Ajaccio, Palermo, Portofino and More with Royal Caribbean's Vision of the Seas - Part Two
A world away from Royal Caribbean's 'biggest', 'first fors', and razzle-dazzlers, we joined their Vision of The Seas' Mediterranean cruise.
Each morning on the balcony with a little salty spray, taste of coffee, watched for the first light of day and the ports we called into.
And below, that itinerary.
Officially in love with Villefranche-sur-Mer
Popular Cruise Excursion: Eze and Monte Carlo
Villefranche-sur-Mer, one of the first stops on this eight-night cruise, is a charmer of a seaside town whose train connections open doors to its more renowned and glamourous neighbours. And for doing so, gets regularly ignored, I'm sure, for the likes of Cannes, Nice and Monte Carlo.
And had we pulled our danced-off legs together earlier, we too would have hopped on a train just outside the port for the one-hour journey to Cannes, having visited the latter two.
But this charming seaside French town sitting pretty between Nice and Monte Carlo deserves your five or six hours in port.
The town is walkable. A stroll along the harbourfront full of colourful homes and buildings soon rids you of any dismay of not going to Monte Carlo or Nice.
A jaunt up to Fort Mount Alban offers another viewpoint, this one more panoramic of the same harbour. But, as we left the ship during the midday sun, it proved more sensible to stick to the shades from buildings on narrow, cobblestone streets. Their facades cloaking art galleries and one-of-a-kind boutique stores.
On a stroll along the quiet waterfront, more cobblestone path hedged by the sea led us towards Port Royal de la Darse and Plage de la Darse.
Here, void of any crowd, the sea their playground, we smiled at a father and son fishing and diving off the rocks. Inspired by their frivolity, we followed, clambered Villefrance-sur-Mer's rocks and splashed about the water. (Good shoes and footing needed.)
We'd have splashed out many hours here too, but for the mid-afternoon sun. Instead, we returned to the cafe-lined waterfront, something cool and refreshing, the pull. Uncrowded, but for the late stragglers off the ship and the back-early-I-don't-want-to-miss-the-ship tourists, we found tables readily available.
First, a pit stop at the outdoor terraced Joien Bar & Tapas on 5 place du Marché and another at Dry Restaurant on the waterfront for people-watching.
Somewhere Boutique Store, founded by women for women.
Splashing about the rocks at Plage de la Darse, far from any madding crowd.
Dinner: We chanced 'My Time dining', got a table. For the rest of the cruise, this option was fully booked.
Tip: 'My Time Dining' books up quickly. I recommend reserving your table via the cruise planner app ahead of the cruise. Plus, with a reservation, you're seated quicker.
Toulon, Like a Local
Popular Cruise Excursion: Aix en Provence, Cassis and Calanques
The port of Toulon itself is a jaunt and a water bus journey away. In truth, we docked in La Seyne-Sur-Mer, where a stroll out of the port cemented our decision to go to Toulon.
It's Euros 7.50 return for the boat; we carried no cash, the ferry card less, but they let us on. On recommendation, walked the seven minutes to the tourist office where we bought the Toulon City 24 Hour Pass. (Includes travel on land and water buses, entry to the Telepherique and other attractions around Toulon).
In the town square, I got giddy at the day markets. The smell of fromages, patisseries called, and a renowned Spanish retail store the lure. The latter drew eyes, not necessarily of the kind sort because it's not as if I don't live within five miles of the nearest one.
Since all else had lost their zest for the local delights, we left the brioches for the bus. Except we've just missed one. The next is in twenty minutes. I get more of the same eyes and now lips for being on holiday and having to stand around in the baking midday sun waiting on a bus. But the next one soon arrives, saves me.
Another twenty-minute ride takes us through the town centre to the cable car station. Once there, the mood lifts because, finally, we are doing something holiday-esque.
There's a queue, an anticipation of a ten-minute wait before we get on the cable car. Except, ten minutes became twenty, became forty, became... and the clock watching intensified. We calculated backwards of returning to the ship and, not knowing how long the journey up and down the mountain took, decided we may be cutting it close.
Cable car to Mount Faron abandoned, we've once again missed out on a hilltop panorama. Eyes are like daggers, no one speaks.
I guess we could have stayed on the ship.
Trying to cut the silence.
Or perhaps spend less time in the stores.
The retort. I was no longer under any illusion of how anyone felt.
Still, the Port of Toulon is a Maritime exhibition. Naval enthusiasts will wet their boots at the sight of the French military might. Especially the aircraft carrier 'Charles de Gaulle', the nuclear submarines in their sheds, destroyers and patrol boats.
We should have done 'Rade de Toulon' instead.
Piping up. Still no one shared my enthusiasm.
Suggestion: Rade de Toulon Tour is great for military/naval enthusiasts.
Dinner: We took our place for traditional dining in the main dining room with another family of four.
Tip: A return trip on the cable car is 8 Euros, therefore more cost effective to purchase a Toulon City 24 Hour Pass
Ajaccio, Corsica - The Imperial City
Popular Cruise Excursion: City Tour
We docked under a rising sun, painting the buildings in Ajaccio's harbour a lovely light. This, the capital of Corsica, the Imperial City and all things Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. He makes history on this island. Some of this history we uncovered via the forty-five-minute tour aboard the window-free Le Petit Train. It starts outside Place Foch, a ten-minute walk from the cruise port. The rest we discovered via paths most travelled.
Now conversations involving Napoleon Bonaparte are not ones I've previously found myself entwined in, but Ajaccio will give you bragging rights should that happen. Visiting Maison Bonaparte, his birthplace now national museum (go long before midday), Ajaccio Cathedral, his church of baptism and La Grotte Napoleon, his place of meditation.
In Corsica, Napoleon Bonaparte is a part of history, symbolic, a name. A name that keeps giving. Bonaparte, Napoleon, Napoleon Bonaparte loaned in some way to monuments, streets, squares, hotels, bars, cafes, and the airport.
And walking down the pedestrianised Rue Fesch, certain we had dusted off all things Bonaparte, Napoleon and Napoleon Bonaparte, it turns out Fesch was a relative.
Detached from any plans, we walked back to Saint Francois, a city beach we passed on the Petit Train. Calm waters and Demerara sugar-coloured sands attract a family-friendly afternoon crowd. And there, we spent the afternoon with our newfound friends from the ship.
Recommendations: 1) The Petit Train, 2) Try a this dessert called cafe Liegeois (a coffee lovers delight) from Restaurant A Vista on 4 Quai Napoleon. A Vista is a seafood restaurant and on the opposite side of the road; they serve ice cream and this deliciousness.
And seeing photos of some friends, suggest Palombaggia Beach if you can get to it.
Dinner: Traditional Dining
Tip: Love the entree or the dessert served at dinner? Ask for a second portion. Fancy both the lamb and chicken curry mains on option? Request to have both (preferably not at the same time).
Picture Perfect Portofino
Popular Cruise Excursion: Santa Marguerita
Portofino defines the word 'picturesque' and for the second time left me short changed for words. Only this time, we sailed into its gorgeous harbour aboard our private yacht. Oops, make that the cruise ship's tender.
Its buildings edging the waterfront painted as if from the colours of a Crayola box, is postcard ready, instantly recognisable too. Draws everyone from the glitterati to the yachting cognoscenti (I just love how it rhymes) and the everyday tourists ticking off their wish lists.
But it doesn't matter, as Portofino, even with all its summer holidaying Hollywood A-listers and yacht set, is one destination that never comes across as ostentatious. Where you walk readily from souvenir stalls, to those of local artisans and into the high end spend and feel the same unless you tapped your card.
And too, one of a handful of destinations on my travel list worth rediscovering and, at the same time, uncovering.
Portofino is the glamour of a Monegasque street, the glitz of Gustavia's harbour fused just right.
In the summer, you share this little harbour with the crowds and with a twenty-four hundred passenger ship in port, plus another, there's a crowd.
It is here where a renowned hotel overlooks the bay the teenager wants to revisit lunch. But those with a less Que Sera attitude have done the smart thing and reserved their table. Unlike us.
The hotel, with the restaurant overlooking the bay, is fully booked. C'est la vie.
I fancy a ramble in the shade of trees in the national park. Except, the midday sun is draining, so no one shares my fancy. Instead, we made our way back along the coast, the sparkling Ligurian sea our backdrop.
Stopping once, twice, many times for photo ops along the way. And on one of those stops uncovered a near-missable set of vertigo-inducing staircases to a little pebbled beach.
We don't recall this beach on the last visit, but the crowds that greeted us in this hidden cove highlighted we were the last to know. Still, it was a pleasurable find, refreshing find, a ten-minute walk from the port. And had we known, we'd have brought our swimwear, dipped our entire bodies, instead of merely our toes.
And moving on, we found ourselves back in the harbour, at a table at La Gritta. The only restaurant with a floating barge, we sat out an overly long lunch of focaccia, pesto and pasta.
Worth noting our cruise docked in Portofino. Other cruise lines/ships may dock in Genoa over an hour away.
Discovering the little pebble beach and being back in Portofino.
Dinner: The Chef's Table for a six-course tasting menu with wine pairing.
Tip: Whether it's your first cruise with Royal Caribbean or not, register for their Crown & Anchor Society. Even at Gold (their entry level) the benefits are there.
When in Rome
Popular Cruise Excursion: Rome Full-Day Tour
Today, we've docked with another five cruise ships (including a much bigger sister ship) at the gateway to Rome. That is Civitavecchia.
Devoid of organised tours and heavy laden from the night before, we nursed coffees on the balcony and watched the world go by.
Eventually, laden bodies muster the energy to take on Rome. It is so much later; we're clockwatching before we leave the ship. Nothing new there. The sun, too is consistent, doing what it rarely does in the UK—blazing upwards of 29 degrees celsius daily.
In competition with four more cruise ships, it's a near hour until our complimentary coach takes us to the train station. Still in competition with another four cruise ships, it's a near hour before getting to the ticketing counter. Though the cost of our four single tickets, near the same as four Starbucks coffees, helps releave taut faces. Rome, however, is still an hour away.
The clock-watching continues, but we are now in Rome; what do we do?
The Colosseum calls. The queue, five cruise ships worth and everyone else in Rome that day. It's not worth joining. Instead, we splurge on 'skip-the-line tickets' make an indent on the time.
Our tour guide, well, she had other ideas. She lived, she breathed, she slept and maybe at some point even ate some of the Colosseum and was intent that no part of its history should be untold. Passion, yes, she had it. Time, she made us fear for it.
When finally set free from the clenches of this gladiator-enthused guide, we skittered over to the second most popular tourist draw in Rome.
And because of the time of day and its draw, it felt as if those not at the Colosseum were here at the Trevi Fountain. The Tiktokers, Grammers, YouTubers and one woman in a floaty red dress (the kind you see on the white roofs of Santorini) takes up more space and time than is fair. I see eyes darting in her direction. I didn't fancy getting in amongst that scrap and looked to walk away.
Though, some kind soul must have seen my dismay, threw a coin in the fountain just for us. Because space cleared and we rushed in.
Photo shoot over, we go in search of this gelateria, though no one recalls its name. Memory vaguely re-taps the street, but it is insufficient to lead us down the right path. Time poor, we call off the search. Still, we were in Rome, got to have gelato, and we called into Romeo Gelato Italiano.
Whipped into a nice cream, the flavours here - sweet, bold—and the male servers just as bold.
Satisfied, we'd done as much as possible with our time in Rome; we headed for Roma Termini. And it was here on the Metro I was forced to bring out my Japanese ninjutsu training. The one I'd refrained from using all day, because had I not done so, I'd have returned home a phone short.
Reminder: That notice, 'Pickpockets operate on the Rome Metro', is real.
Suggests: A visit to Borghese Gallery is as much for me (next visit) as it is for you. And since I at least threw a coin in the fountain, I'm assured another visit.
Dinner: Traditional Dining
Tip: Doing your own thing, leaves you devoid of schedules and crowded group tours. But leaves you and only you responsible for getting back to the ship on time.
Not in the Know for Palermo, Sicily
Popular Cruise Excursion: Palermo Street Food Walking Tour
Synonymous with the Mafia and Mount Etna, the volcano in situ was about all I knew sailing into this island. I'm never this ill prepared.
Yet Sicily, the largest of the Mediterranean islands, is peppered with renaissance palaces, romanesque cathedrals, drenched in sunshine and packed full of restaurants and trattorias for a rounded foodie scene.
And note that if in Naples they dine out on pizza, here in Sicily they dine out on all things citrusy, arancini and cannoli.
Time at leisure, we take a walk where exploring starts as we step off the ship. But downtown Palermo on Via Maqueda, where the restaurants spilt onto the road, felt like the place to be. It was here at Sfrigola we had our first taste of arancini.
Balls of fried rice stuffed with our choice of filling, still hot from the deep fat fryer they hoisted them from. There are many fillings, though jerk chicken and chicken katsu curry do not make the list. Instead, I allow myself to be seduced by a simple chicken curry. Hot and crispy out, oozing in, it is a satisfying snack, though it is yet to hit the spot. The other fillings were preferred.
Fuelled, we crisscrossed Palermo's more edgy back streets. Here and there, we came across the more touristy places of Quattro Canti, a grand square and nearby No Mafia Memorial, a free museum.
But was most delighted to have crossed paths with this Limoncello Store. Can you see the delight on my face?
Recommending: The Limoncello Store at Cassaro Bottega Alimentare, Via Vittorio Emanuele. We strongly recommend a sip of their Crema di liquore al Caffè. I can almost promise, you'll walk away with a bottle or two because their coffee cream is a liqueur that should not be denied.
Dinner: Specialty Dining in Izumi
Tip: Have very specific dietary needs (ie it doesn't conform with the usual tick boxes)? Speak with the waiter/head waiter. they'll fix you your very own meal.
On the last day of the cruise we spent it at sea, sailing back to back to Barcelona.
Barcelona in the Background
Popular Cruise Excursion: Barcelona and Montserrat Tour
Disembarking in Barcelona, we have a fully escorted cruise excursion (luggage and all) to Montserrat, then to the airport. Not the Montserrat of the Caribbean three thousand miles away but the one that is a nearby day trip.
As the road wound upwards with teetering drop-offs on the left side, we left Barcelona and its searing twenty five degree heat in the background. And as we climbed higher the temperature lowered to a cool twenty degrees.
Montserrat means jagged, saw toothed or serrated mountain, and having caught my first sight of the peaks, I could somehow see the resemblance. But while these pinnacles here stood barren, the peaks of Montserrat, West Indies are lush green. Still, I could see where Columbus was coming from.
And why go to Montserrat? As well as the place for which my island is named, it is also holy. And some of us may have needed temperance after the over exuberance at sea.
There's the Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey, basilica and a funicular to the top of the mountain, where you'll see out to Mallorca on a clear day, all while you listen to the church bells ring.
From here, it was to the airport.
Vision of the Seas is no game changer, simply, a good time. Lots of family time. It's eight-night Med Cruise full of fun, summer sun and some famed and spectacular ports. Ports that leave you hankering for Mediterranean beaches, wishing upon Mediterranean sunsets, sunrises and the scenery.
We've long since unpacked the luggage cases, but Royal Caribbean, the memories made will make for conversation around the dinner table for years to come.
Now tell me your thoughts. Which of these ports have you enjoyed reading about the most? Which would you love to have on your cruise itinerary?