Our palette has never been so vivid, sounds so symphonic, the world so abiding, our bond so constant.
For twelve days and eleven nights, embarking from Genova, Italy to the eastern Mediterranean and back, the 333.3 meters long X 37.92 meters wide MSC Fantasia was home for us plus more than 4,000 passengers and crew. The size of a small city, the vessel maneuvered vast waterways and towered over ancient walled ports, easily spotted miles away due to both size and structural incongruity with the surroundings.
The adventure itself was similarly divergent from past vacation choices, yet once the tiniest seed was planted, it sprouted and blossomed into fresh perspective and promise. The positives for cruising piqued our interest: land and sea exploration of expansive, new territory, a single “hotel” for an extended timeframe, plus countless options.
Yet, a nagging thought persisted. What to do to avoid a negative experience, confinement to tight spaces, overwhelming lines and interminable waits, hidden fees, and limited opportunity for stimulation and comfort?
What features do we consider vital for our holiday happiness?
Our holiday was to be a celebration of retirement, a new chapter in our lives. We hoped to wrap our arms around a part of the world we hadn’t yet explored together. We considered many ship registries, routes and ports for a best fit. This is when an experienced travel agent would traditionally enter into the process, but I chose to own our plans once again. It is an obsession and a wonderful gift to share a carefully crafted adventure.
Cruise destinations literally offer the world to the wanderer. We were curious about Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. I combed the internet. Vacationstogo.com. was a good resource for initial insight and cruise comparisons, ratings, itineraries, pricing, specials. When a particular cruise seemed to have potential, their web site was explored.
We had no specific dateline. Flexibility was a plus. We liked “wave season” for fewer tourists, more temperate climate, and better pricing. Advance purchase seemed to provide perks. After a month or so of study, we determined springtime would be optimal for all of the above reasons. The weather could be a bonus, but we would plan for rain, too.
We didn’t need a 5+ star rating, though the ratings are a helpful reference point. We ultimately elected a 4-star rated ship with European registry and international passengers for a less homogenous experience. Updating our Italian and Spanish, too, was fun preparation. Although English was spoken by all of the crew, the ability to communicate “un po’” in a second language is beneficial. When the English-speaking tour was cancelled in Malta, we joined the Spanish-speaking group.
Itinerary/Length of Cruise
Minus the need to return to work, this was an opportunity for an intense, extended holiday! An Eastern Mediterranean itinerary seemed attractive, before summertime crowds and oppressive heat. Including multiple stops in Greece and Italy was ideal, and the Fantasia’s route won me over, despite no stops at fabled Mykonos or Santorini. Having a couple days at sea seemed optimal for a recharge after port excursions; this proved correct. Twelve days appeared to be ample time to both engage in our own routine on board and cover many nautical miles.
Somehow our cruise plans became bookended by two, three and seven day adventures to a grand total of 28 days.
Cabin Class/Type and Location
Though the argument “all you do is sleep in your room” may satisfy some travelers, I maintain the decision of cabin selection elevates (or lowers) the price tag and the experience proportionately.
High or low deck, fore or aft, portside or starboard, interior or exterior, window or balcony, bunks or beds, suite or standard stateroom?
Of course we chose an upgraded room. A balcony suite was the clincher for our Mediterranean cruise. On-line schematics, videos and photos were helpful. After identifying, a specific deck and cabin, an MSC consultant proved invaluable when she advised my selection in the front of the ship had windows in lieu of a balcony. She suggested a starboard location based on the itinerary and ports. The result was an eye-popping two- room corner suite far beyond our expectations.
Under ever-changing skies, our own “bird’s eye view” of the ship and the pilot boat interactions as we entered or departed these medieval ports, coastlines and open water from our bed, living area and deck was out of this world.
Cruise websites have considerable detail. After the initial booking in late summer, various prepaid or all-inclusive packages for dining, beverage, and spa were proposed. Noting a hefty surcharge for on-board services, we planned to make these decisions before sailing.
In December, “inclusive experiences” were featured by MSC with some automatic upgrades for certain room categories. Our booking was revised to allow us the “Aurea Experience” which included all-inclusive spa, well-being package (Balinese massages, solarium/ thermal area access, products and bathrobe and slippers in cabin), shipboard credit $100 USD per person , access to Top 18 sun deck, unlimited drink package (beer, wine, liquor, specialty coffee, bottled water, soda, gelato!), “My Choice” dining, priority boarding & luggage service.
This fantastic, value-added bonus made us giddy.
On board, guests may pursue an intense activity level or R&R. The ship has a full schedule of activities, contests, promotions, concerts, shows and movies.
In port, shore excursions allow close-ups of some of the wonders of the world and significant architectural, artistic, cultural venues. I love independent discovery, but an experienced, knowledgeable guide can offer so much dimension, plus stories! Multiple tours with local organizations are offered by the cruise line. These vary in focus, hours, price, and language. Many destinations necessitate at least a one hour bus ride. Typically the group is 40-50 persons. These may be prepaid and they are quite organized.
As an option, passengers may arrange a private or semiprivate tour, though guests are warned that the ship will not hold departure for anyone except those on the ship’s excursions.
In Athens, we pre-arranged an intimate and memorable all-day tour. The provider was top-notch and an excellent choice in this city. And we arrived shipside in time!
We qualified for a senior discount and California resident savings on our booking. Tipping for all services is managed by MSC with an optional minimal charge per person per day, collected on the final bill. No cash is utilized on board. Your Cruise Card is your ID, your access on and off the ship, and your “charge card” for any purchase.
On board purchases, including excursions, carry a 25% surcharge. With our “Aurea Experience” upgrade, all those glasses of wine, bottles of sparkling water, espresso, gelato, exclusive sun-deck with cocktail service and sauna visits were cost-free. Our final bill was about $130 euros for twelve days.
Ultimately, we decided that our wishes and needs could be met on a cruise with a tantalizing itinerary and upgraded digs. And so it was!
Andrea Bocelli crooned “Con Te Partiro” as the journey commenced, while the horn signaled the ship’s departure from Genova on the last Saturday in March. An orange sunset complimented the Prosecco and snacks in our Meraviglia suite under the skydeck. At sea for the first day and a half, we complied with the mandatory fire drill, acclimated to multiple time changes, selected dining venues, contemplated the ocean, soaked up rays on the Top 18 and relaxed in the sauna and thermal area. A table for five was a reserved twosome each evening under the attendance of our delightfully indulgent waiter, Marin. Entertainment, activities, dining options and shopping were ours for the taking. In port, prepaid and carefully chosen shore excursions provided access to historic and cultural meccas. We kept pace with our marvelously passionate local guides in awe:
From the port of Katakolon, Greece overlooking the Ionian Sea, we ventured inland to Ancient Olympia. Our imaginations were tweaked by our guide Genny’s stories of Zeus, the Olympiads, temples and great priests. The games praised a culture which strived for a balance of the physical being, philosophy, music and geometry. Dating to 776 BC, these stone remains are outnumbered by the tourists, yet this is a hallowed place.
The city of Heraklion, Greece welcomed us to the island of Crete. Traversing hilly, fertile country, we learned the island claims 138 million olive trees. Our tour took us past ruins of the Minoan Palace of Knossos where the legendary Minotaur once preyed, according to Greek mythology. Raindrops fell in the village, so we ducked into a tavern for tea with honey, spanakopita and Raki, firewater for medicinal purposes. At the lively Ancient Port, beer, wine and calamari enticed us once more.
In Rhodes, Greece, a bell chorus heralded the ship’s entry into the sandstone fortification as the city awakened. Our guide calls this the island of the sun. We walked 300 steps up from the village to the Lindos Acropolis and the Temple of Athena Lindia from 400 BC. We learn the columns are from the Greek word “prósthesis,” which refers to a device offering support, such as an artificial limb. Lots of root words here. We laughed at the connection to the father in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” but hushed when we confirmed Greek origin in 1545-55, at dictionary.com. Our history recall is tested at each twist and turn.
The port of Izmir, Turkey, appeared industrialized and sophisticated compared to those we have recently visited. Our guide Selen has a PHD in art history. Peaches, figs, olives, pomegranates, oranges, and mandarins dot the route to Ephesus. Here, an entire city 8,000 years old was revealed incidentally in the 19th century during railway construction. The extensive site including an amphitheater seating 25,000 is perhaps only 10% excavated and continues to be unearthed. It is estimated that the process will take an additional 200 years.
In Piraeus, Greece, we met PK Travels for a semi-private tour of Athens with a family of four from London. Dimitris, our driver, zig-zagged through narrow, crowded streets and hordes. Michael, our guide, interjected myth and history entwined as we took in the Acropolis. The artful brilliance is not lost over time.
With free time in the Plaka, we craved gyros. Michael recommended Bairaktaris Tavern, established in 1879. Our server, smiling, brought samples of chicken, beef, lamb and pork gyros to try. We dug into Greek salad piled high with incredible feta, super tzatziki, grilled eggplant, fragrant, sumptuous lamb gyros and pita. Tasty beef kebabs were on- the-house. More on-the- house yogurt and honey, helva and Raki rocked. Mandolin music filled the air. We were taken with the flavors and the bounty.
On Easter Sunday, the Fantasia arrived at 7AM in Valleta, Malta, as the sky illuminated the fortress, spires, domes and stately buildings. Colorful storefronts and restaurants lined the modernized pier. The old harbor at Vittoriosa reflected its own personality. Cathedral bells pealed as lines of tourists exited motor coaches. Our driver became lost on this 16.8 miles long x 9 miles wide island because of road closures for the Easter parade! In Marsaxlokk Bay, the fishing boats have “eyes” to ensure safety. The open market atmoshere and people -watching were inimitable.
Messina, Sicily: Yet another 7AM arrival observed from our balcony! As the ship maneuvered into port, I spotted a shoe moving above in the lone window on the floor of the sky deck. The crew was on the job!
I relished being on Italian soil once again and wondered how Sicily- Taormina, in particular- would affect my husband. The group quieted as our guide reminded us of the destruction and death toll of 80,000 from the 1908 Messina earthquake & tsunami. The mountaintop perch, the massive gates of the old city of Taormina, the Greek, Roman and Byzantine art, engaged people and frank beauty in the piazze, and ultimately, the crowning glory-the Teatro Greco- amaze. As did the arancini in the village. We thanked our lucky stars.
Civitavecchia, Italy was the last port call on the journey. Our all- day tour of Rome flew by centuries-old landmarks with pelting rain on the bus windows obliterating the Forum and Colosseum. We felt grateful to have had several days beforehand to appreciate the city on foot and in-depth. The focus on this day was Vatican City. The skip-the-lines tour was a veritable body- to- body shuffle into the Sistine Chapel. No talking, no photos and strict time limits impose frustration, yet the frescoes and the beauty created by the Renaissance masters here and the “art as power” Baroque presence in St. Peters Basilica are beyond magnificent. We bee-lined to a café nearby for a dose of spaghetti carbonara and linguini with clams.
On deck, in a lounge or our marvelous suite, we’d share a cocktail and toast our good fortune to witness such mesmerizing glory day after day.