Can You Travel by Cruise Ship?

| Thursday, 03 Nov 2011
The 154,000-ton Independence of the Seas Arrives at Alicante, Spain

Can You Travel by Cruise Ship?
I love to travel, and with the exception of a two week trip to Europe guided my high school art teacher, every place I have ever seen, from Bora Bora to the Arctic Circle, saw me arriving by cruise ship. Now self-described independent-traveler Rick Steves has just written a book called "Rick Steves' Mediterranean Cruise Ports" - a guide to seeing Europe by cruise ship. The focus is unique - solely about the ports of call, not the cruise ships.

Steves wrote the new book after meeting tourists clutching his "independent travel" guidebooks in Europe who told him they had arrived by cruise ship. Rick was a bit taken aback. If Rick-nicks were traveling by cruise ships he couldn't continue to refer to them as "mere hedonism for people who want to see if they can still snorkel after eating five meals a day."

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Now, I don't mean to knock Rick Steves at all - from what I can tell he has just written a very useful book which I plan to buy. But it is still funny is how cringingly he endorses cruise ship travel even though he just wrote a book for cruisers. In his recent Seattle Times column he made sure to remind us that he had to belong to the anti-cruise ship foundation solely because he is an "independent traveler."

In fact, he still knocks cruises pretty badly, describing them as a way to "tip-toe into Europe," and he says "if the rug merchants in Kusadasi are getting a little too pushy you can simply retreat to the comfort of 24-hour room service, tall glasses of ice water, American sports on the TV, and a roomful of people who speak English as a first language (except, perhaps, your crew)-" as if that is a bad thing. But then he asks "But, is it really Europe?" It isn't Epcot Center. Yes, it's really Europe.

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Here is the only place where he went a little wrong with his perception of European cruises. He purposely took mainstream cruise lines like Royal Caribbean and Celebrity in the Mediterranean, because he wanted to see if he could go from what he perceived as a "typical" cruise ship into the back neighborhoods of Venice and Dubrovnik on his own. He found he could, quite successfully.

But what he still doesn't seem to understand is that cruise lines like Azamara, Oceania, Windstar or the especially elite "cruise into history" Travel Dynamics International allow you to see far more of Europe in a week than you ever could by traveling independently. In fact, you are in port every day and sailing every night. That last cruise line mentioned runs itineraries like "The Journey of Odysseus" to visit every site in The Odyssey from historic Troy to the realm of Agamemnon and the home of the Cyclops (the Phlegrean Fields near Naples, in case you didn't know). The lecturers include Smithsonian experts who have translated works by Euripides into English - something to do at night other than watching ESPN-International.

Steves took "cruise" ships, not "travel" ships.

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So he says "cruising is in many ways an anathema to the back door travel philosophy I have been preaching for 30 years." Actually, it isn't at all, as I started proving almost 30 years ago myself. He writes "I produced what I believe is the first and only guidebook written by someone who has a healthy skepticism about cruises." From what I can tell that means you can take a cruise as long as you don't admit you enjoyed the ship.

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Still, ignoring the condescending attitude, the book makes recommendations for several port cities on whether or not to take a ship-offered shore excursion, or to go alone. He recommends ship tours when a "good guide" is an asset, but if you choose to go it alone he tells you how to do it.

How accurate is his book? For Rome he tells us the Civitavecchia train station is a short walk and the ride to Rome is 45 - 80 minutes. I like that kind of specificity - well done. For Livorno he asks and answers "Ship tour? Maybe." For the "yes to tours" he says "Excursions offer a no-hassle connection that also includes tours of the major sights." For "no to tours" he recommends "Shuttle bus into downtown Livorno; then public bus to train station; then train to Pisa (20 minutes), Lucca (1 hour), or Florence (1.5 hours)." Okay, I would take the tour, but it's still good to know the public bus system works.

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