The Western Mediterranean, spanning Spain, France and Italy, is a treasure trove of cultural attractions. From ancient ruins and cathedrals to the foremost art museums in the world, the Western Med is a dream for connoisseurs of culture. But look beyond the paintings and sculptures, and this area is also a land of riches for those who want to venture off the beaten path.
The area's bounty of food and wine, as well as natural landscapes, provides adventure for those who've done the museum thing or who'd rather have a more natural experience. If you're a Western Med vet and you're looking for something new, try these extraordinary excursions.
Visit a Cava Producer
Since Roman times, one corner of the region of Catalonia has been famous for wine production. Drive 45 minutes northwest of Barcelona to the town of Sant Sadurni d'Anoia for a tour of Cavas Freixenet, one of the area's largest producers of cava, Catalonia's famous sparkling wine. (Cava is actually the Catalan word for "cellar.") Hop on a miniature train to travel deep inside the winery's cellars, and learn about cava production firsthand. On the way back to the port, travel down some of Barcelona's most picturesque streets, and stop in Catalunya Square for some shopping.
Who Should Go: Oenophiles who aren't claustrophobic will do well on this excursion.
Why It's Extraordinary: It's the chance to taste a very special wine right at its source.
Traveling by sea is great, but sometimes you just want to get out on the land. This Andalusia adventure leaves Malaga and heads for the Genal Valley, where the Genal River, one of the cleanest in Europe, meets one of the last Mediterranean oak forests. The valley is dotted with "white villages" -- villages of whitewashed homes -- and old mule-track pathways that once connected them. After traveling through switchbacks and vertigo-inducing hillsides, you'll arrive in the village of Igualeja, set amid stunning topography.
Who Should Go: This tour is great for those who are unafraid of a rough-and-tumble ride; --don't go if you have back or neck problems.
Why It's Extraordinary: This adventure is like a journey back in time, presenting the natural beauty of Andalusia as it once was.
Provencal Cooking Lesson
Provence is the land of plentiful produce, fresh seafood, flavorful herbs, lavender and many other bounties. Begin the day walking through a local market with your chef-teacher showing you how he selects the best ingredients. Then, drive to a local farmhouse where you pick additional herbs and vegetables. Sip local wines as you learn to create French favorites like tapenade and baked salmon. Bon appetit.
Who Should Go: Those want to learn to cook or want to add some new recipes to their repertoire will be in their element.
Why It's Extraordinary: You can learn so much about a culture through its cuisine.
Kayaking the Canals of Sete
This small port is known as the known as the "Venice of Languedoc" for the canals the wind through the center of the city. From the port, explore Sete on foot, and learn about how King Louis the 14th ordered the construction of the harbor at the end of the 17th century. At the dock, get into your sea kayak and paddle away, seeing Sete from a unique vantage point. Afterward, snack on oysters and octopus pie while sipping local Thau wines.
Who Should Go: Those who love to glide along the water will feel right at home on this trip.
Why It's Extraordinary: This isn't your average kayaking scenery.
Monte Carlo, Monaco
Monaco Grand Prix Walking Tour
Each May, one of the most prestigious Formula One motor races in the world is held in the streets of Monaco. The Monaco Grand Prix is also known as one of the most demanding courses, with fast elevation changes and even a tunnel to race through. As you explore part of the course on foot, you can practically hear the screaming engines and smell the gasoline. Then it's time to see the classic car collection owned by the late Prince Rainier -- including a 1929 Bugatti, a 1903 De Dion Bouton and a 1952 Rolls Royce.
Who Should Go: Racing and car buffs will get a lot out of this experience.
Why It's Extraordinary: You will get a totally different perspective of the course than you would on television.
Snorkeling in the Portofino Marine Park
Leave the port for a short walk to Niasca Bay, famous for its underwater Posidonia Meadows, filled with Neptune grass, making it the perfect spot to get in the water and explore the varied marine life of this protected area. In addition to the yellow cluster anemones and bright red corals, you'll see tubeworms, starfish and mollusks. Snorkeling further back to Portofino, you'll encounter moray eels, gilthead bream and sea bass.
Who Should Go: Those who love the water and want a peaceful adventure should look into taking this excursion.
Why It's Extraordinary: The protected marine parks on the Ligurian coast are considered some of the best in the Mediterranean.
Truffle Hunting in Tuscany
Among the ingredients most prized by Italian chefs is the almighty truffle, and Tuscany is one of Italy's top producers. Head inland from Livorno to a shop owned by a 4th-generation truffle hunter, and learn about the truffle varieties and how they're packaged and preserved. Venture into the fields with the hunter and his dog, and hunt for the truffles you'll use for the cooking lesson and lunch. (Italians prefer dogs, claiming they're less likely than pigs -- used by the French -- to eat the truffles they find.)
Who Should Go: If you're a foodie, this one's for you.
Why It's Extraordinary: This excursion is like attending "Truffle University," as you'll learn so much about tasty tubers.
Hiking Mt. Vesuvius & Wine Tasting
Here's a chance to get up-close and personal with perhaps the most famous volcano in history. After all, it was the still-active Mt. Vesuvius that rained down destruction on nearby Pompeii in 79AD. Leaving Naples, hop in a 4x4 vehicle to be driven to the base of the volcano. There, you'll be met by a volcanologist who will accompany you to the crater and explain the science and history of the site. The fertile slopes surrounding Vesuvius produce grapes that go into tasty local vintages like Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio (the Tears of Christ on Vesuvius).
Who Should Go: Adventurers who are in good shape and don't have mobility issues are a good match for this outing.
Why It's Extraordinary: Imagine seeing the most famous volcano in the world first hand -- one that still makes nearby residents shudder.
Trapani (Sicily), Italy
Salt, Olive Mill and Olive Oil Tasting
The Phoenicians were the first to recognize the optimal conditions in Trapani for extracting salt. Traveling along the Via del Sale (street of salt), you'll stop at the world-famous Trapani salt pans, where the white stuff is piled high alongside an ancient wind millstone once used in its production. Next, it's off to a centuries-old olive farm, where the olives are turned into "green gold" -- a nickname Italians have for olive oil. Olive oil is a staple of Italian cuisine; in fact, the average Italian consumes 14 liters per year. Walk among the trees that produce the olives, see the ancient tools used to press the oil, and enjoy a tasting that pairs the extra virgin olive oil with various Sicilian delicacies.
Who Should Go: Foodies who want to go to the source of some of the world's best ingredients should sign up for this tour.
Why It's Extraordinary: How many opportunities do you have to taste-test olive oil right at the source?
--By Kathy McCabe, Cruise Critic contributor