After an incredibly wonderful experience on the Seabourn Quest last year in Antarctica, we were cautiously optimistic that a cruise on a different Seabourn ship would live up to our expectations. Here are our thoughts – and a few comparisons – organized by category:
The Sydney to Auckland itinerary is readily available on a number of cruise lines. What intrigued us about this voyage was having the Seabourn Ventures team on board. After sailing with the expedition team in Antarctica, exploring areas by zodiac and learning so much from their lectures, we were eager to repeat the experience in a new part of the world. We also liked this itinerary's two additional stops in Australia – including wonderful Melbourne – rather than heading directly to New Zealand from Sydney.
We couldn't believe the crew could be as outstanding as they were on the Quest...but they were! Many of them knew our names after the first day, and everyone provided top-notch service. We ran into a couple of crew members who had been on our Antarctica cruise, which was a treat, and it seemed that Seabourn did a good job mixing experienced staffers with newer crew. No negative experiences to report.
The public spaces were as comfortable as the Quest's, especially the brilliantly designed Seabourn Square. The only place where we noticed the impact of the additional 200 passengers was the Observation Lounge, especially before dinner, where it was sometimes difficult to find an open table. Our cabin was lovely, a little longer and narrower than the Quest's, but the same overall size, walk-in closet, spacious bathroom and verandah. The internet worked well, especially in the public spaces. We did hear talking and the TV from the cabin next to ours, which has never an issue on previous cruises.
Laundry facilities were woefully limited, as they were on the Quest, with a laundry room only on one deck for the entire ship. I woke up very early one morning to secure the machines, as I did on the Quest, which seemed to be a good strategy!
Many negative comments have been written on these Boards about the Encore's Retreat, and we would have to agree. It seems like a ridiculous concept for an "all inclusive" cruise and an incredible waste of precious space. We like to walk outside on sea days and imagined how great it would have been if we hadn't had to turn around when we reached the Retreat.
Food quality was outstanding in all venues. We especially enjoyed the themed nights in the Colonnade. Room service, which we used for breakfast before early excursions and a couple of dinners "in," was as wonderful as we had experienced on the Quest. Food was always on time, if not early, and the hot items were always hot. The Thomas Keller Grill was really great – a larger and more beautiful space than on the Quest – and we were especially impressed when Michael from corporate appeared at the table to carve the chicken. His enthusiasm, professionalism and attention to detail were evident as he moved about the room to make sure everything was running smoothly. The Seabourn Square coffee was even better than what we'd had on the Quest. Yuri and Gabor have to be the best baristas at sea!
Our only criticism about food would be the need for a little more variety of choices and more "healthy" options. Seabourn has a healthy-living program with Dr. Andrew Weil, and it would make sense to extend this to the dining experience.
Beverage service was a bit slow. It always took a while in the morning to get water and tea. Things improved for us after speaking to one of the managers. The place where beverage service really fell down was the afternoon tea in the Observation Lounge. This was a favorite on the Quest, but on the Encore, it seemed to be poorly staffed and incredibly slow. One afternoon we were really looking forward to a tea break after returning from a rainy and chilly day in town. We went directly to the lounge with our jackets and cameras, got a table, and couldn't find anyone to wait on us. After about twenty minutes, we gave up and went to Seabourn Square.
Excursions with the Ventures team were incredibly memorable and extremely well done. We did several hikes – including a wonderful bird walk on the predator-free Ulva Island, where we were lucky to see the elusive New Zealand kiwi – and a beautiful zodiac cruise on Milford Sound. My favorite experience was a sunset hike on Philip Island, Australia, to watch thousands of shearwater birds return home to their nests. As we stood above the stunning shoreline just before sunset, one of the Ventures team members said, "The only thing that would make this more perfect is if we had some champagne." And then on cue, another team member reached into his backpack and revealed a bottle of champagne and glasses for all of us. A truly class act and a moment I will always remember.
We booked two non-ventures excursions: A wine-tasting from Picton (vineyards were okay; an included garden tour was surprisingly good) and an outstanding excursion from Tauranga to Rotorua that included railcruising (really fun!), a fascinating Māori lecture in a forest and a walk through the geothermal park. Guides on both tours were excellent.
We missed two ports because of weather, which is always a risk on a cruise. I had hoped Seabourn would try to make up at least one of the lost days with another port, but there was no communication about whether any efforts were made. I was especially disappointed because of our experience on the Quest. We missed two days in Antarctica because of a medical emergency, and Captain Dag & Seabourn went out of their way to compensate for the loss, taking us around Cape Horn and adding another port. Communication was much better on that cruise, perhaps because it was an expedition-style voyage. It's truly the little gestures that go a long way to create a memorable experience.