What's New in Cruise Shore Excursions?

Bora Bora Celebration Motu Festival

As cruise ships have grown larger, offering more onboard attractions and events, cruise lines have taken a similar approach with their portfolio of shore excursions. Today's cruise lines are increasingly upping the ante on the standard (and, at times, snooze-fest) bus and walking tours of yore, adding on more innovative and unique excursion opportunities -- guaranteed to stimulate your body and mind, show you destinations in a new light and provide the maximum amount of education and fun.

Some of these innovations have grown along with new developments in onboard programming and itineraries. As passengers respond enthusiastically to new onboard programs focused on interests like cooking, for instance, a natural next step is to take this programming ashore with local culinary-themed outings. Cruises to ever more exotic locations, meanwhile, have increasingly allowed shore-tour planners to consider overnight or even multi-night tours and adventures, so that passengers can stick around to enjoy the nightlife of Rio, or take off to explore the temple complexes of Angkor Wat.

Of course, the best of yesteryear's shore tours are here to stay; beach breaks, snorkel trips and city highlights excursions will always be popular. But, if you're looking for something unique or exclusive, active or educational, you can now find pretty much any outing you can dream up right in your cruise line's shore tour brochure. Interested? Here are the hottest trends in cruise shore excursions right now so that you can make the most of your time ashore.

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Cannoli making demonstration and tasting

Locavore Excursions

The locavore movement that's swept the nation is no stranger to cruise lines, which have rolled out a slate of new excursions geared toward passengers in search of more authentic, beyond-the-tourist-trap culinary experiences ashore.

Azamara Club Cruises has introduced a "Cruise Global, Eat Local" dining program, for instance, that gives cruisers access to locals' favorite eateries around the globe (where meals can be enjoyed via independent outings or tacked on to preexisting shore tours). Celebrity Cruises, meanwhile, has debuted special "Chef's Market Discoveries" excursions in which ship chefs lead participants to experience local fare in some 40 worldwide ports. These tasting tours place an emphasis on local delicacies and specialties, and on sourcing and prepping regional ingredients from farmers markets and mom-and-pop food venues. MSC Cruises has been amping up its foodie tours, too, to include coffee tasting excursions in San Juan, Puerto Rico or Cartagena, Colombia, as well as a "flavors of Philipsburg" culinary tour of the Dutch, French and Caribbean cuisine on offer in the capital of St. Maarten.

Oceania now has an enhanced portfolio of "Culinary Discovery Tours" for food-themed, master chef-accompanied excursions in Mediterranean and Caribbean ports, including private tastings, vineyard and farm visits and stops at local markets. The line has also introduced "Culinary Creations" pre- and post-cruise, land-based, food-themed tour extensions in locales like Provence, London and Tuscany. Regent Seven Seas Cruises likewise has recently initiated a new program of "Gourmet Explorer Tours" in select Caribbean ports, wherein ship chef-accompanied excursions are typically joined by local chef guides to explore the port's regional agricultural, viticultural and culinary scene. Princess Cruises started a new "Cook My Catch" excursion in Alaska that's proved tremendously popular, affording cruisers the chance to set out on salmon and halibut fishing excursions and subsequently have their catches prepared to their liking for dinner back onboard.

Viking Ocean Cruises -- which launched in 2015 as the ocean-cruising counterpart to its popular river cruise line -- has placed a special emphasis on culinary-themed tours, too. "The Kitchen Table" chef-led outings run to local markets where passengers can pick out ingredients for a dinner that they'll later help prepare back on the ship. Additional delicious-sounding excursion options include cooking lessons from a countess in Italy, a king crab "safari" in the Baltic and an indigenous Saguenay foodie experience in Quebec.


People gathered in an ancient amphitheater in Kusadasi for an AzAmazing Evening event

Late-Night & Overnight Excursions

For cruisers keen on experiencing the restaurant, bar, nightlife and performing arts scene in port, pulling out of town before sundown can be a real downer. Happily, there's been a growing trend of cruise lines that make a point of featuring late-night and overnight stays in select ports of call. Some of the lines even have special evening excursions lined up to help you navigate the local nightlife scene with added insight and ease.

Azamara has been a pioneer for just such offerings, with an expanding roster of late-night and overnight adventures in recent years. Passengers can expect ship departures after 8 p.m. on more than half of the ports visited on any given itinerary. The line also runs a series of nighttime excursions (like an after-hours museum visit) via its "Nights and Cool Places" program, and also features one complimentary "AzAmazing Evening" per sailing (like a symphony performance in St. Petersburg). Celebrity is another solid choice, offering an expansive and enhanced overnight program in the Caribbean and beyond; cruisers can sign up for special "Evenings Around the World" nighttime excursions, too (try wine-tasting in Willemstad or bonfire parties in Cozumel).

Look, too, to  Crystal Cruises, which is increasing its overnight port offerings to include 25 new destinations in 2017 -- the line runs evening excursions that run the gamut from sipping whiskey on the London Eye to visiting Venice's St. Mark's Basilica after-hours. Princess Cruises' 2016-debuted "More Ashore" program likewise presents a portfolio of overnights and late-night port departures on a selection of its itineraries around the globe.


Mid-Voyage Overland Excursions

Giving the late-night/overnight stay trend bigger and broader proportions is the increase in offerings for mid-voyage overland and overnight excursions. One of the biggest limitations of a cruise vacation has always been that cruisers could only visit destinations on or near large bodies of water. But, in many regions of the world, some of the most fantastic and iconic sights are inland and impossible to visit in a nine-hour port call. That's why many cruise lines have been getting inventive and are increasingly offering overnight or multi-night excursions that are inclusive of transportation, hotels, meals and guided tours. These lengthy excursions typically take place when a ship is overnighting in port or on a sea day between two port days (with passengers leaving the ship in one port and re-boarding in the next).

An overnight tour from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, for instance, could take passengers to the temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia; other typical overnights include multiday trips to see the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu or Jerusalem. While several leading luxury lines (like Silversea, Oceania, etc.) have advertised such mid-voyage overland tour options for some time now, industry offerings have recently expanded further still with newly launched programs like  Azamara's "Overnight Adventures" and Royal Caribbean's and Celebrity's "Multi-Day Adventures."


Green & Sustainable Shore Excursions

Environmentalists and nature lovers needn't necessarily shun the once-oxymoronic prospect of green cruising, thanks to a wave of recent cruise line initiatives that edge the companies closer toward eco-sensibility. Partnering up with some major names in nature and conservation, a new lineup of cruise programming -- with an emphasis on nature conservation and education -- extends to onboard activities and shore excursions alike.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., for instance -- the parent company to sister brands Royal Caribbean  International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises -- has teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund to roll out a slate of more green-minded shore excursions that will meet a series of sustainability targets. Or, families sailing on Paul Gauguin Cruises with kids (ages 7 to 17) in 2017 can expect a program of naturalist-led excursions on select itineraries, designed in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society. German line AIDA Cruises has also introduced a new catalog of 18 sustainable excursions throughout the Baltic Sea region, which each meet special social, ecological and cultural criteria (expect options like an electric bike tour in Copenhagen). 


Classroom visit in the Domincan Republic

Altruistic Shore Tours

In the same vein of conscientious travel, there's also a growing interest in shore excursions with volunteerism or philanthropic bents. For cruisers looking to give back, there's still time to check out Carnival Corporation's 2016-debuted Fathom "social impact" brand before it ceases operations in May 2017. The line has a mission of altruistic cruising to the Dominican Republic (it also runs cultural exchange cruises to Cuba), and passengers provide hands-on assistance with local projects like planting trees for reforestation efforts, conducting English lessons or installing water filters to make potable water more accessible for locals.

When Fathom's one ship, Fathom Adonia, rejoins the P&O Cruises fleet come May, the Fathom concept will live on. Visitors to Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic sailing aboard any Carnival Corporation cruise line (including Carnival, Holland America and Princess) are now able to sign up for the Fathom-designed excursions there, too, with options like volunteering at a local women's co-op that makes chocolate. Fathom-branded offerings will ultimately span more than a hundred Carnival Corp. ships, with excursions in more worldwide ports and new tied-in onboard programming already in the works.

Holland America has expanded its "Cruise with Purpose" collection of do-gooder shore excursions to include more offerings like visiting a koala sanctuary and planting trees in Brisbane, Australia, or contributing to an afforestation project in Reykjavik, Iceland. Crystal Cruises, meanwhile, has continually expanded upon the offerings in its five-year-old portfolio of "You Care, We Care" shore excursions focused on humanitarian and conservational activities. MSC Cruises also introduced an excursion in Cozumel in which cruisers can actively help young sea turtles with their plight for survival, under the guidance of a marine biologist.

River cruise lines have also jumped on the bandwagon -- Uniworld's new Ganges River sailing, for instance, will feature a pre-cruise "ME to WE" voluntourism extension option in Rajasthan, India, allowing travelers the chance to work within local impoverished communities on tasks like laying bricks for a new classroom and helping to dig out a new clean water supply system.


Bicycling along the Danube

River Cruises Offer More Active Excursions

River cruise lines are joining in on the initiatives of mainstream and luxury oceangoing cruise companies to offer increasingly active tours. AmaWaterways, for one, has not only recently added on more hiking and biking options to its daily excursion choices, but in 2017, the company is expanding its lineup of active-themed river cruise itineraries in Europe (think escorted bike tours), in partnership with leading active travel company Backroads.

Avalon Waterways is also debuting a new active-minded itinerary in 2017: Passengers on the line's "Active Discovery on the Danube" voyage can count on canoeing along the river, exploring ice caves, climbing mountains, taking archery lessons and more. Likewise, Uniworld has partnered with active travel company Butterfield & Robinson on select Danube itineraries for special cycling-themed excursions; they'll be extending to the Rhone River in 2017, as well. Ditto for CroisiEurope: The river cruise line has similarly boosted its selection of biking- and hiking-themed special interest sailings, as well as added on options for more active cruise excursions (like hiking tours) on standard sailings, too. Finally, Crystal Cruises' 2016-debuted Crystal Mozart riverboat also offers active excursions (a la cycling, rafting or hiking) in nearly every port.


Windstar passengers snorkeling in Bora Bora

Private/Customized Tours

Not finding anything that floats your boat on your cruise line's excursion list? Are you particularly interested in arranging an exclusive, once-in-a-lifetime event in port, or do you just want help in planning the perfect day onshore? Or, maybe you prefer to simply travel independently? Group tours -- no matter how good -- mean that you're, well, part of a group. And there's always that one: You know, the one who delays the entire group because he or she was buying ice cream, taking a zillion photos or looking for a bathroom two minutes before the bus is scheduled to depart.
Cruise lines understand that group tours don't sit well with everyone and are increasingly willing to help you plan the customized excursion of your dreams. Look for the most recent initiatives from sister brands Azamara, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean's "Private Journeys" program, for instance, featuring private tours customized to passengers' unique tastes via an expert team of "destination insiders." Whether it’s a shopping spree in Singapore topped off by Singapore Slings at the Raffles Hotel or sailing on a private yacht on the French Riviera, the program promises to make your version of a perfect day ashore materialize.


Brand-Exclusive Tours

As ships grow larger and more people cruise, some travelers are looking for any vacation component that they can tag as exclusive, unique and separate from the traveling hordes. Cruise lines have increasingly responded to this demand by creating new categories of brand-exclusive shore tours, for passengers wishing for a truly unique experience.

In that mindset, Princess Cruises recently unveiled its "Global Partners and Local Experts" tours in partnership with several of Europe's leading tourism organizations. The exclusive European excursions aim to highlight the authentic, employing local experts to curate outings that hone in on the beyond-the-tourist-traps experience of a destination, and are supported by onboard programming (like local speakers and special destination videos) to further enhance the tour offerings. Excursions might include a walking tour of Portofino, Italy, featuring a tasting of local olive oil with focaccia and wine, or a tour designed just for families at the Fota House, Arboretum and Gardens in Cork, Ireland.

Similarly, Carnival has rolled out an "Only-on-Carnival" portfolio of tours in select Caribbean ports, featuring exclusive outings like a visit to a Jamaican home for a day, or setting out on a beach photo safari in Cozumel. Windstar Cruises has also added on a series of new, exclusive-to-Windstar "Destination Discovery Events" ashore, like a boat ride through the marble caves of Bergtatt in Norway, or an exclusive ballet performance in St. Petersburg's Theatre of Musical Comedy.