NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) -
There are dozens of special-interest cruises these days, focusing on subjects as wide-ranging as spy craft (with lectures by former intelligence agents), solar eclipses and golf. We can't even scratch the surface here. For a more comprehensive list, try www.cruise-news.com.
It's unsurprising, perhaps, but true: For those traveling with kids, our reporting found, Disney's ships deserve their stellar reputation. The Magic and the Wonder each devote nearly an entire deck to children's activities, are staffed with the industry's highest counselor-to-kid ratio (about 1 to 15) and offer intelligently age-specific kids programs, from pajama parties with Goofy for the youngest to a teen-only Internet cafe.
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Parents get a pager to remind them of their kids' activities and pickup times. And, believe it or not, the boats are sensitive to Mickey overload: Parents can get time away from both kids and animated characters at adults-only restaurants and an adults-only beach on Disney's private Bahamian island. Disney (800-951-3532) quoted a seven-day cruise of the western Caribbean on the Magic, departing Jan. 18 from Port Canaveral, Fla., at $1,482 for adults and $602 for kids sharing a stateroom with parents.
Another winner with the underage set is Norwegian Cruise Line (800-327-7030), which is also one of the least expensive large-ship operators. Special activities for four age-groups are run by well-trained counselors. The 2,200-passenger Star departs Honolulu each Sunday in 2003 on a seven-day sail around the Hawaiian Islands. Karen Ann Kelley at Betty Maclean Travel in Naples, Fla. priced a Jan. 18 departure at $998 per person. Two kids under 12 sharing a room with their parents pay $388 each.
Science and culture
One interesting cruise did happen to catch our eye. For those seeking a genuine learning experience, World Explorer Cruises (800-854-3835) offers an 18-night cruise to Central America aboard its 700-passenger Universe Explorer, with professional historians and scientists acting as guides to the region's culture and natural wonders. If you're looking for a hopping night life, this ship isn't for you: There's no casino or nightclub. But it does have the largest library at sea. A two-for-one special for the Dec. 12 sailing to, among other places, Belize, Guatemala, the Panama Canal and Costa Rica comes to $2,375 per person.
Spa and wellness
Crystal Cruises does many things well -- as it should, given its relative costliness -- but its spa services are delivered at a particularly high level. The line has some of the most extensive spa and fitness facilities afloat, but what truly sets Crystal apart is the excellent service from a well-trained, professional staff. If you want to devote your entire cruise to good health, Crystal (800-446-6620) is offering an 11-day itinerary devoted to yoga, health and fitness on the Crystal Symphony, departing Nov. 29 from Fort Lauderdale and passing through the Panama Canal, for $2,795.
Royal Caribbean (800-398-9819) is still the best at making sure you stay active while afloat. It's the only line with rock-climbing walls (on six of its 16 ships), and the 40-foot climb puts you a vertiginous 200 feet over the open sea. You can also speed around the in-line skating track or ice skate on a nearly full-size rink. New York City's Valerie Wilson Travel priced a seven-day cruise aboard the Explorer, leaving Miami on Dec. 14, at $969.
The best thing about traveling solo is that you operate at your own whim and on your own schedule. The worst: the annoying "single supplement" you pay for occupying a room built for two people, which can run anywhere from 50% to 100% of the double-occupancy per-person rates. World Explorer is the only line we found that carries no single supplement at all, but a handful of others keep the extra charge within reason. Silversea Cruise Lines' (800-722-9955) single supplement is only 10% of the standard per-person fare, but its luxurious cruises are somewhat expensive: A nine-day trip on the Silver Cloud from Fort Lauderdale, making stops in Mexico, Belize and Panama, is $5,548 for solo travelers. But when you consider what's included (air fare, drinks and excursions, among other things), you will end up paying little more than you would on one of the many less luxurious lines that charge a 50% supplement and a range of add-on fees.
Cruising for noncruisers
Star Clippers' (800-442-0551) two authentic clipper ships, built in the early 1990s, hold only 170 passengers and are a great option for people who prefer to leave the casinos and mini-malls on land. A casual environment prevails; in place of formal dinners followed by a floor show, you're likely to get some good barbecue and stargazing on deck. And though those prone to seasickness should be forewarned, these boats also offer the exhilaration of real sailing. All in all, it's clearly a popular twist on cruising: 50% of the line's clientele are repeat customers. A one-week Caribbean cruise aboard the Royal Clipper, departing Dec. 14 from Barbados and sailing to the Grenadines, Grenada, Tobago Cays, St. Lucia and Martinique, is $1,969.