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Innovations at sea: Cruise lines up the ante for onboard entertainment

The neon-orange bowling ball had the right heft, so I strode forward, released, and watched the ball roll away from the glowing pins and straight into the gutter. From the red velvet seats at the end of the lane, my teammates shouted encouragement. “We swear, the ship just rolled to the left,” they said. “We’re going to call the captain and tell him to stop messing up your game.” I returned to find solace in my margarita and spring rolls.

Last year, who’d have thought I’d be bowling onboard a cruise ship? Come to think of it, I never imagined that cruisers would be surfing, boxing, or living in the spa, either. As 2006 comes to a close, passengers can do all of the above while at sea. These innovations enhance your onboard experience and ensure that sea days will never be dull.

Think cruising is staid and old-fashioned? Think again. Costa, Princess, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean have introduced cutting-edge amenities to their ships over the past year that will blow your mind. Whether you like a lot of onboard activities or prefer to bliss out while sailing, you can find a ship that caters to your personality in ways you never thought possible.

Costa: Race-car driving simulator and Spa Sanctuary cabins

The Costa Concordia debuted this spring with innovations to please both genders. While anyone can take advantage of any onboard amenity, guys are flocking to the Grand Prix race-car driving simulator, while women are spending their money at the largest spa at sea.

The driving simulator is the same size as an actual Grand Prix car, and lets guests test their high-speed racing skills. The car moves and shakes in response to the movements of the steering wheel. Participants choose one of three levels of difficulty, and race against virtual competitors that they can see on plasma TV panels. Friends can watch the “race” from the Bar Scuderia Costa and shout encouragement. To use the simulator, guests are charged 15 euros (about $20, see xe.com for the latest exchange rates) for three minutes, 28 euros for seven minutes, 33 euros for 10 minutes, or 38 euros for 13 minutes.

The ship’s Samsara Spa is currently the largest at sea. The most innovative aspects of the spa are the 55 Spa Sanctuary cabins and 12 suites that have direct private access to the spa. These rooms are designed differently from typical cabins, and feature flat-screen TVs and special Elemis bath products. In addition, guests in the spa rooms receive unlimited access to the Thalassotherapy pool, two free fitness classes, a wellness consultation, two treatments, two sun-lamp sessions in the Solarium, and an invitation to a tea ceremony. This spa package is included in the cost of the cruise, and upgrades are available.

Norwegian: Onboard bowling

The Bliss Ultra Lounge on the Norwegian Pearl is unlike any bowling alley you’ve ever been to. Mood lighting, velvet lounge chairs and beds, and a full bar have replaced the harsh lights, plastic benches, and cheap beer for which most bowling alleys are infamous. A sparkling dance floor takes center stage in this bordello-themed room, and divided among the two sides of the room are four bowling lanes offering 10-pin fun.

Unless the ship is rocking hard, your bowling game won’t be affected by the rolling of the seas (although you can always blame your gutter balls on the ship, like my teammates did). Neon-colored bowling balls come in a variety of weights, and red-and-blue bowling shoes complete the experience. The pins glow in the black light and music videos play at the end of each lane. A computerized scoring system means no one has to keep tally and no one can be accused of cheating. Each game costs $5 per person.

On my cruise, the Bliss Ultra Lounge was pretty quiet during the day but crowded at night, so plan your playtime with that in mind. Don’t forget to pack your polyester bowling shirt.

Princess: The Sanctuary

Imagine a place where screaming children and fights over deck chairs cannot penetrate—a place where guests relax among Zen decor or get an on-deck massage in a private cabana, where discreet Serenity Stewards pass out cool towels and refreshing beverages on hot days. That place is the Sanctuary.

When the Crown Princess debuted in June, it introduced the line’s new adults-only sun deck. Besides peace and quiet, the Sanctuary’s highlights are cabana massages, comfortable lounge chairs, refreshing beverages, and a light-snack menu. Occasionally, sunset yoga classes are held in this area.

A spot in this shipboard paradise costs $15 per half day, and it fills up fast. Massages, iPod rentals, drinks, and cooling mists cost extra. Menu orders are free, but a $3 service charge per person per delivery will be added to the bill. It’s not too high a price to pay for a little heaven on earth.

Royal Caribbean: Onboard boxing and surfing

Where can you go to hang 10? Hawaii, Australia, and the Freedom of the Seas. Yes, the world’s largest cruise ship features a two-deck onboard wave pool called the FlowRider. Guests can bodyboard or surf without ever getting into the ocean.

The FlowRider is free, but guests must sign a waiver and wait their turn in line. Bodyboarding is easier to learn than stand-up surfing in this wave pool, but nearly everyone wipes out spectacularly at some point. Stadium seating lines the FlowRider, so less adventurous cruisers can cheer for the brave surfers while sipping cocktails from the nearby bar.

Another first for the cruise industry found aboard the Freedom of the Seas is a boxing ring. You won’t find guests or professionals beating each other up, but you can learn sparring techniques to improve your fitness level.

The most popular activity is the group boxing class. Four people can learn with a trainer for $15 each. Groups of three can also receive supervised instruction on the freestanding body bags for the same price. If you prefer private lessons, you can book a one-on-one session for $83 or three classes for $210. An individual pad-sparring session with a coach costs $45.

Sign up early for your ring time because the instructors book up quickly, especially on sea days. Because all sparring requires the correct gloves and a signed waiver, guests are not allowed to use the boxing equipment unless supervised by an instructor.

Innovations to suit you

If you can’t be tempted by cabana massages, punching bags, or bowling alleys, know that all of these ships offer traditional cruise delights such as onboard pools, lavish dining, spas, bars, and lots of time for relaxation. On the other hand, if you can’t wait to hop on a bodyboard or get behind the wheel of a race car, imagine what the cruise lines must be planning for future ships. If 2006 is any indication, we should expect the unexpected.

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