One definition is ‘something that is not deemed to be a necessity but is considered to bring pleasure or happiness’. I would suggest that this could be levelled at many cruise holidays and has been used by lots of cruise lines to describe their brands. Yet, mass consumption of goods or experiences (including cruises) described as being ‘luxury’ these days, to my mind has dulled the true meaning of the word.
Perhaps this is why the concept ‘ultra luxury’ has arisen – to differentiate from the countless examples of luxury-tagged products, sometimes highly priced, that hold little or no ‘quality promise’ and fail to fulfill the expectation of the consumer.
Just as ‘ultra luxury’ is hard to define, so are ‘ultra luxury’ cruises, but Seabourn have tried to do so within the concept of their ‘Signature Experiences’, consistent across the whole brand. I was fortunate enough to visit Seabourn Quest in Liverpool recently, to check these out:
Seabourn currently has 3 small ships, each of which can carry 458 passengers. 90% of suites have balconies. ‘Seabourn Encore’, due to launch in December 2016, builds on the popularity of these Odyssey Class ships and will carry 600 passengers. All its suites will have balconies and there will be one additional passenger deck (9 in total) to accommodate the extra numbers. ‘Encore’ will sail in Europe in 2017.
‘Seabourn Odyssey’ (2009), ‘Sojourn’ (2010) & ‘Quest’ (2011) are identical – they weigh in at 32,000 tonnes each and have entry level Ocean View Suites measuring a whopping 295 sq ft – significantly larger than those found on mainstream and premium level ships. Suites with balconies measure 365 – 538 sq ft (including the balcony), going up to the Wintergarden Suite at 1,097 sq ft. All suites have a separate shower and bath in the bathroom (stocked with Moulton Brown toiletries) and walk in wardrobes which are nearly as big as cabins themselves! Mini bars are stocked with your choice of drinks in your Suite.
Seabourn is a member of Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, one of the world’s most prestigious gastronomic societies devoted to the art of fine dining and this can be seen throughout the restaurants and gourmet dining experiences on the ship:
The main restaurant called ‘The Restaurant’, operates an open seating policy for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Elegantly decked out with chandeliers and white drapes that can be drawn to offer a degree of privacy, if the daily menu does not entice you, Seabourn Classic dishes are always available (these include tenderloin steak and breast of chicken). Following Seabourn’s tie up with Thomas Keller (The Grill with Thomas Keller, formerly Restaurant 2), some of his dishes can also be found on ‘The Restaurant’ menu.
The Grill with Thomas Keller is the new signature restaurant on ‘Seabourn Quest’ – it is complimentary but bookings are advised. Thomas Keller is the only American chef to have been awarded simultaneous 3* Michelin ratings for two different restaurants and his 9 course chef’s tasting menu costs $325 pp in New York.
Colonade is the buffet restaurant on Seabourn ships. It has indoor seating as well as an alfresco area and offers daily changing, regional dishes as well as a bistro style waiter service in the evenings. On ‘Seabourn Encore’ it will be extend over 2 decks and include a sushi station.
Patio Grill – for casual poolside dining featuring grilled specialities, salads and snacks for lunch and dinner, as well as freshly baked pizzas throughout the afternoon.
Room Service – is 24 hours long and includes the full main restaurant menu.
An open bar policy is included in the cruise experience offered by Seabourn and they feature the ultra luxury brands: Brian Van Flanden inspired cocktails, Nicolas Feuillette champagne and Black River Ossetra caviar. The latter is freely available, but you will need to ask for it!
With a high guest to staff ratio (approaching 1:1) and a staff, many of whom are College educated and then hospitality trained, Seabourn places a high premium on their levels of personal service (gratuities are included in the cost of the cruise). Every member of staff I encountered on my visit acknowledged my presence on board with a smile and level of friendliness surpassing that on more mainstream cruise ships. Attention to detail is the norm.
Deck Service includes frozen fruit skewers, drinks, a lens cleaning service, water spritzers, neck massage moments, frozen/hot towels, provision of sun tan lotion and Seabourn moments (thoughtful personal offerings reflecting the interaction between guests and members of staff, satisfying a guest’s wants or needs). Upon embarkation, your Cabin Steward/ess will welcome you in your Suite with a glass of champagne and a wide choice of different soaps for your pleasure. Then there are the Officers Deck Parties, held around the pool each cruise and the iconic ‘Caviar in the Surf’ events on Far East and Caribbean itineraries.
‘Seabourn Quest’ has some signature amenities including the largest spa facilities on any ultra luxury cruise ship. There are six treatment rooms, a thermal area with a large hydro-pool, dry float, sauna and steam rooms, a full-service hair salon, an exceptionally well-equipped gym (for the size of the ship and offering complimentary pilates and yoga classes), as well as a motion studio featuring a Kinesis Wall and Thai massage area. On deck 11, there is a Sun Terrace with 36 double sunbeds and a multi use area containing 2 shuffleboard courts and a 9 hole putting green.
I was really impressed with Seabourn Square - Seabourn’s innovative “living room”, which replaces the conventional reception lobby/atrium seen on cruise ships. It is a welcoming, relaxing, light space filled with comfortable sofas, easy chairs and cocktail tables, where you can play spot the Senior Officers relaxing!! The full range of Guest Services are at the centre of the area, surrounded by 8 computer work stations for guests, a coffee snack bar offering complimentary speciality coffees, drinks, pastries, sandwiches and gelati and a wall lined library featuring nearly every genre of book.
There is a marina (found aft on all Seabourn ships) where guests can try board sailing, water-skiing, kayaking, banana boat rides and pedal boating right from the ship. A steel-mesh enclosure allows safe swimming in the sea. ‘Seabourn Quest’ (with its ice strengthened hull) is the first of the Seabourn ships to feature zodiacs (for landings in Antarctica and other places) which will be used during its Ventures by Seabourn ‘soft expedition’ itineraries (see below).
Like many ships, ‘Seabourn Quest’ also has ‘hardware’ like a card room (including a Wii screen), a casino (again, very well equipped for the size of ship), shops (selling ultra luxury brands), a self service launderette (unusual on this standard of ship), a plethora of bars, swimming pool, plunge pool and whirl pools. All aimed at adding to your comfort and well being and fulfilling your every wish.
But it is the added features in terms of enrichment experiences that impressed me the most. There is the conventional 6 piece band and other entertainment either in the Grand Salon (which can accommodate all guests in one sitting) or at other venues (like the Observation Bar or The Club), dotted about the ship.
Of particular interest to me, however, is Seabourn Conversations’ – Seabourn’s guest speaker programme, which has included luminaries like Sir Digby Smith & Buzz Aldrin. Not only are there formal presentations by the speakers, but the opportunity to socialise with them in the dining venues and Seabourn Square. As ‘Seabourn Quest’ starts to carry the flag for Seabourn’s Ventures Programme – soft expeditions, including hiking, kayaking and zodiac trips in places like Greenland, Iceland, Canada, Norway and Alaska, there is a team of 20 scientists who will also partake in Seabourn Conversations.
Most excursions are payable with Seabourn – apart from ‘Shopping with the Chef’, ‘Caviar in the Turf’ (Far East & Caribbean) ‘Caviar in the Ice’ (Alaska) and trips in Antarctica. ‘Soft Expedition’ excursions are offered alongside more conventional types in Greenland, Iceland, Canada, Norway and Alaska. UNESCO World heritage sites feature highly due to Seabourn’s partnership with this organisation.
‘Ultra luxury’ isn’t just about the small ship size - compounding the ability to visit smaller ports or dock closer to town and city centres but also the relatively greater passenger space area or more space per person ratio (69.2 as compared with 41.4 on Cunard’s Queen Victoria, for example, reflecting fewer and larger cabins when compared to the overall ship size). This is considered to be one of the definitions of luxury in the ocean cruise market.
When coupled with a high staff to guest ratio, this allows for a more intimate, higher serviced experience. ‘Seabourn Quest’ could be described as a luxury boutique hotel at sea – there is attention to detail with respect to all areas of the ship, unprecedented levels of personal service, some of the finest cuisine at sea and coupled with creative itineraries and equally fascinating and opportunistic shore excursions, I suggest that Seabourn is pretty close to offering an ‘ultra luxury’ experience.