Monday, 30 May 2016

NCL Epic - Western Med - Day 8

Day 8 - Civitavecchia


 The port of Rome is as busy as ever. Ships bustle for space on the docks making what appear at times to be impossible maneuvers to squeeze sideways into any available space - its always fun to watch. We arrived early and we are up early this morning as we have to be meet up in the Atrium with our small pre organised group for the 'Not going to Rome tour'. Once we are all gathered together we are whisked off by car from ship side to a waiting mini bus just outside the port (The port of Civitavecchia is closed to the public and taxis unless they have a licence to enter)


We are soon driving through fertile green countryside that reminds me of Tuscany and its a lovely morning, clear and warm. Our first stop is the Etruscan Necropolis complex at Tarquinia . A large complex of underground burial chambers each uniquely decorated for its occupier. There is a lot to see here; the UNESCO site is beautifully well maintained  and set in a lovely quite spot. It also has a tiny little cafe in one corner that serves the most wonderful coffee.


Your ticket also gives you access to the museum in Tarquinia  a small medieval town just a little further down the road of lovely stone buildings. Our driver first takes us to the lovely little church and convent of [insert name]  and a short walk from here also takes you to a beautiful little outlook over the entire valley.


I would recommend seeing the necropolis before the museum as it gives you a great overview of the cultures that lived there and has some great displays of the artifacts discovered.


It is soon lunch time and the driver has a friend in the town (don't  they always) who just happens to have a little trattoria hidden down one of the little side streets. Its simple and excellent and reassuringly full of locals (though a few wouldn't be out of place in a Francis Ford Coppola movie)  - Italian food at its best (and the house wine isn't too bad either).

In the afternoon we head inland towards Lake Bracciano and the Castello Orsini-Odescalchi which wikipedia informs me was the castle that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes chose to get married in - not a great Omen for any future brides then.  It is a beautiful spot though perched high up and overlooking the volcanic lake and we practically have the place to ourselves. Afterwards we travel down to the lake for a walk on the shore.


It was a great day and many thanks must go to Karen for organising the whole thing through the roll call on the CC forums.


That evening we dine in the MDR where the food is great though we are seated just that bit too close to the band. Quite why they have to  use a speaker stack setup on the stage is a bit odd. It means in order for the back of the dining room to hear it has to be uncomfortably loud for anyone near the Manhattans dance floor - they surely must have the facility to pipe it through the dining rooms system at a comfortable level for all.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

NCL Epic - Western Med Cruise - Day 7


The ship edges its way backwards into the port of Naples very early.  I know this because on waking the first thing to greet us as we pull back the curtains from the balcony are several cement silos looming over us; oddly enough it appears you can have a walking tour up to the top of these which must be of great interest to industrial architects and cement lovers the world over.  
Coffee and showers before the aerobic climb up the 14 flights of stairs for breakfast, then following Tom's Port Guides we launch ourselves into the depths of Naples. If you're on foot the two big things to see are the beautiful Umberto Gallleria and the Royal Buildings - of course being Italy one is in the process of restoration and the other looks like its being completely rebuilt. Beautiful nonetheless, marble floors & glass domes.


Naples has a bad rep (in fact if you read Toms guide and had never seen a city before you would probably lock yourself in your cabin until the ship had put a few miles of water between yourself and the coast) but to be fair its like any other city - be aware and don't wander about with a sign saying 'dumb tourist' stuck to your head. It's not our first time in Naples- we had visited on a previous Amalfi Coast tour - visiting Pompeii, Herculaneum,and  Paestum. I would recommend that you only visit the massive archeological museum in Naples after first visiting Pompeii or Herculaneum to get everything in context - also I would say Herculaneum is superior  to Pompeii; less crowds, a much better feel for the layout of this then  dockside town - and the buildings are in a much better condition as they were covered in a different material than that which covered Pompeii.


The other popular alternative is to take the train or hydrofoil to Capri or Sorrento - personally I found Capri to be a bit dull last time so we took the hydro to Sorrento (more expensive but faster and more naturally air conditioned than the hot suburban little train ). 


Couple of good tips from Toms guide; one being that you cant buy return tickets for the ferry - you must buy another ticket in Sorrento and a tip is to buy this when you arrive. Of course we forgot to do this, its not an issue when you're the only cruise liner docked but it could be if the port was busy and everyone had the same idea as yourself.



Sorrento is still a lovely (if expensive) little town. The old town is charming and you only need to get lost down a few alley ways before you find a nice trattoria for lunch, we find a lovely little place filled with lemon trees and enjoy a wood fired pizza and a cpl of beers in the sun.


The weather stays great all day and we arrive back onboard in the mid afternoon after replenishing  bottled water supplies at the port. We are back at Cagneys tonight for dinner (Oysters Rockefeller, baked potato soup and Veal on the bone which is to die for and the surf and turf for Jackie) - a lovely window seat again - as our dinner is served the ship starts to slip away out to sea.




Sunday, 15 May 2016

NCL Epic - Western Med Cruise - Day 6


Day 6 - Sea day

The day began with us awaking in the morning expecting another simple sea day and as usual I strolled out onto the balcony (after putting the coffee machine on) expecting to see nothing but sea. I could immediately tell from the ships wake that we were turning so I popped back into  the cabin to check our progress on the TV (it becomes addictive) to be greeted by this.


I haven't mentioned before how much we had been enjoying our Captains little narrations through the cruise. He explained how Stromboli is still an active volcano and how its minor eruptions (puffs of smoke)  occur almost every 20 minutes.  Every few years it releases a lava flow down one side. A little fact (though I use the fact with caution when the source is Wikipedia) is that Stromboli was the end location in Jules Vernes  'Journey to the center of the Earth' and that Tolkien identified it as his source for Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings.


We circle the island slowly a few times gradually approaching nearer and nearer (at one point we even get a strong network and wifi signal from the tiny town of Pisciti). The ship alternates its course from  clockwise to anti - clockwise to ensure both sides get a good view. Then after lunch we are our way yet again heading north to Naples


Dinner was a return to the Main Dining Room (MDR),  tonight and was pretty damn good. I don't keep detailed notes to be honest so what we had is beyond recollection however I don't think we had a single meal in the MDR which was not acceptable.  If I had a criticism some of the starters and deserts really lack imagination - but I have no complaints about any main course - and the atmosphere of the room can feel a little too packed in if you end up sat around the central section.

Click for Day 7 

Saturday, 7 May 2016

NCL Epic - 10 Day Western Med - Day 5

 
Arriving  Palermo
Day 5 - Sicily
As the sun rises over the Mediterranean we sip coffee on the balcony and watch as the pilot boards and we slip slowly into the port of Palermo - Sicily. Its a warm morning already and after a shower we gather everything we need for the day and climb up the stairs to breakfast. Its warm enough now to eat outside which is always a pleasure - it can get a little to loud and crowded in the garden room. Its always fun watching the Epic dock, especially in the smaller ports (my favourite port was Cartegena last time we were on board). Its like delicately maneuvering a block of flats to spin on a penny; bow thrusters churning up the turquoise waters as the ship vibrates with the effort, spinning and gliding sideways into position seemingly effortlessly.

Just for the day Palermo has a new block of buildings
As a city Palermo has a lot to offer. You're docked only a block or so from the main streets and from the top deck of the Epic you can make out all the key buildings and judge how to get to them and set a route in your head. There's no real complex of port buildings, its just straight down the gangplank then a short walk along the dockside to the main road - where an Italian traffic policewoman blows her whistle with passion at the crazy Italian drivers and takes delight at shouting at anyone (old ladies included) who should even think about stopping too near the pedestrian crossing she is guarding. 

Teatro Massimo
Despite having a general idea where things were the streets of Palermo are so tightly packed it does become a little difficult to see the landmarks you had spotted from the ship. So trusting to instinct we zigzagged through the streets until it opened up into a beautiful sunny square and the fantastic renaissance Theatro Massimo (1897) materialises; the largest theatre in Italy (and the third largest opera house in Europe). 


A short walk from the Massimo is the church of San Giuseppe dei Teatini. It lies on the crossroads of Piazza Vigliena an area that reminds me very much of Rome with its fountain, decorated buildings and the large decorative fountain of Pretoria across the road. Unfortunately the fountain of Pretoria is a little hard to view or photograph as its hard to get a view looking down at it and its totally surrounded by baroque style iron fencing. The church itself is quite unassuming from the outside but inside is a superb example of over the top Baroque architecture and decoration. The sunny day gave us beautiful rays of light from the Duomo.

Piazza S. Domenico
 Doubling back on ourselves we crossed to the Piazza S. Domenico where the alluring smell of fresh Italian coffee was too seductive to resist. A beautiful spot to rest for a while. The coffee was as good as it smelt and super cheap. From here we strolled back through the historical area. There are quite a few classical musical schools around this area and you could hear the opera singers practising from one building, violinists from others, pianist in the next.

Panoramic View from the Sundeck - Palermo
We strolled back on board for lunch and take in the stunning mountain views that surround Palermo and finished Steven Kings 'Finders Keepers' (working out to be his best trilogy yet). It was hot, so hot I decided it was time to take a waterslide to cool off. Now two things need to be explained before people say 'what is he doing'. One - the decks were so hot I kept my sandals on to walk over to the slides. Two - I forgot I had my sunglasses on. I think I was thinking I would simply hand them all over to Jack but she stopped halfway up the staircase to take the photo - so hence the reason why there's a mad Englishman going down the slide with his shoes and sunglasses on. PS I couldn't see a thing as the sunglasses steamed up from the humidity in the slides.


Dinner that evening was back to Le Bistro where Vanessa 'with a V'  (she said this every time and I'm still trying to work out what other spelling of Vanessa she could have thought we would mistake it for) and Sheila were our servers again. I think Jackie had the scallop main course that I had had previously and I had the lamb.


Again it will come as no surprise that we spent the evening back in the Cavern Club - though it was a quick set by the Starlights cut short by the fact none of their monitors were working and they couldn't hear themselves. Unfortunately the Cavern's tech guy seemed to have disappeared and despite various attempts to fix it they had to stop part way through.

The next is another sea day however as soon as we awoke we realised it was to be no ordinary sea day.

Click for day 6

Thursday, 5 May 2016

NCL Epic - 10 Day Western Med - Day 3-4

Day 3 - Sardinia


I open the curtains in the morning, we're approaching the port of Cagliari, Sardinia. Here a free shuttle is available to take you to the impressive and pretty sea front of the city. The usual assortment of horse drawn carriages and on-off buses etc was available to use but its not that big a city and walk-able if a little steep in places - ideal to burn off those cruise calories. As usual at Italy's ancient sites there's a fair amount of restoration taking place (usually wherever you want to take a photograph)


We walked through lots of narrow streets  to the highest point in Castello then followed the medieval wall from the old prison to the amphitheater (only a very small part remains of the original as the stone was taken to build with, but a modern steel seating area that follows the original site allows it to still be used as an outside  music and theatre venue) then worked our way back taking in the cathedral and various other churches tucked away in the tiny streets.


We were back on board  and hungry  for lunch time which turned out to be perfect timing. A series of showers and sharp winds rolled in drenching everything and making it look like a summers day in Lancashire. Luckily it passed as quickly as it came but it left its mark - causing a  a window in the garden room buffet to shatter.
We found a nice spot on the top deck to pass away the rest of the afternoon sipping Blue Moon (my NCL "go to" beer) and Campari and soda (long glass, easy on the ice, and slice of orange) - life is good! Sardinia is spectacular. An architecturally stunning town with the magnificent mountains for backdrop, we loved it and continued to admire the views surrounding the ship all afternoon.


Tonight its Cagney's - our second restaurant of choice with NCL. Again its good to see some changes have been made to the menu though here there is obviously  still a big emphasis and bias towards meat. Dessert as you can see is still as obscene as ever as are the steak sizes ;)
We had a great young Estonian waiter (Nikolai) who hilariously gave us a  rather too visual graphic description (complete with mimes and hand gestures) of how he coped with his first transatlantic crossing. I was about to partake in my first piece of perfectly cooked rib eye!! But he was entertaining and a real character.


Back to the Cavern for the night and after a short set from the Starlights we finally have the Beatles back on stage. Paul as you can see has obviously spent his holidays playing Noel Gallagher in an Oasis cover band ;) For a tribute band the Beatles are superb (as ever) - it really does help having them in such a small (loud) venue rather than in the big theatre. Yes, you have to turn up early and yes it can get crowded - but it all just adds to the atmosphere

Day 4 - Sea day


We awake somewhere between Sardinia and Sicily. The weather is cool but from the balcony  I can see blue sky on the horizon. Coffee in the room to feel alive and then a high speed climb of the stairs from deck 8 to deck 15 to get us in peak condition to tackle breakfast.



By mid afternoon its sunny and hot - Jack decides the time has arrived for her to hit the water-slides. Only the Epic can have a water-slide that resembles a toilet bowl but it is fun. Top tip - use a junior sized ring, you go down faster.

Dinner tonight sees us returning to the main dining room  and its very good again  - and certainly not as rushed as it was on the Jade.
There has been a lot of shuffling about of shows - the main attraction 'Priscilla Queen of the Desert' has been moved about so we scrapped our bookings and re booked for the end of the cruise. After dinner its back to the Cavern where the bar girl now knows my order as soon as I approach; the Beatles are back on tonight which seems to have surprised them as even they thought the next show was later in the week.

Click for Day 5 

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

NCL Epic - 10 Day Western Med - Day 1-2


This was rather a last minute booking. The combination of cold wet weather at home, Jack having to use her remaining holidays and NCL's last minute offers email made it irresistible. The only slight issue was that on the website the only cabins left were 'guarantee insides' and we had never had an inside cabin before - so after a little thought (well a couple of minutes) we booked it. 
We've never booked a guarantee before so it was a mystery which cabin we had until 48hours before the cruise. I logged on and there was the cabin number and a quick check on the deck plans show we seem to have a free upgrade to a balcony. Woohoo!


Day 1 - Boarding.
We took an early morning flight to Barcelona from Liverpool with Easy jet on the day of departure as we had visited Barcelona recently. Taxi direct from the airport ( El Prat) to the cruise terminal and boarding was a breeze. We didn't really expect to get any loyalty perks or freebies this time as it was such a last minute price but we still waited with some hope for our room card to indicate something - alas it did not.
It was hot and sunny in Barcelona but we had remembered to pack beachwear in our hand luggage to change into as we would not get our cases for a few hours. So after grabbing lunch, wine and beer from the Garden Room we settled down for a relaxing afternoon. 


Cabins were ready by about 2pm and after unpacking noticed that Jerry the cabin attendant had left a latitudes letter  on the dressing table. Thinking it was just a sales pitch I just stuck it in my pocket and ignored it. We had made reservations for Le Bistro that evening after the sail away so whilst we went to change I decided to read the letter. I had to go to reception to collect my rewards. Bingo - 5  dining upgrades and $200 on board credit to the cabin. Double woohoo!


Le Bistro was excellent as usual. A nice window seat. Super service and glorious food - and hurrah - some new choices on the menu.  I don't want to bore people with endless food shots but the scallops were melt in the mouth - the old favourite 4 mushroom soup superb as usual - the seafood medley starter, a dish on its own - the only thing that always slightly disappoints on board is the cheese selection after the meal which seems to be the same no matter which restaurant you dine in.


After dinner it was straight to our favourite venue on the ship - now redecorated and renamed as 'The Cavern' ( Fat Cats as was) complete with red brick slips -  and our first encounter with The Starlights ( pictured: Nick on bass, Sasha singing, Cornel on guitar and Chester? on drums). A Big thumbs up to these guys: superb entertainment. The Beatles tribute will not be appearing in The Cavern for a couple of days presumably joining the ship later.


Earlier we had a final walk around the top decks to stretch our legs after dinner and to take in the magic of the open sea. A few clouds are  beginning to roll in. We have a sea day tomorrow and Accuweather tells me we need to push through a front before we get to Sardinia. We retire to our cabin, put the pillow mints in the safe (its a tradition - don't ask) and peruse the newsletter to decide whats happening tomorrow. 


Day 2 - Seaday
Its a little cooler and cloudier today as expected but as long as Accuweather keeps predicting correctly then we should be through this tonight and back in the sun tomorrow. But who cares anyway - we are British and our Kindles are fully charged and ready to go. So after a wake up coffee and pastry in the room and a hearty breakfast in the garden room we do what any other Englishman abroad would do.

Click on the pic - thats Jack
Did I mention there's 4000 other guests on-board. It was difficult finding a Sun Lounger as you can see. We also need to attend a roll call meeting this morning to find some fellow Cruise Critic guests. With so little time to plan anything we had decided to play things by ear and do our usual grab a taxi, boat or train in the port to get around rather than the organised cattle tours. However one thing we were unsure about was what to do when we get to Civitavecchia as we both felt we had seen Rome plenty of times and it would be nice to go somewhere else. Luckily CC member Karen had similar ideas and was organising an ideal alternative called "Not going to Rome"


As we progressed towards Sardinia lunch was taken in the garden room again and dinner that evening in the main dining room. Despite reading the daily bulletin we skipped the show in the main theater (I think it was Burn the floor - which we saw last time we were on the Epic) and went back to the Cavern. Still no Beatles tonight  but Starlights were as fun as always.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Day 6 - Anaheim to Home

I awake still singing the "Let it go". We packed last night so we can take advantage of early entry in Disneyland and ride everything in Fantasyland. As we don't have a flight until late this evening we still have a full morning and lunch to fit in before we need to set off home.


Last night I downloaded a SuperShuttle app onto the tablet and used it to arrange for private transport to LAX. The big advantage of this is I am updated as to how the taxi's progress and if they want to advise us of traffic issues that they think will effect the journey time to LAX they will ping us and tell us to be ready earlier.


After dropping the cases off in reception we cross the road and are back in the park in a few minutes. I know Walt was disappointed in some ways at how motels and restaurants quickly surrounded the park within a few years of its opening (in Florida he made sure to buy everything) but to be honest I think in the end its turned into  a major advantage . Once in the parks you have no idea you're in the middle of a city - the landscaping and theming  is so good especially in spring.
 

Its another glorious Californian spring day and we grab breakfast at La Brea Bakery then enter Disneyland heading straight to Fantasyland and ride everything. I'm always quite taken by all the so called kiddies rides (apart from its a Small World - that song AARRGH). To be honest in any other park rides like Snow White would be simply called a ghost train, I'm surprised toddlers don't get off traumatized :)


Mr. Toad's Wild Ride is another fun and quirky dark ride as is Dumbo (again semi ghost ride crossed with semi hallucinogenic) - you're suspicious by the time you have been on Alice in Wonderland that some of the Imagineers in those days must have been smoking more than nicotine in the design room. Everything is basically a walk on in this hour before official opening time - only Peter Pan seems to be attracting enough people to form a queue.


We take a ride on that good old original Mountain "The Matterhorn"  - the first tubular steel continuous track roller coaster ever constructed (1959) - and boy does it feel like it. Shaken not stirred we then head over to the much more sedate underwater subs which are of course now re invented as a Nemo attraction.


We rode this on the last visit when it was on soft openings and even though we left it to the end the queues were immense. In fact they had to adhere to the policy where if you're in the queue at closing time we wont shut the ride down or lock you in the park :) Seems a lot more complete now and only short queues - though we had the last two seats under the hatch which meant Jackie got a free cold shower midway through the ride. Proves it's a proper sub!


As its only 10 am we decide after a final ride on "Indiana Jones" that we will go back to California Adventure for lunch and the last few hours.  This is in no way influenced by the fact you can have wine/beer with lunch in CA but not in the MK!


We eat lunch outside at the bar and snacks spot The Cove Bar on the boardwalk next door to Ariels Grotto.  We have ignored this spot before because the description is a little misleading. Snacks to an Englishman means peanuts and a bag of crisps. The snacks here are delicious - the Lobster Tacos are superb. We also have the mixed sliders and buffalo wings and the beauty of all of this is we can sit, relax and not stroll out of the park until 10 mins before our ride to the airport is due. Time for more Tower of Terror, Cars Racers and California Screaming after lunch all short waits through fast passes and single rider queues.

Say 'cheese' then 'scream'! View across California Adventure Park from Tower of Terror ride as you're flung in the air up to the 13th floor.
Can you hear the screams from California Screaming coaster?
One advantage of riding single rider is you can end up racing against each other.
We leave mid afternoon and as I pick up the cases from the hotel lobby the app pings to tell me a description of the car and that he is 2mins away. The journey to LAX was efficient and fast and the flight  home was not full meaning we had extra seats to spread out on.


Unfortunately all our good luck ran out as we crossed Ireland.  Thick fog had closed Heathrow for a while and when it lifted an American Airlines plane was forced to return with an engine shut down closing a runway. The resulting delays caused by stacking meant we had missed our connecting flight back to MAN so we were put up in a hotel for the night. Oh well at least we got free PJs for the night.