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A Cruise for People Who Don’t Like Cruises

(Note: Shortly after this post was published, Semester at Sea announced it would end its Enrichment Voyages program.)

Travelers who choose to cruise on their vacation do so for the very reasons that others loathe it: the enormous ships, formal dinners with assigned tables and scheduled meal times, Vegas-style shows, casinos, and the 24/7 all-you-can-eat smorgasbord that awaits once you board the pleasure-liner.

The SS Explorer in Puntarenas, Costa Rica.
The MV Explorer (left) docked next to a full-size passenger cruise ship in Puntarenas, Costa Rica.

But if the sea beckons and you long for an option to all the Carnival Cruises and Holland Americas dotting the horizon, you’re in luck: Enrichment Voyages are your seafaring salvation.

An offshoot of Semester at Sea, a study abroad program sponsored by the University of Virginia that offers undergraduates the opportunity to sail to multiple ports of call while earning college credit, the Enrichment Voyages program fills the gap between semesters and allows non-students of all ages to partake in a nautical voyage that includes a mix of adventure, philanthropy, and education. Where else can you meditate with a Buddhist monk in the morning, play bingo in the afternoon, and dine with a world-renowned dignitary in the evening — all while sailing through the Panama Canal?

Voyages concentrate on different regions of the world, with recent itineraries including ports of call throughout Central and South America and Europe. Although in-port time is often limited to a day, as is common on most cruises, the specialized field programs provide an opportunity to immerse yourself in a culture. Excursions range from helping to build a home for a Nicaraguan family, traveling by dugout canoe to visit the thatched homes of a remote Embera Indian village in Panama, and staying in a rural lodge as the guest of an indigenous family in Ecuador. For travelers looking for activities more on the beaten path, there’s also the standard fare, such as city tours, cooking classes, and visits to artisan markets.

A view from Machu Picchu, one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World"
Machu Picchu was one of the supplemental travel options during the December 2012 voyage.

Because the ship often travels to countries that passengers might not otherwise visit, itineraries are a sampling of a region, a chance to test out a country and see where you might like to return to explore further. Multiple-day excursions, which have included trips to the Galapagos and Machu Picchu, provide opportunities to check off items on your bucket list while also seeing more of a country.

On board the ship, travelers have their choice of classes ranging from Spanish to fine arts, lectures from ornithologists and historians, and yoga and meditation. Seafaring traditions such as the Neptune ceremony, which commemorates the crossing of the equator, are a particular favorite among passengers. The ceremony finds pollywogs (those making their first crossing) getting slimed by Neptune’s royal court, kissing a fish, and, for the daring, having their head shaved, all in the name of achieving the coveted title of shellback, the term bestowed upon seasoned equator-crossers.

The members of Neptune's Court, part of the equator-crossing tradition
The members of Neptune’s Court, who reign over the tradition of crossing the equator.

Nightly entertainment runs the gamut from magic shows to acts by entertainers from the ports of call, bringing some local flavor on board the ship. Special productions such as the crew and passenger talent shows foster the sense of shipboard community, and many return passengers often plan for their time in the limelight well before they set sail. Normally a quiet haven during the day, the Glazer Lounge transforms into a nightclub in the evenings, with themed dance nights and karaoke.

Manta, Ecuador orphanage Christmas event
Passengers had the option of volunteering at an orphanage in Manta, Ecuador, a few days before Christmas.

Prestigious keynote speakers enhance the educational atmosphere and provide an opportunity unique to other cruise lines. Past speakers include Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, social activist leader Julian Bond, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, who is also a member of Semester at Sea’s Board of Trustees. Because the speakers usually sail for the entirety of the voyage, it isn’t unusual to bump into them in casual settings, such as on the lunch line or in the shipboard library.

Julian Bond and the author ran into each other while in port in Cartagena, Colombia.

Special shipboard programs allow for passengers to delve into particular interests. Previous voyages have included a personal-growth workshop with Jairek Robbins (son of Tony Robbins), a travel writing and photography curriculum, and a book club with a focus on international themes, such as Carlos Fuentes’ Aura and Drown by Dominican author and Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz.

Because the ship, the MV Explorer, is smaller than most vessels of larger cruise lines, the atmosphere is more intimate, which is one of the reasons passengers cite for their return visits. Many travelers sail on multiple voyages, including as undergraduates in the Semester at Sea program, and look forward to getting back on the ship as much as they do exploring new countries. For many, the ship is a second home, and parents look forward to introducing their children to the program. Just as some families return to the same resort year after year, sailing with Enrichment Voyages often becomes a family tradition, one that is as educationally enriching as it is nostalgic.

Of course, there’s always the requisite pool and spa, should you require some vacationing on your vacation. Some folks prefer to kick up their heels on a deck chair, take a dip in the pool, or take advantage of shipboard amenities such as the gym or sauna. During the day, the piano bar plays host to bingo games and trivia contests, while at night, live entertainment provides a backdrop for conversation as guests mingle and sample the drink of the day.

Due to the fact that the ship’s main purpose is to act as a floating university, Enrichment Voyages are currently offered only twice a year between semesters, usually in May and December. Although the voyages tend to be longer than most people can take off from work, there are often opportunities to sail for partial voyages, giving travelers the flexibility to work around their personal schedules.

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