Oceania Cruises' upscale new Marina sailed into the Port of Miami on Feb. 4 with 1,250 passengers and a mission: Bring a high-end cruising experience to the masses - or at least more of them.
After hitting a rough patch during the recession, luxury cruising is rebounding, industry watchers say _ and evolving.
Helping the comeback: an improving economy, a wide range of new options and, in some cases, significant discounts and incentives that allow cruisers to wade into luxury waters.
Travelers who want a sampling of the finest at sea can choose from a ship that holds just a couple hundred or so passengers to a top-of-the-line suite on a 5,400-passenger megaship.
"Luxury is a very broad term," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com. "I think it's definitely the hottest and most interesting growth area."
In the cruise world, luxury typically refers to small ships with a large staff-to-passenger ratio and excellent service, an emphasis on cuisine, more inclusive pricing and exotic destinations. But travelers are looking beyond mere price and amenities to more meaningful experiences in this post-recession era.
"It's not about the 3,000-thread-count sheets anymore," said Nancy Novogrod, editor-in-chief of Travel + Leisure.
"People want to see something they haven't seen, to learn something they didn't know," she said. "To have their eyes and senses opened and stirred by the world."
Travel agents in the up-market Virtuoso network say that luxury cruising is a top trend in 2011, and 22 percent of agents who belong to Cruise Lines International Association reported a growth in luxury cruise business.
The CLIA survey says value and price are driving the growth, with nearly 80 percent of clients motivated by deals that whack brochure rates of $1,000 per person per day to half or less.
And there have been plenty of deals. Luxury brands like Silversea Cruises, which launched a new ship in December 2009, and Seabourn, with three new ships between 2009 and 2011, have offered substantial discounts to fill ships.
"It's like buying a Bentley at 60 percent off," said Giuliano Lorenzani, president of Virtuoso agency Boca Raton (Fla.) Travel. "It kept the demand and enthusiasm high."
Silversea has offered savings up to 65 percent off some voyages and is finding the deals effective at driving business, said spokesman Brad Ball.
"We keep extending those programs thinking it's going to be for a short time," said Brad Ball, spokesman for Silversea. "It's getting people to look at luxury who normally think, 'I can't afford this.'"
Luxury "has never been more accessible," Seabourn incoming president Richard Meadows said in an e-mail interview. "This is a chance for travelers to discover what makes a luxury vacation different. A lot of them are exploring it for the first time, and they are discovering the value and quality." Seabourn has also offered prices up to 65 percent off on some cruises but is cutting back on deals as the economy rebounds.
Ralph Bias, president and owner of Amazing Cruises in Miami Beach, Fla., a Virtuoso agency, said his Seabourn business increased by 200 percent in 2010.
"All my clients, and even just people in general that are cruising these days, they've all started somewhere and they're all moving themselves up," Bias said from the Seabourn Sojourn, where he's on a 111-day, around-the-world cruise.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises, a sister company to Oceania Cruises, decided against slashing prices but included tours valued up to $200 for free in the cruise price. The company rolled it out as a test in early 2009, when the economic downturn was taking a toll.
"It was so successful that we decided to adopt it permanently," said Regent president Mark Conroy. The company also offered its best prices early rather than discounting at the last minute, which Conroy said has helped fill ships more quickly. Last year was the best in the company's history, he said.
For travelers of means who want the amenities of a larger ship - like more dining options, entertainment, children's programs and shopping - mass-market lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian have high-end suite options as well. Those are in high demand and fetch good prices, company representatives said. A 540-square-foot "crown loft" suite on Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, for example, goes for $4,135 per person in early March.
Large villas and suites with extra privacy on Norwegian Cruise Line ships are typically one of the first areas that sell out, a spokeswoman said.
Oceania's new Marina, with its foodie focus, Lalique-designed stairway and marble and granite bathrooms, falls into the "luxury lite" category, said Spencer Brown of CruiseCritic.com.
Marina, which cost at least $530 million, is the first new ship built for the line. Oceania Cruises founder Frank Del Rio, CEO of parent Prestige Cruise Holdings, called it "a fantastic value."
"We have many of the attributes of the luxury vessels, but at a price point that is closer to the premium lines" like Celebrity or Holland America, he said. Discounted prices for a 19-day sailing from Miami to Barcelona in March start at $3,000 per person. Too large to be considered truly luxury, Marina falls into an in-between category that is known as "upper premium."
"They're actually trying to show how you can go from whatever market you were in and be able to afford a much more luxurious, comprehensive experience by coming on Oceania," said Roy Ramsey, director of operations for Betty Maclean Travel in Naples, a Virtuoso agency. "Oceania is a move-up opportunity."
That was true for David Colvin, a family physician from Shreveport, La. who sailed on Holland America and Celebrity before going on Marina's maiden voyage from Barcelona to Miami with his wife and parents.
He said the ship was beautiful but not opulent, comfortable and laid-back, better than he expected - and a step above even upper premium.
Colvin, 41, designated a new category: "It's exceptional cruising, that's what it is."