We have been called cruise "groupies," since we love the sea and write about cruising. We've sailed on ships of all classes and character and enjoyed almost every one. However, some affluent friends say that they would never book a cruise on one of the "floating glass blocks," referring to the new mega-ships so popular in the cruise industry. One actually shuddered when we spoke of cruising with 3,000 passengers. Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the very rich are different, so let's examine their cruise choices and analyze what motivates a passenger to pay a great deal more for the luxury cruises. These cruise lines fall into two categories: the yacht-like SeaDream, Windstar and Seabourn, and the larger passenger capacity lines such as Radisson, Silversea, Crystal, Cunard, and ResidenSea. They are not all alike, and their differences will be highlighted.
Other than the huge Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Mary II, one thing these ships have in common is being small size by today's standards. The largest, Crystal's Serenity, carries up to 1,080 passengers, still but a fraction of the massive 3,000-passenger ships. Space per passenger on a deluxe ship is usually greater than on ships serving the mass market.
The top-of-the-line ships are low-key in design, emphasizing quiet elegance. A tranquil atmosphere is achieved through subtle use of color, pattern, and art. This in sharp contrast to the kaleidoscope of color and materials used on a Carnival behemoth.
The standard stateroom on some exclusive ships is similar in size to a suite on mass-marketed lines. The norm is a spacious cabin with a separate tub and shower, double bathroom sinks, and a walk-in closet. In fact, Silversea offers an all-suite ship.
Dining & Service
It is documented that cruise passengers average five hours a day eating, so along with the captain, the head chef is the most popular figure aboard. Affluent passengers expect and are served superb cuisine on luxury ships. Chefs on the large ships do an excellent job, but they can't possibly cook to order for 3,000 passengers plus crew; often their galleys resemble a war zone. Elite cruise ships budget much more per passenger for high quality ingredients, and with fewer passengers can more easily cook to order, similar to a gourmet land restaurant. They can better cater to dietary requests of guests.
Deep-pockets travelers insist on superior service. Mega ships have three or four service personnel for ten passengers. High-end lines have six or seven staff for ten passengers, a more than 50 percent increase. These more experienced, better trained personnel translate into super service. Tipping is not expected on many deluxe lines, as it is already priced into the fare. You may not be of royal blood, but you can expect to be treated like royalty on these cruises.
Luxury cruises frequently schedule long voyages that can be broken into shorter segments. Since their passengers often have the ability to travel for longer periods of time, a variety of ports can be visited by booking contiguous segments. Silversea is even permitting travelers to customize their itinerary. Mass-market cruises are usually scheduled to repeat the same seven-day voyages throughout the year. The smaller luxury ships often can dock in smaller ports, not accessible to the behemoths. With fewer passengers it's a breeze getting on and off the ship for port visits.
Entertainment is another important factor. Crystal, Radisson, and Silversea cruise lines present award winning revues, showcasing talented performers in costly costumes. Showrooms are state-of-the-art designs. Tweaking the product, Silversea plans to replace revues with productions, such as Shirley Valentine; we will miss the creative productions we saw on the Silversea cruise we took. Smaller ships such as SeaDream, Windstar, and Seabourn offer minimal entertainment, skipping the productions so popular with passengers on larger ships. At most, there's a romantic atmosphere for dancing to a combo. There will be perhaps an intimate cabaret singer, or nightclub act, or an occasional local troupe performing when in port. To many, splashy revues aren't important -- over and over we heard, "been there, done that, don't need it." Many travelers are content to rest, read, or engage in quiet conversation with new acquaintances, often about previous travel adventures.
Some ships don't even offer bingo, but they all have gambling casinos. Some keep passengers occupied with exercise classes, dance instruction, guest lecturers, and bridge directors to instruct and organize games.
A Closer Look at Each Line
SeaDream Yacht Club: This two-ship fleet, SeaDream I and SeaDream II, formerly were the beloved Sea Goddess ships. They were renovated in 2002 to offer luxury yacht ambience for only 110 passengers, served by a staff of 90. Enjoy a sea dream and imagine reclining on a chaise overlooking the sea, reading a good book and sipping a chilled drink, followed by excellent cuisine. Complimentary wines are served at all meals, and there is 24-hour room service. Staterooms are good-sized by luxury ship standards, and amenities are many. Active passengers enjoy water sports from the sports marina and take mountain bikes off the ship to explore while ashore. They take advantage of the large gym and spa, and the 1200-volume library. This is an ideal choice for cosmopolitan adults to cruise the Mediterranean or Caribbean, sans children. Think yachting with royalty, rather than cruising.
Windstar Cruises: This unique line is in a class by itself. The fleet's four- and five-masted, sailing ships with computer-controlled sails carry from 148 to 308 pampered passengers. Although guests are sophisticated, informality is emphasized -- never is a tuxedo, jacket or tie required. Cabins and public areas are very yacht-like. Imagine a multi-millionaire's yacht. A marina sport deck folds down from the stern of the ship allowing passengers to enjoy kayacking, wind-surfing, scuba diving, banana boating and other water sports right off the ship. This is one reason the average age of Windstar passengers is a bit younger than on other cruise lines. Gourmet menus are created by Patina's Joaquin Splichal, a renowned California chef. The delicious cuisine is served at open seating. Passengers can choose the time, table, and their tablemates for dining. There is an intimate casino, and small gymnasium. Cruise industry executives often name Windstar their favorite, personal cruise.
The Yachts of Seabourn: This line has garnered many awards; the Seabourn Spirit was voted the world's best cruise ship for 2003 by Condé Nast Traveler. The Fielding Guide to worldwide cruises and Stern's guide to the cruise vacation has rated the line six stars, their highest rating. The fleet's three ships each carry 208 passengers with a crew of 160. Seabourn can boast that they consistently carry over fifty percent loyal repeat passengers. Passengers Jack and Fran Hennings of La Quinta feel Seabourn is the top cruise, and there is no reason to try another. Passengers are treated to a complimentary tour or concert, often at a private estate. Seabourn's staff says, "Our motto is just think of it, and we'll make it happen." It is easy to become addicted to caviar and champagne delivered to the cabin before dinner. Barbecues on deck are exceptional. Solo passengers are always invited to join tables hosted by officers. There is a small, lively gambling casino. The gymnasium overlooking the sea is well equipped with many televisions positioned near equipment. You definitely should pack your finery and jewels, as the passengers love to strut their stuff. A negative to some is that Seabourn ships lack verandahs; although they advertise French balconies, they are barely enough to stand on, but not really utilize. The feeling is still yacht-like, albeit a billionaire's yacht.
Silversea Cruises: One afternoon the former owners of Sitmar Cruise Line, the Lefebve family, were sitting at a café in Monte Carlo. A shiny, new Rolls-Royce auto rolled by, and the Silversea concept was born: a new Rolls-Royce type cruise line featuring "the best of everything." Condé Nast Traveler readers seem to agree, having voted Silversea the Number One small cruise line six years in a row. This all-suite fleet of four ships offers stunning, spacious accommodations. Last year, the Silver Whisper docked in St. Petersburg. Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, chartered the ship to serve as the official hotel for heads of state invited to the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg. They stayed in Silver Medallion Suites and were treated to service of the highest level. Passengers like the all-inclusive fare, including all alcoholic beverages, except for some premium wines. The Robb report states "on no other ship will you experience such caring personnel, never expecting or seeking tips." A passenger to crew ratio of 1:5 to 1 provides a level of attentive, yet unobtrusive, service unmatched by anything on the high seas. Gambling casinos are petite but swank, and the gymnasium and Balinese-themed spa are well attended.
Golfers are not forgotten. PGA golf pros provide complimentary clinics, escort passengers, and make play arrangements in ports at the most interesting courses. Suites are stocked with Bulgari bath amenities. Typical Silversea passengers, the McCollums, are part-time residents of the Reserve in Indian Wells. They discussed various factors that make up a cruise experience, but not once was the fare mentioned, the important consideration being the Rolls-Royce quality vacation experience.
Crystal Cruises: Repeat passengers feel this award-winning luxury mid-size line offers the best of both worlds. Although we consider it a mid-size ship, the readers pf Condé Nast Traveler have voted it the best large-ship cruise line for six years in a row. The 940-passenger Harmony and Symphony and 1,080-passenger Serenity enjoy more intimate surroundings than on the behemoths, and an extravagant budget permits the best of everything. One passenger said, "Even though another cruise has just ended, the crew and staff greet new passengers with such enthusiasm and freshness, as though it were their first cruise. When that stops happening I'll change cruise lines."
A butler is assigned to the penthouse suites. Charming gentlemen hosts are present on all Crystal cruises to dance and socialize with solo ladies. Caesars Palace of Las Vegas operates the casinos. Passengers who gamble say that the odds are better in Crystal casinos than in other ship's casinos. More activities are offered than on some smaller luxury ships. We ran from lectures on politics and films to instruction classes on computers, digital cameras, bridge, golf, dance, Pilates, and gourmet cooking. We hit the spa for sun tanning by the pool and a pool-side lunch. We wandered into the elegant Mozart high tea where servers were dressed in opulent period costumes. That was just in one day!
The trade off is the typical early and late seating for dining, abhorred by some. Since we had the same waiters every night, service was outstanding, and any desire was fulfilled. We casually mentioned lobster, and the next night a tray of lobster tails appeared. To provide dining choices, two intimate alternative restaurants feature Italian or Asian cuisine. If requested, room service will deliver a meal course by course.
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises: This line has six ships sailing to every corner of the world. From the intimate 180-passenger Song of Flower to their newest 700-passenger Seven Seas Voyager, this line has something for everyone. "Something for everyone" is difficult to define, as each ship is quite different. They range from yacht-like with a casual atmosphere, to a large ship offering a complete cruise experience. Gentlemen hosts are on board as dance partners for solo women travelers. The ships of this fleet provide one of the highest space-to-guest ratios in the industry and have repeatedly won top ratings from consumers and travel experts alike. Ocean and Cruise News designated Voyager the best value for an ultra deluxe six-star ship. The seating is open in the different dining venues. The fare includes service of wine at lunch and dinner. Menus are supervised by a distinguished chef of Paris' famed Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School. Service is efficient and unobtrusive.
Cunard Line: The Queen Elizabeth 2, now in her final transatlantic season, was unquestionably the ultimate deluxe cruise experiences in her heyday. There is no reason to believe Cunard's replacement Queen Mary 2 is anything less. We look forward to reviewing this latest addition to the luxury class.
ResidenSea: Last, but not least, ResidenceSea's The World is for those who want someone to peel their grapes. A purchaser must have a net worth of at least five million dollars to be considered as a buyer of these floating suites, but at this point staterooms can also be booked at a rate similar to a Seabourn cruise. The ship is stunning with a tennis court, indoor and outdoor pools, and impressive public rooms. She sails around the world on varied itineraries. Seasoned cruisers appreciate that the ship often remains in a port several days.
Photos courtesy Jack White and the respective cruise lines
Jack and Toni White of Rancho Mirage, California have, for many years, been freelance travel writers specializing in cruise travel. Their articles have appeared in newspapers throughout the United States and Canada, including the Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, and Vancouver Sun. Prestigious Palm Springs Life magazine published their article on filming the movie "Out to Sea" on the Holland America Line Westerdam. They also write regularly for Mature Living and Plus, formerly Senior Life.
Jack graduated from USC as an architect. His background in architecture allows him to review, write, and produce photographs from a unique perspective. Toni attended UCLA after graduating from Hollywood High School where she had been the Feature Editor of the Hollywood High School News, where one of the writers was comedienne Carole Burnett. Toni lived abroad for many years in South America and in the UK and has a familiarity with different cultures that influences her writing. The Whites love to travel and especially want to share their passion for cruising with you.
Toni & Jack White may be reached at: JACNTONI@aol.com.
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