For 7 days of our 17 day Europe trip we opted to cruise through the Mediterranean to visit some key ports. We wanted to see a variety of places in one swoop on this trip and with two little ones in tow figured this was the easiest way with a limited amount of time. We've seen places we wouldn't necessarily fly to, so why not do this in Mediterranean where there's so much we want to see. It is one of the easiest, cost effective vacations you could ever ask for in the - but is it the way you want to see the Europe?
Here's some points to consider-
Read on about our cruising trip and decide for yourself how you want to see Europe!
Day 1 Civitavecchia
So two days after we arrived and explored Rome, we headed to the Port of Civitavecchia to embark on a week of cruising the Mediterranean. We opted to do the cruise because we found an unbeatable deal on Norwegian Cruise Line, who with their Free at Sea offer, we were able to book the kids in the room with us for just the cost of taxes. The offer also gave us an additional free selection from Unlimited Open Bar (pay gratuities and taxes only up front), Shore Excursion credit, free Speciality Dining OR free Wi-Fi on board. Though a few of these options sounded tempting, we knew we'd get the best bang for our buck with free Wi-Fi since we wanted to plan as we went. And then with working through a travel agent, we earned enough on-board credit to cover stateroom gratuities and the cost of drinks we did buy on board.
So day 3 of our Europe Trip was our first day to cruise & finally relax since stepping foot on Italian soil. We set a private charter to pick us up from our hotel and drive us about an hour away to the Port of Civitavecchia. Private sounds fancy and every bit expensive, but it was the way to go. For a group of 6, we paid about $30 a person to have a guaranteed way to get there, without the stress of taking a train (the cheapest way to go). On the train, you do have the option to reserve a seat, but the price of that was close to what we paid for our driver and with a guarantee we'd arrive on time. With Italy being notorious for sudden workforce strikes, we wanted to have a stress-free way to start part 2 of our vacation - which wouldn't come with a train. The transfer granted us someone at our door on time, and drop off directly under the cruise ship.
Boarding the Epic was by far the easiest experience I have ever had boarding a ship, and that's a lot to be said as we have some of the most well-run ports in Florida. And I would not be exaggerating when I say we were checked in, through security, commemorative picture taken, and boarded in about 15 minutes time! We went straight to lunch and let the rest of the day ease by, as we had nowhere to be, and could kick back, relax and enjoy that beautiful Italian sunshine as we waited to embark on the rest of our journey.
Day 2: Livorno, Pisa & Lucca
Our first stop brought us to the port of Livorno, better known for Pisa and Firenze (aka Florence). We chose to skip Florence, which is rare for first timers, and headed to a place of more significance - Lucca. Lucca is where my paternal great grandfather was raised and we knew being so close to our homeland we had to pay our respects to the city we had roots in. We hired a private driver via Your Tour in Italy and we decided the itinerary for the day based off what we wanted to do. Once again, a private driver was every bit worth it since we were at liberty to design our day and it surprisingly, was much cheaper than the cruise ship rates for a group preplanned excursion.
We chose to stop in Pisa to see her famous tower on our way to spend the rest of the day in Lucca. Pisa was a sight to see, particularly because there is nothing else in the city other than l'duomo, the baptismal building and the bell tower, better known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It's magnificent to experience something so obscure in person and really comprehend that yes, it is standing and there are people in it too! Hearing the bells ring definitely drove the point home, kind of like staring at a phenomenon you wouldn't think could exist let alone work. Pisa has nothing else to it, other than a little town square and lots of street vendors selling you souvenirs with the tower stamped all over it. Those aspects of our trip made visiting a little somber; its one thing to see tourist shops in Orlando where everything feels made up for a show. But to see these places rich in history have their streets filled with "artifacts" you can wear, definitely takes away some of its ancient beauty. I couldn't even bare to take a true picture of how tourist rich and tacky Pisa could look because its not what I want to recall. The photo below of my 6 year old holding the tower up is the only way I want to remember it, when I remember nothing else at all.
We then made our 30 minute drive through the beautiful Tuscan countryside to Lucca, which resides within thick city walls. Outside of Lucca proper, felt like any other city you were entering with store and gas stations dotting the roads. But within the walls is old Lucca, captured in time. It is absolutely stunning with its immaculately kept interior and the small town charm we didn't find in Rome. We were dropped off to visit the cathedral, Cattedrale di San Martino, which was humbling to know that I have family that have prayed within these walls. After we walked to a square while in search of the building my great grandfather studied art at and instead found a carousel! The kids made a friend after their ride and though one didn't understand the other, they played just the same. We decided to get a proper view of Lucca - so the six of us rented a surrey! The city walls are a city above a city - big enough even drive a car on at parts, so we decided to explore the city overhead! We pedaled the city walls filled with restaurants and beautiful walking trails. And the city itself is just as charming, wrapped up in simple traditions and a quieter lifestyle. It is much more manageable to see but we also barely scratched the surface in seeing it. The best part though was getting to see a place my family has called home, a place that has some of our beautiful history, and getting to share it with the next generation of our tree. We ended our day in Lucca with lunch at Ristorante San Colombano, a restaurant on the wall covered in trees and pigeons with fantastic fresh food. And amazing local wine!
Our driver, Luca, comes highly recommended for anyone wanting to get to know Italy! He did our regional tour but is also a private driver throughout Italy and very much made this way of seeing the country one to consider. He was knowledgable of the Tuscan region, as he calls Livorno home, and was respectful of our time. He allowed us to see what we wanted without feeling rushed, but also gave us an insider's view of a place we otherwise wouldn't know how to tackle. He ended our time there with a stop in his wine shop in Livorno, where we got great Tuscan wine and oils to ship home at very reasonable prices. A free tasting did not hurt to end the day, where our kids enjoyed our time together as much as we did.
Day 3: Cannes & Monaco
We arrived to Cannes as our second stop; France is a country I have always coveted to get to know! The French Rivera is every bit as beautiful as I anticipated, with quaint homes dotting the cliff and beaches. Our itinerary took us to visit Eze, a small hillside walking village on the coast; and Monaco, the country known for its glamour and wealth, and its small square footage.
We arrived early and in true European fashion, our guide right on time, not a minute earlier. This time we booked via Viator, who paired us with Gregory, a local guide very familiar with both Monaco and Cannes. We started with a captivating drive through the hillsides to Eze, even taking in the Alps with her snowcapped tops in the distance as we headed west. Eze’s allure is that its an adorable cliffside village with boutique shopping built spiraling up with narrow passage ways and labryinths to get lost in. The view from the top of the botanical gardens, overlooking the sea, was the peak of the visit (pun intended) to get a full view of the French and Monaco coast that surround us.
After our quick stop there, we made it to Fragonard Parfumeur, a perfumery in the region known for perfumes. And even though this was very much a solicited stop with obvious business opportunities, I welcomed it. We got a preview of what the greats of Chanel and Estée Lauder do, who also have businesses in this region known for the fragrant flowers that bloom here. Best of all, we got a little something unique to bring home – French perfume that can only be found here – the type of souvenir that is always appealing.
Another short drive over and we made it to Monaco, every bit as elite as it sounds. The streets are tight & winding and full of luxury everywhere! Everything about this tiny country is screams big money – it is very proper, crisp and pristine. I understand the appeal of it now, as it is absolutely gorgeous with bountiful views of the sea on one side, and of luxurious homes on the other. We visited the palace, walked the cathedral that Princess Grace wed in, and even got to see one of her daughters being police escorted back to her home. A little added bonus for our visit was that we got to first hand experience the tracks of the Grand Prix, which had just happened a few short days ago. The sound of cars racing is something I’ll always remember about weekend mornings of my childhood, when my dad would wake up early to watch these famous races, that we were now experiencing firsthand. That we got to ride the roads that were so much part of our life and we had a "taste" of racing is an experience I won't forget.
Day 4: Palma de Mallorca
Day 6 we headed to Palma de Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain held back in time. This stop was amazing! We once again were able to do what we loved – discover a city on foot! We stopped by the Cathedral, explored the Arab baths, and walked down their Las Ramblas. We finally stopped for tapas at a street side restaurant where we drank the best sangria we’ve ever had. We finished our trip by heading up to Bellver Castle, situated on a hill looking down at all of Mallorca. The stop was a welcome change of pace to the car trips we had conformed to and made us feel like we were truly on vacation.
Day 5: Barcelona
What a stark difference even moving slightly over is! France to Spain were so different culturally than Italy and it really did feel like you made a transition to new terrain. But we were so limited in time in these new places that we felt like we barely got to scratch the surface in getting know these beauties!
We decided before we arrived to Barcelona to discover this city as we went. We had a full 12 hours at this port since this was another embarkation point. We chose to board in Rome though because of the distance from the city to maximize our time sightseeing. Whereas in Barcelona the port is in the city and proxmity to get there and back does not affect your time to explore. We also decided on just a double decker bus tour to get a scope of what we wanted to see. We mistook the sheer vastness of this city - it is HUGE and not a place that can be easily explored! And to add insult to injury, it was rainy and cold the day we got there. So we made the best of it and explored the city by bus, with stops to check out some of the hot spots.
We did hope off the bus at Sagrada Familia and Parca Guell, but because you can’t just get tickets on the spot, we weren't able to tour. Tickets are time stamped and sold in advance, which I applaud for being very organized and meticulous (really, this type A love this). So we handled it with grace, accepted our plans for the stop in this city, and enjoyed the rest of the bus tour. And we definitely made plans to come back for an inclusive trip in Spain, to explore another family heritage stop and get a better grasp of this beautiful country.
Day 6 Day at Sea
In between all the running around, on our way back to Italy we got a full day at sea. And with that full day at sea we also had the best weather to match. So you better believe we took full advantage of a day to unwind and relax poolside, and also start prepping for part 2 of our trip.
Before we even packed, we found out that NCL also offered laundry service for a flat price as long as it fit in the provided laundry bag. And since we wanted to pack light, we utilized this service to minimize what we packed on this trip and also extend it over an additional week. The day at sea we got our clothes back, washed and pressed and were able to pack for our departure in a few days.
While we handled adult stuff, the kids played. Like most other cruises, there was plenty of activity on the boat to fill both the days and nights. NCL's kids club age policy is 3 so both our kids were old to spend some of their time there, which gave us a chance to enjoy dinner just as the adults on most nights. The kids club also provided great activities by age, including a evening of parades and shows put on by the kids themselves.
Cruising is great, don’t get me wrong. But for us, we felt like we missed out a little. Let’s say those past 4 days were what I earlier called an appetizer of each place. And though without this trip, I don’t think we would have ever just made it over to Mallorca or Cannes, we definitely wish we had more time in the others. And the trade out could’ve been to just discover the places we missed. We also definitely missed out on having the culture and food surround us at night. We got immersed in what we were experiencing we just weren't quite ready to get back on the boat when it was time for it!
Day 7 Naples & the Amalfi Coast
We ventured back to Italy, and into Napoli, the birth place of pizza (though we didn't spend much time in Naples or have pizza). We were there long enough to be picked up again by our guide from Your Tour in Italy and make our way to the Amalfi Coast. We were given a brief history lesson of Naples, discovering that the land we were driving on was created thanks to Mount Vesuvius’ destruction of Pompeii, which at its prime was coastal. We made our approach to Sorrento, where we would get a unique view of the peninsula as we drove the coastal highway. But an accident cut that plan short and we were detoured to backroads. And this was proof in the adage, take the road less traveled. I’m sure the drive down and through Sorrento is absolutely stunning, but we got to explore parts we would’ve never known. We got exclusive peeks at life in these small coastal villages and how beautifully serene it was. How simple life is high up and this far out form the hustle.
We made it to Positano, where we were given time to explore this coastal town by foot. As most small village, its lined with shops, has a central church, and many great places to eat. Its easy to get lost and lose time just exploring here, as life seems so much simpler when there are far less choices. We made it down to the beach, which is covered in dark rocky “sand” and the sea lined with boats. It really is a picturesque location that postcards are made of. After exploring we made our way to La Tagliata, a restaurant built on a cliff where mama cooks in the kitchen and we eat food served family style, with unlimitless wine and a shot of limoncello after our desserts (yes, plural).
After a delicious, hearty lunch and a sleepy ride back to the “mainland” we made it to Pompeii, where we had a guided tour of this city frozen in time. Its quite an experience to first hand hear these stories, and see the monster Vesuvius looming behind us. The city of Naples is still plagued by earthquakes, and Vesuvius remains a dormant but active volcano, which being there in person to see is both fascinating and terrifying. The stop provided to be a little much for the kids, as all they got to see were rocks everywhere, but our guide did a wonderful job of keeping them engaged and entertained. And luckily we had a tour short enough to keep them happy, but long enough to keep us engaged.
Cruising got us but an appetizer of all these places and its really made us long for so much more. To say that cruising here was enough is not even close to the truth. These individual countries need entire dedicated trips to explore them, because even though neighbors, they're truly unique stories on their own. So naturally whats our first thought, how do we get back here soon? Because we caught this Europe bug and we can't help but want more of it!
We also thought cost would make a drastic difference cruising, and I actually don’t think it would. Sure, we got a great deal for the 4 of us to have a floating home for 7 days - guaranteed food, sleep and transportation for a week of our trip. But there are still costs, like the excursions to explore and experience these magnificent places. And most of these are not just managable on foot, so you'd have the residual cost regardless of how we traveled. We also wanted to indulge in the delicacies each of these places had to offer. So there's another expense added to the trip - a very well worth it expense, but one that just made cruising a tad bit more expensive. The food we were given as part of the cruise didn't cut what we wanted to experience.
Cruising with kids is absolutely, positively, 100% the way to go. They had so much distraction on the ship once we got back, and the energy to spare, that dropping them off to play was not even a question. They delighted in so much that they did that we have no regrets in taking this kind of trip just for providing a true break from them from touring. The pouting leaving the ship should say it all!
But if you and yours have an adventurous spirit and taste buds to match, then stay off the boat. You'll get so much out of having a guide that knows and prides in their home country shuttling you around on YOUR schedule and being able to navigate these countries down your own path.
The experience was great and it definitely left us wanting more - to explore more courageously and take the road less traveled next time. But on the other hand, man, did we love these views ...