Port Authority

Cruises: Nowadays, voyage options boil down to convenience vs. charm. Where to go ashore and how to tour the port depend on your taste for adventure, if you get the drift.

October 10, 1999|By John Maxtone-Graham | John Maxtone-Graham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When yesterday's liners were about to sail from the United States for Europe, a steward banging a Chinese gong would strut up and down the corridors shouting, "All ashore that's going ashore!" His mission was to clear the ship of visitors, who bid hasty farewells and went scurrying down the gangway. Then the ship's whistle boomed overhead and it departed on its trans-Atlantic voyage.

Passengers remained on board until their vessel tied up in Southampton, Le Havre or Bremen. Only then did they disembark, having steamed from Point A to Point B, never slowing or stopping en route. But for contemporary cruise passengers, "All ashore that's going ashore" has a different connotation. After embarking at Point A, passengers repeatedly flock happily ashore at Points B, C and D before disembarking back at Point A a week later.

Rather than providing mere transportation across a dangerous ocean, cruise ships today offer a sybaritic drift from one exotic destination to another. These deepwater vessels are perfectly capable of making long crossings, but they adhere to a stop-and-go timetable, dawdling along warm-weather itineraries that feature a succession of cultural and recreational landfalls. The cruising voyage is episodic -- idyllic days at sea alternating with days tied up or anchored in port.

Of course, getting to know a port, let alone an island, within the customary dawn-to-dusk span of a cruise ship's call is not easy. But profiting from a guided tour or some diligent solo exploration, one can certainly absorb sufficient impressions to encourage a longer return engagement for the future.

Heading for shore

When popular cruising began about a hundred years ago, liners thronged with sightseers began visiting the same Caribbean islands so familiar to us today. But their "going ashore" was in quaint contrast with ours. When the Victoria Luise, a four-funneled German cruise ship of 1911, dropped anchor in the harbor of St. Thomas, for example, passengers would clamber down mahogany companionways on either side of the vessel and crowd aboard all the ship's lifeboats. Then, a string of boats would be towed to land by a steam launch carried on board for that purpose. The entire passenger load went ashore together, just as together they all returned to the ship near sunset.

Today, St. Thomas has a modern, deep-water pier, the West Indian Docks, at which flotillas of the world's largest cruise ships tie up routinely week after week, year-round. One can disembark or re-embark on impulse. A convenient mall has sprung up within a stone's throw of every gangway, but hard-core bargain-hunters opt for a brief taxi ride around the harbor's edge in pursuit of the downtown shops.

Larger, deep-draft vessels such as the Norway or Queen Elizabeth II must anchor outside St. Thomas' harbor and send their passengers ashore in tenders just like the old days. Passengers from those vessels have the advantage of being deposited in the heart of St. Thomas' main shopping area in Charlotte Amalie, avoiding the need for a taxi but enduring in its place a 20-minute tender ride.

The great difference between these two modes of going is largely one of convenience.

Passengers aboard a vessel tied to a pier can come and go as they please, making several visits into town if desired, interspersed with restorative interludes on board. But the tendering passenger -- faced with the cumulative delays of awaiting a shorebound tender, lining up to board, riding to shore and finally disembarking at a dock -- will most probably restrict his or her outings to one.

If seas are rough, embarkation into the tenders can be dangerous; and if wave conditions are really threatening, the captain may haul his tenders back up into their davits and write off the port completely. At risk is not only getting passengers safely ashore but, if the weather deteriorates, retrieving them as well. No master wants to have a portion of his precious human cargo stranded ashore, putting the balance of his itinerary at risk.

Nevertheless, I cherish a soft spot for the business of going ashore by tender, partly because it has always been the traditional means of achieving a tropical port and partly because it keeps one's vessel at a distance, aloof from sometimes unappealing waterfronts. Anchored peacefully offshore enjoying a cool sea breeze beats baking alongside a humid pier.

For many passengers, particularly inexperienced ones, how they come ashore in St. Thomas is irrelevant. The mere mention of St. Thomas conjures up images of a shopping paradise. Cruise lines are aware of this, and it is a rare Caribbean itinerary that excludes that perennial favorite. The lure of bargains available ashore, whether whiskey, watches or woolens, tends to skew passenger focus concerning the island.

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