Magical Adventures Over Seas, Rivers and Lands for the New Year
After more than a year from a COVID-induced hiatus, cruise ships are once again leaving port for all points on the globe.
Unicorns are not a common sight.
“Go ahead, put them on the list,” a mom advises her 8-year-old Suzy, who has a magic marker in hand and wants to add her sighting to the wildlife inventory on our small-ship Southeast Alaska cruise. So she inscribes her magical discovery: unicorns!
“Magical” is a word often applied to Alaska’s landscape and wildlife. My journey three years ago aboard UnCruise’s 86-passenger SS Legacy brought sightings of dozens of creatures big and small, from whales to woodpeckers to sea lions, spruces to the carnivorous sundew plant, humpbacks to heffalumps. Well, no heffalumps.
Return of Vacation Cruises
Shut down for well over a year worldwide because of COVID-19, vacation cruising began to return this past year. Boats from the modest to the immense have left their lockdown docks and returned to the water. This return has ignited cruise travelers’ passion for dreaming of their destination, even if it is not an immediate trip.
“We’re seeing bookings into 2023 and beyond,” says Lisa Anciaux, AAA Washington director of travel products. “Lots of people are excited to get going again, and the experience is more appealing in some ways —distancing protocols may mean a ship that can carry 4,000 passengers only has 1,400.
“As always, Alaska is the most popular destination. And many travelers today feel the small ships are safer,” she said.
With the COVID-19 situation still evolving, Anciaux recommends booking a cruise with maximum possible flexibility, and being prepared to adapt as world circumstances change. Experienced travel agents also can help navigate the logistical complexities.
Let me add one more thing: Dream big. There may never be a better time. If you need more inspiration, here are some of my favorites.
Inside the Inside Passage
Whales, bears, glaciers, totems and, yes, unicorns — the sights and sounds of Alaska have become worldwide icons since sightseeing cruises started in the late 19th century. One superb way to experience a different side of the northern half of the Inside Passage is on a small-ship cruise operated by UnCruise, Alaskan Dream or Lindblad. It’s more fun, more intimate.
In the last boom year, 2019, 1.3 million cruise passengers sailed to Alaska. Numbers now are far below that, so you can see the Great Land’s best with fewer crowds. Holland America, Norwegian, Carnival and Princess are the “big boys” in this region; Seabourn, Windstar, Regent Seven Seas and Oceania are the mid-size luxury operators.
Top tip: May and early June are the best-weather months in Southeast Alaska. And unless you simply must cross Glacier Bay off your list, Hubbard Glacier and Tracy Arm offer equally memorable glacier viewing.
Shoot for the moon: Northwest Passage. What used to be a geographical myth is now arguably the world’s most exotic cruise, from Alaska to eastern Canada, navigating the Arctic Ocean. European explorers spent centuries looking for the fabled Northwest Passage. Now, global warming has made it quite real, from Nome to Greenland and eastern Canada.
The land of polar bears, narwhals (authentic unicorns of the sea), Beluga whales, icebergs and ice caps, this route is as scenic, mysterious and exotic as they come. Norway’s Hurtigruten and National Geographic plan to sail the route in late summer 2022, and other expedition lines may jump aboard as well.
Rollin’ on the River
Many of the world’s major cities were founded beside a river. The Danube, Mississippi, Hudson, Thames, Seine, Nile, Columbia… the list of important rivers is long. Riverboats are smaller than ocean-going boats, and they enable easy passage among glamorous cities such as Vienna, Budapest, Paris, New Orleans, Cairo, Saigon, Ventianne and more.
The world’s premier river cruise is undoubtedly the Danube, Europe’s mother river, with a half-dozen major lines operating sleek boats that visit Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania. Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade and Bratislava are capitals along or near the river. Every mile is steeped in history dating to the Roman Empire.
The biggest surprise on river cruises — even in Europe — is how much of the journey traverses open countryside. In the U.S., Mississippi River trips include New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis and Minneapolis, but the journey also reveals rural America.
The upper river, from St. Louis north, is especially scenic in late September and October, when forests are in color and bald eagles are gathering for winter. Two lines, American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Co., operate charming replica paddleboats here; and Viking, the top-notch European river line, has jumped into the market.
Top tip: Even more than on ocean cruises, it’s easy to disembark in any port and walk around, as in Budapest or New Orleans. In Vienna, you have to take a short taxi ride to the city center. Many river cruise boats offer city-center shuttles.
Shoot for the moon: Several expedition lines sail the Amazon, either in the upper basin (home of pink dolphins) or out of Manaus, the capital of the Amazonas state in northwestern Brazil, which flourished during the rubber boom in the early 20th century.
Ancient History, Modern Pleasures
Helen of Troy is waving at us.
It’s not really Helen but a random tourist. And she’s waving at the traveler standing next to my friend Curt and I. We are at the ancient city of Troy, enjoying an odyssey in the eastern Mediterranean. “Helen” is peering out of a mockup of the Trojan horse — and like everything on our 10-day voyage, this excursion on Turkey’s Aegean coast is equal parts enjoyable, exotic and educational.
Troy was an ancient city whose ruins encompass nine layers dating from the early Bronze Age to the Byzantine era. As a modern travel destination, you’ll find two Trojan Horse mockups, a tour through the stone ruins and the chance to ponder the line between myth and reality.
Equally wonderful experiences await at Ephesus, where you can admire the most impressive ancient ruins in the eastern Mediterranean while petting the city’s famous resident dogs and cats. Then there is the sensational Temple of Aphrodite near Corinth.
In Santorini, not only did we gawk at the famed blue-roofed chapel and its stunning view, we savored awesome baklava at a ridge-top bakery, and fresh mackerel grilled over charcoal.
Top tip: Be ready to bring home shawls and rugs from Turkey. The hand-woven rugs are top quality.
Shoot for the moon: The premier ancient civilization cruise on this planet is arguably a Nile River cruise on a private boat called a dahabiya, which blends centuries of Nile basin tradition with modern luxury. Itineraries include Luxor and other, smaller sites rarely visited by land-tour travelers.
Bliss on the Baltic
Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Copenhagen — the Nordic and North European capitals ringing the Baltic Sea are among Europe’s most appealing aesthetically and culturally, and vast birch and pine woodlands frame tidy farmsteads in the countryside. Thousands of islands dot the approach to Sweden’s capital Stockholm, which is rightly called the “Venice of the North.”
Top tip: Innumerable Baltic overnight “ferries” cruise among Helsinki, Copenhagen, Oslo, Tallinn and Stockholm, and provide a one-night, two-day excursion. Staterooms aren’t lavish, but the passing scenery will be your focus.
Shoot for the moon: There is just one way for Americans to visit Russia without undergoing an arduous visa process — book passage on one of the many cruise itineraries that stop in St. Petersburg for one or two nights and allow passengers to tour the city during the day. The Hermitage, Peterhof Palace, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood: All can be squeezed in by energetic travelers.
–Written by Eric Lucas
–Top photo is of the Hubbard Glacier in Alaska from ihboucault/Adobe Stock Images