Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 20, 2017
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Cruise control

Our annual roundup of the hottest destinations, newest ships and best-value cruises

Looking up at the white sails against a blue sky, with a glass of sparkling Sauvignon Blanc at my lips, I mulled over the delicious sensation of being warmed by the Mediterranean sun. If time is more precious than ever, then surely how we spend our time is an investment.

Cruising has allowed me to make the most of my vacations by avoiding time-consuming airport check-ins and inter-city flights. It allows me to spend every vacation day relaxing. I've also benefited from prices guaranteed against rising hotel rates or changes in currency.

Watching the sails flutter in the breeze, I thought back to my most vivid travel memories, and realized that most have been on cruise ships. Twenty years ago, on one of my first cruises to Alaska, I had come eye-to-eye with an American bald eagle on a helicopter flight over the Misty Fiords. During the USSR's Glasnost era, I sailed past historic Baltic forts and castles, en route to a devastated Leningrad. I returned to the city several times after it was renamed St. Petersburg so as to view the remarkable changes.

I have sailed through Vietnam's scenic Halong Bay en route to Hanoi and approached the brilliant lights of Hong Kong Harbour at midnight. And now, a couple of dozen cruises later, I was sailing away from Marseilles aboard Windstar Cruise's five-masted Wind Surf, after having the opportunity to visit Cézanne's studio and follow his artistic meanderings.

To attract sophisticated, well-travelled passengers, cruise lines have begun appealing to their discriminating taste in food and wine, their interests in culture and adventure and, increasingly, their family's needs with better on-board programs and more in-depth shore excursions in more unusual locales.

With six new ships on the horizon this year, there are more choices than ever. There are two new Italian-operated ships: Costa's Costa Concordia and MSC Cruises' Musica. Holland America Line's 1918-passenger Noordam reflects the line's luxurious new style by including a culinary arts centre. Royal Caribbean's 3634-passenger Freedom of the Seas -- which surpassed the Queen Mary 2 as the world's largest ocean liner -- is loaded with activities. The 3080-passenger Crown Princess features interconnecting family suites that sleep up to eight. And Norwegian Cruise Line's 2846-passenger Pride of Hawaii has a year-round itinerary to the islands.

At the time of writing, my thoughts kept wandering to the places I had expected to see in the coming cruise season, particularly the Middle East ports that give access to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Oman and Dubai. While passengers may be apprehensive about sailing into rough political waters, most lines have adopted a wait-and-see attitude for Mediterranean itineraries. Windstar reports no diversions from itineraries that include the Greek Isles and Turkey. For now, Crystal's 2007 world cruise still includes a stop in Israel. Silversea's only major change has been to drop stops in Lebanon and Syria.

If a cruise is on your horizon, there is no shortage of options -- whether you prefer to lounge in tropical seas, explore ancient wonders or experience adventure at the ends of the earth.

Itineraries of a Lifetime
For those who truly have an abundance of time (and money), there are cruises that circumnavigate the globe. Regent Seven Seas' 111-night world cruise encompasses six segments, including positioning in Valencia, Spain for the America's Cup and complimentary excursions such as a game drive through Amboseli in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Holland America's 105-day world cruise starts from Fort Lauderdale with a Panama Canal crossing to Ecuador. Crystal Cruises 109-day tour includes positioning for Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro and three days of cruising in Antarctica. Silverseas' Silver Shadow offers its first four-month world cruise, which will cover nine extensive global segments, including circumnavigating New Zealand. The Queen Mary 2's 80-day maiden world cruise includes all of Asia's best ports of call.

South America is the hot new destination. Regent Seven Seas Mariner offers a four-segment, 59-night roundtrip from Ft. Lauderdale, circumnavigating South America, which will include lectures from famed ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau on the Amazon sailing. South American itineraries on the Regal Princess and Golden Princess, running from 12 to 14 days, include scenic views of the Antarctic peninsula. Holland America's Rotterdam offers exhilarating excursions to Tierra del Fuego National Park and Patagonia on its 20-day sailing from Rio de Janeiro to Chile. SeaDream's nine- and 10-day itineraries between Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires take in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Colonia del Sacramento. Celebrity Infinity's 13-, 14- and 15-day sailings run between Buenos Aires and Valparaíso, Chile. Passengers may tack on a Celebrity Xpedition to the Galápagos Islands on an 11-day cruise from Quito, Ecuador, or book that portion on its own.

New Zealand and Australia are dream destinations for most Canadians. While all the world cruises will call at the two nations Down Under, some lines offer extensive voyages. Silversea circumnavigates New Zealand, and, from Cairns, Australia, offers a five-day day tour to the Outback, Uluru (Ayres Rock) and Alice Springs. Celebrity's Mercury and Dawn Princess will circumnavigate Australia. Clipper Cruises' Clipper Odyssey will cruise around New Zealand throughout the season, and will feature both lectures on Maori culture and naturalist-guided hiking expeditions.

Asian itineraries provide easy access to a diversity of spectacular sites. Silversea's Silver Whisper's 10-day cruise from Singapore to Bangkok calls in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Seabourn is offering extensive cruise tours to China. Cruise West is offering eight- to 12-night cruises around Vietnam and 14-day tours of Japan that visit a different port each day, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Nara -- Japan's oldest temple complex. Regent Seven Seas Mariner's 107-night "Grand Asia Pacific" tour visits Burma, Japan, Thailand and South Korea. Its 18-day Asia itinerary from Tokyo to Hong Kong visits Hiroshima, Shanghai and spends two nights in Tjianjin, giving access to Beijing's Forbidden City.

Mediterranean itineraries can expose you to amazing arts, culture and archeological treasures, not to mention dreamy isles on a variety of cruises starting at seven days, so it's worth researching your interests. Every luxury line has ships plying the Mediterranean Sea. Among them, Holland America's "Grand Mediterranean and North Africa" voyage on the Prinsendam is a 56-day loop from Fort Lauderdale that calls in Kusadasi for Ephesus in Turkey, several Greek islands, Monte Carlo, Livorno (for Florence), Civitavecchia (for Rome), Barcelona, Valetta in Malta, Dubrovnik in Croatia, the Canary Islands, Banjul in Gambia, Dakar in Senegal, Casablanca and Cádiz, Spain.

Baltic cruises are spectacular for their approaches to the Scandinavian ports and access to St. Petersburg, Russia. While every luxury line offers Baltic sailings as segments on their world cruises, the most extensive and exciting excursions are those that stop at least two nights in St. Petersburg and allow access to Berlin from a German port.

 

Where Culture Vultures Roost
While one person's passions may spell boredom to another, seeing a foreign culture up close can awaken a sense of discovery. The concept of cruise enrichment with special lectures and programs has been offered on a complimentary basis for several years by Seabourn, Silversea and Crystal.

Now the concept has inspired all the luxury lines to offer authentic programs with personal travel concierges. For example, Crystal has initiated the Crystal Private Adventures program. Regent Seven Seas Cruises has partnered with Travel and Leisure magazine to introduce Regent Concierge which will provide luxury travel experiences that feature the magazine's "Insider Lists" for attractions ranging from history and archeology to photography, shopping, food and wine. They will also offer expertly guided Regent Circle of Interest programs to small groups.

In Vietnam, Cunard's Queen Mary 2 excursion to the imperial city of Hue and a Perfume River Cruise aboard a dragon boat highlight remnants of ancient culture. Passengers with Celebrity have the option of indulging in a total immersion of Italian culture on a five-night tour to Venice, Florence and Rome. If you're a Da Vinci Code fan, take note of Crystal's full day Angels and Demons tour that follows the book's Path of Illumination in Rome.

On Silversea's 2007 world cruise, guests will be treated to a complimentary Treasures of Luxor two-day, one-night excursion escorted by acclaimed Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, who will also give lectures on the journey from Dubai to Alexandria. Highlights include the temple complex of Karnak, and visits to the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens as well as the Valley of the Nobles.

Holland America's overland tours from Mombasa include a flight and two-day safari to the Masai Mara reserve. Every cruise line that calls in Dubai offers a camel safari in the deep desert, as well as visits to the gold and carpet souks.

Smithsonian Journeys offers a 13-day art, flower and garden cruise called Waterways of Holland and Belgium aboard the M.V. Casanova, one of Europe's most elegant riverships. It offers a two-night post-trip visit to medieval Bruges accompanied by an art expert that will bring to life the region's famed artworks.

On its South American cruises, Regent offers a poignant cultural event called the "Brazilian Celebration in Dance" that is performed by Edisca -- a company that trains local children and adults living on the streets to express themselves through dance. Interestingly, the dance company is supported by Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chairman and CEO of Regent.

Adventure on the High Seas
A lounging cruise to sun-washed Caribbean isles may be just the antidote to the winter blues, but for those who crave excitement, adventure also awaits beyond the horizon. For example, cruises to Dubai offer a desert dune-bashing safari at sunset that has as many heart-thumping ups and downs as the world's wildest rollercoaster. From Cape Town, Crystal's nine-night adventure to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania runs from an equatorial jungle to the snow-capped summit of Uhuru Peak, the highest in Africa.

From St. Petersburg, Crystal passengers have the option to fly over Moscow on a MiG fighter jet at twice the speed of sound while experiencing aerial acrobatic manoevres. Regent's "Extended Helicopter Glacier Trek" introduces adventurers to basic ice climbing and rope techniques and provides all the necessary gear before flying to a remote and pristine glacier for a four-hour hike on the rugged terrain. In Hawaii, Norwegian Cruise Line takes passengers on a volcano hike through lava fields, near steam vents and flowing lava, and Holland America whisks them on a zipline trek to the Kipu Falls in Kauai. From Hong Kong, Cunard's Queen Mary 2 offers a four-day overland adventure to the Khmer splendors at Angkor Wat and to the historic and cultural sites of Ho Chi Minh City.

From the South American port of Puerto Montt in Chile, Holland America's passengers can get a whitewater rush on a river-rafting expedition over the frothy glacial rapids of the Petrohue River, surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. On the Antartica excursion from Punta Arenas, Chile, Silversea's passengers can board a 44-seater DASH-7 for a flight route over Tierra del Fuego Island as well as the Darwin Mountains and its glaciers en route to a landing at Frei Base, one of the main meteorological and navigational stations on the Antarctic Peninsula. Passengers will see penguins, elephant seals and whales.

Family Circus
While retirees are still a major segment of the cruise industry, the Cruise Line International Association reports that the average age of passengers is now 50, with a quarter of passengers under 40, many travelling with families. The Queen Mary 2 pampers parents and children with British nannies, trained children's nurses, a kids zone and a teen centre. The ship also provides a host of educational programs that draw on the world's only floating planetarium. Parents can find respite in the Canyon Ranch Spa, the Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar, and both the largest library, and longest jogging track at sea.

Royal Caribbean's new Freedom of the Seas has activities for every generation. Besides featuring an ice-skating rink, basketball court, golf net, sports pool for water volleyball, and a full-size boxing ring in the fitness centre, there is a surf-wave pool and water park.

The Fisher-Price Aqua Babies program offers interactive activities for parents and infants from six to 36 months. The Adventure Ocean club caters to kids from three to 17, and the X-Club runs family events like karaoke, disco and bingo. On Caribbean itineraries, the ship spends a day at RCI's private islands of Coco Cay and Labadee.

Nature experiences can be up close and personal for the up to 200 kids that Holland America (particularly the Westerdam) frequently carries on its Alaska Inside Passage routes to Glacier Bay National Park. One of the fave experiences for young ones is a helicopter tour from Juneau to Mendenhall Glacier that comes to a thrilling end with mushing on a dogsled safari.

Caribbean itineraries on Carnival's Conquest class ships -- the Conquest, Glory, Valor and Liberty -- offer tons of water fun at HAL's private island of Half Moon Cay.

On all the line's ships, Camp Carnival caters to ages two to 14, a boon for parents with toddlers, as they don't need to be potty trained. For parents with older teens, Carnival Liberty's Europe itineraries provide the ultimate cultural introduction. Looping from Civitavecchia (for Rome) and calling at Venice, Naples, Dubrovnik, Messina, Barcelona, Cannes and Livorno (for Florence), the ship provides teen-only excursions.

Celebrity's Millennium-class (Millennium, Infinity, Summit and Constellation) offer a vast array of amenities for three to 17 year-olds in its X Club program. Disney Cruises (think floating theme parks) offer supervised programs for three to 12 year olds, along with huge Disney characters to entertain passengers.

True Value
If you figure that cruising value has to include comfortable style, deferential service, consistently good food, interesting ports and the company of well-educated passengers, the winning ship in my book is Windstar's Wind Surf. Best described as a motorized yacht with large sails, it offers complimentary watersports from its built-in marina including kayaking, wind surfing, sailing, snorkelling and scuba diving in select ports. It covers itineraries as diverse as Costa Rica in winter or one- or two-week Mediterranean itineraries from spring to fall that take in Marseille, Rome, the Greek islands, Dubrovnik and Turkey. But best of all, at the end of the day it's always a pleasure to return to a ship that has just been refurbished with Sealy Posturepedic plush Euro-top mattresses, silky cotton bed linens, cosy duvets and flat-screen TVs.

Carnival's short four- and five-day cruises out of Miami, with a day at the line's private Half Moon Cay island, can be great fun for families or adults craving a sunshine break with, perhaps, a round of golf in the Bahamas. Carnival has vastly improved its service, food and entertainment, and has also installed state-of-the-art fitness centres as well as childrens' play areas. You can avoid the crowds if you spring for a private balcony, and enjoy the quiet ship all to yourself on port days.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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