How to Explore a Port Destination on Your Own


“If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium.” The title of this 1969 movie might have a familiar ring if you are on a cruise stopping at multiple ports or islands. Many travelers walk off the ship, stroll along the main street, stop in a few jewelry stores, have lunch at an overpriced restaurant with indifferent service and head back to the ship. Over dinner, they remark: “All these islands are the same.” How can you make your experience better?

The Ship’s Tour

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Both ocean and river cruises have land tour packages. Does your ship offer a tour that provides a detailed overview, visits the major sights, stops for lunch and allows free time? If so, consider it as the simplest solution. You pay. You show up. What could be easier?

The Independent Tourist

Maybe that’s not you. Maybe the ship’s tour is expensive. Maybe you want to explore on your own. How should you go about it? Consider these eleven tips.

  1. Do research beforehand. Before you leave home, checkout the port destinations. What makes them special? It’s easy to find “Top Ten” lists of sights to see on the Internet. If you are traveling with a group of friends and visiting many ports, agree to research one destination each. Approach it from the point of view: “If this is the only time I will ever get here, what should I see?”
  2. Get a map. You can find one online. The ship might hand them out. The tourism office onshore will have them. Even if it seems straightforward, you want to know where you are and where you want to go.
  3. Talk with friends. As the HSBC bank ad says “Never underestimate the importance of local knowledge.” You will want to see the important sights and find a great place for lunch. Talk with friends who have visited the same place. Ask questions. If you belong to a professional association or an international service club, get in touch with local members beforehand. Ask for advice. The restaurants they suggest will probably be far better than what you’ll find on the main street.
  4. I’m hungry. You need a place for lunch, but you don’t have any local connections. Do some research on sites like TripAdvisor. Put together a few names. Mark the locations on your map. If they are great, they probably get busy when locals head out to lunch. Plan on arriving the moment they start their lunch service. We did this when we found a great seafood restaurant in the Azores. By the time we were finishing up, every table was taken and there was a line at the door. FYI: We saw ship’s officers having lunch. That’s a good clue it’s a good restaurant.
  5. Must see sights. Most port stops have them. It might be an incredible beach. Maybe a museum, castle or botanical garden. Work at least one or two into your plan. You might not need a tour of the building. A visit will suffice. This avoids the question back home, “How could you go to Monte Carlo and not see the Casino?”
  6. A great height. Many cities have a hill or tall building providing dramatic views of the city. Venice has the Campanile di San Marco. New York has the Empire State Building and the One World Observatory. It puts everything in perspective. Obviously you go on a clear day.
  7. Specialty food and drink. Bermuda has Goslings Black Seal rum. Yes, you can easily get it back home, but you enjoyed a Dark and Stormy cocktail in a sidewalk café in Hamilton, Bermuda. That memory will stay with you forever. Try the specialty food products.
  8. Eat fish. OK, this one seems obvious. If it’s an island, the fish served are probably very, very fresh. If the island is known for a certain type of fish, it’s probably going to be the best you’ve ever had. Make it a point to try freshly caught, local fish.
  9. How do the locals live? My wife and I always try to find a local supermarket. We wander the aisles, looking at packaging. This gives us a flavor of local life. In Barcelona, I found a Rioja Grand Reserva (red) wine for about $ 8.75. It was a producer I never heard of, but it was delicious! I doubt I could find a grand reserva back home for under $ 35.00. This is a good stop for picnic supplies if you intend to head to a park or the beach for lunch. Why not? Locals do it. Also, if time permits, try using public transport at least once. Ride the bus, like the locals.
  10. Festivals. Many cities and towns hold annual celebrations. Everyone gets involved. France does this well. Menton, on the French Riviera, holds a two week lemon festival. Don’t forget the Cannes Film Festival. Octoberfest in Munich runs about 16 days, starting in mid-September.
  11. Souvenirs. The port might be famous for something. Naples, Italy has Marinella, famous for ties. Lisbon (and other Portuguese cities) are famous for their green leaf pottery. If you are having a great time, it would be nice to bring something home that reminds you of that destination. If you don’t buy anything, that’s OK too. A nice photo, with you in the center, will look good framed in your home.

When you return home, you aren’t going to brag to your friends about your travels. However, they will ask: “What did you see?” and “Did you have a good time?” When you tell them about how you explored and immersed yourself in the local culture, they will want to come along on your next trip!

Story courtesy of Bryce Sanders.  

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