In October 2013, I took my family on a 12 night Mediterranean cruise. I am posting this review on Cruise Critic so others can benefit from what we learned on this trip. I've had several requests to post our story in a format that is a little easier to enjoy. So, I will post this review both on my blog and the Cruise Critic website. You can find the CC post here.
This is Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas. Which would be our home for 12 nights.
Just getting out of the gate is a story all on it's own...
Our journey to the Mediterranean began many years before our actual trip, and, by all rights, the trip nearly failed on many occasions. My wife and I are avid cruisers, having taken our first trip in 2004 on the Rhapsody of the Seas with Royal Caribbean. We have taken a cruise somewhere almost every year since. I firmly believe that cruising is the complete package when it comes to vacations. The world's greatest destinations come to me, and all I have to do to enjoy them is to get out of bed, all the while eating the finest cuisines, drinking the smoothest Scotch, viewing the finest art, and smiling with the perfect wife. Going to sleep in one continent and waking up in another is a privilege that I don't enjoy casually.
While enjoying our second Alaska cruise, which happened to be the Rhapsody again, my wife, Sarah, and I discussed our future cruising plans. We rather enjoyed cruising in the company of Sarah's grandparents, who are excellent travel partners, and I discussed taking a Galapagos trip with Papaw. Unfortunately, he went on to his reward before we could cruise again. So, Sarah and I decided that we had enjoyed 7 night cruises so much that we would really enjoy a longer cruise. But where to go? We found a lack of interesting cruises in the States that excited us, so we concluded that we simply had to commit to a Mediterranean experience. Essentially, our October 2013 cruise began in 2009, while skirting the edge of Hubbard Glacier. We just needed to put a plan together.
Sarah's Cruise Bible
Sarah is the consummate planner, who can't seem to go to Walmart without a trip planner, which is neatly bound into a binder, which becomes the Bible. If you're only going to Walmart, this is overkill. However, if you are going on a cruise, it is the most important thing, second only to your airline tickets. My ADD forbids me from obsessing about petty details such as points of contact for an excursion, or the dates of the cruise itself. I am truly blessed to have an obsessive planner in my life.
Well, my excessive planner started researching European cruises in 2009 and we began to make plans. We knew it was going to cost a fortune, and one of us would have to sell a kidney in order to make it work. (Fortunately, one of our three kids was a perfect match for a Russian mob boss, who paid us cash, no questions asked. Consequently, Annabelle will not be attending the cruise because she can't leave the closet, where she has lived quietly for several years now.) By 2010, we had a rough idea what we wanted from the trip, so we began making actual plans. In between, we went on a Disney cruise to Cabo, and a Carnival trip to Cozumel, and the Mayan ruins in Progresso. I will never, ever, sail with Carnival again, but that is a post for a different day.
We knew we wanted to visit France, Italy, and Greece, and I wanted to throw in someplace like Austria or Hungary, but I suppose the country actually has to connect to the Sea before you can cruise to it. Go figure! We also knew that there are only certain companies we are willing to cruise with, and Royal Caribbean is one of them. So, now we were down to actually selecting a ship and an itinerary. Only...we knew we couldn't afford such a trip unless we allowed plennnnnty of time to budget it into our vacation portfolio. We simply couldn't get the cruise companies to publish their itineraries 3 years in advance. I'll talk to the Captain about that when I get a chance. You can count on it!
In 2012, my wife was at a family reunion in Las Vegas and mentioned the cruise. Several of her family members gathered around and began a long discussion that turned into a planning session, which turned into an actual ship name and itinerary. Looks like we were going to have company on our 2013 vacation! In the end, we had a party of 15 which included Sarah's parents, sister and brother-in-law, and many of her brother-in-law's family.
Now we have a great ship and an equally incredible itinerary, which will make this trip unforgettable. How can you go wrong with Barcelona, Cannes, Florence, Naples, Rome, Athens, Turkey, and the Greek Isles? Talk about the ultimate in awesome ports, not to mention Europe and Asia, plus the coast of Africa off the port bow! This trip is gonna rock! Now we only have to pay for it...
Well, as one might rightly conclude, getting from Northern Idaho to Barcelona is not so simple unless you have a genie in your closet. And I'm fresh out of genies. Remember, we had to move our third child into the closet after that kidney donation? Kidding! Bad joke. Not true! We never actually had her in the closet, it's more like a bonus room in the attic.
Well, we began setting money aside for our airline tickets, as that was almost as much as our cruise tickets. Sarah spent countless hours planning and comparing, and she finally found what seemed to offer the best choice for our family of four. And the tickets were only about 1200.00 each. Not too bad for 18 hours of flying, right? I mean, that's less than a hundred dollars an hour. We knew once we bought those tickets, we were committed, and I mean totally committed, bottom dollar, sink or swim, ride 'em cowboy, Oregon or bust! Committed. We fully intended on making this trip. And the longer we waited to buy airline tickets, the more expensive it was going to be. So, we pulled the trigger. We were on our way! The trip was actually going to happen!
And then it happened. Of course, you saw it coming. I mean, after all, who builds this much suspense if nothing is going to happen, right? Well, I'm certain most of you will recognize the following word: sequestration.
I don't normally discuss my work, but at that time I was a federal employee when President Obama began talking about shutting down the government in his battle with the Republican's over his non-existing budget. I can still hear the words the President spoke when he said, "The American people need to experience pain..." We got notice that I was going to be furloughed just a few weeks after we bought the airline tickets. Tickets, by the way, that have to be used within one year of purchase, or they are forfeited. Initially, I was told that I would be furloughed for up to 25 days, which ultimately would result in about 40% drop in my income. That's a pretty tough hit, no matter what your income is, and I was about to find out just how tough it was going to be. We notified our family that there was no way we could afford the cruise with my pay cut so severely, and we pulled out of the trip. We decided we were just going to lose the money for the flights. There was no way around it.
It was so sad to tell the kids that we were cancelling the trip, and it really hit home when Sarah stopped researching because she couldn't bring herself to make plans for a trip that was not going to happen. We had already paid for a few tours, and we, after planning each port call carefully, even generously extended our tours to the family in order to bring the price down. And now we were pulling out, which was going to leave everyone else in a lurch.
Well, the American conservatives began to make phone calls and write letters to Congress, and my pay was reinstated -- almost. I still suffered a 5% income loss, but that was multitudes better than the 40% I was about to lose. So, our trip was back on!
The next set back occurred three and a half weeks before the trip. I was visiting a friend of mine who was remodeling her house. She removed the banisters from around her staircase, leaving the staircase well wide open, like a black hole. I was taking the nickel tour at her behest and, while inspecting her crown molding, I stepped backward into that stairwell. And when I say backwards, I mean I took the Nestea plunge. My friend described it as one of those falls you take when at a team/confidence building conference where you fall backwards and your buddies are supposed to catch you. But in my instance, there was no one, just empty space and a wooden staircase waiting for me. I fell 12 feet backwards and the first thing that hit was my head, and then my back slammed into the stairs, and then I slid down to the bottom, my head hitting every step on the way.
I was addled, but fully conscious. I wasn't sure what happened, but I knew something horrible happened. I've had major surgeries in my life, and I relate that state of distortion to the sensation of coming out of surgery and not remembering that you went under the knife. The air was knocked out of me, and I spent several hours trying to breathe again. Well, it was probably only a minute, but it felt like an eternity. Once I caught my breath, I was able to stand, and to walk, and talk. I was lucky just to be alive.
I went home an hour or two later and broke to news to my wife, who was slightly perturbed at me for falling backwards down a staircase, as if I wasn't already feeling bad about the whole matter. I went to bed that night wondering what my world would look like in the morning.
I take blood thinners due to a heart condition I have, and I was extremely worried that I was suffering from internal bleeding, plus the high probability that I could have an aneurysm in my brain. The back of my head was swollen to the point that I looked as though I had a rump roast under my hair. Not only that, I really felt bad.
Time would prove that the only significant injury sustained in the fall was the three broken ribs on my left side. I slept in the recliner for the rest of my time before leaving on our dearly needed vacation. Our vacation? Who was I kidding? I had already missed a full week of work, 9 days, to be specific, and I couldn't walk without taking Valium to keep my back muscles from spasming, causing me devastating, debilitating, disabling pain in my broken ribs.
This photo of my lower back was taken on day 7 once the swelling went down and only the bruise remained. Looks like an awesome tramp stamp!
Sarah was watching her vacation evaporate before her eyes, but I boldly declared to her that I would not let this minor setback ruin her trip. I just needed some time to recover. I still had roughly 12 more days before we had to leave. I just needed to sit in my recliner and not die.
Guess what happened next? October the First. That's what happened next. And what happened on the first day of October, you might be asking? Well, I'll tell you. The Federal government shut down. The words that echoed the loudest was FURLOUGH all non-essential government workers, and CANCEL all leave (vacation time, for you civilians) until the government passes a budget. This included sick leave, emergency leave, vacation, etc... Well. As Chester Riley used to say, "Ain't this a revolting development?"
It turns out that I was an essential employee, so I was granted the honor of working without the promise of pay while President Obama continually repeated his determination not to negotiate with the Republicans.
I went to my boss, who was aware of my pending vacation in less than 8 days, and he said he would grant me a waiver because I was so heavily invested in the trip. This is a good place to insert a plug for TRIP INSURANCE. Don't leave home without it, especially if you are planning a 20,000 dollar European vacation. And now, back to the story... My boss told me that I could still go, but I would forfeit any back pay for my vacation time. Well, this day just keeps getting better, eh?
Sarah and I discussed the situation over an empty box of Kleenexes and made a hard decision. We did have trip insurance, but it was limited. It only covered a portion of the money we had already invested. I could forfeit my pay or I could forfeit what I had already spent money on for the last year. It was all sunshine and lollypops at my house that day! Then, the rumor surfaced that Congress was going to pass an emergency relief bill to pay the furloughed employees, so we decided that we would roll the dice and hope for the best. As I write these words, I am on a Delta flight and looking down at Lake Erie (I can type without looking at my fingers). As of today, the bill hasn't passed, and I still don't know if I'm bankrupt. I'll find out soon enough. But let's get back to the trip before I digress any further. Before I don't digress, let me take a moment and tell you that eventually congress and the President got together and agreed to create a continuing resolution, which paid all Federal employees for the time we were furloughed. Just thought I'd get that out of the way. And now I continue my review...in the next post!
Part I Getting there
Part II Barcelona
Part III Barcelona Continued
Part IV France
Part V Livorno, Pisa, and Florence, Italy
Part VI Rome
Part VII Sea Day
Part VIII Turkey
Part IX Athens
Part X Santorini
Part XI Sea Day
Part XII Italy: Positano, Sorento, Amalfi Coast, and Pompeii
Part XIII Sea Day
Part XIV Back to Barcelona
Part XV The Journey Home and Final Thoughts