Western Mediterranean Cruise: Essential Tips, Ports & NCL Epic Review

Featuring an unbeatable combination of scenery, attractions and activities, the crystal-blue waters of the Western Mediterranean offer one of the best cruise experiences in the world.

With fabulous ports of call, outstanding local food and wine and UNESCO-listed cultural and historic sites, the main challenges are picking the right itinerary and cruise operator for you. 

Plan your perfect cruise with my essential tips for cruising the Western Mediterranean and an honest review of my experience sailing on NCL Epic. To make the most of your time onshore, you’ll find guides to exploring the most popular ports of call in Italy and Spain.

hull of ncl epic cruise ship

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MY MEDITERRANEAN CRUISE ITINERARY

Cruise operator: Norwegian (NCL)

Ship: NCL Epic

Duration: 7 days

Port of embarkation: Barcelona

Other ports of call: Palma de Mallorca, Cagliari, Civitavecchia, Naples, Livorno

Western Mediterranean Cruise Tips & Planning

Get your hands on a good guidebook to help you plan your Western Mediterranean cruise and to make the most of your time on shore. I’m a big fan of Rick Steves and his guide to Mediterranean cruise ports is packed full of useful information. 

Are you a first-time cruiser? Get essential tips for planning your cruise for the first time.

The best time to take a Mediterranean cruise

For optimal weather conditions, the best time to cruise the Mediterranean is from early April to November.

However, unless you are confined to the school holidays, I would avoid the peak season in July and August. Searing Mediterranean heat and jostling crowds are never a good combination. You will also pay more to cruise in these months.

If you cruise the Mediterranean during the winter months there will be fewer crowds and prices will be lower. However, during the winter, many locals close up shop.

I took a Mediterranean Sea cruise in October. Although there was a little rain and wind, the temperature was pleasantly balmy.

outside deck of ncl epic cruise ship with blue sun loungers
Sunny day at sea on Norwegian Epic

Is the Mediterranean Sea rough for cruises?

Cruisers can experience rough seas in the Mediterranean, which tend to be worse in the autumn and winter. However, rough seas in the spring and summer are not unknown.

What is the best cruise along the Western Mediterranean?

There is a Western Mediterranean cruise for everyone.
 
Itineraries typically include ports of call in Spain, France and Italy. Destinations in Portugal (usually Lisbon, Porto and Madeira), Monaco and the Canary Islands (Tenerife, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura) can also be featured.
 
Although mini-cruises are also available, the duration of Mediterranean cruises generally ranges from seven to 14 days.

As there is considerable variety in itinerary lengths, ports of call and types of ship, you will need to do a little homework to pick the cruise that is right for you. Check out the Western Mediterranean cruise itineraries on offer to see which combination of ports is the right one for you.

Also, consider where your cruise starts.

For example, many sail from Barcelona or Civitavecchia. Whilst Barcelona’s cruise terminal is close to the city centre, Civitavecchia is 70 km from Rome. Other embarkation ports include Southampton (UK), Venice, Tenerife and Genoa.

There is a spectrum of ships that sail along the Mediterranean, accommodating all budgets.

These range from mainstream behemoths to smaller ships offering a more intimate experience. Just pick the one that is the right fit for you.

OPERATORS THAT OFFER WESTERN MEDITERRANEAN CRUISES
  • MSC Cruises
  • Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL)
  • Royal Caribbean
  • Celebrity Cruises
  • Costa Cruises
  • Princess Marella
  • P&O Cruises

What should you pack for a Western Mediterranean cruise?

With the exception of the winter months, the weather in the Western Mediterranean is predictably warm. This makes packing easy.

For exploring the ports of call, wear t-shirts with shorts, linen trousers/chinos or skirts. I also like to pack a few easy-to-wear cotton summer dresses.

For cooler days and evenings, pack a jumper or lightweight jacket. Weather in the Mediterranean in April / May or late September / October and be unpredictable; stuff a few more warm layers in your suitcase.

Ditch the stilettos for sensible walking shoes or trainers. And don’t forget your glad rags for any formal evenings on board!

Pack an umbrella or raincoat at any time of year in case of unexpected downpours.

cruise packing checklist cold climate

What type of cabin should you book for a Mediterranean Sea cruise?

Consider booking a balcony cabin when cruising the Western Mediterranean

Part of the appeal of cruising is admiring the scenery as you sail by. And where better to take in the view but on your own private balcony with a glass of the fizzy stuff.

That said, I recommend that you examine your cruise itinerary before booking your cabin. If this is port-intensive and features only one or two days at sea, a balcony stateroom may not be a worthwhile investment.
 
A final cautionary note: not all cruise cabins are equal. Therefore if you don’t want to end up next to the laundry or under the promenade deck, research your cruise cabin before you book.

two chairs and a table on a balcony of a crusie ship cabin on NCL Epic
Balcony on Norwegian Epic

Which side of the cruise ship is best for the Mediterranean?

It shouldn’t matter which side of the cruise ship your cabin is on when sailing the Mediterranean. As most Mediterranean cruises sail at night, there isn’t much land to see.

Western Mediterranean Cruise Ports & Itinerary

This one-week cruise included five ports of call: Palma de Mallorca, Cagliari, Livorno, Civitavecchia and Barcelona.

map of western mediterranean ports on ncl epic cruise
Map of ports of call on Norwegian Epic’s Western Mediterranean cruise

DAY ONE: LEAVING BARCELONA

At 6 pm, NCL Epic released her moorings and set sail for Palma de Mallorca, 112 nautical miles southeast of Barcelona.  

DAY TWO: PALMA DE MALLORA, SPAIN

Historic Palma de Mallorca, the capital city of Spain’s Balearic Islands, is brimming with beauty.

Casco Antiguo, Palma’s elegant old town, is a labyrinth of honey-coloured stone buildings that wraps itself around an awe-inspiring Gothic cathedral. Within the old town, there are magnificent Arab Baths, the last vestige of Medina Mayurqa, the former Islamic city.

One of the reasons to visit Spain is to sample its fabulous food. Whilst you are in Palma, make sure you order an ensaïmada, the island’s tasty pastry.

exterior of cathedral which is one of the things to see in palma de mallorca in one day
Palma Cathedral

What can you do in Palma de Mallorca on a cruise stop?

  • Visit Palma Cathedral
  • Stop by the Arab Baths
  • Snack on an ensaïmada
  • Take a seat by a 600-year-old olive tree
  • Ride on the Soller vintage train
  • Visit Bellver Castle

Where do cruise ships berth in Palma de Mallorca?

NCL Epic berthed at Estacio Maritima, a 45-minute walk to Palma Cathedral.

Cruise shuttle buses and a local bus (No. 1) are also available. Depending on how long you have in port, a hop-on-hop-off bus (HOHO) may be a cost-effective option.

>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUR PALMA HOHO BUS TICKET

Although most ships berth at Estacio Maritima, a few dock at Porto Pí on the western edge of Palma.

How can you get around Palma de Mallorca?

You should not need to use public transport within Palma de Mallorca.  As the main attractions are located within the old town, everything is walkable.  

DAY THREE: CAGLIARI, SARDINIA, ITALY

Sardinia is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean. Situated west of mainland Italy and south of the French island of Corsica, it has a rich history dating back to the Neolithic period and has been home to many civilisations, the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans.

Today’s Cagliari is home to a number of wonderful historical buildings, has a charming marina and is close to the longest beach in Italy.  Further afield, discover more about Sardinia’s mysterious nuraghi at the UNESCO site of Si Nuraxi di Barumni.

panoramic view of Cagliari Italy
Cagliari, Sardinia

What can you do in Cagliari on a cruise stop?

  • Visit Santuario di Bonaria
  • Visit Cattedrale di Santa Maria
  • Admire the views from historic Castello
  • Find out more about the Nuragica civilization at Cittadella dei Musei 
  • Soak up the sun on Poetto Beach
  • Admire pink flamingos in Molentargius Nature Reserve 
  • Try delicious Sardinian food and wine
  • Visit the Neolithic Village of Su Nuraxi near Barumini,

Where do cruise ships berth in Cagliari?

Cruise ships dock at the busy Molo Rinascita.

How can you get around Cagliari?

Molo Rinascita is a 15-minute walk from the town centre. However, be aware that Cagliari has steep hills and traffic around the port is lively.

A better option is the free shuttle bus, provided by The Port Authority of Cagliari, which runs the cruise port to Piazza Matteotti, close to the centre of town. From here, bus number 7 runs up the hill to the Castello district.

DAY FOUR: CIVITAVECCHIA, ITALY

Although Civitavecchia serves as the cruise port for Rome, it is around 80 km from the Italian capital or over an hour’s train journey.  

Civitavecchia Port has an interesting history. It was founded in the 2nd century by the Roman Emperor Trajan, and rebuilt as a fortress in 1537 by Michelangelo.

However, it’s safe to say that not many cruise passengers linger in Civitavecchia. This is an opportunity to take a whistle-stop tour of Rome, explore the wonders of ancient Ostia or visit Lazio’s under-the-radar hilltop towns.

grimacing carved stone head at ostia antica
Ostia Antica
narrow medieval street lined with plant pots
Civita di Bagnoregio
old arched gateway leading into a small park
Tuscania

What can you do in Civitavecchia on a cruise stop?

  • Do Rome in a day
  • Visit the Roman port of Ostia Antica
  • Find out more about the Etruscan civilisation at Tarquinia
  • Visit the ‘dying town’ of Civita di Bagnoregio
  • Relax at Terme della Ficoncella
  • Visit the Etruscan town of Tuscania
  • Take a day trip to Orvieto

Where do cruise ships berth in Civitavecchia?

Cruise ships dock at the Rome Cruise Terminal at Civitavecchia Port of Rome. 

How can you get around Civitavecchia?

Most people don’t linger in Civitavecchia.

The train station is a 20-minute walk from the port. This excellent guide will tell you all that you need to know about getting to and from the Civitavecchia cruise terminal.

If you decide to visit Rome independently, just make sure that you will be able to get back in time before your cruise leaves.

DAY FOUR: NAPLES, ITALY

Naples is Italy in hyperdrive.

Yes; it can be noisy and chaotic. But, equally, it has a rich history and proud culture and it has a spectacular setting on the Bay of Naples, in the shadow of Vesuvius.

Furthermore, it is home to the best pizza in the world.

boats in port of naples that includes naples cruise port with Vesuvius in background

What can you do in Naples on a cruise stop?

  • Join a walking tour of Naples
  • Take a ferry to the island of Capri
  • Visit ancient Pompeii
  • See the skeletons at Herculaneum
  • Shop for limoncello in Sorrento
  • Eat pizza

Where do cruise ships berth in Naples?

Most cruise ships dock at Molo Beverello, the main pier of Stazione Maritima, an easy 10-minute walk from Naples’ historic centre.

How can you get around Naples?

Walking is the easiest way to explore Naples.

To reach places that are further out, your best bet is to take line 1 of the city’s metro system. Municipio is the closest metro station to the cruise terminal.

There is also a hop-on-hop-off (HOHO) bus. There is a bus stop outside the terminal, adjacent to Castel Nuovo.

>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK TICKETS FOR NAPLES HOHO BUS

DAY FIVE: LIVORNO, ITALY

Livorno is the cruise port for the Cinque Terre and Tuscany.

But don’t expect to see a picturesque coastline or the vineyards and rolling hills of Tuscany from your cabin’s balcony. This is very much an industrial port

Although Livorno itself is worthy of a visit, most cruise passengers use this cruise stop as an opportunity to explore the great towns and cities of Tuscany, including Florence, Lucca and Sienna or to explore the Cinque Terre. I went completely left-field and took the chance of visiting the marvellous marble quarries at Carrara.

rolling landscape of tuscany italy with old house
Tuscany’s timeless landscape
group of beautiful buildings in florence of the cathedral the baptistery and bell tower
Florence, Italy
woman on a visit to the Carrara marble quarries
Hat modelling at the Carrara marble quarries

What can you do in Naples on a cruise stop?

  • Visit the great Tuscan cities of Florence, Siena, Pisa or Luca
  • Go wine-tasting in Tuscany
  • Visit the wonderful city of San Gimignano
  • Explore the Cinque Terre
  • Take a jeep tour of the Carrara marble quarries

Where do cruise ships berth in Livorno?

In common with 90% of cruise ships, the Epic docked in the industrial port, near Darsena Calafati and Darsena Petroli. If you are arriving on a smaller ship, you may berth at the cruise terminal at Porto Mercantile which is within walking distance from the town.

How can you get around Livorno?

Not many people linger in Livorno, taking excursions to Tuscany or the Cinque Terre instead.  

But if you do decide to stay in Livorno, shuttle buses will take you from the port to Piazza Grande in the centre of Livorno. From here, the best way to explore the town is on foot.

DAY SIX: AT SEA

A relaxing day at sea and an opportunity to see if my origami skills had improved since my last attempt. They hadn’t.

DAY SEVEN: DISEMBARKATION AT BARCELONA

And just like that, it was over.

Whilst you can see the best of Barcelona in a day, it is well worth lingering in town either before or after your cruise.

The cosmopolitan Catalonia capital city is famous for its art and architecture – notably Antoni Gaudi –  sandy beaches, vibrant nightlife and a world-beating food scene.

ornate pillars rising up to roof of church wit coloured glass
La Sagrada Família, Barcelona

What can you do in Barcelona on a cruise stop?

  • Visit La Sagrada Família, Gaudi’s masterpiece,
  • Visit Barcelona Cathedral
  • Stroll around the Gothic Quarter
  • Walk along La Rambla
  • Lunch in Mercat de la Boqueria
  • Stroll around Port Vell

>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUR SKIP-THE-LINE TICKET FOR LA SAGRADA FAMÍLIA

Where do cruise ships berth in Barcelona?

Most cruise ships dock at the Moll Adossat terminals (Terminals A, B, C and D). Terminal D is the farthest away of the four quays and is approximately 4 km from La Rambla.

Making the journey on foot will take you 25 minutes from Terminal A and 45 minutes from Terminal D. There is also a Cruise Bus.

How can you get around Barcelona?

The easiest way to get around Barcelona is on foot, using the city’s metro system for attractions that are further out.

Barcelona also has a hop-on-hop-off bus. You can choose from a one or two-day ticket and access two routes with stops that include stops in this Barcelona itinerary and more. An audio commentary is available.

>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUR BARCELONA HOHO BUS TICKET


Norwegian Epic Review

Norwegian Epic is a colossal beast.

Launched in 2009, this is currently the largest ship in the NCL fleet and can accommodate 4,100 passengers. Spread over 19 decks, the Epic is 61 meters in height and 329 meters long and weighs 153,000 tonnes.

NCL Epic has 1,724 crew members resulting in a decent passenger: staff ratio. This is reflected in its levels of customer service. More about that later.

With a dark-wood-and-cream colour scheme, like many ships of this size it features a hotel lobby-like central space. However, this space could be put to better use. It was largely occupied by passengers staring slack-jawed at the enormous TV screen showing promotional videos on a loop.

row of beige chairs in front of giant tv screen
Norwegian Epic’s soulless central space

Many of the public areas, especially those near the main dining rooms felt enclosed, verging on the claustrophobic. Sightlines out to sea were restricted and you could be forgiven for forgetting that you were on the ocean.

Navigating around the ship was initially challenging, not helped by poor signposting.

Access from deck 5 to deck 6 (the interior public decks) was via an almost incidental escalator. Across the ship, there were lifts and stairs at aft and stern but none at midship.

Although these aspects were occasionally frustrating, they are not deal-breakers.

EMBARKATION AT BARCELONA CRUISE PORT

Embarkation at Barcelona was flawless.

At the time I travelled (October 2021) pre-boarding Covid lateral flow tests at the port were mandatory. From rocking up at check-in to opening my cabin door, it was 45 minutes.

NCL EPIC CLUB BALCONY CABIN

I had a Club Balcony cabin, which featured a tasteful brown and cream palette.

Let’s start with the elephant in the (state)room; the room’s design. This is the Marmite of cruise ship staterooms. You will either love it or loathe it.

The first thing that strikes you on entering the cabin is its curviness. Reflecting the waves on the sea outside the balcony door, the walls of the cabin gently curve, as does the sofa and the bed.

cruise stateroom with large bed dressed in white linen

I can live with that, but the bathroom is another story.

This is deconstructed bathroom.  As you enter a cabin, the toilet is on one side of the entrance passageway, and one of the longest showers in the world is on the opposite side. Each is enclosed by a sliding frosted-glass door. 

The shower was adequate but could have been more powerful for my liking. Inside the cubicle, there is a washing line.

white shower cubicle with toiletries
Possibly one of the largest shower cubicles on a cruise ship …

Just beyond the toilet and shower is one of the smallest sinks in the world. But the large drawer under the sink for used towels is a good design feature.

small sink
… and possibly one of the smallest sinks in the world

Almost as an afterthought, there’s a naff curtain you can pull across the entrance passageway /bathroom area for privacy.

A decent range of toiletries is provided, including hand soap, shower gel and shampoo in wall-mounted dispensers, a 30ml bottle of lemongrass body lotion and a bar of fragrant soap. There was also a powerful hairdryer.

The large, comfortable bed has good quality linen and plump pillows. There is also a two-seater sofa in the cabin.

Lighting in the cabin is plentiful and thoughtfully placed. That said, it verged on the atmospheric rather than the functional.  

One thing you won’t be short of in an NCL Epic Club Balcony cabin is storage space.

I was still discovering new cupboards in the stateroom two days into the cruise. They were everywhere.

Ditto mirrors. I counted five in total, including two full-length mirrors. It’s a narcissist’s dream.

There are only four plug sockets in the cabin, cunningly concealed beneath the TV. Two of these are US sockets; the other two are European two-pin sockets.

pale cream sofa with 2 purple cushions
table area with tray with glasses and coffee and milk supplies

A small fridge houses the cabin’s mini-bar. There is also an in-stateroom safe.

There is a coffee maker in the room which you can also use to make tea. Coffee and tea supplies are available from the cabin steward on request.

I found the television was most useful as an onboard information system, allowing you to book restaurants and shore excursions.

Disappointingly, the limited movie library isn’t free, each film costing 9.95 USD. The choice of TV channels is limited to a handful of news channels, sports channels, one showing TV shows and a free movie channel. 

The balcony is spacious, accommodating two chairs and a small table.

FOOD AND DRINK

There are 16 bars on NCL Epic from which to choose, each with its own theme.

One of the largest bars is the gloomy O’Sheehan’s Bar and Grill, which is the ship’s Irish pub.

green and gold sign saying o'sheehans bar

My favourite was Shaker’s Martini Bar, which served a range of excellent cocktails. If sipping sake is more your style, you will love the Wasabi Sake Bar.

sign saying shakers martini and champagne bar

Or snuggle up in warm layers at the Ice Bar. Made entirely made of ice, from the bar itself to the glasses, this unique bar the six speciality cocktails.

Norwegian Epic offers 21 dining choices, some of which incur an extra charge.

The quality of food in the main dining rooms was generally good.

ornate spiral crystal chandelier
Crystal chandelier in the main dining room, NCL Epic
tables set in dining room of cruise ship with piano in centre

The food from the buffet service at The Garden Room was acceptable but unexceptional.

2 men serving behind a station at a buffet restaurant
tables and chairs in dining area on a cruise ship

My favourite dining venue was Shanghai’s Noodle Bar & Shanghai’s Chinese Restaurant. Whereas this would be a speciality restaurant on most other cruise lines, it was complimentary on NCL. 

I also ate at La Cucina, one of the ship’s speciality dining options. This was unremarkable and pricey if you don’t have a dining deal.

RELAXING ON DECK

The ship’s busy main deck and swimming pool area are on deck 15.

people enjoying swimming pools on deck of cruise ship norwegian epic

If you are seeking refuge from the hustle and bustle of the main deck area, head for the H2O Spice Zone at the aft of the ship on Deck 16. This adult-only area has a bar, snack bar and a small swimming pool.

There is also a climbing wall, a jogging track and a gym.

ENTERTAINMENT ON MSC SINFONIA

This is where Norwegian Epic excels.

Along with Royal Caribbean, NCL has the reputation for offering the best entertainment at sea today. And the glowing reports are justified.

I am usually so underwhelmed by onboard entertainment that I skip the shows. Not so with Norwegian who put on a dazzling production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert on its theatre’s stage.  

Also on NCL Epic, you can step into the Cavern Club, a recreation of the legendary Liverpool venue where the Beatles performed. This intimate space hosts live music and a Beatles cover band.

sign saying cavern club liverpool
small stage with amps and drum kit with lettering the epic beatles

MSC CUSTOMER SERVICE

This is the jewel in Norwegian’s crown.

Without exception, service onboard the Epic was exemplary. Despite sailing in challenging times – we were still living with the coronavirus pandemic and the cruise industry was cautiously restarting – staff were friendly, courteous and helpful.

This factor alone would persuade me to book with NCL again.

main atrium of ncl epic cruise ship with chandelier and looking down on 2 decks
Main atrium on NCL Epic

Sailing on NCL Epic: Frequently Asked Questions

What is the gratuity on Norwegian Epic?

Norwegian’s gratuity, or tip, varies depending on the type of stateroom you book. In 2021, this fixed service charge started at 15.50 USD per day per person

NCL does not allow you to adjust this amount. However, if you are not satisfied with the service provided you can discuss adjusting this charge with the ship’s Guest Services.

What is the dress code on NCL Epic?

The dress code on-board NCL Epic is casual by day and by night.

However, tank tops for men, flip flops, baseball caps, visors and jeans that are overly faded, with holes or tears and worn below the hips are not permitted in its main dining rooms or speciality restaurants.

For the more formal dining room or in the more upscale speciality restaurants, the dress code is smart casual. For women, this includes trousers or jeans, dresses, skirts and tops. For men, this means jeans or trousers with a collared shirt and closed-toed shoes

Who can you expect your fellow passengers to be on Norwegian Epic?

The passengers on this NCL Epic cruise were a cosmopolitan bunch of all ages and from all walks of life.

What Was It Like as a Single Traveller on NCL Epic?

This Western Mediterranean cruise on NCL Epic is an excellent solo travel experience, especially if you are travelling alone for the first time.

Cruising alone is a fabulous choice for solo travellers.

Cruises are very social environments with plenty of opportunities to meet other travellers. However, it’s also easy to be alone if that’s your preference.
 
The ship has lots of organised activities during the day and entertainment laid on at night. It’s entirely up to you if you want to participate.
 
Historically, the downside of cruising as a solo traveller has been its cost. The absence of single cruise cabins and single supplements approaching 100 per cent have penalised those travelling alone.

Norwegian Cruise Line has led the charge in the introduction of stylish single cruise cabins. Rebranding them as ‘Studio Cabins’, they are clustered together and include an exclusive singles lounge.

lounge area on cruise ship for solo travellers
Studio Lounge for solo travellers on NCL Epic

Should You Take a Western Mediterranean Cruise on Norwegian Epic?

If you are lucky, there are some great deals to be had with Norwegian.

I paid less than £1000 for the sole occupation of a Club Balcony Cabin for this Western Mediterranean cruise on NCL Epic. A drinks package, 50 USD off each shore excursion and 280 USD onboard credit were thrown in for good measure.

By any stretch of the imagination, this is astonishing value, affordable luxury travel at its best. My one niggle is that bottled water is not included in the drinks package, which feels a little cynical.

This was a fantastic itinerary, even for someone like myself who has visited Spain and Italy on multiple occasions. However, this is a port-intensive itinerary and if you are someone who relishes days at sea it may not be right for you.

NCL Epic is a handsome ship. Although some of her design aspects were frustrating, these would not deter me from booking a cruise on her again.

But ultimately, it is the first-class customer service that will tempt me to book another cruise with Norwegian.