Happiness on a shore excursion can be a bit of a crapshoot. Occasionally, the outing can be a total bust, for reasons that may vary from bad planning to poor weather, a deficient guide, crowds, or even just a deathly dullsville destination. Here are seven of the biggest disappointments:
Magens Bay Beach
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
The Magens Bay Beach getaway can be a delight or akin to Coney IsIand on the Fourth of July, depending on the day of the week. The setting is gorgeous and the sand powdery soft, but if several big cruise ships are in port, expect a major hassle for securing a nice spot, beach chairs, and an umbrella, with long queues for food and drinks.
Tip: If you are a beach lover, then find out how many other ships will be in port. If there are three or more big ships, it would be best to choose something else.
Sitka National Historical Park
At the entrance to Alaska’s Sitka National Historical Park, we were dropped off without any guidance as to where to go, and on-site information revealed little about the splendid totems positioned deep in the forest. Mostly, we worried about getting lost and missing our ride. Then passing the keynote site of St. Michael’s Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church, we were told it was closed (on a Sunday?) and later learned it wasn’t. Left off at the remains of a fort, the guide drove away and came back a half hour later for the transfer to the ship. We did enjoy seeing two bald eagles sitting atop the church’s weather vane with snowy coastal mountains as a backdrop.
Tip: Take a shuttle to the center of Sitka and walk to the major attractions, or inquire on board if the tour includes a guided interpretation (not just a drop off) at the totem park, St. Michael’s and the historic port.
St. Andrews by-the-Sea
Saint John, New Brunswick
From the port of Saint John, the coastal drive to lovely St. Andrews by-the-Sea consumed half of the six-hour excursion. The advertised high tea at the venerable late 19th-century Algonquin Resort was served in a separate cavernous function room used for tour groups. I fled without eating to explore the hotel itself. At a drop-off along the prettified Main Street, bus loads flooded shops selling tourist trinkets.
Tip: Pick the all-day tour that takes you to lots of sites (yes moderately-long drives) such as the Bay of Fundy, Reversing Falls, sea caves, covered bridges, beautiful residential homes and fishing villages. Doing lunch on your own will lower the cost even more.
Bar Harbor, Maine
Anchoring way off Bar Harbor, a very long tender ride brought us to an overcrowded dock, where we boarded a convoy of buses that stopped at a rocky coastal beauty spot to ogle the pounding surf, but the ocean was a millpond. The top of Cadillac Mountain was enshrouded in clouds obscuring the otherwise stunning view, and I threw in the towel at a tourist trap stop at Jordan Pond.
Tip: Wait until you know what the weather will bring. If it's sunny, you can book at the last minute or take the shuttle service offered by the Bar Harbor Tourist Board.
Pineapple Farm and Fire Lake
Ponta Delgada, Azores
In the mid-Atlantic, our ship called at Ponta Delgada, a pretty town that we should have never left. The excursion’s first stop, with six buses converging, was a small hot house pineapple farm where people milled about wondering why they were there. Low clouds marred the second stop at Fire Lake, blocking the view from the rim. Instead, we saw what we missed in a photo mural, so I snapped a picture of that and nearly fooled my friends at home. Lastly, we were dropped at a coastal town with little to see.
Tip: Simply spend the day in Ponta Delgada, a lovely town for snacking on seafood treats, shopping for local crafts, and visiting churches and museums.
The State Hermitage Museum
St. Petersburg, Russia
One of the world’s great cultural cities becomes an utterly maddening place in summer when too many people congregate to see the same things at the same time. My first visit to the Hermitage and the cathedral where the czars are buried was a nightmare as guides shouted over each other to be heard. With audio headsets, guides still clash simply trying to carve out floor space for their groups. At the end of the day, all of the tour buses arrived back at the ship simultaneously, resulting in a frustratingly long wait to get back onboard.
Tip: Again, use a cruise schedule site. Scroll first to the date(s) your ship will be here, and you will see the list of other ships. If you are staying, two days, pick the one that has the fewest ships for visiting the major attractions and choose something outside the city for the busier date.
The lamest commentary of all time came during a nearly two-hour drive from Geiranger to Alesund. It went like this, “There’s a typical Norwegian marina” (two boats at a tiny dock). “Look, here’s a beautiful church to visit inside” (as we sped by without even slowing down). “That hill ahead is to be blasted away for an Ikea shop, and look at the water standing on the ground because the ground is frozen.” As the bus approached a ferry: “Once there were 80 factories and now almost zero, so people can work for the buses and ferries.” Passing an old farmhouse: “That’s 400 years old, and now the owners are adding an inside toilet and shower.”
Tip: Skip the drive altogether as it is no more scenic than enjoying the view from the rim at your own pace.