For years, cruising was equated with tropical climates and long hours spent tanning on the deck. The Caribbean remains one of the most popular cruise destinations for Americans, especially those who live on the East Coast and have easy access to the region. (Most Caribbean cruises sail from Florida ports.) But as Caribbean ports, especially Nassau, become more crowded, cruisers and cruise lines are looking more closely at other destinations. The Southern Caribbean, with less-crowded ports like sleepy St. Lucia, isn't a regular offering of all cruise lines. However, that's changing, so enjoy the relatively small crowds while you can.
Other popular warm-weather destinations: Hawaii is a favorite, especially with West Coast vacationers. American Hawaii Cruises, whose SS Independence is the only remaining American flagship at sea, offers three- to seven-day cruises that visit several of the islands. This offers an alternative to hopping the islands by plane!
In addition, there are cruises to Bermuda from East Coast ports, including Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., Boston and New York. (Note: Since it takes about two days each way to Bermuda from the East Coast, a one-week cruise will include only two days or so in port; the rest will be spent at sea.) South and Central America (especially Mexico, the Amazon River region, Rio de Janeiro and Costa Rica), the Mediterranean (especially the Greek Isles and the French, Italian and Spanish Rivieras are other sunny destinations cruisers enjoy.
A newer hotspot that is becoming more accessible and affordable is Tahiti and her islands (tourism folks there believe this phrase has more name recognition than French Polynesia). Renaissance Cruises, an upscale line for adults only, in the past year has positioned two of its newest ships, the R3 and the R4, to the region for year-round service. The mid-size ships sail from Papeete, Tahiti, to the beautiful islands of Moorea, Bora Bora, Huahine and Raiatea and back to Papeete. The smaller and more expensive luxury vessel, the Paul Gauguin, launched by Radisson Seven Seas, also sails the islands year-round. (Check out their Web sites for a better feel for the differences in ships.) Other ships visit Tahiti, which has been compared to the Hawaii of 30 years ago, as they circumnavigate the globe on world cruises. French Polynesia, along with other South Pacific islands where the year 2000 arrived early, was among the most popular millennium celebration sites on Dec. 31, 1999. Other more exotic tropical favorites include the Galapagos Islands off South America and the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean off the East African coast.
Some popular itineraries focus on cruising famous rivers, such as the Nile in Egypt (a trip not to be missed!) and the Amazon in South America. The cool thing about river cruising is that you get a better feel for the people and what their lives are like because you can see them living life from the deck or from your stateroom window! Vessels sailing the Nile are, by necessity, small, and are available in a variety of prices and types. (U.S.-based Sonesta has two ships on the Nile offering amenities similar to those offered by mainstream cruising.) Ships of all sizes offer Amazon River cruises. Here's a tip: smaller ships are better able to anchor in the river and send passengers off in canoes and riverboats to explore the various tributaries and villages. Big ships don't generally have that luxury.
If you prefer cool weather cruising, a lovely way to celebrate autumn is a cruise of Canada and New England. (Princess offers terrific cruises, often on the Royal Princess, which was the first ship to offer the popular balconies over most of the staterooms.) For a chilly adventure, try the glaciers and fjords of Alaska, Norway or a new favorite, the Patagonia region of Chile and Argentina. Cruising in Alaska was pioneered by Princess and Holland America and these lines still know it and do it best. In the past five years or so, they've been joined by so many ships from other lines that the streets of small Alaskan towns like Juneau are swarming with cruise passengers. So, if you'd like to take a river raft ride through the bald eagle preserves, fly via helicopter to a huge, icy glacier or enjoy some of the northern state's other natural resources, go sooner, rather than later, since it's only going to get more crowded.
Many cruises to Norway depart from London and visit several charming Norwegian ports, such as Stavanger and Bergen. The "new Alaska" for cruising is Patagonia, which is considerably wilder and less developed than its U.S. and European counterparts. Royal Olympic offers a 14-day cruise that sails from Puerto Mont, Chile to several Chilean and Argentinian ports, ending in the "Paris of the South," Buenos Aires. The Patagonia cruise offers excursions out to the region's many beautiful national parks and glaciers and close encounters with in-your-face wildlife, including penguins, llamas, sea lions and brown foxes. It's also a bird-watchers' heaven -- Audubon Club members on the Odysseus stayed up on deck all day, every day during their cruise of Patagonia!
Cruise destinations have become ever more exotic as cruisers have expressed their interest in going farther off the beaten path. For example, cruises of Southeast Asia are in demand; most now include calls at Vietnam, which, 20-plus years after the Vietnam War, seems to hold special interest for U.S. tourists. Cruise traffic in the region also includes a stop at Hong Kong, which, almost three years after it reverted to Chinese rule, is undergoing interesting times that tourists seem eager to experience. Cruises along the coasts of Africa are immensely popular (many include optional land safaris before or after the cruise). (See How a Safari Works for more info.)
Europe is always popular, especially with people who like port-intensive cruises. Depending upon current events, cruise lines are sometimes forced to alter schedules to keep passengers safe. For example, due to recent fighting in the Balkans, some lines removed lovely Dubrovnik from their European itineraries, and many changed their homeport from Venice to Genoa to take cruisers farther away from the fighting. By mid 1999, several cruise lines had added Dubrovnik back to their schedules. The lesson here is to read about what's going on in countries you'd like to visit before you book your cruise. (Check with the U.S. State Department to see if any warnings are in place for your destination countries.) Remember, too, that cruise lines are going to err on the side of caution and will change itineraries as needed. (This also holds true in case of inclement weather!)