Once upon a time, traveling aboard a cruise ship was the ultimate in luxury, a high-society gala that played out over weeks at a time. Friends were made. Business was done. I were a given. That era died in the latter half of the 20th century, and alas, cruising became synonymous with something less than chic. But things started to change a few years back with a new generation discovering both the pleasure and value—great, great value—of cruising, whether en famille or à deux.
Now it appears that 2010 is shaping up to be one of the best seasons in recent memory. Top-tier lines have invested mightily in some of the sleekest new vessels ever built. By and large these are of the intimate, sub-500-guest variety, with amenities that can compete with those of the finest resorts the world over (think personalized sessions with a fitness guru followed by an Elemis seaweed wrap, as offered on the Yachts of Seabourn’s Sojourn).
Sophisticated travelers have taken note of this. As Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com, says, “You’re now seeing a younger, more active traveler trading up to luxe or trying a cruise for the first time.” In what may be one of the last bastions of privacy, cruise lines themselves won’t name-drop their passengers, but we know for a fact that James Taylor recently took Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 from New York to Southampton, and Oprah Winfrey treated her staff to a ten-day Mediterranean cruise aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Gem.
The global economic downturn, meanwhile, has made for never-before-seen values at the high end. Free round-trip airfare to departure ports is common, and one can even find business class included on some itineraries. Also frequent are free shore excursions, onboard credits toward the likes of boutique shopping and spa treatments, two-for-one offers, and plain old lower prices—often knocked down by more than 50 percent from the rack rate. Rather than crying over a potentially lower bottom line, cruise companies are welcoming this season as a chance to show off their offerings to a more youthful clientele. And the deals are not coming at the expense of quality. Instead, ship directors say they wouldn’t dare dilute the experience for these fresh eyes.
Those seeking a quiet, classically elegant voyage might look at the obvious top-of-class lines like Seabourn, Silversea, and Crystal. Those more interested in a best-of-both-worlds experience, however, might consider a larger ship like Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 or Norwegian’s Epic, both of which offer the ship-within-a-ship concept: a luxurious, exclusive-access area for select passengers, housed within a bigger boat that has the parties, casinos, and other happenings that come with the world’s largest cruise ships.
All this makes for a burden of choice at the high end. So we consulted industry experts, seasoned cruise aficionados, and luxury travel specialists to pinpoint the best boats, itineraries, and booking classes that potential cruisers should have their eyes on in 2010.