A floating hotel.

Home to thousands of guests, some for weeks at a time, modern cruise ships are like elaborate hotels – yet the design process is very different.

In light of the Covid-19 situation, the recommendations and activities mentioned in this article are for the purpose of possible future cruise vacations. Please always refer to local government health advisories for travel.

The Symphony of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship, made its maiden voyage in autumn of 2018. With space for 6,680 guests and 2,200 crew, it’s on a scale similar to a small town or huge resort hotel. The World, a luxurious residential ship, usually travels the globe non-stop, with apartments selling for between $2.6m and $20m.

Clearly, it seems that both living and vacationing on board ship still holds a sense of magic for travelers. Modern cruise ships offer amenities as diverse as theaters, waterslides, and casinos, not to mention numerous bars and restaurants – everything required to keep guests entertained during their time at sea. And, unlike resort hotels where the view never changes, the view aboard a ship is everchanging. Yet the art of designing a cruise ship is very different from designing a hotel.

Alison Clixby, a veteran of over 25 years of marine interior design, looks after interior design for Cunard, which has a fleet of three ships and is adding a fourth in the near future. While the process is the same as for hotel design, she says creating a concept for a moving craft differs from designing for a resort where the weather is predictable and the landscape never changes.

“The ships aren’t a static building: they move around the world on different itineraries,” she says. “You’re not really designing for a destination as such: the ship is the destination, and what you see from the windows is very much part of that experience.”

Besides the impact of transitioning between climates as different as the South Pacific islands and Alaska, motion presents other design challenges. “It’s a steel moving vessel: it moves, it flexes,” Clixby says. “We have to be mindful of vibration: we don’t want to affect our guests’ enjoyment of spaces if something is rattling or vibrating.”

As on airplanes, marine designers have to work within an extremely stringent safety code that restricts the materials available. And to guarantee stability even in high seas, vertical space is at a premium. While Clixby can occasionally work with dramatic double-, or even triple-height public areas, one of her biggest challenges is creating a luxury feel despite low ceilings.

“It’s a constant challenge to make that happen,” she says. “We try every trick in the book: we use lighting, we use subtle steps in the ceiling, changes of finish and texture, trying to direct focus to somewhere further away.”

Clixby keeps abreast of land-based and marine luxury design trends, but aims for a timeless feel, both to maintain the Cunard brand – she has more than a century of archives to draw on – and to futureproof the ship against upcoming fashions. The Cunard ships are refitted every few years in dry dock, a process where a cast of thousands, including the ship’s crew, work for weeks to deliver the maximum impact with minimum time away from the water.

It's far from a cheap process. Queen Mary 2’s refit cost $160m, Queen Victoria ran to $60m, and Queen Elizabeth received a multimillion-dollar refit in November 2018. Clixby begins planning a good two years in advance, generally placing her last orders six months before the ship enters dry dock – although, when necessary, her team has turned around rush projects with only a three-month lead time. “We don’t want to miss our refit window and then wait five years for something we know could provide some guest benefit,” she says.

Our fleet.

Each member of our fleet, affectionately known the world over as 'the Cunard Queens', has her own special style and unique venues, so our guests can see the world in luxury.

Queen Mary 2.

Our flagship is the only true ocean liner at sea today, and offers a sense of freedom like no other vessel. Discover her breathtaking planetarium, experience our Gala Evenings in the Queens Room, and let new destinations welcome you on her many spacious decks.

Find out more

Queen Elizabeth.

Immerse yourself in the evocative art deco elegance of Queen Elizabeth. Spend time on her special Games deck, enjoy music and dance in the Royal Court Theatre, and dine in contemporary venues combined with geometric features and glittering chandeliers.

Find out more

Queen Victoria.

A favorite among our guests, Queen Victoria is ready to welcome you with her enhanced Winter Garden and Chart Room, for the perfect cocktail any time of day. Savor the views from her expanded sun deck, and enjoy your escape from the everyday.

Find out more

While Clixby creates luxury at every level of the ship, it’s in the Grills suites, Cunard’s answer to the ocean liner first class, that her design reaches its most indulgent. Comparable to land-based super-suites in the finest hotels, the top-end duplex suites cover more than 2100 square feet, with two master bathrooms upstairs and a guest bathroom downstairs, as well as expansive balconies, a butler’s pantry and curated library. The space is lavishly finished with materials from fine marbles to hand-tufted rugs, each with a unique design created just for that particular suite.

For Clixby, the most exciting part of her job is definitely working on brand new ships. Cunard’s fourth ship is still early in the design stage so her major focus is working with the steel structure. “To sail in after you’ve spent four years from basically a piece of paper and ‘Here’s what we want’: sailing into Southampton on that ship is such a proud moment,” she says. “It really is a special time.”

This article was produced for Cunard by BBC StoryWorks, the commercial content division of BBC Global News.

Be inspired, by Cunard.

Try delicious recipes from the Cunard kitchen, explore stunning destinations and get a glimpse into life on board a Cunard Queen with our inspiring articles.

Hello Helsinki.

Cool, slick and cosmopolitan, the intriguing capital of Finland is a Cunard favorite that’s well worth discovering.

Find out more

Tea time.

Uncover the origins of Afternoon Tea—a celebrated occasion on the Cunard Queens—and learn how to make our delicious Cunard scones.

Find out more

Fit for a Queen.

From exclusive dining to grand suites, we open our archive to see how the Queens Grill, Cunard’s ultimate ocean experience, has evolved over the years.

Find out more

Grape expectations.

Explore the stunning wine-making regions of Portugal, France and others, and discover what wine expert Will Lyons will be drinking this summer.

Find out more

A Canary Christmas.

Christmas on board a Cunard Queen in the Canary Islands is nothing short of magical. Join us as we explore local traditions and customs for the festive season.

Find out more