They run the gamut from nudism to knitting, from chess to cheese. From the sublime to the faintly ridiculous, there seems to be a cruise for everyone.
From small groups that gather for special events to full-ship charters, what these cruises have in common are passengers who share an interest. A tribe, united by an obsession with a musical era, a hobby, a band, a TV show or an offbeat topic like conspiracy theories, they come for the special guests, one-on-one interactions, and hands-on learning opportunities. “Themed cruises add an extra element of enjoyment for passengers,” says Vivienne Chapleo, one of the co-founders of WAVEJourney.com, a women’s travel magazine. “The cigar aficionado can smoke where it’s not typically permitted. The cyclist can bike through splendid scenery along the tow path next to the river ship. It enhances the experience and makes it even easier to meet like-minded passengers.”
A themed cruise can take many forms, but typically it’s a regular cruise with enhanced programming. Torontonian Jennifer Merrick treated her daughter to the Barbie Premium Experience, part of a regularly scheduled Royal Caribbean cruise. For an extra $195, their stateroom came loaded with Barbie-themed décor and gifts, and they had VIP entrance to special events—from fashion shows and sewing lessons to a Tiaras and Teacups party.
Disney Cruise Line is debuting a Star Wars Day at Sea, and promises a Force-filled event, with screenings, and meet-and-greets with Chewbacca, Darth Vader and others. Celebrity is partnering with television’s Top Chef on a series of cruises that incorporate team cooking challenges and other activities related to the Emmy Award-winning show. As well, some sailings throw the spotlight on celebrities, personalities and media pundits. In 2016, you can sail with Dan Rather on a Seabourn cruise, lob political questions at Steve Forbes, or join Margaret Atwood on an Arctic expedition. Themed cruises have also proven to be a way to draw younger passengers to cruising. “Norwegian Cruise Lines definitely saw them as an opportunity to expand their base,” says Alaidriale Derway, communications director for Sixthman, a specialty cruise company that Norwegian acquired in 2012. Every winter since 2001, Sixthman has cruised the Caribbean, their ships packed with music fans of every stripe. Barenaked Ladies rocked a cruise last year and Steve Earle, John Prine and Lucinda Williams headline a roots music cruise this year. “It’s truly an immersive experience,” says Derway. “Passengers see the performers riding the same elevators, hanging out on the same beaches. Imagine experiencing a cruise alongside your musical heroes. Very cool.” Prices vary based on the event, but a four-day Sixthman cruise generally starts at around $1,200 plus fees and taxes, and includes all shows, activities and food. And there are bargains, says Derway: “We have a five-day that starts at $1,200, and a seven-day that starts at $1,700, but it should be noted that these include 30 bands or more!”
Smaller expedition-style ships have always offered immersive experiences for their guests—albeit at higher prices than normal cruises. The Un-Cruise Adventures fleet offers seven-day birding cruises in the Sea of Cortés with ornithologist guides for $3,900 and a craft beer voyage that takes guests to micro-brewing ground zero in Washington State’s San Juan Islands, with prices starting from $2,350. Hurtigruten has made a name for itself with its storied sailings along Norway’s scenic coast. This year they’ve launched cultural voyages inspired by classical composer Edvard Grieg, offering an in-depth view of Norway’s music, art and cultural history. An upcoming Arctic sailing includes leading climatologists, while other itineraries focus on Viking history. Prices start at $250 per person per day and rise to $800, depending on the itinerary.
Wondering whether your dream cruise exists? Go to themecruisefinder.com and do a search, or check with associations or clubs related to your hobbies and interests. That’s how B.C. native John Geary found the Parrot Lovers Cruise. “Like me, everyone on the cruise had pet parrots, so it gave us an opportunity to learn about conservation efforts and endangered wild parrots,” says Geary. “Before embarking from Puerto Rico we toured a parrot breeding facility, and in Aruba we spent the day hiking and parrot-spotting in the national park.” An added bonus: The entire $100 cost goes toward the World Parrot Trust’s conservation programs.
For a new generation of sailors, theme cruises are proving irresistible. As Derway puts it: “That one-size-fits-all doesn’t really fit anybody very well.”