THE HIGH SEAS
You’ll love it if …
you’re going to Europe for the first or 21st time. You can choose a cruise that visits places you’ve never seen before and bookmark your favourites for a longer holiday later, or just enjoy sampling several different countries and cultures over a week or two.
What’s great about it
There’s an unprecedented choice of ships sailing the Med, so there’s bound to be one that suits your lifestyle and budget. Mainstream mega-ships, operated by Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and MSC and carrying between 3000 and 6000 passengers, are great for families – they offer multiple dining and entertainment venues, kids’ clubs and activities galore.
Couples and solo travellers might prefer smaller, adults-only ships – Viking Ocean Cruises’ sophisticated new 930-passenger ships and P&O’s Arcadia, Oriana and Aurora are all child-free.
Well-heeled cruisers can go for the ultra-luxurious, all-inclusive lines Crystal, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, SeaDream and Silversea; luxury expedition lines such as Ponant; “luxury lite” Azamara, Oceania and Windstar; or maybe a traditional sailing ship from the Star Clippers fleet will float your boat.
Between the resort-style megaships and luxurious boutique-sized vessels you’ll find mid-size, premium ships operated by Celebrity, Cunard, Holland America Line and Princess that suit cruisers looking for a not-too-small, not-too-big experience.
Life on board
Depending on what style of cruise you choose, you’ll find everything from whiz-bang resort-style facilities at one end of the spectrum to a focus on intellectual pursuits at the other. All include accommodation, meals entertainment and kids’ clubs (where applicable). However, the cheaper the basic fare, the more you can expect to pay for on-board “extras” such as compulsory gratuities, soft and alcoholic drinks, fitness classes, specialty dining, shore tours etc.
Luxury lines include almost everything, even shore excursions in the case of Regent Seven Seas. You’ll always pay for spa treatments (and usually far more than you would at home) on all categories of ships.
One of the joys of a Mediterranean cruise is the number and diversity of ports you’ll visit. Your itinerary might include classic cities, glamorous resort towns, quiet islands and picture-perfect fishing villages. Cruises provide an array of shore excursions designed to appeal to all types of traveller – adventurous, active, wildlife lovers, culture vultures, wine enthusiasts, art aficionados, foodies – the list is endless.
Whether you opt for a shiporganised tour, a locally operated tour, or exploring on your own is a question of weighing up the pros and cons of each option. Ships’ tours are usually more expensive than local tours – however, all the hassle of planning is done for you and if there is any delay on the tour, the ship will wait for you. If you’re doing your own thing, check out the ship’s on-board port info and talk to the local tourism representatives who come on board. They will give you maps, directions and advice on attractions and transport.
When to go
The best time for Mediterranean cruises depends on several factors – the weather, fares and crowds. Early spring (March, April) and autumn (September, October) are best on all counts. Midsummer can be extremely hot, and is the main holiday season for Europeans, so expect queues at major tourist attractions, and fares in July and August that are much more expensive. Several lines now cruise the Med year-round.
What to pack
Whatever the season, pack clothes you can layer – when it’s hot outside, the ship’s aircon can feel distinctly chilly. Other essential items include a light rain-jacket, comfortable walking shoes and a lightweight day-pack.
Check the dress code on the cruise line’s website; for example, Cunard has two or three gala nights on cruises of more than seven nights, and it’s fun to dress up for the occasion. On most ships you won’t be welcome in the main dining rooms and lounges in the evenings in shorts, T-shirts or thongs.
Pack swimmers in your hand luggage along with essential documents and medication; you might want to head straight to the pool when you board and it can take a few hours for your suitcase to arrive in your cabin.
• Sail the western Mediterranean on NCL’s mega-ship Norwegian Epic. A seven-night round-trip cruise from Barcelona calls at Naples, Rome (Civitavecchia), Florence/Pisa (Livorno), Cannes and Palma. Departures May to October 2019 from $1019pp twin-share; ncl.com.
• Enjoy intimate luxury in the eastern Mediterranean on Peregrine Adventure’s 49-passenger motor-sailer Galileo. An eight-day round-trip from Athens calls at seven Greek islands, plus Kusadasi and Ephesus in Turkey. Departures in July-October 2019 from $3835pp twin-share; peregrineadventures.com.
SAILING DOWN THE RIVER
You’ll love it if …
you’re looking for an easy, elegant alternative to a road trip through Europe. “You only have to unpack once” is a cruising cliché for good reason – you check in to your river ship and it’s like a hotel, but one that travels with you to some of the world’s most desirable destinations.
River cruises tend to attract couples and solo travellers at the upper end of the Baby Boomer generation, although the new brand U by Uniworld is designed for Millennials and independent-minded travellers. Tauck and Uniworld offer family-friendly itineraries at certain times of the year.
What’s great about it
River cruising is perfect for anyone who suffers from seasickness but enjoys life on the water. You stop at a new port, sometimes two, every day and most sailing is done at night.
However, itineraries are designed to take in scenic stretches such as Austria’s Wachau Valley and Germany’s castle-studded Rhine Gorge during the day. Ships often spend two or three nights in major cities on longer cruises.
Ships are small by ocean standards, because they have to fit under bridges and into locks. They accommodate anything from 106-190 passengers, so meeting fellow passengers and getting to know the crew is part of the fun.
Life on board
Overall, the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. River ships usually have one main restaurant and one or two additional dining venues for light meals. Dining is open-seating and group tables are the norm. Free soft drinks, wine and beer are often served with lunch and dinner, and top-end lines include all drinks all the time. Menus change daily and the quality of meals is generally excellent.
The lounge is where passengers congregate for evening port talks, entertainment (which is pretty lowkey) and scenic sailing if it’s too chilly for the spacious sun deck. Gyms are tiny but getting more attention on newer ships, along with wellness programs and fitness classes.
Excursions in every port are almost always included in the fare, and of course you’re free to do your own thing if you don’t want to join a guided bus trip or walking group.
Cruise lines are now providing more active tours, such as cycling, hiking and kayaking, along with wine-tasting in vineyards, cooking classes, shopping with the chef and a host of cultural and history-themed jaunts.
Several cruise lines organise private events that would be impossible to arrange yourself – for example, classical music concerts in a Viennese palace, dinner in a castle, or an afterhours visit to a palace or museum.
When to go
The European river-cruise season starts in March and runs until December. Fares are cheapest in March and October-November, when the weather is colder, and more expensive during spring and summer.
Christmas markets are open all over Europe from mid-November to mid-December and this has become an increasingly popular period to cruise; it’s advisable to book at least a year in advance.
Be aware that high or low water levels on the rivers can affect cruises – if too high, ships can’t get under bridges and if too low, they risk running aground. While it’s not a regular occurrence, it is important to check with the cruise line about its policy for dealing with high or low water levels before you book.
What to pack
Spring and autumn evenings can be cool on the water, so think layers. You won’t need black-tie or formal frocks – smart-casual is the go. Comfortable footwear and clothes suitable for walking, cycling or other adventurous outings are essential.
Be prepared for sudden weather changes – most ships provide umbrellas but pack a lightweight rain-jacket. And if you’re taking a Christmas-markets cruise, you’ll need warm clothes, gloves and a hat.
Running out of cosmetics or overthe-counter medication isn’t a problem as you’re almost always close to local shops when in port. One thing to remember, though, is an adaptor for European sockets.
• Amsterdam to Budapest (or vice versa). A 15-day, all-inclusive cruise with APT calls at 15 ports and includes a trip on the Grand Empress Steam Train in Budapest, dinner at Namedy Castle in Germany and a private classical concert in Vienna. Departures from March to December, 2019; fares from $6995pp twin-share; aptouring.com.au.
• The Douro River in Portugal. An eight-day round-trip from Porto with Riviera Travel calls at Lamego, Castelo Rodrigo, Salamanca (Spain), Peso de Regua and Mateus Palace. Departures from April to November 2019; fares from $2519pp twin-share; rivieratravel.com.au.
• Paris and Normandy. An eight-day round-trip from Paris with Uniworld visits Vernon (for Giverny), Rouen, Caudebec-en-Caux (for Honfleur or Étretat) and Mantes-la-Jolie (for Versailles). Departures from March to November 2019; fares from $6399pp, twin-share; uniworld.com
Prices correct at time of writing but may be subject to change.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale September 9.