In 2017, I had the unique opportunity to sail the Mediterranean not once, but twice, with two very different companies. What I would call upwardly mobile cruise lines, both Azamara and Viking have a lot to offer curious cruisers. Both feature small-ship cruising and both place the destinations and shore side experiences at the forefront. I also like both, although for very different reasons but I’m not writing about them today, not really. No, instead I’m writing about an excursion I took with both cruise lines, the exact same excursion actually, that included spending time in that great city by the sea, Nice. Long a hotspot for anyone seeking sun and celebrity spotting, I fell in love with Nice, France almost instantly. But looking back at my experiences there, I wanted to write about whether or not one’s first time visiting Nice is best experienced while on a brief cruise excursion.
So what was this excursion I enjoyed so much that I took it twice? Both ships docked in Monaco and offered any number of optional paid excursions. While sailing there the first time with Azamara, I selected an excursion that enabled me to see as much as I could, a day spent visiting three different places. It included everything I wanted to see and do and ultimately was the best use of my time, a fact that was proven true almost immediately with a stop in the tiny village of Èze in France. We all have certain preconceptions when we visit southern France and Èze manages to live up to every one of them. An ancient village, it has been a stronghold for thousands of years thanks to its position high up on a mountain with tiny streets and alleyways that would make any attack impossible. The tour finished with an exploration of Monaco, but the middle of the day was devoted to one notable city – Nice. So why did I take this tour twice? Well, the second time I was traveling with someone who had never visited the region and I knew from experience that the tour was a great introduction. Plus, it gave me the unusual opportunity to compare the two experiences.
Nice is always nice
I’m not sure how I missed visiting Nice for all these years, but the fact remains that I had never been. I was a little cautious about it though; a similar visit to Marseilles several years ago had not gone well and I left not liking the city. I didn’t want that to happen in Nice, I really wanted to like it and depended on the excursion tour guide to show me the best that the city has to offer. And, for the most part, she did. Well, both guides did because, and not surprisingly, both day tours were identical to one another.
Located on the coast, Nice is as perfect a beach town as you could hope for. It’s also been an incredibly important regional power for centuries, evidence of which can be found throughout the city. Walking around with the guide, learning about Nice’s history, its food and its culture was a fantastic introduction, but the real fun came when I explored the city on my own during the generous free time offered to tour participants.
The first time I visited, it was Saturday, the sun was bright, it was warm and the weekly market was packed with people out and about, enjoying the day. I love it when I can be caught up in these special moments, forgetting just for a little while that I’m a camera toting tourist (which I am) and instead losing myself in the experience. I browsed the stalls at the market, enjoyed a popular local snack for lunch – Socca – walked along the beach and wished I’d brought my trunks, finishing out the afternoon with a chocolate gelato. It wasn’t fancy, it wasn’t even all that complicated but it was a perfect way for me to learn more about Nice. Spending a relaxing afternoon just enjoying the city for what it is isn’t just a great way to learn more about a place, it’s an immersive experience that can’t be otherwise replicated.
My second visit was incredibly similar, although it was December and the weather decidedly more chilly. Wandering the streets of Nice decked out for the holidays made for a very special day and while there was certainly no snow down there, I found a city just as festive as any other. Otherwise, I really didn’t make any new discoveries on my second visit, other than a few side streets I had missed the first time. I still had a nice afternoon, just not one that was truly notable in any way.
My honest thoughts
So, is visiting Nice on a cruise excursion really worth the time and expense? Not only is a single day not enough time to visit a large city like Nice, but the excursion also includes two other stops. Ultimately though I have to say that yes, this excursion is incredibly worthwhile for a number of reasons. The opportunity to get away from the ship for a day and to drive along the coastal roads of the French Riviera is an experience everyone needs to try at least once in their lives. The tour is structured to make the most out of every stop, and not once did I regret the amount of time, or lack thereof, spent in either Èze, Nice or Monaco. After my second visit, that excursion and the entire day quickly became one of my favorite experiences while sailing the Mediterranean and still provides lots of happy memories on which to reflect.
A single day is in no way enough time to experience the best that both Monaco and the south of France have to offer and no one would dispute that. But one reason why I love experiencing new destinations on a cruise is that I get an impression of what these places are like and whether or not I want to return on my own. I’ve learned many valuable travel lessons over the years using this approach, being surprised by the realities of certain cities and countries. No, the day with a tour guide in this remarkable part of the world wasn’t meant to be my only experiences there, instead it was an introductory primer. A way for me to better understand the region to help me plan future trips in the years to come. Plus, visiting Nice was just a lot of fun and ultimately that’s a major reason why most of us travel in the first place.