These honorable-mention luxury cruise lines are as diverse as the entire span of luxury cruising. One of them, Oceania Cruise Lines, 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 (what you get for what you pay). Another line, Windstar, is my second favorite for the same reasons. Cunard is different because its vessels have many elements of the larger luxury ships -- especially the new Queen Mary 2 -- but they are very large, and almost run a "two class" system; so the luxury aspects of Cunard refer to the more expensive cabins.
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 upper crust (i.e., the higher-paying passengers) is treated on Queen Elizabeth 2 and Queen Mary 2: 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 the "Colonies" 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 "luxury" is reserved for the elite.
It isn't the same sort of luxury as on Silversea, Seabourn or SeaDream, or even Regent Seven Seas or Crystal. The difference is the space per passenger ratio. Cunard's ships are much bigger than our luxury ships. QM2 is one of the largest liners ever built, but she does carries one-third fewer passengers than Royal Caribbean's big ships, the only other ones of equal size. QE2, although about the same size as Crystal Serenity, carries over 30 percent more passengers, and Serenity is the largest "luxury" ship in our collection.
So, Cunard's luxury is that of tasteful surroundings, palatial suites, and an aura of old-world elegance associated with formal dress, high tea, and long dinners with convivial conversation. This crowd is knowledgeable about West End Theater and the Royal Family.
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:
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, but it took a year before it was evident the Renaissance side had won out.
Today, with three of the smallish (30,000-ton, 684 passengers) former Renaissance R-ships, Oceania's vessels are more like floating hotels providing a new destination every day, and great food and comfortable beds at night. Thus it appeals to travelers rather than "cruisers" -- i.e., to people who are less concerned with spa appointments than the city they are in and the tours available. There is relatively little to do onboard in terms of classes or "enrichment," yet it doesn't matter because these ships are highly focused on itineraries and are in port almost every day -- often overnight -- and spend up to three days in port in cities like St. Petersburg.
Oceania does not pretend to be a true luxury line, but it does have many luxury characteristics. Each ship offers true gourmet cuisine in a main restaurant and three alternative dining venues -- none with a service charge. Two of the restaurants have open seating, while the other two (the gourmet "Polo Grill" and the Italian "Toscana") require reservations.
The onboard dress code is always informal. The casino is tiny, the nightclub shows consist of folkloric shows, a dance band or the cruise director doing his Maurice Chevalier impressions. The regular cabins are somewhat spartan; although the beds are sublime, the couches are hard and the TV sets are tiny. The suites are roomier and come with butler service. The public rooms are furnished in "All-American" decor, like the decorator ordered in bulk from Ethan Allen.
How has cruising with Oceania changed recently? We asked Tim Rubacky, a former CruiseMates contributing editor who is now an Oceania executive. "The line is bucking the trend some of the smaller yacht-like ships are bragging about - that of 'younger, hipper (passengers) and shorter (itineraries).' We are seeing an increasing demand for longer and longer voyages, and we are planning deployments so that guests can combine several voyages at a time."
Here are more points Tim made:
Tim said that because the itineraries tend to be so port-intensive, it is easy for them to visit the major ports most cruises offer, but that the 30,000-ton ships can also reach much smaller destinations. "In Europe, we combine marquee ports such as Barcelona, Rome, Venice and Athens with boutique ports such as Kotor, Portoferraio, La Spezia and Monemvasia. In the Caribbean, our calling card has always been boutique ports such as St. Barts, Rouseau (Dominica), Virgin Gorda and Samana (Dominican Republic). And in 2007-2008, we will sail to Australia, New Zealand and Bali."
As a nod to those who want some luxury elements added back in, Tim tells us, "We added new private luxury cabanas on all three ships. We recently created The Perfect Table with new Versace china, Christofle silver and Reidel crystal, and we are redecorating Polo Grill and The Grand Bar on all three ships so guests who have sailed in Europe this year will find the ships substantially enhanced this winter."Oceania Cruises at a Glance:
Windstar is a small subsidiary of Holland America Line, so the policies and procedures on staffing and tipping are similar. A few years ago, both Holland America and Windstar had a "no tipping required" policy, but Holland America now charges tips to your onboard account. Windstar still promotes the "tipping not required" policy, and the web site says soliciting of tips by staff is not allowed -- but most passengers tip anyway, because even though it is not "required," it isn't discouraged, either.
Windstar has three ships -- two tiny sisters, Wind Star and Wind Spirit at 148 passengers each; and the larger Wind Surf at 308 passengers. All 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 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 dining room on the smaller ships. Expect everyone to know you by name by the second day, and the maitre d' will notice who you socialized with during the day and try to seat you with them 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.
Itineraries tend to be full, usually with a port a day, or 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.
Before the debut of Renaissance, the Paul Gauguin and Tahitian Princess, French Polynesia (Tahiti to Bora Bora) was the exclusive domain for Windstar. In those days, people referred to a Windstar cruise with mystical reverence. Today, the ships focus on the Aegean and the Caribbean. In the Aegean, they visit the nicer Greek islands and take you to historical sites like Ephesus and Delos.
In the Caribbean, the focus is more on active shore tours and shorter one-week cruises for the younger clientele. Active shore tours include things like ATV rides, submarine rides, or jeep rentals. Windstar now 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).
What is new at Windstar? Holland America's "Signature of Excellence" has inspired Windstar's own "Degrees of Difference" campaign:
Similar work is scheduled to be done on the smaller sister ships, Wind Star and Wind Spirit, in early 2007. All in all, Windstar is a very fun and exhilirating cruise perfect for young couples and people who like to socialize, get outdoors and enjoy life as it happens.
Windstar Cruises at a Glance: