We know that two of cruising's most powerful magnets are food and lounging. Whenever the mood strikes, there's access to doughy pizza, soft-serve and cheeseburgers by the pool, two orders of surf and turf smothered with butter on lobster night and chocolate cake delivered via room service at 3 a.m. Indeed, when I meet people who have never cruised, the first question I'm asked is invariably about weight gain. Temptation is everywhere, and cruising's reputation for gluttony is obvious -- and perhaps deserving.
But the pull of food indulgence and the chance to remain prone for a week has been bending, at least slightly, toward the opposite pole. Going beyond reasons of vanity, obesity in the United States (and elsewhere) has long been viewed as a serious public health issue.
Films like "Supersize Me," TV shows like "Celebrity Fit Club" and "The Biggest Loser" and countless reports on obesity and diabetes, obesity and heart disease, and fat-laden school lunches have, at the very least, propelled the issue into public discourse. So, while the Rubenesque was once symbolic of ones' wealth and social status, we've known better for some time about the health consequences of looking "successful."
The challenge for the cruise industry? Finding ways to implement more healthy options into the experience. Concepts like fitness programs, spa cuisine, spa cabins with unlimited access to spa facilities and dedicated spa restaurants, and expanded gyms have sprung up across all segments of the industry. Now, the reality is that virtually every new ship debuts with bigger and better spa and gym facilities, and lines are racing to outdo each other with healthy living options. Of course, the image of pigs at a trough may be a hard reputation to shake -- after all a cruise is often a break from your day-to-day routine of restraint -- but new healthy options appear almost every day. For those with both willpower and motivation, the balance has definitely tipped.
There may be plenty of new options and offerings, but do they really make a difference? Perhaps there is no further proof needed than a post we saw on Seabourn's Facebook page. A woman who completed a full world cruise with the line wrote that when she boarded, she was hardly able to get around, having had surgery and several health problems. After working with the trainer and the acupuncturist throughout the full cruise, she gleefully reported that, despite her sadness at having to disembark, she practically skipped down the gangway at the end of the trip!
The most publicized improvement in onboard health has been the introduction of healthier culinary items. This doesn't mean that ships are dispensing with 24-hour pizzerias or unlimited soft-serve ice cream, but healthy options abound.
1. Low-calorie/healthy heart options in the dining room. Taking note of cruisers' increased requests for more healthy options, cruise lines have increased the number of vegetarian (though vegetarian and healthy don't necessarily have to coexist) and other lighter options onboard. Liberty of the Seas' Executive Chef, Johann Petutschnig, told me that the vegetarian concept is definitely becoming more palatable. "In the old days, it was like a punishment," he said.
Today, a discernable increase in fruits and vegetables on the menu conveys a more healthful impression. Lighter meat choices like fish and chicken have also been finding their way onto dining room menus with greater regularity. Petutschnig mentioned that in the one year he spent working on Navigator of the Seas, he saw orders of cod -- low in saturated fat, high in B vitamins -- increase from 150 pounds to 400 pounds.
Most lines in the industry feature their own trademarked versions of low-calorie choices, with sugar-free desserts, broiled and baked fish and chicken entrees (lightly sauced), and, of course, an emphasis on vegetables. These include Queen Mary 2's Canyon Ranch spa cuisine and Royal Caribbean's "Vitality" selections in its main dining rooms. Carnival has its own version with "Spa Carnival Cuisine," and during meals, at least one Spa Carnival starter, main course and dessert is always available. (Carnival even lists the number of calories and grams of fat for Spa Carnival Cuisine items.)
The options sound a lot more colorful than they used to. For instance, on Carnival, you may find a cinnamon, pumpkin, squash, yam and cheddar cheese pie; a grilled red snapper fillet on gazpacho juice with pumpkin and scallion hash; or a Martini-braised Basa fillet with tomato, chilli and fennel, served on a sundried tomato, chive and potato patty. The healthier options can't be all that bad when a colleague tells me that, when sailing on QM2, Commodore Christopher Rynd ordered just about every meal from the Canyon Ranch menu.
What makes these items healthier? Well, it could be as simple as substituting low-fat cream for heavy cream bases, using sugar variants or adopting alternative cooking techniques -- perhaps broiling instead of pan-frying. In some ways, these are the types of tactics that people are using at home.
And here's a new one: Celebrity promotes its bars as having healthy cocktails! One example: A "Superfruit Margarita" includes agave nectar, fresh lime juice, pomegranate juice and, of course, tequila. All of MSC Cruises' ships have a Vitamin, Tea and Coffee Corner that serves up drinks made with fresh fruit, and the Musica- and Fantasia-class ships also have a dedicated Spa Bar where passengers can order healthy drinks.
2. Trans-fat-free dining rooms. Numerous lines have rid their menus of the unhealthy fat that's medically linked with higher levels of bad cholesterol (and a higher risk of heart disease). Lines that have taken this important step include Crystal, Seabourn, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, MSC, Disney, Holland America, Windstar and Celebrity. Other lines, including Oceania, Silversea and Regent, have certain trans-fat-free options listed on their menus.
3. Specialty spa cuisine restaurants. Moving beyond simply offering low-fat options in the main dining rooms, several lines have introduced stand-alone spa dining facilities. Celebrity led the way back in 2006 when it created the AquaSpa cafe, which serves smoothies and other healthy options near the pool. The concept has expanded with the Solstice-class ships into a dedicated restaurant, Blu, for those in AquaSpa cabins. Blu, in turn, will now be expanded to older Millennium-class ships.
Costa has also jumped head-first into this trend. Since 2006, all newbuilds feature the Ristorante Samsara, a specialty spa restaurant reserved for passengers residing in the ships' special Samsara spa cabins (see "For the Purist" below).
Costa's Samsara options are light and creative. Take the vegetable lasagna, for instance. Instead of a traditional pasta dish with sauce, cheese and vegetables, what arrived was more of a salad of peas, mushrooms, potatoes and hearts of romaine in a wine sauce sprinkled with a little Parmesan. Note: With limited seating available, non-Samsara guests are not technically allowed to dine there, but we've heard word that exceptions, for an additional fee, can be made.
4. Sushi bars. Sushi doesn't necessarily have to be healthy, but a cucumber and avocado roll is clearly a lighter choice than two slices of pepperoni pizza. Vines, a wine and sushi joint, is a great light option on many newer and refurbished Princess ships (as long as you don't overdo it on the wine). Celebrity Century was the first Celebrity ship to get a sushi restaurant, and the concept has since been rolled out fleetwide. Crystal's two ships have sushi bars inside their Silk Road alternative restaurants, Norwegian's Jewel-class vessels have stand-alone sushi bars, and all Carnival ships offer cocktail-hour sushi.
With the appetite sated, the next thought becomes where to work out. Cruise lines have made massive strides in this area, not only by creating larger facilities but also by expanding programs, class options and services.
5. Gyms. A good, well-equipped gym is no longer an extra perk on a ship; large or small, almost every new ship being built has an expansive gym with top-end commercial equipment that resembles respectable onshore fitness facilities. Perhaps due to a younger, more active passenger base, gyms aboard Carnival's and Royal Caribbean's newest ships typically rate the highest in the industry. Norwegian Epic, however, claims to offer the largest spa and fitness center at sea, with a whopping 31,000 square feet. Even smaller luxury ships have been getting into the game. For example, Seabourn's three Odyssey-class vessels each feature a two-story gym and spa area with facilities that exceed those on many larger vessels.
6. Fitness classes. While self-motivation is essential to maintaining your body, a domineering instructor can inspire that little bit extra you thought you were incapable of. Cruise lines continue to offer the classic fitness classes -- yoga, Pilates, cycling and stretching, some for free and some for an extra $10 to $15 fee. One of the newer options for classes is the group boxing, found on Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class vessels, three ships that feature full-size Everlast boxing rings in their ShipShape spa complexes. The point of the boxing ring is conditioning, rather than smashing up your fellow cruisers. Norwegian Epic has something new, as well, introducing Kettlebell and TRX training classes.
Even gym equipment has moved well beyond just freeweights and treadmills, with Royal Caribbean's newest ships featuring a dizzying array of sophisticated equipment, including Kinesis and Gravity machines and bikes with interactive, virtual rides. Seabourn's and Windstar's smaller ships also offer Kinesis exercise systems. Crystal is introducing expanded yoga and Pilates programs on 18 different sailings in 2012; all sailings will feature dedicated instructors and complimentary classes, while those on Crystal Serenity will utilize new Pilates Reformer equipment.
Holland America Line, which, for years, was known for a more elderly clientele, has not escaped the fitness trend. In addition to the usual fitness offerings, HAL ships now have active exercises that include basketball, volleyball, bocce and golf-putting. Perhaps most intriguing are Wii games that are set up in the Crows Nest. With electronic versions of bowling and tennis, passengers are using technology to get moving.
7. Top-deck options. For those who prefer taking their workouts outdoors, lines are boasting an ever-expanding list of choices for active pursuits on their sun decks. Everything is available, from rock-climbing walls (a Royal Caribbean trademark that's now also found on some Norwegian Cruise Line ships) to basketball courts, as well as mini-tennis courts, running tracks and Royal Caribbean's surf park, featuring the FlowRider surf simulator. Disney Cruises even lists its outdoor dance parties under the banner of active activities, while on a cruise on Royal Caribbean's Liberty of the Seas, there was a scheduled race on the running track.
Crystal Symphony and Serenity and Cunard's Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria offer two interesting fitness programs for walkers on their outer decks. Walking on Water employs cotton vests with pockets for weights that add resistance, and Nordic Walking uses walking poles to offer low-impact, full-body workouts.
Carnival Magic has also taken exercise to the great outdoors. Not only does it feature an outdoor exercise station, but it also has a complete ropes course that tests balance and agility while passengers traverse suspended cables -- 150 feet above the sea. (Apparently, it also tests whether you are scared of heights.)
8. Cycling. Cycling is an increasingly popular component of cruising on a variety of different ships. Mississippi River-bound American Queen -- once known more for its Southern cooking and older demographics -- will soon offer bicycles free of charge for passengers to use when going ashore. Windstar offers bicycles for rent on its three ships, while SeaDream Yacht Club and Hebridean Island Cruises offer complimentary bikes.
Thomson Cruises has a partnership with Star Bikestations to provide a variety of guided bike tours in many Mediterranean and Caribbean ports.
With ships that tie up in the hearts of cities, river cruising is ideal for biking. Avalon is offering guided bike tours directly from the ship in five European cities for an additional fee, while AMAWATERWAYS has a fleet of bicycles onboard for complimentary guided tours or independent exploring. French canal boats also offer perfect opportunities for biking; bicycle paths often run right along the canal, and numerous locks (and the slow speed of the barges) give passengers the opportunity to get exercise, see some French countryside and rejoin the barge almost at their choosing.
9. Excursions. While the focus of this piece is on the ships, we can't forget to mention active shore excursions. A vigorous shore excursion is a great way to get some cardio, and lines are coming up with all sorts of creative, active activities ashore. Particularly popular now are kayaking and hiking tours, which give passengers the opportunity to see the less commercial side of a destination. (Biking is becoming such a popular trend we've included a separate section about it.) In the Caribbean, ropes courses and zip lines are popping up all over for cruise passengers. On an excursion to the Loterie Tree Farm High Ropes Course in St. Martin, I sweated my way through an intense workout -- but it was so fun (and, at times, scary) that it didn't feel like a workout.
But these activities aren't limited to just the Caribbean; more active excursions are offered on just about all itineraries. Recently, I took advantage of a Crystal shore excursion where a small group of us hiked for more than four miles along the Amalfi coast. With stunning views, it was the best way to combine exercise with touring.
Luxury operator SeaDream Yacht Club's SeaDream Active program is often lead by an unlikely crewmember: the captain! In many ports, the captain will lead active hikes and bike rides along his favorite routes for any passengers that want to join him. With SeaDream's relatively young crowd, these excursions are often real workouts, whether tackling the heat and hills in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean. Azamara Club Cruises has also taken to having the captain or cruise director lead some hikes ashore. On an August 2011 cruise, Captain Carl Smith and several of his officers guided more than 120 passengers all the way up 1,300 stairs for commanding views over Montenegro. (They also carried bananas and apples for everyone!)
In many ways, expedition lines with their active excursions and hikes have long had healthy options. Expedition sister lines InnerSea Discoveries and American Safari Cruises pride themselves on focusing on active cruising. In addition to the usual gamut of activities, including hikes and kayaking, they offer paddle-boarding or snorkeling -- even in Alaska! The small ships of Windstar, Seabourn, SeaDream and Star Clippers have long featured water sports platforms, allowing passengers to sail, swim, water ski or kayak right off the ship.
After a vicious gym session replete with serious iron-pumping and excessive posing, some sort of spa service can help calm both weary muscles and frantic minds. Just as newer ships were designed to attract a more active passenger, you'll find the most elaborate spas on new-builds.
10. Spas at sea. Mainstream new-builds typically feature spa facilities of 20,000 square feet or larger, often run by Steiner, a spa and salon mega-company that operates almost every facility at sea. The range of services includes facials, massages and steam room/sauna area access. One major new convenience: Most lines now permit guests to pre-book their treatments online. Others, like MSC Cruises, offer bundled packages that allow you to combine exotic-sounding treatments like a "Bali Thalasso Fire and Sea" with a "Bali Sun Rise Lulur Face and Body" in its Aurea Spas.
Judging purely by a space-per-person measurement, the most decadent spas must be the two-story facilities onboard Seabourn's Odyssey, Quest and Sojourn. Dubbed by Cruise Critic as "Best for Spa-Lovers" in 2011, the 11,400-square-foot facility caters to the ships' mere 450 passengers ... yet another validation of the importance of spas to today's passengers.
As more and more companies rush to refit rather ships -- rather than build new ones -- spas are getting lots of attention in dry dock. Built in 1993, Costa Romantica, set to return to service in 2012 as Costa NeoRomantica, will feature a vastly expanded Samsara Spa and a Samsara restaurant. Costa's Samsara spas are Asian in sensibility -- think rice paper, bonsais, lantern lighting and lions -- and the sprawling complexes feature one of the greatest varieties of wellness and treatment rooms at sea.
And don't think spas are just for grownups. Several lines offer spa packages for the 13- to 17-year-old crowd, including Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Disney and Princess. (Disney's newest ships, Disney Fantasy and Disney Dream, even offer separate spas for teens.) Many teen treatments are similar across lines, due to the ubiquity of Steiner's spa services, and some intriguing options you may find include a "Fabulous Fruity Facial," a "Hot Chocolate Wrap" and special mother/daughter and father/son massage packages.
11. Day passes. A number of lines feature separate spa areas with features like thalassotherapy pools, heated loungers, especially soft towels, wait service and more. Princess has the Sanctuary. Passengers who pay for half- or all-day access are admitted into a quiet, shady place with thick-cushioned seating, massage cabanas (massages cost extra) and a spa menu. On Norwegian's Norwegian Pearl, Dawn, Jade, Jewel, Star, Gem and Epic, passengers can pay for day-passes or weeklong access to the spa's thalassotherapy pool, heated ceramic loungers, oceanview sauna, eucalyptus steam room, individual whirlpool tubs, icy-cold plunge pool and padded chaises.
For those who don't book Samsara cabins on Costa, one-day passes provide unlimited use of the thalassotherapy pool and exotic relaxation rooms. Weekly packages are also available.
12. Acupuncture. Acupuncture is the insertion of needles at various points on the body with the intention of promoting good health. Celebrity pioneered the introduction of acupuncture at sea about a decade ago, and several other cruise lines have since followed suit.
Two important notes. First, there is near unanimous agreement from specialists that it takes several months (with regular attendance) before patients see results from treatments -- so a one-week cruise won't cure you, but it may still help you relax. The benefit of having onboard acupuncture seems to be that it allows people who regularly undergo the treatment on land not to break their routine -- and it also presents the concept to newcomers in a nonthreatening way. It's certainly also a way to see what the procedure is all about and to ask questions of the specialists.
13. Spa villas. For those who want the maximum spa indulgence, two lines have taken the concept of open deck cabanas to a new level with private spa villas that can be rented for a few hours. Seabourn introduced them on Odyssey, Quest and Sojourn, and each villa features an oversized bathtub, a balcony, a living area and a daybed. The 2.5-hour sessions in the villas (not cheap) include a spa treatment of your choice.
Disney Cruise Line -- which, years ago, was one of the first lines to offer massages on the beach at Castaway Cay -- features spa villas on all ships. The villas each include a private verandah, personal whirlpool, open-air shower and Roman bed with canopy. Included with every booking is a tea ceremony, a foot-cleansing therapy and a cleaning treatment of your choice.
Onboard health and wellness education runs the gamut from thinly veiled product pitches to helpful seminars run by experts.
14. Seminars. There have always been seminars at sea. Typically, but certainly not always, these events amount to a sales pitch. The service is presented in an enticing way, a discount may be offered, and the presenter hopes to have you sign up at the end for a metabolism test or acupuncture. Now lines have upped the ante, with classes and seminars covering a wide range of health topics. Two examples: Windstar's sailing ships offer a personal-training program, meditation program and nutrition consultation in addition to standard Pilates and yoga classes. Queen Mary 2's Canyon Ranch SpaClub has "healthy living experts," who provide onboard lectures and workshops on topics that include lifestyle change, stress management, smoking cessation, healthy aging and disease prevention. To get access to some of the world's leading experts in health, wellness and fitness, you may want to book a theme cruise. (See more on this topic below.)
15. Personal training. Especially for the fitness beginner, there's nothing quite like having a one-on-one workout with a trainer. He or she can right the ship if you've blown off course with technique or focus, or create a customized program based on a trainee's individual needs. All major lines offer personal-training sessions similar to what you'd find on land. The difference is the inflated price. For instance, Royal Caribbean's charges are typical at $85 per 60-minute session, or you can purchase a three-session package for $210. Silversea offers a frighteningly advanced sounding "body age assessment technology," whereby one's body is measured up against various criteria for your age, and personal trainers then design an onboard fitness regimen based upon the results.
Let's be clear here: If a total vitality experience is your goal, it's unlikely that the average cruise will suffice. But, for those looking for something a bit more intense in terms of immersion, cruising does have some solid options.
16. Spa cabins. While several lines have since followed suit, Costa was the first line to introduce special "spa" cabins. Passengers pay a premium for spa amenities and perks, such as a "Welcome Ritual" package that features complimentary spa treatments and fitness classes, Solarium sessions, a wellness consultation, in-cabin spa products and unlimited use of the thalassotherapy pool. Plus, they will have standing reservations at the Ristorante Samsara, the spa-themed restaurant that promises low-calorie cooking techniques that "retain organoleptic properties" while still keeping flavors.
And of course your cabin will be right next to all the wellness action (although not necessarily near the restaurant, depending on the ship). The Samsara cabins are the same size and layout as standard balconies in other parts of the ship, but the decor reflects the spa's theme of Eastern spirituality with natural watercolors, paneled walls in the Japanese rice-paper look, and gold and red tones. The room service menu is also more spa-influenced.
Celebrity's 192-square-foot AquaSpa cabins were so popular on Celebrity's Solstice-class ships that they are being rolled out to the ship's older Millennium-class vessels, too. Extra perks include unlimited access to the AquaSpa relaxation room and the Persian Garden thermal suite. For some, the most important perk is priority access to the stunning and successful healthy option eatery Blu. (Blu is also being expanded to the Millennium-class ships as part of a $140 million upgrade project.)
Holland America has added spa cabins to every one of its ships, except Prinsendam. Those staying in spa cabins receive the option of special in-room treatments. Four Carnival ships -- Splendor, Dream, Magic and Breeze -- have spa cabins with perks like complimentary fitness classes, but, like Holland America, there is no dedicated healthy restaurant. Norwegian Cruise Line is also getting into the trend, and Norwegian Epic is that line's first ship with spa cabins.
Windstar continues to be an innovator and leader in the small ship category, as its largest ship, Wind Surf, has 10 spa suites that include not only complimentary treatments but also invitations to cocktail parties in the WindSpa's reception area, along with a "Spa Under the Stars" sampling of spa treatments with complimentary refreshments on deck in the evening.
17. Theme cruises. For those with the highest expectations, there is a limited number of special sailings -- offered by the cruise lines themselves or outside companies that charter the ships -- focusing on running, general fitness, vegan diet and yoga, just to name a few.
Crystal, for instance, features several Mind, Body & Spirit cruises every year to places like South America, the Panama Canal and the Caribbean. These health-focused cruises feature expert lecturers and instructors in yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi and general fitness. MSC will be trying a diet-themed cruise early in 2012 with a noted nutritionist and founder of the Dukan diet, while Oceania also offers a handful of Vitality and Wellness theme cruises.
Luxury British operator Hebridean Island Cruises several years ago introduced a number of "Footloose" cruises in Scotland and Norway. These walking-intensive cruises have three guides (for varying fitness levels) who lead hikes -- some all day -- through scenic countryside. They have proven so popular that sister companies Swan Hellenic and Voyages of Discovery will also be operating Footloose walking cruises in 2012. Similarly, Fred. Olsen partners with Ramblers Worldwide Holidays to offer special walking and hiking cruises. For a faster pace, Princess hosts annual Cruise to Run running cruises.