Italy. Just say it. It sounds good. It feels exotic. A land as full of temptations as any Venetian coffee house, and one no less surprising in terms of sheer, splendid variety.

Consider wandering the streets of ancient Rome, one of the greatest cities on earth. You can drink Chianti and feast on prosciutto within sight of the hulking, ruined grandeur of the Coliseum, where men once literally fought for their lives, while swarms of scooters buzz past like swarms of maddened wasps.

You could savour the wonderful, indolent dolce vita lifestyle on the Olympian, lemon scented heights of stunning Sorrento, where people watching is an art form in itself. Or you could head down to the waterfront lidos, jutting out like spindly fingers into the azure blue hue of the balmy Mediterranean.

History and hedonism combine perfectly in vast, atmospheric Venice, where a glut of slowly crumbling, cake rich renaissance palaces, churches and theatres line vast, meandering canals where gondolas pout at the masses of summer tourists. Sample a real Bellini at Harry’s Bar, where the famous drink was originally invented, or take in the sounds of a full orchestra as you sip café in the unparalleled elegance of Piazza San Marco.

Something more tranquil, perhaps? Head for the vast, sparkling expanse of Lake Como, where million dollar villas peep out from amid vast tracts of deep, rolling greenery. Savour cocktails on the terrace of some wonderful old Grand Hotel, as the slowly setting sun turns the waters of the lake into  a sea of blazing straw.

For a real taste of Italian flair and style, check out tiny, picture perfect Portofino, a serene sweep of old Italianate architecture in shades of ochre and terracotta, wrapped around a sublime, yacht studded harbour like an elegant charm bracelet. People wearing sun glasses worth the entire national debt of small third world country pick at freshly caught fish and mouth watering paella.

For quirky history, meander up to small, patrician Pisa and gaze in awe at the infamous Bell Tower, the Campanile, shearing a full dozen feet from the vertical. Nearby is Florence, with its fabled Statue of David, world class museums, and the amazing medieval shopping arcade on the old bridge, spanning the mighty Arno.

You could check out the countryside of rustic, rolling Tuscany, with its smart, secluded villas and small, timeless towns, where houses still cluster around the bell tower of the local church as if for safety. Here, life seems to take on a timeless, otherworldly kind of quality.

This is just a small sample in the box of delights that is summertime Italy. Get out there and enjoy them. Live la dolce vita for yourself, and experience the difference between merely existing and truly living. Wonderful stuff.




Pompeii remains a staple of the Italian cruise circuit

Pompeii remains a staple of the Italian cruise circuit

New figures released today suggest that 2014 will see the first fall in cruise ship passenger numbers visiting Italy for more than a decade.

While 2013 figures are estimated to show a five per cent overall increase on 2012, next year’s numbers are expected to be down. Hardly surprising, in light of the fact that a few of the usual summer Mediterranean mega ships have been pulled from the region. Royal Caribbean had already announced one ship less sailing the Med next year, and Carnival is leaving Europe altogether over the course of 2014.

Next year’s drop in numbers is conservatively estimated at 6.9 per cent, with actual visitor numbers pegged at over ten million for Italy as a whole.

Another factor being cited for the withdrawal of some cruise ships is a lack of flexibility among Italian port authorities in terms of berthing arrangements, a bugbear that has frustrated the major cruise lines for a number of seasons of late.

The figures, compiled by Venice based company Riposte, Turismo, analysed data supplied from some thirty six ports around mainland Italy and Sicily. It estimates that a staggering 11,4 million people will visit Italian ports over the course of 2013- up 5.1 per cent on 2012- but expects numbers to tail off next year.

It’s interesting to note the numbers involved for the principal ports of call, as listed in order below;

1) Civitavecchia, the port of call for Rome, lists 2.4 million passengers from around 951 cruise ship visits.

2) Venice claims 1.8 million from some 548 ship visits.

3) Naples had 1.2 million visitors from 517 different ship calls.

4) Genoa, which has just clocked over a million visitors from some 290 calls.

The figures for Genoa especially are revealing; the port has long been seen primarily as an embarkation/debarkation port, rather than as a destination in its own right like Venice and Rome.

The Coliseum makes Rome an unmissable draw

The Coliseum makes Rome an unmissable draw

However, Italy as a whole remains the biggest draw on the Mediterranean circuit. With a string of ‘greatest hits’ attractions such as Florence, Pisa, Rome, Sorrento and Pompeii all within easy sailing distance of each other, the country is still uniquely placed to showcase a huge amount of it’s history and culture, even over the course of a relatively short cruise.

Also encouraging for the long term Italian scene as a whole is the continuing growth in year round cruising. Uniquely sited in the centre of the Mediterranean, Italy offers convenient embarkation ports in Genoa and Rome to the Western Mediterranean, and from both Venice and, to a lesser extent, Bari, to the currently convoluted Eastern Mediterranean.

The figures cited above probably represent no more than a temporary dip in what has been a steady growth market for many years. As ever, stay tuned.


Crystal Symphony serves up the Med with matchless panache

Crystal Symphony serves up the Med with matchless panache

For many years now, most of the major cruise lines have deployed their biggest and most amenity laden new tonnage to the Mediterranean. Many of these ships operate from Barcelona, Venice, and even Rome on seven night itineraries that I call Meddy-Go-Rounds.

These cruises are ideal for those wanting to see the ‘greatest hits’ of the Mediterranean in a week. A typical Barcelona departure will yield up Monte Carlo, Rome, Florence, Pisa, Naples and Palma de Mallorca in one week, and all at a rate of knots almost as frantic as a Blue Riband crossing of old.

It’s exhilarating, exhausting and fabulous fun, but yields little in the way of relaxation. Nor is it meant to. There is such a glut of compelling sites within an hour or so of most main ports in the region that viewing them is almost mandatory. And if you’re only going to be in this region once, then you certainly want to maximise everything that you see and experience.

The cruise lines love running them for several reasons. They are immensely profitable in terms of shore excursion sales. Also, the ships leave most ports at around five in the afternoon, and arrive at the next call by eight the following morning. The sailing distance between ports is most often not very far; which means that the ships save a small fortune in the amount of fuel they use. It’s a win-win situation.

Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, together with Costa and MSC, have been the main standard bearers of these itineraries, but the latter two now run them right through the year- a significant ramp up in the winter cruising handle. And, next year, even Cunard will be running a series of seven day Med fly cruises; a turn of events prompted by a need to change with the times as much as anything else.

Check out the highspots of Cannes on a Med cruise

Check out the highspots of Cannes on a Med cruise

But it isn’t just the big boys that are in thrall to the Meddy-Go-Round. The inaugural season this year of Hapag’s new, highly styled Europa 2 is built around a succession of seven night itineraries, many combinable to create some really special back-to-back cruises. Rivals Silversea and, to a lesser extent, Regent, have been running them for several years now.

These smaller ships can usually access the smaller, more select yacht havens that their bigger brethren have to bypass. They also usually offer at least one overnight stay- a definite plus in a region where la dolce vita is the true, unspoken religion of the masses.

Next year, both Crystal and Celebrity will also be introducing some seven night sailings in the region, though in the case of sassy, upmarket Crystal, these are mostly between two different ports, and not round trip circuits.

There is a slight overall decrease in the number of big ships in the Med next year, but the region as a whole is still feverishly busy in summer. Add in the presence of Thomson, who along with Airtours, really did start the mass, seven day cruise market boom, and you have an ocean of options and possibilities.

From the simple, homely charms of the Island Escape to the stunning, six star luxury of the sumptuous Crystal Symphony, the Med market continues to re-invent itself. It’s a classic cocktail of stunning, unforgettable scenery, long, sunny days and nights, and a lifestyle ashore that is almost irresistible.

Norwegian Spirit wafts you in and out of sublime med sunsets

Norwegian Spirit wafts you in and out of sublime Med sunsets

Blend in the safe,comforting luxury of a fantastic floating resort that moves you effortlessly around the highlights, together with the knowledge that you only need to pack and unpack once, and choosing the Med becomes a virtual no-brainer. Choose your size and style of ship, get out there, and have fun.