Travel: A Review of The Norwegian Mediterranean Cruise

I have been wanting to go back to Italy for years now. I went two decades ago and wanted to experience it again as an adult. And, after meticulous planning, it finally came to fruition. (No seriously, I planned and replanned this trip 5 times.)

This year, tourism in Italy skyrocketed. As a result, costs were quite pricy. After trying different routes, and even looking at including different countries in the itinerary, I finally landed on a cruise. We did a 10-day Mediterranean Cruise with Norwegian Cruise Lines.

Picking the right cruise

For starters: I should admit I am not a stranger to cruising. I’ve been on a couple as a kid, and studied abroad on a ship. That said, I had no idea how strong this community was until I dipped my toe into researching cruises. Thankfully, that also means there’s a ton of information and reviews to help you pick the right cruise line (and ship!) for you. We actually were planning to go on Celebrity Cruises, but not one, but two of the cruises I priced out sold out overnight when we were getting ready to purchase them.

My suggestion? Try Cruise Critic.

Ultimately, after having talked to several other passengers, we decided that there is no cruise chain that is better than the other per se. We loved the route, the flexibility of both time and types of meals, and the quality of food on our ship – which was the Norwegian Breakaway. But I suppose if you had more sea days, I would opt for a ship with more amenities, especially a larger pool. Their tendering process could also use some improvement.

Every cruise line sounds like it has something for someone. I would decide the handful of things that are most important to you, and start from there. I would absolutely sail Norwegian Cruise Lines again, but I would be open to trying others too.

First stop: Rome

Our cruise took off from the port city of Civitavecchia. I was not about to risk having a delayed flight, so we opted to fly into Rome (about an hour drive from Civitavecchia) the day before and explore the city. We stayed near the Piazza Navona, which was the perfect location for our plans, which included touring the Vatican, and taking in the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and Pantheon.

Because we technically had 1 day on this side of the city, I knew we had to be selective on how much we tried to do. And, I made sure to be as efficient as possible. For any major tourist sites, like the Vatican, make sure to get skip the line tickets ahead of time. That will make your day run so much smoother, I promise!

Of course, what would Rome be without plenty of delicious food? Based on a recommendation from a co-worker who lived in Rome, we had to get the gelato from Gilolitti. But the real star of the show? The coffee at La Casa del Caffe Tazza d’Oro. We went every chance we could. (Tip: I created a sheet ahead of time to familiarize myself with their menu and some of the local variations so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed.)

About our ship

If you’ve followed me for a while, you know I love squeezing by on a budget. But if there is one thing that I wasn’t going to budge on this trip, it was forking up the cost for transfers. We used RomeCabs to travel to and from the ship at the cost of $160 Euro each way for 1-2 persons. Does Italy have a train that goes to Civitavecchia? Yes. Is it pretty straightforward to navigate? Also yes. But for me, this was about one less thing to worry about on embarkation day.

Norwegian did a fairly good job getting us onboard. In total, it took about 1 hour to get through security and check in. We opted to check our bags, and spent the time exploring the ship. Our room took about an additional 2 hours to be ready, but that gave us plenty of time to familiarize ourselves with the ship’s layout. Just be mindful of what you pack in your carry-on bag since you won’t have access to your other bags (or room) for a few hours.

The Breakaway is not one of their newer ships, but it’s still kept up nicely. It has a main buffet on deck 15, that has a pretty extensive selection. There are 3 main restaurants that are complimentary, and have rotating menus so your options change throughout the week. (There are few specialty restaurants that are also complimentary, including a noodle bar we never tried.) Then there are a number of specialty restaurants including a steakhouse, seafood, sushi, Italian, and a French bistro. These are an uncharge, but you can usually find a sale that bundles some into your plan. As far as bars, there are quite a few options as well. We especially loved their martini bar Shakers, but you could also try different types of whiskey at Malting’s Beer & Whiskey Bar, enjoy a cocktail and dueling pianos at Headliners Comedy Club, or specialty drinks and live music at Syd Norman’s Pour House. Our main fixture, though, was the O’Sheehan’s pub (pictured) – located near the ship’s central area and home to quick bites and drinks available 24/7.

I understand most cruises still have set times to eat, or even scheduled tables. This was not the case here, and for that I am thankful. Our times at port varied. This level of flexibility was everything. We also opted for the all-inclusive package, which made ordering a breeze.

The ship is cashless, but you’ll need to bring your card everywhere you go. Just be prepared to pay a $20 per person, per day fee at the very end for gratuities.

Ultimately, because our days were chockfull – we only had one sea day- this ship had more than enough options to keep us entertained.

Cruising through Santorini, Athens and Olympia

The one stop the other 4 itineraries I planned didn’t have? Santorini. And, I am so thankful I was able to go! To say I was excited for this port was an understatement. If you’re not familiar, Santorini is home to the iconic blue domed churches that grace the internet. But first, you need to find a way there.

If you’re coming via ship, you’ll be in Old Port. You’ll tender to a small strip nestled into the side of a cliff underneath the popular destination of Fira. (Also, just note tendering does take a while!) That means you have three routes to Fira, including a dirty and steep 600 steps. (Well, just under if we’re being exact.) You can also take a cable car, but the wait can exceed 1.5-2 hours, and costs 6 euro per person, each way. The other way is via donkey, but in no way would I encourage that. We took the steps, which took about 30 minutes in the blazing heat, and I’d honestly do it again. But if you have any mobility issues, this simply isn’t a good choice for you. It can be slippery on the turns, and has virtually no shade or places to rest as you navigate through donkeys and other tourists.

To get to Oia, you’ll have to make your way to the bus stop (about two blocks from the top of the steps). It’s about a 30 minute drive (at 1.60 euro per person), but well worth it. It was extremely crowded, but the views are admittedly still stunning. Just be wary of the lines to take pictures. Sigh

The one must-do, wherever you are on the island? Food! I absolutely loved Lucky’s Souvlaki, which is deceiving if you’re just walking by. I got the gyro and it was easily the best I’ve ever had. And the owner was absolutely lovely to speak with and made us feel so welcome. Be sure to walk the shops, wherever you go. This is the place to pick up olive oil, sun-dried tomato products, and wine – all local products. Don’t forget to pick up an evil eye either, which is said to guard off evil intentions.

Our next port of call was Piraeus, or the port closest to Athens. We opted for the hop-on hop-off bus for our travel. And we made a bee-line to the Acropolis. Again, you absolutely must get the skip the line tickets. We breezed past a long queue, were able to enjoy fairly light crowds, and by the time we made our way down the steps, the lines and crowds were unbearable.

Although I had originally planned to tour the museum as well, time got the best of us. (One of the downsides of cruising, for sure.) We went to Monastiraki Square, one of the oldest neighborhoods of Athens, for some authentic food and shopping. Be sure to pick up spices here. (Seriously, the price doubles in the next port.) If you’re looking for a local drink, try the ouzo.

Our final stop in Greece was Katakolon, near Olympia. If you’re not aware, Olympia is the birthplace to the first Olympic games. (Which, if you’re a history-lover is something else. Athletes originally performed in the nude, rubbing olive oil all over their bodies for both appearance and as an advantage.)

Since we had a few busy days, we opted to stay near the ship and explore the streets near port. This ended up being the perfect choice for us, since there are plenty of shops and restaurants that cater to tourists. Definitely make a trek to Olybeea, a shop with several honey products. Not only is it delicious, but the owner was kind and welcoming, and explained all the benefits.

An untapped gem: Malta

Another destination that this particular itinerary took us to was the small island of Malta – and it ended up being one of our favorite places to explore! We arrived in Valletta, one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world. Because of its unique skyline, it’s also a popular destination for filming, including the Gladiator. The buildings primarily reflect Baroque and Renaissance architecture, made of limestone and feature characteristic Maltese balconies with intricate ironwork.

It’s also quite walkable. This is one of the few cities I didn’t have a laundry list of must-do’s or must-eat’s. Instead, we stopped for gelato, pizza, and coffee respectively along the dotted streets at places that called to us. If we had more time, I’d have liked to gone inside St. John’s Cathedral and walked even farther to Fort St. Elmo.

If you’re looking for souvenirs, consider the intricate lacewood, Mdina glass, or Maltese wine and liqueur (including the traditional “Bajtra” or prickly pear liqueur). Just note some shops will close from 1 to 4 p.m.

Finally, making our way through Italy

And then it was time. The country that called to me in the first place. For context, I visited Rome, Florence, Venice and Sorrento when I was 14. I remember the trip vividly, and especially fell in love with Sorrento. It was a country I thought Brandon and I would equally love, and something I wanted to experience together.

Our ship took us to Messina, Naples, and Livorno. These also serve as a gateway to places like Taormina, Florence (Firenze), Pisa, Cinque Terre, and the Amalfi Coast, respectively.

Messina, located in northeastern Sicily, is known for its location. It’s basically separated by a narrow body of water from Italy’s mainland. I originally had planned for us to have another relaxing day exploring the streets near the ship, but I couldn’t get Taormina out of my head. And boy, am I so glad we opted for this last-minute additional excursion.

Taormina’s stunning views include the Ionian Sea and Mount Etna. But it was the charming streets that stole my heart. We didn’t have time to explore the gardens or the Greek Theatre, but more reason to go back. Instead, we had a lunch in the old town, filled up on cannolis and coffee, and visited some of the boutiques lining the streets.

For our next port, Naples, we decided to do another excursion through the ship. It was easily one of the highlights of the trip, too. We went to Sorrento, where we explored the streets and sampled different types of limoncello. (I highly recommend the melon, which was a surprise to me, too.) We then went to a local farm, where we tried fresh cheese, meats, pasta and vino. (We bought lemon and citrus infused olive oils which were divine.)

Finally, we ended the day at Pompeii. A quick history lesson if you’re not familiar: Pompeii was the site of Mount Vesuvius’ catastrophic eruption in 79 A.D. What makes it especially unique, however, is that the volcanic ash basically preserved a rare look at life in the ancient times. What’s even more wild is that there is still much of Pompeii that has yet to be uncovered. Some of these areas have been left untouched for various reasons, including resource limitations.

Our final port of call in Italy was Livorno. I opted for another ship excursion- this time to Florence, or more appropriately, Firenze. We had about 3 hours to explore the city, which is obviously not nearly enough to get but a taste. I immediately took us to Ponte Vecchio. During World War II it was the only bridge across the Arno that the Germans did not destroy. It has been home to jewelers since the 13th century. (Although I would advise you only to look, since its prices are marked up considerably.)

Unfortunately, much like many of the other places we’ve visited, it was extremely crowded. We barely made it onto the bridge before we turned around. (Something to consider if you’re planning to visit during a high-season.)

A trip to Firenze would not be complete without seeing the Duomo, officially known as the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. The distinctive octagonal dome is made with a mosaic of white, red, and green marble. It’s also considered an engineering marvel of its time, as it was one of the largest masonry domes ever constructed without scaffolding no less. We did not have time to enter, but truthfully, it’s actually quite plain inside. If you’re looking for a remarkable church, I suggest the slightly less popular cousin, Basilica of Santa Croce. Here, you’ll find the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and more.

This was home to our best meal of the trip – which was ironically a place we stumbled upon on a side street. Go ahead, bookmark it: Cacio e Pepe. Brandon got the penne all’arrabbiata, while I got their namesake. We also got the best gelato of the trip at Perchè No. If you like chocolate, the chocolate orange rum is a must.

After touring the city, we headed further into the hills of Tuscany to the vineyard, Castello del Trebbio. There, we toured the wine cellars and sampled several of their wines. If you ever find yourself in Tuscany, I absolutely suggest an experience like this. You can find similar tours through TripAdvisor. Just be sure to read reviews before selecting the one that’s right for you.

Cannes: A quick stop in France

Our last port of call before disembarkation was in Cannes, France. You’ll know Cannes from the film festival, but it was originally an unknown fishing town before Hollywood descended upon it in the mid-1940’s.

Located on the French Riviera in the southeastern part of France, Cannes is also home to beautiful beaches, extremely high-end shops, and luxurious yachts.

There was no question as to our first stop: Le Saint Antoine. Situated just a short 10 minute walk from the port, Le Saint Antoine is rated as one of the best bakeries in Cannes. I obviously had to get a croissant, which was utter perfection. (Seriously, look at those layers.) Some reviews suggest the staff are rude, but I didn’t experience this. I will, however, caution you the line is a bit long. I assure you, it’s worth it. Make sure to sit and enjoy your treat if you can.

Next, we headed towards La Croisette, which runs along the waterfront of Cannes. Along the water, you can have a meal or lounge at one of the glamorous private beach clubs. (Prices will vary.) We passed two public beaches for those who would prefer the cost-friendly route.

Instead, we looked at the shops and picked up some macarons. (How could we not?) After some research, I knew I wanted to get them from Laduree. I can’t say staff was excited to help us though, so take a peek at their menu beforehand. My recommendation? Lemon.

We had lunch at the square in front of the Cannes Festival Palace. This place is dotted with cute shops, restaurants, and fountains. (There were dogs playing happily in the fountain. How wholesome is that?!)

If you’re on the hunt for souvenirs, look for lavender products, mustard (does Dijon ring a bell?), sea salt, perfumes, or wines.

Our day ended with a final meal at O’Sheehans on the ship and getting ready for our last city: Rome. (Again.)

The Colosseum

Our ship disembarked in Civitavecchia. I was braced for a long, miserable line to get off. Instead, we zipped right out and ended up waiting for our transfer for over an hour because we disembarked so quickly.

I didn’t want to risk missing a flight, so we stayed the night in Rome. This time, though, we explored Monti. While the first hotel was a great location, this room (albeit tiny) was far better. It felt more modern and homey. And blessedly, the room was ready before check-in time which was so helpful, given I had another busy day planned for us.

No trip to Rome would be complete without seeing the Colosseum. Much like the Vatican or the Acropolis, I suggest getting tickets ahead of time. Obviously many know the storied past of the Colosseum. As you know, it was home to gladiator fights but did you know it was also filled with water for sea battles? It is estimated that more than 400,000 people lost their lives there, and more than a million animals.

It’s also another architectural marvel so to speak. For starter’s: it supposedly held between 40,000-70,000 people. It was able to be filled and drained for the sea battles. It had underground tunnels and contraptions for animals to enter the arena. It even had a retractable shade for sunny days. I can also appreciate my sister’s art history degree. If you look hard enough, it has three types of columns: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian (from the ground up).

We finished the trip with a final pasta and pizza before heading back the next morning.

Overall thoughts?

This was a trip of a lifetime, and honestly, I am fairly certain I could not have planned it any better.

Many travelers have had issues with pickpocketing or scams. I knew exactly what to avoid, what to look out for, and opted for transports or excursions in areas I felt uncomfortable navigating myself. Others were disappointed by the lines or crowds, but if you plan ahead, you can navigate some of these things more easily. Or at the very least, brace yourself for it.

The reality is, you’re not going to see everything or immerse yourself fully in the culture. But it’s the perfect trip to get a feeling for which countries or cities you’d like to visit in the future. It’s also a great way to visit places that might normally be difficult to get to. For example, the Greek islands would have required multiple ferries or flights to hop from one to another.

This was the perfect cruise for us and I’d 100% recommend it. But I also recommend doing your research, and taking the time to thoughtfully curate a cruise line, excursions, and route that fits what you’ve looking for.