Of all of Europe's cruise regions, the Western Mediterranean offers the most of the most: arts and culture, surf and sand, cafe hopping and boutique shopping. It encompasses the absolute best variety of sights, attractions and activities.
Itineraries that sail the Western Mediterranean typically emphasize ports of call in Spain, France and Italy with a few interesting detours along the way. These could also include stops in Portugal (primarily Lisbon, though Oporto is occasionally featured), Morocco (Casablanca and Tangier), Monte Carlo, Malta and Croatia (Dubrovnik, most commonly). Within these choices, however, actual ports of call vary wildly and can include everything from France's oh-so-chic Villefranche to Italy's open-air museum of Florence.
Because the euro's value is soaring against the U.S. dollar, it's much cheaper to cruise to Europe than plan a land-based trip. For value-conscious U.S. travelers, a cruise helps to soften the blow of big-ticket items like hotels and restaurants.
The following offers some helpful tips and hints for use in planning your own Western Mediterranean cruise. You can also learn more in our Insiders' Guide to Cruising Europe.
Big Ship? Small Ship?
When sailing the Western Mediterranean, one of the toughest choices for cruise travelers can be cruise ship size. There are a couple of major differences. Big ships tend to visit big ports -- the "greatest hits" of Western Mediterranean destinations, including Florence, Rome and Barcelona. Big ships offer more onboard distractions like casinos, pool games during, and impressive spas. Smaller vessels, on the other hand, tend to offer itineraries that blend visits to the aforementioned well-trafficked spots with those of chic European islands or villages like Portofino, Elba or Capri. And beyond fine dining, generally a hallmark of a small-ship experience, you won't find so many scheduled activities.
One of the Western Mediterranean's greatest strengths as a cruise region is that it offers not only fantastic variety in ports of call but also a wide range of cruise ship experiences. There are floating resort-style ships, all-American mega-ships (Celebrity, Holland America, Princess and Royal Caribbean, among others) and sophisticated luxury vessels (Silversea, Crystal, Regent Seven Seas and Seabourn). You can opt for a yacht-style experience (SeaDream Yacht Club or Windstar) or sail on an all-masted ship (Star Clippers).
Europeans and a growing number of North Americans are opting to sail Europe with European cruise companies for extra cultural immersion. Costa and MSC Cruises, both headquartered in Italy, offer budget-friendly itineraries on ships manned by mostly Italian staff for a decidedly different experience. Both lines have experienced marked growth in the region.
Other options include Hapag-Lloyd, which attracts a predominantly German-speaking clientele, and P&O, for an onboard experience that's as British as steak and kidney pudding.
Combine a cruise with a land stay via lines owned by British tour operators (like Thomson Cruises). There are even university at sea-style ships (Voyages of Discovery) for passengers with a serious interest in learning about the region, from history to art and culture.
Costa is one of the few lines to offer cruises of less than seven nights. Otherwise, cruise lines more typically feature Western Mediterranean itineraries ranging from 7 to 14 nights. Common homeports include Rome, Barcelona, Venice and London's Harwich, Dover and Southampton. Caveat: One potential disadvantage to departing for a Western Mediterranean itinerary from one of the United Kingdom's three ports is that ships have to cross the Bay of Biscay, which can be smooth as glass or, well, not. Those folks worried at all about seasickness should definitely pack their remedy of choice.
One of the selling points of a Western Mediterranean cruise is the variety of ports, and cruise lines offer a nice blend of options on itineraries. Interested in international art and history? You can choose an itinerary that focuses on the region's "greatest hits." Looking for laid-back and off-the-beaten-path? Try sailings that offer seven-night roundtrips from Rome, calling on Sicily's Catania and Gabes in Tunisia. Other itineraries blend the best of both.
A Cruise for All Seasons
It used to be that most Western Mediterranean cruises set sail during spring, summer and fall. These days, however, cruise lines are offering year-round programs in the region. Costa and MSC Cruises are two lines that offer year-round voyages, and, while Barcelona and Marseilles may remain on itineraries, the ships often move further south to Morocco and the Canary Islands during the cooler months.
Early spring and late fall sailings offer the advantage of more competitive fares and fewer crowds in port. Conversely, families may want to cruise from mid-June to mid-August, when ship's children's facilities are running at full speed (though fares may be pricier and ports most definitely will be more crowded).
Will you be paying in U.K. pounds, U.S. dollars or euros? Currency used is generally based on the location of the cruise lines' headquarters. Royal Caribbean and Princess, for instance, are based in the U.S., so everything is priced in dollars onboard, while lines operated from the U.K., such as P&O, use pounds. Italy-based Costa and MSC use the euro.
Great Shore Experiences
First-Timers: Take a Barcelona highlights tour that features the Gothic Quarter, Gaudi's Sagrada Familia Church and various urban vistas.
Next-Timers: The Montserrat Monastery is about 45 minutes outside the city, perched on the side of a mountain.
First-Timers: A "highlights" tour is a must. Make sure you visit the Vatican's St. Peter's Square and St. Peter's Basilica, the Colosseum and Trevi Fountain.
Next-Timers: Rome is a fascinating (and walkable) city. Once you've gotten your bearings, you should poke around its winding streets, hang out at a sidewalk cafe at Piazza Navona, and shop, shop, shop!
First-Timers: Ships dock at Livorno, about 1.5 hours from Florence, so a cruise-organized tour is a convenience. Tours may start on motorcoaches, but because Florence's streets are so narrow, you'll spend plenty of time on foot.
Next-Timers: Lucca, a medieval walled city, was the capital of Tuscany in the Middle Ages.
First-Timers: A coastal drive of highlights of the major resort towns -- all strung along the coast like so many pearls -- offers a good overview.
Next-Timers: St. Paul de Vence is a 16th-century village, filled with shops and cafes, that's perched high above the coastline. On a clear day, the views of the Mediterranean are magnificent.
First-Timers: Pompeii makes for an exciting place to explore an ancient city that was once buried by a volcano.
Next-Timers: Take a jaunt to the island of Capri, where you can view the gorgeous coastline and tour lush gardens.