The Best Ocean Cruise Lines with Midsized Ships in 2016
Who could argue with the magic of French Polynesia — the majesty of Bora-Bora’s Mount Otemanu, or the primal beauty of the Marquesas Islands? Visiting these pristine destinations can make you feel like you’ve docked at the end of the world. And in fact, many of them are best seen by boat — not only is it logistically simpler, but cruising gives you the ability to come back after a day of excursions to high-thread-count sheets and an excellent glass of wine.
Paul Gauguin Cruises explores this part of the world with a single vessel, the 332-passenger Paul Gauguin. But that one ship — the only one in its fleet — propelled the line to the top of our new World’s Best Awards category, Midsize-Ship Ocean Cruise Lines.
Paul Gauguin’s ports of call in the South Pacific, including Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, Suva in Fiji, and Vava’u in Tonga, are among the world’s best for diving and snorkeling. Lying on the sand is an option, too: in French Polynesia, Paul Gauguin has its own private island — Motu Mahana — where guests can enjoy a barbecue or a massage on an overwater canopied deck.
Every year for our World’s Best Awards survey, T+L asks readers to weigh in on travel experiences around the globe — to share their opinions on the top hotels, resorts, cities, islands, cruise lines, spas, airlines, and more. Readers rated individual cruise ships on their cabins and facilities, food, service, itineraries and destinations, excursions and activities, and value. Those assessments were combined to generate results for the cruise lines in five categories; midsize-ship ocean cruise lines have vessels that can carry 250 to 599 passengers.
Cruise lines that offer both traditional and expedition-style voyages also ranked among the best — which speaks to travelers’ desires for unusual experiences. Nothing says once-in-a-lifetime like a trip to Antarctica, where Seabourn, the second-place winner, sails on its Seabourn Quest. Guests can spend a day kayaking or riding in Zodiacs past elephant seals, penguins, and icebergs, then return to the ship for champagne and caviar. “Antarctica was beyond description,” said one reader. “Adventure, knowledge, and safety. Who could ask for more?”
Ponant Yacht Cruises & Expeditions, a French luxury line that operates intimate yachts and came in fourth in the survey, sails to charming towns in the Mediterranean and Adriatic in addition to the Russian Far East, Alaska, and the polar regions. What one reader loved: “The company focuses on smaller ports not frequented by the larger cruise lines.”
Windstar Cruises — which placed third and operates one of the world’s largest sail-assisted passenger ships, the Wind Surf — also prioritizes more exclusive experiences and ports. But one could argue that interacting with the staff can be the true highlight of the trip. Adds another reader: “From the maintenance staff through to the captain, every member of the crew had exemplary skills and demeanors.”
No. 5: Regent Seven Seas Cruises
No. 4: Ponant Yacht Cruises & Expeditions
No. 3: Windstar Cruises
No. 2: Seabourn
No. 1: Paul Gauguin Cruises
Specializing in luxury voyages in the South Pacific — with a strong emphasis on French Polynesia’s Society Islands — Paul Gauguin Cruises operates just one midsized vessel, the Paul Gauguin. All of the cabins have full tubs and ocean views; 70 percent also have balconies. Plus “the staff and service are absolutely indescribable,” said one T+L reader. “The food at the French restaurant on the boat was some of the best I have ever had.” Shore excursions range from a safari adventure on Bora-Bora to dolphin watching in the waters off Moorea — not your average port stops.