Cruising The Past reviews modern cruise ships in the more premium market. These are the 2009 cruise reviews. We always consider how these modern lines relate to the famed cruise ships of the past.
BEST OF THE LUXURY CLASS – the top cruise lines for those that want the best with all the modern conveniences, yet have a feeling of sailing in the past aboard the great liners. Where “first class” means reality and not just shallow words or an advertising gimmick.
Regent Seven Seas - our top rated cruise line overall is something similar to the great liners of the past. Regent is a newcomer to the luxury cruise market segment but they have brought three stunning new ships into the market that have surpassed the old leader, Crystal.
RSSC is now owned by the owners of Oceania Cruises. They purchased the line and the three “Seven Seas” ships in December of 2007. They have just completed a whopping $40 million dollar renovation of Voyager and Mariner, they have emerged as essentially new ships. They will undertake an even larger refurbishment of the Navigator early next spring during a three+ week dry-dock. The Seven Seas Mariner and Voyager are the same size as Crystal Harmony/Symphony but hold 300 fewer guests. Regent has open seating for dining, includes gratuities and more in the cruise fare plus they cost less than Crystal so they are the best value by far in the luxury market. In 2003 Regent introduced the Seven Seas Voyager an improved version of the Mariner with 50 square feet larger cabins so the minimum increased to 351 square feet and again all cabins have private balconies.
The Navigator and Paul Gauguin are great smaller ships holding only 490 and 300 guests, respectively, that also very worthwhile considering. Paul Gauguin cruises out of Tahiti year round and is the class of that market. One of the reason Regent is such a good value is that their cabin prices are lower AND their price includes gratuities, wine with meals, complimentary bottled water and soft drinks and a complimentary bar set-up upon embarkation. The food is excellent and the service is outstanding – better than Crystal or Silversea.
For the upscale traveler, who wants the best and is willing to pay for it, my personal choice would be Regent Seven Seas Cruises. The ships are outstanding and not crowded. The entertainment, service and guest lecturers are tops. Food is excellent but not quite as good as Silversea (#1 for food). Crystal is a close second but is the last of the luxury lines to still only offer two seatings for dinner instead of open seating found even on mass market lines now. Regent’s new Mariner & Voyager have four 5-star restaurants on board to choose from – including one manned by Cordon Bleu trained chefs. All Seabourn ships lack one feature that I personally think really makes the cruise: cabins with private verandahs. For me, that verandah takes you to a new level: enjoying coffee and croissants outside in the morning, having that large sliding glass door rather than a small window so that you get to really view the passing scenery from your cabin, or being able to stand outside at night and watch the light shimmering on the ocean – without having to get dressed again and go up on deck! Regent’s new Mariner is the first ship with a balcony in every cabin. All the luxury lines have great itineraries that encompass all of the world, outstanding service, top restaurant quality food, and the opportunity to experience ports in a new way. (Imagine going to the Hermitage for a private viewing!) These are actually very good values for the types of experiences that you receive.
BEST OF THE DELUXE CLASS – between Luxury & Premium
Oceania uses the same 30,000 ton 700 guest “Deluxe” cruise ships that Azamara uses (these were all former Renaissance R Class ships built around 2000). But these ships are probably the closest to design and style of the great liners. The line also offers “country club casual” which means you don’t have to wear black tie. This is great since I find all the “black tie” events on cruises makes one feel like they are attending a class reunion. These ships offer probably the most elegant and relazed atmosphere. Oceania put more money into refurbishing its ships than Azamara as the bulk of the money spend on Journey and Quest was for the structural modifications they had to make to deck 8 to install suites, which their ships did not have. That took up the bulk of their $19 million per ship investment.
While it’s true that the Azamara refits had a much more visual change, they only spent about $5 million per ship on actual refurbishments in the way of new upholstery and carpets. And all of this was ‘off the shelf’ carpet and upholstery that they keep on hand for the RCI and Celebrity ships. Conversely, Oceania has spent more than $25 million dollars per ship which was used for new custom-milled carpets, custom Italian furniture, hand-picked drapes and upholstery, new marble bathrooms, new Hans-Grohe bathroom fixtures, new teak decks (Azamara’s are synthetic), new teak deck furniture (Azamara’s is mostly synthetic) and French-polishing of every inch of wood and every brass fixture throughout. Oceania also spends far more on food than Azamara and does not charge for dining in the specialty restaurants a la Azamara. Oceania’s execs and senior management onboard are all from luxury lines – Silversea, Crystal, Seabourn, RSSC, Royal Viking, Windstar, Cunard, etc.
PREMIUM CLASS – just below Deluxe and above Middle or Budget Class
Holland America - a fine premium class line that caters to seniors. They are expanding their market to younger passengers. Tthey also have many programs for children and teenagers. Their product is first rate. On the shorter cruises the age will be Baby Boomers and younger. On the long cruises, the average is much older. But this is true on all long cruises. Holland America is the oldest cruise line in the business and they have some beautiful mid-sized to large ships. The older ships were nicely decorated with an old world charm, but some of their newer ships like the Zaandam are much plainer and modern in design.
The cruise line is extremely popular with passengers that have cruised on Holland America many times and they keep on cruising with Holland, which caters to their top clients by offering great discounts to past passengers. Food tends to be little bland and entertainment is geared to this age group, but there are usually some wonderful dance bands and larger dance floors than on many other lines. The average age on board will be one of the highest of major cruise lines, but is now appealing to more families. They have real deck chairs, teak decks, blankets and trappings of first class liner service of the past. I have sailed aboard Holland America recently in large suites I paid for. My opinions were not biased by any comps. Holland America Line was far superior to a similar experience on Celebrity.
Another upscale line is Windstar – those wonderful tall-masted sailing ships. It is country-club casual, with outstanding service and food, plus unique itineraries.
The old adage “you get what you pay for” is true of cruise lines and ships as well. Yes, there is a difference between budget and premium – in the quality of the ship, service, entertainment, and food. If those things and the little things – getting great service the first time you ask, consistent quality food, great entertainment, etc. – are important to you, then don’t go for the lowest price. Sometimes an extra $50 or $100 will let you move up from a 3 or 4-star ship to a 5-star ship – now that is true value.
Cruising is the best vacation you can possibly have, if you pick the line and ship that fits you, and only a “very nice” vacation if you don’t. It’s much harder to find a bad cruise than a bad land vacation – although we can’t do anything about the weather and the airline flight home. So let us know when you call what’s most important to you so we can help you choose the right ship.