Unlike cruises to the Caribbean and Bermuda where many people don't bother getting off the ship at all -- if they do, it's typically straight for a beach or the nearest t-shirt shack -- it's a different story on a European cruise. Given all that history and great food and shopping, ships are ghost towns on port days in Europe -- everyone heads down the gangway to do some hard-core touring. While many port cities such Rome, Naples, Villefranche and Barcelona, for example, can be explored independently quite easily (and often far cheaper than the tours sold by the ship), let's face it, there are times when you want someone else to do all the thinking. Book your shore excursions online with the cruises lines months before your cruise or wait till you get on board (though some with limited participation could be sold out if you wait). All you have to do is show up at the meeting point and follow the guide.
Aside from the standard sightseeing tour by bus (yawn), cruise lines are racking their collective brains these days to offer more exciting, hands-on options that break the tired tour mold and inject some fresh air into the port experience. I asked a handful of cruise lines what their favorite Europe excursions were and this is what they said:
Roman Holiday (11 hours, $150+ per person)
Remember the romantic, fairytale film Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck? Now you can follow in their footsteps. After a 90-minute motor coach drive to Rome, stroll to the Spanish Steps, walk to the Trevi Fountain, and see the Pantheon, where you can sample some Italian ice cream, just like Princess Ann. Continue on to the Campo De'Fiori area and enjoy some time on your own browsing the open air market for Roman souvenirs. Meet the bus nearby and head for the Palazzo Brancaccio, the last Roman Patrician Palace built in 1880 in the heart of the Eternal City. Set amidst a beautiful old park between Roman ruins and covered in pine trees, palms and laurels, check out the charming Hunting Lodge. Visit the enchanting banquet rooms where Princess Mary Elisabeth Brancaccio hosted magnificent festivities. Eat a traditional Italian lunch in the grand rooms of the Palazzo Brancaccio and see the original Vespa that took Princess Ann and her beloved journalist around the Eternal City. Finally, continue on foot and enjoy beautiful views of the Colosseum and the Roman Forums before heading back to the bus and the ship.
Absolut Ice bar (2.5 hours, $100 - $150 per person)
First, make a stop at the icon of Copenhagen -- the famous Little Mermaid statue that watches over the port of Copenhagen. Continue on to the Royal palaces of Amalienborg, where you will pay a visit to the courtyard and view the Royal guards. Travel further through Copenhagen, passing the quaint Nyhavn canal district and the Christiansborg Palace, now seat of the Danish government, before reaching the highlight of the tour: The Absolut Ice Bar. The entire bar is made of ice, temperatures are kept below zero and even your special complimentary drink will be served in a cube of ice. Jumpsuits will be provided to keep warm.
A Unique Perfume Experience in Grasse (4 hours; $100-$150 per person)
After a 30-minute bus ride to the village of Grasse, join a guided tour of the Galimard Perfume factory. Learn the architecture of a perfume and the classifications of the scent families and its components. Create your own personal fragrance and give it a name so it can be preserved in the factory files and you can order it at your own request. Leave the seminar with your own 100ml decorative perfume bottle filled with your new scent.
Flavors of Sicily (Half day, $80 per person)
Discover the typical flavors and aromas in the Sicilian countryside while on route though a beautiful winegrowing region and on to Zafferana Etnea, the "Town of Honey." Here you will visit a honey factory, where you will be able to sample the produce. Before returning to the ship, you taste Sicilian wine and nibble on local charcuterie and cheeses.
Tapas Tour (Half day, $62 per person)
The history and character of a city is conveyed in the strong flavors of its traditional cuisine. This tour will offer you the chance to combine the culture and history of Catalunya's greatest city with a very tempting gourmet itinerary. Your "Tapas" tour will enable you to admire Gaudí's original façades, the unfinished Temple of the Sagrada Familia (from the outside) and the famous and very lively Ramblas, while savoring various strong and contrasting flavors in some of the city's most famous tapas bars. A glass of tasty local wine will complement the flavors of the tapas, accompanying you on this discovery of Barcelona.
Mt. Etna Helicopter Adventure
Port: Taormina, Italy
At more than 10,000 feet and covering an area of 460 square miles, Mt. Etna is the tallest of Italy's mountains south of the Alps, and is the largest active volcano in Europe. Though it is nearly constantly erupting, Mt. Etna's temper is generally benign, which allows the perfect opportunity for Crystal guests to soar around and above in a private helicopter.
Florence & Pisa by Private Ferrari
Port: Civitavecchia, Italy
A limited number of guests can join an exciting two-day overland adventure; guests leave their Crystal ship in Civitavecchia and drive by Ferrari to rejoin the ship in Livorno. Along the way, visit the charming town of Pienza, navigate the curving roads of Lazio and Tuscany, explore the Renaissance jewel of Florence, and the historic city of Pisa. A highlight of this excursion is an overnight stay at the 5-star Fonteverde Natural Spa Resort, where guests will indulge in a spa treatment amid beautiful surroundings and enjoy a deluxe dinner.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Car Lover's Delight (12.5 hours; $2,319 for four passengers)
Port: Warnemuende, Germany
Head to Berlin in a private car with a driver guide. Your first stop will be at the Meilenwerk, an old tram depot housing everything the classic car lover has been longing for: Old timers, historical motorbikes, and collector's vehicles. With six vintage car repair shops, stores with classic car accessories, car clubs, and shops of service providers, the Meilenwerk is a classic car community. Next, stop at the Mercedes World in the heart of Berlin; the exhibition there is designed as a huge adventure playground. Have lunch here in the Weissgold Restaurant. Then on to Berlin highlights, making photo stops at Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, as well as the Checkpoint Charlie.
Roof-Top Walk (3 hours, $199 per person)
Port: Stockholm, Sweden
This unique way to explore Stockholm is a guided walk conducted along the roofs of the city. The tour begins with a drive from the pier to Riddarholmen, the small neighboring island of the Old Town. During the 13th century, Franciscan monks built a monastery here, parts of which still remain in the cellar vaults of many impressive buildings that stand today. Next to the Church is the Old Parliament Building where you'll take the elevator up to the top floor and via the attic step out into the open. Continue to the Old Town for a walk on ground in Stockholm's oldest and coziest quarter, Gamla Stan, where the medieval streets take you past the historic Royal Palace. See Stortorget (Great Square) -- the hub of the Old Town where Stockholm's Blood bath occurred in 1520 and the former Stock Exchange, now the home of the Swedish Academy that meets each year to decide the laureate of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Russian Military Legacy (5 hours, $459 for two guests)
Port: St. Petersburg, Russia
Get an insight into Russia's military history with a visit to the Artillery, Engineers and Signals Museum. This museum houses a very large collection of exhibits from the 12th through 20th centuries, including an extensive collection of Soviet weaponry. Proceed to the State Museum of Russian Political History in the former mansion of Matilda Kshsinskaya, prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Theater. The Museum includes an area devoted to the life of M. Kshesinskaya. Previously the Museum of the Great October Socialist Revolution, this is the only museum in St. Petersburg that reflects the state political history at the turning points of the 19th and 20th century's social development. Displays include documents, photos, death sentences, posters and other memorial from the most turbulent political times in Russia.
Gondola Serenade (2.5 hours, $1,160 per gondola/couple)
If there is one memory to take home, it is of drifting through Venice's canals on a gondola as darkened waters lap your boat and music melts on the air. This delightful after-dinner excursion offers the chance to experience that quintessential canal ride while being serenaded by musicians in traditional fashion. O sole mio! From the ship, you'll transfer by private motor-launch to St. Mark's Basin where your gondola waits for your ride. Afterwards, stretch the evening's magic with a stroll around St. Mark's Square before catching the launch back to the ship.
Visit Cavtat by Boat (7 hours, $1,960 per boat/couple)
Port: Dubrovnik, Croatia
A scenic cruise on a private yacht from Dubrovnik brings you to the town of Cavtat. Enjoy a guided tour of Bukovac Art Gallery followed by a private wine tasting at Crvik Family Winery in Konavle Valley. Driving back to Dubrovnik, stop at Proto Restaurant, a beautiful seafood restaurant for lunch before your guided tour of Dubrovnik.
Nobel Prize Winner for a Day
For those enchanted by the idea of winning a Nobel Prize, this private tour includes a visit to the Nobel Museum in Stockholm's original Stock Exchange building, following the path of history for Nobel Laureates. An exclusive lunch is served in the intimate City Hall Cellar Restaurant, recreating the most recent menu presented to the Nobel prizewinners, right down to the same table settings.
Commune with Italian Racing Legends Ferrari & Lamborghini
Port: Ravenna, Italy
Fast car fans will have the chance to visit the sacred ground of motor sports: the factory museums at Ferrari and Lamborghini. Explore the history of both premier automakers as well as view historic and exotic cars. In addition, lunch is served in the famous Ferrari Restaurant near the factory grounds.
Regent Seven Seas
Achilleion Palace, Perama and Corfu Town
Port: Corfu, Greece
Departing from the port via bus, drive through orange, lemon, cypress and olive groves interspersed with vineyards and fields of wild flowers. Approximately 20 minutes later you reach the old traditional village of Gastouri and enter the Achilleion Palace, built by the Empress Elisabeth "Sissy" of Austria in 1891, and later owned by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Visit the rooms in the palace, as well as its beautiful gardens offering a spectacular view over the Ionian Sea. Leaving Achilleion Palace, via bus go to Corfu Town passing by the coastal resort of Perama, where there are excellent views of the Convent of Vlacherna and picturesque Mouse Island, before doing a walking tour of the Old Quarter of Corfu (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Visit the 300-year old Church of Saint Spiridon with its priceless collection of icons and gifts offered to the patron saint of the island, explore the old flea-market, pass by the old Town Hall and browse in the shopping district.
Hidden Sicily: In the Godfather's Footsteps (4.5 hours)
Port: Naxos (for Taormina, Sicily).
After a drive along a coastal road, past villas, flowering gardens and picturesque villages, passengers reach Santa Teresa, the largest coastal town between Messina and Taormina; from here a picturesque road runs inland to Savoca. Its scenic beauty and historical-artistic heritage makes Savoca one of the most attractive - although unknown - places in the environs of Taormina. In a private house at the entrance of the village is the Bar Vitelli, which has a collection of local artisans' tools and photographs taken when Francis Ford Coppola was in this area shooting some scenes from The Godfather II. First, a visit is made to the Cappuccini Church, whose crypt houses the so-called catacombs, 37 mummified bodies (standing in niches, fully dressed) of friars and noble people who lived there in the 18th and 19th centuries. Next, begin a slow walking tour along the village's main street which climbs up the hill, past several 15th- and 16th-century churches and a magnificent view of the valley. Next is the charming village of Forza d'Agro, a 20-minute drive away. In 1990, Al Pacino and Sophia Coppola came here to shoot some scenes from The Godfather III. From the main square, a lane leads up to the circular steps which ascend to the Gothic-Catalan portal in front of the Church of St. Agostino (known as Triade), with a pleasant 15th-century facade.
Divine Flavors (7.5 hours)
Depart the pier for a scenic bus ride to a typical farm near Sorrento. Upon arrival, discover wonderful Southern Italian fruit including Sorrento lemons, and both San Marzano and Piennolo tomatoes. There will be an opportunity to sample typical products that include marmalades and limoncello, a sweet liqueur made from lemon rinds, water, sugar and alcohol. Next, proceed to the center of Sorrento for free time to explore Corso Italian, the city's flower-filled main street lined with boutiques and sidewalk cafes. Proceed to a local restaurant for a lunch featuring the flavors of San Marzano and Piennolo, considered by many chefs to be the best tomatoes for making sauce. Following lunch, a visit will be made to the ancient cathedral before re-boarding the bus.
Orieto: Undiscovered Italy
Via bus, travel north from Civitavecchia along the west flank of the Apennines to Umbria and Orvieto, a fortified medieval town home to a 13th century cathedral and world-famous wine. Arrive at the foot of medieval Orvieto and take a cable car up-hill to reach the historical centre, which is built on a massive limestone outcrop. Once a citadel of the Etruscans, the city stands guard over the vineyards below, which produce a noted dry white wine made from Trebbiano grapes. Tour includes lunch at a traditional Umbrian restaurant and afterwards there's time for shopping along the city's picturesque lanes and alleys where you'll find ceramics, Pinocchio dolls, and Orvieto Classico wine.
Tea at Reid's
Located on the outskirts of Funchal and perched on a cliff top headland overlooking the bay, Reid's Hotel is set in ten acres of lush semi tropical gardens, where hanging vines jostle for room with stunning displays of geraniums hibiscus and salvias. You will have the opportunity to explore the gardens before or after tea. Enjoy a cup of tea and the excellent views of the bay of Funchal. Your guide will take you on a short trip through the gardens of the hotel. The tea menu includes a choice of teas, scones, and cakes, baked by the hotel's acclaimed chefs.
Helicopter Over The Mighty Dolomites (4 hours)
Transfer from the ship to Venice's Marco Polo airport and board a private helicopter for a breathtaking journey to the Dolomites mountain range. Taking off from the airport, the pilot will head north, giving guests spectacular views. The first major city to see is Treviso, important during the Carolingian Age. The area is known to culinary fans for the cherries grown in its environs and the creation of tiramisu and art lovers know Treviso for its many works by Tomaso da Modena. The flight continues over the River Piave, site of one of the most important battles of World War I. With the terrain below growing increasingly scenic, guests will enjoy their first up-close views of the magnificent Dolomites, reaching the east side of Mount Civetta and Mount Pelmo. The helicopter will touch down at a mountain refuge where guests will enjoy a toast as they take in the beautiful views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. On the return trip, pass the world-renowned ski resort, Cortina d'Ampezzo, site of the 1956 Winter Olympics. Ranked alongside St.Mortiz, Cortina is also known as "The Queen of Dolomites" and rests in a valley surrounded by splendid peaks. Other highlights include the Marmolada massif, the western side of Mount Civetta and the region's capital city, Belluno.
Tuscany by Horseback (4 hours, $175 per person)
Port: Livorno, Italy
Start with a 45-minute bus ride to San Rossore National Park, established in 1979. With approximately 56,600 acres, the park stretches along the Tyrrhenian coastline from Viareggio to Livorno. Inside the park there is a great variety of natural settings ranging from dunes to sandy shores and from hygrophilous forests to marshlands. San Rossore Estate is the heart of the National Park. The Medici family was responsible for making this area a "no hunting" zone and increased the number of pedigree horses. In 1957 the Estate became the reigning president's residence until 1998. From 1999 San Rossore became the property of the Regione Toscana. A guided one-hour horse ride takes riders through this Italian reserve to view fauna and flora and breathtaking landscapes.
Ballooning in Tuscany (8.5 hours)
Port: Livorno, Italy
Travel via private car from the pier in Livorno to charming Greve, some two hours distance in the heart of the Chianti Region. Here you can explore the medieval heart of the town on foot, starting near the Piazza Matteotti. Many of the finer wine shops are found around here, not far from the handsome statue of Giovanni di Verrazzano, credited as the first European explorer to visit New York harbor.
The Tuscan hillsides are dotted with a number of imposing castles, one of which guests will visit after a stroll around Greve. Tour the ancient wine cellars and sit down to a superb luncheon of regional specialties and wine tasting. From the castle, a short drive brings guests to the hot air balloon launch site. The pilot provides a short briefing, explaining how the balloon works and what to expect once you lift off. The earth seems to fall away as the gondola is gently lifted by the colorful balloon above their heads. The breathtaking Chianti countryside unfolds beneath as the gentle breeze dictates the flight path. Once returned to terra firma, a celebratory glass of sparkling wine and Tuscan treats await guests.
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