Port of Miami
On a recent Saturday afternoon onboard the Norwegian Epic cruise ship, Dennis and Julie Solet peered into a luxurious lounge outfitted with velvet couches and gauzy curtains. But after the Solets told an employee they weren't staying in a suite, the couple was turned away. The lounge, a small sign said, was reserved "for suite guests only."
"Money has its privileges," said Mr. Solet, a 62-year-old retired teacher from Windsor, Ontario. "One day we'll be suite people."
There is a new cruise ship class system. A growing number of cruise lines have built lavish?and separate?cocoons for their biggest spenders. It is a departure from the egalitarianism that had reigned on most ships for the last several decades when everyone from the humblest inside stateroom to the most luxurious suite would rub elbows in the same bars, dining rooms and pool decks. In a way, the trend is a throwback to the heyday of trans-Atlantic crossings in the 1920s, when first-, second- and third-class passengers were assigned separate areas of vessels. (Though no one would mistake today's cheapest stateroom for the gloomy steerage dorms of centuries past.)
On the 4,100-passenger Epic, which started sailing last June, guests in the 75 Courtyard Villa suites have a private restaurant, fitness center and pool, where employees pass out fruit and spray sunbathers with cool water. On the two-month-old Disney Dream, passengers in the 41 rooms on the concierge level have the sole use of a sun deck and lounge with free food, booze, fancy coffee (other guests have to pay $2.25 for a small cappuccino elsewhere) and loaner iPads.
When Royal Caribbean ships visit the cruise line's private beach in Labadie, Haiti, suite passengers flash special gold-colored cards to gain access to a separate stretch of sand with cabanas. Besides private restaurants, pools and lounges, people staying in the Yacht Clubs on MSC Cruises' new Fantasia and Splendida ships receive 24-hour butler service from employees trained at the International Butler Academy in the Netherlands. They are also treated to roped-off VIP seating at the ships' discos and can request that shops be opened after hours for crowd-free browsing.
"You could spend a whole week in that [Yacht Club] space and never leave," says Rick Sasso, president and chief executive of MSC Cruises USA.
The so-called ship-within-a-ship is an effort by several cruise lines with big, mass-market ships to attract passengers who might normally sail on small luxury lines. As ships have gotten larger, noise and crowds are a turn-off to some guests.
Like first-class airline passengers, guests staying in the private complexes pay premiums for their perks. Depending upon the time of year, a three- or four-night cruise to the Bahamas on the Disney Dream, for example, costs $439 per person double occupancy in a regular stateroom with balcony. A balcony room on the concierge level is $2,159 per person.
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