Cruises With Brains: Get Educated While Having Fun on the Seas

by  Donna Tunney | Jan 21, 2016
Stargazing at Sea
Stargazing at Sea / Princess Cruises

These days, cruisers are getting more to share on social media than selfies from the pool deck. In a delightful mix of intellectual stimulation and plain old fun, more cruise lines are developing programs on and off the ship that are part-enrichment and part-entertainment, geared toward passengers who want a more meaningful sailing experience as they enjoy their vacation. The activities are often created through partnerships with well-regarded brands and celebrities, and a majority of them are complimentary to boot. (Shore excursions, of course, typically will still cost extra.) Whether you love animals or oceanography or the culinary arts, here are just some of our favorite enrichment experiences at sea.

Holland America Line has teamed up with BBC Earth to launch a whole roster of performances, screenings, kids' events, and theme cruises starting April. Highlights include concerts that delve into the wilderness of the polar region -- featuring BBC’s “Frozen Planet” footage alongside live music -- plus interactive game shows that promise to uncover “the weird, wonderful, and obscure in our natural world.” For those who are really, really into the BBC Earth TV shows, theme sailings provide exclusive access to the shows’ creators, who will share behind-the-scenes stories of how their popular series are produced. And junior cruisers will get in on the adventures, too, with onboard explorer trails, workshops, and animal and dinosaur fact shows. The BBC Earth experience will be on every HAL ship come September.

For those who want to dive into -- not just sail on -- the world’s deep waters, Paul Gaugin Cruises is the line to sail with. It’ll be hosting environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of Jacques Cousteau and founder of the Ocean Futures Society, on four South Pacific cruises aboard the luxury Paul Gauguin Explorer this year. Onboard, cruisers can attend a series of lectures and videos of Cousteau’s work as one of the world's most renowned oceanographers. Then, as the ship cruises through the Society Islands and visits the Tuamotu Archipelago -- a collection of low-lying atolls known for its vibrant underwater ecosystem -- take several dives with the master explorer himself.

It seems like Princess Cruises’ passengers just can’t discover enough of the world. Perhaps that’s why the line continues to expand its partnership with Discovery at Sea, an alliance formed in 2015 with the Discovery Channel's iconic brands. From Animal Planet, for example, comes shore excursions such as Whale Quest in Alaska and Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica. Love Shark Week? Attend onboard parties, compete in trivia games, and dine on culinary bites, all themed to the celebration. Then there’s the Science Channel partnership, which, among other activities, guides guests through stargazing and identifying the major constellations from the top deck of the ship. For younger passengers, a kids and teens program features age-appropriate science experiments from Mythbusters, Animal Planet-themed activities, and more.

If your version of the perfect vacation spotlights a top-of-the-line culinary program, you’ll find the motherlode aboard Oceania Cruises' Riviera. Jacques Pepin, one of France's top chefs, is the line’s executive culinary director, and the Rivieria’s culinary center clues guests into the secrets of master chefs from across the globe. We’re not talking about your typical cooking demo -- rather, each cruiser is assigned their own workstation in the “teaching kitchen” and, under the guidance of said chefs, prepares fine dishes themselves. And don’t forget the Sweets for the Sweet class, in which guests learn about all things chocolate, as well as how to make decadent desserts and to pair dessert wines and cocktails with their creamy concoctions. The program extends to port calls, too, where cruisers accompany the instructor chefs on shopping excursions to local markets before getting busy in the kitchen.

For the adventuring sharp shooters, Lindblad Expeditions, which formed an alliance with National Geographic in 2004, has a focus on photography. Fleet-wide, the Nat Geo influence is seen in programming that features naturalists, scientists, and other professionals. Many of the line's itineraries also include instruction by Nat Geo photographers or other certified pros. The June 3 departure of a 10-day cruise, for example, will feature Macduff Everton, a contributor at National Geographic Traveler magazine whose works are on display in top museums like New York's Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photography, Paris' Bibliothèque Nationale, and London's British Museum. And, don't worry -- the line reassures that you can come with either a smartphone or a DSLR or anything in between and "return home with the best photos of your life."

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