Have you noticed that whenever there’s a cruise story in the national press – a case of Norovirus, maybe, or a vessel with a damaged engine – it always happens to a ‘luxury’ ship. It’s a description applied to anything that floats, whether it was built in 1969 or 2009, because cruising has never fully shaken off its image of being a pastime for the pampered rich.
The difficulty with the word luxury is that it is often incorrectly confused with quality. Yet something can be good quality but not luxurious. Even more difficult is the fact luxury means different things to different people Benidorm, any cruise, with meals included in the price and smiling waiters to serve you, is going to be luxurious. If, on the other hand, you normally holiday in the Caribbean, staying at the Sandy Lane in Barbados or the Cotton House in Mustique, you’ll have higher expectations when you go to sea.
So, what defines ‘luxury’?
The Longman dictionary describes luxury as ‘something desirable but costly or difficult to obtain”, that it is ‘something relatively expensive adding to pleasure or comfort but not indispensable’. By choosing a three-star cruise over self-catering, our Benidorm holidaymakers are certainly investing in something ‘relatively expensive’, but does that really mean it’s luxury?
Azamara Club Cruises President and Chief Executive Larry Pimental dislikes the word luxury – he thinks it has acquired the negative connotation of conspicuous consumption during the recession – so much that he has chosen to describe his cruise line as ‘upmarket’ instead.
As far as cruising is concerned, there are four different ways to define luxury – starting at the top with the ultra-luxury or six-star lines, which offer the ultimate in opulence. These are certainly desirable but also costly (although often costing less than a land-based holiday of similar quality, even though more is included).
We’re talking cruise lines with small ships, spacious suites and staterooms, plus open dining so you can eat when and with whom you want (paying these kind of prices means never being told when you can eat). These cruise lines often include all drinks, gratuities and speciality dining in the price and the crew offer the last word in personal service.
Cruise lines that match this description include Silversea, Yachts of Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, SeaDream Yacht Club and tiny Hebridean Island Cruises with its one 49-passenger ship, Hebridean Princess, which has become a firm favourite of the Queen – in 2006 she spent her 80th birthday on board and enjoyed it so much that she is set to charter it again in July before she heads to Balmoral.
And then there is Crystal Cruises, which sits alone as it breaks all the ultra-luxury rules – its two ships hold around 1,000 passengers, alcohol costs extra and you will be told when to eat – but deserves every one of its six stars due, among other things, to its superior service and top-class cuisine.
Carolyn Baker, 65, from Gidea Park in Essex, has cruised on Crystal Symphony 33 times since 2002 and describes it as “totally luxurious”.
“Crystal ticks all the right boxes,” she says. “I love the surroundings and the ambience. I like the bigger ship. I want to feel I have space – that’s my luxury. The crew is amazing, so kind. They make me feel really special. And their memory for names and what drinks and food you like is incredible.”
One step down are the five-star Holland America Line, Celebrity Cruises and Cunard, which have elegant big ships – we’re talking 2,000-plus passengers – with a more sophisticated ambience than the so-called mass-market vessels that charge for drinks, gratuities and speciality dining. Cruise with Cunard and dinner will be served in two sittings, unless you’re in a Princess or Queens Grill suite.
Oceania and Azamara Club Cruises also fall into this category but are slightly different as they have smaller ships (although Oceania is building another for 1,258 passengers). As does Hapag Lloyd’s ship Europa. Oceania doesn’t charge for speciality dining or soft drinks, Azamara serves free wine at dinner and includes tips.
So why choose a five-star line rather than splash out on six stars? Price is the obvious answer. ‘Free’ or ‘included’ doesn’t mean you get it for nothing, but rather that you pay a higher price for the cruise. However, the different experiences the five-star and six-star lines offer also appeals to different people.
Our six-star cruisers tend to prefer the intimacy of a small ship and the fact they get to know the crew and fellow passengers. They are discerning people who are comfortable with their money but want everything included in the price so they don’t have to think about it.
Jo Clough from Manchester, who cruised with me on Silversea around India, said she and husband David picked the voyage for the itinerary not because of its six stars, but added, “The all-inclusive package engenders a great social ambience and takes away the British reticence over how much to tip. The staff-topassenger ratio and the little touches that made us feel pampered made it luxurious.”
Cynthia Ann Buckle from Dorset is a Seabourn fan who likes the ultra-luxury ships because you “get to socialise with discerning, well-travelled guests from a variety of nationalities.”
“Seabourn shows great attention to detail, notes guests’ personal preferences and remembers them for future cruises,” she adds. “There are high standards of discreet personal service throughout the ship and it feels very intimate. It really does feels like you’re going home when you step on board.”
Our five-star cruisers, on the other hand, like bigger ships as it means there are more places to dine, big theatres with flashy entertainment and lavish spas.
The bigger ships also offer anonymity, which will appeal to some luxury lovers. Choose one of the top Penthouses on Crystal or Cunard and you can retreat to your private balcony and have meals served in the room, course by course, of course. You don’t have to be a celebrity to appreciate this but many, including Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart, have cruised with Cunard, secure in the knowledge their privacy will be respected.
There is also a sub-category of five-star cruise lines, comprising Windstar and Star Clippers. Both have tall ships that sail when the wind is in the right direction, but their vessels are small and simple. Forget theatres, balconies and choreographed entertainment. Days are spent lazing in the sun or learning to tie a reef knot. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but when the sails are billowing in the wind it’s impossible to imagine anything more romantic.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Finally, there are the cruise lines such as Swan Hellenic, Spirit of Adventure, Lindblad and Voyages of Discovery that have older ships that offer quality but not necessarily luxury – we’re talking few or no balcony cabins, no alternative dining and a couple of lounges.
But just look at the places they visit. There’s Antarctica, the Arctic, the Galapagos and Amazon, where they’ll take you ashore or cruising close to penguins and giant glaciers in inflatable zodiacs. They pop into small ports in little-known destinations and there are always doctors and professors on board to give related lectures.
They don’t fit the conventional profile of luxury – I can’t see ultra-luxury cruisers going for the walking boots and woolly hat dress code – but they certainly offer a luxurious experience. “The value is in the destination,” Tony Wingate from Brussels told me on a cruise around Greenland with Hurtigruten. “It’s about being in Greenland, seeing the scenery and the photography.”
There are two expedition ships which offer a touch of luxury on board as well as in the places they visit. Book a suite on Hapag Lloyd’s Hanseatic, which sails in Antarctica, Greenland and through the Northwest Passage, and you’ll have a butler to serve champagne and caviar. On Silversea’s Prince Albert II, you can have a cabin with a balcony – it’s nice to get fresh air, but as the ship cruises in the Arctic and Antarctic, you may not want to be outside for long – and all drinks and gratuities are included.
But guess what? “We don’t get any cross-over between people who cruise on Europa and Hanseatic,” says Hapag-Lloyd’s Tina Bünsow. “People who cruise on Europa like to cruise in the traditional places and they want balconies, the spa and gala dinners.”
ON THE RIVERS
River cruise operators have always relied on the luxury of the destination and their service to sell themselves. Avalon and Saga, for instance, have free airport transfers in the UK, Viking River Cruises has someone every step of the way to help with your journey to the boat. That’s because their vessels are quality, comfortable but not luxurious. Most have French balconies that are too small to sit on, cabins are compact, there’s one place to eat and no room service. However, things are changing.
New company Scenic Tours raised the bar when it launched two vessels on the Rhine in 2008 that had full-size balconies, a speciality restaurant and butler service in the suites. Scenic Tours also served free wine with dinner and offered travellers a choice of free excursions in selected cities. Two more Scenic Tours ships launched last year.
Now, AMA Waterways is building a new ship with balconies big enough to sit on – Amabella launches in May and will sail on the Rhine for sister company APT. You’ll also get room service if you book one of the Owner’s Suites on Amabella, as you will in the top suites on Viking’s new Viking Legend. As a general trend, cabins are getting bigger and most river cruise companies serve free drinks with dinner.
It might not be enough to appeal to our Sandy Lane visitors, but if you’ve always dismissed the rivers as the poor relation of ocean-going cruising, now’s the time to take a fresh look