Travellers across the board are looking for ever more "authenticity" and cultural immersion in less-visited destinations, and cruising is no exception to the sweeping trend. While some over-touristed destinations will always be on travellers' wish lists – Venice, Barcelona, Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, Santorini – industry leaders are working with local communities to tempt visitors away from crowded centres to explore further afield.
At a recent gathering of Carnival Corporation executives on board Majestic Princess, there was a strong focus on providing guests with locally sustainable, engaging experiences. Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America Line, said "Creating more localised and customised experiences creates a better experience for the guest, and, if you do it right, it provides a bigger distribution of guests around these different ports and towns so you don't overwhelm them."
Cruise lines are now offering an enormous range of shore excursions that are designed for smaller groups looking for something more engaging than old-school city bus tours or flopping on a beach with several thousand fellow passengers. As Princess Cruises' chief commercial officer Deanna Austin said at the conference "Local artisans and cultural leaders bring a destination to life".
Building on the success of New Zealand's Local Connections tours – part of Princess Cruises' Across the Ditch initiative – the line introduced Local Connections in Australia at the start of the season. Highlights of 20 new shore tours in Broome, Perth, Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide and Brisbane include a Narlijia heritage and cultural tour in Broome with local expert Bart Pigram, and a tour in Melbourne that starts with a behind-the-scenes look at artisanal coffee roaster St Ali's Port Melbourne roastery.
Celebrity Cruises also launched its Discovery Collection of shore tours in Australia and New Zealand late last year, having won awards for the program that kicked off in February 2018 with a range of Mediterranean excursions.
Celebrity says each Discovery Collection excursion must fit three criteria in order to be selected for the program: they must be iconic, exclusive and locally inspired. With a maximum of 24 guests in each tour, they have more time at each location, individual interaction with their hosts and a more personal travel experience. One example is a day tour in Melbourne's Yarra Valley, which includes sampling Domaine Chandon's sparkling wines with the winemakers, visiting Yering Estate to taste their craft wines, a two-course lunch at Rochford wines and chocolate-tasting at the Yarra Valley Chocolaterie.
THE PORT Kusadasi, Turkey
WHO GOES THERE Azamara, Celestyal, Fred.Olsen, HAL, NCL, Oceania, RSSC, Royal Caribbean, Silversea, Star Clippers, Windstar.
WHY WE LOVE IT Kusadasi is about 18 kilometres from the ancient city of Ephesus and most travellers go straight there from the port. However, in recent years Kusadasi has become something of a party town as well as having some lovely (busy) beaches, shops, markets and a few historic sites of its own.
TAKE A TOUR OR GO IT ALONE? Cruise ships dock within a few minutes' walk of the town centre, via the Scala Nuova port shopping complex, where you can buy everything from baklava to Birkenstocks. However, you can do that after taking guided tours to the incredible historic sites within easy driving distance of Kusadasi. Ephesus is the most famous, often combined with a trip to Selcuk, but there's also the ruined city of Priene and its Temple of Athene and well-preserved theatre; combine that with a tour to Miletus, another once-great Ancient Greek city. If you're feeling a tad templed-out, Kirazli is a peaceful village about 10 kilometres from Kusadasi, and nature-lovers should head for the beaches and national parkland of Dilek Peninsula.
MUST SEE The museum inside the Byzantine Castle on Pigeon (or Bird) Island; Grand and Orient Bazaar for souvenir shopping; 17th-century Haci Irahim Camii and Kaleiçi Camii mosques; and experiencing a hammam is a must-do.
MUST EAT Turkish food such as gozleme (stuffed flatbread), kebabs, skewers of grilled chicken or lamb, kofte (meatballs) and pide (pizza-style bread with various toppings). A meze plate with ingredients such as feta cheese, stuffed vine leaves, olives, hummus, calamari and haydari (strained yoghurt with herbs) is delicious for a light lunch or starter.
NEED TO KNOW Do some homework about Turkish rugs before you splurge your hard-earned holiday money in the first rug shop you come across – and be prepared to haggle.
Cunard's famous transatlantic liner Queen Mary 2 is the fastest passenger ship in service, with an official top speed of 28 knots, although it has reached almost 30 knots.
Viking world cruise 2020-21
The 930-passenger, all-balcony Viking Sun will set off on its 161-day cruise from Miami on December 14, 2020, calling at 75 ports in six continents on its way to London. The itinerary will include six new ports of call for Viking, including Honolulu and Nawiliwili in the Hawaiian Islands. A 140-day segment of the cruise will depart from Los Angeles on January 4, 2021, visiting 27 countries and 66 ports. Among the highlights are overnight stays in 30 cities, free shore excursions in every port and Viking's resident historian program. Fares for both the 161 and 140-day cruises include business class air fares, a drinks package, gratuities and more; if you book by February 28, 2019, you'll receive a $US2000 optional shore tour credit and $US1000 shipboard credit. See vikingcruises.com.au
Middle Earth magic
In the wake of Silversea flagship Silver Muse's first season in local waters, Ecruising Travel is offering an 18-night cruise/land/fly package to New Zealand on Silver Muse next January. The 16-night luxury cruise from Sydney to Auckland includes two days in Sydney and calls to Melbourne, Burnie and Hobart before heading across the Tasman to New Zealand. Silver Muse spends a day sailing through the majestic Doubtful, Dusky and Milford Sounds in Fiordland National Park before calling at Dunedin and Christchurch on the South Island. Highlights on the North Island include full days in both Wellington and Tauranga and half a day in the art deco city of Napier. Two nights' accommodation at the Stamford Plaza Auckland and the flight back to Sydney are included in the package, which starts at $9499. See ecruising.travel