Photo by Ralph Lee Hopkins
Courtesy of Viking River Cruises
Viking won the top spot in our River Cruise category for tours such as an exploration of the Douro River in Portugal.
Our readers celebrate the cruise lines that held their loyalty through the ups and downs of a pandemic-strained year.
Where are you dreaming of going this year? AFAR readers cast more than 150,000 votes to honor their favorite hotels, cruises, airlines, trips, and destinations in the annual AFAR Travelers’ Awards. This was no ordinary year, especially for the cruise industry: Following a series of early COVID-19 outbreaks onboard ships, global sailings were called off for most of 2020. The CDC has issued new guidelines for cruise lines to obtain “conditional sailing orders”—no small task, more a reinvention of the way we cruise.
Through it all, cruisers remain loyal, eager to get back on their favorite vessel; they bide their time by trading photos and memories of trips past on Facebook chat threads. Here, our readers share their favorite cruise lines. We hope this comprehensive list of winners helps spark your wanderlust and inspire your next trip.
Royal Caribbean’s ships are planets unto themselves. The 5,518-passenger Symphony of the Seas—the world’s largest cruise ship, just a few feet shorter than the Empire State Building—boasts a ride-filled boardwalk, a 1,400-plus seat theater, and its own Central Park. Other equally grand ships include the Allure of the Seas, a 5,484-passenger wonder with ziplines, a waterpark, and more bars than any other ship on the water; and Odyssey of the Seas, on which more than 4,200 passengers can explore virtual reality, hang 300 feet above sea level in the globelike North Star, and take the kiddos to the game-filled SeaPlex.
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If small ships feel too tiny and large ships too overwhelming, Seabourn hits the medium-size sweet spot, with a fleet of luxurious, all-suite ships that carry between 458 and 600 guests each. Onboard life includes wellness programming curated by Dr. Andrew Weil, a pioneer in integrative medicine, and gourmet dining. (Thomas Keller is a partner, and Seabourn is a member of the prestigious Chaîne des Rôtisseurs gastronomic society.) Seabourn is also the official cruise partner of UNESCO, wrapping several itineraries around sustainable trips to World Heritage sites, such as the Great Barrier Reef and Jerusalem.
On Windstar Cruises, no more than 342 guests sail at a time, and the small-size vessels can access waterways and ports that other cruise lines can’t visit. Travelers can see Greece via the Corinth Canal or marvel at Alaska’s landscape by way of Prince William Sound. At day’s end, they can freshen up in a marble bathroom, enjoy a dish created by a James Beard Foundation chef, or order a cocktail from the 24-hour room service.
Lars-Eric Lindblad is considered the father of ecotourism. Beginning in the 1960s, he took travelers to places (such Antarctica and the Galápagos) that previously only scientists had visited. With Lindblad Expeditions, his son Sven—a 2018 AFAR Travel Vanguard winner—carries that heritage forward. Travelers get to see some of the most magnificent wonders of the world—such as the “living aquarium” that is the Sea of Cortez and the wildlife of the Galápagos—up close and with guidance from leading scientists and nature specialists. (Lindblad partners with National Geographic.)
On Viking’s river cruises (some as long as 23 days), passengers can learn about handcrafted porcelain along the Elbe River, admire 10th-century Cambodian Hindu temples on a trip down the Mekong, or meet a local Ukrainian family during a journey on the Dnieper. Every itinerary includes daily cultural enrichment, musical performances by local artists, and artisan-led craftmaking demonstrations to deepen travelers’ understanding of each destination.
With Viking—a two-time category winner—travelers can choose from dozens of itineraries that take them deep into the Mediterranean’s most historic ports. There’s the onboard experience, which includes elegant Scandinavian design, guest lectures, and destination-focused dining, but Viking’s true magic stems from its ability to connect travelers with intimate, culturally rich moments within each destination. Think flamenco performances in Barcelona and a visit to the Vlacherna Monastery in Greece (part of the 13-day Mediterannean Odyssey) and an Amsterdam canal cruise and winetasting in Porto on the 15-day Trade Routes of the Middle Ages.
Viking also brings its experiential, small-ship touch to the Caribbean. Choose from a dozen journeys, including the Iconic Southern Caribbean tour, which begins and ends in Miami with lengthy stops to explore the beaches of Aruba and the rain forests of St. Lucia in between, and the new Amazon & Caribbean Adventure, which takes travelers to Barbados, Antigua (among other islands), and down the mighty Amazon.
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For more than 70 years, Holland America has been cruising Alaskan waters. Every HAL itinerary includes stops to gape at glaciers and spot wildlife, and guests can choose excursions that offer insight into Alaskan life, such as a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway or a fishing trip aboard a boat that appeared on the TV series The Deadliest Catch.
Polynesian hosts and entertainers welcome guests aboard the m/s Paul Gauguin. The fourth-time category winner sails throughout the South Pacific, including the Marquesas and Society Islands. Aspiring scuba divers can earn PADI certification on board, and all passengers have access to a private white-sand beach on Bora Bora.
Cruising is as much about the destination as it is the onboard experience, and Seabourn knocks both out of the park. As the official UNESCO partner, Seabourn offers several ways to connect with World Heritage sites. And with Ventures by Seabourn, travelers can get even closer to nature on certain trips: kayaking with naturalists in the Amazon or kayaking the Maroochy River estuary and hiking on Ulva Island in Australia and New Zealand.
With Jacques Pépin as executive culinary director, Oceania crafts the finest cuisine at sea. Whether passengers want homey Italian pasta, flavorful vegan fare, or a six-course tasting menu paired with Dom Pérignon champagnes, they’ll find it on board. Onshore Culinary Discovery Tours let travelers savor St. Lucia’s many spices, eat cannoli in Sicily, or explore the Marché d’Aligre, one of the best markets in Paris, with a local guide.
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