The 11 Best European Cruises

by Dana McMahan

The 11 Best European Cruises

by Dana McMahan

Americans have always had a fascination with the concept of the “Grand European Tour,” where you set off in search of discovery, exploration, new sites to see, and flavors to savor. But then you hit the age-old question when it comes to these kinds of Continental migrations: Does your dream European vacation have too many must-sees in too many spread-out cities? Covering such a collection of can’t-miss cities by land takes more time than most of us have. The solution? Hit a new spot every day by traveling at sea. It just makes sense, especially in places like the Mediterranean and Baltic seas, where the civilizations grew up around the water.

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Italy's Cinque Terre / iStock / MartinM303
Prayer Wall outside Pacific Rim on Seven Seas Explorer
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Best for Design: Regent Seven Seas Explorer

This intimate and opulent new 750-passenger Regent Seven Seas Explorer — the self-titled “most luxurious ship ever built” —  launched in July 2016 as an ideal choice for passengers who appreciate the finer things in life. With design that was inspired by the artwork — which includes pieces by Picasso and Chagall — everything from elegant public spaces to the smallest cabin details have clearly been given the utmost attention.

We loved: The showstopping prayer wall outside the Pacific Rim restaurant had us so captivated, we almost missed our dinner reservation. Plus, the walk-in closets are so well-designed we wished we could transport them home.

This intimate and opulent new 750-passenger Regent Seven Seas Explorer — the self-titled “most luxurious ship ever built” —  launched in July 2016 as an ideal choice for passengers who appreciate the finer things in life. With design that was inspired by the artwork — which includes pieces by Picasso and Chagall — everything from elegant public spaces to the smallest cabin details have clearly been given the utmost attention.

We loved: The showstopping prayer wall outside the Pacific Rim restaurant had us so captivated, we almost missed our dinner reservation. Plus, the walk-in closets are so well-designed we wished we could transport them home.

Crystal Esprit in the Seychelles
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Best for Yacht-Lovers: Crystal Esprit

This luxurious 62-passenger Crystal Esprit, the first yacht from luxury line Crystal Cruises, launched in January 2016 as a decadent way to summer in the Mediterranean. You get the personalized service of a very small ship with the benefits (think movies under the stars and adventurous excursions) of a larger vessel.

We loved: The pint-sized dining room may have just a couple dozen passengers in it at a time, and yet it feels like one of the most important restaurants at sea. Dishes had even the most jaded cruisers singing their praises at breakfast the next morning, and the desserts made us forget we had decided to try to be more virtuous on this vacation.

This luxurious 62-passenger Crystal Esprit, the first yacht from luxury line Crystal Cruises, launched in January 2016 as a decadent way to summer in the Mediterranean. You get the personalized service of a very small ship with the benefits (think movies under the stars and adventurous excursions) of a larger vessel.

We loved: The pint-sized dining room may have just a couple dozen passengers in it at a time, and yet it feels like one of the most important restaurants at sea. Dishes had even the most jaded cruisers singing their praises at breakfast the next morning, and the desserts made us forget we had decided to try to be more virtuous on this vacation.

Koningsdam's Lido Pool
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Best for Adults: Koningsdam

Brand-new from Holland America, this 2,650-passenger ship features a surprising modern aesthetic, and caters well to sophisticated travelers with splurge-worthy specialty restaurants and top-notch music lounges.

We loved: Koningsdam's tiny, jewel-like whiskey bar is a real gem, with tablets loaded with a quiz that’s designed to help you pick your perfect origin, malt, or style.  

Brand-new from Holland America, this 2,650-passenger ship features a surprising modern aesthetic, and caters well to sophisticated travelers with splurge-worthy specialty restaurants and top-notch music lounges.

We loved: Koningsdam's tiny, jewel-like whiskey bar is a real gem, with tablets loaded with a quiz that’s designed to help you pick your perfect origin, malt, or style.  

The Ultimate Abyss on Harmony of the Seas
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Best for Active Types: Harmony of the Seas

The 6,780 passengers on board this new mega ship from Royal Caribbean will find plenty to do without ever leaving the ship, from lacing up ice skates for a spin around the rink to racing down waterslides. Best of all, Harmony of the Seas is home to the longest slide at sea, the legitimately terrifying Ultimate Abyss.

We loved: The onboard production of “Grease” blew us away, and if it were on land, we’d happily pay to see it again. (That’s the first time we’ve said that on a ship!)

The 6,780 passengers on board this new mega ship from Royal Caribbean will find plenty to do without ever leaving the ship, from lacing up ice skates for a spin around the rink to racing down waterslides. Best of all, Harmony of the Seas is home to the longest slide at sea, the legitimately terrifying Ultimate Abyss.

We loved: The onboard production of “Grease” blew us away, and if it were on land, we’d happily pay to see it again. (That’s the first time we’ve said that on a ship!)

Carnival Vista's SkyRide
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Best for Budget Hunters: Carnival Vista

Get bang for your buck on board this new (in 2016) 3,954-passenger ship: Family-size cabins sleep five and come with a shared lounge, the free eats poolside are tops at sea, and there’s no shortage of thrills, from waterslides to the SkyRide, a tricycle of sorts that’s suspended midair.

We loved: Carnival Vista's seafood market, a first for the line, lets you buy the catch of the day from the current port and have it sent to any restaurant on board at dinnertime, prepared any way you can imagine. General Tso’s Sea Bass? Cajun Fried Fluke? Sign us up!

Get bang for your buck on board this new (in 2016) 3,954-passenger ship: Family-size cabins sleep five and come with a shared lounge, the free eats poolside are tops at sea, and there’s no shortage of thrills, from waterslides to the SkyRide, a tricycle of sorts that’s suspended midair.

We loved: Carnival Vista's seafood market, a first for the line, lets you buy the catch of the day from the current port and have it sent to any restaurant on board at dinnertime, prepared any way you can imagine. General Tso’s Sea Bass? Cajun Fried Fluke? Sign us up!

Red Ginger on Oceania Riviera
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Best for Couples: Oceania Riviera

On this 1,250-passenger ship, couples can stir things up together in a dedicated cooking school designed with stations built for two, create a masterpiece together with the artist-in-residence, and kick back in one of the Canyon Ranch SpaClub’s hot tubs on deck before dinner at the sultry Red Ginger.

We loved: The Jacques restaurant delivers the French country fare of our dreams, with everything from pâtés to warm goat cheese salads, rotisserie chicken, and rich chocolate mousse. There’s no better place to eat as you sail away from the French Riviera.

On this 1,250-passenger ship, couples can stir things up together in a dedicated cooking school designed with stations built for two, create a masterpiece together with the artist-in-residence, and kick back in one of the Canyon Ranch SpaClub’s hot tubs on deck before dinner at the sultry Red Ginger.

We loved: The Jacques restaurant delivers the French country fare of our dreams, with everything from pâtés to warm goat cheese salads, rotisserie chicken, and rich chocolate mousse. There’s no better place to eat as you sail away from the French Riviera.

Disney Magic's AquaLab
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Best for Families: Disney Magic

Traveling with the kiddos is easy on the 2,700-passenger ship Disney Magic. Disney delights all ages with the best kids clubs at sea as well as plenty of places for the parents to indulge in some R&R — with free soft drinks to boot.

We loved: The amazing services for families include the option of dining with your children and having their food expedited so they can be whisked off to the kids club while you linger over dessert and coffee.

Traveling with the kiddos is easy on the 2,700-passenger ship Disney Magic. Disney delights all ages with the best kids clubs at sea as well as plenty of places for the parents to indulge in some R&R — with free soft drinks to boot.

We loved: The amazing services for families include the option of dining with your children and having their food expedited so they can be whisked off to the kids club while you linger over dessert and coffee.

Afternoon tea on Queen Mary 2
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Best for Anglophiles: Queen Mary 2

Cunard’s recently refurbished flagship brings to life the vision of classic voyages. Complete with English nanny service for the littlest passengers and white-glove afternoon tea with scones and proper clotted cream for everyone, the 2,620-passenger grand ocean liner offers the best of England on the high seas. Plus, Queen Mary 2 has a kennel, a gorgeous two-story library, and a planetarium.

We loved: The onboard pub not only has pints of warm beer and fish and chips with vinegar, but also pub quizzes that are both challenging and fun.

Cunard’s recently refurbished flagship brings to life the vision of classic voyages. Complete with English nanny service for the littlest passengers and white-glove afternoon tea with scones and proper clotted cream for everyone, the 2,620-passenger grand ocean liner offers the best of England on the high seas. Plus, Queen Mary 2 has a kennel, a gorgeous two-story library, and a planetarium.

We loved: The onboard pub not only has pints of warm beer and fish and chips with vinegar, but also pub quizzes that are both challenging and fun.

Le Ponant
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Best for Francophiles: Le Ponant

This 27-cabin sailing yacht from French luxury line Ponant serves up French fare and flair as it plies the Mediterranean. You’ll also have the chance to practice your French, as most of Le Ponant's passengers onboard hail from la belle France.

We loved: The partnership with Parisian bakery Ladurée means you can get those famous delicate, sinfully good macarons onboard in a wide variety of “parfums” and a rainbow of colors. 

This 27-cabin sailing yacht from French luxury line Ponant serves up French fare and flair as it plies the Mediterranean. You’ll also have the chance to practice your French, as most of Le Ponant's passengers onboard hail from la belle France.

We loved: The partnership with Parisian bakery Ladurée means you can get those famous delicate, sinfully good macarons onboard in a wide variety of “parfums” and a rainbow of colors. 

Restaurant Tarragon on Europa 2
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Best for Germanophiles: Europa 2

This spacious 500-passenger luxury ship from Germany-based Hapag-Lloyd infuses the cruise experience with a European vibe, from shipboard communication in both German and English to its oh-so-Continental bike loaner program. 

We loved: At holiday time, this German line celebrates all the German Christmas traditions in style, with the most festive holiday sailings on the high seas. Picture spectacular fir trees throughout the ship, caroling, nutcrackers, wreaths, and Glühwein, too.

This spacious 500-passenger luxury ship from Germany-based Hapag-Lloyd infuses the cruise experience with a European vibe, from shipboard communication in both German and English to its oh-so-Continental bike loaner program. 

We loved: At holiday time, this German line celebrates all the German Christmas traditions in style, with the most festive holiday sailings on the high seas. Picture spectacular fir trees throughout the ship, caroling, nutcrackers, wreaths, and Glühwein, too.

New York Strip Steak at Thomas Keller's The Grill on Seabourn Quest
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Best for Foodies: Seabourn Quest

Join the 450 passengers on this luxe, all-suite ship and you’ll feel like part of a small, very lucky club. Wine, beer, and spirits are included, and personalized bar setups are placed in cabins before you arrive. Seabourn Quest also has a beautiful little spa, run by the line itself, as well as formal nights that still feel like elegant special occasions.

We loved: Always dreamed of dining at Thomas Keller’s legendary French Laundry, the California Wine Country restaurant that’s considered one of the best in the world? Seabourn recently entered into a partnership with Keller, so you can try his exquisitely prepared dishes without waiting months for a table. 

Join the 450 passengers on this luxe, all-suite ship and you’ll feel like part of a small, very lucky club. Wine, beer, and spirits are included, and personalized bar setups are placed in cabins before you arrive. Seabourn Quest also has a beautiful little spa, run by the line itself, as well as formal nights that still feel like elegant special occasions.

We loved: Always dreamed of dining at Thomas Keller’s legendary French Laundry, the California Wine Country restaurant that’s considered one of the best in the world? Seabourn recently entered into a partnership with Keller, so you can try his exquisitely prepared dishes without waiting months for a table. 

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