The Western Mediterranean -- loosely comprised of Italy's western coast, France's southern rim, the entire ring of coastal Spain and on up through Lisbon -- not only acts as the perfect cruise region for new-to-Europe travelers but also enchants even those folks who've returned again and again.

What makes the region so desirable? The credit goes at least in part to a fantastic collection of major cities -- Naples, Rome, Florence, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Nice, Seville and Lisbon -- all with profound histories. But the region's smaller, multifaceted towns are also appealing, especially for repeat visitors because these destinations offer a more intimate experience. These include Taormina, Positano, Cinque Terre, Villefranche, Cannes, Avignon and Malaga. And then again, there are the islands that are at once worlds of their own, yet distinctly reminiscent of their country's cultures; we love Corsica, Capri, Elba, Ibiza and Mallorca in particular.

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Most itineraries, with the exception of "greatest hits" trips, offer a nice balance of marquee cities and offbeat ports in which your ship will be the only one in town. The obvious advantage is that Western Mediterranean cruises without a doubt offer the most of the most -- arts and culture, surf and sand, cafe hopping and boutique shopping. But sitting down to actually plan the perfect Western Mediterranean cruise can be daunting for a number of reasons. The primary challenges:

Today's traveler has more choices than ever before -- there are a dizzying number of ships and itineraries on offer for varying budgets; in fact, there are more ships deployed in the Mediterranean from 2008 forward than ever. P&O, Ocean Village, Carnival, NCL, Princess, Oceania, SeaDream, Fred. Olsen, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean all have a large presence in the Western Med, and that's just the roster of major cruise lines. For those wanting a more offbeat experience, smaller lines like Star Clippers and Windstar are continually ferreting out new and little-known ports of call.

Beware of tourist burnout. There is so much to see and so little time -- and many itineraries make little concession in the way of sea days for some relaxation. If you don't want to "waste" your cruise on too many days at sea, do make a conscious effort to pace yourself on land. For instance, after an intense day of Pompeii sightseeing while docked in Naples, make Sicily's charming Taormina a shopping stop, or relax at a cafe.

Quite a few itineraries will combine Western and Eastern Mediterranean stops, which is no big deal at all -- except that you'll have less time in Spain, France and Italy. Look for those in particular that sail between either Athens' Piraeus or Venice and Rome (major embarkation ports for all-Western Mediterranean voyages typically include Lisbon, Barcelona, Nice and Rome).

Some cities (such as Florence, Rome and Avignon) are quite a distance from the ports that serve them (Livorno, Civitavecchia and Marseilles, respectively). That can result in a long and rushed day of sightseeing. Check out our port profiles for other options in the areas of their ports.

It's hot in the summer. It gets so hot that some shore excursions are exercises in perspiration-dripping frustration. Climbing the steps to get into the Alhambra in Granada, for example, or wandering the unshaded ruins in Pompeii can exhaust and dehydrate you before you even know it's happening. If you think there will be a problem with that, either choose a midsummer cruise that has a more passive, beach-y itinerary or plan your holiday for late spring or early fall when it's cooler.

And finally, with all of the ships crisscrossing the Mediterranean Sea, look carefully at the itineraries. Barcelona and Rome are the most popular embarkation points for larger ships; those cities can handle thousands of passengers at one time. But if your ship will be joining two or three others for port stops in smaller towns like Portofino or St. Tropez, you could be facing pedestrian traffic jams and crowds that you hadn't anticipated when you decided on a cruise holiday in the first place.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge you're likely to face has nothing to do with choosing your cruise or picking shore outings. Take it from this multi-time visitor: It'll be forcing yourself to get on that plane to go home.

Of course you can always come back next year, or even sooner ... some cruise lines operate ships in the region all year round!

Best for First-Timers: Princess Cruises' Sea Princess
Why: At 77,000 GRT and just 1,950 passengers, Sea Princess is not too big, not too small, and mixes the typical Princess style of modern amenities with old-world charm. Its cruises, round-trip from London (Southampton), provide ideal samplers of the major Western Mediterranean countries traveling to Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. (Mediterranean cruises take place from early spring through late August.) We love that travelers can opt for personal choice (flexible) dining or the traditional cruise scenario. The ship has plenty of balconies. And on those wonderful, restful sea days, you can't get bored with three pools, a huge spa, the fabulous Movies Under the Stars open-air cinema screen and a variety of restaurants from a buffet venue to the elegant Sterling's Steakhouse.

Itineraries: The 14-night itineraries alternate between stops starting in Vigo, Spain, and those starting in Cadiz. The former itinerary includes Lisbon, Cannes, Naples and Corsica while the latter has Monte Carlo, Florence/Pisa (Livorno), Sardinia and Mallorca. Both offer Rome, Barcelona, and that resolutely British isthmus off the Spanish coast, Gibraltar.

What's Neat: Onboard, folks in balcony cabins should try the "Ultimate Balcony Dinner" -- can't think of a more romantic way to dine. The ship attracts people of all ages. If you can keep your eyes open after dinner, there are plenty of entertainment options. For first-time visitors, the American-mixed-with-British ambience onboard can feel welcome after the foreign ports, and shore excursion selections tend toward "highlight" types of experiences that are perfect for new European cruisers.

Downside? While Princess is an American-owned cruise company, Sea Princess is dedicated to the U.K. market. That, and the fact that it leaves from Southampton, can give it a homogeneous atmosphere as opposed to a genuinely multicultural experience.

Best for Seniors: Oceania Cruises' Regatta or Insignia
Why: Regatta and Insignia (along with its sister ship Nautica) are just the perfect size -- weighing 30,277 tons and carrying 684 passengers; they're big enough to offer a range of restaurants and lounges but small enough to feel cozy and intimate. The line tends to attract mature travelers who have seen much of the world. Another plus: This is a cruise line that promotes affordable balconies, so you don't have to go broke to get one. And finally? All three ships in the fleet have been upgraded with plush bedding and upscale amenities.

Itineraries: Itineraries range from 10 to 14 nights and call at a nice blend of marquee ports and more offbeat ones. Stops include Marseille, Monte Carlo, Livorno (for Florence), Civitavecchia (for Rome), Amalfi, Taormina, Malta and Venice.

What's Neat: The atmosphere onboard is casual in a country club sort of way, and the decor is country-manor gorgeous; the ships are small enough that you really get to meet passengers (and we love the all-open-seating dining); the faux fireplaces in the library and main restaurant bar provide the perfect classy touch.

Downside? The ships don't handle rough water very well (pack your remedy of choice); shore excursions are pretty ordinary; ports of call, while fascinating, are not terribly exotic. Rooms, until you get to the suite level, tend to be really small, with miniscule bathrooms.

For Exotic Itineraries: Star Clippers' Royal Clipper and Windstar's Wind Surf
Why: These are true sailing ships (though they operate by motor as well) and offer both an intimate cruise experience and unique ports of call. The ships are small – Windsurf has only 14,475 GRT and room for 308 passengers, while Royal Clipper's numbers are 5,000 and 227 respectively -- and attract travelers from numerous countries, so there's a real international flair onboard. And while cabins are smaller than on traditional cruise ships and entertainment is somewhat muted (Wind Surf does, however, have a casino), dining is first-rate.

Itineraries: For the 2008 season, Royal Clipper homeports in Rome (Civitavecchia) and visits Ponza, Sorrento, Capri, Amalfi, Taormina and Lipari, with an evening sail past the Stromboli volcano. Most of Wind Surf's itineraries are seven-night voyages between Rome and Barcelona, but there are a few that start or end in Monte Carlo and a couple in June that miss the western Mediterranean altogether, concentrating instead on the Adriatic. Wind Surf's port calls include Sorrento, Mallorca, Capri, Portofino, Mahon and Tarragonia (Spain), Sete and Porquerolles (France), St. Tropez, Porto Vecchio and Ajaccio (Corsica), and Portoferraio (Elba).

What's Neat: Sailing on the Mediterranean, rather than cruising, offers a whole different viewpoint. Beyond the actual act of sailing, the ships' facilities and amenities aren't by any stretch as lavish or varied as those on upscale cruise vessels, but they are sophisticated in a comfortable way. Wind Surf's sails are electronically activated and augment the "motor yacht," while Royal Clipper's motor augments the wind power.

Downside? A handful of shore excursions are offered -- a call at the port for Florence includes the "usual" city tour or a trip to Cinque Terre -- but both Star Clippers and WindStar travelers are typically independently minded enough to venture out freely.

Best for Solos: Fred. Olsen's Balmoral
Why: The latest addition to the fleet (the recently acquired Norwegian Crown has been stretched, gussied up and fitted with tons of single rooms) debuts in the Med in spring, with many longer cruises of 21 nights and several shorter 10-night sojourns. While Fred. Olsen typically caters to the over-50 crowd, Balmoral brings a youthful atmosphere with the addition of balcony cabins and the line's first on-board pub. Being able to experience a Mediterranean cruise without paying the single supplement or having to hunt down a compatible roommate puts this ship at the top of our list.

Itineraries: One of the things that we find appealing about Balmoral's inaugural Mediterranean cruising season is that the ship offers a range of cruises from 9 to 21 nights, some of which combine both the Eastern and Western Med out of Civitavecchia and some of which leave from Dover and include Lisbon on the Atlantic. Combining some of the more standard ports such as Barcelona and Naples with offbeat stops such as Tunis and Valetta (Malta) makes for nice, fully-rounded itineraries. Those who so choose may also get a taste of the Greek Isles (Brindisi, Rhodes) while also exploring Italy's west coast. The itineraries are "all over the map," so to speak: there are plenty of choices.

What's Neat: Fred. Olsen's packages include round-trip air so there's never a worry about having to deal with that on your own. The fact that Balmoral is the biggest and newest ship in the Olsen fleet brings its own excitement into the mix. The addition of balconied staterooms (including those for solos) spells "winner" to us, but the pub, pool and spa are icing on the proverbial cake in terms of shipboard amenities. The mix of longer and shorter cruises offers plenty of options for solos, and with the number of single staterooms on this ship, there should be plenty of like-minded travellers with whom to congregate.

Downside? The same thing that makes these trips uniquely Fred. Olsen can also be seen as a detriment: It caters to an older crowd. With this mix of itineraries and cruise lengths, coupled with a newly-refurbished ship, a younger "vibe" would be nice.

Best for Budget-Minded Cruisers: Island Cruises' Island Star
Why: For those looking for a casual friendly ambiance, you won't sacrifice quality with the reasonable prices of these trips; in fact, you get a "best of" experience. Some of the itineraries are brilliant with their mix of popular and less-busy destinations, and the money you save by booking on Island Star can be used for other pursuits: shopping, for example.

Itineraries: Homeporting in Palma, Mallorca, Island Star's "jumping-off point" is ideal for the range of seven-night itineraries offered. The least expensive, starting at just £399 per person, visits Messina (Sicily), Livorno for Florence and Pisa, Naples, Toulon (France) and Barcelona. Other itineraries include offbeat destinations such as Mahon (Menorca, Spain), Ajaccio (Corsica), Alghero (Sardinia) and Santa Margherita, Italy.

What's Neat: By today's standards, this 47,000 GRT vessel is a small ship; it loses nothing, however, in its fun and casual atmosphere, and its size also allows it to get into ports that the mega-monsters can't access. Open-seating dining and the choice of five restaurants add to the casual, comfortable atmosphere. After an exhausting day of sightseeing in these port-intensive itineraries, no one wants to rush back to make it on time for dinner. There's also a restful spa and the ship is family-friendly.

Downside? Whereas the cruise fare is reasonable, the cost of standard shore excursions seems higher than necessary. Also, the low price might attract more families with younger kids during the summer months, making for a loud and rowdy experience.

Best for All-Around Luxury: Hebridean Spirit
Why: It looks like a yacht. It feels like an elegant country inn. It has no pretensions, and you have no worries. With just 96 passengers, spacious and upscale cabins (even the smallest equals over 200 square ft.), attentive staff, and gourmet dining, you'd think that would be plenty. But Hebridean also includes libations, enrichment speakers and at least one privately escorted tour on your voyage. With a ship this small, getting into little-known ports is a snap, adding to the exclusivity of the experience.

Itineraries: Most of the cruises range between six and eight nights, and almost all have a theme of some sort. Walking, food and wine, arts, or gardens feature prominently. "Footloose on Spanish Shores," for example, offers walking tours in Malaga, Alicante and Motril with other stops in Mallorca, Menorca and Cartagena. "A Visual Feast" features museum and art tours in Lipari, Naples, Catania and Valetta, Malta. In June, there's a Grand Prix Extravaganza, during which guests of Hebridean Spirit are invited to sit on the balcony of a private apartment in Monte Carlo overlooking the entire race.

What's Neat: How nice to come back, after a day of exhausting walking or museum-hopping, to this cool and elegant setting, get a cocktail, beer or glass of wine, and be served. There's a lovely, well-equipped spa to get achy muscles massaged and a top-deck sundeck with loungers from which to enjoy the sunsets.

Downside? Oh, how lovely it would be if this charming little gem had balconied rooms. It doesn't. And there's no swimming pool, either.

Best for Short Sampler Getaways: Royal Caribbean Navigator of the Seas
Why: Navigator of the Seas is the biggest (138,000 GRT and 3,114 passengers) of the ships on our list but by no means the largest plying the waters of the Med this year. Still, we think it's a perfect venue for a short holiday for both Europeans and those from the British Isles with easy access to Barcelona (its departure port), as well as for Americans with a a pre- or post-cruise land vacation.

Itineraries: The ship has a series of four and five-night cruises, with the four-nighter calling at Villefranche (for Nice, France) and an overnight in Ibiza, Spain. The five-night cruise has alternate routes: Cannes, Livorno and Civitavecchia on one, Marseilles, Cagliari (Sardinia) and Palermo (Sicily) on the other. Both offer a day at sea, which is one of the reasons we chose Navigator of the Seas.

What's Neat: A ship like this is a destination unto itself, with an ice-skating rink (a fabulous retreat in the midsummer heat of the Med), a miniature golf course, a world-class shopping arcade, a dreamy spa and almost hundreds of entertainment options. Even on these shorter cruises, it manages to pack in a couple of standout ports, and because it has stellar teen facilities and activities, it's an ideal option for a short family-with-teens break.

Downside? Shorter cruises tend to be frenetic and not particularly restful. With a passenger capacity of over 3,000, the few ports that require tenders (Villefranche, Cannes) can be frustrating as one waits to get off -- and then back on -- the ship.

Best for Honeymooners and Romantics: SeaDream Yacht Club's Sea Dream I and II
Why: The 110-passenger SeaDream yachts have many of the trimmings of larger cruise vessels: pocket-sized casinos, piano bars, spas and several restaurants. The ambience onboard is luxurious in a low-key way and superlative in terms of cuisine and service. Cozy cabins are outfitted with flat-screen televisions, feather beds, and bathrooms with showers built for two. In fact, the ship is so lovely we don't really care where it goes!

Itineraries: Of course it does sail, and calls are primarily offbeat with a handful of big cities thrown in. For instance, a Monte Carlo-to-Civitavecchia trip lists Viareggio and Porto Ercole, Italy, on the roster along with St. Tropez, Portofino and Elba. A Rome-to-Barcelona trip features Italy's Viareggio, Monte Carlo (Monaco) and Marseille. Most cruises are only seven days long -- so don't expect too many (if any) lazy sea days -- but that gives you time to begin or end your trip with an on-land stay.

What's Neat: We love the onboard intimacy; the unique, small-group shore tours offered in port; and the ship's all-inclusive policy, which includes everything (caviar, Champagne, wine, gratuities) but shore excursions. The ship's sports platform has all manner of water-sport toys from kayaks to a banana boat and from sailboats to jet skis. Don't miss a nap on one of the fabulous Balinese beds that wrap around the smokestack and offer glorious views as well as comfortable lounging.

Downside? You ultimately have to debark! Other than that, some folks may regret the lack of private balconies; we cared for about one minute after we got onboard and then forgot about them altogether (the cabins are so cozy and the Balinese beds are a great substitute).

Best for Enrichment: Crystal Serenity
Why: Crystal's Creative Learning Institute features instruction on a range of subjects. Offerings include foreign language and computer skills classes; art workshops; and cooking, music and dance exhibitions. In addition, through its Visions program, the line arranges for experts to speak on topics such as political science, current affairs, food and wine, astronomy, art, and antiques.

Itineraries: During summer, Crystal Serenity sails a number of different itineraries. Many blend Eastern and Western Mediterranean ports of call, such as a Venice-to-Barcelona run. Cruises typically last from 10 to 14 nights. In the spring, Crystal Serenity offers a more offbeat look at some Western Mediterranean ports -- it sails from Rome to London and back, with stops at Bordeaux (France), Bilbao and Valencia (Spain) Lisbon or Monte Carlo, depending on which direction you sail. Both itineraries stop in Gibraltar and Barcelona.

What's Neat: The ship is elegant, the cuisine generally exceptional and the service luxurious; penthouse cabins come with butlers who do much to enhance your trip, from making reservations in onboard restaurants to giving great recommendations for in-port activities. Sea days are so much fun, whether you're participating in one of the Creative Learning Institute programs, enjoying a Mozart-themed afternoon tea or diving into a fabulous themed lunch buffet (the best in cruising). This ship also has a particularly lovely spa, and there's no hard product sell after treatments.

Downside? This ship tends to attract veteran cruisers -- and many have been to Europe time and time again -- yet the shore excursions are pretty run of the mill. And there's no real effort to tie the destinations in with the onboard enrichment programs.

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