Cruise Trips: Adventure over Relaxation
by Paul Motter, CruiseMates Editor
March 16, 2009

Despite the relaxing image, a cruise trip can be as adventurous as any vacation, depending on the ship and itinerary.

Real travelers want to visit world-famous sites and experience the local culture, but for many travelers the idea of a cruise trip evokes only visions of sun-soaked tanning time. Au contraire: A cruise ship vacation can be just as culturally fulfilling and adventurous as any other travel option. Arguably, in many ways cruise trips are the best way to see the world.

One misconception about cruise ships is that because they are sea-bound, they don't go to the places sophisticated travelers want to see. Don't you believe it. I have been on cruise trips that visit many places the most ardent adventurers covet. I have seen calving glaciers in Alaska, the mummy of Tutankhamen in Cairo, sharks in the Bora Bora lagoon, the Palace of Versailles, the Great Wall of China, the Moscow Circus and Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro.

Many world travelers feel the only way to really experience a foreign destination is to rely on the local options for meals, accommodations and transportation. But I contend you can experience all those things without sacrificing your personal comfort and convenience. Let's compare the logistics of a typical foreign land vacation to a cruise trip. You'll see that cruise ship vacations have advantages many travelers never realize.

The Local Experience

A typical European land vacation is a package deal where you fly into one city -- Paris, Rome, London or Prague, for example -- stay for a week, and return home. If that is all you want, fine; but most people who are flying all the way to Europe want to stay on the continent longer and see as much as they can. Two to eight weeks is far more common.

Typical travel options for European visitors include a car rental; railroad passes good for several weeks' passage; or guided tours by bus. Your choice depends on your budget, what you want to see, and considerations for comfort and convenience.

Most travelers prefer to keep moving in order to see as much as possible, depending on the location; but special cities such as Rome or Venice require several days to take in all the attractions. Other sites worth visiting can be absorbed in a few hours. (I am thinking of Argenteuil on the River Seine, which inspired many of Monet's most famous paintings.)

A Teenager Backpacks Europe

As a teenager, I toured Europe with a group of 18-year-olds escorted by three high school teachers. We traveled by railroad, bus, hydrofoil and subway from Rome to London, staying in hotels and eating in restaurants. Every day or two, we packed our bags and loaded them on a bus to the railroad station. Hours of travel later we claimed our luggage again and were shuttled to another hotel. We unpacked, dressed and paid for dinner in a nearby restaurant, and went to bed.

On sightseeing days, we were led around the city on foot until we were exhausted. After paying for another meal, we packed all but our jammies to prepare for an early departure to a new destination. Spending hour after hour on trains, many of us tried to nap or find sustenance from the snack car or whatever food we could hoard away. Food was usually expensive and not nutritious.

You get the idea. Not only did we mostly live out of our suitcases; we spent half our vacation time looking out the windows of trains and buses. Our meals were unpredictable and unsatisfying, especially as we all tried to save money for souvenirs and other treats.

Seeing Europe like this is still common for many travelers. Restaurants are expensive, with everything a la carte and impatient waiters. Some hotels have obscure rules like locking the doors at 9:00 p.m. and turning the hot water off at night. The trains' routes are not planned for the panoramic vistas. You spend more time poring over train schedules, packing and lugging your bags around than you do sightseeing.

Some young people still backpack through Europe. They land in a city and take a taxi downtown to find a hostel with straw mattresses. But older individuals want creature comforts and intellectual stimulation at the same time. Local travel options are far too cumbersome for serious travelers.

Car Rentals

Renting a car gives you more freedom, but also the challenge of driving in a foreign land, where you run the risk of getting horribly lost trying to read maps and freeway signs with foreign names and hieroglyphic symbols that mean nothing to you. As you navigate the spider-web streets of ancient cities, you battle local drivers who ignore streetlights and consider the white lane lines as mere suggestions. The cost of petrol is three times higher than the worst days of the energy crisis in America.

A Better Option -- Guided Tours

Because of the above drawbacks, many experienced travelers opt for motorcoach tours where everything is prearranged. Hotels and restaurants are pre-selected and included in the tour cost. Bus tours are actually a decent choice: Experienced guides tell you what you are seeing, and you never have to worry about navigating or negotiating cab, restaurant, hotel or train fares.

The only drawback to bus tours is the accommodations. You still find yourself in a different hotel every day or two. You must unpack and repack. Your beds and bathrooms will vary from acceptable to horrible.

Cruise Trips -- The Best Vacation Option

Now let's look at cruise trips. You touch down in your foreign airport and find a cruise line representative waiting to take your bags. You are guided to a coach and driven to the ship, where you are greeted with champagne and shown to your stateroom. Your bags arrive at your door soon after. You unpack once and go to dinner.

The next day you wake up, eat breakfast on the vessel, and take a tour provided by the cruise line. If it is a larger ocean-going cruise ship, you pay for the tour; but if it is a river cruise -- which I highly recommend -- the shore tours are included in the cruise price. Your river cruiser will often stop close enough to the important sites to walk there, or the line will provide a coach.

You can eat lunch in a local restaurant if you want, or you can return to the ship for a fare-included gourmet meal prepared by an expert European chef who knows and uses local ingredients. Overnight, the riverboat or cruise ship sails to the next location. You eat dinner, enjoy the nighttime entertainment and go to bed. When you wake up, you are in a new destination, ready to repeat the previous day's timetable but with all new sights.

A cruise trip on a European river boat means you spend every day sightseeing, each day in a new location. All shore tours and meals are provided by the cruise line and included in the cruise fare. You only unpack one time, so you never have to worry about finding a train station, hotel or restaurant. (You never have to pay for any of those, either.) Every minute you are sailing, you can sit on deck and watch the countryside go by.

Cruise ships are similar, except that a cruise ship will dock in a different city every day or two and offer a selection of 20 or 30 different tours to choose from. In Naples you might want to see the ancient city of Pompeii, or spend a day on the Isle of Capri. You will pay for the tours, however.

Whether by cruise ship or riverboat, a cruise trip to Europe, Asia, Alaska, South America or anywhere you travel is more than just leisurely days lying in the sun. A cruise trip is a real travel adventure offering incredible convenience and variety in sites and destinations.

You unpack just once. Your meals, transportation to different destinations, accommodations and nightly entertainment are all included in the cruise cost. Since you prepay for almost the entire trip in U.S. dollars, you won?t suffer from currency devaluation vs. the Euro. A cruise is a perfect way to see the world with all the benefits and none of the drawbacks of the usual methods of travel.

Cruise Trip Destinations

My river cruise trip through the Russian countryside from Moscow to St. Petersburg is a perfect example. Day after day, we rolled past small towns, people riding on tractors, farmers selling homegrown cabbages and turnips by the roadside, and local residents walking to their orthodox churches in outmoded Sunday dress clothes.

With the onboard lecturers constantly telling us what we were seeing, and frequent stops to explore important sites from the Communist era and the monarchy, it was the cruise trip of a lifetime. It had nothing to do with typical visions of cruise vacations as most people perceive them. There were no umbrella drinks, reggae bands, bingo games or shuffleboard.

I understand the charm of living in a French town for two weeks, shopping at the marche and learning to nap every day from 1:00 to 4:00 pm. But I prefer to keep moving and see new things.

I especially love cruise trips to exciting destinations, because the ship does most of the actual travel while I sleep. On a cruise in Europe, you wake up in a new destination every morning. In some cases, you will wish you had more time to explore certain destinations. But there are plenty of places in Europe and elsewhere where one day is more than enough to see everything you need to see. I will give some examples.

A typical Eastern Mediterranean cruise usually starts in Venice, Italy, and continues through the Greek Isles and ports along the coast. Among the places you visit that are worth seeing but really do not require more than a day:

Ephesus: This ancient city founded by Alexander the Great is where the apostle Paul spoke in the theater during his earliest days. His famous Letter to the Ephesians is based upon a promise he made to them that he would return. One can still sit in the very theater where Paul addressed the crowd, and that is but one attraction of the ancient city. Another is the house alleged to be the former home of Mary, mother of Christ, who was brought to the city by John the apostle -- whose burial place is in nearby St. John's Basilica. All these sites can be seen easily with a one-day stop in Kusadasi, Turkey.

Delos: This island, only accessible by boat, was once the capital of the Hellenic Empire before Athens. It was also a major trading port and the home of people from various cultures circa 500 BC. You will find examples of Greek, Phoenician, Egyptian and Minoan architecture as you wander the island, which is smaller than one square mile but full of the ruins of a once great cultural center. Definitely worth visiting, but not requiring more than a day.

Naples: Everyone has heard of the famous Italian city, but can you name one site worth visiting? There is really only one site close to the city worth the trip: the ruins of Pompeii. In the First Century AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted and covered a vital Roman city in ash -- essentially freezing the city in time for future excavation. The murals, homes, baths and even human remains preserved there are awesome.

Monaco: Everything I have mentioned so far is a ruin, but there are other places worth a visit that can be fully experienced in one day, like the beautiful city of Monaco, Monte Carlo. The city is beautiful and intriguing with its Royal Palace and the church where Princess Grace was wed and is buried. But once you have seen those buildings, walked the shopping district and viewed the multi-million dollar yachts in the harbor, you are essentially done. You could rent a car and drive the famous cliffs, or you could don a suit and pay the extravagant cover charge to enter the casino, but if you do you will say, Hmmm, not exactly as exciting as I envisioned.

The Nature of Cruise Trips

I don't mean to say cruise trips are comprised only of places you wouldn't care to stay more than a day. In fact, many cruise ships will stay in special ports like Venice or St Petersburg, Russia, for two or three days. Many cruises start and end in cities where you might like to spend extra time, so you can get a hotel and dig into one location pre or post-cruise if you want. But there are many cruise ports vitally worth seeing where you don't necessarily need more than a day. Here are a few more:

Portofino, Italy
Cinque Terre, Italy
Gdansk, Poland
Talinn, Estonia
St. Tropez, France
Marseille, France
Madeira, Portugal
Lisbon, Portugal
Seville, Spain

Personally, I would even argue that Athens is not even worth more than one day, and I have spent several days there myself. All the sights you want to see, from the Acropolis to the Plaka and the Athens Museum, are within a short distance of one another.

With organization, you can see a lot more in one place than you might ever imagine. You will be exhausted at the end of the day, but isn't that the point anyway?