As a cruise editor, I have visited scores of ports worldwide–but there are Med ports I would gladly visit again and again. That’s way I recommend a pre- or post-cruise stay for several of these ports – because there is just too much to see and do in a single day.
The glory that was Greece is still here, evidenced by centuries-old monuments alongside high-rises, neoclassical buildings, tavernas, cafés and shops selling everything from tacky souvenirs to gorgeous 18-carat gold jewelry. A pre-cruise stay is recommended for itineraries that start here — on Princess, Azamara and Celestyal, for example. Major tours include the Acropolis, the museums and the great temples of Zeus. But it’s being part of Athenian life for a while, lingering in the cafes, having a great mezze with some ouzo or local beer in a taverna that makes for a satisfying feeling of having actually “been there,” instead of just passing through. Getting around is easy after the shuttle from Piraeus into the city. Taxis are metered.
Here, too, an additional day or two is needed to get at least a sense of the city and the culture. Highly recommended are tours that feature the work of Antonio Gaudi, Barcelona’s most famous architect, who created sensuous, fantasy-like buildings and environments unlike any others. Some tours include extended visits to his greatest works – La Sagrada Familia cathedral and the public Park Güell – and brief drive-by views of other Gaudi buildings.
With additional time, it’s possible to visit some of the city’s seven World Heritage Sites, the Gothic Quarter (for local tapas bars) and walk tree-lined Los Ramblas, a feast of cafés, shops, street performers, flower sellers that starts at the docks and offers reasons galore to stop and linger.
Of all of Greece’s 227 inhabited islands, this one has to be the most non-stop fun. It’s a bustling beauty with glorious beaches, waterfront cafés, delicious food (especially fresh fish) and shopping in every price range. The largest town is Mykonos town, also known as Chora or Hora; inland is the village of Ano Mera. The Hora walking tour includes all the major landmarks; these can also be covered independently. For history buffs, the “must-have” tour is to the island of Delos, a World Heritage Site. Birthplace of Apollo, this vast archaeological site includes temples, homes, statuary, a theater and a small museum.
Extra days would be bonus in this walk-able Riviera city – because it’s within easy driving distance of such destinations as Cannes, St. Tropez, Monaco and Eze. When time is limited, “Best of French Riviera” tours can include Cannes, St. Paul-de-Vence and Monaco. More concentrated are the city tours, the Cannes walking tour, the Monte Carlo walking tour and the Eze walking tour.
Palma de Mallorca
This pretty and usually sunny port, capital of the Balearic Islands, has a long and colorful history that’s reflected in the styles – Gothic, Moorish and Renaissance – of the churches and buildings. Time in port can be pleasantly spent on one of the inviting beaches or meandering along Palma’s winding streets to visit castles and churches. There are city tours, also excursions to Valldemossa and the Drach Caves (this very popular usually includes a visit to the famous Majorca (also spelled Maorica and Mallorca) pearl factory.
If the itinerary permits, more than one day is a must. Otherwise, many cruise passengers feel compelled to take the 10+- hour tours (from Citavecchia) in order to see a little of everything. The Imperial Rome version includes major sites like the Roman Forum, Colosseum, Arch of Constantine, Trevi Fountain, Vatican City and more. The Eternal City tour includes access (without waiting on line) to the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums. Shorter tours focus on just a couple of major sites (like Vatican City) and feel less like drive-by experiences.
With more than one day of port time, exploring on foot is a “realer” way to experience the city that Julius Caesar once ruled, to visit at leisure the Colosseum, the Pantheon or the Forum, walk the fashionable Via del Corso, savor the kind of Italian meals not served on any cruise ship and to sample the exquisite gelato.
A.K.A. Thira or Thera, Santorini lives up to the gorgeous photos seen in glossy magazines – of dramatic whitewashed cliff-top houses, hotels and churches, photo-worthy caldera (volcanic craters) and black beaches. The tranquil appearance offers no hints that the Thera volcanic eruption in the second millennium B.C. was one of the largest such events in Earth’s history. This gave rise to the legend that the lost city of Atlantis lies beneath the bay, the world’s largest volcano crater. Given the stunning natural beauty of the place, some passengers may wish to simply enjoy lunch at one of the clifftop restaurants, take a leisurely stroll and do some shopping at the many upscale boutiques. Though it’s possible to ascend the cliff from the port to the city by donkey, most passengers either take the cable car or a shore excursion. The most popular tour may be the one to the exceptionally beautiful Oia Village; the volcano hike, the most dramatic (not for anyone who has mobility issues or other physical challenges.)
Malta has been around forever – or at least since 5000 B.C. — and pretty much everyone has been here: Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, the Spanish, the French and British and the Knights Hospitaller of St. John. Remnants of all that history are seen amid the trappings of a modern city — in the ancient forts at the harbor, the battlements and castles, the temple megaliths, the cathedral of St. John. (Moviegoers may have seen some of that history, as movies like “The Gladiator” and “Troy” were filmed here.)
Several tours are offered: the city tour (by coach), the Mdina (old city walking tour), the La Valletta walking tour; the tour of St. John’s Cathedral (church of the Knights) and a boat trip through the cave system known as the Blue Grotto. For passengers who have a single day in Valletta and would like an overview of the city, the Mdina walking tour is the best bet.
Beautiful, romantic and unique in all the world, this fairytale city deserves an extended stay. Centuries ago, the city was a wealthy world power; today La Serenissima is a magnificent grande dame, past her prime perhaps, but still enchanting – in spite of the armies of tourists. Many first-timers splurge on a romantic gondola ride on the Grand Canal, either through the cruise line or on their own, a cheaper way to go; yes, it’s expensive, over $100, but can include up to six people. An espresso at the legendary Caffé Florian, the oldest in Italy, costs about ten bucks, but that experience is priceless when the musicians (March-October) provide a romantic serenade. There are excursions that visit the Basilica di San Marco, the iconic Torre dell’Orologio clock tower, theDoge’s palace and other landmarks, as well as boat trips, to the island of Murano to see glass blowing and to Burano to see lace-making.