Travel: These 11 cruise ports are worth more than a brief excursion

Nothing says your cruise vacation is over more than hearing that inevitable killjoy who yowls, “Back to reality!” as you’re walking off the ship for the last time.

But what if you could delay reality? That dream is doable if you have the time, money and desire to extend your vacation in or near the cruise port. You’re already there, so why not take one more shore excursion that lasts not just a few hours, but a few days?

That’s a rhetorical question for all wanderlusters with a healthy travel budget. Here’s another that isn’t rhetorical: Which port cities are worth suspending reality in after your stateroom key is deactivated? For some answers, let’s explore the four busiest ports in the U.S. that make up nearly three-quarters of all domestic-originating cruises. Then let’s explore foreign ports near and far that are deserved of a few days of post-cruise R&R or, even better, a dedicated vacation when that travel bug bites again.

Miami

Miami, the “Cruise Capital of the World,” takes in more than . (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

The “Cruise Capital of the World” is large enough to accommodate the more than 5 million cruisers expected to sail out of there this year, but small enough to be only a 20-minute rideshare drive between bustling PortMiami and hustling Downtown. Must-dos in the Magic City depend on one’s lifestyle more than most vacation destinations, so while South Beach might be too quirky and trendy for some, others might yawn over walking a bird-watching trail. Consensus favors Miami’s tropical beaches that generally offer whiter and finer sand than those in California, plus warmer waters pretty much year-round. Staying at the fabulous Fontainebleau, Faena or Four Seasons might be too dear after spending thousands on the cruise, so here’s a bit of money-saving Miami advice: Consider a property near the airport for a stress-reduced trip home. The sprawling Marriott Connection at Miami Airport (marriott.com) has a Marriott, Courtyard and Residence Inn a couple of miles from MIA and seven miles from PortMiami, along with 836 renovated and reasonably priced rooms, a range of restaurants and bars, three rental car locations and a free airport shuttle.

Orlando

Disney Skyliner transports guests between Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Epcot to four resort hotels – Disney’s Art of Animation Resort, Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort, Disney’s Pop Century Resort and the new Disney’s Riviera Resort, scheduled to open in December 2019. (Photo by David Roark,Walt Disney World)

The home of Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Florida is located about 45 minutes from Port Canaveral on the so-called Space Coast. Beachfront resorts abound near the world’s second-busiest cruise port, but sacrilegious it would be for families and even adults (Disney or otherwise) not to make base at a Mickey Mouse operation for a cruise-land vacation. As Disney World properties go, it’s Pop Century Resort for value, Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa for luxury, Disney’s Contemporary Resort for convenience, and Disney’s Beach Club Resort for overall enjoyment (disneyworld.disney.go.com). True, you can also start your trip in Orlando, but after a few days in the theme park mecca, your long-awaited cruise might bring diminishing returns.

Fort Lauderdale

Port Everglades, the third-busiest cruise ship terminal in the world, has more than 33,000 hotel rooms nearby. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A mere 30 miles north of the busiest cruise port in the world is No. 3. Port Everglades, just minutes from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, is on Florida’s Gold Coast and about a half-hour drive to airboat tours and alligator wrestling shows at Everglades Holiday Park. Also nearby are 24 miles of beautiful beaches and 60 acres of flora and fauna at Flamingo Gardens. Top scuba diving and snorkeling are popular thanks to nature’s three-tiered coral reef system 100 yards offshore. The area has more than 33,000 hotel rooms, and 125 of the nicest are at the tasteful, family-friendly Atlantic Hotel and Spa (atlantichotelfl.com). Steps from the oceanfront property, besides a white sandy beach, is some of the city’s best shopping, dining and art.

Galveston Island

Houston’s Post Oak Hotel makes for a swanky stay after debarking in Galveston. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Carnival still has a Texas-sized market share in this port on the Gulf of Mexico, but no man or cruise ship is an island. Others raising anchor in the nation’s fourth-busiest cruise port include Disney, Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean. A fourth terminal is in development for MSC. Within walking distance of the cruise terminals is a historical district rich in unique attractions. There’s a beachfront Holiday Inn in town that might work for a pre- or post-cruise overnighter, but in keeping with the pampering you enjoyed on the cruise, and to avoid the hour’s drive back to George Bush or Houston Hobby airports, luxury lodging awaits at the Post Oak Hotel at Uptown Houston (thepostoak.com). The only Forbes Five-Star hotel in Texas and Houston’s only AAA Five-Diamond property is where most teams stay when in town to play MLB’s Astros, NFL’s Texans and NBA’s Rockets. Who can blame them with 250 ultra-modern guestrooms and suites, a 20,000-square-foot spa (also five-star rated), signature restaurants including one with more than 30,000 wine bottles worth over $5 million, and an adjoining upscale shopping mall? Oh, there’s also a two-story Rolls-Royce showroom and onsite Bentley and Bugatti dealership.

Cruises are awesome for seeing the world, but they can be a tease when visiting a port worthy of more time than the ship’s “all aboard” time. Here are some foreign cruise ports both near and far that are deserved of an extended stay if the itinerary allows — and if not, then returning to sans ship.

Barcelona

Basílica de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, under construction since 1882, is still years from being finished. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Spain’s second-largest metropolis is the whole package, offering everything you want from a cruise port without need of a shore excursion or private guide. The city of Gaudi, Picasso and Miro doesn’t take an expert to find spectacular sights, superb shopping, a breathtaking beach and fabulous tapas with cava — just tell the cab driver to plop you pretty much anywhere and you’re set. Staying at the Alexandra Barcelona Hotel (hilton.com) already puts you in the middle of the action being one corner from Barcelona’s cultural and fashion center, and two blocks from architect Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batlló and Casa Milà. The boutique hotel is also within walking distance of Basílica de la Sagrada Família, which was less than a quarter complete when Gaudi, the basilica’s visionary, died in 1926. Before delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city’s most iconic landmark was promised to be finished in 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death.

Bora Bora

Bungalows and hammocks grace the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Ten cruise lines navigate the turquoise waters of French Polynesia and nearly all their itineraries include the islands of Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora. That’s also the order for a “good, better, best” ranking, and while subjective, that order is backed up by the fact that Bora Bora is visited by 80% of tourists flying into Tahiti’s Faa’a International Airport, gateway to the Society Islands. For what many consider the ultimate Polynesian experience, several couples on a Paul Gauguin cruise abandoned their already-paid-for stateroom for a pricey night’s stay in an overwater bungalow. Each returned to the ship aglow, saying that experience was incredible, but way too short. The island is dotted with luxury resorts with these unique units with direct access to the aquamarine waters of a lagoon and the privilege of enjoying breakfast delivered by outrigger canoe. Two of the best mid-range-priced properties are the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort and Thalasso Spa, and its more modest sister, the InterContinental Le Moana Bora Bora (ihg.com/intercontinental).

Cabo San Lucas

12 Tribes at Cabo’s Casa Dorada is one of the best hotel restaurants in Mexico. (Photo by David Dickstein)

The most-visited port on the Mexican Riviera is home to Mother Nature’s El Arco, a party atmosphere, a decent food scene and oceanfront resorts that give guests the flexibility of going all-inclusive or a la carte. Los Cabos’ Casa Dorada and Hacienda del Mar are two top properties of differing vibes. Located next to some of the craziest cantinas on swimmable Medano Beach, 197-room Casa Dorada (casadorada.com) mixes cool with classy. Saltwater Spa is first-rate with treatments about 20% less than what’s charged on cruise ships, and 12 Tribes is one of the best hotel restaurants in Mexico. Chef David Sanz’s tropical ceviche, hibachi salmon, shrimp and wagyu ribeye, and raspberry cheesecake are superb. Fifteen minutes up the coast, away from the spring breaky atmosphere for which Cabo gets its party reputation, is another winning property. The 542-unit Hacienda Del Mar (haciendadelmar.com.mx) is on a less-swimmable section of coastline, but that’s a plus for those desiring serenity when sunbathing. The resort also has a terrific waterpark for children. Open-air Las Sirenas, one of the resort’s more casual eateries, serves up tasty mahi mahi tacos and pretty potent potables under a palapa.

Mykonos

Kalesma is a new five-star resort in the popular cruise port of Mykonos, Greece. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Set on a hilltop above Ornos Bay, two miles from where tourists wander the narrow streets of Old Town filled with quaint whitewashed shops and cafes, is a new boutique hotel that captures the magical aura of this Grecian paradise — best experienced when the cruise ships are gone. Secluded and stylish, yet unpretentious, Kalesma (kalesmamykonos.com) is so inviting that its name actually translates to “inviting.” Décor and design, staff, gourmet eats at Pere Ubu, top-notch amenities and, oh, those views of the Aegean Sea — like the rest of Mykonos, simply dazzling.

Nassau

Atlantis Paradise Island is a jewel in the busy cruise port of Nassau. (Courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line)

The Bahamian capital prides itself as having the world’s fifth-busiest cruise port and Atlantis Paradise Island, a hotel-casino-theme park that requires more than a ship-brokered shore excursion to do this year-round playground justice. If you’re into water parks, aquariums, high-end shopping, fine dining and gambling, Atlantis is a one-stop oasis. The property is built around Aquaventure, a 154-acre water park for all ages and levels of bravery. The steeliest nerves are needed for Leap of Faith, a 60-foot almost-vertical drop from the top of the resort’s iconic Mayan temple. Tamer times are spent at an aquarium that’s home to more than 50,000 fish and 250 species of marine life. Packages run the gamut, but paradise doesn’t come cheap; a couple can expect to spend at least $525 a day, while a family of four might shell out around $900 on the low end.

Puerto Vallarta

Adults-only Casa Velas features a large, inviting pool and swim-up bar. (Photo by David Dickstein)

As with candy preferences, sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t. If in the mood to be the former, the many clubs along the Malecon will do nicely. When looking for luxurious relaxation away from the mainstream, there’s Casa Velas, an adults-only boutique hotel that’s near the marina, but not on the water. No problema as guests get reciprocity at nearby Velas Vallarta, an all-inclusive oceanfront family resort, as well as entrance to Tau Beach Club just a short free shuttle away. The resort’s signature restaurant, Emiliano, has excellent dinner selections and an even better cocktail menu. The Blue Peacock made with Malibu rum, coconut cream, blue curaçao and pineapple juice rivals the Coco-Banana with vodka, orange juice, coconut cream and a frozen banana for to-die-for honors.

Rome

When in Rome … visit the Colosseum and stay at a well-located hotel. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Allotted 8 to 10 hours in Rome is like being told you can only watch the pilot episode of “Breaking Bad.” That doesn’t cut it with these two gems. But a half day is what most cruise passengers get to explore the ancient Italian capital and Vatican City. Bucket list landmarks include the Colosseum, Pantheon, Forum, St. Peter’s Basilica and Apostolic Palace, site of the Sistine Chapel. Another must-see is the Trevi Fountain and within steps of this 18th century beauty is a perfectly located and reasonably priced boutique hotel called, appropriately, Hotel Trevi (hoteltrevirome.com).

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