Small size gives it an intimate vibe, but plenty of venues to enjoy
One of the oldest ships based in Australia
Good value for the high quality of food, service and itineraries
Sydney is a definite stop on just about any cruise that travels Down Under and often serves as a starting or ending point for ships that also travel to New Zealand. Australia's largest city, Sydney is also one of the world's most intriguing ports of call, with its appeal extending from a sophisticated and vibrant urban metropolis to stunning natural wonders.
Although it is a modern city strongly influenced by British roots and current American popular culture, Sydney's real character is derived from its exotic location and brash beauty. Walking through the glass and concrete downtown, known as the Central Business District, you could be in any other Western-culture metropolis -- until a fluorescent red and green lorikeet parrot swoops overhead or an unexpected flash of the brilliant blue harbor appears between the skyscrapers.
Brisbane has become increasingly sophisticated over the years yet the Queensland capital still retains its laidback charm. Bustling ferries ply the waters of the Brisbane River and the weather lends itself to outdoor pursuits. If you love the beach, this is the ideal jumping-off point for the Gold Coast and Surfers Paradise which are just an hour away, and the Sunshine Coast, which is two hours to the north. However, the extreme south end of the Great Barrier Reef begins 370kms (about 230 miles) north of the city, so this is not an option for a day out.
The city makes good use of its river as a travel artery and visitors will find the CityCat ferries and other local boat services an ideal and affordable way to reach the most popular museums, botanical gardens, wildlife parks, historic neighbourhoods, lively shopping precincts and riverfront plazas with their variety of restaurants and cafes. Both riverbanks have picturesque walkways that venture far beyond the city limits.
Komodo National Park encompasses this entire Indonesian island, which is the native habitat of the komodo dragon. Upward of 4,000 dragons freely roam on Komodo Island. The island features varied terrain that includes rainforests, white sand beaches and savannahs, and is home to lots of wildlife and unique native plants. The waters are home to some of the best diving sites in the world and have more than 385 varieties of coral, making it an ideal place to scuba or snorkel.
--By Shayne Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor
In its own way, Singapore is an oasis in Southeast Asia. It enjoys a low crime rate, and its infrastructure -- from road and mass-transit systems to a state-of-the-art airport at Changi -- is highly sophisticated. The city also is clean -- so much so that, for years, people were forbidden by law to chew gum in its streets, and eating on the subway can result in a heavy fine. This modern and dynamic destination -- which ranks either as a pro or a con, depending on your sensibilities -- is to cities what Disney is to theme parks.
Technically a city-state, Singapore, connected with manmade bridges to Malaysia, is made up of a main island and more than 60 surrounding islets. The mainland spans 42 kilometers east to west and 23 kilometers north to south. In the north, it shares a border with Malaysia; in the south, islands belonging to Indonesia can be visited via a short ferry ride. Singapore is located just north of the equator and is sultry, tropical and humid year-round.
Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka, and is quite urban and filled with sights, landmarks and attractions that chronicle its history and the many cultures that have influenced it. There are any number of activities to choose from in the city from lounging at the beach and dining in seafood restaurants to shopping at upscale boutiques, perusing the national museum and Buddhist temples.
--By Shayne Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor
The problem with a lot of the ports featured on a typical Arabian Gulf cruise is that they're pretty similar. Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, for example, are all shining skyscrapers and shopping malls, glittering temples to excess. But Muscat, the capital of Oman, stands for completely different values: tradition, history, restraint. Although the country is far from lagging economically, it is deeply conservative and has always placed an emphasis on careful, controlled development. So Muttrah, the old waterfront part of Muscat and the first view to greet cruise passengers, has been carefully preserved, presenting a blend of traditional architecture and rugged natural beauty that many visitors find enchanting.
Muscat couldn't be in a more beautiful setting. The old part of the town, hemmed in by terracotta-colored mountains, spans a graceful waterfront. Its corniche is flanked by a 16th-century hilltop fort at either end, remnants of the time the Portuguese occupied Oman, protecting their trade routes to the east. As well as the cruise ships, container ships and private yachts that moor there, old-fashioned wooden dhows (sailing ships) potter around the busy harbor. If your ship overnights, the sight of the mountains turning pink while the early-morning call to prayer echoes across the old rooftops is unforgettable.
On busy Sheik Zayed Road, the highway running through the sprawling metropolis of Dubai that connects the old city with its modern eye-catching skylines, a Ferrrari whizzes past at 75 miles per hour. It's a police car, a sign that Dubai -- a city often compared to Las Vegas -- has flash to spare.
The biggest and most developed of the seven United Arab Emirates, Dubai has a well-deserved reputation as an oasis for cosmopolitan luxury travelers with money to burn. Yes, Dubai is a working port city on the Arabian Gulf, a gateway to places that, for most North Americans, are tucked away in the encyclopedia as distant and forbidden lands: Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan. But the city's most distinctive feature is its pursuit of all things over the top, from "seven star" luxury hotels and shopping malls with ski resorts to manmade islands built in the shape of palm trees and continents.
Once a sleepy village with an industrial port, Aqaba is quickly turning into an upscale travel destination. The city of 90,000 was declared a Special Economic Zone in 2000, and while downtown still has a slightly dusty character -- you will see women in traditional veils and the occasional camel -- development and modernization are happening at a fast pace. The city now has a big modern mall and an intercontinental hotel opened on Aqaba's long and sandy North Beach strip, with more hotels currently under construction.
Aqaba may be on the precipice of rediscovery, but the city itself has long held intrigue. Located at the northern tip of the Red Sea and blessed with location, location, location, Aqaba was a prime port even in ancient times; its history dates back some 5,500 years.
Argostoli is on the largest of the Ionian Islands and in addition to its absolutely bucolic landscape, it offers travelers the chance to participate in any number of diversions from water-based activities to hiking through the cypress and olive tree-covered mountains. In the center of town there are lots of restaurants serving authentic local cuisine, shops, museums and cultural and historic landmarks.
Dream up a wish list of everything you'd want from a Greek holiday: talcum-soft beaches, spectacular subtropical forests, tasty cuisine and a beautiful, historic Old Town to explore. Add wall-to-wall sunshine, and you'll find Corfu ticks pretty much every box.
This small Ionian island (only 40 miles long and 20 wide) is a highlight of many Mediterranean cruise itineraries, and it's not hard to see why. Corfu (known to the local Corfiots as Kerkyra) is one of Greece's most verdant and picturesque islands.
You'll be rewarded if you set your alarm for an early start when arriving in Kotor. Part of the fun is entering the Bay of Kotor and gliding for an hour through the mountains on a 17-mile waterway known as Europe's southernmost fjord. It's not actually a fjord -- fjords are caused by glacial activity, and the Bay of Kotor has been carved by a river running from the interior to the Adriatic Sea. Still, the views are fjord-like, with mountains rising on both sides of a long, thin bay that leads to the old walled town of Kotor. Cruise ships often begin the bay journey as early as 6:15 a.m. for an 8 a.m. arrival.
Its fortified entrance to the sea made the Old City of Kotor an ancient trade center. Now it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Montenegro's most famous town. The Old City is a well-preserved collection of buildings, churches, squares and stone streets that date to the Middle Ages. The car-free, walled town is just across the street from the city's cruise ship dock.
Dubrovnik is a great walking city for lovers of culture and history, with centuries-old monasteries, churches, synagogues and even one of the oldest operating pharmacies in Europe. But, if you're looking for a day of relaxation between busy tours in marquee cities, it's also a gorgeous spot to simply sit and watch the world go by amid red-roofed stone buildings and the sparkling, aqua Adriatic Sea.
The medieval-era Old Town is a walled city, and from above -- you can walk the 1.3-mile stretch some 80 feet above ground level for spectacular views -- it is reminiscent of Venice, just on a smaller scale (and with marble alleyways instead of canals). Like the Italian city, which lies just to the northwest, Old Town Dubrovnik is free of vehicular traffic and dotted with Renaissance churches and fountains, with a rich history as a trading port. In lieu of canals, you'll find narrow, cobblestone streets where pedestrians stroll from shop to shop, dine and drink at al fresco cafes and soak up the sun.
Of all the cities in the world, only Paris comes remotely close to matching Venice in terms of sheer beauty and romance. You've seen it in photos and films, but there's no substitute for the reality -- the shimmering Grand Canal, the gondolas slipping down watery alleyways, the elegant palazzos emerging straight from the sea.
Venice once ruled the Mediterranean as a shipping power, amassing vast wealth and producing some of Europe's greatest artistic and cultural treasures. But, over the centuries, Venice has declined a bit and now has less than half the population it had at its peak. What remains of its former grandeur -- the crumbling palaces, the sumptuous art in its museums and churches, the fantastic rituals of Carnevale -- makes Venice a living tribute to the past.
The city of Ancona on Italy's east coast dates back to ancient times and relics of long-gone eras can be found all throughout, including various churches and cathedrals, as well as a Roman amphitheater. Beyond the city's Old Town, visitors will find museums, parks, monuments, shops and restaurants serving cuisine made with locally grown ingredients. Horseback riding, cycling and mountain climbing are also popular excursions.
The French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville called Sicily "the land of gods and heroes," and if that's the case, Taormina is its Mount Olympus and the big attraction for cruise passengers visiting the Mediterranean island.
This charming cliff-top town has pretty much everything you could want -- varied shops, a lively atmosphere, beautiful churches, medieval walls, lots of restaurants featuring good quality local dishes at affordable prices and best of all, fabulous views across the Med (particularly from its spectacular Greek amphitheater, where you can get a glimpse of Sicily's other big attraction, Mount Etna).
From historic churches and museums to glittering coastline and a mountainous national park, visitors will find much to explore in Salerno. Though the city dates back to ancient times it has undergone many periods of revitalization and modernization and offers any amenity one can think of. Additionally, other cities along the Amalfi Coast can easily be reached from Salerno.
The capital of Spain's Catalonia region is one of the country's -- maybe even Europe's -- most beautiful and vibrant places. A city of contrasts, it is like no other in Spain; this is most evident in its architecture, a marriage of Gothic spikes and modern curves. (One name to keep an eye out for is Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona's most famous architect.)
Barcelona is also a city of distinct neighborhoods. The old city -- Ciutat Vella -- is the heart of everything, with museums, shopping and cafes. Then there's the port area, Port Vell, which features bars, restaurants, shops, an IMAX theater and the largest aquarium in Europe. (Port Vell is different to the working port area where cruise ships dock, but it's not too far away.) Enchanting and ancient, the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter) is the center of the old city and brings together the best of Barcelona in a series of narrow streets, shops, cafes and magical corridors.
Lisbon, Europe's westernmost capital and Portugal's cultural hub, lies on the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Tagus River. The city is a delightful mix of must-see museums, castles and cathedrals. Its charming neighborhoods feature residences decorated with colorful tiled facades, sidewalk cafes along pedestrian thoroughfares and enchantingly original boutiques. The sidewalks are often paved with black and white volcanic stones in patterns specific to this city.
Lisbon has a refreshingly noncommercial feel, old-fashioned and relaxed, and exploring on foot is a delight. Portugal enjoyed its heyday long ago, and some of the older buildings that reflect this era are as opulent as they get. However, much of the city was leveled in the devastating earthquake of 1755, so visitors will notice that the city's architecture is not as old as that found in some European capitals. Prices tend to be lower than in the rest of Europe, especially in the moderately priced meals, wine and entrance fees to the main attractions. If you like fish and shellfish, you've come to the right city. Pastry shops abound, many with lovely storefronts, providing sit-down respite for coffee, tea and something sweet.
Located on the south coast of England, Southampton served as the historic ocean liner gateway for the British Empire and the intense North Atlantic passenger trade to the U.S. and Canada. Today it is the U.K.'s - and indeed Europe's -- leading cruise port.
Best known as the homeport of Cunard's Queen Mary 2, Southampton now hosts a wide variety of cruise ships in the booming European cruise market with the principal lines being Cunard, Fred. Olsen, Royal Caribbean, P&O Cruises and Saga Cruises.
Dominated by a mighty neo-gothic cathedral, Cobh -- pronounced "Cove" -- lies on the Great Island, one of three islands in Cork harbor linked by roads and bridges. The small town is the gateway to County Cork and has one of the world's largest natural harbors.
Originally called Queenstown to commemorate a visit in 1849 by Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Cobh has a sprinkling of brightly colored houses and steep, winding streets leading to the center. However the center itself is quite flat with a waterside park and varied selection of bars, shops, cafes and restaurants. Monuments -- to sporting legends, Antarctic explorers, emigrants and Maritime tragedies, including the sinking of the Lusitania and the Titanic -- are everywhere you look.
Europe's northernmost and westernmost capital is a delightful destination, part old Norse, part modern city, with a quirky personality of its own. The puffin, troll and elf souvenirs found in gift stores are apt mascots for a city with a decidedly playful streak.
More than half of Iceland's population lives in Reykjavik (or nearby), in one of the world's smallest capital cities -- some 190,000 people. Cruise ships are increasingly paying calls on Reykjavik from late May to early October, especially during the summer months, when the daylight literally lasts 'round the clock. Visitors and residents alike seem to stay awake, golfing, strolling the compact town's picturesque streets, drinking Gull beer at sidewalk cafes and cycling along the seafront promenade.
Corner Brook is a friendly leaf-peeper port on the rugged west coast of Newfoundland, 22 miles from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Charted and named by Captain James Cook in 1767, the city of 20,000 once dominated by fishing and lumber industries is now a major regional retail, medical and educational hub on the Island. The Captain James Cook Monument, perched on a hill overlooking the city, sea, and surrounding wooded wilderness, is a favorite destination for cruisers who look for migrating whales and snap photos of fall color while posing with the towering statue of the famous English explorer.
Sidewalk cafes by the dozen, baguettes in bicycle baskets, the classic French shoulder shrug, charming pedestrian-friendly plazas and squares, and residents with a special Gallic grace and beauty. Am I in Avignon? Lyon? St. Tropez? Non, mon ami, just a bit north of the U.S.
Quebec City offers a savory taste of Europe right here in North America. Think of it as France without the attitude. Friendly locals convey that sense of romance and Old World charm found across the Atlantic, making Quebec City a wonderfully distinctive port of call on Canada/New England cruises.
The Canadian province of Prince Edward Island (PEI) promotes itself as the "Gentle Island," but its popular claim to fame lies in its ties to the famous fictional character of the 1908 children's classic, "Anne of Green Gables." One hundred years ago, PEI author Lucy Maud Montgomery drew inspiration for the setting of her classic novel from the island where she grew up during the late Victorian Era. The story has been translated into 15 languages and adapted for film, stage and television. When venturing around the island, you can easily see where her inspiration came from: quiet agricultural communities, lush green landscapes, fishing villages, lighthouses that dot the coastline, red sandstone cliffs and, of course, green-gabled houses.
Prince Edward Island is located north of the province of Nova Scotia and is connected to the province of New Brunswick on the west by the 13-kilometer (9-mile) Confederation Bridge. The island's largest urban area, with 35,000 residents, is Charlottetown, situated centrally on PEI's southern shore and on the Northumberland Strait. On the north side of the island is PEI's National Park and the Cavendish area, which is home to many Anne-related attractions.
A city of endless possibilities, high energy and great diversity, New York has always been the benchmark for first-rate dining, unparalleled shopping and cultural activity. For visitors, it's an exciting city and, at times, is more than a little intimidating. New York natives always seem to be in a hurry, but with midtown traffic often at a complete standstill, it may be faster for them to walk across town than to take a bus. When you hear a foreign language, it could be international tourists -- flocking to the city in droves because of the weak dollar -- or it could be a New Yorker.
It's love at first sight when the Empire State Building comes into view, and the Statue of Liberty awes even the most blase tourist. Broadway shows will wow you; browsing Bloomingdale's will amaze you. It's always possible to stumble upon an unforgettable meal -- an oven-fresh slice of perfect pizza, Chinese food in Chinatown or a haute-cuisine dinner by candlelight. The views from the Staten Island Ferry are a knockout, and downtown nightlife will keep you busy in the city that never sleeps.
I'm going back to Charleston, back where I belong. I want peace. I want to see if somewhere there isn't something left in life of charm and grace. --Rhett Butler, "Gone With the Wind"
The Holy City, Charleston, is so named for the skyline of steeples seen by ships' passengers as they enter Charleston harbor. The view was there before the American Revolution, during the Civil War, and you'll see the same today as your ship arrives or departs. Charleston has endured much over the centuries, but the city also has thrived and prospered. Pirates, wars, disease, hurricanes, earthquakes and, most frequently, fires have left their mark on the city and the region known as the Lowcountry, as have the unique individuals and personalities that have shaped the centuries there -- and left us the Charleston we know today.
No city in the United States has evolved into as many disparate identities in so short a time as has Miami. A bit more than a hundred years ago this former Spanish settlement, located along the Miami River where it spills into Biscayne Bay (now the center of the city of Miami), attracted neither interest nor population. That's understandable since up until that point, the only way to reach Miami was by boat.
That changed in 1896, when financier Henry Flagler extended his new Florida East Coast Railroad south from its previous terminus at West Palm Beach. By the turn of the 20th century the first of Miami's real estate booms was underway, a pattern that continued unabated right up to the Great Depression. Miami was one of the few places on earth where someone could offer you a get-rich-quick deal on 10 acres of swampland, and there was a good chance that you could actually get rich on it. Many made their fortunes here and left monuments to their achievements in places such as the grand Mediterranean-style estates like Villa Vizcaya and the slew of privately developed islands along the causeways crossing Biscayne Bay.
Key West, the southernmost city in the continental U.S., is the last in a chain of tiny tropical islands -- the Florida Keys -- scattered off the mainland. Dubbed the "Conch Republic," Key West is a very popular destination on Western Caribbean itineraries -- and is easily one of the funkiest and fascinating ports of call in all of cruising.
Key West, where natives are lovingly called "Conchs," and the high school football team goes by the "Fighting Conchs," earned its "Conch Republic" nickname in April 1982, when a band of locals declared secession from the U.S. in protest of the U.S. Border Patrol placing a roadblock just north of the top of the Keys.
If there was ever a country created for eco-tourism, it is Costa Rica.
Effectively a biological corridor between North and South America and with its neo-tropical climate and rainforests acting as a sort of biosphere, it now has one of the greatest biological diversities in the world. Nearly a quarter of its landmass is designated as national parks and it houses 8,000 species of plants, 859 species of birds, 10% of the world's butterflies and as many snakes as you could shake a stick at.
Costa Rica has also -- rare for the region -- been a peaceful, democratic country for a century or more. Abolishing all its armed services in 1949 to spend the money on improving social, medical and educational facilities has helped in this and also won it Nobel Peace prizes, not to mention UN-underpinned eternal neutrality from 1983.
Spread out over an area the size of Rhode Island with a population of almost 8 million, Peru's capital has been a city of fusion from the time the first adobe bricks were laid on the original two-story government palace -- a Spanish stronghold in the land of the Incas and far older cultures. Lima is a jumble of Renaissance architecture, pre-Hispanic ruins and museums filled with pre-Columbian artifacts that pre-date the Incas. Likewise, Limeans themselves represent a complex mix of ethnic heritage, ancient Indian cultures from the northern coast and the Andes, Spanish conquerors, and a large Chinese population that grew following immigration from China, which began in the mid-19th century.
It's true that parts of Lima were inhabited more than 10,000 years ago, but let's start with the city's official beginning. Two years after taking down the Inca Empire, Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro founded Lima in 1535 on the bank of the Rimaq River, eight miles from the Pacific Ocean. Finding a good natural harbor nearby, Pizarro also created Callao, which became Spain's main port in the New World. Until the mid-18th century, Lima was the wealthy capital of Spanish domination in South America, an enormous viceroyalty that stretched from what's now Columbia to central Chile.
Two nearby volcanoes erupting from an emerald sea created Tahiti, the largest and most populated of the Polynesian islands. Tahiti Nui (meaning big) is the largest section of the figure-eight shape, while Tahiti Iti (little) forms the smaller area. Though connected by a narrow strip of land, from the air they almost appear to be two separate islands.
Tahiti serves as the gateway for cruisers traveling to the Society Islands and other South Pacific destinations. Because passengers land at Faa'a International Airport, Tahiti is the jumping-off point for embarkations.
Raiatea is one of the largest islands in French Polynesia -- second only to Tahiti -- but don't let its size fool you into thinking that it is dripping with tourists. While Bora Bora offers celebrity chic and Moorea is simply exquisite, Raiatea is a secret find. Outside of the main port town, Uturoa, the 105-square-mile island is quiet and lightly populated, yet there's much to do and see along the coast and within its untamed, rugged interior.
Natural beauty aside, Raiatea is known as "the sacred isle" because it was the center of religion and culture in the olden days of Polynesia -- and there is certainly an enticing mystique about it. Members of various Polynesian kingdoms once journeyed here by canoe for tribal meetings, ceremonies and even human sacrifices at Marae Taputapuatea in Opoa to the southeast. Today, visitors can visit the outdoor ancient worship temple and glimpse petroglyphs carved in basaltic stones found along the coast.
Auckland, New Zealand's biggest city, is a common starting and ending point for Australia/New Zealand cruise itineraries. Perched near the upper end of the North Island, it has an ideal location for cruise lines looking to schedule calls in other North Island ports (Wellington, Napier, Picton) and South Island towns (Dunedin and Christ Church) in between here and Sydney.
Auckland is, no doubt about it, the most bustling and cosmopolitan city in New Zealand. But what surprised me when I first arrived, after nearly 26 hours spent traveling from the U.S. East Coast, was that it didn't feel at all as exotic as I expected -- at least at first glance.
Cozy, small ship with excellent cuisine
Standard cabins are small; weak enrichment program
Port-intensive itineraries in an upmarket setting
Port Canaveral, in the center of Florida's east coast, is not only the surfing capital of the Atlantic. It is also home to rocket and shuttle launches, the largest sea turtle nesting area in the country, the largest scallop fishery on the planet and a national refuge with more endangered species than any other.
Even with all of these superlatives, most cruise passengers associate Port Canaveral with Orlando, just 45 miles west -- and with Walt Disney World, Universal theme parks and SeaWorld so close, it would be difficult to find a cruise port anywhere that offers access to more theme parks and family-friendly tourist attractions. But, for those who've already had (or care to pass up) the Orlando experience, Port Canaveral is definitely worth a pre- or post-cruise visit.
Editor's Note: Carnival Sunshine is reploying in late 2017. As of 2018, the Port of Norfolk will no longer be an active cruise port.
Mermaids are everywhere in Norfolk -- though they are not necessarily alive! Throughout the city are colorful mermaid sculptures. The street art display is known as Mermaids on Parade.
The charms of a cruise to Bermuda are not lost on those who prefer big-ship voyages, but alas, neither the mouth of Hamilton Harbour nor the dock facilities in town can accommodate those larger vessels. Which means, increasingly, that cruise ships once based at Hamilton, Bermuda's capital city (or even at the picturesque St. George's) now must go to King's Wharf (also known as the Royal Navy Dockyard). But by no means does that mean one must bypass Hamilton; it's an easy ferry ride from the Dockyards.
In any event, you really shouldn't miss a visit to Hamilton. It's also the place that attracts the most visitors because it has plenty of sightseeing attractions -- including Bermuda's newest, the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute. Most attractions are easy to see on foot. As you stroll through this beautiful port town, you'll love the charming pastel-colored two-story buildings along Front Street (take a break inside the Par-La-Ville Gardens on Queen Street).
Nassau, with its blend of influences from West Africa to England and from Haiti to the United States, is one of the most popular (and often congested) cruise ports in the Caribbean and Bahamas.
The yellow and blue stripes on the Bahamian flag represent the nation's sandy beaches and surrounding ocean, while the black triangle stands for unity and the people's determination to develop the land and the sea. With endlessly developing hotels, resorts and shopping areas, it isn't hard to make this connection in Nassau, the capital of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.
Cuba's capital city truly must have been one of the finest cities in the Americas in its day. Compared with many Caribbean ports of call, whose historic structures are limited to a handful of churches and musty museums, Havana and its nod to culture and history are breathtaking. It still boasts thousands of architectural treasures, dozens of top-notch museums, gracious avenues and promenades, wonderful music, friendly people, breathtaking vistas and more.
But Havana is in terrible decay. Some areas, particularly in Old Havana, have been restored, but there are numerous areas that are crumbling. These once-graceful buildings have taken a pounding from hurricanes, sea air and neglect for nearly 50 years, without the commitment or materials to preserve and maintain them. Many buildings are missing roofs; on some, you can see doorways leading to missing balconies, and on others, walls are crumbling. The most fascinating thing is seeing these dilapidated buildings in the evening. Once darkness descends, it becomes obvious that, despite the desperate state of these dwellings, people continue to live in them.
Known as the Pearl of the South, Cienfuegos enjoys a position as a seaport on Cuba's southern coast. This gave the city an advantage during the island's Spanish Colonial times, as the port became a center for trade with Jamaica and South America.
You can tell that the city once had money, just by walking around town. Cienfuegos earned UNESCO World Heritage Site status because it's the best existing example of 19th-century Spanish Enlightenment urban planning. That's a fancy way of saying that Cienfuegos is pedestrian friendly, with a median promenade down its main traffic street, a pedestrianized street full of local shops and restaurants and Plaza de Armas, a main square with intact neoclassical buildings.
With 1.2 million inhabitants, Santiago de Cuba is the country's second biggest city, located at the far eastern tip of the island. The largest, Havana, could be described as refined (and defined) in a Colonial-style way, with big boulevards, squares and architecture, spread out flat along the sea front; Santiago by contrast is a jumbled mess of streets laid out chaotically on a steep hill side, more reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Santiago de Cuba has a got a strong Caribbean vibe to it, evident in the people, the food, the history, the nightlife and the culture.
Santiago is also where Cuba's revolution began, and there are monuments and modern-day graffiti all over the city to commemorate the various rebel leaders, including Antonio Maceo, who led the fighting in the Wars of Independence against the Spanish and the Americans, as well as Fidel Castro, who studied at university there. On July 26, 1953, Castro and his small revolutionary army launched an attack on the Cuartel Moncado military barracks. While the incident was a disaster, it laid the foundations for the revolution to come -- and it was there in a show trial that Castro made his famous "History will absolve me" speech.
Smaller size, veteran crew and repeat clientele give the ship a homey feel
Cabins feel old; ship lacks line's newest bells and whistles
Affordable ship in Baltimore draws families, seniors and everyone in between
Baltimore, Maryland's largest city, is called Charm City because of its multitude and variety of attractions, restaurants, culture, sports and some of the friendliest people you'll meet. It's vibrant and exciting, with all the advantages of a bigger city without the airs.
Founded in 1729, the city was named after Lord Baltimore and established as a major East Coast seaport. Its most significant moment in national history occurred at the battle at Fort McHenry from September 12-15, 1814, which became a turning point in the War of 1812. British troops had triumphantly burned and looted Washington, D.C., and were heading toward Baltimore to ferret out what they believed was a den of pirates and privateers who had been attacking British ships. They first assaulted nearby North Point, which delayed the British Royal Navy enough for defenders to prepare for the skirmish at Fort McHenry. The overnight battle resulted in the British withdrawal and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem, "Defence of Fort McHenry," which became "The Star-Spangled Banner," now the U.S. national anthem.
CocoCay, formerly Little Stirrup Cay, is an island in the Bahamas' Berry Island chain. Located between Freeport and Nassau, it provides 140 acres of private beaches, shopping and activities exclusively for passengers of Royal Caribbean, which has leased the island since 1990. Celebrity Cruises, which is owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., also makes calls there.
Short, fun itineraries to Bahamas and Western Caribbean
Older ship missing modern bells and whistles
A fun, inexpensive option perfect for families
If you cruise regularly to the Caribbean, chances are you'll end up in St. Thomas. Its popularity as one of the world's most heavily trafficked cruise ports is well-earned. The island offers something for just about everyone and has the infrastructure that can accommodate a huge daily population influx. In addition to a duty-free shopping scene that's virtually unparalleled, other on-the-beaten-track sites include the world-famous beach at Magens Bay and a scenic tram ride to a mountaintop.
Nearly every ship sailing an Eastern Caribbean itinerary includes St. Thomas as a port of call, as do many Southern Caribbean voyages. You'll even see St. Thomas on Panama Canal and South American itineraries (when a Florida port such as Fort Lauderdale or Miami serves as a port of embarkation or debarkation). It's not uncommon, particularly during the Caribbean's winter high season, to see six ships or more docked or anchored in a day -- and that can mean an extra 20,000 people mixing into a population hovering in the mid-50,000s.
St. Maarten is busier than ever, as cruise lines call on Philipsburg with their biggest ships. (Sometimes there are a half-dozen in port at one time.) There's also more to do once you disembark, with shopping and beaches serving as the primary attractions.
That can be viewed as either good news (more shopping choices, better deals and more beach activities) or bad news (more people) for this port of call, which, along with neighboring St. Martin, makes up the world's smallest island inhabited by two countries.
As an anchor on Eastern and Southern Caribbean itineraries -- not to mention a turnaround port for many ships -- San Juan is a place where just about all cruisers, at some point or another, are going to wind up. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and San Juan is its urban hub. The city, by and large, is divided into new and old. The new includes a business district and outlying neighborhoods, concentrated with hotel chains like Isla Verde. The old is, of course, the historic city within ancient walls. Both offer many Americanisms. (Senor Frog's has a prime outpost, and you'll never want for a McDonald's Big Mac.)
Get beyond that, though, because of all America's Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico offers the most exotic aura. The melange of indigenous Taino culture, combined with European and African influences in San Juan (and all of Puerto Rico, for that matter), is one major factor. Add to that its own unique influences in areas ranging from cuisine and music to history and art. And there's more: folks who have traveled to Cuba say that Old San Juan reminds them more of Cuba, at times, than Cuba itself! It's also very Spanish (think Seville) and even a bit Italian (reminiscent of Naples). Finally, the city evokes just a wee taste of South America (like Buenos Aires).
Superb service and cuisine
Entry-level cabins are small compared to those of competitors
A luxurious experience with big-ship amenities
It's no wonder Tony Bennett left his heart there. San Francisco is a compact city of world-class culture, historical landmarks, award-winning dining, outdoor adventures and nightlife -- all wrapped up by a sparkling bay flanked by the famous Golden Gate Bridge, visible from historic cable cars that ply the hilly streets. Even the unpredictable fog adds to the beauty.
Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala discovered the inlet in 1775, but it wasn't until 1847 that San Francisco got its name -- just before gold was discovered in "them thar" Sierra Nevada hills to the east. In 1850, California became the 31st state in the union, and, by 1854, more than 500 saloons and 20 theaters graced the booming Gold Rush town. But the real "gold" to be found was in its seas. The area known as Fisherman's Wharf, on the San Francisco Bay, is still the center of Northern California's commercial and sport fishing industry.
Cabo San Lucas is an anchor port for all cruises sailing on Mexico's Riviera and Sea of Cortez itineraries, but passengers are a small minority of the tourists who flock there. The heavily Americanized party town serves as one of the most popular beach escapes for Californians and other West Coasters who come here to let loose (spring break festivities are intense and not a proposition for the faint of heart). One of Cabo's major attractions is Cabo Wabo, a cantina owned by rocker Sammy Hagar. Rocks of a different sort -- El Arco, with its jagged points protruding from the Sea of Cortez, make more impressive photos.
Yet for those passing on the beer-pong tournaments and temporary tattoos, Cabo has a lot to offer. Located at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, Cabo San Lucas -- together with its more elegant and much quieter sister town of San Jose del Cabo -- is an ideal spot for adventure-oriented pursuits. If conditions are right, the clear waters make for great snorkeling kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, parasailing, sailing and jet skiing. The Sea of Cortez is among the biologically richest areas in the world, with pods of whales that winter offshore; if you're here in season (late December through late March), a whale-watching trip is a must.
Puerto Quetzal -- a Guatemalan port that serves as the jumping-off point for Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the nearest town of interest, some 90 minutes away -- doesn't seem like much at first, but it can be a great option for anyone who needs a break from the hustle and bustle of the usual stops on a Panama Canal or South America itinerary.
Antigua is a lovely Spanish colonial city, easily walkable and quite charming. There are several churches to peek into, museums to browse, cafes to grab a bite at, and, if you're there in late winter you'll catch the gorgeous jacarandas in bloom. If you choose to stay in port instead of taking the long ride to Antigua, prepare for a slow-paced and pleasant day of shopping for colorful, reasonably priced trinkets; there's not much else to do.
San Juan del Sur is a popular vacation destination in Nicaragua, particularly among surfers and divers. Visitors will find several beaches, bars and restaurants along the coast, each with its own appeal. Beyond the sea, travelers can explore the local villages on a motorcycle tour or visit the La Flor Beach Natural Reserve where Olive Ridley sea turtles are bred.
Costa Rica is a small country, about the size of West Virginia, but it's got massive appeal as one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth. Even though Costa Rica covers less than .03 percent of the earth's total surface, you can find nearly five percent of the planet's plant and animal species there. Its location -- between Nicaragua and Panama on the isthmus connecting North and South America, with the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east -- has enabled flora and fauna from both continents to thrive there.
Cruise passengers visiting Costa Rica's Pacific Coast will come ashore in one of two places -- Puerto Caldera, a commercial port serving the nearby seaside town of Puntarenas, and Puntarenas itself. Puntarenas is a lively town that hosts josefinos (residents of the capital city of San Jose) on holiday, as well as international tourists. The main drag, a wide walkway fronting the beach that's jam-packed with places to shop and eat, is even called Paseo de los Turistas -- loosely, "stroll of the tourists."
You're in for a big treat if you've booked a Caribbean or Panama Canal cruise with Cartagena on the itinerary, as this lovely old town and resort on Colombia's Caribbean coast is quite deservedly the country's most popular tourist destination.
There, you'll find everything a cruise passenger's heart could desire: a fascinating -- and often dark and bloody -- history embedded in ancient forts, churches and palaces; a walled town filled with exquisite 16th- and 17th-century Spanish colonial architecture; soft beaches; world-class snorkeling and scuba diving reefs; delightful restaurants; and enough shops to capture your interest without the place feeling like one gigantic mall.