My first time on The Yachts of Seabourn, long known as one of the best cruise lines in the world, and my first New England – Canada journey.
Seabourn Personal Experience
I just sailed aboard the Seabourn Sojourn on a Canada/New England cruise from Quebec to Ft. Lauderdale – 12 days, with seven days at sea and five port stops. The ports included Saguenay, Quebec; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Bar Harbor, Maine; New York City; Norfolk, Virginia; and Charleston S.C.
This cruise was a real treat, since it was my first time on The Yachts of Seabourn (the line’s official name), long known as one of the world’s best cruise lines, not to mention my first New England – Canada journey.
What I experienced was far different from what I expected, but I had a particular challenge – I was onboard as a guest of the cruise line to work as a reporter/reviewer, not to use the cruise as an escape from reality for 12 days. My goal was to see how regular Seabourn clientele use the ship, and to find out why Seabourn is their favorite (if indeed it was). Still, I can only judge many elements of the cruise line if I am treated like any regular passenger. That means I expected prompt, attentive service in the dining room, for example, but I wasn’t going to be ordering champagne and caviar in the hot tub every day.
And that was my particular challenge, because for many such behavior (champagne and caviar in the hot tub) is the Seabourn experience. I could have done that if wanted to, but I didn't have to do it onboard, I already know that's a great experience. So as part of this review let me just say up front that if that is your sole definition of a great cruise line then Seabourn definitely fills the bill.
For me, a working cruise means I continue to do my regular job as a cruise columnist while onboard. But it turns out that the Seabourn experience isn’t exactly conducive to working at a desk, since the expeerience is so quiet I had to get out of the room to see what was happening.
On Seabourn, no public announcements are made to the rooms, no flyers are placed in the daily schedule delivered to your room nightly (The Herald), and the Herald itself is bare-bones, often a one-page sheet with one side devoted to a few highlights and the other giving the daily schedule. What’s more, the next day’s entire dinner menu for each restaurant is also delivered to your room nightly.
The Seabourn Experience
Seabourn is best for people who don’t like the usual contrived cruise activities like portrait picture-taking, port shopping talks, spa demonstrations, art auctions, gift shop sales and bingo, for example. On mainstream cruise lines, these activities are ways for the line to make extra revenue, and while some people don’t mind that (some people watch QVC, for example), others find that approach intrusive to their personal escape. They are right, and Seabourn is a cruise line where you will not encounter those distractions.
This leaves the question – what does Seabourn offer?
Seabourn activities are not “revenue enhancing” for the cruise line, other than a few spa demonstrations. They tend to be interactive group games like trivia; enrichment, such as lectures on the history of the region you are visiting; or diversions like pre-dinner cocktails with dancing.
I found Sojourn to be a very quiet ship, which leads to a different emphasis on cruise activities. For example, most ships have a fairly fun trivia game with regular players returning every day. But on Seabourn, the game has been nick-named “blood sport trivia,” because the players take it very seriously. During one trivia session, I was invited to join a group although I was just there to watch. Our cruise director, John Howell, started the session by noting he had received challenges to his answers for four different questions from the day before (one was which side of Niagara Falls is higher, and he changed his mind; on the other three, he either gave credit to both sides or left it unchanged).
Trivia teams run a tallied score day to day throughout the cruise, and in the end the winning team gets what John jokingly referred to as “the cheap stuff we give away; I can’t wait to get rid of this crap.” It was an refreshingly funny and honest portrayal of what every cruise line gives for such prizes – sparkling wine, brand logo bookmarks, etc.
There was usually one lecture every morning and another each afternoon on sea days. Our first lecturer was Roy Willis, who has been lecturing on Seabourn since 1995 – a scholarly historian who wrote a two-volume history of world civilizations. He was fascinating, and so knowledgeable I sensed he had to restrain himself to remain on topic. He has an engaging laugh and raises his timbre when a certain point tickles his sensibilities.
The other expert in residence was Gary McKechnie, a regular guy, although very accomplished. His specialty is the broad subject of “Americana.” He reveled in topics like Highway 101 and the Soapbox Derby. His latest book, “Great American Motorcycle Tours,” covered more than 30,000 miles and included a list of 25 back road adventures throughout the U.S.
The culinary demonstrations on most sea days, by executive chef Andrew Soddy, were popular highlights of the daily entertainment. Each guest was given a recipe and step by step instructions on how to prepare it. Soddy struck me as innately talented, especially in the small details he gave us when describing his approach to creating dishes. Sauté the shallots first, but do not add chives or other tender spices until just before you are ready to mix the ingredients – because some ingredients need their flavors blended with heat, while others need to remain as fresh for as long as possible. These same subtle points make the cuisine of Seabourn ships so unique.
Seabourn Square is a wonderful concept, combining a library, Internet café, coffee bar, shipboard information and guest services all in one place. USA Today and the Wall Street Journal are delivered to the ship digitally each morning, printed out on large, newsprint-size paper and placed within Seabourn Square for guests. (Obviously, you can’t take them away.)
As for other days-at-sea activities, there is a card room where people mostly play bridge; the fitness center offers treadmills and a “kinesis wall” (a system of weighted pulleys for strengthening any part of your body); and there are regular classes in aerobics, yoga, etc. There is no jogging or walking track on these ships.
Other activities included a daily tea time, meetings for Friends of Bill W., religious services on Sabbath days, and opportunities to meet with others for games of Pictionary, Mahjong, a nine-hole putting course, shuffleboard, etc. (These were in the schedule but were not supervised events – many went unattended.)
The line claims it has “Food and Wine Tastings” and complimentary massage moments by the pool, but I did not see either of these scheduled during our cruise. The line also mentions “Caviar in the Surf Beach Party (on certain sailings).” We were not in a location for a beach party, so I guess ours didn’t qualify as a “certain sailing.” I expected there would be some kind of caviar-centric party, since so many Seabourn pictures feature a large chalice of pure caviar for a roomful of people, but there was no such event on our cruise. There were half-thimble dollops of caviar on water crackers offered at some cocktail parties.
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