Off the beaten path in the Mediterranean
From the ‘Byzantine Pompeii’ to the world’s smallest town, there’s even more to the Med than meets the eye. These six hidden gems offer a new perspective on an old favourite
While the crowds flock to the more famous Costa Smeralda a little further north, those in the know make their first stop on the Italian island of Sardinia at the historic city of Olbia. With a name meaning ‘happy’ in Greek, this bustling port offers much to smile about, from glorious sandy beaches and an Old Town packed with boutiques and bars to ancient monuments including a castle and Roman ruins. And when you’re ready to check out the millionaire’s playground of the Emerald Coast, the Costa Smeralda Sightseeing shore excursion is the ideal way to do so. Start with a guided tour of glittering Porto Cervo (including time to explore its luxury shops), then head to beautiful Baja Sardinia for sophisticated café culture and unspoilt island views.
Long before the small Greek port of Katakolon grew up to serve the dried fruit trade, this pretty stretch of coast was the harbour for Ancient Olympia. Today, it is still the gateway to the birthplace of the Olympic Games, and fruit is still a major export – though now they prefer to turn it into wine. You can explore facets of both on a visit here, sampling the local vintage at a family-run vineyard, or travelling to the nearby archaeological site of Olympia. Take the Simply Olympia shore excursion to see where the first Olympic torch was lit in 776 BCE (and where it is still lit today) and to walk – or even run – the ancient stadium course, complete with its original starting blocks and other awe-inspiring relics.
A European Capital of Culture in 2020, Rijeka is most famous for hosting Croatia’s biggest annual carnival (on the Sunday before Lent each year). There’s plenty to see and do at any time, however – from exploring the ornate city market and bustling historic centre to climbing the 500-plus steps up to the Trsat district with its imposing 13th-century fortress. The city is also an ideal base for exploring further afield, with nearby highlights including the medieval walled settlement of Hum – recognised by the Guinness World Records as the world’s smallest town – and the stunning Roman ruins in the city of Pula. The Best of Pula shore excursion takes in one of the world’s largest and best-preserved Roman arenas, as well as a nearby olive oil farm.
The Italian Riviera is famed for its climate, beauty and laid-back way of life, with travellers since Byron and Shelley seeking out its charms in villages such as Portofino, and along the rugged Cinque Terre. Less well known is the charming resort of Santa Margherita, even though it is ideally placed for exploring the region, with plenty to offer along its own pretty waterfront and narrow lanes, too. Portofino is just a short bus journey (or scenic cruise) away, while the Cinque Terre shore excursion reveals the splendour of five romantic villages clinging to the cliffs in a nearby national park. Conducted by boat, coach and train, the trip includes unforgettable views of all five villages from the water, and time to explore some them on foot.
An outpost of the Venetian Republic for almost 400 years, the Montenegrin city of Kotor blends Italianate elegance with a rugged Balkan mountain backdrop. The Old Town is one of the best-preserved medieval sites in the Adriatic, and is defined by 5km of defensive walls that offer superb views and can be walked in full on the Hiking Kotor City Walls shore excursion. Venture into the mountains on a sightseeing tour or an off-road jeep safari for further stunning vistas, as well as the chance to sample some local delicacies in a bygone mountain village. Alternatively, take your seat in a high-speed boat and head out to the beautiful Blue Cave, where you can swim in waters that seem to glow with colour on clear and sunny days.
What could be more off the beaten track than a genuine ghost town? Gythion itself is a traditional Greek fishing port, packed with shops, tavernas and authentic old buildings. But its main draw for visitors lies an hour – and several hundred years – away, in the abandoned city of Mystras. Known as the ‘Byzantine Pompeii’ and best discovered on the Mystical Mystras shore excursion, the mountainside settlement rises beyond the ruins of ancient Sparta (where a stop on the tour is also made). It is an eerily well-preserved network of medieval homes, palaces and churches, with rare 14th-century frescos to be found inside some of the grandest. Wide green vistas surround the citadel, and the best views across the site have an unforgettable fairy-tale flavour.