“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
Ernest Hemingway’s wise words hold truer than ever for a sea voyage along the coasts of the Western Mediterranean. The allure of the capital cities of history, art and culture in Europe is magnetic – and Hemingway would know! But between these bustling destinations are islands big and small; jewels of the Mediterranean that sparkle no less than the famed cities of mainland Europe.
The coastal chain of islands that envelop the Dalmatian Coast are a cruiser’s dream. Shores of rippled rock emerge dramatically from the Adriatic Sea, rising steeply away from the deeply carved channels of blue.
Stepping onto the island of Hvar feels like reaching another world – and essentially, it is. The dolomite and limestone cliffs of the island are similar to those of its archipelagic siblings, but Hvar is unique in possessing fresh water springs and highly fertile plains. Vineyards, olive groves, orchards and rich fields of lavender flourish here. The forests that cover the steep hillsides are so lush they inspired the ancient Greeks to call the island Piteyeia, derived from “spruce”, and later the Venetian rulers to call it Liesena (based on “wood”).
The northernmost island of Greece has a unique cultural identity that may be even stronger than the rest of the island-speckled country. Known as Kerkyra in Greek, the ethos of the island is rooted in the cultures of the Greek, Venetian, French and British civilizations that ruled here through the ages.
Dating back beyond the days of Odysseus’s shipwreck on the Kerkyran shores, the islanders have fought valiantly through battles and conquests, relying on the fortified castles that dot the landscape. The vibrant capital of Corfu Town, known as a Kastropolis or “castle city” for the two ancient castles that encircle it, was recently declared a UNESCO National Historic Site.
Bay of Kotor, Montenegro
For a country so tiny in size, Montenegro packs a real punch with delightfully friendly locals and awe-inspiring scenery. The legendary Bay of Kotor is essentially the inverse of an island – the cobalt-blue waters of one of the longest bays in the Adriatic Sea stretch more than 25 km inland and are framed by medieval villages at the foot of towering mountain peaks.
The delicate islands within the Boka Kotorska have a bold character of their own, despite their diminutive size, and have drawn many a passing cruiser back for another look. Two of the most intriguing are the round islet of Mamula - covered nearly 90% by a fort that holds a dark history as a WWII concentration camp – and pristine Sveti Đorđe, home to the 12th century monastery of Saint George Benedictine.
More dreamy ports of call: Tracing the Masters of Modern Art on a Mediterranean Cruise
Get up close with Croatia: Croatia Coastal Cruising
Cruise the Mediterranean in style: Star Clippers: Tall Ship Sailing
The contrasting nature of the island of Sicily is evident in the hilltop town of Taormina, perched on steep cliffs beneath the protective volcanic shadow of Mount Etna. The narrow streets wind past a blend of tumbledown ruins and beautifully-restored mansions, personifying the fiercely proud and independent citizens who reside within them. Follow the locals to an opera performance unlike any other at the ancient theatre of Taormina, and don’t leave the islands without sampling an authentic Sicilian cannoli.
Pontine Islands, Italy
The former hideaway of Tyrrhenian pirates is now a sanctuary for Romans escaping the city in favour of sun, sea and sand. This volcanic archipelago is founded the stories of exiled prisoners who were banished here by Caeser Augustus and other Roman rulers.
Now known by some as the “Pearls of the Mediterranean”, the Isole Ponziane are an unspoiled paradise alive with the colours of turquoise bays, purple bougainvillea, snow-white pebbled beaches and pastel fishermen’s grottos converted to cozy cafes. The infinite views, paired with delectable local fare and Italian wine, are a perfect recipe for la dolce vita.