Thanks to our passion for cruising, Australia will be treated to some of the best of the burgeoning premium class.

Douglas Ward describes himself as “the foremost authority on cruising”. He publishes the Berlitz guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships – a weighty door-stop for the true aficionado, which rates vessels from just about every angle.

Here’s what he had to say about luxury ships in this year’s edition: “Luxury cruises versus large-resort-ship cruises are like the difference between a Bentley automobile and a motor scooter…unfortunately, the word has been degraded by marketing people and advertising agencies. You can even get a ‘luxury” burger these day!”

While we agree “luxury” has become an almost obligatory descriptor, it’s also true that cruise ships –even “large resort ships” – now offer better value and more of what was once defined as luxury than ever before.

In the 1800s, cruise lines had steerage-, second- and first-class passengers. But white-gloved butlers and dress codes have given way to a more relaxed view of what elegantly defines a ship’s class.

Today, we have contemporary, premium and luxury. And technology means many new vessels have raised the bar and blurred the lines in everything from cuisine to service.

In one area in particularly, the battle lines have been drawn. Premium cruising – the sandwich class sitting between an improving contemporary sector and a burgeoning luxury market – is fighting back.

And thanks to Australia’s astonishing love affair with cruising, we’ll be able to sample some of the best.

When Majestic Princess sails from Sydney in September, 2018, she will redefine a Premium, a class Australians have made their own.

Maybe it’s something about the Australian psyche. Perhaps it’s just that we love value for money. But, as our 2017 Reader’s Choice Awards show, nothing excites like a premium ship.

In Majestic Princess, premium has a new standard bearer. She has six specialties restaurants, including a French bistro from a Michelin-starred chef, a huge spa and the largest shopping mall at sea.

But she won’t hold the title uncontested.

Celebrity Solstice, a Royal Caribbean brand that boasts of being one of Australia’s favourites, has just been refurbished. And its sister ships in the Edge class have some truly astonishing hardware that will increase the appetite for ships that offer style, service and something special.

And just to prove Mr Ward’s point, those “marketing people” have devised “modern luxury” to describe all of this.

Meanwhile, newcomer Norwegian Cruise Lines is pushing into premium class. Norwegian Jewel will be almost completely rebuilt during a refit in Singapore before she comes back to Sydney for her second extended season next year.

Part of a $400 million program called Project Edge, she will have new dining venues and cabin upgrades.

So how do you tell if you’re on a premium ship? There are some important indicators:

  • Better service – 1 crew member to 2.1 passengers on Norwegian Jewel, 1 to 2.3 on Celebrity Solstice and 1 to 2.6 on Majestic Princess
  • More food options – from celebrity chefs and specialty restaurants to better choice in the main dining room.
  • Adult-only sanctuaries
  • Big-show entertainment…without the bawdy stand-up
  • Ship’s decor that includes genuine art works
  • Wider corridors and more space in public areas
  • Like-minded fellow guests
  • No giant water slides

2018 promises to be the year of the premium cruise ship. Which to choose? Read our verdicts on the next page.

  • The ship: Majestic Princess
  • Launched: 2017
  • Size: 143,700 tons
  • Passenger decks: 17
  • Passengers: 3,560
  • Crew: 1,346
  • Crew to passenger ratio: 1 to 2.6
  • Cabins sizes: 15-119 sq metres

Adults only area: The Sanctuary, part of The Hollywood Pool Club: covered pool area with sculptures and topiaries. At night, it becomes a cool music venue

Food: six speciality restaurants, including Cantonese classics from chef Richard Chen and La Mer, a French bistro with Michelin-starred Emmanuel Renaut and nine other venues. The Crown Grill remains a classic steakhouse.

Activities and entertainment: Big shows in the Princess Theater, a watercolour fantasy by the pool, karaoke suites. But our personal favourite remains: Movies Under the Stars.

Families: Lots of family cabin and stateroom options plus Camp Discovery for kids aged three to 12 years, and the Beach House for teens.

Service: It’s why Aussie’s love Princess – warm and friendly everywhere

Best for: Sophisticated cruisers who love variety, good service and fine food. Great for friends and family cruising. Oh, and Princess has created amazing beds – they say they are the most comfortable at sea!

Our verdict: We sailed Majestic on her inaugural cruise in Europe, and were extremely impressed by the design, decor and food. She’s going to lift premium to where it should be.

  • The ship: Celebrity Solstice
  • Launched: 2008
  • Size: 122,000 tons
  • Passenger decks: 14
  • Passengers: 2,852
  • Crew to passenger ratio: 1 to 2.3
  • Cabin sizes: 17-155 sq metres
  • Adults only area: child-free solariums and a pool

Food: The Grand Epernay dining room has ocean views and a good selection. Aqua-class guests get their own 130-seater as do suite-class guests. And there are plenty of other venues that come with extra charges, from the Tuscan Grille (steakhouse style) to the excellent Sushi on Five, which we adored. The Oceanview Café and Grill has a huge range – but be warned, you’ll have to queue for your poached eggs in the morning as Celebrity cruisers are early risers.

Activities & entertainment: There is the big show premium is renowned for, three in fact, and the rock show we saw certainly set the room alight. The Lawn Club is a stand out. There’s a glass-blowing factory, big movie screen, picnics on the real glass and cabanas you can book for that romantic meal. Here’s also a Cellar Masters wine-tasting bar, a great spa and steam room.

Families: There are family friendly rooms and there are kids clubs for various ages and many supervised activities

Service: Good but perfunctory.

Best for: Food, wine and entertainment, Solstice has a reputation as an adult ship. We found she was looking youthful after her refurb.

  • The ship: Norwegian Jewel
  • Launched: 2005
  • Size: 93,500
  • Crew: 1,089
  • Passengers: 2,376
  • Crew to passenger ratio: 1 to 2.1
  • Size of cabins: 13 to 408  sq. metres
  • Adults only area: Pool and hot tub

Food: Norwegian claims food is a specialty, and Jewel has plenty of options. There’s an Asian fusion complementary dining venue, along with seven others and seven speciality restaurants that charge a la carte or up to US$29.95.

Activities and entertainment: Sports complex with basketball, volleyball, dodgeball, Zumba and yoga. The Mandara Spa has a full service beauty salon. There’s an art galley, big gym, 13 bars and lounges, and a great Australian show: Burn the Floor, created in Sydney.

Families: Club underground for teens, pools and small waterslides.

Service: If our meal at Le Bistro was anything to go by, you’ll get friendly service and plenty of it. We counted more than 20 waiters on duty at one time, and were assured it was the norm!

Best for: Gregarious foodies and lovers of American culture; some great interiors, set to be improved by a refurbishment next year. Jewel is family friendly, lively and fun.

Our verdict: confession time: we only spent a few hours on Jewel at an invitation lunch in Le Bistro. We found the eclectic mix of colours, art deco and paintings a refreshing break from the usual. We loved The Haven’s 60s rock char – its suite was a Bon Jovi favourite, we were told. We are certainly looking forward to a more extensive trial and to hearing from our readers.