The 20 amazing new big and small ships set to change cruising forever

A decade is a long time in cruising. In 2007 about half a dozen new cruise ships were launched, while next year twice as many major new ocean-going ships will set sail – two of them carrying more than 4000 passengers each. It's not just the size of ships that has changed so drastically – the modern megaship sports features that weren't even dreamed of 10 years ago.

Who would have dared to imagine we could go skydiving, race cars or hurtle down a 10-storey waterslide – on a ship? As cruising captures the imagination of ever-increasing numbers of people worldwide, including in rapidly emerging markets such as China, the industry is responding to the demand for more diversity.

Just as some ships are becoming even more like floating towns, or even cities, small, mid-size, luxury and luxury-adventure ships are being built and refurbished at the proverbial rate of knots. And river cruising continues to attract vast numbers of new and repeat guests.

Although Viking's prolific output of ships is reducing to a trickle in 2017, the waterways of Europe and south-east Asia will see at least 10 new vessels from small and large river cruise lines arriving next year. Cruise lines are also on notice to produce more environmentally friendly vessels. Advances in the design of propulsion systems, cleaner fuel and reductions in weight have resulted in ships that consume less fuel; three new giant Carnival Corporation ships powered by LNG are due to launch by 2022.

Steve Odell, chairman of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Australasia, believes cruising can continue to expand even further. "The potential is as vast as the world's oceans," he says. "While more than 23 million people took a cruise globally last year, that's just a fraction of the world's population.

"In Australia more than 1 million people cruised in 2015, about 4.5 per cent of the population. That's actually the highest market penetration rate of any cruise market in the world, which is impressive for a country our size. But it also means that there's another 95.5 per cent of the population that didn't take a cruise – so we think there's a lot more room for growth."

Here's a look at ships that are changing the face of cruising.

1. THE SHIP Royal Caribbean's Ovation of the Seas

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The skydiving simulator on Royal Caribbean's Ovation of the Seas. Photo: Dan Welldon Photography

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER Launched in April 2016, the 4180-passenger Ovation is the latest Quantum-class ship and will be the newest, biggest, most advanced ship to sail in Australian waters.

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FEATURES Skydiving and surf simulators, North Star viewing capsule, spectacular Two70 entertainment venue, Seaplex activity space, 21 restaurants and cafes, solo, "virtual balcony" and family cabins.

ESSENTIALS Ovation will cruise from Sydney, December 6 to February 20, 2017, returning to Sydney from Singapore December 7, 2017 until March 26, 2018. See www.royalcaribbean.com.au 

2. THE SHIP Viking Ocean Cruises' Viking Sun

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER The world's newest cruise line's newest (fourth) ship will set sail from Miami on a world cruise in December 2017, visiting Australia and New Zealand en route.

The Viking Ocean fleet of 930-passenger, all-balcony ships are designed for discerning, adult travellers, who prefer small-scale vessels, low-key entertainment and cultural activities.

FEATURES Contemporary Scandinavian decor; shore excursions, wine and beer with meals and spa access are included in fares.

ESSENTIALS Viking Star, Sky, Sea and Sun cruise in the Mediterranean, Baltic, Caribbean and northern Europe. See www.vikingcruises.com.au

3. THE SHIP Carnival Cruise Line's Carnival Vista

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Water works: Carnival Cruise Line's Carnival Vista. Photo: Andy Newman

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER The Caribbean-based Vista is the first new ship for CCL's 25-strong fleet since 2012; it's the biggest (3954 passengers) and has the most outdoor eating and seating space. A sister ship, Carnival Horizon, is scheduled for March 2018.

FEATURES Aerial cycling, waterslides and ropes course, first IMAX theatre at sea, Red Frog brewery, family-friendly accommodation.

ESSENTIALS Carnival Vista sails six to eight-night Caribbean cruises from Miami year-round. See www.carnival.com.au

4. THE SHIP Scenic's Scenic Eclipse

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Scenic Eclipse Sub and Zodiacs. Photo: Supplied

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER Cruising Antarctica, the Arctic, Mediterranean, northern Europe, the Americas, the 228-passenger luxury adventure "discovery yacht" is a first for the Australian river-cruise company.

FEATURES Two onboard helicopters, seven-seat submarine, snorkelling and scuba equipment, kayaks, e-bikes, indoor/outdoor pool, spa, six dining venues, all-balcony cabins; fares include gratuities, Wi-Fi, unlimited drinks and self-service laundry.

ESSENTIALS Scenic Eclipse will embark on its maiden voyage from Istanbul to Venice on August 31, 2018. See www.scenic.com.au.

5. THE SHIP Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Jewel

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Norwegian Jewel in Juneau, Alaska. Photo: Peter Spartin

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER When Jewel arrives in Australia in 2017, it will mark the first time NCL has sent a ship Down Under for a cruise season.

FEATURES The 2376-passenger Jewel, cruising the Mexican Riviera, Australia and Asia, has 15 bars and lounges, 16 dining venues, two pools and exclusive "ship within a ship" accommodation and facilities in The Haven.

ESSENTIALS Jewel will offer 15 cruises around Australia and New Zealand between November 12, 2017 and February 20, 2018, when it repositions to Singapore. See www.norwegiancruiseline.com.au

6. THE SHIP P&O Cruises' Pacific Explorer

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER The 1998-passenger ship will be the Australia-based line's biggest to date, until its first new build, with capacity for 4200 passengers, arrives in 2019.

FEATURES Barefoot bowls green, two waterslides, an aquapark, design and dining similar to those on Pacific Aria and Eden.

ESSENTIALS Pacific Explorer's first cruise departs Sydney on June 22, 2017 for the Pacific Islands; it will sail itineraries ranging from three to 12 nights. See www.pocruises.com.au

7. THE SHIP Ponant's L'Austral

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER In July 2017, the 264-passenger ship will cruise the Kimberley for the first time. Ponant is building four more new luxury expedition vessels, boasting the world's first underwater viewing lounges; the first two will launch in 2018.

FEATURES Stylish, contemporary interiors; 95 per cent of staterooms have a private balcony; pool, spa, three bars, three dining options, library, theatre.

ESSENTIALS L'Austral, which with its three identical fleet mates sail all over the world, will sail three 10-night Kimberley itineraries between July and September. See www.au.ponant.com

8. THE SHIP MSC Cruises' MSC Meraviglia

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER MSC Meraviglia, which sails the Mediterranean, will carry more passengers (5700) than any other ship and is the biggest ever built by a European cruise line.

FEATURES Exclusive Cirque du Soleil shows; fleet's largest private MSC Yacht Club; family-friendly connecting cabin configurations.

ESSENTIALS MSC Meraviglia will sail one to eight-night Mediterranean itineraries from June 2017. See www.msccruises.com

9. THE SHIP Crystal Cruises' Crystal Esprit

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER The 62-passenger Esprit, which cruises the Seychelles, Arabian Peninsula and Adriatic, is the forerunner of Crystal's new adventure yacht, Crystal Endeavor, which will debut in August 2018.

FEATURES Three-seater submarine; four dining options; two bars; hands-on We Care You Care volunteer program; all-inclusive fares.

ESSENTIALS Crystal Esprit cruises out of Dubai from December 2016 to January 2017, then returns to the Seychelles until March. See www.crystalcruises.com

10. THE SHIP Seabourn's Seabourn Encore

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Seabourn Encore: The Retreat. Photo: Supplied

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER Encore will be the youngest, most luxurious ship to grace local waters.

FEATURES The elegant 604-guest ship is slightly larger than its three Odyssey-class sisters; it will have an extra deck, all-balcony suites, an aft watersports marina and new restaurants.

ESSENTIALS After its christening in Singapore in January 2017, Seabourn Encore will head to Australia for a series of cruises, returning in late 2017 for another season. Seabourn Encore's first Australian season includes 15-night cruises to New Zealand and the Pacific. See seabourn.com

11. THE SHIP Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas

Royal Caribbean International's Harmony of the Seas, the world's largest and newest cruise ship, sails into Southampton, UK. str4-coverShips Harmony of Seas_Southampton str25cover-cruise

Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas, the world's largest and newest cruise ship. Photo: Simon Brooke-Webb

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER At 2.15 metres longer than sister ships Oasis and Allure of the Seas, and with a passenger capacity of 5479, Harmony is now the biggest cruise ship in the world. It combines features from the Oasis and Quantum class ships as well as boasting some new ones of its own.

FEATURES The Ultimate Abyss, a 10-storey waterslide, is a first for Royal Caribbean.

ESSENTIALS Harmony sails seven-night western and eastern Caribbean itineraries out of Fort Lauderdale. See royalcaribbean.com.au

12. THE SHIP Holland America Line's Koningsdam

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER The 2650-passenger Koningsdam is not just bigger than HAL's previous flagship, Nieuw Amsterdam, but its contemporary design is a major departure. A second Pinnacle-class ship will debut in 2018.

FEATURES Contemporary decor and layout; live music every night in the Music Walk; two-deck Lido pool area; family and single staterooms; new Sel de Mer and Grand Dutch Cafe eateries.

ESSENTIALS Koningsdam sails in the Caribbean from October to April and from April to September does Adriatic, Baltic and Scandinavian cruises. See www.hollandamerica.com

13. THE SHIP P&O UK's Britannia

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER Launched in 2015, the 3647-passenger Britannia, which sails the western Mediterranean, northern Europe and Caribbean, is the eighth in the fleet and sports a stylish new boutique-hotel look.

FEATURES The Cookery Club's cooking classes, led by celebrity chefs who also host select cruises; 13 eateries and 13 bars and lounges; kids' clubs and teens-only deck; adults-only Serenity Pool and Bar; inside and balcony singles cabins.

ESSENTIALS Britannia cruises the eastern Caribbean until March 2017, then sails two to 14-night itineraries out of Southampton until October 2017. See www.pocruises.com

14. THE SHIP Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Seven Seas Explorer

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Regent Seven Seas Explorer: Compass Rose restaurant with blue Murano glass chandelier. Photo: Supplied

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER Costing more than $595 million, it's the most expensive (a berth) ship ever built – and there's another one is in the works, due to launch in 2020. It will cruise the Mediterranean, northern Europe and the Caribbean.

FEATURES Apart from the fully booked (until early 2017) $13,000 a night two-bedroom Regent Suite, the all-balcony, all-suite 750-passenger Explorer has eight restaurants, five bars/lounges and an art collection worth millions.

ESSENTIALS Explorer cruises the Caribbean from Miami between December and March and is in Europe until November 2017. See www.rssc.com

15. THE SHIP Princess Cruises' Majestic Princess

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER Launching in April 2017 and set to sail the Mediterranean, south-east Asia and China, the third of the 3650-passenger Royal-class ships will be the line's first ship to home port in China.

FEATURES New Harmony Chinese and Le Bistrot restaurants; Sing on the Sea Karaoke suites, which will have private karaoke rooms fitted with sofas, large TV screens and a mini-bar.

ESSENTIALS Majestic Princess will sail seven, 14, 21, and 28-day Mediterranean cruises until May 2017, repositioning to Shanghai where it will sail to Japan and Korea year-round. See www.princess.com

16. THE SHIP CroisiEurope's Loire Princesse

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER Its paddlewheel technology allows it to navigate the shallow Loire, where it cruises, making it the first ship to offer more than day trips in the region.

FEATURES Launched in 2015, it accommodates 96 passengers; cabins are compact but well-designed; fares are all-inclusive.

ESSENTIALS Loire Princesse sails six and eight-night itineraries round-trip from Nantes, until December 2016 and resumes service in April 2017. See cruiseabroad.com.au

17. THE SHIP Scenic's Scenic Azure

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Scenic Eclipse. Photo: Supplied

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER The 96-passenger Scenic Azure was custom-built for Portugal's Douro River and is the newest ship on the river. It is the only non-Portuguese ship operating in the region.

FEATURES Like Scenic's larger European space ships, Scenic Azure has contemporary decor and art works, a plunge pool on the sun deck, six dining options and all-inclusive fares.

ESSENTIALS Scenic Azure cruises between April and November, with itineraries that include stays in Lisbon and Madrid. See www.scenic.com.au

18, THE SHIP Emerald Waterways' Emerald Destiny

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER Emerald Waterways is the youngest river cruise line in Europe; since 2014 it has launched four identical ships. The 182-passenger Emerald Destiny, launching in May 2017 and sailing the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers, is the fifth.

FEATURES Modern, boutique-hotel decor; the pool area converts into a small cinema; Emerald Active program appeals to younger, independent travellers; less-inclusive fares are cheaper and allow more flexibility.

ESSENTIALS Emerald Destiny will sail seven to 14-night itineraries between May and October 2017. See www.evergreentours.com.au

19. THE SHIP APT's RV Samatha

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APT's RV Samatha. Supplied Photo: Supplied

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER Launched this year, the 60-passenger RV Samatha, designed and built by APT, is one of the newest luxury ships on Myanmar's Irrawaddy River

FEATURES All-balcony suites; sun deck with spa pool; day spa and fitness room; menus designed by TV chef, author and APT ambassador Luke Nguyen; eight-seat degustation restaurant; all-inclusive fares.

ESSENTIALS RV Samatha offers 15 and 18-day itineraries between September and March. See www.aptouring.com.au

20. THE SHIP Crystal River Cruises' Crystal Mozart

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Crystal Mozart. Photo: Supplied

WHERE Danube River

WHY IT'S A GAME CHANGER The fully made-over, 154-passenger Crystal Mozart is the first river ship for super-luxury company Crystal; next year it will launch two new builds, and four more in 2018 and 2019.

FEATURES Extra-spacious suites, multiple restaurants and bars, indoor pool, overnights and longer stays in select ports, all-inclusive fares.

ESSENTIALS Crystal Mozart sails nine and 10-night cruises round-trip from Vienna between February and December. Crystal Bach and Crystal Mahler will start cruising mid-2017. See www.crystalcruises.com

THEN AND NOW: HOW CRUISING HAS EVOLVED

THE SHIPS

Today there are more types of ship than ever before: family-friendly, soft-adventure, expedition, luxury, river – and they come in all sizes to suit all sorts of travel tastes and budgets.

THE ACTIVITIES

While shipboard diversions used to involve deck quoits and hairy chest competitions by the pool, now there's everything from waterslides and ziplines to surf-simulators, rock-climbing and ice-skating.

THE CUISINE

A choice of formal dining (with assigned seating) or the buffet was the norm in the 1980s; today some ships boast up to 20 eateries. Specialty (for-fee) restaurants are almost mandatory, flexible dining times are available and buffet stations offer fresher, healthier food.

THE SPAS

Almost unheard of in the 1980s, spa facilities at sea now rival those on land. Cruise lines offer thermal suites, vast menus of pampering treatments and medi-spa options such as Botox.

THE DESTINATIONS

Cruising has opened up the world for millions of travellers over the past 20 years. Places that were once considered inaccessible are now on mainstream cruise line itineraries; other remote spots are still – for now – the preserve of small ships.

OLDIES BUT GOODIES: FIVE CLASSICS SHIPS

CRUISE & MARITIME VOYAGES' ASTOR

The 620-passenger Astor has been plying the world's oceans since 1987 and has been part of CMV's fleet of smaller, older ships since 2013. Astor was extensively refurbished in 2010 and every year it sails from London to Fremantle for the summer. See www.cmvaustralia.com

SEADREAM YACHT CLUB'S SEADREAM I OR II

Beloved by all who sail on them, the glamorous twins may be of a certain age (over 30) but they offer a contemporary, private-yacht type experience. There is lots of polished wood and brass detailing, alfresco and traditional-style dining and immaculate service throughout. See www.seadream.com

SEA CLOUD CRUISES' SEA CLOUD

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A cabin on Sea Cloud. Photo: Dirk Weyer

A real grande dame, the elegant windjammer Sea Cloud set sail in 1931; at the time, it was the largest private sailing yacht ever built. Today, Sea Cloud hosts a maximum of 62 passengers in beautifully restored splendour. See www.landmarktravel.com.au

SWAN HELLENIC'S MINERVA

Minerva's history is almost as interesting as the places it visits; originally built to be a Soviet research ship in 1989, it has since served several cruise lines. Today the 350-passenger British vessel specialises in cultural cruises in the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Middle East. See www.discovertravelshop.com.au

VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY'S VOYAGER

Built in 1990, Voyager accommodates 540 passengers and is comfortable rather than luxurious. It hosts renowned guest speakers and offers special-interest itineraries in an impressive range of destinations. Voyager is popular with solo cruisers, for its size, onboard programs and fares. See www.au.voyagesofdiscovery.com

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