I've seen babies on cruises, and children, and teenagers both sulky and enthusiastic. I've encountered young couples on their honeymoon, and middle-aged couples who've escaped the kids to rediscover adults-only holidays. And certainly, I've shared dining tables and shore excursions with retirees: some hobbling about, some energetic as willows in a windstorm. I'll never forget the mischievous 93-year-old passenger on a Rhine cruise with a broken hip, a new third husband and a fondness for lime daiquiris.
Anyone of any age can enjoy a cruise, and the demographic is shifting as younger folk cotton on. Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) says 46 per cent of all cruise passengers are now under 50, with particular growth among millennials. CLIA's Plan a Cruise month runs all through October, encouraging travel agents to showcase cruise holidays to suit every style, budget and age. It's also the start of the peak cruise season in Australia and a time when many travellers turn their attention to booking northern hemisphere cruises for next year. Here are some ideas, no matter your physical – or mental – age.
For most children, it's all about the allure of the world's biggest ships, which pack in variety from ice skating to pirate parties, water parks to teen nightclubs. They also have expansive kids' clubs that allow suitably age-targeted activities such as science classes, dodgeball competitions, discos, puppet shows and cooking and make-up classes. The best cruise lines include Disney Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line – which has a circus workshop in which teens can learn to juggle and stilt walk – and Carnival Cruise Lines, which extends kids' activities into the evening with its Night Owl program.
OUR PICK Royal Caribbean International's 10-night New Zealand cruise between Melbourne and Sydney visits four New Zealand ports and scenic Milford, Dusky and Doubtful sounds. Four sea days provide the opportunity to enjoy Radiance of the Seas' youth and teen programs, Vitality Spa, poolside movie screenings and rock-climbing wall. There's also a nursery and programs for very young children. From $1358 pp, departs March 23, 2019. royalcaribbean.com.au
If you're tight on time, P&O Australia, RCI and Carnival ships homeported in Australia offer many short-break cruises and "cruises to nowhere" that are essentially relaxation or party breaks: a long weekend on the ocean. Carnival is often considered the best for a younger crowd thanks to great bars, live entertainment and pool parties. If you have a bigger budget and more adventurous spirit, consider small-ship expedition cruises with the likes of Lindblad Expeditions or Chimu Adventures, which emphasise active exploration in remote and polar destinations.
OUR PICK Celebrity Cruises' 10-night Great Barrier Reef cruise, round-trip from Sydney, visits Newcastle, Airlie Beach, Cairns and Brisbane, and cruises Willis Island on the reef on Celebrity Solstice, which is based in Sydney all summer. The ship tends towards younger, trendier, sophisticated couples looking not for wild parties, yet wanting suave bars, fine-dining restaurants and evening entertainment. The ship has a great spa and fitness centre. From $1783 pp, departs October 29, 2018. celebritycruises.com.au
Thirty-somethings with kids are well catered to on larger, family-friendly ocean ships, or will find themselves at home with the 20 or 40-year-olds depending on mind set. Until recently, however, young folk got little satisfaction from river cruises, almost exclusively the domain of retirees. That has changed with Uniworld's new U by Uniworld brand targeting solo travellers and couples in the 21 to 40-year-old range with two designated ships on the Seine and Rhine-Danube rivers. Guests can explore cities at night, enjoy mixology and yoga classes on board, and are offered flexible sightseeing options.
OUR PICK Uniworld's eight-night Rolling on the Rhine cruise between Amsterdam and Frankfurt has a cheerful quirkiness. Guests take a guided tour of Amsterdam's cocktail bars and red-light district, go sea kayaking and brewery-visiting in Haarlem, enjoy an evening out in Cologne and delve into Frankfurt's nightlife. The ship's outdoor deck has a rooftop lounge with local DJ guests. From $2499 pp, numerous departures between April and September 2018. ubyuniworld.com
This could be your decade to start exploring exotic river cruises (Amazon, Mekong, Irrawaddy) and more rugged expedition destinations such as Indonesia or the Russian Far East, or else tackling unusual cruises such as "proper" sailing on the masted ships of Star Clippers or Windstar Cruises. However, large cruise ships will still suit for all-round variety; many have adults-only areas if the vibe gets too youthful. If you've newly fallen into the singles category, Norwegian Cruise Line and Holland America Line are best for solo cabins; the latter has solo events such as cocktail parties.
OUR PICK While you're still limber enough to climb into a crow's nest and lie in a bowsprit net, try Star Clippers for a wind-driven sailing experience. A 10-night Havana to Cienfuegos cruise on Star Flyer will make you feel like a buccaneer in the trendy destination of the moment, Cuba. Snorkel and dive off cays and explore urban culture, architecture and history. From $4150 pp, departs January 17, 2018. starclippers.com
Given up on late night high-jinks, but still looking for active excursions and new adventures? Then you're at the age to pick and choose among expedition cruises from the likes of North Star Cruises, Heritage Expeditions and Ponant, or other small-ship cruises to interesting ports from companies such as Coral Expeditions, APT or Star Clippers. Many passengers in this age group also want to further their understanding of history and culture. Regent Seven Seas Cruises teams up with the Smithsonian Institution, Seabourn Cruise Line with UNESCO, while Cunard has an "Insights" on-board enrichment program.
OUR PICK If your children have gone and you're looking to get back to holidays free of rug-rats, then Viking Cruises has no passengers under 18 and exemplifies a culture-oriented, educational ethos. Its 15-day Trade Routes of the Middle Ages cruise between Barcelona and Bergen takes in 10 cities in seven countries, including Bruges, Porto and Granada. From $6695 pp, departs April 14 and June 16, 2018. vikingcruises.com.au
You're square amid cruising's traditional age-group, and you could board any ship and find like-minded contemporaries. European river cruises with companies such as Scenic, APT and Viking provide pretty landscapes, historical towns and cellar-door visits as well as the chance for independent, active exploration. On oceans, Cunard suits those who hanker for sedate style, Silversea and Ponant for luxury expeditions, Windstar Cruises for interesting itineraries under sail. Azamara Club Cruises ranks highly in this age group. Of large ships, consider Holland America Line and some of Princess Cruises' ships such as Pacific Princess.
OUR PICK For glamorous 60-somethings celebrating a special anniversary, Silversea's nine-day Barcelona to Civitavecchia (Rome) visits chic ports such as Monte Carlo, Saint Tropez and Ibiza, as well as interesting destinations Marseilles and Calvi in Corsica. Excursions explore Barcelona architecture, tour Palma de Mallorca's old town by bicycle, and unearth truffles and artworks in Tuscany. From $8865 pp, departs May 20, 2018. silversea.com
No reason to limit yourself: there are few unsuitable ships, and the age demographic on any ship can fluctuate with seasons (such as school holidays) and destination. As a general rule of thumb, the longer the cruise or the higher the fare, the older the passengers. Consider interesting small-ship lines such as Fred Olsen Cruise Lines and Noble Caledonia, or for top on-board dining, Silversea and Oceania Cruises. Research small-ship cruises carefully if you have mobility issues, since spaces can be cramped and tenders are often used to transfer passengers ashore. Celebrity Cruises has a strong emphasis on accessible shore excursions and coaches.
OUR PICK Regent Seven Seas Cruises' 25-night Rio de Janeiro to Los Angeles itinerary on Seven Seas Navigator is a corker, cruising Brazil and the Caribbean before transiting the Panama Canal and coasting along Central America and Mexico. Regent is known for its all-suite ships, quality dining and attentive service. It attracts a wide demographic but tends to retired, well-travelled professionals. From $12,610 pp, departs April 30, 2018. rssc.com
SPANNING THE AGES
Some cruise lines attract multi-generational families through better pricing, more varied shore excursions and on-board entertainment, more flexible dining times and menus, and kids' clubs divided into several targeted age groups. Many ships have interconnected or multi-bed cabins; Australia-based Carnival Spirit and Carnival Legend have a particularly big range. Such family-oriented ships also have adults-only zones that provide quieter lounge spaces, bars and pool areas, giving parents or grandparents the chance for "me" time.
The Pacific and Caribbean tend to be more child-friendly destinations. Larger ships are your best multigenerational option, as they have space for more age-specific activities and venues. Royal Caribbean International's ships pack in huge kids' zones and activities from Barbie at Sea to surf simulators, yet also feature evening entertainment for adults and an adults-only Solarium retreat.
Disney Cruise Line has the best facilities for kids, and leads in family-friendly shore excursions, yet also offers an adults-only pool, restaurant and nightclub. Princess Cruises, Carnival Cruise Lines and Norwegian Cruise Line also rank highly for their great multi-generational facilities.
OUR PICK Carnival Cruise Lines' 11-night Pacific Islands from Sydney cruise visits Vanuatu and New Caledonia, with shore excursions such as river canoeing in Santo, zip-lining and big-game fishing in Vila, and snorkelling off Mystery Island. Several sea days allow time for Carnival Spirit's high-energy, family-friendly activities and impressive kids' clubs. A casino, several bars and the Serenity retreat are adults only. From $1299 pp, departs March 6, 2018. carnival.com.au
Brian Johnston has travelled as a guest of many cruise lines.