Whatever floats your boat – the unstoppable growth of themed cruises

Rock band Kiss performing on a Kiss KruiseImage copyrightwill byington
Image captionKiss typically perform two shows per cruise

Not content with filling stadiums around the world, and selling more than 100 million records, the face-painted, fire-breathing US hard rockers also have their own navy.Show-stopping rock band Kiss were always going to go the extra – nautical – mile.

Every autumn Kiss hire a huge cruise liner to sail around the Caribbean for a week with 2,300 of their diehard fans. This year will be their sixth voyage, or Kiss Kruise VI.

The band perform two shows on the ship, and fans get to meet and hang out with the four band members.

There are 13 bars on board, plus 12 restaurants, a swimming pool, a gym, a spa, a casino, an indoor theatre and a tattoo parlour for getting a new Kiss ink work.

The Norwegian Pearl, which hosts the Kiss KruisesImage copyrightSixthman
Image captionEach Kiss Kruise sets sail from Miami

Members of the so-called Kiss Navy fly into Miami from around the world to attend, and Kiss vocalist and bass guitarist Gene Simmons says the cruise is one of the highlights of his annual calendar.

“It’s rock and roll all night and party every day,” he says. “Anyone who has ever been on one of our cruises comes back raving to their friends.

“Imagine 2,300 crazy friends, swimming, shopping, gaming and visiting exotic ports of call with us.”

KissImage copyrightGetty Images
Image captionKiss perform both with and without their famous face paint on the cruise

While Kiss might not be to everyone’s taste, the rock group has helped to transform the once staid world of cruise lines.

Whereas cruises were traditionally the preserve of elderly holidaymakers, over the past decade – and especially in the past five years – there has been an exponential growth in the number of “themed cruises” – cruises aimed at people with a specific interest.

This has opened up the world of cruising to a much younger demographic, and given the cruise industry hundreds of millions of dollars in additional earnings.

Gene SimmonsImage copyrightFrederick M. Brown
Image captionGene Simmons will even officiate at fans’ weddings on the sailings
A Kiss fan gets a tattoo on a Kiss KruiseImage copyrightwill byington
Image captionSome Kiss fans get a new tattoo on the cruise

From music cruises – at which Kiss are leading the way – to cruises for people with specific political views, or cruises for poker players, or fans of Italian food, there is a ship sailing for pretty much everyone.

For example, if you are passionate about your constitutional right to bear arms, you might be tempted to join the Freedom Alliance and National Rifle Association’s cruise down the River Danube in June. Guest speakers include US Republican politician – and former speaker of the US House of Representatives – Newt Gingrich.

Or if you are transgender, Transgender Vacations organises cruises around the Caribbean.

Disney holds regular sailings for fans of the Star Wars movies, where you can dress up as a stormtrooper or ewok and meet some of the actors.

‘Intimate environment’

Howard Moses, founder and president of the Cruise & Vacation Authority, says that more than 700 themed cruises now set sail around the world each year, compared with less than 30 a decade ago.

“Themed cruises are absolutely by far the biggest growth area in the industry,” says Mr Moses, whose organisation is based in the US state of Georgia.

People in a hot tub on a music cruiseImage copyrightWill Byington
Image captionMusic cruises are not just about listening to your favourite band

“It has enabled the cruise industry to reach beyond people who are our traditional customers, to people who are passionate about a certain subject.

“For music cruises, there can be a very young crowd.

“And for the political cruises we joke that the attendees are often people who said they would never go on a cruise, yet they have the time of their lives, and are the first to lead the conga line.”

Hayley Williams, lead singer of rock band ParamoreImage copyrightWill Byington
Image captionRock band Paramore is another group which sells cruises

At Atlanta-based Sixthman, the world’s largest organiser of music cruises, its communications manager Alaidriale Derway says the business has just wrapped up its busiest ever spring sailing season, with 10 back-to-back cruises.

Sixthman now has more than 500 acts on its books, including Kiss. Other acts for whom it organises cruises include Weezer, Paramore, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kid Rock.

The company charters the ships and helps to organise support acts.

Rock band Kiss and their fans on a Kiss KruiseImage copyrightSixthman
Image captionKiss fans also get to meet their idols

Ms Derway says: “More and more artists want to get involved.

“Cruises are a great way for artists to interact with their fans in a much more intimate environment, and collaborate with each other.

“In terms of the cost for a fan, they pay a set fee, and then pretty much everything is free except for alcohol and soda. All the food is included unless someone wants to pay for more speciality dining.”

She adds: “Lots of people really hesitate to do the whole cruise thing, there is still a bit of a stigma attached, but you can really connect with people who are passionate about the same things as you are.”

Game of Thrones tourists visiting one of its best-known locations in Northern IrelandImage copyrightGetty Images
Image captionGame of Thrones fans can now visit its British Isles sites via cruise ship (and a connecting bus)

While the music cruise industry is very much based in the US, themed cruises are also a growing phenomenon on the other side of the Atlantic.

Mike Bugsgang, chief executive of the UK-based Association of Group Travel Organisers, says there has been a big rise in the number of cruises that include visits to locations that have featured in well-known movies.

One such cruise organised by Fred Olsen Cruise Lines is called “UK Scenes from the Silver Screen”. Sailing around the UK and Ireland, the itinerary includes trips to settings from TV series Game of Thrones and the Harry Potter movies.

The Norwegian Pearl, which hosts the Kiss KruisesImage copyrightSixthman
Image captionSixthman uses vast ships for its music cruises

Back in the US, Kiss’ Gene Simmons doesn’t just have to prepare for performing live on the Kiss Kruise, he also has to brush up on his wedding officiating. An on-board extra for Kiss’ hard-partying fans is the chance to splice more than just the mainbrace. They can tie the marital knot, with Mr Simmons or a fellow band member performing the service.

But one thing a Kiss Kruise is not is restful.

As Mr Simmons admits: “It’s tough to get to sleep on the cruises… it is fair to say, both the band and the fans are completely exhausted once we leave the cruise.”

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Tips for Finding Peace and Quiet on a Cruise

 

Cruising conjures visions of languidly flip-flopping up to some teak-swathed covered pool deck to enjoy a margarita and a good book under the Caribbean sun. But , while there certainly are opportunities for downtime, depending on the cruise, you may have to look harder to find them.

On a brilliantly sunny day at sea, for example, you might meander out to the pool only to find it overrun with fellow sun-worshippers , all fighting over the same few dozen deck chairs. Throngs of splashing, laughing children will have taken over the pools and the hot tubs, and the sound of the waves will have been drowned out by an outdoor movie’s soundtrack, the resident reggae band or a raucous belly-flop contest.

 

But, if you try just a little harder, peace is still possible to find. You can rent a private cabana for a few hours, or claim a lounger in an adults-only section of the deck. You can retreat to the spa or to the pool on a sunny shore day, when everyone else is exploring off the ship. The bottom line? Cruising can be equal parts amped-up and low-key, sociable and solitary. What you personally experience may depend on where you are on the ship at a certain time of day, which ship or cruise line you’ve chosen, the itinerary and how much extra you’re willing to budget for your vacation.

While there are no hard and fast rules guaranteeing a quiet getaway, we’ve compiled some basic tips to help you tune out distractions — and fellow passengers — while you cruise. But first, here’s what to avoid as you aim for a serene sailing:

Inside cabins. Don’t book a windowless, cheerless, 150-square-foot stateroom cabin if your idea of relaxation means spending time alone or as a couple, away from cruising’s stereotypically chummy, social scene. Living in cramped quarters only forces you out more into the ship’s hustle and bustle.

World cruises or “Grand Voyages.” If you’ve the soul of a hermit crab, these lengthy voyages aren’t for you; they attract affable crowds of repeat cruisers and promote social bonding amongst crew and passengers. In other words, you’ll be drawn out of your shell, regardless of how much you long to stay in there.

Theme cruises. These full or partial charters essentially take over a ship or a substantial number of cabins. Nearly everything revolves around the theme, and the experience is all about connecting like-minded folks socially in big-group activities.

School holidays. The minute school’s out, mainstream cruise ships tend to fill with children — especially on itineraries of less than seven days. That isn’t a problem if you’re cruising as a family. Choose Disney Cruise Line for the littlest ones or Royal Caribbean for tweens and teens, as both have ideal setups to whisk your brood off to play and out of your hair. But if you’re booking a “grown-up” cruise, you’ll find a more relaxing atmosphere on posh lines like Regent Seven Seas,Paul Gauguin Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line or river lines like Uniworld. Looking for a more budget-oriented getaway? Stick to the mainstream lines when school is in session.

Now, our top tips for finding peace and quiet when you cruise:

Accommodations

Norwegian Epic Spa SuiteBook a sanctuary. Big balcony suites make for an idyllic retreat, with extra living space inside and a private verandah — no fighting over chairs! — outside. When the crowds on deck or in public areas become overwhelming, you can seek solace in your cabin. Even standard balconies work well for this — so long as the balcony is truly private. (It shouldn’t afford a view of you to passengers on decks above.) And since balcony cabins are an increasingly standard feature on newer ships, you may be able to upgrade affordably, especially if you book during a balcony or upgrade sale.

Live at the spa. Spa suites and cabins, a recent trend on cruise ships, allow passengers to create their own spa-themed experiences onboard with accommodations near the spa, V.I.P. spa privileges and soothing in-cabin amenities like spa showers and yoga mats. However, perks vary widely from line to line. Residents in AquaClass cabins on someCelebrity Cruises ships get unlimited access to the spa’s Persian Garden aromatherapy steam room and Relaxation Room, as well as access to their own specialty, healthy-eating restaurant called Blu.Costa Cruises passengers booked in Samsara Spa cabins or suites receive two spa treatments, two fitness classes, unlimited use of the thalassotherapy pool and a reserved table in the Samsara restaurant. Other lines with spa accommodations include Carnival Cruise Lines, Holland Americaand NCL.

Spend your way to quiet times. Classed cruising is making a comeback, so you can spend more money to maximize privacy and R&R. Book a Courtyard Villa on an NCL ship to enjoy spacious accommodations and a luxe ship-within-a-ship experience. Onboard Norwegian Epic, for example, villa residents have exclusive access to their own pool and sundeck, gym, dining and nightclub facilities. On Cunard ships, Queen’s Grill passengers have their own dining rooms, sun decks and lounge areas, not to mention fabulous accommodations — including two-floor luxury duplexes onQueen Mary 2 — and butler service.

Book a kid-friendly cabin. If you’re traveling with the family, minimize your stress by booking a cabin designed with families in mind. Disney cabins come with a split bathroom design (a toilet and sink on one side, a shower/tub and sink on the other), allowing you to maximize the efficiency of kids’ daily bath-and-bedtime routines — and consequently maximize pleasurable downtime for you. Family cabins on lines like Royal Caribbean, Princess Cruises and Celebrity offer separate bedrooms for kids, or at least partitions between the pullout sofas and the master bed, so parents can stay up with the light on while the little ones are tucked in their beds.

Pay attention to location. Cabins on some ships don’t shut out ambient noise entirely, so if you want a blissfully quiet in-cabin experience, make sure the laundry room, elevators or other noisy public facilities aren’t within earshot. (That includes above or below your cabin.) Waking up early due to loud conversations in the laundry room across the hall or being kept awake due to the thumping disco overhead does not make for a relaxing getaway.

Dining

Cruise Ship Balcony DiningFree yourself for dinner. Allowing guests to choose when to eat and with whom is becoming the rule — not the exception — in cruising, and it’s great for those who prefer intimate meals to the exchange of pleasantries at an assigned table. Lines like NCL, Regent Seven Seas and Silversea Cruises are always open-seating, while lines like Princess and Holland America let passengers choose between open seating in one dining room or set seating in another. Just know that on the larger ships, you might have to wait for a table for two at peak times.

Try breakfast (or lunch, or dinner) in bed. You’ll be guaranteed a table for two when you choose to dine in your cabin. Try breakfast in bed, lunch on your balcony and dinner at the table in your cabin. Some lines go above and beyond to turn room service into an event. Princess Cruises’ Ultimate Balcony Dinner (for an extra fee) features a course-by-course meal with soothing ocean views and perks like souvenir photos. Luxury lines like Silversea and Seabourn offer course-by-course in-cabin dining from the menu in the main restaurant, free of charge.

Consider the alternative. Large and small ships these days are offering bistro-style “alternative” restaurants, where you’ll need to book ahead and (in many cases) pay extra for a more intimate dining experience. However, you can easily make reservations for a table for two and avoid forced socialization with other passengers. Options run the gamut from upscale (Carnival’s steakhouses) and quirky (Celebrity’s Qsine), to exotic (Holland America’s Tamarind), theatrical (NCL’s Cirque Dreams and Dinner) and casual (Royal Caribbean’s Johnny Rockets).

Eat off-peak. Even with flexible dining, a full dining room can mean the only choice you’re offered is whether to share a table for eight or ten. Plan to arrive for dinner once the rush is over or before it’s begun to maximize your chances of snagging a quieter table for two.

Eat ashore. For a truly authentic meal in a foreign clime, port days await. Lunch ashore is always a possibility, since you typically won’t need to hoof it back to the ship until around 5 or 7 p.m. Ocean-going lines like Star Clippers and SeaDream, as well as most river cruises, may stay ashore well into the evening or overnight, affording plenty of time for relaxing dinners. Not only will you not have to sit with people you don’t know, but you may not even be able to understand the non-English conversations at the tables next to yours.

Itineraries

Cruise intensively. A port-intensive itinerary means you’ll be off the ship for much of the cruise, exploring the world meaningfully on your own at your own pace — and avoiding idle chatter with fellow passengers whenever it suits. Windstar Cruises and Oceania Cruises are two lines that keep sea days to a minimum and emphasize time in port. Look for itineraries with overnights in port to further maximize your time ashore.

Lindblad PolarisOr, look for sea days. Alternately, if all you want to do on vacation is lounge around, listen to music, read books, watch movies and simply enjoy not having to be anywhere specific at any time, you might prefer an itinerary with lots of sea days. With nowhere to go but the open sea, you’ll find your stress melting away and that rush-rush workday mentality evaporating into the ocean air. With food available onboard 24 hours a day and the sun deck open all day long, you might even consider throwing out your daily schedule of onboard events and just letting each day happen as it will.

Choose the route less traveled. Boutique, expedition and small-ship lines have a distinct advantage over mainstream mega-ships: they fit into smaller, lesser-known ports and can deliver blissfully crowd-free shore days. On its coastal route,Hurtigruten‘s shore-hugging ships visit 34 ports over six or seven days to deliver people, goods and mail along the Norwegian coast, giving you an opportunity to explore non-touristy ports. Or, choose a cruise to Antarctica or off-the-beaten-path Alaska on an expedition line like Lindblad Expeditions orAmerican Safari Cruises, where the biggest crowds in “port” may consist of seabirds, penguins or seals. To avoid the tourist hoards in the Caribbean or Europe, look to SeaDream Yacht Club or Star Clippers to slip into little coves and harbors — or enjoy blissful days of water play from the ships’ water sports marina.

Play the numbers game. Ships can theoretically sail above 100 percent occupancy because that percentage is based on the traditional assumption of two passengers per cabin — when in fact cabins may hold three or four people, or more. To guarantee you don’t end up on an overly full cruise, avoid peak-season cruises, especially during school holidays. Try Alaska in May or September, the Caribbean in the fall or Europe in the late winter or early spring. Alternately, try a less-popular type of cruise. For example, repositioning cruises — so named because the ships are switching from one cruising region to another — take place in the off-peak months of spring or fall and tend to be long, transoceanic journeys or oddball itineraries. Because of this unusual style and timing, these cruises are often cheaper and less crowded.

In Port

Go it alone. Explore ports of call independently or, if you have the means, hire a private car, with or without a private tour guide to show you around town. You’ll have more flexibility compared to a ship-organized tour, and it can be less exhausting because you can sightsee as you please, avoiding shopping stops or attractions that aren’t of interest and avoiding long waits while the tour guide leading a large group struggles to round up wayward stragglers.

Escape private island crowds. Cruise line private islands offer pristine beaches, plenty of water sports and lunches that don’t cost extra. But with everyone in the same small space, it can be no more relaxing than being on the ship’s sun deck. To escape, rent a private cabana where you can have some space to yourself and perhaps splurge on an al fresco massage. Plus, having a place to shower, change and store your stuff will keep your island visit hassle-free.

Stay onboard. Avoid irritating lineups for tenders, aggressive touts and jam-packed beaches and souvenir shops by remaining on the ship when it anchors in a popular port. You can breeze through the buffet at lunchtime, and spa treatments are easy to come by (and often discounted). And remember that perfectly positioned deck chair by the pool you’ve eyed all cruise long? Now’s the time to nab it.

On the Ship

Carnival's Adult-Only Serenity DeckGo against the traffic flow. Every ship has a daily rhythm that influences the movement of people onboard and creates opportunities to find seclusion in certain rooms or decks at specific times. To avoid the crowds, hit the gym at lunchtime, rather than in the early morning; log in to the Internet cafe while everyone’s at dinner instead of mid-afternoon on a sea day; and snag a chair in the top-of-ship observation lounge in the morning, as opposed to at sunset. On sunny days, indoor conference spaces, card rooms and libraries tend to be under-used. Dine at off-peak hours to avoid lines in the buffet.

Walk (or sit) the promenade. Even party ships harbor quiet places to tune out the rest of the world. The outside strolling area known as the promenade is a great place to start on any ship. It’s far from the pool-deck action, isn’t a connect point between major public rooms and often comes with deck furniture for reading or napping. Some promenade decks wrap around the entire ship and are great for walking. For example, on Disney ships and Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, the promenade decks double as jogging tracks with incredible views — try them instead of a busy gym.

Let the experts direct you. Concierges, private butlers or the guest services desk know their ships’ quiet nooks. If you’re looking for an out-of-the-way retreat, ask these staffers for suggestions. Their insider tips can help you find the ideal chill-out location.

Zone out in an adult-only enclave. More and more ships these days are discreetly separating under-18’s from their parents in order to maximize peaceful coexistence of all concerned. The Sanctuary on Princess ships, The Retreat on P&O Cruises‘ vessels and Carnival’s Serenity deck areas are places to grab drinks and sun loungers for blissfully kid-free afternoons. You won’t be able to get away entirely from fellow frazzled parents — these spots do tend to fill up — but you can certainly avoid chit-chat by donning earphones and listening to MP3’s or simply closing your eyes. Or, if you really want to close the curtains on the outside world, rent a private cabana on Oceania or Holland America and wile away the day, lounging in solitude — with perhaps a visit every now and then from an attendant bringing fruit skewers and refreshing drinks.

Relax around the clock. Night owls have the run of the ship while everyone else is asleep. Turn insomnia to your advantage, and read a book in an empty lounge or library, enjoy a midnight snack at the buffet, or gaze at the stars out on deck. It’s amazing how alone you can feel on a 3,000-person vessel!

Themes breathe new life into river routes

By Michelle Baran
Insight It isn’t easy to reinvent the wheel, so one has to give it to the river cruise lines for getting creative with itineraries that go up and down the same rivers week in and week out by crafting unique and engaging themed departures.

River cruise companies have been toying with themed river cruises for years —holiday-themed winter cruises came onto the scene several years ago as a way to extend the river cruise season and continue to be a mainstay in all the river cruise lines’ brochures — but they’re getting more innovative with themes and definitely having more fun with it.

AmaWaterways’ wine-themed cruises have become so popular that the line now dedicates an entire brochure to its In Celebration of Wine cruises. The company also hosts Jewish heritage cruises, chocolate-themed cruises and even knitting cruises: AmaWaterways will have a “Knitting New Year’s Cruise” this year on the Danube, which will showcase the latest in luxury yarns, forums on fashion trends, and classes on new stitch patterns and techniques. The knitting cruise was suggested by one of AmaWaterways’ travel agent partners and will be hosted by Barry Klein, owner of Trendsetter Yarns in Los Angeles. MichelleBaran

For 2014, Avalon Waterways increased its special-interest cruises by 30% to meet demand, adding beer-tasting, golf, wellness and World War I history cruises to an already innovative roster of themed cruises. They also offer cruises based around the themes of art and impressionism, authors, food, wine, music, Jewish heritage and history. Tauck, too, has culinary, art and music-themed cruises.

There are also themes that are more timely, such as the 70th anniversary of D-Day, which many river cruise lines have incorporated into their France itineraries, including Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.

And stateside, American river cruise lines have endless themes to enhance their Mississippi and Pacific Northwest river itineraries. The American Queen Steamboat Co. has cruises centered on baseball legends, Mardi Gras, music of the 1950s and 1960s, Elvis, bourbon and bluegrass, and many others.

American Cruise Lines has Mark Twain, Lewis and Clark and Civil War cruises, and for the American foodie, lobster cruises and crabfest cruises.

Not convinced by river cruising? Perhaps you’ll be lured in by your love of shellfish … or knitting … or bourbon. Pick your poison.