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celebrity-solstice

Mother of All Luxury Liners: ‘Celebrity Solstice’

Is picking the top ships of the year more of an art or a science? Is it a matter of quantifiable parameters, or is it more gut instinct?

The answer is: It’s all those things. When examining the mainstream and luxury ships currently in service for the American market and beyond, we looked for true standouts: ships that offer unique services or experiences, ships that surpass the competition, and ships that point the way toward new or better ways of doing things.

When it comes to these Top 12 Ships of 2012, the itineraries may almost seem beside the point.

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Photo: Disney Cruise Line

Ships of the Future: Royal Caribbean’s Oasis Class

Royal Caribbean’s 5,400-passenger sister ships Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas are more than just the biggest cruise ships ever. They’re also the best designed, most imaginative, most experientially diverse, and most forward-thinking megaships ships out there — the first vessels that live up to the cliché of being “cities at sea.”

9002-48534Where every other cruise ship is a monolithic structure composed of decks stacked atop the other, Oasis and Allure have “split” superstructures, meaning their top eight decks are bisected lengthwise by a long, open-air canyon. Besides letting light and air into the center of the ship (even inside cabins have a view), this makes the whole vessel feel more 3D — like you’re walking the streets of a high-rise city, not riding elevators between the floors of a building.

The ships’ size also meant Royal Caribbean was able to design “neighborhoods” around the vessel to offer different experiences — most notably the open-air, adult-oriented Central Park, with thousands of real plants and trees, and the open-air, family-oriented Boardwalk entertainment zone. The ships also offer some of the best entertainment at sea and one of the largest selections of restaurants. At the same time, the sheer number of restaurants, lounges, and entertainment spaces means that many of them can be surprisingly cozy and intimate.

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Photo by Royal Caribbean International

There have been no regularly scheduled cruises on America’s greatest river system since Majestic America Line went belly-up in 2008, but all that’s about to change. Beginning in mid-April 2012, a new line called the Great American Steamboat Company will begin offering weeklong cruises on the Mississippi aboard the 436-passenger American Queen.

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American Queen is the largest stern-wheeler ever built — a grand wedding cake of filigree and curlicues crowned with two huge fluted smokestacks. Ornamentation and decoration are everywhere, framing an assortment of vintage period furniture and antiques. Even her engine is a vintage steam plant, rescued and restored from a 1930 U.S. Army Corps dredge (now assisted by a modern propulsion system). She looks so authentically 19th century that it’s hard to imagine she was actually built in 1995.

03coversub-articleLarge 4089dq-0085The 450-passenger sister ships Seabourn Odyssey (launched in 2009), Seabourn Sojourn (2010), and Seabourn Quest (2011) update the classic Seabourn experience, whose watchwords have always been calm, relaxing, smooth, and über-professional.

Seabourn_Odyssey_Fiscardo_2 Like all the Seabourn ships (and all other true luxury ships), they’re less about knocking passengers over the head with gimmicks and nonstop activity. Instead, the Seabourn experience is more about providing a relaxing venue as staff members scurry around bringing you things: a cup of tea and a cucumber sandwich in the afternoon, suntan lotion while you’re out by the pool, a drink from the bar whenever you want (gratis), and even a moist wipe for your sunglasses, if a server spots a smudge.
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Though not even close to being a perfectly conceived and executed vessel, the 4,200-passenger Norwegian Epic makes this list for three reasons:

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1) Along with Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, she’s the best ship at sea for entertainment, featuring innovative production shows, fantastic music, and best of all, performances by the Blue Man Group; 2) she offers NCL’s fun, casual, unconventional experience; and 3) she’s the best ship today for solo travelers (128 super-mod studio cabins are designed for hipsters traveling alone).
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The problems she has are all weird design issues, including cabin bathrooms that could have been designed by the Three Stooges. Get past those minor issues, and you’ll have a great time.

Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line

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A Cruise Ship Fit for Foodies

9002-41960 9002-41961We live in the era of the super-megaship, with new vessels routinely carrying 3,000 or 4,000 passengers and drawing crowds through big-budget wow. Oceania’s 1,250-passenger Marina (launched in early 2011) and upcoming sister-ship Riviera (launching in May 2012), on the other hand, hark back to an earlier era of cruising, when you could walk from bow to stern without breaking a sweat and where the vibe was more quiet romance than blockbuster adventure.

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As the first ships purpose-built for the line, Marina and Riviera shine but in a beautifully counter-trending way: by being quiet, calm, and homey and with just enough glitz to remind you that you need to be treated nicely. The Marina-class ships are also two of the best “restaurant ships” at sea, with six specialty restaurants among the nine dining options — a remarkable number considering the ships’ relatively modest size. Several venues, including Jacques Pépin’s eponymous bistro and the pan-Asian Red Ginger, are absolutely exquisite.

There are another ocean and sea stars that can give the chance to enjoy an incredible vacation.

Materials: By Matt Hannafin

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