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Best cruises for active travelers

A decade ago, the title "Best Cruises for Active Travelers" might have been considered an oxymoron. The prevailing perception was that cruising was heavily weighted to the, well, heavily weighted.
Mariner of the Seas passenger Chuck Robinson of Sioux Falls, S.D., center, walks ashore from the pier at Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Active travelers will find no shortage of shore experiences on cruise ships to whet their appetite for adventure.
Mariner of the Seas passenger Chuck Robinson of Sioux Falls, S.D., center, walks ashore from the pier at Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Active travelers will find no shortage of shore experiences on cruise ships to whet their appetite for adventure.Joe Kafka / AP file
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A decade ago, the title "Best Cruises for Active Travelers" might have been considered an oxymoron. The prevailing perception was that cruising was heavily weighted to the, well, heavily weighted. Cruises for active-minded folk were an entirely separate entity from mainstream ships and voyages, and there was little passenger crossover. Gradually, the descriptions have begun to blend, and the young at heart and active in spirit now typically share ships with their more passive fellows. Active travelers will, as well, find no shortage of shore experiences on those ships to whet their appetite for adventure.

That does not mean that all options are equal, or that you can't make choices that maximize your bent for adventure, however. Consider these suggestions:

In this case size does matter
Smaller ships can get into spots the biggies can't. Small ship architecture supports active passengers' active pursuits. Many have transoms that fold down into "sports platforms" (effectively mini-docks) from which passengers can swim, windsurf, waterski, kayak, etc.

Look to the Zodiac
We're talking inflatable boats, not whether the captain's sun sign is Pisces! If the ship you choose has them you have a great tool to get closer to the action than by typical tour boats.

Don't pooh-pooh shore excursions
The range of what is available from your cruise line is far greater than in the past, and usually includes a number of choices for the physically active. Many are unique — Carnival, for example, offers scuba trips at Yucatan port calls to "cenotes" (underwater cave systems fed by freshwater springs).

Choose a cruise of seven days or less
Though, as we have stressed, active options are now almost universal on ships, shorter cruises attract a younger passenger group, and the more active the passengers the more active-friendly offerings and more fellow passengers to share the experiences with you are likely to find.

Lastly, choose your cruising region with active pursuits in mind
In the same way that you can find active pursuits offered on any ship, you can find active things to do in any port. Still, some ports are "more equal" than others. That is why we have listed, below, our picks for the best regions to cruise for those who are active in mind and spirit, beginning with...

Where: Located in the mid-Pacific about the same distance below the equator as Hawaii is above it, the main islands of interest are Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea, Raiatea, and Huahine.

Why: To a degree, by process of elimination. Inactive pursuits like motor coach tours are few and far between; affordable shopping is virtually nonexistent. But, in the atolls' sheltered lagoons you will find arguably the best snorkeling anywhere. Then there's the chance to snorkel or scuba with big numbers of big critters: sharks and giant Pacific Mantas, to name a couple. The mountainous islands with underdeveloped roads beg for exploration by four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Who: Our choice? The Paul Gauguin. We like the watersports platform, which (when it can be used) facilitates windsurfing, swimming, kayaking and waterskiing. We salute the ample diving and snorkeling options, including onboard dive instructors for dive excursions and even full scuba certifications. Regent Seven Seas Cruises, which operates Paul Gauguin, will offer cruises through December 2008 -- after that point the ship, which has been acquired by Grand Circle Travel, may sail other itineraries.

Where: The Pacific coast of this Central American eco-tourism mecca has the most favored itineraries.

Why: Because few places on earth offer as wide a range of activities for the active traveler. You can hike the rainforest or zip between canopy treetops on pulleys and cables. Sight crocodiles, toucans and monkeys. Go white water rafting or kayaking in mangrove estuaries.

Who: We like Wind Star for this itinerary. Returning to Costa Rica for winter 2007, this 148-passenger luxury motorsailer has many of the trappings of expedition cruising including an onboard naturalist, but Windstar also is known for offering pampering, luxurious service, and top of the line cuisine. The sports platform and onboard watersports platform, scuba program and visits to a private island primate rehabilitation facility are other pluses.

Where: The islands stretching from Martinique to Grenada.

Why: The Windwards include some of the Caribbean's least visited, most unspoiled islands, featuring rainforests, volcanoes, pristine reefs and deserted beaches.

Who: Since sailing is so much a part of the region, active travelers should consider one of the three cruise lines with sail-powered ships that regularly cruise here: Windjammer, Windstar, and Star Clippers. Of the three, we opt for Star Clippers' Royal Clipper, which shares many of the ports and active passenger amenities with Windstar (fold-down sports platform, Zodiacs for wet landings, windsurfers, banana boat rides and other water toys), but spends more time under pure sail power.

Where: The Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao.

Why: For diving and snorkeling, this is the first choice in the Caribbean for many.

Who: Of the lines calling at the ABCs, Princess' shore excursions have the most complete listing of active pursuits. Choices include scuba, snorkeling, horseback rides, mountain biking, four-wheel-drive and ATV exploration, hiking, and kayaking. Some of these Southern itineraries include Princess's "New Waves" onboard scuba instruction and certification.

Where: In the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey. The classic one-week itinerary runs one-way between Athens and Istanbul.

Why: There is no better cruising area on earth for the traveler inspired by scrambling through ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine ruins, strolling their ancient paved roads, climbing up hillsides or down the terraced marble bleachers of amphitheaters.

Who: Though a number of lines sail this itinerary, we give the nod to SeaDream Yacht Club, whose SeaDream I (not to mention easyCruise I) will sail to genuinely off-the-track islands, such as Hydra, Volos, Skiathos, Mytilene -- and a few better known isles, like Santorini and Mykonos. The ships have a fabulous watersports program, including a platform with jet skis, banana boats, sailing skiffs and kayaks.

Where: Go west to Seattle and hang a right.

Why: Alaska was once synonymous with the mature and sedentary who were content to stay toasty while sipping tea and watching the panoply of Alaska's unspoiled wilderness through the windows of observation lounges or sightseeing vehicles. No longer! This is a rugged land with options at every stop for today's more active Alaska visitor; these range from stalking salmon with a rod and reel or bear with a camera, to climbing up, rappelling down, driving a dogsled over or riding a Zodiac right up to the face of, glaciers.

Who: To get the most active Alaska experience we recommend a naturalist-led, small-ship expedition cruise, such as those offered by Cruise West. But, if you still want to enjoy the trappings of the conventional ships, we lean toward Royal Caribbean, whose younger demographic will give you more opportunities for active excursions and more kindred souls to enjoy them with.

Where: In the mid-Pacific Ocean at about the same latitude as Cabo San Lucas.

Why: Surrounded by clear seas with flourishing coral reefs and towering surf, the Hawaiian Islands brim with the rugged dynamism: volcanoes, mountains, rushing rivers, chasms and canyons. Options for the active are almost unlimited: exploration on foot, by kayak, underwater, even bicycling down a volcano.

Who: Only NCL, via its Pride of Aloha, Pride of America and Pride of Hawaii sails the Hawaiian Islands in American-flagged ships, which means they don't have to call at a foreign port mid-cruise, allowing them more time in port, including some overnight calls. A typical one-week itinerary offers more than 150 shore excursions, many keyed to the active lifestyle.

Where: Traditionally the islands of Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel, though sometimes including port calls in Honduras, Belize and the Yucatan mainland.

Why: The Cayman Islands and the Yucatan offer some of the best coral reefs and greatest underwater visibility of any major dive site on earth. The Yucatan mainland offers jungle trails, access to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, dolphin encounters and the eco-tourism theme parks at Xcaret and Xel-Ha.

Who: We pick Carnival. Not only do they offer the most extensive variety of cruise durations, but they also sail there from the largest number of departure ports -- and, with active shore excursions not offered by too many other cruise lines (see our comments on "cenotes," above), they best suit the active traveler.

Where: The islands north of Martinique. Our emphasis is on the British Virgins, St. Maarten/St. Martin, Anguilla, Antigua, and St. Barth's.

Why: In the B.V.I. you'll find a number of pristine beaches that perennially make "Best Beaches in the Caribbean" lists (check out ours). Add to that world-class diving and snorkeling, including the wreck of the RMS Rhone, one of the best such sites in the world. For those who crave the thrill of yachting, the B.V.I., Antigua and St. Maarten both offer beaucoup sailing opportunities, including St. Maarten's best-loved shore excursion, the America's Cup Regatta.

Who: We give the nod to SeaDream Yacht Club. Starting with a small size, and fold-down sports platforms with a collection of water toys, Sea Dream gets the nod for those whose fun-concept has an elevated "splash factor." They are one of the only lines that carry jet skis.

Steve Faber is a longtime contributor to Cruise Critic. Faber's work has appeared in a myriad of outlets, including "Cruise Travel," "The Miami Herald" and in "The Total Traveler Guide to Worldwide Cruising."

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