The woman ahead of me waiting for check-in bubbled with enthusiasm as she asked: “Are you here for the poker cruise?”
She didn’t look like a card shark. And her embroidered jacket made it clear she was part of a dance club. I’d misheard her: I found out about 400 of the 2,500 guests on my cruise had booked to attend daily dance parties featuring five all-star polka bands.
It’s always more fun to socialize with people who have similar interests. That’s the reason why increasing numbers of ocean and river cruises are promoting themes to attract like-minded guests.
Into bridge or baseball, fitness or gourmet food? Want to mingle with singles or groove to heavy metal music? Believe me, there are cruises designed just for you.
The fastest growing trend in cruising is concerts at sea. Carnival Cruise Line is hosting nearly two dozen Carnival Live cruises in 2014 and 2015. STYX, Kansas, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon and Chicago have booked multiple oceangoing concerts. Other headliners include Olivia Newton-John and Trace Atkins. The concerts are arranged by Carnival but there’s an extra charge of from $20 to $100 (for VIP privileges) to attend.
Meanwhile, Norwegian Cruise Line has a loud lineup that includes a Kid Rock cruise, heavy metal festivals and an entire ship chartered for concerts by KISS. And MSC Cruises also offers a number of rock cruises with famous bands from the 70’s performing on board.
Dedicated bridge tournaments with touring pros are scheduled by private organizers on Crystal Cruises, but you don’t have to sign up for a specific cruise to join bridge lessons and duplicate events for prizes on most cruises of Crystal’s two ships in the Caribbean, Europe or Asia.
A three-night on-board Yahtzee Tournament on Royal Caribbean’s Enchantment of the Seas offers prizes including a free cruise for two.
Ever dream of slugging a fast ball from a major league pitcher or shooting the bull in a bull pen? MSC Cruises has made cruises with baseball stars a regular event. Among the players on the roster this year are Jim Fregosi, Ed Kranepool, Gorman Thomas and Ken Griffey Sr.
For hockey fans, Celebrity Cruises has turned a hat trick, getting four New York Rangers all- stars on one Rangers Legends cruise in August.
Several lines including Avalon Waterways, Crystal, Celebrity, Windstar and Princess promote golf-themed cruises hosted by touring pros, with opportunities to play on famous courses ashore.
Fitness and wellness
A range of spiritual, healthy and new age events happen at sea, from yoga conferences, to weight loss clinics, psychic fairs or UFO watches. They tend to be small group sessions arranged by shore-based organizations.
Many river cruises, such as A-Rosa and AMAWaterways include the opportunity to take excursions on bicycles. And an 8-day cycling cruise on Windstar from Barcelona to Lisbon includes daily easy to moderate bike touring in ports along the way including Alicante, Cartagena, Malaga and Tangier.
Turner Classic Movies books entire ships for their TCM classic movie cruises every year. The current venues have been aboard Disney Cruise Line, where Mickey Mouse and Goofy are replaced by Mickey Rooney and Alex Trebek. TV show hosts Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz always preside over screenings and special events.
Dancing with the Stars
Guests on cruises of 15 Holland America Line ships can pair up with professional dancers in on-board shows through the summer. In September, winners with the highest scores from each of the qualifying events will be notified they’ve won a free voyage in an ocean view stateroom for the Champions Cruise in December. The prize is the “Mirror Ball Trophy” and bragging rights to being the Dancing with the Stars at Sea champion.
Princess Cruises Love Boat Singles cruises include hosted get acquainted receptions with complimentary drinks and singles dining and dancing events. The line also will pair up room-mates for those who don’t want to pay single supplements. Many cruise lines offer special pricing for singles throughout the year and offer events geared to them so being solo at sea can be a lot of fun.
Food and drink
Many lines have special voyages with celebrity chefs and meals geared to the area of the world the ship is sailing. But increasingly there are cruises dedicated to in-depth looks behind the scenes and tastings.
Avalon Waterways offers extended wine cruises of as long as two weeks with guided visits to chateaus and cellars in Germany and France, with stays in Paris.
AmaWaterways themes a number of In Celebration of Wine cruises through the year on the Danube and in France, with guest winemakers and tastings on board and at wineries.
Whales, Trails and Ales is the theme of an Un-Cruise Adventure series of craft beer cruises on the Wilderness Adventurer from Seattle to the San Juan Islands. Tastings and brewery tours combine with whale watching, hiking and kayaking.
Azamara Club Cruises is marking the 70th anniversary of D- Day with visits to the landing sites and pivotal battlegrounds and small villages on the French coast.
Avalon has arranged guest speakers and private tours for a week-long Jewish history cruise on the Danube from Budapest to Passau and then an additional three days in Prague.
The polka spree at sea has become a perennial on MSC Cruises. This year’s events feature Jimmy Sturr and his Orchestra and eight other bands on week-long Caribbean cruises out of Miami. Princess Cruises hosts another long-running series of polka party cruises.
Yes, let’s not forget poker. The World Poker Tour’s tournament at sea has become so big that this year it’s on Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas. Other poker-themed cruises are scheduled on Celebrity Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line
Something to keep in mind is that while some themed cruises are organized by the cruise lines themselves, many are arranged by private companies either as whole ship charters or group bookings. Any travel agent can make the bookings on these private cruises, but there may be a premium or “participation fee” added to the fare that goes to the organizer.
And don’t worry if you like the itinerary of a cruise with a theme but don’t want to hop, shuffle and promenade in a polka party.
As my seven-day Caribbean cruise on MSC progressed, many of my fellow guests remained unaware of the accordion-fuelled festivities on board that included four all-star polka bands and dancing to all hours. But the tour operator had booked one of several clubs on the ship for private day and evening events and a regular schedule of entertainment continued to be offered on the rest of the ship.
When I peeked in to one of the festivities, though, I was invited by members of the group to join in on the fun. “After all, the more the merrier,” the dancing lady I’d met a check-in said.
Written by Wallace Immen
First published in World Traveler Spring/Summer 2014