Matt and I have been cruising for a while now and so we know what we like and what we don't. Cruises are not, of course, all created equal. Some offer better value and higher quality service than others, some are geared to social, Vegas types and other quiet bookworms. Some are fancy schmancy and others are yee-haa casual. Different strokes. And that's the beauty of the cruise world, there's something for nearly everyone. For us, here's what we like best.
Venice: There are a few places in the world that live up their reputation and Venice is certainly one of them. Even during the summer crush when hordes of visitors crowd into San Marco Square, still the place is pure magic. Small ships will dock within view of San Marco Square's iconic bell tower, while everyone else ties up at the edge of town --- still, water taxi rides in this car-less, road-less historic gem to and from the airport, city and piers mean the views are amazing from all angles. Stay on a few extra days before or after your cruise to stroll along the canals, turning off into narrow passages, up and over Venice's hundreds of charming stone bridges means a beautiful church, museum and classic bit of Gothic, Baroque or Renaissance architecture is around every corner. Shop for Murano glass, take a Gondola ride, and enjoy the cafÃ© life, Venice is a sure thing.
Copenhagen: I love this city as an embarkation port because there's so much to see and do within a mile or so of the cruise docks. If you stay a night or two before or after your cruise, choose a hotel near the central Town Hall (a good option is The Square Hotel, www.thesquarecopenhagen.com) and you can walk to the lovely 19th-century Tivoli Gardens amusement park to enjoy old-timey carnival games as well as few modern rides. Also, from Town Hall, get a good city overview on the one-hour #11 hop-on/hop-off City Cirkel bus tour. From town hall, snap some photos at the Hans Christian Anderson statue and sample Danish sausages and hotdogs from ubiquitous vendors (the local favorite stuck into half a bun). Other nearby sites include the Amalienborg royal palace (check out the changing of the guard at noon), colorful boat-lined canals, and that famous little girl who coyly poses on a rock, the Little Mermaid.
Juneau: Being a short drive from the airport (just seven miles) is always a plus, and even better is the gorgeous setting. Built into narrow band of shore at the base of the 3,819-foot Mount Juneau and 3,576-foot Mount Roberts, the minute you arrive in Juneau, you're face to face with the state's natural rugged beauty. A cruise hub and state capital, you can appreciate its natural beauty even when there are several ships in town and thousands of passengers milling about. The city is completely surrounded by water, forest, and the massive Juneau Icefield (just outside of town is the 12-mile-long Mendenhall Glacier), and is actually unreachable by road.
New York: Not just 'cause it's my hometown, but because it's absolutely the most classic port from which to sail in the U.S. It's got all that history as America's greatest ocean-liner-era port; it's got a super-abundance of arts, architecture, and culture; and it's just a wonderful place to live it up for a few days before or after your cruise. Also, I'm a sucker for ports that are located on rivers (in this case, the Hudson), which also explains my choice of . . .
New Orleans: Sailing from New Orleans out to the Gulf of Mexico involves sailing the mighty Mississippi for a full 102 miles -- which is pretty significant because right now, in the long wake of Majestic America Line's collapse, there's no other real cruise option on the Mississippi. No overnight riverboats, at least. So, we takes what we can gets. Also, of course, New Orleans is New Orleans: a mix of old European decadence, gothic American southernness, insanely rich food, and sultry self-awareness. Stick to the French Quarter, Downtown, and the Garden District and you'd never know Hurricane Katrina ever happened.
Barcelona: The first time I visited Barcelona, it was during a college Eurail trip, and I think I paid $8 a night for my hotel room. That undoubtedly influences my choice, but the place also speaks for itself, with vibrant street life, wonderful architecture, and a definite buzz. During the summer it's an insanely busy cruise port, meaning you're one of many thousands of tourists, but things calm down some in the off-season. -
Note: Matt seconds Heidi on Venice, big time. It might, in fact, be my favorite port of all.
If I Could Hop on Any Cruise to Any Place Tomorrow, it Would Be . . .
French Polynesia: I'm sucker for this Pacific outpost. It all started with a Star Flyer tall-ship cruise in 2008 round-trip from Tahiti. Remote, gorgeous, untouched (for the most part) and just stunning as all heck, to me, all other beach and snorkeling destinations pale in comparison. The greeny-blue color of the water is unreal, the twin peaks of Bora Bora picture perfect, and the undersea life is mind blowing. With just a simple snorkel and mask you can see an amazing range of psychedelic marine life, from noodle-ly fuchsia sea anemones to bright purple clam shells. Who can argue with the bliss of sipping a local Hinano beer or two while leaning up against a coconut palm on a powdery white sand beach, watching traditional dancers in grass skirts and coconut shell bras shake to a chorus of ukuleles.
The Greek Isles: No matter how many times I go there, on ships big and small, I fall in love again with the island of Greece. I love the food waiting to be sampled at the local tavernas in every port (from fresh fish and calamari, to succulent olives and juicy red tomatoes, lamb kebabs and fava, a local favorite of mashed beans and olive oil), the passion of the people and all that history. White-washed homes clinging to cliff tops, colorful fishing boats bobbing on the shore, cobblestone streets lined with souvenir shops, and ruins dating back thousands of years, all converge to create a fairytale setting.
Galapagos Islands: I'd love to go to the Galapagos Islands again, this time with my kids. I want them to experience the beauty of these remote islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador and see for themselves how tame the wildlife is. The more than 9,000 species of animals here have been isolated from the rest of the world (and predators) for thousands of years and are therefore unafraid of human contact for the most part. Intimate small ships from lines like Celebrity Xpeditions and Linblad Expeditions explore the island chain, taking passengers close-up to the natural world that so fascinated Charles Darwin a century ago. Experienced naturalists go along for the ride, explaining everything and leading treks in search of blue footed booby birds, iguanas, flightless cormorants, and doe-eyed sea lion pups who frolic on the beach. Snorkel over the peaks of an ancient submerged volcano in search of parrotfish and penguins, and check out the giant tortoises on Santa Cruz and Isabela islands.
Britain's Channel Islands & the French Coast: It's just the mood I'm in now. I'd love to dock at Guernsey's St. Peter Port, walk around the hilly cobblestone streets, and stop at a nice pub -- or hike the cliff paths south of town and sit on the beach at Soldier's Bay. My itinerary from here would head to Bordeaux, where my ship would dock right in the city center, at the Esplanade des Quinconces, near Napoleon's Pont de Pierre bridge. The city's close to some great wineries, but I'd spend my day just walking around the old town.
Scotland & the Scottish Islands: Why? 'Cause I've never been! It's great to visit places you've been before and loved, but I want at least one place on this list to be somewhere I haven't been before. Ideally, I'd do this trip on a line like Hebridean Island Cruises, which specializes in Scotland and operates a classic little 49-passenger ship, the Hebridean Princess (built in 1964, one year after me!).
Amsterdam: Another choice I'm making just because it's the mood I'm in. I have it in mind to sail one of those gorgeous wooden canal boats around the city, while sipping champagne in the sun and just feeling groovy. After that, I'd hit some antique shops and/or the Waterlooplein Flea Market.
Captain's Cocktail Party: As schmaltzy as it may sound, I'm a sentimental fool who looks forward to the captain's cocktail party. The best ones are on the smaller ships, where traditional captain's cocktail parties are still held in one lounge for all guests (or at least half of the ship's guests during two seatings). I appreciate filing past the smart-looking officers decked out in their formals at the entrance to the show lounge. I like the photo with the captain, the hand shake, and the wave of nostalgia that surrounds the whole old-fashioned thing. I like watching the old timers dance to a big band, the free drinks, the canapÃ©s passed by white-gloved waiters, and the captain when he introduces his staff up on stage and welcomes guests with a few words. Several captain's cocktail parties I remember fondly include one party my parents and kids aboard the cozy Costa Marina a few years back in Asia when one of my young sons sipped champagne for the first time, another with my in-laws and husband a decade ago on the Sovereign of the Seas, and another aboard Celebrity's elegant Millennium class with my best friends.
Drinks and dinner on the top deck of the Wind Spirit & Wind Star: sailing away from Santorini or Mykonos. With the 148-passenger yachts tall masts towering overhead and the teak decks below, the scene is set for a classic evening under the stars. With the wind in our hair and the sails flapping overhead (sure, ok, and usually the murmur of the ships' engines as well), it's the stuff of vacation dreams to sail out of a port like Mykonos or Santorini, with a backdrop of tinkling village lights fading into the night. The scene was set for my husband and me to enjoy the live music, buffet-style barbecue and flowing drinks.
Enjoying production shows aboard the Disney Magic with my wide-eyed, eager four-year-old sons: We were aboard the Disney Magic on a cruise from Barcelona to Civitavecchia/Rome a few summers back, and aside from the great ports and awesome kids programming, my sons, even at their young age, begged us to take them to the shows. Exceedingly family friendly, Disney characters and songs were weaved into hour-long performances that included special effects, great stage sets and acrobatics in some cases. From Peter Pan to Captain Hook and Hercules, the endearingly nostalgic yet high-tech shows were the highlights of our family togetherness aboard the Magic.
One late night, with friends, lounging in the bow net of Windjammer Barefoot Cruises' Legacy, en route to Puerto Rico: We were all drunk. The ocean was racing by just a couple meters below. It was probably kind of dangerous. But boy was it fun. Some of those friends are people I knew already and still know today (Heidi was one of them), but others I've never seen since. Which is, y'know, like life. Windjammer Barefoot is gone, but I'm guessing you could probably persuade the captain of new line Island Windjammers to let you sneak out into the bow netting of their 12-passenger Diamant.
Late night (by myself) in the bow viewing area aboard Princess's Diamond Princess: Like Princess's Grand-class ships, Diamond and her twin-sister Sapphire have promenade decks that allow you to walk up to the very bow, one level below the open top deck (which, as aboard most ships, is closed to passengers). One dark night, with no moon and the ship far out of sight of the Mexican coast, I wandered up there and made a discovery: Standing right in the bow, with no light coming from above, behind, or to the sides, the sky and sea merged into an infinite blackness pricked only by stars. The wind whistling past my ears drowned out the ship's hum and throb, and I felt as if I were all alone, flying on the wind into outer space. Nice memory.
Any late night, stepping out onto my private balcony just before bed: This is something I always do when I'm sailing. After whatever fun I've had that evening, after I've gotten ready for bed, I'll step out onto my balcony (if I have one) and just lean on the rail for a while. I'll look at the sea down below, churning. I'll think about wherever we're going, up ahead. I'll let my ears go abstract and take in the sounds: the engines down below, but also the voices of other guests on their balconies, or filtering down from the open decks above or the promenade deck below. They're having fun, mostly, and that's a nice thing to hear.