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Quick and easy cruise trips are within reach

When it comes to cruises, the catch for many of us is finding the time to make our dreams of deck-time a reality. Happily, the ship’s come in, thanks to these short cruise vacations.
Image: Disney cruise ships
Want to go on a cruise but can’t get enough vacation time? Try one of the top 10 short cruises, including a three- or four-night trip to the Bahamas on Disney Cruise Lines.Disney / AP file
/ Source: Sherman's Travel

There’s little doubt that a cruise craze has swept the nation — some of us were just born with seafaring souls, some love cruising for the popular (or yet-to-be-discovered) ports of call, while still others are simply in it for the hassle-free vacation that a cruise vacation can provide. The catch, for many of us, however, is finding the time to make our dreams of deck-time a reality.

Well, happily your ship’s come in, thanks to these short cruise vacations that will get you just about anywhere from popular islands with turquoise shores to south-of-the border hotspots, or from the banks of the Mississippi to the historic harbors of New England. From mega cruise ships to houseboats and steamboats to windjammers, we’ve got you covered. Best of all, each of these short sailings — ranging from one to five nights in duration — depart from ports within the continental U.S., making these quick cruise escapes within easy reach.

Although most adults would jump at the chance to lie out on exotic island shores for a week or two, long-haul Caribbean cruises don’t always appeal to the entire family. That’s why a three- or four-night Disney Cruise Lines sailing to the Bahamas is just the ticket for the whole gang to enjoy.

Cruises set sail year-round from Port Canaveral, Fla., just 60 miles from Walt Disney World Resort, and head towards the Bahamian capital of Nassau, plus Castaway Cay — Disney’s own private island. The 875-cabin ship, Disney Wonder, offers character encounters and kids-only Oceaneer Clubs, as well as game rooms, a sports deck, fully loaded spa, Broadway-style shows and a trio of family-friendly pools.

Baja and Southern California
From laid-back, beachfront San Diego, to the exotic desert and ocean landscapes of the Baja peninsula, a five-night Royal Caribbean cruise (the longest itinerary among our picks) is a great way to sample the bounties of Southern California and Baja California, Mexico.

The Radiance of the Seas will depart from San Diego as of September 2009, calling upon Ensenada, Mexico, on the Baja coast; even though it’s just 80 miles from San Diego, Ensenada comprises a world all its own, thanks to its rich history as a fishing town. Passengers can stretch their sea legs at numerous restaurants dotting the coast, or shop for goods handcrafted by locals.

The next port is upscale Cabo San Lucas — the perfect spot to lounge on sexy beaches. Two days at sea are mixed into this trip, to boot, but don’t fret — it’ll be nearly impossible to get cabin fever on this ship, as it has the most outside cabins in the Royal Caribbean fleet, a 10-story glass enclosed central lobby and glass elevators that face the ocean.

California wine country

You may not associate fine wines with cruising, nor cruising with portside vineyard tours and tastings, but that’s exactly what you’ll get on a three-night “Culture of the Vine” cruise to California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys each harvest season.

Cruise West’s intimate ships sail round-trip from San Francisco Bay, through San Pablo Bay and up the Napa River — delighting up to 138 passengers with vintage-focused soirées en-route. On-land highlights abound as well, including tastings at local vineyards and even a tractor-pulled tram ride through Sonoma’s Benziger Family Winery. Note that wine country cruises are only offered in October, during the prime harvest season.

Cruise to nowhere from NYC
Winter in New York may be brisk, but it's one of the most affordable times to visit the Big Apple. Plus, you can expand your horizons with a one-night “Dinner & Dance Cruise” offered by Norwegian Cruise Line.

Embarking on select Saturday afternoons in January 2009 from Manhattan’s West Side, the new Norwegian Gem glides down the Hudson River, past New York’s classic “canyons of steel” cityscape and into New York Harbor under the gaze of Lady Liberty. As the mega-ship continues to drift towards the horizon, cruisers can kick off their evenings gambling at the onboard casino, dining at one of the 12 restaurants, or dancing under the stars. Ships dock back in the city early Sunday morning, leaving a full day to cap off a perfect Gotham visit.

Houseboating in Lake Powell
Visualize the red-rock-gilded Grand Canyon filled with 8.5-trillion gallons of turquoise-blue water and you’ll have a spot-on mental image of Lake Powell, the second largest man-made reservoir in the United States. Now imagine spending three days exploring this watery wonderland’s hidden coves, sandy beaches and otherworldly sandstone formations on a luxe houseboat with 11 of your closest friends. You can rent your own floating party barge for three days — complete with waterslide, TV, outdoor gas grill and enough beds for six to 12 people — from Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas for as little as $1,315.

Illinois River Valley steamboat sailing
While sailing might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you picture Illinois and Missouri, USA River Cruises’ Peoria to St. Louis itinerary has redefined the landscape of this slice of Middle America.

In the three days it takes to sail from Peoria (which National Geographic Adventure recently named as one of the “50 next great American adventure towns in which to live and relax”) to storied St. Louis — and back again — you’ll take in sights like the convergence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, Illinois’ largest state park, and Saint Louis’ iconic Gateway Arch. Sail onboard the Spirit of Peoria, a 19th century riverboat replica, and look out for wildlife as you relax on the deck, dig in on the prime rib dinner buffet, or enjoy live ragtime piano music. Note overnight accommodations are provided by hotels in area ports of call.

Maine Windjammer sailing
There’s no better way to sail the historic open waters of New England than on Maine Windjammer Cruises’ flagship 19th-century, 29-passenger schooner, the Grace Bailey. This National Landmark boasts hand-carved wood paneling and a piano in the lovingly restored main cabin (dating back to 1882) that make passengers feel like they’ve set out on a voyage back in time through uncharted waters.

Set off on weekend sailings between June and October from Camden, Maine, and, depending on the winds and weather, your captain will charter a tailored route through Penobscot Bay, passing by atolls and quaint harbors. Surely those days at sea will make you hungry — not to fret, passengers can expect a traditional onboard feast of succulent Maine lobsters.

Pacific Northwest

Surrounded by water and mountains, Seattle’s a trend-setting, high tech, artsy city that glows year-round.

Celebrity Cruises’ recently refurbished Mercury proves that life can be fine indeed in "outer space." See for yourself on a three-or four-night cruise to Canada from Seattle each fall that takes in ports like charming Victoria and the historic logging community of Nanaimo — all areas blessed by lovely foliage and fresh, mild temperatures this time of year.

Between ports, sip cocktails at any of the ship’s numerous onboard bars, enjoy signature spa treatments and gamble and dance the night away. With more than 900 crew members, topnotch dining options, a fitness center, jogging track, movie theater and golf simulator, you’ll surely feel you’ve been whisked away to another planet — even if only for a few days.

Prince William Sound sailing
Experience Alaska's glacial wonders on a quick 3- or 4-night sailing aboard Cruise West's Spirit of Columbia. Get up close and personal to the breathtakingly beautiful landscapes that define Alaska — glide past fjords and the snowcapped Chugach Mountains, and take in the majesty of colossal tidewater glaciers in Prince William Sound — all from the comfort of your cozy cabin or prime-viewing deck. The ship's captain will even make announcements to call out wildlife spotting from humpback whales to otters, and brown bears to bald eagles. This ships sets sail from Whittier (just a short motorcoach ride from Anchorage) on select dates from mid-May through August.

For quick cruise flings to Mexico, most cruisers set their sights on Florida departure ports. We propose spicing things up a bit with a little Tex/Mex flavor, by setting sail from Galveston, Texas, instead. Galveston’s port, which is again operational following a rough brush with Hurricane Ike in 2008, is the disembarkation point for four-night year-round sailings aboard one of Carnival’s “Fun Ships.”

Sail through the Gulf of Mexico to Cozumel, where shore excursions to Mayan ruins and jungle adventures await. Onboard Ecstasy, guests can expect diversions like water slides, mini-golf, first-class bars and lounges, and a full sports deck to keep the excitement going 24-7.

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