This post is mostly about me being angry at myself for a bad decision which made for a less than satisfactory day.
After leaving Malta, we sailed overnight back to Sicily, this time to the northeast coast where we dropped anchor off Taormina. Their claim to fame is that they are in the shadow of Mt. Etna, the “second largest active volcano in the world (1)”. It definitely is big, at 10,900′. It definitely is active, as an explosion a couple of months ago sent a BBC crew running and injured one of them from debris. As we came into port we could see smoke and ash spewing from the summit.
When planning our activity schedule for this week, we all pretty much agreed that we would go see Mt. Etna. After considering the options, We decided to take the cruise’s group excursion. All we wanted was a ride up the mountain and back, so there didn’t seem to be any value in hiring a private guide. So we booked a tour leaving at 9:15am. This violated Sally and my Prime Directive (1): never take a group bus tour.
We didn’t realize that the ship was anchoring out in the bay rather than at a dock. This meant that passengers needed to use the ship’s tender to transfer. This in turn meant we needed to be ready to leave at 8:30 to get ashore and meet the bus in time.
The day started with difficulty. There were big swells in the sea. Because of the swells, the tender was rising and dropping against the side of the ship and the door we exited through; the crew had to wait until they thought the two would line up and then get each passanger across. This took quite a while for the 75 or more people on our tender. Then the ride into he dock was rough, and as a result Sally didn’t feel very good by the time we were on dry land.
We boarded the bus with about 20 people and our guide. We had been variously told the ride up was 30 or 45 minutes. It took an hour, and it was also pretty bouncy. The roads were not very smooth, there were lots of turns. By the time we got to our tour spot, Sally felt even worse. And here’s where group bus tours really annoy us. About 45 minutes into the ride, we stopped for a picture of the summit and the erupting smoke. All good, and there were ladies there selling souvenirs. The guide (2) and driver each got freebies. We spent way too much time there, and a couple of women were still shopping when even the guide was ready to leave.
After driving to the end of the road, we proceeded a few hundred yards past our destination to another restaurant/gift shop. Where we spent 30 minutes hanging around. Finally we went back down the road to the spot we were supposed to see. When I read the tour description later, I realized it was accurate and we had just imagined what we were going to see: lava flows and actual eruptions.
Unfortunately, the road stops at about 6,500′, while all the action happens above 10,000′. What we saw were a series of extinct cinder cones from 20th and 21st century eruptions. Interesting, but not what we expected. One can hike the 3,500′ to the summit, which we clearly were not going to do. And there was a cable car going up another 1,000′ or so which had no time for. Sally and Zelda were finished after 30 minutes. Matteo and I walked around there for another 30 minutes, then we all got on the bus and headed back down.
By the time we got back to Taormina, we decided to tender back to the ship and have lunch there. We had originally thought that walking around Taormina after the tour would be fun, but (a) we were all tired and hungry; (b) the town was a 15 minute shuttle ride from the dock; and (c) there were no shuttles in sight. So we took another bumpy tender ride back, and the crew struggled but succeeded in getting us all back on the Silver Muse.
The moral of this story is twofold. First, always read the description of a tour for what it is, not what you wish it to say. And second, never ever violate the Prime Directive. My failure to follow these rules resulted in a most disappointing day.
(1) For those of you who are not Trekkies, the Prime Directive was to never interfere with an alien culture.
(2) Actually I was glad to get off the bus. Not to stretch, not because I needed the fresh air, but because the guide didn’t stop yammering for the entire hour it took us to drive up to the top. Talk, talk, talk, talk. And there really wasn’t that much worth saying.