Five North American Cruises For Beginners

As the saying goes, there’s a first time for everything. But choosing your first cruise can be a daunting and intimidating task simply because of the number of options that there are out there. Here, we look at five of our favorite destinations for first-time cruisers.

1. The Caribbean

msc divina
MSC Divina docked in Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos, on an Eastern Caribbean cruise. © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The Caribbean is, for all intents and purposes, the de-facto first time cruise destination for many. With photographs of sun-seared beaches and crystal blue waters, it doesn’t take a lot of convincing to get most people to book a weeklong journey to the Caribbean.

One of the Caribbean’s primary advantages is that it has a multitude of itineraries rolled into a single region. You’ve got the Eastern Caribbean, with popular ports like Philipsburg, St. Maarten and Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas co-existing alongside the cruise line’s private islands, like Half Moon Cay (Holland America Line) and Castaway Cay (Disney Cruise Line).

Then, there’s the more exotic Southern Caribbean, with its capitals of rum and spice like St. George’s, Grenada and Bridgetown, Barbados.

Carnival Liberty and Carnival Freedom docked in Cozumel, Mexico in the Western Caribbean. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Carnival Liberty and Carnival Freedom docked in Cozumel, Mexico in the Western Caribbean. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The third option is the Western Caribbean, which largely focuses on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Belize and Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands. While these ports of call aren’t as naturally lush, verdant or mountainous as their Eastern Caribbean counterparts, they do offer one very important distinction: history. The Western Caribbean is a history lover’s paradise, particularly in Mexico where guests can visit the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum and Chichen Itza.

Regardless of which itinerary you choose, the Caribbean is an excellent first-time choice for another reason: variety. Nearly every cruise line operates in the Caribbean, and almost all of them bring their latest and greatest ships to the region each winter.

There’s also nothing that says you have to take a weeklong cruise, either: plenty of three, four, five and even six-day sailings can be found throughout the year to various regions. One of our personal favorite Caribbean voyages was a simple five-day jaunt from Tampa, Florida down to Key West and Cozumel, Mexico. We consider this to be a good sampler for those who are testing the waters so to speak.

2. The Mexican Riviera

Puerto Vallarta's Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The steel crown at the top of the clock tower was once blown off by a hurricane, and had to be re-mounted. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Puerto Vallarta’s Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The steel crown at the top of the clock tower was once blown off by a hurricane, and had to be re-mounted. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Speaking of Mexico, Mexico’s “other coast” – the Pacific – often gets lost in the shuffle. Known collectively as the Mexican Riviera, the region is now on the rebound at long last after a period of decline in the last decade.

The vast majority of Mexican Riviera cruises are a week in duration, and typically leave from either Los Angeles, California or San Diego. They then sail down the Pacific Coast adjacent to Baja Mexico before calling on Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Carnival Miracle looking resplendent at anchor off Cabo San Lucas. You'd never guess she just celebrated her 11th birthday. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Carnival Miracle looking resplendent at anchor off Cabo San Lucas. You’d never guess she just celebrated her 11th birthday. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

For the first-time cruiser – particularly those residing on or near the West Coast of Canada and the United States – these cruises are some of the easiest to get to. West Coasters may be put off by the long flights and multiple connections needed to reach Florida, but for Mexican Riviera cruises, the lucky few can even drive to embarkation ports in California. Even from Canada, Los Angeles is just a three-hour flight from most Western Canadian cities like Calgary and Vancouver.

The Mexican Riviera has a lot going for it. You can get your dose of authentic Mexican culture without leaving the “safety blanket” that has Americanized much of the region. Still, there’s plenty of real, authentic Mexican shops, eateries and indulgences to be had here, which makes it a great option for both cautious and adventurous first-time cruisers.

While there aren’t as many lines operating here as there are in the Caribbean, Carnival Corporation leads the way here, with sailings aboard its Carnival, Holland America Line and Princess Cruises brands. Most operate seasonally, but Carnival has committed to deploying Carnival Miracle year-round in the Mexican Riviera, where she operates out of the port of Long Beach, California.

3. Alaska

...as seen from the decks of the Star Princess. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Guests aboard Princess Cruises’ Star Princess watch as the ship enters Glacier Bay National Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Forget about the fact that it might rain: Alaska is one of the most spectacular and scenic voyages you can take without leaving North America. People flock from around the world to see the beauty and majesty of this grand and sprawling state, which recently made the news after Mt. McKinley was formally renamed Mt. Denali after years of abortive attempts.

Alaskan cruises are plentiful and varied. Typically offered between May and September, Alaska cruises offer a myriad of calls throughout Alaska and British Columbia on sailings that depart from Vancouver, British Columbia; Seattle, San Francisco, and Alaskan ports that typically include Anchorage, Juneau, Seward and Whittier.

Many major cruise lines have a presence here, along with small-ship operators like Un-Cruise Adventures that specialize in active, off-the-beaten path journeys. Luxury lines also call Alaska home during the summer months, with Regent Seven Seas and Silversea offering departures from Vancouver’s Canada Place Cruise Terminal.

Glacial Landing. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Overland tours range from simple walking excursions to full-blown glacial landing opportunities. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

In addition to cruises that depart roundtrip from Vancouver, Seattle or San Francisco, many cruise lines also offer “one-way” voyages that travel between Vancouver and either Seward or Whittier. These so-called “north” and “southbound” sailings allow guests to pair an extensive overland tour of inland Alaska with their cruises, creating multi-week vacations that explore the more inland parts of Alaska, including Anchorage, Denali National Park, Fairbanks, and even the small, remote town of Barrow, Alaska and the northern reaches of Prudhoe Bay.

Alaska may put people off initially because of its somewhat famously unpredictable weather, but many people choose to cruise to Alaska again and again. And again.

4. Canada & New England

Halifax, Nova Scotia
Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia. Photo © 2012 Ralph Grizzle

Another excellent sailing for first time cruisers is the eastern seaboard of Canada and the United States. These Canada & New England sailings are typically offered in fall, when the regions famous leaves are about to turn various shades of red, orange and brown as summer gives way to winter.

As with Alaska, a couple of different itineraries are offered. These include trips that operate roundtrip from New York City and Boston, while other sailings will operate between the Canadian cities of Montreal and Quebec City and the American cities of New York and Boston. These “one-way” cruises can last as long as a week, but are typically offered in longer journeys that can be up to 14 days in duration or more.

Acadia National Park, near Bar Harbor, Maine, offers spectacular vistas. Photo © Aaron Saunders
Acadia National Park, near Bar Harbor, Maine, offers spectacular vistas. Photo © Aaron Saunders

So where do you go for a week? Only some of the most beautiful and breathtaking ports in North America. A typical Canada & New England voyage might depart New York to call on Newport, Rhode Island; Boston, Massachusetts; Bar Harbor, Maine, St. John, New Brunswick (home to the famous Bay of Fundy) and Halifax, Nova Scotia, with its iconic Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse.

Voyages that swing up around the upper reaches of Nova Scotia and into the St. Lawrence River usually call on Prince Edward Island, the home of the fictional Anne of Green Gable stories written by Lucy Maude Montgomery, and a few sailings might even call on St. Pierre et Miquelon – an overseas French colony situated just south of Newfoundland.

The big draw here, of course, is the fall foliage, coupled with the rich history of these cities – which remain some of the oldest in both the United States and Canada.

5. Hawaii

There's nothing quite like sunsets in Hawaii. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders
There’s nothing quite like sunsets in Hawaii. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

Like the Caribbean, Hawaii is an easy sell as a tourist destination. But did you know you can cruise there, too?

Hawaiian cruises typically depart from the West Coast of North America, but not always: Norwegian Cruise Line received special dispensation to operate its Pride of America on sailings that depart roundtrip from Honolulu, Hawaii. Since most cruise ships are foreign-flagged, the Jones Act prohibits foreign-flagged ships from sailing from one U.S. port to another without first stopping in a “distant foreign port.” In the case of cruises that depart from cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles, this means calling on Ensenada, Mexico – briefly – on the way back.

Sailings are also offered at certain times of the year that either sail one-way or roundtrip from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Pride of America: the only large cruise ship in the world able to operate Hawaiian voyages roundtrip from Honolulu. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders
Pride of America: the only large cruise ship in the world able to operate Hawaiian voyages roundtrip from Honolulu. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

Of course, the appeal of sailing around Hawaii is manifold, from the rich cultural history of the islands to the sun and sand and tropical breezes that call to so many North Americans as they are stuck in the deep-freeze of winter.

Sailings that depart from the West Coast of North America can also be a great deal for those who are off-put by the thought of flying five or six hours from Seattle or Los Angeles to the Hawaiian Islands. In effect, these West Coast departures – which typically run from October to April, allow guests to visit Hawaii without ever having to set foot on an airplane.

Mahalo to that!

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