Choose Your Cruise
Find a seagoing vacation that suits your travel tastes
among these five options
By Elizabeth Armstrong
To read more about these ships and their itineraries, visit the website of cruise discounter Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962.
For the Family
Choices, choices, choices ... the Allure of the Seas, the second of the Oasis-class giants built by Royal Caribbean International, offers plenty of 'em. The 5,400-passenger ship boasts 16 decks of space to eat, sleep, play and chill out, not to mention 37 stateroom categories that make it easy to find a configuration that fits your family's needs.
Royal Caribbean's meticulously organized children's program entertains young cruisers of all ages. Fisher-Price had a hand in developing the Royal Babies (for tykes 6 to 18 months) and Royal Tots (18 to 36 months) sessions, designed to encourage discovery and play. Adventure Ocean is divided into three age-specific tiers -- 3 to 5, 6 to 8 and 9 to 11 -- and keeps curious kids engaged through science labs, art projects and scavenger hunts. Meanwhile, teens can hang out at no-parents-allowed hideaways like the Fuel disco and the Living Room lounge.
Schedule some "together time" as a family at the 3-D movie theater, the ice-skating rink or the outdoor AquaTheater, which hosts diving and acrobatic performances. The more adventurous members of your clan can show off on the rock-climbing wall, zip line or surf simulator.
Adults in need of "me time" can pop into the kids-free Solarium and the Vitality at Sea Spa and Fitness Center for massages or classes in Pilates and yoga.
Twenty-six eateries keep many palates happy, with choices ranging from a cupcake shop, hot dog stand and 1950s-style diner to Brazilian-style meats at Samba Grill, tapas and cheeses at Vintages and Italian specialties at Giovanni's Table.
The Allure sails seven-night Eastern Caribbean and Western Caribbean cruises from Fort Lauderdale, FL, hitting St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Maarten, Jamaica, Cozumel in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and Labadee, Royal Caribbean's private beach.
On the other hand, perhaps you seek a starry-eyed escape for two. Bermuda has long been a dreamy destination for newlyweds -- or any couple wanting a romantic retreat. The 1,950-guest Celebrity Summit will make weeklong Bermuda-bound trips between May 6 and Aug. 26.
The ship leaves Bayonne, NJ, on a Sunday and arrives at King's Wharf on Wednesday morning, where it stays for about 56 hours. This gives you plenty of time to discover the many charms of Britain's oldest colony, where turquoise waters wrap 21 square miles of pink-sand beaches, purple bougainvillea, limestone cliffs and pastel-hued homes capped by sloping white roofs.
Bermuda is in the Atlantic Ocean, which means that it's spared the sticky, hot weather that can smother Caribbean locales farther south. Here, summer temps range from 75 to 85 degrees.
You'll notice a decidedly British flavor in this fishhook-shaped archipelago, where cricket is king, islanders take breaks for tea and businessmen pair Bermuda shorts with a proper jacket and tie. African influences weave through the culture, too, and can be heard in reggae and calypso music and in performances by the Gombeys, Bermuda's famous dancing and drumming troupes.
If you and your loved one prefer diversions of a sporty nature, you can cycle along a railway path, sign up for a day of reef fishing or snorkel over shipwrecks. Tranquil pursuits include sunset cruises, carriage tours and nighttime glass-bottom boat rides. Or, find a quiet al fresco spot to sip the signature drink, a Dark 'n' Stormy comprised of rum and ginger beer, and listen to the lullaby of tree frogs.
In January, the Summit will be upgraded with some of the features that have made Celebrity's newer Solstice-class ships such a hit. Among additions are the spa-inspired AquaClass category of veranda staterooms and its exclusive dining venue, Blu, which favors healthy Mediterranean fare. Also new: the ice-topped Martini Bar and the innovative Qsine, where menus are presented on iPads and food takes on a playful presentation (think spring rolls served in coiled springs).
Wines in Tuscany, olive oil in Corfu and tapas in Barcelona -- the Mediterranean offers a mouthwatering tableau for vacationers seeking to indulge their palate. Next year, the 694-passenger Azamara Quest serves up a buffet of alluring gems in this region on cruises of seven to 12 nights. You can start your trip in Venice, Athens, Istanbul, Rome or Nice on the Cote d'Azur.
Azamara Club Cruises designs shore excursions that delve deeper into local food culture. For example, passengers have learned about the oyster industry of the Dalmatian Coast in Mali Ston, Croatia. In this old town, which is surrounded by a three-mile defensive wall, visitors board a boat that ferries them to oyster and mussel beds, where they sample freshly prepared bivalves.
In Kotor, Montenegro, Azamara cruisers have called at the home of Vlasta Mandic, an architect and cookbook author. She welcomes her guests with a glass of homemade brandy, then shows them how to prepare a traditional dish of gnocchi with meat sauce.
In Marseille, France, a chef has greeted groups at the pier and whisked them away for a Provencal cooking lesson. Start by shopping the market stalls in Sanary-sur-Mer, then drive to a 19th-century house nestled amid vineyards and olive groves. Gather herbs in the kitchen garden and help the chef make lunch, picking up a few recipes along the way.
Temptations await on board as well, especially in the ship's specialty restaurants. Treat yourself to truffle and mushroom risotto at Aqualina and classic ribeyes and crab cakes at Prime C. The main dining venue, Discoveries, draws on Italian, Greek, French and Moroccan flavors.
And good news for lovers of the grape: Complimentary wines are served at lunch and dinner aboard the Quest. Bottled water, coffee and soft drinks are free throughout the day, too. It's all part of the inclusive pricing at Azamara Club Cruises, which also wraps onboard gratuities into the up-front rate.
For Nature Lovers
When it comes to sheer natural grandeur, it's hard to beat Alaska, a land of majestic wildlife and snowcapped peaks. And the best way to take it all in is by cruise ship.
Holland America Line's Westerdam embarks on weeklong jaunts to the 49th state from Seattle during the summer cruising season. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is a highlight of the "Alaskan Explorer" itinerary, as the ship spends a day in this marine sanctuary. Park rangers board the vessel from pilot boats to provide commentary, answer questions and help guests spot orcas, humpback whales, Steller sea lions, mountain goats and grizzly bears. Be sure to listen for the calving of glaciers, when chunks fall away from the massive walls of ice and crash into the sea below.
Here are some tips from the National Park Service to get the most out of the experience: Scout out a quiet and unobstructed viewing spot on deck, bring a pair of binoculars and be prepared for Alaska's ever-changing weather. Summer temperatures can range from 45 to 75 degrees, so wear layers and grab a rainproof jacket.
Adventures await in Alaska's other wild places. In Juneau, you can hop a bush plane and fly to bear country for a rare opportunity to observe these powerful mammals. Fish for salmon in Sitka -- it can be processed and shipped to U.S. addresses -- and hike through old-growth forests of cedar and spruce in Ketchikan.
Back on the 1,916-passenger Westerdam, travelers can take a free workshop led by Microsoft-trained staff and learn how to edit their digital vacation photos and videos. Or, sink into a seat in the Crow's Nest lounge and savor the 270-degree views, join a cooking class in the Culinary Arts Center or cozy up to the coffeehouse vibe of Explorations Cafe. More than 65 percent of cabins have private balconies -- book one of these to ensure you'll never miss a bit of Alaska's stunning landscapes.
For History Buffs
The bygone days of Northern Europe hold allure for casual and serious historians alike. A cruise through this fascinating region can bring to life tales of powerful warriors, seafaring adventurers and legendary kings and queens. It's all wrapped in a storybook setting of quaint fishing villages, rugged fjords and ancestral castles.
On a sailing aboard the 350-guest Minerva, you can immerse yourself in shoreside history lessons at no extra charge: Land excursions are included in the prepaid cruise rate, as are port charges, gratuities and an extensive program of guest speakers.
The Minerva will sail five Northern European voyages in summer 2012, covering destinations in the British Isles, France, Russia and the countries of Scandinavia. Cruises last about two weeks, and all depart from Portsmouth, England. The ship is small enough to nose its way into intriguing, remote harbors -- like Tobermory, a village of under 1,000 residents on Scotland's Isle of Mull.
Escorted by expert guides, passengers can enter the opulent life of Russian czars while roaming the State Hermitage Museum and Peter the Great's summer palace in St. Petersburg. In Sweden, view the merchant homes and 13th-century ramparts of Visby, or examine the beautifully restored 17th-century warship Vasa in Stockholm.
During a port call at Oban, Scotland, guests have an opportunity to tour Inveraray Castle, the seat of the Duke of Argyll, chief of the Campbell clan. Wander through the Viking museum in the Lofoten Islands of Norway, and contemplate the pretty waterfront that inspired Claude Monet in Honfleur, France.
Sailing for Swan Hellenic, a British company founded in 1954, the Minerva is a much-loved ship with a devoted following of travelers who prize its "country house" ambience. Early next year, the vessel is scheduled for a multimillion-dollar upgrade that will extend and redesign public areas inside and out and add new spaces such as a wraparound lounge on the top deck and an Internet facility. The 5,000-volume library, a Minerva hallmark, will remain unchanged.
The refurbishment, slated for completion by the end of February, also will increase the size of some staterooms and add balconies to others; this raises the number of veranda cabins from 12 to 44. The Minerva's mechanical systems will be upgraded as well, improving efficiency and environmental performance.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in November/December 2011. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.