The main season is May to October, though winter cruising in the southern Med draws a regular following. Summer ports of call include Barcelona, Palma, Genoa, Rome, Valencia, Malaga, Mallorca, Corsica, Monte Carlo, Nice, Naples, Sicily and Malta. Cruises from Venice or Athens call at Istanbul and Crete. Dubrovnik and Corfu are becoming regular ports of call, while the most popular Greek islands for cruising are Mykonos, Rhodes and Santorini. Libya is also beginning to feature on itineraries.
The Med is frequented by major cruise companies including Costa Cruises, Crystal Cruises, MSC, P&O and Princess Cruises. The 3,000-bed Costa Magica launched in November, while MSC, P&O and Princess Cruises are launching or refurbished ships in 2005. MSC's seventh ship, Sinfonia, sailed in March with a capacity of 2,200 passengers; P&O's Arcadia (2,000 passengers) sails out of Southampton in April, followed by Artemis (1,200) in June; Princess Cruises' Sea Princess (nearly 2,000 passengers) will launch in May and join the company's Grand Princess and Star Princess cruising the Med this summer.
Meetings on board
Cruising still retains a glamorous image and many companies encourage conference and incentive business. Besides exclusivity and security, private charters enable groups to design their own itineraries.
Europe's largest cruise line, the Italian-based Costa Cruises (www.costacruises.co.uk), has ships available for exclusive charter; Crystal Cruises' (www.crystalcruises.com) three ships feature sophisticated meeting facilities and business centres; MSC's (www.msc cruises.com) ships feature meetings space and can be chartered privately; P&O Cruises' (www.pocruises.com) ships are also available for private charter, and Seabourn Cruise Line (www.seabourn.com), at the top end of the luxury market, has three ships carrying a maximum of 200 guests;
Silversea Cruises (www.silversea.com) has four ships, each carrying between 300 and 380 passengers. All have a conference room, theatre and two lounges.
Seadream Yacht Club's (www.seadreamcharter.com) two yachts each carry around 100 passengers, with meeting rooms for eight to 110, watersport gear, a new Thai spa and fitness centre and golf simulator.
Carnival Cruises, the world's largest operator, has a portfolio of 12 brands worldwide. UK managing director David Dingle says: "Larger ships make it easier to accommodate groups in dedicated areas without disrupting other passengers. And C&I organisers appreciate the all-inclusive nature of the product and the ability to keep the group captive and focused."