As summer slips away, Australian travellers are looking to Europe for an idyllic mid- year escape to the sun, with leisurely Mediterranean itineraries and classic rivers cruises the order of the season.
Invariably, Italy is sought after, especially Venice, where the city's cruise port near St Mark's Square is a heart-stopping sight. Sicily, sitting at the bottom of Italy's boot-shaped shores, is a rising star, renowned for majestic scenery, a smoking volcano, colourful mafia folklore, mouth- watering cuisine, and tangy limoncello liqueur.
Spain and Portugal are also favourites on the itineraries of both ocean-going and river cruise ships, as is France and Monte Carlo in the tiny principality of Monaco.
The popularity of Mediterranean cruises which include ports in Spain, France, and Italy has seen many cruise lines increase the number of ships sailing there this summer.
Making maiden voyages in June, the world's newest cruise ships - Carnival Breeze, which carries 3600 passengers, and the 4000 passenger MSC Divina - will both be based in Europe throughout the Northern summer, with Barcelona, Dubrovnik in Croatia, Athens, Izmir in Turkey and Venice among featured ports.
Next year shows no waning in Europe's popularity, with the luxury cruise line Seabourn positioning six ships there for summer to take passengers to more than 180 ports. Celebrity Cruises will also have six ships in Europe with ports of call in 25 countries in the region.
- RIVER CRUISING *
On the river front, the popularity of Portugal and Spain's UNESCO World Heritage-listed Douro River Valley has prompted Uniworld to replace Douro Spirit with the Queen Isabel which will be launched next season with more junior suites.
From Portugal's capital Lisbon, this cruise heads north to Porto for abundant port wine cellars and rambling vineyards, and west to the eastern border with Spain for a day-trip to the city of Salamanca. Uniworld also sails along Italy's Po River for the first time with a 13-day cruise that calls at Venice for three days, before less visited ports such as Serravalle (Ravenna) and Polesella (Bologna), and back to Venice where guests disembark to tour Florence and Rome.
- WHY CRUISE THE MED? *
The region offers history and culture, as well as art and architectural feasts, in some of Europe's greatest cities, as well as cruising to sunbaked coastlines and renowned wine growing areas.
Most cruises sail from either Barcelona or Rome (the port at Civitavecchia is almost two hours drive from the Italian capital).
Eastern Mediterranean cruises focus on Greece and its idyllic off-shore islands, as well as Turkey and cities along the Adriatic Sea, particularly Croatia's walled city of Dubrovnik, which is one of the world's hottest destinations.
Cruises in this region usually sail from Venice, Athens or from Istanbul, with great opportunities for country- hopping.
- TOP MED CRUISE PORTS *
Major cruise lines including Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, MSC Cruises, Seabourn, and Silversea, offer 7-14 night cruises around Mediterranean ports.
Some ships cruise year round, while others sail in the busy season from May to October when the weather is warmest.
From Athens, itineraries visit dazzling whitewashed villages found on idyllic islands such as Santorini, Mykonos, Rhodes, and Corfu.
Travellers to Venice will enjoy romantic gondola rides along the Grand Canal, strolls through St Mark's Square, and visits to the island of Murano for hand-blown Venetian glass.
Passengers in Rome will see ancient landmarks such as the Colosseum as well as the much photographed Trevi Fountain, and Vatican City for Michaelangelo's frescoed ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.
Naples in southern Italy gives access to Pompeii and the island of Capri. Further north is Florence and the leaning tower of Pisa.
Marseille is France's gateway to the wine region of Provence, and the French Riviera's glorious beaches.
Barcelona is all about Gaudi architecture, Las Ramblas and the Picasso Museum.
Call at Istanbul for the Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar's mind boggling wares.·For more see carnival.com, celebritycruises.com, hollandamerica.com, msccruises.com.au, royalcaribbean.com.au, seabourn.com and uniworld.com.