Category Cruises & Ports of Call

Choosing Your Ideal Cruise

T he common wisdom says that all cruises are the same: big, flashy ships carrying old, overfed passengers to touristy ports, then setting them free to shop. Like all cliches, this one has a grain (or maybe a boulder) of truth, but it’s hardly the whole story. For that reason, we prefer to call what we write about “travel by ship” rather than “cruis­ing”—a more comprehensive description for a travel segment that gets increasingly diverse every year. Sure, you can still do the standard Caribbean cruise on a big white megaship, but consider this: From a variety of U. S. ports, you can also sail a small ship to visit the reefs and indigenous cultures of Central America; take a floating boutique hotel to little yachting islands; bop around Hawaii in the first new U. S.-flagged cruise ship in generations; take an expedition from Alaska to Siberia; take the Queen Mary 2 across the pond to England; or sail a century-old schooner off the Maine coast. You can also choose a cruise geared to activities like kayaking and hiking, or interests such as fine food and wine, photography, culture or history, and other specialized themes. In this chapter, we’ll introduce you to the lot of ’em.

1 Homeland Cruise Regions in Brief

Whether because of convenience or an aversion to flying (that is, the cost of flying or the fear of it), the idea of cruising from a port within driving distance holds a lot of appeal for a lot of folks. And anytime a lot of folks want to do something, you can be sure the cruise lines will be right there, ready to hand them an umbrella drink. Today, you can cruise to the Caribbean from close-in ports like Miami or more distant ones like New York, New Orleans, Houston, Norfolk, and others. You can visit Bermuda on ships that depart from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Alaska, western Mexico, and Hawaii are now accessible from half a dozen embarkation ports along the U. S. and Canadian West Coast. With all of these choices, there’s a good chance you can drive right up to the gangway. In this section, we’ll introduce all the regions (detailed in chapters 10 through 16) to which you can cruise from 19 U. S. and Canadian home ports. (We discuss each North American home port in chapter 9.)

THE CARIBBEAN/THE BAHAMAS/CENTRAL AMERICA

When most of us think of a cruise, we think of the islands. We imagine pulling up in our big white ship to a patch of sand and palm-tree paradise, a steel band serenading us as we stroll down the gangway in our shorts and flip-flops and step into the warm sun. The good news is that this image is a pretty accurate depiction of many islands in the Caribbean and The Bahamas (a group of islands that lie outside the Caribbean basin), as well as some coastal ports in Mexico and Central America. Sure, some are jampacked with cruise ship passengers, and many are pretty weak in the palm-tree

department; however, you’re guaranteed nearly constant sunshine and plenty of beaches. On some you’ll find lush rainforests, volcanic peaks, Mayan ruins, winding mountain roads, and beautiful tropical flowers. And all of them have great beaches and that laid-back, don’t-hurry-me seaside pace.

Most Caribbean cruises are a week long, though you’ll also find sailings as short as 5 nights and as long as 14 nights. Cruises to The Bahamas are usually 3 or 4 nights, though many Caribbean routes also include a stop in Nassau or one of the cruise lines’ private Bahamian islands. On Caribbean cruises, itineraries usually stick to one region, either eastern (typically calling on some combination of the U. S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, St. Martin, and The Bahamas), western (usually Grand Cayman, Jamaica, Key West, Cozumel or one of the other Mexican ports, and sometimes ports in Belize or Honduras), or southern (less defined, but often departing from San Juan and including Aruba, Bonaire, Curasao, Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, and/or Grenada). Small-ship cruises frequently visit the less developed islands, mostly in the eastern and southern Caribbean, including the beautiful British Virgin Islands and ports such as St. Barts, Dominica, Nevis, and the tiny islands of the Grenadines. Season: Year-round, with the greatest number of ships cruising here between October and April.

THE PANAMA CANAL

Imagine the particularly 19th-century kind of hubris it took to say, “Let’s dig a huge canal all the way across a country, linking two oceans.” Imagine, too, the thousands of workers who pulled it off. That’s on the minds of many people today as they sail through the Panama Canal, one of the greatest engineering achievements of all time. Many ships offer only two Panama Canal cruises annually, when repositioning between their summer season in Alaska and the fall/winter season in the Caribbean. However, many cruise lines also include partial Canal crossings as part of extended western Caribbean itineraries from Florida, sailing through the Canal’s locks west­bound to Gatun Lake, docking for a day of excursions that explore the Canal’s history and Central America’s rich culture, and then sailing back out in the evening. Others do full crossings, generally sailing between Miami or Fort Lauderdale and a port in California or the Mexican Riviera. The big draw of both full and partial crossings is the pure kick of sailing through the Canal, whose walls pinch today’s megaships so tightly that there may be only a few feet of clearance on either side. The Canal’s width and the length of its locks are so much on shipbuilders’ minds that they coined the term panamax to describe the largest ships that are able to transit its length. Those measurements will soon be changing, though, because in September 2007 Panama began digging a new, 60% wider channel to parallel the existing canal along its nar­rowest sections, thus allowing transit by larger ships. The larger channel is scheduled to be completed sometime around 2014. Season: Roughly November through April.

THE RETURN OF BIG—AS IF IT EVER WENT AWAY

Get ready for big: Even as the world struggles with its accounts, several of the cruise lines are about to introduce truly unbelievably enormous ships that they ordered when everyone was feeling flush. The average newly built vessel will carry literally twice the number of passengers as the average ship built a decade ago, but several of the biggest will be literally three times the size of a 1990s cruiser, and more than five times the size of the leg­endary Titanic.

Biggest of the big is Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, a 220,000-ton, 5,400- passenger behemoth that’s a full 25% larger than the current heavyweight champs, Royal’s own Freedom and Inde­pendence of the Seas. Debuting just after this book goes to press, she’ll be the first cruise ship ever set up with distinct “neighborhoods” of public rooms and attractions, each offering a very different experience. There will also be an onboard carousel and zipline, and a real park with trees. Oasis indeed.

The other enormo-ship debuting for the 2010 season is NCL’s Norwegian Epic, a 150,000-ton, 4,200-passenger monster that’s shaping up to be nearly as distinctive as Oasis, with the majority of its innovations being in attitude rather than big-ticket attractions (think hipster – oriented budget cabins with mood light­ing, an outdoor nightclub dealie, and the cruise world’s first ice bar).

At the other end of the spectrum, 2010 will be the first full year of service for a couple of much smaller, more refined ves­sels. Ultraluxury line Silversea Cruises will be showing off its 36,000-ton, 540- passenger Silver Spirit—the largest ship in its fleet, but still smaller than anything operated by the American mainstream lines. Ditto for ultraluxury Seabourn, which is debuting its 32,000-ton, 450- passenger Seabourn Odyssey around the time this book goes to press.

FINDING A SHIP IS EASY, BUT WILL YOU CLICK?

Comparing cruise ships and lines is like scanning an online dating site: “Attractive young cruise ship with nice body and good personality seeks friend for dating, possible relationship.” The ship looks good, but we all know how photos can lie. Ditto for the descriptions.

Just like in dating, there are ships that you’ll get along with and ships that you won’t. It’s all a matter of personality. Your dream ship is probably out there, some – where—you just need to figure out what you want. If those huge Vegas-style float­ing resorts advertised on TV aren’t your cup of tea, there are also quiet, refined ships where you’re left to do your own thing, with outstanding service staff standing by in case you need anything— anything at all. Other ships are more like intimate B&Bs, where the vibe is casual, the cabins are cozy, and the focus is all on history, culture, and the outdoors. A few are honest-to-God sailing ships that afford nostalgic adventure.

Chances are there’s a ship out there with your name on it, and as your cruise matchmakers, we’re here to help you wade through the different options and experi­ences and meet the cruise of your dreams. To do this, we’ve divided the cruise lines into three main categories—mainstream lines (chapter 6), ultraluxury lines (chapter 7), and small ships, sailing ships, and adventure cruises (chapter 8)—and developed a rating system that judges them only against other ships in the same category: megaship against megaship, luxe against luxe, small ship against small ship.

THE REAL SCOOP ON CRUISE PRICES

Cruise pricing is really. . . well, dumb. Beyond the fuzzy math that often makes the new ships the cheapest to book, you also have the problem of brochure prices. Check out Brochure X, which lists a weeklong sailing at $1,900 per person for a standard outside cabin. Now click over to your favorite travel agency’s website and you’ll probably see that same cruise going for $699. What gives?

Just like new-car prices, cruise line brochure prices are notoriously inflated—go figure. Generally speaking, you can just ignore brochure rates except when researching the smaller, more niche-oriented cruise lines. That’s what we’ve done in this book: Instead of print­ing unrealistic brochure prices, we’ve partnered with the agency Just Cruisin’ Plus to provide you with the actual prices consumers were paying for cruises aboard all the ships reviewed in this book. Each review shows approximately how much you can expect to pay for an inside cabin (one without windows), an outside cabin (with windows or a balcony), and a small suite.

ALASKA & BRITISH COLUMBIA

Alaska is America’s frontier, a land of mountains, forests, and tundra just remote enough and harsh enough that it remains mythic, even if some of its “frontier” towns have been infiltrated by Starbucks. The main draws here are all things grand: huge gla­ciers flowing down from the mountains, enormous humpback whales leaping from the sea, eagles soaring overhead, and forests that seem to go on forever. Alaska Native culture figures in too, with the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes all holding a con­siderable place in everyday life, from the arts to the business world. Most cruises con­centrate on the Southeast Alaska panhandle (the ancestral home of those three tribes), which stretches from Ketchikan in the south to Yakutat in the north, with British Columbia to the east and the vast reaches of interior Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory to the north. Typical cruises sail either round-trip from Seattle or the nearby Canadian port ofVancouver, or north – or southbound between Vancouver and one of Anchorage’s two main port towns, Seward and Whittier. Both options concen­trate on ports and natural areas along the Southeast’s Inside Passage, the intricate web of waterways that link the region’s thousands of forested islands. Highlights of most itineraries include glaciers (those in famous Glacier Bay or several others), the old prospector town of Skagway, state capital Juneau, and boardwalked Ketchikan in the south. Cruises between Vancouver and Anchorage may also visit natural areas along the Gulf of Alaska, such as College Fjord and Hubbard Glacier. Small-ship cruises frequently visit much smaller towns and wilderness areas on the Inside Passage. Some avoid civilization almost entirely, and a few particularly expeditionary (and expensive) cruises sail far west and north, past the Aleutian Islands and across the Bering Sea to the Russian Far East. Season: Roughly mid-May through mid-September, although some smaller ships start up in late April.

THE MEXICAN RIVIERA & BAJA

The so-called Mexican Riviera is the West Coast’s version of the Caribbean: a string of sunny ports within proximate sailing distance of San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The first stop geographically is Cabo San Lucas, a party-oriented town at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Sea of Cortes on the other. Think beaches, beer, and bikinis, with thatched palapa bars providing some regional character. From there, cruises head southeast to such ports as Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, Acapulco, Ixtapa, and Manzanillo, a stretch famed for white-sand beaches, watersports, deep-sea fishing, and golf, with some history thrown in for good measure. Hernan Cortes blew through the region in the 1520s looking for treasure, and in the 1950s and 1960s, Hollywood did the same, mining the area both for locations and off-camera relaxation. Small-ship lines tend to stick to Baja and the Sea of Cortes, concentrating on the peninsula’s small towns, natural areas, and remarkable whale-watching. These cruises typically sail from Cabo or the state capi­tal, La Paz. Season: The heaviest traffic is October through April, though some ships sail year-round—especially short 3- and 4-night cruises that stop in Cabo or Ense­nada, just south of the U. S./Mexico border. Small ships typically cruise Baja in the winter months only.

BERMUDA

Perhaps the one place in the world where you’ll have a chance to see hundreds of British men’s knees, Bermuda is a beautiful island chain known for its powdery pink – sand beaches (created by pulverized shells and coral over the eons), golf courses, and its sane and friendly manner. The locals really do wear brightly colored Bermuda shorts with jackets, ties, and knee-highs, but don’t feel obligated to join them. The largest ships dock in the west end at the Royal Naval Dockyard, while some smaller vessels call at Hamilton (the capital city) and St. George’s (Bermuda’s quaint former capital). Ships pull alongside piers at all three places, and it only takes minutes to walk into town. There’s plenty to do, too, from shopping in Hamilton for English wool and Irish linens to checking out the many historical sites, which range from the 300-year – old St. Peter’s Church to the impressive nautical exhibits at the Dockyard’s Maritime Museum. Most people, though, head for Bermuda’s many dreamy beaches, which are easily accessible by bus, taxi, or rented motor scooter. To keep things from getting too chaotic, Bermuda limits the number of ships allowed to call there, so there are generally just six ships operating 7-night cruises from New York, Boston, Philadel­phia, Baltimore, and occasionally Norfolk. Season: Late April through early October.

HAWAII

If a place can simultaneously be the number-one honeymoon destination in America and one of the few places to which the Brady Bunch schlepped Alice and the kids, it must have something going for it, right? Think gorgeousness, with an almost embar­rassing richness of stunning beaches, hula girls, and hunky Polynesian men, plus per­fect weather almost all the time, so both locals and visitors stay in a friendly, mellow mood. Learn to surf, go to a luau, snooze on the sand, enjoy the local coffee, or check out the native Hawaiian culture, of which the locals are fiercely proud. The past sur­vives alongside the modern world in a vibrant arts scene, from traditional Polynesian dance and music to painting, sculpture, and crafts. Each island is different, whether it has a fuming volcano or lush jungles and tropical flowers, though crashing surf and serene beaches are everywhere.

Though its presence has lessened over the past 2 years, Norwegian Cruise Line still dominates the Hawaii cruise market, with year-round inter-island service aboard Pride of America. Other lines typically visit the islands in April, May, September, and Octo­ber, on their way between seasons in Alaska and the Caribbean. The four main port calls are to Oahu, with its famous Waikiki beach; Maui, home of historic Lahaina town; the Big Island, where the state’s famous volcanoes reside (including Mauna Kea and the still-active Kilauea); and Kauai, the most natural and undeveloped of the four. Season: Year-round.

The Most Romantic Cruises

Of course, all cruises are romantic when you consider the props they have to work with: the undulating sea all around, moonlit nights on deck, cozy dining and cocktailing, cozy cabins. Here are the best lines for getting you in the mood.

• Star Clippers: With the wind in your hair and sails fluttering overhead, the top decks of the tall-masted Royal Clipper provide a most romantic set­ting. Below decks, the comfy cabins, lounge, and dining room make these ships the most comfortable adventure on the sea. See p. 356.

• Cunard: Like real royalty, Queen Mary 2 was born with certain duties attendant to her station, and one of the biggest is to embody the romance of transatlantic travel and bring it into the new century. Take a stroll around that promenade deck, dine in that fabulous dining room, and thrill to be out in the middle of the ocean on nearly a billion dollars’ worth of Atlantic thoroughbred. See p. 154.

• SeaDream Yacht Club SeaDream I

and II: With comfy Balinese daybeds lining the teak decks, champagne flowing freely, and toys like MP3 players and high-powered binoculars at your fingertips, these 110-passen­ger playboy yachts spell romance for the spoiled sailing set. See p. 303.

• Windstar Cruises: Windstar’s tall – masted Wind Surf and Wind Spirit offer a truly unique cruise experience, giving passengers the delicious illu­sion of adventure and the ever-pleas – ant reality of great cuisine, service, and itineraries. See p. 363 and 365.

• Sea Cloud Cruises: Really, when it comes right down to it, what setting is more movie-star romantic than a zillionaire’s sailing yacht? That’s what you get with Sea Cloud, once owned by Edward F. Hutton and Marjorie Merriweather Post, with some cabins retaining their original grandeur. See p. 350.