DOVER, England -- I fancy myself a backpack-carrying, adventure-seeking traveler, at home in hostels and on hiking trails. But there I was, on a luxury cruise ship, sipping wine with silver-haired foxes, fox-trotting with male escorts in the ballroom, and escorting myself on a tapas-like tour around Europe, sampling cities for a day via ship, bus, foot and bike.
It was the biking aspect that had led to my unlikely sojourn on the ship, Crystal Cruises' Serenity. Months before, my cyclist-enthusiast ears perked up when I heard about the cruise, with biking-based itineraries in several port cities. The regimented itinerary of a cruise with its scheduled ports of call, and the idea of spending that much time on a ship, wasn't all that appealing to me, but the prospect of biking around a few different European cities was. So I packed my sneakers, some cute bike shorts and an open mind.
Crystal CruisesCrystal Cruises
Info: (800) 337-9568 or crystalcruises.com. Under "Destinations" click on "Find your excursion," then "Outdoor/Sports Adventures" and look for the bicycle icon. Cruise prices vary by dates, stateroom and itinerary; fees for bike tours cost extra.
Embarking in Dover, England, I was sure I was the only passenger hauling a backpack on board when the butler assigned to my cabin floor did a double-take at the sight of my luggage. But after a restful sleep, rocked by the waves of the Atlantic and the gentle hum of the ship's engine, thoughts of hostels were but a distant memory.
On the first of my 10-day adventure hitting seven cities in four countries, my cousin and fellow cruiser Olivia DeMello, I, and a few other cyclists biked around Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, on cruisers we were given. We traversed the quaint, compact island, two-wheeling by fawn-hued cows, primary-colored fishing boats and World War II bunkers. The next day we sampled wine on an evening walking tour in Bordeaux, France, as we learned about local history. In the hopes of working off some of that vino, I pedalled around the cobblestoned streets and lush wineries of Saint-Emilion the following day.
I flew through Cadiz, Spain, mountain-biking on rolling hills and sandy trails, down to the Mediterranean Sea under a blistering sun. I shuffled on and off a bus from Lisbon to Sintra, Portugal, past the beautiful Estoril Coast, learning tidbits of Portugal's past. I peered out into the darkness as we cruised through the Strait of Gibraltar at nightfall, faint lights flickering on my left on the coast of Spain and the spotty lit coast of Africa to my right. The next day I knelt before the altar during a special Mass at La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi's magnificent church in Barcelona.
On the days I wasn't exploring cities, I explored all that the 1,070-passenger Crystal Serenity had on offer. On board I waltzed, rumba'd and jived during dance classes with escorts who taught us basic ballroom steps and etiquette. As I one, two, three'd, I secretly wished the dancing aficionados would hoist me above their heads for my "Dirty Dancing" moment.
I painted Portuguese tiles in the afternoon art classes and attended a lecture about the pros and cons of Turkey's bid to join the European Union. Other lectures on board were led by Clint Van Zandt, the FBI's former chief hostage negotiator, and Jennie Congleton, who offered talks about the culture and history of the next day's port cities.
I also ate. A lot. But it wasn't my fault! It was hard to resist the delectable goodies offered at every turn. I dined on superstar chef Nobu Matsuhisa's sashimi and sushi creations from the ship's Silk Road eatery, I savored creme brulee in the opulent Crystal dining room, and noshed on lobster tail and shrimp cocktails in the afternoon. I also indulged in high tea with Leona Wachtstetter, known to all aboard as "Mama Lee," who's in Crystal's history books for having taken nearly 150 cruises in the last half-dozen years. I traded travel and cruise stories with lovely elderly couples, many of whom were veteran cruisers. And in the evenings, Olivia and I swigged back martinis in the saloon and shook a tail in the dance club.
Mimi Weisband, a spokeswoman for Crystal Cruises, says cruises with biking tours in port have become a routine offering for the company. "It's definitely an increasing trend," she said. "The number of guests choosing active tour options is increasing. We have a lot of repeat guests -- or those who have visited some of these places before -- and they are looking for new ways to explore a destination." Bike tours offer a way to "get up close and personal with a destination ... rather than just observing from a bus." She added that since the bike tours typically accommodate just 12 to 20 people, the participants also often develop a "nice camaraderie," getting to know each other with a shared interest.
When we made our final port call in Barcelona, I was surprised by how much I had enjoyed myself. Turns out even a backpack-carrying biker can find adventure on a luxury cruise.