The cost of private excursions on port days can be shared with temporary friends, writes June-Ann Russell.
"Silencio!" bellows the guard. "Move to the middle!" We shuffle forward obediently. Eyes fixed to the ceiling, we marvel at the ornate paintings and Michelangelo's tapestry of masterpieces.
"Hey, cool, I just snapped the Sistine, guys!" Meet Bill. He and his fiancee Coni are our day-excursion buddies in Rome and when he's not committing cardinal sins in the Vatican (taking photos in the chapel are strictly forbidden) he's a pretty nice guy from New Orleans. Albeit, rather loud.
Plus a bit of dodgy behaviour is to be expected given I've met Bill on a website for cruisers (more on that later). Yep, we've had this date planned for a while and it's a dream come true ... La Dolce Vita complete with Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, St Peter's Basilica … sigh. When you have just 10 hours in a port like Rome you want to maximise your time — and budget.
Our decision to hire a private driver for the day and split the cost with another couple is proving a smart one. We can go where we want, stop as long as we like to take pictures and shop, and have as many toilet stops as we need.
Driver Vinnie wears a hat and braces, and meets us at the wharf with a sleek black Merc and a big smile. He's a deft hand at navigating Rome's back alleys and crazy traffic, and once chauffeured Sean Connery around the city for a week. He tells us an amusing story about how he once drove Mr Bond to a discreet rendezvous to meet " ... Ah, I forget!" he slaps his head apologetically.
Later, we head off for a late lunch of pizza, caprese salad and gelato at Vinnie's favourite trattoria — and more of his Roman holiday tales. When we are dropped back at the Island Princess, our ship, a good hour ahead of sailaway, the four of us agree we've seen everything we wanted to see and been given a short but uniquely local perspective on life in Rome.
Finding mates who wanted to share day excursions during our European odyssey was easy, thanks to cruisecritic.com. And it's free. Basically, you go to the website's Roll Call section, find the cruise you're booked on (yep, yours, no matter how obscure, is sure to be there) and then you can start chatting to others as excited about their cruise as you are — and saving money while seeing the sights.
For me, the planning (and the anticipation that goes with it) is just as satisfying as the actual trip — unlike my husband who has a more laissez-faire approach to travel: "Let's just do stuff when we get there, then it'll all be a surprise". Grrr.
I'd jumped on the website months before we left on our Mediterranean cruise with some specific port excursions in mind but with an open mind to others' suggestions.
Take Naples, for example. We wanted to see Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast and Pompeii but had no idea where to start — so what a relief to see Joey and Bernie from New York had already been in touch with Marcello from Sorrento Tours and had a day trip all mapped out — they just needed another six in the minivan and it would bring the cost down to around $165 (great lunch included) each: "Hey, bargain! Sign us up!" I replied on the website thread.
And, three months later, what a magnificent day it was. We dined high up in the cliffs at a rustic family restaurant amid much laughter and lemon groves; we explored Positano and Pompeii; and we asked Marcello a million questions, even about the Mafia (I had to, I had just finished reading investigative journalist Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah).
That same week we took a small private tour in Ephesus, again with Joey and Bernie. As our guide lead us from the Temple of Artemis towards the amphitheatre, a blind man broke out in operatic song. As his voice soared, dark clouds gathered and thunder rumbled in the heavens above — it was a surreal experience and one that was all the richer shared with our new mates.
Now let's address the small elephant in the room.
Cruise ships do actively recommend passengers take the liners' own organised tours while in port — for various safety reasons, but mainly because you're guaranteed the ship won't leave you behind if you're late.
However, most cruise companies salute the fact that some passengers will always want to do their own thing and host "meet and mingle parties" on board for Cruise Critic Roll Call participants — hey, meet your new online friends in person.
We attended a mixer on our second "sea day" with some trepidation.
What if we spent our whole cruise dodging boisterous couples who liked talking about themselves to anyone who'd listen? Thankfully, no one was really like that and everyone was super friendly, but after the meeting keen to get on with their own agenda at sea.
"OK, manana — see you on Tuesday at 7am in the foyer," waved joyful Cuban-American Bernie when the mixer wrapped up. And sure enough, we didn't see Bernie again until Naples, when we spent the day together like lifelong friends.