Cruise Ship Reviews – Update – July 2008 – Ships that rival the past – Featuring Marjorie Merriweather Post’s fabulous SEA CLOUD!

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Owner’s Suite aboard the 64-passenger four-masted barque Sea Cloud. 

mrs-post.jpg SEA CLOUD was built in 1931 as the Hussar by E.F. Hutton for his wealthy socialite wife, Marjorie Merriweather Post. Her personal suite is the museum-like 410-square-foot No. 1, with Louis XIV-style furniture and a white Carrera marble bathroom with gold-plated faucets. Suite No. 2 was Hutton’s, and it’s 366 square feet with wood paneling, antique nightstands and similar opulent bathroom.

sea_cloud_1b.jpgIf you decide to occupy the owners’ suites, it will cost you $1,190 per day to hang your clothes in Marjorie’s armoire or read the latest stock market reports while lounging by E. F. Hutton’s working fireplace. At the other end of the scale, a really small though excellently well appointed cabin (category 6) for two will cost you $486 per day. Air, land accommodations and land excursions are not included. It is worth noting that Sea Cloud does not dock in U.S. ports because her hardwood decks and the exotic woods used in her interior furnishings do not meet stringent U.S. fire standards, so you will have to fly to Antigua, British Virgin Islands to catch up with her.   An idiotic prohibition when you consider this is probably the most luxurious cruise ship operating today.  A yacht for 64 lucky and fortunate souls willing to pay for the best!

LUXURY CLASS – the top cruise lines for those that want the best…

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. Regent is owned by the same Scandinavian company that owns the moderate priced Regent Hotel chain, but do not be misled by their hotel target market.

Regent Seven Seas has targeted the top of the luxury market and they are dead on-target. To gain a foothold in this established market Regent introduced the first all-suite and all-balcony cabin ship called the Seven Seas Mariner in 2001. 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 (only surpassed by Silversea) and the service is outstanding – better than Crystal or Silversea. The high-end readers of Conde Nast Traveler who seek the best hotel, cruise and travel options worldwide have picked Regent as the “World’s Best Small-Ship Cruise Line” in 2003 (small means less than 1000 passengers). As you can see in the ratings below Ethel Blum author of the “Total Traveler Guide to Worldwide Cruising” also agrees with Conde Nast readers and us.

Silversea - is one of the top luxury small-ship cruise lines. Silversea has a beautiful suite of new ships with very large oceanview cabins, balconies staterooms and suites. They use the same exquisite cabin designers as Regent. Silversea ships like the initial Silver Wind & Silver Cloud are small at only 16,000 tons and hold only 300 guests. The newer Silver Whisper and Silver Shadow are 25,000 tons and hold 400 guests, so be careful with your itinerary if you are prone to motion sickness. Silversea has open seating and the best food on board a cruise ship. The service, however, is mixed. The crew is told who is a repeat client and those clients get excellent service while the first time guests are left having to ask for service too often. Silversea is not a cruise line you take if you are looking for bargains, as the price per day is one of the highest around. This attracts a very well off clientele and the cruise line’s clients expect Silversea to keep it that way. A lot of “old-money” cruises on Silversea. We found Regent to have food that was only slightly below Silversea and Regent had better service, more dining choices, larger ships and at a much lower price. The average age on Regent is also younger as it attracts a lot of younger professionals. For all these reasons we rank Regent above Silversea overall. Frommer’s likes Silversea the best which we can understand if price is of no consideration.

Crystal – is one of the top luxury large-ship cruise lines. Crystal dominated this market until 2001 when Regent Seven Seas introduced the all-suite, all-balcony Mariner. Since then Regent has taken over the top ranking is this category and overall. Crystal has smaller cabins than Regent and still has two seatings for dining. We find that given a choice most luxury market clients like the freedom of open-seating so they can dine when they want and with whom they want. They can dine with friends or family, or ask to join another table that wishes to meet new people. Crystal has some of the best entertainment and lecture programs at sea. The ships are gorgeous and hold only about 1000 passengers. The service is excellent but the food is definitely below Silversea or Regent Seven Seas. Crystal introduced their first new ship in years, Crystal Serenity, in 2003, but she still has two seatings for meals and smaller cabins than Regent. She does have many more balcony cabins than the older Crystal Symphony. Crystal Serenity is a big improvement but cannot really match Regent’s new Voyager. Crystal Harmony has been retired from the cruise market. Berlitz still rates Crystal number one with Regent and Silversea just behind. One definite conclusion we all agree is that you really can’t go wrong with any of these great products.

Seabourn – is one of the older luxury cruise brands which is now owned by Carnival. These small ships are luxurious and the line has great food and service. Unfortunately the ships were all designed back in the mid 1980s before everyone wanted a private balcony with their cabins. Seabourn ships are pricey cruises and they have no private balconies. For this reason we don’t recommend them anymore and they can’t really compare to the three spectacular cruise lines listed above.

DELUXE CLASS - between Luxury & Premium

Azamara Cruises

New cruiseline from Celebrity Cruises that operates two 30,000 ton 700 guest “Deluxe” cruise ships that offer extra high level of food & service – with open dining. There are two complimentary alternative restaurants and the main dining room. All restaurants are getting rave reviews. These ships have a wonderful intimate atmosphere like a excellent European boutique hotel. The public room and suites are very luxurious but cabin sizes are typical of mainstream ships not luxury ships – hence “Deluxe” somewhere in between Premium and Luxury. There are many outstanding and unique itineraries that allow docking in ports like Sorento, St. Petersburg down town & Taormina that the big ships cannot get into. Highly recommended for adults as there is no children’s program. Great chose at half the price or less of luxury class products, but don’t expect standard cabins to be as large as Regent or Silversea.

Oceania Cruises

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). Oceania also has great food and service but they have not put as much money into the refurbishments and they are usually more expensive for the same product so we rank Azamara over Oceania at this time.

PREMIUM CLASS – just below Deluxe and above Budget Class

Celebrity Cruises – Royal Caribbean’s owns Celebrity and has made them their upscale brand. They have succeeded and Celebrity has a huge hit with their new Millennium Class vessels (Millennium, Infinity, Summit & Constellation) which we rate as the top premium class ships available. Conde Nast Traveler’s Survey apparently agrees with us rating the Constellation the #1 ship in this category for 3 years in a row. These elegantly designed and European decorated ships are exceptionally roomy and offer great cabin size from the smallest cabin to the huge suites with butler service. Each Millennium Class vessel has a great reservation-only alternative restaurant on board that is as good as top land based restaurants. The spas are huge and the covered pool is stunning. The kids program is not as good as Royal Caribbean but it is still quite good. Overall food, service and entertainment are very good – tops in the premium class. Berlitz rates the Millennium-class ships very close in total points to the luxury class leaders. We think the high-end suites are as nice as any on a luxury class vessel. New Solstice class is 30,000 tons larger than the Millennium Class top premium class ships and hold another 900 guests. Cabins will be larger on Solstice and they will likely set the new standard for this class when Solstice debuts in Dec. 2008.

Royal Caribbean – is the best overall cruise line for families. Their new ships are all outstanding, well designed ships with the best kids program afloat. The Voyager and Freedom Class ships are the largest and some of the nicest ships afloat with ice skating rinks, wave rider (Freedom class), a Royal Promenade (a very long 4-story area inside the ship with shops, pubs and restaurants), a 3-story dining room that don’t come any more stunning, and a rock climbing wall. They have more to do than any ships at sea. The new Radiance Class is like a smaller version of the Voyager Class but without the ice skating rink. The Vision Class built 1995 to 2000 remains a solid choice but a notch below the above two classes with smaller cabins and no alternative restaurant(s). We would recommend you avoid the older ships that have tiny cabins and can’t really compare to the three classes above.

Holland America - a fine premium class line that caters to seniors. 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. Many past clients (us included) are not impressed with this change after Carnival Corp. took over ownership of Holland America. The cruise line is extremely popular with seniors that have cruised on Holland 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, so don’t expect a great kids program. Celebrity has moved ahead of Holland America and Princess to take the lead in the premium class market.

Disney Cruises – Disney, as always, is a great brand at a premium price. Disney caters to children on their two wonderful ships. For kids they do a great job and this can be a wonderful family vacation to the Caribbean for 7-nights. For Mom and Dad, however, there just isn’t as much to do on board these ships, like no casino, and little entertainment geared to adults. Food has never been a highlight of a Disney property and the same is true here. Service is also done mostly by young people that are not experienced waiters. You take these cruises to see your kids or grand kids light-up when they get to meet Mickey & Minnie Mouse. Royal Caribbean has a better kids program overall with more to do, just without all the Disney characters.

Princess Cruises – also owned by Carnival Corp. – has a real mixture of ships. The Sun Princess and her sister ship the Dawn Princess have very small cabins except for the mini-suites which are great. The balconies are the smallest in the business on these ships and the rooms are so small they don’t have room for a couch or chair. The Grand Princess class and new Coral Princess class ships are much nicer but Princess ships have one common design flaw that we just don’t like. The ships do not have dedicated observation lounge. This is a real shortcoming if you are cruising to scenic locations like Alaska. A serious concern to us is that recently we have been getting many reports of poor food quality and poor service from previous frequent Princess cruises and they have decided to switch to another line like Celebrity. We have also noticed that when things go wrong (and that is happening more frequently now) Princess is getting very poor at handling problems. We have lowered all their ship rankings and put them at the bottom of the premium class. There are now many better choices.

BUDGET CLASS – usually the price leaders but with problems/issues

Carnival Cruises – is the low price leader in the cruise market. Many people cruise on Carnival for their fist cruise often are enticed by their low lead-in rates. Many of our frequent cruisers, however, request any ship except for Carnival when they make requests. Everyone’s first cruise experience is usually great but after taking a few and talking to others that have cruised you will find that all of the cruise lines listed above offer a superior product. Carnival has the lowest prices because their ships pack in more people than any other cruise line. The food, service and entertainment are all average. The ships are neon extravaganzas with some decorations edging toward the bazaar. They have a well earned reputation for being party ships and so people who are attracted by that reputation are usually present. Royal Caribbean, Princess and Celebrity all offer a superior product and often charge only slightly more money which to us is a great value and a much better family atmosphere. For most of our clients, we usually try to find our clients space on one of our top recommended lines for these reasons.

NCL – is one of the cruise lines we just do not recommend. Our clients have had too many problems and complaints for us to be able to recommend NCL. Some of their older ships have had well publicized problems and others like the Dream and Wind are just too crowded after they were stretched. The newer ships with their free-style dining options are getting mixed reviews as some people really like it and others hate it. One of our frequent cruisers called “free-style dining” should be called “no style dining” as people spend a lot of time making restaurant reservations and trying to get times acceptable to them. Food and service feedback gets mixed feedback like the following from an experienced cruiser that went on one of the new NCL ships recently “… absolutely the most mediocre food I’ve ever tasted on a cruise line!” Our major concern is the (usually) atrocious way NCL handles problems. You can’t count on NCL to do the right thing for clients when vacations were ruined by mechanical failure or weather problems. They are terrible compared to how Royal Caribbean/Celebrity handle problems. There are so many wonderful cruise lines that don’t have these mixed results we recommend avoiding NCL. Unfortunately NCL is the only cruise line offering 7-night Hawaii cruises roundtrip from Honolulu. These cruises are very expensive and when air costs are factored in, most guests will find a 14-night cruise roundtrip from Los Angeles or San Diego offers a better value and may even cost less with the long over water flights removed.

Additional Comments from the editor:

Cruising is becoming one of the more popular vacation “destinations”, and with the huge number of new ships coming into service each year it gets harder for a first-time cruiser to decide which will suit his or her needs best. As mentioned earlier, it is hard to rate a ship with just one number. With this in mind, I’d like to give you a very general idea of how to begin looking for a cruise.

To begin with, for most major lines, it’s not only the line’s reputation that you have to think about, but that of the individual ship. Several lines have ships ranging from the smaller, or older “classic” ships to the brand-new mega ships. So within the same line, you will generally find lower prices on the older ships. If the dollar is your bottom line, then consider one of these; the ship may be smaller and not as glamorous, but the quality of service and food should be the same on other ships within a line. This is why it’s very important that you find an agent who is knowledgeable about cruising when you plan your vacation. Some travel agents sell only a few cruises a year and may have only cruised on 1 or 2 cruise lines. Some 800 number outlets may have order takers that have never cruised. A cruise travel specialist is your best assurance of having the best cruise vacation and getting the best value.

For the majority of people Royal Caribbean, Celebrity & Azamara are the top choices. We recommend Royal Caribbean as the best for active young adults and for families. We recommend Celebrity for adults looking for top quality in a premium atmosphere and Azamara for that little extra without the luxury prices. Royal Caribbean tends to have very large ships from 90,000 to 160,000 tons and hold 2000 to 4000 guests.. Most of Celebrity’s ships are from 70,000 to 90,00 tons and hold from 700 to 2000 passengers. Azamara Journey & Quest are 30,000 ton ships that hold 700 passengers for some longer and exotic itineraries. We find that we can recommend one of these lines for almost any age and interest, and we very seldom get complaints from guests about these lines. RCCL has the top rated children’s program, Las Vegas style entertainment, very good service and food. Rates are moderate, and most of the ships are simply stunning!

For younger cruisers and people looking for a party atmosphere we generally look at Carnival. This line is geared more toward partying than pampering – more disco lounges and bars. Service is OK, but the little extras that you will find on many other lines are not here on Carnival. Carnival is a good line for those who want to be more casual and aren’t as concerned about the pampering. The ships are very imaginatively decorated, lively, and lots of fun. Carnival also has a very good children’s program. One note of caution: the ships are very crowded and it’s hard on the Carnival ships to find a quiet spot to read or doze; and if cigarette smoke bothers you, you will find it difficult to go into any of the lounges and bar areas. My personal recommendation to those who are allergic or have asthma is to choose another cruise line.

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.

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.

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About Michael L. Grace

MICHAEL L. GRACE is part of the award winning team that created the internationally performed award winning musical SNOOPY, based on PEANUTS by Charles M. Schultz. SNOOPY continues to be one of the most produced shows (amateur & stock) in America/Worldwide and has had long running productions in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and in London's West End. There are over 100 individual productions every year. He has written movies for TV, including the award-winning thriller LADY KILLER, various pilots and developed screenplays for Kevin Costner and John Travolta. Besides co-writing and co-producing SNOOPY, he wrote and produced the one-man play KENNEDY. He produced P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD by pulitzer prize winning author James Kirkwood. He wrote the stage thriller FINAL CUT which had productions in the UK, South Africa and Australia. His one-man play, KENNEDY - THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH, was developed for HBO and has starred Andrew Stevens, Gregory Harrison and Joseph Bottoms. He has recently been involved in European productions with CLT-UFA, Europe's leading commercial television and radio broadcaster. He wrote MOWs THE DOLL COLLECTION, THE BOTTOM LINE and LAST WITNESS for German television. While in college and graduate school he worked as a foreign correspondent for COMBAT, the famous leftwing Paris daily, and as a travel writer. He visited more than 50 countries. He struggled as an actor, then joined the enemy and entered the training program at William Morris. He became a publicist and worked for Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, at Paramount and MGM. He followed with a brief stint as a story executive, working in the frantic horror genre period of the early 80s and wrote THE UNSEEN. He went onto write for episodic television and develop series pilots. He was a continuing writer on such series such as LOVE BOAT, PAPER DOLLS, and KNOTS LANDING. He developed screenplays for such major award winning directors as Nicolas Meyers, Tony Richardson and J. Lee Thompson. He has written for all the major networks and studios. He has been hired numerous times as a script doctor, doing many uncredited rewrites on TV movies and features. He is currently writing A PERSON OF INTEREST, a thriller novel, and, IT'S THE LOVE BOAT... AND HOW IT CHANGED CRUISING BY SHIP a non-fiction book dealing with how the hit TV series as a major cultural phenomenon and altered the style of cruising by ship. He was raised in Los Angeles. He attended St. Paul's, USC and the Pasadena Playhouse. He received a B.A from San Francisco State University where he majored in theatre arts and minored in creative writing. He is listed as a SFSU leading alumni. He also apprenticed at ACT - The American Conservatory Theatre. For a brief period he had intentions of becoming an Episcopal(Anglican) priest and attended seminary at Kelham Theological College in the UK. When "the calling" wasn't there, he left seminary and did graduate work at the American University of Beirut. He has guest lectured at USC, UC San Diego, McGill, Univ. of London and the Univ. of Texas on the business aspects of making a living and surviving as a writer, focusing on development hell, in the Hollywood entertainment industry. Grace is a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America, the Dramatist Guild and former regional chairman of the Steamship Historical Society of America. He resides in Palm Springs.

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