Bespoke Luxury

The recession of the past two years has done little to slow the burgeoning growth of the cruise business: In 2009, as airlines slashed schedules and watched their traffic and revenues plummet, the number of cruise passengers grew by 3.3 percent, to 13.4 million, and the number of cruise berths available increased by more than 8 percent—with a lot more growth on the way.

Public and media attention has focused on the increasing size of the newest mass-market cruise vessels. Last year, Carnival Cruise Lines added the largest ship in its fleet, the 3,646-passenger Carnival Dream, followed by rival Royal Caribbean’s introduction of the world’s largest ship: the 16-deck, 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas. Norwegian Cruise Line was due to launch the 4,200-passenger Norwegian Epic in June 2010, and Royal Caribbean will christen Oasis’s equally massive sister ship, Allure of the Seas, later this year.

But if you’d rather not go to sea in a giant floating megaresort to rub elbows with thousands of fellow passengers guzzling umbrella drinks, we have good news: The luxury segment of the cruise business is expanding as well. Not only are new (albeit considerably smaller) five-star ships joining the fleets of the luxury lines, but new onboard amenities, shoreside options and enhanced pricing policies are making upscale cruising a more attractive vacation possibility.

In addition to offering a more intimate cruise experience than the floating behemoths mentioned above, the luxury lines have other distinct advantages for discriminating travelers. Their smaller ships can call at ports where the big boys can’t go; the vessels have larger passenger accommodations—some are all-suite vessels—and an increased focus on white-glove personal service, such as butlers, concierges and a higher staff-to-guest ratio; they offer varied itineraries that span the globe, instead of repeating the same seven-day Caribbean or Alaska schedules week after week; and their pricing is generally more inclusive than the mass-market lines, often covering cocktails, wine with dinner and crew gratuities in the cruise fare instead of constantly nickel-and-diming you with extras.

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