My first sailing experience with Seabourn Cruises finally fills a gap in my cruise experience that has haunted me for the last five years. So, how did it go?
|Caviar Hors D' Oeuvres on Seabourn|
My job is to write about cruise lines. I have two regular outlets, FoxNews.com, one of the top news outlets in the country, and CruiseMates, one of the leading cruise commentary sites online.
My FoxNews travel editor defines their audience (32,000,000 visitors per month) as people looking into buying a cruise – but not cruise aficionados who already know what they like. CruiseMates readers are different; they know and care about specific cruise details.
This article is about my first and only Seabourn cruise experience, an award winning luxury cruise line. Plenty of articles praising the line uncritically already exist, which is appropriate for a top luxury cruise line. But my goal is to write articles truly helpful to the person considering purchasing a cruise on the line – where the details of the experience matter more than the décor or history.
For example, it's easy to gush about a luxury car; a Mercedes or BMW, in a general car magazine, but if that is your price range you really want to know the differences between the two cars. If you are in the market for a luxury cruise, Seabourn is certainly one of the best in the world. It has received accolades as the "World's Best Cruise Line" from Condé Nast and Travel and Leisure magazines, for example. But if you read those polls you will see that other luxury cruise lines also finish so close that the methodology of those polls alone may create results that don't coincide with your personal priorities.
So I would like to start at this specific point, luxury cruise lines, and take this review from there to see where Seabourn fits in. And just to get it over with, if what you were hoping to find here was a glowing Seabourn review then here is one on Seabourn Odyssey. You can go there now and skip my review which will have a different focus. To be clear, I don't disagree with that review, I just think it is a bit one-dimensional.
Can There Be a Bad Seabourn Review?
I have stated my oath to be unbiased when covering cruise lines for years now. I also disclose the fact that I was given a complimentary cabin and airfare for this and other cruises (like the vast majority of writers). But I am paid to report my findings and while I don't see my opinions as more important than anyone else's, I do think they are far more informed than most people – since I have an extensive cruise history – but that never means I don't understand and value the fact that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Opinions are never wrong in my book; they are personal.
I am going to point out the good with the bad in this article, and I have found that some devoted Seabourn cruisers don't like to read anything negative about "their" cruise line. The only aspect of that attitude that troubles me at all is that some of these people have attacked me personally, as a professional cruise reviewer, saying I lie, write with an agenda, am not qualified or just don't get it.
All I can say is this: there is nothing "unfathomable" about Seabourn to me. Nor is Seabourn a private club where one has to pass a test, agree to an attitude adjustment or come with pedigree papers to get onboard. It is a cruise line business, like any other, that will sell a cruise to anyone.
I admit I had a certain dilemma when it came to reviewing Seabourn, until my recent cruise I never found it easy to get aboard one of their ships for various reasons. I am not saying this was their fault, I am just saying I have a way of working that didn't jive with their way of working. There are some cruise industry people who do not like me because I am honest. But I have to say the most professional cruise lines accept all criticism graciously, because they understand that (1) I would never criticize them for personal reasons and (2) in the long run, a cruise line wants to have customers that appreciate what they do, and avoid the ones who do not. Therefore, as long as what I write is accurate (and I have full confidence in my accuracy) my benefit to the customer and the cruise line is finding the perfect match, and not selling anyone something they don't like.
First thing First; the Seabourn Experience
First of all, Seabourn is known primarily for two things; food and service. The food on Seabourn is very, very good; gourmet quality. In this department I will defer to our CruiseMates' culinary expert, Janice Wald Henderson, the Los Angeles editor of the Essential Restaurant Guide at epicurious.com and a regular contributor to Bon Appétit Magazine.
Her review of Seabourn cuisine is highly complimentary. I suggest you read it if food is a main differentiator for your cruise selections. Janice was wowed by Seabourn's food, and because I do not claim to be a gourmet, I will just say I was very impressed, although I also saw small things I would not consider acceptable on a luxury cruise line.
The first night we dined in the Colonnade I said to my wife; "Everything is delicious." And it was. The theme that night was fresh seafood, it had just been newly provisioned from the North Atlantic that day and it was exquisite. In retrospect, I think I should have dined in the Colonnade more nights, but since I was sailing alone the second half of the cruise, I accepted a kind invitation to dine at hosted tables in The Restaurant every night. In any case, food and wine are not my specialty, which is why CruiseMates has Janice Wald Henderson.
In addition to the link to her complete article on Seabourn food above, I just asked Janice for an update to summarize the cuisine of Seabourn for this article. Here is what she sent to me:
Seabourn delivers top-notch cuisine befitting its sophisticated clientele. With ships no larger than 450 passengers, Seabourn can dedicate itself to dishes that require intensive preparation. Its cooking style is modern American, based on solid French techniques. Consulting chef Charlie Palmer, Seabourn's self-described "gustatorial guru," heads Manhattan's landmark Aureole restaurant (among many credits) and gets what today's tony cruisers long to eat; smallish plates of prime fresh ingredients, imaginatively prepared. Flavor is driven by the quality of foodstuff, rather than added sugar or fats. It's easy to imagine yourself onshore at an upscale, fashion-forward intimate eatery at most dining venues onboard.
Personally, I found myself noticing the food service more than the food itself. A big part of the dining experience for me is the efficiency of the dining staff. In that light, having Janice's comments on record, I have some of my own culinary comments under the service portion of this review.
Moving on with the experience, the onboard atmosphere appears to be the most important aspect of a Seabourn cruise. Seabourn is a truly serene sea-going experience. The "yacht" moniker is very apt. Sitting on the aft deck, watching the wake of the ship disappear over the pure horizon, enjoying a drink and smelling the salt air is something every true cruise lover cherishes. Seabourn really brings this feeling home.
The yacht metaphor defines the cruise. Unlike mainstream cruise ships, there are no intrusive announcements, no flyers placed under doors or inside The Herald (the daily event schedule) to publicize onboard events. The onboard events do not include promotional sales pitches disguised as lectures for spa treatments or recommend shoreside shopping. To its credit, Seabourn has no art auctions, no photographers, no bingo games, no singing waiters and no kid's programs at all. It also has no movie theater, computer learning center or dance hosts.
So, what does Seabourn have? Peace and tranquility. As a cruiser you are essentially on your own, armed only with a minimal daily schedule for the day's events. Those events include card games (bridge), quizzes, enrichment lectures, cooking demonstrations, team trivia and dance classes. They also offer bridge (where the captain steers the ship) and galley tours, a nice touch. I had been told that regular Seabourn cruisers regard the daily Trivia game as a "blood sport" often with a dozen teams or more playing. I played, and while I didn't see much difference in Seabourn trivia over other cruise lines, Cruise Director John started out by saying he had to Google four different answers on which he had been challenged the previous day. Obviously, Seabourn cruisers do take trivia seriously.
There is an extensive library onboard where you can read daily newspapers like USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, etc. There is also very good programming on the in-suite television. Nappers holding books are a common sight, especially outside on the generous poolside chaise lounges. There is a large Spa area, with free steam rooms for men and women in the locker rooms. If you book a massage you get access to the "thermal suite" of heated chairs, aromatherapy steam rooms and a dry sauna.
After dark, dinner is the main attraction. The casino is a dead zone unless blackjack is your game. I lost $50 on video poker in 15 minutes, not once getting a hand better than three of a kind. Penurious slots are common on cruise ships, so I didn't expect to win, but for $50 it would have been nice if the distraction lasted a little longer, especially when there is so little else to do.
Meal times are short; breakfast from 8:00 to 9:30 or 10:00; Lunch from 12:00 to 1:30 or 2:00. The open-seating dinner hours are 7:00 to 9:00 with no other planned activities until 9:30 dancing and 10:00 showtime in the main theater.
So, the main thing a first-time Seabourn cruiser needs to understand is this; the Seabourn experience is quiet. Their trademarked name is "The Yachts of Seabourn," not Seabourn Cruises. This is how the regulars view and prefer the experience. When the line added its three new ships of 30,000-tons some writers questioned whether you can still call these larger ships "yachts?" I say Yes, indeed, the word is about the experience, not the size of the ship.
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