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The Best Ships for Sea Days, Whatever Your Cruise Style

While cruise lines have always filled days at sea with activity, today the variety extends way beyond the traditional diversions of art auctions, bingo, casino gambling and “bad hair day” seminars. How about near-college-level courses in subjects ranging from fashion to economics? Long, lazy lunches or brunches at an alternative restaurant? Visiting a planetarium or cinema with first-run flicks?

“I remember seeing a daily program from a world cruise in 1979,” says Vuc Rajcevic, a Holland America Line Cruise Director from Brisbane, Australia. “My gosh … I realized where they got the word ‘cruising’ from.

“There was next to nothing to do from one day to the next, it was all about relaxation … tea time … shuffleboard. These days we have such short attention spans that we need to be constantly doing something. We’ve had to adapt to that and, yes, all changes are due to consumer need and desire. Today’s cruiser looks for brain food (lectures, port talks, cooking demos and classes, trivia), but also activities (pool games, board games, volleyball, basketball, ping pong, etc.). And more families are cruising, so we’ve all had to adapt to that as well.”

There is a sea day to fit any traveler’s style and before we launch into our selection of the best ships for days at sea here are a couple of helpful hints:

Just about every itinerary incorporates at least one sea day (keeping passengers captive onboard is a big revenue boon for cruise lines because folks spend their money on the ship rather than on shore). There are notable exceptions: NCL’s Honolulu-based Pride of America, for example, visits a port a day&#8212though it does incorporate some daytime sailing into its weekly trips. As well, river cruises seldom emphasize full days at sea; the ships are so small they can’t offer a big variety of enrichment or entertainment.

On the other hand, some cruises are more about sea than land. Falling into that category, of course, is Cunard’s mighty Queen Mary 2, which was designed as an ocean liner. Pathfinder ships (those vessels in cruise line fleets that specialize in the most exotic cruises) typically need a lot of time at sea because destinations are often spread far apart.

While the average seven-night cruise offers one to three days at sea, there are ways to increase the percentage. Here are some tips if sea days are your favorite part of a cruise:

  • The best itineraries for sea days&#8212if you want lots&#8212include ocean crossings (Atlantic and Pacific) and repositioning cruises (which often involve ocean crossings). Regions like Asia, the South Pacific, Hawaii (from U.S. or Canadian departure points), South America (around Cape Horn), Australia/New Zealand, and the Panama Canal typically involve more sea days than the average cruise.
  • Consider upgrading your cabin category for a trip during which you’ll spend more time at sea than not; there’s nothing more claustrophobic than a tiny, dark cabin when you’re spending a lot of time onboard. And conversely there’s nothing lovelier than a suite, with indulgent bath and a spacious balcony, as a place in which to retreat. As well, the low-key pace means there’s plenty of time for downtime&#8212long tub soaks, reading novels on the balcony, and catching up on movies on the in-cabin TV.
  • What is the rhythm of your itinerary? Some cruises involve ports-of-call one right after the other … then three straight days or more of sea time. You may prefer the sea days tucked in between destination stops. Bottom line: A handful of sea days tucked in between frenzied days in port may be the ultimate in relaxation for some. Five in a row could seem tedious (or heavenly).

Best for families with young kids

Ship: Disney Magic

Why? Magic offers Disney’s only weeklong voyages.

What’s onboard: On the 83,000-ton, 2,400-passenger ship, there’s the Buena Vista theater, a fabulous spa, an adults-only pool area and the Diversions pub. Sea-day-only activities range from a backstage tour of the Walt Disney Theatre to pool and trivia games.

Lunching: Palo, the ship’s alternative adults-only restaurant, occasionally offers high tea or a Champagne brunch.

Ideal itinerary: Disney Magic’s Eastern Caribbean and Mexican Riviera itineraries each spend three days at sea (its Western Caribbean swing affords two). Even better: Disney Magic will be sailing two repositioning Panama Canal cruises in 2008 (15-night cruises); the August itinerary offers eight days at sea.

Best for families with mid-range to teenage kids

Ship: NCL’s Norwegian Pearl

Why? Norwegian Pearl sails bunches of different itineraries, from Caribbean and Alaska to trans-Canal, with two or three sea days each. Even the five-night Pacific Coast cruises offer two full days at sea.

What’s onboard: NCL’s Freestyle concept has matured into a fleetwide staple; the ship offers 10 restaurants and 14 bars and lounges. That means you can dine whenever you want at any of the restaurants, and aren’t tied to traditional seating times. But that’s just the beginning. There are six hot tubs, the splendid Tahitian pool, a kids’ pool, a cool library, a stunning Mandara spa, a big casino, and the first bowling alley at sea.

Lunching: Take your pick! We love the comfort food in the Blue Lagoon, where you can chomp into an old-fashioned burger (complete with a made-to-order milkshake), snack on yummy Buffalo wings, or get a plate of macaroni and cheese or meatloaf just like Mom would have made if she weren’t cruising.

Ideal itineraries: Best bet for sea-day aficionados is the ship’s 14-night Panama Canal sailings (if sea days are what you want, though, avoid the Alaska itineraries … there are two days at sea, but you’ll be looking at the Inside Passage and Glacier Bay scenery anyway.)

Best for multigenerational family groups

Ship: Holland America’s Noordam

Why? Noordam, which offers longer-than-a-week Caribbean cruises from Ft. Lauderdale, is the only Vista-class ship custom-built with “Signature of Excellence” features in its very architecture; the layout and programs were actually designed to appeal to families traveling together.

What’s onboard: The new, fabulous and well-used Culinary Arts Center (looking for all the world like a Food Network set), which morphs in the evenings into the ship’s movie theater, complete with popcorn. Holland America has partnered with Food and Wine magazine and features guest chefs aboard on certain sailings. There’s also the incredible Explorations Cafe, “powered by the New York Times,” with hundreds of books, iPod rentals, leather loungers with earphones, computer systems and Internet connections, a coffee and pastry bar, games and puzzles on loan … it’s the indoor pulse of the entire ship. For kids there’s Club HAL and for teens, the parents-free Loft.

Ideal itineraries: Any trip that’s longer than the usual seven days will feature more sea days.

Best for purists

Ship: Cunard’s Queen Mary 2

Why? Queen Mary 2 is the only ship around that offers regularly scheduled transatlantic crossings.

What’s onboard: More to the point—is there anything that Cunard forgot to include onboard the 151,400-ton, 2,620-passenger Queen Mary 2? Among the fabulous facilities for sea days are the magradome-roofed Pavilion solarium, the Canyon Ranch spa, and a full-girth promenade. For more cerebral pursuits, the library is easily cruising’s hugest (with a fantastic selection, not to mention some lovely reading nooks); Illuminations is the planetarium, and the ship features loads of lectures via a partnership with Britain’s Oxford University.

Lunching: Head for Todd English, its alternative restaurant (reservations are key). For a more casual option, check out the British-influenced Golden Lion pub (order the fish and chips).

Ideal itineraries: The six-night Atlantic crossings (between New York and Southampton) occur throughout the year.

Best for all-around entertainment for adults

Ship: Crystal Serenity

Why? Overall, Crystal offers the best blend of daytime diversions for adults&#8212and on Serenity, the fleet’s newest ship, the most up-to-date facilities.

What’s onboard: Among the mind-stretching activities onboard the 68,000-ton, 1,080-passenger Crystal Serenity is the Creative Learning Institute. Through partnerships with companies like Yamaha, Berlitz, Tai Chi Cultural Center, the Parsons School of Design, and the Society of Wine Educators, there are onboard lectures and demos on a variety of topics (from Chinese Brush Painting to African Dance). Crystal’s Computers@Sea offers both an Internet cafe and a wide range of technology classes. Outside, the ship’s two paddle tennis courts see lots of actions (from desultory exertions to hard-fought tournament matches).

Lunching: Crystal’s “deck buffets” are the best anywhere and hew to themes, such as the Asia Cafe or the American Classic. On some voyages, the deck buffet will feature the cuisine of the region (the Mediterranean, for instance). Don’t miss the elaborate themed teas in the Palm Court; these range from chocolate extravaganzas to the unique “Mozart Tea.”

Ideal itineraries: Crystal Serenity’s World Cruise or its Los Angeles-to-Miami Panama Canal voyage. Beyond that, pick any sailing longer than a week&#8212Crystal is fantastic about choreographing a handful of sea days on even the most port-intensive itineraries.

Best for utter relaxation

Ship: Windstar’s Wind Surf

Why? It’s hard to beat a day at sea under sail!

What’s onboard: Other positives? The 14,745-ton, 308-passenger Wind Surf’s low-key ambiance means there are no “bingo begins now!” announcements. The ship has one of the best DVD libraries at sea (all cabins are equipped with DVD players), and iPod nanos are lent to the guests too, with in-cabin docks and a wide range of musical selections. On sea days, the WindSpa offers special fare, like LaTherapie facials, billed as a “non-surgical face lift” (sometimes they throw in an “eye collagen” special).

Ideal itineraries: The Barbados northbound itineraries offer only one and a half sea days, but the sails are much more likely to be up in the Caribbean than in the Mediterranean. Wind Surf’s siblings, the much smaller Wind Star and Wind Spirit, are also great choices for pure relaxation, but they don’t have as much deck space with private nooks.

Best for sightseeing while at sea

Ship: Cruise West’s Spirit of Oceanus

Why? At 4,500 tons and carrying 114 passengers, Spirit of Oceanus’ best attribute is its small size, which lets it get up close and personal with shoreside flora and fauna.

What’s onboard: Exploration Leaders spend days at sea offering a wide range of presentations and lectures. Also onboard is a library with a comprehensive collection of destination-oriented books (wildlife and history). Its size doesn’t limit its onboard comforts&#8212it’s an all-suite ship (some cabins have balconies), with a hot tub and sports deck, and great public spaces.

Ideal itineraries: Try Spirit of Oceanus’ coastal Alaska or Bering Sea itineraries.

Best for all-day partying

Ship: Carnival Spirit

Why? Carnival Spirit offers the fleet’s best blend of contemporary amenities and longish itineraries with a higher-than-average proportion of days at sea.

What’s onboard: The casino opens at 10 a.m. and horse racing on the lido deck begins an hour later. Pillow fighting and pool games commence at 1:30 p.m. Other examples of sea day fun include the men’s “hairy chest” contest, calypso music and dancing, and a slot tournament. The best thing about this ship, though, is that if there’s too much partying going on, you can find a quiet corner (and even a quiet pool!) to get away from it all, and the staterooms (all of them) are spacious and elegant.

Lunching: The new partnership with celebrity chef Georges Blanc makes for some interesting selections in the dining room; the Lido deck buffet offers international selections, a wok station, a deli counter, steak and chicken sandwiches&#8212plus burgers and dogs at the pool grill. And, of course, there are always Carnival’s light-as-air pizza selections, made to order.

Ideal itineraries: Aim for Carnival Spirit’s seasonal Hawaii cruises, which sail between North America’s West Coast and Honolulu. A 12-night Hawaiian voyage from Vancouver or Ensenada to Honolulu offers five straight days at sea! Carnival Spirit also offers a handful of longer-than-a-week trips to the Mexican Riviera which feature additional sea days.

Best for sports enthusiasts

Ships: Royal Caribbean’s Freedom-class series of ships, which include Freedom of the Seas, Independence of the Seas, and Liberty of the Seas.

Why? Rock-climbing wall, in-line-skating course, the FlowRider surf park, golf simulator, miniature golf, and an ice skating rink represent just the beginning on these ships, which really focus on fitness and recreation (check out our Trendwatch: Healthy Cruising feature). We also love the boxing ring and hot tubs cantilevered over the sea&#8212and the ships boast huge spa and fitness facilities.

What’s onboard: Each of the 154,407-ton, 3,634-passenger Freedom-class ships also has a huge, terraced main pool area. Inside, the highlight is the never-quiet Promenade for shopping, people-watching and pub-crawling.

Lunching: The line begins forming at Johnny Rockets (open at lunch only on sea days) about half an hour before the eatery even opens, though the recent implantation of a $3.95 cover charge has reportedly cut down on waiting time.

Ideal itineraries: All offer itineraries with up to three sea days.

Best for romance

Ship: Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Seven Seas Voyager

Why? It doesn’t matter which type of accommodations you have in this all-suite, all-verandah luxury ship (although if you are booked in a Penthouse or above you get the services of a butler). Every suite is luscious, with elegant furnishings and plenty of space to spread out. The 46,000-ton, 700-passenger ship is just right for romantic evenings and lazy days.

What’s onboard: Although it hardly matters since you’ll be cocooning in your luxury suite, the onboard options are surprising for a ship of this size. Entertainment selections range from production shows in the Constellation Theatre to torch songs in the Voyager Lounge. Want some cheek-to-cheek? Try the fabulous dance floor in the Horizon Lounge, where the moon might be peeking at you through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Of course there’s a casino, and for fitness buffs a pool, whirlpool, and workout room, but a couples massage in the Parisian Carita Spa might be just the ticket.

Lunching: Alas, the two specialty restaurants on Voyager are only open for dinner, but you can enjoy exquisite meals in the main dining room, Compass Rose, and the Lido deck cafe, La Veranda. You can, of course, “dine in” with an extensive 24-hour room service menu. And at dinner time, you can definitely enjoy Signatures, the only restaurant at sea operated under the auspices of Le Cordon Bleu, with a classical French menu, or Latitudes, which specializes in serving regional fare depending on your voyage. (Reservations for both of these restaurants are required.) And finally, you can have supper served course by course in your stateroom if you’d like, because on this ship and in these suites, you might not want to step out at all!

Ideal itineraries: Atlantic crossings&#8212as the ship repositions between Europe and the Caribbean, are the best option. With seven sea days you should be able to try every menu option, have at least three massages, enjoy the entertainment and even squeeze in an educational lecture or cooking class during your romantic voyage.

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