Small cruise ships may mean a larger budget, but they offer more a intimate experience and more personalized care compared to other ships that are like floating cities.
Photography by the authors
Cruise lines sell themselves as ideal ways to explore cities especially coastal ones. Agreed. As easy ways, they say, to check out into a country itself. Cool! They are perfect ways to cut down the cost of travel. Correct, up to a point. And they are interesting ways to celebrate a wedding or a graduation — or even a major birthday. And so life moves on as someone in the Anderson family hits a milestone.
The question becomes do you choose an entry-level cruise that may disenchant family members who have never cruised before (and perhaps never will again), or do you book with a small ship like of Silversea Cruises, a top-of-the-line company that will have family members coming back — but one whose expense may blow the birthday budget.
Answer: It’s inheritance! You surrender the budget.
The seven-day Silversea cruise from Rome to Venice seems ideal. Gratuities, alcohol in your suite, and wine at meals all included. No charge for specialty coffees; drinks at the Captain’s Reception; water bottles on shore excursions or detergents in the self-service laundry — all of which many cruise lines have started hitting passengers for.
Plus, the courteous service appears more genuine than what many cruise lines offer (genuine perhaps because it doesn’t have cruise serving staff hanging around awkwardly on the last day of a cruise as they try to have their faces remembered while the passenger tries to apportion tips to relevant crew). Plus, the Silversea style, which is also very well done at Azamara Cruises: your suite has a butler dressed in morning dress making you feel you are traveling with Masterpiece Theatre.
Perfect? Problems? Well, Rome can be a pain in the neck for cruise passengers. It doesn’t have the convenience, say, of Amsterdam. Transportation between airport, train station and the port is tedious and expensive. And Venice is not much better.
But Rome and Venice are great cities for first timers who can come in early spring or late fall to minimize crowds. And there are websites like our friends’ Europe for Visitors that try to make it easier between airport and seaport for travelers who don’t like wasting money. Furthermore, how could you see so much, visit so many places, and get so many experiences so inexpensively if not on a cruise. No wonder cruising is the one travel experience that is booming despite the recession.
Parts of it are close enough that passengers can cover the Spanish Steps, the Fountain of Trevi, the Piazza Navona and the Pantheon — and get a quick look at the Forum and the Coliseum in a half day and still leave time later for the Vatican Museum (where photographers discover to their delight the museum actually allows some photography).
The cost of shore excursions on upscale cruises can startle those passengers who are not normally upscale tourists. All-day helicopter trips, for example, costing more than the cruise itself are not usually how most would visit the Amalfi Coast, and even spending $169 on a shore excursion to reach the island of Capri from the port of Sorrento brings up a common question: how does the price of a self-arranged shore visit compare with what the ship provides?
It’s about one-third of the cost, but this may be an unfair comparison. In this specific port the shore excursion desk makes it clear that passengers on the ship’s excursion will still have to compete with the general public for passage on the fast boat from Sorrento to Capri and for bus space from Capri Marina to the top of Anacapri where most want to go. Plus, public transportation there runs so often with times so well documented (even in slaphappy Italy) that the problem do-it-yourselfers run into, namely risking losing the last transport back to the port and thus the ship’s sailing, is not likely.
A fair argument might be that although ships’ shore excursions can be replicated for cheaper, the reality is that the cost of buying through the ship is a small component of the total bill and surely simplifies the passenger’s life.
This is another port easily visited on your own — although if you want to go up Mt. Etna or take Sicilian cooking lessons a Silversea shore excursion would be the way to go. The ship provides a shuttle bus that takes passengers from the port to the magnificent, but touristy, town in a mere 20 minutes.
Maps provided by the ship show what is worth visiting along the main street, Corso Umberto I, and what is worth buying: lace, linen and ceramics; cannoli; local limocello liqueur; and marzipan. This town is a delightful place to stretch your legs, look down on the ocean and study those apparently care-free people who live here.
It’s also a place to see how small-town Italian churches seek to be relevant and contemporary. The interior of one in Taormina has memorials to people and situations that surely seem recent.
How to Read a Church
Onboard, we have the advantage of a lecturer: John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, a Canadian professor of theology and culture at Regent College in Vancouver. His first lecture on turned out to be invaluable on a cruise that would be visiting so many Catholic cities.
For one of the photographs of the church’s interior, he comments: “The art you feature here seems rather typical of a church that has been enjoying an ongoing congregational life versus one that is now merely a museum of previous faith. So 19th century and 20th century saints are showing up here, as well as ones from further back in church history: they are added as the history of the congregation continues.”
Small ships face what could be one dilemma, not being big enough to offer Las Vegas-style shows as entertainment. Passengers should expect to enjoy undersized shows of unbelievable quality and lectures of fascinating interest.
However, small chic ships are also more efficient when it comes to shore excursions. They don’t need so many busses; their passengers don’t come off the ship like several Boeing 747s unloading at the same time. The shore excursion we bought was in Kotor, Montenegro.
The shore excursion offers the dual experiences of taking a coach to the mountain village of Njegusi — birthplace of the important Slav poet and political leader, Petar Petrovic-Njegros — and then visiting the former capital Cetinje and its museum.
The shore excursion ends with a tour of Kotor, the finale being the city’s famous Maritime Museum. It isn’t much of a finale: the museum closed at 3 p.m. even though it knew the shore excursion’s price included entry and there were still ships in town. This disorganization is not uncommon in countries that, lacking a tourism infrastructure, are a bit cavalier about their visitors.
In comparison, a mere 40 miles to the north, is delightful Dubrovnik, an older city so well organized that visitors find it a pleasure. The Old Town is an easy walk, guide books and maps are plentiful, the museums and churches are open and interesting, restaurants are everywhere with fairly reasonable prices. We photograph some interesting faces and we find an ancient carving of a doctor but that’s a separate story for our next article…
What can be said about Venice that hasn’t been said before? What photograph taken is not a cliché? It’s full of noisy tourists with sharp elbows and large groups with loud guides whose voices compete with others’ and drown all out.
Yet it magical, mystical Venice with its unique history, romantic stories, colorful places, fascinating corners and easy places to walk (unless you are trying to drag your wheeled luggage over its millions of cobbles and of small bridges).
It’s the perfect Silversea memory of a Mediterranean cruise. And a fine finale to a perfect family birthday outing.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called