There was a time when any cruise vacation was considered "luxury." That was in the day when women carried parasols, everyone dressed to the nines for embarkation and crowds gathered on the dock to wave bon voyage to the lucky passengers. Today we are all lucky enough to have options when it comes to cruising: Budget lines make itineraries affordable for just about anyone, family-focused ships do an excellent job entertaining kids and their adults, expedition vessels whisk adventurers off to every corner of the globe, and high-end luxury cruise lines continue to wow travelers with spacious accommodations, exemplary service, gourmet cuisine and access to unique experiences -- both on the ship and on land.
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It's also worth mentioning that many mainstream and small-ship cruise lines offer varying degrees of luxury. On mainstream lines, it might be intimate Chef's Tables serving gourmet dishes paired with wines, or exclusive suite sections that promise elite passengers upgraded cruise rooms, service and access to areas of the ship that are off-limits to anyone not booked into that category. Small-ship lines -- like Un-Cruise Adventures -- focus on unusual destination experiences (night snorkeling with Giant Pacific Manta rays or exploring Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park via skiff) and stick to low passenger numbers to improve service and lessen crowding. All those experiences translate into a superb high-end voyage.
So what defines a luxury cruise today? The common denominators are excellent service, access to uncommon experiences and the ongoing pursuit to delight passengers in new ways. If you're interested in luxury cruise trends, here's what's new in luxury cruising and what's coming soon.
New Luxury Cruise Ships
No discussion about luxury cruising is complete without a nod to the newest five-star ships that have recently debuted, as well as a few eagerly anticipated vessels that will start sailing in 2016 and beyond.
For cruisers who love more intimate ships, look to Ponant's Le Lyrial with a guest complement of just 264 passengers. Le Lyrial began sailing in April 2015 and is a sister ship to the line's Le Boreal, L'Austral and Le Soleal. Each of these ships provide a personalized, "casually elegant" yacht-like experience with emphasis on exotic ports, fine French cuisine and pampering service. One of the major selling points of Ponant's ships is the fact that they can maneuver into smaller, more out-of-the-way ports of call. This leads to some interesting itineraries. Le Lyrial can take you to Mljet in Croatia, Greece's Fiskardo, Deception Island in Antarctica, Madagascar's Nosi Komba as well as the atoll of Aldabra in the Seychelles. There are also some exceptional voyages along the Amalfi and Dalmatian coasts and the Adriatic and Aegean seas, as well as Antarctica and the southern tip of South Africa.
Another highly anticipated ship that had its coming-out party this spring was the 930-passenger Viking Star. This is the first ship from Viking Ocean Cruises, a sister company to popular Viking River Cruises; the line will add two additional ships, Viking Sea and Viking Sky, to its fleet in 2016. These small ships were purpose-built for destination-heavy itineraries in which the ship stays longer in certain ports, allowing for a more intimate exploration of the region. Inclusive fares cover free Wi-Fi, complimentary shore excursions (though there is also a menu of paid options), and beer and wine with lunch and dinner. Viking Star is a beautiful ship with a wraparound promenade deck, fun snow grotto, 11 dining venues, Nordic-style spa and two pools (one with a retractable roof as well as an infinity pool that is cantilevered off the stern). Just beware that the ship has no casino or kids' club facilities.
For cruisers who love the mega-yacht experience, Windstar Cruises recently christened its second and third all-suite power yachts: Star Breeze and Star Legend. (They join sister ship, Star Pride.) The line purchased these three power yachts from Seabourn, so if you loved those ships you may want to give them a try under Windstar's flag. While the experience is more premium than luxury (you're paying for beverages instead of the more all-inclusive options on other lines), Windstar is upping its game by offering complimentary shore excursions on select Greece and Turkey sailings this season.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises has long been a favorite with travelers who prefer a super all-inclusive luxury experience. The line includes everything from air and alcoholic beverages to Wi-Fi and shore excursions. In July 2016, the company will launch the all-suite, all-balcony, 750-passenger Seven Seas Explorer, which it says will be "the world's most luxurious ship ever built." What makes this elite ship so special? For starters, the 3,875-square-foot, two-bedroom Regent Suite is the first suite at sea to have its own in-room spa "retreat," complete with a private sauna, steam room and treatment zone. The suite's other standout feature is a glass-enclosed outdoor sitting area called the Vista Garden that affords passengers unobstructed 270-degree views over the ship's bow. This showplace will be coveted by travelers wanting an experience they can brag about as well as individuals who need a large suite for entertaining purposes while onboard. The ship will also feature Regent's first dedicated culinary center, The Culinary Arts Kitchen, which will be outfitted with 18 cooking stations so participants can get hands-on training from onboard and guest chefs.
Also in the offing are Seabourn's newest ships: Encore and Ovation. Encore will be ready for passengers in the second half of 2016 while Ovation is expected to start sailing in 2018. The design is based on the line's popular Odyssey-class ships but the passenger count will be pumped up from 450 to 604. Adam D. Tihany, famed interior designer and architect, will reimagine the public and private guest spaces onboard the new ships.
Looking a bit further out, Silversea is busy designing and building a new flagship, Silver Muse, which will set sail in 2017. The luxury ship will cater to 596 guests. While Silver Muse will be based on some of the most popular aspects of Silver Spirit, the cruise line promises that the new ship will "set new standards for shipbuilding in the ultra-luxury segment."
Crystal is also looking to the future and plans to build three new "Crystal Exclusive Class" ships, with the first expected to make its maiden voyage in late 2018. The 1,000-passenger, all-suite, all-balcony ships will have polar ice class ratings, presumably to facilitate Arctic and Antarctic itineraries. While these ships have capacity for about the same number of cruisers as Crystal Symphony (922) and Crystal Serenity (1,070), the new-builds will be much larger: Each will weigh in at 100,000 tons, while Crystal Symphony is 51,044 tons. The extra space is paired with a one-to-one crew-to-passenger ratio. Interestingly, the line will also sell 48 Crystal Residences on the top deck of the ships. The homes will share a private reception area, as well as a restaurant and other facilities. Residence floor plans range from 600 to 4,000 square feet.
New Luxury Cruise Brands
Crystal has stunned the cruising world by announcing not just new ships, but two new cruise brands. Crystal Yacht Cruises will launch in December 2015, and voyages aboard Crystal Esprit, a 62-passenger yacht, are already on sale. Through early 2018, the ship -- formerly Star Cruises' Megastar Taurus -- will sail routes in the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and a series of round trip and point-to-point voyages from Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Venice, Italy. The all-suite yacht will be stocked with water toys, including a two-passenger submarine (yes, we said submarine!), four 10-passenger Zodiacs for excursions and a 12-passenger Wider 32-foot super yacht for tendering. Crystal Esprit is also outfitted with scuba and snorkeling gear, fishing equipment, personal watercrafts, kayaks, wakeboards and water skis.
In addition, the line will launch Crystal River Cruises with two 70-suite ships debuting in March 2017. The twin riverboats will offer 250-square-foot cabins (plus two 500-square-foot Penthouse Suites) and a higher space-to-passenger ratio than its competitors. Amenities include a Palm Court with a dance floor and glass-domed roof, fitness center and spa, a yacht tender for private touring, and active gear -- including both manual and electric bikes and Segway electric scooters -- for independent exploration in port.
While everyone loves a brand new ship, don't miss out on existing luxury vessels that have recently undergone upgrades and dry docks. Seabourn made it a point to add penthouse spa suites ranging from 516 to 538 square feet to its Odyssey-class ships, with Seabourn Sojourn getting four such new suites right above the spa. Call-out features include the 172-square-foot balconies, which afford fantastic views over the ship's stern, as well as a living/dining area that seats four, a separate bedroom, bath with tub and floor-to-ceiling windows onto the balcony.
In 2016, Azamara Club Cruises will invest in both its ships -- Journey and Quest -- as they enter dry dock for major upgrades. New venues and public spaces will be installed alongside technology updates that will provide passengers with best-of-class service. The bow-to-stern upgrades will freshen all staterooms and suites with a new color palette of muted earth tones plus double vanities and rain showers in bathrooms. New dining options -- a wine and tapas bar, an alfresco Asian restaurant and open-air Chef's Grill -- are being installed, and The Sanctum Spa will have an outdoor treatment area. Enhancements are also being made to the Azamara Guest App that helps travelers manage all details of their voyage via shipwide Wi-Fi. Azamara Journey goes into dry dock in the Bahamas in January 2016 while Azamara Quest will receive its upgrades in Singapore in April 2016.
Focus on Experiential Travel
While some cruise lines are putting the finishing touches on new vessels and dry-dock improvements, Silversea and Oceania are turning their focus to uncommon experiences.
Silversea has put an emphasis on programming some pretty spectacular voyages for its luxury expedition ships. Consider the new Shackleton Centenary voyages that will be offered aboard Silver Explorer throughout 2015 and 2016. The itinerary takes you on an 18-night exploration of Antarctica in commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of Ernest Shackleton's Endurance expedition. This roundtrip out of Ushuaia calls on the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, Elephant Island and the Antarctic Peninsula. If you're a birder, consider one of Silversea's ornithology expedition voyages to Alaska or the Galapagos -- available on Silver Explorer, Silver Galapagos and Silver Discoverer. And if you're the type that wants to cruise on one of the line's traditional luxury ships, you'll love the fact that Silversea is including shore excursions and Wi-Fi on all Mediterranean cruises this year.
Oceania Cruises is generally considered more of an upscale line than true luxury but foodies everywhere agree that the company brings a lot to the table -- especially with its new Culinary Discovery Tours for select European voyages on Marina and Riviera. The voyages give passengers the chance to interact with well-known regional culinary experts; explore local markets, restaurants, vineyards and cooking schools; and receive personalized instruction in the ship's hands-on cooking school, The Culinary Center.
Luxury Big-Ship Options
Many mass-market ships are embracing luxury by offering exclusive areas of the ship to elite passengers booked into top-level staterooms and suites. The VIP-only areas may include high-end restaurants, concierge lounges, private pool/sun decks and even fitness centers.
Norwegian Escape is Norwegian Cruise Line's eagerly awaited new ship that starts sailing in fall of 2015, and it offers a fantastic example of multiple levels of service and experience via The Haven, which it calls a "signature luxury ship-within-a-ship complex." The all-suite accommodations were specifically designed with options for couples, families and multigenerational groups. The two-deck, gated-access retreat on Decks 17 and 18 features a private, upgraded restaurant with outdoor terrace, lounge, gorgeous courtyard area with retractable roof, pool, two whirlpools plus a sauna, spa treatment rooms and sun deck -- all exclusively for passengers booked into The Haven hideaway. Norwegian offers Haven guests priority embarkation and disembarkation, butler and concierge services, gourmet treats delivered each evening to their suite, and more. Accommodations range from the 1,300-square-foot Haven Deluxe Owner's Suite to 572-square-foot Owner's Suites.
Celebrity Cruises is also crafting more personalized experiences via its new Suite Class initiative. To that end, the line is rolling out a special restaurant called Luminae that will only be available to suite passengers. Breakfast, lunch and dinner will be served and each menu item will only be available once during a 14-night cruise. Unique "from scratch" meals will feature locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. Luminae will be available on all ships with the exception of Celebrity Xpedition. What else is different about Suite Class? Passengers in Celebrity Suites, Signature Suites, Royal Suites, Penthouse Suites and Reflection Suites also have exclusive access to Michael's Club Meanwhile, Royal Suite, Penthouse Suite and Reflection Suite guests receive complimentary benefits such as free premium beverage packages, unlimited complimentary specialty dining, unlimited Internet access and a complimentary minibar stocked with beer, soda and water daily.
While Royal Caribbean cruise ships are known as family-friendly ships with innovative entertainment options, the line recently came to the table with a new exclusive amenity for top-tier loyalty program members and high-end suite passengers aboard Oasis- and Quantum-class ships: Coastal Kitchen. This complimentary restaurant -- serving breakfast, lunch and dinner -- features gourmet California-Mediterranean cuisine, healthy fare made with the freshest ingredients. Lunch and dinner entrees are offered with a selection of California wines. With menu items like serrano ham-wrapped dates with manchego cheese, an array of gourmet flatbreads, roasted rack of lamb with orzo and homemade basil pesto, and salted caramel pudding, you might decide to take all of your meals at Coastal Kitchen. You must be a Pinnacle member or be staying in a Grand Suite-category cabin or higher aboard any Oasis- or Quantum-class ship in order to dine at Coastal Kitchen.
Finally, we've noticed a very welcome trend: free Wi-Fi on certain cruise lines and itineraries. Newcomer Viking Ocean Cruises offers free, unlimited Internet to everyone on board. Regent Seven sees provides top-tier suite passengers with unlimited access, while Concierge and Penthouse guests receive a block of 500 minutes for free. Starting in October of 2015, Oceania will offer free Internet to its suite and concierge-level cabins, while Crystal offers up to 60 minutes of access per day to members of its Crystal Society loyalty program. Azamara Club Cruises offers 235 complimentary minutes to suite passengers. Silversea is offering free Internet on 52 of its Mediterranean voyages this year; passengers get two free hours of access per day, or unlimited access if booked into a Medallion or higher suite. This is a trend we hope continues to roll out across all cruise lines in the future.
--By Andrea M. Rotondo, Cruise Critic contributor