White luxury cruise ship moored in Ajaccio port, Corsica island, France

The Western Mediterranean -- loosely composed of Italy's western coast, France's southern rim and the entire ring of coastal Spain –- is not only the perfect cruise region for new-to-Europe travelers but also enchants those who've returned many times.
What makes the region so fabulous? The credit goes at least in part to a fantastic collection of major cities -- Naples, Rome, Florence, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Nice and Seville -- all with profound histories. But the region's smaller, multifaceted towns are also appealing, especially for repeat visitors, and offer a more intimate experience. These include Taormina, Positano, Villefranche, Cannes, Malaga, and the impossibly-pretty Cinque Terre. Then there are also islands that are worlds of their own, yet distinctly reminiscent of their country's cultures; we love Corsica, Capri, Elba, Ibiza and Mallorca in particular.

Most itineraries, with the exception of "greatest hits" trips, offer a nice balance of headline cities and offbeat ports where your ship will be the only one in town. The obvious advantage is that Western Mediterranean cruises 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 is spoilt for choice -- there is a dizzying number of ships and itineraries on offer for varying budgets; in fact, there are more ships deployed in the Mediterranean than ever before. NCLPrincessCelebrity and Royal Caribbean all have a large presence in the Western Med, and these are just the traditional U.S.-based lines. European lines are adding ships and routes with increasing regularity, including: Cunard, MSC CruisesFred. Olsen, Cruise & Maritime Voyages, Thomson Cruises and P&O Cruises. If it's a bit of luxury you crave, you have your choice of several ships and cruise lines: Azamara Club Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, SeaDream Yacht Club, SilverseaSeabournViking Ocean and Windstar Cruises. For those wanting a more offbeat experience, Star Clippers tall ships offer a superb sailing experience to 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 in this picture-perfect port.
Some itineraries combine Western and Eastern Mediterranean stops, which is no big deal, except you'll have less time in Spain, France and Italy. Look for those that sail between Rome and either Athens or Venice (major embarkation ports for all-Western Mediterranean voyages typically include 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 long and rushed sightseeing days.
Two final caveats about cruising in the Western Mediterranean: it's hot in the summer. Climbing the steps to get into the Alhambra in Granada, for example, or wandering the unshaded ruins in Pompeii, can exhaust and dehydrate 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-filled itinerary or plan your holiday for late spring, fall or even winter when it's cooler. Finally, with all of the ships criss-crossing 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 you hadn't anticipated when you decided on a cruise holiday in the first place.
Ultimately, the biggest downside you're likely to face has nothing to do with choosing your cruise or picking shore outings, it will be how to pack all those souvenirs for the journey home. Of course you can always come back next year, or even sooner... some cruise lines operate ships in the region all year round.

Lisbon, Portugal town skyline at the Alfama.

Best for First-Timers

The Ship: Princess Cruises' Crown Princess

Why: Part of the same series of ships as Ruby and Emerald Princess, the 3,082-passenger Crown Princess entered service in 2006. This may be one of the larger ships in the fleet, but it never really feels crowded. This ship has something to appeal to all ages with an excellent two-deck high playroom for kids and teens; not to mention an under-18's pool, hot tubs and open deck area at the stern. For adults, the sheer depth and breadth of programming, day and night, is almost exhausting -- there really is something going on every minute of the day, whether it's lectures or karaoke, yoga classes, or wine tastings. 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 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 an impressive buffet option to the elegant Crown Grill.

Itineraries: The 14-night Western Mediterranean & Adriatic Medley itinerary departs Piraeus (Athens) on May 20, June 16, July7 and 28, August 18 and September 8 2018. The first port of call at the island of Santorini is followed by a day at sea. The cruise continues to Kotor (Montenegro), Messina (Sicily), Naples, (sea day), Barcelona, (sea day), Gibraltar, (sea day), Marseilles (for Provence), Genoa, Livorno (for Florence and Pisa), before arriving at Civitavecchia (the port of Rome).

What's Neat: Folks in balcony cabins should try the "Ultimate Balcony Dinner" -- we 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 ambience onboard (American mixed with British) is welcoming after sightseeing in foreign ports, and shore excursion selections tend toward highlights types of experiences that are perfect for new European cruisers.

Downside? The unusual tiered design of the exterior of the ship means the balcony above doesn’t block the sun, but nor does it offer much in the way of privacy.

Best for Seniors

Ship: Oceania Cruises' Riviera

Why: Oceania Cruises launched the 1,250-passenger Riviera hot on the heels of its highly successful twin, Marina. Riviera offers classy, informal cruising in a beautiful setting. Hallmarks of quality are everywhere, from warm teak decking around the generously sized pool, to some of the most beautiful suites at sea. Owner’s suites are furnished by Ralph Lauren Home Collection. All staterooms boast Prestige Tranquility Beds which are custom-made for Oceania Cruises and come with luxurious linens. During the evenings there's no need for tiaras and tuxedos; the dress code onboard is "elegant casual", which many guests love.

Itineraries: The 12-night Mediterranean Flair sailing commences in Barcelona on August 1 2018 before heading to Toulon (for Provence), Cannes, Monte Carlo, Livorno (for Pisa and Florence), Civitavecchia (for Rome), Amalfi/Positano, Taormina, Corfu, Kotor (Montenegro) and Dubrovnik before arriving in Venice for an overnight stay.

What's Neat: The atmosphere onboard is country club casual and the decor is country manor gorgeous. There is no supplement for dining in the many restaurants onboard, which range from Jacques, serving French classics in a cozy bistro setting, to the Asian-themed Red Ginger, to Toscana with Italian specialties and the Polo Grill for prime steaks. The Grand Dining Room, with its covetable Versace china, is an elegant setting for any meal and Sunday brunches are an extravaganza not to be missed.

Downside? If you're looking for Broadway-style productions or large-scale dance ensembles, you may be disappointed to emerge from dinner to find a pianist, a singer ... and couples playing bridge.

Best for Families

Ship: Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas

Why: With a capacity of 3,634, this vast ship underwent a refurbishment in 2013 when Giovanni’s Table, a large poolside movie screen and Cupcake Cupboard were added. The ship's Wi-Fi also got upgraded to the line's Voom system. What's more, it's set for another update next year, before repositioning in the Med.

Located at the heart of the vessel is the Royal Promenade. At 445 ft long, this shopping, dining and entertainment boulevard is longer than a football pitch. Putting the central, glass and steel descending Entertainment Bridge to full effect, the nightly street parades using music, lasers and lights are a cavalcade of boisterous fun -- none more so than the Dreamworks Parade when characters from "Madagascar" and "How to Train Your Dragon" are the main attraction. It's all too easy to while away the day here by popping into the Dog and Badger Pub, Vintages Wine Bar and Sorrento's pizzeria.

Itineraries: Independence of the Seas homeports in Southampton and operates a series of 14-night cruises through the summer months. These include the Mediterranean Highlights sailing which starts in Southampton and after two days at sea reaches Gibraltar, after another day at sea the Cote d'Azur is reached when the ship docks in Nice, then it's on to Civitavecchia (for Rome), Livorno (for Florence and Pisa), Toulon (for Provence), Barcelona, then a day at sea precedes Lisbon and Vigo before a final day at sea allows time to chill (and pack) before arriving back in Southampton.

What's Neat: Where to start? There's a FlowRider surf simulator and ice skating, plus rock climbing and a boxing ring. There's a shopping mall, not to mention whirlpool hot tubs cantilevered over the ocean, an enormous spa, fitness center and miniature golf. Adventure Ocean for kids includes Fuel and The Living Room clubs for teens and Fisher-Price Aqua Babies and Aqua Tots for children from 18 months to 3-years-old.

Downside? While there are plenty of activities for parents and their brood to do together, a child must be 3 or over -- and potty trained -- to use the kid's club alone. The sheer size of the ship can be exhausting, and tendering in Nice and Cannes with a full passenger load is bound to be trying. Independence of the Seas is big, but there are just eight restaurant options, which is a small number for a ship of this size.

Stromboli volcano from sea

Best For Exotic Itineraries

Ship: Star Clippers' Royal Clipper

Why: This is currently the largest passenger sailing ship in the world (in 2018 Flying Clipper will take that accolade). The amazing five-masted 227-passenger tall ship offers an intimate cruise experience and unique ports of call; and there's a real international vibe onboard. Dining in the multi-level restaurant is first-rate, and the social heart of the ship revolves around the al fresco Tropical Bar.

Itineraries: For the 2018 season, Royal Clipper homeports in Rome (Civitavecchia) and visits Bonifacio (Corsica), Alghero (Sardinia), Porticcio Beach (Corsica), Ajaccio (Corsica), Calvi (Corsica), Portofino, Monte Carlo and Cannes during a seven-night itinerary.

What's Neat: Sailing, as opposed to cruising, in the Mediterranean it offers a different perspective on a seaborne escape. 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. Royal Clipper's motor augments the wind power but the sight of the able-bodied sailors hoisting the vast sails to the accompaniment of Vangelis' "Conquest of Paradise" is possibly the most evocative sight at sea.

Downside? A handful of shore excursions are offered -- but passengers aboard Royal Clipper are typically independently minded enough to venture out freely. There are 14 Deluxe Suites with private balconies otherwise cabins are smaller than on traditional cruise ships. Also worth noting is that if you have a cabin with a third berth, it will be a bunk bed that protrudes a few inches from the wall. Entertainment at night is low-key.

Best for Solo Travelers

Ship: Fred. Olsen's Balmoral

Why: Originally built in 1988 for the now defunct Royal Cruise Line, the 1,350-passenger Balmoral is the flagship of the Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines' fleet. It underwent a massive refurbishment and 'stretching' when it was acquired in 2007. In addition it was fitted with a wealth of cabins for solo travelers including 15 Inside cabins; 39 Outside cabins; and three Balcony Suites. While Fred. Olsen typically caters to the over-50 crowd; this ship brings a more youthful atmosphere with the addition of the line's first onboard pub and production shows that are little short of avant-garde. 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 itineraries is the variety of ports around the U.K. that it sails from. This 14-night Cities of Spain & Portugal cruise departs Newcastle (U.K.) on September 2 2018 and after three days at sea arrives in Leixoes (for Oporto), then another sea day precedes Malaga, Casablanca, Cadiz, Lisbon and Vigo before two more days at sea herald arrival back at Newcastle./p>

What's Neat: 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 travelers with whom to congregate. The traditional Ballindalloch Restaurant stretches the width of the ship; there are also two smaller, attractive restaurants, the Avon and the Spey high up on Deck 10 which have extensive views from floor-to-ceiling windows. Sumptuous five-course a la carte dinners, offered in two sittings, allow the chefs to demonstrate their culinary prowess. The Palms Cafe has open-seating for all meals and there are theme nights such, as the Asian dinner buffet, plus a nightly supper club if you're feeling peckish later.

Downside? The same thing that makes these trips uniquely Fred. Olsen can also be seen as a detriment: They cater to an older crowd. With this mix of itineraries and cruise lengths, a younger vibe would be nice. Even though Balmoral does offer a kids club during British holiday periods, this is not really a family-oriented ship.

Best for Budget-Minded Cruisers

Ship: Norwegian Cruise Lines' Norwegian Epic

Why: NCL's Norwegian Epic is an affordable option that's packed with fantastic facilities. You can try a new hobby like kick boxing or just kick back and relax by one of the swimming pools. NCL Freestyle Cruising is in a class of its own, as passengers soon discover once they embark.

Itineraries: Norwegian Epic undertakes a series of seven-night Western Mediterranean cruises that depart every Sunday from May 6 to October 28 2018. These action-packed sailings set sail from the vibrant and cosmopolitan Catalan capital of Barcelona before heading to Naples, Civitavecchia (For Rome), Livorno (for Florence and Pisa), Cannes and Palma (Mallorca) before returning to Barcelona.

What's Neat: When it launched in 2010, the 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic set the agenda for 21st century cruising. This family-friendly ship has something for everyone -- kids adore the Splash Academy, and teens get a separate lounge, while the Sports Complex and Aqua Park have plenty of features to appeal to youngsters of all ages, The cutting-edge entertainment includes aerial performers and musicians in the Cirque Dreams dinner show, there's "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" on the main stage, or comedy courtesy of Chicago's The Second City troupe. You can eat your way through cuisines from around the world, though specialty dining comes with a supplement. Among the complimentary choices is the Manhattan Room --reminiscent of a New York supper club -- with a live band and celebrity impersonators.

Downside? You may get an amazing deal on Norwegian Epic, but keep your onboard spending under control to avoid any nasty surprises. It's all too easy to sign for drinks, specialty dining, spa treatments and shore excursions, but they can run up a sizable tab.

Best for All-Around Luxury

Ship: Seabourn Cruise Line's Seabourn Encore

Why: Seabourn Cruise Line is renowned for building seriously classy ships with compelling features. In January 2017 the new Seabourn Encore was christened in Singapore. This 600-passenger vessel has an additional deck and is a progression of the Odyssey-class ships rather than a transformation -- yet it has small-ship attitude in spades. The design of this Italian-built ship was undertaken by Adam Tihany, a noted New York-based designer who has created some of the world's most celebrated contemporary restaurants and hotels. The color palette is one of dark blues, browns and whites as well as mahogany accents that enhance the nautical feel, while a bling-free vibe oozes from every bulkhead.

Itineraries: There is a delightful 10-night Mediterranean Isles cruise which sails from Civitavecchia (port of Rome) on June 16 2018 bound for Portoferraio (Elba), Naples, Taormina (Sicily), Xlendi (on the island of Gozo), Valetta (capital of Malta for an overnight stay), Bonifaccio (Corsica), Bandol (France) and Palamos (Spain) before arriving in the Catalan capital of Barcelona.

What's Neat: There are 12 categories of suites ranging in size from 251 to 1,306 square feet and include Penthouse Spa Suites; Signature Suites and Wintergarden Suites. Beds can be configured as queen-size or two twins; there's a walk-in closet and in-suite entertainment with a wide selection of films, music and television. A personal bar and refrigerator are stocked according to passenger preferences, coordinated before arrival. First opened on Seabourn Quest last year and inspired by classic American chophouses, The Grill by Thomas Keller with novel wine tower, is opulent and showcases the culinary prowess of the Michelin-starred chef. There's also the on trend, minimalist Sushi restaurant -- a first for Seabourn.

Downside? The Retreat, located high on Deck 12, is a delightful spot ringed with private cabanas complete with television and refrigerator stocked with a personalized selection of beverages. Unfortunately the company charges way too much for admission to this outdoor sanctuary on what is otherwise an all-inclusive ship.

The old Vieux Port and Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde in the historical city center of Marseilles, France

Best for Short Sampler Getaways

Ship: Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas

Why: When Symphony of the Seas arrives in April 2018 it will be the largest passenger ship in the world with a capacity for 5,494. The 230,000-ton seagoing titan will be 16 decks high and brim-full of innovative onboard activities, entertainment and dining choices as well as revolutionary new firsts at sea guaranteed to make any cruise truly extraordinary. Also onboard will be the familiar seven neighborhood themes that have proven popular with Royal Caribbean passenger on other Oasis-class”. 

Itineraries: A three-night "taster cruise" departing on October 11 2018 sails from Civitavecchia (port of Rome) to Naples and Barcelona. It is a perfect opportunity to get acquainted with the unique experience of cruising onboard the largest ship in the world.

What's Neat: Active cruisers will love the thrills of the ten deck plunge slide -- the Ultimate Abyss -- or the series of water slides called the Perfect Storm. Whilst the Vitality Spa offers the perfect opportunity to relax or recharge, ready for a new day of port exploring or simply enjoying life onboard. Foodies will be pleased to hear that Jamie's Italian is onboard serving delicious Mediterranean inspired cuisine alongside a host of other enticing dining venues.

Downside? With only three days onboard there's a distinct possibility that some cruisers will spend their entire time lost. However, the modern technology being adopted using smart wristbands worn by passengers will ensure help is always at hand.

Best for Honeymooners and Romantics

Ship: SeaDream Yacht Club's Sea Dream I or Sea Dream II

Why: The 112-passenger SeaDream yachts are divine and are a great favorite with honeymooners. The ambience onboard is luxurious in a low-key way, superlative in terms of cuisine and service; cozy cabins are outfitted with flat-screen televisions and the bathrooms have showers built for two. On deck, couples can sleep under the stars on large Balinese beds with giant duvets sprinkled with rose petals. There's also a Thai spa where the therapists are experts in soothing massages -– which can also be enjoyed on deck.

Itineraries: Both SeaDream yachts are offering a series of five, seven, nine and 10-night cruises around the Western Mediterranean from May 2 to October 8 2018. Unusually they are not offering cruises in the Eastern Mediterranean and Greek Isles in 2018. Cruises primarily call at offbeat bolt-holes overflowing in glamour with a handful of larger ports thrown in for good measure. For instance, a Monte Carlo to Civitavecchia sailing calls at the Italian ports of Viareggio and Porto Ercole along with St Tropez, Elba and Portofino -- which is the SeaDream yachts spiritual home in the Mediterranean. 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 indulgent stay in a romantic hotel.

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 -- Champagne, wine, drinks and gratuities -- as well as caviar at the weekly pool splash party. The ship's watersports platform has all manner of toys from kayaks to a banana boat, sailboats to jet skis. By day and especially by night, the Top of the Yacht Bar is the epicenter of life onboard and the barmen ensure the party lasts well into the night. The dress-code is elegant casual every night so there's no one-upmanship with ball gowns but there are still plenty of designer labels.

Downside? You ultimately have to debark. Other than that, some folks may regret the lack of private balconies; but the lifestyle onboard is centered on the pool deck (Deck 2) and the upper deck where the Balinese beds and other comfy sun-loungers are plentiful. Shore excursions are extra and if they don’t get the required number of participants are often canceled -- however most "SeaDreamers" just do their own thing in port anyway.

Best for Enrichment

Ship: Crystal Cruises' Crystal Serenity

Why: Crystal's Experiences of Discovery program includes Ocean Views which has been a huge success with passengers since its launch, these cruises feature topical world issues being addressed in a moderated format of lively panel discussions by guest ambassadors, professors, foreign correspondents, four-star generals plus more. Electronic polling devices allow for immediate audience participation.

Itineraries: In summer 2018 Crystal Serenity will be in the Mediterranean and cruises typically last from 10 to 14 nights. There's a 12-night cruise departing on August 19 2018 which starts with an overnight stay in Barcelona before heading to Sete (France), St Tropez, Villefranche, Livorno (Pisa and Florence), Civitavecchia (Rome), Sorrento, day at sea, Monopoli (Italy), Kotor (Montenegro), and finally Venice for an overnight stay in this most serene and enchanting city.

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 -- 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.