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Cruise Tips: Europe and Mediterranean

A European and Mediterranean voyage comes with the excitement of exploring museums, cathedrals and ancient ruins in France, Italy and Greece while unpacking only once. What we learned early on that mars the fun: long drives from ports plus planning too much to do in one day.

In Europe it’s not unusual to have a one-and-a-half to two hour drive from the dock to the targeted destination. It takes that long to get from Civitavecchia to Rome, from Livorno to Florence and it’s even longer (closer to two-and-a-half hours) from Le Havre to Paris. That means you rise early to board a tour bus or to venture out on your own.

What helps: creating a pact with your traveling companions, especially if they are children, that no matter how tempting, you’ll only sign-up for half-day organized shore tours. Forgo the everything-in-Rome-in- a- day marathon. Because if you succumb to the let’s-see-it-all urge, sometime between the Coliseum, Arch of Constantine, Caracalla Baths, Trevi Fountain and the Vatican, your kids and most likely you too, will experience a meltdown.

It happened to me and my daughter after we saw Michelangelo’s Pieta in the Basilica of St. Peter. After admiring the masterwork in marble, it took just a moment of hot Roman sun coupled with another hurry-up-and-wait directive from the tour guide for us to morph from the sublime to the seriously grumpy.

After seven hours of a best monuments blitz, waiting for tardy bus mates shopping for tacky souvenirs felt like purgatory. So be good to yourself and block in lots of free time in town. See one or two things and then stroll the streets, window shop, find a park or a café. Don’t do it all.

Another tip: visit the ruins as early as possible in the morning. Greece’s ancient Olympia, site of the original Olympic Games, as well as Turkey’s Ephesus, one of the Mediterranean’s best preserved ancient sites, as well as Italy’s Pompeii offer little shade and attract lots of tourists.

No matter how much you dislike awakening at 6:30 am when on vacation, do it so that you can escape the thickening crowds and oppressive heat common in summer. When we visited Ephesus in August, the thermostat reached 106-F by 11 am. Even the best guide relating the most engaging anecdotes dulls when the heat burns and hordes constantly elbow past you.

That said, don’t miss these must-see attractions. It’s wise to wear a hat, use sun screen and bring at least two bottles of water per person plus money. The bathrooms outside of the Olympic site cost .50 Euros and the café at the nearby Archeological Museum of Olympia (separate admission) serves overpriced snacks and drinks. Hungry and thirsty, we handed over way too many Euros, but were glad for the refreshments and the break.

With four or more people, consider hiring a taxi or private company (arrange ahead of time) to visit these ruins. At the entrances, you find audio tour rentals and often freelance guides. These leaders vary in quality, but so did the ones that came with the cruise ship excursions. In Olympia we endured a mediocre guide, but enjoyed charismatic ones in Ephesus and Pompeii.

What we did not like about the cruise tours: forced shopping. After Ephesus, our bus dropped us at an over-priced rug store and post Pompeii, we were hijacked to an uninteresting cameo factory. Other than that, the cruise ship's organized tours to the ruins proved efficient and worthwhile, even with the so-so guide.

Just don’t book two outings in a day and be sure to gift yourself with free time to follow your fancy. We always like finding a seaside café and sampling a local treat while savoring the scenery and the people-watching.

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