Underwater sightseeing in a glass submarine, shopping with a chef for dinner ingredients and volunteering with locals: These are some of the new options this season for cruise passengers.
Also in 2016 from the cruise industry, Royal Caribbean launches the world's largest ship, and a new ship from Carnival features a biking track suspended high above the water. And for cruisers with deep pockets, luxuries range from round-the-clock personal assistants to long-term leases for residences at sea.
Here are some details and other cruise news.
The submarine, voluntourism and more
Crystal Cruises has just launched Crystal Esprit, a 62-guest yacht that offers among its excursions a ride in a submersible vessel. The underwater excursions take place near the Seychelles islands in winter and on the Adriatic Coast in spring and summer. The glass capsule holds two people and a captain. Thirty-minute rides are $599 per person.
Later this year, Crystal launches a yacht for river cruising in Europe, Crystal Mozart, with four more river yachts in 2017. Crystal is also getting into the airplane business with charter flights on four jets connecting to trips by ship and on land. And later this year Crystal launches residences at sea, with long-term leases for staterooms on three new ocean vessels, prices to be determined.
Fathom, a new brand from Carnival Corp., offers "voluntourism" trips to the Dominican Republic in April and to Cuba in May. Carnival is still negotiating details on the Cuba trips with the Cuban government but tickets are on sale. Passengers will work with locals on everything from learning English to reforestation, while immersing themselves in the culture.
New from Celebrity Cruises: Passengers on certain sailings in the Caribbean and Europe are participating in the Chef Market Discoveries program, in which they shop with chefs in local markets for ingredients used in the meals they'll eat onboard that night.
New from Princess Cruises: Chocolate Journeys with chocolate-infused menus and other treats designed by chocolatier Norman Love, plus menus by celebrity chef Curtis Stone, on-deck stargazing in a partnership with Discovery Channel, and a magic show and musical revue, "Magic to Do," with music by Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz of "Wicked" and "Godspell" fame.
Disney Cruise Line features a "Star Wars" day on each of eight Disney Fantasy ship sailings in the Western Caribbean beginning this month, with "Star Wars" characters, activities and themed celebrations. In June, the Disney Magic ship will sail its first British Isles itinerary, to Scotland, England and Ireland.
Biking in the sky, dogs onboard and big new ships
In June, Royal Caribbean launches what will be the world's largest ship, Harmony of the Seas, with a capacity of 5,479 passengers. Harmony will feature the "neighborhood" areas already found on other Royal Caribbean ships, including Central Park and Boardwalk. Harmony will also have robot bartenders, a mini-golf course, surfing on a FlowRider machine, waterslides, a zip line and, for guests who need their every whim catered to, round-the-clock personal assistants called Royal Genies.
Another new Royal Caribbean ship, Ovation of the Seas, debuts in April, designed primarily for service in China.
Carnival Cruise Line launches its largest ship in May, Carnival Vista, which can carry 3,954 people based on two per cabin. Vista's showcase attraction, SkyRide, lets guests cycle on bikes suspended from an 800-foot long track, 20 feet above the top deck and 150 feet above the water. Vista will also have an onboard brewery and a 455-foot-long tube slide.
Holland America Line debuts the Koningsdam in April, with staterooms for families and for singles; a theater with two-story-high, 270-degree LED screens, and music options ranging from B.B. King's Blues Club to nightly chamber music. HAL is also collaborating with a travel planning service called Utrip so guests can go online and create customized shore itineraries.
Norwegian Cruise Line's newest ship, Escape, debuted in the fall of 2015 with an urban craft beer hall, Mondavi wine bar, a Margaritaville and a tapas bar. Norwegian is also introducing a new "Free at Sea" promotion inviting guests to pick a free amenity from four options: a beverage package, specialty dining package, excursion credits or WiFi package.
Regent Seven Seas Explorer launches in July with the $10,000-a-night super-luxurious Regent Suite, complete with private spa and grand piano. Despite the price tag, the suite is already sold out for its entire first season.
Viking, once known just for river cruises, is launching the second of its ocean-going ships, Viking Sea, in April, a sister ship to Viking Star, launched last year.
Seabourn expects its first new ship in five years, Seabourn Encore, to be delivered in December for a January 2017 launch. The ship will have all-suite staterooms and a Thomas Keller restaurant.
And Cunard is renovating the Queen Mary 2, adding staterooms for solo travelers and expanding the number of onboard kennels where guests are permitted to keep their dogs. The QM2 will be out of service for the redo from May 27 to June 21. Looking ahead to 2017, the Queen Victoria will become the largest ship to ever navigate the Amazon, on Cunard's first voyage to that part of the world. Beth J. Harpaz, AP Travel Writer