Researching your port stops

There are a lot of reasons I love cruising, but one of the main ones is that I LOVE doing research on what I should do in each of my port stops. After all, I’m a nerd! As I’m planning for my upcoming transatlantic cruise on the new Norwegian Bliss, I thought I’d do a blog post to tell you about how I research and make plans for my days in port.

You always have the option to book shore excursions through the cruise line, and sometimes – when I’m in a new port or a new part of the world – I’ll do this, for a few reasons. It’s easy – I don’t have to do a lot of work; I just log into the web site and pick my trips through the online pre-cruise planner. When you book through the cruise line, you know that the ship will always wait for you if your excursion is delayed returning.

But I’ve had good and bad experiences with shore excursions through the cruise line, and for that reason, I often try to make my own plans.

If I decide to do my own research, I start with a simple Google search. For my Bliss transatlantic, I only have two stops: Ponta Delgada, Azores and Halifax, Nova Scotia. I began my research on Ponta Delgada with a Google search for “Ponta Delgada cruise port.” I find that adding the words “cruise port” to my search helps to refine the results so that I get specific advice for stopping in a location on a cruise ship vs. taking a land-based vacation.

Often I’ll find that one of the top results is a port information page from the website Cruise Critic. Cruise Critic is an excellent resource for planning your port stops and you can also visit their cruise port specific message boards to read about other people’s experiences in those ports.

Occasionally, your Google search will turn up a real gem. In this case, I found this extremely helpful Ponta Delgada guide from a website called Tom’s Port Guides. Now, being an academic/nerd, I know that it’s always important to check out your sources to make sure they’re reliable, so I looked on this site (as I always do) for an About Us page to learn more about the site. Turns out these well-done guides are created by a guy who loves to travel and likes to create travel guides for his favorite cruise ports. Thanks, Tom!

Next, I’ll do a Google search for the name of the port with the word “blog” swapped in for “port.” This will help me find blog posts from people like myself who like to write about their travels. It’s important to check the dates on these posts to make sure that they’re current, and of course with any travel blog, it’s important to remember that the author’s experiences and decisions might be different from your own. I was fortunate to find this fantastic description of Ponta Delgada from TravelShopGirl and now feel like I have a great idea what to expect from my day in Ponta Delgada!

Getting to the port: Parking for cruises out of Fort Lauderdale

I was no stranger to Port Everglades, the giant cruise port just a few miles from Ft. Lauderdale airport (FLL). In fact, I’d cruised out of it many times, and I could tell you in one sentence how to get to that port from the airport: Land, pick up your bags, get in a taxi (or Lyft/Uber), go to the port. But that wouldn’t be much of a blog post, would it?

Because I’m taking some time off work right now, I was lucky enough to go on not one, not two, but three cruises out of Port Everglades in just a couple of months’ time. Rather than make three plane trips, my husband and I decided to take some time as “temporary snowbirds,” and we drove our car down to Florida. Hey, it was February and March – we wanted some warm weather!

We tried three options for parking, and the good news is that I felt like all of them were pretty good options that I would use again.

  1. Park N Fly at the Fort Lauderdale airport was a great experience. We prepaid and used a deal on my American Express card to get $15 back on our reservation. Using the lot was simple: We entered and were directed to the side of the lot where cruisers were parked, then a van shuttle picked us up right at the car and delivered us to the cruise terminal. When we came back from the cruise, we called the number we’d been given and a shuttle came to the terminal and picked us up, then dropped us right back at the car.
  2. We arrived at the Park N Go at the airport on a particularly busy day – there were 7 ships at Port Everglades, including the Royal Caribbean mega-ship Harmony of the Seas. On that day, they were using a valet-type system where you dropped off your car at a central location, then hopped on a shuttle to the appropriate cruise ship’s terminal. When we returned from our cruise, the shuttle picked us up and dropped us right off at our car, which had been parked in the lot. One quirky thing about this lot is that an area next door is populated by monkeys, which are pretty darn cute! (but don’t feed them – for your own safety!)Photo Mar 04, 8 25 51 AM.jpg
  3. On one of the cruises, we talked to some folks who sang the praises of the on-site parking at Port Everglades, so for the final of the three cruises, I decided to give it a try. The price is a little bit higher, $15/day versus $10-$13 for the other places, so it made more sense for a shorter, 5-day cruise. My experience here was a mixed bag: Our cruise ship went out of the inconveniently-placed Terminal 29, for which we had to take a shuttle to and from the midport parking garage. However, if we’d been out of one of the closer terminals (18 and 19 are especially close), this garage would have been incredibly convenient. Here you can see the Celebrity Summit docked at terminal 19 in a picture I took from the garage where I parked our car.Photo Mar 10, 10 28 48 AM

If your cruise is leaving out of Port Everglades, you can use the Cruise Terminal app (link will take you to the Apple store) to determine what terminal your cruise will be departing out of.

Should you (still) go to Maya Chan? YES!

I was excited to return to the port of Costa Maya, a relatively new stop on my cruise radar. This purpose-built port is designed for cruise ships and their passengers and the surrounding area has a ton to offer — Mayan ruins, swimming with dolphins, cultural tours, etc. Mostly, I was excited because my friend and I had a reservation at Maya Chan beach, which I’d heard great things about.

The resort sent detailed instructions on how to get to the pickup site – one big advantage of Maya Chan is that transportation is included in your all-inclusive fee, which is not always the case. We had to walk out of the port and through a security gate – a little daunting! – and then another two blocks up on the right, we found the sign for the Maya Chan representative. This is where we were met with a bit of a dilemma:

It seems we had run into a bit of bad luck. The beach was experiencing a high amount of seagrass that day, something they told us often happens in the winter months. The representative explained that they had been cleaning throughout the morning, but that there was still a lot of seagrass on the beach and in the water. He told us that we still had the opportunity to cancel our reservation and receive a refund if we didn’t want to go because of this.

My friend looked at each other and decided to go to Maya Chan anyway – I’d really been looking forward to checking out the place, and I like to visit somewhere myself before I recommend it to other people. (If you’d like to, you can read some other blogs’ opinions of Maya Chan here and here.) What’s the matter with a little seagrass, anyway? (Answer: it’s kind of slimy, and it does tend to attract a lot of gnats. But hey, whatever.)

Even with the sliminess and the bugs, we definitely made the right decision by sticking with our plan to go to Maya Chan. As the blog posts I’d read ahead of time mentioned, it was definitely a rough ride over to the beach, but we’d been warned, and I knew it was worth putting up with. We were met at the entrance by an employee who told us that the worst of our day was over, and that we wouldn’t even notice the bumps on the way back after we’d enjoyed the beach and a few cocktails. Spoiler alert: She was right! Haha.

As other reviews of Maya Chan have mentioned, the service here is really exceptional. We were greeting with a snack of guacamole and chips and a rum punch, and the drinks flowed freely from there. They even have a floating bar out in the water, as well as some floating chairs that are anchored down so you can relax with a cocktail in your hand. We were set up in an amazing spot just next to the bar and right by the ocean.

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As good as the service at Maya Chan is, the real standout is the lunch, a freshly prepared make-your-own-taco bar. This is possibly some of the best Mexican food I’ve ever eaten, and its flavors are a welcome change from cruise ship food, which can be somewhat institutional at times. If you come to Maya Chan for the day, make sure to come hungry!

So if you’ve also had our bad luck and run into a spell of seagrass, and the rep asks if you still want to go to Maya Chan, you should definitely say YES! You need to make a reservation for Maya Chan and you can do so at the website. It’s a popular destination and they do sell out, so make sure to make your reservations early so you’re not disappointed!

Cozumel, three ways

The port of Cozumel, Mexico is fast becoming one of my favorite places to stop on a cruise. This port is well-designed for tourists and offers a lot of fun and frankly, very affordable options. There are a variety of things to do that can suit different types of travelers. In this post I’ll talk about three things I’ve done in Cozumel that I’d definitely recommend.

Cozumel has become known for its all-inclusive beach clubs, where a set fee per day gets you admission, chairs, food, and drinks. (Note: You still have to bring your own beach towel from the ship!) We tried out two of these and found them to be great options – but significantly different.

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Nachi Cocom Beach Club, which you see above, feels like a tropical paradise. It’s great when you want to just relax under a palapa and have some cold drinks, or take a swim in the beautiful blue water. The lunch was top-notch (watch out – the salsa is spicy! If you’re a wimp like me, ask for the “Americano” version) and the shade was plentiful – perfect for a ginger like me. You have to make a reservation at Nachi Cocom (which you can do on their website) and they limit the number of guests, which leads to a nice, uncrowded atmosphere.

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Another popular all inclusive is Mr. Sancho’s, and we found this to be a great place to spend our day in Cozumel as well. The vibe here was a little different – much more fun and fast-paced, and I would definitely recommend this option if you’re traveling with a group. The service here was excellent and they’ll make every effort to put your group together on the beach or around one of the two pools. You don’t need a reservation here, but you can make one. At both of the all-inclusives we tried out, you put down a deposit online and pay the remainder when you arrive at the beach club. We arrived both times via taxi, which cost about $18 for the group each way.

A third option is the Cozumel Bar Hop, a great way to explore a little more of the island of Cozumel. This tour takes you to the uninhabited “wild” side of the island, where there’s no electricity and the beach bars and restaurants bring in their food and supplies every day. The tour and its operators are fantastic; guests who have previously taken the tour are welcomed back as “FOHOs” (former Hoppers) and the atmosphere is friendly and fun. You visit four different beach bars in about five hours and if you like margaritas, this is the tour for you – the bars serve them in abundance, authentic and large. You’ll definitely make some new friends on this tour. (The hubby wants me to note that this is not the tour to take if you want to swim in the ocean – the surf is pretty rough on this side of the island!)

All of these options have a price point around $50-$60, which is pretty low in comparison to some cruise ports. I’ve started looking for itineraries that take me to Cozumel (usually these are Western Caribbean) because I know I’ll have a good day in port!

Tampa: Getting to the Port

I had read that it was pretty convenient to get to the Port of Tampa from the airport, and a quick Google mapping seemed to confirm this to be true. But there was a wrinkle in my plans: Due to our same-day travel and tight connection, we’d be carrying our bags on the plane with us, which meant I couldn’t pack my usual 2 bottles of wine for the cruise. (What a first-world problem, right?)

Fortunately, a fellow travel blogger was kind enough to alert me to the presence of a Publix grocery store fairly near to the cruise port. (Thanks, Michael!) It’s not quite walking-distance close, so we took an Uber from the airport to the Publix, where we picked up our two bottles of wine as well as a snack (as we’d now been traveling since very early in the morning) and rested a bit before taking a second Uber to the cruise terminal.

Tampa’s port area is pretty spread out, and so it’s important here (honestly, this is a good idea at many larger ports) to take a look at your cruise documents and look for the specific terminal you’ll be departing out of. You can access the Cruise Docs online at the cruise line’s website, or if you book with a travel agent, he or she will usually send you your documents before the cruise.

It was only a short Uber ride from Publix to Terminal 2, where we boarded Empress of the Seas. It was time for our Cuba adventure to begin!

An overnight port stop in San Francisco

For all the many cruises I’ve been on over the years, this cruise featured my first overnight port. Based on our experience, I can definitely say that it won’t be my last!

It didn’t hurt that our overnight was in San Francisco, one of my favorite cites in the country. It’s also the home to one of my friends since high school and close to where my brother lives. Our overnight port allowed us to make time separately to see both of them without having to carefully (over)coordinate our plans.

On the night before we arrived into San Francisco, we were seated at a table with a couple of frequent cruisers, one of whom mentioned how great overnight ports could be. The best part, he said, was how free you felt because you didn’t have to worry about losing track of time and missing the ship. This seemed a little overly dramatic to me.

But as it turns out, he was right! Upon arriving in San Francisco, we got off the ship around noon and wandered around the city for several hours before meeting my high school friend at his house for dinner. We enjoyed a leisurely dinner and called a car from Lyft around 10:30 pm to take us back to the cruise ship. (If driving in San Francisco, it’s best to do it at times when the city’s notoriously bad traffic is at a minimum, and late on a Monday night is definitely one of those times!)

I loved our overnight port in San Francisco, and I would definitely choose an itinerary with an overnight stop again. It allowed us to take both daytime and nighttime pictures of the fabulous view from our balcony (pictured above and below), but most of all it gave us the peace of mind to enjoy our visit without the worry of missing the ship that so often lies beneath the surface on every port day.

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When your big ship ports in a small town

Each night when we get the next day’s Cruise Compass, I start by reading the description of our next port of call. When I saw the description of Astoria, I was a little taken aback. In fact, I had to read it aloud to my husband to make sure I wasn’t overthinking (as an academic, I’m prone to doing that).

“Tell me if this doesn’t sound like the most depressing thing you’ve heard,” I said, before reading the description of Astoria:

“Astoria has served as a port of entry for over a century and remains the trading center for the lower Columbia basin, although it has long since been eclipsed by Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington as an economic hub of the Pacific Northwest. Astoria’s economy centered on fishing, fish processing, and lumber. IN 1945, about 30 canneries could be found along the Columbia; however, in 1974 Bumblebee Seafood moved its headquarters out of Astoria, and gradually reduced its presence until 1980 when the company closed its last Astoria cannery. The timber industry likewise declined; Astoria Plywood Mill, the city’s largest employer, closed in 1989, and the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway discontinued service in 1996.”

Perhaps I’m a bit sensitive, but I thought this description of Astoria as a has-been canning and lumber town was a little too bleak. It’s not inaccurate by any means, and the city has had a hard way to go for many years. In fact, the introduction of cruise ship tourism, along with the push to get land-based visitors, has played a major role in Astoria’s economy in the last few years. (Maybe that’s part of the reason why we found everyone to be so friendly and helpful! Although from my years of living in Oregon, I think the people there are just generally nice.)

One thing I did notice, however, was that the small town of Astoria (pop. 9800) did have a bit of a logistics problem with the arrival of a fairly large cruise ship like Explorer of the Seas (3100 passengers). The port is off-set slightly from the downtown, necessitating that passengers either walk a mile along a waterfront pathway or take a shuttle bus ($6 roundtrip). Since the hubby’s bad back limits us from walking long distances, the shuttle bus it was.

However, there were over 3000 of us – and not nearly enough shuttle buses; though I give the town props for trying earnestly, the system in place just couldn’t accommodate the demand. (In fact, Astoria has set up an extensive “cruise host” program to assist passengers in touring the city, and we found these folks to be wonderfully helpful.) But when we disembarked the ship first thing in the morning, we found long lines for the shuttle buses and decided to re-board the ship and try again later (we eventually wound up taking the bus around noon with very little wait).

As cruise lines expand their itineraries and port in more towns like Astoria, it’s increasingly likely that this situation – big ship in a little town – will be a part of your cruise experience. My advice is to plan your day accordingly to avoid the logjam of passengers at the beginning of the day: Have a late, leisurely breakfast; use the opportunity to sleep in; maybe even hit the fitness center in the morning. If you shift your shore time to the second half of the day, you’ll have far less competition for the resources like shuttle buses that can be a bit pinched in these kind of ports.

Brewery hopping in Astoria, OR

You may have noticed by now that the Nerdy Traveler has a fondness for beer. I was excited to visit Astoria as the first port on our Pacific Coastal cruise because a simple Yelp search had revealed so many breweries in the downtown area of Astoria, near to where the cruise ship docked.

I noticed that Royal Caribbean offered a brewery-focused shore excursion, but the price (almost $80 per person) convinced me that I could easily create a DIY version for much less. I was right! (I love it when that happens.)

We started our day at Reach Break Brewing, which was close to where our shuttle bus had dropped us off in downtown Astoria. They didn’t do flights at Reach Break, but did offer half-pours, so we were able to try a few delicious brews before walking up to our next stop, the Fort George Brewery. We weren’t hungry, so we opted to bypass the crowded restaurant and stop in the taproom, where we had a delicious flight of IPAs. (The abundance of IPAs offered at breweries in the Pacific Northwest will always be one of my favorite things about that part of the country!)

Our next stop was the Astoria Brewing Company, a few blocks away and in the direction of our shuttle bus stop where we’d be picked up to go back to the ship. I saw only one beer style I really wanted to try (the IPA, natch), so I decided not to go the flight route. But I made the rookie mistake of blindly ordering a full pint without asking whether half-pours were available. (As a result, my memories of the rest of the day are a little, um, hazy!)

We did make it to one more brewery, the bustling Buoy Beer Company on the waterfront, to sample their IPA before we had to catch the shuttle and make sure we didn’t miss our ship! (We had started our day a bit late and so were a little rushed at the end). We didn’t have time to eat at Buoy, but I wish we had – the food looked and smelled delicious, and plus, we’d had a lot of beer! As you can imagine, once we got back to the ship, we had to take a bit of a nap before sailaway.

A Day in Havana, Part II: What we did

When we boarded the ship, we found out that the tour we had originally purchased, called “Hemingway’s Havana,” was cancelled and we would have to find an alternate tour. Although we were disappointed, the tour we chose as its replacement, “Old Havana City Sightseeing,” was a more than suitable replacement.

The buses we boarded for the roughly 3-hour tour were very nice – comfortable, cool, and with a more than serviceable bathroom. It even had toilet paper! (We were reminded frequently that this is not usually the case in Cuba.)

Our tour gave us a great introduction to Havana. We stopped at a cemetery, at a cigar store, at the Christ of Havana statue, and at a local crafts market. It was a nice combination of riding around (in the air-conditioned comfort of the bus) and walking around to take pictures and learn more about Havana and Cuba.

We finished the tour around 1:30 pm, which left us plenty of time, before our 7:30 all aboard call, in which we could explore the area around the port. We started by walking away from the port down a narrow street. We wound up stopping at a restaurant about two or three blocks away where I had Ropa Vieja, a traditional Cuban dish (being from North Carolina, I described it as “Cuban BBQ”), and the hubby had garlic shrimp. We tried one of the local beers, Bucanero. (In researching this blog I found some fascinating background on Cuba’s national beers here.)

Emboldened by our beers, we started walking further into Havana. It was then that I learned one of the best pieces of advice I can give to people visiting Havana – follow your ears. We heard some fantastic Cuban music coming out of a tiny bar and decided to go in and check it out. We had some rum drinks – a daiquiri for me, a mojito for him – and danced to the music as best we could in the available space (not much).

We walked on and found ourselves in the Plaza Vieja, a lively square where we stayed a bit to watch some street performers. I had decided that I wanted to take us to the “Museo del Ron” (Museum of Rum), and so we walked a route based on the map we’d been given. (Better PDF versions to come, but for now you can view the maps below.)

We had been told that you can change foreign currency for CUCs at hotels, and given that we were getting low on cash, I decided we should do this. We stopped at a hotel and asked about changing our pounds for Cuban currency. The desk clerk agreed to do this, but she said somewhat apologetically that she wouldn’t be able to give us as good an exchange rate. To me, that was fine – at that part of the day, it was pretty much a convenience fee. I exchanged 100 pounds for 110 CUCs.

It turned out that the so-called “rum museum” was really an attraction created by the local rum, Havana Club. It took up several buildings and featured a pretty little courtyard with a small bar where you could buy rum drinks. We tried a couple and even had a drink made with rum and freshly squeezed sugarcane juice! We were getting ready to leave when we heard a band playing in the complex’s bar, where they served all of the Havana Club products. We were convinced to stay for another drink and some more fun Cuban music. We stayed until the band finished its set and walked on.

Once we made it to the end of the day, I was longing for the A/C on that cool tour bus. Although most have plenty of ceiling fans, there’s little air conditioning in the bars and restaurants in Old Havana. My advice is to dress in cool clothing and just be prepared to be hot and sweaty – try not to let it bother you. I can guarantee you’re not the only one.

After we left the Havana Club/Museo del Ron, we thought we might head straight back to the ship. But we passed by a restaurant with an invitingly breezy patio and decided to have a seat. Turns out we were at a Harley Davidson motorcycle bar! I believe the place was called Café Ciclo but unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures, and to be honest I had had a LOT of rum at this point. Some fun decor made this an easily identifiable place on the same street as the Museo del Ron:

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We had a snack and a big bottle of water, and I tried the other local beer (Cristal), while we cooled off and prepared to head back to the ship.

My day in Havana definitely left me wanting more. I can’t wait to come back on a cruise with an overnight stop or even fly in for a couple of days. Soon!

A Day in Havana, Part I: Disembarking and customs

Finally, the day that we’d been waiting for was here. I set my alarm for 6 am so I’d be awake for our early (8 am) arrival into Havana. However, it was October, and sunrise time for Havana wasn’t until nearly 7:30. I realized that almost all places looked the same in the dark – I probably could have slept an extra half hour.

We stayed in our room getting ready and kept an eye out our window to see when it started to get light. At around 7 am, we went up to the Windjammer to get some coffee and breakfast, and after that we headed up to the top deck outside to get some pictures as we sailed into Havana. The pre-sunrise pictures were the best – soft light and some great colors in the sky. There was a lot of excitement on deck as we approached Havana.

Our shore excursion in Havana had a listed meeting time of 8 am in the ship’s theater. We showed up and found about half the ship there as well! (Ok, I’m exaggerating a bit.) We learned that they use the theater as a staging area for the departure of tour groups. You have to go through immigration as soon as you get into the cruise terminal, and this process often gets backed up. Better to wait in the air-conditioned theater!

We did wait, for about 45 minutes, in the theater before our tour group was called. We disembarked and waited for a few minutes before we were allowed into the terminal, where we stood in lines about 7-8 people deep at one of about 15 stations, each of which were manned by a Cuban immigration officer.

When it’s your turn, you go up to the officer’s station by yourself, regardless of whether you’re traveling with someone else. (I suppose with children it might be different.) You hand the officer your passport, your Cuban visa (given to you when you check in for the cruise), and your cruise card. You’ll be asked to take off any hats and also glasses, even if they’re normal glasses you wear for correcting your vision. A hanging digital camera will take your picture, your passport will be stamped (twice, one for your entry and one for your exit), and you’ll be on your way.

After passing through immigration, your next stop is straight ahead of you. It’s the place where you change your money for CUCs (Cuban Convertible Peso), the money that’s used by visitors to Cuba. I’d read on a couple of blogs that you’re best to bring money that is not American dollars, if you can (e.g. Euros, British pounds, Canadian dollars); the Cuban government charges a tax on the change of American money. (Can’t say I blame them.)

Knowing this, I brought some Euros and British Pounds that I had left over from previous trips. At this first stop, I changed 220 Euros for 250 CUC. In hindsight, I wish I had changed more at the cruise terminal, but that’s largely because we wound up spending about 150 CUC on cigars. If you’re not planning to make that sizable of a purchase, this amount of cash should be sufficient for you. (You can read in Part II how we changed some money later in the day.)

With our passports stamps and our CUCs in hand (well, in my purse), we headed out to meet our bus for the day’s tour. (Read more)