Cruising

Reviewing the fleet

A Ship-by-Ship Survey

Let's be frank: Small luxury cruise ships may be an elite fleet, but in the cruising world they're a drop in the ocean. The vessels profiled here account for 2,866 of the 117,580 berths currently available worldwide, a mere 2.44 percent.

But their wake is outsized. These ships took cruising down an entirely new evolutionary path, mainly by dispensing with many of its hallowed rituals. Instead of a cabin caste system that runs from stateroom to steerage, small luxury ships usually have one class: deluxe, all-outside cabins. Restaurants offer flexible, individual, not group seating, and many serve food at the level found in fine restaurants ashore. These ships take you farther away—exotic itineraries are standard fare—for longer (usually 10-21 days or more) and in higher (but more understated) style than most larger ships. And en route they dote on you: Staff/passenger ratios approaching 1:1 are the rule. Thus the fare is usually high, even though the fanfare is usually low: In most cases pools are small, nightlife limited, group activities almost nonexistent. Above all, according to Ignacio Maza, American Express Travel Network vice president of cruise and tour-industry relations, "these ships usually do the one thing affluent travelers love most: They say Yes."

Over the past 18 months I've sailed on the seven members of this elite club—those luxury ships carrying fewer than 400 passengers. All of them are eminently seaworthy, although in very different ways. Which is why on the following pages I have tried to define—rather than rank—each ship. (How would you compare the yachtlike Sea Goddess with the mini cruise ship Silver Wind? It's like asking, "What's better, Grand Cru Burgundy or Grand Cru Bordeaux?") And beside the point, anyway: A ship has to be taken on its own terms. After all, the best ship is the one that suits you best.

Seabourn

This trio of racy-looking, German-built maxi-yachts offers one of the most polished and luxurious experiences available at sea today. Seabourn reinvented the modern small boutique cruise ship, and the line's hallmarks—correct European service provided by a largely European dining and housekeeping staff; very good, if restrained, cuisine; formal (black-tie) and semiformal (jacket-required) evenings in the tradition of classic cruising; a slightly more formal (but never stuffy) ambiance than is found on other ships; and the most spacious and best cabins afloat—are still the standard other lines try to equal, surpass, or reinvent. Given that, it's no surprise that the clientele is refined, international, a bit older, and often very wealthy. (Overheard at lunch one day: "Our Falcon 50 is fast. We can be in Guadalajara in seventy minutes.")

Seabourn's great innovation was putting large, excellently appointed, eminently comfortable staterooms on a small ship. At 277 square feet, these cabins—a bedroom and sitting room with curtain divider—are the roomiest of any ship in this survey. Seabourn laid to rest the old cruise cliché about not wanting to spend time in your cabin: I met one woman on an Indian Ocean voyage who sailed Seabourn just so she could hole up in her room. (In fact she never left the ship, photographing the ports of call from the top deck.)

Cabins have a picture window with electrically operated blackout shades; a genuine, if compact, walk-in closet; a much larger bathroom than is usual at sea and, except on the Legend, two-sink vanities, a godsend when getting ready for a formal evening; smart touches like a coffee table that pops up into a dining table; and exceptionally good lighting from cleverly placed halogen lamps. In these surroundings, in-cabin dining is a pleasure, especially as meals are served course by course.

The service is as good as the staterooms—by the second day you're addressed by name—and the staff is supremely adept at taking a hint. When I mentioned that the coffee didn't have the octane of my usual Kona, the waiter produced a French press pot immediately; and it appeared every morning thereafter without our having to ask, whether we breakfasted in the cabin or on deck. And this despite the strictest no-tipping policy of all: Crew members who accept a gratuity risk being fired.

The ships themselves are compact enough to handle shallow anchorages. On Seabourn's Baltic cruise, the ship docks just a quarter mile from the Winter Palace—and could get even closer were it not for a low bridge over the Neva—and on a Mediterranean voyage it sails far up the Guadalquivir River, docking in central Seville. The gym is large and well equipped for a ship this size—there's even a small space for aerobics and floor exercises—and the adjoining area even has men's and women's sauna and steam facilities that equal those on larger ships.

No cruise line is perfect (though Seabourn comes pretty close). If I were admiral of this fleet I would upgrade the complimentary house wine slightly and order up a more varied luncheon menu in the casual dining room. I'd put all-cotton linens on the bed (they are available on request), add a full-length mirror to the cabin (there is one in the bathroom), and find a spot for the television that makes it easier to view. I would also wish for a larger, better-placed pool—Seabourn's pools are shoehorned into the next-to-top deck amidships—but on this point I'd settle. There are, after all, three Jacuzzis—and in the end boutique cruise ships can best be described as the art of elegant compromise.

The Cruise Line
Seabourn Cruise Line, San Francisco; 415-391-7444 The Cruise Line
Seabourn Cruise Line, San Francisco; 415-391-7444

The Ships
Seabourn Pride, Spirit, Legend
Built 1988/1989/1992
Tonnage 10,000 tons
Length 439 feet
Cruising Speed 18 knots
Itineraries Worldwide

Vital Statistics
Passengers 204
Officers Norwegian
Crew 145
Crew/Guest Ratio 1:1.4
Cabins 102
Cabin Size 277 sq. ft.
Space Ratio 49

Passenger Profile
Nationality 85% American
Average Age 50-65
Average Household Income $250,000
Repeat Passengers 50%

Manners & Mores
Open Single-Seating Dining Yes
Tables for Two Yes
Second Restaurant Yes
Ambiance Sophisticated but relaxed
Dress Casual elegance; jacket-required and black-tie evenings

The Deal (1998 Figures)
Average Per Diem Per Person $767
Airfare Included? No
Air/Sea Program? Yes
Upgrades to Business/First? Yes. Also private jet charter
Transfers Included? No
Pre-/Post-Cruise Hotel Stay? No, but numerous options offered
Shore Excursions Included? Some
Alcohol/Wine Included? Yes
Port Charges Included? No
Tips Included? Yes
Tipping Policy "Neither permitted nor accepted"

Sea Goddess

This pair of immaculately maintained ships, owned by Cunard, pulls off with aplomb one of the great masquerades of cruising: replicating the unregimented ambiance, the quiet class, and the discreet, attentive, and utterly flexible service that is the hallmark of the private yacht. That means Sea Goddess eschews or minimizes standard cruise ship conventions: They would puncture the illusion. There are no ship's photographers, no entertainment (just a pianist), almost no announcements, and no need to stand on that most ubiquitous of cruise ceremonies, the buffet line.

The reason the Sea Goddess twins can do this is that they're small—116 passengers (younger than you might expect, incidentally)—and the largely European staff simply tries harder, knowing service is the only arena in which they can outdo the larger boutique ships. "Our cabins can't compete with Seabourn or Silversea," one officer told me frankly, "so we live and die on our service." Thus everything is geared to passenger satisfaction, from altering course to maintain smooth sailing, anchoring in the lee of an island to provide a good night's sleep, even having the captain windsurf a supply of Champagne to a beach party that has run dry. (The latter actually happened on a Sea Goddess cruise through Indonesia.)

Both Sea Goddess I and II have a low, sleek profile and simple layout. The pool deck is at the stern, exactly where it belongs on a yacht; there is a fine open-air restaurant (superb in good weather, useless in bad); and there are three deck lounging areas that are larger than I expected—in addition to a pair of comfortable indoor lounges. The food is artfully uncomplicated: perfectly cooked mushroom risotto, grilled fresh sea bass on mango salsa, plus Ossetra caviar by the scoopful. The table settings—Porsgrund china, Villeroy + Boch crystal, WMF flatware—has the same understated class.

Small is beautiful, but it is also small. Where you compromise on Sea Goddess is in the facilities (gym with just two treadmills, two exercise bikes, one StairMaster; dining room with only four tables for two) and in the cabins, which at 205 square feet don't invite en suite dining (although room service is irreproachable). However, the cabins are beautifully decorated in light woods, have plenty of cleverly designed storage space, a superb Brot makeup mirror (the only ship in this group with this luxury), and the best audio system of any ship in this survey. Given this attention to detail, it was surprising to find bed linens that were not all-cotton, and feather—not down—pillows (and lumpy at that). Bathrooms are small, utilitarian, and without a speck of marble; but that's a hallmark of yachting too.

What is surprising is the fact that all the staterooms are the same price, although those on deck two have only two portholes, not the large picture window the other cabins have, and those on deck five are smaller (195 square feet) than the rest and really suited only for one. Try for a port-side cabin, as they never face the wharf: The gangway is to starboard.

Sea Goddess I invented the boutique luxury cruise ship genre when it was launched in 1984. The great thing about both ships is their uncompromising character: They're for people who can amuse themselves, want the feel of yachting accompanied by a good dollop of luxury, and will think they have come out ahead if they get excellent service at the expense of larger boutique cruise ship bells and whistles.

The Cruise Line
Cunard, Miami; 800-528-6273 The Cruise Line
Cunard, Miami; 800-528-6273

The Ships
Sea Goddess I and II
Built 1984/1985
Tonnage 4,253 tons
Length 344 feet
Cruising Speed 15 knots
Itineraries Worldwide

Vital Statistics
Passengers 116
Officers European
Crew 89
Crew/Guest Ratio 1:1.3
Cabins 58
Cabin Size 195-205 sq. ft.
Space Ratio 36.7

Passenger Profile
Nationality 75% American, 25% European
Average Age 45-55
Average Household Income $250,000 plus
Repeat Passengers 30%

Manners & Mores
Open Single-Seating Dining No
Tables for Two Limited
Second Restaurant Yes
Ambiance Sophisticated but relaxed
Dress Casual elegance; jacket-required and black-tie evenings

The Deal (1998 Figures)
Average Per Diem Per Person $925
Airfare Included? No
Air/Sea Program? Yes
Upgrades to Business/First? Yes
Transfers Included? Yes
Pre-/Post-Cruise Hotel Stay? No
Shore Excursions Included? Some
Alcohol/Wine Included? Yes
Port Charges Included? No
Tips Included? Yes
Tipping Policy "Neither expected nor encouraged"

Windstar

This trio of four-masted sailing ships delivers on the sailing mystique while also providing an experience that satisfies even the most sophisticated cruiser. As film director Tom Holland, a friend who turned up on my cruise, put it, "complete decompression without the onus of dressing up."

Each ship has 21,000 square feet of sail, all unfurled electronically, like a window shade. Under full sail the ships can reach speeds of 14 knots, but usually they employ wind and power to cover their itinerary, using sail alone only 10 to 15 percent of the time. They also employ high-tech to smooth the ride, for instance, using a computer-operated, water-ballast system to compensate for the scant 14-foot draft. Without it there would be much more rocking and rolling in choppy water; as it is these ships are reasonably stable when the sea kicks up.

Now a decade old, the Windstar ships have succeeded on the strength of a casual but upscale atmosphere (no tie or jacket ever required) and by eschewing some standard cruise ship ceremonies, such as photographers asking for poses. The service is good, though not consistently sharp: a wine list asked for and never delivered; cabin meals plunked down rather than laid out; the crew's tendency to point to where something requested could be found rather than bring it to you. But the mostly Indonesian staff is unfailingly pleasant, and as a fellow cruiser put it, "They can get away with it with those smiles."

Dining on Wind Star is a strong point. The food at dinner was always good, often superb and right up-to-date: for instance, a smashing duck curry—authentically spicy in a way you wouldn't find on most ships, and a terrific fresh red snapper on a bed of polenta studded with roasted garlic. (Which made it hard to fathom why the deck lunches were so lackluster.) The birchwood-paneled dining room is one of the most understated but inviting of any ship in this survey, and it had plenty of tables for two—a rarity on small cruise ships, and certainly something that contributes to the romance of sailing on Windstar.

Windstar draws a somewhat younger, more active clientele than most cruise ships. They were more interested in scuba diving than bridge, were always eager to know when the watersports platform would be lowered (only once, as it turned out), and were oblivious to the fact that the ship has no elevators.

The cabins are identical and small—185 square feet—but seem larger because of the canny design: light paneling (birch veneer), curved and angled walls, cubbyholes and hooks everywhere, and space-saving measures like suspending the TV high up on the wall opposite the bed. The bathroom is tiny but has better storage than those I've seen on larger ships—every bit of available space has been used for a drawer, cubbyhole, or hook. The cylindrical shower is also a clever space-saver. But the pillows were either meager or impossibly thick. Avoid cabins on deck one, the lowest passenger deck, which is subject to equipment noise. Light sleepers should ask for a cabin amidships: Those forward are subject to the sound of hull slap; those aft to engine noise.

There are some rough edges that Windstar could easily smooth out—providing beach towels on deck rather than putting one in your room for use all day, and deploying staff better. During a beach party the bar was fully manned; however, no one was at the water to assist passengers in getting out of the Zodiac. The line should also remind the crew that soliciting tips is prohibited. And it might rethink its boarding ritual: We were almost immediately herded en masse into the lounge to sign lengthy liability releases and to hand over credit cards so that an impression could be taken—not the most romantic way to set sail.

The Cruise Line
Windstar Cruises, Seattle; 800-258-7245 The Cruise Line
Windstar Cruises, Seattle; 800-258-7245

The Ships
Wind Star, Wind Spirit, Wind Song
Built 1986/1987/1988
Tonnage 5,350 tons
Length 440 feet
Cruising Speed 8.5-14 knots
Itineraries Caribbean, Mediterranean, Costa Rica

Vital Statistics
Passengers 148
Officers British and Norwegian
Crew 88
Crew/Guest Ratio 1:1.7
Cabins 74
Cabin Size 185 sq. ft.
Space Ratio 36.2

Passenger Profile
Nationality 85% American, 5% Canadian
Average Age 48
Average Household Income $100,000
Repeat Passengers 35%

Manners & Mores
Open Single-Seating Dining Yes
Tables for Two Yes
Second Restaurant No
Ambiance Very relaxed
Dress Country-club casual

The Deal (1998 Figures)
Average Per Diem Per Person $486
Airfare Included? No
Air/Sea Program? Yes
Upgrades to Business/First? Yes
Transfers Included? Only with air/sea program
Pre-/Post-Cruise Hotel Stay? No, except with add-on air program when overnight required
Shore Excursions Included? No
Alcohol/Wine Included? No
Port Charges Included? No
Tips Included? No
Tipping Policy No solicitation allowed, but "staff members may accept gratuities"

Silversea

These two Italian-built ships are the antithesis of Sea Goddess: They're downsized cruise ships, not upsized yachts. Silver Cloud and Silver Wind are ships for the luxury cruiser who fears that Seabourn might be a little too confining and is certain Sea Goddess will be claustrophobic. The Silversea ships carry 296 passengers, the second largest of the ships in this survey: They have broad teak decks; a 30-foot-long swimming pool; raked, two-deck-high show lounge; and a long, elegant, hotel-style bar. Yet they remain just small enough to provide very good food cooked to order and good European-style service. Plus they have the one thing that almost every boutique cruise line now wishes it had: cabins with private verandas.

Silversea represents the third generation of boutique luxury cruise ships: Sea Goddess invented the category, Seabourn perfected it, and Silversea has learned well from both of them. From Sea Goddess it borrowed European service, one-seating dining, cabin meals served in courses, and the beverages-included, no-tipping policies. The line purloined Seabourn's cabins—virtually unchanged down to the walk-in closet and marble bathroom (but minus the second sink)—and the second, casual restaurant with alfresco dining up high on the stern. Silversea also adapted traditional cruise ship elements (such as wide, open teak decks and glamorous entertainment showrooms) from larger vessels—and from Crystal Cruise Line, those verandas. They're 55 square feet, and 75 percent of Silversea cabins have them: That's the highest percentage among the ships profiled.

Then the company turbocharged the mix in two respects:
--Offering value for money, by including round-trip economy airline tickets, one-night hotel stay prior to embarkation, all wines and spirits (recently adopted by Seabourn), port charges and transfers.
--Offering very high quality soft goods—all-cotton Frette bed linens, Irish linen damask top sheet, plump down pillows—and tabletop items such as Bernardaud china, Schott-Zwiesel crystal, and Christofle flatware.

The only flaws I found in two sailings were too few tables for two in the dining room; a gym that was too small and weighted toward people who love exercise bikes (five, but only two treadmills); and every so often a "that's not possible" attitude on the part of the crew, even to reasonable requests. For instance, refusing to press a formal gown because it was turned in 30 minutes after the 9 a.m. deadline, even when the woman explained the reason: She never received her wake-up call.

In a nutshell Silversea has come up with the Great Compromise—the amenities of larger ships, the luxuries of smaller ones. Most of the passengers with whom I spoke had sailed on one or more of the other ships in this survey and said they were sold on Silversea precisely because of the overall package: "I've been on lots of cruises, and I've never seen such a high level of efficiency and enthusiasm," was a representative evaluation. And specifically because of the verandas. "We would call up for wine and smoked salmon every day and sit out there and watch the sun go down," rhapsodized one couple.

From a business standpoint, this may be the future of luxury boutique cruising. Silversea has shown that it can deliver a top-drawer product and turn a profit quickly using its formula.

The Cruise Line
Silversea Cruises, Fort Lauderdale;800-722-9055

The Ships
Silver Wind, Silver Cloud
Built 1994/1994
Tonnage 16,800 tons
Length 514 feet
Cruising Speed 20.5 knots
Itineraries Worldwide

Vital Statistics
Passengers 296
Officers Italian
Crew 210
Crew/Guest Ratio 1:1.4
Cabins 148
Cabin Size 240 sq. ft.; 55-sq.-ft. balcony on most cabins
Space Ratio 56.8

Passenger Profile
Nationality 70% American
Average Age 50-55
Average Household Income $150,000 plus
Repeat Passengers 35%

Manners & Mores
Open Single-Seating Dining Yes
Tables for Two Limited
Second Restaurant Yes
Ambiance Relaxed
Dress Casual; jacket-required and black-tie evenings

The Deal (1998 Figures)
Average Per Diem Per Person $850
Airfare Included? Round-trip economy from most cities
Upgrades to Business/First? $795-$2,295 per person each way business-class; $1,495-$3,695 first
Transfers Included? Yes
Pre-/Post-Cruise Hotel Stay? Pre-cruise night plus breakfast (except on Venice sailings)
Shore Excursions Included? Some
Alcohol/Wine Included? Yes
Port Charges Included? Yes
Tips Included? Yes
Tipping Policy "All included, none expected"

Song of Flower

The Song of Flower has a cult following, and until I sailed on her I couldn't fathom why. For I had been on this ship when she was the Explorer Starship, a soft-exploration vessel. Though comfortable, she wasn't luxurious enough to account for the accolades I was hearing. But a thorough renovation in 1989 by her then owner, Seven Seas Cruise Line (which merged with Radisson Diamond Cruise in 1995), created an entirely new and nicely upgraded vessel that walks the line beautifully between quality and price. The cabins are small—200 square feet, the same size they were before the renovation—but the ship delivers an overall experience that is only slightly less polished than that of the top small luxury ships—and at a far smaller per diem. ("A magnificent deal, the hottest value in the business," says Bob Falcone, the president and CEO of Cruises Inc., a cruise-specialist travel agency.) Plus it offers very exotic Asia itineraries, calling at Rangoon, for example. Unlike most other small luxury ships, Song of Flower exudes an American—not European—sensibility, which means friendliness and efficiency are the hallmarks of service. (Nonetheless, most of the hotel staff is made up of Asians.) "We may not have the newest hardware," says Radisson Seven Seas Cruises vice president of sales Roy Grimsland, "but I think our staff is more approachable, perhaps more American."

In practice this means that the food in the main dining room is good, particularly fresh fish and pasta, but that it also runs to banquet items such as lobster-tail, rack of lamb, veal Oscar, and chicken croquettes. Foodies should sign up for Angelino's, the second restaurant, as soon as they board. The Italian food here is superb and served from platters rather than brought to you on plates. It was the finest alternative restaurant of any on the ships that we tried. (The ship's democratic booking policy guarantees each passenger only one meal here, but you can—and should—check in with the maître d' for untaken tables.) The main restaurant dining room itself is attractive—it has the muted, warmly lit ambiance of a good hotel restaurant—and has a dozen tables for two, the most of any ship in this survey. Wine is complimentary with meals, and the bottles we had were consistently fine: a rich, spicy Kunde Old Vine Zinfandel, a complex Château de Blagny Pinot Noir.

The Song of Flower scored high in a number of important areas: a nicely designed and appointed cabaret lounge with good entertainment; spacious decks; a 21-foot-long swimming pool (albeit unheated) at the stern; a 100-passenger launch (a legacy of her exploration-ship days) that provides fast, efficient tender service; and the best documented shore-tour program I've ever experienced. A thick booklet, printed expressly for the cruise and containing a thorough explanation of each excursion, arrives beforehand and is supplemented onboard.

The tradeoff here comes in the small, utilitarian staterooms. ("It's true," says Bob Falcone, "the hardware isn't as good—but this is a renovated exploration vessel.") They have ample storage space but generic built-ins and furniture, tiny bathrooms, and ordinary amenities—bathrobe, glassware, and wall-mounted hair dryer. And it almost goes without saying that the cabins are not ideal for room service.

But that doesn't mar the overall experience, and Song of Flower passengers take these things in the bargain. As one woman said to me on the tender into Sorrento, "They make up for having small cabins by never being able to do enough for you."

The Cruise Line
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, Fort Lauderdale; 800-333-3333 The Cruise Line
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, Fort Lauderdale; 800-333-3333

The Ship
Song of Flower
Built 1986/renovated 1989
Tonnage 8,282 tons
Length 409 feet
Cruising Speed 17 knots
Itineraries Asia, Europe

Vital Statistics
Passengers 180
Officers Norwegian
Crew 144
Crew/Guest Ratio 1:1.3
Cabins 100
Cabin Size 200 sq. ft.
Space Ratio 46

Passenger Profile
Nationality 85% American
Average Age 50 plus
Average Household Income $100,000 plus
Repeat Passengers 35%

Manners & Mores
Open Single-Seating Dining Yes
Tables for Two Yes
Second Restaurant Yes
Ambiance Relaxed
Dress Casual; jacket-required and black-tie evenings

The Deal (1998 Figures)
Average Per Diem Per Person Asia: $495; Europe: $523
Airfare Included? Round-trip economy from East Coast gateway cities for Europe sailings, West Coast for Asia sailings; $195 or $295 per person add-on fares from other cities
Upgrades to Business/First? $950-$1,600 each way business-class; $1,600-$3,200 each way first
Transfers Included? Only with air-hotel programs
Pre-/Post-Cruise Hotel Stay? Asia itineraries, 4-5 nights
Shore Excursions Included? Some on Asia sailings, none on Europe itineraries
Alcohol/Wine Included? Yes
Port Charges Included? No
Tips Included? Yes
Tipping Policy "Neither expected nor accepted"

Renaissance

Along with Sea Goddess, these four sleek, 114-passenger vessels share the yacht end of the small luxury cruise ship spectrum. But there the comparison ends because Renaissance, by design, is not interested in competing at the all-out luxury end of the market. Rather, its forte is offering its clientele—mostly well-traveled, retired or semiretired people—a quality/price tradeoff: midrange or basic amenities in return for a casual small-ship ambiance (no-jacket-required or black-tie evenings) and pre- and post-cruise land tours, all at one, often remarkably low price. You can take the Seychelles, African Safari, and Ancient Egypt program, for instance, for as little as $4,999—and that's per cabin, not per person.

In fact, Renaissance eschews the word luxury altogether: "Never use the word luxury when you describe Renaissance," warned executive vice president Frank Del Rio. "Other lines may give you more caviar, but you have to pay $5,000 extra for the cruise. We give you a little-ship environment at a price that's cheaper than the big ships. We're about value." Judging by the repeat rate, 51 percent according to Del Rio, the highest of any ship in this survey, Renaissance passengers like the deal.

The heart of the deal is the cruise-tour program, which tacks on pre- and post-cruise shore stays. (Passengers are transported on a dedicated 114-seat aircraft.) Take that Seychelles cruise, for instance. The actual time on ship is six days, but the entire trip lasts 16. "We fly our own plane to Nairobi," says Del Rio, "spend a night at the Windsor Golf & Country Club, then go out on a four-day Abercrombie & Kent safari, then fly to the Seychelles for the cruise, then the same plane takes you for a three-day stay at a resort on the Nile." Cruises are also designed for touring: The ship makes a port call every day. The ships themselves are lovely, with teak decks, handsome public rooms, and cabins that are among the largest in this survey (although the dark decor makes them seem smaller than they are).

Onboard, that don't-call-us-luxurious philosophy kicks in. Cabins have limited storage space (the one complaint I heard consistently), limited creature comforts in some ways (ours had a rock-hard mattress and overhead lights impossible to read in bed by), and tiny bathrooms. (My advice: Book one of the eight Majestic or four Owner suites, which are on the upper decks, are airy, and have balconies.) There is limited room service (cold items only at breakfast), and on my cruise the food was acceptable but certainly not outstanding. And the ships have neither gym nor Jacuzzi, just a dunking pool. "Our customers come onboard not to swim but because they want to see the sights," says Del Rio, which is true. Perhaps that's why the small amount of on-deck lounging space seemed to bother no one, or the lack of pads on the chaises. ("They blew overboard," a deck steward told me.)

Renaissance knows its market, though: I heard no complaints (other than about storage). Instead, passengers focused more on the overall package. "This is a fine, comfortable way to see the world," said one couple. Another, who brought a suitcase full of Bollinger, granted that neither the food nor the cabins were the best but said it didn't matter: They wanted to tour, and the price was right. (And made more attractive by repeat-passenger deals that have included as much as $500 in shipboard credit.) Del Rio summed up the Renaissance approach: "When we did a study of our passengers, the biggest characteristic they had in common was that they drove a Lexus. It dawned on us that it made sense. The Lexus is safe and reliable, but it doesn't cost what a Mercedes does."

The Cruise Line
Renaissance Cruises, Fort Lauderdale; 800-525-5350 The Cruise Line
Renaissance Cruises, Fort Lauderdale; 800-525-5350

The Ships
Renaissance V, VI, VII, VIII
Built 1991/1991/1991/1992
Tonnage 4,280 tons
Length 297 feet
Cruising Speed 15 knots
Itineraries Mediterranean, East Africa, Seychelle Islands

Vital Statistics
Passengers 114
Officers European
Crew 72
Crew/Guest Ratio 1:1.6
Cabins 57
Cabin Size 235-253 sq. ft.
Space Ratio 37.5

Passenger Profile
Nationality 80% American
Average Age 60 plus
Average Household Income $50,000 plus
Repeat Passengers 51%

Manners & Mores
Open Single-Seating Dining Yes
Tables for Two Limited
Second Restaurant No
Ambiance Relaxed
Dress Casual

The Deal (1998 Figures)
Average Per Diem Per Person Europe cruise tour: $500; Africa cruise tour: $700
Airfare Included? From New York only. Add-on fares of $200-$500 per person from other cities
Upgrades to Business/First? $999 and up
Transfers Included? On cruise-tour programs only
Pre-/Post-Cruise Hotel Stay? 2-4 nights included on Europe cruise tour; 4-day Africa safari, 3-day Egypt stay with Seychelles cruise tour
Shore Excursions Included? No
Alcohol/Wine Included? No
Port Charges Included? No
Tips Included? No
Tipping Policy "At discretion of passenger," but gratuities actively solicited

Diamond

Its twin-hull construction and high stance in the water make this the most unusual-looking small luxury cruise ship in the field. The Diamond, built in Finland, is the only ship in the world with a small waterplane-area twin-hull design. This is a godsend if you're a squeamish sailor because "it's been proven more stable in rough seas," states Roy Grimsland, vice president of sales for Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, which owns the ship. And that was the case when the Mediterranean kicked up on my cruise.

On the other hand, the design limits the Diamond to about 12 knots, which means she doesn't have the cruising range of single-hulled ships. (Because of this, industry observers think it will be the last catamaran cruise ship built for a long time, and indeed Radisson scrapped plans for a sister ship.) Moreover, her 23-26-foot draft precludes the Diamond from getting into just the sort of small bays and shallow anchorages that are one of the draws of small luxury cruise ships: thus the more conventional ports of call on Diamond itineraries.

However, that seems to suit Diamond's clientele, which is younger than that of the other ships in this survey and has to get back to work sooner (which is why most Diamond cruises last only seven days). They like the ship's design and the fact that the Diamond is an easy way to see someplace like the Riviera, dine on pretty good food, and not spend a small fortune. The price of a cruise is among the lowest of the ships surveyed—under $500 per day on certain cruises, often with airfare included. Plus 123 of the 177 cabins have 47-square-foot teak verandas, the second-highest percentage of the ships in this survey. "You can go to some well-known destinations and ports of call in comfort on a ship that's unregimented and a little more casual than the others," states Grimsland, referring to the fact that there are black-tie evenings onboard but a tux isn't really required.

Once you take out the veranda most of the cabins end up on the small side—196 square feet. (Those without verandas are 243 square feet, among the largest in this survey.) Staterooms are long and narrow, and all share the same decor: light-woodtone built-ins, sitting area with love seat and round glass cocktail table, shallow but well-lit vanity, pastel color scheme (ours was lime-green). Bathrooms are as tiny as those on the mega-liners, and the towels, robes, and linens are average. But the cabins have the best bed reading lights of any ship in our field and generous drawer space.

The Diamond shone brightest at mealtimes. The luncheon buffet on the upper deck is one of the best and most gracefully laid out I've ever come across at sea, the selections well prepared, and the daily variety impressive. Dinner, however, was not as consistent: good fresh bass but lackluster chicken curry; good carpaccio but lifeless vegetables. The dining room is staffed by waitresses, all European, a stylish touch that lends both civility and informality to the ship. Tabletop settings are topnotch as well: Villeroy + Boch china, Schott-Zwiesel crystal, and WMF flatware.

There were inconsistencies about the Diamond that were somewhat puzzling because they seemed so easy to fix. The cabin service was cheerful and competent, but the breakfast tray came with only a single small container of jam for two people. The wine list was studded with good—and expensive—bottlings, but the lack of vintage dates made it hard to decide whether or not to spring for that Grand Cru. Having a running track (1/13th mile) around the top deck is a great idea; however, such a track requires better upkeep. When I was onboard, the surface was worn and buckled in some spots. And why can't the people who came up with the ingenious idea of using several serving stations to eliminate buffet lunch lines see that the gym is too small and underequipped for a ship this size? (There is only one treadmill, with a second said to be on the way.)

The Diamond was originally intended for the charter and incentive travel market, according to a promotional brochure sent to travel agents and meeting planners before the ship was launched in 1992. That's why there's so much meeting space and why the space ratio is so high. But that business never really panned out. And, says Roy Grimsland, groups constitute only 25 percent of Diamond bookings: Much of that consists of charters. The company limits group size during normal cruises so it doesn't disrupt regular passengers.

The Cruise Line
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, The Cruise Line
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, Fort Lauderdale; 800-333-3333

The Ship
Radisson Diamond
Built 1992
Tonnage 20,295 tons
Length 420 feet
Cruising Speed 12.5 knots
Itineraries Mediterranean, Caribbean, Costa Rica/Panama Canal

Vital Statistics
Passengers 350
Officers European and American
Crew 192
Crew/Guest Ratio 1:1.8
Cabins 177
Cabin Size 196 sq. ft. (plus 47-sq.-ft. balcony); 243 sq. ft. (no balcony)
Space Ratio 58

Passenger Profile
Nationality 85% American
Average Age 35 plus
Average Household Income $75,000 plus
Repeat Passengers 30%

Manners & Mores
Open Single-Seating Dining Yes
Tables for Two Limited
Second Restaurant Yes
Ambiance Relaxed
Dress Casual; jacket-required to black-tie evenings

The Deal (1998 Figures)
Average Per Diem Per Person Caribbean: $440; Costa Rica/Panama Canal: $495; Europe: $550
Airfare Included? From East Coast gateway cities for Caribbean, Costa Rica/Panama Canal, and Europe sailings; $195 or $295 per person add-on fares from other cities
Upgrades to Business/First? $950-$1,600 each way business; $1,600-$3,200 each way first on Europe and Caribbean itineraries if air-hotel program booked; $300-$800 each way first-class only for Costa Rica/Panama Canal
Transfers Included? Only with air-hotel program
Pre-/Post-Cruise Hotel Stay? Two nights with Costa Rica/Panama Canal programs; one night with May 30, June 30, July 11 Europe sailings
Shore Excursions Included? Some on Costa Rica/Panama Canal sailings
Alcohol/Wine Included? Wine at dinner, cabin minibar stocked at cruise start
Port Charges Included? No
Tips Included? Yes
Tipping Policy None expected

Getting the Best Deal

The first rule of cruising is never pay the fare in the brochure. Every cruise line offers discounts, even if it doesn't call them that (and the luxury lines usually don't for reasons of image). Here's a sampling of ways to save on the lines included in this survey. (Note that discounts are not always combinable. You can't, for instance, combine a Platinum Card Cruise Privileges discount with one of the group-booking discounts listed below.)

Book early. Most cruise lines offer discounts for cruises booked and paid for in advance. There's often a sliding scale, with the discount declining as the embarkation date nears. Savings amount to 5-15 percent.

Pay up right away. Renaissance offers $500 off if a cruise is paid in full within five days of booking.

Be loyal. Some lines offer repeat passengers discounts of 5-20 percent on selected cruises. Seabourn offers a range of such discounts, starting with 25 percent off on a 14-day cruise after passengers have sailed 28 days on the line, up to a free 14-day cruise after a total of 140 days is spent onboard. Silversea offers repeat passengers 5-10 percent off selected cruises and a free seven-day cruise after 350 days of sailing.

Buy in advance. Seabourn's WorldFare Program offers the advance purchase of 45, 60, 90, or 120 days at sea for a flat fare of $26,775-$62,700 per person. Taking advantage of the offer "allows savings of up to thirty-eight percent off the regular tariff," says the company.

Convert your friends. Sea Goddess passengers receive a 10 percent reduction on their next cruise for each person they bring to the line. The person has to be a first-time Sea Goddess passenger, and the maximum discount is 40 percent. The passenger referred gets a 10 percent discount too.

Then sail with them. Booking more than one cabin at a time often nets hefty savings. Seabourn, for instance, trims a flat $1,000 from the fare for each party. Silversea allows one passenger to sail free when 10 berths are booked. Radisson Seven Seas (the Diamond and Song of Flower) trims $250 off each fare when 10 or more book at the same time. (The last two offers are available only through a travel agent.)

Take back-to-back cruises. Time is money. If you've got the time (usually 24-28 days), you can save a bundle on Sea Goddess, which takes 50 percent off the less expensive of two consecutive sailings.

Take a repositioning cruise. These voyages, as the name implies, are intended to move the ship from one cruising ground to another. They have fewer ports of call than usual and numerous sea days, and they cost from 20 to 30 percent less on a per diem basis than normal cruises and frequently include extras such as free or low-cost air upgrades. Keep in mind that these cruises usually occur when the seasons are changing, which means the weather is not always ideal and the sea sometimes rough.

Use a cruise-savvy travel expert. The cruise industry is an odd animal. Bargains are rarely advertised, and except for Renaissance Cruises, direct booking rare. Most brochures do not even contain the line's telephone number. Often the only way to learn about deals—such as the free business-class airfare included in Silver Cloud's 18-day Buenos Aires-Valparaiso cruise if booked by May 10, 1998 (cruise departs November 6, 1998)—is to call on experts such as Platinum Card Cruise Privileges (800-448-5581) or companies such as Cruises Inc. (800-854-0500), The Cruise Line, Inc. (800-777-0707), or Cruises of Distinction (800-634-3445).

Platinum Card members who book a cruise through Platinum Card Travel Service on a participating Cruise Privileges cruise line receive a complimentary two-category cabin upgrade or a $300 shipboard credit (depending upon the line). Participating lines: Cunard, Radisson, Renaissance, Seabourn, and Windstar. Note that availing yourself of Cruise Privileges usually precludes your taking advantage of past-passenger and group booking discounts and is not combinable with other American Express promotions.

Ask about cruises that aren't selling well. Cruise lines usually offer agencies a 10 percent commission on the cruises they book. However, they also offer specialized agencies or those with an upscale clientele a much higher commission—40 percent in extreme cases—to peddle unsold inventory. The agency in turn often rebates part of its commission (10 percent usually) to the passenger as a discount.

Battle of the Balconies

Having a veranda at sea is not new. The Titanic, Normandie, and Rex all had them, but only a handful. It was the 1984 launch of Princess Cruises' Royal Princess, which had 150 cabins out of 600 fitted with private verandas, that ignited what has become the hottest luxury cruise ship trend today. Of the small luxury cruise ships, Silversea is the veranda standard bearer: 75 percent of the Silver Wind's and the Silver Cloud's cabins (110 of 148) have private decks. The only downside to having a private veranda is that the cabin's interior space is usually smaller than those without decks. Cruise lines usually include the balcony in square-footage figures. Thus the 295-square-foot Silversea suites actually measure 240 square feet once the deck is removed from the equation, making the interior space smaller than Seabourn's 277-square-foot nonveranda suites. Here's how the small luxury cruise ships that offer balconies compare (ranked from most to fewest balconies by percentage of balconied cabins).

Silver Wind, Silver Cloud
# Balcony Cabins 110
% of Total 75
Balcony Size (sq. ft.) 55

Radisson Diamond
# Balcony Cabins 123
% of Total 70
Balcony Size (sq. ft.) 47

Paul Gauguin (Maiden voyage, January 1998)
# Balcony Cabins 80
% of Total 50
Balcony Size (sq. ft.) 37-56

Renaissance V, VI, VII, VIII
# Balcony Cabins 12
% of Total 21
Balcony Size (sq. ft.) 21 & 30

Song of Flower
# Balcony Cabins 10
% of Total 10
Balcony Size (sq. ft.) 61

Seabourn Pride, Spirit, Legend
# Balcony Cabins 6
% of Total 6
Balcony Size (sq. ft.) 34-69

Unstable Platform

One of the most enticing amenities offered by small luxury cruise ships is the water-sports platform at the stern. Thirteen of the 17 small luxury ships have them. When the ship is anchored in a favorable spot, the platform can be deployed for swimming or using sea kayaks, windsurfers, or Jet Skis—if the ship carries such toys.

But in fact, watersports platforms are deployed less and less. Of the 13 cruises on 12 different vessels I took for this article, I saw the platform used just nine times.

Why? It turns out that the platform has foundered on the realities of being at sea.

Few anchorages meet the requirements for warm, clean, and calm water. The platform rests just above sea level, and even the gentlest of swells can strain the hydraulic system used to raise and lower it. Moreover, even a moderate current sweeping past the ship can drag a swimmer away. The specter of lawsuits and the requirements of insurance have helped torpedo the platforms too, as the hotel manager of the Song of Flower confided to me when I noted that the ship had eliminated all its watersports equipment.

The places where you're most likely to see the platform in action are the Caribbean, Seychelles, and Mediterranean.

Numbers Game

We've included the average passenger per diem of each ship in this survey because it is about the only way to compare the offerings of the various cruise lines. However, the per diem can be dangerously misleading if you simply look at the figure itself. The reason is that each cruise line includes different items in the cruise fare, thus per diems vary greatly. At one end of the spectrum is Windstar, whose per diem includes only the cruise; at the other, Silversea whose per diem includes virtually everything—airfare, a hotel overnight, transfers, even port charges, which ordinarily add $100-$300 per person to the bill. In between are all the other ships.

What you have to do is look at the figure in light of the total package and make a judgment as to its value—meaning the worth of the various items included—not the absolute price. Thus a higher per diem that includes items such as airfare, onboard alcohol, and tips might actually turn out to be a better deal than a lower per diem that gives you only the cruise itself. On the other hand, if you don't drink alcohol or you can get to the embarkation port on frequent-flyer miles, a lower per diem that doesn't include these items might be a better deal for you. This is why, in addition to the per diem figure, we've itemized what the fare includes.

Disclaimer: The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication in January/February 1998, but we suggest you confirm all details with the service establishments before making travel plans.