Big, bigger, biggest is not what cruising is all about in 2013.
In fact, most of this year's new ships are designed for river cruising, carrying fewer than 200 passengers.
Woodland Hills-based Viking River Cruises leads the way, introducing 10 new longships on its European routes — with eight more coming in 2014.
River cruising is so popular, said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com, that "they're running out of rivers."
Well, not quite, but it's no longer just the usual suspects. A cruise on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar will be featured on Azamara Club Cruises' voyage on the renovated Azamara Journey from Singapore on Dec. 23. Orient-Express' new 50-passenger Orcaella will cruise Myanmar's rivers in July, and Viking will introduce the "Memories of Mandalay" itinerary aboard the Viking Mandalay on Jan. 1.
Viking's new 443-foot longships will be identical, carrying 195 passengers in 90 double staterooms and suites. They will have free ship-wide Wi-Fi, putting greens and walking tracks and organic herb gardens. First to enter service will be the Bragi and the Skadi, sailing March 21 on the "Tulips & Windmills" itinerary from Amsterdam.
The longships' décor is Scandinavian-inspired with lots of glass ceilings and walls. Corridors have been realigned to create space for balconies on suites and staterooms. The square hull design makes possible the Aquavit Terrace for alfresco dining.
Other new river ships will include Australia-based Scenic Tours' Scenic Jewel, whose all-inclusive fares include private butlers, and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection's River Orchid, a small colonial-style ship that was to begin cruising the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia on Wednesday. Uniworld's new Queen Isabel will ply Portugal's Douro River starting March 28. AmaWaterways has two new ships, the AmaVida and the AmaPrima, entering service in Europe in April.
River ships are looking more and more like ocean-going cruise ships. Avalon Waterways' Expression, debuting in the spring in Europe, will have in-room breakfast service. Both AmaVida and AmaPrima have swimming pools (the latter's with a swim-up bar) and fitness centers. Next year, Uniworld will introduce all-inclusive fares.
Spencer Brown summarized the appeal of river ships: "They're more intimate, it's easier getting on and off, there's not much nickel-and-diming and there's something different to see every few minutes." Not to mention that most offer complimentary wine with lunch and dinner.
Neither of the two new ocean-going cruise ships — Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Breakaway and Princess Cruises' Royal Princess — is out to wrest the "world's largest" title from Royal Caribbean's 6,000-plus-passenger Allure of the Seas.
The 4,028-passenger Norwegian Breakaway, debuting April 28 on a cruise from Rotterdam, Netherlands, to Southampton, England, will feature solo cabins with a key card-access lounge, introduced in 2010 on NCL's Epic. The Breakaway has 59 to Epic's 128 single accommodations. Although these studios are "still hugely popular," said Vanessa Lane, NCL'S public relations manager, the Breakaway is a slightly smaller ship — and NCL anticipates a more family-oriented clientele embarking at its New York home port.
The Breakaway will be christened May 8 by the ship's "godmothers," the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, and two Rockettes will give fitness classes onboard on some sailings. The ship's Big Apple theme includes hull art by Peter Max and ice sculptures of Manhattan landmarks in the 17-degree Ice Bar. The bar, introduced on the Epic, proved that perfectly sane people will happily don parkas to shiver over a quick cocktail.
The Breakaway will sail from Southampton to New York on April 30, then make weeklong Bermuda cruises and, starting in October, make year-round cruises from New York to the Bahamas and Florida and the Caribbean. A sister ship, the Getaway, is to launch in 2014.
There's a trend toward creating a "Hey, I'm on the ocean!" experience. The Breakaway will have the Waterfront, a quarter-mile-long open-air boardwalk fronting eight bars and lounges, including a gelato bar. The ship's 28 dining venues, seven of them complimentary, will include the line's first seafood restaurant, Ocean Blue.
Carnival Cruise Lines' 17-year-old Destiny is getting a $155-million face-lift and will return April 15 as the Carnival Sunshine, making Mediterranean cruises from Barcelona, Spain, or Venice, Italy, before crossing in October to New Orleans, its new home port. From there, it will cruise the Caribbean year-round. Features will include the Havana Bar, with live music and dancing; a full-service Asian restaurant, complimentary at lunchtime; and NASCAR-inspired Speedway Splash, where side-by-side racers will compete for the checkered flag.
The old Destiny will be unrecognizable, promises Lania Rittenhouse, Carnival vice president of product development. "We're literally touching every single surface, reconfiguring the entire ship" to create "an indoor-outdoor ship." Added staterooms will bring capacity to 3,006. Corridors are getting a beachy feel, and staterooms will be in light woods, blues and greens. "Dive-In" movies will be shown by the midship pool, with free popcorn and blankets.
Princess Cruises' 3,600-passenger Royal Princess, the 17th and largest ship in its fleet, will debut June 16 on a seven-day voyage from Southampton to Barcelona. The ship will sail in the Mediterranean until crossing the Atlantic in late October to begin Caribbean cruises from its home port of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Its social hub will be a supersized atrium and piazza. Other features include a TV studio where guests can watch live broadcasts of programs to be piped into staterooms, a bar with dueling glass pianos, a gelateria and a water and light show with dancing fountains. For the first time on a Princess ship, every outside stateroom has a balcony.
The nonacrophobic will enjoy SeaWalk, a glass-bottomed semi-loop cantilevered 128 feet above the ocean. "A cruise ship should celebrate the fact that you're at sea," said Julie Benson, public relations manager, "not just in a hotel." Princess passengers like to "escape completely," as the company says, and this ship is designed with intimate, private spaces, including an enlarged adults-only retreat, the Sanctuary, and private cabanas (for a fee) at the midship pool. A sister ship, the Regal Princess, will launch in 2014.
Four Royal Caribbean International ships — Legend of the Seas, Independence of the Seas, Vision of the Seas and Brilliance of the Seas — are being refurbished. New features will include pool deck LED movie screens, ship-wide Wi-Fi, a digital way-finding system and four new restaurants. First to return to service will be the Legend, sailing on a two-night round-trip getaway cruise from Singapore on Feb. 6.
Also getting upgraded is NCL's Pride of America, which will make its last inter-island Hawaii cruise March 16 before a remodel that will add four single cabins, a Brazilian steakhouse, ship-wide Wi-Fi and 24 additional suites. Cruises will resume April 6.
The alternative restaurant concept on cruise ships is here to stay, and although cruise-takers love having choices, they don't love the resulting declines in food and service in main dining rooms. In a CruiseCritic poll, improvements to main dining venues topped cruisers' wish lists for 2013.
Other trends: The beverage package, typically about $40 a day plus gratuity, is "catching on like wildfire," said Spencer Brown. Taking a cue from the airlines, some lines also are experimenting with fee-based priority boarding, disembarkation and early access to staterooms.
Although fitness centers are a must on large cruise ships, health-conscious specialty menus aren't everyone's cup of no-calorie tea. Carnival's Rittenhouse reports that its focus group "told us comfort food was near the top of the totem pole." So, the Sunshine will have a comfort food station in its Lido buffet and two new diet-be-darned complimentary cafes — Guy's Burger Joint and Blue Iguana Cantina.
Cruise lines are responding to passengers' wishes for shore excursions more diverse than those daylong outings to places that exist largely for the cruise trade. Voluntourism for cruise-takers is in its infancy, but there are opportunities to work on restoration or research projects. Or passengers might meet an astronaut at the Kennedy Space Center or cook alongside a chef in a high-end restaurant.
Soon, Viking will not just be cruising down the river. Its new division, Viking Ocean Cruises, will launch its first ship in 2015 in Europe. This will be a rebirth of sorts. Torstein Hagen, chairman of Viking, formerly headed the long-dissolved Royal Viking Line.
Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing for Viking River Cruises, said the ship, which will carry fewer than 1,000 passengers, will — like Viking's river ships — "focus on an immersive experience, featuring the culture and history of the destinations that we're visiting." There will be more ocean-going ships, he added, depending upon demand. "We hope many more."