In 2009, I took my first cruise with Holland America, embarking on a 14-day voyage that sailed from Melbourne, Australia, the departure port, to New Zealand. My friend Margaret and I extended our trip two full days to explore this colorful, progressive, and compelling cosmopolitan city. There were secret alleyways with massive street murals, off-the-beaten-path and quirky underground bars, engaging modern design, and a distinct, self-contained Melbourne “lifestyle.” The dining scene was outstanding, the shops were unique and, despite Sydney’s claimto-fame, there were wonderful beaches. We shacked up at the Park Hyatt, made Aussie friends who were excited to engage with young Americans, sipped local wines, visited galleries, got lit at bars, and experienced the joy of getting lost in the laneways.
After two days our ship was scheduled to depart, but Margaret and I were reluctant to leave. We grew fond of Melbourne. While the cruise would take us to amazing places like Christchurch, Tasmania, and Napier, we felt our farewell was premature. Melbourne was a mini-NYC on the other side of the world, only everyone had darling accents. It resonated in a way we hadn’t felt before. Melbourne seduces visitors, and that is what makes for an exceptional port of call.
A distinguished port charms, inspires, and fascinates, providing a wealth of amenities, good hotels, excellent attractions, and unforgettable memories pre- and post-cruise. It’s a seaside getaway you never want to leave, despite knowing there’s plenty more stops to experience on your cruise. Ultimately, it’s an alluring place that warrants more than the day excursion generally offered on most cruise ships. And while the cruise industry continues to grow in record numbers (22.1 million passengers in 2014 compared to 21.3 million the prior year), and cruise lines bang out sparkly new ships now more than ever, major port destinations are enhancing their presence with renovated terminal facilities, stronger marketing campaigns, and new businesses. But what makes a cruise port truly special is when it’s a dynamic destination that just happens to have a port.
Passengers seek quality time before embarkation in iconic port cities, like Papeete, Québec City, Seattle, and New York City, but there other exciting destinations around the world that are emerging with top cruising facilities, one-of-a-kind experiences, and plenty to explore. From Italy to the Galapagos, there are places where cruise lines begin and often end their journeys that are so spectacular, they’re the perfect places to bookend unforgettable cruises. Make the time to spend days, not mere hours, in these stunning destinations that are guaranteed to be as arousing and memorable as the cruise itself.
Western Europe is chock-full of major ports of call, many that have been significant for centuries. Now, European cruises are a perennial favorite for modern vacationers who appreciate the beautiful rivers lined with castles, farms, and fields in bucolic countryside. Amsterdam, a unique city built around canals, has begun to leave its mark as a popular port city, with its Passenger Terminal Amsterdam receiving more ships and passengers every year (approximately 100 cruises in 2016). As a newer terminal, the modern design is striking with its wave-like glass structure, and the location is priceless: the terminal is a short ten-minute walk from Central Station and major neighborhoods, and a 15-minute drive from the airport.
Amsterdam is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe, and the luxury travel scene is booming. A slew of five-star hotels have opened in the past five years, including Conservatorium Hotel, the most original hotel in the city, housed in an 1897 former music school. The architecture is breathtaking (expect an indoor, lobby atrium, and rafted ceilings) and spacious rooms have alluring views of the lobby or city. The 129-room hotel has an enviable location next to Rijksmuseum, and the destination spa features a generous sized indoor pool, steam, sauna, and a large gym equipped with fitness trainers.
Spend time at the iconic Rijksmuseum, which recently unveiled a half-billion dollar renovation. It’s the largest and most visited art museum in Holland with 8,000 objects on display, including works by Rembrandt and Vermeer.
You’ll want to dine at Jansz, a stylish restaurant in the Nine Streets district, a trendy neighborhood chockablock with boutiques, cafés, and restaurants. Jansz is helmed by Cassidy Holman, former sous chef at Momofuku in NYC, who dishes out modern classics with Dutch influence (think Dutch oysters and duck-liver mousse with truffle), with everything in-house made from scratch.
A leading cruise line, award-winning Uniworld is known for intimate river cruises aboard its decorative and otherwise highbrow ships (Holland America, originally a Netherlands-America steamship company, offers larger ships for ocean journeys). A popular Uniworld itinerary (especially for botany lovers) is Tulips & Windmills, a ten-day journey (the first three days are conveniently docked in Amsterdam) that hits scenic ports like Rotterdam, Ghent, and Antwerp.
One of the most unique places on the planet, the isolated, volcanic islands of the Galapagos off the coast of Ecuador has inspired millions with its rare wildlife species, a fragile ecosystem, and, of course, their influence on the theory of evolution. The human footprint here has been kept to a minimum, and all travelers visit via cruise ship with shore excursions that limit them to a handful of sites. But this all changed when Pikaia Lodge opened in 2014.
Pikaia Lodge is the islands’ first eco-friendly, luxury resort ever (and, don’t worry: it’s supported by locals). It’s the first time visitors to the islands can stay on the islands, and it’s very close to Baltra, the island where all cruise ships embark.
A member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Pikaia Lodge has only 14 rooms (with priceless views via floor-to-ceiling windows as well as private outdoor balconies), so you feel like you’re literally the only person on the islands—in the middle of nowhere, no less. Completely remote, Pikaia is immersed in the natural ecosystem, like an African safari. On guided tours, you can see hundreds of bird species, the trademark giant tortoise chilling out on grounds, blue-footed boobies, and more. You can take out a mountain bike, visit the town of Santa Cruz, swim in the ocean, and sunbathe on white-sand beaches—activities are seemingly endless.
An architectural masterpiece that blends in with the environment, Pikaia is an experience, not just a hotel, with amazing views of the sprawling terrain, an outdoor infinity pool, a spa sanctuary, and, as you would expect, a private yacht to explore the Galapagos Islands (each guest receives their own private room on board, so you can shower, even take a nap if you need to). Snorkeling trips will bring you up close to marine life like turtles, stingrays, sea lions, and penguins. With this type of luxury, you really don’t need to book one of the crowded cruises the Galapagos is known for and, like a typical cruise, all reservations at Pikaia include daily activities, meals, and transportation.
Leave it to Asia to design some of the world’s most architecturally stunning cruise terminals. The most buzzing is Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, designed by award-winning Foster + Partners. It’s so new for the industry that it’s still making headlines. The cruise terminal opened in 2013, and since has become both a landmark in Hong Kong and an exciting way to set off on a cruise (and also attend exhibitions and events, due to the terminal’s versatility). Since its debut, Kai Tak has become the home embarkation port for 20 cruise lines, and a standard for excellent cruise port design.
Hong Kong, a country that’s vibrant and alluring, is one step ahead on trends and unarguably the most international city in Asia. Thriving markets, a growing culinary scene, and some of the world’s best shopping abound. The country bustles 24/7, and it’s the perfect destination to shack up for several days before your nautical Asia adventure.
Naturally, a visit to Hong Kong isn’t proper without indulging in Cantonese food. Find the best bowl of noodles at Wing Lai Yuen. The noodles are pulled in-house with broth as fresh as they come. While they have limited one bowl per customer in the past, you can now order as much as you like (spoiler: you’ll never eat a bowl of noodles the same way again).
The art scene in Hong Kong is flourishing, especially in the burgeoning neighborhood of Sheung Wan, dubbed as “the Meatpacking District of Hong Kong.” This artsy district with back lanes and gritty low-rise heritage buildings, is very popular during Art Basel Hong Kong. At the edge of Hollywood Road, new galleries, artists in residence, and trendy restaurants and design shops continue to shape the gentrified neighborhood. One of the more recent openings is Blindspot Gallery, known for exhibiting the works of young, local artists and specializing in contemporary photography.
Stay at Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong, one of the tallest hotels in the world inside the International Commerce Centre (the tallest building in Hong Kong at 1,538 feet). Perched on top of the hotel is the highest bar on earth, Ozone, flaunting mind-blowing views of the dynamic city.
Plenty of exceptional cruises leave from Hong Kong to explore Asia, though the most booked are through Southeast Asia, like Azamara Club Cruises, an award-winning, contemporary boutique river cruise line that specializes in personalized service and excursions. The 13-night journey aboard Azamara Journey stops in Bangkok, Saigon, and Koh Samui.
While Fort Lauderdale has long worn the port-city sash and crown in South Florida, Miami is hot on its heels. In fact, many cruisers now consider it the cruise capital of the world. Miami hasn’t been modest in the past 15 years, opening multi-million attractions and facilities like American Airlines Arena, a skyline full of glittery condos and a burgeoning arts district, and it didn’t spare budgets with PortMiami in Downtown Miami. The port will be world renowned with epic proportions for cruise standards when Royal Caribbean opens its very own cruise terminal to the tune of $247 million next year, allowing large cruise ships to finally dock here (like the 6,780passenger Harmony of the Seas, the largest vessel in the world).
It’s not uncommon for cruise passengers to spend a great deal of time in Miami before embarking. The city is constantly growing, luxury hotels are opening at lightning speed, emerging chefs are debuting hot new restaurants, and the beaches are perfect year-round. Stay at Faena Hotel, one of Miami’s most posh hotels to date. With its old-world frescos, dapper doormen, and subtle nautical themes, it brings to mind a bygone era when cruising was limited to the wealthy. The rooms are massive, and the artwork is mind blowing, including various sculptures and projects by famed Damien Hirst.
If you can’t wait to attend the exciting entertainment provided by talented cruise ship performers, head to The National for Cabaret Dinner at Tamara Bistro, hosted by nightlife guru Edison Farrow. Featuring a pianist, servers, and bartender belting show tunes while you nosh on excellent American cuisine, this is the place to be.
All major cruise lines leave from Miami, including Carnival, Celebrity, Norwegian, and Regent, most of which depart to destinations like Mexico, South America, the Caribbean, the Bahamas, and even Europe. Enchantment of the Seas is a Royal Caribbean cruise that’s casual yet packed with fun. The cruises are short, which make them ideal for first-time cruisers, celebrations, and even weekend getaways. A three-night cruise to the Bahamas and back doesn’t even require a passport. While Enchantment of the Seas is a big ship (2,252 passengers), it never feels crowded in the multiple restaurants, several onboard bars and lounges, clubs, a theater, casino, massive pool deck, and spa and fitness center.