Embarkation & Disembarkation
First impressions are important. When we arrived they said our name wasn't on the list and they asked us if we were sure we were sailing on that cruise. Of course, that started all kinds of panic thoughts in my mind. "Ha ha," they were just kidding! Sorry, but it wasn't funny and it wasn't the gracious "welcome aboard" that I expected. They took our hand-carried luggage to the show lounge where we waited in line to in-process. It wasn't as quick as the larger ships, but it didn't need to be. We were in the cabin by 2:00 pm and our luggage showed up piece by piece during the next 30 minutes.
See "Shanghai, China - Day 4" below for details on disembarkation.
Seabourn prides itself on service and we heard a lot about it. Most of it was excellent, but there were a few issues along the way. For example, during the sailaway, the drink and canapE waiters were everywhere and very generous. However, the deck chairs were all lined up along the railing—-making it difficult to get to the railing without moving the chairs ourselves. Frankly, we were surprised this detail had been overlooked. Unlike other all-inclusive cruises, where it is almost difficult to get a drink, the drink waiters were always there in the lounges asking what you wanted. If the event wasn't something with normal bar service, they always had sodas, coffee, tea, and sparkling water with an ice bucket and often cookies or other snacks. Room service was OUTSTANDING—-the best we've had on any ship! Dining room service was good most of the time, but it had a few flaws—-mixed up orders, slow to take or deliver orders, lukewarm food, etc. And what is it with the pepper? They tried to grind pepper on every course. We told them from the beginning that we didn't want any pepper, ever, but they still insisted on offering it for every course at every meal to the point of annoyance. Some things are just different. Because of the size of the ship and the "snugness" of the dining room, bread is left in a basket on the table, instead of served by the waiters—-something most of the people at our first dinner didn't figure out until it was almost over. That also means that the selection of bread is limited and you may not get what you want out of the basket.
Mostly well traveled in their 50s & 60's, with some older and younger. There were a few teens onboard, including several recent high school graduates traveling with their families. Because this was an Asian itinerary, there were more international passengers (Australians, Brits, Chileans, etc.) We were surprised there were only a couple of Asian couples. Lots of people on this cruise seemed to be trying Seabourn for the first time. We suspect there may be two reasons for this. First, with their new ships coming online, many of the Seabourn faithful are probably trying their new products. Second, this cruise had significant discounts that attracted new clients to Seabourn who wanted to give it a try.
Food. This was real hit or miss. Some items were fantastic, while others were horrible. It may be partly due to the logistical problems of getting the ingredients they need. During the galley tour the chef said strawberries were particularly difficult to get and had to be flown in! Anything with shrimp or scallops was usually excellent. Beef and other meats were pretty good. Appetizers, soups, and salads were more inconsistent. The "crispy crab" was a deep fried shell with no meat that I could find—-a real disappointment after seeing all the big fresh crab earlier that afternoon in the fish market of Busan. That brings up another small disappointment from this cruise. The "Shopping with the Chef" is highly touted in the Seabourn sales DVD. We were anxious to try it, but we don't think he ever went shopping in any of the local markets on our cruise. Perhaps it happens in the Med and not this part of the world. It was a bit of a disappointment for the menu, because there wasn't any real "local flavor" to the menu—-something we hoped would be easier to accomplish on a smaller ship than mass market competition.
Restaurant 2. The reservation system for this restaurant really needs to change. Since it is the only "casual" restaurant when the main restaurant is coat & tie, those who don't like to dress for dinner tend to make standing reservations. With only 35 seats available for 200 guests onboard, that makes it difficult for anybody else to get reservations. I would suggest a system where "first timers" get priority so everybody can go at least once. We tried unsuccessfully for several nights and eventually got in by talking directly to the Maitre d'. We were glad we did because the meal was fantastic. My steak was the best I had all cruise. The upstairs pool grill was only open a couple of nights, but since it was also casual and "by reservation only," we couldn't get in there either.
Veranda Cafe (same space as Restaurant 2). Since this is a small ship, this area is set up as a limited buffet for breakfast and lunch with many items available only on request. Don't be shy about asking for something. They have a lot of options, but aren't going to put them on a buffet where they may get wasted. They prefer to cook to order. There are also some things that they just want to serve to you, instead of allowing you to help yourself (e.g. cereal). They will even do special requests with advance notice. Service here was inconsistent—-sometimes the wait staff was extremely attentive and at other times it was difficult to get their attention. I think having separate food and drink waiters (who are indistinguishable by uniform) contributes to the confusion and delays.
Dress code. The plan was one "black tie" night (first night at sea), seven "elegant casual," and four "casual" nights (including the first and last night). In this crowd, most people wore tuxedos and formals for "black tie," but many also wore dark suits. We enjoy dressing formal for dinner, but hauling a tuxedo and formal gown all the way to Asia for only one night seemed like overkill. On "elegant casual" nights, I liked to wear a tie with my jacket, but most men wore only jackets. While we enjoy dressing for dinner, many people do not. At one dinner a guest at our table brought his jacket, showed everybody he had one, but never wore it! Perhaps a "coat & tie recommended, but not required," would encourage people to dress for dinner without excluding those who don't from the dining room. Because we had two extra nights in port in Shanghai, they converted one of the elegant casual nights to casual, so that all three nights in port were casual. Since people had very flexible schedules in port, we thought that was a good idea.
Activities & Entertainment
Entertainment. About what you'd expect from such a small ship with no production cast. The cruise director staff did double duty and performed several enjoyable shows. The guest entertainers (pianist and violinist) were excellent. The child acrobats in Shanghai were a special treat and a lot of fun.
Guest Lecturers. One of the things I really like about lines like Regent and Seabourn are the guest lecturer programs. We had two. A Japanese lady gave a couple of presentations, including the kimono demonstration with a particularly lovely guest as the model. Rob Warne (retired State Department with lots of Asian experience) gave several presentations that were all very helpful and insightful. Of course, they were also replayed on the in-cabin TV.
Onboard Activities. Other than team trivia and bridge, there wasn't much organized activity, even on sea days. The onboard selection of CDs and DVDs was nice and we watched a couple of movies in our cabin. If you spend most of your time onboard instead of going into ports, you may be disappointed.
179 guests, 181 crew (as posted on the bridge). About a dozen people on the crew were trainees.
Cabin. Standard Seabourn Suite (A-2). The room itself was quite large with a nice seating area. We didn't miss the balcony because the weather wasn't good enough to take advantage of it. The bathroom was all marble with a tub, double sinks, and plenty of storage. The closet was walk-in, but provided surprisingly less useable space than many wall configurations on other ships. There were the two bottles of wine in our fridge, as requested, and the fruit bowl was kept stocked. Only one 220V and one 110V outlet at the desk/vanity, so bring an extension cord if you expect to power more than one thing at a time. The hair dryer was in the desk/vanity drawer.
Cleanliness & Condition. Getting a bit worn in spots. The pool is missing a handful of tiles. Purple carpets in the stairwells were also worn and looked tacky. Part of the problem was all the rain and a lack of place to wipe your feet when coming in from the decks or gangplank. The carpet absorbs all the water and soil being tracked in from outside. Although we eventually discovered an obscure back route to the Veranda Cafe, they really need to configure a rain cover from the stairwell to the main entrance door so guests don't have to carry umbrellas in the rain to get to meals at the cafe.
Smoking. This was a big deal for us, since we are both very sensitive to smoke. Fortunately, we had no problems in our room or any of the enclosed areas. The only problem area was outside. The pool bar area always seemed smoky and the guests who smoked there were often not very considerate of those who did not want to inhale their smoke. That affected our enjoyment of several sailaways.
DEcor. Some people may think low ceilings make spaces cozy and comfortable. I was surprised that it wasn't more elegant. A lot of it reminded us of South Florida dEcor from the 80's. It didn't say "elegant yacht" to us.
Gangplank. This was a bit of a hazard and disappointment. During the pouring rain at several ports, we were walking up and down a steep all metal gangplank with ridges, but no non-skid coating. I was afraid some of our fellow passengers could fall and really hurt themselves in those conditions. At a minimum, Seabourn needs to put a non-skid coating on that gangplank. It would be better if they could figure out how to provide some protection from the rain with covers or shrouds. The other option is to rent covered portable ramps from the ports that have them. When it wasn't raining, it was often extremely hot and humid. Many other lesser lines provide water, juice, and cold face towels for refreshment prior to reboarding. Why doesn't Seabourn? While it may not be economical to have somebody stand there all day, they could at least meet the returning shore excursions.
Housekeeping. I'm so in love with my wife that I didn't notice this until somebody on the crew pointed it out to us—-the cabin staff is all women and mostly quite attractive. I'm not sure why that is important to Seabourn, but who am I to argue? There is a single stewardess (no assistant) who was very attentive and friendly.
Self-Service Laundry. Two washing machines and two dryers always seemed to be busy. The washers worked fine with the supplied soap on the express cycle. However, the dryers were not vented, so they just cooked the clothes and never seemed to dry them. Everything dried faster hanging in our cabin—-a real surprise for our stewardess one night! Confusing labels in foreign languages made it difficult for many guests to use the machines. Some people were using 1:15 hour wash cycles instead of the quicker 30 minute options. Once we figured everything out, we helped a lot of people use the machines. Seabourn really needs to take a few minutes to prepare quality instructions that will save their guests lots of time and headaches.
Internet. Reasonably priced at $9.99 per hour. However, you have to buy access in one hour blocks. When you exceed the hour, the rate jumps up steeply and it's not always easy to quit what you are doing to rebuy another hour. I had a good wireless connection in my cabin. My only complaint is that the login address posted in the business center was incorrect. After struggling for two days to get a wireless connection (thinking it was my browser or a connection problem), I went to Reception, where they quickly provided me with the correct IP address. I discovered that other guests had experienced the same problem. Seabourn could easily solve the problem by simply posting the correct information in the Business Center!
Spa & Fitness Center. Fitness center was well equipped and the spa looked small but adequate for this size ship. We were so busy with ports that we never took advantage of the facilities.
Gift Shop. They did well with the space they had, but don't expect too much—-it is a small ship. Since it has to be closed in port, it was closed for the last three days in Shanghai. They may even benefit from making it mostly a sundries shop and selling other items "on demand," selling from a catalog like in-flight shopping, or finding other creative ways to sell high end or logo items during sea days.
Photographic services. None. Bring your own camera and take your own pictures.
Captain. Standard daily announcements. He was very apologetic when he was forced to cancel two ports and go directly to Shanghai. (More on that later.)
Cruise Director & Assistants. Friendly, polite, and relatively low key. The CD and two Assistants also provide quality entertainment onboard.
Shore Excursion Staff. These two were on the ball. They were much more knowledgeable and helpful than what we've seen on other cruises. With such a small ship, shore excursions were limited (and sometimes expensive) and they were always willing to discuss alternatives. We had local agents with maps at almost every port and currency exchange when we needed it.
Tipping. Cruise lines continue to struggle with how to make non-tipping or "tip inclusive" policies work in an industry that typically relied on tips. I think that if tips are included in the price, then policies should be clear and tips shouldn't be offered or accepted unless the policy also states, "Tipping is allowed for exceptional service." Otherwise, guests are confused about whether or not they should tip. I would have been more comfortable tipping for room service, but I expected the tip would be refused. I found out late in the game that many people were tipping extra in various ways on this cruise. Since our stewardess was dedicated to our cabin, I tipped her as we departed. At the end, it was obvious that the waiters were hoping for tips for carrying our hand luggage down the gangplank, so be prepared for that.
In summary, this is touted as a six-star luxury cruise, but it misses that mark on several counts. It was still a fantastic cruise and we would definitely sail them again if the itinerary matched our needs (as it did in this case), but other lines we've sailed do a better job of providing a true luxury experience.
This itinerary was the primary reason we chose this cruise, and we were not disappointed. Some of the shore excursions seemed overpriced, particularly in Japan ($179-189 for a half-day tour). But some of the sights are difficult to get to on your own, so you have to pay the price to see some of these places. On the other hand, the ship provides a free shuttle into town at all ports. This was a handy way to explore on your own.
Kobe (Embarkation) - We spent three days in Osaka prior to the cruise with day trips to Kyoto and Nara. We stayed at the Crowne Plaza, Osaka and found it very conveniently located for our sightseeing agenda. It was about an hour and $100 cab ride to Kobe.
Kagoshima, Japan - Took a shore excursion to see Sengan Garden and Sakurajima Island. The gardens were large and it was raining, so we didn't get a chance to fully explore them. The ferry to and from Sakurajima was fun, but there wasn't much to see on the island other than lots of lava and ash.
Nagasaki, Japan - Since this was our first trip to Japan, we had to do the Peace Park, Atomic Bomb Museum, and Epicenter. The stop by Nagasaki's Museum of History and Culture was rushed and we did not get much of a chance to see some of the things on display there. My wife missed the porcelain room she wanted to see, but I found it and took pictures for her. We took the ship's shuttle into town in the afternoon for shopping. There are some fantastic kimono shops near the shuttle drop off.
Busan, Korea - Busan has a good subway system and a hop-on/hop-off bus that provides lots of options for touring on your own. We went to Beomeosa Temple on our own, as did several other couples from our ship. The ship's shuttle dropped us off near the fish market—-a must see in Busan.
Jeju Island, Korea - We took an excursion to a volcanic crater, folk village, and museum. We also considered going to see the famous "Women Divers of Jeju," and heard from those who went on the excursion that they really liked it.
Mokpo, Korea - We took an excursion to Bamboo Country and Slow City, which was fairly expensive, probably because of the length of drive and included lunch. Our 20 minute stop at Bamboo Country was too short. The park was quite large and looked like it could be a lot of fun, but we only got a chance to see about 10% of it. After a stop at a bamboo museum and some shopping, we had a very interesting lunch. The highlight of the day was a visit to "Slow City." We were afraid that it would be a duplicate of the village we saw on Jeju Island, but what made this trip special was a German anthropologist who had "gone native" and had lots of interesting insights into the Korean culture.
Quingdao, China - Canceled due to fog. The ship diverted directly to Shanghai.
Jiangyin, China - Also canceled when we diverted to Shanghai. Seabourn was able to arrange essentially the same shore excursion to Wuxi that we would have taken from this port, but we departed from Shanghai instead. It was probably the best shore excursion we had all cruise. Since it now originated from Shanghai, they took advantage of a brand new high speed (200 mph) train instead of the original 90 min bus ride each way! Our trip to Wuxi included beautiful gardens, nice lunch, canal boat ride, brick-making museum, and time to visit another temple. Wuxi is a model for the "new Chinese city" and definitely worth visiting.
Shanghai, China - Day 1. We did the Ancient Town of Zhujiajiao shore excursion. We saw the town from the canal boat ride, but didn't get a chance to explore much on our own. The guide got lost getting us back to the bus so we were walking through some of "real China." We then had to wait to recover a guest who had gotten lost from the group. After a rushed and marginal Chinese lunch, we had a very interesting tour of a silk factory. This was the only tour where we had "forced shopping." The prices on the silk comforters and pillows were good, but we think they were making up the difference in the silk duvet covers, sheets, and pillowcases. They also had a large silk clothing store, but the prices looked about average.
Shanghai, China - Day 2. Shore excursion to Wuxi (see Jiangyin above).
Shanghai, China - Day 3. Took the ship's shuttle to YuYuan Gardens so we could take our time to enjoy them. The gardens were fantastic, but the crowds outside the gardens were oppressive. We then jumped on the hop-on/hop-off bus to get an overview of the city. We got off to see the jade Buddahs and then got off at the Bund for a walk back to the ship.
Shanghai, China - Day 4. Disembarkation. If you want a larger vehicle, because you have more than two people or a lot of luggage, I suggest arranging a "tourist" van directly with your hotel. The ships staff said they couldn't do it for us, but we later learned that our hotel concierge could have made the arrangements with a local transportation agent. When we got off the ship, there were lots of cabs available, but all the larger cabs were gone. Despite being told what hotel to take us to, we got "Shanghaied" by a taxi driver who took us on a route five times longer than necessary. Although it was only a few dollars, the bellman at our hotel helped to make the point to the taxi driver that we were not going to pay full meter price for his antics. If we had arranged a van with the hotel, it would have made our life much easier as we were making the transition from the ship to the hotel.
After check-in we started our day with plans to see a couple of museums. The Urban Planning & Exhibition Center was closed on Monday, so we only got a chance to see the Shanghai Museum. It is truly world class with some pottery over 8,000 years old!
Shanghai, China - Days 5-7. We stayed at the Radisson New World on the north side of People's Square. It was a great location and a very nice hotel. The metro stop was across the street and we took it to Expo for the next three days. We calculated that it would take about a month to see every pavilion at Expo, so pick your favorites and good luck with the crowds! There is a reservation system to get into some of the pavilions, but those tickets go early in the day.
Departing Shanghai - Our concierge arranged for a "tourist van" to take us to the Maglev station on checkout day, It was only $18, which is more expensive than a taxi, but well worth it for comfort if you have a lot of luggage. If you are flying into or out of Pudong Airport, you really must take the Maglev train. At a top speed of 250 mph, it takes only 7 min and 20 sec to get to the airport. Don't blink or you will miss the other train passing you! It's only $6 per person. You'll have to handle your own bags, but there are large storage spaces on the train. You will enjoy a fast, smooth, and comfortable ride to the airport. Luggage carts are available once you get out of the train station and into the airport.
One final tip that probably applies to all international travel: We ran into a problem with our ATM card numbers being skimmed, and our card got locked—-something we discovered the hard way when trying to get cash to buy Expo tickets. If possible, I would avoid using outdoor ATM machines. You will be safer if you can get to an indoor ATM at a bank or store that has better security and control of the machines. If you must use an outdoor ATM machine, look carefully at the card reader to make sure somebody hasn't placed a skimmer on it.
Bottom line: This was a fantastic trip and we would do it all again in a hearbeat.