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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