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Port Authority; Cruises: Nowadays, voyage options boil down to convenience vs. charm. Where to go ashore and how to tour the port depend on your taste for adventure, if you get the drift.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When yesterday's liners were about to sail from the United States for Europe, a steward banging a Chinese gong would strut up and down the corridors shouting, "All ashore that's going ashore!" His mission was to clear the ship of visitors, who bid hasty farewells and went scurrying down the gangway. Then the ship's whistle boomed overhead and it departed on its trans-Atlantic voyage.

Passengers remained on board until their vessel tied up in Southampton, Le Havre or Bremen. Only then did they disembark, having steamed from Point A to Point B, never slowing or stopping en route. But for contemporary cruise passengers, "All ashore that's going ashore" has a different connotation. After embarking at Point A, passengers repeatedly flock happily ashore at Points B, C and D before disembarking back at Point A a week later.

Rather than providing mere transportation across a dangerous ocean, cruise ships today offer a sybaritic drift from one exotic destination to another. These deepwater vessels are perfectly capable of making long crossings, but they adhere to a stop-and-go timetable, dawdling along warm-weather itineraries that feature a succession of cultural and recreational landfalls. The cruising voyage is episodic -- idyllic days at sea alternating with days tied up or anchored in port.

Of course, getting to know a port, let alone an island, within the customary dawn-to-dusk span of a cruise ship's call is not easy. But profiting from a guided tour or some diligent solo exploration, one can certainly absorb sufficient impressions to encourage a longer return engagement for the future.

Heading for shore

When popular cruising began about a hundred years ago, liners thronged with sightseers began visiting the same Caribbean islands so familiar to us today. But their "going ashore" was in quaint contrast with ours. When the Victoria Luise, a four-funneled German cruise ship of 1911, dropped anchor in the harbor of St. Thomas, for example, passengers would clamber down mahogany companionways on either side of the vessel and crowd aboard all the ship's lifeboats. Then, a string of boats would be towed to land by a steam launch carried on board for that purpose. The entire passenger load went ashore together, just as together they all returned to the ship near sunset.

Today, St. Thomas has a modern, deep-water pier, the West Indian Docks, at which flotillas of the world's largest cruise ships tie up routinely week after week, year-round. One can disembark or re-embark on impulse. A convenient mall has sprung up within a stone's throw of every gangway, but hard-core bargain-hunters opt for a brief taxi ride around the harbor's edge in pursuit of the downtown shops.

Larger, deep-draft vessels such as the Norway or Queen Elizabeth II must anchor outside St. Thomas' harbor and send their passengers ashore in tenders just like the old days. Passengers from those vessels have the advantage of being deposited in the heart of St. Thomas' main shopping area in Charlotte Amalie, avoiding the need for a taxi but enduring in its place a 20-minute tender ride.

The great difference between these two modes of going is largely one of convenience.

Passengers aboard a vessel tied to a pier can come and go as they please, making several visits into town if desired, interspersed with restorative interludes on board. But the tendering passenger -- faced with the cumulative delays of awaiting a shorebound tender, lining up to board, riding to shore and finally disembarking at a dock -- will most probably restrict his or her outings to one.

If seas are rough, embarkation into the tenders can be dangerous; and if wave conditions are really threatening, the captain may haul his tenders back up into their davits and write off the port completely. At risk is not only getting passengers safely ashore but, if the weather deteriorates, retrieving them as well. No master wants to have a portion of his precious human cargo stranded ashore, putting the balance of his itinerary at risk.

Nevertheless, I cherish a soft spot for the business of going ashore by tender, partly because it has always been the traditional means of achieving a tropical port and partly because it keeps one's vessel at a distance, aloof from sometimes unappealing waterfronts. Anchored peacefully offshore enjoying a cool sea breeze beats baking alongside a humid pier.

For many passengers, particularly inexperienced ones, how they come ashore in St. Thomas is irrelevant. The mere mention of St. Thomas conjures up images of a shopping paradise. Cruise lines are aware of this, and it is a rare Caribbean itinerary that excludes that perennial favorite. The lure of bargains available ashore, whether whiskey, watches or woolens, tends to skew passenger focus concerning the island.

Of course, not everyone goes ashore in an acquisitive frenzy. Even in shop-rich St. Thomas, some passengers will forsake the main street for gentler pursuits, a brief descent in a submarine, a visit to that peerless crescent of beach at Megan's Bay or perhaps a game of golf on one of the island's courses.

Tours at every port

For extended sightseeing in Mediterranean or Far Eastern ports, cruising's focus shifts seriously from self-propelled wandering to scrupulously organized shore excursions. Venturing ashore unescorted in, for example, Naples or Shanghai, where there may be language barriers no less than the occasional rascally taxi drivers who prey on isolated tourists, one is better served aboard a bus on a proper tour.

Suiting the nature of their episodic voyages, every cruise line goes to great lengths to make sure a wide selection of tours is available at every port. One can book a trek into the rain forest of St. Kitts, a horseback ride in Puerto Vallarta, a swim with the stingrays inside the reef of Grand Cayman or one of dozens of other onshore outings. The excursions can be booked (and paid for -- shore excursions are not included in your cruise fare) at a "shorex" office on board. The tours for sale will vary in length and duration, depending on the offerings available as well as their distance from the pier.

One exhausted passenger is reputed to have grumbled as she struggled back up the gangway, "Why did they have to put the ruins so far from the ship?"

The long and short

Some tours consume an entire day. When a ship ties up at Port Said, for instance, there can follow a three-hour bus ride through the dust to Cairo. Once in Cairo, there is time to visit the National Museum, lunch at a hotel, visit the Pyramids, glimpse the Sphinx and even take a short and inevitably tempestuous camel ride before reboarding the bus for the long trek back to the ship. That is a classic all-day tour, similar in length to and requiring the same passenger stamina as inspecting the jungle-clad Mayan ruins far inland in Mexico or busing up into the mountainous interior to Costa Rica's capital of San Jose from Puerto Caldera on the steamy Pacific coast.

Half-day tours would include, for example, traveling from the pier at Naples to Pompeii's fascinating remains an hour south of the port or inspecting Winchester Cathedral while docked at Southampton, England.

There are even shorter tours such as a drive around a downtown area to get the flavor of a city or a visit to a nearby cultural landmark. These shorter tours are invariably scheduled for morning, afternoon or both, with a convenient gap in between for lunch in the vessel's dining room.

In fact, returning to eat their midday meal on board is an option of which almost all cruise passengers avail themselves. It makes economic sense because that meal has already been paid for as part of the cruise ticket. Then, too, some passengers find it nervous-making to order unfamiliar dishes in a strange tongue at an alien restaurant, fearful of ptomaine, ridicule, gouging or all three. One wishes they could be persuaded otherwise. I have found that one of my favorite reasons for going ashore is to seek out an adventurous lunch.

The great advantage of organized shore excursions is that they are effortless. Everything is arranged -- transportation, meals if included, an English-speaking guide, immunity from beggars or touts, tickets of entry to parks or ruins and, perhaps most important for anxious travelers, the guarantee that the ship will not sail until every busload has been logged safely back on board.

I confess to mixed emotions. One can absorb a certain amount through the combination of a bus window and an intelligible guide, but I dislike the sense of sanitized insulation from the sights, sounds and smells of the city or countryside. Encased within that secure but sometimes claustrophobic bus, visitors to foreign lands are too often deprived of the full sensory experience of being abroad. Moreover, they seldom encounter any of the inhabitants.

A floating grandstand

There are some -- and when tied up in too-frequently recurring ports, I count myself among them -- who seldom venture ashore at all, content to remain on board with a book throughout the entire port stay. However, they will find their ship consigned to a surreal limbo, with most services shut down. Shops, casino and most bars are closed; noisy shipboard maintenance proceeds around them and often an extended lifeboat drill by the crew renders the promenade deck off-limits. But it is the prevailing mood of shipboard torpor that I find most unsettling, as though an old friend were suddenly and inexplicably confined to bed as an invalid. What a relief when everyone is finally back on board and the ship reawakens to make ready for sea.

Two last, telling observations about the cruise ship's interface with shore. It seems paradoxical that deep-water vessels seem somehow at their best when they are within reach of land. Consider one's enchanting passage along the Alaskan coast in particular, either the coniferous slopes of the inland passage or, farther north, the dazzling frieze of snow-capped mountains that can be seen effortlessly from every open deck. That stunning juxtaposition of sea and scenery -- as though Alpen peaks spied from a deck chair -- never fails to delight. The same proximity to shore enriches other cruising venues as well, from the luxuriant forest margins during passage through Panama's Gatun Lake to the forbidding but majestic crags of northern Norway in high summer. The cruise ship near shore serves as incomparable grandstand.

The most accurate barometer of shipboard contentment is the dining room noise level. During the first night on board, conversation tends to be cautious and stilted, with self introductions dominating every table while passengers and stewards take each other's measure. But with each succeeding meal, the noise level amplifies, never more so than at the end of the first port day. On that evening in particular, the dining room buzz at both sittings is positively feverish as anecdotes about tours, tenders, bargains, shuttle buses or hassles are delightedly exchanged.

What has happened, of course, is that passengers have survived their initial descent to shore. However happy they are to be back among their table companions in an environment where they are known and spoiled, they have genuinely enjoyed an off-ship adventure, embracing that portion of their seagoing journey that belongs, irrevocably, ashore.

John Maxtone-Graham is a maritime historian. His next book, written for first-time passengers, will be called "Cruise Savvy," and will be published next year by Sheridan House.

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