Our plan was to fly into Venice a few days early and then catch the ship on December 2. The itinerary included Venice, Rome, Florence, Cannes, Barcelona, Lisbon, Ponta Delgada and Ft. Lauderdale, followed by the maiden docking of this ship (The Crown Princess) into Galveston, Texas on December 22.
We had sailed with Princess before and loved the low-key atmosphere. Their food is excellent, the cabins are very comfy and they tend to avoid most of the noisy, annoying stuff i.e. no hairy-chest contests or belly flop competitions at the pool or screaming sales announcements for the spa blaring over the intercom at 6am. They specialize in quiet service, nice diningrooms, remarkable live music and beautiful holiday decorations.
Sailing into Galveston appealed to us, particularly, as we could simply drive home. Galveston is warm and dry in December, so the drive would be a few hours in the sunshine, and not having to fly on that last leg of such a long trip was a luxury we could not resist. The prices on the balcony cabins seemed right, we could get the days off work and the cost of the flights was only mildly breathtaking. So - on to Venice? What do you think? Should we do this?
Hitting [PURCHASE] on the web site was followed by a sense of blinding joy - Venice! - immediately followed by intense panic: Can we really pull this off? Will traveling so close to the holidays work out? What is weather like on the Atlantic ocean in December? Suddenly, this all seems VERY complicated. Can this possibly work out? Is there going to be a happy ending? Where the heck is Ponta Delgada, anyway?
So, first things first: we fly to Madrid. That was easy. The Madrid airport is modern and convenient and easy to navigate. Even their Christmas trees were sleek.
Now we discover an important, even life-changing item which plays a major role later in this trip which is:
Yes, Baileys Orange Truffle liquor. Every year, Bailey's produces a limited amount of special flavors for particular markets during the holidays, and this was the 2012 flavor. Outside the UK, this flavor was only available in Spain and France this year, according to the guy in the Madrid duty free shop. So, after a complex series of mile-long marathon jogs, from the gate (at the farthest end of the terminal) back to the shop and then back to the gate again (Reminder: duty free airport liquor shops Will Not. Sell. You. Anything. if you dont have your own personal boarding pass in your hand), we obtained an enormous bottle of the stuff. And got on our plane to Italy.
Now, the flight left an hour late and since this is winter, arriving in Venice after dark means it will be (a) cold (b) pitch black and (c) raining, which is was.
Our hotel had warned us that they could be "tricky" to find on foot, and suggested we pay the 100 Euros for a water taxi, which delivers you directly to the front door, on a canal. Now, that is never going to happen. Do you know how many 1 litre bottles of Baileys Orange Truffle liquor you can buy with 100 E? A lot.
So, with stout hearts, we picked up our 50 pound bags on wheels, shouldered our 25 pound carry-on bags and set out into the night, looking for the Alilaguna vaporetto dock, in the blackness and the rain.
And what do you know- there it was, right where it was supposed to be. The "Alilaguna and Water Taxi - Venice Airport Step-by-step directions to the boat piers" were perfect and we found ourselves standing on the swayng dock, looking anxiously out into the black water. It was 10 pm. and the dock was empty.
But there were cheerful holiday lights strung around the dock, and the small floating "waitingroom" had a heater blasting away. There was a small Christmas creche set up on a folding table in the corner and the plastic plant in the corner was covered in tinsel. I love attempts at festivity, and someone had tried hard on this little floating platform. We asked a very cold attendant, huddled up in a parka, when the next vaporetto would arrive and he said in a half hour, so we rolled ourselves onto a bench and collapsed to wait.
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And now, dear reader, begins the tale of The Wintery Night We Arrived in Venice, in which a "turn-by-turn" set of directions from GoogleMaps plays a central (but utterly useless) role. Those of you who have been to Venice will already know what is about to happen: we rode a peaceful vaporetto for 60 minutes, twisting and turning through the dark astonishing canals of Venizia, only to find ourselves standing on the dock at the dark and deserted San Marco pier, alone, in the rain, with no clues. So- how hard can this be, you may ask? Very, very hard.
Now, navigating at any level, especially at night in the rain, is a challenge in Venice. It is a charming city of alleyways and twisting paths and tiny arched bridges and cobblestones- but no street signs or street lights or - let's face it, viable maps of any kind. San Marco (St Marks) is a major destination in this city, and is world-renowned as a starting place for everything worthwhile in Venice. But, without having someone in the flesh to walk you from this little pier across the mile to our lovely hotel, it would not be possible to get there in one night.
We started out bravely enough, hauling our enormous bags and feeling the rain turn into sleet on our heads. We instinctively turned right at Harrys Bar, one of the most famous landmarks in the world,
...and suddenly realized that the GoogleMap printout of street names and directions (Turn left in 23 meters) was useless. Not even close to reality. Hmmm. So - lets just stop here for a minute and think.
And now, one of the truly great stereotypes of travel takes place. An event so ancient and predictable that it seems almost cliche to retell it now: a huge black rat ran across the pavement at our feet, crossed the street and slipped under a dock into the lagoon. This was not a mouse. This was a large, confident, not-particularly-rushing street rat, who was much more confident about his plans for the evening than we were.
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[from Rick Steves blog "Venetian Voices" : "We walk quickly past the bruised tomatoes and damaged oranges littering the canalside market square, then we both freeze in our tracks. A three-foot-long rat sits on an empty fruit crate as if waiting just for us. It wiggles into the canal with a tiny splash and Piero says, "For me the high tide is no problem. Low tide is the problem. It brings out the rats, so never go on the vaporetto at low tide — but don't write that in your book."]
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So, now what? Onwards, into the sleet. Up and over countless bridges. In and out of hotel lobbies, asking for directions from bar staff who had no clues. [Huge hint: always ask for directions based on the native landmarks, rather than a business name. We discovered that everyone on our side of the Rialto Bridge knew where the Theatre of Venice was, and that is finally how we got to our hotel.) But for now- another hour in the sleet, dragging our luggage, cursing, beginning to panic. Now its midnight and we have been travelling for 36 hours without real sleep.
We are standing in another silent, empty campo, with no signs and no landmarks. The rains starts again. Around the corner comes a couple, walking arm in arm and talking. They walk right up to us, then stop then ask if we are lost. At this point, we are not just lost. We are utterly and entirely without any hope at all. So this kind pair (Simon and his wife from London, heaven bless you wherever you may now be) walked us up and over another five or six bridges, turning the map this way and that, looking at their own map, arguing calmly among themselves about the shortest way - in other words, we were rescued by a pair of guardian angels with British accents, who finally got us to the corner we needed and then disappeared into the rain. We didnt even get to buy them a drink. We will pay this forward someday, though. Thank you for stopping.
And now the happier part of our tale begins, as we check into our warm cozy room on the fourth floor of the Duodo Palace.