Edgy shore excursions require a little homework
One person's joyful travel adventure can be another's horror.
So, before you don helmet and goggles, and saddle up a Yamaha ATV for a speedy trek through an agave ranch near the cruise port of Progreso in Mexico's Yucatan, take stock of yourself.
Am I ready for this?
The trail on this cruise ship excursion is pocked and slippery with loose rocks -- and dusty enough to coat your lower lip and fill all your pores. The trek is not for the frail, fastidious, nervous, fearful of driving or turning over (as one fellow in my excursion group did, though you would not want to drive next to him on the freeway, either).
One man chose the wrong ride
The ATV -- all terrain vehicle -- experience in Mexico is a gritty, jouncing, tiring adventure. Most of the dozen passengers, off the Carnival Fantasy in 2009, said they had a great time and would do it again.
But one fellow was highly disappointed and said he wished he had chosen a less demanding, less stressful day in port.
As cruise lines offer more adventures to passengers looking for edgy experiences, you need to pay attention to the physical demands described on the lists of shore excursions, as well as your physical fitness and comfort levels.
Beyond the beach and beverage tour
Most cruise ship excursions are mild -- sitting on a bus, a beach, a boat or perhaps an inner tube on a lazy river, all among the more popular port choices, say cruise lines.
Beach, bus and beverage tours also are among the least expensive, $25 or more, depending on what's included, such as alcohol and lunch.
Stingray City at Grand Cayman Island, where you may watch the graceful rays from a glass bottom boat or actually swim with them off a sandbar ($50 and up).
Join the crew on an America's Cup Yacht Race off the coast of St. Maarten (about $90).
Walk up Dunn's River Falls in Jamaica (about $60).
Pilot your own 12-foot zodiac-style boat with an outboard motor along the southern coast of St. Thomas to Christmas Cove for a swim and snorkel on the Mini Boat Adventure (Pictured above. Price: about $100)
If you are a roller coaster fan, perhaps your Royal Caribbean ship will stop at the cruise line's private Haitian enclave, Labadee, where passengers can ride the new Alpine Coaster for $35.
Book ahead and look for videos, reviews
Even soft adventures carry some element of danger. You would not be the first to slip off the round rocks at Dunn's River Falls. And if the stingrays in the Caymans playfully attach their mouths to you, they can leave a major purple hickey from the suction.
When you step up your adventure another notch, cruise lines recommend that passengers pay attention to the rigors of the excursion.
"The advantage of booking tours on line, before your cruise, is that passengers can read about length and difficulty of the tours, as well as see a video of the adventure," said spokesman Vance Gulliksen of Carnival Cruise Line (Carnival.com).
"We recommend that guests research shore excursions on line at our web site before the cruise," said AnneMarie Matthews of Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL.com). "Guests have the opportunity to rate the excursions and write reviews, so those looking to book can get a first-hand account."
Booking tours online, ahead of your cruise, has the added advantage of getting the tour you want and avoiding lines aboard ship. As cruise ships get bigger, lines can get longer.
Motorcycles, zip lines and ATVs
Cruise lines see a trend toward more adventures ashore.
"People are more active than they used to be," said Gulliksen.
Carnival recently added a Harley Davidson motorcycle tour on Mexico's island of Cozumel ($300), and nearly every cruise ship offers port tours that include an ATV adventure or zip lining.
In zip lining, participants wear a harness attached to a wire cable and move from station to station, usually at treetop levels.
NCL recommends the Biomaya Canopy Experience at Mexico's Costa Maya. MSC recommends the Antigua Canopy Tour, a journey of nine zip lines that run 52 to 328 feet. Royal Caribbean has a zip line on its newest ship, Oasis of the Seas.
Relatively strenuous for the relatively fit
Most zip lining tours carry some sort of warning.
Roatan Shore Excursions of Honduras, which offers a four-hour port tour using 16 suspension cables, suggests: "Zip lining is relatively strenuous. Participants should be relatively fit and weigh less than 250 pounds. It is not recommended for people with heart problems, seizure disorders or vertigo."
ATV tours are not as strenuous. On mine, near Progreso (about $96 for the tour), the primary requirements were sitting and steering. Even the man who turned his vehicle over escaped without serious injury, except to his ego.
David Molyneaux writes a monthly column about cruising tips and trends for newspapers and web sites. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com