Last year at this time, I wrote about my favorite cruise ports of call for 2012. I liked the idea so much that I thought I would do it again this year. There’s just one problem: narrowing down my favorite places to just five ports was a nearly-impossible task this year, because there were just so darn many good ones.

Still ahead: an icy stay in Kirkenes, Norway - just minutes from the border with Russia. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

This year, we sailed from the Arctic Circle to South Africa, cruising destinations as unique as they were diverse. Here, Hurtigruten’s Midnatsol makes her way though the icy Barents Sea. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

In the end, these are the five ports of call that I will remember most about 2013 – and I’d eagerly urge anyone to seek out cruises that call on them, because they will change the way you see the world.

Let’s have a look at which places made the cut:

The Port: Valletta, Malta

The Voyage: Silver Wind Voyage 2334 Rome to Malaga

Silversea's Silver Wind comes in ahead of Costa Favolosa in Valletta, Malta this November. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Silversea’s Silver Wind comes in ahead of Costa Favolosa in Valletta, Malta this November. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Valletta, on the island of Malta, has to be the most interesting Mediterranean port I have visited in years. A walled city overlooking the azure-blue seas that surround it, Valletta was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980 for its stunning collection of baroque, neo-classical and mannerist architecture.

To stroll through the streets of Valletta is to step back in time. The sheer number of monuments, museums, and sites of important historic significance contained within this relatively small area is breathtaking.

But it’s also a welcoming city filled with a mix of cultures. Coffee is taken here as if it were in Italy, while other elements – most notably the style and physical construction of the town itself – is reminiscent of countries like Morocco and Tunisia.

History oozes from every corner of the country; even Valletta’s harbour is ancient, having seen use since the Phoenician period (1550 to 300 BC). Seeing it aboard Silverseas Silver Wind? Priceless.

If you’re looking for a Mediterranean cruise next year, pick one that goes here. You won’t be disappointed.

The Port: Cape Town, South Africa

The Voyage: Silver Wind to South Africa

Cape Town's V&A Waterfront and Table Mountain are seen in this photo. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront and Table Mountain are seen in this photo. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Yes, that’s right – two voyages aboard the Silver Wind made the cut, and for good reason: both of these itineraries were nothing short of amazing. And my first journey to Cape Town, South Africa is one I will remember forever.

If you go into a book store and pick up a travel guide on South Africa – as I did about this time last year – you’ll find all manner of frightening facts about the country. Carjackings. Muggings. Violent home invasions. Robbery. And sure, these things do happen here. But they happen in my own city, too, and they very likely happen in yours as well.

After 24 hours in-transit, I stepped off my British Airways flight at Cape Town’s International Airport and into a world that continues to surprise and amaze me to this day.

Cape Town was nothing like I expected. It was wonderful, eye-opening, beautiful, and – above all else – I never felt unsafe. Nestled in the shadow of Table Mountain and anchored by the picturesque Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town is the gateway to the rest of South Africa and to national historic sites like Robben Island, where the late Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for decades.

If you’ve never been to Cape Town – or South Africa – you owe it to yourself to go.

The Port: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The Voyage: Sailing the Mekong aboard AmaWaterways’ AmaLotus

Phnom Penh's stunning Royal Palace, constructed around 1866. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Phnom Penh’s stunning Royal Palace, constructed around 1866. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

No port I have ever been to has haunted me like the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Not a single port has ever changed the way I view myself and the world around me like this stop on my journey along the Mekong from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

It’s a gorgeous, budding city filled with temples and monuments, vibrant nightlife, and truly friendly people. That’s the first reason you should go. But it’s not the reason I remember Phnom Penh.

I remember Phnom Penh for all the wrong reasons.

One of many rooms in S-21's "Building A." The photograph to the left is too graphic to show. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

One of many rooms in S-21’s “Building A.” The photograph to the left is too graphic to show. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

I remember it for S-21. Tuol Sleng. A former highschool turned into an interrogation centre during the height of the Khmer Rouge regime.

That room with the bedframe in ‘Building A’ is one of the memories I can’t seem to scrape from my brain, no matter how hard I try. The stains on the floors and the barred windows say nothing yet scream out the most shrill, piercing cry. It’s a terrified, begging, pleading shriek that tugs on your worst fears, exposing them like an open wound. As with Auschwitz, it is a cry heard by no one and everyone.

If you want to be grateful for what you have, go to Phnom Penh and tour Tuol Sleng. Tell yourself it’s just an empty building. Step out into the courtyard, in the fading light of the Cambodian sun, and try to envision what prisoner and artist Vann Nath saw – and painted. By Nath’s own admissions, his works of art – which are nothing less than horrifying – have been ‘toned down.’

I think everyone should see Phnom Penh, because it’s a wonderful city filled with fabulous people. But I wonder how the world would change if everyone were able to see Tuol Sleng and its lasting effects on Cambodia.

The Port: Fairbanks, Alaska

The Voyage: Alaska with Cruise Experts Travel aboard the Coral Princess

Those Empty Streets: looking down Cushman Street. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Those Empty Streets: looking down Cushman Street in Fairbanks, Alaska – near midnight. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

I’ve been to Alaska so many times that I could give the tour – and that’s just what I did this past summer as I escorted one of Vancouver-based Cruise Experts Travel’s custom Alaska cruisetours from Fairbanks back to Vancouver.

With stops in Denali National Park, Anchorage, and Whittier – not to mention Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan and both Hubbard and Glacier Bay – I didn’t expect my favorite place to be the very first one I visited.

Fairbanks is a city like no other. Like much of Alaska, it operates in its own little sphere of influence. People here are self-reliant and dependant on no one, even during the summer months when the sun barely sets. It has a rough edge to it, to be sure (one man stumbled, ranting and raving, in the parking lot of a local grocery store), but the people here struck me for being so darn nice. Not only that, so darn educated. Everyone knew I was from Vancouver, Canada and not Vancouver, Washington as I so often get. I’d even reckon that Alaskans are more in-tune with some of the issues facing the United States today, despite their geographic removal from the better part of the country.

I can’t wait to return!

The Port: Honningsvag, Norway

The Voyage: Hurtigruten’s Midnatsol – Chasing the Northern Lights

Honningsvag Church, one of the only buildings left standing after 1944. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Honningsvag Church, one of the only buildings left standing in the town after 1944. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The thing I remember most about Honningsvag is that simply trying to stand up was a challenge. On my mid-February visit, the streets were covered with snow and ice and the clouds hung ominously low in the sky.

The northernmost city on mainland Norway, Honningsvag has about 2,400 year-long residents and is nestled around a horseshoe-shaped harbour located at the base of several rolling hills. While some larger cruise ships call here during the summer months, the best way to see Honningsvag is aboard one of the ships of Hurtigruten.

On my journey aboard Hurtigruten’s Midnatsol, I slipped and slid my way along this beautiful – yet remote – town. Part of me wonders what it looks like in the warmth of summer – but I can scarcely imagine it would be better than it was on my cold, mid-February day.

From the Deck Chair will return on January 2, 2014. Happy New Year!


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