White architecture on Santorini island, Greece. Beautiful landscape with sea view

The Mediterranean Sea touches the borders of cultured European destinations including Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Greece and Croatia, making it a playground for luxury cruise ships. Nothing quite complements an onboard experience with upscale dining and personal service as well as ports that also showcase a touch of the finer things -- Monte Carlo, Tuscany or Provence, anyone?

The art, culture, history, cuisine and sightseeing that the Mediterranean has to offer make it a choice itinerary for almost every luxury cruise line on the market. Cruising the Med in luxury, as opposed to on a mainstream cruise line, means smaller ships, fewer passengers, more personalized attention and hedonistic pleasures, such as a cheese plate on your balcony any time of day, a complimentary bottle of sparkling wine to wash it down and a butler to handle the details, all included in your cruise fare.

If you're considering a luxury cruise vacation in the Mediterranean, read on to see what your options are, what's included and what might sound like the cruise for you.

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Why Choose a Luxury Mediterranean Cruise?

Many people choose a vacation in the Med because they enjoy life's simple pleasures (good food and wine, a leisurely tea or coffee in the afternoon) and have an appreciation for art and architecture, ancient history and plentiful shopping opportunities. 

A luxury cruise differs in its passenger base and amenities -- you'll notice an older age demographic than what you might be used to on the mainstream lines, with fewer or no children and more personalized attention with less nickel-and-diming. You'll certainly pay more for a luxury cruise up front, but the inclusions are what make the difference; your fare typically covers prepaid gratuities, beverages including specialty coffees and alcohol, some level of free Internet, shore excursions, and sometimes even airfare and hotel stays.

The Mediterranean lends itself well to a luxury experience because the ships have many of the amenities that you would pay for in port (only you're using dollars, not euros). Expect to see gourmet regional cuisine, local beer and wine, nightly music and entertainment, lectures and enrichment about where you're sailing, and spa facilities. Some lines even include tours or overnights in major cities like Rome or Barcelona.

Looking to create a unique itinerary that includes a helicopter tour of the Cote d'Azur or cooking in a Tuscan castle? Such excursions are more likely to be offered through a luxury cruise line, but even if they're not, you can be assured that a concierge will jump at the chance to arrange the experience for you. Being able to tailor your experience in this region helps seal a luxury vacation in the Mediterranean as the cruise of a lifetime.

Azamara Quest in Cannes

Mediterranean Luxury Cruise Lines

Azamara offers a healthy number of Mediterranean itineraries, considering it has only two ships in its fleet. Sail the French Riviera, the Italian Riviera, the Greek Isles and Turkey, the Adriatic and Croatia. Drinks, self-service laundry, prepaid gratuities and the line's signature AzAmazing Evenings are just some of the perks included in your cruise fare.

Crystal Cruises and its Crystal Yacht Cruises division ply the waters of the Mediterranean with weeklong and two-week sailings that stop in Dubrovnik, Venice, Athens, Monte Carlo and elsewhere. Tips, drinks, an evening of specialty dining, Internet and select excursions are included. Sailing on Esprit, the line's yacht? Water ski, kayak or Jet Ski from the ship's marina.

Oceania Cruises offers a variety of seven-to-14-night cruises in the Med that sail round trip from Istanbul, from Amsterdam to Barcelona, and from Lisbon to London, among other itineraries. Inclusions offered are unlimited drinks, access to Canyon Ranch SpaClub, dining at all specialty restaurants, gratuities and even Internet and airfare with certain staterooms.

Ponant Yacht Cruises & Expeditions offers a French take on Mediterranean sailings, with itineraries such as Tenerife (Canary Islands) to Lisbon; round trip from Malaga; the "Great Corsican loop," which explores the island of Corsica round trip from Nice; and even a selection of cruises that sail to golf courses throughout the Mediterranean. A more a la carte line than others, Ponant charges for cocktails, shore excursions, Internet, tips and more, depending on which country you purchase the cruise in. However, you will experience French cuisine and service, and an upscale atmosphere.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises offers all-inclusive, all-suite voyages to the region with round-trip air, unlimited shore excursions, specialty dining and all drinks, a one-night pre-cruise hotel stay, gratuities and more. Itineraries include a 10-night journey from Venice to Athens and 12 nights from Barcelona to Haifa.

Seabourn Cruise Line visits the Greek Isles, sailing the Adriatic and the Aegean, and offers longer itineraries (20 days to three weeks) cruising Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Croatia. Seabourn's all-suite ships include dining, sipping and all crew tips.

Silversea Cruises will whisk you from Nice to Barcelona by way of the French Riviera, or Lisbon to Monte Carlo, to name a few itineraries. Included in your fare are butler service in every suite, beverages throughout the ship with a tailored mini-bar, ensuite dining from the restaurants available 24 hours a day, WiFi throughout the ship, transfers into town and gratuities.

Star Clippers provides a number of interesting itineraries -- Monaco for the Grand Prix, Spain combined with Morocco, Malta paired with Sicily -- aboard its fleet of tall ships. Offering a small-ship experience with traditional sails, the line prides itself on a casual atmosphere with high-quality cuisine.  

Windstar Cruises sails the Amalfi Coast, the islands of the Western Med, the Rivieras (Spanish, French and Italian) and more on its fleet of yachts. A highlight from the line is an included custom experience offered in each port -- pesto tasting in Portofino or textile talk in Marrakesh. Use the ships' water-sports platforms to swim or kayak. All meals are covered, as well as nonalcoholic drinks including tea and coffee, fresh flowers and fruit in your cabin, a Champagne welcome reception and more.

Viking Ocean Cruises is a relatively new cruise line that made its debut in the Mediterranean with Viking Star. Viking sails Barcelona to Rome (and reverse), as well as onward to Naples, Sicily and Sardinia. All cabins have balconies and come with beer and wine at meals, prepaid gratuities, free use of the spa's thermal suite, tours in each port and more.

Michael's Club coffee table and chairs

Luxury on Mainstream Cruise Lines in the Med

Celebrity Cruises rates highly for Mediterranean cruises, due in part to its 'modern' appeal. The line's Suite Class provides access to Michael's Club, a suite-passenger-only lounge, and Luminae, a dedicated restaurant. Also included in this higher-tier subsection are unlimited specialty dining, premium beverage packages, complimentary Internet access, concierge services and a free mini-bar setup, depending on what kind of suite you're in.

Holland America Line offers Mediterranean sailings as stand-alone voyages or segments of world cruises. The line's Collectors' Voyages provide combined journeys with more time in port, along with more off-the-beaten-path calls compared with their other itineraries. A $300 million enhancement to the cruise line's suites throughout 2016 and beyond means updates to furnishings as well as USB outlets, LED lights, Bose-speaker docking stations, ensuite espresso makers, complimentary mimosas with ensuite brunch and more.

MSC Cruises considers itself a European cruise line, and its port calls pepper the Mediterranean from Cannes to Ibiza. Escape the crowds with MSC's Yacht Club, a suite complex with areas like the Top Sail Lounge providing sanctuary for suite passengers. Also available are concierge and butler service, a dedicated restaurant, bar and lounge, and private access to the spa. The line prides itself on its Italian/Mediterranean-inspired cuisine and offerings, such as wine blending.

Norwegian Cruise Line sails all over Europe, including the Mediterranean, with a dedicated ship in the region. You can find your own piece of luxury onboard within the line's all-suite enclave, the Haven. A ship within a ship, the Haven offers a private restaurant, concierge service, sun decks and a solarium, early embarkation and other perks that separate you from the masses.

Luxury Experiences in Port

On a luxury cruise, port calls tend to be longer or overnight, making it possible to sightsee all day and into the evening or take a morning walking tour, lunch on the ship and return out at night. This flexibility is a luxury in itself -- most mainstream lines provide only a few hours in each port of call, with tight turnaround times for tours and rarely a chance to experience dinner or nightlife on shore.

Take a day trip to Nice to see the Matisse Museum and still have time for an evening at the casino in Monte Carlo. Cruise lines often take advantage of the longer dockings, offering shore excursions like an after-hours tour of the Vatican or an evening concert at Ephesus in Kusadasi.