Best Cruise Surprises of 2016

December 27, 2016
Mexican Fiesta on Carnival Inspiration

Admit it: We all read Cruise Critic so we can glean every detail of our sailing before we board. But even with all that research, we still manage to find delightful surprises onboard that sweep away our preconceived notions and occasionally bring a new perspective into our cruising lives. Here are Cruise Critic's favorite cruising surprises of 2016:

I didn't expect much from my three-night cruise on Carnival Inspiration, one of the line's smaller and older ships. To my delight, it turned out to be one of the most lively ships I've ever sailed. Karaoke was the raucous party it should be, rather than wannabe singers scouring the song list while onlookers chat awkwardly, hoping no one forces them to participate. The onboard night club was packed, and the comedy shows standing room only. Music-themed trivia games routinely ended in a singalong and dance party…in the middle of a hallway. And with so many family reunions, bachelorette parties and weddings onboard, the people-watching was outstanding. -- Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor

When my partner Nate and I arrived onboard Disney Wonder in Galveston, we were pretty tired and dazed -- we left the morning after the U.S. presidential election and were running on very little sleep. It also happened to be Nate's birthday. So imagine our surprise when we walked into our cabin for the first time to find a ton of birthday decorations and a gift bag. It was such a nice gesture that immediately got us excited about the cruise. An added bonus: one of the best cheese plates I've ever had! It's all about the little touches, and Disney definitely excels at those. --Brittany Chrusciel, Associate Editor

Over the years, MSC has received a bad rap for its food, service and sometimes questionable entertainment. On Opera there are no such issues. The food was superb -- and this was in the main dining rooms (there are no specialty restaurants): fresh pasta, pizza, pastries and ice cream; five course meals every night and seven course Gala Dinners and a wide variety of cuisine -- from Cuban to Mediterranean to Tex-Mex. Service at all levels surprised and delighted, from stewards to waiters to reception and those on shore excursions. The entertainment dazzled, first with a supergroup of Cuban musicians, and then a Flamenco rendition and a moving show. -- Adam Coulter, U.K. Editor

Thomson Celebration's fun and friendly atmosphere and impeccable service. Having never sailed with Thomson before, I was more than pleasantly surprised. It's not a luxury line -- nor is it premium for that matter -- but service was flawless and intuitive with some of the friendliest and most helpful crew we've yet to encounter. -- Kerry Spencer, Editor, U.K.

Sel de Mer on Koningsdam

Sailing on Holland America's Koningsdam, I was surprised at how wonderfully modern and innovative the ship is. HAL has a reputation built on tradition, and I love that the cruise line has clearly thought about how to elevate its signature experiences. My favorite surprise on Koningsdam was the Music Walk, which comprises three music spaces and three completely different experiences: B.B. Kings (blues music), Billboard Onboard (not-quite-dueling pianos) and Lincoln Center Stage (strings and piano). The food onboard was a surprise as well: Holland America has two stellar venues in Sel De Mer and the Culinary Arts Center, where dinner is part education and part gastronomic treat. -- Colleen McDaniel, Senior Executive Editor

Early this year, I sailed on Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line's Grand Celebration. This one-ship cruise line is known for offering inexpensive two-night sailings between the Port of Palm Beach and Freeport on Grand Bahama Island. Given the age of the ship and my general indifference toward the Bahamas, I was hesitant. Thankfully, my skepticism was unfounded. The cabins were modern, the food was delicious, and there's something quirky and nostalgic about sailing on a ship with a few decades under its belt. Entertainment was delightfully old-school -- including magic shows in the theater, dance parties by the pool and beanbag toss games on the upper deck -- and it was interesting to see how the layout of older ships differs from that of newer vessels. Most of all, though, it was refreshing to see so many people enjoying simple fun in the sun by the pool with fruity drinks. -- Ashley Kosciolek, Editor

Atrium on Carnival Vista

Part of working for Cruise Critic is sometimes having to forego a port call to stay onboard a cruise ship to write about it. It's not always a fun tradeoff, but on this spring's Carnival Vista press sailing (which went from Barcelona to Athens) I discovered I really didn't mind staying onboard, even if amazing Italian cities were just outside. In fact, I found I loved having the ship to myself - even more so than in the Caribbean where plenty of people stay onboard. In Europe, really, just about everyone gets off. I was busy writing, but if I'd wanted to I could've had the waterpark and pool all to myself! -- Dori Saltzman, Senior Editor

This might sound like an oddity, but I'm not a huge fan of burgers. It's not that I don’t like them; I've just never eaten one that's knocked my socks off (no offense, dad) … that is, until I met the Ernesto. (Yes, this burger has a name.) Funny enough, I was with my dad on Ruby Princess when we tried the heavenly patty named after its creator, Los Angeles-based chef Ernesto Uchimura, at the Wheelhouse Bar's new popup restaurant, Salty Dog Gastropub. I won't give away the ingredients, but I will say that to my surprise, it was my favorite meal on the entire cruise. -- Gina Kramer, Associate Editor

While I have traveled European cruise lines before, I wasn't sure how I'd feel about sailing one in the Caribbean. But I found my June cruise on MSC Divina turned out to be the most sheer fun I had onboard all year. A large contingent of passengers from Latin America, plus Europeans, meant that the ship's disco stayed open late late late. We also loved Eataly, the ship's specialty restaurant; wine blending; and a day in the Yacht Club (one of the best values in cruising, we think). -- Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor

I boarded Ovation of the Seas in 16 minutes, from dropping off my luggage to stepping foot on the ship. Not bad for the world's fourth biggest cruise ship, which was packed to the rafters for its first cruise to Australia with almost 5,000 passengers -- and I reckon about 4,000 of them were from Perth! -- Louise Goldsbury, Australia Editor