While other cruise ship passengers lounge in deck chairs, Douglas Ward is peering under his bed, running a finger along a deck to check for dirt, making a mental note at lunch that -- horrors -- the butter is in packets, not in "proper little iced dishes."
"I'm not really snooping," he says during a phone interview from his home near Southampton, England. "I'm observing." That's his job. Ward is author of the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships 2006, which evaluates 269 ships, large and small, budget and luxury.
This year he bestows his five-stars-plus rating on only one, and it's not one well known in the United States: Hapag-Lloyd Cruises' Europa, a 450-passenger ship with no casino.
"Details, details, details, that's what Europa cruising is all about," writes Ward, listing such amenities as personal e-mail addresses, proper cloth doilies beneath drinks, "simply superb" food and a deck steward to mist poolside guests.
So enamored is he of the Europa that he has given it his top rating for six consecutive years.
Seventeen other ships were named this year to the Berlitz Five-Stars Club: SeaDream I and II; Seabourn's Legend, Pride and Spirit; Silversea's Silver Shadow, Silver Whisper, Hanseatic, Silver Cloud and Silver Wind; Queen Mary 2 (Grill Class only); Sea Cloud and Sea Cloud II; Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony; and Seven Seas' Mariner and Voyager.
In other words, you get what you pay for.
His lowest rating -- one star -- means "the absolute bottom of the barrel," like "a stay in the most basic motel." This year, the lowest was 1 1 / 2 stars, to Cyprus-based Louis Cruise Lines' Serenade. Among its sins: plastic chairs and cramped baths.
Before he began evaluating cruise ships, Ward, 60, worked aboard them. Starting in 1965, when he made his first transatlantic crossing as a bandleader on Cunard's Queen Elizabeth, he was employed by eight lines in various jobs, including cruise director.
His career as a critic -- and as president of the Maritime Evaluations Group -- was born of a 2 a.m. conversation with Cunard line passengers several decades ago. "They were complaining that there was no centralized information," he said. (At the time, most cruises were booked directly with the line, not with travel agents or on the Internet.)
That meeting led to the formation in 1979 of an association of cruise passengers. Ward left the ships and started a newsletter, which became a magazine. In 1982, the association issued its first rating report on cruise ships, the basis for the first Berlitz guide, published in 1985.
The guidebook is in its 21st year, and Ward estimates that he has spent more than 5,000 days at sea on more than 920 cruises and 152 transatlantic crossings. He has been seasick once, during a hurricane in the Atlantic. (For those who suffer mal de mer, he prescribes half a teaspoon of powdered ginger dissolved in warm water or milk.)
Ward and his helpers do not always travel anonymously, nor do they always pay their way. "In these hard economic times, it's quite difficult," he said. But he rejects any notion that this compromises integrity. "I tell the lines exactly what I'm going to be doing. 'If you're going to [try to] buy me, I'm not interested in coming to your ship.' They know well enough to leave me alone."
He's at sea more than 200 days a year, visiting and revisiting ships. As such, he has noticed a disturbing trend of cruise lines, hard hit by Sept. 11, charging for such things as spa treatments that once were included in the ticket price. Pricey "alternative" dining rooms are another moneymaker.
"It gets to be really annoying," he said. "I was aboard a large ship of one of the major seven cruise lines not long ago and was asked if I wanted a drink 52 times in the first 30 minutes. There's this incredible pressure to buy drinks."
Ward writes that some cruises today are more "all-exclusive" than all-inclusive. "Extras" on a seven-day cruise can easily cost a couple about $1,600, he says.
He deplores the trend among the major cruise lines to sell such things as gold-by-the-inch chains and to push onboard auctions where "most of the art pieces are rubbish." Ships, he said, "haven't yet realized that it turns a lot of people off."
In general, Ward gives cruise ships high marks for cleanliness, low marks for coffee (too weak, except in pay-by-the-cup coffee bars) and mixed marks for cuisine and entertainment.
Still, with quick turnaround times in port, housekeeping sometimes can be less than perfect. He has found beneath his bed pills, coins, a pair of women's red shoes, the odd sock and used condoms.
Food quality depends on the tab. Ward said shipboard food standards had declined in recent years, especially on U.S.-based ships. He attributes this to economics and to Americans' attitude that adequate is OK as long as there's plenty of it.
Take the buffets, he said, where an "I-paid-for-it" greediness surfaces. "Americans start at one end and go to the other," he said. "Their plate is piled high with every feasible combination. Then at the end they add a lettuce leaf."
When grading food service, Ward includes presentation. Cream, sugar and jam in little packets is a no-no. He was dismayed to find coffee mugs (not cups) and wooden stirrers (not proper spoons) at the Queen Mary 2's beverage station. "That's not five star," he said.
Queen Mary 2 gets a rating of 4 1 / 2 - to five stars in the guide, five only in the priciest accommodations. But he hinted that it may lose a few points in 2007 when he compares the QM2 with other five-star ships. In all fairness, he said, it should be judged as an ocean liner doing what it does best -- transatlantic crossings -- and not as a cruise ship carrying "track suiters" who don't care about dress and decorum.
The best cruises Ward ever took? To the Antarctic peninsula, where he's seen an iceberg "the size of Belgium" floating by. He sees growing, if still limited, interest in activity-oriented cruises that are more about "wildlife and being with nature" and less about shipboard perks.
For now, the most popular destinations for Americans remain the Caribbean, Alaska and Europe. But Ward thinks frequent cruisers have tired of the big-ship Caribbean cruises. "They want a bit more of an intellectual experience, not just sun, sea and sand," he said. "They're so fed up they don't get off the ship anymore."
Cruise-takers send him wish lists, including onboard go-kart tracks, moving sidewalks for strolling the decks without effort and smoke-free cabins.
He says there's a trend toward child-free cruise ships. (He's married, but he and his wife, who sometimes cruises with him, have no children.)
So what does the seafaring Ward do on vacation? "I stay home," he said, "so I can play in my garden."
Beverly Beyette writes for the Los Angeles Times.