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 other 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 with an after-hours visit sans crowds or a special meal in a usually off-limits area. Some go as far as multiday, overland adventures to take cruise travelers to inland wonders like India's Taj Mahal or Australia's Ayers Rock, 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 tour to easily identify the more unusual tours. Some lines, like Crystal and Disney, even let you search by these designations.
On a budget? Tread carefully. While some are quite reasonably priced, others can cost thousands of dollars. Flights, hotel stays and fancy cars or other technology will quickly drive up the cost of your excursion, and half-day tours are usually cheaper than full-day or overnight excursions. It's up to you to determine just how much a once-in-a-lifetime experience is worth to you. For example, Disney's Valletta Historical Hunt costs only $49 for adults and $29 for kids, while Crystal's more exclusive Signature Collection and Extreme Adventure tours range from $1,000 to $40,000 per person. Most boutique tours across the cruise lines cost between $100 and $1,000, depending on the aforementioned conditions.
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 motorcoach 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 and Extreme Adventures (But, many regular tours 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.
Sample Tours: 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 Edinburgh, learn the sport of falconry as instructors teach you how to command falcons, hawks, buzzards, owls and maybe even an eagle. Or, for a more refined experience, enjoy an evening visit to Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, where you can view the carriage and portrait collections before partaking in a Champagne reception with entertainment by local musicians, dancers and the Royal Guards and dining on Russian cuisine on the palace grounds.
FYI: The most out-there tours are not cheap. The cosmonaut training overnight tour costs $34,999 and the MiG fighter tour $39,300.
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. Prices tend to be higher, due to the exclusive nature of the excursions.
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, a combo-tour includes interactive visits to see totem poles and a re-created native settlement, as well as tickets to the lumberjack show with special features only for Disney attendees. On the opposite end of the tour spectrum, a Signature tour in Nassau takes adult cruisers to the Graycliff Hotel and Restaurant, where participants learn how to roll cigars and taste Caribbean rums.
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: Medallion, Encore and World Wonders Collections
The Big Picture:Holland America has three 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. Finally, the World Wonders Collection takes travelers to natural or manmade wonders in style.
Sample Tours: A Medallion tour from Punta Arenas, Chile, features an hourlong flight to Puerto Natales and the Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO 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 passengers up at the port in Sydney, Australia, and transfers them to Alice Springs, where they can visit the awe-inspiring Ayers Rock before flying to Cairns to rejoin the ship.
FYI: Many of these tours take passengers outside the port city, so be prepared for long days (and for missing part of the cruise 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 may 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 Tours
The Big Picture: Connoisseur Tours focus on small groups (think mini-bus instead of motorcoach) 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.)
Sample Tours: Foodies can go on a culinary tour of Boston's North End markets, led by a professionally trained chef, to learn about Italian wine and food and Mediterranean cooking secrets. The more adventurous can take a tour to Costa Rica's Carara National Park from Puntarenas and enjoy bird-watching with a naturalist guide prior to lunch at a mountain resort with scenic views. Or, get the local perspective in Kusadasi, where you'll explore the nearby hillside village of Sirince, getting your fortune read from coffee grounds and visiting a home to sample traditional cooking. Then, it's on to Ephesus for a tour of the ruined Roman city.
FYI: After a shake-up of its excursion offerings, Princess has expanded its boutique tours into locations around the world, where previously popular destinations such as Alaska, Caribbean and Mexico had been excluded. However, Connoisseur Tours are not marked as such on Princess' Web site, so they're hard to identify.
Excursion Type: Silver Shore Collection
The Big Picture: 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: A behind-the-scenes tour of the Monte-Carlo Ballet Company offers a guided tour of the studio, led by a former dancer, with chances to see the costumes department, visit the workshop where pointe shoes are handmade, interact with dancers and watch them rehearse. In Dubai, passengers can book a tour to visit the Ajman Palace, where its owner, His Highness Sheikh Abdul Aziz, leads you on a private tour, discusses his family and life in the U.A.E. and entertains you at a dinner that features regional dishes. In Alaska, Silversea passengers can enjoy scenic floatplane rides over the Tongass National Forest before landing at a remote lodge, where they're treated to appetizers, wine, beer and cider prior to an exclusive Dungeness crab feast. And, in Antigua, art enthusiasts can sign up to visit the studios of local artists, where they'll have the opportunity to meet with the artists themselves.
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: These 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, as well.
Sample Tours: In Malaga, 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, indulge with a massage at the Negombo Thermal Center after a tour of the island of Ischia. For a funkier option, travel from Oostende, Belgium, to Lissewege and Brugge in a classic VW minibus. Or, visit a family in their home in Visby, Sweden, where you can learn about local customs and help cook a Swedish meal.
FYI: These boutique tours are available only in Europe.