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Extreme Excursions: The Evolution of the Cruise Line Shore Tour

Hats off to the cruise lines for offering more intriguing stuff than ever, leaving the boring bus tour shtick in the dust with bike tours through nature preserves, kayaking in scenic sounds, and landing in Antarctica.

Whenever possible while in port, I ditch the ship's group tours and explore on my own. It makes me feel adventurous and free, and is a needed counter-balance to the predictable routine of the cruise cocoon. Unless, that is, there's a really cool excursion offered by the cruise line that I just can't resist. Hats off to the cruise lines for offering more intriguing stuff than ever, leaving the boring bus tour shtick in the dust. Though typically pricier than the standard tour (try several hundred bucks on up), the off-beat excursions are often worth it, as the group sizes are smaller and the focus is on actually doing something. There's biking through nature preserves, kayaking in scenic sounds, dining with Michelin-starred chefs, and even flying like a war hero -- in a MiG Fighter Jet! (Crystal offers that one from St. Petersburg for a cool $38K per person ...recession, bah humbug!).

Most lines allow you to pre-book excursions on their websites before the cruise; it's not a bad idea if you're certain about what you want to book. If you wait until you're on board, the excursion you want may be sold out (especially if they're the adventurous tours with limited participation). Here are some top excursions being offered by cruise lines these days. Visit the lines' websites for pricing and availability:

Sydney Bridge Climb from Syndey, Australia (Princess Cruises)

The hair-raising walk along the upper span of the Sydney Harbour Bridge is not for the faint of heart. But don't worry, you're harnessed to a safety cable, and just focus on the birds-eye view you'll have of that famous harbor and city!

Porsche Test Drive from Warnemünde, Germany (Crystal Cruises)
Via a private chartered plane, head to the Porsche factory in Leipzig and drive a 350-horsepower Porsche Cayenne on the factory's racetrack, or let a professional driver take you on the ride of a lifetime.

Coral Garden Snorkel Drift from Tahaa, French Polynesia (Star Clippers)
After a speed-boat ride to a remote motu islet near Tahaa, hop out and get into your snorkeling gear for a sublime glide atop the clear water. Gaze down at amazing specimens of nature, from the fuchsia sea anemones that expose their noodle-y appendages to the clam shells ridged with bright purple and green, and the florescent pinks, oranges and greens of the Checkerboard Wrasse fish.

Petroue River Rafting Adventure from Puerto Montt, Chile (Royal Caribbean)

It's jaw-dropping beauty all the way in this class III-IV rafting trip down the Rio Petrohue, one of Chile's most beautiful glacial rivers. The backdrop is straight out of Central Casting: views of old growth forests, waterfalls and mountain ranges.

Lost World Canopy Tour from Belize City, Belize (Carnival)
After a scenic 1.5 hour bus ride, hike into the jungle to rock walls more than 100 feet high. After gearing up with a harness and helmet, swing between platforms above dense forest and enjoy five thrilling traverses -- ranging from 105 to 500 feet apart in distance -- over an enormous open-air cave. At the end, rappel to the ground and let out a great big sigh.

Hot Air Ballooning over the Desert from Dubai, UAE (Regent Seven Seas)
After a one-hour drive into the desert in an off-road vehicle, hop into a hot-air balloon to experience the desert from a truly unique vantage point. In the cool early morning air, float through the bright blue sky above the red dunes and watch the mesmerizing landscape below. Check out the giant sand dunes and moon-like landscape of the rugged Hajjar Mountains to the east, and Dubai's modern skyline to the west.

Dolphin Trainer for a Day from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (Holland America)

Spend a full six hours working beside a dolphin trainer to learn the basic skills involved in caring for and training dolphins. Totally hands-on, you'll help the experts with every aspect of their work in the pool and poolside, and revel in close contact with the dolphins.

Star City Cosmonaut Experience from St. Petersburg, Russia (Silversea Cruises)
Pretend you're a character in a spy novel and spend the day at a restricted military facility called Star City where Russian cosmonauts train for space exploration. Located in a picturesque, rural area east of Moscow, Star City was top-secret and off-limits during the Soviet regime.

Antarctic Landing from Punta Arenas, Chile (Norwegian Cruise Line) Set foot on the Great White continent after a 2.5-hour flight over the Strait of Magellan, the mythical Tierra del Fuego island, Darwin's mountain range, Beagle Channel, Cape Horn and the Drake Passage, the stretch of water that lies between South America and Antarctica. The plane lands on King George Island, and guests visit nearby Ardley Island to see where three species of penguins breed, and check out a beach populated by southern elephant seals and Antarctic fur seals.

Battle Ship Wreck Dives in the South Pacific (Cruise West)Serious divers will dig the wreck dives they can do on Cruise West voyages in the Micronesian islands, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, between Guam and Fiji. SCUBA divers can check out the battlefields of World War II at the beach of Ruanui. Investigate a Japanese transport ship teeming with coral and pelagic fish life and explore a Japanese transport ship with anti-aircraft guns on the wreck. On the Chuuk dive, see the after affects of a battle that sank more than 60 ships.

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