How cruises shook the shady image and became king

Royal Caribbean's Odyssey.
Royal Caribbean's Odyssey.

A decade ago, cruise was on the rocks, plagued by a reputation for booze sailings, bad comedy and unhealthy food. Today, its resurgence is unstoppable.

If there is one industry that has managed the dramatic change in what guests want, it is cruise. From an experience that once set a rule for everything - from the time you dined to what you could wear - cruise has moved to meet the needs of travellers in a way that has made the industry the envy of hotels and airlines.

There truly is a cruise for everyone. The industry will put on another two million passengers in 2020. Here's what's on offer next year.

The ships

Megaliners like Royal Caribbean's Odyssey of the Seas, with two pool decks and room for just under 5000, will be countered by: luxury "yachts" for under 200 from Ritz Carlton, Ponant and Scenic; small ships by luxury lines Regent Seven Seas and Silversea; and adventure ships from our own Coral Expeditions. There are dodgem cars and racetracks, but there are also fine-food experiences like SALT from Silversea and the all-inclusive indulgence of Regent Seven Seas. Design has changed, too, with Uniworld and Regent bringing in interior experts to revamp their ships.

Private islands

For Australian cruisers, Royal Caribbean has earmarked Vanuatu for the location of its next private island. In the Bahamas, the line recently opened up CocoCay, a day club exclusively for its guests. Earlier this year, MSC also unveiled its own beach club, Ocean Cay. These islands have amazing waterparks for the kids, and private areas with bars and cabanas for the adults.

Happy landings

Once cruise ships arrived at 8am and left before 6pm. Now many stay longer, so passengers can have more immersive experiences and visit local nightlife and restaurants on shore. Shore excursions are now about meeting authentic locals, trying and tasting, and spending quality time. Many lines offer exclusive access to arts and cultural events and iconic sites. Next year will see more offerings in Australia from Princess, Cunard and P&O and small-ship lines like Viking. Dream Cruises is also offering sailings from new cities, including Newcastle.

The long and the short

Two apparently contradictory trends are receiving strong support - each aimed at a different demographic. Shorter cruises of three or four days, particularly on river itineraries from Crystal Cruises and Evergreen, are aimed at the new-to-cruise market. And world voyages on all the lines are selling out. First-day ticket sales on Princess Cruises' world voyages have been breaking records. Viking Ocean is currently sailing a 245-day epic.

The food

Less has suddenly become more. So fine dining and celebrity chefs have trumped massive buffets to please cruise passengers with better taste and a desire to stay fit and healthy. More ships feature cooking schools - even Carnival, popularly known for "fun" ships full of waterslides, is now building an area where guests can learn how to cook. Shore excursions with chefs are becoming popular - one of our favourite features Luke Nguyen on board APT sailings around Vietnam.

Clean and green

Like the auto industry, cruise has busily been cleaning up its act. A massive $22 billion has been earmarked for new ships and to deal with the emissions of older vessels. This year, Hurtigruten introduced the world's first battery-powered ship, and its newest vessels will be powered using fish! Single-use plastics are commonplace, and 60 per cent of cruisers told a recent poll good stewardship would make a difference to their bookings.

Exploration

Luke Nguyen on board APT sailings around Vietnam.

Luke Nguyen on board APT sailings around Vietnam.

This might well be the year of expedition. So what exactly is it? Well, ships that travel through the ice to the poles need specially strengthened hulls and certification. Demand for cruises to the Arctic and Antarctic to see unique wildlife is driving new ships from Silversea, Scenic, Crystal and Lindblad, while Viking Ocean has announced a move to expedition.

New designs feature submarines and helicopters, while Ponant has perfected the underwater lounge, so you can view wildlife and hear the calls of whales while sipping a cocktail. Celebrity's Flora features plunge pools and all-suite accommodation. Hapag-Lloyd's Hanseatic Inspiration has a glass-floored viewing platform and an Ocean Academy for independent research, and Hurtigruten's first electric vessel, Roald Amundsen, is soon to be joined by another, Fridtjof Nansen.

The entertainment

Royal Caribbean now employs more theatrical entertainers and producers than Broadway. And they get to play in state-of-the-art venues that enhance Cirque-style acrobatics and big dance shows like Burn the Floor on Regent and Rock of Ages on Norwegian. P&O's themed comedy cruises are growing, and classical music on Viking Ocean is popular. Norwegian Encore's new shows include Broadway hits.

The tech

February sees the launch of OceanMedallion aboard Princess Cruises' Ruby Princess. It means guests can order anything and then be found by the crew on the ship, who already know their names and preferences for drinks, coffee and a more. Cabin doors automatically unlock and air conditioners turn on to your preferences as you approach. On the newest ships, the new norms are: facial recognition for faster boarding; robot bar staff; and wi-fi that allows you to access movies and make calls in the middle of the ocean.

Single and solo

Cruise holidays are popular with singles and solo travellers because it's easier to meet and make friends on a cruise than just about anywhere else. At the end of the day in the bar or lounge, where better to relive experiences with like-minded travellers? Once cruise lines weren't keen - they sometimes charged double as a solo surcharge. Today, there are far more solo cabins, less surcharges and most lines run special events for solo travellers.

Fit and fabulous

Running tracks and early-morning stretch classes? So yesterday. Now it's onboard yoga, meditation and crystal healing. There are medical spas, spa suites and a growing number of treatments aimed at recovery - think ice rooms, oxygen bars and cryotherapy cold treatments. Shore excursions are now hikes, walks, kayaking, diving and cycling - even for the river cruises once considered sedentary. In 2021, Blue World Voyages will offer total fitness cruises on a vessel fitted out like a giant gym.

Giving back

For boomer cruisers, the catchcry is travelling with purpose - whether they're plucking plastic bottles out of Amsterdam's canals, teaching children English or helping the Red Cross in ports. Holland America Line's Cruise with Purpose includes scientific research and replanting forests. Crystal Cruises offers voluntourism excursions that assist at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank or help care for animals at a shelter on Koh Samui.