This is the second of two posts designed to provide some information and insight into the ports so integral to the cruise ship industry; the previous entry dealt primarily with procedures for getting on and off the ship, and this entry will delve into the actual stops the ship makes during its run.
The term 'home port' is used to describe the city where the cruising guests finish their vacation and leave the ship permanently, and a new set of guests embarks the ship to begin their vacation. The frequency with which a ship is in her home port is dependent upon the length of the cruises; a ship with a 3- and 4-day itinerary will be in home port twice a week, weekly for a 7-day run, and even less frequently for longer cruises. Some ships have such varied routes that the home port may change once, twice or even consistently over the course of a 6-month contract, while others will retain their original home port the entire time.
The particular itinerary of the ship tends to determine the activities that crew members choose to do on home port days. If the home port is a US city with a run consisting of Caribbean islands, crew members will most often use their time to run errands (buy toiletries, deposit money, etc), use internet, and grab a bite to eat. On the other hand, a Mediterranean home port like Venice or Barcelona will commonly prompt the crew to do touristy activities as they would any other ports in that particular itinerary and possibly save errands for a less interesting or equally convenient port during the run.
And what makes a good home port? Well, a European city with centuries of history and exciting tourist attractions has obvious positive aspects. But on a more basic level, crew members look for accessibility -- how easily one can get from the ship's gangway to a downtown area, shopping center or other locale. In some home ports, these areas of interest are only a short walk away, and others require a shuttle or taxi ride, less convenient and possibly costing money. Local, tasty restaurants and nearby access to internet cafes or wifi hotspots are also priorities, as is proximity to convenience stores, supermarkets and department stores. The same goes for banks and post offices, and good public transportation is also a large perk.
Ports of call, on the other hand, are usually quite different from a ship's home port, both culturally and geographically. A cruise liner sailing from Miami might stop in Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Mexico, one sailing out of Vancouver might stop in Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway, and one out of Venice might hit Athens, Dubrovnik and Istanbul; each sample itinerary highlights this difference between home and mid-cruise ports. Instead of running errands and shopping, crew members opt for activities specific to those respective ports of call -- beaches in the Caribbean, nature hikes in Alaska, sightseeing in Europe, and so on. As well, shore excursions are offered to crew at discount prices, providing opportunities to swim with dolphins, traverse a glacier and visit the Parthenon as part of tours set up by the shipboard personnel.
However, some crew priorities remain the same in all ports. Good food and easy internet access are universally appreciated, and are arguably the most important factors in separating the 'good' ports from the 'bad'. And accessibility is highly valued in ports of call as well; the farther and more expensive the taxi ride is from the ship to downtown or the beach, the less appealing a port becomes.
Ultimately, it's easy to explain port procedures and to list the prerequisites for a good port as deemed by the crew. But actually visiting these ports -- some tropical, some historic, some quaint, some pristine -- are experiences that can't be defined in a few sentences. Deciding which ports are your personal favorites is a unique luxury that comes with the job; it is the opportunity to see so many new places that is, undoubtedly, one of the great pleasures of working as a cruise ship musician.