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Uniworld has a new cruise itinerary featuring onboard wellness activities such as yoga and TRX.Uniworld

One of cruising’s most enduring stereotypes is the idea of excess: big ships, big buffets and big indulgence – the kind of vacation that pretty much ensures your pants will be tight upon return. I can recall sailings past where, by around Day 4, I had reached such a level of overstuffed relaxation that I found it challenging to rouse my bathrobed self in order to open the door when a butler arrived with more Champagne.

But a contrary trend has emerged: Cruise lines are enhancing the wellness offerings – from dedicated spa suites and specialized menus to enclosed running tracks and onshore biking itineraries.

This year, Uniworld is launching its first wellness-dedicated itinerary – with an emphasis on yoga and meditation, along with healthier dining options such as smoothies and zucchini noodles – sailing the Ganges River from Delhi to Calcutta. Seabourn has launched Spa & Wellness with Dr. Andrew Weil, a fleet-wide program with a focus on mindfulness. And Avalon has introduced an “Avalon Fresh” logo to indicate healthy, vegetarian dishes tied to local ingredients.

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Uniworld's Ganges Voyager II sails from Delhi to Calcutta.Uniworld

At the extreme end is Blue World Voyages – a cruise line entirely dedicated to wellness at sea that is set to launch later this year. Self-described as “the first company in the global cruise industry fully dedicated to active, athletic, healthy lifestyles,” Blue World will sail three small ships, each featuring a sports deck with batting cages and spinning facilities, a seawater lap pool and a bow-to-stern spa deck. The company says that ports of call will be selected based on the availability of healthy activities such as cycling, hiking, golf and water sports or areas conducive to yoga and meditation.

“Some ships have great facilities, but they’re only used by a tiny fraction of the guests onboard,” says Gene Meehan, chairman of Blue World Voyages. “Every week, we’re going to gather 350 like-minded people. It’s our sole focus.”

This development in the cruising world is related to a bigger global wellness travel boom. Increasingly, travellers are looking to either maintain fitness routines on their vacations, or to use getaways as an opportunity to kick start healthier habits. The Global Wellness Institute reports that wellness tourism is a US$600-billion business. It’s been elbowing its way into our lives for decades and has finally exploded. “Back in the 1990s, when destination spas like Canyon Ranch got popular, everyone decided they needed a spa, which seemed crazy, but now you can’t even open a Days Inn without a fitness facility,” says Diane Trieste, vice-president of wellness for Blue World.

But it’s also about the continued diversification of the behemoth – and growing – cruising industry, which is increasingly filling any available niche in an attempt to woo people convinced they’re “not cruise people.”

“[The industry] wants to show people that it isn’t what you think it is – it’s not the Love Boat, it’s not you’re father’s cruise,” says Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor of the website Cruise Critic. “It’s about being active, it’s about experiences, and it’s about top-tier food with top chefs. I think the sky is the limit. If you can do it on land, people will probably pay to do it on a cruise ship.”

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AmaWaterways offers a fleet of complimentary bikes to help travellers explore ports of call.AmaWaterways

River cruises have long featured more active itineraries, enriching both land and sea offerings, but even they are upping their game. AmaWaterways now offers a minimum of three biking and two hiking tours on most itineraries. This year, for the first time, almost every European ship will include a “wellness host” to help guests set and achieve any fitness goals, including classes such as resistance band training, core strengthening and Pilates. “I believe so strongly in the importance of integrating regular exercise and healthy eating into our day-to-day lives, and it shouldn’t stop while on vacation,” says Kristin Karst, executive vice-president and co-owner of AmaWaterways.

Other cruise lines are moving toward broader conceptions of physical and mental health. Windstar offers visits to spiritual homes, such as Buddhist temples in a bid to help passengers to attain inner peace. And Oceania’s Wellness Tours include visiting thermal baths, practising tai chi in the French countryside and trying out laughter therapy.

Food, has, of course, been central to expanded wellness programming. Across the board, cruise lines are rolling out cold-pressed juices, lighter options and asterisks on menus that connote certain dietary exclusions, such as dairy or wheat.

In one popular wellness-adjacent trend, ships are introducing farm-to-table menus and activities. Silversea offers dedicated culinary and wine voyages, which include market-to-plate dinners in certain ports and shore excursions that focus on a region’s culinary and wine offerings. Viking offers chef-led cooking classes that start with shopping for ingredients in a market. And Holland America is offering actual farm visits in places such as Honduras, where you can milk cows and pet baby calves before an al fresco dining experience.

If that kind of programming seems at odds with more punitive fitness and diet regimens of yesteryears, that’s sort of the point. The cruising industry is buying into an incredibly wide and holistic definition of wellness. And while spa spaces are still de rigueur, they have also changed dramatically from simple massages and sugar scrubs. Ships now routinely offer acupuncture and even light cosmetic procedures, and some are venturing into more “out there” programming such as crystal sound therapy.

In order to fortify wellness offerings, some cruise lines are turning to with onshore brands. MSC Cruises has partnered with Technogym to help customize on-ship fitness programs and menus. Famed spa Canyon Ranch now operates several spas at sea – including on Cunard and Regent Seven Seas ships – and even sets separate healthy dining options. And highly niche cruises have proliferated, including Weight Watchers sailings that offers its signature points-based eating plan and one-on-one coaching sessions.

Of course, some passengers might want to do both sunrise yoga and hit a dessert buffet – so most cruise lines are trying to strike a balance between healthy and indulgent options. While some guests will always perceive their cruise as a vacation from moderation and an excuse to lie prone on the pool deck with a steady stream of pina coladas, the idea of choice and balance – that cruising is ultimately a highly customizable experience–is exactly what the industry is going for.

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