As someone whose first cruise was sailing with the Greeks to rescue Helen in the Trojan War ...
... well, maybe not quite that far back, but my first shipboard experiences were Atlantic crossings during the heyday of the "Golden Age" of ocean liners. My first trip to Europe was aboard SS Independence in 1962, and I returned home at the end of the summer on SS France. So I've been around long enough to be familiar with both ships and seniorhood.
So, what is it that we mature folks look for in a cruise? In the first place, we want what all other cruisers do: we like the ease of having most of the nuts-and-bolts travel details worked out for us; we like the idea of traveling to multiple destinations while unpacking only once; we appreciate top-notch pampering, service and excellent food; and we like the bang for our buck that cruising provides.
But there are a number of aspects that are higher priorities to us seniors than to our younger shipmates:
1.Itinerary choice has a greater degree of importance to us since we've already traveled to many destinations.
2. Also important are the quality and quantity of enrichment programs available onboard to keep our brains active in retirement.
3. Given that we are more likely to travel solo, and, ironically, more likely to travel in extended multigenerational family groups with decades separating the ages of youngest and oldest members, we prize ships with options for all types of travelers.
4. We may have mobility or health issues, so top-notch medical care and accessible ships are more likely to be high on our list.
We'll examine all these issues and concerns, why each is important and which cruise lines/ships best address each one.
1. The Best Ships for Itinerary Choice
Scenic Cruising The Issue: For many of us, relaxing on deck, on our balconies or in observation lounges and watching incredible scenery pass right by our noses is a favorite aspect of cruising -- especially for those seniors who aren't as mobile as they once were. Others are still quite active and get off the ship at every opportunity but enjoy the moving panorama between shore experiences, as well. In either case, to satisfy both types of seniors, these scenic itineraries are best when situated close to shore so that the wildlife, edifices and natural beauty can be easily seen and enjoyed. No wonder Alaska, the North Cape and river cruises are such popular scenic itineraries for seniors. Here, by region and type of ship, are our picks for cruises in places where scenery is king.
Why: The ships of both lines feature high levels of comfort, service and personal attention. More important, these two lines were the mainstream pioneers of the Alaska market. Their historic connections give them clout in securing coveted permits to enter Glacier Bay National Park, and a higher percentage of their sailings include this iconic locale. (There is no such thing as bad scenery in Alaska, but Glacier Bay is the Platinum Standard, and not every cruise goes there.)
Additionally, for those wishing to extend their cruises with land-based tours, these two lines have an advantage over the competition in that, for the Alaska Railroad segments, they each have their own domed observation cars that are superior to the ones owned by the rail line. (The Alaska Railroad cars have domes that stretch only part of the length of the cars, so only a portion of the passengers can ride in the upper-level observation dome; the cruise line-owned cars have top levels that extend the entire length of the cars so that all passengers can ride up top.)
Best "Expedition" Cruises to Alaska: American Safari Cruises' Safari Explorer
Why: For more active seniors who crave closer encounters with the wilds of Alaska, this 36-passenger, naturalist-led luxury cruise will not only give you an incredible up-close-and-personal interaction with glaciers and wildlife, but it will do it with pampering and panache. Fares are not cheap, but the cruise is nearly all-inclusive, offering twice-daily jaunts by Zodiac right up to the faces of calving glaciers and salmon-fishing bears. Of course, climbing out of the Zodiac onto the ship's aft platform and being greeted by a steward with cups of hot chocolate -- spiked with Godiva Liqueur or Peppermint Schnapps -- is an endearing plus. Onboard cuisine relies heavily on the freshest locally procured meats and seafood, meals are communal, and a great sense of camaraderie quickly develops among passengers, naturalists and crew.
Best Scenic Cruises to the North Cape (Norwegian Fjords):Hurtigruten (any ship sailing the Coastal Voyage route)
Why: Hurtigruten used to be known as Norwegian Coastal Voyage, and the line has native familiarity with Norway, its people and its "fjord-scape." We especially like the style and itinerary specifics of these sailings. Hurtigruten ships are a combination of cruise ship, car ferry, mail ship and cargo carrier. On a typical one-week cruise, passengers can expect to make more than 35 port calls as the ship wends its way up and down the most scenic and remote fjords, picking up and dropping off motorists, packages, mail and point-to-point passengers at tiny towns and villages seldom reached by other forms of transportation. While the "ferry" passengers do not have sleeping accommodations, full-fledged cruise passengers will find cabins and amenities much like those on conventional ships.
Since the ships are constantly going in and out of port, there is ample opportunity to view the dramatic scenery and take a gander at rural Scandinavian life up close. Hurtigruten also has a unique system of shore excursions, where you disembark at one town's pier, take a tour and meet up with the ship four hours and three port calls later!
Best Cruises For Scenic River Cruising: AMAWATERWAYS' AmaBella
Why: Having a wide-open vantage point is key to a successful scenic river cruising experience. Given that these ships sail nearly year-round, getting that great perspective from an outside deck is often not the best solution, especially in the middle of a European winter. Instead, you'll want to have a great point of view from your own cabin, and that's why we recommend AmaBella. Eighty-two percent of the staterooms on these ships have French balconies with floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass doors, and some cabins even have true balconies. We also applaud AMA's creative itineraries, especially extended cruisetours like the monthlong one between Paris and Istanbul -- a sort of land-and-waterway version of the Orient Express. (Of course, who but a retired senior could spare a month for vacation travel?) We also like AMA's variety of regional offerings, such as Asia, Russia and Africa.
Exotic Cruising The Issue: We've been cruising long enough to have hit just about every major port of call on the planet, so come up with a new itinerary, and we're all over it. Asia and underexplored islands near both poles lead the way.
Best Cruises to Exotic Destinations: Orion Expedition Cruises' Orion
Why: Based in Australia, Orion does the Southwestern Pacific better than anybody. Sure, plenty of cruise lines go to Australia and New Zealand, but Orion will take you to destinations you hardly knew existed: the Kimberley (extreme Northwest Australia) and its bizarre Horizontal Waterfalls of Talbot Bay, the Islands of the Torres Straits, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand's sub-Antarctic Islands, and the McMurdo Sound and Ross Sea regions of the far western edge of the Antarctic continent.
What we most like about Orion is that it provides these incredible explorations with style and luxury. One nice touch is the dedicated mud room, where passengers returning from a trek across the Antarctic snowpack and rocky shoreline can be comfortably seated at dedicated boot-washing stations and step out squeaky clean without lifting a finger. The food is excellent, with fresh local seafood taking a starring role. (Don't miss the Barramundi [fish] or Tasmanian Oysters.) The naturalist exploration leaders are knowledgeable and personable, and the spa services, though limited in number, are superior in quality.
Author's note: At this point, our recommendations only apply to Orion I. Launched last year, Orion II, the second ship in the fleet, has been beset by pesky mechanical problems that have resulted in modified itineraries and cancelled sailings. Unfortunately, Orion's newest itinerary, featuring the reefs and rainforests of Borneo, replete with face-to-face encounters with orangutans in the wild, is assigned to this second ship. This is possibly the most unique of all exotic itineraries in the industry, and it's the voyage of a lifetime for wildlife enthusiasts, so stay tuned!
Nostalgia Cruising The Issue: For seniors, the nostalgia of returning to experiences garnered abroad in their youth is hard to resist. For some, it may have been that first trip across the pond on a transatlantic steamer; for others, as ironic as it may seem, there is a great draw to revisit the days of their military service. For each of these, there are ideal cruises.
Best Cruises for Seniors Wishing to Relive Their First Ocean Crossings:Cunard Line (Fleetwide)
Why: Everything about the iconic "Queens" harks back to the "Golden Age," including the classic separate-class structure. (Who, as a youth traveling on a two- or three-class steamship in Tourist Class, doesn't have fond memories of sneaking into First Class?) But, beyond that distinction, there's much to like about these ships. On Queen Mary 2, which does the majority of transatlantic crossings for the line, the Illuminations Lounge has a full-scale planetarium. Afternoon tea is served at a level of authenticity that only the Brits can achieve, and who could fault enrichment programs provided by Oxford University? And, like the ocean liners of the "Golden Age," the ship has an ambience of subdued class and refinement that will appeal strongly to seniors at the upper end of the age spectrum.
Best Cruises for World War II Vets Who Served in the Pacific: Norwegian Cruise Lines' Pride of America
Why: Homeported in Honolulu year-round, Norwegian's Pride of America offers ample opportunities for pre- and post-cruise visits to USS Missouri, Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial. Onboard, spend a week sailing America's Archipelago, with overnight calls in Maui and Kauai and a nighttime sail-by of the spectacular lava falls spilling from active volcano Kilahuea. "Freestyle Cruising" eliminates the pressure of assigned dining times, seating and tablemates, and lengthy port calls allow seniors to explore at a leisurely pace.
Best Cruises for World War II Vets Who Served in Europe: Uniworld River Cruises' River Baroness
Why: We selected this ship and line for its Paris/Normandy roundtrip itinerary. Normandy is Mecca for World War II vets: a place you have to visit at least once in your life. Along the beaches of Normandy, there's an incredible wealth of places to visit: the D-Day Museum, Omaha and Gold Beaches and, above all, the overwhelmingly moving American Military Cemetery on the bluffs over the landing beaches, with its acres of white marble crosses flanking tranquil reflecting pools and touching, symbolic statuary.
We like this nine-night Paris roundtrip because of the amount of time spent in Normandy: two nights in Rouen, separated by a day's stay in the utterly charming harbor town of Honfleur. Uniworld's River Baroness received a major refurb in 2011, and it has an entire deck of French balconied staterooms. Uniworld tops many "Best" lists for upscale river cruising, as its food and service are excellent, and quality local entertainers are brought onboard regularly.
Best Cruises for Vietnam Vets: Viking River Cruises' RV Tonle
Why: Ironic as it may seem given the circumstances, Vietnam has become a popular destination with Vietnam vets. Viking's 15-night cruisetour from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) fits the bill perfectly. It includes visits to the notorious "Hanoi Hilton" prison, Angkor Wat, Phenom Penh and other important sites in Cambodia on 14 included tours during nine nights spent cruising the Mekong River. The trip also includes a visit to the famous floating markets of the Mekong Delta. The ship, built in 2002, carries an intimate group of 66 passengers, all in river-view cabins.
2. Best for Enrichment Opportunities
The Issue: In large numbers, we seek more from our days at sea than a comfy chaise and a drink with an umbrella. The reason is simple: nothing makes us feel younger than learning a new skill, gaining knowledge or even perfecting a dance step. In fact, many scientists believe that the brain is like a muscle, and challenging it keeps it tuned-up.
Best Premium Cruises for Onboard Enrichment: Princess Cruises (Grand Class) and Celebrity Cruises (Solstice Class)
Why Princess: Princess has an established multidiscipline enrichment program, dubbed ScholarShip@Sea, that draws praise for the sheer number of choices offered, averaging 20 courses per sailing, ranging from culinary arts to photography classes. Computer classes include Photoshop, HTML and Web design, as well as lessons on fine-tuning your digital photography skills. Passengers can embrace their craftiness with paint-your-own-pottery workshops, where they can paint pre-molded clay blanks, which are subsequently fired in an onboard kiln. Beyond enrichment, other ship highlights include nightly pasta selections at dinner and Movies Under the Stars, Princess' pioneering Jumbotron-sized poolside screens.
Why Celebrity: Celebrity partners with great movers and shakers in various fields to impart knowledge to the ships' passengers. Celebrity has teamed up with Apple to offer a number of onboard courses in using computers, iPhones and iPads. Another partnership with Rosetta Stone lets passengers study foreign languages during their cruises. Celebrity Solstice and Equinox feature the Hot Glass Experience, a live demonstration of museum-quality glass-blowing by experts from the Corning Glass Museum; demonstrations take place several times daily.
Oenophiles are hardly neglected, with nightly samplings in Galleria Tastings, a dedicated tasting room at sea. The Solstice-class ships are also known for the Lawn Club, an expanse of real grass on the ships' top decks, and for having one of the best selections of alternative dining we've experienced.
Why: Crystal is known for managing the seemingly impossible -- creating in a large ship a quality of service, cuisine and amenities on a level one would expect only from small, boutique-class vessels. For that reason, it attracts numerous affluent senior passengers who dislike dress codes and set dinner seatings but still insist on the very best on their cruises. Catering to this mature crowd, Crystal offers the Creative Learning Institute, with wide-ranging fields of study, from acting workshops and Berlitz language courses to Yamaha music lessons and a "Computer University."
3. Best Ships for Onboard Activities
Solo Cruising The Issue: Whether by choice or our personal circumstances, we may find ourselves traveling solo. Since the world of cruising is almost entirely geared toward couples, going it alone can be costly, logistically difficult, and, in a world full of pairs, lonely.
Best Mainstream Cruises for Seniors Traveling Solo: Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Epic
Why: The biggest hurdle for solo travelers of any age is the dreaded "single supplement, and the upcharge can be as high as 100 percent of the regular fare. Since many seniors are living on fixed incomes, avoiding the extra charge is a big plus. Norwegian has come up with a fabulous idea on Norwegian Epic, installing 128 studio cabins, each accommodating just one passenger and requiring no additional supplemental charge for passage.
Cabins can cost as little as $50 more and as much as several hundred dollars more than the double-occupancy rate for regular inside cabins, so book early and compare carefully for the best rates. With each of these studio cabins measuring a mere 100 square feet, this is not a happy choice for claustrophobes, but they do come with access to their own private lounge, where solo travelers can socialize over coffee or happy hour cocktails. Though NCL asserts that the studios attract a wide age range, the teeny cabins with their hip decor and colored lights are probably a better choice for seniors at the younger end of the age spectrum. The ship itself has loads of great amenities, including more than 20 dining options, a bowling alley and entertainment from The Blue Man Group, Second City and Cirque Dreams.
Best Premium Cruises for Seniors Traveling Solo: Holland America (Fleetwide)
Why: Holland America has a long-standing history of catering to both seniors and solo passengers. Many activities -- such as culinary demonstrations, wine-tastings and enrichment programs -- don't require partners. Team events like trivia or "Name That Tune" give solo passengers an opportunity to be part of a group. We have also found the piano bars on Holland America ships to be particularly engaging for senior passengers, offering a showtunes- and standards-heavy repertoire. It's not unusual to find show lounge performers hanging out between or after show times and joining the passengers in sing-alongs. The camaraderie makes these venues great for those who are traveling alone and seeking an entertaining, convivial and companionable lounge for after-dinner drinks.
Holland America's Single Partners Program, a single-share plan, guarantees space at the double-occupancy rate whether or not a same-sex roommate can be located. Lastly, on voyages of more than 30 nights, Holland America provides gentleman dance hosts for single ladies.
Best River Cruises for Seniors Traveling Solo:Uniworld (Fleetwide)
Why: Uniworld gets our nod for the high number of annual sailings with single supplement-waived cabins. There are 19 such sailings on Uniworld's 2012 roster -- more than 1.5 per month on average, so everyone with even the slightest flexibility in travel dates should be able to fine a single stateroom sans supplement.
We chose Uniworld's entire fleet for recommendation because sailings with waived supplements are found across the fleet, but we give the edge to S.S. Antoinette, the line's newest ship. S.S. Antoinette has unique cabin designs, including suites with glassed-in alcoves that can be changed to full balconies with the push of a button! They're the perfect accommodations for viewing scenery in passing.
Multigenerational Cruising The Issue: Multigenerational cruising is becoming more popular all the time, and many seniors find that cruising is a logistically simple way to organize a trip that includes kids and grandkids in their vacation plans. But, the greater the range of ages and tastes, the greater the challenge to keep everyone happy. We think the following choices succeed admirably.
Best Mainstream Cruises for Multigenerational Travel: Royal Caribbean' Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas and Freedom of the Seas
Why: For sheer variety of experiences to keep kids of all ages (including octogenarians) and activity levels entertained, Royal Caribbean gets the nod. From rock-climbing walls to ice-skating rinks and onboard zip lines (Oasis and Allure), these ships are unique. The Royal Promenade has the same cachet for kids as does a suburban mall, with the added fillip of nightly parades and celebrations.
We singled out these four RCI ships because of The DreamWorks Experience, a combination of live characters from DreamWorks animated movies -- who lead parades in the Royal Promenade -- and loads of kiddie-enrichment opportunities. Plus, Royal Caribbean pioneered the concept of "family staterooms," multiroom suites that can accommodate up to eight passengers with two separate bedrooms, each with its own bath.
Royal Caribbean is no slouch when it comes to activities for its adult passengers. The ships offer the usual pastiche of team trivia and other games of logic or cleverness, as well as computer, photography and dance classes. A variety of entertainment offerings, from Broadway musicals and water acrobatics shows to comedy and jazz, will please most any taste, and some of cruising's largest casinos add thrill and drama with slot machines and table games that include blackjack, roulette, craps, and poker.
Why: We get the connection between Disney and youngsters, but for seniors? The one thing you can say with certainty about the gurus in the Disney boardroom is they aren't dopey; that's why these ships have adults-only areas, including adults-only lounges, pools, coffee shops and restaurants. Families can enjoy formal dinners together in three themed restaurants; we'll enjoy the varied menus, while the kids are entertained with animated decor and character visits. Another nice touch for seniors is the Disney-built cruise port in Castaway Cay, the line's private island, which offers a deepwater pier that eliminates the need for tendering.
4. Best for Accessibility Issues
The Issue: Let's face it: we're not as spry as we once were. Oh sure, we may still play tennis, but it's highly unlikely we'll jump over the net at the end of the set. Our mobility issues run the gamut from a minor reduction in how far we can comfortably walk or climb to serious disabilities. We may also have other health issues, ranging from dietary restrictions to regular treatment for chronic conditions.
Most ships comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but some cruise lines go the extra mile. Here are our picks for seniors with health or mobility concerns.
Best Mainstream Cruises for Seniors with Health or Mobility Issues: Royal Caribbean's Radiance, Voyager, Freedom and Oasis classes
Why: We are impressed by Royal Caribbean's hydraulic pool chairs, which enable passengers with mobility issues to use the swimming pool. We also awarded points to Voyager, Freedom and Oasis classes for the Royal Promenade, effectively a wide, horizontal atrium, which we think is more wheelchair-friendly than a traditional, vertically stacked central atrium. The ships also have accessible cabins in a range of categories.
As for medical care, like all the major cruise lines, Royal Caribbean subscribes to the guidelines of the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP). In addition, these ships -- as well as all other Royal Caribbean ships and those of sister lines Azamara and Celebrity -- have an affiliation with Cleveland Clinic of Weston, Florida, for online consultation. Most cruise lines have the ability to consult ship-to-shore in real time, but an ongoing relationship with a land-based medical facility reduces logistical delays and functions smoothly with familiar, practiced protocols.
Additionally, all of these ships have functional helipads, important when a seriously ill passenger needs evacuation. A helicopter landing is preferred to lowering a rescue basket from a hovering chopper because it's quicker, safer (you can get a severe shock from the static electrical charge that builds up in the dangling cable) and easier (it's tricky keeping a basket stable as it's raised to the hovering helicopter).
Best Premium Cruises for Seniors with Health or Mobility Issues: Holland America's Vista-class ships
Why: We applaud Holland America's wheelchair-accessible tender transfer system, which allows wheelchair-bound passengers to be lifted in and out of tenders without having to exit from their chairs. This unique system was enough to win us over on the mobility front, since not being able to leave the ship in tender ports is the height of frustrating, imprisoning confinement. Holland America also has a working relationship with the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston for telemedical connections and live radiology feeds and consults.
Also, these ships have a plentiful complement of accessible cabins in all types (inside, outside, balcony), and Holland America has partnered with Special Needs at Sea to provide oxygen, wheelchairs and other mobility devices dispensed from kiosks at Holland America homeports. Other senior-pleasing aspects of these ships include the choice of "As You Wish" dining (open seating) or traditional set seatings, outstanding performances of classic Broadway show tunes and one of the largest collections of classic art of any ship afloat.