My first sailing experience with Seabourn Cruises finally filled 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|
Seabourn Vs. Crystal
Crystal Cruises is another luxury cruise line with a very ardent following. The differences between Crystal and Seabourn are vast, however. Crystal ships are over two times larger in size and guest capacity. However, they are very spacious on a passenger/space ratio basis (number of square meters per guest) (much more than the small seabourn ships, slightly less than the bigger Seabourn ships). At least one thing that has probably kept some Seabourn cruisers away from Crystal is that it has not been an inclusive cruise line; alcohol and gratuities were charged separately. That is changing as of January 1, 2012. Crystal will become as inclusive as Seabourn and Silversea.
Now, one thing about luxury cruisers that I find somewhat profligate is their obsession with not signing for drinks. Doing the math shows including drinks in the cruise fare is not a value proposition; one obviously pays more in total on inclusive lines than if you order and pay separately. However, it is more civilized to receive discrete wine refills throughout dinner without ordering and signing, and it is liberating to have a cognac or espresso afterwards simply because there is no reason to decline. So, while I don't see it as cost effective, I understand the attraction. My surprise is that, "I like not having to sign for things," was always one of the top reasons mentioned by people who love Seabourn, even with people who don't drink alcohol.
The 2011 Condé Nast poll results were tallied by averaging the percentage of people who rated the line as "excellent" or "very good" in seven different categories and then averaging the categories. Seabourn won the contest with a total score of 93.4. That includes food, service, itinerary, staterooms, etc. As I said, once you get into the category of luxury cruises the differences get far smaller, so winning as the "best" is barely a tick away from "also ran."
Once Crystal becomes all-inclusive the service perception could change dramatically. As I said, that niggling preference, "I just don't like to sign for things," is overwhelmingly important to Seabourn cruisers, but it will no longer be a deterrent to Crystal Cruisers.
I have sailed on Crystal, and it has wonderful food. Here is a picture of the "premier" buffet on Seabourn, the "Galley Market Luncheon"...
Seafood on the Seabourn Galley Market Luncheon
And now here is a picture of the premier buffet event on Crystal...
Lobster on Crystal Buffet
Shrimp on the Crystal Buffet
Now, also as I mentioned before, Seabourn does not supply butlers to anyone, Crystal supplies them to the penthouses, and our butler, "Papa," was smart enough to see when we were bored and come up with a distraction for us. One night we were just sitting around, and he said, "Why don't I set up a table for you on the verandah and serve you a lobster dinner?" That night I had one of the best lobsters I have ever seen on a cruise, well over 1 lb., and I had it al fresco on my own verandah.
I have also mentioned caviar service. I love caviar. I have had it on Silversea, Seabourn and Crystal. Seabourn is the cruise line with that trademark image of butlers in tuxedoes wading into the surf to serve you caviar. (Ironically, Seabourn doesn't have butlers), but just for comparison, here is the picture of what I got when I actually ordered caviar on Seabourn delivered by room service. It was delicious, but the portions were a bit askew, I recall I ran out of some things. But it was still delicious.
Caviar as delivered by room service on Seabourn
Here is what our butler brought to us when we requested caviar service on Crystal. All we asked fro was caviar, but Papa knew what we wanted. And for the record, in the penthouse we were in the wine was complimentary, even back in 2006. I will never forget this day, Papa kept bringing us more wine and caviar until we were fully sated – he was like the caviar devil, and we were giving our souls over to caviar sin. In the end, we were so full we couldn't eat dinner.
Our caviar feast on Crystal as arranged solely by our butler
Because Crystal is a larger ship I did not get the "yacht" feeling onboard. I got more pampering and truly excellent service in my stateroom. And outside my stateroom Crystal also has a movie theater, piano and language classes, computer skills classes, arts & crafts classes and on our cruise we had 16 different enrichment speakers (four of them NFL coaches and players including Don Shula and Marty Schottenheimer).
Bottom line – Crystal is certainly not a "yacht" experience s if that is what you love most then stick with Seabourn. But I personally prefer the bigger ships because it means there is far less chance my wife will have to take a Dramamine.
Seabourn VS. Regent Seven Seas
I have not sailed on Regent in many years, since they were acquired by Prestige Cruise Holdings. But to put things into perspective I just spoke to the PR representative for PCH, and he told me Regent is having its best year yet in sales, except that 2012 is shaping up to be even better.
Here are the main things you need to know about Regent; The ships are bigger than Seabourn's, so you do not get that "yacht" feeling. But if you don't like to sign for things you should be happy to hear that Regent also includes many of its shore tours in the cruise fare. As I said before, the value proposition is not there (you pay for what you get) but you also get the opportunity to take a shore tour in every port on a whim – it's there if you want it. If you don't want it then don't go.
I admit I am different from many cruisers in one respect. I don't fully agree with people who say they "need sea days" because they are quiet and relaxing. Want a really relaxing day on a ship? Stay on board while it is in port. It's like a sea day with discounts in the spa and most of the ship's population absent. You get the whole movie theater, hot tub, thermal spa; whatever you want, to yourself. I have never understood people saying they "need a day at sea." They need a "rest," so just don't go on a tour.
If you have doubts about Regent's cuisine, here is a story. Their food operations were revamped completely by Frank Del Rio, the CEO of Oceania Cruises who also happens to be a "foodie." a few years ago. To be clear, Jacques Pepin is the executive consulting chef for Oceania Cruises, and he is very involved, much more so that Charlie Palmer for Seabourn (more on that later).
I just sent my culinary reviewer, Janice Wald Henderson, on a cruise on Oceania's Marina, and she reported that she feels it has the best food she has ever tasted on a cruise ship; better than Crystal (her previous favorite), Seabourn or Silversea. There is a reason why Regent's sales have been going up – better food and that "I don't like to sign" thing being expanded to tours. Yes, it is funny, but Seabourn cruisers understand this… they know they are really paying for it, but when it comes included in the fare, it just adds to the pleasure.
Now, I said Jacques Pepin (a famous French chef who once shared a PBS cooking show with Julia Child) has a starring role with Oceania Cruises – he put his first ever namesake restaurant on Marina – "Jacques." But when it comes to executive consulting chef Charlie Palmer's role on Seabourn this is what Sojourn head chef Andrew Soddy told me, "Charlie Palmer will come on board and give us his ideas on what he thinks we should do, but then we chefs onboard get together to work over his ideas and adapt them to what we know will really work on the ships." It's an honest remark and I felt Seabourn's Chef Soddy was extremely talented.
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