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Travel: Which cruise-ship excursions are worth the money and time?

Precious are the hours cruise passengers get to explore a port between the “go ashore” and “all aboard.” Factoring in the security and operational procedures involved with a call, plus the costly dock fees that may prevent a lengthier stay, guests often are afforded only enough time to go on a single shore excursion. And with all the money, vacation time and coordination it might have required to take this trip of a lifetime, that one tour had better be amazing.

Happily, many are. Sadly, many aren’t. For those reasons, we’ve compiled a list of shore excursions that are exactly as advertised and others that can ruin the only chance you might ever have to visit that particular port.

A few notes before we globetrot: Excluded are shore excursions that are automatically part of a cruise, such as expeditions to Antarctica, Egypt and the Galapagos. Also left off are amazing experiences that have skyrocketed in price, such as the now-$700-per-person “Dogsledding & Helicopter Glacier Flightseeing” in Juneau and Skagway, Alaska. Lastly, tour names, prices, durations and availability can differ among cruise lines.

Cheers

Believers pray on the Stone of Anointing inside Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Photo by David Dickstein)

“Ashdod Shore Excursion: Jerusalem and Bethlehem” (Haifa, Israel) — It’s a Holy Land version of the Griswolds’ visit to the Grand Canyon (a reference to “National Lampoon’s Vacation” for the unaware), but going at a fast clip is necessary if this is your one day to explore two of the world’s most sacred cities. The bulk of the 11 hours or so is spent at the Old City of Jerusalem. You’ll walk the route Jesus took as he carried his cross to Calvary in addition to visiting the Western Wall hallowed by Jews, the Dome of the Rock sanctified by Muslims, and Christianity’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Highlighting the Bethlehem leg of a very full day is the renowned Church of the Nativity that was built where Jesus is believed to have been born. $200 per person.

The Mendenhall Glacier Float Trip provides a prime view of one of Alaska’s top attractions. (Photo by David Dickstein)

“Mendenhall Glacier Float Trip” (Juneau, Alaska) — Two out of the five times that this avid voyager has taken an Alaskan cruise, Glacier Bay was too foggy for passengers to see glaciers in their glory on the one morning devoted to viewing these icy blue walls. Book this shore excursion and you’re guaranteed to see Alaska’s most accessible and popular glacier, Mendenhall, and possibly could be your introduction to white-water rafting. Rapids along the 5-mile adventure can get as high as class-3, and a photographer is always in position to get the money shot. $170 for adults, $130 for children.

Pisa, Italy, with its famous leaning tower, is popular with shore excursions that combine a visit to Florence. (Photo by David Dickstein)

“Florence & Pisa On Your Own” (Livorno, Italy) — While booking independently is often the smarter call, a safer bet when it comes to some destinations around the world is to go with the usually more expensive tour blessed by the cruise line. Here’s one of them; you’re paying for peace of mind while seeing such highlights as the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Square of the Duomo. The distance from the ship in Livorno to the must-see cities of Florence and Pisa is too great to take chances with the train or other modes of ground transportation hawked by aggressive entrepreneurs who might not get you back to the ship on time. Besides being guaranteed that the captain will wait for you, the ship-shaped tour provides a local escort for the 1 1/2-hour motor coach transfer to Florence and subsequent 1 1/4-hour drive to Pisa where, touristy or not, taking a photo of you holding up the poorly engineered tower is obligatory. $93 for adults, $80 for children.

The Parthenon is located on Athens’ legendary Acropolis, a shore excursion highlight offered on many Mediterranean cruises. (Photo by David Dickstein)

“Athens & the Acropolis with Airport Transfer” (Piraeus, Greece) — If you’re not staying in the ancient capital of Greece before or after your Mediterranean cruise, then here’s the perfect shore excursion to see the bucket-list Parthenon before heading home. With your luggage safely stored below, an air-conditioned motor coach swings by the site of that landmark, the world-famous Acropolis that stands 230 feet above the city, and other places straight out of the history books. Just make sure your flight is after 3 p.m. $96 for adults, $81 for children.

Seafood paella is the featured dish for a cooking class at Las Caletas, a beachy hideaway near Puerto Vallarta. (Photo by David Dickstein)

“All-Inclusive Las Caletas Beach Hideaway” (Puerto Vallarta, Mexico) — A catamaran takes guests from the cruise port to a private beach paradise on the south shore of Banderas Bay. During the six-plus hours in Las Caletas, you can partake in cooking lessons, sample seafood paella made before your feasted eyes, have an incredible buffet lunch and imbibe to your heart’s — and liver’s — content at the hosted bars. When the utensils and glassware are put down, there’s stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, snorkeling, hiking, and animal handling that try to lure you away from a lounger or hammock. Up-charge options range from marine life encounters to flyboarding. The blowing of a conch shell beckons you to the dock, but the 12-mile sail back home is fun, too, thanks to an open bar and show by the energetic crew. $160 for adults, $130 for children.

Normandy American Cemetery is the final resting place of nearly 10,000 servicemen who died during the D-Day landings and ensuing operations. (Photo by David Dickstein)

“D-Day Landing Beaches of Normandy” (Le Havre, France) — A pilgrimage for descendants of World War II veterans, as this writer proudly is, and what should be a duty for all, this 10-hour tour goes to the D-Day landing beaches and the final resting place of nearly 10,000 servicemen who died during the Normandy campaign. Walking between the rows of marble crosses and Stars of David is even more solemn after having just watched a 20-minute film that tells the story of the Normandy Invasion that was launched on June 6, 1944. Between lunch at a local restaurant and returning to the pier, a stop is made at Omaha Beach, the landing where the American military suffered staggering casualties as graphically depicted in the 1998 movie, “Saving Private Ryan.” $230 for adults, $150 for children.

Jeers

“Dolphin Swim” (Cabo san Lucas, Mexico) — Yes, you can check “swimming with a dolphin” off your bucket list. And, yes, any snapshot of you or your loved one interacting with a Pacific bottlenose will get lots of likes on social media. But even with all that, the experience is pretty much just one big, expensive upsell. The few minutes you get in the water with these glorious creatures are for a photo shoot, and since you’re not allowed to use your own camera, they’ve got you. At last check, a single print costs $25 and a CD of every photo taken of your group, including any strangers, is $249. Adding to the aggravation, they don’t divulge prices until the very end. Admittedly, the dolphin swim gets good reviews on social media, but that’s as dumbfounding as people paying to see Cabo’s famous El Arco up close when decent views of the natural rock formation are free off the cruise ship when entering and leaving the bay. $165 for adults, $155 for children.

“White Pass Scenic Railway Luxury Class” (Skagway, Alaska) — Not riding the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad on your first time in Skagway is like a newbie to San Francisco not taking the cable car. You gotta. The train is usually waiting for you right off the ship, and traveling 40 miles to the 2,865-foot summit and back in a vintage car takes one back to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-1899. It’s fool’s gold, however, to pay double just to be in a “premier luxury parlor car.” The excursion is already pricey without the all-inclusive beverages, pre-packaged snacks and private guide. $360 per person (luxury car); $180 for adults, $100 for children (regular car).

A casually dressed elder blesses visitors to the Kumiai village of San Antonio Necua near Ensenada. (Photo by David Dickstein)

“Kumiai Native Reserve” (Ensenada, Mexico) — What visitors experience after a siesta-inducing bus ride is the stuff your local shopping center might put on for free on Indigenous Peoples Day — definitely not worth an investment of five hours and a Benjamin per person. Upon arrival at the tiny San Antonio Necua village, a Kumiai elder blesses guests in his native language. The gesture would have more gravitas if, at least on one particular day, the holy man representing a people whose history dates back 10,000 years wasn’t wearing a hoodie and jeans. The small museum forbids photography for no clear reason, and the neckless making activity is more filler than fun. Lunch isn’t served despite the tour being from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The eye-rolling adventure ends with uninspired and unrehearsed dancing by Kumiai children. As shared with the tour desk on the Celebrity Solstice, this has no business being a shore excursion. $100 for adults, $90 for children.

Pretty and packed, Magens Bay Beach is not the best-kept secret on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Photo by David Dickstein)

“Magens Bay Beach Getaway” (Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands) — One of the most beautiful beaches in the world can get so crowded it’s not even enjoyable. Good luck getting a decent spot on a beach that’s long, but narrow. Most ships offer several tours that include time at Magens, some with built-in shopping and island sightseeing time. If you must see this otherwise gorgeous beach, try to go as cheaply and early as possible. $55 for adults, $35 for children.

“Butchart Gardens & Victoria Highlights” (Victoria, Canada) — This one makes the naughty list because of the price to experience Butchart Gardens and its stunningly beautiful 55 acres. Many cruise lines charge more than double what you can do yourself. Buying tickets online and hailing a cab saves money and time because after the flowery stroll you’re not stuck waiting for the bus to take you back. Don’t fret over missing the historic, harbor-fronting Empress Hotel because you’ll pass by it to or from the gardens. Something else you should pass is the “Chinese Lantern Walk at Butchart Gardens and City Lights” tour offered on late-evening debarkations. It’s cheaper than most shore excursions involving Butchart Gardens, but the lanterns add zero to the experience. They’re dim, a pain to carry, cheaply made and must be returned at the end. Boo hiss. $170 for adults, $110 for children.

“Bafa Lake & Heraklia” (Bodrum, Turkey) — From its beaches and boutiques to backstreets and bistros, Bodrum has plenty to do right off the ship. So, don’t waste valuable port time and money on a meh half-day excursion to Bafa Lake and an ancient site that yields diminishing returns after seeing so many better ruins at this point of your Mediterranean cruise. You’re promised lunch and time for a swim, but based on the day of this travel writer’s visit, the restaurant that often hosts tour groups was as repulsive as an ungodly rotten-egg stench off the neighboring lake. We were praying that the whole-cooked branzini being served next door wasn’t locally caught. Another reason this tour is no Turkish delight is half of the estimated seven hours is spent on the bus. $150 per person.

Good or bad, these dozen shore excursions are just a drop in the navigated ocean of what’s available to cruisers who want to explore more than what’s immediately offshore. A wide array of reviews can be mined from Tripadvisor, Cruise Critic and other user-contributed websites, and hopefully the ones you read are trustworthy. A shore excursion can make or break a dream vacation, after all, and when even the most basic tour can run into the three digits, being more worldly when traveling the world can make a world of difference.

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