Travellers from Britain often choose the Mediterranean for their first cruise, not only for its convenience to the UK but also for the region’s vast range of cruise itineraries and experiences.
Mediterranean cruises ply the waters of the Iberian peninsula, circumnavigate Italy, island-hop in Greece and sail east to Turkey and south to North Africa. Along the way, they may take in pristine beaches, active volcanoes, iconic classical ruins, and some of the world’s most celebrated cities. Cruise-lovers could spend a lifetime exploring the Mediterranean and still not discover its many wonders.
Industry trade group CLIA (the Cruise Lines International Association) reported that in 2016, 676,000 Britons cruised in the Mediterranean last year – that’s twice as many as in 2001. With cruise lines bringing more ships and itineraries to the region, and offering everything from short budget cruises to ultra-luxury ships and experiences, there’s no reason to think those numbers will go down anytime soon.
But that love of Mediterranean cruising brings its own problems – ports packed with ships, car parks packed with buses, touristic sights packed with passengers. As popular ports like Barcelona, Venice and Santorini wrestle with how to both welcome tourists and preserve the character and integrity of their cities, the cruise industry may well have to adjust. But for now, the ships and the passengers keep coming to these enthralling destinations.
There are two ways to cruise the Mediterranean: sailing from the UK or flying in (a “flycruise” in industry lingo) to board a ship. The latter has the benefit of speed and allows you to do a seven-night cruise; the former adds at least two sea days in each direction as you have to cross the Bay of Biscay – most itineraries are 14 nights or more.
There are also two main cruise areas. The western Mediterranean, bordered by Spain and Italy, includes Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearics, and the eastern Mediterranean, on the eastern side of Italy, includes Greece, Croatia and Turkey.
Some cruises stay in the west, perhaps sailing from Barcelona to the French Riviera, Italy and Tunisia; others remain in the east, cruising from Venice to Athens, Istanbul and the Greek islands. Many lines offer seven-night cruises, which are great for beginners out to find their cruising legs, but there are also longer itineraries that combine the best of both sides of the Med.
Most Brits cruise the Mediterranean in the height of summer, when the sun and crowds are at their most fierce – but warm weather cruises and high-season crowds aren’t your only options. Italian lines Costa Cruises and MSC Cruises have ships in the Mediterranean year-round, mostly on the western side. Viking Ocean offers a wide series of “Quiet Season Mediterranean” cruises to ports around the region, while Norwegian Cruise Line has a handful of winter sailings on both sides of the sea.
If you choose to cruise the Mediterranean in the winter months, it is worth remembering that this won’t feel much like a tropical vacation, and you might end up seeing the sights in cold, rainy weather. Yet you’ll find fewer crowds in major cities, and lower prices, both on cruises and airfare if you’re doing a flycruise. And when the ships are sailing in the eastern Med and to North Africa, there is a good chance of better weather.
There is so much to see in the Mediterranean that it’s impossible to cover everything, but here are some top places to consider when choosing an itinerary.
Barcelona: Cruise ships berth close to the bottom of the famous La Rambla, a lively street filled with cafes, souvenir shops and street performers. Head into the Gothic Quarter to the east, and explore its warren of alleyways.
Rome: The Eternal City is reached from the port of Civitavecchia, which is 90 minutes away by road or rail. If you’re short on time, consider an escorted tour that will take you to the top sights – Vatican City, the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Roman Forum – and mark it down for a repeat visit.
Athens: Cruise ships dock at Piraeus, a 20-minute metro ride from the city, making Athens easy to explore in a one-day outing. Head to the storied Acropolis, which is walking distance from the metro, and then to the village-like Plaka neighbourhood, which is both touristy and charming.
Monaco: Thanks to expansions at the Port of Monaco, large cruise ships now berth at the foot of The Rock, the stunning, high perch of Monaco’s medieval quarter. Explore the sights of this tiny principality, or try your luck at the fabled Casino de Monte-Carlo. A helicopter ride over the French Riviera is an extravagant treat.
Venice: Most cruise ships dock in the port, a 10-minute boat ride from the city, or you can walk it in 25 minutes. Try a shore excursion if you’re short on time, or opt to get lost along Venice’s timeless canals. A gondola ride costs about €80/£71 for 40 minutes for two, and makes for a memorable splurge.
There are also many less well-known places worth seeking out if you are choosing an itinerary. Here are some favourites:
Taormina: Perched on the side of Mount Tauro on Sicily, with view across the Mediterranean and to Mount Etna. Coaches go so far and a lift finishes the journey. At the top, shops and restaurants line the picturesque medieval alleyways.
Kusadasi: This lively Turkish town is on the cruise circuit because it is just 20 minutes’ drive from the ancient Roman city of Ephesus. A tour and guide are invaluable. Get there early to beat the crowds.
Valletta: An elevator from right near the harbor connects visitors to Malta’s capital city and Europe’s latest hotspot, which offers a mix of regal Baroque architecture and post-war modernity in a setting that’s friendly, walkable and welcoming.
Celebrity Cruises (www.celebritycruises.co.uk)
Costa Cruises (www.costacruises.co.uk)
Crystal Cruises www.crystalcruises.co.uk)
Fred Olsen Cruise Lines (www.fredolsencruises.co.uk)
MSC Cruises (www.msccruises.co.uk)
Norwegian Cruise Line (www.ncl.co.uk)
P&O Cruises (www.pocruises.com)
Princess Cruises (www.princess.com)
Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (www.royalcaribbean.co.uk)
Viking Ocean Cruises (www.vikingcruises.co.uk/oceans)