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Carnival's soon-to-be-introduced Ocean Medallion can be worn around the wrist. Photo from Princess Cruises. .

Carnival’s soon-to-be-introduced Ocean Medallion can be worn around the wrist. Photo from Princess Cruises.

Every year brings advances to the world of cruising: new ships and amenities, breakthrough technologies, more enticing itineraries.

As cruise lines jostle to stay one wave or river bend ahead of the competition, they grow ever more creative – and passengers reap the rewards.

In 2017, that means more personalized experiences, a more varied choice of destinations, and more “Wow!” factors than ever. Happy sailing!

A Techno-Gizmo That Does It All, Almost

Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise company, has announced plans to begin rolling out a techno-marvel medallion in 2017 that will do almost anything for you on board except mix your drinks (for that, you’ll need to sail on Royal Caribbean’s new mega-ship the Harmony of the Seas, which sports cocktail-preparing robots in its Bionic Bar).

Paired with an optional app for maximum utility, the quarter-sized Ocean Medallion — which weighs less than two ounces and can be carried in pocket or purse or worn around the wrist or neck — goes well beyond any other personalized “smart” technology in the cruise industry.

The digital system will unlock your stateroom door as you approach it or let crew members know where you’d like your favorite drink delivered on deck (it knows what that drink is, too).

It’s expected to shorten waiting times at embarkation and disembarkation. It can manage restaurant reservations, make onboard purchases — even help navigate your way around the ship or locate a missing family member.

Carnival plans to introduce the Ocean Medallion and Ocean Compass app aboard Princess ships starting in November and eventually install the technology throughout its 10 cruise lines.

A New Destination for American Cruise Passengers

Just 90 miles south of the Florida Keys, Cuba has been off limits to most American travelers for decades.

Classic cars in Havana, Cuba, are now a cruise itinerary attraction. Photo by Clark Norton

Classic cars in Havana, Cuba, are now a cruise itinerary attraction. Photo by Clark Norton

Now that’s changing, and a number of U.S.-based cruise lines have added Havana to their spring 2017 Caribbean itineraries.

Though U.S. citizens still have to adhere to some restrictions – visits to Cuba are supposed to involve “people-to-people” exchanges or educational pursuits and not, say, just beach time – Cuba is on this year’s destination hot list. Scheduling is proceeding cautiously, though, since relations with Cuba may be subject to new strains at any time.

Travelers eyeing Cuba cruises this spring have several options at varying levels of length, luxury, and pricing. Those listed below are all available as of this writing, but some cabin categories have already sold out, so I would suggest acting quickly if you want to go.

The 704-passenger Fathom Adonia’s seven-night cruises depart from Miami, stopping in Havana and two other Cuban ports. These will run at least through May 2017, with fares starting at $2,499.

Cyprus-based Celestyal Cruises, which has been sailing to Cuba for several years carrying mostly European and Canadian passengers, is now offering year-round week-long cruises that circumnavigate the island and make four stops: Havana, Santiago de Cuba (Cuba’s second largest city), Cienfuegos (gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Trinidad), and a beach stop on the Isle of Youth.

Cruises aboard the 960-passenger Celestyal Crystal depart from and return to Montego Bay, Jamaica. Fares  start at around $1,600 per passenger in double occupancy

I took this cruise last spring and enjoyed it immensely. There were a number of Americans onboard and crew members (some from Cuba) were very friendly.

Cruise lines that have added Cuba to spring Caribbean itineraries make only one stop on the island – Havana – but most dock there overnight, allowing the better part of two days to explore the city.

Here are three possible choices:

Royal Caribbean’s 1,840-passenger Empress of the Seas is scheduled to sail to Havana during three five-night Western Caribbean cruises out of Tampa or Miami in April and May, with fares starting at $779. A week-long late April sailing from Tampa starts at $897.

Oceania is featuring three 10-day or two-week Caribbean cruises with Havana stopovers aboard the 1.252-passenger Marina, sailing round trip from Miami in March and starting at $1,999.

The 694-passenger Azamara Club Quest has a 12-night Caribbean cruise out of New Orleans with a Havana overnight, embarking March 21 and starting at $3,699.

River Cruising Meets Ocean Cruising on Viking

The new Viking Sea operates with a river cruising sensibility. Photo by Clark Norton

The new Viking Sea operates with a river cruising sensibility. Photo by Clark Norton

With the launching of its 930-passenger Viking Star in 2015 and Viking Sea in 2016 and plans to introduce four more ocean-going vessels in the next few years, Viking Ocean Cruises — the latest venture from the folks at Viking River Cruises — is bringing a new sensibility to seagoing travel. And as you might expect, it feels a lot like river cruising.

(I was fortunate enough to sail on the Viking Sea from Venice to Athens this past November.)

Similar to its river cruises, Viking Ocean itineraries are port intensive, with complimentary guided walking or bus tours offered at each stop. (Longer, optional paid shore excursions are available as well.)

Shipboard activities tend to be low key, also akin to Viking’s river cruising philosophy. Libraries are voluminous, destination lectures are prominently featured, and afternoon tea is an elegant social event. Décor retains the sleek Scandinavian look of Viking’s river vessels as well.

Due to streamlined hull designs and other innovations, the ships’ motion is also remarkably smooth for vessels at sea – at times you’d be hard-pressed to say you weren’t floating down a river.

Just like Viking planned it.

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According to government and private surveys:

  • Leading-edge baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1955) and seniors account for four out of every five dollars spent on luxury travel today.
  • Roughly half the consumer spending money in the U.S.--more than $2 trillion--is in the hands of leading-edge baby boomers and seniors.
  • Baby boomers (born 1946-1964) travel more than any other age group.
  • When asked what they would most like to spend their money on, baby boomers answered “travel” more than any other category, including improving their health or finances.

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