The Evolution of Small Ship Luxury Cruising

From brand-new ships to purposeful refurbishments, small ship luxury cruising is evolving at a breakneck pace. No longer content with merely being small and intimate, luxury cruise lines – including Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn and Silversea are beginning to innovate as well. They are adding features and amenities that would leave Royal Caribbean (a prolific innovator on the mainstream side of things) drooling. And they’re pushing farther and farther into the world of expedition cruising, with ships being designed and retrofitted for service in some of the world’s most remote places.

Silver Cloud as Expedition vessel. Luxury line Silversea announced a full conversion of Silver Cloud into an ice-class expedition ship to debut in November 2017. Rendering courtesy of Silversea

Silversea is leading the charge in a big way this November, when a multi-month refurbishment of the Silver Cloud transforms Silversea’s first ship into a full-fledged, ice-rated expedition ship. Updated with similar décor and colors to the recently-launched Silver Muse, she’ll divide her time between Antarctica and the Arctic.

In addition to repurposing Silver Cloud, Silversea will also be putting Silver Spirit under the knife. The ship, which was built in 2009, will be cut in half so that a new 49-foot midsection can be added to the ship at Fincantieri’s shipyard in Palermo, Italy. The massive refit will not only add new suites to the ship, but her decor will be brought in line with Silversea’s new look that debuted aboard Silver Muse earlier this year.

Silver Muse was transformative for Silversea. In addition to ushering in a newer, brighter decor scheme, she also added more of Silversea’s popular Silver Suite category of accommodations, in addition to new dining venues, an expanded pool deck, and vastly enlarged public areas.  Silversea is gradually refitting its existing fleet in order to “Muse-ize” them; Silver Whisper and Silver Wind will receive their cosmetic makeovers this winter, which will result in new soft furnishings in most public rooms and suites throughout.

A new vessel, Silver Moon, is slated to debut in 2020. A direct sister to Silver Moon, she’ll expand Silversea’s classic fleet of luxury ships, allowing the line to offer more itineraries worldwide aboard its newest vessels.

Launched in 2017, Seabourn Encore is Seabourn’s largest and most lavish ship to-date. Photo courtesy of Seabourn.

New ships are on the horizon for Seabourn as well, with the launch of Seabourn Ovation next spring. She’ll be a sister to the highly-successful Seabourn Encore, which debuted this past year in Singapore. It’s been a busy year for Seabourn as well, with the inauguration of the company’s first cruises to Alaska in nearly two decades, and the expansion of the line’s Ventures by Seabourn product over more destinations and ships in the fleet. The program adds expedition-like features that were first developed for the line’s Antarctic voyages, including the benefit of having a full onboard expedition team in destinations where it is appropriate, in destinations such as Alaska.

Over the past few years, Seabourn has been expanding its luxury partnerships significantly. These have, in turn, contributed to making the onboard experience with Seabourn even more lavish. A partnership with Sir Tim Rice, for example, created one of the best musical production shows we’ve seen at sea, An Evening With Sir Tim Rice. It’s exclusive to Seabourn, and has helped to substantially raise the bar on the line’s entertainment offerings with shows that are truly Broadway-quality.

Seabourn has also partnered with multi-Michelin-starred Chef Thomas Keller to offer what has become one of its most popular specialty restaurants, The Grill by Thomas Keller. The noted chef behind a trio of Michelin-starred restaurants – The French Laundry, Per Se, and Bouchon – Keller has also introduced new specialty menus for the ship’s main dining room. Dining at one of Keller’s restaurants on land would set you back a considerable amount; aboard Seabourn, reservations at The Grill are complimentary.

Still basking in the luxurious glow of Seven Seas Explorer, Regent Seven Seas will add a new, as-yet-unnamed sister to its fleet in 2020. Until then, Regent has been hard at work refitting the rest of its luxury fleet with new features, amenities and décor, transforming some of its best-loved ships into brand-new experiences.

Seven Seas Explorer was a major win for Regent. The most lavish ship built for the line to-date (and the most luxurious in the world, if you believe the marketing department), Seven Seas Explorer raised the bar on what constitutes luxury cruising. The over-the-top ship is beautifully done, with some 2,500 pieces of artwork and nearly 500 chandeliers onboard; perfect for complementing a swooping grand staircase that looks like it belongs at the base of a European palace. Much to-do has been made about the ship’s 412 square metre (4,443 square foot) Regent Suite, with its two private balconies, two bedrooms, two-and-a-half bathrooms, three walk-in closets, custom-built Steinway piano, and its $150,000 Savoir No.1 bed.

Crystal Endeavor sets sail in 2019. Rendering courtesy of Crystal Cruises

Crystal Cruises innovated in an entirely different way, sending the massive (relatively, by luxury ship standards) Crystal Serenity through the Northwest Passage in 2016 and 2017. Crystal’s ethos has been to offer guests what other lines can’t, and these high-value, bucket-list voyages have proven to be just that.

Crystal also has an ambitious newbuild plan in place that calls for three, 25,000-GT luxury expedition vessels to debut between 2019 and 2021. It will also introduce its new “Crystal Exclusive Class” ship, at 100,000-GT, in March of 2022.

With space for 1,000 guests, Crystal’s new Exclusive Class ships will be in-line with Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony size-wise, but will feature an almost unheard-of passenger to space ratio of 100. Most luxury ships have a passenger-space ratio around 60 or 70, which can be derived by dividing the number of guests by the tonnage of the ship. In layman’s terms, it will feel like you actually own the ship.

In fact, you can own the ship – sort of. Crystal’s Exclusive Class will be the first opportunity that guests will have to call a Crystal ship “home,” thanks to new innovative Crystal Residences that will be available for purchase. Located on the top deck of the ship, 48 of these homes will be up for grabs, complete with their own private restaurant, reception and other facilities. They’ll also sport nine-foot-high ceilings, and will start at 55.7 square metres (600 square feet), with the largest Crystal Residence topping out at 371 square metres (4,000 square feet).

Hapag-Lloyd Hanseatic
Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ 5-star expedition vessel HANSEATIC cruises both the Arctic and Antarctica. She will be replaced by Hanseatic Nature and Hanseatic Inspiration. Photo courtesy Hapag-Lloyd Cruises.

Soon, these lines will be joined by even more high-end competition. Hapag-Lloyd Cruises is in the process of building two dedicated luxury expedition ships, Hanseatic Nature and Hanseatic Inspiration. One will be dedicated to the German-speaking market, while the other will feature a full program of bilingual cruises in German and English.

Another line making its luxury debut is Scenic, which will unleash its high-tech Scenic Eclipse in August of 2018. Dubbed “The World’s First Ocean Discovery Yacht,” Scenic Eclipse will be the first oceangoing vessel for the Australian-based company, which has for many years offered land and luxury river cruise tours. Purpose-built for the world’s polar regions, Scenic Eclipse will feature two helicopters and an onboard submarine. Both will carry an additional charge, which is perhaps no surprise given their unique nature, but these toys would typically only be found aboard more traditional icebreakers like Quark’s Kapitan Khlebnikov: real working ships with few creature comforts.

Vking Sea Honningsvag
Viking Sea docked in Honningsvag. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle

Though the line is hesitant to use the word “luxury,” Viking Cruises’ oceangoing ships deserve to be mentioned alongside the likes of Crystal, Silversea, Regent and Seabourn. Though they may not be all-inclusive, Viking’s ships are slowly but surely pushing into the luxury category. Viking Star and her three sister-ships have bars filled with vintage Armagnacs; low passenger counts for their size; and spacious staterooms, not to mention a multitude of no-fee specialty dining options, inclusive excursion options, free onboard WiFi for all, and onboard lectures that give other lines a run for their money.

All told, the luxury cruise of the future isn’t just about lavish amenities or doting service. It is about providing some of cruising’s most discerning guests with experiences that simply cannot be had anywhere else.

Check out, 7 Reasons Why Viking Sea May Just Be The Best Ship Sailing – And 1 Reason Why It Is Not

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