8 Great Cruises to Book Now

We know cruising has a bit of a mixed reputation—what with the mega mother ships, port-a-day itineraries, and lukewarm buffets. But in these days of no-service service industries, there’s something very appealing about the way the best of the boats increasingly wine, dine, and generally cosset passengers en route from point A to point B.

For 2009 the industry is feeling particularly inventive, debuting new luxury ships—many of them smaller and more manageable—and launching thought-provoking, far-flung itineraries with fresh, off-the-beaten-path ports of call. Granted, at times the innovations go overboard: The mind boggles at the idea of yet another leviathan so extreme, it might be easier to take the islands to the ships rather than the other way around. And do we really need private cabanas on already cluttered lido decks? For that matter, what is Buzz Aldrin doing as a guest speaker on a tour of Southeast Asia?

Still, cruising gets our vote this year, not least of all because coming aboard, even at the top of the market, offers value in these credit-crunched times, allowing visits to four or five countries in a single jaunt, all without the cost (and hassle) of multiple flights. And things are only likely to get better as the lines respond to economic uncertainty by devising new deals to entice passengers even more—which is precisely why this year may measure up as the savviest for cruising yet.—Ian Keown

Academic Arrangements Abroad

800-221-1944; arrangementsabroad.com

Cruise to Book

Islands, Queens, and Conquerors aboard the 75-passenger square-rigged bark the Sea Cloud II, which makes a 14-day voyage from Bilbao, Spain, along the Atlantic coast, to La Rochelle, France; Portsmouth, England; a flotilla of British isles (Guernsey, Isle of Wight, Tresco); and other locations in France, like Caen, Honfleur, Bayeux, and Deauville.

Fare From $8,995 per person. Next Departure May 26.

What’s New

The itinerary itself, designed to coincide with the 65th anniversary of D-day. It combines visits to Normandy, Portsmouth’s Royal Naval Museum, and the stately English home where Eisenhower and his generals planned the landings. There are lighter cultural stops as well, like Brittany and the medieval towns of Mont-St.-Michel in France and St. Michael’s Mount in England.

What’s Special

Chartered on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Harvard Alumni Association, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation (but open to all), the cruise allows passengers the rare opportunity to relax beneath 30,000 square feet of sail on a classically styled three-mast bark. Owner’s Suites have marble baths and decorative fireplaces, and Met scholar Olivier Bernier fills passengers in on the region’s history and culture.

Cruise West

800-296-8307; cruisewest.com

Cruise to Book

Legends of the Pacific aboard the 120-passenger Spirit of Oceanus, which departs from Fiji and spends 17 days weaving through the islands of Vanuatu, Pohnpei, Satawal, Ifalik, Guadalcanal, Chuuk, and Yap before ending in Guam.

Fare From $7,250 per person. Next Departure February 26.

What’s New

The recently refurbished cabins echo those of Edwardian yachts, and the boat’s size is ideal for puttering around tropical lagoons (but its value-oriented rate means that passengers have to forgo multiple dining options and a high staff-to-guest ratio).

What’s Special

Orchid gardens and lava lakes, traditional kava ceremonies and Rom dances, frigate birds and noddies, and the ruined city of Nan Madol (the Venice of the Pacific)—this is the pristine Polynesia of fantasy. But the World War II battle sites on the itinerary—like Henderson Field and Bloody Ridge—still resonate with heroic tales.

Crystal Cruises

888-799-2437; crystalcruises.com

Sips, Samplings, and Sunsets aboard the 922-passenger Crystal Symphony, which departs from Miami, heading for Grand Cayman in the Caribbean and Cartagena, Colombia, then through the Panama Canal. Next it’s the Pacific Coast to Caldera Port in Costa Rica and Acapulco and Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, finishing in Los Angeles after 14 days.

Fare From $3,595 per person. Next Departure February 16.

What’s New

New shore excursions make these regions more accessible: a ride through Baja on dune buggies; a trip by private catamaran for a day of swimming and snorkeling on Costa Rica’s Tortuga Island; a motorboat cruise from Cartagena to some of the 27 cays that make up the Rosario Islands archipelago; and a tour of mission churches and monasteries in and around Cartagena.

What’s Special

Distinctive refinements of Crystal Cruises include cuisine designed by chef Nobu Matsuhisa and lectures by medical specialists from the Cleveland Clinic, an authority on preventive medicine and where CEOs and royals head for their yearly physicals. This itinerary has 20/20 journalist Hugh Downs as its scheduled speaker, but the real star of any canal cruise is that feat of engineering itself.

Cunard Line

800-728-6273; cunard.com

Cruise to Book

Baltic Splendours aboard the 2,014-passenger Queen Victoria, which continues a grand tradition of 14-day cruises from Southampton, England, through the Baltic (Copenhagen, Helsinki, Stockholm, and Tallinn in Estonia) to St. Petersburg, the city of Victoria’s cousins, the czars. Other ports include Zeebrugge, Belgium, and Bremerhaven, Germany.

Fare From $3,520 per person. Next Departure May 27.

What’s New

Launched in 2007, Queen Victoria harkens back to ocean liners of the twenties and thirties. And traveling aboard this small floating city has its privileges: a spacious spa and fitness center, cigar bar, and the Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar. Queens Grill staterooms come with a private lounge and courtyard as well as priority disembarkation.

What’s Special

Two unique innovations are fencing lessons, in honor of Prince Albert’s favorite sport, and the only theater at sea with private boxes, like those jewel-box 19th-century opera houses. Guest lecturers include professors from Columbia and the University of London who will be speaking on Jackie Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt and on classical and regional folk music, respectively.

Lindblad Expeditions

800-397-3348; expeditions.com

Cruise to Book

Epic Voyage to the Indian Ocean aboard the 148-passenger National Geographic Explorer, 20 days from Cape Town, to Hermanus, Port Elizabeth, and Richards Bay in South Africa; Maputo and Ponta da Barra in Mozambique; Toliara, Morondava, and Anjajavy in Madagascar; and the French Comoros Islands.

Fare From $13,780 per person. Next Departure March 5.

What’s New

The ship just entered service in August, after conversion from a Norwegian fjord ferry to an exploration vessel. A live video feed from the onboard ROV (remotely operated vehicle) allows guests to follow 1,000-foot-deep scientific discoveries in real time from screens right in their cabins or in the lounge with a naturalist who explains what you’re seeing.

What’s Special

Offbeat ports access unsung UNESCO sites and uncrowded nature preserves with big game (rhinos, elephants) and rare species (sifaka lemurs, colobus monkeys). There’s downtime, too, for swimming and snorkeling in tropical waters. And the top-deck observatory encourages camaraderie between passengers and the ten onboard real-life explorers.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises

800-285-1835; rssc.com

Cruise to Book

Great Cities and Land of the Dragon aboard the 700-passenger Seven Seas Mariner, which takes two leisurely weeks to visit Thailand’s third-largest island, Ko Samui, followed by stays in Saigon, Hanoi, and Hong Kong.

Fare From $10,495 per person. Next Departure April 9.

What’s New

The first of the company’s Astronaut Series, the cruise highlights lectures by two lunar voyagers, Buzz Aldrin and Alfred Worden. Odd theme, perhaps, for the locale, but guests who spend a day in the Vietcong tunnels and underground barracks of Cu Chi might welcome the airier topic of space travel.

What’s Special

Some ships rush sightseeing, but this cruise offers time for connoisseur-style touring of places with names straight from The King and I—Perfume River, Heavenly Lady Pagoda, Lucky Elephant Pass, and Forbidden Purple City. On board there are hand-rolled cigars, cordon bleu cuisine, and, at the Carita Spa, the 80-minute antiaging Renovateur treatment.

Silversea Cruises

800-722-9955; silversea.com

Cruise to Book

Explorers Antarctica aboard the 132-passenger Prince Albert II, which departs from Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego for a 17-day trip through glaciers and icebergs to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the South Orkneys, Elephant Island (where Shackleton was stranded), and the Antarctic Peninsula.

Fare From $9,145 per person. Next Departure November 12.

What’s New

An expedition vessel with the top classification from Lloyd’s Register for voyaging through icy waters, the upgraded ship joined the fleet in June 2008. It’s small enough to mosey through the ice floes yet luxuriously fitted out, with a spa, two whirlpools, a humidor lounge, and a one-to-one staff-to-guest ratio.

What’s Special

Multidisciplinary scientists bring the trip to life, providing briefings on the sea, animals, climate, and environment of the Antarctic. A Michelin-starred chef from France oversees the cuisine (roasted wild boar and turbot in Madras curry, for example). And passengers pick the size of their Ship to Shore Traveler polar parkas on the ship’s Web site before leaving home.

The Yachts of Seabourn

800-929-9391; seabourn.com

Cruise to Book

Black Sea Discoveries aboard the 450-passenger Seabourn Odyssey, which sails what has become a classic round-trip itinerary from Istanbul, visiting five nations (Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Georgia, Turkey) and seven historic ports of call (including Sochi, Yalta, Sevastopol, Odessa, and Varna) over ten days.

Fare From $7,870 per person. Next Departure July 8.

What’s New

The Odyssey itself, which doesn’t make her maiden voyage until June, is the largest vessel in Seabourn’s fleet. It offers six whirlpools, a two-deck spa with a hydropool, and granite bathrooms. The Odyssey enters service amid great anticipation, given Seabourn’s reputation for sterling service—but on ships a third the size of this one.

What’s Special

Passengers step out with history, most notably to Yalta’s Livadia Palace, where Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin held their testy conference. The ship’s four restaurants and room service (presented course by course on request) feature cuisine by Charlie Palmer, and the so-called Seabourn Signature Delights include complimentary on-deck neck massages. Most suites have their own verandas, something most of Seabourn’s smaller ships don’t offer.