From the jazz clubs of New Orleans to the glittering beaches of California, a USA stay and cruise holiday give you the best of all worlds, says Deborah Stone.
Spectacular scenery, fantastic food and top cultural sights are within easy reach of the Caribbean, South America and more, so it’s no wonder that 47,000 Brits took a North American cruise last year. And combining that with a land stay or overnight in some of the world’s best cities, including New York, Miami and Los Angeles, on a USA stay and cruise holiday is becoming increasingly popular.
Alaska stay and cruise holidays
Alaska is one of the most staggeringly beautiful states in the USA, with much of its vast open landscape covered in snow, soaring mountains and temperate rainforest. Its charming cities, including Juneau and Skagway, mainly hug the coast, which is why visiting by cruise ship is the best way to see its sights – and often its wildlife.
Cruise itineraries mainly focus on the sheltered waterways of the Inside Passage, where cruising through fjords to the Glacier Bay National Park is one of the highlights. You may spot humpback, beluga and minke whales, porpoises, sea lions and orcas as you sail. Bald eagles are a common sight and sometimes there are black bears near the rainforest shoreline. If you’re really lucky you may even see a lynx.
These waterways are where you’ll find towns like Ketchikan, which has a rich Native Alaskan nations history. You can see magnificent carved totem poles at Totem Bright State Park and more at the Totem Heritage Centre. Both Ketchikan and Skagway are old gold rush towns. There are free walking tours around Skagway’s old town, now part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, and Wyatt Earp’s pistols are on display in the historic Red Onion Saloon.
Alaska is easily the American cruise destination of the moment, with more cruise lines sailing there than ever, opening up more options for USA stay and cruise holidays. Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Joy will spend this summer sailing to Alaska as well as to the west coast following several seasons in China.
Azamara Club Cruises sails to Alaska for the first time in 2019 and has regular eight-night Alaska voyage and six-night pre-cruise packages starting from June. Among its ports of call is Haines, surrounded by rugged mountains and a mecca for bird watchers. Most activities are outdoor adventures like kayaking and cycling but it also has the 1902-built Fort William H Seward, now an arts centre.
Sitka is on the Azamara itinerary, too, and one of the stops for Oceania Cruises’ 10-day Glacial Adventures. Its multicultural heritage includes Tlingit Indians and it was part of Russia until around 150 years ago, hence its Russian Orthodox cathedral.
Holland America Line has eight ships sailing to Alaska this year, with well over 100 cruises available, many including stay-and-cruise packages. Its 10-day Denali National Park Land+Sea Journey from Vancouver to Anchorage departs regularly from May to September and includes a flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks, which has 35 restored buildings in Gold Rush Town in Pioneer Park.
A stay at Denali National Park’s 60-acre McKinley Chalet Resort is probably the most exciting land stay you can choose in Alaska. It has views across the Nenana River and you can take a Tundra Wilderness Tour in search of grizzly bears, caribou, moose and wolves, as well as excursions such as river rafting and flightseeing.
Most Alaska itineraries start in Vancouver, Canada’s British Columbia, or Seattle, which is in the midst of a tourist boom thanks to Alaska’s popularity. Highlights include stunning beaches, hot springs and volcanoes.
Caribbean stay and cruise holidays
Whether you choose Eastern Caribbean islands such as Barbados, St Lucia and St Kitts; Western Caribbean destinations including Cuba and Jamaica or southern islands like Trinidad and Tobago, you will have a much greater choice of cruise lines and itineraries if you sail from America. The Caribbean is a favourite winter sun destination for fly-cruises from Britain but it’s a year-round holiday from America, with cruises leaving the Florida ports of Miami and Fort Lauderdale every week for both short breaks and longer cruises.
Other options for a USA cruise and stay holiday include boarding for the Caribbean from Mississippi in Louisiana or from New York, where Bermuda and the Bahamas also count as Caribbean destinations.
Brits are drawn to the laid-back Caribbean lifestyle, as well as its palm-fringed sandy beaches, historic plantation houses and churches, and varied soft adventure excursions.
Silversea’s New York to San Juan itinerary has a day in Antigua and Barbuda, where you can go horse riding on the beach and visit historic Fort James built by the British to protect the island in the 18th century.
Saga’s Festive New York and the Caribbean round-trip from Southampton includes an overnight stay in New York and Bermuda but also calls at the island of St Maarten, where the Flying Dutchman is one of the world’s steepest ziplines with a 300-metre drop on its 780-metre ride from the highest point on the island.
Viking’s Cultural Cuba cruise spends five days circumnavigating the intriguing island, visiting Unesco-listed Cienguegos founded by the French in 1819. It still has a French feel in the same way that Havana, an excursion away, retains its Spanish colonial look. You can go kayaking round Cienfuegos Bay and learn how pirates once controlled the Caribbean.
After a week or just a few days in the Caribbean you can also get to know some of America’s best-known cities with a post-cruise stay. New York has world-class museums and galleries, excellent shopping and some of the most iconic buildings and spaces in America, while laid-back New Orleans has its French Quarter music scene and a celebrated local cuisine.
In Florida, the main departure point for Caribbean cruises, Miami has its Cuban-influenced lifestyle and the Art Deco glory of South Beach, with Fort Lauderdale offering miles of sandy beaches and access to the Everglades, a vast network of coastal mangroves home to turtles, manatees, panthers and alligators.
New England stay and cruise holidays
Boston is the gateway to New England and cruises along America’s east coast are a mix of glamour and natural beauty. This part of the country is where America’s rich and famous take their holidays and no wonder; the pretty former fishing villages are as American as apple pie and white picket fences. There are sandy coves and rugged cliffs with trees running down to the shore – the same trees that draw leaf-peepers in autumn to see the flaming reds and golds of the stunning fall foliage.
Seabourn’s 11-day New England & Canadian Maritime cruise from Boston to Montreal calls at Mount Desert Island in Maine, home to the seaside resort of Bar Harbour. Backed by pink granite mountains, the town’s waterfront bars and restaurants are decorated with huge lobster pots and fishing floats and there are holiday ‘cottages’ once owned by the Astor Rockefellers and Vanderbilts families.
In autumn, though, you should take a bus up to Acadia National Park to see the red maples, red oak and aspen trees that cover Cadillac Mountain.
Salem, Massachusetts, is completely different; full of elegant Georgian buildings and clapboard houses that reflect its enormous 18th-century wealth. It’s more famous for its 1693 witch trials, however, which accounts for the dozens of shops selling crystal balls and offering psychic readings.
Oceania Cruises’ 10-day Fall Splendors cruise calls at Newport in Rhode Island on its way from New York to Montreal. Its famous ‘Gilded Age’ mansions are a must-see and this is where JF Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier. They would holiday on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, where cruise ships anchor off seaside town Oak Bluffs and you can visit nearby Edgarton with its lighthouse on the beach and a massive whitewashed whalers’ church.
But Boston is the jewel in the crown of a New England cruise and it’s also on Oceania Cruises’ itinerary. There’s too much to see in just a day so it’s well worth a stopover as part of a USA cruise and stay holiday to enjoy its Georgian architecture on the Freedom Trail. Here you can see where the Boston Tea Party took place and fight for American independence began. Among Boston’s exceptional museums is the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum where archive footage and photographs not only explain JFK’s life and times, but also reveal much more about America’s fascinating modern history.
The West Coast stay and cruise holidays
West coast cruises from California’s San Francisco can take you north up to Oregon and into Canada to visit Vancouver and British Columbia, and even up to Alaska, or south down through California itself and along the picture-perfect Mexican Riviera.
Oregon is home to some of the oldest settlements in America west of the Rocky Mountains, such as Astoria where elaborate Victorian houses are among the attractions, as well as the rugged forest-filled countryside and pioneer coastal towns.
Silversea’s American West Coast cruise from Vancouver to San Diego calls at Portland, at the end of the pioneers’ 2,170-mile Oregon Trail from the east coast, now known for its micro-breweries, coffee shops and renowned chefs. This is a green city in every way and its huge Washington Park has an arboretum, a Wildwood Trail among its 113km of trails and renowned Portland Japanese Garden.
The opportunity to sail along the Californian coast, calling at places like Santa Barbara – an old mission town full of Spanish-style architecture on the edge of the Santa Ynez Valley wine country – is probably the most relaxing way to see this state.
The Silversea cruise calls at San Francisco, where you can spend the day simply exploring the waterfront, perhaps taking the boat to the island prison of Alcatraz. Although hiring a bike to cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge all the way to Sausalito, then getting a ferry back, is even better.
Los Angeles, with its own cruise departure point down in Long Beach, boasts the glamour of Beverly Hills and Hollywood Boulevard, where the star signs of the Walk of Fame and actors’ handprints are set in concrete outside the TCL Chinese Theatre.
One of the most popular excursions is still to tour star locations, such as Rodeo Drive and Sunset Boulevard, and the Griffith Observatory to take pictures of that Hollywood sign.
San Diego, near the Mexican border, has a Spanish feel, and if you have time on your USA cruise and stay holiday it’s worth heading out to the exclusive beach resort of La Jolla.
Some cruise lines also sail from California to Hawaii, home to acclaimed surfing beaches, as well as tropical rainforests and active volcanoes. There are guided treks through lava fields and you can cycle around the spectacular crater rim of Haleakala on the island of Maui or take a helicopter ride to see the waterfalls. In Honolulu, on Oahu, there are museums and memorials to the World War Two Pearl Harbor invasion and there are waterfall trails on several islands. Norwegian Cruise Lines is the only cruise company to offer year-round seven-day cruise holidays from Honolulu.
Mexico stay and cruise holidays
The USA’s southern neighbour is easy to explore on a USA stay and cruise holiday and fits into a variety of itineraries that include not only the Pacific coast but also the Panama Canal and the Caribbean.
From San Francisco you can visit the Mexican Riviera, once the hang out of Hollywood legends. Richard Burton starred in the film Night Of The Iguana In Puerto Vallarta and it is still popular thanks to its miles of idyllic sandy beaches and year-round sunshine. There’s diving off the rocky coast at Manzanillo and the Cuyutlan Turtle Sanctuary, an excursion away, is another big draw. Plus, at the tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, ships anchor off Cabo San Lucas where there’s a marine sanctuary full of colourful sea life and excellent snorkelling.
Azamara Club Cruises’s 17-night Panama Voyage from Miami to Los Angeles calls at both and has walking tours to Puerto Vallarta’s old town and famous seaside boardwalk as well as an open-air cookery class, while in Cabo you can go riding from a seaside ranch along the beach and whale watching in a high-powered boat.
Sailing from Miami or Fort Lauderdale in Florida will take you to Mexico’s eastern attractions, such as the resort island of Cozumel where you can splash about in the Xel Ha aquatic park, go scuba diving and snorkelling, or just relax on one of the many pristine beaches. Viking’s 15-day Panama, Central America & Cuba round-trip from Miami has an included trip to the ruins of a Mayan religious site on the island or you can pay to go deep sea sport fishing or driving through the jungle.
There are more Mayan ruins of pyramids and palaces to see on an excursion from Costa Maya, as well as snorkelling and diving around its coral reef – home to sea turtles – or kayaking along the coastline.
The Mississippi stay and cruise holidays
While the most northern part of the Mississippi is almost a large wilderness of forest and islands, the sedate stretch between Memphis and New Orleans offers plenty of action. River cruises often start in Memphis – Tennessee’s legendary musical hotspot where Elvis Presley recorded at Sun Studio and the BB King’s Blues Club still packs in crowds for its authentic live music.
The river was at the centre of the American Civil War and Vicksburg, still a genteel southern town, endured a 47-day siege. Excursions to the town and Vicksburg National Military Park are on most cruise itineraries.
Louisiana’s capital Baton Rouge has a magnificent Old State Capitol building and the town is a byword for Cajun food and music, while the surrounding countryside includes riverbank cypresses and swamps.
Then as you sail past the Gone With The Wind era plantation houses you finally get to the magical city of New Orleans, home of Bourbon Street jazz and French Quarter nightlife, beautiful Garden District houses, and delicious jambalaya and gumbo.
New Orleans is an exciting city for a pre- or post-cruise stay but rock and roll fans will enjoy a stop-over in Memphis to see Elvis Presley’s home, Gracelands. American Queen Steamboat Company has a three-day pre-cruise land stay that combines Gracelands with a visit to Sun Studio and the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. There’s also a trolley pass for downtown Memphis, where you can visit the National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination of Martin Luther King; and dine on ribs, steak or catfish at Memphis-style BBQ Blues City Café in Beale Street.
South America stay and cruise holidays
There’s an enormous choice of dream destinations in South America, from the iconic ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru – an extraordinary excursion available with some luxury cruise lines – to the Falkland Islands, which is one of the best places on the planet for spotting penguins, to Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires where you can learn to tango.
Chile has fjords that are the envy of Norwegians and a lake district with glaciers and colourful stilt houses. Viking’s new 87-day The Americas & Chilean Fjords cruise from New York to Los Angeles has two days of scenic cruising in the fjords, passing glaciers and magnificent mountain scenery.
It also calls at Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost city and the springboard to Antarctic expeditions, which grew because of the wool industry boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But Chile is all about its natural surrounds and at Puerto Chacabuco there are rocky gorges, waterfalls, lakes and flower-filled meadows.
Cruises leaving from Florida’s Fort Lauderdale often stop at a Caribbean island or two before reaching Brazil, where UNESCO-listed Salvador has a historic district with buildings dating back to the 1600s, while the city itself is famous for its many churches.
But Oceania Cruises’ 49-day San Francisco to Rio de Janeiro cruise takes the longer route to Brazil’s most famous city with its iconic statue of Christ The Redeemer and white sand beaches of Copacabana. Sailing down the west coast it offers the Machu Picchu excursion in Peru and explores Chile before heading around the rocky headland of Cape Horn and up to the Falkland Islands and Argentina.
Between Argentina and Brazil there’s Uruguay, where a call at Montevideo can include visiting vineyards for wine tasting as well as taking in the shops and cafés of the picturesque old town. And before reaching Rio de Janeiro the Oceania Cruises’ itinerary dips into Brazil’s Costa Verde, also known as the Emerald Coast, where the Portuguese colonial town of Paraty is a historic gem. There’s also kayaking, snorkelling and diving at Ilha Grande, an island of tropical forest which is home to monkeys and iguanas.
It is also possible to sail from New York to South America on a USA stay and cruise holiday, stopping in the Caribbean and sailing down the Amazon in Brazil to places like Manaus, a city located 1,000 miles from the sea. Its elegant Portuguese colonial buildings date back to the rubber trade economic boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
By contrast in Santerém you can go piranha fishing on Lake Maica or bird watching in the rainforest where you may also see sloths, monkeys and ant eaters as well as waterfalls.
Canada stay and cruise holidays
Although many Alaska cruises start from Canada’s west coast its east coast is becoming increasingly popular, as new itineraries along St Lawrence River are introduced. Most either start or finish at French-Canadian Montreal, where the old harbour area is now home to a variety of attractions such as the History and Archaeological Museum.
The star destination along the river is the historic walled city of Quebec, where cobblestone streets are home to pretty bistros and chic boutiques and its Parliament building was inspired by the Louvre Palace in Paris.
Oceania Cruises’ 15-day Montreal to Miami cruise has a day in Quebec and tours that include the historic Château Frontenac, originally a fort and now a luxurious hotel which has a small museum and is the building most associated with Quebec. You can also walk to Montmorency Falls, minutes from the city. These are higher than Niagara Falls and offer a taste of the unspoilt countryside surroundings.
St Lawrence River cruises often include coastal destinations such as Prince Edward Island, where the real Anne of Green Gables farmhouse is a National Historic Site. Atlantic ports such as Halifax in Nova Scotia have wild coastlines with impressive rock formations which you can see on the Lighthouse Route to Peggy’s Cove.
Viking’s 13-day Eastern Seaboard Discoveries cruise has a day in Halifax, where you can see the world’s largest collection of wooden artifacts from the Titanic in its excellent Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.
It also visits Portland, in Maine, USA, where you can take a scenic bike ride and hike to Mackworth Island via 1875-built steel lighthouse Bug Light. There’s a coach tour alternative that includes this and more lighthouses.
Meanwhile in the coastal city of St John in New Brunswick the St John’s River has extraordinary tides at the Bay of Fundy that are so forceful the river flows upstream until the tide turns again. When the tide is out you can walk along the shores to see the Hopewell Rocks – a series of extraordinary rock formations created by wind and water erosion.
For more help planning a USA stay and cruise holiday, take a look our cruise finder.