After lifeboats and radar were invented, cruise ship designers finally had the time to come up with more exciting outlets for their creative impulses. Today, naval architects and marketing honchos wouldn't dream of building a cruise ship without cool gimmicks, funky features and new-fangled twists on fun at sea. Here are 10 important innovations in the modern age of cruise ships.
1. For privacy seekers: the cabin balcony.
This now standard feature was barely on ship blueprints just 20 years ago. In 1984, the Royal Princess was the first ship to have them on a large number of cabins; before that balconies were reserved for top-level suites only. It wasn't until the mid 1990s that balconies were truly standard features of new builds, with one-third of the Carnival Destiny's cabins boasting them when the ship debuted in 1996. Today, most mega ships have them attached to more than half of all cabins; some high-end ships like the Regent Seven Seas Mariner and Voyager have them on ever single room. They don't necessarily improve the looks of a ship's profile, but balconies definitely guarantee a great view from the inside out.
2. For non-conformists: flexible dining.
Remember back in the Stone Age, when you had to choose one of two dinner seatings (early or late), put on a suit, and make small talk with the same 8 bores all week? It all changed in 2000, when Norwegian Cruise Line said to heck with convention and introduced a hotel-style dine-when-and-with-you-want set up. Dress codes were chucked and the number of restaurants multiplied. The cruise industry hasn't been the same since. In the meantime, Holland America and Princess have also adapted more flexible dining systems and just about every single vessel afloat has at least one casual venue with open seating.
3. For lazy bones: the private island.
Don't like what's offered in port -- like traffic jams, pushy vendors and crummy beaches? Well, then create your own port. NCL was the first to think up the idea when it bought Great Stirrup Cay in 1977 in the Bahamas, and today Holland America, Princess, Disney, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, MSC Cruises and Costa all claim private islands or beaches in the Caribbean or Bahamas. You won't find local culture on these idyllic isles, but you will get all the ingredients for a perfectly wonderful, lazy day at the beach.
4. For voyeurs: extreme sports.
Couch potatoes be gone. Bringing thrilling land-based activities to sea has made Royal Caribbean's name synonymous with "I-can't-believe-they're-putting-that-on-a-cruise-ship." They pioneered rock climbing walls at sea (every ship in the fleet has one and now NCL is introducing one on the Norwegian Gem), surfing on deck with their Flowrider simulators, and ocean-going ice-skating rinks, complete with a resident Zamboni.
5. For mermaids and sharks: water features.
Upgrading the basic pool concept (by the way, the first seagoing pools appeared in the 1920s), many ships now offer much more exciting ways to get wet. From snaking water slides (Carnival, Costa, Royal Caribbean and Disney have 'em) to "spraygrounds" (these water parks are most elaborate on Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, but now Carnival is also introducing them) and retractable water sports marinas. Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club, and Regent Seven Seas have platforms that lower to sea level for easy access to kayaking, snorkeling, windsurfing, sailing and swimming.
6. For star gazers: a planetarium.
Makes perfect sense. All you need is a big show lounge, a broad ceiling and a high-powered projector. The QM2's Illuminations is the world's only oceangoing planetarium that shows 3-D films; lean back and look up to learn about the stars and other celestial things.
7. For food show zombies: demo kitchens
Given the popularity of cooking shows and the undeniable fact that cruisers love to eat, it's surprising it took so long for some brilliant cruise exec to take the concept to sea. Holland America introduced the first one just a few years ago and now has them fleet-wide. Their Culinary Arts centers have a cooking counter with stove tops where the chef conducts the demo and flat-panel TVs set around the room for close ups views. Silversea and Princess also offer something similar.
8. For tube boobs: giant video screens
It seems like over night that these jumbo-sized LED screens have become must-have accessories aboard mega ships. Movies, cartoons, concerts and ship contests and performances are broadcast on the gigantic monitors which are mounted somewhere on the main pool deck. Princess thought of it first, but you can't blame everyone else for glomming onto this good idea. Carnival has them on their newer ships and the Disney Magic and Wonder have screens too. Though most people just love them, if you're looking for some peace and quiet out on deck, you're out of luck; typically the volume is super loud.
9. For addicted duffers: golf.
Though it's not quite the same thing as taking a swing on the fairway at St. Andrews or Pebble Beach, these days golfers can feed their fix one way or the other on most cruise ships. Miniature golf courses are built on to the top decks of some Royal Caribbean and Princess ships, and Carnival is adding them to their Fantasy-class ships over the next year or so. You'll find digital golf simulators aboard many more vessels, including most high-end ships plus the Royal Caribbean, Princess and Celebrity fleets. On top of it all, most ships have driving nets, putting greens and computerized stroke analysis with an in-house golf pro.
10. For smoother seas: stabilizers.
You probably don't even know what they are, but the invention of these underwater fins that protrude out from either side of the keel allow you to sip your mai tai or slurp your gazpacho without getting it all over your Versace tie. P & O's 1950-built Chusan was the first liner to be fitted with a pair and today they're standard gear. The movable fins work by counteracting a ship's roll and keeping the ride smooth.
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