ABOARD THE SOJOURN SOMEWHERE IN THE CARIBBEAN — My first cruise was to Jamaica on a ship called the Starward. It cost $295 plus a $70 bus ride to Miami.
The accommodations weren't exactly luxurious: four college-age girls crammed into a stateroom the size of a sardine can with two bunk beds, a porthole window and a bathroom so miniscule that I hit my shins on something every time I went in.
I loved it.
My most recent cruise was on the Sojourn of the Seabourn Line. It cost considerably more than $295, and I flew to South Florida instead of taking the bus. The accommodations were definitely luxurious. You could have fit three of the Starward's staterooms into the one I had on the Sojourn (actually the Starward stateroom could have fit into the Sojourn's walk-in closet). Instead of squinting through a porthole, I sprawled on my private balcony, and the bathroom was so spacious I didn't hit anything on anything.
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I loved it.
I'm a cruise fan. I've cruised on a small day yacht in Alaska and an even smaller sleep-aboard yacht in the Galapagos Islands. I've done river cruises in Europe and Egypt and on the Mississippi. I've sailed on a Windjammer cruise in the Grenadines and a Windstar cruise on the Italian and French Rivieras.
About the only thing I won't cruise on is one of those 5,000-person liners.
Fortunately, Seabourn's Sojourn can carry just 450 passengers, making it the right size for me.
With 11 decks, two swimming pools, four restaurants, three bars, three shops, a spa, casino and coffee bar, Sojourn was wonderfully intimate, and it didn't take me half the cruise to find my way to and from my stateroom.
Seabourn is considered one of the cruise industry's gold-star lines, along with Regent, Silversea and Crystal. I have yet to cruise with Regent and have cruised two times each on Silversea and Crystal. This was my first sailing with Seabourn; I hope it won't be my last.
Veteran cruisers seem to fall into two categories: those who are brand-loyal, and those who shop around, comparing lines to find their perfect fit. Now that I have cruised three of the top-tier lines, here are a few of my observations.
For service, Silversea offers the best I've had on any cruise ship. For gala entertainment and enrichment programs, Crystal excels. When it comes to gorgeous décor, Seabourn takes the prize.
On the Sojourn, the main dining room — called simply The Restaurant — is a vision of billowing sheer white drapes and glittering chandeliers. The specialty restaurant, called Restaurant 2, with its dramatic jet black and scarlet décor, puts one in mind of a New Orleans bordello or an Asian opium den, albeit tasteful ones with designer flair.
Quality art lines the walls on every deck, and unique sculptures adorn various niches around the ship. The spa — the largest on any luxury cruise ship — is an oasis of fountains and water features, with an impressive menu of treatments (the bamboo massage is a specialty) and a Rejuvenating Room that is the epitome of beatific bliss.
Ship and shore
Although Seabourn's six ships sail the seven seas, my trip was a 10-day jaunt to the Caribbean. Combining four full at-sea days with stops in San Juan, Puerto Rico; St. Bartholomew; Antigua; St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands; and a private island off the Dominican Republic, this itinerary was all about relaxation.
By Day 2, passengers' satisfied sighs were audible, and tense bodies had turned jellylike in surrender to the joy of having nothing more taxing to do than heft a piña colada.
If I had a criticism, it was that the ship's choice of shore excursions seemed a bit anemic. (I chalked that up to it being the Caribbean rather than the Mediterranean or the Baltic, with their plethora of historic sites.)
To make the most of your port time, you might be better advised to take off on your own, particularly in San Juan with its culturally and historically rich Old Town.
Two shore activities stood out. One I arranged myself — a tour and beachside lunch at the beautiful Curtain Bluff Resort on Antigua, the loveliest of the island's many lovely resorts — and the other was a Seabourn specialty.
The barbecue on the private island is a passenger favorite. Dressed in swim trunks and white jackets and bow ties, staff members set up a caviar and champagne station in the crystal-clear waters just off the beach. If you want your bubbly, you have to swim (or wade) for it.
Still, what I loved most about the cruise was being on the ship itself. Instead of a formal lobby, the Sojourn has the Square, a living roomlike area where the purser's desk shares space with a library, a computer station, designer shops and a coffee bar serviced by a jovial barista. The Square was a collegial place for new friends to congregate.
I also looked forward to the trivia challenge held on at-sea days. My 10-member team (co-champions, I'm proud to say) was comprised of two Americans, two Swedes, two Canadians and four Brits. We took our trivia seriously, but we also kept up a good-natured running banter with the raucous Aussie team seated next to us.
We won the challenge, but they got credit for the best answer of the cruise. When asked to name the American icon that is constantly moving backward, the team captain responded unhesitatingly, "the U.S. Congress." (The real answer is Niagara Falls, for those who are interested.)
No tipping allowed
There were so many things I loved about the Sojourn. There was Gonzalo, the happy-go-lucky waiter at the pool bistro who was more entertainer than server (he might not have always succeeded at getting my condiments right, but he did succeed in putting a smile on my face).
I loved the nook on Deck 7 where I'd retreat with a book, and the Observation Lounge, where I'd toast the sunset to the tune of piano melodies. I loved the international pedigree of the passengers and the block party thrown on our respective decks, giving us a chance to meet our neighbors.
One thing I really loved is that Seabourn is all-inclusive. Once you board the ship, everything — with the exception of spa treatments and premium-brand liquors — is free, and tipping is not allowed. It definitely makes for a hassle-free cruise experience.
However, it took a near-tragedy to convince me just how excellent a line Seabourn is. On the last day at sea, the captain experienced a medical emergency that required him to be evacuated, causing the return voyage to be delayed by 10 hours.
Our late arrival in Fort Lauderdale meant that most passengers would miss connections home on the day before Thanksgiving, the busiest travel day of the year. With a major storm approaching the East Coast, bringing the threat of even more flight cancellations, I resigned myself to spending Thanksgiving in the Fort Lauderdale airport.
I had underestimated the persistence of Seabourn's home office in Seattle. After a day and night of frantically rebooking tickets, they got most passengers home in time to carve the turkey.
With a company that comes through in a time of crisis like this, I can live with the minor inconvenience of getting mayonnaise instead of mustard on my burger.
IF YOU GO
Seabourn's six ships — the Legend, Odyssey, Pride, Quest, Sojourn and Spirit — offer itineraries from Africa to Antarctica, the Baltic to the South Pacific. With no ship having more than 229 staterooms, Seabourn is ideal for those who want a small, intimate cruise experience.
Rates: Beginning at $2,499 a person double occupancy for a seven-day cruise, although there are frequent sales and incentives for those who are regular cruisers (and don't forget that the price is all-inclusive).
Learn more: Seabourn.com