As Old Man 2005 creaks toward his last weeks and bouncing baby 2006 begins to peek around the calendar's corner, we here at the Frommer's Cruise Bureau have begun to think about which ships have been naughty and which ships have been nice, which will get a lump of coal down their stacks and which will walk away with the Frommer's five-star seal of excellence for the new year.
The results were published first in the new 2006 edition of Frommer's Cruises & Ports of Call, the most comprehensive guide to cruising the Caribbean, Alaska, the Mexican Riviera, Bermuda, Hawaii, New England/Canada, and U.S. coasts and rivers -- in short, anyplace you can sail round-trip from U.S. and Canadian home ports. As in previous years, the grading took into account eight categories of shipboard excellence and averaged the scores to arrive at a composite. The categories are:
- Cabin comfort and amenities
- Ship cleanliness and maintenance
- Public comfort/space
- Dining options
- Gym, spa and sports facilities
- Children's facilities
- "Enjoyment factor," that nebulous feeling that just makes a ship fun to sail
The judging is always difficult, and oftentimes our personal favorite ships just don't make the cut -- maybe they're old and creaky, or their cabins are small, or they offer few choices of dining venue. On the other hand, we realize fully that it's unfair to judge every ship by the same standard -- you can't expect Carnival's 88,000-ton Spirit-class ships to compete on the same playing field with, say, Star Clippers' 5,000-ton Royal Clipper. They're different animals, intended for very different kinds of cruising and appealing to different types of travelers.
That's why at Frommer's Cruises we do things differently than other guidebooks. In evaluating the three main types of cruise experiences -- mainstream, ultra-luxury, and small-ship cruises -- we've used a sliding scale, rating the vessels on a curve that compares them only with others in their category: mainstream to mainstream, luxe to luxe, small ship to small ship. In this system, the big Carnival ships and the Royal Clipper might both receive the same score (four stars, FYI) in recognition of the their standing compared to the other ships in their categories. To account for some of the experiential differences between big ships and small, we've tweaked some of the ratings categories -- for instance judging the small ships on "adventure and fitness options" rather than "gym, spa, and sports facilities."
The Big Winners: Frommer's 5-Star Ships for 2006
All of the following vessels achieved outstanding ratings in all the ratings categories. Here they are, and here's why we like 'em.
- Celebrity's Millennium, Infinity, Summit, Constellation: With their elegant decor, incredible spas, edgy art collections, and the best alternative restaurants at sea, Celebrity's four 1,950-passenger Millennium-class sisters are hard to beat. They're the classiest megaships at sea, combining old-world elegance and modern casual style, and have all the leisure, sports, and entertainment options of the other big ships in their category. Class, charm, personality -- what more could you want?
- Princess's Diamond Princess & Sapphire Princess: Diamond and Sapphire Princess are Princess's most beautiful ships to date, combining gorgeous exterior lines with wood-heavy, old-world lounges, five restaurants, clubby public areas, airy outdoor spaces, and numerous little grace notes, such as a great covered promenade that allows you to stand right in the ship's bow. Though huge (carrying 2,670 passengers) they're also surprisingly cozy and never feel too busy or frantic.
- Silversea's Silver Shadow & Silver Whisper: With these ships, Silversea sets the bar for the rest of the ultraluxe ships. They're the most beautiful, well-run ships in the market, and as good as it gets if what you want is ultra-fine cuisine, service, and suites. The ships are small enough to be intimate but large enough to offer three dining venues, a classy two-story show lounge, an impressive spa and gym, a dark and romantic cigar lounge, and uniformly large suites that are absolutely sublime.
- Cunard Queen Mary 2: Though she's really too enormous to offer the kind of true intimate luxury you'll get with lines like Silversea, Seabourn, or SeaDream, QM2 has her very own niche in the luxe market -- and in the cruise market as a whole, for that matter: Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, bigger than anything that's gone before, and built to sail hard seas well into the 21st century. She's a modern reinterpretation of the Golden Age of passenger ships, and able to give you a pretty close idea of what life aboard the great old liners was like -- a pretty luxe achievement all by itself. Just don't expect a boutique-hotel experience.
- Cruise West's Spirit of Oceanus: The 114-passenger Spirit of Oceanus is an exception to the rule that with small-ship lines, it's all about the destination, not the vessel. Here, you get quality on both counts. Built in 1991 for now-defunct Renaissance Cruises, Oceanus feels more like a private yacht than an expedition vessel. Her huge cabins are the largest in the small-ship world, paneled in glossy wood studded with gleaming brasswork, a motif that continues out in the public corridors. She's got more amenities than almost any other small ship (including large public rooms, a top-deck buffet, a small gym, an elevator, and a hot tub) and the fact that she's built for open-sea rather than coastal cruising allows her to sail really adventurous and exploratory itineraries, notably to the Russian far east and Japan.
- Clipper's Clipper Adventurer: Though she sails infrequently from U.S. ports, Clipper Adventurer is one of our favorite ships, period. Built in 1975 in the former Yugoslavia, she was acquired by Clipper in 1997 and underwent a $13 million refit that turned her into one of the most appealing vessels in the small-ship world, a great mix of tough, go-anywhere expedition vessel and classy, spacious, and beautifully designed cruiser. Her interior has the feel of an old-time passenger ship, while her A-1 ice-hardened hull allows her to sail practically anywhere, including Antarctica and Arctic Scandinavia.
Runners Up: The 4-1/2-Star Ships
Though few ships achieved a perfect five-star score, quite a few came in with a score of 4 1/2 stars, which is nothing to sneeze at.
- Carnival's Conquest-class ships (Conquest, Glory, and Valor) and Destiny-class (Destiny, Triumph, Victory)
- Celebrity's Century class: Century, Galaxy, and Mercury
- Disney's Magic and Wonder
- Holland America's Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Volendam, and Zaandam
- Norwegian's Spirit, Star, Dawn, and Jewel
- Princess's Coral Princess, Island Princess, and sister-ships Grand, Golden, Star, and Caribbean Princess
- Royal Caribbean's Radiance-class ships (Radiance, Brilliance, Serenade, and Jewel) and Voyager class (Voyager, Explorer, Adventure, Navigator, and Mariner)
- Crystal Cruises' Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenade
- Radisson Seven Seas' Seven Seas Mariner and Seven Seas Voyager
- SeaDream Yacht Club's SeaDream I and SeaDream II
- There were no 41/2-star ships in this category.
For full reviews of each vessel -- and nearly 100 others -- dive into the 736-page opus that is Frommer's Cruises & Ports of Call: everything you need to know about the ships, the ports, and the onboard life, updated yearly for your cruising pleasure.
Do you agree with our ratings? Head to our Cruise Message Boards to share your opinions with us and your fellow Frommer's travelers.