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Thursday, 14 March 2013 11:00

Holiday Cruises Away from Home for the Holidays

Written by  Lillian Africano

Though the holiday season once meant big family get-togethers, lots of cooking and possibly shoveling snow, nowadays many families, couples and singles choose to spend their holidays at sea or on one of Europe’s great rivers.

Given the high demand, holiday cruises book early and are generally the most expensive itineraries of the year. (As of this writing, many options are sold out, though promotions and discounts are also being offered.) But these cruises give extra bang for the buck, with staff and crews pitching in to create a festive atmosphere, with Christmas trees and decorations, holiday music, Santa surprises, gala dinners to match (or exceed) anything grandma cooked up, New Year’s Eve countdowns with champagne and fireworks and more.

Caribbean cruises, easily the most popular, are offered at every price point and length (during the holidays, typically between seven and 14 days.) All the major lines, including Carnival, Norwegian, Celebrity, Holland America, Princess, Royal Caribbean are well represented here with multiple ships. MSC’s Poesia has one holiday sailing, as does Oceania’s Riviera and Cunard’s Queen Mary. For upscale travelers, Seabourn, Crystal and Regent Seven Seas also offer Caribbean itineraries.

Typical Caribbean cruises take on festive proportions, with island-wide celebrations (like carnival on St. Kitts and St. Lucia’s Festival of Lights) that include holiday lights, music, parades and shows. Though there may be some holiday closings, cruise lines tend to time their port visits when shops and restaurants are open. 

Also popular during the holiday season - and offered on many ships -- are Panama Canal and Hawaii itineraries, as well as short cruises to
the Bahamas.

Families with school-age children are attracted to big ships like Norwegian’s Epic and Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas, which offer many kid-friendly attractions and diversions. So, too, do the ships of Carnival, which carry more kids than any other line. Carnival ships are decorated with Christmas trees, wreaths and mistletoe, as well as signage proclaiming traditional Christmas greetings. Holiday entertainment includes seasonal music and performances by the Camp Carnival children. Santa distributes gifts to young passengers and special holiday menus feature traditional favorites like roast turkey. Midnight mass is celebrated in the ship’s main lounge. 

Mid-size ships like Oceania’s Marina are a good choice for adults who’d prefer fewer kids onboard and a more exotic itinerary, like the 17-night South America cruise. Similar itineraries are offered on Royal Caribbean, Silversea and Regent Seven Seas. Holland America has a 21-day sailing that also includes Antarctica. 

Affluent mature travelers might choose Crystal’s new holiday cruise through Australia and New Zealand aboard the newly redesigned Symphony; it includes a complimentary New Year’s Eve fireworks celebration in Sydney’s famous harbor. Passengers can expect elaborate hand-painted decorations throughout the ship, elaborate holiday menus, plenty of parties - and Santa Claus, too. As on most ships, there will be
religious services.

Paul Gauguin offers two holiday sailings that take passengers to French Polynesia and the South Seas. The ships of Regent Seven Seas also cover the South Pacific during
the holidays.

Passengers on Hurtigruten’s holiday cruises have the chance not only to see the Northern Lights, but also to participate in traditional Norwegian Christmas celebrations. On Christmas Eve, the ships moor in their respective ports and remain there for 24 hours. Crews and guests decorate the vessels and the Christmas trees, experience a visit from “Julenissen” (Norwegian Father Christmas), sample typical holiday foods like the sweet Christmas bread known as “Julekake,” and if they desire, attend a Christmas mass at a local churches.

Sister ships MS Midnatsol and MS Trollfjord will spend New Year’s together in Tromso, Norway, known as the “Paris of the North” and home to such attractions as the Polar Museum and The Science Center of Northern Norway. Passengers on these 12-day cruises can experience classical music onboard, a special service in the Arctic Cathedral, dinner, dancing, champagne toasts and a mountainside fireworks display.

Holiday cruises on the great rivers of Europe not only offer passengers opportunities to enjoy feasts of the season aboard their festively decorated ships, but also to experience the pageantry of traditional celebrations in the cities and villages they visit, along with the great holiday markets. These markets display rows of wooden stands laden with hand-blown glass ornaments, wooden toys and nutcrackers. Street vendors sell gingerbread, hot mulled wine, roasted chestnuts and other seasonal treats.

Rudesheim’s attractions include a life-size nativity scene, Heidelberg has the Christmas Pyramid featuring the city’s historical figures; Linz is the “Town of Christmas Creches.” The Christmas Market at the Cologne Cathedral is one of the biggest and most beautiful; holiday services in the cathedral are truly impressive. The museums and concert halls of grand cities like Vienna and Budapest feature superb cultural events.

Virtually all the river cruise companies offer a number of seasonal itineraries; some are offering discounts and promotions at the time of this writing. Uniworld has seven holiday options; AmaWaterways has two gala cruises; Avalon offers nine holiday trips. Viking River offers four holiday itineraries that also include some Thanksgiving dates. The dates for Tauck’s Christmas Markets itineraries are prior to the actual Christmas/New Year dates.

As this is only a partial description of the many holiday cruises offered this year, it’s obvious that many, many Americans will not be traveling “over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house” - but will instead choose a work-free, care-free cruise vacation.

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