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A new year begins in just a few weeks, and with a new year comes a new edition of Frommer's Cruises & Ports of Call, the definitive guidebook to cruises sailing from U.S., Canadian, and regional ports to the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Alaska, Mexico, Hawaii, Bermuda, New England/Canada, and along North America's rivers and coasts. Along with my co-author, Heidi Sarna, I've explored and reviewed more than 140 ships for this edition, and named the top vessels in the mainstream, luxury, and small-ship categories -- which I'll detail for you in this article, but not before we wade through a bit of philosophy ...

The Eyes of the Beholder

The last time I wrote an article in this space naming the year's top ships, I led with a statement that I'll repeat again here, because I still believe it. To wit: 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 preference.

It's true. We all like things for which there's no good explanation. I, for instance, have a well-established love for some pretty clunky old ships (the 1988-2002 Westerdam of Holland America, now sailing as Costa Europa; the former Glacier Bay Cruiseline ships Wilderness Adventurer and Wilderness Explorer, about to be reincarnated with InnerSea Discoveries (www.innerseadiscoveries.com)). I also enjoy Adam Sandler movies way more than I should, and my favorite crunchy snack food is Andy Capp Hot Fries, which I'm pretty sure have no redeeming social or nutritional value. Go figure. We're the sum of our parts.

What I'm getting at is, even though Heidi and I might spend untold hours sailing and cataloging the fine points of dozens and dozens of ships, then synthesizing that data into reviews and star ratings, the fact is that you, John and Joan Q. Cruiser, might have just as good a time on some old rust bucket as you would on one of our high-and-mighty five-star winners. It's all in the personal details: You might be sailing with some great friends, or catch great weather, or meet a nice stranger, have a fantastic waiter, tour a wonderful port, or just be in a particularly good mood that week. That's all it takes, sometimes.

What this all comes down to is twofold: 1) Yes, you should take our word on the ships I'll be describing below as gospel, because we know what we're talking about, and these ships are really fantastic; but 2) don't close your mind to new and different experiences. I've had some of the best cruises of my life aboard ships that I later rated at three stars, simply because in our scientific rating system, the ephemeral "enjoyment factor" is just one of eight otherwise concrete categories (vis: cabin comfort and amenities, appearance and upkeep, public comfort and space, decor, dining options, fitness/spa/sports options, and children's facilities) that together determine a ship's total score.

For all these reasons, then, I've decided to cheat just a little bit: The lists below include not only our top star-getters but also some runners up that I simply love, for one reason or another. Also note that in rating ships, we grade on a curve that only compares vessels with other ships in their segment of the cruise industry -- mainstream ships with other mainstream ships, luxury vessels with other luxury vessels, and 100-passenger coastal cruisers with other, similar small ships. That's why Silversea's super-luxurious vessels seem to be ranked evenly with some of Cruise West's small expedition ships. They're not really even, but in their own worlds, they're each among the best.

So with all that in mind, here we go . . .

The Top Mainstream Ships

Drum roll please! The winners of Frommer's Five-Star mainstream ship ratings for 2010 are:

  • Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas:
The new sheriff in town, Oasis looked good on the drawing board, got better as details of her design and amenities became known, and leapt right off the charts when she debuted last month. Measuring in at a mind-blowing 225,282 gross tons and carrying 5,400 passengers at double occupancy, the ship is nearly twice the size of anything that preceded her, but size alone is nothing special. What is special is her extraordinary design, which opens up the center of the ship to light and air by reconfiguring the traditional monolithic superstructure into two parallel superstructures with a deep cleft between them -- so now, even "inside" staterooms have a view (most of them, anyway), and passengers can choose to dine al fresco in a lush tropical garden. A remarkable, diffused layout keeps things from getting too crowded in any one section of the ship, and upscale touches throughout nudge the experience above the always-solid Royal Caribbean norm. For more on the vessel, see the five (and counting) "A Walk Around Oasis of the Seas" articles I've posted on my Cruise Blog over the past month. (www.royalcaribbean.com).
  • Celebrity's Solstice class (Solstice, Equinox): Introduced in 2008 and 2009, the 122,000-ton, 2,850-passenger Solstice and Equinox are the kinds of ships that might finally make naysayers forget that they think all cruise ships are cheesy. Beautiful to look at, with an exterior shape that recalls the recent Cadillacs, interiors that are unusually spacious and lofty, and modern art collections that push the envelope way beyond the cruise ship norm, they also offer some first: the first real grass lawn growing on a ship's deck (the Lawn Club, a recreation area growing fifteen decks above the sea), the first use of solar power on a ship (via 216 solar panels that generate enough power to juice an elevator bank), the first time ship cabins have specifically been designed for women's needs, etc. Add in four specialty restaurants, a pool deck that's among the most elegant and serene in the business, and a number of distinctive bars and lounges, and there you have it: These ships are class acts. (www.celebrity.com).
  • NCL's Norwegian Gem, Jewel, Jade, and Pearl:
  • NCL's best ships yet (though the new Norwegian Epic, due in May 2010, might just show them up), these four nearly identical vessels combine an incredible number of dining choices, great entertainment, an always-casual vibe, and a decor and ambience that are just plain fun. They have the best beer-and-whiskey bars at sea, some of the best entertainment, comfortable cabins, and an overall feel that's more contemporary than the competition. I've been calling them "Megaships for Generations X and Y," and I stick by that. Out with the napkin folding, in with the new. (www.ncl.com).
  • Cunard's Queen Mary 2:
  • Too big to be strictly luxury and too distinctive to be strictly mainstream, QM2 has her very own niche in the cruise world. With two classes on board -- the hoity-toity luxury "Grill Class" with its own special suites, restaurants, and lounges, and the normal areas for everybody else -- this supersized ship gives you a pretty good idea of what life was like aboard the old-time, multi-class ocean liners. And she even looks like one of them, at least on the inside. Built Ford-tough to withstand storms on the north Atlantic on her regular transatlantic voyages, she's a greyhound in an industry of black labs. (www.cunard.com).
  • Celebrity's Millennium class (Millennium, Constellation, Infinity, Summit): Though not as flagrantly beautiful or cutting edge as Celebrity's newer Solstice-class ships, these four vessels, all launched between 2000 and 2002, are still mighty fine. Each offers elegant interiors, large spas and theaters, and some of the most distinctive alternative restaurants in the cruise market, each centered around architectural elements and artifacts from early 20th century liners. Millennium's very Edwardian Olympic restaurant, for instance, features hand-carved walnut wall panels from the A La Carte restaurant on Titanic's sister ship, Olympic. The menu includes Olympic's original Waldorf Pudding recipe, and musicians perform period music. It's time-machine wonderful. (www.celebrity.com).

    Close Mainstream Runners Up

    The vessels below are so close to being five-star ships that we more or less think of them that way, though their ratings in our book come in at 4½ stars. Picky, picky . . .
    • Princess's Diamond class and Grand class:
    Personally, I think Princess's huge but cozy Diamond Princess and Sapphire Princess are the line's most beautiful ships to date, combining gorgeous exteriors with wood-heavy, old-world lounges and a great covered promenade that lets you walk right to the ship's prow. Princess has, however, been concentrating more in recent years on its newer Grand-class ships -- Caribbean Princess, Crown Princess, Emerald Princess, and Ruby Princess -- which are similar in layout and amenities, if slightly different of look and aspect. They're all fantastic ships, and you can't go wrong booking any of them. (www.princess.com).
  • Royal Caribbean's Radiance class: The most traditional of the vessels Royal Caribbean has produced over the past decade, Radiance, Brilliance, Serenade, and Jewel of the Seas combine sleek, seagoing exteriors with nautically themed interiors and acres of windows. If the "city at sea" vibe of Oasis and Royal's Freedom-class and Voyager-class ships isn't for you, these more traditional ships might be. (www.royalcaribbean.com).
  • The Top Luxury Ships

    For the cruiser who has (and wants) everything, we present Frommer's Five-Star luxury ships for 2010:
    • Seabourn's Seabourn Odyssey: Launched this past June, Seabourn's first newbuild in two decades is simply stunning. Much larger than the line's earlier 208-passenger ships, this 32,000-ton, 450-guest beauty uses her extra space to great advantage, most notably with wonderful public spaces (especially the dining spots), a very high passenger-space ratio, and the addition of balconies on virtually every suite. (www.seabourn.com).
    • Silversea's Silver Cloud, Silver Wind, Silver Shadow, and Silver Whisper: Silversea is the best of the highbrow luxury lines, with its exquisite cuisine, roomy suites, and innumerable all-inclusive niceties. That, coupled with a nicely understated, fine-tuned sense of design and service, guarantees all of its 296- and 382-passenger ships a five-star rating -- and it's also why we expect the brand-new Silver Spirit, which Silversea will accept from the shipyard on December 12 and debut to the public on December 23, will also garner our highest rating. (www.silversea.com).

    Close Luxury Runners Up

    • SeaDream Yacht Club's SeaDream I and II: What's not to love? Step aboard one of these 4,260-ton, 110-passenger yachts (built in 1984Â?85 but extensively refurbished since) and you're boarding a floating club where everything's included, ports are appealingly off the megaship drag, service is super-pampering, and the cuisine is fine, fine, fine. The ships' small size means things are flexible: If you want, for instance, you can have a dinner table set up just for you in various places on deck, with a waiter to make sure things are up to par. (www.seadreamyachtclub.com).

    The Top Small Ships

    • Sea Cloud Cruises' Sea Cloud and Sea Cloud II: Germany-based Sea Cloud Cruises caters to a well-traveled clientele looking for a classic sailing vacation. The four-masted, 2,532-ton, 64-passenger Sea Cloud is an antique with pedigree, having been commissioned in 1931 by Wall Street tycoon E. F. Hutton and his wife, Marjorie Merriweather Post. She was rebuilt for luxury cruising in 1978-80 and now offers cabins and suites 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, chandeliers, and intricate moldings. The larger, three-masted Sea Cloud II is a new vessel built in 2001 in the same general vein as Sea Cloud, with rich detailing. (www.seacloud.com).
    • Cruise West's Spirit of Oceanus: The very best ship in the fleet of small-ship operator Cruise West, the 4,500-ton, 114-passenger Spirit of 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. Built in 1991 for long-defunct Renaissance Cruises, she's about to embark on her first world cruise, an 11-month circumnavigation sailing round-trip from Singapore and visiting 242 ports in 59 countries. (www.cruisewest.com).

    Close Small-Ship Runners Up

    • Star Clippers' Royal Clipper:
    Star Clippers' biggest and poshest ship to date, this square-rigged, 227-passenger clipper is a sight to behold, and boasts more luxurious amenities than the line's older ships: roomier cabins, marble bathrooms, a stunning three-level dining room, a small gym and spa, and three pools. With five masts flying 42 sails that together stretch to 56,000 square feet, Royal Clipper is powerful too, able to achieve 20 knots under sail power only, and 14 knots under engine power. Everywhere are reminders that you're on a real sailing ship: the web of ropes and cables stretched between masts and deck, the winches, the brass bells and wooden barrels, the chunky anchor chains. (www.starclippers.com).
  • Windstar's Wind Surf: The 312-passenger Wind Surf is a sleek, sexy, super-smooth sailing ship with an intimate, yacht-like ambience, offering a casual-luxe experience at prices well below the normal luxe standard. Up top, her five masts fly computer-controlled staysails that furl and unfurl at the touch of a button, and can work alone or in concert with the ship's diesel engines. Below, she offers nautically designed cabins, a large spa, several comfortable lounges, and an always-casual ambience. Unlike almost any ship today, she mimics the size and flavor of some older, more intimate ocean liners, with a real seagoing feel that's rare among today's breed of cruise ships. She's also hella romantic -- pretty much ideal for a honeymoon, especially in the Mediterranean. (www.windstarcruises.com).
  • Lindblad Expeditions' National Geographic Endeavour: Though she's not covered in Frommer's Cruises & Ports of Call (because she doesn't typically sail from U.S. or Canadian ports), I just couldn't not include the flagship of Lindblad Expeditions, 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, and history, its trips are amplified by guest lecturers and scientists from the National Geographic Society, for which Lindblad is the official cruise line. The 3,312-ton, 110-passenger Endeavour is a former North Sea fishing vessel that was retooled for expedition cruising in 1983. She's solid, sturdy, fully stabilized, and costs a mint to sail aboard -- but that's the price you pay (literally) for the best. www.expeditions.com.