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Exclusive luxuries gradually trickle down to less exclusive cruise lines
When NCL's newest and biggest ship, Norwegian Epic, arrives in South Florida next month, it will have flat screen TVs in all cabins, upgraded mattresses and bedding, specialty restaurants, posh courtyard villa rooms with private dining and, perhaps most significantly, it will have private balconies for all outside staterooms, all 1,415 of them, the most oceanview balconies of any ship at sea.
Sound like a luxury line's ship? Indeed, these amenities used to be the sole province of the luxury lines and those designed for crossings, but gradually have trickled down to less exclusive lines -- and not just the new, design-conscious ships like Epic. Guests will find these elements on many ships of the mainstream and premium cruise lines: Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Princess, Costa, MSC, Celebrity, Norwegian and Disney.
Epic's design illustrates how, as cruise lines expand their fleets and compete for guests, they have had to upgrade their ships to offer these and other upscale features. Among the lines that sail out of U.S. ports, more than a quarter of their ships are five years old or less and were designed with some luxury features. But the cruise lines are also spending millions of dollars to add the amenities to older ships.
``Even the largest contemporary class ships today feature accommodations, services and amenities that were once considered exclusive to luxury cruise travel: balconies, butlers, luxury spas, huge suites,'' said Bob Sharak, executive vice president of marketing and distribution for Cruise Lines International Association.
Rod McLeod, a retired cruise industry veteran, likens the cruise evolution to air conditioning in automobiles: ``In the 1960s it was a luxury, today it is standard equipment.''
The growth of the cruise industry is driving the changes. There were 7.2 million cruisers in 2000, and the industry is forecasting double that number this year. This growth is due in part to an increase in the number of ships as well as the size of many of the newest ships.
Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, which debuted in November, sleeps 5,400 guests, making it the largest ship at sea -- and it will be matched by Allure of the Seas, which will launch in December. Epic has room for 4,200 guests.
Add in features such as loft suites and martini bars, and it's likely that the ``trickling down'' of such features from the luxury lines has helped fuel the industry's popularity.
Some of the luxury amenities are ship-wide: upscale bedding, flat-screen TVs -- with many channels and often with DVDs/VCRs -- in cabins, access to luxury spas and specialty restaurants, the addition of balconies to oceanview rooms.
But others -- butlers, concierge services, access to certain lounges or other areas -- are exclusive features that come with a price, usually the significantly higher fare for a luxury stateroom.
Although some ships had luxury linens before then, the cruise line ``bedding wars'' -- much like at hotels -- began in 2005 when Carnival Cruises introduced the Carnival Comfort Bed ensemble with custom pillows, duvet and mattress set. Now, virtually all ships feature high thread count linens, robes and posh towels. To stay ahead, luxury lines such as Silversea offer a special menu to allow guests to select what kind of pillow they want -- to be supplied by their butler, of course.
Except for Norwegian, which opened its first alternative restaurant in 1988, small, extra-fee restaurants that offered an alternative to the main dining room were limited to luxury ships. But in 2001 and 2002, they started appearing on mainstream lines.
Carnival Cruises introduced the line's Supper Club concept on Carnival Spirit in 2001, featuring live music for dancing. Now, says Cyrus Mafatia, Carnival's VP of food and beverage, ``The concept has evolved into a classic American steakhouse.''
Royal Caribbean debuted its first Chops Grill that same year. There are now 10 fleetwide, including the newest one on Oasis, charging $25 a person.
Holland America took the alternative restaurant a step further. When it introduced its upscale Pinnacle Grill in 2002, it offered such luxuries as Bulgari china, Frette linens and Riedel stemware.
Now, most ships have at least one alternative restaurant, with a fee of $15-$30 per person, and multiple other restaurants with no extra fee. The main dining room on the newest ships is smaller as guests choose to dine in these alternative restaurants.
Norwegian Epic, coming from the line that created Freestyle Cruising with an extensive list of restaurants onboard, and Oasis of the Seas each has 21 dining venues, 10 of which will cost extra, 11 that won't. On Oasis, the specialty restaurants include the intimate Chef's Table, which accommodates only 14 people a night and costs an extra $75, wine included.
A recent Oasis guest, Rhoda Kaiser of Tampa, says, ``Because of the ship's 6,000 passengers, the main dining room is not a quiet, intimate setting. We decided to try Chops Grill. Our dinner was terrific and well worth the money.''
Not everyone wants to pony up the extra money and, for them, the regular food offerings that come as part of the cruise fare have been seriously upgraded in recent years.
Another feature that is becoming more prevalent on the newer ships is a luxury spa. Celebrity started this trend in the mid-90s with AquaSpas, the first spas at sea with thalassotherapy pools and Rasul treatment rooms. The treatments don't vary much; it's the pampering aspects that make a spa more luxurious -- quiet rooms, heated reclining chairs, fragrance rooms, robes and slippers, and abundant toiletries.
THE SUITE LIFE
Staterooms with balconies, once a luxury feature, are becoming the norm. On Carnival Dream, Carnival's newest ship, 49 percent of the staterooms have balconies. On Norwegian Epic, all outside rooms have balconies. And Princess recently ordered two new ships on which 80 percent of all rooms will have balconies.
And if a balcony stateroom isn't enough, most mainstream lines now offer fancy staterooms that might make a guest think he's on a luxury ship.
NCL's Epic has courtyard villas around an exclusive courtyard complex that includes a private pool, two hot tubs, gym, saunas, sun deck, indoor/outdoor dining and a bar/nightclub. A check with an online travel agent found villas (which can sleep up to six) priced from $3,369 per person, double occupancy, for a seven-night Caribbean cruise in November, compared to $949 for a balcony cabin.
Royal Caribbean's Loft Suites are two-deck rooms with dining area, dry bar, sitting area, and incredible panoramic views since they're up on decks 17 and 18. The rooms add up to 1,524 square feet, plus 843 square feet on the balcony, and they have concierge service.
MSC's Yacht Club -- which the cruise line calls a ship within a ship -- on its newest liners perhaps goes the farthest in providing exclusive amenities for guests. In addition to the VIP suites, there are a private lounge, solarium pool and bar, and the 24-hour VIP Concierge Lobby. Yacht Club guests get all-inclusive refreshments including wine, spirits and beer; complimentary mini-bar; a separate section of the dining room; no-fee dining in the alternative restaurants; VIP massage rooms and exclusive spa treatments; priority check-in/out; pillow menu; Wii, Internet connectivity and butlers.