The moment you step aboard a luxury cruise ship, a hostess is at your arm proffering a glass of bubbly while a capable room steward offers to heft your carry-on as he escorts you to what will be your home-away-from-home for the next few days. You stow your things (likely in a walk-in closet) and then emerge from your suite to get the lay of the ship. As you walk the decks, friendly crewmembers greet you ... by name. How can that be? You just set foot onboard!
First-class, personalized service is just one of the hallmarks of luxury cruise lines. You can also expect exotic itineraries, varying degrees of inclusivity in pricing, fine wines and gourmet cuisine, as well as universally high crew-to-passenger ratios.
That being the case, you might think any old luxury cruise ship will do, but that's not quite true. Like people, cruise ships have their own unique personalities, and some will be more suited to your vacation style than others. Yacht lines like SeaDream and Windstar may not offer the most spacious suites, but their intimate ships can stealthily visit ports that large ships can't. Regent Seven Seas and Oceania Cruises may be owned by the same parent company, but Regent offers a completely inclusive vacation experience, while Oceania draws travelers with a more independent streak.
Take a look at Cruise Critic's list of best luxury cruise ships to see which one resonates with you. (We've arranged them in order of size, with small ships accommodating fewer than 200 passengers, midsize vessels welcoming 300 to 600 cruisers and large ships designed for 700 or more people.)
Small Luxury Cruise Ships
Un-Cruise Adventures' Safari Explorer
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 36 to 15
Ship Features: You'll never get lost on this cozy yacht that features just three public decks. Most of your time on Safari Explorer is spent relaxing in the sun lounge or in the sauna on the Bridge Deck; visiting the Captain on the Bridge; watching the world pass by in the Bow Viewing Area on the Cabin Deck; or mingling with other passengers in the salon, bar or wine library on the Main Deck. There's also a full-beam swim step at the aft, making it easy for passengers to swim and snorkel directly from the ship.
Despite the intimate nature of this ship, Safari Explorer offers plenty of options when it comes to accommodations, including six different stateroom categories -- from singles all the way up to the spacious Commodore Suite, which includes a separate sitting area, king or twin beds, a balcony and bath with Jacuzzi tub and shower.
It's the human touch that sets this ship apart, though. The chef makes it a point to talk with passengers and learn their likes and dislikes and customizes the daily menus accordingly. The onboard naturalists also have constant contact with cruisers, offering lectures throughout the cruise and leading excursions ashore and in the water.
The cruise fare is all-inclusive, and the crew cannot do enough to please you. On a recent cruise, one fellow cruiser commented during the pre-cruise cocktail party that his favorite drink was spicy Bloody Marys. The chef left the ship and hurried to a local grocery store to purchase more tomato juice to make sure the yacht wouldn't run dry during the voyage. Similarly, when one passenger's camera broke mid-cruise, a cabin stewardess lent her personal camera to the traveler so he wouldn't miss capturing any memorable moments.
It's the Little Things: Un-Cruise Adventures shines when it comes to the onboard naturalists and guides that take part in every voyage. You'll learn about the places you're visiting during pre-dinner lectures and, on land, the staff knows the best spots for hiking, kayaking, swimming and exploring.
Who Sails This Ship: The ship attracts sophisticated, well-traveled individuals. Un-Cruise Adventures is ideal for fun-loving, adventurous individuals who want a luxurious ship with a staff that instinctively knows how to pamper its passengers.
Itinerary Highlights: The ship visits Alaska's Inside Passage and the Hawaiian Islands.
Other Ships in the Fleet: Un-Cruise Adventures employs three other ships for its "Luxury Adventures." The three-deck, 86-passenger Safari Endeavour is similar in style to Safari Explorer and spends its time in Alaska's Inside Passage. The 64-passenger Safari Voyager focuses exclusively on Mexico's Sea of Cortez, and the smallest yacht, 22-passenger Safari Quest, visits Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Un-Cruise sails four other ships for more active and cultural cruises that are not quite as luxurious.
Ponant's Le Ponant
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 64 to 32
Ship Features: Masted ships always seem a bit more romantic than their counterparts, and Le Ponant is no different. Because of its sleek size, the three-masted vessel can sail very close to shore, and that allows for some beautiful, postcard-perfect settings in the Caribbean, Central America and Mediterranean.
Le Ponant is French-owned, -operated and -flagged, so you might feel a bit Parisian yourself after a voyage aboard this sophisticated sailing ship. In fact, the line attracts a mostly French contingent, as well as Americans, Australians and Europeans from neighboring countries.
With just four passenger decks, the ship is intimate but never crowded. Everyone finds his or her ideal spot to relax, whether it's catching a few rays on a lounger on the Sun Deck, chatting with friends in Salon Emerande or dining in one of two restaurants.
One of the most compelling aspects of the ship is its aft marina platform, from which you can swim or board a skiff to head to shore.
It's the Little Things: The all-inclusive Ponant experience is about making you feel as if you're sailing on your own private yacht. The attentive crew thrives on making each voyage special, and they try to accommodate every request -- big or small. Private dinners on deck can be arranged, for example, or a bevvy of special treats can be delivered to a passenger's cabin.
When it comes to the food and wine onboard, prepare to be wowed. Every menu is inspired by French cooking, be it country or nouveau style. The line also welcomes guest chefs often, so you'll learn techniques from the masters during demonstrations and other onboard presentations.
Finally, Le Ponant makes sure passengers have a good time off the ship, as well as on it. A member of the entertainment staff accompanies cruisers on all off-ship outings, even if it's just for a dip in the turquoise blue waters off the aft marina.
Who Sails This Ship: Ponant ships draw a decidedly European crowd, but the intimate ships are luring more and more Americans who are looking to try something a bit different.
Itinerary Highlights: The ship visits the French West Indies in the Caribbean in the winter and the Mediterranean in the spring, summer and fall.
Other Ships in the Fleet: While Ponant's other ships aren't masted, they are just as luxurious as Le Ponant. The expedition ships -- dubbed Le Soleal, Le Boreal, and L'Austral -- are sisters, and they share similar specs. Each of the three, outfitted with 132 cabins, is larger than Le Ponant and can visit some pretty far-flung locales, including the Arctic and Antarctica. The same attention to detail, personalized service and excellent dining options are found on these vessels.
SeaDream Yacht Club's SeaDream II
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 112 to 95
Ship Features: SeaDream II offers an intimate and luxurious yachting experience. With just 56 cabins, travelers and crew get to know each other quickly, and it really does feel like you're traveling on a friend's yacht instead of a cruise ship.
Two things make this ship exceptional: the all-teak deck that features numerous Balinese sun beds and the aft retractable marina. The marina offers glass-bottom kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, banana boats, snorkel equipment and Laser sailboats. You can even go water-skiing or ride a Jet Ski.
Being that this is a cozy yacht, you won't find massive suites. The cabins are roomy, but none is fitted with a balcony. Instead, in-room amenities -- like Belgian linens, down duvets, wool blankets, and Bvlgari bath products -- are the focus.
It's the Little Things: Passengers always get a kick out of the monogrammed pajamas that are laid out in their stateroom upon arrival. If you've got the nerve, wear them when you enjoy an evening "sleeping under the stars" on the Balinese beds on Deck 6. This pastime is booked on a first-come, first-served basis and is very popular. At 10 p.m. SeaDream Yacht Club ropes off the area and sets up the beds with linens, a duvet and pillows. Scattered rose petals and flickering, battery-operated candles set the scene. A bucket of chilled Champagne waits, along with a tray of chocolate truffles. Sleeping on the deck of a yacht is an experience that isn't easily replicated -- unless you happen to own a yacht!
On balmy evenings, the crew pop copious amounts of popcorn for cruisers who show up on the Pool Deck to enjoy a film as part of SeaDream's "Starlit Movies" series.
And, let's not forget that the cruise line offers its signature "Champagne and Caviar Splash" on Caribbean voyages. This decadent spread includes a Champagne toast and buffet loaded with caviar and other snacks as you enjoy a shoreside beach barbecue.
Who Sails This Ship: Those traveling with SeaDream tend to skew a bit younger than the average cruiser, but the demographic really includes anyone who enjoys the camaraderie of a small ship and is looking for some of the finest cuisine at sea.
Itinerary Highlights: The ship sails the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and the Amazon. In 2014, SeaDream II will also spend a few months in Asia and will call on ports like Singapore, Bali, Komodo Island, Phuket and Thailand.
Other Ships in the Fleet: SeaDream I is identical to SeaDream II.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises' S.S. Antoinette
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 154 to 57
Ship Features: Uniworld likes to say that S.S. Antoinette is a one-of-a-kind "boutique" riverboat and "the most luxurious river cruise ship in the world," and it just might be. The cruise line has infused luxurious details throughout the ship, including a 10-foot Baccarat crystal and sapphire blue chandelier that's the focal point of the lobby (and which previously hung in New York's Tavern on the Green). Passengers will also find a heated swimming pool that's a study in mosaic tile work, as well as sumptuously decorated, multi-room suites adorned with handcrafted Savoir of England beds that are draped in 100 percent Egyptian cotton linens. There's even a movie theater onboard -- the first on any river ship. The interior of the ship was designed to mimic the 18th-century Chateau de Versailles of France. Brazilian marble is used for flooring throughout the ship, and original works of art -- black and white sketches, color lithographs and oil on canvas paintings from a wide range of artists -- adorn the walls. Unlike many river cruise ships, suites and staterooms are situated on S.S. Antoinette's top deck and include full open-air private balconies, which convert to enclosed conservatories.
It's the Little Things: The ship itself certainly makes a visual impression, but it's the service that will stand out most in your mind. S.S. Antoinette's crewmembers are highly trained, from the waitstaff in Restaurant de Versailles to the English-speaking tour guides that accompany you on shore excursions. Suites include butler service, and these gentlemen understand the fine art of divining your needs. They can assist with unpacking (and repacking), serve in-room breakfast and evening canapes, and provide free laundry and shoeshine services. Simply ask, and your butler will grant your request. You can expect complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks during lunch and dinner. Beginning in 2014, Uniworld will include unlimited beverages (including wine, beer, spirits, soft drinks, coffee, tea and bottled water) as well as gratuities in its cruise fares. The ship also offers a most-welcome 24-hour specialty coffee and tea bar.
Who Sails This Ship: The decor and itineraries tend to draw a slightly more sophisticated and older crowd. Retirees are often found sailing S.S. Antoinette, and it's a popular ship that welcomes groups of friends traveling together.
Itinerary Highlights: S.S. Antoinette sails two interesting seven-night roundtrip itineraries out of Basel, Switzerland: "Castles along the Rhine" and "Rhine Holiday Markets."
Other Ships in the Fleet: Uniworld sails the rivers of Europe, Russia, Egypt, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Just about all of the ships in the fleet were built or renovated since 2007. While the older ships do have smaller entry-level cabins (151 to 168 square feet, as opposed to Antoinette's 196 square feet), each ship shares the same amenities and services like free Internet and Wi-Fi, a complimentary 24-hour specialty coffee and tea bar and L'Occitane bath products in the cabins. The ships sailing Russia and Asia are not owned by Uniworld, and, therefore, certain aspects may differ from ships in the Uniworld-owned fleet.
Paul Gauguin Cruises' Paul Gauguin
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 332 to 217
Ship Features: Paul Gauguin becomes a favorite ship of almost everyone who sails it. The vessel is in excellent shape, having come out of a multimillion-dollar renovation in December 2011, and the crew is incredibly knowledgeable about the Society Islands and French Polynesia as a whole. The cruise line also schedules fascinating guest lecturers like Mark Eddowes, an expert in the field of Polynesian anthropology, and Dr. Michael Poole, who discusses the habitats of spinner dolphins, whales and other marine mammals.
The ship offers all oceanview cabins and suites, and 70 percent of them have balconies -- and you definitely want a balcony when sailing this glorious, beautiful corner of the globe.
Paul Gauguin draws many honeymooners and those celebrating special occasions like graduations, anniversaries and retirements. If that describes you, consider booking a category B or higher stateroom since those offer the services of a butler. He can unpack your suitcases, arrange for laundry and pressing services, make spa appointments or dinner reservations on your behalf, and help you throw a private cocktail party in your suite.
Like a handful of other luxury vessels, Paul Gauguin includes a state-of-the-art retractable water sports marina that's outfitted with windsurf boards, kayaks and Zodiacs, as well as an onboard dive program offering certification from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors.
It's the Little Things: The destination is everything in the case of Paul Gauguin, and the ship and its crew truly embody the spirit of French Polynesia. While onboard, you'll meet the beautiful and gracious Gauguines, a Polynesian entertainment troupe that includes singers, dancers and old-fashioned storytellers. These lovely women explain the culture and history of the islands through song, dance and local crafts.
Who Sails This Ship: This is, by and large, a special occasion ship. You'll find plenty of honeymooners and those celebrating landmark anniversaries, birthdays, graduations or retirements. Honeymooners get some nice freebies like a Polynesian blessing ceremony performed by Les Gauguines, as well as a bottle of Champagne, an 8x10 photo portrait and a small surprise gift. Families also flock to this ship whenever the special Jean-Michel Cousteau-designed Ambassadors of the Environment Youth Program is offered for passengers ages 9 to 17. (Cousteau himself can be found onboard four or five times every year.)
Itinerary Highlights: This is the only major cruise ship sailing Tahiti and French Polynesia year-round. The ship offers voyages in the Society Islands, Tuamotus, Cook Islands, Marquesas and the Australs.
Other Ships in the Fleet: Ninety-passenger Tere Moana, sailing the Caribbean and Mediterranean, joined Paul Gauguin Cruises in December 2012. Formerly owned by Ponant, Tere Moana offers the same high-end, all-inclusive cruise experience found aboard Paul Gauguin. The only drawback of Tere Moana is that it doesn't offer suites. (The largest stateroom is only 298 square feet.)
Seabourn's Seabourn Quest
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 450 to 330
Ship Features: Seabourn Quest -- like its nearly identical sister ships Odyssey and Sojourn -- is visually stunning, with its aft spa atrium as its focal point. In fact, some cruisers even book Quest in order to spend much of their vacation at The Spa at Seabourn. This incredibly lovely 11,400-square-foot, two-level complex features a spa pool with therapeutic loungers; private Spa Terrace offering a mix of loungers in the sun and shade, as well as a whirlpool; and the special Spa Villas. Singles, couples and friends book the Spa Villas for a few hours of relaxation in a Persian-inspired setting with a day bed, sofa, dining table and chairs, tub and sun deck. A range of treatments is available, from facials and massages to manicures and pedicures.
Quest is also the largest ship at sea to offer a retractable aft marina. A swimming platform surrounds a wire "basket" that's lowered into the water to keep the fish out of your "pool." It's a worry-free way to enjoy a swim in the waters of the Mediterranean, Caribbean or wherever Quest has anchored during your vacation. A variety of personal watercraft is also available on marina days.
It's the Little Things: Seabourn employs an all-female team of stewardesses to tend to your cabin. They truly keep a watchful eye over your home away from home. They settle you in with a welcome bottle of Champagne and canapes and then show a selection of designer soaps from which you may choose. (Otherwise L'Occitane soap and Molton Brown bath products are provided.) Your stewardess may draw you a bath or assist with any special requests you may have.
Who Sails This Ship: Once passengers sail Seabourn, their loyalties tend to remain with the cruise line. You'll find a majority of cruisers are repeaters. In recent years, with the launch of Seabourn's larger ships -- Quest, Odyssey and Sojourn -- the line has seen its demographic hedge a bit younger. The larger, newer ships have become a favorite choice for families with teens or adult children looking for family reunion-style getaways.
Itinerary Highlights: The ship visits the Mediterranean, Baltic, the Caribbean, Canada and New England and South America.
Other Ships in the Fleet: In addition to Quest, Odyssey and Sojourn, Seabourn is still sailing its original triplets: Legend, Pride and Spirit. These ships carry fewer passengers -- 208 each -- and many Seabourn fans prefer the more intimate atmosphere since it lends itself to more personalized service. However, the trio will be leaving the fleet and becoming Windstar ships in 2014 and 2015.
Siversea Cruises' Silver Spirit
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 540 to 376
Ship Features: Silver Spirit is the newest luxury cruise ship in Silversea's fleet (not counting expedition ships), having made its debut in December 2009. It's also the most posh.
Silversea shines when it comes to personalized service. The crew is incredibly friendly and intuitive. They seemingly know what you want when the very thought has only barely crossed your mind. This is especially evident in the lounges, where the bartenders quickly memorize your drink preferences and always have your favorites, along with a few savory treats, waiting for you.
Dining is another area where this Italian cruise line excels. Main dining at The Restaurant features the type of continental cuisine you'd expect from a luxury liner, while La Terrazza focuses on fresh Italian cuisine. Silver Spirit also houses three smaller dining venues: Le Champagne, offering meals with wine pairings designed by Relais & Chateaux; Seishin serving up the freshest sushi you're likely to find on any cruise ship; and Stars Supper Club, which highlights inventive menus against a backdrop of live music and dancing.
It's the Little Things: Silver Spirit's claim to fame are the specially trained butlers who serve the ship's 270 oceanview accommodations. These gentlemen are a cross between a cabin steward and concierge, and they can handle tasks from shuffling reservations and delivering room service meals to planning shore excursions.
Silversea also loves to throw a good party and does so on each and every warm-weather cruise in the form of its Deck Party. Chefs spend the day preparing for this pull-out-the-stops event at which they serve roast suckling pig, carved meats, shrimp and crab leg cocktail, pasta, salads and an array of mouth-watering desserts.
Who Sails This Ship: Silver Spirit has fans from many walks of life, so you'll see older couples dancing the night away alongside young honeymooners. Well-heeled families also appreciate the ship for its spacious suites and compelling summertime itineraries. If you're not sailing during school break or summer vacation, though, you're most apt to cruise with older professionals and retirees.
Itinerary Highlights: Silver Spirit sails the Mediterranean, Caribbean, South Pacific and South America.
Other Ships in the Fleet: Silversea also sails several smaller, but no less luxurious, ships -- Silver Cloud, Silver Wind, Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper -- as well as expedition ship Silver Explorer. The line added a second expedition ship, Silver Galapagos, to its roster in 2013 for voyages around the Galapagos Islands, and will introduce a third, Silver Discoverer, in 2014, to sail to remote regions in the Pacific.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Mariner
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 700 to 445
Ship Features: Seven Seas Mariner was a rulebreaker when it first launched in 2001. It was the industry's first all-suite, all-balcony ship. While many ships are now outfitted in that way, Mariner led the charge.
The ship offers a flexible choice of accommodations that range from 252 to 1,204 square feet, many with concierge-style amenities (think priority access to shore excursions and dining reservations, 15 minutes of complimentary ship-to-shore phone calls and an hour of free Internet access).
Penthouse suites and higher benefit from the services of a personal butler, upgraded bath amenities (Hermes instead of L'Occitane), an in-suite iPad and an iPod docking station.
It's the Little Things: When Regent says its cruise fare is all-inclusive, it's not kidding. Accommodations, shipboard meals, beverages (including alcohol), in-cabin mini-bars, room service and many onboard activities are included, as are unlimited shore excursions. That's right: you may select as many excursions as you wish from Regent's menu of land tours. With the exception of the more expedition-style luxury cruise options, that's unheard of, and it's definitely made travelers look twice at Regent.
Who Sails This Ship: Retirees and professionals prefer Regent. The line's longer itineraries are specifically designed for travelers who've got time to spend exploring the world.
Itinerary Highlights: Regent fans love Mariner's transatlantic crossings and other itineraries in the Mediterranean and South America.
Other Ships in the Fleet: Like Mariner, Seven Seas Voyager hosts 700 travelers per cruise, while Seven Seas Navigator is the smaller ship in the fleet with a capacity of 490. The cruise line likes to say that it offers "6-star service" on all its vessels.
Crystal Cruises' Crystal Serenity
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 1,070 to 655
Ship Features: Crystal Cruises is one of the grand dames in the luxury cruise industry and is known for both its discerning service and interesting itineraries. This line, more than any other luxury line, has held steadfast to the old ways and still encourages passengers to dress for dinner and enjoy formal nights on all of its itineraries. In 2012, Crystal joined the ranks of other luxury lines by going the nearly all-inclusive route. Fares now include beverages and gratuities, in addition to the previously included specialty dining, enrichment programming, fitness classes, self-service laundry and shuttles into town from the cruise port.
It's the Little Things: Crystal Serenity offers a solid enrichment program that regularly hosts well-known authors and politicians as guest speakers. American Contract Bridge League bridge instruction is available on all sailings, and many tournaments take place throughout the year. PGA golf pros are also onboard many sailings to share their expertise. Travelers get the sense that Crystal Cruises will do all it can to provide access to the most interesting and knowledgeable people in the world.
Who Sails This Ship: Due to Crystal Cruises' stance on formality -- the line happily throws formal nights and fetes on a regular basis -- the demographic is decidedly older than that found on some of the other lines that have relaxed their dress codes. That being said, Crystal ships have a communal country club feel, and travelers of any age can appreciate what Serenity has to offer. The line has also become more flexible in recent years and currently offers "Perfect Choice Dining," which gives passengers the opportunity to select Classic Main and Late seating or a new "Dining by Reservation" option. That's made the cruise line much more accessible to travelers who want to be more in control of their vacation experience.
Itinerary Highlights: Serenity knows its way around the globe and regularly visits Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, South America, Asia, Australia and Africa.
Other Ships in the Fleet: Crystal Symphony is a bit smaller than Serenity, accommodating 960 cruisers, and the ship strives to make vacations memorable with touches like its renowned on-deck jazz brunch.
Oceania Cruises' Riviera
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 1,250 to 800
Ship Features: Technically, Oceania Cruises is a "luxe lite" cruise line. Its pricing structure is more a la carte than all-inclusive, but its offerings in terms of accommodations, itineraries and dining venues means that it must be mentioned alongside the luxury lines mentioned above.
Riviera shines when it comes to the array of activities it makes available onboard. There's an expansive Canyon Ranch SpaClub, beauty salon, gym, Artist Loft enrichment center that offers arts and crafts instruction, and the well-equipped Culinary Center. For aspiring chefs and amateur cooks, a visit to the Culinary Center is well worth the trip. It's a self-contained cooking school at sea that offers a hands-on experience at 12 individual cooking stations (two people per station). Classes focusing on a variety of topics do incur an extra fee, but get rave reviews from participants.
It's the Little Things: Riviera is known for its myriad dining venues, including the Grand Dining Room and other favorites like Jacques, a French bistro with menus designed by famed chef Jacques Pepin, and Red Ginger, which serves Asian classics. Two very special and intimate dining options are also offered. Each evening, 24 passengers can enjoy a seven-course meal at La Reserve by Wine Spectator. As you can imagine, the wine pairings are of special note there. Three menus are available, starting at $95 per person. Privee is an even more private dining option and may be reserved for up to ten people for a fee of $250 per evening. Each person can customize his or her menu with selections from Polo Grill, Toscana or a combination of both.
Who Sails This Ship: This is the ship for anyone wishing to book a suite: there are 147 of them in various configurations in addition to 478 non-suite staterooms. If you do want a suite, book as soon as you can because they sell out fast. The 2,000-square-foot Owner's Suites are knockouts, featuring Ralph Lauren furnishings throughout the living rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms. Oceania sweetens the suite pot by offering extra amenities like priority 11 a.m. check-in, priority luggage delivery, a dedicated concierge, 24-hour butler service, unlimited access to the Canyon Ranch SpaClub's private Spa Terrace and much more. The perks make a suite worth considering.
Oceania cruisers are also more independent and prefer exploring ports on their own or arranging for private guides instead of booking Oceania-sponsored excursions.
Itinerary Highlights: Oceania Riviera spends its time sailing the Mediterranean, as well as the Caribbean and Central America.
Other Ships in the Fleet: Note that Oceania's Marina is nearly identical to Riviera. The line also sails a duo of 684-passenger ships: Nautica and Regatta. These well-designed ships are favorites among cruisers who find it easy to get around onboard and love the layout of the cabins.
--by Andrea M. Rotondo, Cruise Critic contributor