Cambodia's white sand beaches, blue water and gentle surf drew most cruisers ashore when the 1,000-passenger Crystal Serenity docked in mid-March at Sihanoukville. Others visited the city's colorful market and took pedicab tours through town.
But a third group wanted nothing to do with the usual tourist pursuits. Instead they took a ship's excursion to a local school and an orphanage where they met with children and teachers, watched a dance performance and got to spend some time with the next generation of Cambodians.
"Our aim was to have fun with the children and to put a smile on their faces," said participant Heather Schweiger. "And I think we did."
The free program, called "You Care, We Care," is part of a new cruise ship trend that makes it easy for travelers to become volunteers in faraway places, even if it's just for a few hours.
"Voluntourism," increasingly popular throughout the travel industry, is a way for travelers to make a difference in the communities they visit. On some cruises, the program is a cultural exchange that takes travelers into the homes, farms and businesses of local residents, infusing needed dollars into a community. On others, volunteers perform more tangible tasks.
For instance, Holland America's program, called the Cruise with Purpose Collection, includes planting trees in Australia and Iceland. Carnival's new Fathom brand, which begins sailing this month, will take travelers to the Dominican Republic for three days of community work and civic projects. Celebrity Cruises' guests can participate in a reforestation program when they visit Galápagos national park.
HopeFloats.org, a California nonprofit, will help Caribbean-bound passengers arrange to work with organizations on five islands. Tasks include feeding the homeless, painting or cleaning, or helping teachers.
Other cruise lines help charities by raising money. Cruising for a Cause, a Princess Cruises initiative, collected funds for the American Heart Assn. and for two veterans' organizations.
A recent sailing on Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas raised money for cancer research, and a seven-night cruise aboard Carnival Miracle invited passengers to sponsor the cruise for military families who couldn't afford it otherwise.
Crystal's voluntour program, which started in 2011, is one of the more developed in the industry. Among volunteer opportunities this year were cleaning a beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, working at a food bank in Estonia and feeding animals at a zoo in Berlin.
In Cambodia, the volunteers visited Kam Penh Primary School, where they distributed school equipment and supplies, then moved on to the Orphanage of Sihanoukville Province, which is supported by the Cambodian government and the French organization ASPECA, or Enfants d'Asie, which works with children throughout Southeast Asia.
The tour included a visit to a computer room, TV room and a room with a weaving machine, where the children make rugs and scarves to sell to visitors.
"We were shown classrooms and dormitories where the children sleep," Schweiger said. "The rooms are run by a house mother who cooks, washes and looks after the children. The little ones are helped but the older children have to wash their own clothes and tidy up.
"As we were walking around the children held our hands, asking us questions," Schweiger said. "They were just adorable."
She and her husband usually take part in the volunteer programs, she said. As does Werner Dreifuss. "It's my way of giving back," he said, adding that he was among Jewish children who survived the Holocaust because of the rescue efforts of others.
Crystal Serenity's orphanage visit in Cambodia followed an excursion two days earlier in Koh Samui, Thailand, where passengers visited a shelter housing nearly 300 dogs and cats. They were invited to pitch in cleaning the shelter and to hug the animals.
Earlier in the 102-day World Cruise itinerary, Crystal passengers helped redecorate a playroom at an orphanage in Lautoka, Fiji.
The orphanage visit was Schweiger's favorite. "It was great to see the children happy while we were there, considering some have no parents and had little chance in life before they came to the orphanage," she said.
"When we left, tears came to my eyes. I was sorry to leave those gorgeous children but felt happy that they were being looked after."
Midship lower-deck cabins may feel more stable for those prone to seasickness
If you're a novice cruiser and worried about seasickness or if you're going to be sailing in an area known for rough waters, book a cabin midship, preferably on a lower deck. That's where you'll feel the least amount of movement.