Top Three Mediterranean Cruise Ports
Built nearly 2,000 years ago, the Roman Colosseum is the most famous monument to have survived from the classical world. --Photo by David Dickstein
The Greek god Zeus is a popular subject at Athens’ National Archaeological Museum, home of the world’s richest collection of artifacts from Greek antiquity. --Photo by David Dickstein
Depending on the itinerary, a Mediterranean cruise can be the Whitman’s Sampler of journeys. A taste of Santorini here, a nibble of Naples there, a morsel of Mykonos this day and a bite of Barcelona that day. And, in keeping with the candy analogy, like a box of chocolates first-timers never know what you’re gonna get. That is, unless you either do your research or take the advice of those who have.
Having returned from two 10-day Mediterranean cruises within two months of each other, experienced on different cruise lines, I offer my Top 3 ports with recommendations based on personal experience heavily guided by hours of pre-planning and tips from the shore excursion directors of the Carnival Vista and Celebrity Reflection.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, so don’t even try seeing it in a day. Unless the Eternal City is your port for embarkation or disembarkation, about 8 hours is what you may get to explore Italy’s magnificent capital, factoring in the 90 or so minutes it takes to get to and from the dock in Civitavecchia.
When in Rome … must-sees are all bucket list mainstays: the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Trevi Fountain and St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. With so much to do in so little time, let professionals be your guide to navigate with optimum efficiency. Carnival Cruises offers a “Rome at its Best & Inside the Colosseum” excursion ($176) that lasts 11 hours and a lifetime. Other cruise lines provide identical tours by different names. By motor coach and hoof, Rome’s “greatest hits” are explored (the Colosseum and St. Peter’s amply, albeit without a visit to the Sistine Chapel) or given a drive-by, which is adequate for the Forum and the site of Circus Maximus, where the chariot races were held for nearly a millennium.
If visiting Rome is a bona fide once-in-a-lifetime experience for you, consider splurging on a licensed private guide, as I did on the second of my back-to-back Mediterranean cruises. Everything is personalized, from the itinerary to historically accurate storytelling. Eyes of Rome, highly rated on Trip Advisor and now by me, more than accommodated my requests for a top-notch non-smoking guide with perfect English. Katie Farrar, a California-raised ex-patriot, led us on an 8-hour whirlwind of a day that included all the must-sees, including the overwhelming Sistine Chapel, overlooked Parthenon and overrated Spanish Steps, in addition to views and restaurants that weren’t overrun with tourists.
It’s almost sacrilegious not to give even a full day to explore the birthplace of Western civilization, democracy, medicine, literature, theater, astronomy, philosophy, mythology and, oh yeah, the Olympics. Not to worry – as one of the world’s busiest cruise destinations, Athens understands the time restraints a sea-arriving visitor is under. Ground transportation from the port of Piraeus to downtown Athens can be as quick as 30 minutes, even when multiple megaships are freshly anchored.
Checking off the city’s two must-sees – the Acropolis and National Archaeological Museum – can be done with a single excursion booked directly with the cruise line. Carnival offers a 5-hour tour ($100) that comfortably takes busloads to the richest collection of artifacts from Greek antiquity anywhere. From one most important museums in the world to the most important ancient site in the Western world, next up is the Acropolis, the sacred rock of ancient Athens graced by the Parthenon, amazing views and so much more. The climb takes about 10-20 minutes, slip-resistant shoes and a lot of patience on busy days. And they’re all busy days.
Arriving early to the Acropolis helps avoid crowds and the mid-day heat, so it’s wise to choose the first departure if opting for a cruise-booked excursion, as I did on the Carnival Vista trip. Two months later, I booked a private driver through Athens Tours Greece. Four hours for 150 Euros (about $160) is prudent and fair. A 7:30 a.m. pick-up at the ship had us beating the shore excursion busses at the Acropolis, and made the second visit to the National Archaeological Museum a dream. Our driver, who just might be Greek with the name Vassilis Papadopulos, isn’t licensed to give tours inside either major attraction. Most private drivers aren’t in the city, but between your guidebooks and abundant signage in English, a human guide is unessential. Our driver packed a lot into the remaining 90 minutes, including an ominous swing past the capital city’s Syrian refugee camp, a glimpse of Hadrian’s Arch and a stop at the House of Parliament to watch the colorful changing of the guard staged every morning at 11 sharp. He pulled up to the front with one minute to spare. That Papadopulos fella is gooooood.
Pish-posh to tourists who dis Naples for its sprawling grittiness and high rate of petty crime. Just focus on its enthralling side, mind your valuables and become one with southern Italy’s largest city. But if that isn’t possible, get outta town and take a scenic drive to the tony Amalfi Coast.
Activities that were booked for both visits are enthusiastically recommended.
Daniela Ibelo, the licensed tour guide retained through ToursByLocals.com, was given a list of 12 points of interest in advance. Not only did she expertly navigate us through the city to check off each one, all but two via walking, she surprised us with such memorable moments as meeting a master lute craftsman in his shop. So generous was maestro liutaio Giuseppe Manna, he treated us to a private rendition of Italian standard “Funiculi Funicula.” Priceless. Also special were popping into magnificent 14th and 15th century churches on a lark and visiting a depressed part of town to meander through the eerie Fontanelle Cemetery teeming with real human skulls. Caloric highlights ranged from sfogliatella, Naples’ signature sweet pastry, washed down with Neapolitan espresso, of course, to lunch at Di Matteo, considered one of the top places to eat pizza in the city where it was invented. This was the only misstep. Next time it’s Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba or Da Michele. Booking a guide that does not double as a driver will save you money. As a guideline, expect to spend about $300 for an 8-hour tour at that level of service. Up to seven people can tour at this price, so if you’re traveling with family or friends, even those you just met on the ship, you’ll have more Euros for shopping if you get them to chip in.
A favorite shore excursion out of Naples is a drive to the postcard-worthy Amalfi Coast. Big-ship cruise line offers a wide selection of options, several that include the fascinating ruins of Pompeii, which was destroyed by the 79 AD eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. That appealed for the second visit. Good call, too, as the “Exclusive Amalfi Coast, Positano, Sorrento & Pompeii” shore excursion offered by Celebrity was 9 1/2 hours and $355 per person well spent. Going cheaper is easy, but bear in mind that tours that cost about half as much use large buses that can’t reach the quaint village of Positano due to the narrow, windy roads required to get there. Also, a 16-seat coach makes for intimate sightseeing and usually with the better guides and drivers. Splurging also means more time to shop (there’s no “where’s Bob?!”) and an upgraded lunch in Sorrento. The Imperial Hotel Tramontano, overlooking the most beautiful section of the Gulf of Naples, did not disappoint the nine of us gastronomically or aesthetically. Skipping the line to go inside Pompeii also was heavenly, proving that “going small” is huge when touring the Amalfi Coast or Pompeii.
So that’s my Top 3 Mediterranean ports, but please consider it merely a sample of what this amazing region has to offer. We’ll round out a Top 10 next time, covering Kusadasi, Rhodes, Santorini, Florence, Mykonos, Barcelona and Marseilles. A couple of dishonorable mentions also will be thrown in. Sorry Sicily and Crete.
If You Go
Eyes of Europe,
Athens Tours Greece,
Maestro lute craftsman Giuseppe Manna:
Tours By Locals,
Imperial Hotel Tramontano,