Pretty much every luxury line offers fantastic and spacious suites, excellent service and a high-level of inclusivity (food, wine, tips and sometimes even shore excursions). Based on this, first-time cruisers or those trading up from mainstream lines might be tempted to think all luxury lines are the same. After all, you couldn't possibly go wrong amid Frette linens and Le Cordon Bleu menus, right? Not so. Any luxury loyalist will tell you that subtle differences among the lines mean the distinction between a nice trip with upscale trimmings and a truly amazing vacation.
Does luxury to you mean going a week without a tie or dressing up every evening and dancing the night away? Do you crave enormous suites with butler service, or would you give up lavish accommodations for personal attention and unusual itineraries? Do you want an intimate onboard experience or a larger ship with more bells and whistles? Do you want to pay for everything up front, never having to dig out your wallet onboard, or would you prefer to pay a la carte only for the amenities you desire? What you gravitate toward may leave others cold. That's why Cruise Critic is here to step you through your choices and help you select which luxury line best matches your vacation style.
A note on cruise lines: While there are some excellent premium products out there like Oceania Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises, Windstar Cruises and the Grills aboard Cunard ships, they offer a different experience, so we won't discuss them here. (You can learn more about this "luxury-lite" style of cruising here.) That's not to say that they don't offer certain qualities that are common among luxury lines, but the experience as a whole is one rung down from top shelf. Instead, we're focusing on Crystal Cruises, Hapag-Lloyd, Paul Gauguin Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn, SeaDream and Silversea -- the true luxury lines, each of which provides an incredible level of inclusivity and exclusivity.
Who's It For? Crystal Cruises was designed for travelers who pine for the traditions of cruise travel from yesteryear. It's perhaps the most formal of all the luxury lines, so it naturally draws an older, more sedate crowd that enjoys playing bridge (ACBL bridge instructors are onboard every sailing), getting golf tips from PGA golf pros (on most sailings), attending lectures during the day, and dressing for dinner and seeing a show each evening. Its duo of near-twin ships accommodates nearly 1,000 passengers, and they appeal to travelers who want a luxury experience on a slightly larger ship.
Famous for... its outstanding service, which might seem incongruous, given that the line has the biggest ships in the luxury market. Yet, crewmembers seem to genuinely enjoy interacting with passengers and are fantastic about remembering not just your name but things like your favorite pre-dinner drink, how you like your steak cooked and who your travel companions are. Additionally, Crystal Cruises has a long-term relationship with celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa, who designed the menus at Silk Road and the Sushi Bar. He often sails with the line and is accessible to passengers during special culinary voyages.
Caveat: Crystal's greatest strengths -- its sophistication, formality and adherence to long-held maritime traditions -- can also be its weakness for travelers who seek a more contemporary, laid-back luxury cruise line. Also, the line's specialty restaurants, Prego, Silk Road and the Sushi Bar are favorites with passengers, but you are allowed only one reservation per specialty restaurant to be confirmed prior to sailing. Additional meals at those restaurants can sometimes be reserved onboard if tables are available, but you will be charged a $30 per-person surcharge.
Ship: Europa, Europa 2
Who's It For? This well-respected European brand has always impressed passengers with its beautiful and contemporary ships. And while Hapag-Lloyd does have a storied past in the shipping and cruise industries, it has made inroads in recent years, drawing young cruisers that are especially intrigued by its newest ships, Europa and Europa 2. These days, thirty- and forty-somethings, as well as families, indulge in Europa and Europa 2's luxury experience, modern amenities and family-friendly programming, while visiting exotic destinations around the world. Both Europa and Europa 2 receive high marks from first-time cruisers who often say they will return.
Famous for... refined European-style service and ships. Service is neither overly friendly nor impersonal, but instead strikes a balance that immediately puts you at ease and gives you the confidence to know that anything you desire is just one simple request away. The ships are both gorgeous, featuring exquisite artwork (think Damien Hirst and Gerhard Richter) and highly styled interior design. Europa 2 also throws in a few innovations like a 3D cinema, a kitchen studio for cooking classes and demonstrations, and the huge Ocean Spa (more than 6,500 square feet) and fitness deck, complete with space dedicated to the game of golf.
Caveat: Most of Hapag-Lloyd's ships cater to German-speakers, which could be disconcerting if you don't know the language. However, the cruise line is focusing on attracting more English-speaking clientele. All of Europa 2's voyages are bilingual, but only a portion of Europa's itineraries offer English-language based announcements and activities. Perhaps more problematic is that Hapag-Lloyd still allows smoking in certain parts of its ships, including the lounges, and that might trouble Americans.
Paul Gauguin Cruises
Who's It For? Paul Gauguin Cruises attracts romantics, adventurers and anyone yearning to visit remote islands like Bora Bora, Huahine and Taha'a. It offers the perfect cruises for commemorating special occasions like a wedding, anniversary or retirement, but the line also has a loyal following of repeat cruisers. The cruise line focuses on French Polynesia and the South Pacific as a whole -- visiting the Society Islands, Tuamotus and Cook Islands -- but its second ship, Tere Moana, sails in the Caribbean and Mediterranean for those who don't want to fly quite so far.
Famous for… its intimate knowledge of French Polynesia. Every itinerary visits the most beautiful bays and coves in Tahiti, Bora Bora, Huahine and beyond. What's especially memorable is Motu Mahana. It's Paul Gauguin's private island off Taha'a, and it's there that the crew stage a spectacular beach day. As the chefs fire up the grills and get a BBQ lunch ready, passengers are encouraged to enjoy massages on the beach, learn how to wrap a pareo with Les Gauguines (a troop of Polynesian singers and dancers that act as hosts aboard the ship), swim and snorkel offshore, and borrow watercraft like kayaks and Hobie Cats to explore the nearby deserted motus.
Caveats: This lovely cruise line's two-ship fleet only visits a small portion of the world. Paul Gauguin focuses on the South Pacific, while its sister ship, Tere Moana, explores Europe and the Caribbean/Latin America, including the Panama Canal. Only eight of Tere Moana's 44 cabins have balconies.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Who's It For? Regent Seven Seas Cruises appeals to cruisers who want a truly all-inclusive experience and a ship that's neither too big nor too small. Luxury-seekers will appreciate all-suite, nearly all-balcony accommodations and multiple choices for fine onboard dining on the 500- to 700-passenger ships. The line also lures destination-focused travelers with a wide variety of land tours, plus a travel concierge who can help them design their own experiences in ports of call (renting vintage sports cars for a drive around Tuscany or dining by candlelight in the Cisterns of Istanbul).
Famous for... including nearly all shore excursions in the cruise price, a move that shocked the industry when it was announced. Regent offers arguably the most inclusive fares in the luxury market, and when we say "all-inclusive," we're talking roundtrip air (from select U.S. gateways), all onboard meals (no specialty restaurant fees), Wi-Fi (for passengers in Concierge suites and higher), transfers between the airport and ship, and unlimited beverages that include wine, premium spirits and an in-suite minibar that's replenished daily -- in addition to a selection of free tours in every single port.
Caveat: While it's a fact that Regent cruisers can book an unlimited number of free shore excursions, some of the most interesting options are from the line's Regent Choice Shore Excursion menu, which requires a supplementary charge. These small-group tours -- which include market tours and cooking classes in Bali or tours of wildlife reserves in Argentina -- generally offer a more unique look at the destination at hand.
Seabourn Cruise Lines
Who's It For? Seabourn draws travelers who want all things luxury without sacrificing the bells and whistles that are available on today's newest cruise ships. This line is right for you if you're looking for a mid-size vessel with well-appointed verandah suites, an awesome spa complex, a sexy pool deck, a retractable water sports marina, fantastic gourmet restaurants and a full complement of entertainment staff that perform throughout the ship. Seabourn passengers tend to be down-to-earth individuals with discerning tastes.
Famous for... the incomparable "Exclusively Seabourn" complimentary shoreside experiences on select cruises. For example, in Turkey, after Ephesus closes to the public, Seabourn passengers are met by costumed actors bearing torches, who lead them to a stage in front of the Library of Celsus (a beautiful and ancient structure that was built in 135 AD) to enjoy cocktails, hors d'oeuvres and a performance by a string quartet. Free on-deck "massage moments" and drawn baths from the line's Pure Pampering aromatherapy menu are other popular perks. But, what keeps travelers coming back to Seabourn is its beyond-fabulous service; after a long day of shore excursions, you'll return to the ship to find the crew has literally rolled out a red carpet to greet you. Crew from all areas of the ship line up along that carpet bearing flutes of fine Champagne.
Caveat: Seabourn's fleet used to be dominated by a trio of small sister ships -- Spirit, Legend and Pride -- which carried just 212 passengers each. Cruisers were incredibly loyal to the ships and the Seabourn brand. However, those ships have now been sold to Windstar Cruises, and Seabourn is sailing newer and larger ships: Odyssey, Sojourn and Quest. Each ship welcomes 450 passengers, and while they all feature new dining venues, a terrific spa and an aft marina, some loyalists are having trouble embracing the changes.
SeaDream Yacht Club
Who's It For? SeaDream manages to be both sophisticated and laid-back at the same time, and that neat trick draws clientele who prefer indulging in the good life without the pomp and circumstance of more formal cruise lines. SeaDream cruisers must forgo spacious suites, onboard entertainment staff and other hallmarks of larger cruise ships in favor of excellent, highly personalized and simper-free service. If you've always dreamed of sailing the world in your own luxury yacht, a SeaDream cruise gets you pretty close to that goal.
Famous for... its emphasis on living the good life outdoors. You might have heard about SeaDream's Caviar and Champagne Splash, where waiters wade waist-deep in the water -- either in the ship's pool or right at the ocean's edge on a secluded beach -- and serve passengers fine Champagne and caviar from a surfboard. The aft marina is also something special. The water sports platform is deployed when the seas and weather permit. You can swim, snorkel, or borrow a personal watercraft, kayak or Hobie sailboat. Finally, if you've ever dreamed of sleeping on deck, you can reserve a Balinese bed, and the crew will make it up with Egyptian cotton linens and a fluffy duvet and pillows. Sleeping under the stars at sea is the ultimate romantic treat.
Caveat: Neither of SeaDream Yacht Club's identical 112-passenger ships offers cabins with balconies. That's definitely a downside if you're used to spending time on your stateroom's verandah.
Silversea Cruise Lines
Who's It For? First-time luxury cruisers tend to opt for Silversea because of its all-suite ships and complimentary butler service. The company offers a wonderful introduction to the world of high-end cruising because it excels in service, culinary endeavors and itinerary programming. Once they've sailed, passengers are likely to stick with the line; it's common to meet fellow cruisers who've sailed with Silversea for years. This ultra-inclusive Italian line operates some of the smallest luxury ships you'll find in the industry (with the exception of SeaDream's mega-yachts). This translates into more personal service and visits to smaller ports that larger ships can't easily access. Middle age and older couples also gravitate to Silversea because the ships are beautiful and easy to get around.
Famous for... the food. Put simply, Silversea's array of dining establishments continually gets rave reviews from passengers. While the main dining room, The Restaurant, continually wows diners, the meal you dream about long after you return home is the one you enjoy at Le Champagne: the only Relais & Chateaux restaurant at sea, which touts wine-paired menus and dishes. If you're sailing aboard Silver Spirit, you also have the option of Seishin with regional specialties from Japan, China, Thailand, Vietnam and India, as well as Stars Supper Club cabaret, which features small plates and cocktails. The line also makes a very respectable deck BBQ that features a massive buffet of cold seafood and salads, roasted and grilled meats and fish, an impressive cheese board, freshly baked breads and a huge dessert bar.
Caveat: While all ships feature Le Champagne, dining there costs extra. In fact, Silversea is the first high-end line to charge for meals at its alternative restaurants. At Le Champagne, the fee can run as high as $200 for the wine-paired menu. Seishin carries a surcharge, as well.
--By Andrea M. Rotondo, Cruise Critic contributor