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Tours That Multi-Task Reveal Both Natural & Cultural Wonders

Diamond Princess in Fjordland National Park, New Zealand

by Georgina Cruz

The days when your only options in a port were a transfer to a beach or a city tour with an umbrella-toting guide who pointed out buildings are long gone, of course.

Now, cruise passengers find that the sky is the limit when it comes to shore excursions--there is everything from snorkel, scuba and white-water rafting programs to hot air ballooning and helicopter and float plane flight-seeing. And what is better yet, some tours multi-task, introducing participants to both natural and cultural wonders.

These last are my favorite type of tours: two-for-one, have-it-all programs--neat little packages that optimize your time in port, offering not just glimpses into the countryside but just as importantly, insights into the people who live in it. I am not alone in my preference for cultural experiences: 75 percent of Americans (109 million people) indicated in a recent Travel Industry of America (TIA) survey they had participated in a cultural activity during their vacations.

Susan Shark, an agent at World Wide Cruises in Fort Lauderdale, usually takes a full day tour that includes cultural experiences such as museums, churches, cathedrals, etc. in each major port she visits. "I can see all and then decide if I want to come back for a future vacation," Shark said.

Tours that combine natural and cultural aspects of a destination are "a perfect way to soak up the local color and get a history lesson at the same time," Shark added.

During a 12-day voyage Down Under on Princess Cruises' Diamond Princess, I enjoyed several of these multi-tasking tour programs in New Zealand and Australia, out of a variety of offerings that featured 92 different excursions.

"We have it all for you onboard and ashore," said Captain Philip Pickford, alluding to the variety of restaurants, lounges, health, fitness and recreational facilities on the Diamond Princess and the scores of shore excursions available. 

New Zealand's North Island--Geyser in Geothermal Area

A definite feast of natural and cultural wonders was my excursion to Rotorua out of the port of Tauranga in New Zealand's North Island. Called Rotorua Maori Experience & Thermal Reserve ($154, including lunch and a concert) this all-day program is very popular--five full buses of guests from the ship embarked on it. It is highlighted by a walk in Whakarewarewa, a geothermal area in Rotorua's southern edge which is made up of a four-square-mile silica terrace with more than 500 thermal features including seven geysers. Among the latter is the Pohutu Geyser (sometimes called the "Big Splash") which was erupting continuously for 20 minutes with multiple plume-like steam eruptions, and "resting" for 20 minutes during our visit.

"Amazing!" exclaimed Ibi de los Heros, a passenger from Key Biscayne, Fla., at the sight of the geyser whose eruptions were reaching up to 98 feet high.

For about a half-hour we explored the thermal area--sometimes there is a rotten-egg-like smell of hydrogen sulfide gas being released from countless fissures and vents, but during our visit it was very slight. We walked past bubbling mud pools, vents and a terraced point, which our Maori guide, Poi, explained had varying degrees of natural heat, depending on the level on the terrace. We sat on all three levels with heat going from intense at the lowest level to mild at the highest.

"In Rotorua, you wake up one morning and you can have a steam vent in your garden--or inside your house," Jeff, our driver/guide, said. "That's how life is here."

But though these natural wonders were once-in-a-lifetime sights and introduced us to aspects of life in the region, there was more to the excursion, including a visit to the New Zealand Maori Arts & Crafts Institute, on the southern edge of the geothermal area, which was the general location of one of the first Maori settlements in New Zealand. There, weavers were working on projects and gave us a demonstration of techniques, and carvers were sculpting several large wood sculptures of mythical figures.

As we watched the carvers, Poi told us with pride in her voice about their art, destined to grace a new community center under construction in their village. Regarding Maoris in Rotorua and the rest of the country, she mentioned that one million remain in New Zealand (roughly one-quarter of the country's population) with many of the original native peoples having perished due to smallpox and other "white man's diseases," Poi added.

Maori Cultural Performance

The tour also featured a Maori cultural performance with typical songs and dances including the war dance in which warriors make their eyes protrude and stick out their tongues repeatedly "to scare the enemy, and perhaps avoid the battle altogether," Poi said.

"It is interesting to compare the Maori culture to other better-known Polynesian cultures like the Hawaiian culture," said de los Heros at the conclusion of the concert. "Hawaiian music is definitely softer." She added that it was interesting to understand that the martial tone of some of the Maori music and dances was intended to intimidate the enemy and maybe avoid the hostilities. 

Better understanding of the region of Hepburn Springs, outside of Melbourne was also the result of another "multi-tasking" tour I took during my voyage Down Under. Called Exploring the Macedon Ranges & Hepburn Spa Resort (all day, $92 including lunch), this excursion takes participants to the Macedon Ranges, scenic mountains 68 miles north of Melbourne (which have inspired local artists for generations) traveling past wineries and the bucolic landscapes of sheep and cattle ranches.

Hepburn Springs, where half of Australia's known mineral springs are located -arising from a 450 million-year-old volcanic basin-is one of the points of interest on the tour. We spent a couple of hours at the Hepburn Spa, enjoying--along with locals--the warm mineral pools, featuring a heavy salt pool and a whirlpool, sauna and other facilities, including lounge chairs on a sunny terrace opening up to a forest filled with chirping birds.

On the terrace, I struck up a conversation with a woman from Melbourne, who said she enjoys coming up to the spa country on weekends several times a year -"relaxing mini-vacations that keep you going the rest of the time," she said.

We also walked a scenic trail to the Tipperary Springs where we tasted the sparkling water: like San Pellegrino, but better, it was less salty-tasting.

Lunch was in the glassed-in loggia at the Convent Gallery, a 19th century convent school, now turned into a restaurant, art gallery and museum. The gallery displays the work of local artists and I particularly enjoyed the abstract sculptures of Antonio Villella, fashioned from pruning scraps, discarded wood, seeds and stones that he collects. Villella's sculptures of local people and fauna including a great one of an egret brought to life the community and environment through the eyes of the artist.

Excursions like these leave you feeling that you spent your time in port and your vacation money wisely. Here are some general tips on choosing shore excursions from Shark and from my own experience during 137 voyages:

  • Take the tours offered by the lines. "They have been doing this for many, many years and know how much they can get in, in the time allowed," said Shark. When you take a tour from the cruise line if there are delays getting back, they will hold the departure. The lines procure guides with good English language skills and companies with reliable equipment. "One sad note is the accident that happened last month to the passengers who booked a tour separately, that was not sanctioned by the cruise line in Arica, Chile," Shark said. A dozen passengers from Celebrity's Millennium died as a result of that accident.
  • Prepare by reading up on your destination before setting sail--that way, you know if the sights and cultural aspects you want to take in are included in the shore tour you are contemplating.
  • Attend the port talks onboard. If you want to tour independently, ask the shore excursion staff if what you want to see on your own is realistic in terms of the time available in port. If you venture out on foot, particularly at night, ask if the areas you plan to cover are safe.
  • Wear sensible shoes, protection against the sun, and bring bottle water.

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