If you’ve spent any time on a cruise ship within the past decade or so, then you probably know that times have changed. It wasn’t so long ago when the only dining options on board were the buffet and the dining room, and amenities were largely limited to the pool, the gym, the theater and the shops. But nowadays cruise ships are destinations unto themselves, going above and beyond in what they can offer to their customers, and as you’ll see, they’ve really outdone themselves.
The competition is fierce among cruise lines, and as they pursue building larger and larger ships; buying up private islands and turning them into all-inclusive paradises; and standardizing once-premium perks like Wi-Fi, balcony rooms and beverage packages, they’ve also been thinking outside the box in terms of the amenities that they can offer on board.
From supersized water slides to Scandinavian snow grottoes, from submarine rides to Michelin-level meals, you’ll be blown away by the opportunities for fun, luxury, exhilaration and relaxation provided aboard new, top-of-the-line cruise ships. And if you still think that cruising isn’t for you, learning about these outrageous amenities might just make you change your mind.
Viking’s Ocean Cruise ships boast large, luxurious Thermal Suites with pools, a hot tub and saunas, but the star attraction is the Snow Grotto. It’s essentially an ice cave, with several inches of real snow on the floor and ice covering the walls. Spend a few minutes in here before visiting the steam room and you’ll feel revitalized.
Perched atop Royal Caribbean’s Quantum, Anthem and Ovation of the Seas is a small, round capsule with 360-degree views called the North Star. It’s attached to a huge crane, which raises it up an astonishing 300 feet above sea level and rotates it around the ship; it’s a view you’re not likely to forget.
Several Royal Caribbean ships are home to a super-futuristic Bionic Bar, which doesn’t have any bartenders; instead, all drinks are ordered via tablet and made before your eyes by robotic arms, which grab bottles of liquors and mixers, shake them up, and pour them into your glass.
Several of Celebrity’s ships feature an open-air restaurant with a lawn of (actual) grass and an open kitchen where guests can do something a little out of the norm for a cruise ship: grill up steak, chicken, seafood and vegetables. Working with one of the ship’s chefs, Lawn Club Grill diners receive one-on-one instruction on the finer points of grilling, on a top-of-the-line ventilated grill.
Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 is the world’s only true transatlantic ocean liner, so guests need to have plenty of stimuli on board for all those days at sea. There’s a grand spa, a huge ballroom for gala nights, a library, shopping, plenty of restaurants and, heck, you can even try fencing if you want to. But a star attraction is a 150-seat planetarium, in which you can see the stars and watch short videos from the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium.
The luxurious MSC Divina also happens to have one of the best arcades at sea, complete with the opportunity to drive your very own Formula 1 racecar. It’s an actual Formula 1 Ferrari, equipped with three screens so it feels like you’re actually going around a racetrack.
If you want to race around an actual track, then you can strap on a helmet, hop into a super-modern go-cart, and zoom around the longest race track at sea aboard the Norwegian Bliss. With hairpin turns and speeds topping out at around 30 miles per hour, this ain’t bumper cars: It’s an intense, fast-paced race, and it’s an adrenaline junkie’s dream. The Norwegian Encore, debuting this fall, will include an even larger race track.
Several cruise lines offer guests the opportunity to explore the underwater world in a submarine. On the Crystal Esprit, for example, you can cruise around underwater in a two-person submersible, and six passengers can dive nearly 1,000 feet down on the Scenic Eclipse’s custom-made submarine. And the Crystal Endeavor, launching in 2020, will feature two seven-person submersibles as well as a pair of helicopters!
Even if you’re a regular cruiser, we bet you haven’t spent much time below the water line. Ponant, a French luxury cruise line, is changing all that with the Blue Eye. This super-futuristic lounge looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise crossed with a Bond villain’s lair, and is offered on three of their Explorer expedition yachts, with three more in the works. Two huge digital screens (which can easily be mistaken for actual windows) look out into the sea with the aid of three underwater cameras, two additional windows look directly out into the water, and guests can not only listen to the sounds of the sea via “hydrophones” integrated into the keel, they can also feel the sea’s vibrations via “Body Listening sofas.” OK then!
Carnival’s Vista and Horizon ships offer the SkyRide, two open-air pedal-powered “go-mobiles” suspended high above the ship on two tracks. It’s a thrilling way to get great views of the ship and the sea, and it’s a quality workout at the same time.
You know those super-cool glass tubes where a mighty updraft lifts you into the air so you feel like you’re skydiving? If you hitch a ride on one of several Royal Caribbean ships, you can experience it for yourself, while sailing the open sea, no less. In the RipCord by iFLY, you’ll strap on a special jumpsuit and goggles and feel weightless as you’re lifted into the air.
Norwegian offers the largest full-scale ropes courses at sea for their guests. NCL’s Breakaway- and Breakaway Plus-class ships offer between 40 and 100 separate elements, including ziplines, climbing nets and suspension bridges. Carnival also offers a “SkyCourse” on several of its ships.
The most stomach-churning element of NCL’s ropes course? That would have to be The Plank, a (very) narrow beam that extends 8 feet over the ledge of the ship. Thankfully, thrill-seekers are safely harnessed!
If a day in the sun has you longing for the depths of winter, the Norwegian Getaway has just the prescription: a visit to an ice bar, a freezing-cold room where the bar and glassware are made of ice, and there’s even an ice “throne” you can sit on. Guests are offered hooded, blanket-like ponchos to wear so they don’t freeze in their T-shirts and shorts!
The Ultimate Abyss is the flagship attraction on Royal Caribbean’s Symphony and Harmony of the Seas, among the largest cruise ships on Earth. A pair of 216-foot-long slides take riders down 10 decks (from Deck 16’s Sports Zone to Deck 6’s Boardwalk) on special mats, reaching an average speed of nine miles per hour. It’s an insanely fun ride, but it’s also legitimately scary: In order to enter the slide, riders have to walk over a glass floor and through a gaping anglerfish’s mouth.
Cantilevered 128 feet over the water from the Royal, Regal, and Majestic Princess, the Seawalk is a 60-foot glass-bottomed walkway extending 28 feet beyond the ship that lets you look straight down (if you dare) to the waves below. And if you want to linger over the water with a cocktail, you can visit the SeaView Bar, which is also glass-bottomed.
Located aboard the Carnival Vista, the RedFrog Pub & Brewery is home to North America’s first-ever brewery at sea. If you’re into local beer, this is for you: The beer is literally brewed next door to the pub, and you can even tour the brewery. Offerings include Port Hoppin’ IPA, Caribbean Wheat, Java Stout and American Pale Ale.
The Carnival Vista is home to the first (and only) IMAX theater at sea, with a huge auditorium and a massive screen. Don’t worry, they supply the 3D glasses!
If you’re looking to take in some culture on board, then book a cruise with Holland America; many of their ships feature art from contemporary artists valued at tens of millions of dollars. But their new Nieuw Stadendam really goes above and beyond: There’s basically a full-scale museum on board, with art from more than 150 new artists. Viking is also renowned for its onboard art collection; the line’s four oceangoing ships are home to the largest collection of Scandinavian art at sea, including some works by Edvard Munch.
Five Carnival ships (with more to come) are home to a barbecue restaurant by the Mayor of Flavortown himself, Guy Fieri. Called Guy’s Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que, it’s smoking up real-deal pulled pork, ribs, sausage, chicken and beef. And if you need even more Fieri in your life, many Carnival ships have a Guy’s Burger Joint, serving grilled burgers and hand-cut fries.
The year-old MSC Seaside boasts a pair of ziplines that will have you soaring from a platform near the top of the ship’s funnel through a series of metal rings, over the pool deck, and all the way to the back of the ship. It’s a 345-foot journey (more than four times the length of Royal Caribbean’s ziplines), and the ride lasts about 20 seconds in total.
This is more of a tech amenity, but it’s still extremely useful. Princess, Royal Caribbean and MSC offer guests RFID-equipped wristbands, with which they can open stateroom doors, make onboard purchases and access onboard reservations. But MSC is the only line with an app-connected wristband that lets you find your way around the ship, book excursions, and organize your schedule right from your smartphone. Another nice perk for parents? If your kids are wearing smart bands as well, you can track their location on board and know where they are at all times. They’ve also rolled out the first-ever virtual personal cruise assistant onboard the MSC Bellissima, which can answer guests’ questions about their cruise right from their stateroom.
The brand-new Celebrity Flora is unlike any other Celebrity ship you’ve probably seen; it’s actually a 333-foot “mega yacht” with all luxury suites, and is stationed in the Galapagos Islands. Guests looking for a truly unique experience on board can actually go “glamping”: Two couples each get two cabanas on the top deck (one for dinner and one for sleeping), and they can dine alfresco, have stars and constellations pointed out to them by an in-house naturalist, roast marshmallows and drink cocktails, and then sleep under the stars.
Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas is home to The Blaster, the longest waterslide at sea. Dubbed an “aqua coaster,” it blasts tandem tubers through 800 feet of dips and drops, and the icing on the cake is an open-air chute suspended over the water.
Guests aboard Oceania’s Riviera and Marina ships can dine at the high-end La Reserve by Wine Spectator, which offers one of the most impressive meals you’ll find aboard a ship: The Dom Pérignon Experience. This six-course meal includes dishes like Brittany blue lobster in coconut curry broth, black truffle risotto, sashimi-style wagyu with caviar, and a platter of French cheeses, and each course is paired with a different glass of vintage Dom Pérignon. It’s only served to groups of 24 diners at a time, and it’s exactly as expensive as you imagine.
This isn’t actually an amenity per se, but it’s certainly something not many people realize you can do from a cruise ship: see the aurora borealis. It’s a part of Viking’s exclusive In Search of the Northern Lights itinerary, which is only available in the winter months. And during the summer, while you won’t be able to see the northern lights, you can experience 24 hours of daylight with their Into the Midnight Sun itinerary.
Plenty of cruise lines show movies (usually at night up on the pool deck), but aboard the Disney Fantasy and Disney Dream you’ll find a 399-seat theater airing first-run Disney films, even while they’re still in theaters. Some are even in 3D!
The Carnival Panorama will be making its maiden voyage in December 2019, and one of the most-anticipated amenities is the first-ever Sky Zone at sea. Essentially a massive trampoline, it adds a fun new dimension to basketball and dodgeball, or guests can just bounce away or jump into a pile of soft blocks. The ship will also host blacklight glow parties there at night.
Many Royal Caribbean ships have a multi-purpose space called Studio B, which hosts game shows, onboard parties and cooking demonstrations. It also converts into a full-scale ice rink for ice shows, and when there’s no performance, the rink is opened up for open skating. Children and adults are invited to rent a pair of skates and try out a figure eight.
Many Royal Caribbean ships boast a FlowRider (or two!), a 40 foot-long surfing simulator. Whether you’re an amateur or a pro, standing up (or laying down) on your board while 30,000 gallons of water rush below you is a serious thrill. And after you’re done, you can spend the rest of the day in one of the most outrageous pools at sea.
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