This one is always going to be contentious and, as ever, the opinions expressed here are, quite simply, my own. You can agree or disagree with them as you wish.
My parameters in assembling this list are as follows; each ship is a one off, rather than part of a series of ships. And each has to have some kind of distinctive cachet- a kind of unique selling point- that truly marks it as something apart from the ever growing fleet of cruise ships roaming the oceans, seas and rivers of the world.
Please note that ‘most distinctive’ does not imply that I consider these ships to be the most opulent, well served, or even necessarily the most luxurious. Nor is there any ‘pecking order’ implied in this list. Each of these vessels is an outstanding, one off individual that can hold its own with any of their maritime peers.
So, without further ado, I give you…
A true 1960’s throwback with a sharp prow, single, proud stack, and a series of graceful, cascading aft terrace decks, the Marco Polo is swathed in bow to stern Art Deco, and features an ice strengthened hull that makes her truly capable of navigating ice fields in comfort and safety. With a gross tonnage of just 22,000 and a capacity of 800 passengers (adult only), she has no balcony cabins, but absolutely boat loads of old style charm, beauty and elegance. Sail her while she is still around- she is worth the investment of time and money.
The largest ever purpose built sailing ship comes in at just 5,000 tons and, with accommodation for just 237 passengers, you’ll look for ice rinks and rock climbing walls in vain. But five towering masts, forty two sails and a long, low, gently rolling hull all make for what is arguably the greatest piece of floating theatre anywhere on the oceans. A steel and canvas cathedral decorated in brass, burnished woods, beautiful wall murals and real, old fashioned sailing ship rigging, this is time travel that gets you up close and personal to some of the most stunning vistas on Planet Earth. An experience impossible to either forget or adequately describe.
QUEEN MARY 2
In her role as the last regular transatlantic liner, the fabled Cunard flagship has a cachet that cannot be denied. Undeniably huge at 154,000 tons, the QM2 carries 2,790 passengers on her voyages; a relatively small number compared with similar sized conventional cruise ships that pack in over 4,200. As such, she is a unique combination of space and grace. And the Queen is also the only ship at sea to boast her own planetarium; that, combined with her unique series of eminent guest lecturers on each crossing, makes her one of the most compelling travel experiences in the world today. And the graceful, flared bow and broad, sweeping hull marks her out as a thoroughbred. Her deep draft- which works against her when cruising into smaller ports- works like a charm on the often feisty Atlantic crossing. Still an epic adventure.
At a little under 20,000 tons, this polished little gem has offered cruises exclusively in the waters around Tahiti since her delivery in 1999. With a capacity for around 330 passengers, the Paul Gauguin is right up there with the likes of Regent and Silversea in the all inclusive, totally exclusive stakes. Each of her seven night, round trip sailings offers an overnight stay in Moorea, Bora Bora and Tahiti itself. Her water diving platform at the stern allows passengers to enjoy a variety of above and below water adventures in one of the most romantic and alluring settings in the world. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Paul Gauguin is hugely popular with honeymooners.
Lauded by many as ‘the’ most luxurious ship afloat, Europa 2 is as distinct as she is dreamy. All outside suites accommodate a maximum of 514 passengers on a 42,000 ton hull. This alone makes the Europa 2 the most spacious cruise ship in the world, per passenger. And the ship offers no less than eight, open seating restaurants for her passengers. Inside, the decor is clean, crisp, linear, and almost relentlessly modern, with only the finest of fabrics, stemware and flatware used from bow to stern. Suffused with sunlight everywhere by enormous glass windows, this remarkable ship is elegant, exhilarating, and so relaxing that she constitutes an actual hazard to physical activity of any kind. A stunningly stylish departure from anything that has gone before or since.
So- that’s my ‘fab five’. What about yours?