Last summer, craving a vacation at sea but unwilling to fly to a ship, Jay and Shelly Schwartz hopped a taxi from their Montgomery County home and within an hour were boarding the Celebrity Galaxy in Baltimore, a new Celebrity embarkation port for 10-night Caribbean cruises.
On that same cruise were Carol and Bruce Janniff of Seattle. For years, they had wanted to tour Washington and Baltimore's Inner Harbor, but they also hankered for a do-nothing cruise. A sharp travel agent arranged to pair the two vacations, booking them on the Galaxy cruise, with one pre-cruise night in Baltimore and a few post-cruise nights at a Washington hotel within easy walking distance of the capital's top museums and monuments.
"It was a fun combination," says Carol Janniff. "We probably otherwise would have just taken a cruise to Alaska from Seattle since it would have been more convenient, but the opportunity to do two kinds of vacations to places we had never been was irresistible."
This year, as cruise lines vie to boost passenger loads by bringing more ships closer to major population centers, more than 20 North American cities will be departure ports, luring locals, as well as those within a day's drive, train or charter-bus ride or short flight.
Many of these departure points should be attractive not only to local cruise enthusiasts -- who can save a bundle on airfares and avoid the hassles and potential flight delays at airports -- but also to those from farther afield who might want to explore these dynamic cities and their environs as vacation destinations in themselves before or after the cruise.
The lines are practically falling all over themselves to grab berths in New York; New Orleans; Charleston, S.C.; Boston; Philadelphia; Galveston, Texas; Baltimore; Houston; San Francisco; Seattle; Los Angeles; San Diego; Tampa; and San Juan. Sailings out of traditional ports in Florida (Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral) will have even more departures than in previous years.
(Cruise Line International Association, an industry consortium, estimates that as many as 8 million Americans will take a cruise in 2003, up from an estimated 7.4 million in 2002, and a mere 1.4 million in 1980, the first year CLIA industry statistics were compiled. And that's despite worries about war and terrorism, not to mention the flulike illness that struck thousands of passengers on several ships last fall.)
Hotel packages at embarkation cities may include one or more nights at a selection of hotels, free round-trip transfer between the airport, hotel and pier (or, at some destinations, a rental car), and sometimes a continental breakfast. Some lines offer more extensive touring packages at selected destinations, or can hook up passengers with a travel agent who can set up an itinerary.
"We've found hotel packages work especially well for cruises of five days and under, where you can explore the area and take the cruise all within the space of a one-week vacation," said Jennifer de la Cruz, a spokeswoman for Carnival Cruise Lines.
Carnival will have a record 18 North American embarkation ports this year, including 50 departures from New York.
The Big Apple is coming up a huge winner in the new home-port-advantage strategy, with at least 10 cruise lines sailing out of Manhattan this year on voyages to the Caribbean, Bahamas, Bermuda, New England and Canada. New, faster ships make possible round-trip voyages to the Caribbean and Bahamas that can call at three or four ports in the space of just seven or eight days -- an impossible feat in previous years.
Norwegian Cruise Line's new television ads aimed at New Yorkers proclaim: "Catch a cab to the harbor and be in paradise before you know it."
Ships and cities
But don't feel left out if no ships are coming to a city near you. Pick a port, fly there and take a neat tour.
* In San Francisco, passengers on Crystal Cruises' 12-day sailings to Alaska and British Columbia aboard the Crystal Harmony can book a three-night pre-cruise wine-country package. The program starts with a night in San Francisco's landmark Fairmont Hotel, followed by vintage tastings at the Napa Valley's Domain Chandon, Niebaum Coppola, Trefethen and St. Supery vineyards, with loads of lavish meals.
* In Seattle, Norwegian Cruise Lines offers two-night pre- or post-cruise packages in conjunction with seven-day Alaska / British Columbia cruises aboard the Norwegian Sun and Sky, May to September. Included are hotel, a full-day excursion to Mount Rainier, and a tour of Seattle's Pike Place Market and Lake Union houseboat community aboard the Seattle Duck, an amphibious World War II landing craft.
* Also out of Seattle, Princess Cruises offers eight-day tours around the Canadian Rockies -- including Lake Louise, Banff and Jasper -- in conjunction with seven-day Alaska Inside Passage cruises aboard the Star Princess and Diamond Princess, May to September.