Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Seabourn Sojourn - The Evolution of the Luxury Cruise Experience

Yesterday I inspected Holland America's Veendam, sistership to the Maasdam which I sailed on about a decade ago.  Built in 1996 this 705 foot long, 101 foot wide, 10 deck, ship that carries 1,258 guests, represents where cruising was at that time.  There is a mishmash of cabins (mostly tight fitting affairs with beds underneath the windows, interspersed with public areas (with some new public spaces really improving things, BTW) with a low ceilinged dining room.  You can see where some aspects of the ship are frozen in time, others show a transition (such as the Pinnacle Grill being a smallish and not too fancy, but nice, space off the main dining room).

My reason for inspecting this older ship was, honestly, more to refresh my memory when comparing it to its competition in the premium New York to Bermuda cruise market:  Celebrity Summit, whose design is just four years newer from 2000 (alas she is a Millennium Class ship) that holds 50% more guests.    The differences are incredible.  From far more efficient cabin layouts and better bathroom finishes, to a soaring and dramatic two story main dining room, to a beautifully purpose-built specialty restaurant,a large pool deck with running track above as well as a thalosotherapy pool inside a solarium (vs. the Veendam's small pool in magradome which is more inside than outside), superior spa, etc.

But this is article about the Seabourn Sojourn and her development.  She is slightly smaller than the Veendam at 650 feet long and 84 feet in the beam and serves only 450 guests.  But while she is smaller than both the Veendam and the Celebrity Summit, she offers are superior amenities and options.  For example:

1.  Seabourn Sojourn (and her sister, Seabourn Odyssey) offer multiple dining venues including The Restaurant, Restaurant 2, The Colonnade (popular for al fresco dining) and the Patio Grill.  I mention these separate from the Veendam's Lido and the Celebrity Summit's Ocean Café because they are simply buffets; not true alternative dining experiences.  True you can dine in Ocean Café, but it is not purpose built nor with any true ambiance.

2.  Seabourn Sojourn has a two story, indoor/outdoor spa.  The Veendam has a smaller spa with some nice areas, but most certainly nothing extraordinary though clearly updated.  The Celebrity Summit has a wonderful Persian Garden area and treatment rooms.  But the smaller Seabourn Odyssey has an outdoor waiting/relaxation area, private villa, state of the art equipment, etc.

3.  The Seabourn Square is unique and eliminates the dreaded walk and wait at Guest Relations, Tour Desk and Purser.  While you can check your email and have a coffee on all three ships, the Seabourn Sojourn offers more than additional style; it offers integration so you can get it all done in one place; not on multiple decks in multiple locations...and, of course, with no multiple lines.

4.  Accommodations are another area where the Seabourn Sojourn shines.  While one can have a suite on the Veendam, none are really suites worthy of mention.  The Celebrity Summit does have a few nice suites (the Celebrity Suites are some of the best designed suites I have seen), but its Sky Suites aren't really anything I would call a suite at 252 square feet.  The Seabourn Sojourn has 225 suites on this smaller ship, with some of the largest, best designed and most comfortable suites at sea.  I am not knocking the Celebrity Summit's Penthouses - which are fantastic - but rather am noting the number and variety of suites Seabourn has included.

5.  Seabourn Sojourn's public spaces are designed to bring the outside in, while on the Veendam there is far more of orienting the public spaces inside.  The Celebrity Summit suffers a bit from the same condition, with one of my favorite locations, Michael's Club (the former cigar bar) not having a single window.  To me it seems as over the past decade or so, the transition as been a bit more of focus on the ship, to focus on being at sea and its romance.  I prefer that.

5.  Service and Inclusiveness - There is no question that on the higher end of the cruising industry including more is the trend.  Whether it be done by Regent Seven Seas jacking up its pricing or Crystal Cruises providing $2,000 onboard credits, it is here.  Celebrity recently announced various drink packages, including one which includes premium wines and liquors for $66.96 per day (including an 18% gratuity).  If you do the math, that comes out to about $1,000 for a couple on a seven day cruise.  Seabourn, on all its ships, includes same in it cruise fares.  This does have an effect on the ship's design because public venues, bars, etc. are not placed to maximize revenue, but rather efficiencies and comfort.  Think of it as a beautiful display vs. the placement of items at the end of the isle in the supermarket that you think are on sale, but really aren't.  Subtle, but noteworthy.

When I look at pricing and value (different things, of course) it is a bit shocking.  For a Category S Suite on the Veendam for a 7 day Bermuda cruise out of New York,the price is about $2,750 per person, plus, plus, plus.  For almost an identical price I can book a Celebrity Suite on the Celebrity Summit.  To those figures one must add drinks ($500 per person) + gratuities ($100) + specialty dining ($50 for two nights), etc. or, about $3,400.

Seabourn Sojourn is offering 7 day cruises, not to Bermuda, but northern Europe, for virtually the same price.

Imagine:  For those of you thinking about a cruise this summer, you can cruise on an older ship with not much going for it (the Seabourn Sojourn is smaller and carries one-third the guests, so intimacy isn't in its favor) or the Celebrity Summit (a fine ship, but without all the offerings of Seabourn Sojourn) or the newest ship at sea with the finest cuisine and service visiting exotic ports in the highest of country club casual style.