Mediterranean Cruise Port Guide and CruisingExcursions.com Reviews
I recently completed a 12-Night Grand Mediterranean cruise aboard the Norwegian Spirit and was appalled at the prices of the shore excursions through the ship. It's a well-known rule of cruising that the cruise line will try and scare you into booking through them, citing reliability and the danger of missing the ship departure time.
Although I had cruised before, I still wasn't confident enough to plan my own travel at each port. Of particular concern was the location of the European ports. For example, the ports for Rome and Florence are actually in Civitavecchia and Livorno, respectively, both over an hour away.
So, if you're like me and are interested in booking private excursions, particularly via CruisingExcursions.com, then read on for my review as well as some general feedback on my Norwegian Spirit Grand Mediterranean cruise.
I hope you will find this information useful, not just for assessing this particular shore excursions company, but also for some practical advice on the ports. After reading this article, you made decide you can do some of the ports on your own.
Some Background about CuisingExcursions.com
The company was recommended to me by someone who works in the cruise industry and she said she had used them in the past. I was immediately intrigued by the multi-port packages and the massive savings available. They also had a feefo service rating of 90% and offered a guarantee to get you back to your ship or arrange a transfer to your next port.
Our guide in Florence, Rosa, told us the company was set up by Simonne Fairbanks as a reliable alternative to booking through the cruise lines. Starting small, it has grown exponentially every year and now has 12,000 tours and activities in 700 ports worldwide.
Before booking, I became concerned about some of the reviews I was finding on various travel message boards. Although it had a high review rate on feefo, there were way too many anecdotal posts about guides not showing up. It seemed that this might be a company that had grown too fast and was buckling under the weight of its quick success.
That said, I decided to take the plunge. A conversation with Judith in their customer call center gave me confidence in their legitimacy. She was professional, knowledgeable and very customer service focused. Most importantly, she was very particular at looking at ship embark and disembark times, which helped alleviate my concern.
Quite frankly, the ship excursions priced themselves out of my range and that forced me into taking a risk on a third party supplier.
My 12-Day Grand Mediterranean Itinerary aboard the Norwegian Spirit
- Venice, Italy
- Athens (Piraeus), Greece
- Ephesus (Kusadasi), Turkey
- Istanbul, Turkey
- Mykonos, Greece
- Naples, Italy
- Rome (Civitavecchia), Italy
- Florence/Pisa (Livorno), Italy
- Provence (Toulon), France
- Barcelona, Spain
I stayed in Venice for a few days before debarking on the cruise, so I didn't book an excursion. However, I can give you a few insights into this port if you ever have a port day there.
Getting right into the tourist center of Venice is pretty easy from the cruise terminal. There is a water bus that leaves directly from the terminal and drops you off in St Mark's square. From there you can see St Mark's Basilica, the Dodges Palace and you can catch a gondola ride from nearby. You don't necessarily need an excursion for this port, but being able to skip the lines might be invaluable if you are trying to achieve a lot in a short time.
Essential Panoramic Athens
Athens (Piraeus), Greece
Essential Collection - Essential Panoramic Athens Review
Piraeus, the port for Athens, is about half an hour from the city center. I booked the Essential Panoramic Athens through Cruising Excursions. I had initially hoped to do their "Walking Tour of Athens and the Acropolis" but the customer service representative was worried I wouldn't get back to the ship in time, so I erred on the side of caution.
This was the first shore excursion we had ever booked through a third party, so it was with no small amount of trepidation that we rushed to outside the port terminal to see if anyone was waiting for us. Sure enough, a friendly young man with a CruisngExcursions.com sign was waiting for us.
He was coordinating with another representative who was waiting for passengers at another Piraeus terminal. This was the only port where we shared a tour with passengers from another ship.
The thing I was most concerned about (other than no guide showing up) was whether the tours would wait for us if we were delayed getting off the ship. The representative put our minds at ease for all the future ports by diligently communicating with his colleague at the other terminal as well as his head office until all the passengers were accounted for. The bus then picked all the passengers up from each terminal and we were off!
The tour was full of like-minded travelers who refused to pay the exorbitant cruise line prices. Some had gone all in with CruisingExcursions.com and purchased one of their bulk port deals. Others, like us, had been more selective based on what we wanted from each port. Because it was such a long cruise, we built a comradery with our fellow passengers, which came in handy for taking pictures of each other and at a later port where we insisted the guide wait a little longer for a passenger to arrive (more on that in the Rome section).
Our guide was knowledgeable and humorous, especially when offering her opinions on Greek politics and rival sports teams.
We briefly got off the bus to look at the Panathenaic Stadium (site of the first modern Olympics in 1896). There wasn't enough time to go inside, but you can still get a great view from behind the roped area.
We drove past a few other famous sites, but we didn't get off the bus again until the highlight of the tour: The Acropolis.
If you're planning on seeing a lot of amazing, bucket-list attractions on your cruise, get used to being rushed. There is never enough time to learn about the site, take pictures and experience the wonder of what you are seeing. That's just the way it is. Places like Athens and Rome aren't made to be seen on a half day shore excursion, so you just have to make the best of it. The Acropolis is no exception, even though we were up there a couple of hours. We only had about half an hour of free time...you lose about half of it if you have to wait for the line in the ladies' bathroom.
You're then given some free time in the historical center of Athens. We chose to rush through the Acropolis museum to see the original Caryatid statues from the Erechtheion temple. We also went to the Temple of Zeus, Arch of Hadrian and a brief trip to the Plaka market place. We were rushed. Most people chose to eat lunch and wander around the Plaka and Temple of Zeus. No one else went to the museum due to the time restraints.
We got back to the cruise ship with a couple of hours to spare. We were very satisfied with the Essential Panoramic Athens from Cruising Excursions.com.
Ephesus (Kusadasi), Turkey
NCL Norwegian Cruise Line Ephesus, Virgin Mary & Basilica of St. John Excursion Review
Kusadasi was the one port we decided to go through the ship rather than Cruising Excursions. We opted to go through the cruise line because it also included Basilica of St. John. Also, as opposed to the other port excursions, there wasn't as much of a savings to go through a third party this time. That said, I caught up with the other passengers who went through CruisingExcursions.com and they all enjoyed it. The best part was there was only four people on their tour! Some other people on the cruise just found another couple and bartered with a taxi to take them around for the day. They were very happy with that too.
Any notion that there was an advantage in getting off the ship quicker and easier by booking through the cruise line was put to bed at this port. It was a bit of a mad house. We waited and waited in the ship's theater and eventually were called to join the meandering mass of people trying to spew out of the ship. All was well in the end, but it was a little confusing trying to find our bus, especially if you are trying to rush to ensure a good seat. All in all, it wasn't as smooth as I hoped and started to feel better about booking my other excursions through a third party.
Our guide was excellent. He was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the sites. First we visited the House of the Virgin Mary. Many Christians believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, lived there until her Assumption. There is a long line to walk through the house, so unfortunately you can't take your time. You get some free time there, but outside of the house there isn't too much to do except light a candle.
Next was, for me, the tour highlight: the ancient Greek city of Ephesus. This wonderfully preserved city was built in the 10th century BC and showcases centuries of history and civilizations. Mark Antony and Cleopatra of Egypt spent some time there, and towards the end of our visit we saw a brief show with them and some gladiators.
Afterwards, we went to the Basilica of St. John, built in the 6th century over the believed burial site of John the Apostle. It is the remains of what must have been a marvelous church. You also get a fantastic view. However, at that point it does suffer from being directly after Ephesus on the tour.
We got back to the Kusadasi port with nearly a couple of hours, at which point we were given the option of seeing a Turkish rug presentation.
IMPORTANT: Demonstrations for the purpose of selling Turkish products (usually rugs) are part of the culture in Turkey. The shore excursion representative from the ship told us it is legislated, although I'm not sure of that. Either way, don't bother trying to select an excursion based on whether you have to attend a demonstration. Most likely you will have to, even if it's not listed. Our guide was laid back about whether we attended. We chose to because we had some time to kill and wanted to see what the fuss was about Turkish rugs. However, many people just went straight back to ship. We had some apple tea and there was no pressure to buy.
Final thoughts on NCL Norwegian Cruise Line Ephesus, Virgin Mary & Basilica of St. John Excursion.
This was a good tour of the above sites. If you are a spiritual person, then I encourage you to go to the House of the Virgin Mary. If you aren't, then perhaps finding an excursion that goes only to Ephesus would be better, or perhaps even find your own transport, such as a taxi, at the port.
Mark Antony and Cleopatra with Gladiators Show in Ephesus, Turkey
Review of Essential Collection - Blue Mosque, St Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Hippodrome Square & Grand Bazaar!
I was told Istanbul is a port you don't need to book an excursion for because the main sights are within walking distance. Having been there, I'm glad I booked an excursion because the main tourist center is a good half hour walk from the port and the "skip the line" you get with a tour guide could be important during peak season.
I booked the Blue Mosque, St Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Hippodrome Square & Grand Bazaar tour from CruisingExcursions.com and was glad I did. Mustafah was one of my favourite tour guides. He was there waiting at the port entrance and once we were all assembled he called for a mini bus to pick us up.
The bus drove us to the tourist center and left us there until it was time to go back to the ship. There was a lot of walking on this tour.
The good thing about a small tour is that the guide can be flexible based on the situation. For example, he changed the order of our itinerary when he realized we could beat the main ship excursions to some of the sites. We went to the Blue Mosque, St Sophia, Topkapi Palace and the Hippodrome Square, and they all were fantastic and incredibly well preserved. Unlike some of the other ancient sites I visited, these ones are all still used daily by locals.
After those sights, Mustafah took us to a local restaurant for lunch, which we enjoyed. Unfortunately, the day we went was a national Turkish holiday and the Grand Bazaar was closed, which was disappointing.
Instead, Mustafah took us to a smaller Bazaar that was open and we had some free time to shop for Turkish delight and jewellery.
We had some time back at the port, so we walked about five minutes and found a cafe with free Wi-Fi.
I highly recommend the Blue Mosque, St Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Hippodrome Square & Grand Bazaar tour from CruisingExcursions.com.
Istanbul at Night
We chose not to book an excursion for this port. Some people went on a short walking tour, and others hired a smart car or jeep and explored.
We opted to wander the streets, do some shopping and enjoy a nice meal: the perfect tonic after a frenetic few days exploring some major Mediterranean cities.
I can recommend 'nice n easy' in Mykonos, which had good food and a great view of the water, the Mykonos windmills, and even our cruise ship. We enjoyed a salad with goat's cheese balls, a Greek meatball dish, and Greek local yogurt with honey & walnuts for dessert, all of which was fantastic. I even tried Tsipouro, a strong Greek spirit, despite our waiter's warning I wouldn't be able to handle it!
Essential Collection - Pompeii, Sorrento & Positano View Review
Some people we met on the cruise chose just to wander around Naples on this day. However, I was eager to book an excursion because I hadn't heard positive things about Naples and I was also really keen to see Pompeii.
For what it's worth, we walked into Naples (it’s five minutes’ walk to the center from the cruise terminal), and I didn't think it was that bad. However, we spoke to a couple on the ship who walked around Naples on their own, and they felt scared and unsafe at times. In my opinion, the trip to Pompeii and Sorrento was a far better use of time. Some people opted for an excursion that involved climbing Mount Vesuvius, or one that focused on the Amalfi Coast.
We were picked up by our guide, Sebastiano, at the terminal and quickly left on our tour. The first stop was Pompeii, the ancient Roman city near buried during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Sebastiano took us on a walking tour through a small part of the old city. The guide was heavy with information and we only had a few minutes free time to spend in the main forum. Pompeii is a massive site, despite only two-thirds of the city having been excavated. You could easily spend days there.
Next, we boarded the shuttle bus for a drive along the Amalfi coast on our way to Sorrento. The drive is a long a very narrow, winding road with a very steep drop to the right of the bus down the cliffs. Most of the passengers were uncomfortable, but I loved it. The views of the Sorrento Coast, the Amalfi Coast and Positano were spectacular.
Our final destination was the pretty seaside town of Sorrento, famous for its limoncello, the sweet lemon liqueur. The sure do love lemons there, with many of the stores that can be found in the old, narrow streets, dedicated to the citrus fruit. We enjoyed a delicious Neapolitan pizza and limoncello at Il Fauno Bar.
We had some free time to explore, and then we headed back to ship...stopping briefly to explore the Naples town center before getting back on board.
Rome (Civitavecchia), Italy
It's questionable whether Civitavecchia should be classified as being a stop in Rome, such is the time it takes to get into the centre of Rome. Regardless of how you choose to get there (train, taxi, shuttle, tour), you'll be lucky to get 5 hours in Rome.
We wanted to go inside the Colosseum and the Vatican, but CruisingExcursions.com did not offer us an excursion that did both, because there is not enough time. The NCL Excursion, "Ultimate Rome," took you inside both as well as visiting other prominent landmarks. However, at $400 per person, we couldn't justify it. We opted to use the CruisingExcursions.com "Essential Collection - Rome on Your Own." We were picked up along with the people on the "Essential Collection - Vatican Visit and Rome Highlights" and were left to our own devices when the bus dropped them off at the Colosseum.
Alternatively, we could have used the high speed train. However, we were wary of delays, strikes and the time it might take to get on and off because we were worried about not getting back in time. Some people we met had a hassle-free experience on the train and probably enjoyed an extra half hour to an hour in the center of Rome because they had more control over their own schedule.
Because we had to wait for some passengers to get off the ship, we ended up with only 4.5 hours in Rome. Please note, everyone except for one couple had arrived at the meeting point with a half hour to spare. The tour was scheduled to leave at 9:00 a.m., and we almost left without that couple. It was only until someone on the tour saw another shuttle bus from our cruise coming that we waited a couple minutes longer, and luckily the couple was on that bus and made the tour. So please make sure you arrive on time, and if you are delayed for any reason, I'd recommend calling the emergency number listed on your printout. We always made sure we were one of the first ones off the boat, even if we had an hour to get to our excursion meeting point. The coupel who were late thought they had plenty of time but they hadn't anticipated the delays getting onto the shuttle.
Rather than choose a couple of sites and enjoy the experience of the city, we chose to do it all. I'll have to just include a list of what we did, because, quite frankly, I can't remember any of the details:
- Inside and outside of the Colosseum
- Palatine Hill
- Roman Forum
- The Pantheon
- The Vatican Museum
- Sistine Chapel
- St Peter's Square
- St Peter's Basilica
IMPORTANT: The line to exchange your prepaid voucher for a ticket is much shorter at Palatine Hill than the Colosseum. However, if you go into Palatine Hill first, DO NOT EXIT. Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum are connected and your ticket will not allow you to enter twice, so if you exit Palatine Hill you will not be allowed into the Roman Forum.
We made that mistake and it wasn't until we returned to Palatine Hill and told our sob story to the attendant that somebody took pity on us and let us in. Despite the easy mistake, the staff at the Roman Forum were completely unsympathetic.
We were picked up at 3:15 p.m. in St Peter's Square by the guide who dropped us off and drove back to the ship. We arrived nearly two hours before we needed to, which was frustrating, but no one wants to risk missing the boat.
How to Find your Excursion at Livorno (Florence/Pisa)
IMPORTANT: If you read no other section of this article, read this one.
The cruise line may try and mislead you about your options on the ship.
Our CruisingExcursions.com documentation told us this:
"When disembarking your cruise ship there will be a free shuttle bus provided by your cruise ship which will take you to the coach park where all of the private tours are waiting. PLEASE ENSURE YOU GET ON THE SHUTTLE BUS TO THE COACH PARK AND NOT LIVORNO CENTRE."
The Cruise Director on the Norwegian Spirit, as well as the Freestyle Daily, said our only options to disembark were to get on NCL Cruise Excursion or pay for one of the shuttles to the train station or town center.
We were freaking out because Cruising Excursions were telling us to get on a bus that Norwegian was telling us didn't exist. Even worse, this was the tightest deadline of all the cruise excursions. Our documentation said:
"The meeting point is at the coach park (parking area for private tours). It is essential you reach the meeting point on time, this tour cannot be delayed."
We desperately tried to get an answer from the NCL staff and even rang CruisingExcursions.com and told them the complementary shuttle they promised us did not exist. However, they had no explanation for us...and the next morning I could understand why.
Everything was exactly as CruisingExcursions.com had said. There was a shuttle waiting to take us to the coach park. However, it is important that you get on the correct bus. There are many buses lined up going to different places, so make sure to ask someone when you get off the boat which bus takes you to the coach park where all the private tours leave from. In my opinion, NCL was deliberately misleading. While understand they need to encourage us to use their own excursions, once we have decided against it they have an obligation to, at the very least, not lie to us about what we can expect when we arrive ashore. I am very disappointed in Norwegian Cruise Line in how they handled the port of Livorno.
Florence/Pisa (Livorno), Italy
Essential Collection- Picturesque Pisa and Famous Florence Review
After the above rigmarole, I was relieved to be met by our guide Rosa at the coach park. Her easy going attitude helped us get past the stressful experience of getting off the ship. Another passenger arrived late, describing dark tales of other passengers fighting for places on the later shuttle buses. On one hand I was glad to have rushed to get an earlier shuttle, on the other hand I would have been intrigued to see handbags being brandished like gladiatorial morning stars.
Rosa was another of my favorite guides: knowledgeable, friendly and lovely. She even gave my wife and I the Italy map tea towel she had been using to describe the regions of Italy!
We stopped for about an hour in Pisa, did the mandatory pictures of pretending to hold up the leaning tower, and then we were off to Florence.
We enjoyed a walking tour of Florence but had to leave the group before they went to lunch because we had booked tickets for the Accademia Gallery to see Michelangelo's David.
IMPORTANT: If you want to go to the Accademia Gallery, be sure to pre-book your ticket so your guide can exchange your voucher at the beginning of the tour. Booking through CruisingExcursions.com (which we did) will help ensure you are pre-booked for the right time.
I am happy to recommend the Picturesque Pisa and Famous Florence tour from CruisingExcursions.com.
Provence (Toulon), France
For Toulon, we chose not to do an excursion. Like in Mykonos, we were glad to take tyhe opportunity to relax after a crazy few days...and where better than in the South of France?
I had heard there wasn't much to do in Toulon, but I disagree. It is a lovely town with plenty to see, restaurants to eat in and shops to browse through. There is also a large market in the morning where we bought some Herbs de Provence.
We heard positive feedback from the people who ventured out to Aix en Provence or Marseille. However, the people who chose to do a tour in Toulon were disappointed. If you want to stay in Toulon, just walk off the ship and into town. It's easy, and your time is better spent just wandering. They don't speak English as much there as they do in the bigger cities, so be sure to bring your phrase book or translation app!
The ship arrived in Barcelona at 5:00 a.m., but we took our time and leisurely carried our luggage off at 8:30 a.m. (you need to be off the ship by 9:00 a.m.). We were in our hotel at 10:00 a.m. and ready to explore.
We had a night there so only booked a Hop On Hop Off with Barcelona Bus Turístic. It's a great city, but I wish we had been better prepared. The lines to get back on the bus at the main attractions meant we wasted valuable hours trying to get from one place to the next.
Also, I didn't know you needed tickets to get into Park Güell. We lined up for half an hour to purchase, only to be told we would have to wait over an hour to be let in. I liked Park Güell, but had I known I would spend so many hours on it I may not have bothered.
Fortunately, being there for the evening had its advantages as we could roam La Rambla, the Gothic Quarter and even looked at a few shops. The architecture in Barcelona is out of this world. Be careful of the great dinner deals available in the tourist areas. The tapas may not be as good as you're promised and they will overcharge you for drinks.
Conclusions about CruisingExcursions.com, the Norwegian Spirit and Mediterranean Cruising
I hope you enjoyed this review of CruisingExcursions.com and learned a few tips about your next Mediterranean cruise. I have no hesitation in recommending CruisingExcursions.com for cruises in the Mediterranean. They were very customer-satisfaction focused and the guides were excellent and reliable.
Even though I was disappointed with how Norwegian Cruise Line mislead us in Livorno, overall I really enjoyed my cruise with them and would use them again.
You can't beat a Mediterranean Cruise for being able to see so many amazing things in such a short time. If I can give you some advice, it would be to be selective in what you try and get done and not take on too much. Try and put the camera down once in a while and enjoy these wonderful and ancient cities and sites. Have fun!
I have no affiliation with crusingexcursions.com or Norwegian Cruise Line. I do not benefit should you choose to book through either company. All opinions and recommendations are my own and any information is only as accurate as to what I could find online and through my own experiences. I encourage you to also do your own research.
© 2015 Mike