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February 12, 2004 -- Ahhh, a cruise to Europe. It sounds so ideal. All you need is a deck chair and a pina colada; the ports come to you. Sit back and savor sailing to places like Istanbul, where the ancient minarets and domes of the shimmering Blue Mosque pierce the skyline. Heading towards Rhodes, ships sail into the very same harbor where the giant bronze Colossus of Rhodes towered more than 2,000 years ago. Honey-colored stone fortifications rise up from the shore like ornate sand castles in Malta's Grand Harbour, while anchored off shore tiny Villefranche, passengers can savor a colorful South of France village by the sea.

Infinitely rich in history, romance and beauty, a cruise to Europe is an experience of a lifetime ... until you get off the ship and start touring. You just may find yourself, port after port, squeezing onto sweaty buses and shuffling with the masses to some over-crowded attraction. On a city tour in Dubrovnik a few years back, I counted 48 passengers to one guide. No two ways about it, Europe's top spots are jammed with tourists in the summer.

Is there a better way? Sure is -- if you're willing to pay the price.

Several cruise lines offer VIP tours in Europe, as well as a handful on Alaska and Caribbean itineraries, for those passengers willing to spend more to travel with smaller groups and avoid some of the typical tourist-trap pitfalls. These top-shelf tours are offered in addition to the regular repertoire of excursions and are geared to the experienced traveler craving a more civilized port experience.

Royal Caribbean and Celebrity offered 20 "Exclusive" tours in Europe in 2003. Both lines have an all-day Rome highlights tour via a 20-passenger mini-bus for groups no larger than 14 to 16. Perks include complimentary bottled water, wet naps and local maps, plus for museum visits, individual head-sets are provided for each guest so that they can hear the guide even if they wander away. Lunch is typically in a 5-star restaurant not seating more than 100, and red and white wine is included, along with an aperitif. The cost is $345 per person, about twice what the lines' regular full-day Rome tours run.

Princess Cruises offers a handful of similar tours. In Livorno, you can sign up for the full-day "Deluxe Florence with the Uffizi Gallery and Pisa" excursion for $299 per person, twice the price of the line's regular tour to these destinations. For the extra dough, you'll be able to visit the world-famous Uffizi Gallery, known for its collections of Italian art, an option not offered to larger groups. In Naples, if you're ready to blow $899 per person, the line offers an intimate motor launch cruise, for a maximum of 8 passengers, through the bay of Naples to Sorrento and Capri.

Holland America has its own version of the VIP tour, only in lieu of luxury, their handful of special "Medallion" tours focus on getting your feet wet. In Amsterdam, the "Delft Blue Pottery" excursion gives guests hands-on experience at a factory in Delft. Participants get to see how the famous blue and white pottery is made, and then painters at the factory teach them how to paint their own tile. Tiles are baked and shipped home to guests (cost is $143 per person for the half-day tour). From the port of Cork, Ireland, the "Taste of Ireland" tour ($155 per person) is a full day of activities for a maximum of 30 passengers. It begins with a demonstration on how to make Irish soda bread (with samples to take with you) and then turns to Irish step dancing lessons and road bowling (which involves throwing a 28-ounce iron ball as far as you can). The day includes a traditional pub lunch.

With their smaller ships and higher prices, upscale lines like Seabourn, Silversea, Radisson, Crystal, SeaDream Yacht Club and Windstar, focus on offering guests a more intimate experience on all their shore excursions. To cater to the well-traveled upscale guest, these lines try to offer as many unique tour experiences as possible. For example, in Sorrento, Seabourn's Signature Series offers a "Speedboat Gourmet" tour that whisks a small group of guests by speedboat along the Sorrentine Peninsula to Nerano for an elegant lunch at Quattro Passi Restaurant, a famous Michelin star restaurant perched on a hillside above the ocean ($275 per person).

Most high-end lines don't fill tour buses to more than 75% to 80% of their capacity and most have a crewmember accompany each tour, in addition to the guide. SeaDream Yacht Club even goes further, never loading buses more than 50% so that all guests can get a window seat. The line will never exceed 25 guests per guide for tours where microphones are use, and never more than 15 guests per guide for non-amplified walking tours.

The upscale lines also pamper guests on tour with extras like cold towels on hot days, complimentary bottled water, and often other drinks and snacks (things you'd pay for on the typical big-ship shore excursion).

For those who don't want a traditional tour at all, the small-ship lines have a concierge on board who will arrange a private car and driver for guests who want to explore solo. The concierge on each of Oceania Cruises pair of 684-passenger ships can also arrange private cars on request. For example, a couple can have a 4-hour tour St. Petersburg in a Mercedes Benz with a driver and separate guide for $400.

In some cases, this concierge service is also available on the big-ship lines for guests in the top suites, like the Garden Villas on the Norwegian Dawn and Star. Princess offers all guests the option of booking a private car and/or driver in a few select ports, including Livorno for tours to Pisa and or Lucca. A limited number of private car and driver combos goes for $1,099 for a half-day tour for up to three guests, and $795 for driver-only packages for half days for up to four guests. Of course you can take your chances and hop in a local taxi to explore on your own. Note: I've done this successfully in Naples and in Malta, though in Livorno and Civitavecchia (the port closest to Rome), I was surprised at how few local taxis there were at the cruise terminal. And those that were there, were charging huge fares; when we finally found a taxi, we asked to be taken to the local train station and went by rail to Pisa (from Livorno) and Rome (from Civitavecchia). Trains in Europe are a great way to get around and they're cheap.

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