On our second port stop, the island of Sicily, off the coast of Italy – I took my first Carnival Magic excursion. Taormina is a walled city which sits high upon a hilltop, about 45 minutes south of the port city Messina. While a large part of Taormina was built in the 13th century, the two gates into the city were built in the 2nd century, and its famed Greek Theater was originally built in the 3rd century BC (although later to be reconstructed by the Romans). Before entering the walled city gate, we walked by an area overlooking the bay that gave some fantastic views of the island.
I had signed up for a group tour, one of Carnival’s port excursion offerings. Port excursions are not included in the price of most cruise lines, and they can range anywhere from $55 for a half day tour to up to $1,260 for a full eight hour day with a private driver (my tour was $75 per person). When you book a tour, you’re given a number and you meet your tour bus when you disembark the ship.
Each tour bus contained an estimated 40 individuals with a tour guide. This was the first time I had joined an excursion through a cruise ship, and in my opinion, that was too many people (my favorite walking tours have about 12 people per guide). We had to crowd the tour guide in order to hear, and even then I found it difficult to understand everything she was saying. The tour would be better for me personally if there were about half as many people. Chris tells me that some cruise ship passengers band together to hire guides on their own, and I would recommend others do this in the future (you can make friends with other passengers and find tour buddies on CruiseCritic.com, among other websites).
Because the tour was so crowded, our 4-person group decided to go off on our own and walk around the city. The narrow pedestrian-only streets reminded me of the walled cities in Tuscany, with upscale clothing, eyewear, and bag shops among the touristy T-shirt shops.
There were several nice squares in the walled city, and plenty of restaurants and cafes to choose from. Almost all the restaurants and cafes along the main walking route had outdoor seating. We decided to sit down at one of the cafes and have some beers, relax and watch the people walk by. Maybe because it’s Italy, drinks were priced more than I would have expected – certainly a lot more than Dubrovnik, Croatia, our previous port stop. Our Heinekens were about $7 each.
Finding an outdoor seat spot was not difficult because there were so many to choose from, and many places had a choice of shaded or full sun seating.
One of the nicer squares had performers, but thankfully, not the painted statue people that appear in popular destinations. Most of the entertainers were guitarists or the occasional walking accordionist, playing traditional Italian songs.
If you veered off the main commercial walkways, you would find some really nice side streets or stairways leading to out-of-the-way restaurants and residential areas.
Unfortunately, I succumbed to the relaxation and never made it to Taormina’s Greek Theater. That’s the drawback of aimlessly wandering: You don’t always see all the sights that you would if you take an excursion or tour. I felt like I didn’t see as much of Sicily as I wanted to. Yet I didn’t feel like spending my day roped into a herd. Chris always tells me that in historic areas, a guide is worth the expense – and after my Taormina experience, I’m inclined to believe her. When we go back – which we probably will, as she hasn’t been – we’ll do it right. I’d also like to visit Mt. Etna and the Aeolian Islands off the coast, where celebs have their beach vacations.
Carnival Cruise Lines sponsored this trip, but the opinions are those of the author.
Don Faust | Partner, Contributor and Photo Editor of the travel site www.caroundtheworld.com, winner of 2010 Lowell Thomas travel writing award.