Thursday, June 26, 2008

Cruise Day #14, Reflections on Europe by Sea

I expect this will be one of my last posts from aboard the Norwegian Jade. Given that, I thought it appropriate to put down some of my thoughts on the experience of seeing Europe by sea. As experienced European travelers, I think we’re pretty well positioned to offer something of an insightful opinion. Of course, it is just that: opinion, not fact. As such, this is bound to be an idiosyncratic view.

Whether for good or bad, cruising is a very different way to experience Europe when compared to either land-based organized tours or independent travel. Overall, a cruise of Europe cruises provides a pretty cost-effective, time-efficient, and low-stress way to see a lot of coastal (or quasi-coastal) Europe. Here are a few key differences:

First, cruising isolates you (to varying degrees) from the “real” Europe you might have come to see (an argument I also make against many of the large, organized tours). If you’re mostly in it for a sort of sightseeing safari, that’s not a problem. However, if you want to be immersed in the culture and atmosphere of a place, I don’t think cruising won’t do it for you.

Second, with a floating hotel and the ship’s shore excursions, we’re able to basically shut your brain off and not have to worry at all about logistics. The downside is that you’re led around seeing what other people think important on the time schedule they’ve set. Want to spend an extra day in Nice? Sorry, not possible. Don’t want the tour’s included lunch? We’re stopping anyway. For independent travelers, that could be frustrating… but it certainly is worry free.

Third, you must accept that in most ports you really don’t have enough time to see “everything” that is on offer. A cruise provides more of a taste or impression of a place, much like eating tapas. A given port usually isn’t a full meal: don’t try to make it so. Instead, focus and enjoy.

Would we travel around Europe on a cruise again? Absolutely! It’s been a wonderful, different, and relaxing experience. We’ve seen both new and old places, including our first visit to the Iberian peninsula. Our discoveries have left us wanting to come back for more, which is always a good feeling.

Would we only (or mostly) want to travel around Europe by cruise ship now? Absolutely not! Obviously, we’d not be able to get everywhere by ship. However, even for those locations that would be cruise accessible, we’d still wish to continue traveling to via our usual methods. Fully independent travel is the ultimate in “freestyle,” allowing us to deeply explore and embrace the places we visit. I believe it’s that kind of close contact that engenders a fuller understanding and deeper passion for a place.

What about for others – is cruising best for first time visitors? This is a tough one for Libby and me to answer. We’ve actually talked about it a lot. I think it depends on the person and what you’re after. In the end, if you’re a “cruiser” looking for a new destination, I think it’s a fine introduction to Europe. If your primary concern is experiencing Europe, I think you should go land-based either independently or on an organized tour. And, for the majority of folks, I’d opt for the organized tour simply for reasons of economics and logistics (after all, my goal is not to turn your vacation into work). Indeed, a good two-week land-based tour that covers the highlights of Western Europe is probably the single best introduction. From that, you can identify the places you’d like to explore further…

Whatever the case, I’d go into it with an adventurous spirit and open mind. Travel is wonderful and enlightening… embrace it and enjoy!

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