sleeping somewhere else or the director took some artistic license, since the movie switches from the ballroom dancing to her bedroom, and her bedroom is where she watches the people dancing on the river barge below.) We watched some of the movie "Roman Holiday" on the return to the ship, and the decor of the rooms has not been changed since the 1950's when the movie was made. We had about two blocks' walk to/from the bus.
Our bus left the Palazzo Brancaccio and drove the short distance to near the Spanish Steps, where Audrey had her first gelato from a street vendor. (Note: No gelato street vendors near the Spanish Steps today, but there is a McDonald's.) We strolled from the Spanish Steps to the Trevi Fountain, where we threw our coins into this tourist trap, hoping to see Rome again. (Our guide said use left hand over right shoulder, but some people at the fountain from other tours said their guide said just the opposite. Doubt if it makes a difference!) Leaving the Trevi Fountain, we next walked to one of my favorite spots in Rome--the Pantheon. While at the Pantheon, we were given tickets to have a free gelato since we didn't get one at the steps. The gelato shop was very large, and about a block north of the Pantheon. After finishing the gelato, we walked by the Piazza Navona (another great spot) on our way to the bus, which picked us up near the Umberto bridge over the Tiber River.
By now it was about 1 pm, and the next stop was for a very leisurely lunch. We rode south of the city towards the catacombs area and dined at a lovely restaurant called Ristorante Cecilia Metella. The restaurant was large, but I think we were the only group. Most of the other lunch diners looked/sounded like locals. We ate outside, which both mom and I love. The restaurant has been there for decades and was supposedly a favorite of Audrey and Gregory while they were in Rome making the movie. We were told they liked to escape away from the crowds to the country. The meal was one of the best I've had on a shore excursion. We started with prosciutto and melon and then had a delicious (and very creamy) bowl of pasta with veggies. The main course was pan fried veal, potatoes, and a green salad. We also had plenty of white and red wine and good bread (and olive oil/balsamic vinegar for dipping). Dessert was a cake topped with a lemon-flavored meringue. Very good. After lunch, we all got a chance to have our photo taken on one of the old Vespas (scooters) used in the movie. The Vespa was definitely old but in pristine condition. Our guide said it was one of many used in "Roman Holiday", and I guess I'll take her word on it.
Our last stop was at the Mouth of Truth, which none of us had visited, despite the fact that it is in the gallery outside the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church located on the Tiber River almost due west of the Colosseum next to the Circus Maximus. Other tourists had found the Mouth, and there was a line of about 15 minutes to stick your hand in the mouth. If you don't tell the truth, your hand is bitten off by some monster hidden inside the wall or something like that. This was one of the sweetest scenes in the movie, and we all had a good time. It costs 0.5 euros, and we hope the money is going to the church. Each person is only allowed one photo of themselves (either alone or with someone), and they were very strictly enforcing the rule.
On the way back to the ship, we saw about the first half of the movie. Not sure why they didn't show half of it on the way into Rome. The funny part was the guide could only get the movie in Spanish with English subtitles. Oh well, it was still fun. We returned to the ship about 6:30--very tired, but glad we had picked this tour.
Mom and I ate in the main dining room and neither of us was very hungry. I had a shrimp skewer appetizer, green salad, and grilled rare tuna. Mom had the shrimp and a veggie pasta. We sat with a couple from Toronto who winter in Florida who have been on the ship since May (a total of 24 days) and two guys from Brighton in the UK. No show since the Nieuw Amsterdam had a movie in the theater, so we were in bed by 10 pm. The ship sailed for Livorno in the evening.
Ancient Lucca from Livorno
Our last day in port was in Livorno, the Italian seaport closest to Florence, Pisa, the towns of Tuscany, and the Cinque Terre. The Nieuw Amsterdam arrived early in the morning, and mom and I had a 5.5-hour tour to Lucca and Pisa. We had both been to Florence several times, and we were at Cinque Terre a few months before. Since we had never been to the walled Tuscan town of Lucca and hadn't been to Pisa since 1985, it seemed like a logical choice. (There's not much to do/see in Livorno, although the port runs a shuttle bus into the main square for 5 euros round trip.) Our Nieuw Amsterdam Mediterranean cruise included tours to Florence, the Cinque Terre, Pisa, Lucca, Siena, San Gimignano, and the Tuscan countryside.
The big bus (about 50) left at 8 am, and we immediately noticed something different with our escort--he was Australian, not Italian! The young man had married an Italian girl from Livorno three years ago and moved to Italy not speaking a word of Italian. He took intensive Italian classes and now works as a tour escort. (We had Italian guides in both towns. Our escort said you need much more schooling to get a guide license, and he hasn't decided whether to pursue that career.) Anyway, it was great fun to have someone who lives in Italy but has lived elsewhere provide a great comparison of things that natives wouldn't think about discussing, like all the Italian "hand-language" and the wild driving and parking. He was very entertaining, and although he loves Italy (and his wife), he had no problems discussing cultural differences we had all observed, but hated to ask a native. Fun bus ride.
We were in Lucca by 9 am and had a walking tour of the city until 10:30 with the Audiovox (radios and ear pieces). According to our local guide, Lucca is the only Italian city that still is completely encircled by its walls. It was also the only Tuscan town not conquered and consolidated into the Florence state by the Medici family. Since it was Monday morning, most of the shops were closed. We walked around the city, taking in the churches, squares, and narrow streets. Mom and I didn't think it was nearly as attractive as other small Italian towns we have visited like Volterra, the Cinque Terre towns, Porto Venere, San Gimignano, and Taormina. We missed the flower boxes and outdoor cafes. Since I've heard people rave about how much they loved this city of Puccini's birth, maybe it was just because everything was closed and the town was fairly quiet, or we are just "toured out". (The cafes may spill out into the squares and streets later on Monday.) Like most guided tours, we had no free time to explore on our own, and I hated to leave the tour since we had not been there before. Lucca does have an interesting square (which is really an oval) that was built using the foundation and walls of an old Roman amphitheater.
Our next stop was Pisa and its famous (or infamous) bell tower.
Pisa and its Famous Bell Tower
We left Lucca about 10:30 and arrived in Pisa just 30 minutes later. We walked about five blocks from the bus parking lot to the main square, which has four gorgeous buildings set on a huge grassy mall, one of which is Pisa's famous bell tower, which leans 5 degrees. The freestanding tower is the bell tower of the cathedral next door, and used to lean 5.5 degrees, but was slightly righted and shored up to prevent further leaning and eventual destruction by an international group of engineers about a decade ago. This square is called the Field of Miracles and is the most popular attraction in Pisa.
The bell tower and all the other buildings in the Field of Miracles had been cleaned a few years ago, and the marble really sparkled. I had never thought about it, but the cylindrical shape of Pisa's tower is unlike most other Italian bell towers, which are usually square like the Washington Monument. Since Pisa's Field of Miracles was built on marshy land, the other buildings have some "lean" in them also, but since they are not as narrow or tall, it is not as dramatic. We had to leave Pisa at 12:30, so mom and I split from the tour after a while so we could browse the many shops a little, have a gelato, and rest a little.
Back at the Nieuw Amsterdam by 1:30, we ate a late lunch and then took it easy in the afternoon. Mom and I had enjoyed the Tamarind Asian Restaurant so much that we had made reservations for another dinner there. I had the pork ribs and tempura shrimp appetizers, followed by the wasabi crusted fillet. Mom had the green papaya salad and the fillet. We split a dessert of a kind of mango flan/pannacotta accompanied by a mango sorbet. Very good (again).
The show was called "NYC" and featured the 11 production singers and dancers and the orchestra. Very good. It debuted on the Nieuw Amsterdam inaugural last summer and is appropriate since New York was originally called Nieuw (New) Amsterdam by the Dutch.
We were in bed by midnight after another very long day. No alarm the next morning--we would be sailing for Barcelona, our disembarkation port.
Day on the Mediterranean Sea and Disembarkation in Barcelona
Mom and I had a nice relaxing last day on the ship. We relaxed with our books/newspaper in the observation lounge in the morning before going to the disembarkation briefing. (They were serving free mimosas/champagne, so listening for 20 minutes wasn't a problem.) After lunch, we went to another cooking demonstration by Michelle Bernstein. She did a vegetable risotto and a berry pannacotta dessert. We got to taste the pannacotta, and it was delicious.
After the culinary demo, I worked on my photos and this journal, and we packed. Never takes long to pack on the way home! We joined the two women from WAVE Journey for dinner at 7 pm in the main restaurant and went to the last production show, "It Takes Two", which featured six of the singers performing as duos.
Since the Nieuw Amsterdam did not arrive in Barcelona until 5 pm, we had most of the day on the ship. After we arrived, many passengers went into Barcelona for dinner or planned to spend a few days there after disembarking the Nieuw Amsterdam the next morning. Barcelona is a fun city, with amazing architecture and sights, so it certainly is worth an extra few days before or after your cruise.
Disembarkation was a breeze the next morning, and Delta Airlines even had a baggage check-in line set up at the cruise terminal for our 10 am non-stop flight to Atlanta. We disembarked the Nieuw Amsterdam, claimed our bags, rolled them a short distance to the airline check-in, boarded the bus, and were at the airport 30 minutes later.
Our Mediterranean cruise on the Nieuw Amsterdam was great fun, and we had wonderful June weather. The ports of call were some of the best in the world, with each having its own special charm and memories.
Holland America is often thought of as a cruise line geared towards older travelers. The passengers on this cruise seemed younger than what some might think (or maybe it's because I keep getting older). Mom didn't think there were a lot of folks her age, and we met many couples in their late 40's and early 50's (along with others much older). The casino was packed every night, as was the piano bar and shows. I think this cruise ship and Mediterranean itinerary would be an excellent choice for all ages, given the diverse activities ashore and onboard.
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