The grand world voyage, a regular fixture on the cruise calendar for many decades, is getting a makeover. Typically it's been a three-month voyage that starts in January and departs from a British or U.S. port to keep North Americans and Europeans in warm-weather destinations over the winter months. But the excitement of round-the-globe travel would often get tarnished by weeks spent onboard a line's more vintage (to put it politely) ship with endless mingling with the same set of often cliquish passengers.
Now, as baby boomers come of retirement age and find they have cash to burn, they are looking to spend their golden years seeking out new experiences and visiting new places. As demand for long voyages to exotic destinations increases, world cruises are being revitalized. Never has there been so much choice -- or so much competition between the cruise lines. Ships to suit all budgets are now circumnavigating the globe, from the bare-bones to the brand-new. New itineraries, new departure ports, new options for combining itineraries and ships into a DIY world cruise, and long voyages that sail outside the traditional season are all ideas that have sprung from old-fashioned world voyages in response to passenger demand.
Why all the fuss over one cruise a year? Cruise lines love world cruisers because they tend to book early and spend more money. It's a well-known fact that the top cabins and suites are always the first to go, and this segment of the market (retired, cashing in pensions) is still fairly recession-proof, although that story may be different in 10 years' time.
So, if you're looking to bid farewell to your land-lubber life and set sail for a few months of the year, or simply want to daydream about a months-long voyage, here's what you'll find in modern-day world cruising.
In With the New
World cruising is booming, so cruise lines are responding by sending more ships and newer ships on these extended voyages. Cunard, for example, is putting all three of its ships on world cruises or extended winter cruises in 2012/13 for the first time ever. The 2012/13 season will also see the largest ever P&O Cruises world program with four ships on long or world voyages for the first time.
It used to be the tried-and-tested vessels that operated world cruises, but now lines are putting their newest ships to use. Buzz-worthy mew ships add prestige to the idea of a long cruise. An extended voyage on a new ship also means world cruisers can enjoy the most innovative facilities in terms of theaters, spas and restaurants, and, often, the services of an elite team of crewmembers brought in to show the ship off for its maiden season. Cunard, for example, did this in 2011, sending Queen Elizabeth around the world just three months after its launch. Likewise, Seabourn Quest, launched in June 2011, will complete its first world cruise for Seabourn in January 2012.
Another new kid on the block is the 2,260-passenger Costa Deliziosa, launched in 2010 and now due to operate the Italian line's first-ever world cruise in January 2013, from Savona, Italy. It will sail 100 nights across the Atlantic and Pacific to Australia and New Zealand and back, via Southeast Asia.
P&O Cruises, meanwhile, is sending its youngest ship, the 3,100-passenger Azura, on its maiden world voyage in 2013, alongside three longer-established vessels. Azura will take in a whole string of maiden ports. This is one of the bonuses of cruising on a new ship; you'll be met with great fanfare in every port the ship visits for the first time ever.
Overnight Stays and Far-Flung Ports
It's not just round-the-world cruises that are growing, either. Cruise lines are offering more and more "grand voyages" -- cruises that explore a continent or region in depth. Silversea Cruises has 20 such cruises in 2012, including a 53-day Cape Town-to-Istanbul cruise on Silver Wind and a 64-day voyage on its flagship, Silver Spirit around South America, where it will spend two nights in port at the Rio carnival. In 2013, Crystal Cruises is devoting 74 days to a round-South America voyage on Crystal Serenity, which will make a foray up the Amazon and spend two whole weeks in Patagonia.
And whether you're on a world cruise or a grand voyage, destinations are now becoming more of a focus. Cruises are slowing down, with overnights in port now one of the real luxuries of a long voyage -- a fashion, interestingly, inspired by lines that don't necessarily offer world cruises but do focus on cultural immersion. Azamara Club Cruises, which doesn't do extended voyages but does offer shorter itineraries that can be bolted together in locations like Asia and South America, has made a point, following passenger research, of adding in many more night stops. Voyages to Antiquity -- which also doesn't offer a world cruise but does carry passengers who have booked multiple back-to-back voyages -- also features these overnight port stays, often taking cruisers out on excursions after dark.
On the world cruises, it's usually the big-hitting ports that attract the overnights -- Hong Kong, Sydney, Rio and Beijing, for example. But for the real "immersion" experience, it has to be Crystal; in 2012, Crystal Serenity will overnight in Honolulu, Sydney, Perth, Singapore, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Osaka and Yokohama.
Cruise lines always try to keep a balance on world cruises between the can't-miss ports and some nifty new ones, although these are becoming more and more obscure. Crystal has managed to line up Laguna San Rafael (Chile), Manta (Ecuador), Salaverry (Peru) and Chacabuco (Chile again) on Crystal Serenity's epic round-South America voyage in 2013. P&O Cruises' Arcadia will sail in 2013 via Cape Horn, Amalia Glacier, PIO X Glacier (both Chile), Easter Island and Pitcairn Island. Holland America's Amsterdam, meanwhile, calls at the South Shetland Islands, Wilhelm Archipelago (Antarctica) and Komodo Island (Indonesia) on its 2012 world cruise.
Others tend to pack in the "bucket list" destinations, knowing that the world cruise will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many; Princess Cruises, for example, includes Easter Island, Machu Picchu and Sydney in the 107-night world cruise of Pacific Princess in 2013, with overnights in Lima, Hong Kong, Dubai and Istanbul.
A "boomerang cruise," a new piece of jargon coined by the industry, is essentially a cruise that goes halfway through an epic journey on one ship and the other half on another. It's an option that's been cleverly set up by both Cunard and P&O Cruises for their 2012/2013 World Voyage programs. There are several benefits: passengers get to experience two different ships. (And, as world cruises can get stale after many days spent with the same people, a new set of faces is often welcome.) Plus, you can spend a few days in your halfway destination, taking a break from the ship. For example, join Queen Victoria in New York on January 18 and arrive Sydney on February 24. Tour around Australia for a bit, and on March 7, hop on Queen Mary 2 for the journey back to Southampton, via Southeast Asia. Or jump off Queen Victoria in Auckland on February 19, stay one night, and the next day, along comes Queen Elizabeth, heading back across the Pacific to New York.
Similarly, Brits booking on P&O Cruises' world voyages in 2013 can sail from Southampton to Sydney on Aurora and return on Azura after a mini-break in Sydney, or from Southampton to Sydney on Azura and return on Arcadia, a couple of nights later.
Or "boomerang" could be interpreted another way, as going halfway around the world by ship, staying a while and returning a few months later. Classic International Cruises is sending its flagship, 20-year-old, 550-passenger Athena, to Australia this winter with time ashore for a few weeks before the long voyage back. The ship departs Rome in November and arrives in Fremantle 33 days later, for Christmas. Passengers can stay until April 14, when the ship sails to the U.K., via southern and western Africa, arriving in Portsmouth on May 24. It's a long time away, but for anybody who can't or won't fly, it's a great opportunity to see Australia.
An International Mix
World cruises used to attract mostly North Americans and Brits, mainly because these are the two largest markets for cruising and because the voyages typically started in the U.S. or the U.K. Now, though, the Germans are coming. And the Australians. And the Japanese.
Cunard's Queen Elizabeth will embark and disembark German world cruisers in Hamburg in 2012 by tacking a mini-cruise from Southampton onto either end of the world cruise. More than 200 Germans have already booked. An even faster-growing market is Japan; Japanese cruisers, according to Cunard's President, Peter Shanks, have an ongoing fascination with the line and its great heritage. Japanese items are featured on the menus when there are a lot of Japanese passengers onboard, groups have their own hospitality desk with a Japanese host or hostess, and some announcements onboard are repeated in Japanese. Then there's Australia. So successful among Australians is Queen Mary 2's round-Australia segment of its world cruise in 2012 that the line is hoping to expand on this theme, adding a round-New Zealand hop for the 2013 voyage.
What does all this mean? On these international cruises, the diverse passenger mix leads to a more cosmopolitan environment, whereas a Saga Holidays or Fred. Olsen ship would carry mainly Brits, and a Crystal or Holland America ship would attract mainly Americans. It's a consideration; remember, you could be spending three months onboard, and getting tired of the other passengers is a common complaint. Those who enjoy the company of different nationalities should consider a line like Cunard that attracts a wider audience.
Another way to avoid world cruise ennui is to choose an itinerary on which new passengers will join the voyage at different points; regular world cruisers often talk about how the whole ship can perk up with the influx of a new crowd of cruisers partway through the journey.
Alternatively, Hapag Lloyd's 408-passenger Europa, an ultra-luxurious small ship, embarks on what the line calls a World Tour in November. It's really more like an expedition, given the obscurity of some of the ports of call (Nukunonu, anyone?). The ship is aimed primarily at German-speakers, but two sectors of the 2012 World Tour have been designated "international," with English-speaking tours and documentation: Honolulu to Noumea and Ho Chi Minh City to Rangoon. Non-Germans can, of course, do the entire circumnavigation, 138 days from Lisbon to Dubai.
Topsy Turvy Dates
World cruises and grand voyages traditionally depart just after the New Year and return in April. But the net is widening. British line Voyages of Discovery, for example, has a 72-night Singapore-to-Portsmouth epic, departing March 1, 2012, and featuring some well-off-the-beaten-track places. They range from Yangon to the Andaman Islands and, in India, Porbandar (Ghandi's birthplace), with a hop around the Black Sea once the ship has transited the Suez Canal on its way home.
Princess Cruises, in the meantime, is offering its first-ever world cruise out of Sydney in 2012, on Sun Princess (a ship dedicated to the Australian market). It will sail 104 days to Europe and back, including a maiden call in Iceland. The cruise departs in May, giving Australians the best of the European summer and a chance to skip their own winter. Similarly, Dawn Princess will offer a Grand Pacific Circle from Sydney, departing July 2012 and taking in destinations as diverse as southeast Asia, Alaska and Tahiti. And, in 2013, upscale Crystal Symphony's long winter voyage will start in Auckland on January 29 and sail to Los Angeles, via Asia and Alaska, ending on May 6, way after the traditional world cruise season is over.
--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor