Cruise Line Shore Excursions – to book or not to book, that is the question?!!
Shore excursions are a major income generator for cruise lines and they tend to look expensive on the face of it. I try to gauge value for money by breaking it down to an hourly rate and then considering the level of activity included within the excursion – you would expect to pay more to snorkel or dive than you would to simply sit on a coach!
The threat of not getting back to the ship before departure, unless you book a cruise line excursion, is the oft dangled carrot which sways people to book, but there are other shore excursion companies around who offer similar guarantees, as well as discounts for booking excursion packages. Undoubtedly, you can also do the great majority of shore excursions under your own steam, especially in Mediterranean ports.
During our recent Queen Victoria cruise, we decided to do a mixture of shore excursions – 2 purchased through Cunard and the rest by ourselves. So this is what we got up to in:
The port for Northern Italy and beautiful Tuscany, as increasingly is La Spezia (between Genoa and Pisa and better placed for shorter excursions to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cinque Terre – a collection of five coastal villages perched on the coastline).
From Livorno excursions include Florence (71 miles and 1.5 hrs away by coach) and Pisa (12 miles, approx. 40 minutes by coach), as well as the walled city of Luca. Cunard offer different combinations of these towns as well as different depths of experience (including in these towns and many other places, what is basically and handily a transfer to the town and then free time to do ‘your own thing’). It is also possible to book excursions away from the usual sites, eg: a Chianti tasting trip to the vineyards producing the famed Sangiovese grape.
Although it is only 20 minutes by train from Livorno to Pisa (Livorno to Florence is 1 hr 40 minutes), we decided to take the ‘Pisa Excursion’ booked through Cunard. The logistics of getting guests off the ship and onto their appropriate coaches runs smoothly and the tour companies that Cunard use, in my experience, provide very knowledgeable and interesting guides, all of whom speak good English. On the way to Pisa we were told that Pisa used to be a port to rival Genoa and Venice – but the sea is now 6 miles away and much of the hotel industry along the coast is still under regeneration.
The city centre of Pisa and its tourist attractions are not found in the same place and the Piazza dei Miracoli (Meadow of Miracles), where all the sights are is in a pedestrianised area, about 20 minutes’ walk from the coach park and northwest of the city centre. The name “Miracle Square” or “meadow of miracles” was coined by writer Gabriele d’Annunzio in 1910. The square is a UNESCO site and is surrounded by walls. As you enter you are met with an open green lawn and four monumental, marble white structures - the Campo Santo Monumentale (monumental cemetery), the Bell Tower of Pisa, Pisa Baptistery and the Pisa Cathedral (Duomo).
Also in the square are the Cathedral Museum and the Ospedale Nuovo di Santo Spirito which houses the Sinopias Museum. The iconic Leaning Tower is actually the bell tower of the cathedral – who hasn’t tried to prop it up, take a selfie with it on their head or exaggerate the lean with a camera angle? The foundations of the Tower began to subside when the builders reached the fourth storey, and each year it was said to lean a little more. A band placed around the tower prevented further lean, and the tower is now in the same condition as it was in 1810.
It is free to go in the Cathedral, but you need to get a timed ticket from the kiosk close to the Campo Santo (a bit like a theme park fast pass). It is possible to pay separately to go inside the Leaning Tower, the Baptistry and Campo Santo, although tickets are restricted to a certain number per day, but we decided not to. We left the ship at 9am, so by the time we had looked round the Field of Miracles, it was getting quite busy (at least 2 other ships in port that day) so we adjourned into the side streets of Pisa for a spot of souvenir shopping and a coffee stop.
Our guide – David from Trumpy Tours - had offered to walk guests around the area on a complementary tour (even though the excursion was predominantly a DIY trip), but for those wanting to sightsee on their own, there was a café bar/souvenir shop made available to Cunard guests for a complementary comfort stop, coffee shop and gathering point for the walk back to the coach.
As this was a half day excursion, we went back to the ship for lunch (‘The Golden Lion’ pub) and then disembarked in the afternoon and went for a look round Livorno. It is not possible to walk round the port area of Livorno, so we took the continuous complementary (dependant on the fare code you booked under) shuttle bus. This is laid on by Cunard in ports where the port town is not easily accessible from the ship.
Livorno is an easy city to walk round to view the squares, statues and the architecture as well as the renaissance sea fortifications. There is also an area called New Venice – lots of canals, boats and bridges, but sadly a lot of graffiti as well. Certainly not the prettiest Tuscan city I have seen and not one I would rush back to visit.
We felt so lucky to be on Queen Victoria, a ship small enough to sail directly into Monaco itself and looking totally in keeping in such an iconic harbour! Many other (particularly larger) ships dock in Nice, Cannes or Villefranche and transport guests to Monaco. Conversely, Cunard offer excursions back to Nice (including the 3 mile train ride along the Promenade des Anglais), Cannes, Antibes & Villefranche or even along the Corniche roads, past Nice to St Paul de Venice.
Monaco is also one of the ports where Cunard offer small group and more intimate, exclusive private tours where bookings are taken for a vehicle (no more than 6 people) rather than on a per person rate.
Monte Carlo is a district of Monaco, just as Montmartre is a district of Paris. There are 4 main districts - La Condamine, Fontvielle, Monace-Ville & Monte Carlo.
We disembarked the ship on a damp day in Monaco and made our way up the Rock to Monaco-Ville, the old town settlement where the principality has its roots and the Prince’s Palace (Palais) of Monaco. We were aiming for the daily changing of the guard at 11.55 am, but got our timings a bit wrong and spent too long in the Musée Océanographique (Museum of Oceanography). This excellent aquarium (and more), built in the cliff face, was inaugurated in 1910 by Prince Albert I and Jacques Cousteau has been one of its curators.
However, changing of the guard had been temporarily suspended due to renovations, so in point of fact we had missed nothing and still got our chance to take in the views of this ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bangesque’ area (we expected to see the Child Catcher emerge at any moment!) and those of the Port Hercule and the rest of Monaco, below. The narrow cobbled streets of the old town were delightful to explore and if we only hadn’t had a big breakfast on the ship, would have coerced us into stopping for a plat du jour or a crepe.
We had a quick lunch at what must be one of the best Starbucks in the world (view wise), just under the Casino and overlooking the bay and followed it with a walk up the Fairmont Hairpin and past the black rubber skid marks made by the Formula 1 cars earlier in the year to the Casino itself. It is hard to not be impressed by the array of expensive cars parked outside and the architecture of the building is to be admired but it is difficult to gamble a la James Bond due to dress codes and admission times etc and the Café De Paris and Sun Casino are quite poor alternatives to both this and Las Vegas. In a similar highly decorated fin de siècle style and also designed by Charles Garnier is the luxury Hotel de Paris, situated on a different side of the square to the Casino. The hotel boasts ‘Le Louis XV’ restaurant run by chef Alain Ducasse. It has 3 Michelin stars and the gourmet menu (four half dishes selected by the chef, cheeses and dessert) costs €330 pp.
Monaco is an easy place to walk round, especially strolling past the moored yachts by the Monaco Yacht Club – a great place to find a bar and people watch these phenomenal yachts – complete with helipads, outdoor jacuzzis and draw bridge like electric operated gang planks. Needless to say drinks are expensive here, very much like in St Mark’s Square in Venice, you are paying for the location – but well worth it! The principality also has a ‘HOHO’ bus linking the port, the casino, other hotels, the station and the different gardens in the principality. A Bateau Bus plies across Port Hercule harbour (€2 each way) and the main station (for those coming in from Nice and the French Riviera direction) is quite central and set entirely underground.
Spain’s 3rd largest city, behind Madrid & Barcelona and the home of paella (made from chicken and rabbit rather than any fish or seafood) and Lladro pottery. I have to confess, that was all we knew about Valencia before the cruise and we had it down as perhaps the least exciting of our ports of call. Arriving to a beautiful clear blue sky (but then Valencia does boast 300 days of sunshine per year), our misconceptions were soon knocked out of us and it is now on our bucket list for a weekend city break in the future!!
We could have visited Requena and the Cava (sparkling wine) cellars, the Lladro factory or even Valencia’s beaches or even Albufera or San Jose, but we chose ‘Panoramic Valencia’, a half day excursion to the best parts of this intriguing city. The port is about 5km from the city itself. Our first stop was at the impressive City of Arts and Sciences (Ciudad de Artes y Ciencia), now dubbed one of the 12 Treasures of Spain. Built especially for leisure, this area is located in the old Turia river bed. It was designed by a local architect Santiago Calatrava and is a collection of 7 futuristic steel and glass buildings, set along a canal containing 13,500 square metres of water.
L'Hemisfèric - an IMAX Cinema, planetarium and laserium is the centrepiece of the City. The building is meant to resemble a giant eye, and has an approximate surface of 13,000 m². El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe is an interactive museum of science that resembles the skeleton of a whale. The building is 220 metres long, 80 metres wide and 55 metres high. El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia is an opera house and performing arts centre. L'Umbracle is an open structure enclosing a landscaped walk with plant species indigenous to Valencia (such as rockrose, lentisca, rosemary, lavender, honeysuckle, bougainvillea, and palm trees). Inside is The Walk of the Sculptures, an outdoor art gallery with sculptures by contemporary artists. The structure is built over a car park.
L'Oceanogràfic is the largest aquarium in Europe. Despite its magnificence and obvious value as a tourist attraction, the City has been much criticised for its cost and overspend.
It is a lovely area to walk around or simply sit and admire the architecture. There was also a temporary display of ‘The Sky Over Nine Columns’ by Heinz Mack – 9 symmetrical pillars reaching more than seven metres high and coated with 850,000 golden tiles, while we were there.
Back on the coach, we headed into the old town of Valencia; we drove round La Plaza de la Reina, past the coliseum-esqe bullring (one of the few still in use in Spain today), the central station and the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, the city’s central market.
We got off the bus close to the gothic styled Serrano Towers and headed into the square of Saint Mary's with Valencia Cathedral where the squares themselves are made of marble and there are plenty of pavement cafes and a sprinkling of souvenir shops. Narrow streets with wrought iron balconies abound in an area which is walkable, cyclable or even viewable by Segway. A glass of sangria, a few plates of tapas and a peep inside the Cathedral, would have gone down very well, had we had the time. We did go through the Towers to marvel at the Turia Gardens.
In 1957, the river that used to run along the route of the gardens repeatedly flooding the city of Valencia over the years, did so with devastating and terrible effect. Enough was enough. As a result the river was diverted to the south of the city, leaving a 9km long river bed which has been turned into one of the largest urban parks in Spain (it covers a larger area than central Park in New York). It includes extensive gardens and planted areas with fountains, recreational and sports areas, running and cycle tracks, a Gulliver themed children’s park and boating lake, including water sport activities at the City of Arts and Sciences part of the park, as well as cafés and bars. It is a venue for open air concerts and free leisure classes at the weekends, as well as linking most of the important sights of Valencia via 18 bridges.
On our way back to Queen Victoria we viewed the port area which had benefitted from regeneration as a result of Valencia hosting the 2007 America’s Cup.
We were in port overnight, which was great as so often you don’t get the chance to visit embarkation and disembarkation ports unless return flights are in the evening. We arrived into Barcelona in the early morning, to see the mist rising over Montjuic and had a whole day there! This meant guests could partake in evening shore excursions including different combinations of tapas tasting, supping sangria and flamenco dancing. Barcelona is a large port for cruise ships – up to 5 can dock there at any one time, including a small ship (Fred Olsen’s ‘Braemar’ whilst we were there) at the World Trade Centre. This compares to only 2 ships in Valencia.
Cunard’s out of city excursions included a transfer to Sitges on the Costa Brava,for independent sightseeing, a visit to the Freixenet Cava cellars, a trip to Tarragona (1.5 hrs by coach) or Montserrat by rail. They offered similar trips to those offered by the ‘HOHO’ buses as well as those just focusing, for example, on Gaudi’s works. Again, we decided to be independent travellers in Barcelona. We caught the port shuttle bus to the World Trade Centre (although we could have walked, as it wasn’t far to Terminal A where Queen Victoria was docked). This is by the Columbus Monument (Mirador de Colom) at Port Vell, which is at the southern end of Las Ramblas. This area was re integrated into the city as a part of the Olympic Games regeneration of the area in the early 1990s and now includes a large marina as well as Maremagnum – a shopping and entertainment centre, with lots of boardwalk style restaurants.
We walked to the Plaza de Catalunya (the main square in Barcelona), up Las Ramblas and via La Boqueria where we could have spent hours… Instead we spent the time waiting for the ‘HOHO buses’, the lines were so long!!!! A day pass is €28 pp and as Barcelona was incredibly busy we didn’t feel that we got good value for money. Next time we will try the extensive metro service, especially as we shall be coming in from the airport. The bus tour includes headphones and a good multilingual commentary, free wifi, a city map and discounts at selected shops and we went on the blue and red routes in an anticlockwise tour of Barcelona.
We passed Casa Batlló (Gaudi’s dragon inspired house) and Sagrada Familia, in the Eixample area of Barcelona and then had a brief stop at Parc Guell. Back on the bus, to the Nou Camp, past the University and main business district of Barcelona to Montjuic Hill, where there are lots of museums as well as the site of the 1992 Olympic games and the iconic 10m diving board that offered those fabulous views of the city. It is a large recreational space including lots of gardens spilling over the hillside, like the Jardins de Laribal, where we found a nice outdoor café with olive trees in the courtyard. Montjuic is reachable on foot, by cable car, funicular railway or the HOHO bus and well worth the effort. The route down offers great views out over the Cruise Terminals and we were soon back at the ship.
In retrospect our choice of shore excursions worked well. I did quite a bit of research before I actually set foot off the ship: