The Luxury Lines Part 3

| Friday, 24 Jan. 2014

In this article we look at Cunard Cruise Lines, Oceania Cruises, and Windstar Cruises as part 3 of this three-part series. Manyh people would say these three lines do not fit the exact definition of luxury cruise lines, especially in terms of having inclusive beverages and gratuities, for example. But we believe they qualify for a very honorable mention because they often appeal to the same audience.

See "Looking for Luxury - Part 1" here.
See "Looking for Luxury - Part 2" here.


These three cruise lines are as diverse as the entire span of luxury cruising. One of them, Oceania Cruises, is the name I mention when someone asks me which cruise line is my personal favorite - not because I think it is the best, but because it has the combination of elements that fits my personal style, including value. Another line, Windstar, is my second favorite for similar reasons but a different style. Cunard vessels have many elements of the larger luxury ships -- especially the new Queen Mary 2 -- but they also run a "two class" system; so the luxury aspects of Cunard only refer to the more expensive suite accommodations.



Different people have different definitions of luxury. We used certain criteria such as inclusive tips and spirits, generally small passenger loads compared to the number of crew, etc. Cunard is a little different, especially since it still retains elements of a two-class system, a holdover from its glory days on the transatlantic run. There is a marked difference in the way the higher-paying suite passengers are treated on Queen Mary 2 and the two other Cunard ships; the Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. They have a separate dining room and much more posh accommodations (the very word "posh" came from Cunard, referring to the better stateroom locations as "port out, starboard home" for traveling from Britain to India and back).


The upper crust eats in the open, single-seating Queen's Grill on both ships, where caviar, jumbo shrimp and smoked salmon are yours for the asking. Occupants of the lesser category staterooms are relegated to the two-seating Britannia Restaurant, where the selections are fewer. Suffice it to say, with Cunard, true "luxury" is reserved for the guests who have special, restricted access to certain areas of the ships.


So, it isn't the same sort of luxury as on Silversea, Seabourn or even the larger ships of Regent Seven Seas or Crystal. The difference is the space per passenger ratio. Cunard's ships are much bigger than the previously mentioned luxury ships. QM2 at 150,000-gross tons is the largest ocean liner ever built, (although she does carry one-third fewer passengers than mainstream ships of similar size). The two smaller Cunard ships, are about the same size and passenger density as a Holland America ship.


What this means is that the “luxury” guests in the Queen’s Grill and Princess Grill suites get luxury dining and special access to certain outside decks, but otherwise the ships are pretty much mainstream or premium in the same sense as Holland America or Princess cruises.


One area where Cunard does excel, however, is in entertainment. The shows feature up to 30 performers and cover a variety of lofty topics from the works of great West End Theater in London. Each ship has a coterie of actors from RADA, the “Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts,” in London.

If you book one of the high-end cabins, you are on a ship with a large number of people not paying the same as you -- like being in a suite on a premium cruise line. Tips are charged to your onboard account, the wine selection is respectable (but not included in the fare), and the service personnel are not all European as on most true luxury ships.


Cunard Cruises at a Glance:


  • Children's programs: yes
  • Tips included: no
  • Wine & Alcohol included: with suite accommodations
  • Onboard male hosts: yes
  • open seating dining: yes (Queen's Grill only now, Princess Grill soon)
  • large staterooms with balconies: yes



Oceania Cruises is a small, independent cruise line started in 2003 by two experienced cruise line executives -- Frank del Rio, formerly of Renaissance Cruises, and Joe Watters, from Crystal. The first passengers wondered which of those two lines Oceania would be most like, and it took a year before it was evident the Renaissance side had won out.


Today, with a five-ship fleet, the focus and excitement is mostly directed to Marina and Riviera, the two newer and custom designed vessels built for Oceania in 2010 and 2011. The line also still has the three smaller (30,000-ton, 684 passengers) former Renaissance R-ships that it began with. Still, all of the line’s vessels are more like floating luxury hotels providing a new destination every day, and some of the best food at sea and comfortable accommodations at night. Thus, the line appeals to travelers rather than "cruisers." That is to say Oceania loyalists are generally less concerned with spa appointments than the available tours in the varied and unique destinations that the ships visit.


While the smaller ships (Regatta, Nautica and Insignia) have relatively little to do onboard in terms of daytime "enrichment," the newer ships, (Marina and Riviera) have excellent daytime activities, especially the culinary education centers which are the only culinary programs at sea with actual kitchen workstations for each person in the class. You not only get to watch a top chef make scones and pasta, you get to try the recipes yourself at the same time. Each station has a sink, heating surfaces, knives and other accoutrement.


Oceania does not call itself a luxury line, because beverages and gratuities are not included in the cruise fare, but the new ships have many luxury characteristics - especially the truly gourmet cuisine designed by the infamous chef Jacques Pepin. The highlight restaurant on the newer ships is “Jacques,” the first and only restaurant to which Pepin has lent his own name. It is one of the best restaurants at sea, hands down. Other alternative dining spots, which are also available on the smaller ships, include the Polo Grill (for steaks and chops) and “Toscana” for Italian cuisine. The line boasts of having “The Perfect Table with new Versace china and Christofle and Reidel crystal."


The Oceania dress code is always informal. On the smaller ships the casino and the nightclub shows feel like an afterthought. The regular cabins are somewhat spartan; although the beds are sublime, but the couches are hard and the TV sets are tiny.


But on the newer ships the staterooms are among the largest at sea (on average) and especially the suites are roomier and come with butler service. The public rooms are opulent and both newer ships boast an art collection valued at close to $10-million. Staircases are adorned with Lalique crystal, and the furniture looks like it belongs in the lobby of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.


The nighttime entertainment on the larger ships is also very good, even for cruise entertainment. The line features tribute artists and an ensemble cast of excellent singers and dancers. The entertainment is far better than you will find on smaller luxury ships.


Just remember, the focus here is on great, port-intensive itineraries, comfortable accommodations and excellent cuisine. Just one day at sea in a 10-day cruise is not uncommon. The line also features overnight stays in many popular ports. 

Oceania Cruises at a Glance:

    • Children's programs: no
    • Tips included: no
    • Wine & Alcohol included: no
    • Onboard male hosts: no
    • open seating dining: yes
    • large staterooms with balconies: some
    • singles supplements: add 100% to the cruise fare.


    Windstar started as a small, independent cruise line that was acquired by Holland America Line in the early 1990s, so the policies and procedures on staffing and tipping were established and have remained largely unchanged. However, Holland America sold Windstar in 2008 to Majestic America Lines, which went belly-up in 2012. The company was then acquired by a surprise suitor at the bankruptcy hearing; AEG Entertainment, the huge conglomerate that owns several arenas and was backing the last Michael Jackson tour when he sadly passed away. Windstar is more specifically managed by one of the AEG subsidiary companies; Xanterra, which also runs the Delta Queen (the oldest paddlewheel steamer still in operation).



Windstar has three ships -- two smaller sisters ships, Wind Star and Wind Spirit at 148 passengers each; and the larger Wind Surf at 308 passengers. All three have tall masts and billowing white sails, with delightful nautical decor in the cabins; all are very yacht-like. Inside, cabins are dark and romantic, with just two portholes for natural light during the day. The bathrooms are dimly lit with round sinks, a round closet and shower. All shelves have raised edges, in the style of a sailboat, to keep things from sliding off. There is a railing on the wall opposite the bed to hold onto in high seas - even if you never have to use it. This is not a ship where you will ever forget you are at sea, even if you do not have a balcony or picture window.


The service is excellent, especially in the open-seating al fresco dining rooms. Expect everyone to know your name by the second day, and the maitre d' will notice who you socialize with during the day and try to seat you together for dinner.


Expect gasps of delight when the beautiful billowing sails are unveiled, even if they are mostly for show as the ships are motor-driven most of the time. Generally, the sails come out as the ship is leaving port at sundown, and the spotlights on deck give them an iridescent glow as beautiful for the people on shore as for the passengers.



All three ships feature an aft water sports platform with complimentary snorkel gear, sail boats, water skiing, kayaks and wind surfing. The platform is generally only used when the ship finds a warm water cove with little wind and low waves.



Itineraries tend to be very port intensive, usually with a port a day, or just one sea day per week at most. Time in port is generous, and the line will make stops at lesser known places inaccessible to larger ships. At sea, most daytime activity is on the deck, and consists of people milling in the sun and striking up conversations. An outdoor barbeque might start almost by magic and soon the entire ship feels like one big family.


In the late 1980s), a Windstar cruise was synonymous with Tahiti, where it was the only cruise line to sail in the region full time. Then in the early 1990s Renaissance and Radisson (with the Paul Gauguin) moved in and Windstar was forced into the Aegean and Caribbean. But in 2013 the line announced it is returning Wind Spirit to the Tahiti region full-time, beginning in May of 2014. The itinerary includes Papeete (Tahiti), Moorea (overnight), Tahaa, Raiatea (overnight), Bora Bora (overnight), Huahine and then back to Papeete.


Everywhere, the focus is on active shore tours and shorter one-week cruises for the younger clientele. Shore tours activities include ATV rides, submarine rides or jeep rentals. Windstar also specializes in cruises to Costa Rica, where tours include canopy zip-line tours and a mangrove boat cruise where you can see howler monkeys and even live crocodiles (watch those hands and feet).

  • Windstar is a very fun and exhilarating cruise perfect for young couples and people who like to socialize, get outdoors and enjoy life as it happens. The ships have a very nautical feel – more than any other traditional cruise line, but they are not solely sail-powered like Star Clippers’ true clipper ships.

    Windstar Cruises at a Glance:


    • Children's programs: no
    • Tips included: no, but are considered "optional"
    • Wine & Alcohol included: no
    • Onboard male hosts: no
    • open seating dining: yes
    • large staterooms with balconies: no
    • singles supplements: an additional 75% added to the cruise fare, 100% for the owner's suite.



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