Tale of Two Cruises.
We are frequent cruisers, last few years mostly on Seabourn - after in 2010 we got tired with the drip by drip slippage on Silversea, where we had started out in 1996 as our first high end cruise line. Total is now about 35 cruises on a mixture of cruise lines. Mostly all high end, and a dozen on Seabourn, both the little yachts and the Odyssey class. So we have been around a bit and can make some honest observations that others might find illuminating.
This is going to be a review of our experience on the Sojourn on two of its 2017 cruises in Asia: early January and then again April. The "Viet Nam" cruise was the first one in January, and then an exhaustive China, Japan, and a touch of South Korea and Taiwan on the second in April and May.
Menu, Food and Restaurant Service:
We start this review with our restaurant experience on board, since this is for us one of the major reasons we choose a cruise line. We choose to eat all our dinners and many lunches and breakfasts in the main dining room a/k/a the Restaurant, because this dining venue is the most relaxing and enjoyable dining experience for us at sea. More like we experience in fine dining at restaurants home and abroad. Less casual. Lots of men wear sports jackets. We like the look and feel. We also dined on occasion in the more casual Colonnade for breakfast and lunch, and the outdoor grill for poolside lunch. We stay away from the alternative dining in Restaurant 2.
The biggest change we noticed from prior Seabourn cruises with the Restaurant on the January cruise was with the menu choices and food coming out of the kitchen. Portion sizes had decreased, they claim because people were complaining about the portions being too large. The menu choices of appetizers and main courses were now more limited, and a good number of the dishes prepared and served that we had were below the normal high culinary standards that we had experienced on all prior Seabourn cruises. Once it was the finest food at sea, giving Oceania a run for its money, but something happened we noticed in January that was apparent. While we would now call this cuisine on the whole still very good, it was not anymore the exciting, interesting and very tasty dishes we had gotten used to dine upon during our many prior Seabourn cruises.
We love good caviar, with a nice glass of champagne or chilled vodka, especially when its at no extra charge (beyond what we are already paying in our expensive cruise fares), and this is one of the reasons we gravitated to Seabourn five years ago. They like to show it off as one thing that they do that others don't offer anymore. The supply onboard had always been there, portions ample and the quality high.
Noticeably, on the January cruise, the Uruguayan caviar purveyor's first rate product had been replaced with a grossly inferior California based, fish egg product I am not even sure qualifies to be called caviar. Mushy consistency. Nasty tasting, yes. Inedible for us. After two or three unsatisfactory attempts to sample the new product and to find out whether we had simply gotten a bad batch the first time, or maybe we could adjust to it, we just dropped it. For us, it is better that Seabourn either brings back the excellent Uruguayan product or its equivalent or just discontinues serving caviar. People we talked to who appreciate good caviar were in complete agreement. We don't know whether this downgrading is just corporate cost cutting. Dining Room management said many other caviar fans had also complained - to no avail.
In early May there was a mysterious re-appearance of the good caviar product from Uruguay for a limited period toward the end of the cruise. It was like the good Caspian sturgeon were running again downstream to where we were in Asian waters. We enjoyed it at every opportunity until we disembarked, and the ship surely and sadly reverted back to nasty mushiness.
By the time of our April - May Japan and China cruise, there had been a definite improvement with the food coming-out of the Restaurant kitchen compared to January, even with the continuing, more limited, menu selections and portions control. It was noticeably better. I attribute it to some of the newer and lesser experienced chefs in the kitchen who joined the ship in December/January gaining more cooking experience or learning the Seabourn way and just doing an all around better job in preparing our meals. Restaurant kitchen seemed to be working better. The Executive Chef on board I think made a difference in running the kitchen, and the Hotel Director and F&B manager played roles. Special order requests improved. Quality and taste of the cooked Restaurant kitchen product was generally high, but we had to send our filet mignons back once or twice since the taste of the beef was just not there. The special Keller appetizer and main dish selections still had no fascination for us, and many others we spoke with.
The Encore of the Encore and its effect on the Sojourn:
The 800 pound gorilla in the room when it comes to reviewing Sojourn cruises in this January to May 2017 time frame is of course the coming on line of the new Encore in December 2016. To staff the new ship with the best and most experienced help above and below the decks to please the new ship's clientele on this, Encore's critical first cruises, a reasonable and obvious business objective, Seabourn's three other ships largely had to be stripped of 1/3 each of their best and most experienced people. Therefore virtually 1/3 of Sojourn's most experienced hotel, dining and ship management, restaurant and bar wait staff and dining room assistants, cooks, and stateroom housekeeping attendants, indeed even the unseen and valuable behind the walls administrative people in the guest relations and purser departments, and the below deck personnel who actually keep the ship sailing magnificently during thick and thin, were taken off in the months or weeks preceding the Encore's launch and sent to the Encore to crew up that ship. We lived through the effects of this in January.
These experienced people had to be replaced - largely with new or internally promoted people, whose old positions were then backfilled. And with the fierce competition world wide from other expanding and start up river and ocean cruise lines, there must be a real issue for the best people out there to be found, recruited, engaged and trained to become worthy Seabourn staff members.This finding of the best people and training them to develop the skills to do things the best way possible - the Seabourn Way - does not happen overnight. It is a gradual process for them and for the passengers, as we learned.
And so the passengers of the Sojourn on our January cruise, particularly the frequent Seabourn Sailers, experienced negative differences in a number of things directly attributable to the cannibalizing of its crew and replacement with new personnel. Things happened that shouldn't and never did before on any Seabourn cruise. These differences we experienced included kitchen, dining rooms, bars, stateroom housekeeping and administrative purser and guest relations areas. Fortunately for the below decks crew that keeps the ship running, we saw nothing in the new hirings that affected the voyage's safe and smooth sailing.
Many guests in January complained to other guests, out loud and in private to ship management. Ship management listened, in many instances acknowledged the problems and took corrective action on board to fix and improve, to the extent circumstances allowed.
By the time of our April-May cruise two and one half months later, with some new and inexperienced staff still joining and learning the Seabourn way, because there is always crew turnover, and promoted people stepping into their new jobs, overall it was a very noticeably improved and enjoyable experience on the Sojourn. People who recognized the differences between January and April spoke out how much better things had become, a return more to the normal. Restaurant kitchen in particular, and Dining rooms, bars and stateroom housekeeping personnel. While noticeably better for us in April and May than January, a number of the frequent Seabourners we encountered who boarded in March and April and confided in us, as guests always do, expressed their own concerns and reservations from what they observed, compared to their own past Seabourn experiences. New to Seabourn passengers we met had nothing to compare against.
While the food coming out of the kitchen on this April-May cruise was generally much improved, food and service had not gotten back to the old Seabourn standards, that used to be called the best at sea, by the time we off boarded in mid-May. Breakfast in the Restaurant, for example, still needed work, both food preparation and service. The Colonnade however, hummed along every day we went up there for breakfast or lunch - with a very good and varied buffet product and fine service. We never had dinner in the Colonnade. Restaurant menus need widening, and people get around the portion sizing by asking for doubles or seconds and are always gladly accomodated.
Scallops during April and May seemed to have become the chef's favorite offering at dinner time in the Restaurant. Usually on the dinner menu every second or third night in a slightly different incarnation. The Keller special dishes sometimes very good but mostly pretentious and a big dud most everyone agreed is a mistake. Beef filets sometimes not very tasty and returned to kitchen. Lamb chops excellent. Veal usually very good. Most fish dishes very good. Nice selection of veggies well prepared and salads, but cheese course selection needs improvement, recognizing we were in Asian waters and far from the fromageries of France.
Meals in the Restaurant ably supervised by dining room management and served well and efficiently by the veteran wait staff, and the learning, relatively newly engaged, new wait staff growing steadily in confidence, knowledge, ability, skills and the special, emerging personality and strong presence that has always made the Seabourn wait staff so very special in its relationship to the guests. This is the key to the recovery.
Some complain on these pages about long time gaps in the Restaurant between ordering time and being served on the Sojourn and the other Odyssey class ships. We never experienced that inn either January or April - May. Maybe because we get to the Restaurant closer to when it opens its doors and order before the kitchen and wait staff gets backed up.
There have been a number of complaints on these pages about the poor quality of the complimentary wines served on board Seabourn ships. I think this is overblown. Wines and champagne and booze of all sorts flow freely on board all day at all venues. Yes Seabourn does not spend a lot of money on these complimentary wines. Nor, as far as I can tell, does anyone else in the luxury cruise business who supplies these complimentary wines. And over time we have sailed with Seabourn the quality has improved. There were wines one could find that had had good structure and taste and were very enjoyable as an accompaniment to the food. Nicholas Feuliiette champagne from France is very nice indeed. Not a cheap champagne by any score and very delicious. Usually a very drinkable Pinot Noir or Zinfandel or Cab could be found on the daily selections. And Santa Margherita is a very nice Italian Pino Grigio, readily available. Some of the New Zealand's sauvignons blancs were not the sometimes thin whites. Lovely French roses from Provence or Italy. What we had to drink was not shabby at all. In fact I cannot think of one night or lunch that we had wines that we did not enjoy. And my wife and I have a lovely cellar at home. Nice Sauterne dessert wines too on board. The head Sommelier Jo is a real gem, as are many on her team.
Entertainment whether with the one time only magicians and comedians and concert artists, or with the six person song-dance team was generally somewhat above average for a ship of this size, although the Ukrainian dance duo of Yuri and Ilona is world class. The entertainment troupe was better in April than the troupe in January, when there was no dance team. Good band too in April, better than on the January cruise. Singers better too in their performing skills, but the production numbers are weak, and the few shows too often recycled. Who among the Seabourn core passengers can really get excited about the hyped Tim Rice special? Most of the songs I never heard before, but maybe the prevalent age group on board explains much of this. Hollywood musical themes and Broadway standard shows should be the mainstay. Lerner and Lowe, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Johnny Mercer. Cole Porter. George Gershwin. Dirty Dancing. What a wealth of vault material to choose from. R 'n R show fine, but numbers needs some better producing. Dance on Yuri and Ilona! The Cruise Director Sophie is very pleasant, very good at her job and a very talented occasional performer as well, with a deep stage background in London musicals.
The Destinations Services Department has a real gem with Ilona running it. She did an outstanding job under some very trying conditions. Hotel management also very much improved when Helmut a solid industry pro made his appearance for us as Director in April and the behind the walls people with time, are learning to practice their administrative trade better.
Captain Hamish Elliot is one of the best around. He is very approachable, as are all the officers, makes everything very personal and more interesting. He is dealing as best as he can with the transition issues of running his ship and bringing it back to the old Seabourn standards after the recent cannibalization of his crew, and the possible repeat of this process in May of 2018 when the Ovation comes on line.
Pool and Pool Deck:
The pool and pool deck were not much used on these voyages in the April - May mid and northern Asian waters. Quite lovely and nice size for 450 passengers, with proper shade areas under the overhangs we've experienced on other Seabourn cruises to warmer climes as was the January cruise out of Singapore where there was a lot more pool action. I have never experienced these chair hogs others talk about, even on the hottest days at sea. To me, seasoned travelers know how to get along. Pool attendants know how and when to enforce the posted 30 minute rule. My experience is that are always enough chairs available, and a person who puts down a book to hold a chair at 9 30am on a sea day while he or she goes to breakfast for 45 minutes is not to be castigated, when 95% of the deck chairs are wide open. Well maintained areas, and the bar servers make frequent rounds to satisfy all liquid tastes. The deck lounge chairs should have pads, as do Oceania's, and this Seabourn should do something about. Lying on the webbing is not that comfortable. Very tasteful pool music kept purposely low in volume so as not to be annoying like on some other cruise lines. This is the Seabourn way again. Class.
The Pool Grill serves its purpose for us at lunch in decent weather with its limited menu, although opened at night too. Nicely prepared burgers, salads, pizza and other assorted dishes more than one would expect at a pool grill.
The ship itself is beautifully designed and maintained, and sails exceedingly well even in rough waters, although scheduled to go into dry dock soon for a needed refreshening after 5 years in service. The public rooms and bars are elegant in design without being ostentatious and are well kept and spacious. Comfortable seating. The Club on Five for us just perfect, with the bar counter and convivial bar personnel and fellow drinkers, and the closed off casino and its machines not disrupting guests enjoyment boozing it up in the lounge. A haven for many people before and after dinner, with its pleasant cafe singer and musicians.
At 32,000 tons and 450 passengers, and with its footprint and profile, this is the perfect sized ship for us. Passenger density low, and crew to passenger ratio high. The crew gets to know passengers' names and after a few days they identify you by name as matter of course. Just like the old days. It is a pleasing experience to be identified by old and new crew by name - another Seabourn tradition that has been maintained. I am told they really work at this face and name identification. Some say the size of the crew has been downsized in recent months. We saw no proof of that and never suffered for lack of quick staff attendance for our needs.
The stateroom - which is the same standard size for the most part throughout the entire ship except for the suites - is very spaciously designed at 365 sq ft with the Verandah. Decor a little tired perhaps some say, especially the frequent Seabourn Sailers, and in comparison to the new Encore, with its 600 passengers. but comfortable and very functional, with plenty of drawer and cabinet space. Nice width and length. Nice TV placement. Nice liquor setup. Tables and chairs. Room quiet and no noise from adjacent staterooms. Mostly good internet, and the price is cheap enough. We hardly ever had connectivity problems in these waters. The walk in closet, with safe, nicely sized even for long cruise passengers with lots of clothing. The bathroom also nicely sized and twin sinks are a real plus for two people traveling together. Shower, and tub, and I have yet to find anyone actually using the tub for anything other than to hang laundry or keeping the keg of beer cold on ice. Shower wee bit on the narrow side, but one gets used to this unless really large and one learns to adapt. Stateroom temperature controls perfect. Verandah nice size and comfortable.
The Enrichment Lectures were numerous and all outstanding, more so on the China - Japan April-May cruise. The presenters gave us much information about the cultures and history of where we were going. Some political lectures too. Professor Paul Ropp from Clark University a real gem on Asia. Seabourn should hire him full time as the head of this program. He was so knowledgable and an excellent presenter, and having lived in the Far East for so many years made him so much more credible and interesting. Many rave reviews from the audience onboard and we agree he was the best of any we have ever had.
Excursions and Tours:
The ship's group excursions choices are the usual mix of too much or too little, with the usual complaints endemic to all cruise lines as too expensive and bus rides too long. Seattle can do better job in advance planning certain must-see group overnight excursions. Like Xian in China, which was put together for twenty odd of us by the ship's Destination Manager Ilona on the ship itself on very short notice.
And Okinawa, with its sad WW2 history especially for Americans, but also for the Japanese and natives who died in the biggest land battle of the Pacific, should get better programs designed from Seattle for those many passengers, mostly Americans, interested in seeing and learning more from the ground about what happened here. There are stone walls in the Peace Memorial and Museum with 13,000 American boys names on them. More names there than grave stones markers in Normandy. And other walls with the names of over 200,000 Japanese and Okinawans who also died there during the battle. A must see.
Ports and Cities Visited.
The ports and cities we visited in Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand on the January cruise and China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan on the April-May cruise were all interesting, and there were many. Although after a while everything begins to blur together. Vietnam especially appealing in its several cities visited, since it is still the old country on the verge of the conversion to a new China type building and culture boom. So much American history here with the War. Five years from now it will not be this interesting mix of old and new culture and society anymore: the conversion will have taken place. The ever present motorcycles and motorbikes will be replaced by autos. Ships tours that were arranged were excellent.
The building boom we witnessed in China is incredible, as was the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta warriors on the Xian overnight excursion expertly handled by the ship's personnel and the outside tour company. Hotels chosen first rate. Logistics superb. Shanghai amazing city we would like to visit again. Beijing very large and fascinating but bit overwhelming . The ship's overall itinerary of all four countries was well accomplished, with the ship darting back and forth from Japan to China and then onto South Korea and Taiwan, with a turnaround stop to the south in Hong Kong, before heading back north through the Ryukyu Islands and Okinawa on the way to the main islands of Japan.
The many Japan stops beginning in Hiroshima and ending in Yokohama- Tokyo- Kobe cities after Mt Fuji stop were fascinating in its culture and scenery. Lovely and interesting stops and sights, and we did Kyoto on our own. Enchanting. So many temples and shrines everywhere, as in China. Transportation by air or the bullet trains on the tours and excursions very well done. The logistics for these various excursions and overnights is not that easy to accomplish, but the Destinations Services Department as previously mentioned did a splendid job. And lets face it - all daily tours are not created equal. Some are great, some average and others just bad. The full day tours were the most grueling by far, but there was much to see many of us elected this punishment anyway.
Seoul after we docked in Inchon, near where MacArthur landed, a very large very modern city and little scary with the threat of nuclear attack ever present, but the South Koreans seemed not to care nearly as much as we Americans did. Busan in the south very interesting stop and not nearly as crazy as was Seoul.
All in all, WE loved these two trips to Asia and this ship, although the ship somewhat less than in past 5 years. Our expectation is that Seabourn will learn from its Encore debut experience and plan a better launch for the Ovation next year that will not impact negatively on the other four ships in the fleet. And at the same time we believe it will improve those areas like food and service that have dropped a bit from the past. The Seabourn people who staff these ships make the difference, and these solid pros and new hires they have added will once again become the standard bearer for all that Seabourn greatness that once was. My wife and I believe in the Seabourn brand and its management. We are so confident Seabourn will raise its game to its old standards that we are booked already for a cruise next year. Once the best, it will be the best again.Or risk losing its loyal clientele. Read Less