We travel, of course, to get away. To leave our BlackBerryed, TiVoed lives behind and visit another place. On a big mega ship cruise ala Carnival, Royal Caribbean or NCL, that place is party town. A floating city where you can dive into the frenetic flow of activities and revel in the excitement. You can be a joiner and run from one activity to another all day, or get off on the cheap thrills of watching it all from a comfy bar stool or poolside chaise lounge. No matter how you enjoy it, this brand of getting away is all about the buzz of traveling with thousands of other people.
A small ship, on the other hand, offers a small-town experience, where you know your neighbors and the pace is slow and easy. When you walk up the gangway of SeaDream Yacht Club's (tel. 800/707-4911; www.seadreamyachtclub.com) 110-passenger SeaDream I or II (the ex-Seabourn Sea Goddess ships), you're boarding a floating club of mostly like-minded travelers who cringe at the thought of sailing en masse to the St. Thomases of the world. It's an intimate group that wants to feel like they're inhabiting an exclusive and remote seaside hamlet on some hard-to-reach, difficult-to-spell island, where the food is good, the spa well equipped and the drinks flowing. On a SeaDream cruise, everything is included in the cruise fare and you'll never be pestered to pay for drinks or tip the crew. There also aren't art auctions, roving photographers or "special" restaurants vying for your money -- a SeaDream cruise is anything but typical. Aside from the spa and optional shore excursions, there's just the upfront cruise fare, that ranges from about $2,000 to $4,500 per person per week.
The SeaDream I and SeaDream II spend half the year doing 7-night itineraries in the Mediterranean, hitting hot spots like Croatia and the French and Italian Rivieras, and the other half doing weeklong sailings among some of the Caribbean's most appealing and least touristy islands, including St. Barts, the BVIs and Nevis. Typically, the ships call on a port a day, and one or two will be late night or overnight stays so passengers can venture to town for dinner or sample the night life.
Just before this story was posted, SeaDream Yacht Club announced some exciting new itineraries for next winter (late 2006/early 2007). The line will have the SeaDream I doing 9-night South America itineraries between Rio de Janiero and Buenos Aires, while the SeaDream II carries on with Caribbean itinearies. A company spokesman reported that the ship will call on "small yachting ports, colonial towns and chic resorts in between."
Who Goes There
Typically about 65% to 70% of passengers are North Americans, and most are couples in their 40s and 50s. On a recent sailing aboard the SeaDream I in the Caribbean, the mix included Canadians, Puerto Ricans, English and Germans. Passengers were friendly and mingled easily, and by day three, alliances had been made and clusters of new friends enjoyed drinks by the pool and dined together in the open-seating restaurants.
At dinner one night (there are few tables for two, so guests are often seated together even if they don't request it), we met a friendly and down-to-earth doctor and his wife from Texas. Another evening, we traded one-liners with a 30-something couple-next-door from Pennsylvania who ran a successful baking business and enjoyed swigging beer from the can. At the Top of the Yacht bar we chatted with a retired travel executive who seemed to spend more time at sea than on land, a restaurant owner and a man who looked like he used to play professional sports. I enjoyed spying on an exceedingly well-dressed, tanned and botoxed group of friends who were obviously used to the good life and having a ball. I ease-dropped on another well-dressed, hard-drinking clan who was celebrating a friend's 40th birthday. Another quieter group had assembled friend and family to mark a mother's 80th. Many passengers I met charted their own small yachts for vacation, from companies like the Moorings, or sailed their own boats. A good number had school-age kids back home, and were enjoying some time away -- SeaDream caters to adults, though occasionally teens or younger kids will show up with their families.
I found the SeaDream yacht experience to be most similar to a cruise with Windstar, whose intimate motorized sailing ships offer casually elegant yachty jaunts for mostly 40- and 50-somethings to similarly great places in the Caribbean and Europe, though not with SeaDream's all-inclusive price tag. The SeaDream experience is less high-brow and way more playful than Seabourn, whose three 208-passenger ships attract an older, more sober clientele.
What to Do
Hang out mostly. Who can complain about that, when it means you can summon a waiter from the hot tub for a generous order of jumbo shrimp cocktail and a Long Island Icetea. As Larry Pimentel, SeaDream's co-owner, chairman and CEO, is fond of saying, "yachting is about the outdoors, cruising is about the indoors." The ship's main social hubs are not the indoor entertainment lounge or library, but out on deck at the Top of the Yacht Bar, pool deck, and sunbathing areas, where there are chaise lounges, a pair of hammocks and the line's much-touted ultra-firm Balinese sunbeds. Upon request, you can even sleep on them under the stars with duvets and pillows. There's also a golf simulator up top, and below, a retractable marina for watersports and swimming that operates a couple of hours a day in ports where the ship anchors, which is virtually everywhere in the Caribbean, but fewer ports in Europe. The ships carry along mountain bikes for use in port and even Segway Human Transporters, those weird looking two-wheeled upright scooters which can be used when the ship docks (at a cost of $49 for 45 minutes), which isn't often in the Caribbean. On Europe cruises, the chef may lead a walking tour through some local markets. As for the captain leading intimate snorkeling or kayaking jaunts as the line promotes on its website, nothing like that was offered on my sailing and Hotel Manager Tomasz Jadczyk and Activities Director Linda Mueller told me it doesn't happen. Too bad, that sounded cool. Otherwise, a handful of shore excursions -- the likes of island or city tours and snorkeling excursions -- are offered for sale in each port, but many passengers tour solo.
SeaDream's ports of call tend to be the less-commercialized ones that are generally off the mega ship main drag, so you'll rarely be meandering around a port town with thousands of others (thank god). If the ships are anchoring offshore, their size generally enables them to get close enough so that the tender ride between ship and shore is short. And given how few passengers the ships carry, you'll never have to que up to be shuttled back and forth -- it's practically on demand.
Evenings, entertainment is mostly of the "socialing over drinks" variety -- and that's how passengers seem to like it. This isn't a musical-loving caberet crowd for the most part. A pianist plays after dinner in the Main Salon lounge, while a guitarist serenades dinners at the entrance to the restaurant and sometimes afterwards up on deck at the Top of the Yacht bar, the livelest spot to hang out before and after dinner on my sailing. Occasionally, local bands are brought on for the night, and there is tiny casino area with two poker tables and handful of slots. Weather permitting, one night per cruise a large movie screen is set up on deck, complete with popcorn.
For those who consider a massage a beloved pastime -- like I do -- the ship's well-equipped spa and gym were very impressive for a ship so small. A staff of eight Thai women runs the spa, which features traditional therapies like Swedish massage, along with Asian ones. I sampled an excellent Thai massage where the therapist used her arms and legs, as well as hands, to execute a variety of stretching moves. The adjacent oceanview gym offers up-to-date equipment and daily classes like tai chi and yoga.
What to Eat
There's an indoor and an outdoor dining venue: the simple but elegant Dining Salon on deck 2, or outside at the more casual open-air Topside Restaurant on deck 5. Both offer a handful of tables for two, but most seat four, six or eight guests, and you can saunter in any time between 7:30 and 9:30 for dinner. You'll be seated with other guests unless you want to wait for an available two top. I enjoyed the food, though didn't find it as amazing as I had heard. Overall, I'd rate it on the level of Windstar, and just under Silversea and Seabourn. Comments from other passengers ranged from "absolutely delicious" to "definitely not five star." Of course, one man's chateaubriand is another's cheeseburger deluxe. It all depends what you're used to eating back home.
Service was professional and much more doting than any mainstream line, but there was definitely a somewhat harried rush during prime dining times, as waiters zipped around to take orders and fill wine glasses. Passengers' interpretation of the informal dress code ranged from a classic navy blue sport jacket to Bermuda shorts and a t-shirt -- the later frowned upon by the Hotel Manager, but generally overlooked. It's not easy to tell someone who paid several thousand dollars for their cruise to go back to the cabin to change clothes.
Breakfast and lunch are served in the Topside Restaurant in a combination of buffet-style and waiter service. Tasty snacks offered throughout the day at the pool and Topside buffet area include wraps, mini sandwiches and cookies. At happy hour one afternoon by the pool, waiters circulated with trays of Bloody Mary's and homemade mini pizzas. For something more special, caviar is available, though it's no longer complimentary (except on special occasions); a one-ounce portion goes for $32.
One of the those special occasions is an ultra popular holdover from the Sea Goddess days, the lavish Champagne and Caviar Splash beach party thrown on Jost Van Dyke or Virgin Gorda. Guests are tendered ashore by zodiacs to a quiet beach, where chaise lounges are set up on the sand and a rustic pavilion offers a buffet lunch. The main event that gets the cameras clicking is when the hotel manager and his assistants wade into the surf with their uniforms on and serve champagne and caviar from a floating surfboard. Appealing to the inner frat boy in all of us, passengers of all types just loved the whole ritual. The entire ship was happily treading through the water to partake of a glass (or two or three) of bubbly and a dollop of caviar, reveling in the friviolity of it. Lunch was served on long tables (with linens and china) and included grilled shrimp and chicken, pork ribs, and plenty of side dishes. A pair of kayaks and snorkeling equipment were offered by the ship, though it seems few people had the energy to bother. A local vendor was renting paddleboats, windsurfers and other watercraft.
Where to Sleep
As ships built in the mid 1980s, there's a lot more real wood incorporated into the cabins than you'll see on today's newer veneer- and synthetics-happy ships. At 195 square feet, standard cabins are a bit bigger than Windstar's, and about 100 square feet smaller than those of Seabourn, Silversea, and Radisson. None have balconies. The wood cabinetry and molding is complemented by blue and white fabrics, for an appealing nautical look with a modern twist. Each suite has a small sitting area with a couch and an entertainment center that includes a flat screen TV with CD/DVD player (and wired for Internet access). I was impressed by the amount of storage space (we never used it all), and the stash of large bottles of water. A mini fridge was stocked with sodas and beer (though booze from any of the bars and restaurants is included in the rates, oddly enough if you wanted liquor for your mini bar you'll have to pay for it). Bathrooms are compact, as you would expect on ships of this size, but feature huge marble showers with glass doors and a generous supply of Bulgari toiletries. There are extra thick bathrobes for use and all guests get a set of personalized cotton pajamas with the SeaDream logo. Unlike Silversea and Seabourn, the 24-hour room service menu is limited to salads and sandwiches, you cannot order from the restaurant menus.
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