This week, Royal Caribbean pushed the boat out a minuscule bit further. Allure of the Seas made her maiden voyage, eclipsing the length of her sister ship Oasis by 5cm – about the width of the steaks served in the on-board Brazilian restaurant. Allure and Oasis are joint holders of the "biggest mobile apartment block" award, each taking 5,400 passengers from Fort Lauderdale on a turn around the Caribbean. See page 18 to read about what's been missing from your travelling life.
Scale is an important aspect of cruising: the bigger the ship, the more the scope for generating both economies and frivolities. But many travellers prefer much smaller vessels: just as small hotels are more relaxed and convivial than vast Vegas-style mega-resorts, so a ship with passengers counted in hundreds rather than thousands tends to have more, if I may, allure.
There is the added bonus of a wider range of ports of call, with smaller ships able to moor by the quay while passengers on larger ships must queue for the tenders. And for the growing number of independent travellers who understand the case for cruising, the destinations represent the most important element. Cruising can deliver value for time as well as value for money.
As you sit around the pool, the conversation will inevitably turn to how much you paid. The price of a cruise can seem as elusive as a mermaid. Figures cited here are per person for two travelling together. They were quoted direct from the cruise lines and should be treated as the roughest of guides only; the discount culture is intense among agents, who usually offer some combination of discounts, "free" on-board spend and other benefits.
While you could do the research necessary to string together a trip around the leading cities of the Baltic or the prettiest islands in the Caribbean, it is certainly easier and probably cheaper to allow a cruise line to do the work for you. Indeed, canny cruisers may choose an itinerary that goes back to the days when liners were the primary mode of long-haul passenger transport, crossing oceans and connecting great cities. When this role was supplanted by jet aircraft, the shipping lines discovered there was money to be made from going around in circles. Choose particular arcs of these circuits, such as a Panama Canal transit or a loop around the tip of South America, and you can travel the pretty way from Acapulco to Antigua or from Rio to Valparaiso.
A cruise buys you much more than transportation and accommodation. Like the conspicuous consumption or hate it, you will never go hungry on a cruise ship – the ultimate all-inclusive. Nor will you feel at a loose end. The cruise ships have appropriated the old Butlins slogan that "Our true intent is all for your delight".
"Entertainment" is a broad term. It encompasses anything from top-flight variety shows with West End production values and comedians flown in to erudite lectures on antiquity by distinguished academics. The latter is not typically available on Disney cruises, although not to be outdone, next year the company is launching a new ship of its own, the Disney Dream, with space for 2,500 passengers.
Cruising has many other virtues – starting with the scenery. At sea level rather than 35,000 feet, you get a far stronger sense of travelling. On deck you can focus on the changing shape of the shore; the opaque yet always changing and compelling ocean; or the list of cocktails just a shake away. You need only unpack once and, if you choose a "no-fly" cruise, need not risk being instructed to undress by an airport security official.
Vices? Several aspects of the cruise business model are unpalatable, starting with the industry's reliance on workers from low-wage economies, who in turn often depend on tips for their earnings. (On most cruise lines tipping is either mandatory or morally obligatory, and can add hundreds of pounds to the cost; two notable British exceptions are Thomson and Voyages of Discovery.)
The names of the destinations skip enticingly from the pages of the brochure, like a random selection from a stamp album (Barbados, Martinique, Antigua... ). Many locations, from Holyhead to Haiti, would love more visits from cruise ships. But the benefits for the people who reside in these places are debatable. And the impact of receiving thousands of visitors at once, none of whom stay overnight, can distort a destination's economy.
Plenty of the passengers will adhere to the ship's own shore excursions, with little of their cash leaking through to the host port. As far as the ship's excursions desk is concerned, the perfect passenger signs up for a minibus trip around the island, eats a mass-produced lunch and ends up at a mass-produced souvenir shop. And as anyone who happened to be in Dubrovnik or Santorini on the "wrong" day this summer will know, throngs of day-trippers led by tour guides around the same handful of attractions can wreck a destination's appeal for longer-stay holidaymakers. It is also questionable whether anyone can properly appreciate a destination in an onshore stay of only a few hours; if tourism is inherently superficial, then cruising is arguably the most shallow form of travel. And the notion that cruise ships are intrinsically less harmful to the environment than aircraft is wrong: your holiday afloat comes with a hefty carbon footprint.
Somehow, as drinks dissolve into dinner and the band strike up a tune, your cares about the planet and its people may dwindle. If a holiday is more about indulgence than hard-core travelling, then a cruise represents an excellent solution.
Even those who crave a spell of solitude can find it on a cruise: in Kefallonia in August, I walked ashore from the Thomson Spirit, stuck out my thumb and alternately hitched and hiked through the crumpled hills of this Ionian island before retreating to the mother ship and cabin 422.
That particular trip does not feature in our Traveller's Guide to the Ultimate Cruises – but there is one here for you.
Starter for 10
Ship: Azamara Journey (694 passengers)
Departure date: 29 August 2011
Duration: 10 nights
Cruise line: Azamara Club Cruises (0844 493 4016; azamaraclubcruises.co.uk)
Ports of call: Holyhead, Cobh , Bordeaux, Bilbao, Gijon, Vigo
Highlights: an ideal time of year to explore these distinctive destinations with ease, and with start and end points that are alluring in their own right – and easily accessible. The two-night stay in Bordeaux offers the chance to explore the Aquitaine region in greater depth. You can visit highlights such as St-Emilion, Arcachon and the Le Corbusier connection, and dine onshore halfway through the voyage.
Price: £1,798, not including travel to Dublin and from Lisbon.
South American Adventure
Ship: Celebrity Infinity (2,046 passengers)
Departure date: 2 January 2011
Duration: two weeks
Cruise line: Celebrity (0844 493 2043; celebritycruises.com)
Starts: Buenos Aires
Ports of call: Montevideo, Punta del Este (Uruguay), Puerto Madryn (for Patagonia), Cape Horn, Ushuaia (Argentina), Punta Arenas (Chile), Puerto Montt (Chile).
Ends: Valparaiso (for Santiago).
Highlights: An amazing amount is packed into a fortnight. Make the most of Buenos Aires, beautiful and cultured capital of Argentina. Get a taste of South America's hidden secret, Uruguay – both the capital, Montevideo, and the ritzy beaches of Punta del Este. The call at Puerto Madryn will give a taste of Patagonia, which provides a good definition of the word "bleak". Round Cape Horn, hoping that the Drake Strait is a lake, then seek the more predictably calm fjords of Chile. Valparaiso is a contender of world's finest cruise port, and you can also dally in Santiago before your flight home.
Price: £1,099, including $100 (£67) on-board credit but not international flights between the UK and South America.
Ship: Discovery (650 berths)
Departure date: 15 June 2011
Duration: 18 days
Cruise line: Voyages of Discovery (0844 822 0822; voyagesofdiscovery.co.uk)
Ports of call: Bergen, Kristiansund, Murmansk, Solovetsky Islands, Archangel, Tromso, Trondheim, Alesund
Highlights: The White Sea at the far north of Russia is more extreme than the Baltic. This cruise is accompanied by an expert from Bletchley Park to explain the Second World War convoys that served as a lifeline for Russia. Along with getting a taste of life on the northern front, you visit Norwegian highlights such as Alesund (Art Nouveau heaven), Tromso (capital of Arctic Norway) and the lovely port of Bergen.
Take this ship to Cuba
Ship: Thomson Dream
Departure date: 30 December 2010, or 20 Jan or 3 March 2011
Duration: two weeks
Cruise line: Thomson (0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk)
Starts: Montego Bay, Jamaica
Ports of call: Grand Cayman, Roatán (Honduras), "Costa Maya" (Mexico), Cozumel (Mexico), Havana, Samana (Dominican Republic), Road Town (BVI), Antigua, St Lucia
Ends: Bridgetown (Barbados)
Highlights: Cuba has more cruising potential than the rest of the Caribbean put together, with fascinating ports such as Cienfuegos and Santiago as well as the capital. So why doesn't the island feature in the brochures? Because of punitive sanctions applied by the US to any cruise line that dares to include Cuba on its itineraries.
At one stage Thomson abandoned all its Cuban holidays, because of fears that the directors could be excluded from the US. But the company has now taken the bold move of placing Havana at the heart of a range of cruises. This one delivers 48 hours in the Cuban capital, allowing you time to get familiar with the Caribbean's largest city.
Jamaica and Barbados are excellent bookends for the cruise, but don't expect too much joy in Grand Cayman or "Costa Maya" – Caribbean cruising at its least appetising.
Price: £1,240, including Thomson charter flights from Gatwick to Montego Bay and back from Barbados.
Ship: Norwegian Jewel (2,376 passengers)
Departure date: 17 or 24 September, 1 or 8 October
Duration: one week
Cruise line: Norwegian Cruise Line (0845 201 8900; ncl.co.uk)
Starts/ends: New York
Ports of call: Sydney (no, not that one; Sydney, Nova Scotia), Halifax, Saint John (for the Bay of Fundy), Portland (Maine)
Highlights: Perfect timing in every sense. You can take advantage of falling air fares and begin or end your journey with a stay in Manhattan. Then breeze along the coast of New England to all those places you normally only fly over. A couple of days in Nova Scotia will persuade you to return for longer – and later you'll add New Brunswick to your wish-list. Portland provides a gateway for some great leaf-peeping in the most distinctive US state.
Price: £597 including mandatory "onboard service charge", but not transatlantic flights.
Festivities and fireworks
Ship: Balmoral (1,350 passengers)
Departure date: 21 Dec 2010
Duration: two weeks
Cruise line: Fred. Olsen (01473 746175; fredolsencruises.com)
Ports of call: Lisbon, Arrecife (Lanzarote), Puerto del Rosario (Fuerteventura), Las Palmas (Gran Canaria), Santa Cruz (Tenerife), Santa Cruz (La Palma), Funchal (Madeira).
Highlights: Are you a hiker who hates Christmas at home and airports, but loves fireworks and have never visited the Canary Islands? If so, your ship has just come in. This voyage takes in the fine Portuguese capital, allows you to spend 25 December in the mid-Atlantic, gives a chance to sample the volcanic highlights of Lanzarote and lets you pound the city streets in the capitals of Gran Canaria or Tenerife – though you could equally slip away from the crowds and find some excellent walking possibilities. The options get even more tempting at the Canaries' "other" Santa Cruz, the capital of La Palma: this small island offers amazing natural diversity. The climax of the cruise is New Year's Eve in the broad harbour of Funchal, a cruise calendar fixture where – at midnight – the sky comes alive with the best fireworks display this side of Alpha Centauri. Drawbacks? A long sail back from Madeira to Southampton under leaden January skies, and a day on Fuerteventura that may not prove too riveting.
Isles de Luxe
Ship: Prince Albert II (132 passengers)
Departure date: 25 May 2011
Duration: Two weeks
Cruise line: Silversea (0844 251 0837; silversea.com)
Ports of call: Stromness (Orkney), Stornoway (Lewis), Rum, Mull, Staffa, Iona, St Kilda, the Faroe Islands, Lerwick and Noss (Shetland), Bergen, Helsingor (Elsinore, Denmark), Bornholm.
Highlights: These fragments of northern Europe are priceless. To witness the ends of the earth, try Orkney, Lewis and the Faroes. Then add the inaccessible nature reserve of Noss, and some Baltic pearls.
Price: £4,088, excluding the flight home (try Ryanair) but including everything from champagne to excursions.
Around the world in 15 weeks
Ship: Queen Elizabeth (2,092 passengers)
Departure date: 10 Jan 2012
Duration: 107 nights
Cruise line: Cunard (0845 678 0013; cunard.co.uk)
Ports of call: New York, Honolulu, Sydney, Singapore, Penang, Colombo, Muscat, Alexandria and many more.
Highlights: Cunard's new ship offers the most sophisticated circumnavigation; start with a transatlantic crossing, experience transits of both the great canals, Panama and Suez, and enjoy many aspects of Asia.
Price: £47,399 for a suite, dining in the Queens Grill. Or opt for an inside cabin and eating in the Britannia restaurant for £1 short of £11,000 - barely £100 per person per day for the trip of a lifetime.
Freight expectations: The alternative - life as a passenger on a cargo ship
"Travel on a cargo ship is perfect for people who love being at sea but don't want the holiday-camp atmosphere of a cruise," says Andy Whitehouse, Voyages Manager for Strand Travel (strandtravel.co.uk).
"Our customers are mostly retired because you have to be flexible with dates. Cargo companies have schedules but tend not to stick to them, so our trips don't suit people with work commitments.
"Younger travellers who don't want to fly for environmental reasons make enquiries. But our prices (dependent on the shipping company and port taxes, but typically starting at £100 per day) are usually too high for them. We get lots of single travellers, many of them widows and widowers. This is a very safe form of travel for single ladies.
"Cargo ships take a maximum of 12 passengers. To take more they would have to carry a doctor, which they don't, so passengers have to be healthy and carry a medical certificate. Most ships have an upper age limit of 79. Some take passengers aged up to 90 but we don't recommend it. The minimum age for children is six but we discourage people from bringing their children because, aside from potential hazards, we have no facilities for them.
"Accommodation is spacious. We offer cabins for two with a bathroom. Many ships have single cabins but if none are available we charge a 20 per cent single supplement. This is significantly cheaper than the supplement usually charged by cruise companies. Three meals a day are also included.
"Ports are often outside town and, once we dock, travellers have to arrange their own transport. Ships are usually in port for 10-12 hours, sometimes overnight. We keep passengers updated through the port agent by email or phone.
"Our most popular voyages are to Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The shortest voyages are two weeks and some are up to three months. We've been running for 24 years. Cargo travel is a bug that tends to bite people, and we get the same people coming back."
Interview by Susie Butter