SeaDream 2 in The Caribbean

SeaDream Yacht Club offers a very personalized experience on its 100 passenger luxury yachts no matter where you cruise.

The Caribbean. It's where my passion for cruising began, with weeklong jaunts from Florida to San Juan, St. Thomas, St. Martin, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica and Barbados aboard ships whose guest capacities numbered in the thousands and whose lengths were measured in terms of football fields. On arrival at any of those ports, I'd find a nautical parking lot of vessels similar to my own, each spewing out its human cargo onto sun-baked streets where an endless parade of bleary-eyed bargain-hunters explored the jewelry shops, street stalls and souvenir stands that awaited their arrival.

Last week, SeaDream 2, a diminutive 4,300 grt, (yes, 4,300 grt), 112-passenger "megayacht" shattered that image of the typical Caribbean voyage with an 8-day sailing that showed me not just a new less-travelled Caribbean but a different approach to cruising. SeaDream Yacht Club is an all-inclusive experience with beverages (alcoholic including wines, non-alcoholic, soft drinks, coffee drinks, and bottled water), exquisite dining, gratuities, fitness facilities and classes, golf simulator, use of activities equipment like wave runners, kayaks, sailboats, mountain bikes, snorkel gear and "shoreside casuals" (usually a guided hike or bike ride) included in the fare. The only "extras" aboard SeaDream are treatments at the full-service spa, gift shop purchases or the purchase of premium wines.

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WaveRunner   SD2throughOneLove

SeaDream 2 and sister yacht SeaDream 1 debuted in the mid-1980s as the Cunard Sea Goddesses and later sailed as the Seabourn Goddesses. In 2002, after a complete redesign and refit, SeaDream Yacht Club was born. With the travel industry still reeling from the impact of 9/11 and cruise trends favoring bigger and glitzier ships (most newbuilds that year touted capacities of 3,000 and greater), SeaDream Yacht Club was a risky venture but one that, as the line nears its 10th anniversary with a devoted global following, has paid off.

From the frigid temperatures of New York, we were delivered by American Airlines to sultry St. Thomas, nearly an hour ahead of our scheduled 1:00 p.m. arrival, deplaning down steps directly on to the sweltering tarmac like some visiting dignitaries. Taxis were plentiful and, with a 2:00 p.m. embarkation time, I headed off to shop in convenient Charlotte Amalie while my husband Michael and our luggage went directly to Crown Bay Marina and SeaDream 2.

I expected that it would be my husband who'd be the first to greet me as I arrived at SeaDream 2 later that afternoon. Instead, it was Captain Torbjorn Lund who, together with the ship's Activities Director, Jeff Fithian, personally welcomes each arriving passenger at the top of the gangway. It was my first glimpse at the personal touch that has earned SeaDream an abundance of awards and top honors from major publications and travel organizations like Berlitz, who ranks SeaDream "Simply the best" and Frommer's, who states "SeaDream is the answer to your prayers."

A tad dramatic? Not to me. On certain megaships, I've waited two hours at embarkation, been hit in the neck by an elbow at a buffet, had a bar bill with a comma in the total and restaurant surcharges that equaled my monthly mortgage payment. I've been unable to find an unoccupied deck chair even in port, was pressured by a cruise ship manicurist who seemed to suggest that I'd have a very short life expectancy if I didn't purchase the $90 cuticle oil NOW and spent an average of $20 per day on bottled water. In port, I'd swum with dolphins, traipsed through the El Junque Rainforest, and fell on my ass ascending Dunn's River Falls. It was time to make a big-or, in this case, small-change.

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Yacht Club Stateroom   The Yacht Bar

The SeaDream 2 concept is more akin to a personal yacht than a cruise ship. You won't find a four-page daily program, lavish production shows, a sprawling casino or a three-level dining room. In fact, with the exception of a cozy piano bar, one black jack table, a feature film either in the Salon or under the stars, and an occasional night of karaoke or dancing, formal entertainment simply doesn't exist aboard SeaDream 2. Like a personal yacht, SeaDream 2 offers guests the raw materials they need to create their own memorable experiences and activities rather than presuming that at 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, everyone will want to watch a cooking demonstration.

Cruz Bay, St. John, USVI was our first port, an uncrowded sister island to St. Thomas, with three-fifths of the island preserved as a national park. Our day began, as it would for the remainder of our sailing (including disembarkation day), with a leisurely breakfast at Topside Restaurant, SeaDream 2's outdoor dining room. Open seating, of course, Topside is no fast-food pit stop but a lovely sit-down restaurant used for daily breakfasts and lunches, and, on pleasant days in port or by request, a casual though elegant alternative to dinner at the indoor Dining Salon. Sheltered in part by an awning and ceiling fans, its teak tables set with tablecloths, china, glass and silver, waiters circulate, pouring coffee, bringing juices and taking orders from SD2's extensive breakfast menu which complements the more continental selections of the nearby buffet.

Fortified with an outstanding full American breakfast, I joined a group of my fellow passengers for our first "Shoreside Casual," a hike through the St. John National Park. Our activities director guided the invigorating tour, pointing out bird and plant species. We emerged an hour later at the pristine beach of Caneel Bay where some of our group took a dip in the crystal blue water (it was suggested we bring our swimsuits) while others explored the property. (Interesting that on a sailing that visited the celebrity haven of St. Barts, I had my only celebrity sighting-Chef Mario Batali-at the sleepy St. John!)

Nearly every afternoon of our Caribbean sailing, I'd return to SeaDream 2 to find Water Sports in full swing. Dependent, of course, upon weather and sea conditions (as well as local laws of some islands which prevent the use of motorized equipment like wave runners), SeaDream 2 drops its marina platform and invites guests to play in the ocean-soaring across the surface on a wave runner, rowing a glass-bottomed kayak, sailing, or simply diving off the platform for a swim. With SeaDream passengers typically being pretty young, pretty fit and pretty active, the water sports marina is a popular feature of the yacht.

We had good news and bad the following day: The bad being that rough seas would prevent our visit to Saba, a speck of an island in the Netherlands Antilles; the good being that we would proceed to the magical, French-accented St. Barts and arrive much earlier than scheduled, giving us two full days in Gustavia. While some chose to explore the island from one of the eight mountain bikes that SeaDream 2 offers guests for use ashore, I explored the shops that are located at the center of Gustavia, just steps away from where SeaDream guests disembark the tender. A visitor's first indication that St. Barts is an exorbitantly expensive island comes with their view of its harbor and the magnificent yachts and sailboats that are docked there. But, with a bit of effort, a bargain may be found (try Laurent Effel for high-end leather goods at reasonable prices), and the little sailor hangouts that dot the pier (Le Select claims to have been the inspiration for Jimmy Buffet's Cheeseburger in Paradise) offer tasty lunches with reasonable prices and a ton of atmosphere if you can tear yourself away from SeaDream's fare.

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sleeping under the stars   Champ & Caviar on the Beach

Cuisine aboard SeaDream is award-winning, with dishes and wines that thrilled this seafood lover and her meat-and-potatoes husband equally in terms of portion, taste and presentation. While I leaned toward the lighter lunch buffet offerings like crab legs, fat New Zealand mussels and salads, my husband dove into the meaty lasagne and other hot dishes served from the full Topsiders lunch menu. At dinner each night, we chose from three starters, three soups (the pumpkin soup alone is worth the trip!), two salads, and four main courses and, often, a full "wellness" or specialized theme menu like Indian or Caribbean. Available at all times is a line up of more simple dishes like broiled salmon, chicken breast, steaks, Caesar salad and pasta. Vegetarian and gluten free dishes are designated.

With few exceptions, accommodations aboard SeaDream 2 are of the 195 square foot ocean view Yacht Club class with 16 of them staterooms convertible to Commodore Suite class, which is simply a double Yacht Club stateroom. One Admiral Suite (375 square foot) and one Owner's suite (447 square foot) are more elaborate options. All accommodations include a marble bathroom with multi-jet shower massage (the Owner's Suite has a separate soaking tub), Bulgari bath amenities, plush terry robes and slippers, flat screen TV/DVD/CD player and ipod docking station. Beds may be configured as singles or queen and are dressed with fine Belgian linens, down duvet and pillows. A small refrigerator holds a selection of complementary beer, soft drinks and bottled water and room service is offered 24 hours.

But aboard SeaDream 2, there is another option when bedtime rolls around: Sleeping Under the Stars. SeaDream has lifted to almost a ritual the concept of passing out in a deck chair! With personalized pajamas provided, SeaDream guests may reserve one of the yacht's Balinese dreambeds, a thick, firm mattress that's deckchair by day and may be transformed to a bed at night (for the greatest privacy reserve the beds in the far forward section of the yacht). Your cabin attendant will dress the dreambed with linens, pillows and a duvet, and place coverings over the area's lighting for a sound sleep all night long - if you like a firm-and I mean firm-mattress. Try that on a megaship!

There's a feeling of privilege that comes with sailing aboard SeaDream 2 and that feeling stems from the casual elegance (no tux or gowns ever-and with the ribbing my husband took from a few guests the one night he wore a tie to dinner, he learned that even business attire can be left at home), attention to detail and superb personalized service that combines the ideal level of friendliness with a high degree of professionalism. The intimate passenger count allows quick friendships to form and the only entertainment most seek is the conversation and camaraderie that may be found each night at the outdoor Top of the Yacht bar, the social heart of SeaDream 2 with its U-shaped wooden bar surrounded by nautically-inspired wooden tables and natural wicker chairs.

Jost van Dyke, the smallest of the main islands of the British Virgin Islands, and a beach and bar lover's paradise, was our next stop. A wet landing delivered us to the soft white sand beach outside of the colorful One Love Bar, a sand-floored food and drink shack decorated in a riotous display of graffiti, license plates, t-shirts, flags, and Christmas ornaments, and just a short walk down the beach to the Soggy Dollar, the birthplace of the popular rum/coconut milk drink, The Painkiller. That evening, we'd sail around this tiny three-mile island specifically to visit Foxy's, a hot (literally and figuratively) beach bar filled with character, steel drum music and dance-crazed patrons who think nothing of abducting newcomers and dragging them on to the dance floor!

When SeaDream throws a beach party like ours at Virgin Gorda, guests find hundreds of deck chairs and towels, a lavish menu of not just burgers and hot dogs but barbecued ribs, chicken, steak, shrimp kabobs, Asian dishes, salads and delectable desserts served on bone china with ample seating under umbrella-topped tables and both a stationary bar and circulating waiters ready to fill drink orders. But that's just the beginning. Suddenly, a zodiac speeds from the ship, and the Champagne & Caviar Splash, SeaDream's signature event, is underway. Behind a tin of fresh Sevruga caviar and its accompaniments balanced atop a surfboard, SeaDream 2's Executive Chef Erwin L. Unterberger, waist deep in the surf, serves the delicacy while champagne toting waiters pour and refill the flutes of guests who have waded in for the decadent offerings.

SeaDream seems to take each element of a cruise and perfect it. While guests on other ships may return to their tender station to find maybe a glass of ice water, SeaDream passengers find an attended table set out with ice water, soft drinks, fresh fruit, cookies and other snacks. (And don't think the guests on that other ship don't try to swipe a few of our cookies.) On board, sunglasses are cleaned regularly by cheerful deck stewards, who are also armed with sprayers to offer a cooling mist to overheated sunbathers and guests returning from shore are presented with a chilled, lemon-scented washcloth that both soothes and cools the effects of a day in the Caribbean sun.

It's unfair to compare the SeaDream experience to that of a cruise ship. As SeaDream's advertising emphasizes, SeaDream is yachting, not cruising. And it's only a yacht that could ever dream of sailing to the 2 � mile long Norman Island, BVI, an uninhabited island reputed to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and where, it is rumored, undiscovered pirate gold still exists. Today, Norman Island is home to Pirates Bight, a beach bar and restaurant staffed by residents of nearby islands who sail in for work each day. During our visit, I found no pirates gold but did find some terrific conch fritters and rum punch at Pirates Bight.

Aboard SeaDream 2, the difference between yachting and cruising quickly becomes as clear as the waters of a Caribbean beach. Last week, I saw what a truly stress-free holiday is all about. And I shared the experience with only 111 other guests which, I might add, is less than one-third the capacity of an Oasis of the Seas - lifeboat.

SeaDream 1 and 2 will sail Northern Europe and the Mediterranean this summer and will return to the Caribbean in November 2011 for sailings that range from 5 to 9 days. Two 20-day Amazon sailings are scheduled for SeaDream 2 in February and March 2012.

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