It's time to leave the crowds behind... Credit: Shutterstock

The Med without the crowds

Author: Nicole Carmichael

Published on:

Updated on:

Smart cruisers are booking smaller ships that offer fresh itineraries to rarely visited destinations in Europe’s own sea

Brits are lucky in having the Mediterranean, with its amazing array of cruise destinations, so close to home. And with a wide choice of ships and itineraries for every budget, it’s no wonder it remains one of the top locations to cruise.

But once you’ve visited the most popular cities, like Rome, Barcelona, Athens and Dubrovnik, there’s a good chance that the next time you look at a cruise itinerary, you may start thinking, “been there... done that.”

The good news is that the leading cruise lines understand that many travellers still want to cruise around the Med – but are interested in seeing destinations that are slightly out of the way and consequently attract fewer visitors.

“It’s easy to visit the Mediterranean several times over without repeating a port,” says our Edwina Lonsdale, managing director of Mundy Cruising. “You can visit the western Med, the Greek Islands, the Turkish coast, the Holy Lands and the Croatian coast, so there’s lots of different choices and itineraries to choose from. I’ve been cruising in the Med for over 40 years. Last year, I went on a Greek Island cruise with SeaDream Yacht Club, and there was only one port of call I’d visited before.”

Fred Olsen head of itinerary planning and destination experience, Martin Lister, is similarly enthused about the breadth of choice on offer: "At Fred Olsen, we don’t run ‘cookie cutter’ cruises where we simply repeat the same sailings over and over again," he explains.

“We’re well known for our imaginative and unusual itineraries and are proud to venture away from the well-sailed routes to visit more off-the-beaten-track destinations.

"Our guests experience the best of them while they are there too, with our immersive shore excursions programme and our Signature Experiences, helping those cruising with us to learn more about the history, culture, art and local way of life.”

Enjoy a quiet trip around Croatia's coast. Credit: Shutterstock

Secret escapes

If you’re looking to book a Med cruise that goes that little bit further, check out small ship cruise companies such as Sail Croatia, Celestyal Cruises and Fred Olsen Cruises, whose ships are small enough to dock at smaller ports.

With fewer passengers, small ships have the option to go to more remote places, and passengers can experience a deep dive into a destination. For example, if you love the Greek islands, you’ll find cruises that will visit ports in small and unspoilt islands like Sifnos, Milos, Skopelos, Patmos, Kia and Amorgos, where there are no airports.

“SeaDream is always looking out for hidden gems scattered around the Mediterranean,” says the line’s VP of itineraries and destinations, Emilio Freeman. “For example, Ikaria in Greece is a port that virtually no other cruise line visits due to a lack of the tourism infrastructure most of them require.

"This island is very laid-back and authentically off the beaten path. Another hidden gem we visit is Thasos in Greece, which is located directly south of Kavala.

“In addition, we are constantly reinventing our yachting land adventures in order to offer our guests the best experiences possible in each of the destinations we call on. We have recently aligned ourselves with National Geographic to offer a series of NatGeo Day Tours in several of our Mediterranean ports of call, bringing key immersive experiences to SeaDream guests.”

Meanwhile, Scenic Eclipse visits unique small villages and local ports large ships can’t access, offering the opportunity to step ashore in ports such as St Tropez and Monaco, rather than being bussed in from commercial ports.

Elsewhere in Southern France, Port Vendres, near the Catalan-influenced fishing village of Collioure, is also emerging as a useful stopping point for cruises. Collioure is known as the ‘Pearl of the Vermilion Coast’ and has a rich artistic history. Matisse, Picasso and Derain and Dufy all lived and worked here.

Other smaller ports that are well worth visiting are Cagliari, the original capital of Sardinia, with its stunning medieval walled quarter overlooking the city; and Catania in Eastern Sicily, which is especially interesting for foodies, as the cuisine there is quite different from that in northern Italy.

And in Turkey, while Istanbul is obviously the main port of call for visitors, the port town of Kusadasi is a stunning resort town in itself. It is a gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ephesus, with its ancient ruins rivalling the archaeological site at Pompeii.

Fred Olsen is also adding new ports to its offering, as Lister explains: “Some particularly exciting ports that we’ll be visiting with our guests in 2024 include Algiers in Algeria; Ashdod and Haifa in Israel, and Tarragona in Spain.

"We also have some exciting calls to Propriano, on the French island of Corsica, and Ceuta in Spanish Morocco, which are accessible only to smaller ships.”

Smaller cruise ships get you right into the heart of Monaco. Credit: Shutterstock

Reinventing the Med

“Sometimes there’s a perception that a Med cruise won’t offer an in-depth perspective on a destination,” says Lonsdale, “that one day you’ll be in France, the next day Italy and so on, but now more cruise ships are including overnights at a port, so passengers can explore areas more fully, and travel via train rather than coach for a more independent experience.

"Rather than thinking of a port as just somewhere to disembark, there’s often lots to see. For example, somewhere like Livorno, which is the gateway to so many other areas of Italy, is a great city in itself, with excellent museums and walks.”

So, instead of thinking of a port as just a link to more famous places, such as Civitavecchia for Rome, it may be worthwhile eschewing the obvious tick-list locations and concentrating on exploring the port town itself.

A Scenic Group spokesperson says: “Scenic Group’s team of guides play a vital role on board in getting passengers to experience even more from their excursions, especially to some of the lesser-known ports such as Krk in Croatia and the island outpost of Elba.

"Their knowledge allows guests to access hidden gems of the Mediterranean, such as exploring the city walls of Korcula’s Old Town. Also, our sailings are much less likely to affect local communities adversely: we are delivering small numbers of people at any one time. That is exactly the type of tourism that local people want.”

In such a competitive market, cruise lines know they have to go the extra mile. “We offer an immersive programme of shore excursions,” says Fred Olsen’s Lister. “This allows our guests to experience the ‘real’ destination, away from the typical tourist attractions.

"In Cartagena, for example, rather than just visit the Roman amphitheatre, guests can take a tour with one of the local archaeologists who helped to unearth the ruins, or in Cádiz, they can spend time with a local bailaora learning the flamenco, rather than simply watching a dance performance.”

Whether it’s an off-the-beaten track destination you’re keen to explore, or you’d like to concentrate on just one part of the Med like the Greek islands or Sicily, there’s a cruise for you.
But bear in mind that you will need to book your cruise as far ahead as you can because the smaller numbers these ships can accommodate mean that sailings get booked up fast.

And once you realise that there are so many amazing Mediterranean ports to visit, where you can enjoy immersive and authentic experiences, you soon discover that you will never run out of new destinations in this rich and fascinating part of the world.

Korcula is Croatia's lesser-known island. Credit: Shutterstock

Get on board

Fred Olsen’s 17-day Colourful & Cosmopolitan Mediterranean with the Amalfi Coast onboard Bolette round trip from Liverpool via Tangier, Cartagena, Propriano, Olbia, Sorrento, Salerno and Gibraltar, departs May 8, 2024. Fares start from £2,699 per person.

Emerald Cruises’ 7-day Coastal Gems of Italy & Croatia cruise onboard Emerald Sakara from Venice to Rome (Civitavecchia), via Vis Island, Dubrovnik, Otrano, Crotone, Giardini Naxos and Sorrento, departs June 22, 2024. Fares start from £4,495 per person and includes flights.

Most recent articles