Forget what you think you know about cruise vacations. The best and most rewarding cruises today disprove all the stereotypes: that cruising is for the senior set and that ships are over-scheduled with theme parties and overcrowded with tourists seeking little more than a superficial travel experience. On the best cruises, large theaters with show-stopping numbers are out; intimate lecture halls and cinemas are in. And at meal time, refined menu choices replace the endless buffet; diverse dishes and dining venues include regional cuisine and fine wines in bright indoor spaces, or served al fresco, under a sea of stars.
Quite simply, cruising would do well to return to its roots in relaxation. Today’s upscale cruise lines are savvy to the needs and desires of the modern traveler, offering the simple elegance you expect from a five-star hotel, enhanced with spas, pools and lounge-worthy deck chairs.
The cruise experiences listed below lend themselves to complete relaxation for their magical vistas and for the simple pleasure they provide in getting far away from it all. They also promise to immerse you in the local culture, thanks to activities and events on board and on shore designed to help you truly connect with your destination.
Norwegian Coast and Arctic Circle
This is a true Viking experience, inspired by the Nordic explorers of old. On one of the most breathtaking itineraries on the planet, you’ll trace the magnificent Norwegian coast. Cruises into this mesmerizing region embark in Bergen, Norway, the land of the Midnight Sun and the Viking homeland. Sail to the historic Viking settlement in Kristiansund and across the Arctic Circle, cruising into the deep-cut fjords of the Inside Passage along the way. You’ll go as far as Honningsvåg, Norway’s northernmost town, before heading back south to witness the magnificence all over again.
After calling on more charming coastal towns, this unique itinerary crosses the North Sea to the Shetland Islands in Scotland. Kilts are not required, but a taste for pastoral beauty will help you fully appreciate the islands’ long farming heritage. Here, you’ll see the eponymous pony still bred here. Then it’s on to the mainland and a stop in Edinburgh, where you can hire a car and head to the storied St. Andrews Golf Course. Your journey culminates along the historic banks of the Thames in London, England.
If your idea of the perfect cruise includes hopping from island to island, the Mediterranean Sea is an ideal destination. Long-cherished cultures and rustic vistas welcome you to every shore in these storied waters. On the Italian isle of Sicily, stroll the stone city of Erice perching on a rocky plateau, with magnificent views of the island’s unspoiled beauty. In Sardinia, one of Italy’s most fertile farm areas, you can explore the ruins of the civilizations that once thrived here, from Rome to Carthage, at the ruins of Cagliari. And on Spain’s Palma de Mallorca, admire the breathtaking beauty of mountains, valleys and beaches that have inspired artists and travelers for centuries.
Exploring the islands of the Mediterranean carries an added advantage that other island-oriented cruises lack: opportunities to explore a vast variety of mainland cities, too. With full-day port calls in countries like Italy and Spain, you’ll have plenty of time ashore to explore remarkable Mediterranean gems. In Rome, you can marvel at the architecture of the ancient empire. Sample pizza at its purest in Naples before exploring Pompeii on a side trip. Savor paella in the Spanish city of its birth, Valencia, and learn about its Renaissance-era silk industry.
Deluxe River Cruises
If you prefer the intimacy of a smaller ship, docking in the heart of your destination and enjoying more attentive service, choose a river cruise. River cruise ships offer all the amenities and comforts you expect from other ships. The best of them are simple and elegant so that you can focus your attention on your destination, yet they also offer indulgences like pools and spas. Here are three river cruise itineraries that will really take you away.
Egypt and the Nile
There are few travel destinations more awe-inspiring than the Pyramids of Giza. They are always a stunning centerpiece of a Nile River cruise; often, you can discover them from the back of a camel. This classic itinerary is romance personified, a leisurely journey along an ancient river lined with age-old farming villages and incredibly preserved temples. Cairo, Luxor and Aswan serve as major ports, each city offering an exhilarating slice of Egyptian life. And every temple—Luxor, Karnak, Edfu, Abu Simbel—is more breathtaking than the last.
Many river cruises in Southeast Asia begin and end in Bangkok, Thailand’s fascinating capital. Spiritual enlightenment might seem easy to come by here, with so many temples glittering in the sunlight amidst the bustle of city life. For a less hurried pace, embark a river ship on Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River. In Mandalay, the city that so entranced Rudyard Kipling, visit the Golden Palace Monastery. Bask in the serenity of the former Burmese capitals of Ava and Amarapura. Along the Irrawaddy, drop anchor at small villages untouched by time, with ample opportunities to interact with locals and drink in the exotic flavor of this distinct eastern culture.
The Volga is Europe’s longest river, so you’ll discover endless cultural and historic riches to explore along its banks. Begin in Moscow, where a three-night stay lets you explore Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin. Then set off along this fabled river, stopping at sleepy provincial villages dotted with onion-domed churches and splendid architecture from old Russia, including the Church of the Transfiguration on Kizhi Island, constructed without a single nail. Three nights in St. Petersburg, Peter the Great’s gilded city on the Neva River, round out your journey, with opportunities to explore the opulent palaces of Tsars and Tsarinas and see the priceless works of art at the Hermitage Museum.
Whether you’re drawn to the river cruises or the ocean cruises mentioned above, destination-focused journeys with rich cultural immersion make the most rewarding travel experiences. Because you can unpack your bag once and explore the world, it’s also the most relaxing way to travel. It is so relaxing, in fact, that you might consider a long and leisurely cruise of 20 days or more. However long your trip, you’ll want to enjoy your time on board as much as your time on shore. So be sure to look for the best staterooms. Private balconies help you feel connected to your destination without ever stepping outside your room, and 24-hour service and upscale amenities ensure your journey will be enjoyable and care-free.