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From top-deck picnic lawns and sky-skimming viewing pods to planetariums and vertical-drop water slides, cruise ship design has been undergoing a revolution.
What’s more, these days increasingly your holiday can come to you.
Last year set a record for the number of passengers starting a cruise in the UK, with more than 100 ships cruising into British ports. Later this summer one of the world’s biggest cruise ships, Oasis of the Seas, will visit the UK when it completes its first mini-season of sailings around the Mediterranean. Anthem of the Seas, another Royal Caribbean International ship, will be based in Southampton following its launch next spring. And Princess Cruises will bring Royal Princess – christened amid much fanfare by the Duchess of Cambridge – to these shores next spring for a series of trips round the British Isles.
Royal Princess broke new ground with its top-deck SeaWalk, a glass-bottomed walkway that arches around the side of the ship 128ft above the water. This year’s launches have included NCL’s Norwegian Getaway, which offers a pair of free-fall racing slides and a ropes course. It also has the first ice bar at sea and more dining options than you can shake a fork at.
“It’s no longer enough to be offering something as good as you get on land – it’s got to be better,” says Andy Yuell, the director of SMC Design, the company behind a number of NCL ships.
River ships are also in the vanguard. New line Emerald Waterways launches this month with a pool area that converts to a “cinema” at night, and Uniworld’s new SS Catherine has a whimsical, jungle-themed “lounge pool” tucked into a corner of the ship’s Bar du Leopard. Of course there are plenty for whom entertainment and gimmicks matter not. Some passengers board cruise ships to travel with an acclaimed lecturer or historian, a marine biologist of the ilk of Jean-Michel Cousteau (Paul Gauguin Cruises) or simply to explore where independent travel is difficult – Papua New Guinea or the Galápagos Islands, for example.
Recent additions to itineraries include Kamchatka in the Russian Far East, the White Sea and an extended route along the Ganges east of Varanasi. Some of the world’s topography – the sinewy nooks and crannies of the Kimberley in north-west Australia, coastal Norway or Alaska – simply cries out for waterborne travel. Here we offer our pick of the latest innovative features, equipment and excursions available on board this year.
No longer the preserve of the wealthy or adventurous, polar travel has become increasingly popular. Once in the Arctic, visitors can camp out on the ice, go kayaking, admire the views from a hot-air balloon or take part in cultural exchanges. “Opportunities abound for cultural learning with the people of Sisimiut (Greenland), Spitsbergen (Norway) and other communities dotting the Arctic landscape,” said a spokesperson for Quark Expeditions . Quark is one of only two operators in the world that take travellers to the North Pole for a once-in-a-lifetime journey that includes helicopter flights above the Arctic Ocean.
Back in warmer climes, Azamara Club Cruises took a fresh approach to destination immersion with its “AzAmazing Evenings”, introduced two years ago. It now offers 38 of these exclusive events in venues including amphitheatres and gardens in Italy and the Caribbean.
Viking River Cruises offers private tours of the Hermitage in St Petersburg long after the doors have shut on the day’s tourists, while Hurtigruten passengers are the only guests permitted to visit Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim and see all 9,600 of the Steinmeyer organ’s pipes being retuned. Passengers who book with Crystal Cruises are welcomed into homes and villages on Easter Island, in the Amazon and in “Zulu country” – and on shore excursions in St Petersburg and Sochi they can travel on the ship’s visa, avoiding the expensive and time-consuming business of applying for one in person.
The world’s first aerial attraction at sea, North Star, will be launched in November on Quantum of the Seas. A single viewing pod attached to a mechanical arm will take cruise-ship passengers for a 15-minute ride 300ft up that affords 360-degree views, both at sea and in port. What’s more, unless you want to go the whole hog and book a sunset proposal or some such, it’s free.
If that doesn’t float your boat, try “flying”. RipCord by iFly simulates the experience of skydiving by suspending passengers above a wind tunnel inside a 23ft-tall glass chamber.
Other adrenalin-pumping diversions include the FlowRider surf simulator and a climbing wall, while the indoor SeaPlex centre boasts a flying trapeze and the first bumper cars at sea.
The Balinese Bed
How many times have you promised yourself that you’ll sleep under the stars? Sail to the Caribbean, Asia or the Mediterranean with SeaDream Yacht Club and the on-deck Balinese Dream Bed (there are 10 in total, including two twins) is yours for the night. After a dinner of, say, grilled halibut served with gingered white asparagus and caviar beurre blanc, you’ll return to pillows and duvets and stars. This is the ship on which the captain might invite passengers to join him on a mountain-bike ride in Funchal or announce over the tannoy following an impromptu anchor-drop mid-Aegean: “We’re going to delay our departure because everyone’s having such a nice time.”
Exploring the Deep
Some ships carry helicopters for flights to remote waterfalls or volcanoes; others are equipped with marine platforms and scuba gear. The expedition-cruise company Lindblad goes a step further by offering a glimpse of life 500ft below the surface of the sea courtesy of one of its ROVs (remote-operated vehicles), which sends high-definition video back to the ship.
Lindblad has recently acquired a second ROV for exploration in the Galápagos Islands. This is in addition to a full fleet of ocean-going kayaks, Zodiacs and scuba gear. Sailing to remote spots in Arctic Svalbard, the Azores and Patagonia, among others, Lindblad-National Geographic ships sail with a video chronicler on board. “We’ve noticed a growing interest in photography,” says the line’s president, Sven Lindblad, “and ships also travel with a National Geographic photographer on each sailing.”
Of Lawn and Legend
Crystal Cruises unveiled the first living wall at sea in 2012, but the real game-changer was a thumping great park on board Oasis of the Seas. Dense with tropical foliage, trees and seasonal blooms, Central Park is an incongruous but pleasing addition to life on the ocean waves, made possible by turning a typical cruise-ship superstructure on its head by splitting the aft to create airy, open spaces. Celebrity Cruises employs full-time lawnkeepers (on its Solstice Class ships) to groom and water half an acre of real grass, on which guests can play boules, picnic or lounge about.
I Can Sea Clearly Now
Probably the most talked-about feature in 2013 was the SeaWalk, a new feature on board Princess Cruises ‘ newest ship, Royal Princess. If you can’t face the jelly-leg-inducing walk, pull up a stool at the SeaView Bar, which also extends over the waves.
Cantilever mechanics don’t stop there. Guests staying in the Reflection Suite on board Celebrity Reflection have access to unrivalled views in the most talked-about shower at sea: an all-glass one that extends over the side of the ship. Decorum (in respect of passing ships) and modesty (for the user) are maintained by the use of “intelligent glass”, a material that responds to levels of sunlight and employs a one-way tint. But the prize for the most off-the-wall exhibitionist gimmick surely goes to the Rising Tide on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas: the bar is actually a lift that slowly ascends through several decks as you sip your caipirinha.
Jamie Oliver is the latest celebrity chef to take to the seas, with a Jamie’s Italian opening exclusively on board Royal Caribbean’s forthcoming ships, Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas.
Next year, the biggest cruise ship ever built for the British market will woo passengers with a range of top chefs when it sets sail on its maiden voyage. The culinary line-up on board P&O Cruises ‘ 3,600-passenger ship Britannia includes Marco Pierre White (the godfather of modern cooking spends 40 days each year at sea with the line) and Atul Kochhar, the wine connoisseur Olly Smith and, new to the star-studded firmament, the master pâtissier Eric Lanlard and the television chef James Martin, who will open a Cookery Club, the first cooking school on board a British ship.
Elsewhere you’ll find Geoffrey Zakarian (Norwegian Cruise Line), Le Cirque (Holland America Line), Nobu (Crystal Cruises) and Todd English (Cunard).
Take Me to the River
Around 25 river ships are due for completion this year; 18 of them were launched last month by Viking River Cruises. On board this new generation of stylish river ships you will find flat-screen televisions, iPads and butlers (Scenic), and bicycles (AmaWaterways). From them, you can join private tours of world-class galleries, evening trips to the ballet and exclusive performances in former palaces.
Viking was the first to introduce Western-style ships on the Yangtze river and to design purpose-built ships to navigate the Elbe. It also introduced quieter, hybrid engines – something that most river cruisers now take for granted. In terms of ship design, it’s neck-and-neck between Viking’s sleek and graceful Longships and Scenic’s chic and contemporary Space Ships.
This year’s standout development however, is in the four-star river cruising category, where a new generation of “Star” ships is about to launch. Emerald Star will boast a heated pool covered by a retractable roof that transforms the space into a cinema. Its owner, Scenic Tours, installed the first full-sized balconies on river ships and then pioneered all-weather “balconies” by installing a floor-to-ceiling glass frontage that can be lowered to a halfway point in fine weather but enables continued use of the space when closed.
Each new vessel seems to outdo the last in the provision of wellbeing facilities (look out for the Salt Room, state-of-the-art spinning bikes and the Thermal Suite on the new Norwegian Breakaway and the mega-spa on Tui Cruises’ forthcoming Mein Schiff 3). A few cruise ships take their spas so seriously that it’s possible to eat, sleep and think “spa” on board. Celebrity Cruises’ AquaSpa is the apotheosis of this trend; other ships are offering spa suites.
Launched last May, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises ’ Europa 2 houses 16 dedicated Spa Suites, each featuring a generous 108 sq ft veranda, a daylight-filled hydrotherapy shower with integrated steam sauna and – the pièce de résistance – a whirlpool tub with sea views. Consider, too, the Haven Suites on Norwegian’s Getaway and Breakaway ships, or the spa suites on board Seabourn Sojourn, Odyssey and Quest, where guests access the cabins via a spiral staircase in the lobby of the spa.