By Ginger Dingus

Six Mediterranean islands, eight culturally diverse countries and 22 hot August nights. How do you pack so much of Europe into so little time and still wake up each morning feeling fresh and ready to see more? Just add one stunning cruise ship to your travel plans.

Holland America Westerdam docked in Toulon, France

Cruising through the Mediterranean, as we discovered while sailing from Barcelona to Venice, is the only way to go—especially during the height of summer.

Shipshape travels

Foie gras torchon at Rudi's Sel de MerFirst, the ship. Fresh from a multi-million dollar refit, Holland America’s Westerdam looks gorgeous. The April 2017 refurbishments touched many of the 1,964-passenger ship’s (built in 2004) expansive public spaces. My favorite redos include places for wining, dining and being entertained.

When it comes to the cocktail scene, Holland America replaced Westerdam’s nightclub with the arty Gallery Bar. The cushy chairs and sofas are adorned with puffy throw pillows for color. The walls are decorated with dozens of framed paintings, plus the requisite flat screen TVs to amuse sports fans. The drink menu is all about hand-crafted libations created by “King Cocktail,” otherwise known as master mixologist Dale DeGroff. I’ll vouch for his take on a classic margarita.

Anyone who has been cruising recently has probably encountered an onboard restaurant or two overseen by a renowned chef. Crystal Cruises, for example, has Nobu. Oceania has Jacques Pepin. The Westerdam, while in Europe, features Michelin 3-star chef, Jonnie Boer, of the Netherlands. The Boer inspired pop-up restaurant, De Librije, happens once a cruise, offering a five-course tasting menu paired with wine. With two choices per course, the exquisitely presented dishes include lobster with avocado, crispy pork belly, seared bass, miso glazed duck breast and deconstructed apple pie.

Scented soaps in the market in Toulon, FranceAlso, once per cruise is Rudi’s Sel de Mer (sea salt in French), named for Holland America’s master chef, Rudi Sodamin. It’s his contemporary twist on French classics, much of it seafood. Appetizers may be escargots, foie gras torchon (it’s divine) or bouillabaisse. Entrees include Dover sole, Maine lobster, a fresh catch of the day and rack of lamb. Both classy new menus pop up in the ship’s revamped specialty restaurant, the Pinnacle Grill, and both do cost extra.

With the completion of Music Walk, cruisers have the nightly option of three distinctly different music venues—plus the main theater. Walk the walk on Deck 2 between the showroom and the main dining room. Just off the casino, Billboard Onboard showcases two singing piano players who tickle the ivories with their remarkable repertoire of hits. Further along the corridor is B.B. King’s Blues Club where blues and jazz happen in a small theater that doubles as America’s Test Kitchen for port day cooking demos. Near the aft end comes Lincoln Center Stage where a quintet of strings and piano put on a classic and not-so-classic act.

Eclectic shore-side attractions

Bullring in Malaga, SpainBlame it on the generous platter of tapas and the pitcher of sherry. During the ship’s stop in Malaga, I couldn’t get enough of Spain’s iconic flamenco dancers. “It’s the music of the shoes,” commented our guide for the Andalusian Highlights tour. The female dancer’s white shoes were of the large-heeled tap dance variety. Her male partner’s black boots were of soft leather. Together, their dance was an intoxicating blend of tap and Irish folk, as in Riverdance.

Following the flamenco show, our tour moved to another Spanish institution—the bullfight. In this case, we toured Malaga’s bullring and adjoining museum. The ring, which seats 8,000, is still in use. Brightly colored posters out front announced a festival with days of celebrations and bullfighting to begin that very weekend.

A bull, to be qualified for a life-or-death encounter, must be four years old. This detail I learned on a ship’s tour in Cadiz. Bullfighting being a controversial topic, only a handful of us joined the excursion to Los Alburejos Farms, a family-owned establishment where horses and fighting bulls have been bred for generations. Elizabeth, our farm hostess, grew up around the animals on what is now the Domecq family’s weekend retreat. Her grandfather, father, brother and son were all skilled bullfighters who confronted the bulls from horseback. While visiting the farm’s indoor bullring, Elizabeth pointed out photos of such celebrity visitors as Hemingway and a former President of Spain. Our visit ended with tapas (cheese, sausage, chips, olives, omelet squares) and a Domecq-family sherry served on the villa’s shady veranda.

Poster of a flamenco dancer in MalagaOn the island of Palma de Mallorca, I picked up another tidbit at the Majorica pearl factory. These pearls never saw an oyster. They are totally man-made. I dropped into the factory/jewelry shop during a tour to the Caves of Drach (dragon). Deep in the caves, I marveled at a brief, classical concert performed in rowboats (piano included) floating on Europe’s largest underground lake. On my way back above ground, I managed to beat the crowd (600 folks visit per hour) and climb into a boat for a short row across the water.

Moving on to France, my husband and I spent our time in Toulon happily poking around the morning market. Blocks of pedestrian-only streets were packed with locals shopping for fruits, veggies, flowers, fresh fish, clothes and household goods. I found the made-in-Marseille scented soaps irresistible. The fragrant rectangles came in lavender, melon, vanilla and more. Our wanderings eventually led to the Toulon National Maritime Museum. The intricate models of 17th and 18th-century sailing ships kept us captivated for much of the afternoon.

One of Lucca's many towersNext up, Italy. Instead of hopping the bus to crowded Florence from the port of Livorno, we opted for a walking tour of the charming walled city of Lucca. The walls—most still standing and now boasting a parklike hiking/biking trail on the ramparts—were built in the mid-1500s. In those days, Lucca’s silk industry was prospering, and Florence was the prime foe. Today, inside the largely traffic-free walls, narrow streets lead to impressive cathedrals, ancient towers and, of course, outdoor cafes. Having visited Lucca some 20 years ago, I was concerned that it might be modernized beyond recognition. Not to worry. Lucca is as delightful and old world as ever.

While many fellow cruisers chose to end their vacation the following day in Rome, more than 400 of us continued aboard Westerdam. No tears were shed nor bags packed quite yet. The next 10 days revealed totally different ports-of-call in four additional countries—Malta, Greece, Croatia and Montenegro.

Of these, Malta’s island of Gozo astonished us for being extremely arid and dusty. Did I mention the heat, sun and lack of shade? There’s nothing like a first-hand encounter to shatter my illusion of Gozo as a tropical paradise.

Ramparts in Kotor, MontenegroIn sharp contrast, Kotor, Montenegro provided miles of lovely fjord-like landscapes, with steep green hillsides rising from the deep blue waters of the bay. The compact, medieval city of Kotor is ringed by what looks like the Great Wall of China climbing up the cliffsides. Passengers who braved the climb said it took them roughly two hours to reach the top, and “the views were spectacular!”

All great trips must eventually come to an end. Our final port was Venice where our ship docked overnight, giving us ample time to explore one of the most fascinating cities on the planet. Once again, cruising proved to be the only way we could possibly see so much, so comfortably in three weeks’ time.

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