A Mediterranean cruise is the dream of many people. It makes sense. Europe has so many places to see, so many cultures, so much history and such varied contemporary lifestyles. The Med boasts sensational shoreside activities and cuisines to try. But how does one choose with so many cruise lines, ships and itineraries?
Does it make a difference which ship you choose? Absolutely! Does the length of the cruise or the number of ports matter? For sure! Do ports look different from the railings of different ships? Well, now, that’s a totally debatable point.
I had the opportunity to take cruises on three ships from three classes this summer: Carnival Breeze and Oceania Riviera, just launched this season, and Celebrity Solstice.
There certainly are differences between the three. Carnival Breeze is the biggest and the company promotes the “fun” concept; it’s a mainstay of the onboard experience with lots of families on board. Carnival ships are considered mainstream, the least expensive category (see accompanying box).
At the other end of the size spectrum, Oceania, considered premium-plus and the priciest of the three, caters primarily to couples; its ships have no facilities or programs for kids. Oceania is known for its dining, including a restaurant by the line’s master chef, Jacques Pepin.
Celebrity, which is in the premium category, has a reputation for great food and service. Its newest ships, the Solstice class, also have justifiably received widespread acclaim for their architecture and décor.
ROOMS FOR RENT
On each of my three cruises, I was in an outside room with a balcony. All had twin beds that converted to a queen or king; sofa; safe; 24-hour room service; desk; bathroom and more. All had excellent linens, mattresses and pillows. Size ranged from 220 to 282 square feet, including the balcony; the bigger the room, the more drawer and closet space. Did the size difference make a big difference for this solo traveler? Not really, but it might for a couple.
For comparison purposes, prices below are for the type of accommodations I had — an ocean view stateroom with balcony — for a 12-night Mediterranean cruise next summer. Prices are per person, double occupancy, for the lowest level rooms in that category and do not includes taxes, fees or fuel surcharges.
TIME TO CHILL
One of the most popular daytime activities on any ship is hanging around the pool. That’s especially true on sea days, when the pool becomes the center of activity on all three ships — and when there were the most gripes about guests reserving lounge chairs with towels and books while they were off doing other things. Live music, especially during lunch hour or the afternoon, helps to keep the areas lively.
IT’S SUPPER TIME
All three ships have multiple places for guests to eat dinner, a far cry from the “olden” days of cruising when there was little other than the main dining room. But still, even with the addition of alternatives eateries (some with fees, some without), the main dining room remains the primary place for dinner. Menu selections in all dining rooms are quite varied and hard to label. It’s easier to call it eclectic/international/cosmopolitan/Americana. Service and menu items are more upscale on Celebrity Solstice and Oceania Riviera than on Carnival Breeze, meaning each member of the wait staff is responsible for fewer people, cuts of beef are better, water glasses are refilled more quickly.
On 12-night Med cruises, both Carnival Breeze and Celebrity Solstice give their guests about 88 hours in port (each having three days at sea), just over 30 percent of the total cruise. Oceania offers a more port-intensive experience and on a comparable 10-night Riviera Med cruise, there are no full days at sea and 97 hours in port, about 40 percent of the time.
My three ships had many choices of shore excursions in each port of call. I’m going to use Livorno as an example. The port has gotten so big now that it’s not even possible to walk into town from where the ship docks — which is really OK since the town itself isn’t much. It’s really the jumping off place to go elsewhere, mostly Pisa and Florence.
Florence is one of the great cities, and naturally all three lines offer a lengthy tour with bus transportation. All include the same amount of time getting to and from Florence, allot free time for participants to walk around and eat on their own (no meals are included), and cover pretty much the same range of places visited — the Duomo, Piazza della Signoria, Santa Croce Square, the Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Leaning Tower in Pisa. (To climb the tower, guests must make reservations in advance.) All three ships offer a transportation-only option for guests who simply want to get to Pisa and/or Florence and go off on their own. First-timers should take the guided tour; there’s so much info to be gained from a knowledgeable guide.
From ship to ship, the costs do vary:
All three lines work hard to make sure their tour guides have good English-language skills and local knowledge. Generally speaking, the higher the quality of the line, the better the quality of the bus and guide. Also, when you get to luxury lines such as Crystal and Seabourn, they do not fill the buses completely, making the ride that much more comfortable.
How much did each ship tailor activities to its ports of call? This can be an area with wide differences among the cruise lines — whether or not shipboard activities reflect the variety of cultures, history and cuisine of the itinerary’s stops. It’s all a matter of company philosophy about how much it wants to bring the local life onboard. Carnival executives say they want to provide a seamless experience so that guests have a virtually identical experience wherever the ship is sailing. Both Celebrity and Oceania feel differently, striving to bring the shoreside and onboard experiences together to a greater degree.
All three presented talks that gave some info about upcoming ports:
THE FINAL WORD
So, three ships and similar itineraries. Different size ships and different on-board lifestyles. It’s your choice. Price is a big factor, and so is the question of what you want to pay for. How important is the size of your stateroom? Do you want gourmet cuisine or are you happy with chain-restaurant fare? What kind of pool and sports facilities do you expect?
All three lines — as well as most of the other lines — have multiple ships in the Med next year, offering itinerary lengths and port calls to satisfy, hopefully, everyone.
A previous version of this article should have said that the $5,499 per person cost of a cruise on Oceania’s Riviera includes airfare. The article also listed the wrong capacity for the ship and misstated the name of The Grand Dining Room.