Monday, June 21, 2010

A Review of My Time on the Seabourn Sojourn – Inauguration and Maiden Voyage

I have now had time to digest and reflect upon the Inauguration of the Seabourn Sojourn and the Maiden Voyage of the Seabourn Sojourn. So it is time to discuss things a bit.  (For an overview of the ship itself, please refer to my Cruise Review of the Seabourn Odyssey located on the Goldring Travel website. )

I was going to entitle this article, “Seabourn Sojourn: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”, but there honestly was nothing “bad” or “ugly”.

Then I was thinking, “Seabourn Sojourn: Hits and Misses”, but that would probably be overwhelmed with “hits”, so it would be repeating that which I have already discussed.

I also thought about comparing various aspects of the Seabourn Sojourn to the other luxury lines (as many people find this blog by googling “Seabourn vs. Silversea” or similar, but this is not about comparing this ship to any other ship.

And then I figured why not just call it was it is, “A Review of My Time on the Seabourn Sojourn – Inauguration and Maiden Voyage”.

Having been at the Inauguration of the Seabourn Odyssey I knew that when I arrived in London for the Inauguration of the Seabourn Sojourn things would be better. The shipyard, T. Mariotti, would not be permitted to pull the stunts it pulled on the first ship (Carnival Corp. would make sure of that). Seabourn would be sure that its crew and staff would have plenty of time to get onboard and organize themselves and things as they should be…in the proper Seabourn way. And, of course, this is the second ship of her class, so the lessons learned on the Seabourn Odyssey gave Seabourn a running start.

Arriving early, I could tell there was a quiet confidence from everyone from management on down. Yes, there was the frenetic pace caused by trying to prepare and board travel agents and dignitaries (two distinct groups!) in an orchestrated manner while keeping things on, as they say, an even keel and with the surprises to come being kept secret. But I could tell Seabourn was ready to put on “The Show”. [To read about “The Show” please read my blog posts earlier this month.]

For me the best part was that there were so many faces I recognized. Some from the Seabourn Odyssey, some from the Seabourn Spirit, some from I am not sure and a few from other luxury cruise lines. Different from before, there was a blending of souls rather than an “Oh, I remember you.” While I knew Shannon from the Seabourn Spirit (my favorite concierge nee purser) the others played right off of that relationship to form new ones with me. The same in the bars, with Stephie and Garrett leading the way for others, and in the restaurants (Arnold, Virginia and others). Chef Bjoern, Hotel Manager Guenther, Captain Buer, etc. It was more like “family” than “favorites”.

I really did not have a concern about the service, because you could just tell it would be “that good”. Service was excellent from the instant I stepped onboard. Whether at the Sky Bar or The Club, my Glennfiddich was ready for me almost before I arrived. And each esoteric drink my wife or her friends ordered was poured without hesitation. Service in the dining venues was excellent. Whether it was perfectly fried eggs in the Colonnade (presented faster than eggs could possibly be cooked) or a long dinner in The Restaurant or a fun dinner in Restaurant 2, it didn’t matter who was serving us…it was outstanding. So outstanding that I was shocked one morning when a waitress from Restaurant 2 apologized for somewhat slow service the evening before…and I thought the service was perfectly timed.

Over and above the regular service were the VIP efforts. I am not talking about when I dined with Howard Frank, the Chief Financial Officer for Carnival Corp. (the service during that important dinner was not distinctly different from any other dinner service we had…It was that good.) I am talking about things like:

     - A private wine, cured meat and cheese tasting Chef Bjoern and Head Sommelier Timor held just for me and my wife in the Main Galley. It was, without question, an awesome experience with some pretty special cheeses and some nice pairings.

     - A private Haggis tasting at lunch. Chef Bjoern prepared five different types of haggis for us to try…elegantly prepared, of course. We did have one complaint: Vegetarian haggis is just wrong!

However, there was one (and only one) notable miss was my stewardess. She was pleasant enough and did keep the suite clean, but there were too many little misses (one day it was failing to replenish the shower gel, another the ear buds, another tissues) and responding to a request took too long. The good news is that the other stewardesses on my deck were so nice and on top of things, they were quick to make things right…and always with a smile and with speed.

As for hardware, the Seabourn Sojourn was presented in fantastic and pristine condition. (No patches, or “that’ll work for now’s”.) About the ship I did not see much other than perfection. Everything had a place and it was in its place. Having seen where T. Mariotti had let Seabourn down with the delivery of the Seabourn Odyssey, I had my eyes looking for anywhere Seabourn had to catch up or make a quick repair. Honestly, I didn’t see any such thing. It was pretty much all good. My inspection did not disclose any areas of concern.

There were a few improvements over the Seabourn Odyssey (which will receive the same treatments in November): The silver banquets in the Grand Salon have been made lower, so it blends with the décor and are more functional; the under-utilized high tables in The Restaurant have been removed and normal tables put in their place, and one Spa Villa was replaced with a relaxation area for anyone having a spa treatment. I liked the execution of all of these changes.

The extent I have to go to find a miss: I found (as did others) the frosting on some of the glass toilet stall doors to be insufficient; making them a bit too translucent. In the Observation Lounge the gasket to the outside deck (port side) was not quite tight enough, so that in a stiff wind there was a whistle.) And one thing I would like to see changed (and, alas, it is just personal taste thing): I would like the lights a bit dimmer at the Sky Bar in the evening and I would like to see the back wall behind the bar totally covered in teak. I think the white metal bulkhead just doesn’t look as finished as I think it should be. (So much of the ship is “that finished” that this one area stands out for me.) Yep, that was about it in “flaws”.

I was compelled to test out the forward hot tub (on the bow). It was in the low 50’s in the Faroe Islands and the sun was shining. After a great high speed RIB tour and a walk around town, it was time to supervise the sail away. I was prepared not to like the hot tub as much as I do on the triplets, but I actually like it better. You sit higher, so you have a better view of what is happening off the ship, while still being pretty private. I assume someone came to take my drink order, but am not sure…because I promptly fell asleep floating away for about 45 minutes.

Similarly, my suite, which I went over from top to bottom was in great shape and fully stocked. Two very minor flaws: a single cabinet latch was defective and one foot was missing from a veranda ottoman. But from overstuffed pillows to a warm blanket for sitting out in cool weather to great bathrobes to the sewing kit and Molton Brown toiletries, it was all there…in its place and as it should be. Once again, I found by turning the showerhead just a few degrees to the right, the water flow was to the larger portion of the shower and it was more comfortable (as I do find the showers to be just a bit tight.) Other than that, the bathrooms are the nicest at sea by a long measure.

I will pause to note that Ralph Grizzle, the Avid Cruiser, made a negative comment about the size of the televisions in the suites. I, personally, found the television (pondering his criticism) to be just about the right size. (OK, possibly it could have been about 3 inches higher…because my wife kept sleeping with her knees bent!) I don’t really spend a lot of time watching it and I like the fact that it tucks away in the cabinet, not to be seen or reminded of. The selection of movies was great. I enjoyed the travelogues and documentaries (I watched the one on Heinz) and the accurate information on tours…which you can book from your suite.) The iPod dock was fine, but it is not for critical listening as the television speakers (which are pretty good for tv speakers) are used.

The internet was quite good, weather and northerly location issues aside (as you can’t blame them on the ship). I did have a problem logging on in my suite (Suite 622 – slightly forward on the ship). The problem was, however, only logging on…which makes me believe it is a software tweak, not a hardware problem. All I did when I found the issue was walk with my laptop to Seabourn Square, log on and then walk back to my suite with my laptop open. Then hours of uninterrupted internet was the rule.

The lunch and dinner cuisine was phenomenal. I have detailed a number of the menus from the Restaurant and Restaurant 2 in my prior posts, so you can refer to them if you have further interest. The overall impression was one of multiple choices where I was struggling if I should go with one starter/main or another. Or if one canapé was the best I ever had or one I just enjoyed. I would note that there is a mantra from a few that it is time for Charley Palmer to take a step back. I strongly disagree, for what I see is Seabourn allowing its chefs to play off the Charley Palmer inspired menu…for it is not a text book, but a guide from an outstanding chef.

I did have a unique chance to sample consistency. Because I was a guest for the Inauguration, and the charity event the next evening I was able to compare the execution of the same menu on two different nights and, lo and behold, it was prepared identically. Consistency is very important and impressive when done well.

The downside of consistency is that I found Seabourn was not pouring enough variety in its offered wines. I generally was offered two different reds and two different whites throughout my time onboard. While Seabourn is quick to offer complimentary alternatives, I found the need to know what wines complimented the cuisine not quite as it should be. This is the first time I have experienced this on Seabourn, so I am assuming it was a provisioning issue. I will see how things go on my November Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise.

I wish I had more time in The Colonnade. It was fine for breakfast and I did try something other than a basic breakfast, but even though the Eggs Benedict with Smoked Salmon were very good, it was just too heavy for my liking…but it was very good. I am more impressed with the fact that my eggs (sunny side up, poached or medium boiled…I had different eggs each day) were perfectly prepared.

My efforts to have lunch or dinner in The Colonnade was frustrated by my busy schedule off the ship, my haggis tasting, a nice formal lunch and, alas, just being full and skipping lunch. Dinner was also missed due to a number of special dinners, Restaurant 2, and a wonderful lamb curry specially ordered in The Restaurant by some friends of ours. That dinner is worth of note because it was the real deal in every respect: saffron rice, pompadoms and more …Outstanding. (And far more elaborate than a ‘mere” special order course or two!)

I did have a chance to sample…just sample…the food at The Patio Grill. Aside from a lack of hunger and time (ever get the feeling I need more than seven days for a cruise), the cool temperatures limited my time outdoors on deck during its opening hours. What I tasted, in an ever changing menu of offerings – which highlighted grill standards of hamburgers, etc. and pizza – was quite good, if not memorable. I did try the pizza under the most unfair of conditions: 50 degrees and windy doesn’t give any pizza a fair chance when tasted by a guy from New Jersey. The French fries were, as always, memorable.

It would not be appropriate to end this review without mentioning again the way Seabourn ended my time on the Seabourn Sojourn: with Seabourn Style. As I mentioned in my prior posts (which you can read for the details), when the port I was going to disembark in (Heimay Island, Iceland) was bypassed because of rough seas, Seabourn literally turned the ship around and ordered a pilot boat for me. It is true that on Seabourn there is no such thing as “no”!

In summary, and not considering the Inaugural and Maiden Voyage festivities, I was very impressed with the Seabourn Sojourn and its staff and crew. I have been on a number of Seabourn cruises…and I am comparing this cruise only to my previous Seabourn cruises and my expectations…and the Seabourn Sojourn exceeded my expectations; and not just expectations for a maiden voyage, but for any voyage.