If you have your eye on the high seas this year, you’re not alone: Some 20.3 million cruisers are forecasted to take a cruise vacation in 2012 (according to the industry analyst folks at Cruise Market Watch), and with the boatloads of new offerings, it’s evident that today’s cruise base has far surpassed the newlywed and nearly dead. So skip out on the cookie-cutter cruises and sail into new horizons instead, courtesy of one of these innovative cruise itineraries.
Sea Voyager Expeditions (courtesy of Sea Voyager Expeditions)
Best Cruise Itinerary for Adventure Seekers
A brand-new cruise line for 2012, Sea Voyager Expeditions is striving to carve a niche for itself by offering expedition sailings to some of Latin America’s hottest ecotourism destinations. Sea Voyager’s first sailings are slated to roll out in April with robust offerings in fauna- and wildlife-rich destinations in Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, and Ecuador on the roster. We’re particularly keen on the "Cartagena, Colombia, to Balboa, Panama, with Panama Canal Crossing" itinerary aboard the 60-passenger M/V Sea Voyager, leaving from the UNESCO World Heritage colonial city of Cartagena, Colombia, and taking in prime hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, and swimming stops in off-the-path Colombian ports, including Tayrona National Park, the San Bernardo Islands, and Isla Fuerte, as well as the San Blas Islands in Panama, before transiting the Panama Canal.
Why They Will Love It: Flexible itineraries – amendable based on guests’ whims – focus on areas of raw wilderness, off-the-path villages, and indigenous peoples. Each sailing is accompanied by experienced naturalists and guides who lead excursions like rain forest hiking, kayaking in hidden bays, bird-watching, snorkeling, and more. In the above-mentioned cruise itinerary, guest can expect encounters with the Kuna Yala tribe of the San Blas Islands, and may also have the opportunity (time and weather permitting) to experience part of the Panama Canal crossing in a zodiac, while in Gatun Lake.
More Info: A 9-night sailing is scheduled on August 31 from Cartagena; from $2,620 per person for early bookings; www.seavoyagerexpeditions.com.
Star Flyer (courtesy of Star Clippers)
Best Cruise Itinerary for Culture Vultures
Sailing between the European cultural capitals that line the Baltic Sea is certainly nothing new, but come May, doing so by a tall sailing ship (à la the Vikings), via Star Clippers’ new Baltic cruise itineraries, will be possible on the line’s 170-passenger Star Flyer. While numerous cruise itineraries are scheduled, we particularly like the three back-to-back 10- to 11-night Sweden, Russia, and Finland offerings, scheduled to sail round-trip from museum-packed Stockholm, taking in the UNESCO world heritage site of Tallinn, Estonia; culturally saturated St. Petersburg; and design-savvy Helsinki, Finland; as well as less-trodden stops in the medieval walled island city of Visby in Sweden or the ports of Hanko and Mariehamn in Finland.
Why They Will Love It: Experience a mix of the Baltic Sea’s most popular bordering cities, alongside smaller, less-visited ports bursting with their own cultural lures. Be immersed in the best of the Baltic lands of the Vikings and the Eastern Empire of the Tsars, thanks to the cruise line’s signature extended port stays, allowing visitors extra time for ogling the oeuvres at the museum or savoring local cuisine.
More Info: The 10- to 11-night Sweden, Russia, and Finland itineraries cited above embark June 30, July 10, or July 21; from $3,398 per person; www.starclippers.com.
Disney Fantasy (courtesy of Disney Cruise Line)
Best Cruise Itinerary for Families
Making her maiden voyage in March, Disney Cruise Line’s newest ship, the 4,000-passenger Disney Fantasy, will replicate many of the features of her heralded sister ship, the Disney Dream (like the AquaDuck – the first water coaster at sea). But Fantasy will one-up the whimsy and creativity of the Disney cruise experience with new pool deck features, elaborate stage shows, and ship-wide interactive, state-of-the-art technology. The boat will sail Caribbean itineraries, primarily alternating eastern (St. Maarten and St. Thomas) and western (Grand Cayman, Costa Maya, Cozumel) ports, with a stop at Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay.
Why They Will Love It: Expect high-tech, family-friendly entertainment, like a Muppets-inspired adventure game and an animation-themed dinner show. Kids will go gaga for the 1,800-square-foot AquaLab water play area, equipped with an assortment of jets, geysers, and bubblers, while parents can seek out serenity at the adults-only Satellite Falls splash pool on the deck above, rounded out by an evening in Europa, an 18-and-over entertainment district. Plus, plan on family-friendly Caribbean excursions like stingray snorkeling and dolphin swims, and of course, lots of time spent frolicking on the beach.
More Info: Year-round 7-night sailings depart from Port Canaveral, Florida (just a stone’s throw from Walt Disney World); from $959 per person; www.disneycruise.com.
Riviera (courtesy of Oceania Cruises)
Best Cruise Itinerary for Foodies
Upscale Oceania Cruises’ 1,250-passenger Riviera – launching in April 2012 – is poised to raise the bar on the epicurean experience at sea, following in the footsteps of sister ship Marina, the first purpose-built vessel dedicated to a culinary-minded clientele. Slated for a series of Mediterranean sailings through fall, before repositioning to the Caribbean for winter, we’re particularly keen on October’s 10-night “Bon Appétit Wine & Food Festival” sailing from Athens to Rome, with port calls in Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, and Monaco. The themed cruise itinerary (a first for the line in 2012) will welcome aboard a panel of notable chefs, wine experts, and editors from Bon Appétit magazine.
Why They Will Love It: Riviera boasts 10 dining venues (eight of which are inclusive, including a French bistro by Chef Jacques Pépin, a steakhouse, an Asian-inspired eatery, and more) – a staggering number for a ship of its size. Oenophiles won’t want to miss the private-dining option at La Reserve by Wine Spectator, where Wine Spectator editors pair premium vintages with seven-course dinners. Plus, cruisers can hone their own kitchen skills in the hands-on Bon Appétit Culinary Center, and tack on extras like chef-accompanied visits to in-port markets.
More Info: The Riviera offers assorted 10 to 15-night itineraries in the Mediterranean (April to November) and Caribbean (November and December) in 2012; from $1,999 per person, or $3,049 per person for the “Bon Appétit Wine & Food Festival” sailing on October 14; www.oceaniacruises.com.
Deep Ocean Expeditions (courtesy of Deep Ocean Expeditions)
Best Cruise Itinerary for History Buffs
With the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking approaching in April, a duo of savvy cruise operators are catering to history buffs with adventurous spirits (a big pocketbook doesn’t hurt either). Deep Ocean Expeditions takes up to 30 clients out on two-week expeditions aboard the R/V Keldysh (a vessel chartered from an oceanographic institute) to the site of the Titanic wreck, set about 380 miles off Newfoundland’s coast. A staggering $59,680 pays the cruise fare, which includes an 8- to 10-hour dive to the shipwreck site in a 7-foot-wide Russian Mir submersible, designed for three passengers. For a less extreme cruise option, the Titanic Memorial Cruise is offering two sailings on chartered ships: Fred Olsen Cruise Lines’ 1,309-passenger Balmoral, which will trace the Titanic’s original intended route from England to NYC, or the 694-passenger Azamara Journey, slated to travel round-trip from NYC, with a stop in Halifax.
Why They Will Love It: Memorials above the ship’s wreck site on April 15 are planned on both Titanic Memorial Cruise itineraries. All three voyages will be steeped in Titanic history, with a rich roster of onboard lecturers and historians, wreck experts, authors, and relatives of Titanic survivors expected to attend.
More Info: Deep Ocean Expeditions’ 12-night expeditions leave from St. John’s Newfoundland, on July 1 (sold out), July 13 (sold out), July 26, or August 8; from $59,680 per person; www.deepoceanexpeditions.com.
The Balmoral’s 12-night memorial cruise embarks from Southampton, England, on April 8; rates from $4,018 (currently wait list only). Or, try the 8-night sailing from NYC on the Azamara Journey on April 10; from $4,900 per person; www.titanicmemorialcruise.com.
Hapag-Lloyd Cruises (courtesy of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises)
Best Cruise Itinerary for Nature Enthusiasts
Venture to the farthest reaches of the wilds of Russia, courtesy of this first-time offering from Hapag-Lloyd Cruises. Cruisers can set sail to circumnavigate the Sea of Okhotsk (on the far eastern fringes of Russia) in style, aboard a rare 5-star expedition ship, the 184-passenger MS Hanseatic. Excursion highlights include zodiac runs to the tiny unpopulated (unless you count the fur seals and sea lions) islands of Iony and Tyuleny, and the wildlife-rich Shantar and Malminskie Islands; hiking across the grassland tundra of Talan Island, of Taran Point on the Koni Peninsula, or of the Yamskiye Islands; and brown bear viewing on a zodiac ride from Cape Utholoskiy.
Why They Will Love It: The itinerary presents a dizzying array of pristine landscapes, defined by volcanoes, coniferous forest-blanketed mountains, tundra, glaciers, and geysers, all comprising natural sanctuaries for songbirds, birds of prey, seals and sea otters, brown bears, and more.
More Info: The 16-night expedition embarks on June 13 from Otaru, near Sapporo, Japan; from $10,810 per person; www.hl-cruises.com.
American Queen (courtesy of Great American Steamboat Company)
Best Cruise Itinerary for Nostalgia Lovers
This year marks the return of the fabled Mississippi River cruise, following a multi-year hiatus. April will see the launch of the Great American Steamboat Company’s 436-guest American Queen, billed as the largest and most lavish paddlewheel steamboat ever built, with a savory Southern-inspired menu helmed by top Mississippi chef Regina Charboneau: Sign up for one of the inaugural April sailings showcasing the New Orleans Jazz All-Stars, plucked straight from the Big Easy’s jazz scene. Or, look to American Cruise Lines’ 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi debut come August: With spacious staterooms, private balconies, and festive lounges headlined by Dixieland bands or Mark Twain impersonators, ACL scores points for its themed cruise itineraries, anchored on the Civil War and Mark Twain. Both cruise lines will operate the breadth of the Mississippi River System, leaning heavily toward port calls in Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Nashville, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.
Why They Will Love It: Cruisers can celebrate a slice of Americana with timeless voyages along the legendary rivers of the American heartland, bolstered by Southern-inspired hospitality, cuisine, and entertainment, as well as history- and culture-rich ports.
More Info: The Great American Steamboat Company offer 3- to 10-night sailings year-round; from $995/person; www.greatamericansteamboatcompany.com.
American Cruise Lines operates 7- to 14-night sailings come August (and continues on year-round, with a break in January and February); from $3,995 per person; www.americancruiselines.com.
Avalon Angkor (courtesy of Avalon Waterways)
Best Cruise Itinerary for Off-the-Path Explorers
Top-of-the-line river cruise operator Avalon Waterways is not only launching an intimate new luxury vessel in the coming year, but is also set to debut the first-ever Mekong River cruise itinerary between Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and Siem Reap in Cambodia. The colonial-inspired 32-passenger Avalon Angkor was custom-built by traditional craftsmen just for the job, featuring only 16 spacious staterooms, complete with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors and balconies. Explore lesser-visited villages in Vietnam (Cai Be, Sa Dec, Chau Doc) and Cambodia (like Prek Bang Kong, Angkor Ban, Udong), passing by floating markets, temple complexes, and pastoral rice paddy-pocked landscapes en route.
Why They Will Love It: The “Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia & The Mekong River” itinerary will mark the first time that cruisers will be able to transit this particular route nearly year-round – eliminating some seven hours of previously required land transfer time for travelers. Explore virtually untouched-by-tourism villages of Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as more popular draws like the ancient ruins at Siem Reap and the cultural and historical cities of Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City.
More Info: The 14-night vacation (broken down into seven nights by cruise and seven nights on land) embarks on select dates starting in September (and continues on year-round, with a hiatus in April and May), between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap (with an air transfer to Bangkok); from $3,459 per person; www.avalonwaterways.com.
Crystal Symphony (courtesy of Crystal Cruises)
Best Cruise Itinerary for Partiers
If attending Rio’s revelrous Carnival tops your bucket list, Crystal Cruises’ brand-new “Samba Serenade” itinerary is just the ticket to get you there with flair. The route will boast five maiden calls in party-hearty Brazil (Buzios, Ilha Grande, Paraty, Santos/São Paulo, and Itajai), kicking off with an overnight stop in Rio during the height of the Carnival festivities. Get your fix for samba and over-the-top entertainment at the Carnival, before recouping onboard the 922-passenger Crystal Symphony, outfitted with a casino, smattering of watering holes, and a karaoke-prone nightclub. Find more good times hopping between the wineries of Montevideo, Uruguay; sexy beaches of Punta del Este, Uruguay; or taking tango lessons in Buenos Aires.
Why They Will Love It: The cruise line can custom-tailor your Carnival experience at Rio’s Sambadrome, from grandstand seating to luxury VIP sky box suites to even participating firsthand – yes, marching in the parade, fully costumed, embedded in one of samba schools! Plus, cruise fares include $500 in onboard spending credit, good towards (among other things) wine and spirits in Symphony’s lounges and nightclub.
More Info: Embark on the 12-night sailing on February 20 from Rio de Janeiro; from $6,040 per person for early bookings, including airfare; www.crystalcruises.com.
Windstar Cruises (courtesy of Windstar Cruises)
Best Cruise Itinerary for Romantics
The intimate, laid-back-luxury ships of Windstar – dreamy yachts outfitted with billowing white sails, and boasting a passenger capacity of no more than 312 – are in and of themselves the stuff that romantic fantasies are made of. Enter a brand-new 2012 “Islands of Italy” itinerary that couples classic Italian sites (Rome, Pompei) with exclusive and oft-overlooked Italian islands, where dramatic landscapes, spectacular sunsets, and lingering meals with endless glasses of wine combine for a recipe for romance like no other. All three ships in Windstar’s fleet will alternate running the itinerary, each set to showcase new finishes from the midst of an $18 million refurbishment.
Why They Will Love It: The “Islands of Italy” voyages bring couples to the lush volcanic island of Ischia, the largest in the bay of Naples; Lipari, boasting beaches, castles, and archaeological sites; the active volcanic island of Stromboli; and glamorous Porto Cervo on Sardinia, known for its bustling cafes and boutiques. Tack on a boat tour to storied Positano on the Amalfi Coast, via Sorrento, along with a dose of French flavor at Porto Vecchio, in Corsica.
More Info: Select 7-night sailings in April, August, and October embark from Rome; from $2,199 per person; www.windstarcruises.com