This review bears a remarkable similarity to the story of "The Curate's Egg". Many of the aspects of the cruise were excellent, but some parts were very bad.
Let's deal firstly with the good bits. At just two years old, Seabourn Sojourn is a lovely ship. We embarked in Fort Lauderdale on a wonderful itinerary which took us through the Panama Canal, all the way down the west coast of South America, round Cape Horn to finish in Buenos Aires. It was a back-to-back cruise and lasted 33 days, with plenty of sea days which I like.
The design of the ship is good. The cabins and bathrooms are well thought out and every inch of available space seems to have been well used. Housekeeping is immaculate and I have rarely encountered such hardworking and cheerful cabin stewardesses. Each of them looks after 10 cabins. Seabourn certainly get their 'pound of flesh' out of these crew members.
The Cruise Director, Handre Potgieter, was one of the best I have ever encountered. He was charming, intelligent, always smiling, and incredibly visible (when did he get any time to himself?). He was very ably supported by his deputy, Sophie.
The excellent Master, Capt. Karlo Buer, and his Officers skilfully took the ship to fascinating ports of call (none missed, and all on-time) and through the wonderful 'inside passage' of the Chilean fjords, around Cape Horn to the Falkland Islands. Here we tendered successfully, helped by calm conditions.
The passenger mix was good. 42% were from the USA, 36% from Commonwealth countries (UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), 17% from Continental Europe and 5% from elsewhere.
We had two excellent Cruise Critic groups aboard. There were 25 of us from Fort Lauderdale to Valparaiso, with 10 of us staying on for the second 'leg' when we were joined by 10 'newbies'. In both Fort Lauderdale and Valparaiso we had a Cruise Critic 'sailaway party'. Both were terrific groups of delightful people and we had great times together, both on the ship and off. One of our number, Pat, had kindly offered well ahead of the cruise departure to organise shore excursions independent of the ship's offerings. These were a great success and enabled us to travel together as a small group to see the places and things that we wanted to see without spending time shopping (which I hate!) and having overly long and unnecessary elaborate lunches (which the ship always wants to include on full day tours). I am sure the highlight for many of us will be the overland trip in 4x4 vehicles (long, bumpy, but oh-so-memorable) to see the King Penguins on the Falklands. I could go on and on about the wonderful sightseeing on this cruise!
Independent sightseeing makes eminent sense and, as well as enabling you to tailor a tour to meet the requirements of the participants, I estimate that we saved at least $750 per head by so doing.
Guest lecturers were quite good and gave useful insights into the areas we were visiting. Evening entertainment was 'so-so', but I didn't see much of it and so cannot comment comprehensively. I didn't use the on-board shops or casino, and steered well clear of the laun"drama" (several good stories heard of incidents, but they stopped just short of actual fisticuffs!). The on-board laundry service is excellent. Shirts come back beautifully crisp and properly ironed. The gym is small and disappointing - to much space has been allocated to the 'Spa'.
So, what wasn't good about the cruise?
Essentially, and importantly, the Dining Room food fell way below the expected standard. This was very disappointing. Forget all that 'purple prose' in the brochure. It just isn't true. I think it would be true to say that in 35 years of regular cruising (see my signature strip on the Seabourn and Silversea sites) this was the poorest food I have ever encountered.
I had a number of meetings and discussions about this with the Food & Beverage Manager, Marco de Oliviera. I think I have identified some of the key problem areas.
Three years ago, when we first sailed with Seabourn on Seabourn Pride I came away with very favourable impressions. The Dining Room food had good flavour and was well presented. In the years which have intervened, Carnival Corporation has taken the regrettable decision (presumably seeking 'economies of scale') to merge the management of Seabourn with that of Holland America in Seattle (presumably because the total capacity of all Seabourn ships - around 2,000 passengers - is only about the same as one average sized Holland America ship). In my view the result has been little short of disastrous.
What now happens (and this was all explained first-hand by Marco) is that all menus for the Dining Room are produced centrally in Seattle, and F&B purchasing is also centrally controlled. Menus are identical across the six ships of Seabourn. As a result, my view is that the role of 'Executive Chef' has, effectively, been downgraded to 'Chief Cook'. He simply has to cook the meals as specified by 'Head Office' from the ingredients they ship to him. How many real chefs would put up with this? The menus show extraordinary lack of imagination and are very heavily reliant on red meat and shellfish with quite inadequate vegetable pairings. Much of the menu comprises 'always available' dishes. Desserts are disappointing (despite there being an excellent pastry chef on board).
The concept of 'the chef shopping along the route' has been abandoned. What a pity since we passed through some of the richest fishing grounds imaginable as we sailed along the coasts of Ecuador, Peru and Chile. Most harbours we sailed into housed huge shipping fleets. The explanation (for which I read 'excuse') given is that all Seabourn's fish now has to come from 'sustainable sources'. I suggest that the real reason is that it is more convenient for cost control purposes (those 'beancounters' at Carnival rear their ugly heads again, I'm afraid) for everything to be centrally sourced from suppliers who are no doubt squeezed hard when it comes to price. Quality is forsaken in favour of price. As a result, all fish on board is frozen. Similar problems apply with meat and poultry. Again everything has to be deep chilled or frozen. When cooked, the result tends to be bland and usually (unless well-sauced, which most dishes were not) lacking in flavour. The other reason is probably that it saves on preparation time in the Galley.
The problems with fresh fruit and vegetables are just as bad. The ship simply runs out partway through the voyage. By Day 5 of an 18-day sailing (such as our first sector) the salads are looking tired and brown at the edges, most berries have disappeared and the super-chilled vegetables - by the time they are cooked - are completely tasteless. This is despite the fact that, with greater effort by Seabourn, fresh fruit and vegetables could easily have been sourced from local markets along the way.
So, given the limitations placed by the Seattle-produced menus, and the centralised provisioning arrangements, how did the Galley actually perform?
In the Dining Room, two stars only. If you came early and sat at a table for 2 or 4 then there was a reasonable chance that your order might be 'right first time' and that the food might be tolerably warm (apart from the soups, the food was never actually hot). If your party was 6 or more (which ours often was) then it was likely that at least one of the courses brought from the Galley would be wrong. When this happened, I immediately noted the expression of anxiety (sometimes panic) on the faces of the wait staff as they sought to remedy the problem. If it involved the main course (as it often did) this would mean that perhaps 5 correctly sent items stood on the serving table going cold while the wait staff rushed back to the Galley trying to get the remaining dish put right. By the time the meal was served it had turned from warm to tepid. This occurred regularly and there was obviously a serious disconnect between the Dining Room and the Galley. It was so bad that we began to turn down invitations to join large tables!
Main courses were inadequately seasoned, yet soups were oversalted (sometimes to the point of being inedible). Much of the cooked food was tasteless. Apart from one excellent hot sweet soufflE (which proves that it can be done) desserts were unimaginative. Fresh fruit was poor. Cheese was OK.
Sometimes I found myself reverting to the 'always available' menu, except that all the main courses were served with chips (French fries). So the menu comprised grilled salmon and chips, filet mignon and chips, chicken breast and chips and lamb chops and chips. 5-star? Imaginative? I think not. One evening I thought the chicken breast might be a safe bet. The result? Unbelievable. Flavourless chicken with chips, tasteless 'steamed vegetables' and thick brown gravy. Ugh. The sort of meal you might have been served 30 years ago (but thankfully no longer) in a British motorway service station.
"When you sail with Seabourn, it's as if the world's finest restaurants have accompanied you on the journey". So reads the brochure. What nonsense! It is just one big marketing 'con-trick'! As I said to Marco, "The Company is setting you up to fail every time by 'raising the bar' to an unattainable level. Over-promise and under-deliver and the customer is always unhappy." He did not demur.
So disappointing was the Dining Room that we never ventured there for breakfast or lunch, although on other Lines this has been a preference of mine, especially on sea days. So, of necessity, we had very many meals in the Colonnade Restaurant on Deck 8. Here the breakfast and lunch buffets were generally good (although very repetitive) and service at table (for cooked dishes) was very good. The lunchtime 'fish of the day' was always cooked a la minute and was usually very good. And, importantly, it was served hot. There was a lot of 'footfall' in this restaurant which, ideally, could have been given more space when the ship was designed. However, the staff worked diligently to clear tables and re-set them as soon as they became vacant. At lunchtime on sea days they also, sensibly, used the adjacent 'Restaurant 2' as an overspill room. Overall, I rate the food as Four Star.
What about the other dining options? The Pool Grill opened for lunch and dinner most days, but this is only viable in the evenings in warm waters (there are no 'space-heaters') and I didn't really want to eat dinner wrapped in a blanket! Also there is too much red meat on the menu, and no sign of grilled fish.
We went once to Restaurant 2. We didn't like the food or the presentation and didn't go back. There was 'too much going on' on the plate, with a confusion of flavours. Many passengers felt as we did, although others liked it. The trouble stems from those menus again. They are not a proper menu degustation. Seabourn, please talk to Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux quat'Saisons for some ideas. His tasting menus are the best I have ever encountered. But then, Marco told me that the whole concept of Restaurant 2 was under review and it is likely to be scrapped.
The wine offering was below par, and I have posted a separate review of this on the Seabourn section of the CC website, where it is an ongoing topic.
So, I give the overall restaurant and dining experience Three Stars. Seabourn, you must try harder - and succeed - if you are not to develop a tarnished image.
Fortunately, I eat to live, rather than the other way round, so I did not allow the dismal failures in the Dining Room to ruin what was otherwise (the ship, the itinerary, the congenial fellow passengers) a delightful cruise.
Will we go back on Seabourn? Possibly (and to cover the eventuality I put down a 'floating' deposit on a future cruise as there is no risk associated with so doing. The deposit has a 'life' of four years and is fully refundable if you do not book. The benefit is a 5% discount), but not for a while, and not until I have reliable information that the Line has recognised its failures and done sufficient to redress the problems.
Next month we go off again on another long voyage. 28 days (from Los Angeles to Sydney) aboard Silversea's Silver Whisper. The first two sectors of the World Cruise. I am hoping for better things from the Silver Whisper Dining Room. I shall report back on this in due course.