The pampering begins immediately. A white-gloved waiter offers a chilled glass of Champagne from a silver tray. A smiling steward leads the way to an ocean-view suite with a bay window, plush couch and chairs, writing desk, walk-in closet and, most likely, a private veranda big enough for a pair of chaise lounges and a small table. Elegantly dressed in rich Italian marble, buttery leather and soft pastel fabrics, the suite provides a bottle of welcome bubbly chilling on ice, a television, a VCR, bathrobes, slippers, personalized stationery, a whirlpool bathtub, 24-hour complimentary room service, and a doting room steward ready to stock the minibar with personal favorites for the week. Subtler refinements include silky smooth Italian Frette bed linens, goose-down pillows, lace doilies lining the waste cans, generous-sized Bulgari or Neutrogena shampoos and soaps in the bathroom, heavy crystal Scotch glasses and Champagne flutes above the bar, and an arrangement of fresh flowers on the marble-topped desk.
It may sound like the welcome at a five-star hotel, but this is the typical beginning to a one- to three-week sail on a high-end cruise liner that caters to a very well-heeled clientele. No two-bit party tub carting 2,000 passengers to a string of Caribbean islands already saturated with tourists is this. You'll not find the flip-flop and muscle-shirt crowd slamming back cans of beer by the pool or rushing the shrimp platter at the midnight buffet.
Just as there are fine wines, expensive cars and five-star hotels, there is a slice of the cruise market that's top-of-the line, fetching $500-plus per person per day. Stylish and sophisticated, these ships are bound for the world's most intriguing locales, from Rio to Portofino, Ho Chi Minh City to Haifa. Typical itineraries include visits to the western coast of Turkey and the Greek isles, the French Riviera, Egypt and Israel, Patagonia and southern Chile, the Seychelles islands, Australia's Gold Coast, the Indonesia archipelago, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and even remote and forlorn Easter Island, 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile.
And when these limousines of cruise ships do venture into the Caribbean, they do it right, visiting off-the-beaten-track islands, such as St. Barths, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, Barbados and St. Lucia, some of which are accessible only to small ships. Instead of the cliché herds of thousands invading unsuspecting ports, intimate groups of well-mannered guests make landfall to have a discreet look around. They can explore on their own or sign up for the ship's organized sightseeing excursions: walking and bus tours, even golf outings, are available at most ports.
Low-key and elegant, like private yachts, these ships don't sport flickering neon or three-story statues spouting waterfalls, but instead a couple of comfortable lounges with floor-to-ceiling windows, comfy chairs and banquettes, low lighting, and a stash of cigars. Some have clubby, wood-paneled cigar lounges with prominent humidors and bars stocked with the best brandies, while others invite smokers to light up outside on deck. Whether there's a dedicated cigar bar or not, nearly all the best ships sell smokes on board--oftentimes Cubans (one of the dividends of sailing in international waters).
These globe-trotters trace their ancestry to the opulent first-class Titanic-era steamers that once ruled the high seas and retain vestiges of what defined luxury ocean travel decades ago. The difference is one of scale. Today's ships are much smaller than the redoubtable liners of cruising's heyday. But many of the traditional trappings remain. Officers in epaulettes still walk the deck, a weekly cocktail party is hosted by the captain, and formal five-course dining sets a traditional tone, even amidst modern amenities and a more casual ambience.
Formal dining rooms are gilded and gracious affairs with chunky silver and crystal settings twinkling on candlelit tables as waistcoated waiters, maître d's in tuxedos and experienced sommeliers make their rounds. Cuisine and service rival that of some of New York's finest restaurants. Choices such as grilled tournedos of beef with foie gras, roast game hen with porcini stuffing, and breaded monkfish with crayfish sauce are offered on menus that give at least three options for each of five courses. Extensive wine lists offer bottles from the world's best vineyards in France, Italy, Chile, South Africa, Australia and California.
Guests dress for dinner during the two formal nights on most weeklong cruises, with tuxedos for men and sparkling gowns and little black dresses for women the standard. On the other nights, designated informal or casual, sports jackets or collared shirts, dresses and pantsuits are expected. Instead of being assigned a table and dinner companions as you would be aboard a big ship, you can stroll in whenever you please between about 7 and 10 p.m. and be seated alone or with friends. If you'd rather skip the formal dining room one night, many ships have recently opened alternative restaurants--they're smaller, require reservations and offer a bistro-like intimacy. Of course, room service will also bring dinner to cabins--course by course.
After-dinner entertainment on the smallest high-end ships means a choice between a mellow piano bar, a lounge for dancing featuring a live quartet and maybe a late-night DJ, and a casino. A quiet stroll on deck under the canopy of stars and black sky is an appealing option as well. By day, activities may include a lecture or class by a noted author, scholar or celebrity, as well as a wine-tasting seminar, bridge tour, golf putting and driving practice, movies, and trivia games.
The library is often stocked with best-sellers as well as travel guides, history books, periodicals and videos for passengers who tend to be well traveled and well read. While the fitness rooms vary in size and scope, at the very least they will have a couple of treadmills, stationary bikes and step machines, along with free weights. Beauty salons with masseuses offer everything from seaweed wraps to reflexology. The outside top decks have a pool and at least one hot tub, and plenty of space to laze on a deck chair.
The cruise experience at its most sublime offers adventure even while all the trappings of epicurean decadence are close at hand. You're tracing the sea routes used by swashbuckling explorers centuries before, but you're doing it like a king. No need to plan itineraries, book hotel rooms, lug suitcases--the ship is your porter, destination and transport, all in one. If you like the idea of nothaving to continually open your wallet on vacation, paying for dinners, drinks and entertainment, a cruise is undoubtedly convenient.
Accommodations, meals and entertainment are included in one rate; and some top lines even throw in unlimited wine and spirits, gratuities, and port charges. Guests sign for the extras and pay at the end of the cruise. Expect to spend at least $3,000 a person (and as much as $10,500) for a week on a high-end ship. Airfare, day tours when in port and, of course, shopping (on board and in port) are additional.
Among the newest and swankiest liners in the high-end market are the elegant Silversea Cruises twins, the five-year-old, 296-passenger Silver Cloud and Silver Wind. These ships sail worldwide, from Semarang to Silicy to Oahu and Maui. Most cabins have private verandas. Chat with new friends at high tea or browse for gold watches and silk scarves in the ships' exclusive Bulgari boutique. Cabin bathrooms are stocked with Bulgari's rich green-tea bath products. Overall, service is superb, and elegant dining in the delicately decorated pale pink-and-gold main restaurant rivals that of Manhattan's best. While on formal nights passengers are in tuxedos and sequins, on all other nights ties are optional.
For a change of pace, the Terrace Café, serving breakfast and lunch buffet-style by day, is transformed into the cozy and candlelit, reservations-only Cucina Italiana several nights a week. After-dinner entertainment includes a piano bar, a nightclub for dancing and drinks, and a two-story show lounge featuring musicals, magic shows and cabaret. You can have a cigar along with a glass of Port or a smooth Cognac at the ships' weekly "Cigar Nights," held poolside in warm weather or in the windowed observation lounge during chillier nights. And unlimited top-shelf liquors and wines are included in the cruise price, as are all gratuities.
The clubby Seabourn ships are smaller and even more high-toned. The Seabourn Pride, Spirit and Legend each carry 208 passengers to the far corners of the world, including Africa's Seychelles islands, the French Riviera, Norway fjords, India, the Suez Canal and the less frequented islands of the Caribbean. A mini marina unfolds from the ships' aft belly, allowing guests direct access to the water for waterskiing, windsurfing, sailing and swimming. The ships also have some of the best positioned hot tubs at sea. Each is located at the bow on a stretch of isolated teak deck, where soakers can watch their cruise unfold before them. In addition to the formal dining restaurant, casual dining is offered in the Veranda Café.
There are no elaborate entertainment productions, but instead quiet evenings conversing with new friends and listening to music in the ocean-view observation lounge, an ideal setting for an after-dinner single malt and a good smoke. The newly refurbished and renamed 758-passenger Seabourn Sun is a golf lover's paradise boasting a pro shop, as well as a putting green and golf simulator. The Sun's smokers are welcomed at the Oak Room bar. Tipping is not allowed and wine and spirits are included in the price.
The line's yacht-like Seabourn Goddess I and Seabourn Goddess II are hedonistic havens--and small enough to make you feel that your needs and desires are the only ones that matter. A staff of 89 caters to just 116 passengers. Champagne and caviar are served all day long. After dinner, enjoy a cigar in the Main Salon and hobnob with your fellow shipmates, who undoubtedly are among the world's movers and shakers. The ships have a retractable water sports marina. Among its worldwide itineraries, the Sea Goddesses visit the French and Italian Rivieras and the Caribbean's off-the-beaten-track glam hideaways like St. Barths and Virgin Gorda. On all Seabourn ships tipping is not required and wine is included at lunch and dinner.
Radisson's posh 350-passenger Radisson Diamond has a catamaran-like twin-hull design, giving its passengers one of the most stable trips at sea, and more than half of its staterooms have private verandas. With its gilded chairs and burnished bronze and silver pillars, the graceful Grand Dining Room is considered by many the most romantic at sea. There's also a more casual, reservations-only Italian trattoria for dinner. The Diamond, which has a retractable water sports marina, spends half the year in European waters and half in the Caribbean. Wine is complimentary with dinner, and tipping is not accepted.
A sexy newcomer, Radisson Seven Seas Cruises' two-year-old, 320-passenger Paul Gauguin, has verandas on half of its cabins, a chi-chi French spa (Carita of Paris), and an exotic year-round itinerary that it sails in sheer luxury, from Tahiti to Bora Bora and the other islands of French Polynesia. Luxurious, yes, but casual as well--leave the suits at home, there's a no-jackets-required policy throughout the cruise. Like the Radisson Diamond, the Paul Gauguin has a retractable marina for water sports. With its prominent humidor, crystal ashtrays and extensive menu of Cognacs, the refined Connoisseur Club is the ship's cigar lounge, a wonderful room with ocean views. The Club is conveniently connected via a spiral staircase to the intimate 80-seat, reservations-only La Veranda restaurant below.
A more formal atmosphere (jackets required in the dining room) reigns on board the line's new 490-passenger Navigator. Plying the seas from the Mediterranean to South America, the Caribbean and the Panama Canal, the ship has private verandas on nearly all cabins and a Connoisseur Club lounge of its own. There's a no-tipping policy and wine is complimentary at lunch and dinner.
You can pretend you're at the helm of your own private yacht when you sail on one of Windstar Cruises' three 148-passenger, motorized sailing ships--the Wind Star, Wind Spirit and Wind Song--or its 312-passenger Wind Surf. These sleek ships are modern versions of classic sailing vessels, with towering masts and yards of white sails that can be unfurled in minutes at the touch of a button, as well as state-of-the-art conveniences like retractable water sports marinas. These are the most casual of the "best" ships, but still a pampered cruises.
On board, brass details and caramel-colored wood lend a traditional nautical feel, but CD players keep you from forgetting you're in the modern world. Passengers can borrow from the ship's extensive library of music and movies. Cruising the French Riviera, Greek isles, British Virgin Islands and Costa Rica, these stylish ships are sporty and cool in an Armani-and-Martini sort of way. As on the Paul Gauguin, jackets are not required at any time.
After dinner on the open pool decks, unwind with a cigar and a Cognac. Crystal Cruises' 940-passenger Crystal Symphony and Crystal Harmony are the biggest players in the high-end cruise ship league. Each has the space for a large casino, a show lounge plus several other entertainment venues, two pools (one with a sliding glass roof for inclement weather), a putting green, golf driving nets, a paddle tennis court, and a large gym and spa. In addition to a formal dining room, each ship has two alternative restaurants, seating 50 to 70 guests. Both have an Italian restaurant called Prego, while the Harmony has a Japanese restaurant, Kyoto (serving the best Asian food at sea), and the Symphony has a pan-Asian eatery, Jade.
The ships circle the globe, visiting far-flung places such as Sydney and Auckland, Hong Kong and Singapore. On the Symphony, cigars may be enjoyed in the Connoisseurs Club. On the Harmony, cigar smoking is welcomed in the top-deck lounge, a plush place featuring floor-to-ceiling windows for panoramic views of the sea, and a pianist or jazz trio during the evenings. On both ships, passengers choose from what is among the most extensive cigar menus of any cruise line--some 50 brands--and top-of-the-line Cognacs: Rémy Martin Louis XIII or Reserve Lafite Rothschild.
Cunard Line's Queen Elizabeth 2, better known as the QE2, is in a class by itself. Built in 1969, the very British 1,778-passenger grand dame envelops passengers in an Old World grace and charm, with the long sweeping hull and tiered decks of a classic ocean liner. The QE2 is the only ship that makes an annual series of six-daytransatlantic crossings between New York City and Southampton, England. On these cruises, tradition comes alive. Passengers are assigned to one of five dining rooms according to their cabin category. Those staying in the most expensive rooms may dine in what some say is the best restaurant at sea: the regal Queen's Grill.
Cooking is tableside and the choice virtually unlimited: guests can also order items not on the menu. The Chart Room lounge and the woody Golden Lion Pub welcome cigar lovers. The QE2 is well known for its annual theme cruises, including programs and onboard lectures focused on topics like classic cars, food and wine, and nautical history. The 677-passenger Caronia, newly refurbished and renamed is the third Cunard vessel to bear its hallowed name. The traditional ocean liner offers a genteel British-flavored cruise.
For their size and mainstream appeal, Celebrity Cruises' 1,850-passenger ships, the Century, Galaxy and Mercury, are the most elegant megaships at sea, and half the price of the high-end variety. Book yourself into one of the 40 royal suites, or better yet the sprawling penthouse, and wallow on huge verandas (the penthouse veranda even has a whirlpool tub) and doting service by your personal butler while sailing the Caribbean, the Mediterranean or the fjords of southeast Alaska. The ships' interiors are dressed in an avant-garde art collection featuring originals from Sol LeWitt and Peter Halley. The spas on these ships are by far the best at sea.
The Galaxy's has a Japanese bathhouse design, with cool gray stone and bamboo, while the hand-painted tile mosaics of the spa on the Mercury follow a Moroccan motif. All three feature a 15,000-gallon Thalassotherapy pool, a bubbling caldron of warm seawater with all manner of therapeutic water jets to sooth aching bodies. The fitness centers are nearly as impressive, featuring the latest workout equipment like virtual-reality stationary bikes and a roller-blading machine. There's even a high-tech golf simulator on each ship. The spacious, elegantly designed cigar lounge, called Michael's Club, has thick velvet and rich leather armchairs. Each evening, an artisan demonstrates the art of hand-rolling cigars.
While Holland America's entire fleet invites cigar smokers to gather on deck after dinner, the new 1,440-passenger Volendam and 1,316-passenger Rotterdam, the sixth incarnation of the 125-year-old company's famed ocean liner, offer the line's most elegant and pampered setting. Stay in one of the Rotterdam's 40 suites and enjoy a special concierge service. Avoid the bustling main dining room, and dine in the ships' intimate, reservations-only 88-seat restaurants.
The Rotterdam's has rich tapestried walls, marble floors and Venetian glass. After dinner, officers mingle with guests on deck as waiters serve Cognac and cordials. Each ship has a large gym and aerobics room with floor-to-ceiling windows, a movie theater, a disco and mellow lounges, featuring piano, jazz or big-band music. The Rotterdam spends much of the year cruising the British Isles, Scandinavia, Greek Isles, Turkey and Italy, and winters in the Caribbean. The Volendam winters in the Caribbean and spends the summer in Alaska.
No matter where you want to go, a cruise is headed there. Take a week or more; most itineraries range from about seven to 20 days. If you need to fly a great distance to start your journey, some of the top lines will include a couple of nights in a high-end hotel before or after the cruise to give you a chance to unwind. If not included in the price, a variety of hotel and sightseeing packages at either end of the cruise are available from all lines. So, if the romance of the sea and exotic foreign ports beckon you just as much as a carefree, luxurious vacation does, look no further then these crème de la crème of cruise ships.
Heidi Sarna is the author of Frommer's Caribbean Cruises and Ports of Call.
TEE TIME AT SEA
Taking a cruise doesn't mean you have to leave your golf clubs behind. Ships of all shapes and sizes offer golf in the form of onboard practice and onshore playing excursions.
Cruises near golf meccas often arrange getaways to places like the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, Mahogany Run in St. Thomas, Monte Carlo Golf Club in Monaco, and Raffles Golf Club in Singapore. Escorted outings are conveniently packaged to include tee times, caddies, transportation, and clubs, shoes, balls and glove rental. Single-day excursions cost a few hundred dollars a pop and packages that include three to six rounds at various courses throughout a cruise range from $800 to $2,000 a person.
On some ships, PGA-certified golf pros provide lessons for players of all skill levels, covering everything from the basics to specialty shots in facilities that include golf cages, putting greens and sand traps on outside decks. Silversea's Silver Links golf program is featured on 17 different cruises this year, visiting some 59 courses in 26 countries. Packages start at $995 a person and include from three to six rounds in different countries.
A series of Seabourn's Signature Golf Cruises are scheduled to visit Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the British Isles, mainland Europe and Scandinavia this year. Ranging from $1,025 to $1,938 a person, the packages offer up to six rounds of golf at prestigious courses and include everything you'll need. The Seabourn Golf School at Sea, which includes videotape analysis and seminars on course management, rules, history and etiquette, is being offered year-round.
Crystal's Golf Series programs will be held on 14 cruises this year, on 35 courses in the Mediterranean, Asia, the South Pacific and the Caribbean. Packages offer the works, even complimentary club storage and special cocktail parties. Crystal has PGA golf pros on board most sailings, conducting private lessons. The pro determines the fee, generally ranging from $50 to $250, depending on the length of the lesson and the skill level of the student. The pro also teaches a free one-hour group class during days at sea as well as a free 30-minute clinic specializing in swing technique.
Radisson Seven Seas, the official cruise line of the PGA of America, runs its RSSC Golf Program on the Radisson Diamond and Navigator on select European and Caribbean cruises every year. Play on board and in port. An onboard PGA golf pro gives private, videotaped lessons. As with the Silversea golf program, packages including play at courses in various ports of call are also available--HS
HOW TO BOOK A CRUISE
Since many cruise lines don't book reservations directly, contacting a travel agent is usually the best way to select a cruise. Some agents deal exclusively in cruises and, generally, none charge for their services. Cruise-only agents offer specialized knowledge, but their service is limited to the cruise itself and booking air connections. Full-service agencies, while generalists, can also arrange hotels, car rentals and land tours. Some cruise-only agencies work exclusively from 800 numbers and deal with clients only over the phone--convenient, yes, but also somewhat impersonal. If you have a good relationship with a local travel agent who knows your likes and dislikes, it may be best to pay him a visit. You can also expect your travel agent to find you the best prices available. Never give out your credit card number over the phone to an unfamiliar agency. For referrals to agents specializing in high-end travel, contact A.P.I. Travel Consultants, a 235-member consortium (800-401-4API by phone or on the Internet at www.apitravel.com).
Cruise prices are almost always discounted from the published brochure rates--often as much as 10 to 50 percent--and prices vary according to the date of the cruise. High season (late December through April for the Caribbean; April through October for the Mediterranean and northern Europe; and November through April for Asia and the South Pacific) and holiday time generally cost the most. Consider cruising in the off-season or toward the beginning or end of a season to save money and avoid crowds. As a rule, booking 90 days or more before a cruise sails ensures the best price, although last-minute deals develop when ships still have space available just weeks or days before sailing. Because travel agents sell so many cruises, many get special rates and additional discounts directly from the lines and pass them on to consumers. Keep in mind, agents work on commissions from the cruise lines and may be biased toward those that pay the highest rates. Don't be swayed to a cruise that isn't right for you. Don't forget to factor in airfare--which may or may not be included in the package price--tips and the cost of shore excursions.--HS
SMOKING ON THE WATER
THE BEST SHIPS AND THEIR CIGAR AMENITIES
CARONIA/CUNARD LINE LIMITED
Where: North Cape Bar
Cuban cigars: yes
CRYSTAL HARMONY/CRYSTAL CRUISES
Where: Vista Lounge
Cuban cigars: yes CRYSTAL SYMPHONY/CRYSTAL CRUISES
Where: Connoisseurs Club
Cuban cigars: yes PAUL GAUGUIN AND NAVIGATOR/RADISSON SEVEN SEAS CRUISES
Where: Connoisseur Club
Cuban cigars: yes
QUEEN ELIZABETH 2/CUNARD LINE LIMITED
Where: Chart Room and Golden Lion Pub
Cuban cigars: yes
RADISSON DIAMOND/RADISSON SEVEN SEAS CRUISES
Where: Outside decks
Cuban cigars: no (no cigars sold on board)
SEABOURN GODDESS I AND II/SEABOURN CRUISE LINE
Where: Main Salon
CUBAN CIGARS: available on all Seabourn vessels listed
SEABOURN LEGEND/SEABOURN CRUISE LINE
Where: Midnight Sun
SEABOURN PRIDE/SEABOURN CRUISE LINE
Where: Constellation Lounge
SEABOURN SPIRIT/SEABOURN CRUISE LINE
Where: Horizon Lounge
SEABOURN SUN/SEABOURN CRUISE LINE
Where: Oak Room
SILVER WIND AND SILVER CLOUD/SILVERSEA CRUISES
Where: Observation Lounge
Cuban cigars: yes
WIND STAR, WIND SPIRIT AND WIND SONG/WINDSTAR CRUISES
Where: Outside decks
Cuban cigars: no
CENTURY, MERCURY AND GALAXY/CELEBRITY CRUISES
Where: Michael's Cigar Bar
Cuban cigars: no
ROTTERDAM AND VOLENDAM/HOLLAND AMERICA LINE
Where: Outside decks
Cuban cigars: no