It used to be that people thought cruise ships were reserved for retirees and seniors – floating vacation homes for those in the twilight of their lives. Nowadays, one only has to look at ships like the Royal Caribbean Oasis-class behemoths to see that cruising can appeal to all ages.
I have always been a huge fan of cruises. Ever since I took my first one on Cunard’s QEII in 2000, I have fallen in love with the idea of unpacking once, visiting multiple countries on one trip, and being fed fabulous food morning, noon and night.
I usually go on at least one cruise a year, which is when I take my mother on a vacation. Although we have always gone around the Caribbean, simply because departing from Miami and Ft. Lauderdale is easy and being on the ship is the fun part, this year we traveled to Alaska. I had only cruised there once before and Mum had never been, so it was relatively new territory for both of us.
We were blessed with fantastic weather and had some fabulous experiences.
Based on my past itineraries, here is some advice I would give on cruising different parts of the world.
For a seven-day cruise, ships tend to offer itineraries either to the Eastern or Western Caribbean. The Western will inevitably include at least one stop in Mexico, and can also feature stops in Jamaica, Haiti (the Labadee port is owned by Royal Caribbean) and even the Cayman Islands.
Cozumel is a nice walking port, but you’ll get exhausted fending off the salespeople standing outside shops trying to beckon you in. Instead, try to take a tour to see some Mayan ruins which are always fascinating, or get a taxi or tour guide to drive you around so you can see some local sights.
In Jamaica, try to book a private tour instead of going with the ship’s tours. The ships put a lot of money into Falmouth port which has kind of edged out the private guides in favor of the big fancy buses.
Labadee won’t really give you any sense of the culture of Haiti. It is a whitewashed area completely served by the staff members on the ship. That being said, there is a nice shopping market where you can pick up some souvenirs.
If you take a cruise with Cayman as a stop, will you get off the ship? You may not think so, but I’ve stopped here a few times and I can’t help myself – there is something kinda neat about getting off in your home cruise port. It’s also fascinating to hear the stories of the other passengers on the tender going back to the ship.
The Eastern Caribbean is slowly getting itself back together after the hurricanes of 2017. Expect to stop in places like Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Maarten and maybe St. Kitts. Anyone going to St. Kitts should absolutely book a tour on the old sugar train. You can only book through the ship, which I usually try to avoid, but it is really worth it. The views are spectacular and they start serving you rum punch before noon.
Conclusion: Even if you live in the Cayman Islands, it is fascinating to see other islands as they all have different cultures and topography. You also won’t care if it rains on any of the days and you won’t be fighting to get the early loungers by the pool because you live in the place where others vacation.
My best friend Lynne and I did a two-week itinerary titled “Ancient Empires” in 2009. You really want that length of time to properly explore the area, and boy, is there a lot to see. We stopped in Israel, Turkey, Greece, the Greek Islands, Egypt and Italy. The cruise departed from the Civitavecchia port in Italy, which is a bit of a drive from Rome.
Unfortunately, not many ships are stopping in Egypt right now due to the unrest there, but it was an incredible place to visit. Something to note if you take a Mediterranean cruise is that there will be a lot of early mornings, which means not many late nights at the bars if you want to survive the trip.
I was so hungover when we pulled into Athens, I almost couldn’t face getting off the ship. That would have been a shame, as I would have missed the extraordinary ruins throughout the city, not to mention some fantastic shopping opportunities.
The Kusadasi stop in Turkey took us to a market close by the port. The sellers here made the ones in Mexico look like rank amateurs. Look them in the eye once, and you were a goner. They would have you in their stall, pressuring you to buy things you didn’t want before you knew what hit you.
Luckily, we had a tour booked to see the ruins at Ephesus. Although not as famous as those in Rome and Athens, I cannot recommend seeing them enough.
We walked the lanes once taken by chariots – still with tiles remaining from those days. We stood in the Great Theatre that has seen performances over centuries, marveled at the Terraced Houses – preserved homes of rich Romans with mosaics on the floors and walls, and stood before the Library of Celsus with only the façade remaining, and yet magnificent all the same.
In Israel, we swam in the Dead Sea, visited Old Jerusalem and the Temple Mount with the Western Wall, and I bought a dress at the local market. Shoppers could go crazy at these markets, and it’s always good if you buy something because the sellers seem to take it quite personally if you don’t.
Egypt was a whirlwind. The ship stayed overnight in Alexandria (where the traffic has to be seen, to be believed) and we took a tour to Cairo, which meant two hours on the Desert Road by bus.
On the first day, we were taken to see the Pyramid of Djoser, otherwise known as the Step Pyramid because of its design. It was a way to see how the construction of pyramids progressed before we saw the three most famous pyramids of Egypt the next day. We also made a stop at the Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha – a breathtaking edifice situated in the Citadel of Cairo.
The two days were a whirlwind. We took a river cruise with belly dancers and a whirling dervish (a man spins endlessly in a skirt to the point that you’re wondering how he isn’t falling over), dropped into bed at 8 p.m., got up the next morning and had breakfast, followed by a stop at the Cairo Museum (even the statues outside are artifacts), and finally, the Pyramids at Giza. We took a camel ride, led by a precocious young Egyptian boy, and walked down to the Sphinx. It was like a dream.
The Greek Islands of Santorini and Mykonos were a sea of bright blue and white buildings, just like the pictures in all those travel magazines. Just a word of advice: If you visit Santorini, take the cable car up to the top from the ship port rather than riding the donkeys or, God forbid, walking.
Conclusion: A Mediterranean cruise is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. If you can afford private tours, try to go that way, as you get a much more local experience. I would recommend at least 10 days.
In complete contrast to the Mediterranean cruise with a stop in port almost every day, a Transatlantic cruise goes days without sighting land. Cruise lines like Cunard regularly offer crossings from New York to Southampton, but others only travel across the ocean to reposition for different seasons. For example, if a ship is in the Caribbean for the winter, it will usually move to Europe for the summer.
Itineraries are usually at least 13 days long and the cabins are often cheaper because passengers have to buy one-way airfare.
If you want a really relaxing vacation, this is the cruise for you. The ship will have plenty of entertainment on tap to keep you busy, and the food and drink flow all day, every day. You just might want to hit the gym to keep the pounds at bay as you won’t be getting off in ports and walking around too much.
Try to get a cruise that stops in the Azores. This archipelago of nine islands is stunningly beautiful with lakes, wildlife, whales and dolphin sightings, as well as plenty of hot springs.
Conclusion: A Transatlantic cruise is a real getaway if you need it, and if you like to sleep in, maybe go for an east-to-west sailing where you gain, rather than lose, time as you make your way from one continent to another.
Unlike Alaska, it doesn’t make sense to just visit Iceland on a cruise, thanks to its geographical position.
However, like Alaska, Iceland has become a hugely popular destination and taking a ship there can be a great way to explore it, plus you get other stops into the bargain.
We took a cruise from Copenhagen to Boston two years ago, with stops in Norway, Iceland and Halifax (Nova Scotia, Canada). Copenhagen was a wonderful city, and Norway is somewhere I could definitely visit for a longer period of time.
Iceland, however, was unlike anywhere we had visited before. The ship made three stops there, with an overnight in the capital of Reykjavik. Please, when you go, rent a car. It is very easy to find your way around the country, particularly if you rent a GPS. The landscape is otherworldly, punctuated by stunning waterfalls and volcanic craters.
Iceland is known for its natural hot springs, the most famous of which is the Blue Lagoon, about a 40-minute drive from the city. Book your reservation in advance, as slots sell out early. We could only get a nighttime reservation, and it was quite the sight, seeing the mist coming off the light blue water in that vast lagoon. We got mud masks and drinks and basked in the warmth of the spring. Yes, the Blue Lagoon is a labeled “tourist stop,” but it is still absolutely worth the visit.
Conclusion: Iceland is as amazing as reports say. It is expensive, but how often are you going to go there? Spend the money and again, rent a car.
What can I say about the wonderland that is Alaska? First of all, get a balcony cabin when you take a cruise there. Due to the close proximity of the land for most of the itineraries, you can see so much and you may even spy a whale or two.
You should book a whale-watching tour at one of the stops – Icy Strait Point is particularly known for these tours – and get a bucket of crab legs at Tracy’s in Juneau.
If you’ve got the moolah, splurge on a helicopter trip up to the glacier where you can take a ride with sled dogs. I’ve done it once and it truly is unforgettable.
The lumberjack show in Ketchikan is a hoot – great fun for the kids in particular – and make sure to book one of the train rides in Skagway which take you up the mountain for a unique perspective and incredible vistas.
Really want to go fancy? Try to get a seat in the VIP carriage with oxblood-colored leather seats, bar service and snacks. I took my mother on that carriage and it was fantastic.
Conclusion: Alaska is as wonderful as you’ve heard and no pictures really do it justice. Even if you just walk around the ports and do some shopping, you’ll feel like you’ve had an amazing time. Look for the Russian influences that still remain from the 19th century.
Booking: If you are not familiar with cruising, do get advice from your travel agent. They can direct you to the right ships, depending on the ages of the people in your group and your interests.