Holidays Travel

Why cruising is the easiest and most affordable way to see the Med

The Marella cruise ship (TUI/PA)
The Marella cruise ship (TUI/PA)

A whale breaking the surface of a calm blue sea isn’t what you’d normally expect to witness as you eat dinner. But when that meal is during a Mediterranean cruise, maybe it’s not so unexpected.

The whale is just one of the many standout moments during a cruise aboard Tui’s Marella Voyager, the newest member of the Marella Cruises fleet, which carries 1,912 passengers and first set sail under its new name in June this year, after a multi-million pound refit.

We are on a seven-night Mediterranean Secrets cruise, which sails from Palma, Majorca, and calls at Piombino, Italy; Savona, Italy; Calvi, Corsica; Toulon, France; and Palamos, Spain. It’s a whistlestop tour which really provides an enticing taste of what the Med has to offer.

Like many cruises, its all-inclusive – and our Premium package offers most alcoholic drinks, including cocktails, as well as a waistband-expanding amount of food.

Given the fact we are in a huge Executive Suite cabin, with a lounge, double bedroom and spacious balcony, it would be all-too-easy to just lounge on board in a sun-soaked, stuffed-full-of-good-food alcoholic haze for the whole trip.

But despite the decadent luxuries – including the Oceans Spa, a swimming pool, whirlpool baths, a gym, cinema, Broadway Show Lounge, nightclub, casino, and even crazy golf on the top deck – there can be little more intoxicating than waking up every morning in a beautiful new port, and having the opportunity to explore a new foreign city right outside your cabin door.

After an initial first day at sea, where we have no option but to laze on board, our first stop is the ancient port of Piombino in beautiful Tuscany, Italy. We choose to take an excursion to Siena. The historical centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the majority of its charming and well-preserved sandy-red buildings dating from the 12th to the 17th centuries. Since medieval times, the city has been divided into 17 contrade (neighbourhoods), among which there is still a fierce rivalry – even today, most visibly demonstrated in the world-famous Palio horse race, which is held twice a year around the city’s grand Piazza del Campo.

Sadly, we weren’t there for the race (which takes place in early July and mid-August), so we settle for an al fresco pizza in the piazza after a tour around the pretty city’s ancient buildings, including its stunning cathedral.

Siena Cathedral (Lisa Salmon/PA)
Siena Cathedral (Lisa Salmon/PA)

After exploring Siena, it’s back to the ship to get ready for dinner in one of Voyager’s 10 restaurants. The dress code is smart casual in the evenings, which is less formal than on many other cruise ships, so even though we dine at the ‘exclusive’ Silver Fork restaurant, there is no real need to dress up during the voyage.

For those who do like a bit of glamour, there’s a Dress to Impress night once every week, where  you can go the whole hog, with black tie dinner suits for men and sequins for women, although most – like us – opt for just a suit and tie/cocktail dress, or stay in smart-casual gear.

Silver Fork, which serves ‘British favourites with a contemporary twist’, is one of the restaurants where there’s a supplementary charge (around £40pp), but it’s well worth the extra. We both choose the seven-course tasting menu, with my vegetarian courses including a deconstructed veggie Scotch egg (a softly-poached egg in a tasty bean-packed sauce), and vegetarian Wellington (my husband’s course is beef Wellington).

Each dish is paired with various wines, and our glasses are refilled at the speed of light by our multi-talented and friendly waiter, Jason, who even finds the time to stroll around the restaurant strumming on a guitar and singing beautifully (but quietly!).

Jason the singing waiter with Lisa (Lisa Salmon/PA)
Lisa Salmon with Jason the singing waiter (Lisa Salmon/PA)

This is where we spot the whale – making it truly magical. But there are plenty of other enjoyable dining choices, ranging from Mexican specialities at Abuela’s, to Italian at Nonna’s and Vista, and pan-Asian at Kora La – not to mention the new food hall The Kitchens, which boasts eight different eateries, providing everything from roast dinners to curries and pittas.

After dinner, it’s hard to resist hauling our full tummies to the Broadway Show Lounge for a different musical every night, performed by some great singers and dancers.  But if you’re not in the mood, there’s always the option of a drink or two at one of the ship’s 10 bars, including the lively British-style pub, the Squid & Anchor, or the more upmarket Flutes, where we really enjoy listening to a pianist.

The wealth of dining options and entertainment is more than matched by the myriad of sightseeing choices on offer throughout the cruise, and the next day we wake up in Savona, where we choose a trip to the historic port of Genoa. We wander round its network of narrow lanes, and see the tiny, unprepossessing house of the explorer Christopher Columbus, just outside the city’s 14th-century walls.

Lisa Salmon in the sea in Corsica (Lisa Salmon/PA)
Loving the crystal-clear Corsican Sea (Lisa Salmon/PA)

All this exploring, although admittedly not on a Columbus-like scale, warrants some serious relaxation – and that’s exactly what we get at our next port of call, Calvi. We head to the beautiful Algajola beach, a long stretch of pale sand and crystal-clear turquoise sea, overlooked by a 16th- century fort (which we don’t visit, because we are too busy having the best time doing absolutely nothing).

Stopping at Toulon in France, we visit St-Tropez on the French Riviera. The jet-set haunt was the setting for Brigitte Bardot film And God Created Woman. It’s great to see the gold-leaf covered bronze statue of Bardot in the square facing the iconic Hotel de Paris – and wise not to buy food in the town, as, not surprisingly, prices in St-Tropez are not cheap!

Bardot statue (Lisa Salmon/PA)
Brigitte Bardot’s golden statue (Lisa Salmon/PA)

So much to see in such a short time is exhausting, and it’s easy to understand why some might choose to stay on the ship in some ports, given there’s so much to do onboard, and all your food and drink is free.

But the last port of call is Palamos, and we can’t resist heading off for a quick tour of Barcelona, shoe-horning in obligatory photos of Gaudi’s unfinished yet-stunning Sagrada Familia Basilica, buying a few trinkets and huge ice-creams from the buzzing Las Ramblas shopping area.

Then, it’s finally back to Palma again, where we disembark Marella Voyager for the last time, having glimpsed what feels like a huge and fascinating chunk of the Mediterranean. If you love travel – not to mention plenty of great food and drink – cruising really is a quick and luxurious way to see the world, that leaves you itching to go back for more.

How to plan your trip

A seven-night all-inclusive Mediterranean Secrets cruise on Marella Voyager starts from £1,217 per person (two sharing), including return flights from London Gatwick. Shore excursions start from around £25 per person and can be booked in advance or onboard. Visit