More choice and innovation ensure cruising is the travel industry's fastest growing sector, finds Megan Singleton.
We are a small country, but New Zealand is making a big splash on the cruising stage.
In the past five years the numbers of Kiwis hitting the decks of cruise ships has more than doubled, with itineraries in the South Pacific being the most popular for newbies wanting to dip their toes in to see if cruising is for them. Departures from Auckland, Sydney and Brisbane make this an easy option for a first taste. Cruises in Europe are the next highest choice for New Zealanders who want the convenience of visiting several towns, cities and countries without the hassle of arranging the details.
But the soaring popularity of cruising has as much to do with new innovations on board as the exotic destinations they dock at. There is no resting on the laurels of last year's itineraries or even word of mouth to ensure this booming market keeps growing.
Cruise lines are competing fiercely for passengers and that's a win for those of us looking for new experiences, more variety and better deals.
Gone are the days of cruise ships being strictly the domain of those requiring mobility scooters to line up at the buffet or retirees disgorging into small towns with bum bags secured firmly about their portly middles. Cruise passengers are getting younger; now more prevalent in their late 30s and 40s, often with kids in tow, and with that has come more activities and innovations to suit.
Families are a fast-growing demographic as cruises offer a balance between entertainment for kids in the many kids clubs and programmes on board, and down time for Mum and Dad in exclusive adults-only areas. The idea of unpacking only once yet experiencing a number of on-board and off-board activities and destinations is understandably alluring.
Internet at sea is one of the hottest topics, sadly or not, depending on your predilection for switching off or switching on.
As someone who's tried to blog at sea, I'm pleased that speeds are getting faster and that I can sit in my pyjamas writing in bed rather than throw myself together and huddle around a router with everyone else trying to get their Wifi fix.
Cruise ships are also getting bigger and smaller at the same time. From massive floating cities built larger every year to intimate ships that can tuck into tiny ports, the demand for cruising is such that there is no cookie-cutter experience any more.
Royal Caribbean International is building the largest ship in the world as we speak. Harmony of the Seas will be launched in May with 16 decks and be able to carry nearly 5500 passengers - and that's not including the crew. It will also be the first ship with a water park. Splashaway Bay is an "interactive aqua park" for kids and will sit beside their 10-storey water slide, providing a play area for the whole family, from toddlers to anyone with a good back.
Already Royal Caribbean boasts high-tech entertainment on several of its ships, like the North Star, which is a space pod that hoists guests up for 360-degree views of the horizon as the ship keeps moving through the ocean about 100m below. Skydiving at sea? Sure, just don your parachuting onesie and jump in to Ripcord by iFly and, yep, fly. Surfers will be all over Flowrider, which is a static surf wave to practice their moves and while away a day at sea.
Other technological genius includes the Bionic Bar where dancing robots serve drinks, and virtual balconies for passengers who've gone for the cheapest option and booked an internal cabin but can now have views of the ocean and ports.
Smaller ships offering itineraries into new ports are gaining a following for those wanting to avoid the crowds of a mega liner, but still have the convenience of travelling without the planning.
Upmarket cruise brand Azamara is launching in New Zealand this coming cruise season.
Their point of difference is not only size, but they stay in ports longer and visit smaller destinations that can't cater for the massive ships.
New Zealand stops include Kaikoura, Russell, Milford and Marlborough Sounds.
To tempt the cruise-wary, three- and four-night sampler itineraries are popular for those wanting shorter getaways. Sometimes cruises are themed around events like the Melbourne Cup or a celebrity chef in residence. Because, yes, we can expect to find celebrities appearing on and endorsing cruise lines more.
Princess Cruises is opening a new restaurant on Sun Princess called Share by Curtis Stone next year, following its success on Ruby Princess and Emerald Princess.
The Australian chef is a big deal in the United States, Britain and Australia featuring on several TV shows and this dining concept will feature his signature dishes at a shared communal table.
Luxury travellers are a growing market and Royal Caribbean have answered their demands by introducing the Royal Suite Class with high-end amenities (we're talking Hermes, Ferragamo and L'occitane bath products), VIP seating at shows, a personal assistant to arrange their shore excursions and exclusive access to their own restaurant where the hoi polloi will not disturb them.
Holland America Line is continuing to make a meal of fine-dining offerings by introducing a new French brasserie on MS Koningsdam as well as their farm-to-table menus in their Culinary Arts Centre on several of their ships. Koningsdam will also stretch the boundaries of innovation with a new theatre design that surrounds the audience with a 270-degree LED screen. The World Stage is two storeys high and 76m long and new shows are being planned to make the most of it.
More choice and innovation seems to be the mandate across the board and as cruising is the fastest-growing sector in the travel industry (contributing $190m to Auckland's economy last season and predicted to rise this year) we can expect to see the numbers of new ships, new itineraries and new travellers diving on board continue to swell. And that's got to be good for everyone.