In a seemingly never-ending game of one-upmanship, luxury cruise lines are raising the bar on their offerings – from cuisine and accommodations to onboard service and active adventures ashore – in an attempt to woo new-to-cruise guests while holding onto repeat customers. And fortunately for travelers, this high-stakes maritime battleground shows no sign of abating.
Luxury cruising and expedition travel have, until recently, been mutually exclusive. That wasn’t necessarily by design; it’s just that the synergy between the demographics seeking both types of travel didn’t necessarily exist before. That’s all changed now, as luxury cruise operators like Seabourn Cruises have pushed into the adventure/expedition space with new offerings – once thought to be incompatible – that satisfy upscale clientele looking to relish new experiences in high style and comfort.
The “Ventures by Seabourn” excursions offered on the line’s intimate ships (carrying between 450-600 passengers) typically revolve around kayaking, zodiac rides and hikes, all led by an accomplished, dedicated Explorations Team.
Seabourn’s partnership with Thomas Keller, the only American chef to garner 3 Michelin stars in multiple years, is also a boon to the line’s guests. Chef Keller’s dishes are available somewhere onboard every day, along with copious amounts of lobster, lamb, caviar, prime steaks and free-flowing Montaudon champagne – all included in the fare.
Coming up: Purpose-built, polar-class expedition ship Seabourn Venture will launch in 2022 featuring a helicopter and two, 6-person submarines. seabourn.com
While I can’t necessarily say that covering the cruise industry for over 25 years hasn’t jaded me, I can attest that the experience has inoculated me from marketing hyperbole, such as press releases that make “the best,” “the most opulent” or “finest at sea” claims.
So it was with a certain amount of skepticism that I boarded Oceania Insignia last fall for a seven day Caribbean sailing. After all, Oceania Cruises’ management has long touted the quality of the line’s onboard cuisine as a differentiating focal point, based on a culinary program led by noted chef Jaques Pepin. Indeed, the line is informally known as “the foodie cruise line.”
Happily, this was one case where the actual experience lived up to the hype. Careful and meticulous preparation, along with quality provisions and talented onboard chefs, combine to make dining a highlight aboard Oceania’s ships.
In particular, guests buzz about the line’s specialty restaurants: Red Ginger features bold Asian cuisine; steakhouse specialties take center stage in Polo Grill; Toscana offers an authentic Italian experience, along with an impressive olive oil menu; and Jaques is the executive culinary director’s eponymous eatery featuring his French creations. Another impressive fact: Oceania serves so much lobster that the line buys out 100 percent of the entire production of two Maine lobster farms in order to supply its fleet.
Coming Up: The line recently announced a 2022 Around the World Cruise, spanning 180 days, 44 countries and 6 continents, as the ultimate bucket-list trip. oceaniacruises.com
It’s no secret that river cruising – specifically on European waterways – has been the fastest growing travel niche over the past few years, as unprecedented demand drove river cruise lines to build and launch new ships at an astonishing rate. Guests appreciate the intimacy found aboard the vessels (which typically carry fewer than 200 passengers) and the ability to walk off their ships directly into historic city centers.
In fact, Danube River sailings offer passengers the ability to visit five countries in seven days, comfortably and easily. And while many lines offer similar itineraries, AmaWaterways has achieved the optimum balance of comfort, luxury and destination immersion on its 23 modern vessels.
Spacious cabins aboard the line’s riverboats are outfitted with large, marble baths and double balconies, and each night the line’s chefs and sommeliers treat guests to culinary delights and wines specific to the regions they’re passing through. I enjoyed goulash in Hungary, wienerschnitzel in Austria and pigs knuckles and sauerkraut in Germany – all prepared authentically and accompanied by locally-produced vintages.
AmaWaterways also does an impressive job of providing a continuation of personalized hospitality by sending the onboard cruise manager (as host) along with guests who have chosen multi-day, pre- or post-cruise land extensions.
Coming Up: The new, 156-passenger AmaSiena will launch in July, 2020 and sail along the Rhine, Main, Moselle and Danube rivers. AmaWaterways.com
Regent Seven Seas
As Regent Seven Seas Cruises prepared to launch the $425 million, all-suite, all-balcony Seven Seas Explorer in 2015, Frank Del Rio, CEO of parent company NCLH, described it as “the most luxurious ship ever built.” And while that boast was incredibly gutsy, it was also prophetic.
Typifying the over-the-top luxury ethos aboard Explorer is the Regent Suite, a 4,443-square-foot luxe habitat perched on deck 14. Sleeping on a king-size mattress set that retails for $90,000 and paying a nightly fare of about $10,000, the Regent Suite’s one-percenter occupants will certainly have bragging rights in their social circle.
Meanwhile, the rest of the vessel certainly holds its own in the luxury department, sporting a rich feel throughout with sumptuous touches that encompass linens, furniture, fixtures, lighting and original artwork. Regent’s fares are truly all-inclusive, covering alcoholic beverages, gratuities, WiFi, unlimited shore excursions, roundtrip airfare and a one-night, pre-cruise hotel stay.
Coming Up: After using the “most luxurious ship ever built” tagline for Explorer, how could the line possibly position its marketing effort for sister ship, Seven Seas Splendor, launching in 2020? As “Luxury Perfected,” of course. rssc.com
If there was an award given for the sexiest new ship of 2019, Scenic Eclipse would likely be the unanimous victor. With a sleek, sharply raked exterior from bow to stern, Scenic Eclipse oozes mega-yacht aesthetics inside and out. As the first ocean-going ship from all-inclusive river cruise operator Scenic, the vessel was designed and built (with a Polar Class 6 rating) to enable its fortunate 228 guests (200 in the Arctic and Antarctica) to explore remote regions of the earth while marrying luxury and discovery.
The ship is outfitted with the usual water playthings (zodiacs, kayaks) and e-bikes, but also augmented with the ultimate big-boy toys: two six-seat helicopters (used only in Antarctica) and a six-passenger submarine. The 10 dining options aboard are also designed to tempt adventurous palates. Pretty much everything is included in the fare, except for rides aboard the helicopter ($475/person) and sub ($250/person).
Coming Up: Scenic Eclipse will be sailing her first Mediterranean season this summer. scenicusa.com
Contemporary (aka mass-market) cruise lines work hard to hold on to their frequent guests, especially when those customers are ready to move up to the next level of luxury. In fact, contemporary operators Norwegian Cruise Line and MSC Cruises, best known for their feature-rich, 4,000-plus passenger megaships, have created bespoke private enclaves on their newest vessels that mimic what their luxury competitors offer –but with a distinct advantage.
Guests in The Haven by Norwegian or MSC’s Yacht Club can remain ensconced in their luxe enclave, essentially never needing to venture out unless they want to explore what the rest of the ship has to offer, i.e., up to 15 restaurants, Broadway-caliber shows, lounge entertainment, waterparks, ziplines, go-kart tracks and more.
While certainly not appealing to every demographic, these features work to satisfy multi-generational families whose members have different needs and desires. Parents and grandparents may appreciate the tranquil environs of these havens, while younger family members can take in all the action the rest of the megaship has to offer – then return to the club-like setting to join the group for dinner.
The Haven by Norwegian is the line’s luxe, keyed-entry enclave featuring spacious suites, butler service, a dedicated restaurant, bar, pool and sundeck. I recently toured The Haven onboard the line’s just-launched Norwegian Encore and was suitably impressed. Just behind a nondescript door high up on deck 17 is a serene courtyard and quiet pool inside a multi-story glass atrium – a scene that could fit in perfectly on one of the aforementioned luxury cruise lines.
Coming Up: Norwegian is putting the finishing touches on private, luxury villas and a spa area at its Great Stirrup Cay private Bahamian island. ncl.com
Pampered guests staying in MSC’s Yacht Club receive tailored, 24-hour butler service inside their suites or in the common areas of the club, which include a private pool, whirlpool, lounge and dedicated restaurant serving elevated cuisine. And because of MSC’s European heritage (and Italian focus), the pasta dishes and other international delicacies served in the Yacht Club Restaurant rival those found on other luxury cruise lines and in shoreside fine-dining eateries.
Coming Up: The world’s fastest-growing, privately-owned cruise line, MSC Cruises, will launch 8 new ships between now and 2027. msccruisesusa.com
Follow travel journalist David Yeskel, aka The Cruise Guru, on Twitter.