Adventure Meets Cruise Ship On Extreme Shore Excursions

adventureIt’s not often that we write about adventure travel and cruises in the same story. It’s more like kayaking and Costa Rica, or cruises and buffets. But some extreme shore excursion offerings by a few cruise lines have raised the bar so high, others may not catch up for a good long while.

Forget the stuffy tour bus and all the challenges of moving 50 or 60 people at a time around an iconic destination; that’s not what these are. We’re talking combat aerobatics, Korean monks and the Holy Grail.

Crystal Cruises
has what they call “experiential cruising” that features far-flung, destination-inspired adventures that are not the fare of a normal shore excursion menu and include hiking, trekking, hot-air ballooning, dog sledding and mountain climbing.

G-Force 4 Combat Aerobatics invites guests to take adrenaline-filled flight in a fighter trainer jet to experience G-Force 4 thrills as an expert pilot teaches combat aerobatics, including a wing over, loop, barrel roll, stall turn and flyby over the ship.

Crew on America’s Cup Winning Yacht- Auckland is home to Team New Zealand, the famed sailing team that won two consecutive America’s Cup challenges. Become a member of the crew for the day, sailing aboard Team New Zealand’s America’s Cup yacht.

Spend the Day as a Korean Monk has guests experiencing a day in the life of a Korean Monk discovering the ancient culture still alive in the country’s many temples. After a tour of a temple’s architecture and history, learn a Korean-style meditation or partake in the tradition of wish writing, all ending with a traditional tea ceremony.

Rescue Endangered Marine Animals in Barcelona
As part of Crystal’s “You Care, We Care” complimentary voluntourism program, visit the Barcelona Rehabilitation Center to participate in a dolphin rescue drill and learn how to manage the floating stretcher, handle the animals and introduce them to the support swimming pool.

Sail an Underground River with Millions of Glow Worms
The Waitomo Caves’ soaring ceilings and low passages have created breathtaking formations and, when one looks up, millions of luminous, blue-green worms decorate the ceiling. Guests float in pitch darkness and absolute silence (so as to not disturb the worms) along an underground river to observe.

VIP at the Monaco Grand Prix- Car lovers experience the fast cars and glamorous events of the Monaco Grand Prix. They can watch the world’s most prestigious automobile race from either the driver/team-prep paddock area, a residence above the famous Casino, or the best seats in the grandstands near the start/finish line.

Rub 100 Buddha Bellies has guests traveling much farther into Asia than the Bangkok port-of-call, including a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang, home to the famed Pak ou Caves. One hundred steps above, voyagers will find hundreds of Buddhas – all illuminated by candles. They say rubbing one Buddha Belly brings good luck, wealth and prosperity. One hundred Buddha’s? All the better.

These over-the-top experiences and other offerings by Crystal Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises and Disney Cruise Line are typical of what is happening right now in cruise vacations. Cruise lines are taking advantage of their mobile nature and addressing a traveler-charged desire to see more than the standard tours at destinations around the world.

Disney Cruise Line, masters in storytelling already, take that same ability to craft off-the-ship experiences that travelers are not apt to forget anytime soon. How about taking your children to a puppet show? … at the Villa Borghese in Rome. In Venice, visit textile and marble workshops where artisans create items for the Vatican and Dolce & Gabbana.

“On shore, we just take our storytelling skills and work with the locals to help tell our guests why we are bringing them to Venice or Croatia or Turkey,” Arnaldo Zanonato, Disney’s shore excursions manager said in a great, in-depth Travel Weekly report. “And when it’s appropriate we try to make it more fun, make it hands-on for the kids, make it a learning experience for everybody.”

At the ruins of St. John’s Basilica, the Apostle John is said to be entombed. Exclusive to Disney guests, an “archaeologist” leads them in a competition to find scattered pieces of a sacred symbol.

Travelers who have been to Rome before want something different and more experiential. Disney delivers with a San Clemente Basilica trip where guests can descend to the bottom of the three-tiered complex, which dates back to the first century.

No discussion about extreme shore excursions would be complete without mentioning Azamara Club Cruises, the tiny two-ship boutique cruise line that specializes in destination immersion like no other.

On board Azamara ships – just the right size to be comfortable ocean-going vessels but small enough to get to places big ships can’t touch – its all about the destinations. Rarely repeating itineraries, Azamara offers once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to experience the world in an up close and personal way that no stock tour bus can deliver.

Example: A 14-night sailing in April 2013 titled The Spice Route Voyage features three overnights in port and six days at sea allowing passengers to see how various cultures and customs merged along trade routes. The experience is entirely customizable too.

If exploring Singapore’s cuisine and shops is not enough, join a night safari at the zoo. Take a rickshaw ride through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Georgetown or in Sri Lanka, explore Buddhist monasteries, cave temples, rainforest preserves and elephant sanctuaries. In India, check the Kerala backwaters near Kochi, the beaches, colonial architecture and spice plantations of Goa, and the boundless energy of Mumbai. This one even has an optional overland tour to Taj Mahal.

Look for other cruise lines to pay more attention to the quality and depth of their off-the-ship options too … but a wing over, loop, barrel roll, stall turn and flyby over the cruise ship? That’s going to be hard to top.

[Photo Credit- Flickr user Defence Images]

Five reasons to visit Monaco next year

Surrounded by France, except for a stretch along the Mediterranean, Monaco is a destination for the wealthy, as well as those with a penchant for auto racing or roulette. The only other ostensible reason to visit this tiny principality is curiosity — especially for Americans, it’s hard to believe that a plot of land that small could actually be its own country! Well, good things tend to come in small packages, and Monaco is no different. Monaco stands on its own, warranting a visit that’s more than an add-on to a vacation in France.

Need a reason? I have five for you, all at least a tad off-beat.

1. You can walk the entire country end-to-end
So, it’s not a journey worthy of a Jules Verne story, or for that matter, Michael Palin. But, it’s still pretty cool to brag that you’ve walked an entire country … in only one day. Monaco is only 0.76 square miles, so you’ll even be able to stop for lunch and a spin of the wheel at Casino de Monte-Carlo.

2. The Prince is everywhere
Every business establishment has a portrait of the country’s ruler, Prince Albert II, displayed prominently. It’s like experiencing a touch of North Korea in Europe: creepy but not scary.

3. The changing of the guard is … ummmm … unique
I had visions of Arlington National Cemetery while waiting for the changing of the guard in Monaco: proud, disciplined, military personnel flawlessly executing tightly scripted movements. Nope. Some were a tad tubby to bee soldiers. A few had trouble staying in step. Rifles were propped at varying angles, though fortunately all on right shoulders. It was comical. I offered to help, but Prince A. still hasn’t responded to my open letter.

4. You could be set for life
There’s always a shot that you could find fortune at the casinos. Win big, and you won’t have to worry about working again (hey, stretch out that vacation a bit!). Since the house always wins in the end, you’ll probably want to have a backup plan. I suggest love. Try to score a future as a mistress or boy-toy: Monaco is committed to equal opportunity. The hours are great, as is the compensation. But, the work can suck from time to time.

5. Nerds are welcomed desired
Actuaries and risk geeks should hit Monaco during the annual Rendez-Vous conference for the reinsurance industry. Even if you aren’t part of the official festivities, this event is one of the country’s biggest draws, beat only by the Grand Prix in terms of cash brought in. Everyone loves the risk crowd, so drop your slide rule, and get busy!

Oh, and you can do all the usual stuff, too. Tour the palace, hit the beach and try to sneak onto a rich guy’s yacht — it’s all in good fun. Just make sure you can outrun the local army if you try this last one. It’s not hard, though, and you’re never more than a few miles from the border.

[Photo by Salvatore.Freni via Flickr]