April 18, 2021
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Destination Immersion

Dive into culture, cuisine and charming traditions
on these country-intensive itineraries

By Brent Stoller

Vacations Magazine: Destination Immersion
The Intrepid Group
Iconic monuments. Striking Mediterranean sunsets. Sumptuous meals of freshly caught fish and grilled meats capped off with sweet treats like baklava and frothy coffee.

Greece beckons with its history, dazzles with its scenery and satisfies with its incomparable cuisine. While spending a couple days here lets you hit the highlights, the only way to fully experience a destination this diverse is by taking the time to do so.

That's why travel companies like Azamara Club Cruises feature country-intensive excursions. "A country-intensive voyage provides travelers with the opportunity to explore numerous ports within one country and stay late or overnight in most cities," says Larry Pimentel, the cruise line's president and CEO. "This allows our guests to see different regions of the country through various local activities, cuisine, adventure, culture, wildlife and more."

In 2019, Azamara offers multiple Greece-centric sailings that visit a blend of popular and secluded ports. Passengers on the Aug. 24 departure of the recently refurbished Azamara Pursuit will enjoy, among other adventures, Aegean Sea vistas from the lip of a volcano in Santorini and an evening out on Mykonos. "In most Greek islands, it's difficult to get a taste of the culture unless you experience the nightlife," Pimentel says. "This is where the late nights and overnights come into play."

Pricing for this 11-night cruise begins at $4,424. For more vacations that deliver a deep dive into your favorite travel spots, keep reading.

Norway
In spots north of the Arctic Circle, evening skies in Norway are a canvas for nature's brilliance. Winter presents the aurora borealis, or northern lights, while summer brings the midnight sun, when 24-hour sunshine bathes the landscape in a reddish-yellow glow.

Among the best spots to witness these phenomena is the North Cape, the northernmost point in Europe. A trip here is one of 90-plus excursions Hurtigruten offers during its classic round-trip voyage, which spends 12 days cruising up and back down the majestic Norwegian coastline, traversing some 2,500 nautical miles on its way to 34 ports.

Following a course the Vikings once sailed, you head north out of Bergen bound for Alesund, where views of the Sunnmore Alps await, before arriving in Trondheim. Depending on the time of year, opt for an urban kayaking jaunt on the Nidelva, a river cutting through town.

Upon crossing the latitude 66 degrees 33 minutes north into the polar region, your options are as extensive as they are exciting. Ride a rigid inflatable boat to Saltstraumen, the planet's most powerful tidal current; spot sea eagles, puffins and kittiwakes on a bird-watching safari; navigate wintry terrain on a backcountry snowmobile tour; and listen to folk songs during a midnight concert at the Arctic Cathedral. Along the way, you can try reindeer meat, fish cakes, local beers and other native offerings.

After a day amid the beautiful Lofoten archipelago, where you can go horseback riding on the beach, your ship will turn and continue southbound, exiting the Arctic Circle. Mark this passage during an on-deck ceremony with the traditional spoonful of cod liver oil.

Daily departures start at $1,806. Schedule your sailing to coincide with Norway's Constitution Day, May 17, and enjoy the celebrations that envelop the coastal communities, or St. John's Eve on June 23, when bonfires ignite the evening skies in honor of the summer solstice and the birthday of John the Baptist.

Japan
Souvenirs and street food beckon along Nakamise-dori. This Tokyo shopping arcade features roughly 90 stalls selling delicacies such as toasted senbai crackers and sponge cakes stuffed with red bean paste as well as collectibles like maneki-neko cat figurines and even samurai swords. At one end, visitors seek good fortune at Senso-ji Temple, which honors Kannon, a Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion and mercy.

Stroll this avenue on the first full day of "Japan Highlights" from Intrepid Travel. After sampling sweet melon pan bread and other Nakamise-dori specialties, cruise the Sumida River past the 2,080-foot Tokyo Skytree tower to Hamarikyu Gardens, where you can walk among plum and cherry trees. In the hip Harajaku district, discover the latest fashion trends while snacking on to-die-for crepes.

A bullet train whisks you to Kamakura, famous for its beaches, Zen temples and shopping along Komachi-dori Street. Hike Daibutsu Trail to the 43-foot-tall Great Buddha statue or head to Enoshima to watch the sun set over Mount Fuji.

Your journey concludes in Kyoto, Japan's capital from 794 to 1868. For more than 400 years, Nishiki Market has highlighted the region's cuisine with offerings of pickled veggies, mackerel sushi, soy milk doughnuts and more. At the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine, walk beneath the approximately 10,000 red-orange gateways that were erected in tribute to the Shinto deity of good harvest and success in business.

Seven-day itineraries are available through the end of 2020 and priced from $2,595.

Croatia
Clear skies canopy sparkling waters along Croatia's Dalmatian Coast. Blessed with a mild climate, the area invites travelers to find serenity on its beaches, discover history along its cobblestone streets and dive among marine life in the Adriatic Sea.

Escorted tour provider Abercrombie& Kent provides an immersive exploration of this region during "Treasures of Croatia" with 13 departures scheduled from May to October. Your journey begins in Split, established in the late third and early fourth centuries by the emperor Diocletian. Tour his magnificent palace, a vestige of Roman architecture, then wander the town's bustling promenade before enjoying a klapa concert, a kind of a cappella singing, with dinner.

In 384 B.C., Greek colonists settled on the island of Hvar and cultivated the Stari Grad Plain, an agricultural landscape on which locals to this day still harvest crops such as lavender, olives and wine grapes. Indulge in the fruits of this labor during a tasting at a family-owned winery. Other stops on the island include the Benedictine monastery, where nuns needlepoint pieces of the famous aloe lace.

"If you want to see heaven on Earth," said the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw, "come to Dubrovnik." This locale gained fame in recent years as a filming location for HBO's "Game of Thrones," and its Old Town district offers can't-miss viewing. Venture inside the walls of this UNESCO World Heritage Site to tour the Rector's Palace, Dominican Monastery and more. For a bird's-eye view of the city and sea, take a cable car up Mount Srd.

Rates for this eight-day adventure begin at $4,995. For an additional cost, opt for the pre-tour extension to Lake Bled and Zagrab, or a post-trip excursion to the neighboring Balkan country of Montenegro.

Iceland
Dubbed the Land of Fire and Ice, this country evokes images of towering
volcanoes and titanic glaciers. Yet Iceland also has set the scene for important historical events. For example, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev convened in Reykjavik for a meeting that brought the superpowers one step closer to ending the Cold War.

The site of that summit, Hofdi House, is among your first stops on "Adventures Across Iceland" a seven-day sojourn with Alexander Roberts. From the capital city, venture to Thingvellir National Park, once home to another notable assembly -- the world's first parliament, the Althing, which met here between 930 and 1798. Continue along the Golden Circle, a 186-mile sightseeing loop, to watch the nearly 100-foot-high eruptions of Strokkur geyser and the Hvita River thunderously cascade over Gullfoss. Your day concludes with a dip at Laugarvatn Fontana's geothermal baths, where you can snack on bread that has been baked underground and is served with butter.

Nineteenth-century farmhouses dot the landscape as you travel to the northern coast. Upon arriving in Hrisey, the country's second-largest island, sit with fishermen, microbrewers and other residents to discuss life in this bucolic outpost as you sample salted cod, locally sourced beer and other delicacies.

Before heading home, marvel at the lava fields of Dimmuborgir, admire the depth and breadth of the Viti volcanic crater and take in the spectacle of the Godafoss, a waterfall where legend states that, after declaring Christianity as Iceland's official religion, law speaker Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi threw statues of the Norse gods into the cataract.

Pricing starts at $5,349 and covers all in-tour transportation, including a flight between Akureyri and Reykjavik. Six departures are scheduled between June and October, with additional dates available in early 2020.

Italy
What if you could explore Italy's hidden gems without missing out on its most popular attractions? Aboard the Wind Surf, Windstar Cruises' 310-guest yacht, you'll spend 10 nights traveling the Tyrrhenian Sea to a collection of ports reserved for smaller ships, where you can delve into charming seaside hamlets and join excursions to well-known sights.

Sailing southeast along the Amalfi Coast, the ship first travels from Rome to the cliff-top treasure of Sorrento. Here, you can choose from a menu of shore excursions that includes a motor-coach ride to Pompeii, a private boat trip to Positano and a visit to a local farmhouse to indulge in bruschetta, eggplant and limoncello.

During your stop in Lipari, learn to make traditional Sicilian pizza before reaching Messina. Francis Ford Coppola chose this town as the backdrop for scenes in "The Godfather" sequels. You might join a daytrip to Taormina that takes you to its famous Greek Theatre, built in the third century B.C. While the performance venue provides panoramas of Mount Etna, one of Europe's most active volcanoes, you also can get a closer look at this smoldering spectacle by riding a cable car up its southern slopes.

You can sample special vintages in Marsala, admire the Catalan-Gothic architecture in Alghero and hike through olive groves in Santa Margherita before your voyage brings you to Livorno. Opt for a tour of a Tuscan wine cellar, see Michelangelo's David in Florence or marvel at the gravity-defying Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Traveling round trip from Rome, this sailing departs May 24. Ocean-view cabins begin at $2,699 per person.

Peru
Peru, spanning more than 496,000 square miles, tempts visitors with its history, thriving metropolises and awe-inspiring landscape.

Arguably its most popular attraction is Machu Picchu, found between two peaks of the Peruvian Andes. This citadel once was a hub for the Incans, who used hundreds of thousands of rocks gathered from a nearby quarry to construct some 200 buildings along with a terracing system, which not only was used for farming but kept the city secured on its mountainous perch. Abandoned when the Inca empire was conquered by the Spaniards in the 16th century, the site remained unknown to the world at large until Hiram Bingham, a Yale University professor, came across it in 1911.

For urban charm, the Peruvian capital of Lima fuses Spanish colonial heritage with modern-day appeal. History buffs can visit the Cathedral of Lima, consecrated in 1625, and the Church of San Francisco, where experts estimate some 75,000 bodies are buried in its catacombs. Foodies will love feasting on local dishes such as ceviche and causa, a casserole of layered potatoes and avocados. If you're feeling adventurous, try cuy, also known as guinea pig.

Discover these hot spots on the eight-day version of Monograms' "Peru Highlights" which also features stops in the Sacred Valley of the Incas and Cusco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Daily departures are available. The starting price of $1,729 includes an overnight stay near Machu Picchu, meaning you can watch the sun rise over the lost city.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Spring 2019. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.


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