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Picking a cruise: It's becoming a shore thing

Email|Print| Text size + By Judi Dash
Globe Correspondent / January 25, 2004

When I was a child, my parents returned from their annual cruise vacation fat, stiff, and lethargic.

What else could they expect from seven days of stuffing their bellies, lying prone on deck chaises, and using their minds for nothing more taxing than selecting a dinner wine and bartering for coconut monkey sculptures and garish straw hats at pier-side markets?

Cruising had changed for the better by the time I was old enough to test my sea legs. Many ships had healthier dining options and invigorating onboard amenities such as rock-climbing walls, miniature golf courses, mammoth gyms, and even ice skating rinks.

This year sees another evolution in the cruising experience. Cruise lines are going for the wow factor in activities off the ship as much as they have with those on board. Innovative excursions at ports in the United States and abroad flex the mind and challenge the body in ways my folks never would have imagined back when they were waddling their way through the midnight buffet.

How cool are these new excursions?

How about a camel ride along the slopes of a volcano in Spain's Canary Islands?

Or an evening of movies under the stars on a tiny deserted islet in Tahiti, where the screen is suspended between two palm trees, and the crew serves popcorn and crepes filled with ice cream?

Or dinner at the royal residence of a maharajah in India?

Or private catered beach picnics for couples in the Caribbean?

Ships are arranging cooking classes in Hong Kong; champagne receptions aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia in Scotland; jeep convoys through the vast pink-colored sands of Jordan's Wadi Rum -- where Lawrence of Arabia once rode; family treasure hunts through giant 7-foot-high mazes cut through vast Iowa cornfields; horseback riding adventures just for teens through Mexico's Mayan ruins; and "power" snorkels in St. Martin using a James Bond-esque motorized underwater scooter with an attached plastic bubble that fits over the head for breathing.

The surge in dynamic shore excursions is part of cruise lines' bid to attract younger, more sophisticated, and more adventurous travelers (and often, their families), and to compete aggressively with land-based vacations.

"Ingenious port programs go hand in hand with all the other ways ships are trying to be irresistible vacation choices, especially to baby boomers, who have grown up with a little bit of everything in a time of plenty," said Robert Sharak, executive director of Cruise Lines International Association, a trade association representing most of the big cruise lines.

"The operative word is choice, whether that's a variety of innovative onboard activities, dining options and entertainment, or port adventures as exciting as any of those available on land-based trips."

Among the most ambitious new shore excursions are multi-day programs that take passengers off the ship and deeper into the life of the destination (participants catch up with the ship at a port farther along the route), and exclusive land events that smaller luxury ships are offering to everyone on board, often at no extra charge. Fees for excursions that come with a price tag can range from about $50 for guided cycling trips to more than $100 for cultural events, such as ballet and opera performances, and thousands of dollars for multi-day jaunts off the ship.

Complimentary excursionsBora Bora Cruises' 230-foot cruise yachts Tu Moana and Tia Moana ply the shallow, calm lagoons of Bora Bora and neighboring islands in French Polynesia. The 70 passengers are like a family and the family get to do some pretty enchanting things, all included in the fare price, on seven-night cruises. In addition to those movies on that deserted islet, passengers are invited to a breakfast in a lagoon, where, ankle-deep in warm, turquoise water, they sit at white-linen-set tables, dining on eggs and pastries, island fruits, and French champagne. On the island of Huahine, everyone explores villages and the countryside on a guided bike tour, riding amid lush gardens, fruit plantations, and archeological sites.

Clipper Cruise Line is honoring the 60th anniversary of D-Day with May and June sailings that showcase some of the striking memorials to the D-Day landings along France's Normandy coast. Passengers aboard the 122-passenger Clipper Adventurer can join complimentary excursions to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach, the Dynamo Museum in Dunkirk, and, after riding the Eurostar train under the English Channel, the Churchill Cabinet war rooms and Imperial War Museum in London.

Meanwhile, on domestic turf, six-day California wine country cruises aboard the 138-passenger Yorktown Clipper during April, May, and October will include a wine reception at the acclaimed California-French restaurant Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, dinner at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, a feast aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train, and a hot air balloon excursion over the hills and vineyards of the Napa Valley.

Seabourn Cruise Line hosts a private reception aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia when the Seabourn Pride calls at Leith (the port for Edinburgh). And Silversea Cruises will spring for a grand ball at the Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg during a July sailing aboard the Silver Cloud, and a salmon bake on Juneau's Mendenhall Glacier when the Silver Shadow sails in Alaska in July.

Multi-day outingWhen the Star Princess calls at Cochin, India, this spring, passengers will have an opportunity to take (at $1,799 per person) a three-day overland excursion to Jaipur, known as the "Pink City" for the color of its architecture. The trip includes an elephant ride up a winding pathway to the dramatic Amber Fort and a private dinner at the Maharajah of Jaipur's royal residence.

Family fareDelta Queen Steamboat Co.'s paddle wheelers are mainly known for entertaining older folks on lazy jaunts along the Mississippi River. But many of those seniors are grandparents who want to bring their grandchildren along. In June, the company will debut Riverbonding voyages aboard the Mississippi Queen and American Queen, which will have special family shore excursions (with group discounts). There's a treasure hunt through a 7-foot-high maze in Davenport, Iowa, and, in New Orleans, a swamp tour, Cajun dancing, and an exploration of Laura Plantation through the eyes of the children who lived there -- via stories from memoirs and recollections of the family.

Carnival Cruise Lines has beefed up its teen (ages 12-15) program with a choice of three teenagers-only shore excursions per port on Caribbean sailings. Among some attractive options are cave tubing (in inner tubes) down Belize's Sibun River through dense rain forest and alongside craggy rock formations ($68), and, in Cozumel, a horseback excursion through the Mexican jungle and into the tropical savanna ($70).

Disney Cruise Line excursions especially for teens (13-17) include an evening party boat ride around Nassau/Paradise Island harbor, with music, snacks, and nonalcoholic drinks ($25); and a four-hour biking, snorkeling, and sea kayaking excursion around Castaway Cay, Disney's private Bahamian island ($35).

Lovers only As if simply being on a Windstar masted-sail-yacht weren't romantic enough, the line has instituted a new Romance Under Sail Program, with some 36 shore excursions specifically designed for couples. Among the cuddly offerings: catered beach picnics in the Caribbean with local musicians serenading ($250 a couple); and, in Bora Bora, an overnight stay at the Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort, with lodgings in your own over-water bungalow and with room service dinner ($1,230).

Above and Beyond, which books group cruises for gay clients on regularly scheduled itineraries, will offer a group wedding in Victoria, British Columbia, during an August Crystal Harmony Alaska cruise round-trip from San Francisco. Prices for the ceremonies have not yet been determined.

Judi Dash is a freelance writer who lives in Beachwood, Ohio.

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