Cruise ship itineraries are designed to sound amazing in the marketing materials. Beautiful beach resorts in far flung destinations, incredible cities to explore and natural wonders to be in awe of. However, the reality can often be very different.
Firstly, modern cruise ships are too big to dock in many destinations so either have to ferry everyone ashore in a series of small tenders (converted lifeboats) or dock miles away and hope people won’t realise until they are already onboard.
- ‘Rome’ is actually Civitavecchia – about an hour away
- ‘Beijing’ is actually Tianjin – 90 miles away
- ‘London’ is actually Southampton – more than two hours away
So, the other option is tendering. This is so much worse. Getting 7000 people ashore in groups of 100 when they all want to go at the same time (usually 9am) means that the queues are horrendous and tempers fray quickly. The boat trip itself will be overcrowded, very hot and it is inevitable people will vomit. What makes the whole process worse is if the port is terrible and people decide to come back again straight away.
The reason cruise ships dock in places the company knows are awful usually involve picking up supplies (there is nowhere else to refuel) or because they are cheaper to dock at than their competitors. Examples that come to mind include
- Arriving on a Sunday when absolutely everything is shut (every week, all season)
- Docking in a container port next to large piles of woodchip or dangerous chemicals meaning walking is forbidden and the only option is to pay for their compulsory shuttle busses
- An island in the south pacific which had a recent volcanic explosion, so everything was dead and covered in a thick layer of dust. Many passengers left their balcony doors open and came back to find all their possessions were now grey.
Although for crew members, by far, the worst ports are the private islands. ‘Exclusive’ beaches rented by the cruise lines for their passengers. How exclusive any beach can be when there are 7000 people from a cruise liner there is another matter. These beaches are gated off to keep away the ‘undesirable locals’ and as it needs to be shallow enough for bathing, there is no dock. This means a very early start.
Before 6am the food and beverage team are loading bottles of beer and chicken ready to be barbequed in the already thirty-degree heat. They get taken ashore along with all the t-shirts and sun cream the shop staff need for their ‘pop up’ stores, everything the kids club will need to entertain hundreds of under 10s and sun loungers, so many sun loungers. Then at the end of the day, everything goes back in the little boats and is returned to the ship. The following day a different ship will arrive and the whole thing starts again.
All this would be worth it, if the resorts were amazing and everyone had a great time. The problem is, that is rarely the case. There is nothing to see (other than the beach) and it might be the fifth beach port of the cruise so everybody is already burnt to a crisp and has had quite enough of the sandflies.
Making use of the ship when it is quiet and everyone is ashore is a treat and whenever anyone asked me which port was most worth missing I would whisper ‘the private island’.