As the size of cruise ships becomes biggerand bigger—so large they've had toexpand the Panama Canal—enthusiasmfor small cruise ships continues unabated.For some they're the perfect choice: You sail intosmall ports and step directly from a gangway into aforeign culture, without banging elbows with 2000other big-ship passengers.
Windstar Cruises' (800-258-7245; www.windstarcruises.com) largest ship, the Wind Surf, is only 617feet long and carries 308 passengers; their other shipsstretch a mere 440 feet and carry just 148 passengers.The absence of crowds gives you a sense of privacycreated by the ship's small size and personal service.Wind Surf had only one empty cabin on a recent cruisefrom Rome to Barcelona, but the ship itself oftenappeared empty because everyone was off exploring.The expense of guided tours may not be necessarywhen the port-of-call is virtually at your feet.
Our cruise first docked at Portoferraio on theisland of Elba where Napoleon was exiled in 1814,with time to visit the villa from which he escaped todirect the battle of Waterloo. At the next port,Portofino, a boat excursion to the one-time fishingvillage of Camogli (www.camogliedintorni.it/en)brings passengers to the 12th-century church ofSanta Maria Assunta (www.santamariaassunta.org)whose inner walls were once covered in one-inch-thickgold. The castle beside it was built to protectthe village against Corsican pirates who had strippedthe gold from one of the walls. Our excursion boatsailed past little San Fruttuoso with its 10th-centurychurch and 13th-century abbey.
Ports to explore after Italy include Monte Carlo.A short walk leads to the Monaco Cathedral andbeyond, the grand Prince's Palace of Monaco(www.palais.mc). It's a longer hike to the casino(www.casinomontecarlo.com/en), so you'll want acab, and men will need a jacket and tie.
The two French towns that follow are a treat: St.Tropez, one of the glamour spots on the FrenchRiviera, and Sète, once a Roman town, now France'smost important fishing port. St. Tropez arrives as ablaze of color; its "special light" has attracted artistsfor centuries, and their contemporary work is prominently—and inexpensively—displayed around thejetty. Above the city is the Citadel, the path up passesa marker for the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery,whose reconnaissance plane was shot down off thecoast in 1944.
Passengers hardly need to buy shore excursionsfor those last locations, but Sète offers somethingthat may entice physicians. A 4-hour excursion,which costs about $89 per person, visits the nearbyMontpellier School of Medicine, founded in the 12thcentury. This school is in operation and celebrated its800th birthday in 1990. Sète itself is a great place towander. And those who can tackle the 500 steps thatlead to the villa will also find a memorable littlechapel, Notre Dame La Salette (www.lasalette.cef.fr),which was converted from a ruined fort destroyed byCardinal Richelieu in 1632. Entering this chapel islike stepping into the Middle Ages.
More than Just Transport
Windstar is more than just the vehicle to delightfuldestinations. It has wonderful cuisine and more cheerfulservice than you would expect on cruises of thisprice. Advance bookings for early birds offer up to35% off, and there are superb air fares if you wish tobookend your cruise with hotel stays in Barcelona orRome. Summer rates are less in Rome—we got greatonline prices for the boutique Hotel Barocco (011-39-06-487-2001; www.hotelbarocco.com). They offerfantastic breakfasts, amiable staff, and the perfect location—it's within walking distance to major attractionsand only 50 feet from the Barberini Metro.