More than 20 million people take a cruise every year. And with the baby boom generation travelling in force, those numbers are just going to keep growing: I’ve explained in an earlier post why cruising is custom-made for boomers. But as cruising’s popularity has grown, the number of cruise itineraries has grown too. Which are the most popular cruises, and what do they offer?
Even if you stick with big-ship ocean cruises rather than river cruises or adventure cruising, there are more itineraries than you can shake a stick at these days. You can cruise from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from Southeast Asia to South America, and from the South Pacific to the North Atlantic. Still, among all those itineraries, there’s a handful that are the mainstays of the ocean cruising business. But even these popular cruises come in different flavours, so it takes a bit of research to pick the one that suits you best.
Here’s a look at the most popular cruises, along with their major variations, and what each one offers in terms of sights and adventure. These descriptions are general: for specific ships and itineraries, check major cruise sites like Cruise Critic or CruCon.
For North Americans at least, these are still the most popular cruises. Most Caribbean cruises depart from easy-to-get-to places like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral in Florida. And since every Caribbean isle is different, they offer a great variety of experiences, from the laid-back lifestyle of the Bahamas to the Dutch flavours of Curaçao and Aruba. Here are the major itineraries in the Caribbean:
These cruises include some standard Caribbean ports, like the Bahamas and Jamaica. But they also include the Cayman Islands, and places that aren’t Caribbean islands at all, like the Florida Keys, the Mexican port of Cozumel (snorkelling, anyone?), Puerto Limon in Costa Rica, even Belize City and Cartagena, Colombia on longer cruises.
While many of these cruises leave from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, some also set sail from places like Galveston, Texas and New Orleans. That’s a shorter trip for Westerners, and – in the case of NOLA — a great opportunity to see one of North America’s great cities. And if you haven’t seen much of Latin America before, these cruises can be a nice sampler.
The Eastern Caribbean cruises take you to some of the lesser-known islands, but they offer a lot of variety. Major stops include San Juan, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Philipsburg, the capital of St. Maarten – three distinct cultures. Some also stop in places like the Turks and Caicos, Antigua, and Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands.
Because of the diverse itinerary, these cruises can be a good choice for someone who has seen the major ports of call, like the Bahamas and Jamaica. And there’s some real choice in your home port, too. There are cruises that leave from the Florida ports, but also from Port Liberty in New Jersey and from San Juan, which gives you a chance to spend a few extra days on one island, at least.
These cruises cover a whole other side of the Caribbean – the Netherlands Antilles, with their Dutch colonial architecture, Amstel beer, European-style coffee houses and casinos. The main attractions are the ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. The latter, at least, is a knockout, with its stunning waterfront vista of multicoloured buildings, looking like a little piece of Amsterdam.
The ABC islands are a long way south – not far from South America. So true Southern Caribbean cruises tend to be relatively long, from nine to 12 days. And many of them hit some interesting corners of the Caribbean on their way down and back – places like St. Kitts, Antigua, St. Lucia, and Dominica, with its spice gardens and beautiful wilderness areas. These can be very interesting cruises, showing many sides of the Caribbean.
The canals of Venice, the Acropolis of Athens, the whitewashed buildings of the Greek islands – a Mediterranean cruise is the romantic dream of many a traveller. But as with Caribbean cruises, there’s more than one way to cruise the Mediterranean. It’s a big sea, stretching all the way from the Strait of Gibraltar to the shores of Turkey. So you’ll find cruises that explore different parts of the region. There are two main variations.
There aren’t a lot of these on offer, but the ones you do find are a good introduction to European culture. If you want to do the Western end of the Mediterranean, you can book cruises out of Barcelona that bring you to places like Mallorca, Nice, Monte Carlo, and even slip out into the Atlantic to visit Amsterdam and Bruges, Belgium.
Then there are the cruises originating in Venice and Rome. These tend to spend more time in the Italian ports, including Florence and Naples (some of the Western-end cruises visit here too). Then they move on to ports in the Adriatic Sea, including Dubrovnik, and Greek destinations such as Corfu. Spanish destinations like Mallorca and Ibiza are included in some itineraries — even Lisbon, Portugal.
There’s some overlap between cruises billed as Western Mediterranean and those listed as Eastern: some “Eastern” cruises spend most or all of their time in Italy and the Adriatic. But there are quite a few that will take you to the most historic sites in Greece — places like Athens and Olympia (above) — and give you a glimpse of one or two of the Greek islands, like Crete and Santorini. Those white villages overlooking the deep blue sea – I’m jealous.
There are also some Eastern cruises that let you see a little of Turkey — notably Kusadasi, gateway to the ancient Roman ruins of Ephesus. After the recent terrorist attacks, the cruise lines have been touchy about going into Istanbul, one of the world’s most historic cities. However, you can still find a cruise that spends a day (and even two) there – check Princess Cruises. In any case, taking an Eastern Mediterranean cruise is a good way to see some of Europe’s truly ancient cultures.
The Baltic Sea
The Baltic is a whole other side of Europe, and the time to see it is midsummer, when the Nordic countries shine under the midnight sun. Most of the itineraries cover the same ports, including Copenhagen (shown here); Warnemunde (Rostock), Germany; Tallin, Estonia; Helsinki; and Stockholm. Each of these cities has its own unique beauty – I loved them all – but the highlight of the trip is St. Petersburg, Russia, with a visit to the glittering Peterhof Palace and the Hermitage museum.
There are also a number of cruises that combine this itinerary with a trip to Oslo and the Norwegian fjords – a spectacular combination. And Viking’s new ocean ship, the Sky, cruises all the way from Barcelona to visit these ports, with stops in Lisbon, Amsterdam and even the island of Guernsey. But the Baltic itself is enough to keep you well entertained for a 10- to 12-night cruise. It’s a unique and amazing part of the world.
This is possibly the most spectacular of the really popular cruises. The standard itinerary is the Inside Passage, a round-tip, seven day cruise from Seattle or Vancouver up the sheltered coast of British Columbia and Alaska. The major stops are Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan, each with its own rugged, pioneer charm. But the real draw is the scenery: the sight of giant glaciers calving icebergs in places like Glacier Bay is unforgettable.
There are also one-way cruises that cruise through the inside passage and end in Seward/Whittier, the gateway to Anchorage. And Holland America does a two-week trip from San Francisco that docks in Anchorage. You can also get expedition-type cruises to see some of the less-visited ports. But even the big-ship cruises offer day trips to see wildlife like whales, eagles and bears, or a ride on the scenic White Pass & Yukon railroad. Alaska cruises run from May to September; high season is June through August. Bring some warm clothes — the weather can be cool and rainy.
That’s a look at the most popular cruises in the world of travel. If you’ve never cruised before, it should give you some idea of the adventures available to you. And if you’re a veteran cruiser, there’s probably a cruise or two you still haven’t taken — I may look at some of the lesser-known itineraries in a future post.
In either case, cruising season is here, and don’t think it’s all about the Caribbean: there are other warm weather routes available, including some West coast cruises and Panama Canal trips. These are popular cruises too. As well, some cruise lines sail the Mediterranean all winter long. I did it in December and it was fine, though the weather can be iffy.
So, cruise in good health, and rest assured: there’ll be a lot of other baby boomers on board to keep you company.