Heaven on the High Seas

Thinking about taking a cruise? Choosing the right line can be a dizzying task. There are at least 26 major cruise lines plying the seas and a staggering 7,500 itineraries to consider, from Dublin to Dubai. Each line has its own signature offerings, but options differ dramatically–even within the same fleet. Cruise ships, like people, have distinct personalities and no two are alike. Making the right decision requires a large dose of self-scrutiny and prioritization. Do you value luxury over entertainment? Do you want to sail with retirees or families? Do you prefer culinary classes or conga lines?

Ships in the luxury category naturally provide the highest level of comfort, service, food and travel options. Some mirror resorts, while others seem redolent of boutique hotels. The challenge is to figure out which line most suits your personality.

What all luxury cruise lines have in common is that they deliver a more civilized, peaceful experience than their lower-priced counterparts. There are no hourly loudspeaker blasts. There’s less nickel-and-diming (most fares include alcoholic beverages and tipping). Accommodations tend to be larger than those on the megaships and feature balconies and amenities like Bvlgari toiletries, marble sinks, flat-screen televisions and Frette linens.

Luxury cruise ships also tend to be smaller than those employed by other lines, which offers two significant benefits: They can navigate remote, exotic ports too tight for the behemoths, and they carry fewer passengers, which means you’ll eschew the cattle-call-like frenzy of larger vessels and enjoy a higher staff-to-passenger ratio. Ships operated by Silversea, for example, carry a maximum of 130 passengers–a far cry from, say, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, which holds a whopping 6,300.

One challenge many cruise ships face is feeding thousands of passengers. With luxury cruises typically smaller, kitchens are able to deliver gourmet presentations that rival five-star restaurants. In addition, many of the lines tap celebrity chefs to design their menus. Crystal Cruises, for example, secured Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, master chef of the Japanese-Peruvian Nobu restaurant chain, to create menus aboard two of its ships. Matsuhisa makes guest appearances on the ships and helms cooking demonstrations and classes.

Yet despite much common ground, luxury cruise lines have substantial differences. Some exude a dressy, sophisticated vibe; others are more relaxed. Some carry close to 1,000 passengers, while others max out at a little more than 100.

When shopping for a cruise, you should look at itinerary first, including points of embarkation, but also at the size of the ship, according to travel consultant Michael Wagner of Virtuoso, a luxury travel network of specialized agents. Silversea, for example, rarely leaves from the United States, while Regent Seven Seas and Crystal sail frequently from New York or Florida. All of Silversea’s rooms include butler service, while other lines offer that perk only for their most expensive accommodations. “Crystal and Regent [operate] larger ships and staterooms are larger with Jacuzzis on the balcony, and theme rooms,” Wagner said. “Seabourn gets raves from clients, but [its ships are]smaller and more of a yacht experience. [Cunard’s] Queen Elizabeth is an ocean liner–very elegant and very British.”

With so many differences between fleets, there are obvious advantages to booking with a travel agent who is well educated about each line. Most cruise ship websites have direct links to agents who can guide you through the mind-numbing hurdles. While agents may not offer the same discounts posted online, their advice, particularly for first-timers, can be invaluable.

Here are details about some top-rated luxury cruise lines and their offerings.

Small Ships

Silversea (www.silversea.com): Owned and operated by the Rome-based Lafebvre family, Silversea caters to cosmopolitan, chic travelers who are looking for an intimate, upscale experience. The fleet’s Art Deco design exudes 1930s opulence, but with modern accents. Ships are relatively light, passenger wise, with anywhere from 132 to 540 people. Silversea’s smaller size means its ships can squeeze into more exotic ports in places like Antarctica, the Arctic and Greenland.

All of the line’s spacious accommodations are exterior rooms, with views of the sea, and 85 percent of cabins have private verandas. All guests also have personal butlers. Prices include alcoholic beverages, tipping and transportation to shore.

Seabourn (www.seabourn.com): Another stalwart in the small-ship category and consistently ranked at the top of the “Best Small Ship Cruising” polls, Seabourn bills itself as a “private club” that offers relaxed luxury–elegant yet casual. Yacht-like ships carry 200 to 450 passengers in all-suite accommodations with private verandas. Seabourn’s Odyssey boasts the largest spa on any luxury ship.

The company, which is owned by Seattle-based Carnival Corporation, offers trips to uncommon destinations like Jordan and Salalah, Oman. Onboard activities are limited. Dining is a highlight, with open seating and made-to-order cuisine inspired by celebrity chef Charlie Palmer.

Larger Ships

Crystal (www.crystalcruises.com): Consistently ranked among the top large-ship cruise companies in travel magazine polls, Crystal delivers a modern standard of luxury onboard and carries 900 to 1,100 passengers. Owned by Tokyo-based Nippon

Yusen Kaisha, the line began operating in 1998 and has been a standard bearer of cruise opulence ever since.

Sailing on Crystal is a formal affair–black tie, gowns, the works. Crystal became all-inclusive this year (tipping and alcohol, once extra, are now included), and it provides credits of $2,000 per couple for everything from hotels to spa treatments. The ships offer two seatings for dinner, and tables are assigned. Passengers can expect ample nighttime entertainment, including a large casino. Penthouse suites include butlers. Crystal is known for its guest lecturers and theme cruises, one of which features a sophisticated filmmaking curriculum, courtesy of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.

Regent Seven Seas (www.rssc.com): Regent is a luxury line with ships carrying 500 to 700 passengers and itineraries to 300 ports on all seven continents. The all-suite, all-balcony vessels are classified as “upscale, but not uptight.” Onboard, you’ll find a Canyon Ranch Spa Club and a travel concierge to help with navigating and arranging tours. All-inclusive fees cover not only tips and beverages but shore excursions. Dinner in the ships’ restaurants is open seating.

Niche Ships

Oceania Cruises (www.oceaniacruises.com): Oceania Cruises’ new Riviera ship caters to ­epicures who ­value food presentations as much as destinations. Launched in April 2012, the upscale, 1,250-passenger vessel has 10 dining venues, including six open-seating gourmet restaurants. There’s also a Bon Appetit culinary center–the only hands-on cooking school at sea. World-renowned chef Jacques Pepin spearheads the cuisine.

The ship maintains a “country-club-casual” dress code. Accommodations include spacious suites with deck Jacuzzis, 42-inch, flat-screen televisions and iPads.

Paul Gauguin Cruises (www.pgcruises.com): The m/s Paul Gauguin, one of two ships in the Paul Gauguin fleet, was specifically designed to sail the shallower seas of Tahiti, French Polynesia and the South Pacific. The ship, designed to carry 332 guests, exudes South Seas charm: Tahitians are employed as cruise staff, entertainers and storytellers.

Nearly 70 percent of the ocean-view accommodations have private balconies. All shipboard gratuities and some alcoholic beverages are included. New in 2012: the company tapped Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef, to design its menus.

Cruise itineraries include Marquesas, Tuamotus, the Society Islands and Motu Mahana, a company-owned island. An attached, water-sports platform affords guests easy access to kayaking, windsurfing, scuba diving and waterskiing.

Clearly, with such a wide variety of top-tier alternatives, the hardest part of any cruise vacation is choosing which line will mirror your interests and tastes. After that, it’s smooth sailing.

The Latest Hot Spots

Luxury cruise lines are increasingly plying the most remote pockets of the globe, pushing into new territories on the public’s ever-shifting wish lists, from Oman to Vietnam. Political strife or natural disasters often scuttle itineraries, whether it’s uprisings in Mexico or volcanic ash in Iceland. But regions that regain stability quickly become magnets for tourism. Ports in Myanmar and Albania are regaining popularity, for example, as are countries in the Middle East, such as Qatar and Bahrain.

One advantage of a cruise vacation is that ships can squeeze into multiple ports during a one-week itinerary that would be virtually impossible to replicate on land. Currently offered spectacular destinations include Alaska, the Norwegian Fjords and cities along Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, such as Dubrovnik and Hvar. New itineraries are unveiled each year, so check with the cruise lines or travel agents.


Set Sail Forever

Though a cruise can leave you with lasting memories, the experience itself invariably ends after a week or two or three. But what if that itinerant, oceanic journey became a lifestyle? What if that ephemeral escape transmogrified into an everyday reality for years, decades or the rest of your life?

If you have the requisite net worth of at least $10 million and want to sail around the globe for months or years at a time in the comfort of your own home on a luxury yacht, a vessel called The World (www.aboardtheworld.com) may be your answer. Launched in 2002, it is the largest privately owned residential yacht on the planet. It incorporates 165 residences, the majority of which are two- and three-bedroom, furnished apartments that range from 1,100 to 3,200 square feet and include full kitchens, washer/dryers and countless other amenities.

I sailed aboard The World briefly last year and witnessed a seemingly flawless operation, from food and service to the captain’s bridge. The 644-foot ship operates like a nautical chariot, whisking passengers to far-flung destinations in unparalleled style. The World moves quietly and elegantly, yet garners the sort of attention accorded to celebrities. When the ship pulled into Honfleur, France, for example, throngs of passengers on other boats, beachgoers and pedestrians stood motionless or waved, riveted by the majesty of this 12-deck behemoth with a bevy of multimillionaires in tow.

The World’s motto is, “Only 200 make the journey,” but the actual number onboard at any given time may be even lower. During my visit, 100 passengers were reportedly on the ship. The only place I found a small crowd was in one of the bars on karaoke night, which drew a throng of surprising talent.

Unlike a cruise ship, which has hundreds or thousands of people funneling into the same place at the same time, whether for dinner or debarkation, The World is a floating neighborhood. Passengers operate independently and at whim, flying in and out as they please. Residents, who mostly hail from North America and Europe, typically have two or three other homes, which means they sail, on average, for only three to six months of the year–and often not consecutively. The World also stays in each port for at least two-and-a-half days, but often longer, allowing residents time to go ashore, check in to a hotel and explore.

Residents opt in or out of the lifestyle in varying degrees, depending on how long they want to sail. I met one couple who spend all year onboard. Another resident I met wants to do the same, but his wife likes being land-based. He travels back and forth “to save his marriage,” but concedes he is enamored of the endless journey. “In one day, we’ll move from Belgium to France,” he told me, “but in one month we’ll be in Greece and in five months we’ll be in South Africa.”

Some of the ship’s staff is equally smitten. “People ask why I don’t want to settle down and lead a normal life,” said food and beverage manager Ludovic Chevrot. “Well, what is a normal life? What makes this any less normal? This is normal and right for me.”

Indeed, what most residents of The World have in common is an adventurous spirit, whether they are age 30 or 80. “The majority of our community is very active and likes to go out,” said global director Rusti McFarland, who pegged the residents’ average age at 65. “We are not a retirement community.” She referenced a visit to Antarctica, where virtually everyone onboard went ashore at 3 a.m. to see penguins and watch the sunrise.

That voracity can pose a challenge to the ship’s staff. Many residents are avid golfers, for example. Sports and golf manager Damon Allard upped the ante by leading golf excursions to the far northern and southern reaches of the globe. “We played in Nuuk, Greenland, and had to wear hiking boots to take shots from rocks,” he said. Residents also visited a course in southern Argentina that is spliced by a glacial river.

Entertainment on The World runs the gamut, from a casino and a cigar club to a 7,000-square-foot Banyan Tree spa, two pools, a full-size tennis court, a fitness center and a youth center called Camp Caravel. There are also four restaurants serving everything from gourmet French cuisine to sushi, a wine cellar with 12,000 bottles from 18 countries and a grocery store stocked with generic staples as well as foods from each destination.

Prices for private residences on The World range between $675,000 and $7.3 million. Owners also pay annual fees based on the size of their residences to cover the ship’s operations, maintenance, crew salaries and food.

Since its launch in 2002, The World has sailed to 800 ports in some 140 countries. Residents make decisions by committee regarding destinations, which are not repeated for at least three years. Ports of call in 2012 included Walvis Bay in Namibia and the islands of Melanesia, where the ship spent 10 days.

The World’s “enrichment manager,” Tim Spicer, said his job is to weave education into each destination through lecture programs, celebrity guest speakers and workshops. Unlike vacationers on a cruise ship, who he said expect “big entertainment,” residents of The World want meaningful, daily enrichment. “This isn’t a holiday for our residents,” he said. “This is their life.”

Top Cruise Destinations

1. Alaska
2. Caribbean
3. Mediterranean/Greek Islands
4. European Rivers
5. Panama Canal
6. Europe
7. South America
8. Hawaii
9. South Pacific
10. Baltics/Scandinavia

1. Caribbean
2. Alaska
3. Mediterranean
4. Hawaii
5. Europe/Scandinavia
6. Australia/New Zealand
7. Panama Canal
8. Asia
9. Bahamas/Mexico, transatlantic
10. Middle East

Source: Cruise Lines International Association