Many of you who visit this web site, as well as people I meet during my travels, have asked me in multiple forums — through social media, on this site and in person — which luxury cruise line is the best? Of course, there is no easy answer, because the luxury lines are all so good at what they deliver. That said, before you reach the final period indicating the end of this article, you will have your answer.
My answer comes with caveats, however. When it comes to comparing the luxury cruise lines, I find the differences between them are as thin as a razor’s edge. After all, each of the luxury lines hangs its hat on the same set of values: 1) superior service; 2) excellent cuisine; 3) plush public areas and staterooms; and 4) exotic destinations.
I’ve sailed on all of these cruise lines in the past few months, and my absolute favorite among them — sorry to disappoint you — tends to be whichever one I am sailing on at the time.
It’s easy for me to say that Seabourn Odyssey is my favorite, but that’s because I was on the ship as I typed these words.
We were anchored in a small bay in Rovinj, Croatia, and just across the bay was SeaDream II. Seeing it reminded me that it was my favorite luxury vessel when I sailed on her sister, SeaDream I, in March.
Likewise, I loved Crystal when I overnighted on Symphony in Stockholm in late June (I’ve cruised her several times), adored Silversea when I cruised the Cloud in July (as I did Whisper when I sailed on her two years ago). And I remained regally impressed when on Regent Seven Seas Voyager for the third time just a couple of weeks ago.
Each of the luxury lines excels in areas over its competitors: Crystal has the best sushi restaurant among the luxury players; Regent, the best steakhouse; SeaDream boasts the best marina.
And though I’m uncertain as to whether this has particular relevance, Silversea pours three house champagnes; Regent and Seabourn only one, and Crystal, pours none at all on a complimentary basis (except for sparkling on embarkation day — update: Crystal went all inclusive in the spring of 2012. See Crystal Cruises’ New All-Inclusive: What’s Being Poured?).
Crystal, in fact, is in another league altogether. Its ships are larger and with two seatings for dinner. The others are all open-seating dining.
All but Crystal offers complimentary beverages, including wine, spirits and beer. And Crystal is the only luxury player where gratuities are not included in the cruise fare. Update: In the spring of 2012, Crystal joined its competitors by going all-inclusive.
So which is the best? First, a qualification. A friend of mine, also a travel writer, posed this question to me: If you had your choice of cruising on any luxury vessel — itinerary, room type and cruise fare are not a factor — which would you choose?
My intuition responds SeaDream Yacht Club. I like al fresco dining — without having to make reservations. In fact, I like a ship where I don’t have to make reservations at all. All but SeaDream require reservations for dining at their specialty restaurants.
I also like being able to sleep under the stars on the Balinese beds in custom-embroidered pajamas that SeaDream provides for its guests. And I like the marina. As I wrote this in Rovinj, SeaDream’s marina was in operation; Seabourn Odyssey’s was not. Moreover, SeaDream’s marina is proportionately sized to guest capacity, and with wave-runners, which I enjoy (Seabourn does not have wave-runners.)
Of course, SeaDream operates the smallest vessels among the luxury players, carrying slightly more than 100 guests on each of its two yachts. Size matters. I prefer smaller ships.
But having intuitively answered SeaDream, I can’t emphasize strongly enough that SeaDream only edges out over the competition by an ultra-thin razor’s edge. You may not care for marinas or sleeping outdoors.
And SeaDream certainly has its detractors. Staterooms have no balconies, bathrooms are small, the vessels lack multiple dining venues. And if you want Broadway-style entertainment on your vacation, SeaDream will disappoint you. What’s good for me may not be good for you. Also, bad weather, and all bets are off: SeaDream delivers a quality experience only in good weather, which is why the yachts sail only in the Caribbean and Mediterranean.
The point that I am trying to make here is that there are no clear winners in the luxury market — except for one, you.
The competition is fierce, and it’s intensifying. Suddenly, with Seabourn Odyssey in the marketplace, there are 450 more luxury berths to fill each day. Silversea introduces a new vessel later this year.
To vie for your vacation dollars, each of the luxury players is offering steep discounts, more than 70 percent off with air included if you book during your cruise on at least one cruise line. Yes, brochure prices are inflated, but make no mistake: Luxury cruises are offering unprecedented values, which in turn creates unprecedented opportunities for you to chart your course and discover which luxury cruise line ranks among your favorites.
I can assure you of one thing: No matter which luxury vessel you choose, it’s unlikely that you’ll step off the ship regretting your decision. They are all winners in a segment of the industry that sets stratospheric standards — and seldom disappoints.