The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
How to plan the perfect Mediterranean cruise holiday
With so many options, it’s hard to know where to start – but help is at hand. Sara Macefield answers the key questions on where, when and how long to sail
Aperennial favourite of British cruisers, thanks to its location virtually on our doorstep, the Mediterranean stretches 2,500 miles from west to east, is encircled by three continents and has a superlative blend of history, rich cultures and diverse landscapes.
It may come second to the Caribbean in the global cruising popularity stakes, but it has long been the top sailing spot for Britons and stands apart for the vast collection of countries and ports scattered along its shores, providing an assortment of vibrant cities, clifftop hamlets, ancient sites and sleepy island escapes.
Cruise itineraries can follow any number of routes, from the Mediterranean’s western edge where Europe almost touches North Africa, eastwards towards Turkey and the Middle East, reaching out to the western extremities of Asia, ensuring an almost infinite choice of destinations.
From the castaway charm of the Greek islands and the Venetian allure of the Adriatic to the chichi cachet of the Côte d’Azur and the steamy hustle of North African souks, such a variety guarantees that no two voyages need ever be the same.
The fiery pyrotechnics of volcanic Stromboli can often be witnessed on ships calling at Naples
THE CLASSIC ITINERARIES
Cruises are invariably divided between the Western Mediterranean itineraries, which generally follow the coasts of Spain, France and Italy, and the Eastern Mediterranean, covering the Adriatic, the Greek islands and Turkey.
Some voyages take a more southerly course, scooping up North African stops in Morocco and Tunisia, potentially including Israel and Egypt, with longer voyages venturing through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea and beyond.
A typical Western Med cruise would feature the Italian ports of Civitavecchia, for Rome; Livorno or La Spezia, for Florence and Pisa; and Naples, for access to the ruined Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, along with the Neapolitan Riviera and the isle of Capri.
Further stops may also include Marseilles (for Provence) and the French Riviera resorts of Villefranche and Cannes; and Barcelona and Monte Carlo for a dash of jet-set glamour.
Eastern Mediterranean itineraries typically cover the Greek islands, the Adriatic Riviera of Croatia and Montenegro, plus the Holy Land and the Black Sea (though this is largely off-limits due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine), with departures from Athens, Venice (Trieste, Ravenna or Marghera) and Civitavecchia.
UK DEPARTURE OR FLY-CRUISE?
As far as the UK is concerned, the question is whether to cruise from a British port – usually Southampton, though there are departures from other points, such as Dover, Portsmouth and Tilbury.
It is worth noting that it normally takes two days (including crossing the notoriously choppy Bay of Biscay) to reach the Mediterranean, with usually one or two stops en route at the likes of La Coruña, Lisbon, Cadiz, Madeira or Gibraltar, which sits at the entrance to the Med.
Sailing from the UK also limits how far south the ship can travel within the timeframe, with two-week voyages generally not getting beyond Naples.
Fly-cruises offer the chance to join departures from various ports in the Mediterranean, notably Barcelona, Civitavecchia, Athens (Piraeus), Dubrovnik, Palma and Monte Carlo.
Sailings can range from mini-cruises of just a few nights to longer stints of more than a month, though the most common durations are one or two weeks for fly-cruises.
For sailings from British ports, the additional time needed to sail to and from the Mediterranean means the minimum duration is generally 12 or 13 nights, but most are a fortnight or more.
The size and style of cruise ships determines which destinations will be on itineraries, proving the Mediterranean’s versatility. The smaller the ship, the more off the beaten track it can go, immersing itself in the islands of Croatia or among the more remote outposts of Greece’s archipelagos.
While certain Italian marquee ports are key stops on Western Mediterranean itineraries, their diminutive neighbours, such as Sorrento and Capri, encapsulate the heady romance of the Italian Riviera for smaller ships.
Offshore are the Aeolian Islands, where the fiery pyrotechnics of the volcanic Stromboli can often be witnessed on ships calling at Naples in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.
These outposts, including the aforementioned Stromboli, plus Lipari, Vulcano and Salina, and the Pontine Islands, off the Italian coast, attract smaller vessels that can slip into their harbours or moor offshore. It is a similar story in Menorca – one of the sleepier Balearic islands – and Malta’s quiet sister, Gozo.
Other sailings feature Sardinia and Corsica, with some cruise ships virtually circumnavigating the islands, while there are a growing number of voyages along the Adriatic coast. Dubrovnik and Split are magnets for mainstream cruise lines, with smaller coastal vessels and megayachts adding stops at the likes of Hvar, Zadar and Korcula.
The medieval walled city of Kotor, in Montenegro, stunningly situated beneath the vertiginous cliffs that surround southern Europe’s largest fjord, is another prize and can accommodate ships of all sizes.
The Greek isles are another example, where the main islands of Mykonos, Santorini et al are popular stops on most cruises to the region, with petite sleepier gems such as Patmos, Milos and Skiathos making a refreshing contrast for the boutique craft and gulet boats that cruise these waters and explore virtually untouched stretches of the nearby Turkish coast.
WHICH LINE TO CHOOSE
As a main summer cruising destination, the Mediterranean draws virtually all the major cruise lines, with US companies sending ships across the Atlantic to Europe in spring, and calling them back during autumn.
This is a key traditional cruising ground for British lines such as Cunard and P&O Cruises, which sail from Southampton and base their ships in Valletta or Civitavecchia, among others, for fly-cruises.
Fred Olsen Cruise Lines offers imaginative itineraries concentrating on areas such as Italy’s Amalfi Coast, the Adriatic or exploring the region’s ancient archaeological sites on voyages of up to 32 nights, while Saga Cruises has a range of Eastern and Western Med departures of up to 26 nights.
Ambassador Cruise Line visits the Mediterranean on a handful of longer voyages of 17 to more than 30 nights, with regional departures including Bristol and Falmouth in addition to Tilbury, while Marella Cruises bases ships at various Med ports, including Palma, Dubrovnik and Corfu.
Among US brands, Celebrity Cruises, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean International are among those to base ships in the UK and at European ports during summer, giving passengers a choice of UK departures or fly-cruises.
It’s a similar story for Italian-style brand MSC Cruises, which regards the Mediterranean as its home turf, and
The Mediterranean is a key traditional cruising ground for British lines such as Cunard and P&O Cruises offers the most embarkation ports of any cruise line, in addition to basing a ship in the UK during the winter months, too.
There is a full line-up of luxury lines plying Mediterranean waters, with the likes of Azamara and Windstar Cruises spending later evenings and staying