-Hi, I'm Rick Steves.
I've spent the last 30 years exploring Europe from every conceivable angle, and now it's time to check it out the way millions of people are.
Yep, we're on a cruise ship, and we're sailing the Mediterranean.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Cruising is really popular these days.
In this special, I'd like to explore the ins and outs and pros and cons of this travel option.
Sailing from Barcelona to Athens with stops all along the way, I'll toggle from a floating resort to exciting days on shore, nearly each day in a different country.
Massive cruise ships serve as both transportation and a floating hotel.
From our ship, we'll visit some of the great ports of the Mediterranean and venture inland to some of Europe's iconic sights.
We'll savor romantic island getaways and some lazy time on the beach.
We'll learn how to make the most of the cruising experience -- avoiding lines, eating quick but local -- while exercising independence to get the most out of limited time on shore.
Along with the efficiencies of cruising, we'll show the downsides -- the inevitable congestion and commercialization that comes with mass tourism.
And as we sail from port to port, we'll enjoy our time on board the ship -- a virtual playground at sea.
The Mediterranean Sea is bounded by North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.
The typical cruise itinerary covers the great European ports.
While most cruises focus on either the West or the East, we'll do a little of both.
Stopping in Barcelona, Nice for the French Riviera, La Spezia for Florence, Civitavecchia for Rome, Naples, Malta, Athens, Mykonos, and Santorini.
I'm not here to promote or put down cruising.
For some people, it's a great choice.
And for others it's not.
Cruising can be economical, with your transportation, room, and meals all included at one price.
It can be ideal for those who want everything taken care of for their vacation, and it can also be an efficient platform for independent types who want to shape their own adventures each day.
While there may be a lot of things to enjoy on the ship, the reason I cruise the Mediterranean is to experience the Mediterranean.
The Mediterranean world is filled with wonder and richly rewards the well-organized traveler.
The cultural variety seems endless and it shows itself in traditions, cuisines, and a distinctive love of life.
For thousands of years, this was the center of Western Civilization.
Exploring the Mediterranean, you'll enjoy the sweep of art history -- from ancient treasures to the dazzling accomplishments of the Renaissance to modern wonders.
And it's just flat-out beautiful.
No wonder the rich and fabulous have built their palaces and villas here since ancient times.
The cruiser's challenge is to decide how to best experience all these attractions.
Your goal: to get the most out of your vacation time and money, enjoy the best experiences, and have fun.
Before we sight-see the greatest hits of the Mediterranean, let's get an overview of cruising in general.
Ships can be huge.
Ours has about 3,000 passengers with 1,500 crew scrambling to keep everyone well-served, safe, and happy.
Is it good travel?
That's up to you.
The way I see it, of the guests on this ship, a third of them are just looking for a floating alternative to Las Vegas.
A third of them are "bucket list" tourists just checking things off their list, and a third of them are independent-minded travelers well-prepared and eager to hit the ground running as soon as that gangway hits the pier.
Cruising originated as an activity for the wealthy -- it was expensive and formal.
The joke was it was for "the newlyweds, over-fed, and nearly dead."
But, as ships get bigger and bigger, able to offer comforts unimaginable in decades past, cruising has changed its image.
Today, it's younger, more active, and more affordable.
Most Mediterranean cruises start and end in Venice, Rome, or Barcelona.
Wherever you start, you'll need to be patient.
This is your first peek at the necessary efficiency of the cruise industry.
It's a big logistical challenge to get several thousand people and their bags into their staterooms on the first day.
Pack a little extra patience and leave yourself plenty of time for the red tape and orientation.
Once on board, I do one thing right off the bat: move in thoroughly.
Staterooms, while thoughtfully designed, are tight, so make things shipshape.
If you use all your available storage space and are constantly on guard against clutter, there's plenty of room.
I rarely use drawers in hotel rooms, but this is my home for my entire vacation.
You just move in once, so do it right away, move in fully, and establish your ship-shape standards.
On a cruise, you can get away with packing heavier.
I bring more clothes than usual.
How dressy you need to be is a matter of which cruise line you choose and your personal style.
As cruising has become accessible to the middle class, it's also become more casual.
This is as dressy as I get.
Most people pack three kinds of outfits: smart casual for evenings, leisure wear for poolside and relaxing on the ship, and practical travel clothing for time on shore.
Okay, I've moved in and we're on our way.
We'll be in the French Riviera in the morning.
We're settling into the rhythm of a Mediterranean cruise -- sail at night and explore a different port each day.
By the way, have some fun with the key nautical terms.
I'm standing near the front -- that's the bow.
It's the stern.
Left: port, and right is starboard.
And remember, it's not a "boat," it's a "ship."
For me, just "being at sea" is a travel destination.
After our first departure, or "sail-away," I find myself thinking of the Mediterranean as a sight in itself.
Make a point on departure day to get to know your floating home.
Take advantage of the signage to understand the layout.
Modern ships are smartly designed.
This ship has 1,500 staterooms on 12 decks gathered around a central atrium where you'll find places to shop, hang out, eat, and drink.
♪♪ Explore the ship on a good orientation walk.
The library is generally quiet and empty.
The gym comes with amazing views.
You'll discover places -- like tucked-away lounges -- that others may miss.
In this floating resort, the top deck -- with its swimming pool -- is the equivalent of the beach.
When it comes to fun-in-the-sun, poolside seems to be the center of the universe.
But if you crave the tranquility of a park, this ship has actual grass.
I don't know what happened to shuffleboard, but a little bocce ball will do just fine.
Each morning, the deck is busy with walkers -- eight laps and it's a mile.
Being confined on a ship, it's important to stay active.
I make a pact: anticipating lots of eating, I shall avoid the elevators and use the stairs instead.
They say the average cruise passenger gains a pound a day, but not me.
Cruising can work well for families and for groups traveling together.
Each person can pick and choose how much to see and do both on land and at sea, and still get together for dinner every evening.
And cruising also works for people who can't walk well or who are less active -- the entire ship is as accessible as any modern resort.
Along with the advantages, cruising has its downsides.
Many would say it can insulate you from the "real Europe."
You're going to the most famous places and seeing them at the same time with thousands of other tourists.
That's just the nature of cruising.
Those who don't make a concerted effort at minimizing the crowds may come home with memories of congestion and lots of wasted time.
Cruise ships drop large numbers of people in the same place at the same time.
Small ports can be overwhelmed by crowds when the ship's in port, even worse when several ships are there on the same day.
And then, when the ships sail away, the port suddenly becomes less crowded and more romantic -- something cruisers won't experience because they're back on the ship heading to the next port.
Many cruisers are not very energetic sightseers.
If you are, get out early as possible and come back late as you can.
Doing this, you'll enjoy fewer crowds and more unforgettable moments.
With each port, you've got sightseeing options: You can take the organized bus tour and be on their time table, or you can hire a private guide.
You can use a guidebook and be your own guide, or you can just hang out and be thoroughly on vacation.
There's no right or wrong -- it depends on your mood and your style.
Many cruise travelers invest in the cruise line's shore excursions.
Excursions can be active or easy, fully guided, or just providing transportation and free time.
While pricey, they can also be a time- and cost-effective way to cover those must-see sights and experiences.
And there's usually a bus tour option designed for people with limited mobility.
But as these tours target the touristy clichés and many buses hit the same sites at the same time, you'll often be right in the thick of the crowds.
If you're not purchasing the cruise ship sightseeing package, you've got an array of fine alternatives.
Mediterranean ports seem to be designed as springboards for independent travelers.
In most port terminals, you'll find reputable local companies offering essentially the same tours as the cruise lines for a fraction of the cost.
Another option: book a private guide in advance.
It's a comfort to be met at the port with a warm, personal welcome.
Legions of private guides earn their living serving cruisers directly.
You can book a guide and share the cost -- four people hiring a guide with a car costs about the same as four people taking the cruise excursion.
And with a guide, you get your own private teacher, you're sure to know the way to the summit, and you enjoy the freedom to go at your own pace.
And you can simply be your own guide.
You'll find helpful tourist offices.
And, most ports are well-served by public transit.
Independent types and those on a tight budget can use a guidebook.
There are handy guidebooks designed to help you get the most out of your time in port.
And, taking advantage of apps featuring self-guided walks on your smartphone empowers the independent traveler with plenty of good touring information.
In many big cities, hop-on, hop-off companies offer do-it-yourselfers economic and efficient transportation.
Buses meet the cruise ships at the port and offer big loop tours connecting major sights, letting you hop off and on all day long, and dropping you back at the port.
And finally, you're on vacation.
You have the option to do nothing.
Anyone can simply walk or catch a ride in to the town center and just delight in a free day -- shopping, browsing, sipping a local drink, or soaking up some sun on the beach.
♪♪ [ Laughter ] Because ships sail at night, you rarely enjoy a characteristic dinner on shore or the romance of a town after dark.
Having said that, I enjoy the evenings on the ship -- hanging out with new friends and thinking about tomorrow's destination.
So, tomorrow, it's the French Riviera.
The cruise line sells a selection of excursions for every port.
Early on, it's good to review what's offered, decide which tours -- if any -- are right for you, and book them.
The excursion desk is dedicated to explaining and selling the many onshore tours and activities.
For the eager students, some ships offer a talk each evening to preview the next day's sightseeing options and to promote their tours.
-Our mission -- that you enjoy every port of call to the maximum.
-Arriving at our first port, with its blue or azure waters, it's clear why France's Riviera is nicknamed the Cote d'Azur.
Cruise ships stop in one of three ports -- Nice... Monaco... or Villefranche.
Each is a delight to explore, a short ride apart by train -- and today, we'll see them all.
Villefranche has a fine harbor, but it doesn't have a dock big enough for a cruise ship.
So, we're dropping the hook and getting ashore in a small boat called a "tender."
♪♪ Be sure you understand exactly what time the last tender shuttles back to the ship.
Today, it's 4:30.
The French Riviera lends itself to independent touring.
I love Villefranche, but to be sure we don't miss our ship, we'll enjoy this port at the end of the day.
While the ship's information desk is designed to sell the cruise line's shore excursions, tourist offices on shore are a service designed to help independent travelers.
Okay, I've got maps for each town and a train schedule -- there's one leaving in 10 minutes.
Trains along the Riviera leave a couple times an hour.
And towns here are about 20 minutes apart.
Today we'll enjoy a couple hours in Nice, a couple hours in Monte Carlo, and then run out the clock back here in Villefranche.
We're starting in Nice while the market's still lively.
The well-organized traveler can do a lot during an eight-hour stop.
Using a good guidebook and public transportation, exploring the French Riviera is a snap.
It's fun and economical to take advantage of public transit in the bigger cities.
Nice has a single tramline that glides from the train station right to the old center.
This is pure France.
As I like to say, Nice is nice, and the market is thriving.
Une socca, s'il vous plaît.
Here, you can savor the distinct flavor of this southeastern corner of France.
Socca, the local chickpea bread, is delicious hot off the griddle and just right for a bite on the go.
-Thank you very much.
Mediterranean towns make their promenades people-friendly and Nice's Promenade des Anglais is a fine example.
While I could rent a bike, a lazy stroll and some beach time feels just about right.
I'll be on the train to Monaco or Monte Carlo in about an hour, but right now?
Back on the train, I'm enjoying my independence, my baguette avec fromage , and amazing Riviera scenery.
In half an hour, we'll be in Monaco.
It's a tiny country about the size of Manhattan.
Monaco is dominated by its harbor, and its harbor is filled with the massive yachts of massively wealthy tycoons.
The city is small enough that you can walk to all of its main sights in a couple of hours.
I have time for two stops: the famous casino -- imagine all the fortunes won and lost here, mostly lost -- and the cute little royal palace.
We're here just in time for the changing of the guard.
[ Band playing ] And a visit to the palace is capped with a commanding view.
Riding the train back to our port, Villefranche, it's comforting to see our ship at anchor.
The sleepy town of Villefranche feels made for relaxation.
The beach is inviting.
And the harbor-front is the perfect place to enjoy a final drink on the Riviera.
We've got 45 minutes before the last tender back to our ship.
There's no way we're going to miss our connection, and that means plenty of time to enjoy a relaxing pastis.
We've caught the last tender.
Security on board is taken very seriously and it's efficiently organized.
Because everyone swipes in and out with their identity cards, at any given moment, the staff knows exactly who's on the ship and who's still on shore.
With everyone back on board, it's time to haul anchor and sail away.
This is one of the pleasures of cruising.
Until you get to the next port, you're free to relax any way you want.
You can read a book on deck, head to the spa, exercise, or enjoy one of the numerous bars all over the ship.
I'm into the rhythm now.
After a full day of sightseeing, I'm ready to relax: stowed my wallet in the room, got comfortable, and I'm looking forward to dinner and an evening at sea.
By the way, even with so many people on board, I'm impressed by how it rarely feels crowded.
If you want quiet, you can find it.
Do you have kids?
How old is he?
-See, my son is 30.
-Can you believe you've got a 34-year-old son?
[ Laughter ] -If you're in the mood to socialize, you can enjoy an impromptu balcony party with friends you've made on board.
And if you want more action, there is always lots going on.
[ Lively music plays ] It seems any excuse for a party is good enough.
Full moon tonight -- yep, it's the full moon party.
♪♪ One thing I like about cruising is how easy it is to meet people.
♪♪ People who are young at heart.
♪♪ ♪♪ Many major cruise destinations are actually landlocked and far from the sea.
For example, Florence.
Our ship docks in La Spezia, a couple hours away by bus or train.
Like in many cruise ports, we arrive in a gritty world of shipping containers and cranes.
And from this springboard, lots of eager travelers are up and out early to catch their tour buses.
Like thousands of other travelers, today we're heading into Florence -- and most of us have the same great sights in mind: Michelangelo's David and the Uffizi Gallery.
Taking the cruise line's tour, I know I'll get a quick blitz of the great sights of Florence.
The tour includes transportation, reservations for the big attractions, a professional guide, and the assurance that we'll make it back to the ship on time.
Florence is one of those places everybody wants to see, and almost everybody wants to see the same sights.
You won't be alone.
While those without reservations will waste lots of precious time in lines, with a tour, you'll be more efficient -- certain to see the glories of the Florentine Renaissance: Brunelleschi's magnificent dome... Botticelli's Birth of Venus ... and Michelangelo's David .
♪♪ As we make our way toward Rome, let's consider how to stay within your budget while on the ship.
Cruise ships are businesses.
They need to make money, and there's not much profit in the base cost of a trip.
So they need to make more money from land excursions and from extras you buy while on board -- things like gambling, photography, shopping, and alcohol.
As smart consumers, it's important to understand the game plan.
It's possible, technically, to do the entire cruise with no extra expenses on board, but extras are enticing.
They're cleverly sold, and your purchases can really add up.
It's a cashless world on the ship.
Along with getting you into your stateroom, your handy ID card is how you buy things.
Onboard, there's lots of temptations, and purchases feel painless -- like it's almost free... until you check out and get the grand total for your final bill.
Our next port serves Rome, another inland city.
Like for Florence, the ship docks in an industrial container port.
Here, in Civitavecchia, the cruise line provides a shuttle bus to the end of the port from where we sort through our transportation options.
In this case, most independent cruisers just hop on the train.
Within an hour, we're in Rome.
While Rome may be "The Eternal City," our cruise schedule gives it just a single day.
You'll need to be smart and selective.
Do it with a thoughtful plan -- with reservations or a guided tour to minimize your time in lines.
Rome has two main sightseeing zones.
The ancient city includes the awe-inspiring Colosseum, the Forum with the magnificence of the empire apparent even in its ruins, and the glorious Pantheon.
Amazingly preserved, this building gives us a sense of the splendor of ancient Rome better than any other.
And across the Tiber River stands Vatican City with the towering St. Peter's Basilica, the exhilarating treasures of the Vatican Museum, and Michelangelo's beloved Sistine Chapel.
♪♪ ♪♪ -Welcome to the tour.
We're going to head down the main corridor right over here.
So, everyone, follow me.
-Back on board, we got tickets for a behind-the-scenes tour of our ship.
Modern cruise ships are engineering and technical marvels.
We start on the bridge, where the captain and his crew enjoy the ultimate vantage point and state-of-the-art navigational tools to be sure we're on track.
In the control room, we learn how the ship is like a sophisticated organism -- making its own fresh water from the sea, monitoring its vast power, and making sure all systems are go.
Passing through the living quarters of the crew, we're reminded that 1,500 hard-working people live in a parallel world under the care-free vacation decks above.
-All the fruit that we have here is coming from Italy, from Poland, and from Spain.
-The officer in charge of the ship's inventory of food explains how the produce necessary to feed thousands of people is managed.
And we finish our tour with a look at the bustling and well-coordinated kitchen, or galley.
Our next stop is Naples.
I love coming into port.
If you're up early, you can enjoy the approach: sunrise over Mount Vesuvius.
And here comes one of Europe's most intense yet rewarding cities.
Here in Naples, the cruise terminal is right down town.
Along with the conventional cruise line tour buses, you'll find budget alternatives for do-it-yourself travelers.
In ports like Naples, the scene can feel aggressive.
Stepping through the port security gate, you may find yourself in an assertive scrum of cabbies and tour guides eager to take you for a ride.
While we could make a deal here on the spot for our sightseeing needs, I've made arrangements in advance.
If you're leaving the ship as an independent traveler, remember: cruise ports attract hustlers and con-artists -- people looking to over-charge na ï ve tourists for their services.
Look for fixed and regulated prices.
Also, be smart about your valuables.
I leave my passport on the ship.
- Buongiorno !
- Buongiorno !
I am Rafael...
Using my guidebook, I've booked a private tour guide with a car.
In moments, we're zipping under Mount Vesuvius and heading for a quick look at Pompeii.
While pricey for a solo traveler, we're beating the crowds and I've got the luxury of my own guide here at one of Europe's great ancient sights.
It's amazing to think that Pompeii was a thriving Roman city and then, in AD 79, Mount Vesuvius blew its top, and the city was buried in a flood of hot ash and mud.
The excavations give us a look at life in ancient Rome like none other.
♪♪ ♪♪ With my driver and guide, I'm nimble and independent.
By mid-day, we're back in Naples, free to see things far from the cruise crowds.
This old quarry is the Fontanelle Ossuary.
It's been filled with human bones for centuries -- a sight I bet no one from our ship is visiting today.
But it's on my list and perfectly doable.
The quarry is filled with bones from emptied church cemeteries.
I learned that in the 19th century, Neapolitans would actually adopt a skull, build it a little house, and count on the skull's soul in heaven to advocate for them in times of need.
♪♪ I love exploring the characteristic neighborhoods of Naples, and the most crazy and vivid is Sanitá.
Just wandering through this district is a cultural carnival.
For me, the back streets of Naples offer the gritty reality of urban Italy.
Now within easy striking distance of our ship, I say goodbye to our guide and grab a characteristic lunch in the city famous as the birthplace of pizza.
The food on the ship is good but generally ignores the cuisine of whatever port we're visiting.
So, for lunch, rather than fast food or some forgettable sandwich, choose authentic local food designed to be eaten quickly.
And here in Naples, it's got to be pizza.
Each country has its quick and easy go-to meal.
It's tapas in Spain.
My favorite Barcelona tapas bars are Basque style -- you just grab what looks good and then count the toothpicks on your plate to figure out how much you owe.
In France, I love a good salade niçoise .
What better lunch in Nice?
In Greece, a souvlaki pita is fast, tasty, and cheap.
And in Istanbul, it's fresh fish right off the big, tipsy dingy.
[ Conversation in native language ] This is Istanbul fast food.
Tonight, as we sail for Malta, the grand foyer is put to good use for the cruise ritual of meeting the ship's officers.
-Your captain, from Greece as well, Captain [indistinct], ladies and gentlemen!
[ Cheers and applause ] -That's followed by a little bit of floating razzmatazz.
-[ Singing indistinctly ] ♪♪ -And, as the night wears on, up at the pool is a chance for everyone to literally dance to their own beat -- wearing headphones, you can select your favorite style of music at the silent disco.
It's a surreal experience made even more so by the graceful mermaid.
♪♪ [ Cheers and applause ] ♪♪ [ Cheers and applause ] ♪♪ The captain advised being up early to enjoy the entry to the Grand Harbor of Malta.
Clearly, this port was well-worth some serious fortifications.
Our ship just squeezes into the historic harbor, and in moments, we're in the old center of town ready for a busy day of sightseeing.
Malta is a tiny independent country set between Sicily and Africa.
With a culture enriched by a long parade of civilizations, it's a strategically placed island nation with an extraordinary history.
The capital city of Valletta is a stony monument to this hard-fought history.
And the dramatic view from the ramparts of the heavily fortified harbor reminds the visitor of Malta's strategic importance through the centuries.
Of the many cultures that shaped it, perhaps most obvious is its British heritage.
Malta spent 150 years as part of the British Empire.
While it gained its independence in 1964, Malta retains its British flavor: English-style pubs and food, statues of queens... and red phone booths.
♪♪ If this feels like a fortress city, it's because it was the capital of the Knights of St. John, also known as the Knights of Malta.
Malta's stout walls -- many of them incorporated into existing limestone cliffs -- survived a siege in 1565 of 40,000 Ottoman sailors.
After the Turkish threat passed, the city was ornamented with delightful architecture, including characteristic enclosed balconies, called gallarija.
As you stroll, you'll enjoy an inviting and nostalgic patina of age in its facades.
A short drive through Malta's dry and timeless landscape takes us to the fisherman's harbor of Marsaxlokk.
A favorite with cruise travelers, it's home to a fleet of typical Maltese fishing boats.
While Marsaxlokk has a fine main square and church, the action is along the harbor -- especially during the Sunday market, when it's all about fish.
Tradition says that the shape of the boats goes back eight centuries before Christ to when Malta was a Phoenician colony.
These colorful boats pop in the dazzling sunlight, seeming to celebrate yet another distinct heritage of the Mediterranean world.
When the distance between ports is longer than an overnight ride, the ship spends an entire day at sea.
You know, one of my favorite things about a Mediterranean cruise is the day at sea -- sleep in, leisurely brunch, read a book, just hang out by the pool.
For activities on board, each evening a printed program with a busy schedule for the next day lands on your bed.
Cruise lines work hard to make time on the ship enjoyable.
They arrange something for everyone: poolside is ground zero for fun and relaxation outdoors.
Every day is filled with ship-sponsored activities -- like dance classes.
And there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the sunny hours on deck.
♪♪ Different cruise lines serve different markets.
Smaller ships generally charge more and are able to visit smaller ports.
Of the big ship options, you have a range of prices and styles.
When shopping for a cruise, there are two major considerations: the itinerary and the character of the cruise line.
It's your choice: family-friendly, young and trendy, older and more mature, and so on.
It's pretty obvious by the advertising which market's being targeted and the general style of the passengers you'll be sharing your ship with.
Your cruise price will also vary according to your choice of cabin class.
Like the vast majority of those on this ship, I'm staying in a basic stateroom.
On the newer ships, most rooms come with a small balcony.
I enjoy the fresh air, the views, and quiet moments on my own deck.
If money's no concern, you have some pretty fancy top end options.
Rooms cost more or less depending on view, size, location, and package of services.
Italy juts 600 miles into the Mediterranean.
It divides the sea from a cruise itinerary point of view into western ports and eastern ports.
We're sailing east, into the Greece's Aegean Sea for three more stops.
Next up: Athens.
The port of Athens is Piraeus, another industrial springboard serving a popular destination.
While Athens is perfectly tourable for the independent traveler, many opt for the cruise line's excursion.
Cruise lines excel in efficiency.
Before leaving the ship, tourists meet in the theater, get their tour group number, are escorted to their awaiting bus, and meet the guide.
Within minutes, they're on their way as he narrates the ride into town with information about the leading city of ancient Greece -- the home of Socrates and Plato.
Today, Athens is a sprawling metropolis of four million people.
But, in the 19th century, it was just a small town huddled at the base of its once mighty acropolis.
That old town is today's touristy shopping quarter, called the Plaka, with its fun eateries, colorful markets, and shops filled with knickknacks.
Next to the modern markets you find the ancient market -- the Agora, with one of the best surviving temples from ancient Greece -- the Temple of Hephaestus.
But everyone's got their sights set on the Acropolis.
Our group converges with other groups, and everyone clamors up the famous hill.
While cruisers are unavoidably a part of this crush, guides do a good job of managing the cruise ship rush hour each morning.
Once on top, tourists marvel at the iconic Parthenon as guides do their best to bring the ruins to life.
And from the summit of this historic bluff, all are rewarded with a commanding view of sprawling Athens.
After each day of sightseeing, back at the ship, passengers enjoy the ritual welcome.
A cool cloth and a refreshing drink, and they're back home in their floating resort.
Cruise lines employ a lot of people: a ratio of about one worker for every two passengers.
A typical crew comes from dozens of developing world countries.
A fun and extra dimension of cruising is getting to interact with people whose cultures you know almost nothing about.
[ Cheering ] Crew members work very hard, often seven 12-hour days a week for months at a stretch, far from their homes and families.
While they don't make much money from a First World point of view, they make a solid living on their country's scale and are able to help support their families.
Their base pay is only a part of their wage and much of their income is based on tips.
Tipping on the ship is automatic.
Most cruise lines use an "auto tip" system with a healthy gratuity added to your bill that generously covers all your service crew.
Of course, you can adjust it if you like and you're welcome to leave a little extra for particular crew members who you especially appreciate.
Our last two stops are fabled Greek islands in the Aegean Sea.
The Isle of Mykonos comes with a classic white-washed Greek port.
While a small island with a small main town, it's a standard stop for the big cruise ships.
There's a pier for only one ship, so most ships drop the hook and shuttle their people in by tender.
If visiting by cruise ship, it's smart to get an early start.
We caught the first tender -- beat the crowds and beat the heat.
It's easy to enjoy Mykonos Town with no planning, no tour, and no guide.
This is a stop which lends itself to unstructured free time just lazing on the beach, wandering, and browsing the shops.
It's the epitome of a Greek island town: a busy breakwater, fine little beach, and inviting lanes.
While tourism dominates the economy, Mykonos still has a traditional charm thickly layered with white stucco, blue trim, and colorful bougainvillea.
Back lanes offer tranquility away from the cruise crowds.
As in many Greek island towns, centuries ago the windmills of Mykonos harnessed the steady wind, grinding grain to feed its sailors.
Five mills still stand, perfectly positioned to catch the prevailing breeze.
A tidy embankment is so pretty they call it "little Venice."
Wealthy shipping merchants built this row of fine mansions with brightly painted wooden balconies that seem to rise right out of the sea.
Today, these mansions have been refitted as restaurants and bars for tourists enjoying fresh fish and romantic views.
Mykonos' status in the last generation was as a fashionable destination for jet-setters, and it retains a certain hip cachet.
These days, tacky trinket stalls share the lanes with top-end fashion boutiques.
Prices are high, and, in season, the island is crammed full of vacationers.
But, even with four ships in the harbor today, there seems to be plenty of room.
There's a range of beaches on Mykonos.
The most trendy is Paradise, one of the ultimate party beaches in the Aegean.
Presided over by hotels that run bars for young beachgoers, the Paradise action is non-stop.
While the beach becomes a raging dance floor after dark, the deejay is busy all day as the cruise set joins backpackers from around the world to enjoy the scene.
As is standard around here, beaches rent comfortable lounge furniture with umbrellas.
Just plop onto whatever appeals.
Don't worry, the drinks will come to you.
If you prefer a quieter scene, the more remote beaches are a short drive further out.
While extremely arid, the stony countryside of Mykonos -- complete with white-washed churches and staggering views -- is a delight for a quick road trip.
Agios Sostis, an old hippie beach at the north end of the island, has none of the thumping party energy of Paradise Beach.
It offers little beyond lovely sand, turquoise water, and tranquility.
And, for many, it's their Greek Isle dream come true.
Along with its beaches, Mykonos offers a major historic attraction.
It's on an uninhabited neighboring island, a 30-minute shuttle boat ride away.
The island of Delos was one of the most important places in the ancient Greek world... ...with temples honoring the birthplace of the twin gods Apollo and Artemis.
Centuries before Christ, Delos attracted pilgrims from across the Western world.
Delos was important in three different ancient eras -- first as a religious site, then as the treasury of the Athenian League -- that was sort of the "Fort Knox" of the ancient world -- and later, during Roman times, this was one of the busiest commercial ports in the entire Mediterranean.
Delos ranked right up there with Olympia, Athens, and Delphi.
Survey the remains of the ancient harbor... foundations of shops and homes... and hillsides littered with temple remains.
The iconic row of sphinx-like lions still heralds the importance of the place.
This was one of the Aegean world's finest cities.
Imagine Delos in its heyday -- a booming center of trade: streets lined with 3,000 shops where you could buy just about anything, dazzling mansions of wealthy merchants with colonnaded inner courtyards.
There were fine mosaics -- like this one of the god Dionysus riding a panther.
Culture thrived here, enough to keep this theater -- which could seat 6,000 -- busy.
I cap my visit by climbing to the summit of the island.
My reward: one of the Mediterranean's great king-of-the-mountain thrills.
As you observe the chain of islands dramatically swirling in 360 degrees, you can understand why historians believe that these Cycladic Islands got their name from the way they make a circle, or cycle, around this oh-so-important little island of Delos.
Back on the ship, we set sail for our last Greek island.
By the nature of a cruise schedule, dinners are at sea.
Food is unlimited and generally included.
There's a constant risk of overeating, and for some cruisers, there's a temptation to see if you can eat five meals a day and still snorkel when you get to the port.
Traditionally, there's one big dining room where cruisers have a set table and dining time, with the same table mates, and a chance to get to know their server.
But that's changing as people want less formality and more flexibility.
Now there are more options: cafes, snack bars, and a burger grill poolside.
The standby is a sprawling cafeteria with a huge and efficient selection of food available at almost any hour.
There's a vast selection of meats, hot foods, salads, fruit... and desserts.
And ships also offer a variety of higher quality specialty restaurants.
These are more formal, often require reservations, and come with a surcharge.
If you don't mind the extra fee, they can be a romantic and tasty option.
Many cruise lines still have formal night about once a week, usually on the day at sea.
While this is becoming more optional, the personality of the ship still changes on these evenings.
On our ship, the dress code was called "casual chic" rather than "formal."
If you don't want to dress up, no problem -- just steer clear of the formal areas.
But for many people, this is the time to put on a suit and tie or a glamorous gown.
When you do that, a romantic moment at sea by moonlight is particularly memorable.
♪♪ I enjoy the scenic arrivals and departures by cruise ship.
Being on the top deck as you approach the day's destination gives you a quiet, bird's-eye view.
Approaching an exotic and fabled island like Santorini -- as the moon sets and the sun rises, just kissing the lip of the breath-taking cliffs -- is worth getting up for.
Santorini is a dramatic island -- the rim of a volcanic crater with spectacular vistas.
Once a complete island like its neighbors, it was a volcano that -- about 3,500 years ago -- blew its top, creating a caldera -- this flooded crater.
Today, inviting white-washed villages seem to crowd its dramatic ridges as if jostling to enjoy the views.
Because Santorini's pier is small, giant cruise ships drop anchor and tender their passengers in on small shuttle boats.
Individuals go to the tiny "old harbor" where they can ride a donkey up the zig-zag trail or hop a cable car to the scenic lip of the island crater.
Those paying for the cruise line's excursion get off the ship first, and head for an alternative port, where buses and guides await.
Considering the crush of the crowds, the limited time, and the scattered array of interesting sights, investing in a bus tour like this to see Santorini can be a good value.
Within minutes, you'll be powering up the switch-backs into the island as your guide narrates the drive.
Santorini is arid, with no lakes or rivers.
We're here in early September, and they haven't had rain since May.
But grapes on Santorini soak up the sun and make the island's distinctive wine.
As they have since ancient times, vintners shape the vines into protective baskets in hopes that they'll collect the dew and survive the wind.
The Santorini fruit of the vine is both hearty and sweet.
Many excursions include a winery tour with a chance to taste the local wine.
Sure, this stop is designed to accommodate the masses and might not be as charming as you hoped.
Still, the wine's good and the group's having lots of fun.
Cruise line excursions come with a steady commentary... -Those two are the Kameni Islands.
The Kameni Islands are actually made of lava rock.
-...scenic views from the bus, and the stress-free efficiency of getting smoothly from point to point.
And tour groups are sure to have free time at the best photo ops.
Oia is the postcard image of the Greek Isles.
This idyllic ensemble of white-washed houses and characteristic domes is delicately draped over a steep slope at the top of a cliff.
Viewpoints here are some of the most striking in the Greek Seas as tourists clamor for just the right angle.
Artists fall in love with Oia and move in.
Honeymooners find the B&B of their dreams and savor breakfast in unforgettable settings.
And at the quiet end of town, the old windmill reminds all of a more rustic age gone by.
♪♪ To get the absolute most out of our Santorini day, I've booked half a day with Dimitris.
Of Santorini's many beaches, Kamari is one of the best.
The black sand is a reminder of the island's volcanic origin.
Typical of Greek island resort beaches, it's lined with rentable lounge chairs and a strip of seafood restaurants.
And with Dimitris, I know exactly what I'm eating.
These salads look delicious.
Can you tell me about them?
-Well, we have here a Greek salad and a Santorini salad.
The difference with the local salad is that we use the local tomatoes, the cherry tomatoes, the local cucumbers, and instead of the feta cheese, we use the goat cheese, and we add the capers and the caper leaves.
See, you can eat them.
They taste good.
We got some sardines here, grilled.
And on the other side, we've got a very nice grilled calamari, also served with salad, the lemon, and the olive oil.
-This is a healthy diet.
-This is the Mediterranean diet.
-We bid our guide goodbye to enjoy our last couple of hours in Fira, Santorini's main town.
Fira is the island's commercial and transportation hub.
Its main street -- thronged with tourists whenever there's a cruise ship in the bay -- seems like little more than a long line of shops, cafes, and restaurants -- all with staggering views.
Enjoying the island with a local guide and then taking a short break to enjoy a cliff-side bar filled with happy travelers from around the world is a reminder that, even if on a cruise, you can exercise your independence and spark some great travel moments.
Keeping my eye on the clock, I hop the cable car back down to the old port, where our ship's shuttle, or tender, awaits.
Most cruisers get nervous about missing the ship and head back earlier than necessary.
I find the ports are least crowded and most relaxed and enjoyable during that last hour.
The last tender isn't leaving for 15 minutes.
That's plenty of time for one last ouzo.
A cruise can be what you make of it: a pre-packaged travel cliché, or a springboard for the independent spirit.
Whether you took the cruise excursion, or hopped a donkey, or just had lunch in port, you'll take home unforgettable memories.
A cruise allows you to explore this unique and historic region in a way that suits you best.
Whether that's touring ancient sites in Greece, crossing off some of those "must see" highlights in Italy or France, or just relaxing on the beach of your dreams.
As with travel in general, for cruisers, life-long memories such as these can be yours when you know your options and then match them with your personal style of travel.
Our cruise is nearing its end, and I'm savoring our last evening at sea.
While we've enjoyed a quick look at a selection of Mediterranean ports, there are plenty more.
We'll be back in the real world in the morning.
♪♪ There are many ways to explore Europe.
For a lot of people, taking a cruise -- especially if you know how to do it smartly -- can be a practical mix of efficiency, economy, and fun.
I hope you've enjoyed our Mediterranean cruise.
I'm Rick Steves.
Until next time, keep on travelin'.
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