Choosing a luxury cruise: What do you get for the price?

By David Molyneaux

Seabourn’s newest ships carry kayaks, sailboats and other water toys for calm weather days when the marina is lowered from the stern.

With bargain rates on many cruise ships at $100 to $150 a day or less per person, why would a couple on vacation spend $500 to $1,000 a day, each, for a cruise?

A man is his 50s asked me that question recently at a party. He also was concerned that his wife was about to book him on a luxury cruise ship full of sedentary old people.

It’s a legitimate financial question and an understandable concern by a physically active man who did not want to be stuck on vacation, bored and bloated, bobbing on the sea.

I answered him by describing my recent voyages on two of Seabourn’s newest ships. Among luxury cruise lines, which also include Silver Seas, Regent Seven Seas and Crystal, Seabourn is a rising star. The brand, owned by Carnival Corp., has introduced three new, highly rated, 450-passenger ships during the past three years: the Odyssey in 2009, the Sojourn in 2010 and, in June, the Quest.

These are ships built and managed for the affluent. The price of luxury varies a bit with itinerary. There are bargains: A travel agent who specializes in cruises recently quoted rates of $5,199 each for two on a nine-night cruise on Seabourn Sojourn between Quebec and New York on Sept. 21; $7,199 each for 14 nights on Seabourn Odyssey between Venice and Istanbul leaving Sept. 19; and $5,299 per person for 14 nights in the Caribbean out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Seabourn Quest Nov. 23.

What you get for that chunk of money is a cruise with a style, amenities and atmosphere different from the typical voyage on one of the bigger, mass-marketed ships. Itineraries are more off-the-beaten track. Accommodations and public areas aboard ship are spacious and refined. Food is mostly gourmet, and on most luxury ships without additional fees (or gratuities) for wine and cocktails. You’ll have the company of educated and well-traveled fellow passengers. And — the big selling point — luxury ships offer a high level of personal service.

Standard cabins on Seabourn, for instance, are 300 square feet, which is at least 1½ times the size of standard cabins on big ships. They include a separate sitting area, walk-in closet and granite bathrooms with separate bath, shower and twin sinks. All but a few cabins come with a private balcony where staff will serve a romantic dinner, course by course.

Seabourn ships never are crowded, with enough nooks and crannies that you can find an inviting resting spot to be alone or to share with new friends. The two-deck spa on the three ships is uncommonly large and well-equipped. Each ship carries 450 lounge chairs for 450 passengers, and can set nearly 800 places at dinner in two fine-dining restaurants and two more casual choices. You may order off the menu and go shopping in port with the chef.

Clearly, these are ships of plenty. But as Seabourn president Rick Meadows acknowledges, passengers who book luxury ships have access to nice baths, bedrooms and restaurants at home. The key to entertaining repeat passengers and drawing new ones to sea is the level of personal service. That’s why all of the luxury lines tout their service.

My experience on Seabourn is that the ships operate like a well-staffed private club, with crew members waiting for requests or anticipating a great need, such as carrying your glass of orange juice from the buffet to a table outside, under an umbrella. Staff will plan parties, dinners, private shopping and tours ashore. Every staff member carries a card that lists the 12 points of Seabourn service. Number 12 is “Have fun.”

As for the fear of being stuck with old fuddy-duddies, the world of cruising is becoming younger and more active (though I wouldn’t book a world cruise or a one-month segment expecting anything but an older crowd, which tends to have the time and inclination for longer cruises). On shorter cruises — two weeks or less — Seabourn’s average age for a boatload of passengers now dips into the 50s, particularly among new cruisers, Meadows said.

Popular onboard activities include the marina that folds out of the stern into the sea on calm days — with kayaks, sailboats and a banana boat — and the aerobic Kinesis Wall that fills most of a room in the spa. Vincent de Jager, personal trainer on Seabourn Quest, says passengers using the Kinesis machine regularly during a cruise can walk off the ship in better shape than when they boarded.

Like other cruise lines, Seabourn has added more strenuous choices to its port excursions, such as biking in Russia’s Alexandria Park near St. Petersburg; hiking in Norway from 1,000 feet to 1,800 feet above the city of Bergen, with exciting views of the North Sea; and a five-mile Nordic workout walk in Finland.

When Seabourn Odyssey stopped in the mountainous Montenegro port of Kotor last fall, I set off alone to climb the steps of the fortified walls of the old city. As it was a moderately difficult climb with lots of steps and loose stones, I expected to be pretty much alone. But on the trail up and down, I encountered at least a dozen fellow passengers, some of them the same folks I noticed dancing that night to a rock ’n’ roll band aboard ship.

In decades past, Seabourn was a cruise line of mature ships and maturer passengers. I remember a cruise in the early 1990s when the lounge piano player said he had been instructed to stay away from songs that even sounded like rock ’n’ roll. “I don’t even do Billy Joel on this ship,” he said.

Those days are long gone. Paraphrasing a line from Bob Dylan, who is now 70, I told the man in his 50s who was concerned about cruising on a luxury ship: Seabourn was older then; it’s younger than that now.

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