Europe is one of the most exciting regions in the world. From the tip of Norway to the shores of Greece, it’s home to some of the most popular and well-known cities like Barcelona, Venice, Athens, St. Petersburg, Copenhagen and Bergen.
But what about the smaller port? Those hidden jewels that are so wonderful and unexpected that you can’t wait to go back again. Holland America carefully crafts each itinerary to include ports of all types — the larger ones that are a “must-do” and the lesser known ports that add such flavor and depth to the cruise. Because the ports aren’t as well known, guests sometimes wonder about the best things to do ashore. Here are five fabulous smaller ports and two “must-dos” in each.
#1: Skader Lake is among the most beautiful sites in all of Montenegro and home to last remaining habitat of pelicans and the largest bird reservation in Europe. Skadarsko Jezero, as it is known in the Montenegrin language, is set within the National Park of the same name and boasts 264 species of birds, 48 species of fish and 30 submarine springs. Numerous islands, fish colonies and a complex of monasteries cap off the attractions of the region.
#2: No visit to Kotor would be complete without Cruising Kotor Bay. On the journey guests will have a magnificent view of the Gospa od Skrpjela Baroque church, set on one of the two islets. According to the legend, the islet was made over the centuries by the seamen who kept an ancient oath. Upon returning from each successful voyage, they laid a rock in the bay and, over time, the islet gradually emerged from the sea. The island is just across from the town of Perast, and its church contains 68 magnificent paintings by Tripo Kokolja, a famous 17th-century artist from Perast.
We had a great time. Our boat wasn’t as crowded and the length of time at both stops were just right. The stop in Perast was short, but there was enough free time to do what you want or to do nothing at all. — guest Jonnymac
#1: Imagine dogsledding in the Artic tundra! On the Dogsledding on Wheels tour, you can! The husky dog farm is on the outskirts of Longyearbyen, and the lovable huskies are always raring to go. The summertime Arctic scenery is quite lovely and eerie and this experience is very special. Be on the lookout for birds and wildlife, and the 24-hour sunlight also sets the tundra in full bloom.
#2: Norway is home to some of the most glorious fjords in the world. On the Fjord Safari tour, guests take an open boat and head across Isfjord (Ice Fjord) to Bird Mountain. The bird cliff here rises almost vertically out of the open water. Although it looks stark, the mountain is teeming with life in the form of thousands of sea birds. Species you may see include puffins, little auk, black guillemot, sea gulls, black auk and others.
#1: Gibraltar is known for its famous rock, so it’s only fitting that a visit to this historic port includes a tour like A Stroll on the Upper Rock. Guests take a cablecar ride to the top, then walk along a wooded path to admire St. Michael’s Cave. The tour also includes an exciting visit to the Apes’ Den, home of Barbary apes.
A very interesting perspective on the geography of such an important place in world history with spectacular views, providing the rock is not making clouds. The cavern was an unexpected treat! Adding the walk to and through the British siege tunnels was extremely interesting and enlightening. — guest “doksci”
#2: The Gibraltar: A City Under Siege tour also includes the Rock. It’s the highlight of the call and should be seen by all visitors! Guests also get to visit the Great Siege Tunnels carved out of solid limestone, and the first buildings ever constructed by the British in Gibraltar. Nelson’s Anchorage can be seen during a drive through the Old Town, and a stop at Gibraltar Museum has a movie showing the evolution of the Rock.
Lipari, Sicily, Italy
#1: The island of Vulcano, once called Hierò Thermessa, is one of the most interesting in the Aeolian archipelago because of its landscapes and stunning volcanic phenomena. On the Vulcano Hike & Swim tour, guests discover why Homer most fittingly described the island as the workshop of Hephaestus — the Greek god of fire. But it is in fact dedicated to Vulcan — the Roman god of fire and metalworking. Vulcano consists of three old craters: the first, in the south between Monte Aria and Monte Saraceno, has been extinct for centuries. The Gran Cratere, on the other hand, is still active, with the last eruption occurring in 1890. Vulcanello, the third crater, is a promontory on the northeastern tip of the island. Guests have time to hike the volcano with a guide, swim in the clear waters or take a mud bath.
#2: No one makes pizza like the Sicilians, and on the Lipari Drive & Pizza tour, guests will get to not only eat a traditional pizza, they’ll be the ones making it. The tour also features a panoramic sightseeing drive around the island of Lipari, including stops at some of the best viewpoints. The eventual destination is a local pizzeria, where the owners demonstrate how to make magnificent, traditional Sicilian pizza. Guests then have the opportunity to try their hand at making a pizza and finally enjoying the fruits of their labor along with some wine and Aeolian cookies.
Torshavn, Faroe Islands:
#1: There’s no better way to see the islands than from the water. On the Vestmanna Seacliffs tour, guests board a boat and head out to the famous bird cliffs. All of your senses will awaken with the sound of sea birds, the salty scent of the sea and its cool spray on your face, the stunning cliff formations and the raucous riot of squawking birds who call these sea cliffs home. Cruise along the cliff wall, into a narrow gorge where sheer rock walls rise vertically on both sides towards the sky. The boat slowly enters one of the many grottoes and, for a moment, daylight disappears. The boat stops for a while so you can enjoy the scenery.
#2: The Vágar tour goes out of the city to explore more of the Faroe Islands. After passing through the new underwater tunnel, guests arrive on Vágar Island. Drive through the village of Sandavágur and visit the Midvágur Church, then pass the largest lake in the Faroe Islands before reaching Vatnsoyrar. In Bøur, discover a little village with both old and new houses with green sod roofs and a charming old tar-blackened church. From there, take in the spectacular view of Tindholmur and Mykines Islands beyond. Leave Bour through the tunnel to Gasadalur, Vagar’s westernmost village, then return to Torshavn via the mountain road to capture the extraordinary panoramic views out over the fjords and the capital.
This was our favorite excursion on the 35 day cruise. We had a great guide and a beautiful sunny day. The coastline is stunning. The only draw back is that when you get back to the port the stores are closing. Just have to go again. You really get to see a lot of the Island. — Guest “Tress”
No matter what you chose to do, go ashore and enjoy all that these smaller ports have to offer. What’s your favorite lesser known port? Tell us in the comments below.