Drift with me back to a simpler time, when cruises from the U.S. tended to sail from just a handful of big ports in the four corners of the country. Then, about 10 years ago, a miraculous thing happened: Cruise lines remembered that ships float, which meant that in the absence of sandbars or inadequate docks, they could actually homeport in many more port cities than they'd been doing. That meant these lines could cater to folks who either couldn't (or wouldn't) fly but still wanted to cruise.
Between that lightbulb moment and today, the number of U.S. home ports used by the major cruise lines has nearly doubled. The increase has opened the door to some intriguing travel options. New York City has completely taken off after many years playing second fiddle to the major Florida ports. Today, you can sail to the Bahamas in the dead of winter, or cruise to Bermuda, the Caribbean, and New England/Canada during different times of the year. Seattle also went from almost nothing on the cruise front to stealing nearly half the Alaska-bound trade away from nearby Vancouver. Meanwhile, ships began sailing from Baltimore, Norfolk, Houston, San Diego, and even Bayonne, New Jersey.
With air travel becoming more expensive and exponentially less pleasant, could I be wrong in expecting that the cruise lines will continue to put ships near previously underserved population centers, where folks can just drive or take public transit to the docks? I expect not. Meanwhile, ships are also leaving from ports that, while not close to home, are in the thick of their sailing regions. This allows passengers to become even more immersed in the destinations (and possibly skip long at-sea sailing days to get there).
Here's a grab-bag of Western Hemisphere ports that are hosting cruise ships in 2010 and 2011 -- some for full sailing seasons or even year-round, some just for a handful of sailings. Some edge close to being major ports while others are just downright unusual, but how many times do you really want to sail from Ft. Lauderdale? There are alternatives if you know where to find them.
1. Palm Beach, Florida: Some 60 miles north of Miami, Palm Beach is the place where Kennedys, Pulitzers, and other wealthy names go in the winter. Though upscale is the name of the game, it's refreshing that the single ship sailing out of the Port of Palm Beach (located actually in West Palm Beach, across the Intracoastal Waterway from the rich folks' island town) is the 1980-vintage Bahamas Celebration. The 1,500-passenger ship on the budget-oriented Celebration Cruise Line departs from the port every other day at 5:30pm, sailing on 2-night cruises that include a day at Grand Bahama Island. Cruises are priced from around $140, plus tax. Palm Beach will also play home port this coming October to Cruise West's Spirit of Oceanus, as she switches legs on her remarkable 11-month-long world cruise.
2. Jacksonville, Florida: Even farther north of Miami, near the Georgia border, Jacksonville has for several years played host to one ship: Carnival's 1994-built Fascination, which offers 4- and 5-night Bahamas and Key West cruises from its port year-round.
3. Mobile, Alabama: Another port that Carnival owns by default (being the only line operating there), Mobile is home port to Fascination's younger sister-ship, the 1998-built Elation, which offers 4- and 5-night cruises to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Depending on the cruise length and sailing date, this ship visits some combination of Cozumel, Calica, and Pregreso.
4. Charleston, SC: More Carnival options: For 2010 and 2011, the Fun Ship line is offering 5-night Bahamas and 6- and 7-night Eastern Caribbean cruises from this beautifully-preserved antebellum city aboard the 1990-built Fantasy, another sister to Fascination and Elation. Celebrity also has some cruises out of Charleston, with Celebrity Mercury sailing five 10- and 11-night cruises from the Port of Charleston between February and April 2011.
5. Anchorage, Alaska: Wait, isn't Anchorage the major northern terminus for Alaska cruises? Well, yes and no. The brochures sometimes say it is, but in reality most ships dock instead at either Whittier or Seward, port cities located 60 and 125 miles southwest of Anchorage, respectively. The cruise lines then typically bring their passengers to the city by bus or train. But ships do occasionally call at the Port of Anchorage itself. In May 2011, Silversea Cruises' 382-passenger Silver Shadow departs from the Port of Anchorage on a 10-night Alaska cruise. And later that summer, Oceania's 684-passenger Regatta will sail from the port on two 12-night voyages that include stops in Homer and Hoonah, both unusual cruise ports as well.
6. Toronto, Canada: Canada's biggest city is located at the western end of Lake Ontario, and though Great Lakes cruises were once all the rage, lately they've been, well, not. But let us rejoice: In September 2011, one single ship, Silversea's luxury 132-passenger adventure vessel Prince Albert II, is homeporting there for a single cruise: a 15-night jaunt from Toronto through the maritime provinces and from there down to Bermuda.
7. Quebec City, Canada: Near the other end of the Canada home port spectrum, Quebec City -- one of the most European of North American cities -- is hosting no fewer than 10 major ships in fall 2010 and fall 2011: HAL's Maasdam and Eurodam, Princess's Crown Princess, Costa's Atlantica and Mediterranea, MSC's Poesia, NCL's Norwegian Spirit, Crystal's Symphony, Silversea's Silver Whisper, and Seabourn's Seabourn Sojourn. Most are fall-foliage cruises in Canada and New England, though some venture as far south as the Caribbean.
8. San Pedro, Belize: Down in Central America, the port of San Pedro, Belize, will be hosting Crystal's 922-passenger Crystal Symphony for a half dozen cruises between November 2010 and March 2011. Most cruises will explore the Mexican Riviera.
9. Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica: A fairly busy port for small-ship cruises, Puerto Caldera, on Costa Rica's Pacific side, will serve as home port in 2010 and 2011 for Star Clippers' 170-passenger sailing ship Star Flyer, Windstar's 148-passenger motor-sail vessel Wind Star, Silversea's Prince Albert II, Seabourn's Seabourn Spirit, Crystal's Crystal Symphony, and Sea Cloud Cruises' 94-passenger Sea Cloud II. Most sail weeklong Central America itineraries between October and March. Star Flyer is the ship most associated with the port this year, offering 16 weeklong cruises during the 2010-11 winter season.
10. Havana, Cuba: Yes, Cuba! Home of cigars, rhumba, still-purring 1950s cars, and (eek! help! police!) communism. The now half-century-old, Cold-War-relic U.S. embargo still prevents all but a few Americans from traveling there, but that isn't stopping Sea Cloud cruises from homeporting Sea Cloud II here for a single voyage, a 10-night Caribbean cruise taking off in March 2011 and ending in Santo Domingo.