Dreaming of castles on hilltops, open air cafes on cobbled stone streets, colorful fishing boats, mystic fjords, cliffside villages, ancient ruins, or a steaming volcano, these are but a sample of the possible sites you can see on a European cruise.
Cruises are a great way to cover a lot of ground with little wear and tear. Waking up in a new port each day without packing and unpacking, going through airport security, or lugging suitcases can be very appealing. The added benefit these days is an inclusive cost without worrying about the exchange rate of the dollar. It currently can be one of the most cost effective ways to see Europe. If you cannot decide where to go in Europe, a cruise that covers a broad area will allow you to get a little taste of each city or country so you can see which ones you want to return to on your next trip. If you have never taken a cruise before, a European cruise is a good one to start with.
Sailing into different ports and countries serves up a wealth of cultural experiences. Musical languages, historic architectures, a variety of terrains and things to do, make each day an adventure in discovery. And if you need a day of pure relaxation, you can do so on the deck of your ship, being waited on all day with a picturesque view in sight.
WHERE TO CRUISE
European cruises are primarily in three areas, the Mediterranean, Northern Europe including the British Isles and the Aegean. Having been on all of these we have enjoyed each of them for different reasons. Considerations before you decide should be given to the size and kind of ship experience and the likeliness of bad weather. Generally speaking all of these cruises operate at the best possible time of year to go, but in Europe anything can happen. The Med and the Aegean have more consistent good weather in the summer. Northern Europe has more inconsistencies. If you have never cruised before and fear sea sickness, save Northern Europe for your second cruise. That being said, ships have stabilizers and do minimize the rocking.
WHAT TO KNOW
Next thing to think about is your ship experience. Ships can vary in size from 150 people to 2000. They can be super sophisticated or casually inviting. The larger ships give the sense of a floating hotel; the small ships feel more like cruising on your private yacht. The sense of formality is not necessarily tied to the size of the ship; you have to check into each ship’s personality. Some cruises still have several formal nights, which necessitates extra packing, and some cruises are all business casual. If you are thinking of the larger ships it’s good to determine how many ports dock, and how many tender. If you have to tender a large number of people, you can end up spending a good deal of time waiting in line to get on and off the ship. Embarking from a docked ship is usually pretty efficient with most ships. The next thing to consider is the cliental that is attracted to the ship. You might find it most interesting to be on a ship with varying age groups or with a group whose age is closer to yours.
It is also important to know what is included with the cruise. For example, some cruises include meals in the main dining room but charge a surcharge for the specialty restaurants; some cruises include tips and excursions, while others don’t. Other considerations should be the level of activities, entertainment variety and quality, the types of excursions offered and most important – the ports of call. And finally, what are your expectations regarding your cabin? Is it important to have a veranda, or is a porthole sufficient? Do you prefer one bed or two and is there an option? How much time will you spend in your cabin? Giving consideration to all of these issues and finding out the answers before you cruise will ensure that your expectations are set properly and that you have the best cruise experience you can have.
THE TYPE OF SHIP EXPERIENCE
To give you a feel for two very different experiences let’s focus on two of the ships highly regarded by the readers of the leading travel magazines for overall performance in their class, the Crystal Cruise line and Windstar Cruises. Crystal is classified as a medium cruise ship with service for 900-1000 passengers on their various ships. Windstar accommodates between 148 to 300 passengers depending on the ship and is considered a small ship.
Personally, we prefer to go no larger than a Crystal size ship. To us, the ship is big enough, emphasizes quality, and still gives you plenty of space to feel like you can have a corner of it to yourself if you like. Taking into account the service, food experience, activities aboard, ship excursions, and the state of the ship itself, this is one of the finest cruises you can take. In addition, the cabins are efficiently laid out, include a large number with verandas and are meticulously maintained. The food aboard is nothing short of gourmet and you have two other restaurants to choose from besides the main dining room. And the specialty restaurants, one Italian and one Asian, are the best in their class. After a busy day, we find this a great way to unwind and watch the world go by, dining by our window table, watching the sunset. Crystal also has tables for 2,4 ,6 or more, so if you want a more intimate cruise experience it is possible.
After dinner, your options are numerous, there are several lounges with different types of music, a top-notch gambling casino run by Caesar’s Palace of Las Vegas fame, and a superb show featuring entertainment very close to what you see on Broadway or the West End. Many of the performers have performed there and the acts include, musicals, concert pianists, comedians, vocalists and other specialty acts.
Most of Crystal’s Cruises include days at sea, which provide a welcome break from port excursions and a relaxing way to enjoy the ambience, coastal scenery, and a good book. However, if you want activities during the day, they abound, there’s a library, a spa, bridge, cultural lectures, shopping, tennis, dancing, swimming and movies. On longer cruises look for these days at sea with your selected cruise ship, they could become one of your most cherished memories.
Crystal also has a fine selection of ports of call. Often, the best one gets an overnight stay in port. We really enjoy this, as it provides a chance to experience evening life in port, like going for that after dinner stroll through the romantic piazzas while soaking in the native Italian, French or Spanish. And scouting out the perfect spot for that final cup of Cappuccino or Lemoncello under the stars makes for a perfect end to your fairy tale day.
Windstar’s motto is “180 degrees from ordinary” – and it is! Two of Windstar’s ships, the Windstar and the Wind Spirit, have only 75 cabins accommodating 150 passengers. The Wind Surf is about 300 passengers. This puts the Windstar line in the small ship category. Windstar’s ships are tall sailing ships. Teak decks, tall white sails, intimate corners for relaxation, these are the hallmarks of a Wind Star Cruise. If you like the romance and feel of a sailboat, this is the ship for you. They tend to attract the 30-60 age range of people who like casual elegance. All of the dinners are resort casual, which can cut down dramatically on the packing. Because the ship is smaller it can get into some of the smaller ports that the big ships cannot get into. The food ranges from very good to gourmet, the service is very good, and the ports are some of the best in the Med and the Aegean.
You dine when you want, as they have open seating, and with whom. On the Wind Surf there is even a second restaurant from which to choose. The cabins are comfortable but not as large as Crystal’s and there are no Verandas. People who take this line really enjoy being on deck so verandas are not usually an issue. For those that like a bit more space the Wind Surf has suites as well. All of the rooms have ocean views through portholes in the rooms. As Windstar is in port almost every day, there are limited activities onboard. However, there is a spa, pool, library and pool bar. And the rooms are well equipped with flat screen TV, DVD, CD players, and mini bar refrigerators. After dinner, moonlight walks on deck, talking with the officers on the Bridge, or a drink under the stars are more the order of the day. These cruises are exceptional value for money.
Most cruise companies, including Windstar, offer attractive discounts for repeat visitors. One of the largest lines, Carnival, is actually a family of ships and extends those discounts to sister ships like Holland America, Seabourn, Cunard, Princess, P & O Princess, Swan Hellenic, Costa in Southern Europe and AIDA in Germany. Crystal also has a society for it’s repeat customers where discounts apply. So be sure to pay attention to that fact when booking a repeat cruise.