There’s really no better way to explore the Mediterranean islands than by cruise ship, sailing on sparkling seas to explore hidden coves and soak up the sunshine and culture in equal measures, writes travel journalist Lesley Bellew
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There’s one small, sparkling island in the middle of Med that often gets overlooked, so I’m going to wave the flag for Malta!
Malta hits the mark with more than 300 days of sunshine a year and has an exciting underwater world for divers to discover wrecks and caves. The waters are warm and crystal clear so they are also perfect for swimming on those cruise days ashore.
When it comes to history, Malta stands on its own two feet. Visitors can trace 7,000 years of human activity from prehistoric temples, Roman catacombs and medieval towns, as well as being able to walk in the footsteps of the Knights of St John.
Valletta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a masterpiece of baroque architecture with narrow streets and pretty courtyards – all easy to access from the cruise port.
You may remember Malta gained independence in 1964 and the British legacy means motorists drive on the left, there are red letter boxes and phone boxes and beer is sold in pints. Cheers!
It is hard to choose the best Mediterranean islands but I’ll always include Majorca because the lovely town of Palma is so easy to reach from the port.
Leave the ship for a lovely saunter along the palm-lined promenade and past the fabulous marina to see Palma's masterpiece Gothic cathedral La Seu, one of the most impressive examples of Gothic architecture in Spain.
Take a look inside to see the altar designed by Antonio Gaudi and the 1,236-piece rose-stained glass window which throws out a dramatic kaleidoscope of light and colour.
The cathedral rises above Parc de la Mer which hosts concerts, fiestas and beer festivals and in the nearby pedestrianised areas of the old town there are plenty of cafes and bars for relaxed al-fresco treats.
If you love sea and sand, Majorca has 50 beaches to choose from, including Palma’s own sweeping bay which is just beyond the cathedral.
Wine-lovers will also know Majorca was once world-famous for its excellent wines before a vine disease swept across from Europe, via Rioja, in the late 19th century.
The island's industry is now enjoying something of a resurgence and Majorcan winegrowers can now bottle wine of very good quality, helped by the climate, soil conditions and the shelter of the Tramuntana mountains. Many cruise ships offer wine tours which make for an interesting half-day excursion.
Related: Exploring Majorca: an insider’s guide to one of the beautiful Balearic Islands.
Another Spanish island favourite is Ibiza. It’s the best known of the Balearics, mainly for its party scene with top DJs flying in to play in San Antonio and Playa D’en Bossa’s clubs and bars.
The island also has historic and cultural gems such as the UNESCO-listed Old Quarter of Ibiza Town which is perfect for exploring. Further along by the waterfront grab a beer, stop for seafood or shop at designer boutiques – whatever your pleasure, Ibiza has it all.
Ibiza’s beaches are truly fabulous, from wide crescents of sand with clear, shallow waters to idyllic coves backed by pine-clad hills – and many are within easy reach of the port.
If you want to see more of the island, tours often include the Salinas salt flats where the island’s locals once made a living selling the ‘white gold’. There are traditional towns such as San Jose with whitewashed buildings and cobbled streets to the bohemian village of San Carlos.
If you were into 60s flower power you will remember San Carlos was one of the original meeting place for hippies. It still has a ‘make love, not war’ vibe and the market sells hand-crafted jewellery, incense, tarot cards and embroidered floor cushions if you are still feeling the love!
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Italy’s alluring islands are also up there with the best and Sicily, just off the toe of the mainland, is the largest of all the Mediterranean islands.
Cruise ships sail into Palmero or Messina and you’ll find the island combines everything Italy has to offer plus island traditions and a long season of sunshine.
Spectacular scenery, architectural wonders and gorgeous beaches have also attracted the elite since it became part of the Grand European Tour and in the 20th century.
D.H. Lawrence, Truman Capote and Cary Grant were regular visitors to glitzy Taormina, a dramatic resort town which is perched 800ft above the Ionian Sea. Here there are dozens of bars, restaurants and boutiques in Corso Umberto, the pedestrianised main thoroughfare.
The town’s ancient Greek theatre was built in 3BC and summer visitors can enjoy opera, ballet and music in this impressive amphitheatre - although views over the sea and snow-capped volcano Mount Etna provide their own drama.
Mount Etna is one of Europe’s highest active volcanoes and can be visited on cruise excursions – or perhaps splash out on a helicopter ride.
For history buffs there is much to see from the Valley of the Temples and Byzantine mosaics at the Cappella Palatina, a former royal chapel in capital city Palermo.
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Sardinia, too, is a glamorous, dreamy island with both ultra-chic resorts and an untamed wilderness of rugged limestone and granite mountains.
It is the second largest island in the Med so you really can get away from it all to laze in emerald bays or discover the dramatic landscape such as the Cape Caccia cliffs and Torralba’s prehistoric stone towers, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Cruise ships tend to sail into Caligari, in the south, a town that can trace its history back to Roman times. Most of the city’s impressive museums and churches can be seen on an easy walk through the walled Castello area’s winding alleys and open piazzas.
Cagliari Botanical Gardens are a real must for garden lovers; they sit at the bottom of the 2AD Roman amphitheatre and are home to masses of Mediterranean plants and trees - but even more interesting are features such as original Roman and Phoenician cisterns within the garden!
However, if you just want to hit the beaches, the sandy shores of Poetto are just 15 minutes from the port.
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I love the clean, clear air of Corsica. It’s an unspoilt gem with a 1,000km coastline and 200 beaches to choose from.
Many people think Corsica is part of Italy but there’s a story to that! The island is marked by a tumultuous history which has created its unique identity.
In 1811, Napoleon Bonaparte, then Napoleon I, made Corsica a department of France. He also moved the capital from Bastia to his hometown of Ajaccio. Well, if you are the emperor you can, so this island is a French island, off the coast of Italy.
Hills and mountains create a dramatic backdrop to the sandy bays and the l'IIe de Beauté (Island of Beauty) enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year with the average summer temperatures at a pleasant 25°C. In the evenings, I’ve watched Mother Nature’s magic as the pink granite mountains and coves ‘blush’ pink in the evening glow.
Ajacccio, where many cruise ships sail in, is on the west of the island and it takes five minutes to walk into town to see the cathedral where Napoleon was baptised and the museum Casa Bonaparte.
My tip, though, for a really fabulous day trip is an early morning motorboat tour from Bonifacio to the Iles Lavessi.
Cruise through the narrow harbour and look up at Bonifacio’s houses hanging on the rock’s edge and sail into the magical Grotte du Sdragonatu and a nearby cave where the movie Guns of Navarone was filmed.
It takes about an hour to get to Iles Lavezzi – it’s an exhilarating journey past geological wonders of limestone strata created over millions of years.
Once on the island, giant granite rocks which look like Henry Moore’s sculptures, smoothed by centuries of erosion, are dotted about above the delightful beaches.
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And so to Greece, offering sunshine and culture by the bucketful. It is impossible to choose the best of so many Greek islands but Corfu is a top cruise call and has more than its fair share of beaches, wildlife and history – and after all, it is believed this is where Odysseus was received on his return from Troy.
British rule has also left its signature on the island and slurping home-made ginger beer alongside the Old Town’s cricket pitch, near the bandstand, is a surreal experience!
Tasting the local food is a real treat and many ships offer culinary walks for tastings of produce including olive-wood smoked ham and spicy ’bourdetto’ - a casserole dish of fish and sweet paprika, served with freshly-baked bread. Wash it down with a citrus ‘koum quat’ liqueur or perhaps try zingy ginger beer ice cream!
If you really can’t resist Zorba the Greek dancing, be sure to watch traditional folklore dances where locals invite guests to participate and smash plates to show appreciation.
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Santorini is the ‘poster boy’ of the Greek islands with the village of Oia’s blue-domed churches, Agios Spyridonas and Anastaeos, being probably the most photographed in Greece.
When you sail into Santorini it is incredible to think that the circular bay was actually a crater formed when a volcano erupted centuries back.
As soon as your ship docks be quick to get ashore before the crowds – and later enjoy quiet walks in the hillside vineyards.
Santorini produces great wines, with grapes benefiting from the fertile, volcanic soil, so find a taverna with a view over the sea and raise a glass to cruise holidays!
At dusk, as the sun goes down over the caldra and the sea turns deep blue, the sky becomes streaked with gold and orange and there can be few more beautiful settings on the planet, let alone Europe.
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Tempted by an ocean cruise to Venice and other ports in the Mediterranean? Find out more here