No matter how many times I answer the question (and I always do so with a resounding no), the listeners to my weekly radio program persist in posing the challenge again and again: "Should we sign up for shore excursions in advance of our cruise?"
Well, part of my current European stay is a Mediterranean cruise, for which I haven't booked a single shore excursion — neither from the cruise line, nor from the several companies (ShoreTrips.com, Portpromotions.com are typical) that now compete with the cruise lines in operating shore excursions for smaller groups.
Recently we stopped at the Greek island of Santorini, where all the cruise ships "tender you" ashore — that is, they place you into smaller boats for getting from ship to dock. And there, on the dock, is a cable car that takes you up the famous cliffs of Santorini to the capital city of Fira, where all visitors start exploring the unique cliffside city.
The cable cars charge 4 euros per person up ($6) and 4 euros per person down ($6). As a quaint option, if you wish you can go up by mule instead for 5 euros ($7.50) each way. Once in Fira, you visit the cathedral, the numerous Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, the various home museums of earlier residents, and numerous other attractions, entirely free of charge. You go to dine, as we did, on your own two feet, walking the whitewashed stone streets and steps that take you to numerous restaurants with dining terraces under canvas awnings, where you enjoy a view of the Aegean and of the volcanic "caldera" to the side of Santorini itself. It is one of the great sights of the world, brought to you either from that restaurant or via a simple walk to your meal.
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Why anyone would substitute an escorted motorcoach tour with 45 other timid persons for this casual look-see at the life of Santorini is, to me, a continuing mystery. Those tours currently cost, as operated by the cruise lines, from $60 to $85 per person. Yet you can obtain the historical/cultural background for your visit by attending an "enrichment lecture" that's usually given on your cruise ship free of charge, as I did early on the morning of the Santorini stop.
The same considerations apply to visits on the island of Mykonos, at which our cruise ship landed the day after our visit to Santorini.
Now, the Greek island of Mykonos is no longer the place of enchantment it once was. Smack in the center of the Aegean, halfway between Greece and Turkey, it is visited by most cruise ships. And because most cruise ships now carry between 2,000 and 3,000 passengers, the daily arrival of three or four such ships (from April through mid-October) dumps twice as many tourists on the island as there are residents.
That having been said, it's still fun to wander for several hours, to visit the dormant windmills that overlook the island, to mingle with tourists from dozens of lands, and especially to take your classically Greek meals at tavernas and restaurants serving them on outdoor terraces under canvas awnings.
What's particularly amusing is that many of the escorted group tours of the island are conducted on foot, taking groups of 40 at a time through the labyrinthine web of streets and alleys that make up the main town. Roberta and I, having not spent a penny for such tour services, were wandering through the city by ourselves, side by side with the sheeplike group of tourists following a leader who bore a raised umbrella to lead them along. The cruise ships leave you off (either by tender or on free shuttle buses, if they have managed to stop at a dock) near the main port city, and you then walk on your own the short distance into town. It simply is ridiculous to spend the outsized sums that the cruise ships charge for a meaningless tour.