When you're sailing, there's comfort in taking a shore excursion arranged by the cruise line. You can rest assured there's a bus waiting at the pier to whisk you off to your chosen adventure, a guide aboard to tell you what to expect and answer questions and the promise that you won't be left behind if something goes amiss.
It's just the thing for first-time visitors to a destination or those who have partied a little late the night before.
But there are times when the cruise-provided excursion can seem like more of the same. Particularly to veteran cruisers, or those who have been to a particular destination two or four times before, it can be refreshing to do something different.
In that spirit, on a recent visit to Rome on the new Carnival Horizon, I decided to pass up the cruise line's options — including "explore on your own" tours by bus and private train car — to find my own way to Rome and back.
Rome is one of several Italian destinations where the port is a considerable distance from the featured attraction. Visitors by ship to Rome dock in Civitavecchia, a large port that is an hour-plus in good traffic from the heart of Rome.
The trip is even longer to Florence from Livorno, the port on the Mediterranean that serves as a gateway to that Renaissance art capital as well as to lesser-known Tuscan cities such as Pisa, Lucca and Siena.
Independently getting to these inland treasures of Italian art and culture takes some doing. But for clients who have wearied of the routine surrounding cruise excursions, with their motorcoaches and paddle-toting guides, it can be a way to liven up the visit and inject some challenge into the experience.
Going solo starts by skipping the whole gathering of tribes in the ship's theater or lounge. The free and independent excursionist simply walks off the ship.
At the Civitavecchia pier, the first order of business after exiting the gangway is a five-minute wait for a free shuttle bus that carries passengers through the complicated roadways of the port to its north entrance.
The ticket office at the station, where a roundtrip ticket to Rome is about $11. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst
From there, I was bound for the Civitavecchia train station. There are options at the shuttle drop-off to take another bus to the train station for $2.40. Alternatively, there's bus transportation into Rome for $22.66 roundtrip.
Since the April weather that day was beautiful, I stuck with my original plan to make the 20-minute walk to the station. The trip turned out to be simple: follow a main street through town, take a jog of a block or two midway through and then follow another boulevard past a park and some hotels to the station.
There is a large sign directing Rome-bound passengers into an office that turns out to be packaging a train ticket with a Big Bus tour in Rome. Unless that is what you're seeking, bypass that office and go a bit farther to the station lobby proper.
There are some express trains that make only three or four stops en route to Rome, but I didn't organize my time to sync with one of those speedballs. I just looked to find the next train listed on the departures board, which turned out to be a local making a half-dozen stops.
The trickiest part of my train journey came next. Without announcing it (to my knowledge), Trenitalia called an audible and switched the departure platform. Had I not been paying attention to my fellow passengers, and a uniformed conductor on the platform opposite me making vague gestures, I might have missed my train to Rome.
The train was very comfortable, clean and quiet. I kept track of my progress through periodic stops in places I'd never heard of — Santa Marinella, Santa Severa, Marina di Cerveteri.
The San Pietro station with the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the background. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst
Train visitors to Rome have several stations to choose from, but the principal choice for cruise visitors is either the San Pietro station for St. Peter's/Vatican City and the area around the Pantheon and Piazza Navona or the Stazione Termini farther east, from which it is easier to access the Forum, the Colosseum and Capitoline Hill.
I opted for the San Pietro station, which puts travelers within site of the basilica's impressive dome. A 10-minute walk gets you to St. Peter's Square.
The door-to-door morning trip from Civitavecchia on the public train took two hours, about twice as long as it took a colleague on a Carnival-provided bus. After a day in Rome, I reversed the steps and arrived back in Civitavecchia in plenty of time to make the 20-minute walk from the train station to the ship.
One of the clear benefits of taking public transit to Rome is the cost. My roundtrip journey via Trenitalia cost me about $11, compared with $72 for the Carnival-organized "Explore Rome on Your Own" bus transportation and $90 for Carnival's private train car.