Cruising on Seabourn Quest

Seabourn Quest (left) docked in Tallinn, Estonia, next to Regal Princess

Having cruised on many cruise ships, but never on Seabourn, I was eager for the opportunity to finally experience this highly rated boutique  luxury line.

So how does Seabourn compare to other luxury lines I’ve been on? While Crystal Cruises is known for the fine service and the Crystal Attitude onboard its larger luxury ships, Seabourn's service was certainly on par from my experience, and being a smaller ship, perhaps even more friendly. In fact, it was probably the overall comraderie exhibited by the staff with each other and with guests that created the familial feeling throughout the ship, making a Seabourn cruise all the more comfortable and appealing. We never felt like strangers or paying guests, and more like guests in someone’s large villa at sea.

Accommodations in our suite were certainly comfortable, with exquisitely upholstered seating and draperies and comfortable bedding. The balcony had two lounge chairs and a table, and spacious enough. The marble bathroom had two sinks and a separate bath and shower, and while compact, more than adequate. Towels and robes were thick and luxurious; the Molton Brown amenities among my favorite. The walk-in closet was sufficiently large enough, and the storage drawers in the stateroom and closet offered more space than we could possibly utilize.  The interactive TV system provided some movies to watch and music to listen to; while the TV stations beamed in were MSNBC, Fox and the BBC. The lecturers onboard were broadcast live.

With cuisine being so integral a part of one's vacation experience, more so than not cruise lines are rated on their cuisine. The newest change onboard Seabourn was the partnership with Thomas Keller of French Laundry and Per Se fame. He has an alternative dining venue on Seabourn Quest, The Grill, featuring his recipes. Certainly the addition of Keller's name lends a lot of clout.

Dining in The Grill is definitely a step above elsewhere on the ship, and while some of Keller's dishes are available in other dining venues onboard, including a featured Thomas Keller menu each night in the main Restaurant, the quality of presentation and cuts of meat in The Grill are superior, as one would expect. We each had one of the two types of steaks on the menu, with different sauces (mine a red wine and truffle reduction), and were both excellent.

The sides -- we stuck with vegetables -- were perfectly prepared and tasty. (It's nice to have healthy portions of nicely prepared vegetables that are often so lacking on cruise ship meals as well as fine dining venues ashore.) Some of the seating for two-somes is quite close together, and while we enjoyed the company of the couple we sat next to, not everyone may find that appealing if seeking a more romantic evening. The desserts were large portions, also very good, the chocolate cake about the richest I’ve had. Neither of us could finish our desserts.

Compared to other cruise lines, however, we felt the menu items in the main Restaurant were somewhat limited, featuring only two courses plus dessert; unlike other cruises that offer four or five course meal options.  Dinner generally included one appetizer and one main course, plus dessert – there wasn’t a separate salad or pasta course, for example.  Cheese plates, one of the dessert options, could be more imaginative with better selections.  Unlike in the The Grill, portions were generally on the small side – not that this is an issue as there’s plenty to eat onboard any cruise – but by way of comparison, if guests want to compare quantity over quality, they’ll find larger portions, I believe, on other luxury ships. (Thomas Keller's duck entree as served in the Restaurant is shown at right.)

Don't get me wrong -- we never went hungry! However, I did hear people complain about the portion sizes, especially younger travelers with hearty appetites. The option, of course, is head to the Colonnade where dinner is available buffet style. The quality of the food in Colonnade is excellent. In fact, a couple of our tastiest dinners were from the buffet, including the Baltic Dinner: the cold roasted venison with lingonberries, the Russian pickles, the borscht, the beef stroganoff, and the Chicken Kiev very all excellent.  

Overall, the quality of food is excellent onboard Seabourn, as one would expect. Fish and chicken was always perfectly cooked, with crispy skin and tender inside.

The Patio, offering outdoor poolside dining, was a nice change, weather permitting, where salad or appetizers were buffet style, with the main course served at one’s table. While some of the Thomas Keller dishes that appear on various menus were great; Keller’s Napa burger, available in the Patio for lunch, I found uninteresting and unimaginative – I’ve had far better. And if the thinking is that Seabourn’s typical guest is more focused on quality cuisine than quantity, and have smaller appetites, then a burger that stands some 6” tall on the plate and doesn't fit in the mouth doesn’t seem quite fitting here.  Maybe Keller should introduce a variety of tasty sliders instead!  The French fries at The Patio were certainly among the best I've had.

Seabourn includes wine with lunch and dinner, and the wines were generally adequate but not standouts, though not always the best pairing with the main courses. However, for those with finer palates, premium wines are available for purchase. One of the fine touches offered by Seabourn to all guests is a complimenary bottle of champagne upon boarding, and a choice of two bottles of wine or liquor to enjoy during the cruise.

As for public areas, Seabourn’s main area is Square 5, located aft of the ship on Deck 7, and included the coffee bar, reception/hospitality/concierge area, games, a great selection of books from the library, and living-room style seating throughout. The set up is somewhat unique to ships I’ve been on, and was an appealing and well-designed space. The coffee bar was a popular spot for espresso drinks during the cruise (included, of course).

For a ship this size, the fitness center was nicely configured and spacious enough. We didn't really have much time on this itinerary to enjoy the spa services.

Entertainment on our 7-day cruise Baltic cruise, which included 3 days docked in St. Petersburg, was good. The guest entertainers were a classical pianist, who while very, very good, had to play in a space with rather poor acoustics (or was it the piano) for this type of performance, and a magician and his contortionist fiancée. Each performed twice during the cruise. In St. Petersburg one local music and dance group was brought onboard (the same I’ve seen previously on Crystal a year ago). The onboard cast was  social and engaged with passengers at various events, and were fine in their production show, but not of the level, say, of a Crystal show, which, being a larger ship, has the advantage of offering better budgeted shows. But again, being part of the very social staff, by the time you saw the production show, you felt like you knew most of the cast.

Some of the limitations, as well as benefits, of a smaller ship are evident here. A smaller ship is easier to get around and navigate, and the staff get to know the passengers better and tend to be more social. It's easier to get on and off the ship in port. Onboard Seabourn, as mentioned, the (mostly European) staff truly reach out to please guests and are well trained -- certainly better than on some other high-end lines.  

The casino is small – one blackjack table, one roulette table and some slots, but sufficient, it seems for this Baltic cruise. It was never that fully occupied. 

As for intellectural enrichment, there were two onboard “lecturers”.  One, Peter Grimes, duly talked about the ports being visited, mixing in a bit of history and story in the telling. His manner was a bit off-putting in my view, but he did a fair job of it, though a far cry from providing insight and enrichment of any depth about the history or the cities to be visited. I expected that the audience on Seabourn was up to more enriching talks than this. 

The other "lecturer" was actually the person onboard selling amber, Faberge, matryoshka dolls and the intricately painted Russian boxes – the traditional Russian crafts popular among visitors. His comments were meant to support his sales and steer guests away from purchasing these items elsewhere – not that he didn’t have valid points to make about buying "fakes" – but it seemed overly self-serving. I would have hoped to have more of an artist onboard to talk about their craft, or a historian or politican to offer their take on world events. And perhaps it was just this particular cruise that was different. With one day at sea and the rest port-intensive visits, there wasn't a lot of time to schedule a lot of onboard activities.

The biggest disappointment, which I can’t fault Seabourn for, is the key reason I was enticed to take a Seabourn cruise in the Baltic: being on a small ship that could dock on the Neva River closer to town than the cruise ship terminal is, making it easier to get on and off the ship to spend evenings in St. Petersburg. Yet on my cruise we docked at the cruise terminal, next to Royal Caribbean, while Oceania and Azamara were docked on the Neva embankments. But so it goes…you just never know. As my Russian still serves me well enough, we got around on taxis, city buses and the metro, and didn't let that interfere with our enjoying one of the world's great treasures, St. Petersburg.

Our Seabourn cruise was truly a delight, and the benefits of being on a smaller cruise ship (450 guests in this case) far outweighs the experience of cruise ships that accommodate 2,500 or or more passengers. Even better are the exclusive amenities we offer our clients on a Seabourn cruise: a choice of private car and driver in a port of call, or an additional shipboard credit.

Dan Ilves