POP ICONS ADD ZEST TO ANY CRUISE, so it’s no wonder cruises with popular-culture themes are proliferating. In fact, pop culture now rules the deck on every voyage with Disney Cruises and its roaming crew of stars from Pixar, Marvel, Disney and Star Wars productions. Disney’s deck parties, 3-D movies and Broadway-style shows are designed for families, as are the staterooms, which feature split baths and extra space and storage. On select 2020 itineraries in the Caribbean, passengers can enjoy a Star Wars Day at Sea featuring a throng of Star Wars characters; and on many five-night cruises from Miami, a Marvel Day at Sea brings aboard stunt shows, movie marathons and a chance to cavort with the likes of Spider-Man, Iron Man and Captain America. Disney Cruises to Alaska are headlined by Pixar Pals at Sea programs put on by the characters of Toy Story, The Incredibles and Monsters, Inc. and highlighted by an all-hands-on-deck Super Hero Shuffle.
LONG REGARDED AS AMONG the finest small-ship cruise lines, Windstar made its name with its first three ships, the 148-passenger Wind Star and Wind Spirit and the 312-passenger Wind Surf, each featuring computer-controlled sails. Three more conventional 212-passenger boutique ships were recently added to the fleet: Star Pride (2014), Star Legend (2015) and Star Breeze (2015). Together, the six ships now call on some 300 ports in 80 countries, taking passengers to places larger luxury ships do not go, from Little Bay on Montserrat to Surtsey Island in Iceland, while remaining true to the Windstar motto, “180 degrees from ordinary.”
PONANT, THE ONLY MAJOR French-owned cruise line serving destinations worldwide, is campaigning to attract more North American passengers, having recently opened offices in New York and Miami. Ponant presents dual appeal in its fleet of small luxury ships featuring gourmet French dining and the wide range of exotic ports it serves from pole to pole.
ONCE KNOWN AS THE “END OF THE WORLD” or the “Untouchable Continent,” Antarctica welcomed 51,707 passengers between 2017 and 2018. Travel to Antarctica moved closer to the limelight over the years, all thanks to the pioneering work of one man who had a vision to bring adventurous and education-minded tourists to remote destinations around the world in small expedition ships.
MORE THAN A CENTURY AGO, the great ocean liners, including the original Queen Mary and the ill-fated Titanic, provided space for passengers to exercise. These fitness centers of yesteryear, usually situated in rooms without so much as a porthole for views, were equipped with the iron weights and intricate wooden exercise machines of the time. Passengers worked out on rowing machines and static bicycles in full Edwardian dress, from suits and ties to dresses and hats.
RIVER CRUISING HAS BECOME one of the fastest-growing segments of water travel, enabling passengers to take in the sights of the world’s great inland waterways, especially in Europe. The rising tide of interest in river travel prompted an upgrade of the ships themselves, where the facilities and amenities increasingly resemble those of their big sisters, the swank, ocean-going, “all-inclusive” luxury cruise ships.
FOR PASSENGERS DRAWN TO cold-water sailing, from the Arctic to Antarctica, and those who delight in exploring as well as cruising, Hurtigruten (although not well-known in North America) is the byword. Since 1893 Hurtigruten carried passengers as well as mail and other shipping commodities up and down the icy, fjordlaced Atlantic coast of Norway, and recently the line branched out into full-fledged expedition cruising at a time when this has become the hottest trend in the industry. Nearly half of the new ships to be launched this year by cruise lines worldwide are smaller craft dedicated to adventurous explorations at sea. Hurtigruten, which bills itself as “the world’s largest expedition cruise operator,” keeps pace in a number of ways.
MANY CRUISE LINES are only too happy to keep the whole family entertained these days, as some 42 percent of parties now sail with children under 18. Mid-sized to mega-sized ships offer the widest range of programs and facilities dedicated to kids and teens, although these playgrounds at sea are not the only option. Some all-inclusive luxury liners and smaller expedition ships are also family-friendly.
DESPITE A SHORT SAILING SEASON (May through September), Alaska attracts a million cruise passengers annually, ranking it among the five most popular cruise destinations in the world. Most lines plying Alaskan waters sell out far in advance, and that’s true for the two largest operators in the 49th state, Holland America Line and Princess Cruises. Headquartered in Seattle and Santa Clarita, California, respectively, these two lines handle a quarter-million Alaska visitors yearly, employing mid-sized, full-service ships that hit the highlights of Southeast Alaska’s virtually roadless 1,000-mile-long Inside Passage. This seashore gallery is rife with monumental glaciers and fjords, towering snowy peaks and abundant wildlife; and its rustic ports retain elements of their Native American and pioneer heritages.
UNIWORLD IS THE BYWORD for all-inclusive luxury river cruising, especially on the magnificent rivers of Europe. That’s where the Uniworld Boutique River Collection of more than a dozen small vessels really shines. The fares are high, but the inclusions are striking: all gratuities, ship-wide WiFi connections, a free excursion at each port, most beverages and farm-to-table gourmet cuisine, not to mention complimentary fitness classes, fleets of Uniworld bicycles and an ample assortment of Nordic walking sticks.
FEW HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS are more lavish and exhilarating than those held on special cruises, especially when it’s cold at home. Fortunately, many cruise lines offer seasonal galas in the winter, especially in the Caribbean during the Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s holidays. While it’s too late to book such a cruise this winter, plenty of notable holiday cruises will make it easy to shake off the chills in 2019.
Ports of Call: Nautica sailed from Mumbai, India, to Dubai and Fujairah, United Arab Emirates; Muscat and Salālah, Oman; Aqaba, Jordan; Luxor, Egypt; Haifa, Israel; Limassol, Cyprus; Rhodes and Santoríni, Greece; Ephesus, Turkey; Valletta, Malta; and Palermo, Sorrento and Civitavecchia, Italy.
Ports of Call: Seven Seas Voyager made stops at Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Fujairah, United Arab Emirates; Muscat, Oman; Mumbai, Goa and Cochin, India; Maldives; Seychelles; Kenya; Zanzibar, Tanzania; Madagascar; Maputo, Mozambique; and Richards Bay, Durban and Cape Town, South Africa.
Ports of Call: The 28-night cruise from San Diego to Lima and back aboard the Maasdam included Cabo San Lucas, Huatulco and Puerto Chiapas, Mexico; Fuerte Amador, Panama; Salaverry (Trujillo) and Lima (Callao), Peru, overnight; Manta, Ecuador; Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica; Corinto, Nicaragua; Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala; Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; and returning to San Diego, California.
THE RIGHT TO EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY may not be among the first 10 Constitutional Amendments. But when it comes to drink especially, it may well define what it is like to sail on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship. With 16 ships and five more in the making, the 51-year-old line calls on nearly 300 destinations throughout the world year-round. And on each of those voyages, its ships carry about 100 varieties of wines.
OVER THE PAST DECADE, Crystal Cruises soared to the top echelons of ocean cruising with its two fine ships, the Crystal Symphony and the Crystal Serenity, two of the largest vessels in this rarefied class, each carrying about a thousand passengers. Crystal has been able to offer more options in entertainment, enrichment and activities than its top-of-the-line competitors while maintaining superb service with extremely high passenger-to-staff and passenger-to-space ratios. Crystal passengers have come to expect gratuities to be covered and fine wines, premium spirits, Champagne and specialty coffees to be complimentary. The cruise line recently added free internet and WiFi connections, too. Along the way, Crystal became the leader in providing multigenerational family cruises for well-to-do travelers.
LEANING OVER THE POLISHED DECK RAIL, I’m aware latitude and longitude have given way to vast stretches of deep blues and a multitude of grays. Beneath my feet, depth is measured in fathoms, a deep well filled with countless mysteries likely to remain forever hidden beneath the shifting surface.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I AM A FAN OF integrative medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil. So I had high expectations for an enriching experience as I settled onto my yoga mat at his Crystal Sound Bath class, covered myself with a blanket, applied an eye pillow and retreated from the world around me. After welcoming us to what promised to be a deeply meditative experience, our instructor/wellness guide proceeded to create a sequence of varying sound wave vibrations with three different crystal bowls, also known as singing bowls. As the atonal, haunting sounds of the bowls filled the room, the vibrations seemed to harmonize with each other and flow into my being. I lost consciousness of time and slipped into a trance-like state. When I emerged 50 minutes later, I felt relaxed and renewed.
VIKING RIVER CRUISES has become familiar to millions of TV viewers, chiefly through its sponsorship of the hit PBS series Downton Abbey. Those beguiling ads paint a picture of a premium cruise line delivering unforgettable experiences on the legendary riverways of northern Europe — the Danube, the Rhine, the Seine — and the picture is accurate. Passengers can expect a grand river tour filled with spectacles and special experiences, rendered in sophisticated style. Founded in 1997 by Torstein Hagen, who often appears in the Viking ads, the line grew especially rapidly, adding 40 of its signature 190-passenger Longships between 2012 and 2016 to become the largest river cruise line in the world.
HOMER FIRST SANG OF THE WINE-DARK seas Odysseus cruised 3,000 years ago, and today’s cruise lines paint a similar picture with their expanding wine lists, onboard tastings and visits to local wineries. When world-class varietals and vintages become the focus of a specially themed wine cruise, so much the better. Fortunately for oenophiles, many top cruise lines host designated wine cruises featuring resident experts and regional winemakers who preside over workshops, tastings, wine dinners and shore excursions to rare or legendary vineyards. Here we uncork a few standout wine cruises for 2019.
THE RITZ-CARLTON IS ON THE VERGE of becoming the first luxury hotel chain to launch its own cruise line, The Ritz- Carlton Yacht Collection, combining the experience of private yachting with the range and deluxe facilities of premium ocean cruising. The first of its three 298-passenger mega-yachts (yet unnamed) will set sail Feb. 1, 2020, from Fort Lauderdale, two nights before Super Bowl LIV kicks off in nearby Miami.
IT IS SAID SALT SEA AIR has profound curative powers, so what better place to immerse oneself in these healthful properties than on an ocean cruise? Spas have long been a staple on cruises, but many ships expanded their fitness and beauty facilities to embrace programs dedicated to promoting wellness of mind, body and spirit. This fresh focus on wellness and holistic lifestyles already spawned a wide range of alternative classes, exotic spa treatments, leaner cuisines and New Age activities from meditation to yoga, all designed to return passengers to shore in fitter and trimmer condition — enlightened, rather than bloated.
BILLING ITSELF AS “the world’s finest ultra-luxury cruise line,” Seabourn celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and remains highly popular with passengers seeking modern, understated elegance. Its far-flung all-inclusive cruises visit more than 170 UNESCO World Heritage sites from Australia and Asia to the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. Each of its ships accommodates just 458–600 guests, all staterooms are suites with spacious bathrooms and walk-in closets, most drinks are complimentary, gratuities are included, waiting lines are kept to a minimum, and service is intensively personalized — all in keeping with the founders’ intent to create a yacht-like atmosphere.
AS CRUISE SHIPS BECOME LARGER, they also become greener. This movement to make cruising eco-friendly comes at a time when cruise ships draw fire for their negative effects on the environment. A typical cruise ship with 3,000 passengers aboard puts out 1 million gallons of gray water; 210,000 gallons of sewage; 25,000 gallons of oily bilge water; and 50 tons of garbage and solid waste on a 10-day voyage. By one estimate, a medium-sized ship emits the same volume of air pollutants as 5 million cars going the same distance. Air quality on deck can reach the same unhealthful level as that measured on the streets of the world’s most polluted cities.
HOLLAND AMERICA LINE IS, by many measures, a large cruise operator, with 14 ships calling on more than 400 ports and all seven continents. Yet its fleet consists solely of medium-sized vessels, each classically designed with sleek, navy-blue hulls evoking the golden age of ocean liners. Holland America resisted adding mega-ships to its line, favoring smaller, tradition-laden vessels while discretely incorporating modern perks and luxury appointments along the way. There are no climbing walls, water slides or amusement park rides on board, but Holland America passengers can expect exceptional afternoon teas and, in colder waters, hearty mugs of pea soup served on deck.
THE MEDITERRANEAN IS THE second-most popular cruise destination in the world, and for good reason. Nowhere else on Earth combines such an array of stunning marine settings with so many iconic, cultural and historic treasures. Cruise passengers can comb the ancient ruins of Greece and Italy, party on the Riviera, sip the wines of southern France, island-hop along the Iberian Peninsula or explore the walled cities of the Dalmatian Coast.
AMAWATERWAYS HAS BEEN at the forefront of river cruising since its launch 15 years ago, establishing its high reputation on the grand rivers of Europe, chiefly the Danube and the Rhine. Now it expands its reputation not only with new highend appointments but also with features designed to appeal to younger, more active passengers.
PRINCESS CRUISES IS THE QUINTESSENTIAL mainstream cruise line, combining all one expects from a large vacation at sea with some enticing innovations. Now owned by Carnival, Princess operates a fleet of 17 ships calling on more than 300 ports around the world. With the exception of one small ship, the 670-passenger Pacific Princess, the vessels carry from 2,000 to 3,500 passengers, providing a full-bore, resort-at-sea experience, replete with casinos and spas, deck lounges and pools, Broadway shows, shops, movies and activity centers, not to mention dining options galore from buffets to bistros to fine, specialty restaurants.
AS WITH AIRLINES THESE DAYS, the list of extra charges on a cruise can be quite staggering — tips, drinks, specialty dining, laundry, fitness classes, shore excursions and more. The bill for so-called “extras” on a cruise can add up to a second fare. Little wonder many cruise passengers, weary of this nickel-and-dime approach, prefer to pay an up-front, all-inclusive fare.
WHEN PARIS STOCKBROKER and would-be painter Paul Gauguin struck out for Tahiti and the South Pacific in 1891, it marked an escape from the confines of civilization. Once he made that leap, Gauguin produced masterpieces on canvas that captured the essence of a tropical paradise. Today, cruise passengers can enter that same magical world aboard the aptly named m/s Paul Gauguin, immersing themselves in the exotic cultures and landscapes that have mesmerized art lovers for more than a century.
IF YOU’VE EVER REACHED the end of a wonderful cruise and wished it could stretch on forever, then a complete circumnavigation of the globe is your dream ticket. You’ll need considerable resources ($35,000–255,000 per guest, depending on stateroom) and ample time (four months, minimum), but for those who relish cruising, an around-the-world voyage is the ultimate splurge.
NO MODERN CRUISE LINE can match Cunard Line’s legacy at sea, dating back to 1840 and its trans-Atlantic steamboat days. Cunard operated the first passenger ship lit by electricity, the first with an indoor swimming pool and the first to offer an around-the-world voyage, in 1922. During World War II, its ocean liners transported more than 2 million service personnel, prompting Churchill to credit Cunard with shortening the war by a full year. Cunard was not only the first line to carry passengers on regularly scheduled trans-Atlantic passages, but today it is the only cruise line to do so.
CRUISE LINES HAVE LONG SOUGHT to bring the pleasures and perks of land-based luxury resorts to passengers at sea. Golf is no exception. Golfers today can get in a round even on board, thanks to the development of sophisticated golf simulators. These high-tech, compact games — employing clubs, balls, tees and computerized projection screens — first appeared in 1997 on Princess Cruises, and they have proliferated. So have netted driving ranges, putting greens and teaching pros at hand to fine-tune a passenger’s swing. For those seeking play on real fairways, some cruise lines now make it easy to book tee times at selected ports of call, while others offer the ultimate golfer’s sailing: a golf-themed cruise.
WHILE MOST CRUISE LINES “sail” the seven seas propelled by engines, Windstar Cruises made its name with three ships that really, truly swept from port to port the old-fashioned way, albeit with up-to-date, computer-controlled sails. Windstar’s first two sailing vessels, the Wind Star and the Wind Spirit, are 148-passenger boutique ships with four 204-foot masts. Windstar’s largest vessel, the 312-passenger Wind Surf, boasts seven triangular, self-furling, computer-operated sails deployed on five masts, each towering 221 feet above teak decks — making it one of the two largest sail cruisers in the world. To be sure, all three of Windstar’s sailing vessels use motors most of the time, but when the sails come out, there’s no far-ranging cruise line with quite so romantic a look and feel.
CRUISE LINES COMPETE to outdo each other with the most extravagant amenities, luxuries and resort activities aboard their ships these days, and they do the same in certain ports by stopping at their own lavishly outfitted private islands. While Paul Gauguin Cruises calls at a private isle in French Polynesia and MSC Cruises recently opened a proprietary port near Abu Dhabi, most cruise lines established their exclusive hideaways in the Caribbean.
NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE, one of the world’s largest cruise operators, sails a 21st-century fleet of 16 ships, all dedicated to delivering a full resort experience. NCL pioneered its contemporary freestyle cruise mode a quarter-century ago. Quite casual and sporty, Norwegian voyages are rife with recreational facilities and “eat what you want, when you want, where you want” dining, designed to appeal to active adults and families on a spree.
AS CRUISE SHIPS GROW LARGER and more luxurious, cruise ports rush to keep up, modernizing and expanding their facilities across the globe. In Florida, which boasts the three busiest cruise ports in the world, the busiest harbor, Miami, is readying a new terminal for 2018, built by Royal Caribbean for mega-ship passengers. Runner-up rival Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale is lengthening Slip 2 to accommodate more resort-sized ships, too, and remains the only cruise port to offer passengers Global Entry security clearance. As for third-place Port Canaveral in Orlando, the latest enhancement is a $7 million amphitheater.
ELVIS MAY HAVE LEFT the building, but it’s only because his ship’s come in, and you can join the King on a number of upcoming Elvis-themed cruises. A five-night Bermuda cruise departing Baltimore Oct. 14 this year aboard Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas is just one example. Elvis imitators and tribute artists will also entertain passengers during Royal Caribbean’s week-long 14th Annual Memories of the King Birthday Cruise aboard the Allure of the Seas sailing the Eastern Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale come Jan. 21, 2018.
ONE OF THE NEWEST ENTRANTS in the premium cruise category, Azamara Club Cruises operates just two small luxury liners worldwide, the Azamara Journey and the Azamara Quest. Both boutique vessels hold around 700 passengers, and their size enables them to go where the big resort ships can’t. In fact, it’s Azamara’s destination-intensive itineraries that set it apart, as do its late-evening and overnight stays at ports both familiar and exotic. Passengers can explore exceptional locations in greater depth, and these extended dockings are especially sweet during longer sailings in Northern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Arabian Gulf, as well as in the Caribbean, Oceania and Asia.
With four small 684-passenger ships and two mid-sized 1,250-passenger vessels, Oceania Cruises is set to call on more than 370 ports in 2017, hitting the high points in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, South America, the South Pacific and Alaska while touching on destinations the bigger ships pass by. More than a hundred of its sailings next year feature new itineraries, and Oceania will call on many ports for its first time ever, ranging from Rijeka, Croatia, to Húsavík, Iceland.
The fabled rivers of Europe, rich with looming castles, shore-side vineyards and romantic cafés, remain the special domain of very small vessels. Among the premium and luxury cruise lines plying the Rhine, the Rhone, the Danube, the Seine and other great European waterways, Viking River Cruises set the standard, and it set it high. The world’s largest river cruise line, Viking has more than one dozen ships based in Europe, including no fewer than six longships launched this year. Viking’s hallmark longships each carry 190 passengers, all in outside-facing cabins, and each European sailing includes guided shore excursions, onboard lectures and open-seat dining with regional specialties and complimentary wines. Viking’s Explorer Suites, two on each longship, are the largest on Europe’s rivers. It’s not surprising many passengers consider Viking’s river cruises an experience of sheer luxury, although its fares are quite affordable.
As the tide of cruise-ship travel rises, major cruise lines have not been slow to lift new ships into service. This year saw the introduction of Holland America Line’s 2,650-passenger ms Koningsdam, its first new vessel since 2010 and largest ever, with solo and family cabins a fresh option. Royal Caribbean International’s new 4,180-passenger Ovation of the Seas also set sail straight into the booming China market this year, complete with such novelties as a skydiving simulator, onboard bumper cars and “virtual balconies’’ for inside cabins. Regent Seven Seas Cruises took to the waves with its first new ship since 2003, the 750-passenger Seven Seas Explorer, “the most luxurious cruise ship ever,” with the highest space-to-passenger ratio in the industry. Viking Cruises cast a second ship into the ocean-going fray in 2016, the 930-passenger Viking Sea, a vessel that remains true to Viking’s river-plying origins with extensive deck space, including a wrap-around promenade. And come this December, Seabourn is slated to launch its largest ship ever, the all-suite, all-balcony, 604-passenger Seabourn Encore.
Royal Caribbean International, one of the world’s three largest cruise operators, is a mainstream rather than premium line. Many of its passengers are families with children, younger couples and first-time cruisers who relish shows, sun sports, shopping and spas. Accordingly, Royal Caribbean delivers dream vacations by outfitting its megaships — full-scale resorts that happen to float — with shopping malls, water parks and entertainment zones for kids. This makes for what many passengers, especially Americans, consider the ultimate vacation at sea. While Royal Caribbean spans the globe, Caribbean vacations are its forte and megaships its signature. In 2009, Royal Caribbean International launched the world’s largest cruise ship, the 5,408-passenger Oasis of the Seas. The next year, it outdid itself with the debut of a super vessel some two inches longer, Allure of the Seas. This year, the 5,497-passenger Harmony of the Seas surpassed its two sisters to climb to the top of the length and passenger charts. In fact, this newest over-the-top sea-going resort epitomizes much of what Royal Caribbean offers.
No single component of a cruise generates more comments than the food and wine served on board — and those comments usually run the gamut from groans to ovations. Passengers expect exceptional dishes and vintages while at sea, and cruise lines know this. In recent years, nearly all vessels expanded their menus and wine lists, with some reaching into truly gourmet realms. Luxury lines such as Silversea and Seabourn provide the most consistently savory offerings. The price of a cruise often includes superb meals designed by well-known chefs and premium wines selected by certified sommeliers. Michelin-starred and celebrity chefs frequently put their brands on the top luxury lines. Jacques Pepin, executive culinary director, Oceania Cruises, devised some contemporary interpretations of Asian classics for Oceania’s Red Ginger restaurant. Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, a master chef renowned for his fusions of Japanese, European and Peruvian cuisines, personally trained the chefs at Crystal Cruises’ Silk Road restaurant. Silversea Cruises runs the sole Relais & Châteaux restaurant at sea, Le Champagne, with a six-course French-inspired menu.
Who wouldn’t relish a cruise on a small luxury ship where every stateroom is a suite, all onboard gratuities are included, most drinks (from sodas and coffees to cocktails and Champagne) are part of the fare and dining is an epicurean delight? Where shore excursions are flawless? Where your butler is always on call? Your butler, did we say? Quite so.
These days, the show’s the thing at sea as well as on land. Cruise lines are increasingly mirroring the best Broadway, the Las Vegas strip and the theaters of London offer, with stellar shows featuring the latest in technological enhancements. Cruise ship versions may be a bit abridged, with smaller casts and stages, but show tickets are cheaper (usually free), and parking is not a problem.
Holding your next meeting at a luxury resort or exotic hideaway? That’s fine, but there’s an alluring, all-inclusive, possibly even money-saving alternative — a cruise ship. Meetings at sea are sailing on a rising tide in the MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions and events) industry. Christine Duffy, president and CEO, Cruise Line International Association, touts group bookings on a cruise ship, as opposed to a landlocked resort, as “a cost-effective way of producing a meeting that doesn’t look and feel like every other meeting.”
Among major international cruise lines, Celebrity Cruises stands out as a premium operator. Nine of its 10 sleekly modern 21st-century ships carry between 2,000 and 3,000 passengers, each large enough to qualify as a luxury resort at sea. Carrying five times more passengers than the more intimate boutique vessels sailed by the likes of Seabourn and Silversea, Celebrity provides the expansive facilities, numerous amenities and family activities of today’s largest ships while still delivering a lavish cruise experience at a reasonable price.
Like airlines and hotel chains, cruise lines invite repeat customers to join their reward programs. Points are scored for each cruise (or cruise night) a passenger books on the same line; as points accumulate, the value of the perks rises — from exclusive cocktail receptions and loyalty club lapel pins all the way up to free cruises. Joining an elite program is free. Nearly every operator has its own version, including the top premium and luxury lines, but how much sailing does it take to reap a sought-after reward?
Life at sea has expanded by leaps and bounds on luxury cruises, especially with the advent of specialty dining, butler service, full-service spas, spacious suites, photography workshops and a host of other perks once found only at land-based vacation resorts. But shore excursions have kept pace, too. Port calls are no longer restricted to bus tours, museum visits, beach time and shopping sprees. In fact, some of the most memorable cruise experiences these days take place when the cruise ship is at anchor and passengers go ashore, putting aside the life of luxury and leisure for a few hours.
For maritime travelers seeking the closest possible contact with exotic wildlife, the Galapagos archipelago is the unsurpassed choice. Nowhere else are the indigenous birds, reptiles and mammals so at ease with humankind, unintimidated, unafraid, almost tame. “The place is a new creation,” an early visitor proclaimed nearly two centuries ago, and it remains largely so today, a Jurassic Park of sorts, its dinosaurs miniaturized into free-ranging iguanas. The creatures of this Eden are neither fearful of nor hostile to the bands of tourists who island-hop by ship and yacht, disembark from Zodiacs and fan out in small groups on restricted pathways to comb these wild and desolate volcanic islands day after day. From playful sea lions, brown penguins and unruffled blue-footed boobies to the signature giant tortoises themselves, whose life expectancies dwarf those of mankind, these are the residents of a UNESCO World Heritage site and Biosphere Reserve that served as the real-life basis for On the Origin of Species, the landmark scientific study penned by Charles Darwin, who was inspired by his own passage to these enchanted islands two centuries ago.
Most cruise lines offer at least one voyage with a twist each year, giving passengers a chance to explore in depth a destination that’s terra incognita among their competitors. Sometimes it’s the destination itself that’s truly unique, as with AdventureSmith Explorations’ Cuba People-to-People Cruise starting this December. Employing the three-masted, 49-passenger schooner Panorama, AdventureSmith will venture into new waters, carrying Americans round-trip from Miami to five Cuban ports, including Havana, for the first time in 50 years. It’s a chance to sail to Cuba ahead of the growing number of cruise lines eyeing this unique destination for later in 2016.
For many, Antarctica, the pristine Seventh Continent, ranks as the ultimate cruise destination — the Kingdom of Ice (stronghold of 99 percent of the world’s frozen water) teeming with marching penguins, elephant seals and albatross but devoid of an indigenous human population as well as shopping ports, trendy cafés and beaches for sunbathers.
With the exception of the Caribbean, the Mediterranean is the most popular cruise destination on the planet, and the western portion, stretching from Portugal and Spain to France and Italy, contains the most stylish ports in the cruising world, including Monaco, Saint-Tropez and the whole Riviera. Passengers have the full lineup of major cruise lines to choose from, but smaller luxury lines are truly in their element here. The selection of the perfect Western Mediterranean cruise comes down to what you want to see within its broad confines and which fine cruise line can get you there in style.
Christopher Columbus got here first — making The Bahamas the first port of call on his first voyage to the New World in 1492. Five centuries later, 4 million cruise passengers a year make landfall in The Bahamas, and perhaps with the same intent as the crews of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria: to experience some much-needed, top-notch R&R. With 300 days of sunshine a year and its very name meaning “shallow seas,” The Bahamas is certainly the right place to tie up for rest and recreation, a world-class tropical getaway. There’s an abundance of the requisite white-sand beaches, water sports and nightlife; and daytime temperatures waver only slightly from the 80-degree mark year-round.
Exploring South America can require the full resources of the independent traveler or the fortitude of the backpacker. It’s a rewarding but vast continent to cover. Fortunately, cruise lines offer a less demanding, more luxurious alternative, enabling visitors to sample a wide range of exotic attractions spread across the varying terrains and cultures of some 17 nations.
Western Europe, from Amsterdam and Paris to Berlin and Barcelona, is familiar ground for many a traveler, but a cruise along the Atlantic coast provides a fresh view of the continent’s riches. Even in the peak coastal cruising season from May through October, sightseers seldom overrun the harbors, islands, towns and villages along Europe’s west coast, and they offer plenty of breathtaking sights and experiences. Moreover, a west coast cruise can be the most cost-efficient and convenient way to explore several countries in a single, carefree trip. Passengers can move from country to country without changing planes, trains or hotel rooms. In addition to hassle-free transportation, superior room and board, free entertainment and other enrichments, a luxury cruise along the Atlantic coast brings the opportunity to explore an exotic, rarely visited location nearly every day.
Arrival/Check-In: The Queen Mary 2’s New York home port is the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. I drove to the terminal and upon arrival found a scene of what looked to be pure chaos — private cars, limos and taxis arriving with outbound passengers and picking up folks who just disembarked from a ship that arrived that morning. I eventually got to where I could deposit my luggage with redcaps who made sure it got to where it should be. I then parked my car and proceeded to check-in. I was impressed at how friendly and efficient the check-in process was. I received a QM2 credit card to be used on board and a group boarding number. Cunard has the boarding procedure down to a science, and I was soon on my way to my room, No. 4134 on Deck 4. My luggage arrived shortly thereafter, so I was ready to explore the ship.
When Cunard Line inaugurated the original trans-Atlantic passenger cruise, departing Liverpool July 4, 1840, it carried 115 first-class passengers, 600 tons of coal, three cats to chase rats and one cow for fresh milk. With some luxurious upgrades 175 years later, a trans-Atlantic crossing remains the iconic ocean cruise, although Cunard is the sole line still offering such voyages on a regularly scheduled year-round basis. Cunard’s 2,620-passenger Queen Mary 2, a state-of-the-art megaship designed for the rigors of such a passage, is packed with posh amenities far exceeding those of the RMS Britannia, the humble wooden paddle steamer that made the original voyage.
Compared to big cruise ships with passengers numbering in the thousands, small cruise ships, carrying a few hundred, are both more expensive to book and leaner on amenities. No casinos, no lavish shows, no choice of gourmet restaurants, no climbing walls, no designer-name boutiques. Instead, a small adventure vessel offers passengers a more intimate expedition to less visited ports and natural sites spread across remote coastlines. In short, an expedition on a very small ship is an adventure rather than a vacation.
In terms of cruise destinations, Australia and New Zealand account for only about 6 percent of the global itinerary, and Southeast Asia even less, according to CLIA, a trade association of international cruise lines. Yet these less-sailed regions encompass some of the most breathtaking ports in the world, making the Australasia region — with its treasure-house of natural sights and cultural landmarks — well worth a distant voyage.
While the Caribbean and the Mediterranean top the list of the world’s most popular cruise destinations, Alaska reigns supreme in the North. With larger-than-life geologic and zoological attractions — from colossal glaciers to prodigious pods of whales — Alaska lures nearly a million cruise passengers each summer, primarily from the ports of Seattle and Vancouver. Its location shortens the cruise season to a matter of weeks, from May to September at best, but the days, stretched out by the midnight sun, are bright and long, and the reasons to visit Alaska by sea are plentiful.
When Magellan took charge of the first around-the-world voyage nearly 500 years ago, he did not survive the long ordeal, but modern passengers can survive a circumnavigation of the globe in comfort and style aboard a number of today’s luxurious cruise ships.
Arrival/Check-In: The Queen Mary 2’s New York home port is the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. I drove to the terminal and upon arrival found a scene of what looked to be pure chaos — private cars, limos and taxis arriving with outbound passengers and picking up folks who just disembarked from a ship that arrived that morning. I eventually got to where I could deposit my luggage with redcaps who made sure it got to where it should be. I then parked my car and proceeded to check-in. I was impressed at how friendly and efficient the check-in process was. I received a QM2 credit card to be used on board and a group boarding number. Cunard has the boarding procedure down to a science, and I was soon on my way to my room, No. 4134 on Deck 4. My luggage arrived shortly thereafter, so I was ready to explore the ship. Guest Quarters: My room included a king-sized bed, a love seat, a desk with desktop outlets and American and European plugs, a desk chair, a coffee table and a fridge. The bathroom was compact and included a shower with a handheld showerhead. The toiletries were Gilchrist & Soames. A cutout balcony featured two recliners and a coffee table. Services/Amenities: The ship is classless except for the three Grill rooms and Grill lounges. Having a room on Deck 4 meant I dined in the Britannia Grill. (Queens Grill and Princess Grill are more exclusive.) Decks 2 and 3 are the main public areas/lobbies, which include the purser’s desk, Cunard’s travel agents for booking future cruises, duty-free shops, a casino, several restaurants/bars, the planetarium, the Royal Court Theatre, an art gallery, the Queens Room ballroom and the disco, G32. The ship offers a plethora of restaurants/bars/cafés throughout. Two of my favorites were the Commodore Club in the bow on Deck 9, where you can have a drink and enjoy a fantastic view of the ocean as the ship plows through the seas; and the Chart Room on Deck 3, a watering hole which hosts a great jazz band every night. I love jazz, so I was in heaven! The gym and Canyon Ranch Spa are on Deck 7, which also offers several dining venues such as the Winter Garden (perfect for tea/coffee and nosh). I spent a part of each morning in the Library in the bow on Deck 8, where you will also find the Bookshop. The Library stocks more than 8,000 volumes and offers a serene spot to while away an hour or two with your nose in a book or staring at the sea. One thing, or should I say several things, I was not expecting to find on the QM2: dogs. Several times a day I met several companion dogs being walked on the Promenade Deck (Deck 7). In fact, there is a 12-dog kennel (Deck 12) always fully booked. I visited it and found a facility that any vet would approve of. The dogs I met were a happy, tail-wagging bunch, and each had its own life vest. The Experience: When I was on board, Cunard was still celebrating the QM2’s 10th anniversary, so there were several notable individuals about who were instrumental in making the ship a reality. They were present at several receptions and approachable for a private chat. Every other evening was formal, so the ladies were in ball gowns and the gents in tuxes, which made the whole experience special. There is so much to do on board that one review does not do the voyage justice. The nice thing is you can immerse yourself in all that is available, or you can sit and relax with a book or stare at the ocean. Experts in their fields conduct the lecture series and enrichment programs. If you love theater, a company of actors from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art is there to entertain you. The food at all levels is excellent, from the grillrooms to the Todd English restaurant on Deck 8. My brothers and several friends decided to take a trans-Atlantic crossing after hearing me rave about it. I sailed the eastbound New York-to-Southampton crossing. Now I want to experience the westbound.
Sometimes an adventure cruise can be more than just a bit adventurous. On Christmas Day last year, 26 tourists, along with four journalists, 19 scientists, 22 crew members and the expedition leader’s wife and two children, found themselves stuck in a solid field of ice aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy off Antarctica. The passengers had booked an adventure cruise retracing the route undertaken by famed Australian explorer Douglas Mawson to the South Pole 100 years earlier, but they did not anticipate making headlines worldwide when their ship was immobilized. Freed nine days later and evacuated by helicopter, everyone fared quite well, indulging themselves in the ship’s amenities, as cruise passengers worldwide will. “We’re in the ice like explorers of old!” tweeted one professor. “All are well and spirits are high. Happy Christmas.”
While the newest mega cruise ships are designed for families, laden bow to stern with the kid-friendly facilities of a land-based resort, plenty of vessels still cater to twosomes seeking a romantic getaway. Some cruise ships offer better options than others for couples wanting to enhance their experience together.
Ever since 1974, when the Cunard Line inaugurated its “Cunard Insights” program of guest speakers — including the likes of Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and John Cleese — onboard lecturers have delighted and enlightened cruise passengers. This trend is gathering momentum, with a variety of major guest speakers slated on upcoming voyages across the globe.
River cruises are riding a tide of popularity worldwide, and cruise lines are racing to construct new vessels that deliver unprecedented levels of luxury. Following in the wake of the oceangoing “blue-water” cruise industry, river cruise lines are responding to the desire for ever-more deluxe accommodations.
Foremost among the concerns of cruise passengers is food — the quality and variety of the cuisine served on board — to the point some guests book a vessel based as much on its restaurants as on its destinations. To meet the tastes of an increasingly discerning audience, cruise lines not only upgraded their offerings in the main dining rooms and buffet lines but launched a flotilla of alternative restaurants that are a cut above the standard fare. These specialty dining venues offer gourmet menus (often developed by celebrity chefs), 5-star service, exclusive à la minute dishes, high-end wine lists and first-class décor, all subject to limited seating and bookings in advance — and extra charges that change often and vary by ship and menu. As luxury alternatives, a vessel’s specialty restaurants meet the demands for a variety of dining options while providing a culinary experience of sufficient magnitude to underline a special week at sea.
One of the prime pleasures of a cruise is a shore excursion at an exotic port of call, but passengers can sometimes make a lesser-known expedition without ever leaving the ship: an inspection tour of all that lies below the passenger decks. If offered at all, a behind-the-scenes jaunt is limited to just a handful of lucky voyagers on a day at sea, and it throws open plenty of forbidden hatches, providing a peek into the inner workings of the ship, from galley to laundry to engine room.
A dream cruise is synonymous with relaxation and rejuvenation, experiences enhanced not only by sailing without a care across vast, tranquil seas but also by a trip now and then to the onboard spa. What began as a few massage tables folded into a windowless annex on many a large cruise vessel blossomed into a state-of-the-art, full-service spa facility. Cruise ships steadily expanded their range of hands-on treatments to the point that, for some passengers, a cruise is less about calling on exotic ports and more about immersing oneself in an extended spa experience.
Atop the new 2,886-passenger Celebrity Silhouette, there’s an incongruous showstopper: a 12,000-square-foot field of real grass known as The Lawn Club. Boasting two restaurants, an art studio, a bocce court and a putting green — plus plenty of hammocks and Adirondack chairs and eight private rail-side cabanas — The Lawn Club hosts picnics at its grill and jazz concerts after dark, making it a super-sized version of the traditional sun deck.
We know them from books (Jeeves in P.J. Wodehouse novels), movies (Alfred in Batman) and British TV (Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs and now Carson in Downton Abbey). There’s even been a butler in the White House. But with the rise of dot-com millionaires and busy two-professional households, the demand for skilled personal assistants outstripped supply worldwide. With butlers spreading rapidly from high-income homes to high-end hotels, it was only a matter of time before premium cruise lines introduced their own seaworthy fleet of stateroom executives, too.
Experience a big-city hotel stay that doesn’t feel like your typical urban visit at Chicago’s Claridge House, nestled in the sought-after Gold Coast neighborhood. The hotel’s sophisticated décor and serene residential ambience foster the atmosphere of an oasis amid the hustle and bustle of a busy metropolis.
Welcome to Rhodes, a medieval treasure beautifully preserved throughout the centuries. Rhodes is the capital of the Dodecanese, an island ideal not only for those who want to relax, but also for those looking for an action-packed holiday! With its bright green hills, rich green valleys and uninterrupted line of golden beaches, Rhodes is truly a blessed place. “The sun island” has more sunshiny days and milder temperatures throughout the year than any other location in Greece. It is, after all, one of the country’s easternmost places and among the first to welcome summer on its impressive beaches. Add in the excellent facilities for tourism, the island’s special blend of cosmopolitan and traditional, and numerous cultural and archaeological sites, the most important being the Medieval (Old) Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and you’ve got the perfect holiday destination. While on Rhodes, don’t miss a daytrip to nearby Sými. An island of sponge divers and seamen, Sými used to have 30,000 inhabitants before the Second World War and was the richest island in the Dodecanese, despite its small size. Today, Sými attracts many visitors thanks to its beautifully preserved Neo-Classical buildings and the famous Archangel Michael monastery at Panormitis.
The addition of 50 high-end Explorer Cabins upped Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite’s game in the rustic-luxury market by attracting those who want upscale amenities but desire an outdoorsy mountain experience — “cabineering,” as Tenaya calls it, or roughing it in the woods without the rough part.
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The Boeing 737 MAX cancellations will continue through the new year and at least one airline is keeping them grounded even longer to avoid disruptions down the line.