If you think boomers are taking a cruise for the buffet and the evening song-and-dance, think again. They crave activity, adventure and authenticity on both small yachts and mega ships and sailing among the fjords and islands of Alaska's Inside Passage and into some of the most exotic corners of the world.
"Boomers may not want to camp every night and scale mountains, but they definitely want to view wild bears, speak with residents of remote coastal villages, kayak in a quiet cove and walk in the rainforest and learn about it from a real scientist while they are standing in it," says Maureen Gordon, co-owner of Maple Leaf Adventures, which offers adventure cruises in British Columbia and Alaska.
In fact, boomers want choices and lots of them for a variety of experiences. They want to shop with the ship's chef at the local market, talk to the onboard naturalist about the indigenous flora and fauna, track Lewis and Clark and delve into intact wild areas. And they are getting these experiences and more on a number of cruise ships and sailing vessels.
Canada-based Maple Leaf Adventures offers natural and cultural history cruises aboard a classic 92-foot sailing ship, taking an intimate group of eight on each trip. A longtime practitioner of ecotourism, the company offers multi-day excursions to experience some of the most beautiful places on the B.C. and Alaska coast in a highly participatory and personal way and in the company of expert naturalists or historians, crew and chef.
Experiences are authentic to time and place and might include bear viewing by kayak with an expert guide; "extreme picnicking" on a culinary/craft beer tasting trip that involves hiking to a stunning vista over Gulf Islands National Park and a gourmet tasting picnic; climbing out on the bowsprit to be with dolphins who are surfing the schooner's bow wave; and paddling among seal pup-inhabited icebergs to watch (and hear) giant chunks of ice calve into the sea not to mention plucking your own chunk of crystal clear ice from the sea to take back to the ship and smash up for drinks.
"Certainly we find that people are interested in our trips because they can experience firsthand the wilderness and the sense of adventure that comes from exploring it with a personal guide," says Gordon. "But they can sleep on a comfortable bed with fluffy duvet at night after a fabulous chef-cooked meal and a good wine."
The onboard experience with Holland America Line's 15 cruise ships offer very topical enrichment opportunities, including a Culinary Arts Center program, presented by Food & Wine magazine, that lets guests indulge their love of fine food and drink while immersing themselves in traditions and tastes unique to their ship's ports of call. Not only that, they can meet top chefs from all over the globe while learning how to create gastronomic masterpieces and get a book signed by a culinary author.
The theatre-style venue with its state-of-the-art demonstration kitchen and large plasma video screens puts participants right in the middle of the action, with guests taking part in cooking demos and some joining the chefs on stage to help prepare dishes oh, and tasting wines representative of the ports on their itinerary. Salut!
The line's Digital Workshop powered by Windows (available on all ships except for the MS Prinsendam), promises "jargon-free" sessions led by a Microsoft-trained "techspert." Participants leave sessions editing cruise photos, turning photos and videos into a slide show and others with not only digital scrapbooking prowess, but the expertise to email the shipboard memories they're making to family and friends shoreside.
For boomers questing after lifelong learning experiences, Princess Cruises presents ScholarShip@Sea: learn ship navigation; scrapbooking; enrichment lectures covering topics from politics to theatre to science; and pottery painting - paint your own bowl or mug fired in onboard kilns a cruise industry first for a truly one-of-a-kind souvenir. On the Island Princess and Coral Princess, there's a wet-clay pottery program that includes specialized wheel-throwing classes.
But Princess isn't just about what's onboard. Shore tours in Alaska include whale watching, going for a ride on a dog sled, meeting professional mushers and flying over glaciers to see waterfalls. In Bora Bora, there's helmet diving underwater and off-roading to tour tropical fauna. Wending through the maze that is the Port Market with its hubbub of musicians and vendors is an adventure in Uruguay. And floating on Lac Rose (Pink Lake) is the sport of choice in Senegal.
InnerSea Discoveries recently launched two expedition ships embarking on "un-cruises" in Southeast Alaska (through September), specifically targeting active adventures. The ships carry between 60 and 76 guests, and hiking and kayaking are the main activities during the one- and two-week cruises.
"Our energy is focused on what's happening outside in the wilderness," says Sarah Scoltock, director of communications and business development. "The ships carry 28 double kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, dry suits, snorkeling gear and zodiacs."
This same company owns American Safari Cruises, a more upscale experience that takes 12 adventurers into the historic landscape shaped by the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Onboard expedition leaders guide excursions off the yacht and discuss the natural and cultural history of the area, Lewis and Clark's expedition and the locks and dams. A jet boat excursion in Hells Canyon and winery tours are included in the voyage.
"Active boomers want choices, but don't want to be too regimented or too scheduled," says Adrienne D'Annunzio, manager-corporate communications, at SeaDream Yacht Club. "They want unique experiences, not cookie cutter."
Aboard the laidback twin mega-yachts, SeaDream I and SeaDream II, which accommodate 112 guests, that's exactly what they'll get. Because of their intimate size, these vessels the only locations at sea to be certified members of the Thai Spa Association can call on many smaller, less crowded ports out of reach to big ships. Itineraries are designed for plenty of party time in the evening in ports like St. Bart's and St. Tropez.
The yachts have complimentary mountain bikes for guests to go exploring on their own and, while the company offers a selection of professionally guided tours in each port, it also offers complimentary crew-led hikes, bikes and walks like shopping with the chef in Sorrento, Italy. The water sports marina at the aft end of the yachts offers swimming, snorkeling, wave runners, kayaks and Hobie cats.
"We find it's all about personal choice," says D'Annunzio. "Active boomers want to decide just how active or how relaxed they'll be. Good service is very important and they want easy, hassle-free experiences."
Now, about those sharks . . .
Patric Douglas, founder and CEO of Shark Diver, pioneered mega yacht shark diving services at Isla Guadalupe in 2005 with the yacht M/Y Triton. An advocate for sharks and the shark diving industry, Douglas offers five- and eight-day live-aboard cruises featuring shark cage diving as the main draw.
"Believe it or not, 30 percent of our divers are boomers," says Douglas.
Expeditions head to Guadalupe in search of great white sharks and to the Bahamas to see tiger sharks, reef sharks and great hammerheads. Guests get to snorkel with spotted dolphins and participate in reef and wreck dives.
You can't get much more authentic than that but that's what boomers want: Authenticity, hands-on activities, personalized experiences and value, which doesn't necessarily mean a bottom line price.
Holland America Line, www.HollandAmerica.com
InnerSea Discoveries, www.InnerSeaDiscoveries.com
Maple Leaf Adventures, www.mapleleafadventures.com
Princess Cruises, www.Princess.com
SeaDream Yacht Club, www.SeaDream.com
Shark Diver, www.SharkDiver.com
Kathy Witt is a freelance writer and the author of "The Secret of the Belles," a historical novel the late Cammie King Conlon ("Bonnie Blue Butler") called "a beautiful read, and another amazing tribute to the phenomenon that is 'Gone With the Wind.'" Visit Kathy's website at www.KathyWitt.com and her blog at www.TravelinTales.com.