In the final instalment of her 2016 no-fly Mediterranean jaunt, Johanna Payton tours Sardinia and mainland Italy by cruise ship
I absolutely love Italy. I went to Rimini in the 80s, on my first ever holiday abroad (let’s not go into the malfunctioning plane on the way home), and developed a lifelong passion for the country, the people and the history. Any no-fly holiday that involves seeing Sardinia and mainland Italy by cruise ship is going to be a winner with me.
I’ve already shared the nuts and bolts of our brilliant no-fly MSC cruise from Marseille – and posted on the stop-offs in Majorca and Ibiza. But the highlight of the cruise for me was seeing Sardinia for the first time and spending two spellbinding days in my beloved Italy.
I knew I loved Italy, but there is always more passion to discover
Sardinia is not an island I know much about, but I could see the attraction as soon as we docked in Olbia. This smart, little port is the gateway to the Costa Smeralda, but is often overlooked by tourists on the hunt for a purely beachy break.
It’s an easy walk from the cruise ship terminal to the town (or hop on a free bus) and the gently sloping Corso Umberto is dotted with market stalls selling traditional Sardinian snacks and souvenirs, and pretty boutiques and cafes: we ducked straight into Gap Gelateria for delicious sorbet and ice cream shakes.
Given the August heat, we walked back along the seafront, browsing the art and fashion stalls, before seeking sanctuary in Parco Fausto Noce, a gorgeous park next to the upscale Hotel Martini.
After cooling off under the water sprinklers we took a leisurely stroll around the peaceful green space that runs alongside the canal, packed with water features, tennis courts and a huge playground.
Lunch was next on the agenda and we marched back into town, dipping our toes in the fountain at Piazza Giacomo Matteotti before scoffing local mussels with pane carasau (traditional Sardinian flatbread) at the hipster bar, Tujipa.
More shopping followed, then espressos at a little cafe off the beaten track, on Via Nanni Alessandro, where the owner (who didn’t speak a word of English) forced a guitar upon my partner and had him installed as the entertainment for the next hour.
Luckily, he can play guitar, so all was well.
Back to the ship for a good night’s rest – and a dramatic “sail away” past the island of Tavolara – and we awoke the next morning in Livorno, a bustling city in its own right with great shopping, good cafes and the beautiful Parco Pertini.
But our sights were set a little further up the coast, in Pisa.
Seeing the famous leaning tower was on my bucket list and, having been through the city twice before without experiencing the quirky, tilting landmark, it was third time lucky.
To get to Pisa from the port of Livorno, we caught a shuttle bus into town and walked up to the train station (around 20-25 minutes).
Trains are regular, cheap and only take 12-15 minutes to get to Pisa.
The walk from the train station to the tower is stunning. Pisa is a small city and it was easy to get the lie of the land. We browsed boutiques on the way, loading our bags with goodies from Chocostore, marvelled at the ancient architecture and soaked up the atmosphere in a touristy town full of charm and classic Italian style.
It didn’t take us long to find the main event, crossing the glorious Ponte Di Mezzo to reach the payload.
The tower may be elegant, but it hit us like a ten ton truck: unsurprisingly, it attracts tourists like flies round a honey pot. We managed to navigate our way through the throngs and take the obligatory “comedy” photos, but it’s not a place you can hang out at for long – particularly not if you prefer your historic landmarks with a little bit of tranquility.
We found said peace at a simple pizzeria on Via Cardinale Maffi Pietro: a cute pavement cafe offering great views of the tower, reasonably priced (delicious) pizza and a lots of shade to escape the midday heat.
After lunch we wandered back through town with plenty of time to explore more of the sights, almost spending a small fortune on Prada sunglasses (common sense prevailed) and buying ice-cold Cokes for the train back to Livorno.
And, as if we hadn’t had enough fun and culture, on the final day of our cruise we hit Genoa.
A huge port with an edgy old town, sweet painted houses built into the hillside and a regenerated harbour with a modern feel, Genova has the lot.
I started the day solo, my traveling companions still reeling from Pisa and needing a lie-in.
No shuttle bus was required as the boat docks at the impressive cruise terminal in town. There are sights to see from the off; multiple marinas, a tiny movie museum, a pirate ship…I was trigger happy on the photos.
The aquarium looked fantastic and I was most impressed by the redeveloped waterfront at Porto Antico which boasts a panoramic lift, public outdoor swimming pool with a cocktail bar, ice skating rink, cinema and US-style restaurants (as soon as my son got a whiff of the Old Wild West steak house, he was out of that bunk and down to the port like a shot).
Before meeting the boys for lunchtime burgers, I ventured into the old town, a shady area with narrow alleys and tall buildings that is incredibly easy to get lost in.
Heading uphill, I emerged from the shady streets onto the spacious Piazza de Ferrari and on to Casa di Cristoforo Colombo, a beautiful sightseeing magnet with fairytale towers and a tiny museum.
I just loved Genoa: it has that classic Italian mix of the modern and timeless.
It’s a buzzing town – reminiscent of Marseille in terms of its cultural revival – with endless offerings in the city, plus regular boat trips for sea safaris and leisurely outings to the gorgeous Portofino and the Cinque Terre.
On our way back to the ship, past the intriguing “Biosphere” and the quirky vintage stalls, we stopped for iced mocktails at Tiki Frozen, the perfect chill out location, right on the marina. I decided there and then, sipping on my virgin mojito, that Genoa is a city I want to take a longer holiday in.
That’s just the best thing about a cruise. I knew I loved Italy, but there is always more passion to discover. And a cruise gives you the opportunity to taste a destination – just a nibble – so you know exactly where you’ll go when you’re ready for your next travel feast.
Bring on the autumn!
How to travel to Sardinia and mainland Italy by cruise ship without flying:
If you’d like to visit Sardinia and mainland Italy by cruise ship without flying, read part one of this series to find out more on the MSC Cruises Mediterranean trip from Marseille (via Eurostar)
And part two, a review of stops in Majorca and Ibiza
Words: Johanna Payton for Feet on the Ground
Images: Johanna Payton