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Ports of call worth avoiding

Jul 08, 2008

For cruise critic Anne Campbell, one particular moment during a snorkeling excursion on a Mexican cruise stands out as testimony to mass cruise tourism's toll on the authentic travel experience.

"We had taken a smaller boat about 45 minutes away from the port at Cabo San Lucas to a snorkeling spot, a beach, and when we arrived, there were no fish to be seen," recalls Campbell, Editor of Cruising from New York, an online guide detailing cruise departures from New York City's three terminals, "So our guide pulled out a canister of Cheez Whiz and squirted it into the water, and it was like a million fish came around."

But when it comes to cruises, your first hint that the experience is not going to live up to your exotic expectations will likely come as you steam into port.

"In Baja and the Pacific coast of Mexico, you've got a problem because there are a lot of ships doing week-long cruises from San Diego and Los Angeles, year round, and these ports are just swamped," said Campbell, "You pull into places like Mazatlan, Cabo San Lucas and Ixtapa, and they are simply overrun with ships."

Indeed, any dreams cruise passengers have of secluded beaches for sunset strolls, isolated stretches of coastline for kayaking-even just a private corner of deck where you can canoodle with a romantic view-are more than likely just that: Dreams.

Cruise line ads work hard at trying to convey exclusivity, intimacy and seclusion. But in reality, the more than ten million people who cruise every year go to a lot of the same places. Tour buses line up at the docks like advancing armies, while sign-waving guides and freelance touts vie for passengers' attention. And it's not only Mexico and the Caribbean where overcrowded ports seriously threaten a serious deluge on your cruise parade.

Take Alaska. Overall, the number of cruise passengers to Alaska has more than tripled since the early '90s, according to the North West CruiseShip Association. Juneau is the state's busiest port, with some 650 cruises calling in during the summer months. Juneau's local population hovers around 30,000 and on an average day during high season, more than 5,000 cruise passengers fan out around the small town, piling on buses for trips to Mendenhall glacier and other local attractions.

"You can practically walk from Vancouver to Seward across the tops of cruise ships during the summer months because there are so many boats," said Campbell.

In St. Thomas, an island just 13 miles long and four miles wide, almost two million tourists arrived by cruise ship in 2006, according to research consultant G.P. Wild International Ltd. Six to eight giant ships a day is business as usual at this Caribbean evergreen-we're talking more than 20,000 cruisers on an average day heading for the same few beaches and attractions.

It's the same deal in Nassau and St. Maarten, where traffic jams are as prevalent as sunburns and hangovers. In the cruise world, "exclusive is a synonym for ‘small ship,'" said Campbell, and the smaller and more upmarket your vessel, the more likely you'll be to avoid the biggest and busiest ports. Usually the smallest ships, carrying just 100 or 200 passengers, don't make a dent.

It's the 2,000-plus passenger boats that are most likely to pull into the sardine-packed ports. Behemoths like Royal Caribbean's new Liberty of the Seas can carry more than 4,000 passengers, and half that in crew. The weekly rotation includes Cozumel and Grand Cayman or St. Maarten and San Juan.

The Caribbean has been the number one cruise ship destination for years. In both 2005 and 2006, the Caribbean accounted for about 40 percent of the North American-based cruise fleet, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a trade group. The Mediterranean and Europe roped in about half as much cruise traffic during the same time period, followed by a virtual three-way tie by Alaska, the Bahamas and the Mexican Riviera, each just under about 10 percent of the total market. But it's not just the numbers of tourists descending on a port that make or break the experience-port size matters.

Some ports can handle the onslaught better than others. San Juan, for example, while weighing in as the biggest cruise ship embarkation point in the Caribbean, also has an existing city infrastructure and historic port attributes (read: the city was a thriving locale long before the cruise industry hit town) that allow it to absorb the masses fairly gracefully.

Ditto for large cities like Barcelona and Naples, which have populations in the millions and can easily take on another 20,000 people. A port like Venice, however, is not so lucky, according to Campbell. "In July and August, people from all over the world are in Venice, it has become so mobbed," she said. "If you can, avoid visiting during the peak season."

For small islands and coastal towns, the situation is even more dire. In tiny places along the Cote d'Azur for instance, physical space is simply limited, meaning tourists can easily outnumber locals. The same tourist inundation occurs in the small seaside Turkish city of Kusadasi, one of the most popular stops for eastern Mediterranean cruises. Many would-be-idyllic Greek islands are beyond bloated during the summer months. And even though it's mostly smaller ships that pull into the port of Capri in Italy, the peak summer months turn the island into a heaving tourist capital due to day excursions from the bigger cruise shops docked in nearby Naples.

"It really depends on the port and how well they and we handle the guest experience," says Mark Conroy, president of Regent Seven Seas Cruises. "St. Petersburg, for example, is a big city and deals pretty well with the millions of guests it gets each year. A port like Grand Cayman, Monaco or Juneau, on the other hand, suffers so we try not to be there when all the other ships are."

According to Adam Goldstein, president of Royal Caribbean, stretching the Europe and Alaska cruise seasons beyond the summer months-from as early as April through as late as November-helps to alleviate crowding for those willing to accept cooler temperatures.

"The lengthening of the non-peak season in Europe is creating more choice for our customers," says Goldstein. In 2008, Royal Caribbean's ship, Brilliance of the Seas, became the fleet's first vessel to offer European cruises year round, with ten- and 11-night itineraries that include the Canary Islands and Morocco, departing from Barcelona.

Another way to get around the crush at certain ports is by breaking out of the traditional Saturday to Saturday cruise paradigm. More and more lines are offering departures for weeklong cruises on Fridays or Sundays too. Conroy says Regent skirts the jam up in Juneau by operating its Alaska cruises on a Wednesday to Wednesday schedule, in order to be there on the days when the fewest number of ships are in town. In the Caribbean, many lines also pack their itineraries with visits to their private islands, where generally only one ship-two max-is there at a time.

At the end of the day, some tourists like the hustle bustle of ultra-popular ports. Those that don't should cruise during the off-season or on smaller vessels-lines such as SeaDream Yacht Club, Seabourne, Windstar and Star Clipper-which tend to avoid the beaten track as much as possible.

"Regardless of the volume on a given day," says Goldstein, "there will be people who enjoy the port experience because of the particular excursions they have chosen." He adds that "to the extent there is congestion, a percentage of the guests will be negatively affected by it."

Ports of call worth avoiding
The Venezia Terminal Passeggeri / PNC/Getty Images

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