It’s 12:30pm Venice time. Our taxi pulls up on the dock beside the super liner Celebrity Constellation (http://www.celebritycruises.com). We will be soon joining our Pied Piper group (http://www.piedpipertravel.com/gaygroupcruises/) for an eleven day voyage, leaving Venice, cruising along the Dalmatian Coast and ending in Rome.
Seasickness already? Or is it just immense excitement and anticipation making our stomachs rock and roll?
Finding The Group
Check-in was a breeze and with souvenir pics taken, we were officially one of the 2000 passengers stowed on board. Having located our stateroom, unpacked and met our cabin steward we were up to deck five for lunch. Dennis Kirby, our Pied Piper cruise coordinator, welcomed us and reminded us about the evening’s welcome aboard party which would provide the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with others from the Pied Piper group. The open bar made a good start to the party and in no time we were chatting with guys from Canada, USA, Australia, UK and Spain. Our dinner seating at 8:45pm allowed plenty of time for introductions.
Pied Piper organises a group of tables for dinner each night but there are also two speciality, fine dining restaurants on board, Ocean Liners and Tuscan Grill. If you feel like a change of scene or a more intimate dining experience during the cruise, these are good options (advance bookings and additional charges apply).
First Sailing Day
The sail away from the magical city of Venice with a cocktail in hand was a stunning start to our European cruise. The Celebrity Constellation, affectionally known as ‘Conny’, eased herself away from the port to make her way slowly down Venice’s famous Grand Canal. From the bow of the ship we could see commuter ferries and other sea going vessels in the canal, all completely dwarfed by this dominant dame of the seas. Standing on top of a ship of this magnitude making its way through this ancient and illustrious waterway was truly amazing.
Sailing past renowned St Marco Square we could almost reach out and touch the people standing on the Bridge of Sighs, all poised with long lenses and selfie sticks to capture that memorable Venetian moment.
Our first port of call was Koper, Slovenia. A small town with charming narrow streets, quaint shops and houses opening onto communal squares. The food market was serving up regional delicacies like stuffed peppers in a rich tomato sauce and delicious spiced cakes.
For us, the highlight of Koper was a bike tour. We rode around the waterfront, through vineyards to a high vantage point with magnificent views over the coast and the city of Koper. A welcome rush of cool air buffeted us as we cycled through a long, dark, narrow mountain tunnel which led to an even more spectacular coastline and beaches. This wonderful tour finished with a lunch of traditional Slovenian produce and local wine. The fresh fish, calamari, locally produced olives, cheeses and cured meats were simply delicious and, after our bike ride, we had plenty of room for refuelling.
Back on board ‘Conny’ we prepared ourselves for our first formal dinner. Some guys dressed in suits, but we felt quite comfortable in open-necked, long-sleeved shirts, sports jackets and more formal trousers. Some of the Pied Piper group had been to see the Hollywood Spectacular Show before dinner and others found socialising around the Martini Bar more to their liking.
By 7:00am we had docked in the port of Ravenna, Italy. Ravenna is on the tourist map for one main reason, it’s ancient churches, decorated with marvellous Byzantine mosaics from the 5th and 6th century. If you enjoy seeing old churches you will love and appreciate Ravenna. The old town itself is perfect for wandering and discovering and we found a great place in the main square for coffee, Sweet Italian treats and used some time to catch up on our emails using Ravenna Town’s free wifi. Back on board we lazed around the pool with a few of the guys from Pied Piper listening to DJ Mitch. Later our sumptuous four course dinner gave us time to discuss the day’s adventures.
Sailing further down the Dalmatian Coast we arrived at Split in Croatia. Whether you’re walking the promenade that offers spectacular views of the sea and harbour or marvelling at the 4th century Diocletian Palace (http://www.diocletianspalace.org) in the old town, Split is a truly spectacular sea port.
Our ship berthed just a few hundred metres from the centre of town and we can highly recommend Split Vision Sightseeing, Hop On Hop Off bus tour for 17€ per person (http://www2.visitsplitcroatia.com) which was waiting on the dock to take passengers around the city. The tour included English speaking guides, an incredible one hour walking tour of Diocletian Palace as well as a drive around the city and coastline.
We saw some of Split’s beaches and there is a nude beach just before Zvoncac Public Park. In early September the weather was perfect for swimming with the temperature around 30 degrees. At the end of Zvoncac Park is Bene Beach. This is a blue flag beach with cafes and restaurants nearby. Within walking distance of the port of Split is Bacvic Beach. Here the water was clean, calm and shallow and we found sun beds and umbrellas to hire for 10€. Find more beach information for Split here: (http://www.onlycroatia.com/beaches-croatia.php)
Back at the palace, which looks more like an ancient fort, there are thousands of tourists. Here we heard a group of baritone singers whose voices were deep and mellow resonating around the ancient walls. See our short video by tapping on the link below:
We had a wonderful hour’s guided walk around the old city and we were pleased to see that today people are still living and working within the sanctuary of this historic structure.
Dubrovnik was one of the ports we were most looking forward to experiencing and it did not disappoint. We made sure we were up early at around 6am to see the stunning, busy harbour as we sailed in just after dawn.
A splendid sight with hundreds of water craft hugging the harbour shores. Pied Piper had no suggested tour so it was a day to be on our own. Our PP coordinator Dennis had been to Dubrovnik before and was very happy to lead a leisurely stroll though the old town and around the city walls.
Dubrovnik was fascinating and we have written a separate story on Walking the Wall in Dubrovnik which covers our day in this magnificent city. (http://gaymenonholiday.com/2015/09/walking-the-wall-in-dubrovnik/)
Spectacular and well preserved 12th century Kotor, Montenegro is small but with plenty to offer.
The old town is a maze of narrow streets and squares with colourful cafes and bars brimming with people during the height of the summer months.
The Hop On Hop Off bus service took us outside the town along the sheer, picturesque coast with its tight grip on the bay all the way around to the small Roman Mosaic Museum.
We also saw the island of Gospa Od Skrpjela that was created entirely by local seamen who, over the centuries, brought stones on their ships to build the island.
The sail out through the fiords of Kotor, standing on the helicopter-pad at the very front of the ship, champagne in hand with our Pied Piper group, was a wonderful way to say our goodbyes to this striking harbour city.
A Day At Sea
Having so far visited a port each day of the cruise we were quite glad for a day at sea as we sailed to the island of Malta. Sea days give you the opportunity to fully explore the ship, visit the coffee shop for a catch up with new Pied Piper friends and use the pool, gym and spa. Many activities are organised on board during a sea day. You might like a lecture on diamonds and gem stones, maybe a little purchase at the art auction or shopping for a new camera at bargain duty free prices (as we did). Also it was the second formal dinner night so Pied Piper took the opportunity to take a group photo with everyone looking their shiny best.
Next morning we sailed into Valletta, the capital of Malta. Having only visited Malta several weeks before we had arranged a car and a driver to take us and a couple of friends around the island.
Firstly, we headed off to the Mdina, a fortified medieval city in the centre of the island.
On the way we visited the President’s gardens and residence.
Our driver then took us back to the popular area of Spinola Bay to have lunch at a waterfront restaurant.
After swimming in the crystal clear waters of the bay we set off to Valletta to explore the World Heritage listed city.
If you happen to be in Valletta at 12 noon do not miss the saluting battery cannon fire.
(See our two stories on Malta: http://gaymenonholiday.com/2015/08/tips-tales-gay-friendly-malta/ and http://gaymenonholiday.com/2015/08/juliani-luxury/)
Others in our group took the round island Hop On Hop Off bus which they were very disappointed with while others bused and boated to the Blue Grotto. The Grotto is an outstanding attraction but a very long tour and completely overcrowded when you finally arrive.
Leaving Malta we were keen to have a taste of Sicily. When we arrived in Catania we were disappointed to say the least, as the city was crowded, dirty and full of graffiti. Undeterred, we found the bus station and caught the local bus for 8€ return to the gorgeous small mountain town of Taormina which has been attracting tourists for hundreds of years and with good reason.
The Greek Amphitheatre is the top attraction and it is breathtaking. Don’t be put off by the 10€ entry fee as it is absolutely worth it and this site is a well preserved piece of ancient civilisation with panoramic city views. After we wandered down the cobbled streets, easing our way through the thronging masses of tourists, we found an ideal, off-the-beaten-track place for lunch in a side street with views over ancient ruins. The spaghetti with sea food was outstanding and the dry Italian white wine was a perfect match. Mt Etna, Europe’s tallest and most active volcano, is the other major tourist attraction of the area.
Our last stop before Rome was Naples. On good advice we decided not to go into Naples but instead we took the ferry to the Isle of Capri, something we have always wanted to do. Arriving at Capri’s marina is a little daunting because of the number of tourists. With the lines for the famous funicular snaking along the street, we decided to take a mini bus around the hairpin bends to Anacapri, the highest part of the island. To get the best views we then rode the chair lift to the summit. After admiring the awe-inspiring views we returned to have pizza and wine at Ristorante Barbarossa (http://www.ristorantebarbarossa.com), a local institution of Anacapri.
Capri is full of history and stunning scenery and, on this perfect summer’s day, the time taken out to make this visit across the water was the perfect way to spend our day in port. Departing Naples at 6:30pm we knew our Dalmatian adventure was soon coming to an end. One last show in the Celebrity Show Time Lounge, our last dinner with our Pied Piper friends, last drinks at the Martini Bar and our last chance to book another Pied Piper Cruise at on board discount rates.
Bags packed we had breakfast and vacated our stateroom around 8:30am as requested. Rome is about 90 minutes from the port of Civitavecchia. We took the train into Roma Termini. See our Tips and Tales for Rome (http://gaymenonholiday.com/2015/11/tips-tales-rome/)
Yes, we did make another booking, Buenos Aires to Rio for Carnivale and we can’t wait.