The appeal is in the numbers: seven days, three countries, 12 European cities and towns, and one room for the duration.
Taking a cruise offers the chance to cover a lot of territory in Europe without the hassle of finding hotels, restaurants and transportation. It's the sampler approach to visiting Europe.
And boy, has it caught on. In 2011, Carnival will return to Europe for its first full season in three years when it debuts the Magic; Princess will add seven new routes and Celebrity will move all four of its Solstice-class ships — including newcomer Silhouette — to Europe for the summer.
The biggest stakeholder remains Royal Caribbean. The cruise line is increasing its European presence from eight to 11 ships next year and will cover 27 countries and 78 ports.
Travelers have caught the European cruise wave. I decided to try it, too, so in May, my husband and I took a seven-day Mediterranean cruise out of Barcelona, Spain, aboard Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas.
For convenience, it's hard to beat the ports in Barcelona. They sit at the end of Las Ramblas, the city's famous boulevard of shops, restaurants and street vendors. Las Ramblas winds through the city's center and leads visitors to most of Barcelona's famous attractions.
After checking in for the cruise, there is time to visit the sights before the late evening departure.
Royal Caribbean also offers pre- and post-cruise tours for extended visits to the city.
Our seven-day sailing included only one day with no port of call. We were smart enough to spend that day relaxing. We knew what awaited — four ports in Italy and one in France, with tours lasting up to 10 hours a day.
I was wide-awake with the sun as our ship glided into Naples.
For our first port of call, we joined a small group private tour, one of three new excursion options offered on Royal Caribbean's European cruises. These tours allow guests to design customized half- or full-day excursions for up to 10 people.
We put that theory to the test immediately when we discovered our Sorrento and Pompeii tour did not include a stop on the Amalfi Coast. Our guide quickly added the detour so we could take photos of the Li Galli islands (home to the Sirens of Homer's "Odyssey") and Postiano. Postcards don't do them justice.
Next up was Le Colline, a lemon, olive and dairy farm in Sorrento. We walked under a canopy of lemon trees, used to make the region's famous lemoncello, which we sampled later. I've never cared for lemoncello, until I tasted the velvety chocolate variety. It just goes to show, chocolate can make almost anything taste great.
After a demonstration in cheese making, we indulged in a sampler's plate that easily could have covered us for lunch. I'll never eat mozzarella again without pining for Sorrento.
That was especially true after our visit to Sorrento's Piazza Tasso. Here my husband and I shared a Caprese salad and salami pizza at a sidewalk cafe. Naturally, we chased it with genuine, creamy gelato — a treat that would become our daily indulgence.
After lunch, we took more windy roads to Pompeii, an ancient civilization buried under ash and pumice when Mount Vesuvius exploded in 79 AD. The city was rediscovered in 1592 and is now 82 percent uncovered.
I'm not much for ruins, but Pompeii blew me away. The detail is exquisite, from the brick ovens, paved streets and underground water pipe system to the graphic fertility icons. Most startling are the plaster casts of two skeletons. The fear expressed in their bodies is palpable, with arms raised to cover their heads and mouths opened to reveal their teeth.
The next morning we disembarked at Civitavecchia and took a 90-minute bus ride to Rome. Raised Catholic, I'd always wanted to see the Vatican, so we signed up for the cruise's Christian Rome excursion.
I had researched the Vatican ad nauseam, leaving our other stop as a pleasant surprise. The Basilica of St. John Lateran was built in 314 A.D. by Emperor Constantine. Highlights include six papal tombs, a gorgeous carved ceiling and an oxidized bronze door depicting the Madonna and Child, whose foot has been touched so often for blessings that the bronze still gleams.
The real gem for Christians is located across the street at the Palace of the Holy Stairs. Twenty-eight marble steps, now overlaid with wood for their protection, are said to be the ones Jesus climbed when brought before Pontius Pilate. Constantine's mother, Helen, reportedly transported the steps from Jerusalem to Rome. Today, believers climb the steps on their knees, saying a prayer on each one.
A second staircase — for those of us who prefer keeping to our feet — leads to the Sancta Sanctorum, once the pope's private chapel. Most noteworthy here are a glass case said to contain a fragment of table from the Last Supper — yes, Helen took this from Jerusalem, too — and the Archeiropoeton ("picture painted without hands") said to be created by an angel.
For our third day in Italy, we opted for an "On Your Own" excursion, where transportation is provided but visitors determine their own itinerary.
First up: Pisa, or more specifically, Piazza del Duomo. I was instantly charmed by a scene straight out of a storybook. The walled square had lush green grass and a cathedral, baptistery and the Leaning Tower constructed of mostly gray marble, white stone and colored marble accents. All three looked surreal. No wonder Italian writer Gabriele d'Annunzio dubbed the square the Field of Miracles.
We spent most of our 45 minutes trying to photograph ourselves "holding up" the tower.
From Pisa, we traveled to Florence, the city of art, leather goods and the author of a book about a puppet named Pinocchio.
We ran into friends early on, who warned us about a four-block line at the Accademia Gallery, home to Michelangelo's statue David. (If you plan to visit, make reservations well in advance.) These friends also introduced us to Luca Misuri, a well-connected tour guide who was a godsend.
Misuri ushered us into Boccadama Ristorante, where we enjoyed a delicious prix fixe menu of salad, lasagna, bread and white wine for 16 euros.
We asked Misuri's advice about places to visit during our almost three-hour stay. He marked the highlights on our map, including a side-alley shop, Vivoli, with perhaps the best gelato in Italy. The chocolate was like creamy fudge in a cup.
We got our David fix by checking out the copy in the outdoor Piazza Signoria — also home to dozens of other statues and the Fountain of Neptune. We wandered to snap photos of the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge. We marveled at the stunning marble and scrollwork facade of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. We paid our respects at the crypts of Galileo, Michelangelo, Machievelli and a host of others at Santa Croce.
Three hours passed too quickly, landing Florence on our must-visit-again list.
Our final stop in Italy brought us to Genoa and a private tour, this time of the quaint Cinque Terre. Here five villages are carved into the hillside along the coast. They are connected by coastal walkways, a train and ferries.
We walked along the Path of Love, named for the love messages carved into rocks, trees and plants. Today, the path also features padlocks that couples hook to fences and rails, then toss the key in the water to symbolize the finality of their love.
Among the padlocks was an occasional combination lock. "Guess they're keeping their options open," my husband quipped.
At the path's end, we boarded a ferry and stopped at Vernazza, where we dined at a sidewalk cafe overlooking the water. We instantly fell in love with two locally produced favorites — a walnut sauce over ravioli and the house white wine.
Vernazza is best known for its Church to Santa Margherita d'Antiochia. But I was more taken with the Sanctuary of Our Lady Regio. Plunked down on the village's main path, this Romanesque sanctuary dates back to 1248 and has only three aisles and a shrine to the Madonna and Child. The sanctuary would have looked out of place — in any place except quaint Cinque Terre.
By our final full day, we were exhausted, but as this was our only stop in France, we ventured ashore once more.
Our group tour took us 90 minutes to Saint-Tropez, a village of pastel-colored buildings and harbor of million-dollar yachts. Saint-Tropez is a favorite French Riviera vacation spot for the rich and famous.
But we were more enthralled with Port Grimaud. The port is nicknamed the Venice of France because homes and business are built on canals, complete with boats and bridges. Kitschy jewelry and apparel shops line the canals, most of the restaurants feature outdoor seating, and boat tours show off the seaside town created by architect Francois Spoerry in the 1960s. A sandy beach is also the ideal spot to rest after a long week.
Our real rest didn't come until evening, back on the ship, as we sat on our stateroom's balcony. The sun sank beneath the horizon, painting the sky a vibrant red and orange.
The first pangs of wistfulness hit, until I remembered what the captain told us earlier in the week.
Next season, the Voyager of the Seas repositions to its new home port in Venice. That means a chance to see three countries and six ports of call over seven days and all from the comfort of one cruise stateroom. Sounds pretty good to me.
IF YOU GO
VOYAGER OF THE SEAS: Despite being launched in 1999, the ship has aged well. It carries up to 3,838 guests, features spacious staterooms and enough public spaces that we never felt crowded. Amenities include a basketball court, rock-climbing wall, nine-hole mini golf course, in-line and ice skating, and spa and fitness center. The Peek-a-Boo Bridge also gives guests a rare look inside the captain"s bridge. Also make time to see the "Ice Odyssey Showtime." Nothing compares to this elaborate ice skating show on a small rink that literally puts the performers right in your face.
Seven-day Mediterranean sailings from Barcelona start at $599. These cruises have five ports of call and replace the Genoa stop with a second French port, Villefranche (Nice). Details: www.royalcaribbean.com; 866-562-7625.
PORT CITY: After checking in, you can spend the day visiting Barcelona"s sights. From most cruise terminals, you will need to take the blue shuttle bus to the Christopher Columbus monument. The cost is 2 euros for a single trip or 3 euros for a same-day round trip. The shuttle departs the monument to return to the terminals every half-hour. Taxis also are available and usually cost about 8 euros to the city center.
EXCURSIONS: On Royal Caribbean, private tours can be pre-ordered with prices based on vehicle and duration. A 9-hour tour with driver and guide for up to 10 people starts at $1,829.
The 10-hour Christian Rome tour with stops at the Vatican and St. John in Lateran Basilica is $190 per adult and $140 per child; admission, guide, transportation and lunch included. The 9 1/2-hour Explore Florence and Pisa On Your Own costs $99 per adult and $66 per child; transportation included. The 8-hour Saint-Tropez with a visit to Port Grimaud costs $149 per adult and $119 per child; transportation, guide and lunch included.
TIPS FOR ITALY: Almost all Italian restaurants have a cover charge of 2-4 euros. In many major cities, including Rome and Florence, a fee of 20 cents to 2 euros is charged for using public restrooms.
Be careful if you purchase from street peddlers who frequent popular tourist cities. The Guardia di Finanza (Financial Police) will fine anyone caught buying counterfeit merchandise from these unlicensed peddlers. Those fines can range from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000.
WHEN IN FLORENCE: If you want an exceptional guide, try Luca Misuri; luca_misurivodafone.it or 011-39-349-600-1650.
For the best gelato, visit Vivoli, Via Isola delle Stinche 7 50122, about a block northwest of the Piazza Santa Croce; www.vivoli.it; 011-39-055-292-334.
Crowds flock to Michelangelo"s David, especially during high season or when a cruise ship is in port, so consider booking your visit in advance for an extra 3 euros; www.firenzemusei.it/00 _english/servizi/index.html or 011-39-055-294-883.