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So, Is Cruising Really Travel?

Posted: 10/26/11 01:15 PM ET

I'm home now after cruising the Mediterranean. And it's time to wrap up this series. Thanks for all the great comments this last month. I've enjoyed reading them each day. And I've learned a lot. I thought a summation of my experience would be a good "capper." So here goes.

There are travelers and there are tourists. There is travel and there is hedonism. I've long thought that cruising was hedonism for tourists, catering to people for whom travel is "see if you can eat five meals a day and still snorkel when you get into port." In fact, I've built a career championing the beauties of experiencing Europe independently, "through the back door." And that's about as far from cruising as you can get.

But my newest guidebook -- Rick Steves' Mediterranean Cruise Ports -- is selling like hotcakes. It's the first and only cruising guidebook written by someone with a healthy skepticism about cruises. I've left the cruise-ship rundowns to the industry aficionados, and focused my book on what I consider the main attraction: some of the grandest cities in Europe.

Even if you have just eight hours in port, you can still ramble the colorful Ramblas of Barcelona, kick the pebbles that stuck in Julius Caesar's sandals at the Roman Forum, hike to the top of Athens' Acropolis and hear the Muslim call to prayer warble from an Istanbul minaret across the rooftops. Yes, you could spend a lifetime in Florence. But you've only got a few hours, and I have a plan for you.

With the new cruise book selling so well, many of my traveling friends are wondering what's going on. What happened to "going through the back door?" Have I sold out? Have I turned my back on "real travel?" Am I suddenly "pro-cruising?"

I visited 12 ports in two weeks. Dancing my nights away under starry, starry skies at sea, I shared a ship with 3,000 people whose priorities seemed to be shopping, gambling, eating, drinking and sightseeing -- often in that order. Yes, for many of these cruisers, the experience was hedonism plain and simple. But for many others, cruising has become an efficient, affordable and enjoyable way to enjoy the best of both surf and turf.

For me, it was two weeks toggling between life on shore and life on board -- a time filled with culture, camaraderie and calories. As soon as I returned to the ship after a day exploring, I'd plop my wallet into the top drawer of my dresser and rejoin a fantasy, cashless world that, in many ways, is a floating 14-story-tall food court/shopping mall/entertainment complex.

Cruising is just one of many ways of traveling and, keeping an open mind, I enjoyed the experience. And I learned a lot. The officer who monitors supplies told me the two most important items to keep in stock: toilet paper for guests and rice for the predominantly Asian crew. They once ran out of rice and nearly had a mutiny. I also learned a lesson when booking a sea view seat in the ship's fanciest restaurant: A window seat after dark on a cruise ship has you sitting next to a big, glassy, black wall with nothing to see but your reflection.

While plenty of cruisers I met were clueless about the various ports and seemed to want to stay that way, I was impressed by the number of passengers who bounded down the gangplank as soon as it was open, determined to get the most out of each hour in port. These are the people who are enjoying my new guidebook. Its goal -- and my challenge as its author -- is to empower those who enjoy the fun, efficiency and economy of cruising with the information necessary to get the very most out of their time in port.

So, is cruising really travel? It depends on the cruiser. I enjoyed a relaxing vacation at sea, but each day in port I managed to venture away from the cruise crowds. Whether it was in a farmer's market in Livorno, a tapas bar in Barcelona or a dusty corner of Athens' Agora, I tried get out of my comfort zone and experience a slice of real Europe. While there's plenty of fun on board for cruisers, my most vivid and prized memories came from back-door adventures I enjoyed on land.

 

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