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Strategic sightseeing makes the most of a cruise

For those who want to travel the world and broaden their horizons, cruising offers a conundrum.
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For those who want to travel the world and broaden their horizons, cruising offers a conundrum. On the one hand, there's no doubt that it's an easy, pleasant way to see a whole host of places without the undue stress of moving from city to city, braving unfamiliar hotels and transportation systems, and (let's face it) lugging your stuff.

On the other hand, sightseeing via cruise ship offers limited opportunity to really experience a place. Hopscotching from port to port, where calls usually are limited to an eight-hour day (or thereabouts), can be unsatisfying or even downright frustrating.

But as someone who has seen much of the world — and quite a bit of it for just a day at a time — I've learned that there are ways to create on-shore experiences that are incredibly memorable, even given the limitations of cruising. Some insights:

The Sampler: Have you ever cruised to a port of a call that charmed you unutterably? And, conversely, ever visited a place that just didn't resonate, making you eagerly anticipate the ship's pulling up anchor? That's what's good about the sampler strategy, which without a major time or financial commitment to one destination allows you to check out a variety of places and see for yourself which you'll want to return to. This approach is especially valid in sprawling regions such as Europe, Australia/New Zealand, Asia, Hawaii and the Caribbean.

Mini-Breaks: Some ports are just too amazing to see for just a day — and the good news is that in many instances these cities serve as turn-around spots. That means you can add a few days' stay on either of the trip. Particularly intriguing homeports (most of which are seasonal) include New York, San Juan, Rome, Venice, Athens, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires and Vancouver (to name just a few!).

Overnights: Some cruise itineraries feature overnight stays in particularly interesting ports of call. For instance, Silversea overnights in Tripoli, Libya on a cruise from Villefranche to Port Said. Regent Seven Seas offers a trip from Monte Carlo to Copenhagen that docks for two days in London. Seabourn's roundtrip from Singapore spends a couple of days in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Just about every cruise ship that calls in St. Petersburg spends at least one night in port; a handful, such as Seabourn, stay for two (which means passengers get three days to explore Russia's most beautiful city).

Beyond these strategies, what's the best way to experience a port of call when you really only get a day? Some cities and islands make it incredibly easy, particularly when main attractions are within walking distance, or a short shuttle or taxi ride away. Favorites in this category include Helsinki, Edinburgh, Barcelona, St. Barth's, Sydney, Buenos Aires, Vancouver, Maui, Bermuda's St. George's and Hamilton, and Quebec City, among others.

On the other hand, successfully navigating other ports with such a time constraint can be a challenge. Regions such as Asia, Europe and even the Caribbean fall into this category. Here's my guide to efficiently exploring these regions — rest assured, it's tough but not impossible!

The Challenge: Some of the most important cities for touring are located a good distance from their ports — and a drive of 1.5 - 2.5 hours each way can eat up a good bit of precious time.

Livorno (for Florence)
First Time: Pre-cruise, hire a driver and a guide who will drop you off in Florence and pick you up at a designated time and place. Make sure to leave plenty of room in your schedule to accommodate rush-hour traffic when returning to the port. Alternatively, take your ship's Florence excursion — that way if the tour is late returning, the captain will wait.

Return Visit: Livorno is in the heart of Tuscany. Take a taxi to the train station in Livorno to go to Lucca, Siena or Pisa — or rent a car and drive to the walled village of San Gimignano.

Warnemunde (for Berlin)
First Time: Take the train to Berlin, no question!

Return Visit: The seaside village of Warnemunde, within walking distance of the cruise docks, is absolutely charming — and a vacation destination for Germans. There are food markets, boutiques, cafes and seafood stands. The Hanseatic town of Rostock is 45 minutes away.

Le Havre (for Paris)
First Time: While Paris is the big draw, it's too huge to really enjoy on a rushed day trip. Instead, head to other interesting towns that are closer to Le Havre, such as the battlefields and memorials of Normandy and the absolutely charming fishing village of Honfleur.

Return Visit: If your ship is in port for a long (12-hour) day, rent a car and drive to St. Malo, on the Brittany coast, or visit places like Giverny and Deauville.

The Challenge: In most cases, ports are located right in major cities or within a short taxi or shuttle ride. The real challenge here is that for most folks Asia is a once-in-a-lifetime experience — and the cities are so magnificent that it's hard to know where to begin!

Hong Kong
First Time: Many ships offer a half-day "highlights" tour of this frenetic city, and that's a good way to get your bearings — leaving plenty of time afterwards to explore areas that piqued your interest. Potential attractions include the city's markets (bird, jade and flower), the antique shops of Hollywood Road, and a tram ride to the top of Victoria Peak.

Return Visit: Spend a day in the New Territories absorbing Hong Kong's culture; here you'll find Lam Tsuen Wishing Tree and Lung Yeuk Tau. Disney aficionados should head to the just-opened Hong Kong Disneyland.

First Time: Again, a "greatest hits" half-day tour offers a sturdy introduction to this island nation; highlights generally include visits to the Thian Hock Keng Temple, the Botanic Gardens (don't miss the fabulous National Orchid Garden inside) and the 350-ft. summit of Mount Faber.

Return Visit: Take a cable car from the Harbourfront Centre to Sentosa Island. Sentosa is a popular retreat especially among the local Singaporeans looking to eat well, play golf, visit different museums or just head for a beach. Sentosa Island can be toured by monorail, and there are lot of attractions, such as Underwater World, Dolphin Lagoon, Butterfly Park and Insect Kingdom. If you're looking for history, Fort Siloso, built in 1880, is the place to go. The popular beaches are Siloso, Palawan and Tanjong.

Kuala Lumpur
First Time: Kuala Lumpur is a relatively easy city to navigate. Head first to major sights such as the Lake Gardens (with a bird sanctuary and butterfly park), the Blue Mosque, the Thean Hou Temple and the 41st-floor bridge of the Petronas Twin Towers, now the world's highest.

Return Visit: If you have an extra day, shopping is a must, as KL has the best prices in Asia. Options range from Kompleks Budaya Kraf for handicrafts to Suria KLCC, an immense entertainment and mercantile center.

The Caribbean
The Challenge: Shopping, most often of the duty-free variety, has become so all-consuming on many Caribbean islands that you really have to make an effort to look beyond these retail palaces.

St. Thomas:
First Time: Rent a car and drive around the island (don't forget: in St. Thomas you drive on the left). Off-the-track highlights include art galleries like Mango Tango at Raphune Hill, The Color of Joy in Red Hook, and Kilnworks in Smith Bay. Ride along the incredibly scenic Skyline Drive. Have lunch at the famed Craig & Sally's in Frenchtown.

Return Visit: Take the 30-minute ferry from Red Hook to St. John, known for its gorgeous beaches. Drive up the spine of the island to Coral Bay; just a few minutes further is Salt Pond, a lustrous, near-deserted beach. If you're staying on St. Thomas, book a bike tour on Water Island.

First Time: If your ship has a long call here, the best bet is to take its own shore excursion to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and Tulum.

Return Visit: Check out some also-important Mayan sites on the island, such as San Gervasio and El Cedral. Scuba diving and snorkeling are exceptional here — particularly at Palancar Reef (the second-longest reef system in the world), Chankanaab Caves and La Ceiba Reef.

St. Maarten
First Time: A half-day "tale of two islands" tour is a helpful way to take in the experience of this dual-nation island (St. Martin is the French side, St. Maarten is Dutch). The clothing-optional beach of Orient Bay is a Caribbean version of St. Tropez. Or take a taxi to St. Martin to browse the French boutiques and lunch in a waterfront cafe.

Return Visit: Visit Anguilla! The island with the best beaches in the Caribbean, Anguilla accepts few cruise ships — but it's a 20-minute ferry from St. Martin. Shoal Bay East is the "happening" beach, with lots of eateries and bars.

South America
The Challenge: The continent is huge, covering thousands of miles from the equatorial tropics to the sub-Antarctic, and is far too big to thoroughly sample on a single voyage (even though nearly every itinerary is longer than seven nights). It's also a fairly rugged experience — expect to travel one or more hours on most outside-the-city adventures.

Buenos Aires
First Time: Tour the city's neighborhoods or "barrios" — there are 49 in all, including Recoleta, where Eva Peron is buried, and colorful La Boca, where residential properties brighten the streets in primary colors. If there's time, top off your visit by taking in a seductive and romantic tango show; if you're smitten and want to learn the dance, spots such as Club Almagro and La Estrella offer lessons.

Return Visit: Buenos Aires' Palermo district is home to numerous parks for biking, jogging or simply relaxing. Over 8,000 species of plants from throughout South America can be found at the botanical garden in Palermo; it adjoins the Buenos Aires zoo, known for its white tigers.

Rio de Janeiro
First Time: Don't miss Rio's downtown area, packed with churches dating back to the 17th century, but be sure to set aside time for a visit to one of Rio's spectacular viewpoints: the 2,300-ft.-high Corcovado hill upon which the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer is perched, or Sugarloaf Mountain (Pao de Acugar) for a view of the harbor and skyline.

Return Visit: Rio boasts beautiful and glamorous beaches, and the two most famous — Copacabana and Ipanema — are easily accessible to day-trippers. If water sports aren't your thing, hone your people-watching skills, or rent bikes or rollerblades and just hang loose as the locals do.

First Time: The tourist draw in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, is to visit by bus or narrow-gauge railway the "fin del munde" — or the end of the world — marked by a wooden sign in Tierra del Fuego National Park at the very bottom of National Route 3.

Return Visit: Also within Tierra del Fuego National Park are Lake Roca, the Beagle Channel and sub-Antarctic forests, plus opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, rock climbing and diving with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Or simply stroll around and have lunch in this charming hilly city with European architecture, known as the "Switzerland of South America."

The Challenge: Alaska is a dream destination for cruise travelers — with its plethora of natural wonders, in-town attractions and (in some cases) urban pleasures. There's something for everyone. And that's precisely the challenge: It's almost become too popular and crowds and congestion can, in high season, impact your experience.

First Time: Visiting Mendenhall Glacier — whether you hike it or fly there via helicopter and land on it — is the absolute must-do in Juneau.

Return Visit: Explore the rest of Juneau's wildlife scene by kayak on Auke Bay, or take a zip line tour through a dense and lush forest.

First Time: Ramble the picturesque streets of Victoria's downtown district. This English-influenced town has marvelous historic sites like the Parliament buildings and the Fairmount Empress Hotel; lush parks, such as Beacon Hill Park; and great shopping on Fort Street and beyond. Pubs abound and Chinatown is another fun diversion. Afternoon tea, in Britain's most elegant tradition, is a rite of passage at the Empress.

Return Visit: Rent a car and head north to the pastoral Saanich Valley and the Marley Farm Winery. Limited-edition vintages include pinot grigio and pinot noir. They also make blackberry and other fruit wines. From rural Saanich, drive south again along winding oceanfront Beach Drive, and through the communities of Cordova Bay and Oak Bay.

First Time: This is our favorite Alaskan port for shopping, and the most interesting area downtown is Creek Street. Not a street at all, it's a boardwalk that winds along a series of boutiques and arty galleries (buildings that once housed brothels). Don't miss Stedman Street as well for its handful of excellent shops selling made-in-Alaska gifts.

Return Visit: You can actually do the first-time itinerary and this one in the same day. Take a tour of Misty Fjords National Monument via high-speed catamaran and float plane. The trip takes you through the Behm Canal and into Rudyerd Bay, which is surrounded by towering cliffs and cascading waterfalls.

Australia/New Zealand
The Challenge: We can't think of a single down side to this itinerary except for one (major) factor: the flight over! For North Americans, particularly for those from the East Coast, the trip can take as long as 24 hours, door to door. It's a long way to go — but it's worth it in the end.

First Time: You could easily spend the entire day here at Te Papa, New Zealand's marvelous national museum, with exhibits that range from a variety of treasures to showcases of the nation's past. In town, don't miss the Museum of Wellington City & Sea, appropriately located right on Queens Wharf; it's devoted to the city's maritime history. Top your day off with a cable car ride for a spectacular overview of Wellington.

Return Visit: The "Lord of the Rings" trilogy boosted New Zealand up the "must-see" travel charts. Wellington, or "Wellywood," was the center of the filmmaking, not surprising since director Peter Jackson lives in the 'burbs. Visit the location sites used for the gardens of Isengard, Rivendell and Lorhlorien. Some tours include the Stansborough weaving mill where the elfin cloaks were made.

First Time: Take the light rail (conveniently located right across from the cruise terminal) into Melbourne's fabulous downtown district. A mix of historic and contemporary architecture, this city was founded in the mid-19th century and influenced by both Asian and Western designs (the former's influence can be found in the numerous lush parks throughout). Go shopping on Collins Street, lunch in Greektown (Melbourne is the largest Greek city outside of Greece) or Chinatown, and munch at the Victoria Market.

Return Visit: Tour the Yarra Valley — famed for its wines, including shiraz, Chardonnay and pinot noir, and visit wildlife sanctuaries such as the Healesville Sanctuary, where you can spot kangaroos, emus, dingoes and other native animals.

First Time: Take the on-and-off trolley around the town of Christchurch and visit the city's best-known attractions, such as the Arts Centre, the Botanic Gardens, Canterbury Museum, and the Christchurch Arts Gallery. Have lunch at one of the sidewalk cafes along Oxford Terrace and go "punting" on the River Avon.

Return Visit: Take an "overland" ship tour to Mt. Cook National Park, in the heart of New Zealand's gorgeous fjordlands, a visit which typically includes an overnight in Queenstown and a visit to Milford Sound.

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