New Ports in the Mediterranean

Been there, done that? This year and next, luxury cruise and upper-premium ships will make “maiden” calls at ancient ports steeped in Venetian, Minoan, Greek and Roman history. Others will sail into harbors they’ve only visited sporadically in the past.

Searching for Napoleon: Elba, a Tuscan island, has a French twist to its history as Napoleon Bonaparte went into exile here for eight months in 1814. Visitors can visit the island’s mountains, curved bays and beaches, not to mention colorful homes, vineyards and historic forts. Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth sails from Southampton to Rome (Civitavecchia) on a 12-night voyage that has a maiden call to Portoferraio, Elba’s main town.

Azamara Club Cruises’ Azamara Quest also calls at Elba during a seven-night voyage from Nice, France, to Rome (Civitavecchia) on May 26, while Azamara Journey visits on an 11-night cruise from Monte-Carlo to Civitavecchia on September 20. Small-ship luxury operators Compagnie du Ponant and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises also have calls at Portoferraio this year.

Portoferraio means “Port of Iron” in Italian; just a century ago, mining was Elba’s biggest industry. Today, tourism is the island’s main focus, but shops offer jewelry made with local minerals or gems. After the rainy season, if you take the basic cable ride (essentially a metal, two-person basket ride that’s not for the faint of heart) up Mount Capanne, you might see green beryl and purple amethyst crystals glistening on the slopes, as well as views of Elba, Corsica, Monte Cristo and mainland Tuscany.

In Portoferraio, head for the city’s archaeological museum, which displays Etruscan and Roman artifacts recovered from local shipwrecks. Be sure to taste the local Aleatico and Moscato wines or sip mortella—that’s a local liquor flavored with fennel seeds, mint, myrtle and a wild herb called nepitella.

Cunard’s “Footsteps of Napoleon” shore excursion takes cruisers to several of Napoleon’s former haunts including Villa dei Mulini, his private home—it has a splendid terrace and garden. Peer into Napoleon’s library to view thousands of books, many taken from France’s Chateau de Fontainebleau.

Elba has pebble and sand beaches; its warm, calm waters attract sea kayakers, swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers. Tip: Ask locals for directions to the white-pebble Sansone Beach, situated in a pretty curved bay only three miles from Portoferraio. It’s a bit remote and accessed via a pathway near the Enfola-Viticcio crossroad of the Sorgente Beach area.

An Old Venetian Harbor: When Venice’s navy ruled the seas, Chania along Crete’s northwestern coast was an important outpost. This old Venetian port still attracts yachts and sightseeing boats. Cruisers enjoy walking along the harbor as well as experiencing Cretan cuisine, touring historic sites and browsing a French-inspired market. Several upscale cruise ships call this year and next at Souda, just five miles from Chania.

This spring, Oceania Cruises’ Insignia returns to the line’s fleet after a two-year charter and a major refurbishment; it has a maiden call at Souda during a 10-day cruise from Athens to Istanbul, departing June 20. Azamara also calls at Souda this year, while Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Serenity will sail into the port next year.

When you reach Chania, take time to admire the old Venetian harbor and buildings with Venetian and Turkish architecture. Small boats sailing into the harbor are guided by a reconstructed lighthouse built atop the old Venetian lighthouse site. If you have time to visit a seaside cafe, order a Greek coffee or ouzo, the national liquor. While the harborside eateries have full menus with foreign translations, just keep in mind they’re a bit touristy. So enjoy a light refreshment, savor the views and save your appetite for later.

Those curious about Chania’s maritime history can tour the Nautical Museum of Crete. The Municipal Market, patterned after a similar market in Marseilles, France, has shops that sell Cretan dairy products, fresh meat, seafood, baked goods and local products. For easy-to-pack gifts to take home, we suggest the olive oil soaps scented with lavender or lemon.

Upon leaving the market, shoppers who love leather handbags, shoes and jackets should walk to the aptly named Leather Street. One “must see” attraction is Chania’s Archaeological Museum, which displays Neolithic to Roman period artifacts. Hint: Be sure to see the large floor mosaics.

Situated in a winding alley near the old harbor is the family-owned Tavern Strata, which welcomes diners with a complimentary ouzo. It serves Cretan and Greek dishes; savory choices include the stuffed vine leaves, moussaka and a special beef dish with goat cheese. Definitely order the dacos—traditional, hard Cretan bread that’s repeatedly baked, then aged and served with oregano, cheese, grated tomato and olive oil.

All of Crete oozes archaeological history. Close to the Souda port are the ruins of ancient Aptera; Oceania guests can take a private shore tour.

French Enclaves of Luxury: Nestled along the Cote d’Azur, Antibes, France, is a destination of contrasts. It’s situated atop what was once the ancient Greek city of Antipolis. That means you can stroll ancient cobblestone streets and then check out world-class art and multi-million-dollar yachts.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Seven Seas Mariner makes a maiden call at Antibes this year during its cruise from Venice to Barcelona, departing June 8, and Oceania Cruises also calls at Antibes this year. Paul Gauguin Cruises sails a new seven-night French Riviera roundtrip voyage from Nice on the 90-passenger Tere Moana.

A beloved Antibes attraction is the Picasso Museum at the Grimaldi Chateau, the historic home of Monaco’s royal family. Picasso himself spent six months here in 1946 and was so delighted with the location and its sea views, he donated paintings to the town. You’ll see his art depicting mythological beasts and Mediterranean scenes, plus a wonderful ceramics collection and the iconic Joie de Vivre.

Ask for a map at the Antibes tourist office to find sites at which Picasso and other famous artists created famous masterpieces. Oceania’s “Picasso and Absinthe in Old Antibes” shore excursion visits the open-air Provencal Market, the Picasso Museum and a traditional store selling absinthe, a wormwood-based, highly alcoholic beverage popularized by 19th-century artists.

Antibes’ old town is filled with trendy boutiques, galleries and restaurants; good buys include artwork and designer clothes. Take in the morning market with the locals at Place de la Liberte or walk through Jardin Thuret, created by botanist Gustave Thuret.

When it’s time for lunch, eateries abound—many specializing in Provencal dishes and fresh fish and seafood. La Bonne Table Bistro 44, a small eatery in Antibes, is patronized by locals and has an extensive, authentic French menu; it’s a good choice if you’re touring the nearby Antibes Archaeological Museum. We recommend the turbot with sweet passion fruit sauce, escargot or the entrée-sized tomato, and mozzarella salad with bacon.

Walking paths run through the exclusive Cap d’Antibes promontory, which has hilly, wooded areas filled with chic villas. When it’s time for a break, the Hotel Du Cap-Eden-Roc’s new Champagne Lounge offers a sea-view terrace and libations from 14 different Champagne houses. Limited edition champagnes include Louis Roederer “Cristal Or” and Dom Perignon “Vintage Rose.”

Alternatively, Regent Seven Seas offers an “Ultimate Olive Oil Experience,” which takes guests to Grasse by coach, and then by van to Domaine la Royrie, a 15th-century farmhouse. We suggest wandering through the olive tree groves with owners Monique and Lionel Brault, tasting the oils, and having lunch at the farm.

Affectionately called “ville tranquille” in French, Bandol, France, is tucked into a sheltered bay south of Marseille. Seabourn Cruise Line will call for the first time on Seabourn Sojourn’s May 1 departure from Venice to Barcelona.

Beach lovers can spend the day at Renecros Beach or take a 10-minute boat ride to Ile de Bendor, an offshore island purchased in the 1950s by the Ricard family of pastis fame; it’s car-free, has diving and snorkel sites, as well as boutiques, an artist’s village and restaurants.

Vineyards have been part of the regional landscape since 600 BC, and five different appellations are grown locally. Red wine aficionados should taste one of the spicy, earthy Bandol reds, comprised of at least 50 percent Mourvedre grapes. At the local growers’ association shop,Oenotheque des Vins de Bandol, you can learn about (and taste) the wines.

More Relaxed in Malta: The sleepy Maltese island of Gozo is thought to be the legendary Calypso’s isle mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. It’s separated by a channel from Malta’s main island. Windstar Cruises’ Star Pride will make a maiden call at Gozo-Xlendia during its 10-day sailing roundtrip from Rome on May 11, while Silversea Cruises’ Silver Spirit also calls at Gozo during its seven-night roundtrip Rome cruise departing May 27.

Cruisers going ashore at Gozo can explore the city’s historic citadel and cathedral built in the shape of a Latin cross. The island is also home to Ġgantija Temples, part of the country’s UNESCO World Heritage grouping of Megalithic temples. Not into history? Bask on a red sand beach, hike, or shop for Gozo Glass—swirly, opaque glass made into small perfume bottles or decorative pieces. Some cruisers head for Xlendia, a resort area with beaches, shops and restaurants.

Maltese cuisine is an eclectic mix of flavors, not surprising given the island’s history and location between Sicily and North Africa. Gozitan cheese, usually made from sheep’s milk, is served as Gbejniet or a small, round mini-cheese that’s fresh, dried or marinated and peppered. Diners will find the cheese used in ravioli and pastizzi, a Maltese mini-pastry. When sipping wine on Gozo, we say enjoy it with a dish of olives and zalzett, a coriander-flavored sausage accompanied by bean pate and crackers.

New in Greece: On May 13, Seabourn Odyssey makes its maiden call at Monemvasia, an island off the Peloponnese Peninsula, during its May 13 departure from Monte-Carlo to Piraeus (Athens). Crystal Serenity also calls at Monemvasia during a June 22 departure of the “Echoes of Ancient Civilizations” cruise from Istanbul to Rome (Civitavecchia). Windstar is among others calling here.

Separated from the Peloponnese after an earthquake, Monemvasia is a tall, flat island known as “the Gibraltar of the East.” It seems stuck in medieval times, given its grottoes, narrow alleys, rock-carved rooms, medieval walls and a fortress in Monemvasia’s uninhabited upper town. Narrow pathways lead to the Byzantine Agia Sophia church. In the lower, inhabited town, walk toward the bell tower to reach Elkomenos Square with a small medieval church and museum.

Seabourn offers a half-day shore excursion from Monemvasia to ancient Mystras near Mount Taygetos. Stopping above the site, cruisers can take photos of what many consider Greece’s best-preserved Byzantine city. Touring through Mystras is a somewhat eerie experience as you view fresco-adorned historic churches, palaces, vaulted alleys and city walls. Fit travelers can climb to the top of the Kastro, a 13th-century castle.

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