Custom Cruises

With cruise season here, many folks who love that mode of travel will be taking to the season mega-ships that resemble floating ‘round-the-clock buffets and offer shore excursions too brief to provide a real sense of the destination. Others will opt for vessels and itineraries which provide very different experiences. They include Civil War buffs Tom and Elaine Preston, who take to shore to wander through reconstructed forts and trenches where one of the most important battles of that conflict was fought. Betsy and Andy Cross follow a machete-wielding guide as he clears a path through a dense rainforest that covers an area the size of India. Fun, rather than tropical foliage, attracts Lauren Davis and Jim Goodman to a Go-Kart race track, a ropes course and an exhilarating water slide.

As inviting as these seemingly disparate experiences are, where they occur adds a common touch. The three couples sailed on ships, and to places, that offer something different.

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The Prestons boarded an American Cruise Lines river boat sailing on the Mississippi out of New Orleans. Along with the battlefield tour, passengers visit plantations, towns and other sites along the way. On-board activities include informative lectures by historians and naturalists. The company offers river and coastal trips to a total of 25 states. For more information call (800) 460-4518 or log onto americancruiselines.com.

Betsy and Andy Cross explored a very different locale. Their voyage aboard the Motor Yacht Tucano penetrated the vast Amazon rainforest, which stretches into nine countries and is home to some 15,000 species of wildlife. Guided launch rides and land hikes provide animal sightings and visits to isolated villages perched along the shoreline. The boat offers comfortable accommodations for up to 18 passengers. (800) 510-5999 or latinamericanescapes.com

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The Norwegian Cruise Line ship that Lauren Davis and Jim Goodman chose for their trip exemplifies the ever-expanding variety of imaginative activities available at sea. A soaring Go-Kart track accommodates 10 racers who zip around hairpin turns at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. A ropes course spans three stories and includes a climbing wall and bungee trampoline. Ocean Loop water slides propel thrill seekers through a series of twists and turns and include a transparent section that extends over the water. (866) 234-7350 or ncl.com

The choices are different but no less imaginative aboard some Royal Caribbean Cruises ships. If glow-in-the dark laser tag, bumper cars and roller skating don’t provide enough excitement, there’s “The Ultimate Abyss” (the highest slide at sea), “Rip Cord” (sky diving) and “North Star,” an exhilarating journey in a glass observation capsule that rises more than 300 feet to offer breathtaking 360-degree views. (866) 562-7625 or royalcaribbean.com

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The pace is much slower on sailings that are touted as “Cruising with a purpose.” Craft Cruises specializes in planning voyages for people who share a penchant for knitting, crocheting, needlepoint and other skills. In addition to the usual cruise ship activities, they also take classes from experts in their area of special interest and enjoy interacting with others who share it. (877) 972-7238 or craftcruises.com

Learning opportunities aboard Maine windjammer sailings focus upon nautical pursuits. Passengers may try their hand at steering the boat, getting instruction in navigation and other activities. As they do, the graceful sail-powered tall ships follow the coast of Maine past quiet fishing villages, bustling waterfronts and islands inhabited solely by nesting eagles and terns.

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The 13-member vessels of the Maine Windjammer Association comprise the largest fleet of traditional sailing ships in the country. They offer three, four and six-day cruises as well as special interest trips that focus upon themes ranging from whale watching and birding to chocolate and wine. (800) 807-9463 and sailmainecoast.com

Much further north, passengers line the deck of a nuclear-powered ship as it crushes through North Pole ice, then they go aloft in a helicopter, and a tethered hot air balloon, to search for polar bears, walruses and seals. Later they examine the remains of three ill-fated Arctic expeditions, and explore the land and sea on snowshoes and in a kayak.

Arctic cruises are among more than 600 itineraries available from Expedition Trips which travel to some of the most remote corners of the Earth, and others not so distant. The company’s specialists help people elect and arrange both cruises and land trips based upon their interests, budget and other factors. (877) 412-8527 or expeditiontrips.com.

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What may be the most other-worldly body of water anywhere is Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. Its 600 square mile seascape is punctuated by jagged vertical spires, limestone islands, inlets and caves.

Mother Nature’s formations dwarf boats that ply the calm water, which include everything from rowboats and kayaks to fishing craft and bamboo vessels. The ship that I called home for several days and nights, as part of a Myths and Mountains tour, replicated a “junk,” yet provided very comfortable accommodations and served sumptuous buffet meals. (800) 670-6984 or mythsandmountains.com

We close with a brief questionnaire. Do you have time to go to sea for weeks or even months? Can you make do without the fancy, upscale amenities of a modern cruise ship? Are you happy being on your own, and flexible enough to accept last-minute changes to your schedule?

If so, you may be a good candidate for freighter travel. A tiny percentage of ocean-going vessels carry passengers along with cargo. They include container ships whose decks are laden with truck-size metal boxes, and general cargo carriers that transport an A (automotive parts) to Z (zucchini) alphabet of goods.

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Most passenger cabins are more spacious than on regular cruise ships, and feature private bath and air conditioning. Some provide a mini-refrigerator, TV and DVD player. Other amenities might include a library, exercise room and even a swimming pool.

One appeal for freighter fanciers is the opportunity to meet and mingle with crew members. Passengers and officers usually share the same dining room, which provides an opportunity to hear maritime stories and anecdotes.

There also are what some may consider down sides to freighter travel. Some shipping lines have lower, and upper, age limits. The number of passengers usually is 12 or fewer, the most a cargo vessel may carry without having a doctor on board.

Ships may spend as little as a half-day or as long as several days in ports, and there are no planned shore activities for passengers. Therefore, it’s best to do a bit of research about scheduled ports of call and how you would like to spend time there.

A good source of information and bookings is Maris, a freighter cruise specialist that operates a membership club which offers discounts on voyages and periodic newsletters. (800) 996-2747 or freightercruises.com.

Another very helpful contact for people seeking something a bit different is Stride Travel. It includes listings of river and small ship cruises among thousands of packages offered by hundreds of tour companies. An especially useful feature for people seeking information is reviews of tour operators and specific trips that are written by both professional experts and other travelers.

Stride members receive a cash bonus on select trips when they reserve through the company. Membership is free. Stridetravel.com

Author Bio: After gallivanting throughout the United States and to more than 75 other countries around the world, and writing about what he sees, does and learns, Victor Block retains the travel bug. He firmly believes that travel is the best possible education, and claims he still has a lot to learn. He loves to explore new destinations and cultures, and his stories about them have won a number of writing awards.