Although I’ve received plenty of questions from readers over the years, there is one question that comes up again and again: What’s the best place you’ve cruised to?
It’s a hard question to answer. A Caribbean cruise is great for its relaxed, informal vibe. A voyage through the British Isles promises to woo guests with its history and picturesque landscape. A trip down the Amazon River is a once-in-a-lifetime journey that would still resonate with the earliest explorers.
It seems almost unfair to pick my favorite destinations, because there’s so many worthy ones. But out of all the cruises I’ve taken, these four stand above as the ones I think about most. Some offer life-altering experiences, while others have the ability to change your perception of the world around you. Others still delight with their natural beauty. But all of these offer a cruise experience that should rank high on your very own bucket-list.
In many ways, a voyage to Antarctica is the ultimate cruise. It is an expedition made by relatively few, but the rewards for making the journey are numerous.
Most cruises to Antarctica set sail from Ushuaia, Argentina – the southernmost city in the world. Even this starting point is a unique experience, as the town primarily exists only for tourists coming and going from Patagonia or Antarctica.
From there, a rite of passage en-route to the Antarctic Peninsula involves crossing the dreaded Drake Passage. This body of water is where the currents from the Atlantic and the Pacific meet, often with violent consequences. Expect to get tossed around quite a bit – but only on one leg of your journey. As the saying goes, you’re either going to get the “Drake Shake” or the “Drake Lake”; few people get hit by bad weather both ways.
Suddenly, you find yourself on the Antarctic Peninsula. Icebergs so big they could be mistaken for land break free and drift past you. Penguins waddle along snow-capped shorelines by the hundreds, occasionally dodging between rusting Victorian-era whaling equipment, standing like a monument to a forgotten time, seen by almost no one.
Nature is abundant here. So too is history. Early explorers like Robert Falcon Scott met their demise in the race to the South Pole. Some, like Roald Amundsen, would succeed. Others, like Carsten Borchgrevink and Ernest Shackleton, would endure personal hardships as they sought to balance the need for discovery with the lives of their men.
Antarctica is sensory overload. The colors are unbearably vibrant, and sunsets inadequately described in words. The lack of noise pollution is evident; quiet has never seemed so loud.
This is the most expensive cruise on this list – by far – but each time I’ve made the journey, I’ve met fellow passengers who are on their third, fourth and even fifth visit. Because that’s what the polar regions do to you: They disarm you completely, and pull you under their spell.
Russia’s Far East
The polar opposite of Antarctica is, of course, the Arctic. But “the Arctic” is an unfortunately broad term that includes far more diversity than most people realize. There’s Arctic Svalbard, north of Norway; Arctic Greenland and Canada’s Far North, which includes the fabled Northwest Passage.
Then, there’s Russia’s Far East. Long closed to Westerners, the Russian Far East is one of the planet’s least explored destinations. The Kamchatka Peninsula is a geothermal wonderland, while in nutrient-rich waters of the Bering Sea support vast populations of birds, whales and other marine life.
How do you write about a journey to a place that seems nearly as remote as Mars, a region that is on the other side of the International Dateline and far removed from civilization? How do you choose to illustrate the experiences from the more than 2,000 photos that your index finger was compelled to snap? That is the dilemma I faced in Russia’s Far East.
The spectacle of nature alone was enough to shift mindsets — more than 100 killer whales sighted one morning as we floated along with them for the better part of two hours; several hundred walruses in the waters around our Zodiacs a few days before; and on another day, humpback whales so close that we could feel their spray as we bobbed around in Zodiacs.
One evening, we spotted two nomadic reindeer herders who we brought back to our ship and invited to dinner on perhaps the most beautiful sunset of our voyage. The sun glistened on the rippling sea as waiters poured champagne and wine and placed gourmet dishes before us. All of us, the entire complement of the ship, dined outdoors by the pool that evening. As the sun descended, we drew sweaters around our shoulders, and slowly daylight began to give way to night, with a half-moon rising over the ridges.
Oh yes, the trip changed us. Only an uninquisitive being could return from that trip unchanged.
The Greek Islands
You’ve seen it in movies and read about it as the setting for countless novels, from romance to mystery, and yet the Greek Islands still find a way to be just as stunning in person. Not even Hollywood cinematics are needed to make this picturesque part of the world look amazing; these islands are picture-ready all day, every day.
The quintessential Greek Island is, of course, Santorini. Rising out of the ocean to impossible heights, this volcanic island is home to the famous white-washed buildings adorned with blue domes that you’ve seen in pictures. But Fira and Oia– Santorini’s two most populous towns – are but two of the many sights you can see in this region.
The real beauty of the Greek Islands lies in those places you may have never heard of. On Patmos, in the Dodecanese, small ships dock right in the center of this quaint town. A walk up to the imposing Monastery of Saint John (recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is a must, not just for the history but also for the view.
Then, there’s Rhodes, with its namesake municipality that is home to the amazing Palace of the Grand Master and its historic medieval city center that dates back to times of Antiquity. Rhodes was the site of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and while the island exists today primarily as a tourist paradise, it is also one of the most memorable places to visit in the Greek Islands.
The possibilities here are endless, and each day brings a new vision of paradise, from the iconic windmills of Mykonos to Heraklion’s Palace of Knossos, one of the most famous attractions on the island of Crete.
A cruise to the Greek Islands is one of the most rewarding journeys you can make; a relaxing voyage back in time to the origins of civilization.
The British Virgin Islands
You can cruise to the Eastern Caribbean a hundred times without ever stumbling upon the beautiful gem that is the British Virgin Islands. Far removed from the tourist bustle (and some would say “commercialization”) of places like Charlotte Amalie and Philipsburg, the British Virgin Islands are a throwback to the way the Caribbean used to be: quiet, unspoiled, and authentic.
The four main islands here are Tortola, Jost Van Dyke, Virgin Gorda, and Anegada. While the bigger ships might take you to the marquee ports Charlotte Amalie and Philipsburg, the smaller ports such as Tortola, Jost Van Dyke and Virgin Gorda are almost the exclusive domain of small ships (think SeaDream Yacht Club, Star Clippers, and the like).
This is the Caribbean you see in the brochures: the deserted sandy beaches, the impossibly blue water. There are tourists here, to be sure, and other cruise ships and passengers as well.
But you won’t catch Harmony of the Seas discharging her passengers here anytime soon, nor will you have to fight with the crowds. While there is still a healthy dose of American commercialism on display if you look for it, cuisines tend to be local, souvenirs hand-made.
A cruise to the British Virgin Islands shows you that the Caribbean you never knew existed is alive and well.
These are the four best places I’ve ever cruised to – for now. No doubt the list will change as I continue cruising in beautiful destinations around the globe.