Departing Barcelona

Trip Start Oct 20, 2012
Trip End Nov 03, 2012

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Flag of Spain  , Catalonia,
Sunday, October 21, 2012

Greetings from the Mediterranean Sea! It's 10:42 p.m. and I’m aboard Norwegian Epic, the world’s third-largest cruiseship. We’re presently west of Mallorca Island (40º01’05" N, 1º16’16” E) on our way to the Strait of Gibraltar and the Atlantic Ocean. This is the first night of a 13-night trans-Atlantic sailing to Miami.

I’m happy to be aboard Epic after a 3.5-week trip through Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, and Germany that was a fantastic adventure but has totally drained me. It’s not even 11 p.m. but I am totally zonked; I expect to crash soon after writing this blog post. Maybe it’s because I’m tired and a little cranky, but my first impressions of Epic are quite mediocre. I’m not enthralled with the design of my cabin and the public areas have been so far unimpressive.

Got up at 11:27 a.m. at the Hilton Barcelona. My first mission this morning was to find a store to buy Coke cans to bring on Epic with me. Soda is incredibly expensive on board cruiseships, so it’s prudent to procure the cans on shore and bring them aboard. (I would also later find out that Norwegian has switched to Pepsi products; it doesn’t appear Coke is available at all on this ship.) Most grocery stores in Spain are closed on Sundays but the hotel front-desk staffer directed me to one of the few open locations (about five blocks from the Hilton).

I couldn’t find the Open Cors store based on the clerk’s directions. She had said to turn right on this one street and go about 30 meters. I came to an intersecting street and thought I had gone too far, so I backtracked on an adjacent street looking for the store. A couple out walking asked me for the time; I showed them my watch and then asked if they knew where Open Cors was. They told me to return to the previous intersection and then walk up hill about 50 meters. I was on the correct street, but didn’t go far enough since the hotel clerk had told me it was only about 30 meters from the initial intersection. I found the shop and purchased two eight-packs of Coke cans. The cost was an astounding 4.50 euros per pack, which is $5.90 or 74 cents per can. Back home in Washington, a 12-pack of Coke cans sells for about $3 when on sale; that works out to 25 cents per can. So the price of Coke here in this small Barcelona grocery store was triple what I’d pay at home. That’s frustrating. But I did save money by making the trek to Open Cors this morning. At the Port of Barcelona, a shop sold eight-packs of Coke for 8 euros ($10.48 per pack; a stunning $1.31 per can).

After buying the 16 cans of Coke at Open Cors, I walked 7.5 minutes back to the hotel room, arriving at 12:10 p.m., 10 minutes after check-out time. I intended to wake up at 11 this morning, but was so tired I kept hitting the snooze button. Fortunately nobody at the Hilton was calling me or banging on my door to rush me out. I packed up my two suitcases and backpack, then checked out at 12:44.

My next adventure was getting to the Port of Barcelona. It is possible to use public transportation to get to the cruise piers, but it would have been a nightmare – a long walk with my heavy bags from the Hilton to the closest subway station, then a transfer to a port bus that runs only every 20-30 minutes. Both the subway and bus cost 2 euros, so it would be 4 euros to use public transport. And it would have taken a long time and been uncomfortable due to hauling my bags around. I’m normally adverse to using taxis in any First World nation due to their high cost, but in this case I felt it was worth the extra money to save me the aggravation.

I was last in Barcelona in late April to board Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas on a 15-night cruise to Dubai via Egypt and Jordan. The 13-minute taxi ride from my hotel to the cruise pier ended with a meter fare of 9.35 euros. But then the driver put a supplement of 6.20 euros on there and then somehow another 4.05 euros was tacked on so the total read 19.60 euros. I was highly suspicious of the extreme additions to the metered fare, so I was leery of another cab ride to the Port of Barcelona. This time I looked up taxi fares online before leaving the Hilton. The best page I could find listed 2008 taxi rates. This showed a luggage fee of 1 euro per bag, and a port surcharge only if leaving the port. No indication of a surcharge for being dropped off at the port. But that was the 2008 rate sheet; things could have changed in the last four years. I also asked the bellman at the Hilton. He said there is indeed a 1-euro-per-bag fee and he believed a surcharge applied for trips to the port as well as from it; but he wasn’t sure of the amount.

Armed with this information, the bellman waved a taxi over for me. Departed the Hilton at 12:52. The meter was already running as we pulled away from the Hilton; it appeared to have started about 2.25 euros and I was freaked out to watch the meter go up every few seconds in 5-cent increments. Whoa; I’ve never seen anything like that before. Typically taxi meters will bump up a set amount every fraction of a mile (or kilometer); but in Barcelona they apparently run in 5-cent increments every few dozen meters. Horrible! I noticed the meter was set to "Tarifa 1.” The 2008 meter sheet I found online indicated there’s a slightly higher tariff for trips on “Saturdays and public holidays.” But no mention of Sundays. If there’s a higher charge Saturdays, then certainly it must also apply to Sundays, but that was not specifically stated so it’s confusing. I absolutely hate taking taxis in foreign countries; you just never know what the proper fare is supposed to be and I’m always leery of being ripped off.

We passed the Norwegian Epic and went through the Port of Barcelona security checkpoint, then making a U-turn to the Terminal A access road. Shortly after the U-turn at 1:12, I was startled to watch an elderly man walk right into the front right side of my moving taxi! THUD! Holy crap. The man was looking the other direction and walked right into the side of the taxi, striking the rightside side-view mirror. My driver was not at all at fault. He immediately stopped the car and got out to see if the pedestrian was okay. The man slid over to the barricade separating the two roadways, right adjacent to the security checkpoint. Two security officers were standing right there and came over to assess the situation. The man appeared shaken, but there was no blood visible or any other obvious signs of injury thankfully.

I sat in the taxi for a few minutes, then got out to take a few photos, which you can view below. The driver then motioned that I should take my bags and walk the remaining 100 yards or so to Terminal A. He apparently needed to remain on the scene to sort out the collision. Meanwhile the meter continued to rise while we were sitting there parked on the road. It was at 17.95 euros when we stopped and had now climbed by about another euro. The driver added 4.10 euros in surcharges to the fare, resulting in a total of about 23.05. I saw two surcharges on the meter: “2.00” and “2.10.” I knew 2.00 was for my two suitcases, but wasn’t sure about the 2.10. I questioned what that was for. The driver then pointed to a big sticker on the rear rightside window displaying the 2012 Barcelona taxi tariffs. There it clearly states “CRUISE LINER QUAY, to/from 2.10.” Okay, so that charge is legitimate. Sometime after 2008, the cruise pier surcharge must have been amended to include arriving taxis in addition to departing taxis. (This now confirms that my April taxi driver ripped me off. He charged me 4.05 euros in surcharges – those were correct for luggage and port fee; although should have been 4.10. The mysterious 6.20 euros in additional supplements must have been a fleecing.)

I handed the taxi driver a 20-euro note and dug out 2.10 in coins for a total of 22.10. I wrote down on a piece of paper that the meter fare was 17.95 when we stopped, so I wasn’t paying the 23.05 displayed on the final meter since that included extra run time from when we were stopped tending to the pedestrian. He appeared to understand and said “okay.” My total taxi fare was thus $28.95 in dollar equivalent, which is really expensive for a 20-minute trip. My basic taxi philosophy is that $1/minute is a reasonable rate for taxi service; anything above that is expensive. This trip worked out to $1.45/minute. Ugh.

I got my luggage out of the taxi at 1:17 in front of the Celebrity Reflection, docked at Terminal B. I then I had to walk about 100 yards to the Terminal A entrance. I walked into the terminal at 1:24. The security and check-in process took 31 minutes. I was handed my key card, but not a Day 1 cruise newsletter or map of the ship. Terrible customer service to not hand out those basic items to a guest upon check-in. I had to find those two basics on board the ship after boarding.

I took some photos of the ship from the boarding ramp, then stepped aboard Epic at 2:04 p.m. I immediately headed up to Deck 15 for the lunch buffet at Garden Café. I read the newsletter and took a look at the map to familiarize myself with the ship. This is the second Norwegian ship I’ve sailed on; the other one was Norwegian Pearl (two cruises). I was displeased to see only water and ice tea available to drink. Then I remembered I had this same frown on my Pearl cruises in 2008 and 2009. Other cruiselines including Royal Caribbean and Celebrity offer juices and lemonade in addition to water and ice tea. It’s really awful that Norwegian has such limited free beverage offerings. Really glad I brought on my Cokes as well as several dozen packets of Crystal Lite individual powder packets to turn water into lemonade, raspberry juice, grape juice, and other flavors.

After lunch, I walked downstairs to Deck 13 and found my interior cabin 13223, stepping inside at 3:00. I was not pleased to see the two beds separated. Why in the world would you do that for a cabin with only one guest? That makes zero sense. Obviously I want the beds together to enjoy a full-size bed since I am cruising alone. I saw my stateroom attendant a few minutes later and asked for the beds to be moved together, a task he completed later during the emergency drill.

At first glance, I’m not happy with the layout of my cabin. I’ll get into this in more detail in a future blog posting; this one is already getting really long!

My big suitcase was delivered at 3:03. I couldn’t find the light switches for the two lights above my sink and counter. I had to ask Milton, my stateroom attendant from Nicaragua, who pointed them out hiding in the rear under my medicine cabinet. Strange placement. In general the cabin lighting is poor – lots of little lights but no big one; the cabin is not bright enough – especially a problem for an interior cabin since I don’t have any windows to bring in natural light.

I started unpacking. My second suitcase was delivered at 3:39. The alarm sounded at 4:22 for the emergency drill. I went to my muster station on Deck 7. Returned to my cabin after the drill only to see the light on my door flash red as I inserted and withdrew my keycard. I tried numerous times, and the door would not open. SCREAM!!!!!!!!!!!!! How incredibly aggravating for the keycard to malfunction the first time I left my cabin! I was pissed. I found a phone near the elevator to call the operator, who said he would send someone from housekeeping to assist me. I waited outside my cabin for about 10 minutes, but nobody came. The crew might have been busy wrapping up their safety-drill requirements, so I made my way all the way down to the front desk on Deck 5, cut in front of a line of people, and handed over my keycard for reprogramming. What a waste of time.

I finally got back in my cabin at 5:13. I did not have enough time to finish unpacking before the evening’s first activity, the single cruisers meet and greet in “The Living Room,” the lounge on Deck 11 for solo travelers in Epic’s studio cabins. My friend Craig is staying in a studio. I met him at the event, where the ship’s solo cruisers coordinator gave a brief rundown of the ship’s features to the 40 or so singles in attendance. He also explained that he’d be organizing singles dinners for those who wanted to eat with a group. Looking around at the mostly 50+ men and women around me, I thought, I probably won’t be taking you up on that offer. I was definitely the youngest person in attendance at this gathering.

Craig showed me his studio cabin – a feature unique to the Norwegian Epic. Although the cabins have full-size beds and could sleep two, they are designed for solo occupancy and pricing is based on per person rather than the typical per-person double-occupancy rates. The studio cabins are smaller than the regular interior cabins; about 100 square feet vs. 128 square feet. The studios do not have a mini-fridge but other cabin features are the same; the studio closet looks a bit smaller than mine. The studios have a unique design complete with colorful mood lighting and a “porthole” frosted-glass window that faces the hallway. I stood in the hallway and watched Craig wave his hand around inside the window; you could just see a shadow moving around. One can only imagine what other activities inside a studio cabin look like from the hallway (there is a sliding door inside that can block the porthole for totally privacy). Craig and I then went outside for 10 or so minutes to watch as we sailed away from Barcelona en route to our first port of call in the Azores.

I got back to my cabin at 6:36 after swinging by the buffet to load up a plate full of munchies. I ate those in my cabin while finishing unpacking. Hurray – it’s so nice to be fully unpacked for the first time in 3.5 weeks of traveling through Europe! I’ll have 13 nights of sleeping in the same bed and won’t have to pack again for nearly two weeks. This is one of the best things about a cruise vacation – you move around to different places but only unpack once. After changing lodging every two to three nights during my Balkans & Berlin trip, I really appreciate the ability to settle into my cabin for 13 nights.

I popped downstairs to Deck 7 to meet Craig at 7:00 for the Friends of Dorothy gathering. There weren’t that many people there, so I continued down to Deck 6 a few minutes later. O’Sheehan’s Irish pub was showing the Washington Redskins vs. New York Giants football game, which kicked off at 7:03. It was sheer luck that this was the only game being shown from the early NFL games today; so I was able to watch my Redskins while floating in the Mediterranean.

The pub dinner menu was pretty basic. I ordered fish and chips, followed by a chocolate brownie sundae for dessert. The Redskins/Giants game was exciting, but ended in typical Redskins heartbreaker fashion as the Giants threw a touchdown bomb with just over one minute left to win the game 27-23 (the Redskins fumbled on their last drive to conclude the game). It’s amazing how many Redskins games have you biting your nails, on the edge of your chair, in the last two minutes – only to inevitably leave you with your head down at the end.

During halftime, I went down to Deck 5 to set up my satellite Internet package for the cruise. I bought the 250-minute package for $100; same rate as Royal Caribbean charged on my last cruise in April/May. But Norwegian adds a $4 “activation fee” – what a jip. But I did score 50 bonus minutes – 20 through a first-day promotion and 30 from being a Bronze member of Latitudes, NCL’s frequent-cruiser program. You had to specifically ask for the Latitudes bonus at the Internet café. That bonus should automatically be applied when you register your account since Norwegian knows my cabin number has a guest with Bronze status.

Returned to cabin at 10:16. It’s now 12:01 a.m. Time for bed! Whew, it’s been a full first day today. Looking forward to sleeping in as late as I want tomorrow (and there won’t be any sunlight to disrupt my sleep – a huge advantage of an interior cabin!) and then hopefully a much more relaxed pace for our first day at sea.  
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