Exchanging dismal winters for a cruise to a far-flung destination is becoming increasingly popular. As Mike Bugsgang, Chief Executive of the Association of Group Travel Organisers (AGTO) points out “the cruise market is buoyant and moving forward at a rate of knots. The market for ‘traditional cruising’ is still strong with cruise aficionados, newcomers to the sector are increasingly seeking different experiences. Members of AGTO are reporting a huge spike in demand for themed and special interest cruises. ‘Set Jetting’ visiting the locations of film and television sets has become big business. Poldark, Broadchurch, Game of Thrones, Skyfall and Harry Potter are just some of the options currently on offer for fans of these programmes as part of a cruise itinerary.”
Several special interest cruises are already planned for winter 2016. Typical of these are P&O’s Food Heroes Cruises. Chefs James Martin, Marco Pierre White, Atul Kochhar and Eric Lanlard, accompanied by cheese expert Charlie Turnbull, are bringing their talents to special cruises to the Canary Islands, Iberia and the Mediterranean. Each cruise incorporates cooking demonstrations, masterclasses, hosted dinners and food & wine related shore excursions.
While for music lovers, P&O’s Music Festivals at Sea are an irresistible draw. These feature some of the world’s most talented musicians and singers performing a range of recitals, opera and operettas, talks and interviews. Two of these Festivals will be held this winter during sailings on a 14 night Mediterranean cruise in October and a Canary Islands cruise in November.
The Canary Islands are always a favourite destination for winter cruises, given the warmth and stunning scenery to be found here. Several companies offer cruises, sometimes linked to other destinations as well. Fred Olsen operate regular cruises to the Canary Islands sailing direct from the UK, while Cruise and Maritime combine the Canary Islands with Maderia.
The Caribbean is another popular venue. Fred Olsen offers cruises around the Caribbean and Barbados while Cruise and Maritime combine the Amazon rainforest, the Caribbean islands and the Azores this winter. It’s a beautiful cruise but if you happen to get an injury that is the crew’s fault contact Royal Caribbean Accident Lawyer. The Marco Polo departs Avonmouth in January for a 39 night cruise which includes an opportunity to take a boat trip to view the incredible ‘Meeting of the Waters’ at the heart of the Amazon. Another highlight is the Boi Bumba Festival in Parintins involving over 100 dancers and musicians bringing the carnival atmosphere vividly alive.
Circumnavigating the world offers an opportunity to explore many different environments in a leisurely fashion. January sees the launch of Cruise & Maritime’s first ever Round the World Cruise aboard their new flagship, Magellan. Over a four-month period, the Magellan crosses the Atlantic to the West Indies and Panama Canal before crossing to Polynesia, Australasia, and South East Asia, returning via India, the Red Sea, Suez Canal, Holy Land and the Mediterranean. For those wanting shorter cruise sections, there are options based on Auckland, Sydney, Hong Kong and Singapore. Fred Olsen also has Grand Voyages underway this winter one of which is an Around the World cruise, while another covers Central America and the Mardi gras.
For groups wanting something very unusual, Pandaw Expeditions have launched a seven-night itinerary, starting in February, cruising the Kapuas River through Kalimantan in Borneo. The river passes through one of the oldest rainforests in the world, and is an important refuge for many rare animals including the Borneo elephant, the Borenean clouded leopard, and the eastern Sumatran rhinoceros. It offers an opportunity to explore a rarely visited area with incredible scenery. During the cruise there will be opportunities to experience tribal village life. The Tour leader’s cabin is provided free of charge for groups booking 10 cabins or more.
Get up close to a camel and explore the desert sands with Celebrity Cruises new Arabian Coast Immersion Cruise. During its visit to Abu Dhabi, guests can try sandboarding, a 4×4 jeep experience and enjoy a camel ride before trying traditional local cuisine under the stars.This thrill-seeking excursion forms part of Celebrity Cruise’s range of immersion activities curated by Ben Fogle. The cruise includes several Arabian locations including Muscat and Dubai.
Travelling further eastwards, Norwegian Star offer an unusual opportunity to explore Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City on its 14 night South East Asia fly cruise from Hong Kong beginning in December. The cruise visits several lesser-known ports around South East Asia including Sihanoukville and Laem Chabang.
Closer to home P&O run short break cruises to Amsterdam and Bruges throughout the winter months. These make a great alternative city breaks, and are an ideal introduction to the cruising experience. Taking a trip just before Christmas enables groups to enjoy the Christmas markets too.
Lavishly decorated Christmas trees and nativities, stallholders selling beautiful carved ornaments, plus gingerbread houses and hot mulled wine are the essence of the Christmas markets to be found throughout Germany, France, and Belgium. CrosiEurope has an extensive range of Christmas market river cruises starting from £294 per person. These include a four day Christmas markets in the Seine valley round trip from Rouen, a four day Alsace & Black Forest tour, and a cruise from Nurmberg, Rudesheim and Mainz starting from Strasbourg. For groups wanting to experience Christmas in more than one country, CroisiEurope has a round trip from Vienna covering Austria, Hungary and Slovakia, plus a longer five-day version, which includes a cruise down the Danube. Each boat has accommodation for between 100 and 160 guests. Special guided visits include tours of picturesque villages decorated for Christmas, tastings at a wine cellar as well as plenty of time for shopping at the Christmas markets.
The Northern Lights are another very popular attraction throughout the winter period. Many cruise companies operate vessels cruising from the UK to the Norwegian fjords. Fred Olsen for example operates 2 week Norway Winter cruises sailing as far north as Alta for an overnight stay in hopes of seeing the northern lights. For adventure seekers, Hurtigrutten has a range of Arctic vessels taking travelers to experience the northern lights, thewintery coast and majestic landscape of Spitzbergen. Magnus Zetterberg, UK & Ireland MD, comments, “Every year we see an increase in demand from guests wanting to fully explore coastal Norway. This winter season, we’ve expanded our coastal expedition teams to four ships, expanded our regional programme to 10 airports, and launched exclusive land based itineraries in Spitzburgen.” Among the activities on offer include dogsledding, ice cave tours and an opportunity to discover the local culture of Longyearben via guided walks tring local delicacies and drink.
With programmes like Great Canal Journeys starring Prunella Scales and Timothy West highlighting the beauties of Britain’s maze of canals, more and more people are trying out narrowboats for themselves. Narrowboats can be hired for varying periods, and many can sleep up to 12 people making them ideal for a group activity. Waterways Holidays offer a typical three night winter weekend on board Inglesham 12, a 69 feet long centrally heated narrowboat. Starting at its Lower Heyford base, groups can enjoy a cruise along the canal to Oxford with plenty of waterside pubs and places to visit. Prices start from £1199, and include tuition in driving and manouvrering the vessel.
Special promotions are widely promoted within the cruise sector and can offer major advantages when booking. Until the end of June 2016, P&O are running a promotion called ‘Live the Life’. This involves a free city break being provided on either side of an exotic fly cruise in 2017, such as three nights in Sydney and three nights in Singapore. Alternatively, up to £500 spending money is available on selected cruises over the winter period including food themed cruises.
It is not unknown for groups to charter an entire ship for a special occasion. Mike Bugsgang says, “some groups charter the whole ship for an entire cruise and run a programme of events each day in different locations onboard. Examples of this approach include activities such as dancing, poker and bridge or gay & lesbian cruises. In other instances, groups may simply constitute a part of a cruise and purse their interest when in ports. Groups of choirs, golfers, birdwatchers and gardeners all fall into this category.”
Most cruise ships and river cruise companies accept such bookings. For very large ships, arrangements have to be made well in advance. Ellie Fulcher, Group & Specialist Sales Manager at Fred Olsen Cruise lines says, “We do offer full ship charters and full ship allocations on occasions. We have secured full ship charters for the Olympic Games, Titanic Memorial cruise and a Talon Music group. For such requests we would need to receive these at least 2 to 3 years in advance as we do plan our itineraries very early.”
Smaller vessels need less advance notice as they often have more flexibility. European Waterways has a range of luxury narrowboats operating across Europe including the French canals starts its year in March and often has groups taking one of its barges as they can accommodate groups of 8 or more.