16 things you shouldn’t leave a cruise ship without doing at least once

Dec 5, 2021

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Big cruise ships are designed to be a hive of activity choices. Of course you have plans to explore beaches and other attractions at the ports of call and will want to allocate time just to relax on the ship. But when you read the daily onboard activities roster you will find yourself checking off more options than you can possibly do in a week – including the choices for dining and entertainment.

To help you narrow all of that down, here are 16 things on our must-do list for cruise vacationers.

Order a special cocktail (or mocktail)

To some cruisers, the quintessential cruise experience is lounging on deck, admiring the sea with a frosty drink in hand. Discounted drinks of the day – a Bahama Mama, frozen strawberry daiquiri or Pina Colada – serve that purpose. But don’t miss the surprises created by your ship’s great bartenders, sometimes even by master mixologists advising your cruise line. The drinks don’t have to be loaded. On Carnival Cruise Line’s 5,280-passenger Mardi Gras, head to the Fortune Teller bar for a Crystal Ball. With or without tequila, the drink arrives topped with an eerie, smoky orb. It’s Instagram-worthy.

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Eat with gusto

Everyone worries they will gain several pounds on a cruise vacation. We say: Worry about that when you get home. A cruise is a chance to try something new – and even, perhaps, to pig out. In the main dining room, you can order as many courses as you like. If you can’t choose which appetizer or main course to have, order a couple – nobody will hover over you making sure you eat every morsel. And don’t deny yourself that juicy hamburger by the pool for lunch (or veggie or turkey burger, if you are so inclined).

Splurge on a meal at a specialty restaurant

More elevated cuisine is available at specialty restaurants labeled Italian, French, Asian, steakhouse, Brazilian, seafood and other higher-end choices. These venues are where the ship’s chefs try to impress – especially since in most cases you are paying a special fee (either a set fee or a la carte prices) for the experience. Satisfy your craving for antipasti, fettuccine alfredo, and cannoli; escargot, duck a l’orange and chocolate mousse; or a Caesar salad made tableside, accompanied by a great aged steak, truffle fries and a big slice of New York-style cheesecake.

Show off your smarts at trivia

Trivia is a competitive sport on most ships, so be prepared for both fun and intense competition. You’ll join a team, typically from two to eight people, and close bonding will ensue – trivia being a great way to meet your fellow passengers. The 20 or so questions in standard trivia contests will test general knowledge. Your ship may also have themed trivia contests focusing on music, movies and the like. On Disney Cruise Line ships you can play Disney trivia. Your prize should you win? Think a key chain or other small ship logo item.

Related: The ultimate guide to Disney Cruise Line

Watch pool contests

Whether you want to participate or not, around the pool on big ships guests go wild in contests led by the entertainment team. It’s fun to watch. We’re not talking feats of brain power here but rather who has the hairiest chest, the knobbiest knees or can do the best belly flop. It’s all about a laugh.

Attend a nighttime deck party

There’s something entrancing about being out in the open sea, under the stars, at a big party with music and dancing. If costumes are recommended, go for it to be more a part of the in crowd. On Virgin Voyages, don’t miss the Scarlet Lady party, where everyone is encouraged to wear red in honor of a sea goddess octopus. On Disney ships, Pirates In The Caribbean is an event the whole family can get into – dress in pirate garb and speak like a pirate while you enjoy character appearances and fireworks.

Related: Our take on Virgin Voyages’ first ship

Visit the aft pool or bar at sunset

Aft pools and open-air aft bars on cruise ships always feel like a secret spot, given that they are far away from the crowds at the main pools. Don’t let anyone else know: Keep the party intimate at one of the best views over the sea. At sunset, when everyone else is getting ready for dinner, go for a dip in the pool or order up a drink, then watch nature’s free show and the ship’s wake while pretending you are on your own private yacht.

Go out on a limb

Even if you are not normally an adventuresome type, big cruise ships are packed with bragworthy attractions. Consider this your opportunity to try something new. Hit the ropes course on Carnival ships and you can walk a plank that extends off the ship (while wearing a safety harness) for a take-home photo op. On Mardi Gras, ride the BOLT, the world’s first at-sea rollercoaster for additional bragging rights. Go-cart racing is a must-do on the latest Norwegian Cruise Line ships. On Royal Caribbean, rock-climbing walls, simulated surfing machines, indoor skydiving setups and ziplines all deliver thrills.

Related: The 9 craziest attractions you’ll find on cruise ships

Go down a slide

Zipping down a crazy waterslide is another cruise ship adventure. The thrill here is both speed and getting wet. The cruise lines say you will catch amazing sea views during the slide – but this won’t happen if you’re shrieking and have your eyes closed. Slides on MSC Cruises‘ MSC Seashore combine a virtual reality element. Norwegian has really fast racing slides. If you prefer to stay dry, on Royal Caribbean’s latest Oasis-class ships try The Ultimate Abyss, which drops you down 10 decks at about nine miles per hour.

Order room service

For a little bit of luxury, go for a romantic breakfast in bed or while admiring the sea from your balcony. On most ships, room service continental breakfast is on the house; if you want eggs and pancakes, you may have to pay a small fee. It’s worth it for the opportunity to dine in your PJs. Especially on a luxury ship, consider ordering other treats in your cabin. On Seabourn, you can have complimentary caviar delivered whenever you like. On Crystal Cruises, if you’re in a penthouse-category suite or higher, have your butler bring a tray of extraordinary Nobu sushi.

Catch up on movies

Between room service and free (and for-a-fee) movies on the cabin TV, you may have a hard time convincing your teenager to leave your cabin. If you are a big movie fan, this may be an issue for you, too. We say, go for it. And don’t underestimate the allure of outdoor movies on the big poolside screen, such as Princess Cruises’ Movies Under the Stars. It’s the cruise equivalent of a drive-in movie, popcorn included.

Related: The ultimate guide to Princess Cruises

Run (or walk) the jogging track

Oceanview gyms on cruise ships tend to offer the latest and greatest aerobic and strength equipment, but nothing beats a run or walk in the ocean breezes. Hit your ship’s padded, upper deck jogging track to get in your miles. The best tracks are away from the crowds and some even have specific lanes for running and walking. Among the best are the two-deck tracks with inclines on Celebrity Cruises’ Edge-class ships.

Related: Our take on Celebrity’s new Celebrity Apex

Get dressed up

Get your hair blown out at your ship’s beauty salon and dress to the nines for the ship’s formal night or any other night just for fun – it’s never is a bad thing to be the glamorous one at the table. If you’re traveling with the kids, a cruise may be your best shot at a great formal family portrait, with everyone dressed up, relaxed and (hopefully) smiling for a ship photographer.

Go dancing

Get your arms around the one you love – or someone new. Cruise ships provide lots of opportunities for dancing. On Cunard Line ocean liners, waltz in a real ballroom to a live orchestra. On Royal Caribbean ships, show off your salsa moves at Boleros. On Holland America ships, rock out at the Rolling Stone Rock Room (where we once saw a couple slow dance to Jimi Hendrix) or B.B. Kings Blues Club, where practically everyone in the audience hits the dance floor. Join a conga line at the weekly Deck BBQ party on Windstar Cruises‘ small ships. In shipboard discos, the party goes late into the night.

Hear a lecture

Yeah, we know, you didn’t come on a cruise to go to school. But especially on cerebral ships such as those operated by Viking, you miss something if you don’t take time to learn from the carefully selected experts on board. You may learn about a region’s political situation from a former ambassador or diplomat, hear about the area’s food culture from a culinary expert or learn Hollywood secrets from a famous actress. Among those currently booked for ship speaking engagements are famed novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux on Silversea Cruises and Tim Rice, the acclaimed musical lyricist (“Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King”), on Seabourn.

Go for a walk at night

A quintessential cruise ship experience is spending a little time in a quiet, dark area on the open deck on a cloudless night. Once most of the passengers are busy inside, you may feel like you are the only one on the ship as you admire the water and the star-filled sky. Breathe in the fresh air, think about sailors of yore and feel at one with the sea.

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Featured image courtesy of Royal Caribbean.

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