On an ocean cruise, every port is an invitation to adventure – a whirlwind romance with a new destination that just might turn out to be your favorite place on earth. But not all stops are created equal. Some cruise ports can make an amazing first impression, capturing mental snapshots that linger in the memory.
We looked at some of the most exotic cruise stops worldwide to discover just what makes their first impressions last.
Centuries of Caribbean, European and South American culture on a single sun-soaked island of just 171 square miles? That’s Curaçao. This island’s 140,000 residents represent more than 60 nationalities, giving this sun-kissed island a uniquely cosmopolitan flavor.
The cartoonishly cute capital, Willemstad, oozes the architectural influence of Dutch settlers who first arrived in 1634. The seafront buildings look like they were lifted straight out of Amsterdam then splashed in vibrant Caribbean colors. The city’s 19th century neighborhoods show a strong influence from Venezuela, just 40 miles to the south. This is the place to come for South American sreet-side snacks like the hearty Gordita-like arepas.
With its natural deep-water harbor marked by an ingeniously hinged pontoon bridge, Willemstad draws about 200 cruise stops each year. And the island’s fantasy white sand beaches and surrounding turquoise sea attract honeymooners and divers alike.
Princess Cruises offers stops at Curaçao aboard seven- and 14-day Caribbean cruises departing from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., from $599 per person.
Royal Caribbean cruises now transport visitors to irresistibly intriguing destination: Dubai, the famously opulent city-state in the United Arab Emirates. Royal Caribbean’s 7-night Dubai Cruise starts at $699 per person and includes unforgettable stops in places like Muscat and Abu Dhabi.
Dubai’s reputation as a land of contrasts in nowhere more evident than in the must-visit Jumeirah district. This affluent area includes the iconic and futuristic offshore Burj Al Arab, sometimes billed as “the world’s only seven-star hotel,” and the marvelously ornate Jumeirah Mosque, built in the medieval Fatimid tradition and one of the few such places of worship open to non-Muslims for tours.
But the country’s “Las Vegas on steroids” image, marked by high-end malls filled with designer-clad Emiratis and a headline-making indoor ski resort, is just one of Dubai’s many fascinating faces.
Surreal rippling sand dunes are within easy reach via the Dune Dinner Safari excursion, which offers an opportunity to explore the desert in air-conditioned 4x4s before serving up a lavish Arabian-style spread of fresh meats and salads.
Though the word “cruise” traditionally evokes images of balmy palm-fringed beaches and sweltering tropical ports, contemporary cruise lines also visit gloriously un-sunny destinations like Antarctica and Siberia. Carnival Cruise Lines offers 12-day Russia and Scandinavia trips departing from Dover, England, which include the historic Baltic Sea port of Saint Petersburg (from $1,329 per person). Founded in 1703, Russia’s second-largest city (after Moscow) wears its tumultuous history with stately pride. This birthplace of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and ’17 and scene of an epic World War II siege is also home to architectural marvels like onion-domed Czarist churches, the neoclassical Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, and the fabulously opulent Winter Palace. Rightly dubbed the “museum city,” this former capital gets downright contemporary along fashionable Nevsky Prospekt. This is Saint Petersburg’s central shopping street (which includes the vast Gostiny Dvor department store) and home to much of its pulsing entertainment and nightlife.
Carnival’s cruises weigh anchor here during the summer months, when the city’s average high temperatures are in the very pleasant low 70s and, thanks to its extreme northern latitude, days are freakishly long, allowing for maximum sightseeing.
If you yearn for that “Cast Away” sensation without actually being, well, cast away, the closest you’ll safely come might be a Mystery Island stop on one of Holland America Line’s 13- and 14-day Pacific Treasures cruises (roundtrips from Sydney, Australia, staring at $1,099).
An uninhabited gem that’s part of the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, Mystery Island lies about 1,100 miles east of Australia. An airstrip during World War II, it now offers a happy landing to beach lovers and snorkelers in its calm and clear fish-filled waters. Locals from the nearby isle of Tanna visit each day to welcome and entertain visitors. Cruisers who stop here enjoy 20-minute sailing trips around the tranquil island and local delicacies like fresh crayfish, lobster and bread-like “banana pie.”
Vanuatu’s charming capital, Port Vila, is the launch point for a number of exotic excursions offered by the cruise line. And itineraries also include three stops in French-flavored New Caledonia (including Nouméa, known as the “Paris of the Pacific”) and two in the postcard-perfect paradise of Fiji.
As the world’s only major transcontinental city, Istanbul offers visitors the rare opportunity to visit both Europe and Asia in a single stop. Celebrity Cruises offers two 12-night Black Sea and Greek Isles itineraries, which both depart and end in Istanbul (from $1,649 per person), plus a 10-night Barcelona to Istanbul sailing, which also visits France, Italy and Greece (from $1,899).
Founded six centuries before Christ (as Byzantium), this sprawling municipality of 14 million people is the beating heart of Turkey, itself the economic powerhouse of the eastern Mediterranean. Istanbul’s ancient streets, which once echoed with the footsteps of weary crusaders, are dotted with glorious examples of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture, including serene mosques and palaces. More materialistic pleasures await in the 4,000 shops of the city’s famous Grand Bazaar, which dates back to the 15th century and stands today as one of the largest covered markets in the world.
Celebrity’s Black Sea and Greek Isles sailings also cruise the Bosphorus — the dramatic strait separating Europe and Asia -- and stop in Ukraine, Bulgaria and Greece.
—Paul Rogers, Custom Publishing Writer
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