Sailing is pure magic. As the last shades of orange, pink and purple fade, the lights of southern Italy rise, twinkling on the small boats that cross the harbor and on the ferries that connect the tiptoes of the ‘Italy to Sicily, just three kilometers across the Strait of Messina. Glimmering villages climb the mountains on both sides of the breach. The coasts, dotted with shops and restaurants and quays, sparkle.
Standing on my balcony, an aperitif in hand, I watch Italy fade away. Next stop: Greece, somewhere over there, across the Ionian Sea. But first ? Dinner, in the conveniently located restaurant just downstairs.
Sailing in the Mediterranean is a dream. For my 15-day trip from Barcelona to Athens aboard the Viking Sea, the list of stopovers reads like a romance, each stopover stirring the imagination: Monaco, Rome, Naples, Crete, Ephesus. This is the kind of itinerary that generally attracts cruise veterans like myself (I’ve sailed on around 40 different ships) – people who have gone from short, enjoyable trips to those ambitious, multi-country trips further afield. .
But as I chat with those aboard the small ship, I notice something curious: a preponderance of novice cruisers and people who have never set foot in Europe until now – some citing a sense of Carpe Diem the emergency created by the pandemic.
Laura Lynn McCurry, for example, came from Oregon with a large group of family and friends. This kind of trip had been on their to-do list for a long time, and when her mother recovered from an illness last year, they agreed to make it. Like now. âWe decided, given this crazy world, we had to make this dream come true,â she says, noting that this is their first trip to Europe. âWhen mom’s health started to deteriorate, this cruise gave us hope. And now, here we are! “
I hear similar stories throughout the ship, whose passengers are, on the whole, younger and more adventurous than other voyages I have taken. And everyone is delighted with just about everywhere we go.
On a shore excursion to Avignon, the tour group listens intently to a guide as we pass the Palais des Papes, walk in medieval Gothic splendor, and learn how six Popes ruled here in the 14th century, when this small town in the south of France becomes the seat of Western Christianity.
In the glamorous James Bond Casino in Monte-Carlo, where you have to pay â¬ 17 and respect a strict dress code just to have the privilege of strolling around the slot machines and card tables under dripping chandeliers, everyone is happy to lose $ 20 (or $ 50) on red or black at roulette. In Pisa, I join everyone who shamelessly takes photos, sporting big smiles as they pretend to support or push down the leaning tower of the same name.
âWe never really thought of ourselves as cruisers,â says David Sission of Seattle, who travels with his sister. He has only had one previous trip, on a small boutique line. âIt seemed like the best way to look at a lot of things, very quickly. And then when we have found our favorite places, we will come back for a longer visit.
It’s a fair philosophy, and those on board divide their time in port between organized tours and simple solo itineraries, exploring wherever their feet take them. And the ship, with its elegant Scandinavian-style Wintergarden lounge, Nordic spa and numerous restaurants, is always waiting to take us all to the next destination at the end of another exciting day. There is freedom in it, after so much confinement, the Viking Sea cutting waves on open water, the endless horizon from the balcony, another new place to discover just around the corner.
We see historic ruins, like the Library of Celsus and the great amphitheater in the ancient port city of Ephesus (in present-day Turkey), where settlement dates back around 3,000 years. We take a winding ride through the small villages of the Amalfi Coast, our big bus barely weaving its way through the switchbacks, the land crumbling under the crashing waves.
In Sicily, the day’s activity includes visiting volcanic sites where molten lava has frozen in black waves on the slopes of Mount Etna. And of course there are also culinary delights, when we come to Murgo Winery, located 500 meters above sea level, where whites like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are the specialty. âWe aim for lightness but also complexity,â explains Michele Murgo, one of the eight brothers who own the cellar. (Only five are involved in running the place. “If there were more – too many – we would have a revolution,” he says wryly.)
As we sip wines and sample local meats and cheeses, including a particularly pleasant pecorino, it tells the story, from the founding of the winery in 1860 to the first bottling, much later in 1982. âWe let’s go on a great adventure, âhe says of their business.
And soon, I resume my own adventure, the ship leaving Messina, heavy seas ahead. Back on board, McCurry comments on the magic of his own day, and even of the entire trip. âWe did a ‘Godfather’ tour today – it was super cool,â she says. âThis cruise was beyond expectations, much more than we even hoped for.â
Writer Tim Johnson traveled as a guest of Viking Cruises, which has neither reviewed nor endorsed this article. The federal government recommends that Canadians avoid non-essential travel. This article is intended to inspire plans for future travel.