With the ever-expanding cruise market – several new ships premiere each year – that dream vacation on the high seas can come in any size and experience you want: big or small, exotic or closer to home, luxury or casual, tropical getaway or icy expedition.
Whichever you choose, make the most of your time and experiences on board. Seek out the specialty restaurants, book a massage, make it a point to watch the sunrise or sunset, take a class, enhance your computer skills, enjoy a show.
We’ve been lucky as travel journalists to set sail more than 50 times. Here are a few our recent favorites.
Seabourn’s intimate approach
Seabourn’s six ships each have just 104 or 225 suites, assuring intimacy and personalized service. The newest, Seabourn Quest, recently christened in Barcelona by actress Blythe Danner, holds only 450 passengers. The line’s smaller-sized ships can access ports and harbors inaccessible to mega-ships.
If you thrive on the exotic, check out Seabourn’s maiden calls for 2012: Rosas, Spain; Porto Torres on Sardinia; Mgarr on Gozo; San Antonio on Ibiza; Sóller on Mallorca; Ciutadella on Menorca; Lemnos in the Greek Isles; Cesme, Sinop and Iskenderun in Turkey; and Larnaca on Cyprus.
Seabourn’s spokesperson says cruising is all about discovering new places, sights, sounds and tastes.
We did just that on an unforgettable Seabourn Spirit cruise from Hong Kong to Shanghai.
The Seabourn suites are spacious, with walk-in closets, tubs and showers, and sitting areas for relaxing or hosting a soiree with new friends met on board.
Complimentary wines and spirits are served throughout the ship, and your suite is stocked with your choice of spirits (one bottle per passenger).
Guests sample gourmet cuisine in The Restaurant, or on Quest at Restaurant 2 with sexy chocolate-and-red-wine-colored décor. But you can also have dinner served, course by course, in your suite or on the veranda, where the table is set with linen, silver and crystal. Another night, slip into the whirlpool spa at the ship’s bow and have cookies and milk delivered. The concierge staff can arrange restaurant reservations or performance tickets in port, as well as other custom experiences ashore such as a private trunk show in Monte Carlo, or a gondola serenade in Venice.
Our Hong Kong experience included a personal shopper who picked us up in a Town Car and helped us maneuver a sea of unique shops.
Contact: 800-929-9391 or www.seabourn.com.
Princess Cruises: Travel like royalty
People often ask our advice on where they should cruise. Hands down, we say: Alaska. With the ease of getting there and the majestic, raw, breathtaking beauty that awaits, it will not disappoint, and one of the best cruise operators to Alaska is Princess Cruises.
They also offer a great add-on land stay with glass-enclosed excursion trains to showcase the snowy landscape. Their exclusive Denali Express and McKinley Express services take you directly from your cruise ship to a Princess wilderness lodge.
At sea, they promise: “Alaska’s Inside Passage is one of the most scenic sea-lanes in the world, home to bald eagles, whales, sea lions, otters, brown bears, mountain goats and flocks of seabirds.” Plus, there are all those amazing glaciers to see.
With 16 ships in Princess’ fleet spanning the globe (17 ships by May 2013), undoubtedly one of them will feature a destination perfect for you.
Princess shore excursions are diverse, and you’ll likely have the chance to try something new. On Ruby Princess, our last sailing in the Caribbean, we tried a Segway tour and Temazcal Mayan Sweat Lodge separately on Cozumel before teaming up for shopping afterward.
On Princess Cays, the cruise line's private island, we loved having a private bungalow, and we continued receiving the star treatment back on ship at The Sanctuary, the adults-only oasis on Deck 17 Forward featuring private butlers and two massage cabanas.
Don’t miss the Princess specialty restaurant, Sabatini’s, for fabulous Italian cuisine. Another night, we experienced the special chef’s dinner that starts with in-the-galley champagne and appetizers and concludes with a signature menu at the chef’s table with other diners.
In the Asian-themed Lotus Spa, hot stone massage is a great choice, and there’s even acupuncture. (Tip: book spa appointments online before you cruise to snag one of the coveted sea-day slots.) The thermal suite has a sauna, steam rooms and heavenly, curved, heated-slab “beds.”
Onboard activities will keep you busy, from mixing cocktails in Mixology@Sea, to taking dance lessons and making pottery, to watching a movie under the stars or taking in a stage show like “Once Upon a Dream” (loved it).
Another favorite is Astronomy@Sea, in which you can explore the night sky on the top deck, assisted by one of the ship's bridge officers.
Contact: 866-444-8820 or www.princess.com.
Solstice Class cruising
While Celebrity Cruises has 10 ships in its fleet, the buzz surrounds its Solstice Class line of ships that started in 2008 with Celebrity Solstice, then continued with Celebrity Equinox (2009), Celebrity Eclipse (2010) and the newest, Celebrity Silhouette. Holding 2,850 passengers, Celebrity Reflection will premiere this year, completing the $3.7-billion investment in what Celebrity has labeled “premium cruising.”
Even though the ships were contracted before the economy plunged, Celebrity has forged ahead, paying attention to customer desires and proceeding with bold plans that are paying off.
The ships are spectacular, with stunning décor, a huge art collection and outstanding cuisine in widely varied dining venues.
Head-turners include the top deck Lawn Club with growing grass; the Hot Glass Show and glassblowing studio from the Corning Museum of Glass; and The Hideaway, an upscale, avant-garde tree house, with cozy, intimate lounging “nests.”
Solstice ships specialize in the cool factor. In the iLounge, you can not only check your email on an Apple computer, but also buy one. And, you can tour the aforementioned fabulous art with an iPad.
“Celebrity Life” is the line’s approach to onboard learning and fun, like language instruction through Rosetta Stone, comparative wine tastings with Riedel Crystal, and enrichment presentations with Smithsonian Journeys.
“The Art Studio” has experts in drawing, painting and beading leading small groups, plus culinary sessions on the art of food with plating, tastings, mixology and other classes. It’s also the spot for exclusive, pairing dinners hosted by guest chefs participating in Celebrity’s “Savor Your Destination” program.
The ships are sprinkled with sophisticated and fun nightclubs and lounges. One has an ice bar; another features the innovative Enomatic wine serving system. Insert your cruise card, place a glass under the dispenser and voila.
Of the specialty restaurants, Qsine earns the title of hippest. Here you order wines on an iPad, and the culinary journey features interesting bites presented unusually. How about sushi lollipops or popcorn fish-n-chips in movie-style containers?
The loveliest eatery is Blu, reserved for AquaClass stateroom guests. AquaClass cabins are inspired by the ship’s AquaSpa, definitely worth a visit.
Among the standout entertainment are aerial shows – yes, flying performers on a cruise ship.
Celebrity sails in Alaska, Australia/New Zealand, Bermuda, California, Canada/New England, the Caribbean, Europe, Hawaii, the Pacific Coast, Panama Canal, South America, and the Galapagos Islands.
Contact: 888-305-9153 or www.celebritycruises.com.
Disney’s newest ship
Disney has long been the go-to entertainment brand on land, so you’d expect a lot from them at sea. You get all that and more on the new Disney Dream. There’s also Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, plus Disney Fantasy is slated for this year.
This is the only cruise line with a fireworks spectacular at sea, and the Walt Disney Theater is one of the largest showrooms on water. Of course, the lavish, original shows are full of the imagination and innovation you’ve come to know from Disney.
Disney has its own private island, Castaway Cay, where, amid watersports and barbecues, you’re also included to a “Lilo and Stitch” dance party. Back on board, don’t miss the Pirate Party. There’s a Goofy miniature golf course, two virtual sports simulators, a basketball court and more. In addition to their terrific kids’ program, there’s a special private club for tweens 11-13.
Just because you’re having fun doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice luxury: 73 percent of the cabins are outside staterooms, and nearly half have private verandahs.
Even the inside cabins have an “electronic porthole” television system that shows what’s happening outside while Disney characters pop into view. And there’s AquaDuck, the first water-coaster at sea, and the ride takes you out over the ocean before dumping you in the pool. Wow.
Disney Dream is 40 percent larger than her two predecessors (and holds up to 4,000 passengers), and she’s built with a classic profile, like ocean liners of the early 20th century.
When parents or couples without kids need down time, there are adult entertainment and specialty areas designed to keep you “Marco Polo” free, including:
Quiet Cove, an adults-only pool. 687, a sports bar for adults at night. Cove Café, an adults-only lounge. Evolution, a nighttime, adult dance club. Meridian, Pink and Skyline, adults-only bars. Remy, an adults-only gourmet French restaurant.
Disney promises that kids will set sail on their very own fairytale. Smart adults will want to join the ride.
Contact: 800-939-2784 or disneycruise.disney.go.com.
We can’t resist mentioning our most recent cruise – a new discovery, even for many cruise insiders.
Le Boreal is a new, small ship from the French cruise company Compagnie du Ponant. They call it a luxury mega-yacht; she holds just 264 passengers.
We sailed from Boston to Montreal, along the St. Lawrence River, to ports we had never heard of. Along the way, we trekked to see 65,000 nesting sea birds, went whale-watching, and learned about the history and culture of the Acadians with a walk in Bar Harbor’s Acadia National Park.
The ship is sleek and contemporary with good service, and we loved the affable captain. “My job is to give the goose bumps to the passengers,” he says.
You’ll certainly get those if you sign on for one of Le Boreal’s expedition cruises to Antarctica, the Great White Continent. It’s the cruise of a lifetime.
Companie du Ponant offers 170 different cruises all over the world, including theme cruises for opera, golf, gastronomy, music, cinema, comedy and family-friendly.
Contact: 888-400-1082 or www.ponant.com.