If your idea of a great vacation involves daily runs in the open air, a leisurely workout in a hi-tech gym or a smorgasbord of fitness classes from Pilates to Zumba, a cruise may be the perfect getaway for you. These days, cruise ships are about more than just eating and lying in the sun, and they're attracting fitness buffs, yogis and health-conscious travelers in droves with active options both onboard and off.
Believe it or not, on a cruise you really can lose weight -- or at least break even. That's because fitness centers are growing in size to accommodate a more youthful and body-conscious passenger base and often feature state-of-the-art equipment and 180-degree sea views. Ships are breaking new ground with cutting-edge workouts like Kinesis Walls, popular TRX Suspension Training and Tour de Spin classes, plus offering trendy sessions in Pilates and tai chi. Deck games like shuffleboard and skeet shooting have made way for onboard surfing, rock climbing, mini-golf and basketball. In port, active excursion options are plentiful. Cycling is big -- not to mention hiking, kayaking, swimming and diving. If breaking a sweat can be fun, cruise ships have found ways to offer those activities in the middle of the ocean.
Royal Caribbean is leading the pack as the trendsetter in onboard fitness options. Its ships are the only ones afloat to offer onboard surfing, boxing and ice skating. But it's not the only line to put emphasis on fitness. Others are also expanding their gyms and their top-deck fitness options. Some of the smaller lines -- SeaDream, Star Clippers, Windstar, Seabourn -- focus on water sports, with onboard marinas packed with water toys that range from kayaks to water-skis. Crystal and Seabourn are two luxury lines getting creative with gentler, senior-friendly workouts like Kinesis and walking, while river lines store bikes onboard for passengers to use ashore.
Before we list our favorite lines for fitness, here are a few tips for working out onboard.
Onboard gyms can get crowded at peak hours, such as early morning and late afternoon before dinner. Some ships even have signup sheets for cardio machines with strict time limits. Go during off-hours (or while ships are in port) for less crowded conditions.
Many group classes -- Pilates, yoga, spinning -- come with fees (typically $10-$15). 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.
The smaller the ship, the smaller the gym. Luxury lines may have first-rate facilities, but a 200-person ship won't have the enormous workout space a 3,200-passenger ship will have.
Don't forget about shore excursions. Active tours are quite popular. You can get some physical activity -- in the form of kayaking, walking, hiking and biking -- while exploring a destination.
If you really want your cruise to be all about good health, choose a 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
The Line: Royal Caribbean's Freedom and Oasis Classes
Why: Because size does matter. Royal Caribbean's three Freedom-class ships -- Freedom, Liberty and Independence of the Seas -- each have 9,700-square-foot fitness centers. In addition to state-of-the-art cardio, weight-training and circuit-training machines, the 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. Group classes on offer include step aerobics, yoga, Pilates, stretching, tai chi, boot camp and indoor cycling. 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.
Allure and Oasis of the Seas-- the largest cruise ships ever -- are in their own league. In addition to the usual fitness equipment, they 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. The track is a runner's dream, featuring well-marked lanes, shaded ocean views and a series of motivational stanzas that hang from the ceiling, like: "One lap to go / Or maybe three / Tonight's dessert / Can be guilt free."
Honorable Mention: Princess' Grand Class
Why: While no other onboard gym can really touch Royal Caribbean's newest models, Princess' Grand-class ships come close. The Lotus Spa fitness centers onboard the line's newest ships are prominently set at the front of the ship with sweeping 180-degree views of the ocean. The gyms are equipped with treadmills, elliptical trainers and stationary bikes, all with their own TV's for personal entertainment. Free weights and a wide range of weight machines are also on offer. But it may be outside the typical workout room that Princess gets the most creative. The line offers an exclusive fitness program called "Core. Balance. Strength." that targets three fitness areas with Pilates classes for building a strong core, yoga for centering and balance, and cardio classes to build strength. As part of the third phase, Princess offers Tour de Spin, a set of three spinning workouts, and high energy Zumba classes, which are frequently packed. Princess ships offer the complimentary Zumba workouts once or twice per cruise, transforming Club Fusion, the Piazza or the outside decks into a high-energy fitness party.
Princess' larger vessels also offer a swim-against-the-current pool with an adjustable current for endurance training.
Best Luxury Workout
The Line: Seabourn's Odyssey Class
Why: Seabourn Odyssey was the first new luxury ship designed since staying fit became a mantra for successful living. As such, its designers have incorporated a more contemporary sensibility into the creation of a two-deck high spa and fitness center, now also included on sister ships Seabourn Sojourn and Seabourn Quest. The most distinctive feature is the Kinesis wall, which is able to accommodate four passengers simultaneously. Kinesis technology uses a series of pulleys and cables to increase flexibility, provide rehabilitation if necessary, and create better muscle definition, all the while being gentler on the body than traditional machines. Private Kinesis is available for a fee.
Other fitness facility features include a range of classes (from stretching to yoga, all complimentary) and state-of-the-art cardio, strength- and weight-training equipment. If you'd like to rejuvenate tired limbs after a tough workout, make a beeline for the "Experience Shower," a shower with special lighting and sensory adjustments.
In addition, Seabourn Odyssey offers a hydro pool/thermal suite area with heated loungers, aromatherapy sauna and waterbed. Seabourn Sojourn and Quest each feature a Kneipp Walk Pool (instead of a hydro pool). This shallow, circular pool is separated into regions of very warm and chilled water. As you walk around the pool, the combination of changing pressures, temperatures and motion is believed to improve capillary circulation, aid in the cleansing of toxins, increase hormonal balance and reduce stress.
Honorable Mention: Cunard's Queen Mary 2
Why: The first cruise ship to feature a spa and fitness facility operated by the renowned Canyon Ranch, Queen Mary 2 -- which offers both luxury and mainstream cruise experiences -- is a superb choice. The Canyon Ranch SpaClub offers a wide variety of cardio machines (elliptical trainers, recumbent and stationary bikes, steppers, rowing machines and treadmills), as well as a large strength-training area with machines and free weights. Group classes run the gamut from standard offerings like spinning and Pilates to more creative options, such as "Totally Tubing," "Dance to the Beat," "Cardio Blast" and "Fitball." Passengers can book private sessions on the gym's Pilates reformer machines.
The vast wraparound outdoor promenade (remember that Queen Mary 2 was, prior to the launch of Royal Caribbean's behemoths, the world's largest cruise ship) is a great spot for active walking and jogging.
Most Innovative Fitness Options
The Line: P&O Cruises' Ventura
Why: On this ship, marketed primarily to U.K.-oriented cruisers, the fitness facility and spa are more than adequate -- but it's the fun stuff that take Ventura over the top. Within its gym, Ventura offers Tixter bikes, the latest in indoor cycling. The bikes have movable handlebars to mimic real-world biking and cycling routines (complete with video), from scenic roadways in the Scottish highlands to deserts, highways and city centers. It's like a PlayStation or Wii Cycling. Out on deck, an endless pool with a current machine propels you to swim against the current.
Honorable Mention: Royal Caribbean's Voyager, Freedom and Oasis classes
Why: Ever the innovator, Royal Caribbean can take the credit for many cruise ship firsts, many of which fit right in with the line's "Get Out There" motto. It remains the only cruise line to offer an onboard ice-skating rink -- something no one thought would exist on a Caribbean vacation -- and FlowRider wave pools for surfing and bodyboarding. (On Oasis and Allure, there are two!) Royal Caribbean started the trend of onboard rock-climbing walls, and fitness buffs can also enjoy boxing in Freedom-class gyms.
Best Land-Based Workouts
The Line: Norwegian Cruise Line'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 for Cyclists
The Line: Thomson Cruises
Why: Thomson Cruises, a traditional yet casual British cruise line, actually 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, 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 Walkers
The Line: 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. Grab some polls, don a vest, and those other shipboard walkers are sure to be intimidated by your power and energy. Supplement your 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: The 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 Top-Deck Activities
The Line: Carnival Magic and Breeze
Why: Thrill-seekers can traverse across nets suspended nearly 150 feet above the sea on the cruise industry's first ropes courses, available on Carnival's new ship, Magic, and upcoming ship Breeze. The course is part of SportsSquare, an expansive outdoor recreation area surrounded by an eighth-mile jogging track. Inside the square, fitness buffs can pump iron at the first outdoor weightlifting area on a cruise ship; play basketball, volleyball or soccer on a multipurpose court; or tone and stretch on the six-station Vita exercise course (like the outdoor fitness circuits you find in parks). Putt your way to a cooldown at the two-level miniature golf course. Just keep your fingers crossed that it doesn't rain!
Honorable Mention: Norwegian Cruise Line's Jewel class and Norwegian Epic
Why: Norwegian is nipping at Carnival's heels with innovative top-deck fitness offerings. Its fleet now features rock-climbing walls (on Gem, Pearl and Epic), tennis courts (Jade, Jewel and Pearl) and basketball courts (fleetwide), most with bleacher seating for friends and fans. The 155,873-ton, 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic has the biggest rock wall of any Norwegian ship, plus a new rappelling wall. The ship's multiuse sports deck will offer a variety of ways to work up a sweat, including a full-size basketball court, bungee trampoline and a 24-foot-tall enclosed climbing cage called the Spider Web. When Norwegian Breakaway debuts in April 2013, it will feature a three-story sports complex with a large ropes course, Aqua Park with five waterslides and a kid-friendly splash zone, rock climbing wall, bungee trampoline, and mini-golf course.
Best Water Sports
The Line: Windstar
Why: Windstar combines the best of small-ship cruising with the romance of a masted sailing vessel. Its three ships offer complimentary water sports straight from the ship 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: Star Clippers, SeaDream and Seabourn
Why: In addition to Windstar, these cruise lines also 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 for Active Seniors
The Line: Holland America Line
Why: We love Holland America's program of mind-body-spirit classes. Passengers can now participate in yoga, tai chi and aqua aerobics free of charge, in addition to the for-fee classes like Pilates and spinning that are offered in the Greenhouse Spa's fitness center. Plus, many active seniors take advantage of the ships' wraparound teak promenade decks for leisurely strolls or brisk walks.
Honorable Mention: Cunard
Why: Cunard receives an honorable mention 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. Other fitness options include the usual fitness center equipment and classes, shuffleboard, basketball and paddle tennis courts, and golf simulators. Queen Elizabeth features a 1930's-inspired Games Deck, complete with bowls and croquet. Both Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth offer fencing classes, as well as a Body Sculpt Programme, where guests can burn up to 700 calories in 30 minutes.
Best Spa Dining
The Line: 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: Costa
Why: Costa is all about creating a complete spa experience for its spa cabin residents, and that includes healthy dining. The line's Samsara Restaurant on its Concordia-class ships features wellness menus (available for all three meals) that have been created by Michelin-starred chef Ettore Bocchia. Regular passengers can opt to dine there, too, for a 20 euro per-person surcharge.
--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor; updated by Christine Koubek, Cruise Critic contributor