Cruise holidays have changed beyond recognition and agents who have not caught up are missing out on the biggest revolution to hit the travel industry in years, reports Jane Archer.
Speeding on go-karts, zapping foes with lasers, racing friends on fearsome water slides. Who’d have thought you could do any of those things on a cruise ship?
Not the thousands of cruise naysayers, who still believe that holidays at sea are boring and stuffy, or indeed agents who have not kept up with the times and only think to offer cruises to their older clients.
They are all making a big mistake. Over the past decade cruise lines have reinvented the whole cruise experience by making their ships way more fun and exciting than any land-based resort – regardless of your age.
The newest ships have world class wellness and fitness facilities that are as good as those on land, while family-friendly ships have large water parks, fast flumes, roller coasters and adventure rope courses, as well as kids’ clubs and teen hangouts.
They also have numerous places to eat so, just like on land, passengers can book a table in an upmarket French, Asian or Italian restaurant, or go casual in the buffet.
Freedom and flexibility
The change in dining arrangements on cruise ships has been revolutionary, moving from a regimented system where passengers were told when and where they could dine – and even who to sit with – to a relaxed environment where they can pick and choose where to eat.
Even those cruise lines that still have fixed dining offer a flexi option in the main restaurant and alternative eateries. These often command an additional fee, but serve everything from steaks and seafood to sushi, pasta and Indian cuisine.
Crystal Cruises was the latest to adopt open seating on its two ships, Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony, while P&O Cruises is breaking with tradition by dropping fixed dining on Iona, its new ship launching in 2020.
Taking the dining experience a step further, the likes of Crystal, P&O Cruises and MSC Cruises have teamed up with top-named chefs Nobu Matsuhisa, Marco Pierre White and Ramon Freixa, enabling passengers to sample their cuisine for a fraction of the price of their land-based establishments.
Stand by for 2019
The cruise ships themselves have also changed beyond imagination. People gasped when Royal Caribbean International put rock-climbing walls on its ships almost 20 years ago and were amazed when Disney Cruise Line unveiled water coasters on Disney Dream (think rafting on a fast-flowing river) in 2011. Then last year along came go-karts on a Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) ship and glow-in-the-dark laser tag from Royal Caribbean.
And still the imagineers keep coming up with new ideas. More than 14 new cruise ships are due to enter service in 2019 that between them have aqua parks, bungee trampolines, skydiving simulators, suites served by butlers and entertainment that equals anything in London’s West End.
Passengers can enjoy performances of Kinky Boots on NCL’s new Norwegian Encore from November 2019. Saga Cruises is opening The Club by Jools, a venue created in partnership with music legend Jools Holland on its first ever new ship, Spirit of Adventure. Book clients on MSC Cruises’ new ships MSC Bellissima or Grandiosa, launching March and November respectively, and they’ll be able to enjoy the colour and spectacle of Cirque du Soleil shows on the high seas.
The MSC duo will also have a voice-enabled digital assistant called Zoe in all cabins (essentially Alexa by another name) to answer passengers’ questions about everything from the on-board restaurants to tours ashore.
Zoe is part of a digital revolution that is enabling crew on the new big ships to recognise passengers and their likes and dislikes so they can offer a more personalised service. Princess Cruises has the Ocean Medallion, a device no bigger than a 10p piece that passengers can use to open their cabin door, check out their itinerary and locate family and friends. It is due to be on seven Princess ships by January 2019 and will also be on Sky Princess, a new 3,660-passenger ship launching in October 2019.
Carnival Cruise Lines is chasing families with its first ever activity zone at sea. It’s on Carnival Panorama, a new ship entering service in December, and will have indoor trampolines, a climbing wall, a toddler play area and dodgeball and basketball for older kids.
Not that cruising these days is only about fun and frolics for families. Viking and Marella Cruises (formerly Thomson Cruises) are launching ships just for adults aged over 18 or 17 respectively, while
a crop of new expedition ships have plenty to excite clients in search of adventure off the beaten track.
They can explore the Arctic on Scenic Eclipse, a discovery yacht equipped with helicopters and submarines, peer into the depths of the ocean from Blue Eye, a lounge in the hull of Ponant’s new ships Le Bougainville and Le Dumont D-Urville, and go green on Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen, a vessel built to cruise Antarctica’s icy waters that runs on battery power for short periods of time.
River cruise lines aren’t standing still either. Many are building new vessels and refurbishing others to add bigger suites and more places to eat, as well as adding fitness classes and hiking and cycling tours to cater for the more active clientele being drawn to river cruising.
The most notable launch for 2019 is AmaMagna – a river ship designed for AmaWaterways that is almost twice the width of regular vessels. It can only cruise the Danube, which has wide locks, but will have four restaurants, larger cabins and even an innovative water sports platform that opens from the stern.