Taking a cruise is a fascinating way to explore capital cities and countryside alike, writes Joanna Hall.
There's something unique about seeing a destination from the water and, if the latest travel statistics are anything to go by, taking a cruise is one of the top ways Australians like to do it. Being on a large cruise ship with hundreds, if not thousands, of like-minded tourists, however, isn't everyone's idea of a good time. Europe is the second most popular cruising region, after our own backyard, and if you're looking for a way to explore Europe's diversity from the water, there are a wealth of options from which to choose.
The obvious first choice for many travellers is to explore by riverboat. A vast network of waterways criss-crosses the Continent from Holland to Russia, through France, Spain and Portugal. Waterways pass through capitals and link countries and, as a result, the benefits of river cruising are many. On a single cruise, it's possible to visit several major cities, medieval villages with castles and monasteries and, in between, explore unspoiled countryside. Riverboats range from small and basic to large and luxurious, complete with fine dining.
These traditional wooden vessels carry between 10 and 20 guests and are a relaxed, casual and fun way to sail. The vessels' intimate size allows for visits to smaller ports and secluded beaches. If you fancy trying your hand at sailing, you may be welcome to help the crew, too. Popular regions for gulets include Turkey and the Greek Islands. However, Croatia's stunning Dalmatian Coast has become a hot spot for enthusiasts.
Explore Norway's remote villages and jaw-dropping fjords by cruising on one of Hurtigruten's 14 working ships. One of the most popular routes is a 12-day round trip from the harbour city of Bergen as far north as the Arctic outpost of Kirkenes. Delivering supplies and picking up mail en route, among other things, means this scenic voyage also packs in no less than 34 unique ports of call in a single trip.
For adventurers who love culture, getting close to wildlife and learning from renowned naturalists and historians, look no further than an expedition cruise on board one of the Lindblad National Geographic ships. Although they offer many of the same facilities as mainstream cruise ships, these vessels are small, with a casual atmosphere and have an emphasis on enrichment as you travel. In Europe, popular destinations include Greece, Italy and Croatia, as well as some historic interior waterways. See expeditions.com.
This is a very popular way to go exploring by yourself through some of Europe's key canal systems. In Britain they are called narrowboats. Traditional vessels, measuring just a little more than two metres wide, they were once used to transport goods between towns but are now fitted out with modern creature comforts for travellers. Popular places you can visit on barge holidays include the historic cities of Oxford, Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon and Edinburgh.
For the ultimate in privacy, flexibility and exclusivity, a compelling option is chartering a private yacht, particularly in certain parts of the Mediterranean. Some yachts can be hired complete with skipper and small crew, or you can opt to sail your own if you have a recognised sailing licence. Popular areas to sail include Croatia's Dalmatian Coast, the Greek Islands, Italy, Spain and the Canary Islands.
It's a popular way to explore a lot of destinations on a long voyage with a difference. For example, Grimaldi Lines Freighter Travel offers the opportunity of joining a 35-day (approximate) round-trip voyage from Southampton to Israel, taking in diverse countries including Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Portugal, Ireland and Denmark. Although they are working ships – either container ships or car transporters – they do have comfortable passenger berths and decent facilities. See freighterworld.com.
There are great ferry rides in Europe and in parts of the Mediterranean. One fabulous hop is on Marmara Lines from Ancona in Italy to Cesme in Turkey. The ferry departs on a Saturday night and arrives early on Tuesday morning, affording two days at sea to relax and enjoy the scenery. Another popular route is on Anek Lines from Venice to Patras, via Igoumenitsa and Corfu. A typical crossing departs from Venice early on a Tuesday evening and arrives in Patras on Thursday morning. See ferries.gr.