(3:42 p.m. EDT) -- Luxury cruise ship Seabourn Ovation launched two months ago, the second of Seabourn's larger, 600-passenger ships. With five ships now sailing for the fleet and more passengers than ever before, can Seabourn maintain the luxury levels it's known for? We spent a week onboard in the Baltic to find out.
We stayed in a veranda suite, the most basic of Ovation's accommodations, and it was wonderful. The suite was smartly designed with tons of storage space, a full-size couch and glass dining table (much better for in-suite dining than the coffee tables you find on some ships), and a large bathroom with tub and comfortably sized shower. Useful technology included a bathroom nightlight, dimmable main lighting and bedside USB and regular outlets. We also had fun testing out the faux-down and firmer pillow options, deciding which we liked best. The suite felt livable, whether you're on a seven-night cruise or a month-long voyage.
Earth + Ocean
New dining venue Earth + Ocean is a keeper. It's the new, casual, late-opening (7:30 to 9:30 p.m.) dinner option that takes over the Patio at night, with an emphasis on international cuisine. Its earthiness is evoked by ceramic, wooden, even cast-iron dishes and serving pieces and warm loaves of bread, while the sea views and breezes you're surrounded with while dining lets you never forget the ocean's presence. Main dishes, too, are always a trio referencing the theme -- one meat, one fish and one vegetable-based. The comforting dishes and relaxed atmosphere are a nice foil to the more formal Grill by Thomas Keller or the banquet feeling of The Restaurant.
Smaller ships have long gotten knocks for paltry entertainment, but Seabourn consistently excels in this department, while not making a big fuss about it. Its Evening with Tim Rice show -- a mix of the lyricist's songs performed by the ship's cast, interspersed with video clips of Rice speaking about his career -- is hands down the best we've seen on a luxury cruise ship. (We watched it twice in a row, it was that compelling.) Casting the ship's singers and dancers for that show also elevates its other production shows. While the script for "Hollywood Ovation" left something to be desired, the songs were excellent due to the high-caliber performers.
The lounge entertainment is also top-notch. The easy-listening duo who performed in the Observation Bar drew us in for a drink past our bedtime nearly every night. The Filipino dance band in The Club had tons of energy, and if they weren't on the dance floor, passengers couldn't help bopping their heads and tapping their toes at their seats. You never felt like you had to go to bed because there was nothing to do.
On some ships, the main dining room is the place to go when you don't have a reservation somewhere better onboard. Not on Seabourn. The Restaurant is a destination in its own right; we looked forward to dinners there and had some excellent meals. The space is beautiful and clean with white columns, tablecloths and chair cushions, and sun- and sea-colored sunburst chandeliers.
For starters, we like the line's commitment to hosted tables. If you don't want to go, just say no, but we love that solos are taken care of, and our dinners with members of the ship's entertainment staff were some of the most enjoyable we had for meeting new people.
We also found the Thomas Keller dishes that are add-ons to the Restaurant's menu to be the most inventive and interesting of all the Keller dishes found in various spots onboard. A salad of blistered heirloom carrots was as beautifully presented as it was tasty, while a vegetarian entrée served falafel and romaine lettuce in ways that were unexpected and elevated the flavors.
Hit and Miss
The number-one complaint we heard onboard, often by new-to-Seabourn cruisers, is that the service did not live up to Seabourn's reputation. We concurred. The service was not bad, mind you. Various crew members knew your name before you met, and several wished us happy birthday on the correct day. Waiters brought you blankets at Earth + Ocean when the temperatures dropped, and escorted you arm-in-arm to your seat in The Restaurant.
But there were plenty of little glitches. Waiters would not hear orders correctly and bring the wrong drink or dish. The dining room on two occasions could not get hot enough water to steep tea; requests for pepper went unfulfilled. Queues were evident at Seabourn Square's coffee bar. One passenger was asked to leave The Restaurant and replace his closed-toe Keen shoes, after he explained that his usual shoes had gotten soaked. Another was disappointed when the line did not acknowledge their anniversary during the special dinner they had planned.
All agreed that none of these instances were big deals, but when they added up and were measured against the line's star service reputation, people felt let down. The ship's hotel director indicated that two months into a new ship's service, he was still waiting for the crew to gel and for the new staff to get up to snuff. It's unclear whether many of these hiccups will disappear by the fall, or whether Seabourn is struggling to maintain service levels it began when it operated three 200-passenger ships now that it's running a fleet of five, with ships carrying as many as 600 guests.
As a breakfast and lunch buffet venue, The Colonnade works. It has a mix of buffet and a la carte items, and the breakfast specials are consistently very good. (On this cruise, we sampled an Indian-flavored masala omelet and the chocolate-chip pancakes with perfectly creamy milk and white chocolate chips.) You'll find a salad bar with a variety of toppings, fresh berries and some interesting fruit on the fruit bar (rather than only the standard cantaloupe and pineapple) and themed hot dishes at lunch.
We had two gripes about the venue, though. First, service wasn't quite up to snuff. We would wait longer than we should to order drinks and a la carte items. On the first morning, everyone showed up at the same time, and the restaurant couldn't handle the volume of people, with hostesses telling travelers to look for a table but not offering help. The second complaint is that the dinners have limited selection -- three appetizers, two mains and one dessert. The Thomas Keller nights have no choice; it's a set menu. The menus elsewhere always seemed more appealing, especially as one of our party was a vegetarian. The upshot was we basically had one less option at dinner.
--By Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor