Trying to find the right cruise line for your first cruise? Whatever your taste there’s a holiday for you – here are some top tips to help you choose
Dining on a cruise
All cruise lines have different set ups when it comes to dining. Allocated tables are available on most cruise ships, with the larger ships having two sittings: “early” at about 6.30pm and “late” at about 8.30pm. Some people like this, but for those who don’t many cruise lines also offer flexible “anytime” dining in a section of their main restaurant. You can also eat any time you want when the buffet restaurants are open. Disney Cruise Line has one of the most innovative systems: passengers are rotated between the three main restaurants – with their personal waiters – so that everybody gets the chance to experience Animator’s Palate as well as the magical atmosphere of the other restaurants.
The bigger the ship the more choice there is: Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas has 11 complimentary restaurants – plus room service – and 17 speciality restaurants with a cover charge ranging from $3 to $40. So the general rule is that most ships will have one or two main dining rooms plus a self-serve restaurant, which are all free, and mid-to-large ships will have several cover-charge restaurants in addition.
Dinner is followed by Broadway-style shows on the big American ships and something similar to End Of Pier shows on the British ships. They’re not for everyone, but you can also cuddle up for Movies Under The Stars on Princess Cruises, alternative comedy on Norwegian Cruise Lines and ballroom dancing on Fred. Olsen. Some ships have big screens in one of their lounges for cinema films, like Voyages To Antiquity’s Aegean Odyssey, while other cruise lines like P&O and Thomson offer pub quizzes and karaoke. There’s always something to do, even if it’s a nightcap on deck gazing at the stars.
Sports facilities on board
Smaller ships have their advantages – SeaDream Yacht Club’s two sister ships have a water sports marina with glass-bottom kayaks, paddle boards, water skiing, sail boats and snorkelling gear to borrow, all free.
All cruise ships have at least one pool and the bigger ones have three or four – but don’t expect any to be very big: water is very heavy. That’s why splash pools for children are so good (most of the big ships have them) and spas for adults are a blessing.
The gyms on large ships are excellent with plenty of equipment for all. Norwegian Cruise Line’s Breakaway has TRX suspension training, Flywheel indoor cycling and Fight Klub. Small ships have just one or two pieces of kit, but even the 50-passenger Hebridean Princess has a tiny gym – plus bicycles to borrow when you go on land.
Activities, classes and lectures
Broadly speaking, cruise ships with itineraries aimed at guests who are interested in history and culture will have university professors, writers, politicians and experts as onboard lecturers.
Some of the lecturers are well-known names, for instance former journalist and politician Martin Bell talked about his experiences on cruise lines such as Hebridean Island Cruises and Voyages to Antiquity, and Fred. Olsen regularly welcomes former politicians and wine experts.
Many of the British-oriented cruise lines like Fred. Olsen have classes in leisure interests such as dance, art, cookery and perhaps computer classes or bridge lessons. There may be a pub quiz or bingo in the lounge.
Thomson tends to have actors, sports stars and best-selling writers to entertain passengers, while MSC Cruises has lecturers for long cruises, where there are lots of sea days, and these will range from history and culture lectures to cookery shows, language lessons and dance classes.
Royal Caribbean’s lectures are wide-ranging: from art history to photography and nutrition to the US space programme, while Disney Cruise Line uses its staff from all over the Walt Disney empire to give talks.
There are themed cruises too, like P&O’s Strictly Come Dancing trips, with professional dancers and even members of the show’s judging panel.