2013 Cruises: River Cruising, Exotic Ports and More Trends for the Year
RIVER CRUISING ROLLS INTO ITS OWN
If cruising is booming anywhere, it's on the world's rivers. Lines such as Viking River Cruises, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises and AmaWaterways are building dozens of new vessels. Travelers have discovered that riverboats travel slowly and dock in the center of towns, combining the convenience of an ocean cruise with the up-close experience of a land tour.
With its scenic Rhine, Danube and Rhone rivers, Europe provides the biggest market, but U.S. waterways such as the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio are once again hearing the sounds of paddlewheelers like the American Queen, which entered service in April. The Mekong in Vietnam and the Irrawaddy in Burma (Myanmar) are seeing cruises from companies like Pandaw River Expeditions, whose ships are replicas of colonial river steamers.
Also of note: Egypt recently reopened a section of the Nile between Luxor and Cairo that was closed to riverboats for some 15 years. The addition of more than 400 miles of river extends the cruising range of hotel boats like those of Sonesta.
EXOTIC PORTS BECKON
As more experienced travelers discover cruising, they're demanding more exotic ports in their 2013 cruises. Although there aren't many distinctive ports left to discover, lines are seeking out unusual destinations. Some large ships, for example, now call at Canakkale, Turkey, to visit ancient Troy; and La Spezia, Italy, which is close to the Cinque Terre region, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Another out-of-the-way stop: the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal.
OVERNIGHTS ENHANCE PORT STAYS
Ships aren't just taking passengers off the beaten path, so to speak. They're also offering more time in port. Ships become hotels, allowing passengers to go ashore to enjoy cities like Venice, Italy; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Mumbai, India, by night.
SHIPS BECOME THE DESTINATION
Continuing a trend that began a few years ago, today's large ships offer such a variety of onboard activities that many passengers view the ships as destinations instead of merely transportation. Cases in point: Royal Caribbean International's Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, the largest cruise ships in the world, offer surfing, zip-lining, ice skating and rock climbing. Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Epic has a bowling alley onboard. Carnival's newest ships have elaborate water parks, ropes courses and even two-level miniature golf courses. Princess Cruises' Royal Princess, debuting in 2013, will feature a laser shooting range.
FAMILIES FLOCK TO FAMILY-FRIENDLY SHIPS
Activities both onboard and onshore reflect the growing number of multigenerational travelers on 2013 cruises. Lines aim to please everyone from children to grandparents. For instance, teens between 15 and 17 years old line up to party in Club O2 aboard Carnival Cruise Lines' new ships like the Carnival Breeze. The lounge has the decor, music and ambiance of a South Beach club. In 2013, Disney Cruise Line's shore excursions designed just for kids include a hands-on visit to a traditional Venetian mask-making shop and a chance to make pizza in Rome. Even luxury lines like Crystal Cruises are installing expanded facilities for kids. Who's paying for everyone? Some grandparents are footing the travel bills for the whole family.
CRUISE LINES EMBRACE SINGLE PASSENGERS
Like multigenerational families, singles are a growing market. A few cruise lines are making halting steps to attract them. Conventional wisdom in the cruise industry dictates that a cabin should have two occupants, so lines typically charge individuals more. However, since singles now make up about 44 percent [according to the U.S. Census] of the U.S. population, cruise lines are grudgingly waking up to that market's potential. Increasingly, lines are offering low single supplements or even waiving them on some sailings. Due to the success of the single cabins on its Norwegian Epic, NCL is offering 59 single cabins on the Norwegian Breakaway, scheduled to set sail in May.
FOOD CHOICES GET MUCH, MUCH BETTER
After years of providing abundant, filling, mostly forgettable food, cruise lines are offering true fine dining on 2013 cruises. Eating in a room designed to seat half a ship's passengers is still pretty much akin to dining at a large banquet, but the coming year will see more specialty restaurants associated with celebrity chefs. Many of these options will be included in the cruise fare, but some will carry a surcharge.
Nobu Matsuhisa's Silk Road restaurants on Crystal Cruises' Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony approach the excellence of the chef's venues in Los Angeles, London and Tokyo. There is no extra charge for Guy Fieri's Guy's Burger Joint, located on some Carnival ships, and it dishes out some 1,200 burgers a day on the Carnival Breeze alone. French chef and TV star Jacques Pepin has brought his dining concept to Oceania Cruises with Jacques on the Oceania Marina. And Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian will introduce Ocean Blue, a seafood restaurant on the Norwegian Breakaway. Also: Look for more light and healthy spa fare and vegetarian meals on ships.
LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES EXPAND
On Cunard's Queen Mary 2, actors from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts -- whose graduates include Anthony Hopkins and Alan Rickman -- provide workshops as well as performances, and experts from the Royal Astronomical Society lead seminars. In Crystal Cruises' learning programs, passengers can study piano and filmmaking and hone their computer skills. Celebrity Cruises has licensed Apple Stores onboard, and classes fill up almost before the ship sails. Holland America Line offers programs on cooking, history and art and a computer learning program in partnership with Microsoft.
[Photo: Kent Phillips/Disney]