Once-in-a-lifetime shore excursions. Private, in-suite dinners. Champagne and caviar at exclusive beach parties. Butlers to make spa bookings. Innovative menus dreamed up by celebrity chefs. Lavish accommodations, featuring whirlpools, expansive balconies and multiple levels.
Sounds nice, right?
Nowadays, as travelers become ever more sophisticated and cruise lines clamor for even more points of differentiation, the upscale envelope has been pushed. Fantasy, thrills of a lifetime, upper-crust adventures and red-carpet treatment await today's cruisegoers. Lines like Seabourn, Silversea and Cunard are building new ships and tailoring them to modern views of luxury -- like multiple dining venues, expansive spas, larger suites with more balconies -- while lines like Regent Seven Seas and Windstar are investing in upscale upgrades to improve menus, bedding and public spaces.
Plus, luxury lines are increasingly creative with exclusive, boutique excursions (like riding in a MiG fighter jet at twice the speed of sound) and enrichment programming that gives you a glimpse into the minds of scientists, actors, writers and political figures, among others.
Some of my favorite aspects of luxury cruising include:
Over-the-top experiences. My favorites include a private evening at the Turkish ruins of Ephesus, complete with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, courtesy of Seabourn. Another time, I spent an afternoon kayaking, sailing and snorkeling off the coast of Dominica after SeaDream Yacht Club staffers opened the ship's sports platform.
Personalization. Whether it's as simple as a Windstar chef cooking up another pot of my favorite soup or as lavish as the time Crystal Cruises' staff fulfilled a passenger's request for a birthday party by chartering six helicopters and flying celebrants -- and waiters -- to an Alaskan glacier for a picnic, luxury-line staff try hard not to say no.
More for your money. Not only are you not constantly accosted by crewmembers looking to take your photo (and charge you outrageous rates for the prints) or pushing fruity drinks in souvenir glasses, but many luxury lines have increased the inclusive nature of their fares. Thousands of dollars in onboard credit, shore excursions, airfare, beverages and gratuities are included in the cruise base. The upshot: You can focus on being pampered -- and not on who's paying for drinks at the bar or whether or not you should indulge in another massage.
All of these luxury lines will treat you like a V.I.P., but which one is right for you? 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? Does luxury mean going a week without a tie or dressing up every evening and dancing the night away? Whether you're searching for a once-in-a-lifetime splurge or simply trying to find the cruise line that best suits your personality, here are the creme de la creme of luxury cruise ships, some of their latest services and why they're superb sailings.
Why I Get Goosebumps: This is a small-ship line of the highest level that's really designed for folks who otherwise eschewed the concept of cruising. It offers unprecedented flexibility, and peerless amenities include caviar, available through 24-hour room service; fabulous service across the board; top-notch culinary options; and a lavish spa that's a member of the prestigious Thai Spa Association.
Complimentary, crew-led shore excursions include biking trips with the captain, shopping trips with the chef and early-morning beach walks with the activities director. Decks feature Balinese Sun Beds that are raised above the sightlines of the railings, providing unobstructed views. Captains have authority to adjust for whims; for example, ships can depart later than scheduled if folks want more time on shore -- or can stay out at sea to allow more play from the water sports platform. Cabins feature the latest high-tech toys (DVD and CD players, flat-screen televisions), high-level cotton bedding and gorgeous bathrooms with showers built for two.
Food for Thought: There are two restaurants; the more formal is the Main Dining Salon, while Topside, on one of the ships' uppermost decks, is an al fresco option. All meals are open-seating. The open-bar policy includes gratis fine wines and spirits throughout the trip.
Famous for . . . the Caviar and Champagne Splash, served in the pool or right at the ocean's edge on a secluded beach.
State of Staterooms: Yachts only hold 47 to 56 couples. Of 56 guest accommodations, 54 are 195 square feet; there is one 447-square-foot Owner's Suite and one 375-square-foot Admiral Suite. Sixteen regular cabins can be converted into eight Commodore Suites (essentially two cabins combined into one), and passengers can choose to have two separate beds or one bed and a dining table that seats four.
Caveat: Neither of SeaDream Yacht Club's identical ships offers cabins with balconies -- though I must admit that the top-deck Balinese beds were such a fabulous way to be outdoors, I never missed having a verandah.
Why I Get Goosebumps: Silversea is also known for its one-to-one crew-to-guest ratio and for offering small-ship intimacy with large-ship amenities. Service is awesome: every day of my cruise, Sujith the pool bartender, handed me a fresh-squeezed diet lemonade made with Splenda soon after I arrived. As he told me, "On Silversea, there is no 'no.'" The line's "Personalized Voyages" program allows passengers to embark and disembark from the cruise at their convenience, for days at a time, allowing ultimate flexibility.
Food for Thought: The Restaurant is the fleet's main dining venue, while La Terrazza offers buffet options and al fresco dining. All restaurants are open seating, and all wine and spirits -- plus a stocked in-suite beverage cabinet -- are included, so you can enjoy cocktails from appletinis to zombies. Alternative restaurants vary by ship. All ships feature Le Champagne, a restaurant touting wine-paired menus and dishes by Relais & Chateaux. Silver Spirit has additional venues, including Stars Supper Club for light bites and dancing and Seishin for Kobe beef, sushi and Asian seafood specialties.
Famous for . . . the "Silversea Experience," a complimentary shoreside event found on 10 percent of sailings. It might include dinner under the stars in the Namib Desert or afternoon tea at Barcelona's Picasso Museum, open exclusively to Silversea passengers.
State of Staterooms: All staterooms are suites; 80 percent have verandahs (95 percent on Silver Spirit), though Vista Suites do not. The largest are the Owner's, Grand and Royal suites, all of which can be combined with an adjoining Vista Suite. All suites come with butler service.
Caveat: Silversea is the first high-end line to charge for service at its boutique restaurants. There is a fee that can run as high as $200 for the wine-paired menu in Le Champagne; Seishin carries a surcharge, as well.
Why I Get Goosebumps: I'd vote for the incomparable "Exclusively Seabourn" shoreside experience on select cruises. For example, after Ephesus closes to the public, Seabourn passengers are met by costumed actors bearing torches and fruit-filled cornucopias. They then enjoy cocktails and hors d'oeuvres while being serenaded by a string quartet. Free massage moments on deck are another trendsetting feature. But, what keeps travelers coming back to Seabourn is its beyond-fabulous service; on a long shore excursion from Warnemunde to Berlin, we returned to a red carpet, lined with crew from all areas of the ship who were bearing flutes of Champagne.
Food for Thought: On each ship, the Restaurant serves as the more formal venue. On the older triplets, the ship-top Verandah is more casual, with a buffet and a small menu. On the new ships, Colonnade is more akin to chic bistro dining. All ships offer Restaurant 2 (in the Veranda Cafe on the triplets and in its own space on the new ships); inspired by Charlie Palmer, the line's resident celebrity chef, this venue showcases a contemporary menu, featuring tapaslike dishes. All alcoholic beverages and French Champagne are included, plus there's a stocked bar in every suite. (Ultra-premium wines cost extra.) All dining is open-seating.
Famous for . . . the "Pure Pampering" beauty services. Enjoy beauty and well-being products from the Therapies line by Molton Brown (a cruise-industry exclusive, found only on Seabourn). Or, surprise your spouse with a complimentary steward-prepared bath, featuring any of five aromatherapy preparations, plus scattered flower petals.
State of Staterooms: Each yacht features all-suite accommodations; the triplets carry 208 passengers at maximum, and the new ships accommodate 450. On the older ships, only six suites -- the Owner's and Classic varieties -- have private verandahs; the 36 additional suites (measuring 277 square feet each) have only sliding-glass doors leading to small, step-out balconies. On the newer ships, nearly 88 percent of staterooms have true verandahs. The new Wintergarden Suites even feature glass-walled solariums.
Caveat: Seabourn's older ships (Legend, Pride, Spirit) have no true balconies and modest spas and gyms. The concept of butler service does not exist, but the service is so personal that there seems to be no need.
Why I Get Goosebumps: Two of RSSC's three ships are all-suite, all-balcony; Seven Seas Navigator is all-suite, all-outside cabins. The smallest Regent suites measure 301 square feet, and accommodations just increase in spaciousness from there.
RSSC's wide variety of land options gives passengers the ultimate in flexibility. A travel concierge is available by a toll-free line to help passengers design their own experiences in ports of call. They can rent vintage sports cars in Tuscany or dine by candlelight in the Cisterns of Istanbul. Regent Choice excursions offer exclusive experiences, such as market tours and cooking classes in Bali or tours of wildlife reserves in Argentina, to small groups. Executive Collection tours arrange for private cars and English-speaking drivers for a day onshore.
The line also has several enrichment series, including the Featured Luminaries program, which brings onboard speakers like Jean-Michel Cousteau and Rita Moreno; Food, Wine & Spirits programs that focus on special interests, such as Le Cordon Bleu workshops at sea and "Spotlight on Chocolate" cruises; and Discovery & Exploration programs that invite regional experts and personalities from PBS onboard for lectures.
Food for Thought: All ships have Compass Rose, the main, open-seating dining room, and the Prime 7 Steakhouse, which serves steaks and seafood. On Mariner and Voyager, Signatures is a formal French restaurant, inspired by Le Cordon Bleu. La Veranda, the line's buffet venue, is one of the best at sea. All meals are open-seating.
Famous for . . . including nearly all shore excursions in the cruise price, a move that shocked the industry when it was announced. It also includes all beverages, meals in alternate restaurants, tips, government taxes and fees -- and, in many cases, roundtrip airfare (including free business-class air for Penthouse and higher-category passengers in Europe). That makes it possibly the most inclusive cruise line around.
State of Staterooms: In certain Penthouse categories, passengers receive free pressing on the first night of embarkation, Hermes toiletries, iPod MP3 players with Bose speakers and butler service. On all ships, cabins are supplied with liquor, down comforters, Egyptian cotton linens, flat-screen televisions, DVD players and Wi-Fi access.
Caveat: Regent raises its fares four times a year, so if you can't book far in advance, expect to pay more for your sailing.
Why I Get Goosebumps: I've never felt as pampered on a cruise as I have on each of the three I've taken with Crystal; the crew is absolutely first-rate. This line boasts the only Feng Shui-inspired spa at sea and mohair lap blankets in all staterooms. Plus, its Trident ice cream bar offers (are you ready?) 30 different ice creams, 24 homemade sherbets and 20 nonfat yogurts.
Food for Thought: Crystal's Perfect Choice dining offers traditional dining options, with fixed early or late seating. But it also allows passengers a dining by reservation option, for those who want more flexibility. Crystal's alternative options are simply fantastic, ranging from Italian and Asian restaurants to elaborate luncheon buffets on sea days. Full room-service menus are available, and meals from the dining room can be ordered during the appropriate hours.
Famous for . . . its outstanding service, which may seem incongruous given that the line has the biggest ships in the luxury market, accommodating nearly 1,000 passengers. What makes it so special is that crewmembers seem to genuinely enjoy interaction with passengers. Crystal was the first line to launch its own wine label, named C Wines. Crystal's spas are among the best in the business; the larger size of its ships means there's more room for fitness and treatments.
State of Staterooms: More than half of the cabins feature verandahs. Those on the penthouse level come with superb butler service and complimentary liquor setups. You can order in pillows from a pillow menu.
Why I Get Goosebumps: There's nothing quite like watching a ship's sails unfurl as you steam out of port, and Windstar's open deck spaces highlight the romance of being at sea. At the same time, the below-deck area is anything but bare bones, unlike some other sailing vessels. Expect well-appointed staterooms, delicious dining options and lots of personalized service.
Food for Thought: All ships have the Restaurant, the main dining venue, and La Verandah, a lovely top-deck indoor/outdoor buffet. They also feature the intimate Candles -- essentially the poolside grill, dressed up for dinner with a menu of steaks and skewers. Wind Surf, slightly larger than siblings Wind Star and Wind Spirit, also has Degrees, which offers themed dinners (with a different menu each night), and Le Marche, an al fresco seafood bar.
Famous for . . . the ships' water-sports platforms, which turn pristine lagoons into private water parks. Plus, the ships are known for their small size, which enables them to get into more intimate, off-beat ports of call.
State of Staterooms: All staterooms, save for a handful of suites, are 188 square feet with windows -- not balconies. They're outfitted with iPod Nanos and docking stations, L'Occitane en Provence bathroom products, flat-screen TV's with DVD players, plush Euro-top mattresses and luxurious bedding. New spa suites feature organic bedding, spa credit and fitness classes.
Caveat: If you're looking for luxury-apartmentlike suites, you won't find them on Windstar ships. Typical suites are simply two standard cabins connected, with a sitting area replacing where the second bed would be. Only Wind Surf offers more spacious 500-square-foot Bridge Suites with living and dining areas, separate bedrooms with walk-in closets, and marble bathrooms with whirlpool tubs and separate showers.
Why I Get Goosebumps: The mid-sized Europa is so elegant and refined, yet unpretentious, that it offers one of the best combinations of big- and small-ship service, cuisine, entertainment and recreation that we've experienced.
Food for Thought: Dining in the main restaurant at dinner follows a European model and is of the arranged variety -- but there's only one seating, and you own the table for the night. That also applies to the excellent Italian alternative restaurant. In 2010, Michelin-acclaimed chef Dieter Muller opened his namesake specialty restaurant onboard; it serves a contemporary menu, influenced by French, Asian and Mediterranean cuisines. The top-deck buffet, among the most elegant we've experienced, serves fabulous themed dinners, particularly after long days in exotic ports.
Famous for . . . service, which is outstanding in a crisp, Germanic sort of way. The ship is gorgeous, featuring elegant artwork and high ceilings in the main hallways, and it rarely repeats a port, much less an itinerary, in a calendar year. Its open-to-the-sea Sansibar -- one of the hippest, loveliest and most convivial bars afloat -- was our favorite spot onboard.
State of Staterooms: All staterooms are classified as suites with walk-in closets and lovely bathrooms with tubs; a significant percentage feature private verandahs. Soft furnishings include the highest quality cottons and duvets, and each cabin features a state-of-the-art interactive television system that includes offerings in English and German.
Caveat: Just about everything is priced on an a la carte basis, from cocktails to wine with dinner. There's no such thing as a "plain" glass of water; in the European mode, you must order a bottle (still or sparkling), and it can be more expensive than wine by the glass. Also, the line offers only a handful of voyages marketed to English-speaking passengers; while you can sail at any time, some might find disconcerting the fact that fellow travelers onboard -- not to mention guest lecturers and waitstaff -- speak German (and only German). Still, that didn't bother me at all.
Why I Get Goosebumps: Queens Grill's grandest suites are duplex units on QM2 with their own butlers, private fitness room and Canyon Ranch amenities (thanks to the onboard Canyon Ranch SpaClub -- be still my beating heart). Dressing for dinner is still an event to be savored, and evening dancing in the largest ballrooms at sea is a nightly event. Brand-name retail shops like Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, Hermes and Chopard definitely top gold-by-the-inch stalls.
Food for Thought: There are three categories of accommodations aboard these vessels, which are part mass-market cruise ship, part upscale luxury splurge. Most folks book in the big-ship-style Britannia class (which corresponds to the set-tablemates, set-seating dining venue to which they are assigned). More wealthy patrons frequent the higher-end Princess Grill and the even more chichi Queens Grill. Both feature assigned seating at tables of two, four and six, but passengers can arrive at any time during designated dining hours. (Britannia is a two-seating ballroom-type venue).
Note: The Queens Grill differs from the Princess in a few ways. It offers more tableside service (such as preparation of sole and duck) and expanded a la carte selections. Even better, Queens Grill patrons have their own lounge, open from 10 a.m. until midnight. (You can get coffee, cocktails, afternoon tea and, from 6:30 until 8:30 p.m., hot and cold canapes accompanied by live piano music.) Queens and Princess passengers enjoy a separate room-service menu that's much more elaborate than that offered to Britannia folks.
Otherwise, a number of eateries are open to all, where class distinction is not quite so blatant. Todd English offers his namesake restaurants on Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria. (Even with surcharges for lunch and dinner, reservations can be hard to make.) Queen Elizabeth's alternate dining venue is the Verandah, serving contemporary French cuisine. The Golden Lion Pub on all three ships dishes up lunches of pub favorites like fish 'n' chips and shepherd's pie. And, don't miss the Queen's Ballroom at teatime. The English sure know how to do it.
Famous for . . . some amazing amenities. QM2, for instance, boasts the only planetarium at sea, the largest library at sea (8,000 volumes), $5 million worth of onboard art and 30,000 bottles of wine. Queen Elizabeth sports a retro Games Deck -- where passengers can play croquet, bowls or paddle tennis -- and the Garden Lounge, a palm-filled conservatory where Champagne, afternoon teas and evening supper clubs are held. All three ships host top-notch enrichment programming through the Cunard Insights guest lecturer program and Cunard ConneXions activities (watercolor lessons, computer workshops, ballroom dance lessons, etc.). The line also has partnerships with London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Juilliard School.
State of Staterooms: QM2 features five Queen's Grill Grand Duplex apartments, measuring 1,194 to 2,249 square feet; each is lavishly appointed with two marble baths, a large balcony, a walk-in closet, one piece of exercise equipment (such as a treadmill or Stairmaster) in a special fitness area and a stocked bar. On Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria, 1,100- to 2,131-square-foot Grand and Master Suites rule the roost as the most lavish onboard. Additional Queens Grill suites on all three ships measure 484 to 796 square feet, while Princess Grill junior suites measure 335 to 513 square feet.
All Queen's and Princess Grill accommodations feature posh amenities, such as flat-screen televisions, soft robes and slippers, a pillow menu and a bottle of bon voyage sparkling wine.
Caveat: It's important to remember that Cunard ships are not luxury ships across the board. In fact, they're hybrids -- and the only real place where the vessels qualify for this story is within their Grill-class accommodations.
--by Debbi Karpowicz-Kickham, Cruise Critic contributor. Updated by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor.