It’s a question well worth asking, when you consider developments over recent years. Are newer, bigger ships trading off intimacy and accessibility to ports in order to create more dining experiences and ever larger, more luxurious suites? Has the formerly unique magic of the deluxe, all inclusive ships been diluted in some quarters by a headlong rush to build bigger, flashier ships than was the case some three decades ago? Let’s take a look….
This article was prompted in part by the decision of Windstar to embark on an ambitious, triple ship expansion programme. It’s three motor yachts- fondly remembered as the original, start up trio for the very upscale Seabourn Cruises- will be updated with the addition of a twenty-five metre new mid section. Tonnage will go up from the present 10,000 to around 13,000; an increase of roughly a third. But passenger capacity will go from 212 to 312-an almost fifty per cent increase in real terms.
All three ships will benefit from new suites, and no doubt those added balcony rooms will do much to increase the allure of the already superb Windstar product. There will also be a welcome brace of new restaurants, together with a new spa, and much expanded health facilities. But will this upping of guest numbers do anything in the long run to dilute the on board Windstar experience that people know and love?
It isn’t simply the enlargement of existing ships that is worth considering. Look at Silversea. That line started in 1994/1995 with a brace of beautiful, bespoke 19,000 ton sister ships- Silver Cloud and Silver Wind- that carried just 279 guests each. The same line’s latest ships now come in at around the 40,000 ton mark, and the recent lengthening of the 2009 built Silver Spirit brought her roughly up to that same size as well.
Over at Seabourn, those same, original 10,000 ton sister vessels cited in the Windstar paragraph have been supplanted by a series of wonderful new vessels, each one four times as large as those original building blocks. Seabourn had rightly realised that a lack of expansive cabin balconies on those ships was seen as a drawback; a fact that Windstar’s decision to upgrade those same three ships would seem to vindicate. But a fourfold increase in overall size is still quite the leap.
When Oceania Cruises turned it’s mind to new builds in 2011, the two resulting ships- Marina and Riviera- were svelte, sublime twin revelations in many ways. And, at 66,000 tons each, they were more than twice the size of the R-Class ships with which the company had been founded back in 2003. Passenger capacity almost doubled as well, right up to 1,266 on the new ships.
But not everybody has gone down the ‘bigger is better’ route. Always at the edge of the luxury pack, Crystal Cruises’ initial plans for a trio of 100,000 ton, deluxe sister ships, complete with an entire deck of Condo suites for sale, was scaled back down to a more bijoux trio of 60,000 tonners that sit neatly between the lines’ existing brace of seagoing scions, Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity. And, in another move, both of those latter ships have actually had their on board guest capacity reduced. This is partly to finally allow both ships to offer single sitting dining, and also to create some larger, more expansive suites at the very top end of both ships.
Regent Seven Seas, too, has also remained on it’s successful, well proven trajectory of crafting ships of around 50,000 tons. The line’s recent Seven Seas Explorer is just 4,000 tons bigger than the 2003 built Seven Seas Voyager. For Regent, ‘steady as she goes’ seems to be the mantra in terms of size and on board numbers.
Azamara Club Cruises has played it coy, nurturing and burnishing a trio of 30,000 ton, former R-Class sisters that, in time, will almost certainly be joined by a fourth. As things stand, this is one of the best balanced lines of all in terms of synergy.
Does size really matter in the long run, then? Not so much in terms of personal space on the luxury ships, where the passenger numbers are still kept at a uniform low. If anything, accommodations have actually grown in terms of size and opulence. And, of course, these larger ships can offer far more diverse, sophisticated dining options. And, while entertainment is not always the main priority on many upscale ships, it’s also true that crafting a larger class of ship allows for more diversity and range in the on board offerings. And there are few greater luxuries associated with top end cruising than choice, whether in terms of food, accommodation and yes, even entertainment.
Where a bigger ship-however luxurious-can lose out is in terms of access to smaller, more intimate ports of call around the globe. That’s immutable, and one of the areas in which size really does matter.
The bottom line? It’s always going to be a trade off, even at cruising’s gilded apex. If it’s ease of access and the destinations that are your prime driver when picking a cruise, then opting for a small ship remains an obvious given. But, if the on board lifestyle and luxe are more your prime consideration, then any one of the more recent breed of larger, luxury cruise ship will please and pamper you, 24/7.
There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ here either, by the way. There’s just diversity. And we’re all the better off for that, whatever cruise type we decide to choose.