WHEN EXCURSIONS GO WRONG
When White Island erupted last December, 47 tourists and their guides were on the spectacular New Zealand volcano. Tragically, 21 were killed and others suffered horrendous injuries. Most were Australians passengers participating in a shore excursion.
The tragedy should remind us that shore excursions – like any travel – have inherent risks. We ought to be aware of the implications when even minor things go wrong.
Don't expect cruise lines to cover medical expenses or provide compensation for a shore-excursion injury. Although cruise companies have a legal duty to warn passengers of inherent risks and to conduct a proper safety assessment of any independent contractors, that's usually where things end.
All shore excursions are operated by independent contractors, with tickets sold by the cruise company only as a "convenience" to guests, who engage in activities at their own risk. Sign a waiver or accept safety equipment and that's further acknowledgement on your part that risks are involved. Receiving compensation will require winning a court case, something that rarely happens against big cruise companies.
In short, you'd be wise to make your own assessment of potential risks, and ensure you have appropriate insurance for even the tamest shore excursions. Your tour coach could crash; you could tumble down steps. A few years ago, I went over the handlebars of a bicycle while hurtling down Mount Wellington on an otherwise exhilarating shore excursion in Hobart. My knees bled, my dignity was bruised and my camera smashed.
Check you have the correct insurance coverage. Despite being a regular cruiser, it took me years to realise that cruising doesn't fall under regular travel insurance, and that I'd been travelling uninsured.
And while evermore exciting and active shore excursions are a welcome development in cruising, remember that shore excursions involving high-risk activities or adventure sports won't be covered by general travel insurance. An added premium is usually required.
Travel involves risk, and cruising is no exception. Yet on the whole, cruise companies are diligent in their assessment of independent tour contractors. Shore excursions are tried and tested over years and subject to constant passenger feedback. While there are many good reasons to go it alone when ashore, safety isn't one of them. In fact, you'll likely get a safer, more reliable tour operator by booking through a cruise company than by random choice.
Certainly, you should go ashore whenever you can. Much as I love cruise ships, I've always maintained that the best part of cruising is getting off them. You might forget what a ship's interior looks like, but you'll never forget swimming with stingrays in French Polynesia, or cycling through wine chateau country near Bordeaux in France. Often the best memories are made on land. Just go carefully – and well insured.
THE LONG VERSION
On a recent Azamara cruise in Greece, I was impressed at the number and variety of shore-excursion choices in every port. But if mere shore excursions aren't enough to cure your travel bug, you can opt for something longer, since Azamara has probably the most extensive pre- and post-cruise land program in the cruise industry. Among the choice of over 1700 programs worldwide are long train journeys, stays in luxury lodges, glamping experiences in remote places, in-depth immersions in major port cities, and wildlife experiences such as safaris in Africa.
Phone 1800 754 500; see azamara.com
Luxury cruise lines don't always cater well to kids, but Regent Seven Seas Cruises has a Club Mariner Youth Program for passengers aged between seven and 17 that offers specially designed shore excursions. For its 2020 Alaska season, for example, Club Mariner excursions visit a salmon hatchery in Juneau, a totem-pole park in Ketchikan and the Raptor Centre in Sitka to learn about the rehabilitation of birds of prey. In Icy Strait, young guests enjoy a tribal performance by the local Tlingit people, followed by a campfire lunch.
Phone 1300 455 200; see rssc.com
Scenic has rolled out its Antarctica and America voyages aboard expedition vessel Scenic Eclipse for 2020-22, with new land experiences such as a guided walk through Rio's huge UNESCO-listed Botanical Garden on its "Taste of Argentina and Brazil" itinerary. Those looking for an extended shore excursion can opt for a journey aboard the luxury Belmond Hiram Bingham train to Machu Picchu on its "Highlights of Peru" tour. But I reckon my bucket list would have to include a scenic flight with the ship's helicopter, something that takes "shore" excursions to new heights.
Phone 13 81 28; see scenic.com.au
Australian small-ship company Aurora Expeditions launches its second purpose-built expedition ship Sylvia Earle in Ushuaia in Argentina in October 2021. The 126-passenger Sylvia Earle is sister ship to Aurora's recently launched Greg Mortimer. If adventurous shore excursions are for you, then these ships are a great choice, catering to passengers' inner Bear Grylls with opportunities during Antarctic cruises to try kayaking, polar ski touring, snowshoeing and ice climbing, as well as the expected excursions by Zodiac to view icebergs and wildlife. The activities are accompanied by expedition guides, marine researchers, scientists and conservationists.
Phone 1800 637 688; see auroraexpeditions.com.au