Cruising takes us to exciting and picturesque cruise ship ports around the world. Whether they feature nature’s masterpieces or something manmade in vibrant colours, our favourite cruise destinations are each a photographer’s paradise.
What we love about cruising is the variety in destinations, the one time unpack, the culinary delights, and the opportunity to make the journey part of the fun. On the flip side, we never have enough time to explore in a port city, we overeat, and the cruise ships in port are an eyesore in an often stunning area.
We’ve sailed with seven different lines, visited over 65 cruise port cities on six continents, and taken two repositioning cruises. The map below highlights our favourite scenic cruise destinations. More detail is provided for each below.
Palm trees lining coastal beaches, waterfalls, and a rainbow of colourful flowers, Tahiti is a classic example of tropical paradise. The island is home to Papeete, the capital city of French Polynesia. Tahiti is small enough to circumnavigate in a few of hours even with allocating time to stop and explore grottos, waterfalls, caves, blowholes, and viewing points. This leaves the afternoon free to either enjoy a beach or walk through the town of Papeete.
We took a morning tour circumnavigating the island, then walked on our own in town, enjoying shops, museums, architecture, and meals.
Prepare to be impressed by the intricate craftsmanship at Ephesus that highlights the talents of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Ephesus Library of Celsus is considered one of the most impressive buildings in the Roman Empire. Located in Turkey, these ruins are a popular excursion destination from the ports of Izmir or Kusadasi. While other activities are available, we never considered them.
We opted to take a shore excursion from the ship as our time in port was very limited.
With its lush forests, jagged cliff edges, massive waterfalls, and sparkling blue seas, Hawaii's oldest island is nicknamed the Garden Isle for good reason. The fourth largest of the eight main Hawaiian islands, Kauai is also one of the most northern. We opted to tour inland, skipping Waimea Canyon (needs a clear sky day) and the popular Napali Coast that is accessible only by boat or plane.
Wish list in hand, we hired a private driver at the port.
A lush green interior surrounded by stunning beaches, one day in Bali is not enough. One of the over 13,000 islands of Indonesia, Bali is unique. Visiting as a cruise ship port, we headed inland to Ubud to see the rice terraces, monkey forest, and markets rather than out to the beaches.
We spent the day with a private driver from the port.
Auckland, the City of Sails, is our home port. It's an easy port to sail into as passengers step off the ship and are downtown, in walking distance from many of the city highlights. Auckland is home to the Southern hemisphere's tallest free standing structure as well as its largest yacht marina. Built on the cones of 48 extinct volcanoes, Auckland features plenty to see and do.
We sailed into Auckland, a great way to come home after any cruise holiday.
A former gold rush town, Skagway is a frequently visited cruise port by those sailing Alaska's interior passage. While the most popular things to do are to ride the White Pass railroad, go dogsledding, or enjoy a salmon bake, we opted for local hiking, museums, cafes, and touring a former brothel. It's a beautiful city worth exploring.
We explored Skagway on our own, walking and using public transportation.
Vibrantly painted boats tied up along the pier guide us into a colonial town equally as colourful and charming. Paraty is a tropical paradise overlooking Ilha Grande Bay on Brazil’s Atlantic coast. It's a popular holiday spot with Brazilians, offering water sports, ATVs, and waterfalls in addition to the town's cafes, shops, and historical buildings.
We opted to take a local walking tour, enjoy ice cream and coffee, and explore the town on foot.
A stunning city even on arrival, Istanbul is home to the world's largest place of worship, an ancient sports stadium, and so much more. The former capital of the Byzantine Empire, there are fascinating historical references everywhere. With only one day, we believe we hit the highlights and got a good flavour of this city.
We split our time between a driver we hired at the port, and walking around on our own.
Aruba is a tropical paradise featuring white sandy beaches, azure water, and plenty of sunshine. One of the Caribbean's southernmost islands, it is well known for snorkelling, sailing, and other water sports, although off-road excursions along rugged terrain are also popular.
Beach towels in hand, we took a public bus and headed straight for Palm Beach, as it's frequently listed amongst the world's best beaches.
Elegant and exciting, Buenos Aires is tango dance, culinary excellence, colourful architecture, and just plain fun. Argentina's cosmopolitan capital seamlessly blends modern and classic European colonial styles. Read on to see why it is one of my favourite cities.
Buenos Aires was our port of both embarkation and disembarkation. We tacked on an extra week here and it wasn't enough.
A peaceful fishing village without cars, Yelapa presents a day of relaxation or hiking. It is easily accessible by ferry from the cruise port of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Historically, Yelapa is a retreat for the rich and famous.
We took a cruise ship excursion here, and it was a good choice as our ferry broke down, requiring a Coastguard rescue.
While technically, not a cruise port, rising and lowering in the locks and sailing through the Panama Canal on a cruise ship is a full day activity. An engineering marvel, the live commentary added to the excitement as we crossed the continental divide on a man-made lake taking us from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans.
We spent much of the day on the pool deck listening to the commentary, although we were on a forward deck as we entered one of the locks.
Glaciers carved the deep narrow Norwegian fjords creating a photographer's paradise. Norway sits near the top of the world, with the fjords on its west coast. Flam is one of several popular Norwegian ports, and its highlight is riding the steep Flamsbana train traveling through snow capped hills featuring massive waterfalls.
In Flam, we opted for a ship's excursion that included both a bus and train tour.
El Arco, the sea arch welcomes visitors into Cabo San Lucas, a tourist town featuring stunning beaches overshadowed by endless resorts and drinking establishments. Located at the southern tip of Mexico's Baja peninsula, visitors flock here to have fun. A day at the beach, out on the water (deep sea fishing, whale watching, or cruising to El Arco), or at the restaurants and bars are the most popular options.
We walked off the ship and explored the town on foot. (I have been here many times before.)
The Spanish colonial walled city stands in sharp contrast to the nearby modern skyscrapers. Located on the north coast of Colombia in the Caribbean, Cartagena is a city with a sordid history. It's a cruise port for discovering culture, architecture, and having at least one cup of coffee.
We hired a driver at the port and visited the key sites, drank coffee, and even purchased some coffee beans.
There is a sharp contrast between Belize City, the jungle surrounding it, and the nearby islands and beaches. Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America, located on the Caribbean Sea just south of Mexico. While there are city tours available, we like to get out of this city quickly, enjoying the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich or Altun Ha, or heading to a nearby island for some snorkelling.
An eclectic mix of modern and First Nations culture, Vancouver is one of my worldwide favourite cities. It is in the southern end of the Canadian state of British Columbia. Highlights include the totem poles at Stanley Park, Grouse Mountain, Capilano suspension bridge, Granville Island, and Gastown.
We have disembarked ships in Vancouver twice, each time making a different choice on what to do, and each time staying for multiple days.
A dense green backdrop against the small fishing village greets us as we sail into Puntarenas, a port that is best served with an excursion. Puntarenas is on the Gulf of Nicoya on the west coast of Costa Rica. There is not much to do in town. Primary excursion options include the cloud forest, volcano national park, rainforest activities, or coffee plantation tours.
We opted for an excursion that included tours of a coffee plantation and handmade oxcarts.
Possibly the world's most beautiful city port, the view of the Sydney Opera House with the Harbour Bridge as a backdrop is hard to beat. Located in southeastern Australia on the Tasman Sea, Sydney is a must-see port. As a cruise port, the key city options include the Opera House, Botanic Gardens, the zoo, or the Rocks. Heading out of town, the popular options are north coast beaches or the Blue Mountains.
We embarked on a cruise from Sydney, and have visited several times in addition. We have never had a car in Sydney, walking or taking ferries or buses everywhere. It's an easy city to get around.
Despite its overly touristy nature, being serenaded as our gondola drifts slowly through the canals is magical. Venice is comprised of waterways, and built in a lagoon on the Adriatic sea. While canal or walking tours and gondola rides are popular, other excursions take cruisers to Murano Islands for glass blowing or Burano island for lace tours.
We had an overnight port at Venice allowing us plenty of time for a gondola ride and to walk around and explore.
Tips for getting the most out of cruise ship ports
Our time on shore has ranged from only five hours in Juneau (Alaska) and Aruba (Caribbean) to two days in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). Regardless of how much time we have, the idea is to optimize it. The four main choices:
1. Shore excursions sponsored by the ship
Cruise excursions are easy. They are best for passengers who like everything organized for them. Each cruise itinerary offers a number of optional excursions for each port.
Advantages: simplicity, guaranteed not to miss the ship, and a refund if the port or tour cancels.
Disadvantages: often larger tour group size and higher costs.
2. Independent group tours
Independent tours are perfect for passengers who prefer a more personal experience, want to save money, and are willing to put forth a bit of effort to find the best tours. These local tours offer the same, similar, or additional options to the ships excursions (sometimes same guarantees) and often carry an endorsement by larger companies like Viator (a TripAdvisor company) or Get Your Guide.
Advantages: usually smaller groups and lower cost.
Disadvantages: need to arrange your own tour (often as easy as an online form) and the potential loss if the ship cancels a port.
3. Private tours
Private tours are for people who want full flexibility in any port. We love private tours and either book them in advance or negotiate and hire a driver/guide at the port. We seek local guides with a high level of knowledge on the things that interest us. While private tours cost more, we have always found it worth the money. We frequently use TourHQ to find a guide.
Advantages: independence, flexibility, and freedom of choice.
Disadvantage: higher costs.
4. Do it yourself
Depending on what we want to do at a port, we often simply walk off the ship and go our own way, either on foot or using public transportation.
Advantages: flexibility, freedom, and low cost.
Disadvantages: lack of history and sometimes unexpected language difficulties.
Packing for your cruise
We are believers in packing light, even for a cruise, and having everything we need. Here are the secrets to packing light for a cruise in detail, or sign up for our news and we will send you our all-new Ultimate Cruise Packing List:
Booking your cruise
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Whether you are a first-time cruiser or a regular sailor, don’t miss these 25 tips for cruising.
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