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Cruising Ports of Call

Going Ashore

Entrance to the walled city of Korçula, Croatia & starting point for a walking tour

by Linda Coffman

How to Read an Excursion Description
What are you getting? Or, more importantly, what are you getting yourself into?

Some of the most frail appearing Senior Citizens can run circles around me, so when I see they are part of a tour group I generally think nothing of it. Except on a tour of Valletta and Mdina, Malta... a walking tour. When the bus delivered us to the city gates of Valletta, a spry little woman informed the guide that her husband couldn't possibly walk the distance to the Palace of the Grand Masters. At that point it was apparent he'd never be able to handle the cobblestone streets of Mdina either. Unfortunately, the couple had either misinterpreted the tour description or overestimated their abilities. They also hadn't researched the port, otherwise they would have realized the streets are too narrow to accommodate a "city tour" on a bus.

Pay particular attention to the symbols or comments in tour brochures which indicate the level of activity participants will encounter—walking, strenuous walking, or climbing. Be realistic when determining the suitability of excursions, especially if you have physical limitations. 

Key Words & Catch Phrases
If shore excursion descriptions sounded boring, no one would book them, so it's no surprise that they contain phrases like "incredible marine life" and "pristine waters." However, ordinary words and phrases can take on an entirely different meaning when applied to organized tours.

  • "City tour" or "Introduction to..."—The bus passes a lot of sights, but won't stop at them all. Often referred to as "Highlights" excursions.

  • "You will see..."—The bus will drive right by as the guide describes points of interest.

  • "Photo stop"—Have your camera ready for a brief pause to take pictures.

  • "Refreshments"—Coffee, tea, soft drinks during the day. Possibly champagne at night. Unless specifically included in the cost of the tour, you're on your own.

  • "Open Bar"—Usually included on sailing/snorkeling tours and includes beverages such as beer and rum punch, plus soft drinks. If the "theme" of the boat is "pirate ship" or something similar, it is probably not suitable for kids. When returning to the pier, guests on party boats have been known to moon cruise ships as they sail past. Oh my!

  • "Beach break"—Transportation to and from the beach, often near a hotel resort where facilities are available to participants and a beverage is sometimes included. Bring sunscreen and a beach towel from the ship.

  • "Meal"—Usually offered during an all-day tour. Food is generally pretty good, sometimes a buffet, but when it's sit-down service the menu is usually "set"—don't plan on being offered a variety of choices.

  • "Walking tour"—Wear comfortable shoes and be prepared for hilly terrain and walking on uneven or cobblestone sidewalks/streets. Stairs may also be encountered. These are not tours for wimps.

Passion Island, off the Cozumel coast

Tour Operators
Cruise lines don't own the tour companies—they are independent contractors, chosen based on their reputations for safety and service. Oftentimes, several cruise lines use the same tour operators and, in some instances, individuals can even book tours with them independently. 

An example is a beach day that can be spent at Passion Island when Carnival Cruise Lines and Princess Cruises ships visit Cozumel. Following are their descriptions for the five-hour shore excursion:

Princess Cruises: Passion Island Beach Adventure With Lunch 
Board your motorized boat at the pier and enjoy a relaxing 30-to 40-minute transfer to Passion Island, located just off the northwestern coast of Cozumel. On arrival, notice the inviting iridescent greenish-blue water. You will receive a brief orientation about the island's amenities and sip a refreshing welcome drink. Then enjoy ample time to relax on the white-sand beach, swing in a hammock, swim, sunbathe or explore the natural sanctuary. Complimentary beach chairs, freshwater showers, volleyball, water trampoline, kayaks and pedal boats are available. The complimentary open bar serves both nonalcoholic and alcoholic beverages. Lunch features a Mexican-style buffet with guacamole, barbecue chicken and mahi-mahi fish, fresh fruit and more. SPECIAL NOTES: Participants must be at least 21 years old to consume alcohol. Bring a towel and adequate sun protection.

Carnival Cruise Line: Isla Pasion Beach Adventure VIP 
Escape to a private island beach paradise for a day of fun in the sun. On this excursion you will take a 45-minute ride on a motorized catamaran from the pier to Passion Island. Stroll along the white sand beaches where swaying palm trees and a variety of birds welcome you to this tropical paradise, relax on a raft or go for a refreshing swim in the tranquil waters, or enjoy sunbathing or a relaxing swing in a hammock soaking in the majestic charm, enjoy a traditional buffet lunch of Mexican fare, grilled fish, and BBQ chicken as well as a domestic open bar. NOTE: Massages are available at the rate of $1 per minute; there is a small shopping area; photos are taken upon arrival and can be purchased later in the day; there is a charge for premium liquors.

Reality Check: What did think of Passion Island? We're glad you asked... "We boarded a boat for the dock at Passion Island. Part of a natural preserve, and named for the fact that it was a favorite spot for honeymooners, Passion Island was cut off from the mainland by a hurricane in 1988. That quirk of fate makes it an incredible 'private' island for a day of sun, surf, and serenity."

"Don't plan to spend the day here if you want action. While an excellent Mexican buffet lunch and an open bar are included, a maximum of 600 people enjoy the island and its tranquility—Passion Island isn't a spot to party hardy. There are no jet skis or parasailing to upset the ecological balance. Passion Island is ideal for relaxation and some recreation. Plenty of great lounge chairs line the beach, thatched huts and palm trees offer shade, hammocks sway in the breeze, and, for more active beach-goers, there are volleyball nets. Noticeably missing are the annoying vendors found on many beaches, although there are nice souvenir stands with good buys on silver and crafts. Bring your own snorkel equipment if you wish as the water is incredibly clear. However, with no reef offshore, the underwater scenery isn't abundant. It's a day of sun, sand, sea, and pure pleasure!"

In short, we loved it. Food was good to great, the staff was friendly, and it was an idyllic beach day. Worth the cost? We say "yes"—if you are only planning one "beach break" and your cruise itinerary doesn't include a private island, this is as good as it gets... no crowds and an abundance of privacy!

Be proactive—Ask questions if you have any apprehension about the suitability of a tour, particularly if you have mobility challenges.

Book early—Some ships' excursions sell out quickly, but to assure that you aren't disappointed, you can often book ahead of time directly with the cruise lines, either by mail, fax, or through their websites. Once onboard, passengers can complete booking forms and leave them in a drop box when the tour desk is closed or use the interactive television system in their staterooms to book tours. However, this means there is little or no interaction with the tour desk staff. Go ahead and book early, but go to the tour desk once you are on board to ask any last-minute questions. If you find the responses not to your liking, you can always cancel.

Booking with private tour companies—Make sure they have adequate cancellation and refund policies in the event your ship itinerary changes or cannot dock/tender you ashore due to weather-related safety considerations.

Tips—Gratuities are not mandatory, but it is customary to tip the tour guide a dollar or two per person and the driver a dollar per person.

Days ashore are rewarding opportunities—Do your homework and invest in a good guidebook or search the Internet for the information you need to make the most of your time in port.

Shore Excursions vs. Independent Touring

"Ship Time" vs. "Island Time" — What's that all about?

Back to --> Going Ashore

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