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12 Amazing Solo Vacations to Take in 2020

Don’t have anyone to travel with in 2020? That’s no reason to stay home. Solo travel is on the rise, and tour operators are expanding their offerings to meet the increasing demand. Below are the 12 best solo vacations for 2020, covering every corner of the globe. Some of these trips made the list because they’re specifically designed for solo travelers; others offer discounted single supplements or roommate matching so you don’t have to pay extra fees for traveling alone.[st_content_ad]

Note that all trips and single supplement discounts were available at the time of publication, but they could sell out at any time. If you’re interested in these solo vacations, it’s best to book early.

Explore Madeira, Portugal, on Foot

Exodus Madeira Portugal Hiking Excursion

Sweeping coastal views, sleepy fishing villages, and sheltered forests await on Exodus Travels’ Walking in Madeira itinerary. The seven-night trip includes leisurely walks of up to nine miles a day along some of Madeira’s most breathtaking hiking trails. The trip ends with free time to explore Funchal, the island’s historic capital. Exodus will match you with a roommate, or you can pay a modest single supplement for your own room. Departures are available every month throughout 2020.

See Morocco from the Mountains to the Desert

Camel Back Ride Sahara Desert Morocco

Overseas Adventure Travel is one of the best tour operators for solo vacations, thanks to free single supplements on most trips. That includes one of its most popular tours, the 14-night Morocco Sahara Odyssey, which takes you through the narrow streets of ancient medinas, over the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, and through the dramatic peaks of the High Atlas Mountains. Unique experiences include lunch in a Berber home and a couple of nights under the desert sky in a private tented camp. This trip has available departures between April and December 2020.

Explore Northern India’s Icons

Amber Fort Jaipur India.

See the Taj Mahal and much more on this dedicated solo trip to India from Intrepid Travel. The seven-night itinerary starts and ends in bustling Delhi, where you’ll discover the city’s oldest mosque and have free time to explore on your own. Then you’ll head to Jaipur to visit royal palaces and soar above the city in a hot air balloon before visiting the 14th-century village of Karauli and touring the magnificent Taj Mahal. Intrepid will match you with a same-gender roommate so you can avoid paying a single supplement. This trip departs on select dates between April and December 2020.

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Take a Hiking Vacation in Vermont

hiker on long trail vermont.

Escape to the pristine mountains of Vermont on a wellness getaway, hiking each morning and enjoying spa treatments and fitness classes each afternoon. New Life Hiking Spa is the perfect retreat if you need a little R&R, drawing numerous solo travelers (mostly women) of all ages. Small-group hikes, communal meals, and friendly public spaces offer ample opportunity to get to know fellow travelers. New Life’s 2020 season runs from May 14 through October 5 and is held at Killington Mountain Lodge.

Discover Ireland Your Way

cliffs of moher ireland sunset.

Not big on group tours? Consider Great Value Vacations’ Irish B&B Getaway package, which includes airfare, a rental car, and accommodations at bed and breakfasts around Ireland, allowing you to wend your way through the countryside at your own pace. Highlights include dramatic coastal roads, lively villages, and historic castles. The itinerary can be customized for six to nine nights, and you may depart any month of the year.

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Have an Adventure in Colombia

colombian coffee REI adventures.

REI’s Experience Colombia tour showcases the breadth of the country’s landscapes, from the lush green highlands where world-class coffee is grown to the sandy beaches of the Caribbean coast. This eight-night itinerary starts in Bogota and finishes in Cartagena, with plenty of adventures along the way—like mountain biking through coffee plantations, hiking to a rare tropical glacier, and sea kayaking to a colorful coral reef. If you’d like to avoid a single supplement, REI will pair you with a same-gender roommate. This trip is available between June and December 2020.

Live Like a Local in Nepal

g adventures nepal living like a local.

Get an intimate glimpse of what life is like in rural Nepal on a fascinating six-night journey with G Adventures. After a night in Kathmandu, you’ll travel to the farming village of Panauti to meet your host family. You’ll spend the next few days learning to make dumplings, tasting local wine, hiking to villages and monasteries, and even playing volleyball with the locals. G Adventures will pair solo travelers with a same-gender roommate so you don’t need to pay a single supplement. This trip is available on select dates through December 2020.

Eat Your Way Through Central Mexico

Oaxaca City Street Mexico.

Flash Pack targets solo travelers in their 30s and 40s, matching each person up with a same-gender roommate so you can avoid single supplements. If you love good food and unique culture, give Flash Pack’s Cultural Journey into the Heart of Mexico trip a try. The eight-night itinerary features tequila tasting in Mexico City, a cooking class in Oaxaca, and lunch aboard a vibrantly colored trajinera boat in Xochimilco. You’ll also go swimming in natural thermal pools at the foot of the world’s only petrified waterfall. This trip departs on select dates between April and December 2020.

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Spot Rare Wildlife in Madagascar

black and white ruffled lemur madagascar.

Keep an eye out for lemurs, chameleons, boa constrictors, and numerous rare birds as you travel with Explore! through Madagascar: The Lost Continent.  In addition to wildlife-watching treks through the island’s national parks, this itinerary also features a walk along a spectacular canyon, a visit to Madagascar’s oldest palace, and a stay in a local community guesthouse. Explore! will match you with a same-gender roommate if you don’t wish to pay a single supplement. This trip has departures between April and November 2020.

Go Off the Beaten Path in Nicaragua

granada cathedral Nicaragua,

Less visited than neighboring Costa Rica, Nicaragua has its own magic to discover. Road Scholar puts some of the nation’s most intriguing spots on display in its seven-night Exploring Nicaragua: Colonial Towns to Countryside package, with highlights such as a visit to a rum factory (complete with tastings), a cooking workshop in Leon, a walk through a cloud forest, and an expert talk on Nicaragua’s history by a former guerilla. Road Scholar is currently offering single rooms at no added cost on this itinerary. This trip has several departures between September and December 2020.

Discover the Best of Tuscany and Umbria, Italy

tuscany italy winding road.

There’s a reason Tuscany and neighboring Umbria are two of Italy’s most beloved regions. Discover them for yourself on Insight Vacations’ Country Roads of Umbria & Tuscany tour, an eight-night voyage to destinations such as Florence, Assisi, Siena, and San Gimignano. You’ll dine in the kitchen of a local chef in Orvieto, then learn about traditional textile weaving in Perugia and visit a family-run olive mill in Assisi. Single supplement discounts up to 90 percent are available on select departure dates between May and October 2020.

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Have an Adventure with Fellow Women

woman standing above dubrovnik.

If you, like many female travelers, feel safer and more comfortable in the company of other women, consider booking a trip with Adventure Women, which offers active, women-only tours to destinations around the world. Most of the company’s clients come alone, so you’re sure to find common ground with your fellow travelers. Solo vacations for 2020 with availability at press time include a nine-night Tanzania safari, an eight-night sailing trip around Croatia, a nine-night culture-focused trip to Oman, and more. You can choose to be matched with a roommate or pay a little extra for your own room.

For more ideas, see The Top Travel Destinations for 2020.

More from SmarterTravel:

Sarah Schlichter wants to take every one of these solo vacations. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Categories
Cities

8 Reasons You Should Go on a River Cruise

It’s springtime in the Balkans, and I watch the trees unfurl their leaves while plying the Danube on a 10-day Viking River cruise from Bucharest, Romania; to Budapest, Hungary. The shoreline is forever in view as we gracefully glide past small villages and the occasional riverside castle. Each day, the Jarl pauses long enough for us to explore a new port-of-call, sometimes an obscure medieval town with an unknown name and other times a capital city rebuilding its glory in this former war-torn region of southeastern Europe. The area’s history comes to life each day on this floating leisure classroom.

Like the water that pours into the Danube’s locks, slowly lifting the ship to a new level, river cruising is on the rise. From interesting destinations to high-quality experiences, here are eight reasons to book a river cruise right now in any part of the world.

viking cruise ship beyla in port

More Time in Port

Unlike ocean sailing, which is primarily about the onboard experience, river cruising focuses on the very places you’ve traveled so far to get to. According to Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of SmarterTravel’s sister site Cruise Critic, “River cruises are destination-centric, and the ship is a backdrop. It’s like a boutique hotel that moves with you so you don’t have to pack and unpack.”

Most days on my Passage to Eastern Europe cruise, the Viking Longship set sail in the evenings during dinner service and continued moving along until it reached the next port the following morning. It docked right in town and passengers could either join a shore excursion—usually a combined bus-and-walking tour of the town and nearby sights—or wander off on their own.

Of the trip’s 10 days, just one full day was spent on the water, though sightseeing remained on the agenda. Not only did we get to fully enjoy the ship’s amenities (such as basking on the sun deck and having drinks delivered to our favorite reading nooks), but we also had front-row tickets in what felt like a mobile theater. Our program director, Cornelia, narrated our passage through Serbia and Romania’s famed Iron Gates, a dramatic transit between 1,600-foot cliffs with a glimpse of the larger-than-life rock sculpture of Decebalus, king of the Dacians. (Scroll down to watch this epic experience).

 

What to Wear on a River Cruise:

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

SmarterTravel contributors occasionally accept free or subsidized travel in exchange for our unbiased opinions. We never accept compensation in exchange for a positive review.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2015. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Ashley Rossi contributed to this article.

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Watch: The Jarl’s transit through the Iron Gates locks

Categories
Luxury Travel

5 Reasons to Sail with Viking Ocean Cruises

Travelers looking to explore the Yangtze River in China or the Danube in Europe may have already heard of Viking River Cruises, which offers dozens of small ships plying various rivers around the globe. But the company has expanded to include larger ocean-going cruise ships, with a fleet of six ocean vessels (the seventh is coming in 2021) as well as an Expeditions line that will sail in Antarctica, Canada, and the Arctic starting in 2022.

Our editors have experienced trips on both the Viking Star (from Barcelona to Rome) and the Viking Jupiter (from Stockholm to Bergen). All of the Viking Ocean ships are similar, if not identical, and hold 930 passengers with plenty of onboard dining options. Read on to learn what we loved about these cruises—as well as a few drawbacks.

Unique Itineraries

Viking Star sails all over Europe as well as to the Caribbean and the East Coast of the U.S., and it’s hard not to be enticed by some of the less-traveled ports the ship visits. The 14-night Cities of Antiquity & the Holy Land itinerary, for instance, starts in Rome and includes calls in Israel (Haifa and Jerusalem) and Cyprus as well as Naples and several Greek ports. Or head north to follow the 15-day Viking Homelands route, a journey that starts in Stockholm and passes through Russia, Finland, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and multiple ports in Norway. Some of Viking’s Caribbean itineraries start in Puerto Rico (instead of Florida), minimizing days at sea and allowing passengers to explore islands like Tortola, Guadeloupe, and Antigua.

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(Almost) Everything Is Included

On most mainstream cruise lines you’ll pay extra for things like onboard Wi-Fi, dinner in an alternative restaurant, and beer/wine with meals—all of which are included on Viking Ocean Cruises. There’s always one free shore excursion in each port as well (typically an introductory bus or walking tour). Another nice perk? All cabins have balconies.

Note that a few things do cost extra, including spa treatments, gratuities for the crew, some shore excursions, and premium cocktails, wines, and spirits.

Tasteful Ambiance

If your vision of cruise ships includes cheesy, over-the-top decor and crowded buffets, rest assured; as befits its Scandinavian sensibility, Viking ships feel elegant and understated. Favorite spots included the quiet Explorers’ Lounge, where you can curl up on a couch with a book from the well-stocked bookshelves, and the Nordic spa, where you can cool off in a Snow Grotto between trips to the sauna or hot tub.

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Longer Days in Port

On the Mediterranean sailing, Viking Star overnighted in two different ports (Rome and Barcelona), and stayed late in most others; passengers didn’t have to be back on board until 8:00 to 10:00 p.m.—unusually late for the cruise industry. Similarly, on the Viking Homelands route, there were two late-evening departures as well and two days each spent in St. Petersburg and Bergen. That means you have at least 12 hours to explore each day, with the option to take multiple excursions or to eat both lunch and dinner ashore if you want to experience the local cuisine.

Enrichment and Immersion

Daily lectures (such as “The Restoration of the Sistine Chapel: What Went Wrong and Why?”) and informational port talks help passengers get to know each destination before visiting, and many of the shore excursions go beyond the usual major sightseeing attractions. For example, one offering in Rome takes travelers to the ancient Etruscan city of Tarquinia, which predates the rise of the Roman Empire. And an excursion in Tallinn, Estonia, on the Viking Homelands tour lets travelers visit Lahemaa National Park and the coastal village of Kasmu. Viking also offers a Kitchen Table experience that involves shopping with the ship’s chef at a market in port and then working with him to prepare local specialties (such as Spanish tapas).

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Caveats

Despite all of these benefits, there are a few important caveats to note about sailing with Viking Ocean Cruises. Most importantly, despite the overnights and longer days in port, these itineraries have the same major drawback as any other cruise, particularly in Europe: not enough time. Spending a single day in a city like Florence or Jerusalem will give you no more than a taste—especially in places where the port is a one- or two-hour bus ride from the city you actually intend to see. To avoid frustration, consider your cruise a sampler that will help you figure out which cities are worth a longer visit in the future.

Also, while the included shore excursions are a nice perk, independent travelers who chafe at the thought of shuffling along with 35 other tourists behind a guide holding up a Viking sign should book their own private tour (for a more personalized experience) or simply go it alone.

Cruises start at about $3,000 per person (not including airfare). Learn more on Viking’s website. For savings, check out the Last Minute Travel Specials page as well as multiple itineraries for Quiet Season Mediterranean Cruises.

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Editor’s note: Both Ashley Rossi and Sarah Schlichter traveled as guests of Viking Ocean Cruises. This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Adventure Travel Cities Island

10 Bucket List Cruises for 2020

When it comes to cruises, travelers have a dizzying array of options, from small expedition ships visiting remote islands to big vessels with all the trimmings. Whichever type of ship fits your travel style, there’s a bucket-list cruise out there for you. The list below offers the best cruises for 2020, spanning itineraries around the globe at a variety of price points.

Note that all listed cruises had available cabins at the time of publication, but sailings may sell out at any time. Book early to avoid disappointment.

Go Island Hopping in Indonesia

Satonda Island in Sumbawa, Indonesia

Pink sand beaches, Komodo dragons, and hidden waterfalls you can swim in are just a few of the unforgettable sights you’ll see on an eight-night Indonesian island cruise with Intrepid Travel. You’ll board a 48-passenger motor-yacht in Bali, then set off for some of the archipelago’s less-traveled gems—including Satonda Island, where you’ll swim in a volcanic crater lake; and Banta Island, where deserted beaches are the norm. You’ll also learn about traditional weaving techniques and have lunch in local villages. This trip departs on select dates between May and September.

Discover the Peruvian Amazon

View of a small village in the Amazon rain forest on the shore of the Yanayacu River in Peru

Home to rare and endangered wildlife, the Amazon is the ultimate destination for nature lovers. Explore the Peruvian part of the rainforest with this new 10-night Uniworld itinerary featuring kayaking excursions, jungle walks, tours of remote villages, and nights gazing up at the stars. During your trip you’ll see animals such as monkeys, sloths, exotic birds, and maybe even the elusive pink dolphin. The all-suite Aria Amazon has just 16 cabins, each with floor-to-ceiling glass windows to let you watch the jungle slipping by right from your bed. This bucket-list cruise departs on select dates in September, October, and November.

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Find Paradise in the South Pacific

Young couple snorkeling over reef next to resort on a tropical island with over-water villas

Tahiti. Bora Bora. Moorea. Stop daydreaming about these idyllic islands and knock them off your bucket list with a Paul Gauguin cruise in 2020. The one-ship luxury line offers a variety of South Pacific itineraries, but there’s a reason its seven-night Tahiti and the Society Islands cruise is a classic: It includes stops in Moorea, Huahine, and Taha’a, and caps things off with an overnight stay in Bora Bora, giving you plenty of time to snorkel in the lagoon, swim with reef sharks, take an outrigger canoe ride, or simply relax on stunning Matira Beach. The ship holds just 332 passengers and has three dining venues, a spa, and a watersports marina. This itinerary sails on select dates throughout 2020.

Experience the Caribbean’s Quieter Side

People take bath in Emerald Pool near waterfall Central Forest Reserve. Dominica island, Lesser Antilles

Some of the busiest ports in the Caribbean see millions of visitors each year. If that sounds a little busy for you, consider a cruise to the Southern Caribbean, which tends to be less visited than the busier Eastern and Western regions. Princess offers a variety of Southern Caribbean itineraries, ranging from seven nights to nearly three weeks. Ports to look out for include Dominica, with its lush waterfall hikes; Antigua, which has a beach for every day of the year; and stylish Martinique, known for cultural history and a touch of French flair. Cruises depart on select winter, spring, and fall dates.

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Take an Epic Journey from England to South Africa

Aerial view of Praia city in Santiago - Capital of Cape Verde Islands

If a one- or two-week vacation just isn’t long enough, treat yourself to this 28-night Fred.Olsen cruise from Southampton, England to Cape Town, South Africa. In the beginning of the trip you’ll call at various Atlantic islands including Madeira, Tenerife, and the archipelago of Cape Verde. You’ll then have numerous days to relax at sea aboard the 881-passenger Boudicca as you approach the African mainland, where you’ll stop in two different port towns on the coast of Namibia. Excursion options there include bird watching, sandboarding down dunes, and colonial architecture tours. You’ll finish with an overnight in Cape Town. This cruise departs on November 5.

Discover the Mekong River

Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia

Colorful floating markets, quiet fishing villages, and the magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat await on a Mekong River cruise with G Adventures. Between the trip’s beginning in Ho Chi Minh City and its final stop in Siem Reap, you’ll visit temples and palaces, taste fresh fruit and honey, learn about Cambodia’s difficult history, and meet welcoming locals. This nine-night cruise has departures throughout the year. (It’s also available in reverse.)

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Savor Food and Wine in the Pacific Northwest

Columbia River at Astoria, Oregon

Taste your way through Oregon and Washington on a seven-night culinary journey along the Columbia River with Uncruise. An onboard sommelier assists with wine pairings on the 86-passenger Legacy, which stops in ports such as Astoria and Walla Walla. Activities include everything from culinary demonstrations and wine tastings to art museum visits and boutique shopping. This trip departs throughout fall 2020.

Get in Shape on a Fitness-Themed Cruise

WOD on the Waves fitness bootcamp

If getting more exercise is one of your 2020 resolutions, pack your sneakers and head to the Bahamas with WOD on the Waves. This four-night fitness cruise aboard Celebrity’s 2,170-passenger Infinity ship is jam-packed with workouts ranging from boot camp to yoga, as well as seminars on fitness and nutrition. You don’t need to be a hardcore athlete to join the cruise, as there are options for all fitness levels. The cruise sails round-trip from Miami on April 16 and includes stops in Nassau and Cococay, a private island in the Bahamas.

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Sample the Best of Northern Europe

People are walking on Viru street at Viru gates in Tallinn, Estonia

From colorful historic capitals to the deep, pristine waters of Norway’s fjords, there’s more to see in Northern Europe than you could ever manage on a single trip—which is why a cruise can offer such an appealing sampler. Italian cruise line MSC offers a variety of Northern Europe itineraries; enticing options include a 14-night round trip from Copenhagen with stops in Finland, Russia, Estonia, Norway, and Germany; and a seven-night voyage from Warnemunde, Germany, stopping in Sweden, Estonia, Russia, and Denmark. Trips run throughout the warmer months.

Take an Adults-Only Voyage on a Brand-New Ship

exterior of scarlet lady the new virgin voyages cruise ship

The latest venture from business mogul Richard Branson is a new adults-only cruise line called Virgin Voyages; its first ship, the 2,750-passenger Scarlet Lady, will make its maiden voyage in April 2020. The ship will spend its first year cruising the Caribbean, mostly on four- and five-night sailings calling at ports such as Cozumel, Key West, Costa Maya, and Playa del Carmen. With short itineraries, a sleek ambiance, and plenty of onboard nightlife, Virgin Voyages will likely draw a younger crowd than most traditional cruise lines. Learn more about Virgin Voyages.

What to Pack

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

For more ideas, see The Top Travel Destinations for 2020.

More from SmarterTravel:

Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Categories
Beach Island

Bahamas Hurricane Recovery Update: Why You Should Visit in 2020

In September 2019, a category 5 hurricane stalled over the northern islands of the Bahamas, ravaging Grand Bahama Island and the Abacos with powerful winds and rain. Hurricane Dorian is the most powerful known storm to have struck the Bahamas, leaving an official death toll of 70 (with hundreds still missing) and causing $3.4 billion worth of damage.

Four months later, travelers may be wondering how the islands are recovering and whether a visit to the Bahamas in 2020 is a good idea. The following Bahamas update explains which islands were and weren’t affected by the hurricane and which ones are welcoming visitors. (Spoiler alert—the answer to that final question is: most of them.)

Freeport and Grand Bahama Island

beach in freeport bahamas.

Grand Bahama Island was one of the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Dorian, but the bulk of the damage was done to the eastern and northern parts of the island. Freeport, the island’s main city and cruise port, is located in the southwestern part of the island and was spared the worst of the damage. “[Freeport] was impacted because the basic infrastructure on the island got hit—fresh water, electricity, etc.,” says Oneil Khosa, CEO of Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, which runs two-night cruises to the region as well as cruise/stay packages. “That all has been restored. … I feel confident in saying that our cruise product and the passenger experience [are] back to 100 percent.”

While cruise lines paused their Grand Bahama Island calls in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, they have all resumed service to Freeport. According to the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, 84 percent of the hotels and restaurants on Grand Bahama Island have reopened, as well as 75 percent of the tours and 55 percent of the attractions and watersports. Both cruise passengers and land visitors have plenty of excursions to choose from, including snorkeling, Jet Skiing, sailing trips, and beach visits.

Both Silver Airways and Bahamasair resumed flights between Fort Lauderdale and Freeport in December 2019.

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Abaco Islands

The situation in the hard-hit Abaco Islands is a bleaker story. “Abaco was hit very hard and faced the brunt of the hurricane as it came from the east,” says Khosa.

NBC News reported in late December that “the devastation looks much as it did when the storm swept through in September” and that locals have struggled with a slow cleanup and rebuilding process.

“Local businesses have reopened, a handful of hotels are receiving guests, and, as of December 19, 2019, Silver Airways has resumed flights between Fort Lauderdale and Marsh Harbour,” says a source from the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. “Silver Airways plans to resume service to Treasure Cay in the Abacos in the New Year. A handful of properties are open including The Sandpiper Inn, Abaco Club, The Abaco Inn, [and] Delphi Club.”

Air Unlimited resumed service to the Abacos in January 2020.

In lieu of tourist information about the Abaco Islands, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism’s website takes visitors directly to a page about hurricane relief efforts.

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Nassau and Paradise Island

colorful house and palm tree in nassau.

Nassau and Paradise Island were largely unscathed by Hurricane Dorian, beyond some heavy rainfall. (In fact, thousands of evacuees from the affected islands headed to Nassau after the storm.) Cruise lines continue to visit Nassau’s popular port, and all resorts, restaurants, and tour operators are operating as normal.

Nassau is the Bahamas’ capital and the heart of its tourist industry. If your idea of a great vacation includes museums, casinos, shopping, nightlife, and plenty of other activities, this is the place to go. Just across the harbor from Nassau, on Paradise Island, is the Bahamas’ most famous resort: the massive complex, complete with a waterpark, an oceanfront golf course, 11 pools, and five miles of beach.

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Other Bahamas Islands

Hundreds of islands make up the Bahamas, and the vast majority of them are open for business, with no hurricane damage.

A few of the best places to visit include the Exumas, known for exquisite white sand beaches and the chance to swim with friendly pigs; Cat Island, where you can enjoy some of the country’s best scuba diving; and Eleuthera, home to pineapple plantations, colonial architecture, and pink sand beaches.

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How You Can Help the Bahamas

eleuthera beach bahamas.

If you want to help the Bahamas in its continuing recovery from Hurricane Dorian, one of the best ways is to come for a visit. “Any travel to the islands not affected by Hurricane Dorian will support recovery efforts as tourism is the country’s leading industry, accounting for 60 percent of the Bahamas’ GDP and employing about half of the Bahamian people,” says a source from the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism.

Khosa offers a similar perspective: “Every bottle of water you buy or taxi fare or local restaurant meal or Jet Ski rental is helping because this is all being managed and run by the locals, and by spending your tourism dollars there, you are impacting the local residents and their economy, which is far more effective than any aid there.”

Beyond your tourist dollars, you can also volunteer in the Bahamas. If you book a trip with Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, you can contact the cruise line and express your desire to help, and the line will put you in contact with an NGO supporting the recovery effort to arrange an appropriate volunteer excursion. You can also volunteer through Bahamas Relief Cruise.

Of course, donations are also welcome. The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism has a lengthy list of places to donate money or supplies.

“It’s important that the word is kept alive,” says Khosa. “There are larger issues that the world is seeing, but people still need help in [the Bahamas]. What’s more important is continuous small help, not just making a big deal in the beginning and then moving on.”

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Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Categories
Arts & Culture Historical Travel Luxury Travel Senior Travel

Why This Viking Ocean Cruise Is the Best Way to See Northern Europe

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Cruisers love Viking for its river cruises, but the company is making a splash with its ocean cruise offerings as well. The Viking Jupiter is the sixth (and newest) ship in the fleet—with a seventh ship, Viking Venus, coming soon. The cruise line is adults-only, so passengers are all 18 or older. With a slightly higher price tag (though still great value) and longer itinerary than many cruises, the majority of passengers are around retirement age. Onboard highlights include the gorgeous Wintergarden space, outdoor infinity pool, fine-dining options, and nearly all-inclusive experience. Cabins are clean, modern, and reasonably sized, with ample closet space and a large bathroom. The ship almost always feels uncrowded, with plenty of places to tuck away, including the upper level of the Explorer’s Lounge and the atrium area.

As the newest ship in the fleet, the Viking Jupiter both set and met high expectations on the Homelands itinerary I joined in 2019. The Viking Jupiter mostly embarks on European (Baltic and the Mediterranean Sea) itineraries, but it’s also making a southern Atlantic crossing this year and heading to South America.

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Viking Jupiter Pros

  • A smaller ship with less than 1,000 passengers (double-occupancy); never felt crowded
  • High crew-to-passenger ratio
  • Quiet cabins
  • Adults-only
  • Cozy spaces like the library and Wintergarden
  • New ship (2019) with refined and modern decor
  • Attentive and friendly crew
  • Outdoor infinity pool and hot tub
  • Indoor/outdoor pool with large deck area
  • A large cafe/buffet space, three main dining spaces, a pool grill, and two quick-service food areas
  • Restaurant with a five-course menu (menu rotates every two to three days)
  • Two onboard sommeliers
  • Tea time every day from 4 to 5 p.m.
  • 24-hour room service
  • Musical theater performances, live band every night, instrumental and acoustic performances multiple time per day
  • Jazz club, four open area bars, and plenty of lounging areas
  • Explorer’s Dome with nightly light shows
  • Sports deck with mini-golf, ping pong, bocce, and more
  • LivNordic Spa with a snow grotto, steam room, sauna, cold plunge pool, heated pool, hot tub, and treatment rooms
  • Nightly presentations on the next day’s port
  • Shore excursion (usually a walking tour) included at every port
  • Easy disembarkation process (ground transfers included when booking with Viking Air)
  • Easy-to-use app and website for itinerary planning
  • Heated floors in cabin bathrooms
  • USB ports and North American outlets in cabins
  • Wi-Fi at no extra charge
  • Free use of laundry machines
  • Free drinking water

Viking Jupiter Cons

  • Reservations required at two of the three dinner restaurants (although generally easy to get in last-minute)
  • Expensive shore excursions
  • Included shore excursions went at a slower pace
  • Windows in the lounge viewing area were tinted dark

What’s Included (And What’s Not) on Viking Homelands

view from deck on cruise ship in norway.

Almost everything is included on the ship and the Homelands tour, making for a stress-free experience.

Cruise rates include all food and meals at all of the ship’s dining areas, bars, and pool deck, and 24-hour room service. Non-alcoholic drinks are also included as well as house beer and wine with lunch and dinner service. There are two dinner restaurants that require reservations: Manfredi’s (Italian) and The Chef’s Table (Fine Dining), but I had no problem getting last-minute reservations when needed.

All entertainment, books and games, and use of the fitness center and spa are included. In each port, there is a free shore excursion included, which is typically a walking tour of the area. There are also free movie screenings and lectures onboard as well as dozens of complimentary movies on demand. Wi-Fi is included in the cruise rate as well. I found the Wi-Fi to be above average, especially for being out to sea. There are also computers onboard for use if needed. There are laundry rooms throughout that are free for guests. Free drinking water is replenished daily in the cabins and bottled water is provided when you disembark in port.

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Alcohol, spa treatments, and most shore excursions come at extra charge. The Silver Spirits Beverage package is around $20 per guest per night, which is reasonable in comparison to other lines. This includes all beer, wine, and drinks up to $15 as well as an upgraded wine pairing at The Chef’s Table dinner. If you think you’ll be having a few drinks while on your vacation each day, it’s worth upgrading to this package. Otherwise, drink prices start at $5 per drink. You may also bring your own drinks with you; there is no corkage fee.

For gratuities, Viking automatically adds a discretionary hotel and dining charge of $15 per guest per day to your shipboard account, which appears on your final invoice at the end of your cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar, beverage, wine, and deck service tabs. If you want to make changes to the amounts or pay in cash, you can do so onboard. You can also pre-purchase the standard recommended gratuity ahead of time, which is shared among the onboard staff.

Review: Onboard the Viking Jupiter – Amenities, Activities, Entertainment, & ‘The Scene’

interior view of viking jupiter cruise ship.

  • Rating: 4.0

Live music, cozy corners, and a glimpse at Viking culture make for a well-rounded onboard experience.

The Viking Jupiter is an upscale casual ship focused on providing a cultural experience onboard and at every port of call. You’ll find plenty of relaxing spaces onboard in the atrium levels, as well as a library, games for use, and interactive maps. There are also two small exhibit areas featuring Viking clothing and artifacts. Viking hosts a daily series, “Munch Moments,” which showcases several Edvard Munch pieces each afternoon in The Living Room/Atrium area. You can also download a specific app that walks you through the art and design onboard. Don’t miss out on guest lecturers, port talks, streamed TED Talks, destination performances, film screenings, and more onboard. There is also an onboard cooking school, The Kitchen Table, where on sea days, you can learn to cook dishes highlighting an upcoming destination.

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Music is an integral part of the Viking experience. The Viking Jupiter has a resident pianist, guitarist, violinist, and cellist that play throughout the day. There is also a band that plays in cast performances as well as nightly at the Torshavn lounge. There’s an onboard cast that puts on shows ranging from Broadway-style musical performances like “Decades” to cabaret.

The ship is on the quieter side, with music ending at midnight each night. Most guests are in their cabin before then. Port arrivals range from 7 to 10 a.m., and on port days, we were required to be back on board between 1 and 9:30 p.m., depending on the day’s itinerary.

The layout of the ship is easy to figure out, and by the second day, you’re likely to have a good feel for it. All of Viking ships are similar, so if you’ve been on one before, you’ll be right at home. Deck 1 is home to the specialty restaurants and spa, Deck 2 is where the main dining and entertainment options are, and Deck 7 is where you’ll find the main pool, pool grill, the infinity pool, World Cafe, Explorer’s Lounge, and Wintergarden.

Overall, the dress is semi-casual, with the only rule being no jeans in the main dining restaurants for dinner. The staff is very accommodating, though, and any sort of enforcement of dining room dress seems to be rare.

Review: The Cabins on Viking Jupiter

Viking jupiter deluxe veranda.

  • Rating: 4.5

Spacious bathrooms, ample closet space and storage, and comfortable beds are all you can ask for in a cruise cabin.

On Viking Jupiter, you’ll find modern, clean, and brand-new cabins. All rooms have flat-screen TVs, ample closet space with built-in shelves, bathrobes, safes, a small seating area, and a desk with a pop-up vanity. Rooms are serviced twice per day, and a room steward is on duty. I stayed in the Deluxe Veranda Stateroom, which totaled 270 square feet, including the private veranda. On my cruise, I did not experience any noise from the hallways or surrounding cabins.

The bathrooms are thoughtfully designed. There are multiple glass shelves for holding toiletries as well as a drying clothesline, towel racks, and drawers. Additional amenities include a spacious glass-enclosed shower, heated floors, toiletries, robes, slippers, and a hairdryer.

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Veranda staterooms (there are three tiers: standard, deluxe, and penthouse) come with a King-size bed with an optional twin-bed configuration. Square footage ranges from 270 to 338 square feet and only the standard does not come with a stocked minibar. The penthouse stateroom gets you a welcome bottle of champagne, complimentary pressing and shoe shining, and a larger space.

In the suites category, Viking offers several types of suites, including the Penthouse Junior Suite (at 405 square feet), the Explorer Suite (757 to 1,163 square feet), and the Owner’s Suite, which includes a private library, and wine and music collections curated by Viking’s Chairman Torstein Hagen.

Review: The Food and Drink on Viking Jupiter

norwegian waffels

  • Rating: 4.0

Plenty of free food options that surprise and delight.

Onboard the Viking Jupiter, you’ll find plenty of all-inclusive dining options. On Deck 1 are the specialty dining restaurants, Manfredi’s (serving Italian favorites like lasagna and gnocchi) and The Chef’s Table. The latter offers a five-course themed menu that comes with wine pairings; the menu rotates every two to three days. On the night I went, the theme was West Indies, and I was pleasantly surprised by the flavors and execution of each dish. Reservations—which can be made in advance of the sailing or once aboard—are required for both specialty dining restaurants. On Deck 2 you’ll also find the main dining restaurant, The Restaurant, which serves breakfast and dinner. Also on Deck 2 is Torshavn, an intimate lounge with a jazz-club feel that’s a favorite late-night hangout for live music. Dinner attire is elegant-casual, but there was never an overly stuffy feel—or judgment for being underdressed.

On Deck 7, you’ll find the World Cafe, which is Viking’s version of a buffet, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There are many stations serving different foods, but favorites include the sushi bar and gelato bar. I appreciated that the food was refreshed constantly and that there were plenty of options for all types of diets. The Pool Grill (also on Deck 7) offered a smaller version of the World Cafe buffet (and a killer burger), but also occasionally had specialty dinner offerings like “Surf and Turf.” The Pool Grill is open for lunch and dinner daily.

For eating and drinking outside traditional meal hours, you can head to The Viking Living Room and Viking Bar on Deck 1. On Deck 7, there’s also the Pool Grill and Bar, Aquavit Bar, Explorer’s Lounge, and Mamsen’s, a Nordic-inspired snack bar of sorts that serves late-morning waffles, mid-afternoon smorrebrods (open-faced sandwiches), and late-night charcuterie. The Wintergarden, also on Deck 7, hosts a lovely tea with finger sandwiches from 4 to 5 p.m. every day.

The onboard liquor is priced fairly, with most beer, wine, and well liquor selling for $5 per drink. Onboard, there are two sommeliers, so the wine selection is always well-considered. (Upgrading to the drinks package offers an even finer selection for lunch and dinner.) In both the Explorer’s Lounge bar and Torshavn lounge, there’s a large selection of liquor ranging from well to premium.

Room service is available for more basic food items and is included 24/7. I only ordered breakfast once, and it was on time and warm when it arrived.

Review: The Spa & Fitness Center on Viking Jupiter

interior view of cruise ship spa.

  • Rating: 4.5

A Nordic spa and gorgeous fitness center make working out and self-care easy onboard.

The LivNordic spa is an ideal spot to visit during sea days or after a chilly shore excursion in the fjords. Each locker room has a cold plunge pool and sauna, while the joint spa area includes a snow grotto (a cold room with piles of ice that you rub on your body to open up your pores), large hydrotherapy pool, a cold bucket dump shower, a hot tub, and a multi-jetted experience shower that refreshes you with water at various temperatures. The spa itself is free to use for all guests.

Treatment prices at the spa are in line with what you’d find at a high-end spa or luxury hotel, though discounts were available on certain days. There’s also a salon onboard offering blowouts, manicures, and pedicures.

Also included in your cruise rate is the use of the fitness center, which offers excellent views and plenty of brand-new machines and weights. For an additional cost ($10), you can sign up for group classes like Pilates.

Review: Shore Excursions/Itinerary on Viking Homelands

white historic houses in norway.

  • Rating: 4.0

Plenty to do in each port, but you will need to dish out some extra cash for experiences.

The Viking Homelands trip is a 15-day itinerary that makes port stops in Stockholm (embarkation port), Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Gdansk, Berlin, Copenhagen, Alborg, Stavanger, Eidfjord, and Bergen (disembarkation port). It highlights true Viking culture at each port, with enriching shore excursions like home visits and walking tours with locals. This is an ideal itinerary for seasoned travelers looking to blend new destinations and revisit favorites. It was my second time visiting Berlin and Copenhagen and it was nice to have a relaxing day to enjoy the city and return to some of my favorite spots. Cruising is also the best way to experience Norway’s fjords—many passengers I spoke with named this part of the journey as their favorite. While generally, you need a visa to spend time in Russia, as a cruise passenger, you won’t need a visa if you are booked on one of the cruise’s excursions—a convenient and simple way to visit St. Petersburg. Overall, I thought the itinerary was well-planned, with an interesting mix of cities and the perfect amount of time in each port. There is only one at sea day (on day seven); and the boat stays overnight in Stockholm, St. Petersburg, and Bergen.

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I booked two shore excursions with Viking: a RIB boat tour in Stavanger, where we got a closer look at the landscape via a speedboat; and a kayaking excursion in Eidfjord. Both were active and exciting excursions that I probably wouldn’t have booked on my own. I also liked that the excursions were only a few hours long, which left me extra time in port to explore. Viking’s walking tours are also a great option for travelers looking for an introduction to the city; they are followed by enough free time to walk around at your leisure. Viking did a fantastic job explaining the optional activities at each port—you could even book excursions via your stateroom TV if there was still availability, though passengers are encouraged to book in advance. There’s an activity level listed with each excursion. In talking to other passengers, many enjoyed the Flam railway (Eidfjord) and flightseeing excursion offered in Eidfjord and Bergen.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this ocean cruising experience and revisiting a few of my favorite cities in Europe in a completely new way. And, there really is no better way to take in the natural beauty of the fjords than by sailing on them. Plus, the region is the cruise line’s home, so this itinerary is especially thought out and exclusive for travelers.

Interested in finding out more about this ship or this cruise itinerary? Send me an email at editor@smartertravel.com.

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Ashley Rossi was hosted by Viking Cruises. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off the beaten path spots.

Categories
Adventure Travel Beach Booking Strategy Island Travel Scams Travel Trends

6 Cruise Scams You Should Never Fall For

Those slick TV ads can make a cruise look like the “dream come true” experience of a lifetime. And a cruise can, in fact, be a wonderful experience. But sometimes that experience morphs from dream to disaster. A cruise is both a means of transportation and a destination resort with its own passport requirements. As a result, it can suffer some of the problems of both—especially if you fall victim to certain cruise scams.

The “Free Cruise” Scam

Cruise scam

[st_content_ad]This ploy has been around a long time, and it dominates the online reports of cruise scams. You get a letter saying you have “won” or “been selected for” a free Bahamas cruise (often from a company with “Caribbean” in its name despite the fact that the Bahamas are not in the Caribbean).

What you actually get in this cruise scam is some combination of (1) “fees and taxes,” including those imposed by the cruise line in addition to government fees; (2) a requirement to sit through a high-pressure timeshare presentation that may go on for four or five hours; (3) a dingy cabin in an obsolete ship without air-conditioning; (4) land accommodations in a run-down resort; and (5) constant pressure to “upgrade” ship or land accommodations. The internet is full of stories from folks who took the bait of this cruise scam.

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Local Cruise Scams

Cruise scam

Among the most prevalent cruise scams are those involving locals at ports of call. Usually they involve a minor loss of time and money, but occasionally they can be worse. Typical scams include fake taxi drivers who call out “taxi,” grab your baggage, ask for a payment, then hand you over to a real taxi driver who ignores what you paid the tout and charges you the going rate. In other cases, drivers will take you 10 miles for a two-mile trip.

Of course, you can find (or be found by) pickpockets, exchange dealers who give you counterfeit currency, and merchants who cheat on your credit card bill. Be especially wary of a merchant who tries to bill your card in U.S. dollars—it sounds nice, but it puts you on the hook for an extra exchange scam. Vigilance and wariness can insulate you from most of these local cruise scams, but there’s always a chance you’ll still fall victim. And if you get caught, you have very little chance of any recovery.

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Bad Sightseeing Tours

Cruise scam

This one isn’t quite an outright cruise scam, but many port visitors are really annoyed by a sightseeing tour that spends an hour at a souvenir store chosen because of the quality of its kickbacks rather than of its merchandise. A related minor cruise scam is the artwork produced by local street “artists” who are really just coloring in between the faint lines of a pre-printed scene.

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Online Cruise Scams

Cruise scam

A potentially dangerous cruise scam can compromise your identity, files, or both: an email apparently sent by a cruise line or resort asking you to hit a link for more information on your upcoming cruise. These originate with someone who has hacked the cruise line’s or operator’s data to get the names of current and prospective customers. And, obviously, either the message itself or the link contains malware. This online cruise scam is like those fake emails from FedEx or UPS going around that ask you to verify something about an upcoming shipment.

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Fake List Prices

Cruise scam

If it’s “75 percent off,” it’s bound to be a good deal—right? Not necessarily. The base price from which that 75 percent is deducted is often complete fiction. Even “brochure price” means very little. So forget about big discounts from fake list prices. You can decide whether a deal is good by comparing its price with prices for comparable cruises and by checking impartial cruise review websites such as SmarterTravel’s sister site, Cruise Critic.

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The Cruise Line Contract

Cruise scam

Although not a cruise scam in the classic sense, the worst problems you can face arise from the contract that you agree to when you buy a cruise. Those contracts are outrageously one-sided “contracts of adhesion” you would never sign if you had a chance to negotiate them yourself.

Although contracts differ a bit from company to company, almost all let the cruise line off the hook for a lot of problems and make you sign away what would normally be your rights as a consumer. Among them, the cruise line can:

  • Cancel your trip for any lawful reason without prior notice.
  • Disembark you or change your accommodations without liability for compensation or refund.
  • Require that you accept its refund fees without recourse.
  • Deviate from routes and schedules without prior notice.
  • Refuse any refund or damage claim resulting from a cancellation or change due to factors not within the cruise line’s exclusive control.
  • Make a proportionate refund if your cruise ends early or, at the cruise line’s option, give you only a future cruise credit.
  • Insulate itself from any liability for actions performed by any subcontractor, including the ship’s doctor and shore excursion operators.
  • Search your stateroom and belongings without prior notice.
  • Refuse liability for emotional distress or mental suffering under any circumstances other than those you can prove in court as resulting from personal injury or imminent risk of injury.
  • Limit your ability to litigate an issue to a single designated federal court or even a foreign country.
  • Prohibit you from entering a class-action lawsuit.
  • Value your personal property at no higher than $50 per traveler or $100 per stateroom unless you buy supplemental insurance.
  • Prevent you from drinking locally bought liquor while on board.
  • Require that disputes be resolved by compulsory arbitration.

The is just a partial list; be sure you’re aware of what you’re signing up for when you make that initial cruise purchase. Consider buying cruise insurance for a little extra protection in case things go wrong.

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Beach Cities Family Travel Holiday Travel Island Theme Park

The 10 Best Christmas Vacations for Travelers

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December is a magical time for people around the world, and traveling during this most festive of seasons lets you experience a truly global spin on the holidays. Indeed, Christmas travel not only allows you to take full advantage of school and office closures, but also gives you and your family the opportunity to take in rich traditions from all over the world. The best Christmas vacations are meaningful, multicultural, inclusive, and filled with warmth and cheer.

Going beyond the obvious Christmas destinations like New York City and Paris, here are 10 of the world’s best places to go for Christmas, including those that are holy to Christians—as well as those that are decidedly not.

Rome, Italy

christmas tree in front of st peters basilica rome.

Vatican City, which is ensconced within Rome, is the home of Catholicism, making it one of the world’s best places to go for Christmas. Many practicing Catholics yearn to see the Pope give Christmas mass at the breathtaking St. Peter’s Basilica. Tickets to this epic yet solemn annual event are free, but you’ll need to reserve yours at least two months in advance. Instructions about how to do so are here—note that you’ll need access to a fax machine.

If you can’t get tickets to the papal mass, you can watch Pope Francis deliver his urbi et orbi homily live on a big screen from St. Peter’s Square, shop the lively Piazza Navona Christmas Market (or the Christmas market at the Spanish Steps), inspect one of the city’s many detailed nativity scenes, go ice skating near Castel Sant’Angelo, visit the Hanukkah menorah at Piazza Barberini, or simply stroll around to enjoy this sparkling city all dolled up for Natale.

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Quebec City, Canada

holiday decorations in quebec city.

Quebec City is magical any time of year, but winter makes it all the more so. Old Quebec, with its European-style streets and Old World charm, thoroughly transforms into a veritable Christmas village, exuding a very specific type of cozy, snow-covered magic.

The whole city is strung with beautiful lights, the German-style Grand Marche Christmas Market sells one-of-a-kind gifts, and family-friendly offerings abound, including the Quebec Aquarium Light Festival, La Parade des Jouets (“The Toy Parade”), and the chance to meet Santa at the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac and other spots around the city. You can also attend Christmas concerts, taste distinctive sweets, and stay through New Year’s Eve to experience the midnight fireworks over Quebec City’s Grande Allee, alongside the party-loving locals.

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Israel

fireworks and holiday decorations in jerusalem.

How better to spend Christmas than by making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land? It’s hard to beat Bethlehem as one of the world’s best Christmas destinations. The ancient town’s Church of the Nativity is where Jesus was born, and the annual celebrations there are meaningful and memorable. There are performances in Manger Square, inclusive Christmas masses with audiences from around the world, twinkling lights and ornaments, a parade and other processions, and Christmas markets and trees.

In nearby Jerusalem, there are biblical places galore, including the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus walked, as well as the Church of the Ascension, where Christians believe that Jesus ascended to heaven. Jerusalem also has one of the Middle East’s most impressive Christmas markets. And Jewish people visiting Jerusalem during this time of year will be deeply moved to see the menorah being lit at the Western Wall each night of Hanukkah.

In northern Israel, Nazareth, Jesus’s hometown in the Galilee, also hosts Christmas celebrations worth experiencing. On Christmas Eve, a colorful parade makes its way through town, with the procession ending at the Church of the Annunciation with fireworks as well as a Christmas mass. Surrounding the event are outdoor Christmas and Hanukkah markets, Santas, religious services, and festive lights.

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North Pole, Alaska

santa's house and sleigh in north pole alaska.

Yes, Virginia, there really is a town called North Pole. And if ever there was a Christmas-themed entire town, this is it. Santa’s always available for visits in the Santa Claus House—where 400,000 letters per year addressed to “Santa Claus, North Pole” land. (Local volunteers respond to every letter.) And the streets have names like Kris Kringle Drive and Mistletoe Lane.

Even if you can’t arrange a trip here exactly on December 25, no worries: It’s Christmas here all year long, although only December attracts ice sculptors from around the world displaying their prodigious talents.

North Pole is just 13 miles southeast of Fairbanks, but if you want to stay overnight at this ultimate (if only slightly kitschy) Christmas vacation destination, there are several comfy hotels, as well as RV hookups and campsites.

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Southern California

child and lego santa legoland california.

The best Christmas vacations for families are in Southern California. Mix blessedly snow-free weather with mile after mile of coastline—not to mention decked-out theme park after decked-out theme park—and you’ve got yourselves a Christmas vacation to remember.

At the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, there’s post-fireworks “snow” every night, a 60-foot-tall Christmas tree, holiday-themed parades, explosions of decorations, multicultural seasonal music, and holiday overlays to several beloved rides, including It’s a Small World and the Haunted Mansion. Disneyland makes a heartwarming effort to include traditions besides those that celebrate Christmas—a klezmer band and Jewish food tip a hat to Hanukkah, soul food is offered for Kwanzaa, and Latin favorites get presented for Navidad.

Over in Buena Park, Knott’s Berry Farm transforms into “Knott’s Merry Farm,” with Christmas-themed shows, a Christmas Crafts Village, and nightly snow in Ghost Town. In Studio City, Universal Studios hosts “Christmas in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” including an impressive projection show centered around Hogwarts Castle, as well as “Grinchmas,” with a huge tree and caroling Whos. Down in Carlsbad, LEGOLAND has the world’s biggest LEGO Christmas tree, limited-edition holiday treats, live holiday shows—and yes, a LEGO Santa. Keep heading south for San Diego Zoo’s “Jungle Bells,” during which the renowned attraction turns into a light-filled wonderland.

When you’ve had enough of theme parks, head to Malibu or La Jolla for a relaxing December afternoon on one of the Pacific Coast’s best beaches. Or head into the heart of Los Angeles for some culture. L.A. is a particularly great place to celebrate Kwanzaa: Pasadena has hosted a notable Kwanzaa celebration for 30 years now, led by Thanayi Karenga, the daughter of Kwanzaa creator Maulana Karenga. And South L.A. puts on the annual Kwanzaa Heritage Festival and Block Parade and candle-lighting ceremony.

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The Canary Islands, Spain

christmas decorations in tenerife.

Although Barcelona’s Día do los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, is one of Spain’s most celebrated festivals, certain types of travelers might prefer for their Christmas travels to take them to Spain’s Canary Islands instead—which are actually not on the European continent, but off Africa’s northwestern coast.

Picture this for your December holiday: 900 miles of sun-drenched coastline, nativity scenes sculpted from sea sand, Christmas markets selling traditional pastries called truchas, Christmas feasts at local restaurants, open-air Yuletide concerts, and New Year’s Eve fireworks on the beach. Best. Christmas. Vacation. Ever?

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Southern Iceland

northern lights over mountain in iceland.

For true winter lovers, South Iceland is among the world’s best places to travel for Christmas. Faced with all-day nighttime, this remote island knows how to cheer things up during this dark, frigid time of year with lots and lots of twinkling lights. Visitors partake in Arctic adventures in the plentiful snow and ice, including dog sledding, exploring ice caves by snowmobile, skating on frozen lakes, sampling Christmas buffets in restaurants, and strolling Iceland’s charming Christmas markets.

Southern Iceland provides some of the world’s best views of the northern lights—it’s a great place to check “aurora borealis” off your bucket list. And hotels here let travelers experience Iceland’s Christmastime tradition of getting visited by not one but 13 Santa Clauses. The festively decorated Hotel Rangá, for example, lets kids into the folklore by inviting its young guests to leave a shoe in the windowsill to get a holiday treat from the country’s festive elves.

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San Juan, Puerto Rico

christmas decorations in san juan puerto rico.

On Christmas Eve—Noche Buena—in San Juan, locals enjoy huge, traditional dinners of pork, rice, and beans. But more importantly, they drink coquito, a creamy, eggnog-like rum cocktail that signifies the occasion. After the feast, roam Old San Juan’s lit-up cobblestone streets and join (or just watch) the parrandas, which are Puerto Rico’s take on carolers, during which groups gather in front of houses late at night with traditional instruments to sing the lively songs of Navidad. In short, the events that happen here every December 24 make Puerto Rico one of the world’s best places to go for Christmas.

Stay on the island for New Year’s Eve and beyond, especially if you’re overnighting at the iconic Caribe Hilton, just as Liz Taylor and Sophia Loren used to do. The property is famous for creating the piña colada, and also for hosting epic New Year’s Eve parties. This year’s bash will be bigger than ever, thanks to the hotel’s recent $150 million renovation. If your schedule allows, stay in Puerto Rico until at least January 6, since Día de Los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, is the island’s biggest annual celebration.

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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

lagoa christmas tree rio de janeiro.

Another of the world’s best places to visit for Christmas is Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and not just because the city’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue gets magnificently illuminated with the works of significant artists.

On December 1 every year, Rio debuts Lagoa, the world’s largest floating Christmas tree—more than 170 feet tall—to fireworks and fanfare on Copacabana Beach. The impressive tree stays lit and floats on the water until early January.

Rio is in the Southern Hemisphere, so the weather during Christmas is generally quite warm. There are Christmas Day concerts on Copacabana Beach, holiday pastries called panettone and rabanadas in the city’s bakeries, and plenty of restaurants that serve traditional Brazilian Christmas dinners to travelers. On Christmas Eve, the parties start late, with feasts typically beginning at 11:00 p.m. and the celebration escalating at midnight.

Stay through New Year’s Eve for unforgettable fireworks over Copacabana and the company of some of the world’s most enthusiastic partiers.

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At Sea

holiday decorations on carnival cruise ship.

If the mere idea of all the effort that goes into celebrating Christmas at home—shopping, decorating, wrapping, cooking, hosting—works you into a cold sweat, take a deep breath, call your relatives, and tell them you’re going on a Christmas cruise instead.

Holiday sailings make for the best Christmas vacations for families, and can be a fantastic option for cheap Christmas vacations. Many holiday voyages are reasonably priced and go to beautiful destinations around the world, from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean to the Christmas markets along European rivers—the Rhone, Seine, Rhine, and Danube.

Onboard, there’s as much holiday theming as you can bear: ugly sweater contests, elaborate holiday shows, massive Christmas trees, Santa appearances, carolers on deck, huge gingerbread houses, mistletoe and wreaths, midnight mass, Hanukkah menorah lightings, and traditional Christmas dinners. Check out the offerings from Royal Caribbean, Carnival (featuring the Grinch!), and Norwegian, as well as Disney‘s Very Merrytime Cruises.

The best part? You’ll be able to kick back and enjoy the celebrations while others are doing the work—kind of like being a kid again.

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Follow Avital Andrews on Twitter @avitalb or on Facebook.

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Family Travel Packing

Cruising Alaska with Disney Cruise Line: A First-Timer’s Guide

If you’re like many travelers, you’ve long dreamed of taking a cruise to Alaska—and for good reason. An Alaskan ocean voyage provides an enviable almost-Arctic itinerary, opportunities for adventure at every port, and a constant supply of magnificently icy views, the likes of which probably won’t exist in 50, or even 20, years. You get all this via the comfort of an ocean liner that’s stocked with restaurants, theaters, hotel-like guest rooms, and much more.

I, too, had yearned to cruise to Alaska, so when the opportunity to hop aboard the Disney Wonder presented itself, I enlisted my husband and daughter as my travel mates. We flew to Vancouver to embark on a trip that would end up supplying us with exhilarating experiences, unforgettable nature encounters, heaping helpings of Disney fun, and, ultimately, lifetime memories.

If you’re not sure whether a Disney Alaska cruise is right for you, here’s a good idea of what you can expect based on my experiences and observations as a fellow first-timer.

Why Choose a Disney Cruise?

There are a few factors to keep in mind if Disney Cruise Line (DCL) is among the companies you’re considering for your journey to the Last Frontier.

[st_content_ad]Foremost among them: If any of the travelers in your group is a Disney fan, a Disney cruise will very much play into that enthusiasm. This may be too obvious to mention, but almost everything on a Disney cruise is Disney-themed, right down to the ketchup that’s squirted onto kids’ plates—in the shape of Mickey’s head. The characters and their stories pervade the ship, as well as some of the shore excursions.

The level of service, too, is thoroughly Disney. Everyone who works on the ship is there to make their guests’ experience magical, and it’s obvious that the hiring process is geared toward picking cheerful people who love to make other people—children, especially—happy.

“We have a fabulous, diverse team on board,” says Martin Kemp, Disney Wonder’s hotel director. “Basically, we get to go around the globe and hire the best talent out there. And when our team members first come onboard, we go through a very, very extensive training program to introduce them to our Disney brand, our culture, and our heritage.”

In addition to providing the exemplary hospitality that the company has become known for, other Disney-specific elements that you can expect during a Disney cruise to Alaska include exclusive shore excursions that are enhanced with Disney touches, like Goofy showing up at the lumberjack show in Ketchikan, or Donald Duck panning for gold alongside your kids in Skagway. Disney hand-picked the top Alaskan tour operators, then worked directly with them to create experiences that are reserved solely for Disney Cruise Line guests.

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Onboard, Disney characters wear Alaskan gear—resulting in photos that are Instagram gold—while naturalists lecture about glacier science, and nightly menus spotlight regional cuisine: buttered king crab legs one night, roasted salmon steak the next, alongside Alaska-inspired cocktails that carry the theme even further. Also exclusive to Disney’s Alaskan itineraries: a “Frozen” deck celebration featuring Anna and Elsa, plus a joyous Pixar party in the atrium.

“We truly do believe that Disney Cruise Line is a great way for families to see Alaska,” says Melanie Curtsinger, a company spokesperson. “From our themed dining spaces to the live entertainment, extensive children’s spaces, and exceptional detailed service, there truly is something for everyone in the family on these sailings.”

Disney Alaska Cruise Itinerary

Disney’s Alaska cruises depart from Vancouver for five-, seven- and nine-night summer cruises, with stops, depending on your specific itinerary, for Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, Sitka, Victoria, Icy Strait Point, Hubbard Glacier, and Endicott Arm.

Mine was a seven-night cruise, and we spent a full pre-cruise day in Vancouver, where we rented bicycles from Club16 and took the spectacular waterfront ride around Stanley Park. (Other excellent in-Vancouver-for-the-day options include the Capilano Suspension Bridge and Grouse Mountain.) We stayed overnight at the Fairmont Vancouver Waterfront Hotel, where Canadian hospitality is on full display, and where they personalize your shampoo bottles with your last name. The hotel is conveniently across the street from the Port of Vancouver, where we boarded the Disney Wonder. (Tip: Before boarding the ship in Vancouver, try an exotic flavor, like osmanthus flower, in a black cone at Bella Gelateria.)

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After a day at sea, our first port of call was Skagway, where we took a stunning helicopter ride to a glacier (more on that below), hiked to land’s end, explored the Western-style State Street full of shops and saloons, and watched the visitor center’s film about the short-lived and ill-fated Klondike gold rush.

Next up was Juneau for some satisfying whale watching and browsing the shopping strip. There’s also the Mount Roberts Tramway, an aerial gondola that transports visitors to the top of the 3,800-foot peak for a wide-spanning, eagle-studded view over Gastineau Channel. Everyone kept saying how lucky we were to be here during such gorgeous weather.

In Ketchikan, we took a morning trolley tour to see the town’s iconic totem poles at Saxman Village. The afternoon was reserved for the raucous Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show (more on that below). In the early evening, as a light rain started to fall, we meandered the above-water walkways past Ketchikan’s former brothels—as colorful as the local characters—that now house curated art galleries, one-of-a-kind souvenir shops, and down-to-earth places to eat and drink.

At each port, there’s souvenir shop after souvenir shop, giving you no excuse to come home empty-handed. To save money, we returned to the Wonder for lunch, but there was plenty of opportunity to sample the local restaurants, many of which seem to be mom-and-pop outfits.

We also spent three full days at sea, including one in the Endicott Arm fjord during which the captain pulled the ship in as close as possible to see the 600-foot-tall Dawes Glacier, then did very slow 360-degree turns so that every passenger could take in its full splendor. Meanwhile, smaller icebergs floated past, crackling their presence. It was poignant to be in the presence of such threatened beauty—people all around us were telling their children to remember this scene, since they might not ever be able to see it look this way again. During the glacier viewing, Disney characters, donning galoshes and parkas, were on deck for hugs and photos.

After our last night onboard, we were shuttled back to Vancouver for an early-morning disembarkation. (Tip: Pack your bags the night before to have staffers lug them off the ship for you.) During our bus transfer back to the airport, Disney trivia played on the screens overhead, though our fellow passengers mostly slept through the ride, happily exhausted from such an activity-packed journey.

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The Shore Excursions

Called “Port Adventures” in DCL lingo, there’s a menu of more than 200 family-friendly things to do whenever the Wonder docks in Alaska. Make sure to reserve ahead of time for these memorable shore excursions—you can easily find independent vendors to haggle with once you’re at the destination, but you’re taking a chance with the quality of your experience. You’re much better off booking in advance through Disney, whose contracted operators are total pros.

Disney’s most popular shore excursions in Ketchikan include the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour (a Disney exclusive that gives an inside look at the life of Alaskan crab harvesters) and the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, a down-home demonstration of manly men showing off their impressive timber-sport skills, like chainsawing and log rolling. There’s plenty of enthusiastic audience participation, and Goofy makes an appearance. Wear red-and-black plaid if you’ve got it.

In Skagway, there’s the KlondikeGold Dredge and White Pass Railway excursion, during which you take a gorgeous train ride and pan for gold; and Liarsville Gold Rush Trail Camp, which includes a narrated motor coach tour of Skagway, panning for gold (you’ll find some, guaranteed), a scavenger hunt, a puppet show that’s both hilarious and educational, a Donald Duck cameo, and a salmon bake.

In Juneau, the Dog Sled Summer Camp lets you feel what it’s like to be pulled through the Alaskan wilderness at the speed of sprinting huskies, while the Whale Watching and Wildlife Quest on Stephen’s Passage guarantees humpback and bald eagle sightings aboard a comfortable catamaran stocked with a full bar; an expert naturalist explains everything you see.

By far the most memorable event of our Disney Alaska cruise—and that’s saying a lot—was the Glacier Discovery by Helicopter excursion, operated by Temsco Helicopters in Skagway. After a quick safety briefing, we boarded an Airbus helicopter manned by a very capable and personable pilot who was also an expert at calming any nerves, mine included. We flew over crystal-blue lakes, above vast expanses of gleamingly white ice fields, and incredibly close to steep, lush mountainsides. When we landed, it was on the 650-foot-deep Meade Glacier, but it may as well have been another planet. Confident, reassuring guides were there to explain what we were seeing—and to stop us from walking into danger—as we took in the surreal scenery before flying back to the Disney Wonder. The word “awesome” is egregiously overused, but this was awesome.

If you’re worried that your children won’t be able to make it all the way through that excursion you’re eyeing, or you’d just prefer some grownup time ashore, don’t feel bad about dropping your little ones off at the ship’s kids’ spaces before you disembark for some adventure. Most youngsters are ecstatic to have more time in these colorful rooms, where the storytelling is epic, the games and crafts are age-appropriate, and the movies are all Disney. Attentive camp-counselor types from around the world do an excellent job of supervising. (Read on for more about the kids’ spaces.)

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Life Onboard Disney Wonder

The Disney vessel that shuttles passengers to and from Alaska is the impressive Wonder, which first set sail in 1999 and is one of DCL’s fleet of four (a fifth will be added in 2021; a sixth in 2023). The 83,000-ton ship has 10 floors, 875 guest rooms, 950 employees, and room for up to 2,713 passengers, a third of which are typically children.

Every day, there’s a program so packed with entertaining activity options that it’s easy to fall prey to some initial FOMO, but once you get into the swing of life onboard a Disney cruise (which doesn’t take long), the fun really begins.

Putting together the ship’s complex entertainment and dining schedule, says Natalie Bailey, Disney Wonder’s cruise director, “is a Tetris puzzle, truly a group effort of everyone coming together to try to create variety for our guests throughout the day, and the entire cruise. Our biggest thing when it comes to planning is truly ensuring that we do have something for everyone.”

To that end, there are live shows, deck parties, character greetings, first-run movies in the theaters, trivia games, karaoke, crafts, bingo, chef demos, and plenty more. The handy Disney Cruise Line Navigator app, which you should download before your trip, tells you what’s going on at any given time. In addition to providing the day’s full lineup, it lets you “heart” the activities you don’t want to miss, text your fellow travelers for free, book shore excursions, make spa and specialty dining reservations, link your reservation number, and check in online.

Disney is, first and foremost, an entertainment company, so yes, you will be thoroughly entertained the whole way to Alaska and back. Twice nightly in the extravagant 977-seat Walt Disney Theatre, a cast of Broadway-caliber performers display their prodigious talents, with a new live production to enjoy each night, including the Alaska-appropriate “Frozen, a Musical Spectacular,” “Disney Dreams: An Enchanted Classic” (a production that helped launch Jennifer Hudson’s career), and the life-affirming “Golden Mickeys.” You don’t need to reserve a ticket or pay anything extra to see these shows—just show up; seats are first come, first served. (Tip: Even if the theater appears packed when you enter from the back, there are often seats available way up front.)

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If you time your sailing to coincide with the release date of a new Disney movie, you’ll get to see it premiered onboard, to much fanfare—we were at sea the day Toy Story 4 came out and got to see it for free, with Green Army Men photo opps in front of the theater and a bag of popcorn as an in-room amenity.

As mentioned above, children have a whole realm of entertainment catered to them: the fifth-floor Oceaneer Youth Club. Whenever I came there to pick up my daughter, she asked to stay longer, a testament to the amount of fun she was having and the level of comfort she felt with the kind staffers.

These elaborate kids’ spaces were created to immerse youngsters in Disney stories—kids can hang out in the Wandering Oaken trading post from Frozen, Andy’s playroom from Toy Story, or the Marvel-themed Super Hero Academy, where kids train alongside their favorite superheroes. There are many enriching activities for kids to choose from, like crafting, scavenger hunts, dance parties, performing in a talent show, story times, character greetings, and so on; you can use the Navigator app to find out what’s going on in the kids’ spaces. (Tip: Once you’ve made your cruise reservation, you can have a Disney character call your child to get them excited for the trip.)

As for the guest rooms, they’re comfortable and cleverly designed, with enough space for a full family to live, sleep, bathe, and store luggage in. While we dined, our room attendant transformed the couch into a kid’s bunk, adding a guard rail for safety. He also left memorable Disney amenities on our bed, along with Ghirardelli chocolates and towels folded into amusing figures.

The themed restaurants aboard the Wonder are extraordinarily thought-through and exist for much more than just feeding you. Take Tiana’s Place, based on The Princess and the Frog, a movie in which the title character dreams of opening a restaurant in New Orleans. Yes, the menu at Tiana’s Place includes gumbo and beignets, but the stage also features a talented quartet jazzing up favorite Disney tunes, while Tiana herself visits each table to take photos with young fans; the grand finale is a joyful parade that stars all the servers.

Over at Animator’s Palate, a screen-enhanced shrine to Disney’s drawn history, your server instructs you to draw a character on your placemat. Soon thereafter, your drawing, alongside those of your fellow diners, gets animated into a magical on-screen mashup. The food is good, too.

There’s also Triton’s, a traditional cruise restaurant, and Cabanas, a huge buffet on the ninth floor with great ocean views. Several walk-up-and-go snack counters hand out pizza, gyros, ice cream, and more. All food and beverage is included in the cost of your cruise (except alcohol; you can bring a small amount onboard), so you can order whatever you want without fretting about the tab.

The only restaurant with an upcharge is Palo, the adults-only Italian eatery atop the ship. The cuisine there is a step up, and the service is top-notch, too. If you’re interested in dining at Palo, make a reservation as far ahead of time as possible.

As you cycle through Tiana’s Place, Animator’s Palate, and Triton’s each night at your set dining time (5:45 p.m. or 8:00 p.m., your choice), your dedicated team of servers follow you from restaurant to restaurant. They’re genuinely kind and accommodating, and clearly hired in part for their ability to make kids smile, laugh—and eat. They joke around, bring you whatever you want, do magic tricks and origami, and give generous hugs and high fives.

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If you’d rather skip the dining room, though, or if you get hungry in the middle of the night, room service is included in the cost of your Disney Alaska cruise, and you can order as much as you want without being charged extra.

Other features worth mentioning on the Wonder include the spacious spa and top-floor fitness center, where you can run on a treadmill while watching glaciers and icebergs glide by. No matter the weather, people are always using the swimming pool and outdoor hot tubs, while Disney movies play on the huge outdoor screen above. And the “nightlife district” is a collection of three handsome bars, including a classic British pub.

Wi-Fi on the Wonder is prohibitively pricey ($89 gets you 1,000 megabytes), so it’s wise to use your cruise as an excuse to unplug from email and social media.

Whatever you’re planning to do onboard, book as much of it that’s bookable well in advance, before departing for your vacation, to make sure that you get the spots you want. This includes nursery times, spa appointments, character meet-and-greets, shore excursions, and specialty dining reservations. Then once you get onboard, you can simply relax and enjoy.

What to Pack for a Disney Alaska Cruise

Once you’re ready to get your stuff together for your Disney cruise to Alaska, check out DCL’s full list of what to pack—and what not to.

There are some pretty specific things that you’ll want to bring along for this type of cruise, including binoculars (which are available for purchase at the Port of Vancouver), rain gear, boots, layers, and waterproof jackets. Bring fancy attire for the ship’s formal and semi-formal nights, and if you plan to dine at Palo, keep in mind that the dress code there encourages dress pants or slacks and a collared shirt for men, and a dress, skirt, or pants and a blouse for women.

It’s fun to wear red-and-black plaid in Ketchikan, especially if you’re planning to see the lumberjack show there, and it’s also fun to bring Disney-themed door decorations—check Pinterest and Etsy for ideas. Don’t forget Disney autograph books for your little ones to get signed, princess dresses for the young princesses in your life, Disneybounding gear for you (if you’re into that), and at least two bathing suits so that you can wear the dry one while the wet one dries.

It’s also smart to fold an extra duffel bag into your suitcase—what with the merchandise available onboard and the many souvenir shops on shore, you’ll be coming home from Alaska with way more than you packed.

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Booking Strategy Budget Travel

The Best and Cheapest Times to Cruise

The best time to cruise and the cheapest time to cruise are not always the same. The best time to be on the water is often when the weather is nicest or when you have time off. These sailings are often the most popular, but “best” can quickly turn to “worst” when you face high prices and large crowds. The cheapest time to cruise is often when most travelers don’t want to go. You may find less ideal weather or some seasonal closures, but the lure of cheap fares and uncrowded ports might make you change your mind about what you consider the best time to cruise.

As you plan your next cruise, you’ll want to take into consideration the best and cheapest times to cruise and see what jibes with your vacation schedule. Here’s a when-to-cruise guide for some popular destinations.

Alaska

alaska cruise ship deck.

Alaska has a very short cruising season; ships traverse its chilly waters only between late April and September. The months of June through August offer the warmest weather and are therefore the best time to cruise Alaska (and the most popular). In other months, you’ll find some closures and a bit more chill in the air, but you’ll also find the best prices. In addition, April and May are the driest months of the Alaska cruise season, so you’re less likely to be rained out of your flightseeing tour or glacier walk.

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Bermuda

bermuda beach and bay.

Bermuda cruises sail from April through mid-November, mostly during Bermuda’s high or “beach” season. Most people travel during the summer months, making those voyages pricier, but you’ll find deals on spring and fall departures (April through early June and September through November). Bermuda has temperate weather year-round, though it does see the occasional autumn hurricane. If it’s too chilly for the beach in the shoulder season, you can always try out the island’s many golf courses and spas.

Caribbean

cruise ship anchored in the caribbean.

You can sail to the region year-round, but the best time to cruise the Caribbean is when it’s coldest in the Northern Hemisphere. Not only is the warm Caribbean climate a welcome respite from bad weather, but December through April is also the driest part of the year in the islands. The cheapest times to cruise are typically in the late summer and fall because of hurricane season. (If you decide to travel then, purchasing cruise insurance is a good idea.) But you can often find other patches of bargain sailings, especially during the early weeks of December and in the spring. The timing of spring discounts isn’t always consistent, so it’s best to keep an eye out and book when you see a low rate.

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Europe

cruise ship in mediterranean.

Europe is so big that you can’t lump all its cruises together. The Mediterranean cruise season runs year-round on select cruise lines, though you’ll have the most options between April and November. Northern Europe and Baltic cruises have a shorter season running from May to early November, while the warmer Greek Islands and Canary Islands see cruise ships between March and December. Small-ship river cruises usually run from spring through fall, with a few sailings in December to see the local Christmas markets.

Most tourists come to Europe in the summer, but the late spring and early fall have more pleasant temperatures and not as many crowds. You’ll find the lowest cruise prices at the beginning and end of each season; prices rise dramatically for the summer months.

Hawaii

waimea canyon waterfall

With two Norwegian Cruise Line ships dedicated to Hawaii cruising, you can explore the islands year-round. The best time to cruise Hawaii for good weather is during the summer and early fall when the islands get the least amount of rain. Summer tends to be the most popular because of school vacation and honeymoon season. Hawaii cruises are often cheapest from November through February, with the exception of holiday cruises.

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Mexico

los cabos arch.

You can cruise to Mexico year-round, either as part of a western Caribbean itinerary or as a dedicated Mexican Riviera voyage. The best time to visit Mexico is during its dry season, November through May. However, it’s a popular destination even during the rainier summer months. You’ll find the best deals in the fall, during hurricane season.

New England and Canada

acadia national park autumn.

New England and Canada sailings depart from May through October. You’ve got a better chance for warm weather if you travel from late June through early September. However, if you’re interested in foliage viewing, you’ll need to go in early to mid-October. May and late October sailings will offer the lowest rates, but don’t expect to be using the onboard swimming pool much.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2008. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Beach Booking Strategy Family Travel Group Travel Island

TripAdvisor Now Offers Cruise Reviews and Price Comparison

[st_content_ad]TripAdvisor users can now create and share cruise reviews and photos and compare cruise prices with TripAdvisor Cruises. In a statement, TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company) said the new feature will simplify the process of planning a cruise by bringing the hotel, flight, and cruise components together on one platform.

“The addition of Cruise will help solve the complexity of planning and booking a voyage,” said Bryan Saltzburg, president of TripAdvisor Flights, Cruise & Car. “For example, cruisers can research and book their flight to the port, a hotel room for the night before departure, review ‘Ship-tinerary’ pages, compare cabin options, book excursions, and read reviews all in one place.”

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TripAdvisor says 32 percent of its users have cruised before, and 44 percent are “cruise shoppers.” And cruises are evidently popular overall; 30 million people are expected to take a cruise in 2019, an increase of more than 34 percent in the past five years, according to Cruise Lines International Association.

The State of the Stateroom

The centerpiece of TripAdvisor Cruise is the Ship-tinerary, which TripAdvisor claims is “the most comprehensive tool in cruise planning.” Ship-tineraries are robust ship profiles that TripAdvisor says allow travelers to “quickly get a sense of ‘is this the right ship for me.'”

Ship-tineraries are the equivalent of TripAdvisor’s hotel reviews, built from on unbiased TripAdvisor user reviews, advice and photos, as well as detailed amenities and itineraries.

In addition, TripAdvisor will extend its travel metasearch tool to include cruises, giving travelers the ability to compare prices while they read reviews. TripAdvisor says it will offer an inventory of over 70 million cruises.

Readers: Are you interested in using TripAdvisor Cruises for a trip? Comment below.

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Adventure Travel

10 Days in Antarctica

Antarctica is one of the only places in the world where you can’t just book a flight and show up to explore on your own. You’ll need a minimum of 10 days and to sign up for a cruise in order to visit. So what is it really like to visit Antarctica? I joined Chimu Adventures’ Discover Antarctica Cruise to find out.

Day One: Departure

Ushuaia

The vast majority of Antarctic cruises leave from Ushuaia, a port city at the very bottom of Argentina. I recommend that you give yourself a few days’ buffer before your ship departs, in case of flight delays, cancellations, or lost luggage. You don’t want to miss the boat, and Ushuaia (particularly the nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park) offers plenty to do while you wait to board. Arriving early will also give you a chance to recover from jet lag and travel before you set off on your cruise.

My boat, the Ocean Atlantic, boarded between 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. on departure day. Our captain opted to wait out a storm in the Drake Passage, so we set sail around 9:00 p.m. This meant a smoother ride without sacrificing time, since we wouldn’t be battling wind and high waves.

Day Two: At Sea

Drake passage

Once you’ve cruised through the Beagle Channel, you enter the Drake Passage, a large open body of water between South America’s Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands. Since there is no land around the Drake Passage to deflect storms, the waters here can be very rough. Fortunately, we had excellent luck and mostly calm seas.

Sea days on the voyage down were spent getting familiar with the ship, bird-watching, attending mandatory briefings (which helped us know what to expect when we made land) and listening to educational lectures on everything from whales to Antarctic explorers.

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Day Three: Our First Sight of Land

Smith island

Around sunset on day three, we were treated to our first glimpse of land in days: Smith Island, the easternmost of the Shetland Islands.

Day Four: The Melchior Islands and Danco Island

Danco island

Although we had crossed the Antarctic Convergence the night before, stepping off the boat was what made me feel like we had really arrived in Antarctica. We anchored at the Melchior Islands and boarded small zodiacs to explore the area. The sturdy boats scraped over ice chunks and partially-frozen water, taking us down narrow channels between the small, low-lying islands. Crabeater seals sunbathed on large icebergs under the brilliant clear skies, unperturbed as we floated by.

We returned to the ship to warm up and have lunch, but were tempted back outside to the decks by the captivating scenery as we sailed down the Gerlache Straight into the Errera Channel, for our first landing at Danco Island. This small island is less than a mile long, but has a steep peak to climb for a sweeping view of the waters below and land beyond. We felt clumsy hiking up the snowy hill in our boots and winter gear, but still seemed to have an advantage over the Gentoo penguin colony that was trekking up the same path. These clever creatures use “penguin highways,” routes that they have carved out over time, to make their walks uphill a little easier.

Day Five: Port Lockroy, the Lemaire Channel, and Pleneau Bay

Port lockroy

Is there anywhere in the world that you can’t go shopping these days? Turns out, Antarctica isn’t one of them. Although you won’t find a penguin-operated mall here, you can buy souvenirs and mail postcards at Port Lockroy, a former British base now-turned historic site and monument. Four brave souls move down to Antarctica each summer to operate the gift shop, maintain the historic huts, and conduct research. It’s not just the four human employees living on the island—they share space with the thousands of Gentoo penguins that call this spot home. (Half of the island has been closed to visitors since 1962, as part of an on-going study to monitor the impact of tourism on the penguins. So far, research shows that the penguins are unaffected by the visitors.)

Back on the boat, we sailed through the jaw-dropping Lemaire Channel. This tight passage, less than a mile wide in some spots, has extremely calm waters that attract plenty of wildlife, especially whales and penguins. The channel was framed on each side by towering mountains and blue glaciers that seemed close enough to touch. After taking approximately 1,000 photos per passenger (this spot is just that photogenic), we arrived at our second landing site of the day, Pleneau Bay.

Pleneau Bay, nicknamed “the iceberg graveyard” is where you’ll most likely find the most icebergs in Antarctica. The currents and environmental conditions trap large chunks of ice here, putting them on museum-like display for zodiac cruisers. It’s not uncommon to see building-sized (and larger) icebergs here. We came ashore at Port Charcot, where we had the chance to walk around and explore a cairn and monument built by members of a French expedition who were stranded here in the early 1900s.

Day Six: Paradise Bay and Neko Harbor

Neko harbor

Our previous landings had all been on Antarctic islands, but today, we finally set foot on the continent of Antarctica. Our first steps on to the white continent were at Brown Station in Paradise Bay. Brown Station is a working Argentinian base and scientific research station that operates only during the Antarctic summer. We learned that the base used to operate year-round, but was burned down by the station’s doctor who thought that he was going home, only to be told at the last minute that he was being forced to stay for the winter. He got his wish and was sent home … but then wound up in jail for his sabotage.

Brown Station has it all: an adorable penguin colony, beautiful views of the aptly named Paradise Harbor, and a sledding course down a hill that’s been carved out by tourists over the season.

We re-positioned in the afternoon to Neko Harbor, where we had our second chance to go ashore on the continent. The harbor has a small beach, but it’s not advised to linger here, as the mighty glaciers that surround the site are very unstable, and calve often, sending huge waves crashing on to the low-lying beach. There’s a hill to climb to get out of the wave zone and to get a better view. (The penguins that live here don’t heed that warning and can be found freely wandering around the beach.)

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Day Seven: Deception Island and Half Moon Island

Half moon island

After spending the last seven days among pristine, natural beauty, it was a bit of a shock to wake up to Deception Island in the morning. A former whaling station, this island’s black-sand beach is starkly cluttered with remains of the former operations, including historic old buildings and tattered equipment. The island itself is the caldera of an active volcano, which was overdue for an eruption at the time at the time we visited. After our landing, we quickly resumed the natural beauty portion of the tour with a zodiac cruise through Neptune’s Bellows, the narrow entrance to the bay, which is home to many bird colonies, whales, and other wildlife.

Then it was time for our last landing of the voyage: Half Moon Island. This was the spot that would raise an impossible question: Which are cuter, Gentoo or Chinstrap penguins? Half Moon Island was our first introduction to the Chinstrap species, which have a distinctive facial marking that explains their name. With snowy hills, rocky overlooks, and a lovely beach, this was one of our most stunning stops, and made our goodbye to Antarctica even more poignant.

Day Eight: Drake Passage

At sea

It was time to head home. The Drake Passage was slightly rougher on the way back, but really not too bad. The staff put on a series of fun classes (like how to paint a penguin and salsa dancing) to keep us entertained.

Day Nine: Beagle Channel

As we entered the Beagle Channel, we enjoyed one last special gourmet dinner that was finished off with an all-you-can-eat “chocolate madness” buffet.

Day 10: Disembarkation

We disembarked in Ushuaia, carrying incredible memories and stories, thousands of photos, and probably a few extra pounds from those buffets.

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Caroline Morse Teel was hosted by Chimu Adventures on their Discover Antarctica Cruise. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for more photos and videos from her trip.

Categories
Adventure Travel Experiential Travel Outdoors

Luck and Shipwrecks at the End of the World

Luck and shipwrecks at the end of world

On our first day in Antarctica, we rescued a shipwrecked yacht, and things only got more exciting from there.

The morning dawned bluebird bright and the scene looked orchestrated. Cue the penguins porpoising just below. Enter diving whales, stage right. Set it all against a backdrop of the most beautiful golden light you’ve ever seen. If it were a movie set, it would be too perfect, too over-the-top. But that’s Antarctica for you. The natural reality is better than anything humanity could design.

Antarctica makes you feel small, and humbled, and incredibly lucky to be here at all. The climate can be harsh and unforgiving, and heart-breakingly beautiful at the same time. The land and the ice in Antarctica have been here for millions of years before I was born, and will be here for millions more after I’m gone.

Our boat is old too, and has already lived many lives. Around since the 1980s, the Ocean Atlantic has been a Russian spy ship, car ferry, rumored private charter for Vladimir Putin, floating bordello, casino, and, most recently, our newly refurbished expedition ship chartered by Chimu Adventures for its 10 Day Discover Antarctica cruise. In an increasingly disposable modern world, the Ocean Atlantic keeps making itself useful.

Ocean atlantic ship

The thing about Antarctica is it makes you throw away your plans and gifts you with a better one. Not many Antarctica cruises pass by Melchior Island, but the Ocean Atlantic had stopped there for an excursion, where we discovered the stranded yacht, and added three more guests on to our cruise.

If we hadn’t stopped to help, we never would have shared a delicate, golden sunset with thousands of tiny penguins on Danco Island. If there had been enough snow to go snowshoeing as planned, I never would have gotten to kayak through Antarctic waters and witness a seal surprise itself as it rolled off an iceberg and belly-flopped into the ocean. If our Zodiac group hadn’t voted to speed around the entire Half Moon Island, we never would have had the chance to see a rare white fur seal play-fighting with ordinary gray ones.

[st_related]Kayaking in Antarctica[/st_related]

On the white continent, you’re at the mercy of the weather. The daily itinerary is announced in hopeful terms. “We plan to … ” “We hope to … ” Never “we will.” Before I left, that’s also how I talked about my Antarctica trip, as if speaking the words I’d dreamed of for so long: “I’m going to Antarctica” would somehow pop the magic bubble and something would jinx the trip, keeping it as just a wish.

I didn’t think anything could top our first day in Antarctica. Waking up to icebergs outside my porthole feeling incredibly alive as we raced around Melchior Island in Zodiacs, the crisp and pristine air nipping at my face as if to say: You’ve arrived. Feel it. Try to take it all in as the day rushes by all too quickly. Hold onto each rare moment tightly, knowing that you’ll never have this precious time again.

Sitting on the top deck, basking in the rare Antarctic sunshine and watching the cloudless sky slip by, I thought for sure the trip had peaked here.

Penguin

And then came the second day. I had barely woken up, and then I was at Port Lockroy, where curious penguins waddled over to nibble my ski pants to see if they were worth eating. Afraid to move or breathe and break the moment, I nearly cried with happiness over being near these adorable animals in their natural habitat.

Back on the boat, sailing through the Lemaire Channel. This narrow section of water is often too ice-choked for ships to traverse, but on this day, conditions were good and our captain was confident that we would be the second ship to make it through in the past few months.

The lemaire channel

Our vessel was the only man-made thing in sight. On the Lemaire Channel, 3,000-foot mountains tower on each side of the ship, looking close enough to touch. I had to crane my neck back to see the summits, jaggedly piercing the clear blue sky above. Pristine white snow spilled down the sides, collecting in icy-blue glaciers leading to the water.

Wandering albatrosses with their elegantly long wingspan swooped around our boat, and every so often, a minke whale would surface in the waters below, giving us just a glimpse of its tail or offering us a blow from its spout. Penguins swarmed in formation just off our bow, jumping in and out of the water in a graceful show diametrically opposed to their clumsily cute waddles on land.

Icebergs in antarctica

In the afternoon, we reached Pleneau Bay, the “iceberg graveyard” where all the glacial chunks collected, like a museum of expertly curated natural beauty. These glaciers had birthed massive icebergs, the site of which anywhere else in the world would be singularly awe-inspiring; but here, they were more common than the penguins. I discovered a new shade of blue every time a new one went by. How could today be anything but the best day of the trip?

And then came day three. A quick Zodiac ride from the Ocean Atlantic, swinging my legs over the big rubber sides, splashing through the water, climbing over the rocks, and I was finally setting foot on continental Antarctica. (Our earlier stops on the voyage had been Antarctic islands.) After dreaming of this for so long, I was flooded with joy to be standing here on this remote continent. Throaty cries of penguins trumpeted a congratulations and welcomed me on shore.

Antarctica continental landing

A short walk up a steep hill, and a staggeringly beautiful Antarctica scene spilled out before us. Starched-white, pillowy snow framed a bay of clear blue water studded with fluorescent blue icebergs. Mountains beyond the bay reached up to the cloudy sky, and both were infinitely reflected on the surface of the mirror-like water.

A slippery hike up a bigger, snowy hill gave us even better views. The penguins looked like tiny black dots and our boat looked like a toy off in the distance. I sat in the snow and took in all the elation and thankfulness of being here in this moment.

All too soon, it was time to head down. But I’d go the fun way. I got a running start and sledded down the bumpy track carved out by those who had slid before me. Crisp and clean Antarctic wind rushing past my face, the continent beneath me, until I landed laughing in a graceless heap at the bottom of the hill.

The water in Antarctica is incredibly pure and unspoiled. For the last week, we’d been surrounded by the inescapable ocean. You start to imagine jumping in, and today, we’d get the chance. The French call it “l’appel du vide” (“the call of the void”). That strange longing to throw yourself off a cruise ship into the waters below, even though you don’t want to die—you just want to feel what the fall would be like.

Antarctica polar plunge

The polar plunge was held just off the coast of the continent, in the calm waters of Neko Harbor. The waters may look bath-like, but the temperatures were not. Icebergs could be seen bobbing in the distance. An orca whale and a leopard seal had been spotted hanging around. The water temperature was 35 degrees, and the air temperature was 33.  Barefoot, bathrobe-clad guests lined up in the mudroom, where normally, we’re bundling up in as many layers as possible before putting on our jackets and boots and boarding the Zodiacs. Today, we’d be hurling ourselves off the gangway and into Southern Ocean.

Seventy brave cruisers were lined up, buzzing with nervous excitement. As I got closer to the watery exit, the cold air crept in, curling up around my feet and under my robe, making me reconsider my plans for a swim. The crew fastened a belt and rope around my waist, already wet and frigid from the plungers before me. At least if I literally froze upon entry, they’d be able to fish me out quickly. My body went into autopilot. The crew guided me to the gangway and told me to give a wave to the parka-wearing spectators on the top deck. There was nothing left to do but freeze on the landing in indecision or quickly fling myself off the ship. I plunged down into the depths of the clear blue water and surfaced, surprised that the shock of the water wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting. Temporarily numbed, I managed to enjoy a moment or two of paddling in Antarctic waters before making a beeline for the ladder back to the warmth of the ship. The adrenaline kicked in and I was greeted with a towel, robe, and congratulations from the crew. Judging from the post-plunge photos of my star jump, it was probably for the best that I forgot to check my scores from the judges out on the Zodiac, who were raising paddles marked on a 1-10 scale.

The elation and excitement of the accomplishment overwhelmed any feelings of shivering cold. It was by far the best day of the trip … until tomorrow.

More from SmarterTravel:

Caroline Morse Teel was hosted by Chimu Adventures on their Discover Antarctica Cruise. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for more photos from her trip.

Categories
Active Travel Adventure Travel

Kayaking in Antarctica

Sunshine hitting the Southern Ocean looks like fireworks made out of diamonds. When a glacier calves, it sounds like thunder rumbling over an oncoming train. These are things I didn’t know before kayaking in Antarctica and now are embedded in my soul.

Before our boat has even anchored, our lucky group of 10 are already suiting up. We’ve learned how to pour ourselves into dry suits over multiple layers of clothing, and are sweating in the heated ship waiting for our adventure.

[st_related]Luck and Shipwrecks at the End of the World[/st_related]

The doors open, and we’re whisked away on a Zodiac and taken into the wild, where we carefully transfer ourselves into kayaks. For the first time, we’re navigating the waters under our own power, just like all the other animals out here.

Away from our floating home, Chimu Adventures’ charted ship the Ocean Atlantic, the silence is pristine. Closer to the water, we’re eye-level with crab-eater seals. Sleeping on icebergs with chunks of ice for pillows, the seals scope us out with a yawn before stretching and deciding we’re not worth waking up for.

The bottom of the kayak rasps as we bump our way over the crushed ice that has formed in the waters. My heart races as we navigate through the icebergs that present a slalom course challenge, as I mentally review the wet exit procedure. We’re kayaking in Neko Harbor, past a colony of Gentoo penguins sharing space on a night-black sandy beach, with hefty fur seals that dwarf them in size and noise. I wonder what they must think of us less-than-graceful humans unsteadily rowing by in our neon-green kayaks.

When the first glacier calves, it feels like a wish being granted. We’d been briefed that this area was full of unstable glaciers that could break off a piece at any moment, and we all wanted to witness this phenomenon.

Our kayak guide tells us to back-paddle as a wave triggered by the crash comes racing towards us. Where the chunk of ice fell, the wave seems like a tsunami size, but it quickly peters out as it gets closer, giving us kayaks a little lift before dying out completely. We drift and watch the aftershocks before to the right, a second glacier spills into the water below with thunderous crashes that sends waves crashing towards us.

We kayak a little away from the group, and revel in the sensation of being alone in Antarctica. There are no modern noises out here on the water—no whines of an engine, no smells of fuel, and not a scrap of trash or pollution to be found in the waves.

Too soon, our kayak adventure is over, and we haul ourselves back on to the Zodiac before being taken ashore for our landing. Dressed in our dry suits, with ridiculous looking bulky spray skirts attached around our waists, bright yellow life jackets around our chests, and slippery neoprene booties around our feet, I know exactly how the penguins feel. In the water, we floated so elegantly and effectively, but on land, we struggled to make our way.

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Caroline Morse Teel was hosted by Chimu Adventures on their 10 Day Discover Antarctica Cruise. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for more photos and videos from her trip.

Categories
Beach Entertainment Luxury Travel

Virgin’s New Adult-Only Cruise Ship for Non-Cruisers Is Open for Bookings

When it comes to deciding where to go on vacation, cruising can be a very divisive topic. Often the reasons why people love cruises (the never-ending buffets, the organized activities, the family-friendly options) are the same reasons non-cruisers avoid them. But with the announcement of Virgin Voyages, a new adults-only cruise line from Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, cruising is about to change.

What Makes It Different

In 2020, Virgin Voyages will begin their new four to five-day cruise itineraries for a whole new model of cruising that aims to eliminate common cruise pain points. Their first ship, The Scarlet Lady, will be adults-only and crew gratuities will be included in the cost of the ticket, which means no last-day stressing about tips. Instead of a buffet, there will be over 20 onboard restaurants to choose from, with flexible dining hours that will sometimes extend past midnight. All dining cover charges will also be included with the initial cabin price. At no extra charge, all guests will also have access to unlimited Wi-Fi and can take advantage of group workout classes.

[st_related]What It’s Like to Stay in a Virgin Hotel[/st_related]

In addition to a restructuring of the cruise business model, Virgin Voyages has also made a commitment to do away with single-use plastics like straws and water bottles, and will instead offer water-refilling stations and free sparkling water throughout the ship.

What Makes It Really Different

With so much included, a Virgin Voyages cruise is not likely to be on the affordable end of the market, but onboard, Virgin Voyages is promising an experience that goes way beyond the food and Wi-Fi. From circus acts and dinner theatre to experimental dance parties and midnight dodgeball games, their entertainment program is aiming to bring metropolitan vibes to the Caribbean. Virgin Voyages invited unique artists like Pig Pen Theatre Company and 7 Fingers Creation Collective to create special entertainment experiences for the ship, and is even planning to start a residency program at their private Bahamian beach club for up-and-coming DJs.

The adults-only Scarlet Lady will be a large ship with a capacity for 1,700 passengers, and Virgin Voyages is planning a program that aims to appeal to all guest profiles. Whether you’d feel more at home in an athletic club, a cooking class, the onboard tattoo parlor, or at the drag queen brunch, Virgin Voyages wants to make sure there is truly something for everyone.

Launching April 1st, of 2020, sailings to the Dominican Republic, Havana, and Costa Maya are now open for booking on the Virgin Voyages website, starting at $1,450 per cabin.

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Jamie Ditaranto is a writer and photographer always looking for her next adventure. Follow her on Instagram @jamieditaranto.