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First-class cruises: From ships to riverboats, set sail near these 10 military home ports

Feb. 2, 2012 - 03:21PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 2, 2012 - 03:21PM  |  
Passengers aboard the Carnival Destiny enjoy the beach at the Grand Turk Cruise Terminal in Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos, in October 2008.
Passengers aboard the Carnival Destiny enjoy the beach at the Grand Turk Cruise Terminal in Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos, in October 2008. (Carnival Cruise Lines via AP)
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Enlist in Mickey’s navy

Ranked tops for families by Travel + Leisure’s cruise line 2011 awards, the Magic Kingdom’s four-ship fleet is being dispatched for new sailings from New York City, Seattle and Galveston, Texas, starting this year. Meanwhile, Mickey’s newest flagship, the towering 14-deck, 4,000-passenger Disney Fantasy, begins its maiden season in March with seven-night sailings to the Caribbean.

The wreck of the Costa Concordia off Italy has sent shock waves through the travel industry even as cruise lines were already bracing for a drop in bookings this year.

Major lines had already cut cabin prices in December because of the economic downturn. Of course, it's only natural to consider steering clear of a cruise trip in the wake of any disaster, but it also means the industry will be floating even more bargains as cruise lines try to shore up confidence, travel experts say.

"Clearly, prices are going to go down," Bob Levinstein, CEO of online travel company CruiseComplete.com, told the Wall Street Journal's MarketWatch. "The cruise business is interesting in that it is affected by supply and demand as perfectly as almost any business you can imagine. There is no question this is going to drop demand and prices are going to go down. The only real question is how low are the prices going to go?"

You don't have to be stationed in Florida or Europe to find awesome aquatic adventures close to your latest military home port.

From Mississippi paddleboats and camp-aboard Alaskan ferries to sail-snapping Mediterranean windjammers and aircraft carrier-sized palaces at sea, cruise options embark from all sorts of piers and ports close to military bases.

Some of our favorites:

1. Whittier, Alaska: Camp-aboard ferries on the Alaska Marine Highway

Sure, plenty of fancy-schmancy cruise liners make their way through Alaska's stunning waterways, but budget-minded — or just more adventurous — travelers may want to consider hopping aboard one of the state's 11 ferries.

With the 3,500-mile Alaska Marine Highway connecting 32 ports from the remote Aleutian Islands all the way down to Bellingham, Wash., passengers can enjoy stunning views of deep blue glaciers, teeming wildlife and rugged wilderness from cozy observation lounges and solariums. Sleep in recliner chairs or book your own stateroom with up to four bunks. Or for the truly adventurous, pitch your own tent under the stars out on deck.

• Close to: Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

• More information can be found on the http://www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs">Alaska Marine Highway System website.

2. Seattle: Cruise with Mickey and the gang

Beginning May 28, the Magic Kingdom will come to the Emerald City. That's when Wonder, Disney's 11-deck, 2,700-passenger (plus 950-strong cast and crew) ship, will begin making seven-day runs to Alaska from Seattle. Disney joins seven other major cruise lines offering trips from Seattle.

• Close to: Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Puget Sound naval bases.

• More information can be found on the http://disneycruise.disney.go.com/cruises-destinations/alaska-pacific-coast/ports/seattle-washington/">Disney Cruise Line website.

3. San Diego: Affordable whale-watching trips

As one of the biggest cruise ports on the West Coast, San Diego offers plenty of year-round options for multiday trips along the Mexican coast and Hawaii-bound vacations. For those seeking shorter — and considerably less expensive — high-seas excursions, however, consider San Diego's Hornblower and Flagship lines. Both offer harbor tours, whale-watching day trips and romantic dinner cruises. Be sure to get your tickets at one of San Diego's Morale, Welfare and Recreation offices, which offer deep discounts for both lines.

• Close to: Southern California military installations.

• More information can be found the websites of http://www.hornblower.com/hce/home/sdjsessionid=C53F65805F9509E6A36A712DEDF17859">Hornblower Cruises & Events, http://www.flagshipsd.com/">Flagship-San Diego Harbor Excursion and http://mwrtoday.com/sandiego/">Navy Region Southwest.

4. Chicago: Skimming along the lake

With tastes of Holland, Ireland and France along the way, Blount Small Ship Adventures offers seven-night cruises from Chicago around Lake Michigan to several ports of interest aboard the shallow draft 96-passenger Grande Mariner. At its first stop in Holland, Mich., passengers explore the cobblestone sidewalks winding along tulip-lined streets where the city's nearly 300-year-old windmill celebrates the area's Dutch heritage. From there, it's on to Beaver Island — known as "America's Emerald Isle" for its Irish flair — and then Sault Ste. Marie, where French fur traders left their mark on Michigan's oldest city.

• Close to: Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill.

• More information can be found on http://blountsmallshipadventures.com/">Blount Small Ship Adventures' website.

5. New Orleans: Slow-boat traveling on the Mississippi

http://www.carnival.com">Carnival and http://www2.ncl.com/">Norwegian cruise lines offer year-round trips to the Bahamas and Caribbean from New Orleans, with Royal Caribbean joining the fleet in April with runs to Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel. But if you want to channel your inner Tom Sawyer, consider the Queen of the Mississippi, set to become the biggest steamboat ever to ply the Big Muddy. American Cruise Lines has begun booking seven-day passages on the five-deck paddleboat beginning with its maiden voyage this spring.

The line plans to offer Civil War-themed voyages complete with battlefield tours and era-inspired cuisine, music and entertainment. Swap war stories and strategies along the way with Civil War historians and lecturers.

• Close to: Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans; Naval Construction Battalion Center Gulfport and Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.; Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla.

• More information can be found on http://www.americancruiselines.com">American Cruise Lines' website.

6. Charleston, S.C.: Family fun for Bahama mamas … and papas

Sailing year-round from Charleston, Carnival's Fantasy is an easy favorite for Bahamas-bound passengers. With its new waterslide park, minigolf course and full-day camp for the kids — and adults-only oasis for grown-ups — the 855-foot, 2,000-passenger ship makes regular five-day, sun-soaking runs to Nassau and Freeport and back.

• Close to: Joint Base Charleston

• More information can be found on http://www.carnival.com">Carnival Cruise Lines' website.

7. Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: Aircraft carrier-sized adventure

At 1,186 feet long, Royal Caribbean's massive 18-deck, 5,400-passenger floating city Oasis of the Seas is 26 feet longer than a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. The ship is so big, it's split into seven "neighborhoods," each with its own restaurants, shops and entertainment. Among them: a carousel and zip line, two rock-climbing walls and a pair of FlowRider wave simulators.

The boat is just one of 45 cruise ships from 12 major lines making regular stops at Port Everglades, taking passengers to the Caribbean and beyond.

• Close to: Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.

• More information can be found on http://www.royalcaribbean.com/">Royal Caribbean's website.

8. Nuremberg, Germany: Rhine Valley by riverboat

Aboard the 361-foot River Countess, among Condι Nast's 2010 picks for "Top Small Cruise Ships," the eight-day Rhine Discovery cruise from Nuremberg to Basel, Switzerland, includes sightseeing stops in Bamberg's Bavarian old town, wine tasting in Wurzburg, and a walking tour along the battlements of Heidelberg's medieval castle. Another tour includes a gondola ride to the Niederwald Monument overlooking Ruedesheim's sweeping vineyards.

• Close to: Army Garrison Bamberg.

• More information can be found on http://www.uniworld.com">Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection's website.

9. Rome: Set sail for Sicily

Billed as the "largest full-rigged sailing ship in the world," the 439-foot, five-mast Royal Clipper is a cruise ship even Jack Sparrow would envy. The ship makes seven-day runs from Rome down the Amalfi Coast to Sicily or around the boot and into the Adriatic to Croatia.

• Close to: Naval Support Activity Naples.

• More information can be found on http://www.starclippers.com">Star Clippers Sailing Tall Ship Cruises' website.

10. Yokohama, Japan: Must-see Pacific seas

Japan's busiest passenger port hosts more than a dozen cruise lines in its harbor throughout the year. Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas, for example, begins making seven-night — and longer — trips to South Korea, China and Okinawa in May.

• Close to: Tokyo-area military installations.

• More information can be found on http://www.royalcaribbean.com/findacruise/destinations/home.do?dest=FAR.E">Royal Caribbean's website.

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