Beach breaks, snorkel trips, and city highlights excursions will always be popular. But, if you're looking for something beyond these, you'll find a creative roster of outings in your cruise line's shore tour brochure.
Here are the hottest trends in cruise shore excursions.
Locavore Foodie Excursions
The locavore food movement 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.
Holland America Line has an impressive partnership with Food & Wine magazine that includes recommended culinary tours. In Barcelona, for instance, a renowned Spanish chef leads a visit to the city's famous La Boqueria Market to collect local produce and other ingredients, and then creates an extraordinary meal in an apartment with views of the market. Celebrity, Seabourn and Viking Ocean Cruises all offer excursions to local markets accompanied by one of the ship's chefs.
Through a partnership with Bon Appetit magazine, Princess Cruises has a creative program of small group tours that let you taste your way around the globe. You might sign on to learn from local experts the secrets to perfect paella in Spain or all about scones at a cooking school in the Irish countryside.
MSC Cruises has a new program of tours in partnership with celebrated home entertaining pro Martha Stewart. They include tasting dishes at local restaurants and street markets and visiting organic farms in places such as Belize, St. Thomas, Jamaica and San Juan.
Foodie-focused Oceania Cruises and sister line Regent Seven Seas have both hands-on classes at onboard cooking schools and culinary-focused shore excursions accompanied by a shipboard chef. In St. Petersburg, Russia, one Oceania Culinary Discovery Tour visits the historic Eliseyev Emporium shop to sample caviar and vodka, followed by a three-course lunch accompanied by Crimean wines at the grand Astoria Hotel.
Late-Night & Overnight Excursions
For cruisers keen on experiencing the restaurant, bar, nightlife and performing arts scene in a port of call, having your ship pull out of town before sundown can be a real downer. One trend among cruise lines is to add late-night and overnight stays in select ports. Some of the lines have special evening excursions lined up to help you navigate the local nightlife.
Azamara has been a pioneer of such offerings, with a roster of late-night and overnight adventures, such as a jazz club tour in Cape Town or an overnight trip from Casablanca to Marrakesh. The line also features one complimentary "AzAmazing Evening" per sailing, where all guests are invited to leave the ship for a special event such as a performance of traditional Korean folk dance and demonstration of taekwondo in Busan.
Small ship line Windstar Cruises has focused on expanding its roster of late-night (after 10 p.m.) and overnight stays giving cruisers more time to explore and experience the culture of ports of call. Some ports are two-night stops, meaning more time to indulge in restaurants, clubs and the general nightlife scene. In Turkey and Tahiti, the line also hosts extraordinary, complimentary evening "Destination Discovery Events."
"Evenings Around the World" tours with Celebrity Cruises take advantage of the line's extensive roster of overnights with such experiences as discovering Fado music in Lisbon or attending the Harbor Night Street Festival in Bermuda.
Mid-Voyage Overland Excursions
Not all attractions are near the pier or even near the sea, so cruise lines have come up with overnight adventures where you leave your ship, explore inland attractions and then return to your ship (sometimes re-boarding at a different port). These overnight or multi-night excursions include transportation, hotels, meals and guided tours.
While several leading luxury lines (like Silversea or Oceania.) have advertised such mid-voyage overland tour options for some time now, other lines have also caught on to the trend. Royal Caribbean, for instance, has a multi-day Grand Israel experience stopping at iconic sites in Galilee, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth. An overnight tour from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on a Celebrity Cruise ship gets you to the temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Other overnight trips might take you to see the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu or Beijing and the Forbidden City.
Green & Sustainable Shore Excursions
A new lineup of cruise programming in partnership with some major names in nature conservation is emphasizing responsible tourism and nature education.
Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara together have a lineup of 1,400 sustainable shore excursions in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and elsewhere. They were created in partnership with Sustainable Travel International, which helped develop standards for local tour operators including "effective sustainability planning, maximizing social and economic benefits for the local community, enhancing cultural heritage and reducing negative impacts to the environment."
In addition to nature tours, there are excursions that educate cruisers on local history and cultures. The initiative began as part of the company's partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Seabourn partners with UNESCO to promote sustainable tourism and offers exclusive and enhanced shore excursions at World Heritage sites -- with a small donation included in tour prices. Through Crystal's "You Care, We Care" voluntourism program, cruisers and crew can participate (without a fee) in community-based conservation projects, which have included restoration of native foliage in New Zealand and rebuilding a hurricane-ravaged garden in St. Maarten.
Active River Cruise Excursions
River cruise lines are looking to attract a more active and younger clientele with increasingly active tours. AmaWaterways, for one, now has hiking and biking excursions on all its itineraries. AmaWaterways ships carry a fleet of more than two dozen state-of-the-art bikes. On select sailings with active tour company Backroads, there are upgraded bikes and longer, escorted bike trips.
Avalon Waterways has put much thought into action excursions with biking, hiking, canoeing, kayaking and even archery lessons included in the line's "Active Discovery" program on rivers such as the Rhine and Danube. U River cruises, a line geared towards the 45 and under set, has in its roster of active excursions a visit to an adventure park outside of Frankfurt.
Scenic River cruise passengers can borrow electric-assist bikes for exploring cities, no matter how hilly they happen to be; the line also offering hardcore cycling cruises along the Rhine and Danube. Luxury tour operator Tauck stocks a dozen bikes on its ships for complimentary use and offers a number of guided excursions such as cycling through vineyards along the Rhone River.
Small Group Excursions and Cruise Line-Exclusive Tours
As ships grow larger and more people cruise, some travelers are looking for a vacation that they can tag as exclusive, unique and separate from the traveling hordes. Cruise lines respond to this demand by creating new categories of brand-exclusive shore tours for passengers seeking a unique and more intimate experience.
For families, Disney Cruise Line has exclusive tours; during a "Frozen"-inspired visit to a re-created historic village in Norway, guests meet-and-greet Anna, Elsa and Kristoff. Seabourn has expanded its Ventures by Seabourn program beyond Antarctica to include such destinations as Alaska, Norway, Australia and the Amazon. In these places, passenger can get up close and personal with nature on private Zodiac, hiking and kayaking tours led by the line's expeditions team.
Viking Ocean's Privileged Access tours include a private visit to "Downton Abbey" location Highclere Castle in England for an estate tour, garden visit and teatime. When Silversea debuts its Silver Moon, the ship will feature a unique Sea And Land Taste (S.A.L.T.) program -- an immersive culinary concept that combines food experts, leading chefs, restaurant critics and local food tour guides at each port.