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Of all the places I've cruised, Europe is my favorite. The place is ideal for travel by ship because many great ports are relatively close together, so you can see a lot on a 7- to 14-night itinerary. Cruising out of Venice last summer with my husband and young sons aboard Royal Caribbean's 1,804-passenger Splendour of the Seas for a week, we called on four of the most historic and beautiful ports in the Mediterranean: Dubrovnik, Croatia; Kusadasi, Turkey; and Santorini and Corfu in Greece. In between, we had two relaxing sea days to chill out on board.

For us, the ports clearly trumped the ship experience, which overall was solidly average. The best parts of Splendour were the supervised daily activities for kids, from arts and crafts to science experiments. The other thing we appreciated was the ship's mid-size; with newer ships carrying 2,500 to 3,000 passengers (and more -- yikes!), the Splendour was downright cozy. We rarely encountered a queue for anything, even at the buffet restaurant at busy breakfast and lunch times. For dinner, we always opted for the King and I main dining room, which was decorated with gilded statues of Thai dragons and mythological creatures, and had floor-to-ceiling windows for panoramic views as we departed port. After dinner, we'd head for the theater to catch acts ranging from a magician to a contortionist and a Beatles cover band. By day, when the ship wasn't in port, we gravitated to the nine-hole miniature golf course up on deck and watching papa scale the rock climbing wall at the ship's stern. We swam in the pool often and one afternoon joined the throngs cheering on participants in the belly-flop contest.

The down-to-earth, active vibe of the ship worked for us, though in some areas we would have appreciated somewhat higher standards. While the duvets and mattress toppers were very comfortable, cabins were small and worn (a wide piece of tape held the bottom of our bathroom mirror together). The golf course needed sprucing up and the ship's library had an appallingly thin travel section. The tackiest part was the focus on selling stuff -- a low point came when crew members peddled DVDs of the cruise in the aisles of the theatre before show time. See my article from August, "Cruise Ship Show Down: Carnival vs. Royal Caribbean," for more details on Splendour of the Seas .

While a ship is a destination too, for us the ports matter more. For the seven to ten hours we had in each port, we made our own plans in lieu of the ship's organized tours, which can be regimented, crowded and pricey, preferring the serendipity of bargaining, eating and wandering at our own pace.

Venice, Italy

Though our children were too young to get much out of museums, they loved the gondola ride and water taxis we took and our many walks through this magical city's narrow streets and bridges. We savored the outdoor café life, sampling pizzas, prosciutto, cheese panini, and, of course, lots of gelato. The night before the cruise, we stayed at the 500-year-old Metropole (www.hotelmetropole.com) because it's within walking distance of San Marco Square.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

One of the most beautiful ports in the Mediterranean, Dubrovnik is a picture perfect ancient walled city with red-tile roofs and Renaissance-era architecture. We skipped both the ship's $49 city walking tour and its $79 bus tour to a village in the picturesque Konalve Valley, and instead hopped onto one of the ship's shuttle buses (for $8 per person round-trip) for the 3-km ride from the docks to Dubrovnik's historic center. We spent an hour walking along the top of the 2-km-long medieval wall, complete with turrets, towers, and staircases that surround the 13th-century Old Town, now a UNESCO World Heritage sight. After the wall trek, we took a 50-minute boat ride around the harbor for more great views. Operators advertise their services along the waterfront and boats depart every 30 minutes or so. We paid €10 for each adult and our children were free.

Kusadasi, Turkey

Kusadasi is the port for the ancient Roman city of Ephesus built in the 11th-century BC. At one time, Ephesus was along the sea, but the harbor silted up and a few thousand years later it's now three miles inland. We passed on the ship's guided bus tour for $49 a person, and after some hard bargaining, paid €40 for a round-trip taxi ride to the site (the first taxi driver we asked wanted €120). Armed with a guidebook (audio tour headphones are for rent at the entrance), we paid the €7 admission fee and explored the ruins on our own. The boys loved running with their dad to the back row of the 25,000-person amphitheatre and we strolled down the main street paved in marble, checking out temple ruins, piles of columns, and the two-story facade of the 1,900-year-old Library of Celsus. After an hour and a half, our taxi driver drove us back to town. We had lunch at an open-air restaurant called Ferah on Guvercinada Road by the sea near the docks; for about €80, we feasted on delicious roasted eggplant with tomatoes and chili, watercress with yogurt, and grilled sea bass.

Santorini, Greece

One of the most stunning sea approaches in the world, ships anchor in Santorini's bowl-shaped harbor and shuttle passengers via tender boats to the foot of the steep-sloped island. One way to get to Fira town at the top is by donkey. Our 5-year-old boys absolutely loved zigzagging up the stone path and didn't mind the heat or the musty smell of the animals one bit. It was great and fun, and at one point our son Tejas yelled out, "Look, it's a donkey jam!" We paid €5 for each kid to share one donkey for the 30-minute trek, but you can also walk or take a cable car, though the lines can be long. (For those who have been to Santorini before, the ships' organized tours include bus trips for about $70 per person to villages on the other side of the island to see Hellenic, Roman, and Byzantine ruins.) With our shirts soaked from perspiration, we headed for a lunch spot and landed up at Arcobaleno Sunset Café. The views of the harbor from our table were breathtaking. We devoured a Greek salad, lamb kebabs, fava (mashed beans and olive oil), pizza, and the most succulent red tomatoes I've ever eaten. From the top we counted four mega ships below, but only shared our quiet lunch spot with a few other diners. Afterwards we joined the river of tourists browsing for donkey marionettes and silver jewelry along the cobble stoned pedestrian lanes that weave through rows of whitewashed buildings. We celebrated another perfect day with a cup gelato.

Corfu, Greece

A lush island of olive groves and forests of pine, cypress, and lemon trees, we focused on Corfu's medieval Old Town and set off on a 2-mile walk from the pier to see the 14th-century Old Fortress on the Esplanade (a shuttle bus was also offered by the cruiselinefor $8 per person round trip). The fortress is built on a promontory that pokes out into the sea and is surrounded by a deep moat and affords gorgeous views of the sea and nearby Albania. Though we skipped the museums because of the kids, two worthwhile ones nearby include the Asian art museum at the 19th-century Palace of St. Michael and St. George and the Archaeological Museum. After the fort, we took a horse carriage ride through the Old Town (€30 for 45 minutes) before finding a shop for gelato and meat pies. We strolled back to the ship along the sea, stopping briefly at a rocky little beach so the boys could toss stones into the sea. The water sparkled in the late afternoon light as we relished yet another wonderful day exploring Europe.

For more information, contact Royal Caribbean at tel. 866-562-7625; www.royalcaribbean.com. For 7-night Europe cruises out of Venice, fares start at $699 per person.