Escape the chilly northern winter with these top winter sun cruise destinations around Europe and North Africa
Azure skies , sparkling seas and an abundance of cultural attractions: it’s not surprising that the southern Mediterranean and the Atlantic Islands are becoming so popular among cruise passengers looking to escape the chilly northern winters. The sunshine isn’t the only attraction, however. Whether you head to the exotic ports of the north African coast or the more familiar charms of the Canary Islands or Madeira, there’s so much to tempt you ashore that a week feels like seven holidays in one.
This year four major cruise lines are offering winter sun voyages from Mediterranean ports to the shores of North Africa and beyond to the islands of the Atlantic Ocean. In addition, others sail from UK ports to the Canaries, or offer fly-cruises which will take you straight to the sun. These new cruises take a leisurely meander south, many of them following the sun to Limassol in Cyprus, where the almond trees will already be in blossom by February, and Valletta, the historic capital of Malta.
A highlight is always the Egyptian port of Alexandria, birthplace of Cleopatra, where in the 19th century rich merchants from around the Mediterranean built grand villas. The glamour’s faded a bit since then, but look past the crumbling pavements and traffic jams and you’ll find a city packed with history and entertainment.
Most people jump ship here for a long day or an overnight excursion to Cairo, visiting the Pyramids, the Sphinx and the stunning Egyptian Museum. Yet Alexandria has a fascinating sightseeing list of its own, top of which is the National Museum of Alexandria, housed in a newly restored wedding-cake of an old villa in the city centre. Its small collection of Greek, Roman and ancient Egyptian objects is fascinating. Another must-see is the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a library that’s also home to several small museums showing watercolours of the city from 100 years ago to more ancient treasures.
If you’re not into archaeology, don’t worry; there’s more to Alexandria than that. Head into the souk (market), and you could be happily lost for hours. Follow your nose to find the spice merchants, then wander through to the alley of the women (Zinqat as Sittat), which is lined with stalls selling everything from glittery beads to big bras. Or join the locals for a stroll in and around Fort of Qaitbay, a 14th-century castle by the sea; the date ice-cream from nearby Azza is delicious.
Most ships head west along the north African coast from here to Tunisia and its colourful capital Tunis. Here, history buffs will love the Bardo Museum, which is jam-packed with fabulous Roman mosaics. Otherwise, head for the medina, the bustling walled old city that’s hardly changed in more than a thousand years. Its winding, narrow lanes are lined with mosques, cafés, palaces and shops, so you could spend several hours exploring and people-watching, not to mention haggling for anything from rugs to perfume.
For easy-to-do, independent excursions outside Tunis, hop on the little train that heads along the coast. The ruins of the ancient city of Carthage are very ruined indeed, but worthwhile if you like rambling among fallen chunks of column, stray mosaics and Corinthian capitals tangled round with wild flowers.
Just 10 minutes further down the line (and another stop on all the tours) is the picturesque seaside village of Sidi Bou Said, full of sugar-cube houses with bright blue doors and shutters. There are a couple of small museums, but most people just settle down in one of its famous cafés to sip sweet mint tea and nibble sticky pastries. My personal favourite is Café Sidi Chabaâne, at the far end of the village down a shady cobbled lane; the view of the Bay of Carthage from its hillside terraces is breathtaking.
3. Marrakech and Tangier
Atmospheric old towns, stunning scenery and some excellent shopping are also high on the list of things to see and do in Morocco. Most people have heard of exotic Marrakech, once the centre of a huge empire and a popular, although extremely long day trip from the ports of Agadir or Casablanca. The old imperial town, still with its walls and gateways, is full of sights that’ll have you snapping away with your camera – minarets and palaces, snake charmers and shady gardens – and all against the background of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains.
The city’s shops are bewildering, but there are some superb bargains to be had if you’re prepared to bargain hard and be ruthless about quality. Top of the list is leatherware; the bags and embroidered pointy slippers come in all the colours of the rainbow and make good presents. The main square, Place Djemaa el Fna, is crowded with spice sellers, another excellent souvenir.
Tangier, on the north coast of Morocco overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar, is at the crossroads between Europe and north Africa, which gives it a unique character. In the 19th century, it inspired some of Europe’s best known artists and writers, and it still has plenty to appeal to visitors once you get beneath the rather grimy surface. The medina, the old town, has some worthwhile sights; check out the Museum of Moroccan Arts and the Museum of Antiquities, both in former palaces.
Compared with the bustle and noise of north Africa, the Canary Islands are charmingly sleepy, but definitely not dull. They’re volcanic, and nowhere is that more obvious than Lanzarote. The scene of the most recent eruptions – in the 1730s and 1824 – is now Timanfaya National Park, and definitely not to be missed. It’s a dramatic landscape of black rock and twisted lava, and it’s still pretty warm underfoot. Even if you don’t eat at the restaurant there, check out their grill: it’s powered by geothermal heat.
The weird and wonderful Cactus Garden, a magical amphitheatre planted with hundreds of cacti in all shapes and sizes, is another of Lanzarote’s quirky sights that shouldn’t be missed. Wine-lovers will want to explore the wine-making area of La Geria; where vines are cultivated in stony pits in the volcanic soil.
5. Gran Canaria
Neighbouring Gran Canaria is home to one of the loveliest towns in the Canaries, Las Palmas. The capital’s historic district has sleepy streets and squares cobbled with volcanic stone, graceful houses with wooden balconies, and lots of beautiful churches. Don’t miss the delightful Columbus’s House (though the famous explorer never actually stayed there) or the array of mummies and more at the Canary Island Museum.
The island is often described as a ‘continent in miniature’, thanks to its variety of scenery and plants. You may not have time to take in all the different landscapes, but you can get a whirlwind tour of its flowers, shrubs and trees at the Botanical Garden, just on the edge of Las Palmas. The city has other natural beauties, particularly Las Canteras beach, a two-mile curve of golden sand with sheltered swimming and great facilities, easily accessible from the dock.
Tenerife is the largest of the Canaries, and its capital, Santa Cruz, is where you’ll be docked. What the town lacks in unmissable sights, it more than makes up for with the number of shops of all kinds – though the shoes and other leather goods are particularly worth buying. If you want history, head for nearby La Laguna, the atmospheric former capital with plenty of characterful old houses and churches.
Anaga Rural Park, also barely a stone’s throw from the capital, has some superb tucked-away beaches. For real watery fun, though, there’s a brand-new water theme park, Siam Park, at Playa de las Americas in the south. It’s an hour and a half from the dock by car but well worth it if your ship is in port for a whole day.
Another local giant is Mount Teide, a volcanic peak in the heart of the island in its own national park. It’s the highest mountain in Spain and often has a dusting of snow on its summit, which means you get the chance to throw snowballs and lie on a beach in the same day.
Lush Madeira is another place that’s been attracting holidaymakers for many years. Wander the sleepy lanes of its charming capital Funchal and look in at the Madeira Story Centre, which explains the island’s history with plenty of interactive displays and multimedia exhibits. From Funchal, take the cable car up to Monte with its beautiful old palaces, tropical garden and old-world grace.
Getting back down to Funchal the traditional way is less graceful – but lots of fun! Hop into a wicker sledge, then its two drivers steer you expertly down the hill for the exhilarating two-and-a-half-mile ride to town. It’s bumpy and a little hair-raising at times, but you certainly won’t forget it.
And if you just want to sit somewhere peaceful and soak up the winter sun? It’s what travellers to north Africa, the Canary Islands and Madeira have been doing for years and years on cafe terraces, beaches and natural beauty spots. If you don’t see all the sights on your first cruise, there’s always next time.
As for my personal favourite…‘I have a soft spot for Lanzarote, with so many happy memories from my visits there. Favourite times and places? Eating freshly caught and cooked octopus (it’s delicious, trust me!) in a tiny fishing village in the north; lazing around on handkerchief-sized beaches (and knowing it was awful weather back home); and learning all the things you can do with volcanoes, like building your house in a lava field. Though Sidi Bou Said, outside Tunis, is also a special place, especially if you get away from the main street.’