First "SOLO" International Travel
Call me crazy, but I had this inner voice telling me I needed to experience a solo trip Internationally. So, that's exactly what I did. I found a great cruise deal to a destination that has been on my bucket list ever since I can remember: Italy and the Mediterranean!! I used Norwegian Cruise Line on the EPIC ship in a SOLO Studio Cabin. Norwegian is one of the only cruise lines to offer a cabin without charging a double rate to singles. (Well done, NCL!) So that's that, and I'll share some of my budget-friendly, cost savings hacks at the end of the blog.
Two-day pre-cruise stay in Venice, Italy (a bucket list item!) was everything I imagined it would be. A water taxi shared with an Indian family from NYC brought me within 2 blocks of the Hotel Rialto, a 4-star hotel experience adjacent to the famous Rialto Bridge. The décor was padded, textured wallpaper and classic Venetian style furniture. There was a restaurant with terrace seating overlooking the bridge and Grand Canal and was also a hub for gondolas. The location was a short walk to St. Mark's Square, a bodega/market, and just steps to an awesome pizza window. The gondolas could be rented for 80 Euros (daytime) or 100 Euros (nighttime). There are no vehicles in Venice proper, only water taxis, boats, bicycles, scooters, and feet for getting around. Venice is a magical city that encouraged me to get lost in time and let my imagination run wild with what it would be like to live here in current times and centuries ago. Worthy of noting, I ran into the Indian family (Day 1 water taxi) at the little bodega on Day 2. It's a small world sometimes!
This day was special and I learned a lot about myself and a lot about patience. It started out as a normal day and I knew I would have some figuring out to do as I needed to navigate the water taxi system, the ItaliaRail (train) system, and make my way to the port terminal and board the ship - all on my own! The weather forecast was rain, and it had already started sprinkling as I left the hotel. Thankfully, I packed an umbrella (check.) Bought a Water Taxi ticket (check), made it to the right dock (check), boarded the right boat (check), got off the boat at the train station (check), I had already purchased my ticket online (check), and had to wait about 30 minutes for my train. I found the right train platform (check), got on the train and found my seat. Turned out the majority of the train passengers were cruisers heading to Trieste like me. It was a 2-hour train ride with about 8 stops along the way. The farther East we went, the heavier the rain fell. By the time we arrived at the Trieste train station, it was a complete deluge! I made my way inside the station and became overwhelmed by the amount of people in the tiny station. I tried to get ahead of the crowd to make it to the exit, but everyone was stopped. The rain was so heavy that no one was exiting the building. Within 10 minutes the street was completely flooded and water was coming inside the train station. I made it to an elevated sidewalk outside under an overhang (with my umbrella.) There were supposed to busses to get to the ship, but they couldn't get to us due to the flooding. The fire department closed the roads and I felt stranded on an island. Several people tried to wade through the streets to seek out taxi cabs and the water was up to their shins and knees - dragging their luggage through the water. At first, I thought it was a funny situation but it became fairly dramatic in a hurry. There was a partial roof collapse and then lightening came. Holy **** - this became a serious situation in a hurry. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a taxi a block away dropping off. I went as fast as I could (carrying my luggage to try to keep it dry), and begged the taxi driver to take me to the ship. He did, and I breathed a sigh of relief. But then....
When I arrived at the ship the flooding was also an issue there. I saw hundreds of suitcases sitting in standing flood water. I knew I wasn't setting my bag down (did I mention my suitcase was soft-sided?) I decided to keep it with me through the embarkation process. We were ushered inside the building and were divided into which level of the ship our stateroom was on. Mine was the 15th floor, so I was told to head upstairs. No elevator, soaking wet, dragging my luggage - up I went 4 flights. I got checked in and was told due to emergency response to the storm, the cruiseline had stopped boarding. My board time was 1pm and it was already 1:30pm. We were told to hang out in the next room, which turned out to be a very large conference center which had about 200 chairs set up (for 4,000+ passengers.) All I could see was lots of wet people crammed into a small space. I saw an empty chair (being solo has it's perks) and made myself comfy amongst some lovely people from England. We sat and waited, and waited, and waited some more. The cruise line announced that during the storm the rear of the ship broke off from the dock. They said they had been loading people, luggage, and supplies and most of it ended up in the water. So, quickly it became a safety issue with staff and passengers being in the water. Remember the patience I mentioned? Yes, that! I made it onboard the ship and to my stateroom at 8:15 pm. Luckily, my luggage was only wet on the outer part of the top, so I was able to hang those things up in my room. Many others lost their entire belongings and had sopping wet clothes when their luggage finally arrive.
Norwegian did well within the scope of safety and recovery of a bad scene. They were bringing sandwiches off the ship, had coffee and water available, and also provided financial compensation to every passenger. Those with luggage damages/loss were compensated heavily, and the ship did free laundry for the first 4 days of the cruise.
Long story, and all that to say this: Dear Travelers, pack your patience and know that it's not always about you and your expectations. Be kind, go with the flow, remain flexible, and accept that things will change (good and bad.) Also, learn to recognize when things are out of anyone's control and accept that sometimes we all need to work together whether we like it or not.
That's it for this day. This long, hot, wet day. Remembering that I was in Italy and going to "see the world" kept my spirits up!
Here's pictures of my SOLO cabin onboard the EPIC!
Port of Call: DUBROVNIK, CROATIA
The old town is an area that is a walled city (walls to help protect the town from war/invasion.) We did a small group walking tour of the old town, and then rode on a motorized tuk-tuk to the mountain top above the old town. Hindsight: this was one of my favorite excursions. I highly recommend visiting Croatia. It's beautiful and the people very friendly to tourists. Here are some of my favorite shots. Note: we got caught in a rainstorm! haha
After an over-night in Croatia, we departed mid-morning and had the remaining day, plus the next day, "at sea." I had a Spa Pass, and used this time to soak up the sun on the ship and rest up from travel and life in general. I met some people, ate lots of good food, and enjoyed the live music and games onboard the ship. Some special events that kept me occupied were going through the Straight of Messina and seeing a live volcano!
The Straight of Messina is the small waterway that passes between the tip of the boot (if you look at Italy on a map), and the little island of Sicily, Italy. We went through there with a huge cruise ship! Photos below.
Soon after the Straight of Messina, the Captain announced we would pass alongside an active volcano. I went to the open deck and it was also at sunset when we passed within a few hundred feet of the Stromboli Volcano. Note: this was also a highlight of the trip! Photos below. As we passed by, we saw clouds hovering over the volcano, which turned out to FROM the volcano. There was a small village at the base on one side, then as we passed by, we saw lava flowing on the opposite side of the volcano. I can't imagine living right there, but it seems to be okay with the people!! It was fascinating to be close to an erupting volcano!
Port of Call: NAPLES (NAPOLI)
Eager to get off the ship after 2 days at sea, I booked an excursion to see the Amalfi Coast and tour the ruins of Pompeii. We boarded the bus and was quickly seeing the scenic Italian Riviera. We passed by Mount Vesuvius and on to Positano and Amalfi along the scenic by-way. I recommend seeing the Amalfi area, but suggest driving yourself in a small, compact vehicle or motorbike. The roads are very narrow and curvy which made riding on a full-size bus one heck of a white-knuckle ride. There were few guardrails and many times it was a sheer cliff side going straight down to the water. This area is a favorite of tourists and A-listers. The hotels and restaurants are built on top of each other, all cliff-side.
As for the afternoon at Pompeii, it was an interesting adventure. Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD and covered the city of Pompeii with hot ash killing all but a couple inhabitants. The ash basically preserved the bones of the people. The place gave me the willies and after seeing bones on display, I had seen all I cared to see. I met a fellow cruiser who had also had enough and we decided to head over to the coffee shop and wait there for the group. Little did we realize there were multiple entrances. So following the exit signs took us to a different part of Pompeii than where we were supposed to meet. Uh-oh. I knew Pompeii was enclosed, and logic told me that if we walk the perimeter, we would eventually find the right entrance to meet the group. Following guidance from some locals, we headed to the right. We walked. And walked. It was hot. And walked some more. We stopped for water, then walked more. My new friend and I were skeptical about our whereabouts, but we persevered. And logic paid off - eventually - and we found the right entrance and waited a whole 2 minutes for the group to come out. We walked further outside Pompeii than we would have if we stayed with the group. But, I made a new friend, a soul-sister! And I wouldn't trade that day for anything. My new friend is Jutta Agpawa from California (by way of Berlin, Germany (native) and Hawaii.) Not to shame, but to boast - my friend is 82 years young and traveling with her two adult daughters. Holy moly does this woman ROAR! You know, you meet people you need to meet at the time you need to meet them!
Mt Vesuvius has erupted within the last 100 years, and approximately 3 million people live near enough to be affected should there be an eruption now. In the photos below, the lines on the coastline are beach umbrellas lined up for tourists. There are terraced gardens, olive and lemon trees.
Port of Call: Civitavecchia (ROME)
Rome! My most anticipated excursion was the Ultimate Rome Tour. which required a 2 hour bus ride from the ship to the city. The highlight was visiting Vatican City, Sistine Chapel, the Hall of Maps, and Saint Peter's Basilica. Surprisingly, photography was allowed in many areas. I didn't do my homework before visiting, and I still don't know much about everything I saw. There was a brief moment of panic when I realized I had been left behind from my group. (EEK!) Thankfully, I found another group from the Norwegian Epic and tagged along with them until I was re-united.
In the photos, the outside courtyard has seating for the public during Mass. Also, the Pope's balcony is shown - this is where he comes out and waves on Sundays and offers a short sermon, prayer, and blessing. While inside the Basilica, there were several areas of Mass taking place. It was incredible to witness this place in person. There are no words to describe it.
The walking tour also went to Trevi Fountain (yes, I tossed in my coins.) We saw the Pantheon (Roman Temple), and the Colosseum where the Roman Forum was held and amphitheater for gladiators and "public spectacles" during medieval times. It's made of travertine limestone and is still fairly well standing. It's in the heart of the city and is odd to see the old remnants sticking out among skyscrapers, etc. We had a delicious group lunch (I had gnocchi and bruschetta with olives.)
To continue the Hale tradition, I had a second encounter of the trip with someone I had met days prior on the ship watching the volcano erupt. In the middle of Rome, I ran into him just outside of a restaurant. He was exploring Rome by himself, on his own, and I was on a group tour. Of all the thousands of people in Rome, I saw volcano guy. (ha!)
Port of Call: Pisa/Florence (Livorno)
The stop over at Livorno was an overnight, allowing longer for excursions. I chose to see the Pisa Tower and town on Day 1, then on Day 2, I canceled out the excursion to Florence to stay on the ship rest by the pool. With that, I missed out on seeing Florence (boo.) After seeing the leaning tower, we moved on to a vineyard on the foothills of the Alps, and outskirts of Tuscany for a wine tasting/food pairing. This was my favorite excursion! We toured the vineyards, accompanied by the farm dogs, before settling in for a lovely wine and food event. There were 4 kinds of wine in unlimited supply. Our first course was fresh bread and olive oil, then house-made pasta bolognese (chef's kiss), then a salad, and cheesecake for dessert. The vineyard folks sent a few bottles of wine on the bus to enjoy. The tour guide played Italian-themed music for us, and if you can picture an entire bus load of wine-drunk, middle-aged people from multiple nations singing, "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's Amore!" Music really can bring people together. (ha!) And, that's why I needed a pool day the day after. Wine hurts sometimes.
Port of Call: Cannes, France
Just a brief outing in Cannes for this gal. We explored a small village and an olive farm. The biggest take-away is the olive crop was a bust for 2023 and the farmers advised to snatch up your olive oil supply ahead of the price increases that are coming. Not many photos from this excursion. The village was small, and reminded me of small town life, but smaller than what we're used to in the States.
Cannes is a port that requires the large cruise ships to shuttle guests from the anchor spot to the dock, since laws or provisions restrict the large ships from docking. The video shows the arrival of the shuttle (tender) along side the Epic.
Port of Call: Barcelona, Spain
Our ship stayed in Barcelona for two days, allowing for longer excursions into the city. Taxi cabs were readily available and the port was very close to the bustling city. I signed up for a Gourmet Gastro-cultural experience. We were taken to a local farm-to-table type restaurant where we learned many methods to preserving the local produce (think lemons, limes, fish, olives, etc.) We also were escorted to a local market where we got to experience all the freshness of the region. Seafood, produce (think Roma tomatoes fresh off the vine) and lemons at every booth, vendors allowing samples of cheeses and cured meats satisfied my senses for the time being. Once arriving back at the restaurant, we were treated to a 4-course tasting menu paired with local wines. Fresh tomato and bruschetta, olive oil, salt, cured fish, risotto with aubergine (eggplant) and cured lemon, whipped yogurt with berries and cocoa nibs. May not sound appetizing to some, but so delicioso! Barcelona is known for its beautiful fountains, but unfortunately they were turned off due to drought conditions.
Last stop - Marseille, France
The cruise finished up in Marseille, France. I stayed over one night after the cruise, but admit I didn't explore too much in the city. My overnight was near the airport which was a good 30 minutes outside of town. I spent my last day relaxing by the pool in the 90-degree heat.
Our ship had a unique itinerary as we ended in Marseille so the Epic could be used as a floating hotel for the Rugby Football League's playoffs. It was pretty neat to see the overnight changes to the ship in support of the Football playoffs.
Miscellaneous - onboard
The Epic was an older ship, but still stunning in all her glory. This was a great way to explore Europe while leaving most of the planning/driving to the professionals. The trip allowed for rest, great food, dancing, friendship, laughter, adventure, exploration, and history lessons. The Epic had a really nice spa area which I fully took advantage of.
Travel - wisdom
The travel tips learned may or may not be beneficial to anyone, but here's what I learned on this adventure. Many people advised of pick-pocket experiences. I invested in a money belt that I wore almost every day under my shirt/dress. I kept a small amount of money in my tiny over-the-shoulder purse with my phone, drivers license, and cruise ID card. It was a purse that could not be cut off, zipper protected, and was RFID protected. One lady put her purse on the back of her chair at a restaurant during lunch and it got gone. None of us saw it happen. Another story was going around about someone using their phone to take pictures and a bicyclist snagged it out of her hands as he rode by. Thankfully, she had it tethered to her upper body. Always be aware of your surroundings, even in a group. Notice people that watch you. Don't talk on your phone or be distracted in heavily crowded areas. I made it without incident, but things can happen at a moment's notice, so pay attention. People target tourists, so try to blend in when possible.
US Customs does not allow any MEAT or meat products to come through. I bought several pounds of dried Italian meat to share with friends, but instead had it taken at customs.
In Customs, if you do not have the Global Entry Pass, you can download an APP to help expedite the process. This works only if you are coming through an approved Customs airport that supports the APP. It's called MPC (Mobile Passport Control) and it has to be filled out prior to you getting in line for Customs. You get your own short line and a dedicated Customs Officer versus waiting in a long line and sharing 3 or 4 Officers. I highly recommend it! You can google MPC and read up ahead of your next International trip (did I mention it's free?) I also recommend getting TSA Pre-Check for domestic travel in the US. Click HERE.
I mentioned that I would share travel hacks for discounted travel, and here's what I did. I'm signed up for emails, discounts, and announcements from Norwegian. I knew Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL.com) offered solo cabins, so I went to their website and in the filters, I selected one passenger, Mediterranean Cruise, and then sorted lowest price to highest price. The only other requirement was that I see Venice and several other cities in Italy. Randomly, this cruise was priced significantly lower due to the ship needing to be in Marseille for the Rugby games. Norwegian was offering 50% off ($1,600 marked down to $800), plus a Cruise First discount of $150, they matched my deposit, plus I got 50% off my airfare for booking through Norwegian. The Solo Studio Cabins are priced for 1 person as well. It seemed like things were going in my favor, and I took advantage. My ship package included Unlimited Open Bar, 1 Specialty Meal, an Internet Package, and a $50 per port shore excursion credit. With such a low cruise fare, I was able to add all the excursions, and a spa pass, and I still came in under budget. The extra 2 nights in Venice was about $400 (lodging, taxi, train, and food), and my BoA Rewards Points covered my last night in Marseille. The cruise line compensated all passengers for the Day 1 delay getting on the ship, plus there was a partial reimbursement for an altered excursion. I earned 3 loyalty points for each night of this trip which bumped me up in status (ha!); which will benefit me when I cruise with NCL again. I really can't recommend Norwegian Cruise Line enough! The downside included having to wait until 60 days prior to sailing to get my flight information, and not having the opportunity to adjust any flights. I did upgrade my seats on the long-haul flights (@ 8.0 hours), but some said they couldn't due to the lateness and a full airplane. That's it for the wisdom, but I think it was more luck than anything. Being in the right place at the right time! And, I normally take my big camera on trips, but this time I did not. Most photos and videos are taken with my iPhone. (Sorry Nikon!)
Until next time - and yes, the next time is already booked! See ya down under!