Below, we have listed our picks for the best regions to cruise for those who are active travelers, as well as our suggestions for the cruise lines that make the best matches. But, before you start packing your running shoes and snorkel gear, consider these general suggestions for picking the right active cruise.
Go big or go small. Large ships are more likely to have active options, such as rock-climbing walls, ropes courses, jogging tracks and basketball courts, onboard. The biggest ships often have the biggest fitness centers, with spaces for spinning classes, Pilates and even boxing. However, certain small ships are better for from-the-ship water sports. Many have transoms that fold down into "sports platforms" (effectively mini-docks), from which passengers can swim, windsurf, water ski and kayak.
Don't pooh-pooh shore excursions. The range of what is available from your cruise line is far greater than in the past, and it usually includes a number of choices for the physically active. Many are unique -- Carnival, for example, offers scuba trips at Yucatan ports to cenotes (underwater cave systems fed by freshwater springs).
Book a cruise of seven days or fewer. Though active options are now almost universal on ships, shorter cruises attract a younger and typically more active passenger group. The demographics lend themselves to more active offerings, and you'll find more fellow passengers to share the experiences with you.
Now for our favorite cruises for active travelers…
Australia and New Zealand
Why: The Land Down Under is famous for its outdoor sports. At many major ports, you can find your way into surfing, jet-skiing, windsurfing, wakeboarding, parasailing or even (gulp) bungee-jumping. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the best places in the world for diving and snorkeling.
Who: As the company credo -- "a path less travelled" -- would suggest, the small but luxurious boats of Orion Expedition Cruises go to some pretty out-of-the-way places, with enough mountain-biking, sea-kayaking and snorkeling to get you yelling, "Crikey!" Orion caters to explorers, which means they make sure you're never far from its personal fleet of kayaks and diving equipment.
Why: Any country that's designated 25 percent of its landmass as national park is going to be rife with outdoor pursuits. You'll see more than your fair share of crocodiles, toucans and monkeys from a unique perspective as you zip between canopy treetops on pulleys and cables and hike the rainforest. Don't forget to go white-water rafting or kayaking in mangrove estuaries.
Who: Windstar is one of just a few lines that offer Costa Rica-focused itineraries. Its Costa Rican tours hit all the right ports for experiencing this country's plentiful active options, such as hiking in Corcovado National Park or zip-lining past howler monkeys in Playas del Coco.
Why: Mexico isn't just for frat dudes on spring break. Smaller ships in the regions are geared toward adventurers looking to dune buggy, parasail and trek through some of North America's most unique terrain. Mega-ship guests may like to party, too, but they will take a break to enjoy the area's water sports and active pursuits.
Who: We like Lindblad Expeditions, as its small ships can get you into some remote Sea of Cortez locales. At each stop the line's got you swimming with dolphins, hiking through the desert or paddling in search of boobies (blue-footed birds, native to Central America's Pacific coast). Carnival's ships bring a younger crowd for canopy adventures, helmet-diving, sport-fishing, golf and even salsa dance lessons.
Why: A daylong port call is enough time to take an off-road safari tour, book some sailing time (available at practically every stop, just not through most cruise lines) or even play beach volleyball on a motu (small island). Plus, in the atolls' sheltered lagoons, you will find fabulous snorkeling opportunities, and there's also the chance to scuba with some terrifyingly awesome animals: sharks and giant Pacific Mantas, to name a couple.
Who: Our choice? Paul Gauguin Cruises' namesake, Paul Gauguin. We like the water sports platform, which facilitates windsurfing, swimming, kayaking and water-skiing. We salute the ample diving and snorkeling options, including onboard dive instructors for dive excursions and even full scuba certifications.
Why: This rugged land has options at every stop for today's more active traveler. These range from stalking salmon with a rod and reel or bears with a camera, to climbing up, rappelling down and driving a dogsled or riding a Zodiac right up to the faces of glaciers.
Who: The little boats of InnerSea Discoveries are able to get into Alaska's nooks and crannies in a way the big guys really can't. What that means for you is paddling and hiking to places most cruisers don't see, going on glacier walks and, of course, having a few chances to join the "polar bear swim club." But, if you still want to enjoy the trappings of conventional ships, we lean toward Princess. With seven ships in the region, the line offers a variety of unique active excursions, such as canoeing to a glacier, heli-hiking, lake-kayaking, bike tours, rock-climbing, rappelling and trail hikes.
Why: Surrounded by clear seas with flourishing coral reefs and towering surf, the Hawaiian Islands brim with rugged dynamism: volcanoes, mountains, rushing rivers, chasms and canyons. Options for the active are almost unlimited: exploration on foot, by kayak, underwater, even bicycling down a volcano. Don't forget to celebrate the birthplace of surfing by doing just that.
Who: For passengers aboard American Safari cruises, kayaking, biking and sailing aren't just excursion options -- they're built into the Hawaiian tour. What's optional? Night-diving with sharks. Those not looking to tempt fate might want to try Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America. Onboard, the ship rocks a bungee trampoline, jogging track and sports court. Onshore, cruise travelers can choose from many active shore excursions -- including rainforest and crater hikes, surf lessons, the aforementioned volcano-biking and zip-line adventures -- or take advantage of the line's golf program.
Why: The Cayman Islands offer some of the best coral reefs and greatest underwater visibility of any major dive site on earth. The Yucatan mainland offers jungle trails, access to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, dolphin encounters and the eco-tourism theme parks at Xcaret and Xel-Ha, where rock-climbing, helmet-diving and ropes courses are all in a day's work. And Jamaica is an active traveler's paradise, too, with opportunities for kayaking, rafting, river-tubing, parasailing and four-wheeling.
Who: We pick Royal Caribbean. Onboard many of its ships, you'll find rock-climbing walls, basketball courts, ice-skating and/or inline-skating rinks, zip lines and surf pools. Plus, cruise travelers have the option to go bobsledding in Ocho Rios and golfing in Grand Cayman, as well as swimming with dolphins, diving, biking, horseback-riding and parasailing throughout the Western Caribbean.
Why: The Bahamas are such a popular cruise destination that its ports are chock full of attractions for every kind of cruiser. Windsurfing, biking, kayaking, deep-sea fishing, horseback-riding and even guided spelunking can be arranged during your time in port.
Who: Carnival Splendor has plenty to offer active travelers. To get your thrill on, choose between waterslides, an outdoor track and a first-rate fitness center. Excursions in the Bahamas include a Harley ride, a dolphin swim, parasailing and any water sport you can think of.
--by Graham Kates, Cruise Critic Contributor