October 31, 2014

Seduced by the Mediterranean

Experience a kaleidoscope of sites, scenes and cultures as cruise lines expand their offerings in this popular region

By Katie Solan

Vacations Magazine: Seduced by the Mediterranean
The Mediterranean, that nearly 1 million-square-mile body of water separating Europe and Africa, usually conjures up images of celebrities basking on sun-kissed beaches in the French Riviera, of whitewashed buildings in the Greek Isles, or of the Catalonian flavor of Spain's northeast coast.

But the region surrounding this deep blue sea is actually quite diverse. It includes countries such as Morocco and Tunisia in Africa and Israel in the Middle East. And, a cruise is often the best way to see this multifaceted destination in a single vacation.

"You get to see different cultures, try different foods, and you're in a different country almost every day," says D.J. Tauzy of Houston, who traveled on the Westerdam of Holland America Line to the Med last August. Tauzy is a travel counselor at Vacations To Go, a company known for offering deeply discounted cruises.

Mediterranean cruises can be broken down into two main categories: Western and Eastern. Western Med cruises include what are perhaps the more "traditional" Mediterranean locales, namely, Italy and countries west. This typically includes ports in Spain, France and Monaco, but Western Med cruises also can call at Morocco, Tunisia, Portugal and the Canary Islands.

Eastern Mediterranean cruises visit locales east of Italy, such as Greece, Turkey, Croatia and Bulgaria. Gaining popularity are Holy Land cruises, those that combine Eastern Med itineraries with visits to Israel and Egypt.

The cruising season in the Med lasts from late April to October, and most itineraries are seven to 14 days in length.

Cruises give travelers the unique opportunity to see a variety of places without packing and unpacking multiple times, so travelers easily journey from one country to the next. Some itineraries include overnight stays in popular ports so that passengers have more time to soak up the destination and its offerings.

For example, Tauzy's cruise included a night in Venice, Italy. He had visited the city once before, so he utilized the extra time to see more off-the-beaten-path attractions. "Instead of seeing the 'normal' sites, like St. Mark's Basilica and the bell tower, I took the shore excursion to Burano and Murano to see glassblowing, which was nice."

Tauzy recommends taking advantage of the shore excursions offered by cruise lines. Besides getting a more in-depth look at a particular port, you'll probably spend less time waiting in line: The big attractions in Europe often have two queues at the entrance -- one for individuals and one for groups. The group line is typically shorter, and as part of an organized shore excursion, you'll be able to whiz in and out, maximizing your time in port. This came in handy when Tauzy's ship stopped in Naples, Italy, and he waited in the short line to see popular Pompeii, the ash-covered ruins of an ancient Roman city.

Mediterranean shore excursions offered by cruise companies can run the gamut. Some enter well-known churches, cathedrals and museums. Learn about Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, for example, or take a guided tour of St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums in Rome or a 14th-century Franciscan monastery within the walled city of Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Other excursions offer a glimpse of the local culture. Watch a thrilling horse race in Berber country outside Agadir, Morocco, or stroll the souks -- or bazaars -- of the Tunisian capital of Tunis. You might visit a vineyard in Tuscany, a honey farm in Corsica or the Turkish spice market in Istanbul.

Of course, all Mediterranean cruise itineraries are filled with calls at intriguing ports. In the Western Med, popular stops in Italy include the islands of Sicily and Sardinia; Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance (via port city Livorno); and photogenic Portofino on the Ligurian coast. Other locales include the history-rich island nation of Malta; glamorous Monaco; Nice, Cannes and Marseille in France; Cadiz and Gibraltar at the southern tip of Spain; and Palma de Mallorca in the Balearic Islands.

In the Eastern Med, the Greek islands of Santorini, Mykonos and Corfu enchant with ancient ruins and golden beaches, as do the medieval gems of Split, Croatia, and the minaret-dappled skyline of Istanbul. Holy Land sailings can include calls at Haifa or Ashdod in Israel, the port towns for Nazareth, Galilee and Jerusalem, or at Alexandria in Egypt, the jumping-off point to explore the mosques and pyramids of Cairo and Giza.

And, Mediterranean cruises are no longer the province of luxury liners. A variety of affordable and family-friendly lines offer cruises here, on medium to large ships that have something to offer most any traveler, such as casinos, expansive spas and fitness facilities, kids' activities, a bevy of restaurants and lounges, and even rock-climbing walls and ice-skating rinks. Right now is perhaps the best time to try one of these cruises on for size, as some lines are expanding their offerings in the Med with new ships and ports.

For example, the Norwegian Jade of Norwegian Cruise Line -- the revamped Pride of Hawaii, debuting in February -- sails 12- to 14-night cruises from Barcelona and London, March to November. And the Norwegian Gem, which had its inaugural sailing last December, offers a series of weeklong round trips from Barcelona from May to November.

The Independence of the Seas of Royal Caribbean International, setting sail for the first time in May, will stay in the Western Med for five months, sailing 10- to 14-day round-trip cruises from London. And in late April, the Navigator of the Seas will begin offering four- and five-night Western Med sailings from Barcelona, giving time-strapped cruisers the opportunity to sample this alluring region.

The latest "fun ship" of Carnival Cruise Lines, the Carnival Splendor, makes its inaugural sailing in the Western Med in July with an eight-day itinerary from Genoa, Italy. In September and October, the ship sails 12-day trips from London and Rome.

In April, the 688-passenger Pacific Princess makes its European debut, offering intimate cruises, mostly 12 days long, from Venice, Rome and Athens. Among brand-new ports for Princess Cruises is Sarande, Albania, where passengers can visit two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the ancient city of Butrint and the Ottoman town of Gjirokastra. Sarande is featured on the Pacific Princess' 16-day April 22 sailing.

The recently refurbished Zuiderdam of Holland America makes its first appearance in the Med this March, sailing two different 12-day itineraries from Barcelona and Venice through October. Travelers can combine the itineraries for one long 24-day sojourn. Holland America's Prinsendam and Rotterdam VI sail to two new ports for the line this season: Santander in northern Spain and Portimao in southern Portugal.

Major departure ports for the Med include Civitavecchia near Rome, Barcelona, Venice, Piraeus near Athens and Southampton near London. Tauzy advises first-time Mediterranean cruisers to pay attention to how close the cruise port is to the airport at which you'll arrive. Some departure points, such as Barcelona and Venice, have more easily accessible cruise terminals located closer to city centers.

The port of Civitavecchia, on the other hand, is about 50 miles away from the international airport in Rome, so travelers should plan ahead to board the ship on time. For stress-free traveling, Tauzy advises buying the cruise line's transfers from the airport to the cruise terminal. If you purchase your airfare through the cruise line, your transfers will be included.

"If you're in a foreign country where you don't necessarily know the language, I suggest going with ground transportation through the cruise line. I think it's the best way to go," he says, as you can relax and enjoy the ride and let someone else worry about getting you to the ship.

Tauzy offers another key tip: "When you're traveling such long distances, always try to fly in a day before, in case of airline delays."

Information: For more information on cruising the Mediterranean, visit Vacations To Go, or call (800) 338-4962.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in January/February 2008. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.


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