Avid cruisers seem to break down into two types: Those that gladly sail to the same sunny destinations again and again and those that have a bucket list of ports that keep getting more and more far flung. And while we’re happy to hoist a fruity drink with that first group, we’re proudly in the second, plotting and refining our bucket list of sailings. Like any good bucket list, ours is one part obvious checklist of must-see places and one part epic wish list of once-in-a-lifetime spots. And as a bonus, cruising often makes these remarkable places more affordable and accessible than other forms of travel. Take a look at our eight picks below.
1. Havana, Cuba
Heading to the Caribbean is the norm when it comes to cruising, with the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico in regular rotation. But it wasn’t until 2016 that Cuba was added as a stop. With this shift in travel restrictions, cruise travelers can now experience the rich cultural highlights -- the food, the music, the architecture -- that they’ve sailed past all this time. And in many ways, seeing Havana by cruise is the easiest way to access the city, as cruise lines can tackle the people-to-people paperwork that is required for Americans to come. It also lets U.S. visitors skip the complications of booking hotel rooms, which can be rather tricky and require more paperwork in the form of a voucher. Basically, with a cruise, you get all of the “bienvenido!” with less of the bother.
Our Pick: Norwegian Sky
Many Americans are first introduced to cruising through a voyage to Alaska, but that doesn’t make it any less of a bucket list trip. The astonishing glaciers, impressive wildlife, and charming ports along the inside passage can hold their own against any remote international destinations. Watching glaciers calving (breaking off into the water) from the ship’s deck is a marvel even IMAX can’t fully capture. And while the vistas are staggering, the price tag doesn’t have to be. Just about every mainstream cruise line like Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean all sail to the 49th state for doable rates. For those that enjoy their morning whale-spotting with a mimosa in hand, higher-end lines, such as Celebrity, also sail along this route.
Our Pick: Holland America’s Eurodam
Once upon a time, transatlantic sailings set off from America to the Old World, giving a chance for high society to meet and mingle. (The Marilyn Monroe movie “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” gives a campy and spirited take on it.) Today, these sailings are still in effect, launching people across continents. For some, it’s a chance to savor more sea days and get quality time with the ship’s features -- after all, those waterslides, rope courses, and climbing walls won’t enjoy themselves! But for others, it’s an opportunity to time-travel back to cruising’s glamorous yesteryear, when a sailing meant shuffleboard by day, and dinner and dancing by night. Either way, these voyages get to the heart of what cruising is all about: It’s a trip where the journey is the destination.
Our Pick: Cunard’s Queen Mary 2
4. The Mediterranean
Mankind has been sailing along Mediterranean waterways for centuries, and all that history is still visible in these atmospheric ports that hold castles, cobblestoned streets, and Roman ruins alike. Cruising here tends to be divided into two segments. Western sailings loop around northern Spain and southern France before finally circling Italy and often touching down in the iconic cities of Florence and Rome. Occasionally, these ships also hit Sicily or Corsica or come around the backside of Italy toward Venice. It’s a compilation of Europe’s “greatest hits.” And those looking for Volume Two of that experience can sail farther east, around the Greek islands, Croatia, even Montenegro, Slovenia, or Jerusalem. Can’t make up your mind? Longer sailings will cover the Mediterranean in a combination of western and eastern ports, giving you a deeper look into this area and its wide contrast in cultures.
Our Pick: Celebrity’s Reflection
Hawaii is known for its natural beauty, its “aloha” spirit, and its sheer expensiveness. Seriously, a trip to the 50th state can kick you right in the wallet, with transportation, hotels, and food all sporting premium prices. That’s not to say a bucket list trip here isn’t worth the price tag. But in-the-know travelers have found a loophole: Seeing Hawaii by cruise makes it easy and even affordable to cover the islands. And no need to make a difficult choice between Oahu’s bustling arts and culture and Kauai’s lush vegetation when you can have both. Even better, some ships will let you see hard-to-reach areas. For example, the Pride of America sails by Nā Pali Coast State Park, offering a rare close-up of this wilderness park. The serrated green cliffs here, skirted with turquoise waters, resemble a tropical painting.
Our Pick: Norwegian’s Pride of America
6. Christmas Markets Cruise
Give us all the tinsel, eggnog, and carols -- we love a good Christmas celebration. If you feel the same way, a Christmas market cruise could be a great way to experience Europe and your ultimate bucket list sailing. These river cruises typically set off either along the Rhine or the Danube, docking in cities known for their holiday markets. You’ll likely travel through Austria, Hungary, France, and Germany, among other countries. Handmade ornaments, mulled wine, and twinkling lights are all part of the appeal at each market stop. These voyages also let you catch a glimpse into how each local culture puts their own spin on the yuletide, whether it’s the marionettes of Prague or the spiced bratwurst of Cologne. If Christmas is not your thing, keep in mind that this route can be sailed any time of year, when these towns and cities still offer all of their cobblestoned European cuteness.
Our Pick: AmaWaterways AmaCerto
Every bucket list needs a wild-card pick, and for us, that’s the Galapagos. It’s an adventurous destination that makes people reconsider what a cruise can really be. And while there are a number of destinations that make excellent nominees for this type of trip (Antartica and Indonesia were two other front-runners), the Galapagos gets our vote thanks to its remote location, abundant wildlife, and comfortably warm temperatures year-round. Excursions and activities here range from strolling and snorkeling at a mild pace to hiking and rock climbing at a more ambitious rate. But either way, passengers can bump into sea turtles, penguins, and stingrays, making this trip practically a safari at sea.
Our Pick: Lindblad Expeditions’ National Geographic Islander
8. Around the World
No cruising bucket list would be complete without the ultimate voyage: one that circles the globe. This once-in-a-lifetime trip tops the list for plenty of travelers -- not just cruisers -- but those flying from one congested airport to the next are going to find it far more unpleasant compared to the ones serenely coasting from port to port. Cruisers can test-drive the experience by booking a voyage that tackles just a section of the world atlas, say Miami to South Africa’s Cape Town in around 30 days. But those looking to lasso the globe could book a ticket for more than 100 days of sailing that will have them circling around five continents in the footsteps (or should we say propeller turns) of many world explorers before them.
Our Pick: Silversea Cruises’ Silver Whisper
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