If you believe the cruise brochures, every ship offers a life of luxury. However the truth is rather different, and on some British ships the luxe-factor is noticeably absent. These mass-market vessels tend to be older and lack the finer touches that are a hallmark of newer ships operated by the three largest US-based -lines -- Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line -- the former two of which also offer selected cruises from British ports.
Cunard, perceived by many as the epitome of cruising glamour, provides different levels of stylish sailing culminating in 'Grills Class' where passengers pay top dollar to occupy the finest suites. Likewise (though not operating out of UK waters), Norwegian and MSC Cruises offer a 'ship within a ship' concept of the Garden Villa and Yacht Club, respectively, that are segregated from the main public areas.
But is it possible for passengers in modest accommodation to buy into the luxury lifestyle?
The answer is yes, and many savvy cruisers are foregoing lavish suites, preferring to shell out on speciality dining, private deck space and other treats. The Verandah Grill of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria; the Sanctuary of Royal Princess; and the new Suite Class on Celebrity Eclipse are examples of where a few dollars more transforms the run-of-the-mill to the second-to-none.
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Here's where to find luxury on ships sailing from British ports.
Royal Caribbean International Ships
Onboard Anthem of the Seas, Royal Caribbean's new mega-ship, the exclusive Coastal Kitchen restaurant is among the perks for suite guests, but there are luxury touches for cruisers in other cabins. Anthem also features three junior suite categories, with spa-inspired amenities, plus a family junior suite with a full-size bathtub (a rarity on cruise ships). A meal in the ever-popular Chops Grille, with its 28-day aged steaks, is open to everyone at a very reasonable $35 dollar cover charge, but inside you feel you've stepped into an elite supper club.
Outside, the adults-only solarium, which includes an indoor pool with a retractable roof and a cafe serving light fare, is a relaxing place to unwind and enjoy some privacy. And for younger luxe-lovers, the spa includes some treatments just for teens, including a facial geared to teenage complexions and the Beach Babe hair conditioning treatment.
The newly refurbished Explorer of the Seas begins its first European season in 2015 with a host of new enhancements including the Ship-Shape Vitality Day Spa for pampering bliss. Encompassing more than 15,000 square feet, the spa and fitness centre is among the largest afloat, with 14 multipurpose treatment rooms, a thermal suite and relaxation area.
Cunard ships hark back to yesteryear with their subtle class distinction. Restaurants correlate to the cabin category booked with passengers occupying penthouses and suites dining in the Queens or Princess Grill as well as having access to the elegant Grills Lounge And other exclusive areas. However, on Queen Mary 2 passengers dining in the main Britannia Restaurant can pay a surcharge for lunch or dinner in Todd English which offers a contemporary twist on Mediterranean-inspired dishes. You can also, for a small supplement, enjoy one of the best thermal suites at sea, in the Aqua Therapy Centre. It is equipped with a good-sized aqua therapy pool, a whirlpool, reflexology basin and sensory showers. Sauna-lovers will be in heaven, as you can choose from a traditional Finnish sauna, an aromatic steam room and an herbal sauna before cooling down with the ice fountain.
On Queen Elizabeth passengers are also allocated the restaurant associated with their cabin category. The Britannia Club offers an excellent 'halfway house' between standard staterooms and Grill accommodation. Passengers in Britannia Club Balcony suites enjoy anytime dining in the intimate Britannia Restaurant and guests in other Britannia category cabins are allocated a reserved table for early or late dinner in the restaurant. All passengers can also splash out for lunch or dinner in the sumptuous Verandah Grill restaurant.
On both Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria cruisers looking for extra creature comforts can push the boat out and sign up for a 'Spa Passport' providing access to the Royal Bath House, adjacent to the main outdoor pool, with its indoor thalassotherapy pool and thermal suite. The pass includes robes, slippers and other amenities.
Holland America Line Ships
Rotterdam boasts the company's latest 'Signature of Excellence' enhancements offering travellers the opportunity to travel in style on a ship that harks back to a more traditional experience. The 39 new Lanai Staterooms, feature sliding glass doors (mirrored to ensure privacy), that lead onto the walk-around Lower Promenade Deck where two deck chairs are reserved for exclusive use. Conveniently located near the Greenhouse Spa and Salon for easy access, Spa Suites and stateroom accommodation have special in-room spa amenities such as yoga mats, an iPod docking station and a countertop water feature to enhance in-room serenity. Guests can also enjoy exclusive spa treatments, which can be booked only in these staterooms. Another bolthole is the adults-only Retreat for a resort-style pool experience similar to that offered on P&O Cruises' Britannia.
On Ryndam the much-praised Pinnacle Grill is the go-to speciality restaurant for legions of Holland America Line's culinary cognoscenti. On every voyage the restaurant offers 'An Evening at Le Cirque' for a taste of Sirio Maccioni's legendary New York restaurant of the same name.
Living up to its name, the Retreat is an exclusive outdoor spa area with plenty of wow. This private area forward of the Serenity Pool and bar on the Sun Deck has super comfortable sunbeds, two whirlpools and cabanas for private, alfresco spa treatments. Stewards are on hand throughout the day to offer bathrobes, cold flannels, smoothies, fruit platters and other healthy food choices. P&O Cruises first introduced this adults-only enclave on Azura and it proved so popular that it was added to Ventura and is now proving a hit with passengers on the new flagship Britannia.
Princess Cruises has created an adults-only Sanctuary on Sun Deck. The cabanas have televisions and noise-reducing wireless headphones, comfy sofas, robes and slippers, plus a fully stocked minibar with water and soft drinks. These can be rented for a half or full day and include drinks and fruit. Picnic baskets for two can also be delivered, as well as healthy options from a dedicated menu. There are two Lotus Spa cabanas for outdoor massages and a treatment area with two massage tables for couples' massages. Also available for rental are six poolside cabanas, with two sunbeds, beside the Retreat Pool on the Sun Deck.
In April 2015 Celebrity Cruises introduced 'Suite Class' featuring a dedicated lounge, complimentary premium drinks and a suites-only restaurant, Luminae, with special dishes only available in this private restaurant, with each menu item only featured once during a two-week cruise. The unique menus also showcase locally sourced regional and seasonal ingredients inspired by the destinations visited by the ship. The menus are completed with suggested wine pairings, and the wine list includes more than 400 selections.