Top U.S. Cruise Ports to Explore Before Your Cruise

So, you’re traveling to catch a cruise and you’re advised to arrive the day before departure. This is good advice, because air travel delays for weather, aircraft problems or an unruly passenger can cause you to miss your ship if you don’t add a little cushion. What will you do with the afternoon or evening in the cruise port? Is it worth planning more than a day? Here are a few popular cruise ports and the best ways to kill a few hours in each destination.

Seattle city scape

Seattle: If you’re cruising to Alaska, chances are you will depart from the Emerald City of Seattle. Everything you’ve heard about this northwest jewel is true: the coffee is delicious, the city’s scenic backdrop is stunning, and it rains – a lot. In the shadow of majestic Mount Rainier, Seattle is set on a hillside that slopes down to Elliott Bay and the waterfront area. Tourists love to take the monorail to the Space Needle, where you can have drinks in a revolving restaurant and see the city below. Go early to catch the sunset. Locals also recommend the view from Smith Tower on 2nd Avenue, which has indoor and outdoor observation decks on the 35th floor.

If you’re an aquanaut like I am, you might opt to take the water taxi from Pier 50 on the waterfront to Alki Point, where you can walk the beach or the Alki Trail and get a great view of the city. Then, take a return trip to Elliott’s Oyster House on Pier 56 for a wild salmon dinner, served on a cedar plank. It’s amazing. Wander around the piers and you’ll find great local souvenirs, including Native American art. There’s a giant Ferris wheel at Pier 57, the Seattle Great Wheel. Lines can be long, but it is worth the wait.

At the end of the night, don’t forget to find a hot dog cart and order the local favorite: a Seattle dog with cream cheese and grilled onions – outstanding!

Fort Lauderdale: Miami’s little sister, the port city of Fort Lauderdale, is just 40 miles north along the eastern coast of Florida. Port Everglades is the city’s cruise port, the current home of the world’s largest cruise ship, Oasis of the Seas. (Editor's note: It moved to Port Canaveral in November, 2016 to make room for the new largest cruise ship, the Harmony of the Seas.)

Port Everglades has been named the World’s Best Cruise Port – twice – by Seatrade Insider. It handles more than 4 million cruise passengers a year and is home to 43 cruise ships. This vacation destination has much to offer as you wait for your cruise to depart. Download a copy of the Port Everglades cruise guide here.

If you have a day or two to explore Fort Lauderdale, it’s worth the $26 ticket to use the hop-on, hop-off all-day water taxi. It stops in 12 places around town, including some of the favorite waterfront restaurants and shopping areas. The captains often give humorous commentary on some of the waterfront mansions and their residents. If you are staying near the port, you can pick up the water taxi at the Hilton Marina and Convention Center on SE 17th St., and buy your ticket onboard. Stop #1 will bring you to the Riverwalk area, close to the upscale shopping district of Las Olas. If you transfer to the southern route, you can explore the Hollywood Broadwalk and the new Margaritaville Resort.

For another fun evening adventure, the Jungle Queen Tour is a Fort Lauderdale favorite. The replica paddle-wheeler tours the New River, cruising up the deep, narrow waterway to a private “jungle island” where they serve an all-you-can-eat barbecue dinner and a variety show in a lush tropical setting. It is hilarious fun. Pick up the Jungle Queen at The Bahia Mar Yachting Center, accessible by – you guessed it – Water Taxi.

Los Angeles/San Pedro: If you’re planning a cruise to sunny Mexico, the lovely islands of Hawaii, or some exotic South Pacific paradise, you will probably sail from the Los Angeles cruise port of San Pedro. Every major cruise line has departures from this port, with ships sailing to the Mexican Riviera, Hawaiian Islands and through the Panama Canal. San Pedro is the waterfront community of Los Angeles Harbor, located 20 miles south of downtown L.A. This is a vibrant little community, and quite picturesque. Find your way to Angel’s Gate Park if you have an hour or two to stretch your legs. It’s 65 acres with gorgeous views of the coastline, Los Angeles Harbor and Catalina Island. The Korean Bell of Friendship, given to the people of Los Angeles by the people of the Republic of Korea, is housed here in an elaborate display pavilion.

From the port of San Pedro, you can take excursions to Catalina Island or go whale watching. Gray whales, with the longest migration of any marine mammal, cruise by southern California twice a year. The grueling journey begins in October from the Arctic region. Traveling night and day, Gray whales average about 80 miles per day, south along the Pacific coast. By mid-December to early January, the majority of the Gray whales are usually found between Monterey and San Diego, so if your cruise schedule allows, take one of these whale-watching excursions. It’s a sight you’ll never forget.

Korean Peace Bell, San Pedro

If whales are not in season, take a day trip to the scenic Catalina Island by express ferry. The Catalina Express departs from the Catalina Sea and Air Terminal in San Pedro for a round-trip to Avalon, the southernmost city in Los Angeles county. The ferry drops you off very close to the downtown shops and restaurants of Avalon. The views of the shoreline, the Korean Peace Bell (pictured), the historic Angel’s Gate Lighthouse and Catalina Island rising out of the blue Pacific are priceless.

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So extend your vacation and have a little fun before you board your giant floating resort bound for Paradise.

By Kay D. Harrison

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