Saturday, April 20, 2019

25th Anniversary Cruise Part 1: Barcelona

Last year, my wife Becky and I celebrated our 25th anniversary with a 2-week European cruise. In this post I'll review what we did, share some cruising tips, and point out things we did (or didn't) like about the cruise. Here in Part 1 I'll cover the first leg of our trip, Barcelona.

Cruise Planning

The cruise we took was on Princess Cruise Lines and is called the 14-Day Mediterranean & Aegean Medley. Why Princess? They had the itinerary we were looking for. I wanted to see some classic art and architecture in cities like Venice, Florence, or Rome; Becky was also keen to visit the Greek Isles. This cruise gave us a route that started in Spain and went to France, Italy, and Greece. Specifically, the cruise would take us to Barcelona (Spain), Gibraltar, Marseilles (France), Genoa (Italy), Florence, Rome, Pompeii, Kotor (Montenegro), Corfu (Greece), Crete, Mykonos, and Athens.

We'd cruised before. On our honeymoon in 1993 we took an NCL cruise to the Caribbean. In 2008 for our 15th anniversary we took the family (five of us) to the Hawaiian Islands, also on NCL. Since a 25th anniversary is special, we splurged on this cruise, including flying business class. And we decided to leave the kids at home, hoping our 15-year old son supervised by his 19-year old sister could get by for two weeks without any major incidents (they did).

Our ship was the Crown Princess, a 952-ft long vessel which accommodates 3080 guests and 1200 crew. We had a balcony cabin on Aloha deck, strategically chosen not to be near noisy areas of the ship; and on the left side in order to get a good view of the European shoreline for most of the cruise. Princess was the first cruise line to offer private cabin balconies, which has since become a cruise ship standard.

Crown Princess

If you're going to take a cruise, expect to spend time doing a lot of planning. Once you've settled on your cruise line and itinerary and decided when to go and locked in a reservation, you have to choose a cabin, line up shore excusions, and make air travel arrangements. We scheduled our cruise in June because July or August would have been stiflingly hot in the Mediterranean. If you want to do any sightseeing at the starting or ending point of your cruise, you'll want to add a few days on land. We scheduled ourselves to fly in to Barcelona a day early, and to stay an extra day in Athens at the end. Cruise lines sometimes throw in goodies depending on how early you book. We received full beverage packages just for booking our cruise early, which otherwise would have cost somewhere around $700 per person.

Flight From LAX to Barcelona

With final assurances that our teenagers would be fine at home—and the many reminder notes I left around the house to feed the dog, take out the trash, etc.—we left from Los Angeles International airport. We flew on a KLM 747 on the upper level. In general you have much better service on international flights than domestic, especially so if you're flying a premium class. Flying in the upper level of a 747 was a fun and unique experience.

The business class on KLM is pretty sweet. Good service by flights attendants, excellent food and drink, a great selection of video entertainment. A flight attendant did accidentally spill a drink on Becky, but she took it in stride and changed her top. For me, this was a nice contrast to the constant economy flights to and from DC that I'd been flying all year for work.

Our flight had a stop-over in Amsterdam. Our second leg to Barcalona was delayed, and we spent several hours in the KLM Lounge at Schiphol Aiport. We had planned to spend the afternoon and evening exploring Barcelona before boarding the cruise ship the next day, but now our time was evaporating.

Finally we boarded our second flight—an A320—for the short flight to Barcelona, Spain. Although this was also business class, it wasn't nearly as lavish as the international flight had been. I was particularly surprised to find out that soft drinks aren't free on domestic European flights.

Barcelona (★★★★)

We arrived in Barcelona significantly tired, but determined to see something of Barcelona while we had the chance. Barcelona is famous for its architecture by Antoni Gaudi, so we took a taxi to Park Güell. Park Güell is a community that Gaudi started in 1900; today is a public park. It is full of interesting and whimsical architecture.

Park Güell, Barcelona, Spain

We really were too exhausted to really appreciate what we were seeing, but according out our photos we had a great time! There's a lot of other Gaudi architecture in the city but sadly we didn't have time to see it. On a future visit it would be great to see the Familia Sagrada and other Gaudi sites.

For dinner, we walked a few blocks from our hotel and enjoyed tapas (small plates), which are a big deal in Barcelona. We had all sorts of interesting things to eat: bravas (potatoes with a spicy tomato sauce), croquettes, stuffed cherry peppers, local breads, and Catalan cream, a dessert similar to Creme Brulee. It was delicious. After ordering so many small items, I wondered out loud what the bill might come to. Somehow Becky predicted the amount and when the bill came she was within 1 Euro! 


The next morning, after an excellent breakfast at the Hotel Hesperia Presidente, we took advantage of a few hours in the morning to explore further. We walked Las Ramblas, a large pedestrian walkway full of tourists and restaurants and merchants which ends in a statue of Christopher Columbus. You may recall hearing in the news in 2017 there was an incident where terrorists drove a van onto Las Ramblas killing 15 people and injuring 100 others--this is where that happened.

Las Ramblas

Along Last Ramblas, we stopped at the Boqueria Market, a public market just overflowing with fresh goods. Barcelona is all about jamon (ham) and Manchego cheese. Fun discovery at the market: in the last picture below, see the guy serving espresso at the Notxo Bar? If you watch the Rich Steves Europe episode on Barcelona, the exact same guy is in it.

La Boqueria Market

Barcelona is part of a region called Catalonia. The Catalans have long been seeking independence from Spain, and this is readily apparent by all the red-and-yellow Catalan flags that are all over the place.

Catalan Flag

By mid-morning, it was time to head back to the hotel and get taken over to the cruise ship. 

We really enjoyed Barcelona and give it 4 stars. It's a vibrant and friendly city, and a place we'd like to visit again, there's so much more to see here. Plus we're hooked on tapas.

Boarding On the Ship

By mid-morning we were on a bus with other passengers being ferried to the pier to board the Crown Princess. There was the airport-like security screening, then waiting until our group was called. Once on board, we had to wait an hour or so for our cabin to be ready. We waited that time out looking around the ship, which was beautiful. Crown Princess has a large atrium that serves as the community center of the ship. It's adjacent to cafes and the dining room and there is regular entertainment. We particularly liked a music group named X-Trio that performed regularly throughout our voyage.

Crown Princess Atrium

Our cabin was what we expected: not overly large, but workable. Having a balcony was nice. One minor disappoinment: on previous cruises there were always towel animals left by the steward; not so on this cruise.

Balcony Stateroom

Well, that sums up our first leg: flying to Europe, visiting Barcelona, and getting on board our ship. We were only getting started and had another 13 days ahead of us!

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