With 24 cruises under my belt, across the spectrum of markets, it’s fair to call me discerning and, when it comes to luxury cruising, picky. So, having read some of the reviews on Cruise Critic, I was concerned about sailing on Seabourn Quest.
Reports of a product that had fallen in recent years, that had become “Carnivalized”, were alarming, especially since my wife and I were spending a small fortune for a Penthouse suite on a 24-day cruise to Antarctica, Patagonia, and South Georgia Island. We kept reading about a staff that no longer went out of its way, a “never say no” ethos that had been abandoned, and food that had become mediocre.
Bottom line: we needn’t have worried — this cruise, especially the service, exceeded almost every legitimate expectation we could have had, and satisfied most of the others — but because nothing is perfect, the details are worth reading.
Antarctica was at the head of my bucket list, and with climate change affecting this part of the world so rapidly and unalterably, my wife and I decided not to wait any longer. We chose this itinerary/ship combination, because it was the only one that ticked all of our boxes:
• The itinerary included South Georgia Island, easily the most dramatic, wildlife-rich destination in Antarctic waters. For me, there was no point in taking this cruise and spending this money if we didn’t go to South Georgia.
• Seabourn Quest is the largest and most stable ship with landings in Antarctica, which was vital for my seasickness-prone spouse.
• A cabin with both a balcony and a bathtub was nonnegotiable.
• Seabourn Quest is, at least until Scenic Eclipse comes online, the most luxurious ship sailing in Antarctica, and who doesn’t like a different dessert soufflé every night and unlimited caviar anytime?
• Seabourn's Antarctica Excursion Team abounds with researchers and experts who have honest credentials in varied sciences, some with decades of experience on the White Continent.
• The first week of the itinerary, which sailed the Chilean Fjords and offered a day-long excursion flying to and driving through the majesty of Torres del Paine National Park, allowed two more dreams to come true.
Unfortunately, Seabourn’s reputation is not aided by the ground game at its Seattle-based, Holland-America-run headquarters. Cruise reservation, spa reservation, and excursion reservation agents who don’t understand their product and make vague reassurances without knowing facts don’t inspire confidence; they undermine it. Simple things, like knowing whether there are differences in layouts between Penthouse Suites and Penthouse Spa Suites, or what the charges will be for using a cell phone while on board, should by definition be part of a well-trained agents’ knowledge base. Accurate details of a shore excursion should be easily available to them. Understanding what the elements of the multi-day Andrew Weill wellness program actually entail (as opposed to reading from an opaque list of classes that explains nothing) — especially when it’s by far the priciest thing on the spa menu — ought to be a given. Most importantly of all, being certain that my wife’s severe gluten allergy really can be accommodated shouldn’t require multiple phone calls on my part. It didn’t help that requests to discuss my concerns with people in management were promised and never happened, until my wonderful travel agent at Tully/Cruise Professionals intervened. When I finally had the discussion I’d wanted with a “higher-up” who had actual experience with her company’s product, I felt somewhat mollified, but not at all certain that the quality of the ship and service would be what I wanted/expected or was promised it would be. Fortunately, the ship’s operations are far better than the home office’s.
Though we didn’t use the line’s air program, we did use their private car transfer service in Santiago, Chile, and it was flawless. When we arrived at the ship, boarding procedures were warm and efficient, leaving us feeling cared-for, from moment one.
Seabourn Quest’s exterior is graceful and pleasing, but a sliding glass roof over the central pool/patio area would have added better balance, and more utility on a weather-intensive cruise like this. Regardless, the main pool and hot tubs are heated, and the equally warm hot tub at the bow is the best, most decadent spot on any ship from which to watch 14-story icebergs float by.
Our suite was, by and large, terrific. Standard balcony “suites" would be adequate for most cruises, but for this long and involved voyage, with its constantly changing wardrobe needs (like switching from thermal underwear and a parka to a tuxedo on formal nights) we appreciated having the extra space and accoutrements.
Pluses, at least in in the Penthouse category, include good water pressure in the stand-alone showers and unlimited hot water for the deep and welcome tubs; three sinks…including one in the separate WCs, superb toiletries; hefty towels and lots of hooks to hang them on; fluffy bath mats; cozy, high-count bed linens; attractive etched glass doors separating bedrooms from living rooms, with separate heating-a/c zones for both spaces; lighted three-mirror vanities; solid furniture; subdued but smart fabrics; mostly good lighting; and tons of storage throughout, especially in the walk-in closets, which are stocked with enough hangars for an average Kardashain. Soundproofing is surprisingly good, whether to hallways, adjacent cabins, or balconies. Likewise, thick-glassed balcony doors keep out chilly polar drafts, but don’t require herculean efforts to open or lock. Finally, one of the most welcome perks of sailing on an all-inclusive ship is that the deluge of paper found on other cruises — most of which is selling one thing or another — is slowed to a trickle. The same holds true for p. a. announcements.
Minuses can be found in unadjustable shower heads aimed to flood bathrooms when shower doors open; not nearly enough outlets and no usb ports (which is a surprise in a ship that entered service in 2011, and which could easily be remedied with power strips) long closets that aren’t lit on one end; bedroom and living room TVs that work on the same remote frequency, so that when one turns on, the other one does too; live TV channels devoted almost exclusively to news; an eclectic but confounding set of movies and TV shows on demand; and flimsy do not disturb/please make up room signs that keep falling off the door handles (yes, it’s a small thing, but you’d be amazed how annoying it can become day after day after day.) Internet is slow and expensive, but at least all rooms have wifi. Confusingly, while the day’s activities list can be accessed on the TVs, the restaurant menus are only found online...it would be better if both were in one place. Finally, it would be nice if there were a way to lock balcony doors open to let in fresh air.
I cannot say enough about our stewardess, Caroline, whose charm was seemingly endless, and whose dedication to our having a clean, nurturing living space couldn’t have been made easy by how messy we became (ok, I became) as the cruise wore on.
Along those lines, cleanliness is taken very seriously on this ship, a necessity so as to not contaminate the pristine environment we’re sailing in, and to prevent passenger and crew sickness. In example: a tour of the galley required thoroughly washed hands, and was off limits to anyone who had come in contact with anyone who had a respiratory or digestive illness within the previous 24 hours.
By the way, contrary to other posts I’ve read on Cruise Critic, Seabourn Quest does have guest laundry facilities: four washers, four dryers, and unlimited detergent pods, on Deck 5.
I won’t go into all of the public spaces — they are generally understated and pleasant and I’m sure they have been covered in detail elsewhere — but there are a few standouts, both good and bad.
The single-seating dining room is almost monochromatically white, with black and highlights and a few gold touches. Though I thought this mix could be jarring and cold, it wound up being elegant and bright. Happily, there are lots of tables for two and four, with many situated along the large windows and their often dramatic Antarctic views.
Seabourn Square is the restful hub of the ship, offering computers for passenger use; recliners to take in the aft sea views; a little café serving pastries, sandwiches, and the best hot chocolate on the planet; and the guest relations area, peopled with the most service-oriented team I’ve encountered on any ship. More about them, later.
My favorite public spot on board is the Observation Lounge, set high on Deck 10, forward. Saturating panoramic views, easy access to the outdoors, high-tea with delectable scones, and a lively bar open til the wee hours made it the go-to spot for many passengers.
One room that doesn’t work is the Grand Salon. View-obstructing columns and a way-too-shallow rake make it needlessly difficult to enjoy the nightly shows or see the Power Point presentations on Antarctica landings and wildlife. It’s a little crazy that such an old fashioned show lounge was put into such a new ship.
Artwork is mostly unobtrusive, but also disjointed and/or without character…except for a few interesting sculptures of astronauts and a SCUBA diver.
Food can make or break a cruise, and while Seabourn Quest’s may not rise to the level of a Michelin star, it was pretty damn good, especially considering the circumstances.
Forget the usual challenges a cruise ship faces; this itinerary had a 16 day stretch between ports! 16 days without being able to replenish the supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, 16 days without going ashore to get the catch of the day from local fishermen, 16 days of running ever lower on salad and eggs and meat. That the quality remained as high as it did is stunning. I’m not saying there wasn’t a decline over that time, but it was much less dramatic than I could have ever expected.
Beef onboard was among the best anywhere, not just on a cruise ship. My wife had filet mignon one night that could literally be cut with a fork, and was as as flavorful as — no, check that, more flavorful than — any ribeye I’ve ever had, stateside. Likewise, poultry (other than the bland “classic” chicken breast) had more taste than is usually found in the U.S., and almost commensurate with that of Europe and South America.
Seafood was remarkably good, especially at the beginning of the cruise when fresh, local fish was alternately delicate and savory, and the accompanying sauces were distinct, but rarely overpowering. The caviar surprised me with its quality.
Veggies tended to be overcooked and salads were still a bit behind the times — small and anchored by romaine and other less tasty lettuces — but they managed to be available all the way through the end of the cruise.
Breads and pastries were a high point, with some of the most involuntary-yummy-noise-making, eye-rolling-up-into-my head desserts I’ve ever had (Kaiserschmarrn, anyone?)
Wines were only ok — and the champagne was pretty poor — but they were included in the cruise price and the sommelier tried awfully hard, so I can’t complain too much.
Most importantly, beginning the second day of the cruise, there was almost always at least one person (usually many more) on the wait staff at each venue who knew our names, understood the severity of my wife’s food allergy, and went out of their way to find or create items that she could have and that would be as satisfying as the food I was eating. Our gratitude was constant, and by the end of the cruise, we’d come to think of several of them as our friends.
Of course, each dining space had its own ambience:
The main restaurant offered consistently refined, yet somehow unpretentious, cuisine. Off-menu requests were accommodated with kindness, anytime I asked.
We were so well taken care of at The Patio — an open-air grill by the pool — that we regularly ate there, even when it was below freezing and we had to dine wearing parkas, hats, and gloves.
The Thomas Keller Grill, a set-menu, no-cost but reservation-required spot on Deck 8 was superb. The flavors were so good, and the food felt so nourishing in our bodies, that we couldn’t help overeating (how the heck did they make gluten-free bread that satisfying?!?)
The Collonade — offering buffets for breakfast and lunch, and themed sit-down dinners — was our least favorite. Omelets were cooked in oil, instead of butter, and the range of gluten-free options were more limited than elsewhere…though they did have gluten-free pancakes.
Room service ran 24-hours, and we could order pretty much anything that was available in the restaurants.
We marveled at the servers, many of whom worked in multiple restaurants on the same day (did they ever sleep?) They seemed to be everywhere, moving with practiced, comfortable speed, and apparently sincere smiles. This is clearly hard, hard work, but it didn’t look like a soul-sucking chore, the way it often does on other ships. They made us feel welcome.
Still, as extraordinary as the wait staff was, there was nothing that could have prepared me for the Expedition Team.
I’m not sure how many of them there were — perhaps two dozen — but the most telling thing I can tell you is that they received a standing ovation of unending gratitude from the passengers at our last evening recap in the lounge. These men and women worked so hard to make sure we had the best possible experience, that we were left speechless, some of us crying.
When I first decided on Seabourn, I was concerned that a luxury ship’s Expedition Team wouldn’t be as well-credentialed or passionate as, say, National Geographic’s or Quark’s. Those worries were unfounded.
Many of this team had worked for National Geographic and other well-known scientific organizations, and/or spent seasons on the ice doing legitimate research. Experts in penguins and whales and albatrosses and sea ice and geology and plant life and Shackleton and history and climate science and sociology and photography and other disciplines I’m sure I’m forgetting, shared their enthusiasm with us and put themselves on the line for us every day.
Each passenger got either a landing or a Zodiac tour each day. (Smaller ships do have an advantage over Seabourn Quest, here, usually affording guests two landings or tours/day. So, my wife and I opted to pay for optional kayaking tours, giving us a second daily exposure to the continent and its wildlife. We weren’t sorry. Paddling around and through curious, swirling fur seals & breaching penguins, and floating by rolling, crackling-from-the-inside, azure-colored icebergs are memories that will never leave us.)
The Expedition Team, and a deeply committed ship’s crew — many of whom I’m guessing we wouldn’t see on a “normal” cruise — loaded us into our Zodiacs efficiently and with great consciousness for our safety. When we arrived on shore, an even larger team was there, to make sure we landed safely, while others were stationed throughout the day's site to answer questions, offer commentary, help us with our cameras, or simply to stand there with us, silently taking in the awe. They waited in advantageous spots, pointing our eyes toward the unbearable cuteness of day-old gentoo penguin chicks ducking under their parents’ bellies for warmth, and preventing the more careless of us from venturing too close to wildlife that doesn’t need to be stressed by giant bipeds in bright orange parkas.
Onboard, the crew and staff didn’t merely go through the motions of environmental protection, but took pride in going as “dark” as possible at night to prevent bird strikes, and made damn sure that we brought no organic material on our clothes from the rest of the world to Antarctica, or even form one part of the continent to the other. Yes, it's law, but they took it seriously.
Perhaps most heartening to me, people with mobility issues were treated like human beings, and if there was any way possible for them to get into the Zodiacs and onto the beaches, it happened.
That dedication to our having the best experience possible extended throughout the ship’s complement, right up to the captain. Midway through one day, when the seas became too rough for more than half of the ship’s guests to get their landings, the captain and expedition leader — an earnest, heartful, committed man named Iggy — found an alternate site so that everyone could at least have some experience that day. On other ships, the answer could easily have been, “I’m sorry, sir, we tried. There’s nothing we can do.” That’s not the way things are done on the Quest.
Similarly, when ice flows prevented us from getting to the bay where we were supposed to have our last landing on Antarctica, the captain and Iggy decided to hightail it to South Georgia, where instead of having just two days of landings and tours, we had an unprecedented four.
Another day, when a pod of humpback whales were spotted breaching and diving in the distance, Seabourn Quest steamed to meet them and stayed in their company for, I think, 30 minutes or more (time kinda stood still, just then) giving us passengers thrill after thrill after thrill as the humpbacks leapt into the air, over and again, apparently showing off for a most appreciative audience’s pleasure.
Seabourn even employs an ice captain (perhaps this is normal, but it seemed pretty cool to me) who navigated us through the indescribably dramatic Lemaire Channel, serpentining around potentially dangerous icebergs, that kept changing their position with the wind and current, just to give us passengers awe-filled views it had never occurred to me to imagine. It's an incredibly tricky needle to thread, requiring extraordinary anticipation, considering currents, winds, and that cruise ships take a long time to turn.
And if that commitment seems unusual, or like it would be relegated just to the higher-ups, I have to say that there was an energy on Seabourn Quest that was different from any other ship I have been on, and permeated virtually the entire crew. If I had to define it, I think it would be, “self-respect.”
From the moment we boarded, my wife and I sensed it. There was almost none of the usual, resentment-filled, “I’m here to serve you because I desperately need the money but I didn’t know how hard they would work me, and I can’t stand being here, but I’ll smile anyway” undertone with this crew. Some of it, I assume, has something to do with shorter, more humane contracts, and better pay that takes away the pressure of having having to perform for and solicit tips. But there's an ineffable quality that goes beyond the material. These people didn’t behave like they were “one down” from us. They know they are human beings, our equals and they are apparently treated that way. Yes, they were working and we were on vacation, but they shared themselves openly with us, reveled in the scenes passing by as much as we did (and got at least some chances to experience it for themselves) and seemed to appreciate that we were all having such a unique and precious experience, together.
The feeling of caring and camaraderie is especially alive in the Guest Services team: Hannah, Janice, Banita, Lauren, and William (who while on tour with my wife and me, unobtrusively took a photo of us while we were marveling at the majesty before us, printed it, and had it delivered to our cabin). It lives in people like Ylena and Chris on the shore excursion team, and Sebastien, Lindsay, Jean Paul, Francisco, Darko, Marcos, Liliya, Chloé, Lloyd, Shay, Stefan, and dozens more on the wait staff whose names are eluding me at the moment. It lives in Michelle, a Stewardess who told me that she has been on Seabourn Quest for nine years, and that she wouldn’t take a transfer to another ship, even though she yearns to sail in warmer climes. She knows there is something unique about this vessel, a way the captain and hotel manager, treat their crew and staff that sets the tone for the way most everyone treats each other in their floating home.
And perhaps there is something to the idea suggested to me by Jan, the cruise director, that passengers who take this cruise add to the unique energy of Seabourn Quest, because we are by definition a little different, a little more adventurous, curious, and flexible than usual cruisers, and that this unique itinerary, in which we all — crew, staff, and guest — were sharing a singular experience, linked everyone in a way that might not have happened on an average sailing.
There are a few areas where that aura is a little strained: spa and gift shop employees while just as kind and warm as anyone else on the Quest, tend to hard sell, which is a discomfiting contrast to the rest of the ship — I’m guessing they’re on commission; and the room service staff — though again nice — seems more put-upon in the way I’m used to experiencing on cruises. Perhaps they are overworked?
One last critique/thought: I would love it if Seabourn would break the inexplicable luxury line rule, that passé, lowest-common-denominator, pablum production shows and headliners are good enough for a captive audience, and trust that their passengers — a generally well-off, sophisticated, independent-minded bunch of humans — want and can handle entertainment that is as current, inspiring, artistic and multi-dimensional as the destinations and expeditions that attract us to their ships in the first place.
But these are anomalies on an otherwise wonderful cruise. As Michelle, the Stewardess, succinctly put it when describing what makes this ship different from the others, “Quest is best.” Read Less