Seabourn Odyssey: New Luxury Standards

The first in a new wave in luxury ships debuts this week in Venice. 6-24-09

Seabourn Cruise Line started out as a small and exclusive Norwegian line with he initial goal of creating almost yachtlike cruise ships for the upper crust. The line was partially purchased by Carnival in 1991 which also acquired Cunard in 1998. At that point, three Cunard vessels were transferred to the new company, two even smaller vessels named Sea Goddess I and II, and the former Royal Viking Sun, renamed Cunard Sun, and then Seabourn Sun. Now that Seabourn is wholly owned by Carnival Corporation, the line has been de-merged from Cunard and now operates independently again, rather pointedly referring to itself as The Yachts of Seabourn.

In the meantime - some of the ships were divested, selling the Sea Goddesses, and transferring the former Royal Viking Sun to Holland America to become the Prinsendam.

The line introduced the new, larger and upgraded version of its product, called Seabourn Odyssey on June 15, 2009. Built in Genoa, Italy, the ship carries 450 passengers in 225 suites, 90% with verandahs. There is a built-in Marina and an indoor/outdoor spa over 11,400 square feet - very large for a vessel of this size. There are four restaurants, six lounges and a large pool with a sundeck surrounded by cabanas.

A sister ship to Odyssey, to be named Seabourn Sojourn, debuted in June, 2010 with a third sister, Seabourn Quest, to follow in 2012.

Seabourn Odyssey and Sojourn are significantly larger than the three older, yachtlike vessels, but still well within the small size standards of luxury cruising at 32,000-tons (about the same size at Oceania or Silversea ships) and carrying 450 passengers. Seabourn called Odyssey the cruise industry's first ultra-luxury yacht to launch in six years. However other reporters who were invited on the debut of the ship characterized the vessel as being "too large to be called a yacht."

Some of the features of this state of the art luxury ship, as defined by Seabourn, include: iPods and laptops for loan, so you don't have to bring your own. A private diamond showroom called "The Collection" which is also a boutique for designer jewelry. Spa products from SkinCeuticals, not found on any other cruise line, and plant-based herbal remedies from Molton Brown.

The "Retreat at Sea" spa is a relaxing aft area with shuffleboard, a giant chess board and a contoured nine-hole mini-golf course. For more active guests there is a "Kinesis Wall" in the "Motion Studio," and invigorating Thai massage in the spa.

The smaller triplets, the three small ships of the Seabourn fleet that were built in the early 90s; Seabourn Spirit, Seabourn Pride and Seabourn Legend carry just but 208 passengers and contain only six suites with private verandas. As time went on and other luxury lines introduced all-suite (with balcony) ships, the line added "French balconies" to 44 of the standard suites onboard.

Although these French balconies are little more than sliding glass doors with a few inches of toe-hold outside, surprisingly, the option to open the window and get a breath of fresh air and plenty of sunlight is a vast improvement. Most people will not miss an actual balcony so much. The new nomenclature for this is a "Seabourn Balcony" Suite.

Seaboard's three smaller vessels carry 165 crewmembers to their 208 guests, one of the highest crew to passenger ratios at sea. During a 2006 dry-dock and interior refurbishment, the company installed DVD players and flat-screen televisions in all suites, and made improvements to the Veranda Cafe Lido dining area.

The Seabourn Experience: All cabins are on Seabourn are suites, each coming with a complimentary bottle of champagne to welcome you aboard. Inside are designer soaps by Bronnley, Chanel and Hermes, flat TVs with DVD players and Bose Wave sound systems, and aromatherapy bath products. And although the service and surroundings are elegant, the actual watchword for the passengers is still casual, as this is meant to be a vacation experience, with plenty of languid, free time to relax with a book, massage or nap. In fact, free neck & shoulder massages may be available on deck on any given sea day.

Count on dining at least once per voyage with the Captain, hotel manager and/or cruise director on the smaller yachts, each certain to have a charming European accent. You'll also be able to attend lectures by esteemed guest speakers on these ships, and shore excursions to private villas, savor collections of art and wine tastings, or avail yourself of an exemplary onboard enrichment program featuring the Chef's Circle culinary program.

Complimentary wines and spirits are offered throughout the entire ship, as too, for two hours per day, on deck, are mini-massages. Upgraded suite amenities are now standard on these vessels, which also award each passenger one complimentary shore event per cruise. These may include, depending on your destination, an outdoor folkloric dance performance in Nafplion, Greece; a visit to a private villa in Malta; or a glass-roofed canal boat ride in Amsterdam.

The smaller ships are able to visit relatively untouristed Caribbean ports that larger ships can't access. The downside being that shallow drafts mean rocky seas; the Yachts of Seabourn can get tossed around a lot more (and in calmer water) than larger vessels.

The new and larger ships definitely put a real wrinkle in the old Seabourn formula. When you increase a line's capacity from about 600 total to 1500 in the space of a year you obviously cannot draw only from the old clientele - you have to scare up new business. This is where the shorter cruises come in, and Seabourn says its average passenger age has dropped considerably. The challenge with such a drastic increase is in maintaining the line's quality of cuisine and personalized service when hiring all new personnel to staff the new tonnage.

Fellow Passengers Passengers used to be primarily 60 and over, and not very interested in pool games or deck parties. However, as the line has begun offering more 7-day itineraries making them more available to the younger still-working generation with little discretionary time but more discretionary income, the average age has skewed lower. Seabourn still has its generous single occupancy policy, but the gentlemen hosts programs have been eliminated.

In 2010 a quite controversial change in rthe onboard dress code was instituted all but eliminating mandatory formal dress. The formal nights have been eliminated on shorter seven-day journeys, one per 14-night journey and two per 21-day journey. Hardly worth packing a tux for one in 14 days, but there it is.By day, elegant casual dress is encouraged, though shorts are allowed in the Veranda Cafe during breakfast and lunch. The evening dress code is either formal or elegant casual - your choice.

Another controversial development, for regular Seabourn passengers, occured when the line announced it would be adding support services for guests traveling with children. Not exactly announcing a specific children's program, the line merely said it will offer staff members to keep the children occupied rather than having nothing at all scheduled for them to do - which means the parents have to watch over them 24-hours/day, a responsibility that sometimes gets overlooked once the parents get comfortable on the small ship and realize their children can't go far.

Some of the regulars saw this as an open message to new Seabourn passengers that "kids are welcome" on Seabourn ships. Seabourn characterizes it a different way - that if the new cruisers are going to bring kids, it is everyone's best iinterest to make sure these kids don't get bored and moody.

Shore Excursions: Tours are targeted to please their audience. In keeping with the desires of their recently acquired younger cruisers, a new slate of shore excursions includes a menu of active tours; cycling, hiking, rafting, zip-line canopy tours and even some canyoning tours in Europe. For the oldsters there are still wine-tasting and other culinary treats, as well as visits to private villas that, needless-to-say, would never accommodate a busload of Carnival passengers.

Taking The Kids: There are no facilities or counselors for them. If you bring them, you will have to watch them, or else bring your nanny.

Past Passenger Program: The "Seabourn Club" members now are offered savings of 50% on an array of cruises throughout the year. Those savings are also available to past guests of Holland America, Princess, Costa, or Cunard. Think of it as an opportunity to try an all-suite, small ship cruise at least once. You also get a 5% onboard booking savings if you book you next cruise on board.

Theme Cruises & Special Programs: Every cruise features the Dress Circle enrichment program presenting leading figures from history, geography, politics, television, journalism, music, theater, film, literature or culinary (including wine, of course).

Tipping: Gratuities are included in the fare. If you see an outstretched palm, give it five.

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