Get active ... climb the Great Wall of China on a shore excursion. Photo: iStock
There was a time when cruising was largely about sitting around a pool on the high seas drinking pina coladas. For many cruisers today, however, it's become an exciting way to explore somewhere new.
Shore excursions are offered by most ships and can be anything from sightseeing to adventure pursuits. Thanks to cruising, I've climbed the Great Wall of China, been to Mexican cooking school for a day and enjoyed a private visit to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
In recent years, however, competition has increased among cruise lines to provide a wider range of activities for active guests. Take Crystal Cruises, for example. It recently launched a new program of excursions on its cruises in Northern Europe, with options ranging from surfing in Biarritz to helicopter flights over Paris.
The adults-only Soalrium pool onboard the Radiance of the Seas.
Cruise lines use local operators for shore excursions but offer the tours at inflated prices to their guests, something that can hit you hard in the wallet if you're a couple, or family, keen to explore.
To counteract this, a few include excursions in the cruise fare, such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
Others, such as Oceania Cruises, offer excursion packages as an incentive. One option allows you to design your own collection of excursions saving 25 per cent, while the other offers unlimited excursions for the entire cruise, saving up to 40 per cent overall.
The signature climbing wall onboard the Radiance of the Seas.
Something that is set to shake up the market, however, is the recent launch of Viator (shoreexcursions.viator.com). This new San Francisco-based outfit is offering more than 500 shore excursions at 80 of the most popular cruising ports of call, saving cruise guests up to 60 per cent on cruise ship prices. Buy a day trip to Capri with lunch onboard and it will cost $200, compared with only $134 when booked through Viator.
And if you're worried that the ship won't wait for you if you're late back, which can happen if you tour independently, Viator has that covered; if it's their fault that you miss your ship, they'll transport you to your next port of call at no charge.
Colonial charm ... Maputo, Mozambique. Photo: Getty Images
Package of the week
Cruiseco has chartered the luxury expedition ship, Orion, to cruise the Kimberleys next year. The 10-night cruise from Broome to Darwin, departing on June 27, 2013, takes guests on a spectacular journey by way of remote rivers and offshore islands, with highlights including visits to the King George Falls and Com in Timor. Priced from $7970 a person, twin share, guests will also receive discounts of up to 15 per cent and a free flight from Wyndham over the Bungle Bungles. 1300 764 509, cruiseexpress.com.au.
Princess Cruises has revealed details about dining options on the Royal Princess, which debuts in June 2013. Among the new features are wine cellar-inspired private dining spaces and a Chef's Table Lumiere, which surrounds diners with a curtain of light.
P&O is offering a rare South Pacific cruise this winter on Pacific Pearl. Departing from Sydney on June 3, the 11-night cruise will enable guests to witness the passing of Venus directly between the sun and the earth on June 6, just as Captain Cook did in 1769.
The masted windjammer Sea Cloud II will cruise the Aegean and Cyclades on June 17 with no fixed itinerary. Departing from Istanbul, the six-night cruise will head wherever the wind takes the ship.
Radiance of the Seas
LAUNCHED 2001. PASSENGERS 2112. REGULAR HAUNTS Australasia, Alaska. BEST FOR Families, couples. THE DETAILS A 14-night New Zealand cruise, a round trip from Sydney departing on November 17, is priced from $1895 a person, twin share. 1800 754 500, www.royalcaribbean.com.au.
Need to know
1 A key feature of Radiance's design is light, thanks to a glass-enclosed nine-storey central atrium, floor-to-ceiling windows and elevators facing the ocean.
2 There are four main categories of staterooms accommodating everyone from families on a budget to couples splashing out. They range from basic interior staterooms to elaborate suites, including one that can sleep up to eight people. Basic amenities in the staterooms include a television, telephone and hair dryer.
3 A multimillion-dollar makeover last year added several new dining venues, including four alternative restaurants: Izumi, with its Asian-fusion cuisine, the Italian dining at Giovanni's Table, Samba Grill Brazilian Steakhouse and Rita's Cantina for Mexican fare.
4 Although she appeals to cruisers of all ages, families are extremely well catered for with a Royal Babies & Tots nursery for kids aged from six months to three years.
5 Facilities include a huge outdoor cinema, three pools including the adults-only Solarium, three whirlpools, a fitness centre, a signature rock-climbing wall, children's clubs and a variety of bars including a Quill & Compass Pub.
Port watch — Maputo, Mozambique
Need to know
Located on the Indian Ocean, Maputo is the capital of Mozambique and its largest city. Although it has a torrid recent past thanks to war, today's visitors enjoy its old Portuguese colonial charm. Ships either dock in port or anchor offshore depending on their size. The city centre is within walking distance and can be explored on foot, just beware of pickpockets.
Do not miss
The city's most popular attraction is the Fortress of Maputo, which dates back to 1851 and houses the remains of the last great chief of the Nguni tribe. The Central Market is housed in a charming, if shabby, building and can be a good source of local souvenirs. Further afield, Inhaca Island is about 40 kilometres off the coast, with beautiful beaches and coral reefs, and the beach of Ponta d'Ouro, about 120 kilometres away, is a popular swimming and dive spot.