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|Cruises: the best luxury ships|
The definition of luxury – that overdone word beloved of marketing types –
is as flexible as elastic when it comes to cruising. A luxury cruise ship should provide, firstly, a unique and memorable experience in the most comfortable surroundings. In this age of discounting, people consistently seek first-class for half price, but on a luxury cruise, you get what you pay for.
Is bigger better?
While the range of facilities and choice of accommodation is excellent aboard the large resort ships, no one on one of those will know my name or remember my favourite drink unless I make a habit of visiting the same bar (and am served by the same barman). It's a production-line holiday – well packaged, but it becomes more impersonal as the ships grow larger, more efficient and more profitable.
While exclusive accommodation can be booked aboard the large resort ships, you still have to go through the same security lines as up to 5,000 other passengers in ports of call. Luxury needs to be first-class all the way – from getting to and from your ship to enjoying an escape from the mundane.
When well-travelled people are asked which size of ship they prefer, the answer is almost always small (up to 600 passengers) or mid-sized (600 to 1,600 passengers). On such ships you are more likely to enjoy personal service (attention to detail is all-important in the delivery of luxury) and easier access (smaller ships can enter smaller, more exclusive ports).
Elements of luxury can also be found by booking a top-grade suite in the exclusive areas aboard even large ships such as Cunard's Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria, or aboard a mid-sized ship such as Oceania Cruises' recently launched Marina.
Smaller ships offer other perks. Those of SeaDream Yacht Cruises and Seabourn have watersports toys and an aft marina platform that's opened in warm-weather areas. Europa has a Zodiac inflatable rubber craft for shore expeditions, while the three smaller Seabourn ships have a Venetian-style mahogany tender boat.
Ten things that mark out a truly luxurious cruise
Being welcomed aboard with a glass of champagne and personally escorted to your suite.
A high crew-to-passenger ratio (approaching one to one) and a butler service.
Hotel staff trained in the fine art of European service.
A good, well stocked 24-hour library and no charge for in-room films.
The best specialist lecturers and historians.
Refreshments, cold towels and fresh fruit service on the pool deck.
Creative cuisine that excels in presentation, taste, variety and ingredients.
A choice of salted or unsalted butter (in proper ice dishes), sea salts and olive oils, and premium-brand drinks.
A range of personal, high-quality toiletries and soaps.
The absence of plastic plates, paper napkins or packets of sugar.
When you first board, you will be escorted to your suite, where your butler or steward(ess) will show you where everything is and how it works. He or she can unpack your clothes and press them, polish your shoes and make bookings for restaurants, spas and anything else. They will offer a pillow menu and a choice of exclusive soaps. You will be given personalised stationery, slippers, a bathrobe, fresh flowers and a basket of fresh fruit, replenished daily.
Suites aboard small and mid-sized ships vary in size, from approximately 195 sq ft to 2,025 sq ft (that's larger than my house). By comparison, the standard cabin size aboard large resort ships is about 140 sq ft. Typically, they come with a separate bedroom, a lounge with a table (for private à la carte dining), huge sofas, a walk-in closet and large flat-screen televisions in several rooms. Some ships have bathrooms with his-and-hers wash basins, bidets, whirlpool baths and separate shower enclosures.
While some smaller ships don't have balconies (because suites are too close to the waterline, or the ships were built before balconies became fashionable), the newest vessels have balconies large enough to have an outdoor massage on, or a full meal. If you book a suite on the port side you will be able to see other ships passing.
You should expect to be greeted by name by crew members and made to feel welcome, a friend rather than a commodity. Smaller ships have crews that are better trained; they are paid higher wages and are not reliant on tips. They smile more because they have a genuine desire to please, and are happy to be there, not because someone told them to. They also have good-quality living quarters, food and conditions.
In most restaurants you eat when you want and with whom you want, so there's no rush (dinner is typically served from 7pm to 10pm). Alternative dining venues are usually available at no extra cost, but provide smaller, more intimate spaces and different cuisine.
The ships feature haute cuisine, the finest china and cutlery, presentation plates and properly sized wine glasses. Unlike on larger ships, there will be many tables for two, with enough space around each to allow for proper service.
Most food is made from scratch – there should be none of the pre-made sauces and soups (and almost no tinned food) served on large resort ships. More use will be made of fresh, seasonal, regional and sustainable ingredients, smaller portions and healthier options.
Is 'all-inclusive' really luxury?
What all-inclusive cruising gives you – whether in the "luxury" or "premium" market – is a price that includes the basic drinks and wines. Anything better costs extra. All-inclusive pricing may include some shore excursions, but it doesn't include spa treatments. So, remember that "all-inclusive" is a flexible term.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club, and Silversea Cruises all feature "all-inclusive" prices. These are really fine products that suit many people, particularly those who do not like paying extra for wines and drinks. However, while the wines that are included for lunch and dinner tend to be pleasant, don't expect the likes of Château Margaux or Mouton Rothschild.
Likewise, you might get a standard gin for your gin and tonic, but not a premium brand such as Brockmans, Caorunn or Oxley.
Beware, too, that the tonic might be from a spritzer hose, not a can. But then, the best gins really are too full of flavour to be drowned in tonic.
The pick of the luxury ships
A Mediterranean cruise Cruise ships can be standard, premium or luxury. Here is my pick of the top end. Passenger numbers are in brackets.
Hapag-Lloyd Cruises Europa (400)
SeaDream Yacht Cruises SeaDream I (110); SeaDream II (110)
The following straddle the crossover line between luxury and premium:
Hebridean Island Cruises Hebridean Princess (49)
Oceania Cruises Marina (1,200)