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Mediterranean Cruise

by Camille Pepe Sperrazza 

Cruisin' is the best way to see the world! 

I just returned from a Mediterranean cruise aboard the Ruby Princess. 

The summer's adventure started in Rome where we spent two nights touring independently, via the hop-on, hop-off bus. It ended in Venice, where we stayed two nights at the Bauer, enjoying a magnificent breakfast on the patio each morning, overlooking the canal, absorbing the sights and sounds of gondolas, water taxis, and storybook views. In between, we cruised for 12 nights, to ports in Italy, Monte Carlo, and many of the Greek Islands. The weather throughout the trip was hot, sunny, and cloud-free. 

In Rome, we stayed at the Cicerone, a smart move for many reasons. This was a hotel Princess used for their pre-cruise tours, and although I made our own arrangements for less money, we still had access to the Princess hospitality desk. As a result, we were able to catch the transfer to the ship here, and enjoyed "advance check-in" to the ship. The hotel is located about a 20-minute walk from the Vatican, where we picked up the hop-on bus each day. Shopping and restaurants surround the area. 

What's striking about Rome is that it so clean. Not a stray piece of paper, despite outdoor cafes and crowds. A beautiful city. We explored all the famous spots of Rome -- the Vatican, the Coliseum, the Spanish Steps, the Roman Forum, and much more. The food in Italy was incredible. We enjoyed the creamiest ice cream at a lovely little shop by the Trevi Fountain. For dinner, we discovered a wonderful restaurant on the Via Veneto, where we ate spaghetti covered with the most tender white clams you can imagine, and fried calamari of the caliber that you can only find in Europe. I had time to shop for a pair of buttery-leather sandals and thick bars of soap made in Tuscany before catching the transfer to the pier. 

On our first night aboard the ship, I won a free back and neck massage for attending an event at the ship's spa. Insiders' tip: Always attend the giveaway sessions on every cruise, especially the ones that take place on the first day. Many people don't know about them, or are too busy doing other things. Therefore, the odds are in your favor. 

Our first stop aboard the ship was Monte Carlo, and I purposely chose this itinerary to re-visit this destination where yachts and Porsches are the norm. There's nothing like having breakfast on the balcony of your stateroom while enjoying a view that's all sky, mountains, and crystal blue water. Monte Carlo is an amazing place, and because the south of France is a mere stone-throw away, we also toured Nice. I could be very happy living at either destination forever, where the only decision some people seem to make is whether to indulge in a chocolate croissant or a "pot of chocolate." I had both, and devoured every drop. 

The next day we were on a horse and carriage ride, through the vineyards of Tuscany, on a wine-tasting tour. The wine in Europe is the best -- it's also a great buy. Two good-quality bottles for 10 euros -- around $15, and we are allowed to bring them on board the ship. 

On to Naples, home of my grandparents. We toured the Amalfi Coast, again enjoying breath-taking views that are among the best in the world. We stopped at Sorrento where we saw pasta in every color of the rainbow. Some were multi-colored pieces of art. The highlight was lunch at the Grand Hotel Tritone in Praiano, at a restaurant located high atop the mountains. We indulged in homemade lasagna, chicken parm, wine, and good conversation with fellow shipmates, fantasizing about how we all planned to return to stay at this hotel, with its marble floors, priceless view, and pool that appeared to be built right into the mountain. I have all the contact information. 

Amalfi is known for its lemoncello, produced from lemons the size of melons. Again, what a buy, despite our unfavorable conversion rate. As a chocoholic, I especially enjoyed the chocolate lemoncello. Just incredible. 

One of my favorite parts of any cruise is a sea day so I can partake in all the ship's activities. I am happy to report I am still the undefeated hula-hoop queen, having secured my title, once again, aboard this sailing, earning a bottle of champagne. I discovered a number of perks on board this European cruise that were not offered when I sailed the Ruby to the Caribbean: ice cream by the pool was complimentary every day; all the desserts at the International Cafe were complimentary, except for the gelato; the sushi and tapas at the wine bar were gratis. Some of the cheese seemed to be of European quality. 

When I turned my Blackberry on at our next port of call -- Santorini, Greece -- the date read October 2002, and none of my emails were showing up. It was like an episode from the Twilight Zone. Also, my eyeglasses had broken the night before, so I was experiencing a technical and visual meltdown. No trip is flawless, but things always have a way of working out. While touring Santorini, I stumbled across an eyeglass store, and purchased a gorgeous pair of designer frames for about 1/2 the price I would have paid here. My new glasses were ready in an hour, and they were beautiful. I figured out how to change the date on my Blackberry, and while the old emails weren't showing up, new ones were coming in. Life looked "normal" again. 

Santorini is an island that is the remains of a volcano. The only way up is via cable car; on a donkey's back; or by climbing an endless array of steps, in scorching heat, along side the donkey trail. Insider's tip: Take the cable car. We met several people who were injured during the climb. The steps were very slippery, and laden with donkey deposits. Some passengers were in casts the rest of the cruise. Another tip: Always purchase travel insurance. 

Kusadasi, Turkey was the next destination; my second visit to this exotic place. I was so impressed with the ancient ruins of Ephesus the first time, that I arranged for a private tour this time. We had our own mini-bus, with our names on it, and our own guide. While the other tourists were listening to a sales pitch from the carpet guy, we were enjoying a more extensive tour. My agency can make these arrangements for you as well. 

Later, we shopped the bazaars, and had fun negotiating the best buys for pashminas, scarves, and an endless array of merchandise. There are always good buys in Turkey. We enjoyed treats known as "Turkish delights," especially the ones that are a cross between a marshmallow and taffy, wrapped around chocolate or cherry flavors, and rolled in coconut. Insider's Tip: Buy the boxed ones to bring home as gifts, but be sure to visit the store that makes the fresh ones. They are far superior to the boxed, but purchase only what you can eat in a few days, because like all things fresh and delicious, they don't last forever. 

Next stop: Mykenos, Greece. We walked along the area known as "Little Venice" where the ocean is so close to the restaurants, people actually get splashed while eating. We lingered over frappes, a coffee enjoyed throughout Greece, and saw people climb right on to the rocks, from their tables at the restaurants, and drop into the ocean. 

When we arrived in Pireaus, Greece, I skipped the tour of Athens because I had already spent considerable time there. Instead, I explored the port area, a place I had not been. We found an out-of-the-way bakery where the locals shop, and enjoyed crisp, delicious baklava, bursting with nuts. Closer to the tourist area, I came across a woman wearing a Yankees' baseball cap. She was from Holland, and had purchased the hat there. There's a bit of New York everywhere in the world. 

In Katakolon, Greece, we toured the ruins in Olympia, the site where the ancient Olympics were held, and where Zeus, god of the Olympics, was worshipped. Some tourists ran the track that still exists today. I merely put my foot on the starting line, as it was about 100 degrees in the shade, and the track was in the sun. During ancient times, women were forbidden to go to the Olympics. Death was the punishment. Men entered naked, showing off their athletic forms. 

Our last stop in Greece was Corfu, where we attended a cooking class, and were served Uzo and wine at about 9:50 a.m. We noted that it was really about 5 p.m., New York time, so it was okay to drink up. This was a big eating day. Besides this Greek feast, it was Formal Night aboard the ship. As past guests of Princess, we were invited to a special cocktail party. A lobster dinner was being served in the dining room that night. I feared I would have to exit the ship, wearing only a Princess bathrobe. 

A highlight of this cruise was that famous marine life artist, Wyland, was on board, mingling with guests, throughout the trip. We witnessed an industry first by seeing him paint a masterpiece at the bottom of the Ruby Princess Neptune Pool. His stateroom was located exactly two decks below ours, and we would often see him on the balcony, snapping photos. 

Our massive vessel made a grand entrance through the canals of Venice, receiving a warm welcome, as we were greeted by dozens of speedboats and ships, all excited about our arrival. We docked overnight in Venice, allowing guests time to get out and explore this beautiful city. 

We disembarked the next day, with suitcases full of clean clothes, as one of the perks of being an "elite" member of Princess is complimentary laundry service throughout the ship. I could have easily sailed for another 12 days, but the good news was that our vacation wasn't over yet. We had two nights at the Bauer Hotel to look forward to. 

We purchased the transfer from Princess, a smart move, because they made arrangements for our luggage to be sent directly to the hotel. We simply hopped on a smaller boat, with other guests, to make our way over to the main part of Venice, and we walked from there to our hotel, a nice little walk, across several bridges. Insider's Tip: Take the transfer option, if it is offered. Here's why: A common sight throughout Venice is people dragging their luggage up and down steps across the many bridges that connect the city, through the streets of Venice, in unbearable heat, to get to their hotels. You better be packing light or in great shape to manage this feat. 

While in Venice, we listened to live music being played at St. Marc's Square every night, and enjoyed a serenaded gondola ride. Once again, I was happy I had booked the gondola ride in advance, via my agency, as the price of a gondola ride in Italy can be expensive. 

The Bauer Hotel is in a great location, just a short walk from St. Marc's, and is considered one of the best hotels in Venice. The lobby is magnificent, as is the breakfast which has everything you could imagine, including champagne. The best part is that you can dine outdoors, overlooking all the excitement taking place along the Grand Canal. Our "superior" room was still a bit small, as is the situation with many European hotels. Still, my Insider's Tip is to stay at a hotel in the vicinity of St. Marc's Square. Here's why: Hotels in this area may be a bit more expensive, but you can walk to most of the tourist attractions. As it can be expensive to take a water taxi, you probably won't save much money in the long run, and nothing beats the convenience of being where the action is. 

It cost us $150 to take a water taxi from our hotel to the airport to return home, a big expense. But unless you're very young, traveling with a tote bag, or perhaps a body builder looking for an incredible workout, it's worth every penny. Consider it another adventure. How many people can say they've sail across the canals of Venice in a speedboat? 

If you are interested in taking a Mediterranean cruise, touring a Venice, Rome, staying at the Grand Hotel Tritone, Bauer, Cicorone, or any of the other destinations or tours mentioned in this article, please 
contact me to make arrangements. 

This article was accurate when it was written, but everything in life changes.  Enjoy the journey! 

Copyright: Camille Pepe Sperrazza