Think small! Cruise lines are shrinking their boats and creating more authentic experiences for foodies, adventurers, craft beer fans, and savvy travelers who want it all for less.
Word on the seas is that cruises are skyrocketing in popularity. The Cruise Lines International Association recently reported that 24 million passengers are expected to set sail in 2016, up from 23 million in 2015. That's the highest number ever recorded.
If you've looked into booking a cruise lately, you know that we live in an age of mega ships that consider over-the-top contraptions like rooftop surfing simulators a standard amenity. That would make for an unforgettable memory, to be sure, but if you're seeking a more intimate experience, some cruise lines are banking on going small, with a tight focus on curated activities, excursions to lesser-known ports, and, in some cases, smaller ships.
“We’re definitely seeing cruise lines across the board looking to offer more authentic experiences for their guests,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com. “I think the big buzzwords in the industry today are ‘immersion’ and ‘experiential’—and that applies to everything from river ships to the larger mega-ships.”
Smaller ports are hot right now.
Classic cruise stops like Paris and Amsterdam never go out of style, but lesser-known ports—like Cuba—are trending. Starting in May, Carnival's new Fathom cruise line will offer Cultural Exchange cruises to Cuba (from $1,800 for seven days, fathom.org).
On Viking Ocean Cruises, the relatively small Viking Star carries a slim 930 people, as opposed to thousands, which allows for access to less-trafficked ports like Dubrovnik, Croatia; Kotor, Montenegro; Kusadasi, Turkey; and Santorini, Greece (from $1,999 for eight days, vikingcruises.com).
“What Viking does particularly well is that it offers a tremendous value-for-money experience,” Spencer Brown says. “There’s so much included in the cruise fare—thoughtful inclusions like free shore excursions in every port, free Wi-Fi, and complimentary wine and beer at lunch and dinner.”
Experiences for niche interests are popping up on cruise lines.
Royal Caribbean, for example, has revamped its shore excursion program, with specialized categories like Culinary Delights, which offers pizza-making classes in Naples, Italy, and Family Connections, a menu of activities including a family kayak trip in Alaska (from $164 for three days, royalcaribbean.com).
Want a really unique jaunt? That can be arranged.
Viking Cruises CFO Richard Marnell says Viking’s no-fee concierges have hooked passengers up with bespoke outings like helicopter rides through tulip fields in the Netherlands. Tailored excursions cost extra, but Viking itineraries often offer a Local Life experience, like a trip to a local market, gratis.
Artisanal fare is flooding cruise ships.
Farm-to-table isn’t limited to dry land, Spencer Brown says. “One great example is Princess Cruises’ new partnership with celebrity chef Curtis Stone, who’s known for creating comfort food out of the freshest ingredients, which will be exciting to see executed on Princess’s ships” (from $59 for one day, princess.com).
In a month, Holland America’s Koningsdam will launch a farm-to-table dinner menu out of its show kitchen (from $449 for four days, hollandamerica.com), and in the near-4,000-passenger Carnival Vista’s RedFrog Pub will brew its own beer, complete with tastings and brewery tours (from $379 for five days, carnival.com).
No matter the cruise company, take advantage of shoulder season.
Cruising in November, December, January, and February is an excellent way to save, Marnell says. “Although the weather may not be as warm, you have far fewer crowds in many of the sites that you’re going to visit, so it can actually be a very, very pleasant experience.”