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Best Enrichment Cruises

Cruise lines, especially the premium and luxury ones, are beginning to understand that many cruise travelers want more stimulating activities on sea days than simply lying by the pool or reading books.

That’s why a growing number of lines are not only adding enrichment-oriented programs but are also expanding those that already exist. And indeed, enrichment—which comes in the forms of interactive workshops, expert lecturers, culinary demonstrations, and presentations on a variety of topics available on every (or nearly every) cruise—is making cruising more interesting.

What can you learn onboard? Some programs focus on educational topics, such as personal finance, the cosmos, history, art and computers. There’s plenty of personal enhancement, too; lines offer health and wellness programs that focus on everything from medical lectures to stress management. You can also learn to play the piano or speak Spanish, enhance your acting skills or even paint a watercolor.

If the idea of going back to class—and experiencing the pleasures of cruising at the same time—appeals, check out our favorite choices for onboard enrichment.

Cunard Line

The Program: Cunard Insights

Details: Cunard offers a variety of programs for erudite cruisers (or aspiring ones). The Cunard Insights speaker series and Cunard Book Club literary discussions are offered on both Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria, while Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) acting workshops, Royal Astronomical Society astronomy and star-gazing presentations, and Science at Sea lectures are offered on Queen Mary 2 only.

Cunard Insights guest lecturers include luminaries from the world of academia, television/film, literature and the diplomatic corps, to name just a few, and the courses range from Renaissance art to maritime history and contemporary literature. Book Club selections come from the New York Times’ best-sellers list, and discussions are led by the ship’s librarian. Astronomers are brought onboard to enlighten passengers in QM2’s unique planetarium—illuminations, the only one of its kind at sea—as well as to lead on-deck star-gazing demonstrations. The new Science at Sea program, in conjunction with Oxford University Press, presents lectures by prominent science writers. Participants can sign up to become members of the Science Club and receive quarterly newsletters about the latest in popular science publishing and invitations to book launches.

Many voyages also include celebrities, which might include John Cleese of Monty Python or Billy Collins, the poet laureate of the United States. Acting and stagecraft classes are taught with RADA members, who also perform abbreviated versions of theater classics.

Pros and Cons: On the plus side, courses are free of charge, and passengers can participate in as many as they like. The speakers get rave reviews. The only downside is that if you cruise with Cunard a lot, you might get repeat lecturers and presentations, as the line often has the same speakers onboard multiple cruises.

Crystal Cruises

The Program: Creative Learning Institute

Details: There are actually multiple components to Crystal Cruises’ enrichment programs. The Creative Learning Institute is designed to teach passengers skills from areas like language, music, wellness, and art. The line has partnered with well-known names — such as Yamaha, Berlitz, Tai Chi Cultural Center, Cleveland Clinic, and the Society of Wine Educators—to bring the best possible instruction onboard.

At the same time, the voyage-by-voyage Crystal Visions program brings aboard guest lecturers, which include theater and film stars, comedians, Olympians and sports heroes, authors, scientists, diplomats, and ambassadors. Finally, the Computer University at Sea educates passengers on computers, the Internet and digital communication, while Technology Concierges will reveal the trends and nuances of the latest high-tech gadgets like iPods, iPhones, Blackberries, and GPS devices.

Crystal also hosts a series of theme cruises that focus on ancient civilizations, photography, wine and food, music and theater, and sports and fitness.

Pros and Cons: Crystal has one of the most comprehensive programs afloat, and all group classes and guest lecturers’ presentations and workshops are free to attend. However, the program is definitely geared to senior travelers and can be a little staid or old-fashioned—there’s no state-of-the-art show kitchen, for example. The other minus is that Crystal’s syllabus is not published with the cruise brochures, which means that, while prospective cruisers can only get a general idea of which programs are on offer on their cruises, the exact details are only available much closer to sailing or once onboard. And finally, Crystal, which sails some of the most exotic itineraries in cruising, could do a much better job at linking its enrichment activities to ports of call.

Princess Cruises

The Program: Scholarship at Sea

Details: Princess Cruises’ Scholarship at Sea program reaches across all of the line’s ships and itineraries and offers a lighter-side-of-life series of classes. Want to try your hand at “throwing” a pot? Pottery classes are part of the offerings, and the ships even have unique, sea-going kilns. If you don’t want to get messy with clay, you can purchase pre-made pots and just paint them; they are then fired and can be taken home with you. Other classes include Web page design, taught simply and clearly for neophytes; digital photography; hands-on cooking and meal preparation; wine tastings and food pairings; scrapbooking; cruise ship operation and navigation; and dance lessons.

Each cruise also has a guest lecturer or two, specific to that voyage, who offers insight and knowledge about the ship’s destinations and other relevant issues. Plus, a book club program gets passengers together to discuss New York Times best sellers, such as “The Alchemist” by Paul Coelho or “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch. (Though onboard libraries stock up on extra copies of chosen books, you’re better off packing your own copies.)

Pros and Cons: Princess’ emphasis on hobbies rather than on education matches its ebullient ambiance onboard. The downside is that some of the offerings are expensive—$25 for computer classes (most lines don’t charge for computer workshops), $15 to $30 for ceramics materials, and $10 for wine tastings. The guest lectures are complimentary.

Holland America Line

The Program: Explorations

Details: Holland America’s new, multi-faceted Explorations program combines enrichment with entertainment. Its Explorations Team members can vary by size or length of cruise but typically consist of a party planner, lifestylist, travel guide, “techspert,” dance director, and book club leader who run classes in their areas of expertise.

The party planners run cooking demonstrations in the Culinary Arts Center (though they’re taught by the ship’s chefs), as well as wine tastings, flower-arranging classes, and other entertaining workshops. The lifestylist often works with the party planner on lifestyle classes and also leads wellness classes and seminars, such as Tai Chi and yoga. The travel guide gives lectures and presentations about destinations’ history and culture, and the book club leader facilitates literary discussions (only on cruises of 12 days or longer). The “techspert” hosts Microsoft Digital Workshops and other classes on computers, the Internet, and digital photography. The dance director (typically one of the onboard dancers, but this can vary by ship) will lead dance lessons and run dance-related activities.

Pros and Cons: Culinary demos in the state-of-the-art show kitchens are superb, and the basic computer courses and wellness classes are a big hit with Holland America’s mature passenger base. However, some of the lifestyle-oriented lectures can be a bit fluffy with no real substance. As this is a new program currently being rolled out on all ships, expect some glitches and snafus while they figure out what works well and what needs to be improved.

Celebrity Cruises

The Program: Celebrity Life

Details: Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Life features enrichment options in three categories: Savor, focusing on culinary themes; Discover, with educational programs to teach passengers something new; and Renew, a wellness program. The Savor program offers a mix of cooking demos, wine tastings, and cooking competitions. Discover has a wider variety of options under its moniker, including lectures from Smithsonian Journeys presenters, Rosetta Stone language courses, technology workshops, dance classes, scrapbooking workshops, and astronomy presentations. Finally, Renew blends spa treatments with fitness classes and wellness seminars.

Pros and Cons: Celebrity Life debuted on Celebrity Equinox in July 2009, but won’t roll out fleetwide until the end of November 2009. The program benefits from offering a wide array of enrichment courses, many taught by prominent names in their fields, such as Smithsonian Journeys and Rosetta Stone. However, many of the programs come with high fees: $25 to $100 for online language classes, $10 to $100 for food and wine tastings, and $20 for select technology classes.

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