What can you learn onboard? Some programs focus on educational topics, such as personal finance, the cosmos, history, art and computers. There's plenty of personal enhancement, too; lines offer health and wellness programs that focus on everything from medical lectures to stress management. You can also learn to play the piano or speak Spanish, enhance your acting skills or even paint with watercolors.
If the idea of going back to class -- and experiencing the pleasures of cruising at the same time -- appeals, check out our favorite choices for onboard enrichment.
The Program: Cunard Insights
Details: Cunard offers a variety of programs for erudite cruisers (or aspiring ones). The Cunard Insights speaker series and Cunard Book Club literary discussions are offered on all three ships: Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. But QM2 offers additional programs its sisters don't have, including Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) acting workshops, Royal Astronomical Society astronomy and stargazing presentations, and the Juilliard Jazz series. Also offered on Queen Mary 2 since 2010 is a lecture series, dubbed "The Special Relationship," focusing on the close political, diplomatic, cultural and historical ties between the United States and the United Kingdom.
Cunard Insights guest lecturers include luminaries from the world of academia, television/film, literature and the diplomatic corps, to name just a few, and the courses range from Renaissance art to maritime history and contemporary literature. Book Club selections come from the New York Times' bestsellers list, and discussions are led by the ship's librarian. Astronomers are brought onboard to enlighten passengers in QM2's unique planetarium -- Illuminations, the only one of its kind at sea -- as well as to lead on-deck stargazing demonstrations.
Many voyages also include celebrities like John Cleese of Monty Python or Billy Collins, the former poet laureate of the United States. Acting and stagecraft classes are taught with RADA members, who also perform abbreviated versions of theater classics like "Canterbury Tales" or "Much Ado About Nothing."
Pros and Cons: On the plus side, courses are free of charge, and passengers can participate in as many as they like. The speakers get rave reviews. The only downside is that if you cruise with Cunard a lot, you might get repeat lecturers and presentations, as the line often has the same speakers onboard multiple cruises.
The Program: CelebrityLife
Details: There are multiple components to Celebrity's enrichment programs, which balance educational experiences with others that are just plain fun. "Taste" programs include culinary tours and classes on food- and wine-pairing or molecular mixology. "Revive" seminars may focus on acupuncture, skin renewal or balancing one's metabolism. Activities in the "Learn" category include everything from stargazing sessions to self-guided Rosetta Stone language-learning workshops, dance lessons and hands-on art classes.
There are also talks by visiting experts from Smithsonian Journeys, tailored to the cruise region: archeologists or art historians on Mediterranean cruises, marine biologists on Bermuda sailings, anthropologists on Panama Canal cruises. Celebrity iLounge staffers lead classes on digital photo enhancement, Web site creation and travel blogging, and environmental programs feature talks on energy generation and recycling by the ship's officers.
Pros and Cons: The program benefits from offering a wide array of enrichment courses, many taught by prominent names in their fields, such as Smithsonian Journeys and Rosetta Stone. However, many courses come with extra fees: $20 to $100 for online language classes, $10 to $100 for food and wine tastings, and $20 for select technology classes. Also, enrichment programs are available on all Celebrity ships, but the specific courses and workshops vary by cruise.
The Program: Creative Learning Institute
Details: There are multiple components to Crystal Cruises' enrichment program. The Creative Learning Institute is designed to teach passengers skills from areas like language, music, wellness and art. The line has partnered with well-known names -- such as Yamaha, Berlitz, Tai Chi Cultural Center and the Society of Wine Educators -- to bring the best possible instruction onboard.
At the same time, the voyage-by-voyage Crystal Visions program brings aboard guest lecturers, such as theater and film stars, comedians, Olympians and sports heroes, authors, scientists, diplomats and ambassadors. Finally, the Computer University@Sea educates passengers on computers, the Internet and social media, while Technology Concierges will reveal the trends and nuances of the latest high-tech gadgets like iPads, iPhones, Kindles, Blackberries and GPS devices.
Crystal also hosts a series of theme cruises that focus on photography, wine and food, fashion, music and theater, and sports and fitness.
Pros and Cons: Crystal has one of the most comprehensive programs afloat, and all group classes and guest lecturers' presentations and workshops are free to attend. However, the program is geared to senior travelers and can be a little staid or old-fashioned -- there's no state-of-the-art show kitchen, for example. The other minus is that Crystal's syllabus is not published with the cruise brochures, which means that, while prospective cruisers can only get a general idea of which programs are on offer on their cruises, the exact details are only available much closer to sailing or once onboard. And finally, Crystal, which sails some of the most exotic itineraries in cruising, could do a much better job at linking its enrichment activities to ports of call.
The Program: Scholarship@Sea
Details: Princess Cruises' Scholarship@Sea program reaches across all of the line's ships and itineraries and offers a lighter-side-of-life series of classes. Want to try your hand at "throwing" a pot? Pottery classes are part of the offerings, and the ships even have unique, seagoing kilns. If you don't want to get messy with clay, you can purchase premade pots and just paint them; they are then fired and can be taken home with you. Other classes include digital photography, hands-on cooking and meal preparation, wine-tastings and food-pairings, scrapbooking, cruise-ship operation and navigation, and dance lessons.
Each cruise also has a guest lecturer or two, specific to each voyage, who offer insight and knowledge about the ship's destinations and other relevant issues. Plus, a book club program gets passengers together to discuss New York Times bestsellers. (Though onboard libraries stock up on extra copies of chosen books, you're better off packing your own copies.)
Pros and Cons: Princess' emphasis on hobbies, rather than on education, matches its ebullient ambience onboard. The downside is that some of the offerings are expensive -- $15 to $30 for ceramics materials and $10 for wine-tastings. The lectures are complimentary.
Holland America Line
The Program: Explorations
Details: Holland America's multifaceted Explorations program combines enrichment with entertainment. Its Explorations Team can vary by size or length of cruise, but typically it consists of a party planner, lifestylist, travel guide, "techspert," dance director and book club leader, who run classes in their areas of expertise.
The ship's party planners bring in culinary experts to run cooking demonstrations and seminars in the Culinary Arts Center; they also organize wine-tastings, flower-arranging classes and other entertaining workshops. The lifestylist leads health and wellness classes and seminars, such as Tai Chi and yoga. The travel guides give lectures and presentations about the history and culture of the cruise destination (for example, a wildlife naturalist on Alaska sailings), and the book club leader facilitates literary discussions (only on cruises of 14 days or longer). The "techspert" hosts Digital Workshops (powered by Windows) and other classes on computers, the Internet and digital photography. The dance director (typically one of the onboard dancers, but this can vary by ship) will lead dance lessons and run dance-related activities.
Pros and Cons: Culinary demos in the state-of-the-art show kitchens are superb, and the basic computer courses and wellness classes are a big hit with Holland America's mature passenger base. However, some of the lifestyle-oriented lectures can be a bit fluffy with no real substance.
The Program:Culinary Center and Artist Loft
Details: Oceania's main enrichment focus is on food. Both Riviera and Marina feature a Culinary Center with convection ovens, two-person cooking stations and themed classes, ranging from basic knife skills to the art of fish cookery and trendsetting world cuisines. The classes are heavily hands-on, with all students participating, though a couple of hourlong courses focus on lectures on popular culinary topics like cheese selection and food-and-wine pairings.
Oceania also offers an enhanced culinary arts program featuring foodie tours uniquely designed around 25 individual ports. Available on all four ships, these Culinary Discovery Tours may include a visit to an artisan cheese-maker, chocolatier, vineyard or fish market. They also incorporate mini-lectures, demonstrations or lunch before returning to the ship's culinary center or a shoreside restaurant's kitchen for a hands-on cooking class related to the tour's theme.
If cooking's not your thing, Marina and Riviera offer a hands-on program for budding artists, where artists-in-residence give step-by-step instruction in watercolors, needlepoint, and arts and crafts.
Pros and Cons: The culinary center's state-of-the-art chef stations with convection ovens are a nice touch, and the wide variety of classes will have gourmands salivating: Gloriously Modern Greek, Beyond Brie: the Innovative Cheeses, and A Passion for Pasta. However, tours and individual classes are not cheap; escorted market tours with cooking classes start at $175. Individual one- and two-hour cooking sessions are $39 and $69, respectively.
--Updated by Laura Randall, Cruise Critic Contributor