Cruise ports: how to make the most of shore excursions

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So the cruise operator and itinerary look good, the price is right and timing fits. The next decision is where, when and how to jump ship: what to do on shore during port calls.

To celebrate the release of our new Cruise Ports series, here are some expert tips to help you stand out from the crowd on your shore excursions.

Santorini steps at sunset © Andrew Mayovskyy / ShutterstockDreaming of a shorex in Santorini? Heed our advice © Andrew Mayovskyy / Shutterstock

Consider your excursion options

For a tantalising taster join an organised tour; for an immersive experience, go solo on shore.

Do your research

Before booking a berth, check out the shore excursions – ‘shorex’, in cruise speak. Keen to see the famous orange fruit dove of Fiji? Make sure its small island home is on the programme. If it’s too rough to land on the Antarctic island promoted as the centrepiece of the trip, what’s the alternative? What options are on offer? When cruising, your time on dry land is precious – so make sure it suits your travel style.

Getting together

Group tours offer an easy way to visit the city you’re in, or to head further afield for the day – from Sydney Harbour to the Blue Mountains, say, or inland from Palma to Chopin’s summer home in Valldemosa. Travel logistics are covered and travel companions are a given; tour guides will help navigate the unfamiliar.

There will be limited opportunity to connect with and support the local community; buying drinks and souvenirs from street stalls, as well as from cafés and shops, may be the only way to distribute hard-earned holiday savings more widely.

A cruise ship on the coast of Miami © Mia2you / ShutterstockConsider the benefits of group trips and independent port-side experiences © Mia2you / Shutterstock

Going it alone

A do-it-yourself day on shore allows greater flexibility to follow individual interests and instincts. With a well-researched idea of what to do and see, asking the shorex team to book a car and driver for the day might suit just fine.

Alternatively, allow the day to unfold unplanned. Take a wander, browse a market – you could even hop on a bus whose destination sounds familiar from the map. Unexpected encounters and discoveries can ensue if you ask a passerby for help – if you’re lucky they’ll recommend their own favourite tea shop or cafe rather than the famous one that everybody knows about.

Street food in Helsinki © Emma Lipasti / ShutterstockSpot a popular street food stall? Give it a go © Emma Lipasti / Shutterstock

Get a sense of place and sustain local enterprises

Your hours on shore are limited; make time to connect with the people whose home you’re exploring. Here’s how.

Go local

Almost every shorex involves on-the-ground transport. These may be 45-seater air-con coaches, private taxis, or crowded public conveyances of the bus/tuk-tuk/rickshaw variety. Their drivers and passengers can be great informal travel resources. Wonder what this building or that tree is, or what people do to earn a living in town? Ask!

In a cash-poor location, a bus or taxi driver is likely to be a day-hire employee of the vehicle’s owner; if their company and conversation have been good, an offer of something that gives their service an edge – a travel phrasebook or wildlife guide to keep in the car – might go down well. Remember to find out beforehand how long it takes to reach a destination, compared with actually spending time there. A day-tour that includes five hours of road travel may not be the best choice.

Eat and drink shoreside

Eating ashore is a terrific alternative to returning onboard for meals. Port-side cafes and restaurants may be owned by out-of-towners but waitstaff will usually be locals, glad for the extra work when the cruise ships descend. Service standards may vary from the quality in the ship’s restaurants; going with the flow – chatting with waitstaff or people-watching while waiting – helps make connections and bypass impatience.

While not always for the faint-hearted, simpler options at food halls and hawker stalls offer an authentic taste and smell of a place; head for the one that’s cooking to order for a long queue of locals on their lunch break. Unfamiliar eating routines can be fun, if challenging; strong liqueur with coffee might seem an unusual breakfast option, but go ahead and make an exception for the day if that’s what’s on the menu.

Papaya at a market in Curacao, Caribbean © Gail Johnson / ShutterstockPick up some snacks that you might not find easily at home © Gail Johnson / Shutterstock

Stop and shop local

Tried something you like? Ask where it’s sold nearby. Check cornershop shelves for weird and wonderful items – the most effective insect repellent made from an indigenous plant unknown at home, unfamiliar snacks wrapped in leaves or newspaper, unrecognisable fresh and dried fruits, or a fiery liqueur. Buy a consumable souvenir and boost the trader’s earnings.

Seek out and send snail-mail postcards: the take-home story is often found while interacting with the seller as much as the place pictured; making small-talk, finding out where stamps are sold and locating the mailbox is part of the fun. Every short encounter adds another layer to the shorex experience.

Cruise ships at Nassau, Bahamas © Costin Constantinescu / ShutterstockIf you were expecting deserted beaches, your plans may need a rethink © Costin Constantinescu / Shutterstock

Aim to interact with, rather than impact on, the environment

Cruise passengers are often assumed to be wealthy, especially in cash-poor communities. For more equitable encounters, try these tips.

First impressions matter

Take minimal gear on shore (and bring snack packaging and empty water bottles back on board). Dress well but dress down, cover up if culturally appropriate and leave designer labels in the cabin. Stock up on local currency in small denominations, and spend it on goods and services on the ground. Ask people before photographing them – and if they ask for copies, take contact details and follow through.

Be open-minded

Taking a reality check ahead of a shorex can be useful: that ancient monument, long-imagined as an empty silhouette against sky like all the photos show, could be surrounded by busloads of people expecting the exact same thing, interrupting the view with their selfie sticks. Find humour in the unexpected and chaotic, and acknowledge locals who do the same.

Sydney Harbour at sunset © Taras Vyshnya / ShutterstockPrepare to make memories that will last a lifetime © Taras Vyshnya / Shutterstock

Look, listen, ask

No common language? No worries! Communicate with laughter, body language or sketches on paper – all good ice-breakers. Not sure why that group of office workers is staring? Take cues from those around you and modify actions and attitude to suit.

Go back and give back

Take the opportunity to turn these brief encounters into long-lasting ones. Provide feedback on board – let the shorex staff know what worked and what didn’t, and why. At home, open that bottle bought onshore, invite friends over for sunset drinks and offer a toast to everyday encounters in extraordinary places. Cheers!

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