In the cruise arena, golf's importance has long been limited to in-port visits to local courses. But that's not so true any longer. These days, the appeal of golf has so evolved that duffers are seeking out cruises for their onboard offerings, as well as the opportunity to sample a handful of different courses in different destinations while on a voyage.
Indeed, today golfers almost don't have to get off the ship to play a few rounds. One of the most popular features -- and one which is particularly elaborate on some cruise fleets' newest models - - is state-of-the-art golf simulators. These allow passengers to play "virtual" rounds at worldclass courses like St. Andrews. Onboard, there are driving ranges, putting courses, club rental operations and elaborate miniature golf set-ups. Cruise lines like Crystal and Carnival feature year-round onboard pros who offer lessons, swing analysis and other services. U.K. based Fred Olsen is another that really emphasizes golf (even if no actual courses can be found onboard); its packages in the Caribbean, for instance, include tutorials by PGA golf pros and social outings.
Other evolutionary trends we're spotting owe a lot to the nature of cruising itself. Duffers can, on a weeklong trip, visit up to five different courses in five unique destinations -- all without repacking a suitcase or even lugging their clubs (you can rent them either onboard or at port-ofcall courses if you desire). And cruise line shore excursion staffers at golf cruise specialist firms like hotdealsatwork www.hotdealsatwork.com have become as full-service as their counterparts at resorts in setting up hassle-free rounds in port.
For example, famed Mahogany Run on St. Thomas runs $140 - $160 if you book your tee time directly with the club (don't forget to add at least $40 for a taxi from the ship). Golf cruise companies like hotdealsatwork typically charge $125 - $175 for a round at Mahogany Run, but this often includes transportation and possible extras -- like a course review with a Pro. In addition, hotdealsatwork can sometimes get golfers into private or restricted-access clubs they may not be able to play on their own (at places like Teeth of the Dog in the Dominican Republic or Sandy Lane on Barbados).
However, not all golf experiences at sea and on land are created equal, and we'll add the caveat that it's a good bet to research your options before you leave for your cruise. And check out our picks for best offerings, these are based on both holes-in-one and lots of bogies.
Best Overall Destination - Bermuda
Why? For the simple fact that Bermuda has more golf courses per square mile than anywhere else in the world. And the fact that most ships that visit Bermuda will spend as many as three to four days out of seven at the island, gives golfers a chance to sample a variety of courses. If you want to experience more than one course in Bermuda, your best bet is Norwegian Cruise Line, which is just about the only line to sail the traditional, New York-based Bermuda cruises that spend three to four days in port.
Best Destination for Golf Course Scenery - Scotland
Sure, U.K.-based travelers could fairly easily make the trek, on land, to Scotland. But isnâ€™t it nicer to take a cruise that lets you play in various ports with absolutely no hassle about changing hotels? Silversea offers itineraries that call at Edinburg and its shore outings offer the option to organize a private tour for you and your mates to a nearby course.
Best Line for Beginners - Carnival
Some golfers simply take the game too seriously, and there's nothing worse than being a beginner out there to have fun and finding that faster players are pestering you to play through. Though they head to some of the world's best courses, the "Fun Ships" don't take golf too seriously on land or with their onboard programs. Offerings are perfectly adequate for more serious duffers, however, and with expansive onboard facilities and an abundance of golf-related shore excursions Carnival has actually made the largest commitment in the cruise industry to the sport.
Best Line for Low-Handicappers -Silversea
Those with time and money seem to earn low handicaps more readily than blue-collar hackers, so it only makes sense that Silversea welcomes a high percentage of low-handicappers. Silver Links 365 is available on Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper. Each ship has golf-driving cages, and scheduled events include complimentary clinics, demonstrations and putting contests. Onboard, a pro offers clinics and private lessons. (The pros use the vaunted V1 video teaching technology.) On land, the line offers escorted golf excursions in more than 100 ports to some of the world's top and toughest courses.
Best Line for Onboard Services - Crystal
Crystal offers a lot of golf shore excursions at plenty of upscale clubs. It also supplies onboard golf pros year-round on all three ships. The line is offering passengers the chance to play golf up to five times and to enjoy the final day of this year's British Open. Crystal is also offering three other golf-focused itineraries in the Mediterranean, Canary Islands, and the maritime coast of Canada and New England.
Best Small-Ship Experience - Go Barging
This barge operator specializes in getting you into those nooks you otherwise wouldn't reach via bigger ships because its luxury barges, which hold between 12 and 20 passengers, trawl inland waterways. Go Barging offers itineraries through France's Canal du Midi, Upper Loire, and Provence. Remember to pack your golf clubs, though.
Best Onboard Experience for Golfers - Princess
The facilities on the Grand, Crown, Diamond, Sapphire, Golden and Caribbean Princess are some of the finest afloat. They're the only line with two virtual golf simulators onboard; plus, these vessels also include an onboard pro, outdoor cages, putting courses, private and group lessons, clinics, and new Nike Golf equipment and attire (including the clubs and clothing Tiger Woods is now using).
Best Line for Golf Widows (and Widowers) - Celebrity
Celebrity ships feature some of the finest spa facilities afloat and, in partnership with hotdealsatwork, offer a "Guilt Free Golf" program. Non-golfers can get special spa packages and pricing when their golfing half books a golf shore excursion.
The knowledgeable â€˜golf cruiseâ€™ agents at hotdealsatwork Cruise Planners, 877-415-5442, know the ships and golf courses youâ€™ll play at. They represent all cruise lines, river boat barge outfits and offer a courtesy â€˜golf cruiseâ€™ customization service. Visit www.hotdealsatwork.com
By Lynn Seldon, who has written numerous feature stories for Cruise Critic. Updated by Kelly Ranson, Associate Editor.