Smooth Sailing

Cruising: On a luxury liner, expect top-notch treatment and a grand time.

February 03, 2002|BY JAY CLARKE | BY JAY CLARKE,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

You've cruised on the big ships that ply the Caribbean, maybe even sailed on one in Alaska or Europe. They've been good experiences, but now you want to step up to the top tier of cruising.

Yes, it's going to cost more, maybe a lot more -- but you can't expect champagne on a beer budget. Where a mass-market cruise may cost $100 to $300 a day per person, a luxury ship usually runs anywhere from $250 to $900 a day.

But in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, cruise prices are at their lowest in years, so this is a good time to go for the gold in cruising.

Some luxury lines have dropped prices more than 50 percent, while others are offering free air transportation, two-for-one deals and other incentives.

Seabourn, for example, will fly passengers free to meet its ships in Europe and Asia or give them discounts up to 45 percent. Radisson Seven Seas is giving out two-for-one deals on select sailings, 50 percent off for second guests on others, free air on some cruises and reducing the lead time to be eligible for early booking discounts.

Windstar has shifted its Wind Surf to Fort Lauderdale this winter and is offering discounted seven-day round trips, some more than 50 percent lower than its regular price. And Silversea, which says it never discounts, has a $1,000-off deal for new guests in addition to its normal advance-payment incentive of 15 percent off.

But even at their discounted rates, fares on luxury lines are still considerably higher than those on the mainstream ships of Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Holland America, Princess and Celebrity. What you get for the additional fee, though, is an experience that is entirely different -- and addictively pleasant. And when you add in the extras you'd pay for drinks, wine, alternative restaurants and tips on a less expensive ship, the cost might not be so different.

On a recent voyage on Silversea Cruises' Silver Whisper, for example, my wife and I never had to queue up to take dinner at a certain hour. We went to the dining room any time between 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., and sat with whomever we wanted. No one was assigned a specific table or waiter, as is customary on many cruise lines.

When we ordered a soda, a cocktail or a glass of wine, the waiters never came to us with a chit to sign. All drinks were included in the price of the cruise.

And at the end of our cruise, we didn't have to worry about stuffing gratuities into envelopes to present to the waiter, busboy and cabin attendant. There was no tipping on this ship.

That's just for starters. What really sets luxury ships apart from the others is their high quality of service.

When I ordered a room-service meal on the Silver Whisper, it was delivered to my cabin within 10 minutes. If you've ever ordered room service on some of the mass-market ships, you're lucky if it arrives within the hour.

When we wanted to rent a car during a port stop in Alaska, the concierge aboard the Radisson Seven Seas Navigator worked at it for a couple of days until she was able to confirm a car for us. Midrange ships don't even have a concierge.

And every time we encountered our Silver Whisper cabin stewardess -- even once ashore when she was on a break -- she met us with an infectious smile and a cheery greeting. It's always pleasant to feel you're a guest rather than a cash cow.

That kind of attention really made us feel special -- and we weren't the only ones who thought so.

"I like the concept that everything's taken care of," said Sandra Condon, a passenger on the Silver Whisper from Sterling, Colo. "You can sit down and enjoy people."

A people ship

Give and take between passengers is an important part of the luxury-liner experience. Luxury ships are smaller and more intimate -- most carry 100 to 400 passengers -- and on the ones we have sailed on it was never long before we got to know other passengers.

We found ourselves sharing thoughts and ideas with a variety of interesting people -- retired entrepreneurs who've made a bundle in real estate and stocks, middle-age couples who decided to splurge on an anniversary trip, business people taking a break between assignments, widows with a need to get away from their former lives.

You won't find many young families on these ships. They can't afford the tariff and, in any case, luxury ships are geared primarily to mature travelers. There's not the frenetic, go-go atmosphere that characterizes many mass-market ships; it's more like staying at a fine hotel.

On luxury ships, the staterooms are spacious and well appointed -- most have walk-in closets and tubs rather than showers. Most also have verandas, that most desired of seagoing perks. Radisson Seven Seas last year put into service the industry's first all-suite, all-veranda ship, the Mariner.

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