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|
The Importance of Seabourn Reputation
Seabourn has been rated the highest of all in reader's polls conducted by prestigious travel magazines like Condé Nast and Travel and Leisure, also Doug Ward's Berlitz Guide to Cruising. So making the claim "Best Cruise Line in the World," is a fully warranted statement. I found this to be impressive and an inducement to my curiousity. I truly wanted to try Seabourn.
Importantly, Seabourn just introduced three brand new ships into its fleet, and ship inaugurals are events that I usually cover without fail. Some of the recent inaugurals to which I was invited include Oasis and Allure of the Seas, Oceania Marina, Disney Dream, Silversea Silver Spirit, Carnival Dream, Celebrity Solstice (Equinox, Eclipse and Silhouette), Cunard's Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth (where I was flown to the Italian shipyard first and then in the presence of Her Majesty for the naming ceremony in Southampton soon after) - and most Princess, Holland America and NCL ceremonies in the last few years. In all of these cases (except NCL) I traveled at the cruise lines' expense to the U.S., The U.K., Holland, Spain, Venice (Italy - twice), France, Germany, Florida and New York...
But for some reason Seabourn never invited me or my staff to any of their inaugural ceremonies, even though I was sure to say I hoped to attend all three. Now, Seabourn has hosted several of my staff-members on various cruises in the past, and they did invite me to sail on Odyssey in 2009, the first of the new ships, if I happened to be in Europe post-inaugural, but it didn't work out.
This is important to this review because I have a preference for press trips. I prefer to have company representatives present so I can ask questions and so I don't miss important details. If you owned a company, and had a query from a reporter, you would probably also choose to have a spokesperson present - especially if that is what he requested.
The June 2011 inaugural of the third and final Seabourn Quest came and went. I was disappointed, but in September a Seabourn Public Relations representative generously called me and agreed to give me a stateroom for this recent 12-day New England/Canada cruise from Quebec to Fort Lauderdale on Sojourn, and even paid for my airfare. I would be without a company representative during the cruise, sailing as a regular passenger, which is not my first preference but still an opportunity for me to see how well Seabourn, and especially how well it communicates with its guests.
I did my pre-cruise research. I waded through tomes of gushing accolades, many of them fluff (all too common in this business), looking for research on the company. Seeing so many declarations of Seabourn as the best cruise line in the world; especially for food and service, I expected smooth sailing, and for the most part I was not disappointed. My conclusion was basically that the service was so flawless I had nothing to worry about. But I want to point out that these articles are dual edged swords, setting the expectation bar so high that it is all too easy to be disappointed.
Now, why did I just bore you with that story? Because I have gotten wind of a certain blogger who has already written a great deal about my comments on this trip - before I have even written this article. I have not read the rant in question, but I hear this person claims I am so deranged and unethical that I would come to this beautiful ship, at company expense, solely prepared to criticize it mercilessly because... well, frankly I don't understand why he thinks I would do that.
Let's be logical. Why would I unfairly "trash" any cruise line that treats me (and my staff members) so well, especially the best cruise line in the world? I would have to be so demented and anti-social that I couldn't even see the harm I was doing to myself by acting that way. How long do you think I would last in my position? Chances are I would wither and die as a cruise reporter.
I took over the job of editor of CruiseMates in 2006, and although I started with a mere one-year contract my parent company has kept me on for over five years now. I added another outlet, FoxBusiness.com, in 2010 and just recently I was promoted to having the sole cruise column for the FoxNews.com travel section, one of the top three news networks in the country.
Furthermore, if I was truly so unethical, self-centered and devious wouldn't I be more likely to gush about this same cruise line in hopes of getting more freebies in the future? Of course I would, I deal with a lot of cruise reporters, and I can't even begin to tell you how ethically dishonest some cruise industry people can be, including everyone from company presidents to mere travel agents. Even the ones who appear to be impartial are not nearly as honest as they seem if you examine what they don't say. But I take great pride in my honesty, wherever it may lead me.
So, enough focus on demented, deflecting drivel - and let's get on with reviewing this ship!
Luxury Cruising Defined
One clever but common cruise review axoim is to define luxury cruising as "attention to detail." Seabourn staterooms have self-closing drawer latches that don't go "bang" in high seas. The cabinet doors have hidden switches to illuminate automatically when opened. Get the idea? Luxury style isn't a fireworks display, it is candlelight dinner; appreciation of the finer details. It is pillow and soap menus, fine bath products, fresh fruit and drinks in the stateroom, comfortable furniture, etc.
The title "World's Best Cruise Line" is high praise for Seabourn, but it is a bit lofty in terms of scope. What is the point of comparing Seabourne to a mainstream cruise line? But if we limit the context to just the category of "luxury cruise lines" then reviewing Seabourn becomes more useful. But for the benefit of those who don't know, let's first define "luxury cruise lines.". We start by eliminating (approximately) 95% of the cruise industry as competition; a Volkswagen is not in the same league as a Rolls Royce.
How do we define a luxury cruise line? Let's start off by saying everyone is entitled to their own opinion about what makes the best luxury line, but for now let's name the accepted members of the "luxury cruise line" category. The member lines are Crystal, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn and Silversea. There are other contenders with elements of luxury that we will mention when we have a reason to do so.
Luxury cruise lines are now simpler to define since Crystal is set to go "inclusive" in 2012. Including Crystal post-2011, luxury cruise lines include all beverages including wine, beer, alcohol and soda in the cruise fare. They also include gratuities for the staff, rather than making you stuff envelopes with tip money for your room steward, waiter, maitre D' and busboy at the end of the cruise. A luxury cruise line tends to feature smaller ships and a high crew to passenger ratio. More crew members per guest generally means more personalized service, and better cuisine. With more crewmembers you can avoid taking shortcuts and make the best of the cruise experience for each guest.
Now, while specific numbers for staff to guest ratio, or sq. footage per guest have some bearing, they are also misleading indicators. Any ship, whether it is 10,000-tons or 80,000-tons only requires one captain, one food & beverage manager, one cruise director, one hotel director, one stage band, one magician per night, etc. What really counts more is the number of people cruisers come into direct contact with per cruise; room stewards, butlers, tour guides, waiters, cooks, etc. The same is generally true for passenger space ratio. No ships break out the amount of sq. footage just for passengers, (not counting crew and engine space) so a measurement of total tonnage per passenger is meaningless. There comes a point where enough is enough.
Ship size and the abundance of square footage can matter when it affects the experience. But most of the time, it isn't the size of the boat, it's what you do with it that counts.
Luxury cruise lines offer staterooms starting at about 40% larger than mainstream cruise lines and then adding additional suites, usually including a bank of penthouses plus owner's suites, presidential suites, etc. Most luxury cruise lines include butler service in all or some suites. (Only Seabourn does not provide any butler service).
Luxury cruise lines tend to sail around the world rarely repeating a single itinerary back to back. This makes it convenient and logical to stay onboard for one to four cruises in a row and never repeat a port of call. Most luxury cruise lines also offer a world cruise every year on one of their ships
Luxury cruises tend to cost two to four times the cost of a mainstream cruise, but you get more for your money; larger staterooms, better food, more personalized service, more space per passenger.
This puts Seabourn and other luxury cruise lines in a completely separate league from larger cruise ships like Celebrity, Princess, Holland America and especially Carnival, NCL and Royal Caribbean. There are other advantages to larger mainstream ships – bigger and more diversified entertainment, a larger variety of food options per meal (but of lesser quality) and special facilities for kids. But this 95% of the mainstream cruise market is not the Seabourn milieu – so we can dismiss all of that now.
Comparing Seabourn to Other Luxury Cruise Lines
The only logical comparison for Seabourn is with other luxury cruise lines in the same price category and offering a similar experience. Figure about $500/day per person and with the focus of the cruise being fine cuisine and personalized service. These tighter parameters make the comparison margins far smaller and put the differences in the finer details.
In this regard, I would personally say there are elements of Seabourn that are better than any other cruise line, and there are some elements where I would say other lines are better, or so close you can barely draw a distinction. But Seabourn has been dubbed "the best" more often, so let's consider why this happens?
The Unique Seabourn Experience
Seabourn was started in 1986; earlier than most luxury cruise lines still in service. During those first 20 years it was basically a small ship cruise line of three ships of only 200 passengers and 135 crewmembers per ship. (There were also even smaller ships of 100 passengers that were sold off years ago.) Seabourn has always specialized in great cuisine and personalized service, which is much easier to accomplish with smaller passenger loads. On those small ships the crew would learn every guest's name by the first night, a waiter could quickly change an order or retrieve a special item from the kitchen, and the chef could spend more individual time plating course, making sure it was perfect in every case.
For people who don't know, people make friends much faster on smaller ships because of the familiarity factor. When you see the same faces day and night you tend to get acquainted more easily. Seabourn enjoyed 20 years of presenting this style of cruising, and eventually the regular passengers and crew members all became like one big family.
Who belonged to this family? Seabourners tend to be wealthier. It is common for people to take a private car in ports rather than sign up for shore tours. This also conveys an independent streak in Seabourn cruisers. Although such figures aren't divulged, the vast majority of them are retired, meaning they have the free time to do pre-cruise research and don't mind spending money for special experiences in ports of call.
To show the average age of Seabourn cruisers - a random shot on a galley tour.
After nearly 20 years of high quality, small-ship cruising it is not surprising that Seabourn became the mirror cruise line for their clientele's cruising style. Like married people who adapt to the habits of their spouse, Seabourn found yachters who do more research; there was no port lecturer onboard Sojourn to explain what the tours for the next port of call included, for example, although I was told the company is planning on bringing on PowerPoint demonstrations and possibly port lecturers.
Why Do These People Consider Seabourn the Best?
Most of the people I asked described the Seabourn food and service as excellent. This is reflected in the Condé Nast poll. But by far this opinion was unfailingly expressed by the Seabourn regulars who had started on the smaller Seabourn ships. While most said they liked the bigger ships, to a one, each one of them said they couldn't wait to get back to one of the small ships.
To me it appears the legend of Seabourn was created while it had just three small ships. I heard stories of waiters knowing what people wanted without having to ask, descriptions of "synchronized service" in the dining room, also known as "butterfly service," where each entrée remains covered until manned by a separate waiter, and then all plates are revealed in concert on cue. I did not see this on my Seabourn cruise.
Continue Article >> Now that Seabourn has Grown Up (Page 3)