Lots of cabin types and dining venues, enough to accommodate any cruiser
Lack of variety in entertainment and activities
One of Royal Caribbean's smaller ships, best for those seeking relaxation
The now-trendy resort town of Galveston is located on a barrier island just two miles off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. It's not just well-known for its 32-mile-long beach shaped by wind and waves, but also for its charming Victorian architecture scattered throughout the downtown historic districts.
Once one of the wealthiest cities in Texas and the "Wall Street of the South," Galveston was nearly swept away by a devastating hurricane in 1900, which killed more than 6,000 people. In 2008, Hurricane Ike made a direct hit, damaging 75 percent of the city's homes and causing more than $3.2 billion in damage. But, the city's 17-foot seawall (a must for strolling), which was built after the 1900 storm, held up to Ike, preventing total devastation, and the waterfront town of Galveston has once again returned to its former glory.
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).
The Azores form an archipelago of nine beautiful mountainous islands, located well out in the Atlantic Ocean, significantly closer to Europe than North America. Ponta Delgada, the chief port and administrative center on the island of Sao Miguel, lies 900 miles west of Lisbon. Cruise ships on repositioning voyages between North America and Europe often call there.
Discovered in the 15th century by exploring Flemish and Portuguese sailors, Sao Miguel Island became a favorite stopover for passing ships because of fresh farm food and the abundance of fish in the surrounding waters. Ponta Delgada attained city status one hundred years later, and today the city's population numbers 45,000 with a further 20,000 residing in smaller towns and on the countryside. Since 1976, the Azores have status as an autonomous region of the Portuguese Republic.
Malaga offers an intriguing blend of culture, history and beaches -- with a contemporary vibe. The city is one of Andalusia's greatest treasures. Located on a stunning sweep of bay, with palm trees lining the seafront, this is the dynamic, friendly capital of Costa del Sol, Spain's "sunshine coast."
Malaga is a wonderful place to wander and explore, particularly in the winding lanes of the old town, with their traditional taverns, plazas and pretty squares. It also encompasses fine architecture and has enough ancient buildings to keep history hounds happy for hours. Unlike Costa del Sol's party zones, including Puerto Banus, Torremolinos and Benalmadena, all great for clubbers, Malaga, although cosmopolitan, retains a distinctly traditional feel.
Alicante is a chameleon of a city. Its colors change with every few hundred meters that you walk. Down by the port, it tows the line of the rest of the Spanish coast. The Playa del Postiguet is an expanse of soft biscuity sand that's topped with rentable loungers, parasols, cabana beds, beach volleyball courts and ocean-view bars. The Explanada de Espana, meanwhile, is a rule-straight street of waterside restaurants, sidewalk cafes and the odd craft stall.
To the north of the beach things change entirely. Here, the city's seams strain with history. There's the imposing Mount Benacantil, which towers 166 meters above Alicante, and is topped by the 16th-century castle of Santa Barbara. Then there's the Barrio Santa Cruz; a Baroque neighborhood that curls around the mountain's feet.
Palma de Mallorca, a major port city on the island of Mallorca and the capital of Spain's Balearic Islands, has a delightful cross of influences, reflecting its checkered past of African and European control. It is the largest city on Mallorca -- a big, bustling place, with most of the tourist action in the old part of town around the landmark cathedral that dominates the oceanfront.
The architecture of this ancient Mediterranean port blends Gothic, Moorish and Renaissance styles. Palma's winding streets make way to grand churches, yacht harbors, beaches, fountains and old castles. Because there is so much history so close together, it's a perfect port to explore on foot. The snaking, narrow streets hold many surprises -- including the occasional dead end, especially passages around the cathedral.
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.
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.
In the sun-dappled Murcia region of southeastern Spain, Cartagena -- a naturally deep and sheltered Mediterranean port surrounded by five hills -- has long been coveted as a trading center and seafarers’ game-changer.
Dating to 227 B.C., when Carthaginians first set foot on its shore, this strategically located harbor has unfurled a culturally rich and historically tumultuous tapestry. Cartagena has been governed by Romans (Hannibal, with his army and elephants, stopped there on their military march across the Alps to Rome), ruled by Arabs and re-conquered in the 13th century by Ferdinand III for his Kingdom of Castile. Each new wave of distinct leadership carved indelible marks on this port's art, architecture, law, finances and industry.
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.
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.
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.
Multiple dining venues, lots of balcony cabins and regular wildlife sightings
Limited evening entertainment
An upscale cruise experience in adventurous surroundings
A storybook town that was once Bermuda's capital, St. George's is also famous as the second English settlement in the New World, after Jamestown. A World Heritage Site, it's a maze of quaint narrow streets with names like Featherbed Alley and Old Maid's Lane (two worth a look are Shinbone Alley and Silk Alley).
St. George's also played a role in the American Revolution. Bermuda depended on the American Colonies for food, and when the war began, supplies grew dangerously low. Without the approval of the British Bermudian governor, George Washington and Henry Tucker struck a deal: gunpowder for food under the cover of night in Tobacco Bay. King's Square is the best spot for unfolding a map and heading for the sights along the tiny streets and lanes (the Visitors Service Bureau is there, ready to hand over self-guided walking tour brochures and maps). Beckoning beaches include Tobacco Bay, which also happens to be a snorkeling paradise, and Achilles Bay.
Pro: Lovely public spaces, excellent cuisine, free tours, drinks and tips
Con: Entertainment is limited and offerings could use a refresh
Bottom Line: Intimate, all-inclusive ship is a comfortable home base for exploration
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.
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.
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.
Known the world over as a "trip of a lifetime" destination, the remote Hawaiian Islands were settled by the Polynesians more than 1,000 years ago and were "discovered" by explorer Capt. James Cook in 1778. In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state, and to this day, it retains a sort-of-outsider status. Hawaii clings to its rich history while accepting newcomers and absorbing their unique traditions. Every Hawaiian island is imbued with a friendly "aloha" spirit, and most travelers fall in love with the destination the moment orchid leis are draped over their shoulders upon arrival.
Maui, the second-largest island of the archipelago, typifies all that is magical about the Sandwich Islands (as Capt. Cook first called the island chain). It's also referred to as the Valley Isle because a verdant, low-lying isthmus connects the two halves of the island. From the air, Maui looks like a butterfly with the 10,000-foot Haleakala volcano on one wing, Pu'u Kukui and the West Maui mountains on the other and the valley in the middle. You'll revel at the stark contrast between the stunning variety of flowering tropical plants and cascading waterfalls and the lunar-like landscape of Haleakala and Maui's other mountain peaks.
To really experience Hilo, forget first impressions and dive right in to old Hawaii. Unpretentious and just a little bit gritty, this often-overlooked city on the Big Island is abundantly authentic and full of charm.
Why is it overlooked? Hilo is the departure point for shore excursions to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state. And that's too bad because there's much to recommend Hilo itself, defined in part by a history of tsunamis and challenging economics.
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.
Bora Bora is the haute haunt for honeymooners and celebrities, some of which have reportedly stayed in over-the-water villas at a cost of $15,000 per night. And a meal or drink at the island's famous Bloody Mary's Restaurant & Bar, which has hosted stars from Willie Nelson to Nelson Rockefeller, is as much a part of the Bora Bora experience as swimming in the gorgeous blue-green lagoon three times the size of the island's actual landmass. What's good news for cruise passengers is that it's cheaper to visit Bora Bora by sea than on a land-based vacation -- and you generally get a two-day call.
The island is a high-end playground dependent on tourism (i.e. you'll find more resorts than old fishing villages and simple lifestyles here), but it's still not as slick and Hollywood-chic as you might expect. Internationally acclaimed novelist James A. Michener once wrote that Bora Bora was the world's most beautiful island, and we have to think he was in the right ballpark with that one. Within the warm turquoise waters and snow white ring of sand is a mountainous interior dominated by two majestic peaks -- Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu, the remnants of an extinct volcano.
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.
Located 220 miles northeast of Tahiti, Rangiroa is a stunning atoll, especially when seen from the air. (Check it out on Google Earth.) It's the largest atoll in the Tuamotu Islands and, in fact, one of the largest in the world.
More than 415 motus (tiny coral islands) surround this atoll, which is really just a thin strip of land encircling an interior lagoon -- a lagoon so vast that the entire island of Tahiti could comfortably fit within it.
Pago Pago (pronounced Pango Pango) is stunningly beautiful, so make sure you're on deck with your camera when your ship enters and leaves port. The town is located near the westernmost end of an L-shaped bay and is surrounded by lush, green mountains. Opposite Pago Pago on the eastern side of the bay is the mountain known as the Rainmaker, so-called because its top catches clouds that frequently douse the slopes below in rain. In fact, the entire island of Tutuila is beautiful, from the coral reefs offshore to the old-world rainforests and waterfalls lining the steep sides of its mountains.
The capital of American Samoa, Pago Pago is located some 2,300 miles from New Zealand, 1,600 miles from Hawaii and 14 degrees south of the equator. American Samoa is home for some 65,000 people, of whom around 9,000 live in Pago Pago. The Samoan islands have been inhabited since about 800 BC, when early Polynesians first landed near the current day village of Tula. Europeans didn't get even a glimpse of these tropical shores until 1722. Today the islands are divided into the independent Kingdom of Samoa and American Samoa, which is a non-incorporated territory under U.S. sovereignty.
Lautoka is the second-largest city (after Suva) of the island nation of Fiji. Located in the west, on the island of Viti Levu, Lautoka is about half an hour's drive north of Nadi and the resort-laden Denarau Island.
A busy docking port, it is known as Sugar City, a reference to its important place in the heart of the lucrative sugarcane belt. Lautoka Sugar Mill lays claim to being the largest sugar mill in the Southern Hemisphere.
The capital of Fiji is one of the original South Pacific cruise ports used by P&O. Beginning prior to World War II and then again in the late 1960s, when the SS Himalaya marked a resurgence for Australian leisure cruising, Suva is now a signature stop for all the Carnival brands, Royal Caribbean and Regent Seven Seas, among others.
Suva originally traded on its colonial history, and much of the city's downtown still bears the hallmarks of a rich British Empire tradition. Cumming Street's wooden buildings, with covered footpaths, statues, parks and imperious public offices, still stamp Suva as a Commonwealth outpost.
With a string of bays and beaches stretching along a peninsula protected by coral reefs, Noumea is a slice of the French Riviera in the South Pacific. The capital of New Caledonia and a territory of France, it's a perfect destination for gastronomes and cultural connoisseurs. Everyone from water sports enthusiasts to nature devotees can find plenty of diversion in and around this "Provencal" city.
The islands of New Caledonia, east of Australia and north of New Zealand, are becoming ever more popular stops for cruises originating in Sydney, Auckland and Brisbane, in addition to transpacific and world itineraries. Stops at Noumea might precede those at more isolated beaches on New Caledonia's islands, including the Isle of Pines, Lifou in the Loyalty Islands, and Poum to the north.
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.
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.
Fraser Island (known as K'gari in the local Aboriginal language) is the largest sand island in the world, accessible only by ferry and the occasional cruise ship.
Situated 200 km north of Brisbane, it is the largest of Queensland's 100-plus islands, and has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its diverse range of landscape features.
Taking in the stunning reef, picturesque islands and luxurious hotels that make up the Whitsundays, you might find it hard to believe that the islands are the result of volcanoes that raged 110 million years ago.
Captain Cook, who first sailed through on June 4, 1770, named the collection of islands. Of the 74 islands, only eight are inhabited with resorts. The region offers more than enough diversions to occupy the curious traveler, though, with a bevy of wildlife on land and sea, high-end eateries, family-friendly lagoons and romantic sandy beaches.
Cairns, Australia's closest port city to the Great Barrier Reef, was once little more than a jumping-off place to the reef or the remote Daintree rainforest to the north. Now, with the busiest airport and cruise port in Australia's northeast state of Queensland, and enough tour operators to plan a month of activities, there's reason for travellers to venture beyond the reef and the rainforest.
Most cruise passengers won't have enough hours to do the best of what Cairns offers -- a major diving or snorkelling trip to the outer reef, for instance, takes a full day -- but there are plenty of tour choices that are unique to Australia. They include a half-day snorkelling trip to see an amazing array of sea creatures on a nearby portion of the reef, hugging a koala at a tropical zoo, or just hanging around the beach of a city-built saltwater lagoon swimming pool designed to separate tourists from the crocodiles that frequent some of Cairns' ocean beaches.
Also known as 'TI' or Waibene by its residents, Thursday Island is one of Australia's northernmost outposts, meaning very few people have travelled there. The remote setting is untouched and beautiful, surrounded by lush islands, clear water and abundant marine life. Although the island has many tempting beaches, swimming is not recommended as crocodiles and marine stingers inhabit the region. Fishing, boating and exploring the island's military history are popular alternatives.
The main attraction on Thursday Island is the Green Hill Fort and Museum, with its underground rooms and tunnels. TI locals are friendly, so don't be shy to say hello or strike up a conversation at one of the typically Aussie pubs.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It's likely that you won't be neutral about Sihanoukville. You'll either love it or hate it, depending on how well your shore experience matches your travel style, so plan your day carefully. Why so? Because Cambodia is still struggling to recover from the Vietnam War, followed by the hideous rule of the Khmer Rouge, which murdered 1.7 million people (essentially anyone who was educated), leaving the country in shambles.
If you don't want to risk encountering urchins hawking trinkets or adult beggars maimed by landmines, head straight for a private beach, or stay onboard. If you're ready to immerse yourself in the rich cultural swirl of Cambodia with all its warts, you've come to the right place.
Glimmering golden temples and sacred statues of Buddha; khlongs (canals), bustling with river boats and floating markets; sensuous silks and fragrant orchids; sparkling sapphires and rubies; exquisite "spirit houses" and people with perpetual smiles on their faces -- that's what the Kingdom of Thailand is all about.
As one of the most developed and progressive nations in Southeast Asia, Thailand -- once known as Siam -- is bordered by Myanmar (Burma) to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, Cambodia to the southeast and Malaysia to the south of Thailand's isthmus. The government is a constitutional monarchy, and Westerners are eagerly welcomed -- even though con games and price-gouging, aimed at tourists, can be rampant.
Just 25 years ago, Koh Samui was a sleepy backwater, 310 miles south of Bangkok in the Gulf of Thailand, where inhabitants made a living from fishing and coconut farming. What a difference a couple of decades make. Thailand's third-largest island (koh actually means "island" in Thai, and many locals leave it off of the name) was "discovered" in the late 1980's by the backpacker crowd, who spread the word about its white-sand beaches and clear waters. Budget lodgings replaced beach shacks, and luxury resorts, tourist operators and souvenir hawkers soon followed.
Today the population is more than 50,000, with 1.5 million tourists visiting per year. Cruise ships put in (most require tenders) at Nathon (or Na Thon -- either way, the "h" is silent), the island's old commercial center, which is also a ferry port. Though maligned in guidebooks, the town can make for a relaxed afternoon off of the ship, with its old Chinese shophouses built by itinerant traders, restaurants, Thai massage spots and stores. For the more adventurous, there are plenty of beaches and sights around the 95-square-mile island (including Grandmother Rock and Grandfather Rock, which are known for their slightly X-rated shapes).
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.
Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur has experienced tremendous changes in the past quarter-century. In 1990, it was not yet an economic or technological powerhouse; the city was easy to navigate, and there weren't many high-rises. But since then, strong Asian economic development has given this 150-year-old city a new look and vibe, with tall skyscrapers, luxurious hotels and expansive shopping malls. The shopping, in particular, enjoys an advantage over that found in Kuala Lumpur's Asian counterparts like Singapore and Hong Kong because prices are phenomenal -- Kuala Lumpur is a great place to find quality at massive discounts.
A bit of the credit for the city's burgeoning reputation as an Asian destination can be given to the 1999 movie "Entrapment." The sexy thriller starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sean Connery was partly filmed at the city's 1,482-foot-high Petronas Twin Towers (which briefly, on completion in 1998, held the title of "world's tallest building"). Although the towers no longer top the list, they are still among the most recognizable skyscrapers in Asia.
Penang, a 111-square-mile island off the west coast of Malaysia, gets its name from the betel nut tree, called "pinang" in Malaysian. While some residents chew betel nuts, you'll probably be more interested in sinking your teeth into the astonishing variety of foods available in this culinary capital. Add in the historic architecture that boosted port city George Town onto UNESCO's World Heritage list, plus the rich blend of cultures, and Penang makes for a rewarding destination.
Located at the north entry to the Straits of Malacca, the island was used for centuries as a safe harbor for traders from China, India, Arabia and Europe. British Capt. Francis Light arranged to have Penang ceded by the Sultan of Kedah to the British East India Company in 1786 in return for promised military protection. Legend has it that Light fired a cannon filled with coins into the jungle to get locals to clear the ground. With the construction of Fort Cornwallis and the founding of George Town (named after King George III), Penang became Britain's first stronghold in Southeast Asia. Trade flourished -- including rubber, tin and opium -- and attracted fortune-seekers from around the world. The island was captured by the Japanese in World War II and became part of the independent state of Malaysia in 1957.
Thailand's largest island lures visitors for basking on unspoiled beaches, diving and snorkeling in the Andaman Sea and personalized pampering at ravishing resorts. The cruise port is about a 20-minute drive from Phuket town, a buzzy mecca for shopping (bargain hard, except in malls or brand-name stores), restaurants and clubs. Save time for exotic shore excursions, like visiting elephant and gibbon sanctuaries, and gasping at the more than 147-foot-tall Big Buddha, adorned with white Burmese jade marble, towering over Nakkerd Hills. Lunch at a resort for exquisite Thai cuisine that's easy on Western stomachs and for sensational ocean views.
With the nation's ruling military regime loosening its grip, Myanmar (also known as Burma) is attracting lots of attention. In 2011, a new government began implementing reforms, including freeing hundreds of political prisoners, and holding credible elections -- during which pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party won a landslide victory. That led to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's landmark visit in late 2011, followed by President Barack Obama's in November 2012.
The warming of relations and easing of U.S. sanctions has helped boost Myanmar onto nearly every travel hot list. Cruise providers -- many of them river operators -- have been scrambling to put together itineraries that call on Myanmar's largest city of Yangon (also known as Rangoon). Premium and luxury lines are also including Yangon on select Southeast Asia and world cruise itineraries.
If you've never been to India, brace yourself. Scary does nothing to describe those first few moments when you leave the port, whether in a tuk-tuk, car or coach, and discover that things on the road are not quite as you're used to at home.
Horns parp, cars overtake -- never mind the traffic coming in the other direction -- vehicles pull out from nowhere. It's alarming if you're not used to it, but the best thing to do is relax. These drivers might seem crazy, but they know what they are doing. Mostly.
Mangalore is a colorful and interesting city with pleasant beaches and lots of historical and cultural sights to explore on India's west coast. The most prominent of the attractions are the city's great number of religious sites, including Christian churches, Hindu temples and Muslim mosques. There are also more laid-back options including an amusement park, shops selling local wares and scenic outdoor spaces.
From Mormugao, travelers can easily reach several beautiful, expansive beaches on which to spend the day, some of which are excellent for snorkeling and diving. Active travelers will enjoy kayaking, fishing, windsurfing, parasailing and more. History lovers can spend a few hours exploring the ruins of a 17th-century fort and perusing the local aviation museum.
Mumbai is a massive metropolis of more than 20 million people, and it's defined by its exuberance, energy and sheer madness. Unlike other destination cities in India, it's not known for its great monuments, arts or sights. Its appeal for visitors is its friendly people, cultural diversity and vibrant markets.
Chaos does not even begin to describe Mumbai, where people do daily battle with who knows how many motor vehicles. Indeed, the cacophony of hooting horns is a constant, and just crossing the street is risky business. Bustling crowds add to the lively atmosphere and never-ending assault on the senses.
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.
The capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi is the largest and wealthiest of the nation's seven emirates. Covering 80 percent of the land mass of the UAE, the emirate of Abu Dhabi is divided into three parts: the city of Abu Dhabi, the historic Al Ain region centered on a large oasis on an old camel caravan route and Al Gharbia, part of the world's largest uninterrupted sand desert with towering dunes spreading across the Arabian Peninsula.
The cruise port lies in the central city of Abu Dhabi, a rapidly growing cosmopolitan metropolis where glittering skyscrapers pierce the sky and five-star resorts spread across natural islands where you'll find golf courses, beaches, marinas, upscale malls, a Formula One race car track, amusement areas and cultural institutions.
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.
As the hordes who now sail from Dubai will attest, cruising the Middle East may be fascinating, but it's not very picturesque, given that vast tracts of scrub desert are not especially easy on the eyes.
Salalah, Oman's second-largest city, is an exception. While not as beautiful as the country's capital, Muscat, Salalah has considerable charm as a cruise port of call. Its annual Khareef (monsoon) gives the city and the nearby al Qara Mountains a temperate climate, creating an emerald oasis amid the sand dunes.
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.
Safaga, a working port on the coast of the Red Sea, brings you close to what may be the world's greatest open-air museum -- the temples and tombs of Luxor (what was ancient Thebes). "Close" is the important word here, however.
The bus ride from the Red Sea port to inland Luxor, which is in the Nile Valley in central Egypt, is 3.5 hours each way, making for a very long day. (Full-day shore excursions run 15 hours or more, and nearly everyone falls asleep on the bus ride back to the ship.) That's why several lines also offer Luxor and the Valley of the Kings as an overnight option from Safaga. Experiencing Luxor's bounty can easily fill two days or more.
Jerusalem fits a microcosm of the whole world into less than 50 square miles. Black-hatted Jews in long trench coats walk the streets of religious neighborhoods in hot desert weather; Israeli Arabs reverently approach the Dome of the Rock to offer prayers; devout Christians make pilgrimages to the places Jesus once inhabited; and immigrants from America, Ethiopia and the former Soviet republics form their own enclaves throughout the city's seven hills. Remnants of disparate historical eras are piled, one on top of the other, in an archaeologist's dream world -- ancient sites meet Roman ruins alongside reminders of modern Israel's tumultuous past. And, in the midst of these holy and historic areas, Israelis go to work, shop, eat out and hang out like citizens of any other city.
Most cruise travelers come to Jerusalem to see the religious sites of the Old City. Hectic, don't-waste-a-minute tours rush visitors to the Western Wall, Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and then on to Bethlehem or one of Israel's famous museums (the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial or Israel Museum, home to the Dead Sea Scrolls). And, of course, a stop at a market or souvenir shop is a must. Unless you book an overnight tour with a private guide (many ships call in Haifa the day before or after, allowing for overnight stays in Israel) and plan your own itinerary, you will likely feel overwhelmed -- it's simply impossible to see everything at a leisurely pace in one day.
There's a popular Israeli saying: "Haifa works, Jerusalem prays, and Tel Aviv plays." This is not strictly fair to Haifa, the country's third-largest city. While it's home to Israel's biggest and busiest port and has an undeniably bustling, businesslike air, there's also a real resort feel about the place. The center sprawls over the steep, lush face of Mount Carmel, the waterfront is lined with wide, sandy beaches, and the restaurants are famous throughout Israel.
Unlike Tel Aviv, which is relatively secular, and Jerusalem, which is deeply religious, Haifa is a multicultural community of six faiths living side by side. In addition to Jews, Christians and Muslims, Ahmedi and Druze people live there, and the town is the world center for the Baha'i faith, a belief system that fittingly believes in all the messengers of God and a unifying vision of the nature and purpose of life. Haifa's skyline is peppered with minarets and church spires, and the beautiful Baha'i Gardens -- a great swath of manicured green cascading down the hillside -- is the city's most famous landmark.
It's common for first-time visitors to take one look at Iraklion and marvel at how modern the city is. After all, this is the capital of Crete, the home of Europe's earliest civilization, and birthplace of countless myths and legends. Newcomers tend to expect a small village with antiquated buildings rather than the busy cosmopolitan city that occupies the same ground where Hercules, King Minos, the minotaur and other characters from ancient mythology once roamed.
The magic of Iraklion, though, is the fact that its modern amenities commingle peacefully with its ancient treasures rather than overshadowing them. The result is a vibrant town that manages to look to the future while still embracing its past.
It's almost a pity that most cruise passengers use Sorrento as a mere transportation hub, pausing just long enough to catch a bus, train or ferry to big-name destinations like Pompeii, Capri and Naples. The clifftop town -- with its alfresco cafes, 19th-century villas-turned-hotels, warrens of old city shopping streets and coastal views -- is a picturesque place to spend a relaxing day ashore. Sorrento offers cruisers a delectable taste of Italy that will leave you hungrily anticipating later ports of call along the Italian coast or yearning to return to take a bigger bite out of the scenic Amalfi Coast.
Sorrento wears its history on its sleeve -- a 10th-century church here, a 14th-century cloister there, a 15th-century loggia across the way. The area was first settled by the Greeks who called their new home "the city of Sirens" -- where in mythology, those lovely mermaids lured seamen to death with their pretty songs. In Homer's "Odyssey," Ulysses stuffed the ears of his crew with wax and bound himself to the mast so he could hear the tempting tunes as they passed by. Even so, Sorrento's alluring call enticed to its shores a number of different empires, whose wealthy saw the area as an ideal seaside playground. Roman emperors built vacation homes here, and the appeal carried into the 18th and 19th centuries when Europe's elite came here on their Grand Tours and the literati of the time wrote the praises of this seaside spot.
The capital city in the land of Leonardo, Michelangelo and the popes is today a living museum with gorgeous artwork, amazing architecture and inspiring ancient sites. At the same time, it's alive and vibrant in a 21st-century way. It's an unforgettable city to visit, and we'll warn you right now that once you've experienced it, you'll want to go back for more.
One of our favorite things to do there is walk and ogle. On a recent visit, we took one day to do the route from Vatican City and St. Peter's Basilica -- with its jaw-dropping art, statuary, and religious significance -- to Via del Corso, where our quest for the latest Italian fashions was more than fulfilled amidst the well-dressed crowd of Roman shoppers. The next day, we went on an ancient history quest past ruins and columns, traversing the same streets Julius Caesar strode (and rode) to the Colosseum, where gladiators once battled. Walking on, we were awed by the Pantheon, the well-preserved ancient symbol of Rome and now a great hangout spot.
Arriving by ship into the Monte Carlo harbor is an amazing experience. If your docking time is before dawn, you'll see the lights of the principality twinkling throughout the mountains that surround the harbor and the beautifully lit Grand Casino at center stage. If you arrive during daylight hours, you are faced with the sight of one magnificent yacht after another vying for space in the little harbor.
Monaco is a self-governed sovereign nation under the protection of France. It has been ruled by the Grimaldi family for the past 700 years (with a slight diversion during the French Revolution), and its 1918 treaty with France decreed that if the prince -- any Grimaldi prince -- failed to produce a son, the territory would be ceded back to France upon his death. This was changed in 2002. If Albert II, the current prince, fails to produce a male heir, the throne will be passed to his sister Caroline.
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.
Just 7 miles off the Massachusetts coast, the island of Martha's Vineyard may be known as an enclave of the nation's elite (the Clintons and Obamas have summered here, as have prepsters, celebrities and wealthy African-American families for generations). But the island's quiet is part of the appeal; authentic charm and history abound.
Cruise ships dock at Vineyard Haven or Oak Bluffs, two of Martha's Vineyard's six communities. From the dock in Vineyard Haven, it's about a half-mile walk to the heart of town. A visitor information kiosk at the base of Union Street across from the Steam Ship Authority Terminal dispenses tourist information. A stroll along Main Street, with its upscale shops, cafes, bookstores and art galleries is a pleasant way to spend a few hours.
Boston is a big city, but it doesn't feel that way when you're walking around -- and make no mistake, this is one of those cities perfect to explore on foot. (If you're not a walker, join a trolley or amphibious vehicle tour.) In 20 minutes, you can stroll from the Common (Boston's Central Park) down to the waterfront and pass major historical attractions, shops and food purveyors along the way.
Boston is, perhaps, America's most glamorous historic city, dating back more than 350 years. The city was founded in 1630 by colonists led by John Winthrop, and it gets its name from an English village. The events that led to the American Revolution, including the infamous arguments over the tax on tea that led to the Boston Tea Party in 1773, started there. During the protest, three British ships were raided by colonists dressed as Native Americans who dumped tea into the harbor. In 1775, Paul Revere helped spread the word that the British were coming. The next day, the "shot heard round the world" was fired, signaling the start of the American Revolution.
Acadia National Park -- one of the smallest National Parks in the country -- is the biggest draw in Bar Harbor, Maine. The 41,000-acre park is also one of the most heavily visited, drawing more than two million travelers per year.
The park offers stunning mountain, sea and lake vistas and craggy cliffs that plunge to the surf, as well as an estimated 125 miles of trails for hiking and biking. Additional highlights include the 1,532-foot-high Cadillac Mountain and the Thunder Hole waterspout. Beyond the park, Bar Harbor (or as locals say: "Bah Hahbuh") has the charm of a quaint New England fishing village with all the attractions of a major port, and its touristy downtown area is hard to resist. Watch the lobstermen work, browse the souvenir shops, explore a museum and, of course, enjoy a Maine lobster bake.
Halifax, Nova Scotia's capital city and the gateway to Atlantic Canada, has numerous identities. Home to the second-largest natural harbor in the world, it draws a major share of Canada's container trade and oodles of cruise ship visits in the late summer and early fall (although more recently, ships are beginning to visit in the early summer months). A few streets inland, there are many sights to take in, and while gorgeous coastal scenery begins just outside the city limits, especially during the spectacular autumn foliage displays, the waterfront is also a delight to explore.
Halifax also has a strong connection to the sinking of the Titanic since it played a key role during the aftermath of the tragedy. Three of the city's ships were sent out to recover bodies, and so it is the final resting place for many unclaimed victims. In fact, three cemeteries throughout Halifax feature rows of black granite headstones, each inscribed with the same date: April 15, 1912.
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.
When cruising through Isafjord, Iceland, visitors will be subject to incredible views upon their arrival, but there's even more to enjoy ashore. The town features a number or restaurants and shops and is considered quite bustling compared to some of its neighbors. While visiting, travelers can partake in hiking and biking excursions, go horseback riding or fishing and even play a round of golf. The town is also an access point to the nature reserve in Hornstrandir -- one of the region's more noted attractions.
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.
Situated on what's known as the "Mainland" of the Orkney archipelago, Kirkwall is the capital of a group of about 70 islands north of Scotland. The town was founded around 1035, and was declared a Royal Burgh in 1486 by King James III. Kirkwall's most famous landmark is nearly the 900-year old St. Magnus Cathedral, built from beautiful pink and yellow sandstone. Its towering spire dominates the town, even from the water.
Settlements on Orkney's mainland go back to 3000 BC. You can see remains of that civilization at Skara Brae, as well as cairns (man-made piles of stone), Bronze Age stone circles and Iron Age roundhouses, at different sites around the island. The richness of the Orkney's Neolithic past has earned it UNESCO World Heritage status.
Although it's the most popular cruise ship port of call in Scotland, Invergordon might look a bit bleak as you pull up to the dock. Its main industry is repairing oil rigs, which are towed into Cromarty Firth, so there's little glamour to the waterfront. But the town's natural deep harbor (carved by glaciers) makes it the ideal cruise portal to the Highlands.
Once ashore, you'll probably head out to see the Loch Ness monster, Culloden Battlefield, the town of Inverness, a castle or perhaps a whisky distillery.
Historic Edinburgh, capital of Scotland, has so much to offer that you can't possibly do it in a day. The city lies in a beautiful setting, sprawling over an extinct volcano, known as Arthur's Seat, and dominated by the grey, brooding hulk of the Medieval Edinburgh Castle -- the tourist hub of the Royal Mile, a street exactly one Scots mile long. (The outdated measurement is equivalent to 1,807 meters, longer than the standard 1,609-meter mile.)
Old Town, as this area is known, features a wonderful labyrinth of alleyways and cobbled streets filled with castles, museums and churches. After the 1707 Act of Union joined Scotland and England politically, many of Edinburgh's wealthier residents abandoned Edinburgh for London. The Georgian terraces -- individual terraces found on the front of Georgian-style row homes -- of nearby New Town were built in an effort to attract them back. Both Old Town and New Town are part of the city's UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of the most vibrant cities in the north of England, Newcastle gained a whole new lease on life in the mid-1990s following the rebirth of the derelict downtown Quayside area. Spiffed up along the river banks with a host of trendy bars, restaurants and nightclubs, all set against a spectacular backdrop of several different, very eclectic bridges, the city has an unmistakable stance that renders it almost unique on mainland Britain.
It retains a mixture of ancient and modern that brings visitors back time and again. The old castle keep, dating from the 11th century, still looms over a cityscape of classical Georgian architecture and vast thoroughfares such as Grey Street, topped by the soaring monument of the same name.
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.
Portland, Maine, is all about lobster. It's hard to imagine this crustacean was once deemed poor man's food, but it's true -- lobsters would wash up on Portland's shores after a storm and be used primarily as fertilizer and bait. But with the advent of land transportation, lobsters were brought inland by the mid-1800's, and as the demand for lobsters increased so did the price. Today, the city boasts numerous restaurants -- all of which feature lobster (in some form) on their menus.
But Portland has more to offer than a bunch of crustaceans. The coastal New England port boasts a vibrant working waterfront, an abundance of Victorian-era architecture and numerous historic lighthouses. Nestled on a picturesque seascape, the city is perched on a peninsula jutting out into the island-studded Casco Bay, protected from the Atlantic Ocean. The romantic movie "Message in a Bottle" was filmed in this seaside town and even the famous Portland-born poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called Portland a "Jewel by the Sea" in one of his poems. The city welcomes close to 50,000 cruise ship passengers annually.
Located on the very northwestern tip of Wales, facing out to the Irish Sea, Holyhead is a traditional rail and road terminus with a scruffy town center. Though the town itself has very little to offer visitors, its location on the scenic Isle of Anglesey gives cru Located on the very northwestern tip of Wales, facing out to the Irish Sea, Holyhead is a traditional rail and road terminus with a scruffy town center. Though the town itself has very little to offer visitors, its location on the scenic Isle of Anglesey gives cruise travelers easy access to some of the best attractions in the country, most within an hour and a half.
Cross the fast-flowing Menai Strait via one of the historic 19th-century bridges, and you'll soon come face-to-face with the greatest network of medieval castles ever built, stark evidence of the English kings' domination of the Welsh, beginning in the 13th century. Eight turreted fortresses constructed during the reign of Edward I rise above waterside towns, such as Beaumaris, Conwy and Caernarfon. They are fun to explore, especially as you can climb the towers for views over the towns below and out to sea.
Imagine Dublin and visions of Guinness, Leopold Bloom, and hearty breakfast plates piled high with Irish bacon and farm-fresh eggs might spring to mind, backed by a U2 soundtrack. Dublin is all that, and so much more; in fact, Ireland's largest city (and capital for more than a thousand years) is currently enjoying its status as one of the hottest, most livable cities not just in Europe, but in the world.
Set on Ireland's central east coast along the banks of the Liffey River, where so many literary greats were born (James Joyce, yes, but also Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett, to name a few), Dublin now shows off trendy coffee houses, foodie-friendly restaurants and smart boutiques filled with Burberry-clad shoppers. However, there's still much to see from days gone by in this historical city.
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.
Flanders, the northern half of Belgium, has four lovely cities to visit. Brussels is the national capital, and it's full of well-heeled diplomats as the home of the European Union. Brugge by comparison is tiny and almost impossibly beautiful in its own medieval way. Ghent can be a tourist trap, but it's also very much a place for students. Antwerp, of the four, is the trendiest. It's the fashion hub of the Low Countries and a renowned center in the international diamond industry. "Cut in Antwerp" commands international respect in jewelry circles.
Though it receives its share of visitors, drawn to its churches, medieval guild houses and winding backstreets, Antwerp is the least touristy of Belgium's Big Four. Everyday life goes on, largely undisturbed by visitors, and it goes on with enthusiasm. There are lots of places to eat in Antwerp, but the majority are full of locals.
There is a fairytale quality to the tree-lined canal streets of Amsterdam. Boutiques, cafes, apartments and hotels may hide behind the facades of the gabled townhouses, but the look of this beautiful old city has not changed much since its 17th-century Golden Age. Some 7,000 historic buildings remain, many of them beautiful merchants' mansions, located along canals that are laid out in five concentric circles, connected by bridges and intriguing small streets. No matter how many times you walk along the canals, they are enchanting to see, even when traffic and whizzing bicycles dispel the Old-World illusion. On a silent Sunday morning or on a summer evening when the old facades are floodlit, the city is magical.
Amsterdam is small enough that much of the city can be covered on foot, allowing visitors to savor sights such as the charming no-two-alike gables atop the houses, houseboats bedecked with potted greenery and masses of blooms in the colorful, floating flower market. Shops offering antiques and avant-garde art beckon everywhere. Outdoor markets, selling everything from postage stamps and parakeets to "junk-tiques," are another intriguing facet of the city.
Kiel is a portside university town in Germany boasting a namesake fjord and a bustling, modern city center. Visitors will find an array of diversions from sailing excursions to historic buildings and landmarks, as well as trendy shops and restaurants. The city also hosts a number of interesting annual events, including a sailing regatta and a music festival.
--By Shayne Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor
Named in this century as both Europe's Cultural Capital and also the continent's first Green Capital, Stockholm is the largest city in Scandinavia, with about 1.8 million residents in the metropolitan area -- about one-fifth of Sweden's total population. The city, founded in 1252, comprises 14 islands, and is a popular port of call and turnaround port on Northern Europe cruises.
Stockholm's premier tourist attraction is Gamla Stan (literally, Old Town), one of the largest neighborhoods of 16th-century buildings in Europe. Block after block of these four- and five-story structures are painted in vivid colors typical of Mediterranean villages and occasionally feature wrought-iron signs symbolizing ancient craftworkers' guilds or faces of religious figures. Cobblestone streets and arms-width alleys criss-cross Gamla Stan. There, you'll also find the 18th-century Royal Palace atop the crown of the hill upon which Gamla Stan is located. (Sweden is a constitutional monarchy and has a one-house parliament).
Helsinki is a city with a variety of identities. Maybe it's the Russian influence (St. Petersburg is a quick train ride away). Maybe it's the strong appreciation of contemporary design -- the capital of Finland is home to Marimekko, world-renowned for its boldly patterned textiles; Kalevala, known for distinctive bronze and silver jewelry; and Iittala, known for glassware. The city also might be associated with the dark, cold and snowy winters that last half the year (fortunately, this is not the season for cruising). Helsinki embraces a bit of oddball fun, too. One annual festival features the tossing of Finnish-made Nokia cellphones, and another popular mainstay is a wife-carrying competition.
Finland differs from Nordic neighbors like Sweden and Norway because of its near-inexplicable language. (It originated as an oral language, rather than a written one, so it's very difficult to follow; Swedish is also widely spoken.) The country itself is one of Europe's newest; independence from Russia was achieved in 1917 following the Bolshevik Revolution.
There's something eerily fascinating about coming to St. Petersburg. It's probably a combination of Cold War remembrances (this was, after all, once an Evil Empire) and all sorts of warnings from ship personnel about pickpockets and black marketers. It doesn't help that you have to walk past stern-faced, uniformed customs officials at the pier before you can experience the city itself.
Once in the city, though, you'll likely find St. Petersburg a wonderful place, particularly if you're lucky enough to come during White Nights, when the sun barely sets and the entire city seems to be up all night. It's not entirely without hassles: The key museums and attractions are not air-conditioned and rarely have special facilities for the disabled. Very few signs are in English, and understanding what you are seeing -- whether it's a street sign, a shop name or a painting description -- can be impossible. And the Hermitage is typically packed to the gills; you may have to do a lot of jostling to see the art highlights if you aren't on a tour that specifically avoids the crowds.
Estonia's capital city is only 53 miles across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki, but for nearly 50 years, as part of the Soviet Union, it was ideologically a world away. That ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and Estonia became the Baltic's smallest independent nation.
Today, thanks to its strategic position on the Gulf, Estonia's largest city is thriving. Tallinn, with a population of 410,000, is not only a major port but also a major industrial center. Timber, chemicals, electronics and information technology are all booming industries. Voice-over-Internet calling service Skype, of all things, was developed in Estonia. One of its creators: Jaan Tallinn.
A visit to Berlin is simply not to be missed no matter how long the trip is from a ship docked at Warnemunde (near Rostock). Since the wall was pulled down in 1989, the city has a new lease on life. It's no longer isolated in the middle of Communist East Germany. Now, it's the capital city of a new Germany. What had been such a contrast -- West Berlin vs. East Berlin -- has now been largely erased. In fact, the former East Berlin side is where you will want to spend most of your precious time. It was, and is again, the soul of the city that follows a band running east from the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag (Parliament) along Unter den Linden, the city's handsome boulevard, to Museum Island, Berlin Cathedral and Alexanderplatz. Several intriguing neighborhoods are just a few blocks to the north and south of this line.
Few monuments, apart from a couple of churches, are truly old. Berlin itself is not an ancient city like Rome, and so much of what was historic was largely destroyed during World War II. With many churches, government buildings and landmarks rebuilt in the original 18th and 19th century styles, the city again presents itself as monumental, well laid out and, happily, with a minimum of intrusive high-rise skyscrapers.
According to a recent World Happiness Report, the Danes are the happiest people in the world. Whether it's the high wages and low unemployment rate or something magical in Copenhagen's salty sea air, a cruising visitor will feel the positive vibe -- and no doubt bring a little extra "happy" back to the ship.
Sitting on the east coast of Denmark, Copenhagen has been the country's capital for 600 years, and it's the largest city in Scandinavia, with a population of 1.9 million people. It's home to the world's oldest monarchy (King Erik VII set up permanent residence in 1417), and its present Queen, Margrethe II, currently lives at Amalienborg Palace.
Since the days of the Vikings, Stavanger's fate has been tied to the sea. The region in southeastern Norway was first settled 10,000 years ago, and Vikings set forth on their seafaring expeditions from these shores. In more modern times, fishing was the city's moneymaker, and sardine canning was big business. Today, the North Sea oil industry rules Stavanger, which is often referred to as the Oil Capital of Norway.
Stavanger is Norway's fourth most populous city, but it won't seem like a bustling metropolis when you set foot off your ship. The harbor area where ships dock is easily walkable, with the small white cottages of Old Stavanger immediately to the west, a tangle of pedestrian shopping streets to the east and restaurants housed in old warehouses lining the harbor itself. Most major attractions, such as the Canning and Petroleum museums, are a quick stroll away.
Bergen, known as the "Gateway to the Fjords," is Norway's second-largest city. But with only about 260,000 inhabitants, it projects the warmth and accessibility of a much smaller community. The Gulf Stream softens the weather there, and the winters are mild with little snow.
Shrouded in history, the city's streets are flanked with centuries-old churches and quaint shops and homes connected by a labyrinth of backyard pathways. Two picturesque and inviting landmarks make orientation easy: the wharf area and the museum-surrounded ornamental lake and parklands are within ten minutes from each other by foot. Most of Bergen proper's attractions and activities also lie within a short walk of those points, as does the main cruise pier.
Alesund is located on a series of islands along Norway's coast. It is best known for its art nouveau architecture, which you can see walking through town and learn about at the Art Nouveau Center. After much of the town burned in a 1904 fire, the city was rebuilt in this striking architectural style.
Trondelag, or Trondheim, has been the city of kings ever since Viking king Olav Tryggvason sailed up the Trondheim Fjord in his longboat more than 1,000 years ago and founded Nidaros, after the River Nid. In 999, Olav invited Leif Eiriksson to stay there as his guest, after which the famous seaman sailed off to Greenland and on to America. Olav himself was canonized as Norway's patron saint with a cathedral built at his gravesite. By the Middle Ages, this central Norwegian city had become an important religious pilgrimage center and trading hub.
After a devastating fire destroyed much of Trondheim in the late 17th century, the city was rebuilt using a gridiron plan with broad avenues intended as firebreaks. This layout has survived, lending an elegant air to Norway's third-largest city. Trondheim also enjoys a youthful energy; one of every six residents is a student. Nidaros Cathedral remains Norway's religious center, attracting thousands each July for St. Olav's festival. Locals like to say, "Without Trondheim, all that would be left of the history book of Norway is the cover."
Kristiansand is the fifth largest city in Norway -- lying on the southern tip of this Scandinavian country -- and offers picturesque streetscapes, traditional and colorful Norwegian architecture and cultural highlights, including the stunning waterfront Kilden Performing Arts Center.
Lerwick, the Shetland Islands' capital, is undeniably multifaceted. Superficially, Lerwick's architecture reflects that of its past -- deeply rooted in Dutch traditions with stone-facade buildings, known as lodberries, lining the busy port. Lerwick, like the rest of the Shetland Islands, is more than just superficial beauty though -- and just a few hours in town will uncover a rather fascinating history.
A gift to Scotland from a Danish princess in the late 1400s, the town wasn't actually founded as a port until the late 17th century. The geographic location close to Norway is reflected in all facets of Lerwick -- from many of the store's decor to the people. The locals' warm and embracing personalities are a near-perfect blend of Norwegian and Scottish. The Scottish reminders come when you're strolling through the UNESCO town and see rolling green hills behind tall castle-like administrative buildings and sheep traffic jams in the center of town.
Brugge (in Flemish -- it's Bruges in French) is one of the most visited cities in Europe and is the number one destination for passengers on cruise ships calling at Zeebrugge. Visitors flock here, not for a specific museum or historical location, but to wander amidst the city's stunning examples of Flemish and Renaissance architecture and immerse themselves in the vitality of the two main squares -- Markt and Berg. There is always so much going on in Brugges -- from flower and produce markets to rides for children, bustling cafes and restaurants and old-fashioned people watching.
Never mind that Brugge's medieval appearance is largely a recent recreation. The city was rediscovered by 19th century tourists, mostly from England, heading to the site of the battle of Waterloo. Its growing popularity generated an interest to fix up the city following its downfall from one of the Hanseatic League's most important trading cities. Cloth had been the main commodity; the English wool came by ship directly to Brugge until the waterways silted up in the 15th century. The city fell into disrepair as much of the population drifted away, but in the 19th and early 20th century, Brugge was rebuilt in the traditional styles.
Imagine a city full of spectacular artwork where, in the course of a few hours, you can explore a reinvented shipyard from the back of a 40-foot-high animatronic elephant, whirl past weird and wonderful sea creatures on a surreal carousel, explore the dark story of 19th-century slavery inside one of the Loire's most spectacular castles, wander the narrow streets of a medieval old town and take in the stunning 18th-century architecture of an elegant neoclassic district.
Welcome to Nantes, birthplace of writer Jules Verne and, arguably, the most unusual and fun city in France. Plunged into depression when its long-established shipbuilding industry relocated to Saint-Nazaire in 1987, the city gave itself a shake, refused to bow to a gloomy fate and reinvented itself as a haven for artists and architects and a melting pot of new ideas. As a result, Nantes has been transformed into one of the most creative, innovative and vibrant cities in France (and, indeed, Europe).
If someone mentioned Bilbao 20 years ago, the reaction might have drawn a blank stare or "Bill who?" Now, with the arrival and huge success of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the mere mention of the city will elicit strong reactions and lots of animated discussion about architect Frank Gehry's magnificent piece of sculpture, the museum's mostly contemporary art collection and its winsome riverside setting. While the museum is extraordinary, there is much more to Bilbao than this single draw. The city, Spain's fifth-largest, will delight visitors with its charming Old Quarter, lively restaurants and tapas bars, excellent shopping, and the outstanding architecture that dominates the modern city center.
Bilbao was once a powerhouse of industry, based on mining iron ore, steel manufacturing, shipbuilding and ship repair, banking, insurance, and overseas trade. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the city's wealth gave rise to a most handsome new city across the Nervion River, called The Ensanche (or Extension). The new development featured the construction of wide boulevards, expansive plazas and a whole host of architecturally significant buildings. Yet, in the 1980's and the years that followed, most of the city's economic base slipped away due to cheaper production in emerging countries and the outfall from joining the EU. Only now are the city's fortunes finally returning.
A former fishing village in the northwest of Spain, Ferrol exemplifies authentic Galician culture and is packed with sights and attractions for visitors to explore throughout its various neighborhoods. Within the city, tourists can visit a castle, museums covering a variety of topics and historic churches. There are also several beaches in Ferrol, each unique and well-suited for a hot day.
One of Europe's oldest cities, Porto dates to the 4th century, when it was an outpost of the Roman Empire and served as an important commercial port where the Atlantic Ocean and Douro River converge. As a thriving boat-building hub, the city served as the starting point for Prince Henry the Navigator's exploration of the western coast of Africa in 1415, initiating the Portuguese "Age of Discovery."
The old town area of Porto, registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, encompasses Ribeira within 14th-century Romanesque walls, as well as the city's many architectural landmarks, ranging from the gothic Igreja de Sao Francisco to the baroque Torre dos Clerigos (Clerics Tower) to the neoclassical Palacio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace).
Seville, capital of Andalucia, lies on the mighty Guadalquivir -- one of Spain's longest rivers -- and is an enchanting city of leafy parks, mosaic-paved riverside promenades, winding medieval streets and grand squares lined with spectacular buildings and studded with fragrant orange trees.
It also has a history that dates back 2,000 years and is displayed in a dazzling array of buildings from Roman ruins and Moorish minarets to magnificent Baroque palaces, Gothic and Renaissance churches and more recently constructed futuristic extravaganzas.
Ibiza owns a reputation as a boisterous party town where hit the beaches by day and dance all night. But this is only part of the story for this picturesque island, which is part of Balearics near the coast of Spain.
The town was founded by the Carthaginians around the sixth century B.C. and ruled in turn by the Romans, Arabs and Catalans. Evidence of these periods can be seen in the Dalt Vila, or old town, which boasts many historical structures and relics and two notable museums. The medieval walled city and its Gothic cathedral became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999.
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.
In the early 1400's, Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal sent his best sailors and cartographers to examine the coast of Africa. The party got blown off course and ended up 310 miles to the west, stranded on the beach of what is now Porto Santos, one of the Madeiran islands. When they returned to Lisbon and told the prince what had happened, he immediately sent them back to colonize the island, which led to the discovery of Madeira, just 25 or so miles away to the southwest.
Much richer in natural resources and natural beauty, the island of Madeira was colonized first, primarily by agrarians from the Algarve district in Portugal; the drier, smaller, sparser Porto Santos wasn't exactly ignored, but did play second fiddle to Madeira. There are two other (uninhabited) islands in the Madeiran archipelago: Ilhas Desertas and Selvagen. But it's Madeira, and the capital city of Funchal, that have flourished in the six centuries since its discovery.
Imagine the stereotypical cruise port -- one with white-sand beaches, a plethora of duty-free shops selling jewels and liquor, and de rigueur water activities like snorkeling and scuba -- and Grand Cayman will likely come to mind. The cliche might just be based on the destination, with its lovely Seven Mile Beach, George Town's retail center and plenty of sites for diving, snorkeling and other water sports. Grand Cayman also celebrates marine life at Stingray City and the Cayman Turtle Farm, and even offers a twist on island paradise with the town of Hell (THE place from which to send the quintessential kitschy postcard).
Yet the cliche does have a negative side -- the crowds. It's not unusual to find five mega-ships (we're told there's been up to nine) docked in the harbor at the same time, which makes the tendering process slower than usual and the downtown streets jam-packed. (Building a cruise pier at which ships could berth is oft discussed, but it's never gone beyond the "pre-planning" stage.) The constant influx of cruise passengers keeps the waterfront restaurants bustling, so lunch in port is never a cheap affair. A stroll along the beach quickly turns into an obstacle course of sunbathing tourists, sandy children and water sports vendors.
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."
Corinto is an off-the-beaten path destination typically included on Panama Canal itineraries. It features a man-made beach and a small downtown area that visitors can spend a couple of hours exploring. Boating and fishing excursions are also popular. Additionally, travelers can venture a bit further out to tour some of the local villages and reach natural beaches.
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.
Acapulco may not be the Hollywood celebrity magnet it once was, but with its glorious beaches, jumping main drag and pulsating night life, this holiday resort still packs a punch. If the city has an iconic signature, it's the La Quebrada cliff divers, who thrill onlookers today just as they did decades ago when jetsetters like Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Rita Hayworth and David Niven helped put Acapulco on the map.
With a population of 1.6 million people, Acapulco has been relentlessly developed, and there is little hint of its early origins. Longtime visitors may grumble that the area has lost its charm, but with its lovely, natural setting, rising from the blue bay up into the Sierra Madre mountains that frame it, Acapulco remains an undeniable scene-stealer.
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.
Cherbourg is a major cruise destination in Normandy and is well-equipped for visitors. The city's scenic landscape is composed of the shore as well as the nearby mountains, where tourist can engage in any number of activities. In its historic center, there are a number of sights, attractions and landmarks including museums, churches and monuments. The local cuisine is also a highlight of any visit.
Pool deck never feels overcrowded
Older ship showing signs of wear
Simple ship with a laidback atmosphere
Tucked inside Tampa Bay on Florida's west coast, it's really no surprise that Tampa has evolved as a year-round bustling cruise port for mostly Western Caribbean and Panama Canal itineraries. Its red-hot waterfront is jam-packed with sights, sounds and surf, and is just a hop, skip and a jump away from century-old St. Petersburg and from Clearwater, one of Florida's best beaches.
Cuban-influenced Ybor City -- a short streetcar ride from the cruise terminals -- is one of only two National Historic Landmark Districts in Florida. Its narrow brick streets, red-brick buildings and wrought-iron balconies offer old-world charm. You'll also spot flamenco dancers galore and old factories selling Florida's best hand-rolled cigars, not to mention plenty of Major League teams batting up for spring training. Finally, Tampa offers up award-winning beaches to perfect your glamour tan and more than 2,000 restaurants to soothe your hunger.
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.
Royal Naval Dockyard (generally referred to by cruise lines as King's Wharf) is home to two docks: King's Wharf and Heritage Wharf. This area makes up one of Bermuda's three ports (which also include Hamilton and St. George's), and it's the port of choice for larger ships calling on the island. Located at the West End of Bermuda on Ireland Island in Dockyard Parish, the port was built for the British Navy as a base between Halifax and the West Indies. The Georgian-style fort later served as a North Atlantic base during both World Wars. Finally abandoned in 1951, its reincarnation gives visitors plenty to do and see, what with the National Museum of Bermuda, the Arts Centre and the Bermuda Craft Market. The parish's isolation is part of its charm, and it translates to romance and privacy with significant others.
King's Wharf is rich in naval history with an endless array of activities for all ages, be it culture, water sports, good food, shopping or kicking back at the beach. In addition to galleries, craft markets and museums, you can include world-class golf courses, parasailing, scuba-diving and dolphin swims on the short list of things to do. Trek up nearly 200 steps to the top of historic Gibbs Hill Lighthouse in Southampton; then follow it up with a listen to the lovely Gregorian chants of three nuns inside a teensy 1620 chapel at the Heydon Trust in Somerset. Shop at the Clocktower Mall, or pick up a scrumptious rum cake at the Bermuda Rum Cake Company, hop a ferry to anywhere, or stroll through the Arts Centre to view the works of Bermuda's premier artists.