When Diane Love and I completed the first segment of our 61-day journey near the end of Encore's inaugural year, we found that in many ways it delivers what Seabourn promises-- contemporary design, more dining and entertainment venues ... Read More
When Diane Love and I completed the first segment of our 61-day journey near the end of Encore's inaugural year, we found that in many ways it delivers what Seabourn promises-- contemporary design, more dining and entertainment venues than its other ships, more open deck areas for swimming and sunning, and the feel of an upscale resort.
Encore and its sister ship due next year fulfill the company's commitment to pursue an exponentially larger customer base. Its three other ships launched in the last decade each carry 450 passengers. Encore, with 600 passengers, alone carries the combined capacity of all three of the previous fleet of Spirit, Legend, and Pride that was sold to competing brand Windstar.
We found a mostly enthusiastic ship's company and many satisfied fellow guests. About half of the passengers are repeat-customers from its previous, smaller ships, members of what Seabourn calls its “Club.” This is an outstanding loyalty rate that testifies to the brand's historical appeal despite the conversion to nearly-mid-size ships.
The ships are a size that it believes can better compete with on-board dining and entertainment offerings of Regent, Crystal, and some other top-rated cruise lines.
New Seabourn passengers never sailed on the 200-passenger Spirit, Legend, or Pride. They never had what many considered the superior environment of “the Yachts of Seabourn,” the tag line of yesteryear's quite different experience.
Before the Encore launch this year, Seabourn's 450 passenger ships still evoked some of that small-ship experience, or at least passengers like us pretended they did. These vessels-- the Quest, Sojourn, and Odyssey-- presented a challenge to Seabourn as it rapidly doubled and redoubled recruiting and training to staff the ships. The results were mixed, at least in our travels on each of the three, but they still triggered our memories of the Spirit. For us, the bulked-up Encore lacks this link to the past.
The magic of the Spirit was created by mutual agreement between passengers and crew, all of whom embraced the fantasy that they were aboard a private yacht and all of whom behaved appropriately. Guests we encountered on three Spirit itineraries were self-assured, friendly without spilling their life story in the first five minutes of conversation, and had nothing to prove to fellow passengers. This self-confidence was perhaps most conspicuous in their dress, which was ironically not conspicuous. We all dressed like we were on a prosperous uncle's yacht. We remember no “formal nights.”
In contrast, Seabourn's now much larger clientele includes many who would not appreciate the very old tuxedo joke: “Why would I want to dress like the maitre d'?”
Today Seabourn makes social interaction a higher priority, which seems to be well-received by many new customers. But many of the tools used to facilitate instant friendships depart from the original small-ship experience.
Early in each cruise there is a party of sorts stretched through all the guest decks and companionways. If you obsess about immediately knowing everything about everyone on-board, you may find it appealing to consume drinks and hors d'oeuvres in the confines of narrow passageways. We found it more like a college dorm party for new freshmen.
Add the likes of a costume trivia playoff and passenger “glee club” performance and you get the idea. Love it or hate it.
The crowd on our first segment from Civitavecchia to Dubai seemed a bit older than some past Seabourn cruises. We are not privy to the company's data, of course, but the need to fill hundreds more “bed nights” may have expanded Seabourn's net to older targets through different agent promotions and marketing channels.
Public, unguarded conversations about options for hip replacement, the benefit of dying quickly if you have cancer, and extended family health histories made us sometimes feel we were on a Holland America cruise. Holland America, which attracts an older profile, has been the sister line of Seabourn since management of both was consolidated by big brother Carnival, the ultimate owner, a few years ago.
Seabourn built larger public spaces to make everyone more comfortable, but also books many more passengers to fill the bigger ship. To manage poolside crowds, bulletins remind clients that sun bathing is available not just at the main pool midships, but at new locations fore and aft.
In Encore's popular forward Observation Bar, the volume of passengers who have had a few pops sometimes results in increased passenger volume. That is to say that you may quite clearly hear gratuitously loud conversational outbursts in English or non-English languages, including German or New Jersey or Australian.
Cocktail hour hors d'oeuvres and teatime treats (except the scones) are no longer passed in the Observation. You must choose from a self-service “tapas” buffet and cart everything to your seat. This provides a greater variety but less "luxury" than passed hors d'oeuvres, which are still offered in the Club lounge.
New to us is a bar menu that includes additional charges for what Seabourn considers premium liquors. Seabourn has also been trying to sell wine tasting events from $99 to $500 per person, and individual vintage bottles at meals. All this in an all-inclusive format that promises no charge for fine wine and spirits throughout the ship and no requirement or expectation of tipping.
The largest space is the “Grand Salon,” used for daytime lectures and demonstrations. The Encore's slightly larger stage makes space for more ambitious evening entertainment programs. This change has led Seabourn to present “production” events many nights, featuring four singers and two dancers. We found these evenings somewhat comparable to dinner theater, perhaps a reasonable alternative to the overwrought productions on the largest mainstream cruise ships.
We would have preferred a jazz trio or a chanteuse. The Grand Salon and Encore's other lounges seem to us better suited to a cabaret duo (as practiced in the Observation) or jazz piano and bass, rather than a mini costume epic. Other nights entertainers come from the rotation of singers and instrumentalists and comics and the occasional magician that is familiar to regular cruisers on any cruise line.
For Seabourn regulars, the Grand Salon is best known for numerous fat pillars that block views of the performers from many angles and only a slight rise in seating from front to back that likewise can compromise views. This invariably results in intermittent Jack-in-the Box moments throughout every performance as audience members jump up to try to find a better view. The problem has not been corrected on the Encore.
The Restaurant, Encore's main dining room, proved the best choice on this trip and was consistently serving more interesting and better prepared food than our personal experience on Seabourn's 450-passenger ships. However, the “best” table on a particular voyage depends on rotating personnel and other factors, so next sailing you may prefer the poolside Patio, the Colonnade, the new Sushi bar, or the Keller Grill.
The net of 1) a bigger ship, 2) ample passengers, and 3) broader demographic and social profile yields an environment akin to a country club or private beach club on a crowded holiday weekend.
Whether that delivers what Seabourn advertises-- “ultra-luxury”-- is in the eye of the beholder and depends on the personal experience and preferences of each customer.
If you have not stayed at l'hotel du Cap in Antibes or dined at long-gone La Cote Basque in New York or enjoyed a villa at the Four Seasons Jimbarin Bay in Bali or (fill in the blank with your own expectations), you may wrestle with an appropriate way to best characterize Seabourn Encore.
Next we continued from Dubai to Singapore to Bali to Sydney.
The final legs of our eight plus weeks on Encore were a vivid reminder of the overwhelming importance of people-- both staff and guests-- to the enjoyment and satisfaction of any cruise.
About 95 percent of the original 600 passengers who boarded with us in Rome disembarked in Dubai or Singapore, along with a large percentage of the guest-facing staff. We found that we had set sail on a quite different experience onward to our final destination, Sydney.
The crew and staff who stayed aboard continued to remember our names (a cornerstone of the Seabourn experience) and deliver the level of service we saw beginning in Rome. Some newcomers did not perform as well and there seemed to be a shortage of personnel during peak demand. Service deteriorated further after Bali.
The new cruise director who boarded in Singapore was intent on amping up social events, which led to some odd results. Popular trivia contests appeared more often in the forward Observation Bar, sometimes overlapping afternoon tea or evening hors d'oeuvres. Some bean bag games, which had been played on a small outdoor space on Deck 7 aft of Seabourn Square, moved to the main pool. This necessitated closing one side of the pool sun deck to accommodate the dozen or so people who chose to toss bean bags, clap, and cheer, while the rest of us tried to read or sleep.
Encore does offer a more serene escape from the main pool, The Retreat on Deck 12. Access, including a private cabana, is charged at about a $300 daily premium above the "all-inclusive" cruise fare.
Caviar in the Surf, which Seabourn labels a "Signature Event," moves to the main pool when staged on a sea day. On one such occasion the cruise director apologized in advance for turning up the music, and then set it so loud that it could have been the ship's Life Boat Muster alarm. I took ear plugs to the next Caviar in the Pool. Sample lyrics:
Mr. Worldwide to infinity
You know the roof on fire
We gon' boogie oogie oogie, jiggle, wiggle and dance
Like the roof on fire
We gon' drink drinks and take shots until we fall out
Like the roof on fire
Now baby get your booty naked, take off all your clothes,
And light the roof on fire
Tell her, tell her baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby
I'm on fire
I tell her baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby
I'm a fireball
Meanwhile, the wave of 500 plus new guests appeared more diverse in nationality and in language (good) and in savoir faire (bad). This diversity cut both ways, adding to the richness of many conversations and interactions, while subtracting from the usual impression of sophistication and civility among Seabourn passengers.
At one port, the captain had to urgently announce over the ship-wide public address system that passengers must stop throwing soda bottles off their balconies to children in small boats 5 to 11 decks below.
One can be forgiven for sometimes thinking they boarded the wrong ship after watching:
a passenger prepare his caviar by mixing all the condiments into the central caviar bowl and eating it with a silver tablespoon, or a diner use his hand to grab a barbecue rib from the family-style serving platter, gnaw it down, and then pitch it back across the table into the platter.
Such incidents were certainly not typical, but they were not unique or isolated.
Between Dubai and Singapore we did get our wish for a charming chanteuse, British vocalist Laura Broad. Unfortunately, Grand Salon entertainment after Singapore became more and more narrowly targeted, to be polite. Two evenings the acts were the worst we have ever suffered at sea.
Most every employee on a Seabourn ship does their best to satisfy, and so our thanks go to all of them. The following were special:
Dimir, the Restaurant maitre d', whose attitude and extra treats kept customers happy.
Slobodan, the ship's chief bartender, who not only appeared virtually simultaneously at all the ship's venues to smooth service, but also corrected any discrepancy he saw beyond the bars in his travels throughout the ship.
Victoria, the bartender in the Observation, who understood that her job is performance art and deserves a standing ovation.
Cindy, the server at a crucial corner of the Colonnade, who kept the entire buffet buzzing.
Anarita and Bruno, the "Duo" in the Observation lounge, who every night performed outstanding, sophisticated music despite a sometimes raucous bar audience.
Reflecting on all 61 days of our travels, Diane and I concluded that Encore is a substantially different product that has attracted many materially different customers, compared to Seabourn's other ships.
The suddenly obvious difficulties of imposing the historical Seabourn ambiance and service on a 600 passenger ship suggest that the cruise line may have entered a less discerning customer segment that is at odds with its "ultra-luxury" aspirations. Read Less