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Cruising: A Shore Thing

Sailing the high seas isn't only about leisurely days on the open water: cruise passengers have come to expect nonstop action from the onboard experience. Now they're demanding smarter, behind-the-scenes activities during time spent off the ship, too. Riding on a bus through a port's iconic sites (Next stop, the Colosseum!) is no longer enough. The answer?Major lines are creating shore excursions that give passengers unrivaled access, from choosing spices with a renowned chef to breaking the sound barrier in a Russian MiG. Here, the newest and most exciting land trips available in the coming months, for those who prefer a little adventure to watching the world go by from the back of the bus.

Explore a Closed Egyptian Tomb
Radisson Seven Seas Voyager
THE TRIP Thanks to insider connections, passengers on the Voyager's Dubai-to-Rome sailing can sign up for a private viewing of the tomb of Queen Nefertari, a little-known wife of Ramses II. This temple in Egypt's Valley of the Queens was restored by the Getty Conservation Institute; it was made off-limits to the public in January 2003 to prevent carbon dioxide (exhaled by visitors) from gradually breaking down the paint on the walls. During the two-day excursion, which includes a stay at the Four Seasons Hotel Cairo, sightseers tour the region's cultural treasures (the Sphinx, the Pyramids, and the Cairo Museum); then they're flown by private plane from Cairo to the Valley of the Queens, where they tour the tomb.

THE SHIP The 700-passenger Voyager is an all-suite, all-balcony vessel. The enormous cabins (they range from 356 to 1,400 square feet) have marble bathrooms with soaking tubs. Signatures, a restaurant staffed by Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School, hosts classes and galley visits.

THE DETAILS 800/285-1835; www.rssc.com; 16-night cruise departs March 24, 2005; from $7,285 per person, double; Abu Simbel and Cairo at the Four Seasons tour, $1,395 per person, double.

Visit a Remote Amazon Village
Abercrombie & Kent Andrea
THE TRIP On this Brazilian itinerary, the Andrea transports much-needed medical supplies to residents of the town of San Martine de Amacayacu. The out-of-the-way Ticuna Indian village, which is hidden a mile into the rainforest, doesn't get many visitors: it's accessible only in March and April, when the Amazon floods. While the ship is docked, the 94 passengers can spend an afternoon with the artistic, spiritual Ticunas, watching them create pottery using traditional methods and paint abstract designs on tapa cloth (made from pounded fig-tree bark), using natural vegetable dyes.

THE SHIP The Andrea was built as a coastal expedition cruiser in Norway, but has since been outfitted with air-conditioning, a fitness center, and 50 guest cabins that are as spacious and comfortable as hotel rooms.

THE DETAILS 800/554-7094; www.abercrombiekent.com; 12-night cruise departs April 5, 2005; from $5,645 per person, double.

Tour a Tuscan Olive Oil Mill
Celebrity Cruises Millennium
THE TRIP From Civitavecchia, just outside Rome, passengers on the Millennium Venice-to-Barcelona cruise can visit the Etruscan countryside. The one-hour drive north concludes with a visit to the Valle del Marta farm, where olive oil has been produced in rustic, low-slung stone buildings for nearly a century. Guests can tour the fields, the estate, and the small mill and learn about cold pressing and organic farming. As a finale, they sample extra-virgin blendson bruschetta, served with locally made wine, and learn to evaluate the small-batch oil's nose, taste, and appearance.

THE SHIP The 1,950-passenger Millennium has glass-walled elevators that overlook the sea, a music library with thousands of recordings that can be heard in private listening stations, and the first conservatory at sea. Created by renowned Parisian florist Emilio Robba, the indoor garden is filled with magnolia trees and brightly hued flowers. The most memorable spot on the ship: the ocean liner-themed restaurant, the RMS Olympic, which serves a menu of chef Michel Roux's favorite classics, such as steak Diane and crêpes suzette.

THE DETAILS 800/437-3111; www.celebrity.com; 12-night cruise departs May 15, 2005; from $1,700 per person, double; Olive Oil Tasting and Scenic Drive tour, $55 per person.

Go to Art School in Shanghai
Crystal Cruises Crystal Harmony
THE TRIP On the ship's Hong Kong-to-Beijing itinerary, the Highlights of Shanghai tour makes all the usual stops—the Old Town, the Jade Buddha Temple—but finishes up at the extraordinary Children's Palace, a former colonial mansion turned art school. The excursion provides a snapshot of Chinese culture, allowing passengers to observe young artists as they master the country's age-old dances and learn to play instruments such as the Chinese flute.

THE SHIP Far Eastern flair is everywhere on the 940-passenger Crystal Harmony. The ship's eight eating options include Kyoto, an Asian-specialty restaurant, as well as a poolside Pacific Rim-themed buffet. Yin Yang facials are given in the spa, which incorporates the feng shui elements of metal, wood, and water. Earlier this year, Crystal launched its Creative Learning Institute, which includes educational sessions on every sailing. Passengers can study Asian languages in a Berlitz-sponsored class or learn to play the piano in a Yamaha music course.

THE DETAILS 866/446-6625; www.crystalcruises.com; 12-night cruise departs March 15, 2005; from $2,995 per person, double; Highlights of Shanghai tour, $119 per person.

Learn to Build a Gondola
Princess Cruises Grand Princess
THE TRIP Spend the afternoon with American Thom Price, one of only six craftsmen in the world who know how to create the narrow, asymmetrical gondola out of bentwood planks. Price will take passengers on a tour of his ivy-covered boatyard, which was immortalized in a Canaletto painting in 1725, and show them the black-lacquered vessels at various phases of construction while lecturing on this 2,000-year-old tradition.

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