Stepping onboard Seabourn Sojourn in Fort Lauderdale for a sailing to the Caribbean, my expectation was for an unfailingly flawless trip garnished with exquisite service. All of which could have made for a boring tale of perfection – were it not for the intervention of Mr Wind and his seafaring pal Mr Wave
As Martin Luther King might have said if he had opted to focus on cruising rather than human rights: “The ultimate measure of a cruise ship is not where she stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where she stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
It was while rolling back and forth on the bathroom floor that these rather bastardised words flowed into my head.
At this stage it’s important to point out that the weather on the first couple of days of Seabourn Sojourn’s inaugural Caribbean voyage was freaky. Super-freaky. And also to note that I am no sailor.
As the ship rolled its way out of Fort Lauderdale, the journalist in me was enthralled by the prospect of testing this product in conditions its staff would not have been used to dealing with.
“Gloves off, Seabourn,” I muttered. “Let’s see how super duper you are now.”
I stumbled through the cabin door with new-found purpose – to search for chinks in the six-star armour.
First stop was the heart of the ship, Seabourn Square, where I focused my drive to unpick Seabourn’s reputation on an unsuspecting barman.
Without so much as a grunt from my camp, ginger biscuits were placed in front of me. Apparently, they help with seasickness. Begrudgingly, I chewed and swallowed them.
While I demolished the biscuits, the barman vigorously prepared a cocktail. Ah ha, I thought, a cocktail for a sick person – this barman can’t be the brightest spark.
As he poured the black liquid into a glass, I sharpened my pencil and prepared to note the ill-conceived move.
“Coke, sir. I took the liberty of flattening it for you. It will help with your tummy,” he said. Bugger, I thought.
Entering the fray, another Seabourn employee produced an astonishingly effective seasickness medicine (Sturgeon – wonderful stuff), another member of staff held my arm as I walked to my table for dinner later that day and a third offered a massage to help me sleep.
To conclude: the staff made Mary Poppins seem a little abrasive and unhelpful.
This ship has none of the fanfare of the massive floating islands operated by some mainstream lines.
At its heart is a simple experience which gently tips its hat to the romance of the early days of cruising when the mere act of travelling by sea was the adventure. The formula consists of a fine meal, a decent drink, a comfortable room and good company.
And in gentle orbit around this fundamental formula are plentiful lavish trimmings. Personal favourites included the spa, the seven-course tasting menu in Restaurant 2 and the ship’s own onboard ‘marina’, which offers exertions such as kayaking and waterskiing. The entertainment team are of West End calibre, while the deck parties are pure fun.
Many passengers, especially older ones, particularly enjoy days at sea. Then, the oft-maligned deck game of shuffleboard comes into its own. And I am happy to vouch that it is actually a highly skilled and entertaining amusement, and a great way to spend a few hours.
But for all that, the real delight of a luxury cruise, especially for younger passengers, is falling asleep in one place and waking up in another.
I had to leave the cruise halfway through but enjoyed days out in Puerto Rico, St Kitts and St Barts. There are a variety of shore excursions that can be pre-booked or booked onboard.
In Puerto Rico, horse-riding was the activity of choice for a score of guests of all abilities. Horse assignment is taken seriously, with a rundown on your steed’s personality given before mounting.
I watched fellow passengers hooked up with an array of animals with romantic names such as Whirlwind and Romeo. I was matched with Joker, rather ruining the image I had envisaged of myself as Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer.
The half-day trip also allowed time to meander around Old San Juan, next to the harbour. Hotel el Convento is considered the place to lunch, but cafes worthy of a couple of hours’ lounging litter the cobbled streets. Free buses connect the key attractions, the most important of which are San Cristobal Castle and Punta del Morro.
On St Kitts the two-hour Scenic Railway is popular but I chose to spend the day at Ottley’s Plantation (review), a plantation-style hotel of colonial grandeur, featured by Carrier and others, that offers beautiful views, a delicious lunch, a wonderful pool and owners who will leave you alone or chat for hours, depending on your preference.
The French island of St Barts offers a taste of the affluent Caribbean, with chic-looking people adorning the streets, restaurants and high-end shops.There are plenty of spectacular beaches but we chose the uncluttered Grande Saline due to its proximity to the popular Le Tamarin restaurant.
The island is also home to a marine reserve that, a keen diver told me, was one of the Caribbean’s best dive sites.
These days out are the key to a successful cruise and it’s worth finding out how long guests get at each stop. At some we needed to be back onboard Seabourn Sojourn by 5pm, at others not until midnight – extra time that made for a more pleasurable day.
Some cruise lines stop overnight to give guests longer to explore ports of call – a selling point that would certainly attract younger clients.
LATEST LUXURY CRUISE DEVELOPMENTS
The luxury cruise sector is set to see several new ships take to the water in the near future.
Seabourn launched Seabourn Sojourn last year and will reveal a sister ship, Seabourn Quest, later this year that will become the third in the series. Oceania Cruises has just launched Marina, with sister ship Riviera due in April 2012, while Compagnie du Ponant will launch L’Austral in April.
Luxury expedition cruise options will expand in June with the introduction of Orion Expeditions’ 100-berth Orion II, while river cruise fans will be able to take advantage of butler service on Scenic Tours’ fifth ship, Scenic Pearl, to set sail in April.
The PSA reported a 50% growth in spending on luxury cruise in 2009, and Ace director Flo Powell said the trend was continuing.
She added: “Luxury lines quickly included more, so value went up with the addition of things like onboard credit and flights. They recognised the desire for longer stays in port and visiting hidden gems and new destinations.”
Crystal Cruises has seen consistent growth and reported that its sales in January were the best on record.
UK sales and marketing director Andy Harmer revealed that Alaska, where Crystal is back sailing again for the first time in six years, was doing extremely well and that interest in long-haul destinations, world cruises and the Med was booming.
Silversea is focusing on food and ‘enrichment’. Eight of its voyages this year feature the Relais & Chateaux interactive cooking school, while a partnership with Slow Food Promozione teaches guests about the food they are eating.
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