Sign Up for Our Monthly Cruise Newsletter
Seagoing cruises are taking a chapter from river cruises, which have always brought the culture of a destination onboard, going beyond expert lecturers to arrange meetings, classes and performances hosted by locals — seeking to imprint passengers’ senses with the sounds, scents, tastes and sights of the regions they’re exploring.
A concept such as Fathom is at the end of the spectrum, where the cruise ship is a training ground for the destination, and enrichment is actually a pillar of the cruise, but authentic experiences are appearing onboard everywhere as an integral part of traditionally recreational cruising.
For instance, Carnival Cruise Line has its set of Carnival Journeys: one-of-a-kind longer cruises where locals visit the ship to perform onboard or on the pier where the ship docks. In Bermuda, the line brings a Gombey dance tribe to perform for passengers as they go onshore to explore the island. In the Bahamas, a Junkanoo band holds forth on the lido deck in the afternoon when guests return, and in Hawaii, when the ship is docked overnight, a luau performance takes place before dinner.
Italian tenors sing Costa Cruises’ ships into Venice, Italy, and on Hurtigruten’s Norway Cultural Voyages, onboard concerts of composer and pianist Edvard Grieg’s work serenade passengers during the passage through the majestic Vestfjord. Hurtigruten’s fully restored vintage Lofoten acts as a cultural time machine, bringing passengers back to 1964 to experience Norwegian life along the coast some 50 years ago; the ship features an old-style menu and excursions not offered by its other vessels.
Holland America Line’s Canada/New England cruises bring Cape Breton fiddlers, singers, dancers and guitarists onboard and, for those who want to learn the tongue rolls that produce the rhythm of the didgeridoo (a wind instrument developed by indigenous Australians), the line’s Australian cruises offer an onboard concert where performers show guests how to play the instrument.
On Fathom, where engagement with the destination is the purpose of the journey, passengers take onboard Spanish classes, learning basic conversational phrases along with local customs. In a less cerebral approach, Fathom also brings local bands onboard the ship.
River cruises worldwide bring representatives of the local people to the passengers: For example, while docked near Lewiston, Idaho, Un-Cruise Adventures hosts J.R. Spencer of the Nez Perce Tribe. He tells stories, drums and sings, informing guests about native traditions and his experience growing up in the tribe. At sea, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America carries a Hawaiian ambassador throughout the islands, offering classes in sarong tying, hula and kukui nut, fresh orchid and lauhala ribbon lei-making, as well as Hawaiian Language 101 classes.
Likewise, on Paul Gauguin Cruises, Tahitian entertainers Les Gauguins and Les Gauguines come onboard the ship to perform and lead Polynesian activities such as traditional bracelet-making, Tahitian language classes, dance classes and weaving with pandanus leaves.
Possibly the easiest entree into local life is at the table. Cruise lines call upon regional specialties and the people who make them to expand the guest experience.
Hurtigruten features Norway's Coastal Kitchen, which offers unique flavors such as cloudberries in autumn, handpicked and delivered by a local woman in Finnmark. Carnival, meanwhile, finds local chefs, such as the Caribbean’s Carmen Williams, who can introduce passengers to the flavors of a destination. During these cooking demonstrations, each chef tells stories and explains the history and associations with the specialty they are creating right in front of guests. Williams, for instance, is famous on Grand Turk for her oxtail, which is cooked in Caribbean spices and sauces all handmade by the chef herself. On Fathom, local culinary experts introduce passengers to a wide range of Dominican- and Cuban-inspired food, including dishes such as grilled seafood “salpicon” (medley) to “crema de frijoles negros” (black bean cream soup).
Right next to eating is drinking local specialties. Again, river cruise lines have led the way, with experiences such as American Queen Steamboat company’s Bourbon and Bluegrass cruises, hosted by experts like Bill Samuels, Jr., son of Bill Samuels, Sr., the founder of small-batch bourbon Maker’s Mark. On Douro River cruises, passengers frequently enjoy tastings of famous Portuguese port wines, and river ships in Holland often offer potent “jenever” (juniper-flavored liquor) to cruisers. On the Danube, Mosel, Rhone and Seine rivers, travelers learn to associate vintages with local sights, taking in lectures, tastings and culinary pairings. Likewise, the wines and their experts hold forth on Princess Cruises’ Wine Maker’s Dinner, and Crystal Cruises hosts onboard wine and food festivals in several parts of the world.
Judging by satisfaction ratings, cruisers find that authentic onboard experiences not only provide memories and skills to take home, but also impart a deeper knowledge of the people and cultures they encounter in their travels. It’s an extra selling point — and another reason to cruise again.
American Queen Steamboat Companywww.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com
Carnival Cruise Linewww.carnival.com
Crystal Cruises www.crystalcruises.com
Holland America Linewww.hollandamerica.com
Norwegian Cruise Linewww.ncl.com
Paul Gauguin Cruiseswww.pgcruises.com
Princess Cruises www.princess.com