Top cruise destinations: World's 20 most perfect ports to drop anchor

Travellers may argue over which city provides the most beautiful arrival by ship, but few would leave Rio de Janeiro far from the top of the list. Cruise ships sail into Guanabara Bay past the city's famous beaches, before skirting the dramatic outcrop of Sugarloaf Mountain and docking just beyond the city centre. From the ship's railings, the panorama is stunning. Beautiful yacht-studded marinas and humped mountains glide past. Above, stands Rio's statue of Christ the Redeemer, arms outspread, as if to say: What do you reckon?

I reckon there's reason to cruise right there. You could, of course, get to Rio by air, but your arrival will be quite a different experience. The airport resembles a great concrete space pod and, as you head into the city by taxi, huge cranes and other machinery line the harbour, scaled-up Meccano sets of urban practicality. Shanty towns tumble down hillsides in a depressing patchwork of corrugated iron and tarpaulin. It's only when you pop through a road tunnel and into the district of Copacabana that Rio's legendary beauty arrives with a golden sweep of beach and jungle-draped mountains.

Some cities have such magnificent harbours that they're just meant to be cruised. Sydney too has an unedifying approach from the airport but is utterly magnificent from a cruise ship. Years ago I sailed into Sydney on Crystal Symphony and it gave me a whole new respect for my home town, and a perspective on the harbour far more elevated than you can enjoy from a Manly ferry. And where else can you dock within a yo-ho-ho of one of the world's  most recognisable buildings? If you're on the lucky side of the ship, you have full-on Opera House views  during your stay, something only a single Sydney hotel (the Park Hyatt Sydney) can match.

Last year, I sailed out of Auckland on Seven Seas Mariner and was also struck by the beauty of a city rather unattractive from its land side. The ship slid away from Queens Wharf at dusk, with skyscraper lights a-twinkle and the ancient volcanic island of Rangitoto black and bulky in the moonlight. I felt I could almost smell the coffee in the cafes of seaside Davenport as we surged past. A half hour later, I looked back from the ship's stern and could still see the tops of Auckland's skyscrapers glittering above a dark suburban hillside.

The approach to Vancouver would also soften the heart of a tyrant. It provides layer upon layer of unfolding scenery that starts with the Strait of Juan de Fuca​ and continues with the hazy blue US and Canadian islands. Seals flop on rocks and pine trees shiver. Ships slip under the Lions Gate Bridge and bring you into downtown Vancouver. On your starboard, joggers pound along the seafront of Stanley Park. On your portside, snow-topped mountains gleam.

In short, forget worrying about the particulars of your ship and its entertainment and amenities. You can see chorus girls, eat steaks and enjoy Frette linens in  many other places. I wouldn't travel just for a great hotel, much as they add to the travel experience. I go places for destinations, and I cruise not for the ships but to see destinations from a new perspective. 

Sometimes a cruise ship provides the best perspective. Have you ever approached Venice by road, past burping mainland factories and flyovers and ugly concrete apartment blocks where knickers flap from balconies? A less than spectacular introduction  to the city of dreams. If you want to  experience the romance, you have to arrive by sea, sitting out on deck, gawping at St Mark's Square and the Grand Canal and the floating church of San Giorgio Maggiore. You're so high up you can see saints waving from rooftops and bells in their belfries.

Apart from beautiful approaches, some ports have such a splendid maritime history that it's hard to resist the lure of arriving by ship. You feel as if you're sailing in the wake of centuries of sailors, traders, buccaneers and explorers. Just the thought of sailing into Gibraltar or Cadiz, Zanzibar or Muscat stirs the travel juices. 

Valletta, the Maltese capital, showcases its history nowhere better than from the middle of the Grand Harbour, one of the world's great natural shelters. You sail in past Fort St Elmo and are enveloped in a stage set from Game of Thrones: a honeyed, battlemented glorious Renaissance gem crammed with turrets and swelling church domes. It makes you feel like a Knight of St John, sailing home after vanquishing the Barbary pirates. 

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The only downside is a long hoof uphill after you dock; Lord Byron bemoaned Valletta's "cursed streets of stairs". Leap off your cruise ship first and you can always use the lift before the queues start. It will hoist you up medieval ramparts on to Upper Barrakka Gardens, lined with cannon overlooking views that would make a Victorian heroine sob.

If only all ports were this brilliant, and all ships docked at so convenient a location. Admittedly, that isn't always the case. The walled town of Dubrovnik must look marvellous from the sea – waves lap its fortifications – but you won't see it on your sail into the cruise terminal at Gruz, which is about as unexciting as its name. Many passengers bemoan the distance of some ports from the cities they serve – Civitavecchia from Rome or Tianjin from Beijing spring to mind – but look at a map and you shouldn't be surprised, as neither city is on the sea.

Sometimes you have to take to smaller ships to enjoy the most scenic of arrivals. Is Urke​ in Norway the world's most scenic port? Maybe, not to mention that it would take you a million years to get  there by road. Instead, you can sail down the ever-narrowing Hjorundfjord where cliffs and mountain peaks soar and houses sit among apple orchards. If heaven exists, it must surely look like this.

Norwegian fiords are like the Dance of the Seven Veils, titillating you with ever more spectacular scenery before you arrive at your destination. Other journeys aren't as spectacular but nevertheless worth the wait. Quebec City is certainly a bit of a tease. It takes a long time  to travel down the St Lawrence River, but it's a journey well taken. Quebec's ladder-like old town is layered with stone buildings and churches and statues, all topped by a wildly grandiose castle (actually a hotel) that looks as if it were built for folk the size of ogres.

You can only see it like this from the water. You've completely missed the dull experience of arriving by road, which provides a scene of petrol stations, Tim Hortons coffee shops  and concrete apartment blocks. You don't have to read a map or try to follow GPS instructions. You don't have a find a park. 

Just sashay off your ship, clamber up to Dufferin Terrace, sit in a green-and-white gazebo and gaze back along the waterway you've just sailed, and you'll be as happy as a seagull on a lamp post.

FIVE TOP PORT CITIES

HONG KONG, CHINA

WHY HERE? Hong Kong dazzles with its superb combination of natural setting and urban excitement; no better way to arrive in this raucous, freewheeling trading city than by sea.

THE EXPERIENCE Ships sail into Victoria Harbour in the heart of the neon-flashing, pulsating city after negotiating innumerable offshore islands. Skyscrapers loom, backed by the green summit of The Peak, and junks and ferries pass too and fro.

DOCKING You'll want your ship to berth at Ocean Terminal – not the new terminal at Kai Tak – for the most impressive arrival and convenient location.

DETAILS Far East Discovery cruise with Holland America Line, 14 days from $2098 a person. Phone 1300 987 322, see www.hollandamerica.com

ISTANBUL, TURKEY

WHY HERE? The city at the crossroads between the Mediterranean and Black Sea, Europe and Asia provides surely the most stirring historical settings of any cruise port.

THE EXPERIENCE Bold and beautiful, seductive and worn, Istanbul has ageless style best viewed from the water. As you sail into the Golden Horn, the fabulous Ottoman city unfolds on the hillsides in a series of soaring minarets, marble terraces and palace pavilions. 

DOCKING Whether you dock at Salipazari or Karakoy, you get the same splendid views, though Karakoy is closer to Istanbul's  main sights.

DETAILS Istanbul to Venice cruise with Silversea, 10 days, from $5850 a person. Phone 1800 446 849, see www.silversea.com.

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN 

WHY HERE? Sail into Stockholm and it isn't just about the cityscape: you also negotiate a 60-kilometre waterway of innumerable islands, dense with fir trees and red summer cottages. 

THE EXPERIENCE The ship docks in a city centre spread over several islands, where Renaissance spires and medieval houses are backed by slender glass office towers. The salty air is bracing, the pale northern light exhilarating, the old town gingerbread quaint.

DOCKING Bad luck if your (large) ship docks at dull, industrial Frihamnen. Smaller ships sail to glorious Skeppsbron at the foot of the old town.

DETAILS Baltic Archipelagos cruise with Lindblad-National Geographic, eight days, from $9990 a person. Phone 1300 361 012. See www.expeditions.com.

NEW YORK, US

WHY HERE You're sailing in the wake of generations of immigrants who first spotted America from a ship, past Ellis Island where many were processed.

THE EXPERIENCE Natural beauty isn't New York harbour's asset, but there's no denying the thrill of sailing under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge towards this city's famous skyline past the Statue of Liberty, with brilliant views of Lower Manhattan. 

DOCKING  The Manhattan and Brooklyn terminals have fabulous Liberty views, but dock at Cape Liberty Cruise Port and you'll miss out on the  stunning approach.

DETAILS New England and Canada cruise with Cunard, 14 nights, from $2699 a person. Phone 13 24 41, see cunardline.com.au

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA

WHY HERE? Cityscapes are secondary to sheer, rugged nature as you see Table Mountain emerging from the cloud at the end of Africa: a sight to gladden any sailor's eyes. 

THE EXPERIENCE If you're heading south, you slip past infamous prison Robben Island before sailing towards a great barrier of rugged peaks that majestically frame the city beneath. Sea lions may be frolicking in the water as you dock.

DOCKING Most ships tie up at Duncan Docks, rather drab and industrial. Moves are afoot to build a new terminal on the more attractive, adjacent V&A waterfront precinct.

DETAILS Cape Town to Singapore cruise with Oceania Cruises, 30 days from $6300 a person. Phone 02 9959 1371, see www.oceaniacruises.com

TOP FIVE PETITE PORTS

Big cities may offer bright lights and bustling settings, but some of the world's smaller or lesser known ports can provide magnificent approaches by sea, too.

KOTOR, MONTENEGRO

The sunken valley of Kotor Bay is the Mediterranean's answer to a fiord. Cruise ships often sail the 30-kilometre waterway in the early morning, when the sun touches the rocky mountains on either side and the sea is purple-black. Ships tie up under the walls of the old town, which are splendidly topped by St John's Fortress above.

TAKE ME THERE Mediterranean & Adriatic cruise with Princess Cruises, seven nights, from $1399 a person. Phone 1300 551 853, see www.princess.com

NAPLES, ITALY

As you sail across the Bay of Naples, you see the volcanic cone of Vesuvius. Ships dock under the walls of a Norman fortress, with Naples tiered up the hillside behind in a tumble of palaces and churches, topped by another whopping fort. It's a heady combination of splendid natural setting, historical layers and chaotic contemporary hubbub.

TAKE ME THERE Mediterranean cruise with P&O Cruises, 14 nights, from $1389 a person. Phone 13 24 28, see www.pocruises.com

BERGEN, NORWAY

Ships lurch back and forth in a zigzag pattern around islands and inlets to reach Bergen: a modestly beautiful overture to the grand opera of glacier-carved fiords on a Norwegian cruise. Tidy farm cottages on the hillsides are showered in late spring with fruit-blossom confetti. The old town's gabled wooden houses are a 10-minute walk from the dock.

TAKE ME THERE Reykjavik to Copenhagen cruise with Regent Seven Seas, 12 nights, from $10,579 a person. Phone 02 9265 7100, see www.rssc.com.au

ILE DES SAINTES, GUADALOUPE

Few places disprove the stereotype of overcrowded cruise destinations more than this island in the Caribbean, whose town consists of a few laneways, pretty churches and a crumbling fort from pirate days. The island is so tiny that only small ships can visit. The arrival across vodka-clear waters towards humped hills and palm-fringed beaches is lovely.

TAKE ME THERE Leeward Islands cruise with Star Clippers, seven nights, from $1925 a person. Phone 1300 295 161, see www.starclippers.com.

NAGASAKI, JAPAN

Nagasaki's deep, narrow bay is fringed by forested hills and dotted with the occasional island misty in the early morning: it's like sailing into a Japanese woodblock print. Then industrial facilities appear on one side of the bay and the city on the other, rising in a series of pretty hills and  19th-century European villas.

TAKE ME THERE Best of Japan cruise with Ponant, nine days, from $3780 a person. Phone 1300 737 178, see www.ponant.com

PORT HOTSPOTS

ABU DHABI, UAE

Cruise ship visits are soaring and the new Port Zayed should be completed by the end of this year; a beach stopover for ships is also being developed on Sir Bani Yas Island.

WHO Celebrity, Holland America, MSC, Oceania, P&O, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn.

HAVANA, CUBA

US legislation has long hampered cruise-ship visits, but Carnival may soon be the first mainstream US cruise line to dock in order to sample the retro cool of the Cuban capital.

WHO AdventureSmith, Fred Olsen, MSC, SeaCloud, Silversea, Star Clipper, Un-Cruise.

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA

Dredging in port lets longer ships dock and the city has created "meet and greet" programs to entice cruise passengers. Expect more future cruise buzz from a city getting its mojo back.

WHO Azamara, Celebrity, Cunard, P&O Australia, Royal Caribbean, Silversea.

RAVENNA, ITALY

A few years ago new Porto Cosini facilitated overnight docking for larger ships. Arrivals have increased since then in the Adriatic town famed for its mosaic-filled churches.

WHO Celebrity, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, Silversea.

REYKJAVIK, ICELAND

Cruise arrivals in Iceland have increased rapidly, and Reykjavik continues to improve port facilities for this city ringed by snow-capped mountains and best approached by sea.

WHO Disney, Holland America, Norwegian, Ponant, Princess, Royal Caribbean.

WHERE OCEAN AND RIVER MEET

A handful of cities provide a rare double pleasure: they're both ocean and river ports.

VENICE, ITALY

It might be the last hurrah for bigger ships sailing close to Venice sights and especially the Grand Canal, since there are concerns about damage caused by wash. But sailing by river ships out of the floating city still provides a pretty picture of palaces, church spires and a scatterings of islands.

WHO European Waterways, Uniworld.

PORTO, PORTUGAL

It's a quick tram ride from the ocean port and a walk over the bridge from the river port into the heart of Porto, whose World Heritage old town is packed with churches and cobbled squares. The river port at Vila Nova de Gaia offers great views on arrival, and is famous for its port wine lodges: not far to totter for a tasting.

WHO APT, Scenic, Uniworld, Viking River Cruises.

BORDEAUX, FRANCE

Large cruise ships dock at Verdon a two-hour drive away, but smaller ships sail up the Gironde estuary into the heart of this gorgeous city, tying up near river-cruise ships that ply the vineyard-flanked Dordogne and Garonne rivers. Views over the esplanade with its grand historical buildings provide a lovely arrival.

WHO APT, Scenic, Uniworld, Viking River Cruises.

MANAUS, BRAZIL

It might lie hundreds of kilometres upriver, but the Amazon is still so mighty here that both river cruises and ocean cruises call in at the floating docks adjacent to the city. The   19th-century rubber boomtown has an ornate European style that provides a startling contrast to its humid, jungle-strangled setting.

WHO APT, Aqua Expeditions, Avalon Waterways and Chimu Adventures.

NEW ORLEANS, US

Get your Huckleberry on with a cruise along the mighty Mississippi, though ocean ships only tiptoe in as far as New Orleans. Both ship types tie up in the middle of the decadent, characterful city, from which you can stroll along the waterfront to the delightful French  Quarter in one direction or Garden District in the other.

WHO APT, Avalon Waterways, Scenic Tours, Viking River Cruises.

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