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Sampling regional cuisine and entertainment. Scouring markets for handcrafted treasures. Visiting with residents. Deep-diving into cultural heritage. Whatever the port occupation of choice, contemporary cruisers by ocean and river are in search of the real thing. Which means that the sketchy,generic overviews sometimes served up by voyages of earlier times have been chucked overboard.   

“A pillar of the Seabourn luxury travel experience is the ability to see the places we visit in an immersive, enriching sort of way,” says Chris Austin, senior v.p. of global sales & marketing. “Our guests want to see more than buildings and sites. They want the opportunity to understand them and the people that call them home.” Notably helpful, he adds, are the ships’ smaller groups that deliver a better overall experience of the culture, and the destination experts who board on arrival to share local perspectives and answer questions, assisting clients with plans to make the most of their time in port. 

Uniworld passengers can opt for a cheese-making class in Amsterdam.

Indeed, itineraries that focus on providing more informative, unrushed hours in port, including overnights, are now a given with lines such as Holland America, Azamara, Regent, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and others. 

Celestyal, which this year introduced a fully all-inclusive product, schedules not only overnights at popular stops like Santorini and Mykonos but late evenings in port even on short itineraries. Celestyal also brings the Greek culture to the ship with cooking demonstrations, local dishes and wines, dance performances, language lessons, and products in the spa and shops. “As the pre-eminent home-porting Greek cruise line,” points out Leslie Peden, Celestyal’s chief commercial officer, “we are able to provide travel agents with itineraries and a constantly evolving range of original and truly authentic cultural activities.” 

Uniworld, set to launch S.S. Bon Voyage in April, partners with EatWith on U cruises to connect clients with meals in the homes of local hosts. For example, in Budapest guests can enjoy a home-cooked meal featuring tarragon soup and chicken paprikash. And in France, they can accompany the chef to a Rouen market, selecting regional specialties that the chef will prepare for their dinner. Says Ellen Bettridge, the line’s president & CEO, “We are proud to offer immersive experiences for a deeper look into local cuisines, histories and traditions, while also supporting local enterprises.”

Emphasis on regional dining is similarly strong in Crystal River Cruises’ collection of destination experiences. Among 225 shoreside experiences in five categories is Tantalizing Gastronomy, with excursions focused on local foods and beverages. Another category, Design Your Time, caters to food and wine lovers with a customized excursion based on personal preferences. A third category, Eat Like a Local, is all about enjoying restaurants off the tourist path.  

AmaWaterways offers wine tasting excursions in Portugal.
AmaWaterways offers wine tasting excursions in Portugal.

Both music and cuisine hold star billing on AmaWaterways’ river explorations. Ten teams perform the music of storied composers inspired by the regions visited, while menus spotlight locally inspired dishes. Think apricot dumplings on the Rhine, pretzels and sausage in Bavaria, bratwurst and sauerkraut in Vienna, Camembert on the Seine. Notes Kristin Karst, executive v.p. and co-owner of the line, “Destinations, ships, rivers and tours will change over the years, but the human connection is essential.”

Chairman Torstein Hagen calls a Viking voyage “the thinking person’s cruise,” thanks to more time in port, more overnights, and more open doors to people and places. Examples: A behind-the-scenes tour of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum; a visit to a Russian home for a taste of everyday family life; a look at a Norwegian farm and its animal population, and sharing tea with the hosts in their home.  

With Carnival you might take in, say, a Junkanoo band in The Bahamas or a Gombey dance tribe in Bermuda. “At Carnival, we’re always looking for shore opportunities that allow guests to interact with our home ports and the people who live there,” says company spokesman Vance Gulliksen. “Through activities like our Give Back with Purpose excursions, guests are able to create genuine moments while providing much-needed assistance to worthwhile social service organizations.” 

Expedition cruising earns high marks for experiencing rarely seen cultures. In Silversea’s summer 2019 program, the otherworldly landscapes of polar regions are featured, and in 2020 the ultra-luxury brand will debut Silver Origin, a 100-passenger expedition vessel that will serve the Galapagos Islands. Promises Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, executive chairman, “With our guests in mind, we are pushing the boundaries of expedition cruising in the Galapagos and beyond, redefining the concept of immersive travel.”  

UnCruise’s Panama Canal voyage affords the opportunity for travelers to visit with the Embera tribe.
UnCruise’s Panama Canal voyage affords the opportunity for travelers to visit with the Embera tribe.

UnCruise, known for its adventurous programs, schedules a Costa Rica and Panama Canal voyage that includes a motorized dugout canoe ride along the Mogue River for a jungle visit with an indigenous Embera tribe. “The village elders greet us with native songs and dances,” according to Captain Dan Blanchard, the line’s CEO. “We learn about the history of the land from native people and tribes that have lived there for generations.”   

Travel advisors have their faves as well. Paul Gauguin is “our personal pick,” says Liz Dominguez, Dream Vacations franchise owner and vacation specialist, after enjoying the line’s Society Islands and Cook Islands itinerary. “The entire experience immerses you, from French being spoken on board to local hosts who teach arts, crafts, and dance, and also perform. Shore excursions provide a glimpse of island life, including a visit to black pearl farms and electric bike tours.”

Lori Foster, independent vacation specialist with Cruises Inc., gives the nod to her family’s Celebrity sailing from the United Arab Emirates to the Sultanate of Oman. “Because we had a few days in port, we were able to go inland to the undulating orange sands of the Arabian desert, with camel rides and sand surfing. We experienced the growing city of Abu Dhabi, and had three amazing days and nights in Dubai.” In the souks they stopped to chat with shopkeepers, sharing “tiny cups of Arabian coffee with the ubiquitous sweet dates.”

For authentic cultural immersion, it would be hard to upstage Alaska—an enduring, always-fresh favorite of a great many clients. “Windstar returned to Alaska in 2018 after a roughly 25-year hiatus from the region,” notes Windstar president John Delaney, “and we were overwhelmed with customer demand, selling out nearly every cabin. So in 2019 we are headed back and adding some new options.” Among these: the Juneau Food Tour that showcases unique local food; the Sitka Wildlife Quest & Fin Island, an exploration of the wilderness, waterways and wildlife; and the Sitka Artist Walk & Hot Glass Stretching Tour, where clients meet artists and create their own works.

Cunard, too, returns to Alaska in 2019—for the first time in 20 years. More than 140 shore excursions will range from catching and cooking fresh salmon to dog sledding across a massive glacier. SaysJosh Leibowitz, senior v.p., Cunard North America, “For over 175 years Cunard has delivered truly genuine and unique cultural experiences and exchanges around the world.”

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