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European Luxury Cruises: Insider’s Guide

by | December 3, 2016
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Peterhof Palace, St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy Abercrombie & Kent.

Peterhof Palace, St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy Abercrombie & Kent.

Ships and Cabins

Best short cruise:
Seabourn Quest’s seven-day Baltic experience is short and to the point—ideal if one wishes to absorb all that this area offers in a brief time. Sail from Stockholm to Copenhagen, perhaps taking in more of these cities pre- and post-cruise, and in between enjoy three days in St. Petersburg plus visits to Tallin and Helsinki.

Best-value ship:
There are many all-inclusive options out there, but Crystal Cruises rises above the others for its refusal to skimp on the things that you’ve already paid for—crisp uniforms, top-notch staff, the highest-quality beverages, constantly changing menus…all are a cut above, and fares are still very competitive with competitors’ cruises.

Best ship for a splurge:
Christened in July 2016, everything onboard Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Explorer is still shiny, new, and state-of-the-art. The ship has the largest balconies at sea, ranging from 88 square feet to 1417 square feet in their ultimate Regent Suite (the interior of which is larger than most homes). Onboard dining options range from Pan-Asian, to classic French, traditional steak to fresh seafood in their Italian Riviera-inspired Sette Mari Restaurant. Best of all, just about everything is included in your fare, including shore excursions, onboard beverages, gratuities, and business-class airfare.

Best large ship:
Crystal Serenity fits 1,000 passengers, making it the largest ship in its price range, but it never feels overpopulated. Lines just do not exist onboard, whether for the lido buffet or boarding tenders—and the size of the vessel allows for wonderful public spaces and a variety of activities, from multiple restaurants to educational lectures to spinning and yoga classes in the gym.

The Sea Dream

The Sea Dream anchored off Capri, Italy. Photo courtesy Sea Dream Yacht Club.

Best small ship:
The small size of Sea Dream Yacht Club’s two ships make for tighter quarters (don’t bother trying to fit two people in your cabin’s bathroom), but their ability to squeeze into the tiniest of ports is unrivaled. Imagine entering Portofino—ideally on a quiet, spring or fall day—with just 110 other travelers. See Florence and Lucca from nearby Marina de Carrara, instead of making the drive from unlovely Livorno. Sail through the Corinth Canal from the Aegean to the Adriatic. And I don’t know of any other ship that can anchor right at Capri, instead of requiring passengers to take a hydrofoil from Sorrento.

Best ship for a solo traveler:
Though you can occasionally find deals, it’s not unheard of on popular sailings to pay the same price for a cabin, whether single or double occupancy. Dining is a tricky issue, so I like to send solo clients on Crystal, where they can either eat at their assigned dining table with like-minded travelers, or find a perch at the open-seating Sushi Bar, part of the signature Nobu restaurant.

Best ship for foodies:
Thomas Keller (of French Laundry fame) is behind the menus onboard the new Seabourn Encore. In addition to his signature Grill, a classic American chophouse, there will be a fine-dining restaurant with open seating, a sushi restaurant, the casual indoor/outdoor Colonnade, and the relaxed poolside Patio.

Best-value cabin:
On Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Mariner and Voyager ships, all of the deluxe veranda cabins are very similar in size and layout—and yet the category H rooms are the cheapest accommodations on the ship. They tend to go quickly, so book early if you want to get onto these luxury ships at the lowest possible price.

Similarly, but at the other end of the spectrum, the Mariner’s category C Penthouses are identical to the others but less expensive because they are on lower decks (I actually like their forward and midship position). Starting with cruises in summer 2017, RSSC will include intercontinental business-class flights in all cabin fares.

Best cabin for families:
The connecting Penthouse and Deluxe staterooms onboard Crystal Serenity are a winner for families of up to five people: The cabins share doors both inside and out, allowing you to create one long balcony. These also sell out quickly.

Amalfi Coast, Italy

The Amalfi Coast makes for a great shore excursion. Photo: Belmond Hotels

Where to Cruise

Best itinerary:
The Lavish Villas and Charming Villages voyage aboard Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Voyager covers every iconic corner of the Adriatic and the Mediterranean, all in a little more than two weeks. Since the trip departs in early June, travelers will enjoy spring weather before the crush of summertime crowds and heat.

Best shore excursion:
A day on the Amalfi Coast. Consider hiring a private car for this one port of call (even if a tour is included in the price of your cruise), so that you can set your own pace and enjoy shopping for linen and pottery in Positano, dining al fresco at the Caruso Hotel in Ravello, and concluding with gelato in the quaint town of Amalfi—all the while enjoying the breathtaking scenery. Having a small private car provides that extra level of comfort as your driver maneuvers the twists and turns that make this coastline so memorable. An eight-hour private tour will cost about $800 to $1000.

Worst shore excursion:
One that limits your sightseeing time by including a long midday meal. Read carefully the description of any full-day shore excursion offered by the cruise line; if it sounds like you’ll have to spend hours eating food you didn’t choose while surrounded by people you don’t know, stay away!  Instead, find a local trattoria for a quick bite during a custom-tailored, flexlble, private shore tour (I arrange these all the time).

Volcanic scenery, Iceland

Volcanic scenery in Iceland. Photo: Iceland Tourist Board

The can’t-miss port:
Reykjavik’s incredible volcanic scenery, coupled with a culture and people unfamiliar to many travelers, has made it a hot port of call. From waterfalls to fjordlands to fishing villages to steep mountains, this land is a photographer’s paradise. Private touring is a bit pricey, but the cruise lines do a good job of arranging tours to the iconic sites and unique landscapes outside Reykjavik. With plenty of flights from the U.S., it’s also a convenient option for embarkation or debarkation, giving you a few extra days in the city and its environs.

Most photo-worthy arrival into port:
Sailing into Stockholm—via its archipelago of more than 30,000 islands, islets, and rock formations that stretch 48 miles to the Baltic Sea—is not to be missed. The topography and colors change constantly as you pass both beautiful grand homes and small farmhouses. Stockholm typically comes at the beginning or end of an itinerary, and while departing from this port in the afternoon is lovely, there’s nothing like approaching during the magical light of the morning. Photo opportunities abound, and I suggest that travelers make sure to get up early when sailing into Stockholm (at least two hours prior to scheduled arrival) and be stationed at a window, or outside on a nice day, to fully take in this sight.

Port most worth the trek:
Visby, Sweden, is a quaint, charming place that occasionally shows up on Baltic itineraries. Biking from the ship to this walled medieval town (a UNESCO World Heritage site) is the perfect way to get some fresh air after a few days in city ports such as St. Petersburg.

Travelers who’ve already seen St. Petersburg might consider making the 3.5-hour train trip from there to Moscow. I always advise signing up with the cruise line’s tour, to help with the logistics and avoid the need for a visa (visitors to Russia traveling with a licensed operator don’t need to get one).

Best Time to Go

The Baltic is ideal during St. Petersburg’s “White Nights,” when dusk meets dawn and the sun does not dip deep enough below the horizon to bring on full darkness (a phenomenon lasting from late May through July, and peaking in mid-June). During this period, there is a playful feeling in the city as inhabitants and visitors enjoy being outside late into the night, and numerous ballet, opera, and music events take place. In Copenhagen, a pretty summer day finds locals strolling the famed streets and sailing the canals with smiles that a bright sky brings out in Scandinavians. Late August is also lovely in the Baltic, as the weather is still delightful but the crowds have diminished enough that one can actually see the Hermitage masterpieces up close.

The Mediterranean is wonderful in April and November, with no crowds and just a slight chill in the air. Plus, you’ll find fares as much as 30% lower than during the summer high season.

Worst Time to Go

Generally speaking, during the months when conditions aren’t good for cruising and sightseeing in Europe, the ships are elsewhere. Summer is the most popular season, but it’s also the busiest, the hottest, and the most expensive—with peak fares sometimes extending into October.

Biggest Mistake

Overbooking yourself. Don’t feel like you have to plan activities for every moment in port. In the major cities, you’ll want a guide for a day, but in smaller places like Tallin, Estonia, a half-day tour is plenty. In this and other lovely European ports, make sure to leave yourself some time to stroll the cobblestoned streets and just take in the local color from a sidewalk café.

When to Book Your Cruise

I always counsel clients to book a cruise as soon as they think they want to take one: Up until about four months out (the exact date varies by cruise line), you can cancel with no penalty, and I watch fares for my clients to make sure they don’t pay extra if prices drop. The best cabins go to the early birds.


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