Cruising through Europe

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Seductive cities, perfect ports, balmy beaches and nights ashore – enjoy the best of Europe from the comfort of a cruise

What's the attraction?

The shores and islands of the Mediterranean comprise a rich mix of cultures and languages, exciting cities and important archaeological sites. In the hot summer months, one of the most relaxing ways to tour as many of them as possible is by ship, feeling the breeze in your hair as you sail overnight to a new country or region. What's more, because you'll have paid for full board in the holiday price, you'll be cushioned against deteriorating exchange rates. To get advice on choosing a line or ship and the best deals on fly-cruise packages go to an agent such as Thomas Cook (0800 169 4557; thomascook.com/cruise) and Bath Travel (01202 238846; bathtravel.co.uk) or, for luxury ships, Mundy Cruising (020 7399 7670; mundy cruising.co.uk). Whether you are looking for a resort ship brimming with restaurants and activities, or a voyage on a smaller port- focused vessel, there is a cruise for you on the Med this summer.

Cruise and stay

Combine a busy week of sightseeing with a week on the beach in Mallorca. Two mid-size Thomson ships, Dream and Celebration, have just had makeovers, including new menus and iPod docking stations in their suites. Thomson Dream sails on a round-trip from Palma de Mallorca from May to October, calling at Ajaccio in Corsica, Civitavecchia, Livorno, Saint-Raphaël in France and Barcelona. A two-week cruise-and-stay package departing on 4 May, with a week's half board at the Sa Coma Playa Hotel and Spa, costs from £956pp (if booked online) including flights from Gatwick and transfers. The price rises to £1,539 for a two-week break departing Bournemouth on 10 August (0871 230 2800; thomson.co.uk/cruise).

Ancient adventures

Exploring archaeological sites is a great way of bringing history to life, particularly when accompanied by expert lecturers. Swan Hellenic (0844 488 0725; swanhellenic.com) has a 14-night voyage from Portsmouth on 29 August, ending in Rome, with tours of the Alhambra palace, Carthage, Pompeii and Herculaneum. The cost, from £2,295pp, includes several excursions and the flight home.

Voyages to Antiquity (0845 437 9737; voyages toantiquity.com) unravels the Greek, Roman, Arabic, Norman and Byzantine legacy on Sicily, with a two-week cruise from Athens to Rome on 4 June. It includes an overnight stay in Palermo and a two-night hotel stay in Rome; from £2,575pp, including flights.

Party with the locals

On most cruises, sunset "sail away" is popular, with drinks and music on deck. However if you prefer joining the passeggiata, dining ashore or clubbing, choose a cruise line specialising in late sailings and overnight stops. Azamara Club Cruises (0844 493 4016; azamaraclubcruises.co.uk) has a seven-night cruise from Barcelona on 21 July that stays overnight in Marseille, St-Tropez and Monte Carlo. The cost, with a night in a Barcelona hotel, drinks and flights, is from £1,952pp. SeaDream Yacht Club (0800 783 1373; seadream.com) offers a week from Rome to Monte Carlo, departing 24 August. SeaDream II sails in the late evening from Portofino and overnights in St-Tropez, Sanary-sur-Mer and Monte Carlo; from £3,151pp excluding flights.

Insider information

"Mediterranean cruise itineraries are very port-intensive; so don't wear yourself out with an excursion every day. In Monte Carlo, Palermo and Malaga, for example, it is a pleasant stroll into the city. Shop around for excursions before you go. Cruise lines impose huge mark-ups and will cancel your tour if there aren't enough takers. By booking directly with local companies you'll get a wider choice and far better value, and you won't have to hang around waiting to be herded on to a coach. Summer lasts longer in the Mediterranean, so if you can, go in September when sites are less crowded and it isn't so blisteringly hot." Darren Fields, founder of Voyage Ashore (0844 500 0045; voyageashore.com) – a direct booking service with local shore excursion providers.

Sail away

Nothing beats the sight and sound of billowing white sails against the blue sky from a teak deck. Cut through the waves of the Aegean on four-mast tall ship Star Clipper, sailing from Athens through the Cyclades for a week on 20 July. You can join the crew as an extra deck hand or just sit back with a cold drink and watch. Seven nights cost from £1,435 per person (0808 163 1320; starclippers.co.uk).

Or join chic French yacht Le Ponant, sailing from Nice around Corsica and the Tuscan island of Elba on 26 August for six nights. The cost is from £2,120pp (0800 980 4027; ponant.com). Both prices are for cruise only.

Go for golf

A cruise offering rounds on three Italian courses isn't just good news for golfers. Non-playing partners will have plenty of diversions, too, from joining group excursions to spa treatments on board. German line Hapag-Lloyd's Europa 2, launching in May, has several departures that have excursions and activities in English. The seven-night cruise from Monte Carlo to Valetta on 8 June offers the chance to play at Pevero Golf Club on the Costa Smeralda of Sardinia, at Rome's Olgiata Golf Club, and at Il Picciolo Golf Club in Sicily with the spectacular backdrop of Mount Etna. The cost, excluding flights, is from £3,030pp. The golf package is an additional £772pp (020 7723 2450; hl-cruises.com).

Who said that?

"There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting and enslaving than the life at sea." Joseph Conrad from his novel "Lord Jim"

"Old and young, we are all on our last cruise." Robert Louis Stephenson

"It isn't that I find life ashore distasteful. But life at sea is better." Sir Francis Drake

Family favourites

Sailing from and to Britain's main cruise port, Southampton, is a good choice if you have children. It eliminates the risk of airport delays, with plenty of sea days to enjoy the kids' clubs. The American ship Independence of the Seas, with an ice rink, rock-climbing wall and simulated-wave surfing pool, departs 10 August for a fortnight. Ports include Gibraltar, Toulon, Livorno (for Pisa and Florence), Civitavecchia (for Rome) and Ajaccio in Corsica; from £1,399pp (0844 493 4005; royalcaribbean.co.uk).

P&O's Ventura, catering specifically for British families, sails on 14 August for two weeks to the Western Mediterranean, including Marseille and Livorno; from £1,749 per adult (0843 3740111; pocruises.co.uk).

Food for thought

Cruises are known for round-the-clock eating opportunities, so cruise lines are constantly coming up with new ideas to whet travellers' appetites.

The sparkling new Italian ship MSC Preziosa (0844 561 1955; msccruises.co.uk), to be christened by Sophia Loren later this month, will have two Eataly restaurants on board, drawing on the Turin-based Slow Food movement.

Another new ship, Celebrity Reflection (0845 493 2043; celebritycruises.co.uk), has five speciality restaurants, including Qsine, offering quirky international tapas to order via iPad.

There is a rare chance to eat dinner cooked by Nobu himself, pictured above, in his Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurant aboard Crystal Symphony (020 7399 7601; crystalcruises.co.uk) when he joins the 12-night cruise from Rome to Istanbul departing on 13 July.

Finally, you can go shopping with the chef then take cookery lessons in the only fully equipped cookery schools at sea, aboard fine-food orientated American line Oceania ships Riviera and Marina (0845 505 1920; oceania cruises.com).

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