If you like things first-class all the way, luxury cruising is your golden ticket to the high seas. Well-heeled guests come aboard the ships of all-inclusive Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn Cruises, and Silversea Cruises for spacious accommodations and perks galore – not the least of which is free-flowing champagne. The experience is akin to being on a floating Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons Hotel, top-of-the-line all the way.
Seabourn's three 450-passenger all-suite ships are all relatively new and impressive in design – the high ceilinged main dining room, created by noted designer Adam Tihany, is a knockout with tall white, billowing curtains creating a sail effect. The older, 490- to 700 passenger all-suite Regent ships and Crystal's 940-passenger Crystal Symphony and 1,070-passenger Crystal Serenity have all had more facelifts than fading Hollywood stars, but the result is an updated, contemporary vibe – on Crystal, we especially love the updated outdoor lounging areas with their "living wall" of plants. Silversea's eight-ship fleet offers luxury in diverse forms, from 100-passenger expedition ships to Euro-design 296- to 383-passenger ships to the particularly pretty, 540-passenger Silver Spirit, with its Art Deco influences.
Our Pick: Seabourn. These ships are downright beautiful. We can wait to see what Adam Tihany does with the 604-passenger Seabourn Encore set to debut later this year.
Food is way above the norm on all the luxury cruise lines, dishes cooked a la minute and special requests handled with aplomb. On Regent, the clubby Prime 7 is a better steakhouse than most you'll find on sea or land. On Crystal, we can't get enough of the black cod with miso and other "Nobu" treats at the specialty restaurant Silk Road, and the food-science-focused Modern Cuisine options in the Crystal Dining Room (where you can also get such classics such as Beef Wellington) amaze the eye as well as the palette.
The sushi from Nobu on Crystal is tough to beat, but Thomas Keller is going to make things interesting.
Our Pick: Crystal Cruises, though we're anxious to see what top American Chef Thomas Keller (The French laundry) will add to the mix at Seabourn, now that he's signed on as a consultant (and will also open a signature restaurant) for that line.
In an upper crust form of democracy, on most of the luxury ships everyone stays in a suite with a separate living and bedroom area (though there may be a curtain in between rather than a wall), and most of the suites have balconies too. Crystal also has some lower-priced starter staterooms. Regent's suites are particularly generous in size and on next year's Seven Seas Explorer, billed as "the world's most luxurious ship," the 4,000-square-foot Regent Suite will have its own solarium and spa (and a price tag of $10,000 per couple, per day). Seabourn's high-end Wintergarden suites are downright sexy with their glass-enclosed solarium with bathtub.
Our Pick: Regent, with some of the most spacious accommodations at sea.
A lot of luxury passengers tend to take it easy, doing things such as reading books and socializing by the pool. But on all the ships you'll find intellectual stimulation with lectures by top-of-their-field pros – the Seabourn Conversations roster includes Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Crystal's Creative Learning Institute presents a near constant selection of lectures and classes in everything from politics to making documentaries on your iPad to learning the Rumba. For those who prefer more relaxed pursuits, Regent shines with its Canyon Ranch SpaClub, while the Seabourn ships have huge spas plus the fun diversion of a drop-down marina from which you can borrow watersports equipment including paddleboats.
Luxury lines don't have the same variety of activities as mainstream ships, but that doesn't mean you'll be bored.
Our Pick: We just wish there was enough time to do everything on Crystal. Seabourn is a runner up, especially for those looking for R&R.
Larger than others in the luxury category, the Crystal ships at night function like floating pleasure palaces, with lively casinos, dance bands, excellent cabaret acts and full-scale show productions with live orchestra. Regent ships get props for their musical reviews and acrobats performing to rock music. On Silversea's largest ship, the 540-passenger Silver Spirit, you can have an extraordinary evening in the Stars Supper Club, where creative drinks and bites (enough to make a meal) come with an accompaniment of live jazz and dancing. Seabourn has arguably the best outdoor dance parties on the high seas.
Our Pick: Crystal wins again.
All the luxury lines roam the world, and since all the ships are relatively small they can get into places not accessible to larger ships. They have a tendency to linger for a night or two in key ports such as Monte Carlo, where they can dock amid the fancy private yachts. In addition to standard itineraries, Crystal and Silversea do 100-plus day World Cruise sailings each year that visit several continents. Regent has extended itineraries such as a 72-day circumnavigation of South America, while Seabourn has been getting into the extended expedition realm including in Antarctica.
Our Pick: Silversea, which visits more than 450 destinations on all seven continents, including with its expedition ships doing such off-the-beaten-path itineraries as the Galapagos and New Guinea. Props go as well to Seabourn for its new partnership with UNESCO – and focus on getting passengers to World Heritage Sites.
On all the luxury lines you've paid for top-level professional service and that's what you get. Order room service and the server will appear with a white tablecloth and deliver your burger (or other choices) on a silver tray. Need a shoeshine, just leave your shoes outside your stateroom door. Penthouse stateroom and suite guests on Crystal get extraordinary pampering from their butlers. On Silversea the butlers (which service all cabins) are like little elves taking care of every detail. Regent's crew is friendly without being intrusive and English-trained butlers indulge these in the top suites. Seabourn's lovely stewardesses tend to your suite and will even draw your bath, and the experienced bar and dining room team call you by name and have an uncanny ability to intuit what you may like.
While most cruise lines have a passenger-crew ratio of at least 5:1, luxury lines usually have a crew member for every two passengers.
Our Pick: Seabourn, where we are convinced some of the crew is clairvoyant – they're that good.
On all the luxury lines, wine and spirits and gratuities are included in the cruise fare, but the cost can still make you gasp. These are not cruises for the faint of pocketbook. Regent fares look higher because they are the only line that is truly all-inclusive – with shore excursions, air, hotels and more included in the cruise fare. The other lines also have periodic promotions that add free air and other perks, so it pays to pick a destination and then compare. The lowest fares you're likely to find on most of these lines is around $400 per day, $2,800 for a one-week sailing (though Crystal may dip lower for non-suite staterooms), $700 per day on Regent. Silversea has good deals for solo passengers, who pay only a 10% supplement on select sailings.
Our Pick: Silversea may be slightly cheaper, but we like the idea of paying everything upfront on Regent. Still, for solo passengers who want to be alone, Silversea is the best bet.
All the luxury ships are geared mostly towards sophisticated adults, but they are not unaware of the trend of multigenerational travel. On any ship, especially during summer vacation, there may be a family onboard, sometimes with nanny in tow. Crystal Cruises goes more aggressively after the family crowd with occasional kids-cruise-free deals and a dedicated playroom for younger kids, plus a video arcade for teens. Regent adds youth activities on select cruises, such as during holiday periods, and also has greatly reduced promotional fares for kids.
Our Pick: Crystal. Can we have a turn on the Sony PlayStation too?
Regent ships tend to be subtle in the luxury realm with the all-inclusiveness enhancing the social aspect – you hang out with the same people on-ship and onshore. Seabourn ships offer a hip environment for people who like to be pampered, and we particularly like that officers host tables nightly in the open-seating main dining room – it adds a posh, social aspect to the experience. Crystal ships are larger so able to bring a little more razzle-dazzle including big-ship attributes, more activities, more places to hang out, really more of everything for modern cruisers who like the best of the best. Silversea attracts an international crowd that appreciates the finer things in life.
Our Pick: You can't go wrong with any of these lines (if you've got the bucks), but looking at the whole package, our pick is Crystal.