Cruising is the one of the best ways to see the world, IOCCCO (in our collective Cruise Critic opinion). Our staff traveled the seven seas in 2017, taking shore excursions and checking out ports to discover new experiences and revisiting old haunts.
This week, we are taking a look back at 2017, noting our favorite (and least favorite) cruise experiences of the year. We hope it inspires you to share your top cruise memories, and think about where you want to go in 2018. (read our Favorite Cruise Surprise from yesterday). Today: our top shore experiences of 2017.
My best port experience of this year did not involve flying in a float plane, snorkeling off a secluded beach or some other blissful experience. It was having the opportunity to step foot on St. Thomas right after it reopened, and seeing how far it had come since Hurricane Irma left its devastating mark only two months earlier. From seeing the sun rise over the hills as our ship pulled up and walking along Magens Bay beach, to hearing how happy the locals were to see us and that the island was back in business, I truly was moved.
-- Gina Kramer, Editor
Despite the incredible places I have been blessed to visit by sea or river this year (Chile, Argentina, Norway, Greece, Turkey etc.), there is one that stands head and shoulders (literally) above the rest: Climbing Pulpit Rock in Norway with my son Findlay. Pulpit Rock or Priekestolen, is a slab of granite that juts out from a sheer cliff face with a 600-meter drop to the fjord below. It is the No. 1 tourist attraction in Stavanger, which we called in at as part of a week-long Norwegian fjord cruise on Holland America Line's Koningsdam (read our take on its family program). The hike up is long and tiring, though never especially steep. You walk through bogs and muddy trails, through puddles and up boulders. It's doable for a 10-year-old, but I felt I was pushing his limits. As it happens, he outshone me: Clambering on ahead, offering me encouragement and ultimately getting to the top ahead of me. Pride doesn't even do it justice.
-- Adam Coulter, Managing Editor, UK
Rio: It's complicated. Brazil's party city, known for Carnival and caipirinhas, also has more than its share of problems; just a few weeks before our multinight stop with Silverseas' newest ship, Silver Muse, Brazilian police had accidentally shot a tourist visiting a favela. Luckily, one of my favorite independent tour companies -- Culinary Backstreets -- operates in Rio. Our guide Courtney, a young American who also worked as a political organizer in the city, lived up to the company's name. She navigated us through back alleys of the Centro and Porto neighborhoods, taking us to bakeries and bars, as well as the city's main market. As we walked, she told us tales of living in Rio, both pre- and post-Olympics; explained the complicated intricacies of the city's culture and yes, bought us some delicious bites along the way. Our friends on the ship were jealous when we told them about our day.
-- Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor
Dog sledding in Skagway, Alaska, was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, unlike anything we have in Australia. It was also thrilling to experience the spectacular helicopter ride to and from the camp on top of a glacier. Definitely the highlight of my solo cruise on Norwegian Jewel.
-- Louise Goldsbury, Australia Editor
Earlier this year, I invited my mother on a river cruise. It was a rare chance for us to spend several days together, just the two of us, and it also served as her first trip out of the United States. We had so much fun exploring European ports along the Rhine, but the best included a trip to the Keukenhof gardens in Holland. A nice, leisurely day, combined with my mom's love of flowers, made the experience one neither of us will forget.
-- Ashley Kosciolek, Editor
In Norway, I discovered that you don't need a shore excursion to have an amazing experience. You just need reasonable weather and hiking boots. In many of the ports on a fjords cruise aboard Seabourn Quest, we headed out on our own to work off all the cruise food and take in the scenic views. My favorite was the hike in Flam; directions are outlined on one of the buildings by the train station. We followed the road out of the main port area then hiked up alongside a waterfall for stunning photo ops of the falls, the fjord, the mountains and our ship. Even with three ships in port, the trails were not crowded at all.
-- Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor
In 2017, my best shore excursion had me milk a cow (a lifelong dream of mine!), hold a lamb and a puppy (not at the same time), learn to play the bodhran, and make my own soda bread from scratch. Oh, and we learned how hurling is played, did some square dancing and went out into the bog to cut some peat. All in a day's work, when you're being Irish for a day, on a Princess Cruises shore tour during an overnight port call to Dublin.
-- Dori Saltzman, Senior Editor
The onboard and shore experiences were seamless on my Emerald Waterways cruise along the Douro River of Portugal. The crew is entirely Portuguese, and taught us the customs and language of their country on the ship, so we would have a more enriching experience ashore. From the magical city streets of Porto, where JK Rowling was famously inspired to write Harry Potter, to the ancient Coa Valley and thoroughly modern museum on the region's prehistoric cave paintings, Portugal has a staggering amount of culture to offer visitors, spanning thousands of years. The Douro River Valley is the oldest demarcated wine-growing region in the world, giving cruisers the opportunity to tour scenic wine estates known as quintas, and best of all, to sample the varietals grown here. You might be familiar with port wine, but did you know there is dry, white port -- and when mixed with tonic, it makes a delicious and refreshing cocktail called a port tonic? With the exception of a golden day in Salamanca, Spain, the entire river cruise was focused within Portugal, and it gave me a feeling of full immersion. By the time I had to disembark, I felt connected to the people and the place, and I wasn't ready to say "tchau!"
-- Brittany Chrusciel, Associate Editor
I made my first trip to Havana, Cuba, on Norwegian Sky's inaugural visit early this year. While I'd heard and read all about the port and the cruise experience, I wasn't really sure what to expect. I needn't have worried. Havana was a festive and culturally rich port, with a cool, burgeoning arts scene, friendly, welcoming people and music virtually everywhere. Norwegian put together a great program that gives passengers a flavor of Cuba onboard Sky, then offers shore excursions to out of the way sports -- like a community art collective -- as well as the more famous venues -- such as the Tropicana night club. I left Cuba feeling like I knew a lot more about its people and culture, hopeful for a return visit.
-- Colleen McDaniel, Senior Executive Editor