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The European coastline: scenic by day, lit up at night. It’s what made this cruise different than the others we had sailed through the Panama Canal, the Norwegian fjords, the Caribbean. As we left Spain’s Catalan capital around midnight headed for France’s Monegasque principality, the view from our penthouse suite’s veranda was breathtaking. The air was warm, the sea calm and the feeling immediate that this trip was going to be unlike any other.
After two nights in Barcelona at the iconic Hotel Arts (see “A Visit to Barcelona”), we boarded Crystal Symphony to embark on a seven-day voyage that would end with a few days in Rome. Crystal calls it the “Monuments and Monte Carlo” journey, and it begins with an overnight in Barcelona before heading to Monte Carlo for another overnight stay; then on to Livorno, a port town in Italy about an hour outside Florence; followed by a day on Elba, an island in the Tuscan Archipelago; and ending in Civitavecchia, an hour and a half outside Rome.
It was April, around the Easter holiday, not yet peak boating season, which offered some advantages despite the on-and-off rain. For one, the crowds were less, and though the ship was booked to capacity—922 passengers total (Crystal is one of the only cruise lines that sail the Mediterranean that early; most itineraries begin in June)—the travelers were of a different sort, like the former police commissioner of Bangkok and his posse of 40 Thai businessmen who joined him to celebrate his retirement from the force. They were the ones crowding the pool and the hot tub instead of the more typical five- and six-year-olds cannonballing into the water. There were the twentysomething American bride and groom with their wedding-party entourage and the three-generation Japanese family with teenage daughters decked out in Chanel, Gucci and Versace, even when lounging at the poolside café.
The overnights and late departures that Crystal recently increased on its European journeys allowed us to truly experience the important nightlife culture in Spain, Monaco and Italy—especially in religious Barcelona, where our first day on the ship was Easter, and most of the bars and clubs in the city were closed. Though we had arrived a few days before the cruise, we wanted one more night to explore some recommended hot spots, and we did get that opportunity that following evening. But even that Easter night on the ship, we got a taste of the local flavor when Barcelona’s top dance company, Los Mulero, performed traditional and modern moves that explored Spanish folklore. Bringing the city onboard while in port made the ship feel less like a floating hotel that was just transporting us from one location to the next.
“We’re going to have three days in Istanbul when this ship continues on from Rome,” said Herbert Jäger, hotel director of Symphony, “and we will bring onboard well-known local chefs to prepare kebabs with pita bread, tzatziki and the like, instead of the usual hamburgers and hot dogs we offer at the upper-deck grill, all the while we’re there.”
Granted, we did spend much less time on the ship than at other destinations; there’s just too much history to explore, world-renowned museums, fantastic shopping, and the desire to understand the cultures and immerse oneself in them. Yet there was that one day at sea on our way to Monte Carlo. The clouds were darker than ever and a storm set in, so we occupied ourselves with back-to-back fitness classes, starting with spinning, then Pilates and some personal training, followed by a bamboo massage treatment at the Elemis spa. The fitness instructors impressively knew how to adapt the classes to each individual’s ability, and the massage lived up to the British skincare brand’s standards, though the spa itself was on the small side and in need of an update—which, we’re told, it received when the ship went into dry dock for a $15 million redesign in June. The company has spent $65 million over the last five years to completely overhaul every stateroom, penthouse and public space on Symphony.
“This ship launched in 1995,” Jäger said, “when spas and fitness programs were not as in demand as they are now. On my first ship, in 1981, a gym was where we now have a sauna and steam room, and all it had was a bicycle and weights.” This year Crystal also introduced an all-inclusive program (something its competitors have had for a while), which means guests no longer have to worry about the added expense of gratuities, wine and all other alcoholic beverages. “We’ve always offered complimentary soft drinks, coffee, lattes,” Jäger said. “But this is the fourth cruise on which we are including everything, and it’s been well received. Guests find it more convenient, less stressful.” And the quality of brands offered has not been compromised. If you don’t see something you like, say, from the complimentary list of ten top wines at the ship’s excellent Italian restaurant, Prego, you can order from an extensive, and reasonably priced, Connoisseur list.
If only all cruise lines would make shore excursions complimentary; we found those to be the largest add-on expense of the trip. Many experienced cruisers opt to book shore excursions on their own, though they may be taking a risk if they haven’t researched and vetted the tour operators. At least you know you’re getting a reliable, quality guide through the cruise line. Florence, for example, had so much we wanted to explore, yet we had only ten hours—minus two spent traveling to the center of town and back—in which to see it all. So we opted to create our own custom itinerary through Crystal Private Adventures.
It was expensive—$2,000 for three people—but worth the investment. The private car and driver saved us time maneuvering through narrow streets that a large tour bus never could. The personal guide put us ahead of the long lines with pre-reserved tickets and special access to the Gallerie dell’Accademia, for example, to see Michelangelo’s David. We took a short drive to the hill town of Fiesole for panoramic views of the city and the most delicious lunch of the trip, at Villa San Michele (rooms, from $1,060; Via Doccia 4; 39-018/526-7803; villasanmichele.com), originally a 15th-century Franciscan monastery and now an exquisite Orient-Express hotel. We even managed to fit in a detour to Pisa.
If the skies had been sunnier, the island of Elba would have offered some welcome beach time, being a popular holiday getaway spot for Europeans, Romans in particular. Vespa rentals, fishing charters, diving expeditions and fortress hikes abound, plus tours of two of Napoléon’s residences from his 11 months in exile on the island before the Battle of Waterloo.
Monte Carlo turned out to be the most idyllic stop on the cruise. The weather cooperated perfectly, allowing us to enjoy the super-chic Monte Carlo Beach Club (rooms, from $320; Av. Princess Grace; 33-4/93-28-66-66; monte-carlo-beach.com), with its beautifully designed rooms and stylish restaurant, Elsa, which serves the best breakfast in town. We decided to sleep off the boat that night in a fairy-tale two-bedroom suite at the classic Hôtel de Paris (rooms, from $480; 37-7/98-06-30-00; hoteldeparismontecarlo.com), with a balcony overlooking the marina and the Crystal Symphony waiting for us like a supersized yacht. The last time we visited the principality was during the Monaco Grand Prix, when everything was centered around the race. So though Crystal offered numerous shore excursions for Monaco and the South of France, we opted to explore the sites on our own and discovered a little-known museum in the prince’s palace containing the largest private Napoleonic collection in the world. We shopped for new swimsuits at Kiwi St. Tropez (women’s suits, from $95; 1 Rue de la Turbie; kiwi.fr) and for women’s and teen clothing by small French labels at Trottinette (girls’ dresses, from $50; 3 Av. Saint Charles; 37-7/93-25-27-29).
As we sailed into Civitavecchia, preparing to disembark Crystal Symphony for the last time, we were excited about the days ahead in Rome at Ferragamo’s Portrait Suites (rooms, from $750; Via Bocca di Leone 23; 39-066/938-0742; lungarnocollection.com), just off the Via Condotti and a few blocks from the Spanish Steps. Our seven days at sea had come to an end, but we swore the Mediterranean coast would not become a distant memory.
Seven-day cruises, from $2,495 a person; penthouse suite, from $8,665; crystalcruises.com.
Putting charter plans in the hands of a professional broker can make all the difference.
Preparation is key when it comes to a smooth-sailing charter. Research done before you depart allows you to fully relax once onboard, and much of the prep can be made easier with the help of a qualified broker. Many start as crew members, meaning they know good service from both sides. They also often run their own agencies that represent the client exclusively. A travel and real estate agent rolled into one, a top broker will understand your group and your travel plans from the top down. Here are five we trust.
Eleanor Bloodworth: Bloodworth specializes in organizing charters for families and enjoys taking a hands-on approach to solving clients’ needs. “Booking a successful charter is all about understanding what the client is looking for and knowing which yachts and crews can deliver,” she says. “A good broker should quickly pick up on what is important to you and be able to suggest yachts and itineraries that really excite you.” Y.CO, 9 Avenue J.F. Kennedy, Monte Carlo; 377-93-501-212; y.co.
Barbara Dawson: Dawson founded her own charter agency 20 years ago before joining Camper & Nicholsons. She is the chairwoman of the charter committee of the Mediterranean Yacht Brokers Association (MYCA), and is also active with other charter associations. “[The right broker needs] to be willing to listen, as well as give you good advice,” she says. Camper & Nicholsons, 450 Royal Palm Way, Ste. 100, Palm Beach, Florida; 561-655-2121; camperandnicholsons.com.
Tandy Demarchelier: Demarchelier worked her way up from a broker’s assistant in college more than 17 years ago. She is also a seasoned sailor familiar with the technical aspects of yachts. “Whilst one of the strong attractions of yacht chartering is the freedom of movement and spontaneous travel that a private charter can offer, it is very important to discuss itinerary options in advance with your charter broker,” she advises. “A successful itinerary suggestion will take into account the things guests like to do—shopping, nightlife, restaurants, snorkeling, waterskiing—as well as composition of the guest party, size of the yacht and comfort of the guests.” Camper & Nicholsons, 10 Avenue de la Libération, Antibes; 334-92-912-912; camperandnicholsons.com.
Marta Iglesias: A charter broker for more than 20 years, Iglesias has managed charter yachts worldwide and speaks English, Spanish and German fluently. When choosing a broker, “It is important to use a well-known, reputed brokerage house, who is a member of any of the big brokerage associations—Mediterranean Yacht Brokers Association (MYBA), American Yacht Charter Association (AYCA), Florida Yacht Brokers Association (FYBA)—and who has offices located in different continents and in the most prominent yachting locations,” she says. Iglesias also suggests avoiding hard suitcases, as some yachts have limited storage space. Fraser Yachts, Porto Pl. 4, Palma de Mallorca, Spain; 34-971-700-445; fraseryachts.com.
Tove Johnson: Johnson’s background in the restaurant industry has steered her to the high-end hospitality of yachting. When it comes to packing, resist the urge to bring everything and the kitchen sink. Yachts often have limited stowage space, but they know how to make travelers feel welcome. “Many yachts provide toiletries for guests to use while onboard,” says Johnson. Fraser Yachts, 2 Quai Antoine 1er, Monaco; 377-93-100-494; fraseryachts.com. —Alyssa Haak
The Smaller, the Better?
Defined by their service and ports of call rather than grand spas and a variety of restaurants, smaller ships travel where larger ones cannot.
April 2013 marks the arrival of Paul Gauguin Cruises in the Mediterranean, with its newly acquired, just-renovated Tere Moana (seven-day cruises, from $2,995 a person; staterooms, from $4,845; pgcruises.com). Less is more on this 90-person ship, where rooms are slightly sparer but have the relaxed, offhanded elegance of a beach cottage on the Cape. Moana itineraries offer an escape for those who have already seen the sights and would rather wander the cliffside fishing village of Cassis, France, or sit at anchor off Corsica’s Porto-Vecchio, eating sea bass the chef just bought fresh from a local market.
Windstar’s itineraries are more classic (seven-day cruises, from $2,200 a person; suites, from $3,800; windstarcruises.com), featuring fewer hidden port towns and more UNESCO World Heritage sites and well-loved resorts—a combination ideal for the Dalmatian coast and the Adriatic Sea. All three of its sail yachts, with capacities of either 148 or 312 guests, are beautifully refurbished. A spa suite upgrade, available on the larger Wind Surf for an extra $600 a week, includes massages, facials and fitness classes, plus discounts on private excursions, like a yacht outing to the Elaphite archipelago.
The Riviera meets the British estate on the 350-passenger Minerva, of Swan Hellenic’s deeply English cruises. (Minerva’s more luxurious sister ship has even welcomed the queen and her family.) These trips (14-day cruises, from $2,800 a person; suites, from $7,700; swanhellenic.com) are much longer than most—many almost a month—with simple accommodations; lectures in archaeology, geology and history; a well-stocked library; and a Rothschild wine list. —Maud Doyle
Is Midsize Just Right?
Combining lush accommodations and high-end amenities, these ships of just more than 500 passengers dock at smaller ports and visit major cultural centers like Istanbul, Venice and Capri.
Seabourn cruises (all-suite seven-day cruises, from $2,600 a person; seabourn.com) are all-inclusive, from food and drink to on-deck massages, and Champagne and caviar available any hour (shore excursions are extra, though). Odyssey and Quest carry up to 450 people, with exceptional crews that elevate service to a whole new level. “The warmth of the staff is very unique,” says Tom Baker of CruiseCenter. “They hire personalities, and everyone knows your name.” Even the itineraries are intimate—from small-group cooking lessons at a chef’s house on Malta or Sicily to visits to small harbors like Port-Vendres on the Riviera or Sanary-sur-Mer in Antibes with a personal shopper. The ships’ magnificent, 11,400-foot spas both include a thermal lounge, hydro-pool and Elemis spa treatments. Spa Villas are available to rent for a full or half day and fit up to four people comfortably.
Silversea (all-suite seven-day cruises, from $3,600 a person; silversea.com) arrives in port early in the morning and departs late at night, running balanced itineraries at stops like Portofino, on Italy’s northern coast, or Alghero in Sardinia, as well as the major cities. Often called the Park Avenue of the Mediterranean, the 296- or 540-passenger ships are more formal and cosmopolitan. Think rich woods and Art Deco textiles, marble bathrooms, Bulgari toiletries and Egyptian-cotton towels and linens. They have some of the largest suites at sea, each with butler service. The ships offer cooking classes and on-deck grilling over hot slabs of volcanic stone. Aaron Saunders, editor of From the Deck Chair (avidcruiser.com), recommends Silversea Land Adventures for overland journeys: “They allow guests to immerse themselves in local culture with an overnight stay before rejoining the ship at the next port of call.” —Maud Doyle
Does Larger Mean More?
With their sheer variety of programs and excursions, large ships are excellent for multigenerational trips, but they offer more basic itineraries, stopping primarily at major destinations.
Under the exacting reign of chef Jaques Pépin, Oceania (seven-day cruises, from $2,100 a person; suites, from $4,900; includes airfare; oceaniacruises.com) offers one of the best culinary experiences at sea. The Marina and the just-launched Riviera carry 1,250 passengers each. Most staterooms are terraced, but the two suites to book are one decorated by Dakota Jackson (ten-day cruises, from $11,000 a person) and the Ralph Lauren Home–furnished Owners’ Suite (ten-day cruises, from $12,000).
With five new ships that carry up to 3,000 passengers, Celebrity’s great innovation is AquaClass: a ship-within-a-ship concept limited to 130 adults staying in balconied, spa-enhanced staterooms adjacent to a spacious wellness center (ten-day cruises, from $1,450 a person; AquaClass staterooms, from $3,250; celebritycruises.com). There’s even an exclusive AquaClass-only restaurant, Blu.
The smallest ship in this category, the 700-passenger Seven Seas Mariner of Regent Seven Seas, received a multibillion-dollar facelift last year (seven-day cruises, from $5,300 a person; suites, from $6,000; both include airfare, excursions and pre- and post-cruise hotels; rssc.com). Book back-to-back itineraries for a complete course in Mediterranean 101, from Spain’s Costa del Sol and the Riviera through the Greek islands and Istanbul, all with a wide variety of complimentary shore excursions. Have an agent book the trip; itineraries fill up quickly. The Mariner Youth program has counselors who will watch the kids while adults visit, say, a Grecian vineyard for wine tastings. —Maud Doyle
Choosing the Right Boat: The most important consideration is the crew. So much goes on behind the scenes that the difference between four and six members can affect the experience. And if you desire activity, a staff that has taken up water sports, yoga and, say, photography can provide lessons. Many yachts have their own websites with crew photos, but brokers are knowledgeable sources, especially for first-timers.
Planning Itineraries: A yachting industry maxim is that the Mediterranean is for exploring the land and the Caribbean is for playing in the water. A few advance decisions can mean getting a spot at a dock or a reservation at a popular restaurant. While one of the strong attractions of a private charter is spontaneity, it’s important to listen to the captain’s suggestions regarding departure times and distances.
Fees, Expenses and Gratuities: The charter fee listed is the cost just to step onto the yacht. Food, fuel, taxes and other expenses are covered under the Advanced Provisioning Allowance, which can be between 25 percent and 30 percent of the charter fee. (Any remaining funds at the end are returned to the primary booker.) Additionally, a tip of 5 percent to 15 percent for the crew after an enjoyable trip is standard.
Six Yachts to Charter
The Elena B hits all the Mediterranean events, including the Monaco Grand Prix. But the cars aren’t the only vehicles made for speed: This Italian-built yacht cruises at 23 knots. Guest accommodations include four cabins that can sleep nine people—two of the cabins have beds that slide into two twins or one full-size mattress. There’s plenty of room to stretch out on the flying bridge, and being on the smaller side gets it a berth at popular marinas.
Fee: $55,100 a week; fraseryachts.com.
Though it doesn’t look like a classic motor yacht, Force Blue’s rugged exterior belies a luxurious interior. Its namesake color can be found everywhere, from the accents in the main saloon and dining room to the tiles in the spa, which has a mud bath and steam and massage rooms. (Added bonus: One of the 19 crew members is a trained masseuse.) There’s also a complete gym, a movie theater and an elevator that connects four decks. With plenty of interior and exterior space, the 12 guests might even lose one another while onboard.
Fee: $291,600 a week; fraseryachts.com.
Loads of Activities
Heesen Yachts of Holland built Jems to be stable both at high speeds and at anchor. Its hull is designed to be fuel-efficient, which is ideal when charter guests are footing the bill. A modern interior features bright accents and contemporary art. When the ship is anchored off a beach, its zero-speed stabilizers keep everyone steady. It’s perfect for active guests, who will want to take advantage of the indoor gym, Jet Skis and windsurf boards. After a day of activities, the crew can set up an outdoor screen for movies under the stars.
Fee: $198,500 a week; y.co.
Since her launch in 1930, the German-built Talitha was owned by the head of Woolworth’s and deployed as a gunboat in World War II. Now it’s still a classically styled motor yacht, with Art Deco furniture filling its rooms, but the technology has been updated to include modern entertainment options. Outside there are plenty of appealing spaces that can’t be found on any other yacht; very few boats have a bowsprit hammock in which guests can relax.
Fee: $347,400 a week; edmistoncompany.com.
Family and Friends
Built by a Finnish yard with a long and reputable pedigree, Highland Breeze is a sailing yacht with classic exterior lines and mahogany throughout the interior. The main saloon is surrounded by windows. The crew and wide cruising experience make this a perfect yacht for the partying crowd, with plenty of seating outdoors to relax. It sleeps six in three cabins; the master suite is in the stern of the vessel, and the other two cabins are outfitted with twin beds.
Fee: $57,000 a week; camperandnicholsons.com.
When Sherrie Westin was planning a 60th-birthday trip to Turkey for her husband, David (former president of ABC News), she remembered reading about Queen of Karia I in Departures (July/August 2010). The yacht’s current agency referred Westin to Didi, a wooden sailing gulet. The Turkish crew was able to take the party, which included the couple’s children and two friends, to hidden coves to collect sea urchins for lunch and octopus for dinner. “I knew it was successful,” she said. “Before departing, my son was planning next year’s trip with the captain.”
Fee: $1,500 a day; sjyachting.com.