Cruise ships offer many luxuries — expertly prepared gourmet food, superb cocktails, and comfortable, well-appointed accommodations. But our passion is the travel portion of cruise travel. We select our voyages not only by the cruise line (favoring those that reach out to LGBTQ travelers through welcoming happy hour events) but by the chance to experience the culture, cuisine, and history of lands far from our home.
Here are five of our favorite cruise travel experiences — all but one of them ashore. These kinds of experiences fuel our love of travel. Vividly beautiful memories of experiences like these make us avid travelers — the kind of people more likely in lean years to forgo new luxuries at home rather than skip next year’s adventures aboard and abroad.
What are some of your best travel memories? Share your thoughts either below or on our Facebook group.
A post-cruise visit to Paris gave us ample opportunity to sample fine French cuisine, visit famous museums, and discreetly ogle debonair Frenchmen while sipping aperitifs in sidewalk cafes. However, the highlight of our Paris sojourn was a day trip to Chartres from Paris. It was enchanting. The train journey took less than 2 hours, giving us a feeling for the French countryside. Upon our arrival, we immediately fell in love with the hospitable small town that has played host to pilgrims and travelers for a thousand years.
The 11th Century cathedral built on a hill dominates the city of Chartres, which feels more like a village. We budgeted a couple of hours in the cathedral. Mark had studied the structure in art school and Dale loves historical architecture, so we knew we would enjoy the outing.
To our surprise, we ended up staying all day in and around the Cathedral. We climbed the tower, affording us endless photo ops. Dale’s interest in gargoyles began when he saw a carving high up on the tower, which would never have been visible from the street. Nonetheless, a nameless artist spent untold hours perfecting this gem.
The cathedral is unusual because it was built over a short period of time, only about 30 years. The relatively short time span (for that era) of its construction gives it a united style. Most of the original stained glass still remains, including a vibrant hue of dark blue, the beauty of which comes from imperfections that contemporary artists have failed to duplicate.
We enjoyed the best eggs we’d ever tasted, an omelette aux fines herbes for lunch across the street from one of the facades. Both the food and the view were experiences we’ll always remember.
Sailing into New York Harbor
The final portion of our first cruise in and out of New York City was unexpectedly moving. We thought the best part of our trip was behind us, but the gods of travel (eventually) had a pleasant surprise in store for us.
We were returning from Bermuda on NCL as the last leg of a wonderful 14-day cruise. This island nation’s combination of British decorum and relaxed Caribbean attitude enchanted us. Even Mark’s near-death experience driving on the “wrong” side of the street in a traffic circle on a rented moped didn’t dim our enjoyment.
The last night of the homeward voyage, however, temporarily doused our spirits. We encountered 30-foot waves and terrible winds, with passengers and staff barely able to stand. The Captain had no choice but to slow down, with our arrival in NYC delayed by 12 hours.
The reward for enduring the storm was a morning arrival in New York Harbor on a perfect, sunny spring day. Sailing past the Statue of Liberty, we both felt deeply moved. Dale thought about his grandparents sailing several days from Germany for a better life on the northern plains of the Dakotas. Mark recalled his Grandmother’s stories of a storm-plagued journey from the Netherlands aboard the original Holland America SS Rotterdam. Unfamiliar with bananas, a recommended remedy for seasickness, they discarded the inner “seed” portion, but ate the peel!
Sailing past Lady Liberty, we felt as if we gained at least a partial understanding of how our ancestors felt as they arrived in the US to make a fresh start.
This tiny Greek Island was an unexpectedly compelling stop for us on our first voyage with Azamara. From the port in the town of Chora, you can see the Monastery of St. John, high on a hill just outside the village. We chose to forego the on-foot pilgrimage and instead shared a cab to the top of the hill. Halfway up, the first stop was a grotto said to be where St John the Divine received the book of revelations.
Although Dale has worked as a church choir director and feels a strong connection to a liberal, socially conscious version of Christianity, we both generally steer clear of items billed as “holy relics.” After all, if every piece of wood billed as a portion of “the true cross of Jesus” was real, then the cross would have been several stories tall. However, in this location, the mysticism felt palpable.
As we entered the Monastery, an Orthodox priest was conducting the infant baptism for a young Greek couple. Tourists walking through the tiny, cramped rooms were quiet in the presence of the ceremony as the proud couple beamed.
Further up the hill, we found the medieval Monastery. Bells rang the call to services and cats snoozed anyplace they could find a sliver of sunshine. A huge bearded monk, well over 6 feet tall, swept by in his black robes only to squeeze through a small ancient doorway.
The harbor view from the monastery offered an amazing vista of seemingly endless and calm Aegean Sea with its incomparable shade of blue. We couldn’t help but think of the thousands of people who had admired the same view over the centuries.
Mark’s Dutch heritage had us especially looking forward to Amsterdam. Thanks to writing by travel guru Rick Steves, we made plans to see the Begjinhof. This out-of-the-way and quite difficult-to-find hidden gem in the heart of the city was a highlight of our visit.
This tiny neighborhood of row houses, originally constructed during the middle ages, is one of the oldest areas within the Singel, or old city canal system. These homes were intended for members of an order of religious women, who had a bit more freedom than nuns.
Entering through a nondescript arch, we descended to the old, lower level of the city. Suddenly we were in a quiet and meandering park-like area surrounded by homes and a couple of small churches. Sitting in the courtyard, we heard songbirds and admired the handmade lace curtains so prevalent in Holland. Our visit to this hidden Amsterdam gem provided a welcome respite from the bustle of the city’s modern center.
Dusk fell as we stood sipping wine near the entrance to the Odeon theater in ancient Ephesus, Turkey, waiting for the AzAmazing Evening to begin. We marveled at the ruins of what had been one of the Roman world’s most important cities.
Our guide explained that the theater was located on the street where Mark Antony and Cleopatra entered the city in about 40 AD. Long lines of slaves were said to have emptied jugs of wine into the river in honor of the couple as they walked by.
The ruins were closed to the public, so the Azamara group had the location to ourselves. As the orchestra began to play a program of Bach and Mozart, we looked across the valley and saw sheep slowly descending the hill with their bells softly clinking, just as they surely had done two thousand years ago.
The beautiful statues and columns of the ruins seemed to change shape and color as darkness approached. What a privilege to see a part of the world that figures in world history, getting a glimpse both of its previous splendor, and of the continuing rhythms of everyday life in this area.