Audrey Ribarich had been on over 20 cruises, including ones through the Mediterranean, along the Alaskan coast and down the Rhine. Though she loved the idea of again setting sail, she was bored with standard offerings she found. So when Ribarich, a 58-year-old motorcycle enthusiast, heard about a cruise for bikers, she perked up.
"I was tired of the same old cruise scene," she says. "This one seemed like a unique kind of trip, since it was for motorcycle nuts like me."
She and her husband, also a rider, took the seven-day cruise called Hogs on the High Seas through the Caribbean last year. In between stops at Grand Cayman, Ocho Rios in Jamaica and Cozumel, they dressed in leather pants and vests along with 1,500 other riders, participated in contests to win $250,000 worth of motorcycle accessories, and viewed an onboard exhibit of 20 new bikes.
Ribrach's is one of a growing number of niche cruises catering to travelers seeking more than a week's worth of buffet dinners, shuffleboard and crowded casinos.
"There is a greater awareness overall today about cruising," says Terry L. Dale, president and CEO of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a trade organization. "With that awareness comes a rise in niche and uniquely themed cruises."
According to CLIA, 12.5 million passengers worldwide took a cruise in 2006. This is an increase from 8.65 million passengers in 2002.
As the cruising industry grows, experts say that it increasingly lends itself to themed trips.
Geek Cruises, for instance, a niche cruise company in Palo Alto, Calif., this year is running eight themed cruises, including one for chess players and another for Shakespeare fans. Neil Bauman, owner of the company, says his revenue has increased 50 percent each year for the last three years.
Carnival Cruises is also increasing its number of themed itineraries.
"We're finding that cruise customers are willing to go on specifically targeted trips around their interests, and we've seen a lot of growth in the area," says Vance Gulliksen, public relations manager for the cruise line.
Carnival has cruises with a Christian theme, a health and wellness theme, and several with sports themes, such as one with members of the Detroit Tigers.
King Of Cruises
One of its most unusual offerings is a four-night Elvis Tribute Cruise, which was held this summer for the first time. The second cruise will take place next August and will sail from New Orleans to Cozumel.
The ship becomes a floating Graceland for 2,000 Elvis devotees. Jerry Schilling, described as having been Elvis' best friend, is host. The trip recreates five of the King's favorite performance venues — including Memphis, Las Vegas and Hawaii — and features Q&A sessions with 28 artists who have worked with him.
Cutouts of Elvis are all over the ship, a movie theater plays Elvis flicks all day long and there's a contest for the best Elvis impersonation by a passenger. Each afternoon from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., the ship has a breakfast bar, since that's when the King woke up and ate his first meal of the day.
If you're a creative type, you might enjoy the Great Balls of Yarn Knitting Cruise, an eight-day trip sailing in February 2008 through Belize and Honduras. It was started two years ago by Robin Turner, owner of a chain of knitting stores in Florida called Great Balls of Yarn. The journey brings together 100 knitting enthusiasts, along with a prominent figure in the knitting world. Next year, Lily Chin who is the author of several knitting books will be the guest. During the two days when the ship is at sea, Chin will teach six-hour knitting workshops on technique.
Turner also has a staff of five onboard who assist novices and arrange meeting spots throughout the ship for different levels of knitters. Guests learn how to make a different kind of garment each day. There are also two cocktail parties cum yarn sales.
Many niche trips take place as subsets of larger, conventional cruises offered by Royal Caribbean, Holland America or Norwegian. The Great Balls of Yarn cruise, for example, is part of a Norwegian cruise that accommodates 2,000 passengers. Sometimes, however, groups take over a whole ship.
That's the case if you take a cruise with Bare Necessities, a company that offers clothing-optional travel. It charters an entire ship for three sailings a year. A May 2008 trip for 172 nudists will spend two weeks in the South Pacific. Though nudity isn't mandatory, a company representative says that 95 percent of clients choose to cruise in the buff. Activities such as yoga classes, scuba diving and snorkeling are all done in the nude. (Gentlemen, be careful handling those lobsters!) The only place clothes are required is in the dining room, for hygiene.
Pricewise, unique cruises can vary depending on the kind of ship you're on, the level of room you book and the surcharge for the special theme. For example, Hogs on the High Seas takes place on Royal Caribbean. Staying in an inner stateroom costs $1,734 for two people. Book the Royal Suite with a balcony, and the price jumps to $8,400.
With offbeat offerings such as these, "snooze" and "cruise" no longer need be synonymous.