The class system is alive and thriving at sea. A number of cruise lines are now introducing exclusive suite categories with extra perks for guests, from butler service to private restaurants and priority treatment.
Our cruise expert Sue Bryant sailed in Celebrity Cruises’ new Suite Class.
As cruise ships get bigger, it’s inevitable that the big spenders on board are going to start demanding special privileges: exclusive lounges, private restaurants, more inclusions for their money. Cruise lines are only too happy to oblige and for some time now, we’ve been witnessing a quiet return to the old-fashioned class system. Think of the golden age of the transatlantic liners, when the moneyed would enjoy white-tie dinners with the captain in first class while the hoi polloi slummed it in steerage, and you begin to get the picture.
Cunard has maintained these strict divisions on board, with posher cabins and exclusive restaurants for its Grills-class customers, since 1914. Modern cruise lines have caught on in the past 10 years or so; both Norwegian Cruise Line and MSC offer private enclaves for their top-spending guests. Now, Celebrity Cruises has upped its offering to highend cruisers with the introduction of Suite Class across its fleet, incorporating the top six suite categories. The suites aren’t new, but the range of perks they come with has been improved. Book one of these and you’ll enjoy butler service, priority boarding and the use of a private restaurant, Luminae, near the main dining room.
Guests in all except the Sky Suites (which seems a bit unfair) can also use a private lounge, Michael’s Club, offering complimentary cocktails and canapés in the evenings. But it’s in the top three categories, Reflection Penthouse and Royal suites, where even more perks kick in, from Wi-Fi to all-inclusive drinks and free access to the specialty restaurants. Needless to say, trying out Suite Class on Celebrity Reflection was no hardship. I took along a girlfriend, as experiences like this need to be shared, on a cruise from Rome to Athens via Istanbul. The Royal Suite, our home for the week, came with its own butler, Elizer from the Philippines, a fleet of stateroom attendants and the services of Carlos, the Brazilian concierge. I’d never been looked after by so many people.
Having a butler and a concierge makes you realise what a constant stream of admin is involved in the first day of a cruise. Unpacking, making dinner reservations, arranging a spa treatment, organising shore excursions, finding out how many spinning classes I’d be able to cram in at the gym. I’m used to doing all this myself but learned to let go, relax on my vast balcony with a glass of champagne and watch the Mediterranean sparkling in the sunshine as we set sail from Rome and Elizer hung up my clothes in the vast, walk-in wardrobe. Leaving the suite was tough. Why would you, when you have two Jacuzzis (one in the bathroom, one on the balcony), an absurdly large TV, a living room and a bar stocked with Bombay Sapphire and Absolut? Anything we wanted, Elizer would bring. Coffee in bed in the morning. Herb tea at night. Ice for the gin and tonic. Scones and sandwiches when we staggered back from a shore excursion, ravenous.
Elizer was like a genie, appearing in a puff of smoke in moments of need. We’d emerge from Michael’s Club after our pre-dinner cocktail and he would be waiting to escort us to our chosen restaurant. When we wanted to go ashore, he’d usher us through the ship, the masses parting in front of us like the Red Sea. Carlos, meanwhile, arranged restaurant bookings, shore excursions and spa treatments at exactly the times we’d requested. After a couple of days, we began to feel very, very special.
I loved Luminae, our Suite Class restaurant. Reflection has 14 places to eat, but with floor-to-ceiling sea views and wall-to-wall waiters, it was a quiet cocoon, away from the bustle outside. The menu is short, unfussy and classy; roast turbot, spiced duck breast, herby rack of lamb, crab cakes and truffle risotto were just some of the culinary offerings. Six of the restaurants on board come with cover charges of up to $50 a head, which can add a lot to the cost of a holiday. Because these charges were included with our suite, we ate our way round the ship, from the posh French Murano to the Lawn Club Grill barbecue on the top deck. Drinks were included, too, up to the value of US$13 per glass, which was plenty, covering some decent wines and the amazing ginger mojitos in the Molecular Bar. A couple of these after dinner and we happily melted into a lively crowd dancing to thumping Latino pop in the nightclub.
And this is really the benefit of a ship-within-a-ship. You enjoy all the trappings of a luxury cruise, but keep the perks of a big ship, such as multiple dining options, a really good gym, decent nightlife and, if you’re so inclined, a busy casino. Not forgetting the butler service… I wanted to take Elizer home. And Carlos. They politely declined. But I won’t forget my taste of the high life in a hurry.
Want more suite options?
Probably the most traditional of today’s cruise lines, Cunard has a four-tier system on board. The class of cabin you book determines the restaurant in which you eat. Guests in Britannia cabins have fixed-seating dining in the grand Britannia restaurant, while those in Britannia Club Balcony cabins qualify for open seating in the more intimate Britannia Club. Big spenders opt for Princess Grill, with more spacious cabins, a private lounge and open seating restaurant. The top level, Queens Grill, includes the most spacious cabins or suites and butler service, as well as the lavish Queens Grill restaurant. The Cunard Grills have a reputation for providing some of the finest accommodation and service at sea; it’s not unusual for a royal or a big star to book an entire suite of suites in Queens Grill for themselves and their entourage.
Norwegian Cruise Line
The Haven by Norwegian is a smart hideaway for suite guests available on Norwegian Cruise Line’s newer ships. Suites and “villas” (larger suites sleeping up to six) of varying size are grouped together in an enclave high up on the ship, served by a butler and concierge and sharing a private VIP restaurant, lounge and small pool (complete with pool valet to polish your sunglasses), workout area and Jacuzzi. Haven guests get priority seating at the shows and priority bookings in the ships’ many restaurants. Because Norwegian’s market is young and lively, The Haven is great for families with teenagers, offering the contrast of a quiet retreat for adults and the razzle-dazzle of the rest of the ship for night owls.
If The Haven has the vibe of a cool beach club, the Yacht Club on Italian-owned MSC Cruises’ newest ships is more akin to a boutique hotel, not short on the bling, with acres of Italian marble and a staircase made entirely of Swarovski crystal. Accessed by a private lift, the Yacht Club has suites of varying sizes, including some excellent family accommodation, top-notch butlers, a private lounge, deck area, pool and restaurant. The service starts with a red carpet at check-in and includes extras like priority booking for excursions and spa treatments, as well as drinks in the lounge and restaurant. Like the NCL product, the Yacht Club works well for families or groups who want the bustle of a busy ship at the same time as the five-star lifestyle in a beautiful, tranquil setting.