Another day, we visited a traditional Berber village in Algeria, meeting the oldest residents, two women who wore colorful traditional dress with henna-decorated hands for joyous occasions, such as our visit. We listened to the muezzin's call to prayer, met a local artist, saw the village's olive oil press and tasted the oil along with delicious breads, all while curious residents kept taking pictures of our tour group.
Rather than more visits to museums and ruins - although we did that, too - we chose the "meet the locals" type of shore excursions during a recent Mediterranean cruise aboard Silversea's Silver Cloud.
"These tours give you a better view to the way of life of a place," said Nicole Denarie, the ship's shore excursion manager. "You see the houses, smell the cooking, talk to the locals. It's what makes travel interesting: discovering and enjoying different cultures."
On many other shore excursions, "you are a passive observer or at best, a participant with fellow cruisers and seldom have the chance to meet the people living in a destination from whom you can get a totally different perspective." said Kay Showker, author of "The Unofficial Guide to Cruises" and five other travel books.
So, if you are like us and prefer tours that let you see how other people live, consider these tips:
- Read up on your destination before your cruise. Showker recommends you do so particularly now that many cruise lines let you book shore excursions online. By reading about the ports of call, you will find out what each has to offer and its unique features.
We read four DK Eyewitness Travel Guides before our cruise: "Cruise Guide to Europe & The Mediterranean," "Greece, Athens & The Mainland," "Rome" and "Top 10 Rome." These books have details on each destination, sections on history and culture, and many illustrations that include cutaways, floor plans and reconstructions of important sites.
We also read all the port reports from Silversea, which list practical information such as distance from the port to the main city, shopping and currency.
- Showker also recommends you select a variety of shore excursions to explore different aspects of a region: maybe an island excursion in one port; a walking tour in another; a favorite sport, like diving or snorkeling, in yet another.
- If we are not familiar with the port and do not know the country's language, such as in Algeria, we opt for excursions sold on board. Cruise lines generally work with the best tour operators that use good vehicles and employ guides who speak English.
These tours pick up at the pier and return there. Cruise lines count buses, so if one is late, the ship doesn't leave without you.
- We read shore excursions' descriptions carefully to find out
whether refreshments are included, the duration of a bus ride to the site or attraction, and whether stops are made - not just drive-bys - at places that interest us.
- We always carry bottled water, protection against the sun ashore, I.D. and ship's I.D. card and, if touring independently, the phone number of the ship's port agent in case of problems or delays.
- If you tour independently, ask the shore excursion staff on the ship whether the route you plan to follow is safe.
- Denarie emphasizes dressing appropriately when going on tours that visit churches, temples and mosques. Wear sensible shoes. Twice we have seen women wearing high heels fall on cobblestone streets and stone steps.
Humberto and Georgina Cruz are a husband-and-wife writing team who work together in this column. Send questions and comments to AskHumberto@aol.com or GVCruz@aol.com.