Forgive the cruise companies. When you've spent hundreds of millions on a new ship, it's only natural to sing the praises of its spa retreat, multiple restaurants and latest luxuries. Besides, ships are the obvious way one company can distinguish itself from another. Crystal Symphony isn't Majestic Princess but, no matter which ship you sail into Singapore or San Francisco, port destinations remain the same.
Not so any more, though. As cruise ships become more like resorts and their cabins more like boutique hotel rooms, it seems cruise companies have belatedly realised that for many, destination comes first, accommodation second. The vast majority of cruise passengers are interested in seeing places, and cruise companies are adjusting – and differentiating – their shore-excursion offerings accordingly.
Add to that a whole new generation of increasingly younger, more energetic, more involved cruise passengers looking for active, local and inspiring experiences, and suddenly the classic coach tour, old-town walkabout or beach snorkel seems a tad trite. Cruisers are demanding more in-depth and focused tour options, more time in port, more insight and more fun.
As a result, shore excursions have become much more varied and interesting, moving beyond the sightseeing overview tour to offer topics of special or local interest. A good example is those now offered by Princess Cruises, which has announced its largest ever Australia and New Zealand program, for the 2020-21 season. The company is partnering with regional experts in an expansion of its Land Connections excursions that aims at more meaningful, sustainable and behind-the-scenes tourism experiences centred on interests such as food and wine, culture and wildlife.
"Princess will continue to invest in local experts who will deliver meaningful and bespoke, boutique experiences to our guests, as it's these local artisans and cultural leaders who bring a destination to life," says Princess Cruises' destinations director, Michael Mihajlov. "We want to share the passion of the locals with our guests."
It isn't just the quality and nature of shore excursions that's changing. Cruise lines are also spending longer in port, and in particular are enticing guests with late-night departures, allowing the chance for evening experiences from concert-going to bar-hopping. Princess Cruises has a More Ashore program in more than 30 ports, Celebrity Cruises offers Evenings Around the World and Azamara Club Cruises has at least one AzAmazing Evening on every sailing, offering cultural, music or dance experiences in locales such as cathedrals, ancient ruins and palaces.
Port overnights have also been rapidly increasing as passengers demand more time in culture-rich ports such as New York or St Petersburg, where a single day simply isn't enough. This year, for example, Crystal Cruises is offering overnight stays in 71 destinations. Celebrity and Oceania Cruises have overnight stays on about half their itineraries. In the 2020-21 cruise season, Regent Seven Seas Cruises will feature a record 114 overnight stays, and Silversea will offer overnights on all voyages over seven nights in Europe and Canada. Azamara is especially notable for the frequency of its overnight stays.
"Azamara's itineraries emphasise spending more time in port, enabling travellers to explore beyond the initial layers of a city and fully immerse themselves in the destination," says Larry Pimentel, Azamara's president and chief executive. "In 2020, Azamara will offer a total of 473 late-night and overnight stays, a 12 per cent increase from 2019."
An increasing number of luxury cruise lines are also offering mid-journey hotel overnights, with guests rejoining the cruise at the subsequent port to allow visits to inland destinations such as the Taj Mahal or Angkor Wat. Silversea has a particularly impressive range of pre- and post-cruise land programs, including vintage train journeys in India, a private helicopter tour of Mongolia and gorilla-spotting in Rwanda. Cunard brings guests into outback Australia and South African game parks, Seabourn on a tour to Jaipur, Agra and Delhi.
For those who travel to see places rather than sit on ships, cruising is getting ever more interesting. The following 12 ports are among the best of many examples in which maximising your time ashore can be satisfyingly easy.
GREAT FOR … culture and history.
SHORE THING Cadiz provides port access to Seville, with its Moorish palace, fabulous cathedral and 16th-century old town. However, discerning cruise companies explore the region of Andalusia more widely on excursions to whitewashed, hilltop villages (particularly picturesque Vejer de la Frontera) and the sherry-producing town and equestrian centre, Jerez.
GO IT ALONE Cruise ships dock in the heart of Cadiz, which sits on a peninsula encased in fortifications from the days when the port was key to Spain's colonial-era shipping. Its many churches and mansions date from its 18th-century golden age, while its cafés and street markets add contemporary buzz.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Viking Cruises' 13-day Western Mediterranean Explorer from Rome to Lisbon, from $5495pp, departing December 4, 2019 and October 6 and November 21, 2020. See vikingcruises.com.au
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND
GREAT FOR … outdoor activities and landscape lovers.
SHORE THING As you might expect, many shore excursions showcase Auckland's magnificent harbour and coastal setting on visits to Waiheke Island, Devonport or the wild West Coast. Upmarket alternatives include an America's Cup sailing adventure or seaplane ride over Hauraki Gulf. The fit can join a run around the bays.
GO IT ALONE Hardly easier, given cruise ships dock beside the harbour ferry terminal, at the end of Queen Street, which is the CBD's main shopping drag. Hire a bike and cycle the shoreline to Mission Bay, or explore the city centre. Viaduct Harbour, the excellent New Zealand Maritime Museum and Sky Tower are a short walk.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Crystal Cruises' 13-night Auckland to Sydney cruise, from $7623pp, departing February 19, 2020. See crystalcruises.com
GREAT FOR … scenery and sophistication.
SHORE THING General tours of tiny Monaco take in the palace, cathedral and various gardens and viewpoints, but the principality is well placed for visits to the French Riviera, with excursions often offered to Nice, Cannes, ancient hilltop town Eze, medieval walled city St Paul de Vence or Grasse, France's perfume-making capital.
GO IT ALONE The great advantage of a tiddly country is that you can walk just about everywhere. Check out the infamous casino, the interesting Oceanographic Museum and superb views from cliff-clinging parks, or just indulge yourself in the magnificent Thermes Marins Spa. It's also easy to hop on a train along the Riviera.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Silversea's 14-day Lisbon to Rome cruise, from $11,400pp, departing April 9, 2020. See silversea.com
GREAT FOR … food and ethnic enclaves.
SHORE THING Singapore has a great variety of shore excursions, many with a foodie flavour – explore local markets, Peranakan cuisine or Chinatown. Take a history tour in the footsteps of Singapore founder Stamford Raffles, or head to Singapore Zoo or the magnificent Gardens by the Bay.
GO IT ALONE Singapore's efficient public transport system (and cheap taxis) make getting around easy. If you berth at Marina Bay, you're well placed for Chinatown and the colonial-era city core. If you dock at Singapore Cruise Centre, nip across to Sentosa Island and enjoy the family fun at Universal Studios theme park.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Celebrity Cruises' 14-night south-east Asia cruise from Hong Kong to Singapore, from $1685pp, departing December 7, 2019 and January 4 and February 15, 2020. See celebritycruises.com
GREAT FOR … history and sports.
SHORE THING One of the most popular shore excursions follows the Freedom Trail that links sights associated with the American Revolution, but you can also trace the life of American presidents Adams and Kennedy, and visit Harvard University. Day trips take you to Martha's Vineyard and revolutionary sites Lexington and Concord.
GO IT ALONE Boston has good museums, restaurants and shopping but is also a great sporting city. If you get the chance, take in a Major League baseball, basketball or American football game, accompanied by all-American razzle-dazzle and hot dogs. North End and Beacon Hill are attractive, easily walked neighbourhoods.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Oceania Cruises' 11-day Fall Foliage cruise from Montreal to New York, from $5710pp, departing October 8, 2019. See oceaniacruises.com
GREAT FOR … urban street life.
SHORE THING The highlights of Osaka include its samurai-era castle, Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine and Namba shopping district, but Japan's efficient bullet trains allow shore excursions further afield to Himeji Castle, the city of Kobe, and Kyoto, Japan's former capital.
GO IT ALONE Osaka is more about street vibe than sights, so if you abandon shore excursions and plunge in, you'll probably have a better experience. You'll discover a fun-loving city with great shopping, a pulsating nightlife and one of the world's best food scenes. The cruise terminal at Tempozan is out of the city centre, but beside a lively waterfront entertainment precinct.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Regent Seven Seas Cruises' 14-night Tokyo to Tokyo cruise, from $12,840pp, departing April 6, 2021. See rssc.com
GREAT FOR … maritime history and seascapes.
SHORE THING Tour the old town, visit the royal palace, or get a guided tour of Vasa Museum, which displays an incredible 17th-century warship. Many excursions venture beyond the city to Stockholm's archipelago, royal summer residence Drottningholm or the historic town of Sigtuna on Lake Mälaren.
GO IT ALONE Bad luck if your (large) ship docks at industrial Frihamnen, a bus ride from the city centre. Smaller ships sail to Skeppsbron at the old town's foot. It's a magnificent wind-whipped walk to Djurgården island, which has numerous excellent museums, including Skansen Open-Air Museum and the amusing, kitschy ABBA Museum.
MAKE IT HAPPEN APT's 13-day Best of the Baltics cruise from Copenhagen to Stockholm, from $14,995pp, departing July 2, 2020. See aptouring.com.au
GREAT FOR … outdoor activities.
SHORE THING Ports where cruises begin or end usually have limited shore excursion options, often only a city highlights tour. Some cruise lines, though, offer good alternatives such as a visit to Capilano suspension bridge, a brewery tour or a cable-car ride to the summit of Grouse Mountain.
GO IT ALONE Get active. Terrific waterfront walking begins at the cruise terminal, or you could hire a bicycle and cycle the 10-kilometre path around Stanley Park for harbour and mountain views. Paddle a kayak around False Creek. Check out Granville Island, a former industrial area that is now home to shops, theatres, food markets and restaurants.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Seabourn Cruise Line's 10-day Alaska Fjord Sojourn from Vancouver to Seward, from $9499pp, departing June 26, 2020. See seabourn.com
HONG KONG, CHINA
GREAT FOR … sightseeing, shopping and dining.
SHORE THING The rack-railway ride up Victoria Peak, a trip out to fishing village Aberdeen and seaside Stanley, or an excursion to Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island are classic shore excursions. Some cruise companies offer cultural experiences such as Cantonese opera or cooking classes.
GO IT ALONE Ocean Terminal is right on the edge of Kowloon's shopping action, with shopping malls, store-lined Nathan Road and street markets a walk away. (Kai Tak Cruise Terminal is less convenient.) Hop on the Star Ferry and you get magnificent harbour views and access to Central, where you can visit Hong Kong Park and ascend The Peak.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Cunard's 14-night Tokyo to Singapore cruise, from $3149pp, departing October 25, 2020. See cunard.com
GREAT FOR … architecture, art and history.
SHORE THING The good thing about excursions here is that, for repeat visitors, many concentrate on particular topics, such as Murano glass-blowing and Burano lace-making, or areas, such as the San Giorgio Maggiore and its basilica, the Doge's Palace, the Jewish Ghetto, or a food-oriented visit to the Rialto markets.
GO IT ALONE River cruises deposit you a shuffle from St Mark's Square. Ocean cruises require more walking to key sights, but you get plenty of bridges, Renaissance style and picturesque corners of the less-visited Dorsoduro quarter along the way. Admire Titians and Tintorettos at the Galleria dell'Accademia and modern art at the nearby Guggenheim.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Azamara Club Cruises' nine-night Italy Intensive Voyage from Venice to Rome, from $4634pp, departing August 11, 2020. See azamaraclubcruises.com
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA
GREAT FOR … landscapes and urban buzz.
SHORE THING Cape Town is surrounded by great nearby destinations. Head out to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, to the wineries of Constantia, the botanic gardens at Kirstenbosch or rugged Cape Peninsula, whose wildlife includes penguins. More adventurous cruise lines offer hiking on Table Mountain.
GO IT ALONE Rejoice, because you can walk to trendy Victoria & Albert Waterfront, with its smelly seals and lively restaurants, and from there into the historic inner city. Malay quarter Bo-Kaap erupts in colourful houses, and Greenmarket Square is packed with weekend stalls selling African wood carvings and bronze lions.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Ponant's nine-day Along the South African Coastline from Cape Town to Durban, from $5177pp, departing March 17, 2020. See au.ponant.com
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
GREAT FOR … culture and street life.
SHORE THING City walking and bike tours, tango experiences or colourful immigrant La Boca district are all options. Excursions beyond the city take you to the bird-rich Tigre Delta or an estancia (ranch). Many cruise lines do pre- or post-cruise extensions which cover the highlights over two or three days.
GO IT ALONE The port isn't ideally located, but good cruise lines supply complimentary shuttles downtown, where you can admire Spanish-colonial Plaza de Mayo and its pink presidential palace. Head to upmarket Recoleta for its ornate cemetery. San Telmo district features street tango, Palermo Viejo has funky nightlife and restaurants.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Crystal Cruises' 10-night South American Rhythm cruise from Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires, from $13,400pp, departing October 27, 2021. See crystalcruises.com
10 TIPS FOR MAXIMISING YOUR OFF-SHIP TIME
Don't be seduced by a voyage to multiple countries, these often sail long distances. You'll get more in-depth enjoyment and port time if you choose a smaller region or a one-country-intensive cruise.
Europe is an exception to the above rule. In the Mediterranean, Baltic and Norway, port cities are nearly always a short distance from each other, allowing you full days (and sometimes evenings) in destinations of call.
AVOID PACIFIC CROSSINGS
You really don't want to be voyaging from Papeete to Auckland or similar unless you love days at sea. Best choose small-ship itineraries that stick to archipelagos such as French Polynesia.
If port time is more important than penguins, Antarctic cruises aren't for you. No ports, for a start. Plus multiple days at sea getting there from South America, usually sailing round-trip from Ushuaia.
Upmarket cruise lines such as Oceania and Azamara spend more time in ports, and in particular offer itineraries with an increasing number of port overnights and late-night departures, allowing for evening exploration.
Some cruise lines offer sampler cruises, sometimes called short-break cruises or "cruises to nowhere". These are a good way for non-cruisers to test the waters, but many have no destination, spending two or three days afloat at sea.
SELECT SMALL PORTS
Some itineraries list "ports" such as Rome, Berlin or Beijing, but these are far from the sea, so you'll spend most of your time on coach transits. Cruises that visit small, easily accessible ports are much more rewarding.
EAT ASHORE, SOMETIMES
Some passengers spend thousands on a cruise yet baulk at spending $20 on a local meal. Returning to the ship for lunch, or indulging in long shipboard dinners, cuts into shore time – plus you miss the pleasure of local dining.
CHOOSE A RIVER CRUISE
There's no equivalent of a day at sea. Only occasionally do you sail all day, usually through spectacular scenery such as the Yangtze River Gorges in China. River ports are generally close together, particularly in Europe.
GO MERRILY DOWN THE STREAM
If you're on a river cruise, sail in the downstream direction, for example Basel to Amsterdam, rather than the reverse. Your ship won't be battling the current and, as a result, spends more time docked in towns.
FIVE EXCLUSIVE SHORE EXCURSIONS
One of the advantages of cruising is the access it provides to remote places and experiences you couldn't have as an individual traveller. Here are five top examples.
Uniworld's 10-day Gems of Northern Italy cruise on the Venetian Lagoon and Po River includes a private, after-hours visit to St Mark's Basilica. It's a rare chance to see the ancient monument and its sumptuous mosaics without the crowds. See uniworld.com
Ponant's eight-day On the Trail of the Gold Prospectors cruise takes you by Zodiac right up to the glaciers of Endicott Arm and Tracey Arm Fjord, so close you can hear the ice creak. You pass so near seals on ice floes that you can see their whiskers twitching. See au.ponant.com
The Kimberley coast is inaccessible by road, but Coral Expeditions' 10-day cruise between Broome and Darwin (or reverse) takes you there with ease on tender excursions to rust-red King George River gorges, Montgomery Reef and Horizontal Falls. See coralexpeditions.com
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA
Certainly, you could walk through the capital yourself, but having an expert local guide provides a richer experience. Uncover old mosques, Dutch colonial mansions and colourful spice markets on Azamara's 17-night Sri Lanka and India Odyssey. See azamaraclubcruises.com
You can't do anything in Antarctica by yourself unless you're Bear Grylls, but you could get great boasting rights on a Ski Antarctica cruise with Chimu Adventures, which necessitates prior training in roped glacier travel before you hit untamed slopes. See chimuadventures.com
ALL AT SEA
Don't panic if you find yourself facing a day at sea – or even two. You might be surprised at the range of entertainment and enrichment aboard mid-sized and luxury cruise ships, which have come a long way from the days when quoits and knitting bees were the chief options.
Cruise lines such as Azamara, Crystal, Oceania, Regent, Seabourn, Silversea and Viking have significant on-board programs to help while away your time – in fact, you mightn't have the chance to do everything. Join classes in cooking, computing, art or photography, and attend lectures by experts in fields such as politics, wildlife and history.
Many ships now have daily fitness events and wellness classes, too. Some have planetariums, cinemas and wine-tasting rooms, and most have top-notch evening entertainment from their own song-and-dance ensembles and invited guest performers.
Ask yourself whether you need do anything at all. Slump on a lounge chair by the pool, read a book, have a drink in the observation lounge and a lingering lunch. Enjoy views from the deck. Maybe you'll discover that an absence of ports can occasionally be a blessing, after all.
HOW TO BE A BETTER CRUISER IN THE AGE OF OVER-TOURISM
Take a look at cruise-company brochures and you might imagine you'll be enjoying intimate, exclusive experiences ashore. Statistics say otherwise. Thirty million passengers sail annually, and overcrowding in ports regularly hits the news. Here's how to counter the problem.
If you sail aboard mega-ships, choose itineraries to big cities rather than smaller, easily swamped ports. Destinations such as St Petersburg or Hong Kong have little problem absorbing cruise passengers.
Visit small destinations on small ships that avoid mega-ship ports and have less impact thanks to reduced passenger numbers. Expedition destinations such as Antarctica or the Galapagos limit overall visitor numbers.
It's surprisingly easy, even in crowded cities such as Venice or Barcelona, to step off well-tramped paths. Explore districts beyond the city centre for a more authentic experience.
Be aware of how you dress and where you're standing – streets blocked by tour groups are a local bugbear. Ask before taking photos. Try a few words in the local language.
Support small local businesses, buy market fare and tip buskers. If the local economy benefits directly from cruising, residents will be less inclined to adopt negative views.