Travel: Cool cruising in the Med
Stephen White and his family enjoy a fun and relaxing sunshine cruise through the Mediterranean.
The white sign outside the enormous Colosseum made me chuckle.
Here, where 50,000 locals once cheered as Christians were chucked to the lions, today there is a list of ‘behaviour rules’.
‘Bicycles, skateboards or other motorised objects’ are forbidden, as is engaging in ‘any form of business’, and eating ‘in large groups’!
Wonder what Emperor Vespasian would have thought of that, when he began building the famous landmark in AD70?
We couldn’t stop and ponder for too long, though. With less than a day to take in the sights of the historical city of Rome, time was of the essence.
My family and I were cruising the western Mediterranean, aboard the 12-deck, 753-cabin Thomson Dream - the 53,000-tonne flagship of the Thomson Cruises fleet.
And, though Rome wasn’t built in a day, we were determined to prove that, with a bit of planning and decent walking legs, we could at least see most of its famous sights in our allotted seven hours.
We’d docked at the ancient port of Civitavecchia, about 50 miles to the north west of Rome, which meant a 90-minute coach journey after stepping ashore.
The ‘Rome On Your Own’ excursion, which cost £39, was one of many offered to passengers on the cruise.
After being dropped off at St Peter’s Square, armed with the street map we’d been given, plus some helpful advice about using the Metro, Rome’s busy two-line underground system, we set off to explore, ticking off St Peter’s Basilica (the queues were huge, but worth the wait - inside the world’s biggest church truly is magnificent) on our list too, before catching the Metro to Spagna.
From here it’s a short walk to the iconic, but madly busy, Spanish Steps (designed in 1723, the widest staircase in Europe and next to the house where English poet John Keats died in 1821).
A little further on you find the even busier ornate Trevi Fountain (85ft high and 65ft wide), completed in 1762, and famously featured in the 1953 film Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.
We paused for lunch at a tiny street cafe, where we enjoyed bruschetta, generous bowls of perfectly cooked spaghetti, carafes of fruity house wine and tiny cups of high-octane coffee, simple but perfect, at a cost of about 20 euros a head.
Of course, no visit to Italy would be complete without ice-cream - we find a shop a few streets on that offers every flavour under the sun.
The Pantheon - the most perfectly preserved of ancient temples with a hole (oculus) in its dome to let the light in - was our next stop. It’s an enormous architectural gem and it’s a pleasure to pause in its shade and admire its symmetrical beauty.
Afterwards, with 5pm approaching fast, we headed back to the coach. We could easily have spent many more hours, days even, exploring Rome.
But this is the nature of cruises - though your time in each place is limited, there are other benefits.
Firstly, after our hectic and hot day, we were looking forward to a relaxing dip in one of the ship’s two pools.
And, as so many families discover when they take to the high seas, cruising is a highly effective way of exploring Europe while keeping a pretty tight grip on your spending.
All tips for the crew are included in the original price, so the only extras are on-board drinks and excursions.
Thomson Dream, a ship which originally entered service in 1986, is by no means the biggest cruise ship afloat (she carries up to 1,500 passengers and 600 staff). But even at full capacity she has the happy knack of feeling spacious.
Four restaurants offer everything from six-course dinners to burgers, pasta and pizza, and a varied 24-hour buffet. And if you really want to push the boat out, there’s The Grill, the ship’s intimate premier restaurant (cover charge required).
There’s plenty of deck space for sun-worshippers, and lots to do inside, too, including concerts, games and quizzes, plays, a library with internet access, health club, sports deck, kids’ club, and even a beauty salon.
When the sun goes down, there are five bars, three lounges, lots of shops, including a well-stocked duty free, and a casino.
The impressive, two-storey Broadway Show Lounge (where highlights on stage include comedy and a line-up of singers) was packed every night.
Thomson Dream is a cashless ship - to pay for things you just show your room key, which you are given after registering a credit card before you board.
The ship’s currency is sterling, and bar prices are similar to those you’d expect to pay at home.
Our seven-night Treasures of the Mediterranean cruise took us from Palma, Majorca; to Trapani, Sicily; Naples; Civitavecchia (for Rome); Ajaccio, Corsica; Palamos, Spain, and back to Palma (itineraries change slightly throughout the summer).
The range of excursions on offer leaves you spoilt for choice; three or four trips are available at each resort.
They range in price from £27 (for the chance to climb the final few hundred dusty metres to the top of Vesuvius) to a hefty £108 (for a 10-hour trip to Rome by private luxury train, escorted walking tour and lunch).
You can even sign up for a cycle tour as Thomson Dream carries a fleet of mountain bikes.
Few passengers, especially those with a family to pay for, could afford to fund an excursion at every port, but with a bit of planning you can have a bit of adventure in most ports of call.
In Trapani, we opted for a cable car ride which took us high up a mountain to the cobbled medieval village of Erice.
From Naples, we took an organised tour to Pompeii (which was covered in 20ft of ash in 79AD by the erupting Vesuvius), where we tucked into delicious pizza at the Cafe Suisse, then sweated our way up a steep zig-zag track to the top of Vesuvius to take in magnificent views inside the crater, across the sprawling city of Naples and out to Capri and her sister islands.
In Ajaccio, we visited a local market (specialities included cooked meats, cheeses, wines and liqueurs), marvelled at the weird and wonderful fare at a fish market, admired local boy Napoleon’s statue and joined hundreds of islanders at St-Francois Beach for a dip in the clear, warm sea with the toe-nibbling fishes.
By the time you are deposited in Majorca to catch the flight home, you will be amazed by the sights, sounds and memories that you’ve packed into seven days.
Key facts - Cruising the Med with Thomson
:: Best for: Low prices, helpful crew, great entertainment.
:: Time to go: If you’re not keen on extreme heat, go early in the season.
:: Don’t miss: Pompeii and pizza in Naples, Pantheon and pasta in Rome.
:: Need to know: Book early for the best cabins.
:: Don’t forget: Black tie attire for the Captain’s Cocktail Party and Gala Dinner.
Stephen White was a guest of Thomson Cruises which offers seven-night Treasures of the Mediterranean cruises on Thomson Dream from £947 (saving £200 per person), ex-Palma to Olbia, Naples, Rome, Villefranche, and Palamos. Price is based on two adults sharing cabin, ex-Gatwick/ Manchester in mid-August.
Price includes return flights, cabin/fuel supps, transfers, service charges and tips. Upgrade to an All Inclusive basis (covering all drinks onboard) from £199 per person.
Reservations: Thomson travel shop on 0871 231 3243 or at www.thomson.co.uk/cruise