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:
- NCL's Norwegian Gem, Jewel, Jade, and Pearl:
- Cunard's Queen Mary 2:
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:
- 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:
- 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.