Three writers share their exciting cruise ship discoveries

Mexico's Galapagos

Baja California

I would never have expected a cruise to land me in the Sea of Cortez with nothing but a wetsuit between me, the deep cold water and a colony of overexcited Californian sea lions. On entering the water, around 20 juveniles shot towards us like underwater missiles, twisting and wheeling, nudging at our masks, nipping, jumping on our backs and begging us to play. It was like being assaulted by a pack of large, boisterous puppies.

A week exploring Mexico's Sea of Cortez on the 86-passenger Safari Endeavour was full of extraordinary moments: the crew's excitement at spotting a blue whale; seeing hundreds of dolphins surround the ship in the pink light of dawn; pottering around sea caves on a solo kayak, watching manta rays flipping out of the water like pancakes; trekking through desert carpeted in wild flowers.

No ports of call (just anchorages) and the absence of mobile signals make the Sea of Cortez remote. We didn't see another ship all week. But it was no hardship. One day, after a strenuous hike, we were welcomed back on board with iced raspberry vodkas. On another occasion, the crew made a bonfire on the beach after dinner and we gazed at the Milky Way, sipping hot chocolate laced with rum and cinnamon; pondering the stark beauty of Mexico's Galapagos.

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- Sue Bryant

Deeper into the Deep South

The Mississippi, United States

I'd travelled the American Deep South by road, leaving the old Route 66 south of Chicago and pressing into Tennessee. Here, the Midwestern farmland blurs into the lowlands and floodplains of the Mississippi Delta and the vowels become as broad as the smiles. I'd done it by rail, arriving in night-darkened railway stations on a huffing Amtrak train with the overnight mail. But, I now know, you've never seen the Deep South until you've cruised the Mississippi River. And the only way to cruise the Old Blue is on a paddlewheel steamer, one of the renovated steamships that ply the Mississippi's waters as they did during the 19th-century heyday of river cruising.

Steamers such as the American Queen (which I joined for the inaugural trip of its season) putter along the river's pale-gold expanse at a speed that's somehow in keeping with the languor of the setting. Old antebellum houses glide past like southern belles at a ball; the marshlands of Louisiana darken into the emerald greens of the Tennessee Mississippi flood plains; the calliope organ emits a deep-throated whistle as you raise a mint julep to all those who've gone before you.

The American road trip is fabled, yet the romance of a stretch of endless blacktop wears thin after three days. Not so with the Mississippi. For as Mark Twain said: "It's a wonderful book, with a new story to tell every day."

- Sally Howard

Another Europe

The Tisza, central Europe

Having cruised on all Europe's major rivers I wondered how different a new one could be. Of course, it's not a newly minted river - to paraphrase Mark Twain, they're not making any more. What's "new" about the Tisza is that it's now open to international navigation.

Rising in Ukraine, it sweeps south across Hungary and into Serbia, where it joins the Danube. We'd sailed there from Budapest, then turned sharply to port and on to the Tisza. It's not the most scenic river. For most of our voyage a long, green ribbon of managed forests ran along either bank like a huge, soft hedge. Monotonous for some, perhaps, but I liked its soothing effect. Our presence, meanwhile, had the opposite effect on locals who, unaccustomed to seeing river-cruise vessels, watched or captured us on camera as we passed.

At the Old Bridge in Szeged.
At the Old Bridge in Szeged.

What fascinated us was what we saw ashore. Highlights included fourth-century Christian underground burial chambers in Pecs; the painting in Opusztaszer Heritage Park, depicting, in remarkable detail and with heart-wrenching soundtrack, the arrival in 896 of the seven tribes who founded this nation; and the Great Hungarian Plain. The stillness of that vast expanse - locals call it the Puszta (emptiness) - is interrupted only by an occasional break and move-on by grazing cattle, sheep and horses. What thrilled me most, however, was feeling like an early explorer without having to travel to a distant continent.

- Pat Richardson