When it comes to ports, there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that the cruise ships take you to some fabulous places. The bad news is that you'll probably wish you had more time in certain ports.
My husband, Bryan, and I are independent souls, far preferring to explore on our own rather than take shore excursions. If you want to strike out on your own, follow us. Here's how we did it.
Research, planning and a bit of adventurous spirit were the keys. Rental cars, cabs and our feet were our modes of transportation, books and maps were our guides.
Pre-trip research is the number one tool in making the most of your time ashore. Read the guidebooks, contact the tourist boards, check out the websites. You'll need to pick and choose what you want to see. And to do so wisely, you'll need thorough knowledge of the port.
Once you know what's there, make a list of priorities. Keep it short. Keep it flexible. Marking those priorities on a map will give you a logical walking tour.
Don't try to cram too much into your day. (I am one of the worst offenders in this situation). Yes, follow your priorities, but allow for some serendipity (an appealing street, an unexpected sight, an irresistible shop).
Get back to the ship on time! Do some of the near-the-dock sights at the end of the day. We like to wind up the day at a cafe not too far from the dock.
Some, such as the Insight Guides with their beautiful photography and in-depth history, cultural and lifestyle coverage, are best for pre-trip reading (and a bit heavy to tote ashore). The lavishly-illustrated Knopf and Eyewitness guides, with their cut-away drawings and tremendous detail on all facets of a city or country are also terrific background material.
For something lighter in your pocket or bag, I recommend either Fodor's City Pack, or Insight Compact Guide, both published for many cities. Ideal for port explorations, they distill a great amount of information. The Insight Compact Guides have various walking tours and excellent information on the sights. If you want an expert to plan your time, Fodor's City Packs organize morning and afternoon routes to the top sights and come with a large, highly detailed map tucked inside the plastic book jacket.
Also, the regular Fodor's Guides and the Access series have excellent walking tours.
Shoppers should equip themselves with the appropriate volume of Suzy Gershman's Born to Shop series, many of which feature popular ports.
Good maps are essential. Those in the guidebooks are often limited, so we get more detailed ones from the tourists boards, from local bookstores or buy them at newsstands in port. Laminated for durability, Insight's FlexiMaps have some sightseeing and getting-around tips. If you're renting a car, especially for an overnight stay, the Michelin regional maps are excellent.
Next time in port, strike out on your own. And pass along your best tips on our message boards.
Copyright © 2003, Mary Ann Hemphill. All rights reserved.