Navigate top cruise ports - with a guide or solo

By Fran Golden, Special for USA TODAY

While half the fun of a cruise vacation may be the ship itself, cruises also get you to special places such as the soft sand beaches of the Caribbean, the glacial wilderness of Alaska and Europe's fascinating historic cities.

At each port of call, you can explore via an organized shore excursion sold by the cruise line or head off on your own. Shore excursions are often the pricier option, but the tour operators are vetted (for quality and safety) and you're guaranteed you'll get back to the ship on time. If you prefer a DIY approach, plan carefully and don't miss the boat if the ship leaves without you it will cost a bundle to get to the next port of call.

To help you make your choices, here are our picks of the best things to do at 10 top ports of call. (Specific excursions vary by line; prices are approximate.)

Best excursion: It's become practically de rigueur in the Caribbean to spend time communing with a dolphin. The popularity doesn't make the experience less amazing. Head off from Nassau on a scenic cruise by catamaran on the Blue Lagoon Island Dolphin Encounter (four hours, $130) to learn about the wonderful animals from trainers. Then get in the water on a floating platform and touch. Or actually swim with a "Flipper" (four hours, $199).

Best on your own: Take a cab to Ardastra Gardens, the island's funky little zoo, where you can observe the lemurs, parrots and monkeys and see the highlight attraction, sure to make you smile, pink flamingoes trained to march in formation. Admission is $16 adults, $8 kids (4-12).

Best shore excursion: The mysteries of the ancient Maya civilization are explored on the Tulum Mayan Ruins excursion (seven hours, $90). You travel by boat to the mainland and head by bus to Tulum and the amazingly well-preserved remains of a cliff-top fortress and city that was inhabited from A.D. 564 to 1521. Free time is allowed to marvel at the Mayan knowledge of the solar system, catch views from the summit or head to the white-sand beach below.

Best on your own: Head to Chankanaab Nature Park (a 10-minute cab ride from the downtown pier). The park has botanical and archeological areas and admission includes a Sea Lion Show, Dolphin Presentation and Manatee Exhibit. The top attraction is the powdery white sand beach. Snorkelers will spot fish as soon as they get into the clear water (equipment available for rent). Admission is $21 adults, $14 kids (3-11).

Best shore excursion: The advantage of an excursion, for first-timers in particular, is you see the major sights without standing in major lines. The St. Peter's, Sistine Chapel and Colosseum tour takes you by bus to the Eternal City and into the must-sees (10 and hours, $229, including lunch). Stare in awe at the Bernini-designed Piazza San Pietro, magnificent St. Peter's Basilica and the treasures in the Vatican Museum, including Michelangelo's remarkable Sistine Chapel; then visit the Roman Colosseum, the greatest archeological remnant of Ancient Rome.

Best on your own: From the port at Civitavecchia, about a 90-minute ride from Rome, cruise lines offer bus service for a stiff fee. A cheaper way to get to Rome is to take a train. They run about every 20 minutes ( and fares are from about $6.50 each way. We recommend using the bucks you save for a cappuccino and people- watching at an outdoor caf in Piazza Navona. Make sure you allow plenty of time to get back to the ship.

St. Thomas
Best shore excursion: Head to the most unspoiled of the three U.S. Virgin Islands on the St. John Trunk Bay Beach & Snorkel excursion. You visit the world-famous bay, part of the Virgin Islands National Park, with time to hit the one-of-a-kind underwater snorkel trail through the crystal blue-green water and relax on the white sand beach (four and hours, $60).

Best on your own: While shoppers will find temptations galore in Charlotte Amalie, those seeking R&R will want to head to the calm waters and white sands of Magens Bay, one of the best beaches in the Caribbean and only a 20-minute cab ride from the cruise pier. There's a $4 entrance fee.

Grand Cayman
Best shore excursion: On the largest of the Cayman Islands, the must-do attraction and the one you'll be telling the folks back home about is Stingray City Sandbar (three hours, $49). You head by boat to a site in North Sound where divers attract the stingrays with food. Get into three-to-four feet of water to be surrounded by as many as 50 of the surprisingly friendly creatures and even pet their slimy skin. Just don't step on them. Some tours also include snorkeling rays.

Best on your own: Head to Seven Mile Beach, which begins north of George Town. This beautiful strip (actually 5.5 miles) of white sand backed by Australian pine trees is perhaps most famous for its feature role in the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail. The water temperature averages a balmy 80 degrees. If you want to get active, rent water-sports equipment or go horseback riding, though local operators.

Venice, Italy
Best shore excursion: The Grand Canal, Doge's Palace & St. Mark's Basilica tour (four and hours, $129) takes you to the sights in and around St. Mark's Square, one of the most famous piazzas in the world, and onto the city's celebrated waterway. You'll visit the 14th-century Doge's Palace and the Bridge of Sighs, connecting the palace to its brutal prison; and tour magnificent, five-domed St. Mark's. Then you get a taste of daily life in Venice as you ride along the Grand Canal, really the city's main street, as you head to the 18th-century Ca' Rezzonico palace, now a museum.

Best on your own: Get lost. Venice is a fascinating city of canals and medieval bridges, beautiful palazzo (palaces) and narrow winding streets, a living museum best explored by ducking around corners. Head off on a water bus, known as a vaporetto (fares about $9 each way), and you'll see how the canals serve as streets, complete with police, fire and delivery boats. You can't really get too lost thanks to the many yellow signs directing you back to such landmarks as St. Mark's and the Rialto Bridge.

San Juan
Best shore excursion: The Bioluminescence Bay Nighttime Kayak Adventure (six hours, $90) serves up the unique opportunity to paddle in a glowing bay. The water at Laguna Grande in Fajardo is filled with tiny bioluminescent organisms that light up when physically agitated yes you're disturbing but not hurting them. The experience under a clear sky is otherworldly.

Best on your own: Explore hilly Old San Juan including the 16th-century Spanish fort, San Felipe El Morro (admission $3, children free), for views and a history lesson. At this National Historic Site you can explore the ramparts and passageways and also snap the quintessential San Juan photo of an iconic garita (lookout tower) set against the blue sea. If the cobblestone streets are too much of a challenge, free trolleys take visitors to the Old San Juan sights.

St. Maarten
Best shore excursion: On the America's Cup Regatta excursion (two and hours, $89), experience the exhilaration of racing a sailing yacht. You board a famous 12-meter race boat Dennis Conner's cup-winning "Stars & Stripes" or contenders "Canada II" or "True North" and after a practice session head to a shortened America's Cup course and actually take the controls for some good-natured competition. Celebrate victory or even defeat at the Clubhouse with a rum punch and a visit to the America's Cup memorabilia room.

Best on your own: Leave the popular beaches and shops of the Dutch side and head by cab to more laid back Marigot, on the French side, where you can walk along the shore, visit the open air market where vendors sell fruit, handicrafts and spices and lunch at one of the open-air French/Creole bistros by the sea.

Best shore excursion: The best way to experience glaciers is on a Glacier Helicopter tour (two hours, from $329). On these thrilling excursions you not only fly over jagged peaks to the vast Juneau Icefield, but actually land on a glacier or two, following a guide to explore the crevices. On the more extravagant of these treks you meet up with veteran Iditarod race mushers and take a turn on a sled, driving a team of huskies (from $569).

Best on your own: Catch a ride right from the ship pier on the Mendenhall Glacier Express, a blue school bus ($16 adults, $8 kids) that takes you to Mendenhall, the most accessible and most visited glacier in Alaska. The bus drops you off right near the visitor center, which is operated by the U.S. Forest Service. Inside are interesting exhibits including on how the glacier is receding and showings of an informative 12-minute movie, Magnificent Mendenhall, with rangers on hand to answer questions. Hiking trails get you close to the glacier the easiest takes only about 20 minutes and provides excellent glacier and waterfall photo opps.

Best shore excursion: You kind of wonder what was in the mind of Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) when he came up with ideas for his eerie, fairytale-like architecture. On the La Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell Tour (four hours, $49) you see two of his best creations, the famously unfinished church with its towering spires; and his park with its fanciful serpentine benches. Both are recognized as part of a Gaudi UNESCO World Heritage site.

Best on your own: Ramble La Rambla, one of the most famous boulevards in the world, bustling with street performers, markets, cafes and shops. Then veer off into the Gothic Old Quarter (Barri Gothic) to explore the maze of narrow cobblestone streets.

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