Who hasn't dreamed -- when the kids are grown, the mortgage is paid off and retirement is near -- of going back to school? Cruise lines are betting, heavily, that many senior travelers have indulged in this fantasy, and they're making it easy. Enrichment, one of the hottest trends in cruising today, is most definitely aimed at many types of passengers -- but no group more so than that of seniors.
The rationale is that times have changed and so have the interests of seniors who cruise. For senior travelers, merely visiting various ports of call, and perhaps attending sea day activities such as art auctions and bingo, isn't enough of an enticement these days. Onboard lecturers are no new thing but seniors want something more -- to learn something new, whether it's enhanced knowledge in fields like art history (connecting with ports at which we call), the basics of the Internet or the background of current Middle East conflicts. As such, cruise lines are making hefty investments in enrichment-oriented programs that in some cases are so intensive they could almost be classified as genuine universities at sea. Sans course credits, alas.
Crystal Cruises, a pioneer in the contemporary enrichment arena, introduced the Creative Learning Institute on its new Crystal Serenity -- which has now gone fleetwide. What's unique about Crystal's approach is that it's teamed with well-known organizations and institutions of higher learning like Berlitz, the Parsons School of Design, the Society of Wine Educators and Pepperdine University.
Swan Hellenic, the one-ship U.K.-based cruise line, has long been a leader in the learning-the-destination approach. Its Minerva, which sails a variety of itineraries both exotic and comforting, matches its ports of call to a revolving team of experts. For instance, an Istanbul-to-Rhodes cruise features speakers such as a British Museum curator on Greek history; a British diplomat on "The British, Greece & Turkey: Old Enemies, New Partners"; an Anglican priest on the interplay of religion and cultures; and a marine conservationist on the future of our oceans.
As Holland America rolls out its fleetwide -- and shipwide -- Signature of Excellence program, one component will be an enhanced Explorations Program, but get this: It's only available on cruises of 10 days or more. No question it's geared to senior travelers as they make up the bulk of passengers on more-than-a-week voyages.
On Queen Mary 2, Cunard has rolled out one of the most ambitious programs to date (though we hear that the program may change now that Cunard is housed under P&O auspices). In the meantime, Cunard ConneXions, which has created a partnership with Britain's esteemed Oxford University, spans some seven different classrooms, offering everything from hands-on computer workshops to art classes and from heavy-hitting lectures to presentations by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Enrichment isn't the only new trend in cruising that particularly benefits senior travelers. These are among our favorites:
Thalassotherapy Pools in Shipboard Spas
Trend Found Onboard: Holland America ships with Greenhouse Spas (Westerdam, Oosterdam, Zuiderdam and Ryndam for now; more are expected to add the pools as they undergo Signature of Excellence refits). Celebrity's AquaSpas. Princess' Lotus Spas. Cunard's QM2.
What's The Appeal? Spas have always been "seniors' playgrounds" with rejuvenating and beneficial treatments such as seaweed wraps (great for arthritis sufferers) and pampering facials. These pools are a fabulous addition. Using seawater heated to body temperature, they are milder than regular Jacuzzis, and they have "airbeds" that offer a gentle, bubbling, massaging action. Jets and back-and-neck pipes also gently massage the body from head to toe.
And the Envelope Please... Celebrity Cruises wins our vote, particularly with its Millennium-class vessels (Millennium, Infinity, Summit and Constellation), where the thalassotherapy pools are huge with two airbeds instead of one (so you always find a spot to recline and blissfully relax), and, best of all, are free.
Low-Carb Offerings on Menus
Trend Found Onboard: Crystal, Carnival and Holland America all offer Atkins or other low-carb regimens on dining room menus.
What's the Appeal? The old cliche that you'll necessarily gain weight from overindulging on a cruise is turned on its ear -- it's possible to stay on this and other diets (heart-healthy, low-sodium, etc.) even while traveling.
And the Envelope Please... Crystal is the clear winner here. While other lines feature low-carb selections on their menus, Crystal goes a step further and has low-carb dishes clearly marked as such on buffets in its casual lido restaurant (look for low-carb muffins for breakfast) as well as in themed buffets around the pool.
Senior-Oriented Fitness Options
Trend Found Onboard: Cunard, Holland America, Crystal, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Princess.
What's the Appeal? Fitness programs at sea have long offered senior-friendly work-out choices -- like walk a mile at your own pace, sit-to-be-fit exercises, stretch-and-relax, aqua-calisthenics and the like. But the fitness menu is getting more enticing as cruise lines are adding not-just-senior classes such as yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi. Ship fitness facilities are also offering more wellness-type seminars -- focusing on nutrition and alternative medicine, for instance.
And the Envelope Please... Crystal walks away with the prize for its association with the Tai Chi Cultural Center which offers tai chi classes out on deck. We also love its yoga classes, wellness seminars, and the "Walk on Water" exercise program led by fitness expert Debbie Rocker (this program uses a special, adjustable-weight vest for walking, with the chosen weights balanced so as not to put too much stress on certain parts of the body -- so it is ideal for seniors). And all the classes and programs are complimentary.
Trend Found Onboard: Among the many fabulously exotic choices include Antarctica expeditions aboard Orient Lines' Marco Polo, Lindblad and Hurtigruten. Soft adventure eco-oriented, small ship lines like Cruise West offer up-close-and-personal explorations of Alaska, Costa Rica, Panama, and Baja California, featuring naturalists are on board and cultural experiences such as Alaskan folkloric shows.
We also love Swan Hellenic's Minerva and Discovery Cruise Line's Discovery for great value cruises that seek out out-of-the-way places. The top-notch Europa, owned by German cruise line Hapag-Lloyd and which offers a handful of bilingual cruises aimed at attracting Americans, sails fantastic itineraries, including several that visit ports in the Middle East. Also in the high-end range -- and offering unique voyages -- is Silversea, Seabourn and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
And don't forget about world cruises. More in demand for 2005 than in almost a decade, these 90-day plus voyages offer a blend of calls at fabulous urban metropolises (such as Hong Kong and Sydney). Average passenger age on these trips -- offered by lines like Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Cunard (Queen Elizabeth 2) and Holland America -- is 60-plus, but that's because of the timeframe involved (younger folks or those with tighter travel schedules can buy seven-night to two-week segments on world cruises).
What's the Appeal? Cruise lines are increasingly on the search for new destinations -- far flung and off the beaten track-- to keep today's well-traveled seniors coming back.
And the Envelope Please... It's a tie! Holland America is one winner, with its announced deployment of 13 ships visiting all seven continents in 2006, including a 108-day "Circle of the Sun" Grand World Voyage on the Prinsendam. This voyage offers nine maiden calls at such ports as Benghazi, Libya, and visits such exotic places as Madagascar, Zanzibar, and Mombasa. The other winner is Orient Lines for its cruise-tours aboard the Marco Polo to such destinations as South America and the Panama Canal, the Mediterranean and Greek Isles, Europe, and its expeditions to Antarctica.