Med Cruise: Day 8 – Back to Palma

Leaving day is a bit of a muddle – our main luggage has disappeared, and we have to be out of the cabin by 8 am! Everyone was carting their hand luggage about with them – I took my time over breakfast, and chose porridge to set me up for the day. Transport to the airport was happening throughout the day, and all the cases had colour-coded labels to assist in the logistics of getting nearly 2,000 people safely to their various flights. We relaxed and read for an hour, and then found out that hand luggage could be left at a secure storage point in the Bounty Lounge. So we were free to head off into town relatively unencumbered.

We caught a bus into the centre from just outside the port terminal (1.50 euro) and strolled back into the old town.  I was now in pearl search-mode, but we could only find the ends of the spectrum – either a posh jewellers selling strands for 400 euro, or cheap accessories stores with fake pearls on dodgy clasps for under 10 euro.  There was only one thing for it – find that helpful pearl store we’d been in a week ago!  There followed a full-on session of map-reading and walking round in circles, but after a calming rest by a pond next to the Cathedral, we did indeed locate that very boutique.  And Centre Perles could not have been more helpful, even getting samples brought from their other shop so that I could get the exact length, size of pearl, and colour that I wanted. Roger negotiated a price, and they threw in a little dangle pearl charm for good luck (which I will add to my troll-bead charm bracelet).

We found our way back to the Placa Major, and tucked into some spinach croquettes, clamari, and compulsory manchengo as we enjoyed the street theatre.  I bought some flavoured fleur de sel to have in the kitchen as a daily reminder of our wonderful trip.

We took a taxi back to the boat in plenty of time for our bus transfer.  The plane was delayed slightly, but we made it home by 11 pm.

Cruise Tip Of The Day:  Make the most of your last day – stay on the boat if that’s what you loved the most, or head ashore if you prefer to get every last ounce of foreign delights.  And count the coins you have left to spend at the airport!

Med Cruise: Day 7 – Barcelona

The real impetus for going on this cruise was Barcelona. I’d never visited it before, but we found it impossible to find any cheap flights for a weekend trip. So when the itinerary of this cruise included the city, I was delighted.

It was a 9 o’clock docking, so we had a bit of a lie-in, and I managed to get a freshly made omelette for breakfast which was really good.  We were ashore by 10, and very quickly decided to take the open-topped hop-on-hop-off bus option.  I’ve always said this is the best way to get a feel for a new city, and it meant we could see lots of it without having to do too much walking.  In addition, the girl on the ticket desk was undoubtedly one of the best in customer relations I’d ever seen: the guy in front of us was determined he wasn’t going to pay the 24 euro ticket price –  he knew where he was going, and what bus to take, so did she have a map of the ordinary bus routes?  She found out where he wanted to go (Parc Guell) suggested that going by bus might take an hour and anyway Barcelona’s bus routes were really complicated, so why didn’t he take the Metro – nearest stop was just over there behind Columbus.

We set off, passing the Olympic village, before heading uphill.  The leaflet given out with the ticket price is very informative, and it only took me a short time to devise a Gaudi-themed stop-off plan. First stop was at La Pedrada, with its curvaceous balconies and ornate ironwork balconies.  We enjoyed an iced coffee while admiring that such architecture was almost 100 years old.

Next was the second most popular stop on the route – La Sagrada Familia.  Still unfinished, the level of detail on this cornucopia of stonework, rising above a haze of jacaranda trees,  is astonishing.  There’s about a 3 hour queue for tourists not as part of a tour group – if you really want to see inside, go as part of an organised tour, as they have separate entrances.  We did note that the shore excursion offered by the cruise ship did NOT include entrance to the cathedral, and also involved a 15 minute walk from the coach park, whereas our bus stopped right outside.

Back on the bus, we were aiming for Parc Guell, but the helpful information given over the headphones pointed out that it was a 10 minute walk up a steep hill, so we decided to leave that for a return visit some day when we are both in full health.  The bus tour continued past a Gaudi gatehouse, complete with dragon patterned gate, and then to what was the most popular stop – Barca football stadium.  We didnt get off.  Instead, we alighted at the top of La Rambla and pottered our way down.  I’d been warned so much about the dangers of pickpockets in this area that I didn’t have my phone with me, and only very little money.  We decided to eat inside, rather than on one of the pavement cafes, and shared a couple of starters at 111, part of Le Meridien hotel.  We continued our stroll enjoying ice-creams (Crema Cataluna for me), waved up to Columbus, and were back on board at 3.30.

The last night on board is tricky:  you need to pack clever in order to have your suitcase outside the cabin by midnight, and have left out anything you will need the next day, bearing in mind the hand luggage restrictions on liquids.  Some cruises have a formal night on the last evening – what a palaver that must be, trying to pack away your dinner jacket before going to bed!  And my quiz-buddies were successful in the X-factor competition (she was singing I Dreamed a Dream, he won with To Dream the Impossible Dream….too much dreams there shurely…) but what do you do with a bottle of champagne at 11 pm the night before leaving?  And where do you put your dirty laundry (this may explain the thong we found under our bed the day we arrived).

Cruise Tip Of The Day:  Take small bottles of shampoo etc that you can just leave behind.  Charity shops often sell gift sets of potions and lotions, and I took with me an almost finished bottle of cologne that I didn’t want to cart home with me.

Med Cruise: Day 6 – Toulon

I would find it very difficult to visit somewhere without having done some basic research into it.  I was amazed reading some reviews of our cruise that one passenger gave it a low rating because “there’s nothing to do in Toulon”.  It’s the main French naval base, and having been heavily bombed in WW2 much of its buildings were hastily erected to provide  a lot of housing quickly – in other words its not very pretty architecturally.  The clue for me was the word “gateway”.  Anywhere that styles itself “gateway to blah blah” is usually an indication that you want to getaway from it as soon as possible.  Toulon calls itself “gateway to the Cote d’Azur”.  On top of all that, it was a Sunday when we visited, so many places would be closed.  This was the best day to go for one of the organised shore excursions.

Our first stop was the pretty little post of Sanary sur Mer.  The market there was yet another feast for the senses – I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time on this cruise blog extolling the joys of the variety and freshness of the local produce, so I’ll try to resist posting yet another picture of glossy tomatoes.  I bought some delicious fresh macaroons, a punnet of sweet and sharp strawberries, and couldn’t resist joining the queue for this local delicacy, Cade.  It was a sort of chickpea flour pancake, cooked in a wood smoke oven, served with a little salt and pepper.  The texture reminded me of potato bread.

A passing local advised us to climb to the top of the tower, accessible behind the hotel.  It’s free to enter, but quite a few steps and ladders to climb.  The view over the little harbour, with the old-fashioned painted boats – pointus, the pointed ones – was just exquisite.

Our next stop was the seaside resort of Bandol, weekend retreat of choice for the residents of nearby Marseilles.  There was a display of classic British cars (Les Anglaises) along the promenade, and the island off the coast belonged to M Ricard, inventor of the eponymous aperitif.  We had a welcome sit-down in the shade and enjoyed tapas of mussels and aubergine, followed by a gentle stroll in the sunshine enjoying delicious ice-creams from a dizzying choice of flavours.  I went for lavender, this being Provence, while Roger tried a salty caramel.  During the ice-cream purchasing process, he managed to drop a 5 euro note, which a passer-by retrieved and returned to us.  Back on the coach, and we were back on board at 13.30.  The trip had cost 32 euros – they’re not cheap, shore excursions, but this was definitely one we were glad we had taken.

I managed a short session in the gym, and then had a GnT in the Lookout Bar as we set sail. At dinner, there was a crepe station set up, so we enjoyed freshly prepared crepes Suzette for dessert.  I even managed to catch the evening show in the Ocean Theatre, which was very good, high professional standard.

Cruise Tip Of The Day: Check where you’re going to be on a Sunday, as shops and other attractions may be closed.  And look out for the words “Gateway to….”

Med Cruise; Day 5 – Cannes

It was meant to be Villefranche, from where I was looking forward to taking a trip to Monte Carlo, but the (very slight) swell meant we instead anchored off Cannes. I’d been here once before as a teenager on a family holiday, but it had been a very brief visit and a very long time ago! Roger had never been, so we decided to leave Monte Carlo for another time, and instead explore this starlet of the French Riveira.
The walk from the tender disembarkation point into town was one of the first times on this trip that we’d encountered street traders, selling handbags and sunglasses. But they were very laid-back, and we had no hassle at all as we strolled towards the famous palm-fringed seafront.
We had as usual picked up a map from the services desk, which we had found to be really useful for making your own way about, but a short explore towards the Old Town revealed that it was extremely hilly, and definitely not something Roger would be able to manage. We went back to a coffee shop overlooking the harbour for cafe frappes, and discussed options. He decided to head back to the ship, while I would go exploring on my own. Cannes is pretty safe, and my French is well able to get me through any situation I was likely to encounter.
I firstly climbed all the way to the church at the top of the hill, and spent some time just drinking in the glorious view.

I pottered back down past the tiny little shops and restaurants nestled tightly on each side of the street. Every available space on each tiny patio was filled with flowers and plants. My next stop was the market – a breathtaking array of fruit and veg.  The scent of strawberries filled the air, and of course being France, everything was displayed beautifully. There were teensy wild woodland strawberries, white aubergines, reminding me of their other name of eggplant, round courgettes, courgettes with their flowers still attached,  mushrooms and ceps, tomatoes of all sorts of shape size and colour,  tightly budded peonies, fish, cheese, cured meats…I could have soaked it all up for hours.

I called into the Cafe des Halles behind the market, which seemed to be frequented by a few market traders, and ordered a vin blanc, which came accompanied by a shot glass of gazpacho, a few baguette croutons, and some olives. Magnifique!
From the bus depot by the town hall, I took the No 8 bus, which is an open topped vehicle that runs along the seafront to Palm Beach. It costs 1 euro per trip, and is definitely worth doing for the great views. At Palm Beach I had a fantastic panorama of our boat moored out at sea, and was able to paddle in the warm waves lapping the shore.

Back in town, I called into Streckers, a beer and wine bar behind l’hotel de ville for a glass of Chardonnay (5 euro) and a rather large plate of cheese (10 euro).
I was back on board for 3, read for a while, did the pub quiz at 5, dinner at 7, and off to bed the old cliche – tired but happy.

Cruise Tip Of The Day: you will need more than 7 days worth of underwear, by the time you go for a swim, or to the gym, or shower and change for dinner. Or else be prepared to do some laundry during your trip.

Med Cruise: Day 4 – La Spezia

Next stop, Italy. One of my favourite European countries (the food! the wine! the passion! the art! the style!) I was thrilled to be visiting a region of Italy where I hadn’t been before. This was the first stop where we had to use the tenders to get to shore – I was woken at 5.30 by the noises of them being lowered. There was gravadlax on the menu for breakfast, and then we lazed around and read for an hour or so while the tour parties got out of the way. Using tenders can mean a bit of a queue.
My research into the “must sees” had said take a boat ride to the Cinque Terre, 5 little hamlets nestled against the precarious cliffs along the windswept coast. But we’d just missed one boat, so instead took a taxi (10 euro) to la stazione, and I brushed off my rusty Italian linguistic skills to get 2 tickets to the furthest of the villages, Monterosso (for the princely sum of 2.60 each). The train journey isn’t that exciting, as it is mostly though mountain tunnels, with only the briefest of glimpses of the stunning coastline. But the short journey (15 minutes) was rather enjoyable, and we emerged from the station in beautiful sunshine to find a bay of golden sand with some rather spectacular surf crashing onto it.

Whilst it is possible to walk from one village to the next, Roger wasn’t up to such physical demands. We’d planned on catching the return boat at 12.10, which would call at each one before returning to La Spezia, but when we found the harbour, there was a notice saying “service suspended due to rough conditions”. The return fare on the boat would have been 25 euro. We found a little cafe, Cafe Mexico, overlooking the swell crashing on the shore, and ordered an iced coffee (the best of the trip!) and a glass of local white wine – I’m now in love with Ligurian wines.
Despite the red flags flying, some hardy souls were splashing about in the surf. We split a rather large mozzarella and tomato salad, and discussed our options. We decided to get back on the train, but to get off at one of the other villages on the way. Sticking a pin in the choices, we plumped for RioMaggiore. This may have been a mistake, as there was a rather long tunnel from the train station into the town, and a pretty steep walkway down to the petite harbour.

The place reminded me a little of Mont St Michel. I had another glass of local vino ( expensive at 5.50, but soooo good), before getting back on the train to La Spezia and a taxi back to the boat.

We room serviced up some diet coke and a bucket of ice, and were relaxing when the captain came on the t annoy with an announcement. We had been due to anchor off Villefranche tomorrow, but the swell running meant that he didn’t feel we’d be able to safely operate a tender service, so instead we were going a few miles further down the coast to Cannes. Oh dear, what a shame!
That night’s sailing was a bit later, at 7 pm, and we had booked a window table for dinner, and so were able to enjoy a truly memorable meal as the Italian coastline glided gracefully past in the sunset.

Cruise Tip Of The Day: Check the sailing times. If you ARE going to be sailing during evening meal time, try to get a spot where you can see outside, it’s a truly memorable experience.

Med Cruise: Day 3 – Ajaccio (Corsica)

I rose early and watched as the boat docked in the hazy morning sunshine. One of the nice things about cruises is the stunning views you get of islands or coastlines as you approach. After breakfast I did the short abs class, and then we made out way ashore to Napoleon’s birthplace. There was a market in the square with all sorts of delights – cheese, cured meats, and row upon row of colourful fresh fruit and vegetables.

We continued our wander hugging the coastline past the citadel, and stopped for an iced coffee at the Place de Gaulle, next to the statue of Napoleon and his 4 brothers. Suitably refreshed, we moseyed back down through the little streets of the old town until we reached the harbour again. The costline of Corsica is stunning, so I was interested in taking a boat trip, but they were either all day tours, or afternoon sunset trips, neither of which would have got us back to our ship in time. So instead we took an open topped bus tour (10 euro) which gave a superb view of the sea as we made our way out as far as Parata point. The sea was so clear here, I could see little fishies swimming in the water!

Back in the town, we found a little restaurant where I ordered an assiette Corse – cured meats including a very fatty one, cheese, and a sort of stuffed spinach pastry. Oh, and delicious fig jam. I bought some souvenirs of Corse wine, honey, nougat, and of course some of that fabulous jam. I have to be conscious of the weight limits in our luggage, otherwise I’d have bought a lot more!
My abiding memory of Corsica is the smell – the famous Corsican pines, herbs, and the tang of the sea.

Back on board I managed to get to the Cha-cha class, but missed the start of the pub quiz.

Cruise Tip Of The Day: Check what voltage the ship uses – the Island Escape is an American ship, so needs an adaptor for a US socket.

Med Cruise: Day 2 – All At Sea

Our first full day on board was also the only day we spent all at sea, making the long crossing from Palma to Corsica. Cruise ships don’t go fast so as not to cause too much of a breeze on deck.
I joined the gym guy for his 8 o’clock “walk a mile with a smile” session, which was 5 times round the upper deck. 8 am is about the only time you could do that, as from then on it steadily filled up with sunbeds. I stayed in the gym area and ran on the treadmill for a while in a desperately last ditch attempt to look good in my next outfit – a bikini. I’d brought along a mix’n’match set of black bottoms, black and white bandeau top, and black and white tankini.  I also had a turquoise and white Billabong beach dress which had handy pockets on the front, thought the tie string neckline was the same as the bikini tops, which was a bit confusing.  Sadly, I also saw someone else on board with the same dress!

We lounged by the pool reading our Kindles – I was reading Game of Thrones, having been totally confused by the TV series and wanting to learn who was who.  Kindles are great, but one of the downsides is that you cant just leave them on your sun lounger while you go to the bar/ for a dip in the pool/ to the loo etc.

The weather was superb – I was conscious that I didn’t want to burn on my first day, so was slapping on the Factor 30, while Roger was intending to go as brown as he could.

Dressed for dinner in a dress of my daughters – her “Donna” dress, to be precise, which had graced the stage during her performance in Mama Mia.

Cruise Tip Of The Day: find out what facilities are on board – if there’s a gym, and you think you might use it, make sure you pack your trainers.