Want to tour an off-limits ancient pyramid?Exchange recipes with a Tuscan olive farmer?Hop aboard one of these cruise ships. PLUS Strategies, tips, and the results of the World's Best readers' survey.
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.
THE SHIP The 2,600-passenger Grand Princess is the complete opposite of a tiny gondola. While sailing from Venice to Rome, guests can do just about anything onboard, whether it's sunning by a pool or dining in a Southwestern-themed restaurant, one of nearly a dozen places to eat. The Skywalkers nightclub, suspended 150 feet above the ocean at the aft end of the ship, is reachable by a neon-lit suspension bridge.
THE DETAILS 800/774-6237; www.princess.com; 12-night cruise departs May 2, 2005; from $2,090 per person, double; An American Gondola Builder in Venice tour, $89 per person.
Fly a Russian MiG
The Yachts of Seabourn Seabourn Pride
THE TRIP The Baltic cruise is great, but could anything be more impressive than flying over Russia at twice the speed of sound?When the Pride docks in St. Petersburg this summer, sign up for a flight tour of Moscow—in the captain's seat of a Russian MiG, which hits 1,500 mph at its 20,000-foot cruising altitude. Guests take a commercial plane to the Russian Military Airbase, where they board a MiG-29 with an instructor and complete a flight check before blasting off.
THE SHIP The 208-passenger Pride gives guests complimentary mini-massages on the pool deck as well as one free shore excursion per cruise (with the exception of the MiG tour). On the Baltic itinerary, the ship sponsors a private classical music performance at St. Petersburg's Baroque Yusupov Palace.
THE DETAILS 800/929-9391; www.seabourn.com; 14-night cruise departs June 19, 2005; from $8,733 per person, double; MiG tour, $9,999 per person.
See a Private Nature Preserve
Lindblad Expeditions Sea Voyager
THE TRIP Lindblad has the only ship that stops at the Smithsonian Tropical Institute on Panama's Barro Colorado Island, in the middle of the Panama Canal. Mules hold lines of the ship steady while it moves up and down through the locks of the canal. The cries of birds (there are more than 500 species in the area) echo in the distance. Before spending the evening watching the ship rise and fall with the locks, passengers board Zodiacs and motor ashore. Visiting scientists who study everything from fig trees to butterflies introduce the group to the flora and fauna of the lowland-forest ecosystem, pointing out howler monkeys in their natural habitat. Like all of Lindblad's tours, the trip is included in the cost of the cruise.
THE SHIP The 60-passenger Sea Voyager, which makes its way from Costa Rica to Panama, may be a basic expedition cruiser (no jacket-required dining rooms here), but the environmentalist guides are true academics. They plan daily trips based on the weather and the movements of the wildlife. Kayaks are always in tow so that guides can decide on a whim to explore the wilderness.
THE DETAILS 800/397-3348; www.expeditions.com; seven-night cruise departs November 20, 2004; from $3,590 per person, double.
Ride an Elephant on Safari
Holland America Prinsendam
THE TRIP One of the most exciting of Holland America's new post-cruise tours is the three-day overland adventure at Kapama Game Reserve, just outside of Durban, which includes a pre-dawn elephant-back tour of the bush. Passengers saddle up the giant beasts (orphaned by poachers and rescued by Kapama) and go on a two-hour guided search for buffalo, rhinos, and giraffes. Since the reserve is home to only 12 adopted elephants, you're guaranteed a look at the big game without crowds.
THE SHIP The refurbished 793-passenger Prinsendam was built in 1988; it's the elder statesman of the fleet. On this Madras-Cape Town itinerary, book one of the European-style veranda suites, and you'll get free laundry service and invitations to cocktail parties.
THE DETAILS 877/724-5425; www.hollandamerica.com; 16-night cruise departs March 28, 2005; from $4,732 per person, double; Kapama Game Reserve Overland Adventure tour, $3,899 per person.
Hit the Market with a Chef
Silversea Cruises Silver Cloud
THE TRIP In Ho Chi Minh City, the Norfolk Hotel's rising chef, 31-year-old Pham Ba Chinh—already renowned for setting fusion trends in Vietnam—will take passengers on a half-day tour that includes a produce-shopping trip to the city's famous Ben Thanh Market. From the piles of chiles and coconuts, he will select the ingredients for a cooking class. Back at the hotel, passengers watch the chef turn the fresh meats, vegetables, and herbs into lunch, including pho, a brothy beef-noodle soup, and lemongrass chicken with chiles.
THE SHIP The 296-passenger Silver Cloud weighs 16,800 tons, but since it carries less than half the number of passengers of other ships its size, there's space to stretch out on this voyage from Cairns to Bangkok.
THE DETAILS 877/215-9986; www.silversea.com; 16-night cruise departs January 31, 2005; from $7,007 per person, double; Market Visit and Cooking Class, $85 per person.
SHERRI EISENBERG has written for the Boston Globe.
At least a dozen ships have debuted annually over the past five years. After September11, 2001, however, major lines stopped putting in orders for new vessels (which take four years to build). The result: cruise companies are taking a hard look at ways to improveexisting fleets. • Holland America is introducing "sidewalk cafés" with music-listening stations (like those in record stores) and plasma-screen TV's, as well as a culinary arts center, where visiting chefs will host cooking demonstrations. • Royal Caribbean is sticking to its contention that bigger is better by dropping a new midsection into Enchantment of the Seas—creating space for 151 more cabins, a coffee bar, and a Latin lounge. • Costa Cruises has refitted its Costa Victoria with balconies, which, even on inexpensive cruises, passengers have come to expect.
Reserve your shore excursions on-line, if possible. Waiting until you set sail will mean slim pickings for land tours
Prone to seasickness?Request a cabin in the middle of the ship, where you'll feel the rocking motion less
If you plan to visit the spa, book your treatment on-line or as soon as you board. Appointments for at-sea days are the first to go