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Get Smarter at Sea: Top Ships for Onboard Learning

Sure, cruises are all about taking it easy, ditching the diet and being pampered. But a cushy setting doesn't have to equal a mindless one. A cruise offers the perfect learning environment too.

Sure, cruises are all about taking it easy, ditching the diet and being pampered. But a cushy setting doesn't have to equal a mindless one. A cruise offers the perfect learning environment too. Long sea days are the ideal time to listen to a lecture, join a class or try something new --- whether it's giving surfing or rock climbing a try on one of Royal Caribbean's newest ships, learning something about wine you didn't know before at a tasting most ships offer at least once per cruise, or catching a talk about the region you're cruising in from an accomplished author, historian or scientist.

Guest lecturers are not to be confused with the cruise lines' shore excursion staff who presents talks about ports that typically cover mostly logistical info and shopping highlights. Of the legitimate educational-oriented speakers, there are two types: special interest lecturers whose spiel may not have any direct connection to the itinerary (there would be more of these, for example, on cruises with many sea days), and destination lecturers who are speaking specifically about the ports. (For educational cruises geared to families, see a recent posting, Three Family Cruises for Smarty Pants and their Parents.)

Here are the best lines for learning a little something in between all that eating, napping and touring!

Crystal Cruises' ( impressive Learning Institute includes everything from computer classes to learn about web page design and photo finishing, to languages classes, piano lessons and lots more. When it comes to speakers, three or four per voyage is typical, with a mix of both destination-focused talks and generalist presentations. From conservation biologist Bill Toone who speaks about his field research in places like Mexico, Cameroon and Kenya, and his quest to spread the word about sustainable living solutions, to historians like Dr. Jay Wolff, an author and commentator for The History Channel with an expertise is in the Indochina War between the French and Vietnamese in the 1950s. Authors, politicians, professors, archaeologists, thespians and chefs are part of the mix, including Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, Joel Grey, Marvin Hamlisch, Tommy Tune, Rita Moreno, and Marilyn Horne. Judith Krantz, Irving R. Levine, Barbara Walters, James Carville and Paul Theroux, Buzz Aldrin and Regis Philbin have also been guests speakers.

Along with Crystal, Cunard ( takes top honors in the education department, featuring at least three speakers on every voyage, and often more, as part of its "Cunard Insights" program. In 2009, for example, transatlantic crossings on the QM2 featured a handful of impressive literary greats doing readings, lectures, book signings, Q&A discussions, and meet-and-greets. Among the bestselling authors and playwrights featured were E.L. Doctorow, Erica Jong, Amy Bloom, John Guare, and Susan Cheever. On a June 2009 crossing aboard the QM2, the legendary James Taylor was on board to give two performances and a Q&A session.

On longer cruises, at least two expert speakers are on board each elegant all-suite ship in the Regent Seven Seas ( fleet. Highlights include famed adventurer, educator and conservationist Jean-Michel Cousteau, who travels aboard Regent ships several times per year. For example, in fall of 2009, he was aboard the Mumbai to Cape Town cruise on Seven Seas Voyager, followed by the Lautoka (Fiji) to Papeete cruise on the Paul Gauguin, and then next winter, Cousteau will be aboard Seven Seas Mariner as she sails around South America to Antarctica and up the Amazon. World Cruises see an impressive variety of celebrity guest lecturers -- 2009 included Terry Waite, Don Shula, Max Mayfield, Verne Lundquist, Jack Hanna and NASA Astronauts. From ex-Ambassadors to authors, historians, great vintners and Le Cordon Bleu chefs, Regent's guest lecturers are a fascinating crew.

Count on two to four lecturers on each sailing of Silversea's ( super cushy ships, with the most offered on long voyages with lots of sea days. From renowned Relais & Châteaux chefs conducting cooking demos on board the Silver Whisper on an October Mediterranean cruise to a Med cruise in July aboard the Silver Wind featuring tastings and lectures about the tradition and art of wine by Salvatore Ferragamo, grandson of the Italian fashion visionary; the Ferragamo family also owns Il Borro, an acclaimed wine-producing estate in Tuscany. There are speakers who are historians, authors, celebrities, conservationists and accomplished actors. Recently aboard a Silver Whisper cruise out of Stockholm, for example, John Lithgow reprised a portion of his one-man show about his family, Stories by Heart.

Seabourn's ( trio of 200-passenger mini cruise ships, and new larger 550-passenger Seabourn Odyssey, treat guests to five-star everything, from cuisine to cabins, which are all suites by the way. On most sailings there are one or two lecturers who offer talks on sea days and occasionally after dinner. Recent speakers include author and lecturer Nigel West, a renowned military historian, specializing in intelligence, counterintelligence, and security issues; Dr. Jean-Pierre Isbouts is a cultural historian specializing in Europe who has produced films for ABC, the History Channel and Public Television; and Jeremy Bitz, an award-winning producer of special programming for New York 1, AOL-Time Warner's 24-hour news channel in New York City.

Lindblad Expeditions ( has been offering small-ship cruises to truly exotic locales for more than 50 years, first led by founder Lars-Eric Lindblad and now his son, Sven-Olof. Its five ships (plus three others that are chartered at times throughout the year) explore Alaska, Antarctica, the Artic, the Galapagos, Baja California, Baltics, Mediterranean, Egypt, Central America and the British and Irish Isles. In partnership with the National Geographic Society, world-renowned scientists, naturalists, researchers and photographers sail on board to pursue their field of interest (studying penguins in Antarctica or sea birds in Baja, for instance), and share what they learn with guests in lectures and over dinner. The ships are equipped with amazing expedition technology including bow cameras, ROVs, kayaks, undersea cameras, hydrophones and video-microscopes, offering guests the opportunity to experience nature above the water and below it.

Princess Cruises' ( Scholarship@Sea offers classes on every voyage, sometimes as many as 40, from scrapbooking (an intro course is offered for free and more in-depth sessions charge a fee for a special Princess scrapbooking kit complete with decorative papers and die-cut machines) to computer lessons and ceramics classes where you can hand-paint pre-made pieces that are fired in onboard kilns. The ships' professional photography staff teaches courses ranging from "Introduction to Photography" to "Using and Setting Your Digital Camera." On every cruise, an officer hosts a multi-media presentation on maritime history and the basics of operating a cruise ship. On select voyages (usually longer sailings) enrichment speakers sail on board to discuss everything from theater to art history, politics and science subjects, plus there are often food demos conducted by chefs and wine tastings as well on many sailings. For readers, on many voyages of two weeks or more, Princess runs a book club. New York Times best-sellers are selected ahead of time (and are listed on Princess's website) and once on board, a meeting (or two) is scheduled for those who want to chat about the book. Extra copies of that itinerary's selection are also on board.

Holland America ( has great taste when it comes to extracurricular activities. Pretend you're in the studio audience of your favorite cooking show when you step into one of HAL's Culinary Institute cooking classes. Complete with demo counter decked out with kitchen equipment, there are also wide-screen TVs, so even the back row can see what the chef is dicing, slicing and sauteing. On sea days, two culinary demos are offered and of course participants can have a taste of the chef is cooking. Other education opportunities fleet-wide include a fascinating film about how the ship processes water and waste, including a Q&A session with an environmental officer. On longer cruises, guests lecturers are also on board to give talks about the local culture and history of the ports visited.

Aside from offering a fun cruise aboard elegantly nostalgic liner-style ships, Disney Cruise Line's ( 7-night cruises aboard the Disney Magic also offer plenty of educational opportunities. Seminars range from learning how to set an elegant table with fancy napkin folding to cocktail mixing, wine pairing and cooking ideas. There are theatre, galley and design-focused ship tours, plus documentary-style films about the building of the Magic and Wonder, and about classic liners. There are live chats with officers, both an adult's and a kid's session. Children are also learning while having a ball in the playrooms, with science and cooking projects, for instance, mixed into the fun.