Like many who cruise, my first adventure on the seas had two purposes: walking the beaches of a tropical island and partying. That first cruise left me, husband Gary, and our cruise companion Chuck madly, stupidly in love with the sea. For years afterward, cruising for us was more about hauling scuba gear off at each port to explore the depths of the blue than about anything else. We even took our gear on a luxury cruise in the Mediterranean in order to dive there.
It wasn’t until later, on that same Mediterranean cruise, as we stood in awe amid the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus near the Turkish port of Kusadasi, that we realized that while we had been under water all those years, the cruise industry had quietly morphed into a hybrid of its early, European roots and modern tourism, where exploration of everything the world has to offer IS the culture.
The idea of cruising for pleasure was first initiated in 1822 by the Peninsular & Oriental Company (P&O) carrying highbrow British passengers on cultural excursions to first Portugal and Spain, and eventually as far as Athens and Constantinople. But ocean-going passenger ships were primarily engaged in transportation, not tourism, through that century and half of the next.
Crossing the Atlantic in the late 1800s and early 1900s was arduous for lower class passengers emigrating, primarily from Europe to the Americas. But for upper-class travelers, transportation across the sea came with as much culture as ship designers could burden their ships with in an effort to break up what might otherwise be a dreary voyage for the passengers paying the highest fares. Accommodations and public spaces in the upper decks of ships like Queen Mary and Titanic were adorned with art and populated with entertainers of all variety.
Two world wars and subsequent tightening of immigration laws in the United States forced ocean liners to begin the slow transition to tourism, at first targeting only the wealthy, who expected their journey on the ocean to be a heady cultural experience. It was not until the early 1970s, when Carnival Cruise Line transformed two former ocean liners into its first “Fun Ships,” that pleasure cruising became a reality for the middle-class.
That first, life-changing cruise I took was onboard one of those first fun ships: Carnivale.
Though the repurposed ocean liners that began the North American cruise fleet retained some of the grace and culture of the previous century, the companies engaged in this new endeavor envisioned a far more modern experience. As new ships were built with the sole purpose of cruise tourism, ships became more activity-oriented, with art and décor reflecting the popular culture of the time — in other words, lots of glass, shiny metals, and bright colors. Entertainment revolved around flashy Las Vegas-style stage shows and booze. Lots of profit-generating booze.
Five decades later, some of that still holds true, but with a far broader definition of what “popular culture” means to a broader set of passenger demographics. Today’s mega-sized ships might include art auctions, classical music performances, and wine tastings along with belly flop contests at the pool and bingo every afternoon in one of the ship’s bars. A single ship might offer a range of excursions from four-wheeling in the mud to golfing to museum or historical site tours.
Pick your size and style
Mainstream cruise lines (Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Princess, Holland America, Celebrity, and MSC) sail large ships catering to a broad customer base, both in ship design and in cultural offerings.
Smaller niche cruise lines target narrower demographics and often with a narrower cultural focus. Think adults (no children allowed) on educational holidays for Viking and Windstar, outdoorsy adventure types on lines with expedition ships like Silversea, Hurtigruten, Quark, and UnCruise, or European explorers on river cruises like Amawaterways, Avalon, Tauck, and Emerald Waterways.
Pick a theme
Theme cruises drill down even deeper across all classes and sizes of cruise ships, targeting wine lovers, craft beer connoisseurs, art enthusiasts, photographers and lovers of all variety of music.
Musical offerings have expanded over the past two decades to include full-ship, cruise-long music festivals, with themes ranging from classic rock to jazz to country and western. Pick a popular music category and you can probably find a cruise that focuses on it. Big-name performers with cruise concert credits include Alabama, Jon Bon Jovi, Kesha, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Melissa Etheridge, Nelly, and Peter Frampton, amid an ever-growing list. There’s even a Broadway-themed cruise if that’s your thing.
Pick your favorite TV show
Television-flavored cruises include Bravo’s Top Chef at Sea on select Celebrity sailings. Trekkies have Star Trek the Cruise, now in its 25th year. Viking River Cruises gives Downton Abbey fans unique opportunities to experience the show’s shooting locations, including Highclere Castle. Plus, in case you didn’t know it, there’s one cruise ship that is 100% television and movie-themed — Disney Cruise Line.
You can always create your own cruise plan based on your favorite television: Game of Thrones lover? Visit Dubrovnik and Iceland. Crushing on The Crown? A cruise from London that includes stops in Scotland should work nicely. Survivor superfan? Try Fiji, Palau, or the Philippines for starters. The backdrops of Hawaii 5–0 are easy to visit on any Hawaiian cruise. And the list of Alaska-based television shows you can step into from your Alaska cruise is lengthy: Deadliest Catch, Bearing Sea Gold, and Life Below Zero, to name a few.
Choose your spot on the globe
Perhaps the greatest expansion of culture by cruise ship in this decade is the ability to cruise to almost any spot on the globe that is accessible to a body of water, and it doesn’t even need to be a large body of water. Barge cruising features boats that cruise the small waterways of Europe, Africa, and South America, some with no more than 6 or 8 passengers.
Cruising enticed me to the sea where it opened my eyes, first under the waves and then amid the ruins of past civilizations in a way that I could never have imagined. Sure, today you can sit on your couch and virtually visit many of the things I have seen, but I can pretty much guarantee that doing so will not change you. It does not move you physically, nor is it likely to move you emotionally, at least not for more than a moment. Cruising has the ability to put you smack dab in the middle of new places and new experiences shared with new people in your life. And that, my friend, is where culture is.