Cruising the Mediterranean

Recently, we were fortunate enough to be able to experience cruising for the first time… as passengers! I know that sounds weird, but for several years my husband and I had worked onboard cruise ships as crew members; so it was quite the treat to finally board a ship as passengers. We had never before cruised the Mediterranean and it was also the first time our two kids had ever been on a cruise, so to say we were all excited was a understatement. The cherry on top was that my parents had flown in from Australia and we were able to enjoy the cruise all together!

On the first day of July 2018, our adventure began when the six of us flew direct from Amsterdam to Naples, Italy (via Transavia). As we arrived in Naples, we admired Mt Vesuvius from the air, the volcano responsible for destroying the city of Pompeii.

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We took a taxi to our Bed and Breakfast in the heart of Naples, a convenient ten minute walk to the port. This was a more affordable alternative than a hotel, as all six of us could stay together in their two-bedroom suite, rather than booking 2-3 expensive hotel rooms.

Once we had settled in, we all went for a stroll around the historic centre of Naples and discovered a real (what seemed to be) hidden gem, a gorgeous cathedral. The Church of Gesù Nuovo was completed in 1750 and was without a doubt, one of the nicest churches any of us had ever seen. We then enjoyed our first home-made pasta Italian dinner at a place called Tandem. We were going to be boarding our ship the next day, so we all then went to bed with our hearts full of happiness, excitement and anticipation.

Day 1 – Naples, Italy

Naples, or Napoli in Italian, is the third-largest city in Italy, located in the southern part of the country. It’s about two hours south of Rome, on the coast by the Bay of Naples. Today was our embarkation day; However, as our boarding time was not until 15:30, we decided to visit the world heritage site of Pompeii. However, upon hearing about another site close by Pompeii, which was more preserved and less touristic, we opted to go see Herculaneum. The site was about a 30 minute train ride from Naples to ‘Ercoland’, a few stops before the Pompeii train stop; however, we had assumed we were using the train after peak commuting time (we took it at 10am) but it was absolutely packed full of people. We all crammed into that train like sardines, and it was a very hot day.  Not the most pleasant experience, so I wish we had of known this and either waited another hour before taking the train or have just taken a taxi. Coming back into the city on the train was much better and we were easily able to get seats.

Herculaneum was well worth the visit! Two thousand years ago, the people who lived here died within 20 seconds from volcanic gasses and were then buried under twenty meters of mud (basically the top of Mount Vesuvius that blew off). No lava arrived here, so everything is extremely well preserved. Fascinating and heart breaking.

When we arrived back in Naples, we collected our luggage from the apartment and walked down to the port, to board the brand new — literally just one month old — ship from MSC cruise line, the Seaview. IT. WAS. HUGE. Bigger than any ship that any of us had ever been on before, which was a little overwhelming, but exciting at the same time!

The boarding process in Naples was less than ideal; we waited over an hour in a long line extending out of the cruise terminal, before even getting inside, only to met with an even longer line of people trying to check in. We braced ourselves for another few hours of waiting.  Luckily, mum and dad came to the rescue. As they are frequent cruises, they were MSC ‘black card’ members and once we were able to enter the cruise terminal building, they showed their cards to an MSC employee who then immediately brought us all up to the front for priority check in! I felt terrible for all the other families still standing in line, but so relieved to have been able to skip that long wait! I was already in love their their black card status 🙂

We managed to find our cabins and were ecstatic about our adjoining rooms with combined balconies. After settling in, we heading up to the buffet for dinner and once we had completed the boat drill, we were all more than ready to begin our seven day round trip, departing from and ending back in Naples, Italy.

As we departed from Naples, we stood on the back deck enjoying both the view and the sound of the sea below us again. We were all extremely excited for our upcoming ports of call which included the Italian ports of Genova, Messina (Sicily), Valletta on the beautiful island of Malta, Barcelona (Spain), the French port of Marseille, then back to Naples.

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Day 2 – Messina, Sicily

Messina is on the island of Sicily, separated from the mainland of Italy by the Strait of Messina; So basically, just across the water from the tip of “the boot”.

Originally, I had hoped to visit the ancient Greek Theatre of Taormina, which is about 45 minutes south of Messina. However, we realised that morning that we needed a relaxing pool day onboard the ship to start off our holiday. We had all worked right up until the day before we flew to Naples. We were exhausted, and just craved a day of nothing. This was the best day to do this, as everyone else went ashore, so we easily found four sun beds near the pool.

This day gave us the chance to just sit out on the deck and relax, soak in the jacuzzis, swim in the pools, enjoy the sun and the sound of the sea, and unlimited access to the five super fun waterslides — two of which were racing slides with clear loops extending over the side of the ship(!!) — all four of us had multiple goes of course! The kids had a ball, and us parents got to relax and recharge, so we were all happy.

Mum and dad chose to go explore Messina and they enjoyed walking around this pretty little city. One of the highlights of Messina that they really loved was the Bell Tower and Astronomical Clock; every day at noon the figures begin moving and show scenes from the history of Messina.

That night we all enjoyed being waiting on in the dining room for the first time and our first onboard show in the theatre, which left us jaw dropped! We have all seen multiple onboard shows, but this one really impressed us all. Most of the songs were from the Greatest Showman soundtrack; the singers, costumes and acrobatics were of a very high standard. What a luxury cruising is!

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Day 3 – Valletta, Malta

I was super excited for this port of call. I have heard so much about beautiful Malta and Valletta, being its capital, was where our ship had docked for the day. I loved waking up that morning, opening the curtains to our cabin’s balcony, to be met with the view in the photo below. I actually caught the last 15 minutes of our arrival into Valletta that morning before 7am. Just beautiful.

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This would have to be one of Europe’s grandest harbors, surrounded by massive forts and defensive towers. We decided that this port would be best discovered by foot. First we had to take a giant lift up over the city’s defensive walls, then once in, we enjoyed walking through all of the pretty streets and around the waterfront. The city looks as though it was all just carved out of one enormous sandstone. We did almost 20,000 steps this day and enjoyed every single one of them.

It was also during our walk through Valletta that we happened upon the police force band playing on the streets for the public. They brought in guest singers to sing with their band and this particular song brought tears to my eyes. So touching to see and hear in person. Simply amazing, what a voice!

Day 4 – Sea Day

We love sea days! They give you a chance to just relax and enjoy all of the amenities onboard. Today we cruised across the Mediterranean Sea towards Spain. This new ship had so many fun things to do onboard, including the water slides, a full-sized bowling alley, multiple kids’ play areas, kids clubs for all ages, a theatre, 4D cinema, and ‘the bridge of sighs’ at the back of the ship (here is a photo of my parents with our kids)!

Unfortunately when we went out to get four sun beds after breakfast around 10am, they were all taken already. There were thousands of sun lounges on the ship, but I guess that is what happens when there are more than 5000 passengers all onboard. We couldn’t even get a seat all day, so we walked around the ship exploring a lot, then ended up heading back to our cabins for a siesta, and afterwards a few drinks on our own balconies (where we knew we were guaranteed a place to sit) before heading to dinner and other fabulous show. This night was a formal night, so it was fun to get all dressed up and we really enjoyed this evening.

Day 5 – Barcelona, Spain

I had never been to Barcelona before, so on this day I had one mission, and that was to see the Sagrada Familia Roman Catholic Church with my own eyes. Although the construction of Sagrada Familia began in 1882, many teams of architects and engineers are still working on it today, in order to complete Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece. They finally hope to make Gaudí’s dream come true by 2026 (almost 150 years after they began building it!). The massive cathedral has been considered both “the most extraordinary personal interpretation of Gothic architecture since the Middle Ages” and “one of the most hideous buildings in the world”.

As one of the world’s most unusual and controversial constructions, it is definitely one worth seeing while in Barcelona. We bought tickets online a month in advance, and this was literally the only thing we pre-booked before our cruise. We had heard how crazy long the line could be, and I’m glad we pre-purchasing these tickets, as by the time we arrived around 10am, all tickets had sold out for the day! The inside was beautiful and the stained glass windows were gorgeous. But for me, although the outside is seen as hideous by some, I thought it was even more impressive than the inside. There is so much detail and so much so look at. It was incredible.

After walking the 12kms from the ship to Sagrada Familia (we hadn’t realised just how far it was!), we were all hot and exhausted, so we asked a taxi driver to take us past some more of Barcelona’s best sites. We admired Park Güell up on the hill, and Casa Batlló (another one of Gaudi’s masterpiece in the centre of Barcelona). The roof looks like the back of a dragon; a common theory about the building is that the rounded feature on the roof with a cross represents the lance of Saint George, which has been plunged into the back of the dragon.

We then walked down the well known La Rambla street back to the ship, exhausted from the day.

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We had a little rest in our cabins, and then went out for dinner and a show again. They put on a brilliant show every single night, and we ended up going to about four of them throughout or seven night cruise! This day was also mum and dad’s 39th wedding anniversary, so we had arranged for our waiter to bring out a special cake after dinner. Our waiter, together with all the other waiters in the dining room, brought out the cake and were all singing at the top of their voices. Dad’s face was red, it was perfect.

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Day 6 – Marseille, France

Leaving behind Italy and Spain, we then arrived in the South of France! Marseille is France’s oldest and second largest city. In this port, we were tempted to book a tour to go check out the Les Calanques, a 20km stretch of high, rocky cliffs rising up from the turquoise Mediterranean water, not far from Marseille. The best way to reach the calanques is by boat (you can also hike there but the tracks were closed during the summer months). There are a few secluded beaches which can be found inside fjord-like inlets. However, the only two boat tours that offered a swim stop informed us that children under 10 were not allowed to swim from the boat.  As our children are 7 and 9, we instead opted to explore the city of Marseille itself.

As our ship had docked 25 minutes from the city centre, and the ship wanted to charge us 16 euros per person for the shuttle bus, we decided to get a taxi to take us into the city and show us around. We admired the two large forts on either side of the old port, the Santi-Nicolas fort, the Saint Marie Cathedral, and visited a war memorial located at an incredible lookout point. But the highlight of the day was without a doubt, the Notre-Dame de la Garde (a huge maritime themed cathedral) on the top of a hill towering over the city with stunning panoramic views.

In the afternoon, we headed back to the ship to enjoy the pool area and relax. During our departure we cruised past the islands of the Frioul archipelago, and saw the below fortress/prison, which became famous from The Count of Monte Cristo.

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Day 7 – Genoa, Italy

Passing several French Riviera destinations on our left, such as Saint-Tropez, Cannes, Nice and Monaco, we then arrived back in Italy, docking at the historical port city of Genoa/Genova. In Genoa (pronounced as Genova by the locals), we were interested in seeing the older part of the city and it did not disappoint. Just off the gangway, we found an open top city bus tour for just a couple of euros per person, so we hopped on and it took us all around the city, which had so many pretty buildings and gardens.

We then explored the old city area further by foot, stumbling upon a lift that took us up to a panoramic lookout over the city (Panorama Della Citta – Castelletto).

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On our way back to the ship, we noticed a cozy little bar and, as it was a hot day, we decided to stop for a cold beer. There was a cupboard full of board games for the kids, great music, and cold beer. We ended up staying here all afternoon, having a great time!

We loved this city, specifically the old city area, which was basically the entire half of the city close to where our ship had docked. Afterwards, the sail away did not fail to impress! As most of our departures were scheduled during the early seating dinner time (6pm), we had not been able to fully enjoy them all. This particular day, we left a little earlier, so we were able to really enjoy the sail away from our own balconies before dinner. Here is a time lapse video of our departure.

After dinner and the show, we went out to our favourite spot on the back deck, enjoying our last sunset onboard the MS Seaview.

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Day 8 – Back in Naples

Today our ship was to arrive back in Naples around 1pm. We had packed our suitcases late the previous evening (after receiving a letter asking us to do so when we arrived back at our cabins to go to bed!). So during our last morning onboard, we gave the kids some time to have one last swim in the ship’s pools. We watched our arrival into Naples from the pool deck and then disembarked, saying goodbye to the beautiful MS Seaview.

We decided that we would stay an extra two nights here in Naples after the cruise — in the same B&B that we stayed in the night before our cruise began — to give us more time to explore the area. So after disembarking from the ship, we dropped off our bags at the B&B and went off to explore Naples some more. It is such a lively city. The entire population seems to be out on the streets and the smell of pizza wafts through the air, day and night. It’s a chaotic city, and a little dirty, but there are so many great things to do in this region of Italy.

We walked around, exploring the waterfront area a little more, the Santa Lucia District/Marina, the Nuovo Castle, palace and the city hall. This area was very pretty and much cleaner than the area we were staying in. Our B&B was very central, but also very noisy as it was close by the university and was therefore very lively at night. We then walked along the via Benedetto Croce street in old Naples (also known as Spaccanololi) again which had become our favourite place to buy gelato.

When in Naples, one must eat Neapolitan pizza of course! There are two basic Neapolitan pizza styles that cover the vast majority of the pizzas you’ll find in Naples: the Pizza Marinara (tomatoes, oregano, olive oil, and garlic) and the Pizza Margherita (tomatoes, olive oil, fresh mozzarella and basil leaves). Both are mouth watering and always made with the freshest ingredients. That evening we found a pizzeria at the square, Piazza San Domeico Maggiore, and all ate delicious pizza and drank Aperpol Spritz until our bellies were full.

(Day 9) – The Amalfi Coast

With Naples being a fantastic home base to explore further, we used this day to go explore the Amalfi coast. Dad had reserved a Mercedes van with a driver/tour guide for the day to drive us around the Amalfi coast, including some free time at several different stops along the way. Our driver picked us up at the apartment at 8am and we headed off up into the mountains towards Ravello (the highest point of the mountains overlooking the Amalfi Coast). During this drive over ‘the milk mountains’ where the milk farms are located to make mozzarella, we enjoyed views all the way back to Mt Vesuvius and also across to the island of Capri.

Ravello

Our first stop was the relaxing little village of Ravello, which is located 365 meters above the Tyrrhenian Sea. This charming town offers far-reaching views from its terraced gardens and cafes, and it also hosts the popular Ravello Summer Festival. We would have loved to have spent a week here, as it just seemed so relaxing and peaceful! The perfect destination for recharging your batteries and also the perfect base retreat in order to explore the nearby coast.

Amalfi

Once we arrived in the town of Amalfi, we had officially begun our trip along the Amalfi coast, a 80km narrow coastal road. It was still morning, and not too overly busy just yet, so while my parents and hubby went for a stroll into town to see the famous 9th-century Amalfi cathedral, I took the kids to the beach. The three of us enjoyed a swim in the sea, cooling off while soaking up the incredible views of the town of Amalfi surrounding us.

Positano

Positano offers the best views possible along the entire Amalfi coast. Our driver took us to a restaurant for lunch high up on the cliffs which was not overrun with tourists, but more of a local family run business that you can find the locals dining in. Here we enjoyed the best Italian meal we have ever eaten. Everything was home grown in their garden and hand made. Delicious! The breathtaking views out over the Tyrrhenian Sea from this restaurant was the cherry on top, making this stop an unforgettable one for us all. If you ever have the chance to visit Positano, do yourself a favour and go to the restaurant, de Costantina for lunch or dinner, and order the ‘family menu’ (a 3-4 course surprise menu).

Sorrento

We then arrived at Sorrento, which is not officially on the Amalfi coastal drive, but is known as the gateway to the Amalfi Coast. Bus tours are only allowed to drive in one direction along the Amalfi coast (from Sorrento to Amalfi), so I was glad to see that our driver took us the opposite direction, resulting in us avoiding the large crowds or being stuck behind a slow maneuvering coach bus. That coastal road was a nail biting experience and we have a new found admiration for those drivers! As our driver explained, their local bus drivers need a healthy combination of patience and bravery (and there is a fine line between bravery and stupidity).

Sorrento was a larger city, much different to the smaller coastal villages we had just visited, yet it had it’s own charm. Perched up on the cliffs, Sorrento is a popular holiday destination for the English. We walked along the narrow alleys through it’s historic centre and enjoyed a bit of shopping and sight seeing before returning to the van and heading back to Naples.

It was a full day of adventure from 8am-4:30pm and was such an enjoyable day!! The Amalfi Coast is absolutely stunning and this day was the ultimate highlight of our vacation.

(Day 10) – Last Day in Naples, Italy 

Today was the last day of our trip and we had reserved a taxi to take us to the airport in the early afternoon. After breakfast, we enjoyed our last few hours in Naples wandering around the old town, along the well known street of Spaccanapoli in the center of old Naples. We also really enjoyed strolling around the San Ferdinando district and along the via Toledo street (main shopping strip) where we stumbled upon a gorgeous public shopping gallery, Galleria Umberto I. Again, this area seems to be a lot cleaner and better taken care of than the old historical centre where we were staying.

We enjoyed every minute of this trip and wished we could have booked a longer cruise. We hope to do another Mediterranean cruise in the future, as there are so many more beautiful ports to discover, and I would love to see more of the smaller Greek islands. We find cruising to be the ideal way to travel, it is literally a floating, portable resort. You unpack your bags on the first day, and then every night while you sleep, you are comfortably transported to a new destination. Travel doesn’t get any more convenient or easy than that.

We have experienced a higher level of service on other cruise lines such as Princess and HAL; however, the new MSC cruise ships make up for this with their immaculate facilities. The Seaview and Seaside sister ships are ideal for families with younger children. We loved being on the water again, being waited on each night in the dining room, the high quality entertainment and most importantly, the quality family time we had together, and we will always remember this holiday fondly with a smile on our faces.

Kristen

 

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