Baltimore Sun, January 2004
Cruises have something for everyone. On board they have Las Vegas-style shows, countless restaurants and bars, dance and exercise classes, gambling and fun for the kids, while onshore excursions allow you to visit exciting ports. However, some cruise travelers are looking to discover things a little more exotic in their travels, most of which have four legs or wings.
A growing number of cruise travelers are focussing their interests in ecologically-based tours where ships take you up close and personal with lions, tigers and bears (oh my). Additionally, on-shore excursions allow you to get your “land legs” back and see animals and plant life not found in your own backyard.
So, the question beckons … where do you start to plan a nature cruise? Well, a good place to start is the Web site of the Cruise Lines International Association (www.cruising.org), a nonprofit association that represents 21 cruise lines in the North American market. In addition to general information on cruising, the Web site allows you to search by destination, cruise line or length of vacation. If you choose a destination, you can then see which cruise lines go to what destinations with direct links to each cruise line. Additionally, the Web site will hook you up with the right travel agent to help you plan your cruise.
“I have a lot of clients ask me to help them plan a cruise because there are so many options out there; it can be confusing and overwhelming,” says Molly Hurwitz of Burton Travel in Owings Mills. Hurwitz says you can go almost anywhere to see wildlife via a cruise — from Nova Scotia to South America — however, the most popular destinations are Alaska, Costa Rica and Panama. “The Panama Canal cruises have been popular for a long time, and everyone wants to go to Alaska.”
Our 49th state holds a mysterious quality to most of us with its abundant wildlife, extreme temperatures, natural beauty and diverse ethnicity. If you’re looking to visit Alaska, cruising is a great way to go. Most major cruise lines offer 7-day cruises during the summer months through the Inside Passage, and some offer extended land packages.
According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), many cruise lines go to Alaska, including Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, Radisson Seven Seas and Royal Caribbean. Additionally, some lines have excursions for those who want to get an up-close look at wildlife.
For example, Norwegian offers humpback whale watching aboard a “mammal-friendly” boat that allows you to see whales, porpoise, sea lions and seals without disturbing the animals. Norwegian also offers an eagle preserve wildlife float to see the world’s largest gatherings of bald eagles and also see moose, bears and wolves. Speaking of bears, by way of a seaplane you can watch bears hunt for salmon along the Tongass National Forest and have a naturalist describe the history and wildlife.
Scagway is a popular port for most cruise lines due to the abundant wildlife, and most lines, including Radisson Seven Seas, offer an array of shore excursions. For example, Radisson Seven Seasons offers 17 excursions in Scagway, many of which are geared toward nature, including the Eagle Preserve Float Adventure & Cruise.
If you’re looking to spend more than a day on land, check out some of the “cruisetours” offered by some the lines, including Holland America and Royal Caribbean. Holland American has 25 different 11- to 19-day cruisetours, while Royal Caribbean has 19 packages, ranging from nine to 13 nights that include a 7-night cruise that can be taken at the beginning or end of your vacation. On shore, aboard luxurious, glass-domed “traincars,” you can see moose, caribou, grizzlies and eagles.
An alternative to the large cruise lines is the family-owned Cruise West company (www.cruisewest.com) based in Seattle. Cruise West’s boats are smaller — the largest one hold 114 guests — and more casual in nature. On-board lectures, narratives and libraries allow for an educational experience, and the small boats are geared more for intimate exploration. “Our philosophy is to focus on the destination, not the ship,” says Elliot Gillies, a spokesperson for Cruise West. “Because of our small ships, we can go places that no other cruise ships can go and get you up close to wildlife that you can see with the naked eye. Also, our on-board naturalists and botanists are experts in their fields to help deliver these incredible experiences.”
Cruise West offers seven Alaskan routes, including the “Castal Odyssey” where a Natural Park Service Ranger will help locate puffins, seals, sea otters and bears, as well as whales in the Frederick Sound. On the “Alaska’s Inside Passage” route, you’ll see sea otters dining on Dungeness crab and lots of seabirds. For a longer cruise, check out the 18-day “Voyage to the Bering Sea,” which takes you from Anchorage to Fairbanks (reverse route also is available) with exploration leaders onboard and on land to help you see whales, sea lions and fur seals and guide you through a two-night trip to the Denali Park.
For a shorter trip or possible an extension to an existing vacation, the “Glacier Wonderland” trip allows you to explore the quiet Prince William Sound, which is rarely cruised by the larger boats. Here, orcas and other whales, as well as bald eagles, seals and otters are visible due to the undisturbed nature of the area.
Another alternative to the larger ships is cruising Alaska via a sternwheeler boat through the American West Steamboat Co. (www.columbiarivercruise.com), which offers either an 8- or 11-night package. “The riverboat style cruises are becoming very popular,” says Hurwitz, who last year booked a client on one, and she loved it.
According to CLIA, most cruise lines operate Costa Rica/Panama Canal cruises from September to April, including Crystal, Cunard, Fred Olsen, Holland America, MSC Italian, Norwegian, Orient, Princess, Radisson Seven Seas, Seabourn and Windstar.
A popular port for wildlife watching in Costa Rica is Puntarenas, and many cruise lines offer shore excursions in Puntarenas, including Radisson Seven Seas, who has nine different excursion options. “The Tropical Forest Sky Walk” is a series of suspended bridges that allow you to actually walk along the treetops. A naturalist will help identify amazing fauna and look for various exotic birds, reptiles and mammals.
Ever want to swing like Tarzan? Well, Costa Rica has perfected the art and offers “Canopy Tours” where daring ones can hook their harness onto a cable and fly through the trees and be one with wildlife. For a calmer day, a trip to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Nature Park and Wildlife Refuge will introduce you to Costa Rica’s famous hummingbird and butterfly gardens.
Also in Puntarenas, Radisson can book you on a raft ride down the Corobici River, which is ideal for beginners with its calm waters and abundant wildlife-seeing opportunities. To get a birds-eye view of wildlife, try the new “Rain Forest Aerial Tram” located in the Central Pacific Coast. Open-air gondolas come equipped with a naturalist guide. Also, be sure to visit the Poas National Park and Carara Biological Reserve to catch a glimpse of monkeys, macaws, parrots, peccaries, toucans, butterflies and crocodiles.
Tropical flower farms and thousands of animal species call the port town of Puerto Limon home. Here, visit E.A.R.T.H., a private forest reserve that is home to monkeys, birds, armadillos and iguanas.
Cruise West also goes to Costa Rica and Panama via the 100-guest “Pacific Explorer” and offers three different cruises with the opportunity for extended stays. “The Gems of Costa Rica” package will take you to the remote islands of Panama’s Isla de Coiba National Park and Costa Rica’s Corcovado Conservation Area, a 100,000-acre sanctuary filled with endangered wildlife, including all four species of monkeys and six species of wild cats found in the country. Also, nearly 300 species of birds live here, including the gorgeous scarlet macaws.