I had endless insight from all of you searching the posts so I wanted to thank everyone for all the information here that helped made our vacation so fantastic. I'd love to pay it forward, so let me know if you have any questions.
I had been on two Carnival cruises and about 10 Disney cruises and this was the first cruise for my partner Kory. I will say we thought service was across the board excellent, with almost no exception. Based on some people's reviews I feel like the NCL CEO must have been on board our week or something, because everyone we came in contact with went above and beyond.
Our room steward Randolf introduced himself as soon as we boarded and would always ask if within earshot "how are Mr. Terry and Mr. Kory doing?" Or wave from down the hall. We gravitated toward the adult area pool bar and martini lounge because after the first night the bartenders at those locations knew our names and went out of their way to be friendly. We ate in three specialty restaurants (none of them that busy,) and our servers were all attentive and friendly. The one day we ate in the main dining room we found the portions sort of small and the service hectic, but nothing terrible. At the Cirque dreams and dinner the service was so so, but I think that is just the nature of trying to get everyone fed in 45 min. And when our server did come around she gave us full double glasses of wine since they don't serve during the show.
The ship never seemed overly packed, and we don't sit in the sun, so we never noticed the pool chair issues. On the sea day and a few of the party nights the adult area was packed, but there were five bartenders and five -eight servers running around so we never waited more than two or three minutes for a drink... and usually less. I also thought it was interesting that I saw several people report that the martini bar was all premixed martinis and that wasn't the case either. They made every martini by hand and we sat at the bar just about every night making our way through the list before dinner.
Also, for those wondering on our Wed-Wed cruise we got the $19.95 laundry bag deal flyer Fri night saying put it on our bed by noon Sat and it would be back Mon night. We asked Randolf for a bag and it was back a few hours later Sat night.
I worked on a blog as I went so I will copy it below if anyone is interested in reading it. Again, let me know if you have any questions. (We went to New York for the weekend before the cruise, so skip to day 5 if you just want the cruise report.)
Day 1: Sat. Aug 18th. Objects in motion remain in motion
Well, as expected I only slept three hours, 11 pm-2 am because I was so excited. Kory never has any trouble sleeping EVER. We were ready for Mom and Dad to pick us up at 6 am without incident... Well, there was the small bump of Kory deciding he was going to leave his Big Bertha bag behind and use his medium sized bag... It was packed full, but not overweight. I started carrying it down the stairs and the strap started ripping... I think (hope!) that the bag can make it through the trip without further incident!
Security is always a breeze at the Madison airport and the Delta flight was smooth and quick to New York taking about an hour and 45 min. We had our bags and were in our Uber to our hotel at about 10:30 am.
We are staying at the Holiday Inn Lower East side because it is just a couple blocks away from Kory's niece and her husband, and I got a travel agent rate. It is perfectly adequate. A smallish room like I would expect in New York but recently updated and looking nice. Kory noticed that their shower tile is the same as what we put in our new new lower level bathroom last year... So we have the same style as a Holiday Inn decorator I guess?
We were debating what we wanted to do until our dinner and show plans. As Kory and I have discovered... we don't sit still on vacation. We like to be constantly moving and doing things.
(Side story: When I used to come to NYC with my sister Maggie or bestie David, we would always leave time in our schedule to enter show lotteries, see something crazy off Broadway or just do something else unplanned. This usually involved having to sit outside theaters to get standing room tickets, or showing up at Box Offices and asking how cheap we could get in. This has evolved into most shows having digital lotteries. I have won a couple in the past (Hamilton in Chicago!) but no such luck for the few I entered this time.)
I told Kory that one option would be to go enter the in-person lottery to "Once on This Island," a show that we saw perform on the Tony awards and that ended up winning "Best Revival of a Musical." He said, "Well we're here in New York, lets do it." So we took the subway up to the theater district. It took about a half hour hotel to theater. It is easy getting up there, but we found out it is more difficult coming back because of station closures for weekend maintenance. AND it is was about 90 degrees outside, so it was about a billion degrees in the stations.
We entered the lottery and both our names got picked. They had quite a few tickets, and the price was a higher than other lotteries I have entered ($59,) but that was still way better than the price we would have paid for the seats we ended up in, $189 fourth row seats.
We ate a quick lunch on the patio at Mother Burger because we hadn't eaten anything the whole day yet. It was delicious (I am sure almost anything would have been,) but the real highlight was the "Red Flower," our half frozen Sangria, half frozen Mimosa drink.
We made our way back to the show, and let me tell ya, it was AMAZING. I will remember it forever. It was a theater in the round, the center was set up mostly with sandy ground (that the first row was sitting in!) And there was an entrance/exit for the performers splashing through a water area. The story was kind of like a Disney story of the girl from the poor part of the island falling in love with a boy from the rich side. The gods save her after an accident and she asks them to save the boy later in the story. It was very original, the music was fantastic, the staging was inventive and the performers were excellent. I am so so happy that we had an opportunity to experience this show. Last thing I will mention is that there is a goat in the show! A real GOAT! Never have seen that before.
After the matinee, we got back to our hotel by the circuitous Subway route, freshened up and went to meet up with Kory's niece and husband. They have an awesome apartment and we went up and drank wine and looked at the views from their roof top terrace. Then we headed out to dinner in little Italy.
They had made reservations at Paesanos, which was funny because of how close in name it is to Paisan's in Madison. This one had been around a little bit longer since 1911. It was perfect to have dinner in that quaint little place. The food, wine and company were all great.
I had to have Cannoli from a bakery selling them on the street because it is my favorite desert ever... Nom Nom Nom! Then we got an Uber that took about 45 min to get us back to the theater area and the Mean Girls Musical.
Anyone around my age has seen the Tina Fey Mean Girls movie... and it is in constant TBS rotation now. It was so so so fun going with Kory's niece for her first Broadway show. She LOVES Mean Girls and the show was so funny. We had great seats in the front row of the mezzanine and our view of the screens and performers couldn't have been better. This is not high art here... It is just a super fun, super high energy show with excellent young performers. And the entire original cast was there, so that is fun when I can go back and listen to the songs I like on the cast recording and know that is who I saw in person.
After the show we took another long Uber ride all over the place to get back to the hotel and CRASH. I feel like we have been here for a couple days already... but it had only been an action packed 13 hours. If the first day is any indication of how this vacation is going to progress, I am ecstatic! Now off for another day of adventure and a day of Harry Potter!
Day 2: Sun. Aug 19. Harry Potter Day
The activity today was the catalyst for the whole rest of the trip. When I saw that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was going to open on Broadway... I knew Kory had to go! I tried to enter the Ticketmaster Verified Fan presale before Christmas, but alas, I did not get any tickets when I tried for that. In January, normal tickets went on sale and I battled Ticketmaster for tickets, (which I have much experience with... stupid Ticketmaster.) I was searching all different days and times to try and find when there were available tickets. I found some availability and bought tickets for this date... a long long time before the show opened or we would be going... I am so impatient. I hated that I would have to wait seven months!
Harry Potter day started with breakfast near our hotel at the Recovery Diner. I had their specialty hash which was three eggs over corned beef hash in some sauce with pico on top of it. It was pretty good... and unique.
From there, we caught the Subway up to Times Square and the show. Part 1 was at 2 pm and Part 2 started at 7:30 pm. The Lyric theater is absolutely beautiful and newly remodeled just for this show. They had a slick efficient operation that is like Disney. Everything everywhere themed, bar options in several places, a little store you could go in and buy snacks, people in the theater that would bring you concessions and merchandise that changed based on what had happened in the show. It was all very well done.
I won't say too much about the show... Their whole spiel is #KeepTheSecrets. Suffice to say, it was about six hours total of Harry Potter awesomeness. We had 5th row aisle seats which were awesome. It was cool seeing everything up close. The special effects, acting, story, set, just everything was amazing. I have never seen something quite like it. I love how different plays and musicals can be. It was an engaging experience. They definitely won't be able to tour this show. It is so immersive and normal theaters won't be able to support what they do here. It annoyed me before that it was two shows and two spots on our schedule, but it was totally worth it.
Between shows we ate at O'Donoghue's Bar... Fish and Chips. It was perfectly serviceable. Nothing amazing, but good for an in-between show meal. Then we went to Hershey's World where they had a little area where you could buy giant S'mores. S'mores are my second favorite desert, after Cannoli... so I have now had my two favorite deserts and the rest of vacation we will eat all Kory's favorites... I promise. The S'mores were okay... Their "gourmet" graham crackers weren't very graham flavored... It was still fun though. Then we headed back for the second part of the show.
All in all, a great Harry Potter adventure day. Now, onward to a quiet day in New York before flying out tonight.
Day 3: Mon. Aug 20. Travel Day into Day 4: Tues. Aug 20 Rome Marathon Sightseeing
I am writing this from a state of complete exhaustion. We have been up for a day and a half, having just napped a little on the plane. Excuse any errors as I fired this post off before bed.
Monday in New York was a low key day. We had farewell bagels at a local place with Kory's family. New York bagels... I could probably eat four in one sitting because I am a carb monster. So good.
Then we wandered around the Lower East side for a few hours, making it up to the Flat Iron building, which we love and have over our bed. We figured we better walk for a while since we were going to be sitting on the plane for a long time. We had late check out at 2 since I am Holiday Inn elite from the nights I have to spend at the fabulous Holiday Inn Express Oshkosh for work... That finally paid off in some way at least!
We returned from our walk at 2 exactly, got an Uber and headed to JFK. The Uber cost about $60 and took around 45 min. Definitely the most expensive Uber I have taken, but worth it so we didn't have to hump our bags around the train.
At JFK, check in went smooth at the British Airways counter... the nice guy waived Kory's second bag $100 fee, so that was swell of him. We got through security in a couple minutes and had two hours to kill. We got okay salads and overpriced Aloha Mules at an airport restaurant ($18 each... yikes!) Then we checked out the Alaska Lounge since my AmEx card gets us in there... It was a super cool trendy setting and peaceful, but the food options (not that we were hungry,) left something to be desired. But a good place to charge our phones.
We boarded our flight at 5:45 pm. We were in BA World Traveler Plus which = Premium Economy. It was it's own separate little cabin, which was cool. We got boarding champagne and I don't know that a whole lot else was different other than we had nice big chairs with a footrest and bigger screen... which is sweet for a tall guy like me. The six hour flight went without incident and we arrived in London at 6:30 am. A two hour layover was perfect to get to our connecting flight to Rome, which was without incident. It was 2.5 hours long and we got to Rome at noon. I had an airport transfer set up since a cab or a private driver is the same fixed cost.
We checked into the "Le Meridian Visconti Rome" at about 1:30. We got an upgraded room with my AmEx benefit of Starwood Gold Status. The room was super trendy and fairly large for a major metropolitan area hotel (about twice the size of our NY hotel.) Also got a great travel agent discount here and picked it because it was near the Vatican.
We were exhausted and knew that we had to keep going or we would be down for the count wanting sleep so we ordered a taxi on the mytaxi app... I read about it before departure since Lyft doesn't exist here and Uber has a small and expensive presence. It worked perfect. I love technology. Our cab showed up immediately and he took us over to the Colosseum.
The Colosseum is really a sight to behold. I had seen it in travel videos and whatnot, but standing under it you really feel the size of it and the history it holds. Really quite crazy how it was built, how long it has been there and all the history throughout the ages that happened where I was standing.
I am briefly going to say that we then spent about three hours walking and hit the Roman Forum, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and Spanish steps. You will forgive me if I wait to talk about those because I am beat and need some sleep.
We just got back from dinner at a little place near our hotel. I had delicious orecchiette pasta with broccoli and sausage, and some really good desert... I don't know what it was. I don't think Kory's lasagna was anything out of the ordinary, but he really loved his Tiramisu desert... and we both loved the bottle of 9 Euro table wine... Can't beat that price, and it was delicious.
Going to get some beauty sleep now since we have to be at the Vatican at 7 am for our early entry tour... More adventures to come.
Day 5: Wed. Aug 22. Vatican City and Boarding the Cruise
Today we were up bright and early to meet our early entry tour of the Vatican. It started at 7:30 am at the Vatican Museums. Our guide was Chad from Colorado. He has lived in Rome for 13 years studying fine art. He gave us about 30 min of background information on the Sistine Chapel and a zillion different interesting facts, anecdotes and things to look for. I am very happy for this, or I really wouldn’t have know what I was looking at. My favorite story was that all winged birds were considered messengers of the gods/fore tellers of the truth… even chickens. Seeds would be thrown in front of chickens before battle, and if the chickens ate it, that meant you would be lucky in battle and win. If they didn’t eat it, you were sure to lose, so they wouldn’t start the battle. One leader threw some seed down and the chickens didn’t eat it… He got impatient and said if they won’t eat, let them drink and he went into battle anyway. He suffered a blistering defeat and learned the lesson… Heed the chickens!
Anyways, back to the Vatican museums and the Sistine chapel. The Sistine chapel is one of those places where you just stand in awe of almost perfectly preserved artwork from another age. It really is something when you are standing in the middle of the room surrounded by all this art and storytelling. It was also nice to be there early before the hoards of people came, like later in the day when we passed through again. It struck me how popular the Creation of Adam section is, iconic really, when that is only one teeny tiny part of the overall work… and to me there were much more interesting parts of it. I liked the last judgement wall and the good vs evil story in that.
We also wandered around the Vatican Museums for a bit, and man are they massive!!! One could probably spend a week in there and not see it all. We saw a little of everything. Tapestries strung with gold that took five – six years to make (each!) Lots of sculptures and portraits. And many, many other trinkets. I found it interesting how Egyptian influenced many of the areas, exhibits and settings were.
From there we went right to St. Peter’s Basilica. The place is absolutely massive. It was another case of me seeing it in movies and on tv and not really understanding the scale of it. As a building project I can’t imagine how it was designed and built. I looked at Kory at one point and said that it seems like there are about two dozen little churches inside. It really made me feel small… Which I guess is probably the idea. There were some beautiful sculptures and I really liked the detail in almost the entire building.
That was enough church for me for one day… so then we wandered around the area a little, walked through some parks and then headed back to the hotel to head out for the cruise ship.
I had prearranged a transfer with Stefano’s Rome Cabs that I found on trip advisor. Our driver was right on time, spoke no English and got us to the port in about an hour.
Check in didn’t take more than about a half hour and then we were on the ship. I was sooooooo excited ! ! ! We have a nice big balcony room… #8187.
We spent the late afternoon wandering the ship and getting our bearings. It is the largest ship I have been on, with around 4,500 passengers and 1,700 crew members. Then we sat at the bar in Spice H2O., the adult pool deck area, drinking Bahama Mamas and Moscow Mules and it REALLY felt like we were on vacation! We spent our time there going through our Rome photos and deleting bad ones, editing good ones and then it was time for sail away. We are sitting on our balcony with the soothing sound of waves hitting the ship as the sun sets. This is the life!
Day 6: Thur. Aug 23. Florence and Pisa.
Today we got up bright and early to get off the ship at 7 am for our small group tour of eight people to Florence and Pisa. It took about an hour or so to get from the Livonia cruise port to Florence. Our first stop was Michelangelo Plaza where we overlooked the city of Florence. It was breathtaking. I don’t take that term lightly. It was so beautiful looking down and seeing the river, the basilica and all the other beautiful buildings and settings. This is how the Italy of my imagination looks.
This is also where we saw streets getting blocked off and screeching cars below. Through the day there were many other areas blocked and helicopters flying around above. We came to discover Michael Bay is filming his new romantic comedy in Florence… Just kidding… His new Netflix action series Six Underground.
From the Plaza we made our way down into the city and met our guide for a two hour walking tour of Florence. Our guide was good, a no-nonsense Italian woman that reminds me of Aunt Peggy. She talked a little about Florence in general before we went to see “David.” It really is an impressive sculpture when you are standing in front of it in person. This is another case where I didn’t really understand it’s scale and how big it is. Also standing close it is absolutely crazy to me how intricate David is. I don’t have an artistic bone in my body so I really was in awe of it.
From here we walked down the streets and made our way to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore which has the famous red cupola and Giotto’s Bell Tower right next to it. Right across the street was the “Baptisere” which is the oldest religious building still standing in Florence. Again, awe at these buildings that are so so beautiful and so so old. There had to be in excess of 100 life size sculptures on the church and bell tower, each one would be amazing in their own right, but they are just .01% of sculptures, paintings, stonework and everything else that makes up this area.
We then saw some other old structures that survived the war, from the old tower houses to the Ponte Vecchio (the old bridge.) The bridge was cool looking and now houses all the gold vendors. We also heard extensively about the history of the Medicis. They were a banking family that rose to prominence in the first half of the 15th century and funded much of Italy’s Renaissance activity. They had the Cappelle Medicee (Medici Castle) built as well as private passageways between the various buildings of the Uffizi, which includes the oldest art museum. Of this part of the tour, my favorite was the bridge with the vendors on it. There were buildings on both sides with all the gold vendors and it just looked so Italy from the river’s edge.
Following our two hour tour, we were cut loose to wander for two hours. Out guide had pointed out a good area to eat that had more local restaurants and wasn’t so touristy, and she also showed us where one of the oldest gelato places was, (that she considers the best.) We had pizza at Il Grande Nutti… I had spicy sausage (so good,) and Kory had a Fiorentina pizza with thin salami, peppers and some other Mediterranean toppings like olives or something… so his was way more authentic. Then we made our way to Festival del Gelato and got the first Gelato of my life. I am boring so I just got caramel and vanilla and Kory got dark chocolate and caramel for his flavors. They were both good. I am not a sweets eater generally, but I think as far as deserts go, they were pretty tasty.
After we wandered a bit more we met back up with our driver and went to Pisa. Not much doing in Pisa, except for the leaning tower. I think once you get the obligatory picture there is not much else exciting to do in this area. I am happy we went, but don’t need to go back again.
We were back to port just a couple minutes after 4 pm, but had to wait a little over an hour to get back on the Epic because they had to move her from where she was parked in the morning over to a different dock because other traffic had to get through. Our driver said he had never seen that happen. He was a funny nice fellow… didn’t speak much English but was like an uber driver… offering water, wipes, sanitizer, candy, and ended the tour by giving us Florence magnets.
We went back on the ship and headed to the Shakers Martini Bar. We are going to make our way through this list of martinis before the end of the cruise, I know that! Citrus Gem, French Raspberry, Apple Blossom, Le Fizz, Lavendar Patch, Peach Nectar, Aviation, Basil Cucumber Twist, Rum Caske and a few more……… Sooooooo goooooood.
Then we went to the 7 pm show… “Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert,” one of our faves! It was so well done for a cruise ship… probably the best cruise ship show I have seen. Makes me excited for the other shows we are going to see.
For dinner, everything looked pretty packed, so we sat at the noodle bar and watched the chefs make our noodles, spring rolls and pot stickers. It was a fine dinner, nothing spectacular, but good. Then we went to the top deck for the 80’s dance part at the Spice2o adult outdoor area. There are some friendly bartenders here that remember us from last night. After a few more drinks we hit the dance floor and danced til midnight. Dancing while we were sailing to the next port was a super time and for those keeping count, ended an 18 hour day. SO MUCH FUN… More updates coming… 8 am tour in the French Riviera tomorrow!
Day 7: Fri, Aug 24. The French Riviera
Another early morning! To get off the ship into Cannes we had to tender… which is annoying. They try to keep it organized but it is just a time eater and 10 step process. Complicating things for us was that we needed to meet up with our tour group that I found on Cruise Critic. The small group tours that I had found before the trip didn’t have enough people to make a go of it, so that is why I decided we would join this other one. Well, when we went down to the area where they organize groups to get off the ship it was absolute bedlam, with about 500 people all crammed in and trying to get through. We were almost through when we heard the ladies name behind us… so we did eventually find them. Thank goodness. Otherwise we would have been tourless! I guess that is a risk you take not going on ship excursions, but I can’t stand the huge bus tours.
Took about an hour for them to wrangle us from the ship, onto the boat, to shore and off the tender. Then we found our tour guides. The majority of this big group was going on a bus, but then eight extra people, us included, got our own van and guide. It worked out absolutely perfectly and couldn’t have went better! Which we learned later wasn’t the case on the big bus. So we lucked out again.
Our guide was Renee from Holland who speaks six languages and has been living in Nice for 22 years. He was THE BEST guide I can remember. He talked non-stop about interesting things, threw in his own hilarious commentary and just overall read and interacted with our crazy group well. The other six people on our tour were traveling together from Pittsburgh, so since Kory has family in that area, we were instant friends. One lady was taking pictures with her terrible towel everywhere which was hilarious. She says she takes it on all trips to pose with.
This tour, unlike the others we have taken so far, was more of a panoramic drive along the entire beautiful coast line with just a few stops along the way. It was actually a nice break from walking for hours on end like the last few days. It has been unbelievably hot the entire trip… which is better than cold or rainy, but that takes a lot out of you.
We started driving from Cannes, which I thought was a much larger city. It has a population of only 90,000 and they have beautiful sand beaches. It is naturally rocky, so they import sand from Spain. All of the rest of the beaches we would pass had dark pebbles leading into the water. Cannes is famous for the film festival of course, so we heard about that and saw where they show the films and where Elton John has his charity ball every year.
We continued driving and got to Nice, with the second busiest airport in France. It was interesting because they built it on reclaimed land in the water, and planes look like they are going to land right in the sea. Nice is also the fifth biggest city in France. We had a stop at the flower market. They had the flower vendors first, and then it was more of a farmers market with fruits, vegetables, oils and spices. It was so French… or what I imagined it should be. I have been to Paris several times and I enjoyed this area much more than the dirty, overpopulated, metropolitan city. We got some olive oils to take back home. We also bought some almond croissants from a vendor and they were delicious ! ! ! I haven’t eaten many croissants at home, but I would every day here. And they were only 1 Euro a piece.
After spending some time wandering Nice, we continued on to Eze, a little mid evil city along the coast. This was definitely the most unexpected place of the trip. It was absolutely gorgeous, built in the 15th century with lots of little paths between leading up to the top of the mountain. When we hit the lottery, we will come live here! It is so small and peaceful… No cars. There are two hotels with about 10 rooms each and they have to hump the bags up the mountain to get them to your room… So cool!
We then continued to our last stop on the coast, Monaco. I have seen it in so many movies that it was almost surreal to be there in person. It is like Disney World. It looks almost fake because everything is kept so pristine. It almost seemed like something from a storybook. Renee said there is no crime because there are cameras and police everywhere. Along our drive he talked all about how Grace Kelly made Monaco the place to be and the whole story of how it is a principality, and the prince must continue the bloodline or the area will go to France. The royal family owns everything. Casinos, hotels, car dealerships, beach club, yacht club, banks… everything. He gave all the gossip on the Royal family. It was also crazy to see the absolute extreme lavishness of everything there. Kids sit around waiting for the best cars to drive by to take pictures of them. And there were also half a billion dollar yachts sitting in the port. Just all so out of my world.
We then headed back to the ship after a day of seeing the fabulous coast… some day French Riviera… some day. After we win the lottery, we’ll be back. Among our awesome tour guide Renee’s funny observations:
• Grace Kelly was not nice
• Russian prostitutes are everywhere (in Monaco)
• At night… all the cats are grey
• Once you’ve seen one boob, you’ve seen them all
• The French are never happy… They have 31 days of paid time off a year, get a 12 euro coupon for lunch each day, and work 35 hours a week and they still think that’s terrible
• … and tons more …
Back on the ship, we headed back to Shakers Martini Bar to continue making our way through the martini list and combine and edit our photos for the day. Then we briefly stopped by the art auction, but nothing was our abstract style and we had to get to our French dinner at “Le Bistro.” We had a fantastic waitress and the dinner was good. Another nummy steak (peppercorn,) for me and jumbo shrimp for Kory. We also had some fancy champagne to start the meal, so I was feeling real, real French. Then we made our way back upstairs because they were going to have the Glow party up on deck, but the boat was really really rocking and rolling so it got moved inside. We had a drink up there, and then took one down to the Glow thing inside. Needless to say that we didn’t stay long because it wasn’t as awesome as the 80’s deck party.
We get to sleep in tomorrow … HOORAY!!! We don’t get to Mallorca until 1 pm. We don’t have anything planned, so it will be a much smaller post tomorrow!