(2:40 p.m. EDT) -- Good news for those who want to tick off their bucket lists without sacrificing the finer things: Seabourn entered the fast-growing expedition cruise market this year with their first purpose-built adventure ship, Seabourn Venture. A sister ship, Seabourn Pursuit, debuts next fall.
The small ship, painted an eye-catching hunter green, is capable of carrying 264 passengers. On my current sailing, a repositioning trip down the western coast of South America, however, we’re sailing with only 127 passengers; the crew of 239 far outnumber us.
As a lover of Seabourn’s fleet of traditional luxury ships, I was curious to see if the line’s intuitive service and special touches would be present on their expedition ship. I also wondered how much adventure and enrichment we’d actually get, on an itinerary sailing between Lima, Peru and Santiago, Chile.
Read on for my first impressions of Seabourn Venture.
When our bus pulled up to Seabourn Venture in the industrial port of Callao, outside Lima, my eye was immediately drawn to the mid-ship cabins with floor-to-ceiling windows that popped out slightly from the rest of the vessel.
These cabins, known as Panoramic Veranda suites and brand new to Seabourn, aren’t the top suites onboard. But they are our favorite cabin that we’ve ever seen on an expedition ship, and well worth an upgrade from the ship’s regular veranda cabin.
First, it’s the windows. From the sitting area, which come with a chaise lounge sofa, you can lie back and watch the world go by. On our sailing, we’ve caught sea lions frolicking, whales breaching and some fantastic sunsets. I can only imagine how amazing this view will be when the ship is in the iceberg-rich waters of Antarctica or Greenland. The beds in these cabins face the window, so you can really relax without missing a thing.
Second, the room has two separate closets. One is a full walk-in closet for your clothes while the second comes with a clever drying rack for your wet clothes. This will be crucial in the polar regions. Continuing with that theme, the entire cabin, including the bathroom, has heated floors, perfect for toasting your tootsies.
We’re also impressed with the thoughtful storage options at the in-room bar and vanity that are recessed so things won’t fly around in rough waters such as the Drake Passage.
Lastly, the bathroom comes with a double vanity, a separate shower and a bathtub with a porthole so you can soak with a view. A full choice of Molton Brown bath gels and lotions ups the pampering factor.
I was able to take a look at several other cabins onboard, including the Owners Suite, a Signature Suite and the Penthouse Spa Suite. While those suites do have more square footage, you don’t get the same from-the-bed-and-bathtub views that you get in the Panoramic Veranda. It’s the best deal onboard, for your money.
Designer Adam D. Tihany put Seabourn Venture together, and the result is an aesthetic best described as luxe lodge, with rich whimsical touches.
The Expedition Lounge on Deck 4 has faux fireplaces, tactile fur pillows and a warm atmosphere perfect for Champagne and caviar before dinner (more on that later). It’s right outside the Discovery Lounge, a multi-use theater that serves as a stage for entertainment, as well as enrichment. Here, green velveteen banquettes and a ledge for your drinks invite you to stay through briefings and wildlife lectures.
It might take you a while to find The Bow Lounge, tucked away at the front of Deck 6. But we found this space, laden with navigation instruments that mimic what you find on the Bridge, was the preferred spot to find the expedition staff relaxing. It’s also a good place to make your own coffee or grab a snack; don’t miss the signature salted caramel cookies. On Sea Days, the lounge opened to the front deck, where you could take your binoculars and look for wildlife.
While the new spaces are fun, we also love that some Seabourn stalwarts have been carried over to the smaller Seabourn Venture. It makes us feel at home, and adds consistency to the experience.
First up, Seabourn Square. On the line’s luxury ocean ships, Seabourn Square is the heart of the ship, where you can chat with guest services and book a future cruise, while still enjoying the library, work on a puzzle and have your favorite espresso coffee drink or snack. It remains the same here. We were particularly impressed with the ceramic reusable coffee tumblers, as well as the gelato station for that afternoon sugar hit.
We also loved the whimsical take on The Club. As opposed to being a late-night venue, the space is more of a pre-dinner cocktail lounge on Seabourn Venture, with craft cocktails and sushi bites. The décor is marine fabulous, with pops of coral, sea creatures on the pillows and an encased diver's helmet when you walk in. Our only complaint is that the sushi menu could use a little more variety, particularly on a longer voyage.
Finally, the Colonnade still serves as an elegant buffet for lunch. In the evening, it shifts to table service, usually with themed international options. On certain nights, the venue transforms into Earth & Ocean, replicating the separate al fresco restaurant that you find on the line’s ocean ships. The servers wear different uniforms, and you receive the same more innovative menu that you’d find on other Seabourn vessels (including that smoked chicken salad spread that comes in a lantern).
It’s not Seabourn without mentioning caviar. Caviar on demand is a staple of Seabourn’s ocean ships, and we were curious to see if that carried over onto Venture. We were a bit concerned at first, because we couldn’t find the item, which comes with accruements such as melba toast, egg yolk and red onion, on any menus or on the website.
Fear not, luxury lovers – caviar is alive and well on Seabourn Venture. We ordered it several times, in the Discovery Lounge as a pre-dinner snack and in the Club to accompany a spirited trivia game. Our room attendants did tell us that we could also set up a time to have it delivered in our room daily. And finally, on one of our Sea Days, Seabourn replicated their signature Caviar in the Surf, with a fish egg-laden deck spread.
The traditional Seabourn afternoon tea service is also onboard Seabourn Venture, with multiple tea choices and goodies such as finger sandwiches, sweets, and scones with clotted cream. We can’t imagine a better way to refuel after a wet Zodiac tour.
On a luxury ship, you expect not only good service, but service that goes beyond the basics and is intuitive. It’s more than remembering your name. It’s remembering your habits and knowing your preferences in a way that makes you feel special.
We lucked out by having an abundance of crew on our sailing. Bigger doesn’t always mean better, however, and I was impressed with how great the service was on such a new ship. What differentiates Seabourn’s service from some of the other luxury cruise lines is that it’s warm and friendly, as opposed to being overly stiff and formal. You get the feeling that the staff is working with you to make sure you have a good time, suggesting things that would improve and enhance your experience, as opposed to just being solicitous.
That means getting different wines off the menu, when you ask, and suggesting new things to try. It means having a cruise director that makes afternoon trivia a hilarious must-do, no matter how few people show up. It means having expedition members who saw your Phillies hat and congratulate you on your team’s victory the night before.
If excellent service is what drives you to Seabourn, you’ll find it replicated on Seabourn Venture.
There were some Seabourn traditions, however, that seemed puzzling in an expedition environment.
Formal night is one of them. Our experience on expedition ships is that people typically want to keep things casual after a day of exploration. While we knew there would be a formal night, we didn’t expect people to go all out.
We were wrong. Passengers on our sailing toted along their tuxes and suits, heels and sequins. The younger expedition staff were also dressed to the nines, making the event seem more pervasive than it was. We definitely felt underdressed in a regular dress.
You don’t have to take part in formal night, of course. You can always eat in the Colonnade or if you really want the lobster, order it in your room. But formal night seems strange when you’re traveling to such remote areas. I can see it being odd enough to deter some people unfamiliar with the brand -- younger, more casual -- from choosing Seabourn.
One of the highlights on an expedition cruise should be the special staff onboard who lead excursions, give lectures and make your experience of the unusual natural world around you more immersive.
In the lecture arena, the staff delivered. We learned about the "Guano War" between Peru and Chile; different types of whales and geology around the Atacama Desert. We particularly liked an after-dinner star-gazing session where we went out on deck. Dan on staff even got up at 6 a.m. the next day to help us look for the Southern Cross.
Where the trip lacked was in its actual expedition component. Excursions with the ship’s double sea kayaks were originally scheduled in three ports; all were canceled because of rough seas. And while Seabourn Venture carries 24 Zodiacs, enough to accommodate all onboard guests at once, they were only brought out once, on a day when many passengers were on an eight-hour excursion to Arequipa.
The expedition staff tried to make up for things. In Pisco, a morning boat excursion to Isla Ballestas resulted in Peruvian booby, pelican, Humboldt penguin and baby sea lion sightings. That was a highlight. And when a planned stop in Isla Choros, Chile, fell through for "operational reasons," the ship rearranged the schedule to accommodate a full day tour to these islands, home to the Humboldt Penguin Natural Reserve.
It does help onboard morale that Seabourn includes at least one daily excursion, sometimes multiple choices, in the fare. Still, we weren’t the only ones a bit perplexed with the lack of expedition offerings on such a special ship. People expected to get outside and move, not take city tours. Save for one dune buggy excursion in Peru, there was nothing offered that would be described as strenuous or particularly adventurous, such as a hike.
We also wondered why the expedition staff wasn’t used more on some of the regular excursions where their expertise could have added something extra. Geologists could have provided insight on our tour into the Atacama Desert, for example. Every port we stopped in was bustling; some insight in Peru and Chile’s current economy would have also been interesting.
Other passengers also wondered why we didn’t have the variety of shore excursion options that you would find on a typical Seabourn ship. There weren’t specific foodie options such as Shopping with the Chef, for example -- a miss in countries like Peru and Chile that have exceptional food and wine.
The main issue, we were told by the expedition leader Luciano Bernacchi, is that as with many expedition trips, things can change at a moment’s notice. On the day the Zodiacs did go out, the staff was asked to show their permits from the Peruvian Navy three times. It’s probably highly likely that this particular itinerary, with its limited opportunities for expedition activities, will not be offered again.
Although we weren’t able to do the Zodiacs ourselves, we did tour the new Landing Zone on Deck 3. This new space makes it much easier passengers to get on and off the Zodiacs in a protected environment.
The space has cubbies for each passenger to store their boots; one smart touch is that the cubbies are slanted, allowing wet boots to drip dry even faster. There are plenty of places for passengers to sit and put the boots on too.
Even better for protected areas in the Arctic and Antarctica, the Landing Zone has built-in foot showers where passengers can wash off debris (read: penguin poop) without trekking it into the ship. Disinfectant is also applied to the boots to prevent any microbe spread.
One thing that the ship is lacking is the ability to store the Zodiacs down at water level; instead, they are grouped on the top deck, however, and need to put in the water with a crane. This set up makes getting the Zodiacs in the water a more time-consuming process.
We did know before we went that the two submarines that Seabourn Venture carries would not be in use during our itinerary. That’s not unusual; while more expedition ships carry "toys" such as helicopters and submarines, national regulations within different countries prohibit their use in more places than you’d think. If a sub ride is a "must do" on your expedition cruise, you’ll want to check that they can actually be used before you book.
You’ll also want to budget for a sub ride; submarine excursions on Seabourn Venture do cost extra, and the prices can be steep. (On some expedition lines, submarine rides are included in your fare). How much? It depends on itinerary, but we were told that the trips range from $500 to $900 for a 30-minute dive.
Keep in mind that if you do a sub excursion, you’ll be boarding from a Zodiac on open water. So you’ll want to have some amount of mobility. Each sub can only hold six people and they won’t go if the weather conditions are remotely iffy -- so make those reservations early and be prepared for last-minute cancellations (or additions).
I’ve heard extremely mixed reviews about sub trips, not only on Seabourn Venture but on other expedition ships, with many people reporting that they saw very little for the money they paid. As with any expedition activity, your experience and whether or not it’s worth it to you will vary.
From my cruise, it’s hard to extrapolate exactly what a Seabourn Venture cruise in Antarctica or the Arctic could be like. The ship was built to shine in those areas, and repositioning cruises, no matter what the line, can sometimes fall short.
Where we found Seabourn Venture needs work is with its programming and making sure that people have enough to do, both on and off the ship, when weather conditions or the location makes the original plan difficult to execute. Bored passengers become cranky passengers – and those complaints over programming and excursions is what we heard most from others.
One thing we can say for sure: You will enjoy Seabourn-style luxury with your cabins, dining and service onboard, no matter what your itinerary. And for Seabourn fans, that is enough of a differentiator to book. Given what we saw, the ship should shine in the places where it’s meant to. In the meantime, more caviar?