Best Luxury Cruise Ships: Large and Small

| July 13, 2009
Editor's Picks and "Best of the Best" reflect the personal opinion of Paul Motter, CruiseMates' editor-in-chief. Read Paul Motter's Bio
Best Small Luxury Cruise Line Silversea Cruises Best Large Luxury Cruise Line Crystal Cruises

Silversea Cruises - Best Small Luxury Cruise Line

Most experts place Silversea at the top of the luxury cruise ship category. Though other luxury lines might frown, it is hard to argue with Silversea's reputation. It used to be the most expensive cruise line in the world, but its prices today tend to be more competitive (on the luxury scale). But back then, Silversea became known as the line for people willing to pay any price for the very best, a reputation that has stuck. Another reason is its solid devotion to a concept Silversea rightfully claims as its own: allowing the guest to define his or her own experience.

Silversea originated the concept of an onboard concierge who could arrange anything for you. Silversea's clientele conjured some very unusual requests, like "we want a private plane to fly us to this ancient ruin; we'll need a car and driver, and a hotel. Expect us back on the ship the next day." Thus the line concluded that such combinations of cruising and "experiences" were something its clientele wanted, and could afford.

In truth, maybe the line tried a little too hard for a few years and struggled, but after some fine-tuning Silversea is back stronger than ever. And the concept of offering not a cruise but an experience remains a reality.

The ships are two pairs of sisters; Silver Cloud and Silver Wind are the older and smaller, while Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper are the two newer but larger. The somewhat elusive nature of these names are appropriate, because when you are on a Silversea ship you feel like you are not in this world, you are somewhere it can't see you, while you observe your surroundings through a special lens.

The "Personalized Voyages" program, introduced in 2003, allows voyagers to design their own itinerary and vacation experience by electing to embark and disembark on any days they choose. Guests can select voyages that are any length of five days or longer. Guests are charged a daily rate whether they book 5 days or 55 plus days dependent on the ports and the stateroom category chosen. All Silversea staterooms are suites, three-quarters with their own verandas, all gorgeously appointed. All gratuities and beverages, including select wines, champagnes and spirits, are included.

As for how the line has changed in the last few years; the average age is now in the 50s, similar to other luxury lines, with the medium age on summer Mediterranean cruises dropping into the 30s and 40s. More of their cruises now offer extended port stays, including overnights in Venice, Rio de Janeiro and London, and multiple days in St. Petersburg, Buenos Aires and Hong Kong.

Probably the most unique thing about the line is their unprecedented focus on multiple hotel night stays and overland excursions as a part of their cruises. These can be pre or post-cruise options, but in many cases these overnight excursions, involving plane lifts, private guides and overnight hotel stays are being offered in the middle of the cruise as a part of the package.

New specialized dining options include the first-ever Relais & Chateaux wine-themed restaurant at sea. At night the Terrace Cafe restaurant becomes the "La Terrazza," an Italian-themed nighttime dining venue. This is the restaurant for guests who want a more relaxed dress code at dinner. There is also the new Viking Cooking School at Sea, for which the Viking company has designed and created special cooking equipment for Silversea's chefs and visiting culinary experts to conduct cooking classes and demonstrations on all their ships.

A new "Wellness Program" fully integrates classes in nutrition and exercise, fitness activities, spa therapies and healthy dining options. The goal is to create the opportunity for a "complete rejuvenation of mind, body and soul while at sea."

New onboard and shoreside enrichment programs involve famous chefs, politicians, writers, and explorers. Expanded Internet and WiFi capabilities, they have recently launched a service that allows guests to use their cell phones and PDA devices while at sea.

Silversea Cruises at a Glance:

  • Children's programs: no
  • Tips included: yes
  • Wine & Alcohol included: yes
  • Onboard male hosts: yes, known as "Social Ambassadors"
  • open seating dining: yes
  • large staterooms with balconies: yes
  • singles supplements: range as low as an additional 10%, up to 100%, depending on cabin selection and saildate.

Crystal Cruises - Best Large Luxury Cruise Line

Cruising in Style on Crystal Serenity

It's hardly your typical luxury line -- not that there's anything wrong with that.

It isn't often one can revise an old perception for the better, but we just left the Crystal flagship, Serenity, and that is exactly what I must do. My last cruise on Crystal was more than 10 years ago, and that has been my only frame of reference for far too long. Serenity changed my entire view of Crystal Cruises, and I am now convinced it is one of the best lines in the world.

Because its onboard style of operations are more consistent with those of a mainstream cruise line, early and late dinner seating with assigned tables, for example, it is easy to mistake Crystal for something more ordinary until you actually experience it. You are in for a surprise. Crystal is all luxury in everything that counts; accommodations, cuisine and service. And because of the quality of Crystal Serenity, I have even revised my personal definition of luxury cruising.

My old definition said specific amenities must be included in the cruise fare -- e.g. all alcoholic beverages and gratuities for room stewards, butler and waiters. It was also required that luxury ships be relatively small -- less than 35,000 tons and never more than a 500 passenger capacity. The final aspect of my definition included single-seating, open dining, not the traditional pre-assigned dining times and tables with two seatings per night.

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Celebrating the chefs   Officers up on the bridge

That very specific set of standards applies to Silversea, Seabourn and Regent Seven Seas, each fully qualified as a luxury cruise lines. But I now realize that it is not the size or operational procedures of the ship that matter the most: It is the quality of the cruise that counts, regardless of what is included in the fare. Crystal breaks the mold for luxury cruising in a neat and unexpected manner; my recent cruise on Serenity proved that the most important aspects of luxury cruises are incredible service, extremely comfortable staterooms and perfectly prepared cuisine.

Cruising in Crystal Style Crystal Serenity is the larger of the two ships in the Crystal fleet. At 68,000-tons and a passenger capacity of 1,080, she is far bigger than average luxury cruise ships, which generally carry no more than 450 passengers. This gives it a passenger-to-space ratio of 62/1. If you look at Seabourn's luxury yacht, the Seabourn Legend -- 10,000-tons for 208 passengers -- the passenger-to-space ratio is a less generous 48/1. So even though Serenity is larger, it offers more space per passenger than some luxury ships. More importantly that size has its advantages.

Crystal Serenity has a state-of-the-art theater, a separate movie theater, two alternative dining venues, beautiful public rooms, all the kitchen facilities necessary to prepare the most sumptuous meals and deliver and serve them in your suite, and enough passengers to justify a full fitness center and complete spa services.

While giving a ship greater passenger capacity changes some normally expected aspects of luxury cruising, change is not necessarily a bad thing.

Both of Crystal's ships have just one main dining room, large enough to feed half of the ship in one seating. This means both ships adhere to the traditional dining schedule almost all cruise lines used for years. Ironically, the new trend in mainstream cruising is toward open seating and anytime dining, which had always been an exclusive hallmark of luxury cruise ships. More ironically, many people and especially experienced cruisers, still prefer the traditional dining practices to which Crystal remains committed: pre-set dining times and assigned tables.

There are very good reasons why many people enjoy the old style of cruise ship dining. One is the peristent presence of the same waiters for each meal who can anticipate your needs and offer your favorite dining flourishes before you even ask for them. You get to know your waiter and busboy on Crystal, and more importantly, they get to know you. The same is true for your Maitre' D, headwaiter and sommellier.

Having more guests also means Crystal can provide better entertainment and enrichment, especially the onboard lecturers who add so much to every cruise. During our two-week cruise on Serenity we had so many lecturers I lost count -- everything from a former CIA spy's tales to a lecture on cycling through Iowa. Football buffs were delighted by four luminaries from the NFL, Coach Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins, referee Jim Tunney, NFL coach Marty Shottenheimer (San Diego Chargers) and former quarterback Earl Morrall -- all on our cruise.

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NFL Lecturers all together   Extensive Daily Computer Education   Piano Lessons twice each day

Crystal also excels in other aspects of onboard enrichment. The Crystal Cruises Creative Learning Institute offers continuing classes in a number of topics througout the cruise. On our trip, we had a bridge instructor for card players, lessons in Spanish using the Berlitz method and dance classes in all the classic forms (tango, rumba, waltz and more). Speaking of dance, the ship carried a number of Ambassador Hosts, who could be seen nightly in their bright blue tuxedos taxiing single ladies around the dance floor.

The Arts at Sea program provided budding artists with lessons in perspective and form -- paper and charcoal provided. There was a tennis instructor who stretched himself with ping pong lessons. Of course there is a golf instructor. Crystal has named TaylorMade as the official golf club of the cruise line; clubs are available for use at the driving nets on board and during classes and golf clinics. In addition, Crystal will rent clubs to guests who want to play golf at local courses ashore for only $30 per day.

Wine tasting is another popular Crystal pastime. Serenity's wine list boasts more than 200 selections, with an inventory of 20,000 bottles from every wine producing region in the world.

The most comprehensive programs are the computer classes and music lessons. Both Crystal ships have extensive computer learning centers with onboard instructors giving classes in everything from "introduction to personal computing" to "creating spreadsheets in Excel," "organizing your contacts with Outlook," and almost everything you ever need to know about using digital cameras and photo software.

The Passport to Music program is sponsored by Yamaha Corp. The instructor on our cruise was Debbie Skinner, a professional musician working for Yamaha who designed the original onboard program. The music lab provides 25 individual keyboards so each student can learn how to read music and play by ear. Classes are given twice daily and almost every day of the cruise. In the course of two weeks, there were several budding Mozarts onboard. Class titles include "Introduction to Reading Music," "Exploring Chords" and "Playing by Ear."

Crystal Cuisine Perhaps the most impressive thing about Crystal is the quality of the food. I have been on dozens of cruise ships and I have to say Crystal is at the top of my list for consistency in dining excellence. Although it is unusual for a luxury ship to have two seatings nightly with assigned tables, this is part of the formula for making Crystal's food so good.

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Sumptuous buffets   A Tower of Shrimp   More lobster than you can eat

Having the same waiter and busboy night after night makes it easier for them to anticipate your needs, but more importantly, the culinary staff can schedule preparation of dishes for the best results. Every steak was delivered at the melt-in-your-mouth consistency, and every seafood dish was delivered piping hot. Crystal also does not cut corners on the quality of ingredients.

While the dining room delivered first-rate quality nightly, passengers could also choose either of two specialty restaurants (for a service fee of $5 per person). Silk Road is an Asian fusion restaurant with an outstanding sushi bar and a menu designed by the famous Nobu Matsuhisa, who practically invented the Asian fusion genre.

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Chefs on Board   Dedication to detail   Amazing Desserts in astounding amounts

The other alternative dining spot is Prego, an Italian trattoria. Reservations can be made in either restaurant during the afternoon. All restaurants are non-smoking.

Breakfast and lunch are also served buffet style on the top pool deck in the Trident Grill. The hamburgers at the grill are an inch thick, or one can opt for a veggie burger or chicken patty.

Nearby is a small special menu restaurant called Tastes that features a different signature dish every day. Special themed buffets, such as Mexican or Italian, were offered every few days. The special dishes here include Chinois chicken salad (recipe by Wolfgang Puck), a tasty Reuben sandwich and excellent thin crust pizza cooked to perfection in a brick oven. Tastes is also open as an alternative casual dinner spot.

Also on the pool deck is Scoops ice cream bar, with a selection of 12 different ice creams, sherbet, or frozen yogurt, accompanied by an array of toppings. Freshly baked chocolate chip, oatmeal and peanut butter cookies are also on tap.

The highlight of the cruise, as far as buffets go, is the seafood buffet with towers of shrimp higher than your head and tubs of lobster deep enough to drown in. It is impossible to overstate the quality of the food on Crystal. It is the best in cruise ship cuisine.

Crystal Service The perfect companion to excellent cuisine is superlative service, and the stateroom service onboard Crystal couldn't be better. On our cruise, we had a butler who went by the name Poppa; he has been working on cruise ships since 1982. He started on Royal Viking Line, just like I did, but he never left the field.

Poppa is the perfect butler, always anticipating our needs without becoming overbearing. He would call at 4 p.m. and suggest a tray of caviar, with all the accoutrements. How could we resist? One night we invited newfound friends, an international law professor from Princeton working onboard as an enrichment speaker, to join us for pre-dinner caviar with cheese and wine. We ate so much caviar we couldn't make it to dinner.

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In cabin party, caviar, wine and cheese   The Best Butler Ever - Pappa   Surf 'n Turf on our Terrace

That is the life, and the life is what Crystal is all about. Another night Poppa set up a special table on our veranda for a perfect, private al fresco dinner. We enjoyed lobster from Maine, French onion soup and chocolate soufflé beneath the stars, with the sound of the surf breaking below.

Once again, Crystal's policy varies from other luxury cruise lines. Gratuities are not included in the cruise fare, and guidelines are as follows: stewardesses receive $5 per day per guest. And each stewardess has an assistant, so cleanup takes half the time. Your senior waiter gets $5 per day, the assistant waiter gets $3 per day. The butler earns $5 per day per guest. Altogether gratuities come to a total of $13 per day per stateroom, per guest.

Another area where Crystal departs from the luxury pack is in the world of entertainment. Crystal's entertainment has won awards, which is especially surprising for a cruise line with smaller passenger loads. The production shows have 10 singer/dancers and various other entertainers such as classical pianists, magicians and comedians fly in to provide variety throughout the cruise. The entertainment's content was appropriate for the average age on Crystal ships -- i.e., older than baby boomers.

Unlike other luxury lines, Crystal does not include alcoholic beverages in the cruise fare, with the exception of the penthouse suites, where they will provide and replenish all the wine, champagne, beer and your choice of any one spirit that you consume in your suite.

In dining rooms and bars, you will pay for drinks just like on any ordinary cruise line. If you bring your own bottles of wine on board, you will be charged a corkage fee of $15 if you choose to sip in the dining room.

Cruise Director Rick Spath I want to mention one final thing that is especially important to me: Crystal Serenity's most popular cruise director is a friend of mine named Rick Spath. Rick has been in the cruise industry for decades. We worked together on the Holland America Statendam during its inaugural season in Europe in 1993.

Rick was later tapped to become the first cruise director for Disney cruises when Disney Magic debuted. He has sailed nine world cruises with Crystal, and that's a pretty good job. Rick is a class act who works in an officer's uniform instead of a tuxedo and he is wise enough to leave the comedy to the comedians.

Summing Up Crystal Serenity Crystal is not like any other cruise line in procedure. They have pre-assigned dining times and tables, and beverages and gratuities are not included in the cruise fare. That could lead one to believe the onboard experience would be like an average cruise line -- but nothing could be further from the truth. Crystal is all luxury all the time, in terms of accommodations, cuisine and service. The onboard enrichment program is without comparison and you will be pampered to pieces.

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Spacious and accommodating suites   Bath with two sinks, jet-tub and shower   After the wine, cheese andcaviar party

Although Crystal offers outstanding and unusual shore excursions, that is not the main focus. While some cruise lines offer as many as 90 ports of call on a typical world cruise, Crystal will only schedule about 50. That is okay with Crystal Society members, however -- many of whom take advantage of a loyalty program that continues to add rewards even when the number of completed cruises reaches as high as 100.

In the long run, consistency is the hallmark of Crystal Cruises. Its formula has not varied since the early 1990s, and when you have a good thing going for you, that the way it should stay.

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