But what if your ideal vacation is to avoid the herd and just "be"?
Take my husband, Mike, for example. He's what I'd describe as a loner. Not a la Jack Nicolson in "The Shining," mind you; he's a still-waters-run-deep type of guy who, at home or on vacation, would rather just read or quietly hang out with his family. Mike has never warmed to cruising's stereotypically noisy, social scene, with bingo nights, pushy photographers, ra-ra cruise directors and singing waiters. He envisions a claustrophobic environment, where PA announcements constantly puncture the quiet, you have to queue for everything, and each evening brings another nightmare of banquet-style dining and unavoidable chit-chat with strangers. Why would he want to waste precious vacation time on that?
If you identify with Mike, I'll tell you what I told him: when the goal is to switch off your BlackBerry and find time alone or with loved ones, cruises today can deliver. Though cruise lines don't market to quiet types, per se, more are coming aboard anyway -- attracted by such things as open-seating dinners (with plenty of tables for two), packed itineraries that leave little time for idle chatter and thoughtfully designed ship-within-a-ship zones that offer refuge on even the largest vessels. And, while you may suffer through the occasional line or crowd, you can always find plenty of places onboard to seek solitude.
Here are our top picks for ships to get away from it all -- and, if you so choose, away from everyone else.
Best Ship to Get Lost In: Oasis of the Seas
Why: The biggest ships are roomy enough to disappear into, with entertainment, sightseeing, sports and activities to suit every sort of personality. Celebrity Cruises, Cunard, Royal Caribbean, MSC Cruises, Princess, Carnival and Costa all boast ships measuring more than 100,000 tons that carry thousands of passengers. But, of course, none beats the world's largest passenger vessel, with its capacity for 6,296 passengers and 2,394 crew, seven neighborhoods, 16 passenger decks, nearly two dozen restaurants and bars, plus shops, theatres and a myriad of other public spaces. The ambience on Oasis of the Seas is cordially anonymous: as one Cruise Critic reviewer put it, it's "simply too vast to inspire connections." You can be introduced to someone early on and never cross paths again -- and that really is a plus for the loner. Sister ship Allure of the Seas, offers more of the same.
Quiet Escapes: Leafy Central Park is the standout among the Oasis-class ships' many restful nooks. Pop in for tapas in the afternoon at Vintages, a mood-lit wine bar with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall looking out onto the park. Oasis' Promenade Deck is where you'll exercise away the tapas; it's actually a .46-mile jogging track with an ocean view and is practically deserted, come early evening. What could be more serene?
Best Rest: Spacious suites, preferably with balconies, give the feel of a retreat and, thus, are a better choice for solitary cruising than windowless, cheerless inside cabins that force you out into the ship's hustle and bustle. Choose a sea-facing balcony cabin for fresh air without fighting over deck chairs, or a balcony suite facing the AquaTheater, where you have a V.I.P. view of the show without ever taking an audience seat. If you'd like to splurge, book one of the enormous Loft Suites -- with two floors, private living and dining areas, and gigantic balconies, you may never need to leave.
Dining a Deux: The loner's nemesis is traditional assigned dining, which forces interaction with strangers who might, if you are so unlucky, chit-chat nonstop for an entire cruise. But, Royal Caribbean is one of scores of cruise lines that is forsaking tradition: its "My Time Dining" offers a choice of open or assigned seating in the main dining room; dine at off-peak hours to enjoy a table for two. Or, take advantage of the many bistro-style alternative eateries, where tables for two are easier to come by. You can pre-book reservations over the Internet, or just show up hoping for a table. Best for intimate meals are Chops Grille and 150 Central Park. Conversely, don't expect peace at Johnny Rockets and the Seafood Shack, both situated on the noisy, well-lit Boardwalk.
Beware! Due to their size, Oasis-class ships are sticking to the most popular (read: congested) mega-ports in the Caribbean, such as Nassau, St. Maarten and St. Thomas. For tips on avoiding the crowds in port, read our article, It's Tuesday in St. Thomas: Gridlock Alert?
Runner Up: Cunard's 148,528-ton Queen Mary 2 has a cosmopolitan vibe, attentive service and richly appointed cabins for high-paying Grill-class passengers especially. Seek out quiet spots in the planetarium and library.
Best for Maximizing Time in Port: River Beatrice
Why: Would you sooner pull out your own teeth than be led around by perky staffers on a group outing? If you prefer to wander on your own and spend lots of time off the ship in port, then a river cruise might be for you. Uniworld River Cruises' River Beatrice, which sailed its maiden season last year, docks daily in the center of towns and cities along Europe's Danube River. You can hop off for a walk or bicycle ride, then hop back on the ship to get dressed for a romantic meal in the dining room or in town. River Antoinette, a new sister ship which debuted in March 2011, even has a pool to relax in after the days' adventures.
Quiet Escapes: Shore excursions are part of the all-inclusive fare, but you're not forced to attend. Feel free to explore on your own, or you can keep to the fringes of a group by donning a portable headset, called Quietvox, which picks up your tour guide's voice from several feet away. Back onboard, grab a drink and a book in the reading corner of the Captain's Lounge, and tune out the world for a few hours.
Best Rest: Looking for a sumptuous sanctuary? River Beatrice has 14 suites with French balconies (225 square feet) and one spectacular Owner's Suite (300 square feet) -- the largest number of suites in the river segment of the cruise industry. Book these extra-spacious staterooms, and you can enjoy leisurely mornings with in-cabin coffee-making facilities and breakfast ordered to the room, as well as quiet evenings watching movies on the suite's DVD player. River cruising may have suffered in the past from a reputation for iffy decor, but the designers of the tony Red Carnation hotels have plumped River Beatrice's rooms with silk taffeta and antiques, Egyptian linens and cashmere wool blankets, custom Savoy beds and original art. Suite 405 is unique with a comfy, four-poster bed.
Dining a Deux: Mealtimes with fellow passengers in the all-open-seating dining room are convivial, as they mostly consist of tables for four. For more privacy, try the Captain's Lounge, where tables for two are set up in the evenings, or dine ashore.
Beware! Suites may be luxe, but the lowest cabin categories can be small, measuring about 150 square feet. If you want to spend a lot of time in your room, you'll want to pay up for more space. Also, as with boutique oceangoing ships, there's really no escaping fellow passengers while onboard these small river vessels. But, bring a book and your headphones up to the sun deck, and you likely won't be bothered.
Runner Up: For an even more port-intensive cruise with exotic flair, Hurtigruten's Midnatsol and Trollfjord make 34 stops over a six- or seven-day voyage, delivering people, goods and mail along the Norwegian coast. With lots of Europeans onboard, the language barrier may be a good way to avoid small talk.
Best Ship-Within-a-Ship: MSC Fantasia and MSC Splendida
Why: What better way to find seclusion than to shun others from entering one's gated domain? Classed cruising is back in a big way, though the degree of privacy and exclusivity ranges widely, depending on the ship. Some have blocked-off sun deck space or concierge lounges set aside for suite-dwellers; others speed V.I.P. passengers through debarkation and tendering, while still others have entry-fee-required beach clubs or bars. MSC Fantasia and sibling MSC Splendida take the concept furthest with the MSC Yacht Club -- a more-than-43,000-square-foot enclave of nearly 100 suites, accessed via private entrance. Plus, butler and concierge service means these elite passengers can avoid waiting in line to book group or private shore excursions and have snacks brought right to their doors. Not a member of the in-crowd? Take heart: MSC ships, in general, don't overwhelm passengers with annoying PA announcements or constantly throbbing muzak, and they're known for a quieter cruising vibe.
Quiet Escapes: The Yacht Club has its own private pool area with a solarium, an elevator that whisks guests privately to the MSC Aurea Spa, and an exclusive lounge located above the bridge (great for when you're feeling somewhat social but still prefer to avoid cattle-class watering holes). Butlers flit about the Club, bearing complimentary drinks, appetizers, daily afternoon tea and room service from an exclusive menu. In all, the ships' designers and Yacht Club service team have thought of everything you could need to hang out in peace, privacy and privileged comfort after you're done exploring other areas of the ship or come back from a busy day ashore.
Best Rest: Suites range from 278 square feet to a respectable 571 square feet (Royal Suite), with furnishings and amenities that are a notch above the rest -- think marble-accented baths, Italian linens and a pillow menu. With such luxurious amenities, solitary types can easily while away the hours in their cabins without braving the more public areas of the ship. Plus, 80 percent of all cabins have balconies, making a private outdoor retreat much more affordable.
Dining a Deux: Try the French restaurant, L'Etoile, on Fantasia and L'Olivo Mediterranean Restaurant on Splendida, as these alternative dining venues offer plentiful tables for two. As a bonus, Yacht Club guests eat there free of charge.
Beware! Yacht Clubbers dine together in a cordoned-off section of the ship's main dining room, which, some MSC veterans report, actually tends to increase chumminess among the ship's elite guests. Eating outside the V.I.P. area may be the wiser choice to ensure a peaceful meal.
Runner Up: Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Epic features a massive, two-deck complex of 60 suites and villas with access to a private pool, whirlpools, sauna, sun deck, gym, dining venue, bar and concierge lounge. The ship carries 4,100 passengers (double occupancy), but in this exclusive area, you may never encounter most of them. Plus, if you enjoy a less-crowded but ultra-chic beach club experience, the South Beach-inspired POSH Beach Club carries a cover charge and is open day and night to adults only.
Best Family Escape: Disney Magic, Disney Wonder
Why: There are two basic things every parent, particularly of small children, wants from a cruise. The first is to get to know their kids better by spending quality time with them, away from the daily drill of work and home routines. The second is to park the little darlings in a safe place and have time alone or as a couple -- no screaming, whining or name-calling allowed. As you'd fully expect, family- and kid-oriented activities abound on Disney Magic and Disney Wonder; the ships have some of the most expansive kids' clubs afloat, as well as plenty of fun for families to share together. But, the cruise line is also a pro at keeping grownups entertained, with adults-only areas, wine tastings, galley tours and more. On some itineraries, including European cruises, nursery and kids programming is available on port days, as well, giving parents the option to go exploring by themselves onshore. For the joy of watching your child's eyes light up as Minnie Mouse hugs her, and at the same time, the freedom to be briefly, blissfully kid-free, Disney just nails it.
Quiet Escapes: Instead of the gym's busy treadmills, head to Deck 4 for a fresh-air jog along the Promenade, which doubles as a track. Read or hang out at Cove Cafe, a New York-style coffee house, occupying two full levels on Disney Wonder (just one on Disney Magic). Take a dip at Quiet Cove, an adults-only pool next to the spa. Or, sign up for one of several shore excursions conceived for those older than 18 -- think Ferrari joy rides in Italy, or cigar- and rum-tastings at a classic Nassau resort.
Best Rest: All staterooms on Disney ships come with stress-relieving family conveniences, such as split bathrooms with separate rooms for the toilet and shower (plus a full, deep bathtub), as well as bedroom and living room areas that are separated with a curtain, so moms and dads can relax in-cabin with a book, while the kiddies sleep on the other side of the divider. Disney's Deluxe Oceanview Staterooms with Verandahs, at 268 square feet, provide more-than-adequate space for families of four. But, if you really want to splurge on roomy digs, Deck 8's Concierge Suites -- particularly the 1,029-square-foot Royal Suite with double-length balcony -- are the ships' most inviting accommodations. As the name suggests, you get the services of a friendly "cast member" who can smooth the logistics of a family's daily ship and shore routine, letting you avoid lines and enjoy more downtime.
Dining a Deux: Mealtimes in Magic's and Wonder's trio of assigned-seating dining rooms are creative, lively and fun -- but with little ones in tow, you'll hardly relax. The late seating attracts older children and so tends to be calmer. Plus, there's an ingenious option to hand off tots -- who have whizzed through dinner and are getting antsy -- to nursery staff, who come to collect the children mid-meal, so parents can finish dinner in peace. A buffet served on Deck 9 is actually best for families seeking some semblance of tranquility in the evening, as it's consistently less busy than the dining rooms. And, those 18 and older should definitely try Cove Cafe for mid-afternoon coffee and snacks and Palo for adults-only Italian dinners, as well as afternoon teas and brunches.
Beware! Beat Street, featuring a nightclub, sports bar and piano bar on Disney Magic (called Route 66 on Disney Wonder) is a fantastic place for parents to let loose, but not necessarily to relax. And, the Pirates' Deck Party is a big no-no for families who don't enjoy boisterous excitement, head-spinning buffet choices, music, dancing and the industry's only fireworks show at sea. Arrrgh, indeed!
Runner Up: Holland America Line fans skew quite a bit older, with cruises that are more sedate and geared toward adults than Disney's. But, HAL's Signature-class Nieuw Amsterdam, which debuts in July 2010, and sister ship Eurodam have decent programming. More importantly, they're two of only a few ships in the cruise industry that offer in-cabin baby-sitting -- even on port days. Plus, you won't find thousands of kids onboard as you will on Carnival or Royal Caribbean mega-ships, so your tranquil vacation is less likely to be interrupted by lovable little rascals careening through the hallways or splashing in the swimming pools.
Best for Flexibility in a Posh Setting: Oceania's Nautica, Regatta, Marina and Riviera
Why: Oceania's two 684-passenger ships -- Regatta and Nautica -- offer a refreshing mix of flexible options and high style. An open-seating dining policy allows you to eat when you want and with your choice of tablemates in multiple fee-free venues. Itineraries are port-intensive, and you'll see lots of hired cars and drivers waiting to pick up passengers at the dock for private outings. Onboard venues are relaxed and uncrowded. Overall, Oceania gives you solid choices for unstructured, mingle-as-you-wish cruises, and cruise fares aren't quite as expensive as true luxury lines like Seabourn and Silversea. The 65,000-ton, 1,252-passenger Marina and Riviera correct some minor shortcomings (such as small cabins) but carry more passengers.
Quiet Escapes: A quiet retreat, and one of the loveliest spots onboard, is the top-deck library, found on Insignia, Regatta and Nautica. Marina and Riviera feature even more beautiful, expansive libraries that are billed as proper English-style reading rooms, with hundreds of books lining wood-paneled walls. The bigger ships offer a kind of bohemian hangout called the Artists' Loft, where budding Monets and Picassos (and scrap-bookers and needle-pointers) can dish tips with artists-in-residence or simply lose themselves in their own artistic creations. Sun decks on the original Oceania duo are quieter than most cruise-ship pool areas, but for a true getaway, splurge on a private cabana, which you can book by the day or the cruise. Close the drapes to lounge on your sunbed in total quiet, or call the cabana attendant to order drinks (including Oceania's famous milkshakes), lunch or afternoon tea to your retreat. Heading indoors? Martini's lounge is a quiet spot during the mid to late afternoon.
Best Rest: Oceania's cabins aren't the generous sanctuaries that cruise travelers can find on other upscale lines; a Verandah Suite, for example, measures just 216 square feet. Book a suite if you truly intend to spend a lot of time secluded in your cabin. With Marina and Riviera, size isn't an issue; the ships' Penthouse Suites measure a respectable 420 square feet -- nearly 100 square feet larger than the Penthouses of the current fleet -- roomy enough to fit separate living/dining quarters and a walk-in closet. Cabins have 42-inch plasma televisions, Hermes and Clarins bath amenities, and funky memory foam Prestige Tranquility mattresses, which have gel-filled, pillow-top cushions and chamomile-infused fibers. (The original ships will also receive the upgraded bedding.) What reason could you possibly have to leave your stateroom?
Dining a Deux: If you are going to venture out into Oceania's public areas, it should be for the food. Menus are created by celeb chef Jacques Pepin and are well worth the calories. Dining on Oceania ships is all open-seating, room service is available 'round the clock, and tea with scones and clotted cream tempt you every afternoon. The Grand Dining Room has a few tables for two, as do specialty restaurants, and you can request a specific table (subject to availability). Dining at Polo Grill (steakhouse), Toscana (Italian) and Tapas on the Terrace incurs no extra charge -- so you won't blow your vacation budget on private dinners. For lunch, grab a sandwich at the Waves Grill, and dine out by the pool. Marina and Riviera each have a total of 10 dining venues onboard, giving passengers more choices for intimate dinners.
Beware! Repeat cruisers have a tendency to turn Oceania sailings into reunion parties, and the line markets aggressively to this companionable crowd. Families should also be aware that no children's programming is available.
Runners Up: At 32,000 tons and with 450 passengers, Seabourn Odyssey, Sojourn and Quest are Seabourn's largest vessels yet, with low passenger-to-area ratios and serene two-deck spas. Thoughtfully designed with little nooks and public rooms to dip into, the ships also feature spacious cabins, most with ample balconies (rather than the French-style mini-balconies found on the older ships). Seabourn is another line famous for its intensely loyal and affable core of repeat cruisers. Members of the anti-social set, consider yourselves warned!
--by Sarah Staples, Cruise Critic contributor
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