On my first cruise to the Mediterranean in summer, I discovered a very important fact: it's really, incredibly, super-duper hot! Whether in urban Florence, beachy Nice or out-of-the-way Elba, temperatures hovered in the 90's, and the thick air was oppressive. It was the kind of heat that wears a person down. Instead of racing around each city like I usually do, I ambled sluggishly through town, sitting down on every available bench, stopping often for drinks or gelato, and returning to the ship earlier than expected.
At first, I was disappointed. I clearly was not going to make it to the Chagall Museum in Nice or find the strength to go shopping in Palma de Mallorca. But then, I discovered the fun of taking it slow -- lingering over wine-tasting and local lunch in Provence, eating gelato on a bench in a Florentine piazza and taking my time everywhere I went, rather than rushing from one attraction to another.
If you're going to survive summer on a Mediterranean cruise, you'll need this Zen-like approach to the heat (not to mention the crowds). Here are my hard-won tips for taking a safe and enjoyable trip to the Mediterranean in the heat (literally!) of summer. If you'd rather not travel this way, I suggest booking your cruise for the fall, winter or spring, when it's cooler and less crowded.
Don't Overdo It. If you're typically a "go, go, go!" kind of traveler, consider slowing the pace down when it's 90 degrees outside. Instead of jam-packing your day in order to see everything a port has to offer, schedule breaks to sit on a park bench or in a cafe between sightseeing stops. Your body just can't handle a breakneck pace when it's so hot out, and if you pick two or three must-sees to visit, you'll be a lot more satisfied with your day than if you try to do six things and don't make it to all of them (or are so tired afterward that you can't possibly get up early and do it again in the next port).
Another way to slow down your pace is to alternate between what my European travel companion calls "Culture Days" and "Beach Days." On a "Culture Day," you can do your hardcore sightseeing and get your fill of museums, cathedrals and cultural attractions. But make the following day a "Beach Day," when you sleep in a bit, then camp out at a park, beach or cafe and people-watch or read a book. In short, take it easy. You'll be better able to handle the summer heat.
Listen to Your Body. Now is not the time for machismo or stinginess. If you're thirsty, get a drink -- even if that means lugging a huge water bottle through Rome or buying over-priced drinks at snack stands. At the first signs of hunger, find a place for lunch. Don't put it off until you're ravenous and cranky and wilting from the midday sun. And forget about your diet -- cool gelato is just what the doctor ordered on a hot summer day. Not only will these steps keep you from dehydrating and feeling sick, but they will prevent you and your travel companions from getting snippy with each other and causing tension in the group. And don't eat on the go; sit down and relish your snack because it's a good excuse for a break.
Get Tickets in Advance. On my summer trip, we pre-booked tickets to Florence's Accademia museum (the one with Michaelangelo's David). Instead of waiting in the long, round-the-corner, outdoors-in-the-sun line, we waited in a very short, fast-moving line and were whisked inside at our appointed entrance time. Even though you'll pay a few euros more to book tickets in advance, it's well worth it, as you won't have to spend your day in town waiting in long lines in the brutal heat.
Take the Bus. Or a cab or a tourist train or a horse and buggy if you must. But when the sun is at its summer zenith, you do not want to walk three miles to that attraction on the outskirts of town, when a perfectly good (and possibly, though not necessarily, air-conditioned) vehicle can get you there faster. Look for hop-on, hop-off buses and tourist trams. They might be a little cheesy, but they'll take you to all the places you want to go without your having to hoof it or struggle to navigate with a map.
Head Indoors. Seek out air-conditioning whenever possible. Skew your hot-day itineraries toward museums, shops and cafes, rather than outdoor markets or athletic activities (biking, hiking, walking tours). You'll get a full day of culture and sightseeing without overheating.
Siesta. Avoid the heat of the day, and ensure some downtime by working a siesta into your day if the ship's docked relatively close to town. Leave the ship first thing in the morning for sightseeing or shopping; then return for lunch -- or after -- and take a nap, or go for a swim in the ship's pool. Then, head back out for a few hours before all-aboard -- the perfect time to grab gelato before setting sail.
Expect Crowds. In summer, Europe's city streets become packed with foreign tourists, and, in July and August specifically, the locals head for the beaches and other vacation hotspots for multi-week getaways. Before you leave the ship, prepare yourself for throngs of people wherever you go -- whether that includes long lines to get inside the Colosseum or slow going up Barcelona's Las Ramblas. Then, if you find an empty street or quiet corner of a museum, the surprise will make the experience all the more enjoyable. Remember, too -- pick-pockets love crowded areas, so be extra careful with your belongings when you travel in summer.
Use Sea Days to Rest Up. Sea days are a godsend on jam-packed summer itineraries. When you're going nonstop in the heat for two or three days in a row, you need a day at sea to sleep in, lounge by the pool and maybe get a foot massage for your tired tootsies -- it will help you recharge for two to three more days of hardcore vacationing. Look for itineraries with several sea days if you're cruising the Mediterranean in the summer. If your itinerary is destination-intensive, consider creating your own sea day by not leaving the ship on one or two port days. You'll have the pool to yourself (no fighting for prime lounge chair locations), and you might even snag a deal on a port-day spa treatment.
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor