Cruising: Plenty to see and do in port

By Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant looks at the best of the cruise industry's shore excursions for the year.

Beautiful coastal tours and luxury cabins await cruise passengers in the year ahead.
Beautiful coastal tours and luxury cabins await cruise passengers in the year ahead.

Whether it's a glittering party in the Gothic splendour of a medieval palace or a sunrise meditation at a Burmese temple, a cruise can create unexpected opportunities. Time spent in port is all about destination experiences, and cruise lines are opening the doors to learning, tasting, volunteering and gaining exclusive or out-of-hours access to off-limits or difficult-to-visit places.

Here's our top 12 for the year ahead. Check websites for prices.

1. Catch king crab in Ketchikan

The Aleutian Ballad sails among the forested islands of the Inside Passage. The catch of the day is likely to include king crab, giant octopus, sharks, starfish and eels. Bald eagles swoop low for fish and you may spot whales, dolphins and otters.

The details: Holland America Line offers a seven-night cruise departing on April 30.

2. Sculpt a "masterpiece" in Tallinn

Celebrity Cruises passengers can spend a day in a sculptor's atelier, creating a statue from clay under the tutelage of one of Estonia's top contemporary artists. Snacks and drinks are served in the gallery next door while works of art bake in the kiln, ready to be taken back to the ship.

The details: Celebrity Cruises (0845 456 0523) offers a 12-night Scandinavia and Russia cruise, round-trip from Amsterdam, departing on May 9.

3. The Asian tsunami remembered

Tour the tsunami museum in Banda Aceh. It is entered via two "walls of water" designed to echo the sound of the tsunami, and visitors can learn about the disaster via photographs and video footage. More sobering evidence of the wave's phenomenal power is laid bare by a 76m-long ship that was carried miles inland, and left as a stark reminder of the disaster.

The details: Noble Caledonia (020 7752 0000) offers an 11-night Hidden Sumatra cruise, departing on February 1.

4. Paddle a kayak in the Arctic

Take a gentle paddle by kayak through the pristine waters around Tromso, Norway's northernmost city, for a close-up glimpse of seals and eagles that populate the uninhabited shoreline. Keep your eyes peeled for intricate rock formations and colourful vegetation ranging from purple heathers to burned-orange lichens and scarlet seaweeds.

The details: Hurtigruten (0844 448 7601) offers a 12-day Classic Round Voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes, departing on June 6.

5. Take a rooftop hike

Get a fresh perspective on the Swedish capital from Stockholm's Old Parliament building, enjoying 360-degree views across the historic Gamla Stan to eight of the 14 islands on which the city is built. Reach out and almost touch the spire of Riddarholmen church, which was built by Franciscan monks and is the final resting place of Swedish monarchs.

The details: P&O Cruises (0843 374 0111) offers a 14-night Russia, Germany and Scandinavia cruise, departing on June 29.

6. Step into an Edenic garden

Visit the inspiring Botanical Ark, a private oasis in the tropical rainforest region of north Queensland. The collection of more than 3000 plant species used by indigenous cultures for food, spices, shelter, medicine, cosmetics and dyes has won numerous awards.

The details: Crystal Cruises (020 7399 7601) offers a 12-night Barrier Reef-to-Bali cruise, departing on February 16.

7. Dine in Gothic splendour

See Avignon's imposing Palais des Papes, the world's largest Gothic palace and one of France's most visited monuments, on a private after-hours tour. Once the doors are closed to the public, cruise guests sit down to dinner and a classical music recital in one of the building's lavish banqueting halls. Admire the floodlit walls, spires and towers after dinner and, on a balmy summer's night, wander through the streets.

The details: Scenic Tours (0800 270 7186) offers a 12-night Splendours of Southern France cruise, departing between March and November.

8. Swim with sea lions

Don wetsuit, mask and snorkel and plunge into a melee of excitable sea lions at Los Islotes, in Mexico's Sea of Cortes that serves as the mammals' southernmost breeding ground. Prepare to be nipped, jostled and nudged as the juveniles show off, mock-charging underwater, seizing mouthfuls of fish, leaping like dolphins and even clambering on to the dive boat. Bring a waterproof camera.

The details: Mundy Adventures (020 7399 7630) offers a 10-night Baja's Whale Bounty cruise round-trip from San Jose del Cabo departing on March 28.

9. Teaching English in China

Viking River Cruises sponsors three primary schools in the city of Jingzhou on the banks of the Yangtze River. Cruise guests can visit one of the schools, where they can help the children with English lessons and watch a performance of traditional song and dance which, the teachers say, helps to instill confidence.

The details: Viking River Cruises (0808 231 3889) offers a 12-night Imperial Jewels of China cruise departing on February 27.

10. Shackled to Ole Miss

The American Queen Steamboat Company offers an insight into the darker side of the Deep South with a tour of a maximum-security prison followed by a spine-tingling exploration of one of America's most haunted houses. Passengers visit Angola, a former plantation and now the Louisiana State Penitentiary, home to 5000 inmates. They see the working farm, museum, offender housing units and incongruously, the arena where an annual prison rodeo is held. Then it's on to the 18th-century Myrtles Plantation, a grand old mansion with several resident spirits, including Chloe, a slave who was hanged for murder and apparently had a penchant for stealing earrings.

The details: The American Queen Steamboat Company (001 888 749 5280) offers eight-night cruises between Memphis and New Orleans, departing between November and June.

11. It's a breeze by Harley

Cruise the backroads of Grand Bahama Island on a Harley-Davidson, stopping at scenic beaches and sleepy villages for an impression of island life far removed from the busy commercial area of Freeport. Anybody with a motorcycle licence can drive a bike, and the less confident ride pillion. A local guide leads the expedition.

The details: Carnival Cruise Line (0845 351 0556) offers a four-day round-trip Bahamas cruise departing from Port Canaveral, Florida, with weekly departures.

12. Truffle hunting in Croatia

Head off from the port of Rovinj with a truffle hunter to learn about an age-old delicacy that is worth more per ounce than gold. The tour takes visitors to the Motovun forest accompanied by truffle dogs. The expedition is followed by a truffle cookery class and a local wine tasting, with truffle-scented cheese, honey and pate.

The details: Paul Gauguin Cruises (020 7399 7691) offers a seven-night cruise round-trip from Venice, departing on May 10.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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