MSC Seaside fireworks

Cruise Critic's staff spends lots of time on ships, checking out the newest vessels (such as MSC Seaside, christened last week) and updating our favorite places (like St. Maarten, where Royal Caribbean returned on Dec. 17).

This week, we'll be taking a look back at 2017, noting our favorite (and least favorite) cruise experiences of the year. We hope it inspires you to share your top cruise memories, and think about where you want to go in 2018. Today: our top cruise surprises of 2017.

Having never been to a cruise line private island, I wasn't sure what to expect when my Holland America sailing was scheduled to call on Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic and Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas. I (wrongfully) assumed that because the ports were developed by a large cruise corporation, the experiences would feel manufactured. I can happily admit that was not the case. It was easier to escape the crowds than anticipated, heading up the hill in Amber Cove to take in the views -- and a ride or two across the zipline; meanwhile, in Half Moon Cay, a walk down the absolutely stunning white-sand shoreline was one of the most peaceful experiences of the entire trip. (Not to mention, after a while it felt like my friend and I were the only two people on the entire beach -- alone save the sounds of island's bird sanctuary.)

-- Brittany Chrusciel, Associate Editor

I had the highest expectations for my vacation cruise on the Mekong River with Avalon Waterways. After all, I had previously sailed with the company on its Irrawaddy River itinerary in Myanmar (Burma) and was blown away. I'd even convinced my brother and his wife to join us. I was worried I'd oversold the experience or set myself up to be disappointed. I wasn't. The trip onboard Avalon Siem Reap was simply incredible. The ship was beautifully decorated, the crew fantastic, the guides knowledgeable and witty, and the ports magnificent. I had sold the concept to my brother and husband as a "Vietnam cruise," as that was the area I was most excited to visit. But in the end, it turned out I preferred Cambodia, with its beautiful temples, friendly people and genuinely unique experiences. I never thought I'd eat scorpions or lead a classroom of children learning English, but I did, and I loved it. Both Vietnam and Cambodia were amazing places, and we made memories that won't soon fade.

-- Colleen McDaniel, Senior Executive Editor

Tour group posing for a photo at montserrat

Flying into Barcelona a couple days before my Disney Magic cruise, I was so excited to return to one of my favorite port cities and soak up the culture before we set sail. It was my first time doing a pre-cruise tour through a cruise line; I'd always just done my own thing -- which was part of my hesitation. I was a little nervous I wouldn't have much free time or flexibility in the two-night tour led by Adventures by Disney, the company's land operator. I was wrong. We had a few hours in between sightseeing, as well as a night to ourselves, when I got to enjoy a private dinner and a little shopping. The ABD guides even set up camp in our hotel lobby and acted as our concierge team for the duration of our trip, offering guidance and recommendations. My favorite part, though, was the opportunity to meet and develop friendships with fellow passengers ahead of time -- which we carried onto our cruise (Team ABD rocked trivia!).

-- Gina Kramer, Editor

I'm an adventurous traveler who follows the news; my family used to joke that if riots had broken out or a volcano had just blown in a foreign country, chances are that I'd be there within a few months, just to see how things really were. But for some reason, India had always scared me a little bit. Images of crushing poverty and desperate sanitation, as well as a fear of going to the country alone as a woman, kept me away for decades. Traveling with Uniworld on their Golden Triangle & Sacred Ganges itinerary proved to be the perfect introduction to India's beautiful chaos. The cruise tour portion of the trip took us to the country's blockbuster sights in New Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, including the Taj Mahal (where seeing this bucket list destination for the first time brought me to tears). And on the second half, the excellent crew of the Ganges Voyager II did everything in their power to bring us the best of Indian culture and cuisine, while keeping us safe and sanitary. Are you ready for India? With Uniworld, the answer was an absolute yes.  

-- Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor

Dimly lit stage for Love Riot on Pacific Explorer

Full-frontal nudity during Love Riot, P&O Australia's new burlesque circus show on Pacific Explorer, sure took me by surprise.

--Louise Goldsbury, Australia Editor

I recently sailed on MSC Cruises' brand-new MSC Seaside. Because the ship was specifically built for North Americans, I was concerned that the line would replace its hallmark entertainment -- acrobats, magicians, jugglers and other fantastic nonverbal acts used to break down language barriers among the line's international clientele -- with more standard American offerings. To my delight, performances, although more varied, remained phenomenal and incorporated so many jaw-dropping elements that I lost count.

-- Ashley Kosciolek, Editor

Scenic Sun Lounges. I fell in love with these convertible balcony/sun rooms during a one-week trip on Scenic Spirit on the Mekong River. As a balcony, the space is separated from the rest of the room by an accordion-style sliding-glass door. With that door closed and the floor-to-ceiling, wall-length window opened half-way it's just like a standard balcony you'd find on any cruise ship. But with the window closed and the sliding-glass door open, it serves as a lovely sunroom -- which, incidentally, was my favorite configuration. These same-style spaces will soon also be found on Celebrity Cruises' new ship, Celebrity Edge, when it debuts at the end of 2018; on that ship they'll be called Infinite Verandas.

--Dori Saltzman, Senior Editor

Singing karaoke on Majesty of the Seas

I think it was when I saw a group of guys doing a beer bong on the top deck of Majesty of the Seas at 11 a.m. that I thought: "Oh [expletive] what on earth have I let myself in for?" Add to that this was a three-day cruise to the Bahamas – during Spring Break – oh and it just happened to be St Patrick's Day, and I started to wonder if this was one enormous elaborate joke from my US colleagues who were very keen for me (the sole Brit in the Editorial team) to "sample" a true American cruise. Hmmm. However, I have to say, that after some initial typical British reticence, I decide to throw myself into it. And yes, I will admit I was throwing down lurid green cocktails till the early hours. I was dancing to Abba at the 70s-themed disco that night. And as for sharing life stories with every couple I met, yeah, I did that too. I can't say I came away from this 60-hour blur of a cruise having made life-long friends, but I've certainly made memories for life.

--Adam Coulter, Managing Editor, UK