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As travel surges back to pre-pandemic levels, finding under-the-radar locales away from bustling crowds grows ever more appealing. And while Europe’s most visited cities and landmarks have certainly earned their allure, there’s something to be said about the unique qualities and unspoiled beauty of an off-the-beaten-path destination. For those eager to experience the charm and authenticity of Europe without the throngs of tourists, these enchanting cities offer a unique blend of culture, history, and local flavor, promising unforgettable experiences for the discerning traveler. Furthermore, these port-cities limit access to only smaller cruise ships, offering the perfect opportunity to experience the personalized service and relaxed atmosphere of a small-yacht cruise while fostering deeper connections with local cultures and communities in more remote destinations.

Rovinj, Croatia

On the west coast of Croatia situated on the north Adriatic Sea lies the delightful town of Rovinj. Ruled by Venetians for more than five centuries, it offers a distinctive Italian flare evident in its narrow cobblestone streets, pastel-colored houses, and seaside cafes.  A tranquil escape from the crowds with a serene atmosphere and stunning views of the Adriatic Sea, Rovinj also boasts a vibrant cultural scene, delicious local cuisine, and high-quality leather goods, making it a worthy stop on the Istrian Peninsula.

Bilbao, Spain

You don’t build a Frank Gehry architectural marvel without attracting a few tourists. But much like the French town of Arles (home of the striking LUMA museum designed by the man himself), Bilbao remains a lesser-known stop on the venerable European tour. Indeed, Bilbao is home to the iconic Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum, a masterpiece of contemporary architecture that draws art enthusiasts from around the world. Often described as one of Spain’s most underrated cities, Bilbao’s revitalized waterfront, vibrant pintxos bars, and charming old quarter provide a welcoming atmosphere and an authentic Spanish experience.

French Polynesia–Papeete, Tahiti, The Tuamotu Islands, and Society Islands

Though France is plainly invoked in the name, most people don’t automatically think of Europe when they think of French Polynesia. The country, in fact, is a French territory associated with European Union. It is also a tropical paradise comprised of several archipelagos boasting pristine beaches, crystal-clear waters, and vibrant coral reefs. The islands’ uniquely unspoiled beauty is largely due to local government regulations which ensure limited development and promote conservation measures. Travelers willing to make the lengthy flight (about 13 hours from New York City or 9 hours from Los Angeles) will be rewarded with more than just breath-taking natural scenery; the rich Polynesian culture is something to behold from the flower lei greetings and the black pearl farming to millennium-old relics of the Maori civilization. Windstar Cruises, a small-yacht cruise line with a long history of sailing the islands has spent decades fostering local relationships from Tahiti to Bora Bora, enabling the cruise line to arrange intimate excursions and authentic local experiences for an unforgettable vacation.

Bordeaux, France

While Bordeaux is not exactly under-the-radar, the city offers all the charm and quality wine of Paris but with a decidedly more tranquil atmosphere than its metropolitan counterpart. Best known as the wine capital of France, Bordeaux has also earned a spot on this list by receiving The European Capital of Smart Tourism award in 2022, a recognition for exemplary achievements in tourism. In other words, while many destinations buckle under tourist traffic and dilute their character to cater to visitors, Bordeaux has proactively implemented practices with regard to accessibility, sustainability, digitalization, and cultural heritage so that it may welcome travelers without compromise to the city’s culture and local people. Renowned for its world-class vineyards, Bordeaux is a paradise for wine enthusiasts, with picturesque chateaus and rolling vineyards offering unforgettable tastings. The 18th-century architecture, dynamic cultural scene, and well-preserved historic center (a UNESCO World Heritage site) make Bordeaux a captivating travel destination and a worthwhile stop on small cruise tours. In addition to having the access to Bordeaux’s ports not available to large cruise ships, small intimate tours like Windstar Cruises have the added flexibility and expertise to tailor excursions from guided countryside tours to wine tastings with local producers. They are also the official cruise line of the James Beard Foundation so guests can expect top-notch culinary excursions in addition to delicious and innovative meals on board.

Patmos, Greece

This hidden treasure in the Aegean Sea offers a low-key upmarket alternative to more popular Greek islands and cities like Athens. Admittedly harder to reach, Patmos is the perfect stop on a small-yacht cruise itinerary like Windstar Cruises. Known as the "Island of the Apocalypse," it is home to the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian and the Cave of the Apocalypse where St. John is believed to have written the Book of Revelation, both UNESCO World Heritage sites. Visitors will also enjoy fine-sand shores, striking blue waters, elegant Patmian embroidery, and traditional whitewashed villages, altogether creating a picturesque setting with a more relaxed pace.

Exploring these European port cities offers a refreshing alternative to the well-trodden paths of major tourist hubs. And because their ports exclude large cruise ships, travelers can benefit from smaller cruise lines that mirror the smaller scale and authenticity of these enchanting locales. With fewer than 300 guests aboard a small-yacht cruise like Windstar’s, staff have the latitude to offer guests personalized service and intimate excursions for authentic local experiences. A smaller guestlist also means more expertise and resources devoted to innovative and delicious meals with locally sourced ingredients, and lighter crowds at these beautiful cities and towns. As you plan your next adventure, consider venturing off the beaten path with any one of these unforgettable destinations.

If you crave unique experiences and authentic connections with local cultures, Windstar Cruises can help you can escape the crowds with the personalized service that only a small-yacht cruise can offer. To start planning an unforgettable journey and learn more about Windstar Cruises, click here.

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