The Port Call Conundrum: Hey, Eight Hours Is Better Than Nothing …

December 22, 2011 | By | 7 Comments

I’m standing at the edge of Albania’s Butrint, an extravagantly beautiful excavation of Hellenic-Roman ruins. It’s a pretty safe bet most of the world hasn’t yet seen Butrint – Albania’s answer to Pompeii (sans volcano). I’m in awe, not only of the mystical scenery – mountain ranges, ancient theaters, and lush gardens – but also of this: I’d never, ever have been here and seen this were it not for cruise travel.
In a recent Cruise Critic poll in which we asked cruise virgins “What’s the biggest factor that scares you off taking a cruise?” a whopping 63 percent responded that it’s because time in ports is so superficial you don’t get a real experience. That’s true – to a point. Certainly, cruise itineraries, which often cram in visits to as many as six ports on a weeklong trip, are meant for quick bites — tapas, if you will, rather than fully digested multi-course meals. But most cruise lines make no promises to supply deeply connective in-port experiences, and if you think of cruising as “not real travel,” you’re missing the point.
Thanks to cruise travel, I’ve had a chance to go to places that aren’t exactly minibreak material and yet offered incredibly valuable exposure to the world around. Right up there with my recent visit to Albania was a port call at Yemen’s Aden, where the primary attractions on our military-escorted shore tour were a fly-ridden fish market and a centuries-old cistern built by the British (alas, it’s no longer in use). When it came to a wealth of historic art, culture and museums, it was no Florence, but it was an unforgettable place to see. Even for just a day.
And then there are places you really can’t visit any other way than by cruise ship; of course, I’m thinking of the Galapagos Islands and the Antarctic. The fjords of Chile and Norway are, in both cases, more convenient to see by vessel than by trains, planes and autos.
If touring by cruise ship means I see less of the insides of airports, railway stations and bus terminals, and if I can travel to a variety of places without packing and schlepping bags, and if I can travel in a bit of comfort, who’s to argue with that? And there’s this: If a particular port captivates you, you can always book your next vacation at a land-based resort there.
Just be careful. It’s easy to over-romanticize a place that, on your first eight-hour visit, seems like paradise. After my first Caribbean cruise, I fell in love with the U.S. Virgin Islands’ St. John and, on a whim, decided to move there a few months later. It was a tad impulsive, and in the end “paradise” wasn’t quite what it seemed on that initial visit. I only lasted a year.
That said, I’d love to go back and visit – as long as the ship doesn’t leave without me.
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    7 Responses to “The Port Call Conundrum: Hey, Eight Hours Is Better Than Nothing …”

    1. Kate
      December 22nd, 2011 @ 4:28 pm

      I think the argument that ports of call are too brief are ridiculous. I am a travel agent and hear this argument all the time. What gets me is when these same people tell me about the recent tour they went on. Bus tours spend less time in any one place and you are constanly packing and unpacking with HOURS sitting on your rear. How is this more fun than hanging out with your friends and family and enjoying time doing fun things while you go from place to place? I am always surprised by how many people do not know about excursions and the importance of planning excursions to make sure you maximize your cruise experience. I really think that when you get on the ship- every newbie should get an invite to have a drink and meet with the shore excursion staff to help them pick trips that work for them.

    2. Maria
      December 23rd, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

      A cruise is just what it says, a cruise. I treat the shore excursions as an added bonus to the whole cruise holiday. If I find somewhere I really love, then I can go back on a road holiday and enjoy it at my leisure.

    3. Valerie Ringman
      December 23rd, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

      I agree. Cruises allow you to see places where you can get a brief preview of a country; it interested that a longer vacation can be taken there, if not, you have wasted a week in a place you wouldn’t choose.

      We also have been able to see place, Tikal comes to mind, which we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to see, or is we had alot of bit by bit planning would have to be done on our part. It’s great that the cruise lines take care of all transportation, etc for you.

    4. Tracy Antonioli
      December 23rd, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

      I completely agree–and I’m one of those people that used to think ‘the time in port is too short’. But now, after traveling both ways, I completely see the draw of cruising. My husband and I spent two weeks in Paris last summer. I hated Paris–and I was ‘stuck’ there fore two weeks. With a cruise, if you love somewhere, well, you can return. And if you dislike a place–no problem! The ship sails at 7pm!

      I also agree that some places are just easier to enjoy via cruise ship. I recently cruised to Bermuda, and while I’m a huge fan of ‘trying the local cuisine’ when visiting a new place, the prices in Bermuda scared me away (with the exception of some fish chowder and a rum swizzle!) which was fine, because I could just eat upon returning to the ship.

    5. Steve Krulick
      December 23rd, 2011 @ 10:46 pm

      During a Baltic cruise and Mediterranean cruise, where the average port stay was at best eight hours, and sometimes less, we found the best approach was to grab a “hop-on-hop-off” bus, often available right at the port, or a local bus ride away, for $15 to $25 on average, depending on the city and the length of the tour. Most are double-deckers with multi-lingual audio and basic headsets (I bring my own for better sound quality), with up to two dozen stops during circuits upwards of 90 minutes or longer.

      Take the first full circuit to get a lay of the land and orient yourself, and then pick as many stops as you have time for on the second-go-round, depending on which sites seem most worth your time, making sure to get back to port in time.

      It may seem rushed, but I have indelible and detailed mental maps of large sections of Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Talinn, Malta, Barcelona, etc. and of the various highlights we were able to get to without hoofing it.

    6. Harriet
      December 24th, 2011 @ 8:42 am

      We have been to Barcelona 9 times but never stayed overnight!!!!!!!!!! The same for many many other ports. When you cruise alot you can repeat or threepeat ports so each time you can see or do something different!!!!!!!! Cruising is the best way to travel as long as you are on a ship that fits your travel needs. We just eliminated Celebrity because of their adding loads of or pay restaurants and lowering food quality. All inclusive cruises have always been a wonderful part of cruising as well as dining at the same table every night!!!!!!!!!! We are lucky, however that we have loads of time to take long cruises so can visit many ports many times!!!!!!!!!!!!

    7. Joanne Hice
      December 27th, 2011 @ 12:03 pm

      I think it is exciting to get off the ship in some exciting place I’ve never been. The experiences of going to The Vatican and to Pompeii while on a cruise excursion are worth a $1M to me. In Barcelona, we did what someone else suggested……got a double decker bus pass and hopped on and off when we wanted to see something, eat at the Hard Rock Cafe, etc. I also look at cruise excursions as a way to find what countries I’d like to return to for a longer trip.

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