By MAGGY OEHLBECK
Nominating a single ship or cruise that fires my enduring love affair with luxury cruising is neither possible, nor polite. Among the illustrious ships I have sailed on – whether ocean, river and expedition, large or small – I love them all.
How did my abiding passion for luxury cruising begin? Was it the swish of our butler Igor’s coat-tails and the caviar and champagne which he meticulously delivered to our penthouse suite each evening after our jaw-dropping discoveries of St Petersburg? We were, after all, in the Baltic on the impeccable Crystal Symphony.
Perhaps it was my first trans-Atlantic crossing on Cunard Line’s majestic Queen Mary 2 and lining the rails alongside extravagantly fur-coated passengers in the wee small hours waiting for our first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty and the twinkling lights of Manhattan?
Or was it playing Robinson Crusoe on a tropical island paradise in French Polynesia on Windstar, or at an exclusive beach barbecue ashore on a Paul Gauguin cruise?
According to the Berlitz Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships bible, luxury cruising “should be a flawless combination of ship, facilities, understated decor, culinary excellence and service.”
I would also add finesse – little touches like a pashmina draped around my shoulders after a helicopter jaunt over four glaciers and exhilarating dog-sled ride on a Silversea Alaska cruise, or a staff member demisting my sunglasses on a SeaDream mega-yacht.
Whatever cruise itinerary you select, the ‘unpack once’ trope is immediately apparent. Most luxury ships have walk-in wardrobes. Or be like a regular Cunard guest on QM2 who takes a duplex suite for her ball gowns. On a six-night trans-Atlantic crossing, there are three formal nights – but those are voyages, not cruises.
On an average seven to 10-day cruise, expect one and possibly two formal nights, but don’t stress over dress codes. While today’s trend is for more casual, it doesn’t mean trackie-dacks and clunky joggers in the dining room.
That vexed term “smart casual” is imperfect, but basically means jacket but no tie. Pity. I love beautiful ties, and men never look better than in a dinner suit – the preferred attire on formal nights. And where better to wear fabulous frocks and heirloom jewellery than the security of a cruise ship?
The age demographic of cruise passengers is trending lower, and travelling solo is on the up as more cruise lines offer single cabins. Don’t demur about attending a glamorous event alone. Several cruise lines engage Gentlemen Hosts to act as escorts and dance partners. Another trend is toward adults-only ships – a high-end example is comparative newcomer to ocean cruising Viking Cruises.
Luxury suite accommodation usually features individual balconies, marble bathrooms with toiletries such as Bulgari and Molton Brown, finest-quality bed linens and a pillow menu, in-suite soft drinks and bottled water, table wines at lunch and dinner, obligatory welcome aboard champagne and all-inclusive gratuities.
Silversea and Viking also include free WiFi. Not included are Chef’s Table dinners with vintage wine pairings, spa treatments, private cabanas on shipboard sanctuaries and most shore excursions. Exceptions are Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ and Ponant’s all-inclusive expeditions on nominated sailings.
These days, much is made of ships’ cuisine and celebrity-chef guest appearances in specialty restaurants. While many luxury cruise ships have numerous dining venues, two-sitting dining service still exists on more traditional larger ships, but dining hours are more flexible.
You don’t have to sit at assigned tables every night, but if travelling solo, it is a good way to meet people. Have a word with the maître ds. They are skillful at matching like-minded fellow travellers. And those seeking to dine a deux are always accommodated, but best to make a prior reservation.
The larger the ship, the larger the show lounge. Expect to see West End or Broadway-style productions strutting their stuff at Cunard’s Queens’ Royal Court Theatres. Small to medium-size ships may feature special guest performers and Crystal’s cultural enrichment programs offer a pool of amazing speakers.
Don’t demur about attending a glamorous event alone. Several cruise lines engage Gentlemen Hosts to act as escorts and dance partners. Another trend is toward adults-only ships – a high-end example is comparative newcomer to ocean cruising Viking Cruises.
Some lines make a feature of being destination-immersive with overnight stays so that guests can attend an unforgettable event such as Windstar’s private white-glove-service dinner among the illuminated ruins of the Celsus Library at Ephesus accompanied by a trio from the Aegean Chamber Orchestra. Other lines may overnight in Cannes for the film festival, or Monaco for the annual Grand Prix.
If you are doing your own thing, you are responsible for being on board at the specified time, so don’t be a forlorn figure standing on the pier as the ship pulls out. I saw it happen once on a Greek island and happily a zodiac was lowered and whisked off to fetch her. If a ship-sponsored tour is delayed, it will wait, otherwise it won’t.
Meanwhile, river cruising delivers a different port every day, as most vessels moor in the heart of Europe’s great cities or towns. Wander at will or join a guided shore excursion. Tauck offers unique events such as an Imperial Evening in a Viennese Palace, or a private after-hours tour of the Louvre.
Not all river cruising is Eurocentric: explore the Amazon with Delfin, the world’s only Relais & Châteaux river cruise, or churn sedately along the Mississippi on the luxury, all-suite American Duchess.
Expedition cruising is all the rage with privileged access to pristine environments and wildlife sightings experienced in stylish comfort, carefully curated decor, fine food and wines, and engaging lectures. Ponant delivers on all counts with classy, intimate-scale expedition ships accompanied by highly qualified expedition leaders.
For me, nothing quite equals contemplating the moody blues of sea and sky while enjoying the fine art of afternoon tea on QM2; threading in and out of Greece’s sun-splashed islands, or sailing out of Istanbul at dusk, its skyline etched with silhouettes of mosques and minarets.