More than ever, ships are destinations unto themselves. We pick the top seven destination cruise ships.
“The ship as the destination” is not a new concept. For decades I have seen our own users’ cruise reviews say, “I was surprised to find I enjoyed the time on the ship just as much as, or maybe even more, than the places we visited.” This is not because there is anything wrong with the places the ship visited – it is because cruise ships now offer extraordinary onboard experiences that actually rival the ports of call as part of the overall experience.
The concept has never been truer. Many of today’s newest cruise ships could stay in port and remain entertaining enough for a week’s vacation. In fact, what makes cruise ships truly unique in today’s world of travel is the fact that they are fully self-contained vacations that also provide transportation to amazing places.
Every cruise has days in port and days at sea, and if you polled 100 cruisers I believe 90% of them would say they prefer the days at sea. However, oddly enough most people still choose a cruise based upon where the ship is sailing – the “destination.” Travel agents and cruise lines already know this well, so destinations are always featured prominently in cruise line brochures and web sites. But in the long run it is the ship itself that most people remember about the vacation.
Inevitably, today’s modern cruise lines have shown the ingenuity to create amazing ships that qualify as “destinations unto themselves.” And in that regard, I now present my picks for “best ships as destinations”
1.Royal Caribbean – Oasis-class
The Central Park of Oasis is a stunning achievement in cruise ship engineering
In my opinion, no competitor has even come close to the accomplishments of Royal Caribbean for truly amazing onboard experiences, and the epitome of this is the Oasis-class. There are currently two of them, Oasis and Allure (of the Seas), with a third vessel already under construction (to arrive in 2016) and the option to build a fourth ship (for completion in 2018) still on the table.
The Oasis vessels are roughly a third larger than any other cruise ships in existence - now or in the future. This is just one way in which they are unique, and it always tickles me that millions of non-cruisers still have no idea about the spectacular individuality of these ships. To me, this is a piece of modern popular lore as important as the difference between Disneyland and Six Flags – which most vacationers do know.
Even more unique is the design; so different there isn’t even a name for what they created structurally. If it was a building they would say it has two “wings” – but that word doesn’t work on a ship. The structure is like two separate and distinct ships sharing the same deck, separated by a public park with grass and live trees, with walkways, wooden benches with six decks of public rooms and balcony cabins looking down on it. It almost sounds too amazing to be real – but it is real.
Inside, the ship has the largest open space at sea in the Royal Promenade, as well as other amazing attractions like an ice skating rink, a proscenium theater and a singular three-story dining room. On deck is a boardwalk with a merry-go-round and an Aqua-theater for water-based stage shows. There is a zip-line, Flo-Rider surf machines, water slides, miniature golf and more.
2.Cunard Line: Queen Mary 2
The second most amazing ship at sea, in my opinion, is Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. This vessel is the world’s only remaining true ocean liner still offering semi-regular Atlantic crossings. The word that comes to mind when I picture this ship is “mighty.” Her wiki says she is the first major ocean liner built since the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1969 (also by Cunard), and although Cunard has two other very elegant ships in my mind the Queen Mary 2 stands apart from the rest of the cruise world.
The Queen Mary 2 isn’t just the fastest and most powerful (per gross ton) sailing vessel in existence, she is also the epitome of distinguished elegance that the phrase “ocean liner” suggests. She has a beautiful, massive high-ceiling ballroom with a stage big enough for the largest orchestra at sea playing for crowds on the largest true wooden dance floor. The ship’s public rooms are filled with nautical pieces such as the Bent Clock, made by the same company that built Big Ben in London, and the specially designed Planetarium Theater where the chairs tilt back so guests can view a hemispheric projection screen designed for visual “flights” around our world and the universe.
3.The Disney Dream and Fantasy
When it comes to vacation destinations no name tops Disney. The two newer Disney ships, introduced in 2010 and 2011, are made for family entertainment with spectacular stage shows, 3-D movies in a full-screen dedicated movie theater, a water park with the longest water ride at sea (it should be noted that almost every mainstream cruise ship has at least one water slide these days) and the most elaborate children’s rooms for keeping youngsters of all ages entertained for days.
This does not mean that adults are given short shrift. Both ships have entire (and unique to each ship) complexes of rooms for adults only; various thematic cocktail lounges featuring wines, beers, spirits, martinis, dancing, etc. There are also two fabulous specialty dining venues (Palo and Remy) on each ship where children under 18 are not invited.
Royal Princess was christened by Princess "Kate" in Southampton
This new ship from Princess Cruise Line and her sister ship to be, Regal Princess, show us what happens when a cruise line aims to build the most accommodating ships possible. The public rooms are centrally located; easy to find and easy to navigate, especially those around the central atrium which fan out to lend the air of a piazza in small European village. The décor is very elegant but not too pretentious or intimidating to make you feel at home. A new feature for Princess is almost non-stop entertainment in the atrium and other spots around the ship. There is hardly a moment without something to see.
The staterooms are extremely comfortable with huge television sets, a wide array of on-demand movies and all of the news channel choices. The king-sized beds are plush and comfy. The balconies are generous and private. The ship has excellent Wi-Fi service throughout.
5.The Solstice-class of Celebrity Cruises
These five ships are the epitome of “modern luxury,” which ironically is the company’s new official slogan. Truly elegant inside is a soaring atrium framed by flowing cream-colored drapes three stories tall. The color combinations of the fabric and wood are stunning, especially when taking the glass elevators that ascend ten decks to give you an open view of public rooms placed deck over deck like life-sized dioramas.
Outdoors is a unique feature, the first living “lawn” of real grass at sea. While the features surrounding the lawn vary by ship, the early ones feature demonstrations by glass blowing experts from the Corning (NY) Museum of Glass. But the newer ships have the Lawn Club Grill where you can select and then grill your own excellent cuts of fresh meat, with the help of an expert, of course, as well as fresh vegetables, corn on the cob, baked beans and more.
6.Norwegian Breakaway and Getaway
These two latest ships from Norwegian Cruise Line take all of the best elements of previous ships and add an extensive outdoor walkway called “The Waterfront” along the Promenade Deck for open al fresco dining and drinking. This is not a new concept, but Norwegian has taken it farther than previous lines to make it a compelling and unique feature many more ships should use in the future.
The best aspect of these ships is the wide variety of entertainment options. Breakaway offers the hit Broadway show “Rock of Ages” with many hit songs from the ‘80s while Getaway (coming in February, 2014) will feature the Broadway musical version of the show “Legally Blonde – the Musical.” Another feature getting rave reviews is the Illusionarium, a special dinner theater venue with “magic” and illusions as its theme.
Coming soon, the “Breakaway-plus” ships will be very similar in design, but about 15% larger to offer more deck space and even larger public rooms. Taking a basic ship design that works and making it even more expansive is a proven formula in the cruise world; similar to what Royal Caribbean did with the larger Freedom-class following the success of the Voyager-class.
When Carnival appointed Gerry Cahill as the CEO’s in 2007 one of the first things he did was change the interior design of Carnival’s ships. To be clear, there was nothing cheap or tawdry about Carnival’s older designs, if anything, they tried too hard to impress. But as the first ship to be built from the keel up under the direction of Cahill, Carnival Breeze is a fresh breeze in the long line of Carnival ships. The ship has a subdued but appropriately tropical décor with light and airy colors.
Despite what the mainstream media has been doing to portray Carnival as a joke in the cruise industry nothing could be further from the truth. The line is the most successful cruise line in world history, in the same way that Ford is one of the successful car companies in the world. Carnival offers the best value in cruising; and if part of any value equation is getting the quality you expect for the money you pay, then as the value leader you have to say that Carnival exceeds expectations.
Breeze is not a huge ship, nor is it small. It is right sized for what it offers; a great family vacation with good food and excellent service. The entertainment day and night tends to be more personal than on most ships, something most “days at sea” people truly relish. The ship offers not one but several trivia games every day. The Karaoke sessions are not just one hour, they span several hours, often twice a day.
The kids’ programs have gotten much better in recent years, and now with the addition of the characters of Dr. Seuss books in the new “Seuss at Sea” program it will undoubtedly be the most talked about new children’s program in 2014.
The next Carnival ship, Carnival Vista, will be the lines 25th ship and its largest one yet. There are suggestions that it will have a completely different design although I would be surprised since all Carnival ships have the same basic structural format. But they do vary significantly in décor. I expect Vista will be a high quality ship made to handle large crowds with aplomb.
The “large resort cruise ship” is not a new phenomenon, but the concept has become much more specific and stylized in recent years. Today, what these ships offer is more important than where they go – especially to more experienced cruisers. And so, just like theme parks, the trend towards bigger and richer experiences continues.
And one last word, expect the forthcoming (November 2014) Royal Caribbean “Quantum of the Seas” to be one of the best “experience” cruise ships yet.
The new "Pod" on the upcomimg Quantum of the Seas