For cruise lovers who want to dip a toe into the Mediterranean, ten cruise lines offer scores of ships sailing scores of itineraries.
The first choice, of course, is: Western Med or Eastern Med.
For me, the Western Med has a slight edge because I favor the cultural attractions in Spain, France and Italy, as well as the shopping and dining. However, if a client favors pristine beaches, ancient ruins and perhaps a religious pilgrimage to Israel, then the Eastern Med is the obvious choice.
1. When luxury is the main consideration, Seabourn consistently gets high marks. The size of its ships (between 450 and 600 passengers) means access to less-traveled ports and the consistent sense of luxury reflected in its oceanfront suites, personalized service, world-class dining (through the culinary partnership with Chef Thomas Keller) and exceptional wellness offerings (though the partnership with Dr. Andrew Weil).
2. Also a leader in the big-budget category is Regent Seven Seas, which offers passengers unlimited free shore excursions, fine dining, state-of-the-art fitness facilities, exceptionally large balconies, extraordinary shipboard art work and the full contingent of onboard entertainment (including casino gambling).
3. The two ocean ships of Crystal sail to 10 Mediterranean countries and visit popular big ports as well as smaller ones like Hydra, Greece. The recently refurbished (2018) Crystal Serenity is one of the bigger ships in the luxury category, carrying about 1,000 passengers, but also offering more of the requested penthouse cabins. The line’s ships sail longer voyages that feature more time in each destination, with luxury elements in every aspect of the cruise, including premium alcohol, exceptional dining options and service—and rich entertainment offerings.
4. Oceania Cruises remains popular with dedicated foodies, with specialized dining (where the emphasis is on a la minute cooking) and cuisine that many still consider among the finest at sea. With ship sizes between 684 and1,250, there are low guest-to-crew ratios and a focus on personal service. Oceania offers varied Med itineraries that include interesting shore excursions and calls at smaller ports, as well as Canyon Ranch spas for wellness programs at sea. A bonus for honeymooners and older adults looking for peace and quiet, there are no special programs for kids.
5. The three ships of Azamara Club Cruises carry no more than 700 passengers, which makes them popular with passengers who appreciate ships’ access to small ports and the staff ratio of roughly one staffer to two passengers. The line offers both short and longer cruises in the Med and is known for pioneering destination-intensive itineraries.
6. The beautifully designed ships of Viking carry 930 passengers and sail both short (eight days) and longer Med itineraries calling at great variety of ports.
As ships for grownups, they are my hands-down favorites. The food is superior to that on more luxurious ships, particularly the buffets, which offer fine seafood and some items (like steak) cooked a la minute. From the beginning, Viking instituted a no-nickel-and-diming policy, which means free WiFi, included shore excursions, destination-rich itineraries, complimentary alternative dining (with tiny add-ons for wine pairings), lectures that complement destinations. Best of all, for me, there are no casinos, nothing that resembles Vegas-type entertainment—and no kids.
7. With affordable prices, abundance of onboard activities (yes, kids’ clubs and casinos) Celebrity offers good value and variety. Five ships (carrying fewer than 3,000 passengers) including the line’s newest, Celebrity Edge, will sail to 27 countries in 2019, with calls at 90+ cities—including some overnights. Celebrity visits for the first time: Nauplion, Greece; Rijeka, Croatia; and Santa Margherita, Italy.
8. Carnival-owned, Europe-based Costa Cruises does a very good job of covering both the Western and Eastern Med at affordable prices. Some itineraries sail to the Balearic Islands in Spain; also covered a few Greek islands. Costa ships, most serving 3,000+ passengers, offer all the usual features, services and amenities, but with an Italian flair. Some are exceptionally family-friendly.
In November 2019, Costa’s newest ship, the 6,600-passenger Smeralda, will debut with an inaugural Mediterranean cruise.
9. Though MSC serves mainly a European market, that can be fun for clients who enjoy using their language skills (mostly Italian) and mixing with other nationalities. An exception might be during college and university breaks in Europe, when the ships attract energetic and sometimes boisterous holiday makers. MSC’s ships carry from about 2,000 to 5,000 passengers and sail both Eastern and Western Med, with the full contingent of entertainment and amenities some clients favor: Casinos, kids and teens clubs, Broadway-style shows, fitness programs, etc.
10. Serving the Greek islands and the Mediterranean, Greece-based and award-winning Celestyal Cruises has carved out a solid presence in the area by upgrading its two mid-size ships, offering good prices with generous inclusions and destination-rich experiences. In 2019, the line debuts two seven-night itineraries from Piraeus, Athens onboard The Crystal, with a return to Istanbul and adding Canakkale, Turkey and Volos, Greece to calls in Crete, Santorini and Mykonos. The Crystal will sail to Ashdod, Israel and Alexandria/Port Said, Egypt on the “Three Continents” itinerary, along with Limassol, Cyprus, Rhodes, Greece and Kusadasi, Turkey.
Celestyal has also introduced a new Suite Concierge onboard service on the Crystal and The Olympia, for guests booking select Suite category accommodations. This will include such perks as priority embarkation and disembarkation and complimentary room service for breakfast, lunch, and dinner from the dining room menu.
Bottom Line: More than ever, cruise fans have the luxury of choice when booking a Mediterranean cruise.