Size Matters, But Not in Boutique Cruising

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. ( MainStreet) -- The cruise line industry has been defined by a bigger-is-better mentality for too long, a trend peaking with ships such as the Oasis of the Seas and its sister ship Allure of the Seas -- the largest passenger cruise ships afloat, each about 1,181 feet long and holding some 6,296 tourists. For a more affluent demographic, larger doesn't always mean better, and some of the priciest and most exclusive ships are also some of the smallest in the industry.

Paul Gaugin is a one-ship fleet that cruises the waters off Tahiti, French Polynesia and the South Pacific throughout the year (a second ship is coming late this year to add seasonal international sailings). The ship is owned by Pacific Beachcomber, which also owns several five-star resort properties in Bora Bora and Tahiti, as well as the forthcoming The Brando, opening this year on the actor's private island. Paul Gaugin was built specifically for the shallow waters of the region, with a designer aesthetic that can silence even the most opinionated of travelers.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises and its three 700-guest ships sail to more than 300 ports of call on all seven continents.

The ultimate boutique cruise experience, Paul Gaugin boasts a 58:1 space-to-guest ratio -- no more than 332 guests at a time. The ship is also home to a periodic educational series led by Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jacques Cousteau's son, who highlights his ocean-based work in addition to leading dives from the ship. Those who prefer to stay above water find an impressive rooftop deck that exudes the style of a private yacht but with a shipboard spa by Algotherm offering advanced skin therapies and cellular wraps you won't find on any yacht charter.

Seabourn sits atop a larger, glittery mast of just six liners that include three new ships in the past three years and a manifest of between 208 and 450 passengers per sailing. A subsidiary of Carnival ( CCL), Seabourn attracts a higher-end travel segment looking for luxury dining and spa amenities with white-glove service that goes far beyond any large cruise ship. In lieu of campy Broadway shows and poolside horseracing, caviar parties and outdoor movie nights are what guests come to expect.

Seabourn Quest, its newest ship, was built in T. Mariotti shipyard in Genoa with one of the largest spas of any cruise ship: six treatment rooms, a world-class gym, hydro-pool and full-service salon. A mini yacht club unloads off the back in select warm-water destinations so guests can go water-skiing, salt-water swimming and kayaking without ever having to go ashore. Fine dining comes at a choice of formal or more casual eateries, with dishes such as beef tataki with truffle tagliatelle or even fancier roasted poussin with rosemary gnocchi offered on a nightly basis.

Those looking for a somewhat bigger cruise experience should consider Regent Seven Seas Cruises and its 700-guest ships sailing to more than 300 ports of call on all seven continents. Owned by Prestige Cruise Holdings, which also operates Oceania Cruises, this three-ship fleet boasts an all-inclusive cruise experience that differs from upper-end lines such as Cunard and Princess. While also more expensive, Regent Seven Seas prices include fine wines, beer, premium spirits, soft drinks and even the most elaborate of espresso concoctions. Additionally, all gratuities, taxes as well as shore excursions and specialty restaurants, are included in the cost of the cruise.

Aboard Regent Seven Seas Cruises, guests discover an all-suite experience with one of the highest percentages of private balconies of any cruise line, as well as a staff-to-guest ratio that hovers above 2:1. Fine-dining options include the reservation-only Prime 7 steakhouses, as well as the French-favored Signatures Restaurants. This summer the cruise line will unveil Sette Mari at La Veranda, a Tuscan-inspired dining room with a la carte Italian specialties and a regional Italian wine list. In addition to culinary arts classes and a Canyon Ranch SpaClub, the Regent Seven Seas offers an enrichment program that invites world-renowned experts for a well-received lecture series.

But perhaps the idea of any fellow passengers on board sounds like too much. For those people there's The Necker Belle, a managed yacht charter operated by Virgin Limited Edition that allows travelers to literally charter Sir Richard Branson's private catamaran. Priced from a relatively affordable $110,000 per week, at least in yacht charter terms, the 32-meter catamaran comfortably accommodates eight to 12 guests in four cabins offering en suite bathrooms and stylish interiors. A crew of seven assists with all meals as well as seaborne adventures, everything from sports fishing to simply spritzing those sunbathing on the forward beam trampoline. Equipped for fun and adventure billionaire style, the ship offers access to a three-person submarine that goes to depths of 30 meters at an added fee for the ultimate boutique cruise experience.

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Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com, a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in InStyle, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine and on ITV and the BBC.

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