We sailed from Athens and ended in Venice -- with a stop at Dubrovnik in between.
These three big cruise ports are popular on many itineraries when sailing in the Mediterranean, and they rank among our favorites for several reasons. These destinations are packed with tons of activities and chances to explore art and culture, as well as see compelling and historically important sights.
But our cruise on Seabourn Encore also included five charming smaller ports that gave us a chance to slow down and enjoy our days in different ways.
Here are five cruise ports you might not have heard about and will love visiting on a Mediterranean cruise.
Gythion -- This stop in Greece brings us to Sparta and the UNESCO World Heritage castle village of Mystras. Now, modern Sparta is home to 16,000 people and not quite as dramatic as the idea of Sparta you might have from the movie "300."
It's a bustling and gritty looking town in the foothills of Mount Taygetus in the Laconia region, and we made just a quick stop there for a photo op with a statue of King Leonidas. This 1960s monument pays homage to legend of the king who led the Spartans vs. Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae against overwhelming odds.
From Sparta, we headed up the mountain to reach Mystras, a town that dates to the mid-13th century and was an important part of the Byzantine Empire. It was built as an amphitheater around a fortress and is interesting to visitors who will like to hike up its ancient pathways high above scenic ruins. Mystras is known historically as the Wonder of Morea -- the ancient name for the Peloponnese peninsula. UNESCO classifies this as an important archaeological site and restoration work continues o the palaces and castle.
Back in Gythion, a quiet fishing village, shops and restaurants line the marina area. We marveled at the orange trees that are everywhere, including small groves in people's yards. They are so numerous that markets sell the juicy fruits for 3 cents each
We started our day ashore with a fun run to a beach less than two miles away. Kastro Beach is a secluded beach probably never visited by the flocks of cruisers who stay around Katakolon for the day. Most will end up at Katakolon Beach each right next to the port area.
Kastro Beach is extremely rustic, and if you are an avid runner or ambitious walker, you will love the route to get there (past quiet farmland and dense groves of olive trees). Independent spirits also will enjoy being away from the crowds at a quiet slice of paradise. There is a small bar and restaurant there. We were able to hit both beaches during our day in Katakolon. The more touristy Katakolon Beach is just steps away from the cruise pier past the shops and restaurants on the main walk, and this beach has a half-dozen restaurants on the hard-packed brown sands (vehicles can drive along the beach, which serves as a sort of roadway, too. These eateries offer free lounge chairs and Wi-Fi and some have sports like volleyball courts available. All you have to do is buy a drink to take advantage of the amenities. The water is much more clear and enticing at Kastro Beach, though.
This is an idyllic seaside town with dozens of shops and restaurants lining the shore just behind the rocky beaches that lead to crystal-clear waters. We plopped down on the beach to soak up a bit of sunshine and take a refreshing swim in the bay, which is home to jutting picturesque rock formations. The perfect conditions also allowed the captain on Encore to open the ship's sports marina for the first time in its six months of sailing (this is Seabourn's newest ship). We took a scenic kayak ride, while other passengers delighted in banana boat (pulled by Zodiacs) and peddle boat rides.
From Brindisi, you can head to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Alberobello, a village filled with fairytale-like Trulli houses. These residences use prehistoric building techniques characterized by conical roofs. About 10,700 people live in the city in these whitewashed homes along narrow alleyways. Or travel by train to Lecce (known as Florence of the south) to see historic churches and a second-century Roman amphitheater.
Near the port, visitors can head to the city center to visit the Cathedral at Piazzo Duomo and other sites and restaurants. You'll also find plenty of eateries near the harbor. Climb the Sailors Monument to capture the panoramic views over the region.
The walled old town is filled with inviting restaurants serving cold beers, traditional Croatian plates and delicious pizza. It's also surrounded by waters. After the morning hike, we settled on one of the rocky and sun-splashed beaches (bring a lot of sun screen and water shoes if you can't handle walking on stones). Beers go for about $3 for a big mug, and pizzas are about $8 or $9. Beach massages go for about $40 for an hour-long sports treatment, and they also offer couples massages in the huts set up on the beach. There are ATMs all over and a currency-exchange office near the marina. The currency in the Croatian kuna, and many businesses only accept those (a few places take certain credit cards, too).