Already known for its all-inclusive cruises of the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Seaway and coastal New England, Victory Cruise Lines is expanding its itineraries to a variety of new destinations. Beginning in 2020, its two 202-passenger ships, Victory I and Victory II, will start to visit Alaska, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and the southeastern U.S. coast. And its newbuild, Victory Ocean, debuts in 2021 and will focus on Alaska cruises from May to September.
In all destinations, a new lineup of shore excursions will deliver authentic and immersive cultural experiences that are the line’s hallmark. Here are highlights of the cruise-included and premium shore excursions offered in select ports of these new itineraries.
What to See: Mexico and Central America
Panama City, Panama
Included excursion: Panama City is a study in contrasts. As a big financial center, it’s the Miami of Central America. But it’s also a colonial city with narrow cobblestone streets and the atmospheric ambience of Old Panama. After docking in Puerto Balboa, about 15 minutes from Panama City, the ship offers a driving tour of the city that features three fascinating stops.
The first is the Frank Gehry-designed BioMuseo, a natural history museum that showcases the rich biodiversity that developed in Panama, a unique land bridge between continents. Resembling multicolored cutouts from the exterior, the museum celebrates Panama’s natural wonders and the interconnectedness of all species. It stands guard at the entrance to the Panama Canal.
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Next comes the Mi Pueblito crafts market on Ancon Hill in Panama City. It resembles a small village with plazas, a church and fountains. Vendors sell jewelry and handicrafts made by the indigenous communities along the Caribbean and in the interior of the country — from the Guna Yala (formerly known as San Blas) to the Emberá regions.
The final stop is in Old Panama City’s Casco Antiguo, the Spanish colonial sector re-built in 1673 after Old Panama was sacked and burned. Dotted with historic churches, palaces and residences, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The restored, centuries-old buildings have been transformed into open-air restaurants, hip pubs and bars, and live music venues — making the neighborhood one of the hottest in the city.
Premium excursions: Two premium tours offer a deeper dive into Panamanian culture. The first option takes guests to an indigenous Emberá village near Gatun Lake, traveling first by motorcoach and then by canoe, which is the only way to access it. Villagers welcome the group with music and dancing, followed by lunch of local food served in their thatched huts deep in the jungle.
A second option is a hands-on, ocean-to-table culinary experience. At the Mercado de Mariscos seafood market, guests follow a local Panamanian chef as he buys just-caught fish from the fishermen. Then he takes guests to his restaurant where he turns it into ceviche, a local specialty of raw marinated fish, for all to enjoy.
Fun fact: Panama is the only place in the world where you can see the sun rise on the Pacific and set on the Atlantic.
Golfito, Costa Rica
Included excursion: With more than 500,000 animal species, 9,000 types of plants, 800 species of ferns and 12 different microclimates, Costa Rica is a nature-lover’s paradise. Some of that famous wilderness is visible around tiny Golfito, the southernmost port on the country’s Pacific Coast. A last-frontier region little visited by tourists, it has some of the tallest rainforests in Central America. Today, cruise guests can learn about the history and culture of the region at an exclusive lecture at the University of Costa Rica branch located here. In addition, a local market set up on campus will offer an expression of indigenous Boruca culture via food, music and craft artisans, such as mask makers.
Premium excursions: The premium tours focus on the abundant tropical produce of the region. One unveils the traditional style of harvesting and processing cacao and coconut. Follow the process of toasting, peeling and grinding the cocoa seeds to making great organic chocolate on a local farm. Learn how to use all parts of the coconut and sample its fresh milk and flesh.
The other tour explores botanical medicine in a tropical garden. Guided by a local botanist, you’ll help make medicinal pastes, balms and herbal remedies sourced from the garden. Learn about the various uses of plants, flowers, herbs and roots, and enjoy the smells and sights of this tropical paradise.
Fun fact: Golfito was once the headquarters of the United Fruit Company.
Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico
Included excursions: Maya culture, archaeological ruins and history make the Yucatan Peninsula an incomparable destination. And they come alive dramatically at Valladolid, a Spanish colonial city that serves as a jumping-off point for the nearby Maya ruins of Chichen Itza and Ek Balam. This two-day stop features exclusive visits to Ek Balam, a centuries-old Maya site known for the intricate design motifs on its temples, palaces and pyramid, and to the world-famous ruins of Chichen Itza, where you can watch the sun rise over the Temple of Kukulcan, a step-pyramid also called El Castillo. Talk about a wow moment!
In between, you overnight at the Mayaland Hotel and Bungalows, located within walking distance of the iconic El Castillo as well as the Sacred Cenote, a revered natural sinkhole. The two days end with a city tour of Valladolid, a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with beautiful pastel buildings and old historic churches.
Premium excursion: Watch the sun set over the 1,500-year-old ruins of Chichen Itza as a dramatic light-and-sound show projected onto its main pyramid, El Castillo, tells the story of the Yucatec Maya. It’s a one-of-a-kind spectacle.
Fun facts: Chichen Itza is considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. During the spring and autumn equinox, the sun’s rays create a shadow across El Castillo that resembles a serpent slithering down the staircase.
What to see: Fascinating U.S. Coastal Cities
Beaufort, South Carolina
Included excursion: Here in Beaufort it's all about mossy oaks, Lowcountry cooking and Gullah culture. A cruise along the South Carolina and Georgia coast offers all this and more. Rich in stately antebellum homes, Beaufort is a classic Southern town steeped in American history. Known as the Queen of the Carolina Sea Islands, the scenic port city played a starring role in legendary films such as The Big Chill, The Great Santini and of course, Forrest Gump. The tour spotlights three landmarks of local history and culture. The Santa Elena History Center tells the story of the Spanish town of Santa Elena, founded in 1566 on nearby Parris Island. Beaufort National Cemetery, established in 1863 for the reinternment of Union soldiers and sailors who died in the region, holds more than 14,000 veterans in its beautifully landscaped grounds. And the Beaufort History Museum, located in an 18th-century arsenal in the historic district, showcases the city’s history and culture.
Premium excursions: Two premium tours bring to life iconic features of Beaufort’s storied past. On one tour, guests will learn about the Gullah Geechee, the slave descendants who populate the Lowcountry islands, through their food, music, language and traditions. Visit a traditional Gullah plantation, enjoy a performance of Gullah gospel music at a Gullah Praise House, savor a traditional Gullah-style lunch, and visit the Penn Center, one of the country’s first schools for formerly enslaved children and a historic African American cultural institution.
A second option reveals the artifacts, battles and traditions of the Marine Corps at the Parris Island military base as well as the Parris Island Museum, which features exhibits on the history of the U. S. Marine Corps and the Port Royal region.
Fun fact: Beaufort County was the site of the second landing on the North American continent by Europeans, made in 1514 — only a year after the first landing at St. Augustine, Florida, also done by Spanish explorers.
Included excursion: Immerse yourself in this historic town on a narrated tour along its cobblestone streets, antebellum homes and moss-draped live oaks. This culturally vibrant “Hostess City of the South” is filled with period architecture and charming public squares, such as Chippewa Square, made famous by the movie “Forrest Gump.” You can explore City Market, four blocks of open-air market since the 1700’s along some of Savannah’s most scenic streets. Check out the Savannah Historic District, a National Historic Landmark rich with quintessential Savannah photo opps. Visit the Davenport House Museum, an 1820 American Federal-style house that marked the beginning of Savannah’s historic preservation movement. And tour the Savannah History Museum, which showcases the city’s heritage from its founding in 1733 to the present day — including the famous bench that Tom Hanks sat on in “Forrest Gump.”
Premium excursions: Three premium excursions offer deeper dives into the area’s heritage, culture and landmarks. On a half-day tour, “Sights of the South: From Savannah to Tybee Island,” you’ll visit the colonial-era Tybee Island Light Station and Museum at the entrance to the Savannah River; Fort Screven, a 19th-century gun battery; and the 150-year-old Bonaventure Cemetery, whose moss-draped setting and striking sculptures and tombs were featured in the novel and film, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
A second half-day option, “Sweet Savannah,” showcases the behavior and importance of bees and honey on a tour of the Savannah Bee Company followed by a cooking class at Chef Darin’s Kitchen Table, where you’ll learn how to make Savannah’s famous pecan pralines.
Learn all about America’s Roaring 20’s on the third option, “Spirits of Savannah: An American Prohibition Experience.” It features a tour of the American Prohibition Museum, an exclusive speakeasy visit, and stop at a local distillery to learn about creating spirits and to enjoy a tasting.
Fun fact: America’s first planned city was offered as a Christmas present to President Lincoln by General Sherman, who chose to spare it rather than burn it down because of its beauty.
What to see: The Great Lakes
Included excursion: The largest body of fresh water on the planet, the Great Lakes are an often overlooked cruise destination filled with surprises and unexpected treats. Detroit is one. This onetime automotive capital of the world is experiencing an exciting renewal that is returning it to the vitality of its past. With its vibrant culture, Art Deco skyscrapers and energetic vibe, Motor City is once again brimming with ingenuity and innovation.
Get a taste via the narrated hop-on, hop-off bus tour of downtown, which includes seven stops of historical or cultural significance, including outstanding museums. The interactive Charles H. Wright Museum of African American Culture is the second largest African American museum in the world. It depicts the history of African Americans from slavery through Civil Rights and to the present. The Detroit Institute of Arts is one of the largest art museums in the U.S., featuring a broadly diverse collection of more than 65,000 pieces displayed in over 100 galleries, all set in a magnificent Beaux-Arts building. Standout works include Mexican artist Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry fresco cycle and Vincent van Gogh's Self-Portrait. The Detroit Historical Museum, on the other hand, tells the story of Michigan’s largest city through auto assembly lines, a fur trading post, toy trains and more.
Hop off on Canfield Street and check out its eclectic art studios, unique boutiques and even a modern-day record factory, Third Man Records, which offers tours of its state-of-the-art vinyl production facility and has a record store and lounge. Then stroll around Campus Martius Park, Detroit’s signature public space in its skyscraper-enveloped city center.
Premium excursions: The life and work of Henry Ford is the centerpiece of these two tours. Enjoy a self-guided, half-day tour of the remarkable Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, whose exhibits cover all aspects of American history and innovation. Or spend a full day and add on the 80-acre Greenfield Village, just next door to the museum, which is a journey into America’s past. Hop on a steam-powered train, take a ride on a real Model T, learn the art of pulling glass with local artisans, and enjoy an 1850s-style lunch at Eagle Tavern. Down the road, enjoy a Ford Rogue Factory Tour to experience America’s celebrated manufacturing past and get an inside look at how the famous Ford F150 truck was produced.
Fun facts: There’s a salt mine below the city’s streets, and Detroit tops the list for potato chip consumption in the United States.
Included excursion: One of the deepest ports in the Great Lakes is Muskegon, whose Lake Michigan shoreline features 26 miles of sandy beaches. An outdoor lover’s playground, the area also boasts multiple state and county parks, more than 60 miles of trails and inland lakes and rivers for boating and fishing. Muskegon has a vibrant downtown of pure Americana, whose fascinating museums document its history.
A narrated hop on-hop off tour showcases six of those cultural venues:
- Learn about Muskegon’s inventions and products — from steam engines to bowling balls to an original raggedy Ann doll — at the Muskegon Heritage Museum. More than 80 companies are represented in this unique venue.
- Step back in time to 1890 at the Hackley & Hume Historic Site for a glimpse of the lifestyle of Muskegon’s famous lumber barons. Tour the exquisite Victorian-style homes of Charles H. Hackley and Thomas Hume to learn how these industrialists influenced the development of Michigan and beyond.
- For a house of a different sort, visit the Scolnik House of the Depression Era, which tells the story of families living in Muskegon during the Great Depression. It includes period-appropriate furnishings and decor and radios that play music and shows from the era.
- Another piece of history is memorialized in the Fire Barn Museum, which honors the men and women who have served as Muskegon County firefighters.
- Art has its place in the Muskegon Museum of Art, considered one of the finest small art museums in the country. The collection features early European, American, traditional and contemporary works.
- Walk where heroes have on a tour of the USS LST 393 Veterans Museum. History comes alive on every deck and corner of this Omaha Beach D-Day Landing Ship, one of only two remaining in the United States. Discover artifacts and displays honoring those who served America during WWII.
Premium excursion: Take a half-day side trip to the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids just outside of Muskegon. Learn about the life and presidency of the 38th President of the United States, who long honored Grand Rapids as his hometown.
Fun fact: During the 1870s and 80s, Muskegon was known as the “Lumber Queen of the World.” Nearly 50 sawmills circled Muskegon Lake at the peak of the lumbering era and more than 40 local millionaires made their fortunes in lumber.
What to See: Exotic Alaska
Included excursion: With magnificent wildlife, jaw-dropping scenery, unique indigenous cultures and fascinating history, Alaska is a larger-than-life destination. It's epic in scope and scale, and brimming with nature in the raw. The tiny community of Metlakatla, the only Indian reserve in the state, offers a sampler of Alaska’s authentic cultural attributes.
Located on Annette Island and surrounded by lush, temperate rainforest, the Tsimshian Indian village of Metlakatla has only 1,500 residents, who welcome guests by sharing their ancient culture and way of life. Passengers can join a private visit to a Tsimshian Long House for a traditional dance performance by one of the most celebrated dancing groups in Alaska. Visitors are even encouraged to participate in the dances themselves. In addition, the community displays its art, totem poles, canoes and intricate cedar-bark baskets and encourages visitors to talk to the craftspeople during their exploration of the village.
Fun fact: Metlakatla is the southernmost incorporated municipality in the state and its location makes it one of the warmest locations in Alaska.
Included excursion: While Metlakatla offers a glimpse of Alaska’s fascinating local cultures, Wrangell combines that with thrilling outdoor activities. Originally founded by Russian traders, the onetime mining town in the heart of the Inside Passage retains many remnants of its vibrant Tlingit culture. Guided by a native Klingit guide, guests visit the Tlingit Chief Shakes Tribal House, a reproduction longhouse built with ancient native carving methods. Then, a visit to the Wrangell Museum gives a deeper look at the culture, heritage and peoples of Wrangell, from the town’s early Klingit roots through its Gold Rush past when it was on the first route to the Klondike Gold Rush.
Premium excursions: The area around Wrangell is overflowing with wildlife, from black and brown bears to eagles, sea lions, harbor seals, whales and salmon. One premium tour takes passengers by jetboat to the Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory, a favorite spot to view brown and black bears feasting on salmon. Accessible via a half-mile trail walk, the observation platform overlooking cascading falls offers one of the best opportunities to see Alaskan bears in their native habitat as they catch salmon jumping up river.
Another tour offers a wilderness river trip by jetboat on the Stikine River, where you might catch sight of moose, bears and wolves. After passing an old-growth rainforest and spots where gold miners once camped, you end up at the spectacular LeConte Glacier, one of the most active glaciers in Southeast Alaska. You can see how glacial action has dramatically carved the landscape and watch huge chunks of ice calving as they thunder into the icy waters.
Fun fact: Wrangell is the only community in Alaska to have been governed by four nations: Tlingit Nation, Russia, Britain and the United States.
An award-winning writer and former travel editor of USA TODAY, Veronica Stoddart has visited and reported from more than 100 countries. She has contributed to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, AARP The Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Robb Report and many others. She believes that travel can be a force for good in the world. Stoddart will be posting daily dispatches through November 29 so check back daily for the latest insights and discoveries from a once-in-a-lifetime trip (or maybe a multi-trip-of-a-lifetime) to Antarctica, the White Continent.
**We have had so much fun learning more about Victory Cruise Lines' expansion plans and experiencing its authentic style of travel on our St. Lawrence Seaway cruise. To read more, check out all our stories in Cruise Critic's "Travel Farther, Travel Deeper, with Victory Cruise Lines" series, that focus on this innovative cruise line.