Travel

Mediterranean cruises: Private excursions let you avoid crowds

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Our small boat bobbed in the clear blue waters of the Aegean, anchored near a rocky uninhabited spit of land. In the distance, the white cityscape of Fira, Santorini, glistened against high seaside cliffs. I shimmied down the ladder into the sapphire sea. A few minutes later, my party of 10 was swimming toward an otherworldly lagoon. Its dark yellow color, sulfuric scent and hot springs were the products of volcanic activity below. In the shallows, we wiped the iron-rich mud on our faces.

All part of our mega-cruise ship adventure. Sort of.

While most of our fellow passengers of the Celebrity Constellation last summer were sitting at cafes or shopping on Santorini – where the ship had docked – my wife and I took a different approach to a shore excursion. We joined only four other couples on a private boat tour to explore the more off-the-beaten-path spots.

A few years ago my images of large cruise ships were of buffet lines, regimented schedules and herd mentality. I was, frankly, uninterested. No more. There is a wealth of wonderful onshore experiences beyond the excursions offered by the cruise line.

Ship offerings can be expensive, and many require you to board a bus and, upon reaching the destination, follow a sign-carrying tour guide. But our most memorable experiences have come when we either ventured off on our own, or happened upon a private tour, sometimes by planning, sometimes by chance.

Try something different

How did we wind up swimming in hot springs off a volcanic island during the cruise ship stop at Santorini? It was mostly serendipity – and the adventurous nature of Margie, my wife.

On the train ride from Rome, where we’d landed, to Civitavecchia, the ship’s departure port, we rode with a couple named Tom and Sherry from Orlando, Fla. After the cruise got underway, we met an English farming couple, David and Fiona, who told us that Tom and Sherry were looking for two more people to fill out a 10-person small-boat tour in Santorini.

The precise nature of how those two couples met escapes me, but those sorts of unexpected encounters happen with more regularity than one might expect. We sent word that we’d love to take those two spots.

Santorini itself is a jewel of the Greek islands, with whitewashed homes entrenched into seaside cliffs. Add swimming and you’re talking dream vacation.

I’d venture that most of the ship’s passengers spent their day in either Fira or neighboring Oia, jostling with hundreds of tourists from the several cruise ships that dotted the port. For those who love shopping – the standard fare being jewelry, clothing or trinkets – six hours in Fira, with a coffee or wine break, can be lovely. But way too predictable.

I was about to realize that there are better ways to spend a day in Santorini than shopping and sipping coffee with fellow passengers.

We were picked up by a small Greek fishing boat run by Capt. Stathis of Amenos sea trips and dropped at a tiny harbor on Santorini. Included in the price of $80 per couple was a bus to take us round-trip to Oia, at the top of the island, for two hours of on-our-own shore time. Time enough for trinkets and coffee!

When we returned to the harbor, Capt. Stathis took us for our swim and then to a tiny church on the other side of the island.

When we reflect on this summer’s cruise, both Margie and I immediately agreed that the stop in Santorini was our favorite, with Naples as No. 2.

Amalfi Coast beach

What made Naples rival Santorini for memories? Another private tour, this one found by my wife on Cruisecritic (www.cruisecritic.com) – a tremendous online resource for information about cruise ships and excursions, both private and ship offerings.

The eight-passenger van’s driver and guide, Anthony, took us down the windy, steep cliffs of the Amalfi Coast, the scenery and vertical drops leaving all of us breathless. All except Anthony, who hardly seemed to notice, which I think – although I am not certain – was a good thing. At one point, Anthony started singing the song “Volare.”

The trip ended in the postcard-beautiful town of Positano, where we had 90 minutes on our own. My wife and I headed to a beach favored by locals.

The out-of-the-way spot and sparkling water reminded me of another time when Margie and I departed from the norm. On our first trip to Santorini on an earlier cruise, Margie researched a local swimming hole. We took a city bus from Fira, made our way down a cliff to a tiny fishing village and hiked a half-mile along the coast, where two dozen people were diving from cliffs or lowering themselves into a swimming hole carved between rock formations. You won’t find that swimming hole in any of the ship’s tour offerings.

Happy returns

There is, of course, much more to cruising than the excursions. The convenience and ease of cruise travel cannot be overstated. No matter which onshore excursion you choose, you will return to your own room and a restaurant dinner. No schlepping bags, no trying to figure out where to eat.

After our cruise, we spent a week in Tuscany. Arriving in Florence, we pulled our luggage along the street until Margie yelled out: “Why would anybody do this?” We longed for our ship cabin at that moment, although the frustration abated when we landed a day later in a gem of a Tuscan hotel, Pescille, nestled in vineyards and olive groves on the outskirts of San Gimignano.

A wonderful benefit of cruising is that when you hit six to eight ports, it allows you to pick a place to spend a week or more if you make a return land-only trip.

The next day we were heading back to Santorini.

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