2 weeks ago I was onboard the Azamara Pursuit that held about 700 guests and today I am on the NCL Bliss which holds about 6000 guests. As you might guess there is a huge difference! Personally I like the smaller quieter ships but for this cruise we are sailing with extended family so the bigger ship that offers more options made sense. It is also Thanksgiving week so this ship seems to be full of extended families all traveling in large groups. Sailing on such contrasting ships within a month really makes it clear that there is a ship for everyone and also every occasion.
For our Mediterranean Cruise a small ship was perfect since we were visiting ports everyday and were spending all day exploring on land. A smaller ship can get into smaller ports which is a big advantage in Europe. This cruise is in the Caribbean which tends to have more sea days so a ship with more things to do onboard is helpful. The Bliss has 20 decks and includes things like go karts, laser tag, water slides, kids clubs, multiple dining locations, and lots of activities. If you are traveling with kids they will love this ship. If you are looking for a romantic quiet vacation this probably isn't the right ship. There are some adult only areas but this is one thing I think they need to improve on. NCL offers some options to pay more for some private locations on the ship such as the Vibe, a private area on the sun deck, and the Thermal Suite, a private area of the spa. You can buy a length of cruise pass for these. If you really want a private experience you will want to consider booking a room in the Haven. The Haven is like a ship within a ship where you will have your own private decks that include a pool, restaurant, and lounge. The Haven comes with all the pampering you can imagine like a butler and priority embarkation and debarkation.
If you are looking for a floating resort where the ship really contains everything you need for vacation full of activity then one of these mega ships, like the Bliss, are for you. If you are looking for a quieter more relaxing vacation where the ports are the highlight then I recommend the smaller ships. If you want something in between the two there are ships perfect for that as well. No matter what you are looking for there is a ship just waiting to take you sailing away!
I would be happy to help you find that ship and itinerary that is the best fit for your vacation.
After our sea day I was starting to feel like I might be getting a sore throat which did turn into a cold so I have been a bit tired and that is why I am behind on the blog. Since I go so behind you are getting the rest of the cruise all in this post.
Palma de Mallorca
Today's stop was one where I actually had pre-planned a shore excursion. I was partly thinking that all of our other stops up until then we were going to wing it so it was good to choose at least one stop and make advance plans. I read about the Caves of Drach and they sounded interesting and it wasn't something we could easily make our way to on our own. I booked our excursion with Project Expedition but the ship also offered a very similar one for a higher cost. Our tour was said to be 8 hours and the ship's only 4 and half hours so I thought we were getting a better deal. I think I was spoiled by our Colosseum tour and having such a small group and was hoping for the same this time but no such luck. This tour sent a small van to pick us up at the port and at first I thought this is great the tour won't be bigger than this maybe 20 passenger bus. Well that small bus took us to a place where other small buses met up so all guests from those could board a bigger regular motorcoach type bus. I thought oh well we probably ended up on a tour the same size as the ship's tour and I guess that is how this one could be cheaper. Then our guide started talking and we realized he would be saying everything in 4 languages all day. At first it was interesting but then I realized it meant we would have to hear a lot of talking all day. Our first stop was called an "authentic" Mallorca Pearl factory that was advertised as giving us an exclusive demonstration on how the pearls are made into jewelry. Well our bus pulled up to a run down looking outlet store it the middle of nowhere and I thought this cannot be right oh but it was. We were to spend the next 40 minutes at this place where the store and restaurant were not even open. I guess maybe this was more of a restroom break but the bathrooms were terrible - kind of what you would expect at a run down looking middle of no where shop I guess. OK so now I am seeing the advantage to the shorter ship excursion - no stop at this place. Then we board the bus and find out that some of the guests on the bus booked different tours so our first stop was to drop the guests off at a different cave for their excursion. OK so I guess I can deal with that but then I find out we are to spend the next 90 minutes at the nearby beach town - which I thought had sounded like a great part of the tour until we got there and realized it was off season for this small beach town so as you can guess not a lot to do. There was a triathlon going on which was about the only excitement. A few shops were open and a couple places to eat but nothing that really could take 90 minutes. There was a nice beach here so I can see in the summer it is probably a great stop on the tour where you could have time to swim and enjoy the beach but not this time of year. Finally 5 hours into the tour we get to the caves! They were impressive and the classical mini concert inside was wonderful. After having done this and comparing to the ship's version I think I would recommend the ship's tour in this case. By the time we got back to the ship it was almost time for the ship to leave so we didn't really get to explore the city itself. I was also feeling very rundown by that point so I was happy to get back on the ship anyway.
We could see the amazing cathedral from the back of the ship so we decided to eat dinner at the buffet and sit out on the back deck so we could watch as we left port. It was a little chilly but well worth it.
I was surprised to find out that our next stop of Valencia is the 3rd largest city in Spain. I guess I hear Valencia and I think oranges so I was kind of picturing a small countryside. I was way off. The city is so big and the port wasn't very close to the center so Azamara had shuttle buses for us at no charge. Valencia is a bustling city with a medieval past. From where the shuttle dropped us off we could easily walk over to the La Lonja which was the silk exchange was built in 1492 and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Right near there is the Central Market of Valencia which is one of the largest in Europe, covers more than 8,000 square metres. It is a gorgeous Valencian Art Nouveau style building. We wandered through the huge market which was mostly meat vendors.
We left the old city and headed for the new to see the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciencies (Museum of Arts and Science). The buildings here are very modern and eclectic. We wandered around them a bit and it was such a strange contrast to the section of town we visited first. We looked at the map and it seemed from where we were it was a closer walk to the port terminal than to the shuttle drop off point. We remembered the ship had also mentioned there was a shuttle that went from the ship to the terminal center so we figured we would just walk to the port and find that instead. When we got to the port terminal we realized how large and busy this port really is. I was very glad for that shuttle that went from the terminal to the ship because it was probably another 15 minutes walk. This was our shortest port stop with a departure of 6 pm, which was fine with me since I still wasn't feeling 100%. I am sure they also do that so that everyone has enough time to pack since this was also our last stop before the end of the cruise. The ship's finale was a large chocolate buffet that they set up in the atrium area. It was a sweet ending to a great cruise.
Since the ship ended in a different port than we had started in this was like another port day to me so I had booked us a hotel for a night in Barcelona before flying home. In the morning we disembarked in Barcelona which was a breeze. I have to say it was one of the easiest I have had. We were off the ship, bags in hand, and at the curb in a few minutes. We use Uber many times when we travel so didn't even think about it much when we saw it was an option in Barcelona we used it. What we didn't realize is that Spain seems to have a rocky relationship with Uber and that it just recently came back in March. We were not sure where to look for our driver as the app just said the meeting point. When we asked around no one working in the terminal area seemed to even have heard of Uber which we thought was odd. We did find our driver and he explained that many people in Spain, the taxis especially do not like Uber. On our way to the hotel he also explained how Uber was different in Spain and it isn't the driver's own business like it is in the US. The drivers all drive company cars and are required to work set hours.
We got to the hotel and of course since you have to get off the ship rather early we couldn't get to our room but they were happy to store all of our things while we explored. Like in Rome I chose a smaller boutique type hotel, Erik Vokel, in the heart of things. The rooms here were actually like apartments so they had a full kitchen and even a washer/dryer (which would have come in handy if the ship hadn't had free laundry). We could easily walk to a lot of sights and hotel staff kindly showed us on the map where to go and gave advice on how to get there. Since we only had a day (which I realize now was not even close to enough time) we wanted to squeeze in as much as we could. If I had to do it all over again I think I would have booked 2 nights in Barcelona. When I was booking everything I was thinking that most times after a long cruise I am really just ready to be home, however this is one of the few times where our cruise was a one way so without staying an extra day we would not have seen Barcelona at all. Also it was my birthday so I was looking forward to celebrating it in Barcelona! After all the walking we have been doing we knew we just didn't have the energy to see everything on foot so we weighed our options for seeing things via a vehicle. It was between biking (too much energy needed for me), the hop on hop off (which are usually good options) but then we decided on the more fun way of driving ourselves around the city in a small GO Car. We had seen them on TV and they looked like a similar idea to the electric car we rented in Norway that had a guided tour built in and told you things along the path. What we hadn't counted on was that Barcelona was very different from the small Norwegian town we had driven around in. Barcelona traffic was a bit hectic and at times it got a little dicey. We missed a few turns and didn't really do all of the set tour but we did a lot and saw the highlights including a stop at the beach where we actually parked the little car and got out. In the end it was a fun way to see the city in less than 3 hours. After that we wandered around exploring places like the Gothic Quarter (which dates back over 2000 years!) on our walk back to the hotel. We took a siesta and headed back out for a little more exploring. Barcelona really is a wonderful city and I definitely want to go back and spend more time there one day.
Our hotel didn't have a breakfast location like the one in Rome but they did deliver a cute breakfast basket to the room that had juice, milk, and some bread with stuff for toast and some pastry. I forgot to mention earlier that the rooms used Uber to get back to the airport (we did compare rates since some locals told us Uber was more expensive but we found that was not correct and Uber was actually cheaper than a taxi). Personally for me I like that I can use the app on my phone for Uber and I see where my driver is and then I can pay in the app so no need to worry if I have enough euro left.
We are flying American Airlines this trip, which is our first time using them for international. For the return flight I bought the Premium Economy which I wasn't sure what to expect since on the other airlines we pay for the extra comfort or whatever they call it and have not really been impressed. That is not the case with American. I really like the Premium Economy and to me it was similar to what you might get in first class on a shorter domestic flight. It was well worth the extra price we paid for it. Maybe one day I will be ready to splurge on the business class for international flights but for now I will be very happy with this. While we have a non-stop from Barcelona to Miami which is nice it technically isn't non-stop for us since we will have to get in a car and drive a few hours but I am OK with that for the savings and also not having the worry about a connecting flight.
I am a little behind on my blog due to having a sea day. The internet on sea days can be a bit spotty and slow so it was easier to just enjoy the day relaxing.
First I will backtrack to the day before though. That was the day we were supposed to be docking in Monaco but due to storm damage we docked in Nice just around 30 minutes away from Monaco. Azamara provided us with shuttle buses into Monaco which was a nice touch. The ride over actually made it well worth docking in Nice instead since the views were breathtaking! We hadn't made any previous plans for this day so we were going to just explore on own so this was like getting a bonus mini-tour. Monaco was lovely. We caught the changing of the guard, walked through town and up to Monte Carlo. The casino didn't open until 2 pm and we were way under-dressed to go in anyway so we just walked around outside. They really want to keep the formal atmosphere there so you really need to be dressed up to get in and also pay to get in I think they said it was 17 euro per person. There was lots of outrageous sports cars parked around the Monte Carlo along with driving around town so it was fun to watch those. After that we made our way back up what the residents call the rock so that we could visit the cathedral before getting our bus back to the ship. The cathedral is where Princess Grace is buried. There is also a beautiful Royal Garden across from the cathedral that we walked through and took in the amazing coastal views. You can see why this area is call the Côte d'Azur (coast of Azure) as the water is a bright blue/green color.
Back on the ship it was one of Azamara's special events - White Night Party. They set up a wonderful buffet and the band was playing out on the pool deck. It was a little chilly though so they also put out blankets for guests to use while dining al fresco. I can see how this would be really fun in warmer temperatures but it was still nice. I laughed when I realized some guests chose to wear the robes from the room up to the party but since the robes are white and warm it made sense.
As I said when I started the next was our sea day. It was a pretty rough day at sea so I don't think a lot of people did much. I felt like Azamara had read my mind though because the night before I was thinking how much I love sleeping in on Sea Days but I hate to miss breakfast. I looked at the times for breakfast and saw the special sea day brunch in the dining room. I thought this was so perfect for me and I wish all ships did that. Breakfast is some of my favorite stuff so being able to still get some at 11 am. Brunch was set up as a buffet in the dining room and even had live music from the band so it was lovely. After brunch I did what I love doing on sea days - reading.
Today is our second day in Livorno and we chose today to head over to Florence. We walked back to the train station (if you read yesterday's entry you know it was more of a hike than a walk). The second time around though it seemed shorter since we knew where we were going and the weather was a little better. Florence it a little over an hour away by train but the train we caught had a few stops so it took a little longer. When we arrive in the Florence train station it was so much bigger and busier than the Livorno and Pisa stations. We made sure to double check our return options as we didn't want to be running back to the ship or worse miss it.
Florence is full of wonderful sights but we only had a couple hours so we chose to head towards the Duomo di Firenze and see everything around there. It was insanely busy around that area with lines that looked to be hours long and even the skip the line lines were long. We walked around took a few photos and then went towards David where we found more lines so we decided to skip that. We wandered a little, did some shopping and picked up a couple of Italian leather items before heading back to the train station. I would love to get back to Florence one day and explore the Tuscan countryside more one day.
Next stop was to be Monaco but we found out that the storm we rode out in Rome also did some damage to the port of Monaco, specifically to the dock we were to use. Azamara lives up to its Azamazing theme and got us a spot in Nice which is just about 30 minutes from Monaco. Not only that but they also are going to provide us with free buses to go back and forth to Monaco so we don't miss out on that port at all.
We finally got out of port and our cruise has started. After missing the first 2 stops we are in Livorno and this was already scheduled as an overnight stop. Azamara tries to include an overnight stop somewhere in each itinerary which is very nice since it can be rare to get to enjoy the nightlife of a stop when on a cruise. This also usually when Azamara will have their Azamazing evening event which is complimentary for each guest.
This is a pretty good place to have an overnight since Livorno is close to both Pisa and Florence so there is a lot to see. Pisa is about a 20 minute train ride while Florence it a little over an hour away by train. Since the Azamazing evening event is tonight we decided to go to Pisa today since it is closer. We walked to the train station, which we didn't realize was a good hike from the port. It was about a 2 mile walk but we figured this was also a good way to explore Livorno. It wasn't that interesting of a walk so it mostly just seemed long. I am sure most people opted for either a taxi or the bus to get from the port to the train station but what fun is that. We easily found our train and before we knew it we were in Pisa. Of course the main thing to see in Pisa is the leaning tower. It was an easy walk from the train station. Along the way we walked through the University of Pisa and oddly enough it was graduation day for some students. It was kind of fun to see them celebrating - instead of a cap and gown there wore wreaths like the Romans wore on their heads. We explore the grounds around the Tower and laughed at the tourists taking the funny posed photos like they were holding up the tower. One thing that we have learned is that finding a restroom can be rather difficult and then when you do find one it will usually cost money. We did find one conveniently located by this tourist attraction and it was .80 per person but when you gotta go you gotta go. Walked the wall around the area and made our way back to the train station. We got back to the ship in time to eat and get ready to go back out for our Azamazing evening which was a special Opera show just for us. On the way back to the ship we did see some kids out trick or treating in the shops. It was fun to see that Halloween is very similar in Italy. Onboard the dining room had a scary dessert buffet with lots of fun Halloween themed desserts.
The event was all very orderly with guests being called by deck to board the buses that would take us into town to the theater. It was wonderful to have the whole Goldoni theater to ourselves. We had our own booth in the balcony and enjoyed a lovely show by the Incanto Quartet. They preformed some classic opera along with some contemporary songs too. Back onboard they were waiting to welcome us with champagne and hot chocolate. There was also a late night buffet with snacks and more dessert. Up in the Living Room there was a Halloween party but there wasn't anyone dressed up. I guess if maybe Halloween wasn't the same night as the Opera event more people might have brought a costume for the night.
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