Since my first cruise in 1982 I have seen the world by cruise ship. As a crew member for Royal Viking Line) my first journey was from Bora Bora to Bergen (Norway). When I include river cruises I can add world-class cities like Moscow, Vienna, Paris and Shanghai. Here are eight of my most memorable cruise experiences.
- The Caribbean Sea
From Florida to South America, hundreds of Caribbean islands feature lush coral reefs teaming with sea life. I am not a certified SCUBA diver, but “resort dives” start with a two-hour class in a swimming pool and end with a real ocean dive with a certified instructor the same day.
I also recommend the tourist submarines that descend to 150 feet. Visit sea turtles, octopi, piper fish, flounders, eels, angel fish, barracuda and even ship wrecks – without getting wet. Submarine tours are now common and cost about $100 per person for 1 hour.
- Alaska Whale Watching
Whales thrive in Alaska – sightings are guaranteed on tour boats small enough to locate and follow them. I have seen 20-ton whales breaching completely out of the water, landing with a splashy belly flop. I have seen the blowhole of humpback and felt its fishy spray.
But my best sighting was a pod of “bubble-feeding” humpbacks (a dozen or so) trapping entire schools of fish on the surface for feeding. First they blow a air “bubble net” to trap the fish in deep water. Then they gather below to follow them to the surface as the bubbles rise. When the fish all converge on the ocean surface, the whales emerge with their jaws wide open to catch them by the mouthful. Then they turn like a whale water ballet and wave goodbye with their fluted tails.
- St. Petersburg, Russia
The largest Baltic seaport city in Russia was the final home of the Romanovs and the birthplace of the Communism. St. Petersburg has imperial palaces, onion-dome churches, world-class art, spectacular ballet, Khrushchev apartments and every other intrigue that defines the Russian enigma. Most ships stay for two or three days.
From the Minoans of Crete to the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, the Mediterranean Sea is the heart of world history. Ephesus, on the southwest coast of Turkey, is one of the best preserved cities of antiquity. Founded in 1000 BC, its Temple of Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It thrived under Roman control in the first century B.C. and was later pivotal in defining early Christianity. There is a small house reputed to be the former home of Mother Mary in later life.
There is only one Venice, and it is in Italy. From the canals and gondolas to the glasswork of Murano and the world’s oldest sidewalk cafe, Caffé Florian, in operation since 1720. Many cruises begin or end in Venice and visiting the city is spectacular. But the highlight is the view from the ship as you sail alongside the entire city on approach from the sea.
The mostly volcanic Pacific islands are younger than Caribbean islands, so most have jagged mountains and are surrounded by tiny islands, called atolls, that form a lagoon and barrier reef between the island and the sea. The water in the shallow lagoon is clear enough to watch colorful tropical fish nibbling on your toes, but outside the reef with a steep drop to the ocean floor, is a completely different world.
Black sand beaches are made from broken lava. The island of Hawaii has an active volcano where you can hike over the waves of freshly hardened lava, which crunch under your feet like delicate black glass. The closer you get to the active lava flow the more the air temperature rises and odorous sulfur replaces the oxygen. I got close enough to see an abyss with a flowing river of golden lava below. I approached the ledge on my hands and knees, but I could only look down for a few seconds before the fear that the rock supporting me would crumble into the river of fire below me took over. I turned back, just happy to say that I had seen it.
- The Holy Lands
I have never experienced deeper feelings of spirituality than in the Old City Jerusalem. Most cruises spend two or three nights docked in Haifa and Ashdod so you can start your historic journey at one end and end at the other. Along the way see Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Masada, Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the River Jordan and more.
Then there is the counterpart – Egypt. Giza, site of the most famous pyramids and the Sphinx, can be visited from a ship docked in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria. If your ship continues through the Suez Canal you reach Safaga on the Red Sea. From there you can visit Luxor and the Valley of the Kings on the middle Nile by car. These well-preserved ancient Egyptian sites are now 4000 to 5000 years old. One could easily spend a week on the Nile, and river cruises are also available.
I like to cite Athens as the perfect cruise destination. Located on the tip of the Balkan peninsula, a visit by train from Italy requires four days roundtrip, but you can arrive overnight by ship. Start your day at the Acropolis, then visit the ancient Agora marketplace directly below. Finish out your day browsing the modern Plaka shopping district.
Paul Motter is the editor of CruiseMates.com, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.