"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness," wrote Mark Twain in 1869, penning what would become arguably Western literature's most famous quote about travel. The words can be found in the best-selling book of his lifetime, not The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, but rather The Innocents Abroad, the first great work of American travel writing. In 1867 Twain walked up the gangplank of the sidewheel steamer Quaker City and, along with a boatload of adventurous fellow passengers, embarked on what many consider the first leisure cruise in the nation's history. His first-person account of the voyage to Europe and the Middle East is comedic, informative and often acerbic; and ever since it debuted to smashing success, Americans have been going on cruises in droves, while cruise-ship amenities have been continuously improving.
The appeals of cruising are many, but the most obvious is the combination of sightseeing and convenience. "It's such an easy way to travel that you almost feel guilty," says Michael Patrick Shiels, an award-winning broadcaster and travel journalist whose aquatic voyages have ranged from Disney family outings to small-boat naturalist adventures in the Galapagos Islands to golf cruises in the Caribbean. "As a frequent traveler, the norm is a lot of research and planning beforehand, then every day actively doing and seeing the things you have put on your list, then packing up and heading to the next town or city or resort. On a cruise everything is the opposite: you check in, you unpack just one time, and then your ‘hotel room' moves with you. Once you've chosen a destination everything is done for you, the planning, the excursions, expert guides. You get the same choice of vacation preferences as on land, from poolside relaxation to active exploration, but effortlessly." Consider a typical luxury cruise itinerary in Southeast Asia, starting in Singapore and ending in Hong Kong, along the way visiting Thailand's Koh Samui, Cambodia's Sihanoukville, Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, and China's Hainan Island. Now imagine trying to string those seven destinations together via traditional overland travel, with seven different hotels and all the flights, trains and transfers along the way. That's why so many people love cruises.
Seventy percent of the earth's surface is covered with water, and as anyone who has ever shopped for a vacation home knows, of the remaining 30 percent, the part touching water is most valuable. That is why the cruise industry has been booming in recent years, offering a unique combination of white-glove hotel amenities, higher levels of gourmet cuisine and an unbelievable array of onboard activities and entertainment, all with easy access to the world's greatest coastal destinations.
The best cruise ships are often described as five-star hotels at sea. But they are something more, because even the best hotels don't bring in expert speakers, theater companies, educators and the like to entertain their guests—for free.
For smokers, while hotels worldwide are increasingly unwelcoming, cruise ships have gone the opposite direction. Many of the top luxury lines offer open-air balconies on most cabins and have added cigar bars or lounges. According to Annie Scrivanich, senior vice president of Cruise Specialists, an industry leader in worldwide cruise vacations, "Many premium and luxury lines such as Crystal, Regent and Silversea have cigar bars. For example, Silversea's Connoisseur's Corner is a cigar and Cognac lounge with comfortable low-slung leather chairs." Regent Seven Seas and Crystal have very similar onboard products, both called the Connoisseur Club, and both are Cognac and cigar lounges, including an inventory of Cubans in international waters. Royal Caribbean has its own Connoisseur Club on the largest ships, while Norwegian offers its Humidor Cigar Lounge. Princess has Churchill's Cigar Lounge and Cunard also has its own Churchill's Lounges on the vaunted Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria, all with long lists of Cuban and Dominican cigars, fine Cognacs and whiskies. Even ships without dedicated cigar bars often sell cigars and provide open-air bars or balconies for smoking.
Some 13 million North Americans are expected to take a cruise this year. That statistic has been steadily growing (about seven percent annually) for the past three decades, according to Cruise Market Watch. Seven new ships will launch this year, reflecting the amazing diversity of cruising, with capacities from 224 to 4,200 passengers, and another 10—representing just about every top line—will be christened next year. Ships keep getting better and better, with larger more luxurious rooms, more sophisticated spas and dining, in turn luring more and more luxury travelers onboard. To help you find the very best ships and lines for your needs, we asked our expert panelists for their favorite. Not surprisingly, this mix of top travel and cruise agents, journalists and industry insiders voiced very strong opinions about all things cruise—opinions that can help you plan your next great vacation.
One notable trend is for top luxury hotel companies to join the boutique end of the cruise market. While still a niche, and more an extension of the hotels than a separate enterprise, this is worth consideration. For example, Four Seasons operates the 11-cabin Explorer as an adjunct to its island-based resort in the Maldives, mainly for scuba enthusiasts. The Oberoi Group also has the eight-cabin Verinda based in Kerala, India, and the more substantial 27-suite Zahra, which cruises Egypt's Nile. Belmond Hotels (formerly Orient-Express) has three river ships in France and Myanmar. Cruise and land packages are often combined into one vacation.
Size Matters: Many different standards are used to define cruise ship size based on the number of passengers. One typical industry breakdown uses four tiers: small (1-949 passengers), mid-sized (950-1,999), big (2,000-2,999) and mega (3,000+). For this poll, we opted for just two divisions among mainstream ships—small (less than 1,000 passengers) and mid-large (more than 1,000)—but the lines are blurred because two of our best performing lines, Crystal and Oceania, have ships above and below these cutoffs. Because the newer ships in the fleets are usually larger, these lines were placed in the large category. The exceptions to the division are specialty niches such as river cruising and adventure ships, which tend to be very small, usually fewer than 100 passengers.
Best Summer Cruise Destination
"The Last Frontier" wowed our panelists with its omnipresent natural beauty, diversity of sights and broad array of cruise options for all tastes and budgets. Smaller adventure ships like those from Lindblad Expeditions and Alaska Dream Cruises get off the beaten path and into smaller ports; while a full-service, luxury experience is offered by the best lines including Crystal, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas. Alaska is also served by such family-friendly lines as Disney. "Summer is your only time to visit this destination that is rated No. 1 by past cruise passengers," says Anne Scully, who is president of the high-end McCabe World Travel and perennially rated among the Top 10 agents in the nation. "It is a very authentic cruise destination full of wildlife experiences with something to thrill every family member, no matter their age." Cruise Specialists' Scrivanich agreed wholeheartedly. "The Great State of Alaska is my No. 1 choice for summertime travel. It's vast and beautiful with considerable wildlife viewing opportunities, and there is an extensive selection of cruise ships and itineraries to consider, depending on one's interests. It's extremely family friendly, with a great mix of shore excursions geared towards visitors of all ages...and air travel is relatively easy and affordable. My recommendation is to plan as if you are going to visit Alaska only once—however, 30 percent of visitors are so impressed that they come back within five years to see more."
Runner-Up: The Mediterranean. "It's like enjoying Whitman's sampler of travel without ever having to touch your suitcase, a great way to get a taste of Europe's finest destinations while enjoying incredible weather," says Chad Clark, principal of Scottsdale luxury agency Chad Clark Travel and a longtime Cigar Aficionado expert. As with the Southeast Asia example mentioned in the opening, Mediterranean cruises seamlessly link multiple desirable ports in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece and more offbeat spots like Malta, Gibraltar and Sardinia.
Best Winter Cruise Destination
South America, Antarctica & Galapagos Islands
Like Alaska, South America wowed panelists with its great variety of itineraries and ships, from explorations of otherwise impossible-to-reach Antarctica to the vibrant cities of Buenos Aires and Valparaíso. Darwin's naturist playground, Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, was high on everyone's list and many experts also mentioned luxury Amazon River cruises. Shore excursions include such wonders as Incan ruins, Iguazu Falls, lush rainforests and Patagonia. "South America offers multiple destinations for cruise enthusiasts to discover," says Cruise Specialists' Scrivanich. "Adventure oriented travelers can cruise the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, or the Amazon River. There are a variety of coastal voyages or one can circumnavigate the entire continent." Chad Clark begs readers not to forget the "incredible food and wine," of Chile and Argentina, and raves about the "five-star Peruvian cuisine" on the luxury 24-passenger twin Amazon River ships, Aqua Expeditions' Aria and Amazon. Mary Ann Ramsey, a 40-year veteran of luxury travel who was named Travel Agent of the Year by the American Society of Travel Agents, describes Antarctica as "A once in a lifetime surreal experience in the most unexplored frontier on earth," while photojournalist Lynn Seldon calls the icy continent a true "bucket list" destination. Not to be outdone, both Mary Jean Tully, Founder and CEO of The Cruise Professionals, one of the highest volume cruise specialty agencies in the world, and journalist Michael Patrick Shiels use "once in a lifetime" to describe the Galapagos.
Runner Up: The Caribbean. A distant second, the region was mainly prized for its weather, gorgeous beaches and easy access, with more focus on the time onboard the ships than shore excursions and sights. "In the dead of winter, there's no better cruise destination than the Caribbean for sublime sun, sand and sea," says Veronica Stoddart, former editor in chief for Travel at USA Today and former editor of Caribbean Travel & Life.
Best Cruise Line For Families
No category was as near unanimous as this one, where the winner was a runaway—and a relative newcomer to the cruise industry. Disney launched its first two ships less than 18 years ago and didn't get a third until 2011. "Expecting kitsch? Not here," says Michael Patrick Shiels. "Disney cruises are surprisingly sophisticated and stylish, featuring gilded, glamorous décor, with a touch of belle epoch and a sense of historical place. The ships, especially the Dream and Wonder, are art deco homages to the golden age of shipboard travel." Despite the fact that it is one of the lower priced lines, and many of our panelists are top-shelf luxury specialists dealing with the nation's highest net worth travelers, their message was crystal clear; Disney knows families. As Anne Scully puts it bluntly, "There is no comparison...they win all day long. Disney gets kids and at the same time takes care of every member of the family. We all find our inner child on a Disney Cruise." Scrivanich asks rhetorically "How can you top having your family greeted upon boarding the ship by a lineup of Disney ‘cast members' and iconic characters?" Luxury lifestyle and travel journalist Becca Hensley, a mom herself, says, "The truth is they just have the formula down and do things right. They can conjure magic in kids and turn adults into children. Who else can claim that?" Cruise expert Fran Golden, who covers the industry for USA Today and Frommer's, says "It's not just about Mickey and Disney nostalgia. This is a cruise line created for families—and adults will have as good a time as the kids."
Best Cruise Line For Adventure
Lindblad Expeditions—National Geographic
"Adventure cruising might sound like an oxymoron, but more and more lines are jumping on the active lifestyle bandwagon as demand grows," says Steve Jermanok, a lifelong travel journalist, author, and founder of Active Travels, a Virtuoso-affiliated consultancy. "A younger clientele has helped transform an industry best known for all-you-can-eat buffets and chaise lounges to one where a weeklong itinerary might include sea kayaking, biking, hiking, scuba diving, ziplining and rock climbing." Adventure cruise ships tend to be smaller, visiting such destinations as the Galapagos Islands, arctic regions and hard-to-reach nature and wildlife. Our winner combines many years as a pioneer in this segment with its more recent National Geographic Society affiliation, putting scientists, naturalists and researchers on every cruise. Cruise journalist Golden says that as a result, "It's not just about hiking and kayaking. You will learn stuff on these cruises." Scrivanich concurs: "I highly recommend Lindblad. There is an entire element to their collaboration with National Geographic in exploration, research, technology and conservation, which provides an extraordinary travel experience. They provide a veteran expedition team onboard every departure. This really is a cruise experience for active guests that engages them in exploration, offering Zodiac expeditions, kayaks, glass-bottom boats and hydrophones."
Runner-Up: Aqua Expeditions. This highly specialized luxury river line has just three ships, two on the Amazon and one on Asia's Mekong River, each with just 20-24 luxury suites and a focus on gourmet cuisine. Anne Scully likens the trips to five-star safaris, while Chad Clark says they offer "a host of off-vessel adventures to suit any experience junkie."
Best River Cruise Line
Tauck and Viking River Cruises (tie)
No category was as competitive as this, with the first six respondents giving six completely different answers, something that did not happen for any other category. River cruise enthusiasts like the complete absence of motion sickness, small size of the ships and access to inland cities and sights, especially in Europe but also North and South America and Asia. "River cruises are here to stay and rival the ocean liners with interested and satisfied clients," says superstar travel agent Anne Scully. "The greatest cities of the world were built on river banks and cruising is an immensely enjoyable and also very economical way to travel in luxury. Viking River Cruises deserves their No. 1 ranking." Former USA Today travel editor Veronica Stoddart agrees, noting that, "Viking is the reigning monarch of river cruises for its exceptional service, excellent and varied shore excursions and the largest number of ships. Its 40 Viking Longships are the largest and most modern in Europe." Tauck was named "World's Best River Cruise Line" by readers of Travel + Leisure magazine, and among our experts, fans applauded the venerable 90-year-old tour company's expert guides and excursions. Top luxury agent Mary Ann Ramsey says, "I have lots of client feedback on their product, and clients love their onboard experience, fleet and guided shore excursions, all superior to the competition."
Honorable Mention: Uniworld and Scenic. Scenic is an Australian company that operates across Europe, but is also known for its trips in Russia and Southeast Asia, where a deluxe new ship launches on the Mekong River in 2016. Uniworld, based in Los Angeles, tours the same regions, as well as China and Egypt.
Best Cruise Line For Golfers
Like Disney did with family cruises, top-tier luxury line Crystal Cruises utterly dominated this category, with only two other minor mentions. Crystal takes a multifaceted approach to golf on and off the ship. Onboard, they have instruction with PGA certified pros, a driving range, putting greens and first-rate Taylor Made rental gear. Off the ship they have excursions to top golf courses and annual specialty cruises featuring golf intense itineraries, usually hosted by former PGA Tour stars. Among all our travel agent experts, Scottsdale-based Chad Clark is the most golf specific, and he notes that "Crystal has a terrific ‘Golf Around the British Isles' itinerary featuring some of the UK and Ireland's best courses, like Royal Belfast and Gleneagles." Cruise Professionals founder Mary Jean Tully agrees and adds that "Crystal offers a lot of golf shore excursions at upscale clubs. It also supplies onboard golf pros year-round, and offers golf-focused itineraries in the Mediterranean, Canary Islands and the coast of Canada and New England."
Best Culinary Line
Oceania took this one by a wide margin, in part because of the line's collaboration with famed French chef Jacques Pépin, whose only floating restaurant is onboard, but also because even the more modest venues and smaller ships with fewer options were singled out for excellence across the board. The two largest ships, Marina and Riviera, boast La Reserve by Wine Spectator eateries seating just 24 for wine-pairing dinners and tasting seminars. They also have onboard cooking schools with dedicated high-tech teaching kitchens. "Oceania clearly wins," says Anne Scully. "They offer such a diversity of dining and quality of service. You can enjoy a top-chef experience in Jacques Pépin's or many other fine-dining options—and their Culinary Discovery tours always sell out." Mary Ann Ramsey agrees: "With nine dining venues Oceania hands down offers the best cuisine for this size of vessel—if not overall. The cuisine is innovative and paired with an impeccable wine list." One after another, our experts praised the line's offerings, and Lynn Seldon adds, "For this foodie, Oceania has the finest dining afloat, and though they don't have as many choices on their smaller ships, dining on the Regatta, Nautica and Insignia is still world-class." Free 24-hour room service is also offered.
Runner-Up: Tie: Crystal and Regent Seven Seas. Panelists love chef Nobu Matsuhisa's Silk Road and sushi bars aboard Crystal, while also praising the line's Italian fare. Fran Golden offers a tip: "You can even order ‘Nobu' as room service if you stay in a penthouse." Regent got accolades for its consistent quality across a wide variety, including a classic steakhouse at sea, traditional French, Italian and Continental, plus a user-friendly spur-of-the-moment open-seating policy.
Best Restaurant Afloat
Le Champagne, Silversea (Silver Wind, Silver Shadow, Silver Whisper, Silver Spirit and Silver Cloud)
"Le Champagne is the only Relais & Châteaux restaurant at sea," says Mary Ann Ramsey. Panelists were especially impressed with how the restaurant customizes its menu by departure to represent a sense of place for the trip, as Mary Jean Tully explains: "The ever-changing menu reflects the itinerary of that particular sailing and provides guests with an enhanced dining experience that features only the finest artisan products and freshest, locally sourced ingredients available."
Runner-Ups: Silk Road on Crystal; Red Ginger on Oceania; La Reserve by Wine Spectator on Oceania.
Best Spa Afloat
Canyon Ranch At Sea (Cunard Queen Mary 2, Celebrity, Oceania, Regent Seven Seas)
"Canyon Ranch is one of the world's leading spa and wellness brands," says Michelle Pragnell, resident cruise expert for luxe Chicago-based agency Jet Set World Travel—and almost all our panelists agree. While Canyon Ranch easily swept this category, experts could not agree on just which floating Canyon Ranch (the famous 35-year-old Tucson-based destination wellness spa has partnered with four cruise lines and nearly 20 ships) was best. The huge Canyon Ranch outpost on the Queen Mary 2 got the most mentions and was repeatedly compared by experts like Becca Hensley, Anne Scully and Mary Jean Tully to a land-based version. Cunard claims it is the largest afloat at 20,000 square feet. In addition to 26 treatment rooms over two floors, it offers a slate of the scheduled fitness classes for which the Arizona original is known, as well as healthy dining options, and a "thermal suite" with steam room, two kinds of saunas, ice room, aqua therapy pool, whirlpool and sensory showers. Interestingly, Celebrity, by far the least expensive of these lines, has the most Canyon Ranch Spas, on 10 of its Solstice Class ships, and these also boast full thermal suites with the same impressive array of facilities. The Queen Mary 2 and Celebrity ships are considerably larger and have bigger spas with more features, but all four lines received glowing accolades for their Canyon Ranch affiliations.
Runner-Up: Seabourn. For smaller ships, our experts were again nearly unanimous in their love of Seabourn's new 8,820-square-foot signature spas (on the three Odyssey class ships), very large for the ship size, which include thermal suites and private spa villas.
Best Line For Shore Excursions
Regent, Seabourn, Do-It-Yourself (tie)
Cruises and scheduled shore excursions have been joined at the hip since Mark Twain's 19th century trip, and just about every passenger does at least one, but our experts were unapologetically unenthusiastic. Regent got kudos for its all-inclusive model with unlimited free excursions, while Seabourn got nods for its smaller sized, more intimate groups and unique partnership program with UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But our luxury agents agreed that if you want to do shore excursions right, you need to do them yourself—or have them do it for you with pre-qualified private guides. Superstar travel agent Anne Scully sells a ton of high-end cruises, but notes that, "I prefer my clients to have private guides to see what they want for as long or for as short a time as they wish...It is hard to view a museum painting with 100-plus other guests. This is clearly an area that all cruise lines need to improve." Another top luxury agent, Mary Ann Ramsey agrees: "All of the luxury lines offer shore excursions, however I work with my clients to provide private excursions, tailored to their personal preferences/tastes whether it be art, architecture, wine or cuisine." Cruise Specialists' Scrivanich also chimes in: "We create extraordinary shore excursions far and away exceeding what is available to the average cruise guests. We arrange our own exclusive tour programs ranging from private, half-day sightseeing excursions to extreme travel requests." One such client was whisked from a ship to landlocked Zimbabwe—just to help complete his passport stamp collection.
Best Line For Onboard Entertainment/Culture/Activities
The Queen Mary 2 was noted for its vast array of traveling experts and productions, Disney got kudos for its family entertainment and Seabourn was lauded for its small group "conversation" series of discussions with guest experts, but in the end Crystal simply could not be matched for the quality and breadth of its offerings. Live Broadway-style plays are put on in a theater, experts from various fields speak, themed dinners are held and guests can learn everything from languages to art. "I believe they have the largest budget for entertainment," says Anne Scully, adding that "Crystal has some of the best talent at sea—their shows are truly amazing." Mary Jean Tully loves Crystal's variety including, "Various highly rated shows and performances, cultural and enriching experiences which include highly acclaimed lecturers. Learn to play a keyboard, how to manage digital photography, learn a language, join their Computer University at sea and become a master of your iPad or laptop. Yoga, pilates or anything to do with well-being and healthy life choices is offered onboard." Jet Set World Travel's Pragnell loved the line's Creative Learning Institute and noted that "Crystal typically partners with well-known names to bring the best possible instruction onboard."
Runner-Up: Oceania won out among foodies, thanks to its onboard high-tech Bon Appetit Culinary Center, with scheduled hands-on classes and a dozen two-person cooking stations. "Capped with a toque, you stand in your dream kitchen, with granite work spaces, pans and implements of the highest caliber, and every cooking utensil you've dreamed about.
Oceania is an epicurean's fantasy," says lifestyle guru Becca Hensley.
Best Cruise Line, Mid-Large (1,000+)
As ships get larger they typically offer more physical bells, whistles and facilities, but service and quality deteriorate. With one notable exception, Cunard and its huge Queen Mary 2, the two to six thousand passenger behemoths that make up the bulk of the cruise industry floundered in the luxury waters, and all of our experts picked lines at the very smallest end of the "large" spectrum. This is especially true for the boutique two-ship Crystal line, which straddled our size division with one ship just over a thousand passengers and one just under, but it was clear its amenities were more than enough to compete with the largest afloat. The Cruise Professionals' Mary Jean Tully says "Crystal Cruises is the world's leading luxury line, having earned more ‘World's Best' awards than any other. Both the Symphony and Serenity offer an unforgettable all-inclusive, ultra-luxurious experience. Crystal is known for its outstanding service, abundant space, superior quality and extensive choices." Luxury travel agent Chad Clark agrees: "Crystal offers the ‘Full Monty'—true luxury on the water with incredible service, food and entertainment." With the exception of spa, virtually every aspect of Crystal was singled out for acclaim by our panel, including cabins, food, shore excursions and onboard entertainment.
Runner Up: Oceania. Oceania's two newest ships are slightly larger than Crystal's (1,250) but it also operates four much smaller ones, most of which have been refurbished in the past year. In all cases, our experts found the ships exceptionally spacious with seemingly fewer passengers than they actually carry, but the one category Oceania dominated the competition in was dining, and it was easily first among foodies.
Best Cruise Line, Small (under 1,000)
Offering the best of both worlds, Seabourn's fleet can get into smaller harbors that bigger ships cannot access, visiting places like Antarctica, yet they pack in a full slate of onboard amenities. The five-ship-fleet is uniquely all-suite throughout and includes two 208-passenger models and three Odyssey class ships for 450, boasting its beloved spas, and two more of these are under construction. "I personally feel Seabourn has the best fleet in the industry with its Odyssey class ships. They have the most innovative public space, the Seabourn Square, a very generous guest-to-crew ratio, and an outstanding space-to-guest ratio. Even the lowest category suites are comfortable and generous in size," says Mary Ann Ramsey. Other fleet-wide signatures include unlimited premium drinks, wine and Champagne, and a marina deployed right from the ship that lets guests swim, kayak and enjoy other water sports on the open sea.
Runner-Up: Regent Seven Seas. This was the tightest category, with Regent a very close second—and practically no votes for any other lines. Like Seabourn, Regent is all suites and on all but one ship every suite has a balcony. But the big differentiator that sets Regent apart is its true all-inclusive pricing, with unlimited free shore excursions in every port of call.
Best Ship, Mid-Large
Just off a $52 million redesign which doubled the number of butler-staffed penthouse suites with whirlpool baths, our experts say it is better than ever. Eighty-five percent of the Serenity's 535 cabins have private outdoor verandas and notable amenities include free 24-hour room service, a casino, full spa, movie theater, Computer University with classes, kids club and extensive slate of onboard experts, lectures and live entertainment. The two Asian dining options are overseen by Chef Nobu Matsuhisa. Mary Jean Tully says, "The Crystal Serenity is consistently awarded the highest accolades along with complete customer satisfaction. The suites, dining venues, public areas and enrichment provided onboard are second to none." Chad Clark adds simply, "It oozes class."
Best Ship, Small
Seabourn Odyssey Class (Odyssey, Quest and Sojourn)
"The Quest is Best," says Mary Ann Ramsey, sharing a near-unanimous sentiment for this category. "With the third Odyssey Class vessel, Seabourn has tweaked this model into perfection. While it is identical to its sister ships, the Odyssey and the Sojourn, in size, the Quest has an ambiance and feel to it that makes it my and my clients' favorite." All three ships are fairly new and feature spacious all-suite designs, 90 percent of the cabins have private balconies, and the two-level spa complex is one of the best afloat. To increase the already thorough feel of intimacy, the ship is broken up into lots of open decks and public areas, with many choices for indoor and outdoor drinks and dining, and all three feature Seabourn's unique marina at sea concept. On top of all this, Anne Scully notes that, "They have one of the very best staffs in this industry...this is a place where they know your name and what pleases you...they make your wishes into reality." The newest Odyssey class ship, the Encore, is scheduled to set sail December 2016.
Best Cabins At Sea
Seabourn, Oceania, Regent Seven Seas (tie)
Seabourn and Regent are both all-suite lines and the consistent spaciousness and quality from smallest to largest was noted by our panelists. Both were applauded for large and well-laid-out cabins with balconies, and Regent got nods for its generous bathrooms and walk-in closets. Oceania received raves for its hotel-like appointments: "Guests enjoy 1,000-thread-count linens, thick cotton robes and slippers, signature Belgian chocolates with nightly turndown service, French-milled toiletries, flat-screen TVs with live satellite news and programming, and a mini-bar with free and unlimited soft drinks and bottled water," says Scrivanich. The line has balconies with 85 percent of its cabins, and our panelists especially loved the suites, all of which include 24-hour butler service, and especially the top tier Owner's Suites, which run the full width of the ship, span about 2,000 square feet and were rated about the most luxurious afloat.
Our Expert Panelists
Thanks to the following travel experts who generously agreed to serve on our panel and took the time to thoroughly answer our questionnaire.
Veronica Stoddart Former editor in chief for travel at USA Today, and founding editor of Caribbean Travel & Life magazine, Stoddart has spent her entire career in travel journalism. She is now a freelance editor and content marketing consultant for the industry (veronicastoddart.com).
Anne Scully, CTC Travel agent to the stars and president of McCabe World Travel, Scully has been recognized by Travel + Leisure magazine as a top 10 Super Agent for years and is one of the most sought- after names in travel planning (mccabeworld.com).
Fran Golden A well-known cruise journalist, Golden is the expert for USA Today's Experience Cruise, chief blogger/contributing editor of Porthole magazine and coauthor of Frommer's Easy Guide to Alaska Cruises & Ports of Call.
Mary Jean Tully Founder and CEO of The Cruise Professionals, a longtime multiple award-winning agency specializing in luxury cruises, and perennial Conde Nast Traveler top pick in the field, Tully is the consummate industry insider (tullyluxurytravel.com).
Michael Patrick Shiels A Michigan-based travel writer and author, Shiels also hosts an award-winning syndicated morning radio and TV talk show and is annually voted Michigan's "Radio Personality of the Year," (traveltattler.com).
Mary Ann Ramsey, CTC, DS Owner of Betty Maclean Travel, Ramsey has been a luxury travel advisor for 40 years, specializing in African safaris and multigenerational family cruises. She was named Travel Agent of the Year by the American Society of Travel Agents (bettymacleantravel.com).
Annie Scrivanich With a long cruise industry résumé, Scrivanich is now senior vice president of Seattle-based Cruise Specialists, a world leader in the field (cruisespecialists.com).
Lynn Seldon A veteran freelance travel journalist and photographer, Seldon has been on more than 100 cruises worldwide. His new novel, Virginia's Ring, was lauded by Pat Conroy (lynnseldon.com).
Steve Jermanok Columnist for the Boston Globe and Men's Journal and author or coauthor of 11 books, Jermanok also founded a Virtuoso-aligned boutique Boston travel agency (activetravels.com).
Ann Abel Former Forbes Life and Luxury SpaFinder travel editor, Abel writes on travel and spas for Forbes.com (forbes.com/sites/annabel).
Chad Clark A top luxury travel agent and self-described "experience junkie," Clark specializes in first-person insider tips, golf and fine dining, as principal of Scottsdale's Chad Clark Travel (chadclarktravel.com).
Becca Hensley An award-winning travel writer, Hensley is a columnist for Austin Monthly, and her work appears in myriad magazines from National Geographic Traveler to Cadillac (beccahensley.com).
Michael Holtz Holtz founded SmartFlyer over 20 years ago, now a leading Virtuoso agency based in New York City with multiple offices. A Travel + Leisure A-Lister the past three years, the firm is known for insider ways to book first- and business-class tickets (smartflyer.com).
David Baum Publisher and editor in chief of the renowned Golf Odyssey travel newsletter, which is critical and ad-free (golfvacationinsider.com).
Julia Douglas & Michelle Pragnell Douglas is the principal of Jet Set World Travel, a luxury Virtuoso agency based in Chicago with multiple offices, where Pragnell is the resident cruise expert (jetsetworldtravel.com).
Stacy Small Former editor of Elite Traveler and Travel Agent magazines, Small is the president and founder of Elite Travel International, a Los Angeles-based luxury firm (elitetravelinternational.com).
Pat Gallagher Our longtime panelist representing the consumer perspective is a Wall Street road warrior, frequent flyer and discerning global business and leisure traveler.
Larry Olmsted Celebrating 20 years of writing for Cigar Aficionado as contributing editor, Travel, Olmsted has also written for Golf Magazine, Playboy, Forbes.com, USA Today, Investor's Business Daily, US Airways Magazine, United Hemispheres & Rhapsody, Men's Health, Outside, Financial Times and many, many others.