Friday, May 27, 2011

DAY 2: Venice (Oceania Cruise)

Ah, Venice!

After a good night’s sleep, we had a leisurely breakfast in the elegant Grand Dining Room, patterned after the classic 5-star restaurants of Europe.

Swarovski crystal chandelier in Marina’s Grand Dining Room

Grand Dining Room aboard Oceania's ship, Marina

Menus change daily, but this will give you an idea of the breakfast menu.

Page 1 of the breakfast menu in the Grand Dining Room on Marina (Oceania Cruises)

Page 2 of the breakfast menu in the Grand Dining Room on Marina (Oceania Cruises)

It felt funny (but nice) after eating a beautiful breakfast like this, to then just get up and walk out. There’s no bill to pay or even tip to leave. (There is a total tip charge, which varies by cruise line. For Oceania it’s $13.50 per person per day. For suites, which include butler service, there is an additional $5 per person per day.  Based on the attentive service we enjoyed throughout the cruise, it was money well spent!)

The weather that day was another definition of perfection. Beautiful, beautiful! Oceania provided a free shuttle from the ship to the Piazzale Roma (Venice's terminal), where we were able to pick up the vaporetto. Having been to Venice 1-1/2 years ago, there was nothing we felt we had to see, and having arrived just the day before, we preferred to have a leisurely Saturday and ride the vaporetto through the canals.

A vaporetto in Venice

A vaporetto is like the city bus, except that this being Venice, the bus is a boat. (Sidebar: if you’re planning a trip to Venice and are trying to decide between a water taxi [expensive] and a vaporetto [cheap] for your airport transfers, ask yourself if you’d like to be on this with all your luggage!)

With a day-pass, we were able to hop on and off the vaporetto and stroll for a while as desired. We both verbalized the sudden realization that Venice is one of our favorite cities in the world. We thought it probably has something physiologically to do with being on the water, but there’s also its incredible architectural beauty.

The Grand Canal in Venice


Gondola in the Grand Canal, Venice

Has anyone yet published a coffee table book called The Verandas of Venice?

Window boxes and flower-filled verandas in Venice

Pigeon in an open window in Venice

One of the highlights for us was to visit the hotel where we’d stayed on our previous trip to Venice, the Al Ponte Antico. We’d written ahead to the gracious owner, Matteo, who said that of course we’d be welcome to come back for a visit. We each ordered a Spritz ("the official cocktail of Italy," a combination of Prosecco and Aperol) and sipped them on the hotel’s veranda overlooking the Grand Canal, just as we’d done in the fall of 2009.

Our Spritz toast at the Al Ponte Antico Hotel, overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice

And just as at that earlier time, we were able to see an ambulance approach from under the Rialto Bridge and speed past, dodging other vessels and leaving its wake to wash up over the sides of the canal.

An ambulance boat speeds out from under the Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal of Venice

While we were still sitting there, a wedding party passed by!

Bride and groom in a flower-bedecked gondola in Venice

When we tried to pay the bill for our Spritzes, Matteo was no longer there, but payment was refused. (Did I say gracious?) If you ever need a hotel in Venice, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Al Ponte Antico. There’s a reason why it stays at #1 or #2 on TripAdvisor’s list of 444 hotels in Venice. So our thanks to you, Matteo!  We enjoyed seeing you and your beautiful hotel again.

Al Ponte Antico Hotel, on the Grand Canal in Venice

Breakfast room of the Al Ponte Antico Hotel in Venice

We also stepped inside the Hotel Danieli for a quick peek at its 14th century lobby. It is gorgeous. I’d thought earlier that we might want to have lunch at the Danieli, but when we see on the menu a lunch item for €85 and a bottle of champagne for €600, that’s our first clue to keep looking for another place to eat!

14th century lobby of the Hotel Danieli in Venice

We never dreamed the extent to which Oceania Cruises really goes all out, even “arranging” for the Pope to be in Venice for our visit.

Banner welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to Venice

Italian officers in a water taxi on the Grand Canal of Venice

The city was all abuzz. Cameras were set up; the appropriate dock had been carpeted in red; and we saw a boat delivering plants and flowers, presumably to dress up for the occasion. We passed a scarlet-bedecked platform set up near the entrance to St. Mark’s Square.

Of course, there was a downside to this. Even though the Pope wouldn’t be speaking until early evening, for security reasons St. Mark’s Square was closed for the day. This wasn’t a big issue for us, but we felt for those who’d never seen Venice before, as that’s one of the major sites of the city. (See cruise tip below). Our ship was even delayed for two hours in leaving the harbor because port traffic was halted for security reasons. (The captain was able to make up the time, so we arrived at our next destination on schedule.)

Before pulling away from Venice, there was a mandatory safety drill. Each cabin was assigned to a specific muster station on the ship – ours was in the Grand Dining Room – and roll call was taken. They discussed the lifejackets and emergency evacuation procedures.

When we left port – and at many other times – music filled the air. It was magic. (Well, maybe it was Jack the Knife…either way!) One passenger joked that what you never want to hear a ship’s band play is Nearer My God, to Thee – and they didn’t!  :)

Live band poolside aboard Oceania’s ship, Marina

We had dinner in one of Marina’s five specialty restaurants, Toscana. One of the nice things about Oceania as a cruise line is that they don't charge for specialty restaurants (other than for the wine-pairing dinner at La Reserve, as alcohol is not included in the price of the cruise).

Toscana Restaurant aboard Oceania’s ship, Marina

I have to admit, it’s the first time I’ve ever been to a restaurant that had a separate, two-page menu for olive oils! There were plain olive oils of different varieties, others that were infused with rosemary and such, and still others that were mixed with vinegars.

It was beautiful eating dinner there, with the Roman shades raised, and watching the sun set over the bow of the ship. We shared a dinner table with Lee and Brenda, and with Jeff and Patti. Patti used to reside in the same small town where we lived when our daughter was little. We would bump into her and Jeff a number of times in the next 10 days, and we came to enjoy some running inside jokes.

CRUISE TIP #1: When selecting a cruise that includes a destination that’s on your bucket list, you may want to choose an itinerary that either starts or ends in that location. There are several reasons for this:
(1) Sometimes, due to weather conditions, a ship is not able to make all its stops. (This may be especially true if tenders are required for a given port.) But if a cruise starts or ends at the destination that’s most important to you, barring some disaster, you can be fairly certain that you’ll see it.
(2) It allows you the opportunity to add one or more days pre- or post-cruise in that location for more in-depth sightseeing.
(3) That pre- or post-cruise stay is added insurance if the destination is of particular interest to you. I really felt for those people who’d never been to Venice and now that they were, weren’t able to see St. Mark’s Square because of the Pope’s visit. Sometimes these things happen.

CRUISE TIP #2: Some cruise lines charge $20-35 per person for specialty restaurants, not including alcohol; others, like Oceania, do not. It’s just something to be aware of when selecting and pricing your cruise.

CRUISE TIP #3: Cruise prices can result in sticker shock because we’re often used to computing land travel costs separately: “This many days in this hotel at $___ per night, and that many days in that hotel at $___ per night, and the rental car is $___, and we’ll figure so much for food,” etc. With a cruise, the food, transportation and accommodations for the entire trip are rolled into one price, and I think that price is actually a bargain (especially because all the meals are gourmet). As for alcoholic drinks, prices seem on a par with those at restaurants (an 18% service charge is added). The area where I think one is more likely to pay more can be on airport transfers and ship excursions, but there are usually easy workarounds for these, so please don’t ever let that dissuade you from the wonderful experience of cruising.

Note: I will eventually be adding many more photos from Venice to my Flickr account.

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