The Crown Prince cruise ship is a part of Princess Cruises
“Trust me, it’s worth it,” she said. She wasn’t wrong. As the ornate astronomical clock on the square’s 60-ft high bell tower struck 12, we were treated to a spectacular sight. A mechanical angel at the top of the campanile sprang magically to life, hitting its bell with her arm to chime the hour. Then a parade of saintly automata emerged, raising their arms to “bless” the gaping crowd below. Even more delightful was a larger-than-life golden statue of a lion, which raised his majestic head to roar, while a similarly-gilded cockerel comically flapped its wings and crowed three times. It was the undoubted highlight of our day in Messina, a rather charming city which – while not as close as Giardini Naxos to Sicily’s most popular tourist haunt, Taormina – is worth exploring in its own right, as it offers good restaurants and a host of architectural treasures within easy walking distance of its cruise port.
That astronomical clock, for example, dates from 1733 and is said to be the biggest in the world, while the gorgeous marble fountain opposite the bell tower – depicting Orion, legendary founder of Messina – is even older, created in 1553 by a pupil of Michelangelo, the Florentine sculptor Giovanni Montorsoli.
Remarkable stuff. But for me, what was even more remarkable was that, on a 10-day Western Mediterranean cruise aboard Princess Cruises’ 3,000-passenger ship Crown Princess, Messina was one of three ports I’d never visited before.
And that’s really saying something because, in three decades of covering the cruise business, I’ve explored more ports than your average sailor could blow a hornpipe at.
What’s going on? At 113,000 gross tonnage, Crown Princess is no small luxury ship designed to show big-spenders the ports bigger vessels can’t reach.
The astronomical clock in Piazza Del Duomo is one of the highlights of the cruise
On the contrary, this big, affordable ship attracts middle-income travellers, keen to see the world in comfort without breaking the bank.
But the fact is that as cruising has grown in popularity, more and more Britons are taking multiple holidays at sea – so demand for “new” ports is burgeoning.
At the same time, growing concern about over-tourism in headline ports such as Venice, Barcelona, Naples and Dubrovnik is prompting cruise lines to spread the load by staggering arrivals at the world’s most popular ports, and seeking alternative gateways.
Which is why our cruise schedule featured Salerno, a city just along the coast from Naples which – while nowhere near as famous as Napoli – is prized by Italiaphiles for its grand medieval cathedral, which boasts 11th Century bronze doors and a 12th Century bell tower.
A beautiful fountain depicting Orion, the legendary founder of Messina
Even if rubber-necking’s not your thing, there’s joy to be had lunching in Salerno’s atmospheric, trattoria-rich Centro Storico (Old Town), or strolling its lovely, tree-lined promenade – one of the best places in Italy to enjoy sweeping sea views and a bracing blast of ozone.
As Crown Princess made her stately way from Rome to Barcelona, the trend towards the off-track continued.
In the south of France, we dodged the usual `headliners’ of Nice and Villefranche in favour of Toulon, an up-and-coming cruise port endowed with one of the most beautiful harbours in France, its palm tree-studded pavements lined with chic boutiques, aromatic cafés and trendy brasseries.
As France’s main naval base and a major fishing port, Toulon has more to it than your average Riviera resort. It’s worth exploring the old quarter of Le Mourillon, with its narrow winding streets and jewel-bright fishermen’s cottages, and Toulon’s lively markets – stocked with fresh-caught fish, fine French cheeses, soaps and other goodies from the Provençal hinterland – are a sight to behold.
The beautiful cathedral of Messina, Sicily
There were even more fragrant markets – as well as Napoleon’s birthplace, now a museum – to explore in Ajaccio, Corsica, a port which, while not entirely new to me, is relatively rare on big-ship Mediterranean cruise schedules.
And when we called at Dubrovnik, we discovered another approach to avoiding over-tourism – staying late.
With Crown Princess in port until 11 pm, we had plenty of time to avoid the hordes thronging the walled city and escape – via a 20-minute, 40 euro cab ride – to the sleepy fishing village of Cavtat.
Here we explored a picturesque – and, thankfully, uncrowded – coastal path before heading for a waterfront restaurant to enjoy local specialities like Fuzi pasta with tuna, sardines, capers, anchovies and olives, and Pljukanci (hand-rolled pasta) with smoked salmon and pine nuts.
Such adventures ashore gave us and our fellow passengers plenty to talk about over dinner in the ship’s Michelangelo restaurant which – in line with Princess Cruises’ culinary policy – reflected the region we were in; soufflés and crème brulées with lemon madeleines were just the ticket after a day ashore in France, and we celebrated Italian cuisine with a cloud-light layered tiramisu cake which was the best I’ve ever tasted (and I’m a big fan of tiramisu).
A sense of Mediterranean élan also pervades Crown Princess, from the sun-drenched Riviera murals in its Horizon Court café to stunning photographs of Italian landmarks in the Adagio Bar – the most stylish on board, where you can sip a Negroni next to a fountain in an Italianesque outside `courtyard’ and pretend you’re Audrey Hepburn in `Roman Holiday’.
Overall, Crown Princess turned out to be a big ship with a distinctly small-ship feel. And with offbeat itineraries on offer at affordable prices, you’ll find when you get home that – like that comical cockerel on Messina’s campanile – you’ll really have something to crow about.
The Duomo of Messina
Princess Cruises (0344 338 8663/princess.com) is offering a 11-night Grand Mediterranean cruise on Enchanted Princess, sailing on October 3, 2020 from Rome, Italy to Barcelona, Spain.
Ports of call include Kotor (Montenegro), Dubrovnik (Croatia), Athens (Greece), Santorini (Greece), Katakolon (Greece), Corsica (France), and Sete (France).
Cruise-only fare from £1,884 per person (based on two sharing an inside cabin) with complimentary bottle of wine, free speciality dining and $100 onboard spending money per person.
Book by July 1 to get Princess Cruises’ “Three for Free’ offer of bottle of wine, speciality dining and up to $250 onboard spending money.