I have two firm convictions about cruising. First, do give up the ship. Second, don't.
Knowing when to stay and when to move can be as tricky as a card game. The easiest rule is to be flexible. Don't get trapped into buying shore tours that rob you of all your free time. Yet don't pass up a sight you've dreamed of seeing.
Getting there independently is often not as simple and comfortable as you imagine. The cruise line may have hired the only buses in the region. The village's lone taxi may have neither air conditioning nor a floor. And of course, the driver does not make change.
The ports of call--and how much time you have in each--are important factors in choosing a cruise. Many of the jolliest moments of a seafaring holiday are on land.
There are primitive anchorages that are exotic for a serene sprawl on a palmy beach. There are sophisticated cities where fine restaurants may be more tempting than the scenery.
Stroll in a Neighborhood
It's worth giving up the ship to stroll through bougainvillea-riddled neighborhoods in the Caribbean. You can earn the same mileage as you would doing seven laps around deck, but without repeating your view, retracing your steps or regarding the rail.
When the Sagafjord was glimmering in Vancouver's Burrard Inlet, I gave up its splendid dining room, which is decorated in pale salmon, to have a snack at the English Bay Cafe at the foot of Davie Street. Then I hailed a cab in a shower of sun and spent time amid the totem poles that dominate the Museum of Anthropology on a cliff by the University of British Columbia.
If I had not given up a ship at Catania, I would have missed hiking on the slopes of Mt. Etna on a day she erupted within hissing range of my feet. If I had not hopped off the Norwegian mail boat at Bodo, I would have missed hearing a children's choir practicing carols.
Yet other appealing times are when you don't give up the ship. I stayed on board in Ensenada, a port I know well, and relished the dual personality of any vessel: the ship that had entertained us, fed us and carried us for days was now at rest, dressed snappily in flags, but evacuated, as passengers drifted off in search of bargains and salsa.
Quiet of an Empty Ship
She was calm. She was quiet. She was mine. I walked the wide, empty deck around the pool without slipping over sun-oiled bodies. I had a choice of deck chairs to place at any angle. I could stretch out in my swimsuit--my face under a hat--without wishing I'd worn a long cover-up. All alone, I was the trimmest person in sight.
I decided to stay on board one rainy day in Bar Harbor, because I had visited that pretty pocket of Maine before. Instead of sloshing ashore I retreated to my cabin, wrapped up in a warm robe, tossed a fiery phrase in my log and read a paperback mystery.
When you finally leave a ship, remember that it may not leave you. After eight days at sea I docked in Copenhagen. With a few hours before my flight home, I headed for that palace of Scandinavian design: Illums Bolighus. When trying to negotiate the aisles of their crystal department, I found I was walking on ship's legs, swaying from side to side as if I were still at high sea.
A Danish clerk offered me a well-designed chair and insisted I sit down and be comfortable. She handed me a well-designed pen and pad. In wavering letters, I printed an order for Orrefors goblets.
Miraculously, I broke nothing that day. Not even the bank.