Cruise ships have a reputation for over-indulgence and lobster tans but the best new cruises are surprisingly health and fitness-focused. Travel writer Louise Atkinson knows which ones to book

Any products in this article have been selected editorially however if you buy something we mention, we may earn commission

I emerge from the charcoal sauna to breathe in the tangy mineral-infused air of the salt cave, before relaxing with a glass of mint tea on a heated stone recliner. So far this morning I’ve been pushed to my limits by a high-octane spin class, pummelled into submission by an expert masseuse and now I’m snoozing in contemplative silence, wondering whether to have the pomegranate seeds or the crushed pistachio nuts on my lunchtime salad.

But this is no expensive spa resort or exclusive health club – I’m in the middle of the North Sea, halfway between Iceland and Norway on a massive 18-storey cruise ship. Like many, I always associated cruise holidays with gluttonous excess – the chaos of the self-service canteen where passengers pile their plates with heart-attack-inducing junk food, or wave their napkins raucously over their heads in swanky restaurants serving five courses of carbs for breakfast, lunch AND dinner.

But who wants to return from a holiday feeling bilious and bloated? Instead, you can take full advantage of the wellness facilities onboard these monster-sized ships to enhance your fitness and nutrition, and achieve a sublime sense of relaxation. And as a bonus, you get to wake up each morning – feeling refreshed and invigorated - in a beautiful new location somewhere in the world.

A new way to cruise

According to a report by Cruise Lines International Association, a key post-pandemic trend is ‘total restoration’ cruising. Cruise lines are responding with restorative spa experiences, healthy menu choices and the latest in fitness innovations.

The wellness cruising concept is proving increasingly popular among people – like me – who are reluctant to disrupt their diet and fitness routines on holiday, and prefer to use a cruise as an opportunity to kick start a healthy new regime.

Last year, Virgin Voyages themed January to March ‘speciality wellness months’, upping the health offering on their ships with spin classes and sound bath meditations, core-tightening bungee sessions and sunset yoga. And this year, P&O Cruises have three special wellbeing and lifestyle cruises, with TV presenters Cherry Healey and Kat Farmer on board hosting masterclasses and self-improvement workshops covering mind, body, beauty and fashion.

But, as I found on a gloriously revitalising 11-day trip to Iceland and Norway with Norwegian Cruise Lines aboard a ship called Prima, you can turn up the wellbeing dial on any cruise and come away fitter, healthier and significantly more relaxed while also visiting some of the most beautiful parts of the world in comfort and style.

Floating fitness

As the newest cruise ships get bigger and more spectacular, the concept of a large and well-equipped gym (preferably with breath-taking ocean views) has increasingly become a selling point. As a travel writer, I’ve been lucky enough to join a wide variety of different cruises over the last 10 years, and often I would find myself one of the only passengers more interested in burning calories than consuming them. But on the Prima, I’m delighted to find the huge and really well-appointed gym is really popular.

There are personal trainers available if you need (or want) them, and morning and evening stretch classes (for free) as well as spinning and cardio sessions (at around £20 a time) too.

Many cruise ships have a running/walking track around the perimeter of one of the upper decks. On the popular MSC ships Euriba and Virtuosa, the track is 300m long which means 16 loops can get you to 5k, or plug in your audio book, as I did, and power walk your daily step count up to close to 10,000.

Many ships boast an indoor basketball court which doubles up as an indoor football pitch, others have a boxing ring and kickboxing classes (Royal Caribbean), an outdoor ‘adult playground’ of gym equipment (Virgin), and Norwegian Prima has a popular pickleball court (caged in to stop the lightweight ball being blown out to sea on windy days).

But you can enhance the wellness benefits of any cruise by booking guided walking or cycling tours at the ports you visit. When Prima docked in the picturesque Geiranger on the Norwegian coast we were delighted to be able to hire kayaks for an energetic guided tour of the stunning fjord (£171 per person).

Sumptuous salad bars

Old-style cruising used to mean full English for breakfast, then queuing up for dinner at a pre-set time to tip-toe your way through an indulgent à la carte menu. But things are changing. On MSC’s ship, Euriba the bartenders at the indoor pool bar will whizz up a selection of fresh juices, and all Celebrity ships now have a spa café offering fresh juices, smoothies and salads.

At the bustling open-all-hours self-service canteens on these big ships, the salad selections are increasingly creative, and there’s no shortage of vegetarian and vegan options available. On Norwegian Prima no one batted an eyelid when I asked for soya milk in my tea and my oat milk latte arrived with an impressive barista-art flourish.

So spa so good

You might prefer to get your manicure and pedicure organised before you set sail, as most cruise ship spas charge London prices (around £50 a pop). But a holiday at sea is undeniably a great time to splash out on treatments. At Prima’s Mandara spa I succumbed to both an outrageously gorgeous Elemis Biotec anti-aging facial (£184) and an incredible 100-minute Aroma Spa Seaweed Massage (£240), and emerged younger, happier and totally zenned-out.

Quite often, passengers are asked to pay extra for access to a thermal suite, and if you’re keen to make your cruise a wellness holiday, I urge you to take up the offer, even if it means sacrificing a drinks package. Believe me, a few hours of cycling through a sauna, ice-room, steam room, jacuzzi routine will make you feel better than any pina colada ever can.

The exclusive nature of these onboard spas means they are rarely crowded, and – in my experience – blissfully quiet. On sea days, a day pass to the thermal suite provides you with a health-giving sanctuary away from the frenetic fun, fun, fun of ship life.

Depending on your cruise destinations, you may find extended spa opportunities ashore as well. My trip with Prima stopped in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik which boasts the Blue Lagoon and then sailed on to the northern port of Akureyri where I jumped in a cab to the nearby Forest Lagoon to soak in the hot thermal waters.

But best of all, on Prima, I find my sublime happy place, working my way through the various hot and cold rooms of the thermal suite, bathed in coloured light in the experiential shower, then snuggling down in the spa’s relaxation lounge at the front of the ship, hypnotically lulled by the gentle rocking and the ripples in the water as we sail out of one port and head for the next adventure.

In the quest for wellness, this got to be the best kind of ‘vitamin sea’ you can get.

Louise’s 11- day NCL Prima cruise, which departed from Southampton and sailed to Iceland and Norway, costs around £1502 per person. For more info, see ncl.com

4 wellbeing cruises to book for 2024

1. For spa fans

Image: Norwegian Cruise Line

Take a four-day cruise on Norwegian Escape from Barcelona via Florence to Cannes 26-30 May from £824 per person (excluding flights), and transform your trip to a wellness cruise with a £63 per day pass to the luxurious Mandara Spa. ncl.com

2. For those who love a wellbeing workshop

Images: P&O

Join TV presenters Cherry Healey and Kat Farmer for wellbeing and lifestyle workshops (with advice on skincare, mind and body, as well as wardrobe essentials) on the P&O ship, Iona, sailing from Southampton to Spain, Portugal and the Canary Islands, 2-16 March. 14-nights start at £899 per person. pocruises.com

3. For keen yogis

Images: Emma Jane, Hebrides Cruises

Sail around remote Scottish islands and practise yoga led by an expert guide with Hebrides Cruises Serenity at Sea retreats, on the white sand beaches of Mull and Iona. A six-night sailing costs £2,850 departing 16 April. hebridescruises.co.uk

4. For sociable gym fans

Image: VirginVoyages

A party atmosphere, adults only, and yoga, meditation, cycling studio, bungee classes, barre, and HIIT all-included on VirginVoyages cruises. A seven-night island-hopping trip on the ship Resilient Lady sailing from Athens (via Santorini, Rhodes, Bodrum and Mykonos) starts at £2,898 per cabin (two people) on 9 June. virginvoyages.com