|Celebrity Reflection and 8 Western Mediterranean Ports|
Jump to Reviews of the Ports (Part XI)
Part I - Precruise
A. Cruise Critic
I over-research every port and possible tour excursion. The good news is that our excursions at each port have almost always been worthwhile. We always start our search at Cruisecritic.com which is helpful in securing key information for all of our ports of call and getting to know some of our fellow travelers before the cruise.
B. Choice of Route
We were interested in a Mediterranean cruise and ended up booking a back-to-back cruise out of Rome (Civitavecchia) and spending 3 days exploring Rome and The Vatican prior to the cruise. The first half we sailed to the Eastern Mediterranean ports of Messina (Taormina) and Naples (Pompeii) in Italy; Mykonos, Santorini, Rhodes, and Athens in Greece; and Valletta (Mdina) in Malta.
This review focuses on our Western cruise, the second half of our trip, when we sailed to the ports of La Spezia in Italy; Nice (Villefrance) in France; Barcelona, Malaga, Cartegena and Ibiza in Spain; and Gibraltar, United Kingdom. The cruise left from Civitavecchia (the port city closest to Rome). This was our first trip to all of these cities. We looked forward to exploring all of the cities on this cruise.
C. Choice of Ship
We chose the route first, but were also happy to be cruising on a Celebrity ship we had not yet cruised on. The Reflection is the largest ship we've ever been on. Built in 2012, the Reflection is the newest of Celebrity's five Solstice class ships, and currently its flagship. Reflection weighs in at 125,000 gross tons and has an occupancy of 3609 passengers, although it never really felt crowded.
D. Choice of cabin
My wife lives on the balcony when we book them so a cabin with a veranda is our first choice. Fortunately, we were able to secure a great price on an upgrade to a Concierge Class cabin with a veranda from our originally booked Oceanview cabin for this 11-day cruise.
We chose to travel in late April/early May as opposed to the Peak Season of Mid-June through August for 3 primary reasons: 1. it's less expensive, 2. it's a lot less crowded, and 3. the weather is significantly nicer.
F. Passports and Other Documents
Passports are required for airline travel, upon arrival and departure at airports, and upon checking in at our hotel and the seaport. We were able to leave them locked in the cabin safe the entire trip once we were on the ship. We were never asked for identification of any kind other than our "Seapass" card. None of the ports we visited requested our passports. The Seapass card is issued by the cruiseline. It's used for charging purchases on the ship, access to your cabin, and for identification to get you through port security and back on to the ship. Most travelers do not need a VISA or any special immunizations.
I insured the trip through Travelex, which I concluded was a good choice due to: relative cost comparisons, ease of access and booking, good disclosures, excellent coverage for what I needed, well rated, and especially because their insurance is "primary", meaning that I do not have to involve any other insurance in the claims process.
I had no interest in proprietary insurance offered by a travel agency or cruise companies because if either goes under your insurance is worthless and defeats the purpose. We bought the insurance within 14 days of our booking to assure their would be no questions about "pre-existing medical conditions", although I am not aware we have any. Thankfully we never had a need for the insurance. Here are 18 great tips on How to Select Cruise Insurance.
H. Prebooking Excursions
Based upon the recommendations we got off the Ports of Call threads on Cruise Critic, we decided to prebook excursions in most of our ports --- which we arranged privately via email. More details later. We have found that researching excursions ahead of time and making arrangements directly with the tour operator has resulted in more enjoyable, and less expensive, tours than can be arranged through the ship. Tour group size typically runs about 8 to 24 passengers versus the hordes typical of a ship's tour.
The ship had 2 Semi-Formal nights (suit and tie / dinner dress), and 9 Casual nights (polo's/dress shirts, blouses and skirts). Although it was an 11-day cruise, we packed for 5 days and gave the ship our laundry on days 2 and 6 using a Captain's Club benefit. Among the most helpful "extra items" we packed included a roll-up shoe rack (we use the pockets to store useful things), sunscreen, highlighters, clothes line, collapsible dirty clothes bag, wide-brim hats, magnets (to keep announcements and invites handy --- since the walls are metal), a 30x zoom digital camera, our phones, and a pair of 10400mAh external batteries to charge our phones. We used our phones primary as cameras, and for texting when we could find wi-fi.
Solstice ships all have storage above the beds but it's tough to do much with it. We saw a recommendation on Cruise Critic to use ClosetMaid Fabric Drawers. These lightweight collapsible $6 square drawers are 10.5 x 10.5 x 11 inches, fit nicely in the above-bed storage, and make it easy to store everything from socks to miscellaneous cruise things. They fold flat for easy packing.
We also made eleven 8x10 posters for our cabin door (one for each day, "If this is Wednesday, it must be Rhodes, Greece!" and the like). The cabin doors are metal. We held up our signs with little magnets. Not only did they help us keep track of the day and our cabin location, we struck up a few conversations with our neighbors who appreciated the signage.
More details on the clothes: 1. we packed underwear, t-shirts, shirts, shorts, and pants that were easy to hand wash and dried quickly overnight. 2. I also brought 5 dress shirts and a pair of pants that were a little past their prime (minor discoloring, slightly small, a small hole) that I simply threw away at the end of the trip which allowed a little extra room in the suitcases for things we accumulated. 3. My day clothes included 3 pairs of my pants, 1 pair of shorts, and 1 shirt that were made by Clothing Arts. These are comfortable, quick-dry, "pickpocket-proof" clothes.
J. Electrical Outlets and Travel Adapters
Celebrity Reflection cabins have just three electrical outlets and they are all in a row next to the desk. Two are your typical 3-prong USA outlets and one is an indented european-style outlet which will readily accept a 3-prong Type L, or 2-prong Type C adaptor. Either will allow you access to a third plug. (The 2-prong Type E/F might also fit. We did not attempt it). There is also a single low-voltage 2-flat-pronged outlet in the bathroom for electric shavers only.
I purchased two sets of travel adapters for the trip. A cool Dual USB Charger with Adapters got the most use. We also brought a couple of adapters from the Ceptics Adapter Plug Set. We never once had any need for an electrical converter and were glad we didn't lug one. We made good use of our 3-prong Type L, and 2-prong Type C adaptors in our hotel in Rome as well.
Barcelona, Rome, and Athens are 3 of the world's top ten worst cities for pickpockets. This shouldn't stop you from traveling to these cities, but it should get your attention. We never felt unsafe, and we had absolutely no problems with pickpockets. We did hear firsthand from two women who had a purse stolen from the chair they had absentmindedly draped it over. We took the following precautions. I highly recommend all of these (or use something similar).
L. Cell Phones
- We read up on pickpocket methods and watched videos so we were better educated on how to help prevent becoming a victim.
- I wore comfortable Clothing Arts "pickpocket-proof" shirts and pants.
- My wife carries a Travelon Anti-Theft Cross-Body Bucket Bag. She likes these so much she now has 5 different colors and uses them as her primary everyday purse.
- My wife wore this Lewis N. Clark Hidden Travel Belt Wallet which was so comfortable it was easy to forget she was wearing it.
Cell phones can be an expensive proposition when traveling internationally. We did not wish to be tethered to our phones for work or family purposes but we did wish to keep in touch when it was convenient. Our goal was to incur no data or voice charges for the entire time we were overseas while still having GPS, and the ability to text photos and messages, as well as taking pictures and using a few other useful apps. We succeeded!
Set up your phone as follows to prevent unwanted data charges. As long as you maintain all of these settings, you shouldn't incur any data charges. Settings vary by phone.
Free or low cost wi-fi can be found in every city. We found the following free apps very useful.
- Turn off data: Phone Settings > Data Usage > Cellular Data.
- Turn off data roaming: Phone Settings > Data Usage > Settings > Cellular Networks > Data Roaming.
- Turn on Airline mode. (Very important that this is always on the entire trip).
- Turn on Wi-Fi (when desired).
- And of course turn on GPS (when desired).
We also used a cool wrist/neck strap for our cell phones that kept the phone secure from drops as well as thieves. It's called Phone Lasso. It features a strong peel and stick grip patch that you can attach to the back of your phone or inside your phone case. It includes a wrist strap and neck strap for wearing your phone which doesn't interfere with your USB charging port.
- WhatsApp: this needs to be installed on your phone and every phone you wish to communicate with. You can then text anyone with WhatsApp in real time via wi-fi, as well as send them photos and even conduct choppy video calls. I made a group "Europe Trip" chat and added everyone to it so we could simply post to everyone at once.
- Google Translate: easily translate text, spoken words, or use the camera to translate in real time.
- Airline App: download and logon to the app for your airline.
- Virtual Private Network (VPN): A virtual private network extends a private network across a public network. This will protect any of your data that you send while using a public wi-fi. I found two free VPN's (supported by ads) that we used: Yoga VPN and Turbo VPN. Activate the VPN immediately after you logon to wi-fi.
- Currency Converter: easily find and calculate the current conversion rates.
- Rick Steves Audio Europe: install and then download free audio tours.
- Google Maps - Navigation and Transit: GPS works without data or wi-fi, but the map itself requires data UNLESS you download offline maps of each city you will be visiting before you leave. Then when you arrive in each city, simply load the applicable offline map.
- City Specific Metro and Bus Apps: these can be very helpful.
M. Credit Cards, Securing Euros and Finding ATM's
We each carried an ATM card from our bank (which rebates all ATM fees up to $5) and a credit card which doesn't charge foreign exchange fees. We notified our bank and credit card companies of the dates and countries we were visiting so they didn't refuse our overseas charges.
When we took this cruise the US Dollar was worth about 0.82 to 0.84 Euros (€). In other words it took about $1.20 to $1.24 to buy 1 Euro. Despite the US Dollar being worth about 20% less than the Euro, the value received oversees was very good.
Since bank ATM's are plentiful in most large cities, you should only need to take 1 to 2 days worth of Euros with you on your trip and hit the ATM as needed. Bank ATM's are generally more secure and will usually give you the best exchange rates. Use your debit/ATM card and never use your credit card for an ATM cash advance. Be sure to take your 4-digit numeric pin with you.
When possible, withdraw cash from bank-run ATM's located inside, or just outside, the bank. Ideally use them while the bank is open so that you can go inside for help in the rare event the machine eats your card. Many European banks place their ATM's in a small entry lobby. If feels more secure and gets you out of the weather. Look for a credit-card-size slot next to the door and insert your card to gain entry.
Avoid "independent" ATM's and currency exchange kiosks such as Travelex, Euronet, Moneybox, Cardpoint, and Cashzone. These have high fees and/or high exchange rates. "Independent" ATM's are often found near bank ATM's in the hopes of tricking travelers.
N. Choice of Airplane, Hotel and Transportation from the Airport
While checking airfares some time ago, I discovered we could use airline miles to book our flights quite reasonably, so we used points to fly United over, via a connecting flight, and flew American back. Direct flights are the best way to go! We flew into Rome's Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport (FCO) four days early to explore Rome and help avoid the stress of travel delays that might occur on cruise day. We prearranged with RomeCabs for transportation from the airport to Vittoriano Luxury Suites (Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, 21, 00186 Roma RM) for €50, plus tip. They met us in the airport lobby just past baggage claim and drove us to the hotel. It was a good experience.
Vittoriano Luxury Suites is on the 4th floor of a building in a great location just 3 blocks south of the Pantheon. The hotel is serviced by a small elevator and a very friendly and helpful staff. They only have 6 rooms of varying sizes. We booked the Matrimoniale Superior (Room 102). It is a very modern and comfortable room with free wi-fi, and includes a nice buffet breakfast each morning. Highly recommended.
We walked to many of the major sites in Rome from our hotel (for example: Pantheon - 5 minutes, Emanuele Monument - 10 minutes, Capitoline Museum - 10 minutes, Piazza Navona - 10 minutes, Trevia Fountain - 15 minutes, Colosseum - 20 minutes, Spanish Steps - 20 minutes) and caught a bus to The Vatican. Although The Vatican is also walkable in 35 minutes, a bus stop is just a half block away.
Part II - Embarkation (Departure) From Rome By Ship
A. Back to Back Passengers (B2B)
We were among approximately 56 passengers who had booked a back-to-back cruise. Some of the benefits included: $50 cruise discount on the second cruise, lunch in the Opus Dining Room on the changeover day, a special Transit Pass that allow you to skip the general boarding process if you decide to leave the ship, the ability to stay on the ship, full access to your cabin if you keep the same cabin, and a genuinely easy immigration and changeover process.
We changed cabins and it also couldn't have been easier. We simply packed our suitcases, except for everything that was hanging in the closet and vacated our room around 8:30 am. Our bags and closet items were all relocated by ship personnel. Around 1:00 pm we moved into our new cabin.
We did not wish to leave the ship for an excursion. Instead we took it easy, stayed onboard, and basically had the run of the ship. All B2B passengers that stayed onboard met around 9:00 am outside Cellar Masters. We settled our bills, turned in our old Seapass cards (which they gave us back later as souvenirs), completed a new express pass and health form, got our new Seapass cards and had a new security picture taken. It took no more than 5 minutes per couple to complete. It was a ridiculously easy process which was greatly appreciated.
B. Civitavecchia, Italy
Originally, we flew into Rome's Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport (FCO) four days early to explore Rome (details under "Ports") and help avoid the stress of travel delays. We left our hotel at 11:00 am via Rome-Airport.net Shared Shuttle Transport to the port. Cost was €75 per couple with pickup at your hotel and dropoff at the ship. Check their website for rideshares that need more passengers or start a rideshare yourself. This is one of the most efficient ways to arrive. It's a lot more trouble if you arrive by train (requires walking, shuttles or taxi upon arrival) or by bus (dropoff is outside the port with shuttle service to each ship).
C. Security Processing and Boarding at Civitavecchia
When we arrived for the first half of the cruise at the pier about 12:45 pm, gave our luggage and a tip to a baggage handler and immediately entered the terminal. Security took 5 minutes and we headed to Celebrity Check-in. Priority lines were set up for Suites, Aqua Class, Concierge, Elites and Select members, and a line for all others. In any case, the lines were minimal. Once in line, we waited until being directed to one of about two dozen Celebrity check-in agents. The agent checked our passports, credit card, and embarkation form. Within 10 minutes we had our Seapass (which is used as your ship ID, ship credit card, and door key) and a couple of security checks later we were on the ship.
C. Explore The Cabin
We were in cabin 9310, a category C3 Concierge Class Stateroom with about 194 square feet of space, plus a 54 square foot veranda, on Deck 9. With the exception of the balcony, it seemed identical in size to our 177 square foot OceanView cabin we were in on the first half of the cruise. We were located slightly aft of midships, starboard side. The location was great, and serviced by a bank of 6 elevators just down the hall.
The cabin was well laid out. Lots of drawers and enough room in the closets and over the bed for our clothes. The bathroom had a toilet, sink, and a spacious glass-enclosed shower. Hangers and small light robes were provided. The small safe had plenty of room. The desk featured a number of informational brochures including Monday's event newsletter "Celebrity Reflection Today" as well as a note informing us of our 6:00 pm dinner seating and table number. Our veranda had two lounge chairs, two footstools, and a table.
Being Cruise Critic members, we received an invite to the gathering scheduled for later that day. We asked our cabin attendant to empty our mini-fridge, which he did before we retired for the evening. All of these items were taken care of promptly by our efficient and friendly cabin attendant, Dewa.
Although we were on the "starboard" (right) side of the ship, we often had the best view of the port. It all depended upon where our specific pier was located in relation to where the most interesting views of the port were.
D. Tour of Ship and Search For Food
The ship is gorgeous, and really well laid out with ample sets of stairwells and elevators. 8 elevators can be found midship with 3 additional elevators forward. We found sustenance in the Oceanview Cafe on the Deck 14 for a buffet lunch.
E. Dinner in the Main Dining Room - 6:00 pm "First Seating"
Opus Restaurant is the main dining room (MDR), located on Decks 3 and 4. Passengers with assigned dining times (Early or Late) ate on 3 while passengers with anytime dining at upstairs on 4 (with some accommodated overflow on deck 3). The dining room is beautiful.
F. Lifeboat Drill
At 4:15 pm (about an hour prior to leaving port), we participated in the mandatory lifeboat drill at our assigned muster station. We were not required to wear lifejackets. We simply had to get to our muster station, watch a humorous lifejacket demonstration, and listen to announcements from Captain Dimitrios Kafetzis and our muster crew.
Part III - Food!
Celebrity has a good reputation for their cuisine. The meals met our expectations. Not only was it good, it was downright outstanding on many nights. There was excellent variety throughout the ship.
A. Our Favorite Items
B. Opus Restaurant
- The Best Breakfast Items: Made-to-order eggs and omelets, fresh fruit, oatmeal with choice of toppings, and smoked salmon in the Oceanview Cafe; and the donuts and pastries at Cafe al Bacio.
- The Best Dinner Appetizers: Escargot, dill salmon, anything with goat cheese, roasted beets, and meats in puff pasties. There were at least 6 appetizers each night. All appetizers were well presented. You can't go wrong.
- The Best Soups: Butternut squash, French onion, and Mushroom.
- The Best Lunch Items in the Oceanview Cafe: Fresh fish and chips, a buratta station, grilled colossal shrimp, salad bar, caesar salad, fruits, pasta bar, and daily grilled special.
- The Best Entrées in the Main Dining Room: Prime rib, Portabella mushroom with spinach and goat cheese, Lamb chops, Veal, Roasted trout, Australian Sea Bass, Lamb shank, Braised beef ribs, Seared Salmon, Mediterranean seafood with orzo.
- The Best Desserts: Baked Alaska, cheesecake, ice creams and sorbet; and the coconut macaroons.
Opus Restaurant is the main dining room (MDR), located on Decks 3 and 4. Passengers with assigned dining times (Early or Late) ate on Deck 3 while passengers with anytime dining at upstairs on Deck 4 (opposite the dedicated dining room for suites). The Opus dining room is beautiful with nicely plated presentations at dinner.
Meats were cooked to order, including Medium Rare upon request. We never needed to send back an undercooked or overcooked item. Our Waiter (Carlos), our Assistant Waiter, and our Sommelier were all very friendly, efficient, and offered good guidance.
In addition to the daily menu, the following items are available every night: shrimp cocktail, escargot, seasonal fruit, French onion soup, Caesar salad, chicken, salmon, NY sirloin steak, NY Cheesecake, creme brulee, apple pie, and chocolate cake.
On our first cruise we requested a large table and were assigned a table for 4 with a delightful couple that was also on a Back-to-Back cruise and had ironically also requested a large table. Between cruises, the four of us once again requested a large table for the second half of the cruise. We were accommodated with a table for 12. Unfortunately, we averaged only 6 passengers per night at this table. Apparently we should have specifically asked for a large table with passengers actually assigned to the seats.
C. Specialty Restaurants and Premium Casual Dining
Reflection has four premium "dressy" specialty dinner restaurants for which a cover charge applies. Murano is very fancy and serves a "blend of Classic and modern continental cuisine, freshly prepared in multi-course meals, as exquisite European-style service attends to your every need". Qsine is now exclusively featuring Le Petit Chef, an animated character that appears beside your plate via an immersive table display technology and prepares each course you’ll be enjoying right in front of you before you’re served the actual dish.
Tuscan Grille is an italian-themed steakhouse that serves pastas, seafood, steaks and salads. Lawn Club Grill is a casual outdoor grill with an expansive salad bar, build your own flatbread pizza, and several grill specialties, including USDA Choice Beef, poultry, seafood, and vegetables.
We ate at Lawn Club Grill twice. Both times my wife ordered a beautiful, huge, filet mignon; and both times I ordered the milk-fed veal chop (essentially a bone-in veal ribeye). Both are really good. The veal chop is simply incredible --- very tender and flavorful. A secret gem of the Lawn Club Grill. We did not visit any of the other three venues, though fellow passengers gave especially high praise to Murano.
There are also two premium "casual" restaurants on Reflection that charge a cover. Sushi on Five (formerly Bistro on Five) offers freshly prepared sushi and Japanese favorites; while The Porch features fresh seafood and raw bar.
We enjoyed a meal at The Porch while watching Greek islands pass by. We enjoyed the Seafood Tower (cold lobster, mussels, shrimp, scallops, and seafood salad) as an appetizer followed by lobster bisque and a lobster roll. The mussels are the tastiest I've ever had and everything else was also quite good. Most passengers never find The Porch which is hidden on Deck 15 next door to The Lawn Grill Club. Seek it out if you like seafood. For just $30, you'll be glad you did.
Most of the restaurants are located on Deck 5. Lawn Club Grill and The Porch are on Deck 15. While the food in the Main Dining Room was quite good, we ate at the Lawn Club Grill and The Porch as a change of pace. The cover charges run $15 to $50, but discounts of 10% to 50% can be found most nights at one or more of the venues --- depending upon the current bookings. You'll find representatives from the restaurants each morning outside of the Oceanview Cafe on deck 14 at breakfast and sometimes at lunch. Ask them about any available discounts.
D. Oceanview Cafe
Found on Deck 14 aft, Oceanview has several hot, cold, and carved meat buffet stations which change daily; as well as a salad bar, pasta bar and pizza station. Be sure to wonder around to check out all of the offerings before plating. Surprises abound. The food was generally quite good. Hint: at breakfast, check both grill areas. Although both offer omelets, one seemed to always be busier.
E. Cafe al Bacio
Hit up Cafe al Bacio on Deck 5 for a variety of espresso, cappuccino, latte, mocha and macchiatos; as well as a dozen premium hot teas and premium iced teas. My wife fell in love with the Cafe Mocha and the Caramel Machiatta on a prior cruise. Once I discovered the Raspberry iced tea I would pick one up as soon as we got back from each day's port excursions. Very refreshing! It is also a great place to stop in the morning on the way to breakfast. If you want a quick bite to eat, they offer free croissants, brioche, fresh muffins, berliners (great jelly doughnuts) and apple turnovers in the morning; light lunch items; and desserts at night. The baristas at this cafe are very friendly and efficient.
Located next to Cafe al Bacio, the Gelateria offers 12 flavors of Italian gelato. We enjoyed a refreshing gelato after one of our day's excursions. The mint chocolate chip is a winner.
G. Mast Grill
Located midship on Deck 15, Mast Grill offers limited bar service, hamburgers (beef, turkey or vegetable), chicken breast, hot dogs and french fries --- along with favorite toppings like sauerkraut, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, American cheese, bacon, lettuce, and tomato. Yes, you can ask for just a BLT. Hint: there is a softserve ice cream station here and the flavor changes daily, and almost nobody knows it exits. My wife loved the fudge brownie ice cream.
H. Aqua Spa Cafe
The Aqua Spa Cafe is open for lunch and is located midship in the Solarium on Deck 14. They only have about 7 tables which is usually plenty since most folks either don't know it's here or think it's only for Aqua Class passengers. Hint: The food is free but it's no lounger the gem it once was when they offered poached salmon. There is only a surcharge for fruit juices, smoothies and parfaits. They offer grains, fruit plates, and salads. The food is good but very limited.
I. Room Service
You can order from morning to late night. We didn't order anything from room service this trip. From past experience, they are generally punctual and they don't just drop the order off at your door --- they come in and set it up for you. Be sure to tip!
J. Classic Drink Package
We had the Classic drink package on this trip. Bars are plentiful and the bartenders and service staff (looking at you Alexandra) did a great job of getting drinks out to everyone. We enjoyed wine each night at dinner. Plenty of red and white wine choices. If you have a package (or not) you won't go thirsty.
The Classic Drink Package includes an array of beers, spirits, cocktails, liquors, frozen drinks, wines (up to $9 per serving), sodas, basic bottled water, and premium coffees and teas from Cafe al Bacio. Although it was never necessary, we could have simply paid the price difference to upgrade to any premium beer, wine or liquor selection on an as needed basis.
Part IV - Entertainment
A. Celebrity Shows in the Reflections Theater
Reflections Theater is located on forward on Decks 3, 4, and 5. The theater itself is beautiful and the viewing is excellent downstairs and with few exceptions the second floor as well. Almost all of the third floor seating is partially obstructed by high glass safety walls, safety rails, or the occasional pylon. Sound and lighting is excellent. The Stars of Reflections Production Cast (aka Celebrity Singers and Dancers) took part in 4 shows (Elysium, Intimate Broadway Cabaret, Broken Strings, and Euphoria). They are a very talented and energetic group. We felt many of the song selections were pretty obscure. The finale "Euphoria" is not to be missed! My wife caught it twice.
B. Guest Appearances in the Reflections Theater
Our guest artists included: Christopher Caress (hypnotist), Claire Maidin (singer, pianist, entertainer), Peter Grant (singer), Rob Lewis (Tribute to Phil Collins), Anthony Scott (comedian), Ragar (a Rock/Country Duo), and The Sammy Tones (Reflection's house band) headlined "Beatles Around the World" for one night. We enjoyed most of the guests, especially Claire Maidin.
C. Celebrity Orchestra and Other Ship Bands
The Celebrity Orchestra was truly excellent and performed at most of the shows in the Celebrity Theater as well as occassionally at other venues. Among the other entertainment we enjoyed was Fiesta Duo (Classical Strings) our favorite, The Sammy Tones (House Band), 4 Elements (Fusion Quartet), Devico (Contemporary Duo), and Charlotte Jones (Solo Guitarist). Most played at various venues on the ship.
D. Shows in the Celebrity Central
Celebrity Central is an all-purpose venue. They offered movies, guest speakers, and travel talks (information about ports that Celebrity sails to to encourage bookings).
E. Enrichment Speakers
Sea Days are typically when you get to hear at least four fascinating topics from engaging speakers. Celebrity calls it "Beyond The Podium". The topics are endless, but at a minimum you can expect to see credentialled experts providing good historical background to the ports we are visiting. Unfortunately, this cruise was devoid of any enrichment talks from outside speakers.
On the second sea day, Captain Dimitrios Kafetzis gave a presentation entitled "Oceans Ahead: Secrets of Ship Navigation". The Captain, full of humor and interesting information, played to a full house.
F. Port Talks
If you like to shop and only take shore Celebrity excursions (or are otherwise looking to take a nap) then "Port Talks" are for you. They will highlight the excursions available through Celebrity and the port shopping opportunities that partner with Celebrity. I understand this is a commercial venture. Conversely, there is a definite hunger for good port information for do-it-yourselfers that is severely lacking on Celebrity.
Along this same line, Celebrity provides each cabin with a map of the next day's port. The bits of the town that they map is very clear and easy to read. However, this is not a map you want to use for sightseeing. The map is typically only useful for finding the recommended stores mentioned at the "port talks". Either bring good port maps with you or seek out Tourist Information booths for free maps.
Booths aren't always open and the maps vary significantly in usefulness depending upon the port. In general, fee maps from Western Mediterranean ports were better than those from Eastern Mediterranean ports.
The Fortunes Casino (amidship Deck 4) is filled with slot machines, two Craps tables, two roulette tables (1 American, 1 European), a few blackjack tables, texas hold 'em table, three card poker table, and a bar with flatscreen tv's. The casino was open while at sea and closed while in ports. The Casino is a fresh-air, non-smoking, environment. Kudos to Celebrity for their non-smoking policy.
H. Movies and TV Channels
Movies are available on your TV and nightly in Celebrity Central on Deck 4 and occassionally on the Jumbotron on Deck 15. Some of the movies shown included "Shape of Water", "Earth: One Amazing Day", "The Square", "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool", "Loveless", "The Time of Their Lives", "Una", "I, Tonya", "Thor Ragnarock", and "Red Sparrow". Your TV includes both pay-per-view and a dozen free on-demand movies (some of the same offerings as above). Satellite TV channels were very limited. They included several ship-related channels, 4 news stations, 3 sports stations (MLB is not shown), Travel, HGTV, and Food Channel. You can also order room service and check your current account balance on the TV as well.
I. Canyon Ranch SpaClub
This full-service spa is located on Deck 12. "The Persian Garden" (free for AquaClass passengers, fee for others) features steam rooms, infrared sauna, aromatic steam room with a mixture of warm steam and aromatherapy, sensory rainforest showers, and a dozen heated-tile loungers with awesome floor to ceiling exterior views accompanied by the calming music.
J. Outdoor Pools and Hot Tubs
There are six hot tubs and two outdoor pools along with an indoor pool (Solarium) on Deck 14. We did not use the pools. I found the hot tubs needed to be at least 10-degrees hotter.
K. The Lawn Club
Located on open-air Deck 15 aft, The Lawn Club features real grass to enjoy under foot along with lawn games like Bocce (lawn bowling), putting, and croquet.
Part V - Parties
A. Cruise Critic Rollcall Gathering
Our rollcall group met for sailaway drinks shortly after muster drill at the Sunset Bar, Deck 15 aft. This is a great bar for frozen drinks. The mango daiquiri is excellent.
B. Cruise Critic Connections Party
We signed up for the Cruise Critic party on the Celebrity web site. We received an invitation to the party taking place just after sailaway in the Conference Center on Deck 4. It was packed! We had a great time meeting and greeting other addicted cruise critics. The Cruise Director was in attendance along with several of the ships key officers and the Captain's Club representative.
C. Theme Parties
Due to being late at night, we missed all of the theme parties: Totally 80's Party, Silent Disco, Full Moon Party, Masque Interactive Theme Party, Mirage Party, ABBAmania, Groove Interactive Theme Party, Silent Disco Part II, Disco Never Dies, and a British Invasion Night.
D. Captain's Club Parties
Members of Captain's Club had access to parties depending upon your level. Elite members were invited to a Captain's Club Celebration and a Senior Officer's Party.
Part VI - Health Concerns
Celebrity does this right! There was no smoking in the restaurants, casino, lounges, Reflections Theater, cabins or verandas. Smoking was permitted outside on the port side and rear of the ship. We are very sensitive to smoke and applaud Celebrity on it's smoking policy. The ship's environment was very enjoyable. We did not observe anyone abusing the smoking privilege.
B. Pools and Hot Tubs
We did not witness any babies in the pools or tubs.
C. General Cleanliness of the Ship
You could not take a stroll without witnessing some type of cleaning going on at all hours. The ship was constantly being cleaned or painted: floors, walls, fixtures, everything! The ship appears to be in really good shape.
To the best of our knowledge, there was no outbreak on our ship. Kudos to our fellow passengers and Celebrity personnel for their personal diligence.
Overall, we had beautiful weather and fairly calm seas. Almost like glass a couple of days. Until a couple voyages ago, I always alternated half of a patch behind my ears for the duration of the voyage. This trip I again tried going unmedicated. It generally went well as I never got seasick. I did get low-grade headaches on our two roughest days at sea, despite waves being no worse than 2-5 feet.
F. Drinking Water
All Celebrity ships have their own desalination and purification process. The drinking water on Reflection was excellent.
Part VII - Ship Notes
A. Ship and Crew
The ship was under the command of Captain Dimitrios Kafetzis. We were very impressed with the ship, captain, and his crew. Very friendly and competent. The ship and furnishings were in very good shape. She was very clean.
B. Our Cabin Steward
Our room steward (Dewa) did a great job with our cabin (no complaints). He kept the room clean and bed made.
C. The Shops
We're not shoppers. You'll find jewelry, watches, clothes, sundries, and souvenirs. Merchandise did not rotate very much. There was something on sale each day.
D. Internet Service
There are about 16 computers available in the Celebrity iLounge located midship on Deck 6, and while busy at times there always seemed to be an available computer to use. All had internet service and free printing capability. It was nice to be able to use our Elite benefit good for 90 free minutes. The internet was slow, but better than what we experienced on Equinox three years ago. Wi-fi was also available for use on your phone, and there is a keyboard to access the internet in your cabin too (though we didn't test it).
How to Access the Ship's Wi-Fi:
- Turn on your phone's Wi-Fi.
- Open Chrome or another browser and go to site: Logon.com
- Create account
- Select a plan (including the 90-minute free Elite benefit option)
- Enjoy the internet. It works best in public areas. Not so good in most cabins.
- Important: when you finish using the internet, your time will continue to tick unless you specifically logout.
- Open Chrome or another browser and go to site: Logoff.com
- You'll see a screen showing your remaining time left that you can use. At that point you're officially logged out.
We saw a few kids and a couple of babies on board. All were well behaved.
F. Dress Code
Formal nights have been replaced with "Evening Chic". We had 2 evening chic nights and 9 smart casual nights. Most men were well dressed (with jackets and ties) on evening chic nights, and most of the women dressed up.
Evening Chic is dressier than Smart Casual but intended to be less dressy than Formal attire. "Get glamorous and be sophisticated in your own way". Women should feel comfortable wearing:
A cocktail dress or a skirt, pants or designer jeans with an elegant top. Men should feel comfortable wearing: pants or designer jeans with a dress shirt, button-down long-sleeve shirt or sweater. A sport coat or blazer is optional but was also the norm.
With "Smart Casual" women should feel comfortable wearing skirt, pants or jeans with a casual top, and men should feel comfortable wearing pants or jeans with a sport shirt.
Note that T-shirts, swimsuits, robes, bare feet, tank tops, baseball caps and pool wear are not allowed in the main dining room or specialty restaurant at any time. Shorts and flip-flops are not allowed in the evening hours. The dress code will be enforced at all restaurants. Guests are asked to follow the dress code in the Reflections Theater for all evening performances.
G. Time Changes
The ship stayed on "local/port time". All of the ports from Italy to Gibraltar are all on the same time zone.
The ship docked at all but one port, which made getting off the ship really easy. The gangplank was typically on Deck 2, but was sometimes on Deck 5 --- depending upon the tide and facilities at the port. We tendered in only one port: Villefrance (Nice). Tendering involves taking a small boat of 100 to 300 passengers from ship to shore, and back again. Tender priority is first given to passengers on Celebrity's tours (which is as good a reason as any to book a ship's tour in a tender port, especially if it's an ocean-related tour), then to Suites, Elite, Elite Plus and Zenith.
On prior cruises we received tender tickets. Essentially the lower your number, the earlier you can get off the ship. On this cruise we were simply invited to report to a specific lounge between 8:30 am and 11:00 am (the expected busy tender time) to be escorted to the tenders, but we didn't take advantage of this service. Instead, we simply went straight to the tenders on Deck 2 at 7:00 am when we were cleared and caught the first tender off the ship.
I. Upon Returning to the Ship
When you return to the queue to re-board the ship after a day in port, you are greeted with ice cold hand towels and fruit-infused water. This is a really nice Celebrity touch.
J. Solstice Deck
At the very top of the ship (forward) is a nice, quiet deck with lots of chairs and loungers available. While it can be breezy with little shade here, the deck is also uncrowded and pretty quiet. There is no elevator access.
Part VIII - Tipping
The service personnel on Celebrity receive meager wages and rely on your tips for income. While Celebrity says it is customary to offer gratuities to the ship's personnel who service you on the voyage, it is now entirely expected and you should figure the cost into your cruise budget. The ship's personnel work long hours to service you and the other passengers, and the bulk of their pay has increasing been borne directly by the passengers rather than the cruiseline.
Celebrity Cruises automatically adds gratuities to your onboard Seapass account. The "suggested" gratuities can either be prepaid or added to your account on a daily basis. The cost is $13.50 per day, per passenger for most cabins. It's $14/day/pp for Concierge Class and AquaClass, and $17/day/pp for suites. The gratuities are shared by your stateroom service, waiter, assistant waiter, dining room management, other service personnel (and concierge or butler, if applicable). If you wish to adjust the amount you pay (up or down), this can be done onboard the ship at Guest Relations on Deck 4. Gratuities for 10 days for two passengers in an Concierge Class Cabin totalled $308.
An 18 percent gratuity is automatically added to all bar bills, unless you have a beverage package --- in which case it's already built in. You should also tip for room service, extra to your favorite bartenders, the Sommelier, and any other personnel you wish to reward.
Part IX - Captain's Club
If you have taken a previous voyage and are not a member of the Captain's Club, sign up. It's free. Benefits include a Captain's Club express line at Embarkation, priority Disembarkation, some small cabin welcome gifts (my wife likes the Celebrity travel tote), casino and spa discounts, and a one cabin upgrade when booking. Some exclusions apply. Elite members also receive 90 free minutes of internet, and some valuable laundry services. Elite members were invited to a free wine-tasting seminar, a Backstage Tour, and an Elegant Tea; as well as breakfast in the Tuscan Grill and a Private Departure Lounge. Elite members also have access to the Sky Lounge for free drinks and canapes between the hours of 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm. If both husband and spouse are members, then you each get all of the benefits.
Here's a review of the Elite Benefits
A. Priority embarkation while boarding the ship
On the first half of this cruise, we arrived at the pier about 12:45 pm, gave our luggage and a tip to a baggage handler and immediately entered the terminal. Security took 5 minutes and we headed to Celebrity Check-in. Priority lines were set up for Suites, Aqua Class, Concierge, Elites and Select members, and a line for all others. In any case, the lines were minimal. Once in line, we waited until being directed to one of about two dozen Celebrity check-in agents. The agent checked our passports, credit card, and embarkation form. Within 10 minutes we had our Seapass (which is used as your ship ID, ship credit card, and door key).
Boarding had begun before we arrived, so we headed straight for the ship. A couple more security checks later, we were on the Reflection. An attendant greeted us with champagne. Cabins were already ready, so we headed straight for our cabin.
B. Access to the Captain's Club Lounge for daily coffee house style breakfast
This lounge is located in the beautiful Tuscan Grille, located on Deck 5 aft. It's open daily from 8:00 am to 10:00 am. This was formerly a continental-style buffet. Now it's a full-service venue with a limited menu. Food quality is high and service is attentive. Despite this, my wife preferred the former arrangement.
C. Captain's Club Elite Cocktail Hour (excludes embarkation day)
This lounge is located in the Sky Lounge on Deck 14 forward and is open from 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm. Menu-specific drinks included wine, well drinks, soda, juices, Heineken, Bud light, and O'Douls. They also served appetizers. Due to the number of Elite members on this voyage, the Seapass was loaded with 3 free drink coupons each night good at any bar in lieu of Sky Lounge-only service, though the venue was still reserved for Elite members during this time and canapes were served.
D. Complimentary 90-minute Internet package
The Celebrity iLounge is located amidship on Deck 6. They have about 16 computers and 2 free printers. It's open 24 hours with limited staffing during daylight hours. It was nice to be able to use our Elite benefit good for 90 free minutes. The internet was slow, but better than what we experienced on Equinox three years ago. Wi-fi was also available for use on your phone, and there is a keyboard to access the internet in your cabin too (though we didn't test it).
E. Complimentary access to Persian Garden (on one port day of your choice while ship is in port)
"The Persian Garden", located in the Canyon Ranch SpaClub on Deck 12, features steam rooms, infrared sauna, aromatic steam room with a mixture of warm steam and aromatherapy, sensory rainforest showers, and a dozen heated-tile loungers with awesome floor to ceiling exterior views accompanied by the calming music.
F. One complimentary bag of laundry (wash, dry, fold)
This is one of the most appreciated benefits as it allowed us to pack lighter. They will wash and fold up to 30 pieces. On day 2 we gave them a bag a laundry and again on day 8. You also can get 2 items pressed and 1 item dry cleaned.
G. A private shipboard departure lounge, serving continental breakfast
We had the option to sit in the Elite departure lounge located in Tuscan Grille.
H. Priority Tender Service in Tender Ports of Call
We tendered in only one port: Villefrance (Nice). Tender priority is first given to passengers on Celebrity's tours (which is as good a reason as any to book a ship's tour in a tender port, especially if it's an ocean-related tour), then to Suites, Elite, Elite Plus and Zenith.
On prior cruises we received tender tickets. On this cruise we were simply invited to report to a specific lounge between 8:30 am and 11:00 am (the expected busy tender time) to be escorted to the tenders.
I. Priority wait list in Main Dining Room
We requested the 6:00 pm "Early" seating in the Main Dining Room and we got it.
J. Elegant Tea invitation
We received an invitation for tea for the final sea day. It was held in Blu Restaurant. Due to competing events, we did not attend the tea.
K. Backstage Tour invitation
We received an invitation for a Backstage Tour on Day 8 in the Reflections Theater. Due to competing events, we did not attend the tour.
L. Other coupons and benefits that may also be applicable to Classic and Select club members
Complimentary Wine Tasting: We received an invitation for wine tasting in the OPUS Restaurant at 2:00 pm on the day we left Gibraltar early.
Senior Officers Party: We received an invitation for this cocktail party on day 9. It was held in Sky Lounge.
Gift: My wife received a rose and a nice note on day 2.
Other useful coupons: Double payout on any $5 1-to-1 Roulette or Blackjack wager, discounts on wine and various spa services.
Part X - Concierge Class Benefits
A. Cabin Upgrades
Concierge Class cabins on Deck 9 all have a veranda (balcony) and feature a few upgrades over regular Veranda Staterooms: a Concierge (Estelle) who can "arrange anything from specialty dining reservations to shore excursions" as well as reconfirm air reservations and seat assignments at the end of the cruise; a bottle of sparkling wine; selection of fresh fruits and canapes delivered each afternoon; nice thick bathrobes (the regular ones are rather small and thin); use of a golf umbrella and binoculars; a rather nice Celebrity tote bag (gift); Celebrity embossed key holder (gift); enhanced room service breakfast menu; complementary shoeshine service; a fancier showerhead (yes, it was good); footstools on the veranda; a pillow menu; and 5 Captain Club points per person per night (a bonus of 2 over a standard Veranda Stateroom, and 3 more points per day per person than our Oceanview Stateroom). This last benefit is rather important for folks working their way up in the loyalty tiers.
B. Special Event
Concierge Class passengers were invited to a Sail In To Barcelona Experience with some Senior Officers on the Helipad for about an hour as we were coming into port. Yes, this was a very cool experience and the officers were friendly and provided a lot of good port information to anyone asking questions.
C. Pillow Menu
We were invited to use special pillows. Simply ask your cabin attendant and he will bring them.
- Body Pillow (fellow and down)
- Hypo Allergenic Pillow
- Swedish Isotonic Pillow (I used this one and enjoyed it).
Part XI - The Ports
A little information about us: we are in our late 50's and don't exercise regularly. This doesn't stop us from getting an early start to our day and exploring each port, usually on foot, and we have no problem jumping on local buses and metros. We thoroughly research each port for months in advance of our trip (and thus you'll significantly benefit from this report). We get a lot out of each day but, where possible, it's more important to us to spend time experiencing a few points of interest rather than doing a flyby been-there-seen-it-move-on Clark Griswold tour.
Each port has a lot to see and do --- some more than others. Therefore we can't see everything we want to see if we're going to spend time doing it, so we had to prioritize our sightseeing while leaving time to walk and enjoy the ports. We also hired tours when they offered a specialized experience or saved us from having to spend time in long lines. A good tour guide can really enrich your visit. I can't stress enough how much you can see and do between 7:00 am and 9:00 am in the morning, before the heavy crowds materialize. It's absolutely charming. I won't delve into too much detail in my descriptions of each place we visited as it could fill a novel. Instead, I'll look to just give you a quick idea and you can Google them to learn more.
A note about tours: We are major proponents of getting off the ship as early as possible and exploring each port. We didn't take a single ship-sponsored tour on this entire cruise. We have taken 2 or 3 ship's tours over our lifetime --- when the tour we wanted was far from the port and we were willing to pay up for the assurance we'd get back to the ship in time or when the tour we wanted was otherwise unavailable from a private tour operator.
Why take a private tour? We've taken over 4 dozen private tours and we have never failed to get back to the ship with plenty of time to spare. Private tours are significantly less expensive and have significantly fewer passengers. This makes them customizable, quicker, and more nimble to go places the big tours can't. All this helps (but doesn't guarantee) a better sightseeing experience. The key is to do your research to find the best tours and either join or build a group of 6 to 12 passengers to make the tour really affordable. The good news for you is that I've done a lot of the research for you.
A. Rome, Italy (Pre-Cruise)
Our Rome stay actually occurred just prior to the first half of our back-to-back cruise. It is being provided again to assist folks who are thinking of spending time in Rome before or after their Western Mediterranean cruise.
We stayed 3 nights at the Vittoriano Luxury Suites. It's on the 4th floor of a building in a great location just 3 blocks south of the Pantheon. The hotel is serviced by a small elevator and a very friendly and helpful staff. They only have 6 rooms of varying sizes. We booked the Matrimoniale Superior (Room 102). It is a very modern and comfortable room with free wi-fi, and includes a nice buffet breakfast each morning. Highly recommended. We walked to many of the major sites in Rome (for example: Pantheon - 5 minutes, Emanuele Monument - 10 minutes, Capitoline Museum - 10 minutes, Piazza Navona - 10 minutes, Trevia Fountain - 15 minutes, Colosseum - 20 minutes, Spanish Steps - 20 minutes) and caught a bus to The Vatican. Although The Vatican is also walkable in 35 minutes, a bus stop is just a half block away.
ROME DAY 1: Pantheon, Emanuele Monument, Chiesa di Sant' Ignazio di Loyola church, Piazza Navona and More...
We arrived from the airport too early to check in to our room but were invited to enjoy a free breakfast and leave our bags until the room was ready. After breakfast, we left to explore the area on foot. Hint: Rome is 6 hours earlier than Eastern Standard Time. To better acclimate to the new time zone, it's advised to keep active during daylight hours and not to nap. Out first stop was the Pantheon, just 5 minutes away.
The Pantheon is a former Roman temple built circa 120 A. D. It's now a church and a tomb (including Renaissance artist Raphael, and a couple of Italian Kings) so reverence is to be observed. The most impressive feature of the Pantheon's architecture is its domed ceiling with an oculus in the top. This dome is still the world's largest unsupported dome at 142 feet.
After about an hour, we wandered the streets for about 8 to 10 blocks in all directions just for fun and to get our bearings. (Hint: the free tourist newspaper-thin map of Rome is worthless. Bring a small decent street map with you). We explored several churches, Emanuele Monument, and came across several other monuments including Trajan's Column, Elephant and Obelisk, the ornately carved Column of Marcus Aurelius, Largo di Torre Argentina, Piazza Navona, and the Temple of Hadrian. Late in the afternoon we found ourselves at the Spanish Steps (pretty, but overrated).
You will get thirsty walking around Rome. However, you'll never need to buy water. Just carry a water bottle. Rome has 2500 drinking water fountains --- some are more ornate than others. The water is pure spring water piped in from the mountains above the city via an aqueduct created centuries ago. Hint: If you don't have a water bottle just cover the spout with your finger and water will come out of a small hole in the top.
We chose a couple of cafes with outdoor seating and free wi-fi for lunch and dinner. Both were good (but not spectacular) for food and people watching. More than anything else, they gave us a chance to rest.
ROME DAY 2: The Colosseum, The Forum, Trevia Fountain, Chiesa de Gesu, Capitoline Museum, and More...
Since we went to bed early last night, we were up early and arrived at the Trevia Fountain by 7:00 am, an easy 15 minute walk. There were very few visitors when we arrived and it was easy to take good pictures and enjoy the fountain. By 7:50 am, the tour groups and crowds began arriving in ernest so we headed for Chiesa de Gesu Catholic Church, a block from our hotel.
While the exterior is nondescript, it hides one of the most impressive interiors we saw in all of Rome. In addition to the magnificent frescoes on the ceiling (including a "dome" which is actually an optical illusion) and the beautiful architecture, Chiesa de Gesu also has a pair of relics: a chapel with the tomb of Saint Ignatiusa; and a reliquary containing the right arm of Saint Francis Xavier. He was co-founder of the Jesuits. It was said this arm baptized 300,000 people. If you want to see the rest of his body, it's entombed in Goa, India.
We headed over to the Capitoline Museum (Musei Capitolini) which is close to the Emanuele Monument. This is the first site we visited that required admission (€15) and it was well worth it. This immense museum is comprised of a pair of buildings on either side of a square designed by Michelangelo. We spent 2.5-hours exploring the museum and want to go back to see everything we missed. It's filled with paintings and sculptures, bronzes, and statues; including originals of the Capitoline Wolf Suckling Romulus and Remus, Marcus Aurelius, Dying Gaul, and Discobolus (Discus Thrower). While exploring one of the lower floors, I came across a breathtaking passage with a panoramic views of the Forum and Palatine Hill.
We grabbed a quick bite to eat from a cafe on our way to the Colosseum for our 1:30 pm tour "Colosseum Arena Floor with Roman Forum". We booked this 2.5 hour tour online in advance with The Roman Guy for €49 per person (using a 10% off "ricksteves" discount code). It was well worth it. Our meeting place was just outside the Metro station across from the Colosseum (one of two places on this trip that gave us goosebumps just being there. It truly is an impressive site). Our group was small, with only 9 folks including our knowledgeable English-speaking guide. She gave us some history and an overview before we went inside. We skipped the ticket line and our security line took less than 2 minutes since we were able to enter through the lesser used "Gate of Death" on the backside of the structure. We went up some stairs, through an arch, and found ourselves on the reconstructed arena floor for about 15-20 minutes. This was AWESOME!
Only about 25% of the arena floor has been rebuilt, giving you a glimpse at what it once looked like as well as excellent views of the underground hypogeum and a rebuilt animal trap door. From here we explored a couple different levels of the Colosseum (but not the underground nor the recently opened upper lever Bob Uecker seats, which require a different access pass).
Leaving the Colosseum, we walked past the Arch of Constantine to the Arch of Titus at the entrance to the Roman Forum. Our escorted tour included Julius Caesar's Temple, The Eternal Flame, Vestal Virgins Atrium, Senate House, Basilica of Atoninous and Faustina, Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine. Following the tour, we briefly hiked up Palatine Hill for some light exploring before heading back towards our hotel. We located a small grocery store where we purchased fresh bread, smoked meats and cheese, and took them back to the hotel to make a sandwich for dinner.
ROME DAY 3: The Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica, Scavi Tour, Castel Sant'Angelo, and More...
We got up early and took a 6:15 am bus to The Vatican (the smallest county in the world at 109 acres) for our "First Entry: Express Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums Entrance Tickets" tour, prebooked online with Dark Rome (City Wonders) for $58.75 per person (after discount). This tour granted us pre-ticketed special entrance access to the Sistine Chapel at 7:30 am. The selling point for this tour was access "30 minutes before any other group and 90 minutes before the general public, finding this incredible room empty" along with a group size of 20 people or less. We met our group across the street from the Entrance to the Vatican Museum at 7:00 am. Our tour guide led us into the museum, through the Gallery of the Candelabra, Gallery of Tapestries, and Gallery of Maps, to the Sistine Chapel where we had a lot of room to view and enjoy Michaelangelo's work. At 8:30 am, we had the option to exit the Sistine Chapel via a special skip-the-line exit to St. Peter's Basilica, or go back into the museum, unescorted, to explore. We chose to explore.
Our tour guide was good, the museum spectacular, the 90 minute jump start on crowds and the special skip-the-line access to St. Peter's Basilica were priceless. With 20,000 visitors a day, the Vatican gets very crowded. While the tour was entirely worth it, City Wonders didn't meet their promises. Our group was over the size limit by 15% and we had around four dozen other visitors in the Sistine Chapel with us when it opened. However, contrast this with the enormous hard-to-move-around crowds we encountered after 9:00 am and we considered ourselves very fortunate to have selected an early-entry tour.
Our second tour for the day was "The Scavi Tour". It was scheduled for 11:15 am, with an 11:00 am meeting time about a block from St. Peter's Basilica. This gave us only about 90 minutes to explore a few key exhibits in the Vatican Museum before exiting at 10:00 am via a special skip-the-line tour group exit for a quick visit to St. Peter's Basilica. This exit allows you to enter St. Peter's Basilica without going all the way back to the museum exit, walking 10-15 minutes to the Basilica, and then waiting in a two hour line! I'm told that this line, which we saw snaking all the way across St. Peter's Square in the sun, is a fairly constant 2.5-hour line all day long. While it's actually free to get into the Basilica, it's worth booking an official vatican partner tour just to skip this line.
St. Peter's Basilica is the largest "church" in the world. The opulence is breathtaking, from the high ornate ceilings (the dome is 385 feet up) and statuary to the marble and gold that is employed throughout. If you have time, visit The Vatican Grottoes. They are in the level below the floor of St. Peter's where many popes are buried. You can access the Grottoes by taking the stairs near the papal altar.
Below the Grottoes is the ancient Necropolis and excavations of St. Peter's tomb. These can only be seen on The Scavi Tour. The tour features everything from papal tombs to an ancient Roman street and St. Peter’s mausoleum. This incredible 90-minute escorted tour into the Excavations of the Necropolis (City of the Dead) underneath St. Peter's Basilica, is one of the most fascinating tours we took our entire trip. It's also one of the toughest tickets to come by in the Eternal City. Only around 250 visitors per day are permitted to enter, and groups are composed of approximately 12 people. Tickets (a bargain at just €13 per person) can only be purchased in advance (typically months in advance), via their official website.
The Scavi office is accessed on the left (south) side of the colonnade (columns) as you're facing the Basilica, through the Sant' Uffico gate. They do not let you go through security until it is almost time for your tour. Go through security, show the Swiss Guards your reservation and say "Scavi". You then walk to the Scavi office which is a short walk up a driveway and to the right where you'll be checked in. If you are late, they will leave without you. Our tour guide was excellent and he was full of good historical information. This tour literally ends inside the main floor of St. Peter's Basilica. Had we not already explored it earlier, this would have been a good time to do so.
After lunch we walked over to Castel Sant'Angelo, also known as Hadrian's Tomb. It's a 139 A.D. fortress located on the bank of the Tiber, close to the Vatican City. The castle (€14) offers some interesting rooms and panoramic views from the top. Unfortunately you need to pay extra for a tour that runs only twice a day in English that will take you into the interesting subterranean sections, like the prison. The castle once protected the Ponte Sant'Angelo (Bridge of Hadrian) which now features a series of angelic statues.
B. La Spezia, Italy & Cinque Terre, Italy (7:00 am - 7:00 pm)
La Spezia is a coastal port city in northwestern Italy. Most folks take excursions rather than explore the port city itself. Among your choices here:
Since you cannot walk on the pier, Celebrity provides free shuttles from the ship to the Largo Fiorello Port Entrance. It takes just 5 minutes. Walk through the small terminal and you'll see taxis lined up across from the port traffic circle. The earlier you get off the ship the more time you will have to explore.
- Explore the city of La Spezia: Highlights include walking around the picturesque waterfront parks, The Italian Naval Technical Museum, Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, Chiesa di Nostra Signora della Neve church, and San Giorgio Castle.
- Visit Cinque Terre: Located Northwest of La Spezia, Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is comprised of 5 very picturesque coastal villages and the first village is just 10 minutes away by train.
- Visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa: about a 75-minute train ride to an iconic site.
- Visit Florence: 2 hours each way.
- Visit other quaint towns: Camogli, Chiavari, Genoa, Rapallo, and Santa Margherita Ligure are also accessible by train.
- Other nearby options: Visit Isola Palmaria, Parco Naturale Regionale di Porto Venere, and Lerici.
We considered visiting the Leaning Tower of Pisa since it's very easy to get to Pisa by train from La Spezia. You can take the regional train that leaves La Spezia Centrale at 9:12 AM on weekdays and Saturdays, arriving at Pisa San Rossore at 10:20 am. The fare is €5,20 in second class and €7,80 in first. "San Rossore" is the station where you get off since it's only a 5 minute walk to the tower at Piazza dei Miracoli. (Don't wait for "Pisa Centrale"). If you're traveling all the way there, you'll likely want to climb the tower, in which case you should reserve your tickets in advance.
We decided instead on visiting Cinque Terre, a series of five very picturesque fishing villages on the coast, just northwest of the port. Cinque Terre means "The Five Lands". They are also known for their terraces of olives and grapes (and you guessed it, locally produced wines). Although we considered taking a ferry to Cinque Terre, we instead took the train as it got us there quicker and much earlier. The train was also less expensive and made it easy to move from village to village.
I understand you can walk from the port to the train station. We are really glad we didn't. Six of us got off the ship about 7:00 am and shared a €20 cab ride to La Spezia Centrale train station. (Yes, it's further away than La Spezia Migliarina terminal but their trains to Cinque Terre don't start running until 10:46 AM; and yes, cabs to and from the port are expensive although I understand a cab for 4 is €15).
All six of us had purchased our 1-day Cinque Terre Train (Treno) Card online before we left the states. The cost when visiting from April 1 to November 1 is €16 pp. The Treno gives you unlimited train travel for the day between La Spezia and the 5 Cinque Terre villages, along with admission to the walking paths of Cinque Terre, free wi-fi at the train stations, and use of the Cinque Terre shuttle bus between Corniglia station and the village of Corniglia in the hill above --- allowing you to avoid the stairs. Additional helpful information can be found here
One of the charms of the villages are the walking trails included with the Treno pass. Most of the trails are best left for folks spending more than one day in port, or who have chosen not to visit all of the villages. We actually wanted to walk one easy coastal trail, the Manarola to Riomaggiore segment known as "Via dell'Amore", but I learned that it won’t reopen until at least 2021.
If you don't buy tickets in advance you can queue up and buy them at the train station. I've read warnings were you must stamp the Cinque Terre Card into one of the validating machines at the train station before taking your first train. Failure could subject you to fines if you are randomly checked by a conductor. The printed online passes will not fit in a validation machine (I tried) and apparently are not a problem (as we were indeed randomly checked by a conductor, while riding the wrong train).
From La Spezia, the 5 villages in order of distance are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso el Mare. By train, it's only 10 minutes to the nearest village in Riomaggiore and 25 to the furthest in Monterosso. Trains run at least every 30 minutes but not all trains stop at all stations. Our plan was to take a train to the further town first (Monterosso) and then work our way back towards the port.
Once at La Spezia Centrale, with preprinted tickets in hand, we simply looked for the platform that had the first train heading for Cinque Terre. The final train destination was Levorno. We got off in Monterosso about 25 minutes later. There is a little Cinque Terre office in the station with really helpful folks. Show your pre-printed passes and they will give you a map, a train timetable, and your personal wi-fi password.
Monterosso is the most northern and western, and second largest, of the villages. We exited the station and found ourselves overlooking a very pretty and impossibly empty beach on a clear blue sea. This is by far the largest beach in Cinque Terre, and we figured it was a good time to tip our toes in the Mediterranean. It was cold. In the summer, Monterosso would make for a nice beach day.
Walking 4 blocks North (to your right as you face the water) you'll come across IL GIGANTE (The Giant), a pretty cool statue that you can't currently see because it's being rebuilt. So we walked South instead, around the point and into the old town. There was almost no one on the beach or in town while we were there. It was a great start to our day.
Next up was Vernazza, about 10 minutes away, but I led our party onto the express train to La Spezia by accident. This is where we were randomly checked for tickets. 40 minutes, and two trains later, we were finally in Vernazza.
Vernazza is a beautiful small fishing village surrounded by steeply-terraced olive groves and colorful houses. It usually ranks as one of everyone's favorite villages. Follow the crescent-shaped road downhill from the train station, past shops, a farmers market (with huge sweet peppers over twice the size of your fist) and cafes, to the rocky waterfront with a beautiful piazza right on a little beach.
A rock wall protects a small natural harbour. We shared a Margherita slice (€3) from the Focacceria to hold us until lunch.
Our next stop was Corniglia, an ancient Roman town with grape vine terraces and no port. We got off the train and headed straight for the shuttle bus behind the station to take us up the hill to Corniglia. For whatever reason, the shuttle bus was not running on May 8 and rather that walk up the 377 - 382 stairs (depending upon the source) we jumped back on the train.
Although beachless, we found Manarola's coastal view to be the most picturesque. She's the second smallest of the villages. Colorful village pictures can be yours by following the pedestrian pathway to the right from the crystal clear waterfront. This is where we had hoped to walk the beautiful shoreline trail that ends at the Riomaggiore train station, but since it is closed we simply took the train.
Riomaggiore is the largest, easternmost, and southernmost of the five coastal villages. It has two halves linked by a long tunnel from the train station. After visiting the waterfront half, we found lunch at Il Grottino on the mountain side. They specialize in fresh fish and pasta, with a local house red wine that accompanies both really well.
We took a train back to La Spezia Centrale train station and 10 minutes later caught a taxi back to the port. Had the La Spezia Migliarina train come first we might have taken that one and walked back to the port. I understand it's a pleasant 1.25-mile (20 to 30 minute) walk from that station.
Once you get used to finding the right platform and learn to read the monitors, the trains are a fun, quick, inexpensive and easy way around Cinque Terre from La Spezia. We completed our tour of the Cinque Terre including lunch in Riomaggiore in 6 hours, so we had time to spare in returning to the ship.
C. Villefrance (Nice), France & Monte Carlo, Monaco (7:00 am - 6:00 pm)
Villefrance (Nice) was the only port on this cruise where every ship has to tender. We got in line for the tender about 7:15 am and just missed catching the first boat to shore. Other than the time spent loading the boat, it was a quick 10-15 minute trip to shore. We exited the tender, walked through a small cruise terminal and found ourselves on the street. Citadelle Saint-Elme, a 16th Century fort with museums and gardens, is to your left.
Lots of folks explored Villefrance and many went to Nice. We set our sights on Monte Carlo, Monaco; the second smallest country in the world, after The Vatican. We visited #1 while we were in Rome. How could we pass up a bucketlist opportunity to visit #2 on the same trip?
The original plan was to simply walk to our right about 10 minutes to the Villefrance train station and catch a quick 10-15 minute train (€3 Euros) to Monte Carlo, Monaco. What could be easier? Well, we were thwarted by a rail strike which cancelled most, but not all, trains in France. It was announced well in advance so, not to be deterred, we went with plan B.
We took the bus (just €1,50 pp each way, pay when you get on). The only problem in taking the bus is you have to walk up a hill. Everyone will tell you how horribly difficult this task is and look at you like you're crazy to attempt it. Ignore them. From the port, you walk uphill and slightly to the left and follow the bus stop signs to the Octroi bus stop. When going to Monte Carlo, simply wait at the covered bus stop on the sea side of the street (Avenue Du Marechal Foch) in front of a small park (Jardin François Binon Community Garden). There is a tourist information booth, open odd hours, on one corner of the park.
Your return stop is across the street by the stores. Buses run about every 15 minutes and it's normally a 20-minute ride. Take the #100 or #100X eastbound "Menton" bus to Monte Carlo. The road was more congested today due to the train strike and it took 45 minutes to get to Monte Carlo.
It's easy to miss the border crossing. It's a non-event, no different from driving from one town into another. Ask the bus driver to drop you off at the palace stop. It's the second stop in Monaco. Get off and follow the sidewalk to the right and up the ramp to the Prince's Palace.
There is lots to do up here. In no particular order: we enjoyed the great views of the mountains, sea, spectacular marinas, and surrounding areas (You can easily see the stands and the street barrier preparations for The Grand Prix which runs here in late May); walked the gardens; watched the changing of the guards (11:55 am); visited the Saint Nicholas Cathedral where Princess Grace (Kelly) and Prince Rainer are buried; and two blocks later, explored the Oceanographic Museum (aquarium downstairs/museum upstairs).
It only takes about an hour to explore Oceanographic Museum (€14, opens at 10:00 am). Buy your tickets outside the museum to the left. The self-guided tour starts in the aquarium and leads you upstairs into the museum. Both halves were equally interesting, though kids are more likely to enjoy the aquarium. The Museum has more than 6,000 specimens on display. It's worth the visit.
After departing the museum we shared a sandwich from one of the shops and wandered the streets near the palace until the changing of the guard ceremony. These never get old. While we were practically alone when we arrived around 9:00 am, the palace ground was crowded for the 11:55 am event. Following the guard ceremony, we walked back down the ramp and checked out the shops and farmers market at the bottom of the hill.
We thought about visiting Jardin Exotique which features beautiful cactus gardens and city views high above Monte Carlo as well as a neat cave with stalactites and stalagmites. We opted to return to Villefrance and explore there instead.
Returning, we walked around the traffic circle and waited for the #100 or #100X westbound "Nice" bus across the street (Boulevard Charles III) from where the original bus dropped us off. The return trip took just 25 minutes.
At this point it was about 1:30 pm. We walked down to Citadelle Saint-Elme (Saint Elmo), located literally on the other side of the park where we got off the bus. The entrance faces the cruise terminal. While not an awesome "castle" experience, it's still worth a visit. It hosts 1 large and 3 small museums, nice gardens, statues, great views (including of the ship) and photo opportunities, has public restrooms, and it's free! We spent a leisurely hour exploring the site.
We intended to go swimming in Villefrance. This is, after all, the French Riviera! They have a great sandy beach here, just in front of the train station, not more than an easy 15 minute walk from the terminal. Had we taken the train we would have also brought our swimsuits and gone swimming upon our return from Monte Carlo. But we didn't, so we explored the town instead.
We wandered the narrow streets and climbed many sets of stairs in the main section of Villefrance just above the port. We enjoyed an awesome homemade blackberry gelato (€3,80 for 2 scoops) at Solea. This was easily the best gelato we enjoyed during our entire trip. My mouth waters just thinking about it.
Come late afternoon we headed back to the cruise terminal. Finding free wi-fi, we sat down on one of the many public benches when we got through the security checkpoint and spent maybe 30 minutes checking email and sending pictures before boarding the tender to head back to the ship.
D. Barcelona, Spain (11:00 am - Overnight - 5:00 pm)
The ship was docked overnight so we had the opportunity to spend the better part of two days in Barcelona. If you plan to stay in the city, the general wisdom is to spend the first day on a tour or HOHO bus and then take local transportation (metro and buses) to specific places you wish to explore in more detail on your second day.
When visiting Barcelona, it's important to know something about Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926), a very gifted architect with a unique modernistic/gothic/naturalist vision. Hint: you'll think you're walking into the world of Dr. Seuss. His collective works in Barcelona have been blessed as a UNESCO Heritage Centre. I recommend learning a little about Gaudí and his works before visiting.
There is a small terminal building next to the pier where we docked. However the port entrance/exit into town is a long way off. Upon exiting you can either walk a long 30 minutes; buy a shuttle day-pass from Celebrity for €5; take the T3 (aka Cruise Bus, €3 one way / €4 roundtrip) to within a half block from the Christopher Columbus Monument (essentially ground zero for most directions); arrange a tour that will pick you up here; or jump in a taxi.
There are two different double-decker HOHO (Hop On / Hop Off) buses in Barcelona. One has two routes and the other has three. The price is about the same and the reviews are mixed on both. Previous visitors liked that they will take you past all the major sights with commentary in several languages and you can get on and off at will. They didn't like that the commentary was pretty minimal and not well synched at times; and that the buses are hard to reboard due to massive crowds at some sights.
BARCELONA DAY 1: Barcelona Highlights Tour
I wanted something better than the HOHO experience so we booked a 4-hour semi-private "Barcelona Highlights Tour with Skip-the-line tickets at Park Guell" with Barcelona Day Tours online. There were 12 passengers in our van, plus a driver and a guide. Cost was €59 pp + €6 pp Park Guell tickets + tip.
Quick note: our tour guide was late, though it was due to having been involved in a traffic accident on her way to the port. This got us off to a late start and caused some confusion as we weren't really sure what our delay was. Give her credit for seeking other transportation to meet up with our van. Our group quickly forgave this unusual and unfortunate event. Thankfully our guide was not injured and was able to give us a very enthusiastic and informative tour.
We were picked up at the terminal building next to the ship, met up with our guide, and started our tour through the city. Our guide gave us historic context and explained sights as we passed them. We alternated between a driving tour and a walking tour. The walking portions included the exterior of La Sagrada Familia and two of Gaudí’s other famous buildings; about an hour touring Park Guell; and a visit to the
National Museum of Art for a bathroom break and great views of the city. Following the tour about half of the passengers got off in town and the rest of us were returned to the ship. This was an excellent overview of the city and a fun first day.
BARCELONA DAY 2: Sagrada Familia and Castell de Montjuic
If you've spent any time in Europe, you may have already gotten your fill of churches. They seem to be on every corner and many are truly spectacular. I've got news for you. Few are as breathtaking as Sagrada Familia. It's a must-see.
The #1 tourist attraction in Barcelona is Sagrada Familia, a basilica unlike any other in the world. Designed by Antoni Gaudí, its a work still in progress. While the exterior is genuinely unique --- my wife thinks it looks something like a sandcastle --- it's the interior that is jaw-dropping. Nothing really prepares you for the experience that awaits once you set foot inside.
We bought the "Basic" self-guided tour tickets (€15 pp) online at their official website for the 9:00 am entry time, which is when they open. All tickets are time-controled and they only let a set number of visitors in at 15-minute intervals. Miss your interval and you will be refused entry. However, once in, you can stay as long as you like. And they do have restrooms in the complex, but outside of the basilica on your way towards the museum, souvenir shop, and exit.
Note that you cannot upgrade your tickets upon arrival. So if you want an audioguide, a guided tour, and/or wish to climb the tower, you need to make this choice online and pay for it in advance. We bought our tickets online over a month in advance of our early May visit. No tickets were available on site the day we visited. It had sold out online. If you enjoy sightseeing without the crowds, I highly recommend you get tickets for 9:00 am.
We got off the ship at 7:30 am and shared a taxi with 2 other couples (€30 total / €5 pp) to Sagrada Familia. We arrived before 8:00 am and got a good look at many of the statues on the exterior prior to getting in line at street level for security which opened about 8:30 am. We queued a second time in the courtyard one floor above security.
If you prefer to take the metro, and the Cruise Bus is running, take the Cruise Bus to the Christopher Columbus statue. Then walk NW 2 blocks from the Christopher Columbus statue to the Drassanes Metro station. It's located just the other side of the Comandància Naval de Barcelona building. Take the green L3 metro 1 stop to Paral-lel station, then change to the L2 Purple Metro and take it directly to the Sagrada Familia stop. The Sagrada Familia can be seen immediately upon exiting the metro.
At 9:00 am the Sagrada Familia doors opened and welcomed the first group of ticketholders. There is some massing just inside the door as you become enthralled at the grand beauty and begin capturing the first of over 400 pictures. Thank goodness for digital photography! The beautiful colored light you see in my photos is natural sunlight coming through stained glass windows. The colored glass and window placements were carefull conceived and orchestrated to provide a changing light show from sun up to sun down. No artificial colored lighting is used, and most of the pillars are actually white.
We spent close to 2 hours exploring the basilica, watching the lighting change as time passed, and visiting the museum displays below the church. The church was practically empty for the first 15 minutes, but got fuller every succeeding quarter-hour. There were maybe 100 visitors when we arrived and few thousand (inside and out) when we left about 10:45 am.
Our next stop was Castell de Montjuic, a fortress with roots dating to 1640. It sits atop a 567-foot hill overlooking the port with panoramic views of the city. But first we had to get there. A metro station sits on a corner across the street from Sagrada Familia. We purchased a Metro T-10 pass which allows 10 rides for €10.20. Everyone in your party can use the same pass until its used up. This is the only place on our entire trip where our credit card didn't work. We used coins.
The metro couldn't be easier! Simply take the purple L2 metro to Paral-lel and get off at the end of the line. For reassurance, a list of stations can be found above every other door on the metro. Stations that have already passed are lit up. It's easy to see which stations are coming up and confirm the direction you are heading.
Upon arrival at Paral-lel, follow signs and board the Funicular. No additional fare required. Do not leave the station. The funicular is a 2-minute steeply angled mountain train that will take you to the Funicular du Montjuic station. From here you can walk (free; over 30-minutes uphill), get in line for the Montjuic Cable Car ride (€12.70 roundtrip/€8.40 one way; less than 5-minutes), or take the Red 150 Bus (use your T-10 pass; 10-minutes) to Castell de Montjuic.
The cable car is located on top of the Funicular du Montjuic station, while the bus stop is on the same side of the road as you exit the funicular (out the exit, slightly to your left). As my wife is afraid of heights, we opted for the bus --- and also saved €25.
Castell de Montjuic (€5, free 1st Sundays) is open 10:00 am to 8:00 pm from March 1 to October 31. We missed the opportunity to take the 90-minute english tour (€5) which runs daily at 11:00 am with an additional tour on weekends on holidays at 4:00 pm. The tour has access to "off-limits" places such as the watchtower and the cistern.
It's an impressively sturdy-looking castle with lots of good photo opportunities, including the ships in port and panoramas of the city. They also have a few small exhibits. The old weapons display, suspended in air behind glass, was by far my favorite. The fortress itself is a bit of a letdown as there are no underground passages to explore. However, the views are still worth the visit.
We returned the way we came. Red 150 bus (T10 pass) to the Funicular (T10 pass) back down to Paral-lel station. Located the green L3 line and took it one stop to Drassanes. Walked two blocks to the Christopher Columbus statue. (Can't miss it). Then another block South (towards the ship) and where we found the Cruise Buses lined up (€3 one way, if you didn't get a roundtrip ticket earlier). Tell the driver which ship you're on and he'll make sure you get off at the correct terminal.
E. Malaga, Spain (7:00 am - 7:00 pm)
Be sure to take water today. Celebrity offered a shuttle bus service for €5 pp roundtrip between the ship and Plaza de la Marina port gate. It's about a 10-minute ride. We were off the ship about 8:15 am and opted to walk into town. The ship will tell you it's a 40-minute walk. It's not. It's an easy 25 to 30-minutes --- only 15-minutes if you're just going to the marina shops (on the left) or beach (on the right). This was the largest and one of the most accessible beaches we saw the entire voyage.
Our first stop was Alcazaba, an early 11th century fortified palace featuring arches, gates, towers, and marble columns. The entrance can be difficult to find. Head for the Roman Theater entrance (to the right of the theater) and then look for signage to Alcazaba. There is also a secret entrance/exit with an elevator across the street from Calle Francisco Bejarano Robles on Calle Guillen Sotelo.
It's open from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm from April 1 to October 31. Cost is just €2,20 or you can buy a combo ticket with Gibralfaro Castle for €3,55. Both are also free every Sunday from 2:00 pm to close. However, it's worth paying a couple of euros to avoid the Sunday afternoon crowds. To get back down to the city, you can either return back to the Roman Theater or take the elevator from the Nazari Palace down to the secret street level entrance. Just for fun, we took this exit once we happened upon the elevator.
After exploring Alcazaba, we walked 10 minutes to meet up with our Free “Explore Malaga” Walking Tour that met at southeast corner of Plaza de la Constitución. We made reservations online. The tour started at 11:00 am and lasted about 2.5 hours. Our guide provided a ton of information as we made our way around town. The Malaga Cathedral is really interesting both inside and out. We tipped €25 for the two of us. The suggested tip for "free" tours is €10-15 pp.
The Roman Theater (Free) was build in the 1st century AD and used for about 200 years. A lot of its stone, marble, and columns was appropriated in the construction of Alcazaba. It's open Tuesday to Saturday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm / Sundays and holidays from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Even if it's closed you can still get good views of the theater from several vantage points.
Malaga is known for its tapas bars. We ate a light lunch, sharing 1 dish and 2 tapas at one of the cafe's near the Roman Theater before heading up to Gibralfaro Castle. The castle, built in 925 AD, is located on the hill above Alcazaba, with no easy access between the two. You can take a taxi, bus 35 (€1.95 fare), or you can do like we did and walk. (Admittedly, our first choice was the bus, but we had just missed it).
It was a 30 minute winding uphill walk with stops for pictures. (Okay, they were rest stops where we also happened to take pictures). Walk up Calle Cister, turn left onto Plaza de la Aduana, then a quick right onto Paseo Don Juan Temboury and keep left. Turn right onto Subida Coracha. Take the stairs on your left. Turn left. Quick right. Take the stairs. Long walk. Your destination will be at the top of the hill.
Since it was after 2:00 pm on a Sunday when we arrived there was no entrance fee. (Normally the cost is just €2,20 or you can buy a combo ticket with Alcazaba for €3,55). We explored the castle and took lots of pictures of the surrounding area.
Upon exiting, we bought soft drinks at a little shop near the bus stop. Before we could begin our descent, bus 35 arrived so we hopped on (€1.95 pp), rode it down to the Plaza Marina stop, and walked back to the ship from there (via a walkway past the busy marina shops).
After we departed Malaga, and just before 9:30 pm, we watched at least 5 pods of dolphins playing off the starboard side. Some pods had more than a dozen dolphins.
F. Gibraltar, United Kingdom (7:00 am - 2:00 pm)
Gibraltar is a small British territory off Spain’s southern Mediterranean coast just 2.6 square miles in size. It's the only port where the British Pound was the currency of choice. It's a heavily fortified British air and naval base that guards the Strait of Gibraltar (the only entrance to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean). The Rock of Gibraltar is made of limestone and shale and is the focal point of the peninsula.
Not really sure what was going on in this port. All signs pointed to the port being over-booked. Our original schedule was cut back by 5 hours (thankfully we got a couple months advance notice) and we saw other ships waiting in the harbor for an opportunity to berth (including the Celebrity Constellation which we passed on our way out. At one time they were scheduled to dock at 9:00 am).
There is a lot of cool things to see in Gibraltar. With our abbreviated stay, we thought it best to take a private tour that would shepherd us to all the major sights while allowing us the some flexibility at each stop. We joined the "Intermediate Tour" booked arranged by a fellow cruise critic member through Gibraltar Inside Out Rock Tours (£55 pp, plus tip, for a group of 8, which included all admission fees).
The tour takes approximately 3.5 hours and consists of 7 stops which include: 100 Ton Gun, Europa Point, The Pillars of Hercules, St Michael's Cave, Top of The Rock, Upper Apes Den, the Great Siege tunnels, Europa Point, and The Moorish Castle. We also saw the continent of Africa from several viewpoints, drove through the old town and over the airport runway towards the Spanish border.
Our first stop was St Michael's Cave inside the Rock of Gibraltar. Upon arrival we found ourselves in The Cathedral Cave, a very large cavity with great acoustics (it's even used as a concert hall) and beautiful stalactites and stalagmites highlighted by green, blue, and purple spotlights. There are several staired pathways that allow you to venture deeper. They all work their way back to the Cathedral.
From here we headed up The Rock to visit the "Rock Apes" --- about 160 tailless Barbary macaques living on the rock. They are the only population of wild monkeys in Europe. The apes are really fun to watch. Lots of picture opportunities to be had with the apes and the views. We ascended the top and headed down.
The Great Siege tunnels were built inside The Rock in the late 18th Century to defend Gibraltar against the Spanish and French forces who were trying to recapture Gibraltar from the British. The tunnels include defensive gun emplacements, uniformed mannequin, dioramas, and window holes from which you can take great pictures. It's worth walking all the way through to the other end of the tunnel.
Tunneling was expanded during the wars that followed. There are now 34 miles of tunnels, most of which are off-limits. It would have been cool to visit the World War II tunnels had we more time in Gibraltar.
There is a statue commemorating the Pillars of Hercules, the top two peaks on either side of the straight with The Rock being one of them. Jebel Musa in Morocco is thought to be the other. Beyond the pillars is the Atlantic Ocean. In antiquity, the pillars were the point of no return if you ventured beyond.
"The Moorish Castle" is really a complex with the "Tower of Homage" being its main feature. Rebuilt around 1333 AD, it's a great example of Islamic architecture. 30 minutes is plenty of time to explore the tower and climb to the top to take pictures. It's pretty steamy inside though and the passages leading downstairs were off-limits during our visit.
The 100 Ton Gun is one of two left in the world. (The other big gun is in Malta). Gibraltar's gun was never fired, and frankly it's not all that interesting. However, it does provide a good opportunity to visit the restroom here.
Europa Point and the historic 1841 Trinity House Lighthouse occupy the southernmost tip of the peninsula and offer views across the Straight of Gibraltar to Ceuta (a small independent Spanish enclave) and Morocco. Having never been to Africa, it was genuinely cool to see the Dark Continent on the other side of the Straight, less than 15 miles away. Had we been given an overnight stay in Gibraltar, I would have liked to take a day tour over to Morocco (less than 90-minutes by speedy ferry each way).
Europa Point is also home to the Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque built in the mid-1990’s with money donated by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, as well as views of the backside of The Rock.
The Gibraltar Airport's terminal building is adjacent to Gibraltar's border with Spain. The easiest way to cross the border into Spain is on foot and supposedly takes less than two minutes assuming your passport is in order. (Taxi's are prohibited to cross). The ONLY road from the boarder (Winston Churchill Avenue) literally runs across the airport's runway and is closed temporarily anytime a plane arrives or departs. We drove across the runway to the boarder and back.
This was a really fun port that I wish had a longer stay. Back on the ship, around 3:45 pm, we spotted a large pod of dolphins off the starboard side jumping out of the water 2 and 3 at a time.
G. Cartagena, Spain (7:00 am - 7:00 pm)
The port is in town, next to the marina, and doesn't require any transportation from the ship. This was a good port to sleep in since nothing opens until 10:00 am. Still, we were in the mostly vacant city by 8:30 am since it's nice to explore unimpeded by crowds. Siesta is generally from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm during the heat of the day. Shops then re-open until 10:00 or 11:00 pm.
We exited the ship, walked though the port security gate and found ourselves on a wide walkway splitting a marina in two. We wondered around town, taking exterior pictures of interesting buildings, Parque Arqueológico Cerro del Molinete, and a few other parks while we waited for the Castillo de la Concepción to open at 10:00 am.
From the port walkway, walk to the first street and turn right (don't go up the stairs). Turn left at the next street you come to and walk until you come across the Ascensor Panorámico (Panoramic Lift, €2 or €4,25 with admission to Castillo de la Concepción; climbing the lift is free). Walking to the narrow observation point as you exit the elevator to the right is a bit scary as the walkway moves a little with the wind.
Upon exiting the walkway to the left, you'll find yourselves in Parque Torres which offers walking trails, wild peacocks, and good views of your ship in port, as well as Torres Park Auditorium, and Roman Amphitheatre beyond that; especially from the expansive Plaza Puerta del la Villa lookout.
The best views of the surrounding area are reserved for visitors to the rooftop of Castillo de la Concepción, aka Castillo de los Patos. Offering 360-degree views with picture boards that pinpoint the most interesting buildings and places, the rooftop can be reached via an interior ramp or turret stairwell. The castle has some interesting displays inside as well.
Exiting Plaza Puerta del la Villa via a stairway to the north, will take you to the Puerta del la Villa ("The Door of the Villa"). Walk through this short archway tunnel and down the ramp and you'll find yourself overlooking the Roman Amphitheatre, a must-see site in Cartagena, and ruins of the Old Cathedral of Cartagena "Catedral de Santa María La Mayor" beyond.
You can get good pictures from several vantage points as you walk along the top of the amphitheater. If you wish to walk inside the amphitheater, tickets are available for €6 at the Museum (MVSEO) directly across the street from the distinctive Palace Hall of Cartagena on Plaza Ayuntamiento (about three blocks to your west).
Since the ship was so close and easily accessible, we headed back to the ship to drop off the light jackets we didn't need, stayed for lunch, and then ventured out again. We set out to see a pair of museums, the National Museum of Underwater Archaeology and the Maritime Museum.
National Museum of Underwater Archaeology (€3) is located on the marina, just 5 minutes from the ship. The Museum has a permanent exhibition in which the methodology of underwater archeology is discussed as a scientific discipline. Models, and actual recovered artifacts, help tell the story of over 2,500 years of navigational history. One highlight is a large display of coins from the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a galleon that was sunk by the British navy in 1804. 594,000 gold and silver coins were among the items salvaged.
We walked along the marina to The Maritime Museum only to discover that it was closed that day. Now tired and enjoying stellar warm weather with nice cool breezes, we took a siesta under the shade of a Palm Tree in the Plaza de los Héroes park next to the Palace Hall clocktower.
Rested and comfortable, we checked out the art statuary in the immediate area, then walked along the marina until we found an empty bench. We sat looking at the marina and decided to watch people go by until it was time to return to the ship. A huge futuristic silver sailing vessel caught our attention.
We were looking at the world's largest sailing ship, an 8-deck superyacht, 468-feet in length with ship masts nearing 300-feet high, owned by Russian billionaire Andrey Igorevich Melnichenko. (Note how it dwarfs the shipping cranes). Named the "A", with a crew of 54, it was berthed in the harbor. The hull is made of steel and carbon fibre. Security is enhanced with bombproof glass and 40 CCTV cameras. In addition to the expected helipad and pool, it also features a 193-square foot glass underwater observation pod in the keel which is 1-foot thick.
We found contrasts in two interpretations of the Christopher Columbus statues quite interesting. While the Columbus statue in Barcelona (at left) is pointing to the New World, the Columbus statue in Cartagena appears to be giving the finger.|
H. Ibiza, Spain (7:00 am - 7:00 pm)
We were up and off the ship by 8:30 am. Today's goal was to explore Ibiza Old Town (aka Dalt Vila), an UNESCO World Heritage site. The Old Town is encircled by colossal 16th Century protective walls reaching over 82-feet in height and include seven bastions (each providing picture worthy views).
Dalt Vila plays host to Ibiza Castle, also known as Eivissa Castle. As you would expect, it sits atop the hill overlooking the port. The town is a joy to explore. Most of the pleasure is in the walk and seeing what's around the next corner. You cannot go in the castle, but if you are determined to in something, there are museums, old villas, churches and a necropolis.
Transportation from the ship will take you to Terminal Formentera on edge of town. There are fours ways to Terminal Formentera from our dock at Estación Marítima Ibiza-Botafoc:
Upon arrival at Terminal Formentera building, walk about a half block towards town and stop in at the small air conditioned Ibiza Travel information booth (it's easy to miss) for a great map entitled "Ibiza: Routes Through Dalt Vila". It's similar to this map except it actually shows three suggested routes with detailed information about the sites.
- Take the ship's shuttle for €10 roundtrip.
- Ignore the overpriced ship shuttle and simply ride the blue "Ibiza Port Bus" which leaves every 30 minutes (at approximately '15 and '45 after the hour) from the same parking lot. Costs €2,50 one way or €4,50 roundtrip.
- Take a taxi
- Walk 1.7 miles (35 minutes) on relatively flat terrain to the bus drop-off point at Terminal Formentera. I recommend you map this out ahead of time. If you make a wrong turn the walk will get a lot longer.
With map in hand, we continued straight up the road and made a left at Carrer d'Annibal (just a block before the street deadends into the old fortress wall). Two blocks later on your right you'll see the ramp that will take you over a small drawbridge and into the Portal de Ses Taules entrance to Old Town. This entrance, flanked by a pair of statues, was featured in an episode of Game of Thrones. There are other ways in. This is the most dramatic. And it's only a 10-minute walk from Terminal Formentera. We arrived here about 9:15 am.
You'll find yourself in a beautiful cobblestone courtyard with a huge stone fireplace and several support arches. Pull out your map and start following your route of choice. We primarily took the red Classic Route but quickly adopted the blue route at times to explore the Bastions, starting with the Santa Llucia Bastion which offers the best pictures of the ships in port, and when you turn around you'll be able to capture iconic pictures of Dalt Vila.
We had the town pretty much to ourselves for the first hour then we began to encounter pockets of tour groups around 10:15 am. We spent about 2.25 hours exploring the Old Town before heading into New Town and working our way back to ship via the Ibiza Port Bus at Terminal Formentera.
Terminal Formentera is also host to 4 different ferry companies that do a booming business taking passengers to, well, Formentera, a 32 square mile island about 12 miles of the coast of Ibiza that can easily be seen from Old Town. Known for its bright green lizards, clear waters, snorkeling, caves, and long stretches of beach, Formentera is a very popular day-trip destination.
The closest beach to the ship is Playa de Talamanca. It's a nice big sandy beach with full service and clear water, just a 3/4-mile (15-minute) walk to the northeast.
The port terminal situation here is rather annoying. On the way in, they make you walk a long way out of your way to force you through the terminal building for the benefit of a couple of shops. On the way back to the ship you also have to take this circuitous route but Ibiza also throws a really poorly executed security checkpoint in there too. I'm guessing they either charge ships for this pretend service or its simply an employment gimmick.
G. Days At Sea
We had two days at sea. There was no lack of things to do on the ship. Sea days actually provided nice rest spites and allowed us to get reenergized. Eat, play games, port shopping briefings (basically a way to kill time watching a talking advertisement), attend shows, eat, nap, midday snack, cards, pools, bars, eat, trivia contests, read, chat with fellow passengers, eat, board games, gambling, exercise (no, not really, but there is an exercise room), eat, book your next cruise, live entertainment... the list goes on!
H. Ships in Port
We were lucky. With the exception of Barcelona, there were no more than 2 ships with us in any port, and most of those ships were relatively small. (On our second day in Barcelona, we had 2 other large ships and 1 smaller ship for a total of 11,426 potential passengers, including our 3,000 folks). Four of our ports had no other large cruise ships in port. This is one of the advantages to traveling in the Spring. Visit CruiseTimeTables.com to see which ships are likely to be in port during your cruise. It's a really good idea to either book tours way ahead of time, or have a good plan, for any ports that are due to be crowded.
Part XII - Disembarkation, Customs, and the Airports
A. Disembarkation (Departing the Ship)
Two days before the end of the cruise everyone was given numbered luggage tags. Bags had to be packed, tagged, and set outside your cabin by 10:00 pm the night before Disembarkation. The number corresponded to a specific meeting time in an assigned lounge, and the system was based upon your travel arrangements. The folks that had the earliest flights or other arrangements were assigned earlier exit times.
Disembarkation went smoothly once we were cleared. Meeting times began at 6:45 am. We were docked in Civitavecchia by 4:00 am and the ship received clearance to allow passengers to depart around 7:00 am. Guests were escorted by group number to the terminal to claim their baggage. An exception to the above called the "Self-Assist Program", allows passengers to skip this entire process, hang on to their bags, and walk off the ship at their leisure anytime after clearance .Passengers were expected to be off the ship no later than 9:30 am.
Breakfast and coffee was available in Cafe al Bacio from 5:30 am - 8:30 am, Oceanview Cafe from 6:00 am to 8:30 am, Opus Main Dining Room from 6:00 am to 8:00 am, Blu from 6:30 am to 8:00 am, and Luminae from 6:30 am to 8:00 am. Room Service closed at 1:00 am.
We chose "Self-Assist Program" and kept our bags in our cabin until we were ready to leave the ship. We had breakfast in the Oceanview Cafe, grabbed our bags, and headed to the 2nd deck. Whoa! The exit was a bit overcrowded as the ship was not cleared quite as early as anticipated but it was no big deal. We waited about 15 minutes before checking out at security with our Seapasses for the last time.
It was a short walk past the terminal to the transportation area. Our driver was waiting on us. We had prearranged a pickup with RomeCabs from Civitavecchia Port to Rome Fiumicino Airport (FCO) for a party of 6 at a price of €170. A bargain at just €28 pp plus tip. (I highly recommend prebooking transportation so you are not waiting in a long line for taxis or overpaying for bus transfers).
The other 2 couples who joined us in the van were off just behind us. We found them on our Cruise Critic Rollcall thread and saw them throughout the cruise. I'm guessing we were off the ship between 7:15 am - 7:30 am and we were at the airport no later than 8:00 am.
B. Customs Allowance
Each US citizen returning from Europe is permitted $800 worth of Duty Free goods, and adults 21 and older may include 1 liter of alcohol, 200 cigarettes, and 100 cigars. All you needed to do was to declare the total value. Anything greater had to be itemized (declared) and a duty paid.
C. Arrival into Rome: Customs and Passport Control at the Rome Airport
Most international flights arrive into Terminal 3. There are no Customs to be concerned with upon arrival in Rome if you have nothing to declare. You do need to get into a potentially long line to have your passport stamped prior to proceeding to baggage claim.
You’ll walk a couple of blocks from your arrival gate to the Passport control, wait in line to get your passport stamped, then walk another couple of blocks to Baggage Claim. No matter how long the Passport Control line is, you're likely to have to wait on your baggage. Once you retrieve your bags, it’s a short distance to the Customs and the exit. (For all of this, just follow fellow passengers and the signage.) You’ll exit through the “Nothing to Declare” door, and then you will be in the main arrivals hall where lots of drivers will be waiting with placards to pick up passengers.
D. Departure from Rome: Customs and Passport Control at the Rome Airport
Most international flights leave from Terminal 3. Once again there are no Customs to be concerned with when departing Rome if you are flying directly to the United States. We arrived early to the airport, yet we still encountered a 45 minute wait just to check-in at the airline counter and drop off our bags.
You’ll then follow the herd through security. If you have TSA Precheck, get in the line for "Fast Track". Everyone else will be herded into the regular security screening. Fast Track took us 15 minutes. Upon exiting security, follow the signage to walk a to the Passport Control for USA-issued passports, and wait in line to get your passport stamped again. This took just 5 to 10 minutes. Then just follow signs to your gate.
E. Arrival into the United States: Customs and Passport Control back in the USA
Assuming you are flying directly back to the USA, without a change of planes in other country, you will need to go through Customs upon arrival. Upon exiting the plane, follow the signs to Customs. If you have "Global Entry" (which also includes TSA Precheck eligibility) you can shave your customs time from an hour or more to just 10 minutes. Get into the Global Entry lane. Walk to an open GLobal Entry kiosk, scan your passport and fingerprints and smile for a picture, and answer up to 8 yes or no questions. A receipt will be printed. This all takes 5 minutes. Flash your receipt to a Customs Agent and continue to baggage claim. If you have items to declare that are in excess of the allowance they may have questions for you. Claim your bags and take all of your baggage to yet another agent who will want to see your passport yet again and collect your receipt. Only then are you done being processed and are free to exit the airport.
F. Back to Back Passengers (B2B)
Last time the ship arrived in Civitavecchia, we were among the fortunate passengers who had booked a back-to-back cruise. Some of the benefits included: $50 cruise discount on the second cruise, lunch in the Opus Dining Room on the changeover day, special passes that allow you to skip the general boarding process if you decide to leave the ship, the ability to stay on the ship, full access to your cabin if you keep the same cabin, and a genuinely easy immigration and changeover process.
We changed cabins and it also couldn't have been easier. We simply packed our suitcases, except for everything that was hanging in the closet and vacated our room around 8:30 am. Our bags and closet items were all relocated by ship personnel. Around 1:00 pm we moved into our new cabin.
We did not wish to leave the ship for an excursion. Instead we took it easy, stayed onboard, and basically had the run of the ship. All B2B passengers that stayed onboard met around 9:00 am outside Cellar Masters. We settled our bills, turned in our old Seapass cards (which they gave us back later as souvenirs), completed a new express pass and health form, got our new Seapass cards and had a new security picture taken. It took no more than 5 minutes per couple to complete. It was a ridiculously easy process which was greatly appreciated.
If you were on a B2B and decided to get off the ship, you did not have to wait for the 9:00 am meeting. You could get off anytime and get processed when you came back. B2B passengers were provided a special Transit Pass which would expedite getting back on the ship.
Part XIII - Praises, Gripes and Your Questions
Reflection's personnel are very attentive, friendly and helpful. Officers made themselves very accessible. Food was very good to outstanding, and the drinking water was excellent. The ship is clean, beautiful, in very good shape, and built with a lot attention to detail with a layout that makes sense. It's nice to see Celebrity still believes in live music for the production shows as the Celebrity Orchestra was outstanding. The perks for repeat cruisers are worthy. And we really appreciated Celebrity's smoking policy.
We certainly didn't have much to gripe about. The internet is a bit slow. American sports rarely air on the ship. We would like to see a better selection of songs performed in the Reflection Theater. (Celebrity tends to perform a lot of obscure songs and broadway selections). There were no enrichment speakers (other than the Captain) on this cruise. Port talks should include more than just Celebrity excursions and shopping partners. Port maps could be significantly improved.
Feel free to ask any questions.
Information is from sources believed to be reliable but cannot be guaranteed. The information presented is an opinion intended to assist travelers in preparing for their Celebrity Reflection and Western Mediterranean cruise.
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