By Victor Block
Civil War buffs Tom and Elaine Preston wander through a reconstructed fort where a major battle of that conflict was fought. Betsy and Andy Cross follow a guide slogging through a dense rainforest. Lauren Davis and Jim Goodman enjoy an exciting go-kart track and exhilarating water slide.
These inviting but disparate experiences all have something in common: They all take place during cruises that appeal to people who are seeking something a bit different from the usual voyages.
The Prestons are passengers on an American Cruise Lines boat sailing on the Mississippi River out of New Orleans. Along with the battlefield tour, they visit plantations and other sites along the way. Onboard activities include informative lectures by historians and naturalists. The company offers river and coastal trips to 25 states.
The Crosses are exploring a very different locale. Their voyage aboard the Motor Yacht Tucano (booked through Latin American Escapes) penetrates the vast Amazon rainforest, which is home to some 15,000 species of wildlife. Launch rides and land hikes provide animal-sightings and visits to isolated villages along the shoreline. The boat offers comfortable accommodations for up to 18 passengers.
The Norwegian Cruise Line ship that Davis and Goodman chose exemplifies the expanding choice of activities available at sea. Passengers may zip around a go-kart track at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. The Ocean Loop water slide propels thrill-seekers through a series of twists and turns that include a transparent section that extends over the side of the vessel.
The choices are equally imaginative aboard some Royal Caribbean Cruises. If glow-in-the-dark laser tag and bumper cars don't provide enough excitement, there's the highest slide at sea and simulated skydiving.
The pace is much slower on sailings touted as "cruising with a purpose." Craft Cruises specializes in planning voyages for people who share a penchant for knitting, crocheting and similar pastimes. Along with the usual cruise-ship activities, they take classes from experts in their area of special interest.
Learning opportunities aboard Maine windjammer boats focus upon nautical pursuits. Passengers may try their hand at steering, get instruction in navigation and participate in other sailing tasks. As they do, the graceful wind-powered tall ships sail along the picturesque coast of Maine. The 13 member vessels of the Maine Windjammer Association also offer special-interest trips that focus upon themes that range from whale-watching and birding to chocolate and wine.
Much farther north, passengers line the deck of a nuclear-powered ship as it crushes through North Pole ice, then go aloft in a helicopter and tethered hot-air balloon to search for polar bears, walruses and seals. Arctic cruises are among more than 600 itineraries available from Expedition Trips, which travel to some of the most remote corners of the globe. The company's specialists help people arrange both cruises and land trips based upon their interests and budget.
What may be the most otherworldly body of water anywhere is Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. Its 600-square-mile seascape is punctuated by soaring jagged spires, limestone islands, caves and inlets. Mother Nature's formations dwarf boats that ply the calm water, which include everything from rowboats and kayaks to fishing craft and bamboo vessels. The ship I called home for several days and nights as part of a Myths and Mountains tour replicated a traditional junk yet provided very comfortable accommodations and served sumptuous buffet meals.
If you have time to go to sea for weeks or even months, can make do without the upscale amenities of a modern cruise ship and are happy as a member of a small group rather than mingling with hundreds of other passengers you might be a good candidate for freighter travel. A tiny percent of ocean-going vessels carry passengers along with cargo. They include container ships whose decks are laden with truck-size metal boxes and general cargo carriers that transport all kinds of goods. Passenger cabins usually are more spacious than on regular cruise ships and feature private bathrooms and air conditioning. Some provide a mini-refrigerator, TV and DVD player. Amenities might also include a library, exercise room and even a swimming pool.
One appeal for freighter-fanciers is the opportunity to observe and get to know crew members. Passengers and officers usually share the same dining room, which provides an opportunity to hear maritime stories and anecdotes. But there are also what some consider downsides to freighter travel. Some shipping lines have lower and upper age limits. The number of passengers usually is 12 or fewer, the maximum a ship can carry without having a doctor onboard.
Ships may spend as little as a half-day or as long as several days in ports, and there are no planned shore activities for passengers. It's best to do a bit of research about scheduled ports of call and how you would like to spend time there. A good source of information and bookings is Maris, a freighter-cruise specialist that operates a membership club which offers discounts on voyages and periodic newsletters.
Another helpful contact is Stride Travel, which offers listings of river and small-ship cruises among thousands of packages offered by hundreds of tour companies. Especially helpful are trip and company reviews by both professional experts and other travelers. Another benefit is that Stride members receive a cash bonus on select trips when they reserve through the company. Membership is free.
WHEN YOU GO
American Cruise Lines: www.americancruiselines.com or 800-460-4518
Latin American Escapes: www.latinamericanescapes.com or 800-510-5999
Norwegian Cruise Lines: www.ncl.com or 866-234-7350
Royal Caribbean Cruises: www.royalcaribbean.com or 866-562-7625
Craft Cruises: www.craftcruises.com or 877-972-7238
Maine Windjammer Association: www.sailmainecoast.com or 800-807-9463
Expedition Trips: www.expeditiontrips.com or 877-412-8527
Myths and Mountains: www.mythsandmountains.com or 800-670-6984
Maris Freighter Cruises: www.freightercruises.com or 800-996-2747
Stride Travel: www.stridetravel.com
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Natural formations dwarf the boats that bring passengers to see them in Vietnam's Ha Long Bay. Photo courtesy of Victor Block.