You can get a workout on pretty much any cruise, but to maximize your adrenaline-pumping options, it's best to find the right combination of cruise ship and destination. Active travelers will find no shortage of shore experiences to whet their appetites for adventure, but if you're cruising with a sedentary lot, that city bike tour or rainforest hike may get canceled due to lack of interest. Likewise, certain ports simply don't lend themselves to athletic adventures, while others have so many active choices, it's hard to make up your mind.
Below, we have listed our picks for the best regions to cruise to 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 snorkeling gear, consider these general suggestions for picking the right active cruise.
Go big, or go small. Large cruise ships are more likely to offer energetic onboard activities, such as rock-climbing walls, ropes courses, jogging tracks, basketball courts and even skydiving simulators. The biggest ships often have the most extensive fitness centers, with spaces for spinning classes, Pilates and even boxing. However, certain small ships are better for from-the-ship water sports. Many come equipped with aft-side "water sports platforms" (effectively mini-docks), from which passengers can swim, windsurf, paddleboard 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 snorkeling 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 clientele. 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 ....
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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: Coral Expeditions' three small ships go to some pretty out-of-the-way places, with enough hiking, diving, swimming and snorkeling to cater to even the most restless explorer. Onboard marine biologists and dive instructors will show you the ropes, while you venture out via inflatable Zodiacs and glass-bottom boats, or head into the water with snorkeling and diving gear provided by the cruise line.
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's Costa Rica-focused itineraries hit all the right ports for experiencing this country's plentiful nature activities, such as hiking in Corcovado or Manuel Antonio national parks or zip-lining past howler monkeys in Playas del Coco.
Why: A daylong port call is enough time to take an off-road adventure, book some sailing time or even play beach volleyball on a motu (small island). Plus, in the atolls' sheltered lagoons, you will find fabulous snorkeling opportunities and have the chance to scuba with some terrifyingly awesome animals: sharks and giant manta rays, to name a couple.
Who: Our choice? Paul Gauguin Cruises' namesake, Paul Gauguin. We like its water sports platform, which facilitates windsurfing, kayaking and paddleboarding. Plus, 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 opportunities 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 Un-Cruise Adventures 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 even having a few chances to join the "polar bear club" on some frigid dips. 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, biking, rock-climbing, rappelling and trail hiking.
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 or even bicycling down a volcano. Don't forget to celebrate the birthplace of surfing by doing just that.
Who: For passengers aboard Un-Cruise Adventures, activities like kayaking, whale-watching, sailing and even night snorkeling with giant rays are built right into the Hawaiian itineraries, and are included in the rates. For a big-ship experience, Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America rocks a bungee trampoline, jogging track and sports court onboard. Onshore, cruisers can choose from many active shore tours on the port-intensive itinerary (including two overnight stays). Excursions include rainforest and crater hikes, surf lessons, the aforementioned volcano biking and zip line adventures, and playing a few rounds of golf on seaside courses through 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 in the Caribbean. Mainland Mexico's Yucatan boasts jungle trails, access to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, dolphin encounters and the ecotourism theme parks at Xcaret and Xel-Ha, where swimming in underground rivers, helmet diving and zip-lining 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 action-packed Royal Caribbean. Onboard many of its ships, you'll find rock climbing walls, basketball courts, ice skating rinks, zip lines and surf pools; look, too, for skydiving simulators, roller skating rinks, circus schools and more, on Anthem of the Seas, which will cruise the Western Caribbean come November 2015. Plus, cruisers have the option to go bobsledding in Ocho Rios; zip-lining on the world's largest overwater run in Royal Caribbean's private port in Labadee, Haiti; 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 helmet diving can be arranged during your time in port.
Who: Carnival's "Fun Ships" sail to the Bahamas from homeports up and down the East Coast, with itineraries that range in length from three to eight nights. When not in port, expect onboard activities like water parks (many with winding waterslides), ropes courses and/or sports centers (with options like basketball, mini-golf and more). Excursions in the Bahamas include dolphin swims, helmet diving, parasailing and any water sport you can think of.
Mexico's Pacific Coast
Why: Smaller ships sailing Mexico's Pacific coast are geared toward adventurers looking to dune buggy, parasail and trek through scenic terrain. Mega-ships frequent the region, too, and also highlight the area's water sports and active pursuits.
Who: Again, 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 blue-footed boobies. Carnival's ships bring a younger crowd for canopy adventures, helmet diving, sport fishing, golf and even salsa dance lessons.
Why: In this natural world-wonderland (which inspired Darwin's theory of evolution), prepare to hike volcanic islands; snorkel seas rich with sea turtles, sea lions, manta rays and more; and set out on expeditions in search of fearless wildlife (from blue-footed boobies to dragon-like iguanas and giant tortoises). Cruising is the ideal way to navigate the Galapagos, with its diversified island terrain.
Who: International Expeditions' Galapagos voyages cater to adventure- and nature-lovers, with itineraries that come jam-packed with swimming, snorkeling, kayaking and hiking excursions -- activities that practically guarantee brushes with the islands' legendary and curious wildlife. Top-notch naturalist guides lead the way through desert and volcanic landscapes, lush forests and waters teeming with marine life.
Why: Antarctica is a long way to travel, and as a rule, doesn't attract -- nor reward -- the passive traveler. Almost exclusively the terrain of cruise travelers and scientists, the White Continent's wilderness welcomes active exploration of the great outdoors. You can trek frozen landscapes in the shadow of towering glaciers, glide by colossal icebergs in a kayak or Zodiac and photograph glorious wildlife (penguins, whales and more). You might even tack on excursions to camp under the stars, or challenge your senses with a polar plunge or a go at stand-up paddleboarding.
Who: The small expedition vessels of Quark Expeditions are dubbed "polar adventure ships," and they deliver adventure aplenty. Passengers can expect frequent Zodiac landings, hiking trips and seasonal snowshoeing outings in some of Antarctica's most remote reaches. For added adventure, supplementary excursions like kayaking, cross-country skiing, mountaineering and even overnight camping trips can also be arranged. The expedition staff -- including polar naturalists, scientists and other Antarctica specialists -- offers passengers guidance and education on ship and ashore.
--By Graham Kates, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Elissa Garay, Cruise Critic contributor