Sara Macefield on the ultra luxurious Seabourn Spirit
It was a difficult decision. Having just stepped aboard the Seabourn Spirit after a gruelling 22-hour journey from London to Ho Chi Minh City, I was being asked to pick my favourite luxury soap.
With my somewhat jet-lagged state, I struggled to comprehend the question as my smiling South African cabin steward Shireen proffered a tray before me. Was it to be Chanel or Hermés, or should I opt for L'Occitane or Bijan? This had to be a first. On most cruise lines, it's normally a case of take what you're given, but this is where the Seabourn five-star "difference" comes in.
After all, Yachts of Seabourn (to give the line its full title) prides itself on the attention to detail and luxury touches that it lavishes on guests. And this was what I was hoping to exper-ience during my four nights spent aboard the ship as it sailed from Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok as part of a two-week Far Eastern cruise. Having been more used to sailing on mass market "mega-ships" which carry thousands of passengers, I knew this wasn't going to be your average cruise.
And the differences were evident as soon as I stepped aboard, swapping the humidity, hassle and hubbub of Ho Chi Minh for the temperate tranquil ambience of this pocket-size haven of luxury. The quality sur-roundings, from the sumptuous thick-pile carpets to the attractive teak decks and shiny brass fittings set the tone.
The suites (there were only suites on this ship) echoed the classy theme with their tasteful muted shades of blue and gold, complete with double bed, three-seater sofa, DVD player and flat screen TV. Then there was the minibar, stocked with each guest's favourite tipples (for no extra charge), a spacious walk-in wardrobe and an impressive marble bathroom. These are the sort of surroundings that one instantly feels at home with, but ask Seabourn passengers what attracts them back to this premium line's three ships time and time again, and they will tell you that it's the service.
After all, the ships, while small and sumptuous, are not perfect. Few suites have full balconies, with many having small French balconies instead, and there is only one rather poky-looking swimming pool tucked away from the main deck area behind the restaurant. Another jarring note for me were the white plastic sun-beds scattered across the deck, but, on the positive side, at least there were plenty to go round.
With 164 crew members to 208 guests, there is plenty of scope to attend to every passenger's whim and that's what Seabourn does with aplomb. The staff tread the perfect line between being attentive, friendly and efficient without being irritating or over-familiar. During a short sunbathing stint on deck the attentive crew ensured everyone was kept cool and comfortable with drinks, refreshing face towels, and tasty frozen fruit kebabs.
One waiter strolled around guests, armed with a suntan spray to keep keen sunbathers safely topped up as they basked in the tropical rays, while a spa therapist appeared to provide complimentary massages.
Service at mealtimes was similarly impressive, as was the cuisine. For such a small ship, the Seabourn Spirit managed to keep its dining options pleasingly varied.
Guests could choose from The Restaurant, the main dining room where waiters would link arms with unaccompanied ladies and chivalrously escort them to and from their tables.
Forget the huge dining rooms, the hordes of people and queues that can be so common on the mass market ships. With its open seating and exquisite food, the Seabourn alternative felt more like an exclusive gourmet experience. Another option was Restaurant 2. By day, this was the Veranda Café, a light and airy spot for buffet breakfast and lunch with seating inside and out.
But by night, it changed character to become a stylish bistro with themed menus under the patronage of American celebrity chef Charlie Palmer. The menus and the themes changed each night, but one of the highlights were the regular Tastings evenings where diners were served seven courses of exquisitely presented bite-size delicacies, with carefully-chosen complementary wines.
Another option was the open deck Sky Grill where on my first night I enjoyed Surf and Turf under the stars, while looking over the skyline of Ho Chi Minh City.
When we docked a few nights later in Bangkok, I was able to enjoy the same experience in the balmy evening air overlooking another tropical metropolis.
This in itself was an extra bonus as the Seabourn Spirit's size meant it was small enough to dock in the centre of both cities, making it easy to go ashore and explore without having to endure lengthy transfers.
But, for me, the main highlight of this cruise was another of Seabourn's "Signature Delights" - Caviar in the Surf. This somewhat bizarre - but thoroughly enjoyable - ritual took place during a lazy day spent at the deserted Thai island of Ko Kood.
It was our beach day and in true Seabourn style it was organised in impressive style. The perfectly curved powder beach was lined with parasols and sun-chairs; the ship's resident band played gently in the tropical breeze and waiters bobbed around serving drinks until the delicious buffet lunch was served.
Further along the beach, water sports were in full swing and we could take our pick from kayaking, water-skiing or banana boat rides. But the real novelty was when the captain arrived in a dinghy and unloaded a surfboard complete with a huge tureen of jet-black Sevruga caviar and various tempting accompaniments which were carefully balanced on top of the board as it floated on the water.
Everyone gathered around to watch; shorts-clad waiters waded through the shallows dispensing champagne; and a queue formed at the surfboard as staff started ladling spoonfuls of caviar on to Melba toasts and handing them out.
As I stood in the crystal-clear waters of the South China Sea, it really felt like the ultimate aquatic cocktail party - something I knew I would never experience the like of again.
Offers 14-night Asian Capitals and Vietnam II sailings departing on December 19, January 30, 2010, February 27 and March 27. The cruises, from Hong Kong to Singapore, call at Hanoi, Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Ko Kood, Bangkok and Singapore. Prices include gratuities and beverages. From £3,822pp, excluding flights.
Reproduced with permission from Stowaway magazine
Written by Sara Macefield