Oceania Rivera in Sydney - Photo by Oceania Cruises
Our panel of globe-trotters was grounded on dry land for two days to hash out which cruise lines and ships should take home top honors in our first-ever Cruiseline.com Awards. When cruising is not only your job but also your passion, debates on the subject can get a little tense — but hey, we’re all professionals here, so eventually a consensus was reached. Here are the results in the General Excellence category:
We hate to gush, but Disney Cruise Line won this one with ease. On our last cruise, everything — yep, everything! — pretty much blew us away. Sure, it’s a pricier option than some of the competition, but the upgrades in service and cabins make a big difference. Waiters follow you from restaurant to restaurant and have drinks waiting on the table when you arrive; cabins have bathrooms divided into two spaces. How good is it? Our toddler reviewer sniffed on her subsequent cruise, “This is NOT Mickey’s boat.” It’s so good it has us spoiled.
Celebrity Cruises also earned a top spot with cool offerings like molecular cocktails and a Lawn Club (all these years later, it’s still cool to lie on the grass while at sea). The line's service is also impressive: When we asked our steward how to bathe a small child in the shower, he promptly dug up a plastic tub; when we asked where to wash out bottles, he offered to whisk them away nightly and return them after dinner.
While Princess Cruises doesn’t compete for innovations, the overall quality onboard manages to be high without being obtrusive. Best of all, these ships are always tasteful — an underrated attribute in an age of flash and sizzle.
Oceania Cruises is so chic, so elegant. Its newer ships have the kind of taste level we like to think defines our choices. From the sophistication of La Reserve wine-tasting dinners to the cheese carts at the Jacques restaurant, the attention to detail in the food is paralleled only by the impressive stature of the onboard art collection (Picasso! Miro!), the ingenuity of the artists-in-residence program, and the glamour of the specialty suites.
SeaDream Yacht Club feels more like a resort than many other ships: Beachfront picnics include Champagne served off flotation devices, an afternoon that creates chumminess among passengers. And the line’s creative offerings include raw food menus as well as “unscheduled” late night visits to Caribbean beach bars, something we never thought to ask for.
Azamara Club Cruises may not have the newest ships, but the line does an excellent job of making us forget that as soon as we board: It won us over with overnight stays in key ports such as Madrid and Barcelona (something we always new would make us fall more in love with cruising), where dinner and nightlife start late and sailing out early means you miss, well, pretty much everything. In ports the line doesn’t overnight in — such as Santorini and Mykonos, Greece — ships often stay as late as 11 pm.
This one was easy: Crystal Cruises consistently wows with impressive service and amazing attention to detail. Of course, the décor is elegant and the food unforgettable — especially Silk Road, which gets our vote for best Asian fare at sea. But more importantly, no request, it seems, is too large. Staffers are at their best when you don’t even ask for anything: Express an interest in Japanese cuisine, and you may receive a surprise bento box breakfast on your terrace; mention that the mushroom soup at Prego is your favorite, and it could appear the next night — like magic.
Seabourn Cruise Line may cater to a well-heeled crowd, but these sophisticates are treated to plenty of playtime: Picture a picnic at the water’s edge, with caviar served from surfboards; days at sea snorkeling and boating from the water sports platform that unfurls from the ship; and first-run movies playing after dinner on deck, where you can munch on popcorn under a blanket.
A cruise on Silversea Cruises feels indulgent from the moment you board, but it’s hard to figure out why. Is it the attentive butlers who keep your fridge stocked with favorites? Is it the free-flowing Champagne? The Pratesi sheets, Bvlgari® products, or Belgian chocolates on your pillow? Whichever indulgence speaks loudest to you, there’s no denying the attention to detail.
SeaDream gets a lot of appeal for what it isn’t: Unlike larger ships, these ships have no neon lights, loud DJs, or crowded bars. You'll find plenty of tables for two in the dining room, but the most alluring feature is the Balinese daybeds, which are indulgent during the day but allow for the most seductive moments at night: sleeping under the stars.
At night on Celebrity ships, live music echoes from the atrium, where couples dance before and after dinner. As the evening progresses, they scatter … to the Molecular Bar for foamy cocktails, to the Ensemble Lounge for jazz, or to Cellar Masters for self-serve wine taps. There are also plenty of places — hammocks, egg chairs, daybeds, and cabanas — to grab a moment alone. Best of all: The hot tubs, while full during the day, are yours for the taking after dark.
It's hard to compete with the attraction of French Polynesia, where the Paul Gauguin sails year-round, but Paul Gauguin Cruises does something that few lines succeed at: It celebrates the destination onboard. Sign up for a black-sand body scrub or, better still, a massage on a motu, a tiny private island off the coast. The staff includes Tahitians, the menus feature local dishes, and you’ll find Polynesian dance classes that are sure to inspire a sizzling demo back in your cabin.
Norwegian Cruise Line transformed solo cruising when it launched its single-occupancy cabins, complete with a sleek style any traveler can feel good about and a shared lounge to beat the claustrophobia and to encourage mingling. Now, singles don’t have to pay the dreaded single supplement or scour the ship looking for other cruisers who aren’t part of a pair or a group.
All these decades later, Carnival Cruise Lines remains the best choice of the major lines for travelers who want their sailing to involve either all-day drinking or all-night dancing. While there are plenty of families and other travelers who aren’t partying on these ships, you'll always find late-night revelers in the bars, and — for those who like to groove — the dance floors remain packed until the wee hours of the morning.
Recently, Cunard Line added nine single-occupancy cabins to the Queen Elizabeth, making her the best upscale choice for those of a certain age or sensibility. On this ship, sea days often involve lectures, pub quizzes, and a good book on deck with a wool blanket and a mug of bouillon — all activities the solo traveler can enjoy alone. Best of all, the line has gentlemen escorts, so single ladies are guaranteed to have a partner on the dance floor.
Disney is at its best when serving families: The line excels at keeping children of all ages entertained with exciting activities, like princess makeovers in the spa and shipwide scavenger hunts, while also giving grown-ups adult-only spaces (a pool, a restaurant, a private beach area) for when they need some alone time. Dinners onboard are a hit with everyone: Waiters remember your preferences from the very first day, the food is good, and you don't need crayons to keep the kids' attention — from magic tricks to cartoons, there’s always great entertainment.
Royal Caribbean International’s kids’ clubs are some of the best at sea, and their all-ages activities shine too: Parades march down the indoor promenade, and concerts fill the town square. Many of the line's more adrenaline-fueled amenities (rock climbing walls, roller-skating rinks, zip lines) bring families together across generations.
You might not immediately think of Lindblad Expeditions — which explores regions like the Galapagos Islands and Antarctica in partnership with the National Geographic Society — as a family-friendly line, but it creates excursions that bring everyone together. Grandparents, parents, and kids can share unforgettable experiences like swimming with sea turtles and sailing right up to a school of dolphins.
Rumor has it that the butlers tending to the penthouse passengers across all Crystal Cruises ships are so fantastic that enamored guests have stolen them home to be their own personal caretakers. No matter what level of stateroom you occupy, the standard of service is truly unmatched: Staff members address guests by name and remember poolside ice cream favorites. The consistency might be due to the 15-percent staff turnover rate, the lowest at sea.
On Seabourn ships, staffers are similarly empowered to impress. We once cruised with two babies (not prohibited, but not encouraged), and staffers thoughtfully removed a sofa and replaced it with cribs. Another guest left her dancing shoes in port, and a butler secured a pair from a colleague. Seabourn has one of the highest ratios of crew members to guests — nearly one to one — and, since tipping is discouraged, you have to believe they excel because they enjoy their work.
Disney staffers rigorously train for stints with the line as a career rather than a job. They celebrate Mickey, kids, and taking care of families. Case in point: Parents and children can eat together in whichever restaurant they choose, and the first couple courses will be served quickly so that the kids' club staff can whisk the children away while Mom and Dad linger.
Traditionally attracting more mature passengers, Holland America Line’s high tea and elegant main dining room recall the line’s century of service, as do the string quartets and bells chiming for dinner. But Holland America's newer introductions — including the Pacific Northwest-inspired cuisine at the Pinnacle Grill and the "Dancing With the Stars" partnership — show us the line is facing the future.
Carnival is known for its affordability, but newer ships offer plenty of indulgences: pools under retractable glass that can be used in all types of weather, comedy clubs with top-notch acts, new poolside food choices, and specialty steak restaurants that could hold their own on more luxurious ships.
With kids under 11 sailing for free, and low-cost fares to begin with, MSC Cruises offers a lot of value for families. Best of all MSC Divina, sailing the Caribbean year-round — has all sorts of new watery bells and whistles, including an infinity design, a poolside gelato bar, an aqua park with 150 fountains, and even underwater spin classes.
Norwegian Getaway is the second in its class, and — like Norwegian Breakaway before it — the ship pays homage to its home port: in this case, Miami. Onboard, you’ll find Cuban fare (think black beans and rice, pressed media noche sandwiches), Latin music in a variety of spaces, and a mojito bar with lovely outdoor space. Also, there’s Geoffrey Zakarian’s Ocean Blue (with more Florida fish), an abbreviated performance of a Broadway musical (“Legally Blonde”), and an Italian–American bakery from Buddy Valastro (TLC’s “Cake Boss”).
Princess Cruises isn’t trying to make headlines for innovations with Regal Princess, but just about everything on it is done really well. Whether you dine in the buffet, the steak house, or the Italian restaurant, the food is notably solid, and the service across the board — while unobtrusive rather than doting — makes you feel taken care of just the same.
The first of Italy-based MSC Cruises’ ships to sail year-round out of the U.S., MSC Divina is a departure for the line. Instead of Europeans — who tend to stay up later, eat later, and smoke more — you’ll find an American crowd on these Miami-based sailings. Sure, MSC Preziosa entered service after MSC Divina, but this ship celebrates Italy with a few extras: Look for a gelato bar from famed Venchi chain and a Sophia Loren suite.
The Carnival "Fun Ship 2.0” upgrades on Carnival Sunshine have so much wow factor that it doesn't just seem like a new ship — it seems like a new line. During the day, you can indulge in scrumptiously greasy burgers from Guy’s Burger Joint (everyone else is, after all) or tacos and burritos from BlueIguana Cantina. Sure, the cabins still feel a little trapped in the past, but the Punchliner Comedy Club is so good, we’d be regulars if it were in our town — and that may be the first time we've said that about onboard entertainment.
Look at a picture of the redecorated cabins on Crystal Symphony, and we dare you not to gasp out loud. The word gorgeous never felt so thin: With tufted leather headboards and other modern details, these rooms feel fresh rather than the usual attempt at timeless.
How do you take a Seabourn ship and turn it into a Windstar Cruises ship? Well, first of all, you let go of the idea that there will be sails, or the dramatic unfurling of said sails at the sail-away party. Instead, you celebrate the refreshingly casualness of the line in everything from mealtimes to the decor in public spaces. One great example: At night, the on-deck barbecue becomes a truly outdoor fantastic party.
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