Luxury cruise lines come in all shapes and sizes, from masted sailing ships to yacht-style vessels, river boats and miniature versions of traditional mega-ships. For some travelers, luxury means an exclusive ship experience limited to a small number of passengers, while others want to treat themselves to a variety of dining and activity options. Luxury can be a formal, dressy experience or more casual elegance. It can take the guise of a journey to an exotic, bucket-list destination or a visit to a popular port done in high style, without being herded about en masse.
In looking at today's top luxury cruise lines, we've picked favorites that span an entire range of travel styles. While all fit the key "luxury" criteria -- outstanding cuisine and top-notch personal service -- some boast more sumptuous interiors, others more all-inclusive fares. Whatever your version of luxury travel is, there's a cruise ship that will meet (and perhaps, exceed) your demanding expectations.
Look to Silversea for flawless service, authentic gourmet cuisine, free-flowing wines, open bars, spacious suite-like staterooms (stocked with Frette terry robes), lots of balconies, friendly crew and gorgeous interiors. If you want to mingle with the wealthy, discuss fine wines with your shipmates, be waited on hand and foot, and travel to exotic destinations, choose from Silversea's three sizes of ship: the 296-passenger Silver Cloud and Silver Wind; the 388-passenger Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper; or the 540-passenger Silver Spirit.
These luxury liners redefine elegance with the company's "never say no" motto. You'll find extravagant butler-manned penthouse suites, gorgeous staterooms, irreproachable service, lavishly staged production shows and a floating Caesar's Palace casino. The ships' facilities are amazing, from a Feng Shui-inspired spa to the most exclusive collection of boutique restaurants (Prego by Valentino, Nobu Matsuhisu's Silk Road) at sea. Plus, you don't have to lose brain cells on a Crystal cruise with language, music, computer, dance and wellness classes held throughout every sailing.
The SeaDream cruise experience is aimed at active, luxury-loving travelers of any age. Sailing these 110-passenger yachts is the next best thing to having your own! Cuisine is superb, service is also superb and the yachts' interiors are un-ostentatiously elegant. Each ship has a small but incredibly lovely Asian-influenced spa. There are no private verandahs but you can cozy up under the stars in the cushy Balinese beds up on deck. Cabins are outfitted with sumptuous amenities, such as DVD players, cotton duvets and lovely bathrooms with showers for two. Another plus: This is one of the industry's most all-inclusive options. Everything from cocktails to gratuities to water sports off the ship's own platform is included in the price -- even the caviar, available around the clock.
If You Want Tropical Elegance ...
Try: Paul Gauguin Cruises' Paul Gauguin
The 332-passenger ship, which sails year-round itineraries in French Polynesia and the South Pacific, offers laid-back luxury, a romantic ambiance, fabulous food, great service and amenities, and big, beautiful staterooms (many with verandahs). What's particularly special about Paul Gauguin is that its interior was designed for French Polynesia -- and so the onboard art and ambiance very elegantly reflect the itinerary. Plus, if your idea of decadence is spending the day in the gorgeous waters of the South Pacific, Paul Gauguin makes it easy with a retractable water sports platform, offering windsurfing, waterskiing, kayaking, snorkeling and a PADI diving program. Prefer land? Enjoy day trips to private beaches in Bora Bora and Motu Mahana (a small island off Taha'a), in addition to your regular ports of call.
Regent Seven Seas' three medium-sized (490 to 700 passengers) ships are like fabulous boutique hotels at sea. Stateroom accommodations are roomy -- two ships are all-suite, all-balcony, and many staterooms come with butler service. Dining is first-rate, with your choice of social or intimate tables in the main restaurant, French dining at Le Cordon Bleu's Signatures, and tummy-filling meals at the 70-seat Prime 7 steakhouse. You won't find old fogies here -- the line attracts sophisticated, well-traveled, well-off couples, as well as families (especially on Alaska and Europe summer cruises). Even better, your cruise fare includes all beverages, gratuities, meals in all onboard dining venues, shore excursions and airfare from select gateway cities.
This spiffy, "casually relaxed" sailing fleet of two identical 148-passenger, four-masted sister ships and the larger 312-passenger, five-masted Wind Surf is popular with a preppy, sporty, Docksiders-wearing crowd that wants to travel to out-of-the-way ports without sacrificing comfort and style. Cabins may be on the small side, but they're nicely appointed with pillow-top mattresses, fluffy down comforters, flat-screen TVs, DVD players, iPod docking stations and L'Occitane en Provence bathroom amenities. Onboard meals are delicious and dining is always elegant and -- whether it's a table for two in the Restaurant, al fresco dining at Le Marche and Candles, or buffet dining with made-to-order menu items at The Veranda.
The 450-passenger Seabourn Odyssey and Sojourn, the first luxury cruise ships to be designed for today's younger, more contemporary and active upscale traveler, offer balconies, a huge spa and fitness center, and multiple dining options. Both offer flawless service, dreamy cuisine with complimentary wine, plush staterooms, fascinating ports, and a beach party drenched with caviar and champagne to complete the experience.
If You Want a Luxurious River Cruise...
Try: Uniworld's River Beatrice
Silk-lined hallways, impressive art collections, French balconies, multiple suites -- River Beatrice belongs not to the bare-bones river cruise experience of yesterday, but the luxurious future of inland cruising in Europe. Elegant meals pay homage to the cuisine of the Danube region through wish the ship travels, and complimentary tours employ knowledgeable guides and the latest technology in headset systems to better hear them. Passengers can even pamper their bodies at the small spa onboard or with rejuvenating on-deck yoga classes each morning.
If You Want to Explore Nature's Wonders in True Comfort...
Try: Orion Expedition Cruises' Orion
From Antarctica's icy shores to the Great Barrier Reef, Orion Expedition Cruises takes its passengers to remote and wild destinations in the Pacific. But while you may be clambering in and out of Zodiacs to get close to nature off the boat, onboard you'll find only luxury. This is no bare-bones former research vessel -- menus are created by Australian celebrity chef and restaurateur, Serge Dansereau; public areas are decorated in rich woods and thick carpeting; and all cabins have windows and marble bathrooms (some suites come with French balconies).
This ship was awarded "Best for Royalty" by Cruise Critic in its Editors' Picks Awards, and it seems the Queen took note. She booked the ship for the second time in 2010, having previously celebrated her 80th birthday onboard in 2006. The ship is pleasantly small, refined and best described as a mini country house at sea with sumptuous furnishings and decor. The ship can accommodate 49 passengers and 38 crewmembers, which gives some idea of the personal service you can expect to receive onboard.