I Thought I Hated Cruise Excursions — Until I Finally Tried Them

On her first-ever trip to Greece, one writer stops worrying about being a “tourist” and starts enjoying every moment.

A cruise ship off the coast of Santorini, Greece
Riviera in the caldera of Santorini, Greece. Photo:

Federico Ciamei

Am I the only one? Or have you, too, looked on skeptically at the passengers who trail a flag-toting guide upon arrival at a cruise port? “That’ll never be me,” I used to swear, presuming the group to be en route to some nearby tourist trap — one that could easily be found with a quick Google search and visited for a lower price, to boot. But last summer on a 10-day sailing from Oceania Cruises, I became one of those passengers. Willingly. And you know what? I loved it.

Let me explain. Although I had been on 25 cruises in my life, this was my first in Europe. I was headed on a voyage on the Oceania Riviera that departed from Trieste, Italy, for ports of call in Croatia, Montenegro, and Greece (including three of its islands) before concluding in Istanbul. Thousands of miles from my usual Caribbean beat, each destination was virgin territory to me — Split as unfamiliar as Santorini, Kotor as much of a mystery as Kuşadasi. This was the moment, I figured, to finally give guided tours a shot.

Not that my decision was entirely off-base. There are, it turns out, advantages to booking excursions along with your cruise ticket. For one thing, major cruise lines vet tour providers for safety, and they will usually bear responsibility if things go wrong, such as a late return. (The ship will always wait for line-approved excursions.) And if the itinerary diverges — as it did on my trip, when our Montenegro and Mykonos stops were nixed because of bad weather — you’ll be fully refunded.

Pair of photos, one showing cruise ship deck, and one showing a classic blue and white dome on the island of Santorini
From left: Riviera cruising the Adriatic; the Church of St. George in Perivolas, on Santorini.

Federico Ciamei

Cruising to new countries also made me realize that some destinations are less suited to independent exploration — places with attractions that are far from port, or activities where the intimidation level is high (looking at you, rug shopping in Turkey). I also found a new appreciation for the historical context and cultural guidance that local experts can offer. And with more than 70 excursions available on our sailing, from canoeing Croatia’s Cetina River to cooking classes in Athens, I was spoiled for choice.

Oceania’s vast catalogue of outings is part of Go Local, an initiative launched in 2019 whose goal is “to learn about and experience generations-old traditions and get a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of a destination’s residents,” according to Christine Manjencic, the line’s vice president of destination services operations, who spoke with me pre-cruise. And with the pandemic still front-of-mind for many travelers, the company also reports an uptick in interest in its Oceania Exclusive tours, which are limited to 16 participants.

Pair of photos, one showing rows of chairs with sunbathers on a cruise ship and one showing a spread of breakfast dishes
From left: Taking in the sun—and the views—as the Riviera cruises the Adriatic; an elaborate breakfast spread during a tour of Kuşadasi, Turkey.

Federico Ciamei

Pair of photos, one showing a quiet street in Chania, Greece, and one showing a chef in chef whites in the dining room of a cruise ship
From left: Chania, Greece, is one of Crete’s principal cities and a frequent port of call for cruise ships; executive chef Frederic Camonin in the ship’s Grand Dining Room.

Federico Ciamei

If left to my own devices, I would have dined at restaurants in port, and I’d definitely have spent hours browsing boutiques and markets for locally made souvenirs. But would I have plucked white mulberries fresh from the tree, and sipped my first Turkish tea at a hillside farm 30 minutes’ drive from the port in Kuşadasi? Would I ever have found my way to the Croatian hamlet of Škopljanci (population: nine), where a local farmer welcomed me with homemade cherry schnapps? Would I have been serenaded with ballads deftly played on his gusla, a traditional stringed instrument crafted from wood, horsehair, and donkey leather? If not for the patient instruction by chef Nektarios Danielides during a private cooking class in his Athens restaurant, BarBQ, a kitchenphobe such as myself would ever have learned to make melitzanosalata, a Greek eggplant dip, from scratch. Even now, weeks after returning to my downtown Miami neighborhood and its cityscape of high-rise buildings, I keep thinking about the afternoon I spent in Škopljanci, a Croatian village that seemed straight out of the Shire in The Lord of the Rings.

Shore excursions also offer a way to visit a place more than once while having a completely different experience each time — an important factor for frequent cruisers. In Santorini, for example, a first-timer like me might hop on a bus tour of the Greek island, hitting all the sightseeing highlights, like the maze of sugar-cube-shaped houses in the town of Oia overlooking the submerged caldera.

A couple sits on a bench waterside as a horse passes behind them in Chania, Greece
The Venetian Harbor, on Chania.

Federico Ciamei

But on a second visit, a meditative yoga class followed by a tasting at Venetsanos Winery, a family operation founded in 1947, could have the power to transform a “been there, done that” moment into an opportunity to gain a deeper, richer understanding of the land and its people. These types of tours make particular sense for Oceania, whose repeat-guest percentage hovers at around 50 percent. For people like Brian and Penelope Webb — a couple I met who were on their 67th voyage — that’s reason enough to keep on sailing.

A version of this story first appeared in the December 2022/January 2023 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline “Follow the Leader.”

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