To kick off summer 2018, we went on a seven-night Mediterranean cruise that stopped in Bari and Venice, Italy; Katakolon, Nafplio and Athens, Greece; Saranda, Albania; and Dubrovnik, Croatia.
Choose a cruise line
I went on a Mediterranean cruise with my girlfriends in 2012, and we chose MSC for the price. We loved it, and I knew I wanted to go on another cruise with Ben. When Ben and I compared fares on different lines for this trip and MSC came out to be the least expensive, I decided to choose them once again!
I haven’t been on another cruise line, but have heard from others that MSC ranks lower than its counterparts, such as Norwegian or Royal Caribbean, in terms of luxury, amenities, service, etc. If you’ve cruised one of the nicer lines, you may have to lower your expectations a tad for MSC. However, as a first-time cruiser, I really loved the MSC cruise experience (enough to do it twice!).
MSC cruise tips
If you book an MSC Mediterranean cruise, here are a couple recommendations:
- Splurge on the balcony room. I said no to the balcony room, even though Ben wanted it, in order to save money. Each time we walked past an open balcony room, however, we peered into it and it looked much nicer than our room. I told Ben we could spend the extra couple hundred bucks next time.
- Buy the all-inclusive drink package. Drinks are not cheap, and an automatic 15% service charge is added to each order. With the drink package, you don’t pay the 15% and have a variety of cocktails, beer and wine to choose from. There are two tiers (regular and deluxe), and the regular package is a bit limited (only includes draft beer, which is only Heineken at 90% of the bars). The package also includes bottled still water. Considering we went through about a hundred of those (at what would’ve been nearly €3 each), the package was worth it!
- Do your own excursions. MSC’s excursions are overpriced. Do some research on each location, figure out what you want to do and read some blogs and reviews online about how people are doing it. Also, everywhere you dock will have taxi drivers, buses and vendors waiting for you to step off the boat and give them money in exchange for a ride somewhere.
- Don’t get caught off guard by the service charge. MSC applies a €10 service charge per day, per person. You see this on your final bill. It is recommended you do not tip the staff separately.
Bari is a port city in Southern Italy. The old town is home to a couple of old cathedrals, an impressive 12th century castle, a large shopping street, great seafood and many adorable, narrow cobblestone streets. Bari’s charm is in its harbor, where palm trees and small boats make for a beautiful backdrop.
Bari isn’t hugely impressive on its own, but it’s a convenient place to hop on and off a cruise ship — the airport is only a 20-minute drive from the port.
We didn’t want to feel too rushed on our day of embarkation, so we flew into Bari the day before our cruise departed. We rode the train from the airport to Bari Centrale and walked to Bari Old Town B&B (great location!), checked in and spent the rest of our afternoon walking around the city stopping at various places for a drink, a bite to eat or some people watching.
If you grab lunch in Bari during your visit, I highly recommend Mastro Ciccio for mouthwatering paninis!
Katakolon, Greece (Olympia)
Katakolon is most well-known for being home to Olympia, the site of the original Olympic Games.
From the port, we rode a bus to Olympia (about 40 minutes away) and explored the ancient site along with museums that showcase items found during excavation and items that were used in some of the original games. We spent about two hours there before coming back to the port of Katakolon.
If you don’t go to Olympia, the Katakolon waterfront is a nice place to hang out as well. There are several restaurants with outdoor seating right along the water and tons of shops and street vendors selling clothing, jewelry and souvenirs.
There is also a beach to the left of the port where you can hang out and swim or sunbathe if you’re not up for exploring.
Note: When we got off the ship in Katakolon, we saw an advertisement for a train to Olympia, 200m away. We walked to the train station but when we got there, it looked like it had been abandoned for quite some time. The tracks were overgrown and the ticket counter was boarded up. I’m really not sure what the deal with the train is* — if it was off-season or if it’s no longer available — but it certainly wasn’t an option, so we had to circle back and hop on one of the tour buses at the port.
*Of course, we Googled it and found the website with timetable, prices, etc., but the website hadn’t been updated since 2015. Beats me! Good luck.
Our ship was supposed to stop in Mykonos, but due to severe winds they had to cancel and reroute to Nafplio instead. I visited Mykonos on my last MSC cruise and really loved it, so I was looking forward to returning. However, Nafplio ended up being one of our very favorite stops! There was a lot to do, and it was a stunning city.
We began the day climbing the 999 steps up to Palamidi Fortress, which rewarded us with beautiful panoramic views. The fortress itself is very large, and you can explore everything from prison cells to ammunition rooms to look-out points.
Bring water and good shoes! I went up in flip-flops because we weren’t sure what we were doing when we got off the ship. It was fine, but the smooth steps were a little slippery in some areas.
Plan to spend at least two hours doing this, including the climb up, exploring the castle and the walk back down.
After the fortress, we had lunch at a nice spot at the base of the climb (fresh squid — yum!), then walked through the old town.
The old town of Nafplio is gorgeous. Bougainvillea covers the street like a canopy and it’s incredibly lovely and romantic. We enjoyed gelato and walked slowly through the old town streets, heading towards the waterfront where we walked along the promenade to Arvanitia Beach.
Arvanitia Beach is actually right at the base of the Palamidi Fortress climb, but we took the scenic route along the promenade which took about 30 minutes and was definitely worth it for the views.
We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing at Arvanitia Beach, swimming in the water and enjoying drinks from the beach bar. It was a wonderful day.
The port of Piraeus is about six miles from the Acropolis of Athens, which is reachable via taxi, bus or metro. I’m always looking for the least expensive option (and I also like to get a feel for what the locals do), so we rode the metro.
Piraeus is a huge port, so depending on where your boat docks you could be a two-minute walk from the metro station or a 30-minute walk. We docked at one of the farthest gates from the metro station so we hopped on a bus and rode to the metro station, then took the metro to Athens (a polite man at the bus station ticket booth gave us the instructions of which bus to take and where to get off). Our journey took about 40 minutes total and cost €4 each. You can certainly pay a little more and take a taxi directly to the Acropolis but we like to be adventurous when our schedule allows for it!
We got off the metro near Plaka, which gave us the opportunity to walk up to the Acropolis the back way (not the way the cab takes you up).
The Acropolis was very crowded! It may have been the time of year (late May/early June) — when I visited in late October there were not half as many people. We bought tickets when we arrived (€20 each) and followed the crowds into the ancient citadel.
After some exploring and picture-taking, we began the descent back to Plaka in pursuit of lunch. I joke that there are two types of people — those who seek out Hard Rock Cafes everywhere they travel and those who do not. Ben loves to immerse himself in different cultures, but he is also guilty of the former. I usually pull him away for a more local experience but I agreed to Hard Rock Cafe Athens because they had a delicious-looking Greek chicken burger on the menu which tasted just as good as it looked, plus we had a 10% off coupon that somebody handed us on the street.
After lunch, we rode the metro and bus back to the port and got back on our ship.
Our next destination was Saranda, Albania. I was excited to set foot in a new country; however, I could barely find anything online about the destination! I love to read other people’s blogs for ideas of what to do, and I could only find a couple suggestions for Saranda.
From what I gathered, our options were to stay at the Saranda beach promenade, journey to the Blue Eye Spring or the ancient ruins of Butrint, or go to the beautiful white sand beaches of Ksamil. We had spent the last few days exploring ruins, so I was in the mood for a beach day.
Our first impression of Saranda was not a good one. Immediately after exiting the port, we had to push through a crowd of at least 50 vendors and beggars swarming us to the point of feeling like we were trying to get through a New York subway station. Old women and children followed us asking for money, and taxi drivers approached from every angle. I felt like a walking wallet — it was awkward and uncomfortable.
Once we got out of the immediate port area and onto the promenade, it was more relaxed, though the promenade is still lined with vendor booths.
I read on one of the few travel blogs I could find that a bus could be taken from Saranda to Ksamil, so we searched for it to avoid the taxis trying to charge €40 for a 15-minute ride. We were not successful in our bus hunt — couldn’t find a stop, nor did we see a bus pass by in 30 minutes, nor was there any official information online.
We settled for a taxi, but walked nearly a mile from the port to try to find a better deal. Even that far out, the taxi drivers were still trying to overcharge. There are no meters in the taxis, so the price is whatever you agree on before you get in. After haggling with a few, we settled on €30 roundtrip, which is still more than we wanted to pay, but at this point we really just wanted to get to the beach.
We arrived at Ksamil and the beaches were not as pretty as they looked in the photos. However, we had chairs to lay on, cheap drinks to enjoy and great seafood for lunch. We hung out at Ksamil for a few hours before our taxi driver took us back to the promenade.
Note: I mentioned the taxi fare equivalent in euros but the currency in Albania is the lek. You can pull lek out from ATMs near the port. It looked like some restaurants and taxis accepted euros.
Dubrovnik is such a cool place! It’s a shame that this was our shortest docking because it was one of our favorite places.
Game of Thrones Tour
Ben and I are big Game of Thrones fans, so we decided to do a GoT tour since Dubrovnik is home to most of the King’s Landing scenes on the show. We booked through Game of Thrones Dubrovnik for €55 per person for a two and a half-hour walking tour.
Our guide Robert was hilarious and very knowledgeable about the show as he has been an extra in several episodes. He had a lot of really cool insider information for us and the tour was a blast. If you have more time in Dubrovnik, you can take part in his ultimate five-hour tour which takes you out of Dubrovnik to additional filming locations.
We didn’t have a lot of time left after our GoT tour, so we briefly walked around the old town and enjoyed some calamari. We finished the day with a drink at the iconic “Cold drinks with the most beautiful view” location (you’re bound to see this yellow sign while walking around Dubrovnik) before heading back to the ship.
We’ve both visited Venice before, so we didn’t have big plans for this day. We originally thought about venturing out to Burano, but decided against it since we only had six hours and the ferry took 45 minutes each way. So, we wandered around Venice instead!
We saw the main sights (St. Mark’s square, Bridge of Sighs, Rialto Bridge), had a beer at the Hard Rock Cafe Venice (insert eye roll here), went into a few shops and wandered around the city.
Note: Cruise ships can no longer sail into the Venice Grand Canal as they did during this trip in 2018, but it was cool to have this experience and see Venice from this point of view.
See if you can spot the Bridge of Sighs! It’s so little from up above.
On board the Mediterranean cruise
We had a fun time onboard the MSC Poesia. The food was enjoyable, the drink package prevented worries about costs adding up, there were plenty of entertainment opportunities (theater shows, live music, karaoke, casinos), and we won more than €200 playing Roulette. The sunset views we enjoyed from the deck each night were the icing on the cake.
We had a great vacation cruising the Mediterranean, and another cruise is definitely in our future. Perhaps the Baltic sea next?