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The Best New Shore Tours of 2009

These days, shore excursions seem to involve more screaming than they used to. Now I’m no girly girl, but on some recent cruises, my lungs got a good workout. I screamed as I sped down a zip-line in Ketchikan, high up in the trees with my feet dangling helplessly in midair. I shrieked as I jumped into a frigid pool in a Mexican cave, hoping I would neither develop hypothermia nor spear myself with a stalactite. I hollered with joy as my 4X4 jeep careened wildly, splashing mud and water everywhere, and I probably let out a tiny squeak of fear as a not-so-big propeller plane took to the air, bringing me and a select group of tourists from Punta Arenas to Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park.

Certainly there are still plenty of shore excursions that don’t raise your heart rate to quite those levels. After all, relaxation is as much a part of cruising as excitement is. But today’s cruise line executives are increasingly doing away with staples like standard bus tours and booze cruises and replacing them with innovative and unique excursion opportunities—guaranteed to stimulate your body and mind, show you destinations in a new light and provide the maximum amount of fun.

Some of these innovations have grown, along with new developments in itineraries and onboard programming. The growing popularity of longer cruises to exotic locations—like Asia, Australia and New Zealand, South America, and even Europe’s Baltic Sea—allow shore-tour planners to consider overnight tours and adventures, such as visits to penguin rookeries in Patagonia and river boat rides across the Arctic Circle. These types of offerings are unique to very foreign destinations. And as passengers respond enthusiastically to new onboard programs focused on health, cooking, and education, a natural next step is to take this programming ashore with local cooking classes or expert-led tours of historic sites.

Cruising demographics also have had a hand in dictating the shore excursion evolution. As the cliched, overfed and nearly dead cruisers of the past are being replaced by multigenerational families, young couples, and active seniors, cruise lines are searching for excursions that will appeal to an array of tastes, activity and travel experience levels, and ages. The rise in adventure tours—featuring 4×4’s, zip-lines, jetboats, and more—is one direct result of cruise passengers getting younger and older travelers becoming more active.

As ships grow larger and more people cruise, some travelers are looking for any vacation component they can tag as exclusive, unique, and separate from the traveling hoards. Holland America has responded to this demand by creating new categories of shore tours: Signature Collection for independent touring in private vehicles and Medallion Collection for elite small-group activities. Luxury lines like Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, and Silversea will even create customized, private tours for guests wishing for a truly unique experience.

The best of yesteryear’s shore tours are certainly here to stay: beach breaks, snorkel trips, and city highlights tours will always be popular. But, if you’re looking for something unique or exclusive, active or educational, you can now find pretty much any trip you can dream up in your cruise lines’ shore tour brochure. Interested? Here are the hottest trends in shore excursions from mainstream, premium, and luxury lines.

Active Tours

Thirsting for an adrenaline rush? You can book a trek across a glacier in Juneau, swing through a Jamaican jungle on a zip-line, go sea kayaking in St. Lucia, tour Copenhagen by bicycle or rollerblades, or snorkel, snuba, or scuba along a coral reef in Grand Cayman. Across the board, cruise lines—from mainstream to luxury—are upping the ante with increasingly active tours. Lines are finding that age doesn’t matter. It’s equally possible that a 10-year-old kid and a 65-year-old retiree will be telling you to hurry up so they can take their turn rapelling.

Where you’ll find them: Alaska, Mexico, and the Caribbean are the quintessential spots for active tours. In the Mediterranean and Baltic, look for more walking tours or sightseeing tours via bike, kayak, or ATV.

Truly cutting-edge: Royal Caribbean has paired active excursions with spa treatments as part of its Vitality at Sea program. When you book your tour, you’ll get a coupon for a discounted spa treatment so you can relax in style after a hard day of play ashore.

In-Depth Tours

Another take on the active tour is the in-depth day-long tour. Many luxury lines report that their younger guests are willing to exhaust themselves on full-day excursions if it means they get more time at major attractions. Regent offers a 13-hour Jewish Berlin and Libeskind Museum tour out of Warnemunde, and Oceania has a thorough 12-hour Hanoi city tour.

Where you’ll find them: Europe is a great destination, but you may also find in-depth tours in exotic places like South America and Asia.

Truly cutting-edge: Any tour involving a plane in addition to a tour bus. Crystal and Silversea offer a one-day visit to Torres del Paine National Park from Punta Arenas, Chile (including a 40-minute flight to Puerto Natales). Seabourn features an all-day tour of Moscow, which involves a one-hour plane ride each way to and from St. Petersburg, where your ship is docked.

Boutique Tours

Boutique tours, which I define as small-group outings, come in three varieties. The first involves exclusive or once-in-a-lifetime activities that cruisers (often luxury cruisers, who want bragging rights) are willing to spend more money on. These tours might involve flying on a fighter jet, going behind-the-scenes to the restoration room at St. Petersburg’s Hermitage or cooking a meal with the chef—and then dining—at an exclusive restaurant. These tours are generally limited in number and pricier than regular tours.

The second type is a niche tour, where the experience isn’t over-the-top original, but may only have appeal for a certain type of traveler. Again, these tours will have limited space, due to their narrow appeal. Royal Caribbean, for example, offers a seafood cooking class in Astoria and a glassblowing workshop in Skagway.

The last type of boutique tour is aimed at the traveler who has been to the destination before and already has done the highlight activities. These excursions might offer a new or off-the-beaten-path view of a city or region or present a new twist on an old tour. Holland America’s Encore Collection excursions embody this idea. One example would be its OffBeat Haines tour on Alaska itineraries. This takes passengers to less-visited attractions, such as the Hammer Museum, Extreme Dreams Art Studio, and Dalton City (created for the filming of White Fang). Other possibilities include tours of lesser-known palaces, a meal with a local family or even an active tour in a city better known for its cultural or sightseeing activities.

Where you’ll find them: You’ll find boutique tours in most popular cruise regions, but especially in Alaska and Europe.

Truly cutting-edge: Crystal takes niche tours to the extreme with flights in fighter jets, cruises on private yachts, and races in Porsches.

Private Tours

Every group tour—no matter how good—has that one person you grow to hate. You know, the one who delays the entire group because he or she was buying ice cream, taking a zillion photos, or looking for a bathroom two minutes before the bus is scheduled to depart.

Cruise lines understand that group tours don’t sit well with everyone and are increasingly willing to help. Recognizing passenger interest in private guides, many cruise lines are now letting you arrange a car and driver through their shore desks. Your car will arrive at the port with a driver-guide or both a driver and a guide, saving you the hassle of searching the Message Boards on our sister site Cruise Critic or Internet for tour guide recommendations. You’ll dictate the schedule (with a personal guide to give suggestions and information), and the only person you’ll have to wait for is your spouse, kids, or chosen traveling companions.

Where you’ll find them: Alaska and Europe are the most popular spots for private tours.

Truly cutting-edge: Norwegian Cruise Line has taken the private tour to new heights. Forget the car or minivan—you can tour Alaska in your own catamaran, chauffeur-driven Hummer, or Alaskan skiff.

Tours as Part of Onboard Enrichment Programs

Cruise passengers are beginning to discover that learning on vacation is way more fun than school ever was. In Holland America’s Culinary Arts Center, you can watch talented (and often good-looking!) chefs whip up delectable dishes while sharing witty repartee. Through Crystal’s Creative Learning Institute, you can learn to play piano on a Yamaha keyboard (without Mom yelling at you to keep practicing) or listen to health seminars by bigwigs at the Cleveland Clinic. The enrichment programs are proving so popular onboard that cruise lines are now finding ways to takes these educational programs ashore.

What’s been an oddity, however, is that these bountiful enrichment programs often are completely detached from the region that’s cruised. A few lines blend onboard enrichment with onshore tours, but they’re still in the minority at this point. (Regent Seven Seas Cruises is really the only line committed to this in a major way.)

In this case, an art and architecture cruise might combine sea-day lectures with land tours, guided by experts in the field, or behind-the-scenes visits to a museum. A culinary cruise may offer a cooking class at an onshore culinary school or a market tour with a chef. In this way, the line can relate its enrichment program to the regions visited on the cruise. You’ll find these enrichment programs mostly on luxury lines. Mainstream and premium lines are definitely interested in following suit, but still need to work out how to handle their much larger numbers of passengers.

Where you’ll find them: around the world, including Europe, Alaska, Tahiti, and Africa.

Truly cutting-edge: Regent Seven Seas’ Circles of Interest is clearly ahead of the game with a variety of theme cruises and tours throughout the year. A photography cruise features an African safari with an expert photographer on hand; a food and wine cruise includes a winery tour and an exclusive lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant near Naples; and environmental programs in Alaska and Tahiti teach kids about the environment through a variety of onshore eco-tours.

Overnight Excursions

One of the biggest limitations of a cruise vacation is that cruisers can only visit destinations on or near large bodies of water. But, in many regions of the world, some of the most fantastic and iconic sights are inland and impossible to visit in a nine-hour port call. That’s why many cruise lines are getting inventive and offering overnight (and often overland) excursions in destinations such as Asia, South America, and Africa. These longer-than-average excursions either take place when a ship is overnighting in port or on a sea day between two port days (with passengers leaving the ship in one port and re-boarding in the next). An overnight tour from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam may take passengers to the temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or from Aqaba, Jordan to the ancient city of Petra (pictured). Other typical overnights include multi-day trips to see the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, Great Pyramids, or Moscow.

Where you’ll find them: Most overnight excursions take place on exotic, longer voyages in South America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Australia. Some lines do offer multi-day tours in Europe, most notably from St. Petersburg.

Truly cutting-edge: Crystal leads the pack in overnight tours, especially with its larger-than-average number of multi-day excursions in Europe. Its 14 Overland Adventures on the continent include a Ferrari tour of Florence and Pisa, combined with a stay at a five-star spa resort; a trip to Pamplona to see the Running of the Bulls; and a two-night visit to the ancient sites of Ephesus and Cappadocia. A new three-night tour in Asia to Shanghai, Dalian, and Xi’an, China, lets guests scale Mt. Huashan’s South Peak or climb the precipitous “Heaven Stairs” to reach a temple built into the side of the mountain’s West Peak.

Concierge Services

Not finding anything of interest on your cruise line’s excursion list? Are you particularly interested in arranging an exclusive, once-in-a-lifetime event in port? Or do you just want help in planning the perfect day onshore? Not to worry—lines like Crystal, Regent, Seabourn, and Silversea now have concierges who will help you plan the excursion of your dreams. Examples of past tours put together by these lines’ concierge services include a birthday party atop the Rock of Gibraltar, a tour of Italian wineries in a private Mercedes, an afternoon of skiing in the Alps (with private jet transfers to and from the ship), and a special spa treatment at a Finnish spa where guests are nearly frozen in order to treat a number of ailments.

Where you’ll find them: Anywhere your heart desires (and your wallet can afford).

Truly cutting-edge: Seabourn and Silversea include their concierge services in the price of the cruise, as part of their truly all-inclusive policies. These lines only charge passengers the actual price of the excursion and do not tack on a service fee.

Stay Tuned For ….

In talking with the cruise lines, we also came across some up-and-coming trends that haven’t yet realized their true potential. Here are a few trends in shore excursions to look for down the road:

Family tours: As more parents begin taking their children on cruises to Alaska, Europe, and other exotic destinations, look for cruise lines to find ways to make shore tours as kid-friendly as the onboard kids’ clubs. From what we’ve heard, tours marked kid-friendly haven’t worked in the past because they discourage other travelers from signing up. The lines need to get creative to come up with tours that can be enjoyed by kids and other passengers, too.

Do-gooder tours: There’s a growing interest in shore excursions with environmentally friendly or philanthropic bents; however, the lines haven’t quite figured out how to turn volunteerism into entertainment. In 2008, Cruise West guests had the opportunity to volunteer at the La Paz Children’s House on the last day of a Mexico cruise, and cruisers on John Heald’s 2009 Bloggers Cruise can do a pre-cruise community service stint, which involves cleaning up a New Orleans neighborhood that is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

Caribbean cultural tours: I’m used to cultural tours in Alaska and Europe, but the Caribbean has always been the place for more fun-in-the-sun excursions. The cruise lines are just now beginning to introduce more cultural tours in the area, especially as they increase calls to Central American ports with interesting histories. For example, Royal Caribbean offers an excursion to the Maya Palaces of Cahal Pech in Belize, where participants can learn about ancient Maya cultures and explore the ruins of their temples and palaces. And Celebrity runs a tour out of Colon, Panama, where guests can visit an Embera Indian village and learn about one of the native cultures of Panama.

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