Intimate atmosphere with attentive service
Limited onboard activities, outnumbered by up charges
Ship's small size and offbeat itineraries tend to draw a more mature crowd
Sophisticated, cosmopolitan and dynamic, Shanghai is a memorable destination. China's largest city by population -- more than 24 million -- features an ever-changing skyline full of massive skyscrapers. As you stroll along the landmark Bund, it's difficult to imagine that, 5,000 years ago, Shanghai was little more than a tiny fishing village and textile-producing town.
Shanghai, which means "city on the sea," grew because of its strategic position on the Huangpu River, a tributary of the mighty Yangtze River that flows into the East China Sea. With its advantageous port location and economic potential, the city opened to the outside world and foreign trade following the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, which marked the end of the First Opium War between the British and Chinese.
Taipei is a busy city of more than two and a half million people situated at the northern tip of Taiwan. Founded by Chinese traders in the 17th century, the city became the country's capital in 1885 and, like the entire country, has been occupied at various times by the Dutch, the Spanish and the Japanese.
Today, the city is a thriving hub of business and tourism that will feel familiar to anyone who has spent time in any of the world's big cities. There are English signs everywhere, American fast-food stops and clothing and shoe shops with recognizable names like Benetton, Sketchers and Aldo. The city's Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system is easy to navigate, and if you keep your eyes on the towering Taipei 101, you can usually figure out which direction to go.
There's one constant in Hong Kong -- change! If you visited a few years back, you may not recognize the place. So, how did Hong Kong get to where it is today? There are nearly 5,000 years of Chinese history and traditions there, overlaid with 150 years of British colonial influence. Ceded back to China by the British in 1997, the city remains a "free-market zone" within the communist Chinese system. Locals still refer to the "border" of mainland China, and visitors from the West must acquire tourist visas in order to cross -- although visa regulations for China seem to be in constant flux, so be sure to confirm the current situation.
In terms of cultural diversity, architectural innovation, infrastructure and cosmopolitan edginess, it's hard to beat Hong Kong. The city is also one of the most vibrant commercial centers in the world. Hong Kong is the foremost deep-water harbor in Asia, a fact evidenced by the scores of cargo vessels carrying manufactured goods to the rest of the world. Of course, it's also a first-rate shopping destination, much to the delight of cruise passengers who discover that both of the city's two terminals have impressive malls attached.
Hanoi is a hectic collage of sights, sounds and smells. Masses of motorbikes roar down roadways, and bike and car horns are constantly honking. Women wearing traditional conical straw hats carry poles with baskets on each end, small shops overflow with colorful embroidery, food vendors sell cooked pigeons with their heads still on, and signs cover buildings.
For more than 4,000 years, from a humble fishing village to a busy seaport, the city has thrived along the banks of the Red River in Northern Vietnam. The seaport was given the name Ha (river) Noi (in) by King Minh Mang in 1831. Hanoi is the country's intellectual and cultural heart that draws the best and brightest artisans from around the country. Many streets in the old district are named after the products made there at one time, and you can still come across shrines here and there dedicated to an artisan's god.
Central Vietnam, with its cities of Da Nang (sometimes spelled Danang) and Hue, offers visitors history, culture and food that are quite distinct from North or South Vietnam. Much of this area was hard hit by the Vietnam War, and rebuilding continues, with the government adding infrastructure to shorten travel times to and from major attractions. Its natural beauty, broad beaches, upscale resorts and friendly residents are making this a major destination for travelers from around the world.
Located midway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), the port city of Da Nang is Vietnam's third largest city and the largest city of Central Vietnam. Established in the second century, it was once the center of the India-influenced Champa Kingdom and is home to the world's largest collection of Cham art and artifacts. The city is best known for its role in the Vietnam War when it was the site of a major U.S. air base, and it is featured prominently in both the TV show "China Beach" and movie "Good Morning Vietnam." Since the end of the "American War," as residents call it, in 1975, Da Nang has prospered as a commercial center, its downtown bustling with markets and motorbike traffic.
Ho Chi Minh City evolved from a small fishing village on the Saigon River a few miles from the South China Sea. In the early 1600s Vietnamese refugees fled from the north to escape a civil war. They were welcomed, and helped develop the village into a thriving seaport, eventually taking control of the city and surrounding region and naming it Saigon. In the mid 1800s, France took over much of the country and developed the city with French architecture, culture and a unique cuisine. Wide boulevards lined with elegant buildings are a hallmark of the city today.
Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976. Many locals still use the name Saigon, and you'll find it on T-shirts in the markets. With nearly 10 million inhabitants, it's the largest city in Vietnam and drives the country's economic engine. It's fast-paced, innovative and quite chaotic. Skyscrapers rise across the landscape alongside brightly colored Buddhist and Hindu temples and French colonial buildings. The city proper rises on one side of the Saigon River, while one- and two-story low-rise houses and commercial enterprises line the opposite bank.
Once considered the most beautiful city in Asia, Manila was reduced to rubble by extensive bombing during World War II. But from the debris has risen a cosmopolitan city that's surprising visitors with its vibrancy.
Elongated and brightly painted jeeps honk their way through the gridlocked streets, passing the cranes and scaffolding of new sky-high property developments as the city prepares for its population to rise to more than 30 million by 2025.
With a cosmopolitan population of 950,000, Honolulu is Hawaii's largest city. It also is the hub of cultural, educational, political, dining, shopping, business and entertainment activities in the Aloha State.
After Captain James Cook put the Hawaiian Islands on the map of the world in 1778, Honolulu became an increasingly important stop for ships traveling between America and Asia. First came fur traders, who made fortunes exchanging otter pelts from the Pacific Northwest for teas, spices and silks from China. Later, fragrant sandalwood became such a prized commodity that Island forests were nearly stripped clean of it. Then came the whalers, who plied the seas relentlessly in search of the gentle giants that were the source of rich oil.
Kauai is the oldest of the eight major Hawaiian Islands, with volcanic rock dating back more than 5 million years. But the island still displays all the beauty and vigor of youth. From lush rain forests and valleys to majestic mountains and long stretches of white sand, there's no question: Nature takes center stage here.
In fact, Kauai has more beaches per mile of coastline than any of the other islands. Only 3 percent of the island has been developed for commercial and residential use; the rest is agricultural and conservation lands. Two-thirds of Kauai's land area is impenetrable.
The City of Los Angeles has a lot more going for it than Woody Allen leads us to believe. Stretching along the Pacific from Malibu to Long Beach, the region offers plenty to see and do in what can only be called a sun-kissed blend of adventure, culture and whimsy. It all melds stylishly with an anything-goes attitude, and whether you're kicking back on one of its fabled beaches, grabbing a ride at a world-class amusement park, plunging into glittery shops for the latest Oscar-worthy fashions (you need to practice a regally bored look to fit in better), dining at Tinsel Town hot spots or exploring inspiring world-class museums -- you're in for a magic-carpet ride like no other. And in a city dominated by "show business" -- prepare for a ride that comes with a good deal of self-indulgent dazzle anytime of day, be it a Malibu glamour tan while nonchalantly reading Variety, catching the Pussycat Dolls at the Viper Club on Sunset Boulevard or browsing breathtaking art works at the Getty.
For those who never watch TV or go to the movies, we should tell you that L.A. is a sprawling metropolis (with an atypically high percentage of beautiful people) with no "center" -- which means you'll wind your way through various neighborhoods and independently incorporated communities, keeping your eyes peeled for celebs and clusters of paparazzi everywhere. (Did you know that the city's Zagat restaurant guide actually has a "stargazing" category?) And still under the heading of Geography 101, try to think in terms of the major "areas" like Santa Monica and Malibu, the San Fernando Valley (the "valley" to locals), the Westside and Beverly Hills, Hollywood, West Hollywood, Downtown and Pasadena.
Stylish and sophisticated, offering world-wide itineraries
Passengers who don't like to dress up will feel out of place
Queen Victoria is more traditional and formal than most ships, with an elegant atmosphere
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.
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Malacca charms with colorful historical buildings, Buddhist temples, churches and mosques. To best grasp its full flavor, explore this city two ways -- by foot and by trishaw. Don't miss the 16th-century A'Famosa Fort, built by the Portuguese, and Melaka Sultanate Palace, a fascinating reproduction of a sultan's 15th-century home. Save time to stroll Jonker Street Hawker Centre, a fascinating mix of antique stores, souvenir shops and cool cafes. Bargain here and everywhere.
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
Set nearly 500 miles east of Cape Town in the Eastern Cape province, the industrial-port city of Port Elizabeth (or, PE, as it's called) is a fixture on the South African cruise circuit, thanks to its revitalized central historic district, bustling beaches and, above all else, its proximity to the superlative elephant sanctuary and game reserve at Addo Elephant National Park featuring the "Big 5": lions, leopards, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros and elephants.
Beautiful, sophisticated, socially progressive, democratic, engaging, hopeful -- these words capture Cape Town's very essence. Table Mountain majestically holds court over the city, found between Table Bay and the Cape Flats. This South African jewel serves as the ideal base for intrepid travelers wishing to explore all of the Rainbow Nation from the Cape of Good Hope and the rolling Cape Winelands to the adrenalin-charged safari game reserves, near the country's northeastern border.
This fishhook-shaped peninsula, lashed by fierce waters of the Atlantic Ocean, is an enigma. Cape Town often feels more like an old European bastion than an African outpost. Since banning apartheid in 1990, the city has become more cosmopolitan, while still struggling with the effects of years of social inequality. Case in point? Cape Town's Lamborghini dealership sits just blocks from the massive townships east of Table Mountain. Yet, there's an infectious sense of hope, and the residents are some of the friendliest you'll find anywhere in the world.
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.
A cruise ship visit to Tauranga (pronounced "Tao-ronger") is like getting three port calls for the price of one: Tauranga, Mount Maunganui and Rotorua. Situated in the Bay of Plenty, Tauranga deserves a half-day or more of exploration. The busy city has several historical highlights (like the Elms Mission Station, said to be the oldest building in the Bay of Plenty), interesting architecture (check out the Brain Watkins House, built with local kauri wood) and tasty seafood-focused dining at the restaurants and pubs along the revitalized waterfront.
Cruise ships actually dock in the nearby town of Mount Maunganui, which is also worth visiting. There, visitors can embrace nature and the outdoors at the surfing hotspot of Mount Beach, with easy to strenuous hiking at Mount Maunganui, and in soothingly hot or warm saltwater pools at the mountain's base. Urbanites can also find lots of shopping and restaurants on busy Maunganui Road.
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.
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.
Darwin might be better known as a departure point for visits to Australia's Kakadu and Nitmiluk national parks, but this modern city in the Northern Territory has plenty of attractions for the one-day cruise visitor. Its streets are lined with Aboriginal art and craft galleries, boutiques selling locally cultured pearls, and restaurants and cafes where ethnically diverse cuisine highlights Australia's bountiful produce and seafood. From feeding crocodiles in the central business district (CBD) to historic World War II oil storage tunnels and a lively waterfront wave pool, Darwin offers an enjoyable day out for travellers with a variety of interests.
The city of Darwin -- named after Charles Darwin, who stopped there aboard HMS Beagle in 1839 -- is home to a growing population of 130,000. It is the smallest Australian capital city and closer to the capitals of five other countries than it is to Canberra, the capital of Australia. It is also the most modern, as the city was largely levelled by devastating Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Eve in 1974. Prior to that, Darwin had a colonial bungalow look with many buildings rebuilt after some 64 airstrikes by the Japanese during WWII.
Bali is a small island -- measuring just 153 kilometres wide by 112 kilometres long -- but it offers a variety of landscapes and a wealth of experiences to appeal to many tastes.
While rampant development over the past 40 years has seen this once quiet rice-growing and fishing community become Indonesia's tourism success story, attracting around 3.2 million visitors a year, there are still many paddy fields and pockets of traditional Balinese life to explore, as well as secluded beaches.
Nha Trang is a bustling resort city with popular beaches and restaurants, and offers lots of activities for water and adventure lovers including hot air balloon rides, amusement and water parks, bike trails, cooking classes, diving, snorkeling, fishing and more. For travelers hoping to get into nature, there's a cable car offering access to nature reserves in Hon Mun and Hon Tam.
--By Shayne Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor
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.
Hamburg, Germany's foremost port and one of its most handsome cities, may also be one of Europe's most underrated destinations. Many Americans -- and even Europeans -- have yet to discover its charms, including its beautiful situation on the banks of the River Elbe and around the Alster lake, the loveliness of its mostly traditional architecture, its premier museums, and its long history and association with the powerful Hanseatic League. The city is also more sophisticated and walkable than Germany's capital, Berlin, a huge plus for visitors.
Founded back in 800 by Charlemagne, the city initially took off as a trading center, given its proximity to the rest of Northern Europe and its location on the Elbe River, which links the North Sea to inland Europe. While Hamburg was largely destroyed by Allied bombing during the Second World War, much of it was rebuilt in the traditional style, resulting in a powerful sense of continuity with the past. Few intrusive modern structures upset the skyline, so the churches and the lovely Rathaus (City Hall) dominate the cityscape. The notable exception is HafenCity, a separate district of brand-new housing, offices and cultural centers.
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).
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.
The "middle city" of Florida's Gold Coast, Fort Lauderdale sits between Miami to the south and Palm Beach to the north. The city blends nicely with its metropolitan neighbors, and elements of Miami's chic vibe and the affluent nature of Palm Beach are recognizable. But Fort Lauderdale is a destination itself. Operating one of the busiest cruise ports in North America -- more than three million people pass through each year -- helps define Fort Lauderdale as a robust tourism spot.
Fort Lauderdale started out as a swampy outpost with a fort, built to protect against the Seminole Indians. The swamps were transformed in the late 1800s into a series of canals by scooping out parallel waterways and creating long peninsulas between them. This created more than 300 miles of navigable waterways (twice that of Venice) -- hence the city's nickname "Venice of America." The abundance of waterways that wind up and down the coast make Fort Lauderdale a boating hot spot, with 42,000 registered yachts.
"One Happy Island." This, the official motto of Aruba, is plastered on each taxi's license plate. Surely Arubans are happy to see cruisers: Aruba's economy is fueled by tourists' dollars, and much of the island is heavily developed for them -- perhaps even more so than neighboring islands Bonaire and Curacao. (Together, the three make up what's known as the ABC chain of islands in this deepest part of the Southern Caribbean.) Most Arubans speak English and accept U.S. currency, and shops located in and around the port area are American -- Tommy Hilfiger, Diamonds International and the like.
Beyond that, Aruba has a rich, layered heritage. The first people to inhabit the island were a nation of Arawak Indians. (The name Aruba seems to have derived from the Arawak Indian word oibubai, which means guide.) In 1499, the Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda laid claim to the territory for Queen Isabella. Nearly 200 years later, the Dutch captured the islands of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire from the Spanish, and much of that heritage can be seen in its pastel Old World architecture.
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.
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."
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.
Stylish and sophisticated, offering world-wi