Travel — 02 April 2016
A cruise for everyone on the blue horizon

By Thomas Swick

City & Shore Magazine

On the afternoon of Nov. 9 – a summery hot day in Miami – Armando Christian Pérez, aka Pitbull, performed at the christening ceremony of the Norwegian Escape, the Norwegian Cruise Line ship that he had been named godfather of. It was an historic moment, not because ships have traditionally had godmothers, but because the worlds of hip-hop and cruising had never been so visibly joined. It represented a break from the established order that cruise lines have been slowly, if much less dramatically, departing from for years.

Everyone knows – or at least the throngs of Americans who board ships know (an estimated 24 million this year) – that cruising is no longer a predictable round of assigned seatings, amateur nights and promenade decks (not with all those balconied cabins). And who has time for promenading anyway when there’s ice skating, rock climbing and zip-lining? The vacation that was once renowned for its relaxing properties (and still is, of course) is also now filled with enough rigorous options to make your days at sea resemble a week at boot camp.

Cruising, someone once pointed out, is like Las Vegas: They’re both constantly coming up with new attractions and innovative concepts to add to the fundamental ones – ship life and gambling – in efforts to keep their customers coming back (and to attract new ones). In this way, they’re also a bit like the Macy’s department store that the British travel writer Jonathan Raban described, in his book Hunting Mister Heartbreak, as being “scared stiff of our boredom.”

The biggest trend in cruising over the past decade has been huge ships, behemoths that fill the horizon like extras in a Fellini film. And that trend continues. This May will see the debut of the latest largest cruise ship in the world, Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas, which will be capable of carrying 6,360 passengers. It comes with a Bionic Bar – “Set ’em up, robot” – and a 10-story slide. It will sail out of Port Everglades.

Yet the passion for big is also spawning some interesting, and seemingly contradictory, developments.

One of which is the attempt to make the passenger’s experience more like that of a traveler than that of a tourist. This is perhaps the most fascinating new trend, according to Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, and certainly the most ambitious. Travelers tend to have unique encounters, which is difficult to do when you’re on a ship with 6,000 people.

Also, it can be a challenge to have a meaningful experience in a place if you’re only there for a few hours. (One of the reasons folks often cite for not taking cruises.) But a number of lines offer overnight stays at the beginning and the end of the cruise, and some, like Azamara Club Cruises and Seabourn Cruise Line, occasionally do it in the middle of the cruise.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises has established an association with the Smithsonian Institution, which means that, starting in July, most of the line’s cruises with sea days will include Smithsonian lecturers. Seabourn has a partnership with UNESCO, which gives its passengers special access to World Heritage sites and tours with UNESCO specialists, after benefitting from onboard lectures.

More time spent in port not only gives passengers the opportunity to explore on land, but it allows the ship to invite locals – musicians, craftspeople, storytellers –
on board for demonstrations and interactions with the passengers. Holland America’s “On Location” program does exactly this, bringing, for example, dancers onboard in Argentina to teach passengers how to tango. Meanwhile, Cunard Line ships, which spend more time at sea than most, bring on their cruises, through the Insight Speakers program, writers, artists, historians, journalists (last year Cunard established a partnership with The New York Times) and other types you wouldn’t mind buttonholing in the bar. Celebrity Cruises features lecturers on its ships, as does the French yacht cruise company PONANT, which has secured former Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham and Metropolitan Opera soprano Ailyn Pérez. Voyages to Antiquity, whose one ship, the Aegean Odyssey, specializes in historic and cultural cruises, provides professors and luminaries from the worlds of art, religion, archaeology, journalism and the military.

“Voluntourism” has made its way into cruising. Crystal Cruises has a “You Care, We Care” program of hands-on volunteer activities, and other lines are following suit. Carnival’s new Fathom cruise line, scheduled to debut this spring with the 700-passenger Adonia, will involve volunteer projects in the Dominican Republic and people-to-people exchanges in Cuba. (Though at the time of this writing, permission had not yet been granted by the Cuban government.)

On the money side, some cruise lines, following the lead of Celebrity, are introducing more inclusive pricing strategies. As ships got bigger, Brown explains, they began offering more options, like specialty restaurants, for passengers who wanted to avoid the crowds. But they had to pay for this privilege – and the more refined dining experience. Gradually, expenses started adding up, as did complaints about them. So now a number of lines are offering their customers drink packages, specialty restaurant packages, shore excursion packages and such.

Sharing a ship with so many people has created a desire in some to carve out their own space. Anne Kalosh, the U.S. editor for Seatrade, a global shipping publication, notes that “family accommodations” are becoming a popular feature on some ships, with staterooms that connect, so that family members can all be in one place. “Carnival Vista,” she says, referring to the ship due out in May (the line’s first since 2012), “will have a complete area for families, with a club that will have games and activities.”

Another new ship that Kalosh highlights is the Koningsdam which, when it debuts this month, will be Holland America’s largest (carrying 2,650 passengers). Designed by Adam D. Tihany, who used music as his inspiration, it will spend its first season in Europe and then come to Port Everglades. “The ship is going to look different,” Kalosh says, “with a lot of different dining concepts.” Its two-story Queen’s Lounge will be transformed throughout the day from lecture hall to blues club to late-night lounge with LED lighting effects (along with other incarnations).

Not surprisingly, the proliferation of big ships has created an interest in small ones. There have always been small ships, Brown notes, but what’s interesting about the new crop is that they’re not all luxury vessels. And their appeal goes beyond small numbers of passengers. “It’s not about caviar and a butler,” she says. “It’s about getting to places in the world that you can’t get to otherwise.” She recalls an Indonesian cruise on a 200-passenger PONANT mega yacht that stopped at Krakatoa. The ship dropped anchor and passengers piled into zodiacs. “We hiked up to the fire line,” she says. “Then went swimming on a black-sand beach. It was fabulous.”

Viking Cruises, known for its sailings on European rivers (at least to anyone who watches PBS), branched out into ocean travel in 2015 with the 930-passenger Viking Star (which Cruise Critic calls “one of cruising’s most beautiful small ships”). A near carbon copy of it, the Viking Sea, is scheduled to debut this month.

Both ships offer, according to people in the industry, a near-luxury experience. Luxury has not been forgotten; in fact, Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Seven Seas Explorer (scheduled to start sailing this summer) is being touted by the line as the most luxurious ship afloat. Apparently the top suite goes for $10,000 a night and it’s sold out for all the sailings currently available for booking.

Luxury, though, is now being found in places you wouldn’t normally expect to find it. The Norwegian Escape, Pitbull’s ship in a mainstream line, has on its top deck The Haven, where the spacious accommodations come with a private sundeck and 24-hour butler service.

“We call it ‘a ship within a ship,’” Brown says of the concept, noting that it exists on Cunard and MSC ships. She attributes the rise in luxury options on mass-market cruise ships to the growing popularity of multigenerational travel. The kids want the fun stuff – like waterslides and gangplanks – while the grandparents crave a little pampering.

One thing they can all enjoy is the outdoor dining. A number of the specialty restaurants on Norwegian Escape have tables out on the promenade deck, and they’ve made this former cruise staple a popular meeting spot again. Except that now, in addition to drinking tea in a chaise, you can eat dinner with your friends, high above the wine-dark sea. It is encouraging to see ships embrace – after so many have for so long ignored – the experience of being on the water. Sometimes all the robotic bartenders and LED lighting effects in the world are nothing compared to standing on deck on a balmy evening and watching the sunset.  λ

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