European cruises an easy way to hit most hot spots

June 17, 2007|By Arline and Sam Bleecker | Arline and Sam Bleecker,Chicago Tribune

For cruise lines, Europe is the new Alaska. Its popularity is soaring, and for good reason.

The sizzle of a European cruise is simple: the chance to sample multiple destinations -- Paris, London, Rome, Athens and scores of other culturally rich cities -- without the hassle of having to trudge around the continent on your own.

Cruise passengers can soak it all in -- from the cradles of Western Civilization to the cuisines of contemporary cultures.

So how might you approach selecting a cruise on the other side of the Atlantic?

Anne Campbell, author and founder of solocruises. com, thinks vacationers, after being weaned on Caribbean itineraries, might pick a cruise for the wrong reasons. "In the Caribbean, there are more days at sea, and the focus is on the ship and its amenities, activities and entertainment. On a Europe cruise, the focus is much more on what's ashore; the ship is secondary."

Unlike a leisurely Carib-bean sailing, a European cruise is work, Campbell says. "You're ashore by 8:30 a.m. and walk or drive until late afternoon." Shore excursions in antiquities-rich Rome, for instance, can take as long as 10 to 13 hours. Or nearly as long in Florence, Italy, or Paris, or even in Italy's Capri or along the Amalfi Coast from Naples.

To get the most out of your European jaunt, Campbell advises that you concentrate foremost on the ship's itinerary and how long it stays in port. Some cities simply cannot be appreciated in a single day, and, aware of that, some lines offer overnights in a few of the most popular ports.

For example, Princess Cruises overnights in Venice. Crystal Cruises overnights in Bordeaux, France; Edinburgh, Scotland; and Dublin, Ireland. Carnival Cruise Lines overnights in Civitavecchia, the port serving Rome.

Campbell says, "When comparing ships, and their length of stay in port, also pay attention to the menu of shore excursions as well as the line's reputation for delivering what it promises."

Besides conferring with a travel agent, visit the Web sites of several lines to explore their pre- and post-cruise land packages and excursions.

Even with those guidelines, you still may find yourself knee-deep in choices. Ships from major cruise lines cover the Continent as do Europe-based river and barge cruise companies. For the uninitiated, it can be too much of a good thing.

According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the marketing arm for 21 cruise companies, member vessels visit the major European tourist regions, including the Baltic and the Western, Eastern and Southern Mediterranean.

Baltic cruises focus on Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, with itineraries that include overnight hotel stays in Copenhagen, Denmark, and St. Petersburg, Russia, CLIA notes. The region's landscapes include the rugged beauty of the Norwegian fiords and North Cape, the proverbial "land of the midnight sun."

Eastern Mediterranean cruises visit ports in the Aegean Sea, including Rhodes, Santorini, Mykonos and Crete in Greece. Seven-day cruises often depart from Piraeus (the port for Athens, Greece) and Istanbul, Turkey, for destinations in the Adriatic, Ionian and Tyrrhenian seas.

Western Med cruises sail from the Adriatic to the Straits of Gibraltar to ports that can include Venice, Naples, Civitavecchia (for Rome) and Genoa, Italy. These itineraries also may call at Monte Carlo, Nice, Cannes and St. Tropez, France; Barcelona, Spain; and Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Southern Med cruises visit exotic ports along the Black Sea and coast of North Africa from Morocco to the Holy Lands, including Tunis, Tunisia; Tripoli, Libya; Alexandria, Egypt; and Haifa, Israel.

For aficionados of river cruises and smaller, more intimate vessels, the waterways of Europe teem with offerings from several companies. For example, Go Barging boasts that it owns and operates Europe's largest and most geographically diversified fleet of hotel barges. And with the addition of two new vessels, a 12-passenger motor yacht and a renovated 12-passenger hotel barge, the company now offers access to eight countries -- England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Holland.

Go Barging's Netherlands excursions unveil the historic maritime cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam and the former Zuider Zee shipbuilding centers of Enkhuizen and Hoorn, as well as the charming walled towns of Haarlem and Leiden.

The roster of sights can include the elegant Dutch capital of The Hague; the powerful Delta Works sea defenses in the south and the famous 32-mile Enclosure Dyke in the north; the peat canal village of Giethoorn; the world's biggest flower auction at Aalsmeer; the magnificent Keukenhof Gardens and, in season, surrounding fields of tulips; the cheese town of Gouda; and the potteries at Delft and Makkum. For information, call 800-394-8630 or go to gobarging.com.

Arline and Sam Bleecker write for the Chicago Tribune.

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