The perfect cruise ship: 10 things that make the ultimate ocean cruise experience

The perfect ship is the fantasy of a castaway on a crab-nibbled atoll, yearning for rescue after years without linen sheets, crisp martinis or a decent shower. It doesn't really exist, even if cruise companies boast about providing the ultimate in everything.

They never manage, partly because human beings are unfailingly critical. True, passengers pay handsomely for a luxury cruise, which may entitle them to grumble about their first-world problems. Cruise ships, however, are an extraordinarily complex enterprise. For most of history, sea journeys were exceedingly unpleasant and it has taken all our technological and organisational ingenuity just to make them bearable, let alone a comfort and joy.

We ought to be constantly amazed that cruising is so good, and carp less when it falls short of perfection. Cruise ships can certainly excel and frequently do, though often just in select areas. Many cruise passengers have wished that a favourite aspect of one ship could be transferred to another, creating their ultimate satisfying experience. A restaurant here, a lounge there. The excellent cinema married with the herb garden and the kick-ass cabanas. And voila, you can sail off into the sunset without a single grumble.

THE DREAM DECKS

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The Wintergraden on Viking Sky.
Supplied by cruise company for use in TRAVELLER (via Brian Johnston)

The Wintergraden on Viking Sky. 

THE CONTENDERS

Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Seabourn

AND THE WINNER IS …

Viking Cruises. Its ocean ships (all near identical) have abundant, versatile deck spaces presented with considerable Nordic chic and featuring natural materials such as slate, limestone and wood.

WHY WE LOVE IT

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A cantilevered infinity pool juts off the stern deck, the pool deck hosts an evening open-air cinema, and there are occasional glassed-in areas snug with sofas and bookcases. There's also an uncluttered upper deck for viewing the scenery.

DON'T MISS

Afternoon tea in the Wintergarden, an indoor-outdoor space by the swimming pool with a retractable glass roof and striking, forest-like canopy of soaring birch wood. It's a warm, light-flooded, relaxed deck space. The scones aren't bad, either.

ALL ABOARD

A 15-day Far East Discovery cruise departing Hong Kong on September 20, 2019, on Viking Orion costs from $5995 per person. See vikingcruises.com.au

THE DREAM SWIMMING POOL

Celebrity Equinox pool.

Celebrity Equinox pool. 

THE CONTENDERS

Seabourn Encore; Sanctuary's Sun Boat III on the Nile River; Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony

AND THE WINNER IS …

Celebrity Cruises' Solstice-class ships, which include Equinox, Eclipse and Silhouette. The pool deck is just right: roomier than on smaller luxury ships, more refined and tranquil than on larger ships.

WHY WE LOVE IT

The swimming pool is anchored by four inviting hot tubs and provides ample loungers both in sun and shade, plus a few giant hammocks enveloped in white curtains. It's a great social gathering spot, aided by a busy poolside bar.

DON'T MISS

The adjacent indoor Solarium pool, housed in a triple-height glass atrium that provides a humid, balmy environment no matter the weather, plus pleasing quietness, soothed by the gurgling of a water feature.

ALL ABOARD

A seven-night Norwegian Fjords Cruise departing Southampton on April 27, 2019, on Celebrity Silhouette costs from $2009 per person. See celebritycruises.com

THE DREAM DECOR

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A cabin on Uniworld's new Seine ship Joie de Vivre
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A cabin on Uniworld's new Seine ship Joie de Vivre.

THE CONTENDERS

Viking Cruises' ocean ships; Crystal Cruises' ocean and river ships; Oceania Marina

AND THE WINNER IS …

Uniworld. Decor is a matter of taste, but you have to admire Uniworld's fabulous disdain for on-trend blandness and muted colours. The extravagance is over-the-top, but reflects the culture of countries through which the river ships sail.

WHY WE LOVE IT

A penchant for leopard-skin prints, explosions of orchids, crystal chandeliers, colourful opulence, mirrors and marble make Uniworld ships eye-popping. You might find original Chagall and Miro sketches lining the corridors.

DON'T MISS

Danube ship Maria Theresa, named for an Austrian empress. It's as close as you'll get to a floating 18th-century palace thanks to ruffled curtains, plump sofas, padded banquettes, a riot of gilt and a little Viennese-style cafe.

ALL ABOARD

An eight-day Enchanting Danube cruise departing Budapest on June 2, 2019, on Maria Theresa costs from $6999 per person See uniworld.com

THE DREAM OBSERVATION LOUNGE

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The Observation Lounge on Regent's Seven Seas Mariner
Supplied by cruise company for use in TRAVELLER (via Brian Johnston)

The Observation Lounge on Regent's Seven Seas Mariner.

THE CONTENDERS

Explorer's Lounge on Viking Cruises; The Living Room on Azamara Club Cruises; Crystal Cruises' Palm Court

AND THE WINNER IS …

The Observation Lounge on Regent's Seven Seas Mariner (similar on some other ships), centred on a glowing backlit bar and looking out through vast windows onto uninterrupted sea views.

WHY WE LOVE IT

Observation lounges can often be rather dead spaces on cruise ships, but this is one to return to again and again thanks to its cheerful contemporary appeal, white leather furnishings and fabulous 12th-deck outlook. It also has the best bar on the ship.

DON'T MISS

The attractive Mariner alternatives, such as the low-lit and intimate Mariner Lounge for murmured conversation over pre-dinner drinks, and the Moroccan-inspired Stars Nightclub for a night cap.

ALL ABOARD

A 15-night Los Angeles to Miami cruise departing on September 30, 2019, on Seven Seas Mariner costs from $9730 per person. See rssc.com

THE DREAM BARS

THE CONTENDERS

Celebrity Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Cunard

AND THE WINNER IS …

Oceania Cruises' Marina, whose upmarket bar venues are understated but beautiful, with interesting artworks such as original sketches and arresting glassware and sculptures.

WHY WE LOVE IT

Whether you're kicking back amid potted palms at the promenade-style Grand Bar, perched on a high silver stool at the glowing purple Casino Bar or getting that cruise-ship rarity, a proper espresso at Barista coffee bar, this ship's agreeable hangouts encourage you to abandon your cabin.

DON'T MISS

Martinis Bar, modelled on a New York cocktail lounge, has a slight art deco sensibility, low mood lighting and gleaming glass artworks. The piano tinkles above pleasing pre- and post-dinner chatter in this agreeable space.

ALL ABOARD

A 16-day Pearls and Moai cruise departing Papeete on March 2, 2019, on Marina costs from $5030 per person. See oceaniacruises.com

THE DREAM MAIN RESTAURANT

Celebrity Silhouette. Celebrity cruises' new ship launched in Hamburg 21st July 2011..Interior feature photos..Grand Cuvee Dining Room.
Celebrity Silhouette's Grand Cuvee main dining restaurant
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Supplied by cruise company for use in TRAVELLER (via Brian Johnston)

Grand Cuvee dining room on Celebrity Silhouette.

THE CONTENDERS

Compass Rose on Regent's Voyager, Navigator and Mariner; Gastronomic Restaurant on Ponant ships; Grand Dining Room on Oceania's Regatta-class ships

AND THE WINNER IS …

Grand Cuvee on Celebrity Silhouette and Celebrity's other Solstice-class ships, which provides the best food of any large ship, and also has a stylish, contemporary interior and excellent service.

WHY WE LOVE IT

Many big ships now neglect main dining rooms, hoping to push passengers into extra-cost specialty restaurants. Not so here, where you'll find high-quality dishes with interesting international flavours and a good choice of low-calorie and vegetarian options too. Helpful sommeliers know what they're talking about.

DON'T MISS

The "always available" staples, which venture beyond the usual steak or salmon into upmarket alternative such as escargots, French onion soup and lobster bisque.

ALL ABOARD

A 14-night Western Mediterranean Cruise departing Southampton on September 8, 2019, on Celebrity Silhouette costs from $3089 per person. See celebritycruises.com

THE DREAM SPECIALITY RESTAURANT

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Atlantide restaurant on Silver Muse
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Atlantide restaurant on Silver Muse.

THE CONTENDERS

Viking Cruises' Manfredi's Italian Restaurant; Oceania's pan-Asian Red Ginger on Marina, Riviera and Sirena; The Verandah on Cunard ships

AND THE WINNER IS …

Atlantide on Silver Muse and Silver Spirit is unpretentious and relaxed, yet dishes up top-quality, Mediterranean-influenced surf and turf choices – at no extra charge.

WHY WE LOVE IT

Service is polished but kindly, decor unfussy, cutlery and glasses wink back at the ocean beyond the windows. Seafood runs to blue lobster, Baltic salmon, seabass and royal crab. The grill offers Argentine grain-fed beef and prime Angus steak.

DON'T MISS

Quality steaks and seafood are the main game, but you can also indulge in the likes of wild mushroom risotto, Caesar salad with smoked duck and a cracking vine-tomato veloute soup with baby meatballs.

ALL ABOARD

A 14-day Tokyo to Tokyo cruise departing on September 27, 2019, on Silver Muse costs from $8370 per person. See silversea.com

THE DREAM CABIN

Azamara Journey Club Spa Suite (Bathroom) - Room Deck 9 Portside Forward
Azamara Journey - Azamara Club Cruises

Azamara Journey Club Spa Suite.

THE CONTENDERS

Regent Suite on Seven Seas Explorer; Crystal Penthouse on Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony; Owner's Suites on Oceania's Marina and Riviera.

AND THE WINNER IS…

Club Spa Suites on Azamara Club Cruises, first launched in 2016 to provide easy access to the adjacent spa, and themselves providing a spa-like feeling of pampering and pleasantry.

WHY WE LOVE IT

These aren't the biggest suites at sea (38 square metres, plus a verandah), but they have elegant, understated style, relaxing brown-and-cream decor, and luxe extras such as plush bathrobes and healthy snacks delivered in-room.

DON'T MISS

The bathroom, unusual not just for its floor-to-ceiling outlook but its rain-shower with body jets, spa-like soaking tub, double sinks and exhilarating sea views.

ALL ABOARD

A 12-night South Africa Intensive Voyage departing Cape Town on January 21, 2020, on Azamara Quest costs from $11,015 per person in a Club Spa Suite. See azamaraclubcruises.com

THE DREAM SPA

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Crystal Spa on Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity
Supplied image for use in TRAVELLER

Crystal Spa on Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity.

THE CONTENDERS

Viking Cruises' LiVNordic Spa; Canyon Ranch Spa Club on Cunard's Queen Mary 2; The Spa on Seabourn.

AND THE WINNER IS …

Crystal Spa on Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony, which is Asian-themed (and feng shui organised) and has both traditional wellness therapies and medi-spa treatments.

WHY WE LOVE IT

This isn't the fanciest or latest on-board wellness centre, but it's the most serene, and choices are extensive, from a salt-and-ginger scrub to facials to acupuncture. Whether you're after a massage, a manicure or a quick haircut, you'll always appreciate the ocean views.

DON'T MISS

Linger in the relaxation area on deck afterwards, where you'll find a sauna, green-tiled steam room and showers that bathe you in a fibre-optic glow and rain mist.

ALL ABOARD

A 13-day The Holy Land & Greek Isles cruise departing Rome on October 10, 2019, on Crystal Serenity costs from $9300 per person. See crystalcruises.com

THE DREAM EXPEDITION FACILITIES

Coral Discoverer in Tasmania
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Coral Discoverer in Tasmania.

THE CONTENDERS

Silversea's expedition ships; Lindblad Expeditions; Aurora Expeditions.

AND THE WINNER IS …

Coral Discoverer from Aussie company Coral Expeditions. It's neither the most luxurious nor most glamorous ship, but has numerous ways to immerse you in the landscape, and an efficient and informative expedition crew to help you do it.

WHY WE LOVE IT

This is a successful expedition vessel thanks to its own manoeuvrable size, and carries a tender and Zodiacs, plus snorkelling and scuba-diving equipment (though not on cruises in crocodile-infested waters).

DON'T MISS

Clambering into purpose-built tender Xplorer straight from the deck, after which it's lowered by hydraulic platform into the sea. It's efficient, easy and, as the tender has virtually no draught, it can take you into coastline crannies.

ALL ABOARD

An 11-day Cape York & Arnhem Land cruise departing Cairns on April 14, 2019, on Coral Discoverer costs from $10,695 per person. See coralexpeditions.com

THE DREAM TEAM

The best cruise experience is often simply provided by the ship with the best and happiest crew. Here's a star cast of seven.

CAPTAIN

Few passengers interact with the captain except to clink glasses at the captain's dinner. Good, because the best captain concentrates on ship operations and safety. On small ships, though, a captain who enjoys interacting with guests is a plus, such as Star Flyer's Sergey Utitsyn, a natural raconteur and tall-ship expert.

CRUISE DIRECTOR

Professional, friendly, multilingual, well-travelled, hard-working, efficient: are all characteristics you'd want from the person who organises your shore excursions and (on small ships) your entertainment, too. Ponant's Kamel Hamitouche adds a beaming smile, firecracker energy and sense of humour.

HOTEL MANAGER

With overall responsibility for hotel and restaurant services, you'd want someone well-organised, on-the-ball and clear about company standards. If you don't know who the manager is, be worried: he or she should, like Star Clipper's Tracy Greiner, be constantly on the watch, and checking that guests are happy.

EXECUTIVE CHEF

They're seldom on board, but great executive chefs stamp their authority on food quality and inventiveness, making guests feel they've had a fine dining experience. Crystal Cruises' Japan-born, Los Angeles-based Nobuyuki Matsushita excels with his Japanese- and Peruvian-influenced cuisine, including memorable sushi.

SOMMELIER

Many ships' sommeliers are waiters in disguise, but when you get the real thing you'll get sage advice, no patronising and a taste of wines you might never consider at home. A great example is Viking Sea's Lorena Merlini, who hails from Milan and has sommelier experience from a Michelin-star restaurant in London.

WAITER

You'd want waiter Jerry Mas Dias from APT's Hebridean Sky with you on every cruise. He's attentive, efficient, never confuses an order, never forgets a passenger's name, but is also chatty and amusing. If you don't enjoy waiter interaction, European ships have more sedate and formal service.

EXPEDITION LEADER

A steady hand, a bit of considered derring-do, a sun-wrinkled smile, detailed knowledge casually imparted, and good planning make a great combination for the person responsible for safe adventures in remote places. For example? Coral Expeditions' Steve Cox, photographer, tour guide, dive instructor and cricketer extraordinaire.

10 DREAM CRUISE DESTINATIONS

PATAGONIA

Patagonia, Chile - Grey Glacier is a glacier in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field on Cordillera del Paine
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Credit: Shutterstock

Grey Glacier is a glacier in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field on Cordillera del Paine. Photo: Shutterstock

Andes meet ocean to spectacular effect along the indented coastline of South America's southern tip. Nautical legend Cape Horn is a land of penguin and albatross. As a bonus, most cruises are bracketed between two great cities, Santiago and Buenos Aires.

DANUBE RIVER

Central Europe's great river takes you from Germany to Romania through cheerful regions packed with culture, history and medieval and baroque towns, plus a few choice vineyards. Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade provide a taste of big-city life.

NEW ZEALAND

It's close, it's friendly and most of all it's utterly beautiful, and not just for wild scenery such as Milford Sound. Most ports of call have lovely approaches among islands or along grand bays, and just as lovely waterfronts as well.

GALAPAGOS

These Ecuadorean islands are impressive enough on TV when accompanied by a David Attenborough voice over, but the real deal is unbeatable for the intimate wildlife experience it provides amid iguanas, giant tortoises, sea lions and bird life.

FRENCH POLYNESIA

Every fantasy of a Pacific island comes true in a showcase of blue lagoons, rearing peaks, waterfalls, white-sand beaches and reefs scintillating with multi-coloured fish. Moorea, Bora Bora and Huahine are simply gobsmacking.

AEGEAN SEA

Stairs from sandy beach of amazing bay on Greece island Kalymnos, Greece
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Credit: Shutterstock

A bay on Greek island Kalymnos. Photo: Shutterstock

Ancient ruins, whitewashed villages, sun-baked islands, sparkling seas and crusader castles are just the start of this culture-rich stretch of water between Greece and Turkey. Highlights? Very different but equally extraordinary Rhodes, Istanbul and Santorini.

MEKONG RIVER

This mighty, muddy waterway through Vietnam and Cambodia takes you through centuries-old cultures (Angkor Wat is the undoubted highlight) and kaleidoscopic street life, but also into the modern realities of two fast-developing economies.

THE KIMBERLEY

Orange rock meets blue ocean in this haunting, remote north-west corner of Australia, where gorges plunge, reefs flourish and extraordinary natural phenomena include horizontal falls and gargantuan tides. Indigenous rock art is also outstanding.

NORWAY

The combination of fjords, waterfalls, endless islands and horizon of snow peaks provides hands-down the most splendid, dramatic landscapes you'll ever encounter on a cruise, culminating in the unspeakably lovely Lofoten Islands.

NILE RIVER

A cruise in Egypt is a float through the staggering history of an ancient culture whose temples and tombs are a great spectacle. The river itself is also captivating, a great gush of life, fringed by palm trees and age-old farmland, in the red desert.

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