Cruise lines, especially the premium and luxury ones, understand that many travelers want sea-day activities more stimulating than poolside lounging or shuffleboard. That's why a growing number of lines are not only adding enrichment-oriented programs but also expanding those that already exist. Indeed, new and improved interactive workshops, culinary demonstrations and classes, and educational lectures (think TED Talks at sea) are making cruising a lot more interesting.
What can you learn onboard? Some programs focus on educational topics like finance, the cosmos, history, art and computers. There's plenty of personal enrichment, too. Cruise lines offer health and wellness programs that focus on everything from Zumba to stress management. You can also learn to navigate a cruise ship or create a website, enhance your Bridge skills or even paint with watercolors under the watchful eye of a professional artist.
If the idea of going back to class -- and experiencing the pleasures of cruising at the same time -- appeals, check out some popular cruise choices for onboard enrichment.
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Azamara Club Cruises
Program: Guest Lectures
Details: In addition to port-of-call lectures and cooking demonstrations, Azamara now offers onboard talks through its Guest Lectures program. The line invites experts including scientists, professors and authors onboard to discuss topics ranging from politics to history to culture. The lectures end with a question-and-answer session, allowing cruisers a bit of interaction
Additionally, the line has an offering called eConnections that features classes on computer programs such as PowerPoint, Excel and Photoshop. A small fee applies.
Fine Print: Azamara publishes its list of onboard guest lecturers on its website. More exact schedules can be found in the daily newsletter and on the Azamara TV channel once onboard.
The Program: Cunard Insights
Details: Cunard offers a variety of enrichment programs for erudite cruisers (or aspiring ones). The Cunard Insights speaker series, iStudy classes (featuring guidance on using new technology) and Cunard Book Club literary discussions are offered on all three ships: Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. QM2 also offers additional programs its sisters don't have, including Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) acting workshops and Royal Astronomical Society astronomy and stargazing presentations.
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 criminology to Jane Austin. 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 (no longer than an hour) of theater classics like "Canterbury Tales" or "Much Ado About Nothing."
Fine Print: Courses are free of charge, and passengers can participate in as many as they like. The speakers get rave reviews.
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 sessions like acupuncture or gait analysis. Activities in the "Learn" category include everything from dance lessons to ship navigation. Finally, "Play" covers activities like sports, video games and trivia -- though we wouldn't really call video games enrichment.
Further, under the "Learn" arm of Celebrity's enrichment docket, iLounge staffers lead classes on digital photo enhancement, website creation and travel blogging, and environmental programs feature talks on energy generation and recycling by the ship's officers.
Fine Print: Some courses cost an additional fee. Also, enrichment programs are available on all Celebrity ships, but the specific courses and workshops vary by cruise.
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.
Fine Print: 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.
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 find out how to navigate a cruise ship? Learn maritime technology from one of the ship's officers via the line's Navigation@Sea offering. Other classes include art history, hands-on cooking and meal preparation, wine tastings and food pairings, scrapbooking and dance lessons.
Additionally, each cruise has a guest lecturer or two offering insight and knowledge about the ship's destinations and other relevant issues. Plus, a book club program gets passengers together to discuss award-winning titles and bestsellers. (Though onboard libraries stock up on extra copies of chosen books, you're better off packing your own copies.)
Fine Print: Princess' emphasis on hobbies, rather than on education, matches its ebullient ambience onboard. Some of the offerings cost a small fee, starting at $10. The lectures are complimentary.
Holland America Line
Details: Holland America's multifaceted Explorations program combines do-it-yourself digital enrichment (via the coffeehouse and library, Explorations Cafe) with onboard educational talks. The program includes a speaker series with guest lecturers during longer voyages.
On Koningsdam, passengers can create customized bottles of wine at the first wine-mixing space at sea, BLEND. Other enrichment offerings include hands-on cooking demonstrations in the theater-style Culinary Arts Center; Digital Workshops (powered by Windows) and other classes on computers, the internet and digital photography; and self-guided onboard art tours.
Fine Print: Reservations are required for sessions at BLEND, which cost $129 per person. Ninety-minute cooking classes at the Culinary Arts center cost $29 and include lunch at the Pinnacle Grill. Cooking shows at the Culinary Arts center, which are offered on sea days, are free.
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 and are available for an additional fee.
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 local restaurant's kitchen for a hands-on cooking class related to the tour's theme.
Additionally, Marina and Riviera offer a hands-on program for budding creatives, where artists-in-residence give step-by-step instruction in watercolors, needlepoint and arts and crafts.
Fine Print: 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: Pizza Master Class, Ottoman Palace Feast and Cuban Family Table. However, tours and individual classes are not cheap; escorted market tours with cooking classes start at $169. Individual one- and two-hour cooking sessions are $39 and $69, respectively.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Program: The Smithsonian Collection by Smithsonian Journeys
Details: In 2015, Regent Seven Seas partnered with the Smithsonian Institution to roll out the Smithsonian Collection by Smithsonian Journeys, a fleetwide enrichment program that features prominent guest speakers on most RSSC sailings. The Smithsonian Collection has an emphasis on interaction, including question-and-answer sessions post-talks, plus intimate, social interactions with onboard speakers.
Fine Print: The Smithsonian Collection program brings stars of academia, authors and professors onboard to discuss art, culture, history and such; think of it as more of a traditional educational experience as opposed to an entertainment-heavy program featuring celebs, CEOs or the latest "Jeopardy" winners.
Program: Seabourn Conversations
Details: On Seabourn sailings, celebrities, artistic luminaries, scientists, media moguls and captains of industry appear onboard to give topical talks on everything from history and literature to business and technology. Past speakers include Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and CBS news anchor Dan Rather.
Fine Print: The prestige level of some visiting lecturers rivals that of a commencement speaker at a major university. Don't be surprised to see distinguished celebrities -- as well as lesser known leaders -- sharing stories and information at sea. Another plus? These speakers cruise alongside guests, so it's not unusual for passengers to run into a favorite author or famed scientist on the way to dinner.
Program: Silver Perspectives
Details: Hear talks by scientists, writers, diplomats, professors and other distinguished professionals via Silversea's Silver Perspectives enrichment program. This offering features guest speakers -- as well as members of Silversea's Expedition team -- talking about a wide range of subjects both onboard (during sea days) and in port. Guest speakers might include artist Alexandre Renoir (great-grandson of Pierre-Auguste Renoir) and NASA scientist Donald Yeomans.
Silversea's L'ecole des Chefs by Relais & Chateaux cooking school, available on select sailings, features everything from in-port "Lunch & Learn" excursions to competitive cooking demonstrations at sea. For example, passengers who attend the line's Bahian Cooking Class accompany the chef to the Ceasa Market, learn to prepare moqueca (a classic Bahian dish) and enjoy lunch together. Additionally, Silversea offers a number of culinary- and wine-themed voyages.
Fine Print: L'ecole des Chefs is only available on select ships.
--Updated by Caroline Costello, Cruise Critic contributor