It used to be the case that your ‘themed’ activities at sea consisted of bridge classes, dance lessons and, occasionally, a semi-educational lecture or two. But the general demand for more interactive and experience-based holidays is now firmly a part of the cruise world, too.

Instead of bridge, try painting; rather than going dancing, why not attend a Food & Wine enrichment programme; and rather than sitting tamely at a lecture, get involved with cookery classes or scrapbooking.

Themed cruises now cover a huge range of interests, from food and music to more unusual pursuits like guitar lessons, computer skills and even stilt-walking (yes, really!).

And passengers are frequently invited to take part, get involved and play a role in their own entertainment. It is an era of education as well as relaxation, with the chance to try things you may not even have thought of.

Here is a run-down of some of the best – and most eye-catching – choices in 2008:

Stars and Art

Astronomy would seem to be an obvious idea for cruise ships, with open decks sailing far from light polluting cities. MSC Cruises do offer astronomy and astrology cruises and Hurtigruten (formerly Norwegian Coastal Voyage) have winter cruises based around the Northern Lights including digital photography themed voyages with experts showing how to capture this phenomena.

Star gazing of another kind comes on some Carnival and Fred Olsen cruises. The former has annual five-day Soap Opera Cruises from Miami which feature US soap stars. Fred Olsen has, for many years, run The Archers themed cruises with members of the cast on board giving talks, shows and interacting with passengers.

Under 17s with stars in their eyes on P&O’s Ventura can take advantage of special classes teaching them how to become Rock Stars, learning how to play guitar, keyboard and drums.

Youngsters also get their own themed cruises on Regent Seven Seas with educational environmental and marine life programmes in Alaska and Tahiti organised by Jean-Michel Cousteau and run on board by naturalists from his Ocean Futures Society, a non-profit making conservation organisation. Activities include introduction to local eco systems, shore excursions, arts crafts, games and interactive presentations.

Ventura is one of many ships with a wealth of art adorning corridors, cabins and staircases. She shows off £1million worth of Contemporary British art: 7,000 pieces by 55 artists. Therefore, P&O has linked up with Tate Modern to host six Introduction to Modern Art cruises throughout the year in locations from the Baltic, Canaries, Mediterranean and Caribbean.

Passengers can attend seminars and talks by curators on different art movements while artists present their work and give practical art classes and art-orientated shore excursions are also available.

Holland America offers a more do-it-yourself approach to its on board art collections with iPod-based ship art tours. These, on Amsterdam for example, would take in Ming figures from the 13th century, art deco sculptures from 1938 and bronze poolside sculptures.

Regent Seven Seas have artists on certain cruises giving lectures, classes, escorting passengers ashore to behind-the-scenes looks at Mediterranean art museums or the Hermitages’ Restoration Room in St Petersburg.

Concerts & Keyboards

Most ships give concerts in one form or another but Hurtigruten take this a step further with their winter Harmony cruises on which a choir master organises passengers into daily rehearsals of ‘light-hearted favourites,’ building up to a concert at the end of the voyage.

The choir practices, like other themed activities on their winter cruises, are programmed round the daily shore excursions on the short winter days which, with little alternative on-board entertainment, help to pass the time and get passengers together.

Other themes include digital photography and water colours, both of which focus on polar winter light effects with themed shore excursions, from art nouveau to sea eagles and painted houses reflecting in the water. Another musical theme for them is an Edward Grieg cruise with an expert lecturer and musician on board giving talks and recitals and a concert at Grieg’s Troldhaugen estate.

Classical music is the theme for a number of cruises. Saga Cruises have this for 2008 on three voyages in the Baltic. Each cruise has a full programme of concerts and recitals, lectures on the great composers and musical quizzes, plus on shore options of visiting concert halls and opera houses.

Hapag Lloyd Cruises’ Europa is hosting the Ocean Sun Festival, a two-week international music event featuring the leading Mozart tenor Michael Schade and soprano Patricia Petibon, with on-shore music events.

School-at-sea style programmes are also all the rage with a number of cruise lines. Crystal Cruises’ Creative Learning Institute gives free lectures on topics including music keyboard, Computer University at Sea and Berlitz foreign language instruction.

Princess Cruises’ [email protected] features guest lecturers and experts covering a wide range of interests such as visual arts, computer skills, scrapbooking, ceramics, web page design, digital photography and pottery.

Passengers can choose from about 20 courses per voyage, with the core subjects being culinary arts, visual/creative arts, photography and computer technology. In addition, these cruises can include courses or lectures on maritime history, science, politics, nutrition, geography and health.

Oceania Cruises, in addition to regular lectures on political science, history and finance, have cruises with themes including computer software, iPod, Adobe Photoshop, video editing and wine tasting.

Saga distinguishes between its themed cruises and study cruises. Themed cruises, including current affairs, classical music, maritime history and an Antiques Seashow, are free to all passengers.

For study cruises, a supplement is paid to take part. Study cruises give a deeper insight into the subject with an expert host, lectures and related shore excursions. Study themes in 2008 include the music of Grieg in Norway; Art Appreciation in Mediterranean cities; and Britain’s wild coast gardens.

Alternatively, on a short cruise from Southampton to Zeebrugge, NCL has TV property programme presenter Martin Roberts giving passengers advice on investing in property at home or overseas. Martin Randall also runs a few highly erudite cruises, including one on the Athenian philosophers and another on Caravaggio, which includes special concerts in Rome and other cities.

Stories & Sports

Getting together over a subject of mutual interest is a good way of making on board friends but sometimes the net is cast rather too wide. Regent Seven Seas have an answer with their Circles of Interest theme programmes.

These combine on board activities with shore excursions, so small, limited groups of participants can discover destinations through a particular interest guided by an expert.

As well as Le Cordon Bleu cookery classes with visiting celebrity chefs and exclusive lunches ashore, contemporary artists discuss their work, host private receptions, give lectures and lead visits to art studios, museums and art libraries in Africa, Greece, Portugal and Spain.

For example, the artist will introduce passengers to contemporary artists on Mykonos and host a private dinner with discussion of the Getty museum. An architecture and literary voyage focuses on global libraries and learning centres and includes a visit to the Alexandria Library Museum in Egypt.

On another Circle of Interest cruise, a British naval commodore will share personal stories of the Falklands war as Seven Seas Mariner sails to South America.

Not all themes are sedentary, though. In fact, they now tend to be in the minority. Many have strong sports inspiration and Golf is an obvious choice, tying in shore courses with on board tuition.

Silversea Cruises has 12 Silver Links cruises in 2008 offering a choice of 35 top courses in 16 countries and islands from Mexico to Monte Carlo. Golfing excursions are arranged and escorted by the ship’s golfing pro. On board, golfers get split-screen swing analysis, digital coaching and the help of a PGA-classed professional for personal tuition, group clinics, demonstrations and putting contests.

On Peter Deilmann’s river cruises there are also plenty of active opportunities, including golf with the MV Mozart Golf Cup 2008 played in Germany, Hungary and Austria. Other golf cruises cover France and the company also has cycling and hiking cruises.

Deilmann has even introduced equestrianism this year, linking with Olympic gold medal-winning show jumper Paul Schockemohle, who will develop the theme on all the company’s river cruisers and also MV Deutschland.

Sticking with the active pursuits theme, Fred. Olsen Cruises have partnered with Ramblers Holidays to offer walking cruises with in-port guided or individual itineraries at various levels.

But the most unusual activity to boast about on your return home is surely learning to be a high-wire artist on P&O’s latest flagship, Ventura. The ship’s Cirque Ventura School, high on the 19th deck, runs circus skills workshops including tight wire, acro-balance, clowning, break-dancing, juggling, stilt-walking, flying trapeze work and bungee trampolining that takes passengers soaring 60 metres above sea level!

And finally…

Perhaps none of these themes quite suit you, though. In that case, you can create a DIY theme for your cruise on Radisson Seven Seas with their new Concierge pre-bookable service.

You can take part in small, special groups for exclusive on shore visits or go a la carte and set up your own shore excursions; wine-tasting, sports, special meals, museums, or whatever else occurs to you. The choice, these days, is all yours.