Once you've chosen a cruise and itinerary, don't assume your homework is done. Although you know when and where your ship is heading, you've still got to decide how best to experience each port of call.
Should you explore on your own, rely on local drivers at a given pier, pay for ship-sponsored excursions or book something from a tour company not affiliated with your carrier?
These decisions can often determine whether a visit ashore is satisfying and enjoyable or a frustrating waste of time and money.
My wife and I recently took a 14-day Singapore-Hong Kong trip in which Holland America Line's 1,432-passenger Zaandam called at six ports in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China.
Before we left, she and I weighed our choices and decided how to handle each stop. Ultimately we chose to mix and match our options.
The hands-down winner for best offshore excursion was our three-hour-long float among the roughly 3,000 surreal, starkly eroded limestone islands and islets of Vietnam's Halong Bay.
This is part of the famous Tonkin Gulf, where a 1964 North Vietnamese-U.S. naval encounter sparked a major upsurge in U.S. participation in the Vietnam War.
Since the islands — designated a UNESCO World Heritage site — are the prime draw here, the Zaandam provided the best possible option.
The ship was anchored offshore, so the tour featured a direct transfer to a Chinese-junk-appearing motor craft that used an intermediate dock as a transfer point. Once onboard, we moved between rock formations whose widely differing shapes were fascinating.
There were constantly exciting photo opportunities with landscapes ranging from sand to vegetation-covered, plus occasional sightings of fishermen pursuing their catch or repairing their nets.
The trip was made even more enjoyable by a last-minute schedule change. Originally part of the trip was described as a visit to the famous Thien Cung limestone cave.
But several passengers who either didn't want to climb over 100 steep and reputedly treacherous steps to reach the cave or who just wanted more time to experience the bay itself asked if a bay-only trip could be arranged.
Ultimately, a single craft was designated to skip the cave and spend all its time traversing the islands.
After the bay excursion a free tender ride and long walk into town proved to be a fine change of pace. There we found an interesting marketplace, bustling commercial quarter and — for a change of pace from shipboard dining — restaurants serving authentic Asian food.
Ship-provided bus transfers between the port of Phu My and Saigon were also invaluable. For roughly $45 each we got a ticket to ride a comfortable bus from the pier to the Rex Hotel in the heart of downtown Saigon.
(The rooftop bar of the Rex was a famous hangout for Vietnam War reporters, some of whom reputedly covered the war from there with a drink in one hand and binoculars in the other.)
The critical point of the ship-sponsored bus ride was that we got a guaranteed return time, ensuring that we would not miss the ship's departure. While there were plenty of local taxis at the pier, we felt much more comfortable relying on the ship-arranged bus rather than local drivers
Though we had just four hours in the city (it was something less than a two-hour drive from the pier), it was sufficient to see the historic post office, the cathedral and the presidential palace. We could also have opted to see one of several museums depicting the war from Vietnam's perspective.
We found time to enjoy a tasty lunch, but we wished we had more time in Saigon.
As for trips we booked ourselves, the best was in Bangkok, where the ship docked overnight at the port of Laem Chabang, a two-hour drive from Thailand's capital. Here we chose to splurge and reserved what proved to be an exquisite river-view room at the historic Mandarin Oriental hotel.
One of five upscale properties lining the vital Chao Phraya River, this proved to be a perfect base from which to enjoy what turned out to be 26 hours in town. At the hotel's Sala Rim Naam Thai restaurant on the opposite river shore (reachable by hotel craft), we enjoyed our favorite meal of the trip.
Staying on the river gave us easy access to board a public powerboat and ride up to the Grand Palace complex that includes the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. A short cab ride away lies Wat Po and its famous reclining Buddha.
It's also possible to spend several hours navigating some of Bangkok's klongs, a vast canal network where elevated houses on stilts are often reachable only by boat. Another favorite water excursion was to Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, with its striking 260-foot-tall spire that is decorated with broken pottery.
The Mandarin is also a short boat ride away from Bangkok's Skytrain, the efficient, comfortable, air-conditioned elevated train system that covers much of the city's vast sprawl by moving well above its traffic-clogged roads.
The Skytrain took us quickly to the heart of the tourist area (part of which in the evening morphs into the infamous Patpong district) and to the serene home, museum and restaurant created by legendary Jim Thompson, the man whose marketing skills played a key role in the post-World War II development of Thailand's silk export trade.
We could have signed up for the ship's overnight package and tour costing more than $300 for two, but it didn't offer digs or dining comparable to the Mandarin's. And the difference in price — remembering that car services and hotels charge per ride or room, not per body — our upscale alternative proved to be a bargain well made.
At other stops, including Sihanoukville and Sanya, China (where local authorities provided free ship-to-town buses), we chose to visit by ourselves. In Sihanoukville we ultimately hired a tuk-tuk driver in the marketplace who, for $20, showed us key local sites, brought us to a lovely local beach and a dining spot serving superb local seafood, and later returned us to a spot not far from our ship.
In Koh Samui, for $50 our taxi driver spent three hours taking us to an attractive beach, excellent restaurant and the locally famous giant Buddha. We ended at a shopping street near the pier.
What we did in Asia other passengers can do virtually anywhere in the world. If you're heading for a cruise, scrutinize your off-ship options and make plans for them well in advance. Doing so will prove to be a very smart move.
WHEN YOU GO
Holland America Line: www.hollandamerica.com
Thailand tourism: www.tourismthailand.org
The elegant and historic Mandarin Oriental Bangkok is one of Asia's best. The staff also helped arrange our ship-hotel-ship ground transportation: www.mandarinoriental.com/bangkok.
Viator (www.viator.com) and www.portpromotions.com are independent shore excursion companies whose alternative tours to those offered by cruise lines are often less expensive.
Robert Selwitz is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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