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The Best Cruises for Cruise Skeptics

If you’ve got a reason why you couldn’t possibly like cruising, I can guarantee I’ve heard it before. From Arthur Frommer’s rants that cruise travel is not a “genuine” way to travel, to my mother-in-law’s fears of nonstop bouts of seasickness, I’ve heard every excuse in the book. And while I agree that not every cruise ship or type of cruise will suit every vacationer out there, the explanations people give for why they’d dislike a vacation at sea are generally unfounded.

In fact, I’d bet that for every excuse out there, a cruise line exists that proves the stereotype wrong.

That’s because cruise ships and vacation experiences come in all shapes and sizes. Vessels like Royal Caribbean‘s mammoth Oasis of the Seas are like floating cities or Vegas casinos with every possible activity onboard, while Star Clippers‘ fleet offers an authentic sailing experience—the closest you’re likely to come to being a pirate of the Caribbean. Some cruise lines focus on enrichment, nature, and culture, while others strive to create fun atmospheres that entertain kids, couples, and seniors all looking for a respite from the daily grind. Itineraries can be port-intensive, visiting a different destination each day, or utterly relaxing, offering strings of consecutive days at sea.

Here are some of the most common fears about cruising and a sample of the lines where those concerns never come into play. So if you’re hemming and hawing about booking a cruise, or have been a stalwart naysayer, I invite you to read this story with an open mind. Whatever you’re looking for in a vacation, you’ll likely find a cruise line that offers it.

“I’ll be bored.”

Imagine a ship that’s so big that it has neighborhoods within it. Onboard Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, the largest cruise ship ever built, passengers can rock climb, play miniature golf, try surfing, learn to decorate cupcakes, ride a carousel, enjoy a spa treatment, work out in a full-size gym, lie by a “beach” pool or in a hot tub, go for a ride on a zip-line, go ice skating, watch a variety of live entertainment (including comedy shows, Broadway musicals, parades, and acrobatic shows), learn to scuba dive, go shopping, watch the game in a bar, and sing karaoke. Bored yet? I didn’t think so.

Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas isn’t the only ship, mind you, to offer a plethora of options to keep boredom at bay; its Voyager- and Freedom-class ships are also dedicated to active travelers. Plus, in addition to the ship’s amenities and the onboard programming, you can always bring a book, deck of cards, or portable video game to entertain yourself.

Another cruise line where you’ll never be bored is Norwegian Cruise Line—especially its newest ships, like Norwegian Gem and Norwegian Pearl. These ships have onboard bowling alleys that turn into bordello-style discos at night, rock climbing walls, a large selection of funky bars and themed restaurants, evening parties, and lots of karaoke. When Norwegian Epic launches in summer 2010, it will have even more to do onboard—including an ice bar, an aqua park, a dueling piano show, a beach club, a circus-style dinner theater, a bungee trampoline, and a ropes course.

And don’t forget—you’ll typically be in port for half the days on your cruise, if not more, where you’ll have plenty of options to keep yourself entertained.

“I’ll get seasick.”

Just because you’re prone to seasickness does not mean you can never go on a cruise. It may just mean that the best cruise for you is a river cruise. Riverboats cruise the rivers of the world, including across Europe (think the Danube, Rhine, Mosel, Seine, etc.) and along Egypt’s Nile River and China’s Yangtze. Itineraries include visits to wine countries, historic city centers, Christmas markets, pyramids and ancient tombs, and beautiful countrysides. Plus, river cruises are so destination-focused that you’ll spend much of your time onshore—exploring by foot, bus or even borrowed bicycle from the riverboat—and when you’re onboard, you don’t have to worry about waves or high seas that could make you sick.

Even better, river cruise lines are quickly catching up to ocean-going vessels in levels of luxury and onboard amenities. You’ll now find balconies, larger cabins, alternative restaurants, and spas onboard. Try lines like Avalon Waterways, Tauck, Uniworld, Viking River Cruises, and Victoria Cruises.

Another note to the seasick-prone: Just because you go green around the gills on a tiny motorboat in choppy waters does not mean you’ll suffer from mal de mer on a cruise ship. The bigger the ship, the less you feel the motion of the ocean (think about the difference in turbulence between a tiny prop plane and a 747), and modern ships are built with stabilizers to minimize rocking. Choose your itinerary well—the Mediterranean is a lot rougher after October than it is in the summer; Alaska’s Inside Passage is quite calm though the open sea, up north gets rougher in September; and the Caribbean can get choppy during hurricane season (June 1 – November 30, officially) if a storm is present. Plus, medications and natural remedies can help for some, including ginger candies, medicated patches, and pressure bands. You may find that after a few hours onboard, you forget that you’re on a ship at all.

“I’ll get claustrophobic onboard.”

Sure you will—if you charter a catamaran where your cabin fits a rough bunk and nothing else or if you squeeze a family of four into the smallest inside cabin. But most cruise ships are like floating hotels, with plenty of space—even if your cabin is much smaller than the typical hotel room.

Luxury line Regent Seven Seas, for example, has two all-suite, all-balcony ships in its fleet. That means that the smallest cabin onboard is a 252-square-foot suite with separate sitting and sleeping areas, a 49-square-foot teak balcony, walk-in closets and an en-suite marble bathroom. If you’re truly worried about feeling confined, book the largest suites, measuring 1,204 square feet with two balconies (the biggest is 727 square feet), two bedrooms, and a large living and dining area. That’s larger than the apartment I live in—and my apartment definitely does not come with butler service, as this suite does.

Can’t afford all that space? Royal Caribbean’s aforementioned large ships are so big that first-time visitors to Oasis of the Seas have claimed they forgot they were on a ship. In fact, the designers of that ship put an emphasis on outdoor space, essentially carving out the middle of the ship to create an open-air midsection. So not only can you get fresh air on the top-of-ship pool decks, but the Boardwalk and Central Park neighborhoods are open to the sky. If the walls are closing in, simply walk to the nearest elevator, push the button with the highest number and—voila!—all is well.

Even more affordable, Princess Cruises‘ newest ships (Crown Princess, Emerald Princess, and Ruby Princess) are also quite spacious. Expansive sun decks include a pool with a movie screen that shows first-run flicks and concerts day and night, as well as a quieter, adults-only spa sun deck called the Sanctuary. The three-deck high Piazza is an airy gathering place offering entertainment and snacks. If you need room to stretch in your living quarters, book a mini-suite or suite for separate living and sleeping areas, as well as an exterior balcony for easy access to fresh air.

“Cruise travelers only get a superficial experience of a destination.”

Arthur Frommer has called cruising “a dumbing down of the travel experience,” referring to ships that visit tourist trap ports and manufactured private islands. Some vacationers agree with him that a cruise is a way to have fun in the sun, but not a good way to get an in-depth experience of a destination.

Perhaps Frommer has not heard of lines like Cruise West, Hurtigruten, and Lindblad Expeditions. This diverse group of cruise lines has one major thing in common—they all are extremely focused on giving passengers an up-close and personal look at the destinations on the itinerary.

Cruise West runs a fleet of small, casual ships, with minimal onboard bells and whistles. Why? Because the focus is on what’s around the ship, with nature- and culture-focused voyages to Alaska, Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, and the U.S.’s Columbia and Snake Rivers. Days are spent on deck with binoculars looking for wildlife or hiking through a wilderness area, while evening entertainment may include a presentation by a naturalist or other expert or a performance by a local troupe.

Hurtigruten’s “Norwegian Coastal Voyages” sail daily up and down Norway’s coasts, stopping at isolated towns and villages to drop off freight and to let passengers have a look-see. Not only will you see more of Norway—below and above the Arctic Circle—than you probably every imagined, but onboard you will dine on Norwegian specialties (moose, reindeer, and lots of fish) and hobnob with a mix of Europeans—including Norwegians treating the ship as a ferry between destinations. You’ll find only a handful of Americans onboard.

Lindblad Expeditions focuses on adventure and enrichment. It takes passengers to remote destinations, like Antarctica, the Arctic, the Galapagos, and off-the-beaten path destinations around the world. The line partners with National Geographic, so each voyage features scientists, naturalists, oceanographers, and photographers onboard to teach passengers about the places they’re visiting and help them capture great memories to take back home. Plus, with small ships carrying a mere 41 to 148 people, the line brings new meaning to “up close and personal,” using Zodiacs and kayaks to bring passengers closer to wildlife and wild places.

Cruises are for old people.

If nothing else, the name Disney Cruise Line alone should prove to you that cruises are not just for old people. That line is built on the premise that cruises can be fun for the whole family. Its ships feature expansive kids’ play areas with separate hangouts for kids, tweens, and teens (and a nursery for the littlest cruisers); a kiddie pool and waterslide; Disney-themed musical productions; and meet-n-greets with the Disney characters onboard.

Royal Caribbean also caters to young people with its many active pursuits onboard. It’s not that retirees don’t like rock-climbing, surfing, ice skating, learning to DJ, and watching parades, but that these activities attract a younger clientele onboard as well. Plus, active shore excursions like kayaking, hiking, cycling, snorkeling, and diving call to the younger set, perhaps more than old-school sedentary bus tours.

Carnival, too, gets a wide variety of ages onboard with its top-notch kids program—featuring separate teen and tween hangouts with soda bars, video games, and a dance floor—and a festive onboard atmosphere. Its standard cabins tend to run large and are affordably priced, which attracts families and younger travelers without huge vacation budgets. Plus, Carnival offers a wide selection of shorter three- and four-night cruises that are ideal for busy professionals with limited vacation time or friend groups looking for a long weekend of relaxation and fun.

Cruise ships aren’t real ships.

Cruise ships have been likened to floating hotels or resorts, but if you’re yearning for a more authentic sailing experience, check out lines like Star Clippers or Island Windjammers. These lines employ masted tall ships, where the fairly no-frills accommodations and onboard amenities are offset by the thrill of sailing the open ocean and the attractions of the ports of call.

Star Clippers has a fleet of three clipper ships that sail the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Asia. Instead of playing bingo or pool games, passengers can climb the ship’s mast, lie out in the widow’s net over the open sea, or stargaze at night. Water sports are fittingly a big emphasis of each cruise, with diving, snorkeling, and waterskiing trips organized by the ship’s staff and a variety of water sports equipment (like snorkel gear, kayaks, and sunfish) available for passenger use, free of charge.

Island Windjammers is a new cruise line with a sole ship, the 12-passenger Diamant. Its casual cruises sail from Grenada to the Grenadine islands and focus on the joy of sailing, water sports, and lazy days on island. It’s a great way to feel like you’re cruising on your own private sailboat—just with a crew to do all the hard work.

“Ships depart so early that I’ll miss out on the nightlife in port.”

Most cruises stay in port only during the day. But if dining ashore and checking out the local bars and clubs is your thing, then Variety Cruises maybe be the line for you. The line offers a plethora of overnights on its cruises to Greece and its islands, Turkey, and Croatia. Most nights are spent docked in port, so you have plenty of time to check out all the late-night happenings (and can sleep in the next morning while the ship motors to its next port of call). In fact, the cruise line expects people to enjoy dinner onshore, so they only include two daily meals, rather than three, in the cruise fare. Variety Cruises’ fleet consists of mega-yachts, some with sails, with only 22 to 36 cabins onboard—so it’s easy to make friends onboard if you’re looking for someone to join you on your evening adventures ashore.

“It’s unhealthy with all that food!”

Cruise ships typically offer round-the-clock dining, but no one is forcing you to pile the bacon on your breakfast tray, eat dessert at every meal, order both the prime rib and the lobster for dinner, and call room service for cheeseburgers at 2 a.m. In fact, these days many cruise lines are trading in their midnight chocolate buffets for spa cafes and sushi bars.

Celebrity Cruises has led the healthy dining effort among cruise lines. Its Millennium-class ships have spa cafes as part of an indoor pool complex, while Celebrity Century, Celebrity Solstice, and Celebrity Equinox all feature stand-alone spa restaurants. Menu items include plenty of veggies, salads, poached fish, and sushi. On all ships, you can order “spa” options off the main dining room’s menu—calorie, fat, cholesterol, and sodium breakdowns are listed on the back.

Luxury line Crystal Cruises was a trend-setter when it removed all trans-fats from its onboard menus—several other lines quickly followed suit. Fish fiends will love the offerings at The Sushi Bar and Silk Road onboard its ships—the menus are designed by world class master chef Nobu Matsuhisa.

“It’s impossible to experience another culture if you’re on a cruise.”

A cruise ship can often be a floating oasis of Americana —passengers venture into foreign lands by day, but come back to the ship to eat burgers and fries at Johnny Rockets and watch American ball games on TV at night. If you prefer more of a cultural immersion, book a cruise with MSC Cruises or Costa Cruises. These two cruise lines are Italian-owned and are proud to display their European heritage onboard.

Costa’s European itineraries attract mostly European passengers from Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, and the U.K. The onboard atmosphere reflects this passenger base, with later dining hours, lots of dancing-based nightlife, and a drinking age of 18. The dining room emphasizes Italian fare and the specialty restaurant on the line’s newest ships, such as Costa Pacifica and Costa Luminosa, is the brainchild of Michelin-starred Italian chef Ettore Bocchia. Not only are announcements and activities translated into several languages, but your dining companions may not be native English speakers. Entertainment may include a toga party, an Italian street festival complete with a bocce ball tournament, and tarantella dancing.

On Mediterranean cruises, which are offered year-round, MSC’s passengers are largely European—and the onboard ambience definitely has a Continental flair, with plenty of music and dining.

Were you once a cruise-skeptic, but ended up taking one anyway? Veteran cruisers, do you have any tips for travelers weary of a cruise vacation? Share your thoughts, advice, and experiences with fellow readers by submitting a comment below!

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