Let me be the first to say it: Critics are stupid. They may know all there is to know about a given subject, they may have a wonderful aesthetic, and they may be utterly passionate about their topic, but that still leaves out one thing: irrational human preferences.
It's true. We all like things for which there's no good explanation. I, for instance, have an advanced degree in cinema studies from one of the country's top film schools, yet I just love Adam Sandler movies. There, I've said it.
And as for ships? Well, one of my very favorites is Imperial Majesty Cruises' Regal Empress (www.imperialmajesty.com) which dates back to 1951, has some mysterious smells to prove it, and does an unvarying itinerary (two nights round-trip from Ft. Lauderdale to Nassau) that would normally cause me to run screaming. But what can I say? I have a soft spot for the old gal.
What I'm getting at is, even though we here at Frommers.com might spend untold hours cataloging the fine points of dozens and dozens of ships, then synthesizing that data into star ratings, we still butt up against the fact that you, the cruising public, might just as easily latch onto some quirky old ship for any of a thousand different reasons: a bartender you liked, a really cozy lounge where you had a great evening, a fantastic meal in one of the restaurants, the color of your cabin's bedspread, good water pressure in the shower, a great massage at the spa, a fun itinerary -- or you just went when you were at a particularly great place in your life, and associate the ship with that time forever after.
That's why in compiling this list of our top ships for 2008, I've decided to cheat: Not only have I included the top-rated five-star ships from the latest editions of Frommer's Cruises & Ports of Call and Frommer's European Cruises, but also some that I just love, for various reasons. They may not quite make the numerical grade (reached though composite scoring of the ship's cabin comfort and amenities, appearance and upkeep, public comfort and space, decor, dining options, fitness/spa/sports options, children's facilities, and the ephemeral "enjoyment factor"), but they have that extra something that just makes them special.
So here we go . . .
Top Mainstream Ships
For the past five years, NCL (www.ncl.com) has been building and operating the most fun mainstream megaships out there, and these four 93,000-ton, 2,400-passenger ships are the cream of the crop. Nearly identical in their layout, they offer an incredible number of dining choices (ten restaurants in all), great entertainment, an always-casual vibe, decor that puts a smile on your face, and the best beer-and-whiskey bars at sea. Folks with bucks can book accommodation in the Garden and Courtyard Villas, top suites that offer use of private or semi-private courtyards with hot tubs and sun beds. On Pearl and Gem, hipsters can go to the Bliss nightclub and either lounge on one of its velvet-draped bordello beds or do the retro bowling thing in the cruise business's only onboard bowling alleys. The verdict: These ships are fun, hip, and (amazingly enough) sorta sexy and youthful. (Note: Norwegian Jade is the new name for Pride of Hawai'i, launched in 2006. Later this month it will be renamed and rebranded for sailing outside the Hawaii market.)
Built in Nagasaki, Japan, in 2004, the 116,000-ton, 2,670-passenger Diamond Princess and Sapphire Princess are Princess' (www.princess.com) best ever, with a design that's more sleek, graceful, and streamlined than the line's more visible Grand-class ships while still embodying its idea of "big ship choice with small ship feel." Inside, the nearly identical vessels offer comfortable cabins; woody lounges with hints of seagoing history; understated central atrium lobbies; relaxing indoor/outdoor "Conservatory" pool areas; large Asian-themed spas; covered Promenade decks that wrap around the bow just below the open top deck; and stern where four decks descend in curved, horseshoe-like tiers, creating a multilevel resort area with two pools, two hot tubs, two bars, and magnificent views of the ship's wake. The only thing that keeps these vessels from a five-star rating is their relative dearth of dining options: Even though there are eight restaurants in all, five of them offer the same basic menu (though a steakhouse and Italian trattoria do liven up your options). The verdict: These are probably the most cleanly beautiful megaships in the market, offering a relaxed atmosphere and a gorgeous setting.
Smaller versions of Diamond and Sapphire, the 91,627-ton, 1,970-passenger sister-ships Coral Princess and Island Princess (launched 2003) are big winners too, with similar decor and a smaller size that lets them traverse the Panama Canal. Outside, they offer a clean and flowing profile, with tiered balconies that avoid the typical megaship "wall of balconies" look. Inside, their understated public areas are both classic and modern, with Internet centers and Times Square-style news tickers right around the corner from woody, almost Edwardian lounges. The verdict: Coral and Island offer beautiful looks inside and out, and a nice range of entertainment options and venues.
Though these 91,000-ton, 1,950-passenger vessels are now between six and eight years old, and may soon be overshadowed by Celebrity's (www.celebrity.com) new generation of ships due to begin launching late this year, they're classics. Each one offers elegant decor (including possibly the most beautiful atrium lobbies in the business), incredible spas, great service, edgy art collections, and the best alternative restaurants at sea: Each is designed to mimic dining experiences aboard the golden-age ocean liners of yesteryear. Millennium's Olympic restaurant boasts the actual gilded French walnut wood paneling used aboard White Star Line's Olympic, sister ship to Titanic. Sister ships Infinity, Summit, and Constellation have restaurants themed around artifacts from the SS United States, Normandie, and Ile de France. A highly trained staff dotes on diners with tableside cooking, musicians play elegant period pieces, and the entire decadent experience takes about 3 hours. If there's one downside to these vessels, it's their innovative Mermaid Pod propulsion systems, whose propellers are mounted on swiveling pods attached to the ship's hull to offer greater maneuverability. Great idea, but they break a lot, forcing Celebrity to cancel several cruises to replace worn parts. Nothing unsafe, just annoying and expensive. The verdict: These ships embody big-ship elegance.
Top Luxury Ships
It doesn't get better than Silversea (www.silversea.com) if you're looking for a total luxury experience at sea. From exquisite service and cuisine to such niceties as free-flowing champagne and marble cabin bathrooms, these handsome ships offer the best of everything. With the 28,258-ton, 382-passenger Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper (launched in 2000 and 2001) Silversea set the bar very high for the rest of the ultraluxe lines. They're small enough to be intimate, but large enough to offer classy two-story show lounges, three dining venues, an impressive spa and gym, and some really great suites. Silversea's older vessels, the 16,800-ton, 296-passenger Silver Cloud and Silver Wind (1994, 1995), are no slouches either. Both super-intimate and large enough to have multiple entertainment venues, two restaurants, and lots of outdoor deck space, they've been kept up-to-date with thoughtful refurbishments that have added an expanded spa, new gym, Internet cafe, wine bar, and many smaller amenities. The verdict: These four ships are the most handsome, well-run vessels in the ultra-luxe market -- absolutely as good as it gets.
Step aboard one of these 4,260-ton, 110-passenger yachts (built in 1984/85 but extensively refurbished since) and you're boarding a floating club of mostly independent-minded travelers who cringe at the thought of sailing en masse to the St. Thomases of the world. SeaDream (www.seadream.com) attracts an intimate group that wants to feel like it's inhabiting an exclusive and remote seaside hamlet on some hard-to-reach, difficult-to-spell island, where the food is good, the spa is well equipped, and the drinks are flowing free -- as in you don't have to pay. This atypical cruise experience also dispenses with drags like art auctions, roving photographers, and extra-cost specialty restaurants, substituting instead cool adult toys such as WaveRunners, appealing ports off the megaship drag, pampering service, comfy outdoor sun beds, and the option of having a dinner table set up just for you in various places on deck, with a waiter to drop by and serve you. The verdict: These two intimate ships deliver an upscale yet casual experience without the regimentation, and with a lot of style.
Peter Deilmann Cruises: Deutschland (Five stars)
German-owned and -operated Peter Deilmann Cruises (www.deilmann-cruises.com) offers English-speaking passengers the opportunity to immerse themselves in a truly European experience, from the European boutique-hotel interiors to the fine service, onboard classical concerts, and German-speaking fellow passengers. Its one oceangoing ship, the 22,400-ton, 513-passenger Deutschland, is absolutely idyllic, decorated with an old-world ocean-liner ambience. Cabins would look right at home in a fine European hotel, with their white walls, elegant moldings, rich wooden furniture, and realist European artworks, while public spaces like the Kaisersaal ("Emperor's Ballroom," with its huge chandelier and frescoed ceiling), the homey Zum Alten Fritz Pub, and the elegant Lili Marleen Salon are all a step back in time. Onboard, the official languages used are German and English, and optional English-speaking shore excursions are offered at all ports of call. The verdict: Deutschland is one of the most classically beautiful passenger ships in the world, offering a high-toned European ocean experience to match.
Cunard: Queen Mary 2 (Five stars)
Say what you want about her size (148,528 tons, 2,592 passengers -- impressively huge or oppressively huge), Cunard's (www.cunard.com) Queen Mary 2 is literally in a class by herself: classic yet contemporary, refined yet fun, huge yet homey, and grand, grand, grand. The longest passenger ship at sea and one of the largest, she's also the only real ocean liner built since Queen Elizabeth 2 hit the water in 1969. She's fast (with a knife-shaped prow not seen on many ships today), strong (with extra-thick steel plating and an unusually dense and super-reinforced skeleton to withstand north Atlantic seas), super-seaworthy (with a superstructure set much farther back on her hull than is common on today's cruise ships, to battle high waves), and diverse (with a layout and activities/entertainments that offer enough surprises to fill the five straight days of an Atlantic crossing).
Our favorite rooms? The Queen's Room ballroom on formal night; the classic Chart Room for drinks before dinner; the forward-facing Commodore Club with its old-world atmosphere; and the forward observation deck on Deck 11, just below the bridge -- probably the best spot aboard when sailing out of New York Harbor. Be sure to listen: Way up on QM2's funnel, on the starboard side, is one of the original Tyfon steam whistles from the original Queen Mary -- the same whistle that sounded when the Mary made her first crossing in 1936, and when she carried U.S. servicemen home from WWII. Mounted beside an identical replica, it has a low bass "A" note that's one of the most evocative sounds at sea. The verdict: Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locamotive, QM2 is almost as close as you'll get to experiencing life aboard the great old ocean liners.
Top Small Ships, Sailing Ships & Adventure Cruises
Lindblad Expeditions: National Geographic Endeavour (Four stars)
Lindblad (www.expeditions.com) is the most adventure- and learning-oriented of the small-ship cruise lines, offering itineraries that stay far away from the big ports, concentrating instead on wilderness, wildlife, history, all amplified by guest lecturers and scientists from Lindblad's partner, the National Geographic Society. Lindblad's largest ship, the 3,312-ton, 110-passenger National Geographic Endeavour, is a former North Sea fishing vessel that was retooled for expedition cruising in 1983. She's a solid, sturdy, fully stabilized vessel that's ideal for expedition-style cruising, boasting a reinforced hull, a fleet of Zodiac landing boats, and a video-enabled R.O.V. (remote-operated vehicle) that can dive up to 500 feet below the ice to record the goings-on for passengers. After a $3 million renovation in 2005, the ship is more shipshape than ever as she sails itineraries that range from the North Cape of Norway to the British Isles and the Mediterranean, to the fjords of Chile and the white continent of Antarctica. National Geographic Society experts always sail on board, sometimes to lecture guests, sometimes to conduct research, and sometimes both. The verdict: Top of the mark for well-heeled passengers who are looking for the very best in adventure/learning cruises.
Cruise West: Spirit of Oceanus (Five stars)
Small-ship line Cruise West (www.cruisewest.com) is usually associated with casual, easy-paced, and often nature-oriented cruises for older passengers who don't like the big-ship buzz -- but cruises aboard their best ship, the 4,500-ton, 114-passenger Spirit of Oceanus, are something else entirely. Launched in 1991 as Renaissance V, one of the original vessels of now-defunct Renaissance Cruises, Oceanus is a beauty, offering comfortable public areas, a small gym, a hot tub on the top deck, and decor that's more private yacht than cruise ship. Her cabin are absolutely massive, decorated (like her corridors) in glossy wood-look paneling studded with gleaming brass work. The ship's incredible 12- and 13-night Alaska Bering Sea/Russian Far East cruises make the average Inside Passage cruise seem like a dinner cruise, taking passengers to places that might as well be off the map, they're so remote and little-visited. In winters, the vessel sails to the South Pacific and Japan. The verdict: Spirit of Oceanus is one of the most luxurious small ships in the market, able to sail far-flung itineraries in style and comfort.
Sea Cloud Cruises: Sea Cloud (Five stars)
Germany-based Sea Cloud Cruises (www.seacloud.com) caters to a well-traveled clientele looking for a five-star sailing adventure. The 2,532-ton, 64-passenger Sea Cloud is the real deal: In 1931, Wall Street tycoon E. F. Hutton and his wife, Marjorie Merriweather Post, commissioned construction of the four-masted sailing ship from the Krupp family shipyard in Kiel, Germany, outfitting her as their private yacht. Decades later, she was purchased by German economist and seaman Hartmut Paschberg, who refurbished her for cruise service. The 8-month overhaul restored Sea Cloud's original grandeur, full of marble, gold, and mahogany detailing, and today the ship offers cabins for 64 passengers, the luckiest (and richest) of whom can stay in Post's own museum-like suite, with its Louis XIV-style bed and nightstands, marble fireplace and bathroom, chandeliers, and intricate moldings. The verdict: Sea Cloud offers the ultimate back-in-time experience for the sailing minded.
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