Escape to Summer: Cruising the Mediterranean with Norwegian Cruise Line
The phenomenon of the ‘seasonal swallows’ – European tourists who flock to Cape Town to escape the dreary winter – is not something I have ever given much thought to. Until recently that is, when I had the opportunity to do the same but in reverse and escape the cold and wet of the Cape winter and migrate to Europe for 8 days, in the middle of a heatwave no less. Given the state of the Rand-Euro exchange, a trip up continent is not as easily do-able for South Africans but in all honesty, the injection of sunshine, the absorption of culture and the whole experience in itself is worth every penny.
Set Sail with Norwegian Cruise Line
Choosing where to go in Europe can be a quandary for South Africans – so much to see, so much to do! With countries neighbouring one another and yet being completely different in language, culture and food, it can be tough to narrow down what you want to experience. Also, it’s Europe, surely we must make time for museums and architecture, but oh it’s summer, shouldn’t we be drinking cocktails along the Med coastline?
Well, there is a way you can do all of this and more, and that is by booking onto a cruise. Having recently experienced a 7-day cruise on-board the Norwegian Cruise Line ship, Escape, I can vouch for just how much you can pack into a stint to warmer shores and how wonderfully restorative the experience can be.
…but oh it’s summer, shouldn’t we be drinking cocktails along the Med coastline?
A predetermined cruise schedule that visits a number of countries can be a way to really maximise your European experience with a touch of luxury, fun and camaraderie for good measure.
The Perfect Escape
Norwegian Cruise Line is one slick operation. When you’re housing, entertaining and feeding more than 5000 people onboard a vessel floating in the ocean, you simply have to be. And they are pros at it. With years of experience, and not just at repeating the same things but evolving along the way, NCL is shaping cruising of the future.
Our flight route to get to Europe was Cape Town to Frankfurt and then Frankfurt to Rome, which was about 14+ hours travel time (this varies and is very much dependent on airlines and routes). Once in Rome it’s about a 40-60 minute trip down to the coastal town of Civitavecchia, where the cruise we were boarding was embarking from.
Seeing the 18-storey Norwegian Cruise Line Escape in port is quite astonishing; the sheer size of it is mesmerising. Its brightly painted murals (by renowned Jamaican-born marine wildlife artist and conservationist, Guy Harvey) give it a welcoming sense of fun – something that cruising is all about.
The Escape is one of NCL’s fleet of 18 liners and is one of the largest – at double occupancy, able to host 4266 guests and 1733 staff members. Set over those 18 floors are rooms ranging from single occupancy studios to ocean view and balcony staterooms, all the way up to the über luxurious The Haven, a private section with 24-hour butler service, concierge, private sundeck and more. There are also bars, restaurants, shops, a luxury spa, gym, games rooms, pools and so much more.
My balcony stateroom was spacious and had one of the most comfortable beds and pillows I have ever slept on. In fact, after being lulled to sleep by the gentle motion and cloud-like pillows, I found transitioning back to land post the cruise quite a jolt.
Freestyle Dining – A Signature of Norwegian Cruise Line
One of the things most synonymous with cruising is the food and one of the hallmarks of the NCL experience is their concept of free-style dining. Gone are the days of assigned seating and meal times with strangers; onboard an NCL cruise you are free to choose from more than 25 dining experiences, and no matter what you are looking for, you will find it.
From food flying across the grill at Teppanyaki, to eloquent French brasserie fare at The Bistro and contemporary Japanese at Food Republic. These restaurants fall under speciality dining and you can book packages when you secure your cruise to dine at these restaurants, or simply book once aboard.
Onboard an NCL cruise you are free to choose from more than 25 dining experiences – no matter what you are looking for, you will find it.
Complimentary dining (included in your cruise fare) is also freestyle and you can dine when you want and with whom you want – if you’ve cruised before you’ll know that this kind of flexibility is hugely key to an enjoyable experience.
The food offering is exceptional; the NCL crew prepares just about everything from scratch and according to seasonality – the variety is quite staggering. The team are so adept at what they do, as Executive Chef, Ganesh Panjami, will tell you, “wastage on the ship is what is left on plates, not in the kitchen!”. Honestly, the hardest part about dining is going to be figuring out where you want to go and what to choose from the menu.
Aboard the Norwegian Escape there are also 14 bars and lounges that serve up an array of specially selected wines, cocktails (more on those later) and basically anything your thirst desires. Again, the difficult part is simply choosing!
Norwegian Cruise Line’s Meet The Winemaker Series
Given the amount of culinary choice and the varied entertainment offering, you’ll already be hard-pressed to fit it all in, but real foodies and wine lovers onboard will relish the Norwegian Cruise Line Meet the Winemaker series, which is offered on certain cruises.
Literally as the name says, this series offers a program of events that allow you to meet a guest winemaker in person, enjoy tastings and paired dinners and generally just get to know a region of wine that you may know nothing about. If you are a food or wine connoisseur or just love to learn, this series is designed for you.
The most recent Meet the Winemaker series was in conjunction with Antonio Hidalgo (pictured below), of the famed Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana, in Spain. Given that these sherry wines are made from grapes that we don’t grow in South Africa – Palomino Fino, Macabeo, Pedro Ximénez and Tempranillo (grown but in minute quantities) and are made in differing styles to our local wines, I found this super interesting.
Dinner with Certified Angus Beef ® & Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana
One of the events in the calendar was a wine-paired dinner in partnership with Certified Angus Beef ® . Special guest chef, Ashley Brenerman (pictured above), worked with the ship’s chefs to put on a stunning dinner at Cagney’s, the Escape’s specialty dining steakhouse.
There were many highlights during this meal that would have had any foodie’s palate completely tantalised, but if I had to narrow it down to one, and this is tough, it would be the Grilled Certified Angus Beef ® Spinalis. A hard-to-find (dare I say rare) cut that is the cap of the ribeye, with unrivalled marbling and flavour. A true gem that was a privilege to enjoy.
This course was paired with a glass of Hidalgo Tradición H Reserva (DOCa Rioja, Spain). What is interesting about this wine, and the one that followed with the next course, Tradición H Gran Reserva, is that the DOCa (Qualified Designation of Origin) denotes these wines in a specialty category (higher than a DO qualification). This honour is awarded to wines that have proven consistency and quality in production for a long period of time. The Hidalgo family have been making wine since 1792, so they know a thing or two.
Both the Tradición H Reserva and the Tradición H Gran Reserva were my two favourites from all of the wines that we were lucky enough to try from this heritage Spanish bodega.
Ok, yes, I said I would only mention one favourite moment from the meal, but I am pretty sure that dessert is its own category, right? A divine butterscotch budino (Italian set custard) with a layer of Maldon-salted caramel and a rosemary shortbread with pine nuts ended the meal. Served with that had to be ‘Heredad de Hidalgo’ Moscatel Sherry, a fortified wine made from muscat grapes and a signature of Bodegas Hiladgo. We could not have ended the meal any other way than with sherry from the famous sherry house!
Wake Up Somewhere New
As I mentioned earlier, one of the bonuses of travelling the Med like this (and there are many), is that you can fit a lot in. No matter if you’re after a cultural experience, a leisurely beach vacay or are just there for the gelato… there will be something for everyone.
A cruise like this one can take you to a different port every day, with days at sea in-between. So you can start your evening in the port of Corfu, Greece and wake up in Messina, Sicily. It’s a very stress-free way to get from one place to another, while being entertained, wined and dined along the way.
Shore Excursion Experiences
It is highly recommended, of course, that once in port you disembark the ship and go exploring and NCL has a host of shore excursions that take the guesswork out of it for you. Because ports are busy and transport and tours can be tricky to navigate, booking shore excursions while on board ensures that you maximise your time onshore and experience as much of the local culture as you can (read: eat as many pastries and savour as many gelatos as possible… just me?)
Bread Baking and Clothes Making In Croatia
Dubrovnik was one of the ports of call on our trip; we awoke on the second morning, after a day at sea, to watch the ship thrusting sideways into the port of Dubrovnik, which was quite something. This stunning port of call is instantly recognisable by the rust coloured roofs of the local kuće (houses) set into the hills and framed by the azure Adriatic Sea. Side note: another reason why cruising is so unique – coming into port gives you a completely different viewpoint that you simply don’t when get travelling on land.
After a super easy disembarkation into the port of Dubrovnik, we hopped onto a bus headed for Ljuta. At Ljuta in Konavle, about a 45 minute drive into the countryside of Dubrovnik, we got a glimpse into a life of old in Croatia.
We visited Izletište Mlin, an original flour mill (one of only two still operational in Europe) dating back to the early 15th century; this idyllic spot has remained the same for hundreds of years. After seeing how flour was milled, we watched how a water mill powered two huge hammers, which literally pounded bundles of hand-woven material used to fashion Croatian traditional garments (which everyone wore) to get a tighter weave. This provided greater protection and waterproofing during cold months. Izletište Mlin is a little glimpse of history suspended in time.
After this demo we headed over to Cadmos Eco Village for some traditional Croatian bread baking under iron domes called ‘peka’. This demo of ash bread (‘ispod peka’) ended off with us sitting down to a glass of wine, charcuterie, cheeses and of course that freshly baked bread and local olive oil. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
After meandering back down to the coast from inland, we had time to explore Dubrovnik’s Old Town – a gobsmackingly beautiful collection of 13th-century buildings completely encircled by a stone wall. Walking along the smooth limestone cobbled streets, it’s quite hard to wrap your brain around the fact that so many have walked these streets before and yet so much remains unchanged. It feels almost Disney-esque in its sense of wonderment and beauty.
This is a working neighbourhood with restaurants, B&Bs and one of Europe’s oldest operational pharmacies (founded in 1317 as the in-house pharmacy for the Franciscan friars). It has gained incredible notoriety more recently as the set for much of the filming of HBO’s Game of Thrones series. You’ll be glad to know that other than curio stores that sell GOT memorabilia, there is not much that will tell you that filming ever happened there. There’s no cardboard cut out of Cersei Lannister that you can pop your head through for a photo opp. Filming was extremely respectful and the set came and went leaving everything pretty much as it was. The Croatian government was very strict about this – yay them.
Wait! Let me Instagram that
Some people were there for the historical buildings, some for the sun, sand and sea. Me? I was there for the food. Exploring different cultures by taste is surely the best way to do it. From various kataifi and phyllo pastry specialties in Corfu to perfectly crunchy cannoli in Sicily and pretty much gelato at every stop (sometimes more than once!). I found a literal smorgasbord of local cuisine to try at every stop. “When in Rome!” as they say…
You may never want to leave Naples
I must, however, also speak about Naples… where to begin? The Napoletano community shared Neapolitan pizza with the world, and for that we are forever indebted. But besides pizza, jaw-droppingly beautiful views and reams of history (the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii are on your doorstep), the allure of freshly pulled mozzarella, limoncello and locally produced olive oil is simply any foodie’s dream. I am not sure it gets any better.
Once docked in Naples, we disembarked and boarded a van headed along the Amalfi coast, through Sorrento and up to Massa Lubrense. At first, I was hesitant about spending a lot of time driving in a van but the drive is so spectacular that it is an integral part of the experience. With Mount Vesuvius as a backdrop to one side and the expansive blue of the Amalfi coastline and Capri to the other, it is a pretty spectacular trade off.
It’s worth mentioning at this juncture, that ports that you dock in are working ports, not created simply for disembarking cruise liners. So, for the most part you need to disembark and then make your way to where you want to go and this usually involves transport of at least 30+ minutes, depending on what you choose to do. Some ports, like in Messina, you can walk right off the ship and into town but others you will need to have transport. This is also bookable through NCL and the team the the shore excursion desk are always available to assist (you can even book through the TV in your cabin).
A Wild Ride at il Turuziello
To get to the il Turuziello farm and food experience, one must travel by ‘Ape Calessino’ (tuk tuk to you and I), through alleyways that are only as wide as the tuk tuk itself… eep! Although the drivers know the route like the back of their hands, it’s still a wild ride up (they make sure of that) accompanied by a cacophony of squeals and laughter!
Welcomed at this working farm by Benedetto and his family, we were privy to a demonstration of making mozzarella from scratch, plus, of course a tasting of said mozzarella di fior di latte, ricotta and caciottine. From milking the cows to that handmade mozzarella landing on your village table takes only 7 hours, now that is fresh!
We also tasted delicious extra virgin olive oil made at il Turuziello, which included a range of infused oils with flavours like lemon, basil, chilli and orange. It was the umami-rich local truffle infused oil that came out tops as the group favourite.
Loving Limoncello at Il Giardino di Vigliano
From there it was onto the gorgeous Il Giardino di Vigliano, a historic citrus grove perched on the hilly mountainside of Massa Lubrense on the peninsula – the home of limoncello.
Upon entering, there is a sign in Neapolitan that invites you to ‘look up’ but it almost needn’t worry to remind guests as it’s instinctual as you walk in under the pretty chestnut wood pergolas. A canopy of green (providing some much needed respite from the baking sun) is dotted with bulbs of fragrant yellow lemons, as well as mandarins and oranges.
Owner, Giuseppe Nunziata, spoke passionately about the history of lemons in the area and how this precious fruit provided much needed Vitamin C for travelling sailors way back when. Its antiseptic qualities made undrinkable water drinkable on long journeys across the sea and it proved to be an extremely valuable crop for the area.
A surge in local eco and agri tourism, and of course the demand for the refreshing and delicious limoncello that the area is known for, keeps these historic groves in business.
After watching Giuseppe make limoncello (and, of course, the all important taste testing) his family served a stunning lunch of freshly made bread, cheese and charcuterie, followed by lemon risotto and a selection of sweet treats. What a wonderful way to spend a day!
As we left Il Giardino di Vigliano, we were unsuspectingly about to experience another famous tradition of the area as we made our way back along the Sorrentine Peninsula… being stuck in traffic! There is only one main road in and out of this famous area that literally clings to the mountainside – it’s one lane each way and narrow to boot.
The way locals zip in and out of the snaking traffic and corridor-like roads is enough to make even the most savvy motorist break into a cold sweat. Our trusted driver, Tony, seemed relatively unflapped by the fact that we weren’t moving but one thing with day excursions off a cruise ship is that you must be back on time!
A Quick Sip at Sorrentino Wines
After a whirlwind stop at Sorrentino Wines at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, where we tasted a white, red and rosé, we hopped back into the minivan and hightailed it back to port.
Everything Bar None
Another scheduled event on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Meet the Winemaker series (which you book once onboard) was a more intimate wine tasting with Antonio Hidalgo of Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana, which also included a tasting of their brandy (delicious) and their speciality gin, ‘66, which has been distilled specifically for NCL (named for the year of the company’s inception) and will be available exclusively on Norwegian Prima, which sets sail on her maiden journey this month from Reykjavik, Iceland.
Speaking of drinks, it’s worth mentioning that head mixologist, Mohamed Youssef, goes to great lengths to create a menu of cocktails that would delight any tipple enthusiast. I will be honest and say that there definitely were a few summery piña coladas consumed… you simply can’t resist when bobbing along the ocean to live reggae vibes – they’re liquid sunshine! However, it is highly recommended that you check out the cocktail of the day, created by Mohamed and dispensed by a team of bartenders that move so swiftly that your head will spin (that could also be the piña coladas…).
We really loved the Dark ‘n Stormy rum cocktail and the Pineapple Surplus, made with JaJa Blanco tequila. It’s called that because the syrups in the cocktails are genuinely made using all of the surplus skins and fruit from the many pineapples served at the breakfast buffet. The same with cucumber, which also becomes a cocktail cordial that is handmade by the team.
…there definitely were a few summery piña coladas consumed… you simply can’t resist when bobbing along the ocean to live reggae…
Take Part, It’s a Vibe
Another hallmark of cruising is that there is daily entertainment happening from one end of the ship to the other and this includes for kids too. It is a great way for families to travel, especially with a mix in age ranges. Tweens will love the freedom of the Entourage club (13-17 years old) and there are various facilities and programs to keep kids entertained, which means parents actually get a break.
A helpful in-room daily program sets out what’s happening so that you can plan your day. Catch a show like The Choir of Man, adapted from the West End show and Malevo, Argentinian dancing featured on America’s Got Talent) or relax with a massage at the luxurious spa. The opportunities are endless.
You can choose to completely chill and book yourself into Vibe Beach Club, an exclusive members-only area with luxury daybeds and a private bar. Or perhaps hang out in the pool, take a whirl around the super tube, test your climbing skills on the obstacle course or end your night at Spice H2O, dancing under the stars.
There is zero pressure to take part in anything but if you’re up to meeting your fellow cruisers, there are ample opportunities.
Norwegian Cruise Line Sail and Sustain
Outdoors on the pool decks no glass is served and I was mildly panicked by the constant turnover of plastic tumblers. However, I was put at ease upon enquiring and finding out that the cups are in fact made of cornstarch and are completely biodegradable, as are the straws that are used. All of this forms part of NCL’s Sail and Sustain campaign, which seeks to make sailing onboard a Norwegian cruise liner as sustainable as possible.
There are a few definite misnomers about cruising – firstly that it’s for doddering oldies or that cruises are over crowded or boring. These things couldn’t be further from the truth. The age range onboard includes the full spectrum, from young families to couples and even singletons, as well as hailing from all over the world. Other than backpacking, it’s hard to think of another kind of holiday that brings you in touch with so many people from all walks of life. In a hotel you may see other people but you rarely interact with them.
A cruise like this is a gathering of people from all over the world, and, after a strenuous period of time like COVID, which affected everyone, this was a reminder that we are all just one big global village. There is something to be said for having a conversation about your country and culture with strangers from across the world, while enjoying a dip in the jacuzzi!
Other than backpacking, it’s hard to think of another kind of holiday that brings you in touch with so many people from all walks of life.
Norwegian Cruise Line offers cruising around the world with itineraries in the Americas, Europe and the Med, Africa the Pacific. Pretty much whatever and wherever you want to visit, there’s an NCL cruise that will take you there.
Once the cruise bug bites and you’ve experienced the hospitality of the friendly and multicultural Norwegian Cruise Line family, you will find it tough to think about travelling any other way.
Hop onto the NCL website and browse upcoming cruises. Also, be sure follow them on social media where snippets of cruise life will surely entice the sailor in you!
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