Seabourn Cruises is certainly one of them, consistently winning accolades from periodicals and travelers alike. Its ships are smaller than most of its competitors', and the line's formal name -- The Yachts of Seabourn -- hints at both the luxury and intimacy of the ships.
When the travel documents for my Seabourn Spirit cruise arrived in an elegant black leather case, embossed with the company logo, I knew this line was onto something. The matching luggage tags accompanying the document valise also make lovely keepsakes. (Unfortunately, a baggage handler along the way thought so too, and apparently appropriated mine.)
Embarkation was a breeze. I arrived a little early, deposited my bags with the porter and proceeded to the lounge where refreshments and soft drinks were on offer. It was here I learned that my name would be changed to "Miss" for the next 16 days. In the lounge, I met Simon, the assistant cruise director, who was catching up with passengers he'd met on an earlier cruise. Seabourn is apparently a bit addictive for some travelers: At a reception for former passengers, one woman received a plaque honoring her 600th day on Seabourn. That's almost two years - and nothing compared to another woman I heard about who has logged more than 2,600 Seabourn days.
Cabins As I entered my spacious suite (all Seabourn's staterooms are suites), my cabin stewardess appeared like Little Red Riding Hood with a basket of full-sized designer soaps -- Hermes, L'Occitane, Bijan and an exfoliating/moisturizing bar with small print whose provenance I could not determine. I selected the mystery bar and it kept my skin moist throughout the cruise. Bathrooms are stocked with Molton Brown amenities; a Pure Pampering menu lists a choice of five Molton Brown Aromatherapy bath salts available upon request. For sheer indulgence (or laziness), you can ask your cabin steward to draw your bath. Rooms have tubs with showers, two sinks, and plentiful storage (though more space next to the sinks would have made accessing toiletries a bit easier).
The suite's restrained blonde wood and its beige-and-blue color palette are pleasant, if unremarkable. All staterooms have sea views, and most have picture windows. Some 36 suites, and various deluxe suites, have French balconies - doors that open onto an 18-inch plank. The access to fresh sea air is welcome, though travelers accustomed to full balconies could be disappointed. Suites are furnished with a small sofa, two chairs and a cocktail table (cleverly positioned over canisters that can be used for additional storage). An illuminated bar and mini-fridge are stocked with the two bottles of complimentary wine or premium liquor that you requested on your pre-cruise guest registration. A complimentary bottle of Heidsieck Monopole Champagne sat chilling in an ice bucket (though champagne flowed so freely throughout the cruise, it was almost unnecessary). A simple white orchid in a vase added just the right note.
There was a small walk-in closet with a safe and plenty of space for clothes. Some of the passengers on my cruise boarded in Athens and weren't getting off until Hong Kong, so the space was welcome. All rooms come with a pair of terrycloth bathrobes and matching slippers. Hair dryers were stashed in the top drawer of the desk, which doubled as a vanity. There are plugs for both American and European appliances.
The ship's overall design is soft and unobtrusive. Beige and blue predominate as colors, punctuated with some lovely artwork, especially in the middle staircase approaching the spa.
Dining Breakfast and lunch buffets are served in the Verandah Cafe, which has the added advantage of lovely, covered outdoor seating. The food at the buffet ranges from satisfactory to sublime. Curries and other ethnic offerings are standouts. Lunch can also be ordered in The Restaurant. Afternoon tea is served from 4 to 5 p.m. in the Horizon Lounge, accompanied by soft piano music. Guests gathered for afternoon cocktails in the Sky Bar on the ship's top deck. Before dinner cocktails tend to be taken inside, at The Club, where from 6:30 on, a somewhat bland music duo fills in. Next to the club, a tiny Casino serves the needs of the few gamblers.
The hall leading to main dining room, unimaginatively christened The Restaurant, is lined with framed labels of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. (Since 1945, the wines of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild have featured a distinctive label from a "Who's Who" of contemporary artists including Braque, Cocteau, Picasso, Chagall, Miro, Dali and Warhol.) Seabourn's cellar holds a range of the Chateau's finest vintages, which are showcased next to the maitre d's podium.
In a gesture of formality that struck me as excessive, each woman entering The Restaurant is escorted to her table on the arm of a waiter. The Restaurant's decor is understated (almost bland) with fair wood, beige upholstery and crisp white linens. It's the perfect background for chef Charlie Palmer's exquisite signature dishes, created especially for Seabourn. Exotic dishes like Foie Gras Tourchon with Quince Confiture and Truffled Corn and Mascarpone Ravioli are offered alongside culinary stalwarts like Beef Wellington and Duck l'Orange. Seabourn is also known for its wide range of carpaccios, among them beef, veal and venison. And caviar, of course, is always available.
Alternative Dining Passengers were divided on the merits of Seabourn's new alternate dining option, known simply as "2". Two friends I was traveling with chose to dine there each night that the tasting menu was offered. The tasting menu alternated with theme nights like Bistro and Steak House. A sample tasting platter included clam cappuccino, cilantro form, coriander and mascarpone crisp. Other passengers I spoke with considered 2's menus to be overly precious and unsatisfying. As a seafood-eating vegetarian, a number of 2's menus just didn't work for me, but I tended to prefer the selections in The Restaurant anyway. One potential benefit of 2 is that it's always casual, so if you're not in a black-tie mood, it's a nice alternative to room service.
The little-publicized opportunity to order ethnic cuisines spread like wildfire through the ship when one guest ordered a special Indian meal. In addition to Indian, the kitchen can prepare Thai, Indonesian and British meals with one day's notice. I hosted a flavorful Indian meal, though when I was asked if I would like meat available for the other guests, I said 'yes' and unfortunately was unable to eat a number of the dishes. The same thing happened when I attended my friends' Indonesian dinner. But as a lover of spicy food, I found the chef's willingness to season heartily quite welcome.
The only disappointment in the culinary realm on this ship was the selection of complimentary wines. It's not that they were bad; it's just that at this level, I didn't expect to be repeatedly offered a French wine that I recognized from the bottom shelf of my supermarket. There are enough interesting, inexpensive wines around for Seabourn to get more creative. The line also has a program called Vintage Seabourn where guests pay a reasonable supplement to upgrade to Silver or Gold Connoisseur. Silver Connoisseur costs $150 for the whole cruise; Gold Connoisseur costs $300. Cloudy Bay's Sauvignon Blanc is a representative Silver selection; the Castello Banfi, Brunello de Montalcino, 1999 a typical Gold selection.
In some ports the chef will journey into the local marketplace (passengers are invited along) to select fresh ingredients for a special dish that evening. On our last sea day, the kitchen offered a magnificent galley lunch highlighting the freshly purchased ingredients. Arrayed throughout the ship's kitchen, the buffet was so over-the-top it had passengers running for their cameras as well as their forks. It featured a two-foot spun sugar swan sculpture, three feet of sushi, fresh shrimp, crab and gulf lobster, fantastically shaped loaves of bread, and a massive selection of entrees, soups, salads and deserts. A luscious cheese fondue would have made Heidi proud. Such a display of conspicuous consumption might have been off-putting had we not been cruising through one of the richest regions of the world.
Onboard Activities The sun deck has plenty of lounge chairs, but given the intensity of the Middle Eastern sun, the ones in the shade went first and fast. The swimming pool, wedged into an awkward space with limited seating, is small and sparsely attended, but the few who used it seemed to enjoy it.
A variety of exercise classes is offered, including Pilates, yoga, and body conditioning. The small fitness center is more than adequate, with treadmills, stationery bikes, weight machines and free weights. (Personally, I would have added a stair machine or an elliptical trainer, but I can't complain.) Guests can jog or walk on the upper deck but since it's 18 laps to a mile, your patience may run out before your stamina does. Also, the track is not clearly demarcated, so unless you're out early in the morning, you're likely to find yourself dodging clusters of smokers and drinkers who have little interest in, or respect for, your exercise routine.
Entertainment The two onboard entertainers were exuberant, extroverted and exceptionally talented. New York pianist Judy Carmichael played stride piano in the style of Fats Waller, while British violinist Peter Fisher used his violin to great effect covering everything from Vivaldi to bluegrass. The talent pool was fleshed out by the ship's entertainer Kami, assistant cruise director Simon, and the spirited cruise director Trevor (who left the cruise business in May after 18 years with Cunard and Seabourn, but was lured back to fill in at the last minute). One of the entertainment highlights was Kami's "Arias under the Stars," her green dress shimmering in the moonlight.
Other activities included bridge lessons, golf competitions, galley tours, wine tastings, dancing and movies under the stars (and in the lounges).
Fellow Passengers Seabourn's passengers tend to be well-versed, well-traveled and well-over-50. They are confident and competitive; the ship's daily trivia contest almost came to blows more than once. Seabourn attracts a wide range of nationalities. Most passengers tend to be American, but on this cruise, presumably because of the Middle Eastern itinerary, two-thirds of my fellow passengers were non-American.
Spa Indulgence Seven sea days gave the ship's crew ample opportunity for creativity. A friend and I were invited to participate in the boutique's fashion show. In exchange, we were offered a choice of a free hair styling or makeup application, 20 percent off a single purchase, and 15 percent off a spa treatment. It worked like a charm as the black "flyaway travel pants" I modeled are now hanging in my closet. The day after the show, I followed my hair blow-out with a dramatic new haircut that elicited raves from my fellow passengers and friends back home.
The spa offered several opportunities to attend a "Pampering Party" - a perfect way to spend an afternoon. For $99, guests were offered champagne, chocolate-covered strawberries, cheese and cookies, and four mini-treatments. Of the pedicure, facial, massage and hair oil treatment/head massage, the head treatment was the most unexpected and especially popular. At the end of the pampering, the spa manager surprised us by offering us a $99 credit on spa products. Her announcement that the party was more fun for the staff than sitting around waiting for guests added to the feeling that it was just one big party. Men were also invited and attended earlier parties, though the one I attended was just us girls.
We were offered complimentary "Massage Moments," mini-massages available on deck daily. You won't get bored, but you may not accomplish everything you set out to do (reading, exercising or writing) as there is so much else competing for your time.
In Conclusion Throughout the trip, we had been treated like kings and queens. We had reveled in the friendly professionalism of the ship's mostly European crew. We slept, dined, relaxed and reveled in absolute luxury, and we left as ambassadors for Seabourn.