The insider advice on this page is brought to you by one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for cruises: Tom Baker of Cruise Center.
Tom Baker has sailed on more than 250 ships in nearly 50 years. From Alaska to French Polynesia to the Panama Canal, from the Douro to the Rhine to the Danube, if an ocean or river ship docks there, chances are he’s been—more than once! First Tom helps each traveler pinpoint the right ship, cabin, and itinerary (his encyclopedic knowledge of the pros and cons of different cabin types on different vessels will astound you). Then he advises on which private guides, group shore excursions, and flights will best suit your needs. He has particular clout with river lines AmaWaterways, Crystal River Cruises, Uniworld, and Viking, and with ocean lines Celebrity, Celestyal, Crystal, Holland America, MSC, Norwegian, Oceania, Royal Caribbean, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, and Windstar. Tom was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.
Ships and Cabins
The Norwegian Epic megaship is quite affordable. It offers top-notch onboard entertainment, lots of dining options, the most coveted ports, and a Nickelodeon kids’ program, all with rates starting under $100 per person per day.
Best large ship
My favorite large ships are Celebrity’s Eclipse, Equinox, Silhouette, and Reflection. These four cruisers are 1,041 feet long but carry only 2,850 passengers, making them some of the most spacious in all of the Mediterranean. They are practically contemporary art galleries, with amazing public areas, lots of open deck space, huge gyms, Canyon Ranch spas, and food and wine designed by James Beard. Nearly 90 percent of the cabins have balconies, and there are lots of connecting cabins for families.
Best ship for foodies
Even compared with much higher-priced luxury lines, Oceania Cruises has the best food, wine, and array of gourmet restaurants. It’s no fluke: Famed chef Jacques Pepin designs menus for every dining venue on all of Oceania’s ships.
Norwegian Cruise Line’s mini suites offer nearly twice as much space as their standard balcony cabin. These cabins have almost king-sized beds, large sitting areas with a full sofa and vanity, and most have a larger bathroom equipped with a shower-tub unit. These cabins often go for under $200 per person per day for a weeklong Mediterranean cruise.
Cabins worth the splurge
The 5,750-square-foot Garden Villas on the Norwegian Pearl and the Norwegian Jewel. They each have with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, floor-to-ceiling windows, multi-tiered balconies, and an outdoor hot tub. Oh, and there’s a butler too, on hand to help you unpack, make reservations for restaurants and shore excursions, or plan the party you could easily host on your huge private sundeck. All the Garden Villas are in the VIP Haven section, which has its own pool, gym, and restaurant. While there are more luxurious ships sailing in Alaska, Norwegian has gone all out with its Garden Villas. They’re easily the largest family staterooms at sea—they can comfortably accommodate up to eight—and are outfitted with the same amenities you’d expect to find at a five-star hotel. In fact, these rooms are so private and so luxurious that many Hollywood and music-industry celebrities, and even one royal family, have booked them. Not surprisingly, luxury like this doesn’t come cheap: The suites run about $25,000 per week, but occasionally you can snag them for thousands less.
Best cabins for families
Thanks to an innovative design, the connecting cabins on Celebrity Cruises’ Solstice class of ships borrow some space from the public hallways (the recessed front doors to the two cabins form a private entryway), giving families more room to maneuver. You can fit a total of eight travelers in the two rooms, which together comprise nearly 400 square feet. Furthermore, the privacy partitions on the balconies can be opened for maximum family use.
Where to Cruise
Though most itineraries are built to fit into a week’s vacation, a 10- to 12-day cruise gets you to more ports and, in the end, delivers a much more rewarding experience. Celebrity’s ten-night Eastern Mediterranean cruise on the Reflection, starting and ending in Rome, covers Sicily, Mykonos, Santorini, Athens, the ancient Greek ruins at Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey), and more. There are several departures from May through September.
Best short cruise
I wouldn’t recommend anything shorter than a seven-day cruise; choose a Western Mediterranean itinerary that starts and/or ends in Barcelona or Rome—both have convenient flights from the U.S. I like the Norwegian Epic’s seven-day Western Mediterranean from Barcelona, which covers history (Rome and Pompeii, accessible from Naples), the arts (Florence, accessible from Livorno) the French Riviera (Cannes), and Majorca.
Barcelona. While Spain’s economy is in trouble, this city thrives with rich Parisian-style streets and Belle Époque architecture. It also has amazing pre- and post-cruise hotel options (at more affordable rates than you’ll find in Italy or France), and a world-class cornucopia of restaurants, nightclubs, and shopping. Plus, the weather is pleasant and mild year-round.
Best photo op
Without a doubt, a cruise into or out of Venice—with the sunlight glinting off the red roof tiles of this ancient city—is worth a thousand pictures. The ships dock just half a mile from St. Mark’s Square, and virtually all of the itineraries that begin or end in this wonderful port include an up-close cruise right along the Grand Canal.
Port most worth the trek
Celebrity Cruises visits Salerno, in the heart of the rugged and scenic Amalfi coast, while most other big ships have to call at Naples. From Salerno, you have access to Amalfi, Positano, Ravello (go by local ferry—it is faster and less hair-raising than the drive), and even Capri. This is a somewhat isolated part of Italy, where the postage-sized ports offer local atmosphere, warm hospitality, and some of the best ceramic shops anywhere!
Best shore excursion
Santorini Sailing’s half-day group tours on their luxury yachts and large catamarans: Cruise around this scenic Greek island for a panoramic view (avoiding the huge crowds that flock to the small town of Fira), swim into the sulfur springs of the volcanic caldera, then stop at a beach for a gourmet barbecue with unlimited wine, beer, and soft drinks—all for around 90 euro per person. If you can, book the afternoon tour, which drops you at the top of a cable car that takes you down to the port after all the crowds have left, and you are there with a handful to watch a stunning and romantic sunset over the Aegean before heading back to your ship.
May is the sweet spot: The weather is gorgeous, temperatures are ideal for sightseeing, and crowds are not as abundant as in summer, when kids are out of school and both overseas visitors and Europeans flock to the Mediterranean.
January through March: In the dead of winter you can encounter rain, rough seas, and even snow.
Not flying in a day before the cruise departs to ensure that you make the sailing; there’s always a chance of airline, weather, or other unexpected delays. You can also use this time to start getting over jetlag.
Cruiseline incentives generally are the richest from May through October for the following year’s departures. And if the price drops before your final payment, I can always get you a refund for the difference.