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Best Cruises to Get (or Stay) Fit

If your idea of a great vacation involves daily runs in the open air, a leisurely workout in a hi-tech gym, or a smorgasbord of fitness classes like yoga and Pilates, you should know that a cruise may just be the perfect getaway for you. These days, cruise ships are about more than just eating and lying in the sun, and they’re attracting fitness buffs, yogis, and health-conscious travelers in droves with active options both onboard and off.

Believe it or not, on a cruise you really can lose weight—or at least break even. That’s because fitness centers are growing in size to accommodate a more youthful and body-conscious passenger base, and often feature state-of-the-art equipment and 180-degree sea views. Ships are breaking new ground with cutting-edge workouts like Kinesis Walls and Tour de Spin classes, and offering trendy sessions in Pilates and tai chi. Deck games like shuffleboard and skeet shooting have made way for onboard surfing, rock climbing, mini-golf, and basketball. In port, active excursion options are plentiful. Cycling is big—not to mention hiking, kayaking, swimming, and diving. If breaking a sweat can be fun, cruise ships have found ways to offer those activities in the middle of the ocean.

Royal Caribbean is leading the pack as the trendsetter in onboard fitness options. Its ships are the only ones afloat to offer onboard surfing, boxing, and ice skating. But it’s not the only line to put an emphasis on fitness. Others are also expanding their gyms and their top-deck fitness options. Some of the smaller lines—SeaDream, Star Clippers, Windstar, Seabourn—focus on watersports, with onboard marinas packed with water toys that range from kayaks to watersurfing. Crystal and Seabourn are two luxury lines getting creative with gentler, senior-friendly workouts like Kinesis and walking, while river lines store bikes onboard for passengers to use ashore.

Before we list our favorite lines for fitness, here are a few tips for working out onboard.

  • Onboard gyms can get crowded at peak hours, such as early morning and late afternoon before dinner. Some ships even have signup sheets for cardio machines with strict 30-minute time limits. Go during off-hours (or while ships are in port) for less crowded conditions.
  • Many group classes —Pilates, yoga, spinning—come with a fee (typically $10-$15). Classes can fill up, so sign up in advance. Instructors vary in ability, and as they teach all the classes, they might not have the same level of dedicated training in one tradition as your studio back home. Work out at your own risk and don’t do anything that seems painful to you.
  • Onboard watersports marinas are great but they can only be used when the weather is warm enough and the ship can anchor in safe and relatively calm waters. If you’re excited about taking out kayaks and Sunfish straight from the ship, hot weather cruises are better than colder, shoulder season trips (though the opportunity varies). On one October Windstar cruise in the Mediterranean the marina was never opened, while on a Seabourn cruise, same itinerary, same season, marina activities were a cruise highlight.
  • The smaller the ship, the smaller the gym. Luxury lines may have first-rate facilities, but a 200-person ship won’t have the enormous workout space a 3,200-person ship will have.
  • Don’t forget about shore excursions. Active tours are quite popular. You can get some physical activity—in the form of kayaking, walking, hiking and biking—while exploring a destination.
  • If you really want your cruise to be all about good health, choose a theme cruise. There are special cruises for runners and golfers, as well as general health and wellness lifestyle cruises (often featuring workshops on yoga, meditation, and healthy diets). For those who prefer less of a gym-based approach to working out, dance-themed cruises will keep you on your toes day and night.

Best Onboard Gym

The Line: Royal Caribbean’s Freedom and Oasis Class

Why: Because size does matter. Royal Caribbean’s three Freedom-class ships—Freedom, Liberty, and Independence of the Seas—each have 9,700-square-foot fitness centers. In addition to state-of-the-art cardio, weight-training, and circuit-training machines, the ShipShape Center features spinning cycles; a Pilates studio with six reformer machines; and a full-size boxing ring, complete with speed bags, jump ropes, heavy bags, and padded punching mitts. All cardio machines sport personal LED screens for entertainment options while working out. Group classes on offer include step aerobics, yoga, Pilates, stretching, Tai Chi, boot camp, and indoor cycling. Additional cutting-edge workout equipment onboard includes the Cable Motion series of strength training machines and Power-Plate, a device utilizing advanced reflex technology.

Oasis of the Seas—the largest cruise ship ever—is in its own league. In addition to the usual fitness equipment, it has 12 Gravity machines (providing body conditioning through Pilates and resistance training), a Kinesis Wall (circuit exercises utilizes a system of pulleys), Expresso Bikes (with 30 interactive, virtual rides) and Activio Cycling (providing heart rate feedback). Classes unique to Oasis include Kinesis group training, a combo cycling-and-jogging class called The Brick, and a jogging club.

Honorable Mention: Princess’ Grand Class

Why: While no other onboard gym can really touch Royal Caribbean’s newest models, Princess‘ Grand-Class ships come close. The Lotus Spa fitness centers onboard the line’s newest ships are prominently set at the front of the ship with sweeping 180 degree views of the ocean. The gyms are equipped with treadmills, elliptical trainers, and stationary bikes, all with their own TVs for personal entertainment. Free weights and a wide range of weight machines are also on offer. But it may be outside the typical workout room that Princess gets the most creative. The line offers an exclusive fitness program called “Core. Balance. Strength.” that targets three fitness areas with Pilates classes for building a strong core, yoga for centering and balance, and cardio classes to build strength. As part of the third phase, Princess offers Tour de Spin, a set of three spinning workouts. The larger vessels also offer a swim-against-the-current pool with an adjustable current for endurance training.

And Princess gets kudos for including youth in its fitness program; teens, in particular, can get an age-appropriate workout with Fitness Frenzy boot camp classes.

Best Luxury Workout

The Line: Seabourn Odyssey

Why: Seabourn Odyssey is the first new luxury ship design since staying fit became a mantra for successful living. As such, its designers have incorporated a more contemporary sensibility into the creation of its two-deck high spa and fitness center. Its most distinctive feature is the Kinesis wall, which is able to accommodate four passengers simultaneously. Kinesis technology uses a series of pulleys and cables to increase flexibility, provide rehabilitation, if necessary, and create better muscle definition, all the while being gentler on the body than traditional machines. Private Kinesis is available in higher-level suites.

Other features of Odyssey’s fitness facility include a range of classes (from stretching to Yoga, all complimentary) and state-of-the-art cardio, strength, and weight training equipment. And if you need to rejuvenate tired limbs after a tough workout, make a beeline for the gorgeous hydro pool/thermal suite area with heated loungers, aromatherapy sauna, rain mist showers, and waterbed.

Honorable Mention: Cunard’s Queen Mary 2

Why: The first cruise ship to feature a spa and fitness facility operated by the renowned Canyon Ranch, Queen Mary 2—which offers both luxury and mainstream cruise experiences—is a superb choice. The Canyon Ranch SpaClub offers a wide variety of cardio machines (elliptical trainers, recumbent and stationary bikes, steppers, rowing machines, and treadmills), as well as a large strength training area with machines and free weights. Group classes run the gamut from standard offerings like spinning and Pilates, to more creative options such as “Totally Tubing,” “Dance to the Beat,” “Cardio Blast,” and “Fitball.” Passengers can book private sessions on the gym’s Pilates reformer machines.

The vast wrap-around outdoor promenade (remember that Queen Mary 2 was, prior to the launch of Royal Caribbean’s behemoths, the world’s largest ever cruise ship) is a great spot for active walking and jogging.

Most Innovative Fitness Options

The Line: P&O Cruises’ Ventura

Why: On this ship, marketed primarily to U.K.-oriented cruisers, the fitness facility and spa are more than adequate—but it’s the fun stuff that takes Ventura over the top. Within its gym, Ventura sports Tixter bikes, the latest in indoor cycling. The bikes have movable handlebars to mimic real-world biking and cycling routines (complete with video) from scenic roadways in the Scottish highlands to deserts, highways, and city centers. It’s like a PlayStation or Wii Cycling.

But the best fitness feature is Cirque Ventura, where passengers can try bouncing and flipping on a bungee trampoline, or attend circus-school workshops led by skilled performers. Have a go at walking the tight wire, flying trapeze, clowning, juggling, and stilt walking—all at sea. It’s a great workout and fun besides.

Honorable Mention: Royal Caribbean

Why: Ever the innovator, Royal Caribbean can take the credit for many cruise ship firsts—many of which fit right in with the line’s “Get Out There” motto. It remains the only cruise line to offer an onboard ice skating rink—something no one thought they’d ever do on a Caribbean vacation—and wave pool for surfing and body boarding, activities previously limited to days in port. Royal Caribbean started the trend of onboard rock climbing walls, and fitness buffs can also enjoy boxing in Freedom- and Oasis-class gyms.

Best Land-Based Workouts

The Line: Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America

Why: Hawaii is one of the best destinations for active pursuits, and NCL‘s Pride of America is the only ship to sail year-round seven-night cruises to the islands, visiting gorgeous places like Maui, Kauai, Kona, and Honolulu. You can go for a rainforest and waterfall hike, learn to surf or windsurf, golf at beautiful seaside courses, bike down the slopes of a dormant volcano, kayak through a wildlife refuge, scuba or snorkel, and take a horseback ride by the beach.

Honorable Mention: Holland America’s Half Moon Cay

Why: Half Moon Cay, the private island operated by Holland America (and often shared with Carnival Cruise Lines), is chockablock with fitness opportunities. Guests have the opportunity to ride horses along the beach, hike along nature trails, jog along a scenic 5K course, kayak through a protected habitat, bike around the island, and snorkel or swim with stingrays. More competitive athletes can join a game of volleyball, basketball, shuffleboard, or even horseshoes. Kids can work up an appetite climbing around a pirate ship and animal-shaped water toys in the aqua park.

Best for Cyclists

The Line: Ocean Village

Why: Ocean Village—a casual, sporty British cruise line—actually carries its own mountain bikes onboard, earning it our vote for best cruise line for cyclists. The line offers guided bike rides in most destinations, and the four-hour rides include road cycling and some off-roading. Whether you’re a novice but enthusiastic cycler, or an experienced racer, there will be a biking excursion for you. The only requirement—you have to be at least five feet tall.

Honorable Mention: European river cruises on the Rhine and Danube

Why: For more leisurely and less organized bike touring, book a Rhine or Danube river cruise. Lines like AMAWATERWAYS or Uniworld keep touring bikes onboard for complimentary use. Passengers can cycle through the countryside and cities, or even ride along the river, catching up with the ship in the next port. And as river ships tend to be smaller with low passenger counts, you often won’t have much competition for the bikes and can borrow them whenever it suits you.

Best for Walkers

The Line: Crystal Cruises

Why: Crystal makes more use of its ships’ wrap-around promenades than most cruise lines with two innovative programs for walkers. The first, called Walking on Water (WOW) is a fitness program designed exclusively for Crystal. The program utilizes cotton vests that have pockets for weights, so walkers can increase their resistance training when striding around the promenade deck. Passengers can also make use of motivational music, day-by-day walking programs and instructions on how to safely and effectively use the vests.

Crystal also offers Nordic Walking through a partnership with LEKI USA. Guests will have complimentary use of walking poles for a low-impact, full-body workout. Grab some polls and don a vest, and those other shipboard walkers are sure to be intimidated by your power and energy!

Honorable Mention: Fred. Olsen

Why: The England-based Fred. Olsen has partnered with Ramblers Worldwide Holidays, a company dedicated to exploring the world on foot. On more than 20 “Cruise and Walk” voyages, Ramblers guides will arrange a scenic walk in each port. On La Palma in the Canary Islands, cruisers walk along the Route of the Volcanoes; in Olden, Norway, they journey to an overlook in view of four glaciers; and on the U.K.’s isle of Tresco, a coastal walk is combined with a stroll through the Abbey Gardens.

Best Top-Deck Activities

The Line: Royal Caribbean

Why: On Royal Caribbean’s newest ships, sundecks are incredible destinations for recreational pursuits. On Voyager, Freedom, and Oasis-class ships, head up and aft to find the FlowRider wave pool for surfing and body boarding (on Oasis, there are two). Rock climbing walls tower above basketball courts, miniature golf courses, golf simulators, and rollerblading tracks. A jogging track overlooks the pool deck below. Just keep your fingers crossed that it doesn’t rain! Freedom-class vessels have boxing rings (where the workouts are incredibly aerobically challenging). On Oasis of the Seas, there’s also zip-lining. And though not located on the sundeck, all ships’ ice skating rinks feature open-skate sessions on sea days.

Honorable Mention: Norwegian Cruise Line

Why: NCL is nipping at Royal Caribbean’s heels with innovative top-deck fitness offerings. Its newest ships now feature rock-climbing walls and basketball and tennis courts with bleacher seating for friends and fans. When Norwegian Epic debuts in 2010, it will have the biggest rock wall of any NCL ship and a new rappelling wall. The ship’s multi-use sports deck will offer a variety of ways to work up a sweat, including a full-size basketball court, batting cage, bungee trampoline, rope adventure course, and a 24-foot tall enclosed climbing cage called the Spider Web.

Best Water Sports

The Line: Windstar

Why: Windstar combines the best of small-ship cruising with the romance of a masted sailing vessel. Its three ships offer complimentary water sports straight from the ship in destinations like the Caribbean, Costa Rica, and the Greek Isles, with more limited offerings in the Mediterranean. Experienced sports enthusiasts can borrow kayaks, windsurf boards, Topper or Rumba Escape Sailboats, and inflatable boats. Snorkel equipment is provided free of charge, though organized snorkeling expeditions cost extra. Waterskiing is also offered by the ship’s staff; two people at a time can water-ski in half-hour increments.

Honorable Mention: Star Clippers, SeaDream, and Seabourn

Why: In addition to Windstar, these cruise lines also have retractable water sports marinas. They offer a variety of options: Sunfish sailboats, jet skis, banana boats, waterskiing, tubing, windsurfing, and kayaking. On Star Clippers, the water sports staff organizes its own scuba trips and can certify neophyte divers.

Best for Active Seniors

The Line: Holland America Line

Why: We love Holland America’s program of mind-body-spirit classes. Guests can now participate in yoga, tai chi, and aqua aerobics free of charge, in addition to the for-fee classes like Pilates and spinning that are offered in the Greenhouse Spa’s fitness center. Plus, many active seniors take advantage of the ships’ wraparound teak promenade decks for leisurely strolls or brisk walks.

Honorable Mention: Cunard

Why: Cunard receives an honorable mention in this category for its devotion to ballroom dancing. Professionals teach waltz, tango, samba, and other dances during the day, and guests can practice their newly learned moves at onboard balls held in the evenings. No partner? No worries! Gentleman hosts are present on every cruise to make sure single ladies don’t turn into wallflowers. Other fitness options include the usual fitness center equipment and classes, shuffleboard, basketball and paddle tennis courts, and golf simulators. When the new Queen Elizabeth debuts in 2010, it will feature a 1930s-inspired games deck complete with bowls, croquet, and paddle tennis.

Best Spa Dining

The Line: Celebrity Cruises

Why: Dining is usually not an athletic event, but healthy eating often goes hand in hand with an active, healthy lifestyle. Celebrity Cruises was the first line to embrace this connection with spa cafes on its Millennium- and Solstice-class ships. Located by the spa pool, the cafes serve up healthy breakfasts and lunches, including smoothies, salads, fish dishes, and low-fat desserts. In addition, the Solstice-class ships have Blu, a private dining room reserved for passengers booked in Celebrity’s AquaSpa cabins. Its menu focuses on natural ingredients and healthy fare.

Honorable Mention: Costa

Why: Costa is all about creating a complete spa experience for its spa cabin residents and that includes healthy dining. The line’s Samsara Restaurant on its Concordia-class ships features wellness menus available for all three meals that have been created by Michelin-starred chef Ettore Bocchia. Regular passengers can opt to dine here, too, for a 20 euro surcharge.

How do you stay fit on cruises? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

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