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Norwegian Escape from Norwegian Cruise Lines off the coast of Santorini.

Explore the Mediterranean with Norwegian Cruise Line

Lois Donaldson explores the wines and wonder of the Mediterranean with one of the world’s most celebrated cruise lines.

Perhaps the most celebrated American person of letters, Samuel Langhorne Clemens – Mark Twain, to his many admirers – once wrote “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” His words have taken on even greater significance – urgency, even – for many of us, now the world has opened up once more.

Because after so long dreaming of faraway places, a week cruising the Mediterranean is a wonderful reminder of how alive travel makes you feel. Waking up every day with the freedom to follow your curiosity, without having to be anywhere, do anything, or satisfy anyone else… it feels not so much like dreaming, as it does the stuff dreams are made of.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s (NCL) unique Freestyle Cruising concept is made to satisfy this craving – you can design every day however you wish to. Stepping aboard Norwegian Escape, one of NCL’s largest cruise ships, that sense of freedom immediately begins to make its presence felt, and one understands why the company has been awarded Europe’s leading cruise line 14 years’ running by World Travel Awards.

After all, everything you would find in a world-class city is on board. Fine dining, casual cafes, world class entertainment, as well as life’s luxuries like a day spa, fully equipped gym and private beach club – all delivered with amazing personalised service. Before you even make landfall, you’re on a high.

Then, with every day offering a brand-new destination for you to explore, the possibilities of Freestyle Cruising begin to feel endless. Especially with the itinerary on offer: Rome to Dubrovnik (or Santorini, on selected cruises), followed by Corfu, then a return to Rome from Croatia via Messina, Naples, and Livorno. It’s history unfolding on the high seas, as we move amidst the thousands of years of culture that have accumulated along the Mediterranean’s shores.

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Norwegian Cruise Lines will take you to the enchanting streets of Messina, Sicily.

The enchanting stepped streets of Messina, Sicily.

Norwegian Cruise Line offers a stunning view of Dubrovnik.

The stunning view of Dubrovnik from the Norwegian Escape’s deck.


Food for thought

On ship, it’s not simply the horizon and the nearby shore that offer freedom. Before you’ve gone anywhere, the world’s flavours are there to explore: dinner or lunch that first night aboard Norwegian Escape dazzles, with options in abundance. There’s no set dining time or dining room, and you choose where and when you eat depending on how the mood takes you, across 25 different restaurants or cafes.

“Fresh food is always people’s number one concern on a cruise, so we’ve designed the ship around delivering this” says General Manager Kivanc Ukar of Norwegian Escape. Unlike many other cruise lines that service all restaurants from a central galley, each restaurant on NCL has its own dedicated kitchen, ensuring the food is always fresh and excellent quality.

NCL also offers Waterfront dining, a concept it pioneered, with restaurants facing out onto an outdoor promenade that brings you closer to the ocean. It’s a notion that will only get more immersive with NCL’s next era of ships, the Prima class, which take waterfront dining to the next level with ocean boulevards that wrap around the ships’ entirety.

One night we are treated to a dinner by guest chef Ashley Brenerman, of US MasterChef fame. Ashley is also an ambassador for Certified Angus Beef, so the setting of specialty restaurant Cagney’s Steakhouse was perfect for a ‘celebration of steak’ dinner. The rib-eye cap – the jewel in the beef crown – was a highlight, perfectly matched with a Gran Reserve Tempranillo from Rioja Spain. The service is as you might expect in any hatted restaurant, choreographed with all the precision of a synchronised swimming team.

The historic Salumaria Con Cucina Roscioli restaurant and deli in Rome.

The historic Salumaria Con Cucina Roscioli restaurant and deli in the heart of Rome.

Bonci Pizza in Rome.

The ‘agricultural art’ of Bonci Pizza, Rome.

Being the Mediterranean, the dining adventures continue onshore. There is so much great food to enjoy in Italy, with true culinary experiences often hidden down alleyways, in side doors, and below the counter. “If you want to find great Italian gelato, it’s the one that is not on display,” says Cristiano, our food tour guide. “It’s not full of vibrant colours and pumped up with air. It’s only love, attention to detail and respect for ingredients.” I’ll take a double scoop of that!


A taste of history

Now in its sixth year, NCL’s ‘Meet the Winemaker’ series has expanded to Europe with a prestigious line-up of winemakers and wines on select cruises, such as the Italy and the Greek Isles itinerary we experienced. From meet and greets to masterclasses and wine matched dinners, you get the chance to get up close and personal with some of the world’s most accomplished winemakers.

Ours was hosted by 8th-generation winemaker Antonio Hidalgo, of Spain’s family-owned Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana. Antonio hosted a series of wine masterclasses in The Cellar, sharing his personal wine collection and passion for wine “I always wanted to be a winemaker,” he told us. “All my life has been around wine; drinking, harvesting and doing everything. It’s like there is something inside you and it’s your soul. If you are not around wine, you are missing something.”

Antonio also introduced us to the acquired taste of sherry. In 2010, Australia changed the name of sherry to Apera – a play on the word aperitif. Just as Champagne must come from the Champagne region in France, sherry must technically come from the ‘sherry triangle’ near the Jerez region of Spain. While sherry in Australia has the unfortunate image of something your grandma would enjoy as a nightcap, it is gaining a certain momentum with brands like Seppeltsfield leading the Apera resurgence.

In Spain, sherry has always been a big deal, and is regularly matched with meals in place of table wine: a fact endorsed by renowned wine writer and critic, Jancis Robinson, who has said that “Hidalgo’s La Gitana has long been one of the most reliable and true manzanilla sherries, almost waterwhite, bone dry, tangy wine from Andalucía that is made to be drunk as though it were a white table wine.” Nonetheless, it remains an acquired taste – it might be a while before we’re replacing Chardonnay with a sherry at dinner.

Cinque Terra fishing village of Vernazza

The Cinque Terre fishing village of Vernazza, on the Italian Riviera.

The coloured houses of Cinque Terra coastline.

The coloured houses of Cinque Terre coastline.

With Italy itself boasting 700 different grape varieties there are plenty of wine adventures to be had in the regions. Most traditional high quality Italian wines are produced in limited D.O.C or Denominazione di Origine Controllata areas, according to very strict regulations.

A wine with this mark on the label has been produced in a specified area, and aged and bottled in accordance with existing regulations under strict control by the Italian Authorities. A label with DOCG has an additional garantita, or quality guarantee, by the Italian government. Indeed, there are more rules for wine and food than there are road rules in Italy, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s driven there.

When it comes to Italian wine, we tend to imagine the picturesque rolling hills of Tuscany, however there are some truly unique wine regions nestled along the Italian coast which were well worth the visit. In the north, on the Italian Riviera, you’ll find the world heritage villages and wines of DOC Cinque Terra. The five small villages of coloured houses appear suspended from the side of the cliff, overlooked by terraced vineyards on very narrow and rocky steep terrain. One can imagine it looking very much the same, 500 years ago and more.

Tasting from the barrel at Palari Wines, Sicily.

Tasting from the barrel inside the 18th century villa of Salvatore Garaci at Palari Wines, just outside Sicily.

Organic Sorrentino Rosé made from grapes in Naples.

Toasting the day with an organic Sorrentino Rosé, crafted from grapes handpicked in the hills outside Naples.

Growing and harvesting grapes on these slippery slopes takes some bravery and hard work, as all cultivation is done by hand – just as it was in centuries past. The namesake wine is a white wine made primarily from the native grapes of Bosco, namely Albarola and some Vermentino. Imagine the aroma of freshly caught and fried calamari fritti filling the medieval streets of these tiny villages – rest assured, the dish is an absolute knockout with the local vino.

Further south along the Amalfi coast and in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius is the Campania wine region, home to 15 different wine DOCs. Many of the grapes are indigenous to the area, with Fiano perhaps the one most familiar to Australian wine lovers. The Amalfi coast is the triple threat: it is spectacularly beautiful, the wines are deliciously unique, and it is the birthplace of many Italian cuisines.


Appetising excursions

Stepping ashore and into another world and culture is one of the big drawcards of cruising, as aficionados can tell you. NCL offer a series of ‘go local’ shore excursions which take you beyond the iconic scenery of your destination region, and into the artisanal heart of its countryside.

Aromatic tomatoes, fragrant lemons, mozzarella from cow and buffalo milk, pasta and fish... the rich agricultural economy of Italy shapes the landscape and the experiences. In the hills of Sorrento, we visited a ninth-generation olive oil and mozzarella producer, Il Turuziello, where making cheese is a family affair. Benedetto, the head of the family, supplies the 3 Michelin Star restaurants in the area with his delicious mozzarella, made fresh every morning.

Nearby, lemon farmer Eugenio and his family give us a wonderful afternoon touring their lemon groves, followed by a delicious lunch prepared by his mother, Maria. This farm has been run by the family for almost 120 years. Seventy per cent of the lemons in the region are used to make limoncello, and we were treated to the freshest we’ve ever tasted. 

As Eugenio declared, “One glass of limoncello makes two people happy, the drinker and the farmer who made it.”

The narrow streets in Old Town, Dubrovnik.

The narrow streets and stairs of the Old Town in Dubrovnik.

Looking down into Old Town, Dubrovnik.

Along the city wall, looking down on the Old Town of Dubrovnik.

From one Old World picture-book to another across the blue of the Mediterranean, the Old Town in Dubrovnik Croatia is like stepping into a fairy-tale, and more beautiful in person than any picture could capture. Its history is perfectly preserved in marble-paved squares and steep cobbled streets, all with magnificent views of the Adriatic Sea.

In keeping with the traditional feel of Dubrovnik, we head to the countryside to visit an ancient stone mill, to make the flour we would knead into bread. The bread bakes slowly under a large, bell-like lid, called a peka, covered with sparkling embers. Fresh, homemade bread, still warm, is torn from the loaf and paired with carved off-the-leg, homesmoked prosciutto and the local wine.

It’s an experience I never imagined having, until I did. And that’s the marvel of cruising.

Because any form of travel brings novelty back into one’s life; new cultures, new foods, new wines, new customs and new landscapes. Perhaps best of all, travel helps you realise you don’t have to limit yourself to one interest — you can have them all.

You can experience a peek into the life of a 15th century Italian winemaker, or a Croatian bread maker. You can see a show, or lay supine in the sun. You can taste the products of more than a millennium of history and culture, eternally new, or sample their latter-day incarnations at an onboard restaurant. The choices are yours to make.

What a wonderful way to reconnect with being human, with oneself, after these last few years. One can almost hear the sea whispering, “Welcome home.”

For more on Norwegian Cruise Line, talk to your travel agent, call 1300 255 200 or visit ncl.com

Words by
Lois Donaldson
Photography by
Lois Donaldson
Published on
1 Dec 2022


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