A review of selected cruise lines

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 56 of the October 2010 issue.

There are over 100 cruise lines, with more than 450 ships, listed in the bible of cruising, Kay Showker’s “The Unofficial Guide to Cruises,” 11th edition (2010. John Wiley & Sons. 690 pp., $23.99). And even Showker doesn’t list all the ships or lines, nor does she critically review some of the smaller ones of note.

To help you choose the right ocean or river cruise for your next vacation, I will give you my assessments and opinions of a few of the lines which may be of interest to typical ITN readers, those of you who are experienced travelers keen on culture and learning and who often are budget conscious but willing to spend for good value.

Of the 13 lines described here, I have sailed with all but Cruise West, Fred. Olsen, Holland America and Lindblad/National Geographic Expeditions. For those four, I interviewed passengers or ex-crew, read online and printed reviews, studied each line’s evolution over time and, in some cases, recommended lines to friends and quizzed them upon their return.

I’m including phone numbers of the lines’ US offices. Here goes, in alphabetical order:

Blount Small Ship Adventures, formerly American Canadian Caribbean Line (800/556-7450, www.blountsmallshipadventures.com), with three vessels carrying 90 to 100 passengers each, offers cruises to Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Canada and the US.

Always informal atmosphere and dress code, with bargain prices. Get a free cruise after 10 sailings. Rather spartan cabins and small bathrooms. Family-style, nonfancy food. Free soft drinks and wine. Only one or two lecturers or historical impersonators per voyage. Bow ramp drops down for beach landings. Innovative electronic map in main lounge constantly shows exact position of the ship. No casino, floor shows or onboard shops. Very hardworking staff. Excellent value.

Cruise West (888/851-8133, www.cruisewest.com), with nine vessels carrying 96 to 138 passengers each, offers cruises to Alaska, Costa Rica, Panama, the Galápagos Islands and Antarctica.

The atmosphere and dress code are casual, oriented toward environmental education and wildlife viewing. Excellent lectures by famous naturalists plus excursions by Zodiac or from dockside in small towns. Bow-landing capabilities on two vessels. No large shows or casinos. Small bathrooms and cabins on some older ships. Cuisine and wine are better than those on most small expedition ships. Young, keen crew. One of the best of the small expedition lines.

Crystal Cruises (888/799-4625 or 866/446-6625), www.crystalcruises.com), with two ships carrying 922 or 1,080 passengers, offers cruises to the Baltic, the Mediterranean, Europe, Asia, Alaska, Canada, the Caribbean, Central America, the Panama Canal and Antarctica.

Beautiful vessels with upscale accommodations. Glamorous. A little glitzy. Broadway floor shows. Gentlemen hosts for dancing. Casino. Expert speakers. High-tech-computer and film-editing classes. Spacious ships with large cabins and relatively few passengers per 100 square feet, hence expensive — but worth it. Well-trained cruise directors and staff. Excellent food.

Cunard Line (800/728-6273, www.cunard.com), with three ships carrying 2,000 to 2,592 passengers each, offers transatlantic cruises and cruises to the Baltic, the Mediterranean, Europe, the Canaries/Madeira/Azores, Asia, the Panama Canal and South America. (One of the three ships, the new Queen Elizabeth, begins service in the fall of 2010.)

Traditional atmosphere with some formal nights (tux and cocktail dresses or evening gowns). Luxurious décor. 75% of cabins have balconies. Different prices and classes of cabins and service depending on the class of dining room selected. Specialty restaurants for à la carte dining (but often the focus is more on beautiful food than tasty). Casino. Planetarium on Queen Mary 2. High-end spas. World-class speakers and entertainment. These are, deservedly, the most famous ocean liners and megaships of all.

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines (phone +44 [0] 1473 746175 or, in the US, call Borton Overseas in Minneapolis, MN, at 800/843-0602 or 612/822-4640; www.fredolsencruises.co.uk), with four ships carrying 804 to 1,350 passengers each, offers cruises of the Norwegian coast, the Baltic, the Mediterranean, Iberia, West Africa/Canaries, Canada, the US and the Caribbean.

A very British experience. Reasonable prices. Travel insurance required. Excellent entertainment. Lots of games and quizzes. Décor rather dated. Dining rooms a little cramped. Food uneven. A great place to meet Brits.

In April 2012, the Balmoral will mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic by sailing from Southampton, England, to Cobh, Ireland, to New York City along its same route. Book now, but watch out for that iceberg!

French Country Waterways (800/222-1236; www.fcwl.com), with three vessels carrying eight to 12 passengers each, offers cruises on canals and rivers in Burgundy and Champagne, France.

Atmosphere and dress code are smart casual, with a major focus on wine and cheese — 23 premium varieties of each served in six days of cruising! Excellent food on board. All-inclusive price covers a dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant ashore. Beautiful locations. Bicycles on board for pedaling along the canals. Tours of local great houses and cathedrals. Caring, knowledgeable staff.

Increasing-percentage discounts for couples who are celebrating their fifth, 10th, 15th, etc., anniversaries anytime during the sailing year, up to a 50% discount for a 50th anniversary.

Holland America Line (877/932-4259, www.hollandamerica.com), with 15 vessels carrying 793 to 2,104 passengers, offers cruises across the Atlantic and to the Mediterranean, Asia, Africa, Alaska, the Caribbean, Mexico, the Panama Canal and South America.

Reliable, refined and traditional, with several formal nights per voyage. Attracts an older, quiet and affluent crowd who likes high quality. Special onboard Culinary Arts Center designed by Food & Wine magazine includes demos, guest lecturers, special menus, and cooking classes with guest participation.

Excellent daily ice cream bar. Book club on board. Public service projects ashore if you wish to volunteer. Private island in the Bahamas. Wheelchair-accessible tenders. Dutch officers and Indonesian crew. Almost-deluxe ships at reasonable prices. Good value.

Lindblad Expeditions (800/397-3348, www.expeditions.com) and National Geographic Expeditions (888/966-8687, www.national

geographicexpeditions.com). Lindblad owns five ships carrying 48 to 148 passengers each and charters five ships carrying 28 to 68 passengers each and offers cruises to Europe, the Baltic Sea, New Zealand, Egypt, West Africa, Atlantic Islands, the Arctic, Alaska, Central America, the Amazon, Galápagos and Antarctica.

These two companies are legally separate but have common goals and educational programs. The atmosphere and dress code generally are casual, in keeping with the expedition nature of the voyages. Zodiac trips to photograph birds and wildlife in remote locations. World-class lectures from top academic experts and explorers. Breakfast and lunch are buffet style, while dinner usually features table service, but the food is not elaborate. Cabins vary greatly by vessel.

Princess Cruises (800/774-6237, www.princess.com), with 17 ships carrying 670 to 3,100 passengers, cruises Scandinavia, the Baltic, the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, Australia/South Pacific, Alaska, the Caribbean and Mexico.

This is mass-market, middle-quality-range cruising. A bit crowded. The emphasis is on shopping, not academic lectures. Lots of jewelry, T-shirts and art for sale on board every day. Comfortable décor and cabins. The atmosphere and dress code usually are casual to smart casual, with two or three formal nights per voyage. Charges for soft drinks and other items. (Often you feel nickel-and-dimed for lots of small items.) 24-hour restaurants. Special multicourse tasting dinner at an extra charge. Casino. Discos. Las Vegas-style revues. Wedding chapels. Scuba diving and certification. Alaskan tours can be extended to Princess’ own Denali Lodge. Due to high volume, good deals can be had.

Star Clippers (800/442-0551, www.starclippers.com), with three vessels carrying 170 to 227 passengers each, offers transatlantic cruises and cruises across the Atlantic and to the Mediterranean, the Aegean, the Caribbean and Costa Rica.

This is tall-ship sailing made accessible. All three vessels resemble 19th-century sailing ships in their rigs and actually use their sails most of the time, but the ships are modern and the accommodations and décor very upscale. Casual to smart-casual atmosphere and dress code. Good food. Excellent multilingual crew and cruise directors. Scuba diving and certification. You don’t have to help with the sailing, but you can climb the mast if you like. No flogging!

Viking River Cruises (877/668-4546, www.vikingrivercruises.com), with 13 ships carrying 124 to 212 passengers each, offers cruises of European rivers and waterways.

Excellent docking locations in the centers of fascinating cities and destinations. Beautiful forward lounges with great views of rivers. Cabins range from plain to very attractive. Food average. Enthusiastic crews. Onboard lectures are weak, given mostly by the crew. No floor shows or casino. Smart-casual dress code. No formal nights. Bargains available in shoulder season and on short notice.

Voyages of Discovery (866/623-2689, www.voyagesofdiscovery.com), with one 650-passenger ship, offers cruises to the Baltic, Mediterranean, Black and Red seas, Greenland, Iceland, India, Southeast Asia and North, South and East Africa.

This vessel is the Discovery, previously the “Island Princess,” one of the famous TV “Love Boats.” Cruise entrepreneur Gerry Herrod refurbished the vessel, now owned by the British All Leisure Group but retaining the classic Herrod elements. Excellent onboard speakers and workshops at sea. Unusual itineraries. Excellent tours ashore. Local folkloric dance groups. Friendly Filipino staff and Scandinavian officers. Several restaurants with very good food. Special singles rates.

Zegrahm Expeditions (800/628-8747, www.zeco.com), with 10 vessels carrying 20 to 165 passengers each, offers cruises to the Baltic, Aegean, Black and Red seas, the Persian Gulf, the Faroes/Iceland, Azores/Canary Islands/Madeira, Japan, Indonesia, Palau, the South and North Pacific, Alaska, the Galápagos and Antarctica/Falklands.

The atmosphere and dress code are expedition casual during the day, with shorts, hiking boots or waterproof reef-walker shoes and Tilley hats, and casual to smart-casual dress at night. No formal nights and no neckties needed. Numerous lecturers (some of the top bird experts, explorers and naturalists in the world) showing outstanding slides and videos. Shore excursions in Zodiacs to see local tribal dances in small villages on remote islands. Emphasis on scuba and snorkeling. No casino, floor shows or shopping. Attractive décor. Nonfancy expedition food served buffet style for breakfast and with lunch and table service for dinner. Expensive, but good value for the money.

Interesting cruise lines which, sadly, have stopped operations recently include Imperial Majesty Cruise Line, Majestic America Line (including the Delta Queen), Orient Lines (of Marco Polo fame), Peter Deilmann Cruises (the river cruise division shut down, but the ocean ship is still operating) and Windjammer Barefoot Cruises (of Miami Beach).