Europe is always a revelation on a cruise

Venice - GondolasValeri Potapova/Shutterstock

Today I did a (clothed) victory lap in the stadium where naked athletes once competed for gold and glory in the ancient Olympic Games. Tomorrow, I’ll be standing on the very site where St. Paul preached to the Ephesians.

And tonight, I’ll relax in the lounge of a ship that would have been the envy of any ruler of any earlier civilization.  

There’s no place else on Earth where you can have such a variety of sights and experiences within such easy reach as you can on a cruise in the Mediterranean.

No one could mistake the first port of my cruise on Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam with our later stops in Greece. The green and lush Katakolon, site of the original Olympics, looks nothing like the treeless hills of nearby Mykonos. The island of Santorini, with its terraces of whitewashed building clinging precariously to a cliff, is unmistakably different from the island of Rhodes, whose town is enclosed inside fortress-like stone walls.

SantoriniFreeartist/Thinkstock

Of course, the same holds true of almost any set of cruise ports around the Mediterranean. I’m always struck by the fact that Italy was not even a single country until the middle of the nineteenth century. In the centuries before that, feuding regions and cities tried to be as different from their neighbors as possible. The styles and colors of buildings and even foods in the region of Umbria are completely different from those in Tuscany; while in Tuscany, Florence could never be mistaken for its nearby rival Siena.

I’ve done four cruises in the past four years in Europe and even when a port is one I’ve experienced before, there’s always something new and revealing to explore. Sure, I could have saved money on my airfares and done my cruise vacations closer to home. But for me, the premium it costs to fly to Europe always seems to pay regular dividends.

In Europe, every port offers fascinating choices of shore excursions. In Monte Carlo, it could mean a day in ancient hill town like St. Paul de Vence, or a beach day in Cannes, or shopping and dining in Nice or a jaunt to the casino to try your luck.

Vatican Museums_Gallery of mapsCourtesy of Linda Crawley

No matter how many times I visit Rome, I always gain a new insight into the Eternal City. Even in the days of togas and chariots, all road warriors eventually found themselves in Rome. I could spend a week in Rome just exploring the history and art of a single century and sampling the daily specials in restaurants that always surpass expectations.

Cruises also offer opportunities to visit places you’ve never been and discover something you never knew existed. On my last cruise in the Med aboard Oceania Cruises’ ship Riviera, we spent a day touring the Greek island of Kos, that I would not have imagined wanting to visit until we tied up there for a day. But the experience turned out to be fascinating.

On a shore excursion tour, we visited the ruins of a health spa in an idyllic setting that 2,500 years ago attracted patients from around the known world. It was here that the Greek physician Hippocrates laid down the principles of modern medicine that doctors still pledge to uphold. After the visit, I swam in some of the clearest blue water I could imagine on a nearly deserted beach. It was a chance encounter that made me eager to visit the island again on a future cruise.

Cruise lines understand the appeal of blending the familiar with the excitement of unexpected new discoveries and are theming their cruises to the insights you can gain.

Regal Princess in IstanbulCourtesy of Princess Cruises

Celebrity Cruises is offering a new comprehensive series of cruises in 2015 that reflect the glories that were Rome and Greece. Celebrity Reflection will sail round trips from Rome to help you start or end the cruise with an immersion in the empire that called the Mediterranean “Mare Nostrum,” literally “Our Sea.” Sister ship Celebrity Constellation is sailing from Venice to ports in Croatia, Montenegro and southern Italy that were for centuries run by the merchants of Venice. And Celebrity Equinox is doing innovative calls at Salerno in Italy and Souda Bay, a Venetian stronghold on Crete.

Oceania Cruises is offering itineraries in 2015 themed to lost treasures, including temples and cities that, like the famous ruins of Pompeii, might be the stuff of myths if they hadn’t been rediscovered by modern archeologists. Other cruises trace the eventful voyages of Jason and the Argonauts and visit sites of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  

Royal Caribbean is promising itineraries that reveal hidden gems in the Mediterranean. Itineraries include Ajaccio, on the island of Corsica; Split, in Croatia; Kotor in Montenegro and Bodrum in Turkey as well as crowd-pleasers including Venice and Istanbul.

Holland America offers a comprehensive Mediterranean Empires cruise that can be done as a 12-day round trip from Venice to the Greek Isles and Turkey or a Mediterranean Romance itinerary that provides the chance to compare Italian individuality with daily life in the regions of France and Spain. The two itineraries can be combined into a magical 24-day grand exploration of all corners of the Mediterranean.

And Princess Cruises’ ships are combining favorites like Rome, Barcelona and Istanbul with connoisseur stops. Malta, Madeira and Tunisia are on western Mediterranean cruises and Volos, Greece and the Black Sea ports of Nessebar, Bulgaria and Constanta, Romania are featured on some eastern itineraries. Princess is also offering a series of sea and land packages, with stays in Barcelona and Paris.

Barcelona_Gaudifazon1/iStock

I haven’t yet decided which itinerary I’ll be taking, but I know I’ll cruise again in the Med soon. European cities have centuries of experience in welcoming visitors from around the world. Each time I come, the fashions and the goods in store windows are new, and the menus in restaurants respect the seasons much more than in other parts of the world.

Once you cruise the Med, you want to experience more.

Written by Wallace Immen and originally published in Dream Voyages Winter 2015 issue.

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