Biggest, best: the world's most amazing cruise ships

Cruise ships continue to get bigger, better, more luxurious and more environmentally friendly. Joanna Hall takes a look at some of the most incredible ships on the seas.

As demand for new ships, innovative facilities, and more exotic places to cruise continues to grow, the cruise industry remains in a constant state of change.

As a result, each year sees additions to the list of new records and high seas “firsts”, from ships with revolutionary accommodation choices, to ships with unusual godmothers.

Luxury ... Seabourn Cruises's Odyssey Class.
Luxury ... Seabourn Cruises's Odyssey Class. 

Here are seven record breakers and some curious world-firsts, which reinforce why cruising so fascinating.

The record breakers

1. World's biggest cruise ship: Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas

In residence ... cruise ship The World launched in 2002 and its passengers live on board as permanent residents.
In residence ... cruise ship The World launched in 2002 and its passengers live on board as permanent residents. Photo: Graham Tidy

It all began in 2006 when cruising industry innovator, Royal Caribbean, placed an order for two mega-cruise ships with a Finnish shipyard. Called Project Genesis, these ships would launch a revolutionary new class for the line.

Costing a staggering $1.4 billion to build, Oasis of the Seas was first out of the blocks on December 5, 2009. Weighing 225,282 tons, she is 360 metres long, 64 metres wide, 65 metres high from the water line, and can whisk 5400-plus guests off to the Caribbean each week.

Innovations include a dramatic Aqua Theatre at the rear, which can accommodate 735 guests, a dining room which can seat over 3000 in one sitting, and a collection of neighbourhoods including Central Park, an open air space in the heart of the ship complete with live plants and trees.

Caught short ... the Spirit of Oceanus's cruise last year was supposed to be the longest in the world at 335 nights.
Caught short ... the Spirit of Oceanus's cruise last year was supposed to be the longest in the world at 335 nights. 

Exactly a year after the launch of Oasis, however, she was joined by her twin sister, Allure of the Seas. Although both ships have identical superstructures, Allure turned out to be 50 millimetres longer, making her the world's largest cruise ship.

Photos: The world's biggest cruise ship

2. World's fastest cruise ship: Cunard's Queen Mary 2

Dream time ... a 'magic' porthole on board Disney's Dream ship.
Dream time ... a 'magic' porthole on board Disney's Dream ship. 

When she left Southampton on her maiden voyage on January 12, 2004, the Queen Mary 2 turned heads everywhere, and continues to do so wherever she cruises. In almost every detail, this “grand dame” of the high seas pays tribute to a golden age of ocean travel.

Spacious and elegant, she combines classic British heritage with nostalgia, opulence and style by way of her sweeping staircases, her grand ballroom, and her wrap around promenade deck. While her grandeur captured the imagination of cruise fans, however, and her list of “firsts” is impressive - the first Veuve Cliquot Champagne Bar and first planetarium at sea among them - the QM2 is a very modern ship.

Although her normal cruising speed is between 24 and 26 knots (48 km/h), this behemoth is capable of speeds of up to 30 knots (56 km/h), making her the fastest cruise ship in the world, thanks to an environmentally friendly plant with electricity generated by four huge diesel engines and two gas turbines.

3. World's first residential cruise ship: The World

Launched in 2002, The World was the brainchild of Knut Kloster Junior, a legend in the cruise ship industry, and today it's a privately owned residential community which literally floats around the globe.

Lavish from stern to bow, the ship comprises 165 residences from stylish studios to expansive three-bedroom apartments, and a palatial six-bedroom penthouse suite which can accommodate up to 12 people. And there's plenty to keep the homeowners occupied in between exotic locales, with facilities including a spa by Banyan Tree, four primary restaurants, several cocktail lounges and bars, two swimming pools, and a full-size tennis court.

In the last nine years, The World has visited over 800 ports in around 140 countries. Such an indulgent lifestyle, however, comes at a price. In 2010, the ship sold 18 apartments and generated US $41 million in gross sales; four of them were valued at over US $5 million each.

4. World's most luxurious ships: Seabourn Cruise Line's Odyssey Class.

Seabourn Cruise Lines is another industry pioneer, and a company which has become accustomed to accolades. It has been judged the world's best small ship cruise line three years in a row at Travel + Leisure's annual awards, the last occasion two months ago, and best small ship cruise line in Condé Nast Traveler's Readers Choice Awards in 2010.

The story began in 1998 with the launch of Seabourn's first 208-guest all-suite ship, Seabourn Pride, described by one cruising expert as being “in a class by itself”. Then in 2009, the ante was upped in the luxury sector yet again with the introduction of the first of three new multi-million-dollar Odyssey class ships.

Larger than their older sisters, the yacht-like Odyssey, Sojourn and the new Quest, which launched in July, each carry 450 guests and have one of the highest ratios of space per guest in the cruise industry. That's not all.

Pampered patrons are spoiled with a wealth of amenities, from ocean views and silver service, to a two-level spa with private villas and high end cuisine in collaboration with the legendary chef, Charlie Palmer. So much so that Odyssey and Sojourn were Cruise Critic Editors' Top Pick for best in luxury in 2010.

5. World's “greenest” cruise ships: Compagnie du Ponant's Le Boréal and L'Austral

These stylish identical twins belong to a boutique fleet which hails from France. Established in 1988, the line's yacht-like vessels cruise off-the-beaten-path destinations from Greenland and Antarctica, to the Maldives and the Middle East.

A key area of Ponant's philosophy, however, is raising awareness while discovering more about our world. One way they achieve this is through enrichment programs, and inviting esteemed experts to speak on board such as the UNESCO spokesperson, Maud Fontenoy, who's passion is safeguarding oceans and coastlines.

With the launch of two new ships in the past two years, however, Ponant has also increased its effort to reduce the company'seaffect the environment. Le Boréal and sister ship, L'Austral, are holders of the international Green Ship label, with a host of eco-friendly features including dynamic positioning, which protects the seabed through not dropping anchor, using electronic propulsion systems which are quiet and economic, and operating diesel engines which use marine diesel oil which is less polluting.

6. World's busiest cruise port: Miami, Florida

As a tourist destination, Miami has many alluring attractions. From the glamorous art deco district of South Beach to the expansive watery wilderness of the Everglades National Park, it's a city with multiple personalities coupled with the promise of year-round hot weather.

The city's appeal, and its proximity to the islands of the Caribbean, Mexico and the eastern seaboard, however, are also reasons why Miami is the cruising capital of the world. Located just five minutes from downtown on Dodge Island, the Port of Miami is the eleventh largest cargo container port in the United States, handling many ships daily.

For many people taking Caribbean cruises, it is also often a start and/or end point for their trip. Over four million passengers pass through the port's cruise terminals each year, and the newest two, D and E, boast some of the most modern facilities in the world, including high-tech security, VIP lounges, and airport-style conveyor belts for baggage.

7. World's longest cruise: CruiseWest's Spirit of Oceanus

In March 2010, CruiseWest's flagship, the 120-guest Spirit of Oceanus, departed from Singapore on an epic 335 night cruise. Dubbed the longest voyage since Magellan in the sixteenth century, the petite 4,500 ton ship was set to circumnavigate the globe through to February 2011, visiting 24 ports of call in 59 countries.

Sadly the record breaking cruise was never completed. Six months into the voyage, having cruised through Asia, the Middle East and Europe, dumbfounded guests, a few of whom had paid up to $US233,995 ($A222,000) for the entire trip, were put ashore on September 9 after the ship arrived in Newfoundland, Canada.

CruiseWest was on the verge of financial ruin and thought to be undergoing a major restructure, possibly under new ownership. Just nine days later, however, the Seattle-based cruise line, which had been in operation for 60 years, closed its doors for good, and the Spirit of Oceanus was sold.

Curious cruising firsts

The first all suite-all balcony ship: Regent's luxurious Seven Seas Mariner was launched in 2001 carrying just 700 guests. Two years later, the fleet welcomed Seven Seas Voyager; they are still the only cruise ships offering all-suite, all-balcony accommodation.

First real grass on a cruise ship: Celebrity Solstice was the first of five ships in a new class for Celebrity Cruises, introducing a number of “firsts” including a half acre of real grass on its upper deck. The fourth ship in the class, Silhouette, launched last month in Europe.

First real-time view portholes: Disney's Dream, the line's first new build in 13 years which launched in January year, has interior staterooms with "magic" portholes, showing a live feed view of the ship's real view outside.

First female ship's captain: Karin Stahre Janson, a mariner and self-described “tomboy” hailing from Sweden, took the helm of Royal Caribbean's Monarch of the Seas back in 2007.

First ship within a ship: MSC's Yacht Club, which is tucked away at the front of two of its ships, MSC Fantasia and MSC Splendida, was introduced in 2008. It has superior suites with perks including a private concierge, private lift access, butler service and an exclusive pool and solarium complex.

First cruise to sell out in less than 30 minutes: Queen Elizabeth's maiden voyage, from Southampton to Spain in October 2010, went on worldwide sale in April of the same year and sold out in 29 minutes and 14 seconds. It narrowly beat the QE2's final voyage, another record breaker, which sold out in 36 minutes in June 2007.

First ship with a non-human godmother: Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, the world's biggest cruise ship, has a unique godmother in the 3-D star of the popular Shrek movies, Princess Fiona.

Cruise with the most guests: It was inevitable that one of Royal Caribbean's Oasis class ships would set this record, and the honour goes to Oasis of the Seas, which left Port Everglades last April for a one-week Caribbean cruise with 6168 guests on board.

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