Europe was the proving ground for the river cruising industry, but as travelers have “been there, cruised that,” they’re looking for more exotic destinations and more immersive experiences.
“It’s great to go to Europe and see the tried and true — it’s amazing to sail down the rivers there — but in Asia, it’s about the people,” said Ryan Droegemueller, Asia product manager for Avalon Waterways, part of the Globus Family of Brands.
Avalon Waterways has been in Asia selling into other cruise lines since the company was founded in 2004, but the Colorado-based company introduced Mekong River cruises in Vietnam and Cambodia in 2012 and launched cruises on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar in 2015.
Myanmar, formerly Burma, is “sort of the Cuba of Asia,” he said. “It’s opening back up.” The country was closed to visitors for 50 years, and although it has opened its borders and embraced travelers, Avalon still takes its passengers to places other cruise lines aren’t going, such as the Upper Irrawaddy north of Mandalay. The Avalon Myanmar on the Irrawaddy and the Avalon Siem Reap on the Mekong, both christened in 2015, each hold 36 passengers and fewer than 30 staff, which lends to the intimate, people-driven experience, Droegemueller said. And the ships’ small sizes allow them to navigate where others can’t go, such as the narrow, cliff-lined stretch of the Irrawaddy known as the Second Defile.
Avalon focuses on small-group experiences, Droegemueller said. On a sand island in the middle of the Irrawaddy “that nobody else visits,” passengers visit a nunnery where “I’ve seen people moved to tears” as they get a blessing from a nun, he said. On the Mekong, Avalon takes guests to an English-language school in Angkor Ban to visit with the children, who may sing a song or talk about what they want to be when they grow up.
Holland America Line
For many years, cruise lines have turned on the television to find inspiration for onboard entertainment. Celebrity Cruises partnered with Bravo to bring “Top Chef” to its ships. Norwegian Cruise Line offered its own version of “Deal or No Deal,” and Princess Cruises’ “The Voice of the Ocean” is an homage to NBC’s “The Voice.” But Holland America Line (HAL) saw huge success with its “Dancing With the Stars” entertainment and is doing it again with brand-new “America’s Test Kitchen” workshops and classes.
For three years, HAL partnered with ABC to offer “Dancing With the Stars: At Sea.” Dance pros and celebrities from the show joined theme cruises and dazzled passengers with performances. Other departures included complimentary dance lessons with the ship’s dance pros and dance competitions for guests.
HAL’s newest offering is through a partnership with “America’s Test Kitchen,” television’s most-popular cooking show. The onboard Culinary Arts Center will be transformed to replicate the show’s set, and HAL chefs, trained by “America’s Test Kitchen” culinary experts, will host onboard shows, cooking demonstrations and hands-on workshops with wide-ranging topics such as shaping Asian dumplings and making the perfect pie crust.
Demonstration courses will feature a mix of video content, live instruction, taste tests and recipe samples, and will cover a range of cuisine, such as Asian fare, Italian favorites and Mediterranean flavors. Planned 90-minute workshops will focus on teaching a specific skill set, such as making homemade pies or handmade pasta. HAL announced the new program in September and expects to roll it out across its entire fleet by June.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
As the French say, “L’art pour l’art.” Aboard Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ newest ship, the saying could be “Luxe pour luxe” — luxury for the sake of luxury.
Regent is calling the Seven Seas Explorer the “world’s most luxurious ship,” and from small touches to large statements, the claim doesn’t seem to be hype or hyperbole. Whether it’s the Chagall and Picasso works among the ship’s 2,200-piece art collection or the L’Occitane toiletries that are standard in every suite, passengers are immersed in a sea of luxury. The Explorer, which was christened in July in Monaco, features extravagant theaters and lounges, five gourmet restaurants and one of the industry’s highest ratios of space and service per passenger. Only 750 guests can cruise aboard the $450 million all-suite, all-balcony ship.
In addition to the Explorer and its sister ship, which is slated for delivery in 2020, Regent is underway on a $125 million fleetwide refurbishment “to ensure every ship in our fleet matches the luxury standard found on Explorer,” Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Regent’s parent company, Norwegian Cruise Line, said in a press release.
Work began on the Seven Seas Voyager in October, and the Seven Seas Mariner is scheduled to receive a similar makeover in April 2017; Seven Seas Navigator was completed earlier this year. The two-year refurbishment project will update and renovate most public spaces and suites onboard the ships.