The wonderful world of Cruising

A cruise combines the excitement of travel with the luxury and style of the ocean liner. And it opens up many new places to visit for groups. With more choice than ever, you might be surprised by what the market has to offer Tom Evans reports.

Heading towards a penguin colony with Hurtigruten

Heading towards a penguin colony with Hurtigruten

Cruises come in all shapes and sizes and GTOs now have a range of fantastic options to consider when planning a journey – including length of voyage, destinations and departure points, specialist activities, types of vessel and an assortment of excursions.
Liners leave from ports all over the world and groups can elect to travel from the British mainland, take the option of a fly-cruise or add a short voyage as an extra activity to an itinerary when visiting an area.
The world is your oyster, and to help pin point the different cruise lines around the world, at the end of this feature you will find a comprehensive map that lists all the major players in the market, and where they sail from and to.
The time spent on a cruise can vary immensely, from overnight trips to a 114-night round the world voyage. Most cruise lines now offer 3-, 4- or 6-day cruises and these are great options for those with budget limitations or those who do not want to spend their entire trip on a cruise.
Groups wishing to take a longer cruise do, however, have some wonderful destinations and routes to consider, including sailings from Southampton to Barbados, from Dover to Tallinn and from Liverpool to the Adriatic. Cruises provide the ability to see many different places in a relatively short space of time and a considerable benefit to GTOs is that they are fairly easy to plan; with no travel arrangements, hotel bookings or meals to sort out after boarding.
Another benefit of choosing a cruise as a group trip is the fact that there aren’t going to be many extra expenses, making it easier to budget.
A number of lines offer all-inclusive deals, and those that do not often include meals and entertainment in the booking price. Cruises also offer opportunities to explore places that you might not otherwise get to see, such as deserted islands, arctic wonders and the deep ocean – as well as cities that may be costly or not easy to reach by plane.
It is no wonder then that cruising is booming and now accounts for 11.7% of the total overseas package holiday market. Figures from the Passenger Shipping Association (PSA) show that British holiday makers took a record 1.62 million cruises in 2010, a 6% increase on the previous year. At the same time, cruising from British ports increased by 10%, with more than 650,000 people choosing to depart from the UK, while fly-cruises saw an increase of 3%. Over the five-year period from 2010 to 2014, 31 cruise vessels have been scheduled for delivery, further illustrating the optimism and continued success of the cruise sector. The figures, which are impressive considering the challenging year that most of the travel industry experienced, are attributed to greater value being offered by operators, as well as the high standards of service found on a cruise holiday. Yet the popularity of cruising is set to continue further, with the PSA forecasting that passenger numbers will reach 1.7 million in 2011, and a record breaking two million by 2014. A significant proportion of these are groups – although some are informal parties organised by friends who like the experience of sharing time together – and this number is growing.
The Mediterranean remains the most popular cruise destination for British travellers, with 43% of those booking a cruise choosing the region, whilst Northern Europe takes second place ahead of the Caribbean in third. Meanwhile, the introduction of more cruise options to less traditional destinations, such as the Amazon, Antarctic and Gulf States, and the diversity of liners, activities and cruise length, are changing the very nature of what a cruise can be and attracting new audiences. As William Gibbons, PSA Director, points out: ‘The sheer diversity of the cruise market means there is a holiday for everyone, whether it’s a cruise departing from the UK, an ultra-luxury experience in the Caribbean…or a photographic expedition to the fjords, many more people are getting onboard to discover a world of cruising.’
An increasing number of cruise lines are offering group packages and some are actively courting the group market, however recent figures on group travel in this sector are a little hard to come by.

A choice of vessels

The type of vessel chosen for a cruise can depend on the experience that you are seeking and the length of journey or destinations you choose.
The architecture, size and amenities vary greatly from ship to ship, with some able to carry more than 6,000 passengers over 16 decks, while others provide a more intimate environment, with room for just over 100 passengers over a couple of levels.
Royal Caribbean has six different class of ship, ranging from the Oasis class, which includes its newest and biggest vessels, to the Vision class, which are their most travelled liners and designed to go almost anywhere. The company’s ‘Oasis of the Seas’, along with its sister ship ‘Allure of the Seas’, is the largest cruise ship in the world – with a capacity of 6,296 guests – and truly is a feat of architecture and imagination. Measuring 1187 feet in length, it is designed around seven neighbourhood concepts, each with a distinct personality and range of sights and activities. Onboard guests will find the amphitheatre style AquaTheater and a revolutionary green public space, Central Park, home to more than 12,000 plants.

Dining onboard Fred. Olsen’s Balmoral

Dining onboard Fred. Olsen’s Balmoral

SeaDream Yacht Club, meanwhile, offers a different experience to big ship cruising. There is room for just 112 guests onboard its mega-yachts, where guests can enjoy the ultimate in luxury, privacy and pampering.
Another company offering a more intimate experience onboard yachtstyle vessels is Seabourn. Three of their ships carry just 208 passengers, while their newer ships, ‘Seabourn Odyssey’, ‘Seabourn Sojourn’ and ‘Seabourn Quest’, accommodate 450 guests. Innovative onboard features include Seabourn Square, which replaces the traditional reception lobby with a club-like room that combines a library and discreet guest services centre with a social lounge and konditerei-style coffee bar.
Windstar offers a slightly different cruising experience, with the choice of three magnificent looking sailing yachts that travel to nearly 50 nations. The ships feature towering triangular computer-operated sails and guests can enjoy alfresco dining underneath them on the teak-lined decks. The ships can accommodate between 148 and 312 guests and are available to charter.

Three tall ships, meanwhile, are operated by Star Clippers to destinations around the world. The company operates the largest barquentine and full-rigged sailing ships in the world. The four and five masted ships, ‘Star Clipper’, ‘Star Flyer’ and ‘Royal Clipper’, have been extensively re-furbished and provide the amenities and atmosphere associated with newer ships.
A range of mid-sized vessels are operated by Louis Cruises, which retain the look of a traditional cruise ship. Used primarily around the Mediterranean, the size of the vessel means that they are able to visit just about any port in the region and you can often walk straight down the gangplank to explore ashore.
Other lines that take the traditional approach with smaller or mid-sized vessels include Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines and the specialist services such as Hurtigruten.

A range of new cruise ships will appear on the seas over the next few years as lines replace old vessels or add to their fleet. Oceania Cruises’ new luxury cruise ship, ‘Marina’, was launched earlier in the year and is the fourth in the company’s fleet, joining ‘Regatta’, ‘Insignia’ and ‘Nautica’. Her sister ship, ‘Riviera’, is currently being built and will debut in April 2012. ‘Marina’ features 10 exceptional dining venues, a full-service spa and fitness centre and will carry 1,250 guests to the world’s most alluring ports in elegance and style.
The environmental credentials of cruising have been in the news recently and MSC’s latest ship, the ‘MSC Divina’, will, it claims, be a model for green cruises with a total of 1,739 cabins. The new vessel is expected to earn the top A rating for reducing carbon emissions from Shippingefficiency.org – a new website that allows users to consult independent energy efficiency ratings for ocean-going vessels.

MSC Cruise’s Sinfonia in port

MSC Cruise’s Sinfonia in port

Enhancing the cruise experience

Most cruise lines offer wonderful dining and leisure experiences, but some are adding to this with a range of themed cruises, specialist activities and learning opportunities.
Passengers onboard one of Celebrity Cruises’ ships, for example, can make the most of an assortment of activities designed to spark intellectual curiosity. The focus is on entertaining as well as learning with the ‘Celebrity Life experiences’, which include Hot Glass ShowSM, where attendees can witness the incredible art of glassblowing with an intimate demonstration. In addition, the line has introduced the ‘Celebrity Life Savor’ cruise series this year. Geared to those with a fine appreciation of food and wine, the special cruises will see a renowned guest chef or wine maker invited aboard to demonstrate different techniques and lead classes.
Those keen on outdoor fitness will be intrigued by Carnival Cruise Lines’ newest vessel, ‘Carnival Magic’. The ship’s innovative and expansive outdoor recreation area, portSquare, is an active cruiser’s paradise, featuring the first ropes course at sea and a huge outdoor fitness area. Guests can enjoy a round of golf on the two-level nine-hole miniature course and run along the 800-foot jogging path. The 3,690- passenger ‘Carnival Magic’ is set to debut in Europe with 7-, 9- and 12- night Mediterranean cruises from 1st May to 16th October 2011.
An extensive entertainment programme is offered by Norwegian Cruise Line, which stages a number of performances throughout an evening. Onboard its ships, guests can enjoy some wonderful musical productions, including Broadway shows, comedy and pianists in the bars. Additionally, the Blue Man Group, a world famous act that combines music, comedy and multimedia theatrics, can be enjoyed on the ‘Norwegian Epic’ liner. The wide-ranging programme ties in with the line’s free-style concept of cruising, which allows passengers to choose where and when they dine to fit in with different shows.
A number of cruise lines now offer themed cruises, especially during the quieter winter months. They can often prove good value for groups and cover a variety of activities or interest, from wine tasting and culinary experiences to Elvis-themed voyages. MSC, for instance, offers a transatlantic dance cruise, which includes lessons from professional dancers and costume evenings, while Crystal Cruises has a collection of themed cruises that cover digital filmmaking, jazz, big band and ballroom dancing, and floral design.
Meanwhile, Fred. Olsen Cruise Line’s new Vistas programme provides the opportunity for groups to indulge in a specialist subject or activity. The wide range of special interest cruises, further details of which can be found in the panel on the left, is brought to life by a team of world-renowned experts and provides a wonderful learning environment, where guests can attend informative talks and join excursions linked to the area of interest. In addition, many of the line’s cruises offer an exclusive package for golfers at an additional charge; Flagship Golf combines four rounds of golf, played at selected courses ashore, onboard professional tuition, practice sessions, and social activity for golfers and non-playing partners.

Travelling to different destinations

Hurtigruten’s MS Kong Harald

Hurtigruten’s MS Kong Harald

A growing number of cruise lines now sail from British ports, catering for the increasing number of customers who prefer not to fly. P&O Cruises is one of the largest lines operating from the UK, with seven ships based in Southampton. It offers a range of relatively short distance cruises to the Mediterranean, the Baltic and the Canary Islands, as well as more epic journeys, such as a 51- night voyage to Sydney.
Cunard also operates a selection of cruises from Southampton, including its famous transatlantic crossing to New York, which takes around seven nights.
Saga offers cruises from Dover and Southampton to the Arctic, Mediterranean, Canary Islands, Northern Europe and the Caribbean, while you can sail from almost any British port with Fred. Olsen.
Lines based overseas also offer sailings from British ports, primarily out of the main cruise port of Southampton. Celebrity Cruises provides the opportunity to sample an American-style of cruising while sailing from Southampton to the Mediterranean, Norwegian Fjords, Canary Islands and around Ireland, whilst MSC operates 13 cruises a year from the southern port, with a choice of 8 to 10-night itineraries to the fjords, the Baltics and Northern and Western Europe.

Cruising opens up destinations that other forms of travel are unable to reach and none are more remote than the Arctic and Antarctic Circles. Hurtigruten is one line that offers a comprehensive collection of voyages to remote, beautiful and dramatic coastlines in the far north and south. A range of popular sailings are offered along the Norwegian coast (you can read more on this in the ‘Searching for the Northern Lights’ section) and to more unusual destinations such as Greenland, which can take between 6 and 15 days. One of its unique cruises is the Polar Circle Quest, which departs from Buenos Aires and sails deep into the Southern Ocean to take passengers to the Antarctic Circle.
Exotic destinations, such as those in the Caribbean or Pacific Ocean, are great places to explore by cruise ship. The Virgin Islands, French West Indies, Barbados and Costa Rica can be seen with Windstar, on voyages lasting between 6 and 14 days.

One of Windstar’s yachts under sail in Porto, Portugal

One of Windstar’s yachts under sail in Porto, Portugal

Holland America, meanwhile, offers the opportunity to experience the Caribbean onboard their midsized ships and discover picturesque destinations that are not always accessible by larger vessels. Passengers can explore the line’s award-winning private island, Half Moon Cay, and choose from Eastern, Western or Southern cruises around the region. Alternatively, those looking to explore the Hawaiian Islands could take a 14- or 15-day cruise from San Francisco or Los Angeles with Princess Cruises.
Spirit of Adventure, meanwhile, offers a range of cruises to India and Sri Lanka. The two-week ‘Colour of India’ voyage balances days in vibrant cities, such as Mumbai and Colombo, with visits to traditional villages and the beautiful shores of Goa. Excursions on the enthralling ‘Colours of India’ cruise, meanwhile, allow passengers to get closer to and discover more about Indian culture, while the ‘Colonial Spice Ports’ cruise uncovers the colonial and indigenous histories of both Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
In response to strong demand for some of its more exotic itineraries, Seabourn will sail between Hong Kong and Singapore on five 14-day voyages in 2012, which include a call at the up and coming beach resort of Sihanoukville in Cambodia.
The Mediterranean is the most popular cruise destination for British holidaymakers and a number of lines offer services to its many ports and off shore islands. Groups can chose from 3 to 12-night cruises with Louis Cruises, which depart from France and Italy and travel to a range of ports including Rome, Venice, Barcelona and a number in the Middle East. Its widest range of itineraries are available between March and November, however winter sun cruises are offered and usually incorporate the Canaries and Madeira with southern Spain.
The Italian cruise line, and the largest operator in Europe, Costa Cruises, also offers a range of voyages around the Mediterranean, including trips to Croatia, Egypt, Greece, Slovenia and Romania. All ships have a certain Italian style and its large fleet means that regular sailings are available to most destinations.
Less traditional cruises to the Persian Gulf States are becoming more popular, with Dubai and Abu Dhabi, in particular, proving a big draw with their modern ports and tranquil beaches. Royal Caribbean has a 7-night round cruise to Dubai, sailing to Jordan and Abu Dhabi, while P&O Cruises sail its ‘Oriana’ vessel from Southampton to Dubai on an 18-night voyage.
MSC Cruises will deploy one of its top vessels, the 2,069 passenger capacity, ‘Lirica’, to Abu Dhabi and Dubai on a homeport basis from October 2011, further illustrating the area’s ambition to become an international cruise hub. The liner will offer 19 eight-day cruises,covering five destinations, between October and March 2012.

Attracting different audiences

As lines offer more cruises each year, many are attempting to differentiate themselves and attract new audiences, while retaining existing customers, by offering incentives, attractions and destinations aimed at particular target markets.
Some, such as Crystal Cruises and Cunard, reward regular passengers with membership to societies or clubs that provide onboard benefits and exclusive offers.
Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has been very successful in developing a loyal customer base, boasting over a 50% success rate in repeat bookings across its operation. The line has been targeting those looking for an experience, and not just a standard cruise, with its Vistas programme and is actively courting the group market with tailormade packages.

Relaxing in the Thermal Suite with Holland America Line

Relaxing in the Thermal Suite with Holland America Line

With the rise in the number of holidaymakers choosing to cruise, lines are having to re-think the different experiences they provide. Many are attempting to attract first time cruisers, who may be put off by the tradition of evening dress codes and formal dining, by offering a less regimented cruise experience. Norwegian Cruise Line prides itself on its ‘Freestyle Cruising’, which offers passengers greater choice and freedom during a voyage. The concept is popular with a diverse crowd, but especially with families who enjoy the flexibility it provides.
The ‘traditional’ cruise passenger market, consisting of adults over 45, is still as important as ever to lines and a number now operate adult only ships. P&O will transform ‘Oriana’ into an adult-only vessel at the end of 2011, while Saga specialises in cruises for passengers over the age of 50.
The higher end of the market is targeted by a number of lines, which offer five- and six-star cruises. Many in this category use smaller vessels, to provide a more intimate feel, and travel to exotic and prestigious destinations. Regent Seven Seas provides a highly-personalised, all inclusive service across its ultra luxury fleet, which is designed for guests in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Silversea, meanwhile, aims to attract the top end of the market by offering a butler service, spacious ocean-view suites and enrichment programmes.
Activities, unusual destinations and themes are used by a growing number of lines to tailor cruises to niche audiences. Hurtigruten targets those over 50 who are not regular cruisers with its voyages to the Arctic and Antarctic, Windstar attracts active and adventurous cruisers, while Holland America provides a choice of cruises for singles.

A select look at specialist cruises and group cruise operators

Specialist cruises are being offered by an increasing number of lines and tour companies to cater for niche interest groups and meet the demand for more active holidays.
A new programme of special interest cruises has recently been launched by FRED. OLSEN CRUISE LINES. With the strapline of ‘Rewarding Curiosity’, the Vistas range of cruises, which replaces The ArtsClub, provides groups with the opportunity to find out more about subjects that interest them. Guests are free to participate in specialist talks and activities as the will takes them, all at no extra cost – although there may be a small charge to take part in wine tasting.
The specialist cruises cover a wide range of themes, subjects and interests, and include ‘The History of Weather’, ‘Photography’, ‘Ballroom Dancing’, ‘Antiques’, ‘Chocoholics’, ‘The Archers’, ‘Agatha Christie’, ‘Sporting Personalities’, ‘Gardens and Gardening’, ‘Wine’ and ‘Comedy’.

You can book a ‘Chocoholics’ cruise with Fred. Olsen

You can book a ‘Chocoholics’ cruise with Fred. Olsen

The Vistas programme promises even more rewarding experiences than its predecessor through offering an expanded variety of practical talks and engaging lectures. In addition, guests will be able to take their new knowledge ashore, with the option to book an excursion linked to the subject of interest. For example, painting or photography enthusiasts may get the chance to visit an artist’s house, or a particularly scenic site.
A host of well-known guest speakers will share their vast knowledge with guests in 2011 including: Martin Saunders, the BBC wildlife cameraman; Mike Cowan, former England Cricketer and fast bowler; Dr. Mike Maloney, OBE, the former Group Chief Photographer of Mirror Group Newspapers; Mike Purcell, watercolourist and broadcaster; and Rosalind Cooper, wine educator.
A dedicated new website, www.fredolsencruises-vistas.com, has been created to support the new onboard experience and provides information about guest speakers and the different themes available to groups.

Meanwhile, RAMBLERS WORLDWIDE HOLIDAYS has expanded its highly successful ‘Cruise & Walk’ programme, which it organises in association with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines. The holidays range from 4 to 21 nights in duration and combine luxury cruising with a new destination each day, to explore on foot. Diverse walking programmes take in coastal ports, surrounding countryside, local sights and cultures, with local guides often used to take groups around towns and cities.

Ramblers travellers spend time onshore as part of a UK cruise

Ramblers travellers spend time onshore as part of a UK cruise

Cruises around Norway, including ‘Fjords of Norway’ and ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’, are some of the most popular trips that the company organises, while the new ‘Norwegian Winter’ cruise travels to beyond the Arctic Circle, mixing daytime city sightseeing with views of the spectacular Northern Lights at night.
In the springtime, coastal walking and sightseeing can be enjoyed in Portugal, Spain and Gibraltar on board the ‘Western Mediterranean’ cruise, while a winter sun trip, in November, travels to Portugal, the Canaries and Cape Verde.
Groups can sample Europe’s northern capitals of culture on one of the ‘Baltic Discovery’ cruises, while those wishing to explore destinations closer to home can take advantage of the ‘Roaming Around Britain’ programme, which allows groups to enjoy some superb coastal walks.
Some cruise operators are simply not set up to accommodate group business directly, with calls often answered by retail sales administrators inexperienced in the groups market and its specialised focus. A number are adapting to the needs of groups and now offer a dedicated service, but GTOs may like to consider using one of the group cruise specialists who can assist with the booking process, help tailor packages and negotiate rates. CRUISE FOR GROUPS, for instance, is a cruise business dedicated to group cruising and aims to provide GTOs with a one stop shop when booking a voyage. The company can help with brand selection, group allocations and negotiating the best deal for group cruises. Ship visits, which are offered frequently throughout the year, can also be arranged and provide a great way of assessing ship facilities, such as cabin layouts and wheelchair accessibility.
A number of liners, including HURTIGRUTEN, LOUIS CRUISES, FRED. OLSEN and SPIRIT OF ADVENTURE, do offer incentives for groups though, such as special fares, cabin upgrades, complimentary activities or room hire, free onboard spend and assistance with travel planning. GTOs are advised to check with individual lines about the benefits they provide or use a group cruise specialist who can help find the best deals.

Round the world cruises

Sailing around the globe is viewed as one of the great travel experiences and offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the world’s most famous cities, beautiful islands, intriguing cultures and natural wonders in a single trip.
There is no other voyage to match the thrill, excitement and luxury of cruising around the world and in 2012 SAGA are offering a 114-night cruise, taking a westbound route from Southampton to visit 38 ports.

The deck of the Saga Ruby

The deck of the Saga Ruby

The journey is taken onboard ‘Saga Ruby’, which takes passengers back to a more gracious era of ocean cruising with her classic lines, broad decks and elegant furnishings. Evening shows, classical recitals, lectures and a spa add to the experience and provide something for everyone, day or night.
The trip begins with a classic transatlantic crossing to the Caribbean and South America, after which a host of Pacific islands, such as Papeete in Tahiti, are explored. New Zealand and Australia are then visited, before the mysteries of the Far East, India and Oman are investigated. There is then the chance to explore Egypt, Malta and Lisbon, before the liner sails back home to the UK.
Before setting off, a welcome cocktail party and Captain’s Dinner provides the opportunity to meet fellow cruisegoers, the Captain and senior crew members and, during the trip, guests can enjoy fine dining, excursions and a range of onboard activities.
A number of other cruise lines also offer round the world trips, with the choice of eastward and westward routes.
In 1922, CUNARD was the first operator to offer a cruise around the globe and to celebrate the 90th anniversary of this elegant tradition, two of its famous ocean liners, ‘Queen Mary 2’ and ‘Queen Elizabeth’, will depart from Southampton on 10th January for 107 and 108 days respectively.
P&O offers two round the world trips a year, with a 98-night cruise onboard its ‘Aurora’, which follows the traditional westward route, and a 97-night cruise onboard the ‘Oriana’ that takes the more unusual eastward route.
SEABOURN, meanwhile, will offer a 109-day world cruise from Fort Lauderdale, in Florida, to Venice, Italy onboard the ultra-luxury liner, ‘Seabourn Quest’ when it launches in June.
Also sailing out of Fort Lauderdale, HOLLAND AMERICA has a 112-day round-trip which travels westwards around Cape Horn to Antarctica, the South Pacific, Asia, India, and the Mediterranean.

Searching for the Northern Lights

The natural phenomenon of the Northern Lights, caused by electrically charged solar particles passing into the Earth’s atmosphere, have drawn visitors to the north of Norway for years and can be viewed today on a cruise to the area.
All HURTIGRUTEN Northern Lights Cruises operate in the region where sightings are most likely, with the best time to visit being in late autumn and in winter/early spring when the lights are at their most frequent.

Northern Lights 1

The company offer a series of classic voyages, including a 7-day trip north and a 6-day trip south along the Norwegian coast, as well as a round sailing that combines both routes and takes 12 days. On the round trip, passengers join the ship in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, to embark on a journey that takes them from the beautiful south, to the wild and remote north, and then back again. Regular optional excursions are available along the way and the ports that are passed during the night on the northbound voyage are visited by day on the return south, ensuring you get to fully experience this fascinating coast.

Northern Lights 2

Those looking for a more active experience may like to consider one of Hurtigruten’s Northern Lights Adventure cruises. The trips vary in length, between 6 and 11 days, and offer the opportunity to sledge with reindeer, cook King Crab cakes up on deck and learn about the Arctic night sky while hunting the lights.
The northern part of Norway is sometimes referred to as the ‘land of light and darkness’ – the midnight sun in summer and the northern light in the winter. The phenomenon of midnight sun, which can only be seen north of the polar circle, can be experienced on one of Hurtigruten’s summer cruises, from May to July. Travelling during 24 hours of continuous sunlight, the trips at this time of year offer the opportunity to sightsee day and night and enjoy a number of different excursions, such as attending an intimate midnight concert or visiting Svartisen – Norway’s second largest glacier.
Discounts of up to 30% are available to groups, depending on the season, and the company has a dedicated groups department based in the UK.