The Coolest Cruise Line Excursions

If you've ever cruised, you know the litany of off-ship shore excursions available. Tours visiting historic locations, museums, zip lining or wildlife viewing are pervasive. As cruisers have matured and become more savvy, they are often times looking for more varied and interesting shore excursions. There are two main avenues to consider when deciding which shore excursions you want to enjoy.

The easiest to plan are those provided via the cruise lines, however they come with some drawbacks. These tours tend to be the most full, fairly pricey, and least adventurous. One of the biggest benefits is that the ship knows where you are and should any sort of snafu occur, the ship will wait for you, as everyone else on the tour is on your ship as well.

Making great strides in popularity (much to the chagrin of the cruise lines) is third party shore excursion operations such and These companies have arrangements with more specialized ground operators in many ports throughout the world. On the plus side, these operators offer up tours which are considerably less crowded and in many cases less expensive. They are great for multi-generational families as they are adept at handling groups of this nature.

A new development is to work with ground operators who can plan unique, one-of-a-kind events with a private car and driver. While certainly pricey, this option offers the greatest flexibility and in-depth local experiences. These full day excursions can be created to match the unique interests of each travel party. In many cases booking via a travel agency which is part of a travel consortium (such as Signature Travel Network) will have a private car and driver included as part of your cruise booking as a complimentary amenity.

Here are a couple of new options for guests to consider:

Camping in Antarctica
Hurtigruten, the Norway-based cruise ship and ferry line, may be better known for its trawls among fjords than among icebergs, but its expedition division offers voyages ranging from Greenland to Antarctica. For a handful of passengers on each of its Antarctic cruises aboard Fram, in partnership with the Norwegian Polar Institute, Hurtigruten offers an off-the-ship overnight. Highly subject to weather conditions, and limited to just 15 passengers per evening, the cruise line provides all essentials—expedition guides, two-person tents, and entertainment (such as listening to polar sounds and short hikes). Participants should bring their own pj's.

Truffle hunting in Italy
These days almost every cruise line advertises local food market tours, led by a chef who then delivers a cooking demo. Oceania Cruises, which has a serious focus on food and wine via partnerships with Bon Appetit and Wine Spectator, has the industry’s most interesting series of Culinary Discovery Tours. They vary wildly and are aimed at the more adventurous gourmand. One excursion, offered in Slovenia’s Kopor on a handful of Venice-based itineraries, combines truffle hunting, Slovenian’s burgeoning wine industry, and a visit to the fabled Fonda Fish Farm. And, oh, yes, a truffle-themed lunch is included. On all Culinary Discovery Tours passengers return to the ship to cook using lessons and ingredients picked up along the way (on this outing, the focus is fish dishes).

Volunteering for the day
Via Crystal Cruises’ You Care We Care program, passengers can spend the day volunteering for a good cause in ports around the world. In these free excursions (organized by Crystal), you can learn to rescue stranded dolphins in Barcelona or support Odessa’s Education & Health Centre for Street Children, where tasks range from painting and maintenance to teaching dance. On port calls in Singapore, passengers visit literacy program Learning is Fun and Exciting (LIFE). And in Belfast, they can trek outside the city to indulge their inner gardener; the elegant Mount Stewart House, Garden and Temple of the Winds, a National Trust property that relies on volunteers to help manage its vast acreage. Note the interesting fine print for any passenger wanting to participate: “This is a no-frills excursion intended for guests seeking personal growth and a chance to volunteer in local communities. This excursion will require hands-on physical activity.” Typically, the outings last a half day, leaving participants with a bit of free time to explore in port.

Mushing dogs in Alaska
Disney Cruise Line’s Signature Collection tours—available in most ports—offer experiential and genuinely memorable twists. In Alaska’s Juneau, for instance, the Glacier Dog Musher for a Day trip lets you do more than just watch. A helicopter ride over the ice fields takes you to Norris Glacier, home of the Iditarod sled dogs, where you tour the kennel, living quarters, and veterinary clinic among other areas of the canine camp. Then you get hands-on, participating in the wellness check and harnessing and booting your dog, before heading off on a sledding adventure.

Hanging with nobles in Bohemia
In Prague, Lobkowicz Palace, part of the vast Prague Castle complex, dates back some 600 years, and is a popular tourist attraction in its own right. It showcases art and antiquities (paintings, decorative arts, arms and armor) and, oh, the music (the family was such a major benefactor that Beethoven dedicated his Fifth Symphony to them and you can see handwritten scores by Mozart and Haydn on exhibit). It’s so easy for the general public to tour the palace that you can even buy your tickets online. But what Viking River Cruises offers that you can’t get elsewhere is access to the Lobkowicz family, which still inhabits the palace. In fact, private tours for Viking passengers are led by Prince William, its titular head, and the experience also includes a concert in its baroque hall and lunch in what was the family’s original living area.

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