This isn't the time to nickel-and-dime: yes, dinner onboard is "free," but don't let that stop you from having a unique and local culinary experience. And while you can hear music and see Broadway-level performers on the ship, an overnight call is your only chance to experience authentic after-hours shows and attractions in your destination.
The best thing about an evening in port: No curfew! You can stay out as late as you like to explore the city.
Yet wandering around a foreign city in the dark can be intimidating, and many avid cruisers are unused to touring at night. The two biggest questions on their minds are:
What should I do? Dinner and a show is an unbeatable combo, or enjoy a city's club scene and scenic nighttime views from rooftop bars. Simply letting the afternoon take you wherever it leads is, in itself, a great benefit of overnighting.
Depending on the port, some lines offer evening excursions, which take on a completely different flavor than daytime excursions. A Buenos Aires excursion might offer a tango show with or without dinner, or in Barcelona, a dine-in flamenco show. In Istanbul, passengers can choose to dine at the Kizkulesi (Maiden's Tower) Restaurant, which is located on the Bosporus Strait and dates back 2,500 years.
How do I get around? How you get around depends upon your comfort level in large cities and your adeptness at hailing cabs. Note that different cities have different rules for hiring taxis; in some cities, you can only find a ride at a designated taxi stand or with the assistance of a helpful hotel bellman. Far-flung and exotic need not spell difficulty: for example, Singapore is one of the world's easiest places to hail cabs; they are inexpensive and ubiquitous. Just look for the green TAXI sign on top of the car. ("Hired" means the cab is spoken for.) In contrast, water taxis in Venice are pricey, and catching the last vaporetto (water bus) back to port might mean being forced to stand elbow-to-elbow with other night owls. But as a canal city, Venice is an anomaly.
All in all, a roundtrip car service, with the fee arranged before you fly off to your embarkation port -- or at the port itself -- gives you peace of mind. This is especially true if the forecast calls for rain, when cabs suddenly get scarce. (Rarely are a city's premier attractions within walking distance of the ship, and ports aren't always located in the safest or most well-lit neighborhoods.)
Not all ports host ships for overnight stays. Some key ports where ships often overnight include:
Europe: Madeira (Funchal), Portugal; Istanbul, Turkey; Athens, Greece; Venice and Sorrento, Italy; Barcelona, Spain; and St. Petersburg, Russia
Asia: Bangkok (Laem Chabang) , Thailand; Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, China; and Tokyo (Yokohama), Japan; Singapore
Pacific: Sydney, Cairns, Perth (Fremantle), Hobart and Sherrard Island, Australia; Auckland, New Zealand; and Noumea, New Caledonia
To give you some ideas for great ways to spend your late-night hours in port, here's a late-afternoon-to-evening guide to some of the most popular overnight ports on five continents.
The traghetti (stripped-down old gondolas that ferry passengers across the canal) provide an inexpensive way to get the gondola experience; the boats are accessible from seven different locations. Cross over from San Marco to serene Dorsoduro to visit the renowned Peggy Guggenheim Collection (open until 6). Once back in San Marcos, Cafe Florian is a must. A Venetian institution, it dates from 1720 and holds the title as Venice's oldest coffeehouse.
If you only have one night and want to dine canalside but avoid tourist traps, da Rafaelle is a great choice. Located just a few short blocks from Piazza San Marco, the restaurant is also a stone's throw from the S.M. Giglio vaparetto station. Make sure you reserve early to score a waterside table on the balcony, and feast on pasta, crostini, scampi and polenta.
Piazza San Marco is known for its dueling orchestras. Stroll the square to hear the sounds of the quartets, or have a seat within earshot, and enjoy a gelato or aperitif. For more highbrow entertainment, the spectacular La Fenice opera house features performances of "La Traviata," "Otello," "Carmen" and the like.
Check out our port profile of Venice.
Wandering along the colorful chophouses in Chinatown would be entertainment enough, but luckily one of Singapore's oldest and finest Hindu temples is also located there. Sri Mariamann (244 South Bridge Road), which has evening hours (6 to 9 p.m.), is composed of six tiers of deities and other figures. Inside, discover a multigenerational scene of serene worship and incense.
A visit to Singapore wouldn't be complete without sampling the varieties of the Singapore Sling at the Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel. Then enjoy escargot, prawns with leek cream, and prime cuts of perfectly grilled Australian steak at the Long Bar Steakhouse.
Walk around the edge of the bay to take photos of the famous Merlion fountain, cross the bridge, and end your night at the Esplanade Theaters on the Bay, part of the $8 billion Marina Bay Sands arts, dining, and hotel complex. Check listings for tours of Broadway shows like "Jersey Boys."
Check out our port profile of Singapore.
Soft, white sand, aquamarine water, beautiful bodies: Miami boasts some of the best beaches in America. Serene Key Biscayne appeals to families, solitude-seekers and those who don't mind driving a bit. South Beach entices with its Art Deco architecture, windy coastal park and beach concessions (rent chairs and umbrellas) that stay open until 6.
Identical twin chefs, Nicola and Fabrizio Carro, from the Piedmont region of Italy, serve up flawless Northern Italian cuisine in Quattro Gastronomia Italiana. Standouts in this Lincoln Road hotspot include the caprese salad with buffalo mozzarella, the melanzane, and the rigatoni with Parma ham and porcini mushrooms. Leave yourself enough time to wander and people-watch on pedestrian-only Lincoln Road, with its nightclubs, festive outdoor cafes, and Books & Books, South Beach's literary treasure.
Have a nightcap on Ocean Drive, where cafe after cafe entertains international crowds with live Gypsy Kings-style music. At Van Dyke Upstairs on Lincoln Road, enjoy jazz, funk, R&B and world music.
Check out our port profile of Miami.
The Recoleta is one of the city's best barrios (neighborhoods) for exploring. The shopping is exceptional (Fendi, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Cartier), the architecture ornately Parisian.
Buenos Aires is justifiably proud of its beef, and La Cabana is one of the city's finest steakhouses, serving up prime cuts of Kobe beef, beef tartare, and beef carpaccio, as well as local delicacies like chorizo blossoms, veal sweetbreads and empanadas.
For flamenco, head to Cantares in the Congreso section. See Hector Romero and other top flamenco guitarists, as well as singers and dancers, improvise in highly expressive style. Savor the Byzantine, Roma and Muslim influences of this Andalusian art form.
Check out our port profile of Buenos Aires.
To fully appreciate the spirit of Sydneysiders, catch some rays and watch the surfers at Bondi Beach. Then experience the one-of-a-kind Icebergs Swim Club, which is both an athletic and culinary destination. Take a dip in the ocean-fed lap pools, and grab a steam bath and a workout, or a brew and a meal.
Perched over the waves and the pools, the Bistro, the Unsinkable Bar and the Sundeck Bar offer fresh seafood like the grilled barramundi fillet, the fettuccini with chili prawns, and the Icebergs Seafood Platter for Two, which boasts beer-battered flathead, oysters and half-shell scallops with melted cheese.
Iconic for its architecture, which evokes pristine white sails or shells (depending on one's perspective), the Sydney Opera House was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. Its performers include Opera Australia, the Sydney Theater Company, the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. "Aida" and "Tosca" are perennial opera favorites.
Check out our port profile of Sydney.
--by Drew Limsky, Cruise Critic contributor