“SLEEPING under the stars tonight are we?” isn’t as unusual as it sounds when you’re cruising on the stunning SeaDream Yacht Club ships.

Your personal attendant would have reserved one of the Balinese Dream Beds and will make it up with the finest Belgian linens and down duvet, leaving you to slip into the monogrammed PJs and sip your nightcap at leisure.

It’s the perfect treat for a balmy night on the Mediterranean, after a fun-filled day of water skiing from the ship’s own sports marina.

Or perhaps your waiter has waded knee-deep in the blue Caribbean, with a glass of champagne and a dish of caviar.

Dreaming? No, this is the first course of Seabourn’s legendary “Caviar in the Surf” silver service beach barbecue.  

Maybe you need a quiet night in your cabin after a relaxing day of spa treatments, yoga and meditation.

Simply call room service to arrange course-by-course in-suite dining, and help yourself to a drink from the complimentary bar, open those balcony doors and wait for the Relais & Chateaux inspired dishes to arrive. It’s all part of life on a Silverseas cruise.

Whatever luxuries you can imagine on land can be conjured up on a holiday at sea.

While the majority of new cruise ships have day spas, internet cafes, balcony cabins and speciality restaurants, a luxury ship exudes a private yacht atmosphere, which has you believe the world is your oyster, or your sautéed lobster tail at the very least.

Personal space, service, sumptuous suites, sevruga caviar and sparkling silverware are the hallmarks of luxury cruising.

These ships tend to be small with the crème de la crème catering to only a few hundred passengers – nay guests  – who enjoy freestyle dining with opening seating and complimentary quality beverages.

Just as on land, these floating resorts are inspected and awarded stars based on cuisine, accommodation, the ship itself (facilities, safety, space, passenger flow and spa/fitness), service, entertainment and cruise experience.

The most feared man on the seven seas has to be Douglas Ward, author, for the past 20 years, of the Berlitz Guide to Ocean Cruising and Cruise Ships. He travels the world with notebook and white gloves at the ready, checking under tables and High Tea trolleys.

A stickler for bone china, the correct-sized sommelier glasses, linen napkins and teak by the ton, his latest passion is for ships whose public areas are designed on feng shui principles.

His top accolades go to the ships with the highest passenger-space and passenger-crew ratio and where a guest’s needs are anticipated in advance and always granted.

“No” should never be in the vocabulary of any crewmember aboard a ship with a five-star plus or five star rating, he warns.

Of the 260 ocean-going vessels reviewed last year just 20 made it into the five-star league, and only one – the German-

owned and German-speaking Europa – scored a five-star plus rating.

A sleek seven-year-old ship weighing 28,437 tons, Europa carries just 408 guests, which is about half the number carried by other ships of similar size. It’s this roominess, along with stylish contemporary interiors, impeccable, friendly service and a stable and virtually noiseless piece of hardware, which has earned it the top gong.

The little touches that whisper service are the cold drinks and towels delivered to sunbaking passengers and the fine mist of Evian water sprayed on them by the ever-attentive crew. 

Sydneysiders will get a glimpse of the only ship to earn Ward’s top rating for six consecutive years, when it overnights at Circular Quay on February 25. A 14-night cruise can start at around A$11,086 per person for the cheapest suite and A$23,235 for a penthouse (per person), while the top suite is “price on application”.

Cunard Line’s huge Queen Mary 2 and two Crystal Cruises’ ships are the only medium and large ships on the luxury list.

However potential cruisers should be aware that only QM2’s exclusive Grill Class has made the cut, and one must book these fares (on what is a two-class ship) to get a personal butler, a marble-clad bathroom with whirlpool and a seat in the Queen’s Grill restaurant where the food is simply deemed “superb”.

Big ships carrying big numbers have a tough time making the five-star league due to the need for two seatings at dinner, a real no-no in luxury circles. But despite this failing the Crystal sisters, Symphony and Serenity, have kept their top rating due to amazing penthouses with huge verandahs and two alternative 75-seat restaurants that can be reserved at no extra charge.

The cruise world’s little luxurious touches know no bounds.

Ships lure discerning guests with plush bathrobes, Bvlgari toiletries and butlers happy to run petal-filled baths. Cabins and public rooms are Wi-Fi ready, there are personal email addresses, the latest plasma TVs and DVDs and scores of movies to watch.

More and more ships boast celebrity chef-created dishes, while well-known restaurants are going nautical. You’ll find the only Cordon Bleu at sea on Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ ships and a branch of the acclaimed Boston chef Todd English’s eatery on QM2.  Some ships even provide “personal shoppers” to ensure you visit only the smartest boutiques when in port.

A luxury cruise will do serious damage to your credit card – daily person rates start at between A$790 to $1000 - but it will be smooth sailing all the way.

FIVE STAR SHIPS:  Europa; SeaDream I & SeaDream II; Seabourn Spirit, Seabourn Legend & Seabourn Pride; Queen Mary 2; Silver Cloud, Silver Wind, Silver Whisper & Silver Shadow; Hanseatic; Sea Cloud I & Sea Cloud II; Hebridean Princess & Hebridean Spirit; Crystal Symphony & Crystal Serenity; Regent Seven Seas Mariner & Regent Seven Seas Voyager.

Published in The Sun-Herald, October 2006.

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