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Anchors Aweigh

There has never been a better time to take your group on a cruise.

In recent years, both ocean and river cruise lines have raised the bar on vessel design, activities and customer experiences. New ships for 2019 and beyond are poised to offer your group exciting itineraries and groundbreaking amenities. Elevated to a whole new level, journeys will offer more active excursions and the latest in entertainment, technology and cuisine.

Emerald Waterways continues to wow groups with its sleek and modern river ships, as well as its EmeraldActive programming, which ranges from water aerobics and Pilates on board to biking, hiking and canoeing in port. Norwegian Cruise Line boasts the only go-karts at sea and a high-tech virtual reality complex, alongside innovative itineraries. Known for its Alaskan presence, Princess is rolling out Alaskan journeys that celebrate 50 years of sailing in the region, and its wearable Princess OceanMedallion, a device that delivers personalized, high-tech capabilities to guests. Also on the cutting edge, Switzerland-based MSC Cruises is set to expand its fleet from 15 to 25 megaships by 2026 while introducing Zoe, the first voice-enabled, artificial intelligence assistant at sea.

Emerald Waterways

In August, Emerald Waterways will add an eighth ship to its river cruise fleet: the Emerald Harmony. Featuring Asian design fused with the amenities of a boutique hotel, Emerald Harmony will navigate the Mekong river between Vietnam and Cambodia. This four-star ship will be one of the few in the industry that can navigate upriver to Ho Chi Minh City.

Characterized by affordable pricing, contemporary decor and excursions with the active traveler in mind, Emerald Waterways provides an inclusive river cruise experience. Cruises include most shore excursions, numerous active experiences, onboard and excursion gratuities, Wi-Fi and complimentary airport transfers on the day of embarkation and disembarkation to and from the ship.

“Our brand is only 4 years old, and we offer a fantastic experience at a tremendous value,” said Rob Huffman, vice president of sales USA for Emerald Waterways. “We’ve been recognized as the best value in river cruising for four years in a row by Cruise Critic, and we’re extremely proud of that.”

Other Emerald developments for 2019 include an upscale chartered yacht cruise for 34 passengers along the Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. The company is also adding to its programming of land-and-sea combination products in South America, Canada and Alaska by introducing a new cruise-tour adventure in Egypt.

New this year, a dedicated activity manager on each ship assists guests. The new EmeraldActive offers onboard fitness options such as yoga, Pilates and water aerobics classes. The EmeraldActive program also includes a number of special shore excursions on each cruise designed for active travelers. Complimentary bikes on board can be checked out for guests to use when exploring in port.

“We’re finding that we appeal to a more active clientele with our EmeraldActive excursions, such as hiking through the Black Forest or canoeing on the Douro River,” said Huffman. “One signature feature on each ship is our heated pool with a retractable roof that guests can use for swimming laps. We work with groups to arrange special experiences, and the pool area transforms into a great space for group gatherings.”

Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian Cruise Line’s newest ship, Norwegian Encore, will launch in November. Cruising out of Miami, she will visit the Eastern Caribbean through April 2020. The ship will continue the company’s tradition as an industry leader for award-winning entertainment, no fixed dining times or assigned seating, and onboard recreational amenities.

As the only company to offer go-karts at sea, the Norwegian Encore, will have a two-level racetrack with 10 turns and points that extend up to 13 feet over the ship’s side. The Galaxy Pavilion, a 10,000-plus-square-foot, indoor virtual-reality complex, will showcase multisensory virtual experiences, simulators and an escape room. The industry’s only open-air laser tag arena, made popular on Norwegian Bliss, will feature the lost city of Atlantis, and one of the Aqua Park’s multistory waterslides extends 11 feet over the ship’s side before it loops down to the deck below. 

In February, the Norwegian Sky, based in Miami, underwent an extensive renovation and added eight new dining venues. In April, Norwegian Joy will offer seven-day itineraries in Alaska. Before her Seattle arrival, approximately $50 million in upgrades will match those of Norwegian Bliss, the newest and most successful ship in the line’s 51-year history. In fall 2019 and winter 2020, Joy will reposition to Los Angeles for Mexican Riviera and Panama Canal voyages, offering options in the historically underserved winter cruise market on the West Coast. 

Recently renovated with bow-to-stern enhancements, Norwegian Jewel will embark on Australia and New Zealand cruises in winter 2019-20. Norwegian Getaway will also undergo extensive bow-to-stern enhancements in May in time for her European sailings. Norwegian Escape debuts in Port Canaveral, and Norwegian Epic will home port in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for the first time. Winter 2020-21 itineraries will feature sister ships Norwegian Joy and Norwegian Encore sailing from Miami to the Caribbean.

Princess Cruises

Debuting three Royal Class vessels by 2022, Princess Cruises will launch the Sky Princess this October. A sister ship, the Enchanted Princess, will follow in June 2020, with another yet-to-be-named ship in 2022. New features on Sky Princess will include the Take Two jazz club, deep-tank top-deck pools and additional Jacuzzis. A standout feature will be two Sky Suites with 270-degree panoramic views and sleeping capacity for five guests, plus gathering space.

Considered a breakthrough in the vacation industry, the Princess OceanMedallion is a wearable device that delivers personalized service to guests. All Caribbean sailings will enjoy this new technology by the end of 2019. Features include a streamlined check-in, hands-free keyless stateroom entry, MedallionNet TM with high-speed Wi-Fi connectivity and ShipMates, which helps guests find one another on board.

Princess is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with special celebratory programs on seven Princess ships sailing in Alaska, May through September. It will mark the company’s largest deployment and feature the debut of Royal Princess, which will sail between Vancouver and Anchorage as the largest ship ever deployed to this region and the first MedallionClass ship to sail Alaska. Special activities on board will include guest speakers, a new Northern Lights Planetarium and “Glacier Tea” cocktails.

New for 2019, expanded Canada-New England itineraries will sail from New York. A 16-day Greenland and Canada voyage, round-trip from New York on the Caribbean Princess, will visit three ports in each country. An 18-day Greenland and Iceland voyage sails round-trip from London (Dover) and a British Isles departure is the first since 2009.

Across the global fleet, Princess is rolling out new and enhanced dishes to its main-dining-room menus. Last November, a newly reimagined wine menu was selected in partnership with master of wine and master sommelier Doug Frost.

“Our cuisine is designed fresh, taking advantage of local and regionally inspired foods from the global destinations we visit, plus breads baked freshly all day, steaks aged and hand-cut on board and handcrafted desserts made from scratch,” said chef Pierre-Marie Leprince, fleet director of guest culinary experience at Princess Cruises.

MSC Cruises

Swiss-based and privately owned, MSC Cruises is set to expand its fleet from 15 to 25 mega-cruise ships by 2026. The MSC Bellissima comes into service this spring and will be the largest ship ever launched from the shipyards in Southampton, England. Beginning in March, it will sail seven-night Mediterranean itineraries. Onboard entertainment will feature two brand-new “Cirque du Soleil at Sea” shows.

Bellissima will introduce the world’s first virtual personal cruise assistant, Zoe, an easy-to-use, voice-enabled artificial intelligence tool found in every stateroom. Zoe will speak seven languages, answer hundreds of questions about the cruise and provide information about onboard services and guidance to book services. Advanced voice recognition will enable guests to control and access information using only voice commands.

Other highlights on Bellissima include a new tapas restaurant from two-time Michelin-starred chef Ramón Freixa and a Chocolaterie and Chocolate Bar from award-winning pastry chef and chocolatier Jean-Philippe Maury. MSC’s iconic 315-foot promenade will feature the longest LED sky screen at sea with a shopping gallery that features over 200 brands. Bellissima will be closely followed by MSC Grandiosa in November and MSC Virtuosa in 2020.

Grandiosa will kick off its first summer season in 2020 with a popular itinerary that will sail from Genoa to Naples, Italy, with stops at Malta; Barcelona, Spain; and Marseilles, France. She will become the second MSC ship to feature Zoe. The vessel’s expansive promenade will host surprise performances, including flash mobs and themed parties and projections on an even longer 323-foot LED sky screen.

New in November, Caribbean itineraries will visit Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, a one-of-a-kind private island. The company is transforming a former industrial sand-extraction site into a marine reserve and destination that will include a coral nursery and 64 square miles of protected waters. Two miles of white sand coastline will offer seven distinctive beach areas with water activities, food and beverage, spa treatments and shopping for local arts and crafts. Since the island is just 65 miles south of Miami, the ship will remain in port into the evening allowing for a range of nighttime experiences.

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.