One of the things I liked best about being on a cruise is the chance it gives you to see so many different places. Of course you only see each place for a matter of hours while your ship is in port but that’s enough time to give you an impression of a destination and decide whether or not it’s somewhere you’d like to come back to. If you want to go ashore you can opt to take part in the cruise company’s official excursions or you can book an independent tour or you can do your own thing.
I’m just back from my first ever cruise. I went with my fifteen year-old daughter and we opted to go on a couple of different excursions from our ship the MSC Preziosa. Our tour of the eastern Mediterranean started and ended in Venice and stopped at Bari, Katakalon (for Olympia), Izmir (for Ephesus), Istanbul and Dubrovnik. We didn’t want to go on organised tours every day as we wanted to relax as well as seeing the sights. We went on an MSC organised tour in Istanbul as well as an independent tour to Olympia which we booked online. At the other ports we either stayed on board or took a shuttle bus from the port to the city centre and explored by ourselves. My favourite stops on the cruise were Istanbul and Dubrovnik and I’d definitely like to go back to both cities.
The cruise company offers several excursions at each place we stopped. I think that these tours are quite expensive (our city tour of Istanbul cost £89 per person including entrance fees and lunch but not drinks) but the one we went on was very well-organised and the guide was excellent. I didn’t fancy exploring Istanbul independently as I knew that my daughter and I would get a lot of hassle if we were on our own. We were met by a coach at the port gate and I relaxed in the knowledge that the tour guides would get us back to the ship on time. I loved seeing the famous Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar. There were 40 of us in our group and we were taken to a swish looking restaurant for lunch but the food was a little bland and disappointing. A great advantage for parents going on an MSC shore excursion is that you can leave your children age three years and older at the kids club on board. I really like this idea because dragging grumpy children around ancient ruins in the baking heat is no fun at all. My daughter just about put up with visiting the ancient city of Olympia because she understands its significance but my eleven year-old son wouldn’t have enjoyed it at all.
If you want to go on an organised tour you don’t have to go with your cruise company. I booked our tour to Olympia from the port at Katatakalon online a few days before our cruise. The tour was with a company called Cruising Excursions which I’d read about on cruisecritic.com, a website recommended to me by fellow travel blogger Selena Jones. The tour cost £32 per person which is a bit cheaper than the MSC tour to Olympia at £45 per person – but you can’t leave your kids at the MSC kids club if you’re not on one of their tours. The guide was excellent but the coach was parked about 15 minutes’ walk from the ship and we had to wait about 20 minutes for everyone in our group of 20 people to arrive at the meeting point before we could set off. Going on this tour was a bit of a leap of faith for me as I had a nagging worry that we’d be late back and the ship would leave without us but everything was fine.
At Bari I noticed that there were bikes for hire right next to the ship – this could be a fun way to explore the city.
At each port that’s away from the city centre MSC lays on shuttle buses (for a fee) to transport passengers between the city and the ship. We used these buses in both Bari (7,50 euros per person) and Dubrovnik (12,90 euros per person) and that worked really well for us. In Bari we wandered around the old city taking in the atmosphere and then looked in the few designer shops which were open (it was a Sunday) before heading back to the ship. In beautiful Dubrovnik the bus dropped us off in a square just outside the old city walls, next to the Tourist Information office. I popped in there for a map and then we headed into the the old city to explore. After admiring the views across the rooftops and out to sea from the city walls we went back to the square to catch a bus back to the boat.
Staying on board
You don’t have to go ashore when the ship is in port. On a very hot day our third port of call was Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city and the cruise ship destination for excursions to Ephesus. We went to Ephesus a few years ago and so decided to stay on the ship and relax on that day. We went to the spa, sunbathed, had lunch and enjoyed the ship being quiet.
I usually borrow guidebooks from my local library but that wasn’t practical for the cruise because we were going to so many different places. Instead I took the DK Eyewitness Travel Cruise Guide to Europe and the Mediterranean which had been sent to me to review. It covers more than 70 ports of call including everywhere we visited except for Bari. It talks about cruising in general and life on board ship and I found it very helpful. I also read the useful port guides on cruisecritic.com before we left home.
If you’ve ever been on a cruise what did you do about excursions?
We were guests of MSC Cruises for review purposes. The price for our seven-night cruise staying in a balcony cabin from Venice to Bari, Katakolon, Izmir, Istanbul and Dubrovnik is from £1059 per person including return flights from London, transfers and meals. There are additional charges for the excursions, port shuttle buses, spa treatments, drinks and some activities.