Off-beat Ports

Kalmar Castle, a huge attraction for cruisers in Kalmar, has played a crucial role in Swedish history since being built as a fortified tower in the 12th century.
Kalmar Castle, a huge attraction for cruisers in Kalmar, has played a crucial role in Swedish history since being built as a fortified tower in the 12th century.

Each year, luxury cruisers head for Europe, experiencing the destinations, sampling the cuisine, savoring the wines and meeting the locals. But with so many “repeaters,” cruise lines must constantly sail to new ports or less well-known destinations to keep the experience fresh. Here are our choices for Europe’s “best kept secret” ports for 2016.

Kalmar, Sweden

In southeastern Sweden, the Småland region is a bit different in history, culture and topography than other parts of Sweden. It was once part of Denmark and endured such harsh local conditions in past centuries that millions immigrated to the United States. Those who stayed, however, were highly inventive. The result is a fine tradition of glassblowing. Today, visitors often journey to the Kosta Boda and Orrefors glassworks to see master craftsmen at work.

In 2016, luxury cruisers can visit Kalmar on a maiden call for Silversea Cruises’ 296-passenger Silver Wind, operating a 12-day sailing from Stockholm to London, departing July 9. Why not entertain guests or ask the butler to plan a romantic en suite anniversary dinner in the Grand Suite? This suite, in either a one- or two-bedroom configuration, offers between 1,019-1,314 square feet of space. In the one-bedroom layout, luxury travelers relax in a spacious living room with sitting area, separate dining area, twin beds or a queen-sized bed in the master bedroom, a marble master bathroom with full-sized whirlpool tub and private verandah. The two-bedroom configuration adds additional sitting, sleeping, bathroom and verandah areas.

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Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ 500-passenger Europa 2, the dual English-German language luxury ship targeted at English speakers, including North Americans, also calls at Kalmar during its “The hits of the Baltic Sea and the Sounds of ABBA” voyage from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Hamburg, Germany, on August 15. It’s the ultimate in pampering to stay in the 840-square-foot Grand Penthouse Suite with butler service. Featuring light hued, contemporary design, this suite has all the bells and whistles. We particularly love the master bathroom relaxation area; here guests can lounge on a large daybed or soak in the whirlpool while enjoying sea or city views through a wall of glass windows.

Going ashore in Kalmar, cruisers can walk along Old Town’s cobblestoned streets; peruse shops, pubs and architecture within Kvarnholmen; and tour three stellar attractions — Kalmar Castle, Kalmar Art Museum and Kalmar County Museum. Although it’s medieval in origin, Kalmar Castle’s “look” dates from a later period when it was updated by the Vasa kings; it’s often possible to view a Swedish wedding party at the castle’s church, a popular nuptials venue. Adjacent to the castle, we suggest just meandering Old Town’s winding alleys to admire the architecture.

Maritime buffs can pop into the Kalmar County Museum, which houses big cannons, artifacts and gold treasures from the Swedish warship Kronan, which sank off the coast centuries ago. Thousands of nautical artifacts also await at the delightful, small Kalmar Maritime Museum. Prefer artwork? The Kalmar Art Museum specializes in art history and contemporary art from northeastern Europe and the Baltic. Shoppers can visit the city center’s Kvasten Mall, Baronen with 40-plus shops or the Gallerian Shopping Center for jewelry, clothing, shoes and home goods. For consumer electronics, sporting goods and a fashion house with more than 25 clothing stores, we’d recommend Hansa City’s Modehuset.

Alternatively, cruisers can visit the island of Öland, which has inviting beaches; the Palace of Solliden, the Swedish Royal family’s summer home; and a landscape that’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Kavala, Greece, eastern Macedonia’s largest seaport, was once a top tobacco growing area.
Kavala, Greece, eastern Macedonia’s largest seaport, was once a top tobacco growing area.

Kavala, Greece

As eastern Macedonia’s largest seaport, Kavala — originally called Neapolis by the ancient Greeks — is an eclectic mix of old and new. While the western end is more modern, the eastern side near the cruise pier has meandering streets, small homes, tavernas and historic sites. Towering over the harbor and city is Kavala’s 15th-century Byzantine and Ottoman fortress and not far away is the medieval Kamares, an impressive aqueduct built by the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent.

For 2016, Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator calls during its 17-night “Aegean Holiday” itinerary from Venice to Istanbul on May 27. Silver Wind calls at Kavala on its April 23 voyage from Piraeus (Athens) to Istanbul, plus Silver Spirit and Silver Cloud both call during the year. Oceania Cruises’ 1,250-passenger Riviera arrives in Kavala during its week-long “Sultans and Palaces” itinerary departing May 5 from Istanbul to Athens.

More options: Holland America Line’s 835-passenger Prinsendam; Azamara Club Cruises’ 686-passenger Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest and ships of several enrichment-focused lines, including Voyages to Antiquity, Voyages of Discovery, Celestyal Cruises and Swan Hellenic will also call at Kavala between 2016 and 2018.

Since Mehmet Ali, the founder of modern Egypt, was born in Kavala, the Egyptian government restored both his birth home and the lovely Imaret Mudrassah he built; it’s now a boutique hotel. From the cruise dock you’ll spot the Imaret’s classic Islamic domed architecture, and farther on, at the end of the peninsula, the church of Panagia and lighthouse. Museum lovers often tour the excellent Archaeological Museum adjacent to Faliro Park or head to Kavala’s unusually themed Tobacco Museum; the region was once a top tobacco growing area. If the munchies hit, be sure to sample freshly baked Karvali kourabiedes, melt-in-your-mouth Greek cookies. We recommend the Marmelo patisserie a few blocks from the pier.

Beyond Kavala, Biblia Chora Estate is an independent winery using organic practices. It’s won many accolades for its wines, including Ovilos White. Eco-focused cruisers can explore Alistrati Cave or go hiking, canoeing or birdwatching in the Nestos River Delta. The 19th-century Mud Baths at Krinides offer therapeutic treatments, while myriad Aegean Sea beaches await for sun lovers. We like Ammolofoi as it’s a Blue Flag beach with clear water.

For many, though, the highlight of a Kavala port call is a 30-minute ride by private car or motorcoach to ancient Philippi, built by Alexander the Great’s father, King Philip II. Regent operates an “included” three-hour tour to Philippi for its guests. Sites include a well-preserved ancient theater (still in use for performances), several Basilicas, a large agora and the acropolis. Philippi was reportedly the first place in Europe where the Apostle Paul preached to the masses about Christianity; the Romans weren’t amused and he was imprisoned; visitors can peer into that small jail area.

Depending on the length of the Kavala port call, travelers can charter a luxury yacht to reach the nearby island of Thassos, known for mountainous terrain, beaches, pretty coves, marble quarries and quaint villages. Photogenic Panagia has shops selling olive oil and feta cheese, cool spring water gushing through the town’s small canals, gorgeous floral displays and Greek-styled buildings. The town church displays (in a glass casing) a banner from Richard the Lionheart’s era.

Gijón, Spain

Nestled along the Cantabrian Sea coast in Spain’s far northwestern region, Gijón in the Asturias Province was formerly the Roman settlement of Gigia. Archaeological buffs can tour the Campa Torres Archaeological Site as well as Campo Valdés’ Roman baths, including the “hippocaust” where hot air was produced for the baths. Today, Gijón is a major stop along the so-called Northern Way (Camino del Norte) for St. James pilgrimages between San Sebastian and Santiago de Compostela.

Increasingly, Gijón is also being favored by luxury lines, including Regent, which is visiting for the first time in 2016. The 700-passenger Seven Seas Voyager will call during a 35-day voyage from Southampton to Reykjavik on June 6. Among Regent’s choices for “included” shore excursions is a half-day tour of Atlantic Botanic Gardens and Laboral University. The gardens’ winding trails traverse beech forests and pass under almond trees and near blooming plants. Check out the university’s clock tower, Spain’s largest stone structure.

Also in 2016, Silver Wind calls at Gijón during multiple summer dates and Oceania’s new Sirena arrives in port several times. Recently revealed are Oceania’s plans for Sirena’s six redesigned Owner’s Suites. Cruisers staying in these pampering digs will spread out in nearly 1,000 square feet of space. The decor will have a fresh, contemporary style, and the suite will offer custom-made furnishings, the line’s Prestige Tranquility Bed, a newly renovated master bath with a lavish, oversized shower, a guest half-bath and a private teak verandah.

For those who wish to sail on a James Beard Foundation Culinary cruise that calls at Gijón, Windstar Cruises has two such 10-day Star Legend voyages between Lisbon and Dublin on June 10 and in reverse on August 9. A James Beard-selected host chef will provide two onboard cooking demonstrations, prepare a nightly featured dish and guests will take a local market trip or hosted culinary outing. These culinary cruises also include complimentary pre-dinner wine tastings with cheese and tapas daily; two food & wine-themed shore excursions; a regional cooking demonstration at a chateau in Bordeaux, France; an onboard fado performance in Porto; as well as an expert wine specialist onboard to assist guests.

A good place to begin exploring Gijón is Santa Catalina Hill, graced by “Eulogy of the Horizon” by Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida. It’s a good selfie spot or you can simply admire the views. We recommend strolling through Cimadevilla, Gijón’s traditional fishing quarter. Streets between San Lorenzo Beach and the marina are home to old fisherman’s houses, mansions and Roman ruins. The beach itself can be crowded, but it’s authentic with mostly Spanish beachgoers and cute, striped tents.

Must-see Gijón attractions are the Baroque-styled Palace of Revillagigedo and Collegiate Church of San Juan Bautista, home to an International Arts Center. Plaza Mayor has lovely porticoes and a historic town hall while Jovellanos Square is home to a museum and birth home of Gaspar Melchor Jovellanos, a famous local politician and writer. Did you know Asturians have Celtic roots? For something a bit different, cruisers can tour Gijón’s International Bagpipe Museum.

Those seeking to purchase local goods as gifts should visit the Ecological and Crafts Market of Gijón or such shopping streets as Corrida, San Bernardo, Los Moros and Covadonga, to name just a few. Farther beyond Gijón is Oviedo, the regional capital, and the Picos de Europa National Park with hiking trails and a funicular.

For lunch, local dishes to try include Fabada asturiana, a traditional stew made from white beans and pork or, alternatively, Caldereta, a stew of fresh fish, crabs, tomatoes and onions with a touch of white wine and cognac. You can also try Gijón’s specialty drink, “sidra” or Spanish hard cider (a low-alcohol drink). Windstar’s Asturian Cider Tour includes cider factory and apple orchard visits, cider tasting and an “espicha,” informal lunch.

During 2017, Crystal Cruises’ 922-passenger Crystal Symphony calls at Gijón on an 11-day “Vintages and Vistas” cruise roundtrip from Lisbon on October 10. In addition, Seabourn Cruise Line’s 450-passenger Seabourn Quest visits Gijon during a 16-day “Epicurean Quest of Western Europe” from Barcelona to Dover on April 15, 2017. 

The Palace of Revillagigedo is seen on Plaza del Marques in Gijón, Spain. The Baroque-style palace is now home to the city’s International Art Center.
The Palace of Revillagigedo is seen on Plaza del Marques in Gijón, Spain. The Baroque-style palace is now home to the city’s International Art Center.

Family Cruising to Gijón

Increasingly, grandparents accustomed to traveling on luxury lines are reserving a top suite on an amenity-laden big ship so they can take the entire family, including siblings, their adult children, their spouses and, possibly, also grandchildren or great grandchildren. Big ships have several pluses, including diverse stateroom categories, dining, activities and entertainment. They also typically boast robust children’s and teen programs.

During 2016, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Star will arrive at Gijon during a 14-day cruise from Copenhagen to Barcelona, departing September 28. The ship’s top digs? That’s the three-bedroom Garden Villa with butler service on Deck 14. New next year, Royal Caribbean International’s Ovation of the Seas, the latest razzle-dazzle, Quantum-class ship, will call at Gijón on a seven-night cruise roundtrip from Southampton, England, departing April 22, and a week-long Southampton-to-Barcelona voyage departing May 3. The ship boasts simulated skydiving, zip lines, bumper cars, waterslides, multiple specialty restaurants and modular family accommodations.

If grandparents are accustomed to spreading out, Ovation of the Seas’ two-deck-high Royal Loft Suite has a spacious living area, indoor and outdoor dining areas, a dry bar, separate bedroom and media room, and a private balcony with dual whirlpool tub, an LED TV and entertainment area. This 1,640-square-foot suite can double as “base” for family group events and gatherings; it sleeps up to six, and by adding an adjacent Crown Loft Suite, it can accommodate up to 10.

Starting in May 2016, Royal Caribbean will introduce new Royal Suite Class perks for those in suite accommodations (except junior suites) onboard Allure of the Seas, Anthem of the Seas, Harmony of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas, Ovation of the Seas and Quantum of the Seas. Among the many new pampering perks in Star Class suites like the Royal Loft Suite are “Royal Genies” — personal assistants trained by the British Butler Institute.

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