A class revival at sea?

 

BY nature, cruise lovers tend to be egalitarian types. That’s because embarking on a cruise requires a certain willingness to mingle with the masses at the buffet line, pile into the pool with hundreds of other passengers and go onshore with complete strangers — and like it.

Now that’s beginning to change. In a move that harkens back to the gilded days of the Titanic, when passengers were segregated into first and second classes (with everyone else thrown into steerage), cruise lines are stratifying their ships with exclusive tiers, like private sun decks and V.I.P. pools, and offering custom shore excursions for those who prefer not to share and are willing to pay.

Over the past few years, Norwegian Cruise Line has been rolling out a new category of luxury cabins called Garden and Courtyard Villas that offer a private-access pool, sun deck, steam room and gym. A few of these rooms, billed as a “ship within a ship,” have their own hot tubs and garden terraces. Guests can even order room service from any restaurant onboard and stay holed up in their own little enclave, away from hoi polloi, if they so choose.

Similarly, Italy’s MSC Cruises is carving out a V.I.P. area called the MSC Yacht Club that will debut on the MSC Fantasia in December 2008. The club will consist of 99 suites that share a private bar, solarium, pool, hot tubs and butlers.

And Cunard, which operates the Queen Mary 2, is taking the class divisions further. The ship’s top dining rooms are already reserved for guests in the so-called Queens and Princess Grill Suites. For its latest vessel, the Queen Victoria, scheduled to debut in December, guests staying in those top suites will get their own elevator to take them to dinner, so they won’t have to rub elbows with the underclasses.

The new V.I.P. zones and tiered levels are a big departure from the largely democratic nature of cruising. Yes, cruise lines have long offered pricey cabins like presidential suites and penthouses that come with special perks like butlers and priority boarding. But common amenities like pools, spas and dining rooms have generally remained available to all guests. The new cabin classes contradict that.

It’s like a return to the class system. It’s about getting away from the masses.

It’s all part of an effort by cruise ships to attract more upscale passengers and shed their image as floating mass-market buffets. With new cruise ships holding thousand of passengers, the statelier staterooms and exclusive excursions are a way to appeal to travelers who don’t want to feel that they’re sharing their vacation with everyone onboard.

The stratification is even extending to the spa. Costa Cruise Lines introduced a new line of cabins last year with direct and unlimited access to the Samsara Spa through a private elevator and stairs. In addition, guests staying in the Samsara Cabins and Suites enjoy preferred seating at Ristorante Samsara, the spa’s eatery. Celebrity Cruises and Carnival Cruise Lines plan to introduce a similar concept next year.

Passengers seem to like the exclusivity. Costa Cruises says its spa cabins, which cost about 20 percent more than regular cabins in the same category, tend to sell out fastest. Norwegian Cruise Line says its Courtyard Villas, which can cost $4,500 for two for a week, always sail full. And Crystal, which recently began offering intimate $1,000-a-head dinners with hard-to-get wines and extravagant meals, says it sold out its first offering within hours of the onboard announcement.

Crystal also reports a 55 percent increase in its custom shore excursions, called Private Adventures, for the first eight months of the year. The trips, which are tailor-designed for families, couples and individual passengers who don’t want to go ashore with gaggles of fellow passengers, can range from private tours through vineyards in Italy to birthday picnics atop the Rock of Gilbraltar. Seabourn Cruise Line offers a similar service through its Signature Service Desk, which lets guests plan their own excursions, like a private visit with a Russian family in their summer dacha outside St. Petersburg, or a tour through Berlin’s Meilenwerk complex of vintage car shops. Several other cruise lines offer guided tours with a private car for families and couples who want to get away from the crowds.

Some cruise lines are taking a more accessible approach to exclusivity. Princess Cruises, for example, lets passengers pay $10 for a half-day in the Sanctuary, an adults-only retreat on the uppermost forward deck of the Crown Princess and Emerald Princess. The spa-inspired retreat offers private outdoor massage cabanas and light, healthy meals and drinks. So-called Serenity Stewards are on hand to provide chilled face towels, Evian atomizers, smoothies and pre-loaded MP3 players with noise-canceling headphones.

Small cruise ships don’t see the new offerings as a threat. The smaller vessels have always offered more intimate and special experiences by taking fewer people to less-accessible destinations, including off-the-beaten-track waterways and tiny ports that passengers on large ships rarely get to see.

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