Going on a cruise this year? Expect a lot more choices.
Several major lines are introducing new ships this year, some of them their biggest ever. A couple of cruise lines are making their debuts in American waters, and a brand new line will offer the first all-suite cruises on European rivers.
Add to that new itineraries and destinations being introduced by existing lines, and it's easy to see why cruise lines expect to carry a record 12.8 million passengers this year.
After a couple of static years when most new cruise ships were clones of previous ones, 2008 promises new concepts. This year's crop of cruise ships will show off such features as onboard glassblowing, croquet on a real grass court, spa staterooms, more onboard pastimes, and alternative restaurants with even more diversified cuisines. And there's a definite tilt to luxury.
A couple of new cruise lines will start service this year. Pearl Sea Cruises will operate brand new small all-suite ships in the Canadian Maritimes and Caribbean. Jewel River Cruises will bring luxury sailings on European rivers.
In a year when more ships are sailing in European waters, Fred.Olsen, a cruise line that has long sailed in Europe, is coming to America for the first time. And sadly, 2008 is a year in which we will say goodbye to some beloved ships.
Here are highlights of what's new this year:AZAMARA
This will be this new cruise line's first full year of operation. Created last year by Celebrity Cruises, Azamara promises an upscale experience as it sends its two ships to less-visited ports over the world. Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest both are renovated Renaissance vessels and carry less than 700 passengers.CARNIVAL
The new Carnival Splendor will be Carnival Cruise Lines' biggest vessel at 113,300 tons and 3,000 passengers, and it, too, is the first of a new series of ships.
Its new Cloud 9 Spa -- the line's biggest -- will be ringed with 68 exclusive ''spa staterooms,'' new to the line. Guests booked in these cabins will have unlimited access to the thermal suite and Carnival's first thalassotherapy pool, as well as priority spa appointments and free fitness classes.
The new vessel will inaugurate what the line says is its first northern Europe itineraries when it enters service in Europe this July, and will make its first South American cruises in 2009.CELEBRITY
The new Celebrity Solstice not only will be the line's biggest ship at 122,000 tons and 2,850 passengers,but also will introduce some first-time features.
For one thing, it will create a plot of land at sea -- a half acre of grass on the top deck. On this patch of green three times larger than New York's Rockefeller Center ice skating rink, guests will be able to play bocce ball or croquet, go picnicking with a basket of wine and cheese, or simply enjoy the view of real grass hundreds of miles from land.
Lawn Club guests will also be able to take in the Hot Glass Show, another industry first, with live glassblowing demonstrations. Three ''gaffers'' -- glassblowing artisans -- will give demonstrations, lectures and workshops through Celebrity's association with the Corning Museum of Glass. With 90 percent outside cabins, the 2,850-passenger ship will make its maiden voyage in December from Fort Lauderdale.CUNARD LINE
This historic company has just introduced its newest liner, the 90,000-ton Queen Victoria. It's smaller than the line's huge 150,000-ton Queen Mary 2 and larger than the venerable 70,327-ton Queen Elizabeth 2, but is of the same regal mold . . . with several innovations. See story, page 14J
This European operator has acquired and renovated the former Norwegian Crown and is bringing it to America as the Balmoral in March. The ship will make four cruises out of Miami this spring, and Fred. Olsen plans to base it there for a full winter of cruises next year.HOLLAND AMERICA
First of its new Signature series, the 2,044-passenger Eurodam also will be the line's biggest ship at 84,000 tons. Carrying one more passenger deck than the line's popular Vista-class ships, the Eurodam adds several new elements, among them a pan-Asian restaurant, the Explorer's Lounge bar (a specialty restaurant), an expanded shops area and an atrium bar area. Eurodam debuts in Europe in July.JEWEL RIVER
Albert Peter, former CEO of Silversea Cruises, has launched this cruise line with the plan of creating the first fleet of boutique-luxury ships on European rivers. The line's Jewel Imperial Blue, the world's first all-suite river cruiser, will make its maiden voyage this summer on France's river Seine. The company will also have two other brands: Emerald River Journeys, a premium line, and the contemporary Princess River Journey. Their five ships are currently operating in Europe as charters.MSC CRUISES
This fast-growing line is debuting two new vessels this year, one of them its biggest.
That ship, the 3,887-passenger MSC Fantasia, will be the first in the MSC fleet to boast an exclusive VIP area. Called the MSC Yacht Club, it will have 99 suites plus a private bar, solarium, two whirlpools, a pool with a skydome, and an observation lounge. Yacht Club guests also will have 24/7 butler service. The 135,000-ton Fantasia joins the fleet in December and will stay in Europe making sailing Mediterranean cruises.
MSC's other new ship, the 2,430-passenger Poesia, is the third sister ship in the line's 92,400-ton Musica class. It will debut in April.PEARL SEA
This new line's first ship, nearing the end of construction, will carry 214 passengers, all housed in suites with sitting areas and private balconies. The ship will have six lounges, a spa, single-seating dining and country-club casual dress code.
An innovation: complimentary pre-dinner cocktails. It will make its maiden voyage Aug. 2 in the Canadian Maritimes.PRINCESS
Another last of a series makes its debut in November. The 116,000-ton, 3,100-passenger Ruby Princess will carry the same features as its sister ships, the Crown Princess and Emerald Princess, among them a piazza-style atrium, Movies Under the Stars and The Sanctuary, an outdoor, adult-only lounging area.ROYAL CARIBBEAN
The last of its trio of three cruise behemoths, Independence of the Seas, is due out in May. At 160,000 tons, these will hold the title of ''world's biggest cruise ships'' until Royal Caribbean's mammoth 220,000-ton, 5,400-passenger Project Genesis ship comes out in 2009. Independence, like its sister ships, will feature a surfing wave machine, rock-climbing wall and ice-skating rink. The ship will spend its inaugural season in Europe.SCENIC TOURS
This tour company will launch two new luxury river cruisers, the Scenic Sapphire and the Scenic Emerald, on the Rhine and Danube rivers this summer. Most cabins on both ships will have private balconies, with butler service on upper-deck accommodations. Two more new ships will be added in 2009.SILVERSEA
The line has bought the former World Discoverer and is refitting and renaming it Silver Dawn for launch sometime this spring. The 6,072-ton ship will sail it in Arctic, Iceland and Greenland in summer, Antarctica and South America in winter. Cabins are being reduced from 175 to 132 and specialty restaurants added.FAREWELLS
One of the most famous ships afloat, the venerable Queen Elizabeth 2, will go to Dubai this fall to become a permanently moored hotel. The Delta Queen paddlewheeler is being retired this fall after decades of sailing on America's rivers. Royal Caribbean's Sovereign of the Seas, which was the first really big, really elaborate cruise ship when it debuted in 1988, is leaving Royal Caribbean and the American market to join the fleet of Spanish cruise operator Pullmantur, a sister company. NCL America's Pride of Hawaii is leaving Hawaii this month to serve the British market as the Norwegian Jade.