I followed a crowd of retirees, most in expensive resortwear, to the stern of the Queen Mary 2. They weren't going to bingo, dancing classes, the casino or a hairy-chest contest by a swimming pool.
They were attending school, and not just any school -- the prestigious Oxford University, which had put together a series of courses just for them. Topics included shipwrecks off the coast of St. Kitts, entomology, creative writing, political science and Coco Chanel's impact on fashion. The classes were a huge hit and were packed every day of the 11-day cruise. Who knew cruisers wanted to contemplate more than a cold margarita and a slot machine?
Of course, the QM2 passengers are a cerebral crowd compared with say, Carnival ships, where hairy chests reign, but more passengers are wanting to expand their minds, as well as their waistlines, on cruises.
Cruise lines are responding with on-board learning programs from language studies to art and theatre that includes Shakespeare. London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts gave a wonderful performance of The Importance of Being Earnest on the QM2.
Depending on the cruise line, passengers can study French with a Berlitz instructor or discover undersea wonders with oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau. Even Carnival Cruise Lines now has marine biologists and wildlife specialists on its Alaska voyages.
"Guests who choose to learn on a cruise are seeking an entertaining educational experience," said Terry Dale, president of Cruise Line International Association (www. cruising.org).
"Guests give consistently high scores to the cruise lines' innovative enrichment programs."
Here are just a few of the floating educational programs on ships:
American Cruise Lines has "enlighteners" -- naturalists, historians and academics who give informal lectures, open discussions and workshops about local history, nature and culture. They also lead sightseeing excursions, providing guests with insights and behind-the-scenes visits.
Carnival Cruise Lines' Carnival Spirit has marine biologists and wildlife specialists on-board its Alaska cruises to describe the passing scenery and animal life. The third annual Mind/Body cruise on Carnival Glory in December featured comprehensive nutrition, fitness and wellness workshops by leading experts.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises has a "Circles of Interest" program including on-board lectures, workshops and shore excursions with themes including art, design, history, archeology and literature. Jean-Michel Cousteau and his Ocean Futures Society colleagues share their broad knowledge about the sea.
Costa Cruises has scheduled a Holistic Holiday at Sea cruise in March aboard the Costa Magica. The Caribbean itinerary will feature noted practitioners and authors who will present workshops about vegan and macrobiotic cooking and meditation.
Crystal Cruises has a broad spectrum of lecturers for its well-educated and discerning passengers. As part of its Creative Learning Institute, Crystal offers wellness seminars conducted by The Cleveland Clinic and The Tai Chi Cultural Center, Berlitz language immersion, Yamaha keyboard instruction, and destination specific lecturers from the Smithsonian Institution.
Holland America Line presents the Explorations Speaker Series and demonstrations and classes presented by chefs in co-operation with Food and Wine magazine.
Norwegian Coastal Voyages features an expedition team of esteemed lecturers on all sailings to Antarctica under the direction of Tomas Holik, who first visited Antarctica in 1991 as a researcher at the Polish base. He is joined by Dr. John Chardine of the Canadian Wildlife Service, and explorer Alan Parker, among others.