Our fourth Seabourn cruise, reflecting our opinion that Seabourn is the finest line around today, How to judge the new Encore? Against other lines and ships, or against Seabourn's other, somewhat smaller vessels and extremely high standards? Both. Brief background: my spouse and I have been crossing and cruising for over 50 years, since we were kids. Many ships, many lines, many years. Overall, it doesn't get better than this.
Ship: absolutely stunning. Encore follows the design and locational conventions of Seabourn's other ships, but with one additional deck, all-veranda suites (didn't mind the picture-windows), and larger public rooms. The decor features more wood and softer tones. Bravo, Adam Tihany - whose name is featured in all the advertising.
"Cabin": Our party had two suites - one Penthouse and one Veranda. The Penthouse Suites are spacious and larger than those on other Seabourn ships - ample for two and liveable for three (a few take three passengers). Veranda Suites are a bit larger than other Seabourn ships. Both feature furnished verandas, fully stocked / restocked fridges, tubs (whirlpool in the Penthouse), marbled bathrooms ... the brochures / website will tell you more. Suites of all types are perfectly maintained. Veranda suites on the lowest deck have part-metal railings, which don't interfere much but reduce the fare a bit.
Dining: The (regular) Restaurant is very handsome, and more attractive than the well-decorated Restaurants on the other ships. Tables for two, four, six, a dozen ... just ask. On this voyage, there seemed to be fewer invitations to dine with a staff member / entertainer; too bad; perhaps they were busier on the new ship. Cuisine in the Restaurant varies from very good to superb, with daily "specials" backed up by always-available menu items. Feel free to ask for two desserts, or two appys, or any combination of anything. Dishes are all prepared a la minute - no steam tables and reheating here! The free wines are sometimes good, sometimes adequate, and always described in detail: taste and see if you like it; if not, there are other free options, or the fairly-priced winelist (except for a few extravagant vintages).
The Colonnade buffets for breakfast are excellent, and supplemented by on-request dishes. Lunches are themed, but also have recurring items - something for every taste.
The Thomas Keller Grill is a reservations-only alternative dining venue (no extra charge) featuring mostly nice steaks and chops and excellent (proper) Caesar Salad prepped tableside. Yet, the food (except for the Caesar) isn't much better than the Restaurant, and the service is not too smooth. Reserve and do it once, and get the Salad, but don't expect The French Laundry at sea. The Keller-"inspired" dishes in the Restaurant are more interesting.
Service: Always a Seabourn strong point. The hotel staff are uniformly pleasant and helpful. They really can anticipate your desires. However, Encore had a large proportion of new hires, who were friendly and earnest but not quite as skillful as the veterans. On the smaller ships, the wait staff knew your name on the second or third day out, and what you liked to eat and drink. On Encore, there was somewhat less of that familiarity due to the increased number of passengers. Seabourn offers the finest service afloat, even if Encore isn't yet at the top of its game.
Entertainment: A mixed bag, as on prior voyages. The Cruise Director, whom we knew from a prior voyage, was marvelous. The resident "Seabourn Singers and Dancers" were fine. The guest artists were a bit of a letdown. Better to go up to the Observation Bar after dinner or the "show" and enjoy the piano and vocals.
Ports: Embarcation and Disembarcation were amazingly efficient. Took us maybe 10 minutes to check in; more staff at dockside than there were passengers. Many tender ports on this trip; well-handled. Rough seas prevented us from making Amalfi ... so the Captain re-routed to Sorrento where all of the tour buses were waiting for us. Shore excursions from the ship are not inexpensive, but very good. At Malta, we had the curator of the megalithic temple walk us through an unexcavated site ("I have only been in here about 10 times myself. We won't explore it for another 50 years. Please don't pick up any rocks.")
Fellow Passengers: Convivial, well-traveled, interesting, and less than half Americans. Though Seabourn is a sophisticated experience, there were some children (say 7 to 12) who were well-behaved and happy. In the summer, one sees a younger crowd. Not really. There is never, ever a crowd or a line on Seabourn.
Else: The Retreat is a reserve-only, extra-cost option. Book a cabana for the day, relax in the shade around a hot tub, ignore CNN on the wide-screen tv, and have the staff beg to bring you more champagne. One of the few extra-cost options on board, but worth it. If you have a sea day, here is the place to spend it.
Tipping really is not expected. The staff are fairly-compensated, dedicated, and enjoy helping you have a good time. (We do tip the suite stewardess and selected waitstaff.)
"Would you go again?" Yes, definitely, though I'd consider one of the smaller ships. Put down a refundable deposit while on board (don't have to choose a cruise) and get a discount when you book. Most passengers do. This is a luxury line at a premium price, but worth it.
Spacious, well laid out and equipped. Separate whirlpool tub and shower stall; marble everywhere. The dressing area between bath and bedroom has ample hangar space. Panoramic views from the veranda. Despite being at the top of the ship, little roll (though in calm seas).