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]

Photo Of The Day: Leylon Sneed

photo of the day
This Photo of the Day, titled “Leylon Sneed,” comes from Gadling Flickr pool member Trish Hartmann who captured this image using a Nikon E4500.

Captioning the photo, Trish tells us:

“The Leylon Sneed, shown here leaving the harbor at Crown Bay, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas (with Holland America’s Westerdam to the right), is a 109 ft. replica of a Chesapeake Bay oyster boat. It was apparently built in 1989 by Heritage Boats. It was used for day trips out of St. Thomas to St. John and other islands for snorkeling and diving.

I took this photo in December, 2006.

In August 2010, this boat ran aground and was beached by Hurricane Earl at Soper’s Hole in Tortola. The salvage company Husky Marine, out of Road Town, Tortola, refloated her in January of this year, but I am not sure what has happened to this boat since then.

And – who was Leylon Sneed? An internet search comes up with a woman named Leylon Elizabeth Sneed, who lived from 1898 to 1994, but I found no other information on her. Who was she?”

Upload your best shots to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr. Several times a week we choose our favorite images from the pool as Photos of the Day.”

Tips for getting featured: Include the camera you used along with any other equipment or processing software that might help other photographers know more about your image.

A story to go along with your photo, like Trish wrote for this image, is always a good idea.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Trish Hartmann]

Jon Bowermaster: Dispatches from St. John – Day 4

Arthur Jones came to St. John from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to be a Caribbean kayak guide. He thought it would last a season, maybe two. Seventeen years later he’s still here and helping me explore the island’s rugged coast. “I never thought I would stay this long but … look around.” The island national park of St. John rises behind and St. Thomas – capital of the USVI — is just three miles to the west. The low hills of Tortola and the rest of the British Virgin Islands spread to the north and east, silhouetted in the morning light, appearing to go on forever. “Why would I leave?”

Pushing kayaks off Maho Beach we head out and around Whistling Cay. Winds are calm today; they can often blow 10 to 20 knots, making for challenging kayaking. Tiny, silvery baitfish jump in packs of hundreds, suggesting predators are nearby. Sure enough, just below the surface swim a dozen 30-pound tarpon and above circles a gang of pelicans.

I ask Arthur if he can explain a mystery of nature I’ve long wondered about: Why don’t pelicans break their necks when they slam beak-first onto the hard surface of the water? “Surprisingly, they do, but not for the reasons you might think. A scientist once explained that all those years of impacting eventually affect their eyes, which go bad. And then they die misjudging the water because they can’t see so well anymore. They hit a rock or hit the water too early or too late, and snap their necks. Hard to believe, but true.”

As we paddle we hear the green turtle break the surface before we see it. “There are lots of turtles out here, both in and out of the national park boundaries, but especially inside the park. Somehow I think they’ve figured out it’s a good place not to get hunted.”

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On Whistling Cay the hills are steep, spiked with cactus. A solitary beach is accessible through the breaking surf, perfect for resting the kayaks and snorkeling among the coral. On the far side of the island is the shell of an old Danish custom’s house; a similar one is on Great Thatch Island, in the BVI, just a couple miles away. “Apparently the guys manning the signal fires used to get bored and just signal each other,” says Arthur.

It’s changing though. “See those houses there, on the hill?” he asks, pointing back towards the main land of St. John. “None of those was here when I came.” Fortunately the natural world here is less changed.

The next day with a rented 4×4, necessary due to the steep hills and muddy paths that take over when the roads run out, I visit all of the island that is accessible by road. From East End to Saltpond Bay and on to Great Lameshur Bay, all surrounding the big Coral Bay; this is the less populated, more rugged, wilder side of the wild island.

Where the main town of Cruz Bay’s streets are narrow and tightly packed with restaurants and souvenir shops, the road that winds through the island’s only other town of any substance — Coral Bay — is pocked with a couple small commercial developments and a handful of roadside shacks selling fish and vegetables.

My research into what makes this end of the island tick begins – and ends, much later in the day — at the bar at Skinny Legs, just past the Emmaus Moravian Church and on the road to the village of Palestina. The bar on weekday afternoon is amazingly packed. Named for the identifying mark of its two Boston-based founders, the open-air room boasts a half-dozen TV’s turned to sports and tables for 50 burger munchers and beer swillers. Jimmy Buffet is on the stereo; this is clearly the stop for both expats who’ve already made their escape to the island and visitors desirous of doing exactly the same one-day. Lots of big-sunburned guys with ponytails who long ago opted for the easier pace of island life. One weak coffee, a club soda and one very good Kamikaze later, I’m back on the road, promising to return for the baseball playoffs (available only in Spanish) later that night.

Following the bartender’s recommendation, I hike the Drunk Bay Trail to the Salt Pond at the island’s eastern end. During dry season its floor of muddy red algae creates a thick layer of sea salt and locals come daily to collect it for their home tables. At Lameshur Bay the road ends and a long, winding foot trail leads to and joins Reef Bay Trail, where evidence of the early Taino Indians exists in petroglyphs carved into the stone. As I hike, island cats are everywhere and a pair of mongoose sprint across the road on the trail of big lizards that have gone ahead, trundling through big muddy puddles. Land crabs idle along the road.

Back in the car I veer off the road at a sign announcing Concordia Estates. Concordia is the sister resort to Maho Bay Camps, boasting slightly more sophisticated tents with views out over Rams Head Point. The point, formed by tectonic plates grinding together beneath the ocean surface where the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea adjoin, looking out over Flanagan’s Passage towards Tortola. To the east, Nanny Point juts into the sea, covered with soon-to-flower barrel cactus, big red buds popping out of the thick-necked cacti. Geologically this is the oldest rock on St. John. “St. John’s gets a tremor each day,” says manager Jennifer Pierce, who left Maine and an organic farming business a decade ago for the ability to swim in a warm ocean every day. “I’ve had the earth move significantly enough that my furniture has been dancing in my room.” Probably not a selling point these days, given the tremblers that seem to be rocking the world corner by corner.

Jon Bowermaster: Dispatches from St. John – Day 3

I spent one rare rainy day in St. John with Jane Johannis, who couldn’t have been happier about the dampness outside her simple house. “When it rains like this I put out every pot and pan I have, in order to keep my plants watered,” she says.

A native of the island, at 80-plus years old her skin as beautiful as fine Italian leather, eyes reduced to slits from years spent tending her garden under a hot sun, she wears a long pink dress and flip-flops. Her hair, remarkably free of gray itself, is pulled back in a tight bun. One of seven children, with nine kids of her own, she has lived most of her life in the small island town of Coral Bay. “You could say I’m surrounded by family all the time, yes,” she says, though she’s not against the occasional off-island foray and has been to New York and LOVES Las Vegas. “I do manage to play the slot machines,” she smiles, “since I’m not a drinker I need to have something to do!” But more than anything she loves her island life and her gardens.
Her expertise is the herbal medicines she finds everywhere in the bush, giving the occasional class but counseling her friends and neighbors for free. “People now they too easily run right to the pharmacy when they need something. They tell me, ‘It’s easier.’ I don’t agree. Me, I never go to the pharmacy. The doctor? He’s the last person I turn to!”

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What does she find in scrub and forests? Black wattle for fighting colds. Aloe for burns. Eye bright, which is – believe it or not – makes your eyes stronger. Sour sop used as a sleeping aid. Bastard okra, boiled and used to relieve burning eyes. Breadfruit leaves, used in an infusion to cure high blood pressure and lime leaves boiled with salt to fight aging. “Those are the ones I rely on most these days,” she laughs.

She’s not wild about some of the changes on her island, like the cost of living and taxes both of which are going up. “Even Coral Bay is changing, with more shops, more people, more everyt’ing,” she says. I’m headed to her small town the next day and ask for a recommendation on a good place to eat, the best places to hike. “Go to Salt Pond, for sure. That’s where we collect the best sea salt. The best restaurant would be Lucy’s, but she died the other day at 93, of a stroke. I’m going to her funeral tomorrow. So that restaurant be closed for a private party. But you might stop by anyway. Probably be the best party of the year!”

Jon Bowermaster: Dispatches from St. John – Day 2

Given its history of wildness, the 114-tent-and-boardwalk resort known as Maho Bay Camps is a perfect fit on St. John, as close to a true eco-resort as any I’ve seen around the world. Which surprises no one more than Stanley Selengut, the camp’s owner who put up the initial 18 tents in 1976. “That phrase – eco-resort – didn’t exist then,” says a longtime Maho Bay manager once explained to me. “Stanley and a bunch of his friends were down here and someone said, ‘This would be a great place for some tent platforms.’ Typical for Stanley, it may not have been his idea, he was the one that figured out how to get things done.”

In these days when any hotel that encourages you not to wash your towel every day wraps itself in a green banner, Maho Bay Camps is the real thing. Recycle-reuse-reduce is its watch-phrase. Showers are communal; potable water accessible in just a couple locations in the 14-acre compound; the restaurant is self-serve; urinals water-less; much of the energy needed to run 114 tents, reception, restaurant, internet solar-produced. In its art studios –open to all guests — glass is recycled by the glass-blowing studio, waste paper by the textile-makers and aluminum cans turned into pendants.

There is definitely a hippie-ish feel to the place, from the tie-dyed batiks made in the textile room to the “volunteers” who come for month-long stints, trading work for a free place to stay. During high season the place fills with families who’ve been coming now for two generations.

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I stay in tent-cabin, A-6, anchoring the far end of the boardwalk, closest to the beach at Maho Bay. It’s perfect for me. Through cracks in the deck flooring I can see the jungle below. The stove is propane, the refrigerator an Igloo cooler filled with ice, and table and chairs made of plastic. A box fan whirs, thanks to 24-hour electricity, necessary to keep the mosquitoes at bay. As I write, a frigate bird lands atop a palm just outside my window and white-tailed tropicbirds and brown boobys flit and soar. Inside, small anole lizards — gecko-like, with colorful, leaf-like dewlaps — do push ups in front of me, reminding me that this is their territory.

Letting the screen door bang behind, I find the head of Maho Goat Trail and wander down to the beach. From here it’s a mile-long walk to the start of one of the most beautiful of the park’s 22 official trails (there are countless unofficial ones, the former detailed in a variety of guidebooks and park service handouts, the latter marked with stone cairns and cryptic, handmade signs). I’m open to following any trail here since the only native mammals on the island are bats and there are no venomous snakes. The only surprise in the woods is the occasional wandering deer or donkey.

Later that one I hike down Cinnamon Bay Trail lured by its reputation for having an incredible lookout over Maho Bay. Inside the forest is dark, tropical, intensely green thanks to recent rains. The trail is narrow and steep to the downhill; you don’t want to slip. Strangler figs, kapok, cocoa, mango and bay rum trees are thick and tall, the undergrowth heavy with star-like teyer palms, sweet lime and anthurium. Turpentine trees – what locals have dubbed tourist tree – expose a pink skin beneath peeling bark. Guts, natural rocky drainages criss-cross the trail channeling water downhill; man-made swales – lines of strategically placed rocks across the trail – are angled to divert the rainwater and prevent erosion.

As I walk down, slowly to avoid slipping, a solitary black bat leads me. Small lizards, imported to the island centuries ago to help kill insects, run across the trail; a variety of snails meander. Yellow & black bananaquits dart among the trees, many of which are home to giant termite balls built in the low crotches. Halfway down the 45-minute hike the trees open up, exposing a western view from the island, over Cinnamon Bay to Trunk Bay and beyond.

As I walk I try to make out the stone terraces that once divvied the island into 100 sugarcane plantations. Everything was a clear-cut then, except for the mangoes and cocoa tree. Men, women and children slaved over the farms, in tropical heat.

At the bottom of the trail, just across from the long sand beach at Cinnamon Bay, sit the ruins of a two hundred year old plantation. Buildings, like the terraces, were constructed from stone, brain coral and occasionally imported red and yellow bricks from England and Germany. Tall stone columns, still standing, at one time supported the big room used to store brown sugar, molasses, barrels of rum and crushed and dried sugarcane stalks. There was a boiling and distillery house next door, where they used to make St. John’s Bay Rum (cologne, not alcohol!). Sitting on one of the stonewalls, sweating from the hike, nearly meditating thanks to the quiet of the forest, I can almost see and hear the young children climbing the bay rum trees, carefully stripping the leaves, putting them into sacks and carrying them off to be distilled.

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