What makes a great port of call? For some cruisers, the ship is everything, for others the itinerary will take top billing. Wherever you decide to step off ship, much of your port experience will depend on the research you carry out before you even set sail. But I’ve also found some basic elements play an important part for a great port of call. So read on to find out what my criteria are for a great port destination. You may have a different set of criteria; however thought I’d share with you some of mine.
Why is it that some ports are absolute treats you just want to return to time and time again when others might leave you feeling a bit, well, ‘meh’. I’m pleased to say that most port destinations which I’ve visited have been thoroughly enjoyable with a few pleasant surprises along the way. The very best ports of call tend to have big ticks against the criteria below.
Safety when exploring your port of call
I expect this is going to be an important aspect for a lot of people, but personal safety whilst ashore tops the priority list for me.
When we’re travelling independently and not booked on a ship’s shore excursion, this can be a really important factor for us. It’s become even more important over recent years when we’ve started travelling with our kids. When you all feel safe in a port, it helps you to enjoy and relax a bit more – which is what holiday is all about.
Here are a few things to consider when planning your day ashore.
- Is the port safe enough to walk around without feeling that you need to keep a constant eye on your valuables?
- Are there likely to be cultural or language barriers which you will need assistance from a local tour guide to help you stay safe?
- It is more advisable to travel on a shore excursion organised by the ship to maintain safety in numbers or satisfy visa requirements?
- Is it straightforward to get off the ship to the main port attractions without the need to walk across busy roads or have to travel through industrialised areas either on foot or by shuttle bus?
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Ease of access at your port destination
Accessibility is important for many passengers, especially those with mobility restrictions or parents travelling with pushchairs. But for all passengers, port destinations which are highly accessible allow you to explore ashore without the need to book onto expensive, guided excursions or tours.
When travelling with kids quick and easy access to the ship at any time can also be an important factor in a slightly different way. It allows you to return to the safety of the ship (and the kids clubs) without much trouble or delay – especially if the mini cruisers you’re travelling with start to get overtired.
This ability to return to the ship without much effort or delay can also be important if the port you are visiting is quite expensive and you’re on a tight budget. Ease of access to the ship allows you to return to the ship for a spot of lunch before returning ashore to explore even more. Accessibility can also be helpful if you’ve forgotten the something important like pre-booked tickets for an attraction ashore or you need to pop back and collect that extra camera battery or phone charger.
Some things to consider when planning your day ashore in terms of ease of access are:
- Can you get to main attractions or the centre of the port without needing to wait for a tender, or shuttle bus?
- Can you just wander off the ship or is there going to be some amount of queuing to get off and back on the ship (either for the shuttle bus or the tender)?
- Can you get back to the ship quickly if you need to without much hassle or delay?
Variety of things to do in your port of call
Variety is the spice of life. So, is there plenty to do at port?
This is not so much about the volume of activities on offer, but more about a good range of different activities for all ages to get involved in. This might be quiet places to just sit and people watch with a nice glass of something.Or perhaps more adventurous activities such as kayaking or snorkelling. Or just something in-between such as a good selection interesting places to wander around and shop for souvenirs.
A port which has a wide appeal in terms of a range of activities is likely to suit cruise passengers of all ages and this can be particularly important if you are travelling with multiple generations, tastes and preferences.
Here are a few things to consider.
- Does the port include a range of activities which will be appealing for everyone in your group?
- Is it possible to split up into smaller groups and do your own thing and then perhaps meet together somewhere central for lunch or dinner?
- Is there plenty to do for both early risers and those who prefer to explore after lunch or perhaps in the evening if the ship is in port overnight?
- Do you have enough time in port to do a range of activities to suite everyone one in your party? Or are you quite restricted in terms of the time your have in port. When visiting the port of Bergen in Norway, ships sometimes have an early sail away time of 2 pm. So keep an eye on when you have to be back on board when planning your day ashore.
Value for money when in port
If you’re anything like me, you always want to ensure your budget stretches as far as possible without cutting back on the enjoyment factor. So a port of call which offers value for money activities (or even better, free activities) is a bonus.
A few things to consider when planing your time ashore when thinking about value for money include:
- Are there plenty of free or low-cost things to do whilst in port – for example, scenic walks, free to visit museums, clean and safe beaches, children’s parks?
- Are there free toilets or will you need to take some small change?
- Are there plenty of good value bars and restaurants available? (see point above with accessibility if you want to return to the ship to save money)
- Do you feel that you have to pay to enjoy anything whilst ashore? or when you do have to pay something such as a meal or an activity, does it present good value for money or do you feel that you are paying the ‘tourist premium’?
Wow appeal of your port destination
I’ll get straight to the point – is the port picturesque? Some ports give you the wow factor before you step off ship (from my experience Norwegian cruise ports excel in this area).
However you might find that some ports of call are more industrial affairs and primarily used for cargo. These ports usually offer access to the main attraction which might be a longer bus journey away rather than being a destination port in their own right. Ports which fall into this category include Piraeus for Athens, Civitavecchia for Rome and Livorno for Pisa and Florence to name a few. A few things to consider when planning your day ashore in terms of getting ‘the money shot’.
- It is a destination port in its own right or more functional industrial port?
- Will you have to travel a bit further afield for a great photo opportunity?
- Does the port offer easy access ‘wow factor’ photo opportunities?
- Are some photo opportunities likely to get busy or overcrowded?
- Are there plenty of photo opportunities which are less crowded but still picturesque?
- Can you venture safely a bit further to get a different perspective of an iconic shot?
- Can you use the ship to frame a shot in the scenery as backdrop? (don’t forget to include yourself)
- Can you get an awesome shots of the whole ship from the shore? (a particular favourite of mine)
- And this is the REAL test of whether it’s a good port of call: Would you return and visit for longer on a land-based holiday (gasp!)?
So those are my main criteria when judging how good a port of call is. Having some criteria can be useful especially if you plan to do a lot of cruising or keep a travel journal as it can be a good way of deciding which itineraries will suit you best when deciding on your next cruise.
THANKS FOR READING
Hi, I’m Steph I’ve travelled around the world, backpacked across Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii and spent over 100 nights at sea. Having grown up by the coast, the sea is my passion and now I enjoy exploring the world on cruise ships with my family. Subscribe to my YouTube Channel to keep up to date with my ever expanding set of port guides to inspire you on your travels plus money-saving cruise tips, ship tours and cabin reviews.