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Luxury Cruising Comes in Many Sizes-a comparison of a large and small ocean going ship, a riverboat and a barge as to which provides the most for your money
BY STEVEN B. STERN MONDAY AUGUST 11, 2014 3:39:09 PM  
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Luxury Cruising Comes in Many Shapes & Sizes

 

          In my cruise travels, I frequently meet seasoned cruise aficionados who maintain that they will only travel on luxury ships.  Hey, if you can afford it, go for it. Certainly the cruise industry is replete with luxury experiences. Although in my cruise guides, I have only classified a few cruise lines as truly "luxury." Several others I have designated as "premium deluxe", or bordering on luxury. In addition there are many premium and mass market cruise lines that provide comparable luxury in their highest priced suites.

          This summer, we booked four back-to-back cruises in order to compare luxury experiences on different size vessels. We progressed from Cunard's Queen Elizabeth’s Grill Class, a large ocean-going vessel, to Windstar's new Star Pride, formerly Seabourn Pride, a small, yacht-like vessel, to Uniworld's new Catherine, a luxury riverboat, and finally C'est La Vie, one of the many luxury barges that ply the waterways of France. The quest was to compare each vessel as to what they provided and their relative value for the price. Note that what is included in the cruise fare differs among the ships reviewed.

          It is difficult to determine what each ship charges because of the difference in room categories, and the discounted fares that are frequently offered. However, assuming we are focusing on luxury accommodations (the better suites, but not necessarily the most expensive), the per person, per diem charges without discounts, port charges and other extras, seemed to average out about as follow:

 

--Grill Rooms on Queen Elizabeth:   from  $ 580 to $1,000  pp/pd

   (the higher the price, the larger the suite)

 

--Luxury suite with full balcony on Star Pride: $860 to $930 pp/pd

 

--Suite with balcony on Catherina: $650 to $1000 pp/pd

(the higher the price, the larger the suite)

 

--C'est La Vie:   $980 pp/pd

 

          Of course, most of the non-deluxe staterooms on the first three of these ships go for less.

 

 

 

A Large Luxury Ocean-Going Vessel-- Cunard's Queen Elizabeth (Grill Class):

 

                The 90,400-ton, 2,068-passenger Queen Elizabeth entered service in 2010. The unique feature on this ship, as on all the Queens, is the existence of a special section known as "Grill Class" for the guests opting for the most expensive accommodations. On these ships there are two Grill Classes: the Queen's Grill and the Princess Grill. Passengers who select suites  ranging in size between 506-to 2,249-square feet enjoy the privilege of dining in the Queen's Grill, while those booking the less expensive (but not inexpensive) suites ranging in size between 335-and 513-square feet dine in the Princess Grill. Both dining rooms are very elegant and enjoy panoramic views out to the sea. The service is impeccable and the menu choices are more extensive than found on the rest of the ship. In both, dining times are flexible; however guests have assigned tables. Non Grill-Class passengers dine in the Britannia Restaurant with the higher priced Britannia-Class staterooms seated in their own special section.

        All Grill-Class passengers enjoy certain exclusive areas on the ship accessible only with their room keys, including an outdoor courtyard for alfresco dining, their own deck area atop ship with sun beds and beverage service, and a private bar and lounge, as well as a dedicated concierge. The amenities in the room are also more generous and include pre-dinner canapés, flowers and fresh fruit, and a welcome bottle of Champagne for Queen's Grill guests and a bottle of wine for Princess Grill guests. Queen’s Grill guests enjoy somewhat greater perks. They have butlers, a greater number of menu choices and receive 2 bottles of spirits upon arrival (wine and/or liquor) which  will be  replenished upon request.  

        Other than as described above, wine and alcoholic beverages are not included, nor are shore excursions or Internet. However, passengers who have sailed frequently with Cunard earn various hours of free Internet access. Actually the amenities are not any greater than suite guests receive on most other ships. The big attraction is the private dining rooms, lounge and outside deck space.

        During our voyage we dined in  both Grill rooms as well as the Britannia Club and Britannia Restaurant.  When weather permitted, we especially enjoyed breakfast and lunch in the open-air courtyard, which was available to both Queen's Grill and Princess Grill guests. An excellent dining experience is the Veranda, a specialty, reservation-only, a la carte restaurant created by Michelin-stared chef, Jean Marie Zimmermann. Here, guests can choose between an impressive array of individually priced French and continental selections and a $35 price-fixed menu.

As for the ship itself, she is a traditionally decorated vessel with most of the common areas and the plethora of activities found on premium vessels of this size. Although most Grill guests seem to prefer the exclusivity of their private dining rooms or room service, other dining possibilities include: an English pub serving the likes of fish and chips and bangers and mash, the afore-described Veranda, and an extensive buffet facility. A section of the buffet restaurant is sectioned off in the evening and offers an alternating Asian, Indian and steak-house cuisine.($10 charge). Needless to say this venue is seldom frequented by Grill guests.

        Of course the public areas throughout the ship are available to all Passengers. The Royal Court serves as a showroom for production shows and movies; the Queens Room is the setting for cocktail receptions, concerts, afternoon tea, pre- and post-dinner dancing and even fencing lessons; the Commodore Club, the Chart Room, Café Carinthia, the Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar, the Winter Garden, Churchill's Cigar Lounge and the Gold Lion Pub are just a few of the popular venues to imbibe. The ship also boasts a two-story library,   an internet café, a  casino, the Royal Spa and Health Club, card rooms, shops, complimentary self-service Laundromats, and two swimming pools with adjoining spas.

        Noteworthy on all Cunard ships is the lecture programs which feature speakers from varied walks of life. Helpful port talks cover information both for those going on tours and those choosing to travel independently.

 

        Queen Elizabeth offered a variety of Mediterranean itineraries during the summer and fall of 2014, departing for a world cruise in early 2015. Our cruise departed from Venice and terminated in Athens. During our seven days aboard, we visited Korcula, Heraklion, Rhodes, and Kusadasi with two days at sea.  Shore excursions were offered at all of the stops. Having visited these ports previously, we opted to avoid the rather hefty expense of the tours and go off on our own. Although Grill-Class passengers received priority embarkation and debarkation, the cost of the tours was not included.

        Overall, luxury as exemplified in Grill Class on Cunard's three Queens is of a more formal, or if you will, a more British-elegant style. Men and women dress for dinner and the waiters and maitre d' are always very polite, proper and solicitous of passenger needs and requests.  In many ways it is a blast from the past of cruising on the great ocean liners.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Yacht-Like Ocean-Going Vessel-- Windstar's Star Pride

 

        We disembarked the Queen Elizabeth in Athens and spent two nights at the Athens Intercontinental, killing time until the Star Pride arrived in Piraeus, the port of Athens..

         The 212-passenger, 9,975-ton Star Pride originally entered service in 1988 as the Seabourn Pride of the prestigious Seabourn Cruise Line. She received numerous renovations when taken over by Windstar in the spring of 2014. Two additional Seabourn ships are scheduled to be transferred to Windstar in the spring of 2015. The cruise line is technically competing in the premium not the luxury cruise market; however, we found the spacious accommodations more akin to luxury vessels.

        Once aboard, we took a look around to see how the ship had changed since we sailed on her with Seabourn. Although we were advised of various renovations and changes made by Windstar, she still looked very much the same as in her prior life.

The cruise line had only three weeks to conduct renovations after the ship was transferred prior to the first sailing. During that period the prior Observation Lounge was transformed into the Yacht Club, a chic coffee bar and lounge where passengers can enjoy specialty coffees and various sandwiches and pastries.  The former lounge on Deck 5 was redesigned with all new contemporary furnishings and renamed Compass Rose. The outdoor area of the Veranda buffet restaurant was expanded and given a new protective covering. The sitting areas in the suites were refurbished. Remaining items scheduled to be completed include renovation of the main lounge, replacement of the carpeting in the corridors and public areas, and updating other areas around the ship. The attractive spiral staircase that connects the various levels was still intact.

On Star Pride, as previously on Seabourn Pride, all 106 accommodations are suites, with expansive living areas; some open up to a French balcony, others have a large picture window.

The 62 Ocean View Suites and 36 Balcony Suites measure a generous 277 square feet. The balconies are French style, allowing passengers to peek out and enjoy the sunshine and fresh sea air; but too small to accommodate a chair or table.

        For the passenger requiring more space and luxury, there are two 400 square-foot Classic Suites and two 575-square-foot Owner’s Suites located at the bow of the ship, and two 530-square-foot Owner’s Suites mid ship. These six larger suites have small private verandas. Every accommodation on the ship faces the sea, is extremely comfortable, and highly desirable.

        We had one of the thirty-six French Balcony Suites which we found spacious, beautifully furnished, with very generous storage space.   Both the Balcony and Ocean View Suites have sitting areas separating them from the bedroom section, and are furnished with  a desk/make-up area, cabinetry, a hair dryer, flat-screen TV, a DVD player, armchairs, a sofa, a coffee table, a refrigerator, and a mini bar. Off the bedroom was a large walk-in closet with a private safe, robes and slippers. The attractive marble bathrooms, which have not changed from Seabourn days, include twin-sink vanities, a shower or shower/tub combination, ample storage space, many mirrors and deluxe amenities.

        .

        The Yacht Club and Star Bar are at the very top of the ship.   The swimming pool, whirlpools, spa, beauty salon, fitness center, the Bridge and the indoor/outdoor Veranda Café are located one deck below on Deck 7. The Veranda Café features an inviting buffet during the day, with plentiful outdoor seating under a shaded awning. In the evening the venue transforms to Candles Grill, a reservation-only steak and seafood restaurant with table service under the stars.  On Deck 6 are the Compass Rose lounge and night club along with a small casino, library and signature shop. Reception, the main lounge and computer center are on Deck 5, while AmphoA, Windstar's main dining room, and the Marina sport platform are on Deck 3. As on the other Windstar ships, at the Marina kayaks, paddleboards, water skis  and other water toys are available to passengers. The decks are connected by two staircases and three elevators. The main spiral staircase was one of the signature features on Seabourn and continues to add to the ambiance of the new Star Pride.

        In all of the dining venues, no jackets or ties are required, and we were free to eat when, where and with whomever we pleased. There was no charge for soft drinks throughout the ship and even Candles, the specialty restaurant, was complimentary.

        A very talented Filipino band performed music from the 50s through the present for listening and dancing each evening in the main lounge, and an excellent duo was featured in Compass Rose. Other than roulette, blackjack and slots in the small casino, there was no other evening entertainment. Each day of our cruise, the ship was in some port, and there were no daytime activities.

        Our nine day itinerary included stops at Hydra, Itea for Delphi, and Zakynthos in Greece, Butrint National Park in Albania, Kotor in Montenegro, and Dubrovnik and Hvar in Croatia before returning to Venice. Unfortunately we had to disembark in Dubrovnik in order to be in time to catch our next cruise in France.

A variety of excursions were offered at each port.  Passengers could choose city walking tours, explorations of ancient ruins, visits to historical churches and monuments, as well as scenic rides by  4 x 4 vehicles, boats and kayaks. Several included   visits to local restaurants and taverns to taste  typical  dishes and beverages. Although priced at no more than on other ships, taking tours in each port could easily exceed the price of the cruise; and therefore, we again elected to venture out on our own.

 

        Whereas, when the ship was owned by Seabourn, all soft drinks, wines, spirits, specialty coffee drinks, tips, Internet, as well as, some excursions were included; this is not the case with Windstar.  Seabourn ships were known for their incredible service, the waiters learned the passenger names and preferences, and you could order champagne and caviar any time of the day to be delivered anywhere on the ship. Although Windstar had a tough act to follow, we found the largely Filipino and Indonesian crew to be friendly and excellent at their particular jobs, and superior to other cruise lines in Windstar's market category.

        Overall we were quite impressed with the product. Both dining and service were excellent; our accommodations, though not the top suites, were spacious. We especially appreciated the ambiance of this yacht-like vessel.

 

 

A Luxury Riverboat--Uniworld Boutique River Cruises' Catherine

       

        We flew into Marseille as did the other passengers and were met at the airport by the cruise line and taken by bus to Avignon where the Catherine was docked.

        Uniworld Boutique River Cruises is an all-inclusive line wherein airport transfers, most escorted excursions, gratuities, soft drinks, wines, spirits, specialty coffees, a self-service laundry room and Internet are all included. The most expensive suites have free laundry service and a private butler as well. Not included were some of the more desired tours involving wine tasting, cooking demonstrations and meals.

                We booked one of the twenty-two 194-square-foot faux balcony suites. The faux balconies are technically not outside balconies, nor French balconies. A separate area within the stateroom facing the river is divided from the bedroom by a curtain and glass doors, forming a separate alcove. Half of the floor to ceiling window in this alcove can be mechanically opened giving one the feeling of being on an outdoor balcony while still being protected from the elements.

 For those requiring more luxurious accommodations, there were five 305-square-foot suites and one 410-square-foot Royal Suite with the same faux balconies.  Accommodations on the deck below us had the same windows without the glass door and curtain.  Staterooms on the bottom deck had small windows that did not open.

        The décor of the accommodations is exquisite, heads above that found on other river boats. The bedding, pillows and robes were posh, the storage space generous, and the multi-mirrored bathroom included a large glassed-in shower. One of the perks we especially appreciated was the self-service laundry. Having been traveling for some time, it was a convenience to wash our clothes whenever we wanted without incurring the stiff charge required on most other ships. 

         Catherine, like its sister ship, Antoinette, offers passengers a lot for their money, as well as more facilities and dining venues. In addition to the standard main bar/lounge, dining room, information area, and sun deck found on most other riverboats, Catherine's public areas include a spa/treatment room, a small gym with cardio equipment and weights, a fleet of bicycles, and the unique Leopard Lounge. A portion of this lounge houses a small glassed-in swimming pool, while the remaining space acts as a casual gathering place for coffee, cards and relaxing during the day, and an alternative dining spot for light meals including outdoor seating for those wishing to dine alfresco. The ship does not have the movie theater, or the L’Orangerie specialty restaurant found on the Antoinette

. The most impressive feature on the ship was the million dollar collection of art that adorns every wall in the corridors and public rooms, including pieces from Chagall and Miro, as well as a magnificent Murano chandelier and waterfall in the lobby. The imaginative combination of crystal, marble, brass and mirrors throughout all the public areas embellishes the total affect.

         During our seven-day journey, tours were offered in the medieval cities of Arles and Avignon,Viviers, Tournon, Tain l'Hermitage, Chalon-surSaone, and Lyon. All of the excursions and tour leaders were excellent and the special ear phones provided enabled us to follow the tour guide even if we happened to stray away from the pack.  There was a charge for the more special tours such as the visit to an olive farm in Les Baux, a cooking lesson in Avignon, a wine tasting at Chateauneuf du Pape, a cooking demonstration at the Bocuse Institute, and lunch and a wine tasting at Chateau Rully.

        In the morning breakfast was served in the Cezanne Restaurant between 7:00 and 9:30 with both a buffet table and items that could be ordered off the menu.  For early and late risers, coffee, tea, juice and rolls were available in the Leopard Lounge at the aft of the ship. A buffet lunch was served in the Cezanne Restaurant with a plethora of warm and cold items to choose from. A multi-course dinner was also served here. Passengers had an option at both lunch and dinner to opt for a lighter meal in the Leopard Lounge. We were delighted with the variety and quality of everything served at all of the meals.

        Service was impeccable both in the staterooms and dining room.  Most of the crew were from Romania, Hungary, Serbia and Slovakia. I have rarely encountered a more friendly and competent service staff.

        Alcoholic and soft beverages were available around the clock throughout the ship, and a variety of local wines were served with the meals.

        Each evening, at cocktail hour, the cruise director gave a talk on the excursions for the following day. Overall entertainment and activities were more limited than we found on other riverboats. A piano player and singer provided nightly entertainment. On a few evenings mediocre  performers were brought aboard from the cities.

        In the spring of 2015, Uniworld will introduce a third sister ship, S.S. Maria Theresa which will be sailing an itinerary between  Budapest and Amsterdam, as well as,  a springtime Tulips and Windmills cruise in Holland.

        We especially appreciated the intimacy and camaraderie that the Catherine offers, as well as the fact that it is all inclusive. We met many interesting people, had a great rapport with the staff, and found ample time to relax. The excellent excursions are an added plus. Like its sister ship, Antoinette, Catherine offers the epitome of luxury in riverboat cruising. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Luxury Barge--C'est La Vie

 

 

        Following our cruise on the Catherine, we took a train from Lyon to Paris where the barge crew picked us up along with the other passengers at the Paris Hyatt L’etoile. From there we were taken by bus to where the C'est La Vie was anchored in the village of Meux. (As an aside, I do not advise train rides when you are toting four heavy suitcases.)

        Barge cruising has been one of my passions ever since my first experience 15 years ago. For me, few nautical adventures compare to lazing on the outside deck, nestled in a comfortable lounge chair with a glass of fine wine while your semi-private barge meanders along picturesque waterways lined with small villages, vineyards, and verdant forestry.

          French Country Waterways, European Waterways and Orient Express are three companies that own, operate and market their own barges. There are dozens of other barges that are privately owned and marketed by travel agencies such as Texas-based France Cruises.  On many of these privately owned barges the owner is frequently the captain or chef.   C'est La Vie is one of these owner-captain vessels. Captain Olivier Megret, his charming wife, Deborah, and all four crew members spoke both French and English.

        As you enter the barge, you pass through the partially-protected, outside deck area to the main salon/dining room. The room is flooded with light from large picture windows, decorated with plants and flowers, and is furnished with three comfortable two-seater couches, two arm chairs, a coffee table and a wood bar. Available here is the use of a CD player, IPod docking station, surround-sound stereo system, a small library, board games, and a computer with Internet access. Toward the back of the salon is a buffet and the dining table which is always elegantly set for all eight guests with fine linens, sparkling crystal, porcelain china and candles at dinner time.

        .               Accommodations on barges vary among vessels. The most  upscale (and expensive) often have cabins  from 200 to 270 square feet with large bathrooms, flat-screen TVs, DVD players, private  safes, hair dryers, and decent storage.  However most barges are in the 110  to 150 square-foot range with  small attached bathrooms.  Our suite on C'est La Vie was 218 square feet, the other three ranged in size from 208 to 228 square feet. (Measurements include the bathrooms).

 

         The four suites were located on a deck below the main salon. Each was paneled in ash and cherry wood with  portholes on each side of the bedroom, offered a choice of queen or twin beds, and included two bedside tables with reading lamps, a large double wardrobe with hanging space, a smaller wardrobe with  five shelves,  a chest of six drawers, a writing desk with three drawers, and two arm chairs.  This was better storage space than we found on most riverboats and cruise ships.

        The tiled bathroom in each stateroom had a porthole, generous storage space, a large three-foot by three-foot shower with double glass doors and side jets,  a marble top vanity unit with a single round sink and  full width mirror, a hairdryer, bathrobes, slippers and L'Occitane bath products.

                The barge's mini-bus followed us along the waterways, was used by the chef for shopping, and by Glen, our excellent tour director, for  transportation on our daily excursions. I had barged with Glen on two prior occasions when he was with French Country Waterways.

        The C'est La Vie cruised from Chateau-Thierry to Maizy through the Champagne  region of France. The tours included the Gothic Cathedral of Reims, the World War I battlefield and cemetery at Belleau Wood, a tour and tasting at Moet & Chandon Champagne house in Epernay, the historical Chateau and grand gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte, a Brie cheese factory, explorations of charming towns and villages,  and dinner at Les Crayers in Reims, the famous Michelin two star restaurant.

        Given all of the other wonderful aspects of the cruise, dining and imbibing were still the highlights. Each morning there were freshly baked croissants, baguettes, and pâin de raison, as well as fresh fruits, juices, cereals, espresso, cappuccino and more hearty fare if requested. At lunch, our fabulous chef, Joseph, prepared a gourmet buffet composed of imaginative salads, quiches, patès, and cold meats, fowl and sea food. Our four course dinner included a starter such as escargot, gravlox, or foie gras, followed by  a main course, a cheese tasting, and dessert. Both meals were accompanied by a different red and white French wine, some being premier and grand crus.  At these meals, the staff offered a description of the wines and cheeses that were featured.  After dinner, coffee and liqueurs were served in the lounge.  

The dress code was casual, except at the Captain's dinner and at Les Crayères, when men wore jackets and women cocktail dresses or suits. Unlimited soft drinks, alcoholic beverages and fine wines and Champagne were available around the clock free of charge.

        The outside deck area was partially protected from the elements and included lounge chairs and a dining table for occasional alfresco lunches. A fleet of eight bicycles was available for guests wishing to explore the villages and countryside bordering the canals. Since the barge travels slowly, those wishing to walk or cycle could easily disembark while passing through a lock and re-join at another lock or town further down the canal.

        With just four couples aboard, while being pampered by a service staff of seven, we felt like guests on some billionaire's private yacht. Having our transfers to and from the ship, all excursions, meals ashore, fine wines and cheeses, all soft drinks and spirits included made the cruise especially enjoyable.  However, as on all barges, there is no laundry service for the passengers, iand you are expected to leave a healthy tip for the staff at the end of the trip.

        Granted, not all barges offer the outstanding luxury we enjoyed on C'est La Vie, however, many provide a somewhat similar experience.

 

 

CONCLUSION--

 

        Those cruisers seeking luxury experiences have many choices and are not limited to only large ocean-going vessels. However, if entertainment and numerous dining options are important, larger ships are the best bet. Small, yacht-like ships and riverboats also offer dining alternatives and entertainment, just not as much. However, what they do offer is more intimacy, fewer passengers, enhanced personal service, plus an opportunity to visit places not accessible to larger craft. Barge travel is a different species altogether, and for barge aficionados, it is the ultimate in tranquil luxury.

        It is difficult to say which gives you the most for your money, since that depends upon what aspect of a cruise is most important. For some it is the size of their suite; for others it is the quality of the dining and service; and for many it is the convenience of having everything included in the fare. In any event luxury cruising does come in many shapes and sizes.

 

 

 

AMENITY COMPARISON CHART

 

                                  QUEEN ELIZABETH      STAR PRIDE      CATHERINE          C’EST LA VIE

                                      GRILL CLASS ONLY

INCLUSIONS:

 

Gratuities                          no                               no                            yes                          no

 

Excursions                            no                                            no                            yes                          yes

 

Transfers                              no                                            no                            yes                          yes

 

Soft Drinks                          yes                                          yes                          yes                          yes

 

Wine with Meals no                                            no                            yes                          yes

 

Spirits                   Queen’s yes/Princess no                   no                            yes                          yes

 

Butler Service     Queen’s yes/Princess no                no                         top suites            no

 

Square footage     Queen/s 506’-2,249’                   400’-575’               305’-410’             N/A

Of top suites         Princess 335’-513’

 

          

 

 

by Steven B. Stern

 

 (author of Stern's Guide to the Cruise Vacation and Stern's Guide to European Riverboats and Hotel Barges.)

 

                                               

                                               

Cunard Cruise Line                 Windstar  Cruises 

In US (800)728-6273              (800) 258-7245                        

In U.K. 0044 8450710300     

 

Uniworld Boutique                   C'est La Vie

River Cruises                            c/o France Cruises

(800) 733-7820                         (866) 498-3920

 

                                                        

                                                                                                                                                


 
 
     
 
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