By Editor, CruiseCritic.com
updated 3/30/2005 2:25:31 PM ET 2005-03-30T19:25:31

Let's face it. Much of what cruise lines, which have pretty much finalized their 2005 itineraries (with the exception of Royal Caribbean and Celebrity), will be offering next year is pretty predictable.

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The 2004/2005 winter season will feature the usual bountiful variety in the Caribbean (not just during cold weather months but on a year-round basis). Same goes for summer in Alaska. And cruise lines continue to strengthen offerings in Europe's Mediterranean (particularly the Western Med.), transferring bigger, newer vessels to the region.

Another area of growth is the "homeland-home port" strategy, in which cruise lines establish seasonal or year-round bases along the coast of the continental U.S.; for next year it's not just the ferreting out of new options (such as Mobile, Jacksonville and Baltimore) but also an expanded range of itineraries -- and longer seasons -- in regional ports of embarkation.

Intrigued more by what's new and different, Cruise Critic's itinerary experts have culled cruise lines' 2005 itinerary plans, and here's what we've found that's hot (and, er, what's not).

Northern Europe & the British Isles suffer a bit of a blow -- cruise lines like NCL and Windstar are pulling out of Northern Europe altogether next summer. Others, ranging from Oceania to Radisson Seven Seas, say that the British Isles, whose itineraries typically sail between London and Copenhagen with stops in Scotland and Ireland, isn't as hot as it used to be. They're still offering voyages -- but there's less variety than in prior years.

And Yet: even as some cruise lines abandon Northern Europe entirely, look for an increase in exotic itineraries in that region. Iceland and Greenland are hot -- and are "star" ports of call (as opposed to transatlantic stops) on, for instance, a handful of voyages on Radisson Seven Seas and Silversea cruises. Targeting another part of northernmost Europe entirely is one of 2005's most interesting voyages of all -- Silversea's "White Sea" expedition, which starts in Copenhagen, cruises north among the Norwegian fjords, connects to the White Sea, visits northern Russian ports like Murmansk, and then heads south again via the Berents Sea and the Norwegian seas. Another intriguing option is RSSC's 56-night Northern Europe trip that roundtrips from...New York. Another intriguing fresh development that's gaining ground for some cruise lines is Baltic itineraries, due to the welcoming of some Eastern European countries into the European Union. In particular, look for cruise lines to increasingly offer stops at such destinations as Tallinn (Estonia) and Riga (Latvia).

Also, Carnival will be assigning it's still-being-built Carnival Liberty in Europe. Summer and early-fall sailings will run 12 nights, unusually long for Carnival which specializes in shorter voyages, and call in Naples, Dubrovnik, Messina, Barcelona, Cannes, Livorno (Florence/Pisa) and Venice. Following the European voyages will be a 16-night trans-Atlantic crossing.

The Mexican Riviera, already hot-and-growing in 2004, gets a big boost from Disney, which will deploy its Disney Magic there next year for a series of first-ever West Coast-based voyages (the ship will also offer inaugural east- and west-bound Panama Canal sailings).

Bermuda gets its first megaship. Royal Caribbean will deploy Voyager of the Seas next summer to Bermuda, which has long been notoriously diffident about welcoming larger cruise vessels.

River cruising along European and Asian waterways continues to occupy a small -- but growing -- niche as operators debut new vessels and offer ever-more-unique itineraries (Avalon Waterways' Black Sea Budapest-to-Bucharest, for instance).

Windstar, which has for more than a decade offered pretty near consecutive schedules of Tahiti-based cruises, is pulling Wind Star out of the region (that ship will focus on Central America in cold weather months, Europe in warm). That leaves cruisers with just two year-round choices in French Polynesia: RSSC's Paul Gauguin and Princess' Tahitian Princess.

Beyond these trendoids, highlights in 2005 may very well include:

The introduction -- at last -- of NCL's much delayed Pride of America. That ship, the first Hawaiian-oriented newbuild in 40 years, was seriously flooded while docked at its European shipyard this past winter. The slated July 2004 inauguration will be delayed by at least a year.

As 2004 represents the last year -- for a while -- that cruise lines have and will inaugurate new ships at near-record pace, 2005 is eerily quiet. There are only three scheduled debuts -- P&O's Arcadia; Carnival's Carnival Liberty; and an as-yet-unnamed NCL ship. Add to that list Oceania Cruises' Nautica which, while not a brand new ship, is joining the fleet in May 2005.

Oceania Cruises is introducing its first-ever South American itineraries. This is good news for fans of smaller ships as operated by luxury lines -- at a bigger ship price point.

In the Caribbean, there's not a whole lot of new news aside from the fact that St. Croix, one of the three "major" U.S. Virgin Islands, is back on at least one cruise line's radar. MSC Italian Cruises will include calls at St. Croix on winter itineraries. The island, genuinely one of the Caribbean's most intriguing, with a fabulous mix of historic villages, gorgeous beaches, and world-renowned scuba diving and snorkeling, could use the help -- in the past few years it lost all of its cruise calls due to concerns over the impact of crime on visitors.

And, finally, last but not least? Princess Cruises, already a pathfinder in the Alaska land-to-sea cruise-vacation arena, is launching a new program. "Direct to the Wilderness" enables travelers to board private rail cars at Whittier, which then head to the Denali Princess or Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodges.

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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