Back in the old days sorting out the differences in cruising was easy. Either your servant carried your steamer trunks to your suite or you were shovelling coal into the boiler of the African Queen with Humphrey Bogart.
Today, the introduction of experiential cruises means you can spend about $30,000 per person for a two-week cruise to the North Pole on a Russian nuclear icebreaker that is comfortable but not luxurious. That amount would buy you absolute luxury in lower latitudes.
To understand top-end cruising, we need to distinguish between mainstream, premium and luxury ocean cruises – and premium areas aboard mainstream cruise ships.
In mainstream cruising, bigger ships have become destinations in their own right. They are great for family holidays and the fares can be very reasonable but expect to pay for anything that can be classified as an extra. It’s well-run, assembly-line cruising and the food is mass produced unless you pay extra to dine at the onboard signature restaurants. Think fun rather than sophisticated.
Premium cruise lines can be a significant step up from mainstream. They cater for more mature travellers but still welcome families. The atmosphere is more refined with additional space although the ships still tend to be mid-sized to large. Cabins may not be much larger, but are better equipped – and there are still likely to be inside cabins with no view available for a cheaper fare. The food will be better but you’ll still be paying for drinks. There are likely to be more quiet zones or adult-only areas.
A recent development in cruising is, in fact, a step back to a shipboard class system. It was only in the 1970s that one-class cruising was introduced. Now you may be offered a premium-class section on a mainstream vessel, effectively a ship within a ship. Your keycard unlocks the chance to escape the crowds and queues, find some peace and quiet, and dine in a private restaurant.
Luxury cruise lines are the five-star boutique resorts of the sea. None are larger than mid-sized and some may carry only 100 guests. The passenger-to-crew ratio ensures attentive service. Even lower category cabins will be spacious with designer toiletries and you can expect drinks and many services to be included in your fare. The food will likely match the best resorts. Expect a sense of space and a lack of crowds, even when embarking and disembarking. While there may be entertainment on board you’ll also find experts on the places you’ll be visiting.
Here’s a sample of the luxury cruise lines and their vessels that visit Australia.
Crystal Cruises operates Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity – both around 1000 passengers – plus the new 62-passenger Crystal Esprit yacht and five river vessels in Europe. Crystal is regularly voted the best cruise line in the world and it’s easy to see why. There’s lots of space, the service is excellent and the food superb, especially in Nobu’s Silk Road Restaurant. The two aforementioned ships will be in Australia over the next two summers. crystalcruises.com
Ponant operates four ships carrying up to 226 passengers each (L’Austral, Le Boreal, Le Lyrial, Le Soleal) and the 32-stateroom sailing vessel, Le Ponant. Ponant recently announced plans to add four new ships over the next few years. Fine dining, stylish decor and French sophistication match the exotic and adventurous destinations Ponant visits. The French line has a strong Australian presence. L’Austral will be visiting Australia this summer and next. au.ponant.com
Regent Seven Seas
Regent Seven Seas Cruises (RSSC) has the 700-passenger Seven Seas Explorer, Seven Seas Mariner and Seven Seas Voyager as well as the 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator. The service and cuisine are wonderful and there’s an atmosphere of relaxed luxury on board. RSSC boasts an impressive array of inclusions within the cost of the voyage: free WiFi, unlimited shore excursions, fine wines and premium spirits, and gratuities. Voyager and Navigator are regular visitors to Australia. rssc.com
Seabourn Cruise Line has phased out its original vessels and brought three newer, larger ships online with another to come. The fleet now includes the Odyssey, Sojourn and Quest as well as Encore, which arrived early this year and headed straight for Australia. Seabourn is a leader in refined luxury cruising and offers some very creative itineraries. Its ships carry between 450 and 600 passengers. seabourn.com
Seadream Yacht Club
Seadream Yacht Club operates twin mega-yachts, SeaDream I and II. Each carry just 112 passengers and are served by a crew of 95. This really is luxury small-ship cruising as the ships are small enough to go places larger ships can’t and the crew have time to make you feel special. seadream.com
Silversea Cruises has an enviable reputation for its luxurious ships and a very high standard of service on board. The cruise fleet of five vessels (Silver Cloud, Silver Wind, Silver Shadow, Silver Whisper and Silver Spirit) will be joined by Silver Muse in 2017. All suites and butler service ensure luxury without excessive formality. silversea.com