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New ships bring innovations to cruising

They said, onboard surfing; the skeptics said, couldn’t be done. They said, interactive at-sea programming; the skeptics said, endless games of bridge and trivia. They said, the most choices for dining and lounging; the skeptics said, long lines and mealtime chaos.

Skeptics, prepare to be proven wrong.

This year’s new ships aim to turn the cruise concept on its head. Cruise lines and their guests are tired of the onboard activities, dining schedules, and ship itineraries they’ve seen cruise after cruise since the Love Boat first turned people on to sea vacations. So, the creative minds of the cruise industry have used new vessels as a chance to innovate and show vacationers that anything is possible onboard a cruise ship.

I recently sailed on three of these new ships: Princess’ Crown Princess, NCL America’s Pride of Hawaii, and Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas. Each ship stands out for its unique approach to cruise planning and design. If you want the best that cruising has to offer, you can pick your ship based on the new activities and amenities the different lines now provide.

Crown Princess: Onboard programming at its best

If you like reality shows, competition, or just trying new things, the Crown Princess is your ship. Princess is rolling out new onboard programming that provides enticing alternatives to shuffleboard and battle-of-the-sexes trivia contests. Guests participating in the “Ballroom Blitz” program learn various ballroom dances, then perform in a Dancing with the Stars-like competition in front of their fellow passengers. “Peer Factor” pits teams against each other as contestants try their hands at onboard jobs such as pizza making, casino dealing, and ice carving. “The Bee at Sea” is an onboard spelling competition where adults and kids separately show off their familiarity with the dictionary. Cruisers also have the opportunity to play video games on the 300-square-foot outdoor movie screen, learn how to scrapbook, sing onstage, or get engaged or married onboard.

Those who don’t join in will have more space to veg out in the new Sanctuary (the idyllic adults-only solarium) or sunbathe while watching an outdoor movie. Out of the sun, travelers can hang out in the International Cafe, sipping coffee and munching warm chocolate chip cookies, as they watch various acts perform in the atrium.

Pride of Hawaii: Eat, drink, and be merry

The most significant features of the Pride of Hawaii are its eating and drinking venues. The ship offers 10 restaurants and 12 bars, and the focus is on choice. Guests can eat and drink where and when they want, as opposed to the more traditional set dinner locations and times found on other cruise lines.

The Pride of Hawaii has two main dining rooms—Alizar and Grand Pacific—plus a casual cafe and an outdoor eatery. The Jasmine Garden offers Asian cuisine, with separate areas for sushi and fun Benihana-style meals. Head to Le Bistro for French food, Cagney’s for steak, Papa’s Italian Kitchen for pizzas and pasta at long family-style tables, and Paniolo for Spanish tapas and Tex-Mex. The Blue Lagoon offers diner or pub food 24 hours a day (take it from me that French fries and onion rings at 2 a.m. is not always the best idea). Many of the specialty restaurants are smaller, seating 32 to 176 people, so you’ll have the best “Freestyle Dining” experience if you make reservations early in the cruise and utilize the video screens that show how empty or full eateries are at any given moment. My meals in Papa’s and the Jasmine Garden were extremely leisurely paced, so give yourself enough lead time to eat dinner before the evening events begin.

The Pride of Hawaii has an extensive drink menu and creatively themed bars and lounges. Bar Central features a martini and cocktail bar, champagne and wine bar, and beer and whiskey bar all in one convenient location. You’ll find more choices on the beverage menu than on many other ships, but be warned that the sitting area does get extremely smoky. My favorite hangouts included the Medusa lounge with its psychedelic jellyfish decor and karaoke rooms, and the Spinnaker lounge with its yellow-velvet two-person lounge chairs and green-and-purple flower chairs.

Norwegian will attract connoisseurs of good food and drink with its beyond-the-ordinary restaurants and lounges. If you prefer quiet meals and staid decor, this new ship is not for you.

Freedom of the Seas: Sports-deck thrills and indoor spectacles

By now you’ve heard plenty about the new onboard surfing on the Freedom of the Seas. But it’s not only this top-draw attraction that makes the ship stand out. The Freedom offers an incredible number of activities, many of them physical, for its passengers. No other ship comes close.

The outdoor Sports Deck showcases not only onboard surfing, but a rock-climbing wall, miniature golf course, and basketball court. The enormous gym offers the traditional treadmills and spinning classes, but it also has a boxing ring and punching bags. An ice rink accommodates first-time skaters and professionals putting on evening entertainment. Cruisers can easily keep those cruise-ship pounds off just by having fun on sea days.

Guests who prefer spectator sports should head to the Royal Promenade, the cruise ship equivalent of an indoor mall. Daily parades provide up-close encounters with the onboard performers (show up early to get a good spot for the spectacle). Shoppers can browse in several stores for books, jewelry, fragrances, and Royal Caribbean apparel. Guests can also sip and snack at a coffee shop, ice cream shop, English pub, wine bar, and pizzeria on this level. Plus, watching first-time surfers wipe out on the FlowRider provides as much entertainment as actually getting on a bodyboard. The Freedom of the Seas makes it clear that Royal Caribbean can accommodate adrenaline junkies and relaxation aficionados with nonstop activity options that are a step ahead of the competitors.

More cruise ship innovations

These three ships aren’t the only ones to launch this year. The Costa Concordia breaks new ground with a racecar driving simulator and special cabins with direct access to the spa. The MSC Musica focuses on innovative public spaces with first-class design. And, Holland America’s ms Noordam features all of the line’s “Signature of Excellence” amenities for pure creature comfort, as well a Culinary Arts Center dedicated to cooking presentations.

Cruisers who don’t like change should stick to the older ships. Many still offer traditional dining options, typical onboard activities, and all the familiar amenities of yesterday’s cruise vacations. But, travelers looking for something new, unusual, or hip should check out the new ships of 2006.

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