A cruise is never over. Those moments of enlightenment, adventure and fun that are experienced during trips ashore stay with you forever. Travel journalist Lesley Bellew shares some of her favourite memories
Caribbean cruise shore excursions
Still buzzing from a deck party that went into the early hours, we docked in St Vincent, the largest of the Caribbean’s Grenadine Islands, and arranged a trip to the tiny island of Bequia. A glistening guard of flying fish raced our speedboat across the 6,000ft-deep rolling sea, only dropping back when we entered Admiralty Bay.
Reggae music wafted from yachts bobbing in the clear water set against the prettiest backdrop of pastel-painted villas which dotted the hillside. On the waterfront we chose Mac’s cafe for lobster pizza and the pre-requisite rum punch al fresco while midnight-blue hummingbirds hovered within arm’s reach.
After a siesta on the quiet palm-fringed Princess Margaret Beach, a ribbon of soft white sand, we languished in the turquoise sea. No wonder her Royal Highness would take a yacht from nearby Mustique to this heavenly hideaway. Our day in paradise was over too soon. We had joined the jet-set for a day by sharing the cost of a speedboat between a group of eight.
Another shore tour indulgence was to take a 45-minute helicopter ride from Antigua to Montserrat, the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean before a volcano erupted in 1997. The capital, Plymouth, is no longer a playground for the rich and famous but a haunting modern-day Pompeii. From the air you can see houses, schools and trucks still buried in the ash. Montserrat was evacuated but the 19 people who opted to stay were killed by the lava flow.
Next stop was nearby St Kitts, after a gentle overnight sailing we grabbed a cab to tour the island. Other passengers opted for the scenic railway, originally the sugar train which transported cane to the mills. The sugar trade came to an end in 2005 when the EU halted preferential pricing arrangements between Britain and St Kitts.
We stopped at Ottley’s Plantation Inn, a 15-minute drive from the port. This 35-acre estate was another haunt of Princess Margaret, and no wonder, with the poolside dining area offering panoramic views over the sea to Nevis. We, too, were treated like royalty at this friendly and surprisingly laid-back retreat. We took a stroll around the estate to walk off lunch and admired the beautiful gardens.
And so on to Martinique, with its French vibe.
A snorkelling excursion was the order of the day. Prospect, our guide, showed us the way and we jumped into the clear, clear water like a bunch of excited schoolchildren. With beginner’s luck a turtle swam alongside and everyone on the ship heard about it for days.
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Canary Islands cruise shore excursions
It is not only the far-flung cruise tours that offer exciting excursions. A cruise to the Canary Islands included a tour to the lunar landscape of Mount Teide. On the ascent from the port of Santa Cruz we travelled through vineyards and the temperature dropped one degree every 150 metres.
The landscape gave way to laurel woodland and higher still, Canary pine forests caught the clouds as we started to travel through the swirling mist at 1,500 metres. It was a heavenly experience to climb to 1,750m, re-emerge above the clouds and be welcomed by a burst of sunshine and clear blue sky.
We blinked again and arrived in the Valley of Ucanca, a volcanic plain; dry and dusty with cactus hanging on to life in lava that has formed into freakish shapes.
Mount Teide National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so you need a permit to take the Telefonica cable car to the 3,500-metre summit (shore excursion teams can arrange this). During the , eight-minute sharp ascent the temperature plummeted to zero.
It is not only the cold that hits you but the 360-degree panorama over the vast moonscape. As The Carpenters song goes, it was an inter-planetary, extraordinary experience and a world away from the Tenerife that most people know.
We stayed late for a stargazing session in Mount Tiede National Park. With no light pollution, we saw the North Star, Jupiter, Seven Sisters stars cluster and even saw a shooting star.
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Mediterranean cruise shore excursions
Some of the most fabulous gardens in the world can visited during ship tours and in Nice, Villa de Rothschild blew my mind. Banking heiress Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, who made her gardeners wear berets with a red pom-pom so she could see they were working on her 17-acre estate, created a garden to meet her every whim.
At its height, the Rothschild family possessed the largest private fortune in the modern world so when Beatrice built her coral pink villa between 1905 and 1912 she even sliced off the top of the cliff at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat to create a garden in the shape of a cruise liner sailing into the Cote d’Azur.
I almost fell over myself to see deck upon deck of exotic planting during the Fete of Roses and yet, despite all the warnings, the villa and gardens were more fragrant and more spectacularly flamboyant than surely even Beatrice could have had dreamed.
The Alhambra, in Granada, Spain, is now Tourist Central but get there early or late for a private tour if possible.
Explore the symbolism, poetry and decorative motifs at every step and imagine how the sultan would sit in the shadows of the palace while his guests made their way through a myriad of gardens, passing carpet-like flower beds and carved marble pillars creating a forest of shadows. Every courtyard is criss-crossed by water, reflecting the sun onto ornate carvings like crystals. I stepped into the glistening marble Patio of Lions and all that was missing was a flying carpet to complete the magic.
Sailing in the Mediterranean, after a tour to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, I wandered across the road to the Museum of Fine Arts to find it housed a heady collection of works by international and Spanish artists; they include Celso Lagar, who led the 20th century Spanish avant-garde movement, and local artist Adolfo Guiard whose evocative paintings The Ship’s Boy and The Girl with a Red Carnation were just waiting to be savoured.
The museum is also home to Lucretia, painted in 1534 by Lucas Cranach the Elder and bought by the museum for 1.4m euros in 2012. What a find!
And there was a top-of-the-tree bucket list fulfilled with a shore excursion to the ruined cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried under ash by the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD.
From Naples, I was soon walking through Pompeii, astonished at how the city and its people lay undisturbed beneath the ashes for more than 1,500 years.
A lecturer on board the ship had given an unparalleled insight into Roman life in the city’s forum, temples and theatres to make the trip even more special.
Art treasures are more easily found than you might think when on a cruise. A tour from Livorno allowed me to view the greatest collection of Renaissance paintings on the planet in Florence, in Italy. In the Uffizi Gallery I stood before The Birth of Venus, painted by Sandro Botticelli between 1482-1485. I hadn’t realised it was such a large canvas and spent as long as I could trying to work out the rich, allegorical references to antiquity ... before I was dragged away!
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Norway cruise shore excursions
I was singing the blues in Norway, when Himalayan poppies swayed in the soft breeze welcoming me to Tromso Botanic Garden, probably the most surprising garden in the world.
Brighter than huskies’ ice-blue eyes but paler than Tromso’s bright blue sky, the poppies were nothing short of a miracle. Meconopsis bailey, to give the official name, originates from the Himalayas but thrives 200 miles within the Arctic Circle.
Tromso benefits from the Gulf Stream so the garden does not have to suffer a the full-on Arctic climate. And in a woodland filled with ferns, wildflowers and poppies bathed in dappled light through the birch trees I sat on a bench to absorb the garden and its view over the fjord and snow-capped mountains.
Delphiniums thrived here, too, with towering spires in, you’ve guessed it, the deepest blue.
More than 30 species of orchids survive in Norway and Cypripedium Ulla flourishes in the botanic garden despite being covered in snow for at least six months of the year. Everything about this garden in the land of the midnight sun was unexpected; not least that it opens 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year and admission is free.
Another joy was a visit to the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, Norway. At school, way back when, we had learned how Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) crossed the Pacific Ocean on the Kon-Tiki to prove his theory that South Americans originally populated Polynesia.
The Kon-Tiki raft and reed boats Ra and Tigris are complete works of art, on display alongside artefacts from Heyerdahl’s expeditions and the Oscar-winning Kon-Tiki documentary is shown every day at noon. The next-door Norwegian Maritime Museum houses marine paintings and everything that is shipping and fishing. I also called into the nearby triangular-shaped Fram Polar Museum which is another nod to exploration that is very much in Norwegians’ DNA.
As if Norway does not have enough to offer, listening to a piano concerto at Edvard Grieg’s fjordside home in Troldhaugen, near Bergen, will never leave my memory, nor will riding on the Flam railway, travelling higher and higher past meadows, streams and waterfalls until the snow began to fall. I thought I had arrived in Narnia - we had left the glistening fjord in sunshine and by the end of the train ride we were in an ice kingdom.
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So whether your passion is arts, architecture, adventure, history, wildlife, gardens or astronomy – it is likely that, like me, you will reap rich rewards on a cruise tour.