How One Fed Family Explored the Mediterranean on a Cruise

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By on November 4, 2018 in Pay & Benefits with 0 Comments

Being a Federal employee spouse, my husband and I try to enjoy his vacation time as a family and cruises are one of our favorite ways to travel. We always look for a good bargain and those are most often found by booking early or waiting to get a last-minute deal.

We usually cruise with our two kids, but when my parents offered to babysit for us this summer, I immediately snagged a last minute Mediterranean cruise so we could enjoy some Spanish tapas, Italian coffee and French pastries as well as some mom-and-dad alone time. The 7-day cruise was aboard the newest Princess ship, the Royal Princess, sailing from Barcelona to Rome.

Day 1 – Barcelona

Sampling of tapas in Barcelona

Sampling of tapas in Barcelona

Our cruise started in one of our favorite cities – Barcelona. Even though we arrived late in the evening the day before the cruise, we had gotten a great government rate on a hotel in the center of town and we hit the streets right away.

If you have ever been to Barcelona, you know that it’s the city that (almost) never sleeps. Restaurants are open until way past midnight and, especially in the summer, there are tons of people out and about till 2-3am. Within a couple of hours, we managed to hit a few great tapas restaurants – food in Barcelona (and most of Spain) is simply amazing and we totally gorged on shrimp, octopus and anchovies.

The next day, we were in no rush to get to the ship, and wanted to check out some areas of Barcelona we had not visited before. Most Mediterranean cruises leave Barcelona around 6pm and you have to be on board by 4-4:30 pm, which gives you plenty of time to explore the city.

In the past, we had taken the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus which is a great option if you want to see most of the city in a short time, but this time we wanted to just walk around and explore on foot. Our destination was Barceloneta – the boardwalk area, home to many designer hotels and restaurants, so little by little we made our way there, stopping to check out the great summer sales along La Rambla (you could find brand name clothes from the likes of Zara and H&M for less than $10), eat some amazing gelato (ok, a lot) and explore the Mercato Santa Caterina (a uniquely shaped building hosting a wonderful array of food stalls inside). After a few hours, we made it to the famous Frank Gehry “Fish” statue, right on the Barceloneta boardwalk, dipped our feet into the ocean and grabbed the metro back to the hotel.

We boarded the Royal Princess around 3:30 pm and had absolutely no wait time to board. This was our first time on this ship and we spent a few hours exploring it and getting settled.

The Royal Princess is a beautiful new ship, large enough to have plenty to do, but not too large to make you feel overwhelmed. Because we booked last minute, the only available cabins were Inside cabins, meaning we had no window. We typically prefer to get a Balcony cabin, but on this cruise we spent the majority of our time exploring the ports, so we did not miss the balcony too much. 

Day 2 – Cartagena, Spain

This was our first time in Cartagena and I have to admit I had very low expectations. We slept late, got out of the ship armed with a map and strolled over to Conception Castle.

The ship docks literally in the center of town so walking to anywhere is super easy. There is a glass elevator up to the Castle, which has a pretty long line on cruise days, but the views from the park surrounding the castle are exceptional. 

We did not really have a set plan for the day, so we just wandered around town, checked out the Roman Theater and stumbled upon Plaza de San Francisco, where they had live music and people were sitting around sipping coffee.

There, we discovered Cafe Asiatico – an amazing coffee drink made with condensed milk, cognac and liquor layered in a clear glass. Absolutely yummy! It was so good that were were happy to sit there and listen to the music for an hour.

Coffee at Cafe Asiatico in Cartagena

After some walking and a light tapas lunch, we made our way to Calle Mayor – the main pedestrian street in Cartagena. The architecture on that street is breathtaking, as the street is surrounded by multiple colorful buildings with wrought-iron balconies, little squares and lots and lots of cafes.

I’m guessing summer-time is the best time for shopping in Spain and, even though we had no extra space in our luggage, we ended up buying a bunch of clothes and gifts anyway. I have to say Cartagena is the perfect city to get lost in, stroll the narrow streets aimlessly, sit at an outdoor cafe for hours or sample some great food. 

Day 3 – Gibraltar

My husband loves to visit little-explored places in Europe, so Gibraltar has always been on his bucket list. Considering how small the place is, we once again did not have a set plan and did not leave the ship until very late morning (big mistake).

The ship docks about 1 mile from downtown and you can certainly walk but we opted to take a taxi (bit of a long wait as they have a small number of taxis). The taxi drops you off in front of the gate for the Old City and once you go through the gate you find yourself in the middle of a totally British experience. British pubs and cafes line the square, the red British phone booths are everywhere and the architecture totally reminded me of small English towns like Oxford and Cambridge. 

We decided to casually stroll down the main street, heading towards the Rock of Gibraltar, the main attraction in this port. Well, we should have rushed… By the time we got to the ticket booth, the line was huge, we were told 2-3 hours of wait time just to get the tickets plus another line to get on the actual funicular to the top of the Rock. We quickly realized we would probably miss the ship if we waited in that line, so to my husband’s disappointment, we gave up.

Luckily, Gibraltar is so charming that we found plenty to keep us entertained. The Alameda Gardens, located right next to the funicular entrance, have some lovely cactus displays so we spent some time there and then made our way back along the main street, stopping for a pint of beer, ice cream of some shopping along the way.

Prices in Gibraltar are pretty expensive because they use the British Pound, so you will likely not find many deals there, but alcohol and cigarettes are duty free so if you have space in your luggage, you may score bottles of British alcohol, like gin, for pretty cheap. Keep in mind alcohol bought in the ports can be taken on the ship, but they will hold it for you until the last day of the cruise, so you will not be able to drink it onboard.

Day 4 – Day at Sea

This was our only sea day on this cruise and, after all the walking we did in the past few days, we really needed the break. There is so much to do on the ship – from dance classes to game shows, piano bars, zumba and cooking classes – but we decided to spend most of the day around the pool, just relaxing and making quick trips to the buffet area for a bite.

The food on cruise ships is one of the reasons why we love them so much – not only is there a lot of food but it is usually great food. Even if you stick to the main dining room, there are at least 20 different food options each day. Add to that several specialty restaurants (Italian food, steak house), a pastry and coffee shop, and a vast buffet with dozens of stations (including a cheese station with more than 20 types of cheese), so we manage to gain a few extra pounds after every cruise.

Day 5 – Genoa

Skyline of Genoa

After a leisurely day at sea, while the ship was making its way from the tip of Europe to Italy, we arrived in Genoa and the ship docked in the main port, where Genoa was sprawled right before us in all of its colorful beauty.

There are many tour buses that stop right at the port, but we decided to walk to the Old Town (about 20 minute walk). We wanted to burn off some calories as we had booked a food tour. The four-hour tour took us around the entire old town area, while we sampled a ton of amazing local foods – hand-made pizza, five types of focaccia, fresh seafood and even local gelato in a small hole-in-the wall shop.

After the tour, we decided to explore the city on our own, starting at the boardwalk area and the famous Neptune statue. Built for the 1985 Roman Polanski movie Pirates, the galeon with the golden Neptune head is one of the famous landmarks of the city and from there you can walk to the famous Aquarium or cross the street and be immersed into the Old City, with its narrow cobblestone streets harboring numerous little shops, cafes, fish markets and squares. 

Day 6 – Marseille

This was our third time in Marseille, and this time we wanted to use it as a jumping point for a tour to Provence – the famous French countryside so often pictured on postcards and paintings of famous artists.

We had booked a private guide for the day, and after driving around some picturesque little towns, we reached our final destination – Arles, the town made famous by Van Gogh. He spent a part of his life there and some of his most famous paintings feature sights from the town – the hospital, the cafes and the Rhone river banks.

The guide dropped us off on the border of old town and gave us a map of the Van Gogh sites that we could explore on foot. We started off with a coffee and a croissant at the aptly renamed “Cafe Van Gogh”, which was featured in one of his works, and then worked our way around the town. It is a pleasant stroll and, because it was a Sunday, we stumbled upon a local fresh food market right along the river.

Fresh food market in Marseille

We did manage to try various French delicacies before returning back to the car and driving through some of the lavender fields on the way back to the ship (though their blooms are most prominent in June and July).

Day 7 – Florence

The ship actually does not dock in Florence, but in the industrial city of Livorno, about two hours away from Florence.

People use Livorno as a gateway to many Italian destinations like Pisa, Florence and Livorno, but we decided to take a tour to Cinque Terre – a string of picturesque fishing villages along the coast, famous for its colorful houses.

View of villages Cinque Terre

Villages along the coast in Cinque Terre

The area cannot be visited by car and the only two options to explore all five villages is by boat or by train. We had pre-booked a bus tour from the ship to take us to Manarola, the first of the five villages and from there we got on a ferry boat that makes stops at all five villages.

We did not have time to get off in each one, and honestly, they probably look very similar off the boat, but the real beauty was seeing them from the sea, with the various hues of orange, yellow and red houses, seemingly build right into the rocks. This is a whole-day tour, so you will get exhausted at the end of the day, but what a lovely way to end our cruise.

How do you get the best deal on a Mediterranean cruise?

There are a ton of Med cruises to choose from, but the key to getting a good deal is booking early (6-12 months in advance).

Also, the Med season starts in early May, but most people go in July and August, which means the prices are the highest during those months, Go in May or wait until October and you will save hundreds of dollars per person.

While a Balcony cabin will let you enjoy the views 24/7, if you are on a budget, choose an Inside cabin. It will most likely not include any of the extra perks included with the higher level cabins (like free drinks or specialty restaurants), but considering how little time you will spend on the ship, it is a great way to save money.

And if you are retired or have more vacation time, choose a longer cruise (12-14 days). It will give you a much better per day price and, considering the fairly expensive price of airline travel to Europe, you will get to see a lot more on one trip.

Always check the price of airfare offered by the cruise line – in some cases they have bulk deals with select airlines that will give you a lower price than buying a ticket on your own. 

Companies that offer Feds discounts on cruises

  • CruiseDealsForFeds.com – they offer hundreds of discounted cruises and extra perks exclusively for federal employees, retirees and contractors
  • SATO Vacations – they provide travel and cruise planning advice for military and government personnel
  • GovVacationRewards – sign up with your government or military ID to receive vacation credits, points towards free travel and discounts on hotels, cruises and attractions.
  • GovArm – cruise, car rental, hotel, and vacation package deals for government employees

© 2019 Polia Marinova. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Polia Marinova.

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About the Author

Poli Marinova is a travel blogger, avid cruiser and a federal employee spouse who is always looking for the next best vacation deal.

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