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Cruise Critic: Why Sail the High Seas?

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Photo: Courtesy of Viking River Cruises

The last person you’d expect to love cruising is an adventure addict whose most cherished memories involve trekking via yak cart across the Mongolian steppe, slogging through jungles to see gorillas in Cameroon, and watching a weather-clearing ceremony conducted by a tribe in West Papua that’s just a generation away from cannibalism. (The sky did actually clear just above their village.) But a cruise ship the size of a Manhattan suburb?

Yet here I am, shimmying in a Bollywood dance scene of gowned, tuxedoed, and—because this sailing has drawn an inordinately large group of Indian guests—sari-clad passengers aboard the Crown Princess. We’re sailing through the Baltic Sea and sipping champagne from a pyramid of glasses that reaches nearly two decks high. It’s downright undignified. And, quite literally, a boatload of fun.

Granted, this 3,080-passenger cruise ship isn’t a natural fit—not with my passion for vanishing cultures or my urban life full of work meetings and art gallery openings. But when 12 of my friends wanted to plan a trip, Princess Cruises’ 11-day voyage to Scandinavia and Russia offered an unbeatable format. In a dozen days, we’d visit seven countries, but unpack only once. There’s no awkwardness around expenses; each couple has chosen a cabin that fits their budget; meals are included; drinks and wine go on individual tabs. The back-sore are spared long slogs through shops or museums (they can sign up for easy excursions, hang out in a tavern, or simply hole up in their cabins). And when you compare the cost to a decent hotel in any major European city, the price—about $200 per person per day—is a bargain.

Value and variety have long been the promise of the cruise industry, but until recently that was mostly wishful thinking. Decades ago, when I sailed on my first liner—Cunard’s original Queen Elizabeth 2—nearly all passenger ships were wildly expensive and so stiff-upper-lip you expected Jeeves to turn up and tsk-tsk at any moment. By the time I embarked on my next sailing, in the 1990’s, cruising had done a one-eighty. Stodgy was out. My beau and I rocked to “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “Footloose” along with guest star Gladys Knight on the now defunct Norwegian Seaward and struggled with the weighty decisions of whether to spend the rest of our time snorkeling, sunning, or tossing back another piña colada.

But over time, the beach-party concept wore thin, especially for a cruise critic like me. The island-hopping itineraries, beef-and-mash menus, and even the ships themselves seemed stuck in the same endless loop, regardless of which company owned them. The beau turned husband refused to sail again until I bribed him with a Croatian coast itinerary with the luxe SeaDream Yacht Club. For one carefree week, we strolled ancient island towns, returning to the ship only to sleep, nibble on caviar, and sip Belvedere martinis with fellow passengers. To this day, we still cherish our dawn voyage through the Grand Canal to our Venice mooring just steps from Peggy Guggenheim’s palazzo museum. And then laugh at the memory of the next part of that same trip: a bargain-basement voyage from Genoa to Nice—$35 a day, no meals included, on an early incarnation of EasyCruise. We paid $15 for loaded nachos and bunked in a cabin so narrow that when all six foot four of my husband lay crosswise on the floor, his feet touched one wall and his head the other.

Granted, I was on assignment as a cruise critic at the time and few people would follow that strange course. But the extremes prove that cruises have evolved a great deal since my grandmother wrapped herself in a fox collar and embarked on a European vacation decades ago. What was then a mere handful of transatlantic liners has been supplanted by a flotilla of sophisticated passenger ships that are as much resorts as they are transportation, with vessels whose facilities and activities are designed to appeal to savvy travelers and novices, cozy couples and tech-mad kids, singles and multigenerational families.

Cuisine at sea is also as inventive—and varied—as at fine restaurants in major cities. Windstar Cruises and SeaDream are just two of the many lines whose chefs lead culinary foraging excursions; Oceania Cruises takes the trend up a notch by including onboard cooking classes and local chefs and restaurateurs as guides. Holland America has added vegetarian menus and a dinner presenting dishes from six continents in a single meal. Celebrity Cruises is bringing its snappy Qsine eatery (think sushi lollipops) to several ships. Among the many lines with wine-themed cruises is AmaWaterways, which offers sailings that highlight vintages of the Rhine and Rhône, and Paul Gauguin Cruises, on which experts from Napa wineries come along for the ride.

Even island-hopping cruises have become far more than a floating antidote to a winter chill. Magic shows (Crystal Cruises), true high-speed Internet access (Royal Caribbean), and aromatherapeutic yoga classes (Princess) are just a few of this season’s new shipboard amenities. And in an effort to outdo one another, ships have become floating resorts with endless (and over-the-top) offerings: a golfing simulation of Scotland’s Old Course, a zipline above a courtyard rimmed with staterooms, bowling lanes, art studios, and, soon, a boardwalk set over the sea. I’ve even signed up for an acupuncture treatment to lose weight (on a cruise—what was I thinking?).

The biggest news isn’t the ships themselves, but where they’re going and the touring options once they arrive. Cruises offer once-in-a-lifetime itineraries that make it possible to visit remote locations in comfort, from Borneo and Papua New Guinea (Orion Expedition Cruises) to Antarctica (Seabourn) and Easter Island (Oceania). And who wants to dash through world wonders? No need. Crystal has overnight trips to Peru’s Machu Picchu. Next year, Silversea’s new Galápagos trips will allow you to explore the origins of Darwin’s theories. And Azamara Club Cruises’ ships have specialty sailings that take in the British Open, the Monaco Grand Prix, and Carnival in Rio.

But just when I think I’ve done it all as a cruise critic, new itineraries catch my eye. In the coming year, Regent Seven Seas will sail from Mumbai to Luxor with stops in Qatar, Dubai, Oman, and Abu Dhabi—all on my must-see list. Another lust-worthy journey: Seabourn’s Indonesian trip to Komodo, Flores, and Java (though the chances of my snagging 26 days away from my daily life are right up there with writing a best seller). More likely is French Country Waterways’ leisurely, bubbly-filled barge trip through the Champagne region. And why not? When I’m worn to a nub, I’ve found there’s no better salve than the do-as-I-wish pace of a womblike ship, where I can explore a new city by day and tuck into my stateroom by night, the windows open to the breeze.

Jane Wooldridge is Travel + Leisure’s cruise editor and the business editor at the Miami Herald.

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