Cruising on the oceans, seas, lakes and rivers this winter
Vacation planning? Feel landlocked? Constrained to choose just one place to visit? The planning, the decisions of where to go and what to do, the packing and unpacking may seem too much. Getting away is supposed to be relaxing.
How about a cruise? Many happy cruisers can’t wait until their next outing and start planning as soon as they return home.
Why a Cruise?
John Sugg of Cruise Planners, based in Hershey’s Mill, says his favorite part of cruising is, essentially, its convenience. “For many folks, … not having to pack and unpack every day is a really nice benefit. You check into this beautiful floating hotel with great amenities and … oh, by the way, we’re going to another amazing destination tomorrow. And no, you don’t need to repack your suitcase.”
At Avenue Two Travel in Bryn Mawr, Brigitte Feinberg agrees. “The best part of cruising is that it’s a floating hotel that allows you to sample many locations without packing and unpacking. If there are cities that you visit and enjoy, you can add them to your list to revisit for a longer stay as part of a land-based trip.”
And at West Chester’s Whirlaway Travel, Denise Booth also extols the convenience of “unpacking once.”
But there’s more to vacationing than packing. Even if you decide to try a cruise, you still need to pick a specific cruise. There are at least 40 cruise lines, each with many separate cruise routes that can take you to nearly every place touched by water. Some cruise ships are virtual amusement parks. Others are a quieter, more genteel approach to cruising — like you see on PBS Viking River Cruise ads.
If you want a ship with every amusement, you can’t beat the Wonder of the Seas, currently the largest cruise ship afloat. Part of the Royal Caribbean International fleet, it’s nearly 1,200 feet long. Think of the Empire State Building laying on its side (1,250 feet without its antenna). A floating city, the Wonder of the Seas has accommodations for nearly 7,000 passengers, attended by about 2,400 crew, in some 2,900 staterooms on 16 passenger decks.
The Wonder of the Seas departs from Port Canaveral, Florida largely on seven- or eight-day outings, heading for a host of Caribbean ports — St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, Honduras and more. On board, you’ll be treated to lavish accommodations, gourmet dining, opulent casinos, myriad game rooms and extensive gyms, basketball courts, ice-skating rinks, climbing walls, zip lines, water slides and swimming pools.
This ship is the largest, but Royal Caribbean has 28 ships — Oasis of the Seas, Icon of the Seas, Quantum of the Seas, etc. (get the trademark?) — and covers the world.
On Smaller Boats
At the other end of the spectrum are the so-called river ships, expedition ships and yachts. (If you’re thinking of your rich uncle’s “yacht,” these vessels are not that. They’re much larger.) With fewer than 200 passengers and fewer amusements than mega-ships, these smaller vessels have no swimming pools or ice-skating rinks, nor large theaters, elevators or water slides. But they’re still substantial.
Viking River, for example, is the oldest and most luxurious of the river lines, offering about 50 boats on river or bay cruises in Europe, Egypt, Asia or the Americas. In Europe, they cruise the Seine, Rhine, Elbe and Danube and visit cities including Paris, Prague, Zurich and Amsterdam. Each ship carries about 190 passengers and treats them royally.
Sugg says, “Without question, my go-to cruise line for all river cruises is Viking Cruises. I’ve booked dozens of guests on Viking river cruises this year and, without exception, everyone raved about their experience, praising the service, the ship, the shore excursion and … the food! As one guest put it, ‘Viking has it together.’ And being voted #1 river cruise line year after year [by Condé Nast] has to mean something.”
Or on American Paddle Wheelers
If your want to see North America, Booth reports that American Queen Voyages, with seven ships — several are steam-driven paddle wheelers — has some very good itineraries, like their Great Lakes cruise from Chicago to Niagara Falls. “Their ships are very nice, comfortable and their enrichment lectures and activities are second to none.”
Also, American Cruise Lines cruises the Mississippi and other rivers and coastlines in North America. Four of its 26 ships are paddle wheelers, so take along a copy of Tom Sawyer.
To Asia and Africa
With 28 ships, mostly in Europe, but several in Asia, Africa and Latin America, AMA Waterways is another good choice, says Booth. The Zambezi Queen is an eco-friendly boat, transporting just 28 passengers, providing brilliant views of wildlife and landscapes of the Chobe River in Botswana.
On the Mekong River, the AmaDara offers passage to 124 passengers, who can take advantage of massage rooms, fitness rooms and deck pool. The Saigon Lounge is beautiful, and the regional and Western cuisine is excellent.
To the Mediterranean
For many, a fabled Mediterranean cruise is what they envision when they think of cruising. Rome, Venice, Athens, Marseille, Monte Carlo, Barcelona … Feinberg recommends Silversea, Regent or Seabourn cruise lines for luxury, fine dining and relaxation.
At Silversea, there are fewer than two guests for every crew member. On Regent’s ships, people dress formally for dinner. And Seabourn stands for ultra-luxury. “They all offer high-quality dining, touring and service.”
Feinberg also recommends Tauck. “The touring is included with the cruise, and they don’t try to sell you extras on board. There are also fewer cabins on their ships than the mass-market river cruises, so there’s more space for common areas.”
Sugg has a different take. “For many folks, visiting Europe is about enjoying the people and the culture as well as the sites.” He likes Azamara Cruises for its program of overnight stays and late-night departures in many ports.
To the South Pacific
For cruising in the South Pacific, Booth strongly recommends the Paul Gauguin cruise line, a one-ship company, accommodating 330 with a crew of about 200, visiting Tahiti, French Polynesia, the Society Islands, Bora Bora and the like.
“They do such a phenomenal job in this region on a luxury, small ship,” says Booth. Sugg adds, “Paul Gauguin’s long-term, focused experience makes them a great choice for discovering this beautiful part of the world, and their small ship appeals to most age-50+ travelers.”
Or Polar Expeditions
Want to explore? Thinking Shackleton? That’s ambitious. Perhaps Antarctica, the Arctic, the Norwegian Fjords, Iceland or Greenland?
Several cruise lines specialize in these areas. Sugg recommends Hurtigruten Expeditions, which has offered expedition travel for 130 years, taking you “to Antarctica’s spectacular wildlife, penguins, seals and whales, hiking and kayaking … It’s been an industry leader in sustainability measures throughout their shipboard and onshore operations.”
Going ashore is the “most important part” in Antarctica, says Feinberg. She thinks Abercrombie & Kent “do it best.”
For her part, Booth speaks highly of Seabourn and Regent, and she and Feinberg both recommend Silversea for a traditional Alaska or Norwegian Fjords cruise. Booth notes that both “have invested a considerable amount of money and time to create incredible custom- built expedition ships … [T]heir expedition leaders are second to none.”
Cruising with Kids
Many of the cruise lines discourage kids. Not so Disney, which operates six large ships in Alaska, the Caribbean, the Atlantic, the Pacific and around the world. On board, expect encounters with the characters from Disney (Mickey, Goofy), Pixar (Woody and Jessie, Remy and Emile) and Marvel (Spider-Man, Iron Man). Live shows (Beauty and the Beast) are on stage.
A play room, tended by adults, is also available on Disney cruises. There are many pools and water features for kids as well as adults. Spas, exercise rooms, gourmet meals and night clubs also assure adults have something to do. Or not do. Look forward to fireworks lighting the night sky!
Prefer a cruise without the kids? Most cruise lines more or less assume their passengers are older (average age 50 to 70). For instance, though not age-restricted, Seabourn provides an “elevated experience, great spa, incredible food and [is] tastefully decorated,” says Feinstein.
Some cruises, like Viking and Virgin Voyages, explicitly forbid youngsters. According to Sugg, Virgin’s “over-18 crowd is typically looking for a party with lots of entertainment, a drink in hand and like-minded folks.”
Or Something Different: Sailing
Most of the ships recommended here are powered, usually with several diesel engines. But cruising under sail is another option. Both styles of vessels have staterooms and serve gourmet meals.
There’s a German outfit called Sea Cloud Cruises, operating three square-rigged windjammers, plus the Star Clipper, a four-masted barquentine (a type of schooner), 366 feet long, with accommodations for 170. Windstar has three sailing ships, the largest accommodates 342 guests.
Finally, let’s recall Ferdinand Magellan, who took nearly three years to circle the globe. Actually, he didn’t make it. He died in a tribal skirmish on Mactan Island in the Philippines. Only his crew completed that cruise.
Today, you can circumnavigate the globe in about five months on Silversea, Regent or Seabourn. Cost for a couple is less than $200,000. Luxury, scenery, relaxation all included.
Booth offers a caution though. Round-the-world cruises “do sell out, so if you’re interested, be ready to book as soon as the cruises are released!”
So, choose your cruise style and destination, then pack your bag. You’ll only unpack once.
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