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Monday, August 18, 2008

How to choose the right Cruise!

SeaDream I"
Balinese sun beds aboard SeaDream I

Way back in July 2003 we offered a roundup of the best cabins on 64 ships. Our first annual cruising guide in 2006 taught you how to pick the right cabin, get the right price, and customize the cruise to your needs. And last year we singled out the very best itinerary in the world's most popular cruising regions. This year we take it to another level.

For a cruise to rate as one of your best trips ever, it's imperative to match yourself to the right ship. First, size matters. Do you want a vessel small enough to call at off-the-beaten-wake ports, or large enough that there's a two-page daily activity list? Second, there's the itinerary to consider. Do you prefer a vessel that stays in ports until late at night so you can sightsee past sunset, or do you know that by 5 p.m. you'll be zonked and ready to hit the hot tub? Third, you need to consider the ship's features. What matters to you most: a state-of-the-art spa, a lively casino, inventive tasting menus, cabaret shows, teen-specific programs ... or all of the above?

For my own personal vacation last winter, I had to match myself to the right ship. In the past I'd favored small vessels with exciting itineraries. I'd gone Greek island hopping on Windstar's intimate sailboats, observed icebergs calving in the Chilean fjords from Regent's Seven Seas Mariner, and watched the America's Cup Race off Valencia, Spain, from Silversea's Silver Whisper. This time, however, I chose a 2,400-passenger megaship sailing an utterly mundane route, astonishing everyone who knows me...and ending up with the perfect vacation. Why? Because I picked the right ship for a family holiday with my husband and our four- and six-year-old sons. I didn't need world-class sights or hidden-gem islands, cooking classes or salsa lessons. What I needed was sleep. And what this translated into, in cruise terms, was a well-equipped child-care center with age-specific programs and plenty of kids for my boys to befriend; sports facilities that would allow me to exhaust the whirling dervishes with minimal effort on my part (a large pool, a water slide, a basketball court, plenty of space for running); a selection of kid-friendly places to eat; and never having to dress up. The ports hardly mattered, as our goal was simply warm weather and the occasional beach. What did matter was not having to board a plane to get to the ship. And that's how our options were narrowed to two floating resorts that sail all winter from the New York area where we live: Norwegian Cruise Line's new Norwegian Gem) and Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas. We could park the car and walk onboard, spend a day relaxing in the spa as the ship plowed southward, and wake up in sunny climes 36 hours later. Since the Gem best suited our schedule, I signed us up for its seven-night round-trip cruise to Florida and the Bahamas.

From the moment we sailed past the Statue of Liberty and squeezed under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge by a hair—exciting even for a jaded native New Yorker like me—the boys had found all they needed, from the bowling alley to the giant outdoor chess set to the vision of a towering climbing wall. As for us, we borrowed 700-page novels from the ship's library and buried ourselves in the plush daybeds on deck. Our first day at sea was so recuperative—what with the boys parked in the kids' club all day—that, to my surprise, my husband and I ended up energized enough to disembark with the kids at every stop. At Port Canaveral we went to the Kennedy Space Center, in Nassau we zoomed down the water slides at Atlantis. We also joined in the Gem's family activities, of course—from the scavenger hunt on the cruise line's private island to the Amazing Race covering all 14 decks of the ship.

So that you, too, can find a cruise that is the answer to your vacation prayers, we've put together this guide to the ships that best suit your needs and interests. Bon voyage!