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Best Cruises for Seniors

senior couple cruise shipAs someone whose first cruise was sailing with the Greeks to rescue Helen in the Trojan War ...

... well, maybe not quite that far back, but my first shipboard experiences were Atlantic crossings during the heyday of the "Golden Age" of ocean liners. My first trip to Europe was aboard SS Independence in 1962, and I returned home at the end of the summer on SS France. So I've been around long enough to be familiar with both ships and seniorhood.

So, what is it that we mature folks look for in a cruise? In the first place, we want what all other cruisers do: we like the ease of having most of the nuts-and-bolts travel details worked out for us; we like the idea of traveling to multiple destinations while unpacking only once; we appreciate top-notch pampering, service and excellent food; and we like the bang for our buck that cruising provides.

But there are a number of aspects that are higher priorities to us seniors than to our younger shipmates:

1. Itinerary choice has a greater degree of importance to us since we've already traveled to many destinations. (Jump to Best Ships for Itinerary Choice.)

2. Also important are the quality and quantity of enrichment programs available onboard to keep our brains active in retirement. (Jump to Best Ships for Enrichment Opportunities.)

3. Given that we are more likely to travel solo, and, ironically, more likely to travel in extended multigenerational family groups with decades separating the ages of youngest and oldest members, we prize ships with options for all types of travelers. (Jump to Best Ships for Onboard Activities.)

4. We may have mobility or health issues, so top-notch medical care and accessible ships are more likely to be high on our list. (Jump to Best Ships for Accessibility Issues.)

Photos: Nine Best Destinations to See from the Water

We'll examine all these issues and concerns, why each is important and which cruise lines/ships best address each one.

1. Best Ships for Itinerary Choice

Scenic Cruising
The Issue: For many of us, relaxing on deck, on our balconies or in observation lounges and watching incredible scenery pass right by our noses is a favorite aspect of cruising -- especially for those seniors who aren't as mobile as they once were. Others are still quite active and get off the ship at every opportunity but enjoy the moving panorama between shore experiences, as well. In either case, to satisfy both types of seniors, these scenic itineraries are best when situated close to shore so that the wildlife, edifices and natural beauty can be easily seen and enjoyed. No wonder Alaska, Norway's North Cape and river cruises are such popular scenic itineraries for seniors. Here, by region and type of ship, are our picks for cruises in places where scenery is king.

Best "Conventional" Cruises to Alaska: Princess Cruises (fleetwide) and Holland America (fleetwide)

Why: The ships of both lines feature high levels of comfort, service and personal attention. More importantly, these two lines were the mainstream pioneers of the Alaska market. Their historic connections give them clout in securing coveted permits to enter Glacier Bay National Park, and a higher percentage of their sailings include this iconic locale. (There is no such thing as bad scenery in Alaska, but Glacier Bay is the Platinum Standard, and not every cruise goes there.)

Additionally, for those wishing to extend their cruises with land-based tours, these two lines have an advantage over the competition in that, for the Alaska Railroad segments, they each have their own domed observation cars that are superior to the ones owned by the rail line. (The Alaska Railroad cars have domes that stretch only part of the length of the cars, so only a portion of the passengers can ride in the upper-level observation dome; the cruise line-owned cars have top levels that extend the entire length of the cars so that all passengers can ride up top.)

Best "Expedition" Cruises to Alaska: American Safari Cruises' Safari Explorer

Why: For more active seniors who crave closer encounters with the wilds of Alaska, this 36-passenger, naturalist-led luxury cruise will not only give you an incredible up-close-and-personal interaction with glaciers and wildlife, but it will do it with pampering and panache. Fares are not cheap, but the cruise is nearly all-inclusive, offering twice-daily jaunts by Zodiac right up to the faces of calving glaciers and salmon-fishing bears. Of course, climbing out of the Zodiac onto the ship's aft platform and being greeted by a steward with cups of hot chocolate -- spiked with Godiva Liqueur or Peppermint Schnapps -- is an endearing plus. Onboard cuisine relies heavily on the freshest locally procured meats and seafood, meals are communal, and a great sense of camaraderie quickly develops among passengers, naturalists and crew.

Six Reasons You'll Love an Expedition Cruise

Best Scenic Cruises to the North Cape (Norwegian Fjords): Hurtigruten (any ship sailing the Coastal Voyage route)

Why: Hurtigruten used to be known as Norwegian Coastal Voyage, and the line has native familiarity with Norway, its people and its "fjord-scape." We especially like the style and itinerary specifics of these sailings. Hurtigruten ships are a combination of cruise ship, car ferry, mail ship and cargo carrier. On a typical one-week cruise, passengers can expect to make more than 35 port calls as the ship wends its way up and down the most scenic and remote fjords, picking up and dropping off motorists, packages, mail and point-to-point passengers at tiny towns and villages seldom reached by other forms of transportation. While the "ferry" passengers do not have sleeping accommodations, full-fledged cruise passengers will find cabins and amenities much like those on conventional ships.

Since the ships are constantly going in and out of port, there is ample opportunity to view the dramatic scenery and take a gander at rural Scandinavian life up close. Hurtigruten also has a unique system of shore excursions, where you disembark at one town's pier, take a tour and meet up with the ship four hours and three port calls later!

Best Cruises For Scenic River Cruising: AMAWATERWAYS' AmaBella

Why: Having a wide-open vantage point is key to a successful scenic river cruising experience. Given that these ships sail nearly year-round, getting that great perspective from an outside deck is often not the best solution, especially in the middle of a European winter. Instead, you'll want to have a great point of view from your own cabin, and that's why we recommend AmaBella. Eighty-two percent of the staterooms on these ships have French balconies with floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass doors, and some cabins even have true balconies. We also applaud AMA's creative itineraries, especially extended cruisetours like the monthlong one between Paris and Istanbul -- a sort of land-and-waterway version of the Orient Express. (Of course, who but a retired senior could spare a month for vacation travel?) We also like AMA's variety of regional offerings, such as Asia, Russia and Africa.

Exotic Cruising
The Issue: We've been cruising long enough to have hit just about every major port of call on the planet, so come up with a new itinerary, and we're all over it. Asia and underexplored islands near both poles lead the way.

orion cruises kimberley australiaBest Cruises to Exotic Destinations: Orion Expedition Cruises' Orion

Why: Based in Australia, Orion does the Southwestern Pacific better than anybody. Sure, plenty of cruise lines go to Australia and New Zealand, but Orion will take you to destinations you hardly knew existed: the Kimberley (extreme Northwest Australia) and its bizarre Horizontal Waterfalls of Talbot Bay, the Islands of the Torres Straits, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand's sub-Antarctic Islands, and the McMurdo Sound and Ross Sea regions of the far western edge of the Antarctic continent.

What we most like about Orion is that it provides these incredible explorations with style and luxury. One nice touch is the dedicated mud room, where passengers returning from a trek across the Antarctic snowpack and rocky shoreline can be comfortably seated at dedicated boot-washing stations and step out squeaky clean without lifting a finger. The food is excellent, with fresh local seafood taking a starring role. (Don't miss the barramundi [fish] or Tasmanian oysters.) The naturalist exploration leaders are knowledgeable and personable, and the spa services, though limited in number, are superior in quality.

2. Best Ships for Enrichment Opportunities

The Issue: In large numbers, we seek more from our days at sea than a comfy chaise and a drink with an umbrella. The reason is simple: nothing makes us feel younger than learning a new skill, gaining knowledge or even perfecting a dance step. In fact, many scientists believe that the brain is like a muscle, and challenging it keeps it tuned up.

Best Premium Cruises for Onboard Enrichment: Princess Cruises (Grand class) and Celebrity Cruises (Solstice class)

Why Princess: Princess has an established multidiscipline enrichment program, dubbed ScholarShip@Sea, that draws praise for the sheer number of choices offered, averaging 20 courses per sailing, ranging from culinary arts to photography classes. Computer classes include Photoshop, HTML and Web design, as well as lessons on fine-tuning your digital photography skills. Passengers can embrace their craftiness with paint-your-own-pottery workshops, where they can paint pre-molded clay blanks that are subsequently fired in an onboard kiln. Beyond enrichment, other ship highlights include nightly pasta selections at dinner and Movies Under the Stars, Princess' pioneering Jumbotron-sized poolside screens.

celebrity iloungeWhy Celebrity: Celebrity partners with great movers and shakers in various fields to impart knowledge to the ships' passengers. Celebrity has teamed up with Apple to offer a number of onboard courses in using computers, iPhones and iPads. Another partnership with Rosetta Stone lets passengers study foreign languages during their cruises. Celebrity Solstice and Equinox feature the Hot Glass Experience, a live demonstration of museum-quality glass-blowing by experts from the Corning Glass Museum; demonstrations take place several times daily.

Oenophiles are hardly neglected, with nightly samplings in Galleria Tastings, a dedicated tasting room at sea. The Solstice-class ships are also known for the Lawn Club, an expanse of real grass on the ships' top decks, and for having one of the best selections of alternative dining we've experienced.

Eight Tours for People Who Don't Like Tours

Best Luxury Cruises for Onboard Enrichment: Crystal Cruises (fleetwide)

Why: Crystal is known for managing the seemingly impossible -- creating in a large ship a quality of service, cuisine and amenities on a level one would expect only from small, boutique-class vessels. For that reason, it attracts numerous affluent senior passengers who dislike dress codes and set dinner seatings but still insist on the very best on their cruises. Catering to this mature crowd, Crystal offers the Creative Learning Institute, with wide-ranging fields of study, from acting workshops and Berlitz language courses to Yamaha music lessons and a "Computer University."

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