Cruising the Med on the Norwegian 'Epic'

After selling Mediterranean cruises for the past 10 years through House Of Travel I thought it was about time I myself got to sample why cruises and in particular Mediterranean cruises are so popular and such good value for money. Join me as I give you a day by day overview of what the cruising experience can offer for both the young and old as I set sail on my 7 night Med cruise from Rome ...

Another day with not a cloud in the sky and it’s time to leave Rome to Civitavecchia, the main port of Rome and where I am going to begin my Mediterranean cruise. I pre-purchased a First Class rail ticket for Rome Termini to Civitavecchia  for $25.00 including fees. The ticket had a specific coach number and seat number. There was plenty of room on-board and luggage racks/storage area at the start and end of each carriage. The journey takes an hour. On arrival at the station you are greeted by taxi drivers offering transport to the ship terminal for 20 Euro. I decided to walk, I should have taken the taxi! I thought I knew where I was going, I could see my ship but I couldn’t work out how to get there. Walking around the streets dragging a 20kg suitcase and my carry on in the hot Italian sun to save 20 Euros wasn’t worth the hassle. I eventually found a car park on the other side of town which is where shuttles pick up and drop off passengers to the ships. In retrospect I would have just arranged a transfer from Rome.

Finally we arrive at the Norwegian Epic. When it was built in 2010 it was the 2nd largest cruise ship in the world! With 4200 passengers and 1750 crew it is also the equivalent of a 16 story high building and has its own hydro slides on the top deck!

Check-in is similar to an airline check-in apart from getting your photo taken. You are issued with a room key card which is used for all purchases on-board the cruise ship as well as acting as your ID card.

On board I made my way to my room. I had a studio room specially designed for solo travellers avoiding a no single supplement surcharge. Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) are one of the only companies that have this option available and is great for not just solo travellers but also groups of friends who want their own room or even family members, eg. son or daughter that don’t want to be in mum and dads room. You also get your own private Studio Lounge where you can have breakfast, a cappuccino, or full bar service between 5-7pm. The studio rooms are actually bigger than they look in pictures and have a real space ship type feel with the modern lighting system.

After exploring the ship and trying to work out where everything was and what way was the front of ship and what way was the back I headed to the on-board Irish bar/restaurant where I chose a couple of items off the menu along with a pint of beer. I was lucky enough when I signed up to get a free all-inclusive drinks package. This deal comes up quite regularly and is awesome if you can take advantage. If you don’t get access to this deal when you book you can pay around USD70.00 per day for a package which I don’t think is worth it. Cocktails, beer, wine, spirits or just a coke …. all included and didn’t cost me a cent. Favourite cocktail for me was definitely the 'Mudslide', a combination of blended ice, chocolate syrup, baileys, Kahlua, coconut rum, coconut milk and more chocolate syrup!

First stop on the cruise itinerary was Livorno the base for exploring Pisa and/or Florence. Florence is home to Michelangelo’s David and many other art works. Myself not being an arty type person and the fact Florence was bit of a trek from Livorno I choose to take a 20 min crammed train to Pisa to visit the famous 'Leaning Tower'. NCL provided return transfers to Pisa train station at USD15.00. At the train station a ticket to Pisa costs just EUR5 return. If you have a credit card on you then can purchase train tickets on the machines which is quicker than lining up at ticket counter to pay with cash. I could have booked a shore excursion to Pisa through NCL but shore excursion price to Pisa was around USD130.00, I paid about USD25.00USD getting there myself. Shore excursions are worth considering for the pure convenience if nothing else but it is worth exploring other options if you have the time and the ship is docked in port.

Pisa was actually nicer than I had expected. I had heard it’s just about the 'Leaning Tower' however I really enjoyed my walk from Pisa train station to the 'Leaning Tower' and beyond through the streets of this lovely small city.

The 'Leaning Tower' area itself is free to enter but once in its presence there were literally hundreds if not thousands of tourists around. However it’s such a wide open area this didn’t bother me too much.

Back to Livorno and on the ship and this time I try the Garden Bar restaurant for dinner before taking in a show. Tonight was 'Priscilla Queen of the Desert', not really my cup of tea but could really appreciate the skill and showmanship involved. Like most things on your cruise this is free but needed to pre-book to reserve a seat.

The following morning we arrived in Cannes, home of the 'Cannes Film Festival'. There is actually no port in Cannes that caters to this ship's size so the ship used tenders (life boats) to transfer passengers to shore boat by boat. The line was ridiculously long to get on one of these tenders so rather than stand in line for an hour or longer I decided to skip Cannes and have a nice day on the ship by the pool deck and try out the slides. The slides were awesome! They are like actual normal sized slides you would find at any big water park. As half to two thirds were in Cannes for the day there were no big lines for the slide and plenty of free lounges around the pool. This was a nice relaxing day to recharge after much walking the day before in Pisa. That night after trying out the 'Taste Restaurant' (where my duck was well overdone) I found the Cavern Bar which is based on an old pub/bar in Liverpool where I understand the Beatles used to play in their early days. Most nights there was a Philippine-O rock band called Sligo playing. They did rock covers from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and today and were very good. Here I would sit down with a rum and coke. Happily they had my fav' rum Mount Gay.

Another blue sky and arrival in France's third largest city, Marseilles. A return transfer was offered to downtown Marseille for USD15. From here I wasn’t sure what to see and do so just explored the central area of the city on foot. After hunting for gifts to bring back home and with the sun beating down I decided to find a nice bar overlooking the waterfront where I sat down with a quiet one and took in the serenity. To be honest I wasn’t quite sure what to see and do in Marseille so I just headed back to the ship to have a late lunch and get back on the slides. That night was the famous white out party. Basically everyone dresses in white and gets plenty of liquids in them while enjoying this outdoor dance party on the top of the ship. It started at 10.30pm and finished at 2.30am. They even had crew going around with tequila shots for everybody and had extra drink stations positioned all-round the dance floor. There was a varied age gap with Kids as young as 5 up to an old man dancing on a table who must have been close to 80 enjoying the festivities.

One of my favourite cities in the world followed … Barcelona. To be fair I’m wasn't feeling 100%, perhaps it’s to do with a couple too many cocktails or maybe it was something I ate at the Chinese restaurant on board last night. Any way the great thing about the port at Barcelona is that it’s right in the centre of Barcelona just a 10 minute walk from the famous La Rambla street lined with shops, restaurants and street performers.

This is one city where a 'Hop On Off' bus is a great option. With the tourist sites spread apart this option works a treat. You can get them at any info/tourist centre and cost about EUR20. This was my second time in Barcelona and I had done all the sights before. I didn’t really feel like walking much so decided to take the bus and took most of my photos from the comfort of my seat, fresh breeze blowing over the top deck.

Barcelona is a starting point for this cruise so many passengers got off for good and many new passengers started their cruise today. You could start or finish this cruise from Barcelona, Marseilles or Rome.

That evening I tried the Manhattan dining room for dinner. The best restaurant yet but my Beef Wellington was slightly over done for my liking.

Cruising out of Barcelona en route to Naples we spent the entire day at sea. After a nice omelette for breakfast and with the knowledge everyone is on the ship, I headed out to find a spare lounger. By 1100 the complete top deck was full with barely a spare lounger, space in the pool, and the line for the slide went all the way to the bottom of the stairs. It was now the school holidays in Spain and two thirds of the ship filled with Spanish families.

After a few 'Mudslide' cocktails by the pool I feel the sun starting to burn so headed down to deck 5 to see what’s happening. A quiz was about to start on flags…one of my specialties … out of about 30 players I take out the quiz and with it a voucher for a free specialty dinner which I use that night at Cagney’s Steakhouse. While most restaurants and eating places are free on-board they do have 4 or 5 specialty restaurants where you can pay additional for a special meal or something different. I indulged in a nice fillet steak. This was cooked to perfection and every bite reminded me of my flag quiz victory. After dinner I watched an outdoor movie while having a couple more cocktails on the giant outdoor screen cruising between Sardinia and Corsica. I finished the night off with a few more drinks in the Cavern with my Filipino rock group 'Sligo'.

Naples, gateway to Pompeii. Like Barcelona, Naples port is right by the city centre. However my focus today is going to Pompeii. From Naples train station it’s a 40 minute train journey. Pompeii was a city completely covered in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD killing around 3000 people. The train to Pompeii Scavi station is EUR6 return. Because of the cruise ships in town the train is very busy and like Pisa I had to stand during the journey. Maybe I would have been better off paying extra for a shore excursion via bus? Once off the train you’re just a short walk to the remains of Pompeii. Just to note that on entrance to the main site you pay a fee of EUR13-15.

After taking in the remains of Pompeii it's back to the ship for my final night on-board. I needed to have my bag outside my room by 2200 so that it’s collected and waiting for me at the port by the time I get off the ship the following morning. That night I headed back to the Irish bar for my last dinner on the ship and a game of ten pin bowls, I rolled 135. Yes this ship even has an indoor ten pin bowling alley – there is an additional cost for this of USD7.00.

One last Omelette for breakfast and off the ship around 0830 as per the recommended time to disembark the ship. One last swipe of my room card and off to grab my bag that is waiting for me. Once I have collected it I’m out the door and on a complimentary transfer to the Civitavecchia car park. This time I know where the train station is so just made the 20 minute walk with luggage intact, I was in no hurry at all.

For those that haven’t done a cruise….do one! And keep an eye out for those free drinks package deals as is a great added bonus.