Floating Hotels: The Best Luxury Boutique Cruise Lines

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These design-conscious cruise lines are bringing boutique hotel style to the high seas

It is not uncommon for cruise ships to pitch themselves as floating hotels. After all, they supply all the luxuries and services you’d expect from the most exclusive accommodation, while adding the miraculous ability to relocate from France to Italy overnight.

But as anyone who has spent an extended amount of time in Lenny Henry’s favourite hotel chain will tell you, not all establishments are created equal. A genuinely first-class hotel offers a unique sense of style, with elegant yet functional design and a level of service that truly makes it a home-from-home.

The same can now be said for the finest cruise ships, with the past few years seeing many lines striving to emulate the boutique style of the world’s great hotels and restaurants, and employing some of the best designers in the business to make it happen.

With this in mind, we’ve rounded up four cruise lines that we think are at the top of their game when it comes to luxury boutique design. But be warned: after stepping aboard one of these ships, there’s a good chance that you’ll never want to leave.

Oceania Cruises luxury boutique martini lounge
Blue heaven: Oceania has reinspired its fleet with a subtle new look

Saga Cruises
When Saga Cruises launches Spirit of Discovery this summer, it will set a new benchmark for boutique cruising. Everything about Saga Cruises’ new-build ship whispers confident sophistication.

Taking design cues from some of Britain’s top hotels and restaurants, including The Wolseley in London’s Piccadilly, Spirit of Discovery offers plenty of pleasing details to catch the eye. From the stunning atrium, with its centrepiece staircase, to the imposing marble-grained pillars found in the main dining room, and the cute little details in the all-balcony suites (Union Jack laundry bag, anyone?), there’s no doubting this is boutique cruising at its finest.

New-build director David Pickett says: “We’ve spent a huge amount of time reviewing and taking inspiration from the best in contemporary British architecture and design. These images show that we are raising the bar to deliver a luxury cruise experience that won’t disappoint.”

Stylish bathroom on board Saga's luxury boutique Spirit of Discovery ship
Dark and handsome: One of Spirit of Discovery’s super-stylish bathrooms

Uniworld Boutique
River Cruise Collection
No other ships – river or ocean – look anything like these. Never mind art on the walls, every one of the Uniworld river fleet is a work of art in itself. Inspired by the design ethos of sister company the Red Carnation Hotel Collection, Uniworld’s ‘Super Ships’ are graced with interiors that range from elegantly understated to gloriously ornate.

Take the SS Joie de Vivre. Billed as the most luxurious ship on the Seine – and we won’t argue with that – this recently refurbished 128-guest vessel sails eight-night itineraries between Paris and Normandy. Naturally enough, she takes her visual cues from France, evoking the elegance of prewar Paris and the work of its pre-eminent designers, Armand Rateau and Jean-Michel Frank (both personal favourites of Uniworld’s global design chief, Toni Tollman).

There’s hand-crafted bronze throughout the ship, in the palm-tree motif that repeats in Le Restaurant Pigalle, and in the ornate butterflies that adorn the ship’s reception desk (both are highly characteristic of Rateau’s work). The lift evokes the 1930s Modernism of Jean-Michel Frank, while the staterooms are designed in the neoclassical Directoire style – late 18th century but strikingly clean and modern.

To put it simply, this is about as close to Paris as you can get without actually being there. And that’s just the start. Every single vessel in Uniworld’s Boutique River Collection has a unique design theme, usually inspired by the locality it sails in. If individuality is the test of a good boutique hotel, these ships pass with flying colours.

Luxury cruise line Uniworld's boutique suite sitting area
Chic unique: Uniworld’s ‘Super Ships’ are unrivalled for style

Virgin Voyages
Trust Richard Branson to do things differently. We already knew that the design of Virgin Voyages’ upcoming first ship, Scarlet Lady (scheduled to be completed in 2020) would be awash with the lipstick-red colour that identifies the brand worldwide. But we didn’t expect the interiors to look as fresh and radical as recent ‘teaser’ images have revealed.

Reasoning that a collaborative effort would be the best way to bring forward-thinking ideas to the design of the ship, Virgin recruited its ‘Creative Collective’ – a team of the finest interior designers from New York, Amsterdam and London, none of whom had ever worked in the cruise industry before.

From what we’ve seen so far, that is looking like an inspired idea. Packed with interesting design details, the onboard restaurants are an explosion of colour. The top-deck Athletic Club brings traditional nautical design (think hoops and stripes) bang up to date, and the onboard nightclub, The Manor, is sheer sophistication with its gold accents and aubergine undertones.

“Ranging from gritty to glamorous, we’ve collaborated with a collection of brilliant interior designers and architects to create a variety of spaces that our sailors will love,’” says Dee Cooper, senior vice president of product design for Virgin Voyages. “With careful thought, humour and attention to detail, the Creative Collective has designed a ship that’s styled for those thirsty for a wonderfully modern holiday at sea.”

Virgin Voyage's Scarlet lady luxury outdoor area with sofas and greenery
Great outdoors: Virgin promises an onboard environment like no other

Oceania Cruises
How do you improve upon perfection? That was the question facing Oceania Cruises when the company began to ponder an enhancement of its fleet.

Its answer was the Oceania NEXT initiative, a $100m ‘re-inspiration’ of the line’s four 684-guest ships (Regatta, Insignia, Sirena and Nautica) that promises to make them ‘better than new’. Each ship will emerge from the re-inspiration process with 342 designer suites and staterooms, together with gorgeous new decor in the restaurants, lounges and bars.

The creative input has come from Miami-based design gurus Studio DADO, and the process is well underway. But this is a case of evolution, not revolution. Speaking of his design philosophy, Studio DADO founder Yohandel Ruiz says: ‘The guests we spoke with kept telling us how dearly they loved the ships, so it was important that we keep the intimacy and warmth in the redesign.

Oceania Cruises Concierge Veranda stateroom with bed and blue furnishings
Oceania’s beautiful Concierge Veranda stateroom

“The staterooms and suites are the most dramatic part of the transformation. They now feature a very clean design with a sophisticated air. Enhanced by nuanced shades of the sea and sky, the tones are warm and soothing, incorporating silvery greys and greens alongside vivid sapphires and taupes.”

Not wanting to leave its larger ships, Marina and Riviera, out in the cold, Oceania recently revealed a refurbishment of their owner’s suites – in conjunction with Ralph Lauren Home – adding an extra touch of boutique luxury to an already impressive package.