Just because you're on a cruise doesn't mean you have to play "tourist." Sure, you can take the well-worn route and join a hundred shipmates on a sightseeing excursion or spend the day in over-trodden resorts or shopping areas aimed at foreigners. But, perhaps you'd prefer to schmooze with a local artist, sample regional cuisine or go behind the scenes at a famous cultural institution.
Fortunately, cruise lines recognize that some passengers are looking for a different kind of shore excursion. Hence the birth of boutique excursions -- small-scale tours aimed at giving participants a unique, intimate experience.
Many are targeted at repeat visitors who have already seen the Colosseum, visited Tivoli Gardens and trekked to the ruins of Chichen Itza and Tulum and want to see a different side of a port city or its surroundings. Others take visitors to a port's most popular attractions (think the ruins of Ephesus or the ballet in St. Petersburg) but in an exclusive way, such as an after-hours visit without crowds or a special meal in a typically off-limits area. Some go as far as multiday, overland adventures to take cruise travelers to inland wonders like India's Taj Mahal or Cambodia's Angkor Wat, which aren't accessible during the usual one-day port call.
If boutique is the way you want to go, here are some things to consider:
The cruise lines that emphasize boutique tours typically give them some sort of fancy name like Elite or Signature Collection. Look for these terms in the name of the shore excursion to easily identify the more unusual tours. Some lines' websites, like Crystal's and Disney's, even let you search tours by these designations.
On a budget? Tread carefully. While some tours are reasonably priced, others can cost thousands of dollars. Flights, hotel stays, fancy cars or other technology can quickly drive up the cost of your excursion. Half-day tours are usually cheaper than full-day or overnight excursions.
For example, Disney's Valletta Historical Hunt costs $49 for adults and $29 for kids, while Crystal's more-exclusive Extreme Adventure tours range from $1,000 to $46,999 per person. Most boutique tours across the lines cost between $100 and $1,000.
Don't equate "exclusive" with "adults-only." While some boutique tours are aimed at mature travelers -- slow-paced, multicourse meals and wine or cigar tastings come to mind -- some are kid-friendly. Disney, for one, does a fabulous job arranging special-access tours that appeal to kids, as well as their parents and grandparents.
By their very nature, these tours take a smaller number of participants than the average motor coach tour. If you're interested, book early.
If you want something a little different to highlight your time in port, here are our favorite lines offering innovative shore tours.
Excursion Type: Signature Collection, Extreme Adventures, and Voluntourism Adventures (Many regular tours also can be boutique experiences.)
The Big Picture: Crystal describes its Signature Collection as "exclusive experiences that provide more intimate, special, add-value components that other tours will not offer." Extreme Adventures are limited offerings geared toward thrill-seekers. The line also offers a range of Voluntourism Adventures that offer you the chance to help communities with important programs like animal rescue and nature conservation as well as assistance for disadvantaged youth and disabled and underprivileged adults.
Sample Tours: If you're looking for Extreme Adventures, you can visit a former top-secret cosmonaut training facility in Russia, where you'll simulate a space mission (installing a space antenna on a replica of a space station) underwater in a Hydrolab. Or tour Moscow, before riding in a MiG fighter jet at twice the speed of sound. In Uganda, spend two days trekking through Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in search of mountain gorillas, a species that is sadly on the brink of extinction. Or, for a more refined experience, spend the day exploring St. Tropez and the French coast independently in your choice of Italian sports car from Ferrari, Lamborghini or Maserati. For something more down to earth, visit the LIFE Programme in Singapore that helps disadvantaged children learn English and better their educations. Like all shore excursions that are part of Crystal's Voluntourism Adventures, this three-hour visit to the center is complimentary.
FYI: The most "out-there" tours are not cheap. The overland Bwindi forest gorilla tracking experience costs $11,676 and the MiG fighter tour will set you back $46,999.
Disney Cruise Line
Excursion Type: Signature Collection
The Big Picture: These one-of-a-kind tours offer a deluxe onshore experience, often with a unique Disney touch.
Sample Tours: Family-friendly tours include a "historical hunt" in Valletta, Malta, where kids and parents compete with other families to complete a scavenger hunt for trivia on the capital city. In Alaska, Disney created an exclusive Bering Sea Crab Fishermen's Tour aboard Aleutian Ballad, as seen on season two of Discovery Channel's wildly popular "Deadliest Catch." After watching the fishermen haul crab pots, you'll enjoy a seafood feast with the captain and crew. On the opposite end of the tour spectrum, a Signature tour in Nassau, Bahamas, takes you to the Graycliff Hotel and Restaurant, where participants tour the hotel and sizeable wine cellar before indulging in a four-course gourmet lunch with wine pairings.
FYI: While many Signature Collection tours are kid-friendly, some are targeted only to adults. Be sure to check before you book. Some excursions designed for families include full days and long bus rides, so make sure your little ones can handle the schedule of the tour you choose.
Holland America Line
Excursion Type: Five "Collections": Medallion, Encore, World Wonders, Cruise with Purpose and Signature
The Big Picture: Holland America offers five separate collections of boutique tours. Medallion tours focus on in-depth explorations of a destination, as well as events or attractions not readily accessible to the public, and may feature smaller groups or overnight stays. Encore tours are aimed at repeat visitors who have already experienced the highlights; they focus on hidden gems and insider perspectives. The World Wonders Collection takes travelers to natural or manmade wonders in style while Cruise with Purpose excursions help to improve the planet by helping with scientific research, providing supplies to the needy or participating in a cultural exchange. Finally, the Signature Collection is for independent travelers who want to maximize their time ashore with customized experiences by way of private transportation with a driver and guide.
Sample Tours: A Medallion tour from Punta Arenas, Chile, features an hour-long flight to Puerto Natales and the Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserve with distinctly shaped peaks and clear blue lakes. Travelers who have been to Rome can choose an Encore tour that takes participants outside the city to Tarquinia and Tuscania, where they can see artifacts of the Etruscans, as well as a Renaissance palace and a medieval city. A three-night World Wonders tour picks up passengers at the port in Mumbai, India, and transfers them to the airport for the flight to New Delhi for an exploration of the capital. The following day, travelers make the four-hour drive to Agra and stay for two nights. The highlights of this tour are special visits to the Taj Mahal at both sunset and sunrise. A Cruise with Purpose outing from Corinto, Nicaragua, that receives high marks is a visit to the Betania Foundation that cares for 400 children and offers them education along with trade skills like carpentry and mechanics and art and sewing.
FYI: Many of these tours take passengers outside the port city, so be prepared for long days (and for missing part of the cruise experience during overnight tours). Also, pay close attention to the activity levels: These tours can often involve walking over uneven ground or long periods of standing, so they might not be best for travelers with mobility issues. On the other hand, more fit cruisers should take the activity levels with a grain of salt, as they're often scaled based on a typical retiree.
Excursion Type: Connoisseur and Off the Beaten Path Tours
The Big Picture: Princess' Connoisseur Tours focus on small groups (think mini-bus instead of motor coach) and, consequently, destinations that larger groups can't access. They may also include exclusive access to attractions or fancy meals. (Editor's note: These tours were formerly known as Elite Collection tours.) Off the Beaten Path options focus on more unusual and less-visited attractions.
Sample Tours: Foodies can go on a Connoisseur culinary tour of Boston's North End markets, led by a chef, to learn about Italian wine and food and Mediterranean cooking secrets. Or tour Kusadasi, Turkey, where you'll explore the Basilica of St. John and the Roman ruins of Ephesus. The more adventurous can take an Off the Beaten Path Tour to Costa Rica's Puntarenas to enjoy bird watching with a naturalist guide at the Scarlet Macaw Sanctuary.
Excursion Type: Silver Shore Collection
The Big Picture: Silversea Cruises' Silver Shore Collection tours focus on giving travelers access to places and events they couldn't arrange on their own, often with a focus on local history and culture.
Sample Tours: Enjoy a scenic one-hour drive in an offroad vehicle through Slovenian Istria en route to a traditional village in the Dragonja Valley. You'll meet a pack of truffle-hunting dogs and their master. You'll observe the hunt for this elusive delicacy on a hilltop estate dotted with vineyards and olive trees. Lunch -- prepared by a private chef -- follows with a selection of the estate's wines. In St. Petersburg, Russia, tour the storied staterooms of the Winter Palace -- from the time of Catherine the Great -- in the Hermitage Museum. This special after-hours tour culminates in a Champagne reception and performance by the State Hermitage Orchestra. Travelers who prefer a more hands-on, cerebral tour enjoy the half-day tour to Bonis Ceramic Workshop in Rhodes, Greece. After instruction from a master craftsman, each participant has the opportunity to step up to the pottery wheel and make a vase and decorate a plate. These mementos are colored and baked before being shipped home.
FYI: Although several lines focus their boutique tours on Europe and exotic regions, Silversea offers Silver Shore experiences in the Caribbean, Mexico, Alaska, Canada and New England -- as well as in more far-flung destinations.
Excursion Type: Concierge Collection
The Big Picture: Windstar's tours focus on intimate and unique experiences, with an emphasis on flightseeing, private tours and niche experiences (like wine tastings or more active endeavors). Because of the limited number of participants and exclusive nature of the excursions, Concierge Collection tours tend to be more expensive.
Sample Tours: In Malaga, Spain, tour a Roman theater built by Caesar Augustus, an 11th-century Moorish palace/fortress and a 15th-century church all on your very modern-day Segway. Or, visit a family in their home in Visby, Sweden, where you can learn about local customs and enjoy traditional Swedish snacks.
FYI: These boutique tours are available only in Europe.
--By Erica Silverstein, Features Editor; updated by Andrea M. Rotondo, Cruise Critic contributor