As a cruise reporter and former cruise ship employee, I have been on nearly 200 cruises. But I had one gaping hole in my résumé --the one cruise line most often voted “World’s Best” in a variety of categories by a number of publications, including Travel + Leisure magazine.
But I finally made it, and am writing this article while sailing aboard the Seabourn Sojourn.
Seabourn is in the “luxury cruise lines,” category where all beverages and gratuities are prepaid in the cruise fare. There are other luxury lines: Silversea, Crystal and Regent Seven Seas. Each line is different, but Seabourn wins most polls.
So let’s see what makes it different.
First some history.
Seabourn was started in 1986 with two small 200 passenger sister ships, Seabourn Pride and Seabourn Spirit. Another 200-passenger ship (Seabourn Legend) was added in 1991. From the beginning, Seabourn has had -- and still does -- a reputation for impeccable service.
The crew used to memorize the names of every passenger by the end of the first day. After a decade, a “family” of loyal Seabourn cruisers emerged who would visit their favorite crew members and other Seabourn “family” as frequently as they could.
What Makes Seabourn Unique?
Seabourn ships are serene, with understated décor and friendly, genuine service. There are no announcements, art auctions, bingo contests, pool games or singing waiters. A sommelier begins each meal with a recommended white wine, switching to a red with the main courses. The wine selections included with dinner are of impeccable quality.
Of course, if one also wants a cocktail, an after-dinner cognac or an espresso those are also available for the asking - no extra charge. Devoted Seabourn cruisers agree that freedom from “signing” for drinks is one of the biggest attractions - even though they realize they actually pay more in the long run than they would on a standard ship, where you are presented with a tab for drinks and other onboard charges at the end of the cruise.
The same devotees also praise the line's peerless service. Seabourn staff members are extraordinary, with the best command of English by foreign crew members I have ever seen.
Expanding the Seabourn Experience
In 2001 the 500-pound gorilla Carnival Corp., acquired Seabourn cruises, but few changes were made until 2009, when Carnival expanded the three-small-ship Seabourn fleet with three more vessels -- but larger ones. Seabourn Odyssey was inaugurated in 2009, Seabourn Sojourn in 2010 and Seabourn Quest in 2011. Each has a 450-passenger capacity, so the fleet went from 600 berths to 1,950 berths within three short years.
I am aboard the newer Sojourn, and it is a beautiful ship, but does the Seabourn magic translate from three tiny ships these much bigger ships? To its credit, the adoration of Seabourn has not waned, but each Seabourn fan I met on this ship said they couldn’t wait to get back to a small ship.
Although there are larger suites available (all staterooms are considered suites), I have a 365 sq. ft., verandah stateroom with a heavenly queen-sized bed, a large dining table and a bathroom with a generous tub and a separate rain shower. My fridge is stocked with my favorite imported beer and wine. I can order room service, including champagne and caviar if that is what I want, and I can even get a full dining room meal delivered for dinner if I call room service during the dinner hours.
In-suite television offers free movies and documentaries by A&E on demand. The live satellite TV includes FoxNews. My only complaint is the tiny 24-inch screen. Even the more affordable Celebrity Cruises have 32-inch TVs. Luxury competitor Silversea has two 32-inch TVs hidden behind the mirrors in the room, one for the bedroom and one for the seating area. The singular small sets on Seabourn seem to be an obvious mistake in an otherwise full luxury experience.
There were a few more details where I expected better: Breakfast, lunch and dinner all have a mere two-hour window of service. Certain ordinary items took forever to fetch -- olive oil, for example. A room service salad I ordered never appeared until they called me 90 minutes later to ask “Are you missing a salad?”
There were also details that were better than expected, like the wonderful "tasting menu" in Restaurant 2 including the delicious, gluten and dairy-free dessert cake they created for our anniversary dinner.
What Not to Miss: Seabourn Cuisine
My pain is your gain. You are reading this so you can book this cruise and not miss anything. Food is the main attraction.
Two events stand out. For the “Chef’s Dinner,” the executive chef selects the entire menu. Our cruise featured fresh Maine lobster hand selected as we were anchored in Bar Harbor. Unfortunately, I missed this dinner because it was not well publicized. I only became aware of it when I overheard people talking about it the next day. The other event is the “Galley Market Luncheon,” a buffet setup within the stainless steel confines of the galley (kitchen). It featured crab claws, steamed mussels, lamb chops, cheese fondue, cherry crepes, bananas foster and much more.
Seabourn has a trademark advertising image in which tuxedoed butlers wade (pants rolled up) into the surf with trays of caviar and accoutrement. The suggestion is that your tropical swim experience will also become a simultaneous caviar feast.
I saw nothing like this on my Seabourn cruise, though others said they had seen it on previous cruises. But you can order caviar service from room service anywhere on the ship, at anytime, and it was delicious. The line offers malossol caviar from America since Caspian caviar isn't currently legally available.
Finally, although steak is rarely listed on the menu, do not hesitate to order a filet mignon whenever you want. The meat is aged Midwestern American beef charred black on the outside, but melt-in-your-mouth smooth on the inside.
I have never met a more charming and appropriately egotistical chef than Andrew Soddy of Seabourn Sojourn. The line boasts of a relationship with New York culinary icon Charlie Palmer, but when I mentioned this to Soddy he winked and said, “Mr. Palmer will bring us his latest ideas - but we onboard chefs adapt them to what we know will really work best onboard.”
The line could use better port planning, which varies drastically cruise to cruise. Each stop only had a few tour options, and there was no “port lecturer” onboard to inform you about what to see and do. There are excellent lecturers such as regional historians who certainly help, and Seabourn has the best in-suite television technology I have seen. They videotape every lecture and offer it in your suite, on-demand for the rest of the cruise. This is the only cruise line where I have seen this valuable technology actually put to use successfully.
Now if I only had a bigger TV-set.
Paul Motter is the co-founder and editor of CruiseMates.com cruise travel guide.
Paul Motter is the editor of CruiseMates.com, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.