You may also like these photo galleries
The next best thing to being on a ship is getting off one – for a shore excursion that is, writes Sally Macmillan.
While travelling by ship means getting there is half the fun, exploring ports of call – sometimes a new one every day – is another major attraction of cruising. Cruise lines offer a huge range of shore excursions, from adventurous options such as zip lining and canyoning to cultural tours of classic cities, wine, beer and food tastings, and amazing wildlife adventures – you name the place, they'll have a tour there.
However, a ship's tour is not for everyone. They are often more expensive than taking a similar tour independently; you might not like travelling with a busload of fellow passengers; and sometimes tours are cancelled if not enough people sign up for them. You should also check how much time on a tour is spent getting to and from the destination, and how long you'll actually have there.
Whatever you choose to do, it pays to do your homework when it comes to shore excursions. If you plan to do your own thing, book ahead, preferably with a reliable company such as Viator, which co-ordinates its tours with ship arrivals and departures in many ports around the world. If you're visiting a major city for the first time, it's worth doing a hop-on, hop-off bus tour to get your bearings or just set off with a map and explore by foot.
Another alternative, when you know where you want to go, is to get together with a few other people and hire a taxi for a flat day rate. It's important to remember, though, that if something goes wrong when you're on an independent tour, you're on your own. The ship won't wait for you if you're late back, but it will if you're stuck somewhere on an excursion organised by the ship.
Ship's tours have the advantage of generally being very well-run, which takes away the hassle of researching and booking one yourself. There are also many behind the scenes experiences offered by cruise lines that would be impossible to organise yourself; private concerts and banquets in palaces, after-hours access to landmark sites such as the Vatican, or even a mid-cruise safari in Africa. Here are 20 memorable excursions that I've taken over the years – I hope they'll whet your appetite for your next cruise.
1. NATURES WONDERS, OTAGO PENINSULA, NEW ZEALAND
WHO Royal Caribbean
WHAT YOU DO Jump aboard an eight-wheel drive all-terrain vehicle for a guided tour across the rugged Otago Peninsula to see native birds and animals in their natural habitat. The family-run operation has been described by environmentalist David Bellamy as "one of the finest examples of eco-tourism in the world". You'll see fur seals (sometimes close up), cormorants, and yellow-eyed and blue penguins from a purpose-built hide. It's fun, educational and the coastal views are spectacular.
THE DETAILS $155.95 for adult, $106.73 for child; 1800 754 500, royalcaribbean.com.au
2. THE SUMMIT, PORT VILA, VANUATU
WHO Carnival, Island Escape P&O, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean
WHAT YOU DO An independent tour to the Summit's clifftop tropical gardens, sandalwood plantation and essential oils distillery is fascinating for grown-ups – and can be combined with nearby activities such as sea-kayaking and snorkelling or riding the Vanuatu Jungle Zipline to keep kids happy. The Summit offers three different tours with knowledgable local guides that include pick-up and return to your ship at Port Vila.
THE DETAILS Cruise lines that visit Port Vila include Carnival Cruise Lines (carnival.com.au), Island Escape Cruises (islandescapecruises.com), P&O Cruises (pocruises.com.au), Princess Cruises (princess.com), Royal Caribbean (royalcaribbean.com.au). From $49 for adult), $29 for child; thesummitvanuatutours.com
3. DOMAINE BRAMAREL TRUFFLE FARM, GRIGNAN, FRANCE
WHAT YOU DO Discover the secrets of growing, harvesting and tasting the rare and expensive truffle on a picturesque farm in south-east France. The 15 hectare farm was founded by proprietor Gilles Ayme's great-grandfather and is planted with 15,000 truffle oaks. Ayme and his two golden Labradors harvest about 200 kilos of truffles a year. There are summer and autumn varieties and you see the dogs detecting and digging them out before going to the picturesque farmhouse for a talk and tasting session, accompanied by wines from a neighbouring vineyard.
THE DETAILS This tour included in fares for 15 day Rhine, Rhône and Moselle cruises. Phone 1300 196 420 or visit aptouring.com.au
4. KAZIRANGA NATIONAL PARK, ASSAM, INDIA
WHO Active Travel
WHAT YOU DO One for lovers of remote river travel and wildlife spotting: Active Travel's eight- day "Wild Assam" trip combines cruising on the Brahmaputra with eco tours including accommodation, elephant and jeep safaris in Kaziranga National Park. Kaziranga is home to most of India's one-horned rhinoceros population as well as elephant, tiger, wild buffalo, sambar, swamp deer, hog deer and many other species. Along the river you'll visit remote villages, traditional temples and maybe spot a rare Ganges river dolphin.
THE DETAILS The tour is included in fares for the eight day Wild Assam itineraries. Phone 02 6249 6122 or visit activetravel.com.au
5. DOLPHIN WATCH & SNORKELLING, OMAN
WHO Silversea Cruises
WHAT YOU DO Although Muscat, the capital of Oman, is a spectacular port to sail into and has many cultural attractions, a cruise on a traditional dhow among the fjord-like islands of Bander Khiran reveals another facet of this fascinating country. The Marina Bandar Al Rowdha is a 20-minute drive from Muscat and as your boat heads out to sea you're likely to see dolphins and maybe even whales. The clear turquoise waters of Bander Khiran are home to corals and dozens of species of colourful tropical fish and the snorkelling is superb.
THE DETAILS The tour costs $US159 ($195) – may change for 2016 cruises. Phone 1300 306 872 or visit silversea.com
6. MDINA, PALACES & GARDENS, MALTA
WHO Azamara Club Cruises
WHAT YOU DO As if there wasn't enough history surrounding you in the port city of Valletta, a visit to the ancient capital, Mdina, reveals a past stretching back to 700BC. The fortified medieval town is perfect for exploring by foot as no cars are allowed. Wander the silent streets and see St Paul's Cathedral and Palazzo Falson, one of the oldest buildings on the island. A guided tour of Naxxar is included in this shore excursion; here you'll see the stunning 19th century Palazzo Parisio.
THE DETAILS The excursion costs $US89.75 ($110.15). Phone 1800 754 500, azamaraclubcruises.com
7. GLACIER ADVENTURE BY HELICOPTER, ALASKA
WHO Holland American Line
WHAT YOU DO Seeing the magnificent Juneau icefield from the air is an unforgettable experience. A helicopter whisks you over the otherworldly landscape, where you'll see soaring mountain peaks, lakes and glaciers on a 30-40 minute flight that's narrated by the pilot. He or she then lands the chopper on the ice and you have about 20 minutes to walk around in your specially designed glacier boots. The colour of glacial ice is a piercing blue in places and you'll never forget the taste of pure, frozen water that's hundreds of years old.
THE DETAILS The excursion costs $US369.95 ($454.03) – may vary according to sailings. Phone 1300 987 322 or visit hollandamerica.com.au
8. KOMODO NATIONAL PARK, INDONESIA
WHO Lindblad Expeditions
WHAT YOU DO There be dragons here … the komodo sort, which are actually giant monitor lizards. Guides take you on habitat hikes through the National Park, where you're very likely to spot the carnivorous creatures, sometimes scarily close up. The bush is also home to a variety of birds and snakes – some of them very poisonous – so this is not a tour for the faint-hearted. Snorkelling off the pink beach is another highlight; the sand gets its colour from red organ pipe coral and the water is rich with exotic marine life.
THE DETAILS Cost of the tour is included in the cruise fare. Phone 1300 361 012 or visit au.expeditions.com
9. MONET'S HOUSE AND GARDEN, GIVERNY, FRANCE
WHO Scenic Tours
WHAT YOU DO Impressionist painter Claude Monet lived at Giverny for 43 years and today you can walk around the gardens that inspired so much of his work and look through his beautiful house. The neighbouring Giverny Impressionisms Museum houses exhibitions that highlight the history of Impressionism and post-Impressionism. Whether you visit in spring, summer or autumn the gardens are planted to celebrate the seasons in all their glory.
THE DETAILS The excursion is included in fare on Gems of the Seine river cruises. Phone 1300 723 642 or visit scenictours.com.au
10. BLACK CAT AKAROA HARBOUR NATURE CRUISES, NEW ZEALAND
WHO Celebrity Cruises, Holland America, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, Silversea
WHAT YOU DO The historic French village of Akaroa on New Zealand's South Island is set on a spectacular harbour ringed by volcanic cliffs. A two-hour harbour cruise, with commentary by your knowledgeable skipper, offers the chance to see cute little Hector's dolphins that are native to the region, white-flippered blue penguins (the smallest penguins in the world), seabirds and New Zealand fur seals. Black Cat Cruises also run swimming with dolphins tours.
THE DETAILS This is an independent tour costing $NZ74 ($70) for adults and $NZ30 ($28) for children. Phone 0800 937 946 or visit blackcat.co.nz
11. MUSEE D'ART MODERNE, CÉRET, FRANCE
WHO SeaDream Yacht Club
WHAT YOU DO Céret is a small, traditional French town about 40 minutes' drive from Port Vendres that is home to the world-class, but perhaps not world-famous – yet, Musee d'art Moderne, where you can see works by such luminaries as Picasso, Dali, Miro, Matisse and Chagall. SeaDream's four hour tour takes you from the picturesque port to the town in the foothills of the Vallespir Mountains. After viewing the galleries you can enjoy a drink in the museum's private atrium.
THE DETAILS The excursion costs $US129 ($122). Phone 02 9958 4444 or visit seadream.com
12. PALAIS LIECHTENSTEIN, VIENNA
WHAT YOU DO Whether you're a classical music aficionado or know nothing about the genre, you'll feel like royalty when you attend a private concert in Vienna's magnificently ornate Palais Liechtenstein. The 17th century palace is owned by the Liechtenstein royal family and the grand ballroom is the venue for the concert. Musicians play a series of pieces by famous Austrian composers Strauss and Mozart among others and a highlight is the performance by members of the world-renowned Mozart Boys' Choir.
THE DETAILS The tour is included in fares for 15 day Magnificent Europe river cruises. Phone 1300 196 420 or visit aptouring.com.au
13. LESVOS SPECIALTIES: OLIVES & OUZO
WHO Hapag-Lloyd Cruises
WHAT YOU DO The Greek island of Lesvos, also known as Mytilini, is renowned for its olive oil and ouzo, and this scenic half-day tour from uber-luxury ship Europa 2 gives you an insight into how they're produced. From the port, it's about an hour's drive to the Vrana Olive Press Museum, which has an amazing display of vintage presses – a tasting is on the menu. Next stop is the family-run Barbayannis Ouzo Distillery where you visit the museum and production line and, of course, sample the Greek national drink.
THE DETAILS The tour costs €77 ($115); Phone 02 9977 7100 or visit hl-cruises.com
14. RIRI RIVER AND BLUE HOLES, VANUATU
WHO Island Escape Cruises
WHAT YOU DO Take a peaceful journey through the steamy rainforest of the Riri River in a dugout canoe to discover one of the extraordinary blue holes on Espirito Santo. The river starts to change colour and becomes distinctly bluer as you get closer to the Matevulu Blue Hole. You'll be blown away by the colour of the water – no photos can do it justice. And it's so clear you can see the bubbles coming up from the springs deep below when you're swimming. Bliss.
THE DETAILS The price for the excursion is included in fare. Phone 1800 584 869 or visit islandescapecruises.com
15. PRINCESS CAYS, BAHAMAS
WHO Princess Cruises
WHAT YOU DO Princess Cays is Princess Cruises' private resort on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. You can take a tour of the island, go kayaking and snorkelling, enjoy a cocktail at the beach bar or just laze in the shade of your private clamshell for the day and get lost in a good book. The banana boat rides are popular with grown-ups and kids – book on board the ship before you go.
THE DETAILS The tour costs $US19 ($23) for a banana boat ride. Phone 13 24 88 or visit princess.com
16. KROSCHEL CENTRE FOR ORPHANED ANIMALS, ALASKA
WHO Holland America
WHAT YOU DO Film-maker Steve Kroschel takes you on an unforgettable tour around his sanctuary for orphaned wild Alaskan animals, a 24-hectare property about 45 minutes' drive from Haines. You'll see – and in some cases pat or even kiss – moose, porcupines, reindeer, a rare wolverine and many other birds and animals that Steve has nurtured over the years. His interaction with his animal family is entertaining, touching and educational at the same time.
THE DETAILS The tour costs $US134.95 ($165.62) for adults and $US49.95 ($61.30) for children. Phone 1300 987 322 or visit hollandamerica.com.au
17. HOORN, NEAR AMSTERDAM
WHO Viking Cruises
WHAT YOU DO Hoorn played an important part in shipping history – it was a base for the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century and explorer Willem Schouten named Cape Horn after his home town in 1616. A guided walk around cobbled streets and lovely old buildings brings the past to life, and keen shoppers will find plenty of unusual contemporary shops where they can spend their holiday dollars.
THE DETAILS The cost of the excursion is included in the fare for the Tulips & Windmills river cruise. Phone 1800 829 138 or visit vikingrivercruises.com.au
18. ANCIENT HUE AND PERFUME RIVER, VIETNAM
WHAT YOU DO This culture-packed, day-long tour from Chan May takes in the imperial city of Hue, a dragon boat cruise on the Perfume River, the Thien Mu Pagoda and a visit to the magnificent tomb of Emperor Minh Mang. A Vietnamese feast is included, and comfortable walking shoes and fully charged camera are highly recommended – there's a lot of ground to cover with such a wealth of palaces, pagodas and temples to see.
THE DETAILS The tour costs $US169 ($207). Phone 1300 306 872 or visit silversea.com
19. MUSEUM OF NEW AND OLD ART (MONA), HOBART
WHO Carnival Cruise Lines, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America, Oceania Cruises, P&O, Regent Seven Seas
WHAT YOU DO Since it opened in 2011, MONA has become one of Tasmania's biggest tourist attractions. And no wonder. It is Australia's largest privately funded museum and home to a wonderfully eclectic collection of new and old art. The museum is set on the Moorilla wine estate, so wine lovers have the chance to explore the winery while beer buffs can take a tour of the onsite Moo Brewery.
THE DETAILS This is an independent tour for cruise lines that visit Hobart (see above). The excursion costs $25 for adults and $20 for concession with under 18s, free. Phone 03 6277 9900 or visit mona.net.au, carnival.com.au, celebritycruises.com.au, hollandamerica.com, pocruises.com.au, rssc.net.au.
20. SUMELA MONASTERY, TURKEY
WHO Azamara Club Cruises
WHAT TO DO Just getting there is one photo op after another – the one hour drive from the port of Trabzon to the 1000-year-old mountaintop monastery of Sumela takes you through the stunning alpine scenery of Altindere National Park. The monastery itself is perched 1200 metres above sea level on steep rock cliffs – you can't help but wonder how on earth it was ever built in the first place. The Rock Church is the main attraction and you'll see frescoes spanning the 12th to 18th centuries.
THE DETAILS The tour costs $US129 ($158). Phone 1800 754 500 or visit azamaraclubcruises.com
Explore the top 20 shore excursions in the photo gallery above.
FIVE TIPS FOR TAKING
CRUISE SHIP TOURS
1. Before you book the cruise have a close look at the itinerary, decide what you most want to see or do at each port, what tours the ship is offering, and whether you prefer go with the ship's excursion or do your own thing. (See above for pros and cons of taking ship's tours or independent tours.)
2. When you're booking an independent tour check the times the ship is due to dock and leave the port – and whether your insurance covers you for cancellation in case the ship can't get to the port for any reason. The ship won't wait for you if an independent tour is delayed or you get lost. Ask crew members for their tips about what to do in ports – they've often visited them several times.
3. Ask your travel agent or cruise line whether tours have limited availability and book ahead whenever possible to make sure you have a spot on a must-do tour.
4. Have a back-up plan in case the tour you want to take is cancelled or sells out. Local tourism officials often come on board the ship when it docks in the morning, armed with maps and advice on the port's attractions; very helpful if you're planning to explore on your own.
5. How fit and mobile are you? Most ship's tours are rated from easy to strenuous, so book accordingly.
FIVE NEW CRUISE TOURS FOR 2015
Carnival is offering three Tassie cruises next year and one of its new shore excursions is a two hour ghost tour in Port Arthur. The guided walking tour of areas not normally open to the public reveals unexplained events from Port Arthur's past. See carnival.com.au
2. WESTERN AUSTRALIA
The Amaze'n Margaret River Adventure is one of Princess Cruises' new shore tours in Margaret River that complement the line's first calls to Western Australia's Busselton. It starts at the giant Amaze'n maze, which is planted with 2000 two metre high hedges with the tour continuing to the award-winning Providore at Wilyabrup – foodie heaven. See princess.com
APT's 16-day "Spirit of India" luxury land journey and Lower Ganges river cruise aboard the RV Ganges Voyager includes several unusual sightseeing experiences. Play a game of cricket with local villagers, have a Indian outfit tailormade and witness a spectacular fire-lit Aarti ceremony being performed during an evening prayer cruise in Varanasi. See aptouring.com.au
Take a not-too strenuous trek to Sapa in the mountains of north-west Vietnam to meet the local hill tribes when you take a Travelmarvel river cruise in Vietnam next year. Sapa is home to the Kinh, Black H'mong and Red Dao people, who have lived apart from the outside world for many years and still follow ancient customs. See travelmarvel.com.au.
Royal Caribbean's newest ship, the Quantum-class Anthem of the Seas, will be home-ported in Southampton for the northern-hemisphere summer after its launch in April. It will be sailing around Europe and offering exciting new tours that will appeal to the whole family – like its Bruges and Belgian Chocolate excursion. Enjoy a behind-the-scenes demonstration at a leading chocolatier's workshop, sample the exquisite goods, and afterwards enjoy a guided tour of this beautifully preserved medieval city. See royalcaribbean.com.au.