Europe from the Rail of a Cruise Ship
By Eleanor Berman
I had never been a great fan of cruises—too much food, too little time anywhere used to be my mantra. But itineraries like my recent 14-day sailing on Regent’s Voyager have changed my mind.
The ports were irresistible—from Rome to Cinque Terre in Italy, down the Mediterranean to Marseille, Barcelona, Granada and Seville. Then, we rounded the Spanish coast, sailing past Gibraltar to Lisbon before cruising up the Atlantic to Bilbao, Bordeaux and LeHavre, the gateway either to a day in Paris or to the beaches of Normandy. Finally, we docked in Southampton for a bus ride to London’s Heathrow and the flight home.
The logistics of planning a land trip to even half of these great destinations are daunting, not to mention the thought of all those airports and security lines. While we didn’t visit in depth, we got a sampling of so many wonderful places—and only had to unpack once. As a plus, we had three relaxing days at sea between sightseeing.
Bilbao was a highlight for me. A day was ample time to appreciate Frank Gehry’s masterpiece museum, which proved to be greater in person than any photo can convey. Another favorite stop was Bordeaux, where we docked in the center of town and had two full days to savor the city’s stately 18th century architecture and lively riverfront, as well as the beautiful surrounding vineyards. My partner, a World War II buff, was thrilled at the chance to make the trip to Normandy, and no one can fail to be impressed and moved there at the museum that brings the fateful landing to life.
Big cities are more of a challenge in a day, but I’ve learned that you can make the most of the time if you skip the ship’s tightly scheduled packaged tours in favor of the local hop-on hop-off bus. These provide an overview but also time to linger, have lunch in a cafe and walk around on your own wherever you wish. The bus works very well in Barcelona, where it allows visits to the city’s most famous sights, architect, Antonio Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia cathedral and playful sculptures at the Parc Goeull, as well as the splendid Miro Foundation museum on a distant hilltop. An 11 p.m. departure time and a frequent free shuttle back to the ship meant there was still time to join the crowds promenading on the city’s colorful Ramblas and have a look at the old Gothic quarter and the Picasso Museum, which stays open until 8 p.m.
Regent has become my favorite cruise line for several reasons. The size is right, 700 passengers, small enough, for example, to sail the 70 miles inland on the Garonne River to the heart of Bordeaux. Standard cabins would be luxury suites on many ships. Even the smallest is 300 square feet with a balcony and a walk-in closet. While the rates sound high, they compete surprisingly well with less luxurious ships when you see what is included—airfare to and from Europe, a hotel night in Rome before we sailed, transportation into Rome and later to the port of Civitavecchia, most daily excursions, all tips, and limitless drinks, both hard and soft. Days at sea could be filled with talks and games or classes, but I was perfectly content to relax in a chaise on deck with a good book and sea views to savor.
Cruising isn’t always ideal, but with travel so often a hassle, it still probably comes closer than anything else to fulfilling the old slogan: Getting there is half the fun.
For more info: Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Eleanor Berman, a New York freelance writer and award-winning author of a dozen travel guides, has covered 82 countries and all 7 continents. She has written for many national publications, including Travel & Leisure, Ladies’ Home Journal, Diversion, Robb Report, Boston Globe, Atlanta Constitution, Denver Post, Miami Herald, and the New York Daily News. Among her guide book awards are a Lowell Thomas award for Traveling Solo, Thomas Cook Book of the Year for Eyewitness Guide to New York, and Independent Publishers IPPY award, best guide of the year, for New York Neighborhoods.