Travelwise

Cruising the Med: lots of choices

 

Cruise categories

The cruise industry, frequent cruisers and travel agents usually classify ocean-going cruise ships by their spaciousness, room size, quality and variety of food, entertainment, amenities and level of service. Prices are usually based on a combination of these features. Not all lines are listed here.

Contemporary/mainstream: These are usually the least expensive cruises. The newer ships in these lines’ fleets are among the largest at sea. Staterooms are smaller and have fewer amenities, and the space and guest-to-crew ratios are the low end. Mainstream lines include Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, MSC and Costa.

Premium: These cruises cost a little more, the staterooms are a little larger and nicer, and the staff-to-guest ratio is a little higher. Excellent variety of alternative restaurants, most with a fee. Premium lines include Celebrity, Princess and Holland America.

Premium-plus: The ships are smaller, the staff is larger, and the prices are higher. There’s no fee attached to most of the alternative restaurants which are quite excellent. Service is excellent. Lines include Oceania and Azamara.

Luxury: Prices are highest on these ships, but the staterooms are invariably larger (and usually balcony), the amenities are nicer, the guest-to crew and space ratios are the best in the industry. Dining is a highlight and there’s usually no charge for alternative restaurants, alcoholic drinks or gratuities. Luxury lines include Seabourn, Crystal, Silversea and Regent.


Special to The Miami Herald

A Mediterranean cruise is the dream of many people. It makes sense. Europe has so many places to see, so many cultures, so much history and such varied contemporary lifestyles. The Med boasts sensational shoreside activities and cuisines to try. But how does one choose with so many cruise lines, ships and itineraries?

Does it make a difference which ship you choose? Absolutely! Does the length of the cruise or the number of ports matter? For sure! Do ports look different from the railings of different ships? Well, now, that’s a totally debatable point.

I had the opportunity to take cruises on three ships from three classes this summer: Carnival Breeze and Oceania Riviera, just launched this season, and Celebrity Solstice.

There certainly are differences between the three. Carnival Breeze is the biggest and the company promotes the “fun” concept; it’s a mainstay of the onboard experience with lots of families on board. Carnival ships are considered mainstream, the least expensive category (see accompanying box).

At the other end of the size spectrum, Oceania, considered premium-plus and the priciest of the three, caters primarily to couples; its ships have no facilities or programs for kids. Oceania is known for its dining, including a restaurant by the line’s master chef, Jacques Pepin.

Celebrity, which is in the premium category, has a reputation for great food and service. Its newest ships, the Solstice class, also have justifiably received widespread acclaim for their architecture and décor.

ROOMS FOR RENT

On each of my three cruises, I was in an outside room with a balcony. All had twin beds that converted to a queen or king; sofa; safe; 24-hour room service; desk; bathroom and more. All had excellent linens, mattresses and pillows. Size ranged from 220 to 282 square feet, including the balcony; the bigger the room, the more drawer and closet space. Did the size difference make a big difference for this solo traveler? Not really, but it might for a couple.

For comparison purposes, prices below are for the type of accommodations I had — an ocean view stateroom with balcony — for a 12-night Mediterranean cruise next summer. Prices are per person, double occupancy, for the lowest level rooms in that category and do not includes taxes, fees or fuel surcharges.

Carnival Breeze: Breeze has 1,845 suites and staterooms and can carry a maximum of 4,724 guests. The biggest of the three ships, it also had, by far, the largest number of inside staterooms which, while not having a view, were the same size as the regular outside rooms. The Ocean View with Balcony is 220 square feet. Bathroom is shower only; it has a nice amenity kit with razors, Tylenol and more. Price: $1,999 per person.

Celebrity Solstice: The flagship of Celebrity’s Solstice-class ships has 1,426 suites and staterooms and carries a maximum of 3,145 guests. That’s large for a premium ship but it never feels crowded. Celebrity has created a category called AquaClass that, while the same size as the regular outsides with balconies, features upgraded amenities such as “rainshower” hardware, priority access to the spa areas and a private dining room, Blu. The Deluxe Ocean View Stateroom with Veranda is 248 square feet. Bathroom is shower only. Price: $2,999 per person.

Oceania Riviera: The newer of Oceania’s two larger ships has 625 suites and staterooms with a capacity of 1,328. Almost all of the outside rooms have private balconies, and there are very few inside staterooms. The Riviera has some huge suites, all of which feature décor by Dakota Jackson or from Ralph Lauren Home. The Verandah Stateroom is 282 square feet. The bathroom has shower and tub. Price: $5,499 person, includes airfare.

TIME TO CHILL

One of the most popular daytime activities on any ship is hanging around the pool. That’s especially true on sea days, when the pool becomes the center of activity on all three ships — and when there were the most gripes about guests reserving lounge chairs with towels and books while they were off doing other things. Live music, especially during lunch hour or the afternoon, helps to keep the areas lively.

Carnival Breeze: The Breeze’s pool deck is the biggest and has the most activities. It’s a beehive of activity, ranging from pool games including belly-flop competitions to dance classes. The ship has slides and dunking buckets for kids of all ages, rope-walking courses, a really nice miniature golf course, large always-on movie screen with music or comedy shows, outdoor work-out areas, table tennis, a large sports court and more. There are several outdoor restaurants and bars in addition to the large casual buffet. To add to the entertainment, Carnival ginned up a “competition” between the tequila bar and the rum bar with dueling musicians.

Celebrity Solstice: The pool area is gorgeous, with billowing canvas dividers subdividing the sitting areas, making it quite attractive. The Solstice has two pools, both of which had lots of kids in them during this Med cruise. The deck is moderately active with pool volleyball, dance classes, lively music at times, but considerably less active than on a Carnival ship. One afternoon, the ship’s officers played volleyball against guests. The sitting areas have a variety of double-loungers and semi-secluded places to relax, and staff circulates with iced towels. For adults, there’s the Solarium, an indoor, glass-covered pool/whirlpool/waterfall/quiet music zone with really comfy lounge chairs.

Oceania Riviera: Riviera’s pool is the smallest and its pool deck was the quietest. The lounge chairs, especially the double-wide ones, make it very comfy. The architecture of the pool area is lovely, with dividers separating various sections. Without kids on board, it has the most relaxed vibe. A deck above the pool, a semi-private area called The Sanctuary, is filled with couches and loungers that absolutely encourage reading and napping. There’s a nice view of the whole pool area from a deck above in the coffee bar.

IT’S SUPPER TIME

All three ships have multiple places for guests to eat dinner, a far cry from the “olden” days of cruising when there was little other than the main dining room. But still, even with the addition of alternatives eateries (some with fees, some without), the main dining room remains the primary place for dinner. Menu selections in all dining rooms are quite varied and hard to label. It’s easier to call it eclectic/international/cosmopolitan/Americana. Service and menu items are more upscale on Celebrity Solstice and Oceania Riviera than on Carnival Breeze, meaning each member of the wait staff is responsible for fewer people, cuts of beef are better, water glasses are refilled more quickly.

Oceania Riviera: Riviera’s main dining room, simply called The Grand Dining Room, is absolutely lovely, with a high ceiling, beautiful chandelier and a tiered entryway that makes just walking into the room enjoyable. But most importantly, it has excellent food and outstanding service. It’s all open seating, and there never was a problem getting a table for two at any hour. For groups of six or eight, there might be short waits but the staff is very efficient and there’s plenty of room since so many guests are off to the alternative restaurants, which carry no extra fee (but reservations can be hard to get).

Celebrity Solstice: The same is true on Celebrity Solstice but here there are both open-seating and assigned tables according to guests’ preference. The Grand Epernay Restaurant (the main dining room) is a white-on-white beauty. The center is two stories high, making it feel even more spacious. For couples, there are plenty of tables for two on both sides. Three of the ship’s alternative restaurants cost extra.

Carnival Breeze: The Breeze has two main restaurants, Blush and Sapphire, giving guests the choice to eat at a set table and time or at a time of their own choosing. Both have an attractive Caribbean color palette. The ship also has three alternative restaurants with a fee. One thing I loved about Carnival is that every night the dining room had a “didja” (as in “did you ever”). It’s fun to order spicy alligator fritters, shark and langoustino firecracker rolls or frogs legs with Provençale herb butter — exotic dishes many people don’t usually get to try — either for just one person or enough for the table.

ALL ASHORE

On 12-night Med cruises, both Carnival Breeze and Celebrity Solstice give their guests about 88 hours in port (each having three days at sea), just over 30 percent of the total cruise. Oceania offers a more port-intensive experience and on a comparable 10-night Riviera Med cruise, there are no full days at sea and 97 hours in port, about 40 percent of the time.

My three ships had many choices of shore excursions in each port of call. I’m going to use Livorno as an example. The port has gotten so big now that it’s not even possible to walk into town from where the ship docks — which is really OK since the town itself isn’t much. It’s really the jumping off place to go elsewhere, mostly Pisa and Florence.

Florence is one of the great cities, and naturally all three lines offer a lengthy tour with bus transportation. All include the same amount of time getting to and from Florence, allot free time for participants to walk around and eat on their own (no meals are included), and cover pretty much the same range of places visited — the Duomo, Piazza della Signoria, Santa Croce Square, the Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Leaning Tower in Pisa. (To climb the tower, guests must make reservations in advance.) All three ships offer a transportation-only option for guests who simply want to get to Pisa and/or Florence and go off on their own. First-timers should take the guided tour; there’s so much info to be gained from a knowledgeable guide.

From ship to ship, the costs do vary:

Carnival Breeze: “Highlights of Florence & Shopping” tour was $199.99 for 9 1/2 hours. Transportation only: $89.99.

Celebrity Solstice: “A Taste of Florence” was $99.75 for 9 1/2 hours. Transportation only: $89.75.

Oceania Riviera: The 10-hour “Fascinating Florence” tour cost $259. Transportation only: $169.

All three lines work hard to make sure their tour guides have good English-language skills and local knowledge. Generally speaking, the higher the quality of the line, the better the quality of the bus and guide. Also, when you get to luxury lines such as Crystal and Seabourn, they do not fill the buses completely, making the ride that much more comfortable.

SYNCHRONICITY

How much did each ship tailor activities to its ports of call? This can be an area with wide differences among the cruise lines — whether or not shipboard activities reflect the variety of cultures, history and cuisine of the itinerary’s stops. It’s all a matter of company philosophy about how much it wants to bring the local life onboard. Carnival executives say they want to provide a seamless experience so that guests have a virtually identical experience wherever the ship is sailing. Both Celebrity and Oceania feel differently, striving to bring the shoreside and onboard experiences together to a greater degree.

All three presented talks that gave some info about upcoming ports:

Carnival Breeze: Carnival’s was mostly a shore excursion/shopping talk.

Celebrity Solstice: Celebrity offered lectures about varying aspects of the places to be visited, such as a talk on the architecture of Barcelona, highlighting Gaudi’s work; or about less-visited spots that one could get to in Rome.

Oceania Riviera: On cruises that stop in Venice, for example, the ship has a hands-on art session where guests can make their own Venetian masks. The outstanding Bon Appetit Culinary Center features classes focused on the cuisine of the region being visited. The Grand Dining Room and Terrace Café feature the culinary highlights and local signature dishes for that country.

THE FINAL WORD

So, three ships and similar itineraries. Different size ships and different on-board lifestyles. It’s your choice. Price is a big factor, and so is the question of what you want to pay for. How important is the size of your stateroom? Do you want gourmet cuisine or are you happy with chain-restaurant fare? What kind of pool and sports facilities do you expect?

All three lines — as well as most of the other lines — have multiple ships in the Med next year, offering itinerary lengths and port calls to satisfy, hopefully, everyone.

A previous version of this article should have said that the $5,499 per person cost of a cruise on Oceania’s Riviera includes airfare. The article also listed the wrong capacity for the ship and misstated the name of The Grand Dining Room.

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