Cruise travel suffers from a lingering stereotype. The notion goes that cruise passengers wash ashore in each port like loose clumps of kelp, a tangle of humanity that barely encroaches on the shoreline before being swept back out to sea. There is nothing real, nothing meaningful gained by these visitors, it is said. They float in and float out without truly experiencing the places they tour.
Often, such remarks come from veteran travelers who sneer snobbishly at cruising as a way to see the world.
Well, I, too, am a veteran traveler — and I’m sorry, but my fellow sojourners are mistaken. The cruise-based travel experience can be just as insightful as any overland trip, with many added benefits that typically don’t accompany other ways of getting around the planet. As a former contributing editor and cruise columnist for Budget Travel magazine, I find that my enthusiasm for cruise vacations only grows each year. Such feelings especially benefit those of us who live in Florida, the world’s cruise capital.
Of course, it’s essential to select exactly the right cruise line for your needs. In June, I once again took an exotic voyage on the ultra-luxury Silversea flagship, the Silver Spirit, with an itinerary that began and ended in Istanbul. Other ports were scattered around the Black Sea from Yalta, Ukraine, to Nessebur, Bulgaria. As during previous Silversea trips, my companion, Gwendolyn, and I luxuriated in our all-inclusive cruising: topshelf liquors, wines and beers, always free and unlimited; a no-tipping policy; five-star service from a crew of 376 on a ship that carries no more than 540 guests. Our large and elegant suite, fine dining, quality shore excursions and more — all were as good as expected from many previous voyages.
So, yes, we love sailing on a cruise ship, and especially welcome the hours onboard Silversea. But we don’t travel only to spend days on the ocean. We travel to explore new places, new people, new cultures. This most recent cruise illustrates why we do that by ship. And why the travel snobs are mistaken about cruising.
For starters, we always schedule pre- and post-cruise hotel stays to extend our time in key ports. Two years ago, we arranged hotel nights in Dubai and Cairo at either end of a cruise during the Arab Spring. Last year, it was Shanghai and Tokyo. It’s a simple matter to book extra days through your cruise line or one of the online travel websites, which allows you all the in-depth exploration you can afford.
In late June and early July we spent four days in Istanbul, the limit of our budget. We arrived about a week after the anti-government protests in Taksim Square quieted down and, luckily enough, flew from Istanbul one day before violent clashes resumed. But the protests seemed on everyone’s mind, with opinions offered freely by folks we met. This afforded us rare moments that would have been embraced by any serious world traveler: the opportunity to hear from locals about social changes sweeping through their country as we also toured some of that nation’s most inspiring sights.
In one upscale bar near Taksim Square, a pretty young woman talked to us at length about what was going on in Turkey. “At first, the protests were good,” she explained. “The protesters were young and wanted only change. But then the others came. The union people, the other groups, and they used the protests to cause trouble for their own reasons. So the government had to stop that.” This offered a fresh perspective on the massive police presence we saw around Istanbul. Cops in huge numbers were everywhere, often armed with machine guns, to send an obvious message to all protesters — the sincere and opportunistic alike.
The next day I asked the young owner of an Istanbul pizza parlor about the recent trouble. Jon provided us with a frontline viewpoint during a long conversation at our café table as we scarfed a delicious pie topped with his homemade sausage. “We’re like full-time protesters now,” Jon said. “I come here, work all day, then go protest. And I just own a pizza place! … Now mothers and fathers and workers and everyone feels good about what’s happening in our country. And it isn’t going to stop.”
These were hardly superficial tourist chats but rather discussions that gave us genuine insight into a fascinating nation, all neatly tucked around our sightseeing schedule.
This was my second time in Istanbul, and Gwendolyn’s first, so we made all the essential stops for any visitor: from the Blue Mosque to Topkapi Palace to Hagia Sophia, from the Grand Bazaar to the Spice Market to the Basilica Cistern and a ferry around the Bosphorus. I appreciated them even more on this trip.
Our meals included a memorable dinner at the famed Haci Abdullah restaurant, specializing in traditional Turkish cuisine. It’s the only place I’ve ever eaten that boasts a written testimonial by the country’s sitting ruler, the same Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan targeted by protesters. The former Cat Stevens, Yusuf Islam, is among others raving in the Haci Abdullah brochure about the restaurant’s food.
But it wasn’t only our extended stay ashore that helped us scrape below the surface of our cruise destinations. During a full day and evening in Yalta, for instance, Gwendolyn and I got off the ship three times. We wandered along the seaside promenade for breakfast early in the morning. Later we took a four-hour Silversea excursion that brought us to the recently reopened Massandra Palace, summer home for Czar Alexander III as well as for Stalin, Kruschev and Gorbachev. And we visited the Massandra Winery for a tour and wine-tasting among the world’s largest wine collection. That night, Gwendolyn and I hopped off-ship once more for a terrific Ukrainian dinner with Russian vodka.
The advantage of doing this from an ultra-luxe cruise ship, of course, is that we returned to the familiar comforts of our suite each night as we toured. And Silversea’s all-inclusive service meant that our butler, Heri, always had chilled French champagne waiting for us when we arrived back in our floating home. A luxury cruise helps make exotic travel about as stress-free as possible.
The itineraries offered by small-ship luxury lines such as Silversea also feature places most people never see. Gwendolyn and I walked endlessly through the Ukraine’s Sevastopol and Odessa, catching key sights on our own among café stops in these charming cities. In Romania and Bulgaria we again opted for Silversea’s shore excursions because they included hours of travel through a countryside covered in hundreds of miles of blossoming sunflowers. I’ve never seen anything like it during my travels in 48 other countries. With wonderfully knowledgeable local guides, we explored Bucharest, Romania, then the next day crossed the Balkan Mountains for a tour around Varna, Bulgaria. Both excursions paused for lunchtime feasts at excellent restaurants that served traditional dishes such as cabbage rolls, polenta and huge slices of honey-soaked baklava.
I would love, then, for those veteran travelers to tell me exactly how our Black Sea trip was superficial. Simply because the time spent in some countries was brief? I don’t buy the argument. We interacted with locals everywhere and also heard an insider’s perspective from resident guides during shore excursions. We ate many local foods and toured key sights for as long as we cared to stay.
Does this make me an instant expert on, say, Romania? No. But I have a vastly more enriched understanding of that country than I possessed before my 12 hours ashore. And this raises the question of how long is long enough. Can you really learn anything meaningful about a new destination during one day?
Yes, you can. In 2001 I traveled for a single day to Paris off a cruise ship docked along the Normandy coast. I was with my then-wife, who had never set foot in Paris. Because I’d spent a fair amount of time in France, especially Paris, I was able to judge her experience from my vantage point, and I soon realized that she indeed would get a sense of the real Paris after only a few hours. We visited some of the major sights but also lingered in a café eating pate with wine as French businessmen lunched around us. We walked, took Paris taxis and sat in parks to savor the city’s life. An abbreviated visit, but a very worthwhile taste for her nonetheless.
So how long truly is long enough when you travel somewhere new? One day? Four days? Two weeks? Unless you live in a place, you can’t know it intimately — ever. But a cruise ship offers travelers a way to collect valuable samples from many destinations, memories that will permanently inform their view of some spot on the map. During even a short cruiseport stop, passengers can absorb part of an unfamiliar culture and bring it home.
That’s what Gwendolyn and I did for nearly two weeks in Eastern Europe this summer. And you know what? I can’t find anything superficial about our trip at all.