Sue Bryant, The Daily Telegraph, September 19, 2013
Whether it’s a glittering after-hours party hosted in the Gothic splendour of a medieval palace or a sunrise meditation at a Burmese temple, a cruise holiday can create the most unexpected opportunities. Gone are the uninspiring, snooze-inducing coach tours of yesteryear. Now, time spent in port is all about destination experiences, not just sightseeing, and cruise lines are opening the doors to learning, tasting, volunteering and gaining exclusive or out-of-hours access to off-limits or difficult-to-visit places, from gardens and galleries to military institutions. Many of the tours on offer would be unavailable to individuals, or simply too complex to arrange independently.
While some come at a price, these experiences needn’t cost the earth, and most cruise lines include them in the fare. Here’s a selection for the year ahead. (All cruise prices include flights and excursions unless otherwise stated).
1. Catch king crab in Ketchikan
Spend a day with a commercial fishing crew on board the Aleutian Ballad, the boat that was famously capsized by a 60ft wave in the fearsome Bering Sea during the filming of the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch series.
Nowadays, the crab-fishing vessel is based in the Alaskan port of Ketchikan, from where it sails among the forested islands of the Inside Passage. The catch of the day is likely to include the menacing-looking (but delicious) king crab, as well as giant octopus, sharks, starfish and eels, hauled up by crew from long lines, barrel pots and giant 700lb king-crab pots. Bald eagles swoop low for fish and you may spot whales, dolphins and otters. Almost as enjoyable are the crew stories, of perfect storms, near-death experiences and the hardships of a fisherman’s life.
The details Holland America Line (0843 374 2300; hollandamerica.com ) offers a seven-night cruise from £1,639 per person, departing on April 30 2014. The excursion costs $170 (£107).
2. Sculpt a “masterpiece” in Tallinn
Filled with art galleries and studios, the medieval streets of Tallinn are home to a vibrant art scene. In this new tour from Celebrity Cruises, passengers inclined towards arts and crafts can spend a day in a sculptor’s atelier, creating their own statue from clay under the tutelage of one of Estonia’s top contemporary artists. A live model poses obligingly for would-be Rodins, though no experience is required. After the class, Estonian snacks and drinks are served in the gallery next door while works of art bake in the kiln , ready to be taken back to the ship.
The details Celebrity Cruises (0845 456 0523; celebritycruises.co.uk ) offers a 12-night Scandinavia and Russia cruise, round-trip from Amsterdam. From £1,378 per person departing on May 9 2014. The excursion costs from $449 (£282).
3. Kick up your heels in South Carolina
On each of its voyages, Azamara Club Cruises takes over an unusual venue for a party ashore – what it calls an Azamazing Evening. For this one, it has secured exclusive use of the large flight deck of the Second World War aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (now a military museum) in Charleston, South Carolina, for a night of jazz, cocktails, canapés and dancing. With all 694 guests on board invited to the party, against a backdrop of the city’s skyline and harbour, the event should be nothing short of spectacular.
The details Azamara Club Cruises (0844 493 4016; azamaraclubcruises.co.uk ) offers a 12-night Colonial South and Caribbean voyage from £2,752 per person, departing on December 8 2013.
4. The Asian tsunami remembered
The Sumatran city of Banda Aceh has been slowly rebuilt since it was hit by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. On a half-day trip, visitors can tour the tsunami museum. More memorable for its architecture than its exhibits, it is entered via two “walls of water” designed to echo the sound of the tsunami, and at the education centre visitors can learn about the disaster via photographs and video footage.
Elsewhere, more sobering evidence of the wave’s phenomenal power is laid bare by a 250ft-long ship that was carried miles inland, and left in situ as a stark reminder of the disaster.
The details Noble Caledonia (020 7752 0000; noble-caledonia.co.uk ) offers an 11-night Hidden Sumatra cruise from £5,095 per person, departing on February 1 2014.
5. Paddle a kayak in the Arctic
Embark on a gentle paddle by kayak through the pristine waters around Tromsø, Norway’s northernmost city, for a close-up glimpse of the seals and eagles that populate the uninhabited shoreline. This guided tour, past a starkly beautiful backdrop of mountains and sparsely wooded tundra, is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in nature and enjoy the sense of solitude. Keep your eyes peeled for intricate rock formations and colourful vegetation ranging from purple heathers to burnt-orange lichens and scarlet seaweeds.
The details Hurtigruten (0844 448 7601; hurtigruten.co.uk ) offers a 12-day Classic Round Voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes from £2,112 per person, departing on June 6 2014. The excursion costs £129.
6. Salute the sunrise
If ever a destination lent itself to pursuits of a spiritual nature, it is the ancient, temple-strewn plain of Bagan. The new luxury river cruiser Sanctuary Ananda will sail the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers in Burma (Myanmar) from December 2014 with a yoga and meditation teacher joining every voyage. Rising before dawn, passengers will, under the teacher’s guidance, climb one of the area’s striking 13th-century temples for a sunrise meditation as the first rays strike the ancient stone.
The details Sanctuary Retreats (020 7190 7728; sanctuaryretreats.com ) offers a seven-night round-trip Mandalay cruise from $2,128 (£1,337) per person (flights extra), departing on March 21, 2015.
A beginner's guide to Burma
7. Take a rooftop hike
There is something Potter-esque about the idea of being whisked to the top of Stockholm’s Old Parliament building. Rather than flying, participants take a lift to the attic steps leading up to the roof. From there they get a fresh perspective on the Swedish capital from 141ft up, enjoying 360-degree views across the historic Gamla Stan to eight of the 14 islands on which the water-hemmed city was built. Reach out and almost touch the spire of Riddarholmen church, built by the Franciscan monks and the final resting place of Swedish monarchs.
The details P & O Cruises (0843 374 0111; pocruises.com ) offers a 14-night Russia, Germany and Scandinavia cruise from £1,529 per person, departing on June 29 2014. The excursion costs £95.
8. Step into a Garden of Eden
Join a select group on a visit to the inspiring Botanical Ark, a private oasis in the tropical rainforest region of north Queensland. Travelling the world to collect samples of plants used by indigenous cultures for food, spices, shelter, medicine, cosmetics and dyes, the conservationists Alan and Susan Carle have made it their mission to educate visitors about the vital link between humans and plants. An inspiring collection of more than 3,000 species, on display in the Carles’s own backyard, has garnered numerous awards, and by special arrangement Crystal Cruises has gained access for a limited number of its passengers.
The details Crystal Cruises (020 7399 7601; crystalcruises.co.uk ) offers a 12-night Barrier Reef-to-Bali cruise from £2,082 per person, departing on February 16 2014. The excursion costs $426 (£268).
9. Dine in Gothic splendour
See Avignon’s imposing Palais des Papes, the world’s largest Gothic palace and one of France’s most visited monuments, on a private after-hours tour. Once the doors are closed to the public, cruise guests sit down to dinner and a classical music recital in one of the building’s lavish banqueting halls. Scenic Tours offers one of these exclusive events ashore on each of its European cruises, giving passengers privileged access to some exquisite castles and historic monuments. The ship overnights in Avignon, so there’s time to admire the floodlit walls, spires and towers after dinner and, on a balmy summer’s night, to wander through the streets before heading the short distance back to the Rhône river.
The details Scenic Tours (0800 270 7186; scenictours.co.uk ) offers a 12-night Splendours of Southern France cruise from £3,745 per person, departing between March and November 2014.
10. In from the cold
One of the most thrilling insights into the modern history of the Black Sea is open to the public in a setting straight from a Bond movie. During the Soviet era, what is now Balaklava’s Naval Museum served as a secret underground repair facility for nuclear submarines. Most of the population of Balaklava worked at the base at one time or other, but could not discuss it on pain of death.
Hidden from the outside world, the base lies deep inside a hillside flanking the town’s protected harbour, and is accessed by a network of secret canals running through an underground cave to a dank, dimly lit pen and dry dock capable of holding up to nine subs. The only thing missing, in fact, is a submarine.
The details Voyages to Antiquity (0845 437 9737; voyagestoantiquity.com ) offers a 13-night Black Sea voyage round-trip from Istanbul from £2,575 per person, in July, August and October 2014.
11. A taste for Argentina
Once you have exhausted the gamut of city sights, head off with an expert chef to Buenos Aires’ San Telmo market, where local foodies forage for herbs and spices, fruit and vegetables, cheeses and strings of chorizo infused with paprika. Sample the local codfish fritters, then move on to the Havanna Café for a cookery class that will shatter the preconception that Argentine cuisine revolves around red meat. Master the art (and it is an art) of making traditional empanadas and spicy chimichurri – a coriander-based sauce for grilled meats – before enjoying the fruits of your labour at lunch. On the way back to the ship there’s a stop at the Volta ice cream shop for a cup of the acclaimed dulce de leche (think, gooey, caramelised milk).
The details Oceania Cruises (0845 505 1920; oceaniacruises.com ) offers a 20-night Rio-to-Valparaiso cruise from £4,071 per person, departing on December 8 2013. The excursion costs £157.
12. Swim with sea lions
Don wetsuit, mask and snorkel and plunge into a melee of excitable sea lions at Los Islotes, a desolate rock cluster in Mexico’s Sea of Cortés that serves as the mammals’ southernmost breeding ground. The ship anchors nearby and swimmers are taken to the rocks on small boats, accompanied by experienced guides. Treat the sea lions as large, playful aquatic “puppies” and be prepared to be nipped, jostled and nudged as the juveniles show off, mock-charging underwater, seizing mouthfuls of fish, leaping like dolphins and even clambering on to the dive boat. Remember to bring a waterproof camera.
The details Mundy Adventures (020 7399 7630; mundyadventures.co.uk ) offers a 10-night Baja’s Whale Bounty cruise round-trip from San José del Cabo from £2,795 per person departing on March 28 2014.
13. Teaching English in China
Since 2003, Viking River Cruises has sponsored a primary school in the city of Jingzhou on the banks of the wide Yangtze River.
The project has now expanded to three schools, bringing much-needed education to thousands of local children. Guests on Viking’s Yangtze cruises have an opportunity to visit one of the schools, where they can help the children with their English lessons and watch a performance of traditional song and dance, which, the teachers say, helps to instill confidence. In turn, visitors come away touched and inspired by the enthusiastic reception from the children and this brief insight into daily life in China.
The details Viking River Cruises (0808 231 3889; vikingrivercruises.co.uk ) offers a 12-night Imperial Jewels of China cruise from £2,645 per person, departing on February 27 2014.
14. Shackled to Ole Miss
Cruises along the mighty Mississippi conjure images of steamboats, jazz and antebellum architecture, but the American Queen Steamboat Company offers an insight into the darker side of the Deep South with a tour to a maximum-security prison followed by a spine-tingling exploration of one of America’s most haunted houses.
On the Mystery, Mansions and Mayhem tour passengers visit Angola, a former plantation and now the premises of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, home to 5,000 inmates. They see the working farm, museum, offender housing units and incongruously, the arena where an annual prison rodeo is held. Then it’s on to the 18th-century Myrtles Plantation, a grand old mansion with several resident spirits, including Chloe, a slave who was hanged for murder and apparently has a penchant for stealing women’s earrings.
The details The American Queen Steamboat Company (001 888 749 5280; americanqueensteamboatcompany.com ) offers eight-night cruises between Memphis and New Orleans from $6,099 (£3,837) per person (flights extra), departing between November and June. The excursion costs $59 (£37) .
15. It’s a breeze by Harley
Cruise the backroads of Grand Bahama island on a gleaming Harley-Davidson, stopping at scenic beaches and sleepy villages for an impression of island life far removed from the busy commercial area of Freeport. No experience is required; anybody with a motorcycle licence can drive a bike, with the less confident riding pillion. A local guide leads the expedition.
The details Carnival Cruise Line (0845 351 0556; carnival.co.uk ) offers a four-day round-trip Bahamas cruise departing from Port Canaveral, Florida, from £179 per person (flights extra), with weekly departures in 2014. The excursion costs $149.99 (£94).
16. Truffle hunting in Croatia
Head off from the port of Rovinj with a local truffle hunter to learn about an age-old delicacy that is indigenous to Istria – and worth more per ounce than gold. The tour takes visitors into the Motovun forest accompanied by carefully trained truffle dogs in search of both black and white truffles. Regardless of whether the dogs unearth any of the priceless fungi (and even if they do, you can’t take the goods home), the expedition is followed by a truffle cookery class and a local wine tasting, with truffle-scented cheese, honey and pâté.
The details Paul Gauguin Cruises (020 7399 7691; pgcruises.com ) offers a seven-night cruise round-trip from Venice, from £3,468 per person departing on May 10 2014. The excursion costs $249 (£157) .
17. Mark the D-Day anniversary
Next year will see several river cruise companies operating on the Seine offering special Normandy Beaches tours to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. A new excursion with a French-owned river-cruise line, CroisiEurope, introduced specially for next year, visits Omaha Beach, Colleville-sur-Mer and the nearby American cemetery, as well as the infamous battlefield at Arromanches and Mulberry harbour, created by the British as a temporary landing jetty. Guests will then have an opportunity to watch the film The Price of Liberty, which combines archival footage of war correspondents during June 1944.
The details CroisiEurope (020 8328 1281; croisieurope.travel ) offers a five-day cruise from Paris to Honfleur from €650 (£546) per person (flights extra), with departures from April to October. The excursion costs €93 (£78).
Great battlefield tours
18. Spot crocs by moonlight
Venture into the Amazonian rainforest by small, flat-bottomed skiff as the sun sets and the shrieking of howler monkeys gives way to the warbling of frogs and the trilling of cicadas. After sunset, as the skiff makes its way back to its mother ship, the luxurious river cruiser M/V Aqua, the crew shines beams of light across the inky water in the hope of spotting huge caiman (South America’s answer to the alligator) as well as jungle animals prowling on the banks, including the elusive jaguar.
The details Aqua Expeditions (00 51 6560 1053; aquaexpeditions.com ) offers a seven-night voyage along the Peruvian Amazon from $6,265 (£3,942) per person (flights extra), departing on December 28 2013.
The Amazon: Trip of a Lifetime
19. Fly over the Bungle Bungles
The unexplored Kimberley coast in north-western Australia is a place of primeval forest, towering red cliffs, deep gorges and vertiginous waterfalls. The interior is so inaccessible that the curious Bungle Bungles, an ancient range of fire-red hills shaped like domed beehives, were only “discovered” by European Australians in 1983 when an aerial television crew happened upon them. One of the highlights of Orion Expedition Cruises’ Kimberley voyage is a two-hour sightseeing flight over this extraordinary natural phenomenon, skimming over vast expanses of cattle-ranching country en routeto the Purnululu National Park, where vast plains give way to these bizarre wind-sculpted rock formations.
The details Orion Expeditions (00 61 2 9033 8777; orionexpeditions.com ) offers 10-night voyages between Darwin and Broome from £5,175 (flights extra), with departures between April and June. The excursion is included in the price.
20. Barbados through the lens
See Barbados through the eyes of a local, in this case the photographer Ronnie Carrington, who has chronicled island life for a quarter of a century. Ronnie takes a small group and their cameras off the island’s main roads and through sugar-cane fields to shoot some of his favourite locations, from the wild, surf-tumbled Atlantic beaches of the east coast to brightly painted rum shops and tiny, wooden chattel houses.
The details Princess Cruises (0843 373 0333; princess.com ) offers a 10-day Eastern Caribbean Voyager cruise from Fort Lauderdale from £1,378 per person departing on March 29 2014. The excursion costs $65 (£41).
Barbados travel guide
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