Flagships of the Caribbean

Windjammer SV Polynesia at port, Gustavia Harbor, St. Barts
Windjammer SV Polynesia at port, Gustavia Harbor, St. BartsZach Stovall / Caribbean Travel & Life Magazine
/ Source: Caribbean Travel and Life

It’s a banner season for Caribbean cruising, with 11 new ships providing state-of-the-art service from a slew of U.S. ports, including New York, Boston, Louisiana, Texas and, of course, multiple spots in Florida. Today’s cruisers can expect expanded amenities such as spas and kids clubs, beyond-the-buffet dining options and restaurants run by celebrity chefs, and enough activities to keep them hopping while their ship is island-hopping the Caribbean. Larger, faster and more luxurious, these floating all-inclusives have become destinations unto themselves, and as our roundup of 15 flagships makes clear, if you’re into cruising, your ship has come in. Bon voyage.

On shiny silver blades, I glide across the cool, slick ice. It’s hard to believe I’m somewhere between Miami and Havana moving ENE at 20.5 knots, a balmy 85 degrees outside. Ten decks above me, a pick-up game of hoops drives fast and furious. Nearby, in-line skaters whiz past golfers lining up putts on a nine-hole miniature golf course while runners chew up miles on the outdoor jogging track. The most radical cruisers, outfitted in bright yellow helmets and safety harnesses, are even higher, scaling a 33-foot-high rock wall behind the ship’s smoke stack. This is definitely not your grandmother’s cruise ship.

From chic to rustic, expensive to affordable, tourists looking for some sun and sand can find what they're looking for in the Caribbean.

Designers of the Mariner of the Seas —Royal Caribbean’s largest ship cruising the Caribbean and last of its innovative Voyager-class series — clearly had more in mind than building a longer buffet line and a bigger sun deck. Today’s cruisers, they reasoned, want to do more than gorge themselves and park their bottoms on deck chairs. So while there’s plenty of space aboard the ship for those satisfied with sipping frosty drinks in the sun by the pool, the Mariner specializes in offering over-the-top options to people of all ages who prefer to keep their bodies in motion while floating through the tropics.

Despite its “lust for life” active theme, the Mariner is much more than a fancy seagoing gymnasium. A stroll down the Royal Promenade — a vast, glittering space that’s a full four decks high and longer than a football field — is like visiting a stylish shopping mall. With a soaring atrium on each end, this unique avenue offers an array of boutiques, a gourmet coffee-and-ice-cream café and several bars, including Vintages where I sample wines to preorder my selections for dinner. A dramatic staircase connects to the ship’s three-level main dining room, bejeweled in chandeliers. At Chops Grille and Portofino’s, Mariner’s two premium restaurants (reservations recommended and extra charges apply), the staffs compete against each other to see who can offer the most creative and memorable dining experience — the passengers are the clear winners. If you’re just climbing out of the pool after a scuba lesson or fresh from testing your swing in the golf simulator and don’t feel like dressing for dinner, not to worry: Johnny Rockets’ cooks will be flipping a classic cheeseburger with your name on it.

In the evenings, if you have the stamina to switch into party mode, there’s no limit to the action in 14 themed bars and lounges and the Vegas-style casino. On several nights during the cruise, the ship’s performers stage dazzling costume parades through the Promenade after starring in their various shows.

The Mariner’s high-energy theme extends to the excursions in port, with adventures such as climbing Dunn’s River Falls on Jamaica, scuba diving off Grand Cayman and parasailing over Cozumel. After a few days of trying to do every activity in port and on board (including 8 a.m. step aerobics classes) I’m still moving — at least to haul my aching muscles to the ShipShape Spa. Right now my lust for life is limited to a warm seaweed massage and a nice long soak in the hot tub.  — Santa Choplin Bogdon

Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas offers seven-day Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries year-round, sailing from Port Canaveral, Florida. For information call 800-327-6700 or visit www.royalcaribbean.com.

As we pull away from the Dominican Republic, our path lit by the glow of a perfect half-moon, the movement of the ship is barely perceptible. Sipping icy piña coladas to stave off the night’s sultry heat, we watch the coastline fade into darkness. Back near the stern, a poolside sail-away celebration is in full swing, but other than the sounds of the live band carried on the ocean breeze, we scarcely notice the festivities, too caught up in our own quiet interlude.

This was just one of many surprisingly quiet moments my fiancé and I shared during our weeklong Southern Caribbean voyage on the Celebrity Constellation. We’d always been reluctant to take a big-ship cruise for fear of being swept up into a mass of humanity, surrounded by rum-fueled limbo contests and stuck in endless queues at the midnight buffet. But we liked the idea of seeing several Caribbean destinations on one trip while having access to all the amenities of a floating resort, so we decided to give it a try, choosing Celebrity’s newest ship in its upscale Millennium-class fleet. We were delighted to find that despite having to share the 965-foot Constellation with almost 2,000 other passengers, we had plenty of alone time — and not just in our stateroom.

Dinners were a special event, and we ate our way around the ship, choosing a different venue each evening. Our favorite — and well worth the extra fee — was the cozy, candlelit Ocean Liners Restaurant. Accompanied by soft piano music, the attentive white-gloved wait staff escorted us through several delectable courses, including an amuse bouche of cucumber gazpacho in tiny bowls signed by Chef Michel Roux, and a flashy tableside flambé.

A private late-night soak in the ultra-relaxing thalassotherapy pool was an experience we never expected. Our only company was a Rubenesque woman reclining in the buff nearby. But since she was made of bronze, she neither offended nor intruded. Only the rushing water jets broke the silence. Clearly the 2,000 other passengers didn’t know what they were missing: On not one, but two nights we had the glass-enclosed pool and its softly lit lounge area all to ourselves.

Although we cherished our solitary time and usually sought Constellation’s most serene spots — the Cova Café for cappuccinos and classical music, Michael’s Club for cocktails, the Sunrise Deck at daybreak — we weren’t as antisocial as we thought we might be. On our one full day at sea, we chatted over lunch in the San Marco Restaurant with the six other guests at our table, hitting it off with a delightful English couple who kept losing one another — and finding us —throughout the trip. We also joined lively groups for culinary shore excursions on Antigua and in the Dominican Republic.

It soon became apparent that, by choosing the right ship, it was possible to enjoy all the benefits of cruising while keeping the need for privacy at whatever level we wanted. And on the second-to-last night we even — gasp! — waited in line to photograph the midnight magnificence of Le Grand Buffet. - Julie Feiner

The Constellation sails seven-night Southern Caribbean itineraries, round-trip from San Juan, Puerto Rico.  For more information call 800-437-3111 or visit www.celebrity.com.

Looking down at my wrinkly fingers, I realize it’s time to get out of the pool and dress for dinner. We’re nearing the end of our cruise on the Caribbean Princess, newest ship in the Princess Cruises fleet, and I am giving the clock hateful looks as it ticks away the last precious moments. 

Like every other child of the ’70s, I loved The Love Boat — Hey, Gopher, get me a root beer and sit your cute butt down. So taking a Princess cruise (the show was set aboard a Princess ship) for our first wedding anniversary sounded like the ideal romantic getaway.

As we stepped on board, the three-story atrium opened before us. I nudged Bill and cooed, “What an elegant, romantic setting.” He rolled his eyes and glanced down at our map of the ship, trying to find the casino. I wanted first to nose around and check out the specialty restaurants and theaters, then find the most secluded of the seven hot tubs. He wanted to follow his nose to the nearest of the Caribbean Princess’ 10 bars.

I’d been concerned about feeling trapped inside tiny cruise-ship quarters, especially after a week of constant canoodling. But our outside cabin had plenty of room and even its own balcony featuring a constantly changing view. I leaned out over the railing, feeling the sea breeze as the ship moved out of the harbor. It was a glorious, queen of the world feeling, and I rushed inside to pull Bill out so we could watch together as the ship steamed into the open ocean. He took a quick glance outside, then rubbed his belly and said, “Buffet — now.”

The next morning, Bill was contrite. He’d needed a little time to decompress from the real world and, after a hearty breakfast, he claimed he was in full-on romantic cruise mode. Marriage is all about forgiveness, right? Maybe, but I decided to test him anyway. We looked over the huge menu of onboard activities. I could tell he was salivating over the golf simulator, putting green and basketball court. “Hmm,” I said, “this merengue class looks fun.” Much to my pleasant surprise, he said fine. And to his surprise, we both had a blast — so much so that he suggested we sign up for another dance class the next day. From that point on, the cruise became the romantic fantasy I’d always imagined — minus Gopher, plus Bill, who has an even cuter butt.

My man was on board with dressing up and reserving an intimate table for a seven-course dinner at Sabatini’s Trattoria; we sang oldies with the piano man at Crooner’s Martini Bar until curtain time for Caribbean Caliente, a Latin-themed Vegas-style production; we shook it late into the night at Skywalkers nightclub, 16 decks above the sea; and we each enjoyed a hot stone massage in the Lotus Spa.

On one of our last nights, it was Bill’s idea to skip the casino and socializing, and instead order room service and sequester in our suite. Nice big sigh. After a year of marriage, our honeymoon wasn’t over — it was just lost at sea. And we found it. — Michelle Doster

The Caribbean Princess sails the region year-round out of Fort Lauderdale. For information, call 800-PRINCESS or visit www.princess.com.

I’m caught in a fury of movement, surrounded by flying arms, kicking legs and spastic torsos. An ancient Roman, toga and all, falls to the floor next to me, convulsing like a sprayed bug while several pirates, a princess and a guy with a toilet seat around his neck who claims to be the “life of the potty” all cheer him on. The winner of this week’s “Miss Windjammer” pageant — still dressed for the swimsuit competition in a daring two-piece — is across the bar, blowing kisses through his bristly mustache and caressing his thick chest hair. The runners-up, also in drag, ignore the mascara mingled with sweat streaming down their faces as they, too, rush to join the party.

I’ve only been on Windjammer’s S. V. Polynesia for three days, and I’m already exhausted from the fun. I didn’t know a soul when I walked up the gangplank, but once I kicked off my shoes and showed up on deck, I met all 100 passengers — many families, couples and groups of friends — aboard this floating beach bar. There are no casinos, shows or gyms; not even a pool. We entertain ourselves, and that’s the best part. With the adult scavenger hunt, theme costume nights and dance-crazed clientele, there isn’t a chance of being bored aboard this boutique cruise liner.

There are many differences between a Windjammer and a big-boat cruise. The most noticeable is that Casey, our barefoot captain, and the rest of the crew don’t hide away in their quarters at night — they’re dancing and partying alongside us. And when we anchor off St. Maarten, the passengers are encouraged to walk the plank. Try doing that from a 100-foot-high megaship.

At 5:30 a.m., I’m “knocked up” by the crew. Not what you think: It’s the

S. V. Polynesia’s morning wakeup call for anyone who wants to help actually sail the ship. I stumble out onto deck. Several passengers who’ve taken advantage of the balmy Caribbean weather and slept under the stars lie on mats near the rail. Now the bleary-eyed sailors gather, mimosas in hand, for another chance to learn some basic seamanship and witness the inspiring sight of the four enormous sails rising into the morning sky.

As dawn breaks over the bow, “Amazing Grace” begins to play through the deck speakers, a Windjammer tradition. Passengers and crew together haul the white sheets up the towering masts. The sails first flutter, then catch both the wind and the golden sunlight. The S. V. Polynesia gains speed, dipping into gentle seas as she pursues a patch of land on the horizon. It’s so peaceful up on the bow that I let the slow sway of the ship rock me to sleep. Tonight is the pajama party — I’m going to need my strength.

— Zach Stovall 

The S. V. Polynesia is one of five Windjammer Barefoot Cruises that sail the Caribbean year-round. For more information, call 800-327-2601 or visit www.windjammer.com.

At 110,000 tons, the 2,974-passenger Carnival Valor (800-CARNIVAL; www.carnival.com) will be the largest Carnival ship sailing from Miami when she debuts this December. Her theme will be “Heroes and Heroics” of American history and she will offer several family-friendly amenities, including a 4,200-square-foot children’s area and a teen club. There will also be 22 bars and lounges, and several formal and casual dining options, including a 24-hour pizzeria and a steakhouse supper club. Elevator entrances with stained-glass lamps and brass doors decorated with wood inlays evoke early America. A unique dome crowns the lobby, with bas-relief panels depicting popular U.S. destinations.

Royal Caribbean International’s (800-398-9819; www.royalcaribbean.com) 90,090-ton, 2,112-passenger Jewel of the Seas, which launched this past spring, is geared for cruisers of all ages. A very contemporary ship, she has floor-to-ceiling glass in most public areas, a multi-million-dollar art collection and the highest percentage of outside cabins in RCI’s fleet. Among her features is the 10-story glass Centrum atrium with glass elevators facing seaward, a three-level theater and a rock-climbing wall towering 200 feet above the ocean. Onboard sports and fitness activities include in-line skating, basketball, volleyball, a jogging track, a golf simulator, a nine-hole miniature golf course and a spa and fitness center, plus the supervised Adventure Ocean program for kids. 

Holland America Line’s (877-724-5425; www.hollandamerica.com) newest ship, the 82,000-ton, 1,848-passenger Westerdam, was introduced in spring. This ship design features several staterooms with private verandas, and museum-quality artwork graces the spacious public areas. The ship’s many dining rooms and lounges include the Pinnacle Grill, the Crow’s Nest, the Explorer’s Lounge, the Ocean Bar and the Vista Show Lounge, where the big productions are staged. There is a large sun deck, and a promenade encircles the ship and its two swimming pools. Westerdam also boasts the Greenhouse Spa and Salon, a selection of video games, a library and card room, meeting facilities and a casino. Her intimate atrium is only three decks high, with a Waterford crystal sailing ship as its centerpiece. 

One of the smaller ships exploring the region this season is Crystal Cruises’ (866-446-6625; www.crystalcruises.com) Crystal Serenity. The 68,000-ton, 1,080-guest ship, designed to offer a soothing yet rejuvenating travel experience, sails round-trip from Fort Lauderdale. The two-story atrium features a hand-cut glass sculpture and a waterfall, and it’s where passengers gather in the Crystal Cove, Serenity’s piano bar. The ship’s amenities include the 4,123-square-foot Caesar’s Palace at Sea Casino, the feng shui-designed Crystal Spa, the Computer University at Sea program, a sushi restaurant and Avenue of the Stars, the 3,000-square-foot shopping area.   

If you’ve ever wanted to experience a classic ocean liner without having to make an Atlantic crossing, now is your chance. Cunard Line’s (800-7-CUNARD; www.cunard.com) Queen Mary 2, which was christened earlier this year, will sail on several Caribbean cruises round trip from New York and Fort Lauderdale in 2005. Her grand staircases, expansive promenades and impressive public rooms — including the largest ballroom at sea — are reminiscent of the “golden age” of ocean liners. She has the first sea-going planetarium, five swimming pools and a full 360-degree promenade deck, and offers a choice of 10 dining venues. The QM2 also has the only Canyon Ranch Spa Club at sea, as well as the largest library and wine collection of any cruise ship. There’s also a champagne bar, a two-story theater, a casino, hot tubs, boutiques and children’s facilities, complete with British nannies.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s (800-327-7030; www.ncl.com) Norwegian Jewel makes her debut in August 2005. The 92,000-ton, 2,400-guest ship offers NCL’s “Freestyle Cruising,” with 10 restaurants to choose from. A distinctive feature on the Jewel is its courtyard villas, complete with private patios and sun decks. The largest, called the Garden Villa, is 3,350 square feet and includes a living room, dining room and three bedrooms. “Bar Central” will be an area featuring a martini bar, a champagne and wine bar, and a beer and whisky pub. Jewel will also have the Bora Bora Health Spa and Beauty Salon, operated by Mandara Spa. Wi-Fi will be available, along with extensive facilities for kids and teens.  

Oceania Cruises’ (800-822-2841; www.oceaniacruises.com) 30,277-ton 684-passenger Regatta offers the atmosphere one might find at an upscale country club — it even has an Edwardian-style double staircase. Geared toward the sophisticated traveler, Regatta has eight lounges, a 12-piece orchestra and a world-class spa. Menus at the four open-seating restaurants were created by award-winning master chef Jacques Pépin. 

The 50,000-ton Seven Seas Mariner was designed to offer an intimate, upscale cruising experience. She is the world’s first all-suite, all-balcony ship, and the first to offer Le Cordon Bleu dining in Signatures, one of four single, open-seating restaurants. Catering to only 700 guests, Seven Seas Mariner is one of the most spacious cruise ships afloat, and her staff-to-guest ratio of 1 to 1.6 provides the highest level of personal service in fitting with the tradition of Radisson Seven Seas Cruises (877-505-5370; www.rssc.com). The Mariner also has a Carita Spa & Fitness Center. 

MSC Opera, the new 58,600-ton, 1,756-passenger ship of MSC Cruises (800-666-9333; www.msccruises.com), features a contemporary Italian design and a true sense of grandeur and spaciousness both inside and out. Public areas feature airy, open spaces with walls of windows overlooking decks and a marble reception area. Next to the private spa- treatment rooms there is a relaxation and meditation area (complete with small teak beds) surrounded by ocean-view windows. She has two restaurants, a grill and pizzeria, two pools, two hydro-massages, a beauty center, an Internet café, a pub and piano bar, a casino and disco, a theater and Children’s Club. 

Bringing a classic Italian atmosphere to the region is CostaCruises’ (800-247-7320; www.costacruise.com) 86,000-ton, 2,114-passenger CostaMediterranea, which sails round-trip to the Eastern and Western Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale. Designed with 17th- and 18th-century Italian palazzos in mind, her 12 passenger decks evoke the elegance of European style, with touches of Carrara marble and Murano glass. At the heart of the ship is the Maschera d’Argento Atrium, where a soaring sculpture of airborne dancers spans 10 decks. There are also a spa and three swimming pools, one with a magrodome so the pool can be used in any weather.

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