Ever dream of seeing those cobblestoned hill towns of France, Italy, or Spain but dread the hassle of packing up everyday and driving to a new place? Windstar has come to your rescue. In true Savvy Traveler form, you can make the beautiful tall masted sailing ship your luxurious floating hotel base and wake up in a new spot on the Med everyday.
If you haven’t been to the Mediterranean you are in for a treat. Summers on the Med enjoy Europe’s best weather. A cruise ship gives you the opportunity to enjoy a number of cities and/or countries with the least inconvenience, And in these times of low-value dollar, they give you the most economical mode of travel and the easiest for which to budget.
The ship bills itself as a casual elegance cruise with no formal nights, open eating times and informal entertainment. It sports a pool, a spa and fitness center. An open bridge policy makes one feel like they are cruising on their own private yacht. The Windstar line had recently opted out of their Carnival ownership and back to being their own company. The changes have been for the better. They now boast 4 dining venues with a good variety and tasty choices. Two of the venues are outside on deck enhancing your evening experience with first-hand sunset views and those oh so romantic starry nights.
On own most recent trip, we joined our friends who had never been to this part of Europe and sailed to Spain, France, Italy and Monaco. How convenient to see 4 countries by land and sea without packing a suitcase everyday. Windstar’s ships have only 75-150 cabins (depending on the ship) so crowds and waiting endlessly for tenders, never happen on these ships. We were able to easily avail ourselves of services without the disappointment you have on larger ships whose offerings fill up.
My favorite thing about Windstar is her itineraries. Because they are a smaller ship they can sail into more ports and give their clients more variety. The last time we sailed with them we went from Lisbon to Malaga with several stops in Morocco. It was a part of the world we had wanted to see but were not sure how comfortable we would be staying there. Every stop held discovery, exotic flavors and awesome sights.
This trip focused on strictly, the Med. We boarded the ship in Barcelona and proceeded to Palamos, Spain, Marseille, France, Porquerolles, France, Porto Vecchio, Corsica, Portovenere, Italy, St. Tropez, France and Monte Carlo, Monaco.
The excursions at each port offered a good variety of choices and presented great insight into each countries’ lifestyle, history and sheer beauty to behold beyond the port cities. And if you chose to visit only the port, that too presented interesting opportunities. For those who like water sports, the WindSurf has a sports platform that allows a variety of water options right there on the ship.
Our desire was to see what made the Costa Brava, Provence, Corsica, Liguria and Monte Carlo tick. We wanted to inhale the smells, see the vistas, taste the specialties of each area. And I am always looking for that most quintessential of European villages that have it all—friendly people, scrumptious food, heavenly views and quaint streets with colorful architecture with flowers spilling over stone walls and window sills. This trip did not disappoint, it had it all.
Starting with Barcelona, you see a city with a unique blend of the old and new. Old world classical Spanish architecture mixes with the fanciful creations of Gaudi to create a beguiling city with a lively center, an active waterfront, a myriad of things to do including great eating/entertainment establishments. We arrived the afternoon of the day before the cruise and chose to take the Hop On/Hop Off bus for a 3-hour overview tour of the city. As this tour runs from 9 AM to 8 PM in the summer, it can meet most people’s schedule for availability. It’s also very economical and allows you time to spend at your own pace if you have the full day available to you. We conveniently stayed at the Regina Hotel a few blocks from the starting stop of the tour bus. This was a reasonably priced hotel with good amenities and a very strategic location.
If the timing works, another option would be a coach half day or full day sightseeing tour. We have taken the full day before and really enjoyed it. The narration was better and the stops well selected with a reasonable amount of time to see things. The Parc Guell designed by Gaudi is particularly interesting and pleasurable to see and experience. Another stop is at the Poble Espanyol, a lovely park where architectural buildings from the region are recreated in a fun village atmosphere. If you have more time in Barcelona, there are many more tours available to give you more insight this great city and the surrounding area. Click here on Barcelona to view these.
The morning before boarding the ship we took in the Maritime Museum. It is housed in the restored Medieval buildings by the waterfront. A headset is provided in your language enhancing the experience. It was one of the best Maritime museums we have ever experienced.
Boarding our ship on Sunday afternoon, we enjoyed a scenic sailing out of Barcelona and on to our first port, Palamos. At this port, we opted for a tour to the medieval city of Girona, a city rich in history, architecture and local color. A sense of life inland from the Costa Brava came alive with the detail descriptions imparted to us by our most informative guide, Marcos. Whether touring the Turkish baths or the Jewish Quarters, he was sensitive to the cultures and history of all the people who had made this a jewel of Catalonia. Before returning to the ship, we took our own walking tour of Palamos, with a stop for one of those famously long Spanish lunches. The local Palamos prawns were indeed very tasty.
Back on the ship that night we left the Sunny Costa Brava and headed to Marseille, France. We opted to eat on deck that night and dined on tasty seafood at the intimate Marche restaurant while watching our backdrop transform from a rosy sunset into a starry clear night. As night came on, cozy blankets were given to the ladies to allow us to better enjoy our yummy dessert and
Arriving in Marseille we witnessed a bustling port and a sprawling city—a sharp contrast to sleepy Palamos. As we docked at 8 am and remained in port until 11 pm there was time for several activities. As Marseilles is the doorway to Provence, we chose a morning tour to Aix en Provence. As Aix was painted by many of the impressionist artists due to the nature of the light there our expectations were high. Aix did not disappoint – there were bubbling fountains, tree-lined boulevards, gorgeous architecture, quaint little shops and a colorful market. Great cafes for people watching and yummy local delicacies to eat topped off the excellent walking tour. We had about an hour to explore on our own after the tour and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Back in Marseille, we took the petit train tour to see the city. These little tour trains are found in many of the towns around the Med. It’s a good way to get around a new place for an overview and some history. This is a good choice for Marseille as one of the journey routes takes up to Notre Dame de la Garde, the 19th century basilica that dominates the city. The views from up there a nothing short of spectacular–the city, the Med, the mountains, the dry terrain dotted with cacti lay before you like a landscape painting. And for those literary buffs, a great view of the legendary Chateau d’If where Dumas’s fictional Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned. For other tours of Provence from Marseille just click here on Marseille.
After a busy day like that, we were ready for a more relaxing pace. Windsurf obliged with a stop at the laid-back, picture-perfect island of Porquerolles. As the ladies were ready for exercise and the men were not, the ladies embarked on a morning of hiking, taking the first tender in. Porquerolles has a lively, colorful town filled with shops, restaurants and lots of pastel flowers. We had a Kodak moment every few steps.
Leaving the town behind we headed for the hills where 3 separate paths led us to 3 very different rewarding views. If you go, set your sights for the fort, the lighthouse and the windmill as your destinations. My personal favorite was the lighthouse. Once you arrive you are greeted with the stark contrast of the granite rocks against the turquoise sea. A great spot to catch your breath and drink in the beauty around you.
As we reached the last destination, the “boys” called us for lunch and we headed back to the waterfront for a delicious seafood lunch at Il Pescatore. The moules and frits (mussels and fries) were as good as you get in France. After a gelato stop, we took our final hike to view the sandy beach and stick our toes in the Med. It was cool and soothing after the sultry walk. What a great day it was!
Having so enjoyed Porquerolles, the prospect of another island left us with a feeling of great anticipation. And Corsica did not let us down. Sailing into Corsica is a sight to behold. The sparkling sea, the rising mountains, the villas popping up from the trees…these are the scenes you long for on a Mediterranean Cruise.
We docked in Porto Vecchio and headed for a coach tour to Bonafacio. It was a relaxing way to see the interior of Corsica and get an overview of the island’s history and lifestyle from our knowledgeable Corsican guide. I enjoyed discussing French politics with her from a Corsican’s perspective as we toured the narrow streets of Bonafacio. Bonafacio holds a prominent position on the limestone cliffs of the south coast. The views out to sea are truly breathtaking. We photographed the coastline while standing under the balcony of French starlet, Catherine Deneuve’s villa. Ah, the good life!!!
Our walking tour left us time for shopping for the local specialties of olive oil, wine and ceramics. Then back on the petit train, that took us up to this citadel town, to the lively marina below for the trip back.
Having sampled Spain and France, our next port took us to one of my favorite countries, Italy. Once again the views at sea set the stage for this special stop in Portovenere. As we dropped anchor the pink, yellow and orange buildings created a welcoming rainbow of color. The little boats bobbing in the water left no doubt that we were approaching a fishing village, but this was a fishing village with photo opps at every turn. Who could ask for more in a port? Besides the picturesque village, there’s a 12th and 13th century church, a tiered village with neat shops and restaurants, a 16th century castle on top of the cliffs and fabulous views of the Cinque Terre. Yes, this is Italy at it’s best.
Our guidebooks directed us to the second level of the town for the better quality food for lunch so we headed there. The cozy little restaurants don’t have the water views but the atmosphere is unmistakenly Italian and the value of food for money is very good.
After a great day in Italy, we said arrivederci, and once more bonjour to France as we cruised to the French playground of St. Tropez. Once again we had a long stay in port, so time for an inland tour and an afternoon exploration of St. Tropez on our own was possible.
We chose the French hill towns of Ramatuelle, Gassin and Grimaud for our tour. The weather continued to be stellar and the little towns sparkled with color as we hiked up the winding paths from the parking areas to the narrow cobblestoned streets of each town. The vistas were classic Provence, rolling hills of vineyards, dotted with fields of flowers and crowned with little towns on top of each hill. The castle ruins, ancient buildings adorned with bougainvilla, and the pastel shuttered windows helped you drink in the lifestyle and beauty that is Provence. It was this that made these my favorite French towns on the cruise.
Back in St. Tropez, a different scene altogether awaited us. Glitzy shops and restaurants with the mega-yachts in the harbor provide a distinct contrast to our morning tour. We stop for a tasty crepe lunch on the waterfront before we further explore the rest of St. Tropez. As you move away from the waterfront up the hillside, a quieter side of St. Tropez unfolds. A beautiful park leading up to the 16th century citadel gives one a moment to contemplate and then take in the vistas of St. Tropez and the wider Riviera below. We happen upon the Byblos Hotel nestled on a quiet street facing the park. Walking inside, a beautiful oasis unfolded before us. Taking a rate card, we tucked this into our memory file for a future longer stay.
The last night we once again decided to dine outside on the Windsurf at their poolside restaurant. The cuisine was all grilled at this venue. What a gorgeous night it was with St. Tropez twinkling in the background, who could ask for more?
Our last stop brought us to Monaco. It has to be the most elegant spot on the Med. It has something for everyone, a bustling marina, fabulous architecture, a long history and a glittering nightlife including one of the most famous casinos on earth.
When you go be sure to see the old city of Monaco-Ville on the top of the rock. Amazingly enough, you can get up there by walking around the marina and going up escalators and/or elevators. This will deposit you at the famous Aquarium designed by Jacques Cousteau. From here walk the Jardin Exotique to the Cathedral then on to the Palace du Prince. The shops and restaurants here are also fun to explore. A visit to the palace is a must for those who love art, antiques, history and architecture. From the frescoed ceilings to the priceless antiques, the contents of this palace will leave you in awe.
For a good overview of Monte Carlo go back to the Aquarium, as we did, and once again take a petit train. It will narrate you through the streets of Monaco and help you appreciate this tiered city of glamour and beauty. There are many other great tours of Monaco available to help you make the most of your stay, just click here on Monaco for more options.
And sadly, we ended our cruise here. But Monaco is a great jumping off point to other parts of the Med that you can further journey by land. Use our favorite hotel selector Venere to find a hotel conveniently located to where you want to be and in your desired price range. This is what we did, after a night in Monaco we rented a car and headed along the Italian Rivera to the Italian Lake district—-and that is the topic for another time.