By Jim Ferri
It’s amazing how popular cruises have become over the past few decades. Part of their attraction is the concept of the ship as a floating hotel, which frees one from the tedium of continually packing and unpacking at each destination. And, of course, there’s also that appeal of all-inclusive dining facilities and many on-board activities.
For many, however, the lure of a cruise is the slower pace of traveling, the smoothness of the journey, the cleaner air and the escape from the hub-bub of daily life, all so comforting and mesmerizing.
But most cruises take time, anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks or months, and they can be expensive. There are, however, alternatives – mini cruises, you might say – that also provide a smooth ride, clean air and that escape from the hub-bub for anywhere from a half-hour to several hours.
Best yet, they’re much less costly – some, in fact, are free – and often provide you some first-rate scenery and, in some cases, a fascinating educational experience.
Here are five “mini-cruises” I’ve taken in the past year, all of which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, as I suspect you will also. You’re also certain to find others closer to home.
If you want to learn where Mrs. O’Leary’s cow supposedly kicked over the lantern that started the great Chicago fire or why the Chicago River actually runs backwards, hop aboard one of the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s river cruises. You’ll not only learn answers to those questions, but also spend one of the most entertaining 90 minutes you’ll have in Chicago.
The commentary of the tour docents is fascinating as they describe the buildings along the way, peppering their descriptions with incredible minutia … explaining hybrid architectural styles, pointing out little things in the building, discussing what makes that style important, etc., interweaving it all with the history of the city. Cost for the 90-minute tour is $37.85 per person.
Hop Aboard a Lobster Boat
The Lulu Lobster Boat Ride in Bar Harbor, Maine is one of the most fun and educational things you can do in the entire state. Join the affable and beguiling Captain John on his lobster boat and you’ll spend the next two hours being entertained as you learn all about New England sea life. After hopping aboard one day we were brought out to a shoal where baby seals poked their heads out of the water to study us, as a Bald Eagle glided overhead. He regaled us about lobsters, taught us how to sex a crab, and explained numerous things about birds and sea mammals, all the while mesmerizing us with his antics and knowledge. Cost is $33 per adult, $30 for adults 65+.
Set Sail On a City Ferry
The best water rides you can get anywhere are often the sightseeing ferry tours in major cities such as Toronto, San Francisco, New York and Hong Kong. Both San Francisco and New York also offer commuter ferries. (New York’s commuter ferry, the Staten Island Ferry, not only provides a unique view of both the skyline and the Statue of Liberty, it’s absolutely free). On the Star Ferry’s Harbour Tour in Hong King you can see all of Hong Kong’s famous harbor side attractions for HK$85 (about $11); on its “Symphony of Lights Harbour Cruise” you can watch the city’s famous multi-media laser show for HK$180 (approximately $23), which includes a refreshment coupon.
Head for the Fjords
If you don’t want to lay out thousands for a cruise through the fjords of Norway, opt for a “Norway in a Nutshell” tour, an innovative tour that links together trains, buses and ferry trips in one package. It’s phenomenal trip that works like a charm and gives you access to a beautiful fjord experience. There are more than a dozen different tours that can be tailored into full-day or multi-day excursions. You can also add on other related adventures or hotel accommodations. Full day tours start at 775 Kroner, about $125.
Greek Island Ferries
In a seafaring nation with a plethora of islands it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are plenty of ferry trips from which to choose in Greece. If you haven’t much time in Greece and are just looking for a quick island experience out of Athens you may want to opt for a quick ferry trip to the Saronic Islands (Aegina, Hydra and Póros) that are popular with day-tripping tourists from Athens. If you’re headed further out to sea you can also take ferries from Athens (Piraeus) to the Cycladic islands (Mykonos, Santorini, etc.) or further afield to the Dodecanese (Rhodes) and Crete. Ferries also link many of the islands as well as Greece to Italy.
Keep in mind that in Greece the word “ferry” refers to the slowest vessels, which provide mainly deck space, and some indoor seating, to passengers. High-speed ferries, as the name implies are much faster and resemble cruise ships. If travel time is at a premium these are your best options. Fares range widely depending upon distance, time of year and type of ship.