Latest Ratings of World’s Top Ten Cruise Lines
THE WORLD’S TOP TEN
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Ratings Last Updated: September 9 2013
Our ratings are based on our own independent inspections, reports from the thousands of members of The Royal Cruising Society, and the best quality evaluations from both the consumer and industry trade press. Our standings and scores are updated on a bi-monthly basis to include new ships, on-board policies, and product enhancements. Cruise lines do not know when they are being inspected and we do not accept advertising or compensation in conjunction with our product ratings.
There is a great deal of misleading information offered to the public about the relative merits of various cruise lines. The biggest lines have the biggest advertising budgets and, often, the smaller, higher quality cruise lines are not as well known to the general public. We believe that really knowing as much as possible about the world’s top ten rated lines is the best first step to planning a truly memorable cruise vacation.
There are some recent developments and trends that have not been widely reported in the press. This is what the ads won’t tell you:
In order to maintain pricing parity in the Caribbean and elsewhere, the larger, mass markets ships have been under enormous pressure to dramatically increase on-board revenues. This has resulted in nickel and dime pricing for many items previously included in the cruise price such as bottled water wine tasting’s, and crew tipping, (Some lines automatically charge $10-$12 per person per day to guests shipboard accounts)
- There is intense pressure to purchase gifts from the gift shops, art works of dubious pedigree, and overpriced shore excursion offerings. Drinks are peddled at every turn.
- Many of the mass market lines are using flash frozen foodstuffs such as shore side prepared frozen submarine sandwich loaves and low quality hamburgers and hot dogs.
- Crewing is one of any cruise line’s largest expenditures and we are seeing cost-cutting in this area on many lines. Western European staff are being replaced with less expensive and less experienced Eastern European staff. We are seeing a significant increase in Russian staff aboard most of the mainstream lines.
- Not one of the five largest cruise lines includes drinks. All charge for bottled water and soda.
- Because cruise prices on the major lines and the low and mid-range budget categories have not changed significantly since 1992, we are starting to see the clientele aboard many of these ships change. Some of the same people who used to travel by Greyhound are now traveling on cruise ships. One major line recently told us that when sailings feature promotional pricing, some passengers are requesting that cabin attendants not change their sheets or clean the room “because we didn’t bring any tip money”. This has caused some crew discontent.
- We are starting to see a myriad of unbundled extra fees for fuel surcharges, security, air taxes etc These extra fees are not added to the cruise prices shown in newspaper and magazine advertising.
- It is important to note that not one of the popular, brand-name mass market cruise lines meets our stringent qualifications to be included on our list of the World’s Top Ten lines. There seems to be an inverse relationship between a cruise line’s name recognition with the public and their overall ratings.
- When one looks at the Luxury segment of the cruise industry it is clear that demanding guests will not tolerate cutbacks. In fact, the luxury segment seems to be in a constant state of upgrade in all areas including on-board services, food, and shore excursions. Aside from some minor exceptions, luxury lines have not yielded to pressures to dramatically increase on-board revenue.
- There are lines, such as Azamara, and Oceania, that have made our list despite policies that mimic the additional charges of their mainstream, lower-rated competitors. They have made our list because they have maintained a strong on-board product, in all cases low-density and unique, while adhering to a philosophy that each passenger should pay only for what he/she has consumed. These two lines have forged a new cruise category, First Class rather than Deluxe, at a lower price point than their 5-star rivals while operating on a non-inclusive basis.
- Our strong recommendation is to take a serious look at sailing on one of the top ten lines at a discounted price rather than risk sailing a mega-ship with substandard service, institutional quality food, and up to 5,000 fellow passengers. The gap between mediocrity and luxury in the cruise industry is widening.
- A serious analysis of current cruise pricing will reveal, that when all ‘extras” such as round-trip airfare, are added in to the cost of mainstream cruises, the gap between mainstream and Five-Star cruise pricing narrows considerably. Any potential cruiser would do well to calculate the total per day cost of a cruise with all “extras” added in. When that is done, the cost of a cruise will generally come in at between $500-$800 per person, per day. New cruisers who are not prepared to pay that price ought to look at alternative vacation options to avoid sticker shock when they pay their onboard bill.
Please note that traveltruth.com limits all user comments to frequent cruisers who we have identified and authenticated. Only the opinions of professional reviewers appear in our evaluations
The most recent commentary appears at the end of each review.
THE OFFICIAL RATINGS OF THE
WORLD’S TOP TEN CRUISE LINES
# 1 – HAPAG LLOYD’S – EUROPA
The 450-Guest, 28,890 GRT, pride of the Hapag-Lloyd fleet, has never been a household cruise name. Since its launch in 1999. the vessel has been sold primarily by travel agents in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. This is a modern, highly evolved, unusually spacious ship that features some of the finest formal services at sea. Dining is an event and, on certain evenings, even the wait staff works in formalwear.
Although we currently rank the Europa above her mid and small-ship US-based competitors, she is very definitely not for everyone. This is a German-centric experience with German being the ship’s home language. Service is top tier, food is the finest available, and the upscale traveler will notice the quality of the China, the perfection of the glasses, and the comfort of the lounges surrounding the single swimming pool. Lectures are cultural in nature and are offered in German. But that does not necessarily mean that American guests are not welcomed. The crew speaks English as a second language and, given the interest in the Europa among sophisticated cruisers from Great Britain, certain cruises are designated as bi-lingual English/German sailings.
The décor among this modern feeling ship tends toward the nautical, with a fair number of yacht photos and paintings adorning the walls. That is because the Europa feels like a very private yacht with an unobtrusive staff. Smoking could be an issue for some. The Havana Cigar Lounge will be a plus for those so-inclined. Insider’s marvel at the Europa’s superior riding qualities. She is about as smooth as an ocean-going vessel gets with a rather advanced pod propulsion system.
The Europa remains a mystery to most American cruisers. There are language issues and the fact is that only a handful of American travel agents have experienced this unique luxury product so it is not the first ship normally recommended. But for those who enjoy the small details associated with luxury cruising, in a decidedly European environment, the Europa’s rather strong worldwide itineraries might be worthy of consideration. But only if one is comfortable sailing one of the world’s great yachts in the company of German-speaking European fellow guests.
“We loved the availability of fresh seafood throughout our cruise and the opportunity to dine in the Oriental Restaurant, perhaps the best alternative restaurant at sea. If you sail this ship, be sure to look over the Meissen china – just beautiful. True, our German is rusty, but we found the classical entertainment to be just right after such elegant dining experiences.
Perhaps we should not tell anyone about this ship. It is already hard enough to book passage.” The Europa is definitely not for everyone. But I suppose I would go again just for the great German sausages they served in the Clipper Bar. The dress thing was fine. Yes, the folks onboard seem to like getting dressed up. But you never felt like they were showing off their jewelry as we have on some of the American ships. A lot of the Germans and Austrians described the ship as a luxury yacht, a feeling we could well understand.“
We made the mistake of doing a three week cruise and it was a really long time to be away from our American movies and television. They tried on board, but you should not sail this ship unless you really want to spend two weeks in a German resort that floats.”
#2 – REGENT SEVEN SEAS CRUISES
Regent is the perfect blending of casual sophistication, lots of options, and the largest cabins in its class. The 700 Guest Mariner and Voyager have hit the sweet spot of available space and amenities to match. The Navigator, at 490 guests, is ideal for those seeking a more intimate experience.
Regent now includes a complimentary luxury pre-cruise hotel stay before each cruise. Guests have the option of taking an onboard credit if they choose to pass on the hotel night. Regent also includes so-called “two-for-one inclusive pricing”, free economy air, included shore excursions, drinks, and gratuities. This makes Regent the current leader in terms of inclusions but consumers are always advised to utilize our recommended costing formula to evaluate true value versus marketing hype.
Drinks are included, along with wines. Gratuities are not expected and all of the ships linens have been upgraded. Regent may offer the perfect blend of “not too much formality”, “ships large enough to offer amenities yet small enough to be called intimate”, and dining choices that create pre-meal excitement.
The line’s Mariner and Voyager offer the industry’s perfect blend of size(700 guests) and amenities, all-balcony cabins of 300 sq. ft.+. These are, hands down, the most comfortable and spacious lower-category categories in the luxury market.
When considering Regent for families, it is important to note that the Mariner does not have connecting rooms.
- Mariner & Voyager are well equipped with self service laundrettes. Navigator only has two. If planning to do laundry onboard, bring fabric sheets, no fabric softner provided. All laundry services are at no cost to guests. Navigator ‘s two lowest categories (G&H) are window suites. Ocean view window -6.5 feet wide does not open. Cabins that end in the number ’7″ are for triple occupancy. Regent is a member of the “Guild of English Butlers” a company created for the recruitment & training of butlers around the world. The ship’s butlers (for categories B & higher) provide everything from in-suite bar set up, afternoon canapés, packing, unpacking, laundry pressing (for a fee) or any special requests.
- Internet use is one of the few services for which there is an additional charge. Passengers can, for a $6.50 daily charge have a copy of their favorite newspaper transmitted electronically delivered to their cabin.
- Regent is one of the few luxury cruise lines that genuinely welcomes children & offers a dedicated children’s program during kids school breaks in summer months.
- All drinks are included, and guest can request from their steward bottles of wine or liquor(Grey Goose) etc.. to their cabin. The only time there is a charge for liquor is if they request a high end scotch, or an expensive wine/champagne.
- Room service is 24 hours & many guests enjoy memorable dinners in-suite on their balcony.
- One of the four restaurants, Signatures, is actually operated by Cordon Bleu. Prime 7 is the highly-regarded steakhouse and there are no extra charges for reservations at either of these venues, although guests booked in the lower categories may be disappointed at their inability to book more than one or two nights in the specialty restaurants.
We think it is important to point out that several industry evaluation sources place either Seabourn, Crystal, or Silverseas above Regent in their rankings. In 2010 and 2011, we felt that Regent could not be said to outrank these worthy competitors. In our latest ratings, however, we feel that Regent has one-upped it’s Five Star competitors with the industry’s best accommodations, food that is approachable and keeps getting better, and pricing that is, at this time, the most inclusive in the industry. Not one of their competitors is offering the combination of Free Airfare, Complimentary Shore Excursions, and a Complimentary pre-cruise hotel night. Regent soars to the head of the pack with its consumer-driven amenities that simply make it a superior value for luxury that is less formal but every bit as personal as its competitors.
Regent is the best choice for those seeking a ship with full amenities. and the luxury sectors best cabins. Couple that with the warmth of its crew, the stability of 50,000 ton vessels, and the amenities that a 700 guest ship can provide, and we must conclude that Regent ought to be among the lines first considered for the majority of upscale cruisers seeking informality coupled with elegance.
In March of 2012, Regent announced that it was changing the theme of its veranda restaurant to a casual Italian no-reservation required option called Setti Mare. The new restaurant will be located on all three Regent ships and will feature appetizers and house-made pastas at a buffet or table-side, followed by entrees ordered off the menu. Guests who wish to go ashore in the evening will find Setti Mari to be a satisfying experience without the needs for guests to allow more than an hour for their dinner. The majority of guests will want to linger, and the new Italian concept will make that possible with an expansive selection of comfortable yet refined Italian cuisine. The Veranda had previously been a rather difficult to describe “Mediterranean Restaurant.” Guests will also be able to select from a wide selection of premium Italian wines.”
“You should try for additional reservations at Signatures mid-cruise. Some guests feel that the dinners are “too rich” and end up canceling. We thought the dry-cleaning services were way overpriced. All in all, however, our Alaska experience on the Mariner blew away a similar itinerary we took on princess five years ago. The elegance, service, and the way the experience makes you feel about yourself, just can’t be matched by any of the monster ships.”
“Want the truth. I would choose Regent again just for the bathrooms.”
“The best-kept secret for dining is the “almost always available” Terrace restaurant on the upper deck with its floor to ceiling windows, mini-buffet followed by a Mediterranean sit-down menu. We found the guests aboard our three Regent Cruises to be younger then the crowd on Crystal and bit hipper. Since we’re in our forties, this made a difference.”
“There was less staff-guest interaction on our recent Voyager sailing then we expected. The staff made very little effort to learn the guest’s names. At least that was true of the officers. The Indonesian’s in the dining area and around the pool were much friendlier.”
“I really liked the Concierge Desk. We were able to rent a car out of Sorrento and we drove along the coast, stopping at the Hotel San Pietro for a great lunch. One night we were exhausted and we asked to see the dinner menu. That night, as cruised off the coast, we were served dinner in our cabin with the sliding glass doors open and a clear view of the sea. It just doesn’t;t get any better or more romantic then that.”
“Our recent Regent Cruise in the Med featured a former Concorde Pilot and one of the nation’s top sleep experts. I was fascinated by virtually everything these two gentleman had to say. Someone at Regent is doing a good job lining up guest lecturers. We don’t feel that positive about the evening entertainment. We would have preferred more lectures, feature films, or concert videos then the sorry attempt at singing and dancing. Cole Porter is so yesterday.”
We just returned from a marvelous crossing from Lisbon to Ft. Lauderdale on the Voyager. The ship was half empty because most people do not realize that the two larger Regent ships, at 50,000 tons, are bout as big as the Crystal ships and plenty large enough for a crossing of the Atlantic. This is really a good deal for those who like days at sea. I’m not so sure I’d want to do the crossing on the Navigator but for the prices Regent is offering, I might consider it next year.
Having done each of the top three lines on your ratings, we have concluded that we are going to become regulars with Regent. The extra 400 passengers enables the ship to offer many more dining options, better entertainment, and more nooks and crannies to hang out. But best of all, we like Regent’s more casual atmosphere, particularly as compared with what we experienced on Silverseas. The impression we had was that the Regent guests put up with dressing up once or twice during the cruise while the Silverseas crowd couldn’t wait to get in their formal wear. Surprised they didn’t wear their tux around the pool.”
“There are some problems with the propulsion system on the Mariner. These have not been fixed and the ship is not capable of going full speed. Our sailing was able to do all ports on schedule but there was one afternoon off the Alaskan coast when we hit a bit of rough water and one wondered if the fact that one of the pods was messed up had anything to do with it. We had a wonderful cruise and will sail with Regent again. We won’t hesitate to sail the Mariner. But we wish we had been told prior to boarding.”
“There seems to be some confusion about the way Regent handles shore excursions. We just got off an absolutely wonderful cruise with them but we had arrived in a dither because our agent and Regent’s web site reported that all shore excursions were sold out – at least the ones that were complimentary. This caused more than a little anxiety but when we boarded the tour desk said that all but three of the tours were “wide open.”. It turns out, we learned later, that Regent’s shipboard computers “don’t talk” with the computers in their corporate headquarters. At this point, we would advise, that you not believe anything told you in advance about availability. Once on board, everything worked out beautifully.”
“We loved our recent cruise to Australia on Regent. Things ran smoothly and we were extremely impressed by the strengths of the on board lecture programs. We learned a lot from a former ambassador and an expert on world hot spots. We also learned how to mix drinks and about current trends in the restaurant industry. The evening entertainment was far better than we had been led to believe by our agent. On the other hand, we were surprised by the amateurish service and the occasional rude waiter in the dining room. The maitre ‘d in Prime 7 was always grouchy and he came back to the table after one of the guests send back a steak to say that he and the chef had tasted it and there was nothing wrong with it. Unlike Crystal, which we have sailed several times, Regent does not seem to have the expectation that the wait staff will interact much with guests or even learn their names. So, in terms of organization, food, entertainment, our cruise met and exceeded our expectations But we were disappointed that we did not receive more personalized service.”
“Having sailed several of the Top-Rated lines, including Seabourn and Silverseas, we would rank Regent just below Seabourn and Silverseas because of the lack of European style and formality in the dining room. The lack of formal dress rules on Regent adds to a lack of true sophistication that we feel should be part of the traditional luxury cruise experience. We do not expect a “relationship” with our waiters or cabin stewards. We think that ratings ought to be based on class and civility. You will find a somewhat more refined group aboard Seabourn and Silverseas We were, quite frankly, rather shocked that Regent has no formal nights at all on any sailing, anywhere in the world, of fewer than sixteen days.”
#3– CRYSTAL CRUISES
Crystal’s fleet of two large (940 guest) ships has won virtually every “best large ship cruise line” award in the industry. The line features the highest standards of dining service and we rank the specialty Prego Italian restaurant among the finest at sea. Crystal caters to a demanding, largely retired, east and west coast clientele and features two-seating dining.
In 2012, Crystal finally went “inclusive” with drinks, wines, and gratuities included in the cruise fare. Currently, Crystal’s inclusions match those of luxury rivals Seabourn and Silverseas but do not include pre-night hotel stays or shore excursions as Regent is currently offering.
Entertainment options abound, including sophisticated stage shows and classical acts, as well as a full screen movie theater. Service, food, and entertainment standards are consistent on both ships but the newer Serenity wins highest marks for layout and design. Those who seek personalized; Four Seasons-style service will appreciate the Crystal experience. Those sailing Crystal for the first time are generally amazed at how much better run these vessels are then the mainstream mega-ships. Crystal still sets the standard for larger, two-seating ships. Most worldwide itineraries are in the 10-14-day range. Guests sailing one of the higher-rated lines often report that Crystal food and service matched or surpassed it’s smaller, single-seating lux competitors. This is the line that many Princess, Celebrity, and Holland America passengers should have selected for cruises of ten days or longer. It seems clear that, at the moment, Crystal has the most comprehensive and successful staff training program in the entire passenger ship industry.
Our most recent inspection of Crystal has reaffirmed our belief that Crystal is the very best cruise option for the majority of upscale cruisers. We believe that there is one under-reported but critical foundation of the line’s success. Crystal is owned by NYK, the huge Japanese shipping conglomerate. NYK-FIL has established the leading crew training facility in the Philippines. Every on board Crystal service person must graduate from a rigorous six-month program at Crystal’s exclusive training “university”. There are other crew training facilities in the Philippines, but none has the respect or the credentials of the NYK/Crystal school. This, we believe, is the secret weapon that allows Crystal to provide its ships with the best trained and most customer-savvy crews in the industry.
No other cruise line comes close to emulating the combination of caring, personalized service, often memorable cuisine, and the full lecture/entertainment options that form a part of the Crystal experience. Choose any other line and you are going to have to sacrifice at least one of these three pillars of excellence. Anyone seeking to sail on a competitor, needs to ask their travel consultant, “If I don’t sail Crystal, what am I giving up?”
Crystal has a somewhat older demographic than many of its smaller-ship five-star competitors. This has more to do with the length of cruises than any brand factors. Crystal tends to do very few seven-night cruises so the average age goes up accordingly.
The two Crystal ships are extremely well maintained but they are classic cruise liners with 940 guests. The dining room has two seating’s. Crystal should not, on paper, rank as high as they do in these ratings. But Crystal earns its grades by outperforming the small ships in the very areas where they excel, personalized service, food, and entertainment. Many guests prefer Crystal because there are more lecture and entertainment options and some of the best alternative “no additional charge” restaurants at sea.
Crystal does have formal nights and waiters will escort ladies into the dining room arm-in-arm in the classic manner. Yet, Crystal lacks some of the European panache of a Silverseas or Seabourn. Those who enjoy formal European service may well prefer another line to Crystal’s more personal, California-vibe style.
Given current pricing and it’s new inclusions policy together with on board service that produces the industry’s highest repeat factors, we felt Crystal has to be rated above many of it’s more ultra-sophisticated category competitors. Crystal just offers more of what most guests value most.
“We have been on more then twenty cruises but this was the first time my wife and I ever saw crew members standing by on the gangway to hug and kiss guests goodbye. For many, it was their only time off during a very hectic ten-day itinerary. Crystal service is truly caring. We will never sail another line. Perfection does exist.”
“As a past cruiser with Celebrity and Princess, I really could not believe the differences between those cruises and this one. Crystal is worth every penny. The shows are the best we’ve ever seen, the food and service is European-inspired but this is a truly comfortable, American line for affluent cruisers. It seems like we are back in Boca at our country club instead of out at sea on a large ship. The only thing missing is the golf course.”
“We have sailed them all and I’m telling you, Palo is the best restaurant at sea. Do everything you need to do to get a few reservations.”
“You know its good when the toughest place to get a seat is the office of the person booking future cruises. My wife loved being taken by the arm and escorted to the dinner table. They couldn’t be more caring or accommodating and, quite frankly, you never had the feeling they were doing it for tips.”
“The sushi bar at Nobu’s Silk Road was just extraordinary. Three full-time sushi chefs and some of the finest sushi we’ve ever had in our lives. And we’re from LA. Crystal rules” We’ve been following the reviews on traveltruth and, more or less, working our way down your list of top-rated cruise lines. But that’s all over now. We understand that Crystal carries more passengers and has two seating’s etc., but they still ought to be #1 on anyone’s list. We’ve found the one line that gives us everything.”
“It was a lovely cruise in the Med out of Barcelona. But it felt very Four Seasony and we prefer the smaller lines with their true boutique feel. The food though was very good and Prego is, we agree, our favorite restaurant of any of the ships we have tried.”
“Our traveling companions did not like the two seatings, but they said the food was far better then what they had on Seabourn. We won’t sail anything but Crystal. We started with them, thankfully, and we’ll finish with them. It is amazing how the staff remembers you, often by name, from cruise to cruise. We appreciate the honesty of your reviews but we think you make too much of the two seating policy in the dinning room. With the alternative restaurants and the casual option now, for dinner upstairs, we only used the main dining room five times during our cruise. No big deal having two seating’s.”
“I am a service trainer and I sat mesmerized every day of our anniversary cruise. I can’t imagine the service feats these folks pull off. This is probably the world’s best cruise line for anyone who doesn’t want to sit on a tiny ship with nothing to do but read another mystery.. This is big ship excitement with elegant service and amenities. I just don’t see us switching. If our travel consultant stops recommending Crystal, we’ll be changing consultants.”
“Some of the Crystal old-timers, and they number more than a few, seem to think there is some magic way that Crystal can enlarge their standard cabins and make them all suites. They are what they are. But we think, based on our last two Crystal sailings, that the line keeps getting better. They reacted quite well to the discounts from some of their rivals. On our last cruise, Crystal gave us $2,000 to spend any way we want – on tips, shore excursions, or drinks. I far prefer this to the all-inclusive lines that make you pay for other people’s drinking habits. And I like to tip for service. I suspect that is why Crystal’s service receives such high grades on this site and others. Now, we mus5t say we have some concerns about whether Crystal’s service scores will suffer since they have switched to an all-inclusive, gratuities included policy. I just had two friends who returned in February and they said the new policy works well and they could not spot any service declines”
“We didn’t like our Crystal cruise. We loved it. Here are a few things my wife and I noticed, and we come from the hotel industry: On the transfer from the Crystal pre-cruise hotel in Costa Rica to the port, special seats were blocked out for children so they could enjoy the best views. The cruise director was so appealingly non-intrusive that we wondered where he had been trained. PA announcements were dignified, limited, and professionally rendered.
Louis Armstrong’s “It’s A Wonderful World” has become Crystal’s theme song. In each port, Louis’ mesmerizing voice goes out to those confined to a lesser brand as they stare longingly from their white plastic chairs as the Serenity pulls gently away from her berth and heads back out to sea. The specialty restaurants are, in my opinion, the finest at sea. On the Serenity, The Silk Road is guided by famed chef Nobu Matsuhisa. I would book another trip on the Serenity solely on the basis of a chance to try, once again, the chef’s signature broiled black cod with miso. But savvy dinners can sit at the Sushi Bar and order from thirty-five, or so, sushi specials. This is, to put it simply, a $300 dinner experience for two on land and I doubt that the service would be nearly as good or the setting was unique and relaxing. The library is well stocked and staffed by a gentle woman who has, seemingly, read every volume in her care. I heard her make some excellent recommendations to some pretty challenging inquiries.
Now that Crystal has gone inclusive, we wondered what changes we would see returning for our seventh cruise. The answer is that things worked even better than before with a slightly younger group of guests. It seems as though the food, if it at all possible, has actually improved. We love the food in Prego and consider it the best restaurant on any of our thirteen cruises on Crystal and some of her competitors. The two seating’s are what they are, but we would always advise friends to avoid the first seating for dinner as some of our friends reported it was a bit rushed. The new, dine when you want to, option is working well and is really great for folks like us who enjoy meeting new people during dinner.
“We felt that the balcony cabins in category A and B were noticeably smaller than the veranda’s on Regent Seven Seas. But we will go back on Crystal just for the amazing lecture programs and classis. On our Baltic Cruise, we had a Russian history expert and a former astronaut lecturing and we were able to take classes in introductory Russian as well as Photoshop for the computer.
“Your reviews are really accurate but, in the case of Crystal, we think you need to say more about the friendliness of the crew. This is a cruise line that obviously takes care of the help. There is none of the typical crew talk about leaving and going to work for someone else. I don’t know where they find the Filipino’s and the Indonesians who work aboard the Serenity and the Symphony, but they are clearly Crystal’s “secret weapons.”
“I suppose the major issue we have had with Crystal is the large number of days at sea they include in their itineraries. These are wonderful days, don’t get me wrong, with lots to do and about the best port lectures we’ve encountered on any of our 32 cruises, but I do get the feeling that I am missing out on port time when I sail Crystal.”
“When will this line ever build a new ship? We’ve all sold both of these vessels, we love them, and we keep coming back. But isn’t it about time that the Japanese owners opoened up their considerable pursestrings and gave us some new tonnage? Crystal is wonderful but there just isn’t the excitement we had sailing the new Silverseas Spirit or the Seabourn Quest. Crystal lacks the smell of new car leather.”
“Yes, you’re right, Crystal has adopted the Louis Armstriong “Wonderful World” song as its own. But a more accurate song for this cruise line would be Tina Turner’s “You’re Simply the Best”.
“You know, when all is said and done, we’ve been on most of the ships in your top ten with the exception of Hapag-Lloyd and Orion, and we just prefer the totality of the Crystal experience. But my husband will tell you that the way complimentary transfers are provided to the center of each of the ports is reason enough to keep coming back.
# 4 – SILVERSEA CRUISE LINE
Itineraries tend to Europe, South America andAsia. Picture just a few hundred kindred travelers of the CEO variety. Outstanding food and service though lacking dining options found on some competitors. All inclusive top-end quality. Silversea is cruising’s current “benchmark brand”. Imagine Top-quality “everything.” Worldwide itineraries include a number of shorter, one-week sailings. Evenings tend to be dressy. Per person food expenditures are among the highest in the industry. The Concierge desk can do just about anything in the way of private travel arrangements in port. Much of Silverseas reputation is based on the assumption that 300 passengers is small enough to make guests feel truly pampered and large enough to provide a wider range of amenities then smaller capacity rivals. The Concierge frequently arranges in-port experiences that go far beyond the norm. Culinary programs in small settings are featured on many itineraries. Like each of the top three lines, Silverseas is trying to offer more casual dining options. But this is still the most formal of the top lines. Don’t consider Silverseas if you are terminally young, hate dressing up, or are uncomfortable traveling with economic royalty. This is the line of champagne and caviar, of lux dreams realized.
Important Note: In April, 2009, the line’s two-top US-based executives were unexpectedly replaced by Silversea’s overseas owners. Within the week, it was announced that the former head of sales and marketing at Regent Seven Seas was being brought onboard to oversee Silversea’s operations in the States. This was seen as an attempt by owners to provide some new approaches to filling Silversea’s ships while controlling losses. Clearly, Silverseas will continue to be one of the world’s top-ranked cruise lines. Turmoil in the Stateside office does not necessarily translate to services being provided to guests at sea. But we believe that this change in management has also signaled some changes in direction. Consumers are seeing new pricing strategies and some changes to the onboard product. This has already started to happen with a new, massive discounting program that will include more then 50 sailings at two-for-one rates.
Further Update August 2012: Silversea’s management is now on firm ground. The discount programs have been rather successful. Of all of the five-star lines, Silverseas has made the most significant commitment to market its cruise products abroad. Currently, well over 50% of Silversea’s guests are non-Americans. This should be an important factor as guests choose the degree to which they would like to vacation in an international environment.
“We had dinner the first night with a lovely couple. My husband and I thought he owned a sailboat but by the time dessert arrived we had figured out that he owned a fleet of tankers. That, I suppose, is Silversea.”
“Having sailed on each of the top three lines, we have decided that Silversea is best at providing an atmosphere of total luxury with a Concierge staff that really is willing to personalize the cruise experience ashore. We were able to set up a personalized itinerary with a private driver in Monte Carlo on no more then one days notice.”
“The two formal nights on a seven-night sailing out of Istanbul struck us as just about right. We don;t know why this line is always portrayed as sailing with a bunch of primping penguins.”
“What none of the travel books on cruising tells you is that Silversea actually creates its own shore excursions, operates them with smaller groups, and stays away from mass market sightseeing. That alone, is worth the price of admission, along with all of the other things we love about the line.”
“We had a great time on our recent cruise on the Whisper, don;t get me wrong. But we felt that ship was not as elegant as what we had experienced previously on Silversea. The lectures were wonderful. The Chef’s lecture series was a great idea but the equipment didn’t work so she had to speak without actually demonstrating. The toilets didn’t work properly for several hours. We had great difficulty securing reservations at the small, specialty restaurant. It was a great cruise but there were these annoying problems.”
“In a nutshell we were very disappointed with Silversea. And frankly we feel a little ‘ripped off’ by the experience.
Food: Boring, overcooked, lacking flavor. Could not wait to get off and eat elsewhere whenever we had the chance. The food in the specialty restaurants was much better on Celebrity and Royal! Don’t know if that’s still the case but that was our yardstick. Bottom line is we did not look forward to our meals on board after the fourth day! I could write several pages about the food but trust me – it’s not good.
Service: Great butler. The wait staff however was all over the board. A small number of veterans were mostly good. Then it seemed like about 50% of the staff had not been trained. Didn’t know even the basics like standing aside when a guest walks in their direction. At 6-2 I felt like I needed to bull my way through sometimes!
Ship: Deck space was too small on sea days with our capacity at only 385 / 415. Limited chairs, towels and service. Smoking allowed on the whole port side of the pool deck which polluted large areas. Cigars smoked on many varandas which sucked. They also did not enforce “no cigars” on the aft pool deck and we had sore throats 3-days into the cruise. All the public rooms had low ceilings and the decor was rather frumpy. Very bad Musak was canned into many spaces.
We meet about a dozen travel agents onboard and they all agreed they’d been hearing bad things about the food and service on Silversea for the past year or so. We have agreed not to take another chance on any cruises, expect possibly The World. At least in a resort or hotel you can escape bad food and/or service!
Summary: 3-star ship pretending to be a 5-star.”
“We like the larger ships in the fleet, the Silver Shadow and the Whisper, carrying 388 guests. This seems to us the perfect size. We wonder about the relationship Silverseas with Relais and Chateaux. It would be easier to understand the approach to food if we could be in the hands of a great celebrity chef. My husband loved The Humidor with its great sofas, good wines, and “enticing” selection of cigars. He met moire people sitting in there then I met in the Spa.”“Just got off the Wind after its $20 million dollar refurbishment. I thought it was a beautiful ship before – now its really nice. The cabins are all new and we love the new Observation Lounge. This has to be the best cruise line on earth.”
“We wonder about the new 60% off Silversea deals and the kind of crowd will attract. We noted that Le Champagne is now carrying a surcharge for the wine tasting dinners. That combined with the staff changes, makes us feel that we will try Seabourn or Regent.”
# 5 – SEA DREAM YACHT CLUB
The “world’s best cruise line you’ve never heard of” continues to draw rave reviews from the fewer than 200 guests per week able to sail this lines two 100-passenger ships. Outstanding service and some of the best food afloat, combined with a casual “no ties-no formal anything” is a winning combination for these former Sea Goddess yachts. Excellent one-week itineraries in Europe and the Caribbean. Ideal for laid-back adventurers seeking one-on-one service. There are no balcony cabins and the bathrooms are small but guests can sleep outdoors on a Balinese bed. This is high-end, casual, all-inclusive relaxation for those who would never consider a Vegas-like shipboard atmosphere. In fact, Sea Dream is ideal for those who have never wanted to cruise, The line takes it’s tag line, “the world’s largest yachts” seriously. While several smaller, luxury lines claim they visit off-the-beaten path ports, Sea Dream really delivers on that promise. The new Adriatic sailings featuring the ports of Croatia and may be Europe’s hottest itineraries. The line’s St. Thomas and British Virgin Islands itineraries are simply better than those offered by 750-1200 guest competitors. No one does the Greek Islands and Turkey better. If Jimmy Buffet ever decides to purchase a cruise line – this is the one he will want.
This is a cruise line with only 50 cabins. There are those who speculate whether or not it can survive in an environment where size dictates purchasing savings. But unlike its competitors in the five-star luxury market, Sea Dream has never had to build anything. They purchased the former Sea Goddess Yachts and never expanded. That has placed them in a situation where the long-term debt that hangs over so many lines is not an issue at Sea Dream.
Sea Dream is one of the only cruise lines to embrace transparent pricing policies. Discounted rates are clearly listed on the line’s web site, www.seadreamyachtclub.com Category 2 cabins on the lowest deck feature portholes. Category 2 “Guarantees” are the lowest prices you will find on Sea Dream.
Sea Dream is an excellent choice, often the best choice, for Greek Island, Croatia, and BritishVirgin Island itineraries. The ship’s size permits visits to smaller ports that are never included on large-ship itineraries.
“It was the first day of the cruise and I was lying on one of the large “Balinese” chaise lounges on the upper deck. I had just opened the first page of the new Grisholm novel when a passing waiter stopped, excused himself and mentioned that he had noticed “a spot on your sunglasses.” He promptly offered to clean my glasses, producing a small spray bottle. He finished, apologized for interrupting me and asked if he could deliver two drinks so I wouldn’t need to be disturbed for a while. That’s Sea Dream”
- “The size of the bathrooms is the thing. If you can get your wife to live with the cramped bathroom you will never cruise on another line.”
- “Entertainment? I didn’t see any. But folks were actually having conversations and the lounge did have its late-night fans.
- “I experienced the finest entertainment on Sea Dream I have ever witnessed at sea – and I’ve been on fifteen or so cruises. They showed a Tina Turner Concert film on the large-screen TV in the lounge one night. I loved it. We never missed the jugglers or the “Salute to Broadway.”
- “When we pulled up top the ship in St. Thomas, I thought it looked like a miniature cruise ship with a lot of years behind her. When I got off in St. Thomas, one week later, I had tears in my eyes and couldn’t wait to go back.”
- “Liked the idea of the water toys and the chance to use a Segway. But I thought the rental fee was a bit much. The evening cocktail party was always a highlight. Loved dining under the stars twice during our cruise. We loved the privacy of breakfast on the back of the ship. The Chef’s French toast made us decide to do another Sea Dream cruise on our second morning out.
- ”We just loved the afternoon announcement from the bridge that “due to the lovely weather forecast” we would move the dining room upstairs for dinner under the stars. Try that on one of those floating shopping centers.”
“The traveltruth review is accurate, but don’t be put off by their notion that the cabins are small. They are 195 Sq. feet, a bit larger than the standard cabins on many of the largest ships. My wife and I always get a category three that places you in the middle of the ship, with access to everything. If you go down to the category two you will have a porthole. Be aware that Sea Dream’s very best pricing offers are always a “guarantee” in a Category 2 level cabin.”
- “We followed your advice and had them make up a Balinese bed for us on Sea Dream 1 while sailing from Jost Van Dyke. It brought back all the joy of my first sleepaway when my Dad set up a tent for my sister and I under the stars. Everyone on every Sea Dream sailing should sleep on the open deck just once.,”
# 6 – SEABOURN CRUISE LINE
(Updated 9.8.13 – Latest comments at end of each review)
The pride of the Carnival Cruise line stable, these sleek ships are elegant and clearly among the best at sea. There was a high level of excitement related to the first new luxury ship launched by Seabourn in the past decade, the Odyssey when she entered service in 2009. Had the Carnival Corporation gotten it right with their new breed of luxury ship, a vessel with more than double the capacity of the line’s smaller “white yachts.”
At 32,000 GRT, the three sister ships each carry 450 guests with four-onboard restaurants and outside cabin/suites ranging from 295 to 1182 square feet. The Odyssey has been joined by sisters the Sojourn and the Quest, and the three sisters have added an entirely new dimension to the Seabourn fleet. The addition of the three $250 million ships, all constructed at Italy’s boutique T. Mariotti shipyard, enable Seabourn to literally sail the world, creating some of the industry’s most intruding itineraries in Africa, the Middle East, andAsia.
Seabourn is now the world’s largest luxury cruise brand. . The line’s three “older ships”, the Pride, the Legend, and the Spirit each carry 208 guests. Seabourn guests relish in the feeling that their ship is a floating club off sorts. There are comfy linens, the latest flat screen TV’s and I-Pod this and that’s, guests receive customized stationary, and the showers work. Dinner is an “event” and things are relatively low-key. If less yacht-like then Sea Dream, Seabourn manages to convey an atmosphere of privilege and comfort without going overboard on the formality.
Our recent inspections exceeded expectations. The ships are awash in contemporary browns and beiges with superior Spa facilities, and three alternative and casual dining options including Restaurant Z, a 48-seat, rather private and elegant spot, that serves tasting menus on small plates. Dinner can be ordered right off the main Restaurant menu and will be served course by course on the guest’s veranda. In cabin touches include marble and granite bathrooms with soaps by Hermes and L’Occitane and Molton Brown toiletries. A personal bar and refrigerator is stocked to guests preferences.
One of the least understood factors working to Seabourn’s advantage is the financial strength of the Carnival Corporation versus its competitors. The stability of the ownership makes for a crew that has few concerns other than taking good care of the guests. Crew that might prefer to transfer to other products in the Carnival family know that this is always a possibility. This has helped Seabourn attract and keep a highly skilled crew including some of the best people who have come over from other lines.
Per Guest space ratios on the new ships are among among the highest in the industry. The two largest Regent ships, for example, are 46,000 and 50,000 Gross tons respectively. But they carry 700 guests compared to Seabourn’s 450.
Seabourn has continued to make changes to its on-board dress code. As with any changes involving evening dress in the dining rooms, old schoolers and new agers have differing views on the changes. The bottom line is that formal nights on any sailing eight nights or less have been eliminated. On cruises of 9-13 nights there is one “black tie optional” night and on sailings 14-20 nights, there will be two. The term “optional” refers to the fact that the dress code only applies to guests dining in “The Restaurant.” On designated “dress optional” evens, guests can dine in Restaurant 2, The Colonnade, or the Patio Grill in elegant casual attire. This means that guests will not have to bring a tie or suit, if they choose, on any Seabourn sailing. In the world of five-star elegance, this is a world changer and a tribute to Seabourn’s success in lowering the average age of its clientele.
At this time, Seabourn is a more traditional and more clothes conscious experience then Regent Seven Seas or Sea Dream. The onboard service tends to vie closely with that offered by Silverseas, more formal and European then that found on Regent and Sea Dream. Crystal offers the highest service levels in the grouping, a thin line of excellence between European formality and the personal approach of Asian crew working the decks.
- Almost gourmet food, well-trained European staff, and a wide assortment of lux product tie-ins give a real sense of comfortable excellence.
- Plusses include a nice variety of one week and longer worldwide itineraries. and truly personalized services.
- Entertainment is of the cabaret variety. Little of it is memorable.
- Evening dinner is an event. Drinks and gratuities are included. The “French” balconies provide fresh air but are far too small for sitting outside.
- This is an excellent choice for mid to upper range sophisticated couples seeking the finest food (meets gourmet standards) and service
- Expect four formal nights on two week cruises but the Veranda Cafe now features casual attire for those so-inclined. The alternative Italian menu in the Veranda has been well received but repeat guests rave about celebrity chef Charlie Palmer’s masterful creations in the main dining room.
- Shore excursions go way beyond the norm. Think Cordon Bleu cooking lessons in Tuscany.
“Our sailing on the Seabourn Spirit with our family was, on the whole, really enjoyable. The service was excellent but there were numerous shortcomings. Here is some of what we observed: The coffee was undrinkable. Then, one day, we noticed a waiter serving coffee out of a French presse. We asked for some and it was delicious. But no one ever told passengers that they had that option.We thought the food was more Marriott then Four Seasons. Chefs seamed not to be European and tastes were off. Meat dishes were fine but seafood preparation really lacked proper flavorings. It reached a point where everyone around us just stopped ordering seafood. There were two washers and dryers and one did not work. Some guests waited for five hours to do their laundry. No one on the ship seemed to make any effort to correct this situation. The front desk staff did not seem to really know the ports well. Their information was not very helpful.
We would probably go again but Seabourn really needs to address the problems in the dining room on this ship.”“We just returned from a wonderful sailing on the Legend. There is one story that will, perhaps, best illustrate what Seabourn service is all about. We call this our “Olive Story.” Our friend John was sitting on the deck the first afternoon. He ordered a martini with olives stuffed with blue cheese. The bar manager quickly appeared explaining that Seabourn ship do not normally stock olives stuffed with blue cheese. John had no problem with that. The next day, we noticed, to our amazement, that every single bar on that ship now stocked olives stuffed with blue cheese. Someone had stayed up all night hand-stuffing large olives. That alone would bring us back to Seabourn but there were many other examples we could cite.” We loved the service and the chef was so much better then the one on our previous cruise. Seabourn monitors these things carefully and we got the sense that things were constantly being upgraded. I wish I could say the same for some of the carpeting aboard ship. The Spirit is beginning to show small signs of neglect in the form of carpet stains. But we still would not hesitate to go again.
- We were traveling with our post-college age children. One night, the chef walked up to our table and specifically asked my son how he was enjoying the food. He responded that everything was quite good. “But what would you eat if you could have anything” the chef asked. “Thai food”, replied my son. Two nights later, a Thai feast was served at our table. That’s Seabourn and that’s a memory that has no price tag
- Just returned from sailing the new Odyssey. Loved everything about it but felt that the Spa seems to lack identity. We were surprised at the level of additional charges to reserve one of the private rooms. This was hardly expected on an “inclusive ship.” We are past Seabourn cruisers and we will continue to sail this line exclusively, but traveltruth readers should be warned that new design also means some bold new ways to create extra charges on one’s onboard bill. Spa goers beware.
- We’ve now been on Seabourn four times and Regent t on three cruises. We’ve concluded that, while Regent is very good and a great value, Seabourn’s staff, particularly the deck crew and dining staff, seems better trained and there are far fewer language problems. We sense that Regent is now hiring staff from an outside source. They made no effort to learn our names on our last two voyages. On Seabourn, or even Crystal, the crew tries hard to know who you are and your likes and dislikes. We found this a major point of differentiation between Seabourn and Regent.
- Avoid this line if you are a non-smoker. When we were sickened because the guests in the cabin next to ours were continually smoking on their balconies and in their cabin, management would do nothing except offer to move us to a lower category. The cigarette smoke on the new ships is carried to nearby cabins by the ventilation ducts.
MAJOR CHANGES AT THE YACHTS OF SEABOURN
Many in the industry were surprised by the changes announced at Seabourn, Seabourn’s Ft. Lauderdale headquarters has been closed and Seabourn operations and sales will be moved to Holland America headquarters in Seattle. Seabourn’s President was replaced with an executive at Holland America. Both Holland America and Seabourn belong to the Carnival Cruises family of brands, so this is clearly a move to consolidate while maintaining brand diversification. There should be some fairly immediate economies of scale for Seabourn, something the brand desperately needs as it is currently offering sailings at from 50-65% off brochure pricing.
Industry analysts point out that Carnival andHollandAmerica absorbed Windstar Cruises and then sold it off when it was felt that Windstar’s small ships were not consistent with Carnival’s large ship presence.
Cruise sellers view Carnival ownership as a net plus since the company has solid leadership and extremely deep pockets. But Carnival is not a company that will keep an unprofitable brand around long if it feels it is a diversion in terms of its core business model. Fans of the Yachts of Seabourn, can only hope that the line’s order for three 450 Guest ships, will assure economic viability going forward as well as a “hands off” policy in terms of the line’s new home at Holland America headquarters. We see no reason to downgrade our current ratings of Seabourn on the basis of these management changes. In fact, with the addition of three extremely well-received new ships to its fleet and the solid backing of the industry’s largest corporation, Seabourn is well positioned to grew by newbuilds or acquisition. Seabourn is expanding the percentage of non-US citizens aboard its ships and is truly becoming an international brand. On any given day, any of the top five or six rated cruise lines in our exclusive Top Ten Cruise Line Ratings is fully capable of giving the consumer the best sailing experience of a lifetime. But when all is said and done, none of its rivals can match the financial strength of Seabourn.
Despite the above, we have recently downgraded Seabourn’s placement in the Top Ten Ratings. This has to do with indifferent customer relations service and a series of problems related to Seabourn’s determination to promote the cruise integration of smokers and non-smokers. We do not believe that Seabourn’s willingness to allow balcony smoking for their best suite guests is in keeping with the level of attention to the needs of all guests that are the hallmark of a true luxury product. For those seeking a small ship luxury product with elegance and some degree of formality, we believe that Silverseas is a better option.
Note: Seabourn has changed its smoking policy and no longer allows smoking in cabins. However, guests booked in the most expensive upper Suites will still be allowed to smoke on their open balconies.
# 7 – ORION EXPEDITION CRUISES
Orion is a break from tradition, a luxurious Australian expedition ship that coddles no more than 106 guests at a time with superior food and service offered by a staff of 75. The beautiful vessel has lots of wood and brass, but the look of the Orion is less important than the fact that it is technologically superior to most of its expedition rivals.
The ship has a shallow draft with stern thrusters and a double-skinned ice-strengthened hulll. A full fleet of zodiacs provide transportation for well-versed expedition leaders and their adventurous yet prosperous clientele.
What we like best about Orion, in addition to the Aussie temperament and informality coupled with luxurious fittings, is the array of itineraries in the Asia Pacific Region that offer “something new” to even the most experienced cruise fanatics.
The current destination list includes Kimberly Expeditions, Broome to Bali, Borneo, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia, Antarctica, and the Great Barrier Reef.
The standard cabins are 175 square feet with the Suites only slightly larger at 345 sq. feet. Six cabins have French balconies and two cabins have portholes rather than windows. Staterooms include comfortable beds, flat-screen TV’s, mini-fridge, robes, and DVD/CD player. There is a small gym, library, and an elevator.
The line’ second ship, Orion 11, is yacht-like with 100 guests and a crew of sixty. It once belonged to Renaissance cruises so the exsterior lines will look familiar to many travelers. While Orion likes to call all outside cabins “Suites”, in truth, cabins are standard sized with tight bathrooms and showers. There are also 16 somewhat larger suites that feature balconies. The evening entertainment on Orion consists primarily of lectures and an interesting recap of what occured during the day ashore.
For guests choosing an itinerary to Antarctica, we must point out that Orion 11′s design does not include a forward facing lounge, a critical component for some, on an expedition with continual viewing opportunities.
Orion is a unique, high-end but totally comfortable Aussie-in-depth experience to some intriguing destinations. Two cautions:
01 – There is no air program so that is a considerable additional expense.
02 – Orion assumes a certain level of dexterity and walking/climbing ability. Those not anticipating getting in and out of zodiacs, wet beach landings, or hikes to chat with orangutans or locals unaccustomed to tourists, might have a hard time with this one.
“We read all the warnings about this being for those who like to rough it and found it all nonsense. This is like a floating Four Seasons with more interesting guests. We absolutely loved it. If you can get in and out of your bed in the morning you can handle Orion’s Zodiac’s, My husband is more active than I am but I never missed a zodiac because of the good looking Aussies who helped me in and out of the boat. Ladies – run don’t walk”
“Absolutely fantastic – we cannot recommend this more highly. We did the 12-Day Papua New Guinea Cultural Highlights and sometimes I think we get invited to cocktail parties simply in the hope that we will talk about the trip. Orion makes you a more interesting person – more so than any cruise we’ve experienced.”
“Thank you for turning us on to Orion, a cruise option we had never considered. We did two back-back shorter cruises that took in the Great Barrier Reef and Tasmania. We felt like a local when we left and we highly recommend the back-to-back strategy.”
- Loved the fact that this is not a family-friendly cruise line. Appreciated that it was all adult. Three bars for 106 guests is not a bad ratio and, of course, you casn have drinks delivered to your cabin. We also thought the Spa was far better than anything we’ve experienced on American ships.
# 8 – PAUL GAUGUIN CRUISES
The Paul Gauguin entered service in 1998 after construction in France. The ship was expressely built for operations in the South Pacific. This has meant a shallow draft that can cause a bit of motion when the ship is navigating the longer stretches between the Society Islands. With a crew of 215 serving 332 guests, the Gauguin has been satisfying demanding travelers in these lovely South Pacific waters for more than a decade. The ship was, for many years, operated by Regent Seven Seas and the crew had little difficulty meeting Regent’s high service standards.
Some crew, kitchen staff, and the Captain are French and the food is of excellent quality, often matching and surpassing lines a bit higher in our ratings. Dress is casual, gratuiites, soft drinks, and water are included in the fare. The Gauguin normally offers enticing air pricing out of Los Angeles with air add-ons from major gateways. Papeete is about an eight and a half hour flight from LA. Air/Sea programs normally utilize the respected Air Tahiti Nui but those on a pre/post cruise schedule in Papette, Bora Bora, or Moorea, may find themselves flying Air France or Air New Zealand. Guests from many regions in the country are accommodated overnight in Los Angeles as part of the air package.
The return flight sort of ruined our state of relaxation. The airport in Papeete is not air-conditioned and it is small. We had to wait when our Air Tahiti Nui flight departure was delayed one and a half hours. Coach seating seemed unusually tight and the flight was, of course, full. After all of that, we had to clear customs in Los Angeles and then transfer over to United for the flight to Chicago. The Gauguin is wonderful and we were relaxed back at the airport totally relaxed after only a seven-night cruise. But next time, we will fly Business Class and overnight on the return in LA. That would make for a perfect vacation.”
- We’ve just completed our second sailing on the Gauguin, and, if anything, it’s gotten better. The society islands are truly beautiful and there is much to be learned from the casual lifestyle of the islanders. We rented a car on Bora Bora but we were surprised to find a pack of wild dogs growling at us as we completed a curve in the road. One tried to get at me on the driver’s side. Now that’s something they don’t put in the tourist brochures. But that was just a little thing. We still urge you to rent a car on both Moorea and Bora Bora instead of taking tours. Don;t pack any formalwear – this cruise is casually elegant and dress on the ship will remind you of a nice hotel in Hawaii. We loved the Gauguin girls and their smiling greeting as we returned to the ship each afternoon. We’re not planning our third cruise with Gauguin, this time to the Marquesa Islands”
# 09 – OCEANIA CRUISES
Oceania did nothing but invent a totally new, and as yet unnamed, cruise category. It provides upper-end four-star non-inclusive cruising at a level that is significantly better than so-called “Premium” lines like Princess, Holland America, and Celebrity. Drinks, gratuities, and shore excursions are not included. The line was launched with three former Renaissance Cruises ships purchased at auction and there were those in the industry who wondered how anyone could make money with ships in the 640 Guest range at a price point that sits between the Premium lines and the inclusive five=star ships of Seabourn, Silverseas, Sea Dream, and Regent Seven Seas. When Frank Del Rio, the former CEO at Renaissance was named Chairman of the new line the doubters wondered if the lessons of the Renaissance bankruptcy would be learned. (Renaissance did not work with travel agents)
Del Rio and his original partner at the new line, former Crystal Cruises President Joe Watters, designed a cruise line based on triangular principles that included “More time in Port with sea days only when necessary”, a “country-club casual” on board atmosphere devoid of formal or dress up nights, and “the best food at sea.” In an article about the new line we wondered if Oceania was being a bit brash in bragging that it had “the best food at sea” since it had not yet launched its first ship.
Like so many of its other promises to past Renaissance guests and those who have sailed ships in the Premium category, Oceania has delivered. In fact, Oceania owns it’s niche. The line has been so successful in its design of an “Upper Premium” product, that Royal Caribbean decided to purchase two identical Renaissance ships to compete with the upstart. They named their product in the Upper Premium category Azamara.
In 2007, attracted by high yields and the plans for a newbuild program that would quickly double the line’s capacity, Oceania was purchased by the Apollo Management Group. Apollo clearly feels that the cruise industry has legs. It also bought Regent Seven Seas and owns a 50% interest in Norwegian Cruise Lines.
Today, Del Rio is the Chairman of Prestige Holdings, the corporate entity that owns both Regent and Oceania.
In 2011/12 Oceania launched two new ships, the 68,000 ton Marina, followed by the Riviera, each with a capacity of 1,250 guests. The ships have good pedigree. They were built by the Italian yard Fincantieri with interior designs by the highly regarded ship designers Yran & Storbraaten, the same architects who designed Disney’s ships, several Silverseas ships, as well as the Regent Seven Seas vessels.
The feeling in the industry is that Oceania really got it right with these new ships. Anyone considering a cruise on Oceania should make note of the following:
The claim that Oceania “Has the Best Cuisine at Sea” is only a slight exaggeration. The fact is that Oceania can, in any one of its restauants, on any given night, provide a dining experience that rivals or surpasses what one would expect on a more expensive five-star line. The word is clearly out – Oceania is the Foodie Cruise Line and, quite frankly, we don’t see any other line coming close to being able to make that claim.
The line’s ships are consistently inconsistent with the industry norm in terms of design and decor. Oceania wants to remiond guests of a high-end, yet comfortable, country club setting. Chairs are comfortable, colors are muted, there is little you will see aboard one of these ships that you would ever call “garish”.
There is little doubt that the Marina and Riviera offer guests more in the way of options and on board experiences than their older, more conservative, siblings. For that reason, we rate the Marina and the Riviera higher and we feel they represent better value.
There are no children’s programs aboard Oceania’s ships. Some cabins will accommodate a third guest but there are no programs or even baby-sitting services available. This is not a family-oriented cruise line.
Oceania is equally non-welcoming to smokers. Smoking is prohibited in virtually all public sections of the ship as well as in cabins.
- Oceania does include more “Port Time” than any of its rivals with the exception of Azamara. Those who enjoy lots of days at sea will be happier elsewhere.
- The line does nickel and dime guests for virtually all extra services. Soft drinks are included and complete “gratuities packages” can be pre-purchased.
- Oceania’s standard cabins are small and the line is somewhat infamous for the tight showers and small bathrooms. To avoid this issue, guests are advised to book one of the Penthouse-level categories which provide a balcony, 420 sq. feet of space including a comfortable bathroom.
- Guest’s intriqued with Oceania’s “Free Air” offers should be aware that better pricing is always available on a “Cruise Only” basis.
- Oceania does not, as is common with five star ships, provide complimentary bus transfers to the center of town. Guests who have not purchased tours or made arrangements for provate sightseeing may find themselves at the mercy of local taxi drivers.
- Oceanis’s Culinary Arts Academy designed in conjunction with Bon Appetit Magazine is a hiuge success. Guests are advised to book the program as soon as the books open.
- Guests in premier cabins are rewarded with earlier access to shore excuirsion on-line bookings as well as dinner reservations. Most guests may make two reservations in advance of boarding. But guests in premier accommodations will be able to reserve double that number.
- The restaurants are so good on Oceania that there is some angst involving the securing of reservations. Despite, for instancem the appeal of the Polo Grill Steakhouse or the acclaimed Asian fison restaurant, Red Ginger, most guests will get to dione in theior favorite restaurant only once or twice during a cruise. But this seems less a problem once aboard as there are some wonderful alternatives such as Jacques, Chef Jacques Pepin’s first restaurant at sea, or Toscana, the Italian venue that rivals the food found on Crystal Cruises famed Prego.
- Despite primary appeal to a demographic of retirees, Oceania ha smanaged to achieve a modern vibe and, dare we say it, a hip feel, that would appeal to cruisiers in their forties. On the new ships, for instance, there is a Budha Bar feel to the swimming pool area with each song selected to reflect the mod and giant plants to create a feeling of luxury and serenity.
First-time guests should expect a superior on board experience without the truly personal flourishes normally found on our top-rated ships. The staff will not make much of an effort to know your name. In that sense the experience can be impersonal. Since you will want to try the various restaurant veniues, you will not get to know your waiters very well. But you will get to meet members of the Oceania community who feel that they have foiund the perfect niche – upper end Premium quality, great food, casual attire, and enough time in port to really experience what they came to see. All at a price point that is lower than that found on the Five Star lines.
THE LAUNCH OF THE OCEANIA MARINA
By Richard Bruce Turen
Amidst the fireworks, the pier side Buddha bar setting complete with violin “divas” atop columns scattered throughout the crowd, a swinging choral group on stage, and the perfect arc as the champagne Magnum broke against the bow of the new Oceania Marina, I could not forget the image created by the man who had spoken ten minutes earlier.
Oceania’s Chief Visionary, Frank Del Rio, now Chairman of Prestige Holdings, the entity that overseas the operations of both Oceania and Regent Seven Seas, stood at the microphone on the makeshift Inaugural stage at Pier J on a beautiful morning along Miami’s waterfront. As he spoke, he faced the MiamiFederalBuilding where, several decades earlier, he had been processed as a young man fleeing the tyrannies of Castro’s Cuba.
But this is America, land of myriad opportunities, and I could not escape the symbolism of the setting. As he spoke, with his family, close friends, and financial backers seated behind him, Del Rio managed to get through his remarks without choking up. Observing all of this, I was not so fortunate.
Because while the FederalBuilding faced him in the distance, immediately behind Del Rio, was his first new-build, a $500 million baby named Marina, with a sister named Riviera due just a few months down the road.
I am fascinated by the Oceania story because it is all about a small group of believers who battled impossible odds to launch a new cruise line with about $14 million in ready reserve. This group, founder Del Rio, President Bob Binder, VP of Sales and Marketing James Rodriguez, were all in on this from the beginning. They are all relatively young, and they are all close friends. They are cruising’s Band of Brothers, and even off the record, they swear allegiance to their fearless and outspoken leader.
Frank Del Rio had worked for Renaissance, the line headed by Ed Rudner, and dedicated to the proposition that it didn’t make sense to use the distribution system that accounted for about 93% of all cruise sales at the time. I first got to speak to “FDR”, his signature on all e-mail correspondence, when he called me to comment on some things I had said about Renaissance in print. Well we didn’t so much speak, as I got to listen.
But then a funny thing happened. In much the same way that former smokers become the most aggressive anti-smoking proponents, Del Rio and his band of brothers, became agent advocates.
I know of at least seven specific instances when clients who tried to book Oceania directly were advised that they should “seek the counsel of a professional travel agent.” One client was actually told by Oceania reservations, “you really need to be booking with an agent since we are going to be charging you the commission anyway.”
Oceania broke some of the cruise rules when they launched with the original two Renaissance ships. The company, it seems to me, has been enormously successful by incorporating three core principles. It is this triangulation of concepts that is, I believe, at the heart of this brand’s success.
It starts with comfort and informality. No formal nights at all – ever. No need to bring a tie. No place to hang a tie if you do bring one. There are large chairs and truly comfortable couches throughout the new Marina. It all feels like someone’s well maintained home in the European countryside.
The second point of the triangle involves itinerary design that maximizes time in port. While other cruise lines love days at sea because they allow bars, shops, and casinos to provide much-needed onboard revenue, the Band of Brothers think people go on cruises to see ports – not to sip drinks by a swimming pool. So they pioneered overnight stays and prolonged port visits.
The third principle is to have “the best food at sea.” I am not sure I would promise this in a brochure. I cringe a bit when someone tells me their food is the best before I have had a chance to experience it and draw my own conclusions. There is also the very practical matter of Ocean’s per diems, which hover at around $375 versus about $550 for the five-star rated luxury lines. So how could they possibly have “the best food”.
I stood on the upper deck on the second day of the Inaugural, chatting with Chef Jacques Pepin about just why it was that he decided to open a restaurant on the Marina, after turning down other opportunities.
“I won’t lie to you”, he said. “They want the best food and they are willing to pay for the best ingredients.”
On the third night of the Inaugural, I dined with the Captain and his wife at Privet, the $1,000 per night, wines not included, ten seat restaurant. Here, diners get to sit down with the chef and plan their fantasy meal. At $100 per person, this is probably the best dining value on the ship. I enjoyed one of the two finest meals I have ever had at sea. Of Oceania’s ten dining options, only Prive and Wine Spectator’s La Reserve, carries any kind of surcharge. So, promises fulfilled when it comes to food, despite the lower per diems.
Comfort and informality, more time in port, and truly excellent food. These are the three points of the triangle and, I believe, the Band of Brothers, has figured out, long before many others, exactly what the majority of consumers in the upper end of the premium category really want in a cruise vacation.
There were more “oh so that’s it” moments aboard this new ship. Too many to recount for you in this space. Here are just a few:
I stood by the swimming pool. It kind of looked like many others I’ve seen over the decades I’ve been doing this. But something on this ship was different. It wasn’t just the plants, the Balinese lounges, what was it?
It was the music, concert quality sound with each song both contemporary and cool. No Sinatra, no Rolling Stones, This was Buddha Bar at Sea, a casual, clean identity. People were getting tanned because they wouldn’t leave the music. Later, I find out, FDR picked out every song, just as he and Bob Binder personally picked out each of the 1400 + pieces of art on the ship.
I loved the library, a real library, with lots of books and quality chairs and couches. And attached to the library is the best coffee house at sea. The “Brothers” found a barista they liked in Verona, Italy. But if you go to Italy seeking the “Man from Verona” you will find that he has moved – to the Marina, where he plies his trade with the same equipment.
There was a moment when I stood peering through one of the glass windows peering in at the Bob Appétit onboard CulinaryCenter. I noticed two, rather well-known, travel writers laughing and cooking their way through a menu led by a Culinary Institute of America instructor. Another hit on this exciting, new ship.
I ran into one of the Band of Brothers near the Spa juice bar. “Richard”, he asked, “what do we need to do better”? I just couldn’t come up with an immediate answer.
# 10 – AZAMARA CRUISES
In a world of follow the leader, Azamara is generating a fair amount of positive buzz based on its innovative approaches to traditional cruise concepts. Azamara parent, Royal Caribbean, tapped former Seabourn and Sea Dream President, Larry Pimenthal, to take over management of this two-ship fleet of vessels once belonging to Renaissance Cruise Line. Pimenthal, one of the best marketers in the industry, felt that Azamara’s edge would be “more time in port” and the 694 Quest and Journey more than live up to that brochure promise.
Thougth lacking spacious cabins and new hardware, Azamara overcompensates with overnights in port on every voyage and longer hours in port. The line also seems adept at planning itineraries that add creativity to the 10-14 day market. Gratuities and wine with dinner are included, allowing Azamara to occupy a somewhat unique niche in the First Class “sort of inclusive” or, more accurately “semi-inclusive” category. Azamara’s rival seems to be Oceania, whose new Mariner and Riviera offer space and amenities that Azmara can only put on their new ship wish list.
We think the Azamara concept is catching on. Wine with dinner but not paying for those who drink heavily is a popular concept. It allows Azamara to come in at a lower price point than the five-star all-inclusives.
On the down side, Azamara is a cruise line that still seems to be experimenting. Is wine with lunch included – now , it is. Are there tacky reminders that this is not a true luxury product – there are and one example is the on board art sale and the manner in which staff pose in costume to take photos with guests. Such tackiness is not going to get Azamara any higher on our rankings than it is. The food in Prime C gets good reviews although there clearly is some rather strtict portion control in evidence.
But there is an important bottom line. Azamara delivers itineraries that wow and guests are catered to by a crew that seems to genuinely care about their well being. That, and an attractive price point, may be enough for Azamara to prosper.
Inside cabins are tight at 158 square feet. Outside cabins are only 170 sq. feet. But its the small bathrooms that seem to bother the uninitiated. Think of an intimate experience with your shower curtain and you will see why more spacious Sky Suites are highly sought after. They measure 266 sq. feet and they are well worth the upcharge.
SPECIAL OWNERSHIP CATEGORY – THE WORLD OF RESIDENSEA
The problem for The World is that it has no earthly competition. But, alas, it has been removed as a viable cruise option. Last year, the owners voted tgo end their policy of allowing certain travel agencies to book room “rentals.” Now, under their current policy, The World will not accept guests who “do not meet our $10,000,000 is assets requirements” along with applications to sail that must be approved by a committee of owners.
In other words, you can’t sail unless you are a proven multi-millionaire who is a pre-approved buyer, someone the owners would like to have as cruising neighbors.
And therein lies the rub. The World, travels the world in silent splendor, never calling attention to itself or the fact that its owners have paid from $1.4 to $7.9 million dollars for their leasehold “ownership”. .
The ship is literally “sold out” for every voyage for the life of the ship. There is no sales force because the only units for sale are offered by current owners.
The World has earned its designation as The World’s Most Luxurious Cruise Experience. Although it could, by most measures, carry 1500 or so passengers, she generally sails with about 175 total guests. This one-of-a-kind ship sails the world, stopping in interesting ports for extended stays. The food is outstanding, although Portraits, the “Gourmet” restaurant did not meet our expectations in terms of the quality of the menu, preparation, or the skill of the staff. However, the ships other dining venues offer the best dining experiences at sea. There are three-bedroom/three-bath apartments, two-bedroom-two bath apartments, one-bedroom apartments and spacious studios. All feature balconies.
“There was this Frenchman. He has a hot plate in his cabin, along with computers and all kinds of electronic gear. He runs his company from his cabin/home office. When he gets to Hong Kong he sends one of the ships tender to pick up potential clients for a nice lunch aboard ship. He lives aboard the Residentsea and has his family out for six or seven weeks of the year. He has cocktails each evening and tries to see if there are any interesting owner friends aboard. If there are not, he quickly goes back to his cabin. I’m home now, but hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about that Frenchman as he travels the world, working, on that gorgeous ship.”
“I’ve seen them all and this is the ultimate. The design of this ship is like no other. Each accommodation is privately owned and custom designed so no two cabins are alike. This is not the right cruise for those who like bingo, horse racing games, and a nightly talent show. The World is sophisticated and approachable. Sailing her is most akin to gaining membership to the world’s best private club.”
“The cleaning staff actually cleans every studio and apartment every day even though most of them are unoccupied for long periods of time.”
“I loved the World because it was a chance to see what “real money” is like. But I am extremely comfortable, own two beautiful homes, property, and have savings and stock in the seven figures. Nevertheless, the scope of the wealth aboard this ship was, at times, a bit intimidating. The service on the open decks was not perfect. Dishes were left on tables too long and the wait staff would favor owners over their guests. But I will conclude by saying that despite these issues, this ship blows away anything else in the so-called five-star category. The food is excellent, the staff is generally attentive, and you have the feeling that you are almost alone on this most beautiful of ships. So I guess I really wasn’t all that intimidated. We may well consider purchasing.”
Currently, several units are for sale by owner at price ranges between $2 – $7 million.