In the first of a series of three features, Johanna Payton reveals how you can take a one week no-fly Mediterranean cruise from Marseille – with a little help from Eurostar and MSC Cruises
One cruise leads to another. It’s a lesson I’m learning.
The seeds for my latest jaunt around the Med were sown just over a year ago when, after sailing on its maiden voyage, I was lucky enough to report on a summer ’15 cruise onboard Anthem of the Seas.
MSC operates continuous routes around the Med that you can join at any port on the itinerary
During a fortnight of no-fly cruising from Southampton, we spent a day in Marseille.
I was bowled over by the cultural mish-mash, the glorious promenade and imposing cathedral high on a hill, the hipster vibe in the old town and the hop-and-a-skip proximity of Provence and the beautiful beaches and stunning scenery around Les Calanques. “Paris on sea,” I thought. And so I booked to go back.
During five sublime autumnal days in the city, I started to think about the possibilities of cruising from Marseille. With Eurostar’s direct service, taking just 6.5 hours from St. Pancras to Marseille’s centrail rail station Saint Charles, setting off on a cruise from the French port seemed a shoe-in for non-flyers.
But when I started to search for a trip, I struggled to find routes starting in Marseille with any of the cruise lines I was familiar with.
Then I read about MSC Cruises.
I’d seen the ships in port during last year’s trip, but didn’t know much about them: with headquarters in Geneva, MSC is actually the world’s largest privately owned cruise company and it specialises in Mediterranean holidays.
The website – all in English – was super easy to navigate and I discovered that the company operates continuous routes around the Med you can book to join at any port on the itinerary, spending a minimum of five nights onboard the ship. If the inflexibility of cruising puts you off, and you don’t fancy being stuck on a boat with exactly the same set of passengers for a week, MSC dodges those issues immediately.
One of the routes for summer 2016 passed through Marseille onboard MSC Armonia, a ship that underwent a “stretching” process in 2014 to accommodate new features, including a splash park for children and 200 extra cabins.
I was delighted to find out that, before visiting my beloved Italy, the boat would spend two whole evenings in port (in Majorca and Ibiza) – quite a treat after a continuous stream of afternoon departures on last year’s cruise.
Another plus is that guests are largely from mainland Europe – Italy, France and Germany, mostly. If you prefer to holiday with people who are actually from the countries you’re visiting, this is the way to do it.
And the cost: not in any way astronomical. In fact, I would say it’s eminently affordable. Unlike other cruise lines, MSC still considers my 12-year-old to be a child and our complete cruise price, including the daily service charge, was just under £2,000 – not too shabby when you consider our package was full-board and included entertainment and (optional) formal dining in the main restaurant.
Although I was impressed by Armonia’s onboard offerings, including a “pub”, two pools, a theatre, jacuzzis, spa, gym and casino, I knew the ship wouldn’t be quite as big – or razzmatazzy – as Anthem. But we’d done the mega-boat: this time it was about the destinations, the Mediterranean atmopshere and swerving the three days at sea you must ride out if you sail to the Med from Southampton (as we only had one week at our disposal, the Marseille starting point was a brilliant solution for a no-fly week-long cruise in the sunshine).
The boat – and our lovely cabin, with the world’s comfiest bed – surpassed our expectations. Situated at the back of the boat (aft, if you want the technical term) we had a 10 second walk to a sunbathing terrace at the end of the ship, so we didn’t miss a balcony, and the ship’s movie channel got the thumbs up from our young companion.
We had a large window for amazing ocean views and there was plenty of storage space for three. We’d studied the cabin layout so were expecting a fold out bunk for our boy, but there was plenty of space in the stateroom and the bunk was alongside our generous double bed, not hovering above it.
I must also rave about the food: it is fantastic.
Dining times in the buffet areas are flexible, as you’d expect, with two seatings in the main restaurant. We prefered the buffet-style dining (we’re far too antisocial to sit with strangers) where, each night, there were signature dishes from the ports we’d called at – my favourite being the Sardinian roast fish with pine nuts and black olives.
Due to the Olympic timing of our trip, we enjoyed cheering on Andy Murray and Bradley Wiggins in the White Lion pub, much to the amusement of our fellow passengers (we only encountered one other British couple during the trip) and my son lapped up the arcade, the swimming and the impressive – and expertly timed at under 45-minutes – nightly shows. He’s not one for “joining in” but, if he’d wanted to, there were dedicated kids and teens areas and clubs to enjoy.
There were sail away parties, quizzes, dance classes and live music, of course, but we enjoyed mellow evenings onboard after very busy days – and two fabulous nights – at our ports of call.
From Marseille to Majorca to Ibiza to Olbia to Livorno and to Genoa, this was a dream cruise for party people and culture vultures. People back home asked, via the magic of social media (wifi can be purchased onboard), if we were the youngest passengers on the ship: far from it!
The idea persists that cruises are for retired couples, but today’s cruise guest is much younger and thirstier for adventure than you might expect.
MSC Armonia hosted families who wanted fun in Palma and a beach day in Sardinia; gorgeous 20-somethings eager for a night out to remember (or not) in Ibiza, with lazy days on the Med either side to prepare/recover; and keen explorers who wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa and get lost in the shadowy back streets of Genoa. Gala nights were full of fashion, beautful people lazed by the pool and youngsters devoured the gelato and played for hours in the splash park.
Before we embarked on this, our second cruise, we worried that Anthem would be too tough an act to follow: as you’ll see from the next two pieces in this series, when I’ll tell you more about our Balearic and Italian adventures, our fears were unfounded.
Eurostar journeys either side were simple (although having to get off the train to go through security at Lille on the way home is still irksome), the European vibe onboard the ship was addictive and – bar some tasty swell on our day at sea when some passengers did succumb to sea sickness – it was smooth sailing all the way.
In summer 2017, MSC launches a brand new addition to its fleet: MSC Meraviglia will boast a double-height “indoor promenade”, an outdoor water park, a horizon pool, a big outdoor screen above the main pool area and a state-of-the-art gym. My son bought a Lego set of said ship while we were onboard Armonia and, even in minature, it looks pretty special. Razzmatazz all the way.
With June 2017 routes onboard this new wonder-ship that cover Naples, Malta and Barcelona – and Marseille, where you can start your cruise – I’m wondering if another no-fly Mediterranean adventure may be looming…
See, I told you one cruise leads to another.
How to take a no-fly Mediterranean cruise from Marseille:
To cruise from Marseille without flying, Johanna took Eurostar’s non-stop service from London St. Pancras to Marseille leaving at 7:15am and arriving in Marseille at 2:45pm (local time). The cruise set sail at 6pm.
From Saint Charles train station, it’s best to take a taxi to the cruise terminal (port 4) as it’s a few km out of town – expect to pay €20-25.
If you prefer to take a bus (around €1.50 per person), you can catch the no35 opposite Marseille’s Les Terrasses du Port shopping centre (15 mins walk downhill from the train station), but you’ll still have quite a way to walk to port no4 from the bus stop, so be careful if you have heavy luggage.
On the final morning of the 7-night cruise, the ship docked at 9am in Marseille, with cabin release at 9:30am. Johanna took a taxi back to the station where the large left luggage lockers are €9.50 for 24 hours and easily accommodate three/four suitcases. With the train back to London leaving at 3:30pm, this gave Johanna enough time for a leisurely lunch in Marseille before the train journey home which is direct but involves a security check at Lille where you must leave the train with all luggage and pass through security/UK border control.
Read part two of this series: Majorca and Ibiza
Read part three of this series: Olbia, Pisa and Genoa
Words: Johanna Payton for Feet on the Ground
Images: Johanna Payton