"It's yachting, not cruising" has been SeaDream's tagline since the company was launched in 2001, and it's true that the experience onboard continues to be similar to what you'd encounter on a chic, private yacht. There are no schedules, no fixed times, and almost everything is included -- from Champagne and splendid cocktails to gourmet food and water sports. (Spa treatments, premium wines and shore excursions cost extra.) Nobody wears a tie in the evening, and nobody is expected to tip. In a week, the only thing anybody tried to sell me was a shore excursion.The 4,260-ton, 110-passenger SeaDream II is the identical twin of SeaDream I. Both were built in the mid-1980's and were completely gutted in 2002 before entering service for SeaDream. Both were refitted again in 2006/2007. The decks are teak, and the finishes throughout are classy -- no plastic sun loungers here -- but there are no balcony cabins. They'd look wrong anyway on such sleek little yachts.
What really gave SeaDream II the edge for me was the service, which constantly surprised me -- more so than that of any other luxury brand I've experienced. Whatever upheaval the company's head office has gone through (founding CEO Larry Pimentel left abruptly a year ago, taking some key executives with him), it doesn't show on board. The crew are dedicated, proactive and empowered. They think for you -- and this includes the bar waiters -- and guess, correctly, what you're vaguely contemplating, whether it's a table under the stars on Deck Five or an ice-cold beer as you walk up the gangway after a long, hot day ashore. Some have been with the ships since their early Sea Goddess days, while others come from private yachts; the maitre d' on my cruise had worked on the yacht of the Saudi royal family.
So, what are the downsides? If you've joined the cruise with hopes of taking excursions in every port, be warned that they may be cancelled if the minimum number isn't achieved -- hence, the sales pitch we experienced. With only 110 passengers, maximum capacity, to go 'round (80 on my cruise), this can be an issue.
Being small, the ships do bump around a bit in rough seas, as would any vessel their size. Also, although the unstructured environment is great for passengers who like their independence, there isn't much to do if it rains, other than read, play cards, watch movies or drink more cocktails. This product is really designed for the outdoor type. It'll be interesting to see how its sister, SeaDream I, fares in the cooler Baltic in 2011. But, in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, you can't beat SeaDream II for a relaxing, pampering and somewhat decadent vacation.
The quality of dining onboard was superb, and eating, or thinking about eating, quickly became a significant part of each day.
Breakfast is served at the al fresco Topside Restaurant on Decks Five and Six. There's a small buffet of cereals, fruits and breads and an a la carte menu of hot dishes, prepared a la minute, with a daily special like eggs Benedict with smoked salmon. The orange juice was freshly squeezed. The waiters quickly learned how we liked our coffee and perfected a double shot, extra hot, skinny latte on our first morning.
Lunch was also at Topside, with a decent salad bar and a daily-changing menu; although the portions were fairly modest, the variety was impressive, from Asian fusion to pasta and meat dishes. It's all too easy on SeaDream to say you won't drink alcohol -- until cocktail hour. Then, a waiter appears in the lunchtime sunshine with a chilled bottle he "just thought you might like to try."
The elegant Dining Salon, with polished wood, crisp, white linen and fine tableware, has plenty of tables for two, and there's plenty of flexibility if, one night, you prefer a four or a six. The Dining Salon was only open for dinner; we didn't have any rainy days, apart from the first day, but it would, of course, have served breakfast and lunch if this had been the case.
Weather permitting, evenings offer a choice of eating in the Dining Salon or on deck at the Topside, under the stars.
Portions are small enough to be manageable, and the waiters were constantly bringing samples of this and that -- things that they thought we'd enjoy, which included small portions of dessert and an extra starter. As well as the daily-changing items, there's a regular a la carte menu of steaks, grilled chicken, pasta and Caesar salad. Vegetarian dishes were varied and beautifully presented, while "light" dishes appeared on the menu at lunch and dinner, as did SeaDream "signature" items. The souffles were superb, and memorable items include roast duck, fresh sea bass in an herb crust and a particularly fragrant vegetarian curry; but, it was the intricate presentation that really made dinner stand out each night.
House wines, a different one every night, flowed generously, and when the sommelier discovered my preference for chardonnay, a top-notch Greek wine miraculously appeared. It was so good that I kept the label with a view to future purchases. There's a comprehensive wine list for anybody wanting something other than the house offerings.
There was a decent enough room service menu -- burgers, salads, steaks, club sandwiches and cookies -- but short of the occasional cup of tea, we didn't use it, having eaten more than enough at mealtimes. Caviar, which used to be a room-service item, now comes on its own caviar menu with a supplementary charge.
People would take "room service" from their sunbeds, too; essentially, there was food available all day, every day.
A SeaDream cruise is really aimed at people who want to be out on deck as much as possible, and we spent very little time indoors. Champagne was served in the comfortable Main Salon as we boarded, and people would gather there for cocktail hour and hot canapes. However, I preferred the Pool Bar on the aft deck, where the die-hard sunbathers would still be catching the last rays. Sometimes movies would be shown, appropriate to the destination. On our Greek Isles cruise, we had "Mamma Mia" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," for example. One night, we also sang (bad) karaoke.
There's a tiny casino, with just two tables and a few slot machines, grouped together with a small piano bar and comprehensive library on Deck Four. The library has two internet terminals, too; fees are $5 for ten minutes, $3 for additional blocks of ten minutes thereafter or $35 for a whole day. Most people used Blackberries, which was cheaper.
A small shop, the Yacht Boutique, sells logo wear, glass and porcelain items. It's quite expensive, although the logo gear was popular; a plain T-shirt with a SeaDream logo cost $88.
On deck, there are various sitting and sunbathing areas, from small booths with padded seats along the side of Decks Five and Six to the much-hyped Balinese Beds -- eight squashy, double sun loungers that face outward on the port and starboard sides of Deck Six. Understandably, these were in demand on sea days, but on port days, we were usually able to get one; they are exceptionally comfortable. The beds farthest from the smokestack are quietest.
SeaDream II is an old ship, built in the pre-balcony era. As such, cabins -- or staterooms, as they're called -- are compact, although stylishly kitted out. There are four cabin grades: Yacht Club Staterooms, eight Commodore Suites, one Admiral Suite and one Owner's Suite.
We had a Yacht Club Stateroom. (There are more of these than any other category.) At 195 square feet, it was perfectly adequate for two. There were a sitting area with a flat-screen TV and DVD player, a bar stocked with soft drinks, a spacious closet and two big, soft bathrobes. I loved the bed linen -- crisp and expensive-feeling.
Bathrooms really are compact, especially for tall passengers, but they have an impressively large shower cubicle with power shower and a proper glass door, rather than a clingy shower curtain.
Staterooms on Deck Two have two portholes; those on Three and Four have proper windows.
Commodore Suites are two staterooms combined, so you get a larger sitting area and his 'n' hers bathrooms. Only the two big suites have full baths; the tub in the Owner's Suite has a sea view. The benefit of these larger suites is that there's room for dining and entertaining, but the reality is that most people seem happy in the public areas. With a maximum of 110 guests, the ship never seems crowded anyway.
A word about sleeping on deck: This can be entertaining if it rains, but I highly recommend it. You can sleep on the eight double Balinese beds on the port and starboard sides of Deck Six; linens, duvets and monogrammed pyjamas are provided. Better still is the eight-person sun lounger, forward on Deck Six. You have to book all of these in advance, as they're popular. But, since we were cruising in chilly October, there was understandably less demand, and we were able to get the big bed.
The forward deck was roped off at 10 p.m., at which time it was ours. The bed had been scattered with rose petals, Champagne was chilling in a bucket, candles (the battery-operated type) were flickering, and a tray of chocolate truffles and strawberries had been left for us. Although a few curious drinkers from the Top of the Yacht Bar peered around the corner, we had the deck all to ourselves. We lay in bed, counting shooting stars, and eventually dozed off, only to be woken at about 3 a.m. by a howling gale, so strong that deck chairs were blowing around the deck. At that point, we retired down below. The following night, we sailed through a huge storm, and all the people sleeping in the Balinese beds were soaked.
Tips are included in the fare, and cruise documentation makes it clear that they're not expected.
|Fitness and Recreation|
Forward on Deck Four, there's a small spa and gym with a couple of treadmills and stationary bikes. The spa has an Asian theme, and treatments are reasonably priced in cruising terms: $95 for a 50-minute aromatherapy massage, $115 for a Thai massage. Daily yoga and tai chi classes are free.
The ship, like its twin sister, has a retractable marina that offers banana boat rides, jet skis, dinghies and windsurf boards. We had quite rough seas on our cruise, so it was only lowered once, and we missed it, as we were ashore.
SeaDream II also carries a fleet of mountain bikes, which are free to use on a first-come, first-served basis. Our captain, Terje Willassen, was a keen cyclist, and I noticed one flashy-looking bike tied up by the bridge, labelled "Captain's bike." He would sometimes accompany guests on cycle trips. There's a golf simulator, too, which is free to use.
The Segway Human Transporters, which were a gimmicky feature of the line when it launched, have gone. Apparently, there weren't enough places in ports to use them.
Children aren't catered to on SeaDream II, and although they wouldn't be turned away, it's not really a family ship. I did, however, meet a family on board with teenage girls, who enjoyed lounging in the cabins watching DVD's, ordering room service, having their nails done and sunbathing.
Passengers on my cruise were from North America, the U.K., Australia, Brazil, Germany, Austria and France. A lot were repeaters, and many who had come from long distances were on extended tours of Europe. Despite the casual dress code, they were considerably more glamorous than passengers I've encountered on other ships -- younger and more stylish. The age range was between 35 and 60, with most in their 40's and 50's.
"Yacht casual" is how the dress code is described. None of the men wore ties, although a few had brought jackets. Women tended to dress very stylishly in the evenings, although still informally.
Entertainment is informal and, essentially, is what you make of it. Apart from movies shown in the Main Salon, karaoke night and a disco in the Top of the Yacht Bar one night, people were content to enjoy after-dinner drinks, chat and listen to the piano.
One thing I'd experienced before on SeaDream (and to which I was looking forward) was the Champagne Splash, a late-morning festivity in which everybody sits round the pool, the Champagne flows and the waiters leap into the water, fully dressed, and serve caviar from a silver vat that floats in a lifebelt (life preserver). But, on this particular cruise, although the Champagne was there and a caviar bar was set up in a corner of the Pool Deck, the waiters stayed out of the water, and the party was more subdued than I'd hoped it would be. The hotel manager, Peter, told me that they don't always get wet nowadays, and it's up to the individual waiters how the party pans out.
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