Cruise ship ports and their shore excursions often are highlights of a vacation voyage, especially when you are in unfamiliar territory.
Before boarding your cruise ship or riverboat, port possibilities are well worth exploring on the Internet and in expert publications. Sometimes, ports — during, before, or after your voyage — offer unexpected opportunities for discovery.
Among my favorite off-the-ship discoveries during recent cruises: Teak-hauling elephants in Myanmar, where they are gaining a better life and learning new, less onerous, tasks; a lush resort and a lasting souvenir purchased at the home of a fascinating artist in Bali; and a delightful hotel in Budapest designed around music.
Elephants in rehab, off the Avalon Myanmar
A remote camp for retiring and rehabilitating elephants lies a 15-minute, bouncy bus ride outside the Irrawaddy riverside city of Katha.
These elephants, some in need of the camp veterinarian, no longer are hauling heavy teak from forests, where the lumber business is fading. Finding new work may be what keeps them alive and provided for, as they age.
Avalon Waterways, which operates the modern Avalon Myanmar riverboat between Bhamo and Bagan in northern Myanmar, is contributing to a transition for the elephants.
At this camp near Katha, elephants are learning to provide short rides for travelers under much less severe work and living conditions than they had faced in the deep woods.
This is not a tourist show with questionable elephant tricks that often lead to abuse. Old-style work training tactics are not allowed at the camp. “We warned them, no hooks under the ears,” said an Avalon Waterways spokesman.
Instead, skilled mahouts, who have worked with elephants for centuries, gently are helping the animals change their focus. Avalon passengers may feed the elephants, watch them get a bath, and climb on their backs for a ride.
Riverboat passengers who choose to ride will sit in a hardwood chair built by Avalon Waterways and will notice lots of jerky movement on the back of an elephant.
The slow ride is less than 15 minutes, which is plenty.
My souvenir painting from Bali, off the Crystal Symphony
After an exotic cruise on the Crystal Symphony from Singapore to Bali, my wife and I extended our stay in the final port to walk in the stunningly green highlands in and around Ubud.
Two nights at the Four Seasons Resort Sayan were a splurge, but the lush resort, perched above the Ayung River, more than lived up to its reputation as being one of the finest in the world.
We wanted also to take home a reminder of the island, which is a favorite for travelers from all over the world for its lushness and the its gentle Hindu culture.
On a rainy final day, my wife and I walked for a couple of miles along Ubud's country lanes headed for the village of Penestanan, which a guidebook recommended as an artists’ town where residents began developing a modern style of painting in the 1950s.
When we reached the town, rain had driven almost everyone inside, except for a man we met on the street who understood our desire to see local art. He summoned his father who spoke no English but who knew one of the best artists. He led us through alleyways and a back yard to the Penestanan home of artist I W Gama.
Mr. Gama spoke English. Meeting him was a special moment. We talked about local painters and paintings, his life as an artist and teacher, and he gave us a tour of his work at home.
My eyes and those of my wife settled on a painting that Mr. Gama recently had finished. We bought our grand souvenir with Indonesian cash that we extracted from a local ATM while he wrapped the oil painting for carrying home — a difficult journey that included a two-day misplacing by the airline at the airport in Chicago. (No problem in Bali, none in Hong Kong, piece of cake in Los Angeles, but Chicago ...)
Eventually, the airlift ended well, thanks to a dozen relentless phone calls from home, and a conscientious American Airlines baggage employe who went searching closed offices at O'Hare at 3 a.m
Our cherished souvenir, flocks of shore birds gathering at dusk in Bali, now hangs in our living room at home in Cleveland.
An Aria in Budapest, off Emerald Dawn
On the lower Danube River, between Romania and Hungary, a stop in Budapest always is a highlight.
If you are beginning or ending your river cruise in Budapest, as we did on Emerald Waterways’ Emerald Dawn, consider a night or two at the swanky, music-themed Aria Hotel and Spa in the center of the city, near St. Stephen’s Basilica in the historic Lipótváros neighborhood.
Rooms feature art nouveau, baroque or pop-art styling. Some offer balconies. The hotel features a comfortable indoor pool and a popular rooftop terrace.
In the evening, walk the stairs to the terrace for dinner, or at least a beverage to drink in the sights and sounds of one of the great cities of the world.
David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com. His cruise trends column is published in U.S. newspapers, including the Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News, and on Internet sites, including AllThingsCruise. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com .