Can you really come off a cruise ship in better shape than when you went aboard? Jane Archer investigates.

It’s an oft-quoted “fact” that cruise passengers put on about half a kilo per day on the ship. And while those determined to get their money’s worth can eat non-stop – cooked breakfasts, mid-morning snacks, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, late-night nibbles – the image of ships full of overweight cruisers is not entirely accurate.

With all that inclusive food and drink, a cruise might not seem the best choice if you want to get into shape, but it can be one of the healthiest holidays around.

Menus list low-calorie dishes alongside hearty steaks, and lunch can be salad with everything from quinoa to bee-pollen grains and a raft of tasty protein options. Then there are state-of-the-art gyms, fitness classes and jogging tracks on board, plus hiking, cycling and kayaking ashore.

Really, there’s no excuse for not keeping fit on a cruise – except for the fact that a holiday is meant to be time to relax.

Here’s how to do both.

1. The mind, body and soul wellness kick

Looking after mind, body and soul is a good thing, but a salad-filled, alcohol-free trip, plugged into iTunes to while away the hours on a treadmill can rapidly extinguish the holiday spirit. But what if everyone around you is in the same boat, so to speak, and being abstemious when it comes to desserts and glasses of fizz? With companions of like mind, suddenly the wellness kick becomes that bit more enjoyable.

Yoga cruises on Star Clippers’ three tall ships are so popular that it has practitioners on 12 cruises between May and November this year. Seabourn is offering free daily meditation and yoga sessions based on the teachings of American integrative medicine guru Dr Andrew Weil. He is lecturing on two voyages in Alaska and the Mediterranean in June and October respectively; at other times complimentary sessions are hosted by wellness experts.

Tuning into the spirit of the times, Crystal Cruises has a 14-night Mind, Body and Spirit-themed voyage next October with guest instructors and speakers that focus on yoga, Pilates, tai chi and general fitness.
We’re tempted by: Holland America Line’s link with O, The Oprah Magazine, which is spreading health and happiness through meditation and tai chi on more than 300 cruises in Alaska, Bermuda, the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada and Hawaii.

2. Clean eating at the captain’s table

Oceania Cruises, Princess Cruises, Cunard, Azamara and Crystal Cruises all offer healthy option menus that detail fat, carb and calorie content. Celebrity Cruises’ ships have a restaurant called Blu that’s exclusively for passengers in AquaClass spa cabins and serves “clean” cuisine free from heavy sauces and creams.

SeaDream Yacht Club started a vegan trend by serving food prepared with organic and vegan ingredients, and Oceania Cruises has followed suit, serving more than 250 vegan dishes at breakfast, lunch and dinner that include everything from Tuscan-style bean soup to quinoa salad and vegetable tartar.

Celebrity restaurant Blu
Celebrity’s restaurant Blu is exclusively for passengers in AquaClass spa cabins and serves “clean” cuisine free from heavy sauces and creams. Image: Celebrity Cruises

The MSC Cruises Wellness Experience includes a health check with the ship’s doctor and a body analysis with a personal trainer. A seven-night Mediterranean voyage on MSC Meraviglia departing April 1 includes a keep-fit program, complimentary laundering for gym gear, “wellness” excursions ashore and access to a healthy menu. Vitamin Bars in MSC’s spas sell made-to-order fruit and vegetable drinks to “cleanse, relax and detox”.

River cruise operators Tauck and AmaWaterways both specify allergens in each dish and highlight healthy options. Uniworld River Cruises’ menus have “healthy” starter, main course and dessert options.

We’re tempted by: Avalon Waterways offers its river cruisers a vegetarian menu, incorporating ingredients sourced from small farms and producers, called Avalon Fresh.

3. Luxury detox spas

Cruise lines spend millions building luxury spas that are run in partnership with leading health companies such as Steiner and Canyon Ranch. It’s not all about massages – there are facials and other treatments for men and women that pamper and polish and help passengers unwind and detox.

Regent Seven Seas Explorer has one of the best spas at sea. It’s run by Canyon Ranch and the vast menu offers everything from organic wraps and scrubs to a gemstone anti-ageing treatment and a high-performance men’s facial. A hot-stone massage costs around $360.

River cruise company A-Rosa has spas on all its vessels. A-Rosa Donna, which sails the Danube, has two saunas, a relaxation area, a massage shower and treatments including facials, body, leg and foot massages, and a Caribbean body scrub.

Interestingly, as spas enter the mainstream, some cruise lines have begun building them closer to the main public areas, rather than hiding them away on top decks.

The Canyon Ranch SpaClub on Regent’s ultra-luxury Seven Seas Explorer is on deck five by the coffee bar, and on P&O Cruises’ Britannia it is next to reception where it is far more likely to attract a casual visit.

We’re tempted by: A spa suite on Azamara Journey or Azamara Quest, which comes with a complimentary evening of champagne, canapés and dinner served by a butler followed by a night under the stars on the spa’s Sanctum Terrace (available to passengers in other cabins for a fee of around $520).

4. Caviar facials and seaweed wraps

In line with these luxurious spas treatments, too, continue to evolve. Celebrity Cruises has seaweed peat wraps to help drain toxins while spa-goers relax. Viking Cruises’ ships have a Scandinavian feel that extends to their LivNordic spas. These have a snow room, where real flakes fall each night.

River cruise line Scenic has salt rooms on vessels sailing the Rhône in France and the Garonne, Gironde and Dordogne Rivers from Bordeaux. The salt is on the floors and walls; sit inside for 30 minutes and repeat each day to improve respiratory function. Many spas incorporate a medi-section offering Botox and other anti-ageing treatments. Anti-ageing electroporation on MSC’s Meraviglia targets wrinkles and fine lines; it costs $355 for three sessions, while three 60-minute sessions aimed at eliminating stretch marks cost around $400. An acupuncture session on board P&O Cruises’ Britannia is priced from around $170.

We’re tempted by: The warm and inviting thalassotherapy pool on Viking Ocean is filled with seawater and jets of various intensity and looks on to a relaxing real-fire feature (with pretend flames). Hygge guaranteed.

5. High-tech gyms and personal training

Most ships have gyms with state-of-the-art treadmills, exercise bikes, weights, Kinesis trainers and the latest TRX Suspension equipment. They’re generally open from early morning until late at night and are free to use. And if you want to inhale the sea air, use the jogging tracks found on the top deck of many ships. Even river-cruise lines, with their streamlined ships, factor in fitness areas on board. AmaWaterways, Scenic, Tauck, Avalon Waterways, A-Rosa and Uniworld all have them. The fitness-shy might be tempted by the two-storey gym with river views on the 180-passenger ship, Amadeus Silver.

Fitness classes, yoga, pilates and indoor cycling are complimentary on luxury cruise lines such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn and Oceania Cruises. Other companies might charge. Norwegian Cruise Lines charges around $25 per session for RYDE spin classes and TRX Suspension training. Four boot camp sessions on its Norwegian Escape cruise ship cost around $160, including a free inBody composition analysis.

RYDE spin classes
Norwegian Cruise Lines charges around $25 per session for its RYDE spin classes. Image: NCL

Those who seek professional advice and encouragement can pay for a body analysis and personal trainer. P&O Cruises UK offers this service for around $110 and around $85 respectively for 60-minute sessions on both but the services are offered by most cruise companies.

We’re tempted by: A spin around the ice on the rinks on board Royal Caribbean’s Voyage, Freedom and Oasis-class ships.