Sail on a small-ship cruise in Europe and you’ll discover that far more than just the vessel is different. Take the ports: While big-ship cruisers head to Barcelona, Monte Carlo or Venice, those on small ships can additionally explore such off-the-beaten-path destinations as Saranda, Albania; Sete, France; or Bodo, Norway.
On the Ionian Sea, Saranda is just a short drive from ancient Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But the Albanian Riviera, as it’s called, is off the radar of many big-ship lines. So, when cruising friends brag about touring crowded Pompeii on a shore trip, you’ll relish explaining that you’ve explored the lesser-known Butrint, which was first a Greek colony, then a Roman city, later a Byzantine site, and, yes, even a Venetian outpost. To know before you go, print out an excellent downloadable walking-tour map and learn a bit about Butrint’s history at www.butrint.org.
For stunning panoramic views of Saranda, nearby mountains, Butrint and Corfu, just two miles away, the 16th-century Castle of Lekures, a massive stone fortress perched on a mountain atop the city, is the place to be. And while traveling in the Saranda area, shoppers may look for two local specialties to bring home as fun gifts—a rich, yet mellow, Skenderbeu Cognac, or local handicrafts of alabaster or soapstone.
|Bodo, Norway, lies just north of the Arctic Circle where the midnight sun is visible from June 2 to July 10.|
Which small-ship lines sail to Saranda, or Sarande as it’s also called? SeaDream Yacht Club operates five cruises in 2012 that call there, each fielding a shore excursion to Butrint. For a romantic cruise under sails, check out Lindblad Expeditions' departures on Panorama this year that include a call to visit the ancient site. Voyages to Antiquity and Swan Hellenic are among others sailing to Saranda.
Along France’s southwestern coast, small-ship cruisers will relish the look and laid-back feel of Sète and the Languedoc-Roussillon region. It’s almost a scene from a painting, exactly what luxury travelers hope to discover in a Mediterranean seaside destination. It boasts a beautiful harbor that’s home to ultra-luxury yachts and fishing vessels, and the city has a pleasing mix of canals, bridges, quayside cafés and Art Deco buildings.
|In Saranda, folk dancers ply their trade at the Castle of Lekures, which was built at the start of the 17th century.|
Stroll along the Canal Royal, the city’s central waterway. It’s a bit of Venice with a French flair. Savor a glass of wine or aperitif at any of the canal-side cafés. While in the Sète area, sample culinary specialties, including monkfish, oysters, mussels and la bouillabaisse or fish soup. Tip: Dine at Les Demoiselles Dupuy, which is owned and operated by the local Dupuy family. They have “farmed” oysters and mussels in the nearby lagoon for generations. Pair the fresh, succulent oysters with a glass of Domaine de Font Mars.
Contemporary art buffs should check out Galerie Yves Faurie, operated by an arts patron of the same name. It showcases works by Jean-Louis Poveda and Hervé di Rosa, among others. In addition, it’s fun to peruse the unique collection at Musée des Arts Modestes, founded by di Rosa. Step into the museum’s one-of-a-kind garden designed by Argentinian botanical artist Liliana Motta, who creatively used common plants and weeds for decoration.
While Sète itself is a draw, many cruisers will head further inland. A savory option is the Montpelier town tour combined with a wine tasting experience at Chateau Flaugergues. There, taste the eclectic flavors in such regional vintages as Coteaux du Languedoc, Faugeres, Corbieres and Minervois.
For a real “wow” excursion, book one of the cruise lines’ guided walking tours through the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, about two hours inland from Sète. Nowhere else in Europe is there a more intact walled city. With its moats, bridges, towers and medieval touches, it’s easy to imagine Errol Flynn just around the corner. Silversea Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises are among the lines with medium or small ships sailing to Sète and offering a Carcassonne excursion. Usually the tour includes a walk along the top portion of the restored walls.
|Carcassonne is a fortified French town founded by the Visigoths in the Golden Age.|
If you desire a customized private car or van setup that combines the best of seaside Séte, Carcassonne, wine tasting or other activities, most upper premium or luxury lines will oblige. Fill out a form, tell the line what it is you’d like to see, and most will respond with details and a price for the arrangements.
If Scandinavia is on your wish list, Bodo, Norway, located just north of the Arctic Circle, is a favorite port with small-ship lines. Hurtigruten, the Norwegian coastal cruise specialist, is a regular caller and Compagnie du Ponant, the small-ship luxury line, has several itineraries that include Bodo.
Nature reigns in Bodo, home to more sea eagles than any other city worldwide. The eagles soar above the city or perch on rocks at islands near the city. Bodo itself is a picturesque charmer, nestled amid mountains and islands, and not far from the Saltstraumen, a maelstrom with water rushing at high speed through a sound connecting two fjords. It’s the world’s largest tidal current and delivers quite a show. Tip: A good viewing point is the Saltstraumen Hotel’s café.
Bodo’s top attraction, though, is the Norwegian Aviation Museum, the largest of its kind in the Nordic countries. It’s a half-hour walk from the city center, so it’s best to take a shore excursion. Alternatively, grab a cab, but as there is limited availability, be sure to arrange for a pickup back to the ship with plenty of time to spare.
Housed in an unusual structure that looks like a two-bladed propeller, the museum has two main sections—one for military aircraft, another for civilian airplanes. Built on the site of a World War II Luftwaffe base, the museum displays a large collection of historical aircraft, including a World War II German Spitfire.
When it’s time to relax, head quayside in central Bodo for Bryggerikaia, an informal but classic restaurant with a maritime aura. Order either a cup of coffee or Nordlandspils, the region’s only pilsner. In summer, the restaurant’s terrace is a charming spot to sit and soak up the midnight sun.