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Royal Caribbean International now will offer active cruisers the chance to "hang ten" a hundred miles out to sea with the first-ever shipboard surf park aboard Freedom of the Seas. The ship will debut in May 2006.
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updated 1/4/2006 3:31:53 PM ET 2006-01-04T20:31:53

In an era in which cruise lines are frantically carving out unique niches, trends are constantly developing and evolving. Our 2005 predictions were right on target: This year has been big for Europe (it's the new Caribbean in terms of popularity among all types of cruise travelers, from families to romance-seekers), and, rather than send 'em out to pasture, mid-sized, middle-aged ships -- from Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas to Holland America's Ryndam -- have received the cruise equivalent of a hit of Viagra. We also predicted higher cruise fares (sorry about that one), the re-emergence of Asia as a hip destination and the wee beginnings of more innovative approaches to shore excursions.

So what's on tap for next year? We've taken a look at the next hot destination, as well as fresh and innovative onboard features that will catch us off guard (in a good way) in the hopes of preparing you for burgeoning changes in the way we cruise.

ONBOARD SERVICES & AMENITIES

Pool Decks
Royal Caribbean is pioneering a whole new approach -- one that more closely emulates features of a waterpark rather than a traditional ship's pool area. First introduced on its massively refurbished Enchantment of the Seas, the cruise line takes the concept even further with its new Freedom of the Seas, which launches in April. The coolest spot onboard that ship will be its H2O Zone, a fabulous interactive water park that will offer surfing at sea -- an industry first. Other highlights include numerous water-spouting contraptions, such as a waterfall, umbrella jets, a cone spill bucket, and spray cannons.

Spa Offerings
The tooth-whitening craze has spilled over from Hollywood -- and our grocery stores -- to onboard spas. Since most of the onboard spas are operated by the same company, London's Steiner Leisure, the service is available on just about every ship. Plan to pay about $200 for a one-time deal (multi-visit packages are also available).

The Family Explosion
From the "good news, bad news" corner here at Cruise Critic we watch cruise lines' all-consuming desires to attract families with some trepidation. The positive aspect is that cruising can be a perfect vacation for families. The negative? The stories of tyrannical kids running amok -- and the wimpy parents who allow it -- who ruin cruises for everyone else in the process are becoming legendary. We're now seeing instances when cruise lines themselves (have they thrown in the towel?) are suggesting that childless travelers avoid holiday periods altogether. We'd rather they just handle the issue by establishing and enforcing rules, and limiting youth capacity to numbers they can adequately handle.

Is McDonald's Next?
The practice of incorporating favorite brand names onto cruise ship restaurants and facilities; notable examples are Royal Caribbean's Ben & Jerry's ice cream and Fisher Price kids' program, and NCL's partnership with Second City. Carnival, which has otherwise stayed away from branding onboard, has just announced that next year it will launch a new teen club concept, in conjunction with Coca-Cola (look for a "Coke-tail" lounge for non-alcoholic beverages). And while we don't seriously expect McDonald's to appear on a cruise ship anytime soon, we have heard the scintillating rumor that Curves, the ever-popular women's fitness chain, is close to signing a deal that would put its facilities on cruise ships.

It's Not Just On TV
Reality programming is not limited to our television sets; several cruise lines, ranging from NCL to Princess, feature "American Idol" style competitions.

The Teen Conundrum
Cruise lines, continuing with a trend that really began last year, are scratching their heads to find teen cruisers an experience that will appeal to them (and keep them busy and out of trouble, too). So far, Carnival offers the broadest based program; not withstanding the aforementioned Coca-Cola partnership, its newer ships locate the teen disco in the more adult promenade rather than lumped in with the kiddie facilities -- and the ships also offer teen-specific spa treatments and shore excursions.

COST OF CRUISING

Fuel Surcharges
In addition to all the other a la carte features you pay for onboard (spa treatments, shore excursions, crafts, alternative restaurants), Crystal and Radisson Seven Seas Cruises have already levied fuel surcharges on passengers and we expect more to follow.

DESTINATIONS

Circumventing the Globe
World cruises, which were more popular than expected last year, continue to gain momentum with the announcement that in 2007 Cunard's Queen Mary 2 will join QE2 in offering an around-the-world sailing. Other cruise lines such as Holland America and RSSC also continue to expand their offerings.

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Europe's Winter Wonderland
Winter cruising in Europe (at least in some parts) by river vessels and mass-market ships alike is on the rise. Norwegian Coastal Voyages, of course, has long offered year-round service between Norway's west coast villages and cities. River cruise operators like Viking River are offering a limited series of Christmas markets itineraries that travel through Germany and Austria. And this year, for the first time, Britain's P&O is marketing a one-time-only Christmas markets cruise to Scandinavia and Western Europe, where ports of call include Copenhagen, Stockholm and Bruges.

It's A Long, Long Way...
But Australia and New Zealand couldn't be more perfectly suited to cruise travel -- and it looks like Americans are starting to take the plunge. Princess Cruises is the arbiter of this new trend as it continues to commission its biggest, newest vessels in the market, and has no trouble selling out early.

SHIPBUILDING

2006 Launches
2006 represents a middling year in terms of scope and size of new cruise ship launches. Still, the biggest hyped launch has to be Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, the 158,000-ton, 3,600-passenger behemoth that will wrest the latest biggest-ship-ever crown from Queen Mary 2 in April.

European Expansion
European cruise lines like the Germany-based Aida and British P&O have long become accustomed to welcoming "new" ships into their fleets that are really hand-me-downs from U.S. lines. But no longer -- these cruise lines have all announced ship orders for the coming years. MSC is another company that's changed its strategy from taking on older ships to building new ones. An interesting side note: Costa is one of the few European lines to have had the luxury of custom-designed ships for the past four years now ... but remember, it is owned by the gargantuan Carnival Corp.

Cruise Critic, which launched in 1995, is a comprehensive cruise vacation planning guide providing objective cruise ship reviews, cruise line profiles, destination content on 125+ worldwide ports, cruise bargains, tips, industry news, and cruise message boards.

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