Winter Cruising In The Med: Chilly But No Crowds

On Costa Deliziosa: Blue skies on a winter day in Naples, Italy

A few weeks ago, I left Asheville, North Carolina, for Venice, Italy. Up to 18 inches of snow had blanketed the North Carolina mountains in the days preceding my flight. I was lucky to get out, connecting via Atlanta and Rome to Venice.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of a winter cruise around the boot of Italy. In December, I sailed Silver Spirit from Monte Carlo to Barcelona. Weather was chilly, but not bone-chilling cold.  On such a short cruise, we had little time to take in the shoreside attractions, so my experience was limited to the ship. The Venice trip would be different. We would have time ashore in Venice, Naples and Florence on the four-night cruise to Savona.

As the Alitalia flight descended, I could see a blanket of snow covering the flat stretches of land surrounding Venice. The sky was cobalt blue, the sun bright. Stepping outside the terminal to chilly weather, however, I was hoping that our transfer (I was traveling with two other journalists) was not by water taxi. Luckily, we transferred in a warm Mercedes van.

We arrived at the Venice Cruise Terminal just before noon. Boarding was not possible until 12:30, and the ship’s departure was at 5. With little time to explore the city and jet-lagged from the transatlantic flight, I opted out of venturing into Venice. Others who had arrived the day before I did, however, told me they had an enjoyable day exploring the city.

With no rain and temperatures ranging from the freezing point to the mid-forties, a jacket was all that was required to shake off the chill. The crowds in St. Mark’s square were thin, lines to the basilica were non-existent. What a contrast to summer. Moreover, Venice functioned as usual. Gondoliers were at work in the canals, shops were open, and the city was as romantic as ever.

The next day was a sea day, followed by a mid-morning call in Naples. The weather was considerably warmer, and again, all that was required was a thin jacket to get out and explore the sites. Some from the ship went to Pompeii to explore the ruins without the crowds. Others went into the city for tours, and others took the ferry to Capri. Those who went to Capri said that many of the shops were shuttered, but there were a few restaurants open, and again, no crowds.

The story repeated itself on a tour from Livorno to Florence and Pisa.

On board Costa Deliziosa, activities were not limited to indoors. The outer decks and public areas were open and in use, though there were no bikini-clad sunbathers. The magrodome was used during a late-night, pool-deck performance by Kid Creole & the Coconuts. There were fewer kids on board than on summer cruises, and the passenger base was dominated by Europeans, as is the case on all Costa cruises in Europe.

The concept of winter cruising in the Med was introduced several years ago, as cruise operators looked to expand the traditional spring-through-fall Mediterranean season by offering sailings in the off-season.

In 2004, Costa Magica was the first new ship to begin year-round Mediterranean service. Costa is currently offering 11-day and longer cruises from Savona to the Canary Islands. In 2011, Magica will launch a new series of seven-day Med cruises from Savona to Marseille.

Barcelona is one of the most popular departure ports for winter cruising. Royal Caribbean operated year-round Med voyages from the Spanish city on Brilliance of the Seas in 2009. For the winter of 2010, NCL will place Norwegian Jade in Barcelona to sail alternating 12- and nine-day cruises from Barcelona.

José Campos, an American who lives in Barcelona and is secretary general of MEDCRUISE, an organization of member ports, says that North Americans are increasingly coming to the Med in the off months. Airfares are typically much more of a bargain, Campos says, adding that “savvy repeat cruisers look to visit European destinations with less crowds and milder weather.”

That certainly sums up my experience on winter cruises in the Med.

How about you? Would you consider winter cruising in Europe?

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