Theme Cruising on Today's Ships

| January 2, 2008
There are dozens of theme cruises offered every year on topics as diverse as gourmandism, oenophilia, philatelism and other extremely hard to spell words.

In the days of the television show, Loveboat, cruising was something people did just to take an elegant vacation. Instead of visiting a resort, they spent their vacation sailing the high seas and enjoying the more "refined" pleasures of life -- afternoon tea, dinner with the captain, dancing until the wee hours of the morning in a fashionable floor-length gown or tux. During the cruise they also visited exotic ports, mainly those in the tropics (Mexico in the case of the Love Boat, which was the Pacific Princess) that had been largely undiscovered by the masses at that time.

But cruising has evolved since the early 70s. Many people still set sail for the above purposes, but today there are many more reasons to take a cruise. One great one is what is known as "enrichment" -- a way of submersing yourself in a topic of interest.

Enrichment, in the form of classes, demonstrations, guest speakers and special events gives a cruise a whole new dimension. And when an entire cruise is set up expressingly for the enrichment in a special topic of interest, it is called a "theme cruise." It's a whole concept that has taken off like a wild fire.

CRUISING TO LEARN A NEW SKILL OR IMPROVE ON AN OLD ONE Today, there are theme cruises to simply enhance our knowledge of an existing skill, or even to learn an entirely new one. Other theme cruises allow us to share our passions with others of like mind and interests.

Sometimes theme cruises are run by the cruise lines. Holland America for years sponsored "Big Band Cruises," on some of their voyages. On these cruises, name bands would be brought onboard to perform in the theater as well as some of the lounges. Guests onboard could relax and enjoy the music, or put on their dancing shoes for a never-ending evening of dancing to their favorite tunes. They could also attend "coffee chats" during the day when the social hostess or cruise director would interview some of the band members and passengers could ask questions of their own.

Other lines such Regent Seven Seas cruises offers themed cruises on many of their voyages. They call these "Circles of Interest" and they focus on diverse topics like food and wine, photography, the performing arts, and even romance, with special talks and activities scheduled around the specific theme. For example, on a photography theme cruise, a renowned photographer will be onboard to present classes on the craft. He will help participants one-on-one with their photography-related skills, and offer advice on a wide variety of issues such as purchasing a new camera and what accessories will help with the craft. On most photography theme cruises the host will lead the group on specialty shore excursions where there are plenty of opportunities to put their newly acquired skills into practice.

The activities and events of some theme cruises, such as Holland America's Big Band extravaganzas, are open to all passengers onboard that particular sailing, while others are add-on options for which cruisers on a general sailing sign up and generally pay an additional fee to participate in the theme's activities. That is how Regent's Circles of Interest cruises work.

Additional fees usually apply when the theme involves hands-on classes and activities. The fee can range from a couple of hundred dollars, to close to a thousand, depending on what is included, who the hosts are and how intense the learning experience will be.

Not all theme cruises are sponsored by the cruise lines themselves. Often private organizations will put together a theme cruise. These themes can range from popular hobbies such as scrapbook making, to television show fan clubs that want to host their annual convention onboard a cruise ship.

"Geek Cruises:" Geek Cruises have long been a player in the theme cruise market. Focusing on computer-based topics, their cruises are designed to enhance participants' knowledge of popular software packages -- such as Perl or Photoshop or the MAC operating system -- over the course of a seven-day cruise. Insight Cruises, the sponsor of Geek Cruises, have even branched out their offerings to include topics like chess, art, history and even classical music.

Participants enjoy a variety of workshops onboard, along with the opportunity to network with others, some of them giants in the field, to their heart's content. Geek Cruises, like most theme cruises, generally only involve the passengers who sign up ahead of time and pay an additional fee to participate. This keeps class sizes smaller and more focused on the learning and networking opportunities. Participants generally share a section of the dining room, where they can socialize over meals and drinks. Learning opportunities are often offered on shore excursions as well, related to the materials covered in onboard workshops.

FAN CLUB CRUISES Fan clubs of long-running television series have jumped on the theme cruise bandwagon as well by holding their annual conventions at sea. Cruise ships are the ideal venue for such activities since participants are immersed in the topic throughout the entire voyage. It often even comes out cheaper for participants in that their meals and entertainment are included in the cost of the cruise, and the total cost of attending will rarely be more than a similar convention on land.

"GalactiCruise:" One upcoming cruise I am particularly excited about is called "GalactiCruise," a gathering for fans of the Battlestar Galactica television series. This gala fan's convention at sea will celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the original television series.

Taking place on a four-day Carnival Paradise cruise out of Long Beach on September 15, 2008, the cruise will visit the ports of Ensenada and Catalina Island, with one full day at sea to round out the itinerary. A full day program is planned for the day at sea to allow fans to meet and greet all their favorite Battlestar Galactica characters, such as Richard Hatch (Commander Apollo), Dirk Benedict (Lt. Starbuck), Terry Carter (Col. Tigh), and Anne Lockhart (Sheba), along with a host of others.

Convention organizer, Steve Parady, states that while many of the activities are still in the planning stages, some arrangements have already been made. These include a welcome aboard cocktail party with the celebrities, group dining each night, a host of panel discussions and other parties and events that will be exclusive for convention participants. Optional additional seminars will also be offered by some of the participants, as well as a chance to get professional photographs taken with your favorite star, autographed of course! A portion of the profits from the sailing are going to the Texas Autism Treatment Center.

Plans are also in the works to offer some special shore excursions in the ports of call that will be led by the series' celebrities, as well as an event hosted the night before embarkation for those who choose to arrive a day early and spend the night in the Long Beach area.

Many organizations who have hosted their fan conventions onboard cruise ships, including popular prime time TV shows, as well as several reality TV offerings, report the events work extremely well at sea, much better than they do on land. Attendees are happier because there are fewer "uncontrollable" costs, such as food and some drinks. For those who decide to make it a family vacation, at sea the participants can immerse themselves in the convention activities while the spouse and kids are happily entertained elsewhere on the ship. It's a win/win situation with everyone having the vacation of a lifetime.

A THEME CRUISE INTRODUCED ME TO THE JOYS OF CRUISING I have to say that I would have missed out tremendously if it were not for the advent of "theme cruises." I doubt I would have ever even considered a cruise vacation were it not for the Maui Writers Conference at Sea, an event I very much wanted to participate in, despite the fact that it was being held on a cruise ship rather than because of it.

I had attended a previous Maui Writers Conference and Retreat, a yearly event held on the beautiful island of Maui, Hawaii at the end of August through the Labor Day weekend. I wanted to go again, but didn't want to repeat the horrific experience of the long flight. When the conference promoters decided to host a "mini-retreat" onboard Holland America's ms Rotterdam during a ten-day Panama Canal cruise, I decided to give it a chance. Getting to the ship only required a flight from Philadelphia to Fort Lauderdale, far better than from the east coast to Maui, so I decided to sign up. I was solely focused on the chance to learn more about my craft, and meet the stable of well-known authors who would be my teachers for the week.

I didn't even think that much about the cruise itself. There was a weeklong whirlwind of activity including classes, workshops and participatory critique sessions. We went on shore excursions together, had dinners together and sat in the bars into the wee hours of the morning talking about our writing and sharing our dreams and plans for the future. We also had to schedule in writing time as we each had to prepare three short pieces for our instructors, one of which would be selected for us to take home and hone into publishable form for the book we were producing called "Ship's Log, Writings at Sea."

This theme cruise gave me the opportunity to discover cruising, and turn it into the addiction it is for me today.

THEME CRUISING -- A GREAT ALTERNATIVE FOR SOLOS OR COUPLES Theme cruises are for everyone, but have added benefits for those who don't have a large network of travel companions. They are great for singles that would love to join a cruise, but naturally feel some hesitation about being onboard for a week alone. Theme cruises allow one to travel solo, but still be a part of a self-contained group. Almost from the moment you board the ship, you are thrust into a flurry of activities, all centered on your personal passionate interest. Theme cruises also allow you to meet and network with others who share your interest; others you may very well keep in contact with for years to come, and perhaps even travel with again and again, to other similar events or just to other destinations you all enjoy.

I still keep in touch with many of those writers I met on the Maui Writer's Retreat cruise, as well as on subsequent cruises I have taken.

HOW TO FIND THE RIGHT THEME CRUISE FOR YOU It is extremely easy to find several different kinds of theme cruises if you are minimally "net savvy." Just run a Google search on the word "events," or "cruise," coupled with your special interest. You can find a host of cruises in that manner, from special hobbies and interests, to even cruises centered on a religious or spiritual theme. This is how I found the GalactiCruise event, a cruise I have already made arrangements to join, and to report on for CruiseMates.

If your Google search does not yield much useful information, check some of the cruise lines' websites. Regent, Crystal, Silversea and a host of other cruise lines sponsor theme cruises all the time. They focus on specific hobbies and interests, such as the games of bridge or chess, food and wine, antiques, jazz, photography, scrapbooking, beading, romance, book clubs and writers' retreats at sea. The list is endless. Surely you will come up with something that piques your interest, and that can lead to the discovery of a whole new dimension to your life.

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