AROUND THE BLOCK: There are plenty of ways to cruise

By Victor Block

Civil War buffs Tom and Elaine Preston wander through reconstructed forts where a major battle was fought. Betsy and Andy Cross follow a guide through a dense rain forest. Lauren Davis and Jim Goodman enjoy a go-kart track and water slide.

All of these disparate experiences have something in common — they took place during cruises.
The Prestons are passengers on an American Cruise Lines boat sailing on the Mississippi River. Along with the battlefield tour, they visit plantations and other sites. Onboard activities include lectures by historians and naturalists.
The Crosses’ voyage aboard the Motor Yacht Tucano penetrates the vast Amazon rainforest, home to some 15,000 species of wildlife. Launch rides and land hikes provide animal sightings and visits to isolated villages along the shoreline.
The Norwegian Cruise Line ship that Davis and Goodman chose allows passengers to zip around a go-kart track at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. The Ocean Loop water slide propels thrill seekers through a series of twists and turns, including a transparent section that extends over the side of the vessel.
The pace is much slower on sailings touted as “cruising with a purpose.” Craft Cruises specializes in voyages for people who share a penchant for knitting, crocheting and similar pastimes. Along with the usual cruise ship activities, they take classes from experts.
Learning opportunities aboard Maine windjammer boats focus on nautical pursuits. Passengers may try their hand at steering, get instruction in navigation and participate in other sailing tasks as the wind-powered tall ships sail along the coast of Maine. The 13 member vessels of the Maine Windjammer Association also offer special interest trips that focus upon themes ranging from whale watching and birding to chocolate and wine.
Farther north, people line the deck of a nuclear-powered ship as it crushes through North Pole ice, then go aloft in a helicopter and tethered hot air balloon to search for polar bears, walruses and seals. Arctic cruises are among more than 600 available from Expedition Trips, which travel to some of the most remote corners of the world. The company’s specialists help people arrange both cruises and land trips based on their interests and budget.
We close with a brief questionnaire. Do you have time to go to sea for weeks or even months? Can you make do without the upscale amenities of a modern cruise ship? Are you happy as a member of a small group, rather than mingling with hundreds of other passengers?
If so, you may be a good candidate for freighter travel. A tiny percentage of ocean-going vessels carry passengers along with cargo. Passenger cabins usually are more spacious than on regular cruise ship, and feature private bathroom and air conditioning. Other amenities might include a library, exercise room and even a swimming pool.
One appeal for freighter fanciers is the opportunity to observe and get to know crew members. Passengers and officers usually share the same dining room.
Downsides include age limits — both upper and lower — on some. Ships may spend as little as a half-day or as long as several days in ports, and there are no planned shore activities. Therefore it’s best research scheduled ports of call and decide how to spend your time.
A good source of information and bookings is Maris, a freighter cruise specialist that operates a membership club that offers discounts on voyages.
Another contact for cruises is Stride Travel, which includes listings of river and small ship cruises among thousands of packages offered by hundreds of tour companies.

PHOTO: Sailors on a Maine Windhammer Cruise get a lesson in navigation. (Melinda Hager photo)