Wonderful cruise. Great ship. Exceptional staff. Top quality food. So why might this review seem a bit picky to some people, especially the many Seabourn aficionados who were aboard Odyssey for our cruise? Well, when you are critiquing that which purports to offer perfection it's not unreasonable to examine what is actually provided in some depth.
Pre cruise: Seabourn's front office staff let down a superb effort by their counterparts on board the vessel. I suspect the problem is that at least in the UK it is Carnival masquerading as Seabourn, and people training is to an acceptable but not exceptional standard. And exceptional is what we are paying for with Seabourn on all levels of service.
Let me give you a couple of examples as to why I was not in the best of moods when my wife and I boarded Odyssey in Istanbul. We had booked air with Seabourn, but the two flights on offer left London Heathrow at 7.10am on the Thursday before the Saturday embarkation day, which I couldn't accept because of an important meeting that day, or 7.10am on Saturday morning. That meant arriving Istanbul at 1pm and having no time to see any of this fabulous city before boarding the ship for a 5pm departure. Most frustrating.
My TA had requested Seabourn put us on a flight that left Heathrow early evening Friday. Same airline, BA, and same price. Seabourn / Carnival told the agent it wasn't available. Being a BA Executive Club member I gave the airline a call. "Certainly we can accommodate you but because you didn't make the booking the request will have to originate from the cruise line". I e-mailed the info direct to Seabourn. No response - not even an acknowledgement - so no change. "Exceptional service?" I would call it no service.
Their web site advised that our documents and baggage tags had been dispatched by Fedex on 22 June. When they had not arrived a few days later I used the Fedex tracking system to find out where they were. It said they had been delivered to Miami. So I called Seabourn / Carnival to appraise them of the situation. They told me I was wrong and that they had been sent by DHL to my TA. I pointed-out their web site said different, but the man in Southampton was politely not interested. "Exceptional service?" I would call it no service.
Did my TA really have the documents? No. So they called Seabourn and a set finally arrived with my agent two days before we had to leave home. The agent kindly arranged for them to be couriered to me.
There were quite a few Brits on the Saturday morning flight to Istanbul and several bemoaned the poor timing of the flight and Seabourn's front office in general. So why, I wondered, were so many of them repeat customers?
I started to find out when we arrived at the port. Time from getting off the coach to passing through check-in and getting onboard Odyssey - less than 10 minutes. Time from getting onboard to arriving at our cabin with escort - less than 5 minutes. Time to open chilled bottle of champagne that awaited us in our cabin - less than 2 minutes. Time before cabin stewardess arrived with more champagne and canapEs (just two!) - 15 minutes. So far so very excellent.
During the cruise: The cabin was well appointed with high quality fittings, reasonable cupboard space and superb bedding. You might have noticed my use of the word cabin rather than suite. That's because it was the size of a larger balcony cabin on many other cruise ships but with a curtain that could be pulled across the room to separate the sitting area from the sleeping area. Technically a suite because of this, but "All suite" is just one example of Seabourn hype. There will be more.
Nice walk-in wardrobe and a stunning granite and marble bathroom. The fact that when closed the shower door allowed water to spread across the tiled floor (and obviously had done for some time because the granite was discoloured) and a lack of sensible storage space (strangely one of the two frosted glass corner cupboards was locked) did not detract from the beauty of this room. Having been in a Royal suite on Celebrity Millennium and a Grand suite on Independence of the Seas within the last year I can say without any hesitation that this bathroom beat them both hands-down.
When we first arrived in our cabin we found a single red rose awaiting us. On day four its petals were scattered around the bath very enticingly and the stem disappeared.
I had read somewhere previously that the flat screen television in the cabin was small. It is. Ridiculously small, probably so that it can be slid back into a cupboard when not in use. Neat, but a case of form over function. I can hear some readers sneering "Why would you want a television when you are on a cruise ship visiting wonderful locations?"
The answer is because I like to keep up with the news and there might just be something important I wouldn't want to miss - or have to watch while wearing magnifying spectacles - like the football world cup final which was played while we were sailing off the coast of Turkey.
Our cabin was a V4 on deck seven. Once underway we discovered why the more forward cabins are less expensive than the V6 midship variants - noise. They pick-up the rumble from the bow thruster propeller, the anchor chain clunking up and down, and - most significantly - the sound of the bow wave. The latter is quite loud when sitting on the balcony while the vessel is travelling at speed, but cannot be heard indoors.
Our stewardess was lovely and kept the room spotless, but she was a bit scatterbrained. Before the cruise I had ordered J&B scotch whisky and dry white wine for the in-cabin bar. Waiting was a litre of gin and a bottle of water. I pointed this anomaly out to her and she returned with the white wine - and a bottle of vodka. Sometime while we were having dinner the vodka became scotch, but not the brand I wanted. But I gave up the unequal struggle and opened the bottle.
Her other annoying trait was that she would try to clean two adjacent rooms at the same time. You would come back from breakfast and find she was vacuuming both but hadn't cleaned the bathroom in either, so two couples would be kept waiting.
Only had one meal in our cabin. That was breakfast which, as is so often the case on a cruise ship, put too much food onto too small a table - and the hot portion was just warm. It was good, but no better than we had enjoyed on Celebrity and RCL.
Which brings me to eating in general. The Restaurant - yes, that's its minimalist name - wasn't the glitzy multi-storey affair we had been used to of late. It was more reminiscent of the main eatery on the Paul Gauguin, which we cruised French Polynesia with a few years previously. That meant it was much quieter, quite refined, tables were generous in size and there never seemed to be a queue despite the fact it was all open seating.
Food was of the highest quality and the service impeccable, by far the best we have ever experienced at sea. I would describe both as exceptional. The ladies particularly enjoyed being walked to the table arm-in-arm with a perfectly attired and well mannered waiter.
Wines were of reasonable quantity and freely available, and yes the sommelier did learn what you liked to drink. The wine service was only spoilt by the glasses, which were truly suitable for neither red nor white. Unless, that is, you ordered a premium vintage that cost extra. Then you apparently got appropriate glassware. Talk about spoil the ship for a ha'penny worth of tar.
The Restaurant itself is, I feel, a little bland. Large expanses of white curtaining and white paper roses on a white table cloth. However others thought it tres ElEgant. Overall it's a great place to eat. My experience of cruising is admittedly limited, but the RMS Olympic dining room on Celebrity Millennium is the only place at sea I would choose in preference to The Restaurant on Odyssey for an all round fine dining experience.
We didn't try Restaurant 2, the multi-course tasting experience, because the menu was beyond my personal palate, but I do know that some people did and enjoyed.
The Colonnade was where we ate the majority of our meals. Here you could dine indoors in air-conditioned comfort or out on the stern deck in the shade of a huge white awning. Food was from an excellent high-quality buffet, or daily simple specials were available and cooked to order. Again service was second-to-none.
Initially I rebelled when waiters tried to take my plate from me after I had chosen my fare so I could walk back to my table unencumbered, but in the end I gave-in and accepted this small extra service without protest.
Final eatery was the patio grill by the pool, a more relaxed ambience. Main courses were grilled to order and I loved my rib-eye but my wife thought her king prawns were tasteless - the only meal she didn't thoroughly enjoy during the whole week.
Public areas on Odyssey were to a high standard, especially The Club (yes, it's a night club) and Seabourn Square. The latter is an exceptionally functional and comfortable cross between coffee bar (with pastries), lounge, internet centre, library and customer services department. The Observation lounge high and forward on the ship looked particularly inviting when we walked through it during the day, but for some reason we never managed to get there any evening. Neither did we enter the spa or the casino. On all cruise ships these appear to be an excellent way of parting a fool from his or her money. But each to his own enjoyment.
The outside of the ship, sorry yacht, has a particularly striking feature. It looks as though it should be a giant lens designed to concentrate megawatts of laser power into deep space. Actually it's a skylight, and again I have to admit that as many people I spoke to liked this design as disliked it. The skylight simply does what the name says, it allows light from the sky to illuminate by day some rather elegant stairs that can take the more athletic passengers between decks. Sadly on the final days of our cruise the ship developed what might diplomatically be called a "waste" problem somewhere in the area of the stairs on decks seven and eight. The smell was not pleasant, but possibly to prove that it wasn't that bad the Customer Services Manager bravely stood there explaining to passengers that the difficulty would soon be resolved.
The Grand Salon is a small theatre, intimate with very good and most comfortable seating, but it has annoying columns that interfere with the view of the stage. The four singers and the musicians did their best to entertain, but they would have been at home on any cruise ship: good but not exceptional.
We rarely take shore excursions arranged by cruise lines, but in Turkey we took two - both to the same place! The first was a morning visit to Ephesus - fabulous. The second was an evening visit to Ephesus where we sat among the historic ruins on white draped chairs around white draped tables that were laden with snacks and wine while we listened to the Aegean Symphony Orchestra play a classical selection - more than fabulous. And what made the evening even more memorable was that it was completely free. Thank you Seabourn. That's what I call true excellence.
Post cruise: The front office struck again. Because our Seabourn arranged flight back to London from Athens was not until 7.10pm, and we were to be off the ship by 9am, we were told we would have a day room at the Intercontinental Hotel. There was also an optional morning tour to the Acropolis which we thought we had booked but at the last minute discovered it hadn't happened. No matter, it turned out to be less expensive to make our own way there from the hotel.
Coach to hotel from ship carried eight couples. On the way to the hotel we are told that four couples, including ourselves, had day rooms and four couples - who would be leaving on mid afternoon flights - would be given vouchers for lunch. We grumbled half heartedly that we should all have had a free lunch but this minor discomfort was forgotten when the big bombshell was dropped - there would be only one coach to the airport and that leaving at 12.30 taking all eight couples.
A knight in shining armour came to the rescue. Actually it was a knightess, if there is such as thing, in a smart black dress; an English lady called Maria who was the Intercontinental Hotel's guest relations manager. She sorted out a second coach to take us to the airport later that afternoon; sorted out a day room for us that had not, in fact, been booked, and sorted out transport for us to the Acropolis. Thank you so much Maria.
Too much hype: I mentioned earlier some of Seabourn's over hyped promotional claims. If "All suite" simply means putting a curtain across a room then we could see a rash of similar nonsense from every other cruise line. Just about any cabin with the most minute seating area - it doesn't even need a balcony - could be made to fit this claim by Seabourn.
Some other examples. Evening under the stars bbq dinner: if there was one on our cruise nobody told us. Marina with sea pool and water sports: true, but opened one afternoon for just a few hours and capable of meeting the needs of only a small percentage of guests, so a mainly wasted facility. Caviar in the surf: nope, but then I don't like caviar. And if soothing neck massages around the pool were on offer my neck wasn't the recipient of one. Shopping with the chef: if it happened nobody I spoke with was aware of it. And as for "all our dishes are prepared à la minute and served with complimentary fine wines" (and let's ignore the buffet here) my experience was that this was true for the simpler dishes and that the wines were good but not fine.
It could be said that these are all insignificant criticisms, but I would beg to differ. Installing a curtain to turn a cabin into a suite is, in my opinion, a major exaggeration, but it is the other small but important details I mentioned in the previous paragraph that differentiate lines such as Seabourn from the common herd. I am not suggesting that Seabourn is being dishonest. I expect all these "Seabourn Signature Delights" are available somewhere and sometime, but it is wrong to suggest you can always expect them: that's hype. Hope, it seems to me, is a more realistic expectation in some of these areas where Odyssey is concerned.
Summary: Would I travel on Seabourn Odyssey again? Most certainly, unless they are thin skinned and unwilling to listen to constructive criticism in which case I will probably be banned.
Did our cruise represent value for money? I think so but I'm not 100% convinced. Maybe if I had drunk some more of their wines and spirits ... or if the tips we offered had been refused ... or if there had been less hype ... or if their front office had been fit-for-purpose. Ok: yes it did. Just.
Let me say again without any equivocation that the staff on Odyssey and the food on Odyssey were both top notch (how often does the Captain shake your hand when you finally leave his ship?), the cabins pleasant and comfortable and that the ship itself is clean and well laid-out. And the fact that we met people onboard who had cruised many times with Seabourn suggests they have a high satisfaction rate, though whether Odyssey will maintain that has yet to be seen. Comments such as "Nearly as good as Spirit" and "Not as cosy as Pride but proper balconies are an improvement" were oft heard.
Later this year we will be on another Carnival offering - a Christmas cruise up the Amazon on Pacific Princess. I'm sure it will be fabulous but I do worry about the Carnival / Seabourn / Princess front office in the UK. I don't want to get stuck in the middle of South America. I'll let you know how it all goes.