4 unforgettable shore excursions (and two duds)

What kind of shore excursions float your boat?  LGBTQ cruise travelers tend to have discerning tastes, most of us learn to sort out the good and bad and the ugly in shore excursion options. We’re sharing four of our very favorite (and in some cases life-changing) experiences.

First, the duds

Mercifully, we won’t discuss “Island Tour,” a pitiful visit to the remote, ugly side of an island that will remain nameless. The most interesting stop was a tacky souvenir shop owned by the driver’s wife’s brother’s cousin by marriage.

Nor will we go into detail about an otherwise excellent excursion in St Petersburg, Russia. We stood in front of a kiosk bearing scores of vodka bottles. Every bottle looked identical. Clear liquid with black-lettered indecipherable labels in an alphabet we couldn’t read. Let’s just say we found it difficult to make an informed choice and declined to make a purchase while enduring threatening looks and what sounded remarkably like curses.

But here are the ones that made the cut:

Cooking and lunch with a Turkish family

I love historical sites, the older the better. In fact, Mark maintains I’ve never seen a pile of stones I didn’t think was fabulous. We were in Kusadasi, Turkey, the port for the historical ruins of Ephesus. So, I was a bit skeptical (more like annoyed big time) that I’d agreed to skip Ephesus to have lunch at the home of some locals!

It turns out that this excursion from Azamara Journey was representative of their Destination Immersion® concept. It was a highlight during what was one of our favorite cruises. The group was small, giving us plenty of contact with the host along with her mother and father. They were kind, friendly, and happy to share their food and culture. After sharing Turkish tea, coffee and flatbread, they helped us learn to cook some local specialties. We enjoyed delicious dolmas — lemony grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat, not mushy but firm with a nice al dente bite. Not many of us actually got the knack of rolling the grape leaves!

We also helped put together a beautiful salad with eggplant, tomatoes cucumbers and yoghurt. Of course, there were the ever-present high-quality olives with their soft texture and slight hint of bitterness.

The hosts explained that the headscarves worn by many Turkish women are an indication of the ethnic or regional group to which they belong. I was only mildly peeved that I wasn’t fitted with a scarf myself.

Now that my memories have been rekindled,I need to go back and use some of these Turkish cooking techniques to recall through taste some of this wonderful shore excursion.

2. Scuba diving off Grand Cayman

Both of us grew up far from the sea; Lake Michigan isn’t exactly a scuba or snorkel destination. This was our first cruise, aboard Holland America Niew Amsterdam way back never mind when.

We decided to take the plunge and go scuba diving for the first time. When we got to the dive shop and saw the red Speedo worn very splendidly by the instructor, we knew we’d made the right decision.

We took a very shallow dive just off shore to learn the basics and to address safety issues. We managed to take our eyes off the instructor long enough to learn something and quickly found ourselves speeding toward the reef.

What an adventure! There were only four of us on the trip, the other two being a father and son who had an underwater video camera worthy of Jacque Cousteau and about the size of a suitcase. Remember, this was in the year….oh, never mind.

Our instructor carried a laminated sheet with pictures of the coral and fish which he identified as they appeared. Believe me, we had no time to assimilate that knowledge with all the vibrant colors of the fish and the fantastic science-fiction-like coral.

The fish coming right up to us were a revelation, and we loved finding an enormous lobster hiding in his cave. We’ll never forget looking up 50 feet or more to see the boat bobbing in the water and the impossibly blue Caribbean sky.

I cut my foot on some coral which eventually became a bit infected, but healed in a short time. I still have a little scar as a souvenir and a reminder not to step on coral!

3. Giving back in the Dominican Republic

We were excited to be aboard Adonia with Fathom Cruises to the Dominican Republic. The voyage centered on opportunities to serve the community we visited in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. (We wrote about our trip shortly after that cruise.)

One favorite excursion was to an elementary school in the highlands where we taught a session of English to small groups of elementary school children. We were told that English skills are crucial for finding a job in tourism, virtually the only employment opportunity for many. The students were bright, eager and endearing.

This excursion was both fun and rewarding. We felt we connected with the locals in ways that were not possible otherwise.

Fathom is no longer operating as a stand-alone cruise Line. Luckily, cruisers still have opportunities to more meaningfully engage with people in port through a Fathom experience. You can now book Fathom shore excursions on Princess Cruises. https://www.fathom.org/

4. Mark, a glacier, and Bentley the pilot

We were on an Alaska cruise in port at Skagway and Mark decided to get more adventurous. A glacier flyover in a small plane caught his fancy, even though Mark isn’t a fan of small planes. So he grabbed our friend Jim and away he went. Dale wisely stayed on dry land to see if Jack Daniels tastes different when mixed with glacial run-off water.

The pilot was named Bentley, a Brit right out of central casting. The leather jacket, the aviator sunglasses, the full head of blond hair all conspired to make him every gay guy’s fantasy of a handsome pilot. Could Bentley’s looks have played a factor in Mark’s sudden interest in a small aircraft?

After getting a cursory emergency procedure demo, (and without paying much attention) Mark buckled up and got his camera ready. Finally, airborne and near a mountainside, Mark exclaimed “Gee, are those mountain goats or something?”

With no warning, Bentley took a deep left bank dive, cheerily saying “Well, let’s take a closer look.”  Mark swears he was close enough to see the whites of the sheep (goat?) eyes. In fact, I’m pretty certain his eyes were tightly squeezed shut.

As they leveled out far above the mountains and got a great view of Davidson Glacier, the engine began to sputter and then died.

I’m sure that portions of Mark’s rejected Calvinist theology came back to him at this point, but he denies it. After seconds that felt like hours as Bentley fiddled with something or other, the engine came back to life, and Mark’s heartbeat returned to near normal levels.

Unsurprisingly, Dale enjoyed the Jack Daniels with glacial water. Mark hasn’t been on a small plane since.