Tag Archives: cruise

Aerial view at famous european travel destination in Croatia, Dubrovnik old town.

How to Avoid Cruise Crowds in Europe

When you plan a trip, do you factor in when cruise ships will be visiting the places on your itinerary? A lot of us do (cruisemapper.com is my go-to), since several large ships at once can overcrowd a place, pouring out tens of thousands of tourists in a day.

This is one reason why certain European cities—historic coastal ports—have enacted restrictions on cruise-ship visits. Venice, a popular cruise port where space is tight, now prohibits vessels larger than 25,000 tons. Dubrovnik, Croatia’s ancient walled harbor, now limits the number of cruise passengers to 4,000 per day. And this summer, the city council of Amsterdam, a hub for river cruises, announced a ban on cruise ships docking in its historic center. Amsterdam’s dictate is still unfolding, but it would require ships to dock at less convenient places outside the city center.

Indeed, Amsterdam recently announced that, in 2024, it will increase its tourist taxes to the highest level in Europe. Guests in hotels will see an increase from seven percent in 2023 to 12.5 percent, plus an additional 3€ for any additional occupants. Cruise travelers will also pay more, from 8€ to 11€ per passenger, per day. And cruise ships calling at Scotland’s ports will be charged a new cruise tax in 2024; timing and fees have not yet been determined.

Venice’s new rule limits entry to the small ships operated by Ponant, Ritz-Carlton, Scenic, Sea Cloud, Star Clipper, Windstar, and the occasional river vessel. Larger ships must dock in off-the-islands manufacturing towns, such as Fusina and Marghera, or in cities even farther away, such as Ravenna and Trieste, both more than a two-hour drive from Venice. Below is the cruise-ship pier in Fusina and the waterbus that shuttles cruise passengers from there to Venice. It’s a 45-minute ride each way…and certainly not as glam as docking in Venice itself.

The cruise-ship pier in Fusina, 45 minutes from Venice.

The cruise-ship pier in Fusina, 45 minutes from Venice. Photo: Teijo Niemela

I love traveling by sea. More and more, though, I’m drawn to small ships, or even private yacht charters, where you need not worry about which ports you’ll be allowed into and they’re not overcrowded when you get there. Check out the articles below for water-borne trips that will keep you away from the masses.

If you’re itching for an unusual at-sea experience and could use a personalized recommendation, use the button below.



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A Private Gulet on Turkey’s Aegean Coast: Wendy’s Family Trip

In summer 2021, when many travelers were making their first trip back to Europe since the pandemic hit, Wendy chose the perfect vacation for her family: a private-yacht sail on the Turquoise Coast.  They spent almost all day, every day, in the open air, luxuriating on the plush shaded deck, enjoying delicious coast-to-table food, sightseeing privately on shore where they were almost the only tourists, and jumping in the water if it ever got too hot.  The whole family agrees this was one of their best vacations ever and plans to do it again.  Here’s the article Wendy wrote at the time:

My husband says I chose “the perfect anti-pandemic vacation.”  We’re on a private boat in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Turkey, in a Covid-safe bubble. When we anchor in a new harbor each day to check out a beach town or fishing village or ancient ruin, our exploration is always in the open air, and social distancing is easy.   Enjoy photos from my trip on a gulet along the Turquoise Coast. It’s a “cruise” option you may not have thought of, and it’s safe, easy, and spectacular.

We love the Turquoise Coast!

Here we are in Turkey, fighting off jet lag with sea breezes and reinvigorating dips in the (surprisingly not too chilly) water, and spending virtually all day, every day, in the open air.  And trying out Tim’s new drone; check out the aerial shots!


A family milestone

Today the boys did their first-ever Open Water dive together (now that all three are PADI-certified). The water in this part of the Mediterranean is surprisingly clean and clear.


Discovering under-the-radar villages

Each time we anchor at a beach town or fishing village or ancient ruin, we’re the only Americans there. Sometimes we’re the only tourists there. We anchored in Bozburun and took the dinghy into town for sightseeing and again for dinner at the Bozburun Yacht Club. We made a lot of friends there, probably because there was a piano for Doug to play. (He’s played many a piano in many a country, and it’s always a great way to meet the local people.) Here’s what else we found in Bozburun, on Turkey’s Aegean Coast.



On a gulet, the market comes to you!

They row up to your boat, make small talk (“Where are you from?”), toss you their wares so you can try them on, reduce their price even though it didn’t occur to you to bargain, then wish you well and row off to the next boat. They’re polite and respectful—none of the hard sell you might find in a touristy spot.


Special private access to a “museum hotel”

This Ottoman mansion and “museum hotel” is Mehmet Ali Aga Konagi. It’s been closed because of the pandemic, but the WOW List specialist for Turkey who arranged my trip, Karen Fedorko Sefer, was able to get us in!  Deniz Ikizler showed us its treasures and treated us to “plum sorbet” in the garden, and Doug found another piano to play—an historic C.J. Quandt, Berlin.


Exploring the historic ruins of Knidos

In the ancient Greek city of Knidos on Turkey’s southwestern coast, there were more goats than people.  We also were not far from the wildfires. We’re lucky to have a boat to go back to where cooling off is easy: Just jump in the water. If you’d like to contribute to the relief effort, I’m told good places to donate to are Türk Kızılayı (Turkish Red Crescent) or Turkish Philanthropy Funds.


A beach town almost entirely to ourselves

Sailing into a new harbor is like waiting for a gift to be unwrapped: What will we find? In Datca we found a beach lined with restaurant tables almost up to the water’s edge for toes-in-the-sand dining; streets of boutiques and bakeries and artisan gift shops; an Old Town of winding cobblestone alleys, car-free and dotted with outdoor cafes for coffee and ice cream; Ottoman mansions and olive farms a short drive away; and barely anybody there to enjoy any of it. Datca has everything except tourists. It’s also the biggest beach town in my memory where there are no American chains—no Pizza Hut, no McDonald’s, no Starbucks.


Bodrum good-byes

Because Turkey is considered a safe, smart destination choice during the pandemic, so many yachts are converging on Bodrum that berths at the marina are hard to come by. Check out the narrow slot our boat squeezed into, right in front of Bodrum Castle. It’s hard to say goodbye to our trusty captain and crew, but it’s time to fly to Istanbul. Görüsürüz, dear new friends!


Read reviews of more private yacht trips in Turkey.

Transparency disclosure: So that I could experience Turkey’s Aegean Coast on your behalf, WOW Lister Karen Fedorko Sefer arranged for a reduced rate on a gulet.  Everything I did on my trip is accessible to every traveler who contacts Karen via my WOW questionnaire.  Thanks to my WOW system, you’ll get marked as a VIP traveler. 



Be a safer, smarter traveler: Sign up for Wendy’s weekly newsletter to stay in the know. And read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip.

Checking out icebergs in Antarctica with expedition cruise ship specialists via inflatable Zodiacs.

We’re Just Back: Carolyn’s Cruise in Antarctica

When you use our Trip Questionnaire to get a WOW trip, you start by articulating your trip goals and challenges. You can find the right Trip Questionnaire for you via The WOW List’s CONTACT buttons.


My trip request:
Antarctica had long been on my travel wish list. I wanted to go somewhere remote that is all about nature and rugged adventures. But I wanted to minimize the chances that I would get seasick or be too cold.

Biggest trip goal:
To leave my comfort zone, visiting a land almost entirely snow, ice, mountains, rocks, and to see penguins.

Carolyn Spencer Brown, on her first trip to Antarctica. Photo by Teijo Niemela

Biggest trip challenge:
I’m sensitive to motion sickness, and most Antarctica voyages require an often rough two-day crossing of the Drake Passage, the body of water that lies between South America and the Antarctic. I wanted to avoid those two days of rough seas on each end of the cruise.

Getting there:
We were starting from Maryland, so the travel time to Antarctica was approximately 19 hours over three days. We flew from Philadelphia to Miami, took a red-eye from Miami to Santiago, Chile, and overnighted in Santiago. Then we flew via Latam charter to Punta Arenas, near Chile’s southern tip (where the flights originate to Antarctica), and then on Antarctic Airways to King George Island in the South Shetland Islands. There we boarded a minibus to the Zodiac “landing” (there are no cruise-ship docks in Antarctica), climbed into a Zodiac and sailed across Admiralty Bay, and boarded the ship from the inflatable boat. Luggage followed.

The itinerary:
One week in the Antarctic Peninsula. This surprised me: Aside from knowing where we would fly from (Punta Arenas) and to (King George Island), our 7-night itinerary from Silversea Cruises labeled each day, simply, “Antarctica Peninsula.” That’s because every day, and often several times in a day, weather (and winds) would be extremely variable and changed quickly, so the captain and the expedition leader decided each night (and sometimes the day of) where we would go next. It was a powerful reminder that nature was in charge, not humans, and that felt sort of relieving (especially because we knew we had experienced pros making decisions for us).

The expedition team aimed to offer two landings each day (again, highly weather-dependent). We ended up stopping at Danco Island, Cuverville Island, Orne Harbour, Petermann Island, and Port Charcot/Pleneau Bay. And then it got really exciting: Because weather conditions in the Shetlands were worse than expected and, unusually, better than anticipated inside the Antarctic Circle, our captain headed south, where we landed at Detaille Island, Porquis Pas Island, and Jenny Island before heading back up north. As the trip was about to wind up, we transited the Lemaire Channel, Neko Harbour, Wilhelmina Bay and Deception Island before returning to King George Island.

View from the inflatable Zodiac of the icebergs.

One of my favorite ways to spend a few hours in Antarctica was riding a Zodiac right up close to icebergs. No two look alike. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown

Antarctica itinerary options vary. For 7- to 13-night voyages, you’ll spend more time in the South Shetland Islands because they’re close to the Drake Passage. (Landings there are often combined with landings on—or on islands just off—the Antarctic Peninsula.)  Longer voyages, typically from 13 nights to three weeks, will also include the South Georgia Islands and the Falkland Islands.

Cruises primarily depart from either Argentina’s Ushuaia (with an overnight in Buenos Aires) or Punta Arenas (with an overnight in Chile’s southernmost city). Another option for setting off across the Drake is Chile’s Puerto Williams.

Challenges solved:

Boarding our non-stop flight from Chile’s Punta Arenas to Antarctica’s King George Island. Flight time to the most remote place on earth? Just 2 hours. Photo: Teijo M. Niemela

Instead of two rough days crossing the Drake Passage, we flew across. The flight from Punta Arenas to King George Island was only a two-hour, and very smooth, flight. So, motion sickness averted. As for the cold, I needn’t have worried so much! Even in November (which is early in the Antarctic’s Austral spring and summer season), temperatures hovered at the 32-degree mark, though the wind could be chilling. Most cruise lines provide guests with complementary parkas (ours were thick, with a removable liner in case you got warm) and waterproof pants. You can rent boots (which means you don’t need to pack them) and they are delivered onboard.

The biggest thrills:
The otherworldly landscapes. I loved riding in Zodiacs right up to icebergs, and around bays where you had to crane your neck to see the tops of mountains, and the feeling of the freshest of sea breezes (you couldn’t really smell anything—too cold for that). I loved the islands, some flat, some quite hilly, all covered in snow or rock, where you could hike around to see penguins living their lives, sea lions resting from their great journeys to the ice, and the remnants of whaling stations (the only physical structures we saw beyond King George Island).

Penguins in Antarctica.

Penguins are quirky and full of personality as they conduct their lives in front of us.

Our airplane landing on King George Island. The specially outfitted BAe 146 of Antarctica Airways, a plane designed for short runway landings and takeoffs, flew into an airport with no terminal and just a gravel runway that pilots, well trained, had to eyeball. The flight was smooth and the catering was delicious (a full meal, reflecting southern Chile’s traditional meats, cheeses and pastries, was served). There wasn’t much of a view (it was all sea) until you came right into King George Island, and then…wow, the ice, the snow, the craggy peaks that you’d read about but hadn’t seen…. It was a dramatic beginning to our explorations there.

View of Antarctica's landscape from our cruise ship.
Antarctica's landscape. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown.
Expedition cruise in Antarctica.
Expedition cruise in Antarctica. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown.
Dinner at Silver Endeavour's La Dame being served.
Dinner at Silver Endeavour's La Dame restaurant. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown.
Our guides in Antarctica's land preparing us for what to see.
On our expedition cruise to Antarctica, we made for land at several different places every day. Our guides prepared us for what to see. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown.
Wine hour in the Observation Lounge.
Wine hour in the Observation Lounge. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown.
The hauntingly beautiful Lemaire Channel, where a narrow passage runs between two mountain ranges.
The hauntingly beautiful Lemaire Channel, where a narrow passage runs between two mountain ranges. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown.

The creature comforts:
Silversea Cruises’ Silver Endeavour, a brand new ship, was billed as ultra-luxury; every cabin is a suite, and every suite has a balcony. Would the luxuriousness of the vessel overwhelm the destination? It did not. It was a great place to rest up between landings. We loved that in our rare downtime, we could curl up in the sprawling library with its cozy nooks. Our bed was firm and comfortable, and our balcony was terrific when something fascinating slid by and we wanted to grab a photo. It was nice while on land to feel like you were roughing it, and then to come back to a ship where the crew couldn’t do enough for you.

View of Antarctica through the glassed-in walls inside the cafe/swimming pool while dining.

What a view! In the casual cafe/swimming pool, the glassed-in walls and roof keep you snug while you dine (or swim). Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown

Best surprise:
The views from the hot tub. We immersed ourselves up to our necks in the outdoor whirlpool tub on deck six, with ice floes and towering mountains all around us. After 300 cruises, I can say that these were the best views from a cruise-ship hot tub ever!

View of Antarctica landscape from the cruise ship hot tub.

It’s bliss to sit in this hot-water whirlpool with its ever-changing views (but it’s not so much fun getting out!). Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown

Worst surprise:
Getting home one day late. Antarctica weather can disrupt arrival or departure. On our last day of the 7-night cruise, a storm front had moved into King George Island, and we could not fly home as scheduled. The good news: We got an extra day of exploring on land and luxuriating in the hot tub.

Most underrated:
The daily briefings by the expedition team. At 6 p.m. in the Expedition Lounge, where bar crew served espresso martinis and hot hors d’oeuvres, the team would recap the day’s highlights via video and photographs. Then they’d give us a preview of the next day’s plans (always subject to change, and they often did), followed by mini-enrichment lectures (10 minutes apiece) by staff on their specialities, such as maritime history, marine mammals, ornithology, etc. Prior to the trip, I thought this might be rather dry, but after multiple landings where you’d cruise on Zodiacs with the expedition team or chat with them on land, you got to know them a little bit as people, and that infused so much more enthusiasm than expected.

Our expedition leader’s pre-dinner lectures were surprisingly fascinating as she shared memories of today — and insights on tomorrow. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown

Thank God I packed:
Medicated lip balm (our expedition guides suggested Burt’s Bees or Carmex, which have a 15 SPF rating). Sunglasses and sunblock (45 SPF was recommended). Wool touch-screen gloves that allow you to take pictures with your phone’s camera. A woolen neck warmer from Patagonia. Moisture wicking tee-shirts. Leggings that you layer under the waterproof pants and parka.

What I didn’t need to pack:
A portable modem. I was totally surprised to find that the Wi-Fi onboard Silver Endeavor worked very well for checking emails and even rebooking my return flight when our departure was delayed. My portable modem didn’t work in Antarctica anyway because there is really no civilization.

Most bizarre tradition:
The Polar Plunge (which is also popular on Arctic cruises) is, for many, a frosty challenge. On our cruise, literally half the passengers onboard (and some staff and crew) donned bathing suits, hopped into a Zodiac, climbed up on its padded side, and dove, jumped, cannonballed or slid into the frigid sea. I wish I could say that I tried it.  I didn’t, but it was fun to watch everyone’s reactions, from an outdoor deck just above. No regrets on this end.

Lessons learned:
Pace yourself. Sometimes we just needed to relax in the hot tub, walk laps around deck 10, have a massage at the spa, or simply sip tea and read a book in the library.

Build in time before and after Antarctica. Even if you try to pace yourself, this is a busy trip, and the travel to and from Antarctica is tiring. Next time, I’ll build in more days before and after the Antarctica portion.  Our limited time in Santiago made me want to explore further, and Punta Arenas is a gateway to the thrills of Patagonia.

Best trip memory:

Crushing the ice in Antarctica. Photo: Teijo Niemela.

One day, toward the end of the trip, our Captain found an ice field and maneuvered the ship into it. That was the most remote, desolate, wild place—where the ship’s hull was able to glide through the ice that surrounded us. The views around us, craggy mountains, and utter silence made this the magic moment. This was the peace I had been searching for when I first considered a cruise to Antarctica.


Transparency disclosure:  Silversea Cruises provided Carolyn with a complimentary trip, and she does paid consulting work for Silversea.  She is also a longtime travel journalist who has taken 300 cruises.  Everything Carolyn did on the trip is accessible to every traveler who requests an Antarctica cruise via Wendy’s trip questionnaire. Thanks to Wendy’s WOW system, you’ll be recognized as a VIP traveler.


Be a smarter traveler: Sign up for Wendy’s weekly newsletter to stay in the know. Read real travelers’ reviews, then use the black CONTACT buttons on Wendy’s WOW List to reach out to the right local fixer for your trip.

The Best Way to See Egypt. Especially If You Don’t Like Boats.

I am not a boat person.

I have no interest in cruise ships, I’m not overly fond of short ferry rides either, and I’ve even gotten seasick on one of those supposedly too-big-to-rock, giant family-vacation ships…while it was moored for a special event. So when our WOW List Egypt expert Jim Berkeley tried to tell me that the Nile was so calm, and that my private six-cabin dahabiya sailboat would be so smooth that I wouldn’t even feel the movement, I dismissed him outright. People who don’t suffer from seasickness are not reliable sources.

But I wanted to go to Egypt, and I wanted to cruise the Nile, and they make drugs for this. So I packed a ton of anti-nausea medication and resigned myself to the expectation that I’d just be meclizine-dazed for four days. But I didn’t end up needing a single pill. What’s even crazier is that my time on the dahabiya turned out to be my favorite part of the whole trip. No one is more surprised than me.

I tell you all of this so that you’ll know that I am the last person who would steer you wrong about a boat vacation, and what I have to say on the topic is this: A dahabiya trip is the best way to experience Egypt.

Here are three reasons why.

It’s a breezy, outdoor experience.

Sailing on a dahabiya allows you to spend a good chunk of your day in the open air without overheating, despite the often-high temperatures in Egypt. My friends and I, along with the family of four from Belgium with whom we shared the boat, spent much of our time enjoying the views from the shaded top deck; that’s also where all of our meals were served. The cabins below deck were small, but none of us used them much except to sleep. Even so, they each had large windows (and two of the cabins had balconies) that allowed in plenty of fresh air. (You can see all my photos below.)

It feels very private and keeps you away from the crowds.

The boat’s small size allowed us to dock at sites where the mass-tourism Nile boats can’t. So we got to see several fascinating places completely alone. My favorite: the rock quarries of Gebel Silsileh, a valley that provided the stone for the famed ancient temples at Luxor, Karnak, and Kom Ombo, among others. We chose to hike to the quarry rather than ferry right to it from our boat (which is an option), and that turned out to be a really special morning. For two kilometers, we walked right along the stark border between the desert and the green fertile strip next to the river. I couldn’t take my eyes off that well defined natural line—except for when we were watching local farmers harvest dates and mangoes, and when an entire school of children poured out to their balconies to wave and shout hello to us.

Even when we visited the sights that all the boats go to, we usually were able to arrive before or after the rush—or on a different day entirely—since the big boats all follow a very rigid, fast-paced itinerary. (I recommend talking to your guide to find out what kind of flexibility you might have in your daily schedules; our guide sailed with us and that was a real perk.) For me, the trip felt like a relaxed meandering through off-the-beaten-path sites, rather than a to-do list of must-see temples.

It’s so relaxing and fun.

Our days quickly fell into a delicious rhythm: In the morning, we’d tour some fascinating sight, and then come back to the boat for lunch made fresh by our incredibly accommodating chef, Ali. Then we’d spend the rest of the day lounging around on the comfortably shaded open-air deck watching the green and yellow scenery go by. (As we got closer to Aswan, I saw more and more of the big ships, and very few of those had covered top decks—I couldn’t imagine how anyone could sit up there in Egypt’s strong sun.) At night, we’d feast again and then play games and talk until the generator went off around 10 or 11 and we all turned in for the night. In those four days, I laughed so much, and cemented friendships all across the boat.

Finally, one of the more subtle bonuses of the wind-powered dahabiya is how blissfully quiet it is. Every day I could hear the gentle splash of water against the hull, the ripple of the main sail in the breeze, and the afternoon call to prayer rising from villages on both sides of the river.

I’m not sure if all of this means I’m finally becoming a boat person. But I can say one thing for certain: I’m now definitely a dahabiya person.


We boarded the boat in a small village called Esna, just outside Luxor. At this point, I'm excited about the trip, but I'm also mentally preparing for motion sickness.
Cold hibiscus juice is a typical welcome drink in Egypt, and it's delicious—tart and refreshing. If you order it at a restaurant, ask them to go easy on the sugar; as our guide told us (and we soon learned for ourselves), Egyptians like their drinks to be very sweet.
Our home for the next four days. When we weren't touring on land or sleeping downstairs at night, we spent all of our time up here on the deck. We ate all our meals outside at the big dining table (except for one night when we had a picnic on land), and we read, lounged, talked, and played games in the various comfortable sitting areas. We had a wi-fi hot spot that went on with the generator (and lights and outlets) around 4pm each day and stayed on until sometime between 10pm and 11pm each night.
Egypt's iconic blue, green, and yellow view.
Me, not feeling the least bit seasick. I still can't believe it.
They even let me steer the boat.
But these guys did it much better.
A standard room. They're small (it is a boat, after all), but I was happy to see they all have such big breezy windows. I left them open during the day to air out the room, and then turned the air conditioner on for about an hour at night before the generator went off to cool down the room.
The two suites at the stern of the boat have balconies.
The balcony is great for lounging, reading, and napping, but consider yourself warned: If you happen to hang your laundry out here, sneaky crows might try to steal your socks. File under: Things I didn't know about boats. Or crows.
We sailed from Luxor to Aswan (the direction is south, but it's "up river"), and as we got closer to Aswan we saw more and more of these typical big white Nile cruise ships race by us.
What a dahabiya looks like next to one of those.
Our walk to the quarries of Gebel Silsileh. I took dozens of photos of the way the desert just ended and the narrow green jungle started. The green part wasn't that wide, and it ran all along the Nile like that.
Gebel Silsileh was one of my favorite stops. It was fascinating to see where giant blocks of sandstone had been carved out of the hills and imagine them being floated to Luxor to build the Karnak and Luxor temples we'd just seen days before. We were the only travelers at the site.
Our dahabiya docked at a site the big ships skip: Daraw market, where we stood in line behind a slew of locals to get our chance to sample handmade falafel.
The verdict: My friend said it was the best falafel he's ever eaten.
Of course I was more interested in the candy vendor across the way. Verdict: very sweet and very chewy.
Sails up, stresses gone. I'll miss this dahabiya lifestyle.


Transparency disclosure: So that I could experience Egypt, WOW Lister Jim Berkeley arranged reduced rates for my trip. Everything I did on my trip is accessible to every traveler who contacts Jim via Wendy’s WOW questionnaire. Thanks to Wendy’s WOW system, you’ll get marked as a VIP traveler.

Be a smarter traveler: Sign up for Wendy’s weekly newsletter to stay in the know. Read real travelers’ reviews, then use the black CONTACT buttons on Wendy’s WOW List to reach out to the right local fixer for your trip.

plain open ocean looking out to the horizon

Cruises: When Can We Sail Again? How Will It Be Different?

This summer ships will be sailing again—in the Caribbean, in the Greek Islands, on European rivers, on Alaska’s coast—and maybe out of other U.S. ports too. In this live Q&A, cruise specialists on The WOW List and cruise journalist Carolyn Spencer Brown told us how cruise lines, both large and small, are wooing travelers back onboard, putting new safety standards in place, and changing both onboard and shoreside experiences.

Our conversation touched on so many interesting aspects of what travelers can expect from the cruise experience, including:

•How cruise lines are wooing travelers back

•New safety measures on large and small ships and river cruises

•How limited capacity and fewer ships will affect availability

•How the onboard experience is changing on large and small ships

•What shore excursions will be like going forward

•Covid logistics for multi-country cruises

•Onboard testing

•Cruise lines’ vaccination and documentation requirements

•Mask requirements onboard and on shore excursions

•When to cruise

•Where to cruise

•Christmas market cruises

•Alaska cruises and whether they can make stops in Canada

•Small expedition cruises

•The cruises that are already operating in the U.S.

•How the pandemic has created opportunities for the cruise industry as a whole to improve

The panelists:

Carolyn Spencer Brown, former editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com who’s now at Carolynspencerbrown.com

Tom Baker, WOW List Trusted Travel Expert for Cruises, including Large Ships, Luxury Ships, and River Cruises. (Read reviews of Tom here.)

Ashton Palmer, WOW List Trusted Travel Expert for Small-Ship Expedition Cruises, Antarctica, and the Arctic. (Read reviews of Ashton here.)

More Q&A videos:

You’ll find the Zoom recordings of our previous travel Q&As in our new Travel Talk Videos section, including Q&As on last-minute trips, what vaccinated travelers do and don’t need to worry about, and understanding travel insurance in this new era. And, if you’d like to travel this summer while minimizing your risk and maximizing your experience, you’ll find wise solutions via Ask Wendy. We know which places are safest and smartest, and which local fixers can ensure an easy and extraordinary trip. Check out these recent international trip reviews to understand the huge difference that this makes

We’re Here to Help

Right now is a remarkable opportunity for global travelers who are vaccinated. When your friends say that travel is problematic as a result of the pandemic—rental cars aren’t available, service even at 5-star hotels is shoddy—the problem is they’re not planning their trips right! Travel can be spectacular now if you choose the right destination, know the savviest local fixers, and approach them the optimal way. Check out these recent trip reviews to see the difference that Wendy’s WOW approach to trip planning makes. And if you’re looking for a similarly carefree travel experience, contact us at Ask Wendy.

Galapagos sea lions and people in boats- covid CR Expedition Trips

Dispatch from a Galapagos Cruise: What It’s Like to Be on a Ship Now

Photo: Expedition Trips/Greg Overton
Galapagos airport health checker Expedtiion Trips
Photo: Expedition Trips/Greg Overton
Galapagos La Pinter greeter CR Expedtiion Trips
Photo: Expedition Trips/Greg Overton
Galapagos La Pinta Panga covid CR Expedition Trips
Photo: Expedition Trips/Greg Overton
Galapagos lizard
Photo: Expedition Trips/Greg Overton
Galapagos sea lions cuddling
Photo: Expedition Trips/Greg Overton
Galapagos finch
Photo: Expedition Trips/Greg Overton
Galapagos sea lion and man staring at each other
Photo: Expedition Trips/Greg Overton
Galapagos cactus and landscape
Photo: Expedition Trips/Greg Overton
Galapagos La Pinta ship
Photo: Expedition Trips/Greg Overton
Galapagos La Pinta ship giving out wetsuits to passengers
Photo: Expedition Trips/Greg Overton
Galapagos tortoise
Photo: Expedition Trips/Greg Overton
Galapagos crab on sneaker Expedition Trips
Photo: Expedition Trips/Greg Overton
Galapagos sea lions and people in boats- covid CR Expedition Trips
Photo: Expedition Trips/Greg Overton


“This was one of my favorite trips to the Galapagos Islands.” That’s what WOW List Trusted Travel Expert Ashton Palmer told us on the phone after returning from Ecuador’s famous islands two weeks ago. “I felt safe. In fact, in many ways, I’ve felt that I was in more precarious situations at home than I was on this trip.”

For Ashton’s first visit to the Galapagos since the pandemic began, he chose a five-day itinerary on the 48-passenger yacht La Pinta, one of only a few vessels currently sailing the area and visiting Galapagos National Park (which reopened July 13). Residents of the U.S. are welcome, with some documentation and a negative Covid test, and as travelers return to the area, a few more cruise ships are expected to start up in November and December.

Ashton experienced the ship, the shore excursions, the entire security process, and three Covid tests—prior, during, and after the trip, all negative—so that he could report back on what it’s like to travel in the Galapagos now and in the coming year. Here’s what he had to tell us.

*This article is part of a series in which we will be following the pioneers on Wendy’s WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts as they road-test their reopened destinations anew. Remember, these are the trip planners with the highest standards in the world—they’ve earned these stellar reviews—so we’ll ask them how local safety protocols measure up; the savviest ways to sightsee and explore; and the safest places to stay, eat, and get health care if necessary. In other words, we’ll follow them as they do all the in-country legwork so that you don’t have to.

What was the process of getting to the Galapagos, and what were your flights like?

You have to get a test within ten days of visiting the country, and I was leaving on a Sunday, so I went in on the Monday before to make sure I had enough time to get the results. I drove to a testing place here in Seattle, and it took five minutes. Then I got the results in about 36 hours.

I flew from Seattle to Houston on United. Going through security was a breeze; it was really no different than pre-Covid, other than that you’re wearing a mask and they have plastic screens for people checking your documents. The flight was about half full, with no blocked seats. When we got on, they handed everyone a heavy-duty industrial sanitizer wipe that was doused in alcohol so you could re-clean the seatbelt buckle and armrest. They served drinks and packaged cookies. Everyone was required to wear masks—and everyone did.

I then flew from Houston to Ecuador. This flight was full, with every seat taken. They issued those strong wipes again when we boarded, and they served a packaged food item with drinks.

Did the airline check to make sure everyone had the negative test certificate?

Not before boarding. The only time United asked us if we had proof of our Covid test was onboard the flight to Ecuador. If anyone said no, that person was given a form and had to go to a different intake area when we landed and get an in-airport test [at their own expense] that can deliver a result within 15 minutes.

What was the process when you landed in Ecuador?

When you arrive, they make you fill out a questionnaire asking if you’re sick. It’s a few yes/no questions, and I’m sure everyone always says no to everything. They had health workers in protective gear who took our temperature and inspected our results, stamped them, and sent us on our way to immigration. The whole process—from getting off the plane to getting outside with our bags—took 30 minutes. It was streamlined and efficient.

But you have to get another test to go the Galapagos. How did you manage that once you were in Ecuador?

You have to get a test within four days prior to arriving in the Galapagos. If you were flying directly to the islands, you could potentially get your test at home, spend the night in Guayaquil [the transit point for the islands], and then the next day fly to the Galapagos, without needing a second test. But we had been in Ecuador for a while, so the hotel I was staying at had a private company come to give us tests. We paid about $100 per person, and they emailed us results the next day.

After that flight to the Galapagos, then there’s another transit to the ship, right? Was there another round of safety protocols?

On arrival in the Galapagos airport, they make you walk through disinfectant trays to clean your shoes, and they also sprayed our bags—and us, which is kind of a bizarre experience. It was a guy with a backpack on and he had something that looked like a leaf blower that sprayed a very light misting on our clothing. There was no residue or wetness on our clothing, and no after-effects.

We then took a 10- to 15-minute bus ride on which every other seat was blocked off and everyone was wearing masks. Finally, about six to eight people got into each Zodiac—or panga, as they’re called in the Galapagos—with masks on and went to the ship. Before we boarded, they made us walk through something like an airlock of ozone. They gave us sanitizer, and checked us into our cabins.

One of the concerns scientists have is about being in enclosed spaces with other people for extended periods of time. How much open space is on the ship? Do the rooms have windows or balconies that open? Are you eating indoors? What steps were being taken to minimize risk?

The cabins are spacious and very comfortable. You can’t open the windows in them, but the cabins are electrostatically cleaned multiple times per day. The staff also sprays public areas and the seats in the dining room.

Normally the ship offers one seating at mealtimes, but they broke it into two seatings, to allow for greater social distancing. They also sat people only with their traveling group or family.

There is no buffet: Every meal is ordered beforehand and brought to you plated. So at breakfast you scan a QR code and tell the waiter what you want to have at lunch. Then at lunch, you select your dinner, and at dinner you select what you want for breakfast.

There’s also outdoor dining on that ship, so we had a couple of meals outside, and they had an evening cocktail hour outside too. There’s also outdoor deck space, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get fresh air.

“Within a day, I honestly felt very comfortable—and that’s because everyone onboard had been tested.”

How safe did you feel?

Within a day, I honestly felt very comfortable—and that’s because everyone onboard had been tested. Before they leave home, all of the crew and staff are tested; then they have to do a 14-day quarantine in the Galapagos, and they get a second Covid test before being permitted on the ship. And they were told: If you want to work, you have to commit to a three-month contract, and you can’t go into town or port or anywhere that isn’t part of an excursion. So the ship has created a bubble. And the passengers they bring into it have been tested as well. I actually felt safer on the ship than on my flight from Seattle to Houston. Had anyone been tested on that flight? Who knows?

All over Ecuador, you cannot go into a hotel without getting your temperature checked; you can’t go into a restaurant without them giving you sanitizer. I did not see one person in Ecuador without a mask on, and that includes in the countryside and on children. There’s a $100 fine if you don’t wear one, and for Ecuadorians that’s a lot of money. So they’re on the ball.

I came to the conclusion that, when I travel, I can take the same safety precautions that I take at home: I can wash my hands, wear a mask and do all of those same things.

What were the shore activities, and how did they compare to pre-pandemic?

They were the same activities. You’re walking around the different islands and seeing the animals and going to the beaches and swimming and snorkeling. There were just a few differences compared with before:

First, the gear that you’re issued is all fully sanitized, and they also issued us brand-new snorkel mouthpieces.

Second, you are required to wear a mask, even when outside on the islands.

Third, it felt like we had the Galapagos to ourselves—and that was really magical.

It’s very quiet, and the wildlife is really taking over the islands. There are animals everywhere on the hiking trails! It’s like: Excuse me, baby sea lion, I need to come through this way. [Laughs.]

We had more flexibility too, because there weren’t as many people or as many ships coming through—whereas in the past we might have had a window of time and we’d have to be out of a spot in two hours.

Did they also create a bubble for your shore excursions?

We were always with the same group of people for excursions. For us, that was for language reasons: The naturalist spoke to us in English. But I think they were generally organizing the groups according to who was traveling together.

You said this was your favorite of all your trips to the Galapagos. Why?

It was the privilege of being able to travel again. Being in nature is my jam anyway, but gosh if there’s anything to make you appreciate some normalcy and the gift of travel, it’s the pandemic. We’ve all been through the ringer for a while, and I think just being in a place of natural beauty, sitting on a beach and feeling the water and the sand or seeing these beautiful animals, and being fully present with it—it’s magical. Why should it take having travel taken away from you to make you appreciate it more? I don’t know, but it does. And that made the trip really special.


Be a safer, smarter traveler: Sign up for Wendy’s weekly newsletter to stay in the know. And read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip.

couple toasts with champagne in zodiac boat Endicott Arm Alaska

WOW Moment: A Fjord of One’s Own

Photo: Seabourn
Photo: Seabourn
Photo: Seabourn
Photo: Seabourn
Photo: Frank Ott
Photo: Frank Ott
Photo: Frank Ott
Photo: Frank Ott
Photo: Frank Ott
Photo: Seabourn


Frank Ott is not a cruise person. “I don’t like cruises,” he told us on the phone from his home in Ringwood, New Jersey. “We once had a family reunion on a cruise out of New York. It was my worst nightmare because it was 3,800 people on the boat.”

Yet he and his wife, Angie Sebastiano, had always wanted to sail the Alaskan coastline. So when they started researching which ship would be best for them—one that had luxury and space but not crowds—they turned to Tom Baker, one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for cruises. Tom recommended the Seabourn Sojourn, which hosts just 458 passengers, provides 335 crew, and navigates into nooks and crannies that bigger ships can’t.

Adding to the challenge: Mr. Ott and Ms. Sebastiano were also due for a WOW Moment on this trip. Wendy’s WOW Moments are exclusive insider experiences earned by travelers who request trips through The WOW List. They vary depending on the location, timing, and logistics of a trip and could be anything from a meeting with a noteworthy local to an unusual activity to a special-access tour.

In this case, Wendy, Tom, and the folks at Seabourn collaborated to create a Moment that highlighted the unique beauty of this location and the personal preferences of these travelers: taking the couple on a private excursion to view the waterfalls, glaciers, harbor seals, and remote beauty of Endicott Arm. After they returned, we called Mr. Ott to hear how it played out.

Q: Were you surprised?

A: To be fair, it’s hard to keep a secret when you’re on a small ship. And we were 30 miles into this long fjord, so you really couldn’t surprise us. When all the passengers were getting ready to board the Zodiacs, the Seabourn Ventures team manager, named Chris, said, ‘Why don’t you and your wife wait here for a moment while I take everyone else down.’ So we figured it out. Especially when you step off the ship and get into the Zodiac and there’s a bottle of champagne in a bucket and caviar and a rose—you know it’s not the regular excursion you booked.

Q: Then what happened? Can you describe the WOW Moment for us?

A: So the ship’s Ventures photographer was there and a crew member was there and she was offering us champagne and caviar. (There’s nothing like champagne and caviar at 8:30 in the morning.) The Zodiac driver was an expert in geology—and that was perfect because she could explain the glaciers and how they were formed, why they recede, and what they leave behind. It was beautiful because we’re cruising around and trying to avoid small and medium-size icebergs and it was just the two of us. The location made it special—there’s nowhere more beautiful. We’ve traveled the world, but it was one of the most beautiful places to be in.

Also, just the amount of ice that we were Zodiac-ing between was incredible. We’ve been to Argentina, we’ve been to Punta Arenas, we’ve gone ferrying around glaciers, but this was spectacular because we were in a little boat surrounded by ice with a professional driving it. So we didn’t have any danger but we got up close and personal. And some of the pictures we have of the Seabourn ship just surrounded by ice….it’s a spectacularly beautiful place.

Q: You said you’re not a cruise person. What made this cruise different?

A: The draw was Alaska. And the ship Tom Baker recommended for us was ideal. This ship carries 450 passengers. There was so much space—so many empty places if you wanted to be by yourself, or you could join the crowd. And they had the best staff of anything I’d ever been on. I can’t think of anything that wasn’t good. There were 335 staff to 450 passengers, and the staff had 52 nationalities represented. I asked everyone, and I met 33 nationalities myself. Every single one seemed authentic in enjoying what they were doing, and they all knew your name by Day Two.

Q: How did the WOW Moment affect, or change, your experience of Alaska?

A: I expected Alaska to be beautiful, and it met that expectation; the WOW Moment made me understand the beauty better. Because of the Zodiac driver and her knowledge, I got to learn, more in-depth, the history and nature of Alaska. I wouldn’t have gotten that in a general Zodiac tour. I got to understand how the beauty came to be what it is today.



Wendy would like to thank Brian Badura, Seabourn’s Director of Global Public Relations and Strategic Initiatives, as well as the Seabourn Shore Excursions and Ventures teams, for creating such a magical WOW Moment for Mr. Ott and Ms. Sebastiano.

Wendy Wants To Amp Up Your Trip!

On every third qualifying trip, Wendy will add to your itinerary a surprise WOW Moment. A WOW Moment is an exclusive insider experience that helps make a trip extraordinary. Each WOW Moment is totally different. They vary depending on a huge range of factors, including the country you’re headed to, the timing of your trip, logistics, availability, and more. You can read a sampling of the more over-the-top WOW Moments (those most conducive to editorial coverage) here. Learn which trips qualify, and how the process works, here: Wendy Wants To Amp Up Your Trip!

Blue-footed booby, Galapagos Islands.

Choosing a Galapagos Cruise: The Most Important Things to Know

There was one small box left under the Christmas tree, addressed to my husband, my son, and me. Inside was a tiny globe from the dollar store—a symbol, my mother explained, of the trip that she and my father would take us on together. The destination: TBD.

It’s part of my job here at WendyPerrin.com to read every trip review that we receive, so I knew immediately that the Galapagos Islands were a multigenerational crowd-pleaser: The low-effort/high-payoff wildlife sightings were sure to appeal to both my 7-year-old son and my 82-year-father, who bracket our small family, as would the unpack-once ease of a cruise.

The tougher decision was which of the 77 licensed vessels to book for our voyage. Hotels are becoming more and more common on the Galapagos’ four inhabited islands, but we knew that we wanted to visit a wider range of islands than we could see on day trips from land. After all, it’s how species change from island to island that steered Darwin to his theory of evolution, and that has attracted awe-struck visitors ever since—those finches and their multitude of beaks, if you remember a little of biology class. And I’m so glad we went by sea: The moments when we, our shipmates, and a colony of bold sea lions shared an empty beach, with not a single other ship on the horizon, were my favorites of the trip by far, and the time we spent in a handful of towns I found the least enjoyable.

To aid us in narrowing down the options, I reached out to Ashton Palmer, an expedition cruise specialist on our WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts who has spent time in the Galapagos, both with and without his own family of four kids. As Ashton helped us sort through the possibilities, here are the main factors that I learned you need to weigh when picking the right Galapagos experience for your group. Many of these factors, it’s important to note, are drastically different from the considerations you want to weigh when picking an ocean cruise:

  1. Length of cruise
Bartolome Islet and Santiago Island: This is the iconic postcard view of the Galapagos Islands

Bartolome Islet and Santiago Island: This is the iconic postcard view of the Galapagos. Photo: Ryan Damm

Most Galapagos cruises are, for all intents and purposes, almost two days shorter than advertised; that’s because you arrive from mainland Ecuador on the first day and have only the afternoon to explore, and most itineraries don’t include any activities before returning to the airport on the final morning. Anything shorter than a five-day cruise—which includes three full days of excursions—doesn’t give you enough time to properly explore the archipelago. On the other hand, you needn’t look for anything longer than a week: Our cruise lasted six full days, and we saw every major species but one (the flightless cormorant, which is found on only two islands).

2. Itinerary/combination of islands

The National Geographic Endeavour II at anchor off Espanola Island in the Galapagos Islands

The National Geographic Endeavour II at anchor off Espanola Island. This 96-passenger ship is the biggest allowed in the Galapagos, but tiny by cruise-ship standards—and perfect for our multigenerational group, which ranged in age from 7 to 82. Photo: Ryan Damm

In many parts of the world, the size of your cruise ship determines which ports you can visit; forget navigating Alaska’s Inside Passage or the hidden gems of the Caribbean on a 5,000-passenger megaship. But in the Galapagos, every vessel can access all the locations where Ecuador’s national park service allows visitors, by anchoring off the island and carrying travelers to land via pangas (small inflatable boats).

Genovesa Island in the Galapagos Islands - tourists get Up close and personal with sea lions.

Genovesa Island: Up close and personal with sea lions. Photo: Ryan Damm

boy takes photograph of frigatebirds on Genovesa Island in the Gapalagos Islands

Genovesa Island: Zeke takes aim at some frigatebirds. Photo: Ryan Damm

Furthermore, the park service dictates the itinerary of each vessel, and it does so with the marquee attractions in mind. So don’t worry that you’re going to end up on a week-long cruise and miss the giant tortoises or blue-footed boobies. Generally speaking, the longer the cruise, the greater the assortment of wildlife and landscapes you’ll see. Some islands are dusty and have only scrubby vegetation; others are covered by abrasive lava rock and bits of pioneer cactus; still others are cloaked in rain-soaked foliage. But beyond length (or the requirements of a serious birder), there’s not much to make one itinerary superior to another.

3. Size and features of the ship

tourists wade through mangroves on Genovesa Island in the Galapagos Islands

Genovesa Island: Wading through mangroves. Photo: Ryan Damm

Tourist vessels in the Galapagos range from small yachts that carry just a dozen passengers to expedition ships holding 100. That capacity dictates the number of guides on board, as visitors must be accompanied by a naturalist on every excursion, divided in groups of up to 16. So a 16-passenger catamaran will likely have just one guide and one option of activity per outing (typically hiking, snorkeling, or kayaking). The 96-passenger ship that we settled on, Lindblad Expeditions’ National Geographic Endeavour II, had seven naturalists on board, and every day offered a range of activities to suit different abilities: beach strolls, longer walks, shallow or deep-water snorkeling, and even a glass-bottom boat, which I was surprised to find nearly as rewarding as snorkeling (and with the added benefit of a guide naming each species as it wriggled below you). This proved essential for a family such as ours with varying levels of stamina. Keep in mind, though, that none of the hikes allowed by the park service are more than two to three miles in length; my young son wilted at times in the thick and steamy air, but his little legs never once gave out.

birdwatching on Genovesa Island on a Galapagos island cruise

Genovesa Island: Framing a swallow-tailed gull. Some Galapagos walking trails, such as this one, are quite flat, while others require that you boulder-hop among volcanic rocks. Photo: Ryan Damm

The larger ships also tend to have more creature comforts; our rooms had gorgeous floor-to-ceiling windows, for instance, and the kitchen staff catered to finicky eaters with ease (when the captain dined with us one evening and saw my son receive a special order of pesto pasta, he even requested a bowl for himself). Consider what you’ll actually use, though: A hot tub may sound appealing, but you’ll seldom want to jump in given the year-round humidity; and with two or even three active excursions every day, only die-hards will use a gym. Room to roam onboard can be a boon for families with young kids who might feel cooped up on a small yacht; a larger ships also brings more potential buddies for your children. By day two, my son had blown us off to eat at a kids’ table with a group of new friends.

On a smaller ship, the days unfold a bit more efficiently: You won’t have to wait in line for pangas to start each excursion, and the mandatory park and safety talks are shorter (it’s easier to succinctly convey a message—and answer questions—with a group of a dozen rather than 100). There’s also a bit more flexibility to each day’s schedule, with the opportunity to linger a few minutes longer at a fabulous snorkeling spot or on a deserted beach.

4. Quality of the naturalists

Galapagos Cruise boy spotting seabirds off coast

Espanola Island: My son enjoys a moment of silence spotting seabirds with our fabulous naturalist, Celso Mantalvo Fuentes. Photo: Ryan Damm

Some cruise operators prioritize the expertise and experience of their guides more than others; this was a factor that attracted us—and just about every other passenger I chatted with on the ship—to Lindblad. The naturalists leading our expeditions had published studies and photographs in scientific journals; started nonprofits to introduce island kids to the Galapagos’ natural wonders (which even locals can only visit with a guide); and consulted on ecotourism projects throughout Ecuador. A knowledgeable Galapagos trip-planning specialist will have cruised on most or all of the vessels they recommend and will know which attract the best-qualified naturalists (almost all of whom are from Ecuador).

5. Commitment to sustainability

hot peppers, hibiscus flowers, and herbs sourced from Galapagos farms by Lindblad cruises

Lindblad Expeditions sources much of the produce served on the ship—including these hot peppers, hibiscus flowers, and herbs—from Galapagos farms. It’s an economic win for locals, and also good practice environmentally: Invasive pests sometimes catch a ride on food shipped in from the mainland. Photo: Brook Wilkinson

Tourist vessels in the Galapagos are strictly regulated by the park service, but some cruise operators go above and beyond to be good stewards of this unique environment. Lindblad, for example, has partnered with farmers on the islands to grow much of the produce used on the ships. This not only creates employment opportunities for locals but also avoids introducing invasive pests to the islands (insects can hitch a ride with food shipped over from the mainland). Lindblad will also only serve beer and soft drinks that come in reusable glass bottles (their Ecuadorian craft beer selection is particularly impressive); they stock their gift shops with jewelry, chocolates, and hand-painted t-shirts that are handmade in the Galapagos; and traveler donations to a fund that the company has set up support island conservation and local education. Ask your cruise company what it’s doing to ensure that the Galapagos are preserved for the next generation.

6. Time of year

There’s no off-season in the Galapagos: Since the islands are sprinkled around the equator, you don’t get seasonal variations in weather. The ocean currents are a different story, though, and the normally tepid water gets downright chilly—and choppy—in September and October. If it’s animal behavior you’re after, fear not: Something is nesting, mating, and birthing just about every month of the year. While our April departure was dictated by my son’s school schedule, it meant that we saw the waved albatross returning to land on Española Island and great flocks of frigatebirds flouting their bright red neck pouches on Genovesa. Had we visited in December, we would have seen sea lion pups and bottlenose dolphins frolicking in the water. If you’d rather not deal with the chatter of kids on your cruise, avoid spring-break weeks and the summer months. (Of course, if you want playmates for your own children, those weeks are ideal.)

7. Your preference for privacy—or camaraderie

National Geographic Endeavour Galapagos Cruise ship cabin

Cabin Tip: The two Suite B cabins are the only ones on the National Geographic Endeavour II with these large windows. Photo: Ryan Damm

A smaller vessel feels more intimate, and you’ll likely be trading email addresses with your fellow passengers by the end of the trip. If you’d rather keep to yourself, you might actually prefer a larger ship—or, for the ultimate in privacy, a chartered vessel for your exclusive use. Chartering is best done with groups of ten to 20 family members or friends.

When I called Ashton for advice, he asked about our family dynamics and trip goals, and then presented three options: The Origin, a 20-passenger vessel that carries two guides for some of the smallest excursion groups available; La Pinta, a mid-sized, 40-passenger ship; and the National Geographic Endeavour II. We chose the Endeavour II for its extra onboard amenities and wider range of outings. And it was such a terrific fit for us that, within three weeks of leaving the Galapagos, we booked an Alaska cruise on a similarly sized Lindblad ship (this from a family that had never taken a cruise vacation before). Had my parents not been along, I might have preferred the more intimate feel of a smaller vessel, with less time spent waiting in line to board pangas or attending mandatory lectures. But for a multigenerational group such as ours, a larger ship was just the ticket.


boy watches a Galapagos hawk on Espanola Island in the Galapagos Islands

Espanola Island: Zeke stares down a Galapagos hawk, the islands’ apex predator.

Full Disclosure: Lindblad Expeditions provided this reporter with a reduced rate for her cruise cabin.  In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, there was no request for or expectation of editorial coverage on Lindblad Expeditions’ part, nor was anything promised on ours.

Tibet monastery

Cruise Trends 2019: Cruise Like a Traveler, Not a Tourist

It’s been true for years that you can visit the world’s most remote places in absolute comfort—on a small, luxury ship. What’s new this year is that many cruise lines are not just delivering you to off-the-grid places but are also enabling you to have truly immersive experiences there. The most innovative cruise lines are exploring new concepts such as country-intensive itineraries and extraordinary shore excursions, and many travelers are planning truly unusual pre- and post-cruise adventures. As my colleague at Cruise Critic, Chris Gray Faust, reminds me, these new trends “give passengers more control over their experience—and feel much less like an organized tour. It’s hard to go back to typical group shore excursions after you’ve had more freedom.”

How can you make my favorite three travel trends work for your next vacation? I’m sharing my take with you below. And one more thing: Once you’ve done your own travel homework, my best recommendation is to hand it all over to a top cruise-planning specialist and let the expert make it happen—especially if you’re a first-timer or need multiple travel arrangements booked.

Country-Intensive Itineraries

What’s new: If you want to delve into a single country rather than a skip-hop-and-a-jump itinerary through a vast region of the world, country-specific itineraries are a hot commodity. This year, cruisegoers can explore places such as Iceland, Japan, Indonesia, \Thailand, and Norway in greater depth. Even Alaska (which is only a state) is offering itineraries that get you much farther below the surface than the typical seven-day Inside Passage route.

If you’re planning to go: For the most part, it’s small-ship expedition and luxury cruise lines that are offering these itineraries—lines such as Azamara (whose ships carry about 700 passengers), Ponant (whose vessels carry up to 264 passengers), and Windstar (148 to 312 passengers). But even big-ship fans have options: Princess Cruises’ 2,670-passenger Diamond Princess is sailing many cruises focused on Japan only.

Luxury Land Adventure Add-Ons

What’s new: Cruise ships typically sail from the world’s most compelling cities, where travelers frequently want pre- or post-cruise exploration. Cruise lines are starting to use those cities as jumping-off points for grandiose adventures. On my upcoming cruise around South Africa on Viking Ocean Cruises, you can, for instance, add a multi-day safari to the voyage. And it’s not alone; what may surprise travelers is that they can combine a cruise along Africa’s coast with the very different style of safari experience. AmaWaterways, a river cruise line, has a dedicated inland cruise on the Chobe River that covers Botswana and Namibia.

Even more ambitious is Silversea Cruises’ new “Couture Collection,” which connects cruises to super-small-group land tours of places such as Mongolia, Australia’s Outback, Tibet, and India’s Rajasthan.

If you’re planning to go: Adhering to the old “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” cliché, Silversea’s aforementioned trips, which run from 5 to 11 days, aren’t cheap: They range in price from $34,000 to $78,000 per traveler. Another option: Plan your own private pre- and post-cruise adventures via the best trip-planning specialist for your destination.

More Destination-Focused Theme Cruises

two cruise guests in snorkel gear standing in the water in Moorea with fish swimming around in French Polynesia

Paul Gauguin Cruises offers hands-on, conservation-focused learning in French Polynesia. Photo: Pacific Beachcomber/Paul Gauguin Cruises

What’s new: Theme cruises that typically make headlines revolve around boy bands, food and wine, and television icons like Star Trek. Where we’re seeing a sea change is that travelers are demanding—and cruise lines are delivering—themes related to the destination. One of my most satisfying cruise experiences ever was a Lindblad Expeditions soft-adventure trip to the Nordic countries, where National Geographic photographers taught us how to better capture stories on film. No fewer than three photographers taught daily workshops onboard, and you could also go exploring on shore with them. I took the best pics of my life on that trip.

If you’re planning to go: It’s the small-ship cruise lines that are most likely to offer the most compelling destination-themed programs. Not only do they tie the itinerary into the educational component, but their small size means they can nip into ports that larger vessels can’t—and where you won’t be competing with thousands of other passengers. On Aqua Expeditions’ Aria Amazon riverboat, for instance, you can sail the Amazon and explore its jungles with noted explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau.

For families, I love the Stewards of Nature program aboard the Paul Gauguin. In partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, it offers hands-on learning in the ports of French Polynesia. Kids hike through forests with naturalists, create Polynesian-inspired jewelry, participate in scientific experiments using local flora and fauna, and even design their own Polynesian tattoos.

One fabulous outlier is Cunard, which on its transatlantic crossings occasionally offers themed weeks that hone in on particular interests yet have nothing to do with the itinerary itself. On my list to experience is its Fashion Week, complete with designers, runway shows, and red carpets.


Carolyn Spencer Brown is Editor at Large for Cruise Critic, the leading site for cruise reviews and information, as well as the largest forum for cruise fans. She’s been taking cruises for decades and has amassed an extensive and impressive knowledge of the specifics of ships, lines, itineraries, policies, and ports. You can follow Cruise Critic on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and also follow Carolyn herself on Instagram (@carolynspencerbrown) and Twitter (@CruiseEditor).





Komodo National Park island paradise for diving and exploring. The most populat tourist destination in Indonesia, Pink beach, Nusa tenggara Indonesia

The Best 2019 Cruises for Seeing Nature, Meeting Locals, and Staying Active

At WendyPerrin.com we hear from a lot of travelers who would like to take a cruise but have run up against a big challenge: They want to be physically active, see nature, and interact with locals—three things that cruise lines often do not make easy to accomplish—and they aren’t sure which locations and vessels are optimal. So we’ve pulled together a list of the very best upcoming cruises for achieving these goals: staying active, meeting locals, and seeing nature. We’ve even shared who to book through to get the best experience for your dollar.

Hikers in Alaska's Tongass National Forest

Cruisegoers explore Alaska’s natural beauty, on and off the water. Photo: David Vargas/Lindblad Expeditions

Wild Alaska Escape, aboard the 62-passenger National Geographic Sea Bird

When: Departing from Sitka or Juneau most weeks from late May through August 2019; June is Alaska’s driest month of the year

The Details: A compact itinerary designed to fit within a single work week, this cruise is packed full of options to explore southeast Alaska as few ever will—from hiking lush rainforests to kayaking in remote bays to cycling around a glacial lake. Enjoy the local flavor in the tiny community of Haines, walk the Totem Trail in the picturesque oceanfront town of Sitka, and enjoy a traditional dance demonstration in an ancient Chilkat Tlingit village. There’s abundant wildlife to be found in this region, including coastal bears, migrating whales, and the iconic bald eagle.

Pro Tip: Category 2 cabins on the Upper Deck have doors that open to the outer deck, allowing for the best wildlife viewing.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Ashton Palmer through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Gentoo penguin chicks, Port Lockroy, Antarctica. Photo: ExpeditionTrips

Gentoo penguin chicks, Port Lockroy, Antarctica. Photo: ExpeditionTrips

Antarctic Peninsula, aboard the 112-passenger Island Sky or 114-passenger Hebridean Sky

When: 2018/19 departures from Ushuaia, Argentina available between late November and late February

The Details: If you want to mingle with penguins, hike on the White Continent, and paddle around icy bays, and perhaps even camp on Antarctica—but you don’t want to rough it onboard—these ships are a great choice. The top-notch expedition staff and photography coach will make sure that you get the most of your adventure.

Pro Tip: Want to help with real-world scientific research in Antarctica? Ask about the complimentary Citizen Science program.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Ashton Palmer through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

a canal barge cruise in france

Canal barge cruises move slowly, allowing for great up-close views of the French countryside. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

Bicycling in Burgundy, aboard the six-passenger Rendez-Vous barge

When: Weekly private departures from Paris, France, available from April through October 2019

The Details: When you charter the Rendez-Vous for a private cycling adventure, your onboard local biking guide will plan daily 10- to 20-mile routes through Burgundy’s rolling greenery and famed Grand Cru vineyards via manicured towpaths and fantastic biking trails; bikes and a backup vehicle are provided. The Rendez-Vous feels like a boutique hotel, with chic décor, an open kitchen, and a shaded sundeck—plus it’s got an extraordinary wine list full of Premier Crus.

Pro Tip: With a hot tub on deck for loosening your muscles after your bike rides, the Rendez-Vous is well outfitted for younger, more active travelers.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Ellen Sack through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

clear blue water of the Galapagos Islands Ecuador

The clear blue water of the Galapagos Islands. Photo: hugh_s20/Pixabay

The Galapagos Islands, aboard the 16-passenger Ocean Spray

When: Year-round departures from Quito, Ecuador

The Details: Pair an exploration of Ecuadorian culture on the mainland with extraordinary wildlife experiences and active options in the Galapagos Islands. Enjoy the warm hospitality of historic Quito before boarding a comfortable catamaran to explore the Galapagos, filling your days with hiking, snorkeling, and kayaking in this world-renowned national park and marine reserve.

Pro Tip: Since the Galapagos are close to the equator and warm year-round, plan your cruise to get a bit of sun whenever the weather is coldest at home.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Ashton Palmer through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Icebergs under the Northern Lights

Search for the northern lights on an Arctic cruise. Photo: Shutterstock

Arctic Air-Cruise: Greenland’s Northern Lights, aboard the 66-passenger Ocean Nova

When: Weekly departures from Reykjavik, Iceland, in September, 2019

The Details: Spend your days exploring iceberg-laced Scoresbysund, the world’s largest fjord system, and your evenings searching the sky for the Aurora Borealis. This adventure gives active travelers the chance to trek in Greenland National Park, paddle pristine waters, and search for Arctic wildlife.

Pro Tip: Pack sturdy footwear to take full advantage of Greenland’s spectacular hiking, and sign up early for the popular sea-kayaking excursions.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Ashton Palmer through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

truffle hunter and his dog in France

Go truffle hunting with the family-run L’Or des Valois mushroom farm in France. Photo: Barge Lady Cruise

France barge cruise out of Dijon, aboard the six-passenger Magnolia

When: Weekly private departures available from April through October 2019

The Details: When you charter the Magnolia, owner/operators Nicolas and Magali Rancelot welcome you as one of the family: You’ll go truffle hunting at a family-owned mushroom farm, accompany your chef to the Dijon market to shop for the day’s ingredients, and dine at the country home of Magali’s parents. Four other meals are taken on shore at small bistros and artisan kitchens, so you’re sure to soak up plenty of local color.

Pro Tip: At about $3,800 per person for a six-night, seven-day cruise—including all but four meals—the Magnolia is an excellent value among canal barge cruises.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Ellen Sack through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

The Seychelles and neighboring islands, aboard the 260-passenger Le Lyrial

When: Departs from Durban, South Africa, on April 1, 2019 and March 25, 2020

The Details: Discover some of the Indian Ocean’s most picturesque isles and isolated atolls on a five-star tropical expedition that offers ample opportunities for both activity and relaxation. Divers and snorkelers alike will enjoy exploring Aldabra Atoll, a virtually untouched UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Pro Tip: Special savings are available for those who wish to extend their travels on consecutive sailings.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Ashton Palmer through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Komodo National Park island paradise for diving and exploring. The most populat tourist destination in Indonesia, Pink beach, Nusa tenggara Indonesia

Pink Beach, Komodo National Park, Indonesia. Photo: Shutterstock

Exploring the Indonesian Archipelago and Komodo Island, aboard the 184-passenger La Laperouse

When: Departs from Singapore on November 25, 2019

The Details: Komodo National Park, Pink Beach, traditional villages, the orangutans of Borneo, and a luxurious new superyacht—what more could you want? This adventure treats travelers to a variety of landscapes, cultures, and unusual wildlife while hopping from island to island, all without leaving the creature comforts behind.

Pro Tip: Get a whale’s-eye view of Indonesia as you enjoy a cocktail in the ship’s unique multi-sensory Blue Eye lounge.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Ashton Palmer through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Panoramic view of Glacier Bay national Park. John Hopkins Glacier with Mount Orville and Mount Wilbur in the background. Alaska

John Hopkins Glacier (with Mount Orville and Mount Wilbur in the background) in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. Photo: Shutterstock

If you require a large ship: Alaska’s Inside Passage (7-Day roundtrip out of Vancouver), aboard the 2,106-passenger Nieuw Amsterdam

When: Departs from Vancouver every Saturday between May and late September 2019

The Details: Cruise Alaska’s Inside Passage, visiting Tlingit Indian villages and the best fishing ports in southeast Alaska along the way. Those wishing to be active can go zip lining, kayaking, glacier hiking, and the like; wildlife lovers can spot whales and birds. You’ll spend a day in Glacier Bay National Park, then come back to a large ship with lots of entertainment and dining options to choose from.

Pro Tip: While plenty of large cruise ships visit Alaska, Holland America has been doing so for almost 60 years; they have more highly coveted Glacier Bay permits than any other cruise line, they bring national park rangers and members of the Tlingit culture onboard to enrich the experience, and they have larger cabins than their competitors.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Tom Baker through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.


Be a smarter traveler: Read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

The veranda of a Signature Suite on the Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

5 Ways the Right Cruise Beats a Resort Vacation

I’ve been to 41 countries on six continents, but until recently, the only cruise I’d taken was an overnight ferry from Maine to Nova Scotia. (I was eight at the time and spent my casino winnings on a fish tank.) So when Seabourn invited me on the first sailing of their new small luxury ship, the Ovation, I quickly booked flights. As a travel journalist, I’ve interviewed cruise experts and studied itineraries and deck plans for years. But it wasn’t until I stepped on board the Ovation that I realized how similar a cruise is to a resort vacation—but also how much better it can be, if done right. Here’s why:

You get a different place to explore each day.

coast of Kotor Montenegro village with boats water and mountains

Kotor, Montenegro. Photo: Pixabay/Falco

A smart cruise itinerary drops you in a new and interesting place daily, mixing must-see and hidden-gem ports and cutting out the tedium of long drives between them. My cruise stopped in Montenegro, for instance—a pocket-sized country that, frankly, I was unlikely to see any other way. Given the Ovation’s relatively small size (it carries about 600 passengers), we were able to anchor close to land and had just a three-minute tender ride to shore. In the ancient walled town of Budva, I wandered into a tiny, homespun-feeling archaeological museum that displayed delicate, Roman-era glass vessels that have miraculously survived for nearly 2,000 years. In Kotor I left the crowds behind to follow stray cats in the maze of alleyways around the main square. Adriatic cruises on a luxury small-ship line like Seabourn often combine a day in Montenegro with days in Croatia, Italy, and Greece too, with a schedule that allows time to eat dinner in port, after the day-trippers and other cruise passengers have gone home.

The view from your room keeps changing.

Veranda Suite Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

The Veranda Suite on the Seabourn Ovation. Photo: Seabourn

Think back to your all-time favorite views out the window of a resort. Now imagine getting them all on a single trip. On a cruise, your view isn’t static—and you don’t have to crane your neck to find the sliver of ocean that was promised to you in the room description. If you book through a cruise specialist on The WOW List, they’ll know which side of the ship will have the most interesting panoramas and can advise whether a balcony is worth the additional cost. Every cabin on the Ovation has a balcony; my 300-square-foot Veranda Suite (the smallest category on the ship) was also large enough to allow for two separate sleeping areas, separated by a curtain.

So many logistical hassles of travel are eliminated.

The Retreat lounge area on the Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

The Retreat. Photo: Seabourn

It’s been said many times that taking a cruise means you only have to unpack once. But the removal of travel stressors goes far beyond that: No checking in and out of hotels, memorizing a new room number every day, familiarizing yourself with each hotel’s layout, guessing at the right choice from yet another breakfast buffet, or jockeying wheeled suitcases over cobblestoned streets and through train stations. On the right ship, you can also avoid the annoyance of crowds: I only had to line up once, when boarding the tenders to Kotor; and while deck chairs never became a precious commodity, I found a particularly quiet spot to the aft of the ship’s Sun Deck.

Dining options abound and room service is free.

The Colonnade dining area on the Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

The Colonnade dining area. Photo: Seabourn

Many boutique resorts have just one or two dining rooms. On the Ovation, I had five varied and excellent restaurants to choose from; I never had to eat from a buffet if I didn’t want to, and the only restaurant requiring a reservation was the Thomas Keller-helmed Grill. There was no charge for room service, which the wait staff was happy to bring in courses, and complimentary Champagne and caviar were available 24 hours a day. Seabourn’s all-inclusive pricing includes a wide selection of complimentary wines, and I learned that if I wanted something different from what they were pouring that night, all I had to do was ask.

You can eat al fresco in your bathrobe.

Meal on cruise ship balcony Seabourn Ovation

Eating on our balcony. Photo: Brook Wilkinson

It was over breakfast on our balcony that my travel companion fell hard for the boating life (see I Thought I Was Too Cool for Cruising). Remember that ever-changing view? It can be the backdrop for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And while the dress code on Seabourn rarely goes beyond a collared shirt or a blouse, terrycloth will do just fine on your private veranda.

Next time you’re looking for a restorative getaway but you’d rather see more of the world than the confines of a single resort, you might consider a cruise. I know I will.

Sunrise balcony view Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

Sunrise from our balcony.

Disclosure: Our writer was offered a complimentary cruise on the new Seabourn Ovation’s very first voyage. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, coverage was not guaranteed and remains at our editorial discretion. You can read the signed agreement between WendyPerrin.com and Seabourn here.

Sunrise balcony view Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

I Thought I Was Too Cool for Cruising

Susan Crandell, the former executive editor of Travel + Leisure magazine, had avoided cruises her whole life.  Then last month she finally tried one:

Sitting on the balcony of my stateroom, watching the sea glitter in the morning sun, I am wondering how I could have been so wrong about cruising. As I attack a plate of fresh-cut mango, I reflect on what a boob I’ve been. This is awesome. This is sweet. Oh, cruising, why have I avoided you all of my life.

My ever-changing view

Let’s back up a few months from that sun-struck epiphany somewhere in the Ionian Sea. We all have our travel identities and I had never seen myself as a cruiser. The only reason I said yes to this trip was because it offered the chance to spend a week with my daughter, who lives 3,000 miles away. An editor at WendyPerrin.com, Brook had been invited on the shakedown cruise of the Seabourn Ovation, traveling from Genoa, where the ship was built, to Venice, where it would set sail with its first paying passengers after we disembarked. Our lap of Italy would take five days at sea, and we would spend one day in port, in Montenegro (new country, ka-ching!).

If not for the opportunity to ride along as Brook’s plus-one, I probably never would have stepped foot on a ship like the Ovation. I couldn’t understand my friends’ enthusiasm for vacations at sea—chasing down every last island in the Caribbean, exploring the Mediterranean.

A cruise didn’t fit my image. With 40-odd countries stamped in my passport, I consider myself experienced and independent, someone who craves vacations brimming with challenge. I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro, gone gorilla trekking in Uganda, soloed a tiny white rental car across the deserty expanse of South Africa’s Great Karoo, kayaked the Sea of Cortez. My motto: Any activity that requires helmets and waivers is bound to be great.

Cruising, I thought, puts training wheels on your trip, gold-plated perhaps, but training wheels nonetheless. And the crowds! I pictured thousands of passengers herded on and off the ship for shore excursions where they trailed after a guide waving a follow-me flag. People getting juiced at the open bar. Assigned-seating dinners with the same inane small talk night after night. Get me a lifeboat, quick!

Okay, I’ll admit it. I thought I was too good for cruising. I was a traveler, not a tourist.

If this sounds familiar, I’m not surprised. I suspect there are a lot of high-mileage travelers like me who think that cruising is for lesser mortals. If you’re among them, listen up. You just might be snobbing yourself out of one of the most satisfying vacations of your life.

A few days before we sailed, I began confessing yet another concern to my friends. “We’re five days at sea. What am I going to do!” As a hedge against boredom, I packed six books and downloaded the first season of The Last Post on my iPad.

Veranda Suite Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

A Veranda Suite on Seabourn’s brand-new ship, the Ovation. Photo: Seabourn

Then I boarded the Ovation and my reeducation began. The insight was simple and so obvious I couldn’t believe I’d missed it: There is more than one kind of wonderful trip. I had always adored adventures of the body—hiking, climbing, rowing, paddling. Turns out five days at sea is an adventure of a different stripe, an adventure of the mind. It confers a rare chance to spend unstructured time, like the dreamy cloud-chasing afternoons of my childhood summers. We all complain about the lack of play in our lives, we read essays by writers who unplug for various periods of time. We know we should meditate. But life keeps getting in the way.

The Colonnade restaurant Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

The Colonnade aboard the Seabourn Ovation. Photo: Seabourn

On the Mediterranean, the days slipped by. I couldn’t account for my time, but it didn’t feel boring at all. It felt delicious. There were just enough activities to ground each day: a yoga class, a tour of the bridge, a visit to the galley, classical guitar in the observation bar. Turned out our stateroom was prime real estate, just steps away from the gelato bar, where the flavors changed every day.

When I spent lazy hours on our balcony, watching the blue line of the horizon, I was alone with nature in a brand-new way. I didn’t have to climb this or hike that. Cruising was the savasana version of nature travel. Just be present; no action is required on your part.

In fact, my transition from cruise-avoider to enthusiast reminds me of my journey from yoga newbie to devotee. I began taking classes to improve my balance and flexibility. Early days, I was all about the physicality of the poses, and I fantasized ditching class before the final meditation. Call me spiritually challenged. But over the years, as I continued to practice, a change crept up on me. One day I realized I was looking forward to savasana.

Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

The 600-passenger Seabourn Ovation anchored in Montenegro, on the Adriatic coast

And as for the disadvantages of cruising, on the 600-passenger Ovation, they just didn’t materialize. The crowds I had imagined weren’t there. No morning rush to secure a spot by the pool. Sun or shade, there were plenty of lounges to go around. Likewise, a water-view seat was always available at breakfast, lunch or dinner. Eat when you want, choose who you sit with. Only one of the Ovation’s five restaurants (The Grill by Thomas Keller, the Michelin-starred chef behind the French Laundry and Per Se) even needs reservations. And the day we made port in Montenegro, I could choose to join one of the guided excursions or go ashore and do my own thing until it was time to catch a tender back to the ship. I could even hire a private guide if I wanted to.

Kotor Montenegro village view

The medieval town of Kotor in Montenegro

At sea, my cellphone was just a camera. I did read five of my books, but The Last Post had to wait for my transatlantic flight home.

I love my new identity as a traveler: I am a creature of many dimensions. I can like a big, scary adventure. I can also like a calm sweet experience. I am checking out the Ovation’s future itineraries. Next time, a cruise with lots of ports—but some sea days too.

The author, Susan Crandell, explores Budva, Montenegro, with her daughter, Brook Wilkinson, an editor here at WendyPerrin.com.

Susan Crandell, the former executive editor of Travel + Leisure magazine and the founding editor of More magazine, is also the author of Thinking About Tomorrow: Reinventing Yourself at Midlife.

What a Barge Cruise Is—and Why Some Prefer It to a River Cruise

savoir vivre in front of chateauneuf barge cruise France CR Barge Lady Cruises
The Savoir Vivre. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises
The canals. Photo: Sara Tucker
Rear view of our boat. Photo: Sara Tucker
Front view of our boat. Photo: Sara Tucker
The view. Photo: Sara Tucker
Pastoral scenery. Photo: Sara Tucker
Goats. Photo: Sara Tucker
burgundy lock barge cruise France CR Kelly Weiss Barge Lady Cruises
The locks. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises
Locks. Photo: Sara Tucker
A castle. Photo: Sara Tucker
Taking walks. Photo: Sara Tucker
A stop to see the Hospices de Beaune. Photo: Sara Tucker
The strawberry soufflée. Photo: Sara Tucker
Cote d'Or wine. Photo: Sara Tucker
Another village we walked through. Photo: Sara Tucker
A stop ion Dijon. Photo: Sara Tucker
Our tour guide. Photo: Sara Tucker
The lounge on the Savoir Vivre barge cruise in France
The boat's lounge. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises
The lounge on the Savoir Vivre barge cruise in France
The other side of the lounge. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises
A state room on the Savoir Vivre barge cruise in France
The boat's staterooms. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises
The lounge on the wine and snacks overlooking the Burgundy countryside taken from the Savoir Vivre barge cruise in France
The view. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises


If you have a hard time making sense of the phrase “barge cruise,” don’t feel bad. Luxury barging is such a tiny niche that it is practically unknown even in France, the country where the phenomenon originated. When I told my French friends that I was going on a barge trip (croisière en péniche), they thought I was going to rent the barge and pilot it myself while Patrick—my French husband, a retired safari guide—whipped up gourmet meals in a tiny kitchen. They thought we were going to take turns opening and closing the locks. (This type of DIY cruise, while possible, is not at all what we had in mind.) My American friends heard “barge” and thought “river cruise.” Almost everyone imagined something rustic.

A barge cruise is very different from a river cruise, starting with the size of the boat. A river ship usually carries 160 to 190 passengers, whereas the capacity of most barges is between eight and twelve. It’s like the difference between a 90-room hotel and a B&B. With one you’ve got your own TV and the option of having your own balcony; with the other you’ve got a captain who picks you up at the train station. Barges usually ply canals, not wide rivers—so, instead of cruising alongside highways and industrial areas on much of your route, your waterway is the equivalent of a country road. Another difference is speed. A long-legged person can walk alongside a moving barge without breaking a sweat. This has important implications. If you get tired of cruising, you have only to wait a few minutes for a set of locks, then hop off the boat and explore. You and the boat, which travels only a few miles per day, are never going to lose each other.

Families and groups of friends like barge cruises because they can book the whole boat and customize their shore excursions. Kids like them because there are bicycles, and farm animals, and castles, and a captain who will let you help him pilot the boat.

My first-ever barge trip was aboard the Savoir Vivre, an eight-passenger hotel barge that cruises a section of the Burgundy Canal. The 242-kilometer canal, completed in 1832, takes you deep into the heart of the French wine country, bisecting cow pastures, sheep meadows, woods, fields, and small villages. Starting in the village of Escommes, near Dijon, we cruised a total of 40 miles in six days, passing through 50 locks.

My trip, which took place in mid April, was arranged by Ellen Sack, the barge cruise expert on Wendy’s WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts. My assignment from Wendy: To learn as much as possible about barge travel, through firsthand experience, so that I might enlighten others.

The Boat

When enthusiasts say that barging is an “intimate” form of travel, they are not just talking about the size of the boat, although it all starts with that. Barges are narrow, flat-bottomed vessels originally used to transport cargo; their heyday lasted for about 20 years, until the invention of the railroad. In the 1970s, an enterprising British chap hit on the idea of taking transporter barges and turning them into floating hotels by adding a superstructure. The idea caught on, and a little industry was born. The Savoir Vivre is unusual in that it is a purpose-built hotel barge, not a conversion. Nonetheless, the eight-passenger vessel has to fit through the same locks as all the other barges. Its four cabins are small—Patrick and I took turns getting dressed—and the lounge doubles as a dining room. On the larger of the two observation decks, six is a crowd, but you are welcome to go up to the wheelhouse and hang out with the captain, who has the best view. Our captain, Richard Megret, was an easygoing Frenchman who had been barging for 20 years; he started out as a cook. He was also our bartender, waiter, guide, and chauffeur. When one of us had a birthday, Richard ordered the cake. When the dishwasher broke, he did the dishes by hand; then he fixed the dishwasher. We and the six other passengers spent most of our waking hours with him and Laura, our tour guide, and each other. This is what barge fans mean by “intimate.”

The Scenery

Unlike a river ship, a canal barge chugs along at four miles per hour, pausing every few minutes to pass through a set of locks. The shore is right there: You can practically reach out and touch it. On the Burgundy Canal, you’re a few feet from white cows and flocks of sheep. When you’re standing on the deck you can literally talk to the villagers strolling along the towpath with their fishing poles and picnic baskets and baby carriages. Children walk or ride their bicycles to the canal to watch the boats go by. They cluster on the little bridges that cross the canal. They sidle up to the uniformed men and women who work the locks by hand. At each set of locks is a small house where, up until the 1950s, the lockkeepers and their families lived; now the houses are abandoned or rented out and the lockkeepers zip up and down the canal on motorcycles. Most mornings, I left the boat on foot and walked through the village where we had moored. On these rambles, I might pass a boulangerie, a post office, a school, a church. I never had to cross a highway or wait for a traffic light. Cocks crowed. Cows mooed. Church bells rang. One evening we moored next to a field where a white horse and a red horse grazed. The young girl who came to fetch them called out a greeting. This, too, is what barge fans mean by “intimate.” You are, for a brief time, a part of French village life.

The Daily Routine

Breakfast is served in the lounge at 8:00. The table is laden with local goodies—pastries, cold cuts, cheeses. At 9:30 or 10:00, Laura arrives and you pile into the minivan. She hands out bottled water and peppermints. You drive through vineyards, woods, fields, and small villages to a castle, or a goat farm, or a monastery where, in the Middle Ages, the monks made wine in monstrous wooden presses. After the tour, you go back to the boat for lunch, which, like breakfast, is catered by a fine restaurant. You eat more than you should. Then you nap, or stroll along the towpath, or sit in a deck chair and watch for herons while the barge putters along. At 6:00, Richard opens a bottle of very good Burgundy and sets out bowls of olives and little puffs of choux pastry called gougères. Then you walk or drive to an excellent restaurant and eat too much food again. (This was another difference between our particular barge cruise and typical river cruises: On river cruises all meals are served on the ship, which means you may miss out on tastier, more authentic cuisine you could find in local eateries.)

Land Activities

Alongside the canal is a well-maintained towpath, once used by draft animals. Every set of locks is an opportunity to get off the boat and bicycle or walk along the towpath. When you reach a set of locks and you want to get off the boat, you have only to open a small gate and step onto the berm. This is also what barge enthusiasts mean by “intimate.”

In addition, there are daily shore excursions. Our tours were led by Laura Aplin, a British guide with a particular interest in sociological history—how people lived way back when. At Châteauneuf-en-Auxois, a medieval citadel, we learned what life was like when the castle was under siege. (Days were spent in boredom. Then a dead cow might fly over the wall, catapulted by the attackers in an effort to spread disease among the enemy.) We learned about 15th-century medicine at the Hospices de Beaune, made friends with the goats at a vineyard in Sainte Sabine, and learned how 12th-century Cistercian monks made wine at Clos de Vougeot. The tours generally lasted a couple of hours and involved a little bit of walking but not a lot. They were all fun. I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand reading little signs and wearing earphones when I go through a museum. (On river cruises, as opposed to barge cruises, the group tours ashore are so large that passengers must wear audio headsets in order to hear the guide.) And I will tell you straight out that I fell in love with Laura. Everybody did. We competed to sit next to her in the van.

The Food

An essential feature of barging is the food. It’s supposed to be outstanding, and with one exception—a new restaurant that our captain wanted to try out—it was. On the boat, meals are served family-style. Lunches are hearty: two or three kinds of salad, quiche, plus a main dish (either meat or fish) and a dessert. The Savoir Vivre is unique among hotel barges in that your evening meal is not on the boat but in a local restaurant, often in a gorgeous building that dates back to the days when Burgundy was a dukedom. One evening we walked along the canal and across a great expanse of lawn, past fountains, ponds, and weeping willows, to a former abbey, now a five-star hotel, where the only other guests (it was early in the season) were a couple of Londoners who were on a DIY barge trip to celebrate their upcoming nuptials. What did we eat? I honestly don’t remember, except for the baba au rhum, because the waiter set the bottle of rum on the table next to the dish. I do remember the amuse-bouche and the strawberry soufflé at Chateau Sainte Sabine, both of which were garnished with flecks of gold leaf.

The Bottom Line

Ellen’s daughter Stephanie Sack, a marketing specialist, told me that there are only 75 hotel barges in the world. The majority of them are in France. This is where Ellen first encountered barging in the 1980s, when the phenomenon was in its infancy. She now arranges barge cruises in ten different regions of France, as well as on canals and rivers in seven other European countries. (Such scope and expertise are partly why Ellen has earned the spot of barge travel specialist on Wendy’s WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts; the other reason is the glowing reviews we receive from our readers.)

The Savoir Vivre costs $3,500 per person for six nights, plus a tip of 5 to 10 percent for the crew. Is that a good deal? Let me put it this way: While a DIY cruise is theoretically possible, do you really want to order the food, pilot the boat, moor the boat, load the dishwasher, fix the dishwasher, stock the bar, or even order the croissants? I sure don’t. And how are you going to get to the beautiful castle if you don’t have a minivan, or figure out what you’re looking at when you arrive? I wouldn’t have wanted to do any of our shore excursions without Laura. At Châteauneuf-en-Auxois, in addition to old-time germ warfare (the flying cows), she showed us where the lord of the castle hid his jewels when the tax assessor came (hint: his wife sat on them), and what a fourteenth-century hot-tub party was like. Without her, we would have seen only a chair and a wooden tub.

For $675 per day, minimum, you get, minimum, an all-inclusive laid-back holiday with great food and wine, one that allows you to bicycle through the French countryside and stroll around small villages at your own speed, visit historic sites with an excellent guide, and travel in a small group.

That leaves the question of weather. The Savoir Vivre has one TV, some DVDs, sporadic Wi-Fi, a Scrabble game, but there’s not a lot to do on a barge when it rains. In fact, there’s not a lot to do on a barge, period, besides eat and sleep. Shore excursions make the days pass quickly, but I wouldn’t want to carry a dripping umbrella around Burgundy if I could help it. Barge season in Burgundy runs from April to October. April gets an average of nine days of rain, per regional weather statistics, May gets 13. There are eight umbrellas onboard the Savoir Vivre, just in case. If you want to play it safe, go in July.

To ensure you get the best barge trip possible, reach out to Ellen Sack via Wendy’s trip request form.  You’ll be marked as a VIP traveler and get these five benefits.

*Disclosure: Barge Lady Cruises provided our reporter, Sara Tucker, with a six-day barge trip through France, free of charge. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, coverage was not guaranteed and remains at our editorial discretion. You can read the signed agreement between WendyPerrin.com and Barge Lady Cruises here.

couple on overwater bungalow in bora bora

WOW Moment: A Bora Bora Overwater Bungalow Surprise


Sharonne and David Hayes recently returned from a trip to French Polynesia that included something special: a surprise insider experience curated by Wendy. We call these WOW Moments, and travelers can start on the path to earning one by using our WOW List buttons to launch a trip and then reviewing their Trusted Travel Expert after their trip. (Here’s info on how to get your own complimentary WOW Moment on every third trip).

The Hayeses’ trip was masterminded by Trusted Travel Expert Leslie Fambrini. Its centerpiece was a luxury small-ship cruise of the Society Islands aboard the Paul Gauguin. What the couple didn’t know was that they would be spending one night in a brand-new overwater villa at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort and Thalasso Spa. The resort’s four Brando Suites, which only just opened in December, have 3,400 square feet of indoor/outdoor living space and 180-degree views of Mount Otemanu. The Hayeses were among the first travelers to get to experience these much-buzzed-about new overwater “bungalows.”

Sharonne and David posted a review of their whole trip—you can read it on Leslie’s reviews page—but of course we wanted to find out more about how their WOW Moment went. The Hayeses live in Minnesota, and on a frigid day in January, Sharonne pulled up her snapshots of blue lagoons and petal-strewn tablecloths to answer our questions.

Q: Let’s start with your WOW Moment. Were you surprised?

A: The WOW Moment was way more than a moment. It was 24 hours of WOW. It was far more than we had expected.

We had been told in advance that on a certain day we were to pack an overnight bag. So we realized that our WOW Moment was not going to be on the ship.

The day before we reached Bora Bora, we were taken to the bridge, where the captain told us we were going to have our WOW Moment the next day—which we kind of knew, but it was fun to go up on the bridge.

We were told to get off on the 10:30 tender and take an overnight bag, and there would be a cab waiting for us. That was pretty much it.

The cab took us to the InterContinental, and the woman at the desk said, “Oh, your boat’s at 12:45.” That’s when we thought, Oh, maybe the WOW Moment is a snorkeling trip.

The boat, a little shuttle, took us to one of these fabulous houses at the end of a row of overwater bungalows; we were admiring them from the boat. They told us we were going to stay there, and they brought out some Champagne. It had a tub with a view, you’ve got your own little pool, and you can hop right into the ocean. And we were standing there saying, “This is ours?”

They said, “Just enjoy your afternoon; we’re going to come pick you up at 5:30 for a manager’s reception.” So we did. We just enjoyed ourselves. We just stayed outside and marveled at this place.

“They told us we were going to stay there, and they brought out some Champagne. It had a tub with a view, you’ve got your own little pool, and you can hop right into the ocean. And we were standing there saying, ‘This is ours?'”

I’m looking at my pictures now, and…there was a certain wonderment about this WOW Moment. There was this school of fish under our bungalow and I was swimming around trying to capture a picture of them with my waterproof camera. I never was successful—they were always ten feet away from me. It really was just magical.

There were other people at the general manager’s reception; it wasn’t just for us. It was just lovely, and we had a great conversation with the general manager.

We had been told that we were going to be picked up for dinner, and we were actually taken back to our place, where they had strewn flowers along the walkway into our bungalow. We had our meal on the deck as we watched the sunset. The weather was perfect, the colors were beautiful, and we enjoyed talking with the servers, a man and a woman, and learning about their lives. They cleaned up and left, and we had a lovely night.

When we arrived at breakfast the next morning they asked for our room number and then directed us to a private table overlooking the water in an area adjacent to the restaurant.

So the whole thing was in keeping with the fact that we were looking to be pampered and relaxed on this trip, and that’s what it was all about.

The whole time I’m there I’m thinking, “Oh, I wish my daughter and her husband were in the other bedroom.” It’s the kind of thing you really wanted to share with people.

Q: How was the rest of your cruise?

A: The Paul Gauguin was wonderful, and it was fun to be there on New Year’s Eve. We do like cruises, but there were things that I really liked about that particular cruise. One was the age mix. There were a few families, a few kids, a lot of honeymooners, people in their twenties and thirties, young couples. This was an upscale cruise, so the ages skewed older, but many grandmas and grandpas were probably funding the trip for their extended families.

There were a lot of Polynesians. One night on the beach, the musicians were playing their ukuleles and singing, and a whole group of Polynesians joined in and it was just magical. Ten cruise-ship guests were out there singing this song, harmonizing and echoing back and forth.

Another thing I liked was you didn’t feel pushed to sign up for shore excursions, but on every stop there was something you could do that was free, like a shuttle into town. I love to go to foreign grocery stores, so we went to shore but didn’t do anything formal.

Q: How did you decide on the Paul Gauguin?

A: We’ve had two prior trips using the specialists on Wendy’s WOW List—Costa Rica and Peru. Although the Peru trip was fabulous, it was also incredibly rigorous, and as my husband and I were walking down the Andes, breathless, he turned to me and said, “Our next trip is going to be a cruise.”

My husband travels a lot for work. He does a lot of hard travel. So when the time came to book something, I said, “Do you really want to get on another plane, or should we just drive up to northern Minnesota and sit in a cozy cabin?” And he said, “No, I really want to get away.”

We didn’t know exactly where to go at that time of year. We were looking for the right itinerary and ways to fit it into our schedule. We had just nine days, and we wanted to go somewhere we had never been before, but we were not looking for an adventure cruise. What we really wanted was relaxation.

I went to Wendy’s WOW List, and I couldn’t tell which of the cruise specialists would be the best fit for us, so I sent an email to Wendy and got a response from one of her assistants within 24 hours. I think that speaks to the personal service.

Q: In retrospect, aside from the WOW Moment, did it help to have a travel specialist plan this trip?

A: I felt like we really benefited from Leslie’s advice. We decided on the Paul Gauguin, and after that it was the logistics of getting it planned. For instance, we were going to have to fly in a day early and have an extra night on either end, and we didn’t know what to do with it. One of the things that was really good advice, even though it was costly, was to have a hotel room ready and waiting for us in the early morning when we landed in Tahiti.

I’ve been on cruises before where the shore excursions are very important. And I didn’t know if that was the case here. Leslie said, after several conversations, “What I’m hearing is, I don’t think you should sign up for anything,” which was my gut feeling, but it was nice to be given permission, and she was right.

“For me, using a travel specialist is a no-brainer for a more complex trip, but even for a cruise, I can’t see a reason not to.”

Q: Can you tell us more about why, as frequent travelers, you rely on Wendy’s WOW List?

A: I bought into using specialized travel agents more than a decade ago when we were going to Africa, and I’ve referred many people to Wendy’s WOW List, partly because I think it’s really curated. I enjoy the process of doing the research, but you can only do so much online.

Our Peru trip is a good example. It was two families. There were six of us, aged 17 to 60, with three different itineraries. Part of our time was together and part of it was apart. Our adult son didn’t want to go on the Andean trek, so the travel specialist gave him some other options. It helped to be able to say, “The 20-year-old son is not buying this. What can you do?”

For the Peru trip, we had eight or ten hours from the time we got back from our Amazon cruise to our return flight, which normally would have meant an icky time in an airport. Instead, somebody picked us up and took us around to show us sights they wanted us to see—I couldn’t have orchestrated that on my own. I would have had to find a car service and tell them where to go. I didn’t have to do that.

For me, using a travel specialist is a no-brainer for a more complex trip, but even for a cruise, I can’t see a reason not to. If you’re booking through a cruise line and you have a question, you won’t get an answer, or you’ll get an answer that benefits the cruise line, versus the unbiased insider look.

Q: Is there anything else would you like to tell us about your cruise, or the WOW List in general?

A: Somebody who saw my pictures of Bora Bora said, “Is that like the best vacation you ever had?” I haven’t asked my husband, but I would say it’s the best vacation I ever had with just him, and I would include my honeymoon in that.


Wendy Wants To Amp Up Your Trip!

On every third qualifying trip, Wendy will add to your itinerary a surprise WOW Moment. A WOW Moment is an exclusive insider experience that helps make a trip extraordinary. Each WOW Moment is totally different. They vary depending on a huge range of factors, including the country you’re headed to, the timing of your trip, logistics, availability, and more. You can read a sampling of the more over-the-top WOW Moments (those most conducive to editorial coverage) here. Learn which trips qualify, and how the process works, here: Wendy Wants To Amp Up Your Trip!

joggers on promenade of crystal serenity cruise ship

Cruise Trends in 2018: What Your Waistline Has Been Waiting For

One of the best things about chronicling cruise travel over the past 20 years has been watching the industry morph from a sedate and somewhat sedentary form of travel—in which dining times were assigned and bus tours were about the limit of sightseeing—to there’s-a-cruise-for-every-traveler-out-there. Seriously, there really is, no matter if you’re more inclined to chill on a beach in the Caribbean, mix with locals in the Mediterranean, or go mountaineering along the ridges of Antarctica.

Of all the changes that have occurred in cruise travel, the one I love the most is this: Cruises have become one of the most healthy and active ways to travel.

Does that surprise you? Whether they offer ocean-going and family-friendly ships, riverboats, or expedition vessels, cruise lines have worked hard to focus on a balanced approach to travel, and I’m sharing some of my favorite ways they’re doing this, below. But by no means has the industry taken away the fun of indulging on your vacation. Sure, you can take a decadent cruise and return home with the freshman 15 lb. weight gain—but you no longer have to.

New wave dining

acai bowl from AquaSpa Cafe on a Celebrity Cruises cruise ship

The menu items at cruise ship restaurants, like açai bowls at Celebrity’s AquaSpa Café, are getting healthier. Photo: Celebrity Cruises

Cruise lines, from big ships to small, are increasingly focusing on fresh cuisine by adding lots of fruit and vegetable items—at all meals— and creating menus for followers of heart-healthy, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan (and even raw food, at least on one cruise line) regimens. They are also developing menus based on the regions their ships are cruising in, and using local ingredients whenever possible.

Look for: Buffets on cruise lines like Crystal, Viking Ocean, and Holland America make it easy to nosh strategically, with lots of fresh fruits, sushi, and salads. I love Celebrity’s AquaSpa Café not just because it’s good for you, but also because its menus are so delicious (Carnival and Royal Caribbean also have their own takes on spa cafés). At lunch and dinner, Viking Ocean is featuring local menu items inspired by itineraries. And some lines even go beyond—plating a meal to actually help you find a regimen that you can take home with you. Interested? Check out Oceania Cruises’ Culinary Center, which offers courses on healthy cooking, and Seabourn, via its partnership with noted mind-body guru Dr. Andrew Weil, for lessons on inflammatory foods.

Maintaining fitness regimes

cruise ship gym Quantum of the Seas Royal Caribbean

Cruise ships now offer large gyms with up-to-date equipment. Photo: Royal Caribbean

If you’re like a lot of us, you don’t want to wreck all the hard work you’ve done at home to get and stay fit, just because you’ve gone off on vacation for a little while.

Look for: When Viking Ocean Cruises (the line aimed at passengers 55 years of age and up) debuted in 2015, it figured that not so many of its “older” passengers cared about working out. Four ships later, the line has gone back and reconfigured its small gyms to be much larger, a sign that all generations want to maintain some level of fitness while traveling. Indeed, just about every ocean line has a gym with free weights, exercise bikes, TRX Suspension systems, tai chi, boot camp, and more. They offer fitness classes too, in yoga, Pilates, stretching and spinning. You can even book time with personal trainers to develop your own new fitness regimen. Typically, the bigger the ship, the larger the fitness facility; Royal Caribbean’s Oasis and Quantum classes of ships have masses of space for all the usual equipment, and then some.

River cruising’s unique fitness challenges and solutions

bicycles Danube AmaWaterways river cruise1

AmaWaterways was the first river cruise line to offer passengers bikes to use in ports. Photo: AmaWaterways

On riverboats, which rarely carry more than 200 passengers, room for fitness is necessarily limited. As a result, companies have gotten a bit more creative about incorporating fitness into the cruise experience. Some, it’s true, have small fitness centers tucked away in a couple of cabins that have been converted for the job, others have tiny pools. But the real success has been creating opportunities to be active either onboard—or in port.

Look for: AmaWaterways, which was the first line to stock bikes onboard that passengers could use for treks in port, has been a river pioneer. It’s teamed up with Backroads, the tour operator that specializes in hiking, walking, and cycling travel, to provide intensive active trips along Europe’s rivers. Many other lines have followed AmaWaterways’s lead, and now stock bikes on board; these include Uniworld and Crystal. On Avalon’s Active Discovery on the Rhine itinerary, you can choose a hiking, cycling, or jogging tour in every port of call. Scenic was the first line to offer electric bikes for use in ports, and Uniworld started the Nordic walking stick craze.

Mind-body matters too

Sleep expert Dr. Michael Breus and HGTV’s Candice Olson designed the Princess Luxury Bed. By 2019 every stateroom in the Princess fleet will have one. Photo: Princess Cruises

Sleep expert Dr. Michael Breus and HGTV’s Candice Olson designed the Princess Luxury Bed. By 2019 every stateroom in the Princess fleet will have one. Photo: Princess Cruises

Spas have been an integral part of the cruise industry for well more than a decade now. What’s new is that cruise lines are going beyond the facility and its treatments (facials, massages and the like) to incorporate lifestyle activities that help you stay balanced long after your vacation.

Look for: I love AmaWaterways’ new Wellness Program. Offered on select river voyages, the program is meant for travelers who want a pretty active regimen and appreciate the camaraderie that comes with being with like-minded enthusiasts—discussion groups, on topics ranging from eating to relaxation, are also part of the experience. Seabourn’s partnership with Dr. Andrew Weil blends active workouts with experiences that emphasize wellness from physical, social, and spiritual environments. Princess Cruises is betting big that simply getting a good night’s rest is a great path to health; it has unveiled its Princess Luxury Bed across the fleet (I tried it, and it was so great I bought two for home).

And here’s possibly my favorite way to cruise: Being active in ports

sea dream cruise ship offers watersports off the back of the boat in Hvar Croatia

SeaDream cruises offer water sports right off the back of the ship when it’s in a port like Hvar, Croatia. Photo: Sea Dream

Choose your itinerary wisely. If your idea of a great way to explore a port of call is via bicycle, kayak, snorkeling, scuba diving, cross-country skiing, zip-lining, hiking, or sailing, exciting itineraries often focus on regions such as Hawaii, Alaska, Central America, Antarctica, the Mediterranean, French Polynesia, Australia and New Zealand, the Caribbean, and the Galapagos. If you particularly enjoy watersports, look for cruise lines whose ships feature watersports platforms, allowing you to access all the key toys, including WaveRunners, right from the aft of your ship. Lines that excel include SeaDream, Crystal Esprit, Windstar and Ponant.

For more on staying active at sea, see Cruise Critic’s list of the Best Cruises for Fitness and these Tips for Eating Healthy on a Cruise.


Carolyn Spencer Brown is Editor at Large for Cruise Critic, the leading site for cruise reviews and information, as well as the largest forum for cruise fans. She’s been taking cruises for decades and has amassed an extensive and impressive knowledge of the specifics of ships, lines, itineraries, policies, and ports. You can follow Cruise Critic on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and also follow Carolyn herself on Instagram (@carolynspencerbrown) and Twitter (@CruiseEditor).


The first port of call on the first-ever sailing of Silversea Cruises' new ship Silver Muse: Marseille, France

Cruise Report: Wendy’s Photos from Silversea’s Newest Cruise Ship

I’ve sailed on inaugural voyages before—I’ve even served as godmother of a cruise ship, smashing the bottle of Champagne at the christening—but, until last week, I’d never boarded a ship a mere three hours after it had left the shipyard. I was on the first-ever sailing of Silver Muse, the elegant new ship from Silversea Cruises that launched in Genoa and will call at 130 ports in 34 countries this year. We hit three of those countries—Italy, France, and Spain—on last week’s “shakedown cruise.”  Honestly, not much shaking down was required:  Silver Muse gleams from top to bottom.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the Muse is the food.  There are eight gourmet eateries onboard—which is a lot for a 596-passenger vessel—including Italian, French, Asian, sushi, a steak house, a pizzeria, and a gelateria. There’s even a cheese bar at night in one of the observation lounges.  The food is sophisticated and imaginative, with ingredients sourced from around the globe—giant prawns from Madagascar, cod from Greenland, steak from an Argentinian estancia, lamb from New Zealand, burrata from the boot of Italy….you get the idea.

But what surprised me most on the ship was Gennaro, the charming Italian cobbler who has a little shop on the pool deck and custom-makes shoes while you wait.  I ordered up a pair of Capri sandals just so I could see Italian craftsmanship at work.  In 45 minutes I had perfect-fitting gold leather sandals.  To see the shoes, and photos from the rest of my Mediterranean coastal adventure, check out the pics below and follow my travels on Instagram.

And if you’re wondering whether Silver Muse is the right ship for you or a different one might be better suited to your trip goals, feel free to write to me at Ask Wendy.


This is how I’ll be leaving Genoa tonight — aboard @silverseacruises’ brand new ship, #SilverMuse.

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Okay, so this ship is not for light packers. @silverseacruises #SilverMuse

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Aboard @silverseacruises you get to choose which #toiletries you want. That’s Naru, my butler. #SilverMuse A post shared by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

I’d be happy with just this for dinner. But it’s only the first course. #antipasto #SilverMuse

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It’s 64 degrees here in the Ligurian Sea. The pool deck is hopping. #SilverMuse A post shared by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

It’s nice to think some people still use #stationery rather than smartphones. #SilverMuse

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Meet Gennaro, the cobbler from Preludio in Capri, who custom-makes shoes on the pool deck. #SilverMuse

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Ta-da! Thank you, Gennaro, for my new custom-made leather sandals. Time it took:45 minutes. Cost: $200. #SilverMuse


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Nice spot to dig into a book. But I’m headed over to that ferris wheel. #Marseille #SilverMuse

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Le Vieux Port of #Marseille, as seen from atop La Grande Roue (the ferris wheel). #SilverMuse

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Looking up the Rue de la Republique from the ferris wheel, Le Vieux Port, #Marseille. #SilverMuse A post shared by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

Specialty of #Marseille: orange blossom navette (navette fleur d’oranger) #SilverMuse A post shared by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on


Chocolate olives. #Marseille #SilverMuse


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Coconut rice pudding. #yum #SilverMuse A post shared by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on


Follow more of Wendy’s travels on Instagram @wendyperrin!


Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

child playing with toy boats in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris France

Unexpected Spring Break Vacation Ideas

Where to take the family for spring break? It’s a question I get from countless readers every year who are desperate for an alternative to theme parks and mega-resorts. Finding an interesting, convenient and, ideally, affordable vacation is no easy task, especially when so many schools let out simultaneously and so many families crowd the same places. Airfares and hotel prices shoot up and, if you’re not careful, so does your stress level. What kind of vacation is that? To help you and your crew escape the beaten path of family-travel destinations, here are a few alternatives—including the place I’m taking my own kids this year.


It’s one of the world’s kid-friendliest cities, and not just because of the playgrounds, carousels, and crepe stands everywhere. I took the kids for spring break when they were ten and eight, and we discovered a huge number of surprisingly kid-friendly museums. Thanks to fantastic children’s audioguides, my kids were captivated everywhere from the Musée de l’Armée—where the handheld guide took them on an entertaining scavenger hunt—to the Musée de la Musique, a collection of unique, antique, and exotic musical instruments, including some that look like they’re straight out of Dr. Seuss. Rent an apartment to get more space for your money and to give your kids a glimpse of what it’s like to live as a local. My then-10-year-old, Charlie, learned how to go to the corner boulangerie and buy croissants with euros all by himself. Consider staying in the seventh arrondissement, which is center of Paris, home to many families with children and has easy access to museums and monuments. It also has many excellent bakeries—children can pick a new one every day—as well as affordable restaurants and open-air markets.  Don’t leave home without my tips for how to skip the lines at the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.

Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

children listen to a historical reenactor play violin at Colonial Williamsburg Virginia

Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg is an immersive history experience that enchanted my kids.

Our spring-break getaway when the kids were seven and nine was an interactive immersion in early American history.  In Colonial WIlliamsburg the flowers were blooming, turning the grounds in front of the Governor’s Palace into a riot of color, and the village was not nearly as hot and crowded in April as it gets during the summertime. You can read more advice from me (how long we spent there, where we stayed, etc.)—and even read my then-9-year-old’s trip review—in this article I wrote for Condé Nast Traveler. Go to History.org and click on “Kids” for a slew of games and activities to get your children excited about their trip and educated about colonial villages even before you arrive.

Anza-Borrego Desert, California

You can always find inexpensive airfares to Los Angeles (LAX), where it’s easy to rent a car, drive south along I-5 to Oceanside, then turn east toward Borrego Springs and the spectacular badlands of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The wildflowers here usually explode into bloom in March, and that bloom continues for weeks afterward in different parts of the Desert (check for wildflower updates here). California’s largest state park is a tranquil wonderland of geological phenomena including canyons, mesas, buttes, badlands, dunes, washes, palm groves, cacti, and sweeping vistas that give new meaning to the phrase “purple mountain majesties.” Family fun includes checking out Split Mountain, ruptured and contorted by earthquakes and flash floods; squeezing into The Slot, a narrow sandstone canyon; finding prehistoric fossils and ancient pictographs in sacred rocks; and looking for shooting stars after sundown.

Washington, D.C.

National Cherry Blossom Festival, Washington, D.C.

National Cherry Blossom Festival, Washington, D.C. Photo: National Cherry Blossom Festival

When cherry-blossom season coincides with spring break (the peak bloom is forecast for March 19–22 this year), Washington, D.C., is a super destination for families. The Smithsonian Museums have free admission (as does the National Zoo), and several fun family-friendly events take place in early April, including the National Cherry Blossom Festival’s Blossom Kite Festival (April 1) and Parade (April 8) and Opening Day for the Washington Nationals (April 3). There’s also the Smithsonian Craft Show (April 27–30) and the Wine and Food Fest just down the Potomac River in National Harbor, Maryland (April 29–30).

Andalusia, Spain

children look at crates of oranges during the orange harves in Andalusia Spain

Our trip to Andalusia when the boys were five and seven coincided with the orange harvest.

For spring break when the kids were 5 and 7, we rented a villa in the rolling countryside outside Granada, in southern Spain. Temps were in the 60s, it was orange harvest time so the aroma of oranges wafted through the air, and there were fiestas around the region. We explored everything from the ancient white villages of the Alpujarra mountains to the Moorish palaces and gardens of the Alhambra. Just keep in mind, when your spring break coincides with Easter, that Holy Week in Andalusia can be crowded, with processions day and night.

Yosemite National Park, California

mountain view in Yosemite National Park, california

Yosemite National Park, California. Photo: tpsdave/Pixabay

Too many families consider national parks only for summertime trips. If your kid’s spring break falls in April, Yosemite is a great option. As you know from Your National Parks Calendar: Which Parks To Visit Each Month, its sparkling waterfalls are at their peak flow in springtime. Whether you’re looking for easy day hikes or technical rock climbing, a bicycle ride along paved paths or an overnight trek into the backcountry, you’ll find it in Yosemite, along with massive granite walls and a lush valley full of wildlife.


young tourist boy feeds pigeons in Cartagena, Colombia

Here’s Charlie feeding pigeons in the Old Town of Cartagena, Colombia, during spring break last year.

There’s a lot of new airline service to Colombia, and in March and April you’ll find sunny days, clear skies, a fresh breeze that keeps the temperature comfortable, and reasonable prices, since the low season is about to start. More and more families are visiting Colombia nowadays—and exploring well beyond the beaches and colonial Old Town of Cartagena. They’re visiting Bogota too—for its art, architecture, and food—and Colombia’s coffee country, which abounds with outdoor and cultural activities.

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Yes, it takes time to get to—it’s in a remote part of southwestern Texas, a three-hour drive from Midland/Odessa airport—but temps are in the 70s in March and April, and it’s the best time to see the cactus and wildflower blooms. As we know from Your National Parks Calendar: Which Parks to Visit Each Month, Big Bend has three strikingly different landscapes containing canyons, rivers, desert, and mountains:  You can navigate the Rio Grande by raft or canoe, soak in hot springs, climb the Chisos Mountains for a view into Mexico, or search for rare ocelots, jaguarundis, and jaguars.

A cruise leaving from a port that’s cheap to fly to

kids snuba diving underwater

The boys have tried SNUBA (a combo of snorkeling and scuba) in Caribbean cruise ports during spring break.

Here’s one of my tricks for avoiding those sky-high spring-break airfares: Instead of flying my family to a destination that’s in peak season, I fly us to a city that’s in low or shoulder season and has a cruise port where we can board a ship and sail to a place that’s in peak season. For example, we’ve flown to ports such as New Orleans and Los Angeles, where we’ve then boarded ships for the Caribbean or Mexico. Last year we flew to Panama (there were cheap airfares on United because Panama City is a hub) for a Panama Canal cruise. The Panama Canal fits the bill when you’ve got kids for whom a cruise is nirvana but you want to avoid the same old overbuilt Caribbean ports.

Where I’m going this year: Morocco

camel in the desert in Morocco

To avoid high prices and crowds, I looked for a country that doesn’t celebrate Easter. We’re going to Morocco!

Since the kids are now 15 and 13, they’re old enough to appreciate more exotic spring breaks. This year, eager to avoid the crowds and high prices that accompany Easter in many countries, I decided to look for a country that doesn’t celebrate Easter. And, since my goal is to raise global citizens, I wanted them to experience a completely different culture. So I chose Morocco, which is close enough—it’s a seven-hour flight from New York City (JFK)—yet otherworldly.  And the five-hour time difference (which is the same as the time difference between NYC and England) won’t mean too much jet lag. (Here’s a full report from when we got back from our trip.)

Busy parents, if you wish you could snap your fingers and find the perfect travel agent to design and deliver the best trip possible to any of these places, click over to Ask Wendy.  Because family travel memories are too precious to jeopardize with bad logistics.


Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Windstar’s Star Breeze on the island of Elba, during the inaugural cruise

A Sneak Peek at Windstar’s Plan to Improve Small-Ship Cruising

Many years ago Windstar changed my view of what a cruise could be.

I was invited onboard as a guest lecturer, and I took my dad. We sailed to all these little Caribbean islands you’d normally never get to—Bequia, Ile des Saintes, Jost Van Dyke, Virgin Gorda…. What we loved most were the picture-postcard views as we sailed into and out of each harbor. In every port we were the only cruise ship. And what my dad really loved was that our bartender remembered his favorite drink from Day One and just automatically brought it to him, whenever he showed up.

Fast forward a few years. I was scheduled to be a guest lecturer again, and it was right after my wedding, so I took Tim, and it morphed into our honeymoon. Again we went to all these little unusual ports, this time in the Mediterranean: Kefalonia, Zakynthos, Monemvasia, Taormina, Corsica, Elba…. We even had the same bartender. His name was Danny. The fact that I even remember his name speaks volumes: Every time you’re back on Windstar, you’re back with family.

What I love most about Windstar is that it takes you to those hidden-gem places that would otherwise be too logistically difficult, time-consuming, or expensive to get to. That’s why Windstar changed my idea of what a cruise could be.

So I was honored when, a couple of years ago, Windstar named me godmother of its new ship Star Breeze. And I was happy to invite Windstar to sponsor the 2nd annual Wendy Perrin Global Travel Summit and to have president John Delaney share news about the company’s plans for 2017. Here’s a sneak peek at what’s coming:

Windstar president John Delaney speaks at the 2017 WendyPerrin.com Global Travel Summit

Windstar president John Delaney speaks at the 2017 WendyPerrin.com Global Travel Summit. Photo: Tim Baker

Returning to an old favorite

I’m so proud of Windstar for being one of only a few cruise lines sailing to Turkey in 2017. The port of call is Kusadasi. “We truly struggled with our decision to cancel Turkey last year because people love it, and it delivers,” Delaney told us. “But clearly we’re never going to do something that isn’t safe. We couldn’t accept the level of risk in Istanbul. But Kusadasi was never in the warnings by the U.S. State Department; that part of Turkey wasn’t included. And [nearby] Ephesus is a bucket-list place.”  To maintain a level of safety, he says, Windstar will continue to rely on State Department information and warnings.

Launching in new destinations

The line is adding new itineraries in new regions, most notably Alaska and Asia (with completely new trips to the Philippines, China, and Japan). “On every itinerary, there will be at least one port you physically can’t get into with a bigger ship,” Delaney said.  In Alaska, for example, guests on the 212-passenger Star Legend will be able to float right into Misty Fjords and Kenai Fjords. “Our ship that is doing Asia is the largest that can go all the way up the river to Bangkok,” he added. “Seville is another great example: We can sail right into downtown Seville. And the Corinth Canal—being able to do that wonder of the world is an incredible experience.”  In addition to introducing these new ports, Delaney says, Windstar will be extending port hours and adding more overnights on a variety of sailings across the board.

Introducing bespoke shore excursions

Delaney, who joined Windstar as president only seven months ago, shared what he described as his own personal focus for 2017: creating small, bespoke shore excursions open to only a handful of travelers at a time. “What I want to do is create regular offerings as part of our shore-excursion program that are the types of experiences WOW List travel specialists are able to put together: accessing ancient ruins before they open to the public, being in a local family home for a true cooking experience in Tuscany, etc. We’re trying to create once-in-a-lifetime experiences.” You can expect these to roll out on European sailings in the summer of 2018, though Delaney says he will be improving Windstar’s regular shore excursions along the way too. “We’ll make sure guests are seeing the best of the best,” he said. “We don’t plan shore excursions the way the big lines do—we don’t have to plan for thousands of passenger throughout. We’re small and different.”

Enhancing the onboard experience

Delaney says Windstar is also finding ways to improve the shipboard experience. Two new hires are going to help with that: Last week, Peter Tobler joined the small-ship cruise line as Director of Marine Hotel Operations, and back in November, cruise-industry veteran Christopher Prelog was brought on as Vice President of Fleet Operations. These may sound like bigwig positions that couldn’t possibly have any effect on your personal time onboard, but in reality they have quite an impact. Tobler has more than 30 years’ experience in the culinary side of cruising, and his new programs—which Delaney says will include changes such as locally inspired menus, special events, enhanced wine offerings, and new cocktail menus—will create the flavor of your foodie experiences onboard. Likewise, the arrival of Prelog suggests that Windstar is interested in finding ways to upgrade its ships with more luxurious and personal touches. As an example, Delaney mentioned a possible “sleeping program” that would let guests choose from a menu of scents, pillows, herbal teas, and turndown music or video. “Chris has a knack for innovation and surprise,” he said, “So stay tuned.”

I’ll be watching—not only because I’m godmother to the Star Breeze, but also because it was fascinating to watch a cruise line president get up on stage at our summit to give a presentation about what’s coming in 2017, and then watch it evolve into a collaborative brainstorming session with our Trusted Travel Experts.  John was eager to hear their thoughts and feedback on what he’s introducing, and I have no doubt that our WOW Listers just gave Windstar a few more ideas about what discerning travelers like you really want. I’ll be eager to hear about your upcoming experiences onboard Windstar ships.  Please keep me posted!

Be a smarter traveler: Follow Wendy Perrin on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know. 

Additional reporting by Billie Cohen

Blue Lagoon, Iceland

These Are the Most Interesting Cruises Planned for 2017

When it comes to cruises, our readers are picky: Only the most remarkable itineraries will do—those that stop in the most interesting and charming ports, give you enough time there, and show you places that would be too logistically difficult, time-consuming, or cost-prohibitive to see any other way. So we scrutinized the 2017 cruise itineraries on offer in order to point you toward the gems. U.S. News and World Report even interviewed Wendy for its article 10 Dreamy Cruise Vacations to Cross Off Your Bucket List. Then we narrowed our picks down to the best values, the most unusual routes, and the can’t-miss bucket-list journeys.  To pinpoint the best cruise-planning travel specialist for your needs—to ensure you get the best itinerary and perks for your money—feel free to write to Ask Wendy.

Cruises that explore today’s hottest destinations at a value:

Iceland, and Japan are currently very popular—and, consequently, very expensive, if you want to do them right. One way to save is via one of these under-the-radar sailings:

Iceland: A lot of cruises touch on Iceland these days, but Lindblad Expeditions is doing something different: a full circumnavigation aboard the National Geographic Orion. The ten-day trip isn’t cheap (it starts at $9,130 per person), but it’s a relatively immersive experience of the whole country.

Japan: A brand-new itinerary with off-the-beaten-path ports you don’t ordinarily see is the “In the Heart of Japan” route aboard L’Austral. It’s an 11-day itinerary from Osaka to Muroran this coming May. Alternatively, you could combine a Japan land trip with a unique cruise to nearby islands. The Silver Discoverer sails to some of the most exotic islands in the South Pacific, from Palau’s Rock Islands (a UNESCO Heritage site and a mecca for divers) to the dolphin-filled Mariana Islands to Japan’s remote and isolated island gems.

Cruises that open up remote, hard-to-access regions:

Because of changing sea ice conditions, an increasing number of ships are heading to the Arctic for one-off or unique itineraries. Rare, once-in-a-lifetime voyages include:

Wrangle Island, Northeast Passage

Wrangel Island is a federal nature preserve and a great place to spot polar bears. Photo: Katya Ovsyanikova

Northwest Passage: Crystal will be sailing the Northwest Passage a second time next summer. The route was once impassable but, because of global warming and melting sea ice, it can now be sailed by a mammoth ship carrying 1,700 passengers and crew during the summer months.

Northeast Passage: Changes in sea ice have now made it possible to take an expedition cruise through Russia’s Northern Sea Route. Aboard the research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy, travelers stop at remote settlements including Wrangel Island, a federal nature reserve and a renowned polar bear denning site, and Franz Josef Land, an archipelago of 192 islands only ten degrees from the North Pole.

Sub-Antarctic and New Zealand: If you want to explore an area few others have seen, board L’Austral or Spirit of Enderby for the sub-Antarctic islands between New Zealand and Antarctica. Nicknamed the “forgotten islands,” they don’t even appear on some maps, but they’re worth seeking out for wildlife lovers, photographers, and adventurers. One of the remote rocks is Macquarie Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; few permits are granted to visit this nesting spot for royal penguins, but these two companies have garnered access for their guests. Expect sightings of sea lions, penguins, albatross, elephant seals, and glacial fjords.

Bucket-list ideas for cruisegoers who’ve seen it all:

National Geographic Quest cruise ship room

Nearly half the rooms on the new National Geographic Quest will have floor-to-ceiling windows. Rendering: Lindblad Expeditions

Coastal West Africa: Regent Seven Seas’ Navigator will be making a 35-night transatlantic voyage in December 2016. First the ship will hug the coast of Africa all the way from Cape Town up to Cape Verde, stopping in Namibia, Angola, Sao Tome, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Gambia, and Senegal. Then it will spend four days crossing the Atlantic and hit five Caribbean islands—Barbados, Martinique, Guadeloupe Grenada, and Curacao—before winding up in Miami.

Belize and Guatemala: A new, state-of-the-art expedition ship scheduled to debut in June is the 100-passenger National Geographic Quest. The small ship of 50 cabins will ply the coastal waters of Alaska (in the summer) and Belize and Guatemala (February and March), seeking out wildlife havens. Guests can dive the Mesomerican reef (the largest in the Northern Hemisphere), snorkel, and paddleboard. Quest will have features you don’t usually see on an expedition ship: There will be adjoining cabins for families, and nearly half of the cabins will have balconies with floor-to-ceiling windows.

Indian Ocean: Jacques Cousteau called Aldabra Atoll “the last unprofaned sanctuary on the planet.” And with good reason: more than 150,000 giant tortoises live there. If you want to be one of the few travelers to visit, board the Silver Discoverer on its itinerary through the Indian Ocean, where you’ll stop in the Seychelles, Maldives, Zanzibar, and more.

Arctic Ice Bridge, Canada

The Canadian Arctic has some incredible views including this ice bridge. Photo: David-McEown

Canadian Arctic: Discover one jaw-dropping national park after another as you explore the remote bays and fjords of Labrador and Torngat, in the Canadian Arctic’s rarely visited wilderness. “Since many locations such as Monumental Island can only be accessed by ship, [the research vessel Akademik Sergey Vavilov] is the perfect platform for viewing wildlife such as whales and perhaps even polar bears,” says Ashton Palmer, Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for expedition cruises. He adds that for an even more epic exploration of the Canadian Arctic and East Coast, combine the Labrador and Torngat Explorer trip with the popular Fins & Fiddles itinerary.

South Atlantic Ocean: An expedition voyage that collectors of rare passport stamps have been waiting for is the Atlantic Odyssey aboard the research ship Plancius. This voyage out of Ushaia, Argentina, takes you to South Georgia Island, the South Orkney Islands, Tristan da Cunha, St. Helena, and Ascension Island.  It’s hard enough just to get to each of these remote islands, let alone see all of them in one trip.

Barge Luciole cruising on Canal du Nivernais, Burgundy, France. Courtesy: Barge Luciole

Barge Luciole cruising on Canal du Nivernais, Burgundy, France. Courtesy: Barge Luciole

Canals of Europe: You haven’t experienced Europe’s waterways properly until you’ve tried a barge trip. Barges are small luxury boats—some carrying just your own family and friends—that wind through Europe’s manmade canals. “It’s intimate, very authentic, very slow,” explains Ellen Sack, Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for barge cruises. “You see the rural countryside from the water and get into a world that a traveler wouldn’t get into ordinarily.” Barge vacations come with private chefs, private English-speaking guides, and land activities such as bicycling through fields, shopping at local markets, wine tasting at vineyards, or getting a behind-the-scenes tour of a chateau.

Be a smarter traveler: Follow Wendy Perrin on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Wendy Perrin on a cruise ship

Watch: How to Choose the Right Cruise

People who say they wouldn’t be caught dead on a cruise have either never tried one or chose the wrong ship. There is an enormous variety of vessels and itineraries (including expedition ships, freighters, and yacht charters), but it’s vital to choose the right one for you, the first time. In this video, shot during my latest cruise, I lay out key factors to consider, as well as the pros and cons of different ship sizes and itineraries.

If you’ve got an additional savvy tip for picking the right cruise, by all means post it in the comments below. I may include the tip in an upcoming article featuring your advice! And if you’d like me to personally recommend the right cruise for your specific travel goals and needs, click to Ask Wendy.

Transparency disclosure: Our sponsor, MedjetAssist, provided the financial support that made it possible to bring you these travel tips.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Canal Barging: The Cruise Experience You’ve Been Missing Out On

Picture yourself floating gently along Europe’s winding waterways, dining every night on fresh local foods and spending your days exploring hidden nooks of France, Germany, and Belgium.

That’s the experience of canal barging—a very specific type of European cruise that has gained a very loyal following of sophisticated travelers, but which is still unknown to many.

That might be because the word “barge” isn’t very enticing—it doesn’t exactly conjure up the charm and luxury that these trips really offer. A better name for the experience would be “canal yachting,” says Ellen Sack, our Trusted Travel Expert for this kind of vacation, who’s been working in this unique part of the travel industry for 30 years.

But whatever you call it, this kind of vacation is something special—a way to see beautiful European countryside from the water without the drawbacks of a cruise. Even if you’ve been to Europe many times, or taken a river cruise, canal barging is a new experience.

barge cruise france

The Luciole cruises through Northern Burgundy and holds up to 14 guests. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

What exactly is canal barging?

Canal barging is a type of cruise that takes place on very small boats that wind through Europe’s manmade canals, some of which were built as far back as the 16th century, when cargo barges used them to ship freight around the region. Now that trucks, trains, and planes have taken over that job, the canals are used as sightseeing routes for small boats that are still called barges, even though they’re more like intimate floating hotels. As opposed to their predecessors, these come with all the high-end amenities: private chefs, private tour guides, and a captain who is often the owner of the vessel and an expert on the region. Days are filled with activities that enable you to delve into the rural areas’ artisan culture and laid-back lifestyle. On one day you might find yourself bicycling through fields, shopping at local markets, wine tasting at vineyards, or getting a behind-the-scenes tour of a chateau.

Canal barge vacations are similar to other cruises in that they have start and end dates and follow set itineraries. But since groups are very small—Ellen Sack’s company, Barge Lady Cruises, offers boats that carry 12 people or less, and none carry more than 24—guests have access to a lot of privately guided experiences. And if you don’t feel like sharing the boat, you don’t have to: A multigenerational family can book an entire barge to themselves, whereas if you’re a couple who’s feeling social, you can join a mixed boat.

Either way, the groups are always very small—not like a bus tour or cruise ship excursion. “It’s intimate, very authentic, very slow,” she explains. “You see the rural countryside from the water and get into a world that a traveler wouldn’t get into ordinarily. It’s really a lot more interesting than the name of the industry would imply.”

Where can you do it?

France is the main destination, and Sack has most of her boats there. But she also offers cruises in Holland and Belgium, Italy, Ireland, England, Scotland and Germany.

canal barge cruise itinerary

Canal barge itineraries include private tours, artisan food tastings, outdoor activities like bicycling, and visits to villages and markets. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises.

How does it differ from river cruises?

“The small size differs from every other cruise on the planet,” Sack explains. “It’s often confused with river cruising because both are on waterways of Europe, but our boats are much smaller, they go on canals and really small waterways.” And, she adds, barging is much much slower. “We go about 50 miles per week. You could walk faster. Whereas river cruises are larger—100 to 200 people—and they travel several hundred miles per week.”

The upshot is that barging will take you deep into a country’s rural areas, which are not accessible to river cruises (or big-ship ocean cruises either).

However, if you’re looking for a lot of nightlife, shopping, a more formal atmosphere, and city excitement, then canal barging is not for you. “It really is deep countryside and it is laid back.”

The other important thing to understand about barging is that it is not a customized trip. Itineraries are set, and have been crafted by Sack and her team based on more than three decades of experience and contacts in the area. “On all of our boats, whether it’s a family trip or anything else, we have strong programming,” Sack explains. “It’s not for people who prefer to wander around by themselves. Barging is for people who want everything taken care of, who want to eat gourmet food, who want to see sights with a private guide. If someone tells me that they want to spend ten hours wandering around village X, then barging is not for them.”

How to decide if canal barging is right for you:

Barging is for a certain kind of traveler.

•You like slow travel. Barging isn’t for travelers who want to hit a lot of countries and destinations in one trip. It’s for travelers who want to immerse themselves in an area and see parts of Europe they haven’t had access to before.

•You like good food. Barges have their own private chefs and usually include the chance to shop with the chef at a market.

•You like private, special-access experiences. Barge cruises stick to set itineraries, but the quality of the itinerary very much depends on the experience of the company you book with — which is why we recommend Sack’s company. She has great connections in Europe and is able to arrange for special experiences, like mustard tasting with artisans in Burgundy.

•You don’t care about dressing up. As Sack tells it, most of her travelers are comfortable in the informal setting of a barge. They aren’t looking to get dolled up and hit the town, and they don’t mind that they’re going to kick back for a week.

•You’re not looking for a custom-tailored trip. Barge cruises are turn-key—that is the point. They provide a luxury experience that is all laid out for you, so that you know exactly what you’re getting and don’t have to think about anything. And the best part: It’s all pre-paid. Every single meal, drink, activity, and guide (except for gratuities) is covered in your initial cost. “We call it a house party,” Sack says. “We want to treat you like you’ve joined a house party and everything is prepaid. You will never put your hand in your pocket.”

canal barge cruise food

Most canal barges have a private chef, who prepares meals with local foods every day. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

When to do it:

Since barge cruises travel where most tourists don’t—and offer private tours and experiences—anytime is a good time to go, even during the usual height of Europe’s tourist season.

In general, the barge season runs from April 15 to November 1 and is most popular in June and September. Mid-April through the first two weeks of May are what’s known as value season, where some boats offer 10 to 25 percent off their main season rates. But every boat differs; some might have their value season in August, and some don’t have a value season at all.

But Sack stresses that it’s the boat that makes the trip—not the date. “The weather doesn’t differ drastically, so there’s not a better or worse time to go. It’s more about finding the right boat for you.”

And finding the right boat for you is what Sack does best. Contact her through WendyPerrin.com to be identified as a Wendy Perrin VIP traveler (which means that Wendy will be in the wings offering advice and making sure your entire travel-planning experience is a positive one), and then talk to her about what you want in your vacation. Sack knows her boats, their routes, and their owner-operators extremely well and can tell you whatever you need to know. You can also peruse her Barge Lady Cruises website, which is packed with a ton of info. You’ll find pictures and blueprints of every boat, sample menus and photos of meals, a full itinerary, photos of the crew and past guests in action, and reviews from previous travelers on each specific vessel.

canal barge cruise deck

Canal barging is all about having a laid-back vacation. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

Observation deck on the AmaSonata, Passau.

Which River Cruise Ship Should You Choose? Here Are the Key Differences

Many of you have never taken a river cruise, are curious to try one, and write to me asking which you’d enjoy most. It’s tough for me to answer because river ships have many more similarities than differences. Some seem almost interchangeable in their architecture, itineraries, and daily routine. The biggest differentiating factor is usually the river itself—the scenery (castles? farms? vineyards? trains? autoroutes? industrial stretches?), the amount of boat and barge traffic, and the shape of the river (its width, and the number of twists and turns). Honestly, the biggest determinant of which cruise you’ll end up on is probably which ship has cabin availability for your travel dates and a price tag that suits.

Still, I want to help. So, as a public service, I will go out on a limb, reduce something that’s complicated to something simplistic, and try to single out the key differences among river cruise lines, based on five I’ve sailed on that cater to English-speaking travelers. (Note: I have not sailed on Tauck yet—and I hear great things about it.)

First, here are some of the features that these ships have in common. They all have:

* A top-floor outdoor observation deck, with chairs and a shaded area.
* A large, indoor, glass-walled observation lounge at the front of the ship.
* Three meals a day and group shore tours included in the price.
* Free coffee, cappuccinos, hot chocolate, and little snacks (usually cookies and fruit) available all the time in one of the lounges.
* Free but intermittent Wi-Fi.
* A buffet for breakfast; a buffet for lunch; and four-course (at least), two-hour dinners. Meals happen at set hours, and you cannot be late to dinner. You may end up dining with people you don’t know.
* Passengers from North America and sometimes other English-speaking countries.
* A cruise director to answer your questions about which excursions might suit you best and which stretches of the river not to miss.
* A group-tour approach to travel. Most river ships are run by tour companies and thus operate a river cruise like a group tour, only you’re moving by boat rather than by bus and you needn’t switch hotels every couple of days. Note to those of you who hate group tours: Nobody hates group tours more than I do. But I like river cruises because I love boats and I love gliding past all that scenery and history. I also love a room with an ever-changing view out my floor-to-ceiling window. So I use the ship as scenic, effortless sightseeing and transportation, and I explore the ports on my own.

So those are the similarities. Now for the differences. Keep in mind that each line has a variety of ships of different ages and sizes, and with somewhat different features; the summaries below tend to describe the newer ships in each fleet.


• You get a lot of living space—relatively speaking—and creature comforts. Many cabins have two “balconies”—an “outside balcony,” with a table and chairs, and a “French balcony” that’s floor-to-ceiling glass that opens. The cabins have a large flat-screen infotainment system that’s both TV and computer, with movies, music, and a bow cam.

• There are two dining rooms and a focus on regional cuisine.

•The service is attentive to travelers with special needs.

• There are bikes, perhaps a small outdoor heated pool, a beauty salon, and a massage therapist.

Who I’d send on AmaWaterways: Foodies who need their creature comforts.

• Here’s more in-depth info from Cruise Critic.

Avalon Waterways

French balcony in a cabin aboard Avalon Tapestry II

My cabin (#312) aboard Avalon Tapestry II on the Seine River in Normandy.

• The cabin window is wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling glass that stretches 11 feet wide and opens up 7 feet wide, thus basically turning your room into a veranda. It’s a smart design for river ships—and a good value for you because you’re not paying extra, or giving up precious floor space, for an outdoor table and chairs that you’re likely not going to use. (You’ve got an indoor table and chairs already.)

• The tour guides are better than most because the shore bus tours are run by Globus, the group-tour operator that owns Avalon Waterways and has been running tours for 85 years.

• There’s a second dining venue in the observation lounge; it offers a small-plate tasting menu.

Who I’d send on Avalon: Travelers who choose four-star hotels, who don’t mind group bus tours, and for whom the most important aspect of a cruise is the scenery.

• Here’s more in-depth info from Cruise Critic.

Grand Circle Cruise Line

• There’s a pronounced emphasis on getting educated about the destination. Each cruise has three program directors who know the area and culture well and can answer all your questions in depth (which is a contrast to many ships, where the staff often can’t even name the river town you’re passing).

• These program directors serve as your local guides in each port. This is in stark contrast to other river cruise lines, most of whom subcontract their shore tours to a local tour company; in each port you get a different guide, and some can be a real snooze.

• Grand Circle tours tend to attract retired teachers and professors, so onboard you’ll find a lot of intellectuals and interesting conversationalists. Passengers are particularly friendly and extroverted too; there’s a real sense of camaraderie onboard.

• Cabins are small and closer to three-star than four-star and have two twin beds rather than one queen-sized bed.

• There are no bikes, pool, or beauty salon.

Who I’d send on Grand Circle: Retirees who want to stretch their dollar as far as possible in order to take as many trips as possible, and who value education and well-traveled fellow travelers over luxury.

• Here’s more in-depth info from Cruise Critic.


• It’s like living in a floating palace. The ships are splendiferously decorated, with regal furnishings and plush fabrics. Cabins have amenities such as custom-made Savoir of London beds, heated floors and towel racks, and a selection of movies on the TV.

• There are bikes and sometimes a gorgeous heated indoor pool.

• The price includes all alcohol and gratuities, so you won’t be surprised by a big bill at the end of your cruise. (On the other hand, the all-inclusive price may mean you’re subsidizing other passengers’ bar bills.)

Who I’d send on Uniworld: Travelers who choose five-star hotels and plan to spend a lot of time onboard the ship enjoying its luxuries, plush salons, and food extravaganzas.

• Here’s more in-depth info from Cruise Critic.

Viking Cruises

Viking Alsvin, Budapest

Our ship, docked in Budapest, November 2014

• There’s a range of cabin types to choose among—from small and tight to two-room suites. (Many river ships label their one-room cabins “suites”—which is confusing. Only Viking longships have honest-to-goodness suites comprised of two rooms.)

• The longships have less space per passenger than other cruise lines’ ships of the same size. (Viking puts 190 passengers on ships that are the same size as the ships that AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, and Uniworld put about 166 passengers on.)

• There’s an indoor/outdoor terrace where you can grab a quick dinner rather than having to sit through a two-hour meal every night. In nice weather, you can dine there al fresco.

• The ship has a concierge who can make private shoreside arrangements for you.

• There are no bikes, gym, spa, beauty salon, pool, or hot tub.

Who I’d send on Viking: Independent travelers who want to focus on the destinations, prefer not to explore with a group on a bus, and don’t want to pay for shipboard amenities that they’re not going to use.

• Here’s more in-depth info from Cruise Critic.

Have you sailed on these five river cruise lines? If so, please weigh in below and let me know if your experience onboard was the same as or different than mine. (Include which river you sailed on and the year you sailed.) Thanks!

The Star Breeze

What I Have in Common with the Queen of England and the Rockettes

Can you guess what I have in common with the Queen of England, Sophia Loren, the Rockettes, and Tinkerbell (besides two X chromosomes)? We’re all godmothers of ships. I’m honored and flattered that Windstar Cruises has named me the godmother of its newest ship, the Star Breeze. I’ll be christening the 212-passenger vessel on May 6 in Nice, France. Yes, that means I’ll get to smash the champagne bottle against the boat’s bow—a 4,000-year-old tradition (although the Vikings sprayed blood over the bow)—and host glittery parties on the inaugural voyage. We’ll be sailing to Rome, with stops in the picture-postcard ports of Monte Carlo, Portofino, and Portoferraio, on the island of Elba. While I’ve sailed on Windstar before as a guest lecturer, this will be my first time back onboard since I had children. And I cannot wait to return to the small, romantic, sophisticated ships of my pre-kids life!

Some of the most rewarding and authentic travel experiences I’ve had have been on Windstar voyages. That’s because they enable you to see collections of islands and stretches of coastline that would be too logistically difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to see any other way: The ships are small enough to sail into the tiny picturesque harbors and hidden coves that big ships can’t access.

As an example, my first Windstar voyage was in the Caribbean, and each day we stopped at a different off-the-beaten-path island—such as Bequia, Ile des Saintes, Jost Van Dyke, and Virgin Gorda. They’re the sorts of tiny islands where you can get off the ship and just meander off on your own and meet and talk to the locals. That’s hard to do on big cruise ships because the larger the ship, the more industrial and overbuilt the ports, the more time it takes to get on and off the ship, and the harder it is to escape the cruise crowds. I took my dad on that Windstar Caribbean trip, and what we loved most were the idyllic views as we sailed into port each morning and out again each evening. My dad also loved how the bartender remembered his name and favorite drink from Day One.

I was scheduled to be a guest lecturer on Windstar again right after I got married, so I took my husband, Tim, and it morphed into our honeymoon—the first of several (honeymoons, that is; not husbands). The cruise was from Athens to Monte Carlo, with stops in jewels such as Monemvasia, Greece; Taormina, Sicily; Capri, Italy; Bastia, Corsica; Portoferraio, Elba; Portofino, Italy; and St. Tropez, France. We had the same perspicacious bartender, Danny (yes, we remember his name too).

The day I recall most vividly—because it was the most perfect day of any cruise I’ve ever taken—was when we stopped in Fiskardo, a sweet fishing village on the Greek island of Kefalonia. Tim and I rented a car to explore the island. Our first stop was Myrtos Beach—a dazzling white arc of sand book-ended by dramatic cliffs and water in a dozen shades of blue. We were the only people there. After a swim and a couple of fun drives up and down the steep winding road with hairpin turns that leads to and from the beach, with Tim trying to teach me how to drive a stick (rental cars and zig-zag roads are good for that), we continued on and stopped at a seaside taverna for lunch. Again, we were the only people there—and it was the freshest calamari and Greek salad we’d ever tasted. On we went, passing a farm with a “honey for sale” sign. We stopped to buy some homemade honey and ended up spending an hour talking with the beekeeper and his daughter in their house and getting a tour of his traditional rural apiary. We continued criss-crossing the island, at each turn seeing views more glorious than the last. By the time the sun was setting, we were back onboard the ship in the hot tub, daiquiris in hand, watching our favorite new Greek island recede into the distance as we sailed to the next day’s adventure.

Back then never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that someday I might serve as the godmother of a Windstar ship. The inaugural sailing is sold out, but I’ll be hosting another Windstar voyage this summer—as well as lecturing onboard—and I’d love for you to join me! Details to come.

Have you sailed on Windstar? I’d love to hear about your experience. 

New York Harbor

Stunning Photos: An Ice-Filled New York Harbor in Winter

One of the biggest reasons to travel by ship is the views as you come into port. Yesterday, as my family sailed into an ice-filled New York Harbor—the final stop of a winter cruise to the Bahamas—I was reminded that certain amazing sights in this world can be seen only by ship. Even though I’m a jaded New Yorker who grew up in midtown Manhattan, the scene was otherworldly. It was well worth waking up at dawn, and shivering on my balcony, to capture it. Enjoy!

Pulling into New York Harbor at 7:00 am on a Sunday in February. #NorwegianBreakaway #NYC #skyline

A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

#tugboat breaking up the #ice for us in New York Harbor. #NYC #NorwegianBreakaway A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

4,000-passenger ship pulling into an icy Pier 88, NY Harbor, 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday in February. Home safe.

A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on


What’s your favorite port in the world to sail into?

Theater of Dionysus in Athens Greece

A Day in Athens: How to Spend Your Cruise Shore Excursion

Today we kick off our series on cruise shore excursions, in which we curate your best options in port cities worldwide when you’ve got only eight to ten hours before your ship sets sail for the next port. We’ll be asking local experts in the world’s popular cruise ports to recommend efficient sightseeing itineraries and how to make the very best use of your time. Today we start with Athens, Greece, where we spoke to the experts at Context Travel, who have sussed out the best walks in the world’s cultural capitals.

The challenge with Athens: How to get the best feel for the cradle of Western civilization in just one day—and actually enjoy yourself. The solution: two suggestions—one, a day on your own; two, a guided walking seminar. Each takes about eight hours, including transit time from the port into the heart of Athens and back. Remember that from spring through autumn Athens can be very hot, so factor in rest time, as well as a recuperating lunch break.


Getting into Athens

The city of Athens is served by the port of Piraeus, itself a city, located about ten kilometers away—though due to urban sprawl the boundaries between the two are increasingly blurred. Piraeus is a huge port serving international traffic as well as many domestic services to the Greek islands. The Metro line number 1 (green line) runs regular, high-speed trains between Piraeus and the center of Athens, but depending on where in the port you are, it can take 20 to 30 minutes on foot to reach Piraeus Metro. A single ticket costs €1.40. Though you may need to allow about an hour to get into town on public transport, the journey itself is a historical adventure, especially for engineering enthusiasts. The Piraeus-Kifissia Electric Railway began life as Athens’ first steam-powered train service in 1869 (today the railway is fully modernized). Alternatively, a taxi can get you into central Athens in about 30-45 minutes, depending on traffic. Make sure you take a cab from an official taxi rank and that the driver uses his meter. Expect to pay €20 to 30 one-way.


Acropolis Museum exterior in Athens Greece

The beautifully renovated Acropolis Museum has a postmodern design that contrasts starkly with the ancient classicism above. Photo courtesy Context Travel

Excursion Option 1: A Day On Your Own

The obvious attraction is the mighty Acropolis, but bear in mind it is hugely crowded in cruise season (spring through fall), and there is a 20-minute hike to the top of Acropolis Hill before you can even join the back of the queue. One alternative is to skip that part entirely and head straight to the beautifully renovated (and air conditioned) Acropolis Museum, whose contemporary postmodernist lines contrast starkly with the ancient classicism above. You’ll need at least an hour to explore the layers of history within those walls, from the statues in the Archaic Gallery to the Parthenon frieze. Don’t miss the Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis, with its vertiginous transparent floor revealing the archaeological excavation below. The gallery is home to artifacts discovered in archaic sanctuaries on the side of Acropolis Hill, as well as from everyday life in Athens.

Afterward, rather than visit the main attraction, explore the many other impressive archaeological sites just a stone’s throw from the Acropolis Museum. Around the corner from the Museum, for example, lies the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which took 600 years to build. Though only fragments of the Temple remain, you can still feel the scale of the colossal structure if you stand beneath its towering columns. Sadly, the temple fell into disrepair after an invasion in the 3rd century A.D. Nevertheless, it’s still a breathtaking remnant—one that stands out all the more thanks to a relative lack of crowds.

Also nearby is the Theater of Dionysus, on the south slope of Acropolis Hill. Though it’s not in as good shape as the Acropolis’s other theater, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, this one is historically more important, having once played host to more than 17,000 spectators.

A combined ticket to all of the archaeological sites of Athens costs €12 and can be purchased at any of the entrances. Entry to a single site (excluding the Acropolis) is €2 (Agora €4).

When you’re finished with the historical sites, you should have time for a stroll through the winding streets of Plaka. Yes, it’s touristy, but Plaka still holds a special charm. Just behind the Theater of Dionysus you’ll find the diminutive district of Anafiotika, with its ancient abodes that seem to be carved into the hilly landscape. Like a cute little village from one of the Greek Islands, Anafiotika has been known to draw a crowd, but there’s an authenticity here that should excite even jaded travelers.

Getting there: Take the M1 metro to Monastiraki and walk (15–20 minutes) around the foot of Acropolis Hill to the Acropolis Museum.

Lunch and breaks: For a well-earned lunch, try Attikos Greek House, which offers that rare combination of spectacular Acropolis views and a credible smattering of locals. For a quick revitalizing break, head to Syntagma Square, where you can join locals in an iced coffee, also known as the Greek frappé. This typically consists of instant coffee with added cold water, whisked up to a foam with a couple of ice cubes dropped into the glass. No milk, but add as much sugar as you like. Pro tip: Syntagma Square has a metro station with its own archaeological collection of artifacts discovered during its construction.


Excursion Option 2: The Guided Day

When you’ve been to Athens before and are happy to avoid the heat and crowds and admire the archeological sites from afar, or you simply prefer to enjoy the city as the locals do, then make food the theme of your day.

Retsina wine barrels in Athens Greece

Retsina is a sweet Greek white wine made with the resin of a local pine species. Photo courtesy Context Travel

Food culture in Athens revolves around the busy Central Market, or Varvakios Agora. Here, nut vendors vie with butchers and fishmongers for the attention of passersby. On the surrounding streets, you’ll find honey, cheese, and pastry specialists who offer a fantastic array of snacks that demonstrate the intricacies and complexities of Greek cuisine. Again, take the M1 Metro from the cruise port to Monastiraki; you’ll emerge within a few steps of the action.

Foodies and culture vultures interested in an authentic taste of Athenian life can join an Athens chef and food journalist for an in-depth and immersive walking tour with Context Travel. Called Beyond Feta, the tour traces the development and character of Athenian cooking from farm to fork. One of the stops, for instance, is Dyporto Wine Shop, in a basement beneath the markets of Monastiraki Square. The shop has been owned by the same family for more than four generations. They produce and serve a special Greek wine called retsina—a sweet white made with the resin of a local pine species. Greek president Karolos Papoulias reportedly stopped by unannounced last year for a meal with some aides, and current owner Dmitri will proudly show you a photo of himself with Francis Ford Coppola. After sampling some of the wine, you’ll get to try a traditional Greek lunch in the cool wine cellar.

After the tour, you’ll likely still have time to explore the charming streets of Plaka (see above) before heading back to the port (allow one hour for your return). And don’t worry about getting lost: the Acropolis is always looming above as a way to orient yourself.

Getting there: For more info on this food tour and where to meet your guide, contact Context Travel.


Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

My first cruise, when I was four and Doug was three.

Things to Know Before Booking Your Family Cruise: Tips From a 12-Year-Old

Hi. I’m Charlie. I’m 12 years old, and I’ve taken nine cruises on five different cruise lines. You might think cruise ships are pretty much the same, but they’re not. If you want your kids and yourself to enjoy a family cruise as much as possible, here’s my advice.

1. Get a cabin that’s on a higher deck toward the stern.

Everything that’s interesting for kids and families is always at the back of the ship. So get a cabin that’s very close to the aft staircase and no more than three or four decks below the pool, buffet, and kids’ club. If your room is at the front of the ship, you’ll spend most of the day walking back and forth across the ship, and if your room is on a low deck, you’ll have to wait for the elevator.

Disney cruise ship cabin

This was a good cabin because it had a sofa bed.


2. Get a sofa bed rather than high-up beds that fold out of the wall.

A sofa that turns into a double bed, even if you have to share it with your brother, is better than two single upper berths. It’s easy to fall out of an upper berth, especially kids like my brother Doug who move around a lot when they’re sleeping.

upper berth

Dad ended up sleeping in this upper berth.


3. Always get a balcony. 

Without a balcony, rooms are crowded with four people in them. And you need a balcony so you can always see the sunrise and sunset and have nice light in your cabin, and so you can go out and get fresh air and enjoy the smell, and so you can see the place you’re visiting when you come into port.


cruise kids balcony

Everyone who doesn’t have a balcony always wishes they had one.


4. Get a large pool with a water slide.

Some cruise ship pools are salty, so bring swim goggles.  If the pool has a water slide, check the height limit because your kid might be disappointed if he’s too short.

Norwegian Gem water slide

We waited till Doug was tall enough for the water slide before we went on the Norwegian Gem.


5. Do not sign up for the early dinner seating.

A lot of parents make this mistake. The early seating means your kids will have to leave the pool at 5:00 so you can get to dinner by 5:30, and your kids will be stuck eating in the restaurant, which is boring and takes forever. Every kid would rather eat in the buffet because they can get food they know they like. (A possible exception to the rule is Disney ships because the restaurants are awesome.) Always sign up for the late seating because you can take your kids to the buffet at 6:30 and take them back to the kids’ club at 7:00, and then eat on your own at the late seating.


Disney ship Animator's Palate

Doug in Animator’s Palate, which is the best restaurant on Disney ships because Nemo characters come to life and talk to you.


6. Make sure there’s food by the pool.

Sometimes you don’t even need to go to the buffet for dinner because you can get food by the pool at dinnertime. On Holland America we could eat hot dogs, hamburgers, and ice cream for dinner by the pool. But Disney was great because they had themed food stands with different types of food, like Flo’s V8 Cafe or Pinocchio’s Pizzeria, where we could eat in a beach chair in our swimsuits.


7. Get a kids’ club that’s open all day long.

Some kids’ clubs close for two hours at lunchtime and dinnertime, even though your children don’t need two hours to eat lunch or dinner.

cruise kids club jumping

My first kids’ club on my first cruise, which was on Celebrity Cruises.

Some cruise lines have much better kids’ clubs than others do. Norwegian Cruise Line’s and Disney Cruise Line’s are especially good, and if you’d like to find out why, you can read this about the Norwegian Star and this about the Disney Dream that I wrote when I was nine.

A kids’ club is always better when your kid can check himself in and out of the club. This makes life easier for both of you:  Your child doesn’t have to be stuck doing something in the kids’ club that he doesn’t want to do or missing something he’d rather be doing somewhere else on the ship, and you don’t have to interrupt what you’re doing to pick him up at a certain time.

cruise ship shuffleboard

If you can check yourself out of the kids’ club, you can always go play shuffleboard.

Also, get a kids’ club where your kid isn’t the oldest in his age group.  If your child is in the 6-to-8 group and he’s turning 9 soon, he might be bored with the little kids.


8. Choose a ship that has scheduled activities for parents and kids to do together.

On Norwegian Cruise Line there’s at least one family activity on the program every day that parents and kids do together—like a scavenger hunt or “Family Challenge.” It was great because our family competed against my cruise-ship friends’ families. On Royal Caribbean there was only one family competition the entire cruise. There were things like 3-on-3 basketball tournaments and mini-golf contests, but for adults only, even though kids would enjoy those things much more than adults.

cruise ship basketball court

Royal Caribbean has the most elaborate sports deck.


9. Don’t worry about what sports are onboard.

If you want a giant sports deck, choose Royal Caribbean, but you don’t really need one because every big ship has some good sports to choose from. They all have basketball, shuffleboard, and Ping-Pong, and most have mini golf.

Disney Wonder Ping Pong

Schooling my mom in Ping-Pong on the Disney Wonder


10. Don’t get stuck wasting time on embarkation day.

Embarkation day sucks because the kids’ club isn’t open till nighttime, and there are no activities on the ship. Embarkation day is a good time to explore the ship with your kids and find all the places they’ll be at a lot, so your kids learn where they’ll want to go later and how to get there. Also, it can take a few hours for your suitcases to be delivered to your cabin, so make sure your kids pack their swimsuits in their carry-on luggage so they’ll have them for the pool.

Holland America's Ryndam docked

On embarkation day, have a swim suit in your carry-on.


11. Collect a souvenir from each port.

When you’re back home, whenever your kid sees each souvenir, he’ll remember the place where he got it. But don’t buy something like a teddy bear that says “Mexico” on in it. Instead buy something that was handcrafted by locals or is unique and you can find only in that place. For instance, in Honduras I got a metal fish made from an oil drum and an old ship’s hull. And in Belize I got a marble turtle that you wouldn’t find anywhere in America.

Jamaica souvenir

In Jamaica we watched this man carve my name into the wooden bird statue I bought from him.


If you’d like my advice about which cruise line is best for your family, you can ask me below.  Also here’s my advice for the Disney Wonder from my own travel blog.


Charlie Baker is Wendy’s 12-year-old son. He has traveled to 23 countries and has kept his own blog, NotAnotherTrip.com, since he was eight.


Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.


Best Israel Shore Tours for an Eastern Mediterranean Cruise


Hi Wendy,

We are visiting Israel on a cruise for two days. The ship will stop in Haifa one day and in Ashdod the next. We’d like to leave the ship in Haifa, stay overnight in Jerusalem, then meet the ship again in Ashdod. But the overnight-tour options on offer from the cruise line and tour companies are very expensive. Do you have a solution—or a tour guide to recommend?

Thank you,

—Gene E.


Gene, my mother-in-law had a similar predicament on her Israel cruise last year. And if the solution was good enough for her, I promise it’ll work for you too.  I connected her with Joe Yudin of Touring Israel. Joe, who lives in Israel and is a former paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces and a Ph.D. candidate in Land of Israel Studies, started out as a tour guide and became so popular that he started his own business planning private customized tours. He now has a stable of some of Israel’s best tour guides.

Usually cruise ships visiting Israel spend one night in Haifa and one in Ashdod, allowing for three full days of exploring Israel. That allows you to spend one day in the Galilee, one in Jerusalem, and one in the Judean Desert at the Dead Sea. It sounds like you have only two days, though. Jerusalem will require one, so you have a choice: You can either leave the ship in Haifa, see the north of Israel with your guide, then head down to Jerusalem for the night and the next day, or you can zip from Haifa straight to Jerusalem, spend the day there and overnight, then do the Dead Sea the following day before catching up with the ship in Ashdod.

I reached out to Joe to get the best strategy and itinerary for you. First, here’s what he says about finding the right guide at the right price:

“I believe the best use of Gene’s time would be to hire a private guide with a six-passenger van and divide the costs among six passengers. For a day excursion, most private guides in Israel charge almost the same price for one passenger as for six.

The better guides with sterling reputations cost a bit more, but be wary of extras: Some guides will charge for “extra mileage” (for more than 200km per day) and/or for “overtime” (for more than 9 hours of touring per day). If you are on a cruise, chances are you will exceed both of these. There will also be an extra charge if the guide sleeps outside of his or her home.

Be prepared to spend between $750 and $1,000 per day for a private, expert, honest guide with his or her own vehicle. This rate does not include meals, entrance fees, or a tip for your guide. Split these costs between six people, and you have yourself an amazing deal. If you are traveling alone, you can always search for others willing to do your excursion using the cruise bulletin and message boards.

Check your guide’s credentials and make sure he/she is licensed by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism. Guides in Israel tend to be very knowledgeable; many have master’s degrees or even PhDs and were officers in the Israeli army. Check their credentials. Don’t get stuck with someone who barely speaks English or has a poor view of Israel itself (some guides are licensed by way of their clergy credentials or authorities outside of Israel).”

Second, here are itinerary options that Joe recommends for a day in the north of Israel. Of course, when you have a van and a private guide, your itinerary can be whatever you want:

* “Tour Israel’s north from a Jewish Perspective in Safed (Tzfat – where Kabbalah began, a city in the mountains 500 years old with exquisite synagogues from that time and home of a huge artist colony) and then either the Golan Heights (modern military battle sites, wine tasting, amazing views of Syria), or Tzippori (where the Mishna was written, amazing 2nd century mosaics and ruins) and Tel Megiddo (an ancient Israelite city maybe built by King Solomon). From here, back to the ship—or. better yet. straight to Jerusalem.

* Tour Israel from a Christian perspective, heading straight to Nazareth to tour the Cave of the Annunciation, the House of the Holy Family, and Mary’s Well, before heading to Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine, the Mt. of Beatitudes where Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount, Capernaum and the House of St. Peter where Jesus based his Ministry, the 2,000 year old “Jesus Boat” and the Jordan River baptism site and if time permits, Armageddon (Tel Megiddo). From here, back to the ship—or, better yet, straight to Jerusalem.

* A fabulous tour for everyone is the The Carmel Coast: King Herod’s port city of Caesaria by the Sea, the Bahai Gardens in Haifa, and the Crusader capital of Acre. If you don’t want to visit Caesaria because your cruise has already stopped in Ephesus, the Roman ruin in Turkey that is similar, try the 19th- century mountaintop village of Zichron Yaakov or the grottos by the sea at Rosh Hanikra instead.”

Third, here’s what you need to know for your night, and the following day, in Jerusalem:

* “Reserve tickets ahead of time (your guide or tour operator can do it months in advance) for the Tower of David Night Spectacular.

* Book a table at one of Jerusalem’s fine restaurants, such as Macheneyehuda, Chakra, or Adom.

* Stroll along Ben Yehuda street or the “Old Train Station” (HaTachana in Hebrew) at night.

* The next morning, get an early start and hit the viewpoint of the Old City and the rest of Jerusalem from the top of the Mt. of Olives. Most tour buses from your ship in Ashdod will head here first, and half of them will get stuck in traffic due to the vendors’ harassment, small parking lot, and narrow streets. If you get a late start, skip the viewpoint and instead make it your last stop of the day.

* If you want to see Jerusalem from a Jewish perspective, tour the Old City Jewish Quarter in depth. This includes the Herodian Mansions, Hurva Synagogue, Cardo, Broad Wall, Four Sephardic Synagogues, Western Wall, City of David, Davidson Center and Western Wall and its Tunnels Tour. Add a museum at the end: Either the Israel Museum with the Dead Sea Scrolls or Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum & Memorial.

* If you want to see Jerusalem from a Christian perspective, don’t miss Garden of Gethsemene, the Bethesda Pools, Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross), Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Garden Tomb, Arab Souk, Western Wall, Temple Mount, Mt Zion and its tombs, rooms & churches. Add one of the two museums mentioned above OR the City of David, which includes the Siloam Pools.

* If you just want an all-around tour, do a walking tour of all four quarters, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Western Wall, Temple Mount, City of David, and one of the museums.

As for the Dead Sea, should you opt for that on Day 2, Joe recommends “touring the Oasis of Ein Gedi, where King David hid from Saul. Make sure to go for a dip under the waterfall, to the Dead Sea for a float and lunch, and, of course, to King Herod’s desert mountaintop fortress of Masada.”

Gene, now that you’ve got the makings of a great couple of days in Israel, my guess is you’ll have no problem finding four more people from your cruise who would like to split the cost with you. In fact, I bet the rest of the ship will be jealous when you come back and tell them everything that you managed to accomplish in such a short time.

Read Joe’s Insider’s Guide to Israel and his Insider’s Guide to Jerusalem.

Bon Voyage!