A whole new range of entertainment options on luxury liners is making it very cool to cruise.
Cruise passenger numbers have increased by more than 20 percent in the past five years, says Thaybz Khan, marketing executive at Cruises International. As a result, she says, the introduction of cruise innovations has skyrocketed.
When Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas debuted in 2014, it was touted as one of the most innovative ships ever, introducing onboard bumper cars, the North Star observation pod and a wave pool - unique at the time. It set the bar for future ships, with features and attractions never seen before – many of which have now become standard.
"It's no longer enough to be offering something as good as you get on land – it's got to be better," says Marieke Tucker, retail general manager at Flight Centre and Cruiseabout.
"A lot of market research goes into new experiences that are being incorporated on cruise ships. Of course, not every cruise passenger shares the same interest, so it makes sense to speak to an experienced cruise specialist to choose the ship and package that best suits your needs.
She says you may prefer a gentle stroll up on deck admiring the sea views to chilling next to your virtual-reality balcony, but it could take some time to go through the various options available yourself. That's where a cruise professional can help with your choice of cruise line, ship and itinerary.
For those eagerly awaiting announcements of novel concepts on new ships, or creative enhancements on old ones, Flight Centre's Cruiseabout cruising specialists have compiled their list of favourite cruise innovations we'll be seeing this year:
Royal Caribbean's largest ship, Harmony of the Seas, features an upgraded Bionic Bar at which robotic arms work in synchronisation, assembling cocktails engineered to perfection.
In 2013, Princess Cruises had their SeaView bar perched over the waves. This year, Celebrity Cruises launches Edge, a revolutionary ship that offers a tennis-court-sized platform that will be cantilevered over its side. Called the "Magic Carpet", it will move up and down the side of the ship, serving functions that range from a boarding platform to a 90-seat alternative restaurant. Among other new cruise innovations and unusual features found onEdgewill be a jogging track that spans two decks and winds around the ship's terraced pool area.
Embarking on her maiden voyage in March, Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas introduces the world's most adventurous and interactive family suite. The Ultimate Family Suite consists of two levels and includes a slide from the kid's bedroom down to the living room. There's also is a floor-to-ceiling LEGO wall, an air-hockey table, climbing area and a separate 3D theatre-style TV room, complete with popcorn machine and a library of video games across multiple gaming systems.
Bionic bars and virtual balconies
Royal Caribbean's largest ship, Harmony of the Seas, features an upgraded Bionic Bar at which robotic arms work in synchronisation, assembling cocktails engineered to perfection. When it comes to new cruise innovations for passengers, Celebrity's Edge also stands out with its virtual balconies – the industry's very first, which offer guests in select interior staterooms the sights and sounds of the sea with real-time views of the ocean through an 80-inch, high-definition screen framed to look like a real balcony.
Simulators and extreme activities
You can't actually jump off a cruise ship with a parachute on your back, but you can try a skydiving simulator without leaving the deck on select Royal Caribbean vessels. If you're not up for "falling", try surfing the FlowRider, a 12-metre-long surf simulator. Norwegian Cruise Lines' Bliss will soon feature the largest race track at sea – and after burning rubber, passengers can test their agility at the open-air laser tag course, or cool off at the Aqua Park, which features two multistorey waterslides.
Transformational cruise travel
"Transformational" experiences have become a popular cruise innovation. Instead of new gadgets and gizmos, these experiences focus on cultural immersion – where passengers can indulge in local cuisine, in-depth guided tours through small villages, and even visits inside private homes on shore.
Hurtigruten's MS Roald Amundsen launches this year, and features an immersive Amundsen Science Centre, along with land-based expeditions that will take passengers through the breathtaking wilderness of Antarctica, as well as to important archaeological and Inca heritage sites in Chile and Peru. It is also the beginning of a more sustainable way of cruise, as it sails on electrical power.
With all these cruise innovations to look forward to, the hardest thing to do during your cruise holiday may well be convincing yourself to get off at the ports, says Tucker. "For those looking to stretch their sea legs closer to home, MSC's Musica arrives in South African waters this year, as an upgraded replacement of the Sinfonia."