Many people interested in going cruising tend to have a hard time knowing what to do when they contemplate having a mere six to eight hours to explore a particular destination. Having worked in the cruise industry, I can tell you there are ways to make your experience as rewarding as you want it to be, but be careful: miss the boat and you’re on your own.
A lot of making cruise travel rewarding comes down to a simple question: do you like to plan things in advance or let the travel come to you?
If you’re type A, the ships will have plenty of planned activity for you to sign up for long before you ever actually step on the ship. Commonly referred to as excursions, you can plan in advance to lead a team of sled dogs across Alaska or catch a ride courtesy of a dolphin in the Caribbean. One of my favorite memories from my time on the ship was “hiking” our country’s only underwater national park trail in the U.S. Virgin Islands with my dad, coming face-to-face with a barracuda before hopping back on the ship for complementary rum punch.
If you’re a person who likes having a plan but tends to procrastinate, don’t worry. The ships will have spaces available on almost every excursion even a day or two into the cruise. There will be a centrally located help desk where you can speak with an expert and find out which excursions will be best for you based on expense, physical challenge and your interests. All of the excursions I planned with my dad were purchased after he had already come aboard our ship, and we were able to find ones that were unique, memorable and matched our diverse interests.
Still, as most people know, the best way to enjoy any travel experience is to do your research. If you see in advance that you want to hike the St. Lucia Pitons, for example, there’s a great chance that you can get a better deal using an island-based guide and you’ll be able to support the local economy while getting a more authentic experience behind someone who hikes the trails daily. There is, of course, some risk involved with this; you may not be hiring an officially sanctioned guide, and you want to make sure to pay only after services have been rendered. Most of the time, if there is anything fishy going on, you’ll be able to sense it, and other, more reputable guides will not be shy about letting you know if a dishonest competitor is taking away from their legitimate business. If you’re comfortable with the risk, as I often was, you’ll often be rewarded and satisfied by your experience.
Despite all of this, I have to say that more than the excursions I went on with my dad or friends at any point during my time working on the ships, the absolute best experiences I had were always when we went off on our own with no set plan. This can be a scary and stressful prospect for some people, but I was infinitely more satisfied by finding my own way. Again, research research research. But don’t feel the need to be tied down by over-planning. There was nothing like renting a Jeep and driving around St. Maarten all day, stopping where and when we felt like it. Or getting off the ship at St. Kitts and walking straight past the overly-touristy town square and wandering around, exploring giant colonial-era buildings and eventually deciding that a distant mountain looked climbable. These were the days that I felt I really used the handful of hours given me the best. They were the fullest, most interesting and most exciting days I ever had on the ship and rival just about any day of travel of my life.
And, finally, most importantly, know in advance that you’re likely going to get tired at some point. There will be at least one day spent entirely at sea and this is a great day to rest and recover if it’s near the end of your cruise. If not, it’s always nice to plan on saving an hour or two at the end of a day or two to sit back on the beach and drink something with a tiny umbrella in it. Just don’t overdo it and get left behind.