Before we all get caught up in guessing about cruise trends and goals for 2015 — such as which major cruise line will be the first to announce Havana as a port of call — let’s look back at some favorite cruise experiences from 2014:
▪ Best new onboard activity: Simulated sky-diving on Quantum of the Seas, cruising out of New Jersey.
Hands down, RipCord was my most exhilarating minute at sea. RipCord uses wind tunnel technology, forcing air at high speeds from the bottom of a glass chamber in which you fly, with a trainer’s help, wearing a flak suit, helmet and goggles.
Was I anxious during the 20-minute preparation and video? Yes. Did the one-minute adventure seem more like five minutes? Yes. Would I do it again? Yes, absolutely. RipCord beats the dangers associated with jumping out of an airplane, from which the typical free fall is only about 45 seconds. You use less physical effort than you would while snorkeling in a choppy sea.
▪ Best meal in a contemporary ship restaurant without a fee: Tropicana on Norwegian Getaway, cruising out of Miami.
My thick, tender pork chop (loin, center cut) with tasty greens was the kind of cruise ship main course that I expect at a specialty restaurant that charges an extra fee. There’s no fee at Getaway’s Tropicana, themed on a 1940s Miami supper club, with Latin music and a dance floor. On the night that my wife and I dined at the restaurant, a fine combo played a mean mambo that drew a passel of passengers to dance.
▪ Best itinerary: The Mediterranean French and Italian Riviera on Star Pride.
On a six-night voyage from Barcelona to Rome’s port of Civitavecchia, Windstar Cruise’s Star Pride spent a day at each of five ports, Sete and Sanary-sur-Mer, France; Monte Carlo, Monaco; Portofino and Portoferraio (Elba), Italy. We tendered to Sanary and Portofino, docked near the centers of Sete, Monte Carlo and Portoferraio.
Port picking for small ships is an art. It was no coincidence that we arrived in Sanary on the one day of the week for the busy market crammed with stalls of cheeses, veggies, fruit, fish and bowls of fresh bouillabaisse. Cruise execs for small ships know that their itineraries and special shore excursions are even more important than the amenities onboard.
▪ Best onboard place for people watching: International Café on Regal Princess (and Royal Princess), new out of Fort Lauderdale.
Grab a latte ($2.50), day or night, a complimentary snack such as a panini, individual pecan pie, or chocolate mousse. The café is in the Princess Piazza, which sits grandly at the heart of an elegant three-deck atrium done up in marble, with sparkling light fixtures, staircases, theatrical balconies, and water fountains. It is the hub of the ship, a place to hang out for hours and be entertained by the parade of passengers as well as scheduled entertainment such as a pianist or string quartet.
▪ Best entertainment surprise: MSC Divina out of Miami.
The year 2014 was a good one for entertainment at sea, as the highly competitive contemporary cruise lines continue to improve shows and venues, with infusions of talent and imagination.
During a week in the Caribbean aboard the very European MSC Divina, I was thrilled to see a series of shows that were not typical material for a North American audience. Singers with opera voices performed on a stage that accommodated more than two dozen performers for a curtain call. My favorite evening was a French show, a sort of Moulin Rouge (with can-cans, without bare breasts) that drew strong applause.
▪ Best shopping decision in a foreign port: Eschewing the swimsuits on St. Bart’s.
For cruising without your luggage (lost, unaccountably by American Airlines on a nonstop flight between Miami and St. Maarten), SeaDream’s casual ships may offer the best short-term situation; you don’t need much more than a swimsuit.
At our first port stop, I set out to buy a replacement swimsuit. Problem was, St. Bart’s may be the Caribbean’s most expensive place to buy any kind of attire. In the first clothing shop I entered, swimsuit prices began at 150 euros (at the time, about $200). At the next shop, the proprietor recommended an embroidered suit at 200 euros, explaining that the design and material were new and came from France. If a more “normal” price were my goal, he said, why not buy his least expensive swimsuit at 105 euros. Reluctantly, I decided to stay out of the water until my suitcase arrived, which it did, a day and an island later.
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com