Bill Gates and Paul Allen did it together. So did Queen Beatrice of Holland and Enrique Iglesias. And in 2004, almost 11 million people worldwide did the same thing. Many did it two or three--or more--times.
What is it they did? They took a cruise.
Now, of course, in the case of billionaires, such as Gates and Allen, they didn't technically "cruise." Paul Allen has three yachts, the biggest of which, the 414-foot Octopus, is the second-largest yacht in America and has an onboard music studio, basketball court and personal submarine. (To read more about the world's most expensive yachts, click here.)
And while Allen may be considerably richer than most other affluent baby boomers, what they, as well as many younger travelers, share is a desire to vacation at sea--and to spend heavily, relatively speaking, to get the best.
For those without a yacht, a niche market of high-end cruise carriers, like Crystal Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Seabourn and Carnival Cruise Lines-owned (nyse: CCL - news - people ) Cunard, has emerged to cater to this growing--and very well-heeled--market.
"Vacationers today want choice," says Bob Dickinson, Miami-based Carnival's president and chief executive. "They want possibilities, in terms of activities, entertainment, sightseeing and service." By signing up for an expensive cruise, he explains, you're guaranteed "a level of clientèle that's just like you. You won't have anyone that's overreaching or being a social bumpkin. These cruises are self-delineating, based on the budgets. They attract fascinating people from all over the world; people who have become successful enough to have the time and money to go."
Just 30 years ago, a cruise ship didn't offer much more than a traditional land resort (and usually offered far less), unless you believe that there is a recreational aspect to mal-de-mer. It had a main lounge, a few bars, a restaurant resembling a high-school cafeteria and a gym below the water line with a rowing machine, dance bar and a few wrestling mats. Onboard casinos had a bank of slot machines and a roulette wheel, and the beauty parlor could give you a perm. Ships were technologically advanced enough to stay above water, but couldn't do much else.
Anchors away? Not exactly. Under a million people each year took cruises during the 1970s. But in 2004, nearly 11 million travelers around the world took a cruise, according to the Virginia-based International Council of Cruise Lines. Last year, the cruise industry generated $30 billion dollars--an increase of 18% over 2003. There are more cruise lines, cruise ships and itineraries available now than ever before.
But the industry may only grow by an estimated 5% in 2005, because demand for cruises is exceeding the supply of available cabins. In order to accommodate demand across the entire industry, new ships will need to be built, which will require capital commitments of approximately $1 billion for just two or three new ships from the cruise lines.
"I think the future of cruising is outstanding," says Carnival's Dickinson. "Today, cruising captures only 2% of the vacation market in this country. That's just 9.6 million people, while Las Vegas attracts over 37 million and Orlando is over 40 million. But cruising is capacity constrained. Our ships are full. If we wanted to be 6% of the market, we'd have to double the size of the fleet."
"Traditionally, people have thought of cruising as something for old people and their parents," says Brian Major, director of public relations for New York-based Cruise Lines International Association. "That's changed because there is a ship out there for everyone." Today's ships, from ocean-going leviathans like the Queen Elizabeth 2 to much smaller yachts, offer amenities ranging from butlers and masseurs to onboard helicopters and zodiacs and trained private guides for land excursions.
The Galapagos Islands-based , a 210-foot luxury vessel that operates through a variety of tour operators, including Abercrombie & Kent, only carries 48 passengers at a time--and far fewer than that when they're VIPs, like Queen Beatrice and Enrique Iglesias, who visited together with the Dutch royal family. The Eclipse can also be bought out for corporate retreats, which was done most recently by the CEO of a pharmaceutical company.
In other cases, the more you pay for a cruise, the more you get. On Seabourn cruises, a flat rate (which can be over $2,000 per person per night) means that everything, down to the champagne and caviar you're served upon arrival, is included--and tipping is absolutely verboten. The staff will know your name from the very first day.
In a nod to the increasing importance of gourmet dining as a component of luxury travel, Silversea Cruises recently partnered with Relais & Chateaux to introduce wine-themed restaurants on their ships. "The focus of these restaurants is wine appreciation. The menus will feature all-new dishes to complement the finest vintages from our Epicurean Collection," says Silversea CEO Albert Peter. "Guests will enjoy a different glass of wine with each course, so this will be a great opportunity to explore some very rare and expensive wines, while paying a nominal fee to dine in the restaurant."
On Cunard's Queen Mary 2, a Canyon Ranch spa, seven restaurants and a nightly disco are available to all passengers, while those traveling in one of the Grand Duplex apartments (which have a private balcony, marble bathrooms and cost $24,249) enjoy private butler service as well.
As if all of these modern-day luxuries weren't enough, cruises still make sense for all of the same reasons they always have; passengers can sightsee to their hearts' content, while only having to pack and unpack once on the entire trip; Americans traveling to Europe save money by paying in dollars for overseas accommodation; and all-inclusive pricing (which even includes land excursions) takes away the unpredictability that's part of paying for any other type of vacation.
Forbes.com has compiled its 2005 list of the World's Most Expensive Cruises. To calculate the priciest routes, we took the per-person rate for one of the ship's best rooms and divided it by the number of nights on board. That way, a transatlantic cruise wouldn't be unfairly skewed toward the most expensive. In case of a charter or multiple-person suite, we indicated the price per night if only one person were renting.