Tag Archives: cruises

View of French Polynesia land from Windstar Owner's suite balcony.

When Is a Cruise Ship Balcony Worth It and When Is It Not?

When is a cruise-ship balcony worth the splurge?   Sometimes booking a private veranda is a no-brainer for the vistas, the quick access to fresh air, lots of light, and the extra real estate. But sometimes, because of weather or your itinerary, a balcony may not be worth the extra cost.

I’ve sailed on 300 different cruises, from luxury ocean crossings to European river journeys to an expedition ship in Antarctica, and here’s how I weigh the pros and cons of private balconies on three common styles of small-to-mid-sized vessels.

River Ships

What to Expect: On European rivers, there are two types of balconies: The traditional, step-out space with chairs, and a “French Veranda”—essentially, a wall of glass (via windows that can be lowered with a push of a button or patio-style sliders) that is framed by railings.

The traditional balconies are smaller than what you’d find on an ocean ship because river vessels must fit through narrow locks. Still, there’s room for a couple of chairs and a small cocktail table.

In the priciest suites on a few ships, the balconies are much roomier.   Viking River Cruises’ Explorer Suites, for instance, have balconies that are almost as spacious as those of ocean-going ships, and their aft-facing view is relaxing while traveling on a river.

Balcony in the Explorer Suite on Viking's Longships.

Explorer Suites on Viking’s Longships have relatively spacious balconies. Photo: Viking Cruises

Some river cruise lines, including Uniworld and Avalon, have only French verandas. This offers access to fresh air and views (on Avalon, if you push a chair up to the rail, it’s almost a real balcony experience) and, because there’s not a separate, defined outdoor area, cabins tend to be more spacious.

Staterooms with French verandas or private balconies are typically located on the top decks of a river-cruise vessel.  The low deck offers window-only cabins, usually with no view—just a bit of light. These windows are typically long and narrow and located high up on the wall.

Avalon Waterway's Panorama Suite and its balcony.

Avalon Waterways’ Panorama Suite has “French balconies.” Photo: Avalon Waterways

Know this: The challenge with any type of balcony on a river ship—particularly on a cruise along the Rhine or the Danube—is that during the day, in port, ships may have to tie up to one another; this can completely block not just your view but also your light and privacy. Also, on river cruises you typically spend a lot of time off the ship in river towns; as many balcony cabins as I’ve had, there was never much time to enjoy them.

My Take: Cruising on rivers is all about the landscapes you’re passing through. If you stick to your balcony, you limit your view to just one side of the river. You’ll likely want to head up to the observation deck for 360-degree vistas instead. But since the only other room option—a window-only cabin on a low deck—can feel a bit claustrophobic, I’d prefer a balcony of any kind. Just don’t assume you’ll be using it for hours every day.

Ocean Ships

What to Expect: Balconies are a no-brainer on an ocean cruise—everyone wants one. The good news is that cruise lines have dramatically increased the percentage of balconied staterooms on ships built since about 2010 (the newer, the better). That means balconies are easier to snag and are a better value. On larger vessels—such as those of Celebrity, Holland America, and Oceania—all verandas are comfortable, but the best belong to the highest-level suites and can come with extras such as whirlpools and dining tables.

Sunrise on the balcony of a cruise.

On a trip around the Greek Isles, coffee on the balcony was a wonderful morning ritual. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown

On smaller ships, and particularly on luxury lines, verandas are a wonderful place to dine al fresco or simply stretch out on a lounger in your own private space. Even cruise lines with slightly older small ships, like Windstar with its intimate power yachts, have added French verandas to standard-sized cabins; these vessels have a handful of actual sit-out spaces in top suites too.

Know This: Location can matter! One of the best spots for a balconied cabin (or suite) is on a ship’s aft deck, facing backward over the wake. It’s an incredibly soothing sight ,and often these verandas (even with a standard-category cabin) are deeper and roomier than usual. By contrast, forward-facing balconies are more subject to winds, movement, and sea spray. You also will want to avoid any forward-facing balcony cabin that’s directly under the bridge (the key navigational area of the ship): At night you may be limited in their use, as the light can hamper operations.

View of Tahiti from Windstar Star Breeze's balcony.

A forward-facing balcony on Windstar Cruises’ Star Breeze in Tahiti. Photo: Wendy Perrin

My Take: The bigger the ship, the more crowded the public spaces can be, so it’s nice to have a private slice of the outdoors to relax in from time to time. Breakfast on your veranda is a perfect vacation indulgence (and room service is typically free). At sea, the ocean view is lovely and even in most ports, ships don’t dock too close to each other, so you have nice vistas there too.

Even on smaller, more luxurious ships that don’t feel crowded, a balcony is desirable; if the weather is such that you can spend a lot of time on your balcony, it’s like having an additional room.

Expedition Ships

What to Expect: The hottest new trend in expedition cruising—itineraries to the most remote destinations on earth—is vessels that have all the comforts of small luxury ships, including private balconies. Expedition vessels built since 2014 increasingly have more spacious accommodations that include verandas. Cruise lines whose newest expedition ships have private balconies include Ponant, Scenic, Seabourn, and Silversea. In other cases, lines such as Lindblad offer balconies only in top suite categories.

A tropical expedition balcony in the Silversea Silver Origin.

On Silversea’s Galapagos-based Silver Origin, a temperate climate offers lots of opportunities for enjoying your balcony; this one’s part of the Royal Suite. Photo: Silversea

You may even have a choice of French verandas or traditional ones. On Viking’s Octantis and Polaris expedition vessels, a handful of top suites have normal balconies, while the standard accommodations have “Nordic balconies” that are similar to French verandas, with windows that open halfway.

Know This: How much you actually use a balcony on an expedition cruise is highly affected by your itinerary and the weather. On a cruise to the polar regions, where conditions can be cold and stormy, a private veranda is nice if you want to be able to jump outside to capture a photo, but you likely won’t be spending time lounging or dining there. If you’re headed to a tropical destination, such as the Galapagos, verandas are a wonderful indulgence—and much in demand.

Silversea Cruises' Silver Endeavour in Antarctica.

On Silversea Cruises’ Silver Endeavour in Antarctica, a private balcony may be great for capturing photos but not for dining. Photo: Carolyn Spencer Brown

My Take: On my Antarctica cruise last year, my balcony was a nice extra but not a necessity. We loved dashing outside to admire a passing glacier or penguins wobbling up an icy hill, but the weather was too cold to enjoy a meal or a cocktail there. And, as is common on expedition vessels, the best vantage points in such dramatic locales were the upper decks where, both inside and out, we could see the view from 360 degrees.

The cruise specialists on our WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts can help you weigh the pros and cons of a balcony on any ocean, river, or expedition cruise. Not sure which cruise or expert is right for you? Ask for our advice via the black button below.




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Wendy aboard a "hotel barge" on the Canal de Bourgogne in Burgundy, France

How to Know if a Barge Cruise in France Is Right for You

I’m just back from one of my favorite trips ever: a six-night, eight-passenger barge cruise on the Canal de Bourgogne. Too many people think a river cruise on a 160-passenger ship is their only option for traveling by inland waterway in Europe.  They are missing out.  France in particular has a big network of picture-postcard canals where intimate boats (4 to 12 passengers) glide from village to village, past medieval castles and old-world farms, with no cars in sight for long stretches. It’s like floating through a bygone era. The pace is so languid that you can actually walk faster than the barge goes. I enjoyed hopping off to walk or bike along the towpath, then hopping back on.

The biggest surprise for me was how the escargot’s pace of the barge forced me to relax more than I’ve been able to in years. We could have done the same sightseeing by car, sleeping in hotels—in fact, we could have driven from the village where we started (Vandenesse-en-Auxois) to the village where we ended (Plombières-lès-Dijon) in only 27 minutes!—but that would not have unwound us into the same state of deep relaxation.

A beautiful landscape of Vandenesse en Auxois Burgundy Canal barge.

We started our barge cruise in the village of Vandenesse-en-Auxois, France.  Photo: Timothy Baker

Despite the slow pace, we actually covered a lot of territory, thanks to excursions by van each afternoon to historic sights, wineries, châteaux, and villages where we ended up visiting artisan studios, farmers’ markets, antique shops, cheesemakers…. One of my favorite excursions was to the Chateau de Commarin, where the same noble family that has owned it for 26 generations still lives today; below you can see the Count’s dog greeting me.

Most people would be surprised by the level of luxury, the modern creature comforts, and the exquisite cuisine on our barge. A private barge charter really is like having your own staffed vacation home, only with ever-changing views. And, because you wake up in a different village each day, there’s always someplace new to explore outside your door, yet there are no logistics to deal with.

Tim and I can’t wait to barge again:  Next on our list is the Canal du Midi.  Still, barging is not for everyone. I wouldn’t recommend it to families with toddlers or teens (who could get bored on the barge or need more exercise than just walking and biking), nor to anyone who requires a hotel gym. Nor would I recommend it to people who don’t like wine or cheese, given how much of it is served every day. (We tasted at least 40 wines and 40 cheeses during our six days.)

Wendy biking near a barge in the Burgundy canal in France.

Biking on the Canal de Bourgogne was easy and safe.  Photo: Timothy Baker

There are three groups of travelers who I think could really benefit from barging:

  • A group of couples who get together each year and are looking for something different and fabulous.
  • A family group without kids that is looking for an especially scenic and logistically easy villa-style vacation.
  • Busy execs who must work on vacation. That’s because a barge lets you sightsee from your desk. I was able to sit on deck all morning, answering email on my laptop while bucolic scenery and history glided by, then take a break each afternoon for an excursion and gourmet pursuits.

If you’re an individual couple without a group, there are certain weeks of the year when barges will have availability for you, but most barge cruises are private charters (typically for a group of four, eight, or twelve). Barges are pretty much sold out for 2023, but there is still a lot of availability for 2024.  If you’ve got questions about whether a barge trip is right for you, or if you could use a recommendation of the right boat, region, or itinerary for your needs, I’m happy to help via the Ask Wendy questionnaire.

Wendy at Chateau de Commarin in Burgundy, with a dog approaching her.

One of my favorite excursions was to the Château de Commarin, where the same noble family that has owned it for 26 generations still lives today (that’s the Count’s dog you see greeting me).  Photo: Timothy Baker

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Planning a River Cruise: 7 Mistakes You Think You’re Too Smart to Make

Contemplating a river trip in Europe? A river cruise is a scenic and effortless way to travel, for sure, but take heed: Many of the rules that apply when choosing a hotel or a big ocean cruise ship don’t carry over to river boats. To get the best value for your dollar, here are seven things to keep in mind.

Mistake No. 1: Splurging on a balcony

Panoramic view from Avalon Alegria in Suite 2.

The Panorama Suite on Avalon’s river vessels is one of the nicest afloat. Instead of a small balcony, its French verandah, which extends to the width of the room, makes your whole stateroom feel like a balcony. Photo via Avalon. 

You’d probably assume a balcony is critical—for the view, the fresh air, the photo ops, the extra space, the privacy. A balcony is a big plus at a resort and on a huge ocean ship, but on river boats it can actually be a drawback: River ships have a width limit (so that they can fit through locks), which means that cabins can only be so wide, which in turn means that a balcony takes away from your interior room space. If it’s chilly or raining—as it sometimes is—you’ll value the interior room space more than the balcony. Also, a balcony lets you see only one side of a river, whereas elsewhere on the ship you can see both sides at once. And who wants to miss half a river?

This is why many savvy river cruisers opt for a “French balcony” instead of an “outside balcony.” A French balcony is a glass door or wall-to-wall window that opens to give you fresh air and the feel of a veranda, minus the outside floor, tables, and chairs. The best such pseudo-balcony I’ve seen is on Avalon Waterways’ newer ships. The outside wall of the cabin is floor-to-ceiling glass that stretches 11 feet wide and slides open 7 feet wide. Basically, it turns your whole room into a veranda.

Avalon calls these cabins “Panorama Suites.” Technically, they’re not actually suites: Each is one room that measures 200 square feet and has a comfy sitting area (a chair, a loveseat, and a table) overlooking the water. The bed faces the view—a bed position that is unusual for river ships and is a nice touch, as the view is the first thing you see when you wake in the morning (unless you’ve drawn the curtains, you’re in a lock, or another ship is parked alongside you—which is a reason why most people do draw their curtains at night).

With cabins that transform into open-air terraces, who needs a balcony?

Mistake No. 2: Assuming that your whole itinerary is on the river

The beauty of a river cruise is that it’s a picturesque and easy way to see towns and cities along a river. Typically, the ship drops you off in town, and you can choose to walk around and explore on your own (always my preference) or take a walking tour or bus tour with a group from the ship. Sometimes passengers are bussed to sights an hour or two (or more) away from the river. And sometimes those bus tours can mean missing whole stretches of the river. On the Seine, for instance, opting for the bus tour to Honfleur or Normandy’s WW2 landing beaches could mean missing a picturesque stretch of the river because the bus picks you up at one port and drops you off at the next. (Which is why, on one cruise, I opted not to go to Honfleur or the landing beaches.)

One of the most scenic spots on the Seine River is the approach to the village of Les Andelys. Photo by Carolyn Spencer Brown

So find out whether the cruise line and itinerary you’re considering may force you to choose between the river itself and the sights away from it—and whether those stretches of river are not-to-be-missed picturesque or okay-to-miss industrial. A good cruise director will answer these questions honestly and accurately, and Google Earth can help too. If the cruise director can’t tell you which stretches of the river are most interesting, do what I do—even though technically it’s not allowed: Knock on the wheelhouse door, make friends with the captain, and ask them (at a moment when they’re not busy steering around barges or into locks). Captains always know.

Don’t bother spending precious time attempting to find out where your ship will dock in each town. We choose hotels for their location, of course—so it’s understandable that you’d want to know where a ship will be situated—but, for the most part, they all dock in the same spot. Some ships might have better real estate in certain cities. In Budapest, for instance, Viking’s spot is right under the Chain Bridge. As a general rule, though, all the ships park in pretty much the same area—and, to some degree, where they park can’t be known far ahead anyway. In Passau aboard Viking, we docked in one spot and then later the ship moved several slips downriver.

Mistake No. 3: Insisting that your ship have a gym and a pool

I want these in a hotel or on a giant cruise ship as much as the next person, but the fact is, on river ships, you rarely see anyone in the gym (which is tiny and only minimally equipped) or the pool (which is equally tiny except on some Uniworld ships that have gorgeous indoor pools and some AmaWaterways ships that have a relatively spacious pool with a swim-up bar). There just isn’t enough time to use the gym or pool, as you’re off the ship exploring all day. And if you’re not off the ship, chances are either it’s nighttime or you’re gliding down a significant stretch of river that you won’t want to miss.

The pool in the AmaSonata river ship.

AmaWaterways is one of the few river lines that have pools on the top decks of its ships. Photo by Wendy Perrin

Cruise-line execs keep gyms and pools on ships as marketing tools to get travelers to choose their ship, but the reality is that you likely won’t end up using either. That’s because there are so many opportunities to get exercise off the ship: Some lines carry bicycles and offer cycling tours. Others lend out Nordic walking sticks for ambitious strolling and hiking. And check with your ship’s cruise manager; oftentimes they’ll know where in port you can go to swim or get a massage at a resort or day spa.

Mistake No. 4: Choosing a ship based on the number of passengers
Most people I know, when choosing a hotel or an oceangoing cruise ship, veer away from anything too huge. But on Europe’s rivers there are pretty much only two sizes of cruise ship: 110-meter vessels (which hold about 128 passengers each) and 135-meter vessels (which hold about 166 passengers each). Viking’s longships squeeze 190 passengers onto a 135-meter ship, which competing cruise lines say make it feel crowded. Honestly, though, I sailed on a 190-passenger Viking ship and, other than chairs spaced close together in the observation lounge and trouble finding seats for my party of four at dinner one night, the ship didn’t feel crowded to me. (Then again, I grew up in Manhattan, so my definition of “crowded” may differ from yours.) Nor did I experience less personal service on Viking, partly because Viking (unlike other river cruise lines) has a dedicated concierge who provides such service.

Most ships that ply the Danube and Rhine are similarly laid out (with a few exceptions), so choose your cruise based on the destinations, not the ship itself. Photo via Viking .

There is an exception to this rule. AmaWaterways designed its AmaMagna, which debuted in 2019, to be almost double the width of the standard riverboat on the Danube. The plus? It’s got more amenities, such as more spacious suites, four different restaurants, a sundeck pool and whirlpool, a juice bar, two massage rooms as part of a zen wellness studio and, new this year, a pickleball court. The minus? This ship, due to its size, is limited to a stretch of ports along the Danube that don’t involve locks. Still, it can travel from Germany through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, so the options aren’t severely limited.

If I were you, instead of choosing among river ships based on the number of passengers, I’d choose based on factors that I think will affect your trip more—namely, itinerary, river landscape, cabin type, and like-minded fellow passengers.

Mistake No. 5: Booking the least expensive cabin
In a hotel it can make sense: Choose the lowest-category room at a fabulous property, so you can take advantage of everything the hotel offers, and use the room just for sleeping. On a river cruise, though, the least expensive cabin can be really tight—170 square feet or less—with small windows that don’t open. It’s usually worth the several hundred dollars more to get a French balcony. The aforementioned Avalon “Panorama Suite” cabins cost about $100 more per person per day than the ship’s lowest-category rooms. They’re worth it.

View of the Avalon Alegria Deluxe Stateroom.

On river vessels, the cheapest staterooms are on the lowest deck and though they have windows, there’s not much of a view (this one is on an Avalon riverboat).

Mistake No. 6: Assuming you can dine on your own
In a hotel or on a megaship, it’s easy to stick to yourselves, but on a river ship, there’s a lot of forced socializing. Every night there’s a four-course (at least), two-hour (at least) dinner where you’re seated at tables with other passengers, some of whom you just met. I’ve made some great friends at these chance meetings, but I’ve also been stuck with some louts. Viking is the only river line I have traveled on that provides an alternative venue where you can grab a half-hour dinner on your own if you just don’t feel like making chit-chat with strangers.

Viking’s Aquavit Terrace offers a casual dining alternative to its main restaurants. Photo via Viking.

AmaWaterways offers some options—typically a light breakfast or lunch option is available to grab and go from its lounges. And its new ship, AmaMagna, which is twice the size of traditional river boats, offers more dining options than any other vessel on the Danube.

Mistake No. 7: Assuming there’s room service
Room service is a given in hotels, and it’s usually free on ocean cruise ships, but on river ships it barely exists. On certain ships, in certain cabins, you can get a room-service breakfast. Avalon offers a complimentary continental breakfast option. Room service for lunch or dinner is rare, but Avalon does offer (again, complimentary) an option based on the day’s menus. You do have to order from the front desk, but the food will arrive at your stateroom.

On most ships, early morning coffee and continental breakfast are available in the observation lounge starting at about 6 a.m.

Don’t expect to find an in-room coffee machine in most river-ship cabins. You really don’t need one, though: Every vessel I’ve sailed on has a fancy coffee machine mid-ship (either off the lobby or in the observation lounge) that whips up espressos, cappuccinos, and machiattos, plus there’s hot chocolate, an assortment of teas, and snacks such as cookies and fruit. In fact, on the Avalon Tapestry II, there are two such coffee set-ups—one in the front lounge, one in the back lounge. Which means coffee is never more than 15 seconds away.

Finally, one mistake you are too smart to make: Assuming the Wi-Fi will work at all times
The good news: The Wi-Fi on river ships is free. The bad news: It comes and goes, depending on whether you’re in a lock or on a remote stretch of the river or the other passengers are sucking up all the bandwidth. Where you’ll have Wi-Fi and where you won’t is unpredictable—and none of the river lines are better or worse at providing it—so just know that, generally speaking, your best windows of connectivity are when you’re not in a lock and other passengers are off the ship or have gone to sleep. Know that coffee shops in towns along the way offer better and free Wi-Fi. Another option is to bring a portable modem that connects with systems on land. You can also pre-purchase international packages via your Wi-Fi provider that enable you to use your phone as a modem.

Also know that nobody requires more frequent Wi-Fi than I do, and a river ship is actually one of the best working environments I know: You can sit at your laptop for hours yet have an ever-changing view.




This article was updated and fact-checked in March 2023. It was originally published in 2015.

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Unusual Ways To See the World by Water

There are parts of the world that are best seen from the water, and there is a growing array of unusual itineraries and small ships for doing so.  We’re not talking about Caribbean islands or Italian coastlines as viewed from a cruise ship so huge that it can only dock in the big industrial harbors. No, we’re talking about floating along France’s scenic canals by barge, sightseeing by houseboat through the backwaters of Kerala, India, or exploring remotest Antarctica by small expedition ship. Cruise expert Carolyn Spencer Brown joined Wendy and Brook for a WOW Week Travel Talk on new ways to explore the world’s waterways in 2023.  Watch the video and be surprised by everything you’ll learn.

Small-ship experiences you can find around the globe include:

Expedition ships: These small ships typically navigate parts of the world that it would be hard to experience any other way, such as the Arctic, Antarctica, and pristine portions of Alaska’s shoreline. In such pockets of the world, water-based travel is often your only option: You can’t drive from place to place, and it may be cost-prohibitive or too unreliable to get around via private, chartered aircraft. When these expedition ships are between seasons (say, repositioning between the Arctic and the Antarctic during the spring and fall), they may offer delightfully off-the-beaten-path itineraries that nip into tiny islands, landings, and anchorages. Carolyn and her husband sailed through the Swedish and Finnish archipelagos on a 100-passenger expedition ship, and he, a native of Finland, had never been to most of the small places they got to explore.

Yacht charters: Yachts and sailboats in the British Virgin Islands, Greece, Croatia, the Mediterranean, and many other parts of the world enable you to go where you want to go, drop anchor when you like, and choose who you want to vacation with (meaning, you’re not on a ship with strangers). You can even charter a private boat in India: In Kerala, traditional wood and thatched houseboats called kettuvallam ply the serene, rural backwaters, rivers and canals. You can charter a private boat or book a cabin on an 8-person “cruise” kettuvallam. Read about Wendy’s gulet charter on the Turquoise Coast and Brook’s catamaran charter in the Caribbean.

River boats: You may be familiar with the relatively large (160- to 190-passenger) cruise ships in Europe that ply the Rhine, Danube, Rhone and Seine, but there are many other rivers around the world where smaller vessels go to more exotic places, such as the Amazon in Peru, the Mekong for exploring Vietnam and Cambodia, and the Chobe River for the wildlife of Africa. On the Nile, instead of a Westernized river ship, you can opt for a wind-powered dahabiya. Dahabiyas are local boats that hold up to 12 people and can take you to places beyond the reach of traditional conventional vessels. Read about Billie’s experience sailing the Nile on a dahabiya.

European barge charters: Barges, often holding from 8 to 24 travelers, primarily ply the canals of France and are one of the best ways to explore the countryside, at a snail’s pace. Work barges have been repurposed as small passenger vessels—some quite luxurious, others cozy and comfortable. You’re provided with a captain and a cook, and you travel so slowly that you can easily grab a bike from your barge and meet it in the next village—with time to sip a glass of vino at an outdoor cafe. Read about Wendy’s barge trip through the French countryside.  

For help finding and planning the right private-boat or cruise experience for you, use the black button below.



Read more

A Private Gulet on Turkey’s Aegean Coast: Wendy’s Family Trip

Sailing the Caribbean Sea in a Private Yacht. This Could Be You.

The Best Way to See Egypt. Especially If You Don’t Like Boats.

How to Know if a Barge Cruise in France is Right for You.

Be a smarter traveler: Sign up for Wendy’s weekly newsletter to stay in the know. Read real travelers’ reviews, then use the black CONTACT buttons on Wendy’s WOW List to reach out to the right local fixer for your trip.

plain open ocean looking out to the horizon

Cruises: When Can We Sail Again? How Will It Be Different?

This summer ships will be sailing again—in the Caribbean, in the Greek Islands, on European rivers, on Alaska’s coast—and maybe out of other U.S. ports too. In this live Q&A, cruise specialists on The WOW List and cruise journalist Carolyn Spencer Brown told us how cruise lines, both large and small, are wooing travelers back onboard, putting new safety standards in place, and changing both onboard and shoreside experiences.

Our conversation touched on so many interesting aspects of what travelers can expect from the cruise experience, including:

•How cruise lines are wooing travelers back

•New safety measures on large and small ships and river cruises

•How limited capacity and fewer ships will affect availability

•How the onboard experience is changing on large and small ships

•What shore excursions will be like going forward

•Covid logistics for multi-country cruises

•Onboard testing

•Cruise lines’ vaccination and documentation requirements

•Mask requirements onboard and on shore excursions

•When to cruise

•Where to cruise

•Christmas market cruises

•Alaska cruises and whether they can make stops in Canada

•Small expedition cruises

•The cruises that are already operating in the U.S.

•How the pandemic has created opportunities for the cruise industry as a whole to improve

The panelists:

Carolyn Spencer Brown, former editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com who’s now at Carolynspencerbrown.com

Tom Baker, WOW List Trusted Travel Expert for Cruises, including Large Ships, Luxury Ships, and River Cruises. (Read reviews of Tom here.)

Ashton Palmer, WOW List Trusted Travel Expert for Small-Ship Expedition Cruises, Antarctica, and the Arctic. (Read reviews of Ashton here.)

More Q&A videos:

You’ll find the Zoom recordings of our previous travel Q&As in our new Travel Talk Videos section, including Q&As on last-minute trips, what vaccinated travelers do and don’t need to worry about, and understanding travel insurance in this new era. And, if you’d like to travel this summer while minimizing your risk and maximizing your experience, you’ll find wise solutions via Ask Wendy. We know which places are safest and smartest, and which local fixers can ensure an easy and extraordinary trip. Check out these recent international trip reviews to understand the huge difference that this makes

We’re Here to Help

Right now is a remarkable opportunity for global travelers who are vaccinated. When your friends say that travel is problematic as a result of the pandemic—rental cars aren’t available, service even at 5-star hotels is shoddy—the problem is they’re not planning their trips right! Travel can be spectacular now if you choose the right destination, know the savviest local fixers, and approach them the optimal way. Check out these recent trip reviews to see the difference that Wendy’s WOW approach to trip planning makes. And if you’re looking for a similarly carefree travel experience, contact us at Ask Wendy.

Tibet monastery

Cruise Trends 2019: Cruise Like a Traveler, Not a Tourist

It’s been true for years that you can visit the world’s most remote places in absolute comfort—on a small, luxury ship. What’s new this year is that many cruise lines are not just delivering you to off-the-grid places but are also enabling you to have truly immersive experiences there. The most innovative cruise lines are exploring new concepts such as country-intensive itineraries and extraordinary shore excursions, and many travelers are planning truly unusual pre- and post-cruise adventures. As my colleague at Cruise Critic, Chris Gray Faust, reminds me, these new trends “give passengers more control over their experience—and feel much less like an organized tour. It’s hard to go back to typical group shore excursions after you’ve had more freedom.”

How can you make my favorite three travel trends work for your next vacation? I’m sharing my take with you below. And one more thing: Once you’ve done your own travel homework, my best recommendation is to hand it all over to a top cruise-planning specialist and let the expert make it happen—especially if you’re a first-timer or need multiple travel arrangements booked.

Country-Intensive Itineraries

What’s new: If you want to delve into a single country rather than a skip-hop-and-a-jump itinerary through a vast region of the world, country-specific itineraries are a hot commodity. This year, cruisegoers can explore places such as Iceland, Japan, Indonesia, \Thailand, and Norway in greater depth. Even Alaska (which is only a state) is offering itineraries that get you much farther below the surface than the typical seven-day Inside Passage route.

If you’re planning to go: For the most part, it’s small-ship expedition and luxury cruise lines that are offering these itineraries—lines such as Azamara (whose ships carry about 700 passengers), Ponant (whose vessels carry up to 264 passengers), and Windstar (148 to 312 passengers). But even big-ship fans have options: Princess Cruises’ 2,670-passenger Diamond Princess is sailing many cruises focused on Japan only.

Luxury Land Adventure Add-Ons

What’s new: Cruise ships typically sail from the world’s most compelling cities, where travelers frequently want pre- or post-cruise exploration. Cruise lines are starting to use those cities as jumping-off points for grandiose adventures. On my upcoming cruise around South Africa on Viking Ocean Cruises, you can, for instance, add a multi-day safari to the voyage. And it’s not alone; what may surprise travelers is that they can combine a cruise along Africa’s coast with the very different style of safari experience. AmaWaterways, a river cruise line, has a dedicated inland cruise on the Chobe River that covers Botswana and Namibia.

Even more ambitious is Silversea Cruises’ new “Couture Collection,” which connects cruises to super-small-group land tours of places such as Mongolia, Australia’s Outback, Tibet, and India’s Rajasthan.

If you’re planning to go: Adhering to the old “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” cliché, Silversea’s aforementioned trips, which run from 5 to 11 days, aren’t cheap: They range in price from $34,000 to $78,000 per traveler. Another option: Plan your own private pre- and post-cruise adventures via the best trip-planning specialist for your destination.

More Destination-Focused Theme Cruises

two cruise guests in snorkel gear standing in the water in Moorea with fish swimming around in French Polynesia

Paul Gauguin Cruises offers hands-on, conservation-focused learning in French Polynesia. Photo: Pacific Beachcomber/Paul Gauguin Cruises

What’s new: Theme cruises that typically make headlines revolve around boy bands, food and wine, and television icons like Star Trek. Where we’re seeing a sea change is that travelers are demanding—and cruise lines are delivering—themes related to the destination. One of my most satisfying cruise experiences ever was a Lindblad Expeditions soft-adventure trip to the Nordic countries, where National Geographic photographers taught us how to better capture stories on film. No fewer than three photographers taught daily workshops onboard, and you could also go exploring on shore with them. I took the best pics of my life on that trip.

If you’re planning to go: It’s the small-ship cruise lines that are most likely to offer the most compelling destination-themed programs. Not only do they tie the itinerary into the educational component, but their small size means they can nip into ports that larger vessels can’t—and where you won’t be competing with thousands of other passengers. On Aqua Expeditions’ Aria Amazon riverboat, for instance, you can sail the Amazon and explore its jungles with noted explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau.

For families, I love the Stewards of Nature program aboard the Paul Gauguin. In partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, it offers hands-on learning in the ports of French Polynesia. Kids hike through forests with naturalists, create Polynesian-inspired jewelry, participate in scientific experiments using local flora and fauna, and even design their own Polynesian tattoos.

One fabulous outlier is Cunard, which on its transatlantic crossings occasionally offers themed weeks that hone in on particular interests yet have nothing to do with the itinerary itself. On my list to experience is its Fashion Week, complete with designers, runway shows, and red carpets.


Carolyn Spencer Brown is Editor at Large for Cruise Critic, the leading site for cruise reviews and information, as well as the largest forum for cruise fans. She’s been taking cruises for decades and has amassed an extensive and impressive knowledge of the specifics of ships, lines, itineraries, policies, and ports. You can follow Cruise Critic on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and also follow Carolyn herself on Instagram (@carolynspencerbrown) and Twitter (@CruiseEditor).





Komodo National Park island paradise for diving and exploring. The most populat tourist destination in Indonesia, Pink beach, Nusa tenggara Indonesia

The Best 2019 Cruises for Seeing Nature, Meeting Locals, and Staying Active

At WendyPerrin.com we hear from a lot of travelers who would like to take a cruise but have run up against a big challenge: They want to be physically active, see nature, and interact with locals—three things that cruise lines often do not make easy to accomplish—and they aren’t sure which locations and vessels are optimal. So we’ve pulled together a list of the very best upcoming cruises for achieving these goals: staying active, meeting locals, and seeing nature. We’ve even shared who to book through to get the best experience for your dollar.

Hikers in Alaska's Tongass National Forest

Cruisegoers explore Alaska’s natural beauty, on and off the water. Photo: David Vargas/Lindblad Expeditions

Wild Alaska Escape, aboard the 62-passenger National Geographic Sea Bird

When: Departing from Sitka or Juneau most weeks from late May through August 2019; June is Alaska’s driest month of the year

The Details: A compact itinerary designed to fit within a single work week, this cruise is packed full of options to explore southeast Alaska as few ever will—from hiking lush rainforests to kayaking in remote bays to cycling around a glacial lake. Enjoy the local flavor in the tiny community of Haines, walk the Totem Trail in the picturesque oceanfront town of Sitka, and enjoy a traditional dance demonstration in an ancient Chilkat Tlingit village. There’s abundant wildlife to be found in this region, including coastal bears, migrating whales, and the iconic bald eagle.

Pro Tip: Category 2 cabins on the Upper Deck have doors that open to the outer deck, allowing for the best wildlife viewing.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Ashton Palmer through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Gentoo penguin chicks, Port Lockroy, Antarctica. Photo: ExpeditionTrips

Gentoo penguin chicks, Port Lockroy, Antarctica. Photo: ExpeditionTrips

Antarctic Peninsula, aboard the 112-passenger Island Sky or 114-passenger Hebridean Sky

When: 2018/19 departures from Ushuaia, Argentina available between late November and late February

The Details: If you want to mingle with penguins, hike on the White Continent, and paddle around icy bays, and perhaps even camp on Antarctica—but you don’t want to rough it onboard—these ships are a great choice. The top-notch expedition staff and photography coach will make sure that you get the most of your adventure.

Pro Tip: Want to help with real-world scientific research in Antarctica? Ask about the complimentary Citizen Science program.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Ashton Palmer through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

a canal barge cruise in france

Canal barge cruises move slowly, allowing for great up-close views of the French countryside. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

Bicycling in Burgundy, aboard the six-passenger Rendez-Vous barge

When: Weekly private departures from Paris, France, available from April through October 2019

The Details: When you charter the Rendez-Vous for a private cycling adventure, your onboard local biking guide will plan daily 10- to 20-mile routes through Burgundy’s rolling greenery and famed Grand Cru vineyards via manicured towpaths and fantastic biking trails; bikes and a backup vehicle are provided. The Rendez-Vous feels like a boutique hotel, with chic décor, an open kitchen, and a shaded sundeck—plus it’s got an extraordinary wine list full of Premier Crus.

Pro Tip: With a hot tub on deck for loosening your muscles after your bike rides, the Rendez-Vous is well outfitted for younger, more active travelers.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Ellen Sack through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

clear blue water of the Galapagos Islands Ecuador

The clear blue water of the Galapagos Islands. Photo: hugh_s20/Pixabay

The Galapagos Islands, aboard the 16-passenger Ocean Spray

When: Year-round departures from Quito, Ecuador

The Details: Pair an exploration of Ecuadorian culture on the mainland with extraordinary wildlife experiences and active options in the Galapagos Islands. Enjoy the warm hospitality of historic Quito before boarding a comfortable catamaran to explore the Galapagos, filling your days with hiking, snorkeling, and kayaking in this world-renowned national park and marine reserve.

Pro Tip: Since the Galapagos are close to the equator and warm year-round, plan your cruise to get a bit of sun whenever the weather is coldest at home.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Ashton Palmer through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Icebergs under the Northern Lights

Search for the northern lights on an Arctic cruise. Photo: Shutterstock

Arctic Air-Cruise: Greenland’s Northern Lights, aboard the 66-passenger Ocean Nova

When: Weekly departures from Reykjavik, Iceland, in September, 2019

The Details: Spend your days exploring iceberg-laced Scoresbysund, the world’s largest fjord system, and your evenings searching the sky for the Aurora Borealis. This adventure gives active travelers the chance to trek in Greenland National Park, paddle pristine waters, and search for Arctic wildlife.

Pro Tip: Pack sturdy footwear to take full advantage of Greenland’s spectacular hiking, and sign up early for the popular sea-kayaking excursions.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Ashton Palmer through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

truffle hunter and his dog in France

Go truffle hunting with the family-run L’Or des Valois mushroom farm in France. Photo: Barge Lady Cruise

France barge cruise out of Dijon, aboard the six-passenger Magnolia

When: Weekly private departures available from April through October 2019

The Details: When you charter the Magnolia, owner/operators Nicolas and Magali Rancelot welcome you as one of the family: You’ll go truffle hunting at a family-owned mushroom farm, accompany your chef to the Dijon market to shop for the day’s ingredients, and dine at the country home of Magali’s parents. Four other meals are taken on shore at small bistros and artisan kitchens, so you’re sure to soak up plenty of local color.

Pro Tip: At about $3,800 per person for a six-night, seven-day cruise—including all but four meals—the Magnolia is an excellent value among canal barge cruises.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Ellen Sack through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

The Seychelles and neighboring islands, aboard the 260-passenger Le Lyrial

When: Departs from Durban, South Africa, on April 1, 2019 and March 25, 2020

The Details: Discover some of the Indian Ocean’s most picturesque isles and isolated atolls on a five-star tropical expedition that offers ample opportunities for both activity and relaxation. Divers and snorkelers alike will enjoy exploring Aldabra Atoll, a virtually untouched UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Pro Tip: Special savings are available for those who wish to extend their travels on consecutive sailings.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Ashton Palmer through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Komodo National Park island paradise for diving and exploring. The most populat tourist destination in Indonesia, Pink beach, Nusa tenggara Indonesia

Pink Beach, Komodo National Park, Indonesia. Photo: Shutterstock

Exploring the Indonesian Archipelago and Komodo Island, aboard the 184-passenger La Laperouse

When: Departs from Singapore on November 25, 2019

The Details: Komodo National Park, Pink Beach, traditional villages, the orangutans of Borneo, and a luxurious new superyacht—what more could you want? This adventure treats travelers to a variety of landscapes, cultures, and unusual wildlife while hopping from island to island, all without leaving the creature comforts behind.

Pro Tip: Get a whale’s-eye view of Indonesia as you enjoy a cocktail in the ship’s unique multi-sensory Blue Eye lounge.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Ashton Palmer through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Panoramic view of Glacier Bay national Park. John Hopkins Glacier with Mount Orville and Mount Wilbur in the background. Alaska

John Hopkins Glacier (with Mount Orville and Mount Wilbur in the background) in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. Photo: Shutterstock

If you require a large ship: Alaska’s Inside Passage (7-Day roundtrip out of Vancouver), aboard the 2,106-passenger Nieuw Amsterdam

When: Departs from Vancouver every Saturday between May and late September 2019

The Details: Cruise Alaska’s Inside Passage, visiting Tlingit Indian villages and the best fishing ports in southeast Alaska along the way. Those wishing to be active can go zip lining, kayaking, glacier hiking, and the like; wildlife lovers can spot whales and birds. You’ll spend a day in Glacier Bay National Park, then come back to a large ship with lots of entertainment and dining options to choose from.

Pro Tip: While plenty of large cruise ships visit Alaska, Holland America has been doing so for almost 60 years; they have more highly coveted Glacier Bay permits than any other cruise line, they bring national park rangers and members of the Tlingit culture onboard to enrich the experience, and they have larger cabins than their competitors.

Book Your Cabin: Contact Tom Baker through our site to be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.


Be a smarter traveler: Read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

The veranda of a Signature Suite on the Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

5 Ways the Right Cruise Beats a Resort Vacation

I’ve been to 41 countries on six continents, but until recently, the only cruise I’d taken was an overnight ferry from Maine to Nova Scotia. (I was eight at the time and spent my casino winnings on a fish tank.) So when Seabourn invited me on the first sailing of their new small luxury ship, the Ovation, I quickly booked flights. As a travel journalist, I’ve interviewed cruise experts and studied itineraries and deck plans for years. But it wasn’t until I stepped on board the Ovation that I realized how similar a cruise is to a resort vacation—but also how much better it can be, if done right. Here’s why:

You get a different place to explore each day.

coast of Kotor Montenegro village with boats water and mountains

Kotor, Montenegro. Photo: Pixabay/Falco

A smart cruise itinerary drops you in a new and interesting place daily, mixing must-see and hidden-gem ports and cutting out the tedium of long drives between them. My cruise stopped in Montenegro, for instance—a pocket-sized country that, frankly, I was unlikely to see any other way. Given the Ovation’s relatively small size (it carries about 600 passengers), we were able to anchor close to land and had just a three-minute tender ride to shore. In the ancient walled town of Budva, I wandered into a tiny, homespun-feeling archaeological museum that displayed delicate, Roman-era glass vessels that have miraculously survived for nearly 2,000 years. In Kotor I left the crowds behind to follow stray cats in the maze of alleyways around the main square. Adriatic cruises on a luxury small-ship line like Seabourn often combine a day in Montenegro with days in Croatia, Italy, and Greece too, with a schedule that allows time to eat dinner in port, after the day-trippers and other cruise passengers have gone home.

The view from your room keeps changing.

Veranda Suite Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

The Veranda Suite on the Seabourn Ovation. Photo: Seabourn

Think back to your all-time favorite views out the window of a resort. Now imagine getting them all on a single trip. On a cruise, your view isn’t static—and you don’t have to crane your neck to find the sliver of ocean that was promised to you in the room description. If you book through a cruise specialist on The WOW List, they’ll know which side of the ship will have the most interesting panoramas and can advise whether a balcony is worth the additional cost. Every cabin on the Ovation has a balcony; my 300-square-foot Veranda Suite (the smallest category on the ship) was also large enough to allow for two separate sleeping areas, separated by a curtain.

So many logistical hassles of travel are eliminated.

The Retreat lounge area on the Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

The Retreat. Photo: Seabourn

It’s been said many times that taking a cruise means you only have to unpack once. But the removal of travel stressors goes far beyond that: No checking in and out of hotels, memorizing a new room number every day, familiarizing yourself with each hotel’s layout, guessing at the right choice from yet another breakfast buffet, or jockeying wheeled suitcases over cobblestoned streets and through train stations. On the right ship, you can also avoid the annoyance of crowds: I only had to line up once, when boarding the tenders to Kotor; and while deck chairs never became a precious commodity, I found a particularly quiet spot to the aft of the ship’s Sun Deck.

Dining options abound and room service is free.

The Colonnade dining area on the Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

The Colonnade dining area. Photo: Seabourn

Many boutique resorts have just one or two dining rooms. On the Ovation, I had five varied and excellent restaurants to choose from; I never had to eat from a buffet if I didn’t want to, and the only restaurant requiring a reservation was the Thomas Keller-helmed Grill. There was no charge for room service, which the wait staff was happy to bring in courses, and complimentary Champagne and caviar were available 24 hours a day. Seabourn’s all-inclusive pricing includes a wide selection of complimentary wines, and I learned that if I wanted something different from what they were pouring that night, all I had to do was ask.

You can eat al fresco in your bathrobe.

Meal on cruise ship balcony Seabourn Ovation

Eating on our balcony. Photo: Brook Wilkinson

It was over breakfast on our balcony that my travel companion fell hard for the boating life (see I Thought I Was Too Cool for Cruising). Remember that ever-changing view? It can be the backdrop for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And while the dress code on Seabourn rarely goes beyond a collared shirt or a blouse, terrycloth will do just fine on your private veranda.

Next time you’re looking for a restorative getaway but you’d rather see more of the world than the confines of a single resort, you might consider a cruise. I know I will.

Sunrise balcony view Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

Sunrise from our balcony.

Disclosure: Our writer was offered a complimentary cruise on the new Seabourn Ovation’s very first voyage. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, coverage was not guaranteed and remains at our editorial discretion. You can read the signed agreement between WendyPerrin.com and Seabourn here.

Sunrise balcony view Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

I Thought I Was Too Cool for Cruising

Susan Crandell, the former executive editor of Travel + Leisure magazine, had avoided cruises her whole life.  Then last month she finally tried one:

Sitting on the balcony of my stateroom, watching the sea glitter in the morning sun, I am wondering how I could have been so wrong about cruising. As I attack a plate of fresh-cut mango, I reflect on what a boob I’ve been. This is awesome. This is sweet. Oh, cruising, why have I avoided you all of my life.

My ever-changing view

Let’s back up a few months from that sun-struck epiphany somewhere in the Ionian Sea. We all have our travel identities and I had never seen myself as a cruiser. The only reason I said yes to this trip was because it offered the chance to spend a week with my daughter, who lives 3,000 miles away. An editor at WendyPerrin.com, Brook had been invited on the shakedown cruise of the Seabourn Ovation, traveling from Genoa, where the ship was built, to Venice, where it would set sail with its first paying passengers after we disembarked. Our lap of Italy would take five days at sea, and we would spend one day in port, in Montenegro (new country, ka-ching!).

If not for the opportunity to ride along as Brook’s plus-one, I probably never would have stepped foot on a ship like the Ovation. I couldn’t understand my friends’ enthusiasm for vacations at sea—chasing down every last island in the Caribbean, exploring the Mediterranean.

A cruise didn’t fit my image. With 40-odd countries stamped in my passport, I consider myself experienced and independent, someone who craves vacations brimming with challenge. I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro, gone gorilla trekking in Uganda, soloed a tiny white rental car across the deserty expanse of South Africa’s Great Karoo, kayaked the Sea of Cortez. My motto: Any activity that requires helmets and waivers is bound to be great.

Cruising, I thought, puts training wheels on your trip, gold-plated perhaps, but training wheels nonetheless. And the crowds! I pictured thousands of passengers herded on and off the ship for shore excursions where they trailed after a guide waving a follow-me flag. People getting juiced at the open bar. Assigned-seating dinners with the same inane small talk night after night. Get me a lifeboat, quick!

Okay, I’ll admit it. I thought I was too good for cruising. I was a traveler, not a tourist.

If this sounds familiar, I’m not surprised. I suspect there are a lot of high-mileage travelers like me who think that cruising is for lesser mortals. If you’re among them, listen up. You just might be snobbing yourself out of one of the most satisfying vacations of your life.

A few days before we sailed, I began confessing yet another concern to my friends. “We’re five days at sea. What am I going to do!” As a hedge against boredom, I packed six books and downloaded the first season of The Last Post on my iPad.

Veranda Suite Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

A Veranda Suite on Seabourn’s brand-new ship, the Ovation. Photo: Seabourn

Then I boarded the Ovation and my reeducation began. The insight was simple and so obvious I couldn’t believe I’d missed it: There is more than one kind of wonderful trip. I had always adored adventures of the body—hiking, climbing, rowing, paddling. Turns out five days at sea is an adventure of a different stripe, an adventure of the mind. It confers a rare chance to spend unstructured time, like the dreamy cloud-chasing afternoons of my childhood summers. We all complain about the lack of play in our lives, we read essays by writers who unplug for various periods of time. We know we should meditate. But life keeps getting in the way.

The Colonnade restaurant Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

The Colonnade aboard the Seabourn Ovation. Photo: Seabourn

On the Mediterranean, the days slipped by. I couldn’t account for my time, but it didn’t feel boring at all. It felt delicious. There were just enough activities to ground each day: a yoga class, a tour of the bridge, a visit to the galley, classical guitar in the observation bar. Turned out our stateroom was prime real estate, just steps away from the gelato bar, where the flavors changed every day.

When I spent lazy hours on our balcony, watching the blue line of the horizon, I was alone with nature in a brand-new way. I didn’t have to climb this or hike that. Cruising was the savasana version of nature travel. Just be present; no action is required on your part.

In fact, my transition from cruise-avoider to enthusiast reminds me of my journey from yoga newbie to devotee. I began taking classes to improve my balance and flexibility. Early days, I was all about the physicality of the poses, and I fantasized ditching class before the final meditation. Call me spiritually challenged. But over the years, as I continued to practice, a change crept up on me. One day I realized I was looking forward to savasana.

Seabourn Ovation cruise ship

The 600-passenger Seabourn Ovation anchored in Montenegro, on the Adriatic coast

And as for the disadvantages of cruising, on the 600-passenger Ovation, they just didn’t materialize. The crowds I had imagined weren’t there. No morning rush to secure a spot by the pool. Sun or shade, there were plenty of lounges to go around. Likewise, a water-view seat was always available at breakfast, lunch or dinner. Eat when you want, choose who you sit with. Only one of the Ovation’s five restaurants (The Grill by Thomas Keller, the Michelin-starred chef behind the French Laundry and Per Se) even needs reservations. And the day we made port in Montenegro, I could choose to join one of the guided excursions or go ashore and do my own thing until it was time to catch a tender back to the ship. I could even hire a private guide if I wanted to.

Kotor Montenegro village view

The medieval town of Kotor in Montenegro

At sea, my cellphone was just a camera. I did read five of my books, but The Last Post had to wait for my transatlantic flight home.

I love my new identity as a traveler: I am a creature of many dimensions. I can like a big, scary adventure. I can also like a calm sweet experience. I am checking out the Ovation’s future itineraries. Next time, a cruise with lots of ports—but some sea days too.

The author, Susan Crandell, explores Budva, Montenegro, with her daughter, Brook Wilkinson, an editor here at WendyPerrin.com.

Susan Crandell, the former executive editor of Travel + Leisure magazine and the founding editor of More magazine, is also the author of Thinking About Tomorrow: Reinventing Yourself at Midlife.

What a Barge Cruise Is—and Why Some Prefer It to a River Cruise

savoir vivre in front of chateauneuf barge cruise France CR Barge Lady Cruises
The Savoir Vivre. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises
The canals. Photo: Sara Tucker
Rear view of our boat. Photo: Sara Tucker
Front view of our boat. Photo: Sara Tucker
The view. Photo: Sara Tucker
Pastoral scenery. Photo: Sara Tucker
Goats. Photo: Sara Tucker
burgundy lock barge cruise France CR Kelly Weiss Barge Lady Cruises
The locks. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises
Locks. Photo: Sara Tucker
A castle. Photo: Sara Tucker
Taking walks. Photo: Sara Tucker
A stop to see the Hospices de Beaune. Photo: Sara Tucker
The strawberry soufflée. Photo: Sara Tucker
Cote d'Or wine. Photo: Sara Tucker
Another village we walked through. Photo: Sara Tucker
A stop ion Dijon. Photo: Sara Tucker
Our tour guide. Photo: Sara Tucker
The lounge on the Savoir Vivre barge cruise in France
The boat's lounge. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises
The lounge on the Savoir Vivre barge cruise in France
The other side of the lounge. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises
A state room on the Savoir Vivre barge cruise in France
The boat's staterooms. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises
The lounge on the wine and snacks overlooking the Burgundy countryside taken from the Savoir Vivre barge cruise in France
The view. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises


If you have a hard time making sense of the phrase “barge cruise,” don’t feel bad. Luxury barging is such a tiny niche that it is practically unknown even in France, the country where the phenomenon originated. When I told my French friends that I was going on a barge trip (croisière en péniche), they thought I was going to rent the barge and pilot it myself while Patrick—my French husband, a retired safari guide—whipped up gourmet meals in a tiny kitchen. They thought we were going to take turns opening and closing the locks. (This type of DIY cruise, while possible, is not at all what we had in mind.) My American friends heard “barge” and thought “river cruise.” Almost everyone imagined something rustic.

A barge cruise is very different from a river cruise, starting with the size of the boat. A river ship usually carries 160 to 190 passengers, whereas the capacity of most barges is between eight and twelve. It’s like the difference between a 90-room hotel and a B&B. With one you’ve got your own TV and the option of having your own balcony; with the other you’ve got a captain who picks you up at the train station. Barges usually ply canals, not wide rivers—so, instead of cruising alongside highways and industrial areas on much of your route, your waterway is the equivalent of a country road. Another difference is speed. A long-legged person can walk alongside a moving barge without breaking a sweat. This has important implications. If you get tired of cruising, you have only to wait a few minutes for a set of locks, then hop off the boat and explore. You and the boat, which travels only a few miles per day, are never going to lose each other.

Families and groups of friends like barge cruises because they can book the whole boat and customize their shore excursions. Kids like them because there are bicycles, and farm animals, and castles, and a captain who will let you help him pilot the boat.

My first-ever barge trip was aboard the Savoir Vivre, an eight-passenger hotel barge that cruises a section of the Burgundy Canal. The 242-kilometer canal, completed in 1832, takes you deep into the heart of the French wine country, bisecting cow pastures, sheep meadows, woods, fields, and small villages. Starting in the village of Escommes, near Dijon, we cruised a total of 40 miles in six days, passing through 50 locks.

My trip, which took place in mid April, was arranged by Ellen Sack, the barge cruise expert on Wendy’s WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts. My assignment from Wendy: To learn as much as possible about barge travel, through firsthand experience, so that I might enlighten others.

The Boat

When enthusiasts say that barging is an “intimate” form of travel, they are not just talking about the size of the boat, although it all starts with that. Barges are narrow, flat-bottomed vessels originally used to transport cargo; their heyday lasted for about 20 years, until the invention of the railroad. In the 1970s, an enterprising British chap hit on the idea of taking transporter barges and turning them into floating hotels by adding a superstructure. The idea caught on, and a little industry was born. The Savoir Vivre is unusual in that it is a purpose-built hotel barge, not a conversion. Nonetheless, the eight-passenger vessel has to fit through the same locks as all the other barges. Its four cabins are small—Patrick and I took turns getting dressed—and the lounge doubles as a dining room. On the larger of the two observation decks, six is a crowd, but you are welcome to go up to the wheelhouse and hang out with the captain, who has the best view. Our captain, Richard Megret, was an easygoing Frenchman who had been barging for 20 years; he started out as a cook. He was also our bartender, waiter, guide, and chauffeur. When one of us had a birthday, Richard ordered the cake. When the dishwasher broke, he did the dishes by hand; then he fixed the dishwasher. We and the six other passengers spent most of our waking hours with him and Laura, our tour guide, and each other. This is what barge fans mean by “intimate.”

The Scenery

Unlike a river ship, a canal barge chugs along at four miles per hour, pausing every few minutes to pass through a set of locks. The shore is right there: You can practically reach out and touch it. On the Burgundy Canal, you’re a few feet from white cows and flocks of sheep. When you’re standing on the deck you can literally talk to the villagers strolling along the towpath with their fishing poles and picnic baskets and baby carriages. Children walk or ride their bicycles to the canal to watch the boats go by. They cluster on the little bridges that cross the canal. They sidle up to the uniformed men and women who work the locks by hand. At each set of locks is a small house where, up until the 1950s, the lockkeepers and their families lived; now the houses are abandoned or rented out and the lockkeepers zip up and down the canal on motorcycles. Most mornings, I left the boat on foot and walked through the village where we had moored. On these rambles, I might pass a boulangerie, a post office, a school, a church. I never had to cross a highway or wait for a traffic light. Cocks crowed. Cows mooed. Church bells rang. One evening we moored next to a field where a white horse and a red horse grazed. The young girl who came to fetch them called out a greeting. This, too, is what barge fans mean by “intimate.” You are, for a brief time, a part of French village life.

The Daily Routine

Breakfast is served in the lounge at 8:00. The table is laden with local goodies—pastries, cold cuts, cheeses. At 9:30 or 10:00, Laura arrives and you pile into the minivan. She hands out bottled water and peppermints. You drive through vineyards, woods, fields, and small villages to a castle, or a goat farm, or a monastery where, in the Middle Ages, the monks made wine in monstrous wooden presses. After the tour, you go back to the boat for lunch, which, like breakfast, is catered by a fine restaurant. You eat more than you should. Then you nap, or stroll along the towpath, or sit in a deck chair and watch for herons while the barge putters along. At 6:00, Richard opens a bottle of very good Burgundy and sets out bowls of olives and little puffs of choux pastry called gougères. Then you walk or drive to an excellent restaurant and eat too much food again. (This was another difference between our particular barge cruise and typical river cruises: On river cruises all meals are served on the ship, which means you may miss out on tastier, more authentic cuisine you could find in local eateries.)

Land Activities

Alongside the canal is a well-maintained towpath, once used by draft animals. Every set of locks is an opportunity to get off the boat and bicycle or walk along the towpath. When you reach a set of locks and you want to get off the boat, you have only to open a small gate and step onto the berm. This is also what barge enthusiasts mean by “intimate.”

In addition, there are daily shore excursions. Our tours were led by Laura Aplin, a British guide with a particular interest in sociological history—how people lived way back when. At Châteauneuf-en-Auxois, a medieval citadel, we learned what life was like when the castle was under siege. (Days were spent in boredom. Then a dead cow might fly over the wall, catapulted by the attackers in an effort to spread disease among the enemy.) We learned about 15th-century medicine at the Hospices de Beaune, made friends with the goats at a vineyard in Sainte Sabine, and learned how 12th-century Cistercian monks made wine at Clos de Vougeot. The tours generally lasted a couple of hours and involved a little bit of walking but not a lot. They were all fun. I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand reading little signs and wearing earphones when I go through a museum. (On river cruises, as opposed to barge cruises, the group tours ashore are so large that passengers must wear audio headsets in order to hear the guide.) And I will tell you straight out that I fell in love with Laura. Everybody did. We competed to sit next to her in the van.

The Food

An essential feature of barging is the food. It’s supposed to be outstanding, and with one exception—a new restaurant that our captain wanted to try out—it was. On the boat, meals are served family-style. Lunches are hearty: two or three kinds of salad, quiche, plus a main dish (either meat or fish) and a dessert. The Savoir Vivre is unique among hotel barges in that your evening meal is not on the boat but in a local restaurant, often in a gorgeous building that dates back to the days when Burgundy was a dukedom. One evening we walked along the canal and across a great expanse of lawn, past fountains, ponds, and weeping willows, to a former abbey, now a five-star hotel, where the only other guests (it was early in the season) were a couple of Londoners who were on a DIY barge trip to celebrate their upcoming nuptials. What did we eat? I honestly don’t remember, except for the baba au rhum, because the waiter set the bottle of rum on the table next to the dish. I do remember the amuse-bouche and the strawberry soufflé at Chateau Sainte Sabine, both of which were garnished with flecks of gold leaf.

The Bottom Line

Ellen’s daughter Stephanie Sack, a marketing specialist, told me that there are only 75 hotel barges in the world. The majority of them are in France. This is where Ellen first encountered barging in the 1980s, when the phenomenon was in its infancy. She now arranges barge cruises in ten different regions of France, as well as on canals and rivers in seven other European countries. (Such scope and expertise are partly why Ellen has earned the spot of barge travel specialist on Wendy’s WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts; the other reason is the glowing reviews we receive from our readers.)

The Savoir Vivre costs $3,500 per person for six nights, plus a tip of 5 to 10 percent for the crew. Is that a good deal? Let me put it this way: While a DIY cruise is theoretically possible, do you really want to order the food, pilot the boat, moor the boat, load the dishwasher, fix the dishwasher, stock the bar, or even order the croissants? I sure don’t. And how are you going to get to the beautiful castle if you don’t have a minivan, or figure out what you’re looking at when you arrive? I wouldn’t have wanted to do any of our shore excursions without Laura. At Châteauneuf-en-Auxois, in addition to old-time germ warfare (the flying cows), she showed us where the lord of the castle hid his jewels when the tax assessor came (hint: his wife sat on them), and what a fourteenth-century hot-tub party was like. Without her, we would have seen only a chair and a wooden tub.

For $675 per day, minimum, you get, minimum, an all-inclusive laid-back holiday with great food and wine, one that allows you to bicycle through the French countryside and stroll around small villages at your own speed, visit historic sites with an excellent guide, and travel in a small group.

That leaves the question of weather. The Savoir Vivre has one TV, some DVDs, sporadic Wi-Fi, a Scrabble game, but there’s not a lot to do on a barge when it rains. In fact, there’s not a lot to do on a barge, period, besides eat and sleep. Shore excursions make the days pass quickly, but I wouldn’t want to carry a dripping umbrella around Burgundy if I could help it. Barge season in Burgundy runs from April to October. April gets an average of nine days of rain, per regional weather statistics, May gets 13. There are eight umbrellas onboard the Savoir Vivre, just in case. If you want to play it safe, go in July.

To ensure you get the best barge trip possible, reach out to Ellen Sack via Wendy’s trip request form.  You’ll be marked as a VIP traveler and get these five benefits.

*Disclosure: Barge Lady Cruises provided our reporter, Sara Tucker, with a six-day barge trip through France, free of charge. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, coverage was not guaranteed and remains at our editorial discretion. You can read the signed agreement between WendyPerrin.com and Barge Lady Cruises here.

couple on overwater bungalow in bora bora

WOW Moment: A Bora Bora Overwater Bungalow Surprise


Sharonne and David Hayes recently returned from a trip to French Polynesia that included something special: a surprise insider experience curated by Wendy. We call these WOW Moments, and travelers can start on the path to earning one by using our WOW List buttons to launch a trip and then reviewing their Trusted Travel Expert after their trip. (Here’s info on how to get your own complimentary WOW Moment on every third trip).

The Hayeses’ trip was masterminded by Trusted Travel Expert Leslie Fambrini. Its centerpiece was a luxury small-ship cruise of the Society Islands aboard the Paul Gauguin. What the couple didn’t know was that they would be spending one night in a brand-new overwater villa at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort and Thalasso Spa. The resort’s four Brando Suites, which only just opened in December, have 3,400 square feet of indoor/outdoor living space and 180-degree views of Mount Otemanu. The Hayeses were among the first travelers to get to experience these much-buzzed-about new overwater “bungalows.”

Sharonne and David posted a review of their whole trip—you can read it on Leslie’s reviews page—but of course we wanted to find out more about how their WOW Moment went. The Hayeses live in Minnesota, and on a frigid day in January, Sharonne pulled up her snapshots of blue lagoons and petal-strewn tablecloths to answer our questions.

Q: Let’s start with your WOW Moment. Were you surprised?

A: The WOW Moment was way more than a moment. It was 24 hours of WOW. It was far more than we had expected.

We had been told in advance that on a certain day we were to pack an overnight bag. So we realized that our WOW Moment was not going to be on the ship.

The day before we reached Bora Bora, we were taken to the bridge, where the captain told us we were going to have our WOW Moment the next day—which we kind of knew, but it was fun to go up on the bridge.

We were told to get off on the 10:30 tender and take an overnight bag, and there would be a cab waiting for us. That was pretty much it.

The cab took us to the InterContinental, and the woman at the desk said, “Oh, your boat’s at 12:45.” That’s when we thought, Oh, maybe the WOW Moment is a snorkeling trip.

The boat, a little shuttle, took us to one of these fabulous houses at the end of a row of overwater bungalows; we were admiring them from the boat. They told us we were going to stay there, and they brought out some Champagne. It had a tub with a view, you’ve got your own little pool, and you can hop right into the ocean. And we were standing there saying, “This is ours?”

They said, “Just enjoy your afternoon; we’re going to come pick you up at 5:30 for a manager’s reception.” So we did. We just enjoyed ourselves. We just stayed outside and marveled at this place.

“They told us we were going to stay there, and they brought out some Champagne. It had a tub with a view, you’ve got your own little pool, and you can hop right into the ocean. And we were standing there saying, ‘This is ours?'”

I’m looking at my pictures now, and…there was a certain wonderment about this WOW Moment. There was this school of fish under our bungalow and I was swimming around trying to capture a picture of them with my waterproof camera. I never was successful—they were always ten feet away from me. It really was just magical.

There were other people at the general manager’s reception; it wasn’t just for us. It was just lovely, and we had a great conversation with the general manager.

We had been told that we were going to be picked up for dinner, and we were actually taken back to our place, where they had strewn flowers along the walkway into our bungalow. We had our meal on the deck as we watched the sunset. The weather was perfect, the colors were beautiful, and we enjoyed talking with the servers, a man and a woman, and learning about their lives. They cleaned up and left, and we had a lovely night.

When we arrived at breakfast the next morning they asked for our room number and then directed us to a private table overlooking the water in an area adjacent to the restaurant.

So the whole thing was in keeping with the fact that we were looking to be pampered and relaxed on this trip, and that’s what it was all about.

The whole time I’m there I’m thinking, “Oh, I wish my daughter and her husband were in the other bedroom.” It’s the kind of thing you really wanted to share with people.

Q: How was the rest of your cruise?

A: The Paul Gauguin was wonderful, and it was fun to be there on New Year’s Eve. We do like cruises, but there were things that I really liked about that particular cruise. One was the age mix. There were a few families, a few kids, a lot of honeymooners, people in their twenties and thirties, young couples. This was an upscale cruise, so the ages skewed older, but many grandmas and grandpas were probably funding the trip for their extended families.

There were a lot of Polynesians. One night on the beach, the musicians were playing their ukuleles and singing, and a whole group of Polynesians joined in and it was just magical. Ten cruise-ship guests were out there singing this song, harmonizing and echoing back and forth.

Another thing I liked was you didn’t feel pushed to sign up for shore excursions, but on every stop there was something you could do that was free, like a shuttle into town. I love to go to foreign grocery stores, so we went to shore but didn’t do anything formal.

Q: How did you decide on the Paul Gauguin?

A: We’ve had two prior trips using the specialists on Wendy’s WOW List—Costa Rica and Peru. Although the Peru trip was fabulous, it was also incredibly rigorous, and as my husband and I were walking down the Andes, breathless, he turned to me and said, “Our next trip is going to be a cruise.”

My husband travels a lot for work. He does a lot of hard travel. So when the time came to book something, I said, “Do you really want to get on another plane, or should we just drive up to northern Minnesota and sit in a cozy cabin?” And he said, “No, I really want to get away.”

We didn’t know exactly where to go at that time of year. We were looking for the right itinerary and ways to fit it into our schedule. We had just nine days, and we wanted to go somewhere we had never been before, but we were not looking for an adventure cruise. What we really wanted was relaxation.

I went to Wendy’s WOW List, and I couldn’t tell which of the cruise specialists would be the best fit for us, so I sent an email to Wendy and got a response from one of her assistants within 24 hours. I think that speaks to the personal service.

Q: In retrospect, aside from the WOW Moment, did it help to have a travel specialist plan this trip?

A: I felt like we really benefited from Leslie’s advice. We decided on the Paul Gauguin, and after that it was the logistics of getting it planned. For instance, we were going to have to fly in a day early and have an extra night on either end, and we didn’t know what to do with it. One of the things that was really good advice, even though it was costly, was to have a hotel room ready and waiting for us in the early morning when we landed in Tahiti.

I’ve been on cruises before where the shore excursions are very important. And I didn’t know if that was the case here. Leslie said, after several conversations, “What I’m hearing is, I don’t think you should sign up for anything,” which was my gut feeling, but it was nice to be given permission, and she was right.

“For me, using a travel specialist is a no-brainer for a more complex trip, but even for a cruise, I can’t see a reason not to.”

Q: Can you tell us more about why, as frequent travelers, you rely on Wendy’s WOW List?

A: I bought into using specialized travel agents more than a decade ago when we were going to Africa, and I’ve referred many people to Wendy’s WOW List, partly because I think it’s really curated. I enjoy the process of doing the research, but you can only do so much online.

Our Peru trip is a good example. It was two families. There were six of us, aged 17 to 60, with three different itineraries. Part of our time was together and part of it was apart. Our adult son didn’t want to go on the Andean trek, so the travel specialist gave him some other options. It helped to be able to say, “The 20-year-old son is not buying this. What can you do?”

For the Peru trip, we had eight or ten hours from the time we got back from our Amazon cruise to our return flight, which normally would have meant an icky time in an airport. Instead, somebody picked us up and took us around to show us sights they wanted us to see—I couldn’t have orchestrated that on my own. I would have had to find a car service and tell them where to go. I didn’t have to do that.

For me, using a travel specialist is a no-brainer for a more complex trip, but even for a cruise, I can’t see a reason not to. If you’re booking through a cruise line and you have a question, you won’t get an answer, or you’ll get an answer that benefits the cruise line, versus the unbiased insider look.

Q: Is there anything else would you like to tell us about your cruise, or the WOW List in general?

A: Somebody who saw my pictures of Bora Bora said, “Is that like the best vacation you ever had?” I haven’t asked my husband, but I would say it’s the best vacation I ever had with just him, and I would include my honeymoon in that.


Wendy Wants To Amp Up Your Trip!

On every third qualifying trip, Wendy will add to your itinerary a surprise WOW Moment. A WOW Moment is an exclusive insider experience that helps make a trip extraordinary. Each WOW Moment is totally different. They vary depending on a huge range of factors, including the country you’re headed to, the timing of your trip, logistics, availability, and more. You can read a sampling of the more over-the-top WOW Moments (those most conducive to editorial coverage) here. Learn which trips qualify, and how the process works, here: Wendy Wants To Amp Up Your Trip!

joggers on promenade of crystal serenity cruise ship

Cruise Trends in 2018: What Your Waistline Has Been Waiting For

One of the best things about chronicling cruise travel over the past 20 years has been watching the industry morph from a sedate and somewhat sedentary form of travel—in which dining times were assigned and bus tours were about the limit of sightseeing—to there’s-a-cruise-for-every-traveler-out-there. Seriously, there really is, no matter if you’re more inclined to chill on a beach in the Caribbean, mix with locals in the Mediterranean, or go mountaineering along the ridges of Antarctica.

Of all the changes that have occurred in cruise travel, the one I love the most is this: Cruises have become one of the most healthy and active ways to travel.

Does that surprise you? Whether they offer ocean-going and family-friendly ships, riverboats, or expedition vessels, cruise lines have worked hard to focus on a balanced approach to travel, and I’m sharing some of my favorite ways they’re doing this, below. But by no means has the industry taken away the fun of indulging on your vacation. Sure, you can take a decadent cruise and return home with the freshman 15 lb. weight gain—but you no longer have to.

New wave dining

acai bowl from AquaSpa Cafe on a Celebrity Cruises cruise ship

The menu items at cruise ship restaurants, like açai bowls at Celebrity’s AquaSpa Café, are getting healthier. Photo: Celebrity Cruises

Cruise lines, from big ships to small, are increasingly focusing on fresh cuisine by adding lots of fruit and vegetable items—at all meals— and creating menus for followers of heart-healthy, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan (and even raw food, at least on one cruise line) regimens. They are also developing menus based on the regions their ships are cruising in, and using local ingredients whenever possible.

Look for: Buffets on cruise lines like Crystal, Viking Ocean, and Holland America make it easy to nosh strategically, with lots of fresh fruits, sushi, and salads. I love Celebrity’s AquaSpa Café not just because it’s good for you, but also because its menus are so delicious (Carnival and Royal Caribbean also have their own takes on spa cafés). At lunch and dinner, Viking Ocean is featuring local menu items inspired by itineraries. And some lines even go beyond—plating a meal to actually help you find a regimen that you can take home with you. Interested? Check out Oceania Cruises’ Culinary Center, which offers courses on healthy cooking, and Seabourn, via its partnership with noted mind-body guru Dr. Andrew Weil, for lessons on inflammatory foods.

Maintaining fitness regimes

cruise ship gym Quantum of the Seas Royal Caribbean

Cruise ships now offer large gyms with up-to-date equipment. Photo: Royal Caribbean

If you’re like a lot of us, you don’t want to wreck all the hard work you’ve done at home to get and stay fit, just because you’ve gone off on vacation for a little while.

Look for: When Viking Ocean Cruises (the line aimed at passengers 55 years of age and up) debuted in 2015, it figured that not so many of its “older” passengers cared about working out. Four ships later, the line has gone back and reconfigured its small gyms to be much larger, a sign that all generations want to maintain some level of fitness while traveling. Indeed, just about every ocean line has a gym with free weights, exercise bikes, TRX Suspension systems, tai chi, boot camp, and more. They offer fitness classes too, in yoga, Pilates, stretching and spinning. You can even book time with personal trainers to develop your own new fitness regimen. Typically, the bigger the ship, the larger the fitness facility; Royal Caribbean’s Oasis and Quantum classes of ships have masses of space for all the usual equipment, and then some.

River cruising’s unique fitness challenges and solutions

bicycles Danube AmaWaterways river cruise1

AmaWaterways was the first river cruise line to offer passengers bikes to use in ports. Photo: AmaWaterways

On riverboats, which rarely carry more than 200 passengers, room for fitness is necessarily limited. As a result, companies have gotten a bit more creative about incorporating fitness into the cruise experience. Some, it’s true, have small fitness centers tucked away in a couple of cabins that have been converted for the job, others have tiny pools. But the real success has been creating opportunities to be active either onboard—or in port.

Look for: AmaWaterways, which was the first line to stock bikes onboard that passengers could use for treks in port, has been a river pioneer. It’s teamed up with Backroads, the tour operator that specializes in hiking, walking, and cycling travel, to provide intensive active trips along Europe’s rivers. Many other lines have followed AmaWaterways’s lead, and now stock bikes on board; these include Uniworld and Crystal. On Avalon’s Active Discovery on the Rhine itinerary, you can choose a hiking, cycling, or jogging tour in every port of call. Scenic was the first line to offer electric bikes for use in ports, and Uniworld started the Nordic walking stick craze.

Mind-body matters too

Sleep expert Dr. Michael Breus and HGTV’s Candice Olson designed the Princess Luxury Bed. By 2019 every stateroom in the Princess fleet will have one. Photo: Princess Cruises

Sleep expert Dr. Michael Breus and HGTV’s Candice Olson designed the Princess Luxury Bed. By 2019 every stateroom in the Princess fleet will have one. Photo: Princess Cruises

Spas have been an integral part of the cruise industry for well more than a decade now. What’s new is that cruise lines are going beyond the facility and its treatments (facials, massages and the like) to incorporate lifestyle activities that help you stay balanced long after your vacation.

Look for: I love AmaWaterways’ new Wellness Program. Offered on select river voyages, the program is meant for travelers who want a pretty active regimen and appreciate the camaraderie that comes with being with like-minded enthusiasts—discussion groups, on topics ranging from eating to relaxation, are also part of the experience. Seabourn’s partnership with Dr. Andrew Weil blends active workouts with experiences that emphasize wellness from physical, social, and spiritual environments. Princess Cruises is betting big that simply getting a good night’s rest is a great path to health; it has unveiled its Princess Luxury Bed across the fleet (I tried it, and it was so great I bought two for home).

And here’s possibly my favorite way to cruise: Being active in ports

sea dream cruise ship offers watersports off the back of the boat in Hvar Croatia

SeaDream cruises offer water sports right off the back of the ship when it’s in a port like Hvar, Croatia. Photo: Sea Dream

Choose your itinerary wisely. If your idea of a great way to explore a port of call is via bicycle, kayak, snorkeling, scuba diving, cross-country skiing, zip-lining, hiking, or sailing, exciting itineraries often focus on regions such as Hawaii, Alaska, Central America, Antarctica, the Mediterranean, French Polynesia, Australia and New Zealand, the Caribbean, and the Galapagos. If you particularly enjoy watersports, look for cruise lines whose ships feature watersports platforms, allowing you to access all the key toys, including WaveRunners, right from the aft of your ship. Lines that excel include SeaDream, Crystal Esprit, Windstar and Ponant.

For more on staying active at sea, see Cruise Critic’s list of the Best Cruises for Fitness and these Tips for Eating Healthy on a Cruise.


Carolyn Spencer Brown is Editor at Large for Cruise Critic, the leading site for cruise reviews and information, as well as the largest forum for cruise fans. She’s been taking cruises for decades and has amassed an extensive and impressive knowledge of the specifics of ships, lines, itineraries, policies, and ports. You can follow Cruise Critic on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and also follow Carolyn herself on Instagram (@carolynspencerbrown) and Twitter (@CruiseEditor).


The first port of call on the first-ever sailing of Silversea Cruises' new ship Silver Muse: Marseille, France

Cruise Report: Wendy’s Photos from Silversea’s Newest Cruise Ship

I’ve sailed on inaugural voyages before—I’ve even served as godmother of a cruise ship, smashing the bottle of Champagne at the christening—but, until last week, I’d never boarded a ship a mere three hours after it had left the shipyard. I was on the first-ever sailing of Silver Muse, the elegant new ship from Silversea Cruises that launched in Genoa and will call at 130 ports in 34 countries this year. We hit three of those countries—Italy, France, and Spain—on last week’s “shakedown cruise.”  Honestly, not much shaking down was required:  Silver Muse gleams from top to bottom.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the Muse is the food.  There are eight gourmet eateries onboard—which is a lot for a 596-passenger vessel—including Italian, French, Asian, sushi, a steak house, a pizzeria, and a gelateria. There’s even a cheese bar at night in one of the observation lounges.  The food is sophisticated and imaginative, with ingredients sourced from around the globe—giant prawns from Madagascar, cod from Greenland, steak from an Argentinian estancia, lamb from New Zealand, burrata from the boot of Italy….you get the idea.

But what surprised me most on the ship was Gennaro, the charming Italian cobbler who has a little shop on the pool deck and custom-makes shoes while you wait.  I ordered up a pair of Capri sandals just so I could see Italian craftsmanship at work.  In 45 minutes I had perfect-fitting gold leather sandals.  To see the shoes, and photos from the rest of my Mediterranean coastal adventure, check out the pics below and follow my travels on Instagram.

And if you’re wondering whether Silver Muse is the right ship for you or a different one might be better suited to your trip goals, feel free to write to me at Ask Wendy.


This is how I’ll be leaving Genoa tonight — aboard @silverseacruises’ brand new ship, #SilverMuse.

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Okay, so this ship is not for light packers. @silverseacruises #SilverMuse

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Aboard @silverseacruises you get to choose which #toiletries you want. That’s Naru, my butler. #SilverMuse A post shared by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

I’d be happy with just this for dinner. But it’s only the first course. #antipasto #SilverMuse

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It’s 64 degrees here in the Ligurian Sea. The pool deck is hopping. #SilverMuse A post shared by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

It’s nice to think some people still use #stationery rather than smartphones. #SilverMuse

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Meet Gennaro, the cobbler from Preludio in Capri, who custom-makes shoes on the pool deck. #SilverMuse

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Ta-da! Thank you, Gennaro, for my new custom-made leather sandals. Time it took:45 minutes. Cost: $200. #SilverMuse


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Nice spot to dig into a book. But I’m headed over to that ferris wheel. #Marseille #SilverMuse

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Le Vieux Port of #Marseille, as seen from atop La Grande Roue (the ferris wheel). #SilverMuse

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Looking up the Rue de la Republique from the ferris wheel, Le Vieux Port, #Marseille. #SilverMuse A post shared by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

Specialty of #Marseille: orange blossom navette (navette fleur d’oranger) #SilverMuse A post shared by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on


Chocolate olives. #Marseille #SilverMuse


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Coconut rice pudding. #yum #SilverMuse A post shared by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on


Follow more of Wendy’s travels on Instagram @wendyperrin!


Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Windstar’s Star Breeze on the island of Elba, during the inaugural cruise

A Sneak Peek at Windstar’s Plan to Improve Small-Ship Cruising

Many years ago Windstar changed my view of what a cruise could be.

I was invited onboard as a guest lecturer, and I took my dad. We sailed to all these little Caribbean islands you’d normally never get to—Bequia, Ile des Saintes, Jost Van Dyke, Virgin Gorda…. What we loved most were the picture-postcard views as we sailed into and out of each harbor. In every port we were the only cruise ship. And what my dad really loved was that our bartender remembered his favorite drink from Day One and just automatically brought it to him, whenever he showed up.

Fast forward a few years. I was scheduled to be a guest lecturer again, and it was right after my wedding, so I took Tim, and it morphed into our honeymoon. Again we went to all these little unusual ports, this time in the Mediterranean: Kefalonia, Zakynthos, Monemvasia, Taormina, Corsica, Elba…. We even had the same bartender. His name was Danny. The fact that I even remember his name speaks volumes: Every time you’re back on Windstar, you’re back with family.

What I love most about Windstar is that it takes you to those hidden-gem places that would otherwise be too logistically difficult, time-consuming, or expensive to get to. That’s why Windstar changed my idea of what a cruise could be.

So I was honored when, a couple of years ago, Windstar named me godmother of its new ship Star Breeze. And I was happy to invite Windstar to sponsor the 2nd annual Wendy Perrin Global Travel Summit and to have president John Delaney share news about the company’s plans for 2017. Here’s a sneak peek at what’s coming:

Windstar president John Delaney speaks at the 2017 WendyPerrin.com Global Travel Summit

Windstar president John Delaney speaks at the 2017 WendyPerrin.com Global Travel Summit. Photo: Tim Baker

Returning to an old favorite

I’m so proud of Windstar for being one of only a few cruise lines sailing to Turkey in 2017. The port of call is Kusadasi. “We truly struggled with our decision to cancel Turkey last year because people love it, and it delivers,” Delaney told us. “But clearly we’re never going to do something that isn’t safe. We couldn’t accept the level of risk in Istanbul. But Kusadasi was never in the warnings by the U.S. State Department; that part of Turkey wasn’t included. And [nearby] Ephesus is a bucket-list place.”  To maintain a level of safety, he says, Windstar will continue to rely on State Department information and warnings.

Launching in new destinations

The line is adding new itineraries in new regions, most notably Alaska and Asia (with completely new trips to the Philippines, China, and Japan). “On every itinerary, there will be at least one port you physically can’t get into with a bigger ship,” Delaney said.  In Alaska, for example, guests on the 212-passenger Star Legend will be able to float right into Misty Fjords and Kenai Fjords. “Our ship that is doing Asia is the largest that can go all the way up the river to Bangkok,” he added. “Seville is another great example: We can sail right into downtown Seville. And the Corinth Canal—being able to do that wonder of the world is an incredible experience.”  In addition to introducing these new ports, Delaney says, Windstar will be extending port hours and adding more overnights on a variety of sailings across the board.

Introducing bespoke shore excursions

Delaney, who joined Windstar as president only seven months ago, shared what he described as his own personal focus for 2017: creating small, bespoke shore excursions open to only a handful of travelers at a time. “What I want to do is create regular offerings as part of our shore-excursion program that are the types of experiences WOW List travel specialists are able to put together: accessing ancient ruins before they open to the public, being in a local family home for a true cooking experience in Tuscany, etc. We’re trying to create once-in-a-lifetime experiences.” You can expect these to roll out on European sailings in the summer of 2018, though Delaney says he will be improving Windstar’s regular shore excursions along the way too. “We’ll make sure guests are seeing the best of the best,” he said. “We don’t plan shore excursions the way the big lines do—we don’t have to plan for thousands of passenger throughout. We’re small and different.”

Enhancing the onboard experience

Delaney says Windstar is also finding ways to improve the shipboard experience. Two new hires are going to help with that: Last week, Peter Tobler joined the small-ship cruise line as Director of Marine Hotel Operations, and back in November, cruise-industry veteran Christopher Prelog was brought on as Vice President of Fleet Operations. These may sound like bigwig positions that couldn’t possibly have any effect on your personal time onboard, but in reality they have quite an impact. Tobler has more than 30 years’ experience in the culinary side of cruising, and his new programs—which Delaney says will include changes such as locally inspired menus, special events, enhanced wine offerings, and new cocktail menus—will create the flavor of your foodie experiences onboard. Likewise, the arrival of Prelog suggests that Windstar is interested in finding ways to upgrade its ships with more luxurious and personal touches. As an example, Delaney mentioned a possible “sleeping program” that would let guests choose from a menu of scents, pillows, herbal teas, and turndown music or video. “Chris has a knack for innovation and surprise,” he said, “So stay tuned.”

I’ll be watching—not only because I’m godmother to the Star Breeze, but also because it was fascinating to watch a cruise line president get up on stage at our summit to give a presentation about what’s coming in 2017, and then watch it evolve into a collaborative brainstorming session with our Trusted Travel Experts.  John was eager to hear their thoughts and feedback on what he’s introducing, and I have no doubt that our WOW Listers just gave Windstar a few more ideas about what discerning travelers like you really want. I’ll be eager to hear about your upcoming experiences onboard Windstar ships.  Please keep me posted!

Be a smarter traveler: Follow Wendy Perrin on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know. 

Additional reporting by Billie Cohen

Blue Lagoon, Iceland

These Are the Most Interesting Cruises Planned for 2017

When it comes to cruises, our readers are picky: Only the most remarkable itineraries will do—those that stop in the most interesting and charming ports, give you enough time there, and show you places that would be too logistically difficult, time-consuming, or cost-prohibitive to see any other way. So we scrutinized the 2017 cruise itineraries on offer in order to point you toward the gems. U.S. News and World Report even interviewed Wendy for its article 10 Dreamy Cruise Vacations to Cross Off Your Bucket List. Then we narrowed our picks down to the best values, the most unusual routes, and the can’t-miss bucket-list journeys.  To pinpoint the best cruise-planning travel specialist for your needs—to ensure you get the best itinerary and perks for your money—feel free to write to Ask Wendy.

Cruises that explore today’s hottest destinations at a value:

Iceland, and Japan are currently very popular—and, consequently, very expensive, if you want to do them right. One way to save is via one of these under-the-radar sailings:

Iceland: A lot of cruises touch on Iceland these days, but Lindblad Expeditions is doing something different: a full circumnavigation aboard the National Geographic Orion. The ten-day trip isn’t cheap (it starts at $9,130 per person), but it’s a relatively immersive experience of the whole country.

Japan: A brand-new itinerary with off-the-beaten-path ports you don’t ordinarily see is the “In the Heart of Japan” route aboard L’Austral. It’s an 11-day itinerary from Osaka to Muroran this coming May. Alternatively, you could combine a Japan land trip with a unique cruise to nearby islands. The Silver Discoverer sails to some of the most exotic islands in the South Pacific, from Palau’s Rock Islands (a UNESCO Heritage site and a mecca for divers) to the dolphin-filled Mariana Islands to Japan’s remote and isolated island gems.

Cruises that open up remote, hard-to-access regions:

Because of changing sea ice conditions, an increasing number of ships are heading to the Arctic for one-off or unique itineraries. Rare, once-in-a-lifetime voyages include:

Wrangle Island, Northeast Passage

Wrangel Island is a federal nature preserve and a great place to spot polar bears. Photo: Katya Ovsyanikova

Northwest Passage: Crystal will be sailing the Northwest Passage a second time next summer. The route was once impassable but, because of global warming and melting sea ice, it can now be sailed by a mammoth ship carrying 1,700 passengers and crew during the summer months.

Northeast Passage: Changes in sea ice have now made it possible to take an expedition cruise through Russia’s Northern Sea Route. Aboard the research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy, travelers stop at remote settlements including Wrangel Island, a federal nature reserve and a renowned polar bear denning site, and Franz Josef Land, an archipelago of 192 islands only ten degrees from the North Pole.

Sub-Antarctic and New Zealand: If you want to explore an area few others have seen, board L’Austral or Spirit of Enderby for the sub-Antarctic islands between New Zealand and Antarctica. Nicknamed the “forgotten islands,” they don’t even appear on some maps, but they’re worth seeking out for wildlife lovers, photographers, and adventurers. One of the remote rocks is Macquarie Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; few permits are granted to visit this nesting spot for royal penguins, but these two companies have garnered access for their guests. Expect sightings of sea lions, penguins, albatross, elephant seals, and glacial fjords.

Bucket-list ideas for cruisegoers who’ve seen it all:

National Geographic Quest cruise ship room

Nearly half the rooms on the new National Geographic Quest will have floor-to-ceiling windows. Rendering: Lindblad Expeditions

Coastal West Africa: Regent Seven Seas’ Navigator will be making a 35-night transatlantic voyage in December 2016. First the ship will hug the coast of Africa all the way from Cape Town up to Cape Verde, stopping in Namibia, Angola, Sao Tome, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Gambia, and Senegal. Then it will spend four days crossing the Atlantic and hit five Caribbean islands—Barbados, Martinique, Guadeloupe Grenada, and Curacao—before winding up in Miami.

Belize and Guatemala: A new, state-of-the-art expedition ship scheduled to debut in June is the 100-passenger National Geographic Quest. The small ship of 50 cabins will ply the coastal waters of Alaska (in the summer) and Belize and Guatemala (February and March), seeking out wildlife havens. Guests can dive the Mesomerican reef (the largest in the Northern Hemisphere), snorkel, and paddleboard. Quest will have features you don’t usually see on an expedition ship: There will be adjoining cabins for families, and nearly half of the cabins will have balconies with floor-to-ceiling windows.

Indian Ocean: Jacques Cousteau called Aldabra Atoll “the last unprofaned sanctuary on the planet.” And with good reason: more than 150,000 giant tortoises live there. If you want to be one of the few travelers to visit, board the Silver Discoverer on its itinerary through the Indian Ocean, where you’ll stop in the Seychelles, Maldives, Zanzibar, and more.

Arctic Ice Bridge, Canada

The Canadian Arctic has some incredible views including this ice bridge. Photo: David-McEown

Canadian Arctic: Discover one jaw-dropping national park after another as you explore the remote bays and fjords of Labrador and Torngat, in the Canadian Arctic’s rarely visited wilderness. “Since many locations such as Monumental Island can only be accessed by ship, [the research vessel Akademik Sergey Vavilov] is the perfect platform for viewing wildlife such as whales and perhaps even polar bears,” says Ashton Palmer, Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for expedition cruises. He adds that for an even more epic exploration of the Canadian Arctic and East Coast, combine the Labrador and Torngat Explorer trip with the popular Fins & Fiddles itinerary.

South Atlantic Ocean: An expedition voyage that collectors of rare passport stamps have been waiting for is the Atlantic Odyssey aboard the research ship Plancius. This voyage out of Ushaia, Argentina, takes you to South Georgia Island, the South Orkney Islands, Tristan da Cunha, St. Helena, and Ascension Island.  It’s hard enough just to get to each of these remote islands, let alone see all of them in one trip.

Barge Luciole cruising on Canal du Nivernais, Burgundy, France. Courtesy: Barge Luciole

Barge Luciole cruising on Canal du Nivernais, Burgundy, France. Courtesy: Barge Luciole

Canals of Europe: You haven’t experienced Europe’s waterways properly until you’ve tried a barge trip. Barges are small luxury boats—some carrying just your own family and friends—that wind through Europe’s manmade canals. “It’s intimate, very authentic, very slow,” explains Ellen Sack, Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for barge cruises. “You see the rural countryside from the water and get into a world that a traveler wouldn’t get into ordinarily.” Barge vacations come with private chefs, private English-speaking guides, and land activities such as bicycling through fields, shopping at local markets, wine tasting at vineyards, or getting a behind-the-scenes tour of a chateau.

Be a smarter traveler: Follow Wendy Perrin on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Wendy Perrin on a cruise ship

Watch: How to Choose the Right Cruise

People who say they wouldn’t be caught dead on a cruise have either never tried one or chose the wrong ship. There is an enormous variety of vessels and itineraries (including expedition ships, freighters, and yacht charters), but it’s vital to choose the right one for you, the first time. In this video, shot during my latest cruise, I lay out key factors to consider, as well as the pros and cons of different ship sizes and itineraries.

If you’ve got an additional savvy tip for picking the right cruise, by all means post it in the comments below. I may include the tip in an upcoming article featuring your advice! And if you’d like me to personally recommend the right cruise for your specific travel goals and needs, click to Ask Wendy.

Transparency disclosure: Our sponsor, MedjetAssist, provided the financial support that made it possible to bring you these travel tips.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Smitha leads us to our cabana in Labadee, Royal Caribbean’s private port in Haiti.

Is This the Best New Cruise Perk at Sea?

If you think there’s no way you could survive a 6,000-passenger cruise ship, listen up. When the world’s new largest cruise ship, Harmony of the Seasdebuts this month, it will introduce a first in special treatment at sea: the Royal Genie. Yes, that’s right, a genie. The kind who grants your every wish. More specifically, a shipboard fixer whose goal is to expedite you past every line and make every potential obstacle on a 227,000-ton floating megaresort vanish.

At least, that was what my Royal Genie did when my family and I put one to the test a few months ago aboard Allure of the Seas.  Allure was a fitting ship for this test run because it was the world’s largest cruise ship at the time (until Harmony of the Seas overtook it) and is very similar in design to Harmony. Royal Caribbean, the cruise line to whom these ships belong and that invited me to preview the Royal Genie service, plans to roll it out across five ships this month. Only a handful of passengers—those in the top suites—get a genie.

Now, testing a Royal Genie is harder than you might think. I had trouble dreaming up things for her to do. Maybe I’m just too low-maintenance for a genie. Or maybe I’m more comfortable fending for myself. I did that too on my cruise: I split my time between being spoiled rotten and tackling the buffet line like everyone else. My goal was to be able to advise you how to have the best trip possible aboard the world’s biggest cruise ship, whether you’re in a $30,000 suite or a genie-less $4,000 stateroom.

Before I share my hard-earned advice, though, allow me to clarify what a Royal Genie actually does.

What My Royal Genie Did

My genie, Smitha Thompson, and me in the Royal Promenade aboard Allure of the Seas.

Me and my genie, Smitha Thompson, in the Royal Promenade aboard Allure of the Seas.

If you’ve ever had an airline rep meet you at an airport entrance and escort you through check-in and immigration and onto the plane, bypassing every line en route, then you can start to wrap your head around what a Royal Genie does for you. Her first order of business is to whisk you through the cruise check-in and embarkation process. My genie—the lovely Smitha Thompson, who hails from Mauritius—met me and my family inside the Fort Lauderdale cruise terminal. After we’d sailed through check-in, she escorted us onto the ship and to our room, where awaiting us was about a month’s supply of Brownie Brittle, pretzels, and red licorice (my kids’ favorite snacks, which our genie had researched beforehand). Refills flowed every day.

Smitha got us tables in the ship’s fully booked restaurants and front-row seats to the most popular shows. She had me meet with the head of the shore excursions department so I could get answers to my questions about the pros and cons of various shore tours on offer.

Smitha with the boys at our cabana. Photo: Timothy Baker

Smitha with the boys in our cabana in Labadee.

Her main goal, though, seemed to be for us never to get lost on the ship and never to wait in any line. To that end, she insisted on coming to our room (or to wherever we were on the ship) to escort us to every dinner, show, and scheduled activity. We assured her it was unnecessary, but this genie business was new to her too, and she didn’t want to mess up. Her goal in escorting us was always to take us on the shortest route from point A to point B and, upon arriving at point B, to hand us off to the person in charge there for safe keeping. When the ship docked in port, she expedited us off the ship via a labyrinth of secret passageways, normally off-limits to all but crew, so as to bypass any potential bottlenecks en route to the gangway. When we called at Labadee, the cruise line’s private port in Haiti, we were the first passengers off the ship, onto a private golf cart, into the roped-off portion of Labadee that is reserved for suite passengers, and up to a hilltop private cabana, where snorkel masks, fins, a cooler filled with drinks, and a bartender named Kesnel awaited.

Smitha even stood in line at the lobby Starbucks each morning so that she could knock on my door holding a skinny vanilla latte at 7:00 a.m. (She had asked me to specify a coffee drink and delivery time each morning.) The coffee was free of charge, of course, as were all of her services. Only Star Class passengers get a Royal Genie, and those passengers have already paid top dollar, so the cruise line is not about to nickel-and-dime them.

Smitha expedited our departure as well. Normally, on a cruise, passengers must place all suitcases and non-carry-on luggage outside their cabin doors the night before disembarkation (so that the luggage can be transported off the ship and into the cruise terminal). Smitha got this rule waived for us. On the final morning of the cruise, we got to stay in our cabin with all our luggage till everyone else had been ushered into disembarkation groups. Then she came with porters to collect us and our bags, led us on another shortcut to the gangway, escorted us off the ship, expedited us and our baggage through customs and immigration, placed us in a taxi, and sent us on our way. From cabin door to taxi door, disembarkation took 15 minutes—which, for the world’s biggest cruise ship in one of the world’s busiest cruise terminals, is pretty darned fast. 

Our baggage left the ship at the same time we did. Photo: Timothy Bake

Thanks to Smitha, our luggage stayed with us in our cabin until we left the ship.

The Royal Genie concept has evolved in the months since my test run. Smitha, whose real job was in the ship’s guest services department, was enthusiastic about trying on the role but had never received any official genie training. Since that time, Royal Caribbean has hired a bevy of Royal Genies, trained and certified by the British Butler Institute, and has even designed special outfits for them that are less nautical, more purple.

How to Use a Royal Genie

As wonderful as having your own personal vacation assistant might sound, there were awkward moments and missed opportunities. Should you ever be so lucky as to have a Royal Genie at your disposal, here’s my advice:

Don’t be afraid to say No.

A Royal Genie wants so badly to be helpful that sometimes, so as not to hurt her feelings, you end up saying yes to things you really don’t want. For instance, I wish I’d said “No” when Smitha urged us to ride around Labadee in a private golf cart even though we would have preferred to walk like everyone else. I did say “No” to the hand-delivered morning lattes, once I realized I’d rather sleep in.

Ask which shipboard experiences are most special and why.

On a Royal Caribbean megaship, there are more activities, shows, and restaurants than anybody could ever try in one week, so you must choose carefully.  I wish Smitha and I had sat down at the start and gone through the universe of options, as overwhelming as that might have been. Somehow I didn’t even learn until Day 6 that the ship has a zip-line or that I could dine al fresco in a garden, under the stars, listening to live music.

Request an in-depth tour of the ship on Day 2 or 3.

Smitha gave us a 45-minute introductory tour of the vessel on Day 1. The ship is the length of four football fields, with 18 decks, so she probably didn’t want to tire us out. But I wish I’d asked for an in-depth, three-hour tour. The ship has seven “neighborhoods” and surprises on every deck, from a Kate Spade boutique to a Boardwalk carousel to a running track that wraps around the entirety of the ship. Only on the last day of the cruise did I discover my favorite serene hideout: Deck 5 aft, where there are just a couple of empty wooden deck chairs and ocean panoramas forever.

Find out what behind-the-scenes tours are available.

Who are you most interested in meeting on the ship and what are you most interested in learning from him or her? The inner workings of a 6,000-passenger megaship are pretty fascinating. Your genie can probably arrange an insider’s tour with anyone from the chef to the chief engineer.

Ask about private photo ops with one of the ship’s photographers.

Your genie will likely schedule activities for you that are unique in the world.  (Here, for example, is a glimpse of the first-at-sea features aboard Harmony of the Seas). And when you’re doing a one-of-a-kind activity with your family, you may want a photographer capturing the moment—such as when you’re riding the Labadee Flight Line or surfing on the Flow Rider.

Smitha checks on the boys at the Flow Rider. Photo: Timothy Baker

Smitha kept showing up to check on us around the ship. Here, she checks on the boys at the Flow Rider.

How to Get By Without a Royal Genie

The truth is, some of what a Royal Genie does you can arrange on your own, as long as you’re organized and do some advance planning.

Figure out what’s important to you ahead of time, so you board the ship with a strategy.

Study the cruise line’s website, read the forums and advice on Cruise Critic, and know the full range of options that will be available to you, so you can take action immediately upon boarding. On the ship each morning, read the list of scheduled activities in the daily newsletter; it’s a long, dense list, so bring a highlighter.

Book as much as possible before boarding.

You can make restaurant reservations and book show tickets online in advance. If it’s a free show, send a family member 30 minutes early to save seats for you.

Do the most important activities early in the cruise rather than later.

You know those one-of-a-kind activities I mentioned? On the last day of the cruise, passengers were realizing that they hadn’t tried the Flow Rider, or the Boardwalk zip-line, or what-have-you, and the result was that these things were in high demand. Try them early in the week when the line is short—or before they shut down because the weather has turned too windy.

If you’re in the Caribbean, consider staying on the ship during one of your days in port.

Nobody is a more enthusiastic shoreside sightseer than I.  If you have a smart plan for exploring and getting an authentic experience of an island during your limited time in port, good for you. But if you’ve boarded with no plan, beware. The larger a ship, the longer it takes to get on and off, and the more touristy or inconvenient the port areas it calls at. If you’ve got no sightseeing plan, and your choice is between a generic group tour and walking aimlessly around tourist traps, consider just staying put on the ship and having all its features to yourself. Then return to the island and see it properly someday when you have the time to do it justice.

Ask the crew for dining recommendations.

Seriously.  The crew members aboard Allure, at least, are outgoing conversationalists, and we got our best food tips from a random assortment of them. They recommended breakfast at the Park Café in Central Park (a big mid-ship outdoor garden), for instance; there we discovered New York deli-style bagels with assorted flavors of cream cheese, lox, and toppings. They also sent us to Johnny Rockets in the morning for omelettes. Who knew?


If you are considering a cruise on a giant ship, I recommend having a savvy and extremely well-connected cruise specialist arrange and book it for you so that you get the best cabin and itinerary for your dollar. Feel free to write to Ask Wendy and I can suggest the right cruise advisor for your particular trip goals.

Full Disclosure: Royal Caribbean provided me and my family with a complimentary cruise  (I paid for the airfare).  In keeping with my standard practice, there was no request for or expectation of coverage on Royal Caribbean’s part, nor was anything promised on mine.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Lunch al fresco on Viking Star cruise ship

This is a Cruise Ship That Smart Travelers Will Love

Lunch aboard Viking Star in the port of Monte Carlo. It was December, and temps were in the 50s.
In Corsica, an empty beach—one of the rewards of low season.
Ajaccio, Corsica on Viking Star cruise
Viking ships tend to stay in port till after dark. This is Ajaccio, Corsica.
Lunch al fresco on Viking Star cruise ship
Lunch al fresco again—in December, in Ajaccio.
Toulon, France on Viking Star cruise ship
Here we are in Toulon, France, just past sunset.
all onboard sign on Viking Star cruise ship
A curfew of 10 pm means you can arrange a very full day of sightseeing in southern France.
big windows on Viking Star cruise ship
Most parts of the ship let the outdoors in—even the buffet restaurant.
the bar in the buffet restaurant on Viking Star cruise ship
Almost everywhere on the ship there’s a view. This is the bar in the buffet restaurant.
Explorers Lounge on Viking Star cruise ship
Viking Star has a ton of nooks with books and, sometimes, screens displaying ever-changing travel photos from around the world.
video screen on Viking Star cruise ship
The biggest screen with a scene is in the atrium.
Explorers Lounge on Viking Star cruise ship
Even the bars are comfy.
rooftop infinity pool on Viking Star cruise ship
Probably the only rooftop infinity pool in Toulon.
main pool on Viking Star cruise ship
The main pool can be enclosed or open-air, depending on the weather.
main pool on Viking Star cruise ship
Here’s the same pool, at night.
spa thermal pool on Viking Star cruise ship
And here’s the thermal pool, in the spa.
spa on Viking Star cruise ship
There’s no fee to use the spa. These heated loungers are available to everyone.
spa snow room on Viking Star cruise ship
The spa’s snow room is available to everyone too. In case you feel like jumping from hot tub to snow and back again.
cabin on Viking Star cruise ship
This was my cabin—simple and comfy.
cabin balcony on Viking Star cruise ship
This was my balcony.
putting green on Viking Star cruise ship
The ship’s putting green—which I never saw used, despite shirt-sleeve weather.
Viking Heritage Museum on Viking Star cruise ship
The atmosphere onboard is one of cultural enrichment with a Scandinavian flavor. Here’s the Viking Heritage Museum.
wool hats for sale on the Viking Star cruise ship
Homey touches include these wool hats for sale. They’re knitted by Berit Clausen, the spa manager’s 95-year-old grandmother back in Norway.
Mamsen’s, the Norwegian deli on the Viking Star cruise ship
My favorite place to eat on the ship is Mamsen’s, the Norwegian deli in the Explorers’ Lounge. It’s named after the mother of Viking president Torstein Hagen and supposedly serves her traditional recipes.
Norwegian deli food on Viking Star cruise ship
Among the delicacies on offer (for free) in the Explorers’ Lounge, as well as in The Living Room, are salmon gravlax and steak tartare.
lunch on Viking Star cruise ship
Reke (Atlantic shrimp on white bread) for lunch.
breakfast on Viking Star cruise ship
At Mamsen’s they make these special waffles with berries and sour cream.
waffles on Viking Star cruise ship
room service on Viking star cruise ship
Room service is free too. And the salmon gravlax melts in your mouth.


If you’re an avid independent traveler, as I am, seeing the world by ship has its pros and cons. A cruise is an easy way to see remote places that would otherwise be too expensive and logistically tricky to get to. But there’s a trade-off: Your limited time on land at each stop hampers your freedom.

That’s why I’m excited to tell you about Viking Cruises’ first ocean ship, the Viking Star. On a recent Mediterranean sailing from Barcelona to Rome, it was easier than ever to go at my own pace and do my own thing. (I say that having sailed on more than two dozen ships worldwide, ranging in size from 120 passengers to 6,000.) Viking Star’s sister ship, Viking Sea, will launch next month, and two more nearly identical ships are coming next year: Viking Sky and Viking Sun. They’re a good option for travelers who are normally too independent for a cruise. Here’s why:

1. You can avoid the tourist hordes.

In my case, I got to explore Europe minus the crowds of peak season. It was an unconventional wintertime Romantic Mediterranean itinerary that the new Viking Sea will sail next winter. The Barcelona-Rome route includes Toulon (on the French Riviera), Monte Carlo (Monaco), Ajaccio (Corsica), and Livorno (Italy). There are two traditional drawbacks to Europe in low season, of course: Chilly weather and not enough daylight hours. Normally in low season it’s smart to stick with Europe’s large cultural capitals, since they have a lot to offer even when it’s cold and dark outside. But the Viking Star keeps you warm and cheery in cold weather (see #5 below). The ship can’t rectify the second drawback: the sun setting at 5 pm. Darkness falling early, combined with the fact that the ship was docked in one port or another all day every day, meant that I almost never got to see the ship moving through water in daylight (normally one of my favorite things about a cruise). What made up for that, though, was the absence of other cruise ships in port, making it so easy to escape other tourists on shore (something that is not easily done on, say, a Caribbean cruise).

2. The ship isn’t too big or crowded.

It holds 930 passengers, but it feels more like a 500-passenger ship. It’s blissfully uncrowded, perhaps because people disappear into the dozens of nooks and hiding spots around the ship, and also because every cabin has a balcony. At no point did I encounter or spot any lines or wait for a deck chair or an empty table. There are many public spaces where you’ll find a comfy armchair, a great book, and nobody around. The ship has three pools—an outdoor infinity pool at the stern, a heated pool in the spa, and a main pool that can be either enclosed or open-air, depending on the weather—and none of them ever had more than two people in them.

3. You spend a ton of time on land.

On the “Romantic Mediterranean” itinerary, we sailed only at night. The ship was docked in port all day long, every day. You can sightsee till 8 or 10 pm, and the ship overnights in Barcelona on the first night and in Rome on the last night, so on those nights there’s no curfew at all. I ended the trip wishing we’d had a day at sea so I could have spent more time enjoying the ship itself—watching the waves pass by, soaking in the spa’s thermal pools, sampling more Scandinavian delicacies, and curling up on one of the many plush sofas with one of the many classic novels from one of the many intriguing bookshelves.

4. You don’t feel confined.

First, you’re almost always able to get off the ship and into town. Second, every chance they get (when the weather is warm enough), the crew throws open the floor-to-ceiling doors and windows to let the outdoors in. There are great views from almost every public space on the ship. Even the buffet transforms into an open-air restaurant—and it has an open kitchen, so you can actually look through the kitchen to the ocean on the other side of the ship. Every room has a veranda with a floor-to-ceiling view, and there’s a promenade deck that wraps around the entirety of the ship (something that’s increasingly rare nowadays). Windows onto the promenade deck open as well.

5. Itineraries can be unconventional because the ship is weather-proof.

I’ve never been on a comfier ship for cold-weather cruising. In addition to two indoor pools, Viking Star’s got two indoor hot tubs, a Nordic-style spa with saunas and steam rooms, an abundance of armchairs adorned with blankets and throws, and warm Scandinavian décor throughout. This means the ship can ply cool itineraries such as from Norway to Montreal, with stops in the Shetland Islands, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and Quebec.

6. There’s no regimented schedule.

Unlike on some larger ships, there’s nobody telling you when to do what. There are no announcements. There are no formal nights. You don’t have to report to a particular lounge or theater at a particular time in order to join a tour. Nope, if you want to join the free group tour in each port, you just get off the ship and meet your group on the pier. In fact, the only time I saw herding during the cruise was off the ship, on those free tours. Because they’re free, almost all the passengers take them, which means you could be part of a caravan of buses all pulling into the same tourist sites at the same time. Remember: Just because it’s free, you don’t have to do it. It’s very easy to do your own thing in port. Just grab a taxi, hop on public transit, rent a car, or start walking.

7. The Wi-Fi is free, fast, and reliable.

The Wi-Fi alone gives you freedom and flexibility because it costs you nothing to hop on the Internet and do a little research before arriving in each port to find out what’s happening on the day you’ll be there.

8. It’s easy to dine privately and on your own schedule.

There are four restaurants where you can have long, elaborate meals, but if you’re like me and you just want quick, easy options anytime, anywhere, the choices are excellent. You can order room service for free, 24 hours a day, and it’s delicious and arrives fast. You can also grab hefty, free gourmet snacks of melt-in-your-mouth salmon gravlax, Atlantic shrimp, and steak tartare (with all the trimmings), both at the ship’s Norwegian deli and at its Living Room bar.

9. The ambience is more boutique hotel than cruise ship.

The ship was designed by an architect who does not normally design cruise ships. Not only are the interior design and décor atypical, but very little of what you see onboard feels corporate or mass-produced. The ship feels like an independent, family-owned, Scandinavian hotel, with homey and personal touches—such as wool hats, for sale in the spa shop, that were knitted by the spa manager’s 95-year-old grandmother. The atmosphere is one of cultural enrichment, from the collections of classic books to the Viking Heritage museum to the selection of TED talks on your in-room television.

10. You can relax mentally because it’s so affordable.

Your cruise fare includes a lot. In addition to the Wi-Fi and the tour in each port, you get entry to the spa’s thermal pools, saunas, and steam rooms; beverages, beer, and wine served with meals; minibar items; cappuccinos at the bar; and the aforementioned gourmet snacks served around the ship. There were salmon gravlax (on rye bread with dill mustard sauce), Reke (Atlantic shrimp on white bread), steak tartare (with the trimmings), and assorted Norwegian pastries, including special waffles with berries and sour cream. When you consider the sky-high prices you’d pay for those things in Scandinavia, the value is striking. There’s no nickel-and-diming; in fact, it’s hard to spend money on the ship. There isn’t even a casino. My only shipboard expense was a 50-minute Swedish massage which, thanks to massage therapist Luisa who is literally from Sweden, was the best I’ve had on any ship.

If you’ve got questions about the ship, feel free to ask in the comments below.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.


Disclosure: Viking Cruises provided me with a complimentary week-long cruise. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, there was no request for or expectation of coverage on Viking Cruises’ part, nor was anything promised on mine. You can read the signed agreement between me and Viking Cruises here.*

the Flow Rider on Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas

How to Keep Your Kids Happy on a Cruise

the Flow Rider on Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas
Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas cruise ship
Allure of the Seas has a park in the middle. Photo: Timothy Baker
central park Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas cruise ship
Growing trees at sea is hard, but Royal Caribbean has managed to do it. Photo: Timothy Baker
Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas cruise ship
Central Park is a mid-ship oasis of calm, at any time of the day or night. Photo: Timothy Baker
kiddie pool Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas cruise ship
The ship has pools for kids... Photo: Timothy Baker
hot tub Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas cruise ship
And the ship has pools for adults. Photo: Timothy Baker
Boardwalk on Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas cruise ship
There’s always something going on at the Boardwalk—including free donuts in the morning and free hot dogs in the afternoon. Photo: Timothy Baker
surfing the Flow Rider on Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas
The surfing staff is highly experienced at teaching beginners how to enjoy the Flow Rider. Photo: Timothy Baker
Flow Rider on Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas
Doug’s surfing lesson paid off. Photo: Timothy Baker
Flow Rider staff show on Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas
Even if you yourself don’t want to try the Flow Rider, you can enjoy the spectacle. Here, the surfing instructors put on their own show. Photo: Timothy Baker
Royal Promenade on Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas cruise ship
Among the eateries and bars on the Royal Promenade are Kate Spade, Michael Kors, and Guess boutiques. Photo: Timothy Baker
The Aqua Show features acrobats in a modern circus-like atmosphere. Photo: Timothy Baker
Aqua show on Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas cruise ship
The Aqua Show stage, as viewed during a rehearsal. The diver (at top left) is jumping off a 60-foot-high platform. Photo: Timothy Baker
Ice show on Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas cruise ship
The “How to Train Your Dragon” Ice Show Photo: Timothy Baker
friendly officers on Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas cruise ship
Officers aboard Allure of the Seas pose with King Julien, the lemur from Madagascar. Photo: Timothy Baker


Hi. I’m Doug. I’m 12 years old, and I just took my 12th cruise. It was on the Royal Caribbean ship Allure of the Seas. If your kids are 9 to 14 years old, and you want to be sure they have a great trip and don’t complain, here are the things onboard that you should do with them because they will enjoy them the most.

The Aqua Show: It will make your jaws drop. Divers dive off tiny platforms higher than the Olympics’ highest platform. They dive into a small pool that is only 11 feet deep. It will stun you.

The Flow Rider: It is a surfing and boogie-boarding simulator. Even though the lines are super-long, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Izumi: It is a super-funny hibachi dinner. The chef started out saying, “Hi, I’m Ryan, and I will be your fake Japanese chef today.” He cooks in front of you and says things like, “These eggs came all the way from…yup, you guessed it… Kentucky.”

The Ice Show: The ice rink has many shows—like How to Train Your Dragon and Monopoly. It has many jokes for adults and kids. You will probably end up talking about it all through dinner.

Central Park: Central Park is a nice place to relax. It is always very calm there. It has great restaurants. Nobody knows that you can even go there for breakfast: The Park Café has bagels with different flavors of cream cheese and toppings, and you can get them to take out and walk around the ship with.

The pools: There are 7 pools and 12 hot tubs—and that doesn’t include the pools and hot tubs that only parents can go in. Some hot tubs have huge TVs so you can watch a sports game. Each pool has its own theme and is equipped with a soft-serve ice-cream machine. There are pools for all ages. There are no water slides, but there’s a water volleyball court.

The Boardwalk: The Boardwalk is a place to go with your family and have fun. There’s a carousel, an arcade, a ring toss, a bean bag toss, a Johnny Rockets, a hot dog stand with all different kinds of hot dogs, a candy shop, and an all-night buffet that Mom and Dad didn’t even know about. There’s a zip-line above the Boardwalk but, once you’ve done the Labadee Flight Line, it’s not very exciting.

The Royal Promenade: It’s a huge shopping mall in the middle of the ship with a floating bar that goes up and down three decks. There’s a parade there on the last night of the cruise. It has shops like Kate Spade (parents might want to know that).

The ship’s staff: The officers and crew are very nice. If you ask them to do something, they’ll do it. They’ll even play ring toss with you. They are very loyal and don’t get mad. Overall the staff is much nicer to kids than the staff on most other ships.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

La Rambla, Barcelona, Spain

The Perfect Cruise Shore Excursion in Barcelona

The shore excursions sold by cruise lines can be touristy, overpriced, and inefficient. In this series, local experts in the world’s most popular ports recommend sightseeing itineraries for your time off the ship, so you can get the max out of your precious time in port.

The Perfect Port Day in Barcelona

Since its cruise port sits so close to the city center, Barcelona is a natural contender for independent shore excursions. We asked the whizzes at Context Travel to dream up the best ways to spend a day in the city. You can choose to go it alone or hire one of their “docents”— professors, art historians, chefs, and other interesting local people—to show you around.

Getting into Barcelona

Most cruise ships dock extremely close to the city center at the Moll Adossat terminal (moll means pier in Catalan); even if your ship doesn’t dock there, the other piers are nearby.

By bus — The Barcelona port authority operates a shuttle bus (the T3 PORTBUS, a.k.a. the blue bus) that takes passengers between Moll Adossat and Plaça de Colom. From this plaza at the base of Las Ramblas, you can easily get around on foot or by metro; the Drassanes stop on the green L3 line is nearby. To catch the bus, look for signs upon exiting the boat; the cost is 3 euros (about U.S. $3.30) round-trip, 3 euros (about $3.30) round-trip. Your cruise company may also run its own shuttle from the Moll Adossat to the World Trade Center, which is just a few minutes’ walk from Plaça de Colom.

By taxi — There is a taxi line at Moll Adossat, though sometimes the wait is long. The ride to Plaça de Colum should take about 10 minutes at a cost of roughly 10 euros (about $11). The ride to Plaça de Catalonia, Barcelona’s more central square, is about 20 minutes and roughly 15 euros (about $16.50).

By private car — You can pre-book a private car to whisk you back and forth in style, but it comes at a price; Context Travel offers the service for $50 each way.

Walking — It’s about a 45-minute walk to Plaça de Colom; the part of the city you’ll see is neither interesting nor beautiful.

Things to do

If it’s your first time in Barcelona:

Start your exploration at Plaça de Colom, where you’ll see a large monument to Christopher Columbus. The monument sits at the base of Las Ramblas, a historic, pedestrians-only avenue that runs north to the city’s main square, Plaça de Catalunya. Stroll up Las Ramblas to see some of the street performers and activity (though watch your purse); veer off to the right at some point to get lost in the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) and El Born neighborhoods in the Ciutat Vella (old city). The Barri Gòtic does have some heavily touristed streets, but it’s still possible to find quaint ones—we especially love exploring what remains of the historic Jewish Quarter.

Stop at the Born Centre Cultural, housed in a 19th-century covered market, to learn about the history of that neighborhood as well as all of Catalonia; then head to lunch at Bar del Pla for some tapas.

Catalan flags in Gracia, Barcelona, Spain. Photo: Context Travel

Catalan flags in Gracia, Barcelona, Spain. Photo: Context Travel

In the afternoon, head up Las Ramblas (by foot or via metro line L3) to Passeig de Gràcia, the main artery of the Eixample district. It is in this newer district that you’ll find Barcelona’s famous modernista architecture, particularly works by the three most famous modernistá architects: Antoni Gaudí, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and Josep Puig i Cadafalch. You’ll see the bulk of these on the Passeig de Gràcia itself, including Gaudí’s famous Casa Mila. Passeig de Gràcia is also home to luxury stores like Chanel. While walking the Passeig de Gràcia, look down at the paving stones beneath your feet—they are based on a design by Gaudí. The L3 line runs parallel to this avenue, so you can simply hop on the subway to the Drassanes stop and catch the next PORTBUS whenever it’s time to get back to the ship.

Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain. Photo: Context Travel

Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain. Photo: Context Travel

If you’ve already been to Barcelona:

Head to Gràcia, a village once well outside the city limits (now near the Lesseps stop on the metro’s L3 line). Far from the prying eyes of tourists, Gràcia is an ideal neighborhood for learning about Catalan culture and pride; for insight into the current political atmosphere and independence movement in Catalonia, Context Travel offers a three-hour walking seminar of the neighborhood. Have lunch in Gràcia at Can Xurrades, a local favorite for Catalan cuisine, particularly steaks from Iberian bulls (similar to Kobe beef); call in advance to reserve a table. Then head by metro down to Plaça Espanya for an afternoon of Catalan art: the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, a fantastic collection of Catalan visual art, is housed in the Palau Nacional; the nearby Caixa Forum has wonderful temporary exhibitions in a converted textile factory. Context arranges a three-hour walking tour of nearby Montjuïc hill that contextualizes the area.

To return to the port, make the five-minute walk from the Caixa Forum to the metro stop Plaça d’Espanya on L3. Exit at Drassanes, and return to the T3 PORTBUS stop to catch the shuttle back to the Port.


Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Setting sail on the Viking Star. Photo from Viking Cruises.

The Best Cruise Lines of 2015: Do You Agree with Cruise Critic’s Picks?

Cruise Critic announced its list of the best cruise lines and ships of 2015—including the best new ship, the most romantic cruise line, and the line that offers the best nightlife.

In this annual series, winners are chosen by a panel of Cruise Critic’s editors, who are some of the most experienced cruise reporters around. (Editor in chief Carolyn Spencer Brown has sailed on hundreds of ships, and she shared some of her most memorable travel experiences with us in this interview.)

So what ships did they name No. 1? Well, the Viking Star got the honor of the best new ocean cruise ship, while Uniworld’s S.S. Maria Theresa took the best new river ship category. For families, the nod went to Royal Caribbean, and for romance, Windstar took the top spot (I can attest to that, I took my honeymoon on a Windstar cruise).

Cruise lines were also evaluated for their food, their shore excursions, their nightlife offerings, even their various cabins. Here’s a selection of the winners; check out the full list at Cruise Critic, and let us know: Do you agree with the selections?

Ocean Cruises

  • Best new ocean cruise ship: Viking Star
  • Best Cruise Line for Luxury: Crystal Cruises
  • Best Cruise Line for Families: Royal Caribbean
  • Best Cruise Line for Value: Carnival
  • Best Cruise Line for Dining: Celebrity
  • Best Cruise Line Suites: Royal Caribbean
  • Best Shore Excursions: Azamara Club Cruises
  • Best for Romance: Windstar
  • Best for Nightlife: Norwegian Cruise Line

River Cruises

  • Best River Cruise Line: Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
  • Best New River Cruise Ship: S.S. Maria Theresa, Uniworld
  • Best Cruise Line for Dining: AmaWaterways
  • Best River Cruise Line Shore Excursions: Uniworld
  • Best for Value: Emerald Waterways
Budapest River Cruise

Planning a Cruise? Avoid These Rookie Travel Mistakes

Part of the reason for the growing appeal of cruises is that they remove a lot of the stress and logistics from travel. You get on the boat, and you enjoy. Easy. The tough part comes beforehand, when you have to decide which cruise is right for you: Big ship or little ship? Ocean or river? Exciting expedition boat or leisurely barge? And where in the world should you go?

There are so many factors that affect the success of your cruise that it’s easy to make a rookie mistake. That’s why I have a special section of my WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts dedicated solely to cruise travel agents. Here, I’ve asked them to share the biggest blunders they see travelers make when it comes to arranging a cruise vacation. Fortunately, these are easy mistakes to avoid when you book your trip through a savvy cruise specialist.

Celebrity Reflection cruise ship

The Celebrity Reflection cruise ship. Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

European Cruises
Planning to board the ship the same day you fly into port. You want to book a flight that gets you to your embarkation port city at least the day before, since there’s always the chance of an airline delay and you don’t want to risk missing the ship.
—Tom Baker, Trusted Travel Expert for Affordable Large-ship Cruises

Read Tom’s Insider’s Guide to Affordable Mediterranean Cruises and contact Tom to get the best possible trip.

Asia Cruises
Sleeping on the ship when it overnights in a location where the port is far from the city. In Bangkok, where the ships dock 90 minutes from town, overnighting in a hotel will cost a bit more, but it can save you six hours of driving back and forth over two days. In Shanghai, pay attention to where your ship docks; smaller ships, like the Crystal Symphony, can get right downtown, whereas bigger ships must dock 90 minutes away.
—Mary Jean Tully, Trusted Travel Expert for Luxury Small-Ship Cruises

Read Mary Jean’s Insider’s Guide to Asia Cruises and contact Mary Jean to get the best possible trip.


Barge Elisabeth in Burgundy. Photo courtesy Barge Elisabeth.

Barge Elisabeth in Burgundy. Photo courtesy Barge Elisabeth.

European Canal Barge Cruises
Expecting to cover as much ground as you would on a river cruise. Barges cruise at four miles per hour, and never at night—you could walk faster than the barge moves! Itineraries are six nights long (beginning either on Saturday or Sunday) and travel 30 to 50 miles deep in the countryside. Canal barging is about getting to know a small area intimately and thoroughly.
—Ellen Sack, Trusted Travel Expert for European Canal Barge Cruises

Read Ellen’s Insider’s Guide to European Canal Barge Cruises and contact Ellen to get the best possible trip.

Antarctica Cruises
Selecting an itinerary that’s too short. A trip to Antarctica is an investment of not just money but also time. It takes several days to reach the continent (including crossing the Drake Passage), and because of unpredictable sailing conditions, an extra two to four days can make a significant difference in your experience. Eleven-day itineraries provide a cushion for challenging weather conditions. I’d also encourage you to build in an extra day or two to relax when you arrive in Argentina or Chile (the usual points of embarkation) so that you’ll be refreshed and more present with the experience once you reach Antarctica. I have never met anyone returning from the Great White Continent who complained that the trip was too long—rather, people wish they’d had more time.
—Ashton Palmer, Trusted Travel Expert for Small-Ship Expedition Cruises

Read Ashton’s Insider’s Guide to Antarctica Cruises and contact Ashton to get the best possible trip.

The infinity pool at the back of the ship.

Viking Star: The Ship That Downton Abbey Built

Viking Ocean Cruise line isn’t for everyone. But it doesn’t want to be. At a press conference last week—held aboard the two-month-old Viking Star in her home port of Bergen, Norway—the company’s chairman and one of its founders, Torstein Hagen, said that his ocean liners, like his fleet of wildly successful European river ships, are meant to appeal to travelers much like him: older (55-plus), intellectually curious, interested in the world, and somewhat demanding.

“If they [cruise passengers] want to be in the sun, get drunk, or hang out in casinos, then they’re in the wrong place,” said Hagen. Viking Cruises are for the “thinking man,” he added, “not the drinking man.” The focus will be on the destination first, rather than the ship, he announced, pointing out that their sailings, which are currently in the Baltics and the Mediterranean, will allow for much longer port visits than the competition. In other words, Torstein Hagen is bringing river cruises to oceans.

Setting sail on the Viking Star. Photo from Viking Cruises.

The Viking Star at its christening ceremony, May 2015. Photo from Viking Cruises.

I boarded the Viking Star, the company’s first ocean-going vessel, in London (Greenwich, technically) and sailed it up to Bergen (long-ago settlement of the ancient Vikings, appropriately enough), on one of the last legs of her 50-day maiden voyage from Istanbul to Stockholm.  She carries 930 passengers, making it one of the smaller big ships around.  (By comparison, Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas, which debuted around the same time, carries more than 4,000 passengers). Two sister ships, the Viking Sea and Viking Sky, are scheduled to roll out of the shipyard in spring 2016 and winter 2017, respectively. Hagen says he’s planning on ten ships in total over the next several years. Ambitious, yes, especially when you consider that Viking is the first ocean cruise line to launch with newly built ships in 17 years, since Disney went to sea, in 1998. Ordinarily, that’d be big news in itself, but what really has travel industry insiders abuzz is that Hagen is looking to revolutionize ocean cruises much the same way he did with river cruises—by giving sophisticated travelers a sophisticated cruise at a reasonable price.

The Wintergarden and tea salon.

The Wintergarden and tea salon. Photo from Viking Cruises.

We have Lord and Lady Grantham to thank. Viking River Cruises has been around since 1997, but it wasn’t until 2011, when the company became the one-and-only sponsor of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre and its breakout hit, Downton Abbey—by strokes of luck and genius—that the cruise line shifted into rapid expansion mode. “We realized that the people who watch Masterpiece Theatre are our kind of passengers,” said Richard Marnell, Viking’s Senior Vice President of Marketing. Viking had been chugging along with some 20 fairly standard river ships up until then, but after millions of Downton Abbey fans were exposed to the Viking ads, bookings soared, and the company sped up construction of its “longships,” a roomier, sleeker, and more modern take on the old river-ship model. Since 2012, Viking has built more than 40 new longships, establishing itself as the biggest player in the field, by far.

Capitalizing on the high demand for their river cruises, Hagen and his team plunged into the ocean-cruise market, applying their same winning formula to the new venture. Along with more time in ports, they offer a more streamlined approach to cruising (no onboard casinos, no sushi bars, no rock walls). They also offer remarkable value: The base cruise fare includes one shore excursion in every port, as well as wine, beer, and soft drinks with meals, and WiFi access. All passengers also have access to the (very nice) onboard spa, and if you’re in one of the higher cruise categories, you get complimentary dry cleaning and laundry. What might cost you hundreds of dollars extra per day on most other cruise lines is essentially free on Viking.

Norwegian-style waffles, fluffier than Swedish ones, are up for grabs morning and afternoon in the little Norwegian deli on deck 7.

Norwegian-style waffles, fluffier than Swedish ones, are up for grabs morning and afternoon in the little Norwegian deli on deck 7.

Despite the fact that Hagen is careful not to bill his ships as luxury vessels (“You will just disappoint people,” he said), the onboard experience is hardly bare bones. The Viking Star has only outside staterooms, all with balconies, and the décor throughout is so refreshingly modern that I found myself constantly (window) shopping for furniture—something I never thought I’d do on a cruise ship. A fabulously curated selection of books are found in every nook and cranny, many tied to the destinations, others about great explorers throughout history.

Then there are the delightful Scandinavian-themed touches, in keeping with Torstein Hagen’s Norwegian heritage.  A Norwegian deli serves three kinds of herring, gravlax on rye bread, and traditional apple and almond cakes. The artwork displayed throughout the ship is almost predominately Norwegian, including an Edvard Munch lithograph. The onboard spa, which impressed even the most jaded cruise-ship connoisseurs, staffs only Swedish masseuses, offers a “luxury beard treatment,” and has an onboard snow room, to be visited in between sauna sessions in true Nordic tradition. The owner’s suite, which is up for grabs on most sailings, has its own sauna, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the sea.

The onboard spa, which all passengers are free to use without paying an additional fee. Along with a heated pool and whirlpool, the spa also has saunas, plunge pools, and a snow room.

The onboard spa, which all passengers are free to use without paying an additional fee. Along with a heated pool and whirlpool, the spa also has saunas, plunge pools, and a snow room. The treatments, which costa extra and are typically pricey, have a Scandinavian theme (Swedish massages only!). Photo from Viking Cruises.

Not everything onboard was so innovative. Muzak plays not-too-softly on the otherwise pleasant pool deck, and the nighttime entertainment was less Scandinavian than good-old-American-cruise-ship cliché—the “Rat Pack Revisited” cabaret show and a Broadway-style Mamma Mia medley may have been designed for the older demographic, but passengers of all ages seemed bored stiff. Luckily, at the Explorer’s Lounge—a beautiful space at the front of the ship, with cozy faux-fur pelts on the sofas and the night sky’s constellations lit up on the ceiling after dark—you can sip on Aquavit until the wee hours. The Viking Star may not be for everyone—kids under 16 aren’t allowed, for one thing, and it isn’t small enough to sail into the off-the-beaten-path ports that 200-passenger ships can access—but for a high-quality, high-value cruise with some wonderfully idiosyncratic elements, it seems hard to beat.

*Disclosure: Viking Cruises provided me with a six-night stay free of charge. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, there was no request for or expectation of coverage on Viking Cruises’ part, nor was anything promised on ours. You can read the signed agreement between WendyPerrin.com and Viking Cruises here.

Windstar Cruises’ Star Breeze—and Wendy in one of its zodiacs

How I Became a Cruise Ship’s Godmother

I’ve been a travel reporter for 25 years, and never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be named godmother of a cruise ship. But last week I christened the newest addition to Windstar Cruises’ fleet, the 212-passenger Star Breeze, in a ceremony on the French Riviera, and then hosted the inaugural voyage to Rome.

Star Breeze christening ceremony in Nice, France, on May 6, 2015

Star Breeze christening ceremony in Nice, France, on May 6, 2015

It’s a longstanding maritime tradition for cruise ships to have godmothers—they bless the ship and historically have been entrusted with the safe passage of the vessel—and I’m told I’m the first journalist to receive this honor. Usually it’s reserved for people like Sophia Loren and Princess Kate. Here’s why Windstar chose me.

Captain Krasimir Ivanov, priest Father Jean Marie, Windstar CEO Hans Birkholz, and Wendy

Star Breeze captain Krasimir Ivanov, priest Father Jean Marie, Windstar CEO Hans Birkholz, and Wendy

Hans Birkholz introducing Wendy

Hans Birkholz introducing Wendy as the ship’s godmother

The ship’s crew—and a Jeroboam of Veuve Clicquot

The ship’s crew watching the ceremony—and a Jeroboam of Veuve Clicquot waiting to be smashed against the bow

The moment before the champagne bottle hit the ship

The moment before the champagne bottle hit the ship

Being named godmother is a tremendous honor. It’s also one that some people might view as a conflict of interest for a journalist. You might be wondering whether I’ll show bias toward Windstar. You might question how I can report impartially on Star Breeze when my portrait hangs in one of its hallways.

So let me explain why I accepted this honor. First, as I’ve said before, it’s meaningful to me personally. The Windstar sailings I took with my dad two decades ago are among my favorite memories of our time together. And my husband and I still keep in touch with friends we made on our Windstar honeymoon voyage 15 years ago.

Moreover, I want to do what I can to support small ships. Some would say they’re endangered. Most of the new ships that cruise lines build nowadays are behemoths. And while a vacation in a 4,000-passenger floating city may make sense for some people, it’s certainly not the best way to explore foreign countries. So I’m relieved that there are still a few small ships taking travelers to those off-the-beaten-path islands and hidden-gem harbors that might otherwise be too logistically difficult or prohibitively expensive to get to any other way. Anything I can do to help small ships continue to help sophisticated travelers see the world better, I’ll do.

I want to assure anyone who might be concerned about a conflict of interest that my godmother role will have zero influence on my travel reportage or the advice I give travelers. I remain the same unbiased truth teller and honest adviser I’ve always been. Just because Windstar’s style of small-ship travel suits me personally, that does not mean it’s for everyone. We all have different travel tastes, interests, and needs, and my mission is the same as it’s been for 25 years: To point you toward the right travel experience for your goals, whether that’s a small ship, a big ship, or no ship at all.

If you’re hoping for a review of Star Breeze, though, I’m going to recuse myself—not because I can’t write about the ship impartially, but because there was nothing typical about the voyage I just experienced. I was showered with special treatment (as you’ll see in the photos below), and while there were a number of regular passengers onboard—and I spent as much time as I could chatting with them—I was mainly with the media and travel-industry execs who were being wined and dined (as they are on nearly every new cruise ship’s inaugural voyage). In other words, it was not a normal cruise like one that my readers would experience, and therefore it would be a disservice to them to pretend that it was.

So I will leave the reviews of Star Breeze to exceptional cruise reporters such as Cruise Critic’s Carolyn Spencer Brown and USA Today’s Gene Sloan. You can read their accounts of the christening ceremony here on Cruise Critic and here in USA Today. My husband Tim (who shot the photos here) also plans to weigh in (I’m not sure how, but I’m sure it will involve more photos). Stay tuned.

With Nancy Anschutz, godmother of Star Breeze’s sister ship Star Pride

With Nancy Anschutz, godmother of Star Breeze’s sister ship Star Pride

With Windstar CEO Hans Birkholz

With Windstar CEO Hans Birkholz

The sailaway from Nice

The sailaway from Nice

Arriving in Monte Carlo a few hours later

Arriving in Monte Carlo that same night

The pool deck

The top deck

The Yacht Club observation lounge

The Yacht Club observation lounge

The dining room

The dining room

The Veranda café

The Veranda café

A pretty typical room on Star Breeze

A pretty typical room on Star Breeze

Wendy’s room: Suite 03 (one of the Owner’s Suites)

Wendy’s room: Suite 03 (one of the Owner’s Suites)

Wendy on her balcony on the ship’s bow

Wendy on her balcony on the ship’s bow

Norwegian Breakaway

Family Cruise Advice, from Wendy and Cruise Critic

Wendy chatted with Cruise Critic readers today, sharing her best advice and insights on family cruises. Here are a few highlights from the conversation, including how to make your trip less stressful, the best regions for cruising, and additional tips from Cruise Critic editor in chief Carolyn Spencer Brown.

Read the whole conversation at CruiseCritic.com.

Cruising with a family can be stressful. What are some of your tips on how to cope?

Wendy Perrin: Get a balcony (for extra breathing room) and a cabin location convenient to the kids’ club, the sports deck, or wherever the kids will be spending most of their time. (By “convenient,” I mean within two or three decks, so you can take the stairs rather than having to wait for the elevator.) Feed the kids at the buffet rather than making them sit through a long meal in the dining room. I’ve actually got cruise hacks for acing your family cruise.

In your opinion, are there better regions to cruise to than others?

Wendy Perrin: Yes: groups of islands (archipelagos) because a cruise is an economical, efficient, and logistically easy way to get between them and see a lot of islands you wouldn’t otherwise get to see.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Also, beware that some ports of call, particularly in Europe and Asia, are deceptively far from where ships actually dock. Bangkok is one, Rome is another. This means a lot of time on a bus just to get there…very exhausting and not much time to really have an experience. Alaska is a particularly good place to cruise because a lot of its key places to see are only accessible via ship. Same goes for the Galapagos!

What European river would you recommend for someone taking their first river cruise? What about for someone who is more adventurous?

Wendy Perrin: Well, for my own family’s first river cruise, I chose the Danube, which gives you four countries in one trip and a mix of important cultural capitals and picturesque landscape. If you’re looking for adventure, I’m not sure a river cruise is the answer. Then again, you can make any river cruise adventurous just by doing your own unusual thing in each port.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: The Rhine is another excellent choice for a first-time cruise because the ports vary—you’ve got cities that are fabulous for cathedrals and others that are more recreationally oriented. But the Danube has the prettier scenery :)

What are some of the pitfalls people can make when they book a river cruise?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: The biggest mistake we see passengers making on river cruises is they over-sightsee! Partly that’s because many of the river tours are complimentary and so people want to take ’em all, get their money’s worth.

Wendy Perrin: They can pay a lot for a balcony they never use. Or they can assume their whole itinerary is on the river. In fact, here are 7 river-cruise mistakes you think you’re too smart to make.

What do you think of Disney’s announcement about river cruising. I think my kids are too young for Europe and river but not sure.

Wendy Perrin: I think it’s terrific that somebody is finally focusing on river cruises for families. I’m excited to watch the Disney partnership with AmaWaterways unfold! I’m not sure how old your kids are, but here’s what my 12-year-old thought of our European river cruise—and the advice he has for parents.


Check out the rest of the conversation at CruiseCritic.com, and when you’re ready to book your own cruise, be sure to check Wendy’s WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts for the best cruise specialists. The right travel agent has sailed many times on the cruise line you’re considering, knows all its ships’ pros and cons, knows the head of the cruise line, and can get you excellent rates and benefits you couldn’t get on your own.

Observation deck on the AmaSonata, Passau.

Which River Cruise Ship Should You Choose? Here Are the Key Differences

Many of you have never taken a river cruise, are curious to try one, and write to me asking which you’d enjoy most. It’s tough for me to answer because river ships have many more similarities than differences. Some seem almost interchangeable in their architecture, itineraries, and daily routine. The biggest differentiating factor is usually the river itself—the scenery (castles? farms? vineyards? trains? autoroutes? industrial stretches?), the amount of boat and barge traffic, and the shape of the river (its width, and the number of twists and turns). Honestly, the biggest determinant of which cruise you’ll end up on is probably which ship has cabin availability for your travel dates and a price tag that suits.

Still, I want to help. So, as a public service, I will go out on a limb, reduce something that’s complicated to something simplistic, and try to single out the key differences among river cruise lines, based on five I’ve sailed on that cater to English-speaking travelers. (Note: I have not sailed on Tauck yet—and I hear great things about it.)

First, here are some of the features that these ships have in common. They all have:

* A top-floor outdoor observation deck, with chairs and a shaded area.
* A large, indoor, glass-walled observation lounge at the front of the ship.
* Three meals a day and group shore tours included in the price.
* Free coffee, cappuccinos, hot chocolate, and little snacks (usually cookies and fruit) available all the time in one of the lounges.
* Free but intermittent Wi-Fi.
* A buffet for breakfast; a buffet for lunch; and four-course (at least), two-hour dinners. Meals happen at set hours, and you cannot be late to dinner. You may end up dining with people you don’t know.
* Passengers from North America and sometimes other English-speaking countries.
* A cruise director to answer your questions about which excursions might suit you best and which stretches of the river not to miss.
* A group-tour approach to travel. Most river ships are run by tour companies and thus operate a river cruise like a group tour, only you’re moving by boat rather than by bus and you needn’t switch hotels every couple of days. Note to those of you who hate group tours: Nobody hates group tours more than I do. But I like river cruises because I love boats and I love gliding past all that scenery and history. I also love a room with an ever-changing view out my floor-to-ceiling window. So I use the ship as scenic, effortless sightseeing and transportation, and I explore the ports on my own.

So those are the similarities. Now for the differences. Keep in mind that each line has a variety of ships of different ages and sizes, and with somewhat different features; the summaries below tend to describe the newer ships in each fleet.


• You get a lot of living space—relatively speaking—and creature comforts. Many cabins have two “balconies”—an “outside balcony,” with a table and chairs, and a “French balcony” that’s floor-to-ceiling glass that opens. The cabins have a large flat-screen infotainment system that’s both TV and computer, with movies, music, and a bow cam.

• There are two dining rooms and a focus on regional cuisine.

•The service is attentive to travelers with special needs.

• There are bikes, perhaps a small outdoor heated pool, a beauty salon, and a massage therapist.

Who I’d send on AmaWaterways: Foodies who need their creature comforts.

• Here’s more in-depth info from Cruise Critic.

Avalon Waterways

French balcony in a cabin aboard Avalon Tapestry II

My cabin (#312) aboard Avalon Tapestry II on the Seine River in Normandy.

• The cabin window is wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling glass that stretches 11 feet wide and opens up 7 feet wide, thus basically turning your room into a veranda. It’s a smart design for river ships—and a good value for you because you’re not paying extra, or giving up precious floor space, for an outdoor table and chairs that you’re likely not going to use. (You’ve got an indoor table and chairs already.)

• The tour guides are better than most because the shore bus tours are run by Globus, the group-tour operator that owns Avalon Waterways and has been running tours for 85 years.

• There’s a second dining venue in the observation lounge; it offers a small-plate tasting menu.

Who I’d send on Avalon: Travelers who choose four-star hotels, who don’t mind group bus tours, and for whom the most important aspect of a cruise is the scenery.

• Here’s more in-depth info from Cruise Critic.

Grand Circle Cruise Line

• There’s a pronounced emphasis on getting educated about the destination. Each cruise has three program directors who know the area and culture well and can answer all your questions in depth (which is a contrast to many ships, where the staff often can’t even name the river town you’re passing).

• These program directors serve as your local guides in each port. This is in stark contrast to other river cruise lines, most of whom subcontract their shore tours to a local tour company; in each port you get a different guide, and some can be a real snooze.

• Grand Circle tours tend to attract retired teachers and professors, so onboard you’ll find a lot of intellectuals and interesting conversationalists. Passengers are particularly friendly and extroverted too; there’s a real sense of camaraderie onboard.

• Cabins are small and closer to three-star than four-star and have two twin beds rather than one queen-sized bed.

• There are no bikes, pool, or beauty salon.

Who I’d send on Grand Circle: Retirees who want to stretch their dollar as far as possible in order to take as many trips as possible, and who value education and well-traveled fellow travelers over luxury.

• Here’s more in-depth info from Cruise Critic.


• It’s like living in a floating palace. The ships are splendiferously decorated, with regal furnishings and plush fabrics. Cabins have amenities such as custom-made Savoir of London beds, heated floors and towel racks, and a selection of movies on the TV.

• There are bikes and sometimes a gorgeous heated indoor pool.

• The price includes all alcohol and gratuities, so you won’t be surprised by a big bill at the end of your cruise. (On the other hand, the all-inclusive price may mean you’re subsidizing other passengers’ bar bills.)

Who I’d send on Uniworld: Travelers who choose five-star hotels and plan to spend a lot of time onboard the ship enjoying its luxuries, plush salons, and food extravaganzas.

• Here’s more in-depth info from Cruise Critic.

Viking Cruises

Viking Alsvin, Budapest

Our ship, docked in Budapest, November 2014

• There’s a range of cabin types to choose among—from small and tight to two-room suites. (Many river ships label their one-room cabins “suites”—which is confusing. Only Viking longships have honest-to-goodness suites comprised of two rooms.)

• The longships have less space per passenger than other cruise lines’ ships of the same size. (Viking puts 190 passengers on ships that are the same size as the ships that AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, and Uniworld put about 166 passengers on.)

• There’s an indoor/outdoor terrace where you can grab a quick dinner rather than having to sit through a two-hour meal every night. In nice weather, you can dine there al fresco.

• The ship has a concierge who can make private shoreside arrangements for you.

• There are no bikes, gym, spa, beauty salon, pool, or hot tub.

Who I’d send on Viking: Independent travelers who want to focus on the destinations, prefer not to explore with a group on a bus, and don’t want to pay for shipboard amenities that they’re not going to use.

• Here’s more in-depth info from Cruise Critic.

Have you sailed on these five river cruise lines? If so, please weigh in below and let me know if your experience onboard was the same as or different than mine. (Include which river you sailed on and the year you sailed.) Thanks!

Norwegian Breakaway

Cruise Hacks: 14 Tips for Acing Your Family Cruise

Many of us prefer small ships, but sometimes a large one is your best option. Maybe it’s what your children need (only large ships have water slides and mini-golf), or it’s what your group can afford, or it’s the itinerary that best suits your schedule. Last month my family ended up on the biggest ship we’ve ever sailed on, Norwegian Cruise Line’s 4,000-passenger Norwegian Breakaway, because it’s one of the few ships that sails from New York to somewhere warm in the dead of winter. While a large ship can be a smart vacation option for busy kids and their exhausted parents, it can also feel crowded and chaotic, especially when chilly weather keeps everyone indoors for half the cruise. Since it was my husband’s and my tenth cruise with our kids, now 11 and 12 years old, I thought I’d share our hard-earned tips for maximizing the advantages, and minimizing the drawbacks, of a giant ship.

1. Choose a cabin suited to your children’s ages.
The larger the ship, the more confusing the cabin choices. A family of four can feel very cramped in one stateroom, but it can be hard to find connecting cabins or an alternative configuration that works. One thing to be wary of is cabins with upper berths. When we’ve had such rooms, we’ve been so concerned that the boys would roll out of their beds in the middle of the night that Tim slept in the first upper berth, the second went empty, and the kids slept with me below. When the boys were younger than eight, we were comfortable in a “mini-suite” where they could share a double sofa bed. Since then we’ve needed two connecting cabins. My strong recommendation is to book your cruise through a highly knowledgeable cruise specialist such as Tom Baker of Cruise Center: Tom knows the pros and cons of all the cabins on all the ships and has the clout with the cruise lines to get you the one you want.

En route out of NY Harbor. In 19-degree weather. Can anyone guess what ship we’re on?

A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

2. Insist on a balcony. A balcony gives you breathing room, fresh air, great views, lots of sunlight, and private outdoor space. When the boys were small, we opted against one because they could have climbed over the railing. By the time they were four and six, we felt we could risk it, and today it’s non-negotiable. (A balcony isn’t nearly as necessary on a small ship…but that’s a different article.)

3. Pinpoint the most convenient cabin location.
A great location for families is on an upper deck near the aft: It’s a quick walk to the places you need to get to most often—the pool deck, the sports deck, the kids’ club, the buffet—and you can avoid elevator waits and crowds.

4. Bring Post-It Notes, a European plug adapter, and highlighters. Post-It Notes are handy for your cabin door: When your kids are old enough to check themselves in and out of the kids’ club (which means they’re old enough to wander the ship on their own), they can leave you messages as to their whereabouts. If your family needs to charge an array of electronic devices daily (and whose family doesn’t?), bring a European plug adapter because your cabin might have only one or two U.S. outlets; don’t let European outlets go to waste. As for highlighters, the daily shipboard program delivered to each cabin door lists so many activities and events that each child will want a highlighter to mark his or her favorites.

5. Throw your kids’ swimsuits in your carry-on.
On embarkation day, it can take some time for your luggage to be delivered to your cabin. If you’re embarking in warm weather and you’ve got the kids’ swimsuits with you, they can jump in the pool and use the waterslides right away. One parent can watch the kids while the other walks around the ship doing recon and making spa and dinner reservations.

6. Switch your child’s cell phone (and yours) to airplane mode.
If your child will be using his smartphone as a camera, switch it to airplane mode immediately after leaving your U.S. port for international waters, so that international text messages can’t be sent or received. Otherwise you could get socked with charges. Keep your own phone on airplane mode so you don’t fall prey to roaming charges. (Keep it on airplane mode when accessing the ship’s Wi-Fi too. The great news is that cruise-ship Wi-Fi has improved a lot recently in terms of speed, reliability, and cost.)

7. When everybody else on the ship is zigging, zag.
My family avoids crowds by doing the opposite of what everybody else is doing. Between 6 and 7 pm, for instance, when everybody else is getting ready for dinner or already dining, that’s when we take advantage of the empty sports courts, Ping Pong tables, or hot tub.

8. Find your own serene shipboard hideaway.
In addition to a balcony, you’ll want space to stretch out in tranquility somewhere on deck. There’s almost always an empty area with lounge chairs somewhere. Sometimes it’s the Promenade Deck; sometimes it’s an area up top that people just haven’t discovered.

When the weather is too cold to be outdoors, you may crave an indoor pool or hot tub. Often the spa has a heated indoor pool you can access for a fee. On the Breakaway, access to the spa’s Thermal Suite for $199 for the entire seven-day cruise turned out to be a good value.

The spa’s hydrotherapy pool. #NorwegianBreakaway A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

9. Study the children’s weekly program schedule before making dinner reservations.
If your kids are like mine, certain scheduled evening activities will appeal to them and others won’t. Pirate Night is a must, Hollywood Night is not. If you’re making dinner reservations for the family, choose nights when the kids won’t complain about being with you rather than with their friends.

10. Ace the buffet.
It’s usually the most casual way to grab a bite on the ship (except for room service), and it can be jam-packed. Four tips: (1) Avoid the buffet on embarkation day, when it’s at its most chaotic. (2) When you do eat at the buffet, make a beeline for the Asian and Indian food. The kitchen staff is frequently Asian and Indian, so what you get is their home cooking, and it’s delicious. (3) Often one side of the buffet is open and the other is closed; if you can’t find empty seats, go to the closed side. (4) Feed your kids at the buffet, then go elsewhere for a proper adult meal. Like this:

This is the first raw bar I’ve seen on a cruise ship. How about you? #NorwegianBreakaway

A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

#yummy A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

11. Have your child wear a watch.
There are few, if any, clocks on the ship. If you’ve instructed children to meet you in a certain place at a certain time, the only way they’ll know is if they’re wearing watches.

12. Ensure room keys don’t get lost.
Bring a lanyard, or punch a hole into your child’s key card, so it can be worn around the neck.

13. Don’t activate your kid’s room key for purchases.
On ships you use your room key card for purchases, and kids lose room keys. They accidentally leave them in the games arcade—where other kids may find them and swipe them in the machines—or by the pool, where adults may find them and use them to buy a round of drinks. I’m not kidding; this happens with surprising frequency. When you check in for your cruise, the check-in agent will ask whether your kid’s key should be enabled for shipboard purchases. Just say no, unless you’re certain your child won’t lose the key. And if you’re certain your child won’t lose the key, please share your secret with me!

14. Read my 12-year-old’s advice that parents should know before booking a family cruise.


If anyone else has tips for sailing on megaships, I’d love to hear them. Chime in below!


Disclosure: This was my family’s fourth cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line. We’ve always paid our own way in the past; this time the cruise line provided us with complimentary accommodations. In keeping with my standard practice, there was no request for or expectation of coverage on Norwegian’s part, nor was anything promised on mine.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

View over Belgrade Serbia and Danube river from above in Zemun

How to Make a Low-Season European River Cruise Awesome

European river cruises have grown so popular that often the only time you can get a cabin is low season. But is a low-season cruise worth doing? I’ve taken six European river cruises now—at different times of the year—so I thought I’d lay out for you the pros and cons of low season; how to choose the right ship, cabin, and week; and how to transform a low-season cruise from average to extraordinary. The photos are from my extraordinary Danube cruise from Budapest to Passau aboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Alsvin in November 2014. The seven-day itinerary hit four countries: Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany.

The Pros and Cons of Low Season

Three Pros:

1. You pay less.
A cruise can cost $1,000 per person less in March, April, November, or December than in July or August. Airfare is lower too. Also, when the weather is cold, there’s no pressure to splurge on a balcony, since you won’t spend much time sitting on it. (I recommend a cabin with a “French balcony.” See below.)

Schonbuhel Castle, Melk

These are the colors of low season. That’s Schönbühel Castle, in Austria’s Wachau Valley, near Melk.

2. River towns are less crowded.
In high season, river towns can be packed with cruisegoers. In low season, they’re delightfully empty.

Melk Abbey Library

In low season you needn’t fight crowds at famous sites—such as inside Melk Abbey’s famed library of 16,000 ancient books.

3. Holiday markets
Festive Christmas markets, which tend to run circa November 22 – December 24, make every port more charming and fun. I’ve now gone Christmas-market-hopping in Central Europe via rental car, train, and boat, and the latter is by far the easiest. (For the reasons why, plus photos and tips, see Europe’s Christmas Markets: How to Plan the Perfect Trip.)

Bratislava Christmas Market

Bratislava, Slovakia, is charming both with a Christmas market and without one—but it’s better with one.

Three Cons:

1. It’s nippy up on that observation deck.
My favorite place on a river ship is the top deck, where I can watch history glide by and try to sneak into the wheelhouse to chat up the captain. But it’s chilly and windy up there in March and December, with temps in the 30s and 40s. Then again, that’s nothing that the right outerwear won’t solve. Of course, you can always descend one deck to the indoor glass-walled observation lounge and enjoy the neverending free supply of hot chocolate and cappuccinos.

Hungarian Parliament Building, Budapest

Passengers were bundled up as we passed the Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest.

2. Your river photos will be grayer.
Compare the photos in this post—all shot on a Danube cruise in November—with those from my July 2014 cruise on the same stretch of river.

Dürnstein, Austria

Dürnstein, Austria, November 2014: Misty but delightfully uncrowded.

3. Darkness falls early.
Fewer hours of daylight mean fewer hours for sightseeing. In November and December, it’s dark by 4:30 p.m. That’s no problem on a Christmas markets cruise, though; it’s a plus, in fact, since nighttime is when the markets light up and are at their most festive.

Bratislava Christmas Market Ice Skating

Here’s an example of the fun things you can do at night at a Christmas market. That’s my 10-year-old in Bratislava.

How to Choose the Right Ship, Cabin, and Week

Time it right.
I’m convinced I chose a great week of the year for my Viking cruise on the Danube: Thanksgiving. The Christmas Markets had just opened, the weather wasn’t too cold yet, the kids didn’t have to miss too many days of school, and the cruise fare was the lowest of the year. Fares for late-November 2015 start at about $1,760 per person for Viking, $1,900 for AmaWaterways, $2,500 for Uniworld, and $2,600 for Tauck. If you’re not going for Christmas markets, look for value in late April or early October.

Vienna Christmas Market

Vienna’s holiday market at Michaelerplatz two days before Thanksgiving 2014.

Ask yourself what shipboard décor, ambience, and indoor creature comforts you’ll want.
Given the cold weather, you’ll be spending almost all your time on the ship indoors. Do you want to live in a plush palace? That’s the ambience you’ll find on Uniworld’s splendidly furnished ships. The S.S. Antoinette, for instance, is the Versailles of river ships and has an indoor cinema and an indoor pool. When it’s freezing outside, splurging on such cold-weather niceties may make sense. If your goal is to spend as much time as possible off the ship exploring, however, you may prefer to spend your money on experiences in port, rather than on shipboard bells and whistles you may never utilize. On my six European river cruises, I have never once watched a movie in my cabin, let alone in a cinema; I’ve been too busy watching the river.

Viking Alsvin Veranda Stateroom

This was my veranda stateroom on the Viking Alsvin—a little tight, but comfy, warm, and efficient.

Decide how important it is to you to have a second shipboard restaurant for gourmet dinners.
Uniworld and AmaWaterways ships have two restaurants: the main dining room, and an alternative small restaurant featuring special creations of the chef. If sitting down to a two-hour, four- or five-course dinner each night is your idea of Nirvana, those ships are for you. If you’re like me, though, you’re snacking on so many delicious local specialties onshore throughout the day (especially if you’re at Christmas markets) that when you get back to the ship, there’s barely room in your belly for one course, let alone five. What I and my family loved about our Viking longship was that we could skip the two-hour dinner in the main dining room and instead grab a quick, easy meal upstairs on the indoor/outdoor terrace—an express-dinner option that exists on few other river ships.


Viking Alsvin Dining Room

Here’s the dining room on the Viking Alsvin.

Think about whether you’ll want a heated indoor pool, a hot tub, a sauna, or spa treatments.
After traipsing around in the cold all day, such things can be nice. Some ships have them, some don’t. The Viking Alsvin has none of them. Which was fine with me because I’d rather spend my money, and my precious time in Europe, getting my pool-and-spa fix off the ship. So my family went to the legendary Gellert Baths in Budapest—which had all the local atmosphere we could have wanted.

Gellert Baths, Budapest

The Gellert Baths in Budapest have a ton of local atmosphere.

Gellert Baths' Pool, Budapest

The Gellert Baths’ pools beat a tiny river cruise ship’s any day.

Consider a cabin with a “French balcony.”

On ocean ships I’ve got to have a balcony—I spend a ton of my time out there—but on river ships I find I don’t use one. That’s because only one side of the river is visible from your balcony, whereas if you’re up on the observation deck or in the indoor lounge, you can see both sides at once. My personal preference, no matter what time of year, is a “French balcony.” A French balcony is basically either a floor-to-ceiling glass door or an enormous picture window that you can open—for fresh air and photos—without paying for outdoor sitting space that you’re not going to use. (You can enjoy your open-air view while sitting indoors.)

How to Transform a Low-Season European River Cruise From Average to Extraordinary

Dress up your cruise with special insider experiences in port.
On our Viking cruise, we made some unusual advance requests of our shipboard concierge. As a result, we ended up with unique local experiences that we will never forget.

The first was in Bratislava, where my goal was for the kids to visit a Slovak school. The ship arranged for a guide—a mom with a child at a local school—to pick us up at the ship and give us a tour.

Bratislava School

Here’s our lovely guide showing us her son’s school in Bratislava.

Bratislava Schoolkids

Kids are the same in all countries.

Bratislava School Soccer

My children played soccer in the schoolyard with new friends.

The best surprise was yet to come.  

Our guide walked us back to Bratislava’s Old Town and to its 13th-century Franciscan Church, where an organist would be giving a concert.

Bratislava Franciscan Church Door

Doug got handed the key to the church.

Bratislava Franciscan Church

Bratislava’s Franciscan Church features a Baroque organ.

We got to sit upstairs with the organist while she played the concert, and then she let the kids try.  They got to play the organ and hear their notes resound through Bratislava’s oldest church.

Bratislava Franciscan Church Organist

The kids got such a thrill out of playing the famous pipe organ (as did their parents).

My other unusual request to the Viking concierge was for our stop in Melk, Austria. I had been to Melk Abbey twice before and wanted to do something new this time. The ship arranged for a guide to take us inside the Abbey’s Minerals Collection—a “library” of semi-precious stones housed in the former private library of the abbot. It’s not on the regular Abbey tour; it’s usually closed to the public, and you need a special key and guide to gain access. It’s an exquisite collection of at least 1,000 stones from around the world. Melk Abbey collected great rocks for the same reason it collected great books for its world-renowned library: Its goal was to capture the finest wisdom from around the world—both literary and scientific. Here’s a list of the minerals on display.


Melk Abbey’s Minerals Collection

Melk Abbey’s Minerals Collection

Melk Abbey Minerals

Cool minerals

Melk Abbey Minerals

More cool minerals

Melk Abbey Minerals Collection

The boys were fascinated. They took dozens of photos.

The good news is that Viking says it can replicate these special-access experiences for other interested travelers. In fact, Viking plans to roll out a pre-trip concierge service in 2015, so that booked passengers can make unusual requests like this well in advance of their cruise.

Book through the right Trusted Travel Expert.
The Trusted Travel Experts on my WOW List create similar WOW experiences in cruise ports worldwide. As an example, on my AmaWaterways cruise on the Danube last July, Gwen Kozlowski, my Trusted Travel Expert for Central Europe, had me making Habsburg-era strudel from scratch with a renowned chef in Budapest; touring the normally-off-limits Bergl Rooms at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna; and getting inside historic private wineries in Austria’s Wachau Valley with a local wine aficionado.

If you’re seeking the right travel agent to match you to the right cruise ship and cabin, reach out to Tom Baker, my Trusted Travel Expert for European River Cruises, but contact him via this trip-request form so he knows you’re a WendyPerrin.com traveler.

Not sure which which Trusted Travel Expert to contact—or which cruise line to choose? Click to Ask Wendy and shoot me your question.


Viking Alsvin, Melk

Returning to our floating home after our day in Melk, Austria.

Stay tuned for my 12-year-old son Charlie’s article about how to transform a normally non-kid-friendly type of travel—a river cruise—into a super-kid-friendly experience. Meanwhile, you may find these other articles helpful:

The Easiest Way to See Europe: A River Cruise
Which European River is Most Interesting for a River Cruise?
Europe’s Christmas Markets: How to Plan the Perfect Trip


Full disclosure: Viking River Cruises gave my family two complimentary cabins. In keeping with my standard practice, there was no request for or expectation of coverage on Viking’s part, nor was anything promised on mine. The other river cruise lines I’ve sailed on—so you know what I’m comparing Viking with—are AmaWaterways, A-Rosa, Grand Circle, and Uniworld.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Viking river cruise on the Danube

Which European River Is Most Interesting for a River Cruise?


Hi Wendy,

My wife and I are looking to go on a 10-day river cruise this year (our first). Which of Europe’s rivers would be most interesting? We have been told that some rivers can be on the boring side. We are not looking for a cheap option and are prepared to pay up to £2000 each. Hope that you may be able to assist.



Great question, David. I’ve sailed on the Seine, the Rhine, and the Danube, and, in my opinion, the prettiest of those is the Seine: There is more scenery that is pastoral rather than industrial, the river winds and swirls a lot more, and it’s also narrower and so the passing boats are smaller and more rustic and charming.

The Rhine has the most activity and the most transportation you can see from the ship (often you see trains go by along the riverbank); it’s like being on a highway of ships. But it’s also got the most castles. The Danube is very pretty in parts (especially the stretch from Durnstein to Melk that is famous for its vineyards and castles), but it too is industrial for stretches. All three rivers have a lot of locks. I’ve heard that the Mosel (sometimes spelled Moselle) is quite picturesque and, like the Seine, is relatively narrow and winds a lot. A couple of ship captains and river-cruise execs have told me it’s their favorite.

Of course, just as important as the river’s landscape are the cities and villages you stop in. I chose the Danube for my river cruise in November specifically because Danube cruises tend to hit at least four countries (Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary) and several important and gorgeous cultural capitals (including Vienna and Budapest). I specifically wanted to be in these big cities during their Christmas-markets season. Ships on the Seine tend to stop in more small villages than big cities.

David, you’re the perfect example of someone who would benefit by using the right travel agent who specializes in river cruises. You need an honest adviser who knows the differences among all the rivers and ships and can make sure you get exactly what you want and spend your money wisely. If I were you, I’d reach out to European river cruise specialist Tom Baker.

I hope that helps.

Happy New Year,

The pool on the Royal Princess cruise ship

8 Cruise-Ship Pools that Make You Say Wow

Note from Wendy: Cruise-ship pools used to be tiny, boring, and pretty much all the same. Nowadays there’s a huge variety: indoor spa pools, private-deck pools, adults-only pools, pools with outdoor movies, pools with scuba lessons…. Yahoo! Travel has pinpointed eight of the coolest pools at sea today, and they’re worth looking at so you know all your options.


When temperatures rise, take a dip. Floating in a pool on a cruise ship that’s gliding along the ocean is an inimitable indulgence—especially when it’s in one of the industry’s most remarkable pool oases. Dive in on one of these eight wow-factor cruise ship pools and you’ll have to think twice about getting off in port.

1. Princess Cruises

Princess Cruises touts their signature “Movies Under the Stars” poolside cinema (see photo above) on nearly all of their ships, but it’s the Royal Princess and Regal Princess that boast the biggest movie screens at sea. Watch favorite flicks or sporting events day or night while swimming in the duo of freshwater pools, and for an extra dab of dazzle, catch the colorful water-and-light show put on by the adjacent dancing fountains.

Viking Cruises cruise ship pool

Photo courtesy Viking Cruises.

2. Viking Cruises

Viking Cruises‘ upcoming trio of oceangoing vessels—the Viking Star, Viking Sky, and Viking Sea, debuting in 2015 and 2016—will be outfitted with onboard infinity pools, a rarity for the industry. Backed by glass paneling, the infinity pools will cantilever over the ships’ stern, allowing passengers to fully immerse themselves in the ocean and port-side scenery.

Pool on the Sun Boat III cruise ship

Pool on the Sun Boat III. Photo by Mohammed Ismail—Abercrombie & Kent Picture Library.

3. Sanctuary Retreats

Onboard Sanctuary RetreatsSun Boat III, guests float along the Nile River. Fittingly, “Cleopatra’s Oasis” on the upper deck proposes the perfect perch to combine a refreshing dip with ogling of ancient temples along the riverbanks. The watering hole-style oasis is fringed by live palm trees, a sun deck with canopied daybeds, and an open-air bar—though it’s up to you to bring along somebody willing to fan you and feed you grapes.

cruise ship pool on AmaWaterways AmaPrima

The pool on the AmaPrima. Photo courtesy AmaWaterways.

4. AmaWaterways

It’s fairly uncommon for European river vessels to have a pool at all, let alone one with a nifty swim-up bar. Board AmaWaterwaysAmaCerto, AmaPrima, AmaSerena, AmaReina, or AmaSonata, and you can take in the passing European landscapes from the comfort of a heated swimming pool, froufrou cocktail served up on command. As if you needed to take any more of a load off, the swim-up bars also come equipped with in-water seating, where you can sip your swill without a care.

cruise ship pool on Royal Caribbean

Photo courtesy Royal Caribbean

5. Royal Caribbean

Disappear deep into the Asian jungle-inspired retreat that is the adults-only (ages 16 and up) Solarium aboard Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the SeasA pool and large whirlpool serves as the centerpiece to this transporting center for R & R, replete with verdant foliage, playful water features, and elephant statuary, all set at the entrance of the ship spa. Plus, with a retractable glass roof, the Solarium is relaxation-ready, whether the weather cooperates or not.

Infinity-style pool on the MSC Divina cruise ship

Infinity-style pool on the MSC Divina. Photo courtesy MSC Cruises.

6. MSC Cruises

Sail aboard MSC CruisesMSC Divina, where the onboard infinity-style pool is almost as much of a draw as the Caribbean ports the ship sails to. The adults-only, Zen-inspiring Garden Pool exudes minimalist design and is trimmed by four resounding sculptures that emit sounds from nature (like bird songs and waterfalls). The pool’s infinity edge melds with the ocean for seamless views, while a lively pool bar dishes out perfectly frothy drinks.

Pool on the Oasis of the Seas

Pool on the Oasis of the Seas. Photo courtesy Royal Caribbean.

7. Royal Caribbean’s AquaTheater

Sister Royal Caribbean ships Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas tout the deepest onboard pools at sea—reaching depths of nearly 18 feet. Popular public pools by day (and the setting for afternoon scuba lessons), bordered by tiered platforms overloaded with lounge chairs, the kidney-shaped pools transform into the AquaTheater come nightfall, where aquatic performers—high-diving aerial athletes, water acrobats, synchronized swimmers, and more—reinvent the space as a theatrical venue, complete with amphitheater-style seating. Look, too, for a synchronized fountain show here, with shoots of water that reach up to 65 feet high.

The pool on the Marina. Photo courtesy Oceania Cruises.

The pool on the Marina. Photo courtesy Oceania Cruises.

8. Oceania Cruises

Classy Oceania twin ships Marina and Riviera each boast stylish pool areas, fringed by teak decks, soothing greenery, a duo of whirlpools, a pool bar, and plenty of plush lounge chairs. A water fountain feature adds atmosphere, while a large, built-in TV screen (airing movies, sports, and more) encourages guests to fully submit to being refreshingly submerged. The pool really pops, however, come evening, when soothing blue LED illuminations set the pool area’s sleek design aglow.


More from Yahoo! Travel

A Travel Survival Guide for the Impending Zombie Apocalypse

Eye Massagers and Star Wars Toasters—Odd SkyMall Gifts for the Holidays

A Family’s Healing Road Trip After Losing Their Father to Cancer



Wendy’s Wisdom:

If you want your next cruise to be extraordinary, you’ll need a lot more than a cool pool. Ensure you get the right ship, cabin, and itinerary for your needs—and the best value for your dollar—by consulting with one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Cruises.

Interview with an Expert Traveler: Cruise Critic’s Carolyn Spencer Brown

Carolyn Spencer Brown spends most of her life on cruise ships, but don’t mistake that for a life of leisure. As Editor-in-Chief of Cruise Critic, the hugely popular cruise-review and cruise-trends website, Carolyn is always at work, even when she’s at sea. She’s constantly reviewing new cruise ships, checking out old favorites, exploring up-and-coming ports, and rediscovering popular ones, all in an effort to make sure her readers have the most up-to-date and intelligent feedback on the cruise experience. And those readers have high standards: They are more than four million strong and make up one of the largest and most vocal cruise-forum communities online. Since she’s spent so many years meeting the standards of these discerning travelers and seen so much of the world herself, we thought it was high time we put Carolyn in the hot seat and grilled her about her own travel experiences and strategies. Interestingly, they’re not all about cruising.

Job title:
Editor in Chief, Cruise Critic

Most memorable travel moment:
My husband proposed on top of Rome’s Spanish Steps—that was pretty memorable. Alas, I wasn’t quite ready so postponed the decision. When he proposed again the next night, while on a cruise sailing out of Italy’s Civitavecchia (under a beautiful moonlit sky), I said yes. Italy’s special to us for that reason—and also because we met in Naples.

Most embarrassing travel moment:
There are so many. My suitcase is fairly distinctive; it’s a large red Rimowa with an orange bag tag. Still, I managed to pick up someone else’s large red Rimowa and didn’t notice it wasn’t mine until I was outside the airport. There was the time I had a five-hour layover in Paris and managed to miss the flight (I still don’t know how that happened). Or when, headed to Leipzig, I discovered I’d booked a flight to Dresden by accident; the incredulous look on a cabbie’s face at the airport when I asked how much taxi fare would be between the two cities was a tip-off that I wasn’t this-close. (Took the train instead).

Touristy spot that’s actually worth it, and the trick to doing it right:
Jordan’s Petra is haunting and beautiful, and it’s on many cruise lines’ shore excursion menus. But you can’t do it justice in one day (plus, the trip between Petra and the port city of Aqaba is a several-hour bus ride). You need a couple of days and should definitely avoid midday summer heat by visiting early and then again later in the day. Another place I go back to time and time again is Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. The vast estate perched on a mountaintop overlooking the Pacific—and surrounded by a lot of emerald fields with grazing zebras—is so massive that there are at least five different tours you can take through it. I’ve done them all, at least a couple of times.

Non-touristy spot people might not know about (or have thought much about visiting) but should add to their must-visit list:
I love to bicycle through England’s rural villages—not just the well-known ones like Chipping Camden, Lymington, Aldershot, and Rye, but also smaller places, often with just a pub and a few shops—and see what I find.

Name two indispensable apps you use when you travel:
I’m not a huge app user, but the TripAdvisor app is a helpful pal (full disclosure: Cruise Critic is owned by TripAdvisor)—it works offline—and I love Instagram, though the newer version has me a bit confounded.

The travel gadget or gear that has saved your life…or your mind:
The iPad. Always the iPad. I can watch a movie, choose from among tons of books, catch up on Facebook…or simply play solitaire, which is my when-travel-is-stressful go-to.

Whose tweets do you find the most useful and entertaining when you see them in your feed?
I love Bob Payne’s tweets—they always make me smile.

Name one way the travel industry can do better.
To parlay the expression “when life makes lemons,” when things go wrong, travel companies actually have a chance to win my loyalty—if they handled the situation properly. Too often they exacerbate a bad situation and fail to take responsibility or act in a generous manner—and that’s unacceptable, especially when it’s their own mistake. Recently I showed up at a Hyatt in Los Angeles hours before check-in. Slightly tense because of a tight day of important meetings, I was impatient and a bit…brusque…and then, it turned out, the reservation didn’t exist. The staffer was so lovely—and went above and beyond to try to help, ultimately creating a new booking at the same price I thought I’d paid and finding an available room so I could get settled—that I didn’t mind apologizing for the fact that I’d booked the wrong hotel. Oops.

Look into the future and describe one aspect of travel that you think will be different in 20 years:
I’m going to look ahead 20 years in cruise and wager a bet that after all the contemporary styling, and the deconstruction of traditional styles of cruise travel, there’s going to be a resurgence in retro cruise traditions like formal nights, set-seating-set-tablemates, and elegant evenings.


Villa/cottage/flat rentals.

If you were in my car during a road trip, you’d hear me singing…
Henry Mancini’s “Two for the Road.”

The airplane movie that, unexpectedly, made me bawl was…
The Notebook. It was on Continental Airlines, in the day when there were no personal screens, and everybody was bawling. It was such a common experience that a flight attendant walked up and down the aisle with a box of Kleenex.

When I travel, I’m not afraid of…
Surprises on the ground.

…but I am afraid of…
Surprises in an airplane.


Follow Carolyn and Cruise Critic:
Twitter: @CruiseEditor
Instagram: @carolynspencerbrown
Facebook: Facebook.com/CruiseCritic

Norwegian Jewel cruise ship in Juneau, Alaska

Exclusive Cruise Deal for WendyPerrin.com Readers

Many of you have been waiting for the launch of The Perrin Passport newsletter (thank you for your patience!), where we plan to feature exclusive travel deals from our Trusted Travel Experts. There’s one deal, though, that cannot wait for the newsletter’s debut (hopefully next month):

It’s a seven-day family cruise to Alaska on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Jewel, and in addition to the reduced fare, it comes with onboard credits and extras. The deal was secured exclusively for WendyPerrin.com readers by Trusted Travel Expert Tom Baker, who is a pro when it comes to Alaska sailings; just check out all the cool tips in his Insider’s Guide.

Nobody is salivating over this deal more than my 12-year-old son, Charlie. He’s a big fan of Norwegian Cruise Line for our family vacations, and he explains his reasons in this article about the important things parents need to know before booking a family cruise.

Now, about that deal. Here are the details from Tom Baker:


7-Day Family Alaska Cruise Deal on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Jewel

Sailing dates: Either June 27, 2015 or July 4, 2015

Ports of Call    
Day 1   Seattle, Washington
Day 2   At Sea
Day 3   Ketchikan, Alaska
Day 4   Tracy Arm, Alaska
Day 4   Juneau, Alaska
Day 5   Skagway, Alaska
Day 6   At Sea
Day 7   Victoria, British Columbia
Day 8   Seattle, Washington


  • Balcony Cabin from: $1,609 per person
  • Mini Suite from: $1,889 per person
  • Penthouse Suite from: $3,683 per person
  • Haven Suite from: $5,243 per person

Extras include:

Suites in The Haven:

  • $500 onboard credit per suite
  • Soda package for all children (valued at $6.50 per guest per day)
  • Nickelodeon Pajama Jam for all children
  • Nickelodeon bedtime kit for kids 12 and under (valued at $39.95)
  • Behind-the-scenes tour for each adult (valued at $55 per guest)
  • Private Cocktail Reception (valued at $25 per guest)

Penthouse Suites (not in The Haven):

  • $350 onboard credit per suite
  • Unlimited dining package for adult guests 1 & 2 (valued at $119 per guest)
  • Soda package for all children (valued at $6.50 per guest per day)
  • Nickelodeon Pajama Jam for all children
  • Nickelodeon bedtime kit for all kids 12 and under (valued at $39.95)
  • Behind-the-scenes tour for each adult (valued at $55 per guest)
  • Private cocktail reception (valued at $25 per guest)

Balconies & Mini Suites:

  • $100 onboard credit per balcony cabin or mini suite
  • Dinner at Cagney’s with one bottle of house wine (valued at $30 per guest for Cagney’s, plus $40 for the wine)
  • Nickelodeon Pajama Jam for all children
  • Nickelodeon bedtime kit for all kids 12 and under (valued at $39.95)
  • Private cocktail reception (valued at $25 per guest)

How to book:
Contact Tom Baker of CruiseCenter. The best way to make sure Tom knows you’re a WendyPerrin.com traveler is to contact him via the black Contact button you’ll find on his Alaska Cruises Insider’s Guide (just below his photo). Or phone him at 1-800-592-3887.


The fine print:
*All rates are per person, based on double occupancy, and subject to availability at time of booking. Ask about low third- and fourth-person rates for family travel. Taxes and fees are: $197.69 per person additional for both departures. Additional charges may include non-discountable fees (port charges), taxes, airfare, air taxes, transfers, and surcharges. A $30 booking processing fee is additional. All cancellations are subject to a $50-per-booking cancellation fee from CruiseCenter, in addition to vendor cancellation penalties. All information, pricing, taxes, fees. and surcharges are subject to change without notice.

Spongebob and kids on Norwegian Jewel Cruise ship

Courtesy Norwegian Cruise Line

Disney Wonder cruise ship

Why My Most Relaxing Vacation Was a Disney Cruise

I needed a vacation. A real one where I didn’t spend the entire trip checking email or racing around with a giant sightseeing to-do list.  I needed to relax. Clear my mind. Soothe my soul. Do nothing but stare at the sea and read novels for a week.

Disney Wonder

A docked Disney Wonder

When your occupation is travel journalist, there’s really no such thing as vacation unless you stay home. So the fact that I managed to achieve my goal of relaxation surprises everyone who knows me. Even more surprising is where I achieved it: on a Disney cruise. Yes, I admit it: I chose a 2,700-passenger floating Romper Room plying a pedestrian itinerary from Los Angeles to Mexico as the setting for the restoration of my soul. And I chose it precisely because I had zero interest in any of the ports or anything Disney. This ensured nothing would tempt me from my cabin balcony. Nothing. I could hide from the world for a week with an endless expanse of ocean and sky and a stack of books by my side.

Disney Wonder cruise ship cabin

Our cabin for four

Relaxing Disney Cruise 4

The view from my balcony

Key to the attainment of my goal was the fact that my travel companions were obsessed with everything Disney. This guaranteed me plenty of alone time on my balcony with no pangs of parental remorse: My kids (then seven and nine) would be kept occupied by the supervised children’s programs all day long. Disney counselors would even feed them lunch and dinner in the kids’ club. I wouldn’t even have to leave my balcony for my own meals; I could order room service. The only thing that might pry me from my veranda? The opportunity for moonlit deck strolls with my husband. We could have seven “date nights” if we wanted—one for every night of the cruise. All for $3,335 for my family of four (including the aforementioned room service and supervised kids’ club).

For the first few days of the cruise, all went according to plan. I sank into my deck chair, allowing the vast emptiness of the landscape to seep into the thicket of my mind and start clearing a path toward that hard-to-reach place called Relaxation. It helps that the ocean as viewed from a moving ship tends to mesmerize. The sea stretching to the horizon line is always the same yet always changing: You never know where the next white cap, leaping dolphin, or passing ship is going to pop up. The continual forward movement through the water aids the flow and fruitfulness of my internal reflections. Whatever work-related anxieties I’ve brought with me on vacation, the sheer overpowering force of the ocean makes them seem small by comparison. Yes, the ocean tends to push my worries away. Okay, the ocean and the kids’ club.

Disney Wonder

Kids collect characters’ signatures

I managed to read four books on my balcony and achieve more serenity than I had in years. But then on Day 5 something happened that I hadn’t planned on: My kids, jazzed from all the excitement whipped up by the giant floating Disney infomercial outside our cabin door, wanted to share their favorite finds with me. How could I say no? And that’s how I was suddenly yanked off my balcony and sucked into the shipboard vortex of at least one hundred daily activities—from Ratatouille Cooking School to Glitter Mania to Marshmallow Olympics—that, to my mind, negated the entire purpose of being on the ocean but, for my kids, constituted Nirvana. I was dragged to a “character breakfast” where we posed for photos with Mickey, Minnie, et al. I was pulled into Goofy’s Pool for outdoor movies like Swiss Family Robinson shown on a jumbotron the size of our house. Pretty soon I found myself succumbing to the Disney spell in spite of myself. Once I’d seen one of the technologically astonishing stage shows—namely, “The Golden Mickeys,” perhaps best described as an Oscars ceremony for six-year-olds—it became impossible to skip the rest. By the end of the cruise, I was cheering on my older son in the “Who Wants To Be A Mouseketeer?” game show and scouring the ship on a mission to snag Daisy Duck’s autograph for my youngest.

Disney Wonder cruise ship shuffleboard

Kids get to play shuffleboard.

Disney Wonder cruise ship kids activities

Kids get to be in performances.

Disney Wonder

Kids get to be in game shows.

Disney Wonder cruise ship party

The “Pirates in the Caribbean Night” was a deafening pool-deck dance party.

Disney Wonder cruise ship party

Pandemonium in the atrium

Disney Wonder cruise ship party

It was like New Year’s Eve in Times Square—for six-year-olds.

The insanity culminated in “Pirates in the Caribbean Night,” a deafening pool-deck dance party—this time it was New Year’s Eve in Times Square for six-year-olds—where the emcee whipped the crowd into a frenzy with shouts of “Make some noise!” and “Let’s go crazy!” The multitude attempted to boogie with giant chipmunks Chip and Dale while Mickey zip-lined from one smokestack to another to rescue the ship from the clutches of Captain Hook. A colossal fireworks display (leave it to Disney to land permission to launch fireworks from a ship) was then followed by a buffet featuring 27 different types of dessert. At 10:30 pm. For a thousand kids under age 12. Insanity.

Any time I needed to escape the vortex, though, all I had to do was return to my cabin balcony for instant serenity and solitude. In the end, my vacation was more high-energy than I had planned but, given my need to balance the conflicting desires of a family of four, it was about as therapeutic as I could have hoped for. I might just do it again.


Seeking the right family cruise?

Other cruise ships that I have road-tested with my family include:

Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Dream

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Star

Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.