Over the past few years, first-time cruisers have fueled the phenomenal growth of the cruise industry, yet somehow it still remains that most of the traveling public has never experienced a cruise. Every year though, more and more people are taking the jump, and these days in the cruise industry there’s something for every taste and budget. There are cruises for the budget-minded and those for whom cost is no object, for the sailing enthusiasts and the seasick-prone, for those who want an activity-packed vacation and for those who just want to get away from it all.
Unfortunately, the downside of all this choice is that choosing a first cruise can be a daunting prospect. But if you’re thinking of taking the plunge into the world of cruising, don’t despair—with a little research, you can find the cruise that’s just right for you. Here are some of our favorite ships for first-timers:
Big ship lines
Why? These newest and largest ships in NCL‘s Freestyle Cruising fleet offer a unique experience that’s more like that of a land-based resort and less like a traditional cruise than any other, allowing passengers to eat where, when, and with whom they want in the cruise industry’s widest range of restaurants.
What Else? In addition to no less than 10 restaurants, these ships offer one of the widest ranges of cabins afloat, from affordable insides to the huge, incredibly lavish Garden Villas, the biggest and most luxurious accommodations afloat.
Where To? Norwegian Jewel offers Caribbean cruises from Miami in the winter and spring, and Baltic cruises in the summer. Norwegian Pearl spends its spring and summer season in Alaska before moving to the Caribbean for the fall and winter. Norwegian Gem will spend the spring and summer in the Western Mediterranean and the fall in winter in the Bahamas and Caribbean.
Why? Carnival became the largest and most profitable cruise line and revolutionized cruising by emphasizing fun over luxury, and attracting boatloads of first-timers (no pun intended) in the process. Their ships became renowned as a sort of Las Vegas afloat, with the cruise industry’s most active nightlife scene along with the added benefit of the Caribbean sun by day. These five ships are the biggest, newest Fun Ships yet, and as such they stand ready to delight fun-loving first-timers everywhere.
What Else? Despite their roots, fun no longer comes at the expense of luxury on Carnival. New features like spacious balcony cabins and suites, upscale “supper club” alternative restaurants, lavish spas, plush new bedding, and greatly improved food (thanks to a partnership with Michelin-starred chef Georges Blanc) and service mean that Carnival isn’t just for the party set any more. But along with the new, upscale features, the glitzy decor and active nightlife remain—so fun-lovers who like excellent fine dining or spa treatments can have their cake and eat it too.
Where To? While these largest of Carnival ships spend most of their time in the Caribbean, Carnival Liberty and Carnival Freedom have been wildly successful with summer seasons in the Mediterranean.
Why? These are the only ships in the world designed and built from the ground-up as “family” cruise ships, with the most extensive children’s facilities at sea. Eight years after Disney Magic entered service, they still have not been topped.
What Else? Even though Disney dedicates more of its ships’ space and facilities to kids than any other line, adults need not feel left out. Aside from the dedicated kids’ areas and the areas that appeal to all age groups, adults-only facilities include the Paolo alternative restaurant, Quiet Cove pool and the Vista Spa.
Where To? While both ships initially operated three- and four-day Bahamas cruises from Port Canaveral, today these itineraries are the province of Disney Wonder, while Magic alternates between seven-day Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises. Disney is experimenting with Magic’s summer home; in 2008, the ship will be based in Los Angeles, cruising the Mexican Riviera.
Best Informal Cruise Experience: Ocean Village and Ocean Village 2
Why? These U.K.-based ships operate on the “cheap and cheerful” premise and are terrific choices for families, not to mention folks who want to experience the mainstream elements of cruising—without dressing up.
What Else? While its fleet is made up of older vessels, the two-ship line has invested in significant refurbishments to both ships. Of note are the expansive spa and fitness facilities and plenty of low-key eating and drinking places. Shore excursions are primarily geared to active, fun-loving travelers of any age.
Where To? Both ships winter in the Caribbean and summer in the Mediterranean. Fly-to packages are available.
Why? Youth facilities aboard Freedom of the Seas—the largest cruise ship in the world—are among the largest and most lavish at sea, and Fuel in particular, is a fabulous place for teens to hang out. Perhaps more importantly, the ship offers an astounding range of all-ages facilities that kids in the 10-plus range will particularly enjoy. Among other features, there is a rock-climbing wall, ice skating rink, fabulous FlowRider surf park, an indoor promenade resembling an upscale shopping mall, and even a Johnny Rockets fast-food franchise.
What Else? These ships also offer the full range of typical Royal Caribbean amenities, including a lavish show lounge, a state-of-the-art spa, and several alternative restaurants. Even experienced cruisers who have only been aboard smaller ships are awed upon seeing the Royal Promenade—like an indoor, pedestrian-only Main Street—and the gorgeous, three-deck-high dining room topped by a huge crystal chandelier.
Where To? Freedom of the Seas operates year-round seven-day Western Caribbean cruises from Miami. Liberty also spends the year in the Caribbean, alternating between weeklong Western and Eastern sailings. Independence of the Seas will be based in Southampton and will offer European itineraries, including the 14-night “Mediterranean Treasures” and “Italian Mediterranean” cruises.
Why? The newest and largest members of Princess‘ Grand class of ships, these vessels please everyone from kids to seniors and in between. With a great blend of fun (an outdoor, “drive-in” style movie screen) and elegance (formal afternoon tea), these ships truly have something for everyone.
What Else? The Lotus Spa is one of the finest at sea, while Sabbatini’s Trattoria, one of the cruise industry’s first alternative restaurants, remains among the best for its over-the-top Italian feasts. Unusually for mass-market ships, Princess vessels offer a wide-ranging enrichment program, with subjects ranging from cooking and pottery to computers and personal finance. And of course, there’s the Personal Choice Dining program, which offers passengers a choice between open seating or traditional two-seating dining in separate main dining rooms. Also fantastic on Crown and Emerald Princess is the serene Sanctuary, a top-deck, adults-only space outfitted with plush Italian chaise lounges, healthy food service and cabanas for alfresco massages.
Where To? Caribbean Princess offers a variety of Caribbean cruises, with a handful of Canada and New England sailings in the fall. Crown Princess summers in Northern Europe and winters in the Caribbean, while Emerald Princess sails Mediterranean cruises during the spring and summer season before repositioning to the Southern Caribbean for the fall and winter. Ruby Princess, which debuts in November, will cruise the Western Caribbean roundtrip from Ft. Lauderdale.
Why? These stylish Italian ships offer an authentic Italian cruise experience.
What Else? While these ships appear traditional on paper—two seatings for dinner, no alternative restaurants, a relatively formal dress code—the onboard experience is a world away from Carnival or Royal Caribbean. The cuisine is strictly Italian and the entertainment is led by a group of energetic young Italians known as the Animation Team who take the place of a cruise staff.
Where To? In the winter, MSC Lirica offers a slice of Europe in the Caribbean. In the summer, it alternates seven-night Baltic and Norwegian Fjords itineraries from Copenhagen, with a fall stint in the Western Mediterranean. Opera sails Eastern Mediterranean and Northern Europe cruises through November when it will reposition to South America. MSC Orchestra cruises the Western Mediterranean, with a few months spent in the Caribbean.
Why? These joint flagships of the Holland America Line fleet take their mostly older passengers to a wide range of destinations around the world in comfort and elegance.
What Else? Comfortably mid-sized, these ships are easy to get around, while offering most of the amenities of larger vessels. Their high speed allows them to spend more time in port than competing ships, and their spacious cabins, bigger than those aboard competing ships, are appreciated on their mostly longer itineraries.
Where To? Amsterdam will visit Alaska, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, South America, and the Panama Canal after it’s Grand World Voyage in 2008. The Rotterdam winters in South America and summers in Europe, with its own Grand World Voyage planned for 2009.
Why? A cruise aboard one of the SeaDream twins—re-inventions of the original ultra-luxury cruise ships, Sea Goddess I and II—is like sailing in the most luxurious mega-yacht imaginable. You’re one of just 110 folks onboard, and because of the exceptional public areas, spread out all around the ship, you’ll feel almost as if you’re the only one onboard.
What Else? SeaDream ships don’t have balconies but you won’t miss them for a minute. First, the cabins are beautifully outfitted, with state-of-the-art entertainment features (flat-screen televisions, DVD and CD players) and bedding is ultra-luxe. We found the staterooms cozy. Beyond that, the Balinese Beds, tucked around the smokestack, offer a more fabulous view than any balcony could—and you can order food and drinks to be enjoyed there.
Where To? The twins spend their winters in the Caribbean and summers in the Mediterranean, visiting idyllic off-the-beaten-path ports larger ships can’t reach.
Why? These ships offer a refined, elegant yet casual (there are no formal nights) product on par with many far more expensive lines. Beyond that? Oceania offers interesting, well-planned itineraries at surprisingly affordable fares.
What Else? The renowned chef Jacques Pepin designs the company’s menus, contributing to one of the finest dining experiences at sea, available in four different open-seating restaurants. Another signature is the company’s dreamily comfortable Tranquility Beds, which can be credited with setting off the luxury-bedding craze in the cruise industry. The cruise line continues to upgrade its ships—Insignia, for instance, has a fabulous pool deck with private cabanas for rent.
Where To? These three ships are true globetrotters, covering destinations as wide-ranging as Europe, the Caribbean, South America, and Asia.
Why? Designed more as a floating high-end boutique hotel than a cruise ship, the world’s second all-suite, all-balcony ship (the older Seven Seas Mariner was the first) offers palatial accommodations to every passenger. The atmosphere onboard is a nice blend of cruise traditions (afternoon tea and evening entertainment) and contemporary features, such as open-seating dining.
What Else? Speaking of which, the ship’s four restaurants offer outstanding cuisine and service (its buffet venue is the nicest in cruising) and include one of only two cruise ship restaurants (the other is aboard Seven Seas Mariner) to be run in partnership with the famed Cordon Bleu culinary academy. Another plus: complimentary wines are served at dinner.
Where To? Seven Seas Voyager spends summer and fall in Europe, early winter in the Caribbean and late winter and spring on a world cruise.
Adventure and Eco-Oriented Cruising
Best for Sailing Enthusiasts: Royal Clipper
Why? It’s the largest square-rigged sailing ship in the world.
What Else? Unlike many other “sail-cruise” ships, Royal Clipper offers an authentic tall ship experience without sacrificing the creature comforts, including several elegant suites and a (rather small) spa with unique undersea portholes.
Where To? Royal Clipper spends summers in the Mediterranean and winters in the Caribbean, bringing passengers to these popular areas with a grace and style other ships just can’t match.
Why? Seasickness is a remote chance on the inland rivers plied by these authentic steamboats.
What Else? One of the last authentic steamboats on America’s rivers, Mississippi Queen blends a Victorian appearance and authentic steam engines with modern amenities like a small swimming pool and fitness center. The ship offers a relaxed and comfortable—even luxurious—way to get a unique view of America.
Where To? Mississippi Queen and Delta Queen ply the rivers and coastal waterways of the American South and Midwest year-round.
Best for Nature- and Adventure-Lovers: National Geographic Endeavour
Why? This expedition cruise ship combines the unmatched expertise of the National Geographic Society and expedition-cruise pioneers Lindblad Expeditions.
What Else? While the attractions here are undoubtedly the itineraries and the fantastic lecture program led by National Geographic experts, the ship maintains a high standard of food and service, and features amenities such as a fitness center, outdoor pool (for warmer climes), and beauty salon that many other expedition vessels lack.
Where To? National Geographic Explorer literally sails to the ends of the earth; she travels to the Arctic in the northern summer, the Antarctic in the northern winter, and to a wide array of other destinations including the Baltic, Western Europe, the Mediterranean, South America and the South Pacific in between.
Best for Budget Travelers: easyCruiseOne
Why? Brought to you by Stelios, the “serial entrepreneur” most famous for easyJet, this tiny ship offers outrageously cheap-yet comfortable no-frills cruises to alluring Mediterranean ports.
What Else? Fares are kept low by operating on a “pay as you go” scheme where meals and even housekeeping services are offered at an extra charge. The ship’s long days in port—lasting well into the night so that passengers can sample the local nightlife—mean that most time is spent ashore, and many passengers never even eat on the ship. The spartan but clean and comfortable vessel is just a mode of transport and a place to sleep—the destinations are the focus here.
Where To? easyCruiseOne sails on four- to 10-night cruises around Greece (including the Greek Isles) and Turkey.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Cruise Critic. SmarterTravel.com is published by Smarter Travel Media LLC, which also owns Cruise Critic.