What does it mean for cruise travellers when travelling with ‘the best’ operators in luxury cruising? There are some that excel and deliver exceptional service, onboard amenities and a diverse breadth of itineraries. We take a look at the standouts.
Luxury means different things to different people but, whatever your preferences are, there are certain elements that all ‘true luxury’ cruise lines have in common. These include voyages to sought-after destinations, world-class cuisine, fares that include all drinks, tips and other extras, a high crew-to-guest ratio and, leading from that, exceptionally attentive, professional service.
However, even within this niche sector, there are aspects that individual cruise lines excel at. Here, we take a look at the best of the best.
Among ultra-luxe lines Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn and Silversea Cruises, Regent is generally considered to offer the most inclusions in its fares. That means there’s no extra charge for dining in specialty restaurants, which include Asian-fusion Pacific Rim, high-end steakhouse Prime 7 and Paris-inspired Chartreuse. All drinks are included in restaurants, lounges and in-suite; laundry services are free, as is unlimited Wi-Fi — and all gratuities are included.
Regent provides an excellent range of free shore excursions at every port of call (although you can pay for extra-exclusive Regent Choice excursions), as well as free three-night pre- and post-cruise land programs in a multitude of desirable destinations. All you need to add to your onboard account are hands-on cooking classes on Seven Seas Splendor and Explorer, spa and salon treatments, and select rare wines and spirits.
Scenic’s first ocean-going ‘discovery yacht’, Scenic Eclipse, also offers an impressive array of inclusions for its 228 guests — virtually the only things you need pay for are scenic flights on the two onboard helicopters and a deep dive on the six-seater submarine.
The level of service on all cruise lines can be partly measured by the ‘crew to guest ratio’. In a nutshell, that means dividing the maximum number of guests a ship accommodates by the number of crew onboard. The ultimate ratio is 1:1, i.e., one crew member for every guest. At the top end, the ratio is 1:1.1 on Silversea’s Galapagos-based Silver Origin, which has 90 crew members to look after 100 guests; 1:1.8 on SeaDream’s traditional style mega-yachts SeaDream I and II; 1:2.9 on Seven Seas Explorer and Splendor; and 1:3.4 on Seabourn’s five classic ships.
However, the crew-to-guest ratio doesn’t tell the whole story. On Silversea’s ships, both classic and expedition, there’s butler service in every suite. SeaDream’s crew has an incredible reputation for personalised service, even though its ships aren’t the most opulent at sea; and on every ultra-luxe ship worth its salt, crew members will not only know your name and favourite drink by the second day of the cruise, but they’re often the reason cited by return guests for their loyalty to a particular line — even a particular ship.
There’s another ratio you can look at when choosing the best luxury ship for your lifestyle — the space-per-guest ratio. Briefly, this means the ship’s volume (gross registered tonnage), divided by the guest capacity. The higher the resulting number, the more personal space for each guest. For example, the space/guest ratio on the 732-guest, 55,254-GRT Seven Seas Explorer is 75.48, and on the new 264-guest luxury adventure ship Seabourn Venture, it’s a very commodious 87.12.
Personal space has become an important factor for travellers since the Covid-19 pandemic. You don’t have to queue up for anything on the best luxury ships, restaurants have plenty of tables for two and most suites have private balconies. The most spacious — and lavishly appointed — suite in the ultra-luxe sector is the upcoming Seven Seas Grandeur’s Regent Suite, a vast, 293-square-metre space adjoined by an equally massive 120-square-metre balcony.
Health and wellness
The best spas at sea today offer an astonishing range of wellness programs and pampering treatments in stunning surroundings. Some wellness programs, such as Seabourn’s and Scenic’s, extend to specialised shore excursions designed to enhance your health and wellbeing.
One of the most comprehensive is Seabourn’s Spa and Wellness with Dr Andrew Weil, a fleetwide, ‘mindful living’ program that offers guests a holistic spa and wellness experience that integrates physical, social, environmental and spiritual wellbeing. That’s on top of a wide range of body massages, facials, fitness, and beauty treatments.
Although Viking Ocean Cruises shies away from the word ‘luxury’, its LivNordic spas are spectacular. They were the first to feature a snow grotto and naturally, given Viking’s Scandinavian heritage, there is a sauna and chilled plunge pool as well as a spacious thermal suite.
Scenic Eclipse’s Senses Spa is another beautifully designed space, where guests can indulge in everything from facials and salon treatments to ‘alternative therapies’ such as reflexology, Japanese Shiatsu massage and Tibetan Bowl Sound Healing sessions.
Sustainability is another area where luxury cruise lines are continually upping their game. Protecting the marine environment is essential to their operations, and the best lines are implementing advanced onboard waste systems, using cleaner fuels, offsetting carbon emissions, eliminating single-use plastics and much more.
Luxury expedition company, Ponant, is a pioneer in the field. This year, Ponant was awarded the sought-after Green Marine Europe certification for the third year running — the only international cruise company to be certified — and last year it launched the world’s first hybrid-electric LNG-powered luxury icebreaker, Le Commandant Charcot. Now the company is working on an eco-design ship that will have zero impact on the environment when sailing. It will be the 14th ship in the Ponant fleet, and the aim is to combine several non-fossil fuel energy sources, including wind propulsion, by integrating technological bricks.
Norwegian company, Hurtigruten Expeditions, has been sailing in Polar waters since 1893 and says that ‘exploring our blue planet for more than a century has taught us the importance of being green’. In 2018 Hurtigruten became the first expedition company to ban non-essential single-use plastic across all its operations, and the following year it unveiled the world’s first hybrid expedition ship, MS Roald Amundsen.
Silversea’s newest ship, Silver Nova, is due to set sail in July 2023 and will be the first hybrid, luxury cruise ship free of emissions while in port. Silver Nova will be powered by three sustainable power sources, including a fuel cell system, battery technology and dual fuel engines using LNG as the main fuel. The company says Silver Nova and future Nova-class ships support its mission “to preserve the planet without compromising on comfort or luxury.”
Then there’s a handful of boutique cruise ships that operate under sail, assisted by engine power when there’s no wind. Star Clippers’ three distinctive tall ships offer a traditional sailing experience combined with all the facilities you’d expect from a modern ship. Three of Windstar Cruises’ six ships are sailing ships, while the venerable Sea Cloud, one of Sea Cloud Cruises’ fleet of three elegant windjammers, has been sailing for more than 90 years. Meanwhile, closer to home, Ponant’s original flagship, the three-masted Le Ponant, embarks on her maiden Kimberley season in April 2023.
Travel experts say that bookings for luxury adventure or expedition cruising are stronger than ever before, a trend that ties in with the overall demand for more environmentally friendly travel. Smaller, expedition-style ships sail with fewer guests so there’s less impact onshore and more accessibility to less touristed destinations.
Expedition cruise companies such as Aurora Expeditions, Ponant, Seabourn Expeditions, Silversea Expeditions, Scenic, and Viking Expeditions — just to name a few — work with small communities across the globe to foster responsible tourism and increase awareness of scientific, social, and environmental issues.
Long may it last: it’s a welcome trend away from the overtourism we saw a couple of years ago.