Mediterranean cruise guide

imageMediterranean cruises are a wonderful way of taking in a number of fascinating sights with a minimum of hassle. Douglas Ward offers a complete guide to taking a Mediterranean cruise.

Mediterranean cruises can be rewarding in so many ways – culturally, educationally, visually, architecturally, and historically, as well as from a culinary viewpoint. The Mediterranean is the second most popular cruise region in the world, after the Caribbean. It is loosely divided into two cruising areas: the Western Mediterranean (typically including France, Spain, Portugal and Italy) and Eastern Mediterranean (countries east of Italy, such as Croatia, Greece and Turkey).

Departure ports

Many Mediterranean cruises on popular seven-day itineraries aboard the large resort ships might typically start in Barcelona, Palma de Majorca, Civitavecchia (the port for Rome), or Venice (a popular point for cruises along the dramatic Adriatic coast), while smaller ships might sail from the smaller, less busy ports, such as Nice or Monte Carlo.

Note that some European cruise lines such as Costa Cruises and MSC Cruises allow passengers to embark and disembark at almost any port on a given itinerary (good for the locals). While this gives a more international passenger mix, it can make the ship feel a little like a water taxi, and there is a lack of a real beginning and end to a cruise.

There has also been a huge growth in cruising from the UK as the cost of flying continues to rise, but week-long itineraries are limited by the need to return to Southampton, Dover, Tilbury or other UK ports.
When to go

Although the “standard” Mediterranean cruise season is from May to October, it can start as early as March and finish as late as November, after which some ships might head south to the Canary Islands. A few ships operate year-round, but if you cruise aboard one of the large resort ships, and you want to swim, make sure your ship has a pool that can be covered by a glass dome if you are sailing during the early or late part of the year.

How long to go for

On a typical seven-day Mediterranean cruise you might visit four, five, or even six different countries, with very little time actually at sea. On a typical 14-day itinerary, you might visit seven or eight countries, but there will also be time at sea to enjoy more of life onboard. The most enjoyable itineraries are planned so that the first day and the last day of your cruise will be at sea.

Whether sailing from a UK port (in which case additional calls might be made in ports such as La Coruna, and Vigo (Spain), and Lisbon (Portugal), or whether you fly for an hour or two to get yourself to your ship, the Mediterranean is close by – you can even get to southern French ports like Marseille speedily by train (Eurostar/TGV) if you don’t want to fly.
On-shore activities

Most cruises offer excursions to suit all types, from a city tour of Barcelona to see Gaudi’s architecture (about £40), to a boat ride from Sorrento to Capri (about £70), to a tour of the Acropolis and other treasures in Athens (about £50), to a tour of Rome – from the port of Civitavecchia – including the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel (about £150). Note that English-speaking guides in many European countries must be fully government licensed. Most excursions require some walking.

It is also simple (and cheaper) to go ashore and explore yourself, especially if you have been to a destination before.

Note that when you choose an excursion purchased from the cruise line (you can pre-purchase online, or aboard), you are insured under the cruise line’s policy. If you purchase a shore excursion on our own (from an external company), no insurance is included, so if things go wrong, you are on your own.

Which cruise line to opt for

Some ships are based in Europe year-round, while many are repositioned seasonally from winter cruising in the Caribbean to summer in the Mediterranean, where higher pricing (and higher operating costs) prevail. While some are large resort ships, the majority of ships cruising in the Mediterranean tend to be mid-sized (between 600 and 1,600 passengers) or small (between 200 and 600 passengers), due to the size of the ports available. Choose a large resort ship (1,600 to over 5,000 passengers) and you’ll only get to large, busy ports.

For families with children, the large resort ships have more facilities (and distractions), but for a better, less frenetic experience I would suggest a mid-sized ship. It’s just easier to get off and back on at each port of call (waiting to go through security checks each time you board can be irritating), and the food will be better.

If you choose a ship with a port-a-day itinerary, you might end your holiday exhausted. Try to find itineraries with a better pace (of course, you don’t have to get off in each port). Note that Costa Cruises and MSC Cruises have pan-European passengers, and have more of an international flavour and cultural differences (useful for children to be exposed to).

For an adults-only experience, it’s best to choose small- to mid-size ships, which also tend to seek out the smaller, more intimate ports.

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