What’s the best way to travel across Italy? If you had asked me this question a month ago, I would have suggested driving or hopping in and out of trains in one of the densest railway networks in Europe. But that’s before I discovered a whole new way to see Italy. Instead of jumping from one train station to the other, I sailed in and out of scenic ports. But it wasn’t that easy. I used to be a reluctant ‘cruiser’. However, one cruise adventure changed all that.
A floating Vegas hotel
The cruise ship that looks like a floating Vegas hotelAshwin Rajagopalan
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer size of a large cruise liner. It reminded me of one of those massive Las Vegas hotels where you constantly need a map to navigate through multiple restaurants, bars, retail and entertainment zones that also include a casino. I was on board the Viva, an all-new ship (on her maiden voyage) from Norwegian Cruise Lines with over 1,500 cabins and room for 3,000-plus guests.
The go-karting track on the shipAshwin Rajagopalan
The Viva is almost 300-metre long and is large enough to accommodate a mini-golf area and a go-karting track. The thrill of zooming down a track even as the ship is hitting top speed is a unique thrill.
A mini-Venice without the crowds
The Trieste portAshwin Rajagopalan
This summer has seen Europe grapple with the excesses of tourism. Large crowds at popular destinations like Venice that have prompted governments and policy makers to devise new strategies to prevent overcrowding. It’s not a problem you will encounter at Trieste. It’s about two hours from Venice’s Marco Polo airport and almost a world away. It’s close to the Slovenian border (just 90 minutes from the capital Ljubljana) and was at the centre of a struggle between the Eastern and Western blocs after the Second World War. The city of Trieste became part of Italy in 1954. Trieste was the starting point of the cruise and set the tone for this engaging Italian coastal adventure.
Canal Grande, TriesteAshwin Rajagopalan
Trieste was one of the major cities of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The architecture might remind you of cities like Prague or Budapest. The city’s gelaterias are clear proof that you are in Italy. This charming city is compact and easy to navigate by foot.
Just after the sunset at TriesteAshwin Rajagopalan
The Canal Grande (that was built in the 1750s) is a tiny slice of Venice but there’s no better place to slow it all down than finding a vantage point at a cafe in the city’s major square – Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia. That was my last stop in Trieste before I checked into the comfort of my cabin with a view.
All at sea
A beach view on the shipAshwin Rajagopalan
I’m a restless traveller, and that was one reason I was apprehensive about spending a whole day at sea. An action-packed day changed all that. It helped that I was surrounded by cruise veterans — one of my fellow travellers was on her 60th cruise. Cruise ships like the Viva offer a mix of culinary and entertainment diversions that are usually part of the package. There’s a host of ‘included’ dining options that makes it similar to an all-inclusive holiday resort. I enjoyed an authentic Japanese meal and an American-Italian experience on board and made time to try one of the sustainable cocktails (where the mixologists work with surplus ingredients). My competitive streak came to the fore in an intense trivia battle — the ship hosts trivia team challenges all through the day. One of the high points was the tribute to Fleetwood Mac that featured a fantastic rendition of popular tracks from their best-selling Rumours album. Viva will also feature a production of Beetlejuice, the Tony Award-nominated musical from Tim Burton’s 1988 cult classic.
The Neapolitan Riviera
The Strait of Messina (Stretto di Messina, lat. Fretum Siculum) is the narrow passage between the eastern tip of Sicily and the western tip of CalabriaShutterstock
One of the high points of the cruise was passing through the Strait of Messina, the narrow strait between the eastern tip of Sicily and the western tip of Calabria on the southern part of the Italian mainland, around sunset. This narrow strait leads to the eastern coast of Italy along the Tyrrhenian Sea that brought me to the historic port of Salerno. Almost all roads from Salerno lead to the Amalfi Coast, the road I chose took me around Naples Bay (also known as the Neapolitan Riviera) that was first discovered by the Greeks and then became a preferred holiday destination for ancient Rome’s movers and shakers.
Limoncello for the road
Sorrento, a beautiful town in ItalyAshwin Rajagopalan
My destination was Sorrento, with sweeping views of Naples, Vesuvius (I passed Pompei on my way), and the Isle of Capri. It’s also the southern end of the iconic 80km-long Amalfi drive with the charming town of Positano at the other end. Sorrento is Italy’s limoncello (an Italian lemon-based liqueur) capital and is also well known for its tradition of inlay art. But most of all, it’s the charming ocean views and easy vibe that make it a must-stop along the Amalfi coast.
The narrow alleys of SorrentoAshwin Rajagopalan
Speaking of charming coastal towns, the last two stops –the cruise ports of Civitavecchia and Livorno, took me back to two comfort zones — Rome and Florence. It was an all-new experience to reach these two cities by ship and it’s why I’m no longer a reluctant cruiser.