Imagine that you’re stretched out on a sumptuous sunlounger on the deck of a luxury mega-yacht, sipping an exotic champagne cocktail, perfectly shaken and stirred to your taste. A handsome young crew member approaches and asks to polish your sunglasses. A few minutes later another emerges with a tray of mouthwatering frozen fruit kebabs, followed by a third who offers to spray you with suntan lotion.

Could this be a dream or is it just fanciful thinking? It’s neither.

This is the world of luxury cruising where attention to detail and top-notch service rule the waves, leaving you – the pampered guest – to sit back, relax and revel in opulent surroundings where nothing is too much trouble.

Forget everything you’ve ever seen or heard about mass market cruises, dominated by massive mega-ships that carry thousands of passengers.

Luxury cruising is a completely different proposition with smaller, more intimate ships that generally carry hundreds of passengers rather than thousands.

One of the biggest advantages is that such ships can offer more varied itineraries featuring different ports that bigger vessels cannot squeeze into, thus enabling them to sail more off the beaten track.

Another is that crew members get to know you by name and bar tenders can have your favourite drink ready without even being asked.

On my first luxury cruise with Seabourn, when one of the passengers – an Italian contessa, no less – complained that her bathrobe was too long, staff had it shortened and her initials stitched on, too.

When another passenger needed a tuxedo for a formal night, the ship’s tailor appeared with a spare dinner suit, measured him up and swiftly altered it to fit.

I was struck at how the army of waiters and deck staff, along with everyone else I encountered, hit the perfect balance of being intuitive and attentive without being irritating; of being friendly without being overfamiliar; and efficient without being impersonal.

What to expect on a luxury cruise

For many passengers – or guests as they are called by the exclusive “six-star” lines – first-rate service is the key to luxury cruising.

But there are also the lavish surroundings; the high quality décor and haute cuisine dining.

The fact is that all staterooms are suites – often with en-suite luxury marble bathrooms and spacious verandas – and there is no such thing as an inside cabin.

Far more is included in the price, too, such as gratuities, fine wines and soft drinks, and even some excursions or special events which are hosted ashore.

There are no supplementary charges for eating in the speciality restaurants and you can dine when and where you want to and with whom you please.

For such a quality experience, cruise customers can expect to have to dig a little deeper in their pockets – but not as deep as you might think.

Rising competition and an influx of new ships means there has never been a better time to take a luxury cruise.

Over the last year or so, this sector of the cruise industry has seen the biggest growth in years with a sprinkling of new ships offering the latest sumptuous, state-of-the-art facilities.

With more cabins to fill – against an increasingly tough economic climate – the six-star lines have become ever more competitive.

Prices have been cut – though most companies have opted to add value rather than devalue their brand by pricing too cheaply.

Instead there have been some tremendous special offers that have included onboard credits of $1,000 per person; spa credits, free excursions; and free flights.

One-week cruises in the Mediterranean could be snapped up for as little as £1,500 for a week, which, when you think of what this includes, is barely much more than you would pay for a similar cruise with one of the midmarket lines.

Who are the main players?

The first thing to remember is that the “ultra-luxury” market consists of a handful of “six-star” cruise lines, including Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Silversea Cruises, SeaDream Yacht Club, Windstar Cruises and Crystal Cruises. But if you can’t stretch to this, why not opt for the premium lines which tend to fall between luxury and midmarket? These include companies such as Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line (HAL), Oceania Cruises, Cunard and Azamara Club Cruises.

Their ships are still elegant and classy. However, they tend to be larger than the ultra-luxury lines with more dining venues, bigger theatres and more lavish spas – but less personal service.

And one of the biggest differences to remember is that while prices are lower, items such as gratuities, drinks and speciality dining are not necessarily included. Most luxury cruise customers tend to be more mature couples or single travellers and few of the truly
exclusive lines cater for families.

The exception is Crystal Cruises, which has its own dedicated children’s club. However, premium lines such as Celebrity, HAL and Cunard cater admirably for youngsters with kids clubs and family-friendly facilities.

Even some of the larger ships are getting in on the luxury act. Italian line MSC Cruises has introduced a special VIP area on its newest ships, called the Yacht Club, where passengers have their own bar, solarium, hot tubs and pool. They also have access to an Observation Lounge where they can enjoy light meals, while on excursions they have their own private transport.

On Norwegian Cruise Line’s newer ships, passengers staying in Garden Villas and Courtyard Villas on their own private decks can enjoy a host of other benefits such as in-suite dining and preferential treatment at the ship’s restaurants.

Most ships have butlers and personal concierges for passengers who book suites and higher-grade cabins and some, such as Princess Cruises, even have private deck areas which, for an extra fee, cater for passengers wanting to relax in comfort.
With so much choice, taking a luxury cruise could be easier than you think.

All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you take a luxury cruise.