Taking to the water... not quite like a duck.

Staying put is not an option – peripatetic is my middle name.
As a child, my summer holidays were spent with my friend Katrina on bicycles exploring the Berkshire countryside - cycling along the Thames tow-path, our sandwiches and drinks in Tesco carrier bags dangling from the handle-bars, or heading up dusty tracks and discovering half ruined buildings - whilst our parents thought we were in the local park picnicking (oh the freedom of the 1970s when you merely had to give some vague story about where you were going and be home by 6). 

I wanted to ‘gap-year’ when it wasn’t de rigueur for every university under-grad to don a backpack: but none of my peers were ready to. So I waited. I moved house a lot (from country to country as well as county to county), I honeymooned in a country where romance was not high on the agenda but experiencing a new culture was. I visited friends who lived abroad to subdue the itch of my gypsy feet. That urge to get up and go remains.

My favourite mode of transport to date has been train (excepting removal vans), but the opportunity to set sail and wake up in a different destination each morning was too good to miss. I had the opportunity to taste a few new ports, and revisit a couple, at a bargain price - thank God for staff discounts.

First glimpse of "das boat" from taxi

Earlier this month, I packed my case for a 7 night cruise aboard the MSC Splendida around the western Mediterranean. 

Barcelona - Marseille – Genoa - Civitavecchia (Rome) – Palermo – Valletta – Barcelona. 

I was about to lose my novice sailor badge and replace it with a “I’ve sailed the seas in Splendida” t-shirt. 

I have to say, I was not entirely convinced about how well I'd like sailing. Ferries induce nausea within minutes, and the fact that I would be contained within the ship for at least 16 hours out of every 24 felt a bit like prison and less like freedom of travel. Still, you shouldn't knock it 'til you've tried it, as many say. So, with good walking shoes for on-shore exploration and a sequinned dress for gala nights within my luggage, I embarked on my first cruise.

As we slipped our moorings in Barcelona, Time to Say Goodbye played over the loud speakers. I’ll admit to a little lump in the throat and a glassy eye as we pulled away and the lights of the city grew smaller. We were off and the adventure was about to begin. 

Little did I realise every time we left a port the same song would blast out across the ship - I videoed it each time, for reasons beyond my own comprehension - and it lost its impact somewhat; though pulling away from our last port of call before the homeward leg was a sad moment: the holiday was coming to an end and I had a full day of sailing, incarcerated with hundreds of incredibly loud Italians (I have one of my own at home, I'm still not accustomed to the volume).

I was excited to disembark at each port and head out to explore. I had done my research beforehand and knew which sights I wanted to see (I'll be regaling you with those tales in later blogs). With the exception of Civitavecchia, I intended to make the most of the time on dry land. 

Civitavecchia was never going to be a full day of discovery. I have had the good fortune to visit Rome on numerous occasions and knew that with around only 4 hours  in the city itself - it takes a couple of hours to get from port to city by bus/coach - I would not be able to see much that was new. An alternative would have been to visit Ostia, the Roman equivalent to Pompeii, but as luck would have it we docked on a Monday when most sightseeing opportunities are closed, including Ostia. On that day, as the majority of the passengers did appear to have headed for the Italian capital, the ship was relatively quiet and so a quick dip in the pool and a lot of time in the Jacuzzi gave me the relaxed holiday feeling.

One of the pool areas on MSC Splendida

So how would I rate cruising over land travel? 
It gets an OK. The big plus for cruising, particularly around the Med, is that you wake each morning in a different port. Whilst not expansive, the cabins are reasonably proportioned and you have the benefits of a decent hotel with beds turned down every night and pyjamas neatly folded. Luckily, I did not suffer from sea-sickness as the sailing was very smooth and other than a short period, when to move forward one pace I took 3 to the right and 4 to the left, I barely felt like I was at sea.

The downside is the ratio of time in port to time on ship. On average we had only 6 hours of "shore leave". That is not much time to explore and you then have the remaining time on the ship, with your cabin the only place of refuge should you be feeling particularly unsociable. However, as an experienced cruiser at our dinner table said, it's a chance to sample each place and decide whether you would like to return. It's a valid point.

Another potential stumbling block is the socialisation aspect. Contrary to popular belief, I'm not a party animal, so drinking to excess and stumbling around the dance floor as a consequence, is not something I want to do every night. In fact, I did not do it any night as the one time I was in the mood for boogying the entertainment team started playing games...Really? At 23.30 with adults? Not my thing.

What's the alternative? Post-dinner, not much. The Splendida has numerous bars with different music options, a casino and some very expensive shops but there are no quiet spaces and as the TV only had news channels in English and I was not going to pay to watch a film, the home-from-home option of watching telly was out the porthole. Your choice is to grab a drink and listen to the piano, grab a drink and play games or dance, or grab a drink and retire to your cabin. 

My cruise tips

Buy a drinks package. They look expensive when you're sat at home with your very drinkable €2 bottle of Cava but are worth it. We had the Allegrissimo package which was unlimited drinks for £20 per day. As a coffee would have been around €2,50, a cocktail anywhere from €6 to €8 and a glass of wine hovering around the €6 mark, it makes sense if you want to have a drink or two with your meal. 

Embark early. This is a second-hand tip that we put to the test, and it works. Embarkation times are given when you book, arrive a couple of hours earlier. That way there are few, if any, queues and you can be rid of your luggage and making the most of your drinks package straight away!

Organise your own excursions
The cruise company excursions are expensive. Wherever possible either plan your own excursions or run the gauntlet with those touting for business on the port-side. Barter with them, do not pay the first price they offer!
We paid MSC €15.90 to get the shuttle from ship to city in Marseille. I had wondered why so many people were walking when it was quite a distance - turns out a ten minute walk and we could have got the FREE port shuttle. Hmm.

Would I do it again? 
Probably not, though I would make an exception for a cruise down the Nile. But, never say never.

Look out for future posts on the ports we called at: there are churches, local delicacies, demonstrations and, for the ghoulish among you, walls of dead bodies.

I really did sail off into the sunset (Marseille)

I sailed on MSC Splendida 9th - 16th December 2016 from Barcelona. 
Whilst I paid a discounted price due to my job, I do not work for MSC and was not offered any incentives. 
My cabin was a free upgrade from interior to balcony due to availability and was part of the deal when booked and paid for.


Popular Posts