Another season of sailing is complete here at Cruise Critic, and we’re wrapping up our hits and misses for the year. Today, we examine our best cruising memory of 2015 and invite you to share your own:
A shoulder season port stop at Monte Carlo on Viking Star’s Romantic Mediterranean itinerary provided me with my favorite cruise experience of the year. A Viking Cruises excursion took a small group of us out of Monaco to the French Riviera. We first stopped at a 268-year-old perfumery in Grasse and then drove on to the charming medieval walled city of Saint Paul de Vence, long a haven for artists including Marc Chagall. The lovely day culminated in a ride on the massive Ferris wheel at Monte Carlo’s sparkly Christmas market after the sun had gone down.
I spent Halloween aboard Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Dream, and it was amazing. Halloween is my favorite holiday, and although I was excited to have a reason to dress up, I was a bit nervous about spending three days aboard a ship full of kids and characters. Long story short, I was blown away by the quality of service, the level of detail and the phenomenal entertainment and kids clubs, which kept the wee ones amused. This apprehensive adult all but turned into a little kid again.
The easing of travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba dominated headlines in 2015. I felt lucky to visit Havana, as well as four other Cuban ports, on a sailing with Cuba Cruise. As an American, the country had been off limits for most of my lifetime, and I felt privileged to be able to explore so many different parts of Cuba on a people-to-people license. If you’ve been wondering whether to go, just do it — soon. You won’t regret it.
With a mom in real estate and a dad who flips houses for a living, it was inevitable I’d fall in love with HGTV’s “Property Brothers.” So when I got the opportunity to cover their first-ever Sailing With the Scotts fan cruise, I was ecstatic. The fans were a blast, and the brothers were just as you’d imagine in person: fun, friendly, outgoing, hilarious and not surprisingly, fantastic dancers. If they decide to host a second fan cruise, I may consider treating myself to a personal vacation.
A taster cruise on Anthem of the Seas was round-the-clock fun, as I tried to see and do everything in a mere two days. I watched two shows (“Spectra’s Cabaret” in Two70 and “We Will Rock You” in the theater), rode the NorthStar, tried the sky-diving simulator, drank cocktails made by robots and extremely knowledgeable human bartenders, ogled the Manhattan skyline from the water, tried the best and worst chocolate chip cookies onboard, had a tete-a-tete on a swing in the quiet solarium and danced until 2 a.m. I ran around so much that when I got home, I realized I had worn the tread off my shoes. Now that’s a good cruise!
There can be only one winner of this: my five-day cruise around the Galapagos Islands on Santa Cruz II. The Galapagos Islands have been top of my bucket list for so long, and to fulfill this dream was a highlight of my life, let alone year! In no particular order: seeing hundreds of marine iguanas piled up on the rocks on Fernandina Island; watching a sea lion pup try and get his mum’s attention and get fed on North Seymour; taking a panga (RIB) ride round Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela island and spotting Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants and Nazca boobies clinging on to the sheer rock face; watching as two marine turtles mated in the surf off Urbina Bay, Isabela; hiking ’round Darwin Lake in Tagus Cove; watching sharks and sea lions chase fish underneath our ship; walking on the ‘newest’ part of the Galapagos, created by a volcanic uplift from the seabed in the 1950s; and seeing a giant tortoise lumbering along in the wild.
Destinations took the crown for me this year — I sailed Alaska and the Mediterranean, both regions I’ve never been to and so uniquely spectacular it makes it impossible to compare. A helicopter ride to the top of the Alaskan tundra near Denali, for a hike on a Princess Cruises excursion, was one of the most otherworldly things I’ve done to date. Exploring the sunny and lively ports and regions of the Med — Barcelona, Provence, Corsica, Tuscany — with Viking Ocean Cruises, was a feast for the senses: shopping the local markets; tasting tapas and sipping cava; gazing at the art of the masters Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne; hearing the cathedral bells toll every hour… Cruising has allowed me to see so many parts of the world that I’ve decided I need to return to.
Sailing on Avalon Waterway’s new river cruise ship, Avalon Myanmar, was an incredible experience from start to finish. The ship and crew were excellent, but the excursions — into some of the more remote and unspoiled locations in the world — made it extraordinary. A standout was our visit to a schoolhouse on the tiny Irrawaddy River island Kyun Daw. Here, the kids (roughly ages 4 to 11) were amazed to see Westerners, a true rarity in villages like these. While we visited, they sang, posed for photos, smiled, laughed and joked, and the cruise passengers returned the favor, singing songs like “I’m a Little Teapot.” My cheeks literally hurt from smiling so hard for so long. The experience was touching, entertaining and completely humbling.
The biggest event on the Australian cruise calendar was P&O’s Five Ship Spectacular, which saw its whole fleet coming together in Sydney on a perfect spring morning to welcome Pacific Aria and Pacific Eden to the line. They were renamed in the middle of the harbour and I was lucky to be on an island in between them with great views, Champagne, fireworks, and one of the godmothers, Jessica Mauboy, singing the national anthem. It was a day to feel proud to be part of the cruise community Down Under.
In a case of the proverbial making-lemonade-from-lemons scenario, a river cruise on Viking River’s Elbe this year started out a bit on the rocky side. Highly unpredictable river levels, hampered by a serious drought in the region, meant that our voyage actually never would cruise. Instead, the trip, which began in Prague and ended in Berlin, would take place in two parts: half the week was spent on one ship in Dresden and the other half with another in Wittenberg, the vessels serving literally as floating hotels. Most of the time, tours relied on motor coaches to get us to the region’s vibrant attractions.
But here’s the thing: Our Elbe adventure was a blast. The twin ships Beyla and Astrild, newly launched in 2015, were gorgeous and comfortable and their cozy sizes — 98 passengers maximum — meant that there was a lot of bonding and friendship-making. Both had great crews that were attentive, fun, welcoming and offered seamless support and service. And of course the real star was the region itself; aside from the super cities that bookended the trip, the Elbe’s vineyards, castles, one of the world’s most intriguing rock parks, Martin Luther’s historic reformation trail and the cultural pearl that is Dresden, made for a rich and rewarding journey.