Why pay more for a luxury cruise? Who sails on those, anyway?

With bargain rates on many cruise ships at $100-$150 a day or less per person, why would a couple on vacation spend $500-$1,000 a day, each, for a cruise?

A man is his 50s asked me that question recently at a party. He was concerned also that his wife was about to book him on a luxury cruise ship full of sedentary old people.

Seabourn Quest

It’s a legitimate financial question and an understandable concern by a physically active man who did not want to be stuck on vacation, bored and bloated, bobbing on the sea.

I answered by describing my recent voyages on two of Seabourn’s newest ships.

Cruises for the affluent

Among luxury cruise lines — which also include Silversea, Regent Seven Seas and Crystal — Seabourn is a rising star. The brand, owned by Carnival Corp., has introduced three new, highly-rated 450-passenger ships during the past three years, the Odyssey in 2009, the Sojourn in 2010 and, in June 2011, the Quest.

These are ships built and managed for the affluent.

The price of luxury varies with the itinerary, but even at this level, there are bargains. A travel agent who specializes in cruises quoted rates in June 2011 of $5,199 each for two on a 9-night cruise on Seabourn Sojourn between Quebec and New York on Sept. 21; $7,199 each for 14 nights on Seabourn Odyssey between Venice and Istanbul leaving Sept. 19; and $5,299 for 14 nights in the Caribbean out of Fort Lauderdale on Seabourn Quest Nov. 23. The Quest is pictured above off the coast of Le Lavandou, France.

What you get for that chunk of money is a cruise with a style, amenities and atmosphere different from the typical voyage on one of the bigger, mass-marketed ships. Itineraries are more off-the-beaten track.

Penthouse suite on Quest

Accommodations and public areas aboard ship are spacious and refined. Food is mostly gourmet, and on most luxury ships there are no additional fees for wine and cocktails (or gratuities). You’ll have the company of educated and well-traveled fellow passengers. And — the big selling point — luxury ships offer a high level of personal service.

Standard cabins on Seabourn, for instance, are 300 square feet, which is at least one-and-a-half times the size of standard cabins on big ships. They include a sitting area; walk-in closet; granite bathrooms with separate bath, shower and twin sinks. All but a few cabins come with a private balcony where staff will serve a romantic dinner, course by course.

My favorite Seabourn accommodations are in the Penthouse suites, pictured above. They cost more than the standard suites, but include a big sitting area and private balcony, a bedroom that can be closed off from the rest of the cabin, and a huge bathroom.

Plenty of nooks and crannies

Seabourn ships never are crowded and have enough nooks and crannies that you can find an inviting spot to be alone or to share with new friends. The two-deck spa on the three new ships is uncommonly large and well-equipped. Each ship carries 450 lounge chairs for 450 passengers, and can set nearly 800 places at dinner in two fine dining restaurants and two more casual choices. You may order off the menu and go shopping in port with the chef.

Clearly, these are ships of plenty. But as Seabourn president Rick Meadows acknowledges, passengers who book luxury ships have access to nice baths, bedrooms and restaurants at home. The key to entertaining repeat passengers and drawing new ones to sea is the level of personal service. That’s why all the luxury lines tout their service.

My experience on Seabourn is that the ships operate like a well-staffed private club, with crew members hanging around waiting for requests or anticipating a great need, such as carrying your glass of orange juice from the buffet to a table outside, under an umbrella. Staff will plan parties, dinners, private shopping and tours ashore. Every staff member carries a card that lists the 12 points of Seabourn service. No.?12 is “Have fun.”

Hot tub on the bow

Activities for the younger traveler 

As for the fear of being stuck with old fuddy-duddies, the world of cruising is becoming younger and more active (though I wouldn’t book a world cruise or a one-month segment expecting anything but an older crowd, which tends to have the time and inclination for longer cruises). On shorter cruises — two weeks or less — Seabourn’s average age for a boatload of passengers now dips into the 50s, particularly among new cruisers, Meadows said.

Popular onboard activities include the marina that folds out of the stern into the sea on calm days — with kayaks, sailboats, and a banana boat — and the aerobic Kinesis Wall that fills most of a room in the spa.

Vincent de Jager, personal trainer on Seabourn Quest, says that passengers using the Kinesis machine regularly during a cruise can walk off the ship in better shape than when they boarded.

Marina off the stern

Like other cruise lines, Seabourn has added more strenuous choices to its port excursions, such as biking in Russia’s Alexandria Park near St. Petersburg; hiking in Norway above the city of Bergen, with exciting views of the North Sea; and a five-mile Nordic workout walk in Finland.

When Seabourn Odyssey stopped in the mountainous Montenegro port of Kotor last fall, I set off alone to climb the steps of the fortified walls of the old city. As it was a moderately difficult climb with lots of steps and loose stones, I expected to be pretty much alone.

But on the trail up and down, I encountered at least a dozen fellow passengers — some of them the same folks I saw dancing that night to a rock ’n’ roll band aboard ship.

In decades past, Seabourn was a cruise line of mature ships and more-mature passengers. I remember a cruise in the early 1990s when the lounge piano player said that he had been instructed to stay away from songs that even sounded like rock. “I don’t even do Billy Joel on this ship,” he said.

Those days are long gone, I told the man in his 50s who was concerned about cruising on a luxury ship, paraphrasing a line from Bob Dylan, who is now 70: Seabourn was older then; it’s younger than that now.

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David Molyneaux is editor of TheTravelMavens.com (http://www.thetravelmavens.com) where he writes and blogs about cruise and travel news, with tips from his trips around the world.

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