Possibly more than any other segment of the travel industry, the cruise sector adheres to the well-worn maxim that sharks live by: keep moving or die. That forward progress – in cruise ship design, operation, culinary prowess (including gluten-free options), and service delivery – implies innovation on a scale and at a pace unrivaled by land-based resorts. I’ve picked three cruise lines – one each in the contemporary, premium and luxury sectors of the industry – that epitomize the often revolutionary, cutting-edge experiences now being offered to guests at sea.
Luxury cruising and expedition travel have, until recently, been mutually exclusive. That wasn’t necessarily by design; it’s just that the synergy between the demographics seeking both types of travel didn’t necessarily exist before. That’s all changed now, as luxury cruise operators like Seabourn Cruises have pushed into the adventure/expedition space with new offerings – once thought to be incompatible – that satisfy upscale clientele looking to relish new experiences in high style and comfort.
My recent “Norway and Northern Isles” sailing on Seabourn Quest, featuring the line’s “Ventures by Seabourn” excursions and a culinary program highlighted by noted chef Thomas Keller’s cuisine, provided the perfect example of this relatively nascent synergy.
This Isn’t Roughing It
In the past, expedition cruising – to places like Antarctica, the Galapagos or the Canadian Arctic – typically meant a trip on an old, converted Russian icebreaker or other “adventure” ship that didn’t necessarily offer creature comforts. In essence, passengers were “fed and watered” a few times per day, then retired to their tiny, spartan accommodations to sleep. Forget about entertainment, fine dining, or a high service standard. The experience was basic – and rather rough, at best. Now, luxury cruise operators like Seabourn are offering something completely new and, evidently, in demand: an upscale experience – akin to that found in the world’s finest hotels – in which their clients enjoy pampering on an elevated scale while they go exploring.
The “Ventures by Seabourn” excursions offered on the line’s intimate ships (carrying between 450 – 600 passengers) typically revolve around kayaking, zodiac rides and hikes, all led by an accomplished, dedicated Explorations Team. The “Ventures” experience; however, doesn’t begin or end with the activities themselves. Team members conduct complimentary lectures, known as “Conversations,” in the ship’s public areas, spotlighting their respective focus areas. On my sailing, an ornithologist, a geologist, a naturalist, a biologist, and a historian provided fascinating context for the areas we were traveling through, along with tips for getting more out of each destination. More intimate encounters with the Explorations Team took place at scheduled afternoon sessions, at mealtimes and during social events, where guests could mingle with and query team members on their specific interests.
Outside, the active excursions were led with an extremely high standard of professionalism, technical expertise and safety, featuring top-of-the-line equipment and gear – all kept onboard. We were fitted with watertight dry suits for a kayaking adventure through Norway’s gorgeous Kristiansand archipelago while receiving expert instruction that required no prior kayaking experience. A support kayak and support Zodiac; however, hovered nearby, but just far enough away so as not to be intrusive. Meanwhile, a full Zodiac suit kept us warm and dry during an exhilarating Zodiac ride in the equally stunning Eidfjord, where our boat’s 10 guests were captivated by towering waterfalls cascading down the sheer fjord walls amidst a blissful serenity unmatched in our everyday lives.
Back aboard Seabourn Quest, we indulged in our sumptuous suite with a twin-vanity, marble bath, sitting area, walk-in closet, large verandah with chairs and a table, and soft, luxurious linens. And after a long day of touring, the delight of returning to a warm bath prepared by our stateroom stewardess was a guilty – and oft-repeated – pleasure. That service standard: extremely personalized, attentive and efficient, was typical of the entire Seabourn cruise experience, as you might expect from an operation with a near 1:1 crew-to-guest ratio.
Refreshed and ready for dinner, we had our pick of four dining venues, each offering a unique nightly menu that focused on intricately and creatively prepared dishes using the finest ingredients. Seabourn’s affiliation with Thomas Keller, the only American chef to garner 3 Michelin stars on multiple occasions, is a boon to the line’s guests – especially those into celebrity-chef worship, like me. In fact, Chef Keller’s dishes were available almost every night of the sailing, in addition to the other gourmet items featured on the menus. And we enjoyed copious amounts of lobster, lamb, caviar, prime steaks – even sautéed foie gras – pretty much whenever we wanted them. Dietary accommodations are often made on the fly – or with a day’s notice – allowing almost any dish to be prepared gluten free. Seabourn’s gluten-free French toast, almond cake and fresh-baked loaves of bread were far and away the best versions of those items I’ve ever consumed – at sea or ashore. This was largely due to Chef Keller’s proprietary gluten-free flour provider, Cup4Cup. A particular dining highlight was Keller’s pressure-cooked fried chicken: moist, flavorful, and double-coated with that rich Cup4Cup breading.
And when not satisfying our stomachs, we fed our minds and nourished our souls with daily, complimentary meditation, yoga and stretching sessions provided by the Spa and Wellness with Dr. Andrew Weil Program. Meanwhile, evenings aboard brought top-flight entertainment, featuring a troupe of talented singers and a stunningly expert Russian dance couple, combining to perform a medley of music and dance styles across five unique production shows. And Seabourn’s guest entertainers shone on the alternate evenings, as we were enthralled by a British opera singer and an Australian virtuoso violinist, among others.
Fares for Seabourn’s voyages, which range from 7-21 days, typically begin at about $3,199 per person, and include all cuisine, premium spirits and wines, and gratuities. Visit www.seabourn.com.