Visiting French ports on the Mediterranean by cruise ship (Sep 14-24, 2022)
The experience of traveling by cruise ship and the advantages/disadvantages of visiting this way rather than driving or taking trains and staying in hotels.
I’ve been to Paris several times in the past as a tourist and to visit my cousins and grandmother, but this trip was my first visit to the south of France. Our cruise was the Iconic Western Mediterranean on Viking Sky which is a relatively small ship compared to the mega cruise ships that also stop in French Med. ports. It was a 7 night cruise starting with 3 nights in Italian ports, 1 night at Monaco, 1 night at Marseille, and 1 night at Sete, ending in Tarragona, Spain for 1 night. My husband and I chose this itinerary because I’d never been to any of these places and had never been on a cruise before. It was also a special trip after 3 years of not visiting Europe due to COVID restrictions and a milestone birthday.
We chose Viking for several reasons:
- smaller size ship
- veranda stateroom
- 18 and older only (no kids)
- programming focus on locations over partying and entertainment (no casino)
- reviews said their food was above average for cruises and reflected the local cuisines
- the cost included all food and house wines/beer, gratuities, and several shore excursions
- shore excursions seemed to offer a good mix of guided tours and time on our own
- Viking was more reasonably priced than the luxury small ship lines that visit French ports (Seabourn, Windstar, Oceania)
Pros and cons of traveling by ship rather than car/train and staying in hotels
- getting to visit so many different places in one week
- simpler logistics – didn’t have to book separate hotels and transportation between locations; unpack once for the whole trip
- really nice stateroom and service was excellent
- always having sea views from our veranda
- consistency of services and easy availability of food
- access to pools, spa, port and history lectures, entertainment
- variety of shore excursions
- on-board medical center
- it cost about 50% more than a previous trip to Paris in May 2019 (staying in a nice hotel near the Pantheon) for the same amount of time, and we had to pay in full nearly a year before we travelled
- too little time at each location; being so restricted by the cruise ship’s schedule – if you like a place you can’t extend your visit; we didn’t get a real feel for a place – rather superficial visits; we’re usually more adventurous when we travel on our own
- we felt detached from each place we visited by not staying in a hotel
- some ports were not close to the places we visited and we had to rely on shore excursions or shuttles to travel from the ship (you couldn’t just walk off the ship and be somewhere you wanted to visit)
- tours we pre-planned on our own for some ports didn’t work out because of logistics beyond our control (didn’t arrive to the location on time, or we had to leave sooner than expected for transportation back to the ship)
- the food was not always as good as advertised (salty food made my ankles swell which never happens to me, fatty or tough meat sometimes)
- we usually sailed when it was dark and were too far from land to see much except lights – Google maps showed me where we were, so I knew what I was (not) seeing
- this didn’t happen to us, but sometimes weather or other conditions can change the itinerary
- we were looking forward to seeing a lot of stars when we were at sea, but the lights on the ship made it difficult to see much
While we’re glad we finally tried a cruise, we discovered we didn’t really enjoy the ocean cruising experience enough to want to do it again, but we may try a river cruise in France with CroisiEurope in a few years. A guided tour where we stayed in each place two or more nights might have been a better fit for our travel style, so we’d get to see places with a guide and also have time on our own.
We enjoyed all the locations we visited, but we liked the French places the most of all! We would love to return for a longer visit to several places on the Cote d’Azur, in Provence, Camargue, Occitanie, with a car and stay in hotels and B&Bs.
Favorite places and activities
- Sète – walking around, eating and relaxing
- Saint-Remy-de-Provence market
- Monaco-Ville – walking around, eating and relaxing
- finally seeing a bit of Provencal countryside!
- lunch at Le Mas d’Aigret before visiting Les Baux-de-Provence
- visiting Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole
I know this is technically not France, but it may as well be when you’re making a quick visit! Initially we were scheduled to have to take tender boats from the ship to the port, but we were fortunate to get a great spot next to the yacht marina with a gorgeous view of Monaco and Monte Carlo. We were able to walk off the ship right into town and going through port security coming back.
We took a two hour walking tour in the old town section of Monaco that was included in the cost of our cruise. There were several options to visit other places on the Cote d’Azur for an additional cost, but we wanted to have a leisurely visit rather than just see places from a bus. Also, my husband had been there about 50 years ago when he was in the Navy and he wanted to see how it had changed.
We used the public escalators and elevators in the parking garage under the aquarium to get from the marinat o the street level of the old town. Along the way, our guide told us a lot about Monaco’s history and what we were seeing including the villas of Princess Caroline and Princess Stephanie. We went inside the cathedral and saw Princess Grace’s tomb. The 40th anniversary of her death had just passed, and there were many floral arrangements for her. Our guide took us through some streets past stores and restaurants and ended at the palace where we saw the changing of the guard. There were great views near there down to the marina and across to Monte Carlo on one side of the palace and to Port de Fontvielle on the other side.
After the tour we shopped for souvenirs and were pleasantly surprised that things weren’t any more expensive than in France. We had coffee and pastry (can’t find the name), walked around some more and found a nice quiet place to have lunch outside at Chez Tony. We had moules-frites, a Salade Cesar (which was good, but not the same as the Caesar salads served in the US), two glasses of wine and a bottle of Evian water for 50 euros including service. It was fine, but nothing extraordinary. The prices there were better than at some other busier places nearby.
After lunch we took a slow walk through the Jardins Saint-Martin and enjoyed relaxing on benches taking in the views. This is a beautiful garden with local plants. There are many statues and benches with gorgeous views of the Mediterranean. We had no interest in visiting flashy Monte Carlo and the casino. We spent about 5 hours total in town and then returned to the ship since we had a longer day planned for the next day. The ship didn’t leave until after dark, so we could’ve probably spent up to maybe 10 hours in town.
We were docked in an industrial area and needed to take a shuttle to leave the port and get anywhere. When I originally booked the cruise last year, they offered an excursion from Marseille that I was really excited about, but they didn’t end up offering it on our specific cruise dates. It would have gone to Arles and then to a Camargue ranch to see the native horses and bulls. This is an example of not getting your heart set on a specific excursion they advertise and being flexible since you’re traveling on their schedule.
Instead, we went on an 8-hour guided group excursion booked through Viking led by a local guide. It was called “In the Footsteps of Van Gogh”, but the tour only had a few Van Gogh-connected stops. We boarded the coach at the ship and drove straight to Saint-Remy-de-Provence.. Along the way we saw a glimpse of Marseille from the autoroute. We had about one hour to walk around the town before meeting back at the coach. It happened to be market day and our guide said she could go through the market with us but we had to go to the bathroom and lost track of her and the others. We had headsets that let us hear her talking, but we had no idea where she was, so we just went around the market by ourselves. We didn’t see much of the town itself, but we really enjoyed shopping in the market and I got to practice my French with the vendors! We had a great time and wished we could’ve stayed longer.
Next we drove to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, an asylum where Van Gogh was a voluntary patient after suffering several breakdowns. A former monastery, it is not a large building and there are some gardens. The main attraction is to see Van Gogh’s rooms and the surrounding countryside that he painted.. It was a pleasant stop, but not essential for casual Van Gogh fans.
Next we drove to the historic hilltop village of Les-Baux-de-Provence. But first we had lunch at Mas d’Aigret, a hotel near the base of the hill. The three-course lunch with wine was included in the tour. We ate in their “troglodyte” dining room which had been carved into rock. The food was fresh, local, and delicious and we enjoyed trying wines from the region. After lunch we went to the museum-like Les Baux village and walked around on our own for about one hour. The weather was perfect and views of the valley were beautiful. We enjoyed walking around the village and looking in a few buildings, but didn’t shop since our guide said things there tend to be over-priced.
Overall, it was a very pleasant day and our guide, who was from Marseille, was knowledgeable and interesting. Going on a coach tour takes away the stress of finding places when you’re driving yourself, but you’re also on someone else’s schedule.
This was our favorite day on the entire trip and we both said we could see ourselves living there! Weather was perfect and we had a relaxing day. We had a three-minute coach ride from the ship to the marina entrance where we started a two-hour guided walking tour of the town with a lovely local guide. We walked across canals, went through les Halles de Sete (indoor market), through la Place du Pouffre (park and square), saw l’Église décanale Saint-Louis (mariner’s church), went inside the Cimetiere Marin (cemetery). There were great views of the sea and town from there. We walked down the hill back into town along a quai and saw fishing boats and the “jousting school”. Our guide shared a lot of history and cultural information about Sete – you could tell she loved her town.
After the tour ended, we had coffee at Le Korner at an outdoor table. I got to practice my French again with the waiter there which was really nice. We wanted some pastries, but they didn’t have any, so he said we were welcome to get some at Chocolat Liegeois Au pastry shop down the street and have them with our coffee. My husband Keith speaks just a few words of French but he got adventurous and went there by himself, returning with delicious eclairs and some light buttery cookies. We sat there for an hour or so relaxing and watching people and dogs walk by. Then, we walked around a bit more and looked through a small outdoor antiques market while we looked for a place to have lunch. There were several restaurants along the canal and we settled on Le Black Pearl. Keith had a Salade Cesar (similar to the one in Monaco and nothing like Ceasar salads in the US) and I had a mixed salad and bruschette with grilled fish (not sure what, but very fresh). With two glasses of house wine and service the total was 38 euros. The food was pretty good, the waiter efficient, but not especially friendly. There were probably better places to eat nearby, but this was pleasant and we enjoyed people-watching while we ate. After lunch, we walked around a bit more before heading back to the ship.
With limited time and not knowing our way around, we didn’t venture too far from where we knew where to get back to the marina. I had hoped to at least dip my toes in the Mediterranean while we were there, but we weren’t sure how to get to a beach, so that was the only disappointment of the day.
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