With so much emphasis placed on cruise ships themselves, from zip-lining and massive waterslides to Michelin-quality restaurants to greasy burger joints, it's sometimes hard to remember that a big part of cruising is seeing the world that lies beyond the lido deck.
If you're looking to cruise to an entirely new region or even just to try out a few different ports on a favorite itinerary, read on to find out which cruise destinations we think are buzzworthy this year.
Hands down the most popular region in the world for cruise travelers, the Caribbean is surprisingly vast, with ports of call whose charms run the gamut from eco-oriented and historic to beachy and retail-friendly. Cruise ships, though, tend to visit the same dozen marquee ports -- St. Thomas, Cozumel, Jamaica's trio, San Juan, St. Maarten, Costa Maya and Grand Cayman, among others -- but a few new entrants are worth checking out.
The island, popular for scuba diving and snorkeling, the historic town of Christiansted and its gorgeously mountainous interior, had been a cruise mainstay until crime-related issues made cruise lines leery in the early 2000's. The island has demonstrated a commitment to security, and ships are returning to its main port of Frederikstad, which has attractive new facilities.
Who's Going: Celebrity Eclipse, Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas, Holland America's Maasdam, Silversea's Silver Cloud, Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas, Celebrity Summit
One of four islands that are departments of France, Martinique is another port worth a detour. It's got a beguiling blend of attractions that include fantastic beaches on the southern end, a rain forest and volcano (with black-sand beaches) on the northern end, and the cosmopolitan city of Fort-de-France, which feels as French as it does Caribbean, in the middle.
Who's Going: Windstar Cruises' Wind Surf, Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas, Holland America's Noordam, Star Clippers' Royal Clipper, Compagnie du Ponant's Le Boreal, Costa Luminosa, MSC Lirica
Australia and New Zealand are the two fastest-growing cruise markets in the world, and that's good news for everyone; with more demand, cruise lines are deploying a record number of ships, including newer and bigger models (such as Celebrity Solstice, Holland America's Oosterdam, and Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas). More ships mean a greater choice of itineraries, more contemporary amenities such as balconies and a variety of dining options, and a better chance to snag a good deal.
New Zealand's Tauranga, on the North Island, is a great jumping-off spot for one of the world's most idyllic (and confounding) tourist attractions: Hobbiton, the whimsical property that has served as the movie set for all of Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" films. Initially developed in 1999 from about 50 acres of farmland, Hobbiton has been massively refurbished over the past couple of years (most recent addition: The Green Dragon Inn) and is meant to replicate the author's original vision. But Tauranga isn't just a port for Hobbit fans. The city on the Bay of Plenty is also well-situated for visits to Mount Maunganui for nature exploration and surfing, and Rotorua for geothermal activities and Maori culture.
While Asia's marquee ports, such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and Yokohama (for Tokyo), are well-established cruise destinations, we've got our eye on places that are newly emerging on itineraries. Check out our two must-visits for this year.
Since Burma, more recently known as Myanmar, has begun to open itself to the world, its appeal as a destination has begun to grow. Known for its grand temples and shrines, two popular options are available for cruisers. Bigger ships dock about an hour or so outside the main city of Rangoon (Yangon) and often feature multiday stays that include shore tours to more remote locales. River cruise lines, with their smaller ships, use Rangoon to begin more in-depth touring of towns and villages along the Irrawaddy River.
Who's Going: Pandaw River Cruises' RV Katha Pandaw, Pandaw River Cruises' Pandaw II, Azamara Journey, Azamara Quest, Abercrombie & Kent's Road to Mandalay
For Mekong Delta cruises that travel from Vietnam to Cambodia, Ho Chi Minh City, the brash and bold New York City of Vietnam, is the itinerary's primary metropolitan attraction. After that, riverboats, most carrying fewer than 150 passengers, meander along the delta, visiting small villages, holy sites and shrines. Another major highlight is a tour to Angkor Wat, one of the world's most important archeological sites (housing ninth- to 15th-century remains of the Khmer Empire). It's a cornerstone of the Mekong Delta experience.
Who's Going: Viking River Cruises' RV Indochina, Pandaw River Cruises' RV Mekong Pandaw, Avalon Waterways' Avalon Angkor, Uniworld's River Orchid, Uniworld's River Saigon
Vast and varied, cruising in Europe, whose popularity is second only to the Caribbean, includes numerous itinerary choices around the Mediterranean, Baltic Sea, Norwegian Fjords, Black Sea, North Sea and Atlantic, along with inland waterways such as the Rhine, Seine, Danube, Rhone and Duoro.
Istanbul's enviable location on the Bosphorus means it's the hub of several powerhouse itineraries, from the Black Sea to the Greek Isles and onward. Beyond that, the city, the world's only to cover two continents (western Istanbul lies in Europe, while Eastern Istanbul lies in Asia), is in the midst of a major renaissance. Its blend of contemporary art and culture with a vibrant culinary scene and more traditional marquee mosques and markets beckons tourists again and again.
If you're yawning at the thought of another Caribbean voyage but don't want to shell out the money for a cruise to Africa, Asia or Australia, don't worry -- it's becoming easier to find sailings from and within the United States. As an expedition ship adds an exciting twist to Hawaii sailings and new riverboats are added to the mighty Mississippi, you might do well to keep an eye out for new options close to home, which offer everything from pink-sand beaches to comfort food via itineraries that showcase two vastly different American cultures.
For beach-lovers, Hawaii cruises offer a Caribbean alternative with a different feel. This region, which gained traction in the early 2000's, is resurging, due in part to the arrival of expedition ships such as American Safari Cruises' Safari Explorer, which carries only 36 passengers and focuses on nature, culture and what there is to see and do on the islands, rather than what's onboard. In addition, Norwegian Cruise Line's Hawaii staple, Pride of America, will receive refurbishments in the first part of the year, adding more cabins -- notably solo cabins -- and a Brazilian-style steakhouse. Because both ships are registered in the United States, they can spend their time sailing only around the Hawaiian islands, which means fewer sea days for passengers and more time in port.
Who's Going: American Safari Cruises' Safari Explorer, Norwegian's Pride of America, Celebrity Solstice, Carnival Miracle, Holland America's Westerdam, Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas, Sapphire Princess
With two ships introduced to ply the waters of the Mississippi last year, we expect American riverboating to rise in popularity in 2013. Cruisers who book on American Cruise Line's Queen of the Mississippi or American Queen Steamboat Company's American Queen can expect a decent dose of 1800's Americana, including southern cuisine, calliope music and enough river lore to captivate even the most discerning history buff. The nice part about these sailings is that they're able to call on ports up and down the Mississippi River, including New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis, among others.
Who's Going: American Cruise Line's Queen of the Mississippi, American Queen Steamboat Company's American Queen
While North Africa's Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia have become popular destinations for cruise travelers -- at least in pre-Arab Spring days -- the continent's southernmost cities have struggled to appeal. Part of the problem is location; intriguing cities such as Cape Town require longer voyages with lots of sea days, which put them out of reach for many. But we're seeing a change ...
A number of travel operators, including well-regarded river cruise line AMAWaterways, have created cruise/land tour combos aboard upmarket Zambezi Queen. In addition to the four-night cruises, which visit safari parks and small villages, travelers also spend a few days in Cape Town and visit Zambia's breathtaking Victoria Falls.
Who's Going: AMAWaterways' Zambezi Queen, Crystal Serenity, Holland America's Amsterdam, Ocean Princess, Fred. Olsen's Black Watch, Silversea's Silver Whisper, Cunard's Queen Mary 2, MSC Sinfonia