The World's Best Cruise Ship Cities, According to the Captain

If you work on a cruise ship, you quickly become a cruise port connoisseur. You know the good, the bad and the awful places where your ship disgorges tourists for the day. Even if most ports look the same straight off the boat, you know where to push past the tourist bric-a-brack and discover the fantastic local offerings. For those of us who want to be tourists in the world’s best cruise ports, here’s where to make sure to disembark:  

Royal Caribbean

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Cozumel, Mexico | You’d be a fool not to want to drop anchor at Cozumel. This sultry island has the white sands and the clear blue water that just makes you want sink down into the shallows and let the sun, wind and water caress your skin. Tropical paradise aside, Cozumel has some really, really good diving opportunities. 

If you are already scuba certified, you’ll be dropped off and allowed to drift down the colorful reef until you begin to run out of air. If you haven’t learned yet, you can take lessons, or simply explore the coral by snorkel. The rockier the shoreline, the more attractive it is to coral, starfish and stingrays. 

Roatan, Honduras | This long thin string bean of an island was once a nest for pirates, but even your law-abiding cruise crew can’t resist the siren song of its white sand beaches and mountainous and mysteries east end. Once again, you’ll want to put on your diving mask, or hook up your snorkel – Roatan’s beautiful Marine Park is a world class destination to see coral and huge swarms of tropical fish. 

If you can’t bear the idea of getting wet, you can traipse through the paths at the Carambola Botanical Gardens where native plants are carefully grown and labeled. Key your eyes out for the parrots and iguanas which frequent Iguana Wall.  

Downtown Montreal [Montreal, Quebec]

Montreal, Quebec | Yes, cruise ships go to Montreal. They are traveling along the St. Lawrence River past Quebec City and on to the Atlantic seaboard. Montreal is a wonderful stop on this itinerary because of its authenticity. As you wander its streets you’ll find world class shopping, fantastic French cuisine, comedy clubs, new bands and pubs to hide away in. 

For the tourist experience, visit Old Montreal, where the cobblestones, stone buildings and actors in period costume will transport you to 18th century Quebec. A brisk walk up to the top of Mont Royal, and you’ll be ready to head back to your berth for a nap. 

Philipsburg, St. Maarten/St. Martin | While you are trawling Philisburg’s endless tourists markets, the lucky cruise ship employees who have some free time will be hustling over to the French side of the island in search of the good life. After an afternoon spent lounging on Orient Beach, and maybe snorkeling through the shallow reefs, these in-the-know travelers will take a mini-vacation straight to France as they stroll the beachfront of Grand Case. Each evening, local restaurants put out their chalk boards and you can walk through this gourmet hot-zone in search of the perfect meal.

Mount Roberts Tramway [Juneau, Alaska]

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Juneau, Alaska | Alaska’s capital is only accessible by air or by boat, but luckily the harbor never freezes. Unlike warmer weather ports, it pays to dress in layers and bring raingear when you visit Juneau, but don’t let the weather dampen your spirts. When you get into town, take the Mount Roberts Tramway up 1800 feet for gorgeous views and immediate access to hiking trails that will let you explore the wilderness more thoroughly. You’ll also want to follow the area’s only road to Mendenhall Glacier where you can hike in to see the vast wall of white, or opt for a fly-over. 

San Juan, Puerto Rico | San Juan has been there longer than any other European settlement in U.S. jurisdiction. No one on the iconic Mayflower voyage had even been born in 1521 when the Spanish founded San Juan. The huge ramparts, with 15-foot-thick walls, were to guard against marauding pirates and you can make a fun morning walk along the walls. 

Colonial history aside, San Juan is also a vibrant collection of neighborhoods home to bars, restaurants, art galleries and shops that locals frequent. Step out of the tourist zone a few times and strike out on your own to get the city’s real character.

Bergen [Norway]

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Bergen, Norway | Nestled in scenic green hills and blessed by multicolored timber frame houses, Bergen is a head turner and a reason to bring an extra memory card for your camera.  Start your tour down by the historic wharf. Here, the colorful buildings perch crookedly on their original wooden and stone foundations. 

Far from being the rough dock area it once was, Bryggen is now a haven for tourist shops, jewelers and artisans. It’s wonderful if you catch it at an uncrowded moment. If you crave some height to catch a birds-eye view of the city and the fjords, take the Floibanen funicular to the top of Mount Floyen. At the top you can relax and take in the view, or set out on a hiking trail. 

Marseille, France | Mediterranean cruise port and vibrant modern city, most people find Marseilles to be one of France’s most captivating cities – that is if you can leave Paris behind. You better hope you are staying for dinner in Marseille and be warned, the French dine late. Fish arrive in the city daily and are scooped up by restaurants at the Old Port. In a few hours’ time, you could be dining on squid ink spaghetti, grilled scallops or fresh olives while soaking up the Mediterranean sun on the patio. 

If you need a place to walk off your enormous lunch or dinner, just visit the neighborhood called Le Panier. This pastel-colored quarter is filled with wandering lanes, hidden shops and charming lines of wash hanging out to dry.

View of skyline along River Neva [St. Petersburg, Russia]

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Saint Petersburg, Russia | Once a vast swamp, this imperial city is now a glittering jewel on the Baltic cruise circuit. As you explore the city, you’ll be stepping over a canal, or a footbridge at almost every turn. If Italianate villas, baroque architecture and grand churches enchant you, Saint Petersburg will captivate your interest. 

Even if you aren’t an architecture buff, there’s nothing like being surrounded by beauty to put you in a good mood. Arrive in summer for a sun that never sets and to enjoy the city’s artistic, theatrical and musical pleasures which last long into the night.  

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Carmen Fifield

The delight of finding an unknown park, a captivating history museum or a fantastic desert means exploration is never far from Carmen Fifield’s mind. Carmen’s favorite travel memories include biking to historic sites on the island of Guernsey, huffing and puffing up the stairs to the Great Wall of China and eating the most delicious crab cake ever in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Carmen’s Favorite Travel Tip: Say goodbye to airplane food and tuck some fruit and your favorite sandwich into your carry-on.