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With so many cruises on offer, how do you decide? We asked our cruising experts to help refine the search with their top picks for cuisine, kids’ clubs, service, entertainment and sheer whizz-bangery at sea.

1. Best ships for service

Words: Maggy Oehlbeck

Silver Shadow (Silversea Cruises): Despite the cold, we gather on deck, ready for the glacial spectacle of Alaska’s Tracy Arm. Silversea crew drape blankets around passengers’ shoulders and pass around mugs of frothy hot chocolate.

Crystal Symphony (Crystal Cruises): On an enthralling Baltic cruise, our butler’s name is Igor. Impeccably groomed, with flawless manners, he attends to our every whim – whether booking excursions, making dinner reservations or attending to pressing needs. Best of all is the caviar he delivers at 5pm sharp every evening.

Queen Mary 2 (Cunard): Cunard White Star Service aboard QM2. It is uniformly excellent, but the afternoon tea is a truly royal experience. Served in the Queens Room, it equals that of The Ritz in London for polished service. White-gloved waitstaff expertly circulate trays of classic cucumber sandwiches, savouries, scones and cakes to the accompaniment of a string quartet.

Seabourn: Seabourn’s room stewards are often lovely, fresh-faced women with blonde good looks – but hair colour and gender aside, all have genuine smiles and a desire to please. No request is too small, whether it is for your choice of pillow, additional toiletries, an extra blanket or a throw.

Orion Expedition Cruises: The dining room service is terrific. Orion’s maître d’, Roger, makes magic happen, intuitively matching compatible table companions. As we dine on deck on a balmy night, he miraculously creates a space despite having a full house, and he never forgets a name.

2. Signature restaurants at sea

Words: Maggie Oehlbeck

Gary Rhodes’ Arcadian and Oriana Rhodes (P&O Cruises UK): Known for his restaurants and television series in the UK, Rhodes is a perfectionist without pretension. On board Arcadia and Oriana, his menus feature British classics with a contemporary edge and the presentation is superb.

Todd English, Queen Mary 2 (Cunard): Despite his name, chef Todd English is American. His signature restaurants are on all the Cunard Queens. The food is classy and sassy, the tables beautifully dressed, making for a chic, city-style dining experience at sea.

Luke Mangan’s Salt Grill, Pacific Jewel (P&O Cruises): The Australian celebrity chef is the headliner on this ship. Well known in Tokyo, San Francisco and Sydney, where he helmed Glass brasserie at the Hilton, Mangan now takes his cuisine to sea, showcasing premium Australian produce in mouth-watering ways.

Jacques Pepin’s Jacques, Marina (Oceania Cruises): For the first time, culinary luminary Jacques Pepin has his own signature restaurant at sea – on Oceania Cruises’ new ship Marina. Among Pepin’s signature dishes, slow roasts is a specialty, along with French favourites given a new lease on life.

Tides Restaurant, The World: Resident-owned ship The World, the only luxury cruise ship of its kind, has three superb dining venues – but the Mediterranean-style cuisine of Tides Restaurant is truly world-class, as is the wine list. Though The World is a permanent home to many, onboard packages are available.

3. Inclusive restaurants/buffets

Words: Toni Eatts

La Terrazza on Silversea Cruises’ Silver Shadow: This elegant space hosts delicious breakfasts and lunch buffets and, at night, transforms into an atmospheric restaurant serving sensational Italian regional cuisine with wines to match. This is serious food for serious foodies.

Buffet breakfast on SeaDream I: SeaDream routinely wins international awards for its cuisine and the breakfast buffet indicates why. Figs and paw paws are lusciously ripe and the grapefruit is served with each segment peeled. You can also order freshly cooked eggs, pancakes and other delights, and the espresso is exceptional here.

La Fontaine Dining Room on Holland America Line’s MS Amsterdam: With Rosenthal china and fine silver and glassware, dinner feels special. The service is impeccable and the menu offers a good choice of excellent dishes.

Verdi’s Pizzeria on Princess Cruises’ Dawn Princess: For those times when only a real Italian-style pizza will fit the bill. Made with a thin, crisp base and just the right amount of toppings, these pizzas are perfect for lunch.

River Royale, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises: Cruise the Sôane and Rhône Rivers and you risk losing your waistline. Each night, you’ll sit down to four courses of superb French food accompanied by wines from the region through which you’re travelling. Consider yourself warned.

4. Best shore excursions

Words: David McGonigal

The Oberammergau Passion Play, Germany: This is performed only once a decade and 2010 is the year. Uniworld River Cruises has partnered with General Tours to offer three departures in September that include the play and a Danube cruise on River Beatrice.

Stingrays and sharks, French Polynesia: Even those who are very comfortable in the water may feel challenged by snorkelling while black-tip reef sharks swim past and stingrays drape themselves across your shoulder. Paul Gauguin offers the chance to do this in beautiful Bora Bora lagoon.

Gold Harbour, South Georgia: It is one of the most remarkable places on earth: at Gold Harbour, you have to step around wallowing elephant seals, cute penguins and feisty fur seals. The white sandy beach is crowded with wildlife and lies almost under a hanging glacier and cliffs where albatross breed. Silversea and Peregrine Adventures visit regularly.

Peterhof and Catherine Palaces, St Petersburg: All cruise ships that visit St Petersburg in summer offer tours to Peterhof Palace and the extravagantly ornate Catherine Palace. Along with The State Hermitage Museum, they reveal the glory of imperial Russia.

Nelson’s Dockyard: In Antigua, the base for Lord Horatio Nelson’s western fleet was in the quaint (and perfectly preserved) Georgian village of Nelson’s Dockyard, across the island from the national capital, St John’s. Above it, the fort complex of Shirley Heights provides an excellent panorama.

5. Best onboard lectures and activities

Words: David McGonigal

Spotlight on chocolate and spices: Regent Seven Seas’ Navigator’s Enrichment program includes a series of ‘Spotlight’ cruises focusing on food, wine, spirits and spices. One such itinerary, evocatively dubbed the Golden Spires & Wonders Down Under cruise, takes you from Bangkok to Sydney (departing October 26).

Leonard Maltin Movie Club: Princess Cruises started its Movies Under the Stars program in 2004; last year, it launched the Leonard Maltin Movie Club throughout the fleet. Each month, a new film – selected and introduced by the eminent film critic via video – is shown, followed by the chance to discuss it with fellow passengers. The man himself will be on board for a special voyage (dates to be announced).

The Lawn Club: If you’d like to practise your putting at sea – or just picnic on real grass – book a passage on the new Celebrity Solstice: there are 1,393.5 square metres of rolled turf on her top deck.

Carnival Dream: Along with a complete water park, the new Carnival Dream has two hot tubs suspended over the water – but not so high up that the ocean feels out of reach.

MacMania 10 on Veendam: Those wishing to learn all things Apple can join the May departure of Holland America Line’s MS Veendam to Bermuda (booked through www.insightcruises.com) – the specialist cruise will have a flotilla of Mac experts on board. High on the list of topics for discussion will be the new iPad, no doubt.

6. Entertainment – big and small

Words: Toni Eatts

Pacific Jewel, Pacific Cirque’s Syzygy: It’s breathtaking. Up there on the top-deck aerial stage, trapeze artists swing, acrobats shimmy up and down swathes of colourful silk and jugglers twirl firesticks.

Dawn Princess, Movies Under the Stars: There’s nothing like lying on a comfy lounge, drink and complimentary popcorn at hand, gazing at a huge screen framed against the night sky.

Norwegian Jade, Spinnakers Lounge: NCL has cultivated a reputation for showcasing comedians, but it was still a surprise to wander into the nightclub and spend an hour or so laughing.

SeaDream I’s The Top of the Yacht Bar: Nature provides some of the best entertainment, and when the sun sets over the Mediterranean and you’re somewhere between Greek islands, there’s no better place to be.

Viking River Cruises’ ballet night: Imagine the thrill of watching Swan Lake performed in the personal theatre of Catherine the Great in The Hermitage, St Petersburg. This excursion was included in the fare for Viking’s ‘Waterways of the Tsars’ cruise. Unforgettable!

7. Family-friendly ships/best kids’ clubs

Words: Sue Bryant

Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas: Great for pre-teens, thanks to the zipline over the deck, ice-skating rink, huge climbing walls, surf simulators and an abundance of free fast food, including a doughnut stall. The kids’ club has its own little theatre and a working science lab.

Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL)’s Norwegian Jewel: Kids love the bowling alley on NCL’s Jewel-class ships, not to mention the waterslide and the ‘Whatever’ rooms, private areas for playing Nintendo Wii or singing karaoke. My children particularly enjoyed the teppanyaki restaurant, where chefs perform miraculous stunts with knives and eggs.

Princess Cruises’ Emerald Princess: I really like the layout of this ship: the kids’ clubs are on the same deck as The Sanctuary, so you can book a squashy sun-lounger in the adults-only space and not be too far from your children.

P&O Cruises UK’s Ventura: Bungee trampolines are a big hit on this family-friendly ship – and the children’s club is excellent, split into four age groups catering for two- to 17-year-olds. Circus-skills classes and Rock School are good distractions for older kids.

Star Clippers’ Star Clipper and Star Flyer: Teenagers love the Pirates of the Caribbean look and feel of the Star Clippers’ tall ships and can be found sunbathing in the bowsprit nets, hanging out with the young, attractive sports crew, learning scuba in the pool or dancing in the Tropical Bar until late at night.

8. Family-friendly shore excursions

Words: Sue Bryant

Ziplining in Alaska: Fly at lightning speed through the pine forest canopy in a harness, landing on wooden platforms high in the tree-tops. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but kids have to be accompanied by an adult – and will be forever grateful! All cruise lines featuring Alaska cruises offer this experience.

Hiking up Vesuvius: The hike from the bus stop to the crater takes only about 20 minutes, but children love to say they’ve climbed a volcano. Combine it with an educational half-day in Pompeii – Princess Cruises offers this combination.

Inner-tubing in Dominica: This is safe, gentle fun, wedged in a big inner tube and spinning en masse with about 30 others down a shallow river through the rainforest, with a stop for swimming. Most cruise lines calling at Dominica offer this excursion.

Barcelona FC stadium tour: Small boys love this tour; you get to see the players’ changing rooms, walk through the tunnel to what’s possibly Europe’s most famous pitch and explore the VIP boxes before buying an FC Barcelona kit in the museum and shop. Most cruise lines calling at Barcelona offer this excursion.

Vasa Museum, Stockholm: A fascinating display of life on the world’s only surviving 17th-century ship, which sank on her maiden voyage. My children spent hours on the interactive computer game that allows you to ‘design your own warship’. The museum is offered as a tour but we did it by public bus and the public ferries that circle Stockholm’s harbour.

9. Top spa experience at sea

Words: Joanna Hall

In recent years, spas have become an essential element of cruising – the days when a simple facial would suffice are long gone. Cruisers now demand facilities and treatment as good as those they’d get at upscale land-based spas and, thanks to increased competition among cruise lines, their call is being heard:

Seabourn Odyssey: Seabourn’s newest luxe vessel has a two-level spa featuring a thalassotherapy pool, Finnish saunas, and lavish private spa villas that can be booked for up to half a day at a time.

Oasis of the Seas: In keeping with her size, Oasis of the Seas’ Vitality at Sea Spa is an impressive space with 29 treatment rooms, including three couples’ massage suites, a thermal suite and a teen area, YSPA.

Silversea Cruises’ ships: Small but elegant, Silversea Cruises’ Mandara Spa has been voted World’s Best Spa at Sea, its treatment highlights including the Hot Lava Rock Massage and the Elemis Japanese Silk Booster Facial.

Costa Cruises’ ships: Named Best Spa by Cruise Critic in 2009, the Samsara Spa features on all Costa’s newest ships – on each, it spans two decks, offers spa-goers views of the ocean, and incorporates such exotic features as Turkish and thalassotherapy baths.

Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity: The beautiful Feng-Shui-designed Crystal Spa offers an extensive range of Eastern and Western treatments and has a dry-float bed suite that’s perfect for body wraps.

10. Top fitness experiences at sea

Words: Joanna Hall

It may seem odd to put the words fitness and cruising in the same sentence, but holidays at sea today have more to offer than lounging by the pool with a cocktail. Fitness and wellbeing are extremely well catered for and for fitness fanatics, there are plenty of options for activity:

Oasis of the Seas: The world’s biggest cruise ship has 158 exercise machines, the world’s longest jogging track at sea, two rock-climbing walls, the world’s first zipline ride at sea, and a pool and sports deck stretching the length of the ship.

Sea Princess: The Lotus Gym is packed with the latest equipment, has a good-sized studio offering a variety of classes, and affords easy access to two hot tubs and a plunge pool – perfect for cooling off after your energetic workout.

Rhapsody of the Seas: It has an impressive list of fitness facilities, but a major drawcard for water-lovers is the solarium pool with its Romanesque design and sliding glass roof.

Crystal Serenity: If you love to walk at sea, this ship is one of the few with a wraparound promenade and two programs for walkers, including Walk-on-Water (WOW), exclusive to Crystal Cruises.

Carnival Splendor: Of its four pools, the Splendido Lido Pool is the most dazzling – it has glass walls two decks high that can be covered by a retractable Sky Dome, and also houses Carnival’s Seaside Theatre.

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