By Lucy Jones
There are few sounds more appealing than the popping of a champagne cork, which made my week on board Seabourn Encore a particularly delightful experience. I lost count of the popping corks early, but barely 20 minutes would go by without the celebratory sound. This is indicative of the ship; one on which you’d feel practically naked walking the decks without a glass of chilled Nicolas Feuillatte in hand.
I’ve joined Seabourn’s brand new vessel in Sydney, where she launched her maiden voyage in March of 2016. It’s quite a coup for Australia to be the first port of call for a luxury launch, which tend to head straight for the more traditional markets of the Mediterranean or Caribbean. Right now, Encore is arguably the most luxurious ship in the world and she looks suitably striking parked right by the Sydney Opera House.
The ship is largely flawless. Bright, airy and spacious; famed hotel and restaurant designer Adam D Tihany is behind the aesthetic and he’s worked hard to make it feel more like a private yacht than a commercial cruise ship. It’s sleek and sexy with sculptural staircases and chandeliers plus a remarkable on-board art collection.
There are just 300 Verandah Suites, starting at a very roomy 34 square metres and ranging up to the huge Wintergarden Suites that, at more than 100 square metres, are about the same size as my two-bedroom apartment (though considerably more stylish). TVs are loaded with a great selection of movies and series (perfect for binge watching). The bathroom is enormous with a separate shower and tub, double vanity and plenty of storage space.
Encore’s hub is Seabourn Square, a hybrid lobby/living room/library as well as the ship’s one really good coffee bar. It takes the place of the traditional customer service desk and is a much more user-friendly space to ask questions or book shore excursions. The main swimming pool is pleasantly deep and there are rarely more than a handful of swimmers. I’m assured there are many more deckchairs than passengers, so it’s always easy to find a place to recline. I come to favour the comfy double day beds, well-stocked with cushions, for my daily catnap.
Tihany has gone a bit wild in the spa, a gleaming futuristic space that looks like the flight deck of a spaceship. Seabourn has partnered with wellness guru Dr Andrew Weil to create a holistic program overseen by a Wellness Guide, the first of its kind at sea. There are daily yoga and meditation classes and, while I have good intentions, somehow I don’t make it for any of the 7am starts. There’s the usual menu of treatments plus a few interesting extras, such as a sound bath with humming Tibetan crystal bowls.
Then there’s the food. Seabourn has partnered with American celebrity chef Thomas Keller to launch The Grill, its new signature restaurant. The dining room is dark and clubby, the menu a modern twist on classic 1970s steakhouse fare. In keeping with the theme, I order crab cakes, lobster thermidor and an enormous ice cream sundae prepared right at the table.
Encore is also home to the line’s first standalone sushi restaurant (called, simply, Sushi) that’s so good I eat there two nights in a row. There’s a different themed dinner held each night in The Colonnade (which operates as the buffet during the day) and it’s excellent the night I attend. As with all Seabourn ships, all dining and drinks (excluding some top shelf stuff) is included in the fare.
Our first port of call, Mooloolaba, is cancelled due to rough weather. And I can’t say I’m disappointed. The real story here is the ship and I soon feel I would be happy enough never to set foot on dry land again. Cruising through the Whitsundays, we drop anchor right beside Hamilton Island. Surrounded by the curved green backs of the islands and with seemingly doll-sized sailboats bobbing about beside us, it must be the prettiest cruise port in the country. I jump aboard a Zodiac and zip out to Sawmill Bay for one of the line’s custom Ventures by Seabourn shore excursions. The program focuses on active excursions led by members of the expert expedition team; a good way to burn off a few of those champagne calories.
The highlight of the voyage is the Champagne and Caviar evening, one of Seabourn’s signature events. The ship’s singers perform opera on the main deck as we sail away from Hamilton Island at sunset, and it’s exceptional. These are genuine word-class performers, far above the usual ‘cruise ship cabaret’ fare, and even an operatic philistine like me is moved. The ship also hosts a new show from Broadway legend Tim Rice, featuring songs from shows such as The Lion King, Aladdin, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, and Evita. Sadly, it’s not performed during my leg of the journey and I don’t get the opportunity to wow everyone with my rendition of ‘Hakuna Matata’.
Cruising through the Whitsundays, we drop anchor right beside Hamilton Island. Surrounded by the curved green backs of the islands and with seemingly doll-sized sailboats bobbing about beside us, it must be the prettiest cruise port in the country.
I spend one day in the private confines of The Retreat, an exclusive adults-only area on deck 12 that’s making its debut on Encore. It is Tihany’s favourite space and the man has good taste. Fifteen cabanas circle a large central hot tub, each with sun loungers, a TV, mini bar and couch. The house pour is Bollinger, which, it turns out, is the ideal breakfast champagne (if you like that sort of thing). A day at The Retreat will set you back an additional US$249 (about A$330) on port days or US$349 (about A$462) on sea days, which is potentially why it remains largely empty during the voyage. It’s a shame, because it really is divine, but Seabourn might need to rethink how it operates.
This isn’t the only problem that crops up. If the outdoor section is closed, there isn’t enough seating in The Colonnade buffet (unless you like to sit with strangers, which I do not). Cabin lighting is unnecessarily complicated. One night, after at least 20 minutes of frustrated flickering, I throw a towel over a lamp that remains stubbornly inextinguishable. There are also few hiccups in the famed Seabourn service that don’t go unnoticed.
I spoke with other passengers who had sailed with the line for close to 100 days and they felt it wasn’t up to the usual standard. Service around the pool was often slow (or non-existent) and a particularly surly waiter left a bad taste in my mouth. But the service improved considerably as the voyage continued. With just a handful of sailings under its bow, Encore is a new ship and is considerably larger than others in the Seabourn fleet, so I’m happy to chalk these up to teething issues. Especially considering the experiences at the other end of the spectrum.
One night, as I’m walking back to my cabin, a man calls me over to the railing. A pod of dolphins are frolicking in the bow waves, their slick silver bodies visible just under the surface. They race along beside the ship for a magical half hour, leaping over the breaking waves and tumbling underneath the foam. It seems everyone wants a piece of Encore.