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Sea of choices

By 7:15 the first morning at sea, the gleaming chrome and glass Ship Shape Fitness Center on Voyager of the Seas was alive with passengers. They had all 20 treadmills going strong, the 13 elliptical machines in motion and most of the bikes spinning.

By 8 a.m., the Sunrise Stretch class was warming up. Dozens of people were using free weights, weight machines, stationary bikes and stair steppers, and my water aerobics class was ready to take the plunge.

This was not the stereotypical stuff-yourself-and-doze-on-the-deck-all-day kind of cruise -- unless, of course, that's what you wanted it to be. The agenda, part of Royal Caribbean's new Vitality program launched in April, includes more fitness and spa offerings, wholesome culinary options and endless activities both on board and in all the ports of call."I don't want to float and bloat," said Giselle Brabb, 72, who walked three miles (15 laps), around the open-air track on deck 12 every morning, starting at 6 a.m., during the seven-day cruise out of Galveston. "That and a little ab work and free weights are what I always do for exercise on cruises. At home, I go to the gym every other day, but I have to work harder here because I eat more," she said. "Besides, an early workout really gets you going in the morning."

It was Brabb's sixth cruise. She said all the ships she has been on in recent years have well-appointed fitness centers although smaller ships have smaller centers.

Voyager of the Seas is the first of Royal Caribbean's bigger ships. At 142,000 tons and built for 3,114 guests, Voyager was launched in 1999 with the first full-size skating rink and rock-climbing wall available at sea. The climbing wall is on the aft portion of deck 14, and stretches an additional 30 feet up into the sky. If you reach the top, you are 230 feet above the sea and have a breathtaking view -- I'm told. A brief rain shower one afternoon and gusty wind the evening a "Senior's Climb" was scheduled kept me off the wall. There were also a special "Teen Speed Climb" an "Adult Speed Climb" and an "Adult Fear Factor" climb.

You might have to wait 20 to 25 minutes, but equipment, including helmet, shoes and harness, is free. Climbers of all ages crawl up the wall two or three at a time.

The sports deck includes a serpentine in-line skating course with 3-foot-high padded walls; a basketball court also used for volleyball; pingpong tables; miniature golf; a virtual driving range (where golfers can practice their swings on famous courses from around the world); and a golf hitting cage. A full-service spa that offers acupuncture and teeth whitening as well as mud baths and massages is at the opposite end of the ship, on the uppermost foredeck.

Just below the spa is the fitness center, where you get a panoramic view of the ocean from all the treadmills that fan out around the starboard bow in front of floor-to-ceiling windows. All the exercise equipment in the fitness center was replaced in December with new Life Fitness machines.

Healthy lifestyles

None of the big ships cater exclusively to passengers eager to exercise and eat healthfully as they cruise, but the Vitality program encourages them.

"We are more into helping people change their lifestyles than ever before: the way they eat and exercise and think. Cleansing and detoxification have become very popular, and acupuncture," said Vivian Belbeck, the Voyager's spa and salon manager. "You are more able to reap the benefits of a spa when you have time to relax. It can be life-changing. Some people hire a personal trainer for an hour a day for the entire week."

Some passengers, like my 88-year-old mother and a group of her friends, booked through Fun & Fitness Travel Club, which also sponsors cruises to Alaska, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada/New England, Europe, Hawaii, the Panama Canal and South America. The organization has no dues or fees, no meetings and about 3,500 members who travel with their water exercise classes and certified instructors from home, as well as friends and family.

Our seven-night Western Caribbean cruise was organized by Jodi Bruce, a Fun & Fitness hostess who teaches 14 water aerobics classes a week in Wichita Falls; and Parney Hundhausen, who leads 13 classes a week in Spokane, Wash. They had exclusive use of the saltwater Solarium Pool for their early-morning water exercise classes. Fun & Fitness cruisers were encouraged -- not required -- to participate in the two-a-day classes or the fitness walking class that Hundhausen led. It's all voluntary, and on the last day of our trip, only 14 of the 27 traveling with Fun & Fitness got in the water, two of them for the first time all week.

"Like with any cruise, we want them to have fun and do exactly what they want to do, and that doesn't always include water aerobics or deck walking," Hundhausen says. "Traveling together with people they know from water exercise gives them a comfort zone: A lot of our water people are widows."

I had not planned to work out with the "water people" every day, but the chilly saltwater was a great wake-up, and because you can do water exercise at your own pace, it's easy to get your heartbeat up and even break a sweat running in place on warmer days.

Otherwise the Ship Shape Fitness Center opens at 6 a.m., and Belbeck says that by the time she gets on deck at 7:30 a.m., it's full of people. The sunrise stretch class usually has 30 health-conscious passengers or more.

"It fills up first thing in the morning, until about noon then fills back up between 3 and 6 p.m. It's very busy, especially days we are at sea. We get all ages in here," Belbeck says. "A lot of people are really into fitness or they haven't been in a bathing suit in months, and they see themselves in the mirror and get to this gym quick."

While I was on board, seminars were conducted on topics including "Secrets to a Flatter Stomach," "Detox for Health and Weight Loss," "Burn Fat Faster," "How To Increase Your Metabolism" and "Eat More To Weigh Less." There were poolside swimsuit contests for things like "Best Triceps" for women and "Best Belly Flops" for men.

The cruise line partners with New Balance to bolster the Vitality program with a virtual personal trainer to help guests create customized fitness regimens as well as post-vacation exercise plans.

You can get in a pretty good walk just strolling down the Royal Promenade, a big inside open area, four decks high and longer than a football field. It has the feel of an upscale shopping mall with sidewalk cafes, fine and costume jewelry stores, a pub, skin care and makeup shops, several lounges, liquor and souvenir shops and ice cream and coffee bars.


As for food, you have every option, whether you want to taste everything or follow a special diet based on allergies, weight goals or cholesterol control.

In the elegant main dining room, as well as the casual Windjammer Cafe, low-fat and vegetarian entrees are always available along with sugar-free, fat-free and vegan desserts. I felt a little foolish one night at dinner bragging about how rich and delicious my full-fat cheesecake was after tasting my daughter's fat-free version and realizing they tasted exactly alike. Ditto the sugar-free coconut cake, compared to regular. (I took one of each, and ended up eating both.)

As part of the Vitality program's "Eat More To Weigh Less" agenda, you can get a personal tour of the Windjammer Cafe, the cruise line's huge buffet restaurant, with an instructor who provides tips on healthier food choices and information on developing eating habits for lifelong health.

Wish I had known about that before I ate all those bulging, three-egg cheese omelets, biscuits and gravy, freshly baked rolls, hot-from-the-oven cookies, slices of pepperoni pizza and ice cream sundaes. OK, I admit, I did know better, but the food -- healthful and otherwise -- was wonderful.

My best advice is to take a complete walk around the buffet the first day, before you ever start filling your plate, so you see all the choices -- like egg-white omelets, turkey sausage, fat-free yogurt, an oatmeal bar with walnuts, raisins and dried apricots, three kinds of pizza (including veggie), sushi, all kinds of fresh fruit, huge salad bars that stayed fresh and tasty all day, low-fat and fat-free milk and a make-your-own-sandwich bar, where there are plenty of fixings without the cheese and mayo.

Or, you can mix up your healthful and sinful choices, like the woman in front of me in the omelet line one morning. She ordered "an egg-white omelet with everything, double the cheese," smiling brightly at the chef as she said, "I'm watching my cholesterol."

Of course, there were also barbecue, taco and Texas chili cookoff buffets around one of the three pools on various days.

It was good to learn that as of last year, Royal Caribbean replaced all the trans fat on its ships, with trans-fat-free oils, including olive and canola. The switch was made after testing the idea on passengers traveling on the Navigator of the Seas and finding that the majority either could taste no difference or liked the healthier-oil taste better, a ship spokeswoman said.

"This [healthy cruising] is really something that's catching on," said Randi Butcher, a 43-year-old health-conscious cruiser from Short Hills, N.J., whom we found in the fitness center the last evening of the cruise. She had worked out with weight machines six days and run 16 to 18 times around the deck two of the days we were at sea.

"And I took a stretching class," she added.

"I always work out at home, and I've been eating too much on the cruise so I can't stop now."

If you go

Getting there

Cruises embarking from Galveston are great for Metroplex travelers. Our seven-day cruise of the Western Caribbean departed at 4 p.m. one Sunday and returned at 8:30 a.m. the next Sunday, plenty of time for the five- to six-hour drive (320 miles) to and from Galveston. Add an extra $10 per day for parking on a nearby lot with free shuttle service.

Carnival and Royal Caribbean have ships departing every Sunday from Galveston for the popular seven-day cruises to Montego Bay, Jamaica; Georgetown, Grand Cayman; and Cozumel, Mexico. There are also three- and four-day excursions as well as 10-day and two-week cruises in the Caribbean.

Anytime is perfect for a cruise out of Galveston, but especially the late winter and early spring when warm, tropical winds greet you from the first morning out, even though strong winds can sometimes sweep you off your feet.

Tips: You can drive right up to the loading ramp at the cruise terminal, 2502 Harborside Drive, and drop off your bags. Make sure each has one of the special luggage tickets that include your name and room number, which should arrive in the mail weeks in advance. Drive to the nearby paved, lighted and fenced lot. Pay in advance (cash or credit card), and catch a shuttle for the short ride back to the terminal.

If you fly to Houston's Hobby Airport, you will need to rent a car or take a shuttle in Houston for the 50-mile drive to Galveston.. Expect to pay $35, one way, about $60 round-trip.


Cabins on this cruise ranged from $570 to $1,729, depending on size, location and how early you booked. (See a travel agent, go online or contact Fun & Fitness to see all the options.)

Extras: Spa services are pretty pricey ($100 to $120 for various 50-minute massages and $150 to $175 for acupuncture sessions), the interactive golf simulator is $25 an hour, and some fitness classes (Wheels in Motion, Pilates in Motion, Pathway to Yoga and Tai Chi) are an extra $10, but most other activities come with the cruise.

Both soft drinks and alcohol are extra. A single Corona beer sets you back $5, and the "Drink of the Day" -- things like Rum Runners and Bahama Papas and Ocean Ritas-- go for $5.95 or $8.95 in a plastic souvenir glass.

Shore excursions

Dozens of "Explorations," or tours, are available at every port, but they cost an extra $29 to $169 and they take time. It can be difficult to limit yourself to a couple, and your first choices may be filled when you go to sign up.

Tips: Watch out for the time it takes on a bus, van or other shuttle to get to where you can swim with dolphins or snorkel with stingrays. If it takes longer to get to the river where you want to go rafting than the raft ride itself, it might not be worth the effort. Ask questions before you sign up. Also, remember there are taxis and vans readily available at most ports to take you to beaches, shops, museums, churches and bars, and they are much less expensive than the packaged excursions. (Also you save time waiting for stragglers to fill the buses and you can leave when you want.)


Cruise passengers are required to have passports for travel to and from all international destinations, including the Caribbean and Mexico.

Once officially checked in, you can use your cabin key to get on and off the ship as well as in and out of your room and to pay for anything extra you want from a ship store or bar. It can also be used to pay tips at the end of the week. The "key" looks like a plastic credit card and is issued after all your passport information is recorded and an imprint is made of your credit or debit card.

Remember, a credit card or cash is required for all purchases and activities at the ports of call. (Some people get so used to using their cabin key for everything on board, they forget to take a credit card when they go ashore. No one at Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville is going to be interested in that card when it's time to pay for your cheeseburger in paradise.)

At some ports it is also recommended that you take along a photo ID, such as a driver's license, on shore excursions, but none was required anywhere we stopped. (Passports are best left locked in your cabin's safe.)

Tip: The most useful things we brought along were lightweight, billfold-size, flip-top containers sent out ahead of time by Fun & Fitness, but available at some sporting goods stores. The brightly colored plastic holders float and keep contents dry. Attached to cords worn around the neck, they have just enough room for your cabin key, a little cash and a credit card, if you plan to make any major purchases or book a shore excursion from anywhere other than the ship (where you use your cabin key).

More information

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