By: Elissa Richard
We’ve navigated our way across the seven seas to single out the top 10 cruises in 2012 that are most likely to be making waves, from new behemoth boats plying Caribbean and Mediterranean waters to intimate luxury vessels exploring emerging, off-the-path ports. Make your maritime match with new itineraries geared to families, foodies, techies, history buffs, and more. Plus, be sure to check out the hottest cruise promotions on the travel deals of ShermansTravel.com, and to keep up-to-date on the latest cruise industry happenings over at our blog. Preview the hottest new ships and itineraries with our Cruises in 2012 slideshow.
Best Big Ship Debut
Cruise Line: Carnival
Ship Name: Carnival Breeze
2012 Itineraries: Mediterranean; Eastern and Southern Caribbean
Scheduled to launch June 3, Carnival’s newest addition to its “Fun Ship” fleet (and the latest installment in the line’s popular Carnival Dream-class ships) will be the 130,000-ton, 3,690-passenger behemoth Carnival Breeze. Oozing vibrant Caribbean-inspired tropical interiors and a host of exciting innovations, expect expansive top-deck areas including WaterWorks, an aqua park anchored by two twisting waterslides; SportsSquare, an outdoor recreation area touting mini-golf, an alfresco fitness area, and the first-ever ropes course at sea; The Lanai, a wraparound promenade complete with cantilevered whirlpools; and a massive poolside LED screen for movie screenings under the star. New venue highlights will include the RedFrog Pub, featuring Caribbean-inspired libations and light bights and its own private label beer, as well as Cucina del Capitano, a family-style Italian eatery. The Breeze will debut with a summer schedule of 12-night Mediterranean voyages out of Barcelona before repositioning to Miami come November for a series of 6- to 8-night Southern and Eastern Caribbean deployments.
Caribbean 6-night cruises from $469/person; Mediterranean 12-night sailings from $1,149/person; www.carnival.com/breeze.
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Best River Ship Debut
Cruise Line: Viking River Cruises
Ship Names: Viking Freya, Viking Idun, Viking Njord, Viking Odin, Viking Embla, and Viking Aegir
2012 Itineraries: Various European rivers
River cruise industry power player Viking River Cruises has announced the 2012 debut of a whopping six new “Longships,” an unprecedented number of vessels launching in a single season and a testament to the booming European river cruise market. The state-of-the-art 190-passenger ships, designed by the same firm behind the luxury Yachts of Seabourn and heralded Disney Dream, will feature sophisticated and spacious suite-style staterooms (most come with verandas and/or French balconies; two Explorer Suites will be the largest river cruise suites in Europe, with wraparound verandas touting 270-degree views), an indoor/outdoor dining venue with retractable floor-to-ceiling glass doors, and sustainability features like hybrid engines, solar panels, and an onboard organic herb garden. Borrowing names from Norse mythological figures, Viking Freya, Viking Idun, Viking Njord, and Viking Odin will be christened in March 2012, and joined by Viking Embla and Viking Aegir in July and August, respectively. Four more Longships will join the line’s fleet by 2014. The six vessels are scheduled to sail some of Viking’s more popular European itineraries like the 14-night Grand European Tour, 9-night Tulips & Windmills, and 7-night Romantic Danube, as well as special Christmas market sailings.
European river 7- to 14-night cruises from $1,656/person, including daily guided shore excursions, select beverages (with beer and soft drinks, new for 2012), and onboard Wi-Fi; www.vikingrivercruises.com.
Best Cruise Line Debut
Cruise Line: Sea Voyager Expeditions
Ship Name: M/V Sea Explorer
2012 Itineraries: Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama
Come April, adventure- and ecotourism-minded cruisers seeking some Latin American flair can look to brand-new cruise line Sea Voyager Expeditions, helmed by former executive director of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators and ecotourism expert Denise Landau. The 60-passenger, fully refurbished M/V Sea Explorer will explore off-the-path ports of Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama on 7- to 12-night itineraries jam-packed with active excursions anchored on hiking, kayaking, swimming, snorkeling, and more. Naturalists and guides will be on hand for expert interpretation and navigation of the fauna- and wildlife-rich destinations, like the rain forests of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula and the wetlands of Panama’s Humedal de San-San Pond Sak. Expect cultural enrichment opportunities, too, like meetings with indigenous tribes in unmarked-by-tourism villages and stops at UNESCO World Heritage Sites like Cartagena, Colombia. Flexible itineraries can shift direction as warranted by wildlife sightings, special events, seasonal occurrences, or guest preferences.
Central and South American 7- to 14-night cruises from $2,500/person, including excursions and ground transfers; www.seavoyagerexpeditions.com.
Best New Domestic Itinerary
Cruise Lines: Great American Steamboat Company and American Cruise Lines
Ship Names: American Queen and Queen of the Mississippi
2012 Itineraries: Mississippi River System
For cruisers craving a slice of old-time Americana, 2012 marks the return of legendary Mississippi River cruising, with new passenger vessels plying the waters of the American heartland for the first time in many years. First up in April, the Great American Steamboat Company will launch the 436-passenger American Queen, billed as the largest and most opulent steamboat ship ever built, and offering 3- to 10-night itineraries on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri Rivers embarking from ports like New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, and more. Expect delectable Southern cuisine doled out by noted American chef Regina Charboneau and Dixieland- to Broadway-inspired entertainment headlining in the double-decker Grand Saloon. Or, sit tight till August, when the 150-passenger paddle wheeler Queen of the Mississippi rolls out via American Cruise Lines. Boasting an elegant, traditional Victorian décor typical to late 19th century Mississippi riverboats and spacious staterooms (most come trimmed with private balconies), the vessel will operate 7-night sailings over the entire Mississippi River System from New Orleans, Nashville, St. Louis, and more. Look for special theme cruises highlighting the Civil War and Mark Twain.
Great American Steamboat Company’s 3 to 10-night cruises from $995/person, including select beverages, shore excursions, and pre-cruise hotel stay; www.greatamericansteamboatcompany.com. American Cruise Line’s 7-night cruises from $3,995/person, including select beverages; www.americancruiselines.com.
Best New Exotic Itinerary
Cruise Line: Voyages to Antiquity
Ship Name: MV Aegean Odyssey
2012 Itinerary: India, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka
Debuted in 2010, enrichment-focused Voyages to Antiquity will be expanding its presence to the Far East in 2012, offering one of the most extensive and in-depth cruise itineraries we’ve seen in India and its environs. Sail aboard the 368-passenger MV Aegean Odyssey on November 13 for its “The Wonders of India & the Maldives” immersive itinerary highlighting an in-depth onboard lecture program and an itinerary inclusive of all shore excursions. The 16-night journey kicks off with an included 4-night pre-cruise land extension in India’s “Golden Triangle,” which includes Jaipur (capital of Rajasthan), Agra (site of the famed Taj Majal), and Delhi (including the old city fort). Then, fly to Mumbai to kick off the sailing along India’s history-rich Malabar Coast, with stops in Marmagao (littered with mid-16th century churches) and Portuguese-influenced Cochin, before zipping off to Male, the capital of the dreamy island nation of the Maldives. Finally, passengers disembark for a two-night post-cruise stay in Colombo, Sri Lanka, site of the Pettah Bazzar and Asokaramaya Buddhist temple. Note to solo travelers: The cruise line boasts 16 cabins for one and single supplements ranging from just 25 to 75 percent.
The 16-night cruise-tour starts from $5,450/person, including pre-cruise land extension, shore excursions, gratuities, select beverages, and transfers. Book by February 29 to enjoy Stateroom Savings of $500-$800 – these are based on double occupancy, vary by category, are capacity controlled and subject to availability. Singles receive 50% of the savings. us.voyagestoantiquity.com.com.
Best Emerging Cruising Region
Dubai and Abu Dhabi are emerging as the cruise industry’s latest “it” girls, with the new 3,800-passenger Costa Favolosa from Costa Cruises (as of December 2011), the 2,192-passenger AIDAblu from AIDA (as of December 2011), and the 1912-passenger Mein Schiff 2 from TUI Cruises (come November 2012) debuting as the three newest inductees to Dubai Cruise Terminal’s short roster of homeported ships. The three regional newbies will offer weekly regional Arabian Gulf itineraries to/from Dubai, and will join the homeported 2,500-passenger Brilliance of the Seas (there since January 2010) from Royal Caribbean. The quartet of Dubai-based ships will provide, in conjunction with port calls from various other visiting ships, some 120 ship calls and 425,000 passengers to Dubai in 2012. What’s more, the city is expecting a new third state-of-the-art cruise terminal to debut in late 2012, a significant growth indicator when considering that Costa became the first cruise line to homeport in the region as recently as 2006.
Meanwhile, MSC Cruises just positioned their 1,560-passenger MSC Lirica with an Abu Dhabi home base in October 2011 (the first liner to homeport in the UAE capital; it also offers embarkations from Dubai); their larger 1,712-passenger MSC Opera will take over the deployment come November 2012. Abu Dhabi will receive a forecasted 77 calls and 170,000-190,000 cruise tourists in 2012 via the homeported and miscellaneous ship calls (including the maiden calls of Dubai’s newly homeported ships). Plus, the recently opened tented cruise terminal at Mina Zayed, the main port of Abu Dhabi and home to MSC’s ship, is scheduled to give way to new bigger-and-better facility in the next few years.
From Dubai, Costa Favolosa’s 7-night itinerary (running from January to April) takes in Abu Dhabi and Fujairah in the Emirates, as well as stopovers in Muscat and Khasab in Oman. AIDAblu’s 7-night runs will feature stops in Abu Dhabi, Muscat in Oman, and Khalifa Bin Salman port in Bahrain (season runs through March and picks up again in November). Mein Schiff 2’s 7-night offerings will include the same ports of call as AIDAblu and will stop in Abu Dhabi, Muscat, and Khlaifa Bin Salman (season runs November 2012 through March 2013). And from Abu Dhabi, MSC Lirica’s 7-night journeys call upon Dubai and Fujairah in the Emirates, with stopovers in Muscat and Khasab in Oman from January to March (MSC Opera will offer a near-identical itinerary come November).
Top excursion experiences in Dubai include visits to iconic structures like the Burj Khalifa, Burj Al Arab, The Palm, and Atlantis, as well as shopping forays to the traditional souks or ultra-modern malls. In Abu Dhabi, the nearby Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Ferrari World Theme Park are popular diversions. Desert excursions into the surrounding sand dunes come complete with 4x4 vehicles, camel rides, hookahs, and/or belly dancers, and are popular options from both ports.
Editor's note: After the Costa Concordia ran aground off the coast of Italy on Friday, January 13, many questions were raised about what current and prospective Costa Cruises ticket holders can expect in the months ahead. Read our Q&A here.
MSC Cruise’s 7-night cruises from $679/person; www.msccruisesusa.com. Costa’s 7-night cruises from $739/person; www.costacruise.com. Aida’s 7-night cruises from $675/person, including select beverages, wellness programs, and gratuities; www.aida.de (German only). TUI Cruises’ 7-night cruises from $1,014/person, including select beverages; www.tuicruises.com (German only).
Best New Culinary Cruise
Cruise Line: Oceania
Ship Name: Riviera
2012 Itineraries: Mediterranean, Caribbean
Purpose built with a palate-savvy clientele in mind, the Riviera follows in the foodie footsteps of sister ship Marina. Launching in April, the epicurean-edged, upscale vessel will cater to some 1,250 passengers with innovations like the Bon Appétit Culinary Center (the setting for chef-led, hands-on cooking classes, often featuring fresh-from-the-market ingredients procured from local ports) and no fewer than 10 dining venues (an exceptional number for a ship of this size), including six open-seating gourmet restaurants (which are all-inclusive in the rates), with a Tuscany-inspired eatery, pan-Asian fare venue, and a French bistro by Chef Jacques Pépin. Or, splurge on seven-course pairing dinners at La Reserve by Wine Spectator, showcasing premium wine pairings chosen by editors of Wine Spectator magazine. For an extra indulgence, consider sailing during the at-sea Bon Appétit Wine & Food Festival on October 14, a 10-night sailing from Athens to Rome featuring a panel of culinary and wine experts, joined by editors from Bon Appétit magazine. Riviera will sail 10- to 12-night itineraries in the Mediterranean through November, and move to the Caribbean for a series of 10- to 14-night winter sailings.
Mediterranean 10- to 12-night cruises from $3,049/person, Caribbean 10- to 14-night sailings from $1,699; rates include select beverages and airfare; www.oceaniacruises.com.
Best New Family Cruise
Cruise Line: Disney Cruise Line
Ship Name: Disney Fantasy
2012 Itineraries: Eastern and Western Caribbean
The sister ship follow-up to the much buzzed-about Disney Dream, the late March debut of the Disney Fantasy will incorporate Dream’s winning mix of family-friendly offerings, plus, pick up where she left off. The fourth ship in the Disney fleet, the 4,000-passenger vessel will offer expanded dining and entertainment areas, for both kids and adults alike – all infused with state-of-the-art technology, theatrical stage shows, and plenty of Disney magic.
Expect Dream-reminiscent entertainment options like first-run 3-D movies, no fewer than three equal-opportunity pools (one for kids, one for families, and one just for adults); AquaDuck, a veritable water coaster at sea; and an 18-and-older entertainment district (dubbed Europa on the Fantasy) and dining rooms (Palo and Remy). But also look for new cool-off features like the AquaLab, a water-play area equipped with a variety of geysers, jets, and bubblers, as well as Satellite Falls, an adults-only circular splash pool with a “rain curtain.” Plus, guests will discover an elaborate new animation-themed dinner show, a "princesses and pirates" boutique, and a Muppets-themed interactive adventure game.
The ship will sail alternating 7-night eastern (St. Maarten and St. Thomas) and western Caribbean (Grand Cayman, Costa Maya, Cozumel) itineraries, with a stop at Castaway Cay (Disney’ private isle), from Walt Disney World-neighboring Port Canaveral, Florida. The ports are primed for memorable family-friendly activities, to boot, like snorkeling with stingrays, swimming with dolphins, or simply building sandcastles under the Caribbean sun.
Caribbean 7-night cruises from $959/person; disneycruise.disney.go.com
Best New Cruise for History Buffs
Cruise Line: Voyages of Discovery
Ship Name: Discovery
2012 Itineraries: England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands
Enrichment- and destination-focused Voyages of Discovery is launching a special World War II-themed itinerary to coincide with D-Day in 2012. Sail aboard the 650-passenger Discovery on June 5 for their 8-night “D-Day, Normandy, Dunkirk and Beyond” itinerary, sailing from Portsmouth, England, to Harwich, England, with a series of WWII history-infused stops, like the French beaches of Normandy, with stops at Cherbourg and Rouen, as well as an inaugural call at Dunkirk. Further port calls with WWII ties include St. Peter’s Port in the Channel Islands, the former British colony of Heligoland in Germany, and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The cruise line’s signatures are their lengthier stays in port, accompanied by enriching shore excursion programs (in this case, special inclusions are a D-Day ceremony and a visit to site of the D-Day landing in Arnhem), as well as distinguished guest lecturers aboard each sailing (professional soldier Brigadier Hugh Willing will provide his insights into the historic war on this itinerary).
The 8-night itinerary starts from $1,599/person; www.voyagesofdiscovery.com.
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Best Cruise Ship for Techies
Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean
Ship Name: Splendour of the Seas
2012 Itineraries: Brazil and the Mediterranean
Come February, passengers aboard Royal Caribbean’s 1,804-passenger newly refurbished Splendour of the Seas will feel a lot like an Oprah audience because “everybody gets an iPad”! OK, maybe not for keeps, but it’s kind of exhilarating all the same to get to tool around with the coveted gizmos for your vacation’s duration, with the tablets set to be distributed in each and every Splendour of the Seas’ cabin. The first cruise ship industry-wide to feature the devices in all staterooms, the iPads will be available in English and Portuguese (a nod to the ship’s seasonal homeports in Brazil and Portugal), and can be used to access the daily program of onboard events and activities; plan daily itineraries; monitor onboard accounts; view restaurant menus and order room service; watch movies (note you’ll have to bring your own DVDs); and for a fee, access the Internet (Wi-Fi is being installed ship-wide and guests can tote their iPads anywhere on the ship, though they’re discouraged from carrying them into port). Note the ship splits its year between 6- to 8-night summer sailings in the Med and 3- to 8-night winter itineraries in Brazil. If those offerings don’t meet your vacation needs, the cruise line plans to extend the high-tech iPad amenity to all of its Vision-class ships (Vision of the Seas, Grandeur of the Seas, Rhapsody of the Seas, Enchantment of the Seas, and Legend of the Seas) as part of their renovation enhancements over the next two years.
South American 3- to 8-night cruises from $599/person; Mediterranean 6- to 8-night cruises from $699/person; www.royalcaribbean.com.