The moment you step aboard a luxury cruise ship, a hostess is at your arm proffering a glass of bubbly while a capable room steward offers to heft your carry-on as he escorts you to what will be your home-away-from-home for the next few days. You stow your things (likely in a walk-in closet) and then emerge from your suite to get the lay of the ship. As you walk the decks, friendly crew members greet you ... by name. How can that be? You just set foot onboard!
First-class, personalised service is just one of the hallmarks of luxury cruise lines. You can also expect exotic itineraries, varying degrees of inclusivity in pricing, fine wines and gourmet cuisine as well as universally high crew-to-passenger ratios.
That being the case, you might think any old luxury cruise ship will do, but that's not quite true. Like people, cruise ships have their own unique personalities -- and some will be more suited to your holiday style than others. Lines like SeaDream might not offer the most spacious suites, but their intimate yachts can stealthily visit ports that large ships can't manage. Regent Seven Seas and Oceania Cruises are owned by the same parent company but Regent offers a completely inclusive holiday experience, while Oceania draws travellers with a more independent streak.
Take a look at Cruise Critic's list of best luxury cruise lines and ships to see which one resonates with you.
1. Seven Seas Explorer
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 750 to 542
About the Ship: As the flagship for the line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises' palatial Seven Seas Explorer exemplifies the hallmarks of exquisite cuisine and the super all-inclusivity for which Regent is known. If you're looking for extraordinary accommodations at sea, look no further than this ship. All cabins are suites, and if you love balconies, Seven Seas Explorer features some of the largest in the industry, ranging from 55 to 995 square feet. Likewise, the public spaces are stunning. The ship features an enormous amount of granite and marble (half of it is Carrara) plus almost 500 chandeliers made of Czech crystal and glass. Art-lovers will enjoy the 2,500 pieces of art displayed throughout the vessel, including some specially commissioned paintings by Spanish artist Eduardo Arranz-Bravo and works by masters, such as Picasso.
Fares include business-class intercontinental flights, as well as premium alcohol, wine, spirits, beer, soda, water and sports drinks plus all dining (with at least one meal at every speciality restaurant onboard), unlimited Wi-Fi, unlimited shore excursions (though there is also a list of upgraded tours with a la carte pricing) and gratuities.
Who Sails This Ship: The passenger mix skews to English speakers: mainly Americans and Canadians, with some travellers from Australia and the UK mixed in. Nearly all are 60 or older and incredibly well travelled -- especially when it comes to cruising. Many are Regent repeaters. You won't see many children or families, with the exception of summer and holiday sailings when the little ones are travelling with their parents and/or grandparents.
2. Crystal Serenity
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 1,070 to 655
About the Ship: Crystal Serenity offers a solid enrichment program that regularly hosts well-known authors, politicians and other experts and luminaries (think astronauts and members of the military) as guest speakers. American Contract Bridge League instruction is available on all sailings, and many tournaments take place throughout the year. PGA golf pros are also onboard many sailings to share their expertise. Travellers get the sense that Crystal Cruises will do all it can to provide access to the most interesting and knowledgeable people in the world.
The ship also excels when it comes to its entertainment options. If you love listening to music in the lounge or enjoying a show, Crystal Serenity will thrill you. You'll come across performers all over the ship -- from a classical quartet playing during afternoon tea service to a jazz or Broadway singer in the lounge as you sip a pre- or post-dinner cocktail. After dinner, there's karaoke and dancing at Pulse Disco. And if you love ballroom dancing, you can do so at Palm Court and even find a gentleman host dance partner if you're travelling alone or with a companion that has two left feet. Broadway-style productions are staged at the Galaxy Lounge, and the casino -- conveniently located on the way to the theatre -- has a respectable number of gaming tables and slots.
Dining is also an area that excels onboard. The main dining venue, the Crystal Dining Room, is elegant yet comfortable and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are two speciality restaurants: Silk Road (with the Sushi Bar located within) and Prego. Chef Nobu Matsuhisa is the culinary mind behind Silk Road, and its Asian-fusion menu and sushi keep cruisers coming back for more. (Passengers get one complimentary meal at each speciality restaurant, and additional reservations may be available for $30 per person.) Even the ship's Bistro coffee bar and Lido Cafe buffet exceed expectations.
Who Sails This Ship: Crystal Cruises feels more formal than the other luxury cruise lines, attracting a crowd of retirees and older professionals. You will sometimes see families with children on this line; as far as luxury lines go, it's a popular option for grandparents travelling with grandchildren as well as multigenerational gatherings. North American passengers are the norm, though you'll often meet Australians and Brits on the line as well, and sometimes a few people from other European countries.
3. Oceania Riviera
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 1,250 to 800
About the Ship: Riviera is known for its myriad dining venues, including complimentary speciality restaurants. Dining venues include the Grand Dining Room and other favourites like Jacques, a French bistro with menus designed by famed chef Jacques Pepin; Polo Grill, a refined steakhouse serving USDA prime and dry-aged beef; the Italian restaurant Toscana, where tables are set with custom-designed Versace china; and Red Ginger, which serves Asian classics. Two very special, intimate dining options are also offered for a fee. Each evening, 24 passengers can enjoy a seven-course meal at La Reserve by "Wine Spectator." As you can imagine, the wine pairings are of special note there. Three menus are available, starting at $95 per person. Privee is an even more exclusive option and can be reserved for up to 10 people for a fee of $250 per evening. Dinner from either Polo Grill or Toscana is included in the price, but wine is not.
Foodies might also wish to pay a visit to the well-equipped Culinary Center onboard Riviera. It's a self-contained cooking school at sea that offers a hands-on experience at 12 individual cooking stations (two people per station). Classes focusing on a variety of topics do incur an extra fee, but get rave reviews from participants.
This is also the ship for anyone wishing to book a suite: There are 147 of them in various configurations. The 2,000-square-foot Owner's Suites are knockouts, featuring Ralph Lauren furnishings throughout the living rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms. Oceania sweetens the suite pot by offering extra amenities including priority 11 a.m. check-in, priority luggage delivery, 24-hour butler service, priority online speciality restaurant reservations, unlimited access to the Canyon Ranch SpaClub's private Spa Terrace and much more. The perks make a suite worth considering.
Oceania Cruises' pricing structure is more a la carte than all-inclusive, but the line's OLife Choice and OLife Ultimate promotions on select itineraries level the cruise-fare field with offerings such as free airfare from certain gateways, unlimited Internet plus one or more perks like six shore excursions, a House Beverage Package and/or shipboard credit.
Who Sails This Ship: Expect to see a 65+ crowd on Riviera with the exception of its shorter voyages, which draw younger holidaymaking professionals. Most cruisers are American or Canadian, but you will encounter some Australians, Brits and travellers from other European countries. You won't find many families sailing, except on holiday or summertime itineraries, or in Alaska where the line offers the Alaska Explorer Youth Program.
4. Viking Star
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 930 to 550
About the Ship: Like Oceania, Viking Ocean Cruises is more of an upper-premium line, but you'll find plenty to love about the cruise fares, which includes transfers, complimentary wine and beer at lunch and dinner, no-fee speciality restaurants and free unlimited Internet.
The line programs interesting lectures that teach travellers about the region in which the ship is sailing, but other daytime activities are limited. Likewise, the ship is fairly quiet at night with no casino and limited entertainment options. The line doesn't cater to families; no one under the age of 16 can sail with Viking. While the line won't be right for everything, Viking Ocean Cruises is gaining ground for curious travellers who want a beautiful new ship, excellent service and plenty of time to focus on the ship's ports of call.
All accommodations include balconies, and the tightest quarters -- the Deluxe Veranda and the Veranda categories -- are comfortably sized at 270 square feet. Larger accommodations include the Penthouse Veranda at 338 square feet, the 405-square-foot Penthouse Junior Suite and the Explorer Suite, which spans more than 757 square feet. Thoughtful touches in all cabins include bedside USB ports, quiet-closing drawers, heated bathroom floors and anti-fog mirrors.
Restaurants, including all speciality options except The Kitchen Table, are included in the cruise fare. The Restaurant (the main dining room) and The World Cafe (buffet) serve international menus in light-filled venues, with options to open floor-to-ceiling windows on balmy days. Manfredi's (arguably the best restaurant onboard) offers Italian fare, and The Chef's Table offers a rotating menu of themed, set course meals. If you'd like to sample Norwegian delicacies, don't miss Mamsen's with its heartily topped waffles, open-faced sandwiches and bacon-and-pea soup -- all inspired by the recipes of Viking chairman Torstein Hagen's mother. If all of those freebie dining options aren't enough for you, book The Kitchen Table experience. It's only offered twice per cruise, and participation is limited. You'll start by accompanying the chef onshore for a market tour in the morning; in the evening, you'll join the chef and help him prepare a gourmet meal that you then devour.
Who Sails the Ship: Viking originally targeted well-travelled passengers, ages 50 and older, who were value-oriented. While you'll still find plenty of older but adventurous travellers on Viking Star, it also draws a younger crowd that appreciates itineraries that emphasise the destination over sea days, and the amazing Nordic-style spa that's complete with a refreshing snow grotto.
5. Seabourn Encore
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 600 to 400
About the Ship:
On Seabourn's Seabourn Encore, beautiful interiors and intuitive spaces that are designed for the way people want to gather and relax are hallmarks of indoor and outdoor public areas, which were created by renowned designer Adam D. Tihany. All 300 suites -- ranging from 300 to 1,300 square feet -- have balconies that are perfect for enjoying breakfast, drinks or dinner al fresco.
The Spa at Seabourn set a new standard in wellness at sea when the complex was allotted so much space on the line's Odyssey-class ships. Now, in addition to an expansive spa, Seabourn Encore features The Retreat, a private, VIP-access-only outdoor lounge area on Deck 12. A daisy-shaped canopy stretches over The Retreat so you'll find both sun and shade. Fifteen cabanas -- costing $350 per couple per day -- are available, and come outfitted with flat-screen TVs, Evian misters, a beverage-filled mini-fridge and fresh fruit. The cabanas are conveniently arranged around the hot tub, which is a focal point of The Retreat.
Many travellers looking for top-notch but friendly service are partial to Seabourn. The line's all-inclusivity is also compelling: Cruise fares include interesting itineraries as well as entertainment and all meals, and there isn't even a surcharge for the line's excellent restaurant from celebrity chef Thomas Keller. The fares also include open bars offering fine wines, beer and spirits throughout the ship (although there is an additional list of select vintage and spirits that do cost extra). Tipping is neither required nor expected onboard, making the experience stress-free.
Who Sails This Ship: Once passengers sail Seabourn, their loyalties tend to remain with the cruise line, so you'll find many cruisers are repeaters. The Odyssey-class ships have become a favourite choice for families with teens or adult children looking for family reunion-style getaways and multigenerational holidays.
6. Silver Muse
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 596 to 411
About the Ship: Silver Muse is the largest luxury cruise ship in Silversea's fleet. Food is one area where this cruise ship excels. Its approach to dining is unique to Silver Muse, which lacks a traditional main dining room and instead has eight smaller restaurants at which passengers can dine any night. Two of them -- Kaiseki and La Dame by Relais & Chateaux -- require a $60 per person surcharge, but the other six are complimentary (though they require reservations).
Suites are a highlight, with more than enough space, complete with bathtubs and separate showers. All cabins also have a neat hidden TV feature -- flat-screen televisions are embedded into huge mirrors, and when they're turned off, you can't even see them. Silversea's claim to fame is the fact that a butler is assigned to tend to every cabin aboard every Silversea ship in the fleet. Butlers are educated by the Guild of Professional English Butlers and will assist you when it comes to unpacking and packing your luggage, serving breakfast on your balcony, making arrangements for shore tours and dining times, and even serving dinner -- course by course -- in your suite.
Silversea shines when it comes to personalised service. The crew is incredibly friendly and intuitive; they seemingly know what you want when the very thought has just crossed your mind. Silversea also loves to throw a good soiree and does so on every warm-weather cruise in the form of its deck party. Chefs spend the day preparing for this pull-out-all-the-stops event at which they serve roast suckling pig, carved meats, shrimp and crab-leg cocktail, pasta, salads and an array of mouth-watering desserts.
Who Sails This Ship: Silver Muse has fans from many walks of life, but most passengers are older couples. It's rare to see children onboard, though they're more likely to be seen during school breaks or summer holidays, when families (often with multiple generations) sail together.
7. Crystal Esprit
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 62 to 91
About the Ship: Crystal Esprit is Crystal Cruises' first yacht, and while it's not new, the line did an amazing job refurbishing the ship before launching it. It's now one of the most contemporary and comfy ships at sea, feeling much more like a boutique hotel than a yacht. Even the smallest suites -- which range from 223 to 280 square feet -- feel spacious, and all accommodations feature an interactive bedside iPad that lets you set an alarm, order room service, learn about the ship and more. Even though the ship only caters to 62 passengers, there are several dining venues, including The Yacht Club, Patio Cafe and Terrace for alfresco breakfasts. Each restaurant offers dine anytime open seating.
For sun worshippers, Esprit offers a beautiful sun deck as well as a retractable marina that's stocked with water skis, wakeboards, paddleboards, ocean kayaks (single and tandem), Skidoo Jet Skis and snorkel gear. The yacht even carries a submersible for passenger use. The three-person submersible descends about 1,000 feet into the sea to spot reefs and marine life. This splurge-worthy experience lasts 20 to 30 minutes and costs $599 per person, but it's worth it.
Crystal's yacht experience aboard Esprit is all about uncommon experiences. For example, shore excursions are included in your cruise fare -- unlike on the line's traditional oceangoing cruise ships, where you must pay a la carte for every shore tour you book. One or two complimentary options are available each day. There's also a handful of additional for-fee tours.
Who Sails This Ship: Not many ships attract an international clientele, but Crystal Esprit does. You'll meet cruisers mainly from the United States, Canada and the UK, but it's not uncommon to meet others from places like Australia, Asia, Germany and South Africa. Due to the more active nature of a yacht voyage, passengers are of all ages -- from young adults travelling with their parents to retirees. Everyone onboard tends to be well travelled and is there to have a good time.
8. SeaDream II
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 112 to 95
About the Ship: SeaDream Yacht Club's SeaDream II offers an intimate and luxurious yachting experience. With just 56 cabins, travellers and crew get to know each other quickly, and it feels like you're travelling on a friend's yacht instead of a cruise ship. Being that this is a cosy vessel, you won't find massive suites. The cabins are roomy, but none is fitted with a balcony. Instead, in-room amenities -- think Belgian linens, down duvets, wool blankets and Bulgari bath products -- are the focus. Passengers always get a kick out of the monogrammed pyjamas that are laid out in their staterooms upon arrival.
Two things make this ship exceptional: the all-teak deck that features numerous Balinese sun beds, and the aft retractable marina. The marina offers glass-bottom kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, banana boats, snorkel equipment and Laser sailboats. You can even go water skiing or ride a Jet Ski.
SeaDream offers several signature experiences across its two-ship fleet. One is spending an evening "sleeping under the stars" on the Balinese beds on Deck 6. This pastime is booked on a first-come, first-served basis and is very popular. At 10 p.m., crewmembers rope off the area and set up the beds with linens, duvets and pillows. Scattered rose petals and flickering, battery-operated candles set the scene. A bucket of chilled Champagne waits, along with a tray of chocolate truffles.
If you like spending the evening outdoors but prefer to sleep inside, check out the line's "Starlit Movies" series. On balmy evenings, the crew pops copious amounts of popcorn for cruisers who show up on the Pool Deck to enjoy a film as part of this program.
And let's not forget that the cruise line offers its signature "Champagne and Caviar Splash" on Caribbean voyages. This decadent spread includes a Champagne toast and buffet loaded with caviar and other snacks, all to be enjoyed during a shoreside beach barbecue.
Who Sails This Ship: Those travelling with SeaDream tend to skew a bit younger than the average cruiser, but the demographic includes anyone who enjoys the camaraderie of a small ship and is looking for some of the finest cuisine at sea. The relaxed dress code -- resort casual is the norm every night -- also draws a younger, hipper crowd.
9. Le Lyrial
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 260 to 140
In addition to two restaurants and three lounges, the ship features fewer cabins than its fleetmates, thanks to a design that added square footage to the vessel's suites.
To pass the time onboard, passengers will find a pool, daily lectures, cultural performances and movie screenings, as well as a spa and salon, and a fitness center. Other public spaces include an internet cafe, a library and a water sports marina.
Ponant's most noteworthy attributes are its intimate, upscale vessels and penchant for sailing exotic itineraries.
Who Sails This Ship: The passenger base changes according to the season, with younger families travelling during European school holidays and older couples attracted to the longer cruises to more remote locations. Because it's a French company, many Ponant cruisers are French; others hail from the UK, U.S., Germany and places as far away as Japan and Brazil. Extended-family groups are also common onboard.
10. Crystal Mozart
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 154 to 92
About the Ship: The 154-passenger Crystal Mozart was previously known as River Mozart and sailed for Peter Deilmann, but after a lot of love from Crystal's design team, it's now one of the most beautiful and posh riverboats sailing the Danube. Crystal Mozart isn't a looker from the outside, but once you explore the ship, you'll be wowed. There are four dining venues, most featuring farm-to-table menus with ingredients sourced from the ports the ship sails. The main dining room (Waterside Restaurant) and two casual options (Blue Bar and Grill, plus Bistro Mozart) are complimentary, and there is also an extra-fee, wine-dinner room. There is an all-day snack station plus 24-hour room service (not offered on all competitors' ships). Meals are open seating and you're not locked into one set dining time like you are on many other river cruise lines; instead, dine when you want and with whom you want any time during operating hours.
You'll find not only a spa but also a salon and a fitness center. Rooms have been designed for those with a penchant for technology, and you'll find a dizzying array of customisable lighting settings, ensuite iPads that control your personalised suite settings, interactive TVs and even customisable Toto toilets from Japan. Beds are king sized and dressed with Egyptian cotton linens, and cabins are soothing in a palette of slate gray and deep blues. Butlers tend to every suite and will unpack and pack your luggage, arrange for optional tours and even serve afternoon canapes in your room.
Who Sails This Ship: Past Crystal Cruises passengers make up a large contingent aboard Crystal Mozart. The line is setting its sights on high-end travellers, whether it's their first river cruise or fifth.
11. Uniworld S.S. Antoinette
Passenger-to-Crew Ratio: 154 to 57
About the Ship: Uniworld likes to say that S.S. Antoinette is a one-of-a-kind "boutique" riverboat and "the most luxurious river cruise ship in the world," and it just might be. The cruise line has infused luxurious details throughout the ship, including a 10-foot Baccarat crystal and sapphire-blue chandelier that's the focal point of the lobby. (It previously hung in New York's Tavern on the Green.) Passengers will also find a heated swimming pool that's a study in mosaic tile work, as well as sumptuously decorated multi-room suites adorned with handcrafted Savoir of England beds that are draped in 100 percent Egyptian cotton linens. There's even a movie theatre onboard -- the first on any river ship.
The interior of the ship was designed to mimic the 18th-century Chateau de Versailles of France. Brazilian marble is used for flooring throughout, and original works of art -- black and white sketches, colour lithographs and oil paintings from a wide range of artists -- adorn the walls. Unlike many river cruise ships, suites and staterooms are situated on S.S. Antoinette's top deck and include full, private open-air balconies that convert to enclosed conservatories.
Each Uniworld ship shares the same amenities and services, including free Internet and Wi-Fi, a complimentary 24-hour speciality coffee and tea bar, and L'Occitane bath products in the cabins. Gratuities are also included in the cruise fares.
Who Sails This Ship: The decor and itineraries tend to draw a slightly more sophisticated, older crowd. Retirees are often found sailing S.S. Antoinette, and it's a popular ship for groups of friends travelling together.