Our usual travel adventures involve nothing but our backpacks and a resolve to immerse ourselves in the culture of the countries we visit. So, we were sceptically intrigued when the opportunity to set sail on the MSC World Europa cruise ship presented itself.
With its colossal size accommodating nearly 7,000 passengers and over 2,000 staff, we questioned whether truly authentic travel experiences were possible on the MSC World Europa, arguably the stereotype of mass tourism.
Filled with curiosity, we embraced this unexpected experiment, interested to discover if the luxurious vessel could deliver the authentic travel experiences that we usually seek out and enjoy from the base of small guest houses.
Can You Have an Authentic Travel Experience on a Cruise Ship?
During our short 7-night Mediterranean cruise on MSC World Europa, we were surprised to discover that authentic travel experiences were achievable. By avoiding organised excursions, we explored 5 cities independently on foot, interacted with local people and enjoyed typical Mediterranean food.
5 Ways to Achieve an Authentic Travel Experience on the MSC World Europa Cruise Ship
By making deliberate choices and exploring with intention, we discovered these 5 basic ways to truly enjoy more authentic travel experiences using the MSC World Europa cruise ship as a base.
1. Research Port Destinations Before you Book
Before making our booking on the MSC World Europa, we carefully researched the port destinations listed on the itineraries to help us choose the right cruise. Crucial factors for us were that:
- Each city port must be an interesting place to visit.
- City centres must be easily accessible from the port either by foot (maximum 30 minutes) or by public transport.
- There must be sufficient time to explore each destination within the allocated period on shore.
These are important factors to consider because cities like Rome are often listed on cruise itineraries. However, from personal experience of visiting Rome, we were aware that Rome is not a port.
In fact, the cruise ships dock at Civitavecchia which is 82 km (1 hour 20-minute drive) away from Rome. If you want to visit Rome on a cruise, a significant amount of time on shore is lost travelling to and from the city and the option of independent travel becomes more difficult.
From the MSC cruises available, we opted for a 7-night Mediterranean cruise departing from Marseille in the South of France. Thanks to our online research at home, we established that each port met the criteria listed above. We could access each of the city centres independently from the port on foot and had enough time to visit each destination without feeling hurried.
For information, here is the itinerary for our voyage aboard the MSC World Europa cruise ship:
|Hours On Land
|DAY AT SEA
2. Avoid Organised Tours
We found that one of the best ways to enjoy authentic travel experiences during the cruise was to avoid organised tours. However, it must be acknowledged that the guided excursions offered by cruise ships can benefit passengers who lack confidence when travelling or for those seeking hassle-free experiences.
Ship-led excursions undeniably offer passengers a convenient way of exploring both port destinations and more distant places. For instance, from Naples, you could venture to Pompeii or Mount Vesuvius on an organised tour, whilst from Messina you could visit Taormina or Mount Etna. However, right outside the cruise ship terminal there were always local taxis competing to provide passengers with the same experiences.
The cruise ship organised tours also often include diverse experiences such as cable cars, off-roading, and walking tours, with the added advantage of having a knowledgeable guide. However, these private tours come at a premium cost and the opportunities for a personalised experience are limited. From our travel blog partnership with GetYourGuide, we know that it is possible to book similar experiences for yourself if you are looking for these kind of activities.
However, organised excursions typically keep you within the confines of large groups, making it challenging to make meaningful connections with the local culture and community which is why we prefer exploring places independently. Furthermore, time constraints imposed by these structured tours also leave little opportunity to truly soak in the essence of each place, arguably resulting in a rushed and superficial encounter with the destination.
In fact, during our visit to St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta in Malta, we happened to arrive at the same time as the guided tour from our cruise ship. Fortunately, we skipped the group queue as we were individual visitors and visited the majestic cathedral at our own pace. In contrast, we noticed that the excursion group had a rushed visit and left considerably before us.
In our opinion, independent exploration allows for a more leisurely and personalised experience. We had ample time to wander off the beaten path, interact with locals, and unearth hidden gems that are often missed in the whirlwind of organised group outings. Thanks to our research before booking, we had enough time in port to never worry about returning to the boat before it set sail.
In each port, it was also surprisingly easy to disembark the boat and to walk to each of the city centres. In addition, local port shuttle buses were clearly signposted. These shuttles often picked up and dropped off at the same place as the cruise ship transfer bus but at half the price. Outside the cruise ship terminals, there were also taxis eager to provide tours and city sightseeing buses.
By venturing beyond prearranged itineraries and exploring each destination on foot, we were pleased that we managed to have authentic travel experiences that resembled our backpacking experiences in new cities.
3. Recognise the Cruise Ship as a Gateway for Discovery
An important part of an authentic travel experience is where you stay. Usually, we choose small guest houses so that we can immerse ourselves in a destination by interacting with local people, meeting like-minded travellers, and eating authentic food.
It is true to say that the MSC World Europa cruise ship was a different kind of accommodation and a different kind of authentic travel experience. Cruising is a unique form of travelling that offers passengers the opportunity to see the sunset in one destination and the sunrise somewhere completely different the following morning in luxurious style.
Undoubtedly, the MSC World Europa is a magnificent ship with many amazing facilities.
The MSC World Europa was a one-of-a-kind destination in itself and provided us with an excellent base to visit 4 different countries (France, Italy, Malta & Spain) in the space of one week and to get the feel of 5 different European cities (Genova, Naples, Messina, Valletta and Barcelona).
However, it is important to recognise that the cruise is a gateway for discovery rather than a complete immersion in a destination. Thanks to our introductory visits on the cruise, we know that we want to return to Sicily, Malta, and Barcelona. We also intend to plan a longer visit to the Campanie region of Italy to visit the island of Capri and Mount Vesuvius that we did not have time for in Naples.
4. Find Opportunities to Engage with Local People
For us, another crucial aspect of authentic travel is to engage with local people. When we travel, we usually move from place to place using public transport and stay in local guest houses which gives us the opportunity to talk to local people. In this way, we learn a little about them and their culture, and they often share their knowledge about the destination we are visiting.
Similar to our experiences when backpacking, we were interested to discover that the MSC World Europa cruise ship provided us with plenty of opportunities to interact with people. Onboard, we were immersed in a multi-national population of passengers and staff from all over the world. Then, as we explored each destination on foot and using public transport, we enjoyed the familiar experience of interacting with local people.
During our cruise experience, we met people of many different nationalities and spent time exchanging stories and learning a little about them and their country and culture. Stand out moments on board included conversations with our Indonesian waiter and a young German woman travelling with her grandparents.
In Messina, I had a memorable Teacher moment with a group of Sicilian school children who interviewed me to practise their English. As a former Teacher, I loved this experience in front of Messina’s cathedral whilst waiting for the famous astronomical clock to start its performance.
After the interview, the kids took a cute photo of us in a frame they had hand-made in school and gave us a laminated “Welcome to Messina” card. On the front was a picture of a local Messina food specialty called La Pignolata (fried dough glazed in lemon and dark chocolate icing) and there was also useful information about places to visit on the back. We wished we had met them at the start of our visit to Messina and not at the end!
The rewarding and genuine connections we formed with fellow passengers, crew members and local people added a rich layer to our authentic travel experience, reminding us that human interactions can be the true highlight of any journey.
5. Indulge in Regional Cuisine Onboard and in Port
Another way of enjoying an authentic travel experience is to eat local cuisine. We were pleased to discover that the menu onboard the MSC World Europa reflected the Mediterranean destinations we were visiting. As a result, we took full advantage of the excellent regional cuisine served onboard in the à la carte restaurants.
For example, here is a sample menu of some of the savoury dishes served on the MSC World Europa whilst in Genova in northern Italy:
- White fish ceviche
- Aubergines parmigiana Neapolitan-style
- Nordic salad
- Fire-roasted tomato cream soup
- Mezzi paccheri di Gragnano
- Beetroot risotto
- Seared sesame-crusted yellowfin tuna
- Grilled ribeye steak chimichurri
- Leg of lamb with aromatic herbs
- Stewed legumes Tuscan-style
During our time in each city, we also tried to find and eat local food specialties in port. As usual, we avoided touristy areas and headed to the backstreets. At first, we thought it was hard to find authentic food. Then we realised that we were very familiar with European food, so it lacked novelty for us, and the food onboard offered surprisingly authentic Mediterranean dishes.
However, we could not visit Italy without drinking Italian coffee and eating gelato! We enjoyed some great gelato (ice cream) in the backstreets of Genova. Sadly, we were too full to try the local specialty called Pesto Piesta. However, we enjoyed watching the artisans fill the rectangular pastry cases with vibrant green, freshly made pesto.
In Naples (the birthplace of pizza), we eventually found a small authentic restaurant where we ate a freshly made Margarita pizza and Arancini balls washed down with an Italian beer.
Indulging in the delicious offerings of regional cuisine both onboard the cruise ship and in the ports enhanced our travel experience, allowing us to savour the authentic flavours and culinary traditions of each destination.
Final Thoughts on Authentic Travel on a Cruise Ship
Having had first-hand experience of a 7-day cruise on the MSC World Europa, we were surprised that we could enjoy some authentic travel experiences. Life on a cruise ship is certainly a unique style of travel that is an experience in itself.
Overall, we believe that a cruise offers a discovery dive into several destinations rather than a deep immersion in one place. However, our journey proved that authenticity can flourish within the unique cruise framework if you are willing to forge your own path as an independent traveller.