Little fact about me: I am obsessive about most purchases I make. If there is a platform or way to review the product or service in question, you can bet your bottom dollar I will check it. Restaurants reviews? I’ve developed a very special relationship with Yelp, Zomato and, of course, food blogs. Gadgets? Amazon and CNet, you’re the homies. Hotels or other accommodations? I book nothing under 100 reviews on TripAdvisor, Agoda or hotels.com.
So when it came to spending over 500 Euros in optional activities (activities arranged by Contiki with certain partners that we sign up but also pay extra for), I was a little out of my element when I had nothing but our tour manager’s verbal descriptions to go off of.
There were, of course, some optionals I knew I wanted to do hands down, such as paragliding, the Vatican tour and the Colosseum tour. The others, however, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
So now, presenting to all you lovely (and most likely neurotic like me if you're reading this) ladies and gents, my detailed review of Contiki’s Me Time Optionals on the European Escapade tour. First up on the chopping block…
Parisian Dinner (Euro 35.50)
Here's the thing about the Parisian Dinner. It's your first ever meal with your new buddies, and of course, you want to make an effort to get to know your very close-quarter companions for the next 25 days. I am very happy to tell you, though, that the main course of the dinner turned out to be nothing short of delicious, so I’d say it’s altogether worth it. We dined in a place called La Mère Catherine in the Montmartre district, close to the Moulin Rouge. Dinner served 3 courses.
The escargot appetizer could have been marinated a little better and the tart was a little bland as far as French desserts go, but DAT MAIN COURSE, DOE. The duck confit was not gamey in the slightest, cooked perfectly with the tastiest of sauces. To be honest, I did not get a hint of orange in sauce but it was delicious either way. The potatoes gratin side dish had our new group getting comfortable real quick when people started offering to finish each other’s if we were too full. HA, SIKE.
Nouvelle Eve cabaret show (Euro 80.00)
Unfortunately, I went into the tour already determined there was no way I was going to attend this show when the Moulin Rouge was a stone’s throw away. On the flip side of fortune, the Nouvelle Eve was unable to accommodate us that night so our tour manager had arranged for us to attend the champagne show of THE FREAKING MOULIN ROUGE for only 90.00 Euro!!!
Though I imagined the location to be more elaborate (the movie spoiled it for me), it was still an experience to be checked off the bucket list. So in terms of Nouvelle Eve, I can’t say much except Contiki, please start partnering up with the Moulin Rouge instead. Your tour-goers will be more than thankful for it.
Flamenco, Tapas & Drinks (Euro 48.00)
I cannot comment on the quality of the Flamenco since this was my first experience with it. I can say it was very entertaining, but my understanding is that Flamenco isn’t even very popular in Catalan region. Nonetheless, this is your only stop in the Spain so it may be worth it, depending on the individual and whether they have plans to come back or not. I thought the food was quite tasty, though the tapas were nothing special. The sangria was free-flowing, and got the job done, but weren’t mixed that well compared to other bars in town. Poble Espanyol, though, is lovely to see, with its older buildings and the entire structure built around the center square.
Souvenir Group Photo (Euro 11.00)
The photo will be taken in Florence against this magnificent view that highlights the river Arno and the Duomo. Truly magnificent. But you don’t need to purchase the group photo for them to take you to this place or be part of the picture. It’s actually kind of a non-negotiable because they want to get everyone in the picture for the people that actually do order it. I would say this is definitely one optional you can skip out on. Someone can just upload it to Facebook, as a friend of mine already has. They try to push it as a cute platform for you to get everybody to sign and write a message to you, kind of like a yearbook. However, in your next stop, Rome, you will be having a I <3 Roma themed party. What they suggest at the party too is for you to get a plain white shirt that just says “I <3 Roma” so that you can design it however you want AND everybody can write messages on it. The picture then becomes useless and a way less fun activity. Plus, chances are you’ll end up damaging or losing the picture by the end of your travels anyway.
Space Electronic Disco (Euro 16.00)
Aaaahh, Space Electronic Disco. Apparently famous for being one of places the Jersey Shore crew hit up while in Florence. I should probably preface this with the fact that we went there on a Wednesday night so not exactly party time. It did get quite filled up, though, considering the day. The DJ played all my favorites and the drinks were quite good and cheap! I’d say that’s about where it ends, though. No real fanfare or something to write the besties home about. Unless it works out that this tour takes you there on a weekend night, I’d say your money is better spent exploring the streets of Florence.
Tuscan Dinner (30.00)
This was my least favorite optional. Though the portions were huge, I found the taste lacking in each of the dishes. I had a lunch in a small cafe in Florence that same day, that was 10 Euro cheaper than this meal and was infinitely better. I’d say skip it and explore more of beautiful Florence.
Vatican Tour (34.00)
Catholic or not, Vatican city is an integral part of Rome and has some of the greatest structures in history. The grandeur and awe isn’t just reserved for the Sistine Chapel or St Peter’s Basilica either. This tour is worth it, especially since we were inside in 10 minutes or less when the usual wait is HOURS.
Rome of the Emperors and Gladiators including the Colosseum (Euro 26.00)
HOW COULD YOU NOT TAKE THIS OPTIONAL. No lines, the Colosseum and more = SO SO WORTH IT.
Venice Walking Tour (Euro 11.00)
I actually very much enjoyed this tour. Venice is a very small place but all the tiny streets, and many twists and turns make it very easy to get lost. Might as well get to know a bit more of the place for more than its famous gondola rides. So considering how cheap this tour is, I’d say do it. Not an absolute must but I don’t think you’d say your 11 Euro's been wasted after taking it.
Gondola Ride (Euro 22.00)
I do not know how the gondola company we took compares to any of the others but why not have yours all set up for you? It is an experience you need to have, since it’s Venice, but it’s also such a relaxing moment that I almost fell asleep on mine! I’d say the pictures you get with your boatmates are worth it alone.
Mozart and Strauss Concert with Dinner (Euro 64.00)
Lovely if you like classical music, but there were also seriously cheesy moments when pretty horrible ballet dancers would get up and start dancing to the orchestra. If you walk around Vienna the next day, you’ll also see how big of a tourist trap this is if you happen to pass by the building it’s performed in — all these men with laminated brochures saying, “Would you like to watch a concert tonight?” I’d say this event is pleasant but totally skippable.
Tandem Paragliding (Euro 123.00)
Afraid of heights? Even more reason to do it. It is nothing like skydiving. It is just pure, unadulterated fun and the closest you will ever get to feeling like a bird. You’ll see Austria like only few have seen it before. This activity is a MUST, because you’ll be better for it as soon as your feet touch the ground again.
Jungfrau Mountain visit (Euro 136.00)
Unbelievable sights. The actual strip of snow you are able to go to on top of the mountain isn’t particularly large, but the view is phenomenal. The feeling you get at the top, standing by the Swiss flag flowing in the wind proudly, is unmatchable. Plus, perfect opportunity for a snowball fight! You need to take 2 trains to get up there, totaling about an hour. Other than the fun in the snow, there are also plenty of other cool exhibits like Ice Sculptures and the like to check out. The only drawback? You may get altitude sickness. Don’t think you’re better than that. I had a major humbling experience with it, so take it from me and bring some medicine in advance.
Wine tasting (Euro 9.00)
All the wines were quite nice, but I’d say a taste Eiswein alone is worth the 9 Euro. If wine isn’t really your thing, however, this event is totally skippable.
Canal bike tour (Euro 11.00)
I’d say the best way to experience Amsterdam. The view is simply different from the canals, and you get to take a minute to really appreciate the city for other than its Red Light District fame. Or don’t slow down for a sec and race with your tourmates! Either way, I’d say this is a must.
Canal cruise (Euro 24.00)
Meh. The sites you see are beautiful, of course, but that's because Amsterdam is beautiful. If it wasn’t a convenient way to get to the dinner location, I’d say the Canal Bike is enough. Although the tour guide we had on this cruise was pretty likable and funny. It does come with 2 drinks as well. I’d say skippable, especially if you decide not to do the Sea Palace Dinner.
Sea Palace Dinner (Euro 31.50)
So here’s the thing about Sea Palace. It’s famous for being the Floating Restaurant in Amsterdam, but the surprise is… It’s a Chinese restaurant. Your last dinner. Of your entire European tour. Is. A. Chinese. Dinner.
Delicious Chinese food, don’t get me wrong. But Chinese food nonetheless. Maybe it’s because I am from 2 places (Manila and California) that has an infinite amount of Chinese restaurants, but it certainly wasn’t the last dinner I expected to have. Most importantly, though, the restaurant isn’t really intimate. For your last dinner altogether, I’d say someplace where everybody can really chat, freely move from table to table, and maybe make speeches even, is much much more appropriate. Sea Palace is not the location for that. If possible, I’d say talk about it with your tourmates as early as possible to agree on a place where you can all eat together, maybe even use a private room, and have your last dinner there instead. What’s most important is that you’re altogether, though, so proper goodbyes can be made to your new lifelong friends, and the life-changing memories that have come with them.
So in essence, here's my breakdown of European Escapade's Optionals...
Favorites: Paragliding, Jungfrau Mountain Visit, Gondola ride, Canal Bike tour, Rome of the Emperors and Gladiators including the Colosseum tour, Vatican tour, Parisian Dinner
Truly Optional: Souvenir Group Photo, Space Electronic Disco, Tuscan Dinner, Venice Walking Tour, Mozart and Strauss Concert, Wine Tasting, Canal Cruise
Didn’t do: Old Vienna Schnapps Museum, Mike’s Bikes, Mountain Bike Ride w/ BBQ lunch, Schnitzel and Screams, White Water Rafting, Bobsledding