Image: Queen Mary 2
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Sail around the British Isles this year on the Queen Mary 2. The inaugural eight-night itinerary is one of the best cruises of the year.
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updated 2/24/2009 11:09:52 AM ET 2009-02-24T16:09:52

This year, cruise lines are pulling out all the stops to entice customers with smart splurge-worthy, unusual itineraries aboard lavishly refurbished ships. In no particular order, we present our picks.

British Isles Excursion
In celebration of its fifth anniversary, Queen Mary 2, Cunard’s resplendent flagship, will offer an inaugural eight-night Around the British Isles itinerary. Sailing from Southampton, the ship will make stops in Liverpool, England; Glasgow; and Cork, Ireland, with optional excursions to Edinburgh (and a chance to visit the famous royal yacht Brittania) and D-day beaches outside the fortified town of Cherbourg, France. Part of the thrill is the magnificent ship itself: QM2’s 13 decks feature a Canyon Ranch spa, five pools, 10 restaurants (including menus by Todd English), a Veuve Clicquot Champagne bar, and a regal ballroom with the largest dance floor at sea. Plus, there’s a workshop organized by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. This voyage will take you back to the days when sailing was truly grand.

From $1,795/person, includes onboard meals and some beverages.

Eastern Europe via the Danube River
Cruise West, a small-ship line, heads to Europe for the first time with an 11-day trip along the Danube River from Vienna to Bucharest, Romania, on the new 148-guest Amadeus Diamond. With walls of panoramic windows and private balconies in most staterooms, this swank vessel affords fantastic views. Expert guides will lead expeditions into Budapest and Bucharest, plus visits to some of the top vineyards in Croatia and a traditional Hungarian horse farm, where guests will enjoy lunch and a horse show.

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Other stops include the Danube Delta in Romania — a UNESCO World Heritage Site with more than 320 species of birds — as well as lesser-known spots, such as the Kalemegdan Fortress and Museum in Belgrade, Serbia and the town of Arbanassi, Bulgaria, known for its medieval architecture. Aboard the ship, musicians will perform traditional Serb and Hungarian music every night.

There are four departure dates: July 16 and 24, and Oct. 13 and 21. From $4,900/person (double occupancy), includes onboard meals and nonalcoholic beverages, guided land excursions, gratuities.

Golf cruise to Asia
This year, Crystal Cruises is launching Experiences of Discovery, a new collection of themed cruises on topics ranging from emerging artists to ancient history. One of our favorites is the first-ever Asia Golf itinerary — an 11-day voyage from Hong Kong to Singapore aboard the 940-guest Crystal Symphony, featuring lectures, putting contests, private clinics and golfing instruction from Bill Stutzer, head PGA golf pro at San Diego’s exclusive Pauma Valley Country Club. Best of all, enthusiasts will play at four world-renowned courses in Vietnam and Thailand (with cocktail and caddy service on the green), including the stunning 18-hole Montgomerie Links overlooking the Marble Mountains and China Beach coast in Da Nang, Vietnam. For nongolfers, the sprawling Symphony is equipped with two pools, a full spa, multiple lounges and restaurants, and a casino.

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From $4,800/ person, includes all onboard meals, nonalcoholic beverages, golf lessons (greens fees and equipment not included).

Cooking lessons on the high seas
This year, after a massive overhaul of two of its ships, Regent will offer a special trip in May on the luxurious Seven Seas Voyager. The 700-guest (all-suite, all-balcony) ship will sail from Ft. Lauderdale to Reykjavik, Iceland, with stops in New York City, New England, and Canada. During those two weeks, there’s definitely no chance of going hungry: The ship boasts a restaurant (Signatures) operated by Paris-based Le Cordon Bleu. The revered culinary-hospitality school also conducts intimate, hands-on workshops (available for an added fee), mainly in classic French techniques with contemporary adaptations. In addition to three two-hour classes, students will partake of two exclusive dinners and a graduation ceremony.

From $6,194/person (double occupancy), includes all onboard meals and beverages, Le Cordon Bleu program, gratuities.

Music festival in Scandinavia
classical music festival on the high seas ... why not? This August, Hapag-Lloyd’s MS Europa is hosting the Ocean Sun Festival, a 13-day floating extravaganza with a roster of internationally acclaimed musicians, including Grammy-winning Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager and celebrated cellist Mischa Maisky (along with his daughter, Lily, a concert pianist).

Departing from Kiel, Germany, and sailing along the Scandinavian coast through breathtaking Norwegian fjords, the ship comes alive every night with concerts and lectures by music critics—all moderated by Holger Wemhoff, director of Germany’s popular Klassikradio. There will also be several exclusive concerts ashore in Norway, including a performance by the Bergen Philharmonic at Grieg Hall in Bergen, a piano recital of Edvard Grieg works in his hometown of Troldhaugen, and a finale concert in Oslo.

From $8,499/person (double occupancy), includes round-trip airfare from NYC to Hamburg, a hotel stay in Hamburg, onboard meals, nonalcoholic beverages, free minibar with drinks and snacks.

Greek Philosophy at the source
Known for in-depth explorations of arts and culture, the British tour purveyor Martin Randall is offering a dream trip for novice historians and philosophers this October: a 12-day Ancient Greek Philosophy tour aboard the 236-passenger MS Columbus. The trip is led by Richard Sorabji, emeritus professor of philosophy at King’s College London; a medical historian, a classicist, and two wine experts will deliver lectures as well.

Passengers will start in Istanbul and visit key sites, including Miletus, on Turkey’s Aegean coast, where philosophy is said to have begun in the sixth century BC; Athens; and the northern Greek region of Thrace. They’ll also island-hop through Kos, Samos, and Chios (with opportunities for guided hikes through the varied countryside if Plato isn’t your thing) and eventually return to Turkey to visit the ancient city of Pergamon. Back on board, passengers can attend lectures on modern Greek winemaking with plenty of sampling.

From $3,850/person (double occupancy), includes all meals, wine and beer, transfers, gratuities, visa costs.

Wine cruise through the south of France
Due to its immense popularity, Peter Deilmann’s nine-day Wine Lovers cruise, aboard the MV Princesse de Provence, will again set sail on the Saône River. Passengers will visit small family estates and larger vineyards in Burgundy and Provence, where they’ll experience expert-led wine classes and tastings. Participants can expect to tour a biodynamic vineyard, visit a local olive oil mill, and take part in an amazing tasting in the renowned Châteauneuf-du-Pape region. Five-course dinners, paired with local wines (for an additional fee), are served every night aboard the ship. For further explorations, there are 2-night pre- and post-trip land excursions in Bordeaux, Strasbourg, or Paris.

From $2,625/person (double occupancy), includes meals, nonalcoholic beverages at breakfast, daily excursions.

Southeast Asian adventure
Specializing in remote areas of the South Pacific, Orion, the ultraluxe Aussie cruise line, is adding two new Southeast Asia expeditions to its calendar. Our pick, The Gulf of Siam Explorer, comprises a Singapore-to-Vietnam cruise aboard the company’s eponymous vessel in late September, with stops at hidden islands in Malaysia (including Pulau Tioman, the stunning stand-in for the fictional Bali Hai in South Pacific), Thailand, and Cambodia. After a visit to the Cambodian temples of Angkor Wat, the 106-passenger MV Orion will sail up the Saigon River past floating markets and fishing boats and dock in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) for three days of exploration.

From $5,915/person (double occupancy), includes onboard meals, nonalcoholic beverages, planned expeditions.

Photography lessons in Antarctica
There are few experiences more breathtaking than watching the sun rise over the icy expanse of Antarctica — and fewer phenomena as difficult to photograph well. This fall, Abercrombie & Kent offers a 21-day cruise to Antarctica that all but guarantees good photos — a photography expert will be aboard to instruct guests through intensive seminars and one-on-one sessions.

Courses (both for beginners and intermediates) will focus on changing weather and light conditions and the basics of photographing wildlife. The 200-passenger Minerva departs November 22 from Buenos Aires and sails around Antarctica, the island of South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands. During frequent shore excursions, passengers will shoot pristine snow and breaking ice, dramatic austral sunrises and sunsets, seabirds in flight, and vast penguin colonies.

From $10,295/person (double occupancy), includes all onboard meals and beverages, guided expeditions, photography coaching, gratuities (save $1,000 per passenger by booking before March 31).

Black Sea Discovery
Mark your calendars: In June, Seabourn introduces the newest (and largest) member of its fleet, the 450-passenger Seabourn Odyssey. The first new luxury vessel to debut in six years, the Seabourn Odyssey will come with all sorts of perks, including a sprawling spa (11,400 square feet on two levels), oversize private balconies on the “grand suites,” and 100 new menu items from Charlie Palmer.

The ship’s 14-day maiden voyage in June is almost sold out, but there are still spots available on the 10-day Black Sea Discovery trip. Departing July 8 from Istanbul, the ship will visit lesser-known (and less crowded) ports such as Sochi, Russia; Batumi, Georgia; Odessa, Ukraine; and Varna, Bulgaria. Several options are available at an extra cost, such as guided excursions to Crimean battlefields or the Odessa catacombs.

From $7,871/person (double occupancy), includes onboard meals and beverages, unlimited neck massages on deck.

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