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On-Board Enrichment

| July 14, 2003

Ensenada, Mexico
According to a recent report from the U.S. Maritime Administration, 64% of all cruises taken in the first quarter of 2003 on the 10 largest cruise lines (which account for more than 95% of the U.S. cruise market) were in the six- to eight-day category. This means virtually all were seven-night trips. Half of them left out of Miami or Fort Lauderdale. And 43% were to the Western Caribbean, with the Eastern Caribbean not far behind.

I have this vision of a long parade of ships cruising along to virtually the same islands in the Caribbean or the same places in Mexico, and an endless line of passengers disembarking and heading straight for the usual local attractions, shopping malls and bars.

Rather than boarding ships that keep going to the same places, where you'll do the same things, maybe it's time for prospective cruisers to consider taking a cruise that does something different and/or offers options other than the traditional sun-and-umbrella-drinks scene.

For example:

Crossings

The Queen Elizabeth 2

Cunard Line is the past master at transatlantic sailings, and a crossing is an experience that virtually every cruiser who's not a first-timer should consider. The usual argument against crossings is that without port calls, there's not enough to do. I beg to differ. On a seven-night Queen Elizabeth 2 sailing in May from New York to Southampton, I had five days at sea and a day in Cherbourg, France. Normally, most of the ship's crossings are six days and no ports.

The five days were filled with lots to do. It was actually nice for a change not to have to plan a schedule around the times to go ashore for specific activities. There were no advisories about which room your tour group should assemble in, or where you had to wait for a tender. Rather, there were lectures on a wide variety of subjects by some really interesting people.

Each crossing has a theme; on my cruise (the QE 2's 777th crossing), it was "Exploration and Discovery." Each of the four lecturers gave at least three talks. In addition, a New York Times best-selling author was giving talks. Add in plenty of arts & crafts activity, sports/spa/salon, evening entertainment, live music galore, and of course dining opportunities, and there was never a dull moment. QE2 will be doing crossings almost continuously through the rest of the year, so there are lots of chances left. And next year, Cunard's new Queen Mary 2 takes over the run. But for a great look at what the bygone era of transatlantic crossings was all about, try the QE2.

Cunard is not the only line doing this type of cruise. Every ship that goes to Europe for the summer has to get there and come back. So if you're interested in a fall cruise, check out all the ships that are over in Europe now. They're all going to reposition back to North America for the winter; then they'll sail back across the Atlantic next spring. And crossing rates are traditionally cheaper than regular cruises because of the lack of ports. It should almost be the other way around, because you get more of the real cruise experience when you don't get off the ship.

It's Fun to Learn

The Coral Princess

Back in January, I sailed one of Princess Cruises' new ships, Coral Princess, on a 10-night cruise that combined the Caribbean with Mexico and a partial transit of the Panama Canal. We had four full days at sea, providing ample time for passengers to participate in what Princess calls the Scholar Ship @ Sea Program. They also refer to it as Edu-tainment. Either way, it was a wonderful series of more than 70 contemporary enrichment programs at various skill levels that allowed guests to involve themselves in things they might never do at home, or to advance their skills in areas that really interested them. There were many courses in computers, flower arranging, cooking/wines, photography, and decorating. Three lecturers gave talks on subjects as varied as Scotland Yard and the stock market. My favorite was the ceramics class. A bunch of us got together and made mugs, plates, trivets and a whole bunch more. I got the award for the ugliest mug, but with the teacher's help, I made a great ceramic giraffe plate. This is something I never would have done at home, but it was a hoot on the ship.

The Crystal Harmony

Again, Princess is not the only line offering this sort of program. Crystal Cruises is gaining lot of awareness for the "Creative Learning Institute" on its newest ship, Crystal Serenity. By partnering with a variety of well-known organizations and schools such as Berlitz, Cleveland Clinic, Tai Chi Cultural Center and Barnes & Noble, Crystal presents a series of classes about improving guests' quality of life and well-being. In addition, the line offers an ongoing series of classes and lectures on arts and entertainment, business and technology, wine and food, bridge, candle-making and a whole lot more. This is in addition to the very solid computer learning programs Crystal has provided for several years.

These are just two examples of the many ways cruise lines have changed their on-board product with the times, providing new and meaningful experiences for their guests. They have not eliminated the mainstay items; they have simply added on many wonderful new options.

So take a look at the on-board programs the various lines are offering these days. They are much more advanced than in years past. Make this part of your decision-making process in choosing which cruise line/ship and itinerary you should book. 

I doubt that "learning" will ever fully rival food/dining as a primary source of satisfaction on a cruise. But to my way of thinking, it beats sitting around a pool deck with 2,000 of your closest friends inhaling eau de coconut oil or going ashore to shop for the same things on the same island time after time after time.

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