Travel's Best Cruises 2015
It’s time to plan your next cruise with our annual list of some of the best ships to set sail this year. We’ve pulled together a panel of experts — including Bill Panoff, publisher and editor-in-chief of Porthole Cruise Magazine; Jason Leppert, editor of PopularCruising.com; and Anne Campbell, editor of CruisingFromNewYork.com and ShipCriticBlog.com — to help choose our coveted Travel’s Best Cruises 2015.
See what cruise lines were picked for specific categories such as Best Caribbean Cruise, Best Luxury Cruise, Best Mediterranean Cruise and Best Theme Cruise. And find out which cruise ship made our list for the second year in a row.
Best Alaskan Cruise: Celebrity Cruises, Celebrity Solstice
"You've come to see such dramatic sights as glaciers calving, whales breaching and eagles flying overhead. Being on a ship that's itself a contemporary stunner only enhances the scenery," says Fran Golden, cruise expert for USA Today’s Experience Cruise site. Full of “firsts,” the 2,850-passenger Celebrity Solstice has the first Lawn Club, a half-acre of real grass on the top deck. American interior architect Adam Tihany designed the main dining room with a glass wine tower to the Lawn Club.
The ship was also the first to have its staterooms redesigned and redecorated by 5 women known as “the Leading Ladies.” A large number of staterooms have balconies, so you have a front-row seat for all the amazing views. In addition, the Celebrity Solstice has 10 restaurants, including a crepe bistro; a well-curated art collection; and the Canyon Ranch SpaClub, making it a leader among Alaskan cruises.
Best Caribbean Cruise: Sea Dream Yacht Club, Sea Dream I and Sea Dream II
A voyage aboard Sea Dream Yacht Club’s twin luxury yachts, the Sea Dream I and Sea Dream II, is the best thing about cruising in the Caribbean. These private mega-yachts, which carry 112 passengers each, visit the most exclusive ports, including St. Barts, Bequia and St. John. “The cruise line offers the Champagne & Caviar Splash, where guests wade into the surf to indulge in premium caviar and bubbles, served on a surfboard covered in white linens, and enjoy a barbecue feast on a secluded white-sand beach,” says Anne Campbell, editor of CruisingFromNewYork.com and ShipCriticBlog.com.
Make your cruise an elegant, carefree experience. Relax with a Thai massage, take a dive into the ship’s retractable marina, head off on a mountain bike to explore a small Caribbean island, or unwind with that special someone under the stars in a plush Balinese daybed. Fran Golden, one of our other expert advisors, also gives this cruise her stamp of approval, solidifying its place on our coveted list.
Best European River Cruise: AmaWaterways, AmaCerto
The trend toward river cruising, especially in Europe, continues to increase year over year, and cruisers can now choose from an array of small, intimate, stylish riverboats to traverse these wonderful waterways.
“After 35 years of sailing on oceangoing ships, I recently experienced a river cruise for the first time and absolutely see the appeal of this style of cruising,” says Bill Panoff, publisher and editor-in-chief of Porthole Cruise Magazine. “Sailing aboard AmaWaterways’ AmaCerto provided a comfortable and intimate ambience, amazing food and service, and the ability to dock right in the heart of Europe’s fascinating cities.”
As the ship sails along the Danube and Rhine rivers, among others, guests are afforded picture-perfect views of ever-changing scenery, and in port, shore excursions include everything from educational adventures to culinary tours to castles and cathedrals. In fact, AmaCerto offers another cool and complimentary option: bicycles for guests to use on shore for guided group tours or exploring on their own. Amsterdam; Zurich, Basel and Lucerne, Switzerland; Cologne, Germany; Vienna, Austria; and Budapest, Hungary, are a few ports of call that cruisers may expect to visit aboard this cruise ship.
Best Family Cruise: Royal Caribbean, Anthem of the Seas
"Royal Caribbean's new, 4,180-passenger Anthem of the Seas is one of the most exciting ships in years. It’s fun for the whole family," says Fran Golden. At the SeaPlex sports center, you can ride bumper cars, roller-skate to tunes spun by a DJ, and feel the thrill of being a flying trapeze artist. RipCord by iFly, a simulated skydiving experience, is another new feature for teenagers and older adults.
For a more relaxing adventure, we recommend the new North Star ride, which takes you high above the sea in a glass capsule for spectacular views. And parents will get a kick out of the robot bartenders at the new Bionic Bar. After a season in Europe, the Anthem of the Seas will be cruising year-round from Bayonne, NJ, beginning in the fall to ports of call including Bermuda and the Bahamas.
Best Hawaiian Cruise: Norwegian Cruise Line, Pride of America
It made our Travel’s Best Cruises 2014 list, and this year, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America remains the reigning champion in the Best Hawaiian Cruise category. It's the only major US-flagged cruise ship that offers passengers a total of nearly 100 hours of port time on all 4 main Hawaiian Islands during a 7-night voyage.
"Other cruise lines sail to the islands from LA or San Francisco, which usually means passengers spend only 52 hours in port to see 3 islands on a 15-night cruise,” says Stewart Chiron, president and CEO of CruiseGuy.com. “NCL is the only cruise line that sails round-trip from Honolulu year-round.”
And a big bonus is extra vacation time, since most flights returning to the US mainland don't leave until the afternoon. That allows cruisers time to enjoy Honolulu and its many well-known tourist attractions, such as Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head and Kualoa Ranch.
Best Luxury Cruise: Seabourn Cruise Line, Seabourn Odyssey
Without a doubt, Seabourn Cruise Line's Seabourn Odyssey is for the traveler who wants to be pampered at sea. This ship has 225 ocean-view luxury suites with spacious marble bathrooms. The Spa at Seabourn — which the cruise line calls “the largest spa facility on any luxury cruise ship” — features a whirlpool, a full-service salon, a gym, 6 treatment rooms and a private spa villa.
Try your luck at the casino; head to the Club to hear a DJ spin until the early morning; and, if you’re on a warm-water cruise, enjoy waterskiing, kayaking and paddleboating on the Marina. In addition to these fun amenities, the ship also has a few upscale bars and restaurants for passengers to grab a cocktail or enjoy a delicious meal.
“The Colonnade restaurant is one of my favorite spaces aboard any cruise ship, with excellent food complemented by sensational views,” says Stewart Chiron. “World-renowned American chef Thomas Keller partnered with the cruise line to create new menu items and a signature restaurant (making its debut in 2016) across its entire fleet of ships.”
Seabourn has also partnered with UNESCO to promote sustainable tourism. The cruise line visits more than 170 World Heritage Sites, including Thebes in Egypt, Machu Picchu in Peru and the temple complex of Borobudur on Java, an island in Indonesia.
Best Mediterranean Cruise: Viking Ocean Cruises, Viking Star
Viking Ocean Cruises’ first ship — the Viking Star — is living up to the reputation of its acclaimed sister line, Viking River Cruises, while offering perks all its own. “The 930-passenger ship pleasantly draws guests’ attention to the picturesque Mediterranean and Baltic scenery with amenities including a double-decker observation lounge, 2-story panoramic windows in the Explorers’ Lounge, and alfresco dining experiences,” says Jason Leppert, editor of PopularCruising.com.
Passengers eat regional dishes such as the Tuscan cuisine served at Manfredi’s Italian Restaurant and the destination-based cuisine served at World Cafe's live cooking stations. The alfresco dining options expose guests to the beautiful shorelines throughout their voyage at sea.
Swim in the glass-backed infinity pool; enjoy a romantic dinner on the Aquavit Terrace; watch a movie under the stars; and feel snowflakes descend onto your skin in the spa’s Snow Grotto. With these amazing amenities and special features, the Viking Star is the only way to cruise in the Mediterranean.
Best Mexican Cruise: Carnival Cruise Line, Carnival Miracle
Carnival Cruise Line's recently upgraded Carnival Miracle sails year-round to the Mexican Riviera from Long Beach, CA, for 6- or 7-day journeys. “With the new Fun Ship 2.0 features added this year, the ship is a perfect choice for heading to Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta,” says Jason Leppert. The additions include the RedFrog Pub and Alchemy Bar watering holes; Seuss at Sea for kids; Hasbro, the Game Show for families; and new, energetic Playlist Productions shows, such as Motor City.
Have some fun exploring Mexico via fun excursions, including driving an ATV through the desert to the Candelaria oasis; fly-fishing in the Sea of Cortez; sipping margaritas on Playa El Medano; horseback riding through the Sierra Madre; and humpback whale watching on Banderas Bay.
Best Theme Cruise: Carnival Cruise Line, Carnival Live
From food and wine to wellness to music — and everything in between — there’s a good chance that there’s a theme cruise to match every interest. “One cruise line that has really met the demand for music lovers is Carnival Cruise Line, which launched its Carnival Live concert series cruises several years ago and continues to offer these special sailings,” says Bill Panoff. “During a Carnival Live cruise, performers are brought on board while the ship is docked in a port so that guests are treated to an amazing show in an intimate venue — the ship’s theater.”
Past artists have included Chicago, Jennifer Hudson, Martina McBride, Lady Antebellum and Journey; upcoming performers include Heart, Boston and Lionel Richie. The line is expected to announce next spring’s lineup in the months ahead. Concert ticket prices start at $40, or you can splurge on a VIP ticket for as little as $150 to get the best seats and the chance to meet the performers.
Unexpected Cruise for Food: Carnival Cruise Line, Carnival Breeze
While Carnival Cruise Line's ships are in the midpriced category, their food surpasses cuisine served by pricier competitors. The Carnival Breeze has something for even the most finicky eater, with 10 restaurants serving up a variety of lip-smacking food, including juicy burgers at Guy’s Burger Joint, owned by Food Network personality and restaurateur Guy Fieri, and tasty Thai barbecue at the Mongolian Wok. Kids will enjoy eating a fantastical feast with the Cat in the Hat at the Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast.
“I had a memorable meal in the Steakhouse, indulged at the Bonsai sushi bar and savored Italian delicacies at the Cucina del Capitano restaurant, topped off by some of the finest wines at sea,” says Anne Campbell.
In addition to the eateries on the ship, passengers should not miss out on taking a new excursion in Cozumel, Mexico, that offers a visit to a private beach house with a private chef, 5-star service and an optional cooking class. CruiseCritic.com rated this ship’s dining experience a 4 out of 5, and with our expert advisor’s ringing endorsement, we believe this is an excellent surprise for foodies at sea.