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Passengers disembark Costa Toscana in Ibiza, Spain (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

These Are the Strangest Cruise Ship Shore Excursions We've Ever Taken

Passengers disembark Costa Toscana in Ibiza, Spain (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Staff
Cruise Critic

Published
Jan 3, 2024

Read time
8 min read

From walking tours to adventure-packed adrenaline outings, we've done it all when it comes to cruise ship shore excursions.

Still, not every tour goes as planned -- or offers us the things we think it will. Here, then, are a few of our Editorial Team's strangest shore excursion experiences.

On This Page

Our German Tour Guide on a U.K. Excursion Thought We Were All Americans

Adam Coulter about to board a bus on a COVID-19 era shore excursion (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

Adam Coulter, Executive Editor, Cruise Critic UK & Australia: “This shore excursion took place on the very first cruise allowed to set sail from the UK, in May 2021 – MSC Cruises MSC Virtuosa.

“So, inevitably, it was going to be a little bit different from your average shore excursion as it was under very strict COVID-19 protocols.

“And for context, pre-pandemic, most people cruising round the British Isles were not Brits, they were Americans or Canadians.

“Whereas on this closed cruise, it was only Brits allowed to sail, but clearly no one had told our German tour guide (quite why a German tour guide was leading a tour in the UK during the pandemic I never got to the bottom of), who just assumed we were all Americans.

A tour bus with COVID-19 restrictions on a MSC Cruises shore excursion (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

“So once we had boarded the tour bus, fully masked up, sanitized and sitting at least a chair apart, she proceeded to start her commentary… about how Brits drive on the left, how we love a garden center – which she pointed out frequently – and doing DIY, and also how we call “circles” roundabouts – and that there were a lot of them in rural Dorset.

“Of course, we couldn’t move from our seats or approach her due to COVID-19 restrictions, to explain that we were all Brits, so for 40 minutes we learnt all about ourselves from a German perspective.

Minterne stately home in Dorset (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

“I can’t even recall whether someone had the heart to tell her by the time we arrived at the beautiful stately home we were touring, Minterne, but I think the penny finally dropped when we toured the gardens and she heard us talking.

“It was a quiet bus ride back to the ship.”

Dining on Narwhal in Greenland

A plate of narwhal served while on an excursion in Nuuk, Greenland (Photo/Chris Gray Faust)

Chris Gray Faust, Executive Editor, US: "I’m a known foodie – I have no dietary restrictions and pretty much everything is fair game (except beets. I hate beets). But I should have asked a lot more questions before I went on the "Coffee and Conversation" shore excursion on Scenic Eclipse II in Nuuk, Greenland.

"The trip took us to a lovely guest house, run by an Inuit family. The proprietor told us stories of native foods, including seal, whale and narwhal – and then informed us that we’d be sampling some of each during our three-hour stay.

"My face froze. Narwhal? The unicorn of the deep? The gentle creatures that are very hard to spot? I wasn’t too crazy about eating seal or whale either, especially considering that we had seen plenty of both on our itinerary.

"But, hunting all three species is an integral part of the Inuit culture. To completely refuse to eat would come off as rude. (One woman visibly blanched at the description and wouldn’t eat anything from the guest house, including water). We didn’t want to be culturally insensitive. What to do?

“Just do what you can, sweetie. Just do what you can,” my friend Ted whispered to me as the tiny chunks of narwhal blubber came out on a plate. I took the bare minimum, as well as an extremely limited portion of whale and seal.

A Zodiac landing in Greenland with Scenic Eclipse II (Photo/Chris Gray Faust)

"The verdict? Narwhal is rubbery. It takes a lot of gnawing to get it down. Whale was a bit better. Seal ended up tasting the best to me, although definitely not like chicken.

"Ted and I were subdued as we left the guest house. Neither of us felt great about the experience; I felt a little nauseous even, although more for the ethical implications of what we ate than how it was actually prepared. The bleak gray and green sea reflected our inner thoughts. Finally, Ted spoke, quietly: “We just did that.”

“That’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever had,” I admitted.

"Ted whipped around. “One of the strangest things??” he said. “Don’t pull that travel writer thing on me. It was Narwhal. Nothing you’ve eaten has been that strange.”

"He was right."

I Drove In Circles Around a Saudi Gas Station

Driving in circles in Dammam, Saudi Arabia (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Aaron Saunders, Senior News & Features Editor: "I've had a lot of interesting cruise ship shore excursions over the years, some of which have been memorable for more reasons than others. I've rode Icelandic ponies near Reykjavik, and have been chased by an elephant while on a safari drive in South Africa. A dolphin in Cabo San Lucas was a little overly-attracted to me on a Swim with the Dolphins excursion.

"Few things, though, will eclipse my time ashore in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, however, where our tour bus drove in circles in a dirt field around a gas station for 20 minutes without explanation.

Our Field of Dreams, as seen from our motorcoach in Dammam (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

"I'm not kidding: after a day of seeing some of Dammam's most interesting cultural highlights as part of a tour aboard MSC Cruises' MSC World Europa, our motorcoach pulled off the highway and into a gas station. It began to drive in circles in the dirt field, weaving around wrecked cars and stray dogs, for the next 20 minutes.

"No explanation was given. Highway signage was surprisingly good, and labelled in Arabic and English. MSC World Europa was so big it towered over the horizon. Lost, we weren't.

"After 12 minutes, the German tourists on my bus started getting impatient. "Are you sure this is the best way?" one asked incredulously of our guide.

Another loop around reveals some parked cars and trucks (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

"The guide went up to the driver, exchanged some information, and the bus slowly pulled out onto the highway again. A weird -- and perhaps weirdly fitting -- end to my time in Dammam."

Witnessing the Herring Toss in Petersburg, Alaska

Jorge Oliver, Cruise Editor: "While sailing in Alaska aboard HX’s hybrid expedition ship, the MS Roald Amundsen, I was fortunate to visit the town of Petersburg during Syttende Mai or May 17th, Norway’s Constitution Day. Nicknamed “Little Norway” due to its Scandinavian roots, Petersburg stages a week-long celebration to celebrate Syttende Mai and the town of 3,000 residents goes all out.

"The charming festivities were, for the most part, tame and predictable: a big parade marched down Nordic Drive, the town’s main street; locals performed folkloric dances dressed in bunads, Norway’s traditional costumes; and others strolled about donning comically overdone Viking attire.

"I was busy trying to take in the vibrant cultural display when a sudden announcement came on the speakers, saying it was time for the “herring toss.” Like clockwork, revelers lined up in two groups facing each other a few feet apart, herring in hand. After giving the dead fish a kiss for good luck, they began tossing them back and forth, taking a step back with each successful catch.

"As the distance grew between the herring toss participants, so did the difficulty of catching the slippery fish. Soon enough, bits and pieces of herrings littered the main street as a handful of hardy contestants remained—vying to be the last ones standing with their slimy fish in hand.

"The event went on for a couple of rounds, allowing most everyone an opportunity to participate. I even saw a few of my fellow MS Roald Amundsen passengers get in the spirit of the festivities and try their hand at tossing herring. By the end, a cleanup crew took on the unenviable task of tidying the street, while the early summer Alaskan breeze helped to mitigate the not-so-pleasant smell of the dead fish.

"Although several calls still remained in our Alaska itinerary, my fellow MS Roald Amundsen passengers were in mutual agreement: we’d hardly forget Petersburg and its fabled herring toss."

Taking a Double Shot of Whisky with a Human Toe in It

The infamous Sourtoe Cocktail (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

Marilyn Borth, Assistant SEO Editor: "The strangest shore excursion I've ever done is easy to nail down: drinking a cocktail with a severed human toe in it."

"The Yukon Territory in Canada is well-known for its rich gold rush history, but Dawson City in particular has a hidden piece of history that not many know about -- and that's called the Sourtoe Cocktail."

"The Sourtoe Cocktail, a tradition that began over 50 years ago, is a double shot of alcohol that has a pickled human toe in it. The human toe inside has been properly cleaned and lacquered -- and, no, you don't eat it or put it in your mouth (in fact, you shouldn't or you will be charged $2,000!)."

"The rule is that, after you chug your alcohol, the toe must touch your lips. Doing this entire sequence correctly inducts you into the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, which currently has over 105,000 members today."

"While this isn't a listed shore excursion on a cruise itinerary per say, Dawson City was a port of call. Our Alaska cruise tour guide bravely took those of us who were interested in the unique experience to the Sourdough Saloon within the Downtown Hotel, where the cocktail is served."

"When it was my turn to take my shot, I sat at a table with a man called "The Captain," who used tongs to place a shriveled, oily, black olive-appearing object into my alcohol, which was a double shot of Yukon Jack Whisky. I threw back the booze and, in a sense, smooched the dead toe."

Editor Marilyn Borth Trying the Sourtoe Cocktail (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

"Truthfully, the experience wasn't as horrifying as it sounds; it felt like an olive on my lips and had no taste (nor aftertaste). Drinking the sourtoe cocktail was a unique excursion that brought all of us who joined the club closer together. And, naturally, we all celebrated our mutual triumph with a round of beers afterwards."

Updated January 03, 2024
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