Cruising is the fastest-growing area of holiday travel and, in order to cope with the ever-increasing demand, the major cruise lines are building bigger and bigger ships with more and more facilities and attractions: you can now go rock-climbing in the middle of the Mediterranean or ice-skating in the Caribbean!
But, whilst these floating resorts have been designed to appeal to families and younger holidaymakers, they are less attractive to people who prefer a less boisterous environment. And, just as hotels range from the “cheap-and-cheerful” to 5-star opulence, so cruise ships have evolved to cater for all tastes - and budgets.
So what is the difference between mainstream cruising and the top of the range cruise lines?
At first glance, not a lot: there is unlimited food, daytime activities and some excellent after-dinner entertainment. But, for those travellers who demand - and can afford - the very best, there is so much more.
There is an informal alliance of the 6-star (yes, 6!) cruise lines - known as the Ultra Luxury Cruise Collection - but each member has its own particular character and style, suiting varied tastes and preferences. What they have in common is a commitment to levels of excellence appreciated by the most discerning travellers.
Although ultra-luxury cruise holidays utilise smaller ships - usually less than 1,000 passengers and often less than 500 - they provide a far more spacious environment and a more personal service with a crew to passenger ratio of 1:2 or better. A further advantage of using smaller ships is that they can get to smaller, more out-of-the-way ports that are inaccessible to bigger ships. You will also find that, because there are fewer passengers to disembark, arriving into a new port of call is a far more relaxed and enjoyable experience.
And virtually all ultra-luxury ships are completely all-inclusive: champagne, top-quality wines and spirits, cocktails, speciality teas and coffees as well as all soft drinks are available throughout the day (and night!). Exquisite cuisine in a choice of restaurants is the norm, as is open seating to give passengers the choice to dine whenever, wherever and with whomever they choose.
Spacious and elegant suites - most with balconies and many with butler service - are standard and you can even expect a well-stocked mini-bar of your choosing. Gratuities are also taken care of, so there are no awkward envelope handouts on the last evening.
One cruise line even includes complimentary shore-excursions in order to enhance the pleasure of each destination.
The atmosphere on board these ships is extremely relaxed with dress codes often being less rigid than on many of the large ships. As you would expect, luxury on this scale comes at a price but, when you take into account that so many expensive extras are included, many travellers consider it to be excellent value.
And the fact that the Ultra Luxury Cruise Collection has consistently held around 1.5% of the UK Cruise market despite the difficult economic conditions in recent years would tend to confirm this.
This article first appeared in the February issue of Cheshire Life.
Ann Anglesea is a Director of Delmar World Limited. She is also a luxury cruise specialist.