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Friday, September 1, 2017

Mediterranean Cruise, 2016

by Paul Pakusch

My cruise on the Mediterranean Sea began on July 6, 2016 aboard the Norwegian Epic, one of the largest and newest ships operated by Norwegian Cruise Line.  Although the actual beginning of the cruise was in Barcelona, Spain on July 3, I boarded at the midway point in Civitavecchia, near Rome, Italy. The itinerary included Pisa/Florence, Italy; Cannes, France; Marseilles, France; Barcelona, Spain; and Naples, Italy.

A highlight of my on-board experience was my participation in the solo cruisers program, and I shall make comparisons to the experiences I had with the solo cruisers aboard the Norwegian Jade back in March.


I became newly single in January of 2016.  Up until then, all of my cruising experience had been on ships where we could have traditional dining times.  In March, I decided to pick a cruise line I had never been on before, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), from a port city I had never been to before (Houston), with as many ports of call as possible that I had never seen.  In this case, it ended up being Belize and Honduras.  We also visited Cozumel, where I had been twice before.  NCL is noted for its "freestyle" dinner times, meaning there is no set time, table, or table companions.

Once I boarded the Norwegian Jade, I noticed on the schedule that there was a Solo Cruisers meeting scheduled for early that evening.  Since this was my first time on a cruise ship by myself, I decided to see what it was all about.  It turned out to be the most profound change to my life as a cruiser that I could have imagined.  A crew member is assigned to host the Solo Cruisers group by helping to arrange activities, seating together at dinner, and seating together at the shows in the theatre.  We had a very vibrant group of solo cruisers that week that knew how to have a good time.  My activities with various people in that group included dancing, zip lining in Honduras, and renting motor scooters to ride around Cozumel for four hours.

Not long after that cruise was complete, I decided to take a Mediterranean cruise.  This time, I would be on the Norwegian Epic, which actually has cabins designed for solo travelers.  I looked forward to meeting a new group of Solo Cruisers.


On July 4, I drove to Toronto for my flight to Rome.  Since I'm 6'5", flying coach in most aircraft is a nightmare for me due to the lack of adequate legroom.  Being an overnight flight, I decided it would be well worth the money for me to book a seat in Business Class. The seats there lay out flat.  It was the best decision I could have made!  I was so comfortable that I actually got four hours of sleep on the flight to Rome.

I took a train to Roma Terminii, the main train station.  My hotel was a five-minute walk from there. Once checked in, I walked to the Vatican and spent a few hours touring it.  If you want to tour the Vatican, I recommend purchasing tickets online ahead of time so you can skip a long ticket line.

I took many pictures during my walk through Rome.  It was hot.  I guess it never occurred to me that this part of Italy was in the tropics.

I also noticed that many of the high profile locations, including the Vatican, had armed guards posted around the perimeter.  That's a sign of the times, with so many terrorist acts being committed.

I had dinner at a restaurant near my hotel and spent one night in Rome before boarding my ship.

The Norwegian Epic

I took a train from Roma Terminii to Civitavecchia, where I was to board The Norwegian Epic.  There were hardly any people in the check-in area.  It wasn't until I was on the ship a bit later that I realized this ship was halfway through its cruise.  Most of the guests had boarded three days earlier in Barcelona, and would be leaving in another four days when the ship reached Barcelona again.  Thus, I was going to see a major change in the ship's population.

The Norwegian Epic is a huge ship.  I believe it's the largest one I've been on to this date.  It holds 4,100 passengers.  It has some features that I think work very well on a ship, and some features that don't excite me very much.  I love the group of solo cabins, along with the solo cruisers lounge.  There is some fancy, colorful lighting in this area that can set a relaxing or romantic mood, depending on how you want to look at it.  There is a large TV screen in the Atrium, with a dance/activity floor in front of it, that is used for a multiple of activities.  I think this is a great feature.

This ship is well-equipped for families.  We had over 1,000 kids on this cruise and they had various age-appropriate playrooms and lounges for them, as well as a water park, pools, and water slides. There is an adults-only pool in the back of the ship, but it's small and the biggest complaint I heard is that there is no shade in the adults-only area.  On the plus side, the adult pool has a bottom that rises to floor level at night and the whole area is converted to a dance floor for parties.

I noticed that the theatre was smaller than other ships I've been on.  Furthermore, they have a system where you need tickets to get into shows.  I found this very odd and I'm not fond of the idea.  Perhaps it's their way of dealing with a large number of passengers.

The Solo Cruisers

Norwegian Jade, March 2016

Norwegian Epic, 1st Solo Group, July 2016

Norwegian Epic, 2nd Solo Group, July 2016

The solo group I met in March on the Norwegian Jade was a very lively bunch.  Because we all got on and off the ship in the same port, we were able to bond for a full seven days.  In contrast, my Mediterranean itinerary had some people getting on or off at almost all of the ports.  The largest group was in Barcelona, where the cruise actually started and ended.  I got on in Civitavecchia, near Rome, which was halfway through the cruise.  So I had 4 nights with the first group and 3 nights with my second group.  There were a few others that got on and off at the same time I did.

On the Jade, most of my fellow cruisers seemed to come from the southwest, including Texas and some neighboring states.  Others were from Kansas City, Michigan, Illinois and California.  I believe I was the only one from New York.  On the Epic, most of my fellow solo cruisers were from Europe, including England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Holland, Luxembourg, one from Australia, and a couple from Canada. With my hearing issues, I had a rough time understanding some of the accents at first, but I started to get used to it. There were a few from the U.S., like myself.  With accents that I'm familiar with, I found it easier to talk to them.

There is a crew member assigned to host the solo cruisers group.  On the Jade, a guy by the name of Guida did a tremendous job for us.  He went above and beyond what I thought was necessary to keep the solo group happy.  He made dinner reservations for us every night so we could sit together and reserved a row of seats for us in the theatre for the nightly show.  He also arranged for tickets on the early tender to shore for those who wanted one.  He treated us to champagne and wine as well.  I believe he is continuously the solo cruise coordinator while on the ship, in addition to some other duties.

By contrast, on the Epic, the entertainment staff rotates the job of being solo cruise coordinator. When I boarded the ship in Rome, Krista was the coordinator.  After my first group got off in Barcelona, William was the coordinator for the next group.  Both of them were fun and energetic, and made arrangements for us to sit together at dinner every night. Both of them danced with the solo cruisers at the parties.  I'm not aware that they arranged any show tickets, but that might be because the Epic has a ticketing system that the Jade does not have. As I mentioned earlier, I found the ticketing system to be odd.  Maybe they just have to do that on larger ships.

In both cases, the solo group would get together every evening around 6:00 or so to socialize and then head for dinner.  We often decided on activities to do after dinner, including going to a show, going to the Karaoke bar, or going dancing somewhere.

It was great being able to meet such fun groups of people on these cruises.  I don't know what other cruise lines do for solo travelers, but I give Norwegian Cruise Line high marks for what they have organized.  There's no reason to feel alone if you book a cruise by yourself.

The Dancing Machine

I seem to have picked up a reputation for being a dancing machine.  I have to admit I like it!  I think the breaking point was the March cruise on the Norwegian Jade.  During that cruise, my solo cruise mates saw how much I was on the dance floor and started calling me a dancing machine.  That gave me the confidence to go out and dance whenever I had the urge, whether I had a partner or not.  One night I was on the floor for an hour and 40 minutes non-stop.

After I got back home from my March cruise, I had a couple of opportunities to be dancing with friends.  That kept my confidence up and made me even more daring.  Quite frankly, I have spent most of my life being quite shy about dancing with anyone other than my now ex-wife.

When I got on the Norwegian Epic and joined the solo cruisers, we went to a lounge for 70's disco night.  As soon as the beats started, I jumped out of my seat and said, "OK, who's with me?"  About four women went on the dance floor, too, and we danced as a group.  Later on, one of them told me that they were surprised I got out there so quickly as most men would not do that.

The entertainment staff was there to lead the crowd into disco dancing.  It is their job to stand up on the stage or at various points on the dance floor to encourage guests to get up and dance. They also show people how to do line dances.  Krista, our solo cruise director, was among them.  At one point, she grabbed me by the hand and led me backstage,  Four other men were also called up.  When I saw her pulling costume pieces out of a box, I realized we were about to be dressed as the Village People and dance to the YMCA.

We weren't exactly the characters in the Village People as the costume pieces were a bit ad hoc.  I ended up with a Mexican hat, a Mexican shawl, and a bandana around my face.  The entertainment crew made sure we knew the moves to the YMCA and then led us out on stage.  It was a blast!  No pictures for me, though, as my camera was upstairs in my room and none of my solo cruisemates were positioned to see what was happening on the stage.

After the costumes came off, I was back on the dance floor for the rest of the night.  I didn't know any of the  modern music but it was a good beat and I could groove to it.  Some of the songs were starting to grow on me by the end of the cruise.

The next night, a Celebrity Dance Off contest was scheduled, similar to the TV show, which I have never watched.  In this case, the entertainment staff are the celebrities, so Krista asked us solo cruisers to come watch and support her and cheer her on in the competition.  I think about eight of us went.  When I arrived, Krista asked me to put my  name in the bucket to be a contestant!  I said I had no idea what to do, but she said it was all for fun, and that I should try it.  So I gave in and signed up. The celebrities consisted of three men and three women crew members, plus three judges.  All six of the entertainment staff plus the cruise director and assistant cruise director are involved.

The celebrity dancers had to pull names of guests out of a bucket.  Three women pulled three men's names out, and three men pulled three women's names.

Krista pulled my name out!  She says it wasn't planned that way, but hmmm......!   In any case, I think she was happy she got her solo cruiser guest, and I was happy to have her as a partner.

The first three dances were all six couples.  We all danced as the judges watched.  At the end of each dance, the judges gave their opinions of each couple, then each judge decided which was the best couple and which was the worst couple.  If any couple was chosen "worst" by more than one judge, then that couple was automatically eliminated.

As we launched into the first dance, I had no idea what we were going to do.  I let her take the lead.  From there, we improvised together and it seemed to work.  I was too focused on what we were doing to notice what the other couples were doing.  At the end of the first round, we got one "best" vote and one "worst" vote.  But we survived!

For the second round, based on comments I got a bit braver with some moves.  I included some moves that I remember doing in college, like dropping down to the floor, push-up style.  Once again, we survived!  I was feeling pretty good that I was making progress in a dance competition, something I never fathomed myself doing.

Up to this point, I had not noticed that we were on the giant TV screen behind us.  I made a comment to Krista about it and she said it was being recorded for the ship's TV broadcast.  I thought, "Cool, now I can get a recording of this!"

For round three, one of the judges had said we should do the "Flamingo."  So we got goofy and imitated flamingos by standing on one leg and flapping our arms like wings.  Another judge didn't like it, so we and two other couples were put up for a vote by the audience.  We were eliminated. There was a quick moment of disappointment, but I truly felt like I was having fun with this.

We went into a TV studio in the next room, called the Loser's Lounge to do an interview about "what happened out there."  They wanted us to act like sore losers, so we played along.  It was part of a larger skit involving the previous two losing couples.  Then I went back out to sit with my solo cruisemates and watch the rest of the show.

NCL is not allowed to sell DVD's of this competition, but later on I managed to record the whole show off the TV in my room with my Droid.

The next big dance event was White Hot Night, where everyone is supposed to dress up in white.  On the previous cruise aboard the Jade, the solo cruisers wanted to wear togas.  We were prepared to use bed sheets to make togas, but our solo cruise director got real togas for us.  No such luck on this cruise; no one but me wanted to wear a toga.  So I wore a white shirt and lightly tanned pants.  The party was outside on the back deck, where a huge TV screen hovered over us.

As with all the dances, the six members of the entertainment team were there to get the party started. There is a small riser that they stand on.  They were all getting to know me and my crazy dancing by now, so I was invited to dance on the riser with them.  I loved having the high view of the activity and I took the opportunity to record some video, especially with some of my solo cruisemates being there.

The next night was an 80's music night, and I was SO into it!

Midcruise for me was Barcelona, where most of the passengers got off and new ones came on.  That afternoon they had a departure party on the pool deck.  The entertainment team was out there again and so was I.

I was disappointed that I had lost most of the first solo group, who were a bunch of enthusiastic dancers, so I quickly tried to find out who the dancers were in the group of new arrivals.  I managed to get a few of my new solo cruisemates dancing with me that night.

The next night was the "Night Out" party on the back deck again.  Just like the "White Hot Night" party, I was ready to hit the dance floor as soon as the music began.  The entertainment team was out there to get people moving again, and I was on the floor with them, along with a few other solo dancers.

Not many other people were out there to start.  The videographer was shooting, so I hammed it up with a goofy dance and the shot ended up in the final video for the TV broadcast.  Not long after that, they said they were going to choose the best couple of the night.  They chose me and Charlotte, from Luxembourg!  We each got a shot of Blue Lagoon.  I don't think I've done any shots in 30 years! Then they did a quick interview with Charlotte and me for the TV broadcast.  Charlotte is an opera singer and also sang some pop songs in the Karaoke lounge.  I even jumped up on stage when she was singing "Walk Like An Egyptian" to do the Egyptian moves.  That got a round of applause, ha ha!

The next night was my last night on the ship.  At dinner, there was a live band playing dinnertime music.  One of the new solo cruisers, whose name I can't remember (I'll call her Minnesota, where she's from), commented that she wanted to dance a waltz, as she had never really done one with her ex-husband of 20 years.  I asked her if she'd like to do one with me and she said yes.  I have the feel for it, but I'm not that great a teacher.  We did all right.  She seemed to enjoy it and appreciate it.

Later, at the Fiesta dance, I had one final night of dancing with the entertainment staff and my solo cruisemates.  Minnesota was there and I spent my last dances on the cruise with her.  We tried doing some couple-style Latin dances but neither one of us was very good at it.

I really appreciate the fact that the whole entertainment team went the extra mile for me, and they were all so nice and we had a lot of fun through the whole cruise.  I wrote up a nice review for them on a guest comment card.

Pisa/Florence, Italy

My first stop was Livorno, Italy, where we docked.  I took a day-long excursion to visit Pisa and Florence.

No matter how many times I've seen pictures of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, it looked really odd to see it in person.  Yes, there really is a building amongst other buildings that is leaning.  I don't know how else to describe it but it just looks so out of place.  I took a bunch of pictures and then bought a ticket to climb to the top of it.  The staircase winds around inside the outer wall.  There is no railing.  You are climbing a staircase that, because of the leaning building, on one side you feel yourself shifting one way on the steps, and on the other side you are shifting the other way.  The wall is worn smooth from so many hands pressing up against it as people steady themselves going up and down the stairs. At the top, there is a great view in all directions.  And there is a bell, too.  Oh that's why they built the tower.  It's to keep a bell at the top.  Pain and simple, it is a bell tower.

We had an hour to visit Pisa and then the bus moved on to Florence.  I seriously did not do my homework for this city because I had no idea what was there.  Four hours to kill, and only with an hour and a half left did I realize that this is where the famous statue of David resides.  I missed out on that one.  But I did spend time walking around the city and I visited another art museum, the Bargello Museum.  I found the artwork there to be just as impressive as what I imagine the statue of David to be.

Cannes, France

Well, what can I say?  Cannes has to be the most beautiful city I have ever seen.  The mix of classy hotels, gardens, landscaping, mountain scenery, historic old buildings, ocean and beaches is just what I imagine the perfect, romantic vacation spot to be.  It's no wonder filmmakers love it so much.  We had to take a tender to get to shore, which is fine with me, because I think it would ruin the beachfront if they built a pier big enough to handle large cruise ships.  Once I got to shore, I discovered the beautiful beaches.

I bought a ticket to ride a touring train/tram that rides through the streets.  It was an hour-long, narrated ride, just enough for me to get a relaxing view of what the city has to offer.  After that, I decided I needed to go to the beach.  So, I took the tender to the ship, changed into my bathing suit, and took the tender back to the beach again.  I spent about an hour laying in the sun and swimming.

Marseilles, France

Cannes was a tough act to follow, so Marseilles didn't excite me much at first.  There are a large number of ferry boats that dock there, especially ones going across the Mediterranean to Africa.  We got caught in a traffic jam of cars lining up to board the ferry boats.  But once past that, we headed up the mountain to visit Notre Dame de la Garde.  It is a tremendous piece of architecture dominating the city skyline, and offering in turn a tremendous view of the city and nearby mountains.  During the Nazi occupation in World War II, they took it over because of its high vantage to control the city. You can see bullet pock marks on the walls of the building from a fierce firefight that occurred there during the War.

Back in the city, we were given some time to walk around on our own.  I took a ride on the large Ferris wheel by the fish markets.

Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona is the second largest city in Spain, and was host to the 1992 World Olympics.  Our tour there was on a Sunday morning, meaning we didn't have much traffic to deal with.  We passed the sites of the Olympic venues, and then toured the streets of the city.  We stopped to walk to La Sagrada Familia Basilica, which has been under construction since 1882.

We also went to the historical Gothic section of Barcelona, which is where the city originated during the time of the Roman Empire.

Naples, Italy (Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri)

My last port on this cruise was Naples.  I didn't actually spend any time in Naples; I took a 10-hour tour with stops in Pompeii, Sorrento and Capri.

Like Pisa, Pompeii is another historical place where the pictures don't do it justice.  There are very intact buildings giving you an idea of what life in this ancient city must have been like.  I suppose, for archaeological reasons, the volcanic ash did a great job of keeping the structures preserved through the centuries so that us gawkers of the past few hundred years can see what they had.  The price they paid was horrible; the volcano that looms overhead spewed gas that made them choke to death wherever they happened to be, while ash covered the entire city.  Their bodies ultimately decayed, leaving empty cavities.  Once these cavities were discovered, they were filled with some kind of plaster or concrete, creating the form of the body that shaped it.  Adults, children and pets were all found.  The whole experience was very sobering.

From Pompeii, we drove to Sorrento, a beautiful city that sits on a cliff.  The tour group stopped here for lunch and then had time to walk around the main square and its nearby shops.  Then we took the series of steps and ramps down the side of the cliff to walk past the beaches to the ferry boat.

At this point, we were done with the tour bus.  From Sorrento we would take the ferry to the island of Capri, and then a ferry from Capri back to the pier to meet our ship.   Once off the ferry in Capri, you can take a tram up the mountainside to the main square.  Capri, of course, is very beautiful and lives up to its romantic image.  I spent a little bit of time walking around, but being that it was mid-afternoon in 90-degree heat, I had had quite enough of being a tourist.  I wanted to get back to the ship, take a shower, and be cool.  I pictured coming back to Capri someday, in cooler weather, with someone special.  So I asked the tour guide if it was possible for me to take an earlier ferry boat back to the ship.  I did.

Rome, Part 2

After my cruise ended, I spent one more night in Rome before flying home.  I had purchased a ticket to tour the Coliseum.  It only took me about 35 minutes to get through the "bypass the line" line, ha ha!  I wonder how long I would have had to wait if I'd gone through the regular ticket line.

This is yet another well-known landmark for which pictures don't do justice.  It was pretty epic to see it and walk through it in person.  It has an amazing history that I never knew about.  Rather than describe it all here (because I'm tired of typing), I encourage the reader to Google the Coliseum and read its history yourself.

After that, I went back to the hotel and crashed for the night.  My exhausting week of dancing and touring European cities in 90-degree heat had come to an end.  What awaited me was a 9-hour airline flight, relaxing in a cozy stretch-out seat in Business Class!  Ahhhhhh!

Summarizing My Tourist Thoughts

One of the reasons I enjoy cruise ships so much is the same reason some people don't like cruise ships:  The visits in many ports are short.  That suits me just fine.  I am not a shopper.  I came back to the U.S. with "zero dollars" on my Declaration Card because I didn't buy anything.  I am happy to look around and take pictures.  I'm sure I pass up opportunities to enjoy some nice meals ashore, but I prefer to eat the meals that are included in the cruise fare, so I generally don't eat anything when I'm on an excursion.  Call me cheap, or whatever.  Maybe when I have someone special travelling with me again, I'll take time to stop and smell the rosey flavors emanating to sidewalk cafes in romantic getaways.  Until then, I'm happy to spend my dollars for experiences only.

Random Thoughts and Observations

This was the smoothest cruise I have ever been on.  The sea waters were relatively smooth to begin with, but the ship's modern stabilizers made it so that I did not feel the ship rock at all the whole week.  NOT ONCE!!

Are there any Italians that DON"T smoke?

Why are there young women with babies sitting on the sidewalks, begging?

Italian drivers are crazy!  I witnessed one fender bender accident and passed the scene of two others.

Italian jaywalkers are even crazier.

I think Cannes is the most beautiful city I have ever seen.

Italians don't put butter on their bread.

I got on the ship and Britain had one Prime Minister.  I got off the ship and Britain had another Prime Minister.  Meanwhile, the political arguments in the U.S. continued to drag on.  And some silly Pokemon game made people lose their sanity!

Music really makes me high.

Living in Rochester as a child, I had the sense that Lake Ontario to the north was the top of the world. I couldn't comprehend that there was a huge country beyond those waters.  While flying over Canada, I could see how puny Lake Ontario is.  Yes, there is a HUGE country to the north!

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