Updated: Aug 23, 2019
Do you have any superstitions? Are you ever afraid to actually plan for the future when the the future can be so uncertain? When I discuss these thoughts will my fellow #survivors, they all nod their heads with complete understanding. It's an understanding that we all share. Each day is a gift. We battle with fears of recurrence. We fight against our bodies that have betrayed us and are, otherwise, continuing to heal following devastating treatments. When I started treatment, I never knew how far I would come. There was no promise of tomorrow and it seemed so far away at the time. I am finally done with therapy but even that is bittersweet. Just prior to my diagnosis, I became the sole caretaker for my mother, who was suffering from an incurable cancer. The doctors in Virginia were not acting quickly enough in response to a CT scan that I clearly suspected was small cell lung cancer. She was very ill when they finally admitted and diagnosed her. I had to get her to Pennsylvania quickly. Since she was the only caregiver of my grandmother, I transported them both via ambulance to be near me. We had little time to share as they both passed away within a year of each other. We had already lost so many years together and now they were lost forever. So, aside from my husband, children, a select few of his siblings, and an aunt, I have no other family. It's daunting how quickly life can change and the trauma of everything that has happened in the past 3 years has been overwhelming.
So, when I planned this vacation 6 months ago, I still couldn’t believe it was finally happening. Planning anything is often colored with misgivings as the future is always less certain. About 2 months ago, I developed rather uncomfortable scapular pain. As I saw the important time frame of 2 weeks come and go, the intruding thoughts of “could this be it?” grew stronger. I finally contacted my oncologist, who asked me to wait. I know that my entire left neck, chest, and back muscles are now replaced by fibrotic tissue. Yet, cancer can go just about anywhere. So, I figured, "Oh well, I will at least make it to Rome and the Mediterranean cruise, my mother never did.”
That's the way we often view things, short-term milestones that provide a sense of accomplishment and security in a world that is often riddled with self-doubt and fear.
This vacation was a big deal for us. My husband's job really doesn't allow for more than a 2 week vacation and this is, actually, the first time that he has taken one. Luckily, we found a cruise touring the #Mediterranean from Wednesday to Wednesday, flanked by stays in #Rome.
Now, I’m really not into cruises. However, there was no quicker way to see the places that I’ve often thought of visiting since I was a child without needing to constantly pack and unpack. We chose #NorwegianCruiseLine. This was my first experience with them and, I must admit that I prefer Royal Caribbean (I may write about that later). That said, the opportunity to see Florence, Pisa, Naples, Sorrento, the Amalfi coastline, Pompeii, Barcelona, Palma Majorca, and Cannes in one week was amazing! In fact, I thought about it so much that I figured I should put it down in words. Now, my memories are so much more organized and sharper! What a great effect!
Why start with this? Because it's so important! There are certain items that are absolutely essential but, now, I have added pods to that list. Initially, my friend, Sara, had gifted them to me while she was planning her trip to Greece. Pods organize all of your clothing and accessories into units. Clothes may be rolled and stored very compactly and the vents allow for compression. They were so useful that I ordered a set for everyone in my family. We could simply move our pods into dressers making unpacking a breeze.
I also make sure to pack a luggage scale, compressible duffle bags (in case you bring too much home), and a power converter.
#PackingPods. My shoes are sitting atop a pod with a mesh top. Clothes may be rolled and packed pretty tightly into these zippered vinyl packers that usually come in sets of 7 or 9.
While in Rome, I observed all sorts of attire. I use a money belt, so sun dresses weren’t the best option. In fact, I didn't really see many there. People do tend to wear a lot of grey, black, white, and olive green. Therefore, I felt very comfortable in my olive green shorts and black shirt. Charcoal grey was another favorite and I found some more at a store near our favorite cafe. As for shoes, I could walk for hours in my leather sandals. Ugg makes some really nice looking walking shoes. Bedistu and, even, Sperrys work fine. In fact, I often wore my Sperrys for longer walking tours but had no trouble in nicer sandals.
Sneakers weren’t as common but I did see them. I don’t wear them out in the states and I didn’t require them on my trip with the exception of my early morning run in St. Peter’s square!
The kids were okay wearing Sperrys but did, occasionally and much to my chagrin, lapse into wearing sneakers.
We used #DriverinRome for all of our transportation needs: to and from the airport, cruise terminal, and even for tours.
In fact, they arranged separate professional tours and entry to each location.
On the second day, we walked from our apartment, #TrianonBorgoPio, to the Vatican for a tour arranged by Driver in Rome. It was incredible. The history stuffed into the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica, and (of course) the Sistine Chapel was utterly otherworldly. In fact, we did not visit the Vatican museum, which contains just about everything looted from around the world including a huge collection of Egyptian artifacts. In case you didn’t know, the Vatican isn’t “in” Rome. It’s a sovereign nation with it‘s own military and population. Don't worry, you won’t need a passport.
On our third day in Rome, we opted for the Full Day tour with Driver in Rome, which included the Colosseum, Pantheon, and many other landmarks that would have been too far apart for us to walk. Our driver, Damiano, explained everything along the way. After he brought us to a traditional Italian restaurant, we proceeded to the Spanish Steps and the shops at the top. If you’re more inclined to shop, I’d advise staying there.
The following day, we boarded the cruise. We are a family of 5 and don’t like crowds so we elected to stay in the #Haven. The Haven on the #Epic offers a small but private pool, 2 hot tubs, and a sauna. A spa is advertised but in actuality, there are a few treatment rooms for massages that must be booked through the primary spa. There is an individual butler who provides services, snacks, Nespresso coffee pods, champagne, or anything else you may desire. I had to track mine down for coffee refills, cups, and to have dishes removed from our room, three things that I never had to deal with on Royal Caribbean. There are elevators that require a Haven pass and, if you dare to use them while someone else is on, you will delete their floor and go directly to yours. That’s not something I partook in but I did see it occur.
You have a concierge to guide you on and off the cruise when you arrive and depart. Bags taken up for you when you arrive and down to the terminal when you depart. Unfortunately, there was no priority entry from ports unless it was near to final boarding time. Honestly, if I ran the Haven, I would always provide priority boarding. But...nobody asked me..
Our first port was Livorno. We enjoyed driving through the hilly Tuscan countryside covered with vineyards on our way to Florence and Pisa, our first excursion.
Florence is such a unique place with an easily navigated city center and so much history in the Uffizi Gallery (buy tickets in advance and expect to have an hour at most in the museum for this excursion). Specialty shops include leather making and artisans fashioning 18k gold. You’ll find many street vendors but carefully inspect what you purchase. My husband found a great blue shirt with the Italian emblem. Unfortunately, it was slightly off center (we found a better one when we returned to Rome).
I adored Pisa. It's a not a place that many people like to linger following their photo-op. However, I thought the structures were lovely! The city was once so wealthy that the structures were made entirely of marble. This made them much heavier than most buildings throughout Italy that use other materials such as terra cotta brick covered in marble. Since it was once a port city and stood near the shoreline, the structures sank.
Pictures may be obtained from almost any angle and you can Google ideas for posing.
We took an excursion to Cannes with a nice German lady who followed her love there and never returned home. How romantic! You can see her in a black dress and fashionable hat below. She currently resides in the mountains where beautiful lavender grows wildly.
The French Riviera is lovely and relaxed. We searched for hand prints from celebrities and enjoyed a beautiful lunch by the sea.
From Cannes, we took a boat to St. Honorat Island, which is home to about 20 Cistercian monks. When we arrived, I noticed many vacationers anchoring boats of all sizes to enjoy a swim in the crystal clear blue water. There was a pizza boat for anyone who forgot to pack lunch. The view from the top of the old cathedral was utterly breathtaking as it was almost entirely surrounded by the gently lapping waves of the Mediterranean Sea. I could see through the water from the top.
Afterwards, we walked through the sage green trails of olive trees, where we enjoyed an outdoor wine tasting. I brought an umbrella for the sun but maybe a wide brimmed hat would work just fine.
This stop was full of surprises. Apparently, NCL overlap their guests with people freshly starting and ending cruises in both Barcelona and Rome (#Civitavecchia). This results in a little mayhem at the Barcelona port (one of the busiest ports in the world next to a few in Florida).
We enjoyed the Barcelona in Depth tour. The famous Família Sagrada cathedral towered over the city and will be growing to 172 meters within the next several years.
We then proceeded to the city center from where we could easily access Las Rambles. This is the most popular street and reputed to be riddled with pick-pockets and other unsavory types. In general, it seemed an innocent bustling street. I always kept my backpack zipped and in front of me like a kangaroo. This attractive look was pretty common throughout Europe.
Of course, I should mention Gaudi who has brought new fame to the region with his undulating colorful buildings.
By the way, excursions may not be required at any of these ports but as we are a family of 5 with kids who don’t enjoy walking for miles, I didn’t want to arrive without a plan.
However, there are shuttles that can be arranged on the ship but cruise lines keep this information secret so that guests purchase the, for many, prohibitively priced excursions.
We chose the Palma in Depth tour where we saw the famed Cathedral of Santa Maria in great detail as well as the city center. If you don’t want to spend a long time in a cathedral, I’d advise skipping this tour. We proceeded to the city center where pearls can be purchased at an incredible bargain. Palma is renowned for its pearls and some friends whom we met on the cruise found a string of small pearls for 45 euros (about $54 at the time of this post). That’s an incredible deal. They did the biking tour and found it to be a little more challenging than advertised!
Day at Sea
The kids were so so excited for this day after walking miles. They swam in the pool and gamed on their phones. I was surprised to see that people in the Haven were just as entitled and inconsiderate as the main deck with towels and hats reserving chairs all day. Here’s a bit of a surprise, the day at sea is also the day that NCL cleans its pool decks. You can’t make this up. The kids were very relieved to have this day so everybody was happy in the end.
How’s saving the best for last? Instead of walking into Naples, literally 10-15 minutes from the port, I booked an excursion to the #Amalfi coast and #Pompeii. We actually took a large bus along the winding roads along the coast where you look down.. far far down.. to see the clear turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. If you don’t look outside during the drive, you will get car sick.
We wound past breathtaking view after view while narrowly brushing aside oncoming buses with centimeters to spar. (buses have been wedged against each other).
Our first stop was the Lemoncello factory in #Sorrento that sold lemon everything. Try to resist buying something here!
We then proceeded to a beautiful restaurant and enjoyed relaxing and shopping in town.
Afterwards, we took the inland road to Pompeii. Pompeii was more than I expected. Currently, archaeologists have uncovered approximately ⅔ of the site. It was very interesting but also very hot as expected. Wear a hat and bring water. The cameo shop nearby is lovely. They are mostly profiles of women carved from shells. Beware of the outdoor markets whom I am guessing are selling fakes.
After returning to Rome, we stayed an additional night to rest and have one last leisurely visit. We walked over a mile to the Spanish Steps and ate dinner at a nearby restaurant. There, I asked the waiter if I could order in Italian since I barely used the small amount of Italian that I learned. Practically everyone speaks English.
Overall, the trip was a little taxing for the kids as we walked approximately 5-8 miles daily. However, I was spellbound. I’m not sure there’s a better way to see so many historical landmarks and countries in such a short time. I debated on the excursions up until 2 days prior to the cruise (when you’re permitted to cancel). I’m glad that we did them all as the information provided by our wonderful tour guides was priceless. Tip them generously!
My opinion of #NCLEpicHaven
I‘ll start by saying that cruises for me are somewhat ruined after having initially sailed with some friends on the Royal Caribbean Voyager of the Seas. When one enters this ship, they feel as if they’ve stepped into a quaint town with stores lining a walkway that has a towering ceiling.
The Norwegian Epic doesn’t look like this and you probably won’t spend too much if any money in the shops.
The general buffet is nice but there’s never a place to sit. This is common among all cruises. So is the anticipated hand reaching across your plate to grab something that the person just couldn't wait to retrieve. Therefore, after one attempt at eating at the Garden Cafe, we decided to enjoy our remaining meals in the Haven. The Haven meals were decadent. I started with Ahi Tuna each night and my daughter even tried beef tartare. Reservations are not taken and are not necessary.
We ventured to the Shanghai noodle restaurant and were not impressed. We also had a specialty dining plan but, for some reason, despite the fact that we paid full price for our children to cruise with us, they were not on the plan. Since we waited too long to make reservations, there were no tables for 5 available until late. So, we ended up skipping those restaurants and had the concierge cancel for us.
The pool on the Haven is smaller than my personal pool. The kids still enjoyed it since it was rarely full. They also liked the hot tubs and saunas. It was especially entertaining watching unsupervised kids jumping from the hot tub into the shallow pool.
We did have a butler but I found that he was not really capable of independently predicting my basic needs (such as refilling coffee pods and replacing coffee mugs or removing dirty dishes as I mentioned). Our friends did have a better experience on another ship and used their butler quite a bit. Although they tipped $100, they thought they should have tipped more.
The concierge were very friendly but also very busy at times.
Entertainment on Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruise Lines were much more diverse and kid friendly than what was offered on NCL. I figured that this particular cruise was focused more on the destinations than the cruising experience itself.
Overall, I still enjoyed and would even recommend this cruise.
I am also pleased to say that my scapular pain has finally diminished to the point that I don’t feel it daily as I had before. I’m glad that I listened to my oncologist‘s advice to wait on the work-up as this would have wasted precious time. It took 2 months to subside. After all the walking, now I have trochanteric bursitis. Did I think it was a hip metastasis when I initially felt it? Of course! Now, for our next adventure...