Maybe it's for the pleasure of knowing your captain has nailed the perfect coordinates in the middle of the Pacific to catch this year's total solar eclipse. Or maybe you've dreamed of taking part in Rio de Janeiro's annual Carnival -- and appreciate the convenience and value of cruising to get you there. Or maybe you're a keen golfer, tempted by the opportunity to sit in the grandstand at a storied tournament like the British Open.
Cruising to major world events -- from elite sporting competitions and races to cultural festivals, street parties and anniversary celebrations -- is the next big trend in theme cruising, experts say.
The impetus comes from veteran cruisers, who've done many of the routine sightseeing voyages before; now, they're seeking out event-themed itineraries that promise to immerse them more creatively and authentically in a destination.
"What we're seeing is, as cruise lines look to stand out amongst shoppers, premium and upscale lines especially are going out of their way to arrange more of an experience in port, rather than simply a visit," says Dwain Wall, SVP and general manager of the travel agency chains CruiseOne & Cruises Inc.
Longer port stays are ideal for experiencing events, such as Formula 1's annual Monaco Grand Prix or Holland's once-a-decade horticultural expo. So cruise lines that stay ashore into the evening -- or overnight -- and port-intensive river cruises are a natural fit for hosting event-centric theme cruises, Wall says.
When passengers don't have to hurry back to a ship that's leaving at 4 or 5 p.m., they can stay and really make the most of festivities, says Janet Diaz, spokeswoman for Azamara Club Cruises, Royal Caribbean's overnight-intensive brand.
And cruise lines make sure that passengers are delivered close to the action. River ships cruising to Koblenz in August, for example, will take part in Europe's largest flotilla and fireworks festival, Rhein in Flammen. Crystal Cruises' year-end sailing Down Under docks right in Sydney Harbour for a three-day visit, and the line will transfer passengers to two deluxe chartered catamarans taking part in a 50-ship flotilla called the Harbour of Light Parade on New Year's Eve. It's a privileged vantage point from which to watch the fireworks beneath Sydney Harbour Bridge.
In addition, cruising to marquee events can often save you money over putting together an on-land visit on your own. For example, there's potentially huge savings in cruising to the Monaco Grand Prix, since the markup on a cruise fare is likely far less than that of a hotel stay during race weekend in Monte Carlo. Adding to the value of these types of trips, show or race tickets are often included in the cruise, or sold by the excursion team at less of a premium than those offered by land-based ticket-sellers. Packages may include transfers, complimentary meals and drinks (that come with the cruise), as well as cool extras tied to the event theme, such as cocktail parties or meet-and-greets with pro athletes and stars.
Here's a look at nine big-name world events that you can cruise to this year.
1. Rio de Janeiro's Carnival
The Event: It's the most famous street party in the world. Millions take to Rio de Janeiro's streets wearing colored costumes, dancing their doldrums away in a collective celebration of life for five days before a more solemn 40-day Lent period and Easter. What began in 1840 as a simple masked ball has evolved into a series of parades through the downtown, the botanic garden and the Sambadrome, where semi-professional dancers shake it before 90,000-strong crowds.
The Cruise: Multiple cruise lines are offering itineraries pegged to this year's Carnival, February 17 - 21; typically passengers can experience the event through shore excursions to the Sambadrome. Our top pick is Crystal Symphony, which will sail back-to-back cruises to Carnival this year. The first is a 14-night Miami-to-Rio de Janeiro cruise, departing February 6; the second is a 12-night Rio-to-Buenos Aires cruise, departing February 20. Both offer the choice of four optional excursions to the Sambadrome on Sunday and Monday (the two best nights), with pricing based on the quality of the seating. Choose from a grandstand view; front-row box seats; a front-row box seat, where cruisers get the chance to strut in costume with a samba school; or a Luxury Suite with private waiter, buffet and alcohol. The line also offers multiple escorts for cruisers returning to the ship late into the night after their shore tour. But the experience doesn't come cheap. On top of the cruise fare, you'll pay $799 to $12,999 for the shore excursions.
Try This Instead: Azamara's Azamara Journey will party for two nights in Rio during Carnival, midway through its 10-night South American coastal cruise, departing February 15 from Buenos Aires and stopping by Parati, Buzios and the rainforests of Ilhabela. Pre-purchased Carnival tickets are available as an optional excursion.
Check South America Cruise Fares and Itineraries
2. Floriade World Horticultural Expo
The Event: Floriade is as fleeting as the bloom off a rose. It's a horticultural expo held in the Netherlands once a decade, drawing hundreds of exhibitors from dozens of countries. For the sixth edition, April 5 to October 7, 2012, two million visitors will converge at Venlo, near the Dutch-German border, to see Dutch designer Jan Taminiau's vision of five themed gardens: health, innovation, culture, sustainability and the green city.
The Cruise: Some of the major oceangoing and river cruise lines are organizing excursions to this best-in-class event. Boutique river line Uniworld has two themed itineraries: a seven-night "Gems of Germany, Belgium & The Netherlands with Floriade" sailing on River Ambassador, roundtrip from Brussels, and a 17-night "Grand Treasures of Europe," a , Brussels-to-Prague cruise incorporating two visits to the horticultural expo on days 5 and 13. Floriade tickets are included -- along with all meals, guided shore excursions, arrival and departure transfers -- in your cruise fare.
Avalon Waterways' eight-night "Tulip Time" cruises from Amsterdam this year includes Floriade tickets. The nine cruises will depart between April 7 and May 5 on Avalon Affinity, taking in Antwerp, Ghent and Rotterdam. Meals and escorted sightseeing are included. And Tauck's 10-night "Holland & Belgium" and select departures of 13-night "The Rhine and Moselle" river cruises are making full-day visits to Floriade, with event tickets included in the cruise fares.
Try This Instead: Offering two horticultural shows for the price of one, Azamara's and CruiseOne/Cruises Inc.'s 12-night "Chelsea Flower Show Experience" starts May 14 with two nights in Amsterdam. Passengers then board Azamara Journey for a cruise visiting Flushing, Antwerp, Bruges, London (for two nights), Paris and Southampton. The fares include event tickets to Floriade, as well as a private excursion to the Chelsea Flower Show.
Check British Isles & Western Europe Cruise Fares and Itineraries
3. 100th Anniversary of the Titanic Disaster
The Event: Titanic met its fate at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, striking an iceberg at almost full speed during a maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, and disappearing in two hours and 40 minutes to the ocean bottom at the cost of 1,517 lives. This centennial year, three Titanic-themed cruises offer history buffs and the descendants of Titanic passengers and crew an opportunity to commemorate the biggest peacetime maritime disaster of its day. It won't be a party, per se, given the sad nature of the gathering -- but it's definitely a major event.
The Cruise: Fred. Olsen Cruise Line's Balmoral has been chartered for a 12-night "Titanic Memorial Cruise," departing April 8, sailing from Southampton to New York and re-creating the itinerary, menus and musical entertainment of the original Titanic voyage for 1,309 passengers -- exactly the number who boarded Titanic. The choice of transportation is symbolic: Fred. Olsen's parent company, Harland and Wolff, was the original builder of the Titanic, which had been touted as unsinkable. A commemorative ceremony 375 miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, will take place at the site of the wreck at the exact hours the ship went down. Unfortunately, the cruise is completely sold out, despite fares priced as steeply as the Titanic's first-class berths. Options are to join the waitlist, or try your luck on alternative Titanic-themed voyages organized by U.K.-based Miles Morgan Travel.
An interesting note for trivia buffs: Balmoral isn't as fast as Titanic, so to get to the commemorative ceremony on time, the ship will depart April 8 -- two days earlier than Titanic's original sail date of April 10, 1912. Balmoral will visit Cobh, Ireland, which, on April 11, 1912, was the ill-fated ship's final call. Halifax, where 121 unclaimed Titanic victims are buried in Fairview Lawn Cemetery, is the other planned port stop.
Try This Instead: Azamara Journey is chartered for a New York-to-Southampton eight-night "Titanic Anniversary Cruise," departing April 10 -- 100 years to the day that Titanic left Southampton en route to Halifax. Titanic experts will lecture onboard, and Azamara Journey will join Balmoral at the wreck site for the centennial commemoration.
A five-night "Titanic Mini Cruise" on Balmoral, roundtrip Southampton, departs April 3, calling at Liverpool and Belfast -- cities rich in Titanic history. Whitestar Line's head office was in Liverpool, where many crew and six senior officers were based, and Belfast's shipyard built Titanic, launched the ship and led its sea trials.
Check Transatlantic Cruise Fares and Itineraries
4. Kentucky Derby
The Event: For years, there have been package tours aplenty to one of the oldest thoroughbred races, the Kentucky Derby. But a leisurely cruise from Cincinnati to Churchill Downs' 1.25-mile track in Louisville is a more unusual option for arranging transportation to those "fastest two minutes in sports." At the Derby, cruisers can watch the signature "run for the roses" on May 5, 2012 -- mint julep and a bowl of thick, meaty "burgoo" stew in hand, of course. It's the culmination of a two-week Kentucky Derby Festival, ensuring a variety of entertainment for fans of horse racing.
The Cruise: The Great American Steamboat Company's American Queen, fresh from a multimillion-dollar refurbishment, cruises the Mississippi for four nights, departing May 4, 2012, and sailing roundtrip from Cincinnati on a Kentucky Derby-themed voyage. Derby fans can choose from general admission tickets or a Derby Day party at the famous Seelbach Hilton Hotel included in the cruise fare. An optional upgrade to box seats costs a minimum of $799 per person.
Try This Instead: Although not exactly speedy, races between steamboats operating on the Mississippi were a popular pre-Kentucky Derby tradition. A seven-night theme cruise from the Great American Steamboat Company this spring pits American Queen against the steamer Belle of Louisville in a race re-creation near Louisville (homeport of Belle, which is owned and operated by that city). The Memphis-to-Cincinnati voyage on American Queen departs April 27, calling at Henderson, Louisville and Madison.
See Details for the New American Queen Steamboat
5. 70th Monaco Grand Prix of Formula 1
The Event: Three storied competitions make up auto racing's version of the Triple Crown: the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Formula 1's Monaco Grand Prix, a heart-pounding course through Monte Carlo -- a tradition since 1929. V.I.P. parties, hundred-million-dollar yachts anchored in the harbor, and Gucci- and diamond-draped tourists strutting around Ferrari-choked streets of the principality are all part of the entertainment of race weekend.
The Cruise: Given F1's popularity -- and this spectacular location -- it isn't surprising to find several Monaco Grand Prix-themed cruises. They can sell out as early as the dates are released, so racing fans are advised to book early. Silversea's Silver Spirit departs May 24, sailing from Barcelona to Rome, and overnights in Monte Carlo during the Grand Prix. An optional two-day "70th Grand Prix de Monaco" package provides tickets to the race time trials on Saturday May 26, followed by a private cocktail reception and dinner, as well as Tribune K seats to Sunday's race. The F1 package costs $1,799 on top of the cruise fare, and it also includes escorted transfers and spectator swag, such as Bushnell binoculars, a seat cushion and earplugs.
Try This Instead: Crystal Cruises will send Crystal Serenity to Monte Carlo during the Monaco Grand Prix for the first time in 2013, midway through a 12-night Istanbul-to-Barcelona cruise, May 18 - 30). An optional F1 package will be priced later in 2012.
Check Fares and Itineraries for Cruises Visiting Monaco
6. Queen's Diamond Jubilee
The Event: This year, Elizabeth II becomes only the second British monarch -- other than Queen Victoria in 1897 -- to reach 60 years on the throne, and celebrations of her Diamond Jubilee will span a long weekend, with four days off work and school for her subjects. The celebrations will feature a concert at Buckingham Palace, a ceremony to light beacons throughout the realm, and pageants at Windsor Castle and on the River Thames. Up to 1,000 boats from around the world are taking part in the Thames Flotilla on June 3, led by Her Majesty aboard the Royal Barge, which will snake along the river for 7.5 miles.
The Cruise: Although its ships won't be sailing in the flotilla, one of Britain's quintessential cruise lines plans to mark the Jubilee with a Royal Rendezvous of its fleet: for only the second time in the history of Cunard's current fleet, Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria will reunite in their homeport of Southampton on June 5, before each departs on its next cruise. Full details of how Cunard's Jubilee Royal Rendezvous will unfold have not yet been released. But, if it's anything like last year's first-ever gathering of the current fleet in New York during the North American maiden call of Cunard's newest ship, Queen Elizabeth, there will be pomp and circumstance aplenty to wow guests onboard -- as well as the hundreds of well-wishers expected at the Southampton port.
Try This Instead: For those who haven't managed to book one of Cunard's popular Jubilee cruises, plenty of smaller day-trip operators will be participating in the Thames flotilla, and they may still have space available. An official Web site [www.thamesdiamondjubileepageant.org] for the flotilla event lists them all.
Check Fares and Itineraries for Cruises Departing From Southampton
7. Open Championship of Golf
The Event: The Claret Jug is one of the most coveted golf trophies in the world, awarded to legends of the Open Championship -- the British Open -- since 1872. For sports enthusiasts, there's something special about spectating at the oldest of these golf tourneys, the only one held outside the U.S. The 141st British Open will be hosted by Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club in Lancashire, July 19 - 22, 2012. Spectators can walk the roped-off fairways or watch their favorite players' rounds on big screen TV's within the hospitality "tented village."
The Cruise: With the popularity of golf theme cruises soaring, it was only a matter of time before cruise lines started arranging trips to golf's four annual "majors." North Carolina theme cruise specialist Kalos Golf is offering a British Open golf cruise package aboard privately chartered Clipper Odyssey, from July 14 - 24, 2012. The all-inclusive British Isles cruise features event tickets to the 141st Open but also lets golf enthusiasts try out five of the world's top courses: Royal County Down and Royal Port Rush in Northern Ireland, and Royal Dornoch, Kingsbarns and Carnoustie in Scotland. All logistics are taken care of, from green fees to a truck to transport passengers' clubs from one course to the next. Nongolfing spouses get a discount off the package price. Those looking to notch another prestigious course to their belt can opt for a three-night post-cruise package to Turnberry on the Ayrshire coastline, one of the top 10 courses globally; it's hosting the Senior Open Championship July 26 - 29.
Try This Instead: The "Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers" clubhouse at Muirfield, Scotland, was where golf's playbook was written in 1774, and it's the host of the 2013 Open. PerryGolf, in partnership with Azamara, has a 12-night "142nd British Open Golf Explorer" package, featuring a 10-night Dublin-to-Hamburg cruise on Azamara Quest, departing July 14, 2013. The trip includes tickets to the final round of the championship at Muirfield on July 21, an overnight in Dublin, a round of golf at the K Club Palmer Course and four more golf days in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Nongolfing spouses pay a reduced rate.
8. Rhine in Flames Fireworks and Wine Festival
The Event: Every summer, Germany's oldest fireworks festival, Rhein in Flammen, features a series of pyrotechnics displays near Koblenz. The event brings 250,000 spectators to the Rhine and Moselle banks, where everyone sips local wine and watches rockets shoot skyward illuminating ancient fortresses, riverside manses and ruined palaces. Thousands more watch the fireworks aboard brightly colored and illuminated river cruisers in what is Europe's largest annual flotilla. The final, spectacular fireworks display is a don't-miss event; it takes place on the second Saturday of August against the picturesque backdrop of Koblenz's Ehrenbreitstein Fortress.
The Cruise: Evening boat rides to the fireworks are bookable from German operators, but you can also try a full-fledged Rhein in Flammen theme cruise, available through mostly British tour operators. Shearings Holidays has two itineraries, both departing August 7, sailing roundtrip from Cologne, on either MPS Rotterdam or the slightly cheaper MV Virginia. The ships are scheduled to join the flotilla near Koblenz, giving passengers a pivotal role in Rhein in Flammen's culminating event.
Try This Instead: Olympia Rhine River Cruises' eight-night Rhine cruise from Cologne in July is timed to an earlier Rhein in Flammen event in the wine town of Rudesheim -- instead of the more famous fireworks in Koblenz. After an optional excursion to Siegfried's Musikal Kabinett and drinks at Drosselgasse's bars and wine taverns (weinstuben), cruisers reboard for dinner -- and the unique after-dinner show of Rudesheim's Rhein in Flammen flotilla and fireworks.
Learn More About River Cruises
9. Solar Eclipse, Sydney
The Event: On November 14, 2012, early in the morning, anyone lucky enough to be at sea in the southern Pacific will have a front-row seat as the new moon aligns itself perfectly to block the sun, and for a few fleeting minutes, casts distinctive ring-shaped shadows over the Earth. The phenomenon will be best viewed from on land or at sea in the southern Pacific, and it'll be the first total eclipse visible there since 2002.
The Cruise: It's a rare cruise that delivers a total solar eclipse as part of the onboard experience, but theme cruises timed to the eclipse will employ radar and satellite imagery to position ships into the best viewing locations.
TravelQuest, a tour operator specializing in astronomy-themed land and sea travel, has three cruises scheduled around the November event. A November 10 - 20 South Pacific sailing, roundtrip from Lautoka (Fiji) aboard Paul Gauguin, explores Fiji and Vanuatu and will see the total eclipse from waters south of New Caledonia.
A chartered expedition cruise, November 3 - 15, on M/V Orion, roundtrip Cairns, explores Papua New Guinea and views the eclipse at sea south of Port Douglas, by Australia's Great Barrier Reef. A daylong tour of Rabaul, PNG, by private chartered plane kicks off the expedition before the ship sails. And a longer 20-day South Pacific cruise, departing November 2 on Celebrity Cruises' Celebrity Millennium, to ports in American Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia, will have the longest viewing window (because of the ship's position) -- taking in the eclipse's totality for a full three minutes and 28 seconds from the sea north of New Zealand.
Passengers on all three cruises get viewing glasses, a safe-viewing guidebook and commemorative T-shirt. Presentations by guest lecturers specializing in eclipses and astronomy will take place onboard.
Try This Instead: Holland America's 14-night "Solar Eclipse Voyage" on Oosterdam departs November 7, sailing roundtrip from Sydney, and will include solar eclipse-related festivities, though details are not yet available. HAL does promise theme nights, catered events and a guest lecturer. Another HAL cruise, the 28-night "New Zealand Discovery and Solar Eclipse," observes the eclipse during day 21 of a packed itinerary to ports in Australia and New Zealand.
Check Australia & New Zealand Cruise Fares and Itineraries
--by Sarah Staples, Cruise Critic Contributor