Fitness-minded cruisers have a bounty of options these days, as cruise lines continue to get more innovative with their health and wellness offerings. Even those who aren't overly active can find more subdued ways to loosen up their muscles. Whether you're a gym junkie, sporadic exerciser, casual walker or wellness enthusiast, a cruise can offer just as invigorating of a workout as what you'd find back home.
Believe it or not, on a cruise you really can lose weight -- or at least avoid gaining. In addition to cutting-edge workouts like Kinesis, TRX suspension training and kick-boxing at sea, many cruise lines have fitness trainers onboard to help you strategize a fitness plan. Healthier menu items can be found on any cruise ship, especially helpful for those who consider onboard dining a competitive sport.
The good thing about staying fit on a cruise is that you don't have to keep your "serious face" on. Fun activities like surfing, rock climbing and pick-up games in the sports court are popular and burn calories. Passengers can even get their adrenaline pumping playing indoor simulated sports in front of a big screen.
In port, opportunities abound to break a sweat off the ship. Spend a day hiking, kayaking, swimming or diving and find yourself returning to the ship with a satisfying burn.
Royal Caribbean continues to lead the pack as the trendsetter in onboard fitness options. It's the only line to offer surfing, ice skating and now roller skating on its Quantum Class. Other cruise lines also have been getting more innovative with their fitness options. Carnival and Norwegian have stepped up their games with top-deck, obstacle course-style features.
Meanwhile, smaller lines -- like Seabourn, Windstar, SeaDream and Star Clippers -- put emphasis on water sports, with kayaks, water skis and more offered from their onboard marinas. And river cruise lines store bikes onboard for passengers to use ashore.
Before we list our favorite ships for fitness, here are a few tips for working out onboard.
Go to the gym during off-hours or while the ship is in port for less crowded conditions. Onboard fitness centers can get packed during peak hours, such as early morning and late afternoon before dinner.
Many group classes -- Pilates, yoga, spinning -- come with fees (typically $10 to $15), which run pretty high for advanced classes such as TRX (around $60). Classes can fill up, so sign up in advance. Instructors vary in ability, and, as they teach all the classes, they might not have the same level of dedicated training in one tradition as your studio back home. Work out at your own risk, and don't do anything that seems painful to you.
Onboard water sports marinas are great, but they can only be used when the weather is warm enough and the ship can anchor in safe and relatively calm waters. If you're excited about taking out kayaks and Sunfish boats straight from the ship, hot-weather cruises are better than colder, shoulder season trips (though the opportunities vary). On one October Windstar cruise in the Mediterranean, the marina was never opened. Meanwhile, on a Seabourn cruise -- same itinerary, same season -- marina activities were a cruise highlight.
If you really want your cruise to be all about good health, choose a fitness-related theme cruise. There are special cruises for runners and golfers, as well as general health and wellness lifestyle cruises (often featuring workshops on yoga, meditation and healthy diets). For those who prefer less of a gym-based approach to working out, dance-themed cruises will keep you on your toes day and night.
Best Onboard Gym
Winner: Royal Caribbean's Quantum Class
Why: The fitness center on Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas is the best we've ever seen at sea for a number of reasons. First, its prominent location on the top deck forward affords great light and views. The center itself is massive and makes the most of its space with three tiers, each serving a different purpose. It never feels crowded. The top level houses a wide variety of free weights (dumbbells up to 90 pounds) and machines, the second includes stationary bikes and the lowest level hosts fitness classes, including TRX suspension training and Pilates. There's even a small area dedicated to stretching, with mats, exercise balls and other equipment. Another highlight is the fitness center's spinning studio for FlyWheel, the latest part-spinning, part-weight training craze. Here, cyclists can compete against one another keeping track of the leader on a giant TV screen. The high-quality, user-friendly TechnoGym equipment, two-lane jogging track and friendly, knowledgeable staff also deserve a nod.
Honorable Mention: Royal Caribbean's Freedom and Oasis Classes
Why: It's rare we give both first and second place to the same line, but Royal Caribbean's fleet is just hands down the best when it comes to gyms. The line's three Freedom-class ships each have enormous 9,700-square-foot fitness centers. In addition to state-of-the-art cardio, weight-training and circuit-training machines, each ShipShape Center features spinning cycles, a Pilates studio with six reformer machines and a full-size boxing ring, complete with speed bags, jump ropes, heavy bags and padded punching mitts. All cardio machines sport personal LED screens for entertainment options while working out. Additional cutting-edge workout equipment onboard includes the Cable Motion series of strength-training machines and Power-Plate, a device based on advanced reflex technology.
The gyms on Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas -- the largest cruise ships ever -- each have 12 Gravity machines (providing body conditioning through Pilates and resistance training), a Kinesis Wall (circuit exercises utilizing a system of pulleys), Expresso Bikes (with 30 interactive, virtual rides) and Activio Cycling (providing heart rate feedback). Classes unique to Oasis and Allure include Kinesis group training, a combo cycling-and-jogging class called The Brick and a jogging club, which uses the adjacent Deck 5 track.
Best Top-Deck Activities
Winner: Norwegian's Breakaway Class
Why: Norwegian introduced the largest ropes course at sea on Norwegian Breakaway and Getaway. The adrenaline-pumping feature includes more than 40 obstacles, including "The Plank" -- which extends 8 feet from the side of the ship and towers over the water. This top deck tests passengers' agilities (and fears) while also offering a sports court, rock climbing wall and mini-golf.
Honorable Mention: Carnival Breeze, Magic and Sunshine
Why: When Carnival Breeze, Magic and Sunshine received FunShip 2.0 upgrades, they welcomed SportSquare. This conglomerate of activities on the ships' top decks includes SkyCourse, a ropes/obstacle course; a sports court that can be used for basketball, soccer and volleyball; a lighted mini-golf course; and a myriad of other games and activities.
Winner: Celebrity Cruises
Why: Celebrity's emphasis on well-being is centered on mind, body and spirit. The line has a special program dedicated to yoga, which includes seven different types (Breathing, Buff Buddha and Meditation, to name a few). Additionally, passengers can enjoy other fitness classes such as Pilates, aerobics and indoor cycling, as well as personal training focusing on blood pressure, pregnancy, bone health and more.
Honorable Mention: Azamara Club Cruises
Why: Classes such as Pilates, sunset yoga, cycling, core workouts and nutrition are complimentary, whereas you'd have to pay for them on other lines. For an additional cost, passengers can take advantage of personal training and a body sculpting boot camp offered by the spa.
Best for Walking
Winner: Crystal Cruises
Why: Crystal makes more use of its ships' wraparound promenades than most cruise lines, offering two innovative programs for walkers. The first, called Walking on Water (WOW), is a fitness program designed exclusively for Crystal. The program utilizes cotton vests that have pockets for weights, so walkers can increase their resistance training when striding around the promenade deck. Crystal also offers complimentary walking poles for Nordic Walking, a low-impact, full-body workout. Passengers can also supplement their walking workouts with Kinesis personal fitness equipment, yoga and Pilates instruction (including mat and Pilates Reformer classes), spinning and golf instruction with PGA pros -- all gratis.
Honorable Mention: Fred. Olsen
Why: U.K.-based Fred. Olsen has partnered with Ramblers Worldwide Holidays, a company dedicated to exploring the world on foot. On more than 20 "Cruise and Walk" voyages, Ramblers guides will arrange a scenic walk in each port. On La Palma in the Canary Islands, cruisers walk along the Route of the Volcanoes; in Olden, Norway, they journey to an overlook in view of four glaciers; and on the U.K.'s isle of Tresco, a coastal walk is combined with a stroll through the Abbey Gardens.
Best for Dancing
Why: Cunard receives top marks in this category for its devotion to ballroom dancing. Professionals teach waltz, tango, samba and other dances during the day, and cruisers can practice their newly learned moves at Royal Nights themed formal balls held in the evenings. No partner? No worries! Gentlemen hosts are present on every cruise to make sure single ladies don't turn into wallflowers. (If you like retro chic fitness options like ballroom dancing, look for Queen Elizabeth's 1930s-inspired Games Deck, complete with bowls and croquet, and fencing classes on Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth.
Honorable Mention: Holland America
Why: Since partnering with ABC's Dancing With The Stars in 2013, Holland America has put great focus not only on its entertainment, but also its fitness offerings. As part of the Dancing With the Stars: At Sea program, the line offers free fleetwide dance classes based on the TV show. Here, passengers can compete for a chance to be selected as one of 14 finalists who will return for the championship-themed cruises. On select cruises, dancers also may have the opportunity to take lessons from guest celebrity dancers.
Best for Cycling
Winner: Thomson Cruises
Why: Thomson Cruises, a traditional yet casual British cruise line, carries its own mountain and touring bikes onboard, earning it our vote for best cruise line for cyclists. The line offers guided bike rides in many destinations in conjunction with Star Bikestations. The four- to five-hour rides include breaks for sightseeing and picture-taking. Whether you're a novice but enthusiastic cycler or an experienced racer, there will be a biking excursion for you.
Honorable Mention: AmaWaterways, Tauck River Cruising and Uniworld
Why: For more leisurely and less organized bike touring, book a Rhine or Danube river cruise. Lines like AmaWaterways, Tauck and Uniworld keep touring bikes onboard for complimentary use. Passengers can cycle through the countryside and cities or even ride along the river, catching up with the ship in the next port. And, as river ships tend to be smaller with low passenger counts, you often won't have much competition for the bikes and can borrow them whenever it suits you.
Best for Water Sports
Why: Whether its Windstar's original trio of masted sailing ships or its newest additions of intimate cruise ships (taken over from Seabourn), every vessel in the fleet offers complimentary water sports straight from the ship. The marinas are put to full use in destinations like the Caribbean, Costa Rica and the Greek Isles, with more limited offerings in the Mediterranean. Experienced sports enthusiasts can borrow kayaks, windsurf boards, Topper or Rumba Escape Sailboats and inflatable boats. Snorkel equipment is provided free of charge, though organized snorkeling expeditions cost extra. Water skiing is also offered by the ship's staff; two people at a time can water ski in half-hour increments. On Wind Surf, you can also bounce on a trampoline or borrow a Hobie Bravo (sailing catamaran).
Honorable Mention: Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club and Star Clippers
Why: Like Windstar, these cruise lines have retractable water sports marinas. They offer a variety of options: Sunfish sailboats, jet skis, banana boats, water skiing, tubing, windsurfing and kayaking. On Star Clippers, the water sports staff organizes its own scuba trips and can certify neophyte divers.
Best Fitness Options for Gym-Haters
Winner: Royal Caribbean's Quantum Class
Why: With so many adrenaline-pumping and pseudo-athletic activities on Royal Caribbean's innovative Quantum-class ships, you can easily get a workout without really trying. Quantum of the Seas and sister ship Anthem of the Seas will be the first to debut indoor roller skating at sea and the SeaPlex, a high-tech indoor sports complex featuring a sports court and floating DJ. Simulated sky diving works rarely used muscles; be prepared to be sore the next day. Additionally, the ships will offer fleet favorites like the FlowRider (a surf simulator) and rock climbing wall.
Honorable Mention: Disney Dream and Fantasy
Why: While most cruise lines offer an array of sports on deck or in their fitness centers, Disney has taken a slightly different approach. The line still offers those options, but on Disney Dream and Fantasy, passengers can play the same sports virtually. Digital sports simulator options include basketball, football, hockey, golf, soccer and baseball in front of a large screen. Players go through the motions (i.e. kicking, swinging and throwing) as they would in reality. The sports might be simulated, but the fun -- and the workout -- is real.
Best for Land-Based Workouts
Winner: Norwegian's Pride of America
Why: Hawaii is one of the best destinations for active pursuits, and Norwegian's Pride of America is the only ship to sail year-round seven-night cruises to the islands, visiting gorgeous places like Maui, Kauai, Kona and Honolulu. You can go for a rainforest and waterfall hike, learn to surf or windsurf, golf at beautiful seaside courses, bike down the slopes of a dormant volcano, kayak through a wildlife refuge, scuba or snorkel and take a horseback ride by the beach.
Honorable Mention: Holland America
Why: Half Moon Cay, the private island operated by Holland America (and often shared with Carnival Cruise Lines) is chockablock with fitness opportunities. Passengers have the opportunity to ride horses along the beach, hike along nature trails, jog along a scenic 5K course, kayak through a protected habitat, bike around the island and snorkel or swim with stingrays. More competitive athletes can join a game of volleyball, basketball, shuffleboard or even horseshoes. Kids can work up an appetite climbing around a pirate ship and animal-shaped water toys in the aqua park.
Best Spa Dining
Winner: Celebrity Cruises
Why: Dining is usually not an athletic event, but healthy eating often goes hand-in-hand with an active, healthy lifestyle. Celebrity Cruises was the first line to embrace this connection with spa cafes on its Millennium- and Solstice-class ships. Located by the spa pool, the cafes serve up healthy breakfasts and lunches, including smoothies, salads, fish dishes and low-fat desserts. In addition, the Solstice-class ships have Blu, a private dining room reserved for passengers booked in Celebrity's AquaSpa cabins. Its menu focuses on natural ingredients and healthy fare.
Honorable Mention: Oceania, Regent Seven Seas and Cunard's Queen Mary 2
Why: Oceania, Regent Seven Seas and Cunard's Queen Mary 2 all integrate the Canyon Ranch Spa dining menu onboard. Each cruise line offers the specialty spa cuisine in select restaurants throughout their ships. The menu includes organic foods and dishes high in protein, fiber and healthy fats, as well as vegetarian options.
--Updated by Gina Kramer, Associate Editor