Another season of sailing is complete here at Cruise Critic, and we’re wrapping up our hits and misses for the year. Today, we examine the biggest surprises we encountered while cruising in 2015. We invite you to share your own:
There are two types of people in this world when it comes to navigating unfamiliar places: those who have a strong sense of direction and so-so memory, and those who lack any internal compass and rely on following random signs or landmarks to determine their location. I identify with the latter. With that being said, I was a little intimidated by my two-night sailing on Anthem of the Seas. The ship is brimming with head-turning features and restaurants; I was certain I’d be lost the entire time. I was wrong. Anthem was such an easy ship to get around, and it only took one day!
In 2015, Viking Ocean Cruises became the first all-new cruise line to debut with a newly built ship since Disney Cruise Line unveiled Magic some 17 years ago! Following Viking Star, from its construction to its launch and christening, was a fascinating experience, rather like the maritime equivalent of watching a caterpillar turn into a butterfly. The best part? Onboard the ship’s first sailing (with a vibrant group of Cruise Critic members), we got to experience the moments when a ship actually comes to life with its crew and passengers and ports of call, and you see for real what the designers envisioned. Viking Oceans is a wonderful addition to the cruise industry.
Australia’s P&O Cruises is generally not known for the attractiveness of its ships, but their latest additions, Pacific Aria and Pacific Eden, blew me away. The refurbished ex-Ryndam and Statendam are unrecognizable. I’ve sailed on more than 50 ships, including every five-star luxury brand, and I truly think these two budget-priced ships have better-looking pool decks, restaurants and bars. As I quipped in my review, they’ve put the “ohhhh” into P&O.
As Cruise Critic editors, we spend lots of time on ships. But this year, for the first time, our entire editorial department was able to sail together as a group. We used the unique opportunity to do workshops and learn from one another’s approaches to interviewing and ship review coverage. It was an unexpected and lovely surprise.
Standup paddleboarding is really hard. I tried it in St. Thomas during my Carnival Glory cruise, as part of an independently booked excursion. All of the photos you see make it look so easy — just stand up on the surf board and paddle yourself around — but it takes more balance and core strength than I have. I spent most of the time doing “sit-down paddleboarding” and a brief stint doing “fall-off paddleboarding,” while trying to maintain my dignity. My legs were like rubber afterward. And to think, people do yoga on these things!
At my (undisclosed) age, a Fun Ship experience sounded a little too much like a party boat for my tastes. But my four-day cruise on Carnival Triumph ended up being a blast. Sailing with a friend from my New Orleans days, I ended up belting out songs at the piano bar, attending goofy activities and dancing long into the night. Bonus: We won the “Amazing Race” excursion in Cozumel, despite the rain and inappropriate shoes. The experience taught me that you’re never too old to get silly.
Carnival Corp.’s June announcement of its newest brand, Fathom, was a huge surprise. A number of cruise lines include volunteering shore activities as options on their ships, but to create a cruise experience dedicated to voluntourism is completely new for the industry. Carnival has committed to Fathom by hiring Tara Russell, who has plenty of experience in the non-profit sector coupled with boundless energy and enthusiasm, to lead the team. The cruise line is promising fun, altruistic experiences in the Dominican Republic and Cuba. I’m looking forward to seeing how cruisers take to Fathom when it debuts in April 2016.
Viking Cruises’ Viking Star. I had no idea what to expect from Cruise Critic’s Ship of the Year; I did not quite understand why it was getting such rave reviews. Then I cruised on it for three days in December and I got it. Here’s a list of things I noticed, that made me smile: heated bathroom floors; branded shampoo, conditioner and shower gel, replaced every day; free, fast, unlimited Wi-Fi; no signing for anything (you just present your card); wine and beer included at meals; superb food — in every restaurant outlet; free thermal suite; a good-sized balcony; free (soft drink) mini-bar; stylish, contemporary design, from the elevators to the cabins to the public areas; the world’s first Viking museum at sea… and that’s just what I noticed in three days! It’s a beautiful, modern, well-thought-out ship, but perhaps even more important, it’s a beautiful concept: luxury lite — or whatever it is defined as — enhances the cruise experience for the passenger at every level.
Pairing land with cruise. Like a fine wine pairing with a meal, this year I’ve found that pairing a land trip with a cruise enhances the vacation experience tenfold. The four-day pre-cruise land portion of our Alaska cruisetour provided context in the form of Denali National Park, the grounds of the spectacular Princess lodges and the ability to visit some smaller towns, like Talkeetna; a personal, post-cruise tour in Vancouver allowed downtime to explore the Canadian city on foot after being at sea. A few days (and more importantly, nights) in the vivid metropolis of Barcelona was the perfect opener to my Mediterranean sailing. If you have the time and budget to add even an additional day on land in a larger port, do so without hesitation.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of 2015 was not so much about any one ship, cruise destination or port, but instead, about myself. I like bells and whistles and have always enjoyed the most active of cruise ships. But, over the past two years as I’ve been on more small ships, I’ve discovered I like them as well — I like their intimacy, I like their comfort, I like how I can relax on them. Of course, I still want stuff to do on a small ship — I want good, quality theater entertainment in the evenings; I want daily trivia. But if there’s no casino or no dance club? Well, that’s ok.